Beat’s Working

It’s always nice to find current movies I really like; thus, I welcome, with open arms, the latest offering from Japan’s auteur, Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Kitano), 2017’s OUTRAGE CODA, now on Blu-Ray from the eclectic folks at Film Movement.

Beat, who stars, directed, wrote and edited this masterful look at old school gangsterism vs. new dotcom thuggery (it’s also co-released through his company Office Kitano), is in top form as Otomo, a retired yakuza, now idling his time in South Korea.  He spends his days fishing with longtime “associate” Ichikawa (Nao Omori).  They mirthfully recount the days of yore, nostalgically reliving their favorite killings, an anecdotal habit that reveals what a genial sociopath Otomo truly is.  This, at once, spills over into pure psychopathy when the aggravated retiree, tired of waiting for his bait to yield results, repeatedly fires his pistol into the sea.

This “tranquil” moment, one of the few in CODA, is terminated when Otomo is called back into action to settle a dispute with Maruyama (Taizo Harada), a visiting hothead scumbag from a rival clan.  He has abused several high-priced hookers for not thrilling him enough, and refuses to pay.  Otomo and Ichikawa lay down the law, further accentuated by Maruyama’s people, looking to use the schmuck-john as an excuse to show their good faith (rather severely, as the bastard ends up dead), a failed effort of demonstrating that all clans must work together.  As mob murder tends to do, the incident has a negative chain-reaction effect, and begins an all-out gang-war.  Otomo, now caught in the middle, but fiercely devoted to his boss, revered kingpin Mr. Chang (Tokio Keneda), journeys to Japan to finish what promises to be bloodbath return to the “good old days.”  And, alas, it is.

The wonderful parallels between the classic criminal code vs. the nouveau riche mobsters (the head of the rival clan is a renowned businessman, and investment banker) see-saw from often humorous to freakishly revolting.  With deceit, vengeance, assassination, treachery and conspiracy up the wazoo, OUTRAGE CODA grips its viewers from frame one.

While the picture doesn’t display the often horrible poetic beauty of Hanabi, it does weave a relentless ethical tapestry that unmasks the uselessness of billions in cash without trust.

Otomo is no mere yakuza hitman – while a traditional “fixer,” he’s also modern underworld samurai, who, regardless of personal feelings, will never waiver from his dedication to Mr. Chang, a selfless act that ends this morality play on a somber, but riveting note.

The revenge tactics are brilliant, particularly on how to deal with asshole CEOs who think they’re all that (it doesn’t hurt that the main creep, noted thespian Ren Osugi, bears more than a striking resemblance to Wayne LaPierre with a swatch of Steve Mnuchin).

As usual, Beat utilizes locations magnificently (big thumbs up to cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima for his exquisite widescreen compositions), stages large-scale action sequences like a Mephistophelian ballet and addresses human relationships with finesse and (astoundingly) even poignancy (the cast, also featuring Pierre Taki, Toshiyuki Nishida, Sansei Shiomi, Tatsuo Nadaka and Ken Mitsuishi is exceptional).  Think Sam Peckinpah crossed with Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang, plus a liberal dose of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli. I know, that PFFOOSH is the sound of your head exploding.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of OUTRAGE CODA is terrific, popping with neon colors (especially impressive in the nighttime segments) and 1080p High Definition clarity.  The 5.1 surround score will reverberate all over your media room as the bullets fly, while concurrently presenting the strains of Keiichi Suzuki’s award-winning score most effectively.  A number of cool extras grace this platter, including a “Making of” documentary and a gallery of Beat trailers.

A violent and fascinating take on Japanese culture mixed with Machiavellian politics and Shakespearean drama, OUTRAGE CODA should delight fans of Asian cinema, Beat Takeshi and all things gangsta.  It presents a bravura, entertaining (if not somewhat disturbing) cutting-edge road map to successful contemporary movie-making.

OUTRAGE CODA. Color. Widescreen [2.40:1 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA [Japanese w/English subtitles].  Film Movement/Warner Brothers Japan/Tohokushinsha Film Corporation/Office Kitano.  CAT # OUTRAGECODABLU-RAY. SRP: $34.95.

