Law and Schnorrer

I love being thrilled and moved by movies I’ve never seen, or heard of, or always wanted to see.  It’s why I’m addicted to collecting DVDs and Blu-Rays.  Just when I think I’ve become so jaded that nothing will cinematically throw me for a loop, up pops a title like THE ANCIENT LAW (Das Alte Gesetz) from Flicker Alley (in conjunction with Museum fur Film und Fernsehem/The Sunrise Foundation/Fidelity in Motion/ROAM), and life is worth living again.  This 1923 masterpiece, directed by the revered E.A. Dupont, is now available on a dual format Blu-Ray/DVD double platter, and classic movie fans/silent aficionados and scholars of Judaica best be rifling for their credit cards, even as they read these words.

THE ANCIENT LAW concerns a rabbi and his family, living in an 1860s Russian pogrom-dedicated hood.  Unlike Fiddler on the Roof, life isn’t all that singy and songy (although, in all due respect, it wasn’t that great in the smash musical either).  Rabbi Mayer’s (Avrom Morewski) biggest dream is that his well-read son Baruch (Ernst Deutsch, who resembles a pre-gray David Corn) follow in his footsteps.  Baruch has other plans, however, fueled by wanderlust.  During the joyous Purim ceremony, Baruch wows the locals (particularly the females) as he leads the youth of the village in an exuberant parade of pageantry and histrionics that terminally infects him with the acting bug.  He asks his super-gorgeous girlfriend Esther (Margarete Schlegel, truly one of the most stunning actresses in all of silent cinema) if she’ll stand by him, but the winsome lass shudders at the thought of ever leaving the slum-kinda-wonderful town, the only place she’s ever known (it should be mentioned that her professor father is Caligari’s great Werner Krauss, far less sinister here, although similarly imposing). When nomadic beggar Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison) shows up for his annual kreplach feast, the cards are in play.  He regales Baruch with tales of Vienna, the theaters, the women, the excitement.  In one of the most double-take-friendly questions ever uttered in silent or sound cinema, Baruch meekly asks Ruben “Can a Jew become an actor?”  Jesus!

Rabbi-dad is adamant, shouting the ancient law “The Jew’s strength is rooted in the ghetto!,” and follows it up by locking the boy in his room.  Baruch’s mother (Grete Berger), the voice of compassion and reason, releases him, and he joins Pick en route to Vienna and, hopefully, fame.

But all isn’t latkes and blintzes in Germany.  Baruch quickly becomes even poorer than he was before.  Eventually, he is shown kindness by a traveling charlatan Herr Direktor (a particularly scummy Jacob Tiedtke), who provides provincial entertainment via his sleazy daughter and long-suffering wife (Alice Hechy, Olga Limburg).  Baruch learns from the bottom up – literally, shoveling horse manure for caravan traveling rights.  At last, however, he is given a chance.  He goes out a hopeful, but comes back a star (of David).  Trading the Bible for Shakespeare becomes a running theme through this epic period extravaganza (the picture unfolds at a swift 135 minutes).  Baruch eventually attains infamous fame from goyim who admit he has something, but laugh him into the wings during his turn as Romeo due to his payot (Jewish sidelocks).  That is, with the exception of Erzherzogin Elisabeth Theresia, the Archduchess of Hornytoads (a poignant, passionate performance by Henny Porten).  The Archduchess covets Baruch like nobody’s bizness, and throws all caution, anti-Semitism and propriety to the wind to achieve her “goal.”

The female characters in THE ANCIENT LAW are sexually empowering, and as modern as any contemporary turn by Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron or Margot Robbie.  The Archduchess is a prime example, using her birthright and charms to yank Baruch out of the lousy rep groups he’s in and onto the great showplaces of Vienna, much to the chagrin of the Royal’s snarky young handmaiden (Ruth Weyher).  The slutty spawn of Herr Direktor, too, is way beyond the guidelines of traditional silent moviedom, pimping herself (with daddy’s approval) to aristocratic threesomes and foursomes (an exteme-closeup tongue tease could have been right out of a Gaspar Noe flick).  It’s about as close to von Stroheim (who must have loved this movie) as LAW gets.

Jewish guilt likewise plays a major role in THE ANCIENT LAW.  Baruch’s self-loathing forcing him to perform on the Day of Atonement (now minus his payot) is quite a sequence (the fact that it additionally concerns a Shakespeare drama with the word “ham” in the title doesn’t help either), justifiably appended by his far-away father being given a Shakespeare volume by Pick to replace his Bible.  Assimilation is, thus, a key theme in the movie.

