Chick Flic

She’s lean, she’s mean, she’s butch-cut buffed and ready for action. And thank God she’s on our side. Well, that is, if our side is in the French city of Montpelier. And, no, she’s not a fantasy version of Rachel Maddow, Cop; she’s Lea Hippolyte, TOP Cop (in fact, Captain) in a not-so-elite squad of ornery officers, known cumulatively as ANTIGONE 34 (ditto the 2011 French mini-series, now on DVD from MHz Networks).

The six-part three-disc set moves like zee queek-silverr with more dangerous twists and turns than the South Corsican roadway. There’s an excellent cast of characters with prerequisite sharp-featured Gaelic punims to make the visuals doubly interesting. Mainly, there are three leads. Helene de Soyere, the group’s resident psychotherapist (believe me, they need it), portrayed by the beauteous Claire Borota; Victor Carlier (Bruno Todeschini), a disgraced physician, just released after serving a decade in prison for the death of his wife; and, last but certainly not least, the aforementioned Lea – an amazing characterization by the extraordinary bi-goddess Anne Le Nen.

As their name implies, Antigone 34 is the go-to last resort outpost for the worst crimes imaginable. Perverts and scum are “how we pay our rent,” offers sage Lea to her new partner – the clean-shaven sprout Serge Ravel (one of the show’s touche touches of reversing gender stereotypes). Prettified Ravel (Aubert Fenoy) is the role usually given to the cute woman while Hippolyte is generally reserved for the craggy, grizzled veteran. Lea immediately crushes Ravel’s awkwardness with a terse “If we’re gonna work together, stop ogling me when I bend over.” This Dirty Harriet is in need of a new partner, since her former cohort “ate his gun” one fateful night. Returning after enforced leave, Hippolyte’s detached demeanor is devoid of any remorse. This is frowned upon by her coworkers, who never liked her to begin with. But nobody in A-34 really seems to like anybody anyway; it’s an eternal clash of surly, bitter, unfriendly misanthropes seemingly sired to offend each other. Did we say they’re French?

The show opens with a bang – in more than one sense of the word. A university sex party climaxes with the death of a gorgeous young coed (Jennyfer Chabot). These carnal soirees are biz as usual for the writhing student bodies, who even allow outsiders to pay for voyeur privileges (“They get off watching us degrade ourselves” reports one femme to Hippolyte). Soon another corpse turns up. Is there a serial sex-killer on campus? Coincidence is the key to ANTIGONE 34, as it soon becomes apparent that EVERYTHING slimy that goes on within the magnificent surroundings of the coastal community is connected. The dead girl turns out to be the daughter of the newly freed Carlier. He wants answers. Lea is still trying to find evidence to clear the ex-con’s record for what she figures was a frame-up. She’s also attempting to unravel the strange circumstances regarding her partner’s “suicide.” Then there’s Carlier’s refuge: an ocean front gypsy camp run by low level crime lords who were the doctor’s former cellmates. What’s the elegant plastic surgeon Klein (Nicolas Moreau) got to do with this? Or the college drug mule trade? And this is just episode one.

So, what else is there to be deliciously revealed? Allow me to give you a tantalizing taste. Within the subsequent five installments we learn that the gypsies are involved in a credit-card scam possibly related to the murder of a potential terrorist. Carlier is following one Hubert Prudehomme (Xavier Gallais) – a sleazy post-yuppie billionaire industrialist Realtor who pretty much has his doigts gluants is every pie within cellular distance of Devil’s Island. Prudehomme essentially is a baba au rhum Mabuse, and a startling shock reveals Helene – the oh-so-normal-shrink – has an intime passe with le salaud. Meanwhile, Lea divides off-hour time punishing her body – either by rigorous exercise or downing shots till dawn in techno clubs (she also occasionally takes swigs of booze while driving to crime scenes).

Lea and Helene’s marginal respect for one another is underlined by the former’s comment, “You try to understand the criminals instead of taking them out.” The women are the core of the series, and couldn’t be more oil-and-water opposites. Lea salivates taking no prisoners, and is annoyed by rehabilitation; Helene gets through to the ones her coworker do manage to bring in alive – and even gets in on some of the field action. Lea couldn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her looks, attitude or interpretation of the law; in contrast, Helene plays the girly card with a vengeance – trumping a later ace when she turns out to be the mistress of a 70-year old former rock star. Lea’s love life unwinds at the club, via her unnatural attraction to Baptiste (Daniel Lobe) a married Creole customs officer. It’s mutual, much to Hippolyte’s delight (“I see you’re not wearing your [wedding] ring [anymore]”). Their (dare we say) bi-play is highlighted by a sequence of one-upmanship when their impassioned discussion causes them to not notice that the music and background activities have gone graveyard silent. The terrified patrons have seen the burly Custom’s enforcer’s shoulder holster and weapon. When informed of this faux pas, the officer laughs – explaining his profession. Lea joins in. “I’m one too!” she happily adds – displaying her even larger formidable weapon.

But back to the narrative. Ravel is run over by some Muslim hitmen in the pay of a gang kingpin, who’s in the pay of Prudhomme…In the interim, we meet another A-34 duo – Lea’s in-house nemesis Perez (Bruno Lopez) and his lackey associate Libert (Fred Tournaire) – two violent crooked cops and the series’ most unsavory participants. Perez resembles an evil pockmarked Rahm Emanuel, while thick sadistic thug Libert is, to paraphrase Dian Fossey’s landmark work, the ultimate gorilla in the mystery. They torment shopkeepers, extort pay from citizens, run girls, sell drugs and, not surprisingly, were seen at the dorm the night Carlier’s daughter was murdered. They are also in Prudehomme’s employ. Prudehomme, we also learn, was also screwing Carlier’s wife.

