Design for Dying

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

Two struggling American artists – a writer and a painter – living in a cramped Paris flat, waiting for success and falling in love with the same woman.  Sound familiar?  Well, you’re wrong, ’cause we’re talking about the 1965 Universal comedy THE ART OF LOVE, now on Blu-Ray from the cineastes at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Home Video.

There are more than artistic goals and coital frolicking going on here, as scripted by supporting cast member Carl Reiner, working with Richard Alan Simmons’s and William Sackheim’s tale (who, in turn, seemed to have also “borrowed” more than a mere theme from Mark Twain’s 1893 short story Is He Dead?)But Sir Noel’s basic subject matter aside, there’s lots cowardly lyin’.

Casey Bennett and Paul Sloane are, as indicated, two buddies fighting to make a name for themselves.  Womanizing journalist Casey seems okay with their situation as long as bud Paul keeps giving him a piece of his regular subsidy money, courtesy of his gorgeous, rich America-situated fiancée Laurie.  But Sloane has had it; he’s gonna pack it in, return to the States, settle down and likely work for one of his bride’s pater’s various companies, knocking out cartoony ads.  This throws Bennett into a tizzy.  And here’s the literary juncture where the clever Noel and the Twain shall meet, via a throwaway verbal snap by unscrupulous art dealer Zorgus (too bad you’re not dead, dead artists sell).

Casey suggests Paul commit faux suicide, allow him to move all his canvasses, reap the rewards and then reappear – a victim of amnesia.  How all of this goes magnificently wrong is both sardonically funny and a bit disturbing (for a wacky Sixties romcom), as it involves Nikki, a genuine suicidal, impulsive lady (who falls obsessively for Paul), Sloane’s grieving fiancée (who falls for Casey), a popular “nightclub” where the female attractions live and have…clients and last, but by far not the least, Paul’s jealous nature wreaking vengeance by framing Casey for his “murder.” 

What a merry escapade!

Lavishly coproduced by Ross Hunter and star James Garner’s Cherokee Company, THE ART OF LOVE tends to lean toward the mean-spirited (something that didn’t connect with my eleven-year-old self during the July 4th weekend in 1965, when I first saw it; I, frankly, loved every frame).  Reiner makes sure to put in plenty of schtick tailor-made for costar (and friend/lead of his iconic sitcom) Dick Van Dyke.  The female leads have less to do, except look consistently beautiful, which they, not surprisingly, manage rather well.  Elke Sommer (as Nikki) does her trademark alluring pout throughout while Angie Dickinson is admittedly more or less wasted in a thankless role as Laurie; her running gag is to faint at each newly-revealed narrative outrage (of which there are many).

The director is Norman Jewison, at the end of his studio-contracted assignments (The Cincinnati Kid would be released that fall), and gearing up for his greatest creative period (the next year’s reteaming with Reiner for the smash hit The Russians Are Coming, followed by In the Heat of the Night).

The lush Technicolor photography is by the superb Russell Metty; a nod must be made to Second Unit a.d.s Douglas Green and Wendell Franklin, as the actual Paris backdrops are among the best match-ups I’ve ever seen (the picture was otherwise entirely shot at Universal City).

The remainder of the cast is 1960’s Character Actor Heaven, most notably Ethel Merman as Madame Coco La Fontaine, but also Pierre Olaf, Miiko Taka, Irving Jacobson, Naomi Stevens, Jay Novello, Maurice Marsac, Fifi D’Orsay, Marcel Hillaire, Nan Martin, and Rolfe Sedan. Roger C. Carmel and Leon Belasco get a special acknowledgment as mercenary art dealer Zorgus and his underling (a Parisian take on the Alan Brady/Mel Cooley relationship) while Reiner himself excels as Garner’s nasty defense attorney.  Curiously, the original choice for the pivotal character of Madame La Fontaine (the movie’s European title is At Madame Coco’s) was Mae West, who agreed and was approved by Universal; it was only when the star demanded that she be able to re-write all her own dialog that she was immediately replaced (West’s “comeback,” the less-than-worthy Myra Breckinridge, would have to wait another five years).  As a sign of the times, Reiner’s script has an overabundance of bungling French detectives – to the extent that the insertion of a line about seeing “too many Peter Sellers movies” became necessary.

Back in ’65, a bit that brought the house down was a raggedly-dressed laughing, old, toothless woman, knitting during the trial scene, cackling “Guillotine!”  All of us – adults and kids – got it (I wonder how many would today).  I’m shocked that in looking at the movie now, the gag is repeated at least a half-dozen times.  I guess the suits thought it was funny as well.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE ART OF LOVE looks excellent in this new widescreen 35MM 1080p master (a recent TCM screening used a 16MM full frame print).  The colors mostly replicate the era’s Technicolor palette, with only flesh tones occasionally appearing a tad pale.  A fine, strong audio track, featuring a sprightly Cy Coleman score adds the final touch.  Extras include audio commentary by film critic Peter Tonguette and a wonderful related trailer gallery.

Often in movies about fictional artists, the paintings leave much to be desired; in THE ART OF LOVE, many of Van Dyke’s “works” are quite lovely.  And for good reason; they were created by artist Don Cincone, who curiously received no credit (why do I think that many of the Universal-paid-for canvasses ended up in producer Hunter’s living room?).

A perfect addition to a Sixties/comedy collection, THE ART OF LOVE, almost forgotten, remains a nifty way for Boomers to pass the afternoon; many did so in 1965 (the pic was a year’s end top earner).

THE ART OF LOVE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  CAT# K25022. SRP:  $24.95.

Not Atoll What it Seems

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

A Mad Men fantasy project on film, 1964’s all-star farce HONEYMOON HOTEL is available for occupancy via the travel agents at the Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The movie, sort of a Love, American Style full-length rendition of The Devil’s Disciple (INSERT gobsmacked reaction HERE), is one of approximately 9,000,000,000 “sex” comedies unleashed post-Pillow Talk; everyone who was anyone eventually did at least one – even Brando (the still home vid unreleased Bedtime Story, made the same year as this pic).  In a nutshell, HH relates the unlikely shenanigans involving a wedding from hell gone wrong (or right, depending on how you look at it), a tropical paradise hotel and a plethora of wink-wink-nudge-nudge lechery and debauchery all revolving around maneuvering nubile females into what the great Carrie Fisher dubbed as “surrendering the pink.”

Quasi-good guy schlepp Jay Menlow, a successful New Yorker, is looking forward to his upcoming nuptials to the stunning Cynthia Hampton; his playa roomie, Ross Kingsley, isn’t so sure; in fact, he may not even show up, as Ross can’t fathom being chained to one woman until the “death do us part” thingy.

Cynthia, however, is a harpy in shapely human form, pure evil learned from her parents – affluent one-percenters who nickel-and-dimed their way to a fortune (they even bitch to the hired help at the pre-wedding reception).  No surprise that a rift erupts between the soon-to-be newlyweds, blamed by all upon poor nudnik Menlow, who, with Ross’s aid, escapes the betrothal.  Double problem:  Kinglsey is supposed to be on a big business trip for his aluminum company and Jay has already put down a non-refundable fee on the honeymoon suite.  Ross arrives at the perfect solution (once he discovers that the place in question – the Boca Roca – has ten girls for every man).  They’ll vacay together.  Unfortunately, Ross didn’t read the fine print:  top-heavy femme numbers refer to island residents, not guests – as only honeymooners are allowed to stay at the resort.  Of course, this gives us some gay gags, as the two show up as a couple, but the real fun begins when Cynthia’s super-gorgeous bestie, Lynn Jenley (bizarrely listed as “Lynn Hope” in the end credits), turns up as the hotel’s activities director.  And Ross has some definite activities in mind.  Add to the deception is the arrival of Kingsley’s cheating horndog boss, Mr. Sampson (who lands with buxom ditz doll Sherry in tow), AND Cynthia who decides to give Menlow another chance, AND Menlow himself, who wants to be more like his pal and nail Lynn for himself.

