Hell Frozen Over

One of the most harrowing events of not only the twentieth century, but in the history of the world itself, brilliantly comes to DVD via the Mhz/Nordsk Film & TV Fond release of the magnificent 2015 Norwegian mini-series THE HEAVY WATER WAR.

For those unfamiliar with the term “heroes of Telemark” (either the actual operation or the excellent, underrated 1966 Anthony Mann movie), it’s the story of a handful of patriots who risked life and limb to prevent the horrific consequences of Hitler beating the Allies to the atomic bomb.

The series, filmed where it happened (in Norway, Germany and Britain), traces the terrifying incidents that led up to the final, victorious (though admittedly) devastating triumph.

The story began in 1933 at a Stockholm makeshift science summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners.  Present were tacticians and other learned men and women who pioneered the then-barely known area of atomic fission…and what that power could do.

By 1939, the Nazis were already thinking of the total destruction and were in the embryonic stages of recruiting scientists from all over the globe.  Chief among these was a prime atomic proponent, Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), who had earlier accepted the German offers.  Not that he was dedicated to mass murder; rather he was a man obsessed (“War is good for science.”).  Like Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson, who just wanted to build that damn bridge, Heisenberg was addicted to getting there first, proving what atomic power was capable of.  A childish genius, he thought nothing of the potentially catastrophic results because, as we all know, the Nazis were so altruistic and kind, only thinking of the betterment of the planet.  Oy vey!

The other two stories that intertwine THE HEAVY WATER WARS are no less fascinating and far more reasonable.  Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Heiner) is a young Norwegian scientist smuggled out of Norway by the British to help plan the race to atomic supremacy with the Americans and the French.  Norway became the focal point for this deadly competition because of the Rjukan-based Vemork power plant’s production of heavy water, conducive to the success of atomic energy.  The Vermork company was the only dedicated factory able to produce the substance, mercifully a slow process.  The Nazi high command immediately took over the concern, lining the pockets of the local big business CEOs with money. (“Heavy water – they want a lot, and they pay a lot.”).

The British and the Norwegian patriots agreed that the Vemork must be either sabotaged or destroyed in toto, no matter what the cost.  To this end, a small group of local Norwegian skiers, who knew the area well, were imported to the UK for demolition training.  Scandinavian winter was a treacherous time of the year and the implications for failure were grim, and not on the side of the good fight (“They were never meant to make it out” is the grim but honest prognosis).

Indeed, the first of four missions ended disastrously; but the Brits, led by General Wilson (Pip Torrens) and Officer Julie Smith (the wonderful Anna Friel), worked fastidiously with Tronstad, regrouped famously and tried again…and again.  The cost of losing this battle was nothing short of Nazi worldwide reign.  We obviously all know the awful outcome of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; with the tables turned, it would almost surely have been New York (or Chicago/Los Angeles/San Francisco) and London.  Yeah, it was THAT close, with the future of civilization as we know it, in the hands of likely the most courageous team of expendable partisans in recorded history.

The final tale that weaves the complete tapestry is that of a reluctant appointed Norwegian businessman/Nazi stooge/figureheard Bjorn Henriksen (Dennis Storhoi).  He and his wife (Maibritt Sarens) live the good life, due to his raise in position (even though their beloved servant staff is being tortured by their country’s occupiers).  That Henriksen realizes all too well what could happen (far more astutely than Heisenberg, who’s a lost cause) is a Schindler-esque account with far more potentially calamitous consequences.

The planning, the failures, the regrouping, the traitors vs. raiders, the success, the bittersweet final mission…it’s all here, it’s all true and it’s quite simply one of the best TV mini-series I’ve ever seen!

The six-part show (on three DVDs) doesn’t miss a trick:  nail-biting tension, suspense, surprise, even romance.  The accounts of a downed group waiting for the “go” signal is absolutely jaw-dropping (trapped without proper food or shelter for a grueling long period).  It’s one of those classic instances of “if someone made this narrative up, no one buy it.”

This is all superseded by the heart-wrenching finale, necessary but lethal – an undertaking that compromised scores of innocents, some related to the principals involved.

If that isn’t enough, there’s the climactic capper – the “what happened to the key players post-Telemark” epilogue, some of which will hit you like an iron mallet in the gut.

