Alcohol Poisoning

One of the most underrated movies of the Seventies, 1970’s THE MOONSHINE WAR, directed by the equally underrated Richard Quine, comes (at last) to made-to-order DVD-R from the folksy brood at The Warner Archive Collection.  An MGM picture from its fade-out days, MOONSHINE is a grim glimmer of dark greatness that the studio had occasionally achieved when not putting on a show in a barn approximately the size of Dallas.

Based on a terrific novel by Elmore Leonard, who also penned the excellent script, MOONSHINE chronicles the unsavory activities of a number of shady characters during the peak of the Great Depression.  It’s 1932, and out of a muggy, misty sweltering night drives Frank Long, an IRS agent assigned to track down the makers and flow of illegal liquor.  But Long is more than just an imposing, creepy symbol of law enforcement.  He’s a greedy racist – out to score the coup of his life.  For here, in the small, sleepy Kentucky town, resides Long’s former Army buddy, the genial, stalwart, but defiant John W. “Son” Martin – who also happens to the best white lightening brewer in the territory.  While convivial with the rest of the community (they drink, joke and carouse together at his farm), Son’s claim to fame is a supposed stash of 150 barrels of prime stuff.  With Roosevelt about to be elected, and the end of Prohibition practically guaranteed, Long wants to partner up with Martin and pass the bootlegged hooch off as the real McCoy before the legit labels can get back to business.  But Son doesn’t need any partners (except his pal, Aaron, an African-American confident (whom Long threatens to lynch).  If Frank wants the merch, he can pay – like everybody else.

The dichotomy between Long and Martin would be rich enough to fuel the narrative – if this wasn’t simply the hillbilly noir gold mine it is.  Long and Son are mirrored bad/good opposites (Frank’s sexual longing for the beautiful manager of the hotel he’s staying at is another connection; turns out, she’s John’s lover).  While, as indicated, Long is genuinely spooky, corrupt and bigoted – he’s bad, not evil.  This distinction is underlined in blood when the Revenuer calls in assistance to aid his quest.  That nightmare arrives in the personification of  Doc Emmett Taulbee, a “defrocked” dentist, whose license was revoked for gassing female patients who he subsequently raped.  Doc travels with two young ‘uns, at first glance – possibly his children.  ‘Ceptin’ they ain’t.  There’s the thoroughly psychopathic Dual Metters, one of the most scary SOBs ever to stain a reel of celluloid, and Miley Mitchell, an under-aged teen prostitute simultaneously naively innocent and carnally bankrupt; depending on his whim, Doc passes her off as his daughter, wife, ward…

It doesn’t take a stable genius to figure that the partnership between Long and Doc ain’t gonna hold.  Soon the degenerate ex-medical man has called in a company of killers to pose as Feds and (hopefully) confiscate the truckloads of Holy Grail booze for himself.

The sanguinary conflict soon involves the entire locale, including Lizann (the manager), Mr. Baylor (the wily sheriff) and all the neighboring farmers who count on their ‘shine to keep them afloat during these days’ worst times.

As mentioned, the script and direction are top-notch.  While at first glance, Quine, mostly known as a comedy director (Bell, Book and Candle, The Notorious Landlady, How to Murder Your Wife), might seem a weird choice for this scenario; not so, as he was additionally a master at depicting the lower depths of Americana.  Earlier on, he made a series of noirs, including the superb 1954 Pushover and the brilliant 1960 drama of sexual predators in the suburbs Strangers When We MeetMOONSHINE ranks as one of his best works.