Things really start moving when a ruthless 1% anti-science magnate is found frozen to death in a fish locker. This opens the investigation to exhume a million-dollar black market in illegal tuna smuggling (I swear I’m not making this up – apparently this genuinely exists). A pizza delivery boy is actually a hired executioner who blows away a young mother. Her tiny daughter is a witness and is brought to Helene for counseling. At the precinct, the girl embraces Perez – much to Lea’s dismay. Why? Perez’s wife (Vanessa Liautey) is the child’s beloved teacher. Initially, the prime suspect is the dead woman’s husband, but he has an airtight alibi (he’s a bigamist, and was spending the day with his second family).  Alas, the assassination was a botch since it turns out the intended victim actually lived next door. Fifi, Lea’s new partner (Lionel Erdogan) questions her; she’s an acclaimed gourmet cook/author who’s upgrading her credentials to true-crime – doing an expose of…yup, Prudehomme. Fifi and the writer immediately have sex since, as we mentioned earlier, this is France. But wait – what’s an environmentalist have to do with all this? Or the Russian mob? Why did the journalist really seduce Fifi? And why did Fifi let her? And why is Carlier risking more jail time by performing illegal plastic surgery procedures (which we learn are known as “clandestine operations” – see how educational TV can be?). And why was his patient then murdered? And how did Carlier’s knockout professional nurse end up as a lethal high-priced prostitute (hilariously unmasked when an A-34 hacker “penetrates the escort site with a Trojan horse”)?

Many of these answers are clarified at an arranged meeting in Helene’s aged rocker’s villa, the standout moment being a confrontation with the hooker and Lea, who belts the vicious call girl point blank in the nose with unfortunate Owen Wilson proboscis results.

There are many deaths in ANTIGONE 34; also much screwing (literally and figuratively) and lots of other heinous dilemmas that collectively make up what we laughably call the human condition. The theme of the series is that crime not only pays – but it usually pays well. In due course, some people deservedly get what’s coming to them; others do not (Perez and Libert simply keep on trucking). Lea herself bends the rules with the same ease as she maneuvers her pliable torso. The raison d’etre isn’t that criminal events are terrible as much as they are necessary. In order to keep society on an even keel, we need the malevolence and corruption. Eventually everything balances out. How can one show be so cynical and ebulliently anti-social? Did I mention it was French?

If there’s a problem with ANTIGONE 34 (aptly named, as famed editor/author Frank Harris once termed its Greek namesake as the battler of the law; other interpretations suggest opposed to motherhood and even opposed to life), it’s that there’s too much information. The interesting folks and their outrageous foibles are often countered by a lip-biting barrage of cliches that serve no purpose whatsoever. The script by Alexis Nolent and Brice Homs (the latter who also interestingly served as the show’s art director) dutifully juggles the pros and cons with professional panache (finishing in the plus column by tossing an occasional dialog zinger). What makes it acceptable is the MTV lightning-in-the-bottle handheld rapid-cutting style (which normally I generally find offensive); i.e.,this shit moves so fast that one hardly has time to cherry-pick the God-awful from the awfully good. The first three episodes are directed by Louis Pascale Couvelaire with such slick jump-cut ferocity that one doesn’t even realize what a slow poke he is until the far more slick (and faster) final triad is unleashed by Roger Simonsz. The cinematography is by a talented sextet comprising Simonsz (who worked on the three episodes he didn’t direct), Sebastian Dewsbery, Sarah Couvelaire, Caroline Vandamme, Lara Pugh and Marc-Olivier Perrois unfurls the spectacular Montpelier locations to great advantage, especially the dazzling nighttime photography. The music by Claude Samard Polikar is Euro-trash reasonable; however, the phonetic English warbling of supposed soulful, ironic lyrics laid over the end of each episode made me want to see Paris and die without hesitation, save to retch my guts out upon the hearing of every whiny word (trust me, they would make Rod McKuen wince). I kept hoping for a supplement of the fantastic Le Nen (unquestionably the prime reason for watching the series) cornering the singers and blasting them to smithereens with a snarky “Ta gueule!”

Which brings me to my favorite credit on ANTIGONE 34 – and one deserving endless praise: Bruno Gaggola di Balthazar pour Creation de la coiffure de Mile. Anne Le Nen. Brother, you ain’t just whistling La Marseillaise.

The three platters from MHz Networks are tres impressive! The 16 x 9 widescreen transfer is crystal clear and pops with a contradiction of rich natural and neon-enameled colors (depending upon the time of day). The stereo-surround showcases an excellent sounding board for the cacophony of regional French accents, subtly enlightening viewers of the differentiation between merde and murder.

ANTIGONE 34. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 Digital stereo-surround; French w/English subtitles. MHz Networks. UPC Code # 815047017481. SKU # 16748. SRP: $39.95.antigoneCOVER

Corporations are People Tunes

It had to happen.  In that populist 1950s culture of men in grey flannel suits following patterns of upper-middle class ascension and/or the women yearning for the best of everything, someone was going to take the next logical step:  turn the paranoia and American dream angst into a musical.  And, boy, did they!  If ya don’t believe me, check out the new Blu-Ray of 1967’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, now available in a limited edition from the CEOs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Debuting in 1962, the Broadway production of HOW TO SUCCEED became a star-making smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Better yet, it became one of only eight musicals to win a deserved Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The brilliant score by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert achieved the seemingly impossible:  creating a likeable, song-filled, toe-tapping universe surrounding the human shite that decides how we look, dress, talk and smell (it was actually based on Shepherd Meade’s 1951 satiric volume of the same name, subtitled A Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune).  Certainly one of the snarkiest musicals ever, SUCCEED succeeds on so many levels; it was obvious that a movie deal would soon be in the works.

