All About Evil

A film noir blockbuster in every sense of the word, David Miller’s 1952 classic SUDDEN FEAR arrives on DVD in a stunning new 2K restoration, courtesy of the noiristas at Kino-Lorber, in sinister conspiracy with The Cohen Media Group/The Cohen Film Collection.

The movie as a stand-alone noir scenario is a triumph in and of itself.  The extra trappings, being the genre pedigree cast (and, specifically, its lead) make it a must-see and now, must-own item; it’s no accident that FEAR is included on many Movies I Need to See Before I Die (or reasonable facsimile) lists.

Star Joan Crawford wasn’t merely an extremely talented actress; she was one savvy businesswoman.  By the early 1950s, there were less and less vehicles for female stars hovering south of age 40.  What ever happened to Bette Davis with All About Eve, in 1950, didn’t elude Mildred Pierce.  It proved jezebel still had legs; the Mankiewicz picture was a critical and box-office smash.  In retaliation, Crawford, taking on the additional role of coproducer, wisely sought out a narrative with a similar background (the New York theater scene), but not similar enough to be a copycat (shortly after the pic’s fade-in, comprising a brutal verbal thrashing during a Broadway audition, SUDDEN FEAR veers sharply west, to California, and takes a dark, creepy and terrifying turn).  She correctly figured that the tense novel by Edna Sherry would be perfect for her trademark flashing eyes, and postwar neurotic twitching persona (remember Possessed, the 1947 one?)  The script by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith additionally proved her right.

The star portrays famed playwright/producer (and millionaire heiress) Myra Hudson, whose penchant for knocking out hits has made her legendary on both coasts.  While casting the male lead for her latest Broadway piece, she is pointed toward Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), a promising actor hampered only by his severe, foreboding looks.  Hudson’s vicious comments (that no woman would/could seriously believe him to be a romantic lead) effectively emasculates him, after he delivers an otherwise excellent soliloquy.  Blaine lashes back at his critic, and leaves the audition.  Hudson justifies her actions with the old chestnut about show business being rough.

It’s about to get rougher.

En route home to San Francisco, she runs into Blaine, who is likewise headed west on the same train.  She apologizes, he sloughs it off; they become dining companions, and then more.  Turns out, Lester is quite the romantic lead.

Before you can say “rooster in the hen house,” he’s moved in with Myra, at her luxurious super 1952 ultra-modern mansion (an important factor, as technology is an integral part of the plot).  Surprising her close friends, the pair soon wed.  And all seems fine.

The arrival of New York firecracker Irene Neves (the great Gloria Grahame) tilts the tale into a downward spiral.  Has this been a vengeful payback plan?  Is she a spurned lover?  Is the too-good-to-be-true Blaine a ruthless psychopath?  Or is Hudson herself spinning out of control into a neurotic abyss?

All of these are questions are answered with an overabundance of goosebumps.

SUDDEN FEAR is one of the scariest noirs ever filmed; indeed, it practically overlaps into horror.  I defy anyone not to be on freaky edge for the last reel or two (Prefiguring Scream by thirty years, I recall once asking my parents’ friends what the most frightening movie they had ever seen was. The startling answer was almost unanimously SUDDEN FEAR; startling for me, as I had never heard of it (it was an independent movie, distributed by RKO, so it was kinda in lingo for quite a while).  When I finally did catch up with it – nearly twenty years later – I could see what they meant (my mom’s BF told me that she was screaming out loud along with the rest of the audience at the RKO Coliseum back in 1952).

The three leads are perfect; I mean, come on:  Crawford, Palance, Grahame – a true movie fan needs no other reason to see this flick.  That said, there’s some great support, including Bruce Bennett, Virginia Huston, Mike Connors (still billed as “Touch” Connors), Selmer Jackson, Arthur Space and Amzie Strickland.

