Look at the Big Picture

As a beardless youth, many of my cinematic obsessions were addressed via the publication of James L. Limbacher’s 1968 book The Four Aspects of Film.  The quartet comprised the technological advances in cinema that I avidly revered:  color, sound, widescreen and 3-D.  The advent of high-echelon home video, most prominently Blu-Ray, has allowed take my addictions beyond the written word and actually enjoy all of these sensational illusions over and over again.

Earlier this year, I was delighted to have the chance to view and review the wonderful Flicker Alley disc A Trip to the Moon, at last presented in its original color version.  Now, they have further extended the world of pure celluloid nirvana by the simultaneous release of two landmark widescreen classics, the pictures that introduced (and entertained millions of ) 1950s moviegoers with the awesome processes known as the Multi-Panel Film and Deep Curved Screen format, or, via their more common terms, Cinerama and Cinemiracle.  This pair of extraordinary special editions, 1952’s THIS IS CINERAMA and 1958’s WINDJAMMER, is now permanently available for exhibition in your home theater.  If, like me, you’re a widescreen fanatic, collecting doesn’t get much better than this.

Like the individual panels, which were required for the processes, there are three folks who are the unsung heroes of Cinerama and Cinemiracle.  First and foremost, there is Fred Waller, who is generally acknowledged as the inventor who developed, refined, and helped market the process.  I say  “generally,” since three-panel movies, as a wow, did exist in limited, primitive renditions – the most notable being a tryptych (and French tri-colored flag) finale for Abel Gance’s 1924 epic Napoleon.  This kinda cool gimmick wasn’t what attracted Waller to the idea of a viable three-panel journey.  His dream was, to quote Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes in their excellent 1988 book Wide Screen Movies, “recreating reality in a motion picture setting.”

What we now call “peripheral vision” or “what we see out of the corners of our eyes, helps produce our sense of depth and space.  Normal vision covers 160 degrees and 60 degrees, respectively…Waller’s screen could come very close to approximating the field of view of the human eye.”  This was achieved by using “three 35MM camera equipped with 27MM lenses” that essentially mimicked the human perception of distance.  The three pictures, photographed from three cameras, set at 48-degree angles from one another, were synched to a single rotating shutter in front of each lens.  “Camera speed was changed from 24 to 26 frames per second,” with footage running at a speed of 146.25 feet per minute (as opposed to the standard 90 fpm).  Three separate projection booths, controlled by selsyn interlocked motors, shot each image (left, center, right) onto the mammoth curved screen in perfect synchronization.  This brought on board Hazard Reeves, who designed a multi-channel stereo system to match to visuals.

Waller’s theories and past test results (see below) led to his hooking up with legendary producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), a master of showmanship, who was able to make the format saleable as a first-run popular attraction.  Along with Lowell Thomas (both Cooper and Thomas were documentarians, explorers and risk-takers), they helped form the Cinerama Organization; Cooper brought on publicists, musicians, idea men, etc., to generate interest in the process.  Obviously, he succeeded.

The third name that must be given mucho kudos is David Strohmaier.  Several years ago, Mr. Strohmaier, through the recommendation of my good pal Brian Jamieson, sent me a review copy of the Blu-Ray The Scent of Mystery, a 1961 three-panel picture that originally had the additional perk of Smell-O-Vision.  To say I was stunned by the release of this hen’s tooth title is an understatement.  I was downright goofy.

Like Scent of Mystery, these two Flicker Alley platters have been painstakingly restored by Strohmaier & Co.  The results here far surpass Scent.  Both titles are virtually flawless.  This took a lot of dedication, frustration, experimentation and, I daresay, borderline obsession.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that the chemistry between David Strohmaier and Cinerama parallels that of Abbott for Costello, William Powell for Myrna Loy, or Warren Beatty and himself.  The proof is in every frame of CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER (and spills over into the plethora of extras included with each set).

Of course, while size itself played a relevant role in the ultimate three-panel experience, detail and depth were equally important.  While even collectors with kaiju-sized flat screens can’t compare to the 1950s exhibitions, curved Blu-Ray simulation, achieved by a cousin of letterboxing, christened Smilebox, does enable one to witness the jaw-dropping cineramic effects of 1080p High Definition at its breathless best.  There is truly a near-third dimensional buzz present in many of the shots replicated in these discs.  As for the POV stuff, WARNING: don’t indulge in a heavy meal prior to screening.

And now, on with the show.

 

THIS IS CINERAMA is literally a filmic roller coaster ride.  The “opening” is one of The Movies’ most iconic sequences, a POV shot from a front seat in the Rockaway Playland coaster.  It made 1952 audiences giddy, dizzy, and often left them breathless and sick.  It was swell.  Those who weren’t woozy burst into enthusiastic applause when the segment concluded.  Note, I put “opening” in quotes.  It has a double meaning.  To make the introduction of Cinerama even more spectacular, Lowell Thomas appeared onscreen in a 12-minute 1.37:1-framed monochrome prologue, discussing the evolution of the motion picture medium.  Then, the screen slowly expands, stunning Technicolor replaces the black-and-white, and, hold on to your seats, folks!

The first-run flagship exhibitions of THIS IS CINERAMA additionally offered mass bookings for out-of-towners.  And it worked.  Americans, tourists, school groups, religious organizations and basic thrill-seekers all converged on the nearest Cinerama theaters in massive proportions.  The movie was sold out for years.

The success of THIS IS CINERAMA and the process itself wasn’t, as indicated, a one-two punch overnight shoo-in.  Cinerama was a vision in the making for decades.  Inventor Fred Waller had been toying with recreating peripheral vision since the 1930s.  Vitarama, an embryonic version of Cinerama, highlighted the 1939 World’s Fair, as a new movie phenomenon.  That, it was.  The coming of World War II saw Cinerama as more serious and essential tool for preparing and training pilots.  The enveloping screens were used to replicate motion picture-simulated battle situations (or, if one wants to be current in a superfluous way, the first video games).  It proved incredibly valuable, and likely saved many lives.

After the war, Waller continued to tweak the outstanding, but, to be honest, impractical format.  He needed showmen to push Cinerama into the limelight it deserved.  That, of course, happened when it piqued the interest of Merian C. Cooper and Lowell Thomas.

Forming the Cinerama Corporation, and hiring studio-contracted artists on the sly:  Max Steiner, Paul Sawtell, Roy Webb, Leo Shuken, plus directors Gunther von Frtisch and Mike Todd, Jr., King Kong’s SFX master Willis O’Brien and Cooper’s celebrated former partner Ernest B. Schoedsack; even an ousted Louis B. Mayer had an invisible hand in the production, as did the great flight cinematographer Paul Mantz, who shot the swooping panoramas over Zion National Park and other flight material.  The company sent the gargantuan cameras all over the globe to achieve the best and awe-inspiring effects. Officially, the key crew members of the CINERAMA units included first-rate craftsmen and entrepreneurs, including cameraman Harry Squire and coproducer Michael Todd (the elder Elizabeth Taylor one), dying to dip his toes into the movie universe. Waller’s inclusion of test-showcasing a church choir was a stroke of genius.  Although in black and white (ultimately tinted in sepiatone) and about as cinematic as a 1928 talkie, the sequence alone brought in hundreds of thousands of a dollars from the special church-group screenings.

The picture quality knocked the sox off anyone who saw CINERAMA in 1952.  Critics loved it, audiences worshipped it.  Further improvements and subsequent features immediately were given the green light.