The plot revolves around an over-achieving take-no-prisoners go-getter, J. Pierrepont Finch, who, after finding the title book at a subway newsstand, quickly rises from window washer to young executive at a top super-mega-colossal Manhattan firm known as World Wide Widgets (the first prophetic use of the letters “WWW”).

The scenario, like Finch, offers no solace to the myriads of wounded victims, ripping the masks off every ass-kissing, back-stabbing, toadying coworker, skank and relative employed at even a marginally sized company that anyone has ever had the misfortune to share adjoining cubicles with (believe me, I speak from experience).

The songs, as indicated, are terrific – each one a masterpiece that, once exposed to, you won’t be able to stop humming.  I used to apply each ditty to the matching staff member in my office (“hmm-hmm-hmm, the company way…”).  It made the stress so much easier.

The show had legs, not only spreading out into a gazillion worldwide road companies, but joining a mini-genre of cynical “big biz” theater/movie ancestors/spinoffs, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and, the most unknown work of genius ever How Now, Dow Jones (check the credits, you’ll plotz).

UA, which scored big with The Apartment, eventually won the film optioning stakes (the Mirisch Company paying a then unheard-of $1M for the picture rights), immediately began planning the transition to the screen.  The backstage politics involved in that morphing were nearly as hostile as the inappropriate display that had theatergoers laughing (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) in the aisles.

In 1964, Tony Curtis campaigned vigorously to play Finch; the underrated actor surmising he could speak the sensational lyrics a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.  The idea of Sidney Falco in HOW TO SUCCEED is indeed an enticing one (in the Broadway version, the Pierrepont Finch character is way darker, and more ruthless).  Alas, by the early/mid-1960s, Curtis’ marquee value had waned, and United Artists told 39-year-old he was too long in the tooth to play the energetic 20-something.  Immediately, they pursued Dick Van Dyke (then also 39).  Van Dyke nixed the part for the identical reason UA trounced Curtis.

Hollywood being Hollywood, no one naturally thought of casting the ultimate Finch, its Broadway personification Robert Morse.  Morse had previously done some TV and a couple of movies, and had just been signed by MGM.  His bravura turn as Finch had also won him a Tony Award.  “Hey, why not use him?” finally cried some wag at The Mirisch Co.  Duh.  Like casting followed suit, and soon the majority of the original Broadway roster caught a jet for the West Coast.

The transition still wasn’t without bumps – and weird ones.  The outrageous Coffee Break number was scratched from the final cut, although the hilarious preamble to it remains (you’re expecting a full-fledged ensemble of lady typists and junior execs to converge upon the screen, but are met only by a guy wheeling in a beverage and danish cart).  More bizarre was the omission of all the Michele Lee character’s songs.  As compensation, she was given Morse’s signature tune I Believe in You; he, in turn, got to perform the piece later on in a washroom reprise.

The reason UA cited was the playing down of musicals, which were not as popular as they had once been.  Odd, since West Side Story, A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music had racked up international grosses of close to a billion dollars (the first two being UA titles).

But, again, who can explain the workings of a Hollywood mind?

What remains on the screen is a firecracker of laughs (many brutal), fantastic music (so many memorable songs, it’s hard to pin down a favorite; I’m torn between Company Way and Been a Long Day — the second malevolent, of the two versions performed by the class-conscious cast) and marvelous performances.  Morse and Lee (who made her big screen debut in SUCCEED) are perfect.  But we can’t NOT mention the splendid participation of the awesome supporting cast, particularly Rudy Vallee, Maureen Arthur, Anthony Teague, John Myhers, Carol Worthington, Ruth Kobart, Jeff DeBanning and Murray Matheson.  That said, the unsung-singing hero of SUCCEED is the amazing Sammy Smith, who perfectly essays the dual roles of meek mail room head Twimble AND the company founder Wally Womper (originally, I never knew until the credits, even taking into account the lousy toupee).

Our retro love affair with the 1960s makes SUCCEED more engaging as ever.  Several years ago, a Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe wowed audiences once again.  Cleverly, it was hyped as “Mad Men – the Musical!”  A not so deceptive tag (just ask the wary young ladies in the show as they harmonize “A Secretary is Not a Toy”).  Furthermore, in a brilliant casting in-joke decision, the groundbreaking award-winning AMC series cast Morse in a recurring role as one of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ top execs.

David Swift, who directed a non-musical look at big business (1964’s very funny Good Neighbor Sam), moves his cast through the proceedings with verve and panache.  The camerawork by the great Burnett Guffey is top-notch, utilizing the decade’s pop colors in a Panavision galaxy, reminiscent of Princess phones, fluorescent ad signs and the New York World’s Fair mod imagery.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a revelation.  This fresh transfer looks as if it was shot yesterday, featuring colors that seem to burst off the screen with 1080p crystal clear visuals.  Unlike the previous 2000 MGM DVD, which was in compromised scope, this rendition is in full 2.35:1 Panavision.  Equally relevant is that all-important audio; the old DVD was mono; Twilight Time presents SUCCEED in spectacular 5.1 stereo-surround (it truly sounds as if one is in a first-run theater).  For SUCCEED‘s legions of fans (like moi), there’s the option of listening to the matchless score as an IST; furthermore, there are several short documentaries, one with Morse, and another with Lee.  Plus the theatrical trailer.

