Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

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Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.

2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.

Out1Box1 – Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

Forget the plot, which has something to do with a masked stalker hunting the gorgeous models of a Rome fashion house and a personal diary that becomes the film’s maguffin, and just take in the color and style. The man, dressed in black with a blank white mask that evokes the fashion mannequins of the film, leads his partners, invariably beautiful women impeccably dressed in bright, bold colors, through an often elaborate, usually sadistic, tightly choreographed murder. The plot becomes secondary to spectacle of the dreamy dance of death, choreographed with sadistic precision, delivered in lurid color, spied upon with a restlessly gliding camera. There’s an undeniable edge of misogyny to the whole thing, but the psycho-thriller aspects seem beside the point as the narrative melts into abstract moments of dreamy, disconnected beauty. Cameron Mitchell (who also starred in a pair of Viking movies for Bava) plays the head of the fashion house and, thus, is the prime suspect in the eyes of the obsessive Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner)

Previous DVD releases have all been a little disappointing. Bava was a cinematographer and special effects artist before graduating to director. His films are painstakingly designed and painted on the screen and Blood and Black Lace is one of his most beautiful. You can see it right there in the opening credits, a Gothic fashion shoot bathed in intense, unreal sprays of red and purple and green. Arrow gives the film its American Blu-ray debut in a transfer newly mastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative, with both the Italian and English language soundtracks (note that American actor Mitchell’s voice in the English version is one of many dubbed by Paul Frees) and newly translated subtitles for the Italian version.

New to this edition and featured on both Blu-ray and DVD editions is commentary by film historian and Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas and the almost hour-long “Psycho Analysis,” an in-depth documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi among others. There is also an appreciation of the film by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, directors of the giallo tributes Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (10 mins), the visual essay “Gender and Giallo” by Michael Mackenzie (38 mins), a panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival (11 mins), the complete episode of David Del Valle’s television series The Sinister Image featuring his interview Cameron Mitchell (56 mins), and the alternative US opening titles (sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release). Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the neo-giallo short film Yellow by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt. The accompanying lavishly illustrated booklet features new essays by giallo historian Howard Hughes and David Del Valle and a print interview with Joe Dante.

whathavesolongeWhat Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is celebrated as one of the masterpieces of giallo. It’s also one of the most disturbing entries in the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume. On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side and it turns out that their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling.

Director / co-writer Massimo Dallamano, the cinematographer of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) and director of salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion is purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality.

What Have You Done to Solange? has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off, and the lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. It was shot with the actors delivering their lines in English so the dub would better match. Given the international make-up of the cast, the English language version is likely the definitive one here.

New to this edition is commentary by horror historians and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman, new interviews with actors Karin Baal (13 mins), Fabio Testi (21 mins), and Fulvio Lucisano (11 mins), the half-hour visual essay “Innocence Lost” by Michael Mackenzie, plus a booklet with new essays on the gialloscores of Ennio Morricone by Howard Hughes and the career of actress Camille Keaton by Art Ettinger.

deathwalkstwiceDeath Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is a double shot of gialloconnected not by story or character but by genre, style, and creative collaborators. Both films are directed by Luciano Ercoli, written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén (aka May) Velasco, and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970).

Death Walks in High Heels (1971) opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole (Nieves Navarro), a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu), we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’re do well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish the alpha male dominance while living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one. Frank Wolff is the friendliest stalker on the stripper circuit, following Nicole from one club to the next and finally whisking her out of the country to his English seaside villa to escape the killer and the cops. (Key scenes with Paris and London landmarks were shot on location but otherwise Spain and Italy stand in for France and Britain.)

