Don’t Mess with the Johan

For those action fans yearning for new rollercoaster ride thrills, suspense and over-the-top violence – cleverly and insidiously mixed in with a sobering dose of political dogma – click on to the MHz site, and order your copy of the recently released DVD collection THE JOHAN FALK TRILOGY.

The long on-going Swedish big-screen series has been chronicling the adventures of (occasional) rogue cop Falk for decades.  The trilogy, presented to us Yanks, spans 1999-2003, and likely offers the best of the dubious hero’s exploits.

The direction (by Anders Nilsson, from his original idea) and writing (by Nilsson and Joakim Hansson) seems to have taken much of its moxie from Dirty Harry (the first one, anyway); even one of the villains (like the Andy Robinson/Scorpio character) pays a sadist to rough him up and blame his nemesis.

Back to basics, Falk is a top detective for the Swedish Gothenburg force who is repulsed by the grueling, often ineffective, “law abiding” methods of so-called democracy.  He’s openly called a fascist by his superiors and co-workers, and scoffs at them with a facial response that exudes, “Yeah, but I’m a good fascist.”  The trilogy opens with a bang, literally:  a Christmas Eve massacre.  It’s a crucial installment, as it introduces Falk to Helene, the woman (Marie Richardson) who is to share his life (and a witness to the killings).  Her young daughter, Nina (Hanna Alsterlund), will likewise play a major role in the Falk dramas.

While many action buffs might cringe at movies requiring subtitles, I insist they check FALK out before condemning this superior dose of cinematic adrenalin in favor of the lame, lackluster CGI, mindless U.S. equivalents.

That said, it’s sort of embarrassing to see the Euro take on America (the triad of FALK pictures in this set were primarily shot during the Bush-Cheney years).  For example, when the high-profile crooks and psychopaths meet to palaver plans (or sit down for a parlay with law enforcement), they do so in Americanized English.  When the most repellent of depraved corruption is uncovered or discussed, the assessment is along the lines of “you mean, like in America.”  Further digs are the global commercialization of our crass influence on cultures.  The visual highpoint (or lowpoint) of this are the picturesque Swedish town landscapes dotted by McDonald’s and Burger King franchises.

And, yes, each one of the three features stands alone, but is connected by the narrative thread of the Three Waves.  Basically, this entails drug/prostitution/extortion cartels (often from post-Glasnost sources) laundering money by buying into legit businesses and then using that capital to purchase banks.  Thus, all money is simultaneously illegal-legal and untraceable.  Ultimately, this means that crime syndicates will own the world.  Frightening, but, these days, not so ridiculous, particularly the part about buying politicians not on a local level, but on a…never mind.  Perhaps the most unnerving part of the JOHAN FALK movies is the fact that they derive from real-life cases (horrifically brought home when recurring characters are systematically liquidated in heinous fashion).

Falk, himself, as terrifically enacted by Jakob Eklund, is not a likeable character (he’s kinda like a millennium Sergeant Kroft from Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, a nasty individual to be sure, but the dude you want in your corner when the shit is up to your chin).  But is he, as the man himself implies, a necessary evil?  There is a fascinating sidebar on Swedish law enforcement.  After unwittingly playing a part in the aforementioned Yuletide carnage, the heads of the force, rather than questioning/reprimanding the cop, are far more concerned with his mental state, and first and foremost, insist he speak with psychiatric professionals.  Falk responds by going through the motions (but, natch, instead of taking his ordered rest, he hits the streets to capture the escaped killer.

The movies are shot in a stylized, garish manner, rife with available light grain (in dark interiors) and nighttime photography, but frequently breathtaking in their depiction of day exteriors of the stunning countryside.  The first two FALK pics are in standard European 1.66:1 widescreen (by d.p.s Jacob Jorgensen and Per-Arne Svenson), the last in 2.40:1 scope (Svenson).  And, I must underline that the FALK movies are not low-budget entries; they are top-line productions, filmed throughout stunning Scandinavian locations, plus forays to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the UK.

The music is appropriate to the jarring visuals, ably composed by Bengt Nilsson.  Furthermore, all three FALK pics exhibit extraordinary stereo-surround recording and audio effects.  They really will give your home vid set-up a taste of movie theater sound (my only complaint is that MHz titles are not available in Blu-Ray).

