Shiny Abjects

An insidiously addictive suspense drama, 2019’s top-notch British mini-series GOLD DIGGER, comes to DVD, via the folks at Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios/Mainstream Pictures, Ltd.

The six-episode program, spread over two discs, chronicles the not-so-lovely lifestyle of the mega-rich Day family.  Divorced and feeling useless (and with her 60th birthday approaching), talented matriarch Julia (a once-promising career professional/artist), now virtually abandoned by her grown children (who nevertheless still prey on her), enjoys taking trips to the city and losing herself in museums, curiosity shops and small cafes.  It’s at one of these outings that she runs into the thirtyish Ben, whose humor, intelligence, and (admittedly) sexuality rivals hers.  And what may at first seem like a mature woman and a boy toy quickly evolves into a full-blossomed romance.

End of story?  Hell, no.  The seas are choppy, to say the least.  And full of sharks.

While these days we love to see scumbag rich dudes and their worthless spawn get theirs – here it’s not so cut and dried.  Della, Julia’s daughter, isn’t quite the bitch one initially supposes.  And at least one of the two risible sons has married a loving, sensitive (and sensible) level-headed person who may or may not be aware of his serial cheating.

Of course, there’s Ted, the ex-husband – a total slime-ball, now living with Marsha, Julia’s former best friend!  Turns out, he not only fooled around, but used to beat his spouse, once requiring an EMS response.

Not that Ben is any angel either.  He has a dubious history, and an even more fragile connection to Kieran, a horrible sibling (who, naturally, turns up).  The prerequisite “he only wants you for your money” talk early on rears its ugly head, and is quasi-forgiven, but the chance discovery of a mysterious death in Ben’s and Kieran’s past can’t be sloughed off.

These and many more secrets are intertwined with lies and even truths throughout the course of the show, each installment being devoted to another character in Julia’s existence (Her Boy, Her Daughter, Her Rival, Her Husband, Her Baby, Her Love).

The writing (scripted by the show’s creator Marnie Dickens) and directing (Vanessa Caswill, David Evans) is first-rate, as is the widescreen photography (Jean-Philippe Gossart, Sergio Delagdo) of the Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon locales.  An appropriate music score (Stuart Earl) appends the drama; however, it’s the extraordinary performances that make GOLD DIGGER a must-watch.  Bravo to Ben Barnes (as Ben), Sebastian Armesto, Archie Renaux, Jemima Rooper (as the ungrateful, greedy brats), Alex Jennings (as the abusive spouse), Nikki Amuka-Bird (as the “with friends like her” ex-bestie), David Leon (as Ben’s creepy reptilian brother), Yasmine Akram (as the decent daughter-in-law), Karla-Simone Spence, Fleur Keith, Julie McKenszie, William Vassey, Indica Watson, Tylan Bayram and Kate Kennedy.  A special nod to star Julia Ormond enacting the finest role of her career (to date); she is absolutely superb.

Acorn’s slipcovered DVD set of GOLD DIGGER beautifully visually and audibly captures the literal and emotional colors necessary to put the proceedings over the top (no Joshua Logan production this!).  A 21-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is also included as an extra.

A cynical, dark modern romance steeped in mystery, GOLD DIGGER is the perfect way to spend an engrossing weekend afternoon.

GOLD DIGGER. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios/Mainstream Pictures, Ltd. CAT # AMP-2850.  SRP: $39.99.

His Lasterpiece

The final great W.C. Fields classic, 1941’s NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the wily carnies at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

The follow-up work to 1940’s The Bank Dick (arguably one of the finest comedies of the sound era), NGaSaEB was likewise directed by the comedian’s pal (and former Keystone Kop) Eddie Cline, with his patented penchant for riotous slapstick precision still in full gear (Cline also helmed some of Buster Keaton’s classic silents).  Fields, who (as in the previous flick) penned the story (under the nom de plume of Otis Criblecoblis; script by Prescott Chaplin and John T. Neville), tears down not only the fourth wall, but structures numbers one, two, and three as well.

There’s intentionally little, if any, cohesion or continuity to the pic (and, in this case, that ain’t a bad thing); ironically (or appropriately), it’s about the movie business, another plus in my check column.  The scenario takes place in a quasi-real world.  Fields plays Uncle Bill or, simply The Great Man (as he’s billed), avoided by all at Esoteric Studios (or Universal), even though his last movie, The Bank Dick, was a tremendous critical and box-office hit (truth).  Uncle Bill eventually gets to take a meeting with manic studio head Franklin Pangborn (as Franklin Pangborn), who registers his trademark flustered response as readily as Edgar Kennedy (who’s NOT in the movie) did his slow burn.

With good reason, too.

