3-D Triangle: Cunning with Scissors

Like the adrenalin pumping through the delighted and aroused murderous veins of Ray Milland’s Tony Wendice character, I’m thrilled to death to be able to own a 3-D edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 chiller DIAL M FOR MURDER, now on Blu-Ray (in one 3-D/2-D package) from Warner Home Video.

For eons this has been a Holy Grail lip-smacking fantasy disc perennially invading the perverse dreams of Hitchcock fans and 3-D buffs. I was once privileged to have seen a flawless polarized two-projected version in the early 1980s (at a now-legendary 8th Street Cinema 3-D Fest); ever since then, the movie, which I had up till that point considered marginal Hitch, rose in stature.

It’s groovy to see critics, now exposed to the movie as originally intended, re-evaluating it with a plethora of platitudes – the boldest actually being an Eighties Andrew Sarris declaration that in 3-D, DIAL M is “major Hitchcock.” While I don’t quite agree with that (sorry, scribes, but it can’t compare with Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest or Psycho), I do admit that it is far more important with the carefully constructed third-dimensional imagery on brilliant display. And the specially-composed shots ARE brilliant.

Hitch, who, not surprisingly, avoided the obvious tricks of throwing crap at the camera, studied the process with great scholarly interest. As with the use of long takes in Rope and montage in Rear Window, Hitchcock figured out the pros and cons of 3-D and how to utilize the illusion to the ultimate effect.

The movie, based on an internationally acclaimed play by Frederick Knott (who adapted the work for the screen), concerns the insidious, homicidal plans of a cuckolded husband (a once-famed tennis celeb, now reduced to a sportswear pitchman). Upon the discovery that his gorgeous, rich and younger wife is an adulteress (and, insult to injury, not only schtupping a writer, but an American TV writer!), Tony Wendice sadly realizes his only option: devise a way to fiendishly murder her. And fiendish it is – I mean, George Sanders would…well, have killed to come up with it.

Since most of the movie takes place in the couple’s apartment, it presented a keep-their-attention challenge for the director. Since he had beautifully done this before (Rope, Rear Window, the latter released later that year), Hitchcock, once fully 3-D savvy, rehearsed the picture as if it were a Hollywood stage production and quickly knocked off the entire project in a mere thirty-six days. Hitch himself never thought much of it, sloughing it off to Francois Truffaut’s in the French director’s landmark 1966 Hitchcock/Truffaut book with “There really isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?”  The movie was a last-minute straw-clutcher, replacing a Warners property the director was very much interested in (The Bramble Bush), but, which upon prepping, went cold.  So disdainful of DIAL M was Hitch that he did the unthinkable – he made the final picture of his Warners contract (The Wrong Man) for no salary!  A nutty move indeed, since DIAL M proved a box-office bonanza, with audiences and critics. By May of 1954, when the picture was released, America’s 3-D addiction had gone to rehab.  The movie was generally distributed “flat,” and (with the possible exception of select dates in the UK) not shown in 3-D at all outside of the United States.  Suffice to say, that, even in standard 2-D, DIAL M delivers the big entertainment.

Milland and Grace Kelly, the latter who would win untold accolades for this and two other high-profile ’54 offerings (Rear Window and her Oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl), are terrific as the Wendices; third wheel Robert Cummings, not so much as the aggressive lover (if each were to assume one of the three dimensions, his would certainly not be depth). Yet, the weird chemistry between the trio is astonishing – and can’t be wholly attributed to the Master of Suspense. While Kelly and Cummings are respectively amiable (the way her deteriorating relationship should be with Milland), it’s kinda all topsy-turvy when it comes to her adoring devotion to the spouse her Margot character is cheating on, her contact with Milland is fifty shades of Ray.  And for good reason: Kelly and Milland were involved in a torrid affair throughout the production and shortly afterward, enough to almost railroad the actor’s twenty-year-plus marriage. It’s impossible to not notice her goo-goo eyes at every move Milland makes, even in lieu of his eventual revealing of his dastardly plans. This bizarre aspect adds to the movie’s strangeness-of-attraction theme. One never can really fathom how Kelly could ever prefer Cummings to Milland (early casting rumors of William Holden would have remedied that to some extent).

The supporting players, on the other hand, are superb: John Williams, who became a big Hitchcock favorite (appearing in To Catch a Thief and numerous episodes of the director’s smash TV series), is wonderful as the inspector who unravels Milland’s complex web of deceit and evil. Anthony Dawson as the dupe, chosen by Milland to carry out his wife-killin’ plot, instantly becomes one of the great (if not pathetic) faces of movie villainy (his nastiness would be further cemented by his later appearance in Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer classic Curse of the Werewolf, as the sadistic Marquis, sans chimps).