The trio of exemplary thrillers that comprise THE JOHAN FALK TRILOGY include:

Zero Tolerance (1999), the one with the Santa Sangre murders; the one where Falk meets the love of his life; the one where a respected and affluent restaurateur is actually a ruthless sociopath (Peter Andersson) with a lust for torture and murder.  His stalking and terrorizing the three witnesses to the crime becomes a personal vendetta for Falk (specifically as his new paramour is among the targeted victims).

Executive Protection (2001) is my favorite in the series.  It is the first time we’re introduced to the Three Waves theory, but, more importantly, it presents us cineastes with one of the creepiest criminals in flicker history.  When friends of Falk are being threatened by local thugs, they contact a respected security organization to safeguard them.  The company’s soft-spoken, intellectual head, Nikolaus Lehmann (Christoph M. Ohrt), is a former STASI operative, so they think they’re in good hands.  Attending a meeting between the factions, the factory execs are aghast when Lehmann’s negotiating tactics encompass annihilating the entire gang.  He then threatens his new employers – pay up a ransom and turn over a piece of your organization, or suffer similar consequences.  Enter Falk, recently placed on desk duty after the Xmas episode.  His disgust with his “punishment” prompts him to leave the force, and join up with another connection (a legitimate security brigade), which brings him back to his hometown roots and news of his friend’s lethal predicament.  This is a nail-biting excursion into pure, ice-cold evil.  The harrowing ending is both satisfying, yet disturbing.

2003’s The Third Wave has Falk, now “retired” to the countryside with Helene and (now teenaged) Nina.  His old boss Sellberg (Lennart Hjulstrom) has been chosen to head an international crime unit, out to infiltrate and break up the Third Wave bankers.  A super successful Swedish expat (Irina Bjorklund), now living in London with her equally powerful boyfriend (Ben Pullen), accidentally uncovers some sinister truths about her lover, which forces him to contract her murder.  How the crime unit, Falk and the woman intertwine is a primer on modern corporate greed, in addition to exciting filmmaking.

In the face of recent U.S. political events (prophetically hinted in the FALK pics), these movies transcend mere entertainment.  Is the “good fascist” our only solution for a democratic future?

THE JOHAN FALK TRILOGY.  Color. Widescreen [Zero Tolerance, Executive Protection: 1.66:1; The Third Wave: 2.40:1; all 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  MHz Networks/International Mystery Collection/Sonet Film.  CAT # SKU-16771.  SRP:  $29.96.

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Band of Mothers

For those TV crime addicts forever screaming to see something different, you need look no further than the recent release of PRISONERS WIVES: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, now on DVD from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

Originally broadcast in the UK from 2012-2013, PRISONERS WIVES takes a thoroughly refreshing take on the effects of incarceration on those usually sloughed-off victims, the women who love/loved their felon significant others.  That the show is mostly (and superbly) handled by women is another plus, as it goes in directions that our generally male mitts could never even imagine.

That said, don’t think this is a pretty-in-pink version of Brute Force; nuh-uh, it’s a rough show to watch, rife with shocking violence, conflicted emotions, sexual tension and a plethora of bad-choice repercussions.

The first season chronicles the drastic changes in the lives of four wives and/or paramours.  Initially we meet the squeaky-clean, beautiful Gemma (Emma Rigby), happily wed to a super guy, Steve (Jonas Armstrong), co-partnered in a growing successful business; she’s also pregnant with their first child.  Then Gemma’s world caves in.  Steve is arrested for no less than murder, sent to the slammer whilst she is hounded by his Javert, DS Hunter (Andrew Tiernan), an obsessive cop intent on scraping the scab off hubby’s apparently not-so-innocent company.  Gemma’s worst fears are realized once she discovers Hunter’s accusations are correct and her dream liaison turns into a nightmare.  In a continual spiral downward, the terrified housewife uncovers some gruesome facts about Steve’s lifestyle.  I would venture to say that only in a near all-female production would the narrative delve into the possibly worst situation a young mother-to-be could fathom.  How about going into labor at a shopping mall and having your baby in a dingy rest-room stall?  Wait, we’re not finished.  She’s also been chased there by the hired assassin sanctioned by her husband to shut her up.  The saving grace comes via a triumphant moment when the killer is embarrassed out of the latrine by the arrival of a gaggle of mean girls, who relentlessly verbally lambast him (with threats of gang violence).

