Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

BigHeat_BD_EncoreThe 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.

GildaBDRita Hayworth is at her most iconic as the forties sex-bomb in Gilda (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1946 film noir classic co-starring Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, an American tough guy in Buenos Aires, and George Macready as Ballin Mundson, the owner of a nightclub and illegal casino who hires Johnny as his club manager. Just as in Casablanca, another Hollywood melodrama of an American tough guy abroad during the war, the gambling room is hidden in the back room of the nightclub and is pretty much an open secret. “Gambling and woman don’t mix,” is the owner’s motto, which is just fine with Johnny, who makes himself Mundson’s right hand man. Then Mundson breaks the pact when he returns from a trip with a glamorous wife.

Rita Hayworth’s entrance is pure Hollywood starcraft: a perfectly lit close-up as she whips her head into frame, her hair lashing back and revealing her bright face and wide, mischievous grin. It turns out that Johnny and Gilda have history and Gilda makes a point of flaunting her indiscretions in front of Johnny, who does his best to keep them hidden from Mundsen. There’s a criminal plot involving a monopoly on Tungsten and German investors who may be Nazi criminals in hiding (apart from a headline reading “German Surrenders,” there’s no mention of the war) but the drama revolves around the sexual tension and vicious punishments they inflict on one another. Hayworth plays the prowling sex kitten, slinking around the dance floor, laughing with a new pretty boy on her arm, even performing a symbolic striptease on the nightclub floor while singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” and Ford is younger and leaner and meaner than we’re used to, which makes him a little unpredictable.

The sexual indiscretions are suggested rather than shown but director Charles Vidor is quite forthright in his suggestions, and they they are ultimately denied in contrived happy ending that contradicts everything leading up to it. Which is not uncommon for Hollywood films of the era, which often turned on a dime to placate the production code. This is one of the most suggestive films of the era—not just for Gilda’s seductive taunts and frequent (offscreen) trysts but for the way Johnny competes with Gilda for Johnny’s favor—and the emotional violence between Johnny and Gilda still draws symbolic blood.

Previously released on DVD by Sony, it makes its Criterion debut is a gorgeous transfer with a new interview with film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller and an archival 1964 made-for-TV documentary “Hollywood and the Stars: The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth,” plus (carried over from the earlier DVD) observant commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and a video introduction by Martin Scorsese and Baz Lurhmann. The booklet features an essay by Sheila O’Malley.

WhereSidewalkTTOtto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) reunites the stars from his breakthrough film Laura (1944), the most elegant of early film noirs, for a more streetwise cop drama with a bare-knuckle attitude. Dana Andrews is Det. Mark Dixon, an angrier version of his Laura character (also a police detective named Mark) who takes out his resentment for his criminal father on the hoodlums, thieves, and gangsters he sweeps off the streets. When he accidentally kills a suspect—a former war hero who has already been framed for murder by smarmy crime boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill)—and covers up the crime, Mark’s unstable moral high ground gives way. Gene Tierney is the wife of Mark’s victim, a clothing model who has separated from the sleazy guy and moved in with her dad (Tom Tully), and guilt starts eating Mark alive when his actions throw suspicion on Tierney’s protective father.

Andrews was one of Preminger’s favorite actors for that ability to walk the tightrope between American forthrightness and over-the-edge darkness. That chiseled face made him convincing as both a working class cop and a master of industry and paired nicely with Tierney’s sculptured features: scar tissue and smooth glamour brought together by violence. The script, written by Ben Hecht, plays with the idea that it takes the overly-passionate (and borderline psychotic?) cops like Mark to take on Scalise. His new boss, a by-the-book commander played by Karl Malden, is committed but lacks imagination and insight and Merrill’s Scalise is certainly imaginative, or at the very least opportunistic. Standing out in the supporting cast is Craig Stevens, a decade away from Peter Gunn, sweating cheap, desperate charm as Tierney’s heel of a husband and veteran character actress Ruth Donnelly as a diner matron with a sharp tongue and a warm heart. Her affection of Mark helps us see the better angels of his nature.

Preminger shoots largely on studio sets, the better to sculpt his version of night in the city, and sets the climax in a parking garage with a car elevator that he uses to superb effect. All that heavy machinery becomes something akin to weaponry under noir conditions.

It’s previously been on DVD from Fox Video. Twilight Time’s edition offers a superb Blu-ray debut, with a sharp image and rich contrasts. Film noir historian Eddie Muller’s commentary, originally recorded for the DVD, is carried over for this edition, and as with all Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and is limited to 3000 copies.

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

Twilight Time’s Encore Edition of ‘The Big Heat’

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.

