Stranger Than Fiction

A riveting true-crime story, 2020’s acclaimed UK mini-series, DES, starring the extraordinary David Tennant, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the crackerjack team at Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment, in concert with Sundance Now/all3media/New Pictures.

The three-part narrative revolves around the mild-mannered Dennis Nilsen, who, in 1983 calmly admitted to the serial killing of fifteen men, after the undeniable “death stench” from his North London digs alerted the attention of a local constable.

Nilsen, nicknamed “Des” never denied the horrendous acts; his placidity only intensified the ensuing investigation with an aura of creepiness.  He was as fascinated with himself, as were the detectives, psychologists, and the public.  “Why did you do it?,” he was repeatedly asked.  “I don’t really know,” he answered disappointingly, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

The series, which covers the discovery, the incarceration, the on-going sleuthing, the trial, and its aftermath is first-rate television drama at its best.  In the land of Jack the Ripper, it’s quite a back-handed compliment to be officially acknowledged as the most prolific serial killer in the country’s history.

There are engrossing intertwining stories in DES that figure prominently in the scenario, specifically that of DCI Peter Jay, who tries to understand what compelled such an intelligent, quiet member of the community to commit such horrors.  That Nilsen’s lonely personal life in freakish ways mirrors Jay’s is but one of the minefields explored in this thriller (the bizarre parallels continued long after the case ended; both men died in 2018).  The third human connection is that of Brian Masters, a noted author, who gains Nilsen’s confidence, becoming the killer’s Boswell and, in a series of interviews, puts together the makings of what would make a best-selling book of the case,  A Killing for Company (off and on with Des’s approval).  The fact that the three work together to hopefully and ultimately solve the mystery of Des is what makes this show so great.

Not all of Des’s marks became victims.  Some were let free after spending the night talking about their lives with the genial monster; indeed, he became known as “the kindly killer,” who, nevertheless, on another occasion, would boil a guest’s head in a stew pot.

Additionally hampering the case are the political ramifications enforced by Jay’s superiors and civilian ties.  Suppression of evidence becomes a roadblock the frustrated DCI must rise above when it is revealed that Nilsen was himself a former cop during the previous decade (he left the force because of homophobic bullying), and, the fact that one of Des’s (still missing) vics may be the son of a connected influential family.  This further makes both Jay and Masters wonder if fifteen is really the total number of Des’s “work” – a reasonable question, as there were over 8000 missing persons reported during the five years Nilsen preyed upon the local gay male community.

Naturally, DES is a tour de force for the three leads, especially star David Tennant.  Prior to this, I had just finished watching the hilarious Good Omens, where the actor played the riotous, snarky Crowley.  Most viewers know Tennant as the male lead in Broadchurch, but this chameleon actor has also rocked such diverse a resume as Jessica Jones, Dr. Who, Fright Night, Mary Queen of Scots, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the voice characterizations in such animated fare as DuckTails, Postman Pat, Thunderbirds are Go, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.  As his chain-smoking Des, the Shakespearean-trained Tennant adapts an almost Tony Perkins/Norman Bates vibe, not only in demeanor and affability, but, amazingly, in his physical appearance.  No wonder he achieved a slew of new accolades for his performance.

Not far behind are the Beta roles of DCI Jay and Brian Masters, beautifully realized by Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins. Other stellar turns are delivered by Ron Cook, Barry Ward, Faye McKeever, Doc Brown, Bronagh Waugh, Jay Simpson, Alex Bhat, Joel Morris, Chanel Cresswell, Jonathan Coy, Oscar Garland, and Cal MacAninch.

Balancing the on-camera histrionics are the behind-the-lens efforts, notably the top-notch direction (Lewis Arnold, who also created the project for television), scripting (Luke Neal, Kelly Jones), intentionally dingy widescreen camerawork (Mark Wolf), and scoring (Sarah Warne).

The single-disc Blu-Ray of DES is splendid, looking and sounding aces; a special ten minute supplement accompanies the bravura episodes.

LSS, I heartily recommend DES without reservation.  It’s quite likely you’ll want to watch the entire 145 minutes in one sitting, probably with your jaw dropped to knee level.

DES. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/Sundance Now/all3media/New Pictures. CAT# SUN13440BD. SRP: $29.95.

Dark Victories, Part One

The second most popular and collectable home video genre (the first, being “horror”), film noir, gets a big boost in the arm (and gorilla punches to the gut) with the superb Kino-Lorber Studio Classics box set collections of FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA.

The slipcovered (mostly) trilogies, generally featuring selections from the Universal Pictures archive, are a more than welcome addition to the Blu-Ray fold.  Comprised of titles that used to play TV constantly throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but had all since disappeared (even on TCM), these noirs have been given the best rebirth possible – in stunning new 1080p masters from 35MM materials; another plus: where applicable, they shine in their original widescreen aspect ratios.

Are they of the ilk of, let’s say, Out of the Past or The Big Heat?  Well, admittedly, no.  But they DO encompass top stars and directors recounting nasty tales of anti-heroes pursued by twisted twists, drooling psychopaths, and crooked partners.

The three entries in VOLUME II  (THUNDER ON THE HILL, THE PRICE OF FEAR, THE FEMALE ANIMAL) all hail from the genre’s crossover period from golden to twilight years.  That is to say, that some of these offerings aren’t “straight-up” noir, but certainly contain enough elements to make the grade.  While one did play bottom half to a featured U-I attraction, ALL contain expert photography and technical credits.  LSS, each of these flicks is an entertainment pip, sure to delight every noir fan in the house.  I guarantee that many of you have never heard of most of these noirs, which makes their availability all the more enticing.  So, pour yourself a slug (better than taking one), light up a coffin nail, and be prepared for anything!

1951’s THUNDER ON THE HILL has some mighty formidable credentials.  It costars Claudette Colbert with everyone’s bitch-daughter-you-love-to-hate, Ann Blyth, and it’s directed by Douglas Sirk!  Colbert and Sirk had already scored with noir in 1946’s Sleep My Love, an underrated Gaslight saga; furthermore, Sirk had excelled with 1947’s Lured, a personal Neuhaus favorite from the director’s outstanding filmography.

THUNDER transcends mere noir, adding elements of horror, and unfolds its nightmarish scenario, via a tight script by Andrew Solt (who wrote two of the genre’s greatest, In a Lonely Place and Whirlpool) and Oscar Saul (adapted from the play by Charlotte Hastings).  Colbert is a nun ensconsed (along with her sisters) in a creepy castle-like structure during a violent storm.  The storm, a ferocious reminder of Mother Nature’s fury, has become a refuge for the traumatized townsfolk, having already destroyed much of the surrounding rural property (and populace).  The survivors cram into the “sanctuary,” along with a makeshift medical team to care for the villagers wounded during the tsunami.

Among the newest arrivals is shackled Valerie Carns, a convicted teen murderess, waiting for the squall to subside so that she can be properly executed.  Carns’ nasty, snarky demeanor doesn’t win her any of her fellow inhabitants’ sympathy – save Sister Mary Bonaventure, who suspects something is amiss.  A little detective work leads the nun to believe that the young woman, ranting of her innocence, could be telling the truth – and, worse, that the demented true psychotic is among them.

Sirk, along with ace cinematographer William Daniels, doesn’t miss a trick; the goth trappings (Universal leftovers from their trademark monster outings) are beautifully rendered in crisp monochrome.  A stellar supporting cast aids the proceedings, and includes Robert Douglas, Anne Crawford, Philip Friend, Gladys Cooper, Michael Pate, John Abbott, Connie Gilchrist, Gavin Muir, Norma Varden, Queenie Leonard, Gertrude Astor, Arthur Gould-Porter, Tudor Owen, and Tempe Pigott.  A nice score by Hans J. Salter helps raise the goosebumps. Those wary of any movie featuring a nun should shelve their worries aside; THUNDER ON THE HILL is an excellent thriller that will definitely not disappoint your viewers.

Along with a perfect noir title, 1956’s THE PRICE OF FEAR is appended by an expert cast, and plot.  To use an oft-turned phrase, it’s got more twists than a pretzel, and one that’s extra salty.

Pampered heiress Jessica Warren, thinking, like so many of the 1%,  that she’s above the law, recklessly kills an innocent pedestrian in a hit-and-run during a drunken late night drive home.  She feels remorse for all about ten seconds, even briefly considering calling the police.  But then her perfect alibi emerges as Dave Barrett becomes the ideal noir fall guy – at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jessica slithers off, correctly assuming Dave’ll be blamed for the death.

But everyone has a past – and connections.  The innocent ain’t always so innocent.  Vicious gangster Frankie Edare discovers the truth, and blackmails Warren, using her as bait in a murder plot; Barrett, meanwhile, has friends in high places who’ll give him just enough rope to either hang himself or lasso the actual culprit.

This neat and tidy little noir was helmed by Abner Biberman, the actor-turned-director (he was “Louie” in Hawks’ His Girl Friday), who, not surprisingly, had a great rapport with thesps.  And, indeed, he does get some nice results from his notable players.  Merle Oberon, definitely now on the B-list, is simultaneously creepy and sympathetic; Lex Barker, as the designated dupe, makes a believable “hero.”  Add Warren Stevens (as Edare), Charles Drake, Phillip Pine, Mary Field, Konstantin Shayne, Stafford Repp, Robert Carson, and Biberman himself and you have quite a rogue’s gallery of perilous punims.  The taut script (from a story by Dick Irving Hyland) is by Robert Talman, best known for such iconic TV mysteries as Ironside, Hawaiian Eye, Suspense, Climax, M Squad, and Perry Mason.  Topping it all is the moody black-and-white widescreen photography by Irving Glassberg, lensed in the weird aspect ratio of 2:00, a shape that Universal momentarily experimented with in the mid-Fifties.  The music by Heinz Roemheld is typical of the studio during that period. 

