Hearts and Flowers…and Brain Bits

Taking the “fine line between love and hate” adage to the nth degree, Roger Corman’s 1967 bloodbath THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, is the screen’s ultimate poison bon-bon homage to the celebrated February 14th holiday.

It was indeed on a snowy, romantic, warm and fuzzy morn in 1929 that Al Capone effectively and affectionately butchered (by proxy, he was in  balmy Alibi-land, Florida, at the time) members of the rival Bugs Moran gang in the soon-to-be infamous Chicago sight-seer’s fave murder hotspot, aka the North Clark Street garage.

Of course, the press (and the public) couldn’t get enough of the gory details and the event became the pulp fodder for decades of novels, movies and TV shows.  It even warranted its own wax effigy in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution.

Considered to be the brainchild of top Capone maniac “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (aka Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi, aka Clint Ritchie in this movie), who gleefully participated, the sanguinary shenanigans were heartily approved by Scarface and smacked of his trademark touch of irony.  A Valentine no one would forget.  Gotta admit, he was right.

Natch, there are few more exploitative titles in cinema than THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.  I mean, it DOES say it all.  So why not hand the plum project over to the (then) most exploitative director in the industry, the prolific and wildly successful Roger Corman?

Taking a crimson-soaked page from The Untouchables series (which had trodden Capone territory with a vengeance), Corman & Co. decided to go pseudo-documentary with Winchell-like narration and as true a depiction of the facts that were entertainingly possible.  To his credit, screenwriter Howard Browne did an admirable job; that said, it caused him some nasty feedback for the occasional comic-book dialog.  Browne should have cited the old “truth is stranger than fiction” dictum, as much of the more colorful lingo (genuine psycho-babble) was lifted directly out of existing Chicago police transcripts.  Suffice to say, the jargon provides a plethora of the fun frolics, salty one-liner breathers between the shocking violence (which, for its time, it was jaw-dropping).  How shocking?  The Fox prop department reported that more blood squibs were used on this picture than in all of The Longest Day.  To Corman’s credit, his obsession to sticking to detail extended to carefully studying police photographs of the murderous aftermath and instructing his victims to fall at various angles so that their bodies be in the exact positions as the 1929 corpses.  Talk about dead-ication!

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE was to be the incident that defined Capone’s empire – his ultimate test of fear.  For Corman, it, too, constituted a test.  After years at American-International and then as the head of his own FilmGroup indy outfit, ST. VALENTINE’S DAY was to be the director’s first foray into the big time.  For Fox, it wasn’t a gamble, as Corman was known to be a master of the quick turnaround (often being compared to a cinematic traffic cop), boasting that he had filmed feature films in as little as two to three days.  Appended to this bold (but accurate) claim was the growing acclaim he was achieving from some serious critics, who had praised his work on the recent pics Masque of the Red Death and The Intruder.

Corman, with ace cinematographer Milton Krasner in tow, wasted no time surveying the existing sets on the Fox lot, taking over and stealthily appropriating a standing bordello mock-up remaining from The Sand Pebbles, as well as other flats and props from concurrently shooting movies and television programs.  This further delighted the local moguls when the action-packed Panavision and DeLuxed colored results came in under schedule, and, more importantly, under budget – to the tune of $200,000.00 (or, roughly, six vintage AIP titles).

Corman was in movie nirvana, assembling the finest cast he ever had.  To be honest, it’s one of the finest casts ANYONE ever had – a mug and rogue’s gallery of class-A performers and B-movie icons thrown together in a mix master like so many guts and entrails.  And it woiks!

Prime thesp cuts included rising star George Segal as Peter Gusenberg, portraying his character as a vicious lunatic, seemingly channeling Jimmy Cagney on smack.  You know, Public Enemy’s Tom Powers, “you buy our beer” with a healthy slice of Cody Jarrett White Heat, plus a smidgeon of Jack the Ripper spiked with a tincture of Bill Cosby.  For added laffs, I suggest viewing this Blu-Ray prior to an episode of The Goldbergs.  Segal’s formidable female counterpart is the luscious Jean Hale, then voted the “girl one most wanted to be caught in a stalled ski lift with.”  There’s a sick irony in this male fantasy (especially after this picture), as Hale’s a duplicitous, gorgeous monster whose dagger-like delivery is supplanted only by her ferocious touchdown kick into Segal’s groin.  Their knockdown, drag-out sex battle is tantamount to a Corman homage to the actor’s appearance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Hale and Segal as the George and Martha of the Herschell Gordon Lewis drive-in set.

Without question, it’s essential to have a dynamic Scarface Al in this movie, and this pic easily presents the weirdest evocation of the gangster kingpin, Jason Robards. Certainly the screen’s most gaunt Capone, Robards attacks the role with venomous machismo, chomping cigars, growling his threats and jubilantly bashing skulls and furniture with equal abandon.  Robards’s taking on this part was the single compromise befalling the otherwise streamlined proceedings.  Originally, the distinguished Broadway star was cast more reasonably as Bugs Moran, with the choice Capone gig being offered to (and accepted by) Orson Welles.  It was the only time during the production that Fox suits put their collaborative expensively-soled feet down.  In a non-negotiable decree to Corman, they indicated that Welles was a notorious pain in the ass and that, in their opinion, he had become totally “undirectable.”  While a bit disappointed, Corman took it in his stride, shrugged, upgraded Robards to Al and Ralph Meeker to Moran.

Again, I can’t state enough what a joy it is to behold the folks who populate this movie.  It’s nothing less than It’s a Mob, Mob, Mob, Mob World.  Movie buffs will have a field day identifying such stalwart punims as Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Harold J. Stone, Kurt Kreuger, Paul Richards, Joe Turkel, Milton Frome, Mickey Deems, John Agar, Celia Lovsky, Tom Reese, Jan Merlin, Alex D’Arcy, Reed Hadley, Charles Dierkop, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, Mary Grace Canfield, Paul Frees, Ken Scott, Joan Shawlee and Buck Taylor.

And it gets better. Corman didn’t forget his roots, and gave his stock company some juicy bits.  Rubbing shoulders with Robards, Segal and Meeker are Dick Miller, Richard Bakalyan, Barboura Morris (a beautiful early bit), Betsy Jones-Moreland, Jonathan Haze and Bruce Dern.  The one fly in the ointment (for me anyway) is the inclusion of Jack Nicholson, still a couple of years away from his Easy Rider superstardom, but having already racked up points from his two Westerns with Monte Hellman.  In a word, he’s terrible – choosing to slough off the gritty, raw approach everyone else has deemed fit to utilize, and, instead going the Dick Tracy TV cartoon villain route (albeit less animated). Spouting his words like one of the thugs in Jerry Lewis’s The Big Mouth, Nicholson is an anti-Christ textbook of deese, dems and dose awfulness.  Admittedly, I’ve never been a Jack Nicholson fan; the Gene Shalit “national treasure” moniker eluded me, save that some treasure truly deserves to be buried.  I was elated when two viewers of this Blu-Ray, as offended by the Nicholson duh-livery as I was, simultaneously remarked “Schmuck” and “Asshole.”  Ah, vindication.