Of course, none of this would work if it wasn’t for the cast, and THE MOONSHINE WAR is a prime-tier pantheon of thespian versatility.  As the quiet, intrinsically decent but no-nonsense Son, Alan Alda has perhaps his best big screen role.  And as the slimy Long, Patrick McGoohan definitely delivers his best American movie performance.  Top honors, however, may have to go to the actor portraying the terrifying Doc – Richard Widmark, in likely his finest late career appearance.  Widmark, who (like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan) could excel as either hero or villain, made cinema history with his breakout 1947 debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death.  Along with his racist turn in 1950’s No Way Out, THE MOONSHINE WAR cements a trilogy of three of cinema’s worst cases of humanity (Doc even has Udo’s laugh).  A wild card is the debut of the maniac assistant Dual, spectacularly envisioned by Lee Hazelwood (yep, THAT Lee Hazelwood – the “Boots are Made for Walking” dude).  One scene, that had me gasping in 1970, still remains a shocker.  In a dingy diner, Hazelwood’s Metters notices a young couple having lunch.  He is taken by the man’s tan suit, and compliments the wearer on it.  And then tells him he wants it.  He systematically forces (at gunpoint) the male to strip, then demands the underwear as well.  When the victim’s companion screams to Doc to help, the psychopath turns to Miley, and decides he’d like the woman’s dress for his baby lover.  The terrified woman, too, is forced to strip down to her skin.  Again, even these roles are wonderfully cast:  Claude Johnson and Terri Garr (billed as Terry).  Other fantastic actors in the pic include Will Geer (as the sheriff), Melodie Johnson (as Lizann), Suzanne Zenor (Miley), Joe Williams (Aaron) and Bo Hopkins, Harry Carey, Jr., Max Showalter, John Schuck, Charles Tyner, Dick Crockett and Tom Skerritt. 

One of the downsides of THE MOONSHINE WAR was its being assigned to MGM’s Martin Ransohoff.  A producer with a true feeling for a worthy project, he nevertheless often botched every Metro vehicle he took over (the most notorious being Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers).  For all its merits, THE MOONSHINE WAR looks tampered with (obvious to even an untrained eye) via jagged missing continuity.  Like the Polanski flick, it still rises to greatness, and remains a must-see for fans of the magnificent actors in the show.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE MOONSHINE WAR is near-pristine 35MM, and looks pretty much as good as it did when I caught in 1970.  The widescreen MetroColor photography of Richard H. Kline is warm and gritty – a necessary function to invoke the seamy, steamy atmosphere and downright ugliness of the proceedings.  The mono track nicely replicates the original release, including the country-tinged (if not a bit anachronistic) score by Fred Karger and Neal Hefti, plus an original Hank Williams, Jr. song “Ballad of the Moonshine,” with lyrics by author Leonard.

A nasty look at the worst of humanity, THE MOONSHINE WAR remarkably remains consistently engrossing.  And, when all is said and done, the ending will make you cheer in a classic Bijou popcorn way.

THE MOONSHINE WAR. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 mono. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Turner Entertainment.  CAT # N/A. SRP: $19.95.

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

The Color Line

As I’ve often written (cinema-wise), nothing gives me greater pleasure than when the home video companies catch up with through-the-cracks obscurities and make them available in pristine 35MM Blu-Ray editions.  Win/win, again, folks, for the Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios release of the 1952 war drama RED BALL EXPRESS.

Of course, you’ve never heard of it; that’s why it’s obscure.  And we’re not simply talking about the movie.  I’m also referring to the operation depicted in the motion picture.  Why no one has heard of a 1952 black-and-white movie is understandable (although, in my world, unacceptable).  But how come the actual Red Ball Express?  And why haven’t there been more movies made about it?

Okay, let me backtrack.  We’ve seen newsreels and movies and TV shows, read books and magazine articles about major battles during wars, particularly World War II.  You see the tanks firing, the half-tracks rolling, the soldiers fighting.  Now, how was that possible?  I mean, who supplied the gasoline, the food (you know, they travel on their stomach), the medical supplies?  You NEVER hear about that.  Well, battalions of unsung heroes braved the war zones to do just that.  And they were christened the Red Ball Express.  Interesting cinematic idea, what?  Well, there’s more.  While the military (and even baseball, fer Christ’s sake) was still segregated, the Red Ball Express was equally populated by black and white soldiers. No favoritism, no outranking – all equals: fighting, driving, dying together.

