Sam’s Twilight People

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.

WOW!

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.

Both titles are limited editions (3000@); available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time Movies (www.twilighttimemovies.com). SRP:  $29.95@

 

True Brit

The 1960s British Invasion didn’t just affect our music; it took over the one movie genre thought to be impenetrably American…well, until the Italians proved us wrong.

It was thus almost inevitable that the British would switch riding English to western and carve out a path that I hereby dub the Tombstonehenge Trail.  As early as 1962 Hammer icon Michael Carreras tried his hand at an oater (The Savage Guns), followed, most humorously, by the Carry On gang (Carry On Cowboy).  But the success of Leone and the mass exodus to filming in Spain’s Southwestern doppelganger terrain provided an easy route for the filmmakers across the pond to give it a go.

Of course, the American west was primarily made up of immigrants, but the American western was Yankee Doodle Dandy to the core.  The influx of Brits to Hollywood’s prairie, was, to say the least, fascinating.  A few actors were actually good at it, for example Donald Pleasence (The Hallelujah Trail, Will Penny) and Christopher Lee (Hannie Caulder).

But in 1968, the floodgates officially opened with the all-star roundup entitled SHALAKO, and, later, the eyebrow-raising appearance of Oliver Reed in THE HUNTING PARTY (the first of his TWO excursions to the American wilderness).  Both of these movies are now available in remarkably fine Blu-Ray editions from the trail bosses at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.  So mount up, ya varmints.

 

The pros far outweigh the cons in 1968’s SHALAKO, and there sure are a lot of pros.  The epic western is based on a Louis L’Amour novel dealing with the supposed actual incidents of rich Europeans going on 19th century Western safaris in the U.S. of A.

And what Euros!

Headed by German teeth-gritting Nazi precursor lunatic Count Peter van Eyck (in his final role), the gang includes titled grifter couple Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman, and skeevy Senator Alexander Knox and his spectacular Mexican trophy wife (Valerie French).  The point of this pointless exercise in bourgeois bravado is to impress Polish countess Brigitte Bardot, whom van Eyck wants desperately to nail.  Obviously oblivious to checking references, the mad Bavarian has hired Stephen Boyd to lead them onto what they don’t know is sacred Apache ground.  BOING!

Amidst the champagne and caviar on the range (with Boyd and his scurvy crew angrily reduced to guzzling rotgut), is the arrival of mountain man Moses Zebulon Carlin, aka Shalako (the Native American moniker for “rainbringer”).  It’s Sean Connery, looking about as thrilled as being invited to a screening of Operation Kid Brother.

Doesn’t help that the naturally riled Apaches are led by the blood-thirsty Chato (Woody Strode), who doesn’t care if the hemoglobin is red or royal blue.  From this point on, it’s a rock-’em-sock-’em action packed widescreen extravaganza that, while posing no threat to The Searchers or Red River, is nonetheless a fun canter through the west (well, Almeria, Spain) that is never boring and often full of WTF double-take moments.

The direction is by veteran Edward Dmytryk.  Like most of his late pics, it comes close to being intriguing, and certainly 100% professional, but, as with all his post-HUAC efforts, refuses to go that extra distance – that fine line between adventure and adventurous.  The SHALAKO Dmytryk is definitely the guy who directed Where Love has Gone and The Carpetbaggers, and not Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire.

Of course, the cast is what makes this movie, and, not surprisingly, it was Bardot who received most of the press, even if it wasn’t exactly positive.  Just out of a celebrated messy divorce, followed by the end of a torrid affair with Serge Gainsbourg (who apparently is still hurting from that breakup to this day), Brigitte, reportedly, immediately engaged in a hot and heavy liaison with Boyd (the two had previously collided in her then-husband Roger Vadim’s steamy 1958 sex tale The Night Heaven Fell); the rumors seemed to gain additional credence when the French actress threw the Irishman a mammoth St. Patrick’s Day soiree on-location.

The script for SHALAKO is a too-many-cooks barbecue.  Cowritten by actor James Griffith (who could have played the Boyd role himself), Hal Hopper and Scot Finch (screen story by Clarke Reynolds), the narrative turns too unbelievably into a mutual admiration society toward the end.  Like my problem with the Ben Johnson transformation in Shane, while I could get van Eyck’s arrogant begrudging appreciation of Connery’s character, I cannot accept scumbag, racist politician Knox going all regeneration-sweet.