One of the finest musicals ever made, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS finally conquers the home entertainment arena via this must-have platter.  But hurry, it’s a limited run, and once they’re gone…

One final note:  The bloviating, blow-hard, inept, physically unfit, adulterous womanizing, golf-fanatical New York head of WWW – the creep who is lured into a reality-type game show production is named Biggley.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # TWILIGHT267-BR.   SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively at www.screenarchivesentertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com 

howtosucceed_COVER

 

Wingman in the SAC

The complexities surrounding the seemingly typical rousing big-budget 1955 Hollywood drama-adventure STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, now on stunning Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, transcend its surface appeal of mere stirring family fare.

The movie, costarring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson (their third teaming), and directed by the great Anthony Mann, is generally sloughed off by Mann’s admirers as an expertly made but standard tribute to an integral arm of America’s armed forces.

But leave us look again.  Hint:  NOTHING Anthony Mann does post-WWII is without worth.

The narrative, as scripted by Valentine Davies and Bernie Lay, Jr., (from a story by Lay), chronicles the odyssey of Robert “Dutch” Holland (Stewart), a middle-aged ex-Lieutenant Colonel, still in his prime – now enjoying the rewards (both personal and financial) of being a major-league baseball player (that’s 170K per year in 1950s dollars).  His recent (albeit late in life) marriage to Sally (Allyson), the woman of his dreams, immensely aids his securing the American Dream, Eisenhower-Era-style; the news that he’s about to become a father makes it just that more sweet.

Long story short, Dutch has three loves:  flying, baseball and Sally (but not necessarily in that order).  Furthermore, Dutch’s great season has enabled him to purchase the suburban fantasy home that previously had been only a possibility in his mind.

All this changes by a visit from an old flying pal, (now Major-General) “Rusty” Castle (James Millican, apparently everybody has quotes in the Air Force).  It seems that, although honorably discharged, Dutch remained on the reserve list.  And now, a publicity-seeking martinet, perfectly christened General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), has decided that recalling Holland to the service, as part of the new high echelon Strategic Air Command, is just the boost the Cold War flight group needs.  Dutch’s celebrity status will make SAC a desired choice for bright, young individuals whose love for country might outweigh the minimal pay.

At first Dutch thinks it’s all a gag, then is irritated and finally angered at his indentured servitude to a branch of the military he voluntarily and heroically pledged loyalty to.

But it’s for real, all right.  The penalty for refusal is possible prison, with the added caveat of traitor being slapped on one’s back.  Allyson, upset but game, wonders how bad it can be; besides, it’s only for a couple of years.  Stewart, near his breaking point, reminds his bride that at his age, two years in baseball is a lifetime.

But Jimmy Stewart is no traitor, so he reluctantly goes off to fight the paranoias of McCarthyism peacetime.  Immediately, he gets into hot water via the red tape involving simple entry onto the base.  This is followed by a harrowing terrorist attack on the SAC airstrip – a frightening sham ploy that is part of Hawkes’ prep maneuvers in the event of a sneak Russian attack.

Stewart discovers isn’t alone in his vitriolic attitude toward SAC after meeting a rising young executive (Alec Nicol), likewise snatched from a high-paying job and sold into slavery by Hawkes.

The transition isn’t easy, nor pleasant.  The new quarters, in less than desirable environs, is a slum compared to the Holland’s former home.

The training on the new  jets is rigorous, relentless and painful.  But then the change occurs.  Reunited with a WWII buddy, who stayed in the service (Harry Morgan as…wait for it…Sergeant Bible), Dutch becomes fascinated, then obsessed, with the sleek, streamlined B-47s.  He ultimately masters the required knowledge and excels as a modern SAC warrior.  The thrill Dutch experiences is pure wide-eyed wonder that only Stewart can achieve – it quite literally mirrors a feeling parallel to sex.  And Dutch begins to stay away from home longer and longer, assigned/volunteering for missions above and beyond.  So enamored is he of 1950s military flight that he neglects an increasingly worsening shoulder injury, sustained during his initial SAC days.

As the months tick off, Allyson, freaking out after straying husband’s near-fatal downing in the Arctic, goes into hysterical overdrive when Stewart’s new mistress wins.  He tells her that he’s not doing the required tour of duty, but has signed up to stay in SAC permanently.

His debilitating condition turns the Hollands’ world upside down and around once again.  Lovejoy callously informs Dutch that they no longer want him; of course, the malady guarantees his baseball days are finished as well.  And Allyson is smart enough to realize that are now cracks in their marriage.

The bitter finale, a 1950s U.S. wet dream, has Stewart and Allyson watching the supersonic jets fly in formation to a patriotic male-chorus-sung tune (“The Air Force Takes Command”).  To the masses, it’s an appropriate ending; for Mann buffs, like family relationships in Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, it’s a shattered nuclear unit, probably beyond repair (Sirk did similar things with romance and the American dream in his Technicolor Rock Hudson valentines; think Jane Wyman’s reflection in a TV set in All That Heaven Allows).  Mann and Sirk boldly underline an insidious multileveled cinematic definition of the adage “If it looks too good to be true…”

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was a picture Mann didn’t necessarily want to make.  He did it at the beseeching of his frequent leading man Stewart (this was similar to the earlier Glenn Miller Story), but Mann’s compensations were the aforementioned Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, plus Man from Laramie and, in my opinion the duo’s finest collaboration, The Naked Spur).  Mann couldn’t complain either, as both SAC and Glenn Miller proved to be massive hits (up until that point the director’s non-Stewart pics, the excellent but ill-performing Last Frontier and the horribly maligned Serenade, had unceremoniously bellied-up).

Stewart, a genuine Air Force hero (and ultimately a Brigadier General) pulled a lot of strings to get clearance to shoot SAC in places other studios’ moguls could never even imagine.  The behind-the-scenes training and actual missions are engrossing to watch.

