When Funny-Funny Meets Funny-Strange

The cinematic lovechild of George Melies and Frank Tashlin is about the quickest way to describe the eccentric comedic phenomenon, known as Charley Bowers – a name that no doubt most movie fans have never heard of.  He is rapidly earning a belated place in motion-picture history, thanks in great part to the efforts of international archivists, who have teamed up with those grand folks at Flicker Alley to present a new two-disc Blu-Ray collection of his 17 existing works (some only in fragmented form), not surprisingly dubbed THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS.  And it truly is.

The collection of shorts (from new 2K transfers), spanning 1917-1941, and with the collaborative assist of no less than the Cinematheque Francais, MoMA, eye, Narodni filmovyarchiv, the George Eastman Museum, La Cinematheque de Toulouse, the Library of Congress, Blackhawk Films, Lobster Films and ROAM is as impressive as Mr. Bowers’ movies are inventive.  That said, his strange and often disturbing views on life (for example, his obsession with eggs, chickens, and oysters) may have been TOO WEIRD for mass movie audiences.  It comes as no revelation that most of his existing celluloid evocations hail from France, where, early-on, he was hailed as a brilliant visual master, and given the name Bricolo.

But who WAS Charley Bowers?  His biography reads like a Chaplinesque/Dickensian narrative – itself worthy of a cinematic depiction.  Born in Iowa in 1877, Bowers was kidnapped at age six by unscrupulous members of a circus troupe.  Not exactly complaining, Bowers lived the kid’s dream, and in childhood became a tightrope walker among other Big Top vocations before he safely returned home two years later, at the ripe old age of eight!  This early apprenticeship undoubtedly blessed (and likely cursed) the lad with the imagination of Tim Burton (ages before the Dumbo director’s great-grandparents were even conceived), and soon he drifted back into the sawdust and tinsel world, a universe heralded for its strangeness.  Bowers honed his tightrope skills, also adding broncho busting to his resume; soon, all of this took a backseat to his new love – cartooning, ultimately becoming fascinated with animation, and gaining favor with the Bud Fisher Film Corp.  Fisher, creator of the wildly popular Mutt and Jeff series, eventually put the now 40-year-old in charge of the studio’s production department.  Bowers remained there for nine years (1917-1926), supervising hundreds of M&J cartoon one-reelers.

Indeed, the emergence of the motion-picture was like manna from Heaven to Bowers, who immediately glommed on to the medium’s immense possibilities, combining live-action with animation, conjuring up phantasmagorical creatures and outlandish mechanical contraptions.  Add his “original” takes on traditional boy-meets-girl scenarios, and you basically get the point.

Eventually, Bowers partnered with enterprising producer-codirector-writer-cameraman Harold L. Muller (and later Ted Sears), and, as any Sherlock will tell you, the game was afoot.

While the 17 pics comprising this set, many starring Bowers himself, are of varying quality and construction, ALL warrant a cineaste’s attention, as each one contains at least a few examples of jaw-dropping “out there” craziness – and many a treasure trove of loopy, ahead-of-the-curve surreal (and even progressive) exercises that redefine “theatre of the absurd.”  In short, Green Acres Meets Edward Scissorhands.

 

1917’s THE EXTRA-QUICK LUNCH shows how Bud Fisher’s beloved cartoon characters nicely adapted to the screen.  It’s quite well-animated (especially for 1917), and technically, holds up even in today’s world.  The storyline already displays Bowers’ penchant for the bizarre.  The idea of such cartoony, grotesque subjects as Mutt and Jeff (working in a restaurant) romancing gorgeous women (contrasted by the femmes being drawn realistically) is, to put it mildly, borderline cringeworthy.  The females are smart ‘n’ sassy stylish flappers; thus, their “jones” for M & J is too much for me to contemplate (and this is from someone who accepted the possibility of 2019’s Long Shot).

1918’s A.W.O.L (or, ALL WRONG, OLD LADDIEBUCK) takes the above duo to the next level.  The boys are up to their necks in WWI intrigue, and the pair’s putting their sexual urges over country redefines the Mata Hari scandal that likely (or, at least, partially) inspired this short’s tale of enemy agent hotties on the prowl.  Here, we can see Bowers’ love for the mechanical – cars and other fairly recent additions to the world’s new culture are given amusing “what if” potentialities.

We jump to 1926 for the live-action/animated EGGED ON, a milestone in Bowers’ filmography.  Bowers himself is the star of this mind-boggling short.  Seeing the Rube Goldbergian inventor on-screen is a bit of a jolt, as he resembles a cross between Buster Keaton and famed dancer Ray Bolger (so, the guy from Cops, Sherlock, Jr. and The General gene-spliced with Oz‘s Scarecrow).  Will say that he doesn’t look his age (he was approaching 50).  The plot is a silent comedy standard:  local boy MUST make good to win the girl of his dreams.  Where this veers way off the normal road and onto a whacked detour encompasses Charley’s krazy inventions, mostly revolving around stepping up chicken-laying production to produce an unbreakable egg.  The piece de resistance comes when his car’s motor ends up incubating a dozen or so newbies, resulting in the hatching of a brood of tiny flivvers that take off all over the joint.  Bob Clampett once told me that Frank Tashlin used to frequent a theater in downtown L.A. that only showed silent comedies; he would implore the Termite Terrace gang to join him.  I have no doubt Tash saw several Bowers works, as they definitely seemed to have influenced the Loony Tunes output (if the rest of the gang didn’t accompany their coworker, they unquestionably took note of his discoveries).  Clampett’s own Porky in Wackyland, with its hypnagogic characters and situations, now plays like a Bowers homage.