Of course, as with all best-laid plans (and, in this case, wives), it all goes wrong, propelling Milland into think-fast-Mr.-Moto mode, which he does with (gotta say it) genius.

Not to give away any of goodies (for those who have never it, or, who haven’t seen in a while), let me say that to be able to view this picture in a pristine widescreen, three-dimensional, restored WarnerColor version will have you Hitchcock/mystery fans salivating (if that’s your wont), so keep your drool cups handy.

The 3-D effects, ranging from subtle to awesome, comprise Hitch’s playing with his audience. In homage to the vehicle’s stage roots, he occasionally uses high-angle shots, which, in 3-D, resemble watching a play from a coveted balcony seat. Eye-level alternatives almost literally seem to place viewers in the brightly-lit Wendice apartment (perfect for both 3-D and WarnerColor, as each required increased amounts of light – the former to compensate for the picture-on-picture dual presentation, the latter to kick up the otherwise dull results of the studio’s lackluster color system).  As the director told Truffaut, “I had them make a pit so that the camera could be at floor level.”

The director and 3-D really come into their own with shots of an attacked Kelly reaching her arm out at the audience, as she’s spread over a desk. This is further accentuated when she grasps a pair of soon-to-be-lethal sewing shears (the scissors themselves, an all-important latchkey, and an oversized-constructed telephone are likewise serve as swell third-dimension props).

A later sequence, when Williams questions Kelly, is also third-dimension remarkable for its framing (correctly in multiple planes of action). As the wily inspector asks the confused and frazzled woman about the killing, Milland walks back and forth behind the police detective, shooting reminding glances at his wife/victim (to stick to a prepared alibi/scenario, which will ultimately condemn her). It truly shows how sophisticated 3-D could be (and, sadly, rarely was).

Everything about this Blu-Ray is A+:  the clarity of Robert Burks’ fine cinematography, the 3-D alignment, and, lastly, the audio (featuring Dimitri Tiomkin’s booming score).  A special documentary (Hitchcock and DIAL M), and the original trailer round out this tasty home video confection (wrapped in an incredibly cool lenticular 3-D slipcover).  It is nothing short of a memorable and engrossing movie experience, one that I have no doubt will be (and should be) frequently revisited.

Knott’s works relied upon apartment-trapped women in peril (Wait, Until Dark comes immediately to mind), yet it’s difficult for me to have any sympathy for Kelly’s Margot. She married a celebrity, who then petered out, and had to reinvent himself (admittedly, with lesser results). Then she hooks up with some flashy TV dude.

Not that I’m saying that murder is the answer, but I do kinda feel sorry for Milland (well, Milland’s character). It’s gratifying to know that he’ll never spend more than a few years in prison for a premeditated murder that never came off.

As with all noteworthy plays/books/movies, DIAL M had me a-thinking (perhaps way too much) regarding the futures of the lead characters in later life.  Allow me to reflect.

Mark Halliday: Moved back to Hollywood with new wife Margot. Had three children (all deceased by the early 1970s, a result of booze, drugs and STDs). Writing career faltered (last-known credit, two episodes of The Baileys of Balboa). Divorced Margot in 1967. Moved to Vegas, subsequently married six more times (all chorus girls). Died in 1989, a combination of alcoholism and Alzheimer’s.

Margot Wendice-Halliday: Began a series of affairs amongst the Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive crowd. Started drinking heavily. After divorcing Halliday, jet-setted to Europe and Barbados. Briefly became aging squeeze to Keith Moon. OD’d in 1974.

Tony Wendice: While incarcerated wrote his memoirs, which erupted into mammoth worldwide bestseller. Met gorgeous Brazilian model in 1959, heiress to 100 million dollar rum empire.  Married in 1960. Moved to wife’s home in South America; had six children, all doctors and professors. Annually gave vast fortunes to charities around the globe.  Early proponent of climate change. Celebrated 100th birthday in 2009, and 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 (with family, friends and sixty-seven grand-and-great-grandchildren in attendance). Has never plotted to kill anyone else.

Like I said, too much time.

DIAL M FOR MURDER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. 1.01 DTS-HA MA.  Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000298479.  SRP:  $35.99.

