Blu-ray: ‘The Man From Laramie’

James Stewart roughed up his all-American nice guy image in five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the best of the seven films they made together in the 1950s, most of them for Universal Studios. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, was made for Columbia and it was the first film that Mann shot in the still novel CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format, which debuted just a couple of years earlier. It was a natural for Mann’s kind of western filmmaking, where the landscape and environment is a defining part of the drama and an integral element of the film’s tone and sensibility. For The Man From Laramie, Mann shot in the high plains and the ribbons of ridges of New Mexico, stretched far across the widescreen canvas. It’s lovely but forbidding, a mix of inviting green and forbidding desert and rock, and it is far from any other settlement, right in the heart of Indian country.

Into this beautiful but isolated land rides Will Lockhart (Stewart) and the wagon train of his freight company. He also has personal business in the territory and it has something to do with the charred remains of a wagon train they pass along the way. Stewart eases up on the neurotic edge he brought to earlier Mann films Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur and is even quite charming when he first arrives in town and meets Barbara (Cathy Downs) with his wagonloads of freight. When she offers him tea, he smiles at the thought of so civilized a break from the trail and watches her bustle about with an appreciation for the feminine presence in his life, no matter how fleeting. But he’s a hard, driven man as the dark expression that passes over his face at the massacre graveyard communicates.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Videophiled Classic: James Stewart is ‘The Man From Laramie’ and Burt Lancaster drives ‘The Train’

ManLaramie
The Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Anthony Mann’s seventh and final collaboration with James Stewart and his first widescreen film, is a frontier “King Lear” by way of Mann’s favorite themes of splintered families and filial betrayal. Stewart plays his usual brooding loner, a former army scout searching for the man responsible for his brother’s death. He rides into a town run by a cattle baron (Donald Crisp) with an irresponsible son (Alex Nicol) who despises him and a dutiful foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who desperately craves his father-figure’s affection and respect.

The complicated web of love, hate, and betrayal sprawls over the entire town and Stewart, less psychologically haunted than in previous Mann collaborations, becomes a catalyst that pitches the conflict into violence, usually directed at him. While the Apaches are the ostensible threat, Mann’s brutal violence reaches a new level of cruel glee in Nicol’s sadistic psychopath of a delinquent with a six shooter. At his direction, Stewart is dragged through a burning campfire, shot point-blank in the hand, beaten, ambushed, and generally made unwelcome. Kennedy provides the psychotic edge as the spurned son with a black secret. As usual Mann’s landscapes are magnificent in a country where beauty and danger lie in the same handsome wilderness. Also stars Cathy Downs as a Kennedy’s long-suffering fiancée, googly-eyed Jack Elam as shady informant, and Wallace Ford as a tracker who becomes Stewart’s ally.

Twilight Time offers a lovely widescreen transfer and offers the usual trademark extras: an isolated musical score and effects track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

Train
The Train (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) makes a timely arrival for anyone who was disappointed with Monuments Men. This too is a true story of the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures during their retreat and the efforts to stop them, but this is a tough, muscular war thriller that pits the stakes against one another: just what price are you willing to pay to protect your artistic legacy? Burt Lancaster is the proletariat resistance leader who bristles under orders to stop the art from being taken out of France – he’s more focused on killing Germans and saving civilians – and Paul Scofield is his nemesis, the aristocratic Nazi officer who oversees the mass looting of France’s greatest paintings.

John Frankenheimer (who replaced the film’s original helmer, Arthur Penn, at Lancaster’s request) directs with a muscular style that puts the themes into action and the crisp black and white photography captures the busy industrial detail of the train yard and the gritty war-torn atmosphere of France in the final days of the German occupation. The great Michel Simon is the burly engineer who sabotages the initial run and Suzanne Flon and Jeanne Moreau co-star.

