Black Shirt, White Hat

One of those “if they made it up, you’d never believe it” true-life stories, CESARE MORI, a 2012 two-part Italian TV mini-series comes to American DVD, via the folks at MHz (as part of their superb International Mystery Collection) and RAI.

A genuine modern Italian semi-folk hero, Cesare Mori was a no-nonsense, incorruptible police chief (“If they kill one of my men, they kill part of me!”) in the city of Caltabellotta, ca. 1916.  Caltabellotta was a key Sicilian hub of the Mafia (then known as the Honored Society).  Mori, the Pavian real-life equivalent of John Wayne (or Gianni Wayne-a, as Ernie Kovacs might dub him) swore an allegiance to wipe the mobsters off the face of the Earth.  And he almost did it.

Mori and his beloved (but seriously infirmed) wife, Angelina (Vincent Perez, Anna Foglietta), are, on the surface, one of the most respected couples in the Sicilian province.  Underneath, it’s another story, as the duchy is honeycombed with mafioso (including the village priest).  The convenient seaside metro’s harbor provided a conduit for a myriad of nefarious activities, including drug shipments to America.

Mori and Angelina dream of having children, but her heart condition forbids it.  In a seemingly perfect act of God, Mori’s “elimination” of a Mafia bigwig leaves the gangster’s small son (Rocco Nigro) an orphan.  The Moris take him in, and a true love bond cements them (far different from the child’s parents’ overshoes-in-the-drink kind).

Mori’s success, however, is his downfall, and the powerful local factions triumphantly remove him from office and transfer the law enforcer to an ineffectual position in (no pun) Bologna.  As a final stab in the back, Saro, the boy they have come to love, is kidnapped by his biological father’s cronies.  The child escapes, yearning to be with the Moris, but misses their departure by mere minutes; his return to the new Mafia is rewarded by the boy growing up to be a numero uno assassin (Marco Mandara).  The Pirandellian irony will be challenged in a final confrontation that, again, is beyond belief.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, the years become a trial for the Moris.  The rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini take their toll.  Soon the Black Shirts target Mori and his wife with death threats.  Once again, the powers that be remove him from office.  In a fit of rage, Mori writes a scathing letter to Mussolini.  Surprisingly, Il Duce (Maurizio Donadoni), spurred by the honesty and courage of this upstart rapscallion, orders Mori to a private counsel and restores him to his former rank as Caltabellotta’s precinct of police.  Why?  Benito wants to take over the country, and not be associated with the likes of the thuggish Mafia (talk about the pot calling the kettle black shirts).  There also may have been an element of vanity involved, as photos of the actual Mori bear a striking resemblance to the Iron Prefect.  He gives the honorable crime fighter carte blanche; all Mori must do is to embrace fascism.

This Cesare Mori does, as he considers it a mere means to an end.  Names and politics mean nothing – his goal is to take the Mafia down, and, once again, he comes within a hairsbreadth of doing so.

Leaving Angelina in Bologna (where she is recovering from new, revolutionary cardiac surgery), Mori attacks his restored and empowered gig with ferocious vigor.  It is here that his fleeting relationship with the local Baroness Elena Chiaramonte (Gabriella Pession) strengthens (her titled husband was an early Mafia victim, done in by the Chiaramonte’s own “trusted” workers, led by rising psychopath Tano Cuccia).  The Baroness, snarky, gorgeous and often naked, literally throws her voluptuous body in Mori’s face (they both like Liszt, an important point as the woman comments that his music is, like themselves, the perfect combination of romance and violence).  That Mori, miles apart from his wife (and likely not carnal for years) turned this goddess down repeatedly seems (dare I say) hard to fathom, but, at least, according to this retelling of the Mori saga, actually did transpire; it’s the one false note in this otherwise magnificent series, excitingly scripted by Pietro Calderoni, Gualtiero Rossella and Nicola Rafele (from a story, based on fact, by Calderoni, Rossella and Antonio Domenici).

How Mori achieved his near obliteration of the Mafia was brilliant; he simply followed the template of the gallant knights of old – in this case, Spain’s legendary El Cid.  He cordoned off the village, banning shipments of food, water and, in a rare nod to the twentieth century, the transmission of that recent miracle of science, electricity.

The Arthurian knight theme is crucial to understanding Mori’s m.o.  Early-on, the police head’s first assistant (Adolfo Margiotta) inquires why he doesn’t embrace the new technology of cars and trucks to track criminals.  Mori’s refusal and total reliance on horse power is as simple as it is heroic.  A man or troop on horseback is far more imposing, foreboding and intimidating than driving up in an automobile.  Truth be told, this clinging to the past is in perfect tune with the Mori mythos; but, also remember that this is a period spanning the decade of 1916-26.  There was even still a wild west in parts of America.  Thus, the anachronism beautifully meshes with the Mori ideology, remarkably working until change indignantly kicks down the detective’s pre-Great War door, once and for all.

And the door-basher, in human form, is again, Benito Mussolini.  Within the reach of snuffing out the Mafia, Mori is summoned by the despot.  The Mafia’s connections have far exceeded the dictator’s original beliefs.  He now needs their money and power.  To this end, he tells the “decent” fascist that he only lives “by black and white.”  This is not realistic or acceptable, as the world is becoming ever-increasingly filled with grays.

Mori and his wife are reassigned to Rome, where he is installed as a senator, and where the couple remained till their deaths, both in 1942, and within days of each other.  We again reiterate that ancient chestnut about truth being stranger than fiction.

CESARE MORI is lavishly produced for the small-screen on a big-screen scale.  Its tapestry is spectacularly envisioned with accurate period detail, sensational photography and a tremendous music score.

But, of course, all of the above would be piffle, if it wasn’t for the acting.  A plethora of fine performances bring this bio-pic to life, leading with star Perez as Mori, and a number of other wonderful turns by the aforementioned Foglietta, Pession and Margiotta, plus Franco Trevisi, and Paolo Ricca as the frightening Tano Cuccia.

The direction by Gianni Lepre is terrific as well; the movie brings to mind the country’s classic 1960s-70s Italian dips into the fascist history pool – although leaning more toward Bertolucci than Visconti.  The widescreen photography by Gino Sgreva is stunning, as is the stereo-surround audio (in Italian, with nicely displayed English subtitles), highlighted by the bravura music by the great Pino Donnagio (with definite nods to Morricone).

The two-disc MHz DVD is a pleasure to view (especially on a big screen TV).  It’s very sharp, bristling with color, only coming up a bit short via some fleeting, grainy low light/night sequences.

This is not so much a mini-series, as it is an epic odyssey – the stuff Italians do so well.  A dazzling, sprawling historical cocktail that’s equal part Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, with a liberal dash of John Woo, CESARE MORI delivers the goods on a massive operatic level.

CESARE MORI.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16×9 anamorphic].  2.0 stereo-surround.  MHz Networks/RAI.  CAT # SKU-16810.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Doc Savaged

With the world seemingly spinning more out of control each and every day, it’s reassuring to know that folks who populate the beauteous seaside hamlet of Cornwall’s Port Wenn are well ahead of the curve.  This has never been more apparent than in the recently released, much-anticipated Acorn/RLJ Entertainment Blu-Ray of DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.