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Space Oddity

I didn’t think anything could startle me more than when Vinegar Syndrome released a Blu-Ray restoration of Dolemite.  Well, they’ve outdone themselves – and in the best way possible.  In a (pseudo) guilty pleasure come true, this awesome company has released one of my seminal coming-of-age wants, 1982’s erotic, surreal New York sci-fi horror/sex classic LIQUID SKY.  And, in its stunning new 4K Blu-Ray (dual format, includes a high-definition DVD version) redux, this schlocker-shocker looks better than ever.

For those of you unfamiliar with LIQUID SKY, allow me to nostalgically glide back to that euphoric fantasyland known as 1980s New York (or, more precisely, early 1980s New York).  If you were over eighteen and under thirty (and not dead or incarcerated), you were clubbing and grooving to the cool new sounds of music that seethed with retro beats, and pretty much left caution to the wind.  You might have also been partaking in the heavy drug scene, which is the focus of this deliriously foggy celluloid flashback.

LIQUID SKY is not only a quintessential time capsule of that period, it’s a clever artiste-fueled exploitation movie that captures the feel of that era via an outrageous, psychotronic narrative involving an alien invasion as the cherry on top of the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll scenario.  It’s a movie that is as comfortable in a Times Square grindhouse as it is at the Anthology Film Archives.

The minuscule-budgeted pic was the brainchild of ingenious Soviet-born avante-garde/independent filmmaker Slava Tsukerman and his wife, Nina V. Kerova, recent emigres (1976) from Israel, who glommed onto the American culture scene via an overabundance of cinema expertise.  LIQUID SKY, the formidable Tsukerman tour de force, is remarkable on so many levels, but primarily for the fact that it is the product of feminist ideology, acted, cowritten and largely crewed and produced by women.  It is, in this area, a fuck you to every wannabe Harvey Weinstein, a revenge movie that insidiously zeroes in on predators of not necessarily solely females, but of youth.

At the core of LIQUID SKY is its protagonist, a beauteous, androgynous model, Margaret, portrayed by the astounding actress/model/writer/artist Anne Carlisle, who lives in a lower Manhattan apartment with her sometime lover, ruthless drug-dealer Adrian (an outstanding performance by Paula E. Sheppard; think Aubrey Plaza possessed by Joe Pesce).

Indeed, when I initially saw the posters for LIQUID SKY in the early 1983, I thought, “Damn, that David Bowie is unstoppable.”  Of course, I was wrong.  It was Carlisle gracing the one-sheets (although a sly reference to Bowie is made late in the picture).  Friends who attended Midnight Showings enthusiastically reported to me that Carlisle seemed to be channeling Mimsy Farmer, which immediately sent me racing to the next screening.  I did see the connection, particularly in the vocal delivery, and it’s certainly possible that Carlisle had seen More.  Looking at the movie in retrospect, Margaret and Carlisle can best be defined as a serendipitous gene splice of Farmer and Emma Thompson.  Hubba-hubba.

In the modeling world and the partying world (an often blurred line during those equally blurred times), Margaret’s chief nemesis is bad boy gay model Jimmy (also played by Carlisle).  Their rivalry and ultimate violent coital clash is one of cinema’s ultimate WTF moments.

What propels LIQUID SKY as far into the mainstream as it dares to go is the aforementioned crafty subplot involving a Johann, a German scientist (Otto von Wernherr) tracking an alien invasion.  He arrives in New York and hooks up with fetching Jewish promoter Sylvia (Susan Doukas), who along with an insatiable hunger for Chinese food, also harbors a lust for Jimmy.  Johann moves his investigation into Sylvia’s apartment across the street from Adrian’s drug haven, and, telescopic sights in hand, prepares to observe the tiny spaceship (the aliens are not only microscopic, but invisible – a big SFX saving).  Skeptical Sylvia inquires as to the rationale behind the invasion.  And his explanation is mind-blowing:  they are eternally looking for the greatest high:  heroin (slang term:  liquid sky).  Knowing that this substance is lethal, they have discovered that the sensation at climatic sexual orgasm is identical to the horse buzz.  Thus, they have targeted and inhabited human organisms who thrive on sex in all its incarnations.  Unfortunately for the humans, the orgasmic release causes the lover of the host to die a horrible death; at first, this is evident by a stylish glass stiletto popping through their head.  As the sexual experimentation grows, the happy vics are simply turned into shards of breakable matter that dissolves into nothingness upon impact.

