Money Train

MAY IS KINO-LORBER MONTH

On August 8, 1963, an event took place that startled, thrilled and even delighted the world (and certainly the Fourth Estate).  Called the Crime of the Century, the incident in question involved a group of highly-trained (no pun) professionals who robbed the Glasgow to London Royal Mail Train of more than two and a half million pounds (or approximately $3.25M in today’s American dollars).

While authorities thought this most unsavory display of lawlessness would shock the nation, it pretty much had an opposite effect.  Since the credo of these Bond-era criminals was “no violence (indeed, no guns were used),” this band of bandits became modern Robin Hoods (“they’re insured, they can afford it” was the everyman’s cry).  All of this is fastidiously chronicled in the superb 1967 heist flick, ROBBERY, now (at last!) on U.S. Blu-Ray from the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.

The above tense proceedings were expertly produced by Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, in conjunction with the British Oakhurst Productions, a company formed by producer Michael Deeley and ROBBERY star, the great Stanley Baker.

What makes ROBBERY a quintessential crime pic and 1960s landmark movie comprises a myriad of elements.  The movie, while dealing with the facts already gleaned in the case, took to (and brilliantly so) surmising what might have happened to the still-then remaining unapprehended felons and unrecovered millions.  In short, this was still an on-going case when the cameras started to turn in late 1966.

The crime itself was a work of genius.  It was to be an operation, more than a theft.  In order to finance the carefully planned maneuver, a smaller test run was arranged – a mini-robbery of priceless jewels.  It is this exciting car chase through actual Paddington and St. John’s Woods road locations that opens the movie with a bang.

The actual caper required a nimble army of technicians, electricians, drivers, railway scholars, movers, flyers and scores of others.  It is here that the chink in the armor first appeared.  Trust, in ANY relationship is the foundation for success.  The greed and wariness of some of the farmed-out cohorts ultimately would bring everyone down.  Had the bond been steel-strong (if not steal-strong), the robbery probably would still be unsolved.

The picture presents the duality of the “train” of events.  The head manipulator Paul Clifton (a fake moniker for the real-life Bruce Reynolds), played by Baker, recruits the troops, so to speak, to work under his core command, key being Frank (Barry Foster), Jack (Clifton Greyn) and Dave (William Marlowe).

On the other side of the fence are the police, led by the smarter-than-the-average-DI George Langton (a wonderful James Booth, a big favorite from Baker’s smash hit Zulu).  Booth’s Langton is the tag given to real-life Tommy Butler; in ROBBERY, the names weren’t just changed to protect the innocent, they had to cover their legal asses for the not-so-innocent as well.  This was especially true since, as indicated, much of the wrap-up was supposition (a lot of it eventually and startlingly turning out to be fact – another fascinating aspect of this thriller).  The script and sharp dialog is nearly flawless, and ably written by Edward Boyd, George Markstein, and director Peter Yates (from a story by Gerald Wilson).  Yates is the most important denizen of ROBBERY, as he shopped the project to Baker (after Tony Richardson’s Woodfall Productions gave it the thumbs down).  It was a fortuitous choice; Stanley Baker loved fast cars and action; this movie required both.  Earlier in his career, he had costarred in the 1956 auto race/burglary pic Checkpoint followed by the starring role in the fantastic 1957 noir Hell Drivers (directed by his oft/Zulu collaborator Cy Endfield).  Cars had to play an integral part of the ROBBERY equation.  Yates concurred, and delivered the goods – in spades.  The chase sequences were like a rollercoaster ride for moviegoers in 1967.  And not just in the UK.  Americans, who saw ROBBERY in its original release, ate up the lightning, hair-raising stunt work.  Steve McQueen especially loved the picture and hired Yates to direct his upcoming crime drama, Bullitt.  The rest is history.  If anyone genuinely made out like a bandit in ROBBERY, it was definitely Yates.

