ZZ Tops

An unbridled celebration of womanhood, the Jazz Age and the arts, Allan Dwan’s magnificent 1923 comedy-drama ZAZA, starring the superb Gloria Swanson, arrives in a stunning Blu-Ray evocation from the cineastes at Kino-Lorber, in association with Paramount Home Entertainment.

The movie, based on the 1898 play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, has been updated to modern times (well, 1923) to encompass changing technology, The Great War and the unflappable flapper, aka, the new woman.

Zaza is a cabaret superstar, and much reviled by her female contemporaries.  And for good reason.  A foul-mouthed sidewalk performer (that’s the nice word for former prostitute) turned major celebrity, the bratty twenty-something is, to put it mildly, a volatile bitch.  Her talent and beauty being her saving grace, she terrorizes all within striking distance, often hilariously.  When she tongue-lashes her long-suffering maid (Yvonne Hughes) about the whereabouts of a garment, the servant meekly replies that her employer is wearing it.  The responding title card pretty much says it all:  “Idiot, why didn’t you leave it in my trunk where I could find it?!”

When it comes to love, Zaza (whose monogram “ZZ” covers her wardrobe, luggage and likely unseen lady parts) pulls no punches either.  Having early-on discovered the power of her sexuality, the woman uses it like a weapon upon her barrage of unsuspecting lovers.

Life finally deals Z a twofer when, a), frenemy Florianne (Mary Thurman) tries to kill her, and, b) true love at last kicks her in the ass with a vengeance.  The former is resolved by one of cinema’s ultimate cat fights, while the latter proves a bit more difficult to resolve.  The male in question, Bernard (H.B. Warner), is an elusive diplomat, knowledgeable of what a dangerous liaison with the temperamental star might unleash; yet, his obsession matches hers, and they embark on a torrid affair, with the statesman ignoring his professional duties while ensconcing his paramour in a posh rural love nest.

It is Florianne who finally uncovers the secret of Bernard’s strange behavior; he’s married with children.  Zaza’s refusal to believe this draws the two women into a bizarre but thoroughly believable bond that melds into a lifelong friendship.  It’s an amazing transformation.  It’s also a sad visual on what could have been another terrific career (a la Martha Mansfield, Olive Thomas, etc.) sadly cut short.  Effervescent Thurman, boldly holding her own against the formidable Swanson, was Dwan’s fiancée at the time.  In autumn of 1925, the former Sennett Bathing Beauty contracted bronchial pneumonia in Florida while filming Down Upon the Suawanee River, quickly succumbing three days before Christmas.  The camaraderie between Swanson, Dwan (who directed Gloria in eight features and one embryonic sound-on-film short) and Thurman is evident in every frame (as Swanson herself stated in her 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, “Watching the rushes, I could see that the energy level…was higher than in any other film I had made in years.”).  It certainly must have been a hoot of a shoot (lensed in New York City at the Paramount Astoria studios, admirably subbing for France).

The decade following the first half of ZAZA isn’t your typical 1920s movie fairy tale.  It’s a journey of transition.  Zaza enters her thirties, free of her mean-girl histrionics, relying upon savvy, logic and a perfect union of brain and heart.  Never throughout the proceedings (particularly the final act) is the woman NOT in control.  What’s outstanding about ZAZA is Swanson’s intuitive acting.  Her emerging adulthood is only part of it; through eye contact, luxurious close-ups, and body language (the gold standard for silents), one sees the character conveying thought.  It’s one of the greatest performances of the silent era.  If all you know about Swanson is Sunset Boulevard, you really need to check this pic out.  Had there been an Academy Awards in 1923, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gloria Swanson would have copped the statuette hands down.

The remaining supporting cast warrants mentioning, too, as they masterfully append the lead’s luminous presence.  Warner, the always-welcome Ferdinand Gottschalk, Riley Hatch, and Lucille La Verne (as Zaza’s dotty, drunken “aunt”) are quite wonderful.  And as Bernard’s daughter, there’s a super turn by future star Helen Mack, who I never knew went back that far in cinema history.

