I Wanna Mow Ya…

One of my favorite movie sidebar genres of the late 1950s-early 1960s – sex in the suburbs – gets a bona fide parody while it was happening in 1961’s truly funny Bob Hope vehicle, BACHELOR IN PARADISE, now on Blu-Ray from The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.

While the genre had been blessed with (what we now call) romcoms (1957’s Tunnel of Love and 1958’s The High Cost of Loving, both in black-and-white), this is first all-out spoof of what was then considered desired middle-class American living.

And it was perfect timing for Bob Hope.

Hope had just scored one of his biggest hits ever, The Facts of Life – a then-daring comedic look at adultery. Huge box-office and an Oscar-nominated script (later reworked as A Touch of Class), plus critical accolades around the globe stunned all involved. Of course, a sort-of risque follow-up would sequelize (my term).

In PARADISE, Hope plays expat lascivious author Adam J. Niles, who, after WWII decided to remain in Europe. It proved to be an inspired choice as he became the Harold Robbins of smarmy Berlitz guides to international love-making (How the French Live, How the Italians Live, etc.). But like many Yank celebs during this period, he was being bilked by shady accountants; when it’s discovered that he’s paid no income tax for eons, Niles is extradited back to the States to pay up or go to directly to jail.

While the IRS realizes he’s not at fault (and actively search to capture the errant numbers cruncher), Niles must still face at least some music. It’s his publisher who kinda comes to the rescue. Having invested in a typical West Coast suburban community, he suggests that the notorious author be ensconced there under an alias, and begin what could be his greatest book ever, How the Americans Live. Holding his nose at the get-go, Niles reluctantly agrees threatening that such a venture will likely prove a disaster (“I’d heard [sex had] been replaced by television”).

Moving into the community immediately gives the comedian full-range of snarky barbs, quips and asides – often at the expense of the two administrators of the white picket fence Camelot-era nabe, dubbed Paradise Village: Rosemary Howard, a beautiful career pistol and Thomas Jynson (Don Porter), a stuck-up, humorless dullard wed to the “town”’s most promiscuous babe.

That Rosemary (a wonderful strutting Lana Turner, back at MGM, and essentially doing a riff on her comeback role in Peyton Place) and Niles verbally joust via inspired bon mots escalates from where they can barely stand each other to where they can barely not take their hands off each other.

Hope’s alias is almost given away when, as a bachelor with a global knowledge of romance, he holds court and woos Paradise’s quite fetching bored and ignored female populace.

It all ends in a riotous courtroom battle, partially reminiscent of the judicial moments in My Favorite Wife.

BACHELOR IN PARADISE is more than a typical Bob Hope comedy; it’s actually an astute satirical look at American culture and sexual mores of the early Sixties. It was cleverly conceived as an original story by Vera Capary (Laura, A Letter to Three Wives); then scripted by two top-tier scribes, Hal Kanter (who began as one of Hope’s gag men, and scored solo as a screenplay champ, producer, and director) and Valentine Davies (author of Miracle on 34th Street). Plus, of course, an array of jokes salted throughout by Hope’s barrage of ever-present writers.

The precision punches at embryonic shopping malls, drive-ins, carpools, and such pleasures as auto dishwashers, parking, and bland plastic splendor all get the Hope treatment.

A fave moment is when his first encounter with laundry detergent practically floods Paradise with foamy residue. When the outraged fire department arrives, they demand why Hope called them. “If I hollered ‘Soap!,’ who’d come?” Seems logical to me.

Hope and Turner have a terrific chemistry, but, then again, the comic usually got along with most of his female costars. Sadly, this was their only movie together – due to their conflicting studios (Paramount and Metro); nevertheless, they fared excellently during the 1940s on Hope’s radio broadcasts where Turner, like Fox’s Linda Darnell enjoyed themselves so much that the surviving shows reveal them frequently breaking up on live mikes.

The remaining cast is one of the best Hope ever had, and comprises a gallery of A-1 Fifties and Sixties character movie and TV thesps, including John McGiver, Virginia Grey, Clinton Sundberg, Alan Hewitt, Robert Carson, Roberta Shore, Mary Treen, and Sally Yarnell. Of special note is Janis Paige as the flirty, frustrated spouse of Porter, and the oft teamed Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton as young next door marrieds (likely paired due to their respective heights, this is one of five pics they did together at MGM).

One scene during the aforementioned courtroom finale is a peach, as Judge Agnes Moorehead is driven near-crazy by Paradise’s town gossip (the great Reta Shaw). I distinctly remember that when Shaw referred to Moorehead as “your Honoress,” my parents roared in laughter (as did the entire theater).

BACHELOR beautifully captures the pastel architectural look of the period (and why wouldn’t it?), as splendidly captured by d.p. Joseph Ruttenberg (at Metro since the mid-1930s), in restored MetroColor and CinemaScope.

The director, amazingly, is none-other than Jack Arnold. Arnold, best known for sci-fi outings as It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, indeed was an unusual choice, but one who admirably displays a genuine flair for comedy (he likewise made uncredited contributions to the story).

The music, too, reflects the era – with bells on. The lively, jaunty score and theme song composed by Henry Mancini, adds yet another nostalgic tone to the movie. Mancini, who’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s “Moon River” was chart-busting the entire year of 1961, was rewarded by getting star billing in the ads, trailers, and TV sports – a rare feat for any music maestro, and one that would be repeated through the decade with work on Hatari!, The Pink Panther, and many other soundtrack-selling champs. The main title song was Oscar-nominated, with lyrics (by Mack David) that couldn’t get more Mad Men-ier: “Lights down low, Frankie’s records, And cocktails on the floor…”.

The new High Definition Warner Archive Blu-Ray of BACHELOR IN PARADISE looks and sounds great (the latter utilizing the original magnetic stereo tracks). As you might suspect (in case you haven’t guessed), I love Bob Hope movies, and am particularly partial to this one – certainly his last great effort from a formidable 60-plus title motion-picture comedy filmography.

BACHELOR IN PARADISE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround. The Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment Co./Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B0923YKSXW. SRP: $22.49.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLU-RAY

A gorgeous deco celluloid train-wreck, 1932’s DEVIL AND THE DEEP, one of the most notorious pre-Code movies in Paramount (or any mount) history, emerges in High Definition, thanks to the valiant crew at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

As navigated by Marion Gering, DEVIL‘s plot is borderline nonsense, but in a lip-smacking trashy way. While Gering’s direction is professional enough, the writing by noted scribe Benn Levy (Blackmail, The Old Dark House), from a story by Harry Hervey, is downright awful. It’s all based on a French novel by Maurice Larrouy that obviously lost something in the translation.

On the plus side, the exquisite Charles Lang photography is spectacular (and looks swell in 1080p). But that’s not the key purchase incentive.

The reason for this movie’s fame (or infamy) is that cast!

The picture was assembled as a project for the studio’s latest female star, Tallulah Bankhead. She would make a total of six pre-Code pics for Paramount, most of them raunchy and watchable, but nothing approaching the caliber of, let’s say Stanwyck’s Baby Face or Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman.

In DEVIL AND THE DEEP, Banky plays Diana, the stunningly beauteous, sophisticated wife of Naval commander Charles Sturm. Their current home is somewhere in the exotic, Valentino-esque Middle East. Sturm is in charge of the military base’s oceanic operations (in the desert?), particularly the U.S. government’s new state-of-the-art super submarine. Diana’s rapacious flirting takes the “base” part to a new level, concentrating on the male populace’s navals and working her way down from there.

These dalliances mean bupkis to her, and she swears (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) that nothing has occurred beyond volcanic teasing (she’s real popular at dinner parties). All well and good, except hubby is becoming (deservedly) increasingly unhinged – and was a megalomaniac psychotic to begin with, especially regarding his hottie trophy wife.

Saying ta-ta to her latest squeeze (removed to a new assignment somewhere between the frozen tundra and the kind of joint they sent Papillon), Diana becomes painfully aware (in the literal sense) that the constant verbal abuse is escalating to physical violence. She escapes into the night, finding refuge in the local Arab village. There, she conveniently meets hunky American Sempter. He notices something is amiss – made enticingly volatile by the fact that she’s already sweating passion beads with each breathy wimper. In no time, they’re out in the Sahara (or wherever) doing the nasty. No mere dalliance here: it’s pre-Code pushin’ the cushion…in the moonlit sands of a torrid night.

The Commander instantly knows Diana’s been a-fornicatin’, and events rapidly go from bad to worse. Then, the new replacement officer arrives…and it’s guess who? Yep, Lieutentant Sempter. Why wasn’t he wearing his uniform in the village? Actually, to be fair, he memorably and rather quickly wasn’t wearing anything.

Now beyond the Tony Perkins-stage, Sturm tries to assimilate calmness, and invites wifey aboard his new sub. Then he unleashes his devious plan. He’s going to crash the vessel at the bottom of the sea with himself, Diana, and Sempter drowned in a watery grave (well, also the entire crew…but, what the Hell…it’s an occupational hazard when wed to Talluluah).

The ending is near-surreal, and hysterically addictive (easily, a two-tub popcorn experience).

The movie was snickered at in 1932, but wasn’t a flopolla in the traditional sense. Again, it was the cast.

Supporting Bankhead, who never really caught on with the movie-going public, was Gary Cooper, as the mysterious Yank lover, Cary Grant as the exiled predecessor (Cooper and Grant sadly have no scenes together), and, as the craven spouse-who’s-a-louse, Charles Laughton, in his American debut (part of a Paramount contract). For Bankhead, it was another Hollywood disappointment, for Laughton – but more importantly, Paramount – it was a bright spot; the actor would soon wow international audiences with The Private Life of Henry VIII, winning an Oscar in the process. Grant fared well, moving from Bankhead boytoy to Mae West Leach-peach.

Cooper could really do no wrong at this period – the chops of being a bona fide A-list movie star. Truthfully, all Bankhead, Coop, and Grant had to do was look good, histrionics not required – and that they did with bells on. Laughton, who apparently didn’t get the memo, actually puts in a performance; in fact, he’s quite great in this movie, specifically during his climactic psycho breakdown. As if any other support was needed, an excellent backup of thesps are on view, including Paul Porcasi, Kent Taylor, Henry Kolker, Dorothy Christy, Juliette Compton, Anderson Lawler, Wilfred Lucas, Lucien Littlefield, Gordon Westcott, Dave O’Brien, John George, Arthur Hoyt, Fred Kohler, Jr., and Peter Brocco.