The painful reconciliation between father and son, the successful transport of Esther into the world of glitz and glamor (Baruch becomes Bavaria’s top actor), and the mazel tov capper for the mother all make for some riveting entertainment.

I truly cannot imagine that playwright Samson Raphaelson and star George Jessel did not see this picture before modernizing it up for The Jazz Singer, minus the art.  THE ANCIENT LAW, scripted by Paul Reno, was based upon the memoirs of Heinrich Lauber (who is played in the movie by Hermann Vallentin, years after his metamorphosis from orthodox ghetto boy to thespian extraordinaire; here, he is presented as the aged, gruff, uncompromising impresario of the Viennese stage).  Director Dupont, best known for the brilliant European classics Variety (1925), Piccadilly (1929) and Atlantis (1930), plays religious and sexual politics for all its worth.  The meticulous, opulent production is testament to his moment in the sun.  That he fled to America, nearly forgotten and ending up helming Grade-B 1950s flicks (Problem Girls, The Neanderthal Man, Return to Treasure Island) is a crime in and of itself.  Other celebrated names involved in THE ANCIENT LAW include art director Alfred Junge (Black Narcissus) and, most notably d.p. Theodor Sparkuhl, who later gained much-deserved fame as an acclaimed cinematographer at Paramount.  His style even here is a magnificent precursor to his later work, particularly If I Were King, High, Wide and Handsome, The Light that Failed, Beau Geste and The Glass Key.

There’s a reason why I had been fairly unfamiliar with THE ANCIENT LAW.  It was nearly extinct, or rather extinguished (I can’t imagine that it led any popularity contests during the Nazi regime).  This spectacular Flicker Alley restoration is a long-term association involving five countries (Sweden, France, Russia, Italy and America) who culled their 35MM materials, some with original color tints (beautifully restored as well).  Occasional slight scratches aside, this complete 1923 roadshow German premiere version looks absolutely sensational.

Flicker Alley hasn’t stopped there.  The extras alone are worth the purchase, including Essays on The Ancient Law, a luxuriously-illustrated booklet, a 15-minute tutorial on the restoration scans, a visual slide show, two scores (an ensemble piece by Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals, or an orchestral score by Philippe Schoeller) and the surviving elements from Der Film im Film, a stunning 1923 doc on Weimar cinema, featuring candid footage of Dupont, Fritz Lang and Robert Weine at work!  They’ve done everything but throw in an extra pair of pants!

THE ANCIENT LAW.  Black and white with tints and tones.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Flicker Alley/The Museum fur Film und Fernsehem/The Sunrise Foundation/Fidelity in Motion/ROAM. CAT # FA0054.  SRP: $39.95.

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Letter Perfect

On November 21, 1983, in the small English suburb of Leicestershire, Lynda Mann, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, was raped and murdered.  That this slaying set the stage for a true-life crime story besting any fiction out of James Patterson’s, Thomas Harris’s, Sue Grafton’s or Stieg Larsson’s creative heads is the basis for the superb 2015 UK mini-series CODE OF A KILLER, now on DVD from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/EndemolShine Group/World Productions/Lipsynch Productions.

CODE OF A KILLER concerns two men in unrelated vocational ranks.  One, David Baker (David Threlfall), is the brilliant lead detective assigned to the case.  The other is Alec Jeffreys (John Simm), an equally brilliant geneticist working on a foolproof way to scientifically classify the complex individuality of every living being.

The two men have never met (although, in a wonderful ironic actual possibility, they pass each other on the road to work), and both will contribute to a discovery that will revolutionize international forensic investigation techniques.

Baker is a loner (we never learn much about his personal life), devoted to his job.  Jeffreys is a family man with a loving wife and child (who seemingly will follow in pater’s footsteps) and supportive science-background-trained parents.  Like Baker, Jeffreys, too, is thoroughly obsessed with his work – so much so that the doctor’s experiments threaten destroy his health and marriage.  Yet, he presses on to correct each and every failure and prove the individual identification validity of Deoxyribonuleic acid, or what he has dubbed “DNA.”

As time goes on, and the terrifying events of Leicestershire grow cold, another murder occurs, same m.o.  On July 31, 1986, teenager Dawn Ashworth is raped and murdered.