The aforementioned performances, action sequences, writing (by Petter S. Rosenlund, with script development by Lars Krisitan Andersen, Mette M. Balstad, Michael W. Horstenand Adam Price), widescreen photography (John Christian Rosenlund) and music (Kristian Eidnes Andersen) are superb on all fronts. The engrossing direction by Per-Olav Sorensen is aces on all counts, the stuff careers are deservedly built upon.  And MHz couldn’t have done a better job in transferring the series onto a trio of 16 x 9 anamorphic platters (although, as I’ve oft said before, I wish they would move on to Blu-Ray).  Nevertheless the images are sharp, the colors vibrant, the stereo-surround (with dialog in Norwegian, German and English, all with nicely-rendered subtitles) quite effective and movie-theater equivalent.

It’s so unbelievable how close we came to a man-made fascist nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.  And how much we owe to a small band of freedom fighters who boldly defined the “unsung” part of absolute heroism.

THE HEAVY WATER WAR.  Color.  Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround [Norwegian/German/English w/English subtitles].  MHz Choice/Nordsk Film & TV Fond.  CAT # 16884; SRP:  $39.95.

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The Age of Raisin

A delightful melding of snark and suspense, the beautifully lensed AGATHA RAISIN, SERIES ONE (now on DVD from Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/sky.VISION), starring the beautifully lensed Ashley Jensen, makes the perfect summer tonic for mystery fans looking for a hot item that’s concurrently cool.

Based on the novels by M.C. Beaton, AGATHA RAISIN (yes, the forename is a clue) was the perfect high-profile project to pitch to the Brit networks while keeping an all-important eye on the Yanks across the pond.  I can hear the “elevator pitch” now, “Murder, She Wrote meets Midsomer Murders.”  And so it is.  Well, with one major change.  The lady sleuth in question isn’t an elderly spinster, but a vibrant cougar out to win over the populace of an upscale country environ by her genius while simultaneously satisfying her never-ceasing throbbing hormones.

Agatha Raisin is a super successful forty-something (admitting to thirty-something) widow, brilliant in her craft (as the queenpin of a London P.R. firm), who decides to chuck it all in for a chance at life (that’s “life,” as in “living modestly to the manor born.”).  Agatha’s 24/7 devotion to her career has made the exec a mint (with the rep to go with it), but, ironically, outside of the board room (ever-increasingly constipated by “gag me” office politics), she’s quasi-socially inept – a condition that to the woman translates as “extremely horny.”

Raisin leaves the firm, and moves to the rustic community where she enjoyed a treasured season of summery girlhood.  What she didn’t realize then is that the provincial burg of Carsley is rife with eccentrics even more fucked-up than she is – often resorting to murder to solve their problems.

This provides a golden op for the alluring retiree turned reluctant amateur detective, as she correctly surmises that her experience at reading people (knowing how to basically sell them products they don’t need or even want) is a prime attribute for a crime fighter

And it’s probably a good way to meet men.

Agatha soon is up to her shaved armpits in homicide, enough to call in her former right arm, Roy (Mathew Horne), who turns up with a succession of smoking male lovers, one of whom (Dilijohn Singh) transcends the sexual orientation barriers with the female locals (his professional name, Khusan, the Naked Yogi, explains it all).

On the home front, Agatha recruits Gemma, an out-of-work cleaning lady (Katy Wix) as a combi-servant/friend/Dr. Watson, who comes complete with an adolescent daughter (Maddie Monti) so precocious that the child reminds Agatha of herself.  Case in point: at a local fete, a boisterous barker, eyeing the urchin with her mom, remarks, “Mama’s little helper?” to which the petite lass deadpan replies, “No, that’s Prozac.”  Yep, a Raisin in the making (or Raisinette, if you prefer).

The townies of Carsley encompass quite a surprisingly diverse group.  The constabulary is presided over by the easy-going Bill Wong (Matt McCooey), while the head of the department is Caribbean person of color DCI Wilkes (Jason Barnett), a corpulent figure in the Nigel Bruce mold, who is amazingly agile on the disco floor and revels in Raisin’s ability to seemingly ratchet up the murder rate (such a refreshing change from blah-blah-blah robberies and vandalism).