The all-new 8-episode two-disc set admirably picks up where the last cliffhanger left off.  Louisa (Caroline Catz) has gone off to Spain to reside with her mum, whilst Martin, that cold, compassionate human contradiction of terms (aka Martin Clunes, hilariously glum as ever) faces the genuine agonies of loneliness, wondering if his beloved spouse will ever return.

Auntie Ruth, however, saves the day; in fact, Dr. Ruth Ellingham (Eileen Atkins) is the unsung savior of this delightful season of mishaps, insults and infamous examples of bad decision making.  Ruth convinces Martin to seek out a therapist, the local and fetching Dr. Rachel Timoney (Emily Bevan).  Amazingly, he agrees, as does the returning Louisa – not too thrilled about her visit to Spain, particularly the food (“…full of salt and fat and God knows what!”).

As the couple charge head-on into marriage counselling (“Happiness is overrated,” Dr. Ellingham tells Dr. Timoney early on), we viewers are gob-smacked by Martin’s taking to the advice of their specialist while Louisa has doubts (due partially to jealousy), as the two docs eventually seem to hit it off).

While the pair’s agreeing to spend more time together doesn’t exactly shake the classic poetic definition of romance, it does make it quiver in fear.  When Dr. Timoney suffers a head-trauma accident, she is shot off into Bonkersville, giving out bizarre guidance that could only placate the Addams family.  Coming down, the shrink apologizes, pleading with the logical Martin to excuse her freakish behavior as understandable.  “No.”  End of therapy (and, ironically enough, a new and hopeful beginning for the troubled marrieds).

With regard to physical illnesses and maladies, the prime concern focuses upon Ruth’s own battle with polymyalgia, which she plays down, but has her nephew on the lookout as the disease worsens.

The already-diagnosed lunatic/pharmacist Mrs. Tishell (Selena Cadell) appears to be almost normal in comparison with the crazies and craziness that propel the Port Wenn citizenry to…well, crazy.  Continuing the thread of over-medication, her spouse (Malcolm Storry), too, has returned home after a long absence (who can blame him?), and, wanting to sexually make up for lost time, raids his wife’s store supplies.  The result ain’t pretty.

And speaking of pretty, Constable Penhale (John Marquez) has fallen in love with a ravishing babysitter (Robyn Addison), who, sadly, is as good at her job as he is at his; she promptly locks Baby Ellingham (ably impersonated by four thespian tots:  Archer Ray Gilliard Langridge, Harry Rossi Collins, Maverick William Bentley and Olly John Malcolm Gard) up in an empty abode.

Ruth, meanwhile, saves the day for the Large family (Ian McNiece, Joe Absolom, as father Bert and son Al, respectively).  Having invested in Al’s B&B, she is distressed that it’s taking longer than anticipated to get off the ground.  That turns out to be the best thing, as, once the holiday respite officially opens, it’s a disaster – giving the first vacationing couple (Bruce Alexander, Melanie Walters) a weekend in hell (ending with a potential food poisoning episode at his father’s restaurant).

As for Bert’s eatery, it’s on wobbly legs (as are most of the diners).  The elder Large can’t make a go at it, the final nail in his business coffin being driven by the questionable choice of hiring the town mean girls as staff.  What could possibly go wrong there?

Out of work and wandering through the countryside in his ramshackle trailer/caravan, Bert lights on Ruth’s property, where he regresses to the Large family’s age-old expertise:  bootlegging whiskey.  This illegality threatens to toss both him and Ruth in the clink, and might well do so except for the doctor’s sneaking a taste of his brew and realizing that it’s brilliant.  She agrees to help him get a proper liquor license and, like son/like father, go into business with him.  The Larges might finally be living up to their name.

Martin’s troubles, however, aren’t merely domestic.  There’s coping with the ubiquitous pesky mutt, who adores him, and those always-annoying tourists (including yank Sigourney Weaver).  There’s also the case of a psychotic backwoods woman (The Duchess of Duke Street‘s great Gemma Jones) and her demented son (Richard Riddell), unhappy with the fatal diagnosis for her husband (Nicholas Lumley).  She kidnaps Martin at gunpoint and holds him prisoner until he examines and (supposedly and magically) deems her ailing partner well.

All of this certifiable, manic magnificence is beautifully directed by Nigel Cole, Charles Palmer and Ben Gregor, written by Jack Lothian, Richard Stoneman, Charlie Martin and Julian Unthank, and sumptuously photographed on-location in Port Issac by Simon Archer.  The 1080p crystal-clarity high definition is showroom-worthy; ditto the 5.1 surround audio, featuring the jaunty score by Colin Towns, and the realistic sound effects that envelope one’s media room with seagulls, harbor sounds and trees blowing in the wind.

The Acorn blu-ray is terrific, making one wish and feel they were in Cornwall, despite the populace (the episode titles themselves: Rescue Me, Shock of the New, It’s Good to Talk, Education, Education, Education, Control-Alt-Delete, Other People’s Children, Fasta Non Verba and The Doctor is Out, provide an excellent indication of the direction these exercises in comedic frenzy is headed). There is also over 70-minutes of behind-the-scenes extras that, unlike the food at Bert’s, are definitely worth sampling.

This quirky, absolutely addictive comedy just gets better and better, the best wrap-up of SERIES 7 being the announcement of a Series 8.  Can hardly wait!

DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Buffalo Pictures Productions.  CAT # AMP-2416.  SRP:  $39.99.

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Anime-zing

For those hard-to-please sci-fi fans who additionally crave 3D to go with their fantasy cocktail, I heartily recommend the recent release of 2013’s HARLOCK:  SPACE PIRATE, now on limited-edition Blu-Ray from the gang at Twilight Time/Ketchup Entertainment/TOEI.

Admittedly, I’m not an anime expert, although I have often been agog at the exquisite artwork indigenous to the genre.  I do recall liking Vampire Hunter D immensely when first exposed to the animated re-animated Japanese lady back in the early 1990s.

A few years prior to that, whilst perusing the quarterly Japanese laserdisc catalogs, I spied the first home-video releases of Captain Harlock, (originally making his debut in a strip, or manga, by Leiji Matsumoto in 1977, the same year as Lucas’s you-know-what).  The color illustrations looked sensational; I was thoroughly awed by the imagery; but, being unable to understand the language (plus the then-1980s exorbitant yen/dollar exchange rate) stopped me from taking a chance.

Looking at this recent fantastic full-length feature proves my gut feeling was right.  This is truly outstanding stuff.  Harlock, the title dude, is a ruthless, seemingly invincible interplanetary warrior, marked as The Most Wanted by a traitorous cartel known as the Gaia Coalition.

Harlock is the ultimate anti-hero, fighting the centuries-old Homecoming War (the goal being to return victorious to a desolate, long-evacuated planet Earth) for nothing less than the future of humanity (it should be noted that he bears a striking resemblance, eyepatch and all, to actor Akihiko Hirata from the original 1954 classic Gojira, whose character also ended up securing the elongation of mankind).  It’s a kind of post-Trek intergalactic take on Captain Blood, but on a gargantuan scale.  Humanity, is after all, far more relevant than mere booty (no matter what your interpretation of that term is).