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Norman Baits

An unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) masterpiece, Raoul Walsh’s 1958 WWII epic THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, based on Norman Mailer’s 1948 bestselling novel, comes to stunning Blu-Ray from the troops at the Warner Archive Collection.

As far back as Battleground (1949), Hollywood realized that the Second World War had legs, and very profitable ones.  Scandalous albeit often brilliant novels, such as From Here to Eternity, The Caine Mutiny, Battle Cry, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Young Lions proved them right and the blew open the movie sale floodgates, taunting the then still existing Production Code.  Somewhere, checking the grosses and picture recipts of millions of dollars, was Mailer, author of perhaps the finest postwar semi-fictional account of the horrors occurring in the Philippines between 1944-45.  The problem was that THE NAKED AND THE DEAD (the book) was sensational due to its prose; nightmarish sequences aside, it was one of those tempting titles that were nonetheless branded “unfilmable.”  Eventually, a picture rights deal was made; once finalized, the writer was cautiously gung-ho – until the actual production commenced and a viewing of the final cut screened.  Till the end of his days, Mailer termed the 131-minute modern odyssey as the worst movie he had ever seen.

Mailer’s low opinion was paralleled by the many changes the picture suffered through before one frame ever turned over in the camera.  Originally, the movie, purchased by RKO in a last gasp attempt to beat Republic to the Which-Studio-Can-Drop-Dead-First finish line, was to be three-pronged by the Night of the Hunter trio, producer Paul Gregory, director Charles Laughton and star Robert Mitchum (the latter as the novel’s Sgt. Croft, one of the vilest characters ever in literature or celluloid).  This lofty follow-up quickly fell apart, the “official” account being that the middling Night of the Hunter box-office soured Laughton on the deal.  What soured Laughton was the broiling location work in Panama (climate was the reason he turned down the Colonel Nicholson role in River Kwai, despite the pleading of David Lean and Sam Spiegel who kept upping his salary).  Reportedly, without Laughton, Mitchum begged off, leaving Gregory holding a very expensive bag.  Battle Cry, another scorching novel of WWII (though a way less impressive literary work), was super-successfully brought to the screen in 1955.  So why not carry over its director and star?  Enter Raoul Walsh and Aldo Ray (as well as other BC alumni Raymond Massey, L.Q. Jones, and William Campbell).  Walsh’s approach was to make the picture as dirty as possible, bring in the whores whenever there was a flashback or soldiers-on-leave opportunity.  Ray, arguably a terrific choice as Croft, delivered one of his finest performances; the fact that anyone cares at all about a repugnant human being like Croft is due to the actor’s abilities to pull off one of the most difficult tasks in movie history.

An allegorical and philosophical treatise of the war, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD (bolstered by the punchy title suggesting sex and violence) is an emotional tug of war between two maniacs:  Croft and General Cummings (Massey).  Caught in the center is supremely intelligent and passionate Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson).  One of the genuine triumphs of Officers Training School, Hearn comes from a proud military line.  He also cares about people.  A lot.  This brands him as weaking by both Croft and Cummins who, while from vastly different backgrounds, believe that the only way to rule is via fear and hate.

Croft, a rabid misogynist, is initially seen in a dive while on furlough with his men.  An attractive woman sidles up to him at the bar and asks if he’ll buy her a drink.  He responds by gulping a mouthful of beer and spitting it in her face.  This rather unsanitary habit is the result of his disastrous marriage.  Red flag #1:  NEVER marry Barbara Nichols.  That said, Ray and Nichols do, in their early scenes, seem like one of the best screen couples of all time.  Spending every moment screwing in convenient hay lofts, the red light district glow quickly fades once Croft is called back to duty.  Nichols responds by laying everything in sight but the carpet.  Ray’s early surprise visit home ends in assault.  And from then on, he despises women with a vengeance.  Ditto, officers, pacifists, loudmouths…oh, the hell with it…He hates everybody.  And everybody hates him.  Of course, those who serve under the volatile sergeant, while repelled by his presence, still feel safe under his command.  Croft is most happy when he’s killing, and he gets ample opportunity.  World War II becomes the psychopath’s dream job.  Nothing soothes him more than hearing the bloodcurdling screams of a Japanese battalion he lured into a field before burning them alive.  He also carries special pliers to pull out gold fillings of the enemy he’s killed.  He wears a sack of yanked teeth around his neck.  It’s his nest-egg.