Furthermore, SAC, as a large-scale movie, is a gorgeous-looking extravaganza, perfect for the VistaVision process.  The photography by William Daniels (who decreed VistaVision the greatest process ever bestowed upon cinema) and the bravura flying sequences by the legendary Paul Mantz, particularly the cold blue nighttime aerials over the Arctic, are awesome, crystal-clear in detail and representative of Technicolor at its best.

The performances, too, are top-notch, beginning, natch, with Stewart – as tortured as ever in a pic by Mann or Hitchcock.  Allyson is the perfect 1950s wife for the star, and the supporting players, including Nicol, Morgan, Millican and Barry Sullivan, Bruce Bennett, Rosemary DeCamp, James Bell, Strother Martin, but especially Lovejoy as the Machiavellian officer, are terrific. Since it’s a 1955 movie, SAC has the mandatory appearance by Jay C. Flippen, since it seems that no American pic during the decade was allowed to be filmed unless either he or Robert Keith participated.  Throw in a typically melodic Victor Young score (including the previously indicated song with lyrics by Ned Washington and Major Tommy Thomson), and you’ve got the recipe for a primo 1950s movie night event.

SAC‘s nightmarish elements snuck by most critics and audiences, who loved the movie to death.  It was the official opening for a flagship VistaVision theater, attended by top chiefs of staff, selected members of the air force and SAC pilots themselves.  Sadly, the VistaVision longevity was already waning, and the superb big-screen process would soon fall by the wayside, being nearly extinct by 1960 (most people in 1955 saw the pic in standard 35MM widescreen).

Blu-Ray is the perfect format for VistaVision movies, so I was delighted to see this new 1080p High Definition master from Olive Films.  Cutting to the chase, the movie looks and sounds fantastic.

For those Stewart fans and/or aviation buffs, STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND delivers the goods in droves.  For Mann purists, take another look – and checkout how this brilliant artist turned a love affair with flight into fright.

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF1284.  SRP:  $29.95.

olive_SAC_COVER

 

Swimmin’ at Ya

For Blu-Ray fans, 2017 is turning out to be quite a bonanza (nice that SOMETHING good is happening this year); for 3-D aficionados, it’s beyond our wildest dreams.

Just how wild are our stereoscopic dreams?  For true buffs of the process, I can think of no better answer than the title SEPTEMBER STORM, a 1960 adventure that for us depth-devotees is one of the format’s entries that help comprise the 3-D Holy Grail.  And it’s now available on a dynamite Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber, in conjunction with that grand bunch at the 3-D Film Archive.

A rarely seen 20th Century-Fox pic, SEPTEMBER STORM is historically relevant, as it’s the first advertised American CinemaScope movie in 3-D (rumors still fly about 1955’s Son of Sinbad).

In fact, SEPTEMBER STORM is such an obscurity that I wasn’t even sure if the movie ever existed in 3-D, and, if it did, whether it was entirely shot in the process, or just used for certain sequences.  I never met anyone who had actually seen it in three dimensions.  And, people who saw it flat (generally on TV) were magnanimously unimpressed.

Truth be told, flat, the movie ain’t much, even with the Mallorca locations in CinemaScope.

The cast is certainly of the B-variety, not necessarily a bad thing, and the story, by noir veterans Steve Fisher and (screenplay) W.R. Burnett, carries a high pedigree, but isn’t exactly Little Caesar, High Sierra or White Heat.  The movie was produced for Fox by Edward Alperson’s unit and directed by Hollywood professional Byron Haskin.

The cast comprises a foursome of interesting personalities.  Joanne Dru, an actress I’ve always liked, is costarred with Mark Stevens.  Supporting backup is provided by the always reliable Robert Strauss and newcomer Asher Dann.

So, what’s the story?  Supermodel Dru likes to be adventurous, and takes a New York breather to explore the deep-sea wonders of Mallorca, Spain.  There she meets supposed boy-millionaire local Dann, who does his best to loosen her bikini.  Not that she’s opposed to this hunky sidebar, but all that takes a back seat with the arrival of dubious explorers Stevens and Strauss, a red-flag duo if ever there was one.  They want to hire one of Dann’s boats to recover a buried treasure off the coast of one of the adjoining islands.  This becomes problematic for several reasons:  A) it turns out that Stevens may have intentionally arranged a wreck, causing the earlier discovered fortune to sink for his personal salvage, and B) Dann is a nothing but a Latin beach bum, babysitting a fleet of yachts for an absent millionaire.  There’s also C), Strauss wanting to ravish Dru – a hormonal tsunami that can never end well.

Nevertheless, off they go and the passions, fashions and trash-ons clash on…and on…and on.

Character development is weird in the movie; Strauss is scumbag evil at one moment and then Stalag 17 lovable the next.  The raw Burnett touch is scantily evident, save some of Dru’s smack-down lines, beautifully delivered by the actress (when Stevens wants a private conference, she snaps “I bet you do!”).  A pre-climactic moment where Strauss’ character’s worm finally turns, does have a nasty edge to it, but, again, is short-lived.

Stevens and Strauss nonetheless make a good team of rogues.  Even when playing 100% good guy, Mark Stevens always had a sleazy air about him, which probably explains why he never became a major Fox star.  He is an able actor, however, and turned out to be an even better director (Cry Vengeance, Time Table).

That said, the true star of SEPTEMBER STORM isn’t the cast or dazzling location settings, but the 3-D.  To this, we can’t credit director Haskin enough.  He’s done a monumental job.  While there are not any genuine “coming at ya” moments, the entire movie is spectacularly framed and designed for the process.  Every shot perfectly composes the requisite center/foreground/background action.  Simple bits, comprised of the cast walking across the deck of the boat, surrounded by rigging, become thrilling.   Ditto scenes in nightclubs, cabins, and, natch, the underwater stuff.