Natch, the scenario is tailor-made for Swanson, so kudos to Albert Shelby Le Vino, who specialized in risqué female-star sex dramas in the 1920s, before turning bizarrely enough to westerns with the arrival of sound.  The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is by the great Hal Rosson.  Finally, one can’t fail to mention the fantastic direction by Dwan, easily one of his best efforts.  His breezy, fluid style perfectly matches the mood and temperament of his protagonist.  And, for the most part, it’s done with wacky delight (an after-show drinks meeting/rendezvous is riotously supplanted by various hijinks going on in the background).

The aforementioned catfight, obviously a key hype moment, was approached with caution and verve.  Dwan purposely had only one set of clothes and props on-set for both Swanson and Thurman.  That way both actresses were on heightened call to make every move count; there could be no retakes. It was a strategy that worked beautifully.  The battle royal makes the Dietrich/Merkel saloon brawl in Destry Rides Again look like the kiss in Notorious.

ZAZA also answers a question (albeit a trivial one) that has haunted me for decades.  In rural 1923, horse cabs were still prevalent, and, at last I see what I’ve always suspected:  a taxi meter on the side of the rig.  I know it’s a silly bit to bring up, but it’s the kind of stuff I think about.

The Kino Blu-Ray disc of ZAZA is often spectacular, and, I should happily reveal, the first of a series of Paramount silents to be released under the Kino-Lorber banner.  Yay!  The high-def 1080p images are nicely rendered with surprising clarity and contrast; in addition, a newly composed score by Jeff Rapsis references the original 1923 cue sheets.  There is also second audio commentary by Frederic Lombardi, author of Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios and a booklet essay by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.

ZAZA, quite understandably, was a massive hit.  Swanson (and it’s easy to see why) listed it as one of her favorite movies (“the fastest, easiest, most enjoyable picture I ever made”).  Paramount remade it in 1939 with Claudette Colbert starring and George Cukor directing.  I’ve never seen this version, so I am unable to comment on it, save that I can’t fathom Colbert going the thespian tsunami range Swanson emits (but, they could have taken a completely different approach, so I won’t pursue it).

For Swanson fans, for silent fans, for movie fans, ZAZA transcends being a fascinating, entertaining time capsule; it’s a classic collector library shelf must that brilliantly delves into and defines the mystique of star power.

ZAZA.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21222.  SRP: $29.95.

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Bridal-pathic

It’s been oft said that comedy is tragedy that happens to others.  If one needs any more proof of that, he/she needs go no further than two recent additions to the Warner Archive Collection, the DVD-R made-to-order 1948 Warners title JUNE BRIDE and the new Blu-Ray of the 1950 classic FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Getting married has been noted as a frequently stressful experience; the prep for getting married is worse.  And the prep for getting hitched in America is a fucking nightmare.  It’s cleaned more people out than Vegas, sent many a parent into therapy and destroyed long-term relationships by trying to essentially please people that you don’t otherwise give a crap about.

The movies were quick to glom on to this commiseration of misery, dating back to the silent days.  But it’s the post-war arrival of two high-profile comedies that permanently cemented the feet of brides, grooms, parents, brothers and sisters into a pail, which was then unceremoniously tossed into the sea of debt.

And, oh, yeah, there’s rarely been a more fun time at the picture show!

1948’s JUNE BRIDE proves once again that when Warners lassos a winner, they never let it go.  The movie, about New York sophisticates in small-town America, liberally takes swatches from such past WB hits as The Man Who Came to Dinner, Christmas in Connecticut, Janie, etc.  The plot teams two snarky adversaries, Dinner‘s Bette Davis, and Robert Montgomery, who work rather well together.  Montgomery comfortably slides into the role of forcibly removed foreign correspondent who, now that the war is over, is relegated to Davis’ woman-oriented Home Life Magazine (add Hi, Nellie to the Warners reference rack).  Davis plays it like Regina Giddens by way of George S. Kaufman (the premise being that the pair must prepare an Indiana family’s June wedding for the main periodical feature).  The caveat(s):  Davis and Montgomery are former lovers, and the latter, sickened by the treacle, is determined to add spice to his piece by stirring things up.  He doesn’t have to look too far, as, under the surface, the Brinker family is quite a load.  Papa Tom Tully is a closet moonshiner, hiding bottles of jack a la Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, mom’s an overweight dim (social-)light (Marjorie Bennett).  Teen babe Boo (Betty Lynn) is panting for the groom (Raymond Roe), her one-time boyfriend, stolen by superficial sib Jeanne (Barbara Bates) when his older bro ditched her.  No wonder Montgomery wrings his hands with glee, anxious to get down to some dirty work.  Coupled with their Manhattan crew (Mary Wickes, Fay Bainter and George O’Hanlon) in tow, there are many ripples of laughs, and even a few eyebrow-raising guffaws.

