Black and White and Dead All Over

Robert Wise is one of those A-list directors whose shining moments are emblazoned all over the pantheon of memorable cinema, but whose superb (and apparently) bottomless pit of little triumphs are never given the kudos they deserve.  One of these, 1959’s ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, a brutal, uncompromising late noir, has just arrived on Blu-Ray from the folks at Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Now, admittedly, I’m tossing this vicious stunner into a bin including such obscurities as Born to Kill, The Captive City, Destination: Gobi and Tribute to a Bad Man.  That’s not entirely fair, as ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW has, as of late, slowly crept into the top echelon of the director’s impressive filmography. The movie copped some major critical nods in 1959, but then more or less quietly disappeared into late-night television oblivion.  It definitely needs to be totally rediscovered.

On the surface, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is a textbook film noir heist picture.  But, as the cast reveals, it’s a far more complex vehicle covering (in unrelenting terms) some of the worst traits America has to offer.

The picture is about three losers.  The first, David Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced police official, recently released from jail (“Everybody was my friend until they needed a patsy”), has plotted a fool-proof robbery that will put him and two accomplices in money heaven for the rest of their lives (that’s $50-$75 thousand per in 1959 economics).  The next in line is Earle Slater, a virulent Southern racist, despising his having to live in Manhattan off Lorry, his successful wife.  Slater’s violent streak has caused him to go off the rails way too often.  He’s nearing the end of his road, and he knows it.  This might be the vindication.  His verbally abused clingy spouse, by the way, is Shelley Winters.  Earle is the great Robert Ryan, complete with guttural drawl and a sneer mean enough to keep any minority out of his reach.  Earle is first introduced to us by strolling down Riverside Drive on a brisk autumn day.  A group of children playing on the sidewalk gets in his way, and a small African-American girl bumps into him.  Flashing a satanic grin with approximately 95 of his 32 teeth, Slater lifts her up and drools about what a lovely little pickaninny she is.  It’s the first of many goose-bump-raising moments.

None of this bodes well for the third member of the team, Johnny Ingram, a jazz musician with a serious gambling jones.  Ingram is beautifully realized by Harry Belafonte (who shopped the project as his own independent production to UA, under the Habel moniker).

Johnny Ingram is the most complicated of the trio; he’s a reasonable, sophisticated, well-read person who seemingly has had an eternal storm of bad luck.  But look again; in his own quiet way, he’s as racist as Slater, and almost immediately they clash with Burke serving as a reluctant referee (“I’ll go down the drain on my own” he announces after his first meeting).  Ingram is a divorced father, still hopelessly in love with his upscale ex Ruth (the lovely Kim Hamilton) and young daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne).  Outside of the gambling, one can’t quite fathom why this couple broke up – until he arrives for his custody day with the child.  Ruth is in the middle of a local school board meeting in their apartment, for which Ingram reverts to a bombardment of Auntie Thomasina, whitey kiss-up, and a traitor-to-their-people epithets.  Johnny lectures her on their never getting ahead by bootlicking outside her race.  Of course, it’s all bosh.  His breaking down gets a sympathetic caress from Ruth, who admits she still loves him.  “Then why did we split?” asks Johnny.  “Not for me, for her,” indicating their daughter, a move Ingram accepts with anguish.

When the vile mobster Bacco (Will Kuuva) and his thugs threaten to harm Johnny’s family unless he pay up his mounting debts, an enraged Ingram explodes, alas, now accepting that his only way out is to sign on with Burke and Slater.  Slater, too, knows that he will never make it in Respectville unless he has the bucks to do it.  Checking out the small upstate New York bank with the rogue top cop, a smirking Burke boasts of the ease with which they can carry out the robbery.  Perfect, isn’t it?  “Yeah, with one exception,” reminds Earle, reprimanding his partner for not saying “nothing about the third man being a nigger.”

Slater’s self-loathing (a Ryan specialty) is tested when Lorry is called away to business conference; immediately, the womanizing bigot begins to paw and seduce the married upstairs neighbor.  Of course, this isn’t too difficult to grasp, as the woman is Gloria Grahame, wearing black lingerie under her bathrobe – and she’s more than willing to take on Ryan.  Wise directing Ryan and Grahame must have seemed like old home week at RKO; the pair’s brief scenes together are terrific, with Ryan especially creepy and Grahame overly weary (when Earle’s unnerved lover asks what it’s like to really lose it, Slater soberly replies, “It scared me, but I enjoyed it.”).  For Earle, also a misogynist, it’s just another revenge tactic on Lorry/women, who control/pity him.  Johnny’s disheartened participation in the caper is likewise because of the women in his life.  Even Burke reveals his disdain for the opposite sex.  When Slater asks him why he has a giant German shepherd in a small Manhattan apartment, Burke replies it’s because he “never got a wife.”  Once again, it’s RKO deja vu, recalling these two magnificent actors’ relationship in the brilliant Nick Ray noir On Dangerous Ground.