Cummings is a more cultured lunatic, thereby more dangerous.  He relishes having intellectual conversations with Hearn about fear vs. devotion, hate vs. love.  Until he (possibly) misinterprets a facial expression by the lieutenant’s, suggesting that the general is sexually impotent.  From that moment on, Cummings viciously persecutes the younger officer, finally relegating him to Croft’s troop as their commander.  Croft’s response: find a way to kill him.

Admittedly, while THE NAKED AND THE DEAD isn’t exactly the book (how could it be?), it isn’t exactly NOT the book either.  Mailer’s pet peeves (aside from changing the mortality of key players, even relegating some to background characters) included the fantasy sequences of hot women writhing all over Lt. Hearn (likely inserted merely as trailer fuel to bring in the horndogs).  The casting of stripper Lili St Cyr made him positively apoplectic and forever doomed any chance of his promoting the picture.

For Walsh, the movie topped Battle Cry with its ferocious bloodshed and large-scale combat episodes (only a scant few uses of grainy stock footage ruins the effect).  In fact, screenwriters Denis and Terry Sanders (unusual choices, best known for their landmark 1969 feature documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way it Is) did incorporate several of Mailer’s themes.  The basic “war is hell” was supplanted by “everyone with power is a fuggin’ madman.”  Furthermore, war is privileged folks’ (and sadist’s) personal and legal torture chamber.

By the time the movie neared completion, RKO was no more.  The remaining dreg titles were picked up and shared between Warner Bros. and Universal-International (they got Fuller’s Run of the Arrow).  Thus, the bizarre credit An RKO Tele-Radio Picture, Distributed by Warner Bros.

The pic, shot in SuperScope (an essentially fake CinemaScope process, championed by Howard Hughes), was designed so that a movie could be shot flat (but composed as a scope offering), then reprocessed in the lab, so that the 35MM release prints would be anamorphic 2.35:1.  Warners, not affiliated with SuperScope (nor wanting to be), re-christened the final cut in WarnerScope, a bogus  moniker they had trademarked when they were pursuing their own personal widescreen format.  NAKED AND THE DEAD‘s excellent Technicolor cinematography is by Joseph LaShelle (and, boy, does it look good in this new 1080p High Definition transfer).  A big feather in the movie’s cap is the fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann, another strange but ultimately inspired choice. The music, reverberating like an ancient Roman dirge, occasionally brings to mind the monsters of his Harryhausen compositions.  And, in a brutal, realistic way, it should.

THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, benefiting Warners as a pickup more than a production, ended up grossing more than $3,000,000,000 upon its first-run domestic release (or about $30 million in today’s currency).  Ordinarily, this would have been a less than break even situation (the movie cost nearly as much to make), but since Warners didn’t front production capital, it avoided being a disaster.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is a must for war movie fans.  A wonderful rarely seen trailer, hosted by Aldo Ray, warns us that this is the picture the Movies had to grow up to make!  Deservedly, the picture gains new followers every year, and, is likely Raoul Walsh’s last truly great effort.

THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT #1000642525. SRP: $21.99.

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

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A-babe-ian Nights

Just desserts, lust desserts AND deserts intertwine in the fantasy-laced 1954 sexy comedy adventure THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from the shahs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

The ultimate guilty pleasure, this sumptuously hued and toned pipedream was produced by Walter Wanger for Allied Artists, though released through 20th Century-Fox.  It’s certainly an unusual credit (likely a collaboration due to its being shot in CinemaScope, as the process was registered with Fox and the lenses, in early days, were in great demand and hard to come by.  Just a guess, but what do I know?)  Rejoice in the fact that this naughty cinematic retelling of the James Justinian Morier novel (witty script by Richard Collins) got made at all (even so, the 93-minute epic was shorn of nearly a full reel for the UK release).