It all begins early-on when cowardly publisher Jerome Cowan informs Montgomery of his new gig.  To break the ice, he gives the famed journalist a tour of his leather-walled office.  “Must be like living in a wallet,” muses the ace reporter.

And it continues.

“What are these harpies like?” asks Montgomery before he is bitch-slapped by Davis into silence.  “Do they have plumbing?”  The dull home is in as much need of a fashion upgrade as Mrs. Brinker (Davis demands that they take some weight off her before the shoot.  “What with – a hacksaw?” is the response).  Wickes first look at the abode is priceless: “A real McKinley stinker!”

The crème de la crème comes when an inebriated Tully is privy to a misinterpreted conversation regarding his wife’s treasured bust (i.e., architecture vs. anatomy).  Alarmed that it has been “removed to the garage,” he becomes even more horrified to learn that they “painted it black.”  This is nothing when compared to the follow-up, when the New Yorkers lament about the supposed item’s coverage in the magazine.  “It’s pretty battered, but seems to have a certain sentimental value.”

Smoothly directed by Bretaigne Windust, JUNE BRIDE benefits from a breezy script by Mildred Pierce‘s Ranald MacDougal (adapted from a play by Eileen Tighe and Graeme Lorimer).  Anton Grot did the sets, David Buttolph composed the score (utilizing a segue into “Love Nest”).  The great Ted McCord photographed the pic (a far cry from his other 1948 outing, Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

An interesting sidebar:  When Montgomery’s character is probing to find journalistic mud on the Brinkers, he is apprised of Uncle Henry.  Hoping for a mass-murderer, the eager writer presses for details.  “We don’t talk about him.  He’s a Republican.”  Nice to know that in almost seventy years things in Indiana remain status quo.

 

Far better known than JUNE BRIDE, 1950’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE is an unabashed comedy classic, directed by Vincente Minnelli and featuring an all-star cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s really very little to say to commend this pic, as it’s such a perennial on TCM and for fans of the stars and the director.  But to see it in a new 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is indeed an event far more joyous than some of the supposed merry situations faced by the characters in the flick.

The script, by old reliables Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is based on a bestselling novel by Edward Streeter.  Streeter was the go-to guy when it came to parodying the American middle-upper-middle class family of the post-war/baby boomer years (another favorite Streeter screen adaptation is 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation).  Streeter’s key protagonists were the male household heads, usually employed as lawyers or bankers.  BRIDE‘s flustered and frustrated narrator and primary player is Stanley Banks, whose usual comfortably, boring lifestyle is violently (albeit riotously) uprooted when his only daughter, Kay, announces her engagement to Buckley, someone he barely recalls.  “What’s his last name?  I hope it’s better than his first one.”  Dealing with relatives, mercenary wedding merchants, and even Coke bottles becomes a battlefield of a seemingly impossible winnable war.  And Banks is the first to see the analogy between his last name and bankruptcy.

The movie is concurrently hilarious and frightening.  A Banks dream of terror where he is thrown into an expressionistic Caligari-esque world of melting church floors, demonic guests and unforgiving loved ones is a brilliantly staged sequence, beautifully shot by the wonderful John Alton.  The Adolph Deustche music is another plus, as are the roster of memorable supporting actors, including Leo G. Carroll, Melville Cooper, Paul Harvey, Don Taylor, Frank Orth, Carleton Carpenter, Russ Tamblyn, Charles Smith, Frank Cady, Willard Waterman, Jeff York, Dewey Robinson and former silent stars Dorothy Phillips, Philo McCullough, Harold Miller and Stuart Holmes.