Likewise, making sure he held all the aces, was Executive Producer Joseph E. Levine, whose Embassy Pictures shared properties with Paramount.  In one of his rare faux pas, Levine, bowled over by Zulu, gave Paramount the world rights, holding the American distribution for himself.  The movie was an international blockbuster everywhere BUT in the U.S., where few were familiar with the battle of Rorke’s Drift.  The pic, while critically acclaimed, only performed “respectfully” in America, coded industry speak for flop.  The 1963 bank heist was world news.  EVERYBODY knew about it, so this time Levine’s mogul ass was aptly covered.  Nevertheless, Embassy didn’t quite have the distribution juice of Paramount, and ROBBERY initially only performed moderately well in the States.  For the next decade, however, it would remain a grindhouse staple.

The balance of ROBBERY’s participating rogue’s gallery is, I must add, quite remarkable, and includes Frank Finlay, George Sewell, Patrick Jordan, Glynn Edwards, Ivor Dean, and, in an early screen appearance, future Hammer goddess Julie Ege.  Joanna Pettet, the stunning beauty (who that same year would star in the WTF out-of-control first filmed version of Casino Royale) has a basically thankless role as Baker’s long-suffering, neglected wife.  This, she does well, and her few scenes are scripted to always give her “bedroom” dialog, no doubt to spice up the trailers (which they do).  Casting a female of note for ROBBERY did prove a chore, and Yates originally inked Vanessa Redgrave, who bowed out before production for Oakhurst commenced.

The superb cinematography of ROBBERY was achieved by no less than Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Blue Max, etc.).  Thankfully, the long-faded, problematic Eastmancolor is no more; this new Kino-Lorber/Studio Canal 1080p remaster now pops with the vibrance needed to recreate the pre-Carnaby Street era.  Additionally notable is the cool, jazzy score by Johnny Keating, absolutely wonderful and beautifully accompanying the movie’s “oh, shit!” moments, of which there are many.

Previously, the only way to own a copy of this Sixties time capsule was a pan-and-scanned PAL DVD from the UK, so it’s a revelation to be able to enjoy this terrific Blu-Ray in the correct widescreen aspect ratio.  Kino-Lorber has further enhanced the presentation by including a trailer gallery of other crime flicks, a number of which were also directed by Yates.

ROBBERY holds a particularly dear spot for my good friend Glyn Baker, who also just happens to be Sir Stanley’s son.  I asked him about it, in regards to this home video release, and he was as enthusiastic as I.

 

“I believe ROBBERY was the second film produced by Stanley’s production company Oakhurst, Zulu being its debut. Both have an implicitly audacious theme, with a fizzing sense of jeopardy and a defying-the-odds outcome. In a pre-digital age,  the successful stopping of a speeding mail train AND then making your escape with all those grubby bank notes was rightly seen as seriously daring and dangerous.

“I must tell you that when the train approaches the heist scene, the line “She’s coming, she’s coming” sent a shiver through my 10-yearold self, and still does. The anticipation and threat is made hyper real for me, as I’d visited the location on the day of filming…, so the holding up a train, a great steel, oil-burning, behemoth of a thing (that I’d been allowed to clamber up into from the track side), still works its magic on me when viewing the film now.

“For me, and perhaps above all the many films Stanley made, there’s a huge resonance to the shrewd and charismatic arch villain, Paul Clifton, played by my father (and his professional self). Dauntless and leading-from-the-front, the camaraderie within his and Michael Deeley’s company of film makers and actors, and with another story drawn from real life, is absolutely fascinating to me; I see so much of Stanley’s nature mirrored in this film.  In addition, the actor (and close friend of Stanley’s), James Booth, who without his sharp 1960’s sarcasm and wit would have left Zulu searching to find the vital dissenter’s voice, is constantly playing catchup as the hapless Police Inspector Langdon with a weariness that I’d imagine is very close to actual policing. ”Cheeky bastards!” becomes Langdon’s refrain, and that is carried through to Clifton’s escape, outwitting Langdon again in the closing stages.

‘I know my father was never happier than when making his own films, surpassed only by a cracking good tee-shot or chip or putt. Stanley’s beloved pastime insured that a full set of clubs was always part of his location luggage. A morning or afternoon relieved from the set, would find him at the nearest golf course; wherever we were, that would be his next preferred location: ”I can get 9 holes in and only pay half the green fee!” Playing between a 3 and 7 handicap and recounting profound and funny stories from his early life in Wales was the actor in repose. John Merriott Chard [his character in Zulu] and Paul Clifton was his motivating and organised public face, a meaningful counterpoint to the responsibly of heading a production company with projects such as The Italian Job [the original 1969 version] and others which followed.