Lou (Natalie Gavin) is the guilt-ridden spouse of Sean (Reuben Johnson).  Guilt-ridden because she’s to blame for his jail time; in short, he’s taking the rap for her criminal faux pas.  Lou is a drug-dealing sock-her mom, foul-mouthed and street tough – determined to sacrifice anything to ensure her and her young son’s safety.  And to this personal pledge, she has, unfortunately, not learned her lesson, continuing to jeopardize all that is dear to her.  Lou is pretty vile, and, like the other ladies in the show, has her existence rectified by her associating with the other wives, who, depending upon the situation, dole out advice/sisterhood aid and bitch-slapping with equal regularity.

Francesca is the woman who materially is all that.  Brilliantly portrayed by Polly Walker, the drop-dead gorgeous sexual predator/terrorist from my favorite Jack Ryan movie, Patriot Games.  Now matured (but no less ravishing), Walker’s Francesca is the mother of two grown children, living the affluent lifestyle that comes from being the wife of gangland kingpin Paul (the ubiquitous Iain Glen).  Paul’s being in a maximum security lock-up doesn’t curtail his nefarious activities, as corruption plays both sides of the fence.  His dealings cause Francesca and her family to lose everything and place them in mortal danger – a conundrum he promises his up-to-now loyal marriage partner is only temporary.  So is breathing.  Nevertheless their relationship does encompass one of the show’s genuinely hilarious sequences – a carefully organized taboo conjugal visit.  It also displays the power of female power when Francesca and Gemma ensure a fellow mom’s fears by their mates protecting a weak link con.

And that brings us to the fourth lead (and, in my estimation, best character in the series), Harriet, terrifically played by the great Pippa Haywood.

Harriet is the poster child for spousal and family abuse.  The needy survivor of a lousy marriage, she has pampered her namby-pamby, uncaring son Gavin (Adam Gillen) to the point of his using his widowed mom as a lamb to be slaughtered on a rotating basis.  His arrest is almost inevitable, and his guilting his mum for all his woes is repugnant.  But not as much so as one of the most revolting bits in the show.  To guarantee his safety with newly acquired thug friends, he offers them drugs – to be smuggled in by his terrified mater.  How can that happen in a max-security institution?  He tells her to shove them up into her…well, we won’t go into graphic details except to use the ancient lady-part phrase “wound of woman.”  That this is potentially lethal on both physical and legal levels means nada to this creep.  In fact, once the deed is done, his ingratitude is prone to make viewers want to attack the screen.

Season Two introduces two new women.  Kim (Sally Carman) is a self-loathing adulteress at wit’s end when her innocent instructor husband (Enzo Cilenti) is jailed for pedophilia.  Aisling (Karla Crome) is the daughter of Brendan (Owen Roe), one of Paul’s henchmen (and sharing the same residence with his “boss”).  Her loveless engagement is rocked by her uncontrollable yearning for Paul’s son (Harry McEntire).  And it’s mutual.

Meanwhile, two holdovers from the first series, Harriet and Francesca, have their own dragons to slay.  And it’s so cool to see them shed their submissive bonds and viciously fight for themselves, particularly the former, whose magnificent new “up yours” attitude is the scenario’s most rewarding transformation.

This 10-episode, 4-disc set is one of the unusual shows I’ve ever seen (and presented by Acorn in an excellent 16 x 9 transfer).  At first, I wasn’t too keen on sifting through it, but I soon became totally engrossed in the events that transpired before me.  The writing (by Chloe Moss, James Graham and series creator Julie Gearey) and direction (Damon Thomas, Harry Bradbeer) is aces, as is the top-notch production (from producers Gearey, Anna Ferguson, Roanna Benn, Greg Brenman, Christopher Aird, Abi Bach and Rebecca De Souza).  The widescreen camerawork (by Davids Marsh and Odd) appropriately veers from lush to nitty-gritty, depending upon the “WIVE.”  And the score (supervised by Steve Parr), with its insidiously addictive theme, will be bopping around in your head for days.

As indicated earlier, I liked this show a lot.  Yet, this is small potatoes to the response from the females for whom I screened it; they LOVED it.  Case in point, a rather demure lady pal of mine, asked if there was a third season.  “Nope, that’s it,” I replied.  To which she uncharacteristically responded with a bellowing “FUCK!”

And we’ll leave it at that.

PRISONERS WIVES: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION.  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.  CAT # AMP-2156.  SRP: $59.99.

