Jan 13 2015

Videophiled: ‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’

Lionsgate

Middle of Nowhere (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) – As Selma opens wide to great reviews, Ava DuVernay’s second feature comes to disc, a small story about a woman who put her aspirations on hold when her husband goes to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drops out of medical school and takes a nursing job so that she can be at home for daily calls from Derek (Omari Hardwick) and make the two hour bus ride from the Los Angeles suburbs to the prison every week. Ruby’s mother (Lorraine Toussaint) isn’t shy about letting her disappointment show and Ruby spends more time with her sister (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother raising a young boy, to avoid such issues. She believes Derek regrets his mistakes and he probably believes so too, but as he becomes illegible for early parole the reality proves to be more complicated. Which is really what the film is about: life is more complicated than the parameters she has fenced around it. Ruby’s commitment to her husband’s support comes at a cost beyond mere professional success, and his past doesn’t go away so easily.

This isn’t about dramatic revelations and charge confrontations. DuVernay, who also wrote the original screenplay, has made a film about those moments lived between the decisions and is able to show Ruby coming around to see what has been obvious to others. She makes Derek a complicated and nuanced character in his limited screen time—the films stays with Ruby through her story, seeing only what she does—neither judging nor forgiving him as Ruby discovers that his mistakes are not over. The restraint leaves some issues a little vague and unsure, such as Derek’s child from a previous relationship and his past (and present) involvement in the gangs, which can be frustrating, but this isn’t his story. It’s about Ruby and the choices she makes.

The title is apt, and not just for her commitment to a husband who is locked up two hours away in the middle of the desert. Even in Ruby’s East Los Angeles neighborhood, DuVernay’s images pare away detail and separate Ruby from her surroundings and even her family, as if she has isolated herself from the world. Except for traveling to and from work (always by bus; there’s no car on Ruby’s salary), she hardly interacts with anyone but her family, and even with mom she keeps all interactions as a distance.

Emayatzy Corinealdi

Corinealdi gives a quiet but expressive performance as a woman who doesn’t recognize her own malaise and loneliness until she’s wooed by an easygoing bus driver (David Oyelowo, who stars in Selma as Dr. King) and she realizes how much of herself she’s sacrificed. In those moments, when friendly conversation and a little flirtation coaxes a smile from her, we get a sense of who Ruby might have been before she gave up her life. And DuVernay resists putting her transformation into words—even the lovely voiceover as she speaks her feelings for perhaps the first time is more poetry than proclamation—and instead lets the flowering of Ruby come through the way she allows herself to live and be. That sensitivity and grace won DuVernay the Best Director award at Sundance and, one assumes, proved that she had the talent to tackle Selma, where that promise is fulfilled.

Features commentary by director Ava DuVernay and actress Emayatzy Corinealdi and an Ultraviolent HD digital copy of the film. Also available to stream from Xbox Video.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jan 06 2015

Videophiled: ‘Boyhood’ – Growing up on film

Boyhood

Paramount Home Video

Boyhood (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is arguably the movie of 2014. Even if you don’t think it’s the best film of last year, it dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.

It’s now common knowledge that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.

Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience. And that’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.

It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience. The Blu-ray features the 19-minute featurette “The 12 Year Project,” made up of interviews with the director and the cast (often interviewing one another on camera) over the course of production, from year one to year twelve, and the 52-minute “Q&A with Richard Linklater and the Cast,” shot after a screening of the film at L.A.’s Cinefamily on June 15, 2014. They are excellent supplements to the experience. Also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copies of the film. No extras on the DVD release.

I talked to Richard Linkater about the film for Keyframe

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, digital and VOD at Cinephiled

Jan 01 2015

Best of 2014

My list this year is light on foreign movies, largely because I didn’t get out to as many festival screenings as I have in past years, and because many of the foreign language films placing highly on other lists have not opened in this corner of the world.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linkater, US)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, US)
3. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
4. Gone Girl (David Fincher, US)
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, US)
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
8. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, Iran/US)
And because this film turns it up to 11. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, US / South Korea / France / Czech Republic) – high concept science fiction thrillers are always best when serving as metaphors for sociopolitical commentary. Amiright?