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE enjoyed a profitable (though short) run (returning almost double its cost) during its early summer release in June 1967.  Fox opted to send it out on a memorable action/comedy double-bill, pairing it with the wacky George C. Scott favorite The Flim-Flam Man.  Both flicks have since deservedly attained cult status and remain high points in the studio’s Sixties output.

The Twilight Time treatment of THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE is up to their usual august standards.  The 1080p 2.35:1widescreen transfer is razor-sharp with excellent restored color and bombastic mono sound.  The score by Fred Steiner (with uncredited assist from Lionel Newman) is accessible as an IST, plus there are a couple of enticing extras, including reminiscence by Corman, the trailer and a Fox MovieTone Newsreel clip.

To call this movie a cult favorite is an understatement.  It is nothing less than a psychotronic psycho tonic triumph!

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/Twilight Time Limited Edition of 3000.  SRP:  $29.95

 Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment:  www.screenarchives.com

 

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Top Ten 2015 Blu-Ray and DVDs

 

Well, at least, according to me.  As usual, there are way too many great titles available for the serious movie and TV fan, so, I must confess, I cheated a bit.  I’ve grouped some selections together that share a similarity.  Still, legions have been slighted, but I’ve tried my danged best (to use the technical term).

1) Ducking Amazing! As the number of 3D B-D movies increases, the law of averages demands that the vintage selections from the classic period (1953-54) slowly but surely materialize. There have been a number of worthy contenders over the past couple of years, but two stand out (appropriately, in your face), a pair that work even as standard 2D titles (which is the viewing experience that most folks have been privy to):  Warner Bros. House of Wax (1953; $34.99; http://www.examiner.com/review/waximum-exposure), directed by Andre de Toth, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ For Murder (1954; $34.99; http://www.examiner.com/review/3-d-triangle-cunning-with-scissors).  De Toth, of course, is the acknowledged master of the format (ironic, since his loss of one eye prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his labors) and doesn’t scrimp, creating a scary, atmospheric stereoscopic chiller that shot Vincent Price into the upper echelons of horrordom.  The effects are jolting, but, more importantly, are often part of the creepy narrative.  In near-flawless Blu-Ray, the paddle-ball guy’s antics (at least partially) finally work

!It’s almost ludicrous to say that from the get-go, the Master of Suspense has a handle on the wonders and possibilities of third-dimensional thrills.  What was an engrossing, entertaining cat-and-mouse mystery, in 3D, becomes a dazzling showcase for an often maligned process.  Clues are dangled in front of viewers, a murder-gone-wrong becomes a breathtaking heart-stopper, and foreground and background pacing characters increase the visual psychological tension.

With major stars and directors from this period still to be accounted for (Sirk, Walsh, Boetticher, Wayne, Hayworth, Mitchum), the future looks bright indeed!

 

2) Acornucopia! It’s been a terrific year for fans of Brit mysteries (and elsewhere), thanks to the grand efforts from the folks at Acorn Media.  I’m talking about splendid mini-series, on-going, long-running (by now) standards and sad finales.  For me, the crème de la crème comprises the marvelous two-part dramatization of The Great Train Robbery (2013; $39.99, DVD; http://www.examiner.com/review/loco-motives), likely the most reasonable account of the real-life famed 1963 heist.  As usual, the Brits are masters of the game although, in this case, truth is definitely stranger than fiction.  Also wilder and funnier.  The expert cast (Jim Broadbent, Luke Evans, James Fox, Tim Pigott-Smith, James Wilby) complements the writing (Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall) and directing (Julian Jarrold, James Strong).

It’s a bittersweet duty to say “adios” to Foyle after thirteen years (and nine series), but the Final Season (2015; $49.99; http://www.examiner.com/review/foyled-again-and-curses-for-the-last-time) does prove to be one of the best.  Originally, I immensely enjoyed the WWII-era veteran detective’s adventures on his suburban beat.  Kinda like a Midsomer Moonlight Serenade.  Post-war, Foyle (the wonderful Michael Kitchen) and his gal Friday, Sam (the equally fab Honeysuckle Weeks) moved to London and dealt with Cold War shenanigans.  It was a rough transition for the characters (ditto, me), but this second and final installment had me glued to my home theater seat as the protagonists adjusted and the new regulars evolved.  Fascinatingly, much of the first-rate drama comes from actual historical events.  TV doesn’t get much better.

Above Suspicion 3: Silent Scream (2012; $29.99; DVD; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/dcs-sob/ ) is an addictive depiction of the brutal murder of a popular albeit skanky actress (Joanna Vanderham).  The suspects and the investigators all share some rather ominous secrets that redefine the adage “nothing is what it seems.”  Superb acting by all, but specifically from leads Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly.

Harry (2013; $39.99; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/hard-boiled-and-scrambled/ ) is a New Zealand mini-series about a top cop, just released from the loony bin.  Human damaged goods don’t always make for a smooth assimilation into his former family life (or professional one, for that matter), but it does provide an edgy, nail-biting thriller of the first order.  Star/cowriter Oscar Kightley excels at both hats.  And when is costar Sam Neill ever bad?

Two spectacularly remastered Midsomer Murders (Series 12 and 13; 2008-10; @$49.99; DVD; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/definite-high-def-stocking-stuffers/) are just the thing for weekend watching on a cold, wintry night (or anytime, I suppose).  The fifteen feature-length mysteries presented on these two series, in their original broadcast order, encompass some of the best episodes in the show’s two-decade history (13 contains likely my favorite, Master Class).  John Nettles, Jason Hughes, Jane Wymark and Laura Howard are all in top form, and we even get to meet cousin John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) in one entry.

Australia’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Series 2 (2013; $59.99) has proven to be a bona fide surprise for this snarky crime drama fan.  Essie Davis shines as the smart, sexy and defiant sleuth whose collaboration with Chief of Detectives Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) is one of the most honest and genuine man/woman relationships I’ve even seen in the genre.  The 1920s settings are in itself worth the trip.

 

3) Climate Change You Can Believe In! 1943’s Stormy Weather ($29.95; http://www.examiner.com/review/hot-and-cool), directed by Andrew L. Stone, and featuring Bill Robinson (in his only starring role) is one of the most jubilant, joyous musicals ever to come out of 20th Century-Fox.  Twilight Time has presented us with a glorious 35mm limited edition Blu-Ray transfer that’ll make you think the Nicholas Brothers are about to land in your lap.  In its brief (78 minutes) running time, the admittedly goofy scenario is basically a non-stop tapestry for one knockout number after another.  Dooley Wilson and Miller & Lyles admirably take care of the comedic bits while Robinson admiringly shares the limelight with Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the Katherine Dunham Dancers, Ada Brown, plus embryonic appearances by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter…all the while romancing luscious Lena Horne, who, natch, does her trademark song.