Need to take a breath?  Get the Mad Men ref now?

For all the smutty innuendoes, HONEYMOON HOTEL, like most of the “naughty” Hollywood competition at the time, was innocent enough to send the kiddies to. A bunch of us caught it because of the wonderful Onterora policy:  matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and rainy days.  There was a torrential downpour on this particular morning, and gaggles of urchins lined up in their slickers at 2:30 that afternoon.  I loved the pic at the time, not getting some of the borderline lurid jokes, but dug seeing a comedy with costars Robert Morse and Robert Goulet as a kind of 1960s Martin & Lewis; I sincerely hoped the movie would be a smash, and that the Culver City dream factory might pair them again (I was starved for a new comedy team).  Interestingly enough, while HH was made at the King of the Musical Studio, MGM never bothered to utilize the considerable singing talents of these two leads (noted Leo suit Pandro Berman even functioned as HONEYMOON‘s producer), although Goulet does get to warble the Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen sleazy-listening title tune.  The Roberts had become mega-famous due to their individual appearances on-stage in How to Success in Business Without Really Trying and Camelot.  Metro made neither (both would be filmed three years later by other studios, the latter not even costarring Goulet).  Morse, under contract to MGM, never appeared in a musical, and, in his tenure there, only made one picture that is constantly revived (The Loved One).  Not that HONEYMOON HOTEL is a bust; it’s quite entertaining in its way, and perfectly reflects the benign pre-Graduate sex pic era.  The script is by R.S. Allen and Harvey Bullock, two scribes noted for their extensive TV sitcom/any com work, principally numerous episodes of Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, The Patty Duke Show, The Love Boat (and, big shock, Love, American Style).  The director, Henry Levin, best-remembered for 1959’s witty adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth, proved that he did have a light touch, so…For me, it’s the beautiful Panavision camerawork that seals the deal technically, thanks to the efforts of Harold Lipstein (the original warm MetroColor now popping ebulliently in ways that the 1964 prints never achieved (thank you, Warner Archive, for this excellent made-to-order DVD).  A perky score by Walter Scharf adds to the froth, and the frothing.

Morse and Goulet aside, it’s the amazing supporting cast that makes this feminist nightmare a must-see.  Keenan Wynn (as Goulet’s boss), Elsa Lanchester, Bernard Fox, Elvira Allman, Sandra Gould, Chris Noel, Beverly Adams, Julie Payne, Vito Scotti, and Naomi Stevens are such fun; however, ultimately, the women leads put it over.  Nancy Kwan steals the picture (and with these pros, that’s quite a feat) as the funny, cool Lynn; the only sore thumb is believing that she could ever be besties with the likes of Cynthia (Anne Helm, usually a pleasant actress, who is so horrific here that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch her screeching shrike of a performance); and, yeah, Kwan gets to show her dancing skills in the only MGM moment, a hilarious and seductive fertility dance.  The unsung hero (well, heroine) is Jill St. John as the bodacious bubblehead Sherry.  St. John, certainly no real-life flake, brought the house down then by her attempt to walk through a glass patio door.

St. John also gave me my one personal lasting memory of HONEYMOON HOTEL.  As we exited the theater, one of my pals checked out a lobbycard showcasing the actress.  “That’s not the color of her clothes and hair.”  Even at ten years old, I was cinema-savvy and began to explain the hand-coloring process that defined the lobbycard art form.  “But why didn’t they just use color photos?,” she reasonably asked (MGM actually did try that briefly in the early Fifties).  “Well, because…they’re lobbycards.” was my brilliant answer.  “That makes no sense!” she stubbornly replied.  57 years later, and I still can’t shake that exchange.  Go figure.

The infamous lobbycard incident that caused a major adolescent controversy in 1964!

HONEYMOON HOTEL. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; mono audio. Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment Co./Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT # B00Y7R9H38.  SRP:  $17.99.

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

Fatigued Fatigues

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

Sometimes when we had exhausted the fare at the Onteora (or if a special “biggie” was playing elsewhere), we’d pile into cars and (usually) head for neighboring Margaretville’s Galli-Curci Theater (no skin off the Onterora’s nose; at one time the same dude – one Max Silberman – built and owned both houses).  A special “biggie,” mostly geared toward grownups, certainly unfurled in July 1963 with the announcement of CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D.,now on Blu-Ray from the staff at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Home Video.

When my mom (who took me along with her pals) saw the cast (especially star Gregory Peck, late of To Kill a Mockingbird, and forever in her heart since Gentleman’s Agreement), she was pumped; when I saw the poster, featuring co-star Tony Curtis, so was I.  The pic was sold as a wacky military WWII comedy, the one-sheet mimicking 1959’s Operation Petticoat.  Count me in!  Boy, was I in for an electro shock.

CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D., while indeed containing many comedic episodes, generally is a drama with many hard-hitting moments.  It takes place at an Arizona military rehab hospital, in 1944.  Here the broken bones are shared (ridiculously) with the broken minds.  Captain Josiah Newman (naturally, Peck) heads the psych ward, battling ailments that were still “new” to the profession (specifically, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), but also at war with his superiors…and time.  Six weeks was the max given to cure these “nutjobs,” then send them right back for more.  Of course, this sounds barbaric, since traumatized G.I.s could hardly be counted upon to perform as if normal (whatever that is); worse so for deranged patients with a rank in the high command.  A nightmare waiting to happen.

Newman with his shanghaiing savvy beauteous head nurse Lt. Francie Corum to his side (Angie Dickinson in a really nicely done understated role) and scavenger orderly Cpl. Jackson Leibowitz (Curtis, a neurotic streetwise dude who eventually becomes a self-taught junior shrink, lacking everything but a diploma and a decoding ring) remarkably manages to perform medical miracles, but not without occasional sacrifice and at a devastating cost.

As indicated, CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. was a “big” summer Catskill resort special for Universal (the official nationwide rollout would be in December).  At the time I was surprised that it didn’t play the Onterora, as they usually handled all the Universal output (only rarely did the Gallic-Curci run Universals, most notably with Spartacus).  The picture generally (and deservedly) got rave reviews.  I wasn’t so sure.  The uneven broad marker between the borderline slapstick and dark psychological drama played upon my psyche.  Not a major surprise when one realizes that the director was none other than the previously heralded David Miller, championed here a couple of columns ago with his 1952 noir triumph Sudden Fear (this movie, with its sharp change in tone, has more in common with his freakish 1949 musical Top O’the Morning, which has to be seen to be believed).  I think if the NEWMAN posters hadn’t pointed in one clear direction, maybe I would have felt better (check out the Blu-Ray cover below, which was the one-sheet).  Looking at the movie today with adult eyes makes me appreciate the efforts of all concerned; in fact, in 2021, it’s the lowbrow comedy (which I so loved in ’63) that seems out of place.

NEWMAN, as one might expect, is extraordinary for tackling PSTD, still a controversial subject in the Sixties (and definitely one in the Forties).  The handling (aka Newman’s approach) is quite reasonable and even modern.