“I’m immensely proud of what Stanley and Michael achieved with Oakhurst.  Collectively the films stand the test of time and remain great viewing, Not least for that 10-year-old who viewed them in awe then, and the great pleasure I have in re-living them today.

“Always with an eye to utilising available assets, Stanley’s own films, shot in London and Europe, are peppered with scenes using the properties he owned: our driveways, bedrooms, kitchens, and Stanley’s office suite make numerous appearances [indeed the Clifton home in ROBBERY is the actual Baker Wimbledon Park residence]. So in retro-viewing, divining a line between the public and private becomes a further game of what’s real and make believe and all the more enjoyable.”

 

In closing, a masterpiece of flawless precision derailed by the human factor, ROBBERY admirably stands the test of time, copied (an admittedly excellent 2013 BBC mini-series), but never equaled.

ROBBERY.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Studio Canal.  CAT # K23757.  SRP: $29.95.

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Law of Milland

MAY IS KINO-LORBER MONTH

During the mid-1950s, in their continuing move to add big studio names to their failing organization, Republic Pictures lured stars to their stable by dangling directing offers into their ambitious punims.  Paul Henreid and Mark Stevens took the bait and made admirable contributions to both their resumes and to Republic’s library.  Perhaps the most successful of these thespians-turned-directors (certainly the biggest box-office name) was Ray Milland, the former Paramount A-list star and Oscar-winning actor.  Milland had long wanted to move behind the camera; Republic’s caveat (as it was for Henreid and Stevens) was that he could do so – but had to perform in front of the lens as well.  An excellent actor and light comedian, Milland easily could switch from comedy to drama (and quite superb in film noir); in addition, he was an adept enough athlete to ace big epics and action adventures (and even westerns, often a stretch for a Brit).  Now free of Paramount and a free-lancer, Milland took the Republic catnip with great anticipation and aplomb.  He searched for bizarre projects that were edgy enough to reach far beyond the Hollywood norm.  Again, nothing new for Ray.  Alias Nick Beal (1949), for example, combined noir and horror, with Milland splendid as a satanic emissary prowling nocturnal big city mean streets.  The Thief (1952) had him as a spy in New York, aggressively out to cop state secrets (for whichever side paid best); the nugget in this underrated thriller was that there was no dialog throughout the entire 86-minute running time.

I mention the above to reveal what the star’s devotees already knew:  that Ray Milland was someone out to blow up the system by offering intriguing alternatives.  His portrayals leaned heavily toward the sarcastic, a trait that apparently spilled over into his private life.  This was often accentuated by the observations of those who knew him that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world.  While that may not have won him legions of friends, it did provide him with legions of fans, who still enjoy his snarky, twisted kind of vibe.

All of this was on view when Milland arrived on the Republic lot with two projects he was determined to bring to the screen, the thoroughly nasty 1955 western A MAN ALONE, and the even nastier lavish action-adventure LISBON, made the following year.  His expertise behind the camera guaranteed him a new adjunct to an already lengthy career.  In short, he was a fine director – and subsequently would regularly be employed by TV and movie studios to spin his oft-kilter narrative tapestries (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and the remarkable 1962 AIP sci-fi pic Panic in Year Zero).

That both A MAN ALONE and LISBON (now on stunning restored Blu-Rays from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment) appear way more modern today than their contemporaries remain a testament to Milland’s penchant for finding and mining the unusual aspects of human nature, those generally relegated to the lower depths bottom-of-the-barrel behavioral patterns.  I suspect von Stroheim would have loved him.

 

Milland’s directorial debut (in this and LISBON, his behind-the-camera gig is cleverly credited to “R. Milland”), A MAN ALONE is an extraordinary western, quite dark, and simmering with rancor, perpetuated by McCarthyism and other fun Eisenhower Era stuff.