FUN FACT:  THE PRICE OF FEAR went out nationally at the bottom half of U-I double bill with The Creature Walks Among Us.

1958’s THE FEMALE ANIMAL is a rather nasty look at Hollywood – practically a sub-genre in 1950’s cinema.  In effect, imagine Sunset Boulevard, as envisioned by the publishers of Confidential (with a sprinkling of Mildred Pierce) – and you have a good idea of where this gritty, sordid drama is headed.

Glamorous, horny and aging movie star Vanessa Windsor (glamorous, horny and aging Hedy Lamarr, in her final movie) can’t stop salivating over studio extra (wait for it) Chris Farley (aka, George Nader).  But Vanessa has many secrets, the most lip-biting being her grown, beauteous daughter Penny (Jane Powell, in a definitely different kind of part).  Vanessa and Chris initially can’t wait to claw and paw each other in a carnal carnival.  Then, Chris happens across Penny getting into a bad situation with a bad crowd.  Now both women can’t wait to claw and paw him, and smirking  Farley ain’t exactly objecting (to cut the beefcake some slack, he doesn’t know Penny is Vanessa’s daughter…at first).  Realizing that he could end up like William Holden – riddled with Swiss cheese bullet holes at the bottom of a swimming pool, Farley is delighted when his buddy/agent arranges a Euro deal to star in some action movies.  But first the action of another kind in the States still has to play out, and the ultra-pretty women are about to make it mucho ugly.

Gloriously produced by Albert Zugsmith (read my earlier pieces on Mamie Van Doren) and directed by Harry Keller (the guy who reshot some of Touch of Evil), THE FEMALE ANIMAL benefits from an acid-tinged script by Robert Hill (story by Zugsmith), a nifty supporting cast (Jan Sterling, Jerry Paris, Gregg Palmer, Mabel Albertson, James Gleason, Richard H. Cutting, Ann Doran, Max Showalter, Laurie Mitchell, Almira Sessions, Frank Sully, and William Henry ), and, best of all, slick black-and-white CinemaScope photography by the great Russell Metty.

Sterling is particularly slutty, tossing off some great one-liners (“Keep on sharecropping,” she sneers at Nader).  Lamarr, faking authenticity before showing her talons offers Nader and Powell a cringe worthy “I want you two to love one another as we love each other!” Yikes!

FUN FACT: In addition to “cleaning up” Touch of Evil, Keller was given another bonus when this pic had the Welles movie supporting it in the direct-to-nabe/grindhouse/drive-in circuit.  Yep, you read right – Touch of Evil was bottom-halved with this flick, no doubt abiding to the theory that experienced female animals like it on top.

Ain’t these flicks cool?

FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA II. Black and white.  Full frame and widescreen [1.35, 2.00 & 2.35:1, respectively; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  CAT # K24664.  SRP: $49.95.

Painting the Town Red

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO/MVDvisual MONTH

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m going to give away the climax.  Wait, no – not from this brilliantly-conceived 1970 giallo masterpiece, aka THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (now in a superb 4K Ultra Special Edition from the sinister folks at Arrow Video/MVDvisual), but from my annual end-of-the-year best platter list.  This title will definitely be there and here’s why.

Back in 1970, I was vacationing in the mountains of Budd Lake, NJ.  Every morning, I would scan through the New York newspapers for upcoming movie events.  One dawn, I saw the ads for an Italian import, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.  I read the smash reviews (quotes of which would be used in subsequent wide-release posters and lobbies); they favorably compared the pic to Hitchcock, specifically Psycho.  Damn, I had to see it!  As soon as summer ended, I did my best to track PLUMAGE down, and instantly became a Dario Argento fan.  From hereon in, I would diligently seek out all his later works, (at least up until 1998’s The Phantom of the Opera), not always an easy task; PLUMAGE would be the exception to the U.S./Argento rule – the best reviewed and, often, the easiest to see.

Yes, LSS, this was the first movie officially directed by Dario Argento (some spaghetti western foreign releases credit/cocredit him on Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die and 5-Man Army, 1968 and 1969, respectively).  Prior to PLUMAGE, I vaguely knew the name due to his having cowritten the story to Sergio Leone’s 1969 triumph Once Upon a Time in the West (along with Bernardo Bertolucci, no less).

Argento was raised in a show business family, and, like a true movie buff, was addicted to Hollywood fare – specifically, the horror and thriller genres.  Looking for a first directorial entry, the novice picture-maker was delighted when Bertolucci lent him a copy of Fredric Brown’s creepy 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi (already ably filmed in 1958 by Gerd Oswald).  Dario adapted the book to his tastes – tempering it with many flourishes and homages to his mentor, Mario Bava (no credit would be given to Brown, a typical Italian dodge earlier used by Leone when he freely adapted A Fistful of Dollars from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a move the Japanese director didn’t let him get away with).

Any movie is difficult for a first-time director, and PLUMAGE banged this cliché home over the 29-year-old’s head – with a sledgehammer.  Although supported by his family (Argento’s father Salvatore served as a producer), the production company head of Titanus wasn’t sure of what to make of young Dario’s “strange” style.  He wanted him replaced, and even went as far as contacting Terence Young to grab the reins.  It was only after Salvatore went to plead his case that the matter was settled.  On the day in question, the senior Argento entered the production office to see the female executive secretary traumatized.  Asking what was wrong, the frazzled woman replied that she had just seen a rough cut edit of a scene from CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and couldn’t shake her fear and terror.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The movie went on to become a mammoth hit, financially and critically (playing at one theater in Milan for three years!).  Calling it influential is an understatement – it begat the entire giallo genre (although elements had been present in Italian cinema since Bava’s 1963’s Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace).  PLUMAGE’s animal moniker sparked a series of murder thrillers with non-humans in the title (The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, etc); even Dario continued the trend with The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (the latter, like Brown’s Mimi, paying celluloid “homage” to Tourneur’s Leopard Man).

The deliciously warped plot of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE revolves around American ex-patriot Sam Dalmas, a once-promising author, now experiencing a severe case of writer’s block.  Reduced to penning puff pieces for a local paper, Dalmas plans to return to the States with his British girlfriend Julia.  One night, while passing an art gallery, he spies a man fighting with a woman from inside the glass-encased front.  There’s the flash of a knife, and Dalmas’ intrusion stops the assault.  It turns out this is but the latest of a series of violent murders that has rocked Rome.  Dalmas and the woman, socialite Monica Rainieri, are now the only living witnesses, and, with gentle police pressure, the writer is convinced to remain in Italy a bit longer.  Using his own investigative skills as a reporter (and with his block now lifted from the rush of adrenaline), Dalmas delves into the mind of the killer, and soon places himself, Julia, and his friends in mortal danger.

There’s some truly eerie, unnerving stuff here, primarily the origin of the case, an old Pieter Bruegel the Elder-influenced painting (The Hunters in the Snow) revised to depict the rape of a woman in a pastoral winter scene.  A meeting with the artist (the great Mario Adorf, in a wicked cameo) proves to be enlightening and disgusting; Adorf’s, (aka Berto Calsalvi) loft/apartment is a haven for caged cats.  (“Never [ate] any [cats], huh?,” he asks Dalmas, after having the writer join him for a meal; that really grossed me out in 1970!).

Earlier, I alluded to the problems debut director Argento had with PLUMAGE.  That extended to the cast.  Tony Musante, an excellent actor who had appeared in the spaghetti western The Mercenary (1968) and the Argento-coscripted drama Love Circle (1969), was a fine choice for the lead.  But his method approach proved to be a pain in the ass.  Reportedly, Musante would bang on Argento’s door at three in the morning, demanding to discuss the next day’s shoot and his character’s motivation.  Argento termed him as the most difficult actor he had ever worked with.  Eva Renzi, the beautiful West German actress (of Danish-French parentage) was even worse.  While terrific in the pic, she not only refused to help promote the movie, but would forever refer to CRYSTAL PLUMAGE as “career suicide.”  Shortly before her passing in 2005, she gave several video interviews (one included here), basically trashing everything on her resume, particularly PLUMAGE.  Not surprisingly, Renzi was married to the equally not nice actor Paul Christian/Hubschmid (James Garner and George Kennedy worked with Renzi on a 1968 light-hearted thriller, The Pink Jungle; Garner’s critique:  “We used to call her Eva Nazi.”) Despite the thesp’s bizarre protestations, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE remains her best/signature role.

The remainder of the cast is aces, and comprises Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Rosita Torosh, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti, Reggie Nalder, Carla Mancini, and the wonderful Suzy Kendall as Julia; the shots of the leather-gloved killer’s hands are Argento’s.

The behind-the-scene credits are equally extraordinary.  The outstanding d.p. Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) shot PLUMAGE (his first movie in color) in the spacious widescreen process, Cromoscope (actually the Italian version of TechniScope).  Ennio Morricone provides the score (nothing more needs to be said).