Not surprisingly, FATHER OF THE BRIDE was a mammoth hit, and soon MGM geared up to reunite the Banks family (and Minnelli) for Father’s Little Dividend, chronicling the birth of the title lead’s first grandchild.  This, too, proved box-office gold, and producer Pandro Berman and the Metro suits announced a third and more elaborate installment wherein the Banks take a European holiday.  The picture was to be lensed in Technicolor and shot on-location, utilizing MGM’s still considerable Euro frozen funds.  But it was not to be.

Apparently, from day one, Tracy and Bennett did not see eye-to-eye (and that’s putting it mildly).  Although the pair had costarred together as far back as in 1933’s pre-Code gem Me and My Gal (directed by Raoul Walsh), they each experienced a strong hate-at-first-sight mix.  Strange, as their on-screen characters melded so well together.  Indeed, in the BRIDE pictures, they really do act like a married couple, but one whose union exhibits subtle cracks (wise and otherwise).  Check out Bennett’s glaring at Tracy’s scene-stealing tricks, or relishing her line (“Well you’re not an alcoholic!”) about his worrying about whether to imbibe or not.  Tracy’s serious drinking problem was one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets.

Berman had tolerated the pair’s bickering on two successive movies for the sake of the studio (and the big receipts).  A third reunion, away from the studio, might result in an international incident involving celebrity murders.  Early-on, Tracy demanded a meeting with the frazzled producer.  During the session he outlined his own ideas for the third Banks adventure.  He basically announced that all the audiences cared about were his character and Liz Taylor’s (probably true), so here was what he proposed:  Ellie (Bennett’s role) breaks her leg or needs to visit a sick relative on her side of the family and will join them later on.  Getting her out of the way would allow for Stanley and Kay (Liz) to frolic through Europe with many comedic misadventures.

Berman could see the writing on the wall, and no sooner had Tracy left than Bennett opted for equal time.  She, too, had a blueprint for the new scenario:  Stanley has a last-minute emergency court case and will join the girls later.  Meantime, she and Taylor could cavort through Rome, Paris, London, etc., attend fashion shows, be pursued by gigolos… And so it would go.

As Berman’s ulcers planned a mass counterattack, he quietly pulled the plug on the project and the continuation of the series, thus dually preventing a potential on-going franchise and likely bloodbath.

Interestingly enough, while Tracy owns the Stanley Banks role, he wasn’t the first choice.  Initially Jack Benny was bandied about as a natural for Banks (a gag being the name itself).  I imagine that the comedian would have done justice to the part, and certainly would not have caused any of the turmoil that went on behind the scenes.  But, again, Spencer Tracy’s genius is his natural amiability, his magnificent penchant to turn food, shoes, and other inanimate props into veritable costars.  “Don’t let them catch you at it,” was his acting advice to novice board-trodders.

The Blu-Ray comes with sparse extras, but ones worth mentioning:  silent newsreels of Taylor’s real-life (first) wedding, plus a White House screening and cast meeting with Harry Truman.  It’s a rare glimpse of Tracy off-camera, and he seems to be having a grand time.  So will you.

JUNE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio.  CAT # 1000564782.  SRP:  $21.99.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT# 1000597141.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive, or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.

 

Roaming Atwill

In such a terrific year for major DVD and Blu-Ray releases, it’s almost apt that a contender for one of the best vintage titles of 2017 is a poverty-row potboiler, now on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective.

Now wait, we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill/bottom-of-the-bill potboiler, but an iconic horror one, 1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT, a pre-Code pip from Majestic Pictures.

For over a half-century, THE VAMPIRE BAT has been a collector’s public-domain staple, infamous for its lousy quality (both picture and sound), cheesy dialog, ridiculous narrative (of a potentially intriguing scenario), etc.

So how does this 65-minute antique ascend to near-classic status?  Simple.  For one thing, the cast — essentially a Dinner at Eight roster for Majestic.  The four leads are Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye, with excellent support in the (bat) wings.

The story, for what it is, takes place in the tiny Bavarian village of Kleinstadt (roughly translated as “tiny Bavarian village”).  A series of gruesome murders are rapidly diminishing the already sparse population.  The mostly female victims are being discovered with strange marks on their throats, drained of every drop of hemoglobin.