Hajji is a barber, or, to be more accurate, a barber’s apprentrice, in fact, a barber’s son.  He is quite popular, especially with the ladies since, as the Nat King Cole ballad tells us throughout, he is “…always in love…IN LOVE!”  He also has great aspirations to display his boudoir gifts in the greatest courts in the lands via landing the greatest courtesians en route. He so amuses his high-profile clients that they stake him to a quest to see if he can achieve his goals within a given amount of time.  As the bets skyrocket, so do Hajji’s expectations (because, as he’s quick to tell you again and again, aside from a fine “swordsman,” he’s a fine swordsman).  With new steed and threads, Hajji rides off into the desert sun to make his fortune.

Meanwhile, in the nearby palace, the local Caliph is tearing his beard out over his tempestuous drop-dead gorgeous daughter, Princess Fakzia.  She’s a wild child, determined to continue her not-so-secret illicit relationship with Nurel-Din, the local bad boy, who settles disputes by removing his adversaries’ heads.  Papa warns the lass, but she’s a “fiery” one (1950s dog-whistling for “bitch”).  She’s also a mean girl: “The coffee is cold and the bath is too hot!” Fakzia screams to her frightened hand-maidens, servant mistreatment that only additionally endears her to Nurel-Din.  Realizing that daddy might cause trouble (he even has a suitable marriage arranged), Fakzia ridiculously disguises herself as boy, steals a horse and gallops off to meet her hunk.

That Hajji and Fakzia collide, deceive, hookup, breakup and sheik it up concerns the remainder of this thoroughly entertaining narrative.

These kind of pics were not unique and undeniably very popular during the Truman-Eisenhower years; indeed, they were regularly churned out on the backlots of Universal-International and Columbia, so much so that they became their own genre, tagged “Tits ‘N’ Sand” pics by Hollywood wags.  What makes HAJJI stand out is not merely the snarkier script, but the large-scale production values.   It’s a spectacular looking movie, designed in phantasmagoric colors by the celebrated couturier photographer George Hoyningen-Huene.

The script, however, went farther than any T&S opus could ever go.  The aforementioned Nurel-Din is not merely a villain (with his own bio-warfare lab!), he’s a charmingly sinister seducer, as much the ladies’ man as Hajji.  Although his latest flirtation with Fakzia is for both kingdom and her heralded beauty, he nevertheless still finds time to be busily pumping the land’s heavenly dancer – the sultry and passionate Ayesha, who honestly gives Fakzia a shimmy for her money.  While Ayesha’s dances and formidable powder-keg sexuality are force-of-nature incredible and a delightful joy to behold, the riddle of the sands is not only how will Nurel-Din be able to choose which sensational woman he will wed, but how the fuck did Sylvia Lewis miss out on this role?!!!

The best subplot of all is the tale of the magnificent Turkomen women – former harem/slave girls – who, fed up with abuse, escaped on stolen royal horses, and formed their own band of marauding Amazons.  So feared are they (continuously accruing new “soldiers” from palaces spanning the Middle East) that caravans carry their own special booty for the femmes’ merciless raids.  Seeing an army of scantily clad women (in full lipstick and makeup) on horseback doing their stuff in full-out pulchritude comprises images that are hard to erase, nor does one want to (these ladies need their own movie). The leader of these rebels is the ravishing Banah, a surprising Amanda Blake, in her finest role.  A take-no-prisoners (except if they’re hot men) ruler, she wields her secret domain with an iron manicured hand.  The camp itself is…well, camp – a delirious artistic fort of feline décor, foreboding evil and bodacious fashion, sort of a collaboration between the Marquis de Sade and Anna Wintour.

When Hajji and Fakzia are captured, the sparks fly.  The warriors, immediately recognizing their cruel former employer, instantly transport her to the torture sector (hanging her by her thumbs over a jagged precipice).  Banah wants some “fun” first with Hajji, who totally succumbs to the fierce woman’s demands before being found out and (since the Turkomens are equal opportunity bandits) and ends up sharing the adjoining thumbnail roost next to the princess.