The various nightclub sequences, taking place over a period of days, apparently were shot in one establishment, and in a single shoot.  A sensational sultry-eyed blonde dances by in nearly every take, suggesting that she was possibly some suit’s girlfriend.  I say this because, in Hollywood, such things are known to happen.

While ads reasonably showed a shark attacking Dru and Co., nothing really that frightening compares with Robert Strauss in 3-D.  Fortunately, Joanne Dru more than makes up for this shocking horror.

In fact, the perfect use of 3-D throughout lends credence about other rumors revolving around the producer’s and director’s finer cinematic excursions.  For many years, Alperson’s 1953 classic Invaders from Mars, directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies (who, himself, achieved a 3-D expressionistic funfest with The Maze), was discussed as a Third Dimension offering that survived only in standard flat versions beyond the editing room.  Furthermore, Haskin’s work on George Pal’s H.G. Wells masterpiece, War of the Worlds (also 1953), was likewise whispered to have been lensed (at least partially) in the process.

The bad rep that SEPTEMBER STORM has carried with it for more than half a century relies wholly upon its flat version (or, if viewed on pan-and-scan 1970s TV broadcasts, a flat-flat version).  Reviews cite its ugly photography and bad color – a standard (and often valid) claim on Fox/DeLuxe titles (again, more so for the faded, grainy blown-up, full-frame/non-scope TV prints).  The ghosts of co-cinematographers Lamar Brown and Jorge Stahl, Jr., can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

This new transfer of SEPTEMBER STORM mercifully puts those negative comments to rest.  In 35MM, CinemaScope and 3-D, the rectangular visuals look terrific.  And, damn, could that sucker Robert Strauss swim!

The music score, cowritten by Eddie Alperson, Jr., is a mixed bag.  The downside of nepotism, Junior’s accomplishments never lost Cole Porter any sleep.  His title song to dad’s earlier Fox pic Mohawk remains a classic of good-awful filmmusic that my late pal Ric Menello and I would frequently warble before collapsing in spasms of laughter.

SEPTEMBER STORM keeps the Eddie, Jr., legend going.  The title (and nightclub) tune is authentically bad, but in a way that is addictive.  Proof of this is the fact that I’m still quoting the inane lyrics (by Jerry Winn) and can’t stop humming that theme; it may eventually drive me insane.

If 3-D collectors haven’t already added this title to their libraries, I heartily recommend that they do so.  It’s a fantastic demo platter of how much the process can enhance a project.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The 3-D Film Archive gang won’t let it.  As with many of their releases, the supplemental material is as good, if not better, than the main attraction.  With SEPTEMBER STORM, they have gone beyond sweetening the pot.

First of all, the original 3-D release (limited as it was) was accompanied by a bizarre puppetoon-esque short, entitled SPACE ATTACK, also in 3-D; it is included here so that one can actually recreate the 1960 experience.  The short is a tiny-tot-geared painless pastiche – an odd choice to pair with SEPTEMBER STORM, as the feature attraction is definitely not kiddie-oriented.

In addition, there is a pristine copy of a British 3-D 1953 short (never released in the process), HARMONY LANE, a two-reeler variety show (with notable performers being Max Bygraves and Dora Bryan).  Aside from one number (only surviving in a flat rendition, but seamlessly integrated into the mix), the 3-D is quite good, save a ballet number, which is outstanding – an ideal example of the heights inventive Third Dimension could ascend (the short’s director, Lewis Gilbert, best known here for the excellent Bond flick You Only Live Twice, discusses the pic in a 1995 filmed interview).

Best of all is a new interview with SEPTEMBER STORM‘s only remaining star, Asher Dann.  It’s easy to see why he got the part.  At 77, the still gregarious thesp exudes an overabundance of charm (which he states was his best attribute).  I was also amazed how good an actor Dann could be.  I thought he was just another foreign import, one of the many throngs of international actors and actresses recruited for American productions during the late 1950s-early 1960s.  Turns out he’s a native New Yawker; he sure had the Spanish accent down poifectly.

Dann is genuinely stunned by the interest in SEPTEMBER STORM, but is told that it’s because of the 3-D availability.  He memorably recalls the giant green Natural Vision 3-D monolithic cameras (resembling the Xenomorphs from It Came from Outer Space, but with two eyes), newly christened as StereoVision, and remembers seeing a Third Dimension print at Fox; but emphatically insists that the picture was never released that way.  He had done personal appearance duty in key cities and swears STORM only played in standard CinemaScope (memory does have a tendency to play tricks on one, as the StereoVision lobbycards, posters and TV spots exist, the latter also included in this release, along with a “flat” theatrical trailer).  I’ve since discovered, that, in actuality, the movie wasn’t shot in CinemaScope at all, but in spherical NaturalVision.  The prints were then converted to SuperScope (a fake rectangular format, promoted by Howard Hughes during the last years at RKO).  The materials were then cropped and anamorphically squeezed in the lab, and finally released in true CinemaScope prints.

Dann likewise insists that while another actor was up for the part (likely, Fox contractee Nicos Minardos, whom studio mogul Spyros Skorus desperately tried to catapult to stardom), he’s convinced he got the role due to his expertise at gin rummy, a game Alperson was addicted to (and one the producer played relentlessly with Dann and Strauss during the shoot’s off-time).  This is totally believable since, as indicated above, in Hollywood such things are known to happen.