 

4) Noir Voyager. Some rather unique and underrated additions to the film noir canon made their debuts during the past year, and here are the worthiest of the bunch.

1946’s Sleep, My Love (1948; $29.95; http://www.examiner.com/review/midnight-madness), directed by the great Douglas Sirk, takes the frothy lovers from 1939’s Midnight and propels them into Gaslight hell.  Modern New Yorkers Don Ameche’s and Claudette Colbert’s supposed perfect marriage has cracks the size of the equator.  Would-be paramour Robert Cummings suspects Colbert ain’t really going insane and uses his considerable detecting chops to unmask a gruesome and ghoulish plot.  It’s a movie I often dismissed due to the lousy prints that used to surface on TV throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.  Olive Films/Paramount has come up with a gorgeous 35mm transfer that instantly thrusts the title into collector’s must-have noir library.  The supporting cast is aces, including George Coulouris, Queenie Smith, Keye Luke, Rita Johnson, plus (briefly) Raymond Burr as a skeptical investigator and Hazel Brooks, as perhaps the most toxic and evil femme fatale ever to grace the genre.

Rosalind Russell goes all psychopath in 1948’s The Velvet Touch ($21.99; http://www.examiner.com/review/smash-hit), on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.  An A-1 example of show biz noir, this surprisingly frank sexual drama tears the mask off the vipers who occupy the Great White Way.  Hoisting Roz on her own petard are Claire Trevor, Leo Genn, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh and Sydney Greenstreet as a New York detective with a penchant for the theater.

1954’s Witness to Murder (Kino-Lorber Studio Classics; $29.95; http://www.examiner.com/review/watch-on-the-swine) excellently utilizes A-stars on a B-budget.  Artist Barbara Stanwyck has a rear-window moment when she spies predatory neighbor George Sanders offing his slinky lover.  It doesn’t help that Sanders is a master of manipulation (an ex-Nazi, no less), determined to drive Stany nuts, seduce her and dump her corpse in Griffith Park.  Of course, as we movie fans know, NO ONE messes with Barbara Stanwyck, and the cat-and-mouse byplay between these two dominant personalities is nothing less than a joy to behold.  Roy Rowland directs, with a fine roster of supporting thesps, including Gary Merrill, Jesse White, Harry Shannon, Juanita Moore and Claude Akins.

Star Cornel Wilde makes an impressive directorial debut in 1955’s Storm Fear (Kino-Lorber Studio Classics; $29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/wilde-in-the-country/).  Eschewing the usual locales (as in the above’s New York and L.A. mean streets), Wilde sets his dark noir is the white wastelands of the Idaho wilderness.  Struggling asthmatic writer Dan Duryea, agonizingly trying to provide for his young wife (Jean Wallace, aka, Mrs. Wilde) and son has his world torn topsy-turvy with the arrival of his sociopathic criminal brother (Wilde) and his demented cohorts.  The hours spent here have never been more desperate as the band holds the family in terror before an exciting climatic flight through the jagged, blizzard-plagued landscape.  Many cinematic newbies cut their teeth on this riveting drama, including composer Elmer Bernstein and costars Dennis Weaver, Steven Hill and Lee Grant.

 

5) Giallo Shots. Leave it to the talented writer/director Duccio Tessari to add a new level of terror to the Italian thriller genre with his gripping 1970 entry Death Occurred Last Night (Kino-Lorber/Raro Video; $29.95; http://www.examiner.com/review/damned-if-you-do).  A beautiful young woman is kidnapped and feared dead or sold into white slavery.  But this is merely where the far-from-formulaic giallo begins.  The 25-year-old is mentally challenged, and the pleasure she experiences from her attacker makes her think that all sexually active men are good and deserving individuals.  It’s a predator’s paradise and a parent’s nightmare.  The movie then divides into two parallel stories as the girl’s father (Raf Vallone) and determined police detective and his investigative reporter girlfriend (Eva Renzi) each use their powers to track down the perpetrators of this vile crime.  When the parallels finally meet, the movie erupts into a violent (but sadistically gratifying) climax.  All the genre’s elements are here (stunning camerawork, beautiful women, great music and flesh-crawling suspense) and then some.  A truly extraordinary movie with three great performances.

 

6) Human Time Bombs. Anthony Mann’s blistering 1957 Korean War drama Men in War (Olive Films; $29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/hell-is-war/) has everything genre fans could want:  terrific characters, action, suspense, and two of the greatest actors in post-WWII cinema (or anytime):  Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray.  Their playing off each other throughout the insanity surrounding them is nothing less than one helluva unforgettable cinematic experience.  The Philip Yordan script hits all the right notes – like a land mine, and it’s all beautifully supplemented by hand-picked supporting cast (Vic Morrow, Robert Keith, James Edwards, Nehemiah Persoff, Phillip Pine, L.Q. Jones, Scott Marlowe), the sparse music by Elmer Bernstein and the bleak landscape photography of Ernest Haller.  All top line!  A great movie in (at last) a fine Blu-Ray widescreen transfer.

 

7) Risqué Business. It’s always a treat when The Warner Archive Collection unveils a new edition of their pre-Code Forbidden Hollywood series, and Volume 8 ($47.99; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/immoral-support/ ) keeps the salacious fun on an even keel.  Pre-Code masters Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell shine in 1931’s Blonde Crazy, finagling  their unscrupulous behinds in and out of elaborate sting operations.  Norma Shearer spreads it around like a truck-stop ho’ in 1931’s Strangers May Kiss (albeit, only the finest rigs, specifically Neil Hamilton with Robert Montgomery in tow).  Paul Muni, a disgraced reporter relegated to a lonely hearts column (in 1934’s Hi, Nellie), finds things perk up when he uncovers a sex and murder political scandal.  And Eddie Robinson crashes the dog-racing racket in 1934’s Dark Hazard, discovering that good-girl wifey (Genevieve Tobin) is more ice than nice, but old breezy flame Glenda Farrell be a-smoking.  Its hours of stinging fast-talking barbs, Art Deco boudoirs and more walks of shame than a decade of Spring Breaks.

 

8) Expressionism Uber Alles. Fritz Lang was the director originally chosen to helm the nightmarish psychological horror experiment known as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Classics; $29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/germaniacs/). Lang, however, was occupied on another project and had to pass.  Not to worry, the picture, under the Teutonic tutelage of Robert Weine, became an iconic landmark achievement in world cinema – and still thrills to this day.  Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover and, especially Conrad Veidt, create templates for the horror film that has never been more creepy than in Kino’s new painstaking restoration – a gorgeous Blu-Ray that deserves to be in any classic buff’s collection.