The movie is gorgeously shot in FranScope by the renowned UK d.p. Ted Moore.  Grainy main credits aside, the bulk of the Blu-Ray genuinely looks like 1960s Technicolor (an enticing extra is audio commentary by director/writer/actor/film historian Alex Cox).

The music, on the other hand, is problematic, to say the least.  One would think that in the genre’s Golden Age of 1960s Soundtracks, it would be impossible for a major western to have a substandard score.  But noted British composer Robert Famon (Captain Horatio Hornblower, Expresso Bongo) achieves the almost unfathomable – a super-production Western that sounds like an A.C. Lyles oater.  The “B” score is almost comical, suggesting a Carry On parody – a claim not aided on-screen by the appearance of Eric Sykes as van Eyck’s manservant, nor the ridiculous title song lyrics (heralding the pleasures of owning a woman) by (Carry On alumnus) Jim Dale.

The top performances are by the nasties, Boyd, Strode and Blackman – with Woody’s final exchange to his chieftain father (Rodd Redwing) being the best line in the picture.  Suffice to say, Blackman, who dumps obsessed hubby Hawkins to copiously shag Boyd, rapaciously redefines the name Pussy Galore.

 

1971’s THE HUNTING PARTY, also filmed in Spain, is a much better picture, but additionally a far more disturbing one.  The plot is paradoxically simple though complicated.

The beauteous wife of a vicious rancher is kidnapped by a notorious bandit and his gang in the midst of the infamous Lincoln County War.  That’s the simple part.  The bizarre addendum follows.  She wasn’t taken for a ransom (in fact, she was mistakenly abducted from a schoolhouse where she was visiting a friend); she was snatched by ruthless brute Frank Calder so the woman can teach him to read.

“Why do YOU want to read?,” she snottily asks.  “Because I can’t,” is his honest reply.

Now I should tell you that the animalistic outlaw is played by none other than the animalistic top-billed Oliver Reed, and he’s swell in the part (authentic accent and all).  Melissa, the wife, is Candice Bergen, in the second of her three western cinematic adventures.  The third lead screwball in the cast, psycho husband Brandt Ruger, is Gene Hackman, just coming into his own as a major star.  Bergen’s body language and facial reactions are perfect; however her line delivery leaves something to be desired, as if she was coached by Hymie from the Get Smart series.  She is also brutalized like nobody’s business.  Remember, this is post-Wild Bunch territory where the Western comeback had to be a pissing contest over who could spill the most blood (even John Wayne’s Big Jake got lambasted for its violence, although it scored millions at the box-office, the Duke’s last mammoth hit).

Bergen’s character takes the brunt of the savage histrionics.  A writhing opening sequence shows Reed slicing the throat of a steer (removed by the British censor) so that he and his men can eat while (no pun) cross-cut with Hackman performing rough sex on a screaming Bergen (not removed by the British censor).  Nanoseconds after she’s taken, Melissa is victim of an attempted rape by gang member L.Q. Jones.  And later, when Reed tries to show his kinder, gentler side, it degenerates into a sexual assault.  Truly, within the first half hour of THE HUNTING PARTY, Bergen is exposed to more wood than she was with a lifetime of Charlie McCarthy.

Oliver Reed being Oliver Reed, his half-assed apology is capped with “But I’m not sorry,” ostensibly a declaration of Ollie love if ever there was one.  Bergen reacts by trying to kill him, followed by a vigorous chase on horseback before the abused woman realizes that Reed’s sexual demands are far more affable than Hackman’s.

Meanwhile, Hackman and his capitalist buddies go on a hunting party – an excuse to show off his new telescopic rifles (“They cost $700 apiece.”), a weapon/gift he generously bestows upon each of the oligarch scumbags (including Simon Oakland and Ronald Howard).  Their ride on Hackman’s private train, featuring his bordello car, is something to behold, albeit revoltingly when a gorgeous Asian hooker (Francesca Tu) becomes Ruger’s human ashtray.

When word comes that Melissa has been kidnapped by Calder, the hunting party changes prey, as a gleeful Hackman relishes picking off the unsuspecting culprits from nearly a mile away (this finally disgusts the fat cats, who all but desert him).

Even today, THE HUNTING PARTY is often hard to watch.  It’s excruciatingly violent and uncompromising.  The one humane scene with Reed, best pal Mitchell Ryan (quite excellent as the more erudite member of the gang) and Bergen melting the ice over a jar of peaches is genuinely lovely even if it is the movie’s misfit moment.  Does it excuse rape? Methinks not, but Bergen (well, her character) seems to disagree.  From that point on, she and Reed are a couple.

