Edgy Cliff

Perhaps the most visceral, ferocious entry in writer/director Samuel Fuller’s canon (and that’s saying plenty!), the sensational 1961 film noir UNDERWORLD U.S.A. blasts its way on to a limited edition Blu-Ray, thanks to the folks at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

The movie is a non-stop treatise on abuse and violent revenge, spanning a quarter of a century and, thus, becomes a social commentary on the decline and corruption of America from pre-to-post WWII.  Of course, Sam is way too clever and inventive to deliver a much-needed message to movie audiences, so this warning is delivered in a brilliantly constructed, rousing entertainment package.

Tolly Devlin, first seen as a child in 1939, is a victim of a nasty one-two punch.  Raised by a hoodlum single parent, the boy witnesses his father’s brutal murder at the hands of greedy neighborhood thugs.  Realizing that he has to live off the streets to survive, Tolly gets the Junior Mints version of his dad’s fate when teens rob him of his ill-gotten gains and cap their score by scarring his face with a switchblade.  Devlin’s only lifeline to sanity is Sandy, his surrogate mother – a sassy Texas Guinan saloon owner who tries her best to look out for the urchin.  Nevertheless Devin spends the majority of World War II in a juvie lockup, and, when finally released, like all smart young hoods, comes out more fucked-up than ever (it should be noted that 1939 is also the year of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, a movie this pic pays humble homage to a la the Tolly/Sandy relationship).

Devlin is now a take-no-prisoners alpha male – ready to squeeze the already rigged system but not without first extracting vengeance on his father’s killers (a cancer that has been festering in the back of his unstable mind for years).  That the men responsible are all now well-connected criminal politicos and mob leaders controlling a nationwide cartel of drugs, whores and money laundering makes Devlin’s plan all the more difficult.  And dangerous.

But Tolly’s smart; if, in Sweet Smell of Success, the Tony Curtis character was “a cookie filled with arsenic,” Devlin’s a stale loaf of bread laced with strychnine and chards of broken glass. Thus, the savvy hood stealthily assimilates into the modern mafia and, like all Grade-A scum, rises to the top.  Then the powder keg blows.

UNDERWORLD U.S.A. was the director’s last pic to get a major American distributor.  It remains quintessential Fuller, first-rate late noir and a template for low-budget movie making at its best.  The dialog is biting, often as sharp as the knives utilized in the movie.  The pic likewise appends its scripted words with visual puns, occasionally brutal, but snarkily funny. When a supposed stoolie rival is incinerated in a car bomb inferno, there’s a cut to the smiling capo responsible, sitting in his car and lovingly fondling a smoke.  “Gimme a light!,” he commands as the background is illuminated by the flames and sounds of blazing carnage.  A less subtle moment comes after another aftermath of violence when the camera languishes on the gutter and a trash can labeled “Keep Your City Clean.”

Besides Sandy, the only other respectable character in the piece is Cuddles, a beautiful, battered whore Tolly saves and begins a relationship with.  Like Sandy, Cuddles sees enough decency in Devlin to devote herself to him, hoping he’ll reform.  That the only admirable people in UNDERWORLD are women (and both victims themselves), who rise above their situations and fight back reveals the feminist side of Fuller – and one that will surface more defined in his magnificent The Naked Kiss, three years later (but previously on view in Hell and High Water, Forty Guns, China Gate and The Crimson Kimono).  Like Kiss, UNDERWORLD not only champions the female of the species, but takes up the plight of abused the children and the terrifying repercussions.

The fact of the matter is that Tolly Devlin would be a totally reprehensible POS if he wasn’t played by a gifted actor who could manage to instill some compassion into his sardonic life force of vitriol.  Fortunately Fuller was lucky enough to obtain the services of Cliff Robertson, who makes Devlin one of his greatest screen incarnations.

The supporting cast, too, is wonderful.  As the Gladys George-esque “mom,” Sandy, veteran Beatrice Kay excels, as does Dolores Dorn as Cuddles.  The remaining dregs of thugs and mobsters are ably impersonated by such formidable presences as Robert Emhardt, Paul Dubov, Richard Rust, and Peter Brocco.