The aforementioned writing is so bad, it warrants additional mention. For an A-picture with such talent involved, there is no excuse for some of the dialog. Surely, someone at Paramount or author Levy should have known better. It’s often acceptable to give early talkies a pass, but, by 1932, this wasn’t an embryonic sound title. So, when Cooper emotes to swooning Bankhead with the line “You look to me very lovely,” you kinda wanna toss a Moroccan-bound volume on English grammar at the screen.

The Kino-Lorber/Universal Studios Blu-Ray of DEVIL AND THE DEEP is excellent, in both picture and sound (a new 2K transfer). Extras include a trailer gallery featuring other available titles from the movie’s stars, and audio commentary by David Del Valle.

At 78-minutes, DEVIL AND THE DEEP never wears out its welcome, although for years, Bankhead’s friends would question her why she accepted this project (aside from the money, and another rung to finishing up her contract), since the famed actress had script approval. Tallulah, in all her glory, would stare suggestively at her pals, smile coquettishly, and reply, “I wanted to fuck Gary Cooper.”

DEVIL AND THE DEEP. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA/MPEG-4/AVC. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25598. SRP: $24.95.

Swash-and-Swagger-Buckle…and Unbuckled

One of the most entertaining and oft-hilarious period action movies ever made, 1948’s ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN comes to Blu-Ray in a dazzling new High Definition release, courtesy of The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Although this wink-wink-nudge-nudge vehicle was specifically tailor-made for star Errol Flynn, the title character had already proved a goldmine for Warners as the subject of their first Vitaphone feature, in 1926. Then, it showcased the talents of another noted Lothario, John Barrymore. So this epic redux seemed like a dream idea/project.

Almost from inception, it was decided that Don Juan’s on-screen histrionics should parallel/parody Flynn’s off-screen ones – and there was plenty of material to sift through on both ends. And the script by famed satirist cinema scribes George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz (from a story by Herbert Dalmas, with uncredited assist from no less than William Faulkner, and director Robert Florey) accomplished this beautifully. From the opening narration, chronicling history’s “rising” to new heights juxtaposed to Flynn/Juan rising up a castle wall to a boudoir, the fun never halts.

Like Flynn’s romantic troubles exacerbated Warner Bros.’ fear of the Legion of Decency, so do Juan’s exploits threaten to ruin the reputation of Spain; thus, after a decade away from home, the amoral Latin is essentially banished by the angered husbands and lovers of the women of Europe. Arriving back in Madrid with Leporello, his humorous Sancho Panza sidekick, Juan notices at once that the populace is drained, tired, depressed, and terrified.

The country’s puppet king is actually under the control of the sinister Duke de Lorca and his minions – a dude so dastardly that even Basil Rathbone would be frightened!

Only the good and gorgeous Queen Margaret, the human pawn of an arranged political marriage, strives to help the people of Spain. But it seems to be a lost cause.

Supreme swordsman (in every way), Juan soon becomes the palace fencing master – which allows him time to survey the corruption, right wrongs, and fall in love with the frustrated (in every way) queen (because as our hero perennially and riotously asks himself “There must be something besides the pursuit of women…but what!?).

It seems inevitable that the evil de Lorca and Juan will cross swords, and, that they do in a thrilling finale – perhaps the only quasi-semblance to the 1926 version.

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN was one of the most lavish productions ever produced at Warner Bros. It supposedly began its journey in 1944, but with the war, Flynn’s carousing (aka, legal “troubles”), a lengthy union dispute involving set designers, and mounting budget…the final cut didn’t reach audiences until 1948. That said, those Lyle B. Reifsnider sets (some of the biggest I’ve ever seen) and costumes (Leah Rhodes, Travilla, and Marjorie Best) are super posh, and fully deserve the praise bestowed upon them since the seventy-four years heralding JUAN‘s cinematic unveiling.

The Technicolor is stunning, another triumph for d.p. Elwood “Woody” Bredell. And Max Steiner’s score, one of his best, beautifully underlines the thrills, comedic overtones, and pageantry of the period. The music is so good (and perfect) that thirty-one years later, George Hamilton used it verbatim for his 1979 spoof, Zorro – the Gay Blade.

Because the pic took so long to shoot, Raoul Walsh, a Flynn pal and favorite, filmed a goodly amount of footage (even so, some long shot action sequences were lifted from 1938’s Adventures of Robin Hood). Slated as the official director at the outset, he had to bow out due to other commitments – but was likely recalled to do pickup work (a Walsh standard). Vincent Sherman is credited as the sole director, and he, too (quite a bedroom scamp himself), did a praiseworthy job. Earlier, Sherman had turned the big-budget gangster flick All Through the Night into a semi-parody of the genre, which proved a popular vehicle for star Humphrey Bogart; selecting Sherman to do the same with the swashbuckler and Flynn appeared to be (and was) a natural directorial choice.

The cast supporting Flynn is A+, and comprises Alan Hale (Leporello), Viveca Lindfors (Queen Margaret), Robert Douglas (de Lorca), Romney Brent, Ann Rutherford, Robert Warwick, Jerry Austin, Douglas Kennedy, Helen Wescott, Fortunio Bonanova, Aubrey Mather, Una O’Connor, Pedro de Cordoba, David Bruce, Monte Blue, and, in an early villainous role, Raymond Burr.

As noted earlier, the dialog is frequently priceless, as evidenced by the final barb, when reformed womanizer Juan tells Leporello that he is on the straight-and-narrow – a commendable vow immediately kiboshed by the passing of a lovely female in a carriage. The rationale: “My dear friend, there’s a little bit of Don Juan in every man, and since I am Don Juan, there must be more of it in me!” So be it.

For me, the filmic dialog isn’t all that’s quotable. Last month, I did a Chabrol homage to my late BFF Ric Menello. A DON JUAN anecdote became our favorite mogul exchange. Shortly after the pic wrapped, and seemed destined to do excellent box-office, a weary and harried Harry Warner revealed a strange plan to his younger brother, Jack. Never wanting to repeat the trauma of another filming nightmare like DON JUAN, the elder Warner proposed picking some good-looking schmuck out of Central Casting to replace Flynn. Jack was quick to reply, “Yeah, so what if we groom him, build him up, and make him a star? He might become a bigger pain in the ass than Flynn ever was!” To which Harry, after a pregnant pause, responded “Then go fuck yourself!” before storming off. “Then go fuck yourself!” became Menello’s and my standard answer when we were stumped on a script-writing plot-point, or, to be honest, any issue including food, politics…whatever.

But the Warners weren’t kidding. DON JUAN would be Flynn’s last major A-picture at the studio. Suffice to say, as much as I love Captain Blood, Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk, DON JUAN remains my favorite Flynn swashbuckler.

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN is stunning to the max. I can’t imagine that the 1948 Technicolor prints looking any better. Furthermore, Warner Archive has added immensely to the purchase incentive by loading up the platter with tons of great supplemental extras, comprising vintage audio commentary by director Vincent Sherman and Warners scholar Rudy Behlmer, and the theatrical trailer. Even better is their Warners Night at the Movies, creating an entire 1948 program (which actually may have supported the main feature), including two Oscar-nominated short subjects, the Technicolor travelogue Calgary Stampede, and the Richard L. Bare-directed Joe McDoakes laugh riot, So You Want to be on the Radio. There’s also a top-notch Friz Freleng Technicolor Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hare Splitter, and a Warner newsreel.

Any classic collector hesitating to add this title to their shelves can, in the words of Harry Warner…

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT # B0B2PXNPTM. SRP: $21.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Gorging on Gordon

In the multilayered world of film noir there are many unsung heroes, some in front of and some behind the camera (occasionally, both, eh, Ida?). Michael Gordon is likely a name you mean street fans are unfamiliar with. So let’s get familiar. Gordon, born Irving Kunin Gordon, in 1909, of Lituanian and Russian Jewish parents, was a blacklisted director (which never helps) who nonetheless emerged from his banishment with one of the biggest box-office hits of the 1950s under his belt: 1959’s Pillow Talk. Now, while this normally wouldn’t raise a fedora during a nocturnal, rain-drenched sidewalk noirista surveillance watch, it ain’t a bad Hollywood credit. The sad thing is that Gordon is an unacknowledged master of the dark, as evidenced in two recent releases from Kino-Lorber Classics, in conjunction with Universal studios: 1950’s WOMAN IN HIDING (before the fall) and 1960’s PORTRAIT IN BLACK (after the comeback). Indeed, Gordon is also responsible for a number of other formidable entries, including a number of excellent B-thrillers (Crime Doctor, Underground Agent, Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood) before emerging to full-blown noir territory (The Web, An Act of Murder, The Lady Gambles, and the bizarre I Can Get it For You Wholesale). I’m not exaggerating when I state that the suspense factor (especially in regards to WOMAN IN HIDING) is damn near Hitchcockian. Time to give him his due. Oh, and, by the way, he’s Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s grandfather.

Deborah Chandler-Clark has the dubious honor of watching her own funeral. Well, almost. Surviving a supposed watery grave from a brakeless car sabotaged by her husband, Selden Clark IV…on her honeymoon (!), Deborah, a one-time heiress (hubby also killed her father in order to gain control of the family mill operation), learns the art of survival as she goes on the run for her life.

Of course, no one will believe her – and she dare not betray her whereabouts (Deborah’s frenzied mind runs rampant imagining her fate once the salvaged auto is found empty). It’s “trust no one” in a frightening, post-war paranoid world – not even seemingly good guy/schnook, Keith Ramsey, who suspects something about this fragile woman, and tries to help. He bungles it – ratcheting up the suspense and tension that aids no one except the audience in this first-rate underrated nail-biting thriller.