The movie, magnificently shot by Cecilio Paniagua and scored by the great Riz Ortolani, was directed by Don Medford.  Medford, known mostly for his TV work, only directed one other feature (the Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night sequel The Organization).  This is likely his best work, a gig he got from controversial TV producers-turned-big-screen-moguls Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner (revered for their series The Big Valley).  The script by William W. Norton, Gilbert Ralston and coproducer Lou Morheim (from a story by Morheim and Ralston) doesn’t flinch for an instant, pushing the Peckinpah card (slo-mo bloodshedding and all) to the edge.

The ending is an Erich von Stroheim fantasy in buckskin, but the movie in general pays mucho lip service to such then-contemporary fare as The Professionals, Faccia a Faccia (perhaps inadvertently) and, natch, The Wild Bunch.

The Blu-Ray is terrific, sharp and rich in color, with a crisp audio soundtrack so that you hear every squib squish.

A mandatory extra, produced for Kino by Frank Tarzi, comprises an interview with Mitchell Ryan, who reveals some stunning background information about the shoot, mostly involving him and his relationship with Reed, which, as was part and parcel with the volatile Brit’s reputation, resulted in some outrageous events.  There’s also supplemental commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.

SHALAKO.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Kingston Film Productions. CAT #: K21512.  SRP:  $29.95.

THE HUNTING PARTY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT #:K21633.  SRP:  $29.95.

 

Sound Silents

Silent-movie fans (a group which I’m proud to be part of) are experiencing a much-appreciated Blu-Ray renaissance of the pre-talkers.

The diverse range 2017’s output spans the mass appeal selection to the hen’s-tooth sanctum of the aficionado, and includes works from major directors and stars that have rarely seen the light of day since their release, often more than one hundred years ago.  Best of all, these titles are being showcased on the High Definition format in lovingly restored reconstructions, making viewers wonder where the hell these spectacular elements have been ensconced for all these decades.

Olive Films marches into the silent celebration forefront with the unveiling of two borderline obscure entries, produced before the 1920s, that nevertheless have stood the ravages of time extremely well.  The first showcases one of cinema’s iconic directors, the other a once household name, now sadly forgotten (save his admiring fan base).  These rather unusual and amazingly offbeat takes on relationships and human behavior in general are well worth discovering and, even better, adding to one’s library.

 

When one thinks of Cecil B. DeMille, it isn’t exactly in the innovative genius universe.  It’s those royally entertaining (albeit frequently clunky) biblical extravaganzas; indeed, when clocking back to his silent days, novices are apt to be barraged by scenes of Gloria Swanson either in the jaws of a lion, or in the suds of an Olympic-pool-sized bath tub.

This is a fallacy that must be changed.

DeMille didn’t become DeMille for nothing.  His considerable rep preceded him.  No one gave him millions of 1920s dollars to part the Red Sea or retell the Christ story just because he asked for it.

Cecil B. DeMille was the guy who pretty much discovered Hollywood as the idea climate spot to make the flickers.  He also made the first feature-length western (1913’s The Squaw Man, so successful he remade it TWICE, once as a talkie).  DeMille had vision (as did his brother William and niece Agnes).  A failed theatrical impresario/playwright, Cecil grabbed the movies by the throat and shook vigorously until the creative juices started flowing.  He beat Griffith to many of the devices D.W. is credited with; in other areas, he was neck-to-neck with the Biograph kingpin, often besting him when it came to emotion (the close-up), pageantry (epic scenes of battle) and intimacy (sexual situations that only von Stroheim would consider mundane).

He was also audacious.  DeMille decided, in 1915, to film the opera Carmen, and with its beauteous star Geraldine Farrar.  And so he did.  Remember, this was way before sound, so here was a weisenheimer filming an operatic masterpiece with its diva…as a silent.  I gotta say, the picture is a triumph of passion, opulence and superb cinema.  It was understandably a smash then, and made Farrar one of the first movie superstars.

1915’s THE CAPTIVE goes one better.  Again pushing the intimate epic card, DeMille magnificently tells a grand story (based on his play, cowritten with his oft collaborator Jeannie MacPherson, who also appears in the drama) that unfolds against a backdrop of (then) contemporary history.  It’s the Balkan War conflict.  And it’s an ideal op for the women of Turkey (left stranded by their fighting men) to take over, work the land and battle for sexual oneup(wo)manship.

