Wonderful Miserables

Those memorable filmic moments when all the cogs fit perfectly into place occurred magnificently in 1958, when the French finally produced the definitive version of LES MISERABLES, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films (in conjunction with Pathe Renn and Serena Films).

Victor Hugo’s novel, now most famously known as an internationally successful stage (and feh big-screen) musical had long been thought unfilmable, at least in the way the author conceived it.  Hollywood nevertheless diluted the material – not once, but FOUR TIMES – notably in two Fox renditions eighteen years apart (there had been earlier silent versions in 1909 and 1917).  By streamlining the narrative into one Monarch Notes edition, the studio unveiled a 1934 version costarring Fredric March and Charles Laughton and then a 1952 visualization featuring Michael Rennie and Robert Newton.  Both remain marginally entertaining, but absolutely NOT the book.

It took much finagling and decades for French producers Paul Cadeac and Richard Brandt and director Jean-Paul Le Chanoise to fashion a faithful adaptation, doing their hero, Hugo, justice, and, in 1958, when epics were all the rage, it so came to pass.  A mammoth project, featuring endless extras, an all-star French cast and a colossal 188-minute running time (not including intermission), LES MISERABLES at last reflected the book in all its glory.

No longer was this one straight cat-and-mouse chase between the much-maligned Jean Valjean, an innocent who served nearly twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread, and the maniacal police officer Javert, who relentlessly pursues him.  This was the novel – with many inter-stories involving the colorful and diverse characters that both men encounter during years of strife, tension, political corruption, revolution, turmoil and triumph.

The movie was structured in Von Stroheimian terms, giving supporting players their own individual stories.  And, it worked.  But the cast sealed the deal.  As the sociopathic lawman, Bernard Blier excelled as Javert; but it was the coup choice of Valjean that forever makes this tower above any other MISERABLES.  Since the 1930s, it was globally agreed that the greatest Jean Valjean would be Jean Gabin, arguably one of the twentieth century’s finest actors.  By 1958, the veteran thesp had actually grown into the right age for the role, only relying on “youth” makeup in earlier segments (usually it was the other way around).  Gabin not only owns Valjean, he portrays TWO roles, the second being an unfortunate who is persecuted because he looks like the bread thief (the latter later ascending to the position of wealthy industrialist).  There are other terrific performances as well, including Daniele Delorme as Fantine, a single mother turned prostitute, Ferdnand Ledoux, the bishop who puts the frenzied thief Valjean on the road to redemption, plus Sergei Reggiani, Bourvil, Rene Fleur, Julianne Paroli, Jean Murat, Beatrice Altariba, Lucien Baroux, Suzanne Nivette and Jacques Marin.

The movie actually takes additional liberties with its source-work by giving us a flashback on how Javert came to become the despicable tracker he is.  And what tragically happens to him after the main events play out.  It was a bold but brilliant move.

This is a sensational look at oppression, humility, hope and essentially beating the odds even in the most bleak circumstances.  It demonstrates how power can actually be used for the good, something often never considered in mainstream picture drama.  In short, there’s never been a LES MISERABLES like this one; nor, I imagine, will there ever be.  Credit the screenwriters Michel Audiard, Rene Barjavel and Le Chanois, who also excelled with his fine direction, and the opulent art and set production design by Serge Pimenoff,  Karl Schneider,Pierre Dequesne, and Albert Schultze. Also the incredible period costumes authentically reproduced by Marcel Escoffer, Jacqueline Guyot, Frederuc Junker and Luise Schmidt. The music, too, is part of the winning formula, so kudos to composer Georges Van Parys.  For me, the piece de resistance is the outstanding cinematography of Jacques Natteau.  Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, LES MISERABLES was, I believe, the first French production to use the then-new widescreen process of Technirama (another wise decision; this pic looks fantastic, crystal clear images, bursting with stunning hues and tones).  Mono audio in French (with excellent English subtitles) completes this thrilling experience.

