#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.

It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.

Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in 'On Dangerous Ground'
Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’

On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?

This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”

road-house-48Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.

Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.

Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in 'Road House'
Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in ‘Road House’

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.

More DVD and Blu-ray releases at Cinephiled

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 / DVD: ‘The American Friend,’ ‘Bitter Rice,’ and the ‘Lady Snowblood’ chronicles

AmericanFriendThe American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.

The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.

Given these origins, the relationship that develops between Zimmerman and Ripley, who returns as a strange dark angel savior, is genuine and fraternal, even as it arises from deceit and a desire to punish, and rife with contractions. While Zimmerman is unexpectedly intoxicated by the danger and violence of his assignments, his victims are not merely the murdered criminals, but his family. This is as introspective and psychologically tangled as thrillers come, and all the more compelling for it. Wenders regular Lisa Kreuzer is excellent as Zimmerman’s wife, whose suspicions of Ripley prove completely founded, Nicholas Ray is superb as the aging New York artist turned forger who, in opening scene, contemplates his failing eyesight (he was dying of cancer at the time of shooting and the acknowledgment of his mortality haunts his scenes), and Sam Fuller barks orders as an American gangster.

Criterion’s disc is mastered from a new 4k restoration produced by Wenders’ own production company and supervised by Wenders. Robbie Muller’s cinematography is preserved in all its clarity, from the cool, uncluttered quality of the airports and train stations and Ripley’s own fortress of a home to the cluttered warmth of Zimmerman’s home and frame shop.

It features commentary recorded by Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper for the original 2003 DVD release, “exactly 25 years after we shot it.” Wenders is quite and calmly paced (“Somehow I became obsessed with having directors play all the crooks and bad guys”) and Hopper calmer than you might expect. Their talk isn’t quite a conversation (Wenders sounds more like a combination lecturer and storyteller and Hopper ends up his audience much of the time), but they find their rhythm about a half hour into it. The deleted scenes in the 36 minute featurette are interspersed with behind-the-scenes shots, slates, outtakes, and colorful production footage. Without the benefit of introductions or titles, the commentary is essential to place the shots and understand the context, and true to form the soft-spoken Wenders acts more like a host than a commentator as he sets the scenes. There isn’t much explanation, but there are stories, insights, and reflections in all the commentaries.

Exclusive to the release are the interview featurettes “Too Much on my Mind: Wim Wenders on The American Friend” (in English), with the director reflecting back on his career and the origins and production of the film (37 minutes), and “From Jonathan: Bruno Ganz on The American Friend” (in German), which runs about 27 minutes. The accompanying fold-out insert features a new essay by novelist Francine Prose.

LaduySnowThe Complete Lady Snowblood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Lady Snowblood (1973), directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko, is best known to American audiences as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, which appropriates images and scenes from the film (the showdown in the falling snow of a Lucy Liu’s courtyard) as well as the theme song, “The Flower of Carnage.” But the samurai revenge thriller, adapted from the manga by Koike Kazuo (who also created Lone Wolf and Cub) and Kamimura Kazama, was a cult favorite long before Tarantino came along.

Born of a wronged woman who dies giving birth in prison, the beautiful and deadly Shirayuki (Meiko) is raised by a thief and trained in the martial arts by a priest to exact her revenge on the quartet of criminals who murdered her father and tortured her mother. Clad in a demure kimono and armed with a sword hidden in her parasol, she turns from proper lady to the fiery Lady Snowblood in the flick of an eye. The film’s comic book origins can be seen in the intermittent use of penciled panels to tell the story, in the vivid chapter titles (like “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds” and “Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers”) that mark her progress, and in the slash cutting the takes the film rapidly back and forth in time. Yet it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, full of color and movement strewn across the widescreen frame and highlighted by efficiently choreographed battles.

Both director and star reunite for Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), the one and only sequel to the hit film. Sentenced to death for her reign of murder, she is given a reprieve by a mysterious government agent in return for a mission to kill an enemy of the throne and winds up in the middle of a conspiracy where the heroes and villains are not so clear cut.

Both films are remastered from new 2k scans of 35mm prints struck directly from the camera negatives and the double feature (two discs on DVD, one on Blu-ray) includes new interviews with manga author Koike Kazuo and screenwriter Norio Osada. The insert folds out to a poster on one side and an essay by Howard Hampton on the other (along with notes on the film and the disc production.

BitterRiceSocial drama meets sexed-up melodrama and crime caper in Giuseppe De Santis’ 1949 Bitter Rice (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Vittorio Gassman as a small-time criminal who hides out from the police in the harvest of Northern Italy’s rice fields with his increasingly disillusioned accomplice (Doris Dowling) while romancing a sexy peasant worker (Silvana Mangano, all of 18 when made the film) who falls for his promises of wealth. It’s earthy stuff, with the all-woman rice harvest crew showing plenty of leg while toiling in the fields and lounging in lingerie between shifts while debating fair treatment and dreaming of a better life. It makes for a very entertaining mix of politics and hot-blooded melodrama and the culture of the seasonal workers—all women, with a few men around the fringes acting as little more than labor pimps—and their barracks society is fascinating. As director John L. Sullivan might put it, it’s social commentary… with a little sex in it.