1926’s HE DONE HIS BEST, released through F.B.O. (Film Booking Office, later to morph into RKO Radio Pictures) has political overtones.  Bricolo, again, trying to make good in both business and romance, promises the head of an eatery that he can shave off man-power via one of his machines (in effect, computerizing and downsizing, 1926-style). “In a week’s time I can build you a much better place,” brags restaurant dishwasher Charley via a title card (they’re in French, with English translations). The angry coworkers gang up on him, adding drama to the comedy-fantasy, as they scream “He’s a scab!” to the non-union intruder.  The remarkable result Bowers comes up with actually predates emailing, as well as some of the more famous sequences from Chaplin’s Modern Times.

1926’s FATAL FOOTSTEPS has Charley inventing sure-thing dancing shoes that allow clods to become Vernon Castles.  Suffice to say, the combination of hooking-up, terpsichorean Charleston expertise and Prohibition doesn’t mesh exactly as planned.  Many Bowers supporting players, some recognizable to comedy fans (including Eddie Dunn), are on view, and, what would soon become a business as usual segment, fish are seen dancing their little gills off.

Again from 1926, NOW I’LL TELL ONE is peak Bowers.  He’s brought in as a prospective member for a rich man’s organization, called The Liar’s Club.  And, natch, Bowers comes up with whoppers.  This gives the artist/comedian full-range to reveal his inventions and tales of the fantastic.  His magic lotion not only can grow hats, but his shoes grow laces, and eggplants sprout (what else?) eggs; furthermore, Republicans see real elephants take over the Capitol.  Even better, Bricolo has animal kingdom revenge sidebars that have mice hunting cats with pistols (a bandaged feline on crutches shouldn’t be funny, but it is), plus pussy-willows giving birth to kittens.

In a precursor to Green Acres, Pee Wee Herman and Jacques Tati, 1927’s bucolic A WILD ROOMER has Bowers having to prove himself to his strict father.   Stop inventing, and start farming.  Bricolo decides to combine both, thereby justifying his passion and pleasing his pater.  His machinations take on a life of their own.  Literally.   Egg shampoo is self-explanatory, however, Charley’s sewing a sawdust head onto a doll redefines “reanimation.”  One wonders what Bricolo could have envisioned with a zombie apocalypse!  Incomplete, but certainly watchable.

Bowers and his crew are in full control, as evidenced by 1927’s MANY A SLIP, the clever title being a narrative clue.  With Charley’s horrible in-laws about to visit, Bricolo realizes that he must impress them with some examples of success.  To this goal, he strives to create the non-slip banana peel (the accident-friendly fruit skin racially referred to as the world’s other yellow peril).  Having failed at a revolutionary heating system (it melts the radiators) and an innovative mousetrap (the house rodents scoff at it, and continue their routine of cheating at cards), it looks like a no-win battle for poor Charley (by this time, Bricolo’s antics should have earned the right to be dubbed “Boweresque”).

1927’s NOTHING DOING is a more traditional slapstick pastiche, with Charley denied wedded bliss to his beloved unless he joins the police force (her folks love and are cops).  This caveat of bad judgment isn’t helped by the fact that the law enforcement group Bowers chooses makes the Keystone Kops look like a precinct of Sherlocks.  Typical Bowers fun is on view via pictures that come to life and dogs and cats duking it out with boxing gloves.

With a contract now at the budget-conscious Educational Pictures (whose output was anything but), Bowers seemed to revel in the studio limitations, creating perhaps his masterpiece, 1928’s THERE IT IS.  Promoting the Bowers Process (of animation and live-action), the short is absolutely ingenious in its tale of a supposed affluent American family plagued by supernatural episodes.  They finally call Scotland Yard, but contact the wrong one – a battalion of buffoons who run around in kilts.  They send Charley overseas to New York, and, in a scenario that should (and likely would) delight J.K. Rowling, the sleuth arrives with a suitcase containing – no other way to describe it – fantastic beasts – to assist the detective in his quest of getting to the bottom of the situation (remember this is also practically the exact time period when the 2016 Harry Potter spinoff pic takes place).  Even with its Caligari capper, the events on hand still can’t entirely be explained away.  This only increases the enjoyment of this two-reeler, where Charley finds love with the daughter of the head of the “special” home.  The creatures living in Bowers valise truly are unusual and quite delightful in their rascally behavior.  FYI, Charley and Eddie Redmayne additionally have the same hair.

1928’s SAY AH-H! is sadly incomplete, missing the first half and with nitrate decomposition infecting the surviving footage.  That said, there is still much to savor in this plot involving the search of an ostrich egg that proves to be an adventure into the surreal.

Unfortunately, 1928’s WHOOZIT is also incomplete (one of the only two remaining 19 movies Bowers did that year), with the second half having been transferred from the sole surviving source – a 16mm print.  It’s yet another Bowers double-take pip with janitor Charley being warned by oysters of a maniacal razor-wielding chef.  Featuring magazine-reading puppies, puppets brought to life, birds turning into fish and various opium-smoking non-humans, the biggest laugh is the fact that the pic attempts to logically conclude these happenings by reel’s end.