Now, I totally understand why collectors (outside of 1950s and Cinerama buffs) are wondering what’s the point in owning a movie that was meant for a behemothian screen.  It’s a valid claim, but one easily debunked.  With big screens becoming more affordable these days, THIS IS CINERAMA (and its offspring) have been given a new life.  Agreed, a 60-inch-plus image can’t compare to the 140 degree curve of a 100 foot 1952 theater screen, but the detail of the restored 1080p imagery, the crisp, vibrant Technicolor, the sheer overall effect of the thing is absolutely amazing.  As evidence, I cite the trip through the Venice canals, the performance at La Scala and a water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens.  And then, of course, there’s that roller coaster.

As indicated above, the picture alone couldn’t complete the overall effect of THIS IS CINERAMA.  The giant images needed formidable sound to go with it.  Nabe mono audio wasn’t gonna do it.  No way.  Enter Hazard Reeves.  Stereo experimentation in movie sound had been around for a while.  Fantasia attempted it with Fantasound.  Warners tried it with VitaSound, an optical surround precursor of Perspecta, on their 1940 titles Four Daughters and Santa Fe Trail.  But THIS IS CINERAMA needed to take sound to the next level.  By elevating stereo technology to a new zenith – the installation of six-channel mag-coated 35MM stock – the movie delivered a complete intertwining of superior sight and sound.  Thomas, beginning the post-intermission by screaming at the audiences via directional mikes had as much an impact on the ears in 1952 as the coaster did on the peepers (and the stomachs).  Many folks who saw the original release told me they were turning around to see where the sound was coming from.  Combined with the music and the choir singing, it was like diving into a world of the senses (“Incredible,” “outstanding,” “unbelievable” are the usual accolades that lucky Fifties viewers have told me).  I guarantee you that you’ll feel likewise, in a 21st-century home-video way, about the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray.

The restoration of THIS IS CINERAMA is no mere hyperbole.  Strohmaier truly deserves to be congratulated until the proverbial cows come home.  I can verify that this 2017 re-mastered edition was an undertaking of meticulous proportions. How do I know this?  Allow me to elaborate.  In 1972, to commemorate the 20th anniversary THIS IS CINERAMA, a special new 70MM print was patchworked together from the original three panels.  It was shown in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater, then the biggest screen in town (the Cinerama house and other cavernous movie emporiums had already gone the dust-is-my-destiny route).  The effect left me and my friends nonplussed, to put it mildly.  The picture quality was garish, grainy and often muddy.  The lines dividing the panels were gratingly evident, and misaligned.  The poor schmuck with the mustache in the aforementioned La Scala sequence was caught in the meld, and had two heads sprouting from his neck.

Stromaier’s restoration is nothing like that.  You can barely (if at all) notice the panel lines, and the picture is crystal-clear with the colors ebullient.  And mustache has but one melon.

In addition to this re-master, THIS IS CINERAMA comes with a treasure trove of fascinating extras, including audio commentary with Strohmaier and original crew member Jim Morrison (no, not him), The Best in the Biz, an hour-long documentary on the composers of CINERAMA, another documentary on the restoration, an alternate European post-Intermission opening, a rare radio interview with Fred Waller, a bizarre French short about traveling Cinerama tent shows in France, a tribute to an Ohio theater – the last true venue for Cinerama screenings, the theatrical trailer, TV spots and more.

Oh, yeah, and then again, there’s that roller coaster!

 

In an effort to give Cinerama a run for their money, the National Theaters chain decided to create a three-panel process of their own.  It would improve upon the picture and sound of Cinerama, ideally making it more adaptable for other types of motion picture entertainment beyond the travelogue arena.  Two improvements were made to the three-panel process:  the first was utilizing only one booth for the trio of projectors, and the other, reducing the appearance of join lines by the use of mirrors.  The latter, a magician standard, worked like a charm.

1958’s WINDJAMMER was the end result of this goal, and is another terrific release from Flicker Alley, in conjunction with David Strohmaier’s Cinerama home-video company.  A windjammer is an oversized sailing ship, once considered (in the early twentieth century) to be the best way to swiftly carry large crews and cargo. One of the most splendid surviving examples of this ship builder’s marvel was the Norwegian vessel the Christian Radich.  A Norway baptism of fire for its male youth was to select a group of fifty adolescents and test them on an overseas voyage that would, as the cliché goes, turn boys into men.  This was seriously a big deal in 1958.  Thousands of applicants arrived with athletic prowess, glowing academia records and a barrage of references from neighbors, clergymen, local politicians, etc.  The fact that this voyage was to be captured in a spectacular new movie marvel, now known as Cinemiracle, made acceptance for the 17,500-nautical-mile excursion all the more desirable.  Of course, this also ratcheted up the publicity angle, which was absolutely necessary for Cinemiracle to succeed.

The Christian Radach left Oslo (with boys, cast and crew) in the summer of 1957.  The tribulations (and danger) of maneuvering such delicate and bulky camera equipment on a schooner is obvious.  Nevertheless it was an upgrade from the original Cinerama, if for no other reason than the veteran technicians becoming increasingly familiar with the pros and cons of a three-panel process.  This adaptability displayed a slightly more intimate execution, thus enabling an actual narrative strain to loop through the 142-minute proceedings (another important asset if Cinemiracle were to prosper and topple Cinerama).

WINDJAMMER is an awesome assault on the senses (in the best way).  By capturing the ports of call around the globe, one gets a glimpse of cultural habitats and festivities that explode on the screen in mélange of color, sound, music, exploration and adventure (there is an actual tragedy that occurs during the making of the movie, which affects its participants by voyage end).  New York City has an additional advantage by having much of its glam camerawork composed and shot by the photographic genius Arthur “Weegee” Fellig.  It is, to put it mildly, a kaleidoscopic pip!

By zeroing in on some of the boy crew, we have the makings of a genuine scenario, rather than a mere travelogue.  We are privy to the lads’ yearning for what they used to call “going steady,” plus other likes and dislikes.  A main character, Sven Erik Libaek, becomes a focus of interest due to his devotion to music (a piano is actually loaded on board so that he can practice); his vision is to play for the renowned conductor Arthur Fiedler.  This culminates in a musical feast during the American portion of the trip.  Other treats for the ears (reproduced in fantastic stereo-surround) include a performance by Pablo Casals, while the ship docks in Puerto Rico, plus steel bands, Calypso and a limbo rock demo in Trinidad.

That the movie does manage to go one better than its predecessor is due to the ensemble array of WINDJAMMER’s artists and craftsmen, including composer Morton Gould, d.p.s Gayne Rescher, Joseph Brun, and Gordon Willis and codirectors Bill Colleran and Louis de Rochemont III.  The picture had long legs, playing in some three-panel emporiums as late as 1964.  An accompanying LP soundtrack likewise became a bestseller.

The pliability of Cinemiracle amazed and delighted Hollywood’s mogul crowd.  As with Vitaphone, two-strip Technicolor and 3-D, Jack L. Warner was the one who bit at the bait.  He announced that an upcoming Carroll Baker religious pic, The Miracle would be entirely shot in the new three-panel system.  Production was actually started, but, as shooting commenced, it became obvious that Cinemiracle wasn’t as easy to manipulate as originally envisioned.  The cost factor was, natch, another thorn in the side.  The plans were scrapped and Carroll Baker had to suffer her miracle without the cine.  WINDJAMMER would be the only movie ever using the process.