HARLOCK has it all: suspense, violence, treachery, adventure, a tincture of lust, drama up the wazoo and (literally) out-of-this-world special effects.  And it’s all inventively realized by director Shinji Aramaki , writer/creator Matsumoto, with screenplay assist from Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi and a veritable army of animators, dedicated 3D technicians, trained voice thesps (in both Japanese and English interpretations) and, as the hucksters love to say, MORE.  In fact, there’s barely a restful minute in either of the two versions presented on this double-disc set (the complete 115-minute Japanese cut w/English subtitles, and the 111-minute English language edition; each is available in either 3D or standard flat 2D).

If you’re one of the throngs of anime addicts, you’ve probably already added this to your collection.  If not, what are you waiting for?  Furthermore, if anime and/or even sci-fi isn’t your cup of sake, HARLOCK still delivers the goods. How so?  Because if you’re a 3D buff (like myself), this outer-space in-your-face odyssey becomes a must-have for your home theater.  The dizzying camerawork is roller-coaster gasp-worthy.  In 3D, it’s lightning on steroids (among the picture’s many award nods and noms was a well-deserved 2014 Lumiere Award Winner for Best International 3D Feature, Animated).

While there are plenty of coming-at-ya moments, two in particular merit mentioning.  Early in the picture, Logan, one of a group of young, green potential inductees, hoping to be recruited by Harlock’s band, perilously climbs to the top of a towering cliff (where the pirate’s spaceship is moored).  As the altruistic enlistee hangs on the crags and jagged edges of the mountain, the camera follows his grasping desperation; the resulting stereoscopic effect of depth and vertigo will have your stomach in what is technically referred to as GNNAAAAA-WHOA! mode.

Later on, a master shot of the space fleet in formation is so stunningly achieved that you’ll be engulfed by various-sized craft floating over your head, as well as around the room.  I playfully started grabbing at them, then thought better of this guaranteed strait-jacket reaction. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.  I turned to my companion, and breathed a sigh of relief (she was reaching for them as well).

If the 3D wasn’t enough, HARLOCK contains a state-of-the-art 5.1 digital surround track (with the excellent Tetsuya Takahashi music score available as an IST) that perfectly appends the bravura third dimension visuals.

And if THAT wasn’t enough, Twilight Time has further sweetened the pot with some enticing extras, including interviews with Matsumoto, Aramaki and Fukui, a making-of documentary, Venice Film Festival World Premiere highlights, storyboard galleries and TV spots/trailers.

A word of caution.  Like all Twilight Time titles, HARLOCK is a limited edition of 3500.  LSS, once they’re gone, it’s sayonara.  I can’t imagine that these will be around too much longer (or what horrific amounts the out-of-print copies will fetch on eBay), so, if your interest is sufficiently piqued, you should probably zoom this entry to the top of your “to purchase” platter list.

HARLOCK: SPACE PIRATE.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 3D Blu-Ray and standard 2D Blu-Ray]; 5.1 DTS-HD M A (English dubbed and Japanese w/English subtitles).  Twilight Time/Ketchup EntertainmentTOEI.  CAT# TWILIGHT 187-BR; SRP:  $34.95.

Limited edition of 3500.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time Movies (www.twilighttimemovies.com)

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Wet ‘N’ Riled

A movie I’d never thought I would live to see, the Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films restoration of the “lost” 1933 disaster flick DELUGE, majestically cascades onto Blu-Ray, bringing hope for future discoveries of other missing pieces of cinema.

DELUGE, the brainchild of underrated director Felix Feist (check out his rough “B” noir The Threat – one of the most chilling and meanest celluloid streets ever trod) and screenwriters Warren Duff and John. F. Goodrich (from the novel by Sydney Fowler Wright) relates the (then) unbelievable worst results of ignoring climate change.  Scientists and seismologists worldwide warn of massive earthquakes guaranteed to give way to a rising tsunami (whose path of irreparable destruction will slice through America, particularly up the Eastern seaboard).  Eventually, these disasters will go global.  And it’s too late to stop it.

Pre-Code Depression U.S. couldn’t care less, with the populace concurrently going about their everyday anything-to-survive activities contrasted with the latest events in café society.  Firmly entrenched in the latter is gorgeous Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), a champion socialite swimmer readying for a competition. Nevertheless, some are planning for the worst, like lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer), wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and their two sprouts (Marianne Webster, Ronnie Cosby).

Then, almost directly on target, the forecasted force of nature arrives, with one difference – it’s far worse than the experts predicted.  Within minutes, New York City is leveled in a spectacular display of pre-CGI special effects (marred only by some perspective-screwy rear-screen match-ups).

Blackmer, preparing to wait it out near Long Island, has his hopes dashed when wifey and kiddies are washed away. Shannon, diving into the currents, is carried to a nearby shoreline, unconscious, but remarkably alive.

That all this occurs within the first reel of DELUGE is amazing in and of itself (usually the SFX capper is saved for the last act, just one of the bizarre attributes of this jaw-dropping big-little 70-minute adventure.

What happens from this point on is extraordinary for a 1933 movie (well, maybe not, considering it IS pre-Code).  Blackmer, lonely and desperate, tries to cope with the wretchedness of his new existence, not sure if anyone else is alive on planet Earth.  For Shannon, it’s a fate worse than death, as the beachfront she’s washed up on belongs to two other survivors, Fred Kohler and Ralf Harolde.  YIKES.

Even before she regains consciousness, the two grubby predators are undressing her and fighting for who gets to violate her first.  But Shannon, ever resourceful, manages to sneak out and dive back into the sea, mercifully ending up on Blackmer’s property.  For this grateful New Yorker, it’s like manna from heaven.  Well, wo-manna, anyway.

Meantime, Kohler, who has killed the hornier Harolde, tracks the female via his makeshift vessel, arriving at the base of what days earlier would have been a vagrant Hooverville, but now is a rape gang. “I’m looking for a woman,” growls Kohler.  “Who ISN’T?!” replies the thuggish head of the band.

Parallel to this is the growing sex-fueled attraction between Blackmer and Shannon, with the obvious (dare-we-say) climax.  They will valiantly begin to re-populate Earth (with Blackmer undoubtedly eternally thankful that it was Peggy Shannon whom the tide brought in and not Marie Dressler).

Soon, the lovers come across the naked, raped body of a young girl, and realize that civilization has not perished after all.  The unfortunate was a victim of the aforementioned rape squad, and lived in a newly christened community of other surviving members from the tri-state area.

Natch, Blackmer and Shannon are welcomed, but there’s trouble ahead.  As the elders decide to hunt down and kill the rapists, Blackmer discovers that his wife and children survived the flood as well and are living in the town.  Again, since this is pre-Code, there isn’t really that much of a conflict of interest here:  it was an honest mistake (the shagging of Shannon), so while, Martin is content to have two beautiful women, Claire agonizingly tries to come to terms with the situation.

These romantic complications are temporarily put on-hold due to the tracking and killing-off of the rape cartel, another WTF segment, filled with much violence and bravado.

The resolution of the town’s pledge to collective bargaining (with Blackmer now installed as their ruler/President) prefigures Vidor’s Our Daily Bread by at least a year and is less brave new world than brave New Deal.

Shannon’s final decision is, again, only viable in pre-Code cinema (I won’t reveal what she does), and the picture ends with what was likely considered uplifting in 1933, compared to what most Americans were going through.