Agatha’s panting to de-pant the male contingent need not go farther than her neighbor, hunky apparently never available James (Jamie Glover), whose attachment to his latest acid-tongued significant other Mary Fortune (Daisy Beaumont) is a series highlight.  On to Agatha’s amorous intentions, dame Fortune greets her neighbor with a pungent “I almost didn’t recognize you without your axe to grind.” While this seems unfortunate at the outset, it becomes winningly fortunate and quite convenient, as the rival is soon liquidated by a nefarious villain.

Agatha’s love life is quite intense, and she occasionally beds not only suspects, but actual psycho killers.  In her defense, she admits her personal choices aren’t always the best, but they do fill a void.

This becomes ever so frustrating when Raisin (now sarcastically chided as Miss Marple by the citizenry) ends up investigating a series of deaths in a neighboring Cotswolds duchy.  It seems that everyone is involved with everyone else:  wives with husbands (mostly, not their own), men with women, women with women, men with men (with possible occasional sidebars to barnyard residents).  As Raisin correctly deduces, this hamlet’s “…a seething hotbed of sexuality…I’m living in the wrong village!”

But Agatha takes all of this in her stride, even sighing at her own matchmaking skills to hook up smitten Gemma with DC Wong.  Bemoaning why she’s helping other people get laid, she altruistically reasons that it’s because she’s such a good person.

AGATHA RAISIN is fueled by the powerhouse presence of the wonderful Jensen (last reported on in Supervistaramacolorscope as Patrick Stewart’s no-nonsense gal Friday from 2006’s The Eleventh Hour.  Most Americans probably remember her as Christina from the series Ugly Betty).  The actress is the perfect personification of the character:  sexy, brainy, funny and, yeah, horny – enchantingly topped off by her fetching Scottish accent.

The aforementioned supporting cast, too, is aces; and all of this is made cravenly addictive via the excellent writing (by Chris Murray, Chris Niel and co-executive producer Stewart Harcourt) cinematography (sumptuously filmed in Bristol by Dale McCready), music Rupert Gregson-Williams and Christopher Willis), art and set design (Daryn McLaughlan and Ian Fisher), and, natch, the wry direction (Geoffrey Sax, Paul Harrison, Roberto Bangura).

The three-disc set includes not only the first season’s nine episodes, but the original full-length TV-movie that launched the series in the UK.  The feature, aptly entitled Quiche of Death sets the tone from the fade-in.  Newbie Agatha’s desire to fit in has her commit to the town’s celebrated bake sale, even though she can barely find the kitchen.  So, she disappears to London, visits a trendy bistro, and returns with her re-christened Raisin Surprise – the big surprise being that its poisoned contents kills one of the judges.

I have to admit that, at the onset, while intrigued and entertained by Raisin & Co., I wasn’t initially knocked out like I was with Miss Fisher, Jack Taylor or the best of Midsomer.  But Agatha, the woman and the show, grew on me as I progressed through the establishing episodes; by the third one, I realized I was now hooked, so much so, that by the season’s finale, I was genuinely saddened that I there were no more adventures to relish (I’d have to go back and start anew, which I did).  Suffice to say, I’m hoping that this is a mere temporary setback, and that there will be a Series Two; if so, it’s a no-brainer that Acorn will release the subsequent shows, as, they were so understandably high on the project that they actually functioned a co-executive producers.

Until  then, I miss her verbal smack-downs, her Scottish brogue, her occasion morning walks of shame,  to say nothing of Agatha’s Raisin d’etre for cross-country murder probes (i.e., to never miss an opportunity to accessorize).

The nine episode titles themselves reveal what audiences are in for, some quite wittily; the plot synopsis even more so:  The Walkers of Dembley (a test of Raisin’s reserve, as she and James must pose as husband and wife), Hell’s Belles (a villager has a religious experience via a lethal church bell-rope around the neck), The Wellspring of Death (Roy tempts Agatha back to the P.R. world in order to utilize her skills promoting a new mineral water, with unexpected deadly results), The Potted Gardener (wherein Carsley green thumbs are planting more than flowers), The Vicious Vet (aptly demonstrating that death by horse tranquilizer isn’t quite the ride the vicinity’s equestrienne set had in mind), The Day the Floods Came (nothing puts a crimp in one’s honeymoon than when the bride is murdered the day after the wedding), Witch of Wyckhadeen (a scream that delves into paranormal activity and reveals Raisin’s true departure at an exclusive retreat – she’s the victim of a lousy coiffure, and needs the time for it to grow out) and Murderous Marriage (the finale, that, with double-take horror, introduces us to Agatha’s skeevy long-thought deceased ex, Jimmy).  In any event, I’m sure that these’ll only further wet the tastes of viewers unfamiliar with this charming mystery treat).  Methinks you’ll be willing converts.

