Shaggin’ in the Crabgrass

A personal favorite (but rarely visited) sub-genre of post-WWII American cinema – the sex in the suburbs picture – has been beautifully represented by two simultaneous releases from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  This pair of excellent late 1950s B&W CinemaScope entries, 1957’s NO DOWN PAYMENT and 1959’s BLUE DENIM, are now available in limited-edition Blu-Rays.  They are both highly recommended for those who can find the time between country-club debauchery, barbecuing block parties and general mate swapping.

It all began with the end of the Second World War.  G.I. separation perks offered returning soldiers many opportunities, ranging from small business start-ups and college education to the delectable prospect of “owning your own home.”  The last was one probably the most popular.  In the mid-1950s, a modern two-bedroom house in the near-suburbs (with front lawn and backyard) could be had in Flushing for around $5000.  Or so I’ve been told.  When the new Moses (first name Robert) parted the urban sea of nabes to make room for modern super-lane throughways, the residents pondered their options.  They could either wait for affordable housing (aka, “the projects”) or flee to the pleasures of grassy havens, inflatable swimming pools, and domiciles with basement playrooms – all within commuting distance from the big, bad dirty city.

Queens (here in the East) became the rapidly over-crowded refuge for these gray-flanneled nomads, with their Betty Crocker wives and 2.3 children.  It was a pseudo-rural alternative.  More successful families could opt for the niceties of Jersey, upstate New York, Long Island and parts of Connecticut.  The migration was on.  Almost at once stories of naughty goings-on sifted back to the canyons of Manhattan and, more prominently, Hollywood.  The upwardly mobile Mad Men inhabitants were, frankly, having a ball.  Not to be outdone by the scandalous small-town shenanigans of Peyton Place (the book and the movie), commuters strutted their stuff in a barrage of after-hours revelry, once the 5:17 from New York pulled into the station and the kiddies were fed and sent to bed.

Fox, who snatched (no pun) the Peyton Place rights, was the major cinematic purveyor of this new type of movie and pastime.  The first sex in the burbs pic got a class-conscious kick-start with 1955’s View from Pompeii’s Head.  Universal followed with a duo of its own, Douglas Sirk’s magnificent obsessive All That Heaven Allows, and the more sordid Unguarded Moment (where “hot” teacher Esther Williams gets sexually stalked by rich, disturbed student John Saxon).  Hilda Crane (1956), again from Fox, continued the trend with shameful hussy divorcee returning to her burg from evil New York City and, essentially, opening for business.  This popularity in CinemaScope screen excitement (or arousal) promptly emboldened NO DOWN PAYMENT and then BLUE DENIM.  Soon, more studios joined the luau.  Columbia released perhaps the nastiest of the big studio titles, 1960’s Strangers When We Meet, MGM had All the Fine Young Cannibals, Paramount unleashed the noirish Mantrap (one of two movies directed by Edmond O’Brien, both of them dark).  And so on.

It was a given that comic jabs at this lifestyle would likewise be forthcoming.  And, thus, it came to pass.  Jose Ferrer, of all people, directed and starred in The High Cost of Loving, Doris Day and Richard Widmark entered the Tunnel of Love (Day’s last teaming with Rock Hudson in 1964 would result in Send Me No Flowers), Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward helped Joan Collins Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, Bob Hope, in one of his best late comedies, became a Bachelor in Paradise (Hope also appeared in The Facts of Life, contemplating adultery with split-level neighbor Lucille Ball), and Kim Novak, who suffered through Strangers When We Meet, played it for yuks in Boy’s Night Out.  A plethora of pics into the mid-1960s produced the likes of A Rage to Live, A Guide for the Married Man, The Thrill of it All, Good Neighbor Sam, and Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?  Even indies leaped on the bandwagon with Private Property and Look in Any Window.  As late as 1968 and ‘69, the genre was continually plucked with The Swimmer and The Arrangement.

 

But it’s NO DOWN PAYMENT and BLUE DENIM that best showcase these quintessential 1950s culture shocks, the reasons why explained below.  NO DOWN PAYMENT, simply put, is a 1950s American archeological footprint of the way we were, wanted to be and lived to regret.  The credits unfold over a myriad of suburban housing developments, catering to the flourishing twenty-and thirty-something middle class.  Sunrise Hills Estates, where this passion play pumps its High Test testosterone and estrogen, says it all, via a billboard, “Sunrise Hills…Better Living for Young Lovers.”

This is particularly enticing to the newest members of this unapologetically Stepfordian community, David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens).  They are immediately tagged by the hood’s leading denizens for a backyard barbecue.  This ritual is presided over by the most respectable couple in the yarn, The Kreitzers (Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush).  Also in attendance are the barely respectable white trash from Tennessee, Leola and Troy Boone (Joanne Woodward and Cameron Mitchell).

Talk almost at once turns to their competing Keeping up With the Joneses/Grass is Always Greener lifestyle (“We were born at the right time…Twenty years ago none of us could have afforded a house like this”).  This is essentially true, and it is never forgotten for a moment that Leola and Troy, both uneducated (no college) should be overly grateful for the privilege of living beyond their means and plunging head first into unfathomable debt.