The finale erupts in violence perpetrated by escalating bigotry and remains one of noir’s most visually snarky endings in the entire genre.  That’s all I’m going to say.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is a 100% New York City progressive movie.  All the key participants were liberals, in front of and behind the camera (Wise’s wonderful use of Empire State locations proved an ideal run-through for his next UA/ NYC project, West Side Story.  It was a busy time).

Belafonte aced the producer role with a vengeance, not only with his choice in costars and director, but in the script, camera and music departments as well.  The screenplay, blistering with lines so tough and ahead of the curve that it’s amazing they ended up in the final cut (when the gang punks threaten his family, Ingram vows he’ll hunt them down and “blow them a new one!”) and probably only made it because the censors didn’t get the full meaning.  The movie was based upon a riveting William P. McGiven novel, and coscripted by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding.  Since Polonsky had been blacklisted, he was fronted by John O. Killens.  Like so many newly remastered 1950s American flicks, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW now has replaced main titles (in the same fonts and graphics), with Killens’s removed, and full co-credit given to Polonsky (part of a restoration of this title between the studio and the BFI).  The stark black-and-white cinematography is by the versatile Joseph C. Brun, who had just come off Windjammer.  Talk about opposite extremes.  The music score is by Modern Jazz Quartet great John Lewis, and the picture features several numbers inside the club where Johnny is employed, one naturally performed by Belafonte, the other by the remarkable thesp/singer Mae Barnes.  The remaining cast of New York hopefuls is another unbelievable coup, and features such familiar faces as Diana Sands, Barney Martin, Robert Earl Jones (James’ pop), Wayne Rogers and Zohra Lampert (in their big screen debuts), Allen Nourse and, as a ultra-cool bartender, Cicely Tyson.

Racism was really “in” for Hollywood in 1959. No Way Out, The Phenix City Story, Edge of the City, Kings Go Forth and No Down Payment had previously dealt with it.  But it was 1958’s The Defiant Ones that made the topic box-office friendly, so for UA (who had bankrolled Defiant) ODDS was a no-brainer.

The Olive Films Blu-ray is generally of excellent 35MM quality.  There are a few cases of grain, but that may have been always the case.  The movie was entirely shot in New York with interiors lensed at the Gold Medal Studios in The Bronx.  The mono audio is fairly dynamic with slight, infrequent sibilants.  This widescreen High-Definition edition is the best print I’ve ever seen on the title, and thus is highly recommended.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW. Black and White.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # OF1416.  Region A.  SRP:  $29.95.

oddtomorrow_COVER

 

 

 

 

Look at the Big Picture

As a beardless youth, many of my cinematic obsessions were addressed via the publication of James L. Limbacher’s 1968 book The Four Aspects of Film.  The quartet comprised the technological advances in cinema that I avidly revered:  color, sound, widescreen and 3-D.  The advent of high-echelon home video, most prominently Blu-Ray, has allowed take my addictions beyond the written word and actually enjoy all of these sensational illusions over and over again.

Earlier this year, I was delighted to have the chance to view and review the wonderful Flicker Alley disc A Trip to the Moon, at last presented in its original color version.  Now, they have further extended the world of pure celluloid nirvana by the simultaneous release of two landmark widescreen classics, the pictures that introduced (and entertained millions of ) 1950s moviegoers with the awesome processes known as the Multi-Panel Film and Deep Curved Screen format, or, via their more common terms, Cinerama and Cinemiracle.  This pair of extraordinary special editions, 1952’s THIS IS CINERAMA and 1958’s WINDJAMMER, is now permanently available for exhibition in your home theater.  If, like me, you’re a widescreen fanatic, collecting doesn’t get much better than this.

Like the individual panels, which were required for the processes, there are three folks who are the unsung heroes of Cinerama and Cinemiracle.  First and foremost, there is Fred Waller, who is generally acknowledged as the inventor who developed, refined, and helped market the process.  I say  “generally,” since three-panel movies, as a wow, did exist in limited, primitive renditions – the most notable being a tryptych (and French tri-colored flag) finale for Abel Gance’s 1924 epic Napoleon.  This kinda cool gimmick wasn’t what attracted Waller to the idea of a viable three-panel journey.  His dream was, to quote Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes in their excellent 1988 book Wide Screen Movies, “recreating reality in a motion picture setting.”