LES MISERALBES is an amazing Olive Films Blu-Ray, likely presented in the States for the first time in its proper aspect ratio since its original American release (the movie was an international blockbuster).  Would I like to see a 4K presentation? Certainment!  But this 1080p platter will suffice more than nicely until that home video joyeux evenement occurs.

LES MISERABLES. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD-MA [French w/English subtitles]; Olive Films/Pathe Renn/Serena Films.  CAT # OF530. SRP: $29.95.



Beach Blanket Psycho

An intriguing, thoroughly demented film noir, 1955’s FEMALE ON THE BEACH comes to Blu-Ray from the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and Universal Studios.

When wealthy, attractive, mature widow Eloise Crandall (the 1950’s perennial movie victim/punching bag Judith Evelyn) falls to her death, it rocks an upscale California beach community.  Connected to her unfortunate demise is beach bum Drummond “Drummy” Hall (Jeff Chandler), who seems to have been romantically involved with every being in the vicinity in possession of a uterus.  Each lady has also at some point arranged for impressive sums of money to be transferred into the lothario’s bank account.

Drummy’s lifestyle/vocation as God’s grift to women is about to be changed when the next rich femme checks in.  Mostly because she’s Joan Crawford, who ain’t taking no shit from no one no how.  As Lynn Markham, Crawford’s character is bitter to the max before Drummond even lays a hand on her (which he does, resulting in a monumental traditional Crawford bitch-slap).  Still, Hall is more determined than ever.  Detectives warn Lynn of his dubious reputation; she scoffs it off with being fully able to handle herself.  Worse, we discover that Hall is the living dildo pawn of nouveau riche neighbors, Osbert and Queenie Sorenson (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer).  They subsidize his living large in exchange for a piece of the pay-for-play pie.  The sultry local Realtor (Jan Sterling) has her suspicions, as does the lead sleuth (Charles Drake), the latter who finds himself increasingly attracted to Markham.

By the time Hall gets real physical (ripping off Lynn’s dress), Markham’s longing lady parts kick in and she acquiesces to his carnal advances.  Is he playing her for the next victim?  Is she playing him to satiate her desires?  Or is this, as the Coke ads (sorry, Joanie) used to say “the real thing”?

FEMALE ON THE BEACH is one of the most goddamn watchable lurid thrillers ever to be turned out by Universal-International.  During the 1950s, U-I offered major stars an offer they couldn’t refuse.  Take a cut in salary and share in the profits.  It worked, luring actors and actresses that the studio never could have otherwise had a snowball’s chance in hell of signing (James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Jane Russell, Van Heflin, Lana Turner, Alan Ladd, Anne Baxter and Crawford).  Crawford came with a list of demands.  She would choose the project and her costar.  Snaring FEMALE was brilliant, a sexy role for an aging super name.  From the U-I stable, she selected Chandler.  “I chose Ira Grossel from Brooklyn, NY,” said Lucille LeSueur from San Antonio, TX.  They definitely ignite a flame, apparent from their first frame together.  For Crawford, one of the genre’s goddesses (Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon, Possessed, Sudden Fear, etc.), FEMALE ON THE BEACH would be her final noir; suffice to say, she goes out in a blaze of glory.

One iconic Crawford moment makes FEMALE a particular must for every one of her fans.  Hall, who really thinks he’s all that, has passkeys to all the local women’s abodes.  When an already irritated Markham awakes, she’s pissed-off shocked to find him in her kitchen.  The famous Crawford glare instantly spells doom for Chandler.  But it gets better. “How do you like your coffee?,” asks the uninvited playboy.  Crawford pauses brilliantly before spectacularly replying, “Alone!” in that Joanie way that is the verbal equivalent of a crossbow through his throat.  We were all howling at the Neuhaus Bijou, replete with applause.  There are other pips in Robert Hill’s and Richard Alan Simmons’ script (from a story by Hill, with uncredited dialog from producer Albert Zugsmith) worth quoting.  When the unfortunate Evelyn (recently of Rear Window and soon to embark on The Tingler) careens off the terrace to her demise, Crawford/Markham eyes the still unrepaired railing, then quips “She must have left in a hurry.”  Marham’s snarky tune changes (albeit slightly) when she discovers the late woman’s hidden diary, revealing some misogynistic traits and comments displayed by Hall/Chandler (“I don’t hate women, I just hate the way they are.”).  The tense climax is fairly unexpected and exciting.