In 1970, PLUMAGE was released in the U.S. through a small company called UMC.  The prints were okay, but, even then veered toward a warm shade of magenta.  Not until the advent of DVD were the import copies properly restored to a semblance of what the cinematographer and the director intended.  This was aided immensely by Arrow’s later 2017 Blu-Ray restoration.  All of that pales (literally) to the new 4K Ultra evocation.  CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, in 2160p, is now…well, crystral-clear, and popping with rich, deep colors that aesthetically relate to the grisly origin of the painting which unleashes the maniac, all framed in velvety black (now really black, not dark red or bluish grey).  The 1.0 mono soundtrack is offered up in either the English language or Italian version (the latter with English subtitles).

And then there are the extras: audio commentaries and interviews with film scholars discussing the movie, its connection to Fredric Brown, the giallo genre, and more.  Further supplemental gold comprises additional interviews with Argento, supporting player Gildo di Marco, and, as indicated, an archival visit with costar Renzi.  Fans will plotz at a 60-page illustrated booklet, plus a foldout double-sided poster, featuring the original and newly-commissioned one-sheet artwork, six postcard-size renditions of the Italian lobbycards (also double-sided) – all housed in a beautiful sturdy slipcover!

Exceptional in every sense of the word, the 4K BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is mandatory for every thriller, giallo, Argento collection!  The good news is that Arrow is preparing similar editions of Cat O’Nine Tails and Deep Red (and, hopefully, ALL their Argento titles).  Can’t wait!

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 2160p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA [English language or Italian w.English subtitles].  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # FCD2157. SRP: $59.95.

The Cold Rush

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO/MVDvisual MONTH

A Western Northern, featuring familiar sagebrush trappings in the wilds of the Klondike, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, the last of the superb Universal-International oaters directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, rides into town via a mind-blowing deluxe two-disc Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.

Perhaps the darkest Jimmy Stewart-Tony Mann character ever, the pic’s Jeff Webster isn’t merely short-fused or violence-prone (as in Winchester ’73 or Bend of the River), he’s a wanted murderer coming off a dodgy trail ride to Seattle (where the cattle is to be shipped to the ravenous miners in Alaska).  Even though his m.o. seems standard fare: attached to a cantankerous sidekick (the cantankerous Walter Brennan) and deeply devoted to a dream (owning a ranch), his behavior is anything but.  Webster’s a dictionary of psychological ticks – a loner, apathetic to the fates of others (even those on his side), who nevertheless is bound to a reprobate; and (blatantly) carnal with a bad girl/entrepreneur he meets along the way (a cool Ruth Roman).  Uncaring to the point of sociopathy (about folks who’d give their lives for him), Jeff fits right in with the thoroughly corrupt element in the North.  Hanging (shooting/knifing/strangling) Judge Gannon (John McIntire at his finest) is one of the most difficult specimens in the Mann playbook, evil beyond words, yet sinisterly jovial – often more so than Stewart’s forced rare gregariousness (“I’m gonna like ya,” he announces to Jeff upon their meeting. “I’m gonna hang ya, but I’m gonna like ya.”).  Along the way, there are some splendid, colorful supporting players, including Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Steve Brodie, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson. Jack Elam, John Doucette, Robert Foulk, Chuck Roberson and Kathleen Freeman and Connie Gilchrist (the latter as a pair of shopkeepers/restauranteurs, christened Hominy and Grits).  Gorgeous Corinne Calvet, usually cast as a sultry femme fatale, portrays the second female lead – a rugged tomboy; it’s obviously her least glamourous role, yet, bizarrely enough her sexiest.  And her best.  Stewart’s go-to equine, Pie, is also on-hand/hoof, and delivers his greatest performance as well.

The awesome non-homo sapien star is the majestic Jasper National Park location, where the movie was lensed in spectacular Technicolor by the magnificent d.p. William Daniels.

THE FAR COUNTRY, as excellently written by Borden Chase, is chock full of truly outstanding sequences – the highlight pinnacle (ironically, speaking of mountains) being Stewart watching as many of his copadres ride to their death, following a short cut up a glacier that culminates in an avalanche.  With almost glee, he listens to their screams, as Brennan and Calvet plead with him to help the doomed caravan.  Stewart’s initial response is a brittle I-couldn’t-care-less/I-warned-them rebuttal.  It’s goose-bump worthy.

Art sort of imitated life when it came to the partnership between Stewart and Brennan in reel life, and, Stewart’s and Mann’s in real life.  After a string of wildly successful westerns, action-dramas and even a musical (The Glenn Miller Story), their professional union came to a vicious halt (Mann’s refusal to helm 1957’s Night Passage); they never spoke again.  With the exception of 1965’s Flight of the Phoenix, Stewart stopped playing nutjobs and went on to a later career of lovable…well, Jimmy Stewart characters.  Mann graduated to a sensational run of classic movies, including Men in War, God’s Little Acre, Man of the West, and, then the super epics, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Arrow Blu-Ray of THE FAR COUNTRY is loaded with extras, including two versions of the movie.  In the early mid-Fifites, Universal-International was dicking around with widescreen aspect ratios, and, on occasion, released their titles in 2.0, along with the standard widescreen 1.85 (it should be noted that the industry’s first standard widescreen pic was 1953’s Thunder Bay, a U-I entry, directed by Mann and starring Stewart).  While both show signs of grain, particularly when it comes to opticals, I suggest sticking with the general 1.85 version; in 2.0, the top and bottom cropped images are a bit too tight and claustrophobic (even though Mann favored that “closing in” approach for his noirs), especially for a tale relying on the massive breathing room vistas of this movie (it makes me wonder if Mann or Daniels were informed that there would be an alternate super-wide edition); mono audio on both versions is fine (abetted by the usual routine U-I supervised score by Joseph Gershenson, culled from stock music composed by Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, and Frank Skinner).  Other terrific supplements include a documentary on Mann and Stewart at Universal, featuring Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger and Mann’s script supervisor Michael Preece; there’s also another shorter take on THE FAR COUNTRY by Kim Newman, plus audio commentary, image galleries and the original theatrical trailer.

Admittedly, the least of the Mann-Stewart westerns, THE FAR COUNTRY nevertheless stands out miles above the competition (there has never been a disappointing Anthony Mann western).  The depiction of human darkness lurking amongst the beauties of Nature is a contradiction that is genuinely chilling (in physical and emotional climate)…and memorable.

THE FAR COUNTRY. Color. Widescreen [either 2.00:1 or 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.  CAT # AA060.  SRP: $39.95.

Cutting (and Disemboweling) Edge Giallo

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

Leave it to the Italians to deliver the goods as marquee-graphically promised, via the insanely enjoyable 1975 guilty pleasure, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, now on Blu-Ray from the crew at Arrow Video/MVDvisual.

Perhaps the most infamous title in the genre (and think about that!), both in the actual moniker and the scenario, STRIP NUDE goes for the jugular (no pun) from frame one, and doesn’t stop until the fade-out.

The plot is actually quite lofty for a giallo – leaving the usual sordid greed/lust reasons for on-screen carnality/carnage to the competition.  The revenge narrative revolves around the punishment for a beautiful model’s botched abortion, the gynecologist in question being deservedly liquidated.  But not long after, everyone connected to the dead girl’s place of vocation (red flag, it’s called The Albatross Agency) and the late doctor are gruesomely and lovingly (in that de Sade way) dealt with – entering the netherworld with much pain and humiliation.

The Albatross itself is a scummy outfit, albeit an incredibly successful one, run by a hard-assed Gisella Mayer and her impotent husband Maurizio.  Everyone in the joint, from the models to the staff to the celebrated photographers are lowlifes living the high life.  The agency specializes in nude shoots for major clients (a situation that likely flew in the Italy of the 1970s, but never would here).

The key players are Carlo Gunther, a ruthless, reckless camera virtuoso and Magda Cortis, a production assistant, who aspires to be photographer herself.  Carlo is a womanizing creep while Magda isn’t above sexing up men to get what she wants.  Naturally, they fall in love.

When not working, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo, who, fun fact, may actually be a relative of mine!) cruises posh spas, looking for talent.  There, he meets the luscious Lucia (the luscious Femi Benussi).  Before you can say “pushin’ the cushion,” they’re screwing in the sauna, the reward being an Albatross modeling audition (to this day, I’m not sure that the two thesps weren’t actually getting it on).  Benussi gets the gig and a lesbian liaison with Gisella, before she’s turned into ground round.

Indeed, one might think that STRIP NUDE is just an excuse to objectify gorgeous women.  I should mention that the male victims, too, are subjected to the same ritual; our murderer is an equal opportunity psycho.

As one might suspect, STRIP NUDE is one of the more lowly gialli, even though it boasts a top-notch cast:  Castelnuovo, Benussi, and female lead – the genre’s iconic goddess, Edwige Fenech.  The supporting cast is likewise crammed with renowned flesh and fury, and features Solvi Stubing, Amanda, Franco Diogene, Lucio Como, Erna Schurer, Gianni Airo, Silvana Depreto, Claudio Pellegrini, and Giuseppa Meschella.  It’s directed and cowritten (the latter, with Massimo Felisatti) by Andrea Bianchi, a movie-maker known for going that extra mile, when it comes to lurid set pieces (think Jesus Franco with talent).  His widescreen compositions of the many killings are Grand Guignol to the max, ably shot by Franco Delli Colli (while occasionally a bit grainy, the results are elegant mini-nightmares worthy of Madame Tussauds on smack); the appropriate 70’s lounge music comes by way of Berto Pisano.  As its name suggests, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER offers kaleidoscopic montages of sex and violence, each seemingly attempting to out-gross the other.  It’s true, that some of this might offend certain viewers, but, if so, what are you doing watching a movie called STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER?