The script Uncle Bill is pedaling is an unrelated, anarchic, anachronistic, live action cartoon of unstrung events (all depicted anecdotally) that would try the logic of a four-year-old.  Yet, they’re hilariously funny.  For example, a Mexican community adjacent to a Russian village surrounds the bottom of a mountain – the plateau top incorporating the manse of Mrs. Hemoglobin, a monstrous widow (and the wealthiest woman on the planet) who resides there with her hottie-tottie jive-bopping daughter, Ouilotta.  It’s guarded by a loyal gorilla, and can only be reached via a crank-operated dirigible basket, or airplane (containing an open-air observation tail that Fields conveniently falls out of whilst lunging for a dropped flask).

Biding his time waiting for the said meeting and weighing his career options, Uncle Bill partakes the pleasures of a nearby studio diner and, later, an ice-cream parlor (originally, we learn, a bar, as he tells us in wink-wing/nudge-nudge fashion); Fields also has become guardian to a teenage songstress Gloria Jean (played by teenage songstress Gloria Jean).

The movie makes absolutely no sense, and I love every frame of its 71 minutes.  Even sans Fields, the scenes of Pangborn trying to concentrate of several movies in production at once are spot-on uproarious (Nazis goose-stepping through a musical number, construction workers literally “hammering” out dialog on a soundstage, union workers demanding lunch).  It’s all in the tradition of Hellzapoppin’, the Olsen and Johnson smash made at Universal the same year (and shamefully unavailable in this country).  It’s also pure Fields, even though the comic was at odds with the front office.  Usually, I side with the artists, but in at least one narrative element, the suits were probably right.  A sequence where beauteous starlet Madame Gorgeous (played by beauteous starlet Anna Nagel), mother of the Gloria Jean character, is killed while performing a stunt, was excised (it led to Fields’ character becoming Gloria’s official guardian); all that remains is one short scene where Nagel kisses Jean goodbye and heads toward a soundstage with the dubious advice of minding “Uncle Bill.”  Truth be told, Jean could have probably been removed altogether (of course, then the final cut might have been less than an hour).

Another dispute arose over the title.  Universal was on a Fields roll, and wanted the pic to reflect his already iconic phrases, following the footsteps of 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and 1940’s My Little Chickadee.  Fields wanted it to simply be called The Great Man, claiming that the proposed title would never fit on most theater marquees, and throughout the country would be heralded as Fields-Sucker.

Additionally, Universal insisted on replicating the outstanding chase finale of The Bank Dick, and did so with a scene where Fields volunteers to transport a woman to the local maternity ward (before the soon-to-be frenzied female can tell him that she’s not a patient, but a visitor).  The resulting wacky and wild sight gag-laden melee that followed was so meticulously achieved (save for Fields, whose close-ups were done in the studio against rear screen) that the thrifty company would later remove and replace the comedian’s inserts with that of Abbott and Costello, and, essentially, drop the entire reel into the climax of the team’s 1944 hit In Society.

While not the flawless classic The Bank Dick was, SUCKER is a superb comedy nevertheless.  The cast is impeccable, and supporting Fields and the aforementioned thesps are Leon Errol, Susan Miller, Mona Barrie, Charles Lang, Nell O’Day, Minerva Urecal, Richard Alexander, Claud Allister, Leon Belasco, Kay Deslys, Jean Porter, Victor Potel, Dave Willock, Emmett Vogan, (of course) Carlotta Monti, Bill Wolf and brat urchins Butch ‘N’ Buddy.  It’s amazing that a scene between the comedian and the wonderful hard-boiled character actress Jody Gilbert remained censor-free; thank heaven for small miracles!

The new Blu-Ray Kino-Lorber/Universal 1080p transfer of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is, hands down, the version to own.  Some slight wear aside, the 35MM elements are excellent, doing d.p. Charles Van Enger justice.  Better yet is the cleaned up mono audio – not only to fully appreciate the kwazy music of Frank Skinner and Charles Previn, the singing of Jean (Universal’s  B-movie version of Deanna Durbin, who was their A-movie version of Judy Garland), but for the under-the-breath asides of the movie’s star.  One, which I’ve never heard before, had me laughing long after the platter stopped spinning.  It takes place in the earlier alluded to ice-cream parlor.  Fields, watching soda jerk Irving Bacon swat a fly on the counter, remarks in a whisper (as only he can) “It’s killers like you that give the West a bad name.”  I  fell off the sofa.

There are some nifty extras as well, including audio commentary by Eddy von Mueller and, far more enticing, an episode on Fields from the mid-1960s summer replacement show, Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At…  It was a limited series wherein the Canadian team nicely paid homage to comedies in the Universal library.  I had never seen this one (but do remember an episode devoted to Hope and Crosby), so it’s a treat to have it at one’s fingertips (hope they release more).