What we now call “peripheral vision” or “what we see out of the corners of our eyes, helps produce our sense of depth and space.  Normal vision covers 160 degrees and 60 degrees, respectively…Waller’s screen could come very close to approximating the field of view of the human eye.”  This was achieved by using “three 35MM camera equipped with 27MM lenses” that essentially mimicked the human perception of distance.  The three pictures, photographed from three cameras, set at 48-degree angles from one another, were synched to a single rotating shutter in front of each lens.  “Camera speed was changed from 24 to 26 frames per second,” with footage running at a speed of 146.25 feet per minute (as opposed to the standard 90 fpm).  Three separate projection booths, controlled by selsyn interlocked motors, shot each image (left, center, right) onto the mammoth curved screen in perfect synchronization.  This brought on board Hazard Reeves, who designed a multi-channel stereo system to match to visuals.

Waller’s theories and past test results (see below) led to his hooking up with legendary producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), a master of showmanship, who was able to make the format saleable as a first-run popular attraction.  Along with Lowell Thomas (both Cooper and Thomas were documentarians, explorers and risk-takers), they helped form the Cinerama Organization; Cooper brought on publicists, musicians, idea men, etc., to generate interest in the process.  Obviously, he succeeded.

The third name that must be given mucho kudos is David Strohmaier.  Several years ago, Mr. Strohmaier, through the recommendation of my good pal Brian Jamieson, sent me a review copy of the Blu-Ray The Scent of Mystery, a 1961 three-panel picture that originally had the additional perk of Smell-O-Vision.  To say I was stunned by the release of this hen’s tooth title is an understatement.  I was downright goofy.

Like Scent of Mystery, these two Flicker Alley platters have been painstakingly restored by Strohmaier & Co.  The results here far surpass Scent.  Both titles are virtually flawless.  This took a lot of dedication, frustration, experimentation and, I daresay, borderline obsession.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that the chemistry between David Strohmaier and Cinerama parallels that of Abbott for Costello, William Powell for Myrna Loy, or Warren Beatty and himself.  The proof is in every frame of CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER (and spills over into the plethora of extras included with each set).

Of course, while size itself played a relevant role in the ultimate three-panel experience, detail and depth were equally important.  While even collectors with kaiju-sized flat screens can’t compare to the 1950s exhibitions, curved Blu-Ray simulation, achieved by a cousin of letterboxing, christened Smilebox, does enable one to witness the jaw-dropping cineramic effects of 1080p High Definition at its breathless best.  There is truly a near-third dimensional buzz present in many of the shots replicated in these discs.  As for the POV stuff, WARNING: don’t indulge in a heavy meal prior to screening.

And now, on with the show.

 

THIS IS CINERAMA is literally a filmic roller coaster ride.  The “opening” is one of The Movies’ most iconic sequences, a POV shot from a front seat in the Rockaway Playland coaster.  It made 1952 audiences giddy, dizzy, and often left them breathless and sick.  It was swell.  Those who weren’t woozy burst into enthusiastic applause when the segment concluded.  Note, I put “opening” in quotes.  It has a double meaning.  To make the introduction of Cinerama even more spectacular, Lowell Thomas appeared onscreen in a 12-minute 1.37:1-framed monochrome prologue, discussing the evolution of the motion picture medium.  Then, the screen slowly expands, stunning Technicolor replaces the black-and-white, and, hold on to your seats, folks!

The first-run flagship exhibitions of THIS IS CINERAMA additionally offered mass bookings for out-of-towners.  And it worked.  Americans, tourists, school groups, religious organizations and basic thrill-seekers all converged on the nearest Cinerama theaters in massive proportions.  The movie was sold out for years.

The success of THIS IS CINERAMA and the process itself wasn’t, as indicated, a one-two punch overnight shoo-in.  Cinerama was a vision in the making for decades.  Inventor Fred Waller had been toying with recreating peripheral vision since the 1930s.  Vitarama, an embryonic version of Cinerama, highlighted the 1939 World’s Fair, as a new movie phenomenon.  That, it was.  The coming of World War II saw Cinerama as more serious and essential tool for preparing and training pilots.  The enveloping screens were used to replicate motion picture-simulated battle situations (or, if one wants to be current in a superfluous way, the first video games).  It proved incredibly valuable, and likely saved many lives.

After the war, Waller continued to tweak the outstanding, but, to be honest, impractical format.  He needed showmen to push Cinerama into the limelight it deserved.  That, of course, happened when it piqued the interest of Merian C. Cooper and Lowell Thomas.

