Bridal-pathic

It’s been oft said that comedy is tragedy that happens to others.  If one needs any more proof of that, he/she needs go no further than two recent additions to the Warner Archive Collection, the DVD-R made-to-order 1948 Warners title JUNE BRIDE and the new Blu-Ray of the 1950 classic FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Getting married has been noted as a frequently stressful experience; the prep for getting married is worse.  And the prep for getting hitched in America is a fucking nightmare.  It’s cleaned more people out than Vegas, sent many a parent into therapy and destroyed long-term relationships by trying to essentially please people that you don’t otherwise give a crap about.

The movies were quick to glom on to this commiseration of misery, dating back to the silent days.  But it’s the post-war arrival of two high-profile comedies that permanently cemented the feet of brides, grooms, parents, brothers and sisters into a pail, which was then unceremoniously tossed into the sea of debt.

And, oh, yeah, there’s rarely been a more fun time at the picture show!

1948’s JUNE BRIDE proves once again that when Warners lassos a winner, they never let it go.  The movie, about New York sophisticates in small-town America, liberally takes swatches from such past WB hits as The Man Who Came to Dinner, Christmas in Connecticut, Janie, etc.  The plot teams two snarky adversaries, Dinner‘s Bette Davis, and Robert Montgomery, who work rather well together.  Montgomery comfortably slides into the role of forcibly removed foreign correspondent who, now that the war is over, is relegated to Davis’ woman-oriented Home Life Magazine (add Hi, Nellie to the Warners reference rack).  Davis plays it like Regina Giddens by way of George S. Kaufman (the premise being that the pair must prepare an Indiana family’s June wedding for the main periodical feature).  The caveat(s):  Davis and Montgomery are former lovers, and the latter, sickened by the treacle, is determined to add spice to his piece by stirring things up.  He doesn’t have to look too far, as, under the surface, the Brinker family is quite a load.  Papa Tom Tully is a closet moonshiner, hiding bottles of jack a la Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, mom’s an overweight dim (social-)light (Marjorie Bennett).  Teen babe Boo (Betty Lynn) is panting for the groom (Raymond Roe), her one-time boyfriend, stolen by superficial sib Jeanne (Barbara Bates) when his older bro ditched her.  No wonder Montgomery wrings his hands with glee, anxious to get down to some dirty work.  Coupled with their Manhattan crew (Mary Wickes, Fay Bainter and George O’Hanlon) in tow, there are many ripples of laughs, and even a few eyebrow-raising guffaws.

It all begins early-on when cowardly publisher Jerome Cowan informs Montgomery of his new gig.  To break the ice, he gives the famed journalist a tour of his leather-walled office.  “Must be like living in a wallet,” muses the ace reporter.

And it continues.

“What are these harpies like?” asks Montgomery before he is bitch-slapped by Davis into silence.  “Do they have plumbing?”  The dull home is in as much need of a fashion upgrade as Mrs. Brinker (Davis demands that they take some weight off her before the shoot.  “What with – a hacksaw?” is the response).  Wickes first look at the abode is priceless: “A real McKinley stinker!”

The crème de la crème comes when an inebriated Tully is privy to a misinterpreted conversation regarding his wife’s treasured bust (i.e., architecture vs. anatomy).  Alarmed that it has been “removed to the garage,” he becomes even more horrified to learn that they “painted it black.”  This is nothing when compared to the follow-up, when the New Yorkers lament about the supposed item’s coverage in the magazine.  “It’s pretty battered, but seems to have a certain sentimental value.”

Smoothly directed by Bretaigne Windust, JUNE BRIDE benefits from a breezy script by Mildred Pierce‘s Ranald MacDougal (adapted from a play by Eileen Tighe and Graeme Lorimer).  Anton Grot did the sets, David Buttolph composed the score (utilizing a segue into “Love Nest”).  The great Ted McCord photographed the pic (a far cry from his other 1948 outing, Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

An interesting sidebar:  When Montgomery’s character is probing to find journalistic mud on the Brinkers, he is apprised of Uncle Henry.  Hoping for a mass-murderer, the eager writer presses for details.  “We don’t talk about him.  He’s a Republican.”  Nice to know that in almost seventy years things in Indiana remain status quo.

 

Far better known than JUNE BRIDE, 1950’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE is an unabashed comedy classic, directed by Vincente Minnelli and featuring an all-star cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s really very little to say to commend this pic, as it’s such a perennial on TCM and for fans of the stars and the director.  But to see it in a new 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is indeed an event far more joyous than some of the supposed merry situations faced by the characters in the flick.

The script, by old reliables Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is based on a bestselling novel by Edward Streeter.  Streeter was the go-to guy when it came to parodying the American middle-upper-middle class family of the post-war/baby boomer years (another favorite Streeter screen adaptation is 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation).  Streeter’s key protagonists were the male household heads, usually employed as lawyers or bankers.  BRIDE‘s flustered and frustrated narrator and primary player is Stanley Banks, whose usual comfortably, boring lifestyle is violently (albeit riotously) uprooted when his only daughter, Kay, announces her engagement to Buckley, someone he barely recalls.  “What’s his last name?  I hope it’s better than his first one.”  Dealing with relatives, mercenary wedding merchants, and even Coke bottles becomes a battlefield of a seemingly impossible winnable war.  And Banks is the first to see the analogy between his last name and bankruptcy.

The movie is concurrently hilarious and frightening.  A Banks dream of terror where he is thrown into an expressionistic Caligari-esque world of melting church floors, demonic guests and unforgiving loved ones is a brilliantly staged sequence, beautifully shot by the wonderful John Alton.  The Adolph Deustche music is another plus, as are the roster of memorable supporting actors, including Leo G. Carroll, Melville Cooper, Paul Harvey, Don Taylor, Frank Orth, Carleton Carpenter, Russ Tamblyn, Charles Smith, Frank Cady, Willard Waterman, Jeff York, Dewey Robinson and former silent stars Dorothy Phillips, Philo McCullough, Harold Miller and Stuart Holmes.

Not surprisingly, FATHER OF THE BRIDE was a mammoth hit, and soon MGM geared up to reunite the Banks family (and Minnelli) for Father’s Little Dividend, chronicling the birth of the title lead’s first grandchild.  This, too, proved box-office gold, and producer Pandro Berman and the Metro suits announced a third and more elaborate installment wherein the Banks take a European holiday.  The picture was to be lensed in Technicolor and shot on-location, utilizing MGM’s still considerable Euro frozen funds.  But it was not to be.

Apparently, from day one, Tracy and Bennett did not see eye-to-eye (and that’s putting it mildly).  Although the pair had costarred together as far back as in 1933’s pre-Code gem Me and My Gal (directed by Raoul Walsh), they each experienced a strong hate-at-first-sight mix.  Strange, as their on-screen characters melded so well together.  Indeed, in the BRIDE pictures, they really do act like a married couple, but one whose union exhibits subtle cracks (wise and otherwise).  Check out Bennett’s glaring at Tracy’s scene-stealing tricks, or relishing her line (“Well you’re not an alcoholic!”) about his worrying about whether to imbibe or not.  Tracy’s serious drinking problem was one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets.

Berman had tolerated the pair’s bickering on two successive movies for the sake of the studio (and the big receipts).  A third reunion, away from the studio, might result in an international incident involving celebrity murders.  Early-on, Tracy demanded a meeting with the frazzled producer.  During the session he outlined his own ideas for the third Banks adventure.  He basically announced that all the audiences cared about were his character and Liz Taylor’s (probably true), so here was what he proposed:  Ellie (Bennett’s role) breaks her leg or needs to visit a sick relative on her side of the family and will join them later on.  Getting her out of the way would allow for Stanley and Kay (Liz) to frolic through Europe with many comedic misadventures.