Of course, having a cast of psychotics to deal with is a guarantee that you’ll be headed toward Snake Pit territory come Oscar time, and here CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. didn’t disappoint either.  The key lunatics in question are Eddie Albert (two years away from Green Acres, and whose NEWMAN performance terrified me), Robert Duvall (following up on Mockingbird), and Bobby Darin (whose tour de force turn as a racist in the previous year’s Pressure Point won him acclaim); Darin got the Best Supporting Oscar nod, along with screenwriters Richard L. Breen and Phoebe and Henry Ephron for Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (the bestselling novel by Leo Rosten); another nom was given to Waldon O. Watson for Best Sound.

Peck and Curtis, who coproduced the show with Universal, give it their all, and exhibit what classic movie star power is all about.  They are ably supported by Bethel Leslie, James Gregory, Dick Sargent, Robert F. Simon, Jane Withers, Vito Scotti, Gregory Walcott, Barry Atwater, Ted Bessell, Cal Bolder, Calvin Brown, Ann Doran, Mike Farrell, Martin West and Curtis’ real-life bestie Larry Storch.  Two Russells likewise did exemplary work, the great d.p. Russell Metty and the wonderful composer Russell Garcia (remember his beautiful music for George Pal’s The Time Machine?), the latter who shared the score duties with house talent Frank Skinner.

It’s terrific to see this oft-faded Eastmancolor title in a crisp, sparkling new widescreen 1080p transfer (only the main credits and occasional opticals briefly mar the pristine look).  Extras include audio commentary by Samm Deighan and the theatrical trailer.

FUN FACT:  author Rosten’s book was based on actual U.S. Army psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson.  In the movie’s climax, Newman is faced with the offer of staying on and further helping returning soldiers with their mental probs, an honor and a privilege to be sure.  Peck weighs the options, and the flick wisely doesn’t reveal his decision.  For good reason.  The real Newman/Greenson ditched the military, and headed West for the monetary glories of Hollywood, where he became ultra-rich analyzing the endless throngs of movie stars, directors and producers.  Oh, well.

Driving back to Fleischmanns after the showing in 1963, my mom turned to me, pleased with the pic.  “Good movie,” she said to me.  I shook my head.  “I dunno, mom, it was good when it was funny, then it got too serious and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”  My sage parent patted me on the noggin and replied, “Welcome to life.”

CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25126. SRP: $24.95.

Strange Bedfellows

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

For the third year in a row (doing a column I originally thought to be a one-off), Supervistaramacolorscope kicks off a month-long series of pictures I remember from my adolescent summer vacations…with a movie I never saw!

Yep, you read right.  We begin this year’s Catskill crop of celluloid with a title so notorious that we kiddies were banned from even talking about it:  the 1963 “shocker” THE BALCONY, now on Blu-Ray from the flesh peddlers at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, in cahoots with Continental Distributing, Inc.

An indie with undies, THE BALCONY first captured my attention from the enticing duo-tone poster which adorned the Coming Soon side of the Onteora Theater, in the upstate village of Flesichmanns, NY.  From the graphic graphics (half-naked ladies peering over a balcony), I figured it was a dirty movie.  Well, that and a banner pasted across the diameter of the poster with the block letters “NO CHILDREN ALLOWED.”  Of course, I wanted to know why. My mom was very evasive.  I previously had similar conversations with the grown-ups over the no-no rules for Never on Sunday and Lolita

One thing fer sure.  With the husbands all working in the city (their two-week vacays were usually relegated to the last half of August), all the moms were going to partake this nasty show.  It was a babysitter’s bonanza, and it was only playing for one night.

So, what is THE BALCONY?  What were the moms going to get?  Lasciviousness aside, it was an all-star, low-budget adaptation of Jean Genet’s play about the fat cat fantasies of war.  And where better to let unspool a totalitarian wet dream than in a whorehouse?  From the gruesome opening, featuring unedited news footage of revolutionists being beaten by military goons, THE BALCONY immediately moves into the confines of Madame Irma’s (aka Shelley Winters) bordello, the most popular spot in the besieged city (the brothel is a dressed up soundstage because it’s all a play-game, this thing called fascism – especially for the S&M fetishists).

The Madame’s/Winters’, occasional lover is the hothead hawk Police Chief (the only name he’s known by), a particularly agitated Peter Falk, who constantly rants and raves about bitches and whores (two words rarely, if ever, spoken in American movies at the time; remember, it took another five years before Rosemary’s Baby allowed the word “shit” to be uttered on U.S. screens).  The biplay between the two is occasionally interrupted by The Madame’s dealing with Carmen (Lee Grant), a former ho’, now upgraded to executive assistant (but who yearns for the good old days).

The joint really gets jumping when the number one revolutionist ends up in the place, and pitted against a violent Falk.  This particularly gave the movie post-1960s cult legs, as the young man in question is portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

Falk’s deranged idea that three meek johns who strut their stuff as authoritarian figures (in order to get pleasured) be pushed out to address the masses in their alter egos (the uniforms will make the idiots believe anything) becomes a reality, and sets in motion the final act.  And it was these fellows’ introductions that gave the moms what they paid to see:  three elongated sequences of sex fantasies enacted by a bishop/milkman, a general/CPA and a judge/gas man.  All three men are renowned and respected character actors (Jeff Corey, Kent Smith, Peter Brocco); the women who service them ain’t chopped liver either.  Corey is satisfied by the great Joyce Jameson, and Brocco by Ruby Dee (“lick it, lick it!” she commands the “magistrate” toward the direction of her footwear).  The most erotic of the trio features the least known actress who cavorts with Smith (in Patton-esque riding regale, whipping the equine-tailed lass), and is listed only as “Horse” (Arnette Jens, delivering the most sensual performance in the show).

THE BALCONY was likely the most successful production ever made by the Walter Reade Corporation (they usually distributed pics), even though it was banned in several states; it was quickly filmed at KTTV Studios in L.A. by director Joseph Strick (later to gain greater Bijou fame as the force behind the equally infamous Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer).  The legendary d.p. George Folsey (last seen here as cinematographer on The Harvey Girls) shot the pic in stark black-and-white.  The score essentially uses cuts from the library of Igor Stravinsky.  In short, a very liberal movie made by and starring very liberal folks.  And that ain’t bad.

The widescreen Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks near pristine, and comes with the fetching extra comprising an interview with Lee Grant, the only surviving member of the cast (with the exception of the amazing but still obscure Ms. Jens).  Other supplements include audio commentary by Tim Lucas and a gallery of trailers.

Super tame by today’s standards (it could play the morning run on TCM), THE BALCONY was an ultra-notorious offering in 1963 – not so difficult to fathom when one considers that TWO Billy Wilder movies – Irma La Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid –  also got the “ADULTS ONLY” tag, as well as George Roy Hill’s Toys in the Attic.

I can’t imagine what the hopeful maters made of the promise of sinematic sex and getting a massive dose of Jean Genet, certainly more deep dish than deep throat.  I do recall asking my mom if the undressed ladies on the terrace caught cold.  “Yeah,” she replied, before snorting into a case of the giggles.

THE BALCONY. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Continental Distributing. CAT # K24726. SRP: $29.95.

All About Evil

A film noir blockbuster in every sense of the word, David Miller’s 1952 classic SUDDEN FEAR arrives on DVD in a stunning new 2K restoration, courtesy of the noiristas at Kino-Lorber, in sinister conspiracy with The Cohen Media Group/The Cohen Film Collection.

The movie as a stand-alone noir scenario is a triumph in and of itself.  The extra trappings, being the genre pedigree cast (and, specifically, its lead) make it a must-see and now, must-own item; it’s no accident that FEAR is included on many Movies I Need to See Before I Die (or reasonable facsimile) lists.