No less than Lowell Thomas, the explorer, writer, and movie-maker (always interested in the new and unusual; think This is Cinerama) got involved with Bowers for what was to be an on-going group of short subjects, entitled the Tall Story Series.  A 1930 entry, IT’S A BIRD, is what remains of their partnership. It concerns a junkman’s trip to Africa to find legendary metal-eating Aves.  The visuals are, not surprisingly, crazed (with a “re-hatch” of the egg-flivver gag).  As an early talkie, BIRD uses sound in an imaginative way, PLUS we get to hear Bowers speak; again, not surprisingly, his voice resembles that of semi-lookalike Keaton’s.

1935’s BELIEVE IT OR DON’T parodies the famed newsman Ripley’s celebrated cartoons.  The title, in fact, is the most innovative aspect of this short, made for Novelty Productions, and dolefully brandishes its ultra low-budget origins.  Charley’s preoccupation with eggs and fish serve as the main course of sight gags.  It’s a menu of his we’re used to by this time, and have seen done better (and with more enthusiasm).

Two later shorts, 1940’s A SLEEPLESS NIGHT and 1941’s WILD OYSTERS must have seemed like antiques, even in the early 1940s.  For one thing, they’re in black-and-white, from a time when major-minors Universal and Columbia were already releasing cartoons in Technicolor.  More relevantly, these shorts, the latter shot at the Fleischer Studios, are lip-biting uncomfortable.  They chronicle the adventures of a family of mice.  Because of the Bowers Process, they aren’t the cute Disney or funny WB versions, but sort of a twilight zone hybrid of animated creatures and real-life rodents – something one really doesn’t want to see at an evening’s night of fun at the movies.  Worse, they’re like Depression-era remnants, living in sardine cans within the walls of a human’s home.  That the male head is sitcom henpecked doesn’t quite justify their unpleasant presence.  Yes, the gags are inventive, but the visuals are as if Bricolo was attempting to give his creatures the Jacob Riis treatment.  In the former, Mom and Pop mouse are kept awake by a snoring dog and mater makes pater do something about it.  In the latter, la familia Mouse is attacked by a vengeful oyster and his gang/brood.  Okay, I’m glad I saw them, but I’m not sure I ever want to see them again (SLEEPLESS only exists silent, the audio having been lost).

The final cartoon in the set is a thoroughly welcome and refreshing upgrade, 1940’s OIL CAN AND DOES.  It attempts to show the benefits (sans the later documented cancer-related effects) of oil for human recreation (suntan lotion, cosmetics, etc.).  Commissioned by the petroleum industry, the BBROS-animated represents Bowers’ collision with Technicolor (shot in Kodachrome).  It’s a very modern-looking cartoon (more reminiscent of the stuff we saw in the late 1950s-early 1960s).  I suspected (and was proven correct) that it was produced for exhibition at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.  The most balmy aspect of this piece is not the barrage of oddball animated gags, but the fact that this short was directed by Joseph Losey (one of his first efforts)!  The idea of a Bowers and Losey collaboration is so beyond the fringe, and thereby demands repeated examination.

 

As indicated, the 17 movies comprising this collection fluctuate in physical condition and thematic content.  When the former is good, it’s terrific, when not – it serves as on-going testament to our negligence of American art and culture.  God bless the collectors and foreign archives.  THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS took over two decades of work to compile and restore. Special thanks needs to be bestowed upon Flicker Alley’s Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange, Emile Mahler, Antoine Ange and Jeffrey Masino.  Audio, where available (music tracks) comes by way of composers Donald Sosin, Antonio Coppola and Neil Brand.  A beautifully illustrated and informative booklet by motion-picture historian Sean Axmaker is included in this set that also features a 15-minute Bricolo documentary and slideshow of stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.

Certainly one of the most original citizens in early American movie history, Charley Bowers is worthy of this tribute and re-evaluation.  Check it out, I think you’ll agree.

THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF CHARLEY BOWERS. Black and White/Color. Full frame [1.33:1]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [music tracks]. Flicker Alley/Cinematheque Francais, MoMA, eye, Narodni filmvyarchiv, the George Eastman Museum, La Cinematheque de Toulouse, the Library of Congress/ROAM/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films. CAT # FA0064.  SRP: $49.95.

CHARLEYBOWERS_COVER

At Fritz’s End

Fritz Lang’s final two American works, befittingly both film noir (a genre the director embryonically seeded as early as the 1920s, and one he mastered), are now available in exceptional widescreen Blu-Ray remasters from those mean-streeters at the Warner Archive Collection.  Long only viewable in washed-out full-frame renditions, it’s a revelation to be able to enjoy WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (both released by RKO in 1956) the way they were meant to be seen (even if Lang might agree only begrudgingly; see below).

The movies, starring noir king Dana Andrews, and featuring a fantastic array of costars and supporting players, began as a pair of independent productions that the director signed on to do with independent producer Bert Friedlob.  Lang, who greatly enjoyed his previous tenure with Walter Wanger, was about to be smacked in the head like a piñata.  While each man heralded the freedom of indie filmmaking, the intense conflict of two strong personalities soon led to a festering acrimony.  While the commencement of their association began with a wacky photo shoot, prominently showing Lang and Friedlob sharing a piece of cake like the canines in the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp, it would likely be the last time the two were ever in such close proximity.  The stress factor on these pictures (the “so thick you could cut it with a knife” variety) proved so toxic that it had a fatal effect; Freidlob succumbed to a heart attack on October 7, 1956, just a little over a month after REASONABLE DOUBT (September 5) hit the theaters.