Director Gordon relies upon some developed trademark themes here – most notably family terror from within; it would play a part in many of his key works. The terrific script by Oscar Saul (adaptation by Roy Huggins; based on James Webb’s Saturday Evening Post story “Fugitive from Terror”) is another factor with major noir dialog on parade (can’t NOT love a movie where the protagonist reasons “I’ve got to stay dead!”). The camerawork, much of it on-location in Fresno, CA (ably doubling for the American South) couldn’t be better, courtesy of the great William Daniels. The movie is so good that even the stock Universal-International music doesn’t get in the way of the tightly-wound narrative.

Of course, the cast truly makes it, most prominently lead Ida Lupino (in one of her best roles, which says pul-lenty!) as Deb, with Stephen McNally as her psychopathic husband coming in at a close second.

Lupino’s real-life squeeze Howard Duff (in their first professional teaming) is okay as the good Samaritan with benefits, and the whole thing is supported by an ace acting team, including John Litel, Taylor Holmes, Irving Bacon, Don Beddoe, Joe Besser, Fred Aldrich (Bob’s bro), Gertrude Astor, Peggie Castle, Russ Conway, Harry Harvey, I. Stanford Jolley, Pierce Lyden, Francis McDonald, Jerry Paris, and Bill Walker. Of special note is Peggy Dow, as Clark’s former and still present lover (Gordon makes it so obvious that she and McNally’s character were having sex at his cabin in the woods); usually playing the goody-good girl, Dow really gets a chance to shine as a savvy skank.

The ending with leave you (as the song goes) “breathless.” I’m not kidding. At a screening during the 1980’s, the audience was screaming during the shocking final moments.

WOMAN IN HIDING is a must-have noir for collectors. One of the coolest things about it is that it’s not as well known as the oft-unspooled classics, and, therefore, will pleasantly surprise your home theater pals. Oh, yeah, the Kino-Lorber/Universal Studios Blue-Ray is fantastic.

After the wildly unexpected 1959 box-office smash, Pillow Talk, the director returned to his sinister, devilish noirish (or neo-noirish) roots via 1960’s PORTRAIT IN BLACK. Reteaming with Pillow Talk producer Ross Hunter, Gordon delves on one of his favorite narratives: murderous family members looking for herd immunity, like the above WOMAN IN HIDING, and the more sympathetic An Act of Murder.

Nothing sympathetic here.

Snarling, aging infirmed millionaire Matthew Cabot cherishes the moments when he can degrade his house staff, his employees, and especially, Sheila, his trophy wife. Constantly attended to by renowned physician Dr. David Rivera, Cabot’s only true display of kindness (and little of that) is reserved for Cathy, his teenage daughter from his first marriage, and, possibly (albeit slightly) Peter – the adolescent son from the second.

Creating a mini-universe of paranoia, Cabot knows all and sees all, enjoying pitting groveling cowards against one another.

But there’s one thing he doesn’t know.

Sheila and David have been engaged in a long-time adulterous affair, and it’s about to move to the next level: with Rivera killing the miserable old bastard (an easy score for a doctor).

The murder seems to go without a hitch (or Hitch, if they’ve been watching TV decades before Lifetime movies and the ID Channel). Except, of course, it doesn’t; obviously, neither Sheila nor David have read or seen Double Indemnity. Worse, soon blackmail raises its nasty and mercenary head (“Congratulations on the success of your murder” begins the intro to a poison note), with certainly enough slimy suspects to point talons at. Eventually, the obvious answer proves a simple one: if you killed once…

PORTRAIT IN BLACK is the slick, lavish Grade-A type of movie Hunter was famous for. It’s definitely the kind of pic my parents and their friends flocked to during the summers of the early 1960s. True to Hunter’s style, PORTRAIT unfolds its ugliness amidst beauty: highbrow affluent environs, and, (his specialty) the glamorous female leads adorned in the latest fashions (at one point, a stalked Sheila escapes into an upper echelon department store, which additionally gave the women viewers a delightful gasp to counterbalance the scary ones (Hunter was able to lure top-drawer actresses via his penchant for allowing the stars to keep the clothes, usually Jean Louis creations, they wore on-screen).

Gordon does a masterful job of building up the suspense and chills…and the climax will likely make audience’s jaws drop.

The script is tight, superbly written by White Heat‘s Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and based on their play (they would do a follow-up with Hunter later that year: Midnight Lace). The gorgeous (and mercifully restored) Eastmancolor photography is by the brilliant Russell Metty, with the prerequisite score by house composer Frank Skinner.

The cast doesn’t any A-er (or is it A-ier?) than this: as the amoral couple, Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn loom large, with Lloyd Nolan (as the nasty spouse/victim) not far behind. Sandra Dee plays the teenage daughter, reunited with her 1958 Reluctant Debutante costar John Saxon, as her boyfriend.

The creepy supporting cast of unethical chauffeurs, housekeepers, coworkers, etc. comprise an astounding array for stargazers: Ray Walston, Richard Basehart, Virginia Grey, and, in her final big-screen appearance, the great Anna May Wong.

A superb example of noir-in-color (a personal contradictory genre fave), PORTRAIT IN BLACK paints its narrative with enough unsavory characters thoroughly deserving of a brush with death.

WOMAN IN HIDING. Black and white. Full-frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT# K24024.

PORTRAIT IN BLACK. Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS HD MA. CAT # K23813.

Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. SRP: $29.95

Vintage Killings

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Like a fine wine, many movies just get better with age (how’s that for a lead-in regarding this title?) – no better example being Claude Chabrol’s 1967 mini-masterpiece, THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS (Le Scandale), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

For Chabrol, this was a turning point picture – his first English language movie, coproduced by a major American studio. It was also his scope debut (TechniScope) and his personal introduction to Technicolor. In addition, after years of being called the French Hitchcock, the director finally got a chance to work with some of Hitch’s key thesp personnel: the wonderful character actor Henry Jones (Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and, more prominently, Anthony Perkins. Perhaps, best of all, THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS officially provided the bottom rungs of the ladder that led him out of the “wilderness,” the place Charbrol had been languishing for several years of unsuccessful pictures (the next year would bring his critical/international art house smash Les Biches – restoring and permanently placing him among French A-list directors).

The plot of THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS is quite tricky, to say the least. In pure narrative terms, it’s often twisty as Hawks’ The Big Sleep – only chillingly more lethal. So pay attention.

Millionairess Christine Belling has taken over close friend Paul Wagner’s renowned vineyards and champagne business (in his family since the 17th century). Wagner retains the name and some rights, but her financial expertise allows the pair to share the potential accruing profits, as the collaboration now extends into new avenues.

Somewhere between these frenemies is Christine’s husband and Paul’s BFF, Chris – a bought lover, who tolerates his waspish (but beautiful) wife because of all the toys she buys him (a new yacht, a new car, an airplane, a third world country…what ever).

Right now there’s a lot of conflict. An American distributor (shades of the parallel to the motion picture industry) wants to purchase the Wagner name. Christine is all for it; Paul isn’t so sure. It’s driving everyone, including Ms. Belling’s overworked mousy assistant Jacqueline, crazy.

Maybe too much so.

Paul begins to black out; then, while taking a holiday, a brutal murder occurs. The woman last seen with Paul is dead. He has no memory of what happened. Chris finds out, and tells his wife; she decides to use this as a blackmailing chip to get Paul to agree to the American offer.

Paul and Chris take a breather with two stunning women, Lydia and Paula; again, one turns up dead – with Paul unable to account for his whereabouts during the crucial crime time frame.

Is Paul a psychopath? A serial killer? Or is Christine too willing to do anything in order to obtain the American distribution? Perhaps Chris has his eye on some new playthings (human and materialistic), and will stoop to new dark levels to seal the deal?

Yep, all the director’s trademark poison family and friend relationships are in full dynamic view, thanks to the complex but excellent whodunit script by Chabrol and Derek Prouse (based on a story by William Benjamin). The infamous Paul Gegauffe (who would eventually be murdered himself) prepared the dialog (specifically for a French language version, which was filmed simultaneously). The lavish French (Paris, Reims, Yvelines’ Rosny Castle) and German (Hamburg) locales are stunning, and sumptuously served up (as indicated in Technicolor and scope) by the brilliant Jean Rabier. Pierre Jansen provides a churning score that matches the visuals. A thoroughly outstanding cast supports star Perkins, and includes the icy-eyed beauty of Yvonne Furneaux as Christine (most famous to Anglo audiences as the female lead in Hammer’s 1959 remake of The Mummy; she is an actress so gorgeous that I use my infrequently brandished term “ridiculously beautiful” to describe her; in this movie, possibly her greatest, she’s a scrumptious harpy). Equally impressive are fantastic actor Maurice Ronet (as Paul), the aforementioned Jones, Suzanne Lloyd, Anna Vidal, Catherine Sola, George Skaff, Marie-Ange Antes, Henri Attail, the spectacular Christa Lang, and, last but not least, a sensational Stephane Audran, who delivers the acting top honors (and with this cast, that’s one helluva boast!).

Of all the American studios to hook up with, Chabrol might have steered clear of Universal. Not only did they edit his final cut (completely restored here), but tossed the result directly into the nabes, where it played (in New York) on the BOTTOM HALF of a double bill with the Doris Day travesty, The Ballad of Josie! Worse, they weren’t exactly subtle with what little promotion and publicity they bestowed upon it. The half-sheets featured a peering Perkins opposite a banner herald announcing “PSYCHO puppet or cold-blooded killer?”

Suffice to say, the movie’s rep has deservedly grown throughout the years, and this new Kino/Universal 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray is stunning (there are some nice extras, too, including a Tim Hunter-hosted Trailers from Hell, and audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson). Universal has vindicated itself.

THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS. Color. Widescreen [2.35;1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23820. SRP: $29.95.

It Takes a Village

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

The term “occupational hazard” takes on a whole new meaning in Claude Chabrol’s gripping WWII 1966 thriller, LINE OF DEMARCATION (La Ligne De Demarcation), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

And, yes, it’s yet another of the great director’s “wilderness” pictures – that handful of Sixties items that initially disappointed fans and critics. But time has been kind to these movies. Like Bluebeard, LINE OF DEMARCATION is a wonderful surprise in its tense-filled depiction of a small French village taken over by the Nazis during the early war years of 1940-1941.