AGATHA RAISIN is lavishly produced, with every cent and shilling on display in the spectacularly rendered DVD masters provided by Acorn.  The audio complements the visuals via an excellent 5.1 surround track, bustling with the jaunty aforementioned score, countrified background effects and brilliantly executed snaps by Jensen, Horne, Wix and Glover.

AGATHA RAISIN: SERIES ONE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/sky.VISION.  CAT # AMP-2388.  SRP:  $59.99.

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3 3-Dz 2-Die 4

Typical America!  With more and more of us catching on to the wonders and pleasures of 3-D Blu-ray, the majors are pulling back on platter and TV/monitor production (although still big and growing overseas, particularly in Asia).  That said, the indies are stepping up to the plate in grand fashion, and 2017 has given us stereoscopic fans a plethora of primo titles from the 1950s Golden Age.

Key to this momentum is the exemplary work of Twilight Time, which has released no less than THREE primo titles – two comprising part of the depth format’s A-line Holy Grail.  All of these entries are collector-worthy, but be forewarned, as is the company’s policy, these offerings are available only in limited editions; when they’re gone, they’re in  Blu-ray heaven and eBay (price gouge) hell.

 

1953’s MISS SADIE THOMPSON is an A-list 3-D pic with amazing pedigrees, primarily its star power (Rita Hayworth, Jose Ferrer, Aldo Ray).  The third movie version of Somerset Maugham’s 1921 story Miss Thompson (adapted, in 1922, to a smash play, Rain, by John Cotton and Clemence Randolph, that starred theatrical icon Jeanne Eagels), SADIE updates the saga of a sensuous prostitute’s arrival on an American atoll marine base to modern day (the 1950s, to you).  Let’s get something straight right now, there’s NEVER been a bad movie Sadie (Rita’s predecessors being Joan Crawford, who wuz robbed of a deserved Oscar, and Gloria Swanson); for that matter, there’s never been a lousy Rev. Davidson (Ferrer, Walter Huston, Lionel Barrymore).  Aldo Ray, as the alpha member of our horny military, is likely the best Sgt. O’Hara (following the serviceable footsteps of William Gargan and, most remarkably, director-turned-actor Raoul Walsh).

The updates (screenplay by Harry Kleiner) are mostly to encompass modern warfare, Rita’s Sadie being correctly compared to the impact of an A-bomb.

The movie was co-produced by Hayworth’s studio, Columbia, along with her production company (the star’s brother, Eduardo Cansino, Jr., appears in a bit).  The picture had Rita singing a number of original songs (one, The Blue Pacific Blues, by Lester Lee and Ned Washington, was nominated for an Academy Award).  Yeah, she was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer, but “hearing” Rita isn’t as amazing as SEEING Rita, especially in three dimensions.  True there’s nothing in this excellent adaptation that comes out of the screen at ya, save perhaps Sadie’s arrival with one of Rita’s exceptional gams (not to be confused with Rita Gam) hanging and swaying from the back of a truck, but there ARE compensations.  Hayworth doing probably the sexiest rendition of The Heat is On in 3-D is a guaranteed perspiration percolator – with The Movie’s immortal Gilda doing an Eisenhower Era version of twerking in and around the camera whilst the heavy-breathing soldiers pant and moan in a smoke-filled, steamy bar.