The quirky Inspector Baxter (Carlo Gentili), a sardonic police investigator with a dry wit and a slow-witted assistant (George Rigaud), is right out of the krimi, as are the masked killer (whose faceless appearance is just as much about instilling terror as concealing identity), the gallery of eccentric suspects, and the splashes of gallows humor. And then there’s the voyeurism and the disembodied eyes. The operatic, intense close-ups that Sergio Leone turned into a stylistic trademark of the spaghetti western are transformed by Ercoli into mystery and menace: the eyes of unidentified onlookers, isolated in extreme close-up or framed by the holes of a mask or the lenses of glasses, binoculars, and telescopes. Nicole can’t escape the gaze of lusting men even in hiding and just who is doing the watching is as much a mystery as who is behind the mask.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) is not actually a sequel but in the proudly opportunistic tradition of Italian genre pictures it recalls an earlier success, in this case the filmmakers’ own. This time around, Navarro is a fashion model named Valentina (a reference to the comic book series by Guido Crepax?) who reluctantly agrees to be the subject of an experimental hallucinogenic drug for an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (Andreu). In the middle of a psychedelic trip she witnesses a gruesome murder in the apartment across the way but apartment is spotless by the time the police check it out the next day, The reporter chalks it up to an acid flashback—there actually was a murder committed in the same apartment months ago and he’s convinced the drug unlocked a memory she buried out of trauma—so Valentina becomes a high fashion Nancy Drew to navigate a world of eccentric informants, colorful suspects, and bohemian allies.

Ercoli pushes his style to more stylistic flamboyance: curious camera angles, unsettling compositions, a sense of Gothic around the edges of the modern world. Valentina’s sometime-lover Stefano (Pietro Martellanza), an artist with a lavish studio, gives Ercoli the opportunity to splash a little abstract color around. He pushes the film through creative set pieces and wild plot twists with a snappy pace, keeping the rollercoaster of suspense and spectacle moving with rapid but smooth momentum. Most refreshingly, Navarro takes the lead in the investigation and in the film. The men are a few beats behind, though no less arrogant for it. She isn’t even obligated to disrobe this time around, which I attribute to a sign of respect and affection from director to actress. The married and lived happily ever until Ercoli’s death in 2015.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera elements and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. High Heels features commentary by giallo historian Tim Lucas and interviews with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro from 2012 (24 mins), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi from 2015 (32 mins), and composer Stelvio Cipriani from 2015 (26 mins), and a brief video introduction by Gastaldi. Midnight features commentary by Lucas, a 2015 interview with Ernesto Gastaldi (31 mins), visual essay “Desperately Seeking Susan” by Michael Mackenzie that explores at the collaboration between Ercoli and Nieves (27 mins), and the alternate TV version of the film, which runs four minutes longer and features additional and alternate footage. The alternate version is taken from an inferior video source. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by Danny Shipka, Troy Howarth, and Leonard Jacobs. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

killerdamesKiller Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pair up the only two giallidirected by Miraglia, who learned the ropes of genre filmmaking working his way through the studio system as a script supervisor and assistant director before making his directorial debut in 1967 with the crime thriller Assassination. Miraglia is more indebted to the Gothic tradition in his brief engagement with the giallo and his two features, which are embraced by some critics as minor classics of the genre, are more mystery thriller than horror. They also, like Blood and Black Lace and Death Walks at Midnight, embrace the fashions of the era, which he weaves into the Gothic flashback to create something a little different for the genre.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) opens with the attempted escape from an asylum, and then jumps ahead to his freedom. Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a handsome widower living in a run-down mansion in the countryside haunted by memories of his dead wife. To deal with the grief he frequents nightclubs and strip joints in the city, looking for red-headed beauties who resemble his late wife, then proceeds to lure into the family dungeon to torture and kill. Yes, all those dreamy, soft-focus reveries of naked romps in the woods turn out to be memories of his wife’s affairs. His release from psychiatric observation was apparently premature but in perhaps the most unexpected twist in the film he shifts from villain to victim. When he marries Gladys (Marina Malfatti), a woman whose wardrobe is defined by dizzying plunging necklines and blouses that surely must be glued to her breasts, mere hours after they meet at Gothic-chic party, the dead Evelyn appears. Whether she’s an actual ghost or an elaborate scheme, there is something decidedly human killing off members of the manor and there is no shortage of suspects—a bitter wheelchair-bound aunt, the brother of the dead wife who slinks around spying on everyone, a devoted cousin who keeps showing up—or victims.