The Reichstag fascists’s looting, raping (figuratively and literally), and pillaging their newest conquest in the Jura Mountains – a pivotal line of demarcation dividing the Nazi-occupied France and the so-called Free Zone – may look like a defeat for the proud citizens, but that’s only on the surface. Remember, this is a Chabrol pic, and deception is the director’s mantra. While seemingly in the yoke of the enemy, the hamlet’s large resistance underground activities flourish, and the continued violence inflicted upon townsfolk only makes them stronger.

This covers all stations and vocations, from the butcher to politicians to the titled Count and Countess de Damville (a not-so-subtle moniker). Well, at least the Countess – the expat British wife of the interned nobleman. His eventual return to the village – crippled both in body and mind – is at first cheered-on, then…not so much. It appears that the Count has totally capitulated to his former captors; he is a broken man who deems it foolish NOT to obey…and, therefore, survive. Again, this is a Chabrol flick, so we mustn’t believe everything we see and hear. It could be a ruse…or not.

Rife with heroes and heroines, fighters and cowards, patriots and traitors, quislings and fiends,

LINE OF DEMARCATION doesn’t let up from the fade-in to the final shocking image at the close of its 120-minute duration. Even the standard sympathetic Nazi commanding officer (a cliché by mid-1960’s cinema) is a jagged human road of twists and turns; he is aware that his side is comprised of monsters, but doesn’t flinch and plays the Party line.

Director Chabrol adapted and wrote the screenplay, based upon Colonel Remy’s novel, Memoires d’un agent secret de la France libre. The movie was shot on-location in the Jura regions of Belmont and Chissey in stark, but slick-looking black-and-white by the brilliant Jean Rabier. The score by Pierre Jansen is another plus. But it’s the cast that seals the deal.

As the leads, the Count and Countess de Damville, Chabrol gives us Maurice Ronet and Jean Seberg. Both are terrific, the only shortcoming being when Seberg’s character approaches a fellow Brit. Here, they speak English – but the actress’s mid-west American twang totally gives her Iowan roots away. True, Chabrol could have gotten a rising British star (say, Julie Christie), or dubbed Seberg with a pip-pip accent. He let it slide, likely because he truly valued her, mixed with his then-prevalent “who gives a merde!” attitude. Once more, outside of this language faux pas, Seberg is the berries.

The remaining roster of thesps ain’t chopped pate, either. Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard in the Hitchcock remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), Jacques Perrin, Stephane Audran, Noel Roquevert, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Roger Dumas, Claude Levellee, Mario David, Henri Attal, and Jean Yanne round out the fantastic ensemble. Two (mostly) non-actor participants deserve mention: Claude Berri (celebrated director of The Two of Us, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring), and more significantly, the writer Paul Gegauff. Gegauff, a notorious figure in French cinema during this period, while indeed a fantastic scribe achieved most of his fame (or, rather, notoriety) via his off-screen debauchery (he would be murdered by his second wife in 1983).

It should be noted that the producer, Georges de Beauregard (like authors Boileau-Narcejac with their Fifties’ novel D’entre les morts), sought to pitch the project to a big American director. For the latter, it worked; Alfred Hitchcock took the bait, and created Vertigo. For Beauregard (and possibly Remy), it didn’t. They originally wanted Anthony Mann to helm LINE OF DEMARCATION. Mann, indeed, read and enjoyed the novel, and (supposedly) a treatment. He then did something remarkable. He personally suggested Claude Chabrol, a contemporary he obviously admired. The rejected moguls took his advice. And voila! That said, all was not bread and honey. Chabrol, in the throes of career depression, wasn’t suitably energized at being a sloppy second. Years later, when complimented on this genuinely fine motion-picture, he would respond with bona fide shock. Not only was he not fired up about the project; Chabrol freely admitted that he barely recalled making it, being inebriated throughout most of the shoot.

Featuring a sensational new 4K widescreen transfer, Kino-Lorber’s Blu-Ray is joy to behold and discover (or re-discover). Of Chabrol’s “wilderness” output, LINE OF DEMARCATION is one of the best.

LINE OF DEMARCATION. Black and white [widescreen; 1.66:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [French w/English subtitles]; Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal. CAT # K24356. SRP: $29.95.

Claude to Death

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Yet another fantastic collection of Claude Chabrol classics, produced by Marin Karnitz, this delicious 4-disc poison bonbon follow-up to the Lies and Deceit box arrives under the enticing nomme de plume TWISTING THE KNIFE: FOUR FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL (and, like its predecessor, is evoked in stunning new 4K Blu-Ray transfers from Arrow Films/MK2 Productions).

The title of this cinematic quartet set perfectly defines the relationship to the previous quintet. While Lies and Deceit certainly contained enough mayhem, violence, and even murder…the killings and perpetration of evil were almost secondary – a symptom of the darkness, even (in some cases) unintentional. Since this foursome is dubbed TWISTING THE KNIFE, you get an immediate sense of what’s going down. Here, nothing is unintentional – the evil and the killings are all an essential part of the narrative. While the former was sinister and nefarious to the max, this deadly box/coffin takes no prisoners. Like Lies, KNIFE‘s contents have been beautifully restored, with excellent English subtitles (if needed) and a morgue full of alluring extras (including an incisive, scholarly but entertaining illustrated 80-page book), both vintage and new. So, grab a weapon, keep looking behind you, and trust no one!

Imagine Preston Sturges and Jim Thompson teaming up, and you have a general idea of the antics on display in 1997’s THE SWINDLE (Rein Ne Va Plus).

As directed and written by Chabrol, this sting pic (with benefits) surrounds aging grifter Victor and his youngish protege Betty,who regards her mentor as a father figure. Victor and Betty have been preying upon lush European resorts (and their source of lushes) for years. And they’ve been mighty successful. Victor is indeed proud of his “daughter.” Taking a well-deserved vacation after the duo’s latest score, Betty becomes conflicted (to say the least) when she and Victor focus upon their next mark, Maurice Biagini. Unbeknownst to Victor, Maurice is Betty’s secret lover. Where do loyalties lie (“lie” being the operative word)? Will “family,” even a fake one, win out over sex? Stay tuned to find out.

THE SWINDLE goes beyond double-crosses. It has triple, quadruple, and quintuple crosses. And then some. It’s a deadly parlor game that ends in gruesome violence because soon the stakes are so high, the Euro mob becomes involved. But who, if anyone, will have the last laugh?

THE SWINDLE is spearheaded by two remarkable leads, the legendary French thesp Michele Serrault and the never-disappointing Isabelle Huppert. As the mark/paramour Francois Cluzet turns in an excellent performance as well (a far cry from his tormented character in…umm, well, Torment). In fine support are Jean-Francois Balmer, Jackie Berroyer, Jean Benguigui, Mony Daniels. Greg Germain, Yves Verhoeven, and Henri Attal.

Another fantastic aspect of this thriller are the Guadeloupe and Swiss locations, lavishly served up by Eduardo Serra. As had become standard by this time, the director’s son, Matthieu, supplies the music, while wife Aurore supervised her husband’s script (and, yes, son Thomas appears, too, as willing victim of Betty’s charms); Chabrol himself even makes an audible appearance as the voice of a casino croupier. The family allegiance spills over into the bountiful supplemental extras with step-daughter Cecile getting into the act, providing background in a new interview, along with archival audio and video from Chabrol and Huppert.

A good intro to this box set, THE SWINDLE, the most lighthearted of the four flicks, provides a tasty appetizer to the tangy entrees to come.

1999’s THE COLOR OF LIES (Au Coeur Du Mensonge) is a thoroughly creepy, albeit masterful dissection of a picturesque Brittany seacoast town. Once renowned artist Rene Sterne, now impaired with both a physical and creative disability, ekes out a living by giving art lessons to the locals’ children. His stunning wife, Vivianne, has meantime risen professionally as a renowned physical therapist. Their existence seems (on the surface) peaceful and even idyllic – until one of his young female students (an under-aged girl) is brutally raped and murdered on her way back from one of Rene’s sessions.

Thinking Rene strange to begin with, the populace begins to turn on the couple – an event not made easier for Vivianne by the arrival of celebrated television journalist Germain-Roland, a notorious womanizer, who has his sights set upon her. And then there are more murders.

I would be taken aback if Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn had NOT ever seen this chilling exercise in paranoia and violence. The expert script, cowritten by Chabrol and Odile Barski is sure to send shivers down your spine. Ditto, the beautiful but cold colors of Eduardo Serra’s terrific cinematography (matched, once again, by Matthieu Chabrol’s score). It’s the believable performances by the top-notch cast, though, that seals the deal. Headed by Sandrine Bonnaire and Jacques Gamblin as the Sternes, THE COLOR OF LIES is more than ably backed up by Antoine De Caunes, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Bernard Verley, Pierre Martot, Thomas Chabrol (with his dad doing another vocal-only appearance), and, finally, the great Bulle Ogier!

Loaded with a gallery of extras, THE COLOR OF LIES is the perfect thriller for a stormy night (or any night).

The great Huppert returns in 2000’s NIGHTCAP (Merci Pour Le Chocolat), and has never been more accommodatingly menacing.

Stunning aspiring pianist Jeanne finally gets up the nerve to visit her idol, revered musician Andre Polonski. It’s more than just bravado; she’s just been told by her mother that there was a last-minute-saved switched-at-birth dilemma resulting in the girl’s almost going home with Polonski and his first wife. A good foot in the door.

But strange things are about to happen. The apparently happy Polonskis (with Andre now blissfully wed to his beautiful second wife, philanthropist Marie-Claire), are delighted to welcome the young woman into their home – the former even offering piano lessons and professional grooming. As the savvy Jeanne becomes familiar with her generous hosts, she begins to notice some odd events in play. Guillaume, the son she was almost switched with, has virtually nothing in common with his illustrious parent (while she, as a talented pianist, additionally mirrors his numerous likes and traits). Then, the overly friendly Marie-Claire starts to become increasingly weird, especially when Jeanne discovers that the first Mrs. Polonski met her death at the wheel of a car – shortly after tasting one of the-then mere acquaintance’s celebrated hot chocolate beverages. The second Mrs. P is now more than insistent that the inquisitive young pupil sample her special culinary treats, along with her ever-growing suspicious step-son (who now likewise begins to wonder how his biological mom actually died).