Other problems with cast members and the Howard Hughes faux CinemaScope doozy, SuperScope, aided and abetted the vice-tight tension on-set, so much so that it’s amazing the these movies turned out so well.  In fact, today they’re considered among Lang’s most underrated efforts – especially, the latter which got devastating reviews upon its original release (but was remade in 2009 with Michael Douglas and Amber Tamblyn).

 

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (totally unrelated to the “name’s-the-same” Lon Chaney silent) is a scathing indictment of extreme tabloid journalism that was infiltrating the reading public in the 1950s.  Ironically, it strives to celebrate the efforts of a veteran editor – a holdout from the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur old school, the very types who created tabloid sensationalism.  Oh, well.

What aging, curmudgeonly Jon Day Griffith has to face are the changing times.  The Sentinel, part of the massive Kyne Publishing Empire, is a decrepit, printed wheezing daily adrift in an expansive, growing age of mass media.  The big guns are the electric technologies of telelex and television news, both championed by the organization’s visionary owner, Amos Kyne.  Everyone’s connection to a particularly lurid story (if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead) intertwines a handful of aggressive, take-no-prisoner fascinating characters, as embodied by a first-rate cast – perhaps one of noir’s greatest, certainly the genre’s gold standard.

Edward Mobley (Andrews) is a bitter, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who reaps ratings via his nightly news TV program; nevertheless he genuinely loves old man Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), and feeds him headline corkers from his prime source, Detective Lt. Bert Kaufman (Howard Duff).  Mobley is also romancing beautiful executive assistant Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), who works directly for the head of the Telex Department, Mark Loving (George Sanders, one of the director’s favorite actors).  Loving “romances” Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who runs the equivalent of the Page Six column; Loving proves his name is an ironic one, as he is not above pimping her out (which she happily consents to) in order to beat the other departments to a scoop.  When Kyne dies suddenly of a massive heart attack, the empire is bequeathed to his intelligent but generally worthless offspring, Walter (Vincent Price).  Walter’s gorgeous cheating wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) is having it off with hubby’s best friend, Head of Marketing’s “Honest” Harry Kritzer (James Craig).  With the exception of being oblivious his wife’s faithlessness, Walter is not as dumb as he appears; this becomes evident when he decides to create a new position, Executive Director.  Griffith, Kritzer, and Loving are all thrown into this contest, which an amused Kyne watches and judges.  Kritzer doesn’t think he need do anything, since he’s exchanging fluids with the boss’s spouse, Since Loving can’t confide in Nancy, who’s hopeless involved with his rival’s office buddy, he attempts to ruin the award-winning journalist’s name by pimping Mildred to Mobley. Griffith, in turn, additionally relies upon Ed to help him get the skinny on the city’s leading story.  And that story is a lulu.

Manhattan is being plagued by a serial killer (based, in part, upon the true-crime 1940s reign of terror perpetrated by William Heirens, aka The Lipstick Killer).  The monster, who rapes and slaughters females, leaves a telling message, scrawled in lipstick on the walls: Ask Mother (no, it’s not Mike Pence, but a disturbed j.d., played by John Drew Barrymore).

Contemporary culture is deemed the culprit (too much violence in movies, TV and, most prevalently, comic books – the latter being an actual target for conservatives back then, the equivalent of today’s “video game” excuse).  In WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, the argument holds water in a famous scene where Andrews devotes his nightly broadcast to profiling the psychopath. “He’s a mama’s boy…” chides the reporter, who brings up graphic comics, as Barrymore seethes at his television set in a room littered with comic books (while his mother is heard in the background asking if everything’s okay).

More specifically than mere violence, it’s the use and abuse of women that is key to this movie’s scenario.  Although Loving’s procuring his girlfriend makes this blatantly apparent, the horrific wild pitch comes from Mobley and Griffith:  the aforementioned TV segment, we learn, was a preamble lure to use Liggett as bait to flesh out the killer (subsequently followed by nuptial news of Mobley’s and Liggett’s engagement).  And, unfortunately, it works.  Well, unfortunately for the on-screen characters; for movie viewers, it’s brilliant, suspenseful picture-making, culminating in a thrilling chase through Manhattan’s subway system, as the movie’s thesps perilously skirt the live third rail (a Lang near-and-dear device, having previously utilized this hazardous approach in 1941’s Manhunt).

The screenplay, based on Charles Einstein’s blistering novel, The Bloody Spur, is by Casey Robinson, an iconic Hollywood writer, whose credits go back to the Warner Bros. pre-Code era (he later scripted Captain Blood, Dark Victory, King’s Row and Now, Voyager ).

Aside from the obvious outstanding cast (with wonderful supporting players rounding out the all-star roster, including Robert Warrick, Mae Marsh, Celia Lovsky, Vladimir Sokoloff and Carleton Young), CITY is luxuriously photographed (for SuperScope) by the great Ernest Laszlo (SuperScope was filmed normally, then re-processed in the lab to assimilate rectangular widescreen; since this meant slicing the top and bottom frame, often heads began at the brow and legs ended at the shinbone).  It seems likely that Lang and Laszlo eventually planned shots for the anamorphic SuperScope compromise of 2.00:1, from the initial 1.85:1 (actual CinemaScope was 2.35:1).  Long story short, in SuperScope, CITY looks way better than in the decades of awful full-frame TV prints (1.33:1) fans were subjected to.  Another plus is the music of Herschel Burke Gilbert who provides perhaps his finest score (the opening foreboding fanfare over the RKO logo informs viewers of the shocks and chills to come).

