The original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.
Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.
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.
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.
“Once again, as the MGM crime reporter, it is my privilege to present to you another episode in our Crime Does Not Pay series.”
MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay (Warner Archive) series numbered 50 dramatic short films between from 1935 to 1947, all running about 20 minutes, most serving as a training ground for up and coming directors, and all of them proving that, just as the title promises, crime does not pay. The debut episode, “Buried Loot” (1935), makes the case in spades. Robert Taylor takes an uncredited lead as an embezzler with a long-term scheme and a morbid end, thanks to a twitchy case of obsession and an ill-advised use of acid on his own face.
Not all shorts featured performers of Taylor’s stature but minor players from the MGM studio were shuffled through these films, along with the occasional A-list supporting player or future lead. Like Marc Lawrence and Laraine Day in the shoplifting drama “Think First” (1939), where nice girls lured into a ring of thieves suffer dearly for their mistakes, or Dwight Frye (Renfield in “Dracula”) as an arsonist killed by his own firebug actions in “Think It Over” (1938), the latter an early film by future auteur Jacques Tourneur. He’s one of the most notable filmmakers who got his start in this series, along with future Oscar winner Fred Zinneman (whose “While America Sleeps” is a terrific industrial espionage thriller and “Help Wanted” stars Tom Neal as a working class Joe who helps the government take on the crooks in the employment rackets, both from 1939) and Joseph Losey (“A Gun in His Hand,” 1945),
Other directors include George B. Seitz (who directed most of the Andy Hardy films), Felix Feist (of “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” fame), Harold S. Bucquet (he went on to direct the “Dr. Kindare” series), Joseph H. Newman, and Roy Rowland, and future film noir screenwriter John C. Higgins apprenticed on half a dozen scripts.
This series is a mix of procedural, with detectives doing proto-CSI work to solve the crimes, and morality tale with terrible ends for the criminals. And while they are clearly low budget, they feature better production values than a lot of B movies and generally move at a driving pace, at least once we get past the stiff, documentary-eque opening, most featuring real-life officials but a few with real actors in the role of authority (such as Leon Ames or Al Bridge). There are no lost masterpieces in this collection, but many are lively and engaging and they often carry an unexpected punch to the action or the dramatic twist, which is better than most of the feature-length B-movies of the era.
Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.
Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.
Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.
Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.
After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.
While the City Sleeps (1956) is less an all-star cast than a veteran line-up of studio pros: Dana Andrews as the ostensible lead, a TV newscaster in a multi-media news company that encompasses a metropolitan daily paper and a wire service, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price and Ida Lupino as the newspaper columnist whose nose for office politics is her greatest survival skill. Ostensibly a thriller about a serial killer (John Drew Barrymore) and the media circus around the investigation, there isn’t much tension or crime movie thriller energy, but it does offer a thoroughly corrupt portrait of life: while a psychotic leatherboy kills girls and blames his mom, the staff of a new organization plays politics to maneuver themselves into a promotion when the playboy son (Vincent Price) of the deceased owner takes over and essentially pits his employees against one another to vie from promotion.
Dana Andrews is back in the lead of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a clever little thriller that has Andrews and a crusading newspaper publisher (who is, not so coincidentally, the father of his fiancée, Joan Fontaine) staging his “guilt” in a murder investigation by planting circumstantial evidence. It’s all an elaborate anti-capital punishment protest, until an untimely accident destroys all the evidence of his innocence and leaves him facing the death penalty while Fontaine takes up his cause. It doesn’t have the poetry or the intensity of his best American films, and it lacks the power of “The Big Heat” or even the embrace of the decadent and corrupt world of “Moonfleet,” but it makes an odd little bookend to Lang’s 1930s dramas of social protest and it boomerangs back with a weirdly cynical twist. Those familiar with Lang’s disdain for Hollywood’s contrived happy endings will have a field day imaging how Lang would have preferred to end this barbed little picture.
Both of these films are presented in the SuperScope process, a cheap widescreen alternative to the anamorphic CinemaScope process. Where CinemaScope used the entire 35mm frame, the widescreen of SuperScope uses only a portion of the frame, masking off the top and bottom and rephotographing the image on an optically squeezed anamorphic print, which would then by widened out by an anamorphic lens in projection across the big screen at a ratio somewhere between 1.75:1 and 2:1 ratio (twice as wide as it is high). The process inevitably resulted in a soft, degraded image and for years television prints presented the original, unmasked version. David Bordwell offers much more detail on the process at his blog here. The process, needless to say, didn’t last long.
There is some debate over what Lang intended and how the film was ultimately shown in the U.S., given the rather inexact nature of the process and the sometimes capricious treatment of films by studios who could “widescreen” a film in post-production. These discs present the SuperScope editions at 2:1 and you can see that they are just a little softer and grainier than the usual widescreen movies, not distractingly so on home video but enough to notice the sacrifice. And they like fine to my eyes, though a little cramped at times. David Bordwell digs into the debate, does his research and offers illustrations here.
On a side note, these last two films got me thinking about the strange case of Dana Andrews, the leading man of the forties who aged into lower budget and off-studio productions as the fifties wore on. He was off the A-list but still cast as romantic leads, often opposite women decades his junior. Not an unusual state of affairs of Hollywood then (see Clark Gable) or now (Bruce Willis anyone?), but next to the square stiffness of Andrews it plays a little weird. Such as in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” when he picks up a showgirl in his campaign to stage his guilt, or in Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a 1958 Cold War drama that plays on fears of spies and propaganda and the insidious manipulation of public opinion polls to shape (rather than measure) public opinion. The subject matter is as timely as ever but the film itself a confused production that, even as it hammers on its themes in speech after speech, conflates the Red Scare with Fascism and stumbles over its insistent exposition. Meanwhile, this Korean war veteran hero deals with PTSD (not named as such, of course, and rather too easily conquered) and solves the murder of his partner while winning the girl (Marilee Earle, easily two decades his junior) and striking back against the “fellow travelers” with his two American fists. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument watch on in approval.
Andrews starred in a great number of superb American films, well cast and directed in Laura (1944), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and two of Jacques Tourneur’s best films, Canyon Passage (1946) and Curse of the Demon (1957). The Fearmakers is a disappointment, but its attempt to discuss the complex issues of media manipulation and political opinion makes it and interesting disappointment. It also illustrates why Mel Torme, who has a supporting role as a milquetoast conspirator, never became a movie star.
Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.