Lang is on hand for his 1941 American triumph, the atmospheric spy chiller Man Hunt ($29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/germaniacs/).  As a big-game hunter, eluding the Nazis (he invaded Berchtesgaden to take a crack at Hitler), Walter Pidgeon is thrown into a spidery web of intrigue involving Aryan wunderkind George Sanders, slimy John Carradine and valiant hooker Joan Bennett.  It’s a stunning limited edition Blu-Ray from the folks at Twilight Time that guarantees to be on your repeat viewing queue.  The ending will leave you gasping.

 

9) Heaven and Earth. A pair of classic 1950s science-fiction pics hit Blu-Ray in 2015, and, they’re literally out (and in) of this world.  1955’s The Quatermass X-periment (Kino-Lorber Studio Classics; $29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/germaniacs/) is the ghoulish concoction from Hammer Films that started their ball rolling (their first goth masterpiece, Curse of Frankenstein, would be unveiled the following year).  Based on Nigel Kneale’s superb British TV serial, Quatermass became a UK smash (faring quite well here, where, shorn of its gorier moments, ended up as The Creeping Unknown).  This is the complete, uncut across-the-pond version, and it’s a honey.  As the determined, cold, calculating Dr. Quatermass, Brian Donlevy hits a late career peak nevertheless topped by Richard Wordsworth’s Karloff-ian turn as the only surviving astronaut undergoing a frightening change. Kino-Lorber’s widescreen Blu-Ray looks fantastic and comes with a plethora of groovy extras.

Twilight Time’s original limited edition of 1959’s crowd-pleaser Journey to the Center of the Earth sold out of its run in near-record nanoseconds.  The many disappointed fans, too late to the fair, can now rejoice as not only has the title been given a second limited re-issue, but it’s a fresh 4K refurbishing as well ($29.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/underground-movement/).  James Mason leads the 19th-century crew of intrepid (and unscrupulous) explorers (including Arlene Dahl, Pat Boone and Thayer David) 20,000 leagues under the surface of our planet in this exciting Jules Verne tale, highlighted by lavish production values (in CinemaScope and restored DeLuxe Color) and a fantastic stereo soundtrack containing one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest scores (accessible as IST).  But remember: it’s a limited edition!

 

10) Bountiful Burbank Boxes. The gang at Warner Bros. have particularly outdone themselves with a selection of genre/star collections in 2015, three of which are no-brainer additions to Blu-Ray libraries.

Horror Classics, Volume One: 4 Chilling Movies From Hammer Films ($54.95; https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/sharp-as-a-stake/) is a Baby Boomer fright fan’s scream come true.  Some of the studio’s most popular titles (spanning the years 1959-70) are in this quartet, which comprises of The Mummy, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula and the Terence Fisher masterpiece Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.  The 1080p transfers are crystal clear and dripping in Technicolor.  Stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee display their considerable talents, with lovely support from the beauteous presences of Veronica Carlson, Yvonne Furneaux, Linda Hayden and Barbara Ewing.  And there’s always Michael Ripper.

There’s not much to say about The John Wayne Film Collection ($54.98), except Blu-Ray, The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  So, what are you waiting for?  The affordable package also contains Fort Apache, The Train Robbers and Cahill: U.S. Marshal.

Musicals: 4-Movie Collection ($34.99) is a song-and-dance maven’s Blu-Ray fantasy.  For me, 1950s represent the Golden Era of the Movie Musical, and this box set handily proves why: MGM’s The Band Wagon (1953, my favorite musical ever), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and 1953’s Kiss Me, Kate in 3D!  Hey, we’re talkin’ Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, etc.  Come on!  As a chaser, there’s a WB sidebar add-on of Calamity Jane, with Doris Day delivering one of her and the decade’s standards (“Secret Love”).  They look great, they sound great.  No other descriptions are really necessary.  Grab it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Definite High-Def Stocking Stuffers

Yep, it’s that time of the year (already) – that often uncomfortable period where folks scratch their heads, wondering what to get that know-it-all who has everything and/or what to do with that holiday loot.

Well, if that person happens to be a movie know-it-all, you’re in luck. Warner Bros., Acorn Media and Kino have done your homework for you. New Blu-Ray collections of memorable movie and TV moments rate among the best 2015 has to offer. There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get to work.

 

THE JOHN WAYNE WESTERNS FILM COLLECTION (WB, $54.98) includes a quintet of Duke dramas (two making their debut on Blu-Ray) guaranteed to bring a smile to the iconic star’s gazillions of fans.

Look, let’s face it, two of the selections are The Searchers and Rio Bravo, so, quite honestly, it wouldn’t matter if the other three comprised Girls Demand Excitement, Texas Cyclone and Randy Rides Alone. But they’re not;  they are in perfectly respectable pecking order, Fort Apache, The Train Robbers and Cahill: United States Marshal.

I’m going to cut to the chase: because of the first two aforementioned titles, this set NEEDS to be in your Wayne library. Having an economical Blu-Ray box with both The Searchers and Rio Bravo is instant win/win. Furthermore, I’m not going to insult cineaste’s intelligence by praising this pair of 1950s classics. Their legend is enough, and apt. The Searchers is considered by many to be John Ford’s best picture, by others to be the best western ever filmed, and by even more to be simply the best movie ever made. It was director Ford’s only effort in VistaVision, and, in Blu-Ray, every nuance this process has to offer (in clarity and color resolution) is startling, in near three-dimensional perfection. The Hawks picture, too, is a celebration of the director’s expertise at creating engrossing mini-societies within the framework of classic genres. It’s exciting, funny, action-packed and even sexy (yo, Angie Dickinson). And you even get to hear Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing!

So, leave us palaver on the remaining trio. 1947’s Fort Apache is a much-beloved RKO Ford epic. Have to admit, I’ve never warmed up to it as much as its multitude of fans, but it is a good movie and I do enjoy it (whenever it aired during my elementary school years, it was the talk of the lunchroom the next morning). It is stunning in Blu-Ray, but, if I had my druthers, I’d have opted for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

In adding a duo of movies from Wayne’s late Warners period, it’s curious as to why the studio chose Cahill and Train Robbers, except that maybe, riding aside The Searchers and Rio Bravo, it would generate more units than had it been partnered with other Wayne titles. Of course, are there any John Wayne westerns that don’t sell on home video? Methinks not.