Kleinstadt is unique, as it seems that bats outnumber the people (and vampire bats at that).  The townsfolk are in a dither.  Can these bats be working on their own, or are they controlled by a vampire – or even a werewolf?  Yeah, I know, that last part doesn’t make much sense, but the hackneyed scripter (Edmund T. Lowe, Jr., author of such subsequent kiddie horror faves as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) doesn’t miss a genre-friendly code word (other mentions in the storyline include Svengali, released a year earlier, plus references to telepathy, pulsating life forms…the usual suspects; Lowe’s greatest cinematic glory, BTW, was as scenarist for the 1923 Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Naturally, the most trusted personage in the burg is Dr. Otto von Niemann, a mysterious, erudite sawbones who conducts nocturnal experiments with blood, bats and a gorgeous assistant (Wray); of course, no one suspects him.  They opt for the village idiot, Herman (Frye), a lunatic who loves the flying rodents with a creepy passion (often seen petting them in an inappropriate manner).  The wonderful character actor’s impersonation heavily relies upon his earlier incarnations of Fritz and Renfield (laugh included), but with the mentality of Lenny in Of Mice and Men.  The villagers themselves act like nine-year-olds playing grown-ups.

The only rational person on view seems to be Karl (Douglas, slumming in his only poverty-row outing; a quick stop, too, as months earlier, he appeared opposite Garbo – the first of three teamings – in As You Desire Me; from then on, it was “eat my dust, only A-pictures for me!”).  Indeed, even in this low-budget crowd-pleaser the underrated actor displays the self-assurance and humor that would make him a much-in-demand costar for the likes of Crawford, Dietrich, Dunne, Loy, Swanson, Colbert, Stanwyck, etc.  Much of his demeanor and attitude is actually quite consistent with his turn as Leon in Ninotchka (that said, I wonder what a vampire version of the Lubitsch masterpiece would have been like:  “Garbo Sucks,” perhaps?).

Let’s cut to the chase.  Everyone in the audience knows Atwill is the maniac culprit, planning to conquer whatever he needs to achieve with all that female blood; this also encompasses controlling his beauteous assistant in what can only be called a mind-boggling fifty shades of Fay relationship.

THE VAMPIRE BAT obviously spent most of its meager budget on the cast.  Atwill and Wray were both major stars at the time, having had a huge success in the 1932 two-strip Technicolor horror fest Dr. X.  They had just wrapped a Technicolor follow-up, Mystery of the Wax Museum, filming VAMPIRE BAT on brief hiatus before rushing back to primo studio work (Atwill to Paramount for Murders in the Zoo; Wray to Radio for some picture about a giant ape).

As indicated above, the supporting cast is aces, too, with Lionel Belmore as the not-too-bright burgomeister and George E. Stone as a local coward who does everything but put a bullseye on his back.  There’s also Maude Eburne, Robert Frazer, William V. Mong, Fern Emmett, and Paul Panzer.

Although the immensely impressive thesps are responsible for the movie’s incredible appeal (and replay value), one cannot slight the excellent direction of Frank R. Strayer, a name many late-night movie fans do not know, but whose prolific work they have more than likely been exposed to.

Strayer was a master at piling on oodles of atmosphere with virtually no money.  His churning out thriller after thriller in the mystery and horror genres at Majestic attests to his talents.  Everything this guy did is watchable, and, while VAMPIRE BAT (again, primarily because of the cast) remains his epic, I prefer 1935’s far darker and eerier Condemned to Live, a picture that doesn’t offer a logical explanation capper.  Strayer, himself, after years of slaving on the row, finally scored big (well, by his standards), netting a deal at Columbia where he helmed a plethora of the enormously successful Blondie comedies (running from 1938-1950!); not surprisingly, many consider the 1940 quasi-old dark house entry, Blondie has Servant Trouble, to be among the best in the series.