Enter the last couple, Jerry and Isabella Flagg (Tony Randall and Sheree North).  From the casting, one would expect them to be the wacky couple.  Far from it; in fact, NO DOWN PAYMENT has no wacky couple.  Owning your own home in 1950s America, we learn, isn’t a luxury, it’s a job – and a competitive one.  Randall, who may very well be the King of this movie genre, portrays perhaps his most unlikely role – a scheming, pathetic drunken letch while suffering spouse North sits on the sidelines dealing with it.  Before you can say “Party on!,” Randall is pawing Owens; Mitchell, seemingly the perfect Southern gentlemen (even without the grooming) steps in and alleviates the sexual tension.  But it’s all a charade.  Troy Boone, behind the closed doors, is a monster – a wife-beating, alcoholic, power-hungry sadist – keen on leaving his supervisory position at a gas station and becoming the mini-society’s Chief of Police.  Wearing a uniform and given carte blanche to pummel (what he perceives to be) offenders is what keeps him going.  His garage is a museum of violence, strewn with mementoes copped off Japanese he killed during WWII, and a barrage of weaponry.  Did we mention that he’s also a racist?  Well, he is – and so is Randall.

Woodward, Mitchell’s abused wife, is basically re-channeling the skankiest version of her Oscar-winning 3 Faces of Eve character, Jane.  That’s before she takes a drink; once imbibed, she’s the fourth face, Eve Kardashian – gleefully telling all males within listening distance what brutal hubby likes in the bedroom.  Turns out she got pregnant before the nuptials; upon telling her beloved, she was gifted with a knockout punch to the face, and, ultimately forced to give up the baby.

The Kreitzers have problems of their own.  When not attending church, patriarch Herman proudly brandishes the fact that he’s no hypocrite – except when it comes to equal rights.  When the store he runs in the town’s shopping center (the precursor of the mall) hires a Japanese-American art director (Aki Aleong), the profits soar.  The highly-praised designer is offered a promotion, but refuses due to the fact that the additional work load will be impossible because of his long, daily hour and a half commute.  He and his family crave to become part of the Sunrise Hills family, but Hermie’s non-hypocrisy gets tested since the stringent community policy is “white only.”  When he considers challenging the town council, good Christian wife Betty rebuffs him, telling him prejudice is God’s way (although she loves the Japanese family; their food, she announces, recounting a previous dinner invite was so yummy).

Making the bigot point surrounding a Japanese couple and their children in NO DOWN PAYMENT was strategical move, as it connects to Troy and Jerry’s racism.  Making the character an African-American in 1957 would have caused heads to explode outside of the major progressive cities (this situation would be dealt with later A Raisin in the Sun, but more prominently in the extraordinary Burt Lancaster-produced 1959 gem Take a Giant Step, a movie I urge readers to actively seek out).

The fact that rape, bigotry, misogyny, thievery and addiction comprise the key ingredients for acceptance in Sunrise Hills sets the dial for quite a shocking ride and even more startling conclusion.  Martin Ritt’s telling direction is on-mark; ditto the writing by Philip Yordan (fronting for blacklisted Ben Maddow), based on the John McPartland novel.  It’s the performances, however, by the roster of talented youngish thesps, that put NO DOWN PAYMENT over the top.  Mitchell delivers perhaps his finest screen appearance; coupled with the fact that it was also the same year he excelled as Barney Ross in the Andre de Toth biopic Monkey on My Back certainly makes 1957 his banner year.  SPOILER ALERT:  Mitchell, in keeping with apparent clause in his Fox contract, once again becomes the third male lead who always gets killed (following in the dead man walking footsteps of Pony Soldier, Garden of Evil and The Tall Men).  Woodward, top-billed after the buzz on Eve (and subsequent Academy Best Actress win), is terrific as well (I suspect her zooming celebrity ousted Hunter as the official lead in the piece).  Randall and North are quite remarkable as well (North, especially, proving what a good serious actress she could be).  Owens, whose intelligence is offset by her 1950s values (striving to work the young and pretty card, and nothing else), matches fake Christian Rush, whose hypocrisy nevertheless slips in a bit of sympathy before she ultimately gets real religion.

Joseph La Shelle’s black and white CinemaScope images are crisp and sharp in 1080p, and the Fifties Easy Listening music (in its original stereo) by Leigh Harline is another plus.  The moral of this story, as one of the characters correctly surmises, is that “owning a house and a deep freeze is not the answer.”

 

In the possibly worst case scenario when one actually DOES leave it to beaver comes the adolescent version of NO DOWN PAYMENT, BLUE DENIM, released two years later.  In this then-shocking expose of teen pregnancy, two upper middle-class suburbanite kids, Arthur Bailey and Janet Willard (Brandon De Wilde and Carol Lynley) start “goofing around” in the former’s basement, and before you can admonish them with a stern “Why don’t you goddamn use protection?!,” it’s kids with kids time.

The weird thing about BLUE DENIM is the casting; not that De Wilde and Lynley are inadequate; au contraire, they’re quite good (Lynley was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Promising Newcomer).  It’s just that someone at Fox must have had a strange Jones goin’ on, as the couple could pass as brother and sister.  That said, it wasn’t a particularly astute time for blonde waspy teens gumming up the works (so to speak), as Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue faced similar repercussions the same year in A Summer Place, except with better clothes.  My first impression (back when I was impressionable) of BLUE DENIM was that the babe and the baby daddy were frustrated, but ultimately did the right thing.  Furthermore, their parents were all trifling boneheads.  Now, I’m not so sure.