Prime for this task is peasant Sonia (Blanche Sweet) and her kid brother Milos (Gerald Ward).  As the conflicts (some brief, but terrific, preambles to the army clashes the director would become famous for) with the Turkish adversaries take hold, many officers and soldiers from the opposition are returned to the Montenegro villages dotting the landscape.

To relieve the overcrowded jails, captured officers are relegated to the women’s slave-labor force, working the farms (a hilarious establishing sequence has the village women cherry-picking for the best-looking specimens).  Interesting that even this early, DeMille logic rears its improbable head, indicating that every peasant hut had its own cavernous dungeon under the thatched floor).  Mahmud Hassan (House Peters), the key officer in charge, is assigned to Sweet’s land; by day, a hard worker, by night a captive in her underground stone-walled jail cell.

But rumblings of attraction soon rattle the hormones of both parties, making it unclear who is the servant and who is the master.  It’s slavery with benefits.  Their transcending politics for flesh reveals that he’s not only a top officer, but heir to Balkan royalty.  A doomed union from the start, as the war won’t last forever.  His eventual post-war return is a whole other movie in and of itself.  Hassan’s corrupt minions have ousted him from his position, via a revolution.  The dethroned monarch shrugs it off and wanders penniless throughout the countryside, knowing damn well where he’s headed.  The line between nobleman and peasant has been mercifully blurred.

At 51 minutes (still a lengthy night at the Bijou in 1915), THE CAPTIVE covers a lot of ground, and does so with style, grace, humor and panache.  If you were to see this movie minus the credits, I venture to say you might suspect it’s the work of Griffith, early Walsh, perhaps even von Stroheim…but certainly NEVER DeMille.  Yet, it’s pretty much indicative of C.B.’s embryonic silent output.  It’s a wonderfully thrilling and romantic movie adventure.

Best of all is the material available to Olive Films for this presentation.  It’s simply sensational, mastered from a near-perfect 35MM print that hailed from DeMille’s personal library.  The luminous photography is by one of the icons of pre-1920s Hollywood, Alvin Wyckoff (a DeMille favorite, and later the d.p. of Blood and Sand, Manslaughter, and It’s the Old Army Game).  And it’s all topped off by an excellent stereo score by Lucy Duke.

As much as you may love Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman, Northwest Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind and The Ten Commandments (for the right or wrong reasons), you’ll never look at them the same after you’re captivated by THE CAPTIVE.

 

My love for the cinema of William S. Hart (once he started his own production company) is like a fine wine.  It improves with age.  The rough, realistic no-nonsense gritty westerns he turned out are unlike anything the competition was doing.  I can’t think of any other way to describe a key Hart epic, save asking readers to imagine Budd Boetticher directing his Randolph Scott classics during the silent era.  1919’s WAGON TRACKS is a perfect example.  Coproduced by Thomas Ince and helmed by Hart’s favorite director Lambert Hillyer (sadly, mostly renowned today for one picture, the admittedly entertaining 1936 Karloff-Lugosi sci-fi/horror pic The Invisible Ray), WAGON TRACKS continues the unglorified (but nevertheless engrossing) saga of the American West through the eyes of its main protagonist Buckskin Hamilton (Hart).

Hamilton’s essentially a mountain man, wary of anything human.  His one link to civilization is his college-educated kid brother Billy (Leo Pierson), now a doctor, who vows to return to the West to practice.  On board a riverboat, Billy falls prey to a pair sociopathic gamblers (one of whom uses his beautiful sister as a wedge to respectability).  The gamblers are played by Robert McKim and Lloyd Bacon (yep, later the famed director of pre-Code flicks at Warners).  The sister is silent-screen goddess Jane Novak.

When the younger Hamilton realizes he’s been played for a fool, he’s brutally murdered by the unscrupulous plungers, who, with the unwitting help of Novak (they convince her she’s the killer), implicate the dead man as the true culprit, and successfully plead for the woman’s self-defense (citing her as victim of sexual assault).

Hart arrives to meet the ship, and, in a wonderful sequence, is told that there’s been a killing on-board.  He shrugs at the inconvenience, proudly offering up his brother’s services as a physician before learning the horrifying truth.

