Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Blu-ray: ‘Moby Dick’ restored on Twilight Time

Moby Dick (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – “Call me Ishmael.” John Huston’s 1956 film of Herman Melville’s whaling drama turned epic odyssey, a classic of American literature and a staple of high school and college literature courses, remains the most famous screen version of the novel. Gregory Peck plays the obsessed Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to “the great white whale” and is determined to hunt it down, and Richard Basehart is Ishmael, the young deck hand who narrates the tale. Huston gravitated toward literary adaptations throughout his career and Moby Dick was a personal project for Huston. He collaborated with Ray Bradbury on the screenplay—it was the celebrated author’s first feature screenplay—and remained faithful to language (Bradbury helps adapt the poetry of Melville’s prose to the spoken word of a script) and to the story with minor changes.

Peck plays Ahab with a stiff, emotionally unreadable determination, Orson Welles (who had directed his own stage adaptation of the novel) has a superb supporting role as Father Mapple, giving a sermon filled with whaling references in a pulpit designed like the prow of a ship, and Leo Genn is first mate Starbuck, who tries to resist Ahab’s obsessive drive. The film was not well received in 1956, much of the criticism leveled at Peck, but his stylized performance is more interesting 60 years later. Huston’s treatment is equally compelling. He shot much of the film on the sea with a full-sized ship and a massive model for the whale and devoted himself to recreating the physical labor of whaling in the 19th century with almost documentary-like detail. He also worked with cinematographer Oswald Morris to give the film a desaturated color palette, a sepia quality that helps evoke the era. It adds to the film’s mythic quality.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.

These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.

VikingsThe timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.

Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.

It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.

PassageMarseillesThe 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.

This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.

Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.

More Blu-ray classics at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘The Wind and the Lion’

John Milius occupies a curious place in the culture of American filmmakers of the seventies. In the age of new, young, maverick voices, he’s the rugged American individualist with conservative politics and iconoclastic heroes. He’s fascinated with military culture and imperialist adventure, caught up in the tension between American isolation and intervention, in debt to the romantic ideals of honor and duty idealized in John Ford’s cavalry films, and celebratory of the glory of battle, whether in war, on a surfboard challenging waves, or swinging a sword in the age of barbarism. In an era of secular liberalism, he’s the wildman conservative of mythical heroes and combat veterans, but he’s also more than that, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “He is an anarchist, he is articulate, and he has an unshakable faith in human grandeur….”

The Wind and the Lion (1972), the sophomore feature of the film school-trained screenwriter turned director, takes on a romantic tale of rebellion and response, honorable ancient codes and modern military might, and the first stirrings of the United States of America, the modern, maverick young country in a political culture dominated by the history-seeped empires of old Europe, as a world power. And it does so in a cagily budget-minded take on the sweeping military epics and colonial adventures of the 1950s and 1960s, a sensibility appropriated in the opening seconds of the film as Jerry Goldsmith’s grandly dramatic score plays under the credits etched into the handsome parchment of a yesteryear Hollywood frame.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Best of Bogart’ Blu-ray Collection

The Best of Bogart Collection (Warner, Blu-ray)

Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I ever embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. A few years ago, Warner Home Video boxed up 24 Bogie films for the impressive DVD set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection. Now they collect four of the definitive Bogart films previously released on Blu-ray for a smaller HD box set: the definitive Hollywood romance Casablanca (1942) and three films directed by John Huston, The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), which is a Sam Spiegel production and a Paramount release that Warner licensed for this set.

The Maltese Falcon, the directorial debut of stalwart screenwriter Huston and the film that made a star of Warner contract player Bogart, was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel classic but the first to capture the hardboiled toughness of the novel and the vivid vipers nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure like junkies chasing the ultimate fix. One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen, and absolutely ruthless as hard-hearted treasure hunter Brigid O’Shaughnessy who lies as easily as most people breathe, Sydney Greenstreet is the garrulous Kasper Gutman, keeper of the Falcon’s lore, Peter Lorre is the weaselly Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr. became a cult figure as the rat-faced gunsel and small-time thug Wilmer Cook. But it’s all built on Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade as the great hardboiled private detective, a mercenary with a code of ethics just slightly less vicious than characters he keeps company with. Like the man says, this film is the stuff dreams are made of, and it is the Bogart that Hollywood embraced and that America still loves: insolent, individualistic, a romantic under his hard-boiled hide. He played this character, in varying degrees, throughout the rest of his career, epitomized in his defining role as the wounded cynic in Casablanca. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Hollywood and Bogart.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Blu-ray Debut: “The Man Who Would Be King”

Peachy and Danny: friends forever

The Man Who Would Be King” (Warner)

John Huston originally wanted to make this film in the late 1950s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. It would’ve made a hell of a picture. And, as a matter of fact, it did, only with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Danny and Peachy, the ambitious British soldiers/con-artists​/Freemasons turned adventurers in India. Huston’s adaptation of Kipling’s story manages to be both intimate and gloriously sweeping, a larger than life tale on a magnificent canvass (Morocco’s mountains – standing in for Afghanistan – create the breathtaking backdrop) grounded in the strength of friendship and camaraderie, and elevated by a magnificent score from Maurice Jarre, who works a classic hymn into a rousing theme.

It’s pure Huston: an impossible quest, an out-of-reach grail and an ironic twist leading to a supremely glorious failure. More than any other of his seventies films, Huston is able to turn their story into a strange sort of triumph by remaining true to his characters, right down to the riveting conclusion and the haunting coda narrated by Caine. He offers wonderfully old-fashioned storytelling—muscular​, dramatic, grounded in character and driven by magnificent twists of luck and fate that arise like poetic justice dished out by a wry god—for the modern age. The colonialist perspective on the Indian and tribal populations as childish, foolish and backwards peoples is sometimes offensive to modern eyes but it certainly captures the attitude of a 19th century British soldier of fortune in India, relating his tall tale of a true story to his Mason brother (Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling). It is, in short, one of the most rousing adventures of the 1970s.

