Beach Blanket Psycho

An intriguing, thoroughly demented film noir, 1955’s FEMALE ON THE BEACH comes to Blu-Ray from the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and Universal Studios.

When wealthy, attractive, mature widow Eloise Crandall (the 1950’s perennial movie victim/punching bag Judith Evelyn) falls to her death, it rocks an upscale California beach community.  Connected to her unfortunate demise is beach bum Drummond “Drummy” Hall (Jeff Chandler), who seems to have been romantically involved with every being in the vicinity in possession of a uterus.  Each lady has also at some point arranged for impressive sums of money to be transferred into the lothario’s bank account.

Drummy’s lifestyle/vocation as God’s grift to women is about to be changed when the next rich femme checks in.  Mostly because she’s Joan Crawford, who ain’t taking no shit from no one no how.  As Lynn Markham, Crawford’s character is bitter to the max before Drummond even lays a hand on her (which he does, resulting in a monumental traditional Crawford bitch-slap).  Still, Hall is more determined than ever.  Detectives warn Lynn of his dubious reputation; she scoffs it off with being fully able to handle herself.  Worse, we discover that Hall is the living dildo pawn of nouveau riche neighbors, Osbert and Queenie Sorenson (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer).  They subsidize his living large in exchange for a piece of the pay-for-play pie.  The sultry local Realtor (Jan Sterling) has her suspicions, as does the lead sleuth (Charles Drake), the latter who finds himself increasingly attracted to Markham.

By the time Hall gets real physical (ripping off Lynn’s dress), Markham’s longing lady parts kick in and she acquiesces to his carnal advances.  Is he playing her for the next victim?  Is she playing him to satiate her desires?  Or is this, as the Coke ads (sorry, Joanie) used to say “the real thing”?

FEMALE ON THE BEACH is one of the most goddamn watchable lurid thrillers ever to be turned out by Universal-International.  During the 1950s, U-I offered major stars an offer they couldn’t refuse.  Take a cut in salary and share in the profits.  It worked, luring actors and actresses that the studio never could have otherwise had a snowball’s chance in hell of signing (James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Jane Russell, Van Heflin, Lana Turner, Alan Ladd, Anne Baxter and Crawford).  Crawford came with a list of demands.  She would choose the project and her costar.  Snaring FEMALE was brilliant, a sexy role for an aging super name.  From the U-I stable, she selected Chandler.  “I chose Ira Grossel from Brooklyn, NY,” said Lucille LeSueur from San Antonio, TX.  They definitely ignite a flame, apparent from their first frame together.  For Crawford, one of the genre’s goddesses (Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon, Possessed, Sudden Fear, etc.), FEMALE ON THE BEACH would be her final noir; suffice to say, she goes out in a blaze of glory.

One iconic Crawford moment makes FEMALE a particular must for every one of her fans.  Hall, who really thinks he’s all that, has passkeys to all the local women’s abodes.  When an already irritated Markham awakes, she’s pissed-off shocked to find him in her kitchen.  The famous Crawford glare instantly spells doom for Chandler.  But it gets better. “How do you like your coffee?,” asks the uninvited playboy.  Crawford pauses brilliantly before spectacularly replying, “Alone!” in that Joanie way that is the verbal equivalent of a crossbow through his throat.  We were all howling at the Neuhaus Bijou, replete with applause.  There are other pips in Robert Hill’s and Richard Alan Simmons’ script (from a story by Hill, with uncredited dialog from producer Albert Zugsmith) worth quoting.  When the unfortunate Evelyn (recently of Rear Window and soon to embark on The Tingler) careens off the terrace to her demise, Crawford/Markham eyes the still unrepaired railing, then quips “She must have left in a hurry.”  Marham’s snarky tune changes (albeit slightly) when she discovers the late woman’s hidden diary, revealing some misogynistic traits and comments displayed by Hall/Chandler (“I don’t hate women, I just hate the way they are.”).  The tense climax is fairly unexpected and exciting.

 

The Blu-Ray of FEMALE ON THE BEACH is excellent, presented in its odd pseudo-scope aspect ratio of 2:1 (SuperScope without the trademark).  It’s the first time this movie has been available in these dimensions since its original release.  Beautifully shot by Charles Lang, and nicely scored by Heinz Roemheld (with assist from Herman Stein), the pic was professionally directed by Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director, and likely the best of U-I’s mainstream house talent.

It’s important to note that among the extras, the plum is audio commentary moderated by director David DeCoteau.  DeCoteau has become one of the kings of the Lifetime Movie Channel.  His participation is of interest, as FEMALE ON THE BEACH is essentially the template for every Lifetime Movie ever produced, save with an A-list cast and crew.

FEMALE ON THE BEACH. Black and White.  Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23397. SRP: $29.95.

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Logan’s Run

When the phenomenon of Downton’s Abbey began, back in 2010, the bulging floodgates of talent flowed so rapidly that seemingly every Brit actor currently breathing appeared to have originated from the famed country estate.  So many great Downton thesps turned (and are still turning) up in a myriad of UK and US movies and television series that’s it’s a chore to keep count.  Not that I’m complaining; no, not at all, this is (mostly) a good thing.

One of the most ubiquitous of the Downton alumnus, a veritable female Toby Jones, is Phyllis Logan, who excelled as the amiable Mrs. Hughes.  Logan has not stopped trodding the boards during DA’s hiatus or since; more intriguingly, we are getting samples of the BAFTA-winning actress’s splendid work prior to her taking up residence in the Abbey.  Two sterling pre-and-post Downton examples, now on Acorn Media DVD, comprise the snarky thrillers ALIBI (2003) and GIRLFRIENDS, SERIES 1 (2018).