The (dare I say) climax is an explosion of action, romance, violence, sex and popcorn ambrosia, all packaged in stunning (restored) Color by DeLuxe and lavish use of CinemaScope (by the underrated Harold Lipstein).  The satirical musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin perfectly fills the bill, specifically with those nifty Nat Cole interruptions (accompanied by a chorus of moaning women) that move the scenario along (insane lyrics by Ned Washington).  The supporting cast is as diverting as the plot and certainly warrants more than a nod.  Such scene-stealers as Thomas Gomez, Rosemarie Bowe (aka Stack), Claude Akins, Donald Randolph, Robert Bice, Percy Helton, Kurt Katch, Peter Leeds, Laurette Luez and Anna Navarro seem to be having a ball, and why not?  The renowned Evelyn Finley is credited as the pic’s stunt coordinator, an uncommon credit for the period, and, truth be told, HAJJI appears to have employed every stuntwoman in Hollywood (some even have lines). As the main lady, the shamefully ignored Elaine Stewart, perhaps the best of the era’s Elizabeth Taylor knockoffs, concurrently thrills as both the horny lover and ruthless punishment-dedicated princess; furthermore, Stewart proves herself a game actress, and seems to be doing most of her own riding.  Like Blake, Paul Picerni, as the brutal but dashing Nurel-Din, delivers the best performance of his long and admirable career.  Overall, the entire HAJJI experience is the kind of project that would have had Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. and Jr.) and Errol Flynn salivating copiously, both on and off camera.  Sadly, here is where the casting falters.  John Derek, while definitely looking the part, is void of the necessary wink-wink humor needed to 100% pull it off.  It’s the kind of gig that Tony Curtis (then under strict contract to U-I) could have aced with one scimitar tied behind his back.  Still, what constitutes the majority of THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA is so good that Derek, whose sole expression of supreme emotion mimics the desperate agony of searching for an available subway station restroom, manages to pass the thespian muster.

HAJJI was more than ably directed by Don Weis.  Weis, whose previous work was done at Metro (where he helmed enjoyable fluff like The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, I Love Melvin and Remains to be Seen), and then later on TV, was absolutely in his element with this pic.  The flow of action, the early use of scope and perfect melding of passion and fashion makes HAJJI his masterpiece.  And I ain’t kidding.  While the movie performed well here, overseas, notably in France, it went through the roof.  When one finds key Pantheon of Great Directors and sees the name Don Weis, it’s entirely because of HAJJI BABA.  Famed film critic Gerard Legrand called it “One of the 50 best films in the history of cinema!”

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA is everything you’d expect from the company.  Mastered form a pristine 35MM transfer, brimming with 1080p crystal-clarity and sonic directional 1950s stereo sound, it’s a jewel of a platter.  As with all Twilight Time titles, the music is available as an IST — a must for the addictive score (with Nelson Riddle arrangements) and those hilarious lyrics.  Remember, folks, it’s a limited edition of 3000, so, once they’re sold out, that’s it, buddy!  A swirling filmic kaleidoscopic homage to hookah smoking and smoking hookers, THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA will rock your socks and your library.

THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA.  Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # TWILIGHT 349-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

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Gone Dame

One of the finest film noirs ever, Robert Siodmak’s 1944 masterpiece PHANTOM LADY slinks onto Blu-Ray, via the folks at Arrow Academy Video/Universal Pictures.

This movie has it all: sex, violence, shock, mystery, and a recurrent 110% gasp factor – all wrapped up in oodles of atmosphere and German expressionistic lighting and camera (thanks to the director Robert Siodmak and the superb cinematography of Universal’s ace d.p. Elwood “Woody” Bredell).