Not surprisingly, this hypothesis causes the ever-increasingly horny Syl to question her guest’s sanity.  Except that it’s all true, and unfolds into LIQUID SKY‘s Rear Window sidebar, that is if that Hitchcock masterpiece were codirected by John Waters and Stan Brakhage.

Meantime, Margaret is pensively questioning her choices.   Fucking her college professor (causing his demise) prompts her and Adrian to box up the body like a return mail-order catalog item.  When a client of the latter, who had earlier raped Margaret, too, receives a similar fate, the bisexual model becomes understandably unnerved.  During a swinging rooftop party, inhabited by druggies and video artists, Margaret reveals and then proves her fears to the snarky guests.  Yet, the cheeky-chic-kees remains unconvinced in their stoned state, causing  Margaret to be systematically assaulted by an angered Adrian, pissed that her party is turning into such a downer.  The end lesbian result (also the most sensuous sexual encounter in the picture) finally convinces the partyers that all is not right.  By now, Margaret becomes the epitome of the adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and wants to go clubbing with the startled revelers.  As Margaret sees it, she is now the voice of all women who have ever been stepped on; she decrees that it is her duty to wreak vengeance on every man who has ever done her dirt.  And since she’s now in her burgeoning insanity fuck-to-death mode, Margaret, after a pregnant pause, adds that she will then go after the women.  An equal opportunity alien monster psychopath debaucher if ever there was one.

It’s not at all out of the realm to call LIQUID SKY prophetic.  It very clearly relates a tale of strange deaths that seem to plague gays and drug addicts, at least three years before the AIDS epidemic became known and was given a name.

The lush look and sound of LIQUID SKY is phenomenal, especially considering its budget, and Vinegar Syndrome has gone the limit in preparing this terrific 1080p widescreen transfer.  The disc is crystal-clear, exploding with neon pop and pastel colors so indicative of the decade.  I was pleasantly joyful to discover that the movie got a laserdisc release back in the mid-1980s; of course, this in no way compares to the marvelous job VS has done with the Blu-Ray in 2018.  It is a sight-and-sound platter monument to the excellent work of d.p. Yuri Neyman and composers Clive Smith, Brenda I Hutchinson (along with Tsukerman).  The script by Tsukerman (truly and auteur), Carlisle and Kerova genuinely tackles the horrific freakish beauty of the embryonic 1980s.  And the dialog is concurrently subversive and hilarious (“If you fuck me, you die!,” extolls an omnipotent Margaret. “I’m a killer.  I kill with my cunt!”).

Having a pristine copy of LIQUID SKY would be enough for the pic’s legions of fans, as well as sci-fi buffs and 1980s archeologists.  But that’s merely the beginning of this remarkable Collector’s Edition.  There are over 2 1/2 hours of original extras included in this package, and feature a director’s intro and audio commentary (plus an interview), a recent screening Q & A with Tsukerman, Carlisle and Clive Smith, a 50-minute “making of” documentary, featuring rare behind-the-scenes outtakes, a photo gallery, an alternate opening, reversible jacket art (including that 1983 “Bowie” imagery) and various LS trailers.  The most valuable and replay-able (at least for moi) supplement is a recent interview with Carlisle, who accurately chronicles the era, the movie, the characters and herself – proving that the LIQUID SKY success was definitely not an accident.  At a time when getting into the Biz (as much then as now) was a cliquey affair, and therefore, next to impossible, it was fortunate for so many talented individuals to be part of a culture that briefly allowed one’s self to be living performance art (the makeup, outfits, ‘dos).  Carlisle rightly chides the critics who call the pic a punk fest, as it was, in effect, a New Wave movie in every aspect of the phrase.  This is the truism of the LIQUID SKY legacy – a dangerous influential creation whose spot-on depiction of the early Eighties club scene was later bubblegum-hijacked by the Working Girl crowd.  Damn, I miss those days!

LIQUID SKY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  ALL REGION Blu-Ray.  Vinegar Syndrome/Z Films.  CAT # VS-200.  SRP:  $32.98.

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Paramount 3-D Peaks

When one thinks of the groundbreaking players during Hollywood’s 1950s 3-D Golden Age, the name Warner Bros. usually comes to light (deservedly, because of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder), and, to a lesser extent, Universal (primarily due to two Jack Arnold sci-fi classics, It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon).