Looking at the pic from an adult point of view, the kids, while still are not all right, are probably making a big fade-out mistake.  Oh, yeah, once again, SPOILER ALERT; their legal splicing suggests a similar doom prophesy of most Howard Hawks post-script movie couples, less Hallmark Card and more I.D. Channel.  More intriguingly, the parents, specifically the two male parents (Lynley’s pop’s a widower; De Wilde’s is ex-military) react pretty much like I would (or would like to) – brains and brawn.  De Wilde’s mom, on the other hand – the usually balanced and admirable Marsha Hunt – seems to have been cursed with the Gracie Allen gene.  True, an angst-ridden De Wilde DOES try to tell them, but is sloughed off; yet, once apprised, they (today) don’t seem to be as irrational as my teenage brain once perceived them to be.  But leave us remember that this is the 1950s, and such things just do not happen AT ALL in proper homes.

The one ancillary disturbing character in the piece is Warren Berlinger as Ernie, De Wilde’s best friend.  A loudmouth class clown braggart (he falsely claims to know where girls go to get “out of trouble”), he violently turns on his pal when an abortion is seriously discussed, calling the already tormented youth a murderer.  Not just once.  Or even twice.  He is the biggest hypocrite in the piece, or, ergo, the most realistic adult.

BLUE DENIM was made on a fairly low-medium budget, and, not surprisingly, returned a healthy profit.  It’s the movie my sister and her friends scrambled to gape at whilst my dad took me to see The Shaggy Dog (which could have taken place in the same nabe).  The screenplay, cowritten (with Edith Sommer) by that very interesting Fox director/scribe Philip Dunne, comes via a play by William Noble and James Leo Herlihy, the latter better known for another work about foreboding sexuality, Midnight Cowboy.  The stark monochrome CinemaScope photography is by Leo Tover, and looks beautifully barren (a fate unlike Lynley’s).  The stereo score, reproduced on this excellent platter by Twilight Time, is by, weird wild-card pitch, Bernard Herrmann, but is nevertheless quite exceptional.  BLUE DENIM, BTW, has earned a notorious footnote in post-war American culture/history, as it was the movie the Clutter teens were all clamoring about before their infamous fate, brilliantly chronicled by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.

The Twilight Time/Fox Blu-Rays of NO DOWN PAYMENT and BLUE DENIM look amazing, and, like all TT discs feature ISTs (Isolated Score Tracks).  They are also, as indicated, limited editions, so get them before your Green Stamps expire.  In closing, let me add that these movies work incredibly well as a double-bill, but also will satisfy most of your home theater viewers as a single feature.  Short subject suggestions would be an Eisenhower Era high school hygiene pic, vintage TV commercials or anything with an atomic bomb in it.

NO DOWN PAYMENT (CAT # TWILIGHT 326-BR) and BLUE DENIM (CAT # TWILIGHT 328-BR):  both black and white.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95 @.

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

 

Cain Enabled

Especially timely these days, Abraham Polonsky’s vicious modern 1948 biblical parable (by route of film noir) FORCE OF EVIL comes to Blu-Ray in a dynamite edition, courtesy of Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

The pic, starring and coproduced by John Garfield, was the actor’s and writer/director’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to their 1947 smash Body and Soul (Polonsky scripted that Robert Rossen iconic boxing saga).  The movie, adapted from Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People, was made independently via Garfield’s cofounded company, Enterprise Studios, a short-lived concern that nevertheless defined the power of the little fish in the big cinematic pond; almost every title Enterprise produced is a major addition to any classic collector’s library.  The success of the aforementioned Body and Soul guaranteed A+ distribution for Enterprise, bizarrely via the unlikely gooey dream factory known as MGM.

Succinctly put, FORCE OF EVIL is one of the best movies of the 1940s, and one of the greatest noirs ever made.  The dialog, the violence, the angst, the entire look and feel of the production is chillingly spine-tingling and exciting.  It remains one of my two favorite John Garfield movies (the other being 1950’s The Breaking Point).

The story, set in Manhattan (and filmed there, almost simultaneously with Metro’s On the Town), concerns two streetwise brothers, Joe and Leo Morse (Garfield and Thomas Gomez).  Leo, the older sib, also serves as Joe’s surrogate father.  Like Joe, Leo is smart, savvy and was probably, at one point, destined to go far.  But his love for his even smarter bro put a dent into the good intentions machine.  Leo ends up in the old hood as an old hood, running an illegal penny-ante bank loan/numbers service.  The positive spin is that Leo treats his employees (all hard-luck locals and otherwise unemployable) and clients with decency and care.  He looks after everyone, rarely bothering to bother about himself (he has a terminal cardiac problem); his main concern was for a long time his brother, making sure there are enough funds to send him through college and law school, thereby allowing the would-be attorney to amount to something.  That’s where irony throws a monkey wrench into the works.  Joe DOES become a success, but as a mob mouthpiece, preying on the poor while bolstering his rep as a go-between for the mob and crooked politicians.  You want access to a top politico, you go through Joe.  By his own definition, his legal skills are appended by his slithery charm as a “fixer.”  Are the goose-bumps rising on the back of your neck yet?  Stay tuned.

Trouble is, the mobsters aren’t happy with the majority of the East Coast rackets; they want it all.  So fixer Joe’s latest assignment is to muscle in on his own brother.  As is the case in noir, there’s NO WAY this is going to work out well.  And it doesn’t.  Decades ahead of its time via tough dialog and jaw-dropping graphic violence, FORCE OF EVIL delivers the goods in a way few movies have.  Its influence has inspired everyone from Martin Scorsese (who does a special introduction on the disc) to Quentin Tarantino to Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, and, notably Robert Aldrich (who was assistant director on the picture).