This Twilight Time release features the original commentary recorded by Frankenheimer for the laserdisc release almost 20 years ago plus a new commentary track with Twilight Time founder and historian Nick Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, as well as the usual isolated score track and eight-page booklet. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classics and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Noir out of Time: “The Black Book” and “The Tall Target”

Anthony Mann established his A-list credentials with a string of edgy, psychologically driven 1950s westerns. But Hollywood’s Mann of the west paid his dues on a handful of B movies and honed his chops—and his eye for sharp composition—on a cycle of hard edged crime thrillers before springing his dark vision of the American west on Hollywood. Working with impoverished budgets but an extraordinary cinematographer (John Alton), he turned bland sets and anonymous backlots into lonely locations swallowed in fog or lost in the night, lit only by dim pools of illumination and slashes of light. He also had a tendency to take his criminal exploits out of the traditional urban settings and into unexpected settings without losing his distinctive mix of hard-edged style and grit. Here are a pair that traveled farther afield than most.

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (”Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

Men in War on TCM

Anthony Mann’s Men in War is one of the great war films, and one of the least known. Starring Robert Ryan as a platoon leader dedicated to saving his men, who are trapped behind enemy lines, and Aldo Ray as  a gruff, ferociously competent veteran who only cares about rescuing his shellshocked commanding officer, it’s a stark, intimate film set during the Korean War and stands with Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet as one of the greatest films about the soldier’s experience. I write about the film for the Turner Classic Movies website.

“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.” This quote opens the only war film by Anthony Mann, one of the great American directors of westerns and helmer of the most muscular epics of the 1960s. In contrast to his expansive costume epics, with their lavish historical recreations and grand presentations of armies of men battling on massive battlefields, or the more personal conflicts of the westerns played out against the majestic landscapes of the American West, Men in War (1957) is combat in close-up. While the story of a band of American soldiers trying to survive a mission behind enemy lines belongs to the familiar platoon genre of war movies, it is a maverick film in all other respects. Like Sam Fuller’s equally provocative 1951 Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, it eschews patriotism and sentimentality for a portrait of war from the grunt’s-eye view: the harrowing, grueling experience of survival in the hostile landscape of an enemy battlefield.

Read the complete feature on TCM here. The film plays on TCM on Thursday, June 24 and then again in August.

DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead

The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.

11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.

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Reign of Terror – Anthony Mann’s cult noir on DVD

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

Robert Cummings and Arnold Moss trapped in a French Revolution film noir
Robert Cummings and Arnold Moss trapped in a French Revolution film noir

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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DVD of the Week: “Ultimate Dirty Harry Collection” – June 3, 2008

“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

I had only had my Blu-ray player a few weeks when The Ultimate Dirty Harry Collection arrived. As inconsistent as the collection is, I couldn’t be more excited. After redefining the western as the terse mercenary of Sergio Leone’s westerns, Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel worked over the American cop picture with the angry, violent maverick cop Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971). Tracking a psychotic serial killer named Scorpio (Andy Robinson), he winds up taking on the whole “coddling” system after violating Scorpio’s civil rights in the rush to save a victim this sadistic punk buried alive. The killer signs his ransom demands “Scorpio,” a not-so-veiled reference to the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area for years. The real-life serial killer eluded capture, but on the big screen we get a pure law-and-order fantasy and closure from the end of a barrel. Siegel is lean, terse director who is happy leave “Dirty” Harry the vivid kind of moral conundrum that makes movies interesting, while bringing a hard, jagged edge to the action and the violence. Callahan was made to order for an audience nervous about escalating urban violence in the seventies, the go-it-alone John Wayne cowboy for the modern era. Despite comments about his “long hair” from his fellow cops, he’s square as they come. And as ornery. Harry tossed his badge in disgust at the end of the film, but came back in four more films.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Delirious Fictions Of William Klein’ – May 20, 2008

I blame SIFF. I only had time to see one film in the three-disc set The Delirious Fictions of William Klein from Eclipse, but there is not other set I’m so inspired to complete. Unfortunately, I’m reviewing films for the Seattle International Film Festival by day, packing to move at the end of the month (in the middle of SIFF) by night, watching DVDs in between and writing when I can find the time, so I only had time to see the first film in the collection. Is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? great? Perhaps not, but it is charming, funny, clever, playful satirical, and surprising.