More honorable mentions (in alphabetical order: Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden), The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, US), The Immigrant (James Gray, US), John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, US), Locke (Steven Knight, UK), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, US), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, US), Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany), We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodyson, Sweden), What Now? Remind Me (Joaquin Pinto, Portugal)

Other published Top Ten Lists: Village Voice Film Poll, Keyframe
Also: Best of 2014 on Blu-ray and DVD

Originally published on Parallax View

Dec 30 2014

Videophiled: ‘Banshee: Season Two’

BansheeS2

HBO

Banshee: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is the first Cinemax original series to really work. It’s pure pulp, a small town crime story with a career criminal posing as a sheriff while continuing his career as a thief. He just sets limits: no jobs in his town. With no real knowledge of the law or proper procedure, he turns to his other skills to keep the peace and solve crimes. It makes for a very entertaining show, with a heist or robbery in most every episode, dynamic and gritty action scenes with visceral and at times gruesome violence, and plenty of nudity and sex: all those exploitation elements that the movies have ceded to pay cable TV.

The second season opens in the aftermath of the bloody shoot-out with the Ukrainian gang that Sheriff Hood (Antony Starr) and his former lover and partner-in-crime (Ivana Milicevic) ripped off a decade ago, with Hood off the hook and back in command as his suspicious and resentful deputy (Matt Servitto) takes the blame. Along with the heists, the investigations, and the hunt for the Ukrainian ganglord who somehow escaped death, this season brings in the son of the man that Hood is impersonating and sets Hood against the town’s criminal godfather Kai (Ulrich Thomsen), a thoroughly ruthless man who was raised Amish but shunned by his community. There’s a struggle for power on the local reservation and the education of Kai’s niece (Lili Simmons), who he’s adopted into his crime empire after she is banished from the Amish community. Her evolution is fascinating, watching her uncle wield power and control and trying to apply the same in her own dealings.

There is one standout episode that makes the most of the contradictions of the series: “The Warrior Class,” which begins with the murder of a young Kinaho girl and the disappearance of an Amish boy and sets the two communities against each other as Hood stirs things up even more with his ill-advised invasion of the reservation to question a suspect. This is the series at its best, using a splashy murder to reveal the tensions and resentments in the community and bring antagonists together for a common mission, and it features two of the most riveting fight scenes of the series.

Ten episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on most episodes, deleted scenes, short prequel videos of the characters, and behind-the-scenes featurettes on select episodes. The Blu-ray edition features Twitter commentary from the cast and crew during the season premiere and finale, an interactive “Inside the Title Sequence” look at the differences in the title sequences of the different episodes, and a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Dec 24 2014

Videophiled: ‘Dominion: Season One’

DominionS1

Universal

Dominion: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), another new apocalyptic vision from SyFy, is essentially a spin-off of the 2010 feature Legion, set about 20 years after Gabriel leads a war on humanity and Archangel Michael turns his back on heaven to protect humanity and The Chosen One destined to save them. He’s now grown into Alex Lannen (Christopher Egan), an earnest soldier in Vega, the future incarnation of Las Vegas as a walled city under military command and control and a ruling elite vying for power in a decidedly undemocratic system. There’s all sorts of complicated politics and various factions and interest groups, with Michael (Tom Wisdom) serving as something between adviser and deity and Gabriel (Carl Beukes) preparing for another war with his army of lesser angels (who have all taken over human bodies) looking more like a band of demons on earth (complete with black wings for the angels—color coding is everything), but otherwise this is all familiar territory with only the specifics changed. Alex is in love with the daughter of the city ruler but she’s betrothed to the son of the city’s most powerful man, and of course everyone is driven by their own interests and alliances. And hey, who would have suspected that angels keep secrets? There’s nothing religious here apart from the mythology of angels as the ancient race of God’s warriors. Egan is fine as the reluctant Chosen One and TV vets Anthony Head (Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Alan Dale (Lost and Once Upon a Time) are the two patriarchs competing for power but the rest of the cast feels like they’re recycled versions of other actors playing recycled incarnations of other characters.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a bonus Ultraviolet digital copy of the season. The Blu-ray features an extended version of the season finale and an HD version of the digital copy.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Dec 23 2014

