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

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

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

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

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

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

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Videophiled Classic: ‘Zulu’ and ‘Khartoum’

The sun sets on the British Empire and the historical epic in a pair of 1960s productions built around legendary colonial battles of the late 19th century. Legendary to British history, that is. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa and the Siege of Khartoum in Sudan would be all but unknown in the U.S outside of historical societies were it not for Zulu (1964) and Khartoum (1966), both of which debut stateside on Blu-ray from Twilight Time this week.

These films were produced in the wake of Lawrence of Arabia and El Cid and while they revel in the spectacle of battle (that whole cast of thousands thing), they take a more ambivalent view toward colonial adventure. The glory of the British Empire isn’t quite so glorious in these stories of English military might in the name of conquest.

Zulu (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray) is far and away the superior film. Shot mostly on location in South Africa (with some interiors back in the British studio), directed by American Cy Enfield (who moved to England in the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist) and co-produced by Enfield and Stanley Baker, who takes the leading role, it turns a piece of once-obscure history into a riveting drama. A British station with a contingent of about 150 men (including the sick and wounded in the hospital) are ordered to hold their ground when 4000 Zulu warriors, charged up after massacring a force of over 1,000 British soldiers, surround them. The image is chilling: the station—not even a full fort, just a few buildings and a corral—is nestled in a ring of hills and the Zulu soldiers announce themselves by lining up along the rise around them. Psychological warfare at its best.

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‘The Omega Man’ on TCM

In the 1970s, science fiction cinema took a turn to dystopian nightmares. Not that such things were unknown in earlier films — in the wake of the atomic bomb there were a number of nuclear Armageddon movies — but the increasing number of films (and causes for the end of the world) reflected a shift from optimism to pessimism. The world was coming to an end thanks to pollution (Silent Running, 1972), overpopulation (Soylent Green, 1973), ecological collapse (No Blade of Grass, 1970), and of course good old nuclear war (A Boy and His Dog, 1975), not to mention whatever disaster causes Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Omega Man (1971), the second film based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, is the story of the last human in a world decimated by plague. Charlton Heston read Matheson’s novel during a jet-set commute from Britain to America and thought there was a movie in it. He didn’t realize at the time it had previously been made as The Last Man on Earth (1964), an American-Italian coproduction starring Vincent Price as the title character, but decided to go ahead after screening the earlier version (“fortunately for us, though it starred my friend Vincent Price, it was a pretty torpid piece,” he recalled in his autobiography) and Warner Bros. signed on to produce. Heston was the man of action for dystopian science fiction of the day. He had previously taken on the simian rulers of Planet of the Apes (1968) and went on to star in Soylent Green, an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s grim overpopulation novel Make Room! Make Room!. The Omega Man, by contrast, would leave Heston alone on screen for much of the film. He is, after all, the last man on Earth, or so he believes.

In Matheson’s original story, a plague wipes out humanity but leaves a few survivors infected with vampire-like symptoms, an element that was preserved in The Last Man on Earth. In The Omega Man, the plague is germ warfare, a theme very much current in the early 1970s, and the victims aren’t nuclear-age vampires but albino night dwellers, a mutant breed by way of a religious cult that sees humanity as the real plague.

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Blu-ray: A quartet of schemers and shadows in ‘Film Noir Collection: Volume 1’

Film Noir Collection: Volume I” (Olive) presents four films previously available on DVD only: “Rope of Sand” (1949), “Dark City” (1950), “Union Station” (1950), and “Appointment with Danger” (1951).

“Rope of Sand,” set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of “Casablanca,” recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains).

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir.