The Blu-Ray of FEMALE ON THE BEACH is excellent, presented in its odd pseudo-scope aspect ratio of 2:1 (SuperScope without the trademark).  It’s the first time this movie has been available in these dimensions since its original release.  Beautifully shot by Charles Lang, and nicely scored by Heinz Roemheld (with assist from Herman Stein), the pic was professionally directed by Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director, and likely the best of U-I’s mainstream house talent.

It’s important to note that among the extras, the plum is audio commentary moderated by director David DeCoteau.  DeCoteau has become one of the kings of the Lifetime Movie Channel.  His participation is of interest, as FEMALE ON THE BEACH is essentially the template for every Lifetime Movie ever produced, save with an A-list cast and crew.

FEMALE ON THE BEACH. Black and White.  Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23397. SRP: $29.95.



Logan’s Run

When the phenomenon of Downton’s Abbey began, back in 2010, the bulging floodgates of talent flowed so rapidly that seemingly every Brit actor currently breathing appeared to have originated from the famed country estate.  So many great Downton thesps turned (and are still turning) up in a myriad of UK and US movies and television series that’s it’s a chore to keep count.  Not that I’m complaining; no, not at all, this is (mostly) a good thing.

One of the most ubiquitous of the Downton alumnus, a veritable female Toby Jones, is Phyllis Logan, who excelled as the amiable Mrs. Hughes.  Logan has not stopped trodding the boards during DA’s hiatus or since; more intriguingly, we are getting samples of the BAFTA-winning actress’s splendid work prior to her taking up residence in the Abbey.  Two sterling pre-and-post Downton examples, now on Acorn Media DVD, comprise the snarky thrillers ALIBI (2003) and GIRLFRIENDS, SERIES 1 (2018).


ALIBI is a twisty, deliciously wicked filmic dissection that delves into the strange relationships of three people.  Marcey Burgess, the wonderful Sophia Okonedo of the The Slap fame (the good one), is a single parent, working for social services, who appends her measly salary by hiring out as staff for a catering company.  Her most recent gig is at the posh residence of the Brentwoods, Greg and Linda (the likewise wonderful Michael Kitchen and Logan).  The celebratory fete is not all it’s cracked up to be.  The couple’s marriage is shaky at best, all the more revealed when it’s revealed that Brentwood’s partner (Tom Knight) is cheating on both his business and with his wife.  When the cad is found deceased after the festivities, neurotic Greg attempts to meticulously build his alibi (SPOILER: this Kitchen ain’t no Foyle).  But he was seen by Marcey, who returned to retrieve her handbag. Begging the shocked woman to believe it was an accident, she agrees to help shuffle the facts. The intertwining of the three personalities, their friendships, lies and deceit, helping and derailing, threats and bonding are masterfully handled by the trio of expert actors.  They are aided and abetted by an excellent script (Paul Abbott, late of No Offence, and quickly becoming my numero uno British TV scribe) and direction (David Richardson).  Of additional note is the crisp widescreen photography (Lawrence Jones) and music accompaniment (Hal Lindes).  The one platter, three-episode series is yet another great looking and sounding Acorn DVD.