Star Joan Crawford wasn’t merely an extremely talented actress; she was one savvy businesswoman.  By the early 1950s, there were less and less vehicles for female stars hovering south of age 40.  What ever happened to Bette Davis with All About Eve, in 1950, didn’t elude Mildred Pierce.  It proved jezebel still had legs; the Mankiewicz picture was a critical and box-office smash.  In retaliation, Crawford, taking on the additional role of coproducer, wisely sought out a narrative with a similar background (the New York theater scene), but not similar enough to be a copycat (shortly after the pic’s fade-in, comprising a brutal verbal thrashing during a Broadway audition, SUDDEN FEAR veers sharply west, to California, and takes a dark, creepy and terrifying turn).  She correctly figured that the tense novel by Edna Sherry would be perfect for her trademark flashing eyes, and postwar neurotic twitching persona (remember Possessed, the 1947 one?)  The script by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith additionally proved her right.

The star portrays famed playwright/producer (and millionaire heiress) Myra Hudson, whose penchant for knocking out hits has made her legendary on both coasts.  While casting the male lead for her latest Broadway piece, she is pointed toward Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), a promising actor hampered only by his severe, foreboding looks.  Hudson’s vicious comments (that no woman would/could seriously believe him to be a romantic lead) effectively emasculates him, after he delivers an otherwise excellent soliloquy.  Blaine lashes back at his critic, and leaves the audition.  Hudson justifies her actions with the old chestnut about show business being rough.

It’s about to get rougher.

En route home to San Francisco, she runs into Blaine, who is likewise headed west on the same train.  She apologizes, he sloughs it off; they become dining companions, and then more.  Turns out, Lester is quite the romantic lead.

Before you can say “rooster in the hen house,” he’s moved in with Myra, at her luxurious super 1952 ultra-modern mansion (an important factor, as technology is an integral part of the plot).  Surprising her close friends, the pair soon wed.  And all seems fine.

The arrival of New York firecracker Irene Neves (the great Gloria Grahame) tilts the tale into a downward spiral.  Has this been a vengeful payback plan?  Is she a spurned lover?  Is the too-good-to-be-true Blaine a ruthless psychopath?  Or is Hudson herself spinning out of control into a neurotic abyss?

All of these are questions are answered with an overabundance of goosebumps.

SUDDEN FEAR is one of the scariest noirs ever filmed; indeed, it practically overlaps into horror.  I defy anyone not to be on freaky edge for the last reel or two (Prefiguring Scream by thirty years, I recall once asking my parents’ friends what the most frightening movie they had ever seen was. The startling answer was almost unanimously SUDDEN FEAR; startling for me, as I had never heard of it (it was an independent movie, distributed by RKO, so it was kinda in lingo for quite a while).  When I finally did catch up with it – nearly twenty years later – I could see what they meant (my mom’s BF told me that she was screaming out loud along with the rest of the audience at the RKO Coliseum back in 1952).

The three leads are perfect; I mean, come on:  Crawford, Palance, Grahame – a true movie fan needs no other reason to see this flick.  That said, there’s some great support, including Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Mike Connors (still billed as “Touch” Connors), Selmer Jackson, Arthur Space and Amzie Strickland.

The director David Miller was an interesting choice for this title, no doubt, being reasonably priced (remember, padded shoulder suit Crawford was no fool).  Miller began at MGM, directing Pete Smith Specialties (including a series on Nostradamus), then graduated to definitely strange, uneven works (check out his “merry” 1949 Bing Crosby musical, Top o’the Morning, which evolves into an almost Lewton-esque horror vehicle; certainly, a stark pre-cursor of this movie).  Later works, like Twist of Fate and Midnight Lace reflect the marriages from Hell theme, but SUDDEN FEAR remains his greatest and most memorable flick.

The atmospheric black-and-white camerawork (much of it on-location, in Belvedere, CA) by Charles Lang, too, is stunning (Lang, along with Crawford and Palance received Oscar nominations; ditto costume designer Sheila O’Brien).  If one needed anymore impetus there’s a truly spine-tingling score by none other than Elmer Bernstein (one of his earliest credits). Even the poster, Crawford, hands to face in terrified splendor, remains one of the iconic one-sheets of the 1950s.

The picture exceeded everyone’s expectations when it was released in August, 1952.  The rave reviews paled next to preview word-of-mouth that gave way to lines around the box-office for months.  It was one of the biggest hits of the year, and easily RKO’s top 1952 grosser.

The new Kino/Cohen Media DVD is the best quality I’ve ever seen on this title.  While I wish it would have been Blu-Ray, I really can’t complain, as this rendition looks and sounds terrific.  Extras include audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold and a re-issue trailer.

A bona fide screen thriller-chiller-diller, SUDDEN FEAR still packs a wallop after nearly 70 years, and I have my wife’s fingernail indentations in my arm to prove it.

SUDDEN FEAR. Black-and-white. Full frame [1.37:1].  2.0 mono audio. Kino-Lorber/Cohen Media Group/Cohen Film Collection.  CAT # CMG-DVD-25249.  SRP: $19.95.

Food Music

One of the most popular movie musicals of the 1940s – a blockbuster, really – gets the Special Deluxe Warner Archive treatment with the new Blu-Ray edition of 1946’s THE HARVEY GIRLS.

A veritable textbook on how to make a classic postwar musical, THG has it all:  action, romance and action-romance, all wrapped up with a Technicolor bow around a fantastic score.

The movie, a “natural” (as the wags say) waiting to happen (indeed, why had it taken so long?) tells the true story of the Harvey House restaurant chain, forging their way West in 1870 to feed in style the increasing population of cowboys, railway workers, settlers, etc.  The hook that put the lofty concept over (aside from the ace chef-cooked vittles) was that the entire serving staff would be made up of young women, mostly of the fetching kind, and many with their own agenda:  to find that he-man and do some settling themselves.  How could it miss?  It didn’t in 1870.

Nor in 1946.

HARVEY was one of those elaborate Technicolor explosions that packed moviegoers in as the war became a recent memory.  Returning vets, reunited with their sweethearts/spouses couldn’t get enough of big-budget musicals – a point the studios took note of; Paramount (Blue Skies), Warner Bros. (Night and Day), Columbia (Down to Earth), Universal (Song of Scherherazade), Fox (State Fair) and even indies and Republic (Belle of the Yukon, I’ve Always Loved You) all went Technicolor ga-ga in a major way.  And it usually paid off handsomely.  But since MGM was the King of the Movie Musical, it turned out just that much better for them.

Of course, having the best people the genre needed all under one roof certainly helped – and that was true for both sides of the Culver City cameras.  Arthur Freed produced, George Sidney (who just had a massive hit with Anchors Aweigh) directed and an array of screenwriters and comedy scribes (Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon and last, but certainly not least, Samson Raphaelson working from an original story by Kay Van Riper, Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin – all based upon Samuel Hopkins Adams’ sourcework novel) devoted their considerable talents to the narrative.

Of course, none of this would matter if your lead was a wet noodle, and Judy Garland was hardly that.  Having come off the wildly successful Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was primed to do a lavish follow-up.  In St. Louis, “The Trolley Song” became a socko smash; for HARVEY, composers Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer went one better.  “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” almost instantly became a standard, still played today 75 years later.  For the MGM publicity department, it was a beautifully crafted use of ballyhoo and marketing smarts.  The song was released way before the movie, and, as predicted, became a Top Ten chartbuster, prior to the pic’s April 29 unveiling.  Fact, the record sales alone paid back some of HARVEY‘s lush cost before one reel unspooled in theaters.