Reviews of Gilda and Where the Sidewalk Ends at Cinephiled.

Blu-ray: Dick Powell noir ‘Murder My Sweet’ and ‘Pitfall’

MurderMySweet
Warner Archive

Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).

The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.

It is one of the first great film noirs and an often overlooked detective movie classic, and it has been beautifully mastered for its Blu-ray debut. Also features commentary by film noir expert Alain Silver (carried over from the original DVD release) and the original trailer.

Pitfall
Kino Classics

Dick Powell found the genre, which at the time were simply crime thrillers or crime dramas, a good fit for his dry delivery and understated style so after starring in Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), and To the Ends of the Earth (1948), he turned producer (though without screen credit) and developed his own project. The first of his independent efforts, the 1948 Pitfall (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of the greatest—and most adult—film noirs that even many film buffs have never heard of.

Powell is middle-class insurance man John Forbes, a white collar husband and father living in suburbia and on the verge of burn-out, or at least disillusionment with the rat race. His deadpan patter is ignored by his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and bounces over the head of his oblivious son (Jimmy Hunt), and his sardonic attitude is carried into the job, where he deals with a seedy private detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who tracks down stolen property insured by his firm. That’s how he meets Mona (Lizabeth Scott), a smoky-voiced model who was showered with gifts from an embezzling banker. She’s not the gold-digger that John expects, however, and he ends up in an affair that isn’t exactly an affair, at least not how it’s presented to steer clear of production code dos and don’ts. There are afternoon meetings in smoky bars and scraps with the PI who goes all stalker on Mona, and the shadows of his city sins follow him home to suburbia.

Those narrative gymnastics are part of what make the film so interesting. It’s not sex that jams up John, it’s the fantasy of a secret life outside of his routine, and it’s just as much a betrayal. Sue may appear obliviously sunny and content but she’s perceptive and self-aware, thanks both to mature screenwriting and a strong performance by Wyatt, who is far more central to the drama than her screen time might suggest. And while the violence erupts in the dark of night, with slashes of light picking the players out of the shadows like any great noir, the rest of the film plays out in the light of day in familiar settings: home, office, the busy streets of Los Angeles (not a studio backlot but real location shots that give the film a presence in the real lives of real people). Director Andre de Toth, whose legacy of hard-edged dramas in all genres is still too-often overlooked, keeps the film in a recognizable world and focuses on consequences and responsibility more than the spectacle of violence. This isn’t the story of outlaws but a straight arrow guy who drifts into a little secret excitement and finds his shadowy actions exposed for all to see with the dawn, and the film ends with the family facing the fallout with a decision to make: how do you move forward from something like this?

The film came out on VHS and laserdisc decades ago but, as it was independently made and thus not protected by a studio, it fell through the cracks of preservation. The Film Noir Foundation financed a restoration from the best available elements, which was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive. It’s not pristine, mind you, and there are scenes with major wear, but the focus was on getting the best image and this has good contrasts and clarity behind the wear, and in the best scenes it is clear and clean.

The Blu-ray and DVD release also features commentary by film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, who provides both a detailed history of the production and observations on the style and sensibility of the film.

Powell teamed up with (uncredited) screenwriter William Bowers for a second film, Cry Danger (1951), a couple of years later, another smart, sharp little picture that was also restored by The Film Noir Foundation and UCLA and released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive last year. If you like Pitfall, track down Cry Danger and get the full Powell experience. (Reviewed on Cinephiled here.)

Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

killersBD
Criterion

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.

Hemingway’s story ends there for all intents and purposes but it’s only the beginning of the film, which as Hollywood invention from then on. An insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) wonders why Swede never tried to run and tracks his story back to a life as a former boxer turned petty criminal, a not-too-bright kid who fell in love with a calculating golddigger (Ava Gardner, shedding her ingénue image to play a slinky sexpot with a heart of ice) and fell in with a crew that pulled off a big payroll heist. The money was never recovered. The story is pieced together in flashbacks provided by witnesses and partners in crime, including the heist itself, a remarkably understated piece of filmmaking presented in a single shot. the steady, dispassionate narration of the witness provides counterpoint to the crack timing and brutal efficiency of the job. But the web of deceit and double crosses of the story and expertly-constructed screenplay by Anthony Veiller (with uncredited assist by John Huston) works thanks to the atmosphere of doom and duplicity created by Siodmak and his crew, and to the defining presence of Lancaster and Gardner.

