Blu-ray/DVD: Olive Signature editions of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘High Noon’

johnnyguitarJohnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.

Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.

The film’s dynamic first act occurs almost entirely within the confines of the gaming room of her saloon, with characters arriving, engaging, and exiting in dramatically timely fashion, but the effect is anything but stagebound or theatrical. Ray directs the rise and fall of the drama and the interplay and evolution of stories like a symphony, a sustained piece with themes and movements that builds to the climactic kiss between Vienna and Johnny and one of the greatest lyrics ever spoken in a western: “Lie to me. Tell me you love me.”

This is a clash of wills that erupts in fire and destruction with the two players taking on roles out of a modern myth. Emma, leading a lynch mob while still in a black mourning dress, confronts Vienna, clad in a soft, white, elegant gown while playing the saloon’s piano: the dark, angry fairy tale witch taking on the innocent heroine, though Vienna is anything but innocent. And when Vienna sets the place on fire and practically dances in triumph, a black figure against the bright flames, she’s the wicked witch incarnate, but symbolism aside, the scene burns deep and hot with rage and revenge unleashed.

Jean-Luc Godard once made the claim that “Nicholas Ray is cinema.” Johnny Guitar is evidence to support his case.

Joan Crawford as Vienna in 'Johnny Guitar'
Joan Crawford as Vienna in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Olive gave the film its DVD and Blu-ray debut a few years ago. Now it gets the deluxe treatment in a new 4K restoration and it looks amazing. The saturation of the color (and this is a film where the reds and yellows of the costumes explode from the screen) is intense and the image has magnificent a sharpness and clarity. And the film finally is released in its original aspect ratio.

New to this edition is commentary by film critic and scholar Geoff Andrew, the featurettes “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (18 minutes) and “Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?” (15 minutes) with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich, “Tell Us Was She One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (11 minutes), “Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures” with archivist Marc Wanamaker (6 minutes), and ” My Friend, the American Friend” with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich discussing Nicholas Ray (12 minutes). Carried over from the previous release is a short video introduction by Martin Scorsese, which was recorded for the film’s VHS release last century. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

highnoonHigh Noon: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – One of the westerns considered part of the canon of American greats, High Noon (1955) has been called an old-fashioned celebration of courage and responsibility in the face of impossible odds, an ironic dissection of the western myth, and a blast of moral outrage at the silence and passivity of American citizens. Howard Hawks claimed this film inspired him to make Rio Bravo, because he couldn’t fathom a sheriff who went around begging for help. There’s so much loaded weight attached to the film (from famously right-wing lead Gary Cooper to famously liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by Hollywood) that it can overwhelm what is essentially a lean, dusty western classic set to the real time of a ticking clock, counting down the minutes until a gang of killers ride in looking for revenge on Sheriff Cooper.

Grace Kelly plays Cooper’s Quaker bride, anxious for him to set aside all thoughts of violence on this their wedding day, and Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, and Katy Jurardo co-star. Fred Zinneman directs for producer Stanley Kramer, and Tex Ritter sings the legendary theme song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling.”

New to this edition are the featurettes “A Ticking Clock” with film editor Mark Goldblatt (6 minutes), “A Stanley Kramer Production” with filmmaker and film historian Michael Schlesinger (14 minutes), “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (10 minutes), and he visual essay “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” narrated by Anton Yelchin (12 minutes). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Nick James.

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Videophiled: ‘Escape from New York’

Scream Factory

Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – “Plissken? I heard you were dead.” “Call me Snake.” Maybe it’s not John Carpenter’s best film, but it’s one of his most fun and the premise is irresistible: in the future, Manhattan has been turned into a high security island prison and Liberty Island is the guard station. When Air Force One is hijacked by an American revolutionary outfit (this may be what the future looks like from 1981, but these yahoos look more like holdovers from the early seventies), the American President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands in the middle of no man’s land and becomes a bargaining chip for the reigning king of the outlaws (Isaac Hayes), who runs the place like a gangland Godfather.

Kurt Russell hisses out a B-movie Clint Eastwood impression as Snake Plissken, a one-time war hero turned notorious criminal and his arrival at Liberty Island in cuffs makes him the only hope they have of rescuing POTUS before very bad things start to happen. What exactly isn’t important. It’s a deadline that Plissken has to meet if he wants out alive, which is how head of security Lee Van Cleef, Plissken’s nemesis turned wary ally by circumstance, guarantees his cooperation. As he navigates the feral streets to rescue the President, he picks up a motley, not completely trustworthy crew (including Harry Dean Stanton as the weaselly Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as his pistol-packing lover, and Ernest Borgnine as a big-band loving cabbie). But Russell is the revelation. He was best known for Disney comedies at the time and Carpenter had to push the studio to accept him in the lead. He delivers.