The director David Miller was an interesting choice for this title, no doubt, being reasonably priced (remember, padded shoulder suit Crawford was no fool).  Miller began at MGM, directing Pete Smith Specialties (including a series on Nostradamus), then graduated to definitely strange, uneven works (check out his “merry” 1949 Bing Crosby musical, Top o’the Morning, which evolves into an almost Lewton-esque horror vehicle; certainly, a stark pre-cursor of this movie).  Later works, like Twist of Fate and Midnight Lace reflect the marriages from Hell theme, but SUDDEN FEAR remains his greatest and most memorable flick.

The atmospheric black-and-white camerawork (much of it on-location, in Belvedere, CA) by Charles Lang, too, is stunning (Lang, along with Crawford and Palance received Oscar nominations; ditto costume designer Sheila O’Brien).  If one needed anymore impetus there’s a truly spine-tingling score by none other than Elmer Bernstein (one of his earliest credits). Even the poster, Crawford, hands to face in terrified splendor, remains one of the iconic one-sheets of the 1950s.

The picture exceeded everyone’s expectations when it was released in August, 1952.  The rave reviews paled next to preview word-of-mouth that gave way to lines around the box-office for months.  It was one of the biggest hits of the year, and easily RKO’s top 1952 grosser.

The new Kino/Cohen Media DVD is the best quality I’ve ever seen on this title.  While I wish it would have been Blu-Ray, I really can’t complain, as this rendition looks and sounds terrific.  Extras include audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold and a re-issue trailer.

A bona fide screen thriller-chiller-diller, SUDDEN FEAR still packs a wallop after nearly 70 years, and I have my wife’s fingernail indentations in my arm to prove it.

SUDDEN FEAR. Black-and-white. Full frame [1.37:1].  2.0 mono audio. Kino-Lorber/Cohen Media Group/Cohen Film Collection.  CAT # CMG-DVD-25249.  SRP: $19.95.

Food Music

One of the most popular movie musicals of the 1940s – a blockbuster, really – gets the Special Deluxe Warner Archive treatment with the new Blu-Ray edition of 1946’s THE HARVEY GIRLS.

A veritable textbook on how to make a classic postwar musical, THG has it all:  action, romance and action-romance, all wrapped up with a Technicolor bow around a fantastic score.

The movie, a “natural” (as the wags say) waiting to happen (indeed, why had it taken so long?) tells the true story of the Harvey House restaurant chain, forging their way West in 1870 to feed in style the increasing population of cowboys, railway workers, settlers, etc.  The hook that put the lofty concept over (aside from the ace chef-cooked vittles) was that the entire serving staff would be made up of young women, mostly of the fetching kind, and many with their own agenda:  to find that he-man and do some settling themselves.  How could it miss?  It didn’t in 1870.

Nor in 1946.

HARVEY was one of those elaborate Technicolor explosions that packed moviegoers in as the war became a recent memory.  Returning vets, reunited with their sweethearts/spouses couldn’t get enough of big-budget musicals – a point the studios took note of; Paramount (Blue Skies), Warner Bros. (Night and Day), Columbia (Down to Earth), Universal (Song of Scherherazade), Fox (State Fair) and even indies and Republic (Belle of the Yukon, I’ve Always Loved You) all went Technicolor ga-ga in a major way.  And it usually paid off handsomely.  But since MGM was the King of the Movie Musical, it turned out just that much better for them.

Of course, having the best people the genre needed all under one roof certainly helped – and that was true for both sides of the Culver City cameras.  Arthur Freed produced, George Sidney (who just had a massive hit with Anchors Aweigh) directed and an array of screenwriters and comedy scribes (Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon and last, but certainly not least, Samson Raphaelson working from an original story by Kay Van Riper, Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin – all based upon Samuel Hopkins Adams’ sourcework novel) devoted their considerable talents to the narrative.