The pic was lavishly shot in Technicolor by Charles Lawton, Jr., in Kaua’i, Hawaii.  The exteriors are quite gorgeous, almost rivalling its star.  Ferrer goes a little over the top with his “she’s a prostitute” harangue (still a big no-no word in 1953), but, then again, as a fake, lustful Christian practitioner, that’s his job.  SADIE was part of Columbia’s continuing assault on the still-prevalent Code, what with From Here to Eternity simultaneously sweeping the country and the box office; thus, Harry Cohn’s commitment to 3-D, at least at the dawn of SADIE‘s filming, was quite commendable.  Sadly, by the time the movie was ready for release, the craze was on the wane.  SADIE, even though it had a special 3-D trailer in release for months before its unveiling, and an enticing teaser ad of a sweaty Hayworth under the tag, “Rita turns it on in 3-D!,” was short-changed after its premiere.  Only a handful of theaters in major venues were given the SADIE stereoscopic treatment; the thousands of houses across the country and abroad (with the exception of the UK) only got the flat standard 2-D version.  A real disappointment, as the inclusion of depth really ratchets up the intimacy.

 

In a nutshell, MISS SADIE THOMPSON remains one Hayworth’s best roles, as well as one of the greatest 3-D movies ever made.  The supporting cast is aces, too, and features such familiar and/or roguish faces as Russell Collins, Rudy Bond, Harry Bellaver, and, probably most famously, Charles Bronson (still billed as Buchinsky), in the second of his 1953 appearances in three dimensions (the other being House of Wax).

Twilight Time has gone the distance in presenting MISS SADIE THOMPSON the way it was meant to be seen.  While the 3-D edition pales in replication of hues and tones (the Technicolor in the flat prints does pop more than in the surviving 3-D left-and-right elements; both are on view in this limited edition Blu-Ray), the clarity is incredible (with only slight bleeding, and that being relegated to background action).  The original stereo tracks have long been lost, but the mono sound is superbly buoyant and dynamic, and features a wonderful early George Duning score (available as an IST).

An interesting extra, filmed before the big 3-D resurgence in 2010, discusses the impact of the process, but, in reality, you really have to see it to get it.  Be prepared to have your active glasses actively steamed; you also might want to keep a cold compress within forehead distance.

 

 

Another “A” title from 1953, INFERNO remains a genuine 3-D classic from its Golden Age.  The dubious but successful combination of film noir, Technicolor and three dimensions, INFERNO tells the sordid tale of illicit lovers who plot and execute a plan to leave the woman’s wealthy injured husband in the Mojave Desert to die.

How the sinister narrative elements and the elements of nature intertwine, ultimately proving the existence of karma, is a cinematic sight to behold.

Of course, much of the triumph of INFERNO belongs to the terrific people involved in its creation.  Producer Darryl F. Zanuck liked it well enough to bypass Fox’s big CinemaScope buildup, and had it shot on-location, rather than on desert studio mock-ups.  Director Roy (Ward) Baker did an exceptional job of conveying the infinite terror of desolation and hopelessness, utilizing the depth of the Mojave vastness to the 3-D max.  Baker, probably best known for his Hammer Films (Quatermass and the Pit, The Vampire Lovers) was nonetheless a master at conveying human survival instincts (which his 1958 blockbuster A Night to Remember more than demonstrated) Writer Francis Cockrell, who penned nearly two dozen top-notch episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, did a marvelous job as well, concocting a tight, suspenseful script.  The magnificent Lucien Ballard grasped the possibilities of the process with his outstanding Technicolor photography (poifectly balanced by Paul Sawtell’s tense music).  Best of all is the lead, Robert Ryan, who can never do any wrong – aces as always – as the despised, cuckolded millionaire named Donald in an acrimonious marriage to a trophy wife…hmmm.  The difference is that this Donald is a fighter, and learns humility, courtesy of hitting rock bottom and battling nature for his life.

The skeevy lovers, Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan, do themselves proud as the conniving, murderous couple, while the standout support of Larry Keating, Henry Hull, Carl Betz and Barbara Pepper couldn’t be better.

Much of the movie relies upon Ryan’s narration voiceover; it’s one of his most unique performances.  While there are a few gimmicky things thrown at the audience, nothing can compare to the scenario, which, for a change, is worthy of the stereoscopic effects.  While we’re on that subject, what makes this a 3-D classic is the use of space.  Ryan, agonizingly crawling over and down the perilous, cliffside craggy landscape, breathlessly puts you in the action, feeling the character’s vertigo as he peers at his needed descent.  You’ll genuinely understand the gulp in his throat, as you’ll experience it as well, with dizzying results.  These are spine-tingling moments (an accompanying flat trailer highlights this sequence with a dull effect, leaving non-glass wearers wondering what’s the big deal.  In 3-D, it IS a big deal).

