Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases 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 (or more).
42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.
Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.
You 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.
Used 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.
Author, critic, film authority and festival programmer Eddie Muller was branded “The Czar of Noir” by James Ellroy for his knowledge of and passion for the subject. Since publishing Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and programming a film noir festival in Los Angeles in 1998, Muller has become not simply the most prominent film noir authority in the U.S., he’s become an ambassador for film noir as the organizer, programmer and Master of Ceremonies of the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco (and in the smaller traveling Noir City offshoot) and as the president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization that puts on Noir City and uses the proceeds to fund film restoration. The Eighth Annual Noir City (with 24 films in 12 programs over 10 days) unspooled at the Castro in San Francisco in January 2010 and the Seattle incarnation (14 films over 7 days) opened on Friday, February 19. (The Hollywood incarnation at the historic Egyptian Theater, where Muller programmed his first film noir festival, is scheduled for April.) I spoke with Muller by phone between the San Francisco and Seattle series and we talked movies, noir icons, film preservation and the thrill of seeing film noir on the big screen. (My profile and preview of the series is at The Stranger here.)
This is the eighth year of Noir City, and the fourth road show edition of Noir City in Seattle. How have you been able to develop it into such a big annual event?
First off, it’s the eighth Noir City Festival we’ve done in San Francisco but I’ve actually been doing them, oh my God, this will be my eleventh year in L.A. at the American Cinemateque, which is where I actually started doing it. But those early ones at the Egyptian weren’t Noir City events, that’s a San Francisco thing, there’s where it was started. And it really was like the perfect storm, in a way. It’s a combination of showing the right kind of films in the perfect venue in San Francisco at the exact right time of year. Beyond that, I guess that somehow it works that people like to have a personality or a face attached to it that they recognize, so that has been helpful, it turns out, that I’m so associated with this festival and that I’m a San Franciscan, that certainly has helped in San Francisco. So that’s really it. There’s nothing else competing in San Francisco at that time of year, is winter, it makes sense for film noir, the Castro is the perfect place to show these films. People have turned it into a real happening and that’s reallyâ€”besides the restoration work and all kind of stuffâ€”it is fascinating to me that we have show, somehow, that you can draw a thousand people on a weeknight to watch sixty-year-old black-and-white films in a theater. It is pretty remarkable.