1973’s Cahill is essentially a contradiction of terms, a 1970s Technicolor and Scope B-movie. It’s all about an aging marshal coping with his cantankerous seeds, Gary Grimes and Clay O’Brien, who are both pretty terrible (as kids and as actors). That they buck daddy’s authority by bonding with psycho villain George Kennedy is fairly implausible. That said, Kennedy is always swell as a baddie, especially in a Wayne pic (his getting smacked in the pan by a 2×4-wielding Duke in Sons of Katie Elder remains a standout Sixties Boomer “oh, shit!” moment). And it’s always a pleasure seeing folks like Neville Brand and the great Marie Windsor in…well, anything. Andy McLaglen does his usual professional turn as director while d.p. Joe Biroc goes one better with some genuinely superb nighttime photography.

1973’s The Train Robbers (for me) is the most problematic title in the set. Mostly because (then as now) I would have expected more from writer-director Burt Kennedy. It’s basically a patched retread of stitched together scenarios from his terrific Budd Boetticher-scripted masterpieces (female lead Ann-Margret’s name, Mrs. Lowe, is even a carryover from Comanche Station).

The plot, a mysterious, beautiful woman hires a band of bodyguards to escort her to safety, is full of more holes than extras in a Sam Peckinpah flick. You’ll probably figure it all out before the on-screen characters do; yet, it’s a pleasant enough way to spend 92 minutes, and, like most Duke pics, has a robust cast of supporting players. Most prominent are Rod Taylor, Ben Johnson, Christopher George, and slimy Ricardo Montalban, who chews more scenery than Godzilla, albeit with less subtlety.

An actual location incident involving A-M’s being harassed by local yokels made the papers at the time, due to their being dispersed by Duke’s merely staring them down. If only there was anything close to that heroic presence on William Clothier’s excellently-shot celluloid!

Finally, there’s a rather over-abundance of Taylor’s and Johnson’s expression of their unbridled love for Wayne’s character (Lane, perhaps Kennedy’s homage to Hondo?) that, frankly, perilously threatens to infringe upon Brokeback Mountain territory.

Again, were I pressed to pick WB Waynes from that era, I’d have probably gone with Chisum and The Cowboys, but that’s just me.

 

Warner Bros. SPECIAL EFFECTS COLLECTION ($54.98) is a Blu-Ray SFX fan’s fantasy come true (to put it politely). This quartet of classic monster flicks, spanning 1933-54 is comprised of Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and THEM! Yeah, they’ve been around before, and in excellent transfers; but, again, especially for genre buffs, the key word here is Blu-Ray. Let’s face it – this is the kind of stuff the high-def format was seemingly made for; in-your-face creature creations bristling with immaculate detail (if not conception), the genius results from the hands of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and others. Like all the WB sets, each is available individually, but why go that way?  You’re gonna get ’em all anyway, so go for the budget-saving slipcovered set.

1933’s Son of Kong is an A-sized sequel in a B-sized package (69 minutes). Bizarre to see a sequel the same year as the original, but when moguls saw that Depression dough funneled in through a pipeline the size of the Grand Canyon, WTF?! Little Kong is a lot friendlier than dad, sorta like a 12-foot precursor to Toho’s Minya. But there’s enough sordidness in the pre-Code monster pic to pique the staunchest cynic’s interest, including drunks, leches, cheaters, murderers and chewy-chewy white folks. Robert Armstrong returns, having to escape Manhattan after practically leveling it. He ends up in a South Seas dive with Captain Englehorn, pining for hottie singer Helen Mack, who’s essentially being flesh-pedaled by her sot of a pop. LSS, they end up back on Skull Island on a treasure hunt. There are third-act effects galore, and a lovely moment where Mack sensuously rips her lingerie to bandage a grateful Baby Kong’s boo-boo.

Mighty Joe Young featured the collaborative efforts of both O’Brien and Harryhausen (his first foray into the big time). John Ford produced it (Ben Johnson is his leading man), but, typically disavowed any connection to the pic. Armstrong returns as Max O’Hara, along with Frank McHugh and other Irish Mafia denizens. They all journey to the Dark Continent to bring back a show-stopper and discover Mr. Joseph Young of Africa, a gargantuan gorilla, who has a Howard Hughes fixation on Terry Moore, the girl-turned-honey who raised him. They have a nightclub act that likely rivaled Martin & Lewis in sheer raucousness. Sadly, Armstrong has learned nothing from Carl Denham, and panic breaks loose, but not before the Oscar-winning SFX get a tumultuous workout (including a tinted blazing inferno sequence).

It’s a “ray” fest in 1952’s Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – Blu, Harryhausen and Bradbury (based upon his short story “The Foghorn,” a masterful atmospheric tale that gets a sumptuous filmic rendition). It was also Harryhausen’s solo gig as a special-effects maven, and, as one can see, he did a spectacular job. I’ve always loved this flick, never failing to catch it on New York City TV, even when it played all week long on Million Dollar Movie. Maybe it was the fact that the beast ends up touring my beloved hometown, albeit destroying Coney Island in the process. I loved the cast (including Lee Van Cleef’s immortal integral bit), the music and the one scene that every Boomer remembers, the Rhedosaurus making a snack out of a screaming member of New York’s finest. Supposedly the picture was a WB pickup, who then gave it to David Buttolph to score, and the impeccable Warners sound department to laden with their trademark audio effects (gun shots, screams, etc.). FYI, the beast roar was an equine whinny, recorded for their kiddie western The Lion and the Horse. Beast was also first-run in a mahogany-tinted version, one of a handful of early 1950s WB titles (the result of an article stating that brown-and-white was more pleasing to the eye than black-and-white; Strangers on a Train got the same treatment); nevertheless this is the monochrome version we’ve all come to love, and that be just fine.

The enormous success of Beast prompted Warners to go hog-wild (well, ant-wild) for 1954’s THEM!, their first all-sci-fi monster epic. It’s one of the greatest SFX pics of all-time, and, indeed started the BEM (Bug-Eyed Monsters) sub-genre.

The impressive cast, led by Edmund Gwenn, James Whitemore and James Arness, investigate strange occurrences out in the desert, where A-bomb tests ran rampant in the 1940s. Here, they discover the bummer downside of atomic experimentation – the mutation of killer ants to the size of moving vans. THEM! literally defines the term creepy-crawler, and, like the Blu-Ray’s liner notes state, “only gets better with age.” Fun fact: the color main title insert has had fans debating for years on whether the pic was shot in color and released in B&W. Also 3-D. The latter certainly seems a possibility, as director Gordon Douglas excelled in the process with his big-hit Warners stereoptic western The Charge at Feather River. Add the fact that entomologist Joan Weldon uses a 3-D still camera to photograph evidence/post-bomb sites, a tie-in if ever there was one.

Like all the WB sets, SPECIAL EFFECTS COLLECTION is crammed with numerous extras and trailers. A must have of the highest order!