Outside of clashes between Lang and producer Friedlob (of which there were many), a major concern during the production was Andrews’ drinking, probably at its worst from this period.  I have no doubt that the many scenes set in the newspaper’s local watering hole (The Blue Dell) were added to lend credence to Andrews’ boozy, occasional word-slurring presence and delivery.  In one scene, while escorting Forrest home, he barely makes it up the stairs – nearly crawling on all fours, belligerently cursing himself for over-imbibing.  It’s remarkable that the splendid actor remains believable and quite good in the hero role.  The Warner Archive widescreen Blu-Ray, as one might surmise from my above comments, looks terrific, the best this movie has EVER looked, and is highly recommended.  The opening credits, with each successive cast member’s name hurtling toward the camera will definitely convince your audience that they’ve died and gone to noir heaven.

SIDEBAR TRIVIA:  Perhaps WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS’ scariest moment occurred off-screen.  An ill-posed candid “gag shot” features Lang, Lupino and Duff engulfing the latter pair’s then four-year-old daughter Bridget.  I suspect she’s still traumatized.  FYI, the frequent giant “K” logos for “Kyne” were leftover props from Citizen Kane.

 

Fritz Lang’s final American work, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, almost coincides exactly with the demise of the pic’s studio, the once-great RKO.  Hemorrhaging money, due to owner Howard Hughes’ excesses, refusing to comply with the changing styles and culture of the late 1950s, and not really having any stars to promote…the company died an agonizing death.  It would, in fact, be gone by the next year (all projects in production would be sold off to Universal-International or Warner Bros.).  Lang’s last breath, an infamous critical/box-office disaster, was quickly and cheaply made, and remains today one of the director’s most unfairly maligned efforts.  The movie’s doomed logic narrative that so infuriated critics is the very cornerstone of film noir and ever-increasingly pushes this “sick child” of a picture further up into the pantheon where it belongs.

The plot, as scripted by Douglas Morrow (from his story) veritably defines the foundation of the genre.

Famed novelist Tom Garrett (Andrews) and his friend, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) are confirmed liberals, voicing their anger against capital punishment.  The execution of an innocent man being shrugged off as “that’s show biz” only intensifies their ire.  It is then that Spencer, whose bratty, pampered daughter Susan (a thankless role for Joan Fontaine) is engaged to Garrett, comes up with a lollapalooza of an idea.  An unsolved brutal assault and murder of a stripper seems to be slated for the cold case files.  Spencer proposes that he and Garrett manipulate circumstantial evidence that will convict the latter of the heinous crime.  Of course, it’s ridiculous, but many have been sent to the gas chamber for less.  The asterisk will be that, on the eve of Garrett’s execution, Spencer will come forward with a day-by-day documentation of the “frame,” proving their point.  And only Spencer and Garrett will be privy to the plan (leaving a perplexed Susan doubting her attraction to her fiancé).

They, in effect, create a new persona for Garrett, plant clues, and even have him descend into the sordid stripper world, addicted to quick sex – to the point of beginning an affair with a snarky bump ‘n’ grind queen (the peerless and magnificent Barbara Nichols).

But, as all noiristas know, the best-laid (no pun) plans…Arrested, convicted and sentenced to die, Garrett’s reprieve is compromised when Spencer, en route to the D.A.’s office (with the only record of the evidence that will clear the writer) is killed in a car accident.  The vehicle’s incineration likewise destroys the convicted man’s alibi.

Even Susan stepping up to help clear her betrothed’s name may be too late.  And then, the mind-blowing Lang twist-on-the-twist kicks in for one of noir’s most harrowing climaxes.  Truly, if this doesn’t make you gasp, it’s time to change your prescription.

The excellent cast, which also includes Arthur Franz, Edward Binns, Shepperd Strudwick, Dan Seymour and Joyce Taylor, compliments the top-notch direction, laden with thrills and suspense.  Add the terrific black-and-white widescreen photography of William E. Snyder and the decent score by CITY’s Gilbert, and you’ve got a winning capper for the studio that helped birth and raise film noir (the Warner Archive Blu-Ray is first-rate, likely the best quality on this title ever available since the flick’s original release).  The disbelief by some of the pic’s detractors can be sloughed off as inconsequential (except for perhaps the portion where Andrews and Nichols are dating; that NEEDS to be seen).  No doubt about it, DOUBT is thoroughly engrossing from fade-in to fade-out.

Both Black and White and widescreen [2.00;1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.  SRP: $21.99@

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. CAT # 1000711420.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. CAT # 1000711050.