True enough, not one of the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Warners, Paramount, RKO) was interested in the project, largely based upon veteran author Louis L’Amour’s autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man (he was a proud RBE trooper), so the vehicle ended up at Universal-International.  They bit, and greenlit the pic, with the cooperation of the armed services who allowed the studio to do extensive filming at Fort Eustis, Newport News, Virginia.

The cast was to be a roster of U-I contractees, led by one the company’s stars Jeff Chandler, a top attraction in 1952 (plus newbies Hugh O’Brian and Gregg Palmer).  In addition, RED BALL features such familiar Forties, Fifties, and Sixties faces as Alex Nichol, Howard Petrie, Harry Lauter, Richard Garland, Judith Braun, Arthur Space, and (a very early appearance by) Jack Warden.  Other cast members (specifically the African-American actors, Bubber Johnson and Davis Roberts) were recruited independently.  The script (a wonderful one, by the way) is by my candidate for screenwriting god, John Michael Hayes.  Hayes wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rear Window; had he done no other picture ever, he’d still be on the first tier of the Neuhaus Hollywood scribe pantheon (he also penned several other Hitch titles, including To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and one of my favorite big-budget westerns of all-time, Nevada Smith).

The movie was shot by Russell Metty, another Neuhaus nominee for best at his art (just check out his Sirk work!).  Finally, the direction is by the brilliant Budd Boetticher, who beautifully infuses the narrative with the correct amount of drama, suspense (specifically, a seemingly cakewalk trek through a minefield), action (a breathless finale) and humor.  And, yes, nothing is sugar-coated.  The prognosis was grim for the RBE – a Rogue’s Gallery of “volunteers” considered expendable-plus (many of the selected troopers were a la Dirty Dozen picks).  But they showed ’em.  Boetticher tackles the obvious initial conflict of racism, and handles it well.  Soon, even the pre-MAGA-type asshole becomes team player.  Boetticher even manages to make the usually stodgy Charles Drake more animated than ever (he plays a former civilian writer, no doubt based on L’Amour).

The Red Ball Express mostly went “by the book,” as enforced by their reluctant, but liberal commander (Chandler), yet often veered off the road to aid suffering villagers on the brink of starvation and in dire medical need.  It was truly a humanitarian outfit.

The jagged collision of cultural harmony is another plus in the pic’s DNA, working as unit of one – and occasionally shaming the dogfaces they’re serving.  There’s even a feminist equality vibe, as the RBE often worked side-by-side with nurses/USO traveling convoy.  This movie genuinely does have everything.

For Universal-International, RED BALL eventually paid off in big dividends.  The excellent actor James Edwards was originally cast as the rebellious hothead Robertson, but proved to be too controversial when he refused to testify before HUAC.  Searching the thesp directories for a last-minute replacement, the U-I suits settled upon a young up-and-comer with only a couple of movies under his belt.  His name was Sidney Poitier.  With Poitier, Chandler, O’Brian (as the reformed racist) and Maverick’s Jack Kelly heading the lineup, TV screenings were plentiful throughout the 1960s.  Again, why it kind of subsequently disappeared is a head-scratcher.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of RED BALL EXPRESS is a treat and a half.  Not only in rediscovering this movie and piece of American history, but doing so in a crisp 1080p transfer. Extras include audio commentary by film historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin (author of Combat Films: American Realism), plus a collection of related trailers.

A war flick that absolutely deserves a better rep, and certainly one of the best of director Boetticher’s U-I output, THE RED BALL EXPRESS is an authentic diamond-in-the-rough, worthy of a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.

THE RED BALL EXPRESS.  Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24925. SRP: $24.95.

The Ugly, the Ugly and the Ugly: Spaghetti with Extra Sauce

One of the most unusual, freakish and violent spaghetti westerns ever made (and that’s saying a lot!), 1972’s THE GRAND DUEL, directed by Giancarlo Santi, comes to Blu-Ray in an extras-laden special edition, thanks to the folks at Arrow/MVDvisual.