Berman could see the writing on the wall, and no sooner had Tracy left than Bennett opted for equal time.  She, too, had a blueprint for the new scenario:  Stanley has a last-minute emergency court case and will join the girls later.  Meantime, she and Taylor could cavort through Rome, Paris, London, etc., attend fashion shows, be pursued by gigolos… And so it would go.

As Berman’s ulcers planned a mass counterattack, he quietly pulled the plug on the project and the continuation of the series, thus dually preventing a potential on-going franchise and likely bloodbath.

Interestingly enough, while Tracy owns the Stanley Banks role, he wasn’t the first choice.  Initially Jack Benny was bandied about as a natural for Banks (a gag being the name itself).  I imagine that the comedian would have done justice to the part, and certainly would not have caused any of the turmoil that went on behind the scenes.  But, again, Spencer Tracy’s genius is his natural amiability, his magnificent penchant to turn food, shoes, and other inanimate props into veritable costars.  “Don’t let them catch you at it,” was his acting advice to novice board-trodders.

The Blu-Ray comes with sparse extras, but ones worth mentioning:  silent newsreels of Taylor’s real-life (first) wedding, plus a White House screening and cast meeting with Harry Truman.  It’s a rare glimpse of Tracy off-camera, and he seems to be having a grand time.  So will you.

JUNE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio.  CAT # 1000564782.  SRP:  $21.99.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT# 1000597141.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive, or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.

 

Roaming Atwill

In such a terrific year for major DVD and Blu-Ray releases, it’s almost apt that a contender for one of the best vintage titles of 2017 is a poverty-row potboiler, now on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective.

Now wait, we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill/bottom-of-the-bill potboiler, but an iconic horror one, 1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT, a pre-Code pip from Majestic Pictures.

For over a half-century, THE VAMPIRE BAT has been a collector’s public-domain staple, infamous for its lousy quality (both picture and sound), cheesy dialog, ridiculous narrative (of a potentially intriguing scenario), etc.

So how does this 65-minute antique ascend to near-classic status?  Simple.  For one thing, the cast — essentially a Dinner at Eight roster for Majestic.  The four leads are Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye, with excellent support in the (bat) wings.

The story, for what it is, takes place in the tiny Bavarian village of Kleinstadt (roughly translated as “tiny Bavarian village”).  A series of gruesome murders are rapidly diminishing the already sparse population.  The mostly female victims are being discovered with strange marks on their throats, drained of every drop of hemoglobin.

Kleinstadt is unique, as it seems that bats outnumber the people (and vampire bats at that).  The townsfolk are in a dither.  Can these bats be working on their own, or are they controlled by a vampire – or even a werewolf?  Yeah, I know, that last part doesn’t make much sense, but the hackneyed scripter (Edmund T. Lowe, Jr., author of such subsequent kiddie horror faves as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) doesn’t miss a genre-friendly code word (other mentions in the storyline include Svengali, released a year earlier, plus references to telepathy, pulsating life forms…the usual suspects; Lowe’s greatest cinematic glory, BTW, was as scenarist for the 1923 Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Naturally, the most trusted personage in the burg is Dr. Otto von Niemann, a mysterious, erudite sawbones who conducts nocturnal experiments with blood, bats and a gorgeous assistant (Wray); of course, no one suspects him.  They opt for the village idiot, Herman (Frye), a lunatic who loves the flying rodents with a creepy passion (often seen petting them in an inappropriate manner).  The wonderful character actor’s impersonation heavily relies upon his earlier incarnations of Fritz and Renfield (laugh included), but with the mentality of Lenny in Of Mice and Men.  The villagers themselves act like nine-year-olds playing grown-ups.

The only rational person on view seems to be Karl (Douglas, slumming in his only poverty-row outing; a quick stop, too, as months earlier, he appeared opposite Garbo – the first of three teamings – in As You Desire Me; from then on, it was “eat my dust, only A-pictures for me!”).  Indeed, even in this low-budget crowd-pleaser the underrated actor displays the self-assurance and humor that would make him a much-in-demand costar for the likes of Crawford, Dietrich, Dunne, Loy, Swanson, Colbert, Stanwyck, etc.  Much of his demeanor and attitude is actually quite consistent with his turn as Leon in Ninotchka (that said, I wonder what a vampire version of the Lubitsch masterpiece would have been like:  “Garbo Sucks,” perhaps?).

Let’s cut to the chase.  Everyone in the audience knows Atwill is the maniac culprit, planning to conquer whatever he needs to achieve with all that female blood; this also encompasses controlling his beauteous assistant in what can only be called a mind-boggling fifty shades of Fay relationship.

THE VAMPIRE BAT obviously spent most of its meager budget on the cast.  Atwill and Wray were both major stars at the time, having had a huge success in the 1932 two-strip Technicolor horror fest Dr. X.  They had just wrapped a Technicolor follow-up, Mystery of the Wax Museum, filming VAMPIRE BAT on brief hiatus before rushing back to primo studio work (Atwill to Paramount for Murders in the Zoo; Wray to Radio for some picture about a giant ape).

As indicated above, the supporting cast is aces, too, with Lionel Belmore as the not-too-bright burgomeister and George E. Stone as a local coward who does everything but put a bullseye on his back.  There’s also Maude Eburne, Robert Frazer, William V. Mong, Fern Emmett, and Paul Panzer.

Although the immensely impressive thesps are responsible for the movie’s incredible appeal (and replay value), one cannot slight the excellent direction of Frank R. Strayer, a name many late-night movie fans do not know, but whose prolific work they have more than likely been exposed to.

Strayer was a master at piling on oodles of atmosphere with virtually no money.  His churning out thriller after thriller in the mystery and horror genres at Majestic attests to his talents.  Everything this guy did is watchable, and, while VAMPIRE BAT (again, primarily because of the cast) remains his epic, I prefer 1935’s far darker and eerier Condemned to Live, a picture that doesn’t offer a logical explanation capper.  Strayer, himself, after years of slaving on the row, finally scored big (well, by his standards), netting a deal at Columbia where he helmed a plethora of the enormously successful Blondie comedies (running from 1938-1950!); not surprisingly, many consider the 1940 quasi-old dark house entry, Blondie has Servant Trouble, to be among the best in the series.

But there’s still more to admire in THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Seeing it in an almost perfect 35MM transfer (and with excellent mono audio to boot, even with the awful stock music – out of date in 1933, but really more of a sore thumb ten years later when utilized in Monogram’s Eastside Kids adventures), digitally re-mastered in 1080p from UCLA’s archival print, makes one realize how nicely photographed the pic was; kudos to d.p. Ira Morgan, who effectively used the rented space/existing goth sets on the Universal lot, where this movie was shot.  The real coup is that this print contains the restored Gustav Brock hand-colored Handschiegl sequence.  This transcends mere interesting; it’s outstanding.  Who knew it even existed on this pic? One wonders that, if they went through all this trouble to utilize this painstakingly achieved effect, why didn’t they just opt for a two-strip sequence?  Glad they didn’t, though.  Two-strip Technicolor wouldn’t have done it justice.  The weird result of perfect yellow, orange and gold torch flames (and the orbs emanating from them) in a cave scene comprising the Kleinstadt fools (pursuing and persecuting Dwight Frye) is hauntingly stunning.  It’s worth the purchase of the disc just to see it.  How many other talkies used this technique is a question I desperately need to research; it’s THAT addicting.