Milland portrays Wes Steele, a feared gunman whose latest escapade has cost him his horse.  Now dying in the brutal desert heat, Steele believes himself to be blessed when he spies a halted stagecoach up ahead.  But it’s not a good day for Wes.  The driver and crew are dead, the passengers (including children) murdered and horrifically mutilated, the women sexually violated.

Freeing one of the horses, Steele rides toward the nearest town, where he plans to report the robbery and massacre.  Before he gets a chance, the suspicious townsfolk turn on him, forcing the gunman to instinctively draw his weapon and shoot down a deputy (Alan Hale, Jr.).  Seeking refuge, he breaks into the bank building where head honcho Stanley (Raymond Burr) is holding an impromptu nighttime meeting with local civic leaders.  Should Steele tell this pillar of the community what happened?  Best he doesn’t since Stanley is behind the murders and robbery, the vicious slaughter being the brainchild of lead henchman Clanton (Lee Van Cleef), who doubled back to scalp the innocent folks, thus placing the blame on Native Americans.

On the run again, Wes ventures into a seemingly quiet house, presided over by a young woman, whom he “threatens” into sheltering him and, eventually, listening to his story.

And, yet, it still gets worse.

The woman, Nadine (Mary Murphy), is caring for her ailing father (Ward Bond), the town’s sheriff.  Is there any way out?  Can Steele clear his name in spite of the community’s determination to hunt him down and execute him, not surprisingly now led by the cornered, sinister Stanley?

A MAN ALONE is a tightly-wound western thriller that doesn’t let up for a minute.  The suspense and psychological tension perfectly melds with the action.  That Wes and Nadine become drawn to one another is yet a further narrative complication that Steele both wants and fears:  he’s willing to take out anyone who gets in his way.  Anyone.

As a taut (and certain atypical) Republic western, A MAN ALONE is top-line; as a first-time directorial effort, it’s absolutely astonishing.  That Milland wore several hats only adds to the deserved praise the picture has gained over the sixty-four years since its release.

The script, by a Milland hand-picked writer John Tucker Battle (based on a story by Mort Briskin), is excellent (Battle would also pen the screenplay to LISBON).  The TruColor photography is beautifully rendered in burnished, metallic, cold colors by Lionel Lindon.  A suitable score by Victor Young completes the tech equation (Lindon and Young were likewise former Paramount coworkers).  The cast is also nothing short of spectacular, and, aside from those already mentioned, includes Arthur Space, Douglas Spencer, Martin Garralaga and Thomas B. Henry.

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray is wonderful, mastered from a new 4K restoration.  The resulting 1080p High Def clarity is awesome, as is the noirish palette of hues and tones.

A MAN ALONE is sort of an anti-Christ High Noon insomuch as it’s “hero” is a badman, and not a lawman; furthermore, there are no sympathetic townspeople who, aside from refusing to help the protagonist, are methodically stalking him, hoping to kill him.  Finally, unlike Fred Zinnemann’s landmark pic, shot in broad daylight, A MAN ALONE is almost entirely set during night.

It’s one of the strangest and addictive westerns of the 1950s.

 

The success of A MAN ALONE prompted Republic to give Milland a much larger budget and way more of an ambitious project.  1956’s LISBON is truly one of the most impressive pictures the studio ever turned out.  Even more than Columbia’s British-made Alan Ladd adventure, Hell Below Zero, it plays like a run-through for the Bond pics.  All the elements are there:  actual, exotic locations, “heroes” with a definite cruel streak, a bevy of scantily-clad, willing beauties, a memorable dastardly villain, a cold, scary henchman/assassin and even a hit title tune.

The plot, as conceived by the aforementioned John Tucker Batter (story by Martin Rackin), serves star/director Milland well.  Robert John Evans is an amiable, but vicious-when-needed-to-be smuggler working outside of the famed Portuguese city.  A former GI, who emigrated to South America after the war, Evans enjoys his work, particularly the fringe benefits of endless women and ill-gained riches.  As the entire country seems to be corrupt (a curious footnote that couldn’t have boded well for the local government and/or tourism industry), he is constantly under the watchful eye of the authorities and, more importantly, Aristides Mavros.  The reputed King of Everything That Isn’t Kosher, Mavros, as brilliantly portrayed by Claude Rains, is one cinema’s slimiest, yet likeable scoundrels ever.  A billionaire of exquisite taste, he lives like a rajah, surrounded by the most gorgeous females imaginable, all there to do his bidding, whether for personal sexual pleasure or Mata Hari stuff.  Penalties for disobedience are on a level Auric Goldfinger could only dream about.