The Criterion edition is mastered from a new high-definition scan of the original camera negative. The source material is not pristine but Criterion has used digital tools to clean up where possible, and the black and white images has good clarity and contrasts. On Blu-ray and DVD with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani’s 2008 documentary Giuseppe De Santis, his portrait of the director, and an interview with Lizzani from 2002, with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film critic Pasquale Iannone.

Videophiled: James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition

James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)

Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.

In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.

Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Classics: James Cagney Has To ‘Run For Cover’

Run For Cover (Olive), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a rare western starring James Cagney, an actor usually known for his street smarts and urban snap. Here he’s a drifter who is almost lynched in a case of mistaken identity and a trigger-happy coward of a sheriff. He’s tough as a coil of barbed wire, this guy, and he’s made sheriff by the townsfolk, not merely by way of apology but out of respect for his character and his cool under pressure. But against his story of a juvenile delinquent drama with John Derek as the angry young man on the frontier: an orphan crippled by the posse and bitter about the hand that life has dealt him. Curiously this came out the same year as Ray’s other story of misunderstood teens, Rebel Without a Cause, but John Derek has none of James Dean’s anxious energy or expressiveness and “Run For Cover” is an otherwise conventional western with some interesting edges. Watch for Ernest Borgnine in a small role. Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

Continue reading for more releases at Videodrone

TCM: ‘We Can’t Go Home Again’

In August of 1971, Nicholas Ray moved to Binghamton, New York, to take a two-year post with Binghamton University’s Harpur College as a visiting professor in their film department. “You can only learn film-making by making films,” was Ray’s mantra, and he put it into practice. He drafted all three classes to become his crew, cast and collaborators: forty-five students rotating through the various production roles (camera operator, sound recorder, editor, electrician, script supervisor, etc…) to learn hands-on filmmaking with Ray as mentor, ringmaster and director. We Can’t Go Home Again, first screened in unfinished form at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and famously unfinished until Susan Ray, the director’s widow, completed/restored/reconstructed the film in 2011, made its official re-premiere at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, almost forty years later. (The restoration was in collaboration with EYE Institute Netherlands and The Academy Film Archive and with the support of numerous film foundations and archives).

Begun under the working title “A Gun Under My Pillow” (a reference to Sal Mineo’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), the film was embarked upon with the spirit of collaboration and experimentation. Ray had not completed a film since 55 Days at Peking in 1963, itself a frustrating experience for the director thanks to interference from the producer. He spent the next decade trying to get new projects off the ground, with a break hanging out with Dennis Hopper on his radical The Last Movie (1971). He even started shooting a film about the trial of the Chicago Eight with the defendants playing themselves, grabbing footage of events outside the courtroom along the way. Some of that footage, along with other documentary slices of America’s volatile political culture, found its way into this new production. The rest was concocted and created by Ray and the students.

Ray himself narrates and stars as a version of himself: the director of Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night (1949) who comes to the liberal arts college to teach filmmaking and gets to know his students (overcoming their initial sense of distrust) as they embark on a film inspired by their own ideas and experiences. While making 55 Days at Peking, Ray had a premonition that he would never finish another film. That premonition, as well as premonitions of his death, frames his story. While grappling with the idea of being a teacher and an authority figure (“Don’t expect too much,” he tells one student, a resigned, ambivalent bit of philosophy where we expected the punchline to a joke), his students’ lives and relationships guide their stories. A former seminary student named Tom Farrell became a central character whose initial antagonism turns to camaraderie. Leslie Levinson, a dancer brought into the film by a friend, became another defining character in We Can’t Go Home Again, and her startling stories and daring revelations (all inspired by actual events in her life) push the film’s content as much as Ray’s relentless experimenting pushed the form. The film reflects and confronts the political volatility of the era, looks at sexual freedom and guarded relationships and takes an ambivalent stance toward authority figures.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

We Can’t Go Home Again debuts on TCM on Tuesday, October 25 and repeats Wednesday, October 26.

Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life – A Masterpiece Rescued and Revived

The African Queen is the most celebrated DVD debut this week, but I’d argue that Bigger Than Life (Criterion) is the most important. Never released on VHS, rarely seen on TV or cable (and even then only in pan-and-scan versions) or revived in the dwindling repertory circuit, this film has not received its due as a masterpiece of American social drama in large part because it’s been so damnably difficult to see. Criterion’s much-appreciated release now resolves that part of the problem with an edition that celebrates the film with due respect.

James Mason lives up the the title "Bigger Than Life"

Ostensibly a drama about prescription drug misuse and abuse and drawn from an article in “The New Yorker,” this portrait of a grade-school teacher and middle class father (played by James Mason, who also produced and helped develop the project) is as much about adult male masculinity and responsibility as a husband and father, and the pressure on him to live up to the ideal, as Rebel Without a Cause is about the emotional realities of being an American teenager. Ed Avery (Mason, playing an American schoolteacher without even trying to mask his distinctive British accent) is already suffering (secretly and silently) from spasms of pain in his hands and back while he (also secretly) moonlights a few afternoons a week as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. He’s afraid to complain about the pain because he can’t afford to be sick. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), is just as anxious and just as nervous to say anything about it; she’s afraid he’s having an affair. And though they laugh it off when they come clean, that anxiety is never far from their suburban existence.

Continue reading “Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life – A Masterpiece Rescued and Revived”