Garland, whose character Susan Bradley is hoodwinked out West by way of a Cyrano de Bergerac ploy, is adopted by the title femmes, and becomes their champion – fighting the dastardly (but not too dastardly) rival town bigwigs and saloon owners.  Worse, her largest human thorn is dashing good-bad dude Ned Trent (John Hodiak), who, it turns out wrote the flowery prose that got her out there in the first place (the person in question being flea-bitten cowpoke H.H., played by Chill Wills).  Natch, no one is really murderously vengeful, since, in all Golden Age movies, especially musical Westerns, no one sweats, smells, gets dirty (even after 16 hours+ in the saddle) or even ruffles their clothes.  Everyone’s clean and ready to dance and sing – and, in this case, also have a hearty meal.  And I’m okay with that.

The supporting cast was phenomenal, including top tier musical attractions, up-and-coming groomed stars and starlets, beloved character actors and even an authentic smattering of Western thesp punims.  Aside from the aforementioned participants, THE HARVEY GIRLS also features Ray Bolger, Angela Lansbury, Preston Foster, Cyd Charisse, Marjorie Main, Kenny Baker, Selena Royle, Ruth Brady, Jack Lambert, Morris Ankrum, Stephen McNally (still going by “Horace”), Hazel Brooks, Vernon Dent, Virginia Gumm (one of Garland’s sisters), Peggy Maley, Paul Newlan, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Ray Teal and Byron Harvey, Jr. (Fred Harvey’s grandson).  It should be noted that Charisse was being pushed up the star ladder with this vehicle and she and Garland, along with my favorite most-underrated MGM lady, the great Virginia O’Brien, make a fine trio!

The specs on the new Blu-Ray are terrific – a thoroughly gorgeous, pristine 35MM transfer, bristling with Technicolor hues and tones (a big nod to the great d.p. George Folsey), and a clean mono track (perfect for enjoying the pleasures of the Lennie Hayton and Conrad Salinger score and songs by Warren and Mercer).  While “Atchison” not surprisingly dominates the proceedings (it won that year’s “Best Song” Oscar), a playbook of other fine tunes certainly deserve celebration, and comprise “In the Valley (Where the Evenin’ Sun Goes Down),” “Wait and See,” “The Train Must Be Fed,” “Oh, You Kid,” “It’s a Great Big World,” “The Wild, Wild West,” and “Swing Your Partner Round and Round”.

Speaking of the “Atchison” number, for me, it’s a nearly unbearable tense and lip-biting experience.  Not because I don’t like it; I do.  But because of the logistic precision that went into the production.  Garland, leading an army of extras, dancers, horses, plus character actors in a full-scale locomotive (that had to puff smoke effects on cue) freaks me out.  One tiny mistake, and the whole thing would have to be done over.  Reportedly, the day of the shoot was blessed, and the entire shebang was done in two perfect takes.  As far as I’m personally concerned, Hitchcock couldn’t have created more suspense.

The plethora of extras rounding out the package are mind-blowing, and include three deleted musical numbers (“My Intuition,” and two versions of “March of the Doagies”), “Atchison” remixed in stereo, vintage audio commentary by director George Sidney, original scoring sessions and the theatrical trailer.

Yeah, like wow!

One of the great MGM musicals, THE HARVEY GIRLS is sure to brighten any Blu-Ray fan’s classic collection.

THE HARVEY GIRLS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc./Turner Entertainment Co. SRP: $21.99.

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

Restaurant Take Out

A perverse, grisly masterpiece, the 1993 classic THE UNTOLD STORY, finally comes to American Blu-Ray home video in a version it deserves, thanks to the splendid folks at MVDvisual, in concert with Unearthed Classics and Golden Sun Film Co, Ltd.

Beginning in 1978 with a horrific, sudden (though pre-planned) murder (deceptively involving supposed friends), the scenario jumps eight years later to reveal the killer, Wong Chi Hang (having escaped detection to another country using his victim’s stolen credentials), owner and operator of a successful Hong Kong restaurant The Eight Immortals.  It is only after the 1978’s victim’s relatives, still searching for answers, and the original proprietors of the eatery all seem to disappear (and with human body parts sporadically turning up all over the area) that the noose eventually tightens around the ruthless psychopath Hang’s neck.  Indeed, no one is safe, as even his increasingly suspicious but loyal Eight Immortals staff soon learn right before they end up horribly dismembered and (conveniently) part of the menu (while investigating cops gorge themselves on the evidence).

Oh, yes, did we mention, this is based upon a true story?  Okay, we’re mentioning it now.

THE UNTOLD STORY (aka, The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story) is a work of disturbing, dark genius, directed with gory realism by Herman Yau (if you’re squeamish, it’s probably not for you – nothing is left to the imagination, particularly a sickening rape and the flashback annihilation of a family (the true Eight Immortals owners), including children.

The jarring flip side, showing the inept police work by low comedy Keystone Kops, originally bothered me; but, in looking at the picture again, it’s perfect.  They, too, border on the sociopathic – especially once they “interrogate” a suspect.  Credit the script by Law Kam-Fai and Sammy Lau for the chainsaw/jigsaw fit, that ultimately parallels the villain and the “heroes” more uncomfortably that one wants to contemplate.

While Hang is methodical about his maniacal lust for money and property, Inspector Lee, the wily head of the law (HK superstar Danny Lee), is content by collecting a paycheck with a minimal amount of effort, leaving all the work to his less-than-desirable underlings.  Lee far prefers squiring his unending array of beauteous girlfriends through the portals of the precinct headquarters, driving the ogling officers into sexist cray-cray agony.  This specifically effects Bo, the one female officer (and the best of the lot), who harbors a massive crush for her boss.  When she attempts to copy the look of her boss’s lovers, he chastises the woman in an eyebrow-raising moment.  “Why are you dressed like a prostitute?,” he unceremoniously asks her.  “I want to look like your girlfriends,” she woefully replies.  “They ARE prostitutes!” is the response Bo didn’t expect, revealing the superintendent’s “knack” with the ladies.

The movie doesn’t end with the usual capture, but continues with the post-imprisonment of Hang, featuring sequences almost as harrowing as the monster’s reign of terror.  It is a great nod to star Anthony Wong, who creates (in my opinion) the most frightening psycho in cinema history (and, no, I’m not forgetting previous Anthonys, Perkins or Hopkins).  Wong so embodied his characterization with brilliance that, even though the movie was one of the era’s infamous Category 3 titles (think of a rating system JUST for Saw and Hostel-type flicks), he still won the Hong Kong Best Actor Award.  He is a magnificent thesp, and offers snarky audio commentary, part of the treasure trove of extras that accompany this major recent release.  Other notable on-camera participants in the narrative include the aforementioned Lee (who also produced and, uncredited, codirected with Yau), Emily Kwan (as Bo), Siu-Ming Lau, Fui-On Shing, Julie Lee, Si-Man Hui, and King-Kong Lam; but it is Wong who will haunt your dreams, or, more appropriately, create your nightmares – and, yet, have you searching for other works of his to study.

Seeing THE UNTOLD STORY in a superb Blu-Ray edition not only elevates Cho Wai-Kee’s terrific widescreen cinematography but presents the pic in a way never before seen by Anglo audiences.  My only previous experience with this title was a 1990s laserdisc, washed out and entirely missing the 1978 opening segment!  The new 1.0 PCM audio (Cantonese/Mandarin with English subtitles) likewise is a vast improvement on earlier renditions. A suitable score by Jonathan Wong appends the package.