 

In terms of American culture, in case you’ve been in a coma, the year 1939, the actual star of Warner’s THE GOLDEN YEAR ($69.96), is more than merely the opening of the New York World’s Fair. It’s the twelve-month strain that has generally been accepted as the bestest Hollywood year in movie history. Indeed, it’s a happy affliction that seemed to infect all of the major (and minor) studios, and with many turning out at least one picture a week, the list of bona-fide classics is as staggering as Jack Norton doing his specialty act.

Personally, my selections would have been time frames laden with pre-Code gems, oodles of nasty noirs or simply the year of Vertigo. Nevertheless some of my biggest faves did unspool in 1939 (and one of them is even in this five-flick box set.

Ridiculous – crazy, actually – to waste your precious holiday-itching-to-spend search describing these celluloid nuggets. Suffice to say that they’re in recently re-mastered High Def Blu-Ray, bargain-priced and loaded with groovy extras (trailers, audio commentaries, cartoons, blooper reels, newsreels, featurettes).

What’s in da box, ya ask? Well, the folks at Warners have democratically deemed fit to choose titles from all the key studios they have home vid rights to, so it’s a fun group. One might wish to begin with the collection’s bonus disc, a feature-length documentary chronicling the period, appropriately entitled 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is pretty much the crème de la crème version of the oft-filmed Hugo tale. Charles Laughton is aces as Quasimodo and a ludicrously young Maureen O’Hara (aged 19) is ravishingly beauteous, so nice contrast. O’Hara even does a special supplementary interview. I might have gone with Gunga Din to rep RKO in the ’39 stakes, but, hell, that’s what GOLDEN YEAR, BOX 2 is for.

Dark Victory is a Bette Davis triumph, a showcase vehicle actresses (male and female) dream of: the fatal disease scenario, so cherished by drama fans and Carol Burnett’s writers. The supporting cast is Warner Bros. nirvana: George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart (with Irish brogue) and, yeah, yeah, yeah Reagan. It’s the high-class brand of soap, and worth every penny.

 Dodge City is a super-western, a Technicolor Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland/Michael Curtiz reunion follow-up to their 1938 collaboration, The Adventures of Robin Hood. In remastered, restored IB, it looks terrific! I’ve always loved this movie for the action and rowdy humor, even when suffering through the old Channel 5 beet-red prints back in the 1960s. Flynn is wonderful in this, although he often slammed his participation in westerns as being unrealistic. Truth be told, an Australian (or Irish, German, French, Italian, Chinese…) pioneer in the American hinterlands, ca. 1800s, was exactly right.

Ninotchka is one of my favorite movie comedies ever. The Lubitsch direction, the Wilder-Brackett script, the brilliant supporting cast (Felix Bressart, Sig Rumann, Bela Lugosi, etc.), it all works and then some. It was Greta Garbo’s first intentional comedy, and she scored with bells on (after several disastrous box-office poison years); her perfect romantic foil is Melvyn Douglas and their chemistry is nitro-worthy (always curious if she and the superb Ina Claire compared notes). “Garbo Laughs!” was the catch-phrase that helped bring ’em in, back in 1939. I prefer a fondly-remembered incident at the old Regency Theater in the early 1980s. The Regency was a Manhattan revival movie cathedral whose “35MM-only” policy was manna from Heaven for us picture buffs in the pre-home video days. So seeing Ninotchka in pristine 35 on a snowy wintry eve was about the finest holiday gift I could have asked for. Sitting a few rows in front of me were two very attractive ladies, one of whom forever topped MGM’s legendary ballyhoo. As the lights went on to the throngs of applause, she honestly shrugged to her friend and murmured words that I vividly recall to this day: “Gotta admit it, the bitch is funny!” “Garbo Laughs!” pshaw!

Oh, sorry, for good measure (in case you have that extra day to spare), Warners has thrown in Gone With the Wind. Nuff said.

 

The modestly entitled MUSICALS 4-MOVIE COLLECTION ($34.99) ain’t modest when it comes to content; it’s what old farts refer to as “a humdinger.”

A Blu-Ray quartet featuring three must-haves and, like some of the other Warner collections, one “yeah, it’s okay” oddity, MUSICALS is still one of the best buys of the year.

Why? Because it has the Blu-Ray of The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli’s glorious 1953 Technicolor confection costarring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, and likely my favorite musical of all time. Before folks say, “What? It’s NOT Singin’ in the Rain?” bear in mind that the recent 2012 B-D 60th Anniversary master is also included in this foursome (my take on that was pure thumbs-up, and, if interested, I’ll do a repost).

But jumping back on The Band Wagon. Love the Comden and Green plot (uncredited assist from Norman Corwin and Alan Jay Lerner), the cast (Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and, best of all, Jack Buchanan as a pompous Broadway star-director, loosely based on Jose Ferrer), the photography (Harry Jackson and, uncredited, George Folsey) and, natch, the music (Dietz and Schwartz). The story of an aging movie musical dance star agreeing to a Great White Way on-stage stab was considered perilously close to Astaire’s 1953 CV (it wasn’t). His numbers with Charisse are exquisite, from the quietly romantic “Dancing in the Dark,” done at twilight in Central Park, to the spectacular Mickey Spillane comic book-fueled sex-and-violence ballistic ballet. Complete joy is watching Fred and Buchanan do a brief soft-shoe together, one of my most cherished musical moments evah. THAT’S entertainment!

1953’s Kiss Me Kate is a bombastic Cole Porter musical, certainly deserving the addition of the garish short-lived 3-D craze. For years it was a third dimensional legend, rarely (if ever) shown in polarized revivals, with only bits of its stars Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, and especially Ann Miller throwing various items at the camera (Miller winning the day by using her removed clothing) to give us a gimmicky taste.

Well, it’s a revelation, to say the least, to report that Warners has remastered the popular musical in Blu-Ray 3-D – and it’s, while it doesn’t hold the stereo-optic thrills of House of Wax or the inventiveness of Dial ‘M’ For Murder, it’s still a pip!

Miller’s tossing gloves at the lens doesn’t quite make it as much fun as one might imagine. Director George Sidney, does a professional job, giving the widescreen works the required fast-pace, but seems a bit stymied as how to handle 3-D. More bizarrely are the appropriately over-lit gawdy Ansco-colored sets (perfect for the process) and effective for the “From the Moment On” dance number, but not noticeably superior to watching the piece “flat.”

There is a rooftop sequence with Miller and Tommy Rall that vindicates Sidney. On a giant screen, Rall swinging over the audience on a clothesline was on par with the opening roller coaster ride in This is Cinerama. On home vid, it’s relegated to thrillingly amusing; the real corker is the depth of the set; even though it’s an interior exterior, the overall experience is one of dizziness with the swaying camera leaning over Rall’s shoulder, proof positive that cinematic vertigo need not include Kim Novak to be dazzling (although it doesn’t hurt).