And speaking of purchasing, how, in toto, is the Film Detective’s Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE BAT?  It’s as if one has never seen the picture at all, that’s how good.  Razor-sharp with spectacular contrast, this movie now often looks as good as anything its A-pic competitors could come up with.  And it’s complete and uncut, containing an oft-snipped insert of blood being drained out of an unfortunate.  In fact, THE VAMPIRE BAT could be the best title Film Detective has ever released.  They must have known it, too, as they have additionally gone the distance in the extras department, serving up audio commentary, and, even better, an exclusively filmed interview with Gregory Hesselberg, Melvyn Douglas’ son.  Hesselberg has definitely inherited some of his pater’s savoir faire, and his first-hand accounts of living with movie royalty in the 1930s are priceless.  My only complaint is that the supplement is way too brief.  I wanted more (I could be prejudiced; my parents named me after the debonair star).

Trust me, if you’re even slightly interested in any of  VAMPIRE BAT‘s stars, the genre itself or the period, this blu-ray is a must-have to (dare I  say?) sink your teeth into.

THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Black and white with hand-colored sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1].  DTS-HD MA.  Region free.  The Film Detective/UCLA Film & Television Archive.  CAT # FD0740.  SRP:  $19.99.

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Grizzly and Grisly

Since I first reviewed the 2010 TV3 Television Network Ireland Set JACK TAYLOR, starring the ubiquitous — albeit wonderful — Iain Glen, I pondered how soon (if, at all) there would be a follow-up.  You see, I think this dark, neo-noirish, snarky show ranks among the best across-the-pond television productions I’ve ever seen (and just think about that!).  It’s totally uncompromising, a vivid, sardonic depiction of a sinister twilight world (richly envisioned by the cool/cruel goth-gorgeous Galway location photography) where anything goes.  And I’m not kidding!  Fortunately, SETS 2 and 3 followed, and are now available in separate DVD sets from the wonderful folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

In the first series, we learned that the scruffy Gaelic investigator was an extremely well-read man of letters (though short-fused, with a decidedly violent streak) who (win/win) had a classic DVD collection.  Oh, yeah, he also was a disgraced member of the Irish Gardas, an alcoholic, and a too-trusting pal tight with a vast populace of the underbelly of Irish criminal society.  To put it kindly, his personal choices are disastrous, although he does harbor affection for the beauteous detective Kate Noonan (Nora-Jane Noone), who dangerously puts her career on the line to associate with his undesirable self.

We also gleaned that he took a “he reminds me of me” fancy to Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) an ambitious would-be Taylor; reluctantly, he acquiesces to the lad’s request that they partner up in a two-man private shamus agency.

Hunting down serial killers, often molded in the groove of modern Jack the Rippers (who, sadly, frequently turn out to be your best mates) is a trying job.  Add fighting with your dying mum (Aine Ni Mhuiri), herself a formerly abused Catholic school girl.  And/or the hypocritical local priests, so corrupt they’re funny.  Who can blame you for drunkenly sleeping it off in a rain-drenched cobblestone gutter, warmed only by the “eewww” companionship of your own vomit?  It’s an evil world, in an amusing, sanguine sort of way.  Long story short, how can one NOT love this show?

The three feature-length pics that make up 2013’s  SET 2 are all corkers, perhaps some of the best exploits Jack Taylor has even nearly died for.

 

In my favorite of the trio, Dramatist, female theater majors are being found murdered and mutilated within the campus of a local university.  The learned professor (the prophetically named Niall Buggy), another buddy of Jack’s, asks him to investigate and, hopefully, put a stop to these atrocities; it’s really having a negative effect on school registration.

Jack and new partner/underling Cody work the case, along with “keep it under your hat” assist from Taylor’s super-gorgeous Garda contact, Kate.  The ruddy-faced ex-police detective has now been sober for six months (a feat that shouldn’t be considered permanent), and is still attempting to mend bridges with his stroke-paralyzed mother, like his sobriety; a virtual impossibility.  Taylor’s aloof demeanor serves him well (“When I trust people, shit happens”), and his scholarly knowledge of John Milton aids in obtaining clues (not the least is a quote, “The sorrows died with me,” tattooed on a victim’s back) that lead to a genuinely horrifying conclusion, one that almost severs Kate’s ties with the former police detective…and everyone else.  Taylor’s ultimate take, intoned over a haunting forest backdrop, says it quite eloquently: “Sorrows are not spread by beautiful women, but by…bastards like me.”  Truth.

Priest, the second and most controversial of the three, opens rather alarmingly with long-absent priest Father Royce’s (John Kavanagh) return to Galway, where he is soon found beheaded in his church.  Soon priests galore are getting hate mail, including Jack’s local cleric, Father Malachy (Paraic Breathnach), who is terrified that he’s next.  No matter what Galway’s resident holy man might be hiding, it can’t compare to the slaughtered Royce, who seduced women, men and boys, and delighted in torture and procreating with parish members.

“The date of retribution has arrived,” warns a chilling note, prior to Taylor’s involvement in the case.  Jack, snarkily amused, offers that “Asking [me] for help is like the Pope leading the Gay Pride parade.”

The hypocrisy of the denizens of the cloth (particularly in Taylor’s parish) leads to some marvelous verbal combat.  Says Malachy to Jack “I was dreaming of your mum.” “I have those nightmares, too,” sighs Taylor.

The circumstance of Jack’s newly deceased mater coincides with his unsurprising return to the bottle.  Nevertheless, the bleary-eyed sleuth rips all the scabs off the priest’s scandals (leading to a shocking climax), but not before telling us (in a brittle noirish narration), that “When it comes to leaving well enough alone, I’m an idiot.”

Feeling guilty for possibly causing Cody’s death (not helped by his doing the nasty with the lad’s mother) convinces Taylor to leave Galway for the hinterlands, engaging in “dirty dick” type cases.

The opening of Shot Down gives us a taste of what that ensues, a woodsy payoff for a sleazeball in the dead of night.  The event goes without a hitch until a young, bloodied girl (Hazel Doupe), hysterical with fear, comes screaming out of the darkness.  Her mother’s gruesome killing gives Jack his newest case, involving a battle between factions of local Irish gypsies.  Adultery, kidnapping, drug dealing and other unsavory activities keep the action moving as Taylor tries to bring an end to the feuding clans’ rivalry (and key to solving the brutal opening homicide).  As Jack’s involvement is shunned by the violent, ungrateful vagabonds, who inform the shamus that their affairs are none of his business, Taylor is quick to remind the transient caravan’s leader, “When someone points a shotgun at me, it BECOMES my business.”  That seems to work; well, that and some typically inappropriate Taylor use of muscle.

As with Set 1, the behind-the-scenes work is superb, beginning with director Stuart Orme and the exceptionally fine scripts by Marteinn Thorisson and Marcus Fleming (from the acclaimed Taylor novels by Ken Bruen).  The atmospheric photography by P.J. Dillon and Ciaran Tanham couldn’t be any better; nor could the original soundtracks by Stephen McKeon.

 

SET 3 begins with a plethora of changes, both in narrative and in casting.  Jack, it seems is in for a much-needed round of good luck.  His old landlady, Mrs. Bailey (Sighle Ni Chonail), has passed, and, not having (or trusting) anyone close in her family, has left Taylor a 170,000 EU inheritance.  He immediately purchases a posh new pad; this positive swing is abetted by the news that Cody has recovered, but has thought better of continuing his professional liaison with Jack.  He’s off to America to pursue his dreams (hoping to additionally get the images of his mentor and mom out of his tortured memory).