He immediately figures out what happened, but can’t act upon the culprits’ fake in unity is strength alibi.  But Hart gets his chance to vindicate his shamed sibling soon afterward when he discovers that the wagon train he earlier elected to lead to New Mexico has the trio signed up as passengers, ostensibly to visit Sweet and McKim’s uncle, but, in reality, to seek out new ways to ply their trade.

Revenge is sweet, and Hart takes almost sadistic pleasure in waiting for the right moment, and then lets nature take its course, by sadistically hand-hobbling the pair out into the blistering sun until one rats on the other.  The unbridled 1919 racism (Hart’s refusal to believe that his brother is a rapist because he’s white), later causing the death of a Native American, spins the wheels toward perverse justice and a bang-up finale.

Hamilton’s mission complete, the wagon train on course, the remaining pioneers arrive in Santa Fe, where Novak all but gushes her new love for Hart, a personification of authentic “manhood.”  In what would normally be a B-western climax is drastically smashed when Hart blandly suggests that he might come back someday, but don’t frigging count on it.  In short, Jane, while peripherally interested, he’s just not that into you.

WAGON TRACKS is unrelenting in its grim depiction of the times, and plethora of unsavory characters.  It’s one of Hart’s best efforts (although I tend to like The Toll Gate a bit more).

Again, best of all is the almost pristine 35mm tinted and toned print from the Library of Congress (there is some waving imagery near the end, but nothing serious).  Damn, if only all silents survived in this condition today!  The sensational photography by the great Joseph August is crystal-clear in this marvelous Blu-Ray, with every crevice in Hart’s face visible (and they’re a lot of those).  An effective newly-composed piano score by Andrew Earle Simpson appends the package.  WAGON TRACKS is an ideal title to introduce newbies to silent movies, as well as to the shamefully neglected Hart.

In closing, I’d like to relate a terrific anecdote told to me one evening in 2003 by Harry Carey, Jr.  It shows that Hart tended to not practice what he preached, choosing to go instead with the hyperbole.

“I was around four or five, but I was very cognizant of who William S. Hart was.  He had just had a big hit – the first one in a while – called Tumbleweeds, and accepted an invitation to dine with at our ranch.

“He sat stoically as we served up a traditional Mexican lunch, wonderfully prepared by the staff/friends, who lived on the property with us.

“There was a bowl of peppers, more for show, in the center of the table, beautifully resplendent in its rainbow of green, red and yellow colors.  My dad took one, and cut a tiny piece off the corner to season his food.  Hart scoffed.

“‘Harry, why aren’t you using the whole pepper?’”

“My dad immediately issued a warning response. ‘No, no, Bill, you never want to use too many of these.  They’ll land ya in the hospital.  Just a pinch of one is enough, and that’s only if you’re into hot and spicy food.’

“Well, Bill Hart would have none of that.  He sneered, replied something like, ‘There isn’t a pepper that can fell William S. Hart,’ and with that popped an entire one into his mouth, biting off the stem.  I froze in shock, my dad put his hands to his mouth.  One of the cooks dropped a metal tray and another of the Mexican women working on the ranch crossed herself.

“Within seconds you could see a change, Hart’s face turning cherry red.  Then sweat, like two water faucets turned on full-blast, spewed out of his forehead and brow.  My dad immediately told one of our staff to keep bringing pitchers of cold water.  Hart gasped, trying to breathe.  He attempted to pour a glass of water from the pitcher.

“‘Bill, forget protocol,’” yelled my dad, at which point Hart tossed the glass on the floor, and proceeded to gulp water directly out of the pitcher.  It was at this time that I excused myself – not because I couldn’t stand the horror of it all, but because I had to run outside to stop myself from laughing.”

 

THE CAPTIVE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround music score.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF1270.  SRP: $24.95.

WAGON TRACKS.  Black and white w/color tints.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround music score. Olive Films/The Library of Congress.  CAT# OF1316.  SRP:  $29.95.

