The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.
Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.
Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.
Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).
It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.
The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.
The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.
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.
When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank(Warner) where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.
Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker’s odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker’s attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.
Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence.
Director, writer, pulp fiction author, raconteur and all-around maverick character Samuel Fuller was as proud of his military service as any of his artistic accomplishments. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, he enlisted in the armed services after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He joined the infantry and, as a rifleman in the First United States Infantry Division (aka “the Big Red One”), he participated in the Allied assault on North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Sicily, landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, took part in the liberation of France and Belgium, and marched into Germany, where his squad helped liberate the Falkenau Concentration Camp. “I began a journal in North Africa,” he shared in his autobiography, A Third Face. “If I survived, I was going to write about my war experiences.” His experiences informed The Steel Helmet and numerous other war films but it was forty years before he put his own story down, first in the novel The Big Red One, published in 1980, and then in the film that came out the same year, in a compromised form that was partially restored in 2004.
The Big Red One is Fuller’s most autobiographical film, at once an old-fashioned war thriller and a portrait of the insanity and senseless destruction of combat, and the most expensive and ambitious production of his career. It charts the journey of his own real life unit (1st Infantry, 1st Platoon) through the experiences of four riflemen. Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward play the “four horsemen,” as their tough, taciturn Sergeant (Lee Marvin) names them, the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn over the four years of combat. The rest are simply “dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs,” explains one of the riflemen, and in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, the only glory in war is survival.
[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Fritz Lang in America”]
With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of Fury, The Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.
[originally published in Steadycam, February 13, 2005; an earlier version of this article was published late 2004 in Queen Anne & Magnolia News]
Samuel Fuller—whose credit on his movies always read
PRODUCER • DIRECTOR
with WRITER on top like that—came to Seattle in May 1976 for a special appearance with two of his movies under the aegis of the Seattle Film Society. He came to enjoy himself, to meet some nice people, to eat some of that Northwest salmon a film-historian friend back in L.A. had urged him to order. And he would talk, not only between the two films in a UW auditorium but also during the five hours between landing at SeaTac Airport and showing up for the gig. And from 10-something the next morning till 11-something the next night, while relays of much younger listeners basked, then collapsed and disappeared as replacements showed up.
He also brought his work along with him, in the form of a stack of paper and a tall, klunky manual typewriter that looked as if it might have come out of one of the newsrooms where he had pounded out stories nearly half a century earlier as a tabloid reporter in New York. He was writing his novel The Big Red One, part of the process of getting to make a movie about what it was like to serve in the 1st Infantry Division, United States Army, from the beginning of America’s participation in World War II to the end—which is to say, from North Africa through Sicily, France, Belgium, again France, and finally to Germany and Czechoslovakia. He had been waiting for the chance to make that movie since sometime in the Sixties (but really, perhaps, since 1945). In 1976, it looked as if it was about to happen, since the critic turned filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was throwing his own (short-lived) clout into lining up a production deal for Fuller. As it turned out, three more years would pass before he got the go.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursdaymay rate a footnote in film history as the first Hollywood Western to include oral-genital humor, and if that’s your idea of cinematic immortality, enjoy. As American-International Pictures’ first “class” production, the film does not bode well. Any one of AIP’s beach party flicks was funnier, and quite a few of their horror and action programmers have shown more class. You can wonder about the title for a while (GreatScout and Cathouse Thursday … is it a train? a medicine show act? a holiday?), but what it refers to is this old scout (Lee Marvin) who helped win the West and then misplaced his share of it; and this young refugee from a whorehouse (Kay Lenz) whose name becomes Thursday only momentarily, and irrelevantly. They travel some together, along with a clap-ridden halfbreed who went to Harvard (Oliver Reed) and an ineffectually randy reprobate (Strother Martin). There’s an old pal of the male trio’s (Robert Culp) who’s boondoggled and bombasted his way to a position of political prominence, along the way marrying the scout’s erstwhile girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley), and we can’t forget—although we try, oh do we try!—the putatively lesbian madam (Sylvia Miles) our adventurers have “stolen” Thursday from. The Old West was a pretty silly place, you know: people fell in the mud a lot, and everybody was basically some kind of cheat. The music tells you when things are supposed to be funny, which is about 95 percent of the time; and about 100 percent of the time, it’s wrong.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloweenand The American Friendto settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘sgood intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lacor Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtainis to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocketis an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.