Charlton Heston made his Hollywood debut as the stony leading man of “Dark City,” a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who becomes hunted by a psychotic killer out to revenge one of his marks. Heston doesn’t have much dimension beyond his flinty gruffness and emotional distance but he’s got confidence, strength and a solid screen presence that anchors the film. Lizbeth Scott is his soggy sometime girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors the widow who melts his icy heart and Dean Jagger, Don Defore and Ed Begley co-star, and watch for Jack Webb as a sneering hyena of a bully and Harry Morgan as the target of his grinning cruelty: the future “Dragnet” team as uneasy partners in crime. Also directed by William Dieterle, one of the modest pros of the classic studio era.

The set is filled out with “Union Station,” starring William Holden, and “Appointment With Danger,” starring Alan Ladd. These aren’t the classics of genre but they are interesting artifacts in a genre defined by style and attitude, and with so little classic film noir on Blu-ray, it makes for an attractive package for the die-hard fan. Four discs in a single case with hinged trays, not available separately.

More Blu-ray debuts at Videodrone

Blu-ray: ‘Ben-Hur’ Turns 50 with a Lavish New Box Set

Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner) is the latest Oscar-winning epic to the Blu-ray treatment in a newly-remastered HD edition. Yes, it is a big, lumbering epic that can barely support its own weight, but then it has the square shoulder of the even squarer Charlton Heston to hold it up. And he does, with stiff masculinity and simmering, strutting pride, as the Jewish nobleman enslaved by the Romans (and specifically by his boyhood chum, Stephen Boyd).

Soberly show-offy and humorless, this super-production is a triumph of craft over art, spectacle over drama, and William Wyler is the perfect craftsman for the job. The roaring sea battle and the show stopping chariot race — two of the most spectacular scenes of epic action ever mounted on Hollywood — were helmed by unheralded second-unit superstar Andrew Marton and legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. They look as good as ever, even in the age of CGI, because digital still hasn’t quite matched the presence of physical action. Jack Hawkins, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, and Cathy O’Donnell co-star. It won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler ), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), and Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith).

The film, restored from the original 65mm camera negative (complete with Overture and Entr’acte music) and presented in the MGM Camera 65 aspect ratio of 2.6:1 (the widest ever used theatrically), is spread across two discs on Blu-ray and features commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher with scene specific comments from Charlton Heston (Hatcher fills in the dead spots left by Heston when he recorded the track years before) and a music-only track showcasing Miklos Rozsa’s Oscar winning score.

Continue  reading at Videodrone, which includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes clip about the chariot race

Soylent Green is…

Soylent Green is... Blu-ray

Soylent Green (Warner)

Set in 2022 New York City, population 40,000,000, this eco-conscious science fiction artifact from 1973 looks more prescient than ever. In this overpopulated world, the gap between the rich and everyone else is enormous, poverty is rampant, unemployment high and “the greenhouse effect” (those very words are used in the film) has brought on climate change of a scale that has decimated agriculture, resulting in food shortages for an unsustainable population. This is all backdrop to a classic murder mystery and Charlton Heston stars as the police detective assigned to the politically sensitive case involving an uber-rich member of the board of directors of Soylent, which controls a significant percentage of food production and essentially rules the country. Edward G. Robinson the aging professor who shares Heston’s cluttered apartment and Leigh Taylor-Young the companion of the murdered industrialist (the term used in the film is “furniture,” which nicely communicates how she has traded herself as a commodity in return for survival).

The film, ably directed by Hollywood workhorse Richard Fleischer and smartly adapted by Stanley Greenberg from a novel by Harry Harrison, makes its points in the unspoken details of life in this dystopia: homeless hordes fill apartment stairwells and hallways at night, food riots are routine and the first order of business when Heston enters the lavish apartment to investigate the scene of the crime to plunder everything he can—making sure that the forensics team and his boss all get their due cut. Where so many science fiction visions of the era have dated, this gritty creation of a depressed (and depressing) future recycling the junk of the past, and where assisted suicide has become simply another social option, looks all the more real. You may remember the “twist” of the end but in context of the rest of the film, it’s less an insidious conspiracy than a last-ditch solution to feeding the world on the only protein left.