A insidiously potent cinematic lethal cocktail, brilliantly directed (of course), sumptuously shot (Renato Berta; music by Matthieu), and scripted with an abundance of sarcasm (by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb), NIGHTCAP bristles with bone-chilling suspense from the get-go. The cast supporting Ms. Huppert’s human spider (“She hates to lose,” comments one character) couldn’t be better, particularly Anna Mouglalis (as Jeanne), Jacques Dutronc, Rudolphe Pauly, Brigitte Catillon. Michel Robin, Matthieu Simonet, Lydia Andrei, Veronique Alain, and Isolde Barth.

A deserved award winner (Golden Moon Award, Lumiere Award, Montreal World Film Festival, San Diego Film Critics Society – all for Huppert, with Chabrol copping Best Director at the Prix Louis Delluc), NIGHTCAP, generously loaded with extras (including a marvelous vintage interview with Huppert), is Chabrol at his late period best!

The final entry, 2003’s THE FLOWER OF EVIL (La Fleur Du Mal) may be the most disturbing of the quartet (and that’s saying plenty!).

Once again, the action takes place in one of France’s quaint provincial towns. Anne is a popular, liberal politician from a wealthy family. And she’s trying to keep helping her community by continuing her career. But more than famous, the family is infamous. Rumors have abounded for generations about inbreeding between Anne’s clan and another noble faction (to say nothing of willing collaboration with the Nazis during WWII). And now, the ugly stories are surfacing again, just prior to the election.

Worse, the “rumors,” at least in a contemporary vein, seem to be true. Returning prodigal son Francois (having spent three years in the U.S.) arrives just in time to rekindle the reason he left in the first place – a mutual carnal obsession between him and Michele, his gorgeous step-sister. Equally jaw-dropping is the behavior of his father, Gerard, a cynical, unlikeable sexual predator.

Unquestionably, THE FLOWER OF EVIL is a tough movie to champion, especially where its characters are concerned; but, yet, the cinematic expertise of director Chabrol (who adapted the screenplay by Caroline Eliacheff, from a story by Louise L. Lambrichs) achieves the impossible. This is an engrossing drama, full of tense intrigue and, ultimately, gasping revelations.

The Gironde location photography by Eduardo Serra is spot-on, as is the Matthieu Chabrol score. But, as usual with Chabrol (and we would expect nothing less), it’s the cast that finally puts over this monsters-in-paradise epic, specifically Nathalie Baye (Anna), Benoit Magimel (Francois), Bernard Le Coq (Gerard), Melanie Doutey (Michele) and Thomas Chabrol, Henri Attal, Kevin Ahyi, Francoise Bertin, Jerome Bertin, Caroline Baehr, Didier Benureau, plus, in one of her final roles, the iconic actress Suzanne Flon (as the family’s snarky Aunt Line). Aside from the slew of extras, there’s a compelling behind-the-scenes featurette. All-in-all, the perfect gob-smacking capper for this dazzling box set!

TWISTING THE KNIFE: FOUR FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; all 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround (French w.English subtitles); NIGHTCAP and THE FLOWER OF EVIL also accessible in 5.1. Arrow Films/MK2 Productions. SRP: $99.95.

Femme Fatalities

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

One of many unfairly maligned Sixties Claude Chabrol cinematic excursions, 1963’s BLUEBEARD (Landru) arrives in a gorgeous-looking Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

A darkly comedic look at the real-life unsavory activities of one Henri Desire Landru, BLUEBEARD (his nickname in Grand Guignol history) follows the infamous serial killer of women throughout the France of the World War I era (1915-1917). Landru, however, is no drooling hiding-in-the-shadows giggling maniac. He’s a fairly successful (furniture dealer), respected family man, married to an unsuspecting (and, at least, in the movie) loving wife (who also happened to be his cousin, a point not covered in this depiction), and, blessed with four children he adores.

But Landru’s extra-curricular sojourns circle like sharks around his two-fold lust: females and their money. Selecting well-off single women, or wealthy widows (lots of both during The Great War), the benign-looking Parisian’s reign of terror claimed seven (that we know of) victims (although the body count has often raised to ten, depending upon which account one subscribes to). They were romanced, wined, dined, even wed (“it’s bigamy, too!,” as Chico Marx would famously state)…before they were drugged, disassembled, and smoked to ashes in a rented country estate’s (dubbed his “castle”) furnace.

You’ll have to pardon me for making light of this, as normally such odious events would certainly be no laughing matter…except, in this movie’s case, it sorta is. Chabrol’s sardonic, mostly factual jaw-dropping take presents a mordant look at Bluebeard, realistically bringing Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux (loosely based on Landru) to a new and snarky level.

And the talented director had great help.

Always looking for the female point-of-view, Chabrol allied himself with no less than author Francoise Sagan to pen the screenplay. Her narrative is cynical and often hilarious, as movie Landru tosses off such excuses for his “hobby” as “Genius is often labeled ‘monstrous’.” Then there’s a wonderful running gag encompassing a vacationing British couple, residing in a hotel adjacent to Landru’s homicidal domicile. Every time a new victim is disposed of, the middle-aged pair (the only part of the movie in English) frowns, and voice their disapproval concerning that strange, inappropriate smell (cross-cut with smoke rising from their neighbor’s furnace) – always threatening to complain, but then returning to their meal.

The look of BLUEBEARD was just as important as the script, and frequent collaborator Jean Rabier has outdone himself. The entire pic, shot in ebullient Eastmancolor looks like a Mucha French poster from 1910s, or an early Renoir. Noted composer Pierre Jansen appends the visuals with an excellent score to audibly accompany this unassuming heinous murderer.

But, as always, what does it matter with fab celluloid trappings if the cast isn’t up to snuff (or, in this case, at being snuffed). Here, again, Chabrol shines. Title lead Charles Denner, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Landru, is quite lip-biting terrific. The main hook for the movie is the fact that the victims are portrayed by celebrated European actresses; the superb, dazzling gallery of unfortunates comprise no less than Michele Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Hildegarde Neff, Stephane Audran, Juliette Mayniel, Catherine Rouvel, Mary Marquet, and Denise Provence (a ploy that was utilized again in Edward Dmytryk’s abysmal 1968 movie of the same name). Other cast members include Francoise Lugagne (as Landru’s wife), Mario David, Pierre Vernier, Pierre Lafont, Raymond Queneau (as Clemenceau), and, best of all, famed director Jean-Pierre Melville as Georges Mandel.

Charles Denner as Chabrol’s Landru, compared to the real deal, photographed at his 1921 trial.

Sadly, timing is everything, and BLUEBEARD bellied up. This was especially true in America, a country still reeling from the grisly pursuits of Albert DeSalvo (aka, The Boston Strangler). In 1963, a comedy about killing women wasn’t all that funny in the States (even without DeSalvo, a red flag should have early been raised; the aforementioned Monsieur Verdoux nearly ended Chaplin’s career in the U.S.) It seems that only the Brits could get away with that sort of thing; then again, the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets wasn’t based on a true story. It brings to mind what John Huston once said (essentially) about cinema: that it was often as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it.

As indicated, the new Blu-Ray of BLUEBEARD is sensational. Not only in restored picture and sound, but in actual length, including approximately five minutes, frequently missing from import prints.

A deftly foreboding quasi-true-life adventure, BLUEBEARD is one of the most fetching entries from his “disappointing wilderness period.” Artistically, any director on the planet would pray for period so disappointing…and yearn to be adrift in such wilderness.

BLUEBEARD. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA; French with English subtitles. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal. CAT # K25538. SRP: $24.95.

Claude of the Lies

AUGUST IS CLAUDE CHABROL MONTH

Ric Menello would have turned 70 this month.

For those newcomers unfamiliar with Supervistaramacolorscope, the name “Ric Menello” may merely register as that of a talented director (debut videos for The Beastie Boys, Danzig, LL Cool J) and screenwriter (Two Lovers). For fans of this blog/column, I often speak of Ric, as, for over forty years (until his untimely passing), he was my best friend. He was also the greatest Claude Chabrol enthusiast I had ever met; indeed, until the great director’s death in 2010, Chabrol was Ric’s favorite living and working artist.

I, too, long admired Chabrol, respectful of his earliest work, wary but supportive of his middle period, and, while not as gung ho for the Seventies “renaissance” of his outre, I became the champion of his movies from the 1980s on – for me, his longest run of superior efforts. But that’s me, and I’m not through talking of Ric.

Menello lived, ate, and drank Chabrol from the first day we met at NYU, back in 1972. There was virtually nothing in print about the director in America or the UK, so Ric ordered books and magazines from France, along with several French/English dictionaries. He would laboriously spend months translating the text line-by-line – periodically waking me with late-night calls to inform me of some sublime quote or anecdote or behind-the-scene kerfuffle. It annoyed the Hell out of me. How I so miss those calls.

One of Ric’s biggest moments was when, after writing to all the distributors in France who handled Chabrol’s pictures, he received a letter from the man himself, after some nameless unsung hero/heroine employee finally forwarded several of Ric’s notes. From then on, the two corresponded sporadically, with the piece de resistance arriving around one of Menello’s birthdays: a package containing a recent script – Chabrol’s personal copy with his notes and annotations scribbled in the margins; suffice to say, it was one of Ric’s proudest possessions.

I need to recount one memorable day in 1988 to further embellish the mood for this month-long homage. It was a brisk New York autumn day, and Ric had previously informed me that MoMA was having a mini-Chabrol tribute, hosted by the director’s best producer, Marin Karmitz (finding a great producer is like finding a great doctor). “We’re going!,” he ordered, as if I would have complained. I arrived early, and was prowling through the museum gift shop, when Ric saw me and quickly ushered me into the screening room “We need the best seats!” Unarguably, Marin Karmitz proved to be a lovely man – witty, intelligent, and patient (answering some truly irritating questions). He presented two never-seen-in-the-States Chabrol works. “I have good news and bad news,” he stated. The bad news was that one of the prints, Masques, had no English subtitles. It really wasn’t necessary, as the frothy look at murders surrounding a celebrated TV chef was ‘as is’ engaging and frequently hilarious (did I mention that aside from writing and directing, Chabrol’s passion was being acknowledged as a gourmet chef?). The good news was that the second feature, was properly subtitled for its upcoming American release. It was The Story of Women, starring the marvelous Isabelle Huppert, one of the Chabrol’s favorite actresses (and mine). That movie, a true-life tale of the last person to be hanged in France (for performing abortions during the Nazi occupation – the results of Aryan rapes, lonely war widow affairs, etc.), had me riveted. It was unquestionably the finest movie I had seen that year. The pic, the director, and its star all should have won Oscars. None did.