What I’m getting at is that the lofty major studio of Adolph Zukor, aka Paramount Pictures, rarely is thought of as a 3-D mover and shaker; yet, as with so many Tinsel Town fables, this is egregiously incorrect.  Paramount not only dove into the 3-D pool with a fervor unlike much of its competition, but achieved many firsts in the process.  For one thing, it lassoed top-line stars to be seen in stereoscopic dimensions.  Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine appeared in the thriller Flight to Tangier.  More so, Martin & Lewis, the number-one box-office attractions in the country, jumped out atcha in Money from Home.  But that’s not where their prime contribution to the depth-defying universe ended.  Paramount was the first studio to film 3-D in three-strip Technicolor (Sangaree, just announced as an upcoming Blu-Ray later this year), and commendably released the first musical in the 3-D and also the first (sorta) documentary feature in three dimensions.

These 3-D nods to the process’s amazing array of entertainment possibilities, to realism and to cinematographic artistry can all be enjoyed and relished by the format’s legions of fans via two recent releases from Kino-Classics in conjunction with The 3-D Film Archive (and, natch, Paramount Pictures).  It’s, thus, a pleasure to be able to have viewed and to discuss the outstanding Blu-Rays of 1953 titles, THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE and CEASE FIRE, a pair of must-haves for any 3-D devotee.

The producers of each of these titles are every much as big a star as the leads or the process.  They were, for various reasons, legends at Paramount.  REDHEADS producers William Pine and William Thomas had begun working for DeMille before siphoning off into their own budget-friendly pics (they were known as the Dollar Bills, and for a very good reason).  Nevertheless their output never looked cheap, and they were quick to latch on to whatever promotional advantage could fuel their productions into the big(ger) leagues.  Affordable Technicolor came first, then 3-D, and later VistaVision, all used admirably by these slick skinflints.

 

REDHEADS, as indicated, was not only the first 3-D musical, but the initial Paramount title to be released in the new widescreen format.  In order to achieve the former, the Bills had to rush the picture into theaters ahead of MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate.  In his collectable (but now hopelessly outdated) 1989 volume 3-D Movies, author R.M. Hayes actually preferred REDHEADS to Kate, even going as far as claiming the score to be superior.  Admittedly, while Hayes knows his stuff technically, there’s no way THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE is a better musical than Kiss Me, Kate.  And certainly, while the songs, genuinely tuneful and pleasant ditties by such luminaries as Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Mack David, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, do serve the narrative well, they ain’t Cole Porter.  On the other hand, purely in stereoscopic terms, REDHEADS is a better 3-D musical than Kate, with director/cowriter Lewis R. Foster utilizing the length, width and depth possibilities way more imaginatively than George Sidney.  Of course, it’s not perfect.

Where Foster gets it wrong is where many novices to 3-D bungled it:  trying to fake the depth with rear-screen projection thrills.  In actuality, this only accentuated the phoniness of the situation.  Where Foster gets it right is via tracking shots of the bevy of shapely dancehall girls kicking up their legs into the audience.  In a rather sly wink to the viewers expecting a girly surprise during the rightfully raucous dance numbers, it is character actor Roscoe Ates who gets thrown into the likely ungrateful laps of panting patrons.

The movie, as scripted by Foster, Daniel Mainwaring (under the alias Geoffrey Holmes) and George Worthing Yates, concerns the Edmondses, a widow and her grown all-girl brood, who journey toward the Klondike to hopefully reap the rewards of the deceased husband’s inheritance.  The town is corkscrew crooked, run by slick entrepreneur Johnny Kisco.  Natch, he falls for one of the goils, with his underlings going ga-ga for the others.

The cast was pretty impressive for what essentially was a low-budget affair.  Queen of Technicolor Rhonda Fleming was on her way to likewise becoming the Queen of 3-D (this would be the first of her three flirtations with the process before it was phased out).  Mother Edmonds is Agnes Moorehead and is another notable process Queen, as she is one of the few thesps (and the only actress) to have appeared in both 3-D and Cinerama, along with Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Lee J. Cobb and John Wayne.

The songs are belted out by the extremely smart Your Hit Parade casting of Guy Mitchell, The Bell Sisters, and particularly, Teresa Brewer, known for her classic rendition of “Music, Music, Music.”  Brewer’s socko delivery makes one wonder why she wasn’t in more movies, although it’s likely television and nightclubs occupied most of her star time (the Paramount music department, utilizing the efforts of Leo Shuken, Sidney Cutner, Van Cleave, Jack Baker and Joseph J. Lilley, was working overtime in scoring and arrangements).

Gene Barry as Kisco was concurrently the most delighted and frustrated cast member.  A wannabee singer, he, along with Moorehead, were the only two leads NOT to be given a chance to warble.