Jack is not without an assistant for long, however, as Kate’s brainy relation Darragh (Jack Monaghan; think an Irish version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is interested in working with the crime-solving diamond in the rough.  Kate, we must note, has been Menudo-ed; the ravishing Nora-Jane Noone has been quietly replaced by Siobhan O’Kelly, (who’s okay, but, frankly, can’t compete with Noone’s amazing presence).  The Garda, who so often has escaped death (usually when in the company of Jack) has a new foe:  breast cancer, which Taylor promises to help her conquer, a pledge that includes threatening an insensitive surgeon (David Ramseyer).  While this might suggest that a kinder, gentler Taylor/softer storylines is/are in the works, I can emphatically respond via the following: no feckin’ way!

The first case, Cross is ample proof.  Within nanoseconds of the initial fade-in, we see a body crucified, with the uneasy premonition that more victims are to come.

Jack, Kate and Darragh soon find the strange Mitchell family, a brood of (mostly) sociopaths, whose angelic female offspring, Gail (a vivacious Elva Trill; truly one of the most beautiful actresses we’ve seen…well, since, Nora-Jane Noone).  That Gail and Darragh become a romantic item is a match made in hell.  Turns out, Gail is the worst of the lot (“She’s a friggin’ psychopath,” Taylor warns Darragh.  “That doesn’t make her less interesting,” is his feeble, whipped reply.  Uh-oh).  Refusing to share info with the Gardas (“they pat your head as they kick your ass”), Jack chooses to work this deadly puzzle out himself.  The results ain’t pretty.

Nemesis is one of the most startling episodes in the history of the show.  Jack, dealing with Kate’s upcoming mastectomy, breaking in Darragh, irritated by a lowlife PI (Christopher Fulford), adds a layer of stressful unpleasantness to his current curriculum.  This isn’t helped when the weary, wary detective is asked to help find an old adversary of his who has been kidnapped.

Videos of a youth hate group, led by a demented teen, Ronan (Diarmuid Noyes), obsessed with American violence (and, specifically, Columbine), encompass mutilation torture sessions, including an elderly man tossed off a pier.  Jack’s attempted rescue of an apparent new victim (Roisin O’Neill) turns pitch black when one of Taylor’s fingers is cut off for his troubles.  This connects the sleuth back to his frenemy, Ronan, whose eye Jack had to once relieve him of.

The last act is harrowing to say the least, but does end on a spectacular up note when Taylor, confronted by dodgy Father Malachy offering lofty platitudes along the lines of, “Well, Jack, your finger wouldn’t have been severed if it wasn’t in the Lord’s plan,” replies with a marvelous, “Don’t ya have an altar boy to grope?”

Purgatory is the final episode in the third set; ironic, as it’s Kate’s first assignment since her flirtation with death; it’s also the name of a new virtual reality game, whose data has been stolen.  Jack is hired by the American billionaire couple (Sean Mahon, Laura Aikman) who own the gaming company, to recover the specs and find the thieves.  Along the way, several 20-something tech geeks are heinously liquidated, providing an ideal opportunity for Darragh to go undercover as a replacement.

As Taylor gets closer to the sick minds behind the deaths, he uncovers some rather disturbing facts about the beauteous sugar ‘n’ spice Texas lunatic wife/partner in the thriving concern.  With his trademark raised eyebrow, the rumpled PI muses out loud to the determined CEO, “Married a murderess, and made her head of Security.”  Jack surmises that this cannot end well, and, indeed it doesn’t.

Once again, the productions are of the utmost quality, led by Stuart Orme and (okay, make your pun) Charlie McCarthy.  The excellent photography this time around is by Billy Keady with all the SET 3 scripts being the praiseworthy handiwork of Marteinn Thorisson.  Stephen McKeon continues his fine work as composer (with the mournful title track sung by Tara Lee).  As with all Acorn discs, the platters look and sound terrific.

Like all previous TAYLOR shows, these new additions earn a justified high five (or, in Jack’s case, high four).

JACK TAYLOR, SETS 2 and 3.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 Dolby Stereo Surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/TV3 Television Network Ireland.  CAT #s: AMP-2181 (SET 2)/AMP-2411 (SET 3).  SRP:  $49.99@.

 

 

Chick Flic

She’s lean, she’s mean, she’s butch-cut buffed and ready for action. And thank God she’s on our side. Well, that is, if our side is in the French city of Montpelier. And, no, she’s not a fantasy version of Rachel Maddow, Cop; she’s Lea Hippolyte, TOP Cop (in fact, Captain) in a not-so-elite squad of ornery officers, known cumulatively as ANTIGONE 34 (ditto the 2011 French mini-series, now on DVD from MHz Networks).

The six-part three-disc set moves like zee queek-silverr with more dangerous twists and turns than the South Corsican roadway. There’s an excellent cast of characters with prerequisite sharp-featured Gaelic punims to make the visuals doubly interesting. Mainly, there are three leads. Helene de Soyere, the group’s resident psychotherapist (believe me, they need it), portrayed by the beauteous Claire Borota; Victor Carlier (Bruno Todeschini), a disgraced physician, just released after serving a decade in prison for the death of his wife; and, last but certainly not least, the aforementioned Lea – an amazing characterization by the extraordinary bi-goddess Anne Le Nen.

As their name implies, Antigone 34 is the go-to last resort outpost for the worst crimes imaginable. Perverts and scum are “how we pay our rent,” offers sage Lea to her new partner – the clean-shaven sprout Serge Ravel (one of the show’s touche touches of reversing gender stereotypes). Prettified Ravel (Aubert Fenoy) is the role usually given to the cute woman while Hippolyte is generally reserved for the craggy, grizzled veteran. Lea immediately crushes Ravel’s awkwardness with a terse “If we’re gonna work together, stop ogling me when I bend over.” This Dirty Harriet is in need of a new partner, since her former cohort “ate his gun” one fateful night. Returning after enforced leave, Hippolyte’s detached demeanor is devoid of any remorse. This is frowned upon by her coworkers, who never liked her to begin with. But nobody in A-34 really seems to like anybody anyway; it’s an eternal clash of surly, bitter, unfriendly misanthropes seemingly sired to offend each other. Did we say they’re French?

The show opens with a bang – in more than one sense of the word. A university sex party climaxes with the death of a gorgeous young coed (Jennyfer Chabot). These carnal soirees are biz as usual for the writhing student bodies, who even allow outsiders to pay for voyeur privileges (“They get off watching us degrade ourselves” reports one femme to Hippolyte). Soon another corpse turns up. Is there a serial sex-killer on campus? Coincidence is the key to ANTIGONE 34, as it soon becomes apparent that EVERYTHING slimy that goes on within the magnificent surroundings of the coastal community is connected. The dead girl turns out to be the daughter of the newly freed Carlier. He wants answers. Lea is still trying to find evidence to clear the ex-con’s record for what she figures was a frame-up. She’s also attempting to unravel the strange circumstances regarding her partner’s “suicide.” Then there’s Carlier’s refuge: an ocean front gypsy camp run by low level crime lords who were the doctor’s former cellmates. What’s the elegant plastic surgeon Klein (Nicolas Moreau) got to do with this? Or the college drug mule trade? And this is just episode one.

So, what else is there to be deliciously revealed? Allow me to give you a tantalizing taste. Within the subsequent five installments we learn that the gypsies are involved in a credit-card scam possibly related to the murder of a potential terrorist. Carlier is following one Hubert Prudehomme (Xavier Gallais) – a sleazy post-yuppie billionaire industrialist Realtor who pretty much has his doigts gluants is every pie within cellular distance of Devil’s Island. Prudehomme essentially is a baba au rhum Mabuse, and a startling shock reveals Helene – the oh-so-normal-shrink – has an intime passe with le salaud. Meanwhile, Lea divides off-hour time punishing her body – either by rigorous exercise or downing shots till dawn in techno clubs (she also occasionally takes swigs of booze while driving to crime scenes).