The movie, while predominantly spaghetti in flavor and origin, is actually a co-production with France and Germany – so add sides of crepes (pronounced “creeps”) and brats.

The story, while on the surface seems typical of the genre, is remarkably fresh and different – yet, dutifully pays homage to Leone, as well as to the great Sergio Sollima 1967 entry The Big Gundown (DUEL’s alternate Euro title was The Big Showdown); the movie additionally is a nod to it’s spaghetti superstar lead Lee Van Cleef.  You’ll also notice references to Death Rides a Horse, The Mercenary, and other staples of the beloved genre; furthermore, you can throw in Stagecoach and Man Without a Star, among the slew American masterpieces, likewise duly paid tribute in a revisionist, stylish way.

Van Cleef plays Clayton, a fairly honest lawman, whose striving for justice in an unjust land, gets him the boot – and not in a nice way.  He rescues a young fall guy, Newland (Horst Frank) – about to be dealt with for the murder of a local icon, known as The Patriarch.  Together, the pair set out to solve the killing, leaving a trail of bodies and carnage behind.

As you might have guessed, THE GRAND DUEL is as much a mystery as a western.  Credit this to screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, acclaimed scribe of many classic gialli.  Director Santi, a former a.d. to Leone on GBU and Once Upon a Time in the West, excels in creating the necessary suspense and pulling off some amazing action sequences.

Most bizarre is the confrontation with the despicably evil Saxon family, particularly sociopathic son Adam.  Adam Saxon is more than a mere vicious psychopath – he’s a bisexual vicious psychopath, his face pockmarked with remnants of decades of STDs.  It’s that kind of a show.

Van Cleef, as usual, is terrific, using all of his formidable tricks of the trade, aka them “angel eyes,” a penchant for delivering lean dialog with scalpel effect, and fast gunfighting skills.  The supporting cast admirably backs him up, and deserves mention – especially the aforementioned Frank, Peter O’Brien, Jess Hahn, Antonio Casale, Dominque Darel, Matt Mazza, Alessandra Cardini, and  Anna Maria Gheraldi.  Most prominent is the actor portraying the loathsome Adam – Germany’s Klaus Gunsberg.  It’s an astonishing performance from a thesp whose only other pic I’ve seen him in was as the likeable, doomed protagonist in Barbet Schroeders’ 1969 psychedelic noir More (playing opposite the great Mimsy Farmer, in possibly her finest role).

The remaining credits are top-notch as well, specifically the beautiful scope camerawork of Mario Vulpiani and the wonderful score by Sergio Bardotti (pseudonym for Luis Enriquez Bacalov, best known as the composer of the original Django, The 10th Victim, and  It Can Be Done Amigo. A recent posthumous credit is as music contributor to the current hit BBC series Killing Eve; Bardotti/Bacalov passed in 2007).

The new Arrow 1080p High Def Blu-Ray remaster of THE GRAND DUEL looks, well…grand, I’m sure better than any U.S. print did in 1972 or since (this, by the way, is the complete rendition – not the badly edited and censored nonsense, released in many Anglo territories under the title Storm Rider); it is accessible in either the English dub or the Italian cut (the latter with excellent English subtitles).

As indicated above, a fistful of supplements append this release, and include vintage and newly filmed interviews with director Santi, costar Peter O’Brien (aka Alberto Dentice), writer Gastaldi, producer Ettore Rosboch, and assistant director Harald Buggenig.  There is also a documentary on the pic by Austin Fisher, audio commentary by film critic Stephen Prince, plus a visual gallery of stills, international poster art and home video sleeves.  There is also a comparison between the various versions of THE GRAND DUEL, and a rare sci-fi 1984 short, Game Over, featuring costar Matt Mazza (there’s even a separate mini look at Mazza’s career!).

A thoroughly engrossing and underrated late spaghetti offering, THE GRAND DUEL checks off all the boxes, and then some.  Or, maybe, I should have said “coffins.”

THE GRAND DUEL. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Uncompressed 1.0 LPCM mono audio.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV189. SRP: $39.95.