The new Arrow Blu-Ray of STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER is a revelation for those used to the decades of bootlegs and decent (but unremarkable DVDs).  Of course, it’s complete and uncut, but that’s merely the beginning.  The platter offers various ways to watch the pic, encompassing two versions of the opening horrific gynecological sequence (tinted blue or not), plus the English dubbed edition (dialog by Gene Luotto) or the original Italian dialog cut (with English subtitles).  I suggest the Italian language version, as the subtitles are way more raunchy and sardonic than the Anglo dubbing allows (at the spa, as jealous beauties watch Benussi sashay to and fro in her scant bikini, the comments are bitchy hilarious:  “You forgot to shave this morning”).  Additional supplements incorporate separate interviews with the movie’s production manager, Tino Polenghi, assistant director Daniele Sangiori, stunning costar Erna Schurer, lead Castelnuovo, a special mini featurette on Fenech by film historian Kat Elinger, audio commentaries, and an image gallery.

Likely to shock even those addicted to the giallo genre, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER is a notoriously grisly entry that nevertheless is a must for the 70’s Italian thriller completist.

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; LPCM mono (Italian w/English subtitles, or English dub).  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV188.  SRP: $39.95.

Perple Haze

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

An eerie, atmospheric thoroughly satisfying noir, 1946’s BLACK ANGEL stalks viewers on Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.

Based on a novel by the great Cornell Woolrich, an author made for The Movies, BLACK ANGEL added to the increasing number of the writer’s works (occasionally, under his pseudonym, William Irish) adapted for 1940’s cinema; within the space of five years, studios from Paramount to RKO to Monogram would be giving us such deliciously evil fare as Street of Chance, The Leopard Man, The Chase, Deadline at Dawn, Fall Guy, and, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (the last entry, a contender for one the greatest noir christenings ever).  Suffice to say, his penchant for twisted twisty conclusions is in full bloom here.

BLACK ANGEL revolves around the music business end of night clubbery, so you know you’re in sleazy territory from frame one.  Beautiful, talented, and satanically skanky Mavis Marlowe delights in torturing her hired help, her song-writing ex-spouse, her coworkers, and just about everyone else.  Mavis’s greatest joy, however, is her blackmailing sideline, enormously helped by the woman’s ability to corrupt otherwise loyal husbands into adulterous situations.  That she is found brutally murdered comes as no surprise to anyone who knew her.  What troubles the detective division, particularly head sleuth Captain Flood, is the plethora of suspects.  Numero uno is supposed cheater Kirk Bennett, seen exiting her apartment shortly before the murder, and leaving enough fingerprints and other incriminating evidence to guarantee a ringside hot seat.  And it does.  Swearing his innocence seems to be falling upon deaf ears, save his stunning wife (and former band singer), Catherine’s.  Prior to Bennett, the only serious suspect was the ex, Marty Blair, a once-brilliant pianist/composer, now a hopeless alcoholic (thanks to Mavis).  Prone to violence, Marty has the perfect alibi, courtesy of his buddy, Joe; when drinking, which is often, Blair is locked up for the night in an apartment bolted from the outside.

Now sober, Marty joins forces with Catherine, and they quickly become kindred spirits (“I had a wife who needed killing and you had a husband who took care of it.”) – teaming up to solve the case as the upcoming execution draws closer.  And they soon have a suspect of their own: Marko, the sadistic, pervy owner of a top nitery, where they soon score a singer/accompanist gig.  Marko’s no fool, though, and secretly is on to them…with his own diabolical agenda.

A spine-tingling noir with a wallop of an ending (thanks to an excellent script by Roy Chanslor), BLACK ANGEL is one of those amazing Golden Age movies that often falls through the cracks.  Made by Universal in 1946, it was definitely meant to be a follow-up to their smash 1944 entry Phantom Lady (also available through Arrow, and likewise based on a Woolrich work).  It was the final pic of underrated director Roy William Neill (a master of moody, unnerving cinema whose resume went back to the silent era, but is probably best known for the studio’s Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce), who died on December 14, 1946 (BLACK ANGEL was released on August 2).  It was also the first movie for a newly-liberated Peter Lorre (who plays Marko, and, no big surprise, quite magnificently), just freed from his Warners contract, and now an independent thesp-for-hire.  The star is noir icon Dan Duryea, and (again, no big surprise) he’s terrific as Marty.  Catherine, the duly devoted wife, guilty-ridden by her growing affection for Duryea’s character (and it’s reciprocal) was a complicated role, ably enacted by recent signee June Vincent.  The remainder of the cast is top-drawer, and features Constance Dowling (as Mavis), Wallace Ford (as Joe), Broderick Crawford (as Flood), John Phillips (as Kirk), plus Hobart Cavanaugh, Freddie Steele, Marion Martin, Eddy Chandler, and Mary Field.

In the meticulously researched 2005 Lorre bio, The Lost One by Stephen D. Youngkin, June Vincent recounted the joy of working with Lorre, whom she was pleasantly surprised to find a deeply intelligent, kindly and snarkily funny costar; yet, he took acting very seriously.  Seeing that the newbie was nervous (and worried about an upcoming scene where he had to hurt her), Lorre did his best to calm her down “We did [the scene] a couple of times, and I was not a good enough actress to come across with it correctly.  He whispered in my ear, ‘Now, listen, you think about something else this time. I’m really going to hurt you…He didn’t hurt me badly…but…enough so that I reacted the way I should.”  More than physically, he prepped her psychologically.  “And then I realized what he had done.”

The Arrow Blu-Ray of BLACK ANGEL has been worth the wait.  The 1080p visuals are beautifully contrasted from 35MM elements, giving the Paul Ivano photography that extra midnight sidewalk rain shimmer.  Universal’s house composer Frank Skinner provides a suitable score; a slight fly in the ointment regarding the music is that this new mix infrequently dwarfs bits of dialog; suffice to say, it’s a minor carp.

Of course, being an Arrow title, there’s a boodle of extras, including a gallery of stills and promotional materials, a video homage by film historian Neil Sinyard, audio commentary by Alan K. Rode, and the original theatrical trailer.

An elusive noir absolutely worth checking out, BLACK ANGEL is sure to become a screening repeat offender in your library.

BLACK ANGEL. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM audio. Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Studios. CAT # AA054. SRP:  $39.95.

Grindmansion

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

The Golden Age of Grindhouse, where exploitation hit the roadkill, was undoubtedly the 1970s.  The lax guidelines on the new permissiveness resulted in an abundance of nudity and violence, and ratcheted up the swarms of smarmy producers and fly-by-night distributors who couldn’t wait to spatter their splatter across the screens of Times Square and its comparable nationwide hardtops and drive-ins.

Indeed, this decade gave “extreme” fans a cache of favorites and, occasionally, standard movie buffs some notable guilty pleasures.

Immersed in these skin/horror/giallo/kaiju/chop socky imports were periodic valiant efforts to do something a little more deep.  That so many lurid Italian thrillers are now categorized as high art is fact; but, once in a blue moon, American works, too, strived to be a bit more enriching.  The task at hand was to deliver the required goods, but with a “stab” at attempting something better; i.e., the cinematic equivalent of cauliflower disguised as pasta.

Two varying examples are Stanley H. Brasloff’s 1972 drama TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, and, Alfred Sole’s better-known 1976 horror flick ALICE, SWEET ALICE, each now available in special Blu-Ray editions from Arrow Video/MVDvisual.

In a nutshell, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN is what we sophisticates call “a lollapalooza!”  I mean, this pic packs so much into it (in a good way) that it’s difficult to choose a theme to concentrate on.  While the narrative is exploitation heaven, the execution is straight forward, well-acted and directed.  The movie, in short, is a jaw-dropper, and, again, in a good way.

Young, pubescent Jamie Godard lives at home with her single mom.  Jamie is obsessed with her estranged father, booted from the home by his wife – a total ice-cold harpie.  “Daddy” still sends Jamie Christmas and birthday presents – toys, as if the now-blossoming woman is still a child.  And Jamie reacts in kind.  She fondles the stuffed animals, and, uncontrollably begins to get aroused.  Mater, disgusted by the display, dubs her “unnatural,” and wants her gone.  “Daddy” was, after all, removed because he’s a serial cheater, into kinky sex with hookers and high-priced call girls.  Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?

Jamie retreats into a fantasy world, and snags a job at a toy store (her dream position).  There she meets Charlie, who promptly falls in love with her.  Thinking he’s into toys as much as she is, Jamie returns his affection, and they marry.  It’s a union from Hell.  Jamie is frigid, petrified of normal sex; Charlie is concerned but, like his wife’s mom, doesn’t consider getting the girl psychiatric help.  Instead, he repeats the “father” route, and seeks pleasure elsewhere.

At work, Jamie meets Pearl, an attractive older woman customer who is sympathetic to the innocent salesclerk.  They become friends, and Pearl invites Jamie to visit her apartment in Manhattan.