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The Ragnar’s Son

Not to offend those Golden Age of Hollywood buffs who serve up 1939 as le cinema‘s greatest year, but, as far as I’m concerned, 1958 had its formidable moments.  My favorite movie of all time, Vertigo, came out in ’58; ditto, some amazing imports, plus outstanding and/or interesting entries from the canons of Nick Ray, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, Billy Wilder, Terence Fisher, Raoul Walsh, Claude Chabrol, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa and on and on.  High up on this list is possibly my most favorite epic ever, Richard Fleischer’s THE VIKINGS, now available in an extraordinary Blu-Ray presentation from the warrior chieftains at Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Truly, I don’t think a year goes by where I don’t sit and feast me peepers upon the sumptuous Technicolored delights of this opus (often three times per).  This movie, a Boomer blockbuster, has been a part of my life since its release; the fact that I was four years old then and still can recall almost every scene from the first time I saw it unspooled at the Loew’s 175th speaks volumes.

Based on a novel by Edison Marshall (who had his singular-titled version made as an excellent two-strip Technicolor silent in 1928), this hopped-up rendition surpasses both the original source work and the earlier motion-picture depiction.  The script is brutally witty; no accident that its author, Calder Willingham (adapted by Dale Wasserman), would achieve his lasting fame nine years later, as cowriter of The Graduate.

The movie chronicles the clash between violent factions over, what else, a woman.  And what a woman!  It’s the desirable (for bod and land) Princess Morgana (as ably enacted by Janet Leigh).  Morgana’s participation comes well into the proceedings, as the title rogues have an equally colorful tale to tell.

The vicious Ragnar (a de-Marty-ized Ernest Borgnine), scourge of the English coast, pillages a kingdom, raping its queen.  She secretly gives birth to a bastard son, who grows up to be Tony Curtis (okay, Erik); he is captured as a slave, eventually ending up (after a later Viking raid) in Scandinavia.  There, he becomes the nemesis of Ragnar’s non-bastard son, who, coincidentally, is a bastard by any other name.  It’s Einar, aka producer/star Kirk Douglas.

Soon, everyone is after Morgana, from Einar to Erik to evil Brit scumbag King Aella (Frank Thring).

It’s a non-stop battle (literally) for her honor and dishonor, comprising eye-gouging by a hawk, devouring by wolves, lopping off of hands, arrows through the neck, bone crushing, and in Curtis’ case, being covered by crabs (now, now…don’t go there).  In short, it’s the perfect kid’s movie!

Much of the triumph for this magnificent collaborative work naturally goes to its underrated director, Fleischer, who had previously guided Douglas through the 1954 box-office smash 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  He, in turn, is aided by the sensational camerawork from no less than Jack Cardiff, breathtakingly getting every “Oh, wow!” beauteous gasp from each lush frame of Technicolor’s Technirama (the anamorphic version of VistaVision).  UA was heavily pushing Technirama back then, and well they should.  It remains the best of all the rectangular widescreen processes ever unleashed by the moguls of celluloid.  Other titles in its “horizon-expanding” universe included The Big Country, Spartacus, El Cid, The Pink Panther and Zulu.  So believe me when I say that THE VIKINGS, in my estimation, is the best of the best – we ain’t just talking hakkede leveren.  Douglas and Curtis never got over the effect of initially seeing the splendid vistas of the Norwegian, French, German and Croatian locations, but especially the Scandinavian portion of the shoot.  As recounted in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas, rightly proud of the production, happily told his cast and crew in pre-production that “there’s a fjord in your future” (a wordplay on a popular automobile campaign at the time).   And he wasn’t kidding.  Those postcard-gorgeous compositions visually define the term “wow factor.”  The critics, too, were awed, and while cleverly dubbing the pic “a Norse opera,” did so with affection, and ate up this glorious comic-book adventure come to life with as much vim and vigor as we adolescents, teens and future serial killers of America (the climactic duel atop the turrets of Aella’s castle still gives me the dizzying willies).

THE VIKINGS is ample proof of what happens when you leave medieval history to New York actors.  Douglas, Curtis and Borgnine seem to be having a veritable (flail) ball (with optional chain), as are the remaining cast members, encompassing such well-known punims as Alexander Knox, James Donald, Maxine Audley, Edric Conor, Dandy Nichols, Eileen Way and others. A family affair of sorts, Douglas’ son Peter and Curtis and Leigh’s daughter Kelly appear as extras. Douglas even named a later son, Eric, in homage to this movie (although, to be fair, Eric or Erik was Curtis’ moniker; Einar Douglas might have been a bit too much for survival within the 90210 set).