The stark, blistering monochrome photography plays a key role in making this gangland epic the success it is; kudos to d.p. Hal Mohr.  A pulpish score by Harry Sukman also delivers da goods (like all Twilight Time titles, the music is accessible as an IST).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is gorgeous, culled from near pristine 35MM black-and-white elements, and crystal-clear in 1080p High Definition splendor.  It’s obvious that this movie influenced an army of future directors and writers, and many will quickly see moments that conveniently snuck their way into subsequent flicks like Goodfellas and Casino.  No surprise that this disc contains an intro by Martin Scorsese.  There’s also a brief documentary, Sam Fuller, Storyteller, plus the terrific original 1961 trailer, featuring Fuller himself.  Remember, folks, this is a limited edition of 3000, so when they’re gone – they be gone!

I won’t say whether good triumphs over evil, as this is a Fuller movie, and in Sam’s universe, there are no foregone conclusions.  The great thing about a Sam Fuller movie is that even AFTER you’ve seen it, you’re still not sure.

UNDERWORLD U.S.A.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT # TWILIGHT 324-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

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

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A Ringo by Any Other Name

A rather obscure (but worthy) spaghetti western by a major contributor to the genre (Sergio Corbucci), 1966’s RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL rides into town made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

Corbucci’s third pasta oater (the first being the equally impressive Minnesota Clay), GOLDEN PISTOL is typical cine-hyperbole Italian insomuch that it shamelessly cashes in on a character that the movie has nothing to do with.  Duccio Tessari’s Ringo pics (A Pistol for Ringo, The Return of Ringo, released in 1965 and 1966) were box-office bonanzas in the Leone tradition.  GOLDEN PISTOL, originally called Johnny Oro, sweetened the international distribution deck by capitalizing on the Tessari successes and quickly did the title change (other fake Ringo pictures likewise appeared around the same time).  This common ploy was used to attract non-discriminating viewers laden with picnic baskets full of vittles, who simply wanted a passable entertainment to accompany their chow-downs.  The Italian re-issue poster of The Savage Innocents had secondary costar Peter O’Toole facing off lead Anthony Quinn under the herald “The Stars of Lawrence of Arabia Reunited for the BIGGEST Adventure of the Them All.”  Worse, a late 1960s re-release of High Noon had now superstar Lee Van Cleef showdown-matched against Gary Cooper in the ads (Van Cleef’s total footage in High Noon amounts to around ten seconds).  But so be it.  The funny thing is that none of this ballyhoo chicanery was necessary, as RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL is an excellent spaghetti western sure to please the genre’s legions of fans.

Mark Damon, (they still needed Americans to sell their product in Anglo territories) plays Ringo, aka Johnny Oro, aka Jefferson Gonzalez.  Oro/Gonzalez is a revered bounty hunter, whose spectacular solid-gold weapon matches his gun-slinging prowess.  He’s a ruthless mercenary who nevertheless will, in a pinch (and if the price is right), side with the underdog.  Arriving in the lawless town of Coldstone City, Oro quickly swings into action, plotting the takedown of an outlaw family. He knocks off three of the four brothers, but doesn’t bother with the last as the latter has doesn’t have a reward (“I don’t want you. Not until you got a price on your head.”). Big mistake. It all comes home to roost when he attempts to arrest the thoroughly corrupt town boss Juanito Perez (Franco De Rosa).

Corbucci, who made some of the finest and most uniquely original spaghetti entries (Django, Navajo Joe, The Great Silence, The Mercenary, Companeros) already at this stage knew how to please and manipulate his audience, thanks in great part here to the story/script by Adriano Bolzoni and Franco Rossetti.  GOLDEN PISTOL moves at lightning pace (it’s a trim 88 minutes), chock full of action, sardonic humor and violence (hatchets in the head, misogynist sadists, mass murder).  Like in Navajo Joe, the town is an underbelly of capitalistic corruption, in dire need of an extreme form of cleansing.