Some awful (and fortunately brief) racisim aside, DELUGE is sure to wow your audiences, especially if they’re pre-Code fans to begin with.

The performances are pretty good, with Blackmer, best known as the elderly warlock Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (“You name a place and I’ve been there.”) giving it his all.  Other members of the cast include such recognizable faces as Samuel S. Hinds, Lane Chandler, Matt Moore and Edward van Sloan.

The history of DELUGE is almost as disaster-prone as the movie’s on-screen events.  I had always thought it to be another in a line of successful RKO special effects blockbusters, following the studio’s King Kong box-office smash.  Actually, DELUGE was not an official Radio Picture, but an independently made production pick-up.  It had, in fact, been shot at the soon-to-be-defunct Tiffany Studios.  Of course, this makes those outstanding special effects even more eye-opening.

What happened to DELUGE after its short 1933 release is still hard to fathom (no pun intended).  The reel of special effects was sold to Republic Pictures, where it pumped up the excitement in several serials throughout the 1930s and ‘40s.  But the actual negative and elements seemed to disappear, and, while its legend loomed large, no one could find a print (I had only seen stills and read about it in 1960s monster magazines).

Then, in the 1980s, a print surfaced in Italy.  When this rumor was indeed verified (and it was subsequently shown at local film festivals), DELUGE‘s reputation as a must-see epic became a fact.  Even so, the murky remaining print looked worse than furnishings washing ashore in the pic’s flood.  This additionally wasn’t helped that the copy was dubbed in Italian (up until screening this Blu-Ray, I wasn’t totally sure that it would be in English, and was figuring on a subtitled version).

After a decade of terrible bootlegs (including some in subtitle-less Italian), Kino and Lobster Films have achieved the impossible.  They have provided an incredibly decent 35MM print in its original English language.  What, how, where…I dunno, but I’m too happy to care.  The print, while certainly not pristine (exhibiting some grain), is more than acceptable, a nice testament to the work of terrific d.p. Norbert Brodine (Of Mice and Men, The House on 92nd Street, Somewhere in the Night, Kiss of Death, etc.).  The foreboding music by Val Burton is yet another plus.  There are also some nice extras, including audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith and the complete public domain 1934 Peggy Shannon feature Back Page.

And, finally, we can’t ignore the coincidental  goosebump-raising, unnerving foreword to the proceedings of the pic’s monumental Manhattan disaster:  a biblical quote from Genesis (wait for it), 9-11.

DELUGE.  Black-and-white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films.  CAT # K21208.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Lean Streets

When it comes to home video, no single retro genre is more profitable than film noir.  These slick, nasty, amoral, atmospheric thrillers of hopelessness and madness have ruled the filmic roost (for VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray and revival houses) for nearly fifty years.  But, as they say, “it’s so old, it’s new.”

Indeed, with the fantastic successes of The Maltese Falcon, I Wake up Screaming, This Gun for Hire and others, all the studios went noir (before they even knew what it was).  And that especially applied to the lower echelon sausage factories, aka Poverty Row.  And why not?  Look what you’d save on lights alone!

As for the majors, their “B” units went into overtime, cranking out quirky, unsettling crime dramas that tended to veer from mere greedy villainy to lust appended by a myriad of psychological disorders.

Thus, I have taken it upon myself to introduce some (mostly) obscure samples in this bargain basement of unhealthy and nightmarish obsession, more commonly christened twentieth-century America (running the democratic gamut from Monogram to MGM).  All are available as made-to-order DVD-Rs from the (God bless ‘em) Warner Archive Collection, and are presented in excellent crisp 35MM transfers with above average audio to match.

 

MGM’s 1942 KID GLOVE KILLER was a prime B-unit entry populated by soon-to-be A-list folks.  Natch, anything “B” at MGM would generally pass as an “A” at any other studio.  On Poverty Row, it would be DeMille.

KID GLOVE KILLER is a surprisingly progressive programmer that transcends mere “mystery” and dives headfirst into the sick, swirling, dark world that Dick Powell was always getting drugged/cold-cocked into (post-Busby Berkeley, that is); in short, more noir than detective filler.  Of course, it helps greatly that, aside from the top production values, the picture has a superb cast and director.  Helming this mini-gem is none other than Fred Zinnemann, graduated from his Crime Does Not Pay shorts and kicked upstairs into the full-length-feature big time.  Leading the cast as a top M.E. is the always terrific Van Heflin, one of his only “B” appearances, as he would be winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar later that year (for the noirish “A” Johnny Eager).  Marsha Hunt (still trucking today at 100) is the savvy, sassy smart associate Heflin appoints to assist him above the many male applicants (rather unusual for the time, especially for a “B”).  Lee Bowman, likeable but ever-smarmy, is Heflin’s BFF, a rising politico who, coincidentally, is also a cunning sociopath resorting to gruesome murders to pave his way for a vocational future in local government.

It’s a wild and suspenseful ride watching Heflin and Hunt brilliantly resort to science to solve the crimes and exhibit disbelief at who the culprit turns out to be.  And then there’s Bowman, seducing both of them in friendship and romance (Heflin and Hunt, respectively; it’s not THAT progressive).  The story and screenplay by Allen Rivkin and John C. Higgins (from a story by Higgins) is a tense nail-biter, presenting an admirable blueprint for what would become a Zinnemann specialty (High Noon, Day of the Jackal).  Zinnemann and Heflin would be reunited at Metro six years later for the “A” noir Act of Violence, but, frankly, I prefer this little 74-minute thriller.  The expert photography is by Paul Vogel, the lush score by David Snell (with uncredited help from Daniel Amfitheatrof and Lennie Hayton).  The supporting cast is fantastic, and includes Samuel S. Hinds, Cathy Lewis, John Litel, Eddie Quillan, Leon Belasco, real-life gloveless killer-as-a-kid Bobby Blake and Ava Gardner (as a car hop, ZOWIE).  It’s more than likely that MGM, delighted with the rushes, was already planning a series for Heflin and Hunt, but their supersonic rising stars prevented the sequel possibilities (just like Walter Pidgeon’s ascension stopped the studio’s profitable Nick Carter franchise).  This one’s a keeper.

 

1947’s FALL GUY, directed by the prolific Reginald LeBorg, is what kind critics refer to as “an odd duck.”  The potential here was enormous, but Poverty Row Monogram lacked the testicular equipment to propel this nevertheless engrossing programmer toward greater heights.  The credits are impressive, the basis being a Cornell Woolrich story (the script by Jerry Warner and John O’Dea, not so much).  The Woolrich source-work was an infamous pulp, entitled Cocaine.  This gives you an idea where the narrative was headed.  The plot tells of an easily riled ex-GI who attends a coke party, and ends up wanted for the murder of a sultry blonde, stuffed in a closet.  His best pal is a detective, who puts himself on the line trying to clear him.  Since all the delirium (including snowballed partiers), wrong hallucinatory crime scene locales and ferocious mood swing behavior lend themselves to nose-candy enthusiasts, the Monogram refurbish leaves a less-than-desired effect upon viewers that often makes no sense.  You see, while hyping the notorious title in the ads, the low-rent moguls saw fit to remove the drug from the scenario entirely, relying instead upon that old stand-by “givin’ him a mickey.”

