DVD: ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’

“Your flesh will creep… at the hand that crawls!” promises the poster for the 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers, a Warner Bros. production that, modest by studio standards, is one of the classier horror films of its day. Once a thriving genre, horror films had largely slipped into the B-movie units of the Hollywood majors by the 1940s, with the Poverty Row studios picking up the slack. This production, helmed by Robert Florey and featuring Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, and J. Carrol Naish, sounds on the surface like a twist on The Hands of Orlac, a chestnut of a thriller about the hands of a strangler grafted onto the body of a musician that have a murderous life of their own. And while The Beast with Five Fingers does indeed feature a famed musician and a killer hand crawling through the picture, it is also an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives gather for the reading of a will and start turning up dead.

That all comes later. The film opens with Robert Alda as an American in Italy fleecing tourists with ersatz jewelry and a line of malarkey sold with a devilish grin. That’s just a sideline for Conrad Ryler, a former musician who is now part of the retinue that serves Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a piano maestro paralyzed by a stroke but for one arm, with which he uses to pound out Brahms on the grand piano that dominates the front room. Ingram’s nurse Julie (Andrea King) and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), an obsessive who is usually squirrelled away in the library studying ancient astrology and magic, fill out Ingram’s staff, and it’s a rather strained sense of community.

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Videophiled MOD Movies: ‘Cry of the City,’ ‘The Beast with Five Fingers,’ ‘Young America’ and Lee Tracy

It’s been a few months since I’ve surveyed the MOD market – that’s the manufacture-on-demand line that Warner, Fox, and Sony currently present as a way to release films that the sales market no longer supports – and there have been a lot of releases in that time. Not all are ‘classic” in the essential sense, mind you, but why should that be? The deluge of New Releases in any given month is filled with titles you’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. What’s so much fun in the stream of MOD releases is the ongoing conversation with old Hollywood movies and vintage TV shows, and the continued connection with favorite stars through their less familiar films. There are always films and filmmakers and stars waiting to be discovered.

Cry of the City (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is one that should be known better. It’s one of Robert Siodmak’s darkest film noirs, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature as an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Richard Conte personally. Siodmak shoots much of it on location in New York but still manages to get those studio shadows and rain-slicked streets into shot after shot, creating a nocturnal underworld within the urban jungle of the city.

Conte gets the showboating role of the glib, smart-talking hood whose grinning charm and sardonic wit never flag, not even in custody, until that smarmy confidence gives way to panic and predatory self-interest under pressure. Mature’s stoic stillness gives a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role: the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Conte. This is the classic noir world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. It’s a good-looking disc, too, mastered from a good print with minor scuffing, with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image.

Moss Rose (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is in the British Gothic mystery tradition of Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Gaslight, set in turn-of-the-century Britain and starring Victor Mature as a prodigal son returned from Canada to his now-widowed mother (Ethel Barrymore) and their country manor. He’s the prime suspect in the murder of a London showgirl and Peggy Cummins blackmails him into passing her off as a fellow moneyed aristocrat. British-born ingénue Cummins, curiously enough, gets top billing over Mature (who was by far the bigger star in 1947) and Vincent Price is the wily detective who knows how to play upon the arrogance of the upper class as he builds his case against Mature. Gregory Ratoff directs with an understated sense of shadowy threat—he does love those hard shadows and partially obscured faces and stormy nights—and makes great use of the Victorian-era backlot street scenes and set. It’s a solid B&W transfer.

The 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive) sounds like a twist on The Hands of Orlac—it does, after all, have a famed musician and a killer hand—but is actually more of an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives have been gathered for the reading of a will. They, of course, start turning up dead. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of a crippled piano virtuoso. Robert Alda enters as an American con man and leaves a hero and J. Carroll Naish puts on his meatball Italian accent to play the village Commissario, but Peter Lorre makes the biggest impression as the personal secretary of the dead man, a scholar obsessed with the secrets of ancient magic. Robert Florey does just fine with the atmosphere and even better with the superb optical effects. While you can sometimes see the seams in this well-mastered edition, transferred from a preserved print, Florey makes the imagery of the disembodied hand skittering around like a spider so wonderfully weird that you hardly care. There’s a marvelous madness to it at its best and, true to the time, a little twist of humor in the epilogue, complete with ethnic flourish.

Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 Young America (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) but the film is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon) who is called “the worst kid in town” but is really a good boy with bad judgment, loyal to his friends and uncompromising with bullies. Art is a hard-luck saint among kids, ready to sacrifice all to steal medicine for a dying friend or take on gangsters in the middle of a high-speed car chase. Tracy is a drug store owner with a streetwise attitude and a high society lifestyle. It’s amazing how many of the most widely parodied clichés of Hollywood melodrama are crammed into this one film (adapted from a stage play), and how enjoyable it is nonetheless thanks to Tracy’s lively personality and up-from-the-streets manner and to Borzage’s verging-on-sentimental-overkill affection for his working class characters. Seriously, at the risk of a spoiler, a dying child moans about flying through the air before croaking out “It’s getting dark…” Ralph Bellamy co-stars as a compassionate judge.

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DVD: ‘Cry of the City’

Robert Siodmak made more film noirs than any other director. It’s not like he set out to do so–they were considered crime thrillers and murder dramas by the studios and the term film noir was given to the shadowy subset long after Siodmak stopped making them–but he helped define the genre (or the style and attitude, if you prefer) in its glory days.

Cry of the City is not as well known as Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949), and The Film on Thelma Jordan (1950), all of which star some of Hollywood’s most famous (and noir’s most iconic) performers, or his early, shadowy low-budget mystery Phantom Lady (1944), but it should be. It’s a gangster film seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, starring Victor Mature as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook). When Candella goes knocking on doors for witnesses, he gets them slammed in his face. In a slum where no one trusts the cops, Martin’s brazen defiance makes him a Robin Hood, even if he fails to share any of his ill-gotten gains with the poor.

The film opens with Martin unconscious in a hospital, wounded in a shoot-out that left a policeman dead. When he’s awake he’s a glib, smart-talking guy, working his grinning charm and sardonic wit on the police (who have his ward under guard) and the hospital staff alike, and he has no illusions about his fate.

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MOD Movies: Halloween with Fu Manchu and friends

There is nothing tasteful about a Fu Manchu movie. The stories of a ruthless, sadistic, depraved Mandarin crimelord, originally created in a series of lurid pulp thrillers by Sax Rohmer in the 1910s, traffic in a jingoistic fear of Asian assault on western culture (especially the empire-building Britania). Fu Manchu is a criminal genius with three doctorates, a passion for assassination by exotic poison, and an obsessive quest for world domination. And he has been, since the beginning, played by Caucasian actors in silk robes, long-mustaches, and what can only be called yellowface make-up.

Dr. Fu Manchu returned with a vengeance in the 1960 in a series of lurid British thrillers from Harry Alan Towers, a British writer/producer cashing in on the Hammer success with his own low-budget thrillers and horror films, and starring Christopher Lee as the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.

In the 1965 The Face of Fu Manchu (Warner Archive), the first of five Fu Manchu features from Towers and Lee and the character’s first big official screen appearance since 1940, he kidnaps a brilliant scientist, forces him to turn over his latest, potentially destructive invention by means of torture (usually of a beautiful young daughter), and then holds the world ransom. That basic structure recurs in the sequels, just as it drove many a James Bond film and a couple of Pink Panther sequels and Austin Powers movies.

Not that anyone watched these films for their plots. The film opens on Fu Manchu’s own execution, a scene right out of Hammer Films’ The Revenge of Frankenstein. Clearly this is not the end of Fu Manchu, who returns for his revenge with a literal underground kingdom beneath the streets of London, a fanatically devoted cutthroat army in black pajamas and red sashes (part Viet Cong, part Playboy After Dark), and a small private zoo of poisonous spiders and deadly snakes.

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MOD Movies: Rod Taylor is ‘The Liquidator’

I’ve got a fondness of James Bond riffs from the sixties, knock-offs and spoofs both, so I have an affection for The Liquidator (Warner Archive), starring Rod Taylor as Boysie Oakes, a would-be military wash-out who stumbles into heroism and is drafted by British Intelligence to be their house assassin. The lifestyle suits Boysie — money, girls, a groovy London bachelor pad, and all the accessories a man of artificial means could want — except for the pesky assignments. So he outsources his jobs to a professional and pockets the balance. At least until things get complicated.

