As an actor and director, Robert Redford seems sincerely and deeply drawn to American mythology, from the mystic fishermen of A River Runs Through It to those western archetypes the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson to that most sacred of literary mysteries, The Great Gatsby. Every minute of The Natural oozes with the urge to create myth out of Americana, which may be why that movie feels like a Redford film even though it was directed by Barry Levinson.
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Save the Tiger is the sort of film that can give a well-intentioned film teacher nightmares. It’s so easy to imagine an equally well-intentioned, beginning student turning in a scene-by-scene breakdown of the narrative that faultlessly demonstrates as serious a thematic—indeed, didactic—purpose and as constant and consistent a stylistic application as one could ask to discover—all without realizing that the film itself remains dead, dead-ended, its conclusion foregone from the first. Producer Steve Shagan’s screenplay themes the viewer right into the ground with its highly unspontaneous collection of invocations of what we have lost as a nation: baseball played on real instead of plastic turf, oriental-dream movie palaces featuring The Best Years of Our Lives instead of skin flicks with selfrighteous, socially redeeming narration, garments cut by a master craftsman, Cole Porter, a sense of what World War II was all about (or even a memory that it was fought)….
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The FrontPage may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but SherlockHolmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas TheFrontPage, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.
I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. TheFrontPage seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of KissMe, Stupid and TheFortuneCookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.
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.
Out 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.
Possessed (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.
Yankee 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).
Pete 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.
The 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.
Kismet (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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Billy Wilder’s chief motives in making the third film version of the 1928 Hecht–MacArthur Broadway smash were plain, and he admitted them: he wanted a box-office hit, badly, and this had all the elements for a 1974 killing. It’s a buddy story, a nostalgia piece, a celebration of crusading newspapermen—Woodward and Bernstein, Prohibition-style. Add leftover sets from TheStingfor good measure and another re-teaming of the odd couple, Lemmon and Matthau, the latter in a role tailor-made for him. How could it fail?
But it did, thumpingly. Why? I’d suggest the very reason that made it such a good movie, so much more than the remake of the remake of the film of the hit play. Everyone said it was a perfect vehicle for Wilder—he did himself—but this is to ignore one crucial difficulty. The Front Page is a lovely old play, and it really is extremely modern. So how does an auteur as strong as Wilder adapt it with the respect it deserves without submerging his own personality? No one could want, after all this time, to see a Billy Wilder film where Billy Wilder simply translates 46-year-old jokes, however good, into celluloid terms. At the same time, no one wants to see a film of The Front Page which ignores the splendid original. The trick was to find an element personal to Wilder within that elaborate framework, and this he did. And this is why the public stayed away, just as they had done from Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie and even The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (which, for me, is Wilder’s masterpiece). For most of Wilder’s later films tend to be about loneliness, despair, desperation (this is even true, to an extent, of the sunny, romantic and very beautiful Avanti!), and these things are at the forefront of his version of The Front Page.
[This article was written for and appeared in the May-June 1979 issue (Volume 15, Number 3) of Film Comment.]
“The China Syndrome is a moderately compelling thriller about the potential perils of nuclear energy, whose major fault is an overweening sense of its own self-importance. Superior performances by Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced) in the lead roles, accentuated by ultra-realistic production values[,] should propel the Columbia Pictures release to some b.o. success, but the message ‘overload’ is going to scare off other patrons.”
—Poll., Variety, March 7, 1979
“Douglas boasts that ‘you won’t be able to distinguish our presentation of the news from your own evening viewing.’ … He has a premonition, he says, that ‘a lot of what’s in this picture will be reenacted in life somewhere in the next two or three years.”
—Michael Douglas, quoted in ReddyNews, Jan.-Feb. 1979
“That thing in Pennsylvania is just too much of a coincidence.”
—anonymous patron, Northgate Theatre, Seattle, after the 9:15 show, March 30, 1979
The China Syndrome opened nationally on March 16, 1979. Advance interest ran high. The casting sounded exciting, talkshow drumbeating had been provocative and selectively closemouthed at the same time, and the title had a ring even if, as the promo spots kept repeating every half hour, “only a few people know what it means.” A lot more people wanted to find out, which suited Columbia Pictures just fine.
The subject matter proved to have nothing to do with our new kissin’ cousins on the Chinese mainland or, as the preview art may have suggested, more sci-fi sperm from outer space. Nuclear energy supplied the narrative battleground—nuclear energy, its inherent dangers, the likelihood of catastrophe at a specific power plant. More precisely, the specter of nuclear catastrophe raised the narrative ante on the real subject: the collaboration of greed, stubbornness, bureaucratic obfuscation, job paranoia, perimeter-protecting, institutional loyalty, and native stupidity in aggravating an already perilous situation, virtually confirming us in disaster.
“The China syndrome”? That’s the technosardonic designation of what could happen if the nuclear core of a reactor became drastically overheated, melted down, burned its way through the concrete floor of its containment tower, and kept on going—hyperbolically speaking, all the way to China, or until it hit groundwater and exploded radioactive steam and waste over several hundred square miles.
Interesting. Less than two weeks into its run, The China Syndrome had grossed $11 mil. Then came a crooked smile of serendipity that transformed the picture from just another top-grossing flick into a news event, and eerie prophecy.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
The China Syndromedidn’t have to be about nuclear power. A serviceable suspense thriller about a few people’s public responsibilityâ€”or lack thereofâ€”could be built on any number of contemporary issues. Nuclear power works so spectacularly well here, however, because of its enormity of risk. Proponents of nuclear power like to dramatize its safety by comparing it with other forms of energy, in which far fewer precautions are taken and to whichâ€”so farâ€”more people have succumbed than to nuclear accidents. But that’s like comparing the airplane with the car: everyone knows flying is safer than driving, but if an accident does occur the extent and the likelihood of damage and death are much greater in the air than on the highway. Much of The China Syndromeis built upon the rhetoric of pro-nuclear assertions of safety, which have made the term “safe” so ambiguous as to be meaningless. If an accident actually occurs, it doesn’t matter how great the odds were against it. The film suggests that those oft-repeated declarations of nuclear safety rest not upon the actual fact of safety but upon having said and heard the declarations so many times. Even the plant operators feel safe, and utter the same platitudes as the corporate executives and their public spokesmen, as if saying it often enough makes it so.