Posts tagged: Brian Donlevy

Jul 05 2015

Blu-ray: Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’ and ‘Pit Stop’

Spiderbaby

Arrow

Spider Baby (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of the greatest blasts of creative B-movie inspiration to hit American drive-ins and grindhouses. It was the solo directorial debut of Jack Hill (whose Coffy and Foxy Brown both recently hit Blu-ray from Olive), a low-budget film that was financed by real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business and got stuck in limbo for years when the producers went bankrupt. Shot in 1964, it was finally released in 1967, by which time black-and-white films were no longer considered for first-run bookings. It was sold as a second feature and then fell into the public domain, where it became a cult movie a generation later, thanks to cheap videotape copies. Hill never made a dime on it, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I still think it’s his most inspired film.

The final descendants of the Merrye family live in an isolated manor, hiding their curse from society in an old family home that could have been built as a vacation home by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye’s Syndrome, a (fictional) malady causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. “The unfortunate result of… inbreeding,” explains Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters playing (and tattling on one another) in schoolgirl frocks. Gangly Sid Haig as the bald, infantile Ralph, an older brother slipping into back into a pre-verbal state. Things are fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman) but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting.

It’s kinky and cruel and oddly sweet all at the same time, and it sneaks by thanks to the performances (not necessarily sophisticated but all committed to the characters and perfectly pitched to the tone of the film), grindhouse elements and the offbeat humor and black comedy woven through the piece. Hill peppers the script with Wolf Man references, from a conversation between Peter and Anne (the lawyer’s secretary) discussing horror movies to Lon Chaney’s Bruno ominously observing “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.”

Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn

Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn

Washburn and Banner are a terrific sister act, one moment sniping at each other, the next conspiring, and they reveal a childlike innocence to their actions: murder as a form of play and curiosity, without any real understanding of the consequences. Sid Haig is absolutely perfect as Ralph, sweet and curious, a well-meaning giant infant in an adult body. He dresses for dinner in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that looks like it shrunk down three sizes since he donned it. Quinn Redecker plays Uncle Peter like he’s the B-movie Robert Cummings role and he does a great job of it. He’s affable, likeable, kind, and instinctively affectionate toward the children. “Aw, he’s just a big kid!” he exclaims when Ralphie crawls over to check him out, like a puppy unsure of this odd new smell. Chaney cited this as one of his favorite roles and it shows in the emotion he puts into it. His final scene (which I won’t give away) is truly touching, a last sacrifice to protect the children the only way he knows how.

Hill clearly draws from Psycho, but with an innocence to the psychos of the story, with the lighthearted attitude of a William Castle film, but Hill’s strange brew end up being more Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks and Freud, with a provocative commentary on adolescence and the primal drives of the human animal through the lens of a genre movie. Think about it: as these adults regress to children, they revert to primitive stages: deadly games, cannibalism, death and murder as acceptable forms of protest, and adolescent sexuality. I really don’t understand what Carole Ohmart is doing in skimpy lingerie parading in front of the mirror (and for the camera). It’s adult content for what is more properly a drive-in movie, a mix of horror and parody and surreal weirdness, a weird detour that displays her kinky side, but it also rouses feeling in Ralphie, who spies on her through the window and carries her off like an infantile Frankenstein’s monster driven on curiosity and inexplicable instincts. Put this next to Virginia’s teasing little game of spider with Uncle Peter and you’ve got something both inspired and unsettling. While he’s tied to a chair, she climbs into his lap and says how much likes him, suggesting a nascent (or lingering) sexual desire behind the mental and emotional regression, either leftover from their “older” selves or a rather Freudian portrait of childhood sexuality complicated by the collision of a child’s emotional state with an adult body.

This is far more daring than Peter Brook’s famous take, and it was all but ignored by critics, largely due to its exploitation origins. Because of the film’s long delay from completion to release, it was dumped onto the second half of double bills. Decades later it was revived and reevaluated, thanks to public domain video copies and TV showings, and it’s been on DVD in numerous editions. Arrow presents it Blu-ray debut in a superb “Director Approved” Blu-ray+DVD Combo set, with a lovingly restored image (few public domain movies have received the kind of love that this film has gotten in the last decade or so), and it also has a companion piece of sorts in another Jack Hill Blu-ray debut.

PitStop

Arrow

Spider Baby stars Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn reunited with Hill for his edgy, tight 1967 racing picture Pit Stop (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), one of Hill’s best efforts and a little seen gem. Dick Davalos (James Dean’s brother in East of Eden) is a curt, quiet street racer lured to the dangerous, short-lived sport of Figure 8 racing (a hair raising collision of stock car and demolition derby) by conniving promoter Brian Donlevy. He just wants a grudge match with his quick-tempered, strutting champion (Haig), but cool customer Davalos has bigger ambitions: he wants to use the crowd-pleasing track as a catapult to the pro circuit and he’ll run down anyone in his path.