Forming the Cinerama Corporation, and hiring studio-contracted artists on the sly:  Max Steiner, Paul Sawtell, Roy Webb, Leo Shuken, plus directors Gunther von Frtisch and Mike Todd, Jr., King Kong’s SFX master Willis O’Brien and Cooper’s celebrated former partner Ernest B. Schoedsack; even an ousted Louis B. Mayer had an invisible hand in the production, as did the great flight cinematographer Paul Mantz, who shot the swooping panoramas over Zion National Park and other flight material.  The company sent the gargantuan cameras all over the globe to achieve the best and awe-inspiring effects. Officially, the key crew members of the CINERAMA units included first-rate craftsmen and entrepreneurs, including cameraman Harry Squire and coproducer Michael Todd (the elder Elizabeth Taylor one), dying to dip his toes into the movie universe. Waller’s inclusion of test-showcasing a church choir was a stroke of genius.  Although in black and white (ultimately tinted in sepiatone) and about as cinematic as a 1928 talkie, the sequence alone brought in hundreds of thousands of a dollars from the special church-group screenings.

The picture quality knocked the sox off anyone who saw CINERAMA in 1952.  Critics loved it, audiences worshipped it.  Further improvements and subsequent features immediately were given the green light.

Now, I totally understand why collectors (outside of 1950s and Cinerama buffs) are wondering what’s the point in owning a movie that was meant for a behemothian screen.  It’s a valid claim, but one easily debunked.  With big screens becoming more affordable these days, THIS IS CINERAMA (and its offspring) have been given a new life.  Agreed, a 60-inch-plus image can’t compare to the 140 degree curve of a 100 foot 1952 theater screen, but the detail of the restored 1080p imagery, the crisp, vibrant Technicolor, the sheer overall effect of the thing is absolutely amazing.  As evidence, I cite the trip through the Venice canals, the performance at La Scala and a water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens.  And then, of course, there’s that roller coaster.

As indicated above, the picture alone couldn’t complete the overall effect of THIS IS CINERAMA.  The giant images needed formidable sound to go with it.  Nabe mono audio wasn’t gonna do it.  No way.  Enter Hazard Reeves.  Stereo experimentation in movie sound had been around for a while.  Fantasia attempted it with Fantasound.  Warners tried it with VitaSound, an optical surround precursor of Perspecta, on their 1940 titles Four Daughters and Santa Fe Trail.  But THIS IS CINERAMA needed to take sound to the next level.  By elevating stereo technology to a new zenith – the installation of six-channel mag-coated 35MM stock – the movie delivered a complete intertwining of superior sight and sound.  Thomas, beginning the post-intermission by screaming at the audiences via directional mikes had as much an impact on the ears in 1952 as the coaster did on the peepers (and the stomachs).  Many folks who saw the original release told me they were turning around to see where the sound was coming from.  Combined with the music and the choir singing, it was like diving into a world of the senses (“Incredible,” “outstanding,” “unbelievable” are the usual accolades that lucky Fifties viewers have told me).  I guarantee you that you’ll feel likewise, in a 21st-century home-video way, about the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray.

The restoration of THIS IS CINERAMA is no mere hyperbole.  Strohmaier truly deserves to be congratulated until the proverbial cows come home.  I can verify that this 2017 re-mastered edition was an undertaking of meticulous proportions. How do I know this?  Allow me to elaborate.  In 1972, to commemorate the 20th anniversary THIS IS CINERAMA, a special new 70MM print was patchworked together from the original three panels.  It was shown in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater, then the biggest screen in town (the Cinerama house and other cavernous movie emporiums had already gone the dust-is-my-destiny route).  The effect left me and my friends nonplussed, to put it mildly.  The picture quality was garish, grainy and often muddy.  The lines dividing the panels were gratingly evident, and misaligned.  The poor schmuck with the mustache in the aforementioned La Scala sequence was caught in the meld, and had two heads sprouting from his neck.

Stromaier’s restoration is nothing like that.  You can barely (if at all) notice the panel lines, and the picture is crystal-clear with the colors ebullient.  And mustache has but one melon.

In addition to this re-master, THIS IS CINERAMA comes with a treasure trove of fascinating extras, including audio commentary with Strohmaier and original crew member Jim Morrison (no, not him), The Best in the Biz, an hour-long documentary on the composers of CINERAMA, another documentary on the restoration, an alternate European post-Intermission opening, a rare radio interview with Fred Waller, a bizarre French short about traveling Cinerama tent shows in France, a tribute to an Ohio theater – the last true venue for Cinerama screenings, the theatrical trailer, TV spots and more.

Oh, yeah, and then again, there’s that roller coaster!

 

In an effort to give Cinerama a run for their money, the National Theaters chain decided to create a three-panel process of their own.  It would improve upon the picture and sound of Cinerama, ideally making it more adaptable for other types of motion picture entertainment beyond the travelogue arena.  Two improvements were made to the three-panel process:  the first was utilizing only one booth for the trio of projectors, and the other, reducing the appearance of join lines by the use of mirrors.  The latter, a magician standard, worked like a charm.