 

ALIBI is a twisty, deliciously wicked filmic dissection that delves into the strange relationships of three people.  Marcey Burgess, the wonderful Sophia Okonedo of the The Slap fame (the good one), is a single parent, working for social services, who appends her measly salary by hiring out as staff for a catering company.  Her most recent gig is at the posh residence of the Brentwoods, Greg and Linda (the likewise wonderful Michael Kitchen and Logan).  The celebratory fete is not all it’s cracked up to be.  The couple’s marriage is shaky at best, all the more revealed when it’s revealed that Brentwood’s partner (Tom Knight) is cheating on both his business and with his wife.  When the cad is found deceased after the festivities, neurotic Greg attempts to meticulously build his alibi (SPOILER: this Kitchen ain’t no Foyle).  But he was seen by Marcey, who returned to retrieve her handbag. Begging the shocked woman to believe it was an accident, she agrees to help shuffle the facts. The intertwining of the three personalities, their friendships, lies and deceit, helping and derailing, threats and bonding are masterfully handled by the trio of expert actors.  They are aided and abetted by an excellent script (Paul Abbott, late of No Offence, and quickly becoming my numero uno British TV scribe) and direction (David Richardson).  Of additional note is the crisp widescreen photography (Lawrence Jones) and music accompaniment (Hal Lindes).  The one platter, three-episode series is yet another great looking and sounding Acorn DVD.

 

A happy wedding anniversary luxury cruise for Linda (Logan, as yet another Linda), Micky (Steve Evets) and their grown children, literally takes a nasty turn when Micky drunkenly falls overboard to his death.  But did he?  The now-mourning widow might not be so innocent.  So think the police and insurance investigators, but not her two BFFs since childhood, Gail (Zoe Wanamaker) and Sue (Miranda “Be Still My Heart” Richardson).  Not that their lives are any better.  Gail is struggling with a roving, separated husband (Adrian Rawlins), an ex-con son (Matthew Lewis) and a mother whose denial of dementia (Valerie Lilley) is belied by her burning down their flat.  Sue is financially better off, but, emotionally, not so much.  Co-founder of a trendy wedding magazine, Sue’s partner and lover John (Anthony Head), with whom she had a bisexual son Andrew (Philip Cumbus), is determined to legally push his one-time main squeeze out of the picture, craving younger femmes in the workplace and the bedroom. Andrew, a successful lawyer, himself divorced with a family and now living with his male soulmate, happily agrees to take both her case, and Linda’s.

A biting comment on age discrimination, sexual harassment, adultery and, natch, murder, GIRLFRIENDS, a heady brew from writer/creator Kay Mellor (The Syndicate, Strictly Confidential), tackles all of these serious topics with sardonic humor (the narrative casts its net wide enough to include a psychotic stalker, blackmail, and a sidebar on efficient body disposal).  That it gets away with it is mostly due to the three stalwart ladies and the fine codirection of Mellor and Dominic Leclerc.  The photography (some on-location in Spain) is nicely rendered in widescreen by David Odd.  An appropriate music score is once again supplied by Hal Lindes.  The six episodes (spread over two discs) are appended by a recent Q & A supplement, featuring Logan and Richardson; it’s fun and funny, and so cool to see them with their hair down.

ALIBI.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround; Acorn RJL Entertainment/EndemoleShine Group.  CAT# AMP-2634.  SRP: $34.99.

 GIRLFRIENDS, SERIES 1. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround. Acorn/RJL Entertainment/all3 media/Rollem Productions.  CAT# AMP-2661.  SRP: $39.99.

 

 

 

 

Pre-Existing Conditions

An uncompromising, rugged, often brutal yet paradoxically beautiful western, Delmer Daves’ vastly underrated 1959 masterpiece THE HANGING TREE finally comes to home video in a worthy edition: a new widescreen High Definition Blu-Ray (thank you, Warner Archive).

The movie, based on an acclaimed novel by Dorothy M. Johnson (whose no-holds-barred works included The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse), transcends being simply another notch on Daves’ pantheon of greats (The Red House, Dark Passage, The Last Wagon, 3:10 to Yuma).  Long story short, THE HANGING TREE is a motion picture of Gary Cooper.  It was he who nursed the project, coproduced it with Warner Bros. via his Baroda Production company, helped cast and crew it, and took on the role of the story’s unsavory lead.

THE HANGING TREE is a stunning dichotomy of the human condition in the worst-case scenario.  Insult to injury, it’s about the American human condition, with hypocrisy, greed, apathy and lust rearing their ugly heads at every opportunistic moment possible.

The narrative revolves around the newly formed, charmingly named gold-rush town of Skull Creek, in 1873 Montana (Cooper’s home state, ably represented by magnificent Nile, WA, locations).  The first line of the movie displays the pride and admiration the residents have for their designated hanging tree (“makes folks feel respectable”).  Into this nest of dubious creeps rides Doc Joseph Frail, a disreputable person with a violent past, but, ironically, an excellent medical practitioner (in a nice touch, he arrives the same day as the whores).  Frail is anything but, with the exception of scruples.  We discover that it’s not even his real name, but an allegorical alias he has taken to purposely rub the frailties of human nature in his patients’ faces; Frail, you see, is also an intellectual, but he rarely allows that to get in the way of his scoffing at inferiors (to the Doc, that means everyone else).

What set him off on his road to “take all you can get from the animals” was discovering his wife in bed with his brother.  He killed them both, then burned his home to the ground.  His prowess with a gun and manipulation of the law has prevented any serious attempt to apprehend him.