The primary leads were at their ultimate career peaks during the months surrounding THE VIKINGS.  Douglas had Lust for Life, Gunfight at the OK Corral and Paths of Glory under his belt; the success of this movie would enable him to greenlight Spartacus.  Leigh would appear in Welles’ Touch of Evil, then take some time off to raise daughters Kelly and newborn Jamie Lee; she would then forever put a spike in the shower industry via her appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Curtis was riding a high that picture folks usually can just fantasize about.  His terrific press from Sweet Smell of Success forever pushed him beyond the beefcake teen idol tag.  Concurrent to THE VIKINGS, Curtis would also populate two other wildly Top Ten 1958 UA pics, The Defiant Ones (for which he received his only Oscar nomination) and Kings Go Forth.  All this while honing his considerable comedic skills for a pair of comedies to be released in 1959, Operation Petticoat (opposite his idol Cary Grant) and Some Like it Hot.  Not too shabby.

Performance-wise, THE VIKINGS really veers from one extreme to the other.  Douglas and Borgnine play it way over the top, while Curtis and the generally English and Australian supporting cast go for the low-key, straightforward approach.

As indicated above, the script perfectly aids and abets all of the picture’s accumulative elements, thespian and technical (including the beautiful score by Mario Naciemebene).  Indeed, peppered with machismo and intentional yuks, THE VIKINGS has what’s likely the most quotable gag lines of any epic to date.

For example, when questioned about English torture methods, a waspish Donald informs Borgnine of their penchant for throwing unfortunates into a pit of half-starved wolves.  “You see, the English ARE civilized,” responds the impressed Ragnar with gusto.

Introducing Einar to Donald (Egbert), Ragnar presents him as “my only son in wedlock.”  When Einar attempts to rape Morgana, she coldly answers him with a warning that whatever he does will be on his conscience.  The drooling Viking observes her tight-fitting gown with her ample breasts heaving and logically answers “So, let it be on my conscience” right before Curtis ker-plunks him on the head with a club.  On a lighter note, a reunion between father and son is joyously verbalized by Einar’s “Hail Ragnar, and hail Ragnar’s beard!” – to this day one of my all-time fave lines in popcorn culture.

Perhaps the supreme laugh in the picture (one that caused an eruption of guffaws in ’58) is when Curtis, Leigh, Nichols (Leigh’s lady-in-waiting) and Co. escape from the Vikings under a foggy cloak of night.  Needing to ratchet up the speed, Curtis demands Leigh row with the rest of the sparse crew (including Conor and, no pun, witch Way).  “I can’t. My bodice is too tight.”  “What’s a bodice?,” asks Curtis in one of the finest acting moments of his career.  When told, he slices the rear seam with a blade, revealing Leigh’s fantastically sensual back.  “Mine’s not too tight!,” spouts Nichols without hesitation who then proceeds to carry on with enough adrenalin to single-handedly win the annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race.  Hilarious then, still funny now.

Historically, we know there really was a Ragnar.  In fact, it’s likely that the phrase narrator Orson Welles cites (from period Bibles) over the UPA-animated credits, that all Christians be spared “from the wrath of the Norsemen” in all probability specifically referred to Ragnar.  Yet, for some reason, the actual Viking defiler was dealt with differently than in the movie.  The real Ragnar supposedly did meet a gruesome end at the hands of the evil Aella, but, rather than be thrown into a pit of wolves, he was tossed into an earth-dug cavity filled with poisonous snakes.  As sadism goes, I prefer the former – primarily because wolves seem more gothic and dark, therefore more apropos to the scenario than snakes, which tend to lean too much to the exotic. And, yes, I am in therapy.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, THE VIKINGS is extremely educational, as it explains how to party like its 850, especially if the highlight of the bash IS a bashing and/or the dealing with an adulteress (handily accomplished with a torture wheel and an axe).

Not surprisingly, THE VIKINGS was a mammoth hit when released in June of 1958.  It spawned a plethora of imitations worldwide.  But, of course, nothing compares to the real thing (or Thring, if you’re an Aella fan).