But Pearl is a top flight sex worker, living with  slimy pimp Eddie, who immediately attempts to force himself on Jamie, hoping to groom her.  In doing so, he unleashes the inexperienced female’s sexual fury, a casual “come to Daddy” aside, which turns her on.  Jamie becomes the most popular pony in the stable (elder johns are pre-appointment told to refer to themselves as “Daddy”).  Pearl, who eventually reveals her bisexuality, makes a move on the now-hardened, satiated Jamie, who rebuffs the older woman (using her own mother’s epithets, verbally smacking the veteran whore down).  Pearl retaliates by setting her up with her own father (whose whereabouts she’s always known), after calling him ahead of time, to make sure he uses the trigger word “Daddy.” 

It does not end well.

This movie totally knocked me out.  It’s so much better than most of the Times Square fare that was dumped on the Deuce during the 1970s and 1980s.

Filmed on a low, low budget in and out of Manhattan and the accompanying suburbs, TOYS is smartly directed and cowritten by Brasloff (the latter with Macs McAree).  The recent Arrow Blu-Ray also reveals how well it’s photographed (by Rolph Laube), popping with neon and garish colors that, when appropriate, mimic the era’s toy commercials (one line to Charlie by a delivery man is particularly chilling:  “I hear you married a real doll”).  The music, too, volleys between period synth and a haunting ballad, “Lonely Am I” (by Cathy Lynn and sung by T.L Davis), good enough in 1972 to get its own 45 single.

Then there’s the game cast, notably Evelyn Kingsley, Harlan Cary Poe, Luis Arroyo, and N.J. Osrag.  Of special interest is the mother from Hell, played by former Big Band singer Fran Warren!  Best of all, of course, is the female lead, Marcia Forbes, giving a multi-leveled performance as child-woman Jamie.  A beautiful, talented actress who should have had an extended career; as far as I know, this is her only credit.

Typical of Arrow is the plethora of extras included in the package, most prominently a fresh 2K transfer from the 35MM elements, the aforementioned 45 single (newly transferred), various video essays and featurettes, audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, and the original trailer.  The LCPM mono is just fine.

Don’t be fooled by the sordid promotion; this is not your standard T & A flick geared toward the weird dudes in the raincoats crowd.  It really is a notch above.

1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE is one of the most disturbing pictures ever to come off the grindhouse circuit.  It certainly transcends its roots, and has become an authentic stand-alone horror-thriller – a rep well deserved.

None of the low budget trappings are evident, as the pic is excellently photographed (John Friberg, Chuck Hall), scored (Stephen Lawrence), produced (Marc Greenberg, Richard K. Rosenberg), and, creatively directed (by Alfred Sole, who also coproduced, and cowrote the narrative with Rosemary Ritvo).

ALICE is a damning look at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as personified by a Paterson, NJ congregation.  Whether this was the overall intention or not, it sure freaks this Jew out.  The focus of the work is placed upon a beguiling adolescent, Alice Spages, who lives with her single mom, Catherine, and kid sister, Karen.  Karen is the charmer of the family, the obvious favorite; Alice is the bad girl, in fact, the bad seed.  She delights in torturing her younger sibling, as well as the family’s grotesque pervert landlord, who, surrounded by cats and soiled clothes, spends his days listening to old 78s.

Alice’s proudest accomplishment is her private museum, hidden within the conclaves of the building’s basement.  There she has collected pieces of communion wear, hideous masks, cutlery, and an enormous jar, in which she breeds cockroaches.

This horrid existence would be enough for any creepy movie, except that this is just the beginning.  All Hell hasn’t broken loose yet, but is about to.

Karen is brutally murdered during her pre-communion ceremonies, the child’s stabbed and mutilated body tossed in a church box and set on fire.  Alice is the obvious suspect, and with good reason; the girl has been under observation by the local priest, nuns and neighborhood teachers for quite a while – and earmarked for a stay in a mental institution.  Catherine refuses to commit her, and now is additionally saddled with her interfering shrew sister, Angela, and her re-married ex, Dom, who has returned for the funeral, but stays on to investigate the strange events.

And they’re about to get stranger.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE, when not skewering the Church, smashes the world of grown-ups.  Every adult in the picture is a nightmare; Paterson, NJ itself is a Hell on Earth, seething with decay, whose population comprises gossiping human gargoyles and their henpecked husbands, vengeful nuns, the scarifying parish housekeeper, a senile Monsignor, and pervy/slimy police (including a sex predator polygraph technician).  And we mentioned the landlord.  Is it any wonder Alice turned out the way she has?  Even her caring parents are tainted (nearly adulterous when reunited, and only halted when Dom’s new wife calls, concerned that he’s okay).

Things don’t get much better when the violent attacks escalate, perpetrated by a feminine specter wearing one of the church’s yellow rain slickers, a mask, and brandishing an extra-long butcher’s knife.  Guilt by association, Alice’s sins send her to a Dickensian psychiatric facility that can only make her already demented mind go deeper into the abyss.

And then it gets even worse.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE went from intriguing grindhouse sustenance to guaranteed late-nite TV fodder, due to the fortuitous casting of 11-year-old Brooke Shields, who was two years away from zooming to A-lister, courtesy of Pretty Baby.  Her name often got starring lead order on the old VHS boxes.  This is deceptive, as Shields doesn’t play Alice, but the younger victim, Karen, and her screen time is fairly short.  She’s pretty good in it, though, but can’t compare to the true star, Paula E. Sheppard.  Like a demonic Ellen Page, Sheppard is concurrently sympathetic, snarky, evil, awful, terrifying.  She has become a cult movie icon because of this movie and her only other screen appearance, as the equally impressive Adrian in 1982’s Liquid Sky (Sheppard’s since flipped show biz the bird, and has, supposedly, been living a normal family life).  Other notable performances include, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Rudolph Willrich, Michael Hardstark, Kathy Rich, Gary Allen, Peter Bosche, Alphonso DeNoble (as the gruesome, odious landlord; think Larry Tucker in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor), and especially Linda Miller as the fragile mom Catherine (FUN FACT: the stunning Miller is the daughter of Jackie Gleason, the wife of Jason Miller, and mom of Jason Patric); LSS, even without Sheppard, the women are far more impressive than the men.  Like the above TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, ALICE has much in common aside from depictions of screwed up girlhood; both were filmed around the New York/New Jersey area, and each features a supporting role filled by a former singing female luminary (as indicated above, TOYS has Fran Warren, and ALICE offers Lillian Roth, seen here as a police pathologist)

As stated, ALICE was extremely well directed and co-written by Sole, who cites Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as a major influence (I get it, the rain slickers, etc.); personally, I see this pic having evolved from the gialli of Dario Argento (particularly Deep Red, 1975), Ducio Tessari (The Bloodstained Butterfly, 1971), and Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972); it may have even influenced Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978). The movie would also make a good double bill with Pete Walker’s The Confessional (1976) or a handful of Father Ted episodes.

The Blu-Ray Special Edition of ALICE, SWEET ALICE is dazzling, making Friberg’s and Hall’s images pop, and giving an added oomph to the weird production values (for some reason, the pic is set in 1961; all sets, cars, artifacts, and clothing nicely reflects this – the illusion only ruined by the male cast’s Seventies’ hairstyles and sideburns).  A vault of extras append the new 2K restoration (from the camera negative), including alternate opening titles, trailers and TV spots, Holy Terror (the television cut), interviews with costar McMaster and director Sole, and audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith.  The main transfer uses the original title, Communion (definitely not as exploitation-friendly).  Like TOYS, ALICE’s LCPM mono soundtrack has been excellently preserved.

Two pics absolutely worth checking out for those who revel in the glories of Time Square, the unusual and the era, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN and ALICE, SWEET ALICE demonstrate how good a “sleazy” title could be in the right hands.

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual.  CAT # AV221.  SRP: $39.95.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono. Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV213. SRP: $39.95.

Rocky and his Femmes

A Blu-Ray dream come true, Frank Tashlin’s 1957 masterpiece WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? sweeps onto a High-Def trendex limited edition, thanks to the hucksters at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

I don’t know where to begin to discuss this gem, ‘cept it’s (in my humble opinion) one of the funniest and greatest comedies ever transposed to celluloid.  Director-Writer-Producer Tashlin, freely (and I mean freely!; see below) adapting George Axelrod’s Broadway smash turned this pre-Mad Men riot into a culture-shock CinemaScope pip.

The movie recounts the tale of Manhattan ad agency drone Rockwell Hunter, who slaves away at LaSalle, Raskin, Pooley & Crocket, but to no avail.  An accident of being at the right place at the right time turns him into Lover Doll, a teen heart-throb – all due to the oversexed machinations of buxom Hollywood starlet Rita Marlowe, who wants to make her latest paramour jealous.  Rocky agrees to go along with Rita’s ruse, if, in return, she agrees to participate in an ad campaign for Stay-Put Lipstick, his company’s biggest account.  Along the way, every type of American “keeping up with the Joneses” freakazoid product and fad (ca, 1957) is lampooned and harpooned.  And we’re not kidding.  Even the famed Fox logo isn’t spared, as star Tony Randall shows you how it’s (fanfare is) done.  The credits themselves are a genius mini-lambasting of TV commercials, featuring smarmy salesmen, trapped housewives (“if you’re like me with six dirty children and a big filthy husband…”), and lethal items guaranteed to ruin your lives and the planet’s (WOW! Detergent, with Fallout).

The play opened on the Great White Way on October 13, 1955, running over a year and costarred Orson Bean and Jayne Mansfield, the latter who brilliantly reprises her role here.  Axelrod parodied culture, too – the name itself “Rock Hunter” skewered the immensely popular soaps starring Rock Hudson and often produced by Ross Hunter.  Rita, of course, was a thinly disguised rendition of Marilyn Monroe.