Concurrent to all of this, Dr. Jeffreys achieves enough success to help a family win a paternity case.  Baker reads of this breakthrough, and wonders if this “digital fingerprinting” could be used to link crime activities.  He contacts Jeffreys, and they take specimens off the two corpses.  And, lo and behold, the suspicions prove fact:  there is a match.

The hunt for the killer before he strikes again is painstaking (remember there is no database to check, another idea Baker and Jeffreys discuss).  Methodically checking every male within the vicinity becomes a Herculean task (including the involvement of one genuinely creepy, false-lead suspect), hampered by Baker’s superiors becoming increasingly dubious as to the potency of DNA in crime detection.

CODE OF A KILLER is an exciting, electrifying and suspenseful three-part thriller (on one DVD platter) that will have you gasping at the conclusion and victories that ultimately began a new modern age in police investigation.  In and of itself, the show is a riveting drama in the best tradition of British thrillers.  The fact that it’s all entirely true makes the series even more fantastic.

Indeed, cast, crew and location production values are top-notch.  The performances are terrific with Threlfall and Simm beautifully complementing each other.  Kudos, too, to Anna Madeley, Lorcan Cranitch, Susan Mann, Robert Glenister, Paul Copley, Tobias Burton-Rudge, Dorothy Atkinson, Neil Edmond, and Nathan Wright.  Scriptwriter/creator and coproducer Michael Crompton has done a sensational job as well; ditto coproducer James Strong for his tense direction.   Matt Gray’s cinematography must likewise be mentioned, as should Glenn Gregory’s score and the editing skills of Mike Jones.

Acorn has presented CODE OF A KILLER with all their usual panache.  It looks and sounds great in 1.78 16 x 9 anamorphic widescreen and stereo surround (the latter particularly effective in filling your media room with ancillary nature audio FX at the crime scenes).

As if crime fans need any additional impetus to purchase this outstanding item, Acorn has included an awesome extra, comprised of a half-hour documentary that goes behind the scenes of the production and features the real-life Baker and Jeffreys.

DNA is the standard now, so much so that it’s difficult to fathom that it’s only been around for about 30 years.  This is where it all began.

CODE OF A KILLER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/EndemolShine Group/World Productions/Lipsynch Productions.  CAT # AMP-2585.  SRP:  $34.99.

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Lore and Order

At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the delightfully named hamlet of Tombstone, AZ, occurred one of the most famous incidents of beloved violence in American history. An altercation between the local warring factions culminated in an approximately half-minute display of gunplay that forever defined the Old West. The scene of bloodshed at a dung-heaped corner of the town, known as the O.K. Corral, quickly became hallowed ground. The famous shoot-out soon was being reported across the entire country – and even abroad in Europe and down South America way. To this day, millions are familiar with the legend of gunfight at the O.K. corral (it still remains a major AZ tourist attraction); it weekly filled the pages of penny dreadfuls and was re-enacted by scores of traveling tent shows. It made icons of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and it forever made the name “Clanton” synonymous with dastardly villainy. The advent of cinema was a natural for the sanguine fable, and no less than hundreds of filmic depictions unspooled in nickelodeons before becoming a B-western staple and, later, the respectable outlet for occasional top-line drama, most prominently John Ford’s 1946’s masterwork My Darling Clementine. Most of these re-tellings were sourced from the largely dubious work Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake (reportedly told to him by Earp himself). All were fugitives from the fact – what Ford’s Liberty Valance would sardonically (and correctly) dub as the “print the legend” alternative.

The biggest, loudest, most colorful and fact-free of all these narratives was 1957’s blockbuster action epic GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, a must for all western fans, now available in a definitive Blu-Ray edition from Warner Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment.

The background of both the story and the movie are fascinating parallels and thus deserve mentioning. The plot of the picture, after all, is basically described by the not-so-subtle title. Suffice to say that it delivers.

The legend of Tombstone and the O.K. Corral has become the benchmark for white hats vs. black hats – the ultimate fight for truth, justice and the American way. Not quite so. What prompted the Earps and the Clantons was nothing less than the authentic cornerstones of U.S. gumption: money and sex. While lawmen, to be sure, the Earps were businessmen first, always having a cold-steel eye on the almighty buck. Marshaling never paid the amounts the Earps had become accustomed to, and they made up the difference by running a string of brothels across the frontier. The west was a haven for investors with a fast-gun reputation, and when Wyatt smelled a sure thing, his sibs would start turning up for their piece of the pie with great rapidity. By 1881, Tombstone was undergoing a veritable Earpies outbreak. The Clantons, far from the redneck peckerwoods often chronicled on the screen and in the pulps, were likewise ruthless financiers whose fortunes were made in the flourishing cattle industry.