That said, there’s still enough atmospheric, hazy paranoia to keep noir fans in check.  Certainly the cast is quite enjoyable, save the lead.  Clifford Penn  (aka, Leo Penn, is better known as a future TV director; worse than any murder in this pic, he’s also the procreator of Sean Penn, a crime for which there is no punishment heinous enough).  Penn aside, there’s Robert Armstrong as his detective buddy, Rita Hayworth clone Teala Loring as a ga-ga possible femme fatale, the great Iris Adrian as a loudmouth, giggling reveler, plus Virginia Dale and Douglas Fowley to keep things moving.  Since even a fall guy needs a fall guy, Elisha Cook, Jr., turns up with a bullseye practically embossed on his fedora.

FALL GUY was an early effort for producer Walter Mirisch, and it does look good (thanks to the work of cinematographer Mack Stengler, best known as the d.p. on Leave it to Beaver).  For Woolrich fans (particularly of spine-tingling tales of the Black Alibi ilk), you’ll probably figure out who the culprit actually is long before the knockout-dropped lead.  We can only ponder what this nifty little nugget might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis.  And with folks courageous enough to not tamper with a sniffer-to-snifter retread.

 

1954’s LOOPHOLE, an Allied Artists special, has a lot going for it.  The plot, concerning a spiral downward of a Hollywood bank teller falsely accused of grand larceny, offered many possibilities.  The fact that an obsessed insurance investigator is as eager to nail him as the greedy local nasties is a plus.  The script by actor-turned-writer Warren Douglas has some but, frankly, not enough, pep to nevertheless make it a noir essential.  Douglas is hampered with a by-the-numbers story concocted by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker (honest bank executives?  Come now).  But he does get a few quotable lines that define the teller’s plight (“Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an answer to anything.”  “What he needs is a taste of a rubber hose!”).

While the negatives also include pedestrian direction by Harold Schuster (although I’d go as far to say that this might be Schuster’s best work) and too much reliance on ripping off AA’s own The Phenix City Story and TV’s Dragnet, the pluses are major.  The cast alone is representative of the noir gold standard, headed by Barry Sullivan (as the teller) and Charles MacGraw as the Raymond Burr/Pitfall-esque investigator.  Right up there with ’em is Dorothy Malone, Mary Beth Hughes, Don Beddoe, Frank Sully and Carleton Young.

Add widescreen location photography (by William Sickner), a decent score by Paul Dunlap and voila! – you have the recipe for a fun “poor bastard” way to spend 80 minutes.

BTW, LOOPHOLE is a socko title.

 

KID GLOVE KILLER.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000547828SRP:  $21.99.

FALL GUY.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT# 1000388516 . SRP:  $17.99 

LOOPHOLE.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio.  CAT# 1000388504 . SRP:  $21.99.

All titles available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com

 

 

Shouting “Quiet” Praise…

Running a close second to having a great movie degenerate into a handful of dust (i.e. 90% of all silent pics) is having a classic motion picture only accessible in a wretched, virtually unwatchable form.

For more than three decades this was the case with John Ford’s 1952 boisterous comedy-romance THE QUIET MAN, filmed on-location in the director’s beloved Ireland – a cinematic confection revered for its gorgeous use of Technicolor. Gotta stop myself with these platitudes…you get the message, right?  So, how did this happen?  How could this happen?  Simply put, the mooks who curated Republic Pictures’ library had let their most acclaimed work literally turn to mud. No foolin’, folks – that’s what it looked like: ugly, dark images with no detail or clarity…the spectacular hues relegated to Silly Puttied Biograph quality B&W with a Winky Dink TV flap tint. It became “the” sinful example of celluloid neglect (made all the more insulting, as one of the picture’s two Oscars was for the much-deserved Color Cinematography, dually shared by its brilliant practitioners of the art, Winton Hoch and Archie Stout).

That all changed, mostly for the good, when Olive Films, in conjunction with Paramount Pictures (who inherited most of the Republic output), joined forces in 2012 to at least partially rectify this Hollywood-Holocaust…It allowed me then to at last be able to recommend a home-video version of Ford’s Irish valentine, that they proudly unfurled as a 60th Anniversary Blu-Ray (and DVD). Hurrah, hurrah…and, oh yeah, hurrah!

But there were still hurdles to climb, often as jagged as the Emerald Isle’s hauntingly beautiful coasts.  The clarity was there, and much of the color was now presentable, yet still a far cry from the picture that took the aforementioned cinematography statuette in 1953.  Well, it’s time to wave your shillelagh with rapturous joy.  The folks at Olive and Paramount have gone one step closer to Bijou nirvana via their recent redux as part of the terrific new Olive Signature series.  Yep, the new QUIET MAN, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative, is the best version of the title one is apt to see.  It’s no longer merely viewable, it’s gorgeous.  True, some of the interior and dark exterior color remain a bit contrasty, but, WOW, what a difference to the top Blu-Ray/DVD of just four years ago.

The story of this movie’s journey is as rocky as the raucous relationship betwixt leads John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara – albeit nowhere near as fun.

From its inception as a Saturday Evening Post story by writer Maurice Walsh in 1935, THE QUIET MAN‘s evolution to motion picture extraordinaire has been one of frustration, exasperation and perspiration.

Ford, then reaching his peak as a Hollywood mover and shaker (director of perhaps that year’s most lauded title, The Informer) immediately bonded with the tale of an Irish-born, American-raised prize fighter who quits the ring after killing an opponent during a bout. His return to the roots and soil of his parents’ youth…the picturesque hamlet of Innisfree…attempting to assimilate into the charming, eccentric community…and, in doing so, finding the love of his life, is movie manna from heaven.

From frame one, Ford, much to his chagrin, could find no backers among the major studios, not a suit who seemed to “get it,” to understand the beauteous tapestry of visual possibilities. In spite of Ford’s increasing track record of box-office smashes (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley), there were just no takers.

All this was put on-hold once that little skirmish called World War II reared its demonic, democratic-threatening head.

Ford spent most of the war in combat – shooting amazing color footage of battles – but never letting the thought of bringing his Irish story to the screen escape him for more than an instance.

Returning home, Ford found that many things had changed – save the reluctance to greenlight THE QUIET MAN. Most notable was the emergence of John Wayne. Wayne had been discovered by the director in the late 1920s – gainfully employing the hulking USC football star (as well as his pal Ward Bond) as a grip and occasional extra. Their tumultuous working situation was not unlike that of THE QUIET MAN‘s protagonists’ love/hate saga. For nearly ten years, Wayne, by no fault of his own, fell out of favor with Ford, who, by decade’s end, finally figured he had suffered enough penance, having been relegated to an endless array of Poverty Row two-day western quickies. In 1939, Stagecoach made Wayne a viable property. Proving himself in a series of post-war blockbusters like Ford’s Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – and, more importantly, in Hawks’ Red River (“Who ever knew that son of a bitch could act!” exclaimed the faux-shocked director) zoomed him to the Top Ten International Stars list (upon which he remarkably remained for over twenty years). A Best Actor Oscar-nomination for Allan Dwan’s 1949 war epic Sands of Iwo Jima once and for all cemented his superstar status.

