Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled Classic: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

WitnessProsecutionThe new Kino Lorber Studio Classics line follows the model that Olive initiated with its releases from the Paramount catalog. Kino’s licensing deal with MGM (the current MGM entity, which is largely made up of United Artists productions; the grand old MGM studio library belongs to Warner) gives them access to the new high-definition masters from a portion of the catalog as well as access to elements to create new HD masters, plus access to select supplements from previous disc releases. Kino has been expanding in the home video market in the last few years, striking releasing deals with Britain’s Redemption and producer Alfred Leone and distribution deals with Raro Video, Palisades Tartan, and Scorpion. This new deal, no surprise, was announced after Frank Tarzi left Olive, where he was the label’s head of acquisitions, and joined Kino. More than 40 releases have been announced through the end of 2014 via their dedicated Facebook page, with eight films rolling out in the first wave. I held my request to five discs and was (for the most part) well pleased with the quality I saw in these.

“Classics” is of course a fungible term, meaning everything from acknowledged masterpiece to practically anything more than 25 or 30 years old. The eight film of the first wave are largely plucked from the fifties and sixties, with a mix of acknowledged classics, award winners, and genre pictures. But for me, the highlights of the debut wave are two by Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

Based on the stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t opened up for the screen so much as it is perked up with witty dialogue and wily characterizations, two strengths of Wilder and writing and producing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Charles Laughton plays the legendary barrister who defies doctor’s order and a heart condition to defend amiable but shiftless American Tyrone Power from a murder charge and Marlene Dietrich plays his German wife, a cool, suspicious character whose testimony seems to doom Power’s chances of acquittal. Of course, it’s a Christie plot so nothing is that simple, especially when incriminating letters are discovered, but the plot and the succession of twists is less interesting than the characters.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

The Holmes gallery

Has any fictional character seen more cinematic service than Sherlock Holmes? Created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the master sleuth of 221B Baker Street found his way to the screen as early as 1903, and became the subject of a series as early as 1908. He’s been featured in respectfully faithful adaptations and thrust into fanciful adventures Conan Doyle never dreamed of. He’s stalked the alleys, lanes, and moors of his Victorian-Edwardian provenance, and been unceremoniously drafted to fight Nazi spies in the 1940s. Most movies have allowed him to remain his old misogynistic self; some have involved him in all manner of romantic liaisons ranging from the insipid to the sublime.

Peter Cushing nailed it in the late-Fifties Hammer production of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

Conan Doyle purists (the Baker Street Regulars, they call themselves) reflexively denounce any deviation from the letter of the lore. For others, the Holmesian film legacy is more problematical to sort through. And the best Holmesiana is not always to be found in the best films. Indeed, though pleasures abound, only one Holmes film of our acquaintance can be said to be absolutely first-rate. (We reveal which in good time.)

The great man’s profile is about to be raised this Christmastime with the release of a new adventure entitled, rather presumptuously, Sherlock Holmes; this Guy Ritchie extravaganza proffers Robert Downey Jr. as a chopsocky version of the detective, with Jude Law as a sardonic Watson and Rachel McAdams as “the woman,” Irene Adler. Better yet, there’s a gratifyingly comprehensive three-day slate of Holmes pictures scheduled for Turner Classic Movies on Dec. 25-27, including all fourteen of the movies that made Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce the preeminent Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, to generations of viewers. They’ve also got the 1922 John Barrymore portrayal of Holmes we’ve never had a chance to see. Stout fellows, TCM.

For now, here are ten (more or less) notable additions to Sherlock’s silver-screen dossier. Yes, we know many of you revere Jeremy Brett for his several seasons as Holmes on public television, but we’ve limited the field to feature films. There’s also an eleventh entry, a ringer that we submit as the most appalling misappropriation ever of the Conan Doyle mystique. Oh, yes: the game’s afoot!


Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce—the most beloved, though not necessarily the definitive, interpreters of Holmes and Watson—first played the roles in a 1939 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to deduce that 20th Century–Fox wasn’t thinking franchise; Rathbone didn’t even get top billing, which went to studio contract player Richard Greene as the endangered Henry Baskerville. The direction was undistinguished, but the Fox crafts departments were great at doing period and the movie has atmosphere in spades. Rathbone was never out of work in the Thirties, more often than not as a villain (A Tale of Two Cities, Murdstone in David Copperfield, rapier bait for Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood). His crisp Brit delivery and aquiline features (a grande dame of the theater once referred to him as “that young man with two profiles pasted together for a face”) were ideally suited to portraying Conan Doyle’s fiercely focused sleuth. As for Watson, Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, mumbling, fuddy-duddy stylings irked Baker Street aficionados but made an effective contrast to Rathbone and endeared him to audiences. Fox recognized it had enough of a good thing to re-team the pair in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also ’39)—even more atmospheric, with Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to boot. Still, a franchise had to wait till Universal picked up Rathbone and Bruce three years later. Meanwhile, prospective viewers of Hound should be warned that the film ends rather abruptly, giving short shrift to the Grimpen Mire climax. And for decades it ended more abruptly yet, because the reissue cut censored Holmes’s curtain line: “Quick, Watson—the needle!”

Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays, Industry

Dinosaurs in the Age of the Cinemobile

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit'

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.

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