In fact, it’s the throw-away stuff and not the throw-at-ya material that makes Kate a superior 3-D attraction. The makeup jars and vials framing Grayson and Keel’s dressing rooms and the iron-railed backstage swirling staircases crammed with excited dancers remain extremely memorable images.

Then again, there’s all that fantastic Porter music, and the unlikely duo of James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn delivering one of the pic’s many showstoppers.

As with other Warner box sets, MUSICALS has its wild card, in this case 1953’s Calamity Jane. It’s not only the one non-MGM title, it’s also the most ill-fitting. A Warners “homage” to Metro’s phenomenally successful Annie Get Your Gun (even to borrowing Annie‘s male lead, Howard Keel), Jane is a cheaper cut-down knock-off, tailored for a boisterous Doris Day (who seems to be having a ball). It’s lively, but undistinguished, save a couple of songs, including the iconic “Secret Love,” which, like “Que Sera,” became a standard for not only Day, but for the decade.

The curious thing about Jane’s inclusion transcends it’s so obviously being a pariah in the MGM stable. The other three pics represent the Movies nod to 20th-century show business (theater, Broadway, Hollywood). Jane only dabbles in this marginally, and, in the wrong century. Why the obvious fourth choice, MGM’s 1955 It’s Always Fair Weather, which tackled television, wasn’t tossed into the mix, remains a mystery to me. But, as I often sigh, WTF do I know?

 

Acorn Media, the gateway to great British and Australian TV, always has a groovy cache of goodies that make perfect holiday loot, and 2015 is no exception.

Key among the many gift sets and Collector’s Special Editions are two new delightfully lethal assortment packs of Midsomer Murders. Each 4-disc DVD slipcovered set contains eight feature-length mysteries, comprising Series 12 and 13, respectively ($49.99 each; all elements have been meticulously remastered for optimum quality, both visually (in 16 x 9 anamorphic widescreen) and audibly (in 2.0 stereo-surround). These sets, spanning the years 2008-10 (and in original UK broadcast order) are crucial to the show, as they encompass star John Nettles’ (and TV-spouse Jane Wymark’s), aka Chief Inspector Barnaby and perfectly-matched mate Joyce’s adieu to the picturesque but deadly suburban hamlet of Causton. Along for all the delicious backstabbing (many literally) and various gruesome, yet creative, methods of human liquidation is Barnaby’s snarky assistant Jason Hughes as DS Ben Jones, Laura Howard as daughter Cully Barnaby, Kristy Dillon as DC Stephens and, of course, Barry Jackson as ME George Bullard.

Series 12 includes Doglet Murders, The Black Book, Secrets and Spies, The Glitch, Small Mercies, The Creeper and The Great and the Good. They represent some of the show’s many highpoints in suspense, thrills, steamy liaisons all served up in beautiful surroundings with panache, wit and plethora of great guest stars (Alice Krige, Anna Massey, Jenny Agutter, Rik Mayall). This group touches on mythical ancient demons (or not), curious cat burglars, sanguinary tourist attractions and more.

In Series 13 we first meet John Barnaby, The Chief Inspector’s cousin, also a police detective, working in an adjoining community. The resemblance between Nettles and Neil Dudgeon is remarkable and they work well together when a spillover crime (The Sword of Guillaume) leads one Barnaby into the jurisdiction of the other. It’s an excellent set-up for Nettles’ and Wymark’s announcement of their retirement and departure from Midsomer in the Series’ last episode (Fit for Murder). Of course their stopping over at a posh spa coincides with a rash of horrific killings, so, no rest for the weary.

13’s remaining six movies include The Made-to-Measure Murders, Blood on the Saddle, The Silent Land, Master Class, The Noble Art and Not in My Backyard. There’s much slicing and dicing here over land rights, sacred rites and parasites (the human kind). Ingenious slay dates transpire in such unusual locales as churches, libraries, prestigious music academies and even a Wild West show (with high noon fantasy sequences). Master Class may be one of my favorite MIDSOMERs ever, seething with creepy evil and guaranteed to raise even the most stalwart viewer’s goosebumps. Guests include Tim McInnerny, Janet Suzman, James Wilby, Philip Bretherton, James Fox and Phil Daniels.

Series 12 contains supplemental interviews with Jason Hughes and other cast members and cool background info. Series 13 is highlighted by a special Saying Goodbye to Barnaby essay and Barnaby Through the Years photo gallery.

Good stuff!

 

If you’re one of the millions of Yanks obsessed with the dark comedy crime series NEW TRICKS, then Acorn’s recent SEASONS 6-10 big box set ($124.99) is integral to your collection.

The long-running series about cold cases being solved by old cases immediately caught my eye when it debuted on American TV in 2003. I was at once enraptured by the trio of aging, retired eccentrics (James Bolam, Alun Armstrong, Dennis Waterman) who headed a specially created geriatric division called UCOS (Unsolved Crime and Open Case Squad). Was also crazy about their leader, wickedly sardonic Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), and followed their bizarre adventures for over a decade.

Sadly, by 2012, Bolam had enough and opted to bow out; he was eventually replaced by Denis Lawson (who handily bonded with Waterman’s character). Then ingratiatingly anal Brian Lane (Armstong) followed suit; it was particularly painful to bid him farewell, as it also meant ta-ta to Mrs. Lane, aka Susan Jameson (Bolam’s real-life wife). Fighting fire with fire meant replacing the lovable nut-job with another curmudgeonly lunatic. Enter Nicholas Lyndhurst (who, I must admit, I’ve seen grow up from a teen to a retiree on approximately fourteen billion PBS-imported series). Alas, Sandra saw the writing on the wall, and, too, departed the department with East Enders‘ Tamzin Outhwaite (essentially a younger Pullman, or Sandra-lite) taking the reins.

As the sun sets on this saddened writer, we now know that the original last man Standing (aka Gerry Standing, or Dennis Waterman) is also gone, thus making NEW TRICKS go full-360 degrees Menudo.

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the new episodes, I miss the brilliant wacky interaction between the four early stars. Their camaraderie was truly unsurpassed. They genuinely liked each other, and, by that I mean they argued, bitched, screamed, disagreed and got pissed off on a regular basis – the bona-fide sign of heartfelt friendship.

This box set is especially important because it channels some of the best of their later thrillers, plus contains the episodes featuring the new NEW TRICKSters who likely will carry on their legacy.

Interestingly, there are some intriguing mysteries here, including one REAL cold case that goes back 161 years! The 15 discs that comprise this collection include 48 shows, nearly two days of dedicated surveillance! The transfers are excellent, in 16 x 9 widescreen and nifty stereo-surround. There are also some extras, including a brief blooper reel.

A transitional, but essential for diehard buff of the series.