The shoot seems to have been a laborious, but generally happy, affair (or, as Douglas cites in his auto bio “…hard, but fun”) marred only by three incidents.  The first was when Curtis and Leigh were invited to a posh hotel.  The star-struck manager, eager to have them sign his special guest book, couldn’t wait to get their autographs.  Curtis freaked when he saw the signature “Adolf Hitler.”  In her 1984 autobiography There Really was a Hollywood, Leigh recalls “Tony and I had weird vibrations…Tony wrote, ‘I am a Jew, signing this book that Hitler also signed, in a place [obviously] owned by a Nazi.  What does this mean?  Are these people not even true to their own disgusting beliefs?’”  Curtis also added a few choice words out loud to their host.

The second was a strike, prompted by the Norwegian crew members seeking to additionally line their pockets with big-time movie coin.  Producer Einar Douglas responded in true modern Viking kind, and immediately wrapped the picture in the country, organizing an earlier than anticipated siege upon the Munich studios in Germany.

The third is a little-known event that was revealed to me over thirty-five years ago by a friend, then employed in a high-level position at Paramount.

I still can vividly recall the afternoon she telephoned me, excitedly recounting a meeting she just had with the legendary Elmo Williams, who was THE VIKINGS’ second-unit director.  She had asked Williams about the shoot, and while he praised Curtis to the heavens, he was less so inclined when it came to Douglas.  “Don’t get me wrong,” he told her, “Kirk has his points, generally a good guy, but, I don’t know, maybe because he was the producer…Well, we had a potentially disastrous run-in.”  When pressed, Williams told an Alan Hale double-take-worthy story.

“We were setting up the last act, the raid on Aella’s castle, and Kirk comes over for his second shot, wearing a different Viking suit of armor. ‘What’s this?,’ I asked with panic, hoping it was a joke.  It’s wasn’t.  Douglas had like a dozen different suits of armor for the occasion.  ‘What are you doing?’  ‘It’s for the raid.’  ‘But they’re all different.’  ‘Yeah, I know.  I can’t wear the same thing.  The raid didn’t take twenty minutes, it took days to get to the castle.’  ‘Yeah, but that’s real life.  This is a movie, you’re screwing up the momentum.  And it’s the climax.  If every time we cut to you, you’re wearing a different outfit, you’ll be laughed off the screen.’  ‘No, this is the way it was.’  Dick [Fleischer] and I huddled together to figure a way out of this.  Otherwise this was going to be like a Sid Caesar sketch. Fleischer tried to intercede one last time.  ‘Kirk, in order for this to work, we’d have to add scenes around nighttime campfires to show a believable passage of time.  That will be deadly to the pace.’  But Kirk was adamant.  So we asked him for one favor, that when he finally attacks the castle and scurries up the drawbridge, he wears his landing armor from the first part of the sequence.  Mercifully, he agreed.

‘So, flash forward to the UA screening room weeks later.  We assembled the rough cut of the attack sequence, as Douglas wanted, and, just as we expected, every time we cut to Kirk, the audience started to laugh.  By the end of the segment, Kirk had slid all the way down in his seat.  ‘We’re ruined!,’ he cried to us.  ‘Why didn’t I listen to you?  We can’t go back and re-shoot, it’ll cost as much as most of the movie!’  Dick and I told him to calm down, and we screened an alternate cut, with most of Kirk’s footage excised.  It worked, and, for the most part, is the cut you see in the picture.  ‘You saved me!,” said Kirk.  And then he added, ‘Guys, if ever we work together again, and I hope we do, if EVER I try to tell you your business, you have my permission to turn me toward the cast and crew and give me a swift kick in the ass!’  “Kirk,’ I replied, ‘it would be a pleasure!’

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE VIKINGS is exceptional.  Played through a decent audio system, the mono sound, matched by the impeccable aforementioned Technirama visuals, is like a time machine back to a first-run theater in 1958.  Furthermore, aside from a trailer gallery of other Kino epics, there’s a nifty supplemental short, A Tale of Norway featurette with Richard Fleischer.

I’d like to conclude with another personal remembrance of this pic.  It was close to summer vacation in 1958, a Saturday.  I was hanging out with my dad in our Washington Heights apartment when I heard screaming, yelling and other cacophonous displays of kiddie glee.  I looked out my window and saw hordes of folks of all ages running down the block down to Riverside Drive.  I called my dad over.  He looked out, and nodded.  “Let’s see what this is all about.”  Didn’t have to tell me twice, I already had my jacket on.  We sprinted down to the park, overlooking the Hudson.  And then we saw it.  A life-sized replica of the Viking ship used in the movie – dragon head and all – cruising down the river.  A masterful example of movie ballyhoo that I still can’t forget, even after 59 years.  How brilliant.  Undoubtedly, this grand United Artists stunt became protocol for each key city surrounded by water, one guaranteeing that every urchin who saw it would be lining up at the nearest theater playing THE VIKINGS.  And we did.