Carpenter’s dark, garbage-strewn streets lit by bonfires and headlights makes for inspired art direction and his synthesizer score is suitably minimalist and moody. Shot for a song in the rougher parts of St. Louis (doubling for the Big Apple) with simple but bold model work (some of it created by James Cameron in his Roger Corman days) and striking computer graphics, it’s a hoot, yet behind the colorful personalities of the prison yard gang is a sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America lost to poverty, runaway crime, and gangs that rule the inner city. This really was a product of its time.

EscapeSnake
“Call me Snake”

 

Escape from New York is both a marvelously scruffy film and a well-produced piece of dystopian cinema superbly shot by Dean Cundey in Carpenter’s beloved Panavision widescreen. The new 2k digital master, scanned from the inter-positive struck from the original negative, doesn’t take anything away from that. It gives shows the squalor in much greater detail, and the clarity helps give definition to the nocturnal imagery. This is, after all, a film that takes place mostly on the streets at night.

MGM released the film on Blu-ray a couple of year ago but it was a bare-bones affair with none of the extras from the terrific DVD special editions. This two-disc edition features the two previously available commentary tracks—a thoroughly entertaining track with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away like old (“By the way, both of our ex-wives are in the movie”) and a second track by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves covering more technical material—plus a third newly-recorded commentary track with co-star Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, looking back with over thirty years’ hindsight. Barbeau has a lot of affection for the film and for Carpenter, to whom she was married at the time.

There are also five new interview featurettes on the second disc. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York” featuring interviews with visual effect DP Dennis Skotak and matte artist Robert Skotak, “Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth” (who collaborated with Carpenter on the score), “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York” with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, “I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger,” and “My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau.”

Carried over from the previous DVD release are the complete ten-minute robbery sequence that Carpenter cut from the film (it was meant to be the opening scene) with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell, the vintage promotion featurette “Return to Escape From New York,” trailers, and a gallery of stills, posters, and promotional art.

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Videophiled: ‘Day of Anger’

DayofAnger
Arrow

Day of Anger (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD) is another reminder of why Lee Van Cleef became a major spaghetti western star. He doesn’t just dominate Day of Anger (1967), he owns the film as a Frank Talby, a smiling gunman who rides into the thoroughly corrupt town of Clifton, Arizona (which, of course, is actually Almería, Spain) to collect a debt and ends up adopting the Scott (Giuliano Gemma), turning the town bastard and whipping boy into a formidable gunman in five hard lessons (all helpfully numbered). Van Cleef is smooth and cool, at once ruthless and oddly likable, and Talby’s tough-love affection for Scott is beyond the call of manipulation. Next to the utterly corrupt folks who don’t even bother to hide their arrogance and bigotry, Talby is almost honest about his criminality. He wants his money, he wants to run the town, and he wants vengeance against the hypocrites who double-crossed him.

Which is not to say he’s a hero in any sense, merely that he has a kind of honor missing from the crooked town elders who built their power on his stolen money. Talby never draws first, but he has a way of provoking others into trying their luck so he can remove them from his path in self-defense. Which is not to say he shies from a fair fight. When the bad folks of Clifton hire a mercenary to take out Talby, he agrees to the gunman’s terms: a shoot-out as frontier duel on horseback, loading the gun and shooting at full gallop. It’s a fabulous scene and Van Cleef instills in Talby a sense of honor as he matches a rival on equal terms. When he successfully takes over the town of Clifton, burning down the old saloon and building his own gambling palace (complete with pillars carved into giant handguns) as his headquarters, it’s almost comic when the ousted town leaders moan “Now Clifton will never go back to the way it was,” as if their malevolent rule was some kind of paradise for the peasants, the drunks, and the outcasts they kept in their place. Giuliano Gemma has quite the baby face as Scott and the voice in the English dubbing is all young cowhand aw-shucks innocence. You might say the film is about his evolution from hero-worshipping boy to responsible man forced to choose a side.