Kino Studio Classics and the 3-D Film Archive have, once again, given us our money’s worth and then some.  The 3-D Blu-Ray is such a fun spin, even without the extras.  But there ARE extras, and they’re wonderful.  The audio, originally 3-channel stereophonic sound, has been restored (the tracks are also accessible in mono).  There’s the theatrical trailer and audio commentary by Hillary Hess, Greg Kintz, Jack Theakston and Bob Furmanek).  The commentary, plus a before-and-after restoration comparison, is mandatory to demonstrate how much work went into this presentation.  The elements were in fairly risible shape, and the final results here are quite remarkable.  While some of the background registration remains a bit off, almost all of the main foreground action looks great in 3-D, occasionally even spectacular (a fine testament to the work of d.p. Lionel Lindon)

My favorite extra is a 2006 interview with star Fleming, captured during a 3-D Archive theatrical showing of REDHEADS.  Fleming admits that she had never seen the picture in 3-D (“I kept making them…” but can’t remember ever seeing them released any way other than in the standard flat versions).  When interviewed again after the screening, the actress gleefully beams, “3-D really makes that film come alive!” — as terrific a booster for 3-D Archive’s labors and for this rollicking platter as one could want. And absolutely true.

 

CEASE FIRE is a movie I’ve been pining for ever since I heard of its existence, back in the late 1960s.  A 3-D feature documentary, shot on the front lines during the waning days of the Korean War.  Wow.

Of course, as I became more fascinated with and addicted to and with the 3-D experience, I began to get suspicious of CEASE FIRE‘s authenticity.  Not in a bad way, mind you, but rather more in a matter of pure practicality.  I had seen pictures of those mammoth 3-D rigs, reminiscent of those early blimp sound refrigerator-sized cameras from the late 1920s.  How could one maneuver that kind of equipment across a battlefield?

Well, ya can’t.  Yes, CEASE FIRE is, technically, a documentary, but in the tradition of what we now call recreated or simulated dramatized footage.  You know, like you see on the ID Channel.  The key positive difference here is that it WAS shot on the actual Panmunjom Korean frontlines, and with 13 real participants; however, it was all produced after the fact.

The movie unfolds during the final lap of the Korean conflict.  As journalists keep a safe distance, the pockets of troops – from both sides – patrol the perilous, mined regions in question.  All are wondering about the futility of the whole thing, as rumors are flying as to imminent peace.  Unfortunately, so are the bullets.

The Devil’s Dozen of Americans, taken from all walks of life and ethnicities, are a mixed bag.  Some are “naturals,” funny, definitely character actor material; some are terrible – like those NFL players participating in Bob Hope sketches.  Still, the good outweighs the bad.

The picture was conceived by Hal Wallis and ambitious writer/director Owen Crump.  Crump was a rising force in the industry during this period, along with his far more notable relation, Blake Edwards (born William Blake Crump).  Crump began in Hollywood during the 1930s, but it was his notable work with the First Motion Picture Unit during World War II that set the stage for CEASE FIRE. Crump wrote the story and screenplay along with veteran Walter Doniger (writer of Wallis’ 1949 action noir Rope of Sand).

CEASE FIRE plays like a first-rate war movie, with particularly stinging, jaw-dropping dialog.  When an ambush blast’s smoke clears, the G.I.s try and determine the number of fatalities. “It looks like two.  It’s hard to tell,” comments a first-hand observer as the remaining soldiers try not to lose their lunch.  Sarcasm helps.  “I had a friend who was blown fourteen feet,” answers another dogface.  “Did it hurt him?” is the trenchant retort.

The newspapermen, camped near the front are equally snarky in their Front Page way, one standout example being a grizzled reporter on the job since Versailles.

While the narrative has been restaged for the cinema, the sense of realism is astoundingly genuine.  This is due, in great part, to the fantastic use of 3-D.  The movie is gorgeously photographed in widescreen black-and-white by the underrated Ellis Carter.  The compositions are spectacular examples of stereoscopic camerawork, truly putting one in the action.  The steep cliffs, the mountain thickets, the exploding shells…All of that.

The military thought so, too.  CEASE FIRE was hailed as a masterpiece by the armed forces, so much so that General Mark Clark did a 3-D intro for the picture.  Actually, he did several – a fact not known until the 3-D Film Archive assembled the supplements for this wonderful Blu-Ray release (all are included).  The music score, by the legendary Dimitri Tiomkin, is excellent and has been restored (along with the complete soundtrack) to its original 1953 three-track stereo origins.