Videophiled: Mike Nichols’ ‘The Fortune’

Fortune

Twilight Time

The timing wasn’t planned but it is fortuitous. The Fortune (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a screwball comedy directed by Mike Nichols, debuts on Blu-ray a month after Nichols passed away. The 1975 production is set in the 1920s and stars Warren Beatty as a con man trying to get his hands on the fortune of a madcap heiress (a bubbly Stockard Channing in her first major film role) and Jack Nicholson as his dim-witted stooge who slowly figures out he’s really a partner in crime. Beatty plays it like a second-rate con man’s idea of what a cool customer acts like and Nicholson is a greedy, lazy idiot with a maniacal grin who thinks he’s clever but panics at every disaster, and truly every attempt to knock her off is a disaster.

The film was major flop, quite a surprise given the talent at work here, including screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the psuednym Adrian Joyce, which she also used on The Shooting) and production designer Richard Sylbert, who gives the west coast settings a low-rent, sun-baked handsomeness. Maybe it was the odd sensibility and collision of old Hollywood screwball and contemporary sensibilities; the jazz age was all the rage apparently after the successes of Bonnie and Clyde (with Warren Beatty), Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson) and The Sting. This isn’t really a black comedy, as Channing’s dizzy dame seems all too willing to fall into every scheme and the not-so-wise guyes are too incompetent to pull any of them off, and the timing doesn’t match the screwball situations, though all three are game to play their parts with all the screwy idiosyncrasies and big character flourishes of thirties movie stars and that is a pleasure to see.

The film has never been on DVD in the U.S. and it makes its disc debut on this Blu-ray-only release. It’s a great looking film, with cinematography by John Alonzo who even makes the California hills look like they cam from another era, and the disc preserves the period colors and tone of the film along with the crisp image. It includes Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Dec 20 2014

‘Third Man on the Mountain’ on TCM

In 1865, British mountaineer Edward Whymper led the first climbing party to successfully scale the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in the Alps and one of the last of the Alpine peaks to be conquered. Author and veteran mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman fictionalized the event in his novel Banner in the Sky, changing the name of the peak to the Citadel and making the hero a young man whose father, a famous mountain guide, died saving his client on an expedition up the mountain. That book became the basis for the 1959 Disney adventure Third Man on the Mountain, directed by Ken Annakin and starring Disney’s new discovery, James MacArthur.

The son of actress Helen Hayes, MacArthur was spotted by Disney in his debut feature, The Young Stranger (1957) and made his Disney debut a year later in The Light in the Forest (1958). Third Man on the Mountain was his second Disney feature and his first leading role for the family studio. To prepare for the role, MacArthur joined his co-stars for a two-week crash course in mountaineering in the Swiss Alps. Many of them became so proficient that they performed some of their own stunts. “They had some really fine Swiss mountain climbers doing some scaling of the mountains that was beyond my skills,” explained MacArthur in an interview years later. “But Ken [Annakin, the director] had me out hanging over 3,000 foot drops.”

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Sunday, December 21

Dec 19 2014

Chet Baker, Choppy Waters: ‘Let’s Get Lost’

1987, Santa Monica. Chet Baker is weathered and worn. Filmed in black and white in the back of a convertible at night, framed by a pair of lovely young models, with street lights and headlights catching his features in a slash or a flash, his once smooth cheeks are leathery with age beyond his years and his face is sinking in to his skull as if his youth was eaten away from within.