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT# K24804. SRP: $24.95.

Or is it One Day in January?

A plot devised by top D.C. leaders for armed homegrown insurrectionists take over Washington to reverse a presidency?  Preposterous!  Or is it?  No, I’m not talking about an event from early 2021, I’m citing the narrative from the (even more now) spine-tingling political thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, available on Blu-Ray from The Warner Archive Collection.  Oh, yeah, this pic was made in 1964!

The movie, based on a bestselling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, was early on bought for the movies by Kirk Douglas’s company, Joel Productions, Inc.  He definitely saw the possibilities and only one director in his mind could do it justice:  John Frankenheimer.  Not surprising, since Frankenheimer had a mammoth critical and financial hit in 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate (also frighteningly realistic, and already pulled from release by 1964, due its subject matter of a planned presidential assassination).  Frankenheimer agreed to sign on and coproduced the flick with Douglas.

The scenario, as capsulized above, is lip-biting sinister.  Right wing General James Mattoon Scott sees the liberal presidency of Jordan Lyman as not merely weak, but “criminally weak.”  He secretly recruits top military brass from the Joint Chiefs, along with key politicos to remove the sitting president via a coup.  He will assume the role of Commander-in-Chief and rule the new America as an armed-to-the-teeth fortress, ready to do whatever is necessary to protect the country from the Russians or any other enemy – including liberal peacenik progressives from within.

Naturally assuming that any military person of note would agree, clues of the upcoming takeover are cryptically dropped past Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, another rightwing officer, who, nevertheless believes in the Constitution and, much to General Scott’s chagrin, will always play by the book.

Suspense builds mightily in the flick’s time bomb pacing that incorporates murder, double-dealing, sexual politics (natch) and the ever-present sword of Damocles threat of nuclear retaliation.  Long story short, this movie’s a humdinger!

Much of SEVEN DAYS‘ tense moments occurred off-screen as well.  Originally, Douglas opted for the Scott role, with the “Jiggs” part was slated for Kirk’s occasional costar Burt Lancaster.  This posed a problem, as Frankenheimer was on the outs with the 1960 Best Actor Oscar winner (Elmer Gantry).  That same year, Lancaster had pegged Frankenheimer to direct his modern noir The Young Savages (released in 1961).  It proved a modest success, and the two seemed to get along – enough so that the star hired the director to helm the upcoming and more elaborate Bird Man of Alcatraz.  That shoot was a nightmare, with Burt often calling the shots in direct opposition to Frankenheimer (often resulting in physical altercations), who vowed he would never work with the actor again.  Douglas soothed the wound, but only after the three agreed that Kirk and Burt should switch roles.  During the filming, Lancaster (now merely an actor for hire) and Frankenheimer bonded again, and began plotting a reunion with The Train (1965, one of their best).  But it was touch and go at first.

Kirk, who learned with Spartacus, to only hire the best, kept that mantra.  The supporting cast of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is extraordinary, and includes Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (Oscar-nominated), Martin Balsam, John Houseman, Andrew Duggan, Whit Bissell, Helen Kleeb, George Macready, Richard Anderson, Malcolm Atterbury, Jack Mullaney, Ron Rich, Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr., silent screen star Stuart Holmes, and Kent McCord.  The behind-the-camera talent, too, was exemplary.  No less than Rod Serling was hired to write the screenplay (a brilliant one), Jerry Goldsmith to compose the music score and Ellsworth Fredericks, a celebrated television d.p., to lens the TV news-look of the black-and-white imagery (he had also shot the big screen classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Friendly Persuation, and Sayonara).  And it all comes off swell in this new 1080p High Definition widescreen transfer.   As an enticing extra, there’s Frankenheimer himself offering vintage audio commentary.

Some of the dialog is so eerily 2020-2021 that it requires repeating.  When Ava Gardner’s character (Eleanor Holbrook) corrals “Jiggs” at a typical D.C. gathering, she memorably coos “I’ll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare! (some things never change!)  Perhaps the most famous exchange is between Scott and Casey, when the latter refuses to participate in the insurrection.  The General, seething, asks the Colonel if he knows who Judas was. Kirk’s reply is delivered with scalpel precision, “Yes, I know who Judas was.  He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”

I vividly recall when this movie came out, not long after the Kennedy assassination.  My mom was a political junkie anyway, and involved in local politics.  Already knowing my penchant for horror movies (I was ten then), she taunted me by dangling SEVEN DAYS over my head as being one of the scariest movies ever made.  Of course, my interest was piqued.  I was already aware of the title, as the book had long been in my parents’ library (and a kid doesn’t forget a name like “Fletcher Knebel” boldly printed on the spine of a shelved volume).