Key among Frail’s fellow specimens in Skull Creek are the Flaunces (Karl Swenson, Virginia Gregg), capitalist storekeepers who claim good hearts, but will cut you off at the legs to make a buck; Frenchy (Karl Malden), a lowlife miner and sexual predator; and worse, Rev. George Grubb (George C. Scott), a psychotic preacher who occasionally makes Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter look like Pollyanna the glad girl.  You can see by the cast that this is no ordinary western.

When Frail treats Rune, a wounded teenage thief (Ben Piazza, in his U.S. screen debut), he blackmails the youth into becoming his slave, lest he be turned over to the townsfolk and their beloved “branch” of the law. Routine changes with the arrival of European immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), the sole survivor of a stagecoach robbery that claimed her father, and left her temporally blinded by gunshot flash and days of exposure.  She immediately becomes the prey of Frenchy, but is taken under wing by Doc, who treats her maladies, and, eventually cures her blindness.  Mahler, too, becomes his slave (“Rune, am I a prisoner?” asks the new addition to the Frail household). Frail’s enjoyment of using people as his pawns in a real-life chess game culminates in his staking Rune and Elizabeth (unbeknownst to them) to a three-way share with Frenchy.  The claim pays off, erupting in a physical and emotional climax that forever changes the lives of Skull Creek (the ones who survive).

Aside from being a superstar, and, by the late 1950s, one of Hollywood’s “living legends,” Gary Cooper was a sly and shrewd businessman.  He knew the entertainment business upside down, having been a lead player since the end of the silent era.  He wisely took on the lead in 1952’s High Noon the movie that repaired a rut in his career and essentially invented the adult western.  Cooper saw the value of pairing with new stars and looking for edgy projects.  Vera Cruz practically created the template for the spaghetti western.  The veteran actor balanced that with a more traditional turn in Friendly Persuasion, then played an adulterer (coupling with his college-aged daughter’s BF) in 10 North Frederick, an over-the-hill-lothario romancing a teenager in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, a member of a maniac gang of murderers in Anthony Mann’s remarkable Man of the West, a coward caught up in the Mexican Revolution in They Came to Cordura, and, in his final performance, a suspected psycho killer in The Naked Edge.

Cooper also bought up movie rights to novels he thought might work for him, like A.B. Guthrie, Jr.s,’ The Way West, but didn’t live long enough to bring them to fruition.  He sought out controversial writers to script his works, of which THE HANGING TREE is an excellent example; searing with its fierce dialog and refusal to play by the rules. It was written by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder) and 3:10 to Yuma’s Halsted Welles.  Cooper avidly championed the foreign film market, which was becoming an ever-increasing driving force in American movie-going (thus, the participation of Canadian Piazza and Swiss Schell; he also was instrumental in securing Brazilian director Hugo Fregonese his first Hollywood gig).

The movie had its share of production problems, some due to location difficulty, but mostly to the health of director Daves, who fell ill during the shoot.  Warner house talent Vincent Sherman came in for one day before it was decided that costar Malden would pick up the reins while Daves was recovering; the Oscar-winning method actor did a quite praiseworthy job (Malden took over the last month of the shoot).

While the critics loved the pic here, and the movie did decent box-office, it was Daves’ other 1959 Warners release. A Summer Place that went through the roof.  Not surprisingly, in Europe (particularly France), the opposite was true; THE HANGING TREE was lauded as the triumph it deserved to be, and permanently guaranteed Daves a top spot in the European American Filmmakers of Note list.

THE HANGING TREE shines in all departments, notably the stark Technicolor locations by the brilliant d.p. Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre).  The score, by Max Steiner, occasionally spills over into his penchant for “Mickey Mousing,” but nevertheless contains some memorable themes relating to the prime characters.  The title song, the (then) obligatory western ballad (another practice that originated with High Noon) is a classic.  Composed by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, and dramatically sung by Marty Robbins (whose “El Paso” exploded on the charts the same year), the tune is one of my favorite movie refrains.  The lines burn (“to really live, you must almost die”), accurately depicting the aberrant behavior and comeuppance for Skull Creek’s rogue gallery.  Simply put, THE HANGING TREE is one of Gary Cooper’s finest performances and one of his greatest movies.

THE HANGING TREE  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 10809p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000693371. SRP: $21.99

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

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Magnifique Melies Melange

One of my top picks for Best Blu-Ray of 2018 was the wonderful Flicker Alley/Lobster Films Collections (in cahoots with Blackhawk Films, CNC, Eye, Narddni Filmovy Archiv, and The Library of Congress) restoration/release of Georges Melies’ color version of A Trip to the Moon.  Damn, if they haven’t topped it with this fantastic follow-up, a dual edition (Blu-Ray and DVD) of MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR, a phantasmagorical array of outrageous trick films, spanning the years 1899 (yep, you read right) to 1909.

The dozen selections in the group (some running as short as sixty seconds, others a rather longish – for their period – twenty-two minutes) have been given an extra boost by incorporating the aforementioned color Trip to the Moon.  So, an appropriate Devil’s Dozen of mind-blowing snippets from more than a century ago.

The remarkable thing about Melies isn’t the fact that these movies remain diverting pieces of entertainment 120 years after many were produced, but that the director/writer/producer and magical maestro was astute enough to realize the potential of the motion-picture medium.  The bizarre storytelling is mere prologue, opening the gates for trailblazing ideas of color (each frame meticulously hand-painted by a small army of female artists) and sound (Melies had written scripts to be performed by actors behind the screen, although mostly as narration, a practice later adopted by the Japanese during the 1920s and early ‘30s).  All of this is on view for the 2019 viewer on this release. It’s tantalizing to think what Melies could have done with widescreen and 3-D.