A happy wedding anniversary luxury cruise for Linda (Logan, as yet another Linda), Micky (Steve Evets) and their grown children, literally takes a nasty turn when Micky drunkenly falls overboard to his death.  But did he?  The now-mourning widow might not be so innocent.  So think the police and insurance investigators, but not her two BFFs since childhood, Gail (Zoe Wanamaker) and Sue (Miranda “Be Still My Heart” Richardson).  Not that their lives are any better.  Gail is struggling with a roving, separated husband (Adrian Rawlins), an ex-con son (Matthew Lewis) and a mother whose denial of dementia (Valerie Lilley) is belied by her burning down their flat.  Sue is financially better off, but, emotionally, not so much.  Co-founder of a trendy wedding magazine, Sue’s partner and lover John (Anthony Head), with whom she had a bisexual son Andrew (Philip Cumbus), is determined to legally push his one-time main squeeze out of the picture, craving younger femmes in the workplace and the bedroom. Andrew, a successful lawyer, himself divorced with a family and now living with his male soulmate, happily agrees to take both her case, and Linda’s.

A biting comment on age discrimination, sexual harassment, adultery and, natch, murder, GIRLFRIENDS, a heady brew from writer/creator Kay Mellor (The Syndicate, Strictly Confidential), tackles all of these serious topics with sardonic humor (the narrative casts its net wide enough to include a psychotic stalker, blackmail, and a sidebar on efficient body disposal).  That it gets away with it is mostly due to the three stalwart ladies and the fine codirection of Mellor and Dominic Leclerc.  The photography (some on-location in Spain) is nicely rendered in widescreen by David Odd.  An appropriate music score is once again supplied by Hal Lindes.  The six episodes (spread over two discs) are appended by a recent Q & A supplement, featuring Logan and Richardson; it’s fun and funny, and so cool to see them with their hair down.

ALIBI.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround; Acorn RJL Entertainment/EndemoleShine Group.  CAT# AMP-2634.  SRP: $34.99.

 GIRLFRIENDS, SERIES 1. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround. Acorn/RJL Entertainment/all3 media/Rollem Productions.  CAT# AMP-2661.  SRP: $39.99.





Pre-Existing Conditions

An uncompromising, rugged, often brutal yet paradoxically beautiful western, Delmer Daves’ vastly underrated 1959 masterpiece THE HANGING TREE finally comes to home video in a worthy edition: a new widescreen High Definition Blu-Ray (thank you, Warner Archive).

The movie, based on an acclaimed novel by Dorothy M. Johnson (whose no-holds-barred works included The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse), transcends being simply another notch on Daves’ pantheon of greats (The Red House, Dark Passage, The Last Wagon, 3:10 to Yuma).  Long story short, THE HANGING TREE is a motion picture of Gary Cooper.  It was he who nursed the project, coproduced it with Warner Bros. via his Baroda Production company, helped cast and crew it, and took on the role of the story’s unsavory lead.

THE HANGING TREE is a stunning dichotomy of the human condition in the worst-case scenario.  Insult to injury, it’s about the American human condition, with hypocrisy, greed, apathy and lust rearing their ugly heads at every opportunistic moment possible.

The narrative revolves around the newly formed, charmingly named gold-rush town of Skull Creek, in 1873 Montana (Cooper’s home state, ably represented by magnificent Nile, WA, locations).  The first line of the movie displays the pride and admiration the residents have for their designated hanging tree (“makes folks feel respectable”).  Into this nest of dubious creeps rides Doc Joseph Frail, a disreputable person with a violent past, but, ironically, an excellent medical practitioner (in a nice touch, he arrives the same day as the whores).  Frail is anything but, with the exception of scruples.  We discover that it’s not even his real name, but an allegorical alias he has taken to purposely rub the frailties of human nature in his patients’ faces; Frail, you see, is also an intellectual, but he rarely allows that to get in the way of his scoffing at inferiors (to the Doc, that means everyone else).

What set him off on his road to “take all you can get from the animals” was discovering his wife in bed with his brother.  He killed them both, then burned his home to the ground.  His prowess with a gun and manipulation of the law has prevented any serious attempt to apprehend him.

Key among Frail’s fellow specimens in Skull Creek are the Flaunces (Karl Swenson, Virginia Gregg), capitalist storekeepers who claim good hearts, but will cut you off at the legs to make a buck; Frenchy (Karl Malden), a lowlife miner and sexual predator; and worse, Rev. George Grubb (George C. Scott), a psychotic preacher who occasionally makes Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter look like Pollyanna the glad girl.  You can see by the cast that this is no ordinary western.