 

One of the coolest discoveries from Acorn has been the MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES series. At first glance, I thought it was merely a prettified sleuth drama – more style than substance. This is due to the show’s period locale: 1920s Australia. Boy, was I wrong! The 2013 SERIES 2 Blu-Ray ($59.99), containing a baker’s dozen of thrillers, encompasses some of the best adventures that its beauteous heroine has ever encountered. And some fairly chilling.

The show, of course, would be nothing without a charismatic lead, and I can’t think of a better choice to play the gorgeous, athletic, snarky, sensuous Phyrne Fisher than that chameleon actress Essie Davis. In lingo of the times, she’s the cat’s pajamas. Truly, I have never seen a crime show that paints so many emotional (and, often real-life) colors onto its exciting canvas. Davis’ Fisher (based on the character in the Kerry Greenwood novels) is like a jazz-age Mrs. Peel (or a less geriatric Mrs. Bradley Mysteries). When she pulls her gun, wily creeps think that no woman would dare follow suit…two seconds before she blasts them. Or belts ’em.  Phyrine is not above carnal yearnings and often beds dudes, both bad and good – but always with full knowledge and in control of what she’s doing. She’s super rich and super fashion conscious. She has a butler named Butler and live-in girl help (some rescued from child prostitution rings). Fisher’s also terrific at smacking down a villain with a properly aimed barb. And it’s all under the watchful eye of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). I must comment on this relationship, as it brilliantly transcends the exasperated “professional putting up with the far-more-talented amateur” that we’ve seen in ten million B-movies and TV crime shows. Robinson’s genuine respect for her eventually gives way to fondness and then more. Fisher, sees this and is amused in a lip-biting fun way, and frequently plays with the top copper. So much so that she fails to realize what the audience has already gleaned: that she’s falling for the Inspector herself.

Phyrine’s a complicated woman, a modern – as they used to call the flapper-plus crowd. In flashbacks we see it wasn’t always so, as we learned in SERIES 1. It was here that viewers encountered an unsure and innocent Phyrine, stranded in France during the Great War, helping out with causalities and making ends meet by becoming an artist’s model.  Convinced to pose nude and ultimately seduced by a rival painter becomes a coital lesson chalked up to experience.

Phyrine’s affluent upbringing was shattered by her younger sister’s abduction into white slavery by a Moriarity-eseque serial killer, Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell). Though he’s presumed dead, Fisher is determined to bring the monster to justice, so viewers have that tantalizing narrative sidebar perilously dangling afore them.

The show takes on many cultural and newsworthy events in 1920s Australian history. Jewish stopover migration to Palestine, Communist cells post-1917, sex rings, forgery, woman’s emancipation, Chinese drug smuggling, closeted gay liaisons and even the fledgling motion picture industry’s conversion to talkies. Episodes in SERIES 2 include Murder Most Scandalous, Death Comes Knocking, Dead Man’s Chest, Deadweight, Murder a la Mode, Marked for Murder, Blood at the Wheel, The Blood of Juana the Mad, Framed for Murder and Death on the Vine.

The fashion, art direction and music is spot-on and is as much a part of the cast as Davis and Page (to say nothing of regulars Hugo Johnson-Burt, Ashleigh Cummings, Mariam Margoyles, Richard Bligh). The direction, writing and cinematography (in widescreen High Def) are sensational, to say the least. But particularly the writing; I have never seen a more honest and affectionate man/woman relationship in a mystery series than that portrayed by its two leads.

If you haven’t already gone ga-ga over the episodes run on some PBS stations, give MISS FISHER a shot. It’s the bee’s knees!

 

Horror and garden-variety psychotronic fans will be in gory/soft-corey clover over THE PETE WALKER COLLECTION, VOLUME 2, from Kino-Lorber/Redemption ($79.95).  Here is a carefully chosen collection of splatter and sexploitation that defines guilty pleasure to a t (and some a).

Director/cowriter Walker’s penchant for grisly humor and shock-schlock effects have never been put to better use than in 1974’s Frightmare (aka Cover Up), a freaky treatise on suburban cannibals (and, possibly, his finest work), 1976’s House of Mortal Sin (aka The Confessional), the pic that (rightly so) had some astute critics sit up to take approving notice (it’s about the hypocrisy of religion, personified by a psychotic, murderous priest). 1979’s Home Before Midnight chronicles a sexy groupie scoring with her celebrated rocker target, plunging him into hell when it’s discovered that she’s underaged.  Plus the early 1972 horror treat The Flesh and Blood Show, essentially a primitive run-through for Soavi’s Aquarius (featuring the gorgeous Jenny Hanley, among others). Blood Show contains the 3-D sequence that never seemed to really work; suffice to say that even in HD/3-D the tradition continues (also accessible in anaglyph, but no glasses provided).  As a B-D bonus, two embryonic Walker efforts, 1968’s The Big Switch (aka, Strip Poker), costarring Virginia Wetherell, and 1971’s Man of Violence, starring Michael Latimer.  Walker appears in featurette interviews and provides wry audio commentary for the key entries that also include nifty mini-docs on iconic Walker actress Sheila Keith.  Other memorable thesps on view throughout include Stephanie Beacham, Rupert Davies, Norman Eshley, Susan Penhaligon, Anthony Sharp, Robin Askwith, Richard Todd and Leo Genn.  The crisp, new 1080p transfers are terrific too!  Happy Horrordays!

 

THE JOHN WAYNE FILM COLLECTION.  B&W/Color.  Full frame/widescreen [1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA.  CAT # 3000063467.  SRP: $54.98.

 SPECIAL EFFECTS COLLECTION.  B&W.  Full frame/widescreen [1080p High Definition]. DTS-HD MA. CAT# 3000063853. SRP: $54.98.

 THE GOLDEN YEAR: 1939.  B&W/Color. Full frame [1080p High Definition]. DTS-HD MA. CAT # 3000062001.  SRP: $69.99.

 MUSICALS: 4-MOVIE COLLECTION. Color. Full frame/widescreen [1080p High Definition]. DTS-HD MA. CAT # 3000061907.  SRP: $34.99. 

All above from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

 

MIDSOMER MURDERS, SERIES 12 & 13.  Color. Widescreen [16 x 9 anamorphic]. Stereo-surround audio.  CAT #s: AMP-2320/AMP-2321.  SRP: $49.99@ [DVD only].

 NEW  TRICKS COLLECTION, SEASONS 6-10. Color. Widescreen [16 x 9 anamorphic]; stereo-surround audio.  CAT #:AMP-2372.  SRP:  $124.99.  [DVD only].

 MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES, SERIES 2.  Color.  Widescreen [1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA.  CAT # AMP-2208.  SRP:  $59.99.

Above four titles available from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

 

THE PETE WALKER COLLECTION, VOLUME 2.  Color.  Widescreen [1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K1703.  SRP: $79.95.

 Above title available from Kino-Lorber/Redemption