As indicated, there is a labyrinth of enticing supplements; aside from Wong’s commentary, the platter offers additional audio from Herman Yau, Ultra Violent’s Art Ettinger (who also penned liner notes), Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck, Cantonese Carnage, a mini-documentary with special effects master Rick Baker, plus a Q and A with director Yau.  Perhaps, best of all, is the feature documentary Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema.  Written, directed and starring enthusiast Calum Waddell, it tends to get a bit “talking head” preachy, but does provide a spectacular redemption:  brief clips from other Category III entries, PLUS on-screen interviews with Wong and actress/writer/producer/composer/singer Josie Ho, the latter whom I consider a modern goddess (if you’ve never seen Dream Home, seek it out immediately).  Ho relates a meeting with Wong, whom she correctly considered a cinematic icon.  His response was a sense of amusement – thinking that she was joking, and then stunned that she was serious.

A truly unsettling exercise in evil, but an engrossing one – and a visual template for expert extreme movie-making, THE UNTOLD STORY is a must-have disc for horror/thriller fans.

THE UNTOLD STORY. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM [Mandarin and Cantonese w/English subtitles]; MVPvisual/Unearthed Films/Golden Sun Co, Inc. CAT# MVD Visual 4.  SRP: $29.95.

Paradise in Trouble

For those desperately searching for more cerebral fare than L.A.’s Finest, look no further and behold the dark pleasures of 2018’s PATRICK MELROSE, now on DVD from the folks at Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/SkyVision/Rachael Horovitz Productions/SHOWTIME/SunnyWatch/Two Cities Television/LiTTLE ISLAND.

A seemingly unfilmable subject, due to the title protagonist’s cons outweighing his pros (and the terrible reasons why), PATRICK MELROSE is a tribute to scripter David Nicholls, who brilliantly adapted the semi-autobiographical novels of author/journalist Edward St Aubyn.

Melrose, a rich, good looking, supposedly pampered member of the British aristocracy, is, in reality, a used, abused addict (sex, drugs and everything else), yearning for acceptance and escape from his lifelong lonely world.

True, he’s a shallow, awful person in so many ways (nearly as uncaring as his abusive father, who did shocking things to him, plus harnessed to a mother who could unabashedly love everyone EXCEPT her son), but, yet, you kinda want him to rise above it and finally find some sort of happiness with his wife and family (fleeting as it might be).

To call this an increasingly difficult task is an understatement, as most of the people he encounters from all walks of life (spanning the 1960s to the 1980s) are crap.

As indicated, we said it shouldn’t work, but it remarkably does, due to the way the series’ kaleidoscopic windmill of emotions spin forth, rusted-nail-centered to a plank of black comedic genius.  The dialog is dagger sharp, the direction (Edward Berger) spot-on, and the performances…to die for.

Star and co-producer Benedict Cumberbatch likely delivers his finest work (and that’s saying plenty), and is admirably supported by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hugo Weaving, Blythe Danner, Holliday Granger, Allison Williams, Celia Imrie, Anna Madeley, Sebastian Maltz, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Jessica Raine, Pip Torrens, Indira Varma, and Harriet Walter, who follow suit and give it their all.  Widescreen photography (James Friend) is exceptional, as is the score (Hauschka).

The Acorn DVD set (2 discs, 5 episodes) looks sensational, appended by a strong 5.1 surround track.  Extras include a short behind-the-scenes featurette and, an engrossing 36-page booklet.

A brittle snarkastic masterpiece, PATRICK MELROSE will have you quoting the venom-dipped bon mots often, and with relish.  And, yes, fellow Boomers, we are at the age where Jennifer Jason Leigh can realistically play Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother!

PATRICK MELROSE. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1, 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround. Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/SkyVision/Rachael Horovitz Productions/SHOWTIME/SunnyWatch/Two Cities Television/LiTTLE ISLAND. CAT # AMP-2730. SRP: $39.99.

A Just Desert

When most movie fans hear the name “John Ford,” they are already envisioning the monolithic peaks of Monument Valley filling the motion-picture frame.  In short, the man is synonymous with the Western.  And, yes, I like Stagecoach and love My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and worship The Searchers; but, are any of these classics my bid for the top Ford western drama?  Nope.  That honor is reserved for (obviously) one of my favorite movies ever, 1950’s WAGON MASTER, now remastered in a stunning new Blu-Ray edition from the settlers at the Warner Archive Collection.

To the average picture-goer, WAGON MASER is nowhere near as well known as the other aforementioned masterpieces.  And for good reason.  It was a modestly budgeted 86-minute mini-epic, lensed without fanfare or stars (but with nevertheless a plethora of wonderful actors).  It was a personal project for Ford, who took the tight script by Frank Nugent and his son Patrick, and turned it into cinema gold.

The crux of WAGON MASTER is a trek to the Promised Land (aka, the San Juan Valley in California) by a band of determined Mormons.  To help them cross the treacherous desert, they cajole the services of horse wranglers-(now)turned-guides Travis Blue and Sandy Wiggs.  Okay, sounds like a rigid, righteous kind of western show you’ve seen before.  Again, nope.  It’s a thrilling, beautifully shot (by Stagecoach’s Bert Glennon) saga, rife with humor, action, drama, and romance.  LSS, it’s everything a movie should be; whether one is a fan of the genre or not, I defy you NOT to be entertained by this journey.

Earlier I mentioned the basis for the plot; there’s another intertwining (as in snake) thread that ties the many narrative elements together.  In a pre-credit sequence (unusual for its time), we’re introduced to the Clegg family, a band of vicious psychopaths (a hint of inbreeding is definitely also present), who rob and then kill a shopkeeper.

The Cleggs end up on the trail as well, causing much suspense and (surprisingly, again, for a movie from this period, especially a Ford pic) a liberal dose of sadism (unlike the rest of the cast, who are dressed in traditional garb, they wear shroud-like dusters, later made famous in spaghetti westerns).

In addition to Ford, there’s so much to rally around on WAGON MASTER that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  My choice is to start with the leads.  In a celluloid dream come true, we actually get a movie STARRING Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.!  Real-life best buds, their chemistry dominates the magnificent gallery of thesps, including Jane Darwell, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Cliff Lyons, Movita, Frank McGrath, Chuck Hayward, Jim Thorpe and Francis Ford (the director’s older brother and former silent screen star).  As Uncle Shiloh, head of the thoroughly evil Cleggs, the remarkable actor Charles Kemper delivers what may be the finest role of his career.  After witnessing his creepy presence here, it’s hard to fathom that this dude was, in actuality, one of the nicest guys on the planet (he always played Santa for the kiddies at Ford’s annual Christmas parties). The year after WAGON MASTER, Kemper was the sympathetic partner of detective Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground.  It took me a while to realize that these two excellent performances were delivered by the same actor.  Sadly, he passed shortly after the Ray pic wrapped (and before it was released), in 1950 at age 49.  The remainder of the monstrous Clegg clan comprise Hank Worden, Fred Libby, Mickey Simpson, and, in a pre-Thing appearance (but just as frightening), James Arness.

In a nod to his previous triumphs, Ford throws in a one wagon three-person traveling show, populated by ham actor/doctor Alan Mowbray (My Darling Clementine) and beautiful heart o’gold but tough whore Joanne Dru (Stagecoach); Ruth Clifford finishes the triad, a mature force of nature who catches wagon train leader Bond’s eye (the same as winsome settler Kathleen O’Malley does to Sandy).  They are here for a purpose, having been thrown out of the “good Christian” town just as the Mormons have (in short, in the world of pompous hypocrites, whores = Mormons).  It really is a misfit caravan.  And when said sacrilegious town law enforcers go posse hunting for the Cleggs, guess who they end up beseeching for help?

For a simple nabe exercise, WAGON MASTER packed a lot of themes and variants into its tack: duplicity, loyalty, violence (some of it justifiable) and a mini textbook on sexuality, from wholesome attraction to forbidden fruit to predatory lust (not merely Dru’s presence; one of the Clegg brood rapes an underaged Native American).