Far From the Wagging Crowd

Two vastly different depictions of twentieth century detective literature’s once most popular protagonists, Bulldog Drummond, have been nicely paired in a double-feature package, BULLDOG DRUMMOND/CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND, available via made-to-order DVD-R from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

Drummond was the brainchild of author Herman C. McNeile, aliased as “The Sapper” (meaning “engineer”), who began his Bulldog adventures, like his hero, as a lark.  The first book, published in 1920, took off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bulldog (actual moniker Hugh Drummond) is an ex-officer, admirably decorated in the Great War.  Filthy rich (with a plethora of equally filthy rich friends), Drummond finds life at the top on the boring side, and yearns for them good ole daze of intrigue, adventure and near-death experiences.  In other words, an adrenalin junkie (or lunatic, your choice).  Handsome, dashing – the kind of ladies man Craigslist females always think they’re going to get (before winding up as a footnote on the ID Channel), Drummond decides to manufacture his own danger.  He takes an ad in a local paper, craving excitement.  Delighted that he receives an answer, he undergoes an enforced transformation in order to successfully assimilate into the underbelly of society, one rife with lethal villains, murderous (and, natch, gorgeous) femme fatales and a ravishing damsel in distress. It’s all he had hoped for, and more.  Soon his best pal Algy (singly pared down from a gang of wealthy participants in the books) and faithful manservant Danny are likewise up to their ears in sinister plots and cliffhanging thrills – so much so that even Drummond starts to ponder the age-old adage, “Don’t wish so hard for something…”

Of course, these tales were naturals for the movies, and, the first cinematic foray was in McNeile’s native Britain, as a 1922 silent starring Carlyle Blackwell.

But it was the folks at Goldwyn, in 1929, looking for a suitable talkie to sound launch their star Ronald Colman, that sealed the filmic deal for Drummond.  The smash success of BULLDOG DRUMMOND led to an eventual 1934 Colman sequel (this time for Darryl Zanuck’s newly christened 20th Century Pictures), before diving head-first into a B-movie series (albeit an entertaining one) at Paramount.

Drummond emerged again in 1951 in the UK with Walter Pidgeon in the role (now an aging, but nonetheless rapacious, Bulldog, coming out of retirement).

The derring-do, and, frankly, often cruel, tactics employed by Drummond, including his chauvinistic predilection for womanly companionship (on both sides of the law) made the character a perfect embryonic run-through for James Bond (with Bulldog likely being an Ian Fleming inspiration); Drummond, himself, was fashioned after characters populating the works of Edgar Wallace (most notably, 1906’s The Four Just Men) – a favorite of author McNeile.

Thus, it’s not surprising that a suave, Playboy Magazine-Drummond surfaced in the 1960s in a rousing duo of Bond-like adventures, featuring the excellent actor Richard Johnson in the role.

Sadly, today, few are familiar with Bulldog Drummond, save detective story fans and ardent classic movie buffs.  Perhaps this recommended Warner Archive release will encourage the more sophisticated armchair sleuth to pursue the matter further (I would personally love to get my hands on the books, long out of print).

 

1929’s BULLDOG DRUMMOND is very nearly a Samuel Goldwyn experimental foray into the new audio technology.  Not that he was so concerned about science, but he was worried about the fate of one of his biggest stars, Ronald Colman.  DRUMMOND, what the Brits refer to as a “ripping yarn,” turned out to be an ideal vehicle for the silent screen heartthrob.  Unlike the negative word of mouth (most of it bosh) that plagued Colman’s quasi-mentor Jack Gilbert, the English matinee idol aced the talkie conversion with ease.  Millions of females dubbed his vocalizing as “dreamy.”  Thus, Goldwyn could breathe a sigh of relief (not so much for Colman’s frequent romantic teammate Vilma Banky, who didn’t make the speaking cut).

But BULLDOG DRUMMOND succeeds on many levels.  Unlike the dregs Metro unearthed for Gilbert, DRUMMOND is a first-rate project, loaded with action, suspense, romance and snarky humor.

The picture, following ridiculously wealthy ex-military man Hugh Drummond and his quest to squelch being bored, takes him on a road to danger, loaded with evil speed bumps, personified by monstrous rogues (Lawrence Grant, Montagu Love and Lilyan Tashman) residing in a Caligari-esque world of fantastic set decor (William Cameron Menzies functioned as an assistant director/designer).  The picture is magnificently photographed by Gregg Toland and George Barnes (no more needs to be said).  The direction, by F. Richard Jones, is fairly fluid for a 1929 talker, and the movie uses the then-rarity of background music (composed by Hugo Riesenfeld) more than efficiently.  Best of all is the appendage to the scenario by Wallace Smith; unlike so many 1920s sound efforts, the crackle is not on the track, but comes via the beautifully constructed dialog by Sidney Howard.  The witty asides are equally reinforced by inventive use of sound effects – an “ooo-and-ah” big deal in 1929.