The arrival of super-rich American Sylvia Merrill instantly draws her into Evans’ domain.  Merrill’s husband has been kidnapped by pirates who demand a royal ransom for his unharmed return.  Mavros, with his finger on the pulse of everything, naturally knows who’s responsible and hires the dubious soldier-of-fortune to act as travel agent/go-between (similarly to the Harry Morgan character in To Have and Have Not) for the victim’s return.  Evans agrees, especially after ogling Sylvia (a sensational looking Maureen O’Hara).  Within the space of one cocktail, Milland learns that the far younger O’Hara married the ancient entrepreneur for what monetary rewards he could provide.  Her cold-as-ice demeanor erupts into Mount Vesuvius after exposed to Evans’ lovemaking, which must be something special – possibly more volatile than 007’s ability to “turn” Pussy Galore straight.  Even more ga-ga amazing is one of Mavros’ sex partners, Maria Masanet (the ridiculously beauteous Yvonne Furneaux, easily one of the 1950’s most striking ingenues).  Maria, too, falls under Evans’ charms, and goes from evil consort to obliging helper.  Naturally, Mavros has nefarious ulterior motives; how they all combine to form the genuinely shocking climax makes LISBON a first-rate adventure.

O’Hara’s transformation (and I won’t go into specific details) is one of the three jaw-droppers in the pic.  The other two, which I WILL go into, have remained embossed upon my vulnerable brain since I first saw a pan-and-scanned version of LISBON way back in the 1960s.  The first is Rains’ introduction.  Rising from his fabulous boudoir, stretching and yawning amidst pastoral music (gloriously lit by the natural light of a fantastic sunny morning), the delighted kingpin opens his windows and sprinkles bread crumbs on the ledge.  As birds come to feast on the meal, he lovingly takes a blunt instrument and beats them to pulp, then turns to his pet cat with a taunting “Breakfast!”  The other moment that had me agog is a finale involving a flare pistol.  It set movie violence into a new perimeter (and was always the talking point the day after a broadcast in the school lunchroom – a bona fide “Oh, shit!” moment).

As indicated, LISBON is sumptuously photographed on-location.  The imagery of master d.p. Jack A. Marta (in TruColor and – can never tire of repeating the process – NatureRama, Republic’s 2.35:1 answer to CinemaScope) would make James FitzPatrick toss in the towel (had his TravelTalks not already done so in 1954).  The swift pacing and engrossing adult content make this Fifties gem a definite replay title for any collection.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray is terrific, one of those newly 4K-restored TruColor entries that burst with picture postcard colors, all in crystal-clear 1080p High Def.  The mono sound, too, has a movie theater quality to it, perfect for enjoying the crackling, stinging dialog and Nelson Riddle’s fine score.  While Milland’s Lisbon is the kind of place Liam Neeson would book a vacation with his family, savvy viewers can choose the wiser option and enjoy every second from the safety and comfort of their media room.

A MAN ALONE.  Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K22802. SRP: $29.95.

LISBON. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # 23112. SRP: $29.95.

 

 

Hot ‘N’ Bothered

MAY IS KINO-LORBER MONTH

One of my top Holy Grail titles, from one of my favorite sub-genres – color noir – FINALLY comes to Blu-Ray (and, dang, does it look good), via the  recent Kino-Lorber/Universal Studios release of 1947’s DESERT FURY.

A nasty, twisted thriller – all the more perplexing, as it’s housed in a picture postcard gorgeous setting – DESERT FURY begins when the sleepy Southwestern vacation town of Chuckawalla, NV (actually Piru, CA) is shaken awake by a flurry of newly-arrived denizens.  Of note is the flashy entrance of Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey), two big city gangsters of the most unsavory kind.  Bendix is a kingpin racketeer, known for sadistic tendencies and a list of crimes a mile long, for which he’s (mostly) escaped conviction.  Ryan, his keeper and handler, is a much shat-upon lackey with a plethora of dirty secrets that he can lash out like a cornered cobra.  Sadly, for the populace, they’re here to take up stake as seasonal residents.  There goes the neighborhood.