Kino and the 3-D Film Archive are to be applauded for this presentation.  While often, 1950s 3-D movies understandably have some registration problems, CEASE FIRE is nearly 100% perfect.  To date, I believe it’s the finest looking of any of the 3-D Film Archive Blu-Rays, which is high praise indeed.

THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/3-D Film Archives/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21159.  SRP: $34.95.

CEASE FIRE.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Lorber Studio Classics/3-D Film Archive/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21642.  SRP:  $34.95.

 

Nice ‘N’ Sleazy (Does It All the Time)

A rare Twilight Time Limited Edition double feature (in conjunction with Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment) is available for one’s viewing pleasure, via the video nasties 1960s twofer of Frank Sinatra neo-noirs TONY ROME (1967) and LADY IN CEMENT (1968).

Based on the Marvin H. Albert pulps (and scripted by Richard Breen and then Jack Guss, with assist from Albert himself), these tawdry, sun-drenched, Florida-based gumshoe shows unfold against a changing America, whose protagonist is an aging, semi-anachronistic private eye coming to terms with shifting mores while specifically embracing the sexual revolution.

Tony Rome (aka Frankie Sinatra) is a former Miami police detective turned indie shamus, with an allegiance leaning more toward the underworld’s lovable cast of characters than to Establishment law and order.  That his closest pal is a top lieutenant muckety-muck (the wonderful Richard Conte) gives the weary, snarky bedroom dick an edge – although sometimes straining the limits of friendship (Rome gets chastised for leaving the precinct telephone number on his bookies’ contact sheets).

While Tony is old school, he does attempt to culturally bring himself up to date with the new kind of violence (with relish), the burgeoning gay community (with vinegar), and the preponderance of free love (with honey), but is savvy enough to know that flashy, glitzy 1960s Florida crime is fueled by classic bloodletting.  But, still, it’s a tough pill to swallow; after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

As Dean Martin once famously said, “It’s Frank’s world, we only live in it.”  This brilliant assessment of post-Camelot America is underlined by Tony Rome’s universe – a place where Playboy 20-something hotties can’t wait to get it on with a nearly 55-ish crumpled sleuth.  It’s a cinematic haven where the human background comprises Frank’s real-life cohorts, buddies, hangers-on, etc. (some, admittedly, quite delightful:  Hank Henry, Steve Peck, Joe E. Ross, Joe E. Lewis, Joe E. ANYBODY, B.S. Pully, Jilly Rizzo, Shecky Greene, Michael Romanoff and punch-drunk Rocky Graziano as essentially, well, punch-drunk Rocky Graziano).  The movies were slickly directed by Gordon Douglas, a veteran known for his quicksilver shooting (even though it’s likely Frank was calling some of the shots).  It was far enough away geographically from Fox and Hollywood for Sinatra to pretty much wreak havoc upon the denizens and traditions of the Sunshine State.  A vacation outing (with pay), if ever there was one.

Frank, as it’s well known, was great movie fan, and both these thrillers are packed with supporting actors from the Golden Age, an era where Bijou-addicted Sinatra was just coming into his own.  Thus, it’s a joy to see such wrinkled faces as Robert J. Wilke, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Gough.  And of course, there are the women.  Pin-up pulchritude come to life, in the shapely forms of Sue Lyon (an unfairly maligned Lolita), the great Gena Rowlands, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Lainie Kazan, Deanna Lund, Tiffany Bolling, Joan Shalwee, Lynn Dano…the beat goes.

True, the bikini-clad St. John in the first installment is “the” Frank fantasy:  a beauteous, rich bimbo who covets him; in the second, she is replaced by Welch, in virtually the same role and, likely, the same bikini.  Frank’s reaction to initially meeting St. John on a beach is trademark Italian urban smart-assery:  “Oh, yeah, you gonna be my next case.”  Of course, it’s a female turn-on.