Lea and Helene’s marginal respect for one another is underlined by the former’s comment, “You try to understand the criminals instead of taking them out.” The women are the core of the series, and couldn’t be more oil-and-water opposites. Lea salivates taking no prisoners, and is annoyed by rehabilitation; Helene gets through to the ones her coworker do manage to bring in alive – and even gets in on some of the field action. Lea couldn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her looks, attitude or interpretation of the law; in contrast, Helene plays the girly card with a vengeance – trumping a later ace when she turns out to be the mistress of a 70-year old former rock star. Lea’s love life unwinds at the club, via her unnatural attraction to Baptiste (Daniel Lobe) a married Creole customs officer. It’s mutual, much to Hippolyte’s delight (“I see you’re not wearing your [wedding] ring [anymore]”). Their (dare we say) bi-play is highlighted by a sequence of one-upmanship when their impassioned discussion causes them to not notice that the music and background activities have gone graveyard silent. The terrified patrons have seen the burly Custom’s enforcer’s shoulder holster and weapon. When informed of this faux pas, the officer laughs – explaining his profession. Lea joins in. “I’m one too!” she happily adds – displaying her even larger formidable weapon.

But back to the narrative. Ravel is run over by some Muslim hitmen in the pay of a gang kingpin, who’s in the pay of Prudhomme…In the interim, we meet another A-34 duo – Lea’s in-house nemesis Perez (Bruno Lopez) and his lackey associate Libert (Fred Tournaire) – two violent crooked cops and the series’ most unsavory participants. Perez resembles an evil pockmarked Rahm Emanuel, while thick sadistic thug Libert is, to paraphrase Dian Fossey’s landmark work, the ultimate gorilla in the mystery. They torment shopkeepers, extort pay from citizens, run girls, sell drugs and, not surprisingly, were seen at the dorm the night Carlier’s daughter was murdered. They are also in Prudehomme’s employ. Prudehomme, we also learn, was also screwing Carlier’s wife.

Things really start moving when a ruthless 1% anti-science magnate is found frozen to death in a fish locker. This opens the investigation to exhume a million-dollar black market in illegal tuna smuggling (I swear I’m not making this up – apparently this genuinely exists). A pizza delivery boy is actually a hired executioner who blows away a young mother. Her tiny daughter is a witness and is brought to Helene for counseling. At the precinct, the girl embraces Perez – much to Lea’s dismay. Why? Perez’s wife (Vanessa Liautey) is the child’s beloved teacher. Initially, the prime suspect is the dead woman’s husband, but he has an airtight alibi (he’s a bigamist, and was spending the day with his second family).  Alas, the assassination was a botch since it turns out the intended victim actually lived next door. Fifi, Lea’s new partner (Lionel Erdogan) questions her; she’s an acclaimed gourmet cook/author who’s upgrading her credentials to true-crime – doing an expose of…yup, Prudehomme. Fifi and the writer immediately have sex since, as we mentioned earlier, this is France. But wait – what’s an environmentalist have to do with all this? Or the Russian mob? Why did the journalist really seduce Fifi? And why did Fifi let her? And why is Carlier risking more jail time by performing illegal plastic surgery procedures (which we learn are known as “clandestine operations” – see how educational TV can be?). And why was his patient then murdered? And how did Carlier’s knockout professional nurse end up as a lethal high-priced prostitute (hilariously unmasked when an A-34 hacker “penetrates the escort site with a Trojan horse”)?

Many of these answers are clarified at an arranged meeting in Helene’s aged rocker’s villa, the standout moment being a confrontation with the hooker and Lea, who belts the vicious call girl point blank in the nose with unfortunate Owen Wilson proboscis results.

There are many deaths in ANTIGONE 34; also much screwing (literally and figuratively) and lots of other heinous dilemmas that collectively make up what we laughably call the human condition. The theme of the series is that crime not only pays – but it usually pays well. In due course, some people deservedly get what’s coming to them; others do not (Perez and Libert simply keep on trucking). Lea herself bends the rules with the same ease as she maneuvers her pliable torso. The raison d’etre isn’t that criminal events are terrible as much as they are necessary. In order to keep society on an even keel, we need the malevolence and corruption. Eventually everything balances out. How can one show be so cynical and ebulliently anti-social? Did I mention it was French?

If there’s a problem with ANTIGONE 34 (aptly named, as famed editor/author Frank Harris once termed its Greek namesake as the battler of the law; other interpretations suggest opposed to motherhood and even opposed to life), it’s that there’s too much information. The interesting folks and their outrageous foibles are often countered by a lip-biting barrage of cliches that serve no purpose whatsoever. The script by Alexis Nolent and Brice Homs (the latter who also interestingly served as the show’s art director) dutifully juggles the pros and cons with professional panache (finishing in the plus column by tossing an occasional dialog zinger). What makes it acceptable is the MTV lightning-in-the-bottle handheld rapid-cutting style (which normally I generally find offensive); i.e.,this shit moves so fast that one hardly has time to cherry-pick the God-awful from the awfully good. The first three episodes are directed by Louis Pascale Couvelaire with such slick jump-cut ferocity that one doesn’t even realize what a slow poke he is until the far more slick (and faster) final triad is unleashed by Roger Simonsz. The cinematography is by a talented sextet comprising Simonsz (who worked on the three episodes he didn’t direct), Sebastian Dewsbery, Sarah Couvelaire, Caroline Vandamme, Lara Pugh and Marc-Olivier Perrois unfurls the spectacular Montpelier locations to great advantage, especially the dazzling nighttime photography. The music by Claude Samard Polikar is Euro-trash reasonable; however, the phonetic English warbling of supposed soulful, ironic lyrics laid over the end of each episode made me want to see Paris and die without hesitation, save to retch my guts out upon the hearing of every whiny word (trust me, they would make Rod McKuen wince). I kept hoping for a supplement of the fantastic Le Nen (unquestionably the prime reason for watching the series) cornering the singers and blasting them to smithereens with a snarky “Ta gueule!”

Which brings me to my favorite credit on ANTIGONE 34 – and one deserving endless praise: Bruno Gaggola di Balthazar pour Creation de la coiffure de Mile. Anne Le Nen. Brother, you ain’t just whistling La Marseillaise.

The three platters from MHz Networks are tres impressive! The 16 x 9 widescreen transfer is crystal clear and pops with a contradiction of rich natural and neon-enameled colors (depending upon the time of day). The stereo-surround showcases an excellent sounding board for the cacophony of regional French accents, subtly enlightening viewers of the differentiation between merde and murder.

ANTIGONE 34. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 Digital stereo-surround; French w/English subtitles. MHz Networks. UPC Code # 815047017481. SKU # 16748. SRP: $39.95.antigoneCOVER

Corporations are People Tunes

It had to happen.  In that populist 1950s culture of men in grey flannel suits following patterns of upper-middle class ascension and/or the women yearning for the best of everything, someone was going to take the next logical step:  turn the paranoia and American dream angst into a musical.  And, boy, did they!  If ya don’t believe me, check out the new Blu-Ray of 1967’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, now available in a limited edition from the CEOs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Debuting in 1962, the Broadway production of HOW TO SUCCEED became a star-making smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Better yet, it became one of only eight musicals to win a deserved Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The brilliant score by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert achieved the seemingly impossible:  creating a likeable, song-filled, toe-tapping universe surrounding the human shite that decides how we look, dress, talk and smell (it was actually based on Shepherd Meade’s 1951 satiric volume of the same name, subtitled A Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune).  Certainly one of the snarkiest musicals ever, SUCCEED succeeds on so many levels; it was obvious that a movie deal would soon be in the works.