Dann further reports that the bonding between the four principles was tremendous, a fantastic foursome (and, revealed in an enticing wink-wink-nudge-nudge instance, one that he won’t elaborate on).

The greatest part of Dann’s reminiscing is that the interview itself is shot in 3-D; the former actor laughingly tells the crew that Alperson told him to stop gesticulating so much, as it was intrusive and annoying.  This is a habit he couldn’t break, and a bona fide plus for this extra, as his protruding arms and hands comprise the main “look out, duck!” portion of this jam-packed entertainment package.

Dann, whose non-acting career was far more interesting than his on-camera/stage one (he was the original manager of The Doors), eventually made his fortune the way so many unrecognizable movie folk have:  in real estate.  Because in Hollywood, such things are…well…

SEPTEMBER STORM.  Color.  Widescreen [2.39:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Classics/3-D Film Archive.  CAT # K21238.  SRP:  $34.95.

septemberstormCOVER

 

Pre-Code Sinema Four Play

Yes, I am still mourning the demise of the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood series, but, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining.  This is doubly true when it comes to gold-diggers, and, like the folks at Warners said, there still will be a number of pre-Code releases as single-only titles.  To try and combine the best of both worlds, I’ve selected a quartet of WB titles from the 1930-31 seasons that might have been a FH set.  These are quite obscure, unusual considering some of the talent involved (John Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett) with fun turns and curves from favorite twists (Billie Dove, Alice White, Ona Munson, Marjorie White) and nice snarky work from the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Neil Hamilton, Frank McHugh and, most delightfully, Bela Lugosi.  In keeping with the Archive tradition, print material on each title has been transferred from existing 35MM elements.  So break out the hooch, lock the doors, roll down dem stockings and take a load off.

In 1930’s THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO, Edward G. Robinson does a vicious precursor of Little Caesar (released later that year), except a bit more polished and less psychopathic.  While Robinson (aka Dominic) runs a major portion of the Chicago mob and dominates his generous screen time, the true star of this embryonic gangster epic is pert and cute Alice White, whom Warners was heavily pushing as a main star attraction (she headlined the Show Girl series and many another silent and Vitaphone pips).  White’s Kewpie-doll voice and take-no-prisoners demeanor serve her well in this guns ‘n’ roses opus.  White portrays Polly Henderson, whose detective brother Jimmy (Harold Goodwin) is murdered by Robinson’s gang whilst undercover (gossips getting the wrong idea about the sibs living together, whisper “Draw your own delusions.”).  The thug he impersonated was thought dead, so White is as shocked as Robinson when, after posing as the gunman’s widow, she comes face-to-face with the still breathing hood (a dashing Neil Hamilton).  Because it’s pre-Code, White and Hamilton get hot and heavy, causing a jealous Robinson to slip dangerously into not thinking with his brain.  When Dominic gives White a gig at one of his clubs (as Palpitating Polly), she reveals her penchant for brilliantly fending off pervs.  “What d’ya take for a little dance?,” asks a creep.  “With you, I’d take arsenic!” is her masterful reply.

The picture moves fairly quickly in its 62-minute time slot, due to able direction by comedy expert Eddie Cline.  The snarky script is by Earl Baldwin, with luminescent photography by the always-reliable Sol Polito.  Other members of the sterling cast include a ridiculously young Frank McHugh, Brooks Benedict, E.H. Calvert, Betty Francisco and Al Hill.

FYI, the swastikas decorating Hamilton’s valise aren’t a shape of things to come; it was the Roman symbol for “good luck,” infamously adapted by Adolf & Co.  And speaking of baddies, Warners was so high on this project that they reportedly asked Al Capone to make an unbilled guest appearance.  He declined, having other pressing business to rectify in the title’s town.

Warners’ 1930 adaptation of MOBY DICK is one of cinema’s infamous classic train wrecks (or should we say “shipwrecks”?).  Any connection to the iconic novel is purely coincidental.  It’s more closely based upon the studio’s 1926 silent version, entitled The Sea Beast, that also starred its talkie lead, John Barrymore.

The movie deceptively begins with the title page of the novel, but “Call me Ishmael” is nowhere to be seen (nor is Ishmael).  More like call me schemiel – and we’re referring to the scriptwriter J. Grubb Alexander, who adapted this future Carol Burnett sketch candidate from a failed literacy test by Oliver H.P. Garrett.

Barrymore as Captain Ahab belongs in the same camp as Desi Arnaz, Jr.’s, Marco Polo.  He’s not a driven, maniacal obsessive character out for revenge, but actually New England’s ultimate babe magnet.  No fooling.  We first see him swinging around the crow’s nest like Gene Kelly in The Pirate.  He then slides down the pole, striding down the gangplank, gawking at New Bedford’s willing lasses, giving one a greeting of “Hey, babe!” with a simultaneous slap on the ass (the only prop missing is a badge, emblazoned with “Chicken Inspector”).  And things go downhill from there.

When Ahab does become compulsively obsessed it’s not with the great white whale, but with Joan Bennett, as Faith – unfortunately going steady with Ahab’s smooth operator brother Derek (Lloyd Hughes).

Rather than cause a family rift, he valiantly gives up the golden-haired beauty and sets sail on a whaler, the notorious voyage that causes the title character to chomp off one of his pole-swinging legs.  Ahab becomes a bitter mammal-hating seaman (that’s whales and women).  Imagine his shock when destitute bro Hughes turns up as one of his crew (he’s fallen hard ’cause Faith, rife with hope and charity, decided she’d prefer Ahab over him, even minus a gam).  Hughes decides to kill off Barrymore, but fate takes him first.  And Ahab, seeing the evil of his former ways, reforms, journeys back to Massachusetts and hooks up with Faith, living hobbily ever after.

