Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as  I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

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

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

‘The Flame and the Arrow’ on TCM

Burt Lancaster spent almost a decade performing as an acrobat in the circus, an experience that gave him not only an impressive physique but incredible muscular control, tools that he drew upon when he turned to acting and rocketed to stardom in his first films. Lancaster played criminals, lawmen, hustlers, and soldiers of fortune in such dark crime dramas as The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Criss Cross (1949), yet in those early years, no studio even considered spotlighting his acrobatic talents on screen.

The idea to make a swashbuckler came from Lancaster’s good friend and former circus partner Nick Cravat. A childhood friend from their days growing up in New York during the worst years of the depression, Cravat had come out to Hollywood at Lancaster’s request a couple of years before and appeared with Lancaster in a revival of their old act in a short tour. Cravat suggested that Lancaster make the kind of swashbuckling adventure that made Douglas Fairbanks a superstar. After all, Lancaster was the first movie star since Fairbanks who could actually do all those stunts himself.

Waldo Salt came up with a story inspired by the story of William Tell but relocated to 12th century Lombardy, and a script reminiscent of the 1938 Errol Flynn costume swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. Salt was blacklisted soon after finishing the script — it was his last screen credit for over a decade — but Salt returned to screenwriting with a vengeance in the 1960s and went on to win Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978).

Plays on Thursday, November 7 on Turner Classic Movies

Continue reading at TCM

MOD Movies: Fox Cinema Archives Debuts

20th Century Fox finally follows the leads of Warner, Sony, and MGM and launches their own manufacture-on-demand program aimed at releasing some of the older titles from the vaults, the kinds of “catalog” releases that no longer sell in the DVD sales crash. The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives debuts with 35 titles in the first wave.

The first wave of releases is now available and the results are… mixed, to say the least. Here’s my review of the first three discs I received.

Suez (1938), directed by Allan Dwan and starring Tyrone Power, is one of the better of the big, “respectable” historical dramas that Power made in the thirties and early forties, in the mold of Lloyds of London and In Old Chicago (both previously released by Fox in DVD box sets) but with a grander sense of spectacle. Power’s Ferdinand de Lesseps is engineer, entrepreneur, and diplomat, negotiating support from Napoleon III in France and Prince Said in Egypt, battling sandstorms, enduring political catastrophe (being a Hollywood history, Napoleon III’s coup is as much a personal betrayal as a national one) and romantic treachery (lover Loretta Young throws him over for a much more politically advantageous suitor) with the pluck of… well, Tyrone Power.

This is classic Hollywood historical melodrama, with dynamic individuals changing history with a mix of vision and sheer fortitude, and a whirlwind tour of geopolitical history as drawing room drama. Annabella plays a spunky, spirited Egyptian girl devoted to the oblivious Ferdinand (again classically Hollywood, the Americans play the French while the film’s French star plays the exotic “foreigner”). Allan Dwan, a silent movie pioneer whose long career began in the pre-feature era and straddles blockbuster epics (Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks) and low-budget comedies and everything in between, keeps the potentially stodgy material moving at a lively clip, giving the political maneuverings a dramatic flair and a personal dimension, and delivering a spectacular sandstorm that remains the film’s standout sequence.

This is the best looking disc of the initial batch I received, a fine mastering of a clean, strong print, with good contrasts and sound and no apparent digital artifacts: a solid presentation of a handsome Hollywood classic.

Continue reading at Parallax View

MOD Movies: William Shatner teaches ‘The Explosive Generation,’ plus Tourneur and Karlson for completists

The Explosive Generation (MGM Limited Edition Collection) may look like another low-budget teensploitation picture from the drive-in age, and sure, it is a cheap picture churned out with a minimum of fuss and style. But the explosive content of this high school picture is sex education, which is added to the curriculum at the request of an honors class of senior class students and sets off a firestorm among the parents, leaving our idealistic, progressive young teacher caught between his principles and his principal. Said teacher, I should add, is played by William Shatner. It’s his second film and his first leading role, before his soon-to-be trademark intensity took over. There’s plenty of speechifying and contrived injections of hep dialogue (“Crazy, man!”) and Buzz Kulick’s direction is never more than functional (and often not even that), but give the film credit for treating teenagers as intelligent, thoughtful young adults who are inspired to pull together to stand up for their education and their free speech rights. Their inspired non-violent protest is a weirdly mesmerizing tribute to youth solidarity, a precursor to the counterculture cinema of the late 1960s in clean-cut fifties garb. And that Shatner guy isn’t too bad either.