The plot revolves around an over-achieving take-no-prisoners go-getter, J. Pierrepont Finch, who, after finding the title book at a subway newsstand, quickly rises from window washer to young executive at a top super-mega-colossal Manhattan firm known as World Wide Widgets (the first prophetic use of the letters “WWW”).

The scenario, like Finch, offers no solace to the myriads of wounded victims, ripping the masks off every ass-kissing, back-stabbing, toadying coworker, skank and relative employed at even a marginally sized company that anyone has ever had the misfortune to share adjoining cubicles with (believe me, I speak from experience).

The songs, as indicated, are terrific – each one a masterpiece that, once exposed to, you won’t be able to stop humming.  I used to apply each ditty to the matching staff member in my office (“hmm-hmm-hmm, the company way…”).  It made the stress so much easier.

The show had legs, not only spreading out into a gazillion worldwide road companies, but joining a mini-genre of cynical “big biz” theater/movie ancestors/spinoffs, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and, the most unknown work of genius ever How Now, Dow Jones (check the credits, you’ll plotz).

UA, which scored big with The Apartment, eventually won the film optioning stakes (the Mirisch Company paying a then unheard-of $1M for the picture rights), immediately began planning the transition to the screen.  The backstage politics involved in that morphing were nearly as hostile as the inappropriate display that had theatergoers laughing (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) in the aisles.

In 1964, Tony Curtis campaigned vigorously to play Finch; the underrated actor surmising he could speak the sensational lyrics a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.  The idea of Sidney Falco in HOW TO SUCCEED is indeed an enticing one (in the Broadway version, the Pierrepont Finch character is way darker, and more ruthless).  Alas, by the early/mid-1960s, Curtis’ marquee value had waned, and United Artists told 39-year-old he was too long in the tooth to play the energetic 20-something.  Immediately, they pursued Dick Van Dyke (then also 39).  Van Dyke nixed the part for the identical reason UA trounced Curtis.

Hollywood being Hollywood, no one naturally thought of casting the ultimate Finch, its Broadway personification Robert Morse.  Morse had previously done some TV and a couple of movies, and had just been signed by MGM.  His bravura turn as Finch had also won him a Tony Award.  “Hey, why not use him?” finally cried some wag at The Mirisch Co.  Duh.  Like casting followed suit, and soon the majority of the original Broadway roster caught a jet for the West Coast.

The transition still wasn’t without bumps – and weird ones.  The outrageous Coffee Break number was scratched from the final cut, although the hilarious preamble to it remains (you’re expecting a full-fledged ensemble of lady typists and junior execs to converge upon the screen, but are met only by a guy wheeling in a beverage and danish cart).  More bizarre was the omission of all the Michele Lee character’s songs.  As compensation, she was given Morse’s signature tune I Believe in You; he, in turn, got to perform the piece later on in a washroom reprise.

The reason UA cited was the playing down of musicals, which were not as popular as they had once been.  Odd, since West Side Story, A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music had racked up international grosses of close to a billion dollars (the first two being UA titles).

But, again, who can explain the workings of a Hollywood mind?

What remains on the screen is a firecracker of laughs (many brutal), fantastic music (so many memorable songs, it’s hard to pin down a favorite; I’m torn between Company Way and Been a Long Day — the second malevolent, of the two versions performed by the class-conscious cast) and marvelous performances.  Morse and Lee (who made her big screen debut in SUCCEED) are perfect.  But we can’t NOT mention the splendid participation of the awesome supporting cast, particularly Rudy Vallee, Maureen Arthur, Anthony Teague, John Myhers, Carol Worthington, Ruth Kobart, Jeff DeBanning and Murray Matheson.  That said, the unsung-singing hero of SUCCEED is the amazing Sammy Smith, who perfectly essays the dual roles of meek mail room head Twimble AND the company founder Wally Womper (originally, I never knew until the credits, even taking into account the lousy toupee).

Our retro love affair with the 1960s makes SUCCEED more engaging as ever.  Several years ago, a Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe wowed audiences once again.  Cleverly, it was hyped as “Mad Men – the Musical!”  A not so deceptive tag (just ask the wary young ladies in the show as they harmonize “A Secretary is Not a Toy”).  Furthermore, in a brilliant casting in-joke decision, the groundbreaking award-winning AMC series cast Morse in a recurring role as one of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ top execs.

David Swift, who directed a non-musical look at big business (1964’s very funny Good Neighbor Sam), moves his cast through the proceedings with verve and panache.  The camerawork by the great Burnett Guffey is top-notch, utilizing the decade’s pop colors in a Panavision galaxy, reminiscent of Princess phones, fluorescent ad signs and the New York World’s Fair mod imagery.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a revelation.  This fresh transfer looks as if it was shot yesterday, featuring colors that seem to burst off the screen with 1080p crystal clear visuals.  Unlike the previous 2000 MGM DVD, which was in compromised scope, this rendition is in full 2.35:1 Panavision.  Equally relevant is that all-important audio; the old DVD was mono; Twilight Time presents SUCCEED in spectacular 5.1 stereo-surround (it truly sounds as if one is in a first-run theater).  For SUCCEED‘s legions of fans (like moi), there’s the option of listening to the matchless score as an IST; furthermore, there are several short documentaries, one with Morse, and another with Lee.  Plus the theatrical trailer.

One of the finest musicals ever made, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS finally conquers the home entertainment arena via this must-have platter.  But hurry, it’s a limited run, and once they’re gone…

One final note:  The bloviating, blow-hard, inept, physically unfit, adulterous womanizing, golf-fanatical New York head of WWW – the creep who is lured into a reality-type game show production is named Biggley.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # TWILIGHT267-BR.   SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively at www.screenarchivesentertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com 

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Wingman in the SAC

The complexities surrounding the seemingly typical rousing big-budget 1955 Hollywood drama-adventure STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, now on stunning Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, transcend its surface appeal of mere stirring family fare.

The movie, costarring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson (their third teaming), and directed by the great Anthony Mann, is generally sloughed off by Mann’s admirers as an expertly made but standard tribute to an integral arm of America’s armed forces.

But leave us look again.  Hint:  NOTHING Anthony Mann does post-WWII is without worth.

The narrative, as scripted by Valentine Davies and Bernie Lay, Jr., (from a story by Lay), chronicles the odyssey of Robert “Dutch” Holland (Stewart), a middle-aged ex-Lieutenant Colonel, still in his prime – now enjoying the rewards (both personal and financial) of being a major-league baseball player (that’s 170K per year in 1950s dollars).  His recent (albeit late in life) marriage to Sally (Allyson), the woman of his dreams, immensely aids his securing the American Dream, Eisenhower-Era-style; the news that he’s about to become a father makes it just that more sweet.

Long story short, Dutch has three loves:  flying, baseball and Sally (but not necessarily in that order).  Furthermore, Dutch’s great season has enabled him to purchase the suburban fantasy home that previously had been only a possibility in his mind.

All this changes by a visit from an old flying pal, (now Major-General) “Rusty” Castle (James Millican, apparently everybody has quotes in the Air Force).  It seems that, although honorably discharged, Dutch remained on the reserve list.  And now, a publicity-seeking martinet, perfectly christened General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), has decided that recalling Holland to the service, as part of the new high echelon Strategic Air Command, is just the boost the Cold War flight group needs.  Dutch’s celebrity status will make SAC a desired choice for bright, young individuals whose love for country might outweigh the minimal pay.

At first Dutch thinks it’s all a gag, then is irritated and finally angered at his indentured servitude to a branch of the military he voluntarily and heroically pledged loyalty to.