When Ford approached Herbert J. Yates, founder and head of minor-major Republic studios, offering him his formidable services…it now came at a price the director was loath to bear. Whereas in the past, John Wayne would be lucky to even be considered for a Ford project – the tides had now turned. Yates wouldn’t even consider such a dubious box-office effort as THE QUIET MAN unless Wayne was attached (Ford had genuinely expressed an interest in Robert Ryan, who actually had been a Golden Gloves champ). Furthermore, both Wayne and Ford would have to shoot a western for the studio first – a surefire guarantee that Republic could recoup some of the losses should THE QUIET MAN tank. Wayne’s crucial participation merely infuriated Ford to the max – an abomination, since although the director begrudgingly admitted that Wayne was a valuable asset, he nevertheless additionally marked him as somebody who should be beholden to him for any success he had achieved…forever!

The western in question turned out to be 1950’s Rio Grande – an unprecedented bonanza and the final part of Ford’s cavalry trilogy (which was prefaced by Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon). More relevant was the casting – the first time so – of Wayne with O’Hara. Their chemical combustion was the kind that would have had Robert Oppenheimer leaping for jocundity (if indeed Oppenheimer was so athletically inclined). With this one picture, the pair became a “legendary” screen romantic team. It’s astounding to think that THE QUIET MAN was only their second picture – as their intuitive ability to play off each other, their obvious affection for one another was so strong that many moviegoers thought them to be a couple in real life…or mistakenly (for decades) figured them to have made upwards of a dozen to twenty pictures together (in actuality, they only appeared on-screen together five times, from 1950’s Rio Grande to 1971’s Big Jake).

While the mammoth success of Rio Grande gave Ford a lot more leverage, THE QUIET MAN‘s troubles were far from over. Yates’ ever-present penny-pinching comprised beseeching the director to film the movie in Hollywood. Ford’s curt response: “No!”  Yates begged that the movie be shot in black-and-white, a request Ford never even bothered to reply to. The mogul then countered with a compromise to shoot the film in their inferior house color process, True Color by Consolidated. Ford’s volley was one word: Technicolor.  And so it went – as did Ford, Wayne, O’Hara and the rest of the cast and crew to Ireland, in early June of 1951.

A difficult shoot, but a satisfying one, THE QUIET MAN was more or less a family affair. Ford’s brother Francis played a key supporting role as an aged villager; the director’s son, Patrick, worked on the production assistant. Wayne’s children appeared as extras in the horse-race sequence. O’Hara’s brother Charles FitzSimmons appeared in a small role and helped arrange accommodations for the company. Costar Barry Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields was cast as the Reverend Playfair…and subsequent Best Supporting Actor nominee Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew (soon to be a director himself) cut his teeth on the pic as an A.D.

It was because of the latter that Harry Carey, Jr., once related a story to me about the location shooting (he and Andy McLaglen were best friends). “It was the scene right before the famous fight between Wayne and Victor McLaglen. Duke and Maureen were crossing this beautiful meadow en route to Red Danaher’s farm – followed by all these villagers…Ford told Duke, ‘Don’t hold back – drag her through the grass…by the hair if necessary.’ Maureen was always such a trouper – she didn’t flinch. So Wayne surveys the area, and quietly approaches Ford. ‘I think there might be a slight problem, Pappy.’ ‘What’s that?!’ barks Ford. Wayne uncomfortably tells Ford… ‘Well, this grass – it looks all right, but it’s covered with horse, sheep and dog shit…’ Ford shrugs, ‘What’s wrong – afraid of getting your boots messed?’  Before Wayne can answer, Ford yells, ‘ACTION!’ Wayne, tells O’Hara, ‘I’m really sorry about this.” Maureen’s already laying in it, snaps back, “Oh, just get on with it!’ So he’s dragging her through all this muck…and at the end of the take, Ford shouts, ‘Cut!’ and then… ‘Again!’ He had Wayne dragging Maureen through that manure for most of the day. The funny thing is that I think it bothered Duke more than Maureen!”

For Ford, THE QUIET MAN was pseudo-autobiographical…by that I mean in presenting the Wayne character the way Ford likely WISHED he was. This isn’t mere speculation. In the mass-published edition of Walsh’s work, the central leads are named Paddy Bawn Enright and Ellen Roe Danaher. In the movie, Enright (Wayne) becomes Sean Thornton (Sean being Ford’s christened birth name) while Danaher loses the Ellen Roe in favor of Mary-Kate (a claim Peter Bogdanovich first surmised to be a combination of Mary McBride, Ford’s wife and airoutis roomsuckis actress Katharine Hepburn, the two loves of his life).

I always wondered about the time period of THE QUIET MAN. I naturally always assumed that it took place in modern-day (1950s) Ireland, but now think that it might be circa the 1930s, when the original story was written. Not that I guess it matters; in any event, the actual conditions were primitive – more akin to 1912 than 1952. Most of the community had no electricity, so huge generators had to be flown in to power the cameras and the lighting and sound equipment. These distractions weren’t eased by Yates’ frantic barrage of telegrams from Hollywood, inquiring as to the prospect of finishing up ahead of schedule. One telegram did make Ford laugh out loud. Whilst screening dailies (which Yates had printed in Technicolor, very unusual for the time), the Republic magnate questioned the abilities of the cameramen…bemoaning the fact that everything looked so green!

The performances gleaned from Ford’s expert direction and Frank Nugent’s lyrical script are board-trodding ambrosia! Wayne and O’Hara were never better. Ditto McLaglen (whose scenes showcasing his dining table etiquette only served to confirm my suspicions regarding his eating habits); Dublin’s Abbey Players alumnus Jack MacGowran, Sean McClory, and the rest.

The most surprising (for me) acting plus for me was the portrayal of Michealeen Oge Flynn, as impersonated by Barry Fitzgerald. Personally, I always found Fitzgerald’s post-Going My Way work a little bit too Catch-Me-Lucky-Charms cloying. Indeed he pushes that button here – but hot damn if for once it doesn’t work. What can I say? Instead of being friggin’ grating, he’s friggin’ great. His misinterpretation of the leads’ destructed honeymoon bed (“It’s Homeric!”) provides one of the movie’s biggest laughs (a vignette that was cut from the original release in several States and in the UK; don’t fret – every frame is here to enjoy).  Can’t neglect the beautiful music composed by Ford’s good friend Victor Young either; Young’s original themes as well as his arrangements of Irish standards are sure to bring a tear to your both your heart and suil.

Upon its release, THE QUIET MAN broke all records – quickly becoming the critically acclaimed picture of the year. It shot Republic’s stock up to the point where they would now be able to provide a super-production every year (Johnny Guitar, The Last Command) – although never again reaching the heights of the Ford picture. Furthermore, THE QUIET MAN did for Irish tourism what The Red Shoes did for ballet enrollment. It was the gift that kept on giving.

Ultimately, the movie would cop five Academy nominations, including a win for Best Director for Ford (his fifth and final victory); other nods included Best Screenplay and Best Picture – the latter outrageously losing to Cecil B. DeMille’s moronic The Greatest Show on Earth.