Melies’ scenarios (consistently macabre, frequently sardonic) prefigure works by Louis Feuillade, Tod Browning, James Whale, Val Lewton, Georges Franju…right up to Dario Argento, Jean Rollin, John Carpenter, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson.  Typical Melies fare involved characters plunged into the supernatural, coming face-to-face with witches, demons and other nightmarish monsters.  Regularly added into the mix was the appendage of sci-fi which gives us cyber punks a taste of 19th-century takes on space travel and ultra-plus modern technology (super flying railroads, horseless carriages, etc.).  This is all fascinating stuff now; imagine how they effected 1900 viewers?

Melies’ deployment of color for shock and wonder (lost on the generally available B&W-only versions) is masterful; ditto, his ingenious Rube Goldberg moving scenery/pop-up props.  His dark, surreal comedy likewise prefigures Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati and most influentially Max Linder, who must have worshipped the little dabs of awesome fantasy.  Truly, these works were the forerunners of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, the books and movies of J.K. Rowling and the crazy quilt works of Noboru Iguchi.

While not all of the 13 movies are instant classics (usually the ones based on works other than what emerged from Melies mind, remain the lesser entries, like 1905’s Rip’s Dream, his version of the Rip Van Winkle legend), all of them are must-haves for fans and collectors of the unusual, and the cinema of the authentically strange, aka psychotronic.

For me, the standouts include:

1899’s Pillars of Fire, a one minute loop that astoundingly has it all: horror, magic and sex!

1903’s Kingdom of the Fairies, a way advanced tech thriller encompassing fairy godmothers, kidnapped princesses, witches and a fast-paced tale of revenge.

1903’s The Infernal Cauldron, two minutes of inspired demonic creepiness.

1904’s The Impossible Voyage begins with an inventor’s quest to out-Verne Verne.  By conjuring forces of darkness, a man’s family is plunged into horror and destruction, resulting in a trek involving rocket trains, ghostly skeletal horse-driven coaches, and more.

1906’s The Merry Frolics of Satan concerns another modern devotee of science whose life is ruptured by a visit to a strange alchemist (in reality, the Devil!).

1906’s The Witch offered turn-of-the-century crowds the impossible idea of big-screen TV and super-charged horseless carriages.  It is a complex, twisty tale of revenge.  At first, one is convinced that an accommodating witch has been cheated, but it turns out that her client is a man out to reclaim his lover, whom the spell-chanter has taken hostage in an evil magic castle.

1909’s The Diabolical Tenant is (along with Pillars of Fire) my favorite in the collection.  A mischievous alchemist rents a bare-bones apartment for his unusual activities.  His tattered suitcase goes beyond anything in Fantastic Beasts.  His valise furnishes the entire flat (including a piano), most incredibly a beauteous wife, family, friends and assorted women – who proceed to party on like nobody’s business.  As the landlord summons the police, the tenant quickly shoves all back into the carry-on, and vanishes – no doubt to secure another abode to taunt and torment fellow renters and Realtors.

1909’s Whimsical Illusions is pure Melies prestidigitation, a-17th century baroque magic show that defies the imagination.

The remaining titles are stunning in their own right: 1900’s Joan of Arc (an primitive epic with trick photography and graphic coloring of stake burning), a frankly racist 1902 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (ouch for the blackfaced Friday, referred to his savior as “my housewife.”) and 1905’s The Inventor Crazybrain and his Wonderful Airship (contrary to what you think, it’s not about Space Force, but does include clown monkeys and willing nymphs). Among the casts of long-deceased unknowns is often Melies himself; all seem game, which contributes to the fun.  An in-joke in nearly every title is the “product placement” of Melies Star Film production company logo on prominent props; of course, this served a dual purpose – protection against copyright infringers, motion-picture piracy already being already a problem in 1900!

Flicker Alley has gone the distance to present these extraordinary efforts in the best way possible.  The 13 shorts vary in quality, but never to the extent that they are unwatchable; most, are in spectacular condition – with only a few of the restored utilizing B&W footage (where the color fragments have deteriorated). While these shorts previously existed as a DVD title, this is the first Blu-Ray edition.  More importantly, digital technology since the DVD release has advanced by leaps and bounds, relegating all other versions obsolete. Lovely (and appropriate) music scores by Brian Benison, Eric Le Guen, Antonio Coppola, Robert Israel, Neal Kurz, Jeff Mills, Alexander Rainne and coproducer Serge Bromberg accompany the visuals; in many cases, the “dialog” is offered as an option, lovingly mouthed by Bromberg and film historian Fabrice Zagury.

A beautifully illustrated color booklet is also included, containing background information on the program, as well as enticing biographical tidbits about Melies.  Although best watched in chronological order to enjoy the artist’s evolution from talented trickster to ace master of embryonic cinema (his only lacking seems to be in the area of intercutting, which surprisingly, he never gleaned), MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR, in part, nevertheless provides the perfect prelude to your latest Marvel/DC disc, Hugo, or a Harry Potter.  As for me, I’m game for a total Melies afternoon comprised of 145 minutes of exotic, hallucinatory diversions from another age.

MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR. Color/Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; Flicker Alley/Lobster Films Collections/CNC, Eye, Narddni Filmovy Archiv/Library of Congress. CAT # FA0058. 1080p High Definition].  2.0 LCPM stereo MA. SRP: $36.95.

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Big Hair, Big Phones, Big Laffs

Nostalgia from the not-so-long-ago has never been more fun than with the two latest additions to Shout Factory’s great Shout Select series (#s 51 and 52, respectively), 1995’s GET SHORTY and 1987’s DRAGNET, two instantly recognizable comedies that have now been given the 1080p High Def deluxe treatment.  The key purpose behind Shout Select is, to quote Shout Factory, “[to give] these movies the love and attention they deserve.” And they ain’t kidding.  Each title comes housed in a specially designed slipcover, Blu-Raying it all over the place in stunning new transfers and loaded down with enticing extras.

