With the impact of a right and left cross, Twilight Time (in conjunction with 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment and Columbia Pictures Industries) proves itself to be the Blu-Ray heavyweight champ of the month with the near-simultaneous release of two great 1950s Sam Fuller classics, 1954’s HELL AND HIGH WATER and 1959’s shamefully underrated THE CRIMSON KIMONO. Both of these magnificent-looking transfers are now available in limited editions (3000 each), so Fuller buffs, noir aficionados, and just downright great movie fans need to rush to their Blu-Ray emporium of choice.
The variance in the narratives of HELL and KIMONO underline the genius of Fuller, as his key themes are prevalent in both. The perversity of love has always been a major plot-point in a Fuller pic, and here the scenarios run in conjunction. As you may have already gleaned, I cannot recommend these movies highly enough. So let’s get moving!
1954’s HELL AND HIGH WATER is a kick-ass action adventure movie with a very Fulleresque scenario. A group of pacifist entrepreneurs, including the world’s leading nuclear scientists, forms a cartel to expose a plan by the Reds to start an atomic war.
To this end, they’ve refurbished a derelict WWII Japanese submarine, and secured the services of derelict WWII commander Richard Widmark, now a merciless mercenary. With an international handpicked crew, including the top two physicists, one a drop-dead gorgeous egghead, the peacenik subversives head for the Arctic to spy on Chinese and Russian secret operations.
HELL AND HIGH WATER was Fuller’s most elaborate effort to date. It was his first stab at CinemaScope, and, like all great directors, he grasped the possibilities immediately. After all, what better a subject for CinemaScope than a submarine (although Frank Tashlin might cite the Jessica the dachshund in Bachelor Flat)? HIGH WATER was only the fifth ‘Scope movie released (the ads still heralded the boast “You can see it without glasses!,” a swipe at the waning 3D format, although a Fuller stereoscopic outing would have undoubtedly been something to behold).
Fuller not only had ‘Scope, but Technicolor and stereophonic sound. His script, cowritten with Jesse Lasky, Jr., (from a story by David Hempstead), hits some potent issues, enough so that the final result was considered too hot for some international venues (it was banned in France).
HIGH WATER is sumptuously lensed by the masterful d.p. Joe MacDonald, contains a rousing Alfred Newman score (the main theme would end up in a number of subsequent Fox movies) plus large-scale action sequences and special effects (with second-unit location work done in Paris).
Widmark, who’s (not surprisingly) terrific in the picture, plays Captain Adam Jones as a kin to his Skip McCoy in Fuller’s earlier masterpiece Pickup on South Street. Both men peg politics as a sucker game ripe for the taking. And both become reluctant patriots when the stakes get personal (for Jones, it’s seeing a Red bomber being disguised as an American plane, geared up to drop an atomic mushroom cocktail on an unsuspecting city).
There’s some lip-biting violence in HELL AND HIGH WATER, including a grueling moment when a character’s fingers must be cut off in order for the sub to successfully make a hairbreadth dive/escape.
Widmark aside, the cast is aces, including Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, Richard Loo, Henry Kulky and Fuller’s always welcome stock company participants, Gene Evans and Neyle Morrow.
Life imitated art when the female scientist sets foot upon the sub (the old “woman on board bringing a seagoing vessel bad luck” wheeze). In this case, the lady in question was newbie actress Bella Darvi, the latest Darryl F. Zanuck protégé – with accent on the “F.”
Darvi was born in Poland as Beyla Wegier; she had barely survived WWII, and, frankly, had been through hell (the high water would soon be replaced by hot water). Renamed Darvi (the hybrid of Darryl and “official” mate Virginia Zanuck’s given monikers), she sprang upon the Fox lot like a panther in heat. Fuller had asked Widmark to help coach the actress with her negligible English; Darvi must have been quite a handful, as the usually gracious Kiss of Death star outwardly refused (one of the rare times that Widmark ever responded negatively to anyone in the biz). Fuller countered by tricking his Steel Helmet lead Evans to do the deed, by implying that Darvi had a thing for the burly thespian. Evans responded in kind, and only later discovered who Darvi really was (revealing to Fuller her gratitude gift of silver ornaments. “That explains this,” he told Sam, displaying the piece’s engraved DFZ inscription).