Warner Bros., always the first to cash in on shameless promotion, immediately cast Wayne in the Michael Curtiz comedy-romance Trouble Along the Way – hyping the picture with “That all-man Quiet Man has a new dame to tame…”  This comparison extended to the one-sheets, rendering Wayne’s female co-star Donna Reed into a striking likeness of O’Hara!

The discontinuation of Technicolor printing in the 1970s sealed the fate of THE QUIET MAN. Even on those embryonic color TV sets of the 1960s, one KNEW that those prints were Technicolor…it looked that good.  Once this process was finished, whoever owned the Republic library went for the shoddiest upgrade CRI’s (Color Reversal Intermediate). The colors, formerly so vibrant, washed out to various shades of the stuff Wayne dragged O’Hara through. Night scenes and dark interiors lost all clarity and detail…often just dialogue with no discernible picture on-view.

While I admit that a movie so monumental is truly befitting of a full-scale restoration a la Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz (Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, Spartacus, Vertigo, Rear Window), I guess that’s an undertaking we fanatics will just have to wait and hope for. That said, as indicated, this newly remastered, high definition transfer from a 4K scan of the original negative is a major home-video event. To reiterate to above, the Olive Signature HD quality is a revelation – the best THE QUIET MAN has looked in over forty years! I love the fact that I can now watch this movie again without any reservations (both myself and my late cineaste partner-in-crime Ric Menello put a moratorium on this title as soon we saw those awful prints that started circulating during the early 1980s). The crystal clarity of the location shots, the flesh tones, blue Irish eyes that sure ‘n begorrah be now smiling once again…it’s all so grand.

So REJOICE (or James Joyce or Joyce Kilmer…what the HELL, when it comes to THE QUIET MAN – we’re ALL Irish). This classic’s belated home-video refurbish transcends being simply a collector’s event…There’s also a plethora of delectable extras, including a documentary on Republic Pictures and Yates, audio commentary by Joseph McBride (author of the superb Ford biography, Searching for John Ford), tributes to Maureen O’Hara, and MORE.   What can I say?  Why it’s Homeric!

 

As discussed above, the making of THE QUIET MAN is almost as engrossing as the picture itself.  In fact, it WOULD make a great picture; and, in fact, it HAS.  In 2012, Irish director Se Merry Doyle co-produced a loving, rollicking (and, eventually, a multi-award-winning) feature-length documentary, entitled JOHN FORD: DREAMING THE QUIET MAN.  As a must-have appendage to the their Signature Edition, Olive Films with Loopline Film Productions, Ltd. have made this wonderful, entertaining saga available in a stunning widescreen Blu-Ray (and DVD).

Narrated by Gabriel Byrne, the movie chronicles many of the adventures talked of in this article; but it doesn’t stop there.  Things I never knew are revealed, specifically how the movie almost was shelved before completion.  Yup, the print-the-legend tale is that Ford, under terrific stress, had a breakdown during the shoot (more likely, he went on a monumental bender; “He was a painfully deadly alcoholic,” Dobe Carey told me.  “A half a glass of beer is all it took.”).  With Ford confined to bed, unable to continue, THE QUIET MAN appeared doomed.  The schedule was tight, and the grand cast had projects ahead that couldn’t be postponed.  So, what happened?  John Wayne became well, John Wayne.  He stepped in and directed one of the movie’s most memorable sequences, the big horse race.  By the time that segment wrapped, Ford was able to, once again, grab the reins.  And nothing more about the incident was mentioned.

There’s also a funny account of Yates’ bitching about the movie’s length.  For Herbert J. Yates, a motion picture should never run more than an hour-and-a-half (ideally, around 80 minutes).  THE QUIET MAN clocked in a 129 minutes.  “Cut something!,” bemoaned Yates to Ford.  This was a request ignored until a special press/exhibitor screening in Hollywood.  The reaction was fantastic throughout, full of laughs and applause.  As the picture was unspooling to its end (the mighty confrontation between Wayne and McLaglen), the audience was hooked, and, at that key first-strike moment, Ford instructed the projectionist to stop the film.  “Sorry, but this movie runs too long,” he announced.  The small but influential group started shouting for the show to resume. And they got progressively louder and angrier.  “Ask Mr. Yates,” shrugged Ford.  Yates, embarrassed (and probably a bit frightened) responded that it was just a joke and ordered the remainder of the film to roll.  Not a frame was removed.

DREAMING THE QUIET MAN likewise bursts the Ford Gaelic bubble.  He liked to impress his American cast and crew with his mastery of the auld language of his heritage.  Truth be told, according to the locals (many of whom are interviewed in the doc), Ford was hopelessly inept at speaking in the tongue, frequently blathering gibberish.  Translators were brought in as coaches for Ward Bond and Maureen O’Hara to phonetically speak the dialect for one brief scene by a fishing stream (good thing, too, as it comprises a discussion about the latter’s honeymoon sexual relations).

The interviewees are hilarious, wizened duffs and twinkling-eyed matrons, who were children during the original shoot.  Their first-hand accounts are marvelous.  In true fairy-tale fashion, the non-existent “Innisfree” (in actuality the town of Cong) almost became the fictional locale.  The frontispiece herald of the Cohan Bar remained, and tour groups from all over the world have turned an anticipated “Innisfree” stopover into the village’s number-one cottage industry.  Dotted with QUIET MAN souvenir shops, Cong’s gullible visitors annually become enthralled by the wily populace who regale them with enough blarney to possibly even bring a grin to Ford’s sour puss (or as a wise town lady brilliantly phrases, “They come here to be lied to by Irish people.”).

Much of the documentary is highlighted by clips from a print of THE QUIET MAN.  This is worth mentioning, as, although the print, obviously a 16MM copy, has been poorly transferred (extremely soft), there is no doubt that it’s an authentic Technicolor copy.  As good as the Signature Edition is, this is the way I generally recall the sumptuous colors, back in the 1960s, and from private collectors’ prints that I was lucky enough to see in the early 1970s.  Like the QM SIGNATURE EDITION, the Blu-Ray is laden with pot o’gold extras.

Maureen O’Hara herself is interviewed, and, she pulls no punches.  The actress correctly identifies Ford as one mean SOB, but she adds how she wouldn’t have changed anything in their relationship for the world.  As with all her Ford anecdotes, O’Hara pushes the brogue a bit harder than when discussing other aspects of her career (a point she even mentions that Ford picked up on, and ridiculed her about).  There’s also a short bit on the director’s obsession with the star, including his sending voluminous love letters to counterbalance the barrage of hurled public insults.

O’Hara saves the most enticing part for last, when asked what was it she whispered into John Wayne’s ear at the pic’s conclusion (the one that has them zooming back toward their cottage).  “I know what you’re going to ask, and what you want to hear,” she teases before denying us eager, horny fans an answer.  We do know that Ford coached her on alluringly sidling up to Wayne and softly speaking to him with a naughty look on her face.  Of course, it was the promise of some sexual desire, a fantasy, a fetish…the mind boggles.  One only has to look at the expression on Wayne’s face when she finishes with lip-biting fervor.  You can almost see the actor go out of character, expecting him to shockingly respond with “MAUREEN!?”  Indeed, only O’Hara, Ford and Wayne knew what was mentioned.  O’Hara tells us she will take those words to her grave.  And so she did.