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

 

FYI, for all you noir and neo-noir fans, my new book, NOIR VOYAGER, a collection of some of the best Supervistaramacolorscope mean street pieces (some unavailable for years, others updated) has been getting nifty notices.  With the holidays rapidly approaching, it makes the poifect gift for those “hard-boiled” movie fans and DVD/Blu-Ray collectors.  And did we say that it has an Introduction by Christa Lang-Fuller?  We’re saying it now!  You can get your copy at Barnes and Noble, Target, or wherever fine books are sold (always wanted to say/write that).  Or you can order it from Amazon (for the reasonable price of $12.99) by just clicking this link:

https://www.amzn.com/187791259X

Indoor and Outdoor Noir

Two varying uses of everyone’s favorite genre get the 20th Century-Fox 1950’s CinemaScope treatment via the recent releases of Nunnally Johnson’s entertaining BLACK WIDOW and Allan Dwan’s superb THE RIVER’S EDGE, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

While both have the title’s-the-same as later movies, they have (thankfully) nothing to do with them.  They do, however, not only cash in on the then-rage of CinemaScope, but are spectacular extreme opposite examples of my favorite noir sub-genre: color noir.  WIDOW, for all its vast 2.55:1 space, is claustrophobic in its canyons of Manhattan setting, while EDGE magnificently takes advantage of the process in its 2.35:1 grandeur depiction of the monolithic Cuernavaca, Morelos Mexican locations.  Both tackle the same noir tenet: what adulterers will do for sex, and what jealous lovers will do to avenge the act.  Yet, these dark excursions into psychopathy and lust couldn’t be more different, as one partner’s actions are monstrously horrific while the other’s is painfully justified.

 

Film noir for the Smart Set, 1954’s BLACK WIDOW treads the familiar ground of Fox’s previous Cafe Society underbelly – 1944’s Laura (even repeating the casting of that movie’s lead).  This time, it’s the Broadway show business community rocked by the apparent suicide of Nancy Ordway, a parasitic would-be writer, whose death is later termed a homicide, and whose autopsy reveals the single woman’s pregnancy (a BIG no-no for the 1950s).  Unlike the black-and-white, modestly produced Laura, this mystery-shocker was intentionally designed to showcase the studio’s new CinemaScope process, and handled it ably.  Writer-Producer-Director Nunnally Johnson (who adapted the sordid tale from Hugh Wheeler’s story and novel) tackles the rectangular widescreen dimensions similarly to that of fellow Fox talent Henry King:  he fills the screen with enough people and artifacts to virtually create a crammed letterbox tableau with each shot.  And, in keeping with 20th’s and Zanuck’s post-Robe decree (all future Fox titles will be released in CinemaScope, color and stereophonic sound), paved the way to encompass the second rule:  cast a ton of familiar faces to fill that Bunyonesque expanse (the mid-Fifties’ main cast title cards became a Fox “Oh, shit – who ISN’T in this???!!” audience gasper).

Gene Tierney, the star alluded to earlier, shares the credit with Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, and George Raft, plus such welcome punims as Reginald Gardiner, Cathleen Nesbitt, Otto Kruger, Virginia Leith, Skip Homier, Bea Benaderet, Mabel Albertson, future TV mogul Aaron Spelling and, as the dead skank in question, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘s now all-grown-in-Manhattan Peggy Ann Garner.

The black widow, we learn, “earns its name from the deplorable practice/pleasure of devouring its mate.”  Allegorically, this actually serves as a clue (then again, so does the in-your-face Salome opener), but in this back-biting, backstabbing world of the theater, everyone’s a suspect.  Famed producer Peter Denver (Heflin), married to acclaimed leading lady Iris Denver (Tierney), are prime contenders.  So is veteran luminary Carlotta Marin (Rogers), wed to a witty but dutiable lackey, Brian Mullen (Gardiner).  Then, there’s the victim’s jealous sometime-boyfriend, John Amberly (Homeier), his vengeful sister Clare (Leith), and the deceased’s lecherous Uncle Gordon (Kruger).  It’s enough to make Detective Lt. C.A. Bruce (Raft) go bonkers.  Someone’s a clever psychopath, and is apt to strike again.  Personally, I need to give a shout-out to the handling of beautiful African-American actress Hilda Simms; it’s a totally modern, natural performance (she’s a former coworker of social-climbing Ordway, and holds no love for the dead female).  The scenes between her and Heflin are refreshingly progressive.  Heflin, in fact, owns this movie – a reminder of how damn good an actor he was.  Today remembered for mostly action pics, he could be brilliantly sophisticated, droll and urbane, which he is here.

There are some genuine shocks in BLACK WIDOW, the champ gasp being the discovery of murdered Nancy Ordway’s body hanging in the Denver’s apartment; this is piddly noir preamble compared to the subsequent disclosure that the blackmailing hottie was with child.  From that point on, the movie becomes a whodunit in more ways than one (ah, those rapturous days before DNA).

The dialog is extremely funny, sharp and intellectual – yet another example of how far we’ve dumbed-down in 65 five years.  When asked about an upcoming project, a main character replies it’s “like Maugham or Capote – but not at the same time.”  Suffice to say, 1954 viewers got that.  One of my favorite amusing moments comprises the following: “Were you drunk when you did these?,” asks a curious Heflin about rewrites.  “A little,” sheepishly admits his scenarist.  “They’re very good.”  Then there’s party crasher Nancy’s mantra:  basically, if a ten can’t score at least someone to talk to at a Park Avenue soiree, “she might as well go home and shoot herself.”

Key to BLACK WIDOW’s attraction is the spectacular location footage of 1950s Manhattan, no doubt a real “ooo-and-ahh” factor that delighted the original release’s enveloped mass crowds in 5000-plus seat cinemas (like New York’s Roxy, a 5920-capacity house, and a Fox flagship theater).  Directional stereo sound (with a plethora of what we now call surround effects) likewise adds to the enjoyment of this thriller.