It’s a confused plot—by the time the film ends it’s completely forgotten that he’s an insane serial killer—with details that are a dubious even for the coincidence-laced genre. Seriously, who leaves an open bag of powdered sulfuric acid next to a swimming pool? But it’s also a handsome film with great locations and art direction and a memorable mix of fashions. The walk through the dark, decrepit old manor let slide into ruin that ends up in Alan’s modern, well-life bachelor pad is an effective bit of atmospheric whiplash in a film where the past and present are constantly colliding, and the journey to the family crypt is like a trip back hundreds of years (or at least to an early sixties Italian Gothic horror film).

Red Queen Kills Seven Times - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Red Queen Kills Seven Times – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) refers to an ancient family curse that a kindly grandfather (Rudolf Schündler) tells his constantly battling young granddaughters, who are already on the verge of fulfilling it: every hundred years, a brutal, bullying heir to the manor is killed by her sister and then returns from the grave to kill seven times, the final victim being her murderer. Jump fourteen years ahead and Kitty (Barbara Bouchet), the blond sister, is now a photographer for a Berlin fashion house and the brunette sister is missing (“moved to Canada,” everyone says) when the grandfather dies and the Bavarian family castle is to pass to the girls. In fact, the sister is dead and the curse begins again as members of the family and the fashion house are murdered by a mysterious figure clad in black with a red cape. Like Evelyn before it, the DNA comes from the German krimi, and this one is even set and shot in Germany. Details that appear confusing at first—three of the leading actresses have a startling resemblance, to the point that you might mistake one for another—pay off by the end. The plots is overly confusing (common to the genre) bit it ultimately fits together nicely (not so common). Also note an early role by future genre star Sybil Danning.

Both of Miraglia’s films straddle the old and new. Their sophisticated, fashionable protagonists live modern urban lives yet are constantly drawn back to the family manor, a legacy rooted in family history and tragedy. These are centuries-old mansion and castles where paintings of the dead keep the past around as if haunting the place. His character have inherited the baggage of family history and it weighs heavily on them. It’s a sensibility reminiscent of Corman’s Poe films brought into the modern world and that past struggles with the present for control over our heroes.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera negatives and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. Evelyn features new commentary by Troy Howarth and interviews with actress Erika Blanc and critic Stephen Thrower, plus archival interviews with Blanc and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi and a brief video introduction by Blanc. Red Queen features new commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, interviews with actress Sybil Danning and Thrower, an alternate opening, and a brief video introduction by Baraldi, plus archival interviews with Baraldi and actors Marino Masé and Barbara Bouchet and the interview featurette “If I Met Miraglia Today” with Blanc, Baraldi, and Masé. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs, and Rachael Nisbet. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

edgarblackcatsEdgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pairs up two Italian films that use Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” as a foundation for bloody horror but otherwise have little in common.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key(1972), directed by Sergio Martino, is the more interesting of the two, and it stars the voluptuous, dark-eyed beauty Edwige Fenech, the sex bomb of giallo, in what was (in the words historian Justin Harries) “Her finest and most atypical role.” Oliveira (Luigi Pistilli) is a once popular novelist now blocked and taking out his frustrations on his poor abused wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg). He carries on flagrant affairs and plays the decadent lord of the manor for the flower children of a local tent camp. Fenech is the writer’s gorgeous young niece Floriana, a sexy free spirit who arrives for a visit and immediately stirs things up when she gets involved with a motocross racer, an affair that riles up the writer. Meanwhile all of Oliveira’s mistresses are systematically and brutally murdered. It’s classic giallo: a mysterious killer stalking beautiful women, interspersed with scenes of sex, sadism, voyeurism, and utterly gratuitous nudity. But it’s built on a narrative architecture that is faithful to the Poe short story—a black cat named Satan, a family treasure, and a conspiracy of terror behind the murders. It’s just filled out with giallo twists and spectacle, the most glorious spectacle being the voluptuous, dark-eyed Fenech.