Fox (and, at one early point, Tashlin) wanted Monroe for the movie, but she considered every Tash project a lowlife exercise (reportedly, she faced suspension for turning down The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, then The Girl Can’t Help It – the rock ‘n’ roll classic that put Mansfield over on the screen).  Methinks Tashlin was better off; while Monroe was certainly the bigger star, she never quite had the sense of humor Mansfield had.  Self-parody was likely unthinkable for MM, whereas Mansfield seemed to live for that kind of thing. Long story short, Jaynie was the female equivalent of the director’s favorite male live-action cartoon (Tash began in the Looney Tunes division at Warner Bros.), Jerry Lewis. Suffice to say, she and Randall are terrific together.  In fact, the entire cast of ROCK HUNTER is fantastic; the men: Henry Jones, John Williams, and Mickey Hargitay (the TV jungle man who can’t keep his hairpiece on…the one on his chest) and, natch, the women: Betsy Drake in her finest screen moment and the always wonderful Joan Blondell, who gets many of the best lines (her pining for a milkman, she tells Rita, was shattered when he ran off with another woman:  “She must have liked his brand of cream”).  Then there are the thousands of nubile teens, who covet a piece of Rock for themselves (“the future mothers of America,” as Randall frighteningly relives a recent female attack).  Tashlin considered ROCK HUNTER the pinnacle of his success; the director’s-writer’s-producer’s unbridled creative powers had at last, according to him, properly come into conjunction.  Earlier, in Son of Paleface (1952), Tashlin admitted to throwing everything in but the kitchen sink – one gag after another; by ROCK HUNTER, he felt more assured, counting maybe twenty main gags in the picture.  “I’m most satisfied with WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, said the director in a 1962 interview for Film Culture. “They had to buy the play…to get Mansfield. I tried to get out of using the play and then decided to reverse it and make it into something else entirely.  I only kept maybe one or two [original] speeches…”  He credits his being left alone to Fox suit Buddy Adler. “…there was no compromise…He let me do it my own way.”

As much as I loved Mansfield’s turn in The Girl Can’t Help It, ROCK HUNTER is her crowning achievement (she and Randall would be reunited six years later on Hangover, an episode of The Hitchcock Hour, sadly not the sardonic humor romp viewers might have expected, but a rather somber drama about alcoholism).

To reiterate, Tashlin was certainly given carte blanche, and as the pic’s writer-director-producer, he took full inventive advantage of the op.  Along with  the aforementioned pokes, the entire (then current) Fox schedule is bashed, including Love Me, Tender, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, A Hatful of Rain,plus all the Mansfield titles (Girl Can’t Help It, Kiss Them for Me), most famously, The Wayward Bus, wherein Mansfield’s/Marlowe’s life-sized standee is knocked over by rampaging teenagers…and bodaciously bounces back up.  Rita is later seen reading Peyton Place (the studio’s biggest hit of the year) in her bathtub, while her ever-present poodle is named “Shamroy,” an homage to Fox d.p. Leon Shamroy.  Movies aside, ROCK HUNTER rips into TV quiz shows, juvenile delinquency, rock ‘n’ roll, psychiatric therapy, fan magazines and, basically anything related to the ludicrousness of “celebrity.”

Tashlin’s greatness was not merely his humor, but the means to an end; he wasn’t merely a fine director, but a fine MOVIE director, with an artistic flair for composition, especially when it came to the new widescreen dimensions of CinemaScope (the equally talented Joe MacDonald, who shared the Fox title for top cameraman with Shamroy, expertly lensed ROCK HUNTER in 2.35:1).

Even the music gets the Tashlin treatment, with a sprightly score by Cyril J. Mockridge, and a standout Calypso number (another late Fifties craze) via an original, wacky tune “You Got it Made,” composed by Bobby Troup (and performed by Georgia Carr), presented by Tashlin in what is essentially a sight-gag precursor to a rock video.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is “simply divoon,” to quote Rita.  After decades of unwatchable pan-and-scan TV prints, or Deluxe Color faded-to-pink alternatives for surviving scope copies (which may have pleased Mansfield, but not really anyone else), the acceptable DVDs have now been put on the back-burner.  This new rendition is the one to own.  Aside from the sensational looking images, the audio has been cleaned up too, offering viewers the option of 2.0 stereo, the original 4.0 stereo, or a remastered 5.1 surround track (the music is available as an IST).  Extras include commentary by Dana Polan, related Fox Movietone newsreels, and the original trailer, the latter being a bit of a curiosity, as it gives away the final gag surrounding Rita’s long-lost and only true love.  Oh, well.

In concert with this extraordinary Blu-Ray release is the publication of Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It, by the likewise extraordinary Eve Golden.  Any reader of celebrity bios knows quite well Eve’s (dare I say?) golden touch, and her latest work is no exception. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read/referenced her fantastic book on Kay Kendall, and this depiction of the life and career of Mansfield may top that.   Mansfield books have always been a two-fingers-down-the-throat affair for serious movie historians (usually scissor-and-paste jobs or gushy gossipy garbage).  This is an exhaustive, superbly researched account, containing Eve’s enviable style and wit.  The fact that she obtained interviews with survivors close to the late star is proof enough of how cool this volume is (they generally run like hell from “writers” seeking an audience).  The book is available from The University Press of Kentucky, Amazon, Barnes & Noble (or wherever the Hell you get your reading material from), and makes a perfect twofer purchase with the above platter.

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1/4.0/2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95

JAYNE MANSFIELD: THE GIRL COULDN’T HELP IT. 502 pages/Hardcover. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN: 978-0-8131-8095-3; CAT # 9780813180953.  SRP: $34.95.

Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider…Vinegar

One of the best box sets out on Blu-Ray, Kino-Lorber Studio Classics’ (in concert with Paramount Home Entertainment) IDA LUPINO: FILMMAKER COLLECTION takes us cineastes on a dark journey that not only celebrates the actress’ formidable acting, writing, and producing abilities – but underlines (and concentrates on) her superb directorial skills.  The set, containing four Ida triumphs (NOT WANTED, NEVER FEAR, THE HITCH-HIKER and THE BIGAMIST), reveals a female look at the underbelly of noir, with its protagonists perilously treading Hollywood taboo uncharted waters (a rape victim, a young dancer facing paralysis, two average guys terrorized by a psychopath and an examination of a philandering husband that offers a triad of sympathy for all concerned).  Don’t let the “woman” tag prejudice ya.  These are often brutal, uncompromising exercises in mean-streetology that would give Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray a run for their money.  In fact, he said, segueing into an anecdote, when I was Ray’s assistant sound editor on You Can’t Go Home Again, he told me how much he loved Lupino.  They were doing a little pic called On Dangerous Ground (one of my favorite Ray titles), and Nick became ill; he asked Ida to take over the direction for a couple of days until he recovered (they were on location in Granby, CO); this was 1950, so Ida had already been working behind-the-camera for about a year.  He told me that he was delighted with her work, that it bore her mark, but totally kept in style with what he had in mind, not an easy duality to achieve.  While at least two of these titles in this collection have been familiar public domain fare (THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST), none have EVER looked this good.  While not pristine, all four of these entries come from the best 35MM elements available.  In addition, the slipcovered set contains an excellent illustrated book on Lupino the auteur by Ronnie Schieb. 

Lupino, born on February 4 (my birthday!), 1918 to a show biz couple (Connie Emerald, Lupino Lane), arrived in Hollywood from her native UK in 1933, as a fresh-faced starlet, to be groomed at the Paramount stable.  Then blonde, she lingered on in several standard parts until wowing them as the sadistic model who destroys an artist’s painting in 1939’s The Light That Failed (didn’t help that he was going blind).  By this point, Lupino was checking her options and bolted from Paramount to Warners – the most lucrative acting portion of her career.  She hit the ground running as the psycho-nympho wife in 1940’s They Drive by Night, followed by High Sierra (1941), The Man I Love (1946), and others.  By the late 1940’s, wanderlust again pushed her to change courses – this time, not merely studios, but as the head of her own production company (with husband Collier Young).

Their first outing, 1949’s NOT WANTED, chronicled the physical and psychological trauma of an innocent girl who discovers that she’s carrying her older experienced lover’s/seducer-predator’s child.  This would be a rough contemporary narrative, so imagine how it was received in 1949?  When not being harassed by the righteous Breen Office, the young filmmaker (as she preferred to regard herself; Lupino’s and Young’s company was, in fact, called The Filmmakers) had a more serious problem.  The director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a fatal heart attack as production unwound.  To save the pic, Lupino stepped in and finished the movie – and brilliantly so. A rarity in the post-talkie Hollywood era, a woman directing successful movies that she also cowrote, coproduced and would even (on occasion) costar in, Ida Lupino remains a beacon to every lady taking the motion picture reins.  To those fans of Kathryn Bigelow, Jennifer Kent, and the increasingly welcome scores of other talented female artists, hail to Ida Lupino – she helped make it possible!

1949’s NOT WANTED is a dynamic indictment of the treatment and torment suffered by unwed mothers (while the opposite end of the “two to tango” duo gets the free pass).  Sally Kelton is a young, blossoming healthy female from a typical small town American home (yep, THAT bad!); her burgeoning womanhood is playing tricks on her body, and the attraction to smooth musician Steve Ryan pretty much seals the deal.  He up and vanishes just as she realizes their “urge to merge” will be resulting in a little bundle of joy.  Devastated, abandoned, and with her mental health now in jeopardy, Sally wanders the streets of post-war America into the world of noir, a territory that Lupino knew only all too well.