But it’s for real, all right.  The penalty for refusal is possible prison, with the added caveat of traitor being slapped on one’s back.  Allyson, upset but game, wonders how bad it can be; besides, it’s only for a couple of years.  Stewart, near his breaking point, reminds his bride that at his age, two years in baseball is a lifetime.

But Jimmy Stewart is no traitor, so he reluctantly goes off to fight the paranoias of McCarthyism peacetime.  Immediately, he gets into hot water via the red tape involving simple entry onto the base.  This is followed by a harrowing terrorist attack on the SAC airstrip – a frightening sham ploy that is part of Hawkes’ prep maneuvers in the event of a sneak Russian attack.

Stewart discovers isn’t alone in his vitriolic attitude toward SAC after meeting a rising young executive (Alec Nicol), likewise snatched from a high-paying job and sold into slavery by Hawkes.

The transition isn’t easy, nor pleasant.  The new quarters, in less than desirable environs, is a slum compared to the Holland’s former home.

The training on the new  jets is rigorous, relentless and painful.  But then the change occurs.  Reunited with a WWII buddy, who stayed in the service (Harry Morgan as…wait for it…Sergeant Bible), Dutch becomes fascinated, then obsessed, with the sleek, streamlined B-47s.  He ultimately masters the required knowledge and excels as a modern SAC warrior.  The thrill Dutch experiences is pure wide-eyed wonder that only Stewart can achieve – it quite literally mirrors a feeling parallel to sex.  And Dutch begins to stay away from home longer and longer, assigned/volunteering for missions above and beyond.  So enamored is he of 1950s military flight that he neglects an increasingly worsening shoulder injury, sustained during his initial SAC days.

As the months tick off, Allyson, freaking out after straying husband’s near-fatal downing in the Arctic, goes into hysterical overdrive when Stewart’s new mistress wins.  He tells her that he’s not doing the required tour of duty, but has signed up to stay in SAC permanently.

His debilitating condition turns the Hollands’ world upside down and around once again.  Lovejoy callously informs Dutch that they no longer want him; of course, the malady guarantees his baseball days are finished as well.  And Allyson is smart enough to realize that are now cracks in their marriage.

The bitter finale, a 1950s U.S. wet dream, has Stewart and Allyson watching the supersonic jets fly in formation to a patriotic male-chorus-sung tune (“The Air Force Takes Command”).  To the masses, it’s an appropriate ending; for Mann buffs, like family relationships in Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, it’s a shattered nuclear unit, probably beyond repair (Sirk did similar things with romance and the American dream in his Technicolor Rock Hudson valentines; think Jane Wyman’s reflection in a TV set in All That Heaven Allows).  Mann and Sirk boldly underline an insidious multileveled cinematic definition of the adage “If it looks too good to be true…”

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was a picture Mann didn’t necessarily want to make.  He did it at the beseeching of his frequent leading man Stewart (this was similar to the earlier Glenn Miller Story), but Mann’s compensations were the aforementioned Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, plus Man from Laramie and, in my opinion the duo’s finest collaboration, The Naked Spur).  Mann couldn’t complain either, as both SAC and Glenn Miller proved to be massive hits (up until that point the director’s non-Stewart pics, the excellent but ill-performing Last Frontier and the horribly maligned Serenade, had unceremoniously bellied-up).

Stewart, a genuine Air Force hero (and ultimately a Brigadier General) pulled a lot of strings to get clearance to shoot SAC in places other studios’ moguls could never even imagine.  The behind-the-scenes training and actual missions are engrossing to watch.

Furthermore, SAC, as a large-scale movie, is a gorgeous-looking extravaganza, perfect for the VistaVision process.  The photography by William Daniels (who decreed VistaVision the greatest process ever bestowed upon cinema) and the bravura flying sequences by the legendary Paul Mantz, particularly the cold blue nighttime aerials over the Arctic, are awesome, crystal-clear in detail and representative of Technicolor at its best.

The performances, too, are top-notch, beginning, natch, with Stewart – as tortured as ever in a pic by Mann or Hitchcock.  Allyson is the perfect 1950s wife for the star, and the supporting players, including Nicol, Morgan, Millican and Barry Sullivan, Bruce Bennett, Rosemary DeCamp, James Bell, Strother Martin, but especially Lovejoy as the Machiavellian officer, are terrific. Since it’s a 1955 movie, SAC has the mandatory appearance by Jay C. Flippen, since it seems that no American pic during the decade was allowed to be filmed unless either he or Robert Keith participated.  Throw in a typically melodic Victor Young score (including the previously indicated song with lyrics by Ned Washington and Major Tommy Thomson), and you’ve got the recipe for a primo 1950s movie night event.

SAC‘s nightmarish elements snuck by most critics and audiences, who loved the movie to death.  It was the official opening for a flagship VistaVision theater, attended by top chiefs of staff, selected members of the air force and SAC pilots themselves.  Sadly, the VistaVision longevity was already waning, and the superb big-screen process would soon fall by the wayside, being nearly extinct by 1960 (most people in 1955 saw the pic in standard 35MM widescreen).

Blu-Ray is the perfect format for VistaVision movies, so I was delighted to see this new 1080p High Definition master from Olive Films.  Cutting to the chase, the movie looks and sounds fantastic.

For those Stewart fans and/or aviation buffs, STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND delivers the goods in droves.  For Mann purists, take another look – and checkout how this brilliant artist turned a love affair with flight into fright.

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF1284.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Swimmin’ at Ya

For Blu-Ray fans, 2017 is turning out to be quite a bonanza (nice that SOMETHING good is happening this year); for 3-D aficionados, it’s beyond our wildest dreams.

Just how wild are our stereoscopic dreams?  For true buffs of the process, I can think of no better answer than the title SEPTEMBER STORM, a 1960 adventure that for us depth-devotees is one of the format’s entries that help comprise the 3-D Holy Grail.  And it’s now available on a dynamite Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber, in conjunction with that grand bunch at the 3-D Film Archive.

A rarely seen 20th Century-Fox pic, SEPTEMBER STORM is historically relevant, as it’s the first advertised American CinemaScope movie in 3-D (rumors still fly about 1955’s Son of Sinbad).

In fact, SEPTEMBER STORM is such an obscurity that I wasn’t even sure if the movie ever existed in 3-D, and, if it did, whether it was entirely shot in the process, or just used for certain sequences.  I never met anyone who had actually seen it in three dimensions.  And, people who saw it flat (generally on TV) were magnanimously unimpressed.

Truth be told, flat, the movie ain’t much, even with the Mallorca locations in CinemaScope.

The cast is certainly of the B-variety, not necessarily a bad thing, and the story, by noir veterans Steve Fisher and (screenplay) W.R. Burnett, carries a high pedigree, but isn’t exactly Little Caesar, High Sierra or White Heat.  The movie was produced for Fox by Edward Alperson’s unit and directed by Hollywood professional Byron Haskin.

The cast comprises a foursome of interesting personalities.  Joanne Dru, an actress I’ve always liked, is costarred with Mark Stevens.  Supporting backup is provided by the always reliable Robert Strauss and newcomer Asher Dann.

So, what’s the story?  Supermodel Dru likes to be adventurous, and takes a New York breather to explore the deep-sea wonders of Mallorca, Spain.  There she meets supposed boy-millionaire local Dann, who does his best to loosen her bikini.  Not that she’s opposed to this hunky sidebar, but all that takes a back seat with the arrival of dubious explorers Stevens and Strauss, a red-flag duo if ever there was one.  They want to hire one of Dann’s boats to recover a buried treasure off the coast of one of the adjoining islands.  This becomes problematic for several reasons:  A) it turns out that Stevens may have intentionally arranged a wreck, causing the earlier discovered fortune to sink for his personal salvage, and B) Dann is a nothing but a Latin beach bum, babysitting a fleet of yachts for an absent millionaire.  There’s also C), Strauss wanting to ravish Dru – a hormonal tsunami that can never end well.