The 1965 production is based on a novel by John Gardner, the first in a series Gardner himself described as “a complete piss-take of J. Bond,” and has a fun cast, including Trevor Howard as the film’s pro-active answer to M and Akim Tamiroff as the hearty Bond-ish villain. And give it credit for anticipating a pair of Bond girls: Jill St. John, who plays Boysie’s main squeeze (she went on to play Tiffany Case in “Diamonds Are Forever”) and Gabriella Licudi (of the 1967 pseudo-Bond spoof “Casino Royale”). But legendary cinematographer turned middling director Jack Cardiff is a bad fit for this spy parody, exhibiting little innate humor and failing to reel in Taylor’s broad playing. Howard fares significantly better as career agent who finds loves his work (even when it’s all about putting hits out on his own traitorous agents) and David Tomlinson brings a disarming, oblivious chipperness to a fastidiously professional operative named Quadrant.

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MOD Movies: The ‘Forbidden’ Movies of Pre-Code Hollywood

There were a couple of years when Hollywood, moving from the purely visual (with textual assist) storytelling of silent to the immediacy of sound, struggled to find its voice. When it did, the talkies exploded. When stilted line-readings in awkwardly-placed microphones gave way to rapid-fire patter and free-wheeling interplay, the verbal energy sent a lot movies racing, even when the visuals remained restrained.

That’s part of the fun of the early thirties Hollywood movies, but only part. Before the  crackdown of the production code, these films fizzed with sex and sass, wise-guys and smart dames, hustlers and sharpies and even elegant society folk with wit and wiles and insouciant charm.

And personality. Lots of personality, thanks to stars like James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Joan Blondell, and the great stock company of supporting players at Warner Bros.. That, more than anything mentioned above, recommends the eight films on two recent collections from the Warner Archive.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 4” (Warner Archive) showcases the debonair grace and amused attitude of William Powell in “Jewel Robbery” (1932), playing a cultured jewel thief in Vienna who romances a bored Baroness (Kay Francis) brought to life by his unconventional courtship. He’s a guy who conducts a robbery as if hosting a soiree, keeping his victims duly entertained while relieving them of their valuables. Not exactly drawing room wit, but quite lively and fun when Powell is delivering the remarks, and as for its pre-code bonafides, there is an extended sequence with a “drugged cigarette” that is the earliest example of stoner gags I’ve ever seen.

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MOD TV: More ‘Without a Trace’ and the ‘Starman: The Complete Series’

Without a Trace: The Complete Third Season” (Warner Archive) opens with FBI special agent Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) adrift — he puts his transfer to Chicago on hold when his wife decides to leave him and take the children with her — and Vivian (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) promoted to his old position, which gets complicated when Jack returns to the team as a utility player under Vivian. And sure enough, the man has not lost his touch as an investigator.

This hit TV crime procedural, which ran a strong eight seasons, has the same crisp style and rapid-fire clue-thumping as producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s powerhouse “CSI” franchise. But where those forensic investigators try to bring justice to the dead, the Missing Persons Squad of the Federal Bureau of Investigation races the clock to save those who are still alive. Maybe not always, but often enough to lay a suffocating responsibility on the agents. LaPaglia has a quiet authority and compassion as the team’s senior agent, whose dedication to the job finally cost him his marriage, and Poppy Montgomery (whose last show was the high-concept crime series “Unforgettable”) makes some perhaps unwise personal decisions. Enrique Murciano and Eric Close complete the crack team.

23 episodes on five discs. This is actually traditional pressed disc, at least for the limited first run pressings. Once those are sold, it will revert to the MOD format of burned discs.

Starman: The Complete Series” (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is quite literally a sequel to the 1984 feature film directed by John Carpenter. The series opens 14 years later, with the Starman (now played by Robert Hays) returning to Earth and the identity of dead freelance photographer Paul Forrester to find the son her fathered (Christopher Daniel Barnes) and reunite him with his missing mother. The series, who lasted a single season, follows the format of “The Incredible Hulk” or “The Fugitive,” with the Starman moving from town to town with his son, helping others along the way, while a paranoid government agent (Michael Cavanaugh) obsessively tracks their trail. 22 episodes on five discs.