Since the truth was perhaps a bit too sordid for movie-goers (even into the late 1950s), the icy facts were never really told; too bad, they’re so much more intriguing than any of the pap emanating from the clichéd minds of screenwriters.

This can be boiled down to the personal life of Wyatt – a family man in the traditional sense…until he met Josephine Sarah Marcus. A gorgeous showgirl (and possible part-time prostitute), she took the lawman’s breath away. He left his wife and shacked up with Josie; they remained devoted to each other for the next forty-seven years until the celebrated marshal’s death in 1929. Josephine, it should be noted was, prior to the O.K. Corral kerfuffle, the “property” of Johnny Behan, an ally of the Clantons. This, no doubt, led to further friction between the adversaries. Josephine was also Jewish, brought up in an upper middle class home in San Francisco. The revealing of her religion at last ended a decades-long mystery of why Earp’s remains lay buried in a Colma, CA, Jewish cemetery. Wyatt and Josephine made and lost numerous fortunes, investing in houses of ill-repute, prospecting for gold in Alaska, etc. He ended up selling ideas to Hollywood in the late teens into the early 1920s before the aforementioned Lake brokered the publication deal.

Then there was the “heroic” Doc Holliday. A raging psychopath, the hot-tempered, quick-on-the-trigger southerner trained as a dentist, but soon found increasing fame by drilling people in other ways. It’s curious as to the relationship that actually existed between Earp and Holliday – and, again I’m referring to the almost never-mentioned presence of Josie, as Doc was a rabid racist and anti-Semite. His contracting consumption caused his self-banishment to the cleaner air environs offered by the west.

The most accurate Earp movie is by GUNFIGHT‘s John Sturges, 1967’s Hour of the Gun, featuring a humorless James Garner as Wyatt and Robert Ryan as Clanton. It takes place AFTER the famed shoot-out. It was the first to relate the details of Earp’s post-O.K. Corral vengeance ride, wherein he methodically hunted down surviving participants involved in the lethal proceedings. Whether or not Earp legally had the right to do so (even extracting revenge across the border) was never brought to light. Not that it would have mattered to Earp anyway. That’s about as close to the truth as you’re gonna get (and, once more, no mention of Josephine), and, as far a movie entertainment goes, who the hell cares? It’s likely that surviving Earps would have prevented the real stuff from the damaging the reel versions anyway. And by 1957, thanks to the advent of the super Western (first ignited by High Noon, then from the likes of The Searchers and others), this was going to be the biggest adventure (and lie) of ’em all. And it was, gloriously so.

Producer Hal Wallis early-on wanted to pull out all the stops in telling this oft-told tale. He had been putting this project together for years – when he still had Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas under personal contract (Wallis was known as a starmaker, not only signing the above pair, but also Martin & Lewis and Elvis Presley to exclusive non-exclusive servitude). GUNFIGHT had taken so long to put together that both Lancaster’s and Douglas’ tenure with Wallis had expired. Both were now independent, producing their own movies. Wallis had designed GUNFIGHT for the two stars, and couldn’t see anyone else playing the roles. He approached them, asking if they’d agree to do it. Each acquiesced, but at a ga-zillion times the price they were making when under the producer’s thumb (Lancaster initially stated that he’d only consider Wyatt if Wallis gave him Starbuck in The Rainmaker; even then, Burt demanded that he be able to re-write his dialog; Kirk likewise wanted artistic control). Wallis freaked, but paid; he needn’t have worried. The picture was a smash from Day One, rivaling such other 1957 champs as Bridge on the River Kwai and Sayonara.

