The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Hathaway’s own Call Northside 777 (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.
20th Century Fox finally follows the leads of Warner, Sony, and MGM and launches their own manufacture-on-demand program aimed at releasing some of the older titles from the vaults, the kinds of “catalog” releases that no longer sell in the DVD sales crash. The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives debuts with 35 titles in the first wave.
The first wave of releases is now available and the results are… mixed, to say the least. Here’s my review of the first three discs I received.
Suez (1938), directed by Allan Dwan and starring Tyrone Power, is one of the better of the big, “respectable” historical dramas that Power made in the thirties and early forties, in the mold of Lloyds of London and In Old Chicago (both previously released by Fox in DVD box sets) but with a grander sense of spectacle. Power’s Ferdinand de Lesseps is engineer, entrepreneur, and diplomat, negotiating support from Napoleon III in France and Prince Said in Egypt, battling sandstorms, enduring political catastrophe (being a Hollywood history, Napoleon III’s coup is as much a personal betrayal as a national one) and romantic treachery (lover Loretta Young throws him over for a much more politically advantageous suitor) with the pluck of… well, Tyrone Power.
This is classic Hollywood historical melodrama, with dynamic individuals changing history with a mix of vision and sheer fortitude, and a whirlwind tour of geopolitical history as drawing room drama. Annabella plays a spunky, spirited Egyptian girl devoted to the oblivious Ferdinand (again classically Hollywood, the Americans play the French while the film’s French star plays the exotic “foreigner”). Allan Dwan, a silent movie pioneer whose long career began in the pre-feature era and straddles blockbuster epics (Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks) and low-budget comedies and everything in between, keeps the potentially stodgy material moving at a lively clip, giving the political maneuverings a dramatic flair and a personal dimension, and delivering a spectacular sandstorm that remains the film’s standout sequence.
This is the best looking disc of the initial batch I received, a fine mastering of a clean, strong print, with good contrasts and sound and no apparent digital artifacts: a solid presentation of a handsome Hollywood classic.
Born as Henri Leopold de Fiennes, March 13, 1898; Sacramento, California
Death: February 11, 1985; Los Angeles, California
Henry Hathaway had a solid, four-decade career as a versatile and proficient Hollywood director. He never made a great film, but he directed so many very good ones that his filmography looms as a monument to the strengths of the studio system and its most reliable artisans. Moreover, Hathaway was one of the most intelligent and well-read of classic Hollywoodians—among other things, the man who inspired William Faulkner to write A Fable.
Born into show business to an actress mother and stage-manager father, Hathaway was in films from the early 1900s as a child actor, especially in Westerns directed by Allan Dwan. He later turned prop boy and, following WWI service, became an assistant director; he can be seen—in costume—as a figure rushing along the raceway in the 1926 Ben-Hur, trying to alert the charioteers to real-life danger that resulted in the spectacular, horse-killing pileup inadvertently recorded for and retained in the film.
He won his director’s spurs in 1932 and made ten Zane Grey Westerns for Paramount’s B unit; one remarkable entry, To the Last Man (1932), is shocking in its violence, with an uncanny power beyond mere generic obligations. Hathaway also directed a good Shirley Temple picture, Now and Forever (1934), before there were Shirley Temple pictures, and his rapport with that film’s adult star, Gary Cooper, led to the strange fantasy-romance Peter Ibbetson (1935) and the rousing swashbuckler Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). For the latter, Hathaway received his only Oscar nomination.
[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]
Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.
WHEN BILLY WILDER’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, no one would give it the time of day – literally. In my city, though a cozy relationship with United Artists forced the local theater circuit to book the film into one of the few remaining downtown movie palaces, they had no expectation that it would attract an audience. If you called the theater, asked “When’s the next show?”, and acted accordingly, you would arrive to find yourself in midfilm. Telephone lines had been juggled so that the staff could handle incoming calls for the sister theater across the street, where Love Story was doing land-office business. It never occurred to them that anyone might be interested in “the show” on their own screen, so they automatically gave out the Love Story schedule.
This was an extraordinary case – even if we set aside the outré management practice (I have never heard of a comparable instance of procedural hara-kiri) and the eventual recognition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as at the very least an enchanting entertainment, and at best one of the summum masterworks of the cinema. (On that first weekend, the only one the film would have, I watched the evening show with seven other people in the auditorium.) Yet the film’s complete failure in 1970 was, in several respects, definitive of that moment in film history.
For one thing, Holmes was just the sort of sumptuously appointed, nostalgically couched superproduction that once would have seemed tailor-made to rule the holiday season. Only two Christmases before, Carol Reed’s Oliver! had scored a substantial hit, and gone on to win Academy Awards for itself and its director (a “fallen idol” two decades past his prime). Yet in 1969-70, the mid-Sixties vogue for three- and four-hour roadshows – reserved-seat special attractions with souvenir programmes and intermissions – abruptly bottomed out. Indeed, after witnessing such box-office debacles (and lousy movies) as Star and Paint Your Wagon, United Artists demanded that Wilder shorten his film by nearly an hour before they would release it at all.