The POV use of three-panel in WINDJAMMER, is especially triumphant with the heart-stopping visuals of the raging sea.  Coupled with the wonders of the world and its peoples makes WINDJAMMEER a unique movie outing that I emphatically suggest one undertake.  A rollicking ride in a basket sled had me and my fellow viewers holding on to the sofa. Blu-Ray quality rivals THIS IS CINERAMA, and like its ancestor, WINDJAMMER, comes chock full of extras (documentaries on the filming and the reconstruction, a 2010 visit to the Christian Radach, etc.) that alone would warrant a purchase for widescreen geeks, such as myself, but also for those always looking to add that “something extra” to movie night.

THIS IS CINERAMA  Color/Black and White.  Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Cinerama.  CAT # FA0025R.  SRP: $39.95.

WINDJAMMER  Color. Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Flicker Alley/Cinerama.  CAT# FA0026R. SRP: $39.95.

 

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The Violence of Silence

In the annals of spaghetti westerns, few motion pictures are regarded with higher praise than Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 odyssey of evil THE GREAT SILENCE.  Up to now, it was also one of the hardest titles to find, especially in decent, uncut versions.  Thus, it is with a great (non-silent) sigh of relief that I can reveal the unveiling of a newly minted 50th Anniversary Special Restoration, loaded with fantastic extras, in (mostly) superb shape and now available on Blu-Ray from Film Movement Classics.

Sergio Corbucci is the most difficult of the spaghetti Sergios (the others being Sollima and, natch, Leone) to embrace with affection.  And for good reason.  Taking a page from William S. Hart and a chapter from Erich von Stroheim, Corbucci never sugar-coated his epics (Minnesota Clay, The Hellbenders, Django, The Mercenary, Companeros).  They are grim, haunting, relentless morality tales that usually end up in a Mephistophelean universe, just south of Tucson.  Corbucci liked to set the screen on fire, then pour gasoline over it, step back and watch the carnage.  Even a bravura work like 1966’s Navajo Joe concluded with heart-stopping, unexpected tragedy.  THE GREAT SILENCE not only tops Joe for its ruthlessness, but totally reinvents the genre.  It could be Corbucci’s most personal flick.

The locale itself, the town of Snow Mill and its surroundings, is a major character.  Unlike the majority of spaghetti western terrain, SILENCE eschews the parched, desert landscapes for an icy, blizzard-plagued frozen tundra (SILENCE makes a great double-bill with De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw).  The hero, christened Silence, is not traditional either – on or off the screen.  On-screen, he’s a mute, off-screen, he’s not Clint Eastwood or any other American TV western star on hiatus, but international French superthesp Jean-Louis Trintignant.  His lover, Pauline, is not your typical Italian sexpot, but the beautiful African-American actress Vonetta McGee (in her screen debut).

Intrigued?  It gets better.

Silence is a man out for vengeance.  As a child, he saw two carpetbagging scumbags murder his family.  Rather than kill a young boy to prevent him from talking, they slit his vocal cords.  Silence vows (obviously to himself) to wreak horrific violence upon the pair.  To prepare for this, he earns his living as a bounty hunter, rivaled only by brutal, sadist Loco.  Loco, it should be mentioned, is played by Klaus Kinski, in perhaps his greatest villain role (think about that).  From the get-go, Loco/Kinski snarls his way through the proceedings, living by his mantra of there ain’t no such thing as “alive” in “dead or alive.”  Loco’s current plan is to annihilate (and collect) on a band of innocents awaiting amnesty.  He, in turn, is being watched by a well-intentioned sheriff, assigned to Snow Mill as penance for rubbing corrupt politicians the wrong way.  Can’t forget Pauline (Loco killed her husband, one of the amnesty band), nor the brutal wrath of the season’s natural elements.  The combination of these narrative bits tightens the suspense and intensity of this 105-minute adventure with each successive foot of celluloid.  Tightens, as in a noose.

Truly, THE GREAT SILENCE freaks you out in almost every shot.  For all the unorthodox themes and variants in the piece, the picture is nevertheless jam-packed with spaghetti-western icons; aside from Kinski, the vocal-cord cutting beast (now a town entrepreneur) is Luigi Pistilli.  His lead henchman is Mario Brega (almost unrecognizable without his trademark grubby beard); the sheriff is Frank Wolff.  Crowning this spaghetti western’s greatness is a (what else?) magnificent score by Ennio Morricone.

As in all Corbucci works, the movie is extremely political.  Below the surface, THE GREAT SILENCE is a warning about the threat and rise of fascism and how it can engulf and infest a relatively docile environ (the double meaning of the title, therefore, transcends the protagonist and tells viewers that keeping quiet can lead to doom).  If it can chip away at democracy here, it can do so any place.  Loco is the personification of this disease, and seems to have quantum leaped Mein Kampf as his instruction manual.  In quick succession, he aligns himself with dubious capitalists, lies continually until people accept his treachery as fact, places himself above the law, and spews racism like so much chewing tobacco.  It can be said without hesitation that Loco is not only the most repugnant villain in a spaghetti western, but likely a contender for that title in all of cinema.  If the genre’s Clint Eastwood was the Man with No Name, Kinski is the Man with No Shame.  Every line he seethes, every slithery inflection of body language, every contorted facial expression, exudes flesh-crawling savageness at its zenith of creepiness and decrepitude.  Of course, his is the primo performance in the picture.  But we can’t shun either Trintignant nor McGee nor Pistilli.  They are excellent as well.

THE GREAT SILENCE was Corbucci’s pet project (a western with a handicapped hero) for quite a while (Corbucci co-authored the script with his brother, Bruno, along with Vittoriano Petrilli and Mario Amendola, with English dialog added by John Hart and Lewis E. Ciannelli). He was reportedly egged-on by Marcello Mastroianni, who expressed interest in playing Silence, but opted out, due to his lack of English (spaghetti westerns were generally filmed phonetically in English, and, then, like all Italian pics, post-dubbed). It’s a curious escape hatch, as Silence is, well, silent. Trintignant didn’t speak much English either, and has stated that he did the movie as a favor to his pal/coproducer Robert Dorfmann. Indeed, the movie is a French-Italian co-production.

The movie was sumptuously photographed by Silvano Ippoliti in the Dolemites. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot, as evidenced by visible lens hairs in some compositions, as well as a number of opening moments that look as if they were lensed through a veil. The horses indeed are having a tough time.

In spite of all this gloom and human ugliness, THE GREAT SILENCE has one sequence of exquisite beauty – a love scene between Trintignant and McGee, quite simply one of 1960s cinema’s most stunning romantic interludes. That it is smack dab in the middle of such nightmarish events makes the segment all the more memorable.

Spaghetti westerns were riding high worldwide in 1968, largely because the phenomenal box-office that UA achieved with the Leone pics. All the majors wanted in on the genre. Fox was no exception. Darryl Zanuck, upon viewing past Corbucci efforts, optioned THE GREAT SILENCE, and, supposedly, after being screened rushes, was immensely pleased by the unusual feel of the piece. That ended abruptly when he viewed the final cut with its horrendous, escalating viciousness. He dropped the picture from the American Fox release schedule (although it still was distributed by 20th overseas). Finding a company to take over the U.S. bookings for SILENCE proved difficult, causing the movie to be eventually set adrift in obscurity. Of course, the irony is that the following year, Warners would clean up with The Wild Bunch, a similarly grim American counterpart.

The international SILENCE release also experienced enough of a downer reaction to force Corbucci to reshoot not one, but two alternate endings, one still harsh, but with a less unnerving climax, and another a total opposite happy-sappy capper. Neither was ever shown in the States, and both are included as supplements in this Blu-Ray edition. Other exceptional extras on this monumental platter include a complete 1968 documentary, Western, Italian Style, director/film historian Alex Cox’s Corbucci tribute, a new essay on SILENCE by critic Simon Abrams, the accessibility of THE GREAT SILENCE in either the English-dubbed or Italian language (with English subtitles) versions, and the original theatrical trailer.