Emily’s Reasons Why Not: The Complete Series” (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) – Infamous for being one of the quickest cancellations in TV history, the “Complete Series” of the Heather Graham sitcom runs a mere six episodes, which is five more episodes than ABC broadcast in 2006. Graham plays self-help book publicist with bad romantic instincts and an running commentary on the train wreck that is her love life. Worse shows have lasted a lot longer, but apart from the criminally underused charm of Heather Graham, who is a natural light comedienne and cute as a button to boot, the show is a fairly generic construct of contrived situations, smart-ass best friends, and familiar homilies. Six episodes (running just over an hour) on a single disc.

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MOD Movies: Warren William is The Lone Wolf

The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) was Warren William’s third film playing retired gentleman jewel thief turned freelance detective and knight errant Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf, but it’s the first of the nine Warren William Lone Wolf films to appear on home video. Hopefully it’s not the last.

William made his career playing another kind of wolf in dozens of early thirties films, the seductive (and sometimes oily) middle-aged businessman always on the make for younger woman. Lanyard also has an eye for the ladies, but he’s more chivalrous, a charming rogue who matches wits with both the police and the underworld to solve crimes and rescue damsels in distress. In “Meets a Lady,” he doesn’t even get the girl. Rather, he plays cupid as well as detective as he solves a jewel theft (which the cops want to pin on him) and a murder pinned on an innocent girl (Jean Muir) in love with a society gentleman. William brings such a ease to the role, a high society Robin Hood who enjoys sparring with the police, and Eric Blore is superb as the loyal butler who misses the good old days of bit heists and high speed getaways.

The 70-minute programmer from 1940, shot completely on a studio backlot, is a step up from the usual B product. It features a solid cast of character actors (Thurston Hall as the dogged and clever police inspector just waiting to get the good on Lanyard, Victor Jory as a crook playing all angles for whatever money he can squeeze out of the players) and a modicum of style. And if the mystery is as generic as they come, the personality makes the film. I hope this is the beginning of a series roll-out. Maybe in a multi-disc set like the Warner Archive’s collections of “The Saint” and “The Falcon” series starring George Sanders.

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MOD Movies: ‘Ring-a-Ding Rhythm’ and other music films

Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is a 1962 British music performance film originally titled “It’s a Trad, Dad” (you can see why they retitled for the U.S.). The first feature by American-born but British-based Richard Lester (who went on to redefine the rock movie with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”) is basically a succession of performances connected by the thinnest of plots: a couple of teenagers defy a ban on jazz by recruiting bands for a big concert. And by jazz, I mean the traditional Dixieland style that had a big youth following in Britain in the early sixties: modern sixties youth listening to music that was new during prohibition. Can you believe those starchy adults and parents are still horrified? Dropped in with the dozens of trad jazz acts (including Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and the funky Temperance Seven) are a handful of pop and rock performances by the likes of Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, and Britain’s Helen Shapiro, who also plays one of the leads.

This is a prime example of a director making something out of nothing. Handed a script that does little more than stitch together a succession of musical performances, Lester doodles in the margins, dropping oddball, surreal gags between the numbers and sometimes during the performances. The script is credited to producer Milton Subotsky but the cheeky asides and slapstick flourishes are clearly from the mind of Lester, who came to the film from a series of collaborations with Peter Sellers. It’s not that Lester makes anything particularly memorable from it all, but that his light touch and whimsical attitude keeps it buoyant and bouncy and far more engaging than you have any right to expect.

Also from Britain is Just For Fun (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), another Subotsky production with a nominal plot stitching together performances by a more familiar line-up of pop performers, including Bobby Vee (singing “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”), The Crickets, Freddy Cannon, The Tremeloes, The Tornados, and a batch of other British acts. Both of these, by the way, are the Amicus, before the company redefined itself as Britain’s trashier, second-tier house of horror.

