Scum Kind of Wonderful

One of those WTF Hollywood rarities – a Yuletide movie frothing with film noir elements – 1947’s CHRISTMAS EVE finally comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the malevolent elves at Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment.

Imagine Frank Capra directing a Raymond Chandler or Cornell Woolrich holiday tale and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for.  Matilda Reid (aka Aunt Matilda, aka Ann Harding) was one of the great beauties of 1890s New York.  Her looks paled next to her smarts and she amassed millions in investments.  The investments, however, paled next to her eccentricities, which include a dinner table surrounded by electric trains to shuttle condiments to her guests, and  shoveling bird seed on her floor each morning before opening the doors and French windows to let Manhattan fowl feast in style.  But there’s also Manhattan foul, particularly her sleazy, oily relative Phillip Hastings (Reginald Denny), who, armed with a judge (Clarence Kolb) and shrink (Carl Harbord), is determined to commit the now-aged woman to an insane asylum and reap her fortune.

But Matty has an ace card, or so she thinks.  Decades earlier, she adopted three infant orphans and raised them as her sons.  The lady has high hopes that these grownup versions will come to her aid.  Alas, it looks like the ace card is a joker. In triplicate. The lads are bad boys.  And there is the rub.

Michael Brooks, an over-the-hill playboy/fake entrepreneur (with enough bags under his eyes to open a Samsonite outlet), is plotting to marry into dough to alleviate 75K in bad checks.  Ann Nelson, his snarky ex (and still occasional squeeze), whom he passes off as his sister, has other ideas.  That this pair is enacted by George Brent and Joan Blondell ignites a cinematic spark that recalls the best of their pre-Code Warners days.  Can the pair’s verbal battles and schemes to bilk the 400 bend to the do-the-right-thing sector?  They might, due to Michael’s learning of his mom’s plight.  Well, maybe.

Son # 2, Mario Torio (George Raft) has escaped a criminal rap in the States, and now resides in South America, where he runs a high-roller casino/nightclub.  His main source of romance is Jean (Dolores Moran, coincidentally, wife of the pic’s producer Benedict Bogeaus), who, unbeknownst to Torio, is the puppet of an ex-Nazi (Konstantin Shayne), now a war criminal hiding out below the border after taking a powder prior to the Nuremburg trials.

Son # 3, Johnny (Randolph Scott, in his last non-oater before enforcing his “westerns only” policy) is an alcoholic, womanizing rodeo rider, down on his luck, who, upon hearing of Matilda’s problems, figures it’s a good way to maybe score some moolah.  He returns to New York, and immediately hooks up with a femme fatale (Virginia Field) involved in a loathsome baby racketeering crime ring.

It’s that kind of a holiday movie.  True, any Christmas pic featuring Nazis and a subplot where one of the beauteous heroines gets murdered is tops in my book.  And, certainly, in this area, CHRISTMAS EVE doesn’t disappoint.  The cast, as assembled by aforementioned indie producer Borgeaus (who released this poison bon-bon through UA), is phenomenal.  Aside from the excellent Harding as old Matilda (in actuality, younger than both Raft and Scott, and only two years older than Brent), and the other already listed cast members, the stellar thesps include Douglass Dumbrille, Dennis Hoey, Joe Sawyer, Molly Lamont, John Litel, Walter Sande, Andrew Tombes, Marie (Blossom Rock) Blake, J. Farrell MacDonald and John Indrisano.  The script, too, can’t be faulted.  It’s a honey, as constructed by Laurence Stallings (What Price Glory?, The Big Parade, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers), who wrote the story, and contributed to the screenplay with Richard H. Landau plus uncredited participation from Arch Oboler and, in one of his first movie gigs, Robert Altman (all obviously saw the previous year’s Gilda and Notorious).

The shimmering monochrome photography is by Gordon Avil.  Sadly, this is where the Olive/Paramount Blu-Ray drops the Christmas ball.  Although it’s not really their fault.  While utilizing the best elements available to create this transfer, the results are less than perfect.  Seventy-one years of neglect have taken their toll; while certainly viewable, and with nice contrast, images appear occasionally soft and washed-out.  That said, we should be grateful for what we have.  It is that time of the year after all.  The audio, a bit on the bass side and slightly low, nevertheless does deliver and allows us to savor the score by Heinz Roemheld and much of the snappy noirish dialog (“Raise your hands to the perpendicular,” demands Scott, brandishing a gat).

The biggest letdown is the choice of directors.  Edwin L. Marin was a total professional, and his work here is serviceable.  Yet, one can only imagine what the results might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis.  Again, the script and cast are so good they help immensely to smooth over any directorial shortcomings.