For spaghetti western fans, political movie buffs, and 1960s cinema aficionados, THE GREAT SILENCE is a disc essential for your library. Definitely not the feel-good show for your movie night, THE GREAT SILENCE offers instead a riveting deep, engrossing saga that no one will ever forget.

THE GREAT SILENCE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA remastered stereo (English dubbed or Italian w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics. All-region Blu-Ray. CAT # GREATSILENCEBLURAY. SRP: $39.95.

greatsilence_COVER

 

 

From Hear to Eternity

An essential addition to any classic movie library, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK is now available as a made-to-order DVD-R from that gang o’ mine at the Warner Archive Collection.

So, why is a movie that likely most of you have never heard of a classic essential?  Well, because this 1928 obscurity is the first all-talking feature-length motion picture ever released.  Yeah, pardon the pun, you heard right.  And, nope, it wasn’t The Jazz Singer; that pic only had talking (and singing) sequences.  Nor Don Juan, in spite of the presence of John Barrymore; that had no talking at all (just synchronized music and effects).

Okay, so what the hell is LIGHTS OF NEW YORK?  First off, it was actually made in New York (yay), and pioneered the genre Warner Bros. would most become associated with:  the gangster flick.  LIGHTS has all the necessary elements for socko entertainment:  pre-Code naughtiness (a la sex and violence, albeit implied), tough, slang talk, music and MORE (as they like to say in the ads).  Sure, it’s creaky, and, even at 57 minutes, the movie threatens to wear out its welcome, but remarkably never does.

The story, as concocted by Hugh Herbert and Murray Roth (yeah, that Hugh Herbert; woo-woo) concerns Eddie and Gene, two small-town upstate New York barbers (Cullen Landis and beloved character actor/vile off-screen racist Eugene Pallette) who yearn for the bright lights, big city thrills of women, money, jazz and other meshugas that will probably guarantee you a sign-off like those schmucks in the Clark Street garage on St. Valentine’s Day.  But, hey, live fast, die young.  As Eddie’s squeeze, Kitty (Helene Costello) already made the move (she’s a cutie in a speakeasy nightclub); all Eddie and Gene need is the proverbial kick in the butt to punt their dream into reality.  Enter Dickson and Jackson (Jere Delaney, Walter Percival), two thugs on the lam, looking for a score to buy their way back to Broadway.  Fast-talking the boys (and Eddie’s pathetic mom, Mary Carr, the actress who owned those roles) out of their life savings, the took rubes swoop down on The Great White Way, and promptly go belly-up, eking out a living running a hotel barber shop that fronts for the mob.  Desperately trying to raise enough scratch to crawl home, they inevitably become involved with gangland scumbag/kingpin Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), a womanizing, murdering bootlegger who is out to frame Eddie and screw his woman (she’s in the show he owns).

The dialog is priceless, vintage 1928 lingo, delivered in “ROUND TONES,” as Kathleen Freeman instructed Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor to do in Singin’ in the Rain.  My late best pal, screenwriter/director Ric Menello, and I worshipped this movie and memorized the key dialog that we would segue into at the mere mention of Vitaphone (we first saw the clips in the last episode of the brilliant 1980 Kevin Brownlow Hollywood series).  Shot in medium close-ups that also had inanimate objects sharing the frame with the actors (phones and flower pots, housing obviously hidden microphones), the lines are often read like a vintage Bob and Ray Slow Talkers of America routine.

The verbal gold (for me) comprises the plot to snatch and implicate Eddie, as Hawk lays it out for his two gunsels (Tom Dugan and Guy D’Ennery):  “Yeah. It’s. Gonna. Be. Tough. On. The. Guy. What. Did. It (a pause about the length of the Mississippi).  “Get. Me?  The. Dicks. Will. Be. There. At. Ten O’Clock. But. They. Mustn’t. Find. Eddie.”

“What?  You. Mean?”

(NODS) “Take. Him. For. A. Ride.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Not only the first all-talking movie, but the first known valium commercial.

On another level entirely is the performance of Gladys Brockwell, who portrays Hawk’s abused and cheated-on moll (aply named Moll).  She does the only real acting in the piece.  Sadly, what promised to be a long-lasting tenure in the world of Vitaphone and beyond never came to pass.  She was killed in a car accident six days before LIGHTS opened.

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was initially a two-reeler talker, one of the Vitaphone Varieties.  But producer/director Bryan Foy (yep, one of them incorrigible Seven Little Foys) saw potential, and strove to expand it another three reels.  Given the green light, with the stipulation that the production not brazenly exceed a short subject budget ($23,000 upped to $75,000), Warners decided to take another gamble; after all, if it turned out like The Jazz Singer…  It did (LIGHTS grossed over $2,000,000 in the U.S. alone).  The movie wowed exhibitors who were previewed the final cut in June of 1928.  It was booked across the country by virtually all the theaters who had converted to sound, but additionally provided the impetus for reluctant theater owners to finally take the plunge and move into the talking pictures universe.

It’s amazing that LIGHTS OF NEW YORK survives intact, picture and sound then being separate, and, therefore, we can give a pass to the existing elements.  Occasional wear does show, but, for the most part, the material is in pretty decent shape (still pity poor d.p. Edwin DuPar, perspiration-drenched in a refrigerator-sized sweatbox so that the whirring of the camera wouldn’t be picked up by the mikes).

To help put over this disc with collectors, Warner Archive has considerably sweetened the pot by including four all-talking Vitaphone shorts from 1928 that authentically may have accompanied LIGHTS to fill out a complete talkie program.  The shorts are, to be honest, more fascinating to me than the feature, and, with the exception of slight decomposition in the last title, in better condition than the main event.

THE COWBOY AND THE GIRL costars novelty singers/comedians Ray Mayer and Edith Evans (no, not the famed British thesp, though I wish).  Presented with original tints, the short has the pair giving out with jazzy tunes and asides like “Our cow wouldn’t give milk, so we sold him,” and “Men get pearls from oysters, but women get diamonds from nuts.”

A MUSICAL MELANGE stars the Kjerulf’’s Mayfair Quintette, an all-girl string band.  Four out of the five are genuinely weird-looking, even for Tod Browning.  Not surprising then that the fifth, a willowy Louise Brooks ringer, gets all the close-ups.

A BREEZE FROM THE SOUTH showcases real-life Southerner Gilbert Wells, who offers a rollicking ensemble of Dixieland ditties and risqué pitter-patter, plus some frightening bad teeth.

MELODIOUS MOMENTS presents The Croonaders, four nice Jewish boys and their ukes, one destructively daring to be the Jimi Hendrix of the voh-dee-oh-doh set.

The sad thing, of course, about these sensational cultural records is that the eager participants failed to realize that they were cutting their own professional throats.  Talking pictures pretty much killed vaudeville, which was the bread and butter for all these performers, 98% of whom faded into the shadows of time.

On that bright note, I must underline the fact that I LOVE this disc, and have already played it at least a half-dozen times.  I only wish the great Menello were here to share the enjoyment.  He’d have plotzed.