Barrymore understandably looks drunk during most of the picture’s 78-minute duration – and who can blame him?  Indeed, the whirring audio you hear is not the camera nor a Vitaphone malfunction, but likely the sound of Herman Melville’s corpse spinning around in its grave.  That said, the picture is shamefully entertaining for both the right and wrong reasons.  The direction by Lloyd Bacon is (dare we say?) crisp, the camerawork by Robert Kurrle praiseworthy, with a caveat.  One will undoubtedly notice that many exteriors are grainy and (seemingly) over-exposed.  That’s because, in the original release, these sequences stretched out into MagnaScope, a primitive widescreen process.  We should mention that the special effects (including rear screen match-ups) are quite good.

Unavailable for many years (along with other Warners/Barrymore titles like the much better Mad Genius), due to an ownership clause in Barrymore’s contract with the studio, MOBY DICK is less of the saga of the great white whale than a great blight wail.  Or howl.  I kinda love it.

1930’s ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S is an unabashed WTF classic!  Susie (Helen Ware) is an aging, hard-boiled dame who runs a halfway house for thugs.  That is, they lam it there halfway and she houses (i.e., stashes) them until it’s cool to blow.  In Susie’s defense, she also attempts to make them stop bootlegging, extorting, kidnapping and killing.  Or else.  Susie’s, the joint and not the lady, is also a combi-speak/roadhouse.  Best of all, the cops all seem to know about it (and her), but don’t care, because, after all, she means well.

But Susie has a secret (which ain’t that secret).  She’s been raising the kid of a rubbed-out mug to be respectable (only half-succeeding, as he becomes a writer).  It’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., (as Dickie Rollins), and he has a secret, too.  He’s about to be married to a honey of a honey.  Susie is delighted, as she imagines it’s some hifalutin’ DAR broad.  Nuh-uh, it’s gorgeous Billie Dove, a (wait for it) showgirl.  This pisses off Susie to no end.  As far as she’s concerned, there are only two kinds of showgirls, the ones smart enough to use their beauty to get whatever they can out of men, and the ones too dumb to shake down the johns.  Billie (as, no kidding, Mary Martin) is plenty smart, but plenty in love as well.

The conflicts between the two strong women, amidst the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine gun gangster mishegos is what raises this early (and, admittedly, occasionally creaky) talkie above the rest.  What is really nifty (and SO pre-Code) is that the true crooks aren’t the mobsters, but the dubious members of law enforcement. The most heinous creep in the pic is a former detective turned dirty dick (James Crane), not above blackmail, slapping babes around and moider!

It’s great to see any movie with Billie Dove, who, once again proves how effortlessly she successfully made the transition from silent to sound.  It’s additionally kinda fascinatin’ to ponder the fact that within the space of four short years, she made rapturous on-screen love to both father and son (Doug, Sr., in The Black Pirate, and Jr., in SUSIE’S).

The movie, listed at 92 minutes on the jacket (but actually clocking in at 62), is competently directed by John Francis Dillon (who also produced).  The story, with its unusual trappings, was conceived by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and scripted by Forrest Halsey and Kathryn Scola.  Non-gat shooting was achieved by the great Ernest Haller in silky black-and-white.

FYI, in an unpleasant sidebar, Susie makes the repentant thugs go through a baptism of fire by wearing Tully Marshall’s underwear, easily the male equivalent of a fate worse than death.

I really like the Warners Joe E. Brown comedies, especially the pre-Code ones; thus, I’m a bit prejudiced toward 1931’s BROAD MINDED, a wacky slapsticky sojourn, tailor-made for the satchel-mouthed funnyman.

Swiftly paced by Mervyn LeRoy BROAD MINDED lifts the crux of its Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby-penned narrative from the slim plot of Girl Crazy.  Millionaire playboy Jack Hackett (William Collier, Jr.) is dizzy for the dames, and papa (Holmes Herbert) can’t stand it.  So he hires Jack’s best pal, staid, quiet wallflower Ossie Simpson (Brown) to be the lad’s guardian and keep him out of the clutches of flappers, vamps and other garden-variety gold-diggers.  Unfortunately for pops (but not for sonny), Ossie is an even worse womanizer than his BFF, keeping a graphic little black book that spans several volumes.  Together the pair motor out west, intent on sowing more oats than the Quaker breakfast food company.

Of course, they meet two hotties (Marjorie White and Ona Munson) who are essentially good girls, chaperoned by a harpie aunt (Grayce Hampton), but not before running afoul of the likes of Margaret Livingston and ravenous, rapturous Thelma Todd (“She’s lost every friend she ever had,” quips an associate, when “the fleet shipped out.”).

Best of all for viewers, Ossie and Jack also ruffle the feathers of international bon vivant Pancho Arrango (Bela Lugosi, in a wonderful comic performance).  Brown, in quick succession, manages to destroy Lugosi’s meal (in a diner), clothes, and finally the back of his jazzy sports car (“Now you ruined my rear end!,” screams Bela with angry vengeance, a far cry from his iconic Dracula pic, which had been released six months earlier).

With nice Pasadena location work by Sid Hickox and lively music by Herbert Taylor, BROAD MINDED is a delightful way to spend 72 pre-C minutes.

So, off with the shrink wrap (and I mean that in a clean way), and on with the show(s)!

THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 1000619326.  SRP:  $21.99

MOBY DICK.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000619321.  SRP:  $21.99.

ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000516711.  SRP:  $19.99.

BROAD MINDED.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT#  1000384397.  SRP:  $19.99.

All Warner Archive titles are high quality made-to-order DVD-Rs, and are available from The Warner Archive Collection at http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.