The movies themselves show the underbelly of one of our country’s highest rated winter getaways and retirement communities.  It’s rife with murderous hookers, drug dealers, pimps, psychos, illegally practicing doctors, corrupt detectives and more.  They are shot in appropriately garish DeLuxe Color and 2.35:1 Panavision (Fox having only recently abandoned their CinemaScope process).  The pics were exquisitely shot on-location by Joe Biroc (both movies, served on one 1080p platter, look terrif).  The music, too, is integral to the appreciation of the onscreen narrative; not surprising, considering its star.  TONY ROME is scored by Johnny Mandell.  The jewel of this lounge-music crown is the title song, belted out by no less than the star’s daughter Nancy (and penned by her mate Lee Hazelwood).  It’s a masterpiece.  While I and my fellow Boomers weren’t allowed to see these movies when released, for some reason, we were all familiar with the title tune.  I clearly remember that often, during the summers of ’67 and ’68, whenever an adolescent decision was circumspect, the unanimous response was “Tony Rome’ll get cha if ya don’t watch out!”  Indeed, if Nancy’s boots were made for walking, TONY ROME added some kickass cleats.  The music in LADY IN CEMENT, sans a vocal, is nevertheless superior to its predecessor.  The score, by Hugo Montenegro, is one of my favorite 1960s soundtracks, one I searched for decades to find on vinyl and/or CD (to no avail).  Thanks to Twilight Time, I can now access this quintessential sly, naughty Bob Crewe-esque, Herb Alpert parody as an IST, where it is played often.  Wah-wah-wah.

The plots are nearly interchangeable, but certainly in need of a mention. In his debut, Tony is ostensibly hired to retrieve jewelry, lost by a doped-up heiress (Lyon) found in a fleabag hotel.  The sleazy house dick (Robert J. Wilke) is none other than Rome’s former partner, pretty much the same relationship Robert Mitchum had with Steve Brodie in Out of the Past.  Wilke ends up the same way as Brodie, too.  The whole jewelry deal is merely a pretense for what is to follow; soon, enough additional bodies to turn up to start a private morgue.  As Rome correctly figures, the rich are always the dirtiest.  This holds true for the sequel, featuring a former mob kingpin (Martin Gabel in a concurrently menacing/hilarious performance) determined to become a legitimate businessman.  The Barbara Nichols-type title corpse found at the bottom of the ocean (“She’s one blonde I know didn’t have more fun,” cracks Tony) holds a key to a conspiracy involving mucho greenbacks and a slew of unsavory deals and folks.

Both pics owe an unpayable debt to classic film noir (CEMENT even has a Moose Malloy character, ably played by Rat Pack fave Dan Blocker).  More importantly, Tony mouths a lingo of pure Hammett/Chandler speak, with 1960s codicils.  Tony may have been the coolest peeper post-WWII and through the 1950s, but, by the late 1960s, he was losing his grip on the rapidly evolving culture.  This isn’t too different from what Sinatra himself was experiencing, desperately trying to keep ahead of the lingo curve, with sad results; remember his special, Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing?  Even Rat Pack Confidential author/fan Shawn Levy was forced to honestly comment on Ol’ Blue Eyes donning a Nehru Jacket in the early 1970s (“He looked like an idiot”).  Yet, there’s enough iconic noir in the Rome flicks to warrant admiration for the aging gumshoe.  “Do you really care?” asks a jaded mouse, suspicious of Rome’s motives.  “Sometimes I do,” replies a solemn Tony, in a beautifully acted response that reminds us of how good a thespian Sinatra was.

Rome’s phone calls with unseen bookies, fixers, and various other nefarious characters virtually constitute a string of amusing running gags.  (“A pox on that horse!” shouts Rome, slamming down the receiver.  “I’m working for free again this week!”).  The lechery, so much a part of Rat Packery, is also on display.  The leer Rome initially gives Raquel Welch in CEMENT gives the actress her best line, “Shall I scream ‘rape’ now?”

LADY IN CEMENT was every bit as successful as TONY ROME, and had fans of the possible franchise wondering and champing at the bit for a third installment.  It was not to be.  By 1970, the anachronistic private eye was just too far gone to matter.  The rule-breaking tough dicks were now actually on the force.  Of course, I’m talking about Dirty Harry, Hustle and other 1970s thrillers (ironically, in a show of WTF could they have been thinking, Sinatra and John Wayne were initially offered Harry).

I gotta say, though, as much as I keep Tony Rome high on my guilty pleasure list, I’m sorta glad there wasn’t a third chapter.  Alas, by the Watergate Era, the toups were getting worse, the waistline fuller.  Not a good combination.  That said, I kinda wonder what Tony Rome would be up to today.  I envision him residing in a second-rate Florida retirement home, using the computer work stations in the library to engage in online gambling…with the usual outcome.  I can practically hear him sneering with glee, “Try and collect, you bastards!  I’m 103 fucking years old!”  An internet virus pox on them all.

TONY ROME/LADY IN CEMENT.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HA MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT234-BR.  SRP:  $29.95.

tonyromecement)COVER

 

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com