MOD Movies: William Shatner teaches ‘The Explosive Generation,’ plus Tourneur and Karlson for completists

The Explosive Generation (MGM Limited Edition Collection) may look like another low-budget teensploitation picture from the drive-in age, and sure, it is a cheap picture churned out with a minimum of fuss and style. But the explosive content of this high school picture is sex education, which is added to the curriculum at the request of an honors class of senior class students and sets off a firestorm among the parents, leaving our idealistic, progressive young teacher caught between his principles and his principal. Said teacher, I should add, is played by William Shatner. It’s his second film and his first leading role, before his soon-to-be trademark intensity took over. There’s plenty of speechifying and contrived injections of hep dialogue (“Crazy, man!”) and Buzz Kulick’s direction is never more than functional (and often not even that), but give the film credit for treating teenagers as intelligent, thoughtful young adults who are inspired to pull together to stand up for their education and their free speech rights. Their inspired non-violent protest is a weirdly mesmerizing tribute to youth solidarity, a precursor to the counterculture cinema of the late 1960s in clean-cut fifties garb. And that Shatner guy isn’t too bad either.

Timbuktu (MGM Limited Edition Collection) – Jacques Tourneur may be one of the most underrated directors of his time, from horror classics “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Curse of the Demon” to his noir masterpieces “Out of the Past” and “Nightfall” to some of the greatest films of the American frontier, “Stars in My Crown” and “Canyon Passage.” So it’s with some disappointment I watch his talent fall off in his late career. A few months ago it was “The Fearmakers,” and now comes Timbuktu, a pure B-movie potboiler French Foreign Legion film from the late 1950s that plays like a cavalry matinee picture. This one, moved up to World War II but still engaged with an Arab uprising in French colonial Africa, stars Victor Mature as an American gunrunner without political allegiance but with a code of sorts. Yvonne De Carlo plays the neglected wife of a duty-first French Colonel (George Dolenz) who apparently has no qualms about sending his wife to make love to the mercenary Mature, a man only too happy to play along as he plays double agent between the warring factions. A game of bluffs and feints and psychological warfare ensues, but Tourneur never makes anything more of it than a juvenile form of big screen pulp, from John Dehner as the least convincing Arab Emir in the movies down to Mature as the griming mercenary with a conscience. Silly stuff, but De Carlo is quite the honey.

Hornet’s Nest (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a grim 1970 World War II mission thriller with Rock Hudson and a cast of Italian kids playing soldier, is essentially a bloody Italian war drama by way of an American exploitation picture. Phil Karlson, one of the great director of bare-knuckle film noir, is behind the camera at least part of the time. The Italian prints apparently list Franco Cirino as director (he’s credited at First Assistant Director here) and the production is dominated by Italian names (including a score by Ennio Morricone). Karlson’s direction became more blunt in his later years but even so, the cynicism and brutality is more Italian exploitation sensibility than American drive-in branding, with the kids going all “Lord of the Flies” on both the German invaders occupying their village and any civilian (or even ally) who stands in the way of their vengeance. Hudson brings a groovy seventies mustache and haircut to forties Italy (maybe one those kids was inspired by his style to become Vidal Sassoon) while trying to play military father to these teenage guerrillas. Regardless of Karlson’s commitment in front of the camera, it feels like it was edited on the Italian industry assembly line.

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MOD Movies: Tough Guys

Hickey and Boggs (MGM Limited Edition Collection) from 1972 reunites former “I Spy” partners Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as down-out-heels private detectives in Los Angeles. Directed by Culp from a script by Walter Hill, it’s very much a scrappy early draft of the buddy action films that Hill would later direct, but in the key of seventies grit and cynicism. One is separated, the other divorced and unable to get over it, but both of them hang on to the last gasp of Raymond Chandler-esque dignity and professionalism even as they get taken by their clients and harassed by the cops at every turn. Culp is a director in the Don Siegel mode, just as focused on process and professionalism and refreshingly straightforward in both dialogue and action. He understands these characters, he likes them, and while he may not agree with them, he definitely respects their doggedness (though not the self-pity). Success may not satisfying, given all they lose along the way, but they earn it out of sheer perseverance and loyalty. The last men standing get the spoils. It is nice to finally see this film on DVD and in its correct aspect ratio.