The film elements of INFERNO 3-D beautifully append the natural ones.  Aside from some minor background registration, they’re in amazingly excellent shape.  A featurette supplement contains interviews with Fleming (not only one of the Queens of Technicolor, but of 3-D – starring in three entries, this one hand-down being the best) and Ryan’s daughter Lisa.  Fleming discusses the deceptive Mojave locations as being faux stifling, as the actual climate during the shoot was near freezing, causing her to fall ill for nearly a week.  A perfect thriller double-bill with the 3-D Dial M for Murder, INFERNO admirably displays the peaks the process could reach when taken seriously.

 

 

For many, the crème de la crème of this 3-D trio is the guilty pleasure of the bunch, 1954’s THE MAD MAGICIAN.  True, on the surface, it appears to be Columbia’s retread of Warners’ House of Wax, and, yeah, it kinda is.  But, oh, what fun!  In the new widescreen dimensions (in cahoots with the 3-D ones), THE MAD MAGICIAN offers the Wax star (the never not entertaining Vincent Price), the Wax scripter (Crane Wilbur) and producer (Bryan Foy), the same time frame (turn-of-the-century) and an overly familiar Wax plot (innocent artiste Price is screwed by greedy scumbags, who drive him insane with a vengeance).  The kick in this beautifully shot black-and-white horror epic (by Stagecoach’s Bert Glennon, with the left and right elements being in near-pristine condition) is the direction by the underrated John Brahm, who specialized in baroque period extravaganzas (often on a limited scale).  Indeed, there are more than passing nods to Brahm’s accredited Laird Cregar masterpieces, The Lodger (mad Price’s alter ego booking rooms in the B&B of a crime-obsessed couple) and Hangover Square (a ghoulish bonfire sequence).  Add a bombastic “fright” score by Emil Newman, and you have just what the psycho ordered.

The cast is superb, with Price, as wannabe prestidigitator Gallico the Great, wreaking havoc upon those who wronged him by impersonating the villains (once he’s exterminated the scoundrels in sanguine horrific fashion); to this effect, the victim roster comprises John Emery (purposely made up to look like Price trying to look like Emery), and the 6’ 4” terror star’s height twin (or Vincent Van Grow), towering actor Donald Randolph.  Thrown into the mix is Gallico’s skank ex-wife, who left him for Randolph, nicely portrayed by Eva Gabor.  Her inevitable murder is a highlight in this depth-defying homage to Grand Guignol.  The young lovers (a detective and a showgirl) are attractively rendered via the physical forms of Patrick O’Neal and The Wild One‘s Mary Murphy (a massive ad campaign featuring Murphy in 1950s stripper tights may have disappointed randy viewers, but she still delivers the goods in 1900 Florodora girl togs).  There’s also Jay Novello, Corey Allen, Tom Powers and Lyle Talbot.

The 3-D is a hoot, particularly the rather extreme ploy of removing Randolph’s head from his elongated torso (which Price then carries around in a Gladstone bag).

But the wow factor doesn’t stop there; Twilight Time has enormously sweetened the pot by including the two 3-D Three Stooges shorts, SPOOKS and PARDON MY BACKFIRE, as supplements.  I’d normally recommend the Stooges’ two-reelers as a perfect lead-in for MAGICIAN, but hesitate only because the Moe, Larry and Shemp violence far surpasses anything Price can come up with (a garage hot wire going up through Larry’s nose till it comes out his ear; Benny Rubin getting blow-torched in the ass, as he screams, “Help, help, I’m losing my mind!”).  But guys in gorilla suits NEVER get stale, nor 3-D mad doctors spritzing hypodermics at the audience.  So, throw all caution to the wind and program the above at your own discretion.

Should mention though, like all Twilight Time titles, these 3-Delights are limited editions, and I’ve been told that MAD MAGICIAN is perilously close to being sold-out.  So order today!