 

It’s hard to imagine the world without the existence of the 1995 comedy GET SHORTY.  Indeed, the very definition of a modern cult movie, SHORTY plays cable stations so often that it’s ready to qualify for its own network – you know, like the Miss Congeniality Channel, or the Monster-in-Law Channel.  SHORTY goes way further in so far that A) it’s a much better movie than the two mentioned above, and B)  the pic has inspired a spinoff EPIX series that often runs concurrently when their other stations are playing the 1995 original.

GET SHORTY, perhaps the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard work (the author thought so too), concerns the adventures and misadventures of East Coast gangster Chili Palmer.  Chili, smarter than his “employers” (not a difficult claim), is chosen collect a past-due debt from gonif movie producer Harry Zimm.  Chili’s arrival in Hollywoodland is a big plus for that made man, as he’s a classic movie addict.  Soon, he’s not only schmoozing and romancing the Tinsel Town crowd, but negotiating deals that would gain nods from the long-dead moguls.  Plus, fending off fellow mobsters and drug dealers (gotta have them for Hollywood reality) who want in on what Chili’s been up to.

GET SHORTY is perfect cinema fare for movie lovers, gangster pic fans or, simply, admirers of the members of the production’s stellar cast.  Certainly, we knew Danny DeVito could do comedy, but to see John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo and James Gandolfini go for and get the hefty guffaws is a delight.  Okay, we know they’ve all done funny stuff before, but in this particular scenario, it’s just so much more delightful.

There are wonderful standout moments, like when Chili is stunned that B-movie queen Karen Flores has never heard of Touch of Evil.  “Don’t ya do your fucking homework?” as Jerry Lewis often intoned.  Indeed, I’ve met long-time denizens in The Biz who know nothing of their industry’s past, even the recent past.  Not the case with the clever minds behind GET SHORTY.  Screenwriter Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfeld totally stacked the deck with in-jokes, stinging asides and more.  DeVito, in fact, based his interpretation of A-lister Martin Weir on Dustin Hoffman.

The new Shout Factory! 4K master of GET SHORTY looks and sounds just swell.  The 1080p Blu-Ray bristles with color and clarity unlike ever before; a 90s stunner from d.p. Donald Peterman.  Ditto, the 5.1 stereo-surround, featuring John Lurie’s score.  Extras abound, too, and include Sonnenfeld’s audio commentary, a gag reel, an excised sequence and a handful of featurettes.  It’s enough to make youse wanna take a lunch.

 

Of all the many characterizations Dan Aykroyd has bestowed upon the comedy-hungry public, his Joe Friday/Jack Webb riff is the one that immediately zooms him to the top of my riotous mimic pantheon. I mean, like he has it down perfect:  the weird duck walk, the stolid facial expressions, the sweet justice nodding, and, most importantly, the clipped, mile-a-minute monotone endless pontificating.

It was only a matter of time before the Hollywood suits realized that this might make good SNL-to-screen fodder, following the actor’s mammoth blockbusters The Blue Brothers and Ghostbusters.  So, at last, in 1987, it came to pass.  I vividly recall seeing the trailer, and, when Friday (the original Joe’s nephew) and his partner proceed in the era’s obligatory car chase and ram a truck filled with Jim Henson creations, Aykroyd’s dry warning of “Look out, Muppets!” had the entire theater (me included) roaring in the ailses.  While that kind of hilarity doesn’t sustain the complete 106-minute duration of DRAGNET, there’s certainly enough gold to keep us giggling.

The movie, as scripted by Aykroyd, Alan Zweibel  and Tom Mankiewicz (who also directed), spirals around a nefarious group of religious right assholes, secretly in league with a Hefner-esque, lisping porn king.  It’s a treasure trove for Aykroyd to strut his stuff (“Now let me tell you something…There are two things that clearly differentiate the human species from animals. One, we use cutlery. Two, we’re capable of controlling our sexual urges. Now, you might be an exception, but don’t drag me down into your private Hell!”  Now, say that as if it’s all one word – bet you can’t without losing it).

With Friday’s longtime partner retired (finally buying that goat farm in Ukiah), Joe is faced with the task of breaking in a new companion – a hippie, cool undercover dude dedicated to non-conformity (see the possibilities).  This long-haired, “granola, baby,” “catch ya later” guy is none other than a ludicrously young Tom Hanks.  Bizarrely, enough, it’s the development of the Hanks character that ultimately slows up the fun of surfing this Webb.  Even his name, Pep Streebek, is a bit too precious.  Should have gone with the original show’s SOP of using generic WASP names.  But WTF do I know?  That said, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with their pairing.  If anything, it paved the way for the following year’s big screen debut of The Naked Gun, which featured many of the DRAGNET alumnus behind the camera (producer Robert K. Weiss, composer Ira Newborn).  One learns from one’s mistakes.  Frank Tashlin was right:  when in doubt, do wall-to-wall gags.

The cast is amazing, including such slick, oily villains as Christopher Plummer, Elizabeth Ashley, Jack O’Halloran and Dabney Coleman.  Plus, there’s Kathleen Freeman, Peter Leeds, Maurice Marsac, Shannon Tweed, and, in a wonderful turn, Harry Morgan, reprising his role as Bill Gannon, the original Joe’s second partner from the series’ 1967 revival, now Chief of Detectives.  The woo-bait lure of the pic was the beauteous Alexandra Paul as the frustratingly pure Connie Swail, referred to throughout as “The Virgin Connie Swail.”  The music, as re-imagined by Newborn, utilizes much of Walter Schumann’s classic TV score.  The crisp color photography by Matthew Leonetti (whose family seemed to own big-screen cinematography in the mid-late Eighties) has never looked better than in this sparkling new 4K transfer (the title’s first Blu-Ray edition).  As with all the Shout Factory! releases, DRAGNET comes with a casebook of extras, comprising audio commentary, a 1987 promotional featurette with Aykroyd and Hanks, trailers and a photo gallery.  Best of all is a lengthy interview with Ms. Paul, who, to this day, when spotted in public, is still referred to as The Virgin Connie Swail, a badge of honor she good-naturedly wears with pride.