Of course, none of this would matter if your lead was a wet noodle, and Judy Garland was hardly that.  Having come off the wildly successful Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was primed to do a lavish follow-up.  In St. Louis, “The Trolley Song” became a socko smash; for HARVEY, composers Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer went one better.  “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” almost instantly became a standard, still played today 75 years later.  For the MGM publicity department, it was a beautifully crafted use of ballyhoo and marketing smarts.  The song was released way before the movie, and, as predicted, became a Top Ten chartbuster, prior to the pic’s April 29 unveiling.  Fact, the record sales alone paid back some of HARVEY‘s lush cost before one reel unspooled in theaters.

Garland, whose character Susan Bradley is hoodwinked out West by way of a Cyrano de Bergerac ploy, is adopted by the title femmes, and becomes their champion – fighting the dastardly (but not too dastardly) rival town bigwigs and saloon owners.  Worse, her largest human thorn is dashing good-bad dude Ned Trent (John Hodiak), who, it turns out wrote the flowery prose that got her out there in the first place (the person in question being flea-bitten cowpoke H.H., played by Chill Wills).  Natch, no one is really murderously vengeful, since, in all Golden Age movies, especially musical Westerns, no one sweats, smells, gets dirty (even after 16 hours+ in the saddle) or even ruffles their clothes.  Everyone’s clean and ready to dance and sing – and, in this case, also have a hearty meal.  And I’m okay with that.

The supporting cast was phenomenal, including top tier musical attractions, up-and-coming groomed stars and starlets, beloved character actors and even an authentic smattering of Western thesp punims.  Aside from the aforementioned participants, THE HARVEY GIRLS also features Ray Bolger, Angela Lansbury, Preston Foster, Cyd Charisse, Marjorie Main, Kenny Baker, Selena Royle, Ruth Brady, Jack Lambert, Morris Ankrum, Stephen McNally (still going by “Horace”), Hazel Brooks, Vernon Dent, Virginia Gumm (one of Garland’s sisters), Peggy Maley, Paul Newlan, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Ray Teal and Byron Harvey, Jr. (Fred Harvey’s grandson).  It should be noted that Charisse was being pushed up the star ladder with this vehicle and she and Garland, along with my favorite most-underrated MGM lady, the great Virginia O’Brien, make a fine trio!

The specs on the new Blu-Ray are terrific – a thoroughly gorgeous, pristine 35MM transfer, bristling with Technicolor hues and tones (a big nod to the great d.p. George Folsey), and a clean mono track (perfect for enjoying the pleasures of the Lennie Hayton and Conrad Salinger score and songs by Warren and Mercer).  While “Atchison” not surprisingly dominates the proceedings (it won that year’s “Best Song” Oscar), a playbook of other fine tunes certainly deserve celebration, and comprise “In the Valley (Where the Evenin’ Sun Goes Down),” “Wait and See,” “The Train Must Be Fed,” “Oh, You Kid,” “It’s a Great Big World,” “The Wild, Wild West,” and “Swing Your Partner Round and Round”.

Speaking of the “Atchison” number, for me, it’s a nearly unbearable tense and lip-biting experience.  Not because I don’t like it; I do.  But because of the logistic precision that went into the production.  Garland, leading an army of extras, dancers, horses, plus character actors in a full-scale locomotive (that had to puff smoke effects on cue) freaks me out.  One tiny mistake, and the whole thing would have to be done over.  Reportedly, the day of the shoot was blessed, and the entire shebang was done in two perfect takes.  As far as I’m personally concerned, Hitchcock couldn’t have created more suspense.

The plethora of extras rounding out the package are mind-blowing, and include three deleted musical numbers (“My Intuition,” and two versions of “March of the Doagies”), “Atchison” remixed in stereo, vintage audio commentary by director George Sidney, original scoring sessions and the theatrical trailer.

Yeah, like wow!

One of the great MGM musicals, THE HARVEY GIRLS is sure to brighten any Blu-Ray fan’s classic collection.

THE HARVEY GIRLS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc./Turner Entertainment Co. SRP: $21.99.

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

Restaurant Take Out

A perverse, grisly masterpiece, the 1993 classic THE UNTOLD STORY, finally comes to American Blu-Ray home video in a version it deserves, thanks to the splendid folks at MVDvisual, in concert with Unearthed Classics and Golden Sun Film Co, Ltd.