The performances are magnificent, ranging from Garfield (when was he ever NOT terrific?), newcomer Beatrice Pearson (as a lovely new nabe-babe employee of Leo’s, whose intelligence and virtue bugs Joe), Roy Roberts, Paul Fix, Howard Chamberlain, Murray Alper, William Challee, Cliff Clark, Arthur O’Connell, Paul Frees, Paul Newlan and Jack Lambert.  It’s Thomas Gomez, however, who nearly steals the show as brother Leo (one of his rare, and possibly only, sympathetic screen roles); long story short, he’s Oscar-worthy outstanding (he wasn’t even nominated; FYI, it would have been a tough choice, the Best Supporting Actor that year went to Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

The direction and writing by Polonsky is textbook perfect.  It’s easily his best movie, the trenchant lines sticking in one’s craw long after the final fade-out.  For example, enjoying his role as fixer, Joe calms his suspicious employers with, “You look out for the politics, I’ll take care of the business.”  There’s the constant lying (say it enough times, and the fools’ll buy it):  “A man can spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he should have said…Life’s a bank, except you can’t get the money out.”  Called out by his far more righteous brother, Joe shrugs, “Wall Street’s gonna make me one million dollars…Rich relatives are better than medicine.”  To which Leo responds, “Come around when I’m dead.”  Beatrice’s genuine growing feelings for Joe questions his ethics and morals.  Won’t he be afraid of being thrown under that bus?  “Lawyers aren’t protected by the law…If you don’t get killed, it’s a lucky day…”

Appending the above is the dazzling black-and-white NYC location photography by George Barnes, and the score by David Raksin.  Obviously, this is a New York movie from frame one and, along with Sweet Smell of Success and Taxi Driver, paints the city as the twentieth-century portal to hell.  The last act sequences of Garfield stumbling across the concrete landscapes at dawn are tantamount to a never-ending nightmare.

The movie, unlike Body and Soul, didn’t fare as well with audiences, although, critically, it was acclaimed by the reviewers astute enough to recognize its brilliance (not surprisingly, in post-war Europe, it became an instant fave).

The politics on display in front of and behind-the-scenes no doubt played a big part in FORCE OF EVIL‘s short legs with 1948 America.  Both Polonsky and Garfield would soon become victims of McCarthyism and be blacklisted with fatal consequences (Garfield died of a heart attack in 1951; Polonsky wouldn’t officially work again until 1968).  FORCE OF EVIL was falsely cited as evidence in the HUAC investigations as to the filmmakers’ subversive anti-Americanism.

Naturally, Louis B. Mayer hated the picture, as he did with virtually every Enterprise/Metro release.  He likened them to sewage that needed to be flushed down the toilet.  Fortunately, his days at MGM were numbered, and the new incoming progressive liberal crew was able to veto most of his decisions (he also despised such mammoth hits as The Hucksters, Battleground, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust and others).  Mayer’s holding fast to the old MGM family values resulted in the infamous mega-Technicolor flop Summer Holiday.  Yet, he claimed the incoming Dore Schary contingent had no clue how to make a musical, the type of picture MGM was known for.  Once Mayer was completely out, the Schary regime produced An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.

Because of the blacklist, FORCE OF EVIL became a fairly difficult to see masterpiece.  With Paramount obtaining the rights to the entire Enterprise output, this heinous celluloid obstruction became less of an obstacle.  Acceptable laserdiscs and DVDs were made available in the past, but they can in no way compare to the stunning quality of this 1080p High Definition transfer (it’s even enclosed in a slipcover featuring the original one-sheet – a piece de resistance of hyperbole; “John Garfield Puts his Body and Soul into FORCE OF EVIL,” it heralds) .

In closing, FORCE OF EVIL is a must-have for every 1940s collection/film noir library.  It is one of those movies that just gets better with every screening.  And no one ever purred “perverse” more beautifully (or even poetically) than John Garfield.

FORCE OF EVIL.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.33.:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF454.  SRP:  $29.95.

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We’re Gonna Need a Broader Church

There is a Loch Ness monster.  It’s just not of the infamous serpent variety; it’s a two-legged homo sapien maniac prowling the picturesque tourist attraction of the Scottish coast.  And it’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride of suspense and terror, beautifully produced and presented in a new Blu-Ray 2-disc set, appropriately entitled LOCH NESS (aka The Loch), now available from the folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.

Indeed, many of the blow-by-blow strings in this 2016 6-episode/2-disc gripping yarn emulate from the smash international success of its inspiration, the 2013 series Broadchurch. True, numerous imitation Broadchurchery has been scattered throughout the mystery mini-series universe since the original first appeared, but LOCH NESS, in my humble opinion, is the best.  In fact, in many ways this pupil is superior to its teacher.  A key factor in this decision has to do with the locale itself.  In Broadchurch, the seaside village was bleak, rather unpleasant and, granted, unnerving.  Here, the setting for these horrific crimes is gorgeous.  To my way of thinking, this makes the impact of the savagery even more shocking.

The people, on the other hand, are just as freakish in this scenario as in its mentor.  Once again, the protagonist is a rising star female detective (Laura Fraser) in the community.  And, once again, she is stymied by the arrival of a big city investigator, this time, a team – led by another formidable female sleuth (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran).  The conflicts, firings, re-hirings, and continuous discoveries are consistently exciting and engrossing – never letting up for any of the series’ six-episode 275 minute running time.  The mystique of Loch Ness, too, adds to the haunting paradoxical beauty and creepiness.

Homegirl fuzz Annie Redford (Fraser) thoroughly enjoys her work and lifestyle on the Loch.  Her husband (Coronation Street’s Gray O’Brien) makes a decent living scamming visitors on his “monster” boat tour.  Their daughter (Shona McHugh) has inherited the smarts from both her parents, and can hardly wait to leave for college and go all urban.