I guess what makes this parody so diverting after thirty-two years is the fact that the jibes by Aykroyd, while wildly funny, are done with an affectionate homage – a fitting tribute from an ‘80s icon who first and foremost was simply a movie/TV fan.

GET SHORTY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Shout Factory/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # SF19079.  SRP: $34.98.

DRAGNET. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Shout Factory/Universal Studios. CAT # SF18986. SRP: $29.98.

 

 

 

Teaming With Sex

In a perfect companion piece to their earlier superb Charley Chase anthology, The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films (in collaboration with MVD Visual and Sonar Entertainment) has realized one of my home-vid dreams:  an official release of the entire set of Hal Roach two-reelers featuring Thelma Todd and ZaSu (pronounced “Zay-Zoo”) Pitts.  So you can’t miss it, the double disc set is logically dubbed THELMA TODD & ZASU PITTS: THE HAL ROACH COLLECTION 1931-1933.

The 17 shorts (most of which I had never seen) are fascinating to watch in chronological order, as they show the pair’s evolution from two incredibly watchable actresses into a sympatico duo.  Roach had thought that a female Laurel & Hardy could possibly be as great a draw as Stan and Ollie.  While that wasn’t exactly so, the team was wildly popular in the pre-Code days that encompassed the two years when these pics were produced.  Todd was a natural – a ridiculously drop-dead gorgeous actress with a penchant for (literally) taking it on the chin.  When not working on her own series, she appeared in other Roach comedies with L&H, Charley Chase, The Boyfriends, etc. And when not cranking out two-reelers, Todd expertly played “Say girl” roles in features with The Marx Bros. (who understandably loved her), Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton and Wheeler & Woolsey, in addition to honing her thesp chops in flicks starring John Barrymore, Kay Francis and Clara Bow.  Pitts, of course, needs no introduction, having been before the cameras since the 1910s.  Leaving the Roach unit in 1933, she was replaced by Patsy Kelly, who worked with Todd until the beauty’s mysterious death in 1936 (sadly, usually the one aspect of Todd’s Hollywood tenure that most non-cinema buffs are familiar with).   Kelly was then paired with Lyda Roberti in a final group of shorts before Roach abandoned the format altogether (Roberti died of a heart attack in 1938).

It’s no contest that the Todd/Pitts works are the best of the lot, primarily for the fact that they are the only pre-Code efforts in the batch.  Post-Code Todd/Kelly/Roberti, while frequently still amusing, are obviously watered-down, lacking the oomph that give Thelma her nickname of Hot Toddy.

Sex certainly was the added ingredient that put Thelma and ZaSu over (and Roach knew it, a plethora of these funny femme adventures put them in lingerie as often as possible and/or in bedroom situations, in ladies’ gyms, in train berths, as showgirls, in fashion salons, etc.).  Laurel & Hardy’s antics brilliantly elevated slapstick to a new level.  Todd and Pitts took that baton and tossed in a pinch of sensuality.  Case in point, when Stan and Ollie tackled an adversary or inanimate object, the results would predictably be anatomically hilarious.  When Todd and Pitts did it, with their skirts raised, showing as much leg as possible, it’s a borderline erotic fantasy, albeit a humorous one.

And here’s something that needs to be stated. Erich von Stroheim, who directed Pitts in 1924’s Greed, arguably the most requested lost silent to be discovered in complete form, regularly bemoaned the fact that his lead had become synonymous with a fluttery scatterbrain.  He thought her to be a magnificent actress, and, equally important, one of the most beautiful women he had ever encountered.

This may strike some as strange, but check out Greed again.  Pitts is amazing in it.  And check out these two-reelers; when straddling an exercise horse in short-shorts, a hospital gurney or a convenient human prop, the lady has game.  Von was right – ZaSu has some great gams!

The comedies themselves are impressive; while the early ones, some uncharacteristically directed by Roach himself, are undeniably crude, and, occasionally forced (many a time with no real ending), there’s a definite diamond-in-the-rough vibe.  Once the gals meld into what appears to have been a genuine friendship (and chemistry, with Todd referring to her pal as “Pittsy,” and Pitts never failing to plug her hometown of Joplin, MO), the movies blast off into comedy heaven, prefiguring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, Lucy and Ethel – right up to more current whacky femme match-ups like Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, The Other Woman, Spy, and Sisters.

In addition, when pros like George Marshall and Gus Meins grab the directorial reins, it’s a freewheeling, rollicking ride that will have you hitting the replay button on a regular basis.

While ALL the entries are worth watching, several highlighted gems stand out:

Let’s Do Things (1931), their debut, concerning the double-dating foibles women encounter in a speakeasy.  It’s directed by Roach and photographed by future director George Stevens.

Catch as Catch Can (1931) nudges in a subplot featuring hookers, stranglers and mistaken identity with the girls as phone operators in a hotel.  It’s notable that it’s directed by the once-great Marshall Neilan, whose addiction to alcohol had clearly taken its toll.

War Mamas (1931), also by Neilan, is a distinct improvement with the pair as truck drivers during the Great War.  With a supporting cast including Guinn Williams and Alan Lane, the action has the ladies Mata Hari-ing it across enemy lines and capturing the enemy with a game of strip poker.