Kick-ass Lass

These are extraordinary times, to be sure – and you don’t need the likes of me to inform the reading public of such things.  Nevertheless a ripple effect has, not surprisingly, spread its concentric circles of contemporary inequality into the motion picture industry, aka the revenge genre.  One of the spinoff results has been the flourishing of a deserved sub-genre: the lower-middle class female payback flick.  Perhaps the best example of this (to date) is the 2019 action-horror pic A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND, now on DVD from the terrific (and progressive) gang at Film Movement (in conjunction with February Films and Frakas Productions).

An Irish-Euro co-production (largely filmed in Belgium), A GOOD WOMAN takes the genre to new heights.  Whereas previous entries like the misguided Trumpian racist Peppermint and the entertaining blaxploitation throwback Proud Mary heralded women wronged and/or fed up, A GOOD WOMAN doesn’t center on a super female killing machine (either groomed from adolescence nor trained in the martial arts).  Sarah Collins is an average single mom, a widow with two small children, whose husband, an alleged drug dealer, was murdered.  Steadfastly loyal, Sarah refuses to believe the evidence of her spouse’s wrongdoing, but is stymied because she’s basically a nobody.  Even less so, as the police couldn’t be more apathetic in finding the victim’s killer (“Just let sleeping dogs lie.”).  The situation becomes worse at home when Collins’ own acid-tongued mother sides with the cops and eschews her daughter.

But Sarah knows better, and she is right.  With total ostracization and dwindling finances becoming an issue, the determined woman has to find resources to keep her going, and to prevent the walls (physically and psychologically) from closing in.  Also, she must keep on the “good face” for her son (who saw the murder and has been mute-traumatized ever since) and daughter.

And this isn’t even the crux of her woes.

Tito, a local scumbag druggie/thief hits a hood’s main cartel, and, as (rotten) luck would have it, breaks into Sarah’s home to hide-out.  The thug thinks he’s hooked into a dream deal.  Making a fortune from the stolen drugs and having a terrified woman as his new sex toy.

And here is where Tito lives to regret his decision, and Sarah asserts herself to salvage respect, dignity and fight for the safety of her children.  And it ain’t pretty.  The violence the young woman is capable of shocks Collins as much as her targets, but wins over her estranged mater (“You have to be a bit of a bitch!”), helps to solve the murder and horrifies the baddies.  LSS: Don’t mess with a mom!

The fact that it’s all believably and logically presented is a big nod to director Abner Pastoll, writer Ronan Blaney, and star Sarah Bolger.  Other key performances include Andrew Sim, Jane Brennan and Sean Sloan as a predatory supermarket detective who pegs Sarah as easy prey (his comeuppance is a highlight).

What makes this movie so engrossing and relevant transcends the gloom-and-doom scenario and gore (the latter, which is on view a-plenty).  There are several sequences of genuine situational humor sprinkled throughout – the best being a sexually deprived Collins desperately rummaging through her kids’ toys trying to find batteries for her vibrator (it reminds me of a less hilarious, but equally memorable moment from Jennifer Kent’s excellent Babadook, starring the great Essie Davis).

The DVD of A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is quite shipshape, with nicely composed  anamorphic widescreen imagery (by d.p. Richard C. Bell) rendered faithfully and an effective stereo-surround track (containing a churning score by Matthew Pusti).  There are some nifty extras as well, including deleted scenes, outtakes, a “Making of” featurette and audio commentary by director Pastoll.

Of course, the pic did not get a major release here, due to it’s being a foreign item (albeit in English) from a small distributor and, of course, the emerging pandemic.  Social media comments certainly reflect the misogynist attitudes of dumbass males who can’t fathom the concept of an enraged average 2020 female movie character while having no credibility problems with John Wick.  Ignore them, and check this out.  Methinks you’ll be rewarded by the results and will champion the fantastic work of Ms. Bolger.

A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND. Color. Widescreen [2.39:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Film Movement/February Films/Frakas Productions.  SRP: $24.95.

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