Timbuktu (MGM Limited Edition Collection) – Jacques Tourneur may be one of the most underrated directors of his time, from horror classics “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Curse of the Demon” to his noir masterpieces “Out of the Past” and “Nightfall” to some of the greatest films of the American frontier, “Stars in My Crown” and “Canyon Passage.” So it’s with some disappointment I watch his talent fall off in his late career. A few months ago it was “The Fearmakers,” and now comes Timbuktu, a pure B-movie potboiler French Foreign Legion film from the late 1950s that plays like a cavalry matinee picture. This one, moved up to World War II but still engaged with an Arab uprising in French colonial Africa, stars Victor Mature as an American gunrunner without political allegiance but with a code of sorts. Yvonne De Carlo plays the neglected wife of a duty-first French Colonel (George Dolenz) who apparently has no qualms about sending his wife to make love to the mercenary Mature, a man only too happy to play along as he plays double agent between the warring factions. A game of bluffs and feints and psychological warfare ensues, but Tourneur never makes anything more of it than a juvenile form of big screen pulp, from John Dehner as the least convincing Arab Emir in the movies down to Mature as the griming mercenary with a conscience. Silly stuff, but De Carlo is quite the honey.

Hornet’s Nest (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a grim 1970 World War II mission thriller with Rock Hudson and a cast of Italian kids playing soldier, is essentially a bloody Italian war drama by way of an American exploitation picture. Phil Karlson, one of the great director of bare-knuckle film noir, is behind the camera at least part of the time. The Italian prints apparently list Franco Cirino as director (he’s credited at First Assistant Director here) and the production is dominated by Italian names (including a score by Ennio Morricone). Karlson’s direction became more blunt in his later years but even so, the cynicism and brutality is more Italian exploitation sensibility than American drive-in branding, with the kids going all “Lord of the Flies” on both the German invaders occupying their village and any civilian (or even ally) who stands in the way of their vengeance. Hudson brings a groovy seventies mustache and haircut to forties Italy (maybe one those kids was inspired by his style to become Vidal Sassoon) while trying to play military father to these teenage guerrillas. Regardless of Karlson’s commitment in front of the camera, it feels like it was edited on the Italian industry assembly line.

Read on for more manufacture on demand releases at Videodrone

MOD Movies: Fritz Lang’s Farewell to Hollywood

Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.

Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.

Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry  on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.

Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.

After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.

Continue reading about While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers at Videodrone

“The Stars in My Crown” is a Forgotten Treasure

How Joel McCrea civilized the west

The Stars in My Crown (Warner Archive)

Thanks to the MOD model of film releases, a lot of marvelous films heretofore unavailable on DVD, wonderful films without the recognition that translates into the kind of sales needed to sustain a full DVD release, are being made available to those dedicated cineastes and few but passionate fans. “The Stars in My Crown” (1950) is one of those films that lacks the hook that would entice the average classic movie fan to blindly give it a chance—a low-key frontier drama of community and conflict starring the sturdy but unexciting Joel McCrea, framed in nostalgia and overflowing with homespun values of 19th century Americana—but deserves the look for the power of its storytelling and the strength of its character. Especially McCrea as the unconventional deacon who strides into town and conducts his first service in the local bar, not quite holding the patrons at gunpoint but suggesting that it’s in their best interests nonetheless.

Director Jacques Tourneur is famous as a director of moody, evocative horror films of shadowy threats and psychological reverberations, classics such as the original “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Curse of the Demon,” and for his film noir masterpiece “Out of the Past.” But his frontier dramas (westerns, yes, but really about communities built out of the wilderness) are equally powerful and “The Stars in My Crown” is one of his best and most moving films, a piece of ur-Americana and small-town values carved out of a culture of self-interest and violence. Tourneur reminds us that the country was constructed out of both sides of this equation.

Read more reviews of Warner Archive releases at MSN Videodrone

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).