A difficult tale to tackle in 1949 (the Code was still in effect), the movie proved no exception to the rule.  Lupino saw it as a challenge.  NOT WANTED was a perfect controversial subject for the novice director, the title itself being a dual sword – referring to both the baby and the mother.  Cowritting the script (from a story by Malvin Ward) with Paul Jerrico (The Search, All Night Long) and coproducing through her recently-formed company, Lupino found herself in a jam when, as indicated, the veteran pedestrian director she hired, Elmer Clifton, succumbed to a coronary shortly before filming began.  Yearning to move down that artistic avenue anyway, Lupino grabbed the reins and beautifully completed the project that ignited her new career.  Most relevantly, while gritty and even nasty, NOT WANTED does present the narrative’s viewpoint as it really MUST be told – from the woman’s point of view.  Tragedy aside, Clifton’s departure was probably the best thing that could have occurred on the project.  Lupino gave the subject power, style and truth (Clifton retains full directorial credit).

The cast is excellent, beginning with soon-to-be Lupino stock lead actress, the diminutive Sally Forrest.  Great at playing innocents or angel-faced harpies, Forrest is one of our underrated thesps of the late 1940’s-mid 1950’s.  Keefe Brasselle, also a soon-to-be Lupino regular, has become the butt of many comedian puns (usually because of his name).  That said, he’s not a bad actor, and, in fact, could be quite touching.  Off-camera, it was another story.  He was a veritable thug, involved with the mob and even a murder. His Hollywood demise wasn’t helped by his misogyny, filling a rap sheet with multiple wife beatings and death threats.  Brasselle had the dubious honor of being the only person Jack Benny ever publicly trashed (Brasselle scored the lead role in the very awful bio-pic of Benny’s pal Eddie Cantor).  Leo Penn as the callous love ’em and leave ’em horn player is excellent as well.  His heinous procreation acts in the movie rivaled a terrible real life aberration: siring Sean Penn. Also of note in the pic are Dorothy Adams, Wheaton Chambers, Ruth Clifford, Lawrence Dobkin, and Lupino’s kid sister Rita.

NOT WANTED is starkly photographed on-location throughout L.A. by Henry Freulich.  A music score by Leith Stevens, whose career was on the rise, appends the visuals (he, too, would become a Lupino regular).  Extras in the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray include audio commentary by Barbara Scharres.  It’s astounding that this movie isn’t better known, hopefully an error that will be corrected by this release.

1949’s NEVER FEAR is another daring drama with noir overtones.  Carol Williams and Guy Richards, an attractive dance team, are about to make the big time when Carol is struck by polio.  The sweet, forgiving nature of the young woman degrades into sneering, angry psychosis as she lashes out at everyone who attempts to help her in rehab.  Remember, this is 1949, and the institute where she is to be rehabilitated stresses the physical, not the mental – a point progressively approached by cowriter (with then-husband Collier Young)/director Lupino.

Once again, Sally Forrest plays the lead and does an excellent job – as does Brasselle as her on-and-off stage partner, who likewise undergoes a psychological metamorphosis.

Previously rarely seen, NEVER FEAR, thanks to Kino-Lorber and BFI-Forever, this new 2K restoration will (as in the case of NOT WANTED) hopefully remedy that unfair situation.  It’s an important picture not only for women, but for sensational movie-making.  Archie Stout, a John Ford favorite, photographed the documentary-like black-and-white imagery and Leith Stevens provides the suitable score.  A nice supporting cast rounds out the proceedings, headed by newcomer Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Jerry Hausner, and (once again) Rita Lupino.

No mere disease-of-the-month weepie, NEVER FEAR tackles the then-common affliction as any noir would a villain, a stunning and original approach.  And with great results.

Paving the way for Kathryn Bigelow, Karyn Kusama, Julia Ducournau, The Soska Sisters and others, Lupino’s 1953 masterpiece THE HITCH-HIKER is likely (up till then) the roughest, most vicious movie ever directed and cowritten by a woman.  It’s an unrelenting suspense thriller, filled with nightmarish images and electrifying moments.  For her basically three-man cast, Lupino wisely chose three strong presence males, indicative of the era: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman.

Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (O’Brien and Lovejoy) are two BFFs whose annual get-away-from-the-family time is their ultimate bonding journey.  They drive out into the desert dividing the California/Mexican border for an outdoor man-cave camping excursion.  Big mistake.

Emmett Myers (Talman), a psycho killer, has escaped from captivity, and has already chalked up new victims, as he maps (and slaughters) his way to Mexico.  He comes across Collins and Bowen, and sadistically holds them hostage, forcing them to drive him to safety.  Myer’s mind games drive the two friends to the edge, as they wonder if and when they can make a play, knowing all too well that they will be killed once they reach their destination.

The performances of the three leads are phenomenal, particularly Talman in his first villain role.  To his dying day, he told interviewers that because of this movie, drivers on the freeway would roll down their windows at traffic stops and give him the finger.

O’Brien, in particular, learned much from Lupino, whom he respected as a fellow thesp; encouraged by what he saw her do as a director, prompted him to take the behind-the-camera plunge.  Post-HITCH-HIKER, he directed a pair of excellent noirs, 1954’s Shield for Murder and 1961’s Man-Trap).

The script by Lupino and Collier Young is tight as a vice cranked to the extreme.  One bit, giving the Talman character a lazy eye, proved to be a brilliant stroke.  A), it adds an additional monstrous touch to his already grotesque appearance, and B), it taunts Collins and Bowen when he sleeps (the eye never closes properly); they don’t know if he’s watching them, waiting for the pair to make a play, or if he’s actually asleep.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences in movie history.

Moved up a notch production-wise from small indy Eagle-Lion (who handled earlier Lupino-directed efforts), THE HITCH-HIKER was distributed by RKO.  The picture deservedly delivered excellent reviews and box-office.  The one negative aspect of the movie is that it fell into public domain during the 1980s.  This resulted in a trash bin of awful prints, video tapes, laserdiscs, etc.  What a relief to finally see a decent 35MM transfer from the Library of Congress, where THE HITCH-HIKER was preserved as an important American work.  Thank you, Kino-Lorber (once again) for being able to appreciate Nicholas Musuraca’s fine cinematography and crackle-free audio (to enjoy the tense background audio design and score by Leith Stevens).  The Blu-Ray includes also includes a supplemental track featuring motion-picture historian Imogen Sara Smith.

Oh, yeah, this frightening odyssey is based on a true story!

Yet another difficult topic, spilling over with noirish overtones, 1953’s THE BIGAMIST hits all the promises in the smarmy ads…and then some.  The man with two hot women scenario is quickly shot down by director (and uncredited cowriter, Collier Young) Lupino.  It’s a supposed male fantasy from a woman’s point-of-view.  And probably the most honest depiction of an emotive and ultimately disastrous situation.

Super successful traveling salesman Harry Graham has been happily married to loving wife Eve for over eight years.  The one thing missing from their union is a child.  So they begin to seek out adoption agencies.  This puts them under the radar of meticulous child adoption investigator Mr. Jordan (a very Kris Kringle-ly Edmund Gwenn, who seems to also be a relative of Eddie Robinson’s “Keyes” in Double Indemnity).  The Grahams appear to be the perfect couple for raising a child – with one exception.  Harry has another wife on his West Coast route.

The “other woman” is a total opposite from demure Eve; Phyllis (a terrific performance by the director) is a saucy, lovable, sexually unbridled dynamo.  Having met Harry earlier, they respectively engaged in conversation, then coffee, then dinner, then…What on the surface looks like pure lust was actually genuine blossoming of love.  Harry realizes he should have told her he was married, then questions whether it is possible to truly love more than one person.  A law, after all, is merely words on paper.  This changes drastically when Phyllis becomes pregnant; so Harry does the right/wrong thing.

As Jordan gets closer to the facts, the walls and the world start closing in on Graham.  While his lonely fling/cowardice was initially self-serving, he has now ruined a trio of lives (more, if one counts the baby).

THE BIGAMIST is a powerful movie, sensitively acted, scripted (from Lawrence B. Marcus’ and Lou Schlor’s story) and masterfully directed.  Gwenn may speak for a number of us when he delivers his final denouement upon Harry:  “I despise you. I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand, but I almost want to wish you luck.”

Like THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST, distributed by RKO, fell into public domain.  The decades of lousy PD prints, VHS tapes, and DVDs never did the movie – particularly George E. Diskant’s excellent cinematography – justice.  Until now.  This new remaster, from 35mm elements, and, at last, in its essential widescreen dimensions (probably for the first time since 1953), gives the pic the edition it deserves.  A nice Leith Stevens score accompanies the now-worthy visuals.

Also featuring Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell, Peggy Maley, and Lilian Fontaine (costar Joan’s mom), this Blu-Ray also contains audio commentary by Kat Ellinger. 

All in all, a superb box set, honoring an important artist and deserving a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.

IDA LUPINO FILMMAKER COLLECTION. Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1 for the first three titles; Widescreen [1.66:1, for The Bigamist; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTA-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K23818.  SRP: $79.95.