The Black Cat (1981), directed by Lucio Fulci, throws in elements from other Poe tales. Patrick Magee stars as a psychic who can send his pet cat to kill his enemies and Mimsy Farmer as a photographer and amateur detective who notices the scratches on each victim that the cops missed. It’s a confusing mystery and a muddled film and while it features blood and nudity, it is tame compared Fulci’s infamous gore classics.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room features a new interview with Sergio Martino (34 mins), the retrospective featurette “Unveiling The Vice” featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (23 mins), the visual essays “Dolls Of Flesh And Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino” by Michael Mackenzie and “The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech” with film historian Justin Harries (30 mins apiece), and a brief interview with Eli Roth. The Black Cat features commentary by filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, the featurette “Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness” with film historian Stephen Thrower (25 mins), a new interview with actress Dagmar Lassander (20 mins), an archival interview with actor David Warbeck (70 mins), and the featurette “In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat” on the film’s locations (8 mins). The box set is limited to 3000 copies and features a booklet. Also available separately with all the supplements except the booklet.

tenebraeTenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD) – Dario Argento’s 1982 feature was his return to the classic giallo after his excursions into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, a best-selling thriller novelist whose promotional tour in Italy takes a terrible turn when a mysterious killer recreates the brutal murders from his book with real life victims. At first the killer targets so-called “deviants,” then Neal’s own friends, and finally promises that the author himself is next on the list, which prompts the author to turn detective.

Columbo it ain’t, but Argento has always been more concerned with style than story and his execution of the crimes is pure cinematic bravura. From the simple beauty of a straight-razor shattering a light bulb as the camera catches the red hot filament slowly black out to an ambitious crane shot that creeps up and over the sides of a house under siege in a voyeuristic survey that would make Hitchcock proud, Argento turns the art of murder into stylish spectacle. He even lets his kinkier side show with flashbacks of an adolescent boy and a teasing dominatrix in red stiletto heels, which come back as a key motif of the film. There’s something creepy about Argento’s fascination with the slicing and dicing big eyed, scantily clad Italian beauties, which he addresses with self-deprecating humor in a scene where Neal is taken to task for the misogynist violence of his stories, but his cinematic command of color and movement and point of view gives it a perverse beauty and he knows how pull a cinematic surprise.

Previously on DVD, the Blu-ray debut features the original Italian cut newly remastered from the original camera negative and the color is glorious. New to this edition is commentary by Argento expert Maitland McDonagh and the 90-minute documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of Giallo from Calum Waddell, which chronicles the development of the genre from its roots in early 20th century crime fiction and its influence on the modern slasher film. Rare English-language sequence insert shots are mastered in HD and playable within the film via Seamless Branching, and the disc include the American credits sequence (retitled Unsane in its original American release). The limited-edition Steelbook special edition also includes a bonus DVD copy, a CD soundtrack, and a booklet.

horriblehichThe Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly giallo but it is a forerunner to the genre. The 1962 Italian horror from Riccardo Fredo (under the name Robert Hampton) stars Barbara Steele (whose voice is dubbed) as the new young wife to widower aristocrat and famed surgeon Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), who wife accidentally died years ago while playing their (consensual) kinky sex games. She arrives in the grand old manor to find the legacy of the dead wife dominating the household.

The title is only the most prominent tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The setting and plot evoke Rebecca and Notorious, right down to Harriet White as the severe, old family maid who remains devoted to the dead mistress and keeps certain doors locked from the new lady of the manor, and a skull found hidden under the bed covers is out of Under Capricorn. (Tim Lucas wrote a great Video Watchblog piece on the film’s influence of and homage to Alfred Hitchcock.) The style, however, is in the tradition of the Roger Corman Poe movies of the early 1960s, with Gothic style, intense color, sets that look evoke ancient castles and spooky dungeons, and that distinctive obsession with death with a kinky Italian twist that gets picked up in giallo. The hidden doorways and secret rooms, the basement chamber, even the cat slinking through scene after scene, all come from Poe.

