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

The Criterion Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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