In a last-minute nod to her dad’s business (plus the opportunity to pull a cool gag), she and her teenage pals beach a fake monster, compiled of various animal entrails.  Problem is, upon closer investigation, some of these remains are human.  Soon, a well-liked teacher (Jordan McCurrach), is found murdered, then one of the local pranksters (Keiran Gallacher), and then…and then…More organ parts are uncovered, all belonging to different inhabitants.  And then there’s that (literally) heartless man, chained to the bottom of the Loch.

As the out-of-town detectives soon discover, everyone in the Loch has a secret – all of them heinous.  Aside from adultery, homophobia, rape, torture, drug abuse and sadism, there’s Annie’s knowledge that longtime kindly village fave (William Ash) is a convicted murderer.  Topping that off is the arrival of his psychotic former cellmate (Fraser James), bent on tracking him down and teaming up for a bloody crime spree.  Then there’s the concerned mom (Anita Vettesse) of an apparently severely handicapped soldier (Oliver Greenall), who is actually keeping the boy near brain death via toxic stimulants.  Then there’s the horrific high-school shooting massacre, perpetrated by yet another disturbed teen (Conor McCarry) obsessed with America (what a fucking sad comment that is on us, eh?).  The detectives themselves carry their own baggage, too, the rigid, short-tempered DCI Quigley (Finneran) and the brilliant forensic expert Blake Albrighton (Don Gilet), prone to violence – like thrashing a suspect (Alastair Mackenzie) he doesn’t like (in his defense, we don’t either).

The frightening conclusion of the piece will have you on the edge of your seat.  I guarantee you won’t see it coming, will never figure out who the psycho killer is (although, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense), and be ever quick to grab this gem to tantalize your home theater audiences, looking for a dazzling, breathtaking way to spend a rainy afternoon and/or the always welcome dark and stormy night.

The performances in LOCH NESS are top-notch, especially the leads, Fraser, Finneran and Gilet.  Appending the formidable acting chops is the superb writing by Stephen Brady and Chris Hurford; ditto the stunning photography by Denis Crossan and Nic Morris and the churning score by Ben Bartlett.  The shared direction of Brian Kelly and Cilla Ware seamlessly complement each other and masterfully triumphs in raising every goose bump to maximum level.

As usual, the Acorn Blu-Ray is showroom quality, meticulously detailed in 1080p High Definition clarity, offering a palette of hues and tones that our forebears used to cite as a riot of color.  The stereo-surround is often chilling and adds to the building tension of the narrative.

To enthusiastically recommend an Acorn title as one of their recent best is about as high a praise as any home video platter could aspire to.  Without reservation, I enthusiastically recommend LOCH NESS.

LOCH NESS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.  CAT # AMP-2579.  SRP:  $49.99.

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Simian Cinema

As any dedicated celluloid archeologist/anthropologist follower of the renowned Jules White knows:  anyone in a gorilla suit is funny.  This was something not specifically learned via the antics of Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, etc., or even the Eddie Bernds exploits of Slip and Sach, but from wherever and whenever the tag “lowbrow”was accepted as a badge of honor.  True, this phenomenon was even more riotous when the anthropoid in question was not intentionally supposed to be a dude (or babe) in a frisky hair suit, as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and even Karl Malden could soberly tell you.

Thus, it is no surprise that when a budding young upstart moviemaker by the name of John Landis decided to get his feet soaked in emulsion, he did so with joyous relish in a 1973 (filmed in 1971) low-low-budget debut feature aptly entitled SCHLOCK, now available in a meticulously restored Blu-Ray/DVD dual package Media Book from the German company Turbine Medien, GmbH.

For its cost and its special effects, SCHLOCK is remarkably technically sophisticated (the last time we’ll EVER use that word in this piece), and already paves the way for the director’s trademark gags:  background hilarity going on unbeknownst to the characters in the foreground, wild car zig-zags and flivver destruction.  All that stuff is here.

And how can anyone NOT love a movie that begins in a school playground strewn with the bodies of children and hippies, a death toll that brings a rash of local murders to 789 within three weeks.  This is ably reported by repulsive TV reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison), who likewise touts a body bag contest (how many complete people do the dismembered pieces actually contain?) and a plug for the town’s ubiquitous late-night movie attraction, See You Next Wednesday, an irresistible photoplay (boasting different plotlines during each mention), and featuring (in at least one incantation) Mickey Rooney trapped in a leper colony.  Oh, if only!

The perp of these horrible crimes, as paleontologist Professor Shlibovitz (E.G. Harty) informs us, is a Schlocktrapoid missing link (aka “Schlock”), a monstrous ape freed after millions of years in frozen suspended animation.  A key clue comes early when a surviving victim screams, “Bananas!  Bananas!,” therefore giving us psychotronic buffs the first of a gazillion references to classic horror and sci-fi pics (this one obviously being THEM!).  What follows is a loving homage to such standards as (natch) King Kong (and Konga), Frankenstein (and its sequels), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, countless AIP flicks, Japanese kaiju and even 2001 and Laurel & Hardy’s chaotic masterpiece of destruction Big Business.  According to Landis, however, the major influence on SCHLOCK was the 1970 Joan Crawford starrer Trog – itself a near-parody, but still much revered in the monster kitsch universe.