Olive gives the film its American disc debut on a terrific-looking disc. No supplements and it’s the shorter, English-dubbed American cut only, but it’s essential for fans of giallo and Barbara Steele.

manhattanbabyManhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD+CD) – Lucio Fulci directs yet another knock-off of The Exorcist, this one starring Christopher Connelly as an archeologist who brings his family to Egypt. A blind woman in a marketplace gives his daughter (Brigitta Boccoli) an ancient amulet that apparently imbues her with a curse, or perhaps a demonic possession, that she carries back to New York City. Connelly is the token American star in an otherwise Italian cast, with Cinza De Ponti (Miss Italy of 1979) as the family nanny and Cosmimo Cinieri (who also co-starred in Fulci’s The New York Ripper) is the antiques dealer and amateur exorcist. Fulci also borrows from The OmenPoltergeist, and other films, and tosses them all together with his own obsessions (eyes and blindness) in this supernatural mess. Fulci, whose cavalier way with narrative logic stands out in a genre where such issues are routinely ignored, has his fans, thanks to the bizarre beauty and surreal spell of his best films. This isn’t one of his best but it has its moments and Blue Underground delivers a terrific three-disc special edition

Both the Blu-ray and DVD discs feature the great collection of new video interviews with composer Fabio Frizzi (56 minutes), actor Cosimo Cinieri (9 minutes), makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani (11 minutes), and Fulci historian Stephen Thrower (12 minutes), plus a live studio performance of Fabio Frizzi playing the main theme. Carried over from the previous DVD release is an 8-minute interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. Also includes a bonus CD with Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack and a booklet with an essay by Fulci specialist Troy Howarth.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

fixedbayonetsSamuel Fuller writes and directs Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a Korean War platoon drama set in snowy winter mountains. The small-scale production focuses on a small squad of American soldiers ordered to hold a mountain pass while their division retreats and stars Richard Basehart as Corporal Denno, a soldier who can’t bring himself to fire his rifle at the enemy and bristles at the thought of taking command, and Gene Evans as Sgt. Rock, a grizzled veteran who passes on his wisdom to Denno as senior officers are killed and he becomes the highest-ranking officer. Their only hope is to create the illusion of a much larger force hidden in the mountains and Rock has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s the story of ordinary men rising to the occasion when the situation demands. Fuller draws on his service as a soldier in Africa and Europe in World War II to create the platoon dynamics (the squad is filled with all sorts of types) and the tactics and battle action. The entire film is shot on soundstages, with sets recreating the snow-covered mountains and forests and the caves in which the soldiers take refuge. It makes for a film small in scope and scale and more suggestive than realistic, and the artificial setting gives the film a kind of abstracted, theatrical quality that eschews sentimentality and melodrama for a blunt portrait men facing death that come suddenly and arbitrarily. James Dean is an uncredited extra but he’s hard to pick out.

Debuts on Blu-ray with commentary featuring film historian Michael Schlesinger with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the widow and the daughter of Sam Fuller.

enemybelowThe Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a World War II submarine drama based on the novel of the same name by Commander D. A. Rayner, stars Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, the newly-appointed commander of an American Destroyer in the South Atlantic, and German star Curd Jürgens making his American film debut as Commander Von Stolberg, a German submarine commander whose mission is imperiled when the American warship gives chase. Murell is not a career Navy man—he was a merchant seaman before the war—and his unconventional tactics have the crew questioning his experience, but they rally under his command and they rise to the challenge of their first major enemy action. Directed by Dick Powell in a deliberate (at times plodding) manner, the film offers its share war movie action but the focus is on the battle of wits, a kind of chess game played with torpedoes and depth charges, with the two captains attempting to outwit the other by anticipating one another’s movies. David Hedison and Theodore Bikel co-star as the respective second officers. The 1957 feature has enough distance from the war to sidestep patriotic themes to present two officers dedicated to duty with dignity and respect for their respective crews. It won an Academy Award for its special effects and inspired the 1966 Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” with the Starship Enterprise recreating the role of the American Destroyer and a Romulan warship playing the submarine.

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

billtedcollectionBill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray) gives the special edition treatment to a pair of cult slacker comedies. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are the high school underachievers and would-be rocker stars who are destined to save the world with their music, or so claims their most excellent fan from the future, a time-travelling sage named Rufus (George Carlin). But first they have to pass high school history and learn to play their instruments. Directed by Stephen Herek, this is spirited doofus comedy sustained by the sweet, slack-jawed performances of Reeves and Winter as dumbfounded idiots who stumble through time to cram for their history final with the help of a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to round up Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, and Socrates (among others) and bring them back to suburban California. Their finest moment: a meeting of minds with Socrates (whom they call “Soh-craits”) over a soap-opera proverb. “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