The limited edition Blu-Ray of BLACK WIDOW is nearly flawless – in pristine condition with restored beautiful color and 1080p crystal-clear High Definition clarity (an excellent showcase for d.p. Charles G. Clarke’s approach to embryonic anamorphic optics), presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (as opposed to the standard scope 2.35, the added squeeze necessary to accommodate the multi-stereo mag tracks on the 35MM film).  The terrific audio is accessible in either 4.0 surround or 2.0 stereo, the former allowing cineastes to come pretty close to the sound of the 1954 presentation (as usual, the Twilight Time disc offers the IST option for appreciation of Leigh Harline’s score, as well as second audio track commentary by Alan K. Rode, and documentaries on both Rogers and Tierney, the latter concentrating on her many noir roles – this one being her last).

A lethal cocktail of Laura with an All About Eve chaser, BLACK WIDOW remains the ideal Fox CinemaScope homage to metropolitan film noir.

 

A particularly vicious, albeit satisfying noir – a late work for Allan Dwan, who mastered the genre (Slightly Scarlet) and the CinemaScope process, 1957’s THE RIVER’S EDGE takes us through the jagged, unforgiving landscapes of Mexico to ignite a clash sexual tension that explodes into violent passion.

Decent guide-turned-rancher Ben Cameron falls in love with beauteous ex-con Margaret Fowler while in the big city; she acquiesces to his amorous attention, marries him and returns to his struggling ranch.  Inept in all areas of home economics, Maggie fails at the simplest chores, and, ultimately at the rapidly diminishing perks of wedded bliss.  Cameron, honest but crude, is amused at her kitchen and cabin mishaps (even the painful ones).  It’s the role Anthony Quinn was made for.  As for Maggie (the ever-sensual Debra Paget), she’s used to be treated cruelly by men; in fact, that’s how she ended up in stir – taking the rap for her paramour, who skipped prior to the woman’s trial.  Yet, Maggie now longs for her rose-colored non-remorseful life as a felon.  You know what they say – don’t wish too hard for something… Or, more precisely, for something wicked this way comes.  And, soon, almost at exactly the point she’s walking out on Ben, her sociopathic ex, Nardo Denning (Ray Milland) turns up – absolutely panting to resume the carnal pleasures they enjoyed.  And she ain’t saying no.

But this is noir, and there’s a caveat.  Denning has stolen a large amount of loot from some bad folks, and not only wants his woman back, but wants her cuckolded husband to guide them across the border into Mexico.  Partially blackmailed, and partially unable to refuse his wife’s demands, Ben agrees – secretly planning to let nature (human and otherwise) change her mind.

This is one complex emotional nightmare, and, as Cameron figures, Denning’s worm turns – at the near-cost of their lives and at the murders of innocents who stand in Nardo’s way.  Denning is no longer a mere sociopath, he’s graduated to full-blown psychopath.

There are some double-take moments of sanguine brutality in this movie – the most uncompromising being the extremely bloody killing of a state trooper – with Denning repeatedly rolling his convertible over the body, then trying to convince a terrified Maggie that it was an accident.  The test of what makes a great movie – audience discussion and concern about character motivation before and after their screen time – is fully evident here.  When a suspicious Margaret inquires why Nardo left her holding the bag (resulting in her prison sentence), he dubiously explains that he was on his way to the police when he crashed their car in a horrific wreck.  His further disclosure that he underwent hours of severe heart surgery is deservedly met by Maggie’s sneering disbelief.  Until he rips open his shirt to reveal an ugly scar up the entire length of his chest.  Everyone I’ve ever talked to about this movie has often wondered if Denning’s mania and obsession was such that the wounds were self-inflicted (I think so).  That’s great acting and directing.

The entire sparse cast is aces in THE RIVER’S EDGE; aside from the three leads, we are privileged to enjoy the thesp abilities of Byron Foulger, Tom McKee, Frank Gerstle, Chubby Johnson and the wonderful Harry Carey, Jr.

The dialog in the pic is snarky and quotable.  I vividly recall seeing a beet-red scope print at a Time Square grindhouse, and the entire audience erupting in laughter by an exchange between Quinn and Milland.  Knowing damn well the answer, Ben asks Nardo what he has in the silver case he carries around.  “Change of underwear,” he soberly replies.  “You must have a problem.”  It’s a pip!  Kudos to Harold Jacob Smith and James Leicester for their stinging script (based on a story by Smith).

The limited edition Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE RIVER’S EDGE is about as far removed from a faded print as one could mercifully pray for.  It’s a gorgeous 35MM restored transfer, doing justice to Harold Lipstein’s stunning anamorphic cinematography.  As with all TT titles, the audio, featuring Louis Forbes’ score (including an Easy Listening main credits tune by Bob Winn), is available as an IST (by 1957, the Fox decree of color/scope/stereophonic sound had been modified; black-and-white-scope existed, and only major releases contained stereo multi-tracks. THE RIVER’S EDGE contained a single stereo stripe, accessible on the Blu-Ray in 2.0; a 1.0 mono version is alternately attainable as well).

A perfect companion piece to another “edge” outdoor color noir, Don Siegel’s 1959 triumph Edge of Eternity (also available through Twilight Time), THE RIVER’S EDGE underlines the karma of noir: doing the right thing doesn’t give you a ticket out of hell (natch, I also like the indoor/outdoor pairing suggested by this piece since, after all, I came up with it).  Long story short: THE RIVER’S EDGE plays well anywhere.