On the Loose (1931), directed by Roach, is one of the team’s most elaborate shorts, featuring a stellar cast (John Loder, Claud Allister, Billy Gilbert, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins).  It’s about the Manhattan dating scene, and how the girls seem to always end up in Coney Island (lots of period footage of the famed amusement park).  A swell capper comprises a guest appearance by two new blind dates that threatens to turn into another fine mess.

Red Noses (1932), directed by James Horne, is one of the duo’s most famous pics.  When a cold keeps roomies Thelma and ZaSu home from work, their employer sends them to a ladies’ Turkish bath to dry out.  ‘Nuff said.

Strictly Unreliable (1932), their first pic for George Marshall, has them as vaudevillians in a theatrical boarding house.  Great support from Bud Jamison, Billy Gilbert and Charlie Hall.

Show Business (1932) has them as sideshow acts who upstage and roughhouse diva star Anita Garvin.  It’s directed by The Three Stooges’ Jules White, and, not surprisingly, is full of particularly violent sight gags.  In-joke, their residence is Mrs. Finn’s, an obvious homage to the great James Finlayson.

Alum and Eve (1932), directed by Marshall, has them feigning Pitts’ pregnancy in order to avoid a speeding ticket.

The Soilers (1932) “Your skirt’s up to your neck,” offers Pittsy to Thelma, as they use their looks to sell magazines door-to-door…but only to men. Directed by George Marshall.

Sneak Easily (1932), directed by Meins, is rather progressive, as it stars Thelma as crusading defense attorney who, unfortunately (and implausibly), is stuck with BFF ZaSu on the jury.

Asleep in the Feet (1933) has the girls taking a gig at dance hall to help a fellow girlfriend pay her room rent.  Directed by Meins, the short features a cameo by Charley Chase.

The Bargain of the Century (1933) is one of the team’s best, as they aid a befuddled cop (James Burtis) after inadvertently getting him fired off the force.  Their offer to have him share their apartment until he’s back on his feet promises to go on eternally.  Worse, he’s a Rube Goldberg inventor, whose wacky contraptions knock Thelma and ZaSu for a loop.  An incredibly inventive short, directed by Charley Chase.

One Track Minds (1933), directed by Meins.  Thelma’s won a screen test beauty contest, and ZaSu and pesky nephew Spanky McFarland journey with her to the Coast.  On-board is Teutonic director Von Sternheim, who becomes their nemesis and sight-gag human target for their shenanigans.  Lucien Prival does a dead-on Von Stroheim impression.  What a hoot to have been on the set, if only to hear Pitts’ comments.  Costarring Sterling Holloway and Charlie Hall.

Curiously, like the aforementioned Chase collection, The Sprocket Vault includes a disclaimer apologizing for the quality.  They look and sound as good as any Roach short I’ve ever seen, with several looking better.  True, they have undergone nearly 90 years of neglect, but, that said, they’re more than passable.  Fans of L&H and Our Gang will relish the off-camera contributions of gag writer H.M. Walker and the iconic music of Marvin Hatley (who appears as a pianist in their 1933 adventure Maids a La Mode) and Leroy Shield.  In addition to the 17 comedies, The Sprocket Vault has included some nice extras (commentary by film historians Richard M. Roberts, Brent Walker, Robert Farr and Roach scholar Randy Skretvedt, plus a stills and poster gallery).

Gotta say it: I now always precede a pre-Code feature with one of these two-reelers; and more than once, my friends have told me that it’s the  goils’ antics that lingered in their craniums well past the fade-out (even suggesting an afternoon of JUST Thelma & ZaSu).  So, what are YOU waiting for?  Scram to your favorite video outlet!  Ya get me!

THELMA TODD & ZASU PITTS: THE HAL ROACH COLLECTION, 1931-1933.  Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1].  2.0 mono audio. The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films/MVD Visual/Sonar Entertainment. CODE # 35066.  SRP: $29.95.

thelmazasu_COVER

 

Hell-Come to the Union

It was inevitable.  By the mid-1950s, talk of U.S. territories Alaska and Hawaii becoming states increasingly proved to be an exciting possibility. Indeed, they seemed to have all of our prerequisites, including, as pulp scribes discovered, their own hotbeds of crime and sordid history – ideal for sleuthing, hooking and killing.

Republic Studios, who post-Quiet Man, were now unhealthily addicted to shooting as much away from the backlot as possible, clung onto potential state numbers 49 and 50 like the proverbial cheap suit.  The benefits would be multifold.  Filming would be cheap, publicity would be enormous, and, should these places become states before the pics’ release…well, Herbert Yates could already hear the cash registers ringing, from the tropics to the Klondike.

Nearly simultaneously, two lurid crime dramas, each featuring recognizable feature players, were announced to be shot on-location in Honolulu and O’ahu (Hawaii) and Ketchikan (Alaska).  Both these gloriously trashy works, HELL’S HALF ACRE and CRY VENGEANCE, are now available in striking Blu-Ray editions from Olive-Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. Although packing heat never got hotter, nor icy death colder alas, sadly, for Yates, he and Republic would never fully reap the rewards of this endeavor, as both the man and the studio would be ancient history by the time statehood became an actuality in 1959.

 

“Don’t mess around in other people’s dirty laundry,” is wise advice offered to a pivotal character in 1954’s HELL’S HALF ACRE, a bizarrely delightful, but definitely nasty noir, lensed (nearly) entirely on-location in Hawaii.

The narrative, as devised by genre pro Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming, Dead Reckoning) and professionally directed by Republic’s ace house dude John H. Auer (The City That Never Sleeps) is quite complex.  Chet Chester (Wendell Corey), a scarred (literally and physically) unsavory smoothie (before it became a beverage), has taken it on the lam to From Here to Eternity Land.