Peter Hewitt takes the reigns for the inspired sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which is even sillier and funnier. Reeves and Winter are killed by evil robot doubles and sent to hell, where they play Twister with the Grim Reaper (a hilariously deadpan William Sadler with an indeterminate accent) and draft him into their band Wyld Stallyns (where the Grim Reaper goes show-biz with a vengeance). Wacky and weird and nonsensical, it’s hardly satire but the sheer invention of their ludicrous journey will have most dudes rolling on the floor. Both are rated PG and each film features two new commentary tracks: one featuring actor Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, the other with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

A third disc includes the new documentaries “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun! – A Look Back at a MostExcellent Adventure” (61 minutes) and “Bill and Ted Go to Hell – Revisiting a Bogus Journey” (52 minutes), both featuring new interviews with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and co-writer Chris Matheson, among others. Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are the 30-minute “The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary” (with Winter, writers Matheson and Ed Solomon, directors Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt, and producer Scott Kroopf), the 20-minute interview featurette “The Original Bill and Ted: In Conversation with Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon,” plus “Score! An Interview with Guitarist Steve Vai,” “Hysterical Personages: A History Lesson” (on the historical characters on Excellent Adventure), “The Linguistic Stylings of Bill & Ted” (on their particular slang), and an air guitar tutorial by Bjorn Turoq and the Rockness.

captive1915The Captive (1915) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cecil B. DeMille helped established Hollywood as the center of American filmmaking in the 1910s and long before he made his reputation with a series of salacious comedies and a selection of grandly-mounted Biblical epics, he was cranking out a dozen films a year. This is one of those films, a short feature (running under an hour) that he produced and directed in 1915 from a play he wrote with his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson.

Set in Montenegro during the Baltic Wars, it features early silent movie superstar Blanche Sweet as a Balkan farm girl left to tend the family farm and raise her kid brother when her elder brother is killed in battle against the Turks. House Peters is a Turkish POW who is assigned to work her farm and defends her from invading Turkish soldiers. The simplistic drama recreates the Balkin setting in California and DeMille directs in a straightforward manner that essentially illustrates the intertitles. Blanche Sweet is charming as the plucky farm girl who teaches her captive to do laundry and plow a field and House is handsome, chivalrous, and gentlemanly, the all-American boy as Turkish aristocrat in a fez that looks as authentic as a Shriner’s cap. File it under historical curiosity, an example of the unsophisticated storytelling that was old-fashioned within a year thanks to the impact of D.W. Griffith and by DeMille’s own rapid evolution as a filmmaker.

Though the packaging claims it was thought lost, it was actually discovered in the Paramount Vault in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress. Still, it’s never been on home video in any form so this is the first chance most audiences have to see the film. No supplements.

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 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

Videophiled: Olive presents ‘Dreaming The Quiet Man,’ ‘Best Seller,’ ‘The End of Violence,’ Convicts’

JohnFordQuiet
Olive

John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a feature-length documentary on the making of John Ford’s beloved romantic classic, frames the production in the feeling that the Irish people have for the film, Ford’s tribute to his Irish-American legacy. Director Sé Merry Doyle provides a survey on Ford’s career and offers insight into the contradictory character of the director (Maureen O’Hara, interviewed for the documentary, describes her complicated and sometimes trying relationship with Ford, who was in love with her and showed it by tormenting her), and includes rare color home movie footage from the set and features interviews with filmmakers and film history experts Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and Irish locals who were involved in the film. It falls somewhere between stand-alone documentary and elaborate supplement to an unproduced special edition disc set.

Olive rarely if ever offers supplements on their discs. This is an exception, and fittingly so, as the extras are scenes and interviews deleted from the film.