Beginning in 1978 with a horrific, sudden (though pre-planned) murder (deceptively involving supposed friends), the scenario jumps eight years later to reveal the killer, Wong Chi Hang (having escaped detection to another country using his victim’s stolen credentials), owner and operator of a successful Hong Kong restaurant The Eight Immortals.  It is only after the 1978’s victim’s relatives, still searching for answers, and the original proprietors of the eatery all seem to disappear (and with human body parts sporadically turning up all over the area) that the noose eventually tightens around the ruthless psychopath Hang’s neck.  Indeed, no one is safe, as even his increasingly suspicious but loyal Eight Immortals staff soon learn right before they end up horribly dismembered and (conveniently) part of the menu (while investigating cops gorge themselves on the evidence).

Oh, yes, did we mention, this is based upon a true story?  Okay, we’re mentioning it now.

THE UNTOLD STORY (aka, The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story) is a work of disturbing, dark genius, directed with gory realism by Herman Yau (if you’re squeamish, it’s probably not for you – nothing is left to the imagination, particularly a sickening rape and the flashback annihilation of a family (the true Eight Immortals owners), including children.

The jarring flip side, showing the inept police work by low comedy Keystone Kops, originally bothered me; but, in looking at the picture again, it’s perfect.  They, too, border on the sociopathic – especially once they “interrogate” a suspect.  Credit the script by Law Kam-Fai and Sammy Lau for the chainsaw/jigsaw fit, that ultimately parallels the villain and the “heroes” more uncomfortably that one wants to contemplate.

While Hang is methodical about his maniacal lust for money and property, Inspector Lee, the wily head of the law (HK superstar Danny Lee), is content by collecting a paycheck with a minimal amount of effort, leaving all the work to his less-than-desirable underlings.  Lee far prefers squiring his unending array of beauteous girlfriends through the portals of the precinct headquarters, driving the ogling officers into sexist cray-cray agony.  This specifically effects Bo, the one female officer (and the best of the lot), who harbors a massive crush for her boss.  When she attempts to copy the look of her boss’s lovers, he chastises the woman in an eyebrow-raising moment.  “Why are you dressed like a prostitute?,” he unceremoniously asks her.  “I want to look like your girlfriends,” she woefully replies.  “They ARE prostitutes!” is the response Bo didn’t expect, revealing the superintendent’s “knack” with the ladies.

The movie doesn’t end with the usual capture, but continues with the post-imprisonment of Hang, featuring sequences almost as harrowing as the monster’s reign of terror.  It is a great nod to star Anthony Wong, who creates (in my opinion) the most frightening psycho in cinema history (and, no, I’m not forgetting previous Anthonys, Perkins or Hopkins).  Wong so embodied his characterization with brilliance that, even though the movie was one of the era’s infamous Category 3 titles (think of a rating system JUST for Saw and Hostel-type flicks), he still won the Hong Kong Best Actor Award.  He is a magnificent thesp, and offers snarky audio commentary, part of the treasure trove of extras that accompany this major recent release.  Other notable on-camera participants in the narrative include the aforementioned Lee (who also produced and, uncredited, codirected with Yau), Emily Kwan (as Bo), Siu-Ming Lau, Fui-On Shing, Julie Lee, Si-Man Hui, and King-Kong Lam; but it is Wong who will haunt your dreams, or, more appropriately, create your nightmares – and, yet, have you searching for other works of his to study.

Seeing THE UNTOLD STORY in a superb Blu-Ray edition not only elevates Cho Wai-Kee’s terrific widescreen cinematography but presents the pic in a way never before seen by Anglo audiences.  My only previous experience with this title was a 1990s laserdisc, washed out and entirely missing the 1978 opening segment!  The new 1.0 PCM audio (Cantonese/Mandarin with English subtitles) likewise is a vast improvement on earlier renditions. A suitable score by Jonathan Wong appends the package.

As indicated, there is a labyrinth of enticing supplements; aside from Wong’s commentary, the platter offers additional audio from Herman Yau, Ultra Violent’s Art Ettinger (who also penned liner notes), Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck, Cantonese Carnage, a mini-documentary with special effects master Rick Baker, plus a Q and A with director Yau.  Perhaps, best of all, is the feature documentary Category III: The Untold Story of Hong Kong Exploitation Cinema.  Written, directed and starring enthusiast Calum Waddell, it tends to get a bit “talking head” preachy, but does provide a spectacular redemption:  brief clips from other Category III entries, PLUS on-screen interviews with Wong and actress/writer/producer/composer/singer Josie Ho, the latter whom I consider a modern goddess (if you’ve never seen Dream Home, seek it out immediately).  Ho relates a meeting with Wong, whom she correctly considered a cinematic icon.  His response was a sense of amusement – thinking that she was joking, and then stunned that she was serious.

A truly unsettling exercise in evil, but an engrossing one – and a visual template for expert extreme movie-making, THE UNTOLD STORY is a must-have disc for horror/thriller fans.

THE UNTOLD STORY. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM [Mandarin and Cantonese w/English subtitles]; MVPvisual/Unearthed Films/Golden Sun Co, Inc. CAT# MVD Visual 4.  SRP: $29.95.

Paradise in Trouble

For those desperately searching for more cerebral fare than L.A.’s Finest, look no further and behold the dark pleasures of 2018’s PATRICK MELROSE, now on DVD from the folks at Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/SkyVision/Rachael Horovitz Productions/SHOWTIME/SunnyWatch/Two Cities Television/LiTTLE ISLAND.

A seemingly unfilmable subject, due to the title protagonist’s cons outweighing his pros (and the terrible reasons why), PATRICK MELROSE is a tribute to scripter David Nicholls, who brilliantly adapted the semi-autobiographical novels of author/journalist Edward St Aubyn.

Melrose, a rich, good looking, supposedly pampered member of the British aristocracy, is, in reality, a used, abused addict (sex, drugs and everything else), yearning for acceptance and escape from his lifelong lonely world.

True, he’s a shallow, awful person in so many ways (nearly as uncaring as his abusive father, who did shocking things to him, plus harnessed to a mother who could unabashedly love everyone EXCEPT her son), but, yet, you kinda want him to rise above it and finally find some sort of happiness with his wife and family (fleeting as it might be).

To call this an increasingly difficult task is an understatement, as most of the people he encounters from all walks of life (spanning the 1960s to the 1980s) are crap.

As indicated, we said it shouldn’t work, but it remarkably does, due to the way the series’ kaleidoscopic windmill of emotions spin forth, rusted-nail-centered to a plank of black comedic genius.  The dialog is dagger sharp, the direction (Edward Berger) spot-on, and the performances…to die for.

Star and co-producer Benedict Cumberbatch likely delivers his finest work (and that’s saying plenty), and is admirably supported by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hugo Weaving, Blythe Danner, Holliday Granger, Allison Williams, Celia Imrie, Anna Madeley, Sebastian Maltz, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Jessica Raine, Pip Torrens, Indira Varma, and Harriet Walter, who follow suit and give it their all.  Widescreen photography (James Friend) is exceptional, as is the score (Hauschka).

The Acorn DVD set (2 discs, 5 episodes) looks sensational, appended by a strong 5.1 surround track.  Extras include a short behind-the-scenes featurette and, an engrossing 36-page booklet.

A brittle snarkastic masterpiece, PATRICK MELROSE will have you quoting the venom-dipped bon mots often, and with relish.  And, yes, fellow Boomers, we are at the age where Jennifer Jason Leigh can realistically play Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother!

PATRICK MELROSE. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1, 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround. Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/SkyVision/Rachael Horovitz Productions/SHOWTIME/SunnyWatch/Two Cities Television/LiTTLE ISLAND. CAT # AMP-2730. SRP: $39.99.