“Super” was the preferred word when putting together GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, and that meant every aspect of the production. Wallis obtained the services of John Sturges (a top A-lister ever since 1954’s critically acclaimed Bad Day at Black Rock) and hot author Leon Uris (whose novel and subsequent movie adaptation Battle Cry had gone through the roof) to pen the screenplay (suggested by an article by George Scullin). Sturges stages the bravura action sequences spectacularly, thereby elevating the Republic Pictures plotline into full throttle sub-genre filmmaking, then dubbed the Adult Western. The cast, the music, the photography would all be ultra-plush – the last word in Hollywood extravagance. There is virtually no scene in the movie that doesn’t contain a plethora of incredible performers. It’s star-gazing at its zenith; aside from the against-type appearance of Jo Van Fleet (as Doc’s live-in whore, Kate Fisher), there are such genre favorites as John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForrest Kelley, Martin Milner, Olive Carey, Frank Faylen, Lee Van Cleef, George Mathews, Whit Bissell, Earl Holliman, Kenneth Tobey, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, and, in his first of many oater turns as the weakling son/brother of the baddies, Dennis Hopper.

For all of Uris’ renowned realism, the script is pretty much twaddle – a barrage of made-up clichés that even undemanding sagebrush supporters are apt to gawk at. The worst offender in the scenario is the 110% fictitious creation of Laura Denbow, the WASPy white girl love interest for the stalwart goody-goody Earp. Denbow is enacted by the beauteous Rhonda Fleming; she’s a lady gambler, arrested by the marshal for apparently no other reason save her sex. As unreal as the interior exterior sets they ride onto (during romantic interplay), Fleming is the typical wait-at-the-fort human decoration. A testament to the popularity of this picture is what Howard Hawks did with this identical situation two years later in Rio Bravo (a splendid and emotional redux in the personages of John Wayne and Angie Dickinson).

The lust in the dust byplay between Douglas and Van Fleet is a bit livelier, but, on its own level, equally grating. Wanna learn how to play Doc Holliday, announced Douglas to an interviewer? “Get a good cough.” This Douglas adhered to with overdone enthusiasm, enough to justifiably prompt violent outbursts from the audience. Obviously never hearing of the phrase “less is more,” the actor practically prefaces every line of dialog with enough phlegm to suspect that he’s a shill for the Smith Brothers. By the time Van Fleet graduates from throwing crockery at him to an attempted knifing, it comes off as a perfectly understandable solution. Truly, had Dietrich played Camille instead of Garbo, I would dutifully expect her to pop up and shout, “Enough aweddy with that Goddamn coughing!”

On-location, Douglas and Lancaster often were at odds with one another. While Burt termed the picture as “crock of shit,” and spoke his vapid lines with his eyes on a huge paycheck, Kirk felt obligated to show off his twirling fast draw ability at the drop of a Stetson (a feat he learned from his appearance in King Vidor’s wonderful 1955 western Man Without a Star). After the umpteenth time, in front of gaping autograph seekers, Lancaster curtailed his costar with a brisk snub about his height – at which point Douglas halted and skulked away. Seemingly following Lancaster’s footsteps as a producer/star, journalists inquired if Douglas’ goal was to become Burt Lancaster. “I have enough trouble trying to be Kirk Douglas,” wryly replied the actor born Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

The music, like everything else in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, is larger than life. And by that I mean a boisterous, rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin – with on-going balladeer crooning by the formidable pipes of Frankie Laine. By this time, it was almost a prerequisite to have Laine warble the title tune to a major studio western. His previous endeavors (Saddle Tramp, Blowing Wild, Man Without a Star, 3:10 to Yuma) helped fill dream factory coffers to their brim, as soundtrack albums/singles increasingly became an ancillary necessity to a movie’s success. Mel Brooks saw the connection brilliantly, and, in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, had Laine do a superb satire of big-budget western movie singing. I mention this because for sheer parody not even Brooks’ lyrics can compare to some of those in GUNFIGHT (written by the prolific Ned Washington). This is specifically notable during a segment when Earp and Holliday ride past a graveyard. “Boot Hill, Boot Hill,” begins Laine. “So cold,” he continues as a fawning chorus chimes in “mighty cold, mighty cold.” “So still,” the singer finishes as the accompaniment whispers “mighty still, mighty still.” It’s hilarious…and fantastic.

Following Wallis’ kitchen sink memo, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL’s look is of behemoth proportions. The mammoth “feel” of the picture is due to the amazing artistry of the terrific d.p. Charles Lang. His Technicolor work in this movie may be the best of his career (and that’s saying a mouthful).

