Blu-ray: ‘Sudden Fear’

Cohen Film Collection

Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.

Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.

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Blu-ray/DVD: On a lonely disc – ‘In a Lonely Place’ on Criterion

Criterion

Criterion

In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel in which is was ostensibly based beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.

Dixon is a classic literary type—the hard-drinking, hot-tempered, scrappy artist who turns down assignments beneath his dignity, insults the industry players who hire him, and gets into bar fights at the slightest provocation—with a darker soul than we usually see in such characters. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he tells Laurel, a line he wants to put into his screenplay but is surely inspired by his happiness with Laurel. It’s lovely and yet it predicts the inevitable doom of their romance. There’s a bitterness under his cynical banter and an anger that fuels flashes of jealousy or betrayal into vicious, violent responses. Laurel sees it play out with strangers and it starts to scare her, especially as the investigation into the murder (which is otherwise swept to the sidelines of the story) keeps circling back to Dix.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

I don’t usually compare movie adaptations to the original novels—apart from bestsellers and literary classics, Hollywood tended to treat the books and stories it purchased as raw material to be reworked for the needs of the moment—and I don’t intend to here, but I love the way the film itself comments upon the process. Dix rewrites the novel in his latest assignment, inspired by the romance that blooms with Laurel, just as Andrew Solt’s screenplay rewrote the novel and his script was subsequently rewritten by director Nicholas Ray to reflect his unraveling marriage to  Grahame, who he cast after Bogie’s first choices were unavailable. It would have been a great role for Lauren Bacall and Grahame delivers Bacall’s confidence and command and model’s poise, but she also has a dreamy vulnerability that is uniquely her own. It’s one of her best performances and Ray shows off a glamour and grace she didn’t get in other roles as well as a smart, powerful performance. Bogie himself had a reputation for drinking and bar scraps and he’s clearly all in on the rewrite; he developed and produced the film through his own Santana Productions. Bogart has played hard-edged characters and violent anti-heroes before but none are as damaged and dark and out of control as Dixon. The romance comes off the two-fisted tough-guy literary hero in this portrait.

This is film noir without guns and gangsters, with no robberies or blackmail schemes, where the only crime on screen is a couple of alcohol-fueled assaults (one of which veers close to manslaughter, admittedly, but doesn’t cross the line), and yet it is among the most devastating you’ll ever see. The murder mystery no more than a backdrop to the ambiguous study of love torn apart from within.

Previously on DVD from Sony, it makes its Criterion debut on a 2K digital transfer from a new 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original camera negative. It’s flawless. This is not a film that was in need of restoration, thanks to fine stewardship of the Sony archive under the able leadership of Grover Crisp, and it shows: crisp and clean with rich black and white

Features commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, a new interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, a 20-minute piece with filmmaker Curtis Hanson produced for the 2002 DVD release, a condensed version of the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (this runs about 40 minutes), and the radio adaptation of the original novel produced for “Suspense” in 1948, plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith. You can read Smith’s essay here.

In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
In a Lonely Place (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

Twilight Time’s Encore Edition of ‘The Big Heat’

The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

Reviews of Gilda and Where the Sidewalk Ends at Cinephiled.

Black and White and Blu-ray: ‘The Big Heat’

The Big Heat (Twilight Time) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Glenn Ford is the bland family man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the placid poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil.

Director Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

I confess I never expected to see this on Blu-ray, and I couldn’t be happier.

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DVD for the Week: Bad Girls of Film Noir

The leading ladies of the two-disc, four-film collection Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume One (Sony)—Lizabeth Scott, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame—are indeed some of the great bad girls of film noir. It’s just that the films don’t show these femmes off at their most fatale and it’s a stretch to call some of them “noir.” Such as Bad For Each Other (1953), starring Charlton Heston a military surgeon who returns home (a mining town outside of Pittsburg) and falls for a flighty spoiled society dame (Lizabeth Scott) with a history of bad marriages and broken husbands. Which sounds more sinister than it is: she’s less femme fatale simply a bad influence, sucking the ambition and integrity of the men she pulls into her little world of money and distraction. Written by Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy (from a story by McCoy), it’s not a crime drama or even a portrait of social malaise or corruption, and whole chunks of the front-loaded narrative (Heston’s social-climbing brother died under suspicious circumstances and in a cloud of criminal suspicion) are left hanging as Heston learns how painless it is to trade his integrity for financial success as doctor to the neurotic and bored socialites of Pittsburg, and is jolted back out by the actions of a good girl (Dianne Foster) and an idealistic young doctor (Arthur Franz). Heston is quite watchable in a fairly lazy performance and but Lizabeth Scott doesn’t have much to do and the film get lost in distracting subplots that go nowhere, and director Irving Rapper can’t even feign a sense of urgency or gravity to any of it.

Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"
Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"

Two of a Kind (1951), also starring Scott and directed by Henry Levin with a better feeling for the world of scoundrels, is more satisfying, a minor noir with a fun performance by Edmond O’Brien as a career bad boy, an orphan who scams his way through life until he’s drafted by Scott and her lawyer partner (Alexander Knox) in an inheritance scam involving an rich couple and a missing child from decades back. Yep, he’s posing as the long lost son, snatched away and left to grow up in a series of orphanages and juvenile detention centers until kismet (and a carefully plotted scheme) sweeps him back into their lives. O’Brien isn’t so much charming as intriguingly confident and cool as a former carny who knows how to play a situation and is willing to lose a finger (a great scene) in a gamble for a bigger score, but has been knocked around enough to know when to play and where to draw the line. And, of course, he kind of likes the old man. It’s a soft-boiled noir with lots of tough-guy attitude from O’Brien (who delivers in spades) and an entertaining twist involving his unconventional romance with the niece of the old couple (Terry Moore), a sweetheart of a social activist who decides to make reforming O’Brien her new cause.

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