The Blu-ray features the supplements of the 2003 DVD release: commentary by director Richard Fleischer and star Leigh Taylor-Young and the vintage promotional shorts “A Look at the World of Soylent Green” (where Heston is called a “scrupulously honest cop,” apparently by a copywriter who never actually saw the film) and “MGM’s Tribute to Edward G. Robinson’s 101st Film” (look for George Burns in the celebration footage).

Curiosities from the Paramount Library

Olive Films, a small theatrical distributor and DVD label specializing in indies and foreign films, expands its catalogue with releases from the Paramount Pictures library, and they kick off the partnership with the debut of five features spanning the fifties to the seventies, including three crime dramas with (to a greater or lesser extent) film noir credentials.

Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston made his official screen debut as the stony leading man of Dark City (Olive), an unambitious but handsome production from reliable studio hand William Dieterle. Heston’s Danny Haley is a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who resorts to rooking a friendly, naïve tourist from California (an affable Don Defore) in a rigged poker game, designed to get a $5,000 check that Haley spies in his wallet. The fallout from the scam is more than he’s ready for—the guy kills himself—but worse than the slow-burn guilt is the blowback from the dead man’s psychotic brother. This shadowy psycho (seen only as a bulky shadow and meaty, gorilla-like hands) targets the gang members and stages their deaths as suicides.

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Remembering Charlton Heston – An Appreciation and a 1998 Interview with the Actor

Charlton Heston died on Saturday night, April 5 2008, at the age of 84 at his home in Beverly Hills, California.

charleton-heston.jpgRead the New York Times obituary here and Los Angeles Times obit here. A complete list of his credits are here on the IMDb. More links at GreenCine Daily here.

Heston was a American actor whose commanding presence defined his characters, a beefy slab of American leading man who anchored many an epic with the strength of his sturdy physical bearing anchored on the foundation of an intent gravelly voice and given life with eyes that focused his resolve into a dare. He was the human rock upon which films such as The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking and Planet of the Apes were built upon. But he was also a classically trained actor with great pride in his craft and he interspersed his Hollywood epics and genre pictures with excursions into Shakespeare (like Julius Caesar in 1970 and his 1972 Antony and Cleopatra, which he also directed). And he proved himself a solid character actor with strong supporting turns in films as The Bog Country and Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, playing the scheming Cardinal Richelieu with an almost bemused attitude.

Off screen, Heston was also quite famous for his work in the NRA. He was a legitimate target of the left for his outspoken views on gun control, but he could also be quite self-effacing about his politics – his appearance as a guest host on Saturday Night Live in 1993 included an NRA spoof as well as skits built around Planet of the Apes and Moses from The Ten Commandments. In his final years, he also suffered from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s since 2002, which makes Michael Moore’s ambush of Heston in the documentary Bowling For Columbine, which ended with Moore railing against Heston (who had long since left the scene so Moore could place his camera where Heston had been), a fairly despicable act on all levels.

charlton-heston1.jpgI have no single favorite Heston role, but in 1998 I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Mr. Heston for the release of the Walter Murch-supervised “restoration” of Touch of Evil (1958), based on the detailed notes give to the studio by Orson Welles (and largely ignored at the time). It was supposed to be the center of a essay on the film, but the article was canceled and the review never published. I publish it here for the first time.

I’ve been doing some research and I’ve read your journals and autobiography where you go into magnificent detail on the making of Touch of Evil.

Well thank you.

So I wanted to talk about some other things that I haven’t heard you talk about in interviews or read about in your books. One thing that struck me as I read your piece was that it seems like you had quite a rapport with Orson Welles.

Yes, that’s true. I had never known him before but of course I had see Citizen Kane and for that matter I’d seen Othello. And his reputation then as a filmmaker then was remarkable. I was amazed that the studio, when I suggested he direct the picture, they acted as though I’d suggested directing the picture but his work on the film was extraordinary, I thought.

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