It’s ostensibly based on a German novel but director and co-writer Tonino Valerii admits that it was merely a matter of co-production financing and his script spun a new story around the basic premise. Which, in the spaghetti western tradition, is in many ways about the corruption behind the myth of the old west. Valerii was an assistant to Sergio Leone on A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and directed the Leone-produced My Name is Nobody. This hasn’t the operatic flamboyance of Leone but it has a more complex portrait of power and corruption and an ambivalence toward loyalty and justice. There’s no sense of triumph in vengeance here, merely inevitability.

Lee Van Cleef

The film has been digitally restored for Blu-ray and DVD from the original 35mm Techniscope camera negative. I’m sure it hasn’t looked this good since it was released. Valerii favors the spare visuals of most spaghetti westerns, emphasizing the isolation and emptiness of the Spanish plains standing in for the American southwest, and the disc presents it all with a sharp clarity and vivid burnished palette. It features the original, uncut Italian version (with both English and Italian soundtracks, with optional subtitles) and the shorter international version (in English only).

It features new video interviews with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (13 minutes, in Italian with English subtitles) and Tonino Valerii’s biographer Roberto Curti (43 minutes, in English) and a previously unreleased 2008 interview with Tonino Valerii (11 minutes, in Italian with English subtitles), plus a deleted scene, and includes a booklet with an essay by spaghetti western expert Howard Hughes.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘The Big Gundown’

Sergio Leone is unarguably the godfather of spaghetti westerns. He directed its first international smash of the genre, defined the spare, savage style and mercenary sensibility, and made stars of journeymen actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. But he was far from the only director who made his mark in the genre. Among the filmmakers who carved out their own style in the genre were Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castillari, and Sergio Sollima, whose trilogy of films with Tomas Milian take a more politically charged approach to the brutal tales of greed and betrayal and revenge that ground most spaghetti western scripts.

The Big Gundown (1966), Sollima’s first spaghetti western, stars Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering sense of justice. Fresh off For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef was an instant icon of the genre; the American posters even promoted the film with a reference to his Leone success: “Mr. Ugly is back.” (Never mind that he was actually “the bad” man of the trio.) Sollima casts him as an unusual kind of hero who hunts down wanted men yet refuses to collect the bounty on their heads. His code is honorable (he literally hands a ragged band of outlaws a chance to go out shooting rather than face the rope) but unforgiving, an Old Testament angel as gunslinger passing judgment on the wanted men of his promised land of Texas. His lean features, windblown face, and hard, piercing eyes makes him stand out in the cast of Italian and European actors standing in for American settlers and Mexican peasants.

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Videophiled: ‘The Big Gundown’ and ‘Nightmare City’

BigGundown
It’s hard to believe that The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), easily one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, has never been on home video in the U.S. in any legitimate form before. It features Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering and unforgiving sense of justice, and Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, the Mexican peasant outlaw accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Cuchillo is more con man and frontier rascal than hardened criminal, but his antics and his survival instincts still manage to get a few unsavory types killed in the proverbial crossfire while Corbett’s obsessive pursuit of justice brings its own collateral damage. But in the savage frontier societies of this spaghetti western culture, that still makes them the good guys.

Director Sergio Sollima is not the stylist that Sergio Leone was and doesn’t have Leone’s operatic approach to conflict on the desert frontier, but with his screenwriting collaborator Sergio Donati he certainly had a way with portraying the corruption of the American dream on the frontier. Van Cleef’s Corbett is a humorless, unstoppable force and Milian’s Cuchillo a wily, earthy Bugs Bunny playing pranks on his escape, but both are pawns in a game of power and money. Which, of course, they learn in due course as the pursuit crosses the border into Mexico and the forces of law and order sent by a would-be railroad baron become ruthless vigilantes. Ennio Morricone provides a suitably spare score and Almeria, Spain, and surrounding areas double for the towns and the beautiful but hostile desert plains.

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NightmareCity
Nightmare City (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31), also known as City of the Walking Dead, is the notorious goremeister Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 pseudo zombie thriller. These are actually radioactive mutants, the victims of a deadly spill from a local nuclear plant disaster, but they have an unhealthy hunger for human flesh just the same. Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the name of the Tarantino character in Inglourious Basterds) is the journalist sent to cover the accident and Laura Trotter is his medical doctor wife, who do their best the evade the flesh eating ghouls while the army (led by Mel Ferrer) just seems to annoy them. Previously on DVD in the US, this edition features a new HD master. Italian and English language versions with optional English subtitles, plus an interview with director Umberto Lenzi, trailers, and a booklet.

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