1958’s WINDJAMMER was the end result of this goal, and is another terrific release from Flicker Alley, in conjunction with David Strohmaier’s Cinerama home-video company.  A windjammer is an oversized sailing ship, once considered (in the early twentieth century) to be the best way to swiftly carry large crews and cargo. One of the most splendid surviving examples of this ship builder’s marvel was the Norwegian vessel the Christian Radich.  A Norway baptism of fire for its male youth was to select a group of fifty adolescents and test them on an overseas voyage that would, as the cliché goes, turn boys into men.  This was seriously a big deal in 1958.  Thousands of applicants arrived with athletic prowess, glowing academia records and a barrage of references from neighbors, clergymen, local politicians, etc.  The fact that this voyage was to be captured in a spectacular new movie marvel, now known as Cinemiracle, made acceptance for the 17,500-nautical-mile excursion all the more desirable.  Of course, this also ratcheted up the publicity angle, which was absolutely necessary for Cinemiracle to succeed.

The Christian Radach left Oslo (with boys, cast and crew) in the summer of 1957.  The tribulations (and danger) of maneuvering such delicate and bulky camera equipment on a schooner is obvious.  Nevertheless it was an upgrade from the original Cinerama, if for no other reason than the veteran technicians becoming increasingly familiar with the pros and cons of a three-panel process.  This adaptability displayed a slightly more intimate execution, thus enabling an actual narrative strain to loop through the 142-minute proceedings (another important asset if Cinemiracle were to prosper and topple Cinerama).

WINDJAMMER is an awesome assault on the senses (in the best way).  By capturing the ports of call around the globe, one gets a glimpse of cultural habitats and festivities that explode on the screen in mélange of color, sound, music, exploration and adventure (there is an actual tragedy that occurs during the making of the movie, which affects its participants by voyage end).  New York City has an additional advantage by having much of its glam camerawork composed and shot by the photographic genius Arthur “Weegee” Fellig.  It is, to put it mildly, a kaleidoscopic pip!

By zeroing in on some of the boy crew, we have the makings of a genuine scenario, rather than a mere travelogue.  We are privy to the lads’ yearning for what they used to call “going steady,” plus other likes and dislikes.  A main character, Sven Erik Libaek, becomes a focus of interest due to his devotion to music (a piano is actually loaded on board so that he can practice); his vision is to play for the renowned conductor Arthur Fiedler.  This culminates in a musical feast during the American portion of the trip.  Other treats for the ears (reproduced in fantastic stereo-surround) include a performance by Pablo Casals, while the ship docks in Puerto Rico, plus steel bands, Calypso and a limbo rock demo in Trinidad.

That the movie does manage to go one better than its predecessor is due to the ensemble array of WINDJAMMER’s artists and craftsmen, including composer Morton Gould, d.p.s Gayne Rescher, Joseph Brun, and Gordon Willis and codirectors Bill Colleran and Louis de Rochemont III.  The picture had long legs, playing in some three-panel emporiums as late as 1964.  An accompanying LP soundtrack likewise became a bestseller.

The pliability of Cinemiracle amazed and delighted Hollywood’s mogul crowd.  As with Vitaphone, two-strip Technicolor and 3-D, Jack L. Warner was the one who bit at the bait.  He announced that an upcoming Carroll Baker religious pic, The Miracle would be entirely shot in the new three-panel system.  Production was actually started, but, as shooting commenced, it became obvious that Cinemiracle wasn’t as easy to manipulate as originally envisioned.  The cost factor was, natch, another thorn in the side.  The plans were scrapped and Carroll Baker had to suffer her miracle without the cine.  WINDJAMMER would be the only movie ever using the process.

The POV use of three-panel in WINDJAMMER, is especially triumphant with the heart-stopping visuals of the raging sea.  Coupled with the wonders of the world and its peoples makes WINDJAMMEER a unique movie outing that I emphatically suggest one undertake.  A rollicking ride in a basket sled had me and my fellow viewers holding on to the sofa. Blu-Ray quality rivals THIS IS CINERAMA, and like its ancestor, WINDJAMMER, comes chock full of extras (documentaries on the filming and the reconstruction, a 2010 visit to the Christian Radach, etc.) that alone would warrant a purchase for widescreen geeks, such as myself, but also for those always looking to add that “something extra” to movie night.

THIS IS CINERAMA  Color/Black and White.  Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Cinerama.  CAT # FA0025R.  SRP: $39.95.

WINDJAMMER  Color. Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Flicker Alley/Cinerama.  CAT# FA0026R. SRP: $39.95.