Far more pleasant is the vroom-vroom appearance of 19-year-old Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott), tossed out of her fifth college in less than two years.  The gorgeous young woman has rep for being a free spirit (coded 1940s language for “ho’”) and a woman who knows her own mind (coded 1940s language for “bitch”).  Her first scene is a confrontation/reunion with town honchos Mrs. Lindquist (former silent screen siren Jane Novak) and her daughter Claire (Kristine Miller), socially prominent phonies (corrupt Daddy-Judge Lindquist works for Haller’s powerful mom).  A swift verbal smackdown brings joy to Paula’s face, and off she drives to her mother’s, Fritzi – perhaps the burg’s richest citizen.  Another big city expat, Fritzi Haller flew into the resort and quickly excelled as the founder of the hamlet’s super-deluxe gambling casino (it’s more than implied that there’s a different kind wheel-spinning other than roulette going on in the special upstairs rooms).  The entire vicinity remains cloaked in the mysterious and suspicious death of Fritzi’s husband whose car supposedly accidentally toppled off a bridge.

Trying to keep things on an even keel is former rodeo maven-turned-lawman Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster).  His stymied broncho days, halted due to an occupational hazard (leaving his guts all twisted up inside), is another not-too-well-kept local secret. Any over-exertion could cause his demise, something Bendix and Ryan would likely pay to see (if not orchestrate).

DESERT FURY is a film noir gem, with great credentials in front of and behind the camera.  The cast, practically a roster of Hal Wallis signed stars (Lancaster, Scott and Corey, the latter’s debut) are expertly showcased in their first color pic.  The remainder of the cast is nothing short of a film noir call sheet:  The Maltese Falcon‘s Mary Astor as Fritzi (she’s never “mom” to Paula), refreshingly playing her age (and would again do mother color-noir duty in 1956’s A Kiss Before Dying), and looking sensational, Somewhere in the Night‘s John Hodiak (on-loan from Fox) as the still youngish, but veteran gangster, plus James Flavin, Ray Teal, William Harrigan, Milton Kibbee and Ralph Peters.  Lancaster had already proven himself a noir superstar in The Killers, as had Scott in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Dead Reckoning; they would continue to grace the genre with more iconic turns (Criss Cross, Pitfall, I Walk Alone, Dark City, Kiss the Blood off My Hands, Too Late for Tears, Easy Money, etc.).

Behind-the-camera talent is even more impressive.  Director Lewis Allen, who gave us such creepy imagery in The Uninvited, does a terrific job here transforming the creepy into creeps.  Co-screenwriter Robert Rosen (who penned Martha Ivers), would make his directorial debut the same year with the fantastic John Garfield drama Body and Soul. Sharing the scribe credit is the great A.I Bezzerides (They Drive by Night, Thieves’ Highway, Kiss Me Deadly); plus two revered d.p.s, Edward Cronjager (master of Technicolor) and Charles Lang, a duo who really pull out all the “striking visual” stops.  Additional primo noir residents include composer Miklos Rozsa (whose score is not-surprisingly terrific) and a.d Gerd Oswald (who would later helm the aforementioned Kiss Before Dying; it’s likely he picked Astor as a result of her performance here).

DESERT FURY is uncompromising in its depiction of “decent people” who are really scumbags and vice versa.  “Kindly” Sheriff Pat (Flavin) is first seen beating a transient prisoner for laughs.  And Hodiak, when ticked off (and that can be by merely telling him “Hello”) relishes inflicting pain, as in the sequence where he pours hot coffee over an innocent patron in a diner.  When not abusing Paula, his newest love-hate object, he bides his time bashing Johnny to a pulp.

The dialog, as one might expect, is priceless.  Out on a sexy, vigorous equestrian outing with Tom, Paula’s sweaty return home is scorned upon by Fritzi who demands she shower (“Get that horsy smell off you!”).

The final act, where truth comes out during Johnny Ryan’s worm-turn moment, is a jaw-dropper (we have also pretty much accepted the gay subtext, that he puts up with Eddie’s torment because he is attracted to him).