The picture, as tensely scripted by Bernard C. Schoenfeld (Caged), is based on a novel by William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich. It’s pure dark poetry Woolrich, perfectly realized and enacted by a stunning cast. Top-billed Franchot Tone was the A-lister whose name emblazoned the marquees, but the movie belongs to female lead Ella Raines, the underrated Forties beauty, who gives her best performance in this cinematic spider web of deceit and terror. Simply, put, she OWNS this hunk of celluloid.

PHANTOM LADY hits the ground running. On a hot, sticky typically grueling Manhattan summer night, jilted engineering executive Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) enters a midtown bar. He’s been stood up by his wife, yet another humiliating rung in their failing marriage. The only other patron in the saloon is a striking, but obviously troubled woman (Fay Helm), sporting a stylish but strange chapeau. The two begin a conversation, then, leave together – he offering to help soothe their respective emotional wounds by taking in a hit Broadway show he had ducats for. The star, a temperamental Carmen Miranda spitfire (Aurora, actually Carmen’s real-life sister), sees the lid the woman is wearing and practically freaks on-stage; it’s identical to her “original.” “No one wears hats like me!,” she screams to her assistant as she storms into her dressing room.

Meanwhile, Clifford, a glazed-eyed drummer keeps giving Henderson’s date the eye, which only further disturbs the lady. They leave without Henderson ever finding out who she is. “No names,” she insists. And she vanishes into the night.

Arriving home, the beat husband is met by a trio of detectives. Henderson’s wife has been strangled, and in a particularly “personal” way. “We had to cut the necktie off,” says one of the dicks.

But Scott has the human perfect alibi. Except no one remembers her. Not the bartender, not the stage star, not the drummer. And Scott heads upstate to death row.

But Scott Henderson has a beautiful ace up his sleeve. And he doesn’t even know it. His personal assistant/associate Carol “Kansas” Richman refuses to believe he could commit murder. She’s as obsessed with finding the killer, as she is with her employer. And Kansas is willing to die trying to prove it.

As the witnesses to the phantom lady conveniently die off, Carol realizes she’s getting closer. So does the lead detective (Thomas Gomez), who comes to believe her. Unfortunately, so does the killer.

PHANTOM LADY is an exercise in madness. It remains a noir novice’s perfect introduction to the genre, and only seems to improve with each screening. German-born Siodmak was destined to excel in noir. His earlier Universal pic, the previous year’s Son of Dracula was basically a horror version of James Cain’s Double Indemnity (with lust and immortality replacing lust and life insurance). PHANTOM LADY put Siodmak on top, and forever displayed themes that would serve him throughout his career, in pictures like The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror, The Killers, and Criss Cross (the latter, along with PHANTOM being my two favorites of the director).

Woolrich’s themes are also brilliantly woven into the narrative, many that turn up in his other filmic adaptations, including lunacy (The Leopard Man), drug addiction (Fall Guy), and brutal New York summers (Rear Window).

For many, the key moment in PHANTOM LADY is when the refined Carol skanks up to lure Clifford, the hopped-up drummer, into a confession. She catches his eye as an audience member in the show. The fact that this stoner is Elisha Cook, Jr. only ratchets up the noir credentials. He takes her to a private jam session, reeking of booze and dope. She acquiesces to his advances, at one point sitting on his lap while he pounds the skins. The two-way cutting as he reaches drum crescendo is like nothing ever seen up to that time in an American movie. It’s musical ejaculation. She quivers, he writhes, she bites her lip, and pants. He beats it hard till…POP. SPOILER: She faked it, he’s spent (a gem of an exchange occurs later at Cliff’s hovel of a crib. When Carol wonders why someone earning his kind of money lives in such a dump, he nervously replies “My dough goes for other things, baby.” All that’s missing is the sniff-sniff).

Another fantastic sequence is when she stalks the creepy bartender (Andrew Tombes). Except the tables get turned, and Kansas finds herself alone with the sinister publican on an El platform in the middle of the night. It’s scarily suspenseful, and had the gang in my living room squirming rather uncomfortably.