WAGON MASTER provided a much-needed respite for Ford.  He had just completed one of his few misfires at RKO, the lyrical but genuinely uneven The Fugitive.  This was a makeup exam – a small pic that wouldn’t have to reap oodles of ducats to put the studio in the black.  Depending on when you approached the director, he cited it as his own favorite movie (other titles would be The Sun Shines Bright and The Quiet Man).  Since, as indicated, there were no “big”stars, RKO wasn’t breathing down Ford’s throat.  Off he went to his beloved Monument Valley, where he and the cast and crew were pretty much left alone.  Which is how he liked it.

As mentioned, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray of WAGON MASTER is terrific, the best video rendition ever.  Picture is 1080p crystal clear, with a strong dynamic track booming with bombastic monaural sound (a perfect springboard for the musical background provided by the Sons of the Pioneers, and the stirring Richard Hageman score).  As an extra, there is audio commentary featuring Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Harry Carey, Jr. from the late 1990s till his passing (two days after Christmas) in 2012.  He was affectionately dubbed “Dobe” by Ford, so christened for his brick top mop; that’s what his friends called him (“Mel, call me Dobe” was one of the finest moments of my eternal Romance with the Movies life).

Dobe and Marilyn Carey at their home in Santa Barbara, 2003. (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

I truly believe we connected when I told him that WAGON MASTER was my favorite Ford picture.  “Really?,” he replied with a concurrent mix of surprise and delight. “Mine, too.” I initially asked him about an early gambling scene.  “What the hell game is ‘High-low jick-jack-jenny and the bean gun’?”  Dobe shook his head, “Damn, if I know,” he laughed.   But he did share the following amusing (if not telling) incident with me.

WAGON MASTER was a happy experience from beginning to end.  To be honest with you, I had never seen Ford so relaxed.   Believe me, a Ford picture could be a baptism of fire, but not here.  I don’t think I ever saw him enjoying himself so much.  The whole picture was like a vacation.  None of that Ford cruelty, which was definitely a thing.  Even one unrehearsed mishap didn’t faze him.  It was during one moment where Ward breaks up a fight between me and my romantic rival.  A dog on the set didn’t take to Ward, and leaped on his leg – snarling, gnashing at him – tearing his trousers.  Ward kept trying to shake him off, but remained in character.  “Keep rolling!  Keep rolling!,” shouted Ford.  I’m pretty sure I never heard him laugh so hard, he was really like a different person.  He practically fell off his chair, right on his ass.  Come to think of it, maybe he did.   I wish all the shows could have been like this.  They weren’t.”

WAGON MASTER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/RKO Pictures/Warner Home Entertainment.  SRP: $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

Auteurs with Depth

The only thing better than having 3D movies from the format’s Fifties’ Golden Age arrive on Blu-Ray is being able to finally appreciate the titles done by pantheon directors.  It is, thus, with immense pleasure to be able to discuss and hype two must-have platters for any 3D library, 1953’s WINGS OF THE HAWK, directed by Budd Boetticher and 1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE, helmed by Douglas Sirk (now both available, thanks to the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, The 3-D Film Archive and Universal Studios).

Westerns, of course, provided a gold mine for 3D – a perfect visual frame for landscapes, cowboy and Indian battles, gun fights and all that fragile barroom brawl furniture frisbee-ed into your faces.  Universal-International certainly took advantage of the process, producing some of the best titles during 3D’s relatively short 1950’s reign.  While the lion’s share of the U-I coverage is usually geared toward the sci-fi Jack Arnold stuff (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon), movies such as the two above managed to beautifully display the non-freaky wonders and possibilities of stereoscopic photography.  At first glance, WINGS and TAZA might not seem to be representing these acclaimed directors at their peaks.  At first glance.  But read on.  There are surprises in store.

WINGS OF THE HAWK would be a praiseworthy western, even without the 3D.  It presents an unusual take on the era’s oaters, and delivers the goods handsomely.

In 1911 Mexico, prospectors Gallagher and Marco are successfully running an operation that is unceremoniously taken over by thug-like Federales, who kill the latter (but not before Gallagher viciously fights back, injuring the band’s commandant, Colonel Ruiz).

Now on the run, Gallagher is surrounded by a band of rebels, working in factions for Pancho Villa and his protégé Orozco (a wink at cinema history, as the cameo appearance of the famed leader’s underling is played by Noah Beery, Jr., an obvious nod to Uncle Wally, who practically owned the role after his lead part in 1934’s Viva, Villa!).

Surprisingly, Gallagher’s captor is not your average angered farmer-turned-revolutionary, but the ravishing Raquel, a woman striving for equal rights and an expert agitator, in all areas of combat, riding and killing. Credit James E. Moser’s script, adapted by Kay Lenard from Gerald Drayson Adams’ novel (with assist from Budd) for carving that extra notch.  Similar to the following year’s Vera Cruz (also about Mexican rebels), WINGS OF THE HAWK often plays like a precursor to the spaghetti western.

With insurrection within the insurrection, double-dealing, burgeoning sexual fireworks (between the two principals) and dynamite action sequences, WINGS OF THE HAWK never lets up in its 81-minutes, from fade-in to fade-out.

Van Heflin (as Gallagher) is great (as usual); likewise beauteous Julie Adams (still billed as “Julia”) as Raquel.  Adams, it should be noted, had the typical U-I contract, which meant, in the words of future signee Susan Clark, that women basically, “stood around waiting for the fucking cavalry.”  Adams fared better, at least here. In one of the three pics she made with Boetticher (a candid shot I once saw of her lovingly looking on as Budd stages a fight scene suggests it was perhaps more than a professional relationship), WINGS is, perhaps, the lady’s best – giving the actress a chance to get in on and even instigate a lot of the action sequences.  Another interesting aspect of her character is the revealing of Raquel’s equally gorgeous sister Elena (Abbe Lane), who, rather than “fight the good fight” has decided to sleep her way into riches by marrying one of the country’s top political and military villains (the evil ubiquitous Ruiz).

Heflin once told a funny story about the making of this movie.  Prior to filming an escape/chase sequence, Boetticher pulled the Oscar-winning actor aside and said, “Now when I give the signal, you leap on your horse, and gallop to the corral fence, jumping it and riding hell-bent away.”  Heflin grinned and responded by nodding to the adjacent stuntman, “Shouldn’t you be telling that to him?  Budd, you know I really don’t do this stuff.”

The supporting cast is your typical roster of U-I thesp stock, which is to say a sampling of the decade’s character actor heaven; included in the lineup are Antonio Moreno, George Dolenz (as the slimy Ruiz), Mario Siletti (as Marco), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Rodolfo Acosta and Paul Fierro.

The movie was shot in the new 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is creatively framed by the excellent d.p. Clifford Stine (with the 3D material supervised by David Horsley, Fred Campbell and Gene Polito).  Suitable music supervision accompaniment is provided by Frank Skinner (another plus is the original stereophonic mag track reproductions in both 3.0 or 5.1).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks pretty good.  Working on the restoration of the 3D materials with The 3-D Film Archive couldn’t have been an easy chore, as it’s been nearly seventy years since the stereoscopic elements have seen the light of day.  Occasionally, some scenes look a bit on the dark side, but there’s nothing crucial to deter from enjoying this Third Dimension treat.  Extras include audio commentaries by Jeremy Arnold and 3D authority Mike Ballew; the most notable supplement is the U-I 3D Woody Woodpecker cartoon Hypnotic Hick (which was released with WINGS in its original release) I first saw Hick in 3D during a now legendary Third Dimension series at Manhattan’s 8th Street Playhouse movie theater in 1982.  The credits for this cartoon alone had the audience screaming in approval, as the titles and building girders seemed to stretch out over the viewers’ heads.  I remember taking off my glasses and looking at the packed house, who were all staring at the ceiling in optical illusion bedazzlement.  How cool to have this as an extra!  The trailer to WINGS is also featured, but, unfortunately, only in 2D.

Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to meet Budd Boetticher at The Museum of the Moving Image.  At the time, I asked him about working in 3D; his reply initially shocked me:  “HATED IT!  It was supposed to make things more realistic, never did.  Made them look more fake.  I shot the picture like any other, no attention to any 3D effects.  When I finished, they brought in some hack to film the crap being thrown at the camera.”

Okay, fair enough, but one must never forget that Boetticher was infamously dubbed a maverick – prone to fighting the suits when told to do something he didn’t want to do, or that he had not come up with himself.  Truth be told, there aren’t many instances of “crap being thrown at the camera.”  If Boetticher is to be taken at his word, it really becomes a head-scratcher as to why the remainder of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks so amazing in 3D; center action is meticulously framed between foreground and background, giving viewers great sense of depth.  This goes for both exteriors (landscapes, trees, cactus, boulders, barricades) and interiors (jail bars, lanterns, tables). I’d go as far as to say that WINGS OF THE HAWK might be one of the best of the Technicolor pics the director made while at Universal.

1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE was almost at the outset plagued by a title that seemed tailor-made for MST.  Star Rock Hudson’s sloughing it off as “Joe College in a wig” didn’t help.  And many who learned that it was directed by Douglas Sirk thought the whole exercise as a forced easily forgotten studio project that no one should ever mention in a serious discussion of the director or the genre.

Wrong.

TAZA is actually quite a good western – and refreshingly different from the reels of sagebrush sagas relentlessly churned out during the 1950s.  It’s based on a true story, with Taza taking after his peace-yearning father while hot-headed sibling Naiche opts to remove every white who has infringed upon the Indian nation.

Cochise himself became a cottage industry.  First played by Jeff Chandler in Fox’s 1950 smash Broken Arrow (which later became a hit TV series), the role won him much acclaim and helped make him an Eisenhower Era star.  He reprised the chief back at his home studio in 1952’s Battle at Apache Pass and, then again (and lastly) in this movie, as a cameo in the opening scenes.

As indicated, the movie’s version of Taza does contain a peppering of truth to counterbalance the expected (no pun) whitewashing.  Taza was conflicted – wanting to continue his father’s dream of harmonic ethnicity with the other races increasingly arriving in the West; yet, he also had to contend with a simmering faction of tribal members (led by his own brother, no less), who ended up siding with a bloodthirsty Geromino.  Taza’s plight is compounded by racist whites who want no peace at all – the chalky supremacist “only good Indian is a dead Indian” jackasses.  Sadly, this is an emotion felt by the commanding officer of the cavalry, General Crook, another true-life bigot who lived up to his name, but is portrayed here as more misunderstood than racist scum.  Taza does have one friend, sorta the white version of himself, the liberal Captain Burnett.

This all goes amiss when the Native Americans are (big surprise) royally screwed over and brutally ordered to be relocated to a reservation; an all-out war erupts.  Taza’s initial benevolence is proven not to have been of the weak creampuff variety he was thought to be.  The son of the famed chieftain emerges as a vicious warrior.  The script by George Zuckerman (from yet another original story by Gerald Drayson Adams) is admirably sympathetic for the times.  It should be noted though that the real Taza was not as successful as the movie version; although succeeding his father as chief of the Chiricahuas, Taza ended up leading his people to the land chosen for them. He journeyed to Washington to plead a case for Native American equality; there “civilization” took its toll.  He contracted pneumonia in D.C., succumbing on September 26, 1876, at age 33.

Still, enough historical authenticity survives to make TAZA, SON OF COCHISE a fairly reasonable depiction of some of the facts; for cineastes, it is also a very Sirkian movie.  The class structure within the Native American community is every bit as present as it is in the middle-upper echelons of the 1950s suburbia unveiled in Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Written on the Wind.  Taza must compete with his brother for the favors of the radiant Oona, who is essentially a “keeping up with the Joneses” trophy prize to be auctioned off by her greedy capitalistic father (goats and property replacing country clubs and Cadillac limos).  The duality of the human condition so prevalent in Sirkian drama is also visually underlined (in an attempt to appease both sides, Taza dresses in half Native American attire, with a “white eyes” Army police top).  Yet, TAZA is also a vicious pic – with violence escalating to near Anthony Mann levels (a young white settler getting an arrow through her breast).  The action scenes are breathlessly framed, the stunning Utah locations gorgeously rendered.  This is where the 3D comes in triumphantly – spectacularly composed imagery in the rare hybrid-shape of 2:00 (a format Universal-International would test the waters with between 1954 and 1955).  The boulders, cactus, fort gates, Native American villages, cooking spits, etc. envelope the viewer as few Fifties third dimension flicks ever have.  And the numerous action sequences enhance the experience as well.  Big kudos to d.p. Russell Metty (once again, Horsley, Campbell, and Polito assisted with the 3D material)!

Despite his scoffing, Hudson is excellent in the lead, as is Barbara Rush as his beloved bride, and also Rex Reason (as nasty bro Naiche, still billed as “Bart Roberts”).  Morris Ankrum, Gregg Palmer, Eugene Inglesias, Richard H. Cutting, Ian MacDonald, Robert Burton, Joe Sawyer, Lance Fuller, Charles Horvath, Russell Johnson, Hugh O’Brian, and William Leslie nicely fill out the excellent cast.

The Kino-Lorber/3-D Film Archive Blu-Ray of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE looks the berries – one of the finest Golden Age stereoscopic discs to date.  The colors really pop – a far cry from the faded 16MM prints I’ve suffered through since the 1970s – even the Technicolor ones.  The mono audio, too, is excellent, and features a rousing albeit typical score by Frank Skinner.  Extras include audio commentaries by David Del Valle, Courtney Joyner and Mike Ballew, and, most relevantly, the original theatrical trailer IN 3D.  Suffice to say, it is one of the best 3D trailers I have ever seen.

Over forty years ago, I had the pleasure of being at a MoMA screening of The Tarnished Angels, hosted by Sirk.  Afterward, he graciously allowed me a brief window for discussing his work (and signed my All That Heaven Allows half-sheet).  His comments on this movie are particularly worthy of mention.

“Many people ask me what my favorite movie is, and expect me to answer Written on the Wind or Imitation of Life.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that response – except it wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  Watching interviewers’ reactions to my reply consistently amuses me. One of my favorite movies is TAZA, SON OF COCHISE.  I always loved Westerns, and had wanted very much to make one.  I actually lobbied at Universal, who were famous for making them, to let me shoot TAZA.”

I loved working with Metty on those sensational locations – away from the studio.”

We did take some pains to devise many images to bring out the 3D effects, not just the obvious material, but subtle, visually natural and pleasing objects to fill the widescreen and third dimension frame.  To me, the whole process was more like a temporary experiment; not long after the movie was shot, they abandoned the format.  I think it mostly played in standard 2D.”

Thanks to Kino-Lorber and The 3-D Film Archive, my 3D Bucket List has gotten two titles shorter.  To reiterate, it’s wonderful to at last be able to view them in third dimensions, let alone own terrific copies of each.  These are necessary additions to anyone’s stereoscopic library (or for Boetticher and Sirk collections); 2-D versions are also included, but, seriously, try and check out the 3-D restorations.

WINGS OF THE HAWK. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0/5.1 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K25216.

TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K24491.

Both titles Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios/The 3-D Film Archive. SRP: $29.95@.