After the screenings, still shattered by what we had seen, we walked to a nearby cafe for lunch. From there, we strolled up to Lincoln Center, for a 35MM screening of Chabrol’s 1962 classic Ophelia.

It was quite a day.

Ric Menello with actress Marisa Berenson. The BARRY LYNDON star loved the 2008 movie TWO LOVERS, for which Ric had written the screenplay (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

Prior to Ric’s death in 2013, there was damn little available of Chabrol on home video (what pitance there was often appeared in faded, edited prints); the then-recent titles, while sparse, did have perks – primarily second audio tracks by Menello himself (The Pleasure Party, Cry of the Owl). But we were Chabrol DVD/Blu-Ray starved.

Ric would have been beside himself with joy at the plethora of Chabrol titles recently released on Blu-Ray from various studios. And all restored, with tons of enticing extras. Together we would have pored over each platter lovingly and repeatedly. Key among these home vid gems is the first of two box sets of Chabrol movies from Arrow Video, in collaboration with M2K (Marin Karmitz productions): LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. The quintet (comprising COP AU VIN, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN, MADAME BOVARY, BETTY, and TORMENT) have never looked or sounded this good (and I saw several during their original release, so I can attest to this statement), and come with so many supplemental goodies – at least by my count a literal day’s worth – that it puts The Criterion Collection to shame. I’m talkin’ about new and vintage audio commentaries, interviews (some with Chabrol), documentaries, archival French and British TV specials, plus an 80-page illustrated book featuring the writings of Chabrol scholars.

Ric, profite bien, mon cher ami!

The first outing in the LIES AND DECEIT box set, 1985’s COP AU VIN (Poulet au vinaigre) couldn’t be more perfect, as, from frame one, EVERYONE is lying and being deceitful. Quickly unfolding in one of France’s wealthy suburbs, COP AU VIN treats us to a tale of blackmail, adultery, thievery, and outright passion, fashion, and trashin’.

Louis, young postman by day, would-be spy/blackmailer by night, gives his attractive single mom the village mail to steam open and read, gleam information from, and torment the rich before delivery. Mommy and son, living in a ramshackle eyesore home, obviously are a few francs short of correct postage. Louis’s office pal Henriette, is a stunning borderline nympho who is desperately trying to shag her coworker, a goal she will achieve with the benefit of becoming an accessory to his shenanigans.

These “games” take a rather nasty turn when a car prank becomes a death, one of several that increasingly plague the over-privileged denizens of the village. Did we say the self-appointed “clean-up” committee wants to the evict Louis and mom from their digs?

The lethal events eventually result in the arrival of Inspector Lavardin from the big city. Lavardin, on the surface, a famed figure in crime detection, too, brings much deceitful baggage to the case. Seemingly fair and balanced, he is anything but – often resorting to…lies and deceit…and violence. He is, as a recipe-dedicated Chabrol might concoct, three parts Maigret, one part Hank Quinlan.

There is so much to love in COP AU VIN, that I almost don’t know where to begin. Chabrol seems to be having a blast with this material, injecting the dark detours with snarky comedic set-pieces. Lavardin, questioning the proprietor/cook at a diner is classic Claude, as the no-nonsense sleuth gives him cooking tips, and actually takes over the culinary duties. The romantic/horny advances of Henriette are so frustrating since she’s so gorgeous that we practically cheer when she and Louis finally get it on. And the deceitful town lawyers, mistresses, (supposed) BFFs, doctors, butchers, philanderers, and murderer couldn’t be more naughtily delightful. Of course, aside from Chabrol’s expert direction and coscripting (along with Dominique Roulet, who wrote the novel sourcework, Une mort en trop), the cast is responsible for the lion’s share of the fun. Jean Poiret, Stephane Audran, Michel Bouquet, Jean Topert, Lucas Balvaux (as Louis), Pauline Lafont (as Henriette), Andre Tainsey, Jean-Claude Bouillard, Jacques Franz, Caroline Cellier, and Josephine Chaplin are all terrific, with special kudos for Audran as the borderline-crazed mom and the pithy Poiret as Lavardin.

Chabrol apparently did this as a labor of love, and was shocked by the response. COP AU VIN was a smash hit with critics and audiences, nominated for several awards (The Cesar Palme d’Or for Best Director, Best Picture at Mystfest, with Poiret winning Best Actor at the latter. It was also one of many family affairs with first wife Audran in the pivotal role of Madame Cuno, sons Thomas and Matthieu (in a supporting role and composer, respectively), and second wife Aurore as a script consultant. It’s also spectacular to look at with the lush Foreges-les-Eaux, Seine-Maritime locations awesomely rendered by the great Jean Rabier. Calling the new restoration of COP AU VIN extraordinary is an understatement; if the splendid quality isn’t enough, there are the phenomenal extras, including a vintage Swiss TV special featuring Chabrol, Poiret, and Audran, and an hour-long interview, Chabrol at the BFI.

Suspenseful, sexy, sardonic, sarcastic and masterfully entertaining, COP AU VIN is everything Knives Out (admittedly, a very engaging movie) should have been.

The surprise and enormous success (critically and financially) logically led to the old movie standby (in any country), the obligatory sequel. So, in 1986, director/writer Chabrol again teamed with Dominique Roulet to fashion the return of the laconic sleuth for more snarkastic, sordid adventures among the rich and infamous, INSPECTOR LAVARDIN.

The follow-up is even nastier than its predecessor. Lavardin is assigned to another small suburb (of undeserving French one-percenters) to investigate the murder of an ultra-religious right wing icon. Married to a younger, beautiful trophy wife is an eyebrow-raiser, but this hypocrite has more than pomposity and devout fraud up his sleeve. He’s generally hated by the entire community, including his wife, adopted, wild teenage daughter, and closeted brother-in-law. The big shock for the Inspector is that the not-so-grieving widow is his first (and likely only love) – a woman who mysteriously deserted him at the height of their youthful passion. This event so devastated young Lavardin that he devoted his life to trying to find her – failing, but nevertheless realizing he had a real knack for this sort of thing. His tragedy made him become a policeman, then an ace detective. Alas, it seems disappearing acts are a passed-down family trait – some deadly. And as for the deceased’s righteous demeanor – it, too, is another bundle of lies and deceit, as the victim in question, Raoul Mons, was crotch-deep in teen club brothels, blackmail, sadism, incest, drug dealing and more. Ew!

The reunion material between Lavardin and his beloved (the terrific Bernadette Lafont) is glorious; and the supporting cast is nothing short of c’est magnifique, encompassing Jean-Claude Brially, Jean-Luc Bideau, Jacques Dacqmine, Hermine Clair, Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud, Florent Gibassier, and Chantel Gressier. The movie looks fantastic, with resplendent cinematography by Rabier appending the score by the director’s son Matthieu. Key to the bevy of extras is archival scene commentary by Chabrol.

The bittersweet wrap-up is pure Claude/Lavardin, which is to say, brittle, cynical, and satisfying. Sadly, there would be no further big screen encounters between the director and the inspector (although Chabrol would helm four episodes of a 1988 Lavardin TV series, starring Poiret); that said, how much darker could you go?

1991’s MADAME BOVARY is one of my favorite Chabrol works. To me, it’s the ultimate screen adaptation of the oft-filmed (since the 1930s, in France, here, and the UK) scandalous 1856 Gustave Flaubert novel, an astoundingly hefty amount of remakes done for uncensored TV within the past twenty years. Perhaps the most famous movie version is the watered down 1949 Vincente Minnelli pic. True, it’s stylized, and excellently acted but, even post-Forever Amber, it couldn’t come close to what the author had in mind.

Chabrol fixed that. While on the surface, a Chabrol BOVARY might seem like an offshoot toward a new direction, it’s actually perfectly in tune with his themes and variants. In other words, rich folks – either being stupid, dull, or undeserving – ultimately manipulated by smarter, eviler lower-middle class denizens. LSS, ain’t life grand?

Emma is a lovely, simple country lass who bedevils hard-working, prosperous country doctor Charles Bovary. He falls in love with her and, with Emma’s mercenary family’s permission, weds the relatively unsophisticated girl.

But, remember, this is the LIES AND DECEIT box. While good Dr. B. is exactly what he says: wealthy, successful, but insipid, the new Madame Bovary is anything but. She quickly uses the wiles utilized to trap her husband (and trap she did) to advance her social standing, and quickly embrace capitalism – even if it costs her husband every sou and/or his reputation. Her inability for home satisfaction soon takes root via infidelity – lots of it (the reason the book was relegated to the banned section, along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Therese Raquin, Frank Harris’s autobiography and scores of Victorian “underground” devil sex tomes).

Chabrol’s expert cast delivers the goods in spades, and his bravura direction brings the standout segments of the book (the ball, the riding excursions, the blackmailing town shopkeeper, a horrendous surgical decision goaded on by village aristocracy) to vivid life. Ditto, the feel of the period, both in décor (Jacques Mollon) and costuming (Corinne Jorry) – all lavishly captured by Rabier’s camera, and appended by son Matthieu’s score (the latter in concert with Jean-Michel Beranrd and Maurice Coignard). The screenplay, too (by Chabrol), is perfection with lip-biting dialog surgically-delivered throughout the swift-moving 140-minute running time (“It’s the most beautiful day of my life,” heaves Emily on her wedding day, already sizing up the material goodies – a verbal declaration that quickly degenerates to a gnashing “You’re getting on my nerves!”).

But to the cast.