Humphrey Bogart stars in a couple of recent Warner Archive releases, neither of them among his best. But hey, it’s Bogie and that alone has my interest. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (Warner Archive), from 1939, is a late gangster film with Bogart in a rare pre-1941 leading role (when he became a star after the double-shot of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon). At the time, he was mostly playing criminals and second bananas, secondary roles to the heroes and featured villains, and while he gets top billing here, he’s no hero but a cold-blooded thug who lets an innocent man take the rap for a murder and then keeps the pressure on his patsy when he’s sent up for robbery with a reluctant conspirator. It’s plays like low-rent reworking of Angels with Dirty Faces, a  Warner Bros. gangster film as morality tale, where the crooks are wise-talking cowards and hypocrites and the future of one kid in thrall to the swaggering neighborhood thug (Bogart, of course) and the straight-arrow guy they frames is at stake. Watch for Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life) as the prison librarian with a paternal streak.

Conflict (Warner Archive), a 1945 murder mystery with a psychological twist, melodrama flourishes and a shadowy film noir style, once again features Bogart on the other side of the law, this time as a man who murders his wife after their fight wedding anniversary in what appears to be the perfect crime… until she suddenly returns to haunt him. Alexis Smith plays his sister-in-law (and the motivation for his murder — he wants to upgrade to a younger model) and Sydney Greenstreet (a familiar Bogart nemesis indeed) is a psychiatrist who gets involved when Bogie’s wife mysteriously “disappears.” It’s a generic title for a routine suspense thriller, but Bogie is far more fascinating when he tips to the dark side in his post-“Maltese Falcon” films than when he routinely played the villain in the thirties. He’s more unstable and unpredictable, suggesting a psychosis that makes him far scarier than the thugs of his gangster years. And while director Curtis Bernhardt doesn’t bother trying to give the story (concocted by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann) a plausible foundation, he does conduct the mood quite nicely. Interestingly enough, Bogart turned to knocking off his wives and yearning for Alexis Smith again a couple of years later in “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), also from the Warner Archive (reviewed on Videodrone in 2011 here).

Edge of Eternity (Columbia Pictures Classics), a murder mystery set in an isolated desert mining town in Arizona where the mines closed year ago, stars Cornel Wilde as a straight-shooting sheriff trying to untangle the mystery around the murder of an unidentified stranger and the cover-up of his identity. Director Don Siegel gives the otherwise routine thriller a nice tension and a great sense of place. Shot on location near the Grand Canyon, the widescreen photography gives the open landscape a vastness and an isolation, and the “bucket” of the industrial loader that cranks across the canyon and the use of small private planes and a police helicopter over the craggy hills only adds to the feeling of remoteness. But in my own perverse way, I found it worth the time just to see the end credits offer their thanks to the many organizations that helped out, notably The United States Guano Corporation.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for March 6

MOD Movies: A Couple of Winners

Michael Winner is best remembered stateside (as much as he’s remembered at all) for directing Charles Bronson to vigilante stardom in “The Mechanic” and “Death Wish” (to name just two of their many collaborations). But before he crossed to pond for Hollywood, Winner was a British director whose stock in trade was comedy and satire, sixties style. He was pretty good, too, if inconsistent, as films such as “The Girl Getters” (available from VCI) and “I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname” (Anchor Bay, currently on moratorium) attest. More evidence arrives in two recent MOD releases.

The 1965 “You Must Be Joking” (Columbia Pictures Classics) is a scavenger hunt comedy by way of a military farce made by a director under the influence of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The script suggests “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” redesigned for a youth audience, with a small company of authority figures stripped of their authority and pit against each other in a race through London to collect five random object by hook or by crook. It’s a test designed by an off-kilter army psychiatrist (Terry Thomas, of course) to test the ingenuity and creativity of aspiring leaders for the new modern army. Along with all the British caricatures (Denholm Elliot as a cool aristocrat who swills cocktails while his servants chase down the objects, Lionel Jeffries as the drill sergeant of a career soldier, Lee Montague as the apoplectic army engineer) is Michael Callan as the American army’s contribution to the contest, who gets help from his swinging British girlfriend and a sexy French pop star. Old school British humor and contemporary cultural satire rub shoulders throughout and Winner never seems to know which audience to favor. A dryly witty scene set in a record company autograph mill where a staff of little old ladies sign fan pics of teen idols is followed by a tone-deaf parody of the Beatles movies featuring a phony band chasing our American con man across London in a bit closer to “Carry On” than Richard Lester, even with his freeze frames and snappy transitions. Mostly it works, a mix of mod culture in respectable society with a stiff upper lip deadpan to the slapstick.

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