THE QUIET MAN:  THE OLIVE SIGNATURE SPECIAL EDITION. Color.  Full Frame [1.33: 1; 1080p High Definition 4K scan]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]; Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OS006. SRP:  $34.95.

JOHN FORD: DREAMING THE QUIET MAN:  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Loop Film Productions, Ltd. CAT# OF966.  SRP:  $29.95.

 

 

Three Times the Harm

No, you’re reading right.  It’s me, reviewing a current movie.  Yep, I generally avoid ’em – ten to twenty minutes in, wondering why I’m not watching Vertigo, The Searchers, a pre-Code or anything with Charles McGraw.  But I’m making a rare exception because this entry, 2016’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, now on Blu-ray from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, is a rare exception.  Not saying it’s a sure-to-be future classic, but it’s definitely interesting enough to hold the attention of anyone past grade school.  And these days, for an American movie, that’s a big deal.

No surprise, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS owes much of its existence to film noir.  Indeed, director/scripter Tom Ford greatly admires those oft-trodden mean streets and their occasional detours (to say nothing of Detour itself).  His recent appearance on TCM as a guest programmer (okay, to admittedly help promote the hom-vid of this title) revealed his love for Psycho, a movie that, like this one, partially preys on the fear of desert driving.

But what is the primo-mojo of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, besides its illustrious roots?  It’s the story, actually a story within a story within a story.  That’s right, folks, ya get three fer one.  Howz that for bang for your buck?  But while a snarky, suspicious viewer (no names mentioned) might initially conclude that the pic is simple three Lifetime Movies in one, ANIMALS goes way beyond that because of…well, because of a number of reasons.  The main one is the stellar acting; all the performances are excellent, with two a standout:  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon.  And, no, we’re not demeaning the fine work of Amy Adams.  She is, after all the catalyst, the main mane, the twist who’s the twist…in the twist.

Let me further wet your whistle with a brief rundown on the narrative.  Story One:  Beauteous Susan Morrow (Adams) is a successful art gallery owner (with a bizarre penchant for violent, grotesque exhibits) married to successful, hunky businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer).  The only thing that isn’t successful is their marriage – a rapidly eroding train wreck of lovelessness.  Oh, yeah, and it turns out, their supposed upscale life ain’t so successful either – living from day-to-day, faking their wealth until the repo folks come a-knockin’.  In fact, the underlying theme of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is…well, lying.  No one is truthful, no one is sincere, no one is to be believed or trusted.  As her “friend” at a phony soiree mentions about her beard marriage to a closeted spouse, “Having a gay husband is not such a bad thing.”

Susan’s self-loathing emanates from her shame in not doing the right thing, aka, marrying the true love of her college youth, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal).  This brings us to story number deux.  Then an aspiring artist, Susan meets budding writer Edward, and it’s the Fourth of July on Christmas and Christmas in July.  But Sheffield is a struggling schnook, and Morrow’s shrewish mom (Laura Linney, in a great cameo), by Susan’s own definition, a horrible right-wing nut-job “conservative Republican,” sneers at her daughter’s romantic choices.  “We all eventually turn into our mothers,” she spits out at her progeny, a witch’s curse that turns out to be true, as Susan ditches Edward for Hutton, but not before aborting their child.  And Edward Sheffield disappears into the fog, seething with hate and a sworn decree of RE-VEN-GE (there’s a reason I’m writing it that way; you’ll have to watch to find out why).

Which brings us to story number three.  Susan receives a manuscript in the mail from Edward, a name she hasn’t openly mentioned in years.  Susan even tells her employees that she’s been freaked by an out of the past blast from her first husband – a declaration that stuns her staff, as they never realized there WAS a first husband.

The manuscript is for a thriller, entitled NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a favorite name the once-inseparable couple was fond of (again, this should tell you something).  It’s a modern horror tale that Susan can’t put down, and it’s played out by Gyllenhaal in a dual role, Adams lookalike Isla Fisher and younger Fisher/Adams doppelganger Ellie Bamber (as the couple’s grown teenaged daughter), portraying the author’s fictional characters.  Tony Hastings, wife Laura and daughter India (as Sheffield has dubbed them) are driving through the desert one night when they get sidetracked by a carload of redneck assholes.  This turns into a bullying episode of terror and nightmarish road stalking that would give even  Stephen King the motoring-after-sundown heebee-jeebees.  Not to sound like Rex Beach, but here come the spoilers, so if you wanna sign off, do it now.  The creeps (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo) kidnap the females, rape and murder them, after further torturing and tormenting and abandoning the emasculated surviving Hastings.

He reports the incident to the local police, who half-scoff at his incredible chronicle.  Eventually, the bodies are found, and one special veteran investigator, Bobby Andres, is assigned to the case (an absolutely Oscar-worthy turn by Shannon).

Together, over a period of years, the two men track down the culprits and eventually deliver their own kind of justice…with monstrous consequences.

Reading the engrossing text so unnerves Susan that she phones her college-aged daughter (Inez Menuez) from her first marriage (the one likened in the kidnap narrative) to make sure she’s safe.  But, wait, didn’t Susan reveal that her child from that union was aborted?  To quote the Marvin Gaye ditty, “What’s going on?”

Never mind that for now.  Susan can’t get Nocturnal Animals out of her thoughts.  She contacts Edward and agrees to meet with him over dinner.  Maybe this disturbing book will finally result in the happiness she’s missed, yeah?

Susan Morrow contentedly sits in a restaurant waiting for her dream lover/novelist, the man she should have been with from the beginning.  And waits.  And waits.

And here is where NOCTURNAL ANIMALS becomes a must-see, even for us vintage-only movie buffs.  What it achieves is something not present in modern picture-making, for seemingly decades.  Discussing the characters’ fates after the scenario ends (this is recommended over coffee and cake or other stimulants of choice at your local pub/opium den).  Is first hubby finally getting his revenge by standing her up?  Or does he even exist?  Remember that weird shit about her calling the daughter, or, that no one ever heard her discuss a first marriage?  That’s what I’m talking about!

This is the kind of movie that I surmise the likes of John Boorman, Claude Chabrol or Robert Aldrich would have gone ga-ga over.  But I give an approving nod to Ford, who, between his other day job as fashion designer, wrote, directed, and even roughcut-edited the pic at his studio.  Ford adapted the script from Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright.  Of course, his first change was to call the movie by the fictional book’s moniker.  Let’s face it, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is wayyy more enticing than Tony and Susan.  It implies vampirism, and, in a film noir way, it is.

Aside from all of the above, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has a lot of other cool stuff going for it, specifically the lush, gorgeous, dark camerawork by Seamus McGarvey (with terrific Malibu and Mojave Desert locations), and a wonderful score by Abel Korzeniowski, that frequently resonates with a jazzy John Barry vibe.

The Universal Pictures Blu-Ray of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is mah-velous, with its spectacular 1080p scope visuals and 5.1 DTS-HD audio bringing the movie theater experience into one’s media room.   There are also some obligatory extras, but I’d rather envelope myself in the jigsaw plotline and masterful acting.

Oh, yeah, and personally, no matter what the outcome is for Ms. Morrow, it ain’t gonna end well.  Now, pass the Entemann’s, please.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.  Color.  Widescreen [2.40:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.  CAT# 62184428.  SRP:  $34.98 (includes DVD and Digital HD).

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