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK/Vitaphone Varieties.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  2.0 mono. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.  CAT # 1000715954.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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Cain Enabled

Especially timely these days, Abraham Polonsky’s vicious modern 1948 biblical parable (by route of film noir) FORCE OF EVIL comes to Blu-Ray in a dynamite edition, courtesy of Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

The pic, starring and coproduced by John Garfield, was the actor’s and writer/director’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to their 1947 smash Body and Soul (Polonsky scripted that Robert Rossen iconic boxing saga).  The movie, adapted from Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People, was made independently via Garfield’s cofounded company, Enterprise Studios, a short-lived concern that nevertheless defined the power of the little fish in the big cinematic pond; almost every title Enterprise produced is a major addition to any classic collector’s library.  The success of the aforementioned Body and Soul guaranteed A+ distribution for Enterprise, bizarrely via the unlikely gooey dream factory known as MGM.

Succinctly put, FORCE OF EVIL is one of the best movies of the 1940s, and one of the greatest noirs ever made.  The dialog, the violence, the angst, the entire look and feel of the production is chillingly spine-tingling and exciting.  It remains one of my two favorite John Garfield movies (the other being 1950’s The Breaking Point).

The story, set in Manhattan (and filmed there, almost simultaneously with Metro’s On the Town), concerns two streetwise brothers, Joe and Leo Morse (Garfield and Thomas Gomez).  Leo, the older sib, also serves as Joe’s surrogate father.  Like Joe, Leo is smart, savvy and was probably, at one point, destined to go far.  But his love for his even smarter bro put a dent into the good intentions machine.  Leo ends up in the old hood as an old hood, running an illegal penny-ante bank loan/numbers service.  The positive spin is that Leo treats his employees (all hard-luck locals and otherwise unemployable) and clients with decency and care.  He looks after everyone, rarely bothering to bother about himself (he has a terminal cardiac problem); his main concern was for a long time his brother, making sure there are enough funds to send him through college and law school, thereby allowing the would-be attorney to amount to something.  That’s where irony throws a monkey wrench into the works.  Joe DOES become a success, but as a mob mouthpiece, preying on the poor while bolstering his rep as a go-between for the mob and crooked politicians.  You want access to a top politico, you go through Joe.  By his own definition, his legal skills are appended by his slithery charm as a “fixer.”  Are the goose-bumps rising on the back of your neck yet?  Stay tuned.

Trouble is, the mobsters aren’t happy with the majority of the East Coast rackets; they want it all.  So fixer Joe’s latest assignment is to muscle in on his own brother.  As is the case in noir, there’s NO WAY this is going to work out well.  And it doesn’t.  Decades ahead of its time via tough dialog and jaw-dropping graphic violence, FORCE OF EVIL delivers the goods in a way few movies have.  Its influence has inspired everyone from Martin Scorsese (who does a special introduction on the disc) to Quentin Tarantino to Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, and, notably Robert Aldrich (who was assistant director on the picture).

The performances are magnificent, ranging from Garfield (when was he ever NOT terrific?), newcomer Beatrice Pearson (as a lovely new nabe-babe employee of Leo’s, whose intelligence and virtue bugs Joe), Roy Roberts, Paul Fix, Howard Chamberlain, Murray Alper, William Challee, Cliff Clark, Arthur O’Connell, Paul Frees, Paul Newlan and Jack Lambert.  It’s Thomas Gomez, however, who nearly steals the show as brother Leo (one of his rare, and possibly only, sympathetic screen roles); long story short, he’s Oscar-worthy outstanding (he wasn’t even nominated; FYI, it would have been a tough choice, the Best Supporting Actor that year went to Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

The direction and writing by Polonsky is textbook perfect.  It’s easily his best movie, the trenchant lines sticking in one’s craw long after the final fade-out.  For example, enjoying his role as fixer, Joe calms his suspicious employers with, “You look out for the politics, I’ll take care of the business.”  There’s the constant lying (say it enough times, and the fools’ll buy it):  “A man can spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he should have said…Life’s a bank, except you can’t get the money out.”  Called out by his far more righteous brother, Joe shrugs, “Wall Street’s gonna make me one million dollars…Rich relatives are better than medicine.”  To which Leo responds, “Come around when I’m dead.”  Beatrice’s genuine growing feelings for Joe questions his ethics and morals.  Won’t he be afraid of being thrown under that bus?  “Lawyers aren’t protected by the law…If you don’t get killed, it’s a lucky day…”

Appending the above is the dazzling black-and-white NYC location photography by George Barnes, and the score by David Raksin.  Obviously, this is a New York movie from frame one and, along with Sweet Smell of Success and Taxi Driver, paints the city as the twentieth-century portal to hell.  The last act sequences of Garfield stumbling across the concrete landscapes at dawn are tantamount to a never-ending nightmare.

The movie, unlike Body and Soul, didn’t fare as well with audiences, although, critically, it was acclaimed by the reviewers astute enough to recognize its brilliance (not surprisingly, in post-war Europe, it became an instant fave).

The politics on display in front of and behind-the-scenes no doubt played a big part in FORCE OF EVIL‘s short legs with 1948 America.  Both Polonsky and Garfield would soon become victims of McCarthyism and be blacklisted with fatal consequences (Garfield died of a heart attack in 1951; Polonsky wouldn’t officially work again until 1968).  FORCE OF EVIL was falsely cited as evidence in the HUAC investigations as to the filmmakers’ subversive anti-Americanism.

Naturally, Louis B. Mayer hated the picture, as he did with virtually every Enterprise/Metro release.  He likened them to sewage that needed to be flushed down the toilet.  Fortunately, his days at MGM were numbered, and the new incoming progressive liberal crew was able to veto most of his decisions (he also despised such mammoth hits as The Hucksters, Battleground, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust and others).  Mayer’s holding fast to the old MGM family values resulted in the infamous mega-Technicolor flop Summer Holiday.  Yet, he claimed the incoming Dore Schary contingent had no clue how to make a musical, the type of picture MGM was known for.  Once Mayer was completely out, the Schary regime produced An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.

Because of the blacklist, FORCE OF EVIL became a fairly difficult to see masterpiece.  With Paramount obtaining the rights to the entire Enterprise output, this heinous celluloid obstruction became less of an obstacle.  Acceptable laserdiscs and DVDs were made available in the past, but they can in no way compare to the stunning quality of this 1080p High Definition transfer (it’s even enclosed in a slipcover featuring the original one-sheet – a piece de resistance of hyperbole; “John Garfield Puts his Body and Soul into FORCE OF EVIL,” it heralds) .

In closing, FORCE OF EVIL is a must-have for every 1940s collection/film noir library.  It is one of those movies that just gets better with every screening.  And no one ever purred “perverse” more beautifully (or even poetically) than John Garfield.

FORCE OF EVIL.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.33.:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF454.  SRP:  $29.95.

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We’re Gonna Need a Broader Church

There is a Loch Ness monster.  It’s just not of the infamous serpent variety; it’s a two-legged homo sapien maniac prowling the picturesque tourist attraction of the Scottish coast.  And it’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride of suspense and terror, beautifully produced and presented in a new Blu-Ray 2-disc set, appropriately entitled LOCH NESS (aka The Loch), now available from the folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.

Indeed, many of the blow-by-blow strings in this 2016 6-episode/2-disc gripping yarn emulate from the smash international success of its inspiration, the 2013 series Broadchurch. True, numerous imitation Broadchurchery has been scattered throughout the mystery mini-series universe since the original first appeared, but LOCH NESS, in my humble opinion, is the best.  In fact, in many ways this pupil is superior to its teacher.  A key factor in this decision has to do with the locale itself.  In Broadchurch, the seaside village was bleak, rather unpleasant and, granted, unnerving.  Here, the setting for these horrific crimes is gorgeous.  To my way of thinking, this makes the impact of the savagery even more shocking.