Southwest Side Story

Cut to the chase:  The rare and raw 1950 noirish drama THE LAWLESS, boldly dealing with Anglo vs. Chicano prejudice in small-town America, finally gets its much-deserved resurrection on DVD from the folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

This remarkable movie grabs you from the fade-in – wherein white teens get confrontational with Hispanic youths. Ostensibly, it’s all about who gets the jobs – or who’s taking the jobs; but it’s veritably all a bullshit excuse to fan the flames of hate. The town is uneasily dealing with growing population of Mexicans who are relocating to the community as migrant fruit-pickers. Their “stealing” the jobs facade is nonsense, as the corrupt law enforcement and political figures gloat about how they’ll keep bringing ’em in at two dollars a head until they’re not needed. So much for the good ol’ days! The schism that becomes Mexicans against white America is further defined by slumming journalist Macdonald Carey, who has had enough of the miserable big-city bastards and yearns for the “simpler life.” He angers the big-shot honchos by going against his race and working for a left-leaning newspaper, which is not only run by an Hispanic, but (oh, the horror!) an Hispanic woman (Gail Russell).

Reluctantly, Carey drifts toward the opposition, alerting his former urban employers to what’s going on in the supposed bucolic paradise. And it blows up in his face. Interracial dating, rape, juvenile delinquency/gang warfare, equal rights for minorities (and women) and equal pay end up exploding into an all-out race riot, with the bigots refusing to acknowledge anyone who looks and/or acts different from them. Conform or get the hell out is the cretin credo, as the town becomes an embryonic blueprint for the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is more than coincidental – the original screenplay is by Daniel Mainwaring, who penned the 1956 Don Siegel sci-fi classic.

And it was the liberal Mainwaring who brought in his pal to direct – controversial and similarly progressive Joseph Losey, here helming his second feature film.

What’s so amazing about THE LAWLESS is its dealing with racial profiling – remember this is 1950 – and its villainous personification via characters right out of the Joe Arpaio playbook. Even more astounding is the fact that this movie sprouted from the bread-and-butter Pine-Thomas unit, Paramount’s efficient B-picture department. Actually, how this came about isn’t that crazy when one considers what was going on in the industry at the time. Post-war audiences craved the neo-realist sociological messages increasingly fueling motion-picture fare. Big pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust, No Way Out and Crossfire had/were doing well at the box office. More relevantly, “little” pics like the Stanley Kramer productions Home of the Brave and The Men, plus the racially charged Lost Boundaries and The Well, got some major juice in markets thought impenetrable by independents. So, long story short, if there was money to be made by being edgy with a message – sound the clarion call. Body Snatchers aside, THE LAWLESS, with its live TV hookup of the circus surrounding the vigilante race riot, prefigures Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (released by Paramount a year later; ironically, Carey’s character is named Wilder).

Mainwaring got his bosses, the notoriously tightwad producers William H. Pine and William C. Thomas (known throughout the industry as The Dollar Bills, a moniker I can never mention enough), to greenlight THE LAWLESS not only because of the above pitch, but also due to his innumerable past successes as a writer for the skinflints. He had a reasonably good working relationship with the Bills; not so with Losey, who clashed with the mini-moguls from Day One.

Losey deflected from calling Pine-Thomas the Dollar Bills, far preferring the term “monsters.” He recalled a script session a Bill had with the director while the producer was attending to business…on his toilet. According to Losey, their inane and inappropriate suggestions caused him to fling the script in their faces with a terse “Direct your own fucking picture!” He was fired at least once (possibly twice, depending upon which source one chooses to believe) with Mainwaring serving as a go-between/referee. The location work (which constituted most of the production) buffered the flare-ups, but had its own share of problems.

In Michel Ciment’s engrossing 1985 book Conversations with Losey, the director discussed the bizarre casting mix surrounding THE LAWLESS:  “Lalo Rios [the juvenile lead]…was a Mexican-born boy that I found in downtown Los Angeles at a church where he was master of ceremonies.  And he was very young, 15 or 16…Maurice Jara came from the Pasadena Playhouse…”  The two stars, Carey and Russell, both Paramount contract players, were, according to the director, an oil and water cocktail. Carey, a total professional – a trained stage actor – was pitch-perfect, a person Losey praised as a “genuinely nice guy.” (They would work well together again in Losey’s wonderful 1961 Hammer thriller The Damned).

Russell, on the other hand came with a Samsonite warehouse full of demons. “Gail Russell…died of alcoholism because she was so deathly frightened of acting, but she had in her the makings of a great star. I think she had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen…And she was immensely sensitive.  She didn’t know anything.  Paramount had her under contract – like a horse.  She got a big salary then, and I had absolute instructions…not to let her have a drink.  The very first time I shot with her I had a long-night tracking shot…She couldn’t remember a single line and it was three or four pages of important dialogue…Finally…she grabbed me, her hands were icy cold, she was absolutely rigid, and she said, ‘Look,…I never had a director who gave me a scene this long before.  I can’t do it…I’ve never kidded myself.  I’m not an actress.  I hate it.  I’m frightened of it.  Get me a drink and I’ll be all right.’   So I said, ‘You know, I’ve been told not to get you a drink?’  She said, ‘Get me a drink!’  I got her a drink and she did the scene…By this time Macdonald Carey couldn’t remember his lines.  She had absolutely destroyed him.  It was a very hard bad start on a quick picture, to spend the whole night on one set-up…Anyway this started her drinking and she was drunk throughout the rest of the picture.  That isn’t to say that she was bad.  I think she was very good often, but sometimes I had to shoot scenes in ways to disguise the fact that she was drunk and sometimes I had to shoot scenes with a stand-in because she was too drunk to stand up.”

Russell, who is very good in the movie, is backed up by a roster of fine supporting players, including Herbert (Guy) Anderson, Lee Patrick, John Hoyt, Frank Ferguson, Paul Harvey, Willard Waterman and, in early appearances, Martha Hyer and Tab Hunter.

The stark black-and-white photography is by the superb cameraman J. Roy Hunt, whose near 200-title filmography began in 1916.  Losey credited Hunt for his early success:  “An extraordinary man who had invented lots of the little mechanisms on the Mitchell camera we were then using.  He was the one above all others who taught me how to work intensely and well and still fast.  We’d hardly get finished with a shot and he’d have the camera on his back, still on the tripod, and run to the next set-up which I’d already given him.  He was marvelous.” The music was another matter, being a workable but pedestrian score by Mahlon Merrick.  “[Pine-Thomas] forced a score on me which I detest and which I think damaged the film very much,” recalled Losey bitterly almost right up until his death in 1984.  “It made it cheaper and more melodramatic and it slowed the tempo.  And that was a battle I simply couldn’t win.”

With all these bumps and glitches, it’s incredible that THE LAWLESS turned out as well as it did – or even that it got made at all (several times, the picture was halted with the prognosis being to cut the losses and run). It remains, with Losey’s terrific 1951 thriller The Prowler, a peak of his underrated American period. Unquestionably, in part, the politics of THE LAWLESS (coupled with the director’s outspoken liberalism) zoomed him to HUAC’s Deport At Once status. The blacklisted director left the country in 1952 and spent the rest of his career working in Europe.

The lynch-mob sidebar in THE LAWLESS was favorably compared to the narrative of Fritz Lang’s 1936 masterpiece Fury (a movie Losey loved, and had seen many times, but dubiously claims had no influence on the Pine-Thomas pic; it’s undoubtedly also likely that THE LAWLESS resulted in getting the director the 1951 remake of Lang’s M). This sounded promising, except to Pine-Thomas who knew that while Lang’s movie was critically acclaimed, it didn’t make a dime. Undaunted, the producers set their publicity machine into motion utilizing shameful and contentious tactics. Using some of the extras from THE LAWLESS, a campaign began stressing that Mexicans like movies just like everyone else; images of Chicano kids lining up at a local theater filled the pressbook; notably, the show these eager picture-goers were champing at the bit for was the John Payne-Rhonda Fleming epic The Eagle and the Hawk, a (what a surprise!) concurrent Pine-Thomas production.

As positive word-of-mouth spread, Paramount took the reins and upped the promotion to a more respectable level. The studio began a rigorous trade-show screening agenda for their sleeper. And the press responded in kind, with accolades from no less than The New York Times and celebrated newscaster Drew Pearson, who hyped the picture extensively.

Once the repeated comparisons to Fury filtered down, Paramount employees could hear the groans coming from the Pine-Thomas offices. Indeed, the die had been cast; despite the glowing reviews, THE LAWLESS became the lowest-performing entry in the Pine-Thomas canon. In addition, the leftie politics of the piece prompted the producers to remove it from its television syndication packages during the early 1960s (and throughout the 1970s). In effect, it became a quasi-lost movie (occasionally turning up in Losey retrospectives, often hailing from private collections).

Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment should be heartily congratulated for making this important title available to classic movie fans. The DVD, mastered from excellent 35MM materials, looks and sounds just grand.

Losey saw THE LAWLESS as the anti-Capra picture, presenting a brutal modern world where would-be Mr. Smiths and Mr. Deedses (aka the Macdonald Carey character) came to the stark realization that there are was no such thing as a Capra America:  it was an ugly sugar-coated myth. For critics and the few popcorn eaters who saw it, THE LAWLESS presented a message that resonated with a cynical vengeance. For Pine-Thomas that message boiled down to two words: Never again!

THE LAWLESS.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono.  Cat #: OF393.  SRP:  $24.95.