Best Seller
Olive

Best Seller (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is modest but smartly-scripted thriller from 1987 that holds up remarkably well, thanks to a savvy script by Larry Cohen, who was better known at the time as a cagey creator of high-concept, low-budget exploitation films, and great casting. James Woods once again brings charm to the role of a pathologically vindictive hitman who goes to a Joseph Wambaugh-like cop/author (Brian Dennehy) to expose his former employer. This narcissist wants to be the hero of his next book and Cohen gives Woods plenty to work with, from his great lines (which he delivers with the cocky grin and a predator’s confidence) to a peacock’s pride in his work. He cannily mixes social satire and genre twists in his clever screenplay of an unlikely friendship between two men with more history than they realize; his dialogue has a bite and an unforced wit that hovers somewhere between B-movie gangster dramas and buddy pictures. It wasn’t a hit when it came out—director John Flynn was better with character than action and never really gets the blood pumping through it—but it is still a smart, lean thriller and a minor gem of the modern crime genre.

EndofViolence
Olive

The ambitious 1996 thriller The End of Violence (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) finds director Wim Wenders overreaching to make grand statements about identity, conscience, and the surveillance state in modern L.A. from a screenplay with big ideas built on unformed characters and arch dialogue. Bill Pullman is the ostensible hero, a Roger Corman-like producer kidnapped by a pair of thugs with orders to kill him, while Gabriel Byrne watches powerlessly from on high, a meek Big Brother wired up through surveillance cameras hidden throughout the city. It’s ostensibly a thriller but Wenders twists what little onscreen violence there is into either coldly distanced observations (like watching a movie?) or abrupt but anonymous killings. The narrative is a tangle, neglecting characters and leaving the vast conspiracy more a suggestion than a fully conceived plot, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but Wenders fans. But I am a Wenders fan myself and for all the faults I enjoy Wenders’ unerring eye for image and color, which creates an often beautiful film of unsettling menace and haunting mystery, and his generosity of character. The previous DVD was poorly mastered and non-anamorphic, so this new edition is a vast improvement.

Convicts
Olive

Convicts (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), which Horton Foote adapted from his own one-act play, is a coming-of-age story set on a turn-of-the-century Texas plantation owned by an aging skinflint of a landowner (played by Robert Duvall) who uses convict labor to work his spread. It’s a small, intimate story about mortality and Duvall, who won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, which Foote wrote, inhabits with a mix of authority and fragility, like a lonely King Lear slipping into dementia. Lukas Haas, who is our perspective on the story, plays the 13-year-old boy working in the plantation and brings a clear-eyed attentiveness and childlike doggedness to his character, and James Earl Jones co-stars as the manager of the plantation store, the closest that the owner has to a friend. Peter Masterson directs with an easy intimacy that serves the understated performances and Foote’s lyrical language without actually distinguishing the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngels
Olive

Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels became a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction. The film was released before the ratings system was in effect but later given an R-rating for drug use and the HD master looks very good, especially considering its production history. Corman shot quick and dirty when necessary and a few shots stick out as soft or out-of-focus, quite likely a matter Corman making due and moving on to the next set-up.

PsychOut
Olive

Psych-Out (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) from 1968 belongs to another genre of youth exploitation cinema, one that put hippies and flower-power and counterculture imagery on the screen with a cautionary warning about the dangers of drugs and the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle. This one, however, came from music mogul Dick Clark, and for all the drug culture stereotypes and free love displays, it’s at least more open to the positive aspects of San Francisco hippie culture than most counterculture portraits. Part of that is surely due to director Richard Rush, who explored counterculture protest movement with greater insight and intelligence in the underrated Getting Straight and direct the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man, as well as a cast of ambitious youth movie veterans, many of them on the cusp of becoming major stars.

Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco from a straight suburban home in search of her brother (Bruce Dern), an artist who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Jack Nicholson is Stoney, the callous hippie leader of a jam band who helps her dodge the cops and invites her to stay in his communal home (where there’s always a party going on) and his bed, and Dean Stockwell is band drop-out turned self-styled guru Dave, who lends his connections to her search and his patience to her pain.