Darvi, who was virtually universally panned by critics (and audiences), was definitely unfairly victimized. She really wasn’t that bad; truth be told, she was quite good as Princess Skankerina (or whatever her name was) in The Egyptian, but it was too late. In addition to her reputation preceding her, Darvi proved to be more trouble than she was worth; a number of extracurricular torrid affairs with both men and women had to be hushed up. This didn’t faze Zanuck as much as the woman’s gambling jones, which was diminishing his bankroll. By 1956, Bella was gone, paving the way for the mogul’s next mistress/star-to-be, the infinitely cooler and more reasonable Juliette Greco.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of HELL AND HIGH WATER is a pip, the platter’s great color and clarity doing the rectangular-composed visuals justice. The 1950s directional stereo sound is pretty good, although the 5.1 separations on my system tended to dwarf the all-important center channel; the alternate 2.0 stereo tracks worked perfectly. Newman’s aforementioned score is available as an IMT (in further homage to Fuller’s and Widmark’s previous collaboration, Darvi’s lovely “Denise” theme is the ballad “Mam’selle,” composed by director Edmund Goulding – the tune that Pickup on South Street’s Moe/Thelma Ritter kept playing on her phonograph); in addition, the disc contains the excellent supplement that adorned the old Fox 2007 DVD, a Biography episode, Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters.
Fuller’s 1959 Columbia directorial debut, THE CRIMSON KIMONO, one of his two brilliant Gower Gulch exercises in late noir (the other being 1961’s extraordinary Underworld, U.S.A.), is an unbridled opus of sex, violence, love and passion that concurrently rips the hypocrisy mask off American race relations. It also is one of the first U.S. motion pictures to depict the use of martial arts.
On the surface, the movie is a startling thriller about the search for the psychopathic murderer of stripper Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) in Los Angeles’ Japanese quarter.
But the real story of THE CRIMSON KIMONO is a bromance between the detectives working the case. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett, in his movie debut) is a decent straight-up guy with an obsession for doing the right thing. No one gets a free ride. His BFF, Japanese-American Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is also his savoir. They met during Korea, and their bond extended to Joe’s agreeing to an emergency blood transfusion, saving Charlie’s life. Thus, they are blood brothers in every sense of the word. Kojaku even follows Bancroft back to L.A. and joins the force. They’re also roomies, pooling their salaries to have virtually nothing but their swank man-cave apartment.
This relationship is ideal until the Crimson Kimono case breaks. The aforementioned Sugar, trying to elevate the vocation of stripping, wrote and choreographed an artistic dance piece surrounding the title garment. It’s basically Madame Butterfly with T & A. The artist she hired to create the exquisite posters is tracked down after the interpretive dancer’s murder. Both Charlie and Joe are amazed and pleased to discover it’s a woman, the masculine-named Chris Downs (top-billed Victoria Shaw).
Charlie falls hard for her, and she begins to feel likewise – until she meets Joe. You see, aside from being a class-A cop, Kojaku has the soul of an artist (he plays and composes music and is a scholar of ancient and contemporary culture; his father is a revered painter). Joe goes ga-ga in a big way, with his guilt being simultaneously unveiled, as his raging hormones kick in. The revealing of the dangerous triangle has the unexpected (and, thus, perfect Fuller) effect. In the contrast, the sensational ads Columbia placed hit the interracial couple with notorious vengeance (“YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” screamed the one-sheets). It’s Bancroft who understands, and, though hurt, is gratified that two great people in his life are together. Kojaku, on the other hand, reacts viciously, believing Charlie despises him for stealing his woman, but, more so for being the non-white dude who did the deed. Their mutual respect and affection quickly erodes into a vengeful and bigoted animosity (but, again, nearly totally emanating from Joe’s damaged psyche of being a minority in America).
Their regeneration and healing makes up the crux of the final act that intertwines with resolving the tabloid-sensational case, culminating in a cinema verite chase (some in 16MM) through the authentic mean street locations in Little Tokyo during a Japanese celebratory event. The outstanding supporting cast includes Paul Dubov, Neyle Morrow, Jacqueline Greene, Walter Burke, Stafford Repp, and best of all, Anna Lee in possibly her greatest role ever, avant-garde artist Mac (interestingly, the role reversal ideas extend to the given names; pronunciation-wise, Charlie and Joe could be mistakenly taken as female monikers, while Chris and Mac would definitely be initially pegged as male characters; in fact, in Chris’s case, it is).
From the director’s blistering script to the stark monochrome photography of Sam Leavitt and the appropriately sleazy chic score by Harry Sukman (available as an IMT) Sam Fuller pics don’t get much better than THE CRIMSON KIMONO, and one couldn’t ask for a better rendition than in this spectacular Twilight Time widescreen Blu-Ray. Additional special extras include two documentaries: Sam Fuller Storyteller and Curtis Hanson: The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, plus theatrical trailers.
Twilight Time has certainly done the maverick right; this is their third Fuller title on their label (the other being the quintessential 1955 color noir House of Bamboo (check out my take via this link: https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/stacked-deck/).
These are all limited edition Blu-Rays, and there is no doubt in my mind that they will be scooped up in record time, so youse Sam/noir addicts better get cracking!
HELL AND HIGH WATER. Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.0 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT #: TWILIGHT281-BR.
THE CRIMSON KIMONO. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT #: TWILIGHT285-BR.