 

BLACK WIDOW. Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 4.0 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT350-BR

THE RIVER’S EDGE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definiton]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA (mono)/2.0 DTS-HD MA or 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # N/A.

SRP: $29.95@

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

 

FYI, for all you noir and neo-noir fans, my new book, NOIR VOYAGER, a collection of some of the best Supervistaramacolorscope mean street pieces (some unavailable for years, others updated) has been getting nifty notices.  With the holidays rapidly approaching, it makes the poifect gift for those “hard-boiled” movie fans and DVD/Blu-Ray collectors.  And did we say that it has an Introduction by Christa Lang-Fuller?  We’re saying it now!  You can get your copy at Barnes and Noble, Target, or wherever fine books are sold (always wanted to say/write that).  Or you can order it from Amazon (for the reasonable price of $12.99) by just clicking this link:

https://www.amzn.com/187791259X

 

Abyss Road

How frustrating for Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin, having to cut short her Top Cop award win to take an emergency secret meet with her good pal, drug kingpin Frank La Saux.  Talk about conflict of interest! And so begins 2016’s THE LEVEL, a superb suspense-thriller, now on Blu-Ray from Acorn/RLJ Entertainment (in fact, an Acorn TV Original).

The above opening is about the most peaceful moment in this 6-episode British mini-series (spread over two platters).  The meet goes horribly wrong as either rival drug cartels, undercover cops – or a combination of both – invade the nocturnal non-sexual hookup, causing the crime lord to be offed and Devlin to be shot.  Covering her tracks, she must remove the bullet herself, and treat the wound with unauthorized pain killers while performing police duties, thereby risking infection and detection.

The main problem with Devlin’s intertwining professional and personal lives is that they concurrently suck.  Neither friends, family, “squeal” contacts, coworkers – NO ONE – can be trusted.  As the show’s title implies, it’s an unmasking of the many levels of corruption and deceit Nancy Devlin experiences 24/7.  For example, the dead drug maven was a close friend, and father of her BFF, Hayley.  Nancy, daughter of a mixed marriage, cares for her retired cop father Gil (who doesn’t particularly like her) while looking after her estranged mother Teresa (who’s confined to a mental institution).  Devlin’s workplace is rife with traitors (not the good kind, like herself), including feckless lover Kevin, and Gunner, a suspicious detective whose hostility toward Nancy is partially explained by his obsession for her.

Things don’t improve for the detective when she’s assigned to go undercover among the very factions and the crime family members she grew up with, ultimately getting involved in a violent robbery that leaves bodies on both sides of the law.  Even one-time BFF Hayley can no longer be trusted; she’s getting it off with prime suspect Shay, who’s trying to frame Nancy, and who may have contracted Frank’s murder.  Its modern-day neo-noir at its very best, as every time Nancy Devlin conquers an obstacle, ten more nightmares open up.  And, BTW, what’s going on with that improperly tended bullet wound?

THE LEVEL is a tense item that grips you by the throat from the fade-in, and refuses to let up.  Hey, when a drug kingpin, a hateful father and an obsessed stalker are the most commendable characters in your life – you’ve got problems.

Marvelously written (by co-creators Gaby Chiappe and Alexander Perrin), directed (Andy Goddard, Mark Everest), scored, (Jack Arnold) and photographed (Ben Wheeler, in stunning contrasting London and Brighton, East Sussex locations), THE LEVEL features a top-notch cast, headed by the alluring Karla Crome.  For those who now worship Crome, due to her costarring with Orlando Bloom on the hit Amazon Prime series Carnival Row, here’s a perfect op to check out her previous work.  Supporting the stellar actress is an amazing roster of thesps, including Phillip Glenister (as Frank), Laura Haddock (as Hayley), Gary Lewis and Suzanne Packer (as Nancy’s parents), Downton Abbey’s Robert James-Collier as Kevin), Noel Clarke (as Gunner), Joe Absolom (as Shay), plus Lindsey Coulson, Amanda Burton, Geoff Bell, Kate Miles, Rupert Procter, and Lorne MacFadyen.

The Acorn Blu-Ray looks and sounds outstanding in 1080p widescreen and 5.1 surround audio.  As an enticing perk, there’s nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes footage.

A thoroughly different and sensational crime drama, THE LEVEL, with its crowded labyrinthine highway of squirming, slithering Hydra-esque detours, is…well, multi-leveled.

THE LEVEL. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment. CAT # AMP-2546. SRP: $39.95.

LEVEL_COVER

FYI, for all you noir and neo-noir fans, my new book, NOIR VOYAGER, a collection of some of the best Supervistaramacolorscope mean street pieces (some unavailable for years, others updated) has been getting nifty notices.  With the holidays rapidly approaching, it makes the poifect gift for those “hard-boiled” movie fans and DVD/Blu-Ray collectors.  And did we say that it has an Introduction by Christa Lang-Fuller?  We’re saying it now!  You can get your copy at Barnes and Noble, Target, or wherever fine books are sold (always wanted to say/write that).  Or you can order it from Amazon (for the reasonable price of $12.99) by just clicking this link:

https://www.amzn.com/187791259X

NOIRVOYAGER_SUPERVISTA_AD