To be honest, their inexperience shows. Lancaster, who doesn’t carry the weight of experience, is rather callow, a perfect patsy but less tragic than merely dumb. Gardner is a kitten playing a viper, a pretty face and slinky body without that strength in her voice to carry her malevolence. They offer neither depth nor complexity but the camera loves them, every curve of their bodies, every shadow on their faces. Siodmak turns their images into icons: the wounded romantic with a beefcake build, and the temptress pulling the heartstrings of innocents merely by staring up from under those long lashes in a calculated nonchalance. Surrounded by seasoned pros (Sam Levene, Albert Dekker, Vince Barnett, Jack Lambert, and Jeff Corey) and lit with the light and shadow of a noir master, the films takes the spark they carry—Lancaster’s brooding ambition and wounded innocence, Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and crafty flirting—and lights a bonfire with them.

Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in 'The Killers'
Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in ‘The Killers’ 1946

Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is less remake than re-imagined tribute, with John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role (this time he’s a reckless race-car driver), Angie Dickinson as the seductive femme fatale, and Ronald Reagan as the crime boss pulling their strings, but this time the focus is on the killers themselves. It opens and ends on hitmen Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, who bully their way into a school for the blind to kill their target (Cassavetes), and the rest is their investigation into why their victim is so willing to die and why they were paid so much for what they’ve been told a simple grudge hit. Note that the opening moments are set to recycled music cues from Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil score. The sassy opening is a remarkably effective introduction to Marvin beating up a blind secretary while his partner can barely be bothered to notice, and sets the lurid tone that suggests tremendous brutality through intimidation and threat.

It was originally produced as a TV movie but was deemed too violent for the small screen and released to the theaters. Those origins are very evident, and not simply in the classic academy ratio. It has a cheap, cut-rate look to every set and location shot, weak rear-projection sequences, bad studio backdrops, and scenes simply shot against blank neutral colors. Clearly the producers were counting on the broadcast standards of sixties TV to hide their cut corners, and it creates a weird visual atmosphere for the film, a cynical, cruel story playing out against a banal, unreal backdrop. As scripted by Gene L. Coon (a longtime TV vet who wrote over a dozen Star Trek shows), however, the dialogue is hard-boiled redux. Marvin cuts every conversation directly to the point: no wasted words, no colorful flourishes, not even complete sentences, just key words driven home by the threat in his voice. And even in a feature-film setting, the sight of Ronald Reagan slapping Angie Dickinson is startling if not shocking. His subsequent political life just gives it all a little extra spice.

Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in the 1964 film

This edition includes most the supplements over from the earlier DVD and adds a new one: an audio-only excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography read by Hampton Fancher. Carried over from the previous release is yet another version of Hemingway’s short story, this one Andrei Tarkovsky’s faithful student film Ubijtsi (1956), an audio interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky (author of “Don Siegel: Director”) and a video interview with Clu Gulager both recorded in 2002, the 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” radio adaptation of the original film with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters (audio only), Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s original short story (audio only), and fold-out inserts with essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O’Brien.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Ride the Pink Horse’

RidePinkHorse
Criterion

Ride the Pink Horse (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – It wouldn’t be fair to call this film unknown—ask any die-hard film noir fan—but outside of classic movie buffs and noir aficionados, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) simply isn’t a familiar title. The film’s debut on DVD and Blu-ray should help change things, and the Criterion imprint certainly doesn’t hurt.

Based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose work also inspired In A Lonely Place, and directed by Robert Montgomery, this is rural noir, set in a fictional New Mexico border town created almost entirely on studio sets (with a few location shots in Santa Fe). Montgomery also stars as “Lucky” Gagin, a big-city thug who tracks a crime boss (Fred Clark) to San Pablo for a shakedown on the eve of its fiesta season. The shift from the city at night to a dusty southwestern town, where Spanish fills the streets and cantinas outside of the tourist hotel, gives this film a striking atmosphere and texture, but the themes come right out of the post-war dramas and crime movies. Montgomery is a working class thug who came home from the war disillusioned and angry and Clark, his blackmail target, is a war profiteer who hides behind the façade of big business and looks more like a middle-management functionary than a criminal tough guy. One of the oddest touches in film involves his hearing aid, which turns familiar phone call scenes upside down. (You might recalls Clark as the producer who dismisses William Holden’s baseball script in Sunset Blvd and as dyspeptic comic relief in scores of films and TV shows.) Ride the Pink Horse anticipates the connection between organized crime and corporate America that became even more prevalent in the 1950.