Long story short, for those who like their mean streets adorned with mistletoe and bullets, CHRISTMAS EVE is the Blu-Ray gift that keeps on giving.

CHRISTMAS EVE. Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1]; 1080p High Definition.  1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF1155.  SRP: $29.95.

CHRISTMASEVE_COVER

 

CRACK AND FRACK

Greedy corporations seeking to tap a natural energy source…in bed with ruthless politicos… resulting in deadly inner space drilling…causing an ecological disaster that threatens the world economy and, ultimately, the planet’s survival…Sound familiar?  No, we’re not regurgitating BP’s 2010 repulsive display of humanity at its worst.  Or the recent administration’s disgusting environmental rape (or virtual grift-gift) of 1.6 million acres of California public land for fracking and oil drilling. This is the plot of a 1965 sci-fi thriller whose lessons still obviously have much to be learnt.  By substituting magma for oil, landlocked missile blasting for oceanic rigging and a fictitious cartel of international businesses for British Petroleum and the WSPA…you have the comparison bare bones necessary for the now-more-eerie-than-ever events that comprise CRACK IN THE WORLD.  Of course, there are major differences.  For example, the meglomaniacal scientists do develop a severe case of integrity…and the non-regulatory presiding politician is genuinely sorry…and Earth leaders do congregate to attempt a viable solution…but…in the overall scheme of things…when its too late – who the “F” cares?!

This nail-biting thriller was part of the ubiquitous Philip Yordan school of filmmaking that seemingly tentacled every English language movie made in Spain during the 1960s not produced by Samuel Bronston (although the delegating writer/mogul Yordan had nevertheless co-scripted several Bronston projects, including El Cid).  This means that there’s gold in them thar hills – speaking in the narrative sense.  The writing, as one might already surmise is first-rate, as is the cast – headed by Dana Andrews, Alexander Knox, Janette Scott and Kieron Moore.  The direction is propelled by the professional hands of action veteran Andrew “Bundy” Marton, who co-helmed the 1950 King Solomon’s Mines and either guided or supervised a million other superb cinematic adventures during the Fifties and Sixties (he was the man unscrupulous star Charlton Heston infamously attempted to sneakily replace Nicholas Ray with on 55 Days at Peking).

That CRACK IN THE WORLD’s fantastic premise could EVER become topical is frightening enough to push the title from unnerving science fiction into pure horror; indeed the underground cameras utilized in the picture to show the unstoppable flow of lethal magma so resembles the near-decade-old nightly news footage of spewing oil into our environment that cynical viewers of this Olive/Paramount release commented about whether or not BP was actually transmitting live pictures or has just looped the SFX from this movie.

As for the upgraded Blu-Ray itself (originally released as a DVD-only title) – Olive Films can take a well-earned bow.  True, this reboot seemingly uses the Olive DVD transfer, and, yes, I would love to see a 4K remaster, but that’s my only carp, and I can certainly live with this edition for now.  The imagery of the pristine 1080p upconvert widescreen visuals do bring back those cherished moments of Baby Boomer nabe theater-going – particularly with those rich undeniable Technicolor reds.  Flesh tones are fine and grain is minimal – the only other man-made disaster being dark-haired Scott’s ill-chosen post-chemo blonde wig.  Other than that, the effects are remarkably realistic – a coup not only for a movie 53 years old, but for a picture of modest budget.  Like its equally goose-bump-raising sibling, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire, this is a textbook on how to realize an all-too-real effective sci-fi nightmare.

FYI, CRACK IN THE WORLD was one of those great 1960s Paramount double bills, the co-feature being Alexander MacKendrick’s vastly underrated Sammy Going South (retitled here as A Boy Ten Feet Tall, and shorn by at least a third of those measurements, or in footage count, by about 30 minutes).  Would love to see this get a Blu-Ray spin as well…At the time, the MacKendrick adventure of a British youth stranded during a Middle Eastern WWII raid was virtually ignored, despite the splendid participation of Edward G. Robinson, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the location filming.  CRACK IN THE WORLD garnered all the attention and the reviews – the lion’s share which were deservedly positive.

This is yet another movie long on collector’s request lists. Olive Films should be congratulated for at last “officially” making this gem available…so throw out those bootlegs!  As for the scary forecast from an era where we thought that such things were still impossible…not that it matters…but, if the world has to be destroyed, I’d personally rather have it be at the hands of Dana Andrews and Alexander Knox than the current EPA and Individual # 1.

CRACK IN THE WORLD:  Color.  Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; LPCM mono.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF283.  SRP: $29.95.