MISS SADIE THOMPSON. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT #: TWILIGHT226-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

INFERNO.  Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT #:  TWILIGHT275-BR.  SRP: $29.95

THE MAD MAGICIAN.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT#:  TWILIGHT259-BR.  SRP:  $29.95.

For a Few Dollars Less

The 1950s hybrid of Poverty Row and the exploitation pic spawned Regal Films, a sidebar company that ruled many a drive-in and hardtop bottom-of-the-bill during its short 1956-59 reign.

Regal, in actuality, was the po’ boy arm of 20th Century-Fox – its movies considered too lowly for the House of Zanuck.  But because it functioned under the auspices of a major studio, Regal had some perks, mainly decent leftover production values from wrapped Fox titles, plus top-level staff members manning the cameras, music batons and editing scissors.

Regal’s rules were simple:  all pictures would be in black-and-white and CinemaScope (redubbed RegalScope); for me, that’s personally a big perk right there.  Regal’s library would be comprised of low/no-budget horror/sci-fi extravaganzas, noirish crime dramas, and backlot adventure epics; mostly, however, Regal became associated with westerns.  Occasionally, one or two titles would ascend to box-office and/or critical heights (the sci-fi pic Kronos and the heist thriller Plunder Road), but generally they were designed as filler for Fox A-product.  The one mistake Fox made was relegating the 1957 UK Hammer pickup The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas to Regal:  it remains the most respectable movie ever connected to the outfit.

That said, a trio of oaters, lensed during the 1957-58 season, have attained special status (and 1960s and ‘70s grindhouse re-release/big TV ratings chops), due to their stars and/or featured players.  The three entries, The Quiet Gun, Ambush at Cimarron Pass and Showdown at Boot Hill all had impressive post-Regal life due to the formidable presence of actors who became key figures in the spaghetti western:  Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  All are now available in excellent 2.35:1 High Definition Blu-Ray evocations from the pardners at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

 

In 1957’s THE QUIET GUN, extremely bad man Lee Van Cleef has only a supporting role, but it’s so showy and already chock full of his trademark steely-eyed evil that, aside from terrorizing the townsfolk, he easily absconds with the picture.  It’s Angel Eyes nearly a decade before The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and, as Doug Sadler, Van Cleef opens the movie with a bang (literally).

Sadler rides into a prejudiced-filled town where he was hired/lured to kill his way to rancher-baron status.  Even before the Paul Dunlap opening credit music ends, Van Cleef is already torturing lovable town simp Hank Worden, chiding him for his biblical-sounding name (Sampson) and sadistically taking pleasure in inflicting pain.

The movie itself carries quite a narrative load for a little “B.”  The main protagonists (Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis) were once great friends, but now are at odds – due to their rivalry for a beauteous but vacuous woman (Kathleen Crowley).  Sheriff Tucker idolized the lady, but Davis won her, realized his mistake and tossed her out in favor of a stunning Native American common-law spouse (the fetching bullet-bra era temptress Mara Corday).  This promotes racism and murder that in the hands of a Sam Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson, Robert Aldrich or Anthony Mann could have elevated the pic to cult level.  Instead, director William Claxton sticks to what he knows best, sidesteps the controversy, and concentrates on black hat vs. white hat politics.  Still the script by Eric Norden (based on the novel Law Man by Lauran Paine) simmers with enough uncomfortable moments involving bigotry, vigilantism and misogyny rarely seen in 1950s drive-in cinema.  It likely remains Claxton’s finest work. The great John Mescall (The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Bride of Frankenstein, the 1936 Show Boat) shot the no-budgeter, and did so magnificently in the monochrome RegalScope dimensions.  And, to reiterate, Van Cleef shines like the glint on a six-shooter in the high noon sun.