The people, on the other hand, are just as freakish in this scenario as in its mentor.  Once again, the protagonist is a rising star female detective (Laura Fraser) in the community.  And, once again, she is stymied by the arrival of a big city investigator, this time, a team – led by another formidable female sleuth (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran).  The conflicts, firings, re-hirings, and continuous discoveries are consistently exciting and engrossing – never letting up for any of the series’ six-episode 275 minute running time.  The mystique of Loch Ness, too, adds to the haunting paradoxical beauty and creepiness.

Homegirl fuzz Annie Redford (Fraser) thoroughly enjoys her work and lifestyle on the Loch.  Her husband (Coronation Street’s Gray O’Brien) makes a decent living scamming visitors on his “monster” boat tour.  Their daughter (Shona McHugh) has inherited the smarts from both her parents, and can hardly wait to leave for college and go all urban.

In a last-minute nod to her dad’s business (plus the opportunity to pull a cool gag), she and her teenage pals beach a fake monster, compiled of various animal entrails.  Problem is, upon closer investigation, some of these remains are human.  Soon, a well-liked teacher (Jordan McCurrach), is found murdered, then one of the local pranksters (Keiran Gallacher), and then…and then…More organ parts are uncovered, all belonging to different inhabitants.  And then there’s that (literally) heartless man, chained to the bottom of the Loch.

As the out-of-town detectives soon discover, everyone in the Loch has a secret – all of them heinous.  Aside from adultery, homophobia, rape, torture, drug abuse and sadism, there’s Annie’s knowledge that longtime kindly village fave (William Ash) is a convicted murderer.  Topping that off is the arrival of his psychotic former cellmate (Fraser James), bent on tracking him down and teaming up for a bloody crime spree.  Then there’s the concerned mom (Anita Vettesse) of an apparently severely handicapped soldier (Oliver Greenall), who is actually keeping the boy near brain death via toxic stimulants.  Then there’s the horrific high-school shooting massacre, perpetrated by yet another disturbed teen (Conor McCarry) obsessed with America (what a fucking sad comment that is on us, eh?).  The detectives themselves carry their own baggage, too, the rigid, short-tempered DCI Quigley (Finneran) and the brilliant forensic expert Blake Albrighton (Don Gilet), prone to violence – like thrashing a suspect (Alastair Mackenzie) he doesn’t like (in his defense, we don’t either).

The frightening conclusion of the piece will have you on the edge of your seat.  I guarantee you won’t see it coming, will never figure out who the psycho killer is (although, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense), and be ever quick to grab this gem to tantalize your home theater audiences, looking for a dazzling, breathtaking way to spend a rainy afternoon and/or the always welcome dark and stormy night.

The performances in LOCH NESS are top-notch, especially the leads, Fraser, Finneran and Gilet.  Appending the formidable acting chops is the superb writing by Stephen Brady and Chris Hurford; ditto the stunning photography by Denis Crossan and Nic Morris and the churning score by Ben Bartlett.  The shared direction of Brian Kelly and Cilla Ware seamlessly complement each other and masterfully triumphs in raising every goose bump to maximum level.

As usual, the Acorn Blu-Ray is showroom quality, meticulously detailed in 1080p High Definition clarity, offering a palette of hues and tones that our forebears used to cite as a riot of color.  The stereo-surround is often chilling and adds to the building tension of the narrative.

To enthusiastically recommend an Acorn title as one of their recent best is about as high a praise as any home video platter could aspire to.  Without reservation, I enthusiastically recommend LOCH NESS.

LOCH NESS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.  CAT # AMP-2579.  SRP:  $49.99.

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Simian Cinema

As any dedicated celluloid archeologist/anthropologist follower of the renowned Jules White knows:  anyone in a gorilla suit is funny.  This was something not specifically learned via the antics of Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, etc., or even the Eddie Bernds exploits of Slip and Sach, but from wherever and whenever the tag “lowbrow”was accepted as a badge of honor.  True, this phenomenon was even more riotous when the anthropoid in question was not intentionally supposed to be a dude (or babe) in a frisky hair suit, as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and even Karl Malden could soberly tell you.

Thus, it is no surprise that when a budding young upstart moviemaker by the name of John Landis decided to get his feet soaked in emulsion, he did so with joyous relish in a 1973 (filmed in 1971) low-low-budget debut feature aptly entitled SCHLOCK, now available in a meticulously restored Blu-Ray/DVD dual package Media Book from the German company Turbine Medien, GmbH.

For its cost and its special effects, SCHLOCK is remarkably technically sophisticated (the last time we’ll EVER use that word in this piece), and already paves the way for the director’s trademark gags:  background hilarity going on unbeknownst to the characters in the foreground, wild car zig-zags and flivver destruction.  All that stuff is here.

And how can anyone NOT love a movie that begins in a school playground strewn with the bodies of children and hippies, a death toll that brings a rash of local murders to 789 within three weeks.  This is ably reported by repulsive TV reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison), who likewise touts a body bag contest (how many complete people do the dismembered pieces actually contain?) and a plug for the town’s ubiquitous late-night movie attraction, See You Next Wednesday, an irresistible photoplay (boasting different plotlines during each mention), and featuring (in at least one incantation) Mickey Rooney trapped in a leper colony.  Oh, if only!

The perp of these horrible crimes, as paleontologist Professor Shlibovitz (E.G. Harty) informs us, is a Schlocktrapoid missing link (aka “Schlock”), a monstrous ape freed after millions of years in frozen suspended animation.  A key clue comes early when a surviving victim screams, “Bananas!  Bananas!,” therefore giving us psychotronic buffs the first of a gazillion references to classic horror and sci-fi pics (this one obviously being THEM!).  What follows is a loving homage to such standards as (natch) King Kong (and Konga), Frankenstein (and its sequels), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, countless AIP flicks, Japanese kaiju and even 2001 and Laurel & Hardy’s chaotic masterpiece of destruction Big Business.  According to Landis, however, the major influence on SCHLOCK was the 1970 Joan Crawford starrer Trog – itself a near-parody, but still much revered in the monster kitsch universe.

Also not surprising is that SCHLOCK was picked up for distribution by none other than Jack H. Harris, himself a mojo schlockmeister (he makes William Castle look like one of the Schuberts).  Harris’ claim to fame is being the moving (or sludging) force behind 1958’s The Blob and, to a lesser extent, 1960’s Dinosaurs! (no shock that after the mammoth success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Harris re-released SCHLOCK under the title Banana Monster, hyping Landis’ name and the “fact” that the movie was “Crazier than Monty Python, John Belushi & National Lampoon!”).  Indeed, when Schlock terrorizes the town, he seeks refuge in a movie theater playing a double bill of the Harris twofer – the scene becoming a parody of the actual similar moment in the Steve McQueen “classic” that takes place in a Bijou.  The major difference here is that a popcorn-loving Schlock seats himself next to an engrossed viewer, who just happens to be Forrest J. Ackerman.  And both enjoy the show.

The pivotal role of Schlock is played by Landis himself, and he seems to be having as much fun as the audience.  Landis wrote the picture as well, and gave a monstrous share of creative leeway to his new pal and burgeoning SFX artist Rick Baker, who designed the costume.  It was the shape of things to come, paving the way for their groundbreaking 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London.

The budget for SCHLOCK was estimated at around $60,000.  It really looks (at least in this fresh transfer) like money well spent (thumbs-up to d.p. Bob Collins).  It’s a spectacular restoration with bright, bubblegum colors (well representing the ugliest era in American movies) and clean mono sound.