CRACKWORLD_COVER

 

Dead-Eye Dick

For my last of a current series (for now) on color film noir, I saved one of the rarest and most in-demand titles, 1955’s HELL ON FRISCO BAY, now beautifully restored on Blu-Ray from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

The reason for the scarcity of the above had to do with legalities over rights and the Alan Ladd estate.  Post-Shane, after languishing around Paramount for several years in lackluster vehicles, Ladd once again became major player.  This time, he (along with the help of his super-agent wife Sue Carol) also became a producer, inaugurating his own company, Jaguar Productions.  Jaguar had a concurrent deal with Warners and Columbia.  The split arrangement with Warners allowed Ladd to produce pictures to be distributed via the company while additionally appearing in wholly owned Warner Bros. properties (The Iron Mistress, Santiago).  Ladd and Jaguar would likewise make pictures without the star’s on-camera participation (Cry in the Night).  This was a similar deal that Warners had cut with John Wayne and Batjac Productions.  It’s great to be able to report that the entire WB/Jaguar output is now available through Warner Archive.  This one, however, may be the plum in the pudding.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY is based on a gritty novel by William P. McGivern (author of The Big Heat), The script is by Martin Rackin and Sydney Boehm, the latter a favorite of Ladd’s.  Ladd always strove for realism (usually translated visually as graphic violence and authentic location work), and Boehm never disappointed (check out their jaw-dropping 1960 collaboration One Foot in Hell, with the star as a smooth-talking psychopath).  HELL ON FRISCO BAY takes its plot points from prerequisite noir tenets.  Steve Rollins is a police detective, framed for murder and sent up the river.  His loss of respect, employment and family prey on his already delicate psyche (he was infamously known for being a loose cannon).  Rollin’s early release reveals a hollow shell of his former self.  He checks into a local dive hotel, and sets up shop.  Steve’s plan is simple:  find those who railroaded him, and kill them all.

The traumatized sleuth doesn’t have to look far.  The culprit is Vic Amato (Edward G. Robinson), a vicious union-busting gangster, and an even bigger maniac than his pursuer.  While Rollins eventually finds a few people still in his corner (returned spouse Joanne Dru and ex-partner William Demarest), he frankly doesn’t care.  His mission in life is to kill or be killed.  Or kill and be killed.

Although HELL ON FRISCO BAY contains enough tough stuff and action (an obligatory finale confrontation on a speedboat), the key to FRISCO‘s greatness is the color-tone wheel of the male lead trio’s levels of psychopathy.  Every one of these three principles is seriously (and dangerously) deranged.

Many critics chided Ladd’s performance as sleepwalking through the narrative – even suggesting that starring and producing might have been too much to chew.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Ladd’s ghost, aka Rollins, is letter-perfect.  He’s a dead man walking.  Or stalking.  No feelings, no emotions – everything that matters having been stripped away.  His character is almost a precursor to Lee Marvin’s Walker in John Boorman’s Point Blank, released twelve years later. This is in stark contrast to the showy, wildly lunatic rantings of Robinson’s Amato.  Obviously, capitalizing on the previous year’s On the Waterfront (the working title was Hell on the Docks), the brilliant actor’s interpretation makes Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly look like Golda Meir.  Vic Amato is a foul-mouthed, sexual degenerate demanding loyalty but offering none.  His Italian Christian values (with crosses dotting his ostentatiously decorated manse), including fake faithfulness for his beleaguered wife, are but a mask for the sadist’s lust for gold, defined by his manipulating the unions and ordering hits at the drop of a fedora.  To say that he’d throw his own family under the bus isn’t folly.  He actually does (devoted thug relative Perry Lopez).  Amato is kin to Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (the actor thought little of his FRISCO role, chalking it up as just another dip, albeit an effective one, in the Little Caesar pond; have to emphatically disagree).

Which brings us to the third great performance in HELL ON FRISCO BAY, Paul Stewart (in likely his finest screen appearance) as Joe Lye, Amato’s right-hand man and fixer.  Lye is one of the most complex characters ever to inhabit the noir universe, or ANY cinematic galaxy.  Well-read, thoughtful and caring when away from his employer, he immediately becomes a cold-blooded killer when Vic snaps his talons, morphing into a truly remorseless, vicious monster.  Lye’s one way out is his romance with Kay Stanley, an aging former 1930s super-gorgeous movie star, now adamant in her determination to help reform the love(r) of her life (she being unaware of the murders he has committed).  The fact that this remarkable 1950s defiant woman is portrayed by Fay Wray remains quietly ironic, as many of her character’s traits rang true-to-life, professionally and personally.  Amato, upon hearing that his chief gunsel is dating the one-time movie goddess, conjures up his past lust for the actress when she was a hot Hollywood item.  In one of the most amazing scenes in the movie, Amato and Stanley have a showdown, where he tries to come on to her, and even begins an attempted rape before the pair’s verbal bitch-slapping reaches its peak.  Stanley wins the battle, but cannot win the war for her doomed paramour – sinking fast into the quicksand of corruption and decay that underline his vocation.