Nevertheless, off they go and the passions, fashions and trash-ons clash on…and on…and on.

Character development is weird in the movie; Strauss is scumbag evil at one moment and then Stalag 17 lovable the next.  The raw Burnett touch is scantily evident, save some of Dru’s smack-down lines, beautifully delivered by the actress (when Stevens wants a private conference, she snaps “I bet you do!”).  A pre-climactic moment where Strauss’ character’s worm finally turns, does have a nasty edge to it, but, again, is short-lived.

Stevens and Strauss nonetheless make a good team of rogues.  Even when playing 100% good guy, Mark Stevens always had a sleazy air about him, which probably explains why he never became a major Fox star.  He is an able actor, however, and turned out to be an even better director (Cry Vengeance, Time Table).

That said, the true star of SEPTEMBER STORM isn’t the cast or dazzling location settings, but the 3-D.  To this, we can’t credit director Haskin enough.  He’s done a monumental job.  While there are not any genuine “coming at ya” moments, the entire movie is spectacularly framed and designed for the process.  Every shot perfectly composes the requisite center/foreground/background action.  Simple bits, comprised of the cast walking across the deck of the boat, surrounded by rigging, become thrilling.   Ditto scenes in nightclubs, cabins, and, natch, the underwater stuff.

The various nightclub sequences, taking place over a period of days, apparently were shot in one establishment, and in a single shoot.  A sensational sultry-eyed blonde dances by in nearly every take, suggesting that she was possibly some suit’s girlfriend.  I say this because, in Hollywood, such things are known to happen.

While ads reasonably showed a shark attacking Dru and Co., nothing really that frightening compares with Robert Strauss in 3-D.  Fortunately, Joanne Dru more than makes up for this shocking horror.

In fact, the perfect use of 3-D throughout lends credence about other rumors revolving around the producer’s and director’s finer cinematic excursions.  For many years, Alperson’s 1953 classic Invaders from Mars, directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies (who, himself, achieved a 3-D expressionistic funfest with The Maze), was discussed as a Third Dimension offering that survived only in standard flat versions beyond the editing room.  Furthermore, Haskin’s work on George Pal’s H.G. Wells masterpiece, War of the Worlds (also 1953), was likewise whispered to have been lensed (at least partially) in the process.

The bad rep that SEPTEMBER STORM has carried with it for more than half a century relies wholly upon its flat version (or, if viewed on pan-and-scan 1970s TV broadcasts, a flat-flat version).  Reviews cite its ugly photography and bad color – a standard (and often valid) claim on Fox/DeLuxe titles (again, more so for the faded, grainy blown-up, full-frame/non-scope TV prints).  The ghosts of co-cinematographers Lamar Brown and Jorge Stahl, Jr., can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

This new transfer of SEPTEMBER STORM mercifully puts those negative comments to rest.  In 35MM, CinemaScope and 3-D, the rectangular visuals look terrific.  And, damn, could that sucker Robert Strauss swim!

The music score, cowritten by Eddie Alperson, Jr., is a mixed bag.  The downside of nepotism, Junior’s accomplishments never lost Cole Porter any sleep.  His title song to dad’s earlier Fox pic Mohawk remains a classic of good-awful filmmusic that my late pal Ric Menello and I would frequently warble before collapsing in spasms of laughter.

SEPTEMBER STORM keeps the Eddie, Jr., legend going.  The title (and nightclub) tune is authentically bad, but in a way that is addictive.  Proof of this is the fact that I’m still quoting the inane lyrics (by Jerry Winn) and can’t stop humming that theme; it may eventually drive me insane.

If 3-D collectors haven’t already added this title to their libraries, I heartily recommend that they do so.  It’s a fantastic demo platter of how much the process can enhance a project.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The 3-D Film Archive gang won’t let it.  As with many of their releases, the supplemental material is as good, if not better, than the main attraction.  With SEPTEMBER STORM, they have gone beyond sweetening the pot.

First of all, the original 3-D release (limited as it was) was accompanied by a bizarre puppetoon-esque short, entitled SPACE ATTACK, also in 3-D; it is included here so that one can actually recreate the 1960 experience.  The short is a tiny-tot-geared painless pastiche – an odd choice to pair with SEPTEMBER STORM, as the feature attraction is definitely not kiddie-oriented.

In addition, there is a pristine copy of a British 3-D 1953 short (never released in the process), HARMONY LANE, a two-reeler variety show (with notable performers being Max Bygraves and Dora Bryan).  Aside from one number (only surviving in a flat rendition, but seamlessly integrated into the mix), the 3-D is quite good, save a ballet number, which is outstanding – an ideal example of the heights inventive Third Dimension could ascend (the short’s director, Lewis Gilbert, best known here for the excellent Bond flick You Only Live Twice, discusses the pic in a 1995 filmed interview).

Best of all is a new interview with SEPTEMBER STORM‘s only remaining star, Asher Dann.  It’s easy to see why he got the part.  At 77, the still gregarious thesp exudes an overabundance of charm (which he states was his best attribute).  I was also amazed how good an actor Dann could be.  I thought he was just another foreign import, one of the many throngs of international actors and actresses recruited for American productions during the late 1950s-early 1960s.  Turns out he’s a native New Yawker; he sure had the Spanish accent down poifectly.

Dann is genuinely stunned by the interest in SEPTEMBER STORM, but is told that it’s because of the 3-D availability.  He memorably recalls the giant green Natural Vision 3-D monolithic cameras (resembling the Xenomorphs from It Came from Outer Space, but with two eyes), newly christened as StereoVision, and remembers seeing a Third Dimension print at Fox; but emphatically insists that the picture was never released that way.  He had done personal appearance duty in key cities and swears STORM only played in standard CinemaScope (memory does have a tendency to play tricks on one, as the StereoVision lobbycards, posters and TV spots exist, the latter also included in this release, along with a “flat” theatrical trailer).  I’ve since discovered, that, in actuality, the movie wasn’t shot in CinemaScope at all, but in spherical NaturalVision.  The prints were then converted to SuperScope (a fake rectangular format, promoted by Howard Hughes during the last years at RKO).  The materials were then cropped and anamorphically squeezed in the lab, and finally released in true CinemaScope prints.

Dann likewise insists that while another actor was up for the part (likely, Fox contractee Nicos Minardos, whom studio mogul Spyros Skorus desperately tried to catapult to stardom), he’s convinced he got the role due to his expertise at gin rummy, a game Alperson was addicted to (and one the producer played relentlessly with Dann and Strauss during the shoot’s off-time).  This is totally believable since, as indicated above, in Hollywood such things are known to happen.

Dann further reports that the bonding between the four principles was tremendous, a fantastic foursome (and, revealed in an enticing wink-wink-nudge-nudge instance, one that he won’t elaborate on).

The greatest part of Dann’s reminiscing is that the interview itself is shot in 3-D; the former actor laughingly tells the crew that Alperson told him to stop gesticulating so much, as it was intrusive and annoying.  This is a habit he couldn’t break, and a bona fide plus for this extra, as his protruding arms and hands comprise the main “look out, duck!” portion of this jam-packed entertainment package.

Dann, whose non-acting career was far more interesting than his on-camera/stage one (he was the original manager of The Doors), eventually made his fortune the way so many unrecognizable movie folk have:  in real estate.  Because in Hollywood, such things are…well…

SEPTEMBER STORM.  Color.  Widescreen [2.39:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Classics/3-D Film Archive.  CAT # K21238.  SRP:  $34.95.

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