The remainder of the cast is a game bunch, to be sure.  As Joe Putzman, Allison’s performance is revolting and condescending enough to get him a permanent gig on Fox News.  As the winner of the Body Baggers Body Count Contest, local school teacher Mrs. Blinerman, Enrica Blankley is cringe-worthy funny, as is Eliza Roberts, her blinded, beauteous bimbo daughter Mindy, who becomes the object of Schlock’s affection.  Kudos, too, to Saul Kahan as the freakish Detective Sgt. Wino, a sort of 1970’s version of Alexander Granach’s Renfield in Murnau’s 1922 production of Nosferatu.  And cheers to the nubile teen contingent, who perennially respond to their monkey attack plight with shrieks of “Oy!”

SCHLOCK contains over an hour of wonderful extras, including a 41-minute interview with Landis, Landis and Baker audio commentary, original and re-issue trailers, an interview with cameraman Collins, American radio spots, and more.  It’s also housed in a hardcover book jacket, featuring a lavishly illustrated discussion of the movie and its roots, as well as the careers of Landis and Baker (in both German and English).  There’s so much fascinating info here that one can barely pick which nuggets to cite.  I’ll cherry-pick two:  that Baker was still living with his parents when this movie commenced, and that Landis had previously gained experience by farming himself out to European productions as cheap labor, working as a stuntman on a number of international productions, including Once Upon a Time in the West.  Who knew?  Landis even skewers the often pretentious Special Edition Director Introductions that plague many a Blu-Ray/DVD.  In all of ten seconds, he notifies the camera “You’re about to watch SCHLOCK.  I’m sorry.”

As indicated above, the folks at Turbine have done a marvelous job with this title.  I vividly recall the trailers looking like Super 8 blown-up.  This version absolutely resembles a 35MM print (which it may not have originally been).  Landis, too, was stunned by the quality of the final result.

Of course, SCHLOCK helped send Landis and Baker on their respective ways, but also was as influential to such subsequent American movie comedy as SNL, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  SCHLOCK‘s follow-ups, Kentucky Fried Movie and other shoestring entries as The Groove Tube, gave creative freedom to the likes of the Zucker Brothers, Jim Abrahams and others.   The hilarious payoffs would culminate in such laff essentials as Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, and, in Landis’ case, the aforementioned Animal House, American Werewolf, plus The Blues Brothers and Trading Places.  And it all began here.

NOTE:  This is a limited numbered edition of 2000.  No doubt this title will be sold out rather quickly, so it’s best to order your copy ASAP.  It can be purchased through Amazon (via their German arm); or simply Google SCHLOCK Blu-Ray Limited Edition and/or Turbine Video.  I should mention that the jacket claims that the B-D is Region B (playable only outside of the States, unless you have an all-region machine).  This is false; the set is A, B and C, and will play anywhere.

SCHLOCK.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Dual Limited Edition of 2000 Media Book, also includes DVD version.  Turbine Medien GmbH. CAT# 9485651.  SRP: $39.99.

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Bogie, Betty, Blue-Ribbon Blu-Rays

Not simply recommended, but MANDATORY editions to any classic movie collector’s library are the quartet of terrific pics Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made for Warner Bros. between 1944-48.  All are now available on extremely economical new Blu-Rays from the Warner Archive Collection.

Of course, this is an easy gig for me, as I don’t have to acquaint anybody born within the last seventy years or so with these classics.  They redefine celebrity star power, movie-making expertise and genres (mostly, film noir); in short, veritable textbook patterns for Hollywood’s Golden Age at its most garl’dernest goldenest.

In case you’ve been in Captain America coma land, the four in question are TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE and KEY LARGO.  Indeed, all have been readily available in decent DVD renditions for some time (even the old laserdiscs weren’t too shabby).  So why offer ’em up again?  Blu-Ray!  Truth be told, folks, there’s no comparison.  It’s as if the four have just blown in on freshly lensed celluloid.  The clarity, the detail, the contrast, the multi-leveled texture…all of that and more brings out the superb artistry of those in front of and behind the cameras.  These 35MM transfers accentuate the thesps’ histrionics, but also display first-rate cinematography, lighting, set and art direction, wardrobe and, natch, direction – each at the very essence of cinematic epoch.  The crisp, clear audio ain’t chopped liver, either.

But the know-it-all in me is pushing to say at least something on these must-have titles, so here goes!

 

Howard Hawks was truly an American star-maker.  Well, perhaps personality-maker is more accurate.  When one thinks of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Katharine (gag me) Hepburn, it’s generally the way they act and react in a Hawks movie.  This holds true for Humphrey Bogart, or, to be specific, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  They became (and remain) an iconic Hollywood couple.  And it’s all due to Howard Hawks.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT began, according to the often Commander McBragg part of Hawks’ “creative” revisionist brain, as part of a bet between the director and author Ernest Hemingway.  “Give me your worst story, and I’ll spin it into movie gold,” Hawks told Hemingway.  “That’s easy,” the writer replied.  He tossed him TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, sprinkled with his own critical expletives.  Again, according to Hawks.

The movie was changed from an American fisherman on the California coast to an American soldier of fortune fisherman in a Vichy-controlled French colony.  Nineteen-year-old model-turned-actress Bacall, coached by Hawks’ then wife Slim (a nickname Bacall’s character is called in the movie), was unleashed on the Warner Bros. lot, and when her smoky eyes met Bogie’s bloodshot lids, the fireworks went off.  It’s absolutely true that one can see the pair panting with genuine lust that evolves into everlasting love as the movie progresses.  By wrap time, they were a not-so-secret item that the Warners publicity department thanked the Gods in heaven for.  Coupled with some classic dialog (you know, that “whistle” line, etc.), courtesy of a rare script outing by William Faulkner (along with Hawks and von Sternberg favorite scribe Jules Furthman), plus a dynamite supporting cast (including Hawks favorite supporting actor Walter Brennan), and the pic had blockbuster written all over it.

 

Hawks, who was desperate to do a Southern gothic vampire horror movie (to be written by William Faulkner), was promised by Jack Warner to get the green light for Dreadful Hollow (the working title) if he delivered another Bogie-Bacall special.  The director lassoed Faulkner, along with Leigh Brackett, to create one of the most intoxicating, confusing and brilliant noirs ever made, the ultimate adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP.  With growing fascination about the star couple escalating even beyond the studio’s dreams, the final cut proved a bit disappointing.  Although it had already gone out to our troops in the South Pacific, Warners suits, including the pic’s associate producer (J.L. himself) felt the movie lacked “…something.”  That something was more Bogie-Bacall mojo (this didn’t stop our servicemen hooting and screaming in jubilant ecstasy whenever Bacall slinked upon the sheets stretched across jungle banyan trees).  A year after the movie was completed, Warners put the title back in production, an unusual and expensive move that nevertheless reaped a goodly share of the 1946 box-office harvest. Key to the pic’s unprecedented success was the addition of the now-legendary sexual horse-race byplay between the Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) characters.

Hawks never got to make his Dreadful Hollow movie, nor any further Bogart-Bacall outings.  The former was due to the fact that Jack L. Warner was a bigger liar than Hawks, the latter essentially an unpleasant incident at one of the director’s parties.  In front of Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske), Hawks made a crude anti-Semitic remark.  Bogie stepped forward, but Betty stopped him.  “Let’s just leave.” They did, and never had any contact with the director again.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP represent the pinnacle of 1940s popcorn art.  They are quintessential titles for the stars, the director, the genres and the history of Warner Bros.  To reiterate, I have NEVER seen these two movies looking as fantastic as they do in these new Warners blu-rays.  D.P. Sid Hickox has been rewarded after years – decades, really – of marginally acceptable (and frequently downright awful) prints.  Added to this is the cache of extras on each disc.  TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT contains a documentary on the two leads, the 1946 Technicolor Bob Clampett Merrie Melodies WB cartoon Bacall to Arms, a Lux Radio broadcast of the piece (with Bogie and Betty) and the trailer.  THE BIG SLEEP takes supplements to another level, including BOTH versions of the movie, plus an exhaustively researched documentary, hosted by Robert Gitt, that examines the two editions of the Hawks work that is fascinating to the nth degree.