The dialog is as tough as the characters “What are you smoking?,” asks Rollins when Amato offers him a job, wrapping up their meeting with a chilling “I’d like to kill you so bad I can taste it.”  And while lead female Dru is there for box-office, she pretty much gets shunted to the side in the wake of her formidable competition.  It’s also easy to see why the star/producer maintains a strong following among gang members (who refer to him as “MISTER Alan Ladd”).

Ladd’s sense of loyalty was the complete opposite of the fictional Amato’s.  Frank Tuttle, the excellent director whose work went back to the silent era (Kid Boots, Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, American Venus), propelled Alan Ladd to stardom in 1942’s This Gun for Hire (as yet another psychotic, but with likeable attributes).  Tuttle, however, became a victim of the blacklist, and even left the country to find work (helming the fantastic 1950 French noir Gunman in the Streets).  Ladd, pulling some the strings, brought him back, and basically told McCarthy-ites to go fuck themselves.  It paid off; Tuttle’s direction is lean, mean and expertly brings out the varying emotional tornadoes from the cast (Tuttle’s final movie credits in the States were all for Ladd’s company, as no one else would hire him).  William Demarest, another former Ladd coworker and friend, nicely plays his role as Dan Bianco, Rollin’s former partner.  The spectacular photography is by the superb d.p. John F. Seitz, yet another member of Ladd’s Paramount alumnus.  The amazing supporting cast includes Renata Vanni, Nestor Paiva, Stanley Adams, Willis Bouchey, Peter Hansen, Anthony Caruso, George J. Lewis, Tina Carver, Mae Marsh, Voltaire Perkins, Herb Vigran, Tito Vuolo, and in early screen turns, Rod Taylor and Jayne Mansfield.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY has been miraculously restored from its faded WarnerColor roots, bristling with a palette of neon pop hues and tones, composed in razor-sharp 1080p 2.55:1 CinemaScope dimensions.  The 2.55, as opposed to the normal 2.35, was to accommodate a mag stereophonic track, which is unfortunately lost.  Nevertheless the 2.0 mono is strong and dynamic, and perfectly replicates Max Steiner’s thunderous score.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY is a must for every Alan Ladd and film noir fan.  It’s an uneasy, unsettling stylistic look at disgrace under pressure.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY. Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Home Video/The Ladd Family Partnership. CAT # 1000652647.  SRP: $21.99.

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

HELL ON FRISCO BAY_COVER

 

 

Drop Off Point

Continuing my theme of film noir in color, a not-as-rare-as-you-think subgenre, I next point to Don Siegel’s spectacular 1959 nail-biter EDGE OF ETERNITY, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from the folks at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

Siegel’s mastery at locations, and especially his prowess at making them as much a part of the narrative as the living and breathing actors, is one of the director’s many trademarks.  In EDGE OF ETERNITY, it’s nothing less than the Grand Canyon (most of the movie was shot in Kingman, AZ), and, as every celluloid-cranker knows, one never defies the “big gun theory.”  By that I mean, if you show a formidable weapon, or super car or any other amazing prop – you better damn well use it.  Siegel not only uses it, he drives us into dizzying hysterics with the swooping down crevices, battles in rickety bucket carts, and high-speed runs along a rim with a 1000-foot drop.  Its 80 minutes of non-stop action that underlines Siegel’s roots as a first-rate editor turned first-rate director.

EDGE OF ETERNITY begins with a violent confrontation that concludes with an urban visitor tossed over the side of the famed wonder of the world.  A car speeding from the scene immediately attracts the attention of Deputy Sheriff Les Martin (Cornel Wilde, certainly no stranger to noir – nor ever color noir, if one recalls Leave Her to Heaven), who pursues the vehicle.  It’s a (perhaps) red herring, albeit a gorgeous one – returning local heiress Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw).