Continue reading “Videophiled: ‘Ride the Pink Horse’”

Videophiled: ‘Thunder Road’

Thunder Road
Timeless

Thunder Road (Timeless, Blu-ray+DVD), produced by star Robert Mitchum from his own original story, is an energetic little genre piece about moonshine running and a primal example of the outlaw road movie genre. Though a little old for his part, producer/star Robert Mitchum is all sleepy-eyed, surly charm as a Kentucky bootlegger who battles both local cops and mobsters trying to muscle their way into the state to protect his business. Keely Smith has little to do as his girlfriend but has a couple of great nightclub numbers and Mitchum’s son James is fine as his hero-worshipping younger brother. Mitchum also composed the theme song but his version of the song, which he recorded and released, is not in the film. You can hear repeat through the menu, however.

It’s directed by Arthur Ripley, a former silent movie gag man who largely worked in shorts, B-movies and TV but also made the cult noir item The Chase (1946). Between that and Thunder Road, Ripley’s name is secured, at least among fans of classic genre films. This is a low budget gem with attitude to burn and it gets its Blu-ray debut in this two-disc combo release. It’s a dark film—a lot of nighttime chases—but it’s sharp and clean.

More film noir on Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Point Blank’

Warner

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.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

‘Man Bait’ on TCM

Originally released in Britain as The Last Page, the title Man Bait makes this 1952 British crime drama sound like a femme fatale film noir, an aspect that director Terence Fisher emphasizes even as the script has other ideas.

The “man bait” of the title refers to Diana Dors, a curvy young blonde promoted as Britain’s blonde bombshell, but top billing goes to American actor George Brent, who plays John Harman, the proprietor of a London bookstore that specializes in rare books and collectible volumes. He’s married and faithful to his invalid wife, oblivious to the adoring looks of his assistant Stella (Marguerite Chapman). The 19-year-old Dors is the store’s receptionist Ruby, a party girl who is constantly late for work and only keeps her job thanks to the paternal affections of Mr. Harman. Those affections take a rather dangerous turn when a close-quarters work session after hours erupts in a passionate kiss. While Ruby is content to shrug it off after he pays to replace her ripped blouse (not torn by him, mind you, but on the corner of a file cabinet), Ruby’s conniving boyfriend sees the potential for a big payoff and his mercenary scheming leads to blackmail and murder. Peter Reynolds plays the seductive and ruthless Jeff, the ne’er do well who pushes the young and easily-manipulated Ruby, and Raymond Huntley is memorable as the fussy clerk with an unrequited crush on Stella.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Monday, June 16

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hollow Triumph’ and more from Film Chest

HollowTriumphWhen Film Chest began releasing their “restored” editions of public domain films a few years ago under the label HD Cinema Classics, they promised superior editions of film previously available in poor copies. After a launch fraught with mishandled restorations, they have finally delivered on the promise with three recent releases on DVD: Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD), The Bigamist (Film Chest, DVD) and their latest release The Strange Woman (Film Chest, DVD), which became available just this week.

Actor Paul Henreid (most famous for playing resistance hero Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) produced the crime thriller Hollow Triumph (1948) as a vehicle for himself and he take two roles in it: as criminal mastermind John Muller, a medical school drop-out who comes out of prison with a scheme to rob a casino owned by a vindictive mob boss, and as a chilly psychiatrist who is his exact double but for a jagged scar running down his cheek. When the heist inevitably goes bad and Muller goes into hiding, he hatches a plan to kill the doctor and put his medical training to use by taking over the doc’s identity, complete with a scar carved into his cheek.

This low-budget film noir has a couple of clever twists that a few sharp viewers will likely see coming, some marvelous nocturnal Los Angeles locations shot by the great noir stylist John Alton, and a confident Joan Bennett in a supporting role as a single woman who has no illusions about dating the seductive but shady Muller. The film has been readily available on poor quality editions. This edition, which is branded “HD restoration from 35mm film elements,” is not exactly restored—there is visible wear on the print and crackle on the soundtrack—but it is a noticeable leap in quality from previous releases. It’s an enjoyable but minor film noir but it did spawn one of the greatest lines in film noir: “It’s a bitter little world.” DVD with no supplements.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Videophiled Essential: ‘Touch of Evil’ on Blu-ray

TouchEvilBD
Touch of Evil (Universal, Blu-ray) – Orson Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, a sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. It’s considered the last great film noir and the bookend to the true noir era. It was also Welles’s last attempt at a career in Hollywood before he packed up to make movies in Europe.

Charlton Heston is a stiff, straight-arrow Mexican government agent Mike Vargas whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder and police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner who has a habit of creating evidence to speed the process of justice. It features Akin Tamiroff as a Mexican border town Little Caesar with a cheap toupee and a wise-guy patter, Dennis Weaver as a sex-obsessed motel clerk on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a guest appearance by Marlene Dietrich and cameos by Welles regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten.