 

On various occasions, Clint Eastwood has proclaimed 1958’s AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS either the worst western he ever made or simply the worst movie he ever made.  He’s wrong on both counts.  Not that this 72-minute time-filler is any classic, but for the sheer fact that it costars some excellent character folk like Frank Gerstle, Irving Bacon (way against type as an evil, murdering scumbag), plus lead Scott Brady, and, that it’s nicely lensed in black-and-white scope (a cinematic mating for which, as you know, I’m a sucker for) by John M. Nickolaus, Jr..  Of course, the plot (which unbelievably took four writers: Robert A. Reeds, Robert W. Woods, Richard G. Taylor and John K. Butler) is thin even for a B-movie:  a beleaguered cavalry command rounds up Rebels (including hothead Clint) who refuse to accept the end of the war (I wager they’re either en route to some Andersonville-type prison or, worse, a seven-year contract at Universal-International).  They’re also transporting a mercenary judge who has illegally been involved in arming war-mongering Apaches (who, in turn, have decided to test their ill-gotten weaponry by attacking and killing all palefaces, with and without Southern drawls).  Badly matched Iverson Ranch locations with sparse studio interior/exteriors don’t help this essentially standard TV episode shot in RegalScope.

More confusing is the late plot addition of a rancher’s daughter/Apache hostage, thrown to the “white wolves” as bait whilst the wily Native Americans abscond with the troopers’ equines.  It’s Margery Dean, proof that she costarred in another movie besides The Quatermass X-Periment.  Dean is a real (or reel) head-scratcher, as her character instantly segues from victimized innocent with a bad Spanish accent (“they keeled my sister”) to frontier skank on the whorepath, seducing every man, blue and gray, to mere exhausted black and blue.  It’s as if the writing department sent up script changes from the wrong movie.  Her ragged, conveniently torn clothes and sweaty looks were no doubt tossed into the mix to add a sex tease on the poster and trailer promotion.  The violent ending is actually pretty lively, with Eastwood’s participation a guarantee that the picture would continually play drive-ins and grindhouses for almost another thirty years.  The direction by Jodie Copeland and score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter concurrently defines “professional” and “routine.”  Nevertheless, this is a must for Eastwood completests.

 

Arguably the best title in the bunch, 1958’s SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL, starring Charles Bronson in his first leading role, is a tidy saga that underlines the public’s then fascination with the “adult” western.  SHOWDOWN, a sincere attempt to make something out of nothing, was written by Louis Vittes and directed by the always interesting Gene Fowler, Jr., adept in any genre from sci-fi/horror like the sprightly I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space to more socially responsible fare, such as Gang War, another 1958 RegalScope pic that also starred Bronson in what was basically a B-pulp run-through for Death Wish.

Luke Welsh (Bronson) is a social outcast (and also sociopath) with the perfect Wild West gig: deputy marshal/bounty hunter.    A human encyclopedic collection of complexes, speared by his diminutive stature, Welsh makes up for his height by his prowess as a top gun killer.  Greeted with disdain by all, Welsh rides into yet another sleepy town in search of his latest meal ticket.  Unfortunately, while legally enabled, the dude on the bounty hunter’s Wanted Poster is revered by the townsfolk, although they know he’s a ruthless killer outside the burg’s vicinity.  Insult to injury, homeboy felon is likewise reciprocally fond of the one-horse tank and the people in it, lavishing his ill-gotten gains upon their businesses and hypocritical charities.  When Bronson kills him, he effectively derails the local gravy train, and the populace turns against him en masse.  Welsh eventually bonds with the town misfit, an intelligent, scholarly thirty-ish spinster (the wonderful Fintan Meyler in her big-screen debut), repressed by the knowledge that she’s the spurned illegitimate daughter of the town whore (now a phenomenally successful Madame).  How these two survive the walls-closing-in claustrophobia of the sinister parish (in itself a figurative outcast in the realms of justice) makes for one engrossing gem of co-feature.  Before you B-movie fans run for the hills, fearing the plot is a bit TOO deep-dish, let me emphatically state that there’s plenty of action within its 72-minute confines.  Plus, there’s a terrific supporting cast, including John Carradine, Robert Hutton, Carole Matthews, George Pembroke and Argentina Brunetti.  The stark black-and-white/scope photography (once again, by John M. Nickolaus, Jr.) provides another excellent reason to check this curio out (FYI, a great 1958 draw for outdoor fans, as SHOWDOWN generally supported the A-Fox Stewart Granger action adventure Harry Black and the Tiger, directed by Henry Hathaway).

All three black-and-white Blu-Rays are in 2.35:1 1080p High Definition with DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

SRP: $29.95@

THE QUIET GUN.  CAT # OF958.

AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS. CAT # OF728.

SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL. CAT # OF672.