All of the above have a deadly domino effect on the up-till-now lazy community of Kendon (told you she was rural royalty, and one who resides in the era’s rendition of a Barbie’s Dream House).  Martin soon discovers that the (perhaps) friendly inhabitants are carrying a secret revolving around a wartime cache comprising millions in gold.  The fade-in intruder lit the fuse, and there’s no putting it out.  In short, or in a Siegel universe, the town of Kendon becomes another creepy Santa Mira (the burg from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) for the outsider deputy.  Martin’s growing sexual connection to Kendon (the woman, not the town), too, becomes increasingly dangerous as murders continue – each one leading to her affluent family, and possibly the lady herself.

EDGE OF ETERNITY is a mystery wrapped in a thriller wrapped in an action-adventure and rings the bell on ’em all.  The action scenes that had movies audiences breathless in Siegel’s previous Columbia offering, 1958’s The Lineup, are a pale shadow compared to what is on-hand in EDGE.  And “edge” is the word.  If you don’t succumb to at least a modicum of rollercoaster motion sickness during the pic’s unraveling, you’re either a professional tightrope walker or dead.

The picture, of course, had its problems during production, mostly due to the hazardous locations.  Siegel demanded realism, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  So, yeah, that’s really Cornel Wilde and Co. occasionally swinging on those bucket cables, peering over those cliffs and hanging on for dear life.  Wilde, especially, had difficulty, as he was suffering from a detached retina during the filming, a vision impairment that played perilous tricks upon his judgment (Siegel thought he was swell).  Columbia contract player Shaw had a fear of heights to begin with, so this performance might be her most realistic (quite a year for the actress at her studio, as she also costarred in Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono).

The project first intrigued Siegel during a visit to pal Jack Elam’s home, where he spied the Richard J. Collins/Marion Hargrove script (from a story by Hargrove and Ben Markson).  In an freakish noir “what if,” Siegel wanted Elam to play the lead, a decision Columbia instantly nixed (nevertheless Elam gets a juicy supporting role, along with such notable thesps as Mickey Shaughnessy, Edgar Buchanan, Dabbs Greer and Hope Summers).

Humorously enough, the cart to a silver mine is christened “US Guano,” being that of the excavation company’s leading functions is to remove bat guano (if that’s really their game) from the cave deposits.  It’s the first of Columbia’s apparent fascination (or dare I say “strangelove”?) with flying rodent fecal matter.

The awesome CinemaScope photography is by the great Burnett Guffey, and he and Siegel had a hell of a time maneuvering helicopters in and out of the Canyon and through the chasms, that seemed to have a bottomless drop (helicopter shots were, as one might expect, still fairly uncommon in 1959).  Guffey’s ghost, we hope, can now rest easy knowing that Twilight Time has at last done justice to his outstanding EDGE-y work.  I’m referring to the fact that the movie was lensed in Eastmancolor, which tended to fade rather rapidly.  Worse, all those decades of TV pan-and-scan grainy scope blow-ups made watching this literal cliffhanger a nonstarter.  Noiristas and all Siegel fans can likewise rejoice, as the specialty Blu-Ray releasing firm has gorgeously remastered this 1950s gem in its full CinemaScope glory with knockout hi-def colors and theater-like mono audio (featuring Daniele Amfiheatrof’s score, available as an IMT option); furthermore, the disc offers commentary by cinema historians Nick Redman and C. Courtney Joyner.

I had never really seen this movie until now (or wanted to, in its reddish illegible full-frame dimensions), and, lately, I screen it often.  I love it.  Siegel himself rather liked it, too.  In his 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, he proudly stated that “Some of the things we did on [EDGE OF ETERNITY] were the most dangerous stunts ever…Two professional high-wire stuntmen quit the picture.”  Nevertheless, his take on CinemaScope is rather puzzling. “EDGE OF ETERNITY is the first picture I did in CinemaScope [1956’s Body Snatchers was in post-composed widescreen SuperScope].  I don’t like the proportions at all. Look at the great paintings in museums: they are not in the shape of Band-aids [apparently he’s never viewed The Last Supper].” This comment especially smacks of, well, gobsmackery when one looks at the results.  Siegel brilliantly uses the vast space so that (as indicated above), along with the Canyon, the process is as much a star of the pic as are Wilde and Shaw.  Perhaps more so.  Again, considering Siegel’s splendid use of scope in such subsequent entries as Flaming Star and Dirty Harry, only add to the conundrum.

With its ambience of suspense, double-crosses, aura of corruption, plus the genre’s prerequisites of greed, passion and murder, EDGE OF ETERNITY comes up a winner in the film noir (color or no) sweepstakes.  Remember though, as with all Twilight Time titles, this is a limited edition; when it’s gone, it’s gone.  And we don’t mean guano.

EDGE OF ETERNITY.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TWILIGHT 263-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

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

EDGEOFETERNITY_COVER