After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957, the film was taken from Welles and recut into a 109-minute version that was previewed for audiences. Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut and wrote a detailed 58 page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Some of those suggestions were incorporated in the final cut, most were not, and it was subsequently edited down to the 96-minute version that was released in 1958. The “preview version” was discovered in 1976 and supplanted the release version, but while it feature more footage directed by Welles, it was not his cut of the film.

Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered Welles’ memo in the files of Universal Studios and published it in the 1990s and in 1998 he became an advisor to producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch as they took on an unprecedented project: reconstructing the version that Welles described. Though referred to as the “restored version,” it’s in fact an entirely new version: “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how Schmidlin described it.

The differences in this revision are apparent in the first seconds of the film.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘Cry Danger’ Restored and ‘Used Cars’ Revived on Blu-ray

CryDanger
You can thank The Film Noir Foundation for the rediscovery of Cry Danger (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the independently-produced 1951 film noir developed by star Dick Powell as a follow-up to Pitfall (1948). Like a lot of films made outside of the studio system, it fell through the cracks and was only recently restored by UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation, who searched for the best materials available and created a new negative and 35mm prints for screening. That restoration is the basis of this disc debut.

Dick Powell is in fine sardonic form as Rocky, a guy released from prison after serving five years for a bank heist he didn’t commit, thanks to a witness who verifies his alibi, and goes in search of the real criminal to spring his buddy, who is still serving time. Richard Erdman is the witness Delong, a Navy vet just off his last tour of duty, and he hitches himself to Rocky to see if he’ll find the loot. Rhonda Fleming is the buddy’s wife, but before that she was Rocky’s girl. Her affections are rekindled but there is more rapport between the low-key, unflappable Powell and Erdman, whose injured vet is a drunk and makes no bones about it. Erdman is even funnier and drier than Powell and has an inspired courtship with a blonde pickpocket in the trailer park, a young cutie who keeps robbing him as if theft was a form of flirtation.

Robert Parrish made his directorial debut with this film and it is terrific: efficient, tight, well-paced and full of attitude and dry humor. He shoots most of it on location in Los Angeles and the key location, a dumpy little trailer park on a hill that looks down upon the city, gives the film a great sense of character and location: they can see the dream below them as they mark time in their cramped trailers. There’s a dark heart under the snappy surface like the best low-budget noirs. William Conrad co-stars as the signature heavy, a gang leader by the name of Louis Castro that Rocky believes is the real mastermind behind the heist, and Regis Toomey is the tough cop with a wary respect for Rocky.

Olive doesn’t go in for supplements—they offer well-mastered discs at low prices—but this is one disc I’d love to see get the special edition treatment. Co-star Richard Erdman is still alive and well and sharp as a tack (he’s the world’s oldest college student in the TV sitcom Community) and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller has provided a lot of commentary tracks and interviews for other film noir releases on disc. A little background on the film and its production would have been very nice, but when it comes down to it, it is all about the film and the quality of presentation and this is top notch given the rescue job performed by UCLA.

UsedCars
Used Cars (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Robert Zemeckis made some of the most famous blasts of American pop culture cinema—Back to the Future and Forrest Gump among them—but none has his films root about the cynical underside of the American dream with the gleeful anarchic pleasure of this satirical cult classic from 1980. Kurt Russell is the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises, aided ably by his superstitious buddy Gerrit Graham. The outrageous stunts (such as illegally jamming the Superbowl with a guerrilla commercial and hiring strippers to bump and grind on the cars like a Vegas sideshow) are more than simply high concept gags: Zemeckis and Bob Gale squeeze the limits of bad taste out of these lemons for a deliciously tart cinematic lemonade. The R rating is for foul mouthed tirades and nudity that would be at home in a risqué burlesque farce. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is none other than Alfonso Arau, the ubiquitous character actor and director of Like Water for Chocolate.

The Blu-ray debut includes the commentary recorded for the earlier DVD release and the talk from director Zemeckis, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell is almost as much fun as the film itself. “We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, except he’s totally corrupt,” is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of the story. Kurt Russell laughs back: “So you cast me!” These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Also features four minutes of outtakes and along with Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score is a bonus score track with the unused score. Also includes an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

MOD Movies: ‘The Big House,’ ‘5 Fingers,’ ‘Roadblock

BigHouseTripleThe Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.

The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.

The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.

Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in 'The Big House'

The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.

Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.

5Fingers
5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.

The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”

The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.

Roadblock
Roadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.

The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.

More crooks, cops, and spies on MOD from Warner and Fox at Cinephiled