Jul 27 2010

Curiosities from the Paramount Library

Olive Films, a small theatrical distributor and DVD label specializing in indies and foreign films, expands its catalogue with releases from the Paramount Pictures library, and they kick off the partnership with the debut of five features spanning the fifties to the seventies, including three crime dramas with (to a greater or lesser extent) film noir credentials.

Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston made his official screen debut as the stony leading man of Dark City (Olive), an unambitious but handsome production from reliable studio hand William Dieterle. Heston’s Danny Haley is a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who resorts to rooking a friendly, naïve tourist from California (an affable Don Defore) in a rigged poker game, designed to get a $5,000 check that Haley spies in his wallet. The fallout from the scam is more than he’s ready for—the guy kills himself—but worse than the slow-burn guilt is the blowback from the dead man’s psychotic brother. This shadowy psycho (seen only as a bulky shadow and meaty, gorilla-like hands) targets the gang members and stages their deaths as suicides.

Heston doesn’t have much dimension beyond his flinty gruffness and emotional distance but he’s got confidence, strength and a solid screen presence that anchors the film and centers the drama. Lizabeth Scott is almost unbearable as a second-rate nightclub singer (her throaty voice reminding us that she’s doing sub-Lauren Bacall duty here) whose mooney-eyed devotion to the commitment-phobic Heston borders on masochistic, which only makes us root for his attraction to Viveca Lindfors, the foreign-born widow of the suicide victim (a war bride brought to suburbia) and single mother of a spunky all-American kid. He’s smitten despite his loner instincts but he still has to find the psycho before he murders them all. Dean Jagger is the smart, quietly effective cop out to put Heston’s racket out of business and catch the killer and Ed Begley is the ulcer-ridden elder statesman of the gambler partnership, but watch for Jack Webb as a sneering hyena of a bully and Harry Morgan as the target of his grinning cruelty: the future “Dragnet” partners as uneasy partners in crime.

It’s the most interesting of the trio of fifties Paramount crime dramas with noir trappings released by Olive Films this week. William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald star in the shadowy cop drama Union Station (1950), directed by Rudolph Mate, and Alan Ladd is a Postal Inspector on the trail of a violent thieves in Appointment With Danger (1951), among them Jack Webb and Harry Morgan once again on the wrong side of the badge. The prints are fine but unrestored and there are no supplements.

Also from Olive comes the sci-fi thriller Crack in the World (1965) with Dana Andrews and Hannie Caulder (1971), Burt Kennedy’s revenge western starring Raquel Welch. She’s made a frontier widow in the opening minutes, when a scurvy trio of bank-robbing brothers (Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam) on the run from the Mexican army ride into a way station, kill the manager and rape the wife, and she turns to a well-kempt bounty hunter (Robert Culp, playing it with touch of grace, a cultured killer in a feral world) to train in the art of killing. A British production (Tigon) with a largely American cast (except for Christopher Lee as a reclusive gunsmith with a philosophical approach to his art) shooting on location in Spain (mostly subbing for Mexico), it is a confused hybrid pulled in all directions.

It has the sun-baked look and corrupt culture of spaghetti westerns, the splattery violent of The Wild Bunch (the casting of Borgnine and Martin furthers the connection) and a bizarre black humor to the string of botched robberies by the brothers, who are perpetually outrunning posses and soldiers with little stolen money to show for it, and just for variety there’s a mysterious gunman (Stephen Boyd) who makes enigmatic appearances and a romantic angle is shoehorned in. Welch and Culp take a long sunset beach walk to the syrupy strains of a love theme and then blow away a small army of invading banditos. Kennedy, who wrote some of the finest westerns of the fifties and directed his share of lighthearted comic westerns (notably the Support Your Local films), loses the whole thing in the cacophony of styles and attitudes, failing to pull off the Peckinpah ballet of blood (the central slow-motion sequence is merely a succession of freeze frames intercut with all the elegance of a barroom brawl) and losing the scruffy black humor in the portentousness of the revenge drama. And by the end the cacophony becomes literal: the dramatic score fights the sludgy theme song for prominence over the credits, resulting in nothing more than a headache. Whether it’s a print problem or a glitch in the audio mastering, it’s simply annoying and should have been corrected. Like the rest of the films in the series, there are no supplements.

Dave Kehr goes into more detail at the New York Times here.

2 Comments

  • By Range, September 23, 2011 @ 4:27 am

    Some people just don’t know HOW MUCH to appreciate Lizabeth Scott and Sean Axmaker is, quite obviously, one of them.

    Everyone who has a bias toward Lizabeth (who simply ‘Can’t get over it’) always state that she’s a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake ‘knockoff’. They say, quite unjustly so, that that is the ONLY reason she’s even IN a film.

    This is the simpleton view of Lizabeth Scott.

    To me, she is always truthful. She has a sadly pouty delivery with a wonderfully expressive breathy voice – not to mention she’s an AWESOME singer/Jazz stylist!! (check out her album on amazon: Lizabeth).

    Lizabeth Scott is the ‘REAL DEAL’. She stands ON HER OWN very well, thank you, against the other ‘leading ladies of film ROYALTY’.

    Check her out in: Desert Fury

    Oh… and by the way, Humphrey Bogart didn’t mind sharing star billing with her in ‘Dead Reckoning’ when Lauren Bacall WAS also ‘available’.

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