 

The Violence of Silence

In the annals of spaghetti westerns, few motion pictures are regarded with higher praise than Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 odyssey of evil THE GREAT SILENCE.  Up to now, it was also one of the hardest titles to find, especially in decent, uncut versions.  Thus, it is with a great (non-silent) sigh of relief that I can reveal the unveiling of a newly minted 50th Anniversary Special Restoration, loaded with fantastic extras, in (mostly) superb shape and now available on Blu-Ray from Film Movement Classics.

Sergio Corbucci is the most difficult of the spaghetti Sergios (the others being Sollima and, natch, Leone) to embrace with affection.  And for good reason.  Taking a page from William S. Hart and a chapter from Erich von Stroheim, Corbucci never sugar-coated his epics (Minnesota Clay, The Hellbenders, Django, The Mercenary, Companeros).  They are grim, haunting, relentless morality tales that usually end up in a Mephistophelean universe, just south of Tucson.  Corbucci liked to set the screen on fire, then pour gasoline over it, step back and watch the carnage.  Even a bravura work like 1966’s Navajo Joe concluded with heart-stopping, unexpected tragedy.  THE GREAT SILENCE not only tops Joe for its ruthlessness, but totally reinvents the genre.  It could be Corbucci’s most personal flick.

The locale itself, the town of Snow Mill and its surroundings, is a major character.  Unlike the majority of spaghetti western terrain, SILENCE eschews the parched, desert landscapes for an icy, blizzard-plagued frozen tundra (SILENCE makes a great double-bill with De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw).  The hero, christened Silence, is not traditional either – on or off the screen.  On-screen, he’s a mute, off-screen, he’s not Clint Eastwood or any other American TV western star on hiatus, but international French superthesp Jean-Louis Trintignant.  His lover, Pauline, is not your typical Italian sexpot, but the beautiful African-American actress Vonetta McGee (in her screen debut).

Intrigued?  It gets better.

Silence is a man out for vengeance.  As a child, he saw two carpetbagging scumbags murder his family.  Rather than kill a young boy to prevent him from talking, they slit his vocal cords.  Silence vows (obviously to himself) to wreak horrific violence upon the pair.  To prepare for this, he earns his living as a bounty hunter, rivaled only by brutal, sadist Loco.  Loco, it should be mentioned, is played by Klaus Kinski, in perhaps his greatest villain role (think about that).  From the get-go, Loco/Kinski snarls his way through the proceedings, living by his mantra of there ain’t no such thing as “alive” in “dead or alive.”  Loco’s current plan is to annihilate (and collect) on a band of innocents awaiting amnesty.  He, in turn, is being watched by a well-intentioned sheriff, assigned to Snow Mill as penance for rubbing corrupt politicians the wrong way.  Can’t forget Pauline (Loco killed her husband, one of the amnesty band), nor the brutal wrath of the season’s natural elements.  The combination of these narrative bits tightens the suspense and intensity of this 105-minute adventure with each successive foot of celluloid.  Tightens, as in a noose.

Truly, THE GREAT SILENCE freaks you out in almost every shot.  For all the unorthodox themes and variants in the piece, the picture is nevertheless jam-packed with spaghetti-western icons; aside from Kinski, the vocal-cord cutting beast (now a town entrepreneur) is Luigi Pistilli.  His lead henchman is Mario Brega (almost unrecognizable without his trademark grubby beard); the sheriff is Frank Wolff.  Crowning this spaghetti western’s greatness is a (what else?) magnificent score by Ennio Morricone.

As in all Corbucci works, the movie is extremely political.  Below the surface, THE GREAT SILENCE is a warning about the threat and rise of fascism and how it can engulf and infest a relatively docile environ (the double meaning of the title, therefore, transcends the protagonist and tells viewers that keeping quiet can lead to doom).  If it can chip away at democracy here, it can do so any place.  Loco is the personification of this disease, and seems to have quantum leaped Mein Kampf as his instruction manual.  In quick succession, he aligns himself with dubious capitalists, lies continually until people accept his treachery as fact, places himself above the law, and spews racism like so much chewing tobacco.  It can be said without hesitation that Loco is not only the most repugnant villain in a spaghetti western, but likely a contender for that title in all of cinema.  If the genre’s Clint Eastwood was the Man with No Name, Kinski is the Man with No Shame.  Every line he seethes, every slithery inflection of body language, every contorted facial expression, exudes flesh-crawling savageness at its zenith of creepiness and decrepitude.  Of course, his is the primo performance in the picture.  But we can’t shun either Trintignant nor McGee nor Pistilli.  They are excellent as well.