Isabelle Huppert is sensational (as always), further cementing her position as Chabrol’s new muse, post-The Story of Women. As indicated earlier, I thought Women, Huppert and Chabrol all should have won Oscars in 1989. I repeated this desire in 1991, when I first laid eyes upon this fantastic movie. Huppert covers all the bases: she’s fetching, romantic, despicable, pitiful, sensuous, selfish, wonderful and horrible. In short, she IS Madame Bovary. The supporting thesps are equally impressive, particularly Jean-Francois Balmer (as her unfortunate spouse), Christophe Malavoy, Jean Yanne, Lucas Belvaux, Christine Minazzoli, Jean-Louis Maury, Florent Gibassier, Sabeline Campo, Henri Attal, and the director’s son Thomas.

Side Note #1 In shelves of 19th century literary works, we always read of the diseased-afflicted whose tongues turned black with pestilence. Never saw it in the movies, though. Claude fixed that. Not a big deal – but, it’s about damn time.

Side Note #2 Ric, during the period when he was regularly corresponding (pre-internet) with Charbrol, told me a story. Having mentioned to the director that we loved this movie, and, indeed thought it the best picture of the year, M. Chabrol revealed that when he first began to seriously consider doing a Bovary adaptation his prime concern was finding the proper actress to portray the multi-leveled part. He was having lunch with Huppert, a regular Chabrol visitor since Women, and he told her of his woes. She must be unassuming, but still fascinating, lovely – sinisterly smart behind her innocent, total country girl eyes. After a pause of several seconds, the Paris-born but rural-raised (Ville d’Avray) Huppert reached over, and slapped the director on the forehead. “IDIOT!,” she shouted. Chabrol, as if awakened from a trance, looked at her agape, and replied, “Of course! What was I thinking!?”

1992’s BETTY is one of the modern screen’s triumphant psychological thriller-dramas, and, like so many Chabrol works, an important addition to feminist cinema. The director has always aligned himself with female collaborators – not only comprising the extraordinary women cast in his works, but by teaming up with great coscripters; ironically here, however, he turns to one of France’s iconic mystery writers, Georges Simenon. So, how could the combination of Chabrol and Simenon fail? In an inspired nutshell: it can’t.

BETTY visually punctuates the adage, “one’s own worst enemy.” Betty isn’t necessarily a bad person, but a perennial victim, who manages to turn anyone she befriends into her victims. To use another cliché, beauty is a curse. Betty’s stunning looks allowed her, via marriage, to ingratiate herself into a wealthy family. She is basically there to satisfy her husband, and become the clan’s newest breeding animal. Her unhappiness causes a discovered infidelity, which gets the woman cast out (albeit with a huge payout), and threats of more already calamitous emotional abuse should she ever try to see her offspring (as such, the movie is a fascinating companion piece to 2019’s shamefully neglected Swallow, starring and coproduced by Haley Bennett).

Betty’s downward spiral never hits rock bottom because so many reasonably decent people take pity on her, and, worse, bring the woman into their lives – which, by no intentional fault of her own, she destroys (to paraphrase this live-action Jessica Rabbit: she’s just withdrawn that way).

Like so many Chabrol women, Betty is a human paradox – simultaneously endearing, vulnerable, addictive, selfish, treacherous, and fatal. She’s pathetically pathetic.

And as with other Chabrol “heroines” (Stephane Audran, Isabelle Huppert), star Marie Trintignant gives an outstanding nuanced performance – one of contemporary cinema’s distinguished examples of thespian art (of course, she and the movie were ignored at Oscar time). Chabrol’s direction and adaptation of Simenon’s novel is first-rate, as is the camerawork by Bernard Zitzermann, and the score by Matthieu Chabrol. The supporting cast, too, is superb, and features Stephane Audran, Jean-Francois Garreaud, Yves Lambrecht, Pierrre Vernier, Chrstiane Minazolli, Nathalie Kousnetzoff, Yves Verhoeven, Thomas Chabrol, Henri Attal, and Melanie Blatt .

I defy anyone NOT to fall in love with Betty. At their own peril.

1994’s superb psychological thriller TORMENT (L’Enfer) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian of the Chabrols in this set (or, for that matter, in his filmography). It was a troubled project, to say the least. TORMENT‘s embryonic beginnings were started by no less than Henri-Georges Clouzot – France’s other preeminent director often compared to the Master of Suspense. Clouzot’s script (cowritten with Jean Ferry and Jose-Andre Lacour) had been abandoned, and eventually discovered and retrieved by Chabrol (and fortuitously so). Recalling a number of Hitch’s illustrious achievements (The Manxman, Vertigo, Marnie), TORMENT is an engrossing examination of sexual obsession taken to its most fatal degree.

Paul Prieur, a youngish, flourishing hotelier, has got it all: a thriving resort in a pastoral setting, a neverending cache of inventive ideas, and, best of all, Nelly – a loving beautiful wife to share this life with.

But the honeymoon ends prematurely when Paul uncharacteristically finds himself hounding Nelly about her activities without him. It slowly and increasingly becomes worse. Soon, he is questioning her fidelity, following her to the point of stalking, and neglecting his business. The downward descent of his addiction to possess Nelly is worse than any drug could be. Mentally and physically, it takes its toll on the once-engaging Paul, who begins to insult (and lose) guests, blaming and ultimately abusing the innocent Nelly, whose own mental state now becomes progressively fragile.

The primo terminal relationship movie from Hell, TORMENT delivers its drama like a sledgehammer, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s Chabrol at his best, aided admirably by two fantastic leads: Emmanuelle Beart and Francois Cluzet as Nelly and Paul (with fine support from Nathalie Cardone, Andre Wilms, Marc Lavoine, Dora Doll, Christiane Minazolli, Mario David, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sophie Arthur, and Thomas Chabrol). The deceptive beauteous scenic Aude-lensed backdrop for this nightmarish detour is sumptuously captured by d.p. Bernard Zitzermann, in unison with an excellent score by Matthieu Chabrol.

Deservedly hailed as a masterpiece, TORMENT was often that for its director. The main reason for his displeasure with the picture was the participation of Beart. Chabrol always loved to surround himself with cast and crew who shared his sense of caustic satire – men and women he could constantly rely upon to build a personal stock company. To his shock, Charbol termed Beart as “humorless,” totally devoid of any snarkasm; this is almost impossible to fathom, as she is so terrific in this movie, ably displaying a fun-loving, laughter-prone side in the early sequences. Beart and Chabrol would never cross paths again.

The perfect title to conclude this must-have collection, TORMENT is a disturbing, emotional roller-coaster ride, presented in an exceptional manner that defines first-rate cinema.

LIES AND DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL. All Color. All Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; All 1.0 mono DTS-HD MA, with the exception of TORMENT [2.0 stereo DTS-HD MA]; All French w/English subtitles. Arrow Video/MVD Entertainment Group. CAT# AV362. SRP: $99.95.

“Oh, those midgets…”

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

It’s always a treat to discover a movie once it’s released on Blu-Ray; that said, it’s likewise a kick to re-discover one when it debuts in the format. I offer as Exhibit A the 3000-limited Edition B-D of the 1963 musical-comedy BYE, BYE BIRDIE, available on the Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment label.

Adapted from the smash Broadway Michael Stewart (book)/Charles Strouse/Lee Adams (music and lyrics) hit, the show “made” star Dick Van Dyke. The movie, with a truly funny script by veteran scribe Irving Brecher (Meet Me in St. Louis, the Dobie Gillis TV series) and in the more-than-capable hands of George Sidney (who made such memorable entries as Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls, Scaramouche, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, Pal Joey, Who Was That Lady?) fully grasps the filmic possibilities of the narrative, “opening up” the cinematic Panavisioned-framed door, via the virtuosity of d.p. Joseph Biroc (utilizing a myriad of movement, inventive angles and even animation). Whew, that was a lot to say!

With a first-rate cast, a songbook of show-stopping tunes and a can’t-miss plot, BIRDIE is a win/win proposition from the amazing fade-in of smoldering teen/woman Ann-Margret winking, pouting and gyrating herself into orgasmic frenzy (and all male viewers into jail-bait fantasy hell).

For young women, the moral compass of BYE BYE BIRDIE is a double-edged sword: A) rock ‘n’ roll will open up a new world of fun, freedom and endless good times; and B) you’ll probably become a prostitute.

Ann-Margret was an inspired choice to play the small-town cutie selected to kiss rock star Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show; it’s all a publicist’s dream bon voyage stunt, chronicling Birdie’s temporary swan song to stardom, thanks to his induction into the military. Yup, it’s the Elvis Presley predicament spearheading this dilemma – one that had real-life 45 RPM mavens reaching for .45 caliber replacements. It’s a storyline so satire-ready that if it hadn’t actually happened, to quote the wags, “ya couldn’t have made it up!”

More than Van Dyke, celluloid BYE, BYE BIRDIE propelled Ann-Margret into the entertainment stratosphere. Prior to this movie, she was a demure singer (albeit it a fetching one), who made her show biz debut on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Shortly thereafter, she became the protégé of George Burns, appearing with him in Vegas, and turning up on pal Jack Benny’s classic TV series. A-M then played goody-two-shoes eye candy in Frank Capra’s 1961 remake of Lady for a Day, Pocketful of Miracles, as the proper (translation: boring) daughter of Bette Davis.

It took the sweaty palms of Sidney to ultimately unleash the carnal beast – a determined tigress who morphs from girl to woman in an early BIRDIE number “How Lucky to be a Woman,” (supposedly) dressing down tomboy style in her bedroom (it kinda reminded me of Nancy Kwan’s far more in-your-face rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in Flower Drum Song). Credulously, throughout the Sixties, I thought that this was what all females did to excite themselves: retreat to their boudoirs and sing about luring men to their doom whilst putting on/taking off underwear. Kwan, Ann-Margret and an array of Hammer actresses provided enough collateral damage to last me nearly a decade.

Don’t take my word for it, check out reports of director Sidney, who, as with Kim Novak (in Jeanne Eagels and Pal Joey) became perilously obsessed with Ann-Margret during the production. This might well-account for the movie’s (aforementioned) opening and closing bumpers, the unbridled sexuality released during A-M’s dry hump dancing exhibitions comprising a catalog of come-hither expressions and effortless seduction techniques that would make Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Grahame gasp in horror. Within two years, Ann-Margret would be starring in such sensational titles as Kitten with a Whip, Bus Riley’s Back in Town, The Swinger and The Cincinnati Kid (relegating blonde pretty poison costar Tuesday Weld to good-girl status, a near-impossible feat). Sidney, so enamored of his star, agreed to return to his alma mater, MGM, to cast her opposite the real Birdie, Elvis hisself, in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, generally considered the best of the 1960s Presley Metro pics, and packed with more on-screen teen movie chemistry than the Manhattan Project. “That Go-Go Guy and That Bye Bye Girl in the Fun Capital of the World!” heralded the one-sheets, and, presumably, the bed sheets, as it was here a rejected Sidney sealed his fate, when, early on, the actress famously began an affair with the rock icon, clearly a case of art imitating art.