Also not surprising is that SCHLOCK was picked up for distribution by none other than Jack H. Harris, himself a mojo schlockmeister (he makes William Castle look like one of the Schuberts).  Harris’ claim to fame is being the moving (or sludging) force behind 1958’s The Blob and, to a lesser extent, 1960’s Dinosaurs! (no shock that after the mammoth success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Harris re-released SCHLOCK under the title Banana Monster, hyping Landis’ name and the “fact” that the movie was “Crazier than Monty Python, John Belushi & National Lampoon!”).  Indeed, when Schlock terrorizes the town, he seeks refuge in a movie theater playing a double bill of the Harris twofer – the scene becoming a parody of the actual similar moment in the Steve McQueen “classic” that takes place in a Bijou.  The major difference here is that a popcorn-loving Schlock seats himself next to an engrossed viewer, who just happens to be Forrest J. Ackerman.  And both enjoy the show.

The pivotal role of Schlock is played by Landis himself, and he seems to be having as much fun as the audience.  Landis wrote the picture as well, and gave a monstrous share of creative leeway to his new pal and burgeoning SFX artist Rick Baker, who designed the costume.  It was the shape of things to come, paving the way for their groundbreaking 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London.

The budget for SCHLOCK was estimated at around $60,000.  It really looks (at least in this fresh transfer) like money well spent (thumbs-up to d.p. Bob Collins).  It’s a spectacular restoration with bright, bubblegum colors (well representing the ugliest era in American movies) and clean mono sound.

The remainder of the cast is a game bunch, to be sure.  As Joe Putzman, Allison’s performance is revolting and condescending enough to get him a permanent gig on Fox News.  As the winner of the Body Baggers Body Count Contest, local school teacher Mrs. Blinerman, Enrica Blankley is cringe-worthy funny, as is Eliza Roberts, her blinded, beauteous bimbo daughter Mindy, who becomes the object of Schlock’s affection.  Kudos, too, to Saul Kahan as the freakish Detective Sgt. Wino, a sort of 1970’s version of Alexander Granach’s Renfield in Murnau’s 1922 production of Nosferatu.  And cheers to the nubile teen contingent, who perennially respond to their monkey attack plight with shrieks of “Oy!”

SCHLOCK contains over an hour of wonderful extras, including a 41-minute interview with Landis, Landis and Baker audio commentary, original and re-issue trailers, an interview with cameraman Collins, American radio spots, and more.  It’s also housed in a hardcover book jacket, featuring a lavishly illustrated discussion of the movie and its roots, as well as the careers of Landis and Baker (in both German and English).  There’s so much fascinating info here that one can barely pick which nuggets to cite.  I’ll cherry-pick two:  that Baker was still living with his parents when this movie commenced, and that Landis had previously gained experience by farming himself out to European productions as cheap labor, working as a stuntman on a number of international productions, including Once Upon a Time in the West.  Who knew?  Landis even skewers the often pretentious Special Edition Director Introductions that plague many a Blu-Ray/DVD.  In all of ten seconds, he notifies the camera “You’re about to watch SCHLOCK.  I’m sorry.”

As indicated above, the folks at Turbine have done a marvelous job with this title.  I vividly recall the trailers looking like Super 8 blown-up.  This version absolutely resembles a 35MM print (which it may not have originally been).  Landis, too, was stunned by the quality of the final result.

Of course, SCHLOCK helped send Landis and Baker on their respective ways, but also was as influential to such subsequent American movie comedy as SNL, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  SCHLOCK‘s follow-ups, Kentucky Fried Movie and other shoestring entries as The Groove Tube, gave creative freedom to the likes of the Zucker Brothers, Jim Abrahams and others.   The hilarious payoffs would culminate in such laff essentials as Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, and, in Landis’ case, the aforementioned Animal House, American Werewolf, plus The Blues Brothers and Trading Places.  And it all began here.

NOTE:  This is a limited numbered edition of 2000.  No doubt this title will be sold out rather quickly, so it’s best to order your copy ASAP.  It can be purchased through Amazon (via their German arm); or simply Google SCHLOCK Blu-Ray Limited Edition and/or Turbine Video.  I should mention that the jacket claims that the B-D is Region B (playable only outside of the States, unless you have an all-region machine).  This is false; the set is A, B and C, and will play anywhere.

SCHLOCK.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Dual Limited Edition of 2000 Media Book, also includes DVD version.  Turbine Medien GmbH. CAT# 9485651.  SRP: $39.99.

SCHLOCK_COVER

 

 

Bogie, Betty, Blue-Ribbon Blu-Rays

Not simply recommended, but MANDATORY editions to any classic movie collector’s library are the quartet of terrific pics Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made for Warner Bros. between 1944-48.  All are now available on extremely economical new Blu-Rays from the Warner Archive Collection.

Of course, this is an easy gig for me, as I don’t have to acquaint anybody born within the last seventy years or so with these classics.  They redefine celebrity star power, movie-making expertise and genres (mostly, film noir); in short, veritable textbook patterns for Hollywood’s Golden Age at its most garl’dernest goldenest.

In case you’ve been in Captain America coma land, the four in question are TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE and KEY LARGO.  Indeed, all have been readily available in decent DVD renditions for some time (even the old laserdiscs weren’t too shabby).  So why offer ’em up again?  Blu-Ray!  Truth be told, folks, there’s no comparison.  It’s as if the four have just blown in on freshly lensed celluloid.  The clarity, the detail, the contrast, the multi-leveled texture…all of that and more brings out the superb artistry of those in front of and behind the cameras.  These 35MM transfers accentuate the thesps’ histrionics, but also display first-rate cinematography, lighting, set and art direction, wardrobe and, natch, direction – each at the very essence of cinematic epoch.  The crisp, clear audio ain’t chopped liver, either.