Chet Baker

1953, Los Angeles. The contact sheets of William Claxton’s photos from a recording session picks Chet Baker out of the ensemble. Holding his trumpet with an easy nonchalance, hanging with a laid-back presence of knowing he belongs, with eyes as soulful as James Dean and hair like Elvis Presley and cheekbones that look carved by Michelangelo, Baker is the young Adonis of cool jazz.

“He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful,” remarks a former lover, one of many tossed overboard to the choppy waters of his life. In the lens of Bruce Weber’s documentary, however, he’s still beautiful, a survivor wearing the scars of a turbulent life to a fashion shoot, the stark black and white picking out every scuff and wrinkle like it was earned. What we first see as a “seamy looking drugstore cowboy-cum-derelict,” in the words of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, takes on a ravaged grace through the course of Let’s Get Lost. In part that’s due to the hushed spell of his singing voice on ballads from the American songbook but mostly it’s because of Weber’s gaze.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Dec 16 2014

Videophiled: Barbara Steele and ‘The Long Hair of Death’

LongHairofDeath

Raro VIdeo

The Long Hair of Death (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) – Raro Video, the American arm of an Italian home video company, is one of only a couple of disc labels with a tightly-defined mission, in this case a focus on classics of Italian cinema that ranges from auteur masterworks to genre landmarks and cult items. The Long Hair of Death (1964) is one of the latter, a moody Gothic horror from genre stalwart Antonio Margheriti (whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) starring Barbara Steele, the British actress who became the most striking and mesmerizing star of Italian horror cinema in the sixties.

The preferred genre of the prolific Margheriti (whose films were often signed with the anglicized pseudonym Anthony Dawson, as it is here) was science fiction but, being an Italian director in the genre pool of the sixties (and later the seventies and eighties), he did it all: peplum, fantasy, crime, action, westerns, and of course horror of all kinds. His Gothic horrors of the sixties are among his best and this, his second collaboration with Steele (after Castle of Blood, 1964), is a minor beauty of the genre, a medieval revenge film with an innocent burned for witchcraft, a corrupt aristocracy, a curse, a ghost, and a sweet, sweet revenge. Steele is the eldest daughter of the woman framed for murder and burned alive and as she sacrifices her maidenhood to Count Humboldt to stop the trial by fire, his cruel son Kurt (George Ardisson, looking like Italy’s answer to Doug McClure with bad attitude) ignites the “test” blaze, which is quite literally a maze of bundled straw surrounding the accused It’s a great scene, with the woman scrambling up on a cross in the center of the inferno as pyres rage around her to spit a curse upon the family, and Steele soon follows, murdered to cover up the sins of the Humboldt family. Only when her innocent young stepsister Lisabeth is grown into a young beauty (Halina Zalewska) and forced into marriage to the scheming Kurt does Steele return, this time as the embodiment of her mother. She takes the name Mary and poses as a seductive traveler who immediately becomes of object of Kurt’s obsession. She turns seductress and appears to encourage Kurt to murder his wife but her true motivations are more insidious.

It’s a little slow as these things go, with the story just creeping along as Margheriti’s camera drinks in the atmosphere of the gorgeous castle locations and the secret passageways and ominous crypts and dungeon sets. It’s an atmosphere of plague and pestilence, though the ravages are only glimpses outside the castle walls (the peasants are, of course, locked out), but the worst seems to be over (coincidentally as Mary appears) and the local priest prepares to preside over a celebratory ceremony that looks positively pagan. The tension between peasant superstition, religious power, and the purely self-serving rule of the corrupt aristocracy makes an interesting backdrop that, while never really explored, figures in the finale as revenge is served.