When Frail treats Rune, a wounded teenage thief (Ben Piazza, in his U.S. screen debut), he blackmails the youth into becoming his slave, lest he be turned over to the townsfolk and their beloved “branch” of the law. Routine changes with the arrival of European immigrant Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), the sole survivor of a stagecoach robbery that claimed her father, and left her temporally blinded by gunshot flash and days of exposure.  She immediately becomes the prey of Frenchy, but is taken under wing by Doc, who treats her maladies, and, eventually cures her blindness.  Mahler, too, becomes his slave (“Rune, am I a prisoner?” asks the new addition to the Frail household). Frail’s enjoyment of using people as his pawns in a real-life chess game culminates in his staking Rune and Elizabeth (unbeknownst to them) to a three-way share with Frenchy.  The claim pays off, erupting in a physical and emotional climax that forever changes the lives of Skull Creek (the ones who survive).

Aside from being a superstar, and, by the late 1950s, one of Hollywood’s “living legends,” Gary Cooper was a sly and shrewd businessman.  He knew the entertainment business upside down, having been a lead player since the end of the silent era.  He wisely took on the lead in 1952’s High Noon the movie that repaired a rut in his career and essentially invented the adult western.  Cooper saw the value of pairing with new stars and looking for edgy projects.  Vera Cruz practically created the template for the spaghetti western.  The veteran actor balanced that with a more traditional turn in Friendly Persuasion, then played an adulterer (coupling with his college-aged daughter’s BF) in 10 North Frederick, an over-the-hill-lothario romancing a teenager in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, a member of a maniac gang of murderers in Anthony Mann’s remarkable Man of the West, a coward caught up in the Mexican Revolution in They Came to Cordura, and, in his final performance, a suspected psycho killer in The Naked Edge.

Cooper also bought up movie rights to novels he thought might work for him, like A.B. Guthrie, Jr.s,’ The Way West, but didn’t live long enough to bring them to fruition.  He sought out controversial writers to script his works, of which THE HANGING TREE is an excellent example; searing with its fierce dialog and refusal to play by the rules. It was written by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder) and 3:10 to Yuma’s Halsted Welles.  Cooper avidly championed the foreign film market, which was becoming an ever-increasing driving force in American movie-going (thus, the participation of Canadian Piazza and Swiss Schell; he also was instrumental in securing Brazilian director Hugo Fregonese his first Hollywood gig).

The movie had its share of production problems, some due to location difficulty, but mostly to the health of director Daves, who fell ill during the shoot.  Warner house talent Vincent Sherman came in for one day before it was decided that costar Malden would pick up the reins while Daves was recovering; the Oscar-winning method actor did a quite praiseworthy job (Malden took over the last month of the shoot).

While the critics loved the pic here, and the movie did decent box-office, it was Daves’ other 1959 Warners release. A Summer Place that went through the roof.  Not surprisingly, in Europe (particularly France), the opposite was true; THE HANGING TREE was lauded as the triumph it deserved to be, and permanently guaranteed Daves a top spot in the European American Filmmakers of Note list.

THE HANGING TREE shines in all departments, notably the stark Technicolor locations by the brilliant d.p. Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre).  The score, by Max Steiner, occasionally spills over into his penchant for “Mickey Mousing,” but nevertheless contains some memorable themes relating to the prime characters.  The title song, the (then) obligatory western ballad (another practice that originated with High Noon) is a classic.  Composed by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, and dramatically sung by Marty Robbins (whose “El Paso” exploded on the charts the same year), the tune is one of my favorite movie refrains.  The lines burn (“to really live, you must almost die”), accurately depicting the aberrant behavior and comeuppance for Skull Creek’s rogue gallery.  Simply put, THE HANGING TREE is one of Gary Cooper’s finest performances and one of his greatest movies.

THE HANGING TREE  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 10809p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000693371. SRP: $21.99

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