THE VIKINGS.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K20310.  SRP:  $29.95.

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German Sleazles

In that continuously foggier faraway place, known as my youth, resides an unattainable experience, entitled THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS.  It was a 1967 big-time movie (in my past, it’s ALWAYS a movie), unattainable because it was a pre-ratings code “adults only” picture that even grown-ups approached with caution.  It should have a blockbuster, what with the cast, the bestselling sourcework and can’t-miss delectable narrative poison bon-bons of murder, sex and Nazis.  The decades have been kinder than its 1960s audiences, who were more content binging on The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Blow-Up, Alfie, etc., and moving increasingly away from WWII-related pics (although The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and Patton would momentarily provide box-office false security).  Oh, let me finish this opening by wrapping up what I earlier indicated: that this movie is an engrossing, unfairly maligned humdinger odyssey of madness, obsession and first-rate movie-making.  It’s also been given a grand Blu-Ray (albeit limited) showcase from the Twilight Time folks, in association with Columbia Pictures Industries.

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, in its near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, wastes not a second.  In an apartment building of Nazi-occupied Poland, a woman’s screams awaken and alert a fellow boarder, who immediately hides for cover.  He sees a German officer quickly retreating out of the residence with one identifiable memory etched in the frightened citizen’s brain:  the officer was wearing the uniform of a general.

Soon, it’s discovered that the woman in question was a prostitute, disemboweled and further butchered in a way only Jack the Ripper could love.  The investigating German constabulary is initially stunned by the witness’s absolute claim that a general did it.  Of course, the Nazi high command can’t have any of this – one of their finest involved in a heinous violation of humanity.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle batshit crazy!

The officer, Major Grau (also known as Omar Sharif), one of those sympathetic Nazis that 1950s and 1960s novels adored so much, apparently went to Reichstag training school with Marlon Brando’s character from The Young Lions.  Deep down he knows that the master race is a losing one, that they’re barbaric and will likely lose the war.  He’s so decent ya almost wanna hug him; in fact, he ends up working with the French Resistance (personified by the great Philippe Noiret), swapping political favors, aka lives.

Grau’s unbiased investigation narrows the culprits down to three viable suspects.  General von Seidlitz-Gabler, an ass-kissing, goose-stepping disreputable cad who firmly believes in “family values” (and we know what THAT means), slimily portrayed by Charles Gray.  Then there’s intellectual Donald Pleasence, who makes the list…well, simply because he’s Donald Pleasence.  Actually, Pleasence, or General Kahlenberge, is another reasonable Nazi, who is biding his time until he can burn those filed volumes of papers that all Nazis aspire to do with a vengeance; long story short:  Kahlenberge realizes that the Third Reich is bunk, and was probably planning his exit strategy as far back as the Beer Hall Putsch.

Blofelds aside, there’s a third candidate for Herr Loony Tunes, and that’s Hitler’s fair-haired boy General Tanz, scarily enacted by Peter O’Toole.  Tanz seems the least probable, as laboriously dismembering one woman at a time goes against his anally efficient persona (he not only dots his “i”s, he pokes ’em out).  Tanz likes killing en masse, as evidenced by one harrowing sequence where he and his goon squad annihilate an entire neighborhood. (“Are you using perfume?” asks Tanz of Grau, a coded gay slur reference revealing the general’s disdain for any intelligent person of integrity and/or supporter of the Arts).

Things take a brutal turn as the three generals move and groove from Poland to France (thus involving the aforementioned participation of Inspector Noiret – a cold-case expert), and the serial killings of hookers escalate.  Adding to this conundrum is the arrival of Tom Courtenay – yet ANOTHER sympathetic Teutonic Bavarian, whose democratic vent is underlined by the fact that he loves music. Courtenay finds solace in the arms of von Seidlitz-Gabler’s gorgeous daughter Ulrike (Joanna Petit), fortunately a progressive liberal (seriously, were the generals three the ONLY miserable bastards in the deutsche arm of the Axis?).

It all comes together in a rousing finale that takes years to solve.