This is the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power scene of hippie communes, free love, bad trips (future filmmaker Henry Jaglom sees dead people), and rock happenings, and while it tends to confirm the clichés of the era it’s more critical of the mainstream culture that dismisses and even persecutes the hippies. I’m not really sure why there’s a blue collar gang of tough guys out to get Jenny’s blissed-out, freaked-out brother, who lives in the city dump and is known as “the Seeker”—is there some Jesus allegory that got lost in the rewrites?—but it sure paints the straights as an intolerant, bigoted bunch. And Rush appreciates the energy and the idealism of the culture at its best while acknowledging contradictions in the individuals within. Nicholson’s Stoney can be a groovy guy but he’s also a little self-absorbed and certainly ambitious, trying to get his band out of the one-night-stands and into big venues and a recording contract. There’s something calculating about his embrace of the culture and insincere in his relationship with Jenny, who is more of a curiosity than a commitment. When he’s bored of the novelty his attentions wander to the blond groupie turned band tambourine player (Linda Gaye Scott) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.

Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson

The music from Nicholson’s band is shamelessly derivative (their signature tune is reversal of a familiar Hendrix riff) but the film also features The Strawberry Alarm Clock performing their hit “Incense and Peppermint” in front of the liquid lightshow and Sky Saxon (of The Seeds) leading a funky funeral march. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who went on to shoot Easy Rider) brings a vivid, psychedelic look to the film that are nicely preserved on this disc. And watch for future TV producer and film director Garry Marshall as a plainclothes cop searching for Jenny in the first scene, sticking out of the coffeehouse scene like he’s Sgt. Joe Friday at a peace rally. Unfortunately this disc does not include the featurette from the DVD release.

More Blu-ray and DVD releases from Olive at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘High School Confidential!’

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High School Confidential! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Trashy, tawdry, and weirdly energetic, with tough talking high school delinquents played by college grads spouting mock-beat dialogue, this B+ exploitation classic from producer Albert Zugsmith (who went from Written on the Wind and Touch of Evil to such artifacts as Sex Kittens Go to College and Confessions of an Opium Eater) and director Jack Arnold is a terrifically entertaining piece of drug scare cinema. Russ Tamblyn blows into school in a hot rod convertible, all smart aleck attitude and high-rolling hoodlum ambition, and muscles his way into the local drug scene, but this hep-talking cat is actually an undercover agent, the original 21 Jump Street–style baby-faced narc working his way up to the local drug lord known as Mr. A.

It’s a thoroughly bizarro collision of teens-gone-wild hysteria and drug scare edutainment (“If you start on the weed, you graduate to the hard stuff”), with beatnik dialogue (“I’m puttin’ it down” / “Well I’m pickin’ it up!”), clueless parents, and stiff authority figures delivering the “truth” about drugs in the high schools in scenes that grind the movie to a halt for moralizing sermons. It opens with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out the rocking theme song on a piano in the back of a pickup (which then drives off, never to be seen again), co-stars Mamie Van Doren as a sloshed slutty suburban housewife who is supposed to be Tamblyn’s aunt but keeps trying to seduce him, and features John Drew Barrymore (Drew’s dad) as the drawling high school kingpin who delivers the story of Columbus as a piece of beat performance art, which is merely prelude to a full-blown beat poetry recitation. Jan Sterling plays the “ccol” teacher determined to really understand youth today that she lets her students get away with utterly disrespectful behavior, button-nose cutie Diane Jergens is Barrymore’s weed-head kitten, Michael Landon the clean-cut big man on campus who isn’t as square as he looks, and Jackie Coogan the coffee-house owner with a sideline in mary-jane and heroine.

Jack Arnold is best known for bringing intelligence to fifties science fiction cinema (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man) but actually had quite a range, making everything from westerns to comedies. He has an eye for staging and a great sense of timing, not to mention a way with making overdone performances fit into the same movie universe, and he embraces the outré elements with such energy that they take on a life of their own. It’s camp, to be sure, but great fun as a crazy take on adult fears of high school delinquency and Arnold’s commitment to this ridiculous portrait of teenage life and corruption in suburbia pulls it all together in a crazy warped mirror that has a life all its own. “Tomorrow is a drag, man, tomorrow is a king-size bust.”

This is a CinemaScope production and the only previous legitimate DVD release was non-anamorphic. It’s been remastered in HD for the Blu-ray debut and new DVD release, which alone makes it a necessary upgrade. It’s not perfect, mind you, and there’s a brief rough patch with major scuffs and scratches and damage that sends the picture shaking for a second or two, but it offers a sharp image and a clean soundtrack. No supplements.

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