It’s a surprisingly handsome picture considering, shot quickly and cheaply in B&W to make use of fast film stock for the high energy nighttime race track scenes. The careening track scenes are so dynamic they overshadow the climactic professional race but Hill makes that work for him in a chilly coda. The real story is how Davalos turns from cool competitor to ruthless rival and his icy stare and surly attitude is perfect. Haig’s explosive turn as the preening champ is both wild and wounded but the best turn belongs to the understated Ellen Burstyn (under the name McRae) in her first major role as the mechanically minded wife of a racing champ.

Both of these films have been mastered from new HD transfers supervised by Jack Hill, and both feature a substantial collection of supplements.

Spider-Baby features commentary by Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig, recorded for the 2007 Dark Sky DVD release, and three featurettes originally produced for that disc: “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” an excellent comprehensive retrospective featuring interviews with (among others) director Jack Hill, DP Alfred Taylor ASC, and actors Quinn Redeker, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburne, Mary Mitchell, and Karl Schanzer, plus the ten-minute “Spider Stravinsky” (an appreciation of composer Ronald Stein) and seven-minute “The Merrye House Revisited,” with Hill back on location with director Elijah Drenner more than 40 years later.

New to this edition is the “Cast and Crew Panel Discussion” with director Jack Hill and actors Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn from a screening at the 2012 Film-to-Film Festival at Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There’s also an extended scenes and alternative opening title sequence (which have been included other earlier disc releases) and Jack Hill’s 1960 student film “The Host,” which is also the film debut of Sid Haig.

Pit Stop features new commentary by Jack Hill moderated by Hill biographer Calum Waddell and archival interviews with director Jack Hill, actor Sig Haig, and producer Roger Corman, plus a restoration demonstrating with technical supervisor James White.

Both sets feature booklets with new essays and archival articles, and two-sided covers with reversible artwork.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Sep 25 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hangmen Also Die’ restored on Blu-ray and DVD

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

hangmen3

Anna Lee

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinemaphiled

Nov 20 2011

‘The Quatermas Xperiment’ on TCM

The 1955 British science fiction thriller The Quatermas Xperiment is a landmark film for a number of reasons. It was adapted from a live TV serial The Quatermas Experiment (1953) by Nigel Kneale, which is still considered one of the most important and influential British TV productions of all time. It was the most ambitious British science fiction film since Things to Come and the most intelligent and adventurous to date. And it became the biggest hit that Hammer Films ever had to that point, setting them on a new course of science fiction and, eventually, horror films that would define the studio.

For the big screen version, Hammer brought in Val Guest to direct and co-script the adaptation and imported American actor Brian Donlevy to play Professor Bernard Quatermas. The film opens with the crash landing of the first manned spaceflight out of Earth’s atmosphere, a mission that went awry. The ship (which sticks out of the ground of a rural British farm like an arrow, looking like a Flash Gordon rocket excavated in an archeological dig) has returned without explanation, still burning up from the reentry heat, too hot to open with killing the men inside. As the military cordons off the area, Professor Quatermas arrives, takes charge and finally orders the ship open, where he finds two astronauts inexplicably missing and the third (Richard Wordsworth) in shock, with a look of fear frozen on his face and an unidentified fungus-like growth on his arm. The scene takes place at night, with military spotlights cutting through the mist and casting hard shadows across the ground, and the sense of mystery and the unknown builds from there.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 17 2010

Canyon Passage on TCM

Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage is one of the most interesting and underappreciated westerns about the frontier, the settling of the west and the communal spirit embodied in the western genre. It plays on TCM as part of the Cult Movies line-up for July and you’ll why it fits the bill: the tension between personal loyalty and the communal good and the contrast between the peaceful beauty and the savage violence of the wilderness defines the film. I write about it for the Turner Classic Movies website here.

Dana Andrews and Ward Bond: detente is about to end

On its surface, Jacques Tourneur’s first western, Canyon Passage (1946), is a solid but conventional frontier drama of ambitious entrepreneurs, determined settlers, gamblers, gold miners and Indian tribes. But under the familiar trappings of cabin raisings, poker games, saloon brawls and frontier combat is a remarkably dense drama where the tensions between individual enterprise and communal good are often strained and the line between hero and villain is not a matter of black and white, but shades of gray.

Canyon Passage isn’t one of those simple little towns laid out on the prairie around a main street with a grid, building out as the town grows, but a rough-hewn collection of businesses and saloons in a community that looks literally hacked out of the wilderness. Surrounded by emerald green forests and dramatic mountains, this is different from the more conventional communities seen in frontier westerns up to now. Jacksonville is a beautiful little town striving for maturity but caught up in the growing pains of free enterprise and new settlements in a place without a marshal or a judge. Roughneck outliers (notably a brutal bully played by Ward Bond), mob justice, and the threat of an Indian uprising are the flip side of the frontier idealism of the new settlers and established families pulling together in the face of adversity.

Read the entire feature here. Plays on Tuesday, July 20 on TCM. Also available on DVD as part of the four-film set Classic Western Round-up Vol. 1 (which also includes The Lawless Breed, The Texas Rangers and Kansas Raiders).

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