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is one of those movies that is so nastily entertaining that it’s almost a shame to enjoy it.  Well, be shameless!  It’s a 1960s masterpiece of sexual frustration, Freudian nightmares, maniacal perversions and, in essence, triumph of the swill.  And all in Technicolor and Panavision.

Everything about this movie is letter-perfect, from the tense direction by veteran Anatole Litvak (with uncredited assistant work by a 27-year-old Andrzej Zulawski) to the script (a stellar collaborative effort adapted for the screen by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, AND, an incident recounted by James Hadley Chase; furthermore, additional dialog and structure was provided by no less than Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson).  It’s the acting, however, that elevates this from an entry in the Ilsa series, primarily by O’Toole.  Uptight sociopath that he is, his General Tanz relishes visiting locked up confiscated decadent art, and, basically mentally and spiritually masturbating to the works of Van Gogh (sweating, moaning and shaking harder than Katharine Hepburn at a Spencer Tracy tribute).

And while we have already dropped a number of enviable names, there are way more to celebrate in this star-studded opus. Coral Browne, John Gregson, Nigel Stock, Yves Brainville, Michael Goodliffe, Gordon Jackson, Patrick Allen, Valentine Dyall, Harry Andrews, and, in a cameo, Juliette Greco, all appear and valiantly pay lip service to them bad ole daze.  Plus, there’s Christopher Plummer, popping up in one scene as Rommel (for which the actor received a Rolls-Royce).

The production, gargantuan in that best 1960s sprawling reserved-seat-only way, is spectacular – seemingly costing more than the war itself (locations throughout Poland and France add that sinister touch of realism, being only twenty-two years after the actual occupation).  The picture was produced by Sam Spiegel for his Horizon company, which had previously partnered with Columbia on Lawrence of Arabia.  This is crucial to mention, as per part of Spiegel’s contractual deal with O’Toole and Sharif, they still owed him a picture from the original Lawrence deal, when they were both unknowns.  Thus, the by-now superstars were paid the same rates as they had received on the (no pun) Lean picture.  To further bring home the point, Donald Pleasence’s paycheck for GENERALS was double of both O’Toole’s and Sharif’s combined.

Sharif was originally skittish about appearing in the movie, never wanting to be involved with any project concerning Nazis (let alone playing one).  Nevertheless his pal, O’Toole, intervened with an “Oh come on, it’ll be fun.”  So he acquiesced (as discussed above, it wasn’t for the money).

O’Toole himself came about as close to giving Litvak a coronary from the get-go as is possible.  This was during the actor’s prime years of inebriation, or, in his own words, those glorious days when “…one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica,” a scenario that reportedly occurred with alarming regularity.

O’Toole arrived on the location so pissed that he could barely stand up, giggling uncontrollably.  Litvak, who had prepped the set for the star’s first scene, quietly saw his career evaporate.  As assistants fought to dress O’Toole in his Tanz togs, the director contemplated suicide (and not just his).  He weakly called, “Action,” and was amazed at what transpired.  O’Toole straightened up and gave a splendid reading of his speech. When he was done, a stunned Litvak, briefly speechless, at last yelled, “Cut!” whereupon O’Toole fell to the floor in drunken stupor, laughing all the way.  This was essentially the routine for the entire shoot.  To paraphrase Kenneth Mars in The Producers, sloshed or sober, Tanz can dance the pants off both Churchill AND Hitler!

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, for all its main star penny-pinching, still cost a handsome piece of coin, and, upon its 1967 release, failed to recoup its primary budget (the movie’s $5.2 million budget reaped only a little more than half than upon its original run).  Don’t let that stop you from purchasing this riveting mystery-thriller.  As often is the case, time has proven its audience wrong.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is a kraut-keeper.  The 1080p scope compositions pop with crystal-clear, dark colors, as lushly rendered from the superb palette of the brilliant Henri Decae.  The excellent music score comes by way of another Lawrence holdover, Maurice Jarre (and it’s a pip, accessible as an IST).  The sensational look of the picture is designed by still another cinematic icon, Alexandre Trauner.

Hey, if ya ever needed to see a movie where the Resistance trumps Nazi rule, THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS fills the bill (but, remember, it’s a limited edition of 3000, so when they’re gone…they’re gone).  It sometimes takes a while, but it DOES happen.

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT # TWILIGHT 156-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000, available exclusively at www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

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