Lang’s achievements here are partnered by his association with Paramount’s VistaVision, my bid for the best process of all time. In very layman’s terms, what VistaVision was able to do was to accentuate detail to the nth degree – focus as never before possible. This was done by having the film run through the camera horizontally rather than vertically (what became known in the industry as the “lazy 8” system). Unlike CinemaScope, VistaVision’s claim to fame wasn’t shape, but sheer size. By exposing twice the amount of space normally allotted to a 35MM frame, the near-surreal you-are-there result was mind-boggling when witnessed in one of the handful of VistaVision theatres across the country. This wasn’t to slight the regular unfurling in standard nabes and drive-ins (where most folks saw these extraordinary pics); one was essentially seeing 70MM quality in each 35MM frame. The genius cameraman William Daniels once remarked that he mourned the day they discontinued VistaVision.

In many ways, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL may be the finest example of VistaVision ever lensed. Every landscape composition is there to awe its viewers. Every speck of sand in the desert is clear as crystal. Every prick (both of the cacti and outlaw variety) is in your face. Even the pockmarks on Lancaster’s punim are severely evident. It can be stated here that Blu-Ray is the best friend VistaVision can ever hope for (and vice versa). Every pic ever shot in this process should be re-mastered in 1080p and released in the B-D format.  A re-mixed 5.1 stereo track is a nifty compliment (the original release was in Perspecta, an embryonic forerunner of Dolby)

Back in the 1980s, I was first in line to grab the then-high-end home entertainment laserdisc of GUNFIGHT. It was, to say the least, one of the biggest disappointments of my movie collecting life, being the worst of all worlds. Full-frame, soft, time-compressed and with awful color – I watched the platter once, then stored it away to never be seen again. The 2003 DVD remedied some of the problems, restoring the correct aspect ratio, and, to some extent, the color. Like the earlier LV, it has now been consigned to home vid boot hill.

This is all irrelevant now, as the upgrade Warner/Paramount Blu-Ray takes the format and this movie to a stunning new level. The vivid Technicolor, the immaculate detail, nearing 3-D proportions, is outstanding. Long story short, I always liked GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; in Blu-Ray, I love it!

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.  Color.  Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  5.1 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # 1000408412. Warner Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. SRP:  $7.47

Available online while supplies last through Amazon and Amazon Prime.

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Slimeball’s Crime Ball

A mobster into kinky sex, a gay hit team, an articulate socialite who likes “doing the nasty”(the nastier the better), and a self-loathing cop who falls for the dame in spite of her preference for bad boys.  No, it’s not the latest Tarantino epic, or a violent NR-17 Asian import.  It’s a movie from…wait for it…1955, a brilliant film noir classic entitled THE BIG COMBO, and it’s available for the first time in a terrific Blu-Ray widescreen platter from Olive Films, in conjunction with UCLA Film Archive, The Film Foundation and Ignite Films.

The movie has long been on an enfant terrible list for physical and narrative reasons.  The latter is obvious from the opening statement; the former because of the god-awful copies flooding the home-vid market, due to the picture’s original distributors, Allied Artists, negligently allowing it to fall into public domain.  More on that later.

THE BIG COMBO is a gold-standard noir from frame one, its credentials beaming from in front of and behind the cameras.  Helming the pic is the great Joseph H. Lewis, who wowed the genre’s fans with his extraordinary 1950 masterpiece Gun CrazyCOMBO is every bit as good, and way dirtier.  The script was written by Philip Yordan, the era’s iconic “front,” who only bearded for the best.  The pic smacks of Abraham Polonsky, but who knows?  Maybe Yordan actually did write some/all of it (he claims he did author many works).  The structure is superb, the dialog blistering (and infinitely quotable) and the pacing non-stop: sensational writing at every level that dares to venture way beyond 1955 accepted borders.  The photography is by noir’s most heralded painter, John Alton.  The movie, long story short, looks fantastic, now more than ever.  Finally, the score is by the wonderful David Raksin, whose jazzy music adds immensely to the medium-sized budget’s production values (although certainly “A” list for Allied Artists).

Ultimately, for the masses, it’s the cast that finally puts it over – custom-picked thesps sliding and slithering into their roles and film noir history.