As in all good spaghetti westerns, there’s a musical theme to match the narrative one.  Here, we have a terrific soundtrack by Carlo Savina.  Best of all, Corbucci knows how to utilize the big gun (or, in this case, bang) theory.  You don’t introduce a formidable weapon, prop or character without it/he/she having slam-bang climactic consequences.  Here, it’s a magnificent hydraulic mining cart that cuts directly through the center of town.  With Ringo’s endless amount of dynamite, it becomes a tensely anticipated countdown to when we get to see all these elements interlock into (literal) explosive carnage.  It’s a lovely thing.

Aside from the direction and music, there’s some fine cinematography from Riccardo Pallottini (Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death, Find a Place to Die, Take a Hard Ride and the stunning aforementioned Savage Innocents) and fun cast support from Valeria Fabrizi and Ettore Manni. Star Damon, best known as the romantic leads in Roger Corman’s House of Usher and Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, went to Italy early, and eventually ended up in a plethora of Euro-westerns (Johnny Yuma, Requiescant, Go for Broke, Dead Men Don’t Count, etc.).  More significantly, he studied the workings of the various production companies abroad, becoming comfortable enough to eschew his thespian roots and make his key contributions to the industry from the other side of the camera, as a producer and head of PSO Films.

MGM, eager to reap the fistfuls of dollars pouring into their competitors’ coffers, made a rare foray into the genre, picking GOLDEN PISTOL up for American audiences, and the results didn’t disappoint.  The studio would later release two of my all-time faves, 1968’s Guns for San Sebastian (actually, a South American period French/Italian/Mexican coproduction) and Five Man Army.  But this movie, in its unabashed penchant for colorful, loud adventure (the Warner Archive widescreen DVD-R perfectly befits the necessary looks and sounds of a celluloid powder keg), simultaneously hits all the right notes and fuses.

RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono sound.  Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment.  CAT # 1000514888.  SRP: $17.99.

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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Acting Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Recently, I was delighted to discover the E.A. Dupont silent classic The Ancient Law, about a young would-be actor.  Now, it’s the ladies’ turn in an equally impressive, but far more raucous and hilarious take:  Allan Dwan’s 1925 hoot STAGE STRUCK, starring the she-never-ceases-to-amaze-me pint-sized talent keg o’ my heart, Gloria Swanson.

Swanson was at her peak when this comedy was made, and she and director Dwan already had a seamless working chemistry (Zaza, Manhandled).  In STAGE STRUCK, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment (in conjunction with George Eastman House), all the slapstick stops were pulled out, melding beautifully with the romantic stuff; the result slayed critics and audiences alike, who championed and flocked to the movie, making it one of the blockbusters of the year.

Where The Ancient Law asked “Can a Jew become an actor?,” STAGE STRUCK, concerning the love-pining of hash-house worker Jenny Hagen, ponders “Can a woman juggle the two jobs of acting and waitressing?”  Like what are the odds of THAT ever happening (INSERT SNARK HERE)?

Jenny’s thesp yearnings are personal.  She has a yen (a BIG one) for flapjack flipper Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray).  Gray can’t see her for the batter, since he’s lustily obsessed with actresses.  So Jenny joins a Times Square acting correspondence school, whose prime requirement is the five dollar initiation fee.

I have never seen Swanson so funny.  I mean, I know she began as a comedienne in Mack Sennett shorts, but, once a major star (and female cultural icon), I can’t recall her dropping her bloomers to this extent.  She’s a total natural, fighting inanimate objects, such as overloaded serving trays and steamy dishes that seem to take on a life of their own, plus a plethora of unruly customers (in a joint filled with clientele who like like they’re from the town Barbara Stanwyck fled in in Baby Face).  One sequence, where hotcake novice chef Jenny flips a simmering breakfast treat down a matronly diner’s cleavage, had me roaring like nobody’s business.  This was only supplanted by Swanson landing another cake on her head, causing a follicle smoke alarm.