Aside from Colman’s bravura speaking debut, the performances are wonderful, particularly those of Tashman, Claud Alister, Wilson Benge and, finally, the appearance of a gorgeous teenaged Joan Bennett (her character, Phyllis Benton, would remain Drummond’s perennial fiancée for the subsequent adventures, both in print and on the screen).

The picture opens in a stodgy men’s club, where one literally hears a pin drop (well, a spoon), much to the displeasure of the crypt’s members (“The eternal din in this club is an outrage!”).  We light upon a lethargic Hugh Drummond, who, taking his pal Algy’s suggestion to heart (why not advertise for adventure?) does so with gusto and verve (“Demobilized officer finding peace unbearably tedious would welcome any excitement.  Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.”).

Soon, beautiful Bennett enters his life, beseeching the debonair man about town to help rescue her drugged and kidnapped uncle (Charles Sellon), held captive in a desolate, rural sanitarium replete with its own torture chamber.

This proves to be manna from heaven for Drummond, as well as for critics and audiences who helped make the picture a smash hit.

87 years later, BULLDOG DRUMMOND remains a joy to watch, kidding itself when not ratcheting up the tension of hairbreadth escapes, adversarial confrontations and pre-Code sexuality. Unsure of Phyllis’s ultimate role in the narrative, manservant Danny covers all bases, “Twin beds, sir, so you can use your own judgement.”  Furthermore, the sinister Petersons (Love and Tashman) are proud practitioners of savage love, and, depending upon the situation, are either a couple or brother and sister.  Yikes!

Like so many Goldwyn pictures, the 35MM elements are in sterling condition.  Succinctly, BULLDOG DRUMMOND is prescibed without reservation for fans of mysteries, Colman and historically important cinema.

 

1951’s CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND is a far cry from the above super-production.  It is the very definition of a B-picture, filmed in England with a bankable Yank star (Walter Pidgeon).  In truth, the movie was conceived and greenlit to take advantage of the post-war “frozen funds” sanction (American film studio monies held in check in the UK that could only be used if a picture was made in Great Britain).  Pidgeon, then in London (with frequent costar Greer Garson) to shoot the 1950 Miniver Story sequel to the 1942 blockbuster, was simply recruited for extra Metro duty.  Indeed, he seems to be walking through the proceedings (as a retired Hugh Drummond called back into action after a violent robbery rocks the city).

That said, as an 80-minute “B,” the movie is not without interest.  Even a watered-down Pidgeon is fun to watch; however, the bulk of the pic belongs to his young assistant, Police Sergeant Helen Smith, a vivacious Margaret Leighton in a boffo role that allows the terrific actress to go undercover and resort to a variety of characterizations.  Other neat cast members include Robert Beatty, Charles Victor, David Tomlinson (as Algy), James Hayter, Peggy Evans and Laurence Naismith.  Most interesting is the appearance of a 24-year-old Richard Johnson, as indicated earlier, himself to play Drummond (the Bond one) in the 1960s.  Speaking of Bond, Bernard Lee also turns up as a colonel.

Swift direction by Victor Saville (who, on occasion, would also produce some noteworthy cinema, his jewel being 1955’s Kiss Me, Deadly) is more than matched by the Howard Emmett Rogers/Gerard Fairlie/Arthur Wimperis script.  It’s a frequently witty scenario with good, cheeky dialog (when gentleman pig breeder Drummond is visited by Inspector McIver, the sow squeals nearly drown out their conversation, causing the irritated police official to quip, “Sounds like the House of Commons in full session”).

Best of all is the crisp, noirish black-and-white cinematography by the great Freddie Young (the 35MM MGM materials being in excellent shape); a serviceable score by Rudolph G. Kopp appends the scenario.

Long story short, for mystery fans, this is a nifty Warner Archive double-bill that many, particularly a hopefully growing array of Drummond buffs, should find hard to pass up.
BULLDOG DRUMMOND/CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio.  Warner Bros. Entertainment and Warner Home Video/The Samuel Goldwyn Company.  CAT # 1000596937.  SRP:  $21.99.

Made-to-order DVD-Rs from the Warner Archive Collection, available through www.wbshop.com

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Let’s Stalk Turkey

It’s always cool to find an obscurity, a genuine curio that is just bizarre enough to merit a nod in the “take this platter for a spin” column.  Such is indeed the case with the recent DVD release of NACIYE, a 2015 horror flick, now available from the cartel at Shami Media Group.