One mystery that haunts me to this day is the movie’s labyrinthine distribution.  SEVEN DAYS was originally a Paramount Picture, and remained so at least through the 1980s (even the laserdisc was from Paramount Home Entertainment).  I’ve often wondered how it ended up as a Warner Bros. title (although I suspect it has to do with Seven Arts’ involvement).  Stuff like that intrigues me.  Not that it matters; as indicated, transfer-wise, they did a great job on this recent Blu-Ray.  What does bother me is false crediting.  I never abide when one studio acquires another’s property, and then removes all the former’s logos and, worse (as is often the case with rival Universal) replaces them with their own (the otherwise marvelous restoration of One-Eyed Jacks, another Paramount title, is a perfect example).  I mean, fair’s fair, guys.  While they didn’t replace the Paramount mountain with the Warner shield (no logos at all), I do hope that they subsequently restore the correct I.D. (they could precede it with the Warners emblem, followed by ten seconds of black, or something along those lines; ditto, the tail end).  Again, that’s my peeve.  But don’t let that stop you from experiencing this nail-biter.  Especially now.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/ Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000642629. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Good Riddance, 2020!

Can’t deny that I won’t be sorry to kick this bitch of a year to the curb.  I don’t have to go into the gory details, but, if anything, we survivors will be able to tell future generations what it was like to live through this nightmare!

That said, I retreat to my go-to adage for comfort:  “Movies never let you down.”  And it’s true.  In the wake of these disastrous twelve months, there were a number of favorites to constantly revisit, plus, as evidenced here, an astounding array of newly released Blu-Rays and DVDs to help weather the plague and its despicable human counterparts.

For those of you unable to have enjoyed these titles, perhaps you can in the (gotta be) brighter New Year of 2021.

The choices cover all genres and studios (but mostly Kino-Lorber and The Warner Archive Collection); as I’ve long since stopped relegating the annual crop to a mere ten, I’m simply giving readers the links to the more extraordinary cinematic highs of 2020. 

Here’s to better times!

Of course, comedies play a big part in making any period of 2020 tolerable, and there was a plethora of grand laff fests to tickle every part of the funny bone, from the witty plateaus of Lubitsch (, Wilder (;, Stanley Donen faux Lubitsch (, and Ealing classics ( to the brilliant animation of Tex Avery (, the outstanding slapstick of Laurel & Hardy (my favorite release of the year, from Kit Parker Films/MVDvisual:, plus many other “routes” and variants along the way.  Behold the riotous platters of the monstrous funny Fearless Vampire Killers and The Witches   (;, The Whole Town’s Talking, from, of all people, John Ford (, and the Cold War slapstick smash The Russians are Coming ( .  On the TV front, Acorn offered us Seasons 8 & 9 of Doc Martin (, starring the wonderful Martin Clunes.  As a fade-out to this section, early sound and two-strip Technicolor got our attention in the 1929 dramedy Glorifying the American Girl (, now fully restored, and in dazzling shape!

On the opposite side of the cinematic pole are the stark nasties that occupy the world of film noir.  Some terrific mean street dramas graced us, including The Big Clock ( and Caught ( Neo-noir was magnificently served up by the great Anna Friel and company in the next installment of the British crime series Marcella (  Noir elements were also served up in the expert dramas, The Bad and the Beautiful ( and the WWII Fritz Lang spy thriller Cloak and Dagger (  Queer cinema, draped in noir, managed to grip us, via the remarkable 1950 French import, Olivia (, directed by Jacqueline Audry and released through Icarus Films.

World War II provided a terrific springboard for Twilight Time’s action-adventures, including Kings Go Forth, The Train, and Play Dirty (  The war also figured in the sordid 1950s CinemaScope entries The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Peyton Place and 10 North Frederick (

An ugly thriller, rife with heinous villainy, surfaced via MGM’s ultra-gritty The Moonshine War (, a 1970 exercise in the depths of humanity.  Unsung hero westerns got covered via the release of Jacques Tourneur’s unfairly obscure Great Day in the Morning (

Horror remains the Blu-Ray/DVD number one collectable, so no surprise that a number of phantasmagorical flicks made the “top” list, including the great Ealing sole foray into the genre, 1946’s Dead of Night (; then there was the stunning 2009 Korean vampiric rendition of Zola’s Therese Raquin, Thirst (, 1933’s pre-Code pip Supernatural (, starring Carole Lombard and the stunning newly restored two-strip Technicolor Blu-Ray of Michael Curtiz’ 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum (, starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Welcome to 2021, folks.