 

1947’s DARK PASSAGE is the sick child of the quartet.  By that I mean it was the least successful at the box office, and the movie that (at the time) bore the brunt of a critical backlash.  I’ve always loved it.  Today, it’s considered a noir masterpiece, and rightly so.  It also proved to be the cornerstone of the Delmer Daves following, most deservedly due to the innovative, on-location visual storytelling.  The plot, which writer/director Daves derived from a fantastic David Goodis novel, concerns a wrongly accused wife-murderer who escapes from San Quentin and hooks up with a variety of mysterious (and lethal) dames before hitting upon the answers that could likely solve the case and vindicate him.  His coincidentally-on-purpose connecting with a sultry artist (and shacking up in her abode) blossoms into true lust/love, but not before he must make some difficult decisions – like using plastic surgery to change his appearance.  Only in film noir can a guy on the run meet a cab driver who knows a defrocked doc who performs illegal operations at three in the morning.  It’s moments like these that give me hope for our troubled world.

The accused, one Vincent Parry, is, of course, Bogie, and Irene Jansen, the amorous babe, be Bacall.  The neat device of having the camera play POV Parry for the first half of the movie (where Bogart supposedly looks like character actor Frank Wilcox, shown in a newspaper photo from his trial) is what soured Jack Warner on DARK PASSAGE.  He claimed not showing Bogart (although we hear him) for such a long duration is what killed the movie’s potential box-office take.  The weird fact is that the identical procedure was done the same year at MGM and by star-director Robert Montgomery for his Phillip Marlowe noir Lady in the Lake (it wasn’t a big draw during its initial release either).

But DARK PASSAGE holds up way better than Lake, and is thoroughly thrilling from fade-in to fade-out.  It also boasts a magnificent supporting cast, including Agnes Moorehead, in possibly her greatest screen role.  Others of note are Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea (as that cabbie), House Peters (as the unlicensed plastic surgeon) and, my favorite, comic Clifton Young as one of noir’s sleaziest and detestable individuals (think of a satanic hybrid of Richard Widmark and Troy Donahue).  Young was the comedian/actor best-known for his multiple turns in the popular Warners Joe McDoakes shorts, starring George O’Hanlon.  Sadly, he never really followed up his ace portrayal here, and, even more depressingly, died at age 33, rumored to a suicide.

DARK PASSAGE has it all:  dames, tough guys, violence, sinister surgeons, wiseguy hacks and even a jazz-music subplot – all beautifully wrapped up in a mean-streets black-and-white celluloid package by the ubiquitous Hickox (the music by Franz Waxman is another plus).  After THE BIG SLEEP, this is often the Bogart-Bacall title most requested by fans (especially those who lean toward noir).  In short, time has aged this vintage flick quite well, joining the throngs of debut flop classics, Vertigo, Marnie, Sweet Smell of Success, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Ace in the Hole, The Red Badge of Courage and others.  The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic, and is appended by some neat extras, including the documentary Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers and the sensational “all-star” 1947 Technicolor Warners Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare (featuring Bogie & Baby).

 

1948’s KEY LARGO has always been the most problematic Bogart-Bacall title for me.  And that rested solely on the eons of lousy prints I suffered through during what are laughingly called my formative years.  Agreed, this is firmly relegated to the murky, gray 16MM copies that were screened throughout the 1960s and early 1970s on WNEW-TV, here in New York.  To put it mildly, the negligible visuals were a turnoff. Trust me, as much as a spectacular print can elevate a mediocre movie, a bad print can ruin a great one.  KEY LARGO is a great one.

The screenplay, based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, and updated to post-WWII America by director John Huston and Richard Brooks, is a tense, hellish swan dive into film noir.  A disturbed ex-Army officer, Frank McCleod (Bogart), visits the title Key Largo locale, residence of a hotel, owned by the father and widow of his deceased friend who served under his command.  It’s off-season, and the fishing resort is populated by a gaggle of big city lowlifes, who ostensibly are there to monopolize the wide open deep sea opportunities.  Ain’t so.

The group of aliases comprise a ferocious mob, led by an illegally returned deportee, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson, in, possibly his most loathsome role – one that makes Little Caesar look like a Hugh Herbert gag reel).

The conflicts and body language that during my adolescence I viewed as “too talky” are, in actuality, lip-biting riveting.  The interplay between the stellar cast is extraordinary; undeniably, LARGO easily contains the finest roster of board-trodders in any Bogart-Bacall outing.  Aside from the three already mentioned, there’s a non-over-the-top Lionel Barrymore, Tomas Gomez, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, John Rodney, Monte Blue, John Litel, Jay Silverheels, and, best of all, Claire Trevor, in her Oscar-winning performance as a one-time primo torch singer reduced to an alcoholic wretch by Robinson’s character.  Indeed, we learn that Rocco is not only a vicious mob ruler, but a pathological liar, racist, sexual predator (the moment when he merrily whispers a personal request into Bacall’s ear is particularly stomach-turning), and, maybe even a traitor.  The snarky possibility discussed during the proceedings (“Let him be President”) is thus contemporarily cringe worthy.

The inevitable showdown aboard a fog-bound boat headed toward Cuba is as suspenseful a vignette of revenge as ever captured on perforated film (it’s interesting to think of the two male adversaries in Bullets or Ballots, filmed twelve years earlier, where the good guy/bad guy roles were switched).  I have never more enjoyed a cinematic instance of the tables being turned.  Nevertheless there’s a sick moment where Bogart seems to relish the sadism he now issues as payback:  one shot, one expression, Bogart and Huston at their best.

The mindset in McCleod’s head seems to muster up the courage to romantically pursue his friend’s widow and to reside in the remote rural spot he can comfortably call home, “home being Key Largo” as he earlier intones.  As with all noir and most Huston pics, there are no guarantees.  To find out if he makes it, you’ll have to take a chance on this exquisite Blu-Ray.  The gorgeous contrast, 1080p crystal clarity and the pristine 35mm quality makes watching this platter (especially if one is lucky enough to do so on a big screen) replicate seeing this picture during the first week of its 1948 debut.  The Blu-Ray does monumental justice to Karl Freund’s blistering black-and-white photography; the audio does likewise to Max Steiner’s excellent churning music.  Ditto, the superb special effects by Robert Burks and William McGann and the haunting, eerily beautiful Florida location work.   It’s a perfect finale to the Bogart-Bacall quadrumvirate.

For Warner Bros., the ocean-engulfed KEY LARGO represented a literal high-water mark for the studio.  Bogart and Huston became Jack Warner’s heroes.  Aside from LARGO, 1948 also produced Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  It was the best year Warners had in a long time.  The usually stingy with praise J.L. admittedly doled out kudos to the actor and director for just short of saving the company.

 

All movies are black-and-white, full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definiton] with 2.0 DTS-HD MA. SRP: @$21.99.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT  [CAT # 1000600530]

THE BIG SLEEP  [CAT# 1000595077]

DARK PASSAGE  [CAT# 1000574975]

KEY LARGO  [CAT# 1000595079]

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.