Whether it’s the extraordinary choreography of Onna White or her natural endorphins exploding before our very eyes, Ann-Margret’s dancing is one of BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s many highlights; for the young star, it was a celebrity-defining moment. From that point on, she never gave up an op to display these moves (usually attired in her soon-to-become trademark pink hip-huggers and midriff-top), save the possible exception of Joseph Andrews.

The only way to briefly describe Ann-Margret’s apparent boundless musical energy is to suggest Bob Fosse’s version of The Chicken Dance. She twitches, flapping arms outstretched, head bouncing from one shoulder to another, legs spread as her ankles defy gravity, snapping to impossible 45-degree angles in a manner that would make Jerry Lewis envious. It’s what cinema’s all about.

Of course, we can’t deny Dick Van Dyke’s contributions either. With all the enthusiastic talent on view, his role is, under careful consideration, fairly thankless. Credit his comic capabilities to really give serious competition to his fellow cast members. There’s astounding confidence in his character, Albert Peterson – the offspring of a nightmarish domineering mother (a frightening but wacky Maureen Stapleton, in reality, the same age as her movie progeny) – a closet biochemist forced into writing rock ‘n’ roll ditties. For the actor-comedian, flush from success of his brilliant CBS series, and simultaneously filming Mary Poppins, ’63 can certainly be said to have been his year. When one thinks about it, Albert’s the pic’s most genuinely interesting character. He essentially invents a new amphetamine, which he has no problem testing on humans (well, okay, Russians). That he plans to team up with Ann-Margret’s father to market the product moves us further along this twisty road – the final stretch being the pimply-pimped teen girl’s kissing the sleazoid Birdie on national television, thereby completing the entire equation of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in one delirious package, or, what we conveniently term American Exceptionalism. In retrospect, sabotaging the Russians on a coast-to-coast broadcast in 1963 was probably not too well-thought out an idea. If Cuba and the Bay of Pigs almost caused a nuclear war, methinks doping the Soviet Union’s concert meister to the delight of 100 million enemy viewers wasn’t going to sit well with Nikita. Alas, my post-BYE, BYE BIRDIE take is to make it the unofficial fourth installment of the Columbia Pictures mid-Sixties doomsday series, placing it squarely alongside Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe and The Bedford Incident. But that’s just me.

Happily, no one ever listens to anything I have to say, so off we go to BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s most intelligent denizen, Van Dyke’s girlfriend, personified by Janet Leigh (top-billed, since at the time of the picture’s release, she was the movie’s most viable box-office name). Interestingly enough, Leigh’s character, Rosie, underwent the most changes from Broadway to Hollywood. Chita Rivera played the part on The Great White Way when Rosie’s last name was Alvarez; for the movie, a white-bread version was thought more suitable for the masses, changing the surname to DeLeon (how soon the fickle industry forgot The Ricardos). Nevertheless Leigh was decked out in a black Rita Moreno wig, along with hoop earrings and enough eyeliner to gnash the teeth of Maria Felix. Telltale reminders of her actual heritage are further displayed on her desk in the form of various Frito Bandito-type figurines. Leigh’s singing and dancing talents, however, are not compromised and she’s really quite the trouper in “One Boy” and “Rosie.”

Aside from Dick Van Dyke, the only other key cast member of the Broadway production to make the Hollywood cut was Paul Lynde as Ann-Margret’s long-suffering pater. After nearly ten years in the business, Lynde at last struck paydirt with BYE, BYE BIRDIE; simply put, this movie (and more precisely, the song “Kids”) made his career. I vividly remember seeing this flick during the summer of 1963 at the Onteora Theatre in the Catskill resort of Fleischmann’s. Virtually every line Lynde said brought the house down. I can specifically recall the scene where Stapleton goes suicidal, sticking her head in Lynde’s family’s oven. Not to worry, offers Lynde, “…it’s electric.” The laughs on that line alone drowned out the next two minutes of the picture. It’s Lynde, by the way, who makes the midget comment that I used as the headline for this piece, a reference made regarding the little people’s degenerate lifestyle when, as a youth, his character ran away to join the circus.

The movie’s rockers – fictional and real – merit more than just a mention. Bobby Rydell, teen idol du jour, does manage to turn his one-dimensional part as Ann-Margret’s boyfriend into something a bit more substantial. His geeky wide-eyed delivery brings to mind a slightly cooler version of Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors; in fact, the whole comedic rock ‘n’ roll aura makes me wonder if this show didn’t at least in part inspire (Alan) Menken and (Howard) Ashman.

This brings us to BYE BYE BIRDIE‘s most underrated participant, Jesse Pearson as its main protagonist. On Broadway, Birdie was portrayed by Dick Gautier, known to most TV fans as Hymie the robot on the Get Smart sitcom. Never having seen the original production, I can’t imagine Gautier being scummier than Pearson’s uncouth redneck SOB – every daughter’s parent’s worst fear. Pearson’s sneering expressions, his jubilant expertise at his seductive prowess, his hysterical spot-on parody of a dangerous rock ‘n’ roller warbling (“HURT ME!”) raise the proceedings to a magnificent snarky level. If anything, it’s unfair to his target Presley, who, by all accounts, was a courteous, decent dude. Pearson’s Birdie is more along the lines of a teenaged Lonesome Rhodes, that monstrous Andy Griffith bastard from A Face in the Crowd. Furthermore, Pearson’s Birdie powers are such that his effect on a small town is identical to the opening of Village of the Damned: instant mass female unconsciousness (whether this actually caused all the womenfolk to subsequently become pregnant is never explored).

The mini-bits are great too. Trudi Ames as Ursula was seemingly the go-to girl whenever a teen femme working for Columbia or Screen Gems (Columbia’s TV appendage) needed a best friend. Mary La Roche, as Ann-Margret’s mom and Lynde’s wife, went down a similar road in Gidget. Great character actor Frank Albertson is a scream as the town mayor with an insatiable wife (Beverly Yates), who even after passing out, still pumps her spread-legs up in the air (“Birdie, what ya doing?,” uttered while cradling his pulsating spouse, never fails to bowl me over). Leigh and Albertson had previously crossed paths in Psycho (he was the grungy millionaire whose 40K she absconds with). Robert Paige is an A.D. for the Sullivan show (“Hey, it’s the guy from Son of Dracula!” I shouted out loud in the theater before being told to shut up). Then there’s Ed Sullivan – whose personality defies any description, and heir to one of my favorite celebrity credits (So-and-so as…HIMSELF).

There are tons of reasons for purchasing this Blu-Ray, a few of which I will ecstatically praise. Primarily, one can never shout loud enough about how important a great print of a movie is to the overall presentation. BYE BYE BIRDIE was shot in unstable Eastmancolor. For years, one either had to suffer through blotchy-hued copies with peach-colored facial tones, or, out-and-out faded red versions; of course, on TV, these prints were pan-and-scanned, which automatically made them unwatchable. This new transfer was struck from the recent restoration, which premiered in conjunction with the 2011 Oscars (and was hosted by Ann-Margret and Rydell). Hey, folks, they’re actually accurate fleshtones, neon-enamaled reds, greens and blues and more. Joe Biroc is a terrific cameraman, and, as indicated earlier, his collaboration with director Sidney was a rewarding one (encompassing some nice second unit NYC, Washington, D.C. location work). The 2.35:1 compositions are fantastic; most notable is the framing and lighting during the “One Boy” duet between Ann-Margret and Leigh (Ann-Margret’s amorous bedroom-eyed desire to have “…one boy to joke with, have Coke with…” is an unintentional “connection” to Leigh’s aforementioned songwriting pill-pushing boyfriend). The imagery on the Blu-Ray is so sharp that one can actually make out the guest roster on Sullivan’s upcoming programs (nice to know that Nixon was somewhere between Kim Novak and Jerry Lewis). We can also enjoy the shameless Columbia product placement, as evidenced by the teens’ accumulation of various Hanna-Barbera toys and apparel (ditto the record store stock in the “Telephone Hour” number, as all the LPs are Colgems).

The audio is even better. Unless one saw BYE BYE BIRDIE first-run (Radio City Music Hall for us New Yorkers), they were denied the pleasure of hearing the likes of “Put on a Happy Face,” “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do,” and the rest in full-dimensional stereo. More than thirty years ago, Pioneer Special Editions released a letterboxed laserdisc with the original stereo elements – but, in a notorious example of QC FU, they switched the tracks to wrong sides of the screen. Since then, DVDs have corrected that problem, but, until this evocation, I have never had so much fun hearing the precise separations and surround effects that the movie had to offer. I can enthusiastically state that BYE BYE BIRDIE could be one of the best classic movie stereo B-Ds I’ve ever heard. Moreover, like all Twilight Time titles, BIRDIE has an IST (Isolated Sound Track) option (including the musical numbers).

A testament to Sidney’s Ann-Margret jones is the inclusion of a special BYE BYE BIRDIE teaser, which is, nothing more than a blatant love letter to the talents of the rising and writhing starlet; jeez, you’d never know that anyone else was in the picture. The official theatrical trailer is also thrown in the mix (noteworthy, as it uses an alternate take to “Kids”), but it’s nowhere near as much fun – nor embarrassing.

Talk about embarrassing, a friend reminded me that a sequel, Bring Back Birdie, debuted in 1981, basically utilizing the Callaway Went Thataway plot; it died a quick death. Then a TV revival movie was filmed in 1995 costarring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams, clearly an anti-Christ artistic undertaking of flipping the BIRDIE; if nothing else, it provides an additional impetus for rushing out and buying the Twilight Time disc.

BYE BYE BIRDIE: Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Limited 3000-only pressing.

Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.