THE BIG COMBO concerns the evil rise and reign of sadistic mobster “Mr. Brown” (Richard Conte in perhaps his finest role).  Brown began as a brilliant accountant for gang leader Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a ruthless scumbag with ties to politics.  Brains over brawn rules (as Brown soon discovers) and he quickly eclipses his employer (who now cowers beneath him, pathetically doing the psycho-sadist’s bidding).  By hiding accounts, currency laundering and dummy LLC holdings, Brown makes it hard to follow the money (which he knows is key to survival in post-War America); the only thing he hides better are the bodies (and there are plenty of them), specifically the disappearance of his equally parasitic wife Alicia (Helen Walker).  But aside from money and power, Brown has another jones:  S&M and B&D (and they ain’t railroads!).  He’s a sexual predator, who literally gets off by rough coital coupling (again, not trains) – a monster whose lust redefines the term “dangerous liaisons.”  Prime target is the beauteous Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a rich, well-read member of the elite with a love of art, music, good books and philanthropy.  Susan’s meeting with Brown causes an instant revulsion, not because who he is, but what he is.  He brings out the worst in her, and, to quote the song, the girl can’t help it.  Susan becomes his willing love slave, unable to resist his brutal bedroom demands, no matter how low.

Trying to make sense of all of this is strait-laced detective Leonard Diamond (star-coproducer Cornel Wilde), who can’t fathom Susan’s attraction to Brown, especially since he craves her himself.  This leads one of the movie’s many magnificent good-evil confrontations, as a snickering Brown challenges by-the-book Diamond for Lowell’s favors.  Diamond only knows the law, so already Brown is in control, and he smacks down the detective in a barrage of words that have had audiences screaming “Oh, SNAP!” for over sixty years.  He ferociously outlines the differences between the two men, savagely explaining to the square-jawed dick why the female trophy will always choose boss over cop.  It’s not just the money, it’s something far more addictive:  “PER-SON-ALITY!”  He sends a whipped (not so) Wilde running, simmering with revenge.  Sadly, Conte (or, rather, his character) is (at least momentarily) correct in his assessment.  Professionally speaking, Diamond wisely follows Brown’s game plan, and methodically chases the trail of money and sex, leading to an eye-opening and genuinely shocking (dare we say?) climax.

When Brown does resort to violence, which becomes increasingly necessary, he employs his two faithful bodyguards/hitmen, a gay couple, Mingo and Fante (often pronounced “Fanny”), bizarrely believably portrayed by Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef.  Mingo and Fante are thoroughly devoted to one another, and that’s a good thing – ‘cause they know their boss will throw them under the bus at a the drop of a gat.

As for the ineffectual former kingpin McClure, he (like Diamond) too harbors a molten grudge against Brown, and when it explodes, woo-boy!  And explode it does, beginning with an attempt to win over Mingo and Fante.  In a scathing exchange, he tells the boys, “I’m gonna show you two guys how to be MEN!”

Donlevy’s character is one of noir’s top villains and victims.  He’s afflicted with deafness, so must constantly adjust his hearing aid (used by Conte in one excruciating scene as a torture device).  McClure’s malady provides Lewis, Alton and the sound crew with one of the most innovative uses of audio-video in cinema, a startling nocturnal airport sequence that we won’t further divulge.  Suffice to say, it’s the stuff noir dreams are made of.

Supporting the terrific aforementioned leads is one of the genre’s strongest rosters of mugs and thugs ever.  Weaving in and out of the flick’s mean streets are Robert Middleton, Ted de Corsia, Jay Adler, Michael Mark, Whit Bissell, Philip Van Zandt and John Hoyt.

Surprisingly, THE BIG COMBO was released uncensored in 1955, proof that the Production Code was losing its bite.  Or maybe they just didn’t get what was really going on.  Producer Wilde did.  He wasn’t too pleased with a sequence where his wife Wallace was obviously being serviced via cunilingus-hungry Conte.  He protested to Lewis, imploring him to omit or soften the scene, but perhaps, in reference to Donlevy’s character, it fell upon deaf ears.  How very fortunate, as it’s something of the likes not seen in American cinema since the days of pre-Code (it brings to mind the Frances Dee character in Rowland Brown’s outstanding 1933 pip Blood Money).

The Olive Films Blu-Ray of THE BIG COMBO is one of the must-haves for any film noir library, for reasons as indicated above.  After decades of inferior tapes and DVDs, it at last does John Alton the celluloid justice he and the pic deserve.  Restored from 35MM elements, and for the first time in its original aspect ratio, this disc is a joy to behold.  To paraphrase Mr. Brown, it’s worth going down for.

THE BIG COMBO.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Ignite Films/UCLA Archive/The Film Foundation.  CAT # OF714.  SRP:  $29.95.

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