And, speaking of steamy dishes, there’s the vamp/actress Lillian Lyons, who arrives on a traveling show boat to enthrall the throngs, and ends up stealing Orme’s feckless heart.  Lyons is played with sensual stuck-up dignity by the wonderful Gertrude Astor, whom laff buffs will instantly recognize as the foil to Laurel and Hardy in Come Clean (1931), and about 300 other features and shorts spanning the silent era through the 1960s.  The captain of the show boat is Ford Sterling, who also gets in his fair share of chortles and chuckles, at one point refereeing a boxing match between Astor and Swanson (Jenny’s acting debut), the latter appearing as masked pugilist “Kid Sockem.”

It really is that crazy, fast and funny.  The pic moves at a lightning pace, ending its 84-minute duration in a nanosecond (this is a restored, complete version; other editions, from negligible sources, clocked in at around 70 minutes).  Besides Swanson, the cast and Dwan, one must credit writers Forrest Halsey and Sylvia LaVarre (who wrote and adapted the screenplay from a Frank R. Adams story), the editing (by future comedy producer William LeBaron) as well as the camerawork of George Webber.

STAGE STRUCK was an A+ special with all the bells and whistles.  The movie opens in spectacular two-strip Technicolor, featuring a regal Swanson in Rene Hubert garbs, presiding over a royal gathering.  Her haughty refusal of all but the tasty tidbits of the palace hotcake maestro (Gray in appropriate period attire, and spatula) splendidly sets the “stage” for the inspired silliness to come.  Of course, it’s a fantasy dream sequence, rocked to reality (and monochrome, albeit occasionally tinted) when Jenny awakes to face the daily salt-mine grind.  The opening footage not only grabs you from the get-go, but additionally serves to parody the types of opulent bathroom diva productions Swanson made with Cecil B. DeMille. An epilogue (I won’t tell you what unfolds) likewise lensed in the two-color process, is less garish and lovely, shot in realistic, natural colors (as natural as red and green could get).  It made me fantasize how cool it would have been if the entire movie had been filmed in color.  I suspect the aforementioned shorter versions were due to the absence of the Technicolor material, which was entirely shot at Paramount’s New York studio by one of the industry’s earliest preeminent color d.p.s, Ray Rennahan.

STAGE STRUCK has been digitally remastered and restored from original 35MM nitrate Paramount vault elements.   It looks terrific.  Sounds pretty good, too – thanks to the nicely composed piano score by Andrew Simpson. Kino has added some excellent supplements as well, including audio commentary by Allan Dwan biographer Frederic Lombardi, and a booklet essay by Farran Smith Nehme.

As indicated above, STAGE STRUCK was a mammoth hit in 1925.  The reviewers were as stunned by Swanson’s comic/slapstick abilities as I was.  She was favorably dubbed the female Chaplin across the boards. Said Photoplay: “This makes Gloria Charlie Chaplin’s nearest rival.  If Charlie is a genius, this picture makes Gloria a genius too.”

Swanson herself was immensely pleased with the movie, and, in her 1980 bio Swanson on Swanson, fondly recalled the location shooting in New Martinsville, WV, where cast and crew were constantly mobbed by fans and local press.  “The script called for broad comedy, which I hadn’t played in years.  Gertrude Astor…and I even had a long fight scene, in which both of us wore boxing gloves and swimsuits…A hundred townspeople stood on the riverbank and roared when we shot it.”  While not denying the Chaplinesque nod, she preferred to be compared to another comic fave, as she often chided The Little Tramp for being way too full of himself.  She concluded that in STAGE STRUCK, “…under Allan’s direction we achieved moments even Buster Keaton could have been proud of.”  The movie certainly brings to mind Marion Davies’ side-splitting turn in Show People, and, indeed, the two would make an excellent double feature.

I’ve already screened STAGE STRUCK three times.  I love showing it to guests on our movie nights, and it never fails to please.  It is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Swanson pics, silent comedies and Allan Dwan titles.  I think it will end in your plus columns as well.

STAGE STRUCK.  Black and White/Color.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment/George Eastman House.  CAT # K22964.  SRP:  $29.95.

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