Continue  reading on MSN Videodrone

The Kremlin Letter – DVD review on TCM

Great cover too

The debut release from Twilight Time, a new DVD label featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library, is a sprawling, globetrotting John Huston espionage thriller from 1970. Made in the wake of a spy movie boom, as the flamboyant James Bond fantasies gave way to disillusioned John Le Carre dramas and grim Cold War adventures like Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and Topaz, The Kremlin Letter is adapted from a from a twisty best-seller by Noel Behn that (in Huston’s words) “had all the makings of a success… all those qualities that were just coming into fashion in 1970: violence, lurid sex, drugs.” It’s also steeped in the cynicism and opportunism of covert dirty tricks and undercover shenanigans behind the Iron Curtain, where national interest is lost in the private wars and personal schemes of international operatives. There’s no patriotism or idealism in these spy games.

The complicated plot, in nutshell, revolves around a private team of spies and specialists subcontracted by an unnamed American intelligence outfit to retrieve a diplomatically embarrassing and potentially damaging letter. Patrick O’Neal’s Charles Rone, a career Navy officer yanked out of his commission for a special mission by forces beyond his pay grade, is our point-of-view character, the new recruit learning the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence. But in the scheme of things he’s just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece with a weird and wonderful cast in a free-for-all chase for the letter, the film’s Maguffin in every sense of the term.

Richard Boone (with a bleach job and a ruddy face–the result of skin grafts from a major burn, he explains) takes the point as team leader Ward, a larger than life Texan with a good ol’ boy manner and buoyant enthusiasm. He sends Rone to reunite a team of specialists: “The Highwayman” (Dean Jagger, first seen in a country vicar’s garb); “Warlock” (George Sanders, found in drag performing in a gay club); “The Whore” (Nigel Green, a pimp in Mexico); and the team’s old safecracker and second story man “Erector Set” (Niall MacGinnis), since laid low by arthritis. He’s trained his daughter (Barbara Parkins as B.A.–no name, just the initials) to follow in his footsteps and she auditions by cracking a safe with her toes.

Continue reading on TCM

The Dead on TCM

It’s “Directed by John Huston” day on Turner Classic Movies and my article on his final film, The Dead, is now live on the site.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Based on the James Joyce short story that concludes his collection The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of Huston’s most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and unspoken bumps in the relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It was also a family affair for Huston, who directed from a script by his son Tony (given sole screen credit despite contributions by John) and cast his accomplished daughter Anjelica (who he had just directed to an Oscar®-winning performance in Prizzi’s Honor, 1985) in the lead. Huston had lived in Ireland for twenty five years and, though he had since sold his estate and moved to Mexico, had retained his Irish citizenship. The film was his tribute to the country he adopted late in life and to the author whose work inspired him as a young man. “Joyce was and remains the most influential writer in my life,” he confessed in an interview during the making of the film.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as Gretta and Gabriel Conroy, a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the guests who arrive at the home of Gabriel’s spinster Aunts Julia and Kate (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany, veterans of Dublin’s famous Abbey Theater) to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on a snowy January evening in 1904. The film opens as the family members arrive, ushered into the warmth of their home by the doting aunts, who take their position on the second story landing like family royalty but fuss over every guest like mother hens. The arrivals include cousin Freddy (Donal Donnelly), who arrives tipsy and proceeds to drink himself to a slurring effusiveness (much to the consternation of his aged mother), boisterous family friend Mr. Browne (Dan O’Herlihy), who drinks himself into a red-faced belligerence, and a celebrated singer, Bartell D’Arcy (real-life Irish tenor Frank Patterson, making his film debut).

Read the complete article at TCM here. Also available on DVD from Lionsgate (which has corrected the problems with its first faulty release).

Finally… The African Queen on DVD and Blu-ray

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

Continue reading “Finally… The African Queen on DVD and Blu-ray”

Total Recall: Lionsgate recalls “The Dead”

The Lionsgate DVD
The Lionsgate DVD

Word of the The Dead fiasco has apparently reached Lionsgate HQ.

Lionsgate has just issued a recall of all copies of The Dead, the John Huston film that was released on DVD this week in an incomplete version. I’ve not been able to get any details beyond their hope to have replacement copies in the next couple of weeks.

More updates as I receive them.

(And no, I haven’t heard if they will replace that awful cover art with the beautiful poster art the original theatrical release .)

My initial review of the DVD is here.

UPDATE: Here’s the press release  from Lionsgate and instructions for consumers to get a replacement for their disc:

It has come to our attention that due to a technical malfunction, the initial DVD shipment of John Huston’s THE DEAD contained an incomplete version of the film. We deeply apologize to all our consumers for this unfortunate error and want to offer them an opportunity to replace their current copies with the complete version as soon as it is available to ship the week of November 23rd.  We regret this inconvenience, as Lionsgate is committed to providing our consumers the highest quality home entertainment experience.

All consumers who purchased a copy and wish to receive the new complete version should do one of the following:

– EMAIL lionsgatecs@orderassistance.com with their address and a scan/attachment of their receipt
– FAX (310) 222-5562 with their address and copy of their receipt
-MAIL their receipt along with a note including their address to: 20102 S Vermont Ave Torrance, CA  90502

Or please call (800) 650-7099 directly if you have any further questions.

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.

Continue reading “DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead”

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.