But there’s still more to admire in THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Seeing it in an almost perfect 35MM transfer (and with excellent mono audio to boot, even with the awful stock music – out of date in 1933, but really more of a sore thumb ten years later when utilized in Monogram’s Eastside Kids adventures), digitally re-mastered in 1080p from UCLA’s archival print, makes one realize how nicely photographed the pic was; kudos to d.p. Ira Morgan, who effectively used the rented space/existing goth sets on the Universal lot, where this movie was shot.  The real coup is that this print contains the restored Gustav Brock hand-colored Handschiegl sequence.  This transcends mere interesting; it’s outstanding.  Who knew it even existed on this pic? One wonders that, if they went through all this trouble to utilize this painstakingly achieved effect, why didn’t they just opt for a two-strip sequence?  Glad they didn’t, though.  Two-strip Technicolor wouldn’t have done it justice.  The weird result of perfect yellow, orange and gold torch flames (and the orbs emanating from them) in a cave scene comprising the Kleinstadt fools (pursuing and persecuting Dwight Frye) is hauntingly stunning.  It’s worth the purchase of the disc just to see it.  How many other talkies used this technique is a question I desperately need to research; it’s THAT addicting.

And speaking of purchasing, how, in toto, is the Film Detective’s Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE BAT?  It’s as if one has never seen the picture at all, that’s how good.  Razor-sharp with spectacular contrast, this movie now often looks as good as anything its A-pic competitors could come up with.  And it’s complete and uncut, containing an oft-snipped insert of blood being drained out of an unfortunate.  In fact, THE VAMPIRE BAT could be the best title Film Detective has ever released.  They must have known it, too, as they have additionally gone the distance in the extras department, serving up audio commentary, and, even better, an exclusively filmed interview with Gregory Hesselberg, Melvyn Douglas’ son.  Hesselberg has definitely inherited some of his pater’s savoir faire, and his first-hand accounts of living with movie royalty in the 1930s are priceless.  My only complaint is that the supplement is way too brief.  I wanted more (I could be prejudiced; my parents named me after the debonair star).

Trust me, if you’re even slightly interested in any of  VAMPIRE BAT‘s stars, the genre itself or the period, this blu-ray is a must-have to (dare I  say?) sink your teeth into.

THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Black and white with hand-colored sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1].  DTS-HD MA.  Region free.  The Film Detective/UCLA Film & Television Archive.  CAT # FD0740.  SRP:  $19.99.

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Grizzly and Grisly

Since I first reviewed the 2010 TV3 Television Network Ireland Set JACK TAYLOR, starring the ubiquitous — albeit wonderful — Iain Glen, I pondered how soon (if, at all) there would be a follow-up.  You see, I think this dark, neo-noirish, snarky show ranks among the best across-the-pond television productions I’ve ever seen (and just think about that!).  It’s totally uncompromising, a vivid, sardonic depiction of a sinister twilight world (richly envisioned by the cool/cruel goth-gorgeous Galway location photography) where anything goes.  And I’m not kidding!  Fortunately, SETS 2 and 3 followed, and are now available in separate DVD sets from the wonderful folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

In the first series, we learned that the scruffy Gaelic investigator was an extremely well-read man of letters (though short-fused, with a decidedly violent streak) who (win/win) had a classic DVD collection.  Oh, yeah, he also was a disgraced member of the Irish Gardas, an alcoholic, and a too-trusting pal tight with a vast populace of the underbelly of Irish criminal society.  To put it kindly, his personal choices are disastrous, although he does harbor affection for the beauteous detective Kate Noonan (Nora-Jane Noone), who dangerously puts her career on the line to associate with his undesirable self.

We also gleaned that he took a “he reminds me of me” fancy to Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) an ambitious would-be Taylor; reluctantly, he acquiesces to the lad’s request that they partner up in a two-man private shamus agency.

Hunting down serial killers, often molded in the groove of modern Jack the Rippers (who, sadly, frequently turn out to be your best mates) is a trying job.  Add fighting with your dying mum (Aine Ni Mhuiri), herself a formerly abused Catholic school girl.  And/or the hypocritical local priests, so corrupt they’re funny.  Who can blame you for drunkenly sleeping it off in a rain-drenched cobblestone gutter, warmed only by the “eewww” companionship of your own vomit?  It’s an evil world, in an amusing, sanguine sort of way.  Long story short, how can one NOT love this show?

The three feature-length pics that make up 2013’s  SET 2 are all corkers, perhaps some of the best exploits Jack Taylor has even nearly died for.