Dorothy MacGowan, a real-life model who (apparently) only made this one film, is the wide-eyed American supermodel in Paris, a young women both guileless and worldly, at ease with her fame yet modest in her life, just taking everything as it comes while the rest of the world dresses her up in their own preconceptions and fantasies. Klein, a fashion photographer turned filmmaker, directs his French-language production in a style very obviously influenced by the French New Wave and Polly, who embodies the mod fashion of the mid-sixties with her stick figure, heavy eye-liner and wigs, recalls Jean Seberg in Breathless and Corinne Marchand in Cleo From 5 to 7, yet feels far more independent than either of them. She’s also far less defined, a blank slate of contentment skipping through a world and not caring what labels others put on her. His satire lacks the savagery or savvy or Godard but he does have fun playing with the image culture of his time, a culture he helped shape through his own work with “Vogue.”

Klein’s French-language fiction debut is one of three features in this box set from Eclipse. The budget-minded collection also features Mr. Freedom (1969), a garish lampoon of American foreign policy in the Vietnam era starring John Abbey as an arrogant patriot, and The Model Couple (1977), a social satire with Andre Dussolier and Anemone as a “normal” couple under 24-hour video surveillance for TV consumption.

The review is here on MSN.

 

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‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ on TCM

I reviewed the DVD of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire for MSN, but could offer little more than a capsule there. Here’s a more in-depth look at the film:

Mann’s staging of the processions and ceremonies is majestic, but his handling of the action scenes is both grand and dynamic. From the savage battles with the fierce Barbarian warriors in the German forests to the massive clashes of armies in the plains of the east, Mann not only fills the width of the frame with action, he stages the battled in depth, creating a rich canvas of furious combat. With the help of second unit director Yakima Canutt, the legendary stunt man and stunt coordinator who helmed the chariot race on Ben-Hur, Mann stages his own chariot battle, this one through the German forests where Commodus and Livius careen down a winding path and tip precariously on the edge of a cliff. And for the climax, Mann stages a glorious mano-a-mano gladiatorial combat amidst a grotesque celebration in the Roman forum as decadent as any Cecil B. DeMille pagan spectacle. Such grandeur came at a high cost. The Fall of the Roman Empire became Bronston’s most expensive production and, in adjusted dollars, one of the most expensive pictures ever made. It almost bankrupted the independent Bronston, who had to seek funds from outside investors, finally striking a deal with Paramount to pay off his debts and finish the film.

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DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’

“What a noble subject. If he had only a noble king.”

El Cid, Anthony Mann’s exceedingly handsome historical epic starring Charlton Heston as Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, aka The Cid, debuts on DVD this week. You might think that El Cid means The Stud, as Heston is truly macho and unwaveringly chivalrous throughout, but it’s a term of respect bestowed by a Moorish prince on the Catholic Spaniard for his humanity and his respect of the Muslim citizens of Spain, a people who are under assault by Rodrigo’s intolerant Catholic king. There’s a theme more timely now than ever. I review it in my DVD column on MSN

You can argue over what is the greatest historical movie epic, but “El Cid” is surely the brawniest. Not in the gladiator sense of muscled bodies and mano-a-mano combat (like “Ben-Hur”) but in the strength of its storytelling and its visual display of force and pageantry.

The story is pure melodrama centered on a larger-than-life romance between Rodrigo and Sophia Loren’s Chimene, his lady love turned mortal enemy (the two performers did not get along, which may explain the rather formal quality of their love scenes). But director Anthony Mann uses his stunning locations and choreographs his armies and crowds magnificently, not just showing off the budget but corralling it into the frame like an old master and creating a dynamic, powerful, living landscape.

Read the complete review here. It’s available in both 2-Disc set and in a deluxe Limited Collector’s Edition.

Also new on DVD this week: special editions of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Groundhog Day and the home video debut of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘El Cid’”