THE GREAT SILENCE was Corbucci’s pet project (a western with a handicapped hero) for quite a while (Corbucci co-authored the script with his brother, Bruno, along with Vittoriano Petrilli and Mario Amendola, with English dialog added by John Hart and Lewis E. Ciannelli). He was reportedly egged-on by Marcello Mastroianni, who expressed interest in playing Silence, but opted out, due to his lack of English (spaghetti westerns were generally filmed phonetically in English, and, then, like all Italian pics, post-dubbed). It’s a curious escape hatch, as Silence is, well, silent. Trintignant didn’t speak much English either, and has stated that he did the movie as a favor to his pal/coproducer Robert Dorfmann. Indeed, the movie is a French-Italian co-production.

The movie was sumptuously photographed by Silvano Ippoliti in the Dolemites. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot, as evidenced by visible lens hairs in some compositions, as well as a number of opening moments that look as if they were lensed through a veil. The horses indeed are having a tough time.

In spite of all this gloom and human ugliness, THE GREAT SILENCE has one sequence of exquisite beauty – a love scene between Trintignant and McGee, quite simply one of 1960s cinema’s most stunning romantic interludes. That it is smack dab in the middle of such nightmarish events makes the segment all the more memorable.

Spaghetti westerns were riding high worldwide in 1968, largely because the phenomenal box-office that UA achieved with the Leone pics. All the majors wanted in on the genre. Fox was no exception. Darryl Zanuck, upon viewing past Corbucci efforts, optioned THE GREAT SILENCE, and, supposedly, after being screened rushes, was immensely pleased by the unusual feel of the piece. That ended abruptly when he viewed the final cut with its horrendous, escalating viciousness. He dropped the picture from the American Fox release schedule (although it still was distributed by 20th overseas). Finding a company to take over the U.S. bookings for SILENCE proved difficult, causing the movie to be eventually set adrift in obscurity. Of course, the irony is that the following year, Warners would clean up with The Wild Bunch, a similarly grim American counterpart.

The international SILENCE release also experienced enough of a downer reaction to force Corbucci to reshoot not one, but two alternate endings, one still harsh, but with a less unnerving climax, and another a total opposite happy-sappy capper. Neither was ever shown in the States, and both are included as supplements in this Blu-Ray edition. Other exceptional extras on this monumental platter include a complete 1968 documentary, Western, Italian Style, director/film historian Alex Cox’s Corbucci tribute, a new essay on SILENCE by critic Simon Abrams, the accessibility of THE GREAT SILENCE in either the English-dubbed or Italian language (with English subtitles) versions, and the original theatrical trailer.

For spaghetti western fans, political movie buffs, and 1960s cinema aficionados, THE GREAT SILENCE is a disc essential for your library. Definitely not the feel-good show for your movie night, THE GREAT SILENCE offers instead a riveting deep, engrossing saga that no one will ever forget.

THE GREAT SILENCE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA remastered stereo (English dubbed or Italian w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics. All-region Blu-Ray. CAT # GREATSILENCEBLURAY. SRP: $39.95.

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From Hear to Eternity

An essential addition to any classic movie library, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK is now available as a made-to-order DVD-R from that gang o’ mine at the Warner Archive Collection.

So, why is a movie that likely most of you have never heard of a classic essential?  Well, because this 1928 obscurity is the first all-talking feature-length motion picture ever released.  Yeah, pardon the pun, you heard right.  And, nope, it wasn’t The Jazz Singer; that pic only had talking (and singing) sequences.  Nor Don Juan, in spite of the presence of John Barrymore; that had no talking at all (just synchronized music and effects).

Okay, so what the hell is LIGHTS OF NEW YORK?  First off, it was actually made in New York (yay), and pioneered the genre Warner Bros. would most become associated with:  the gangster flick.  LIGHTS has all the necessary elements for socko entertainment:  pre-Code naughtiness (a la sex and violence, albeit implied), tough, slang talk, music and MORE (as they like to say in the ads).  Sure, it’s creaky, and, even at 57 minutes, the movie threatens to wear out its welcome, but remarkably never does.

The story, as concocted by Hugh Herbert and Murray Roth (yeah, that Hugh Herbert; woo-woo) concerns Eddie and Gene, two small-town upstate New York barbers (Cullen Landis and beloved character actor/vile off-screen racist Eugene Pallette) who yearn for the bright lights, big city thrills of women, money, jazz and other meshugas that will probably guarantee you a sign-off like those schmucks in the Clark Street garage on St. Valentine’s Day.  But, hey, live fast, die young.  As Eddie’s squeeze, Kitty (Helene Costello) already made the move (she’s a cutie in a speakeasy nightclub); all Eddie and Gene need is the proverbial kick in the butt to punt their dream into reality.  Enter Dickson and Jackson (Jere Delaney, Walter Percival), two thugs on the lam, looking for a score to buy their way back to Broadway.  Fast-talking the boys (and Eddie’s pathetic mom, Mary Carr, the actress who owned those roles) out of their life savings, the took rubes swoop down on The Great White Way, and promptly go belly-up, eking out a living running a hotel barber shop that fronts for the mob.  Desperately trying to raise enough scratch to crawl home, they inevitably become involved with gangland scumbag/kingpin Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), a womanizing, murdering bootlegger who is out to frame Eddie and screw his woman (she’s in the show he owns).