This is no job for a woman,” beseeches Scott’s best friend Jack (Tone), an artist who returns from South America to help. Au contraire. With a need for female-to-female bonding, concurrent uses of intelligence and raw sexuality and even fashion sense (that hat) it’s PRECISELY a job for a woman. Only a woman could realistically do the sleuthing. And only a woman could solve the mystery. And a woman (and what a woman) does! It’s no accident that PHANTOM LADY was produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s savvy assistant, Joan Harrison, in essence the Master of Suspense’s real-life Carol Richman. As indicated above, the incredible cast is nothing short of a Film Noir Rogue’s Gallery, and, aside from those already listed, encompasses Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Doris Lloyd, Virginia Brissac, Milburn Stone, Harry Cording, Matt McHugh, Jay Novello, Lillian Randolph and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers.

The Arrow Academy Video Blu-Ray comes from the best 35MM materials currently available. For the most part, it’s great looking, with perfect contrast, excellent clarity (in 1080p High Definition) and clean mono audio (showcasing Hans J. Salter’s scant score, plus stock assist from Frank Skinner and an addictive juke box rendition of “I’ll Remember April,” the smash hit song introduced in Universal’s 1942 Abbott & Costello hit, Ride ‘Em, Cowboy). There are some slight surface and emulsion scratches that appear infrequently, not common on Universal titles, but certainly nothing that constitutes a major distraction. Some fine extras are also included comprising Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, a documentary featuring Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk and others, a promotional materials gallery, and a 1944 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation costarring Curtis and Raines.

Long story short, catch PHANTOM LADY. She’s worth it. I guarantee you’ll never forget her.

PHANTOM LADY. Black and White. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM audio. Arrow Academy Video/Universal Pictures. CAT # AA044. SRP: $39.95.phantomlady_COVER

“Grundlegend, Mein Lieber Watson!”

A cause for celebration by Sherlockians the world over, the 1929 German silent version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE, long thought to be nitrate dust, has not only been discovered, but meticulously restored and is now available on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley (in conjunction with a number of international archives, including Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival).

Not trying to sound like one of the consulting detective’s famed stories, all hope had been lost when discussing this much-desired version, existing only in fragments, stills and Erda-Film GmbH inter-office memos and scenarios.  Materials rescued from a surviving 35MM Czech distribution print plus fragments culled from archival vaults and private collections were combined, along with the original German censorship reports/photoplay text, to navigate as complete a cinematic roadmap of the movie’s debut cut as possible..  Newly created intertitles, fashioned after authentic 1920s era German film fonts (with English subs optional), were commissioned to additionally recreate the 1929 experience.  With the exception of some lost footage (replaced stills, freeze frames and explanatory titling), the picture is intact, and in amazingly fine shape, mastered in High Definition from the 35MM elements.  The quality of the 1080p Blu-Ray is outstanding (especially considering the history behind this monumental production); a dual disc release, Flicker Alley’s HUND also includes a DVD, obviously mastered from the identical materials.

Starring American Carlyle Blackwell, Sr., as Holmes, this classic tale of mystery and horror unfolds atmospherically upon the English mist-shrouded moors, an artistic bonus, since the production coincides with German cinema’s height of Expressionism.  The great thing about the Germans is that they can take the most ominous, sinister situations and make them even more ominous and sinister.  The moors themselves are like an extended old dark house, with natural secret passageways (as in the Doyle novel) and mulch-thatched trap doors.  Every character seems to hold an evil secret in Herbert Juttke’s and Georg C. Klaren’s scenario, marginally relying upon a loosely based play by Richard Oswald and Julius Philipp (which adds an extra mystery woman, one Laura Lyons).  More on that later.