The rest is about the beauty of figures that float through the atmosphere of Margheriti’s sets and locations and the mesmerizing presence of Steele, whose scary beauty is delicate and vulnerable yet feral and fierce. She is equally compelling as the innocent maiden of the opening scenes, the seductress in the castle, and the avenging dark angel of her wronged mother. But even if the film meanders more than it unnerves, more interested in creating elegant images and moments than tension or mood, the finale is perfectly orchestrated and it delivers a deliciously cruel poetic justice with echoes to Bava’s Black Sunday, the film that made Steele an icon of Italian horror.

long_hair_of_death_11

Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

This appears to be an excellent transfer from less-than-stellar source materials. At its best the image is sharp and clean, with excellent detail and a rich gray scale in the black and white image, but the sharpness can vary from shot to shot. That may be inherent in the original photography or a matter of restoring the complete film from different sources (there are no notes on the provenance of the elements or the transfer apart from “New HD Transfer Digitally Restored). It has English language credits and both Italian and English language soundtracks, but it also has brief scenes of nudity that were surely not in the American release. There is a light, almost ghostly spiderwebbing of what looks like emulsion cracks through a few sequences over what is otherwise a strong image but no other glaring damage. It’s likely the best materials available for the film and the digital transfer is very good, delivering a strong, steady image. Note that the English soundtrack features an (unidentified) American actress dubbing Steele’s lines and a poor visual match to the lips, so I favor the Italian soundtrack with subtitles.

Also features an introduction by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria and Delirium Magazine and director of Blood for Irina (he makes the claim for this as Steele’s finest Italian Gothic moment), and video interviews with Edoardo Margheriti (the director’s son) and screenwriter Antonio Tentorio, all shot on standard definition video, probably a decade ago or so, and the accompanying booklet features a short essay on the film and the Italian Gothic horror genre by Alexander.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital at Cinephiled

Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

Dec 15 2014

Presenting Thanhouser, the Greatest American Independent Studio of the 1910s

The title to Ned Thanhouser‘s documentary, The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema, isn’t mere hyperbole.

Veteran stage actor and theater manager Edwin Thanhouser (the director’s grandfather) made his move from live theater to making movies for the growing market of cinema in 1909. By 1918, as the industry grew beyond Thanhouser’s ability to keep pace, he closed it down. In those nine years of the studio’s existence, a period in which it produced over 1,000 shorts, features and serials, the industry changed dramatically. The stranglehold of Patents Trust over the fledgling industry was broken, short films gave way to features, the center of filmmaking relocated from New York to California, Hollywood was born, the grammar of narrative filmmaking evolved from tableaux scenes and simple continuity editing to complex patterns of shots to tell complicated stories, and the reign of the studio brand gave way to the birth of movie stars.

‘The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema’

According to the film, which is guided by historical research of Q. David Bowers, Thanhouser accounted for twenty-five percent of the independent films made in the United States at the peak of its success. The Thanhouser brand was a recognized mark of quality to audiences and distributors alike and two Thanhouser shorts, The Cry of the Children (1912), which addressed child labor in American factories, and The Evidence of the Film (1913), one of a number of Thanhouser films that incorporates the filmmaking process itself in the storytelling, were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Yet only a few years later, the once-vibrant Thanhouser was in danger of becoming old-fashioned and behind the times. The story of Thanhouser is in the story of the rapid transformation of American movies in the most creatively and commercially dramatic era of American cinema.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Dec 14 2014

Videophiled: ‘Out of the Past’ on Blu-ray

OutPastBluray

Warner Archive Collection

Out of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – In a genre full of desperate characters scrambling and plotting to grab their slice of the American dream, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a hard-boiled tale of betrayal with an unusually haunting quality. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the classic doomed not-so-innocent of the American cinema, a former private detective whose life is forever changed when he falls in love with the wrong woman: Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the runaway mistress of a gangster (Kirk Douglas, all shark-like smiles). He’s been hired to get both her and the small fortune she stole back. She has other ideas and immediately seduces him, sending him on a long road to a fatal dead end.

Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece has been called the greatest film noir of all time and I wouldn’t argue the claim. It’s certainly one of the quintessential expressions of the genre, a hard-boiled story of betrayal and revenge with its compromised PI, vindictive gangster, coldly conniving femme fatale, and flashback structure narrated by the wounded hero. It opens in an idealized rural Eden, flashes back to the corrupt city and an exotic escape south of the border, and crawls into a snake-in-Eden thriller of deception, regret, and scarred-over emotional wounds, and it’s beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s resident expert in shadowy atmosphere and clear-eyed perceptions.

The photography alone is reason enough to get the Blu-ray; in a genre of hard shadows and stark graphic imagery, this film contrasts the dark scenes of murder and treachery with the rural escape and the wooded retreats, an ideal that is slowly corrupted when the city crooks arrive. But this is one of the noir essentials and features perhaps Mitchum’s greatest role. He delivers more than merely a performance: his sleepy-eyed sneer and laconic delivery create the quintessential bad boy with a good soul and resigned acceptance of his fate. And Greer is blithely seductive as the alluring but hollow object of his obsession. “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

It’s a beautifully-mastered disc from an excellent source print, with no visible scratches or damage. The image is crisp and sharp and the contrasts are excellent, pulling out the details in the light and in the shadows. It features the commentary track by film noir expert James Ursini recorded for the 2004 DVD release.

More Blu-rays from the Warner Archive at Cinephiled

Dec 12 2014

Videophiled TV Sets: The Complete ‘Secret Agent’

SecretAgentCompleteSecret Agent (aka Danger Man): The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD) – Before Patrick McGoohan was The Prisoner, he was John Drake, the maverick agent of Britain’s top secret M9 security force, in the series Danger Man. The show began in 1960, before the first Bond feature was released, in a 30-minute format, with the cool, clever undercover operative Drake sneaking into Eastern bloc regimes and Latin American dictatorships to flush out traitors and assassins, recover stolen secrets, and dabble in a little espionage himself.

That incarnation lasted a single season and was cancelled after the American networks failed to renew it, but a few years later it was reworked as an hour-long show in the wake of the renewed interest in spy shows and Cold War conflicts and it was picked in the U.S. under the title Secret Agent and a new theme, “Secret Agent Man,” sung by Johnny Rivers. (This set features the original British version of the series, with the Danger Man title and a harpsichord theme song.) Where he was once the loyal agent who follows faithfully orders, even when he seems to be on the side of status quo in some very repressive countries, the realpolitik shenanigans are played out with less assuredness and a creeping sense of futility, as if anticipating the disillusionment of McGoohan’s later series The Prisoner, in the second edition. Episodes played with the ambivalence of cold war politics (“Whatever Happened To George Foster,” “That’s Two of Us Sorry”), and two of them even anticipate The Prisoner: in “Colony Three,” a spy school in a manufactured village that could be the inspiration for The Prisoner’s village, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” features a mind game worthy of the new Number 2. Both of the latter episodes were directed by Don Chaffey, who helmed his share of The Prisoner.

Still, it was, like the U.S. series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a cleverly-constructed show built of elaborate espionage shell games and diplomatic chicanery, with McGoohan as the ingenious con man behind the bluffs and feints. The series ends with the only two episodes made in color: “Koroshi” and “Shinda Shima,” both set in Japan and later combined and turned into the TV movie Koroshi. This set features the original episodic versions.

The series has been on DVD before but the original release is long out of print and had been going for high prices. This set features the original British broadcast versions of all 86 episodes with the same transfers as the A&E release but compacts it in a smaller box set of three cases, organized by season (as broadcast in the U.S.), and is quite reasonably priced. It features commentary on three episodes and bonus interview with Catherin McGoohan. All that’s missing is the alternate American version of the credits with the rocking theme song.

More TV box sets at Cinephiled

Patrick McGoohan is John Drake

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