The dialog is priceless, vintage 1928 lingo, delivered in “ROUND TONES,” as Kathleen Freeman instructed Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor to do in Singin’ in the Rain.  My late best pal, screenwriter/director Ric Menello, and I worshipped this movie and memorized the key dialog that we would segue into at the mere mention of Vitaphone (we first saw the clips in the last episode of the brilliant 1980 Kevin Brownlow Hollywood series).  Shot in medium close-ups that also had inanimate objects sharing the frame with the actors (phones and flower pots, housing obviously hidden microphones), the lines are often read like a vintage Bob and Ray Slow Talkers of America routine.

The verbal gold (for me) comprises the plot to snatch and implicate Eddie, as Hawk lays it out for his two gunsels (Tom Dugan and Guy D’Ennery):  “Yeah. It’s. Gonna. Be. Tough. On. The. Guy. What. Did. It (a pause about the length of the Mississippi).  “Get. Me?  The. Dicks. Will. Be. There. At. Ten O’Clock. But. They. Mustn’t. Find. Eddie.”

“What?  You. Mean?”

(NODS) “Take. Him. For. A. Ride.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Not only the first all-talking movie, but the first known valium commercial.

On another level entirely is the performance of Gladys Brockwell, who portrays Hawk’s abused and cheated-on moll (aply named Moll).  She does the only real acting in the piece.  Sadly, what promised to be a long-lasting tenure in the world of Vitaphone and beyond never came to pass.  She was killed in a car accident six days before LIGHTS opened.

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was initially a two-reeler talker, one of the Vitaphone Varieties.  But producer/director Bryan Foy (yep, one of them incorrigible Seven Little Foys) saw potential, and strove to expand it another three reels.  Given the green light, with the stipulation that the production not brazenly exceed a short subject budget ($23,000 upped to $75,000), Warners decided to take another gamble; after all, if it turned out like The Jazz Singer…  It did (LIGHTS grossed over $2,000,000 in the U.S. alone).  The movie wowed exhibitors who were previewed the final cut in June of 1928.  It was booked across the country by virtually all the theaters who had converted to sound, but additionally provided the impetus for reluctant theater owners to finally take the plunge and move into the talking pictures universe.

It’s amazing that LIGHTS OF NEW YORK survives intact, picture and sound then being separate, and, therefore, we can give a pass to the existing elements.  Occasional wear does show, but, for the most part, the material is in pretty decent shape (still pity poor d.p. Edwin DuPar, perspiration-drenched in a refrigerator-sized sweatbox so that the whirring of the camera wouldn’t be picked up by the mikes).

To help put over this disc with collectors, Warner Archive has considerably sweetened the pot by including four all-talking Vitaphone shorts from 1928 that authentically may have accompanied LIGHTS to fill out a complete talkie program.  The shorts are, to be honest, more fascinating to me than the feature, and, with the exception of slight decomposition in the last title, in better condition than the main event.

THE COWBOY AND THE GIRL costars novelty singers/comedians Ray Mayer and Edith Evans (no, not the famed British thesp, though I wish).  Presented with original tints, the short has the pair giving out with jazzy tunes and asides like “Our cow wouldn’t give milk, so we sold him,” and “Men get pearls from oysters, but women get diamonds from nuts.”

A MUSICAL MELANGE stars the Kjerulf’’s Mayfair Quintette, an all-girl string band.  Four out of the five are genuinely weird-looking, even for Tod Browning.  Not surprising then that the fifth, a willowy Louise Brooks ringer, gets all the close-ups.

A BREEZE FROM THE SOUTH showcases real-life Southerner Gilbert Wells, who offers a rollicking ensemble of Dixieland ditties and risqué pitter-patter, plus some frightening bad teeth.

MELODIOUS MOMENTS presents The Croonaders, four nice Jewish boys and their ukes, one destructively daring to be the Jimi Hendrix of the voh-dee-oh-doh set.

The sad thing, of course, about these sensational cultural records is that the eager participants failed to realize that they were cutting their own professional throats.  Talking pictures pretty much killed vaudeville, which was the bread and butter for all these performers, 98% of whom faded into the shadows of time.

On that bright note, I must underline the fact that I LOVE this disc, and have already played it at least a half-dozen times.  I only wish the great Menello were here to share the enjoyment.  He’d have plotzed.

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK/Vitaphone Varieties.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  2.0 mono. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.  CAT # 1000715954.  SRP: $21.99.

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

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