But the know-it-all in me is pushing to say at least something on these must-have titles, so here goes!

 

Howard Hawks was truly an American star-maker.  Well, perhaps personality-maker is more accurate.  When one thinks of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Katharine (gag me) Hepburn, it’s generally the way they act and react in a Hawks movie.  This holds true for Humphrey Bogart, or, to be specific, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  They became (and remain) an iconic Hollywood couple.  And it’s all due to Howard Hawks.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT began, according to the often Commander McBragg part of Hawks’ “creative” revisionist brain, as part of a bet between the director and author Ernest Hemingway.  “Give me your worst story, and I’ll spin it into movie gold,” Hawks told Hemingway.  “That’s easy,” the writer replied.  He tossed him TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, sprinkled with his own critical expletives.  Again, according to Hawks.

The movie was changed from an American fisherman on the California coast to an American soldier of fortune fisherman in a Vichy-controlled French colony.  Nineteen-year-old model-turned-actress Bacall, coached by Hawks’ then wife Slim (a nickname Bacall’s character is called in the movie), was unleashed on the Warner Bros. lot, and when her smoky eyes met Bogie’s bloodshot lids, the fireworks went off.  It’s absolutely true that one can see the pair panting with genuine lust that evolves into everlasting love as the movie progresses.  By wrap time, they were a not-so-secret item that the Warners publicity department thanked the Gods in heaven for.  Coupled with some classic dialog (you know, that “whistle” line, etc.), courtesy of a rare script outing by William Faulkner (along with Hawks and von Sternberg favorite scribe Jules Furthman), plus a dynamite supporting cast (including Hawks favorite supporting actor Walter Brennan), and the pic had blockbuster written all over it.

 

Hawks, who was desperate to do a Southern gothic vampire horror movie (to be written by William Faulkner), was promised by Jack Warner to get the green light for Dreadful Hollow (the working title) if he delivered another Bogie-Bacall special.  The director lassoed Faulkner, along with Leigh Brackett, to create one of the most intoxicating, confusing and brilliant noirs ever made, the ultimate adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP.  With growing fascination about the star couple escalating even beyond the studio’s dreams, the final cut proved a bit disappointing.  Although it had already gone out to our troops in the South Pacific, Warners suits, including the pic’s associate producer (J.L. himself) felt the movie lacked “…something.”  That something was more Bogie-Bacall mojo (this didn’t stop our servicemen hooting and screaming in jubilant ecstasy whenever Bacall slinked upon the sheets stretched across jungle banyan trees).  A year after the movie was completed, Warners put the title back in production, an unusual and expensive move that nevertheless reaped a goodly share of the 1946 box-office harvest. Key to the pic’s unprecedented success was the addition of the now-legendary sexual horse-race byplay between the Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) characters.

Hawks never got to make his Dreadful Hollow movie, nor any further Bogart-Bacall outings.  The former was due to the fact that Jack L. Warner was a bigger liar than Hawks, the latter essentially an unpleasant incident at one of the director’s parties.  In front of Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske), Hawks made a crude anti-Semitic remark.  Bogie stepped forward, but Betty stopped him.  “Let’s just leave.” They did, and never had any contact with the director again.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP represent the pinnacle of 1940s popcorn art.  They are quintessential titles for the stars, the director, the genres and the history of Warner Bros.  To reiterate, I have NEVER seen these two movies looking as fantastic as they do in these new Warners blu-rays.  D.P. Sid Hickox has been rewarded after years – decades, really – of marginally acceptable (and frequently downright awful) prints.  Added to this is the cache of extras on each disc.  TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT contains a documentary on the two leads, the 1946 Technicolor Bob Clampett Merrie Melodies WB cartoon Bacall to Arms, a Lux Radio broadcast of the piece (with Bogie and Betty) and the trailer.  THE BIG SLEEP takes supplements to another level, including BOTH versions of the movie, plus an exhaustively researched documentary, hosted by Robert Gitt, that examines the two editions of the Hawks work that is fascinating to the nth degree.

 

1947’s DARK PASSAGE is the sick child of the quartet.  By that I mean it was the least successful at the box office, and the movie that (at the time) bore the brunt of a critical backlash.  I’ve always loved it.  Today, it’s considered a noir masterpiece, and rightly so.  It also proved to be the cornerstone of the Delmer Daves following, most deservedly due to the innovative, on-location visual storytelling.  The plot, which writer/director Daves derived from a fantastic David Goodis novel, concerns a wrongly accused wife-murderer who escapes from San Quentin and hooks up with a variety of mysterious (and lethal) dames before hitting upon the answers that could likely solve the case and vindicate him.  His coincidentally-on-purpose connecting with a sultry artist (and shacking up in her abode) blossoms into true lust/love, but not before he must make some difficult decisions – like using plastic surgery to change his appearance.  Only in film noir can a guy on the run meet a cab driver who knows a defrocked doc who performs illegal operations at three in the morning.  It’s moments like these that give me hope for our troubled world.

The accused, one Vincent Parry, is, of course, Bogie, and Irene Jansen, the amorous babe, be Bacall.  The neat device of having the camera play POV Parry for the first half of the movie (where Bogart supposedly looks like character actor Frank Wilcox, shown in a newspaper photo from his trial) is what soured Jack Warner on DARK PASSAGE.  He claimed not showing Bogart (although we hear him) for such a long duration is what killed the movie’s potential box-office take.  The weird fact is that the identical procedure was done the same year at MGM and by star-director Robert Montgomery for his Phillip Marlowe noir Lady in the Lake (it wasn’t a big draw during its initial release either).