WTF is NACIYE (don’t say it, sneeze it), you ask?  Why haven’t I heard of it?  Good questions.  The answers are likely because it’s a Turkish terror tale, written, edited and directed by newbie Lutfu Emre Cicek.  For an early work, the pic is certainly impressive, albeit no great movie classic — but definitely interesting enough to watch this dude’s future output (prior to this feature, he won an award for his acclaimed 2011 short Mac and Cheese).

The movie, which owes much to its American counterparts (a tincture of Saw, a pinch of Wrong Turn, a serrated jab at Texas Chainsaw, plus approving glances to foreigners Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci) follows the nightmarish results of booking a country manor in the boonies of some remote Turkish village.  The home, rented to those who can afford it, is the property of Naciye, being part of her family for generations.  The main problem is that it’s sorta like Colorado’s Overlook resort, with the same Roach Motel credentials:  once you check in, you never check out.

Naciye, on the surface, a kindly, middle-aged woman, is in actuality a ruthless, sadistic psychopath very much into gutting, garroting, hanging, vivisecting and otherwise amputating appendages from loving families who unwisely chose to spend some quality time at her residence (she also refuses to leave the premises, once the property is sublet; confrontation regarding this matter is generally what sets her off).  Flashbacks show us fifty years of unlucky folks, the unluckiest being her own dysfunctional brood.  A victim of pedophilia and torture (think of the Bates clan siring Rhoda Penmark), Naciye ultimately did away with her trash parents, eventually cohabitating with her brother cum lover/husband.  In-c’est la vie!

While the admittedly slow-moving 78-minute sickie has enough holes to drive a dizel tren through it (primarily, why haven’t the friends/relatives/employers/employees/teachers/bill collectors, etc., ever launched an investigation into decades of missing families?), there’s a plethora of nifty stuff to almost balance the narrative out.  Almost (did I mention that even the local real-estate honchos never question why their agent disappeared?).

What Cicek lacks in logic, he makes up with oodles of atmosphere and creepy cinemascope visuals (nicely realized by d.p. Kamil Satir, and aided by Zafer Aslan’s tingly score).  The Shami anamorphic DVD looks and sounds pretty good (a bit murky here and there with a couple of splotches that may be in the original elements) and mercifully presents its English subtitles in legible text.

What fuels the latest atrocities at nasty Naciye’s is the arrival of a young, happening (do we still say that?), trendy couple Bertan and Bengi (Gorkem Mertsoz, Esin Harvey).  Just married and already expecting a bundle of joy, their union is unfortunately rife with angst, disillusionment and distrust (Bengi has possibly taken a lover at her job, and hubby is understandably not pleased about that); Bertan is also not too thrilled about impending parenthood.  Insult to injury, Bengi’s swanky job is causing her stress (she’s actually fainting at the fashionable bar where her fellow players hang out at when, as the song goes, “the five o’clock whistle blows”).

So Bertan takes drastic measures and books a peaceful sojourn in the country, much to the very urban Bengi’s chagrin.  And from there you can fill in the blanks (dead and breakfast, Turkish blood bath…); suffice to say, it does not end well.

What intrigued me most about NACIYE are the little touches of freakish culture.  While the bustling Turkish metropolis Bertan and Bengi hail from could pass for midtown Manhattan, the rural outback is like something out of 1885, or, at least 1930s Hollywood’s version of Transylvania.  Modern technology is evident via cellphones, yet all the vehicles are horse-drawn.  It’s a genuinely outrageous, quirky jab (although, not knowing much about countrified Turkey, that could be the actual case, but I’ll chalk that up to Cicek’s ingenuity – mostly, because I want to).

And then, of course, there are the performances, definitely a necessity to make this kind of stuff work.  And they’re fairly successful, with Harvey’s being a contender for Eastern Euro scream queen du jour.  The majority of the kudos, natch, goes to Naciye herself, renowned veteran actress Derya Alabora.   She is a formidable presence in the revived Baby Jane stakes (although nowhere near the match for Marlyn Mason in Besetment).

All in all, the uneven NACIYE package has more pros than cons, and, thus, I say to all fright collectors:  give it a shot.  It won’t knock Halloween out of the pantheon, but it’s authentically strange enough to recommend adding it to those devoted to building an eclectic horror library.

NACIYE.  Color.  Widescreen [2.40:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround [Turkish w/English subtitles].  Shami Media Group.  CAT # SMI-0195.  SRP: $9.99 [or on HD VOD for $2.99 through Amazon].

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