The story, in case one has never encountered it, concerns the involvement of Holmes and Watson in regards to a centuries old curse, a giant, vicious hound from hell that claims all the (supposed) degenerate members of the Baskerville clan.  When the last British Baskerville is found torn to bits, the concerned locals, soon to be governed by a foreign member of the family, beseech the sleuth to help solve the mystery, and, possibly destroy the demon.  While there’s no doubt that some beast has ripped the victim to shreds, there’s a despicably evil and very human creature behind it.  Thus, the game’s afoot (or apaw, for those supernaturally inclined).  The cast is pretty terrific, seemingly aping the famed Gillette illustrations that accompanied the Doyle stories in the Strand Magazine, and consists of George Seroff (as Watson), Livio Pavanelli, Alexander Murski, Betty Bird, Valy Arnheim, Alma Taylor, Carla Barthell and Jaro Furth.  Most prominent is the performance of Fritz Rasp as Stapleton, possibly the most unnerving and disturbing portrayal of this character ever (in fact, likely one of the greatest screen psychopaths of all time). The snarling grimaces, satanic eyes and Caligari-esque hair thoroughly creeped me out.  If I had seen this as a child, I would have had nightmares for years!

The pic is a super-production, fastidiously designed and reeking of the period.  While modernized, remember that this is a 1920s update, so, with scant technological additions, the feel is generally the same as turn of the century (HOUND was written in 1902).

The photography is glorious, an eerie light show conjured up with verve by Frederik Fuglsang.  Of course, the main kudos must be reserved for the direction, by one of German silent cinema’s masters, the unsung hero (in comparison to Lang, Murnau,  Dupont, etc.), Richard Oswald (who also contributed to the screenplay, and penned an earlier version, also included in this package as an extra).  Oswald was a genius at conveying nightmarish visions of menace and foreboding, as well as conceiving them in moving camera tableaus that rivalled the best of his contemporaries.  It should be noted that he is also the father of Gerd Oswald, one of the 1950s and ‘60s finest underrated directors (A Kiss Before Dying, Valerie, Crime of Passion, Screaming Mimi, Brainwashed, and the best of the original Outer Limits).  That’s called heredity.

Flicker Alley has, as usual, gone the distance with this masterpiece, including featuring a new ensemble score by Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius and Sascha Jacobsen, and a lavishly illustrated booklet.

But that’s merely the icing on the supplemental cake.

A rarity in itself is the aforementioned 1914 German feature version of HUND.  Yet, this compelling version takes enough liberties with the source-work to practically not count as an adaptation.  For one thing, Holmes doesn’t appear until well into the proceedings, and, we learn that Stapleton has taken the detective’s place; Holmes, therefore, calls his bluff and pretends HE’S Stapleton.  And Stapleton himself ultimately turns out not to be Stapleton at all, but…well, you’ll have to see for yourself.  Oh, those whacky Teutonics!

Like the 1929 version, the 1914 HUND (restored from footage from the Gosfilmofond, Moscow) was updated to modern day; again, here modern day is literally merely twelve years from when the story was to have taken place, so no big anachronistic culture shock (unlike the 1940s WWII Rathbone-Bruce Universals).  Furthermore, the characters all seem to suffer from a smugness that borders on the unpleasant.  This was, no doubt, intentional, as Britain was at war with the Germans when this picture was produced.  With excellent camerawork by Werner Brandes and Karl Freund, swift direction (Rudolf Meinert), and a score created by Joachim Barenz, the 1914 HUND (available on the Blu-Ray platter only) remains a jaw-dropping curio.

As if there were any more reasons for serious movie historians to add this to their collections, Flicker Alley has prepared two mini-documentaries for this release: Arthur Conan Doyle and The Hound of the Baskervilles and Restoring Richard Oswald’s Der Hund von Baskerville. It was fascinating (for me, anyway) to learn that some of the footage came from collectors’ 9.5 MM home-movie editions.  9.5 was the hobbyist celluloid format during the 1920s and early ‘30s.  It was a brilliant way to present big-screen movies for home viewing.  Rather than later 8MM (or even Super 8MM), 9.5 had its perforations in the center of each frame line, rather than on the side.  It provided a larger image, and therefore, greater detail.  I used to have several Snub Pollard comedies in 9.5, but, sadly, no hand-cranked viewer or projector to watch them.

For mystery fans, Holmes aficionados and silent pic buffs, Flicker Alley’s DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE with be a hard 2019 Blu-Ray to equal, let alone beat!

DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD-MA stereo score.  Flicker Alley/Fimoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizuainy/San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  CAT # FA0059. SRP: $39.95.

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