But DARK PASSAGE holds up way better than Lake, and is thoroughly thrilling from fade-in to fade-out.  It also boasts a magnificent supporting cast, including Agnes Moorehead, in possibly her greatest screen role.  Others of note are Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea (as that cabbie), House Peters (as the unlicensed plastic surgeon) and, my favorite, comic Clifton Young as one of noir’s sleaziest and detestable individuals (think of a satanic hybrid of Richard Widmark and Troy Donahue).  Young was the comedian/actor best-known for his multiple turns in the popular Warners Joe McDoakes shorts, starring George O’Hanlon.  Sadly, he never really followed up his ace portrayal here, and, even more depressingly, died at age 33, rumored to a suicide.

DARK PASSAGE has it all:  dames, tough guys, violence, sinister surgeons, wiseguy hacks and even a jazz-music subplot – all beautifully wrapped up in a mean-streets black-and-white celluloid package by the ubiquitous Hickox (the music by Franz Waxman is another plus).  After THE BIG SLEEP, this is often the Bogart-Bacall title most requested by fans (especially those who lean toward noir).  In short, time has aged this vintage flick quite well, joining the throngs of debut flop classics, Vertigo, Marnie, Sweet Smell of Success, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Ace in the Hole, The Red Badge of Courage and others.  The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic, and is appended by some neat extras, including the documentary Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers and the sensational “all-star” 1947 Technicolor Warners Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare (featuring Bogie & Baby).

 

1948’s KEY LARGO has always been the most problematic Bogart-Bacall title for me.  And that rested solely on the eons of lousy prints I suffered through during what are laughingly called my formative years.  Agreed, this is firmly relegated to the murky, gray 16MM copies that were screened throughout the 1960s and early 1970s on WNEW-TV, here in New York.  To put it mildly, the negligible visuals were a turnoff. Trust me, as much as a spectacular print can elevate a mediocre movie, a bad print can ruin a great one.  KEY LARGO is a great one.

The screenplay, based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, and updated to post-WWII America by director John Huston and Richard Brooks, is a tense, hellish swan dive into film noir.  A disturbed ex-Army officer, Frank McCleod (Bogart), visits the title Key Largo locale, residence of a hotel, owned by the father and widow of his deceased friend who served under his command.  It’s off-season, and the fishing resort is populated by a gaggle of big city lowlifes, who ostensibly are there to monopolize the wide open deep sea opportunities.  Ain’t so.

The group of aliases comprise a ferocious mob, led by an illegally returned deportee, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson, in, possibly his most loathsome role – one that makes Little Caesar look like a Hugh Herbert gag reel).

The conflicts and body language that during my adolescence I viewed as “too talky” are, in actuality, lip-biting riveting.  The interplay between the stellar cast is extraordinary; undeniably, LARGO easily contains the finest roster of board-trodders in any Bogart-Bacall outing.  Aside from the three already mentioned, there’s a non-over-the-top Lionel Barrymore, Tomas Gomez, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, John Rodney, Monte Blue, John Litel, Jay Silverheels, and, best of all, Claire Trevor, in her Oscar-winning performance as a one-time primo torch singer reduced to an alcoholic wretch by Robinson’s character.  Indeed, we learn that Rocco is not only a vicious mob ruler, but a pathological liar, racist, sexual predator (the moment when he merrily whispers a personal request into Bacall’s ear is particularly stomach-turning), and, maybe even a traitor.  The snarky possibility discussed during the proceedings (“Let him be President”) is thus contemporarily cringe worthy.

The inevitable showdown aboard a fog-bound boat headed toward Cuba is as suspenseful a vignette of revenge as ever captured on perforated film (it’s interesting to think of the two male adversaries in Bullets or Ballots, filmed twelve years earlier, where the good guy/bad guy roles were switched).  I have never more enjoyed a cinematic instance of the tables being turned.  Nevertheless there’s a sick moment where Bogart seems to relish the sadism he now issues as payback:  one shot, one expression, Bogart and Huston at their best.

The mindset in McCleod’s head seems to muster up the courage to romantically pursue his friend’s widow and to reside in the remote rural spot he can comfortably call home, “home being Key Largo” as he earlier intones.  As with all noir and most Huston pics, there are no guarantees.  To find out if he makes it, you’ll have to take a chance on this exquisite Blu-Ray.  The gorgeous contrast, 1080p crystal clarity and the pristine 35mm quality makes watching this platter (especially if one is lucky enough to do so on a big screen) replicate seeing this picture during the first week of its 1948 debut.  The Blu-Ray does monumental justice to Karl Freund’s blistering black-and-white photography; the audio does likewise to Max Steiner’s excellent churning music.  Ditto, the superb special effects by Robert Burks and William McGann and the haunting, eerily beautiful Florida location work.   It’s a perfect finale to the Bogart-Bacall quadrumvirate.

For Warner Bros., the ocean-engulfed KEY LARGO represented a literal high-water mark for the studio.  Bogart and Huston became Jack Warner’s heroes.  Aside from LARGO, 1948 also produced Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  It was the best year Warners had in a long time.  The usually stingy with praise J.L. admittedly doled out kudos to the actor and director for just short of saving the company.

 

All movies are black-and-white, full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definiton] with 2.0 DTS-HD MA. SRP: @$21.99.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT  [CAT # 1000600530]

THE BIG SLEEP  [CAT# 1000595077]

DARK PASSAGE  [CAT# 1000574975]

KEY LARGO  [CAT# 1000595079]

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.