 

In my favorite of the trio, Dramatist, female theater majors are being found murdered and mutilated within the campus of a local university.  The learned professor (the prophetically named Niall Buggy), another buddy of Jack’s, asks him to investigate and, hopefully, put a stop to these atrocities; it’s really having a negative effect on school registration.

Jack and new partner/underling Cody work the case, along with “keep it under your hat” assist from Taylor’s super-gorgeous Garda contact, Kate.  The ruddy-faced ex-police detective has now been sober for six months (a feat that shouldn’t be considered permanent), and is still attempting to mend bridges with his stroke-paralyzed mother, like his sobriety; a virtual impossibility.  Taylor’s aloof demeanor serves him well (“When I trust people, shit happens”), and his scholarly knowledge of John Milton aids in obtaining clues (not the least is a quote, “The sorrows died with me,” tattooed on a victim’s back) that lead to a genuinely horrifying conclusion, one that almost severs Kate’s ties with the former police detective…and everyone else.  Taylor’s ultimate take, intoned over a haunting forest backdrop, says it quite eloquently: “Sorrows are not spread by beautiful women, but by…bastards like me.”  Truth.

Priest, the second and most controversial of the three, opens rather alarmingly with long-absent priest Father Royce’s (John Kavanagh) return to Galway, where he is soon found beheaded in his church.  Soon priests galore are getting hate mail, including Jack’s local cleric, Father Malachy (Paraic Breathnach), who is terrified that he’s next.  No matter what Galway’s resident holy man might be hiding, it can’t compare to the slaughtered Royce, who seduced women, men and boys, and delighted in torture and procreating with parish members.

“The date of retribution has arrived,” warns a chilling note, prior to Taylor’s involvement in the case.  Jack, snarkily amused, offers that “Asking [me] for help is like the Pope leading the Gay Pride parade.”

The hypocrisy of the denizens of the cloth (particularly in Taylor’s parish) leads to some marvelous verbal combat.  Says Malachy to Jack “I was dreaming of your mum.” “I have those nightmares, too,” sighs Taylor.

The circumstance of Jack’s newly deceased mater coincides with his unsurprising return to the bottle.  Nevertheless, the bleary-eyed sleuth rips all the scabs off the priest’s scandals (leading to a shocking climax), but not before telling us (in a brittle noirish narration), that “When it comes to leaving well enough alone, I’m an idiot.”

Feeling guilty for possibly causing Cody’s death (not helped by his doing the nasty with the lad’s mother) convinces Taylor to leave Galway for the hinterlands, engaging in “dirty dick” type cases.

The opening of Shot Down gives us a taste of what that ensues, a woodsy payoff for a sleazeball in the dead of night.  The event goes without a hitch until a young, bloodied girl (Hazel Doupe), hysterical with fear, comes screaming out of the darkness.  Her mother’s gruesome killing gives Jack his newest case, involving a battle between factions of local Irish gypsies.  Adultery, kidnapping, drug dealing and other unsavory activities keep the action moving as Taylor tries to bring an end to the feuding clans’ rivalry (and key to solving the brutal opening homicide).  As Jack’s involvement is shunned by the violent, ungrateful vagabonds, who inform the shamus that their affairs are none of his business, Taylor is quick to remind the transient caravan’s leader, “When someone points a shotgun at me, it BECOMES my business.”  That seems to work; well, that and some typically inappropriate Taylor use of muscle.

As with Set 1, the behind-the-scenes work is superb, beginning with director Stuart Orme and the exceptionally fine scripts by Marteinn Thorisson and Marcus Fleming (from the acclaimed Taylor novels by Ken Bruen).  The atmospheric photography by P.J. Dillon and Ciaran Tanham couldn’t be any better; nor could the original soundtracks by Stephen McKeon.

 

SET 3 begins with a plethora of changes, both in narrative and in casting.  Jack, it seems is in for a much-needed round of good luck.  His old landlady, Mrs. Bailey (Sighle Ni Chonail), has passed, and, not having (or trusting) anyone close in her family, has left Taylor a 170,000 EU inheritance.  He immediately purchases a posh new pad; this positive swing is abetted by the news that Cody has recovered, but has thought better of continuing his professional liaison with Jack.  He’s off to America to pursue his dreams (hoping to additionally get the images of his mentor and mom out of his tortured memory).