It’s amazing that DESERT FURY got made at all.  It was based on a blatantly filthy novel (Desert Town) by Ramona Stewart (in the same eye-popping vein as St. John L. Clowes’ concurrent notorious No Orchids for Miss Blandish).  Nevertheless, stuff in the book did manage to brilliantly slither into the scenario, due to Rosen’s and Bezzeride’s clever insinuating narrative.  It’s obvious that Paula is having sex with the much older Eddie; but, it’s likewise implied that she may also be his daughter from a decades old affair with Fritzi. How’s THAT for 1947 Hollywood entertainment!?  Following the footsteps of Fox’s 1945 Technicolor noir adaptation of Leave Her to Heaven (where the female lead killed her husband’s younger brother and aborted her own baby) and competing with that studio’s parallel release of Forever Amber (another Technicolor adaptation of a scandalous book), the die (or dye) seemed to be cast: if you wanna go dirty, pretty it up in Technicolor.

DESERT FURY, for years, was an unwatchable mess, wholly due to the 16MM MCA-TV prints, shoddily printed up in pre-CRI Eastmancolor.  Even new prints looked faded; most copies resembled black-and-white visuals with a red gel over it.  Screw that!  This new Kino remaster, from 35MM Technicolor elements, is near-pristine spectacular, bursting with a palette of hues and tones not seen since the movie’s premiere 72 years ago.  It’s stunning.

A rainbow of evil hidden in a brown paper bag, DESERT FURY has been the Blu-Ray I’ve been waiting for.  I wasn’t disappointed, and, I predict, neither will you.

DESERT FURY. Color. [Full frame: 1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23401. SRP: $29.95.

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Not Leone Game in Town

(We’re trying something new: every other month, during the spring and summer, we will be paying tribute to one of our favorite Blu-Ray/DVD distributors. First up: Kino-Lorber)

MAY IS KINO-LORBER MONTH

Kino-Lorber, hands down, is now the leading distributor of quantity quality Blu-Ray diversity.  Every month of new platter delights only underlines this; their recent release of three spaghetti westerns – an iconic classic, a much-in-demand Holy Grail title and a startling obscurity – does the genre a great service.  Even more so when one realizes that the trio (DEATH RIDES A HORSE, THE MERCENARY, THE UNHOLY FOUR) was selected from an extreme Italian example of overkill that spanned a decade from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies and seemingly encompassed approximately 12 million entries.

 

1967’s DEATH RIDES A HORSE is a superb spaghetti western smack dab in the genre’s peak year.  It’s a nasty tale of revenge and retribution, with (as in all great spaghetti westerns) a side order of radical politics.

The movie opens with a merciless family massacre during a $200,000 robbery.  Three of the bandits responsible frame the fourth, the designated lookout.  He is sent to prison.  But there is a witness to the killings, Bill the youngest of the family, a small boy.

Fifteen years later, the bandit is released; the boy, now a masterful gunfighter, methodically hunts down the men responsible for the murders.  They meet, causing a tense liaison (“We both have an old account to settle with the same people” is their temporary personal standoff).  The three killers are now respectable members of the increasingly civilized West’s 1%.  Suffice to say, they all clash in a dark cacophony of violence and deceit – unraveling emotions of loyalty, greed, lust and lunacy.

This movie is a spaghetti masterpiece, terrifically directed by Giulio Petroni, whose Tepepa remains a prime candidate in the Holy Grail Blu-Ray Pantheon.  The raw, suspenseful script is by Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Duck, You Sucker!), and not only remains a textbook spaghetti western screenplay, but pays homage to the genre’s American relatives (Man of the West, One-Eyed Jacks). In many ways, the pic plays out like a satanic take on the then-recent Nevada Smith.  There are some amazing sequences, including a booby-trapped office resembling something out of a Bond flick, secret hangouts, Bill being buried up to his head, and a sandstorm shootout.  It is shot in spectacular Technicolor and TechniScope by Carlo Carlini, and scored by maestro Ennio Morricone.