SIDEBAR NOTE: Republic, while trying to use foreign funds to help produce these exotic nightmares, painted these vacation naturals (Hawaii, Alaska, Acapulco, Lisbon) as sinkholes of crime and corruption.  Why anyone would think this would boost tourism is beyond me, but, gotta say it, that’s one of the things I love about Republic.

Anyways, back to HELL’S HALF ACRE. Chester has numerous babes on the side, prime being love-crazed Sally (Nancy Gates).   This doesn’t bode well for the lady when Donna (Evelyn Keyes) shows up, as the Hawaiian newbie is Chet’s wife (or so she claims).  Throw in a hotsy-totsy like Marie Windsor as Rose and, in a thoroughly outstanding supporting role, Elsa Lanchester, as Lida, a butch cabbie, and you have the makings for a stellar bitch-slap frenzy (an event that does happen later in the proceedings).  Lida, the wise-cracking hack, spouts some prime dialog and philosophy; she came over from the mainland to be a taxi dancer, but it “got lost in the translation.”  Another great Lida line refers the pic’s title real estate:  “The dance hall girls don’t go there to dance!”

Meanwhile Chester’s enemies (and there are plenty) be closing in faster than relatives after a Lotto win, and soon, in an extreme display of her devotion, the unbalanced Sally kills an adversary in cold blood.  CC decides to take the rap, but the local cops don’t buy it.  Sally, in turn, is brutally murdered, and Chet vamooses to find her killer, holing up in the lowly terror-firma that gives this hunk of celluloid its moniker.  Are ya following this?  Indeed, Hell’s Half Acre was an actual place, a red light district swathed in blood. To paint a more accurate picture of its notoriety would be to say that, in comparison, 1970s Times Square was like Harry Potter’s Wizarding World at Orlando.

The noir look of this rancid pineapple is beautifully realized by the wonderful d.p. John Russell, best known for Psycho.  The score, via composer R. Dale Butts, is a by-the-numbers-racket concerto that handily fits the bill.  Another big plus is the cast; aside from Corey and the ladies, the flick features such standout performers as Leonard Strong, Jesse White, Philip Ahn and Keye Luke.

Perhaps the movie least likely to make you want to visit our 50th state, HELL’S HALF ACRE is a steamy composite of thugs, mugs, hoes, and foes – each a recipe for disaster.  In short, don’t miss it.

 

Disgraced detective Vic Barron is a human paradox.  Soft-spoken, sensitive, and extremely intelligent he also harbors a tinderbox personality that tends to explode in tsunamis of violence.  There’s actually a good reason for that.  The ex-cop was disfigured in a car bomb accident that also blew up his wife and kid (shades or shards of The Big Heat).  Now, in desperate need of cosmetic surgery and psychiatric help (not necessarily in that order), Vic, just out of Quentin, tracks the mob kingpin and his daughter responsible to Ketchikan, Alaska to wield his sharpened blade of sadistic payback.

CRY VENGEANCE (also from 1954) is one tough little muthafucka, genuinely unique due to the unusual locations; it’s also shockingly graphic for its time.  Director-lead Mark Stevens was always an interesting movie figure, striving to add layers to generally bland characters tossed to him, mostly because of his leading man looks.  Even so, there always seemed to be a creepy undertow to Stevens – perfect for noir, but explains why he never aced the Cornel Wilde rungs of stardom.  The disfigurement in this pic was likely his contribution.

SIDEBAR NOTE # DEUX: a later appearance as the villain in the Joel McCrea western Gunsight Ridge was a jaw-dropper.  The traditional outlaw-in-black desperado was, like Barron in this movie, above-average in the brains department, prone to violence, but also a virtuoso pianist.  He absolutely stole the flick from McCrea.

The screenplay to CRY VENGEANCE was co-written by actor-turned-scripter Warren Douglas (he also plays a bit) and George Bricker.  It’s a doozy, featuring a slew of psychopaths and fierce dialog that begs to be growled rather than spoken.  When good girl Peggy reveals an Indian ceremonial ground adhering to the doctrine that there is good in all people, Barron gut-wrenchingly replies, “They’re lying!”  Other gems are noir essentials: “Tell him when I leave, he’s dead!” is a charming verbal calling card.  “[Here’s] a present for your Daddy,” sneers Vic to a femme fatale mob princess, handing the stunned woman a bullet.  Best is Vic fatalistic but sober self-evaluation when all is said and done:  “Back to where I belong.  Maybe I don’t belong anywhere.”

Key adversary of Vic is albino maniac Skip Homeier as Roxey, because when you can’t get Richard Jaeckel, you get Skip Homeier.  Backing him up is Martha Hyer (as the bar-owning good girl Peggy), Joan Vohs as the skank mobster spawn, Lily, plus Mort Mills, Dan Haggerty, John Doucette and Richard Deacon.

The conclusion seems a bit forced and too convenient, as if they ran out of money and/or the Ketchikan city council got wise and told them to get the hell out of here.  Nevertheless, with its formidable cast, William Sickner’s crisp monochrome widescreen location photography (so cool to see Alaska before it became a seasonal tourist attraction), Stevens’ no-holds-barred direction and churning music score (by Paul Dunlap), CRY VENGEANCE proves to be a diverting albeit rude companion piece to such other frozen tundra genre forays like On Dangerous Ground and Storm Fear.  NOTE: the Blu-Ray jacket lists the movie as being in color.  It’s not, and never was.  Also, it’s fun to catch the day-for-night necessity, as, apparently, nobody informed the producers, writers and tech crew that Alaska is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

HELL’S HALF ACRE. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF570.  SRP: $29.95.

CRY VENGEANCE.  Black and white. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95.