Jack is not without an assistant for long, however, as Kate’s brainy relation Darragh (Jack Monaghan; think an Irish version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is interested in working with the crime-solving diamond in the rough.  Kate, we must note, has been Menudo-ed; the ravishing Nora-Jane Noone has been quietly replaced by Siobhan O’Kelly, (who’s okay, but, frankly, can’t compete with Noone’s amazing presence).  The Garda, who so often has escaped death (usually when in the company of Jack) has a new foe:  breast cancer, which Taylor promises to help her conquer, a pledge that includes threatening an insensitive surgeon (David Ramseyer).  While this might suggest that a kinder, gentler Taylor/softer storylines is/are in the works, I can emphatically respond via the following: no feckin’ way!

The first case, Cross is ample proof.  Within nanoseconds of the initial fade-in, we see a body crucified, with the uneasy premonition that more victims are to come.

Jack, Kate and Darragh soon find the strange Mitchell family, a brood of (mostly) sociopaths, whose angelic female offspring, Gail (a vivacious Elva Trill; truly one of the most beautiful actresses we’ve seen…well, since, Nora-Jane Noone).  That Gail and Darragh become a romantic item is a match made in hell.  Turns out, Gail is the worst of the lot (“She’s a friggin’ psychopath,” Taylor warns Darragh.  “That doesn’t make her less interesting,” is his feeble, whipped reply.  Uh-oh).  Refusing to share info with the Gardas (“they pat your head as they kick your ass”), Jack chooses to work this deadly puzzle out himself.  The results ain’t pretty.

Nemesis is one of the most startling episodes in the history of the show.  Jack, dealing with Kate’s upcoming mastectomy, breaking in Darragh, irritated by a lowlife PI (Christopher Fulford), adds a layer of stressful unpleasantness to his current curriculum.  This isn’t helped when the weary, wary detective is asked to help find an old adversary of his who has been kidnapped.

Videos of a youth hate group, led by a demented teen, Ronan (Diarmuid Noyes), obsessed with American violence (and, specifically, Columbine), encompass mutilation torture sessions, including an elderly man tossed off a pier.  Jack’s attempted rescue of an apparent new victim (Roisin O’Neill) turns pitch black when one of Taylor’s fingers is cut off for his troubles.  This connects the sleuth back to his frenemy, Ronan, whose eye Jack had to once relieve him of.

The last act is harrowing to say the least, but does end on a spectacular up note when Taylor, confronted by dodgy Father Malachy offering lofty platitudes along the lines of, “Well, Jack, your finger wouldn’t have been severed if it wasn’t in the Lord’s plan,” replies with a marvelous, “Don’t ya have an altar boy to grope?”

Purgatory is the final episode in the third set; ironic, as it’s Kate’s first assignment since her flirtation with death; it’s also the name of a new virtual reality game, whose data has been stolen.  Jack is hired by the American billionaire couple (Sean Mahon, Laura Aikman) who own the gaming company, to recover the specs and find the thieves.  Along the way, several 20-something tech geeks are heinously liquidated, providing an ideal opportunity for Darragh to go undercover as a replacement.

As Taylor gets closer to the sick minds behind the deaths, he uncovers some rather disturbing facts about the beauteous sugar ‘n’ spice Texas lunatic wife/partner in the thriving concern.  With his trademark raised eyebrow, the rumpled PI muses out loud to the determined CEO, “Married a murderess, and made her head of Security.”  Jack surmises that this cannot end well, and, indeed it doesn’t.

Once again, the productions are of the utmost quality, led by Stuart Orme and (okay, make your pun) Charlie McCarthy.  The excellent photography this time around is by Billy Keady with all the SET 3 scripts being the praiseworthy handiwork of Marteinn Thorisson.  Stephen McKeon continues his fine work as composer (with the mournful title track sung by Tara Lee).  As with all Acorn discs, the platters look and sound terrific.

Like all previous TAYLOR shows, these new additions earn a justified high five (or, in Jack’s case, high four).

JACK TAYLOR, SETS 2 and 3.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 Dolby Stereo Surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/TV3 Television Network Ireland.  CAT #s: AMP-2181 (SET 2)/AMP-2411 (SET 3).  SRP:  $49.99@.