The cast couldn’t be better.  As the two lead frenemies, Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law each deliver one of the best performances of their careers.  For both, 1967 was a banner year to be working in Italy.  In addition to this movie, Van Cleef had The Big Gundown and the American release of For a Few Dollars More; for Law, there was DEATH and Bava’s Danger: Diabolik.  The supporting cast comprises a triad of formidable, corrupt scumbags:  Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega and Anthony Dawson, the latter as “Burt Cavanaugh” (close enough).

The history of DEATH RIDES A HORSE is infamous.  UA somehow negligently managed to allow the title to slip into public domain, where it stained collectors’ shelves for decades in lousy video tapes and DVDs (some pan-and-scan).  This sensational Kino release presents the first official U.S. release, and it’s on Blu-Ray in a stunning 2.35:1 1080p High Definition transfer.  Director Alex Cox (a spaghetti western aficionado/historian) offers an excellent audio commentary.  A must-have classic!

 

A landmark spaghetti western, 1968’s THE MERCENARY, a key work of the great Sergio Corbucci’s many triumphs, becomes another joy to behold in this new 1080p High-Def transfer.  Taking a spaghetti standard – the Mexican revolution – and expanding it way beyond the obvious political realms, THE MERCENARY unfolds the tale of Kowalski, a Polish emigre (and the title character), whose mantra is “Never question a man who pays well.”  This changes when he eventually sides with peon-thief Paco, who likewise sees the light (and the plight) of his villagers (“[We have] to protect the people”).  Together, they take on the Mexican army, and a crazed American killer, Curly.  The action sequences are exciting and downright ingenious (especially an arena shootout), the dialog (as scripted by Corbucci, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Spina, from a story by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio) memorable.  “He was my man,” defiantly says Columba, a gorgeous member of the Resistance, regarding an ex-lover, “but you only betray a Mexican woman once!”  The beautiful scope photography of Alejandro Ulloa (Companeros, Horror Express) adds to the epic splendor of the piece, as does the exemplary Ennio Morricone score (one of his best; think about THAT!).  And, then of course, there is the perfection of the four leads.  Genre icon Franco Nero excels as Kowalski with Tony Musante as Paco not far behind (Musante with this pic and Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage fared infinitely better in Italy than the American-born actor did on his home turf). As the maniacal (and gay) Curly, Jack Palance carves yet another notch to his impressive array of villainy, and the spectacular Giovanna Ralli is wonderful as the rebellious Columba.  Alex Cox, once again, provides an insightful audio commentary, as if another reason was necessary for SW/action fans to purchase this Blu-Ray.

 

One of the rarest and most bizarre spaghetti westerns ever made is 1970’s THE UNHOLY FOUR (no, it’s not a sequel to the Tod Browning thriller).  On the surface, the plot, concerning a foursome of escaped prisoners out for vengeance, seems par for the course.  But hold on, they’re not ordinary convicts – they’re escapees from an asylum for the criminally insane.  The lead, Leonard Mann (New York-born Leonardo Manzella) is an amnesiac, determined to retrieve his identity along with what he assumes will surely be bloody retribution.  He ain’t wrong.  His fellow inmate riding buddies comprise no less than Peter Martell, George Eastman (under his real name, Luca Montefiore), and best of all, Woody Strode as “Woody.”

The locations are bleak and somber like the narrative which is none the less royally exciting and gasp-worthy (credit the expert photography of Mario Montuori).  BRIEF RED FLAG WARNING: You might be put off by this platter’s washed-out credits, but stick with it.  Once the actual movie starts, the 1080p transfer is gorgeous (a typically rousing score by Riz Ortolani nicely appends the imagery). Audio offers two options: English language, or Italian w/English subtitles. Surprisingly, this rather stark entry into the genre was the debut directorial effort by former cinematographer Enzo Barboni (aka, E.B. Clucher), mostly known for his comedic crowd pleasers My Name is Trinity and Trinity is Still My Name.  An unusual, but infinitely rewarding anti-hero antipasti.

DEATH RIDES A HORSE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # K21627. SRP: $29.95.

THE MERCENARY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # K21626. SRP: $29.95.

THE UNHOLY FOUR. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Euro London Films, Ltd. CAT # K21157. SRP: $29.95.