Rocky and his Femmes

A Blu-Ray dream come true, Frank Tashlin’s 1957 masterpiece WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? sweeps onto a High-Def trendex limited edition, thanks to the hucksters at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

I don’t know where to begin to discuss this gem, ‘cept it’s (in my humble opinion) one of the funniest and greatest comedies ever transposed to celluloid.  Director-Writer-Producer Tashlin, freely (and I mean freely!; see below) adapting George Axelrod’s Broadway smash turned this pre-Mad Men riot into a culture-shock CinemaScope pip.

The movie recounts the tale of Manhattan ad agency drone Rockwell Hunter, who slaves away at LaSalle, Raskin, Pooley & Crocket, but to no avail.  An accident of being at the right place at the right time turns him into Lover Doll, a teen heart-throb – all due to the oversexed machinations of buxom Hollywood starlet Rita Marlowe, who wants to make her latest paramour jealous.  Rocky agrees to go along with Rita’s ruse, if, in return, she agrees to participate in an ad campaign for Stay-Put Lipstick, his company’s biggest account.  Along the way, every type of American “keeping up with the Joneses” freakazoid product and fad (ca, 1957) is lampooned and harpooned.  And we’re not kidding.  Even the famed Fox logo isn’t spared, as star Tony Randall shows you how it’s (fanfare is) done.  The credits themselves are a genius mini-lambasting of TV commercials, featuring smarmy salesmen, trapped housewives (“if you’re like me with six dirty children and a big filthy husband…”), and lethal items guaranteed to ruin your lives and the planet’s (WOW! Detergent, with Fallout).

The play opened on the Great White Way on October 13, 1955, running over a year and costarred Orson Bean and Jayne Mansfield, the latter who brilliantly reprises her role here.  Axelrod parodied culture, too – the name itself “Rock Hunter” skewered the immensely popular soaps starring Rock Hudson and often produced by Ross Hunter.  Rita, of course, was a thinly disguised rendition of Marilyn Monroe.

Fox (and, at one early point, Tashlin) wanted Monroe for the movie, but she considered every Tash project a lowlife exercise (reportedly, she faced suspension for turning down The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, then The Girl Can’t Help It – the rock ‘n’ roll classic that put Mansfield over on the screen).  Methinks Tashlin was better off; while Monroe was certainly the bigger star, she never quite had the sense of humor Mansfield had.  Self-parody was likely unthinkable for MM, whereas Mansfield seemed to live for that kind of thing. Long story short, Jaynie was the female equivalent of the director’s favorite male live-action cartoon (Tash began in the Looney Tunes division at Warner Bros.), Jerry Lewis. Suffice to say, she and Randall are terrific together.  In fact, the entire cast of ROCK HUNTER is fantastic; the men: Henry Jones, John Williams, and Mickey Hargitay (the TV jungle man who can’t keep his hairpiece on…the one on his chest) and, natch, the women: Betsy Drake in her finest screen moment and the always wonderful Joan Blondell, who gets many of the best lines (her pining for a milkman, she tells Rita, was shattered when he ran off with another woman:  “She must have liked his brand of cream”).  Then there are the thousands of nubile teens, who covet a piece of Rock for themselves (“the future mothers of America,” as Randall frighteningly relives a recent female attack).  Tashlin considered ROCK HUNTER the pinnacle of his success; the director’s-writer’s-producer’s unbridled creative powers had at last, according to him, properly come into conjunction.  Earlier, in Son of Paleface (1952), Tashlin admitted to throwing everything in but the kitchen sink – one gag after another; by ROCK HUNTER, he felt more assured, counting maybe twenty main gags in the picture.  “I’m most satisfied with WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, said the director in a 1962 interview for Film Culture. “They had to buy the play…to get Mansfield. I tried to get out of using the play and then decided to reverse it and make it into something else entirely.  I only kept maybe one or two [original] speeches…”  He credits his being left alone to Fox suit Buddy Adler. “…there was no compromise…He let me do it my own way.”

As much as I loved Mansfield’s turn in The Girl Can’t Help It, ROCK HUNTER is her crowning achievement (she and Randall would be reunited six years later on Hangover, an episode of The Hitchcock Hour, sadly not the sardonic humor romp viewers might have expected, but a rather somber drama about alcoholism).

To reiterate, Tashlin was certainly given carte blanche, and as the pic’s writer-director-producer, he took full inventive advantage of the op.  Along with  the aforementioned pokes, the entire (then current) Fox schedule is bashed, including Love Me, Tender, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, A Hatful of Rain,plus all the Mansfield titles (Girl Can’t Help It, Kiss Them for Me), most famously, The Wayward Bus, wherein Mansfield’s/Marlowe’s life-sized standee is knocked over by rampaging teenagers…and bodaciously bounces back up.  Rita is later seen reading Peyton Place (the studio’s biggest hit of the year) in her bathtub, while her ever-present poodle is named “Shamroy,” an homage to Fox d.p. Leon Shamroy.  Movies aside, ROCK HUNTER rips into TV quiz shows, juvenile delinquency, rock ‘n’ roll, psychiatric therapy, fan magazines and, basically anything related to the ludicrousness of “celebrity.”

Tashlin’s greatness was not merely his humor, but the means to an end; he wasn’t merely a fine director, but a fine MOVIE director, with an artistic flair for composition, especially when it came to the new widescreen dimensions of CinemaScope (the equally talented Joe MacDonald, who shared the Fox title for top cameraman with Shamroy, expertly lensed ROCK HUNTER in 2.35:1).

Even the music gets the Tashlin treatment, with a sprightly score by Cyril J. Mockridge, and a standout Calypso number (another late Fifties craze) via an original, wacky tune “You Got it Made,” composed by Bobby Troup (and performed by Georgia Carr), presented by Tashlin in what is essentially a sight-gag precursor to a rock video.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is “simply divoon,” to quote Rita.  After decades of unwatchable pan-and-scan TV prints, or Deluxe Color faded-to-pink alternatives for surviving scope copies (which may have pleased Mansfield, but not really anyone else), the acceptable DVDs have now been put on the back-burner.  This new rendition is the one to own.  Aside from the sensational looking images, the audio has been cleaned up too, offering viewers the option of 2.0 stereo, the original 4.0 stereo, or a remastered 5.1 surround track (the music is available as an IST).  Extras include commentary by Dana Polan, related Fox Movietone newsreels, and the original trailer, the latter being a bit of a curiosity, as it gives away the final gag surrounding Rita’s long-lost and only true love.  Oh, well.

In concert with this extraordinary Blu-Ray release is the publication of Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It, by the likewise extraordinary Eve Golden.  Any reader of celebrity bios knows quite well Eve’s (dare I say?) golden touch, and her latest work is no exception. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read/referenced her fantastic book on Kay Kendall, and this depiction of the life and career of Mansfield may top that.   Mansfield books have always been a two-fingers-down-the-throat affair for serious movie historians (usually scissor-and-paste jobs or gushy gossipy garbage).  This is an exhaustive, superbly researched account, containing Eve’s enviable style and wit.  The fact that she obtained interviews with survivors close to the late star is proof enough of how cool this volume is (they generally run like hell from “writers” seeking an audience).  The book is available from The University Press of Kentucky, Amazon, Barnes & Noble (or wherever the Hell you get your reading material from), and makes a perfect twofer purchase with the above platter.

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1/4.0/2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95

JAYNE MANSFIELD: THE GIRL COULDN’T HELP IT. 502 pages/Hardcover. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN: 978-0-8131-8095-3; CAT # 9780813180953.  SRP: $34.95.

Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider…Vinegar

One of the best box sets out on Blu-Ray, Kino-Lorber Studio Classics’ (in concert with Paramount Home Entertainment) IDA LUPINO: FILMMAKER COLLECTION takes us cineastes on a dark journey that not only celebrates the actress’ formidable acting, writing, and producing abilities – but underlines (and concentrates on) her superb directorial skills.  The set, containing four Ida triumphs (NOT WANTED, NEVER FEAR, THE HITCH-HIKER and THE BIGAMIST), reveals a female look at the underbelly of noir, with its protagonists perilously treading Hollywood taboo uncharted waters (a rape victim, a young dancer facing paralysis, two average guys terrorized by a psychopath and an examination of a philandering husband that offers a triad of sympathy for all concerned).  Don’t let the “woman” tag prejudice ya.  These are often brutal, uncompromising exercises in mean-streetology that would give Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray a run for their money.  In fact, he said, segueing into an anecdote, when I was Ray’s assistant sound editor on You Can’t Go Home Again, he told me how much he loved Lupino.  They were doing a little pic called On Dangerous Ground (one of my favorite Ray titles), and Nick became ill; he asked Ida to take over the direction for a couple of days until he recovered (they were on location in Granby, CO); this was 1950, so Ida had already been working behind-the-camera for about a year.  He told me that he was delighted with her work, that it bore her mark, but totally kept in style with what he had in mind, not an easy duality to achieve.  While at least two of these titles in this collection have been familiar public domain fare (THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST), none have EVER looked this good.  While not pristine, all four of these entries come from the best 35MM elements available.  In addition, the slipcovered set contains an excellent illustrated book on Lupino the auteur by Ronnie Schieb. 

Lupino, born on February 4 (my birthday!), 1918 to a show biz couple (Connie Emerald, Lupino Lane), arrived in Hollywood from her native UK in 1933, as a fresh-faced starlet, to be groomed at the Paramount stable.  Then blonde, she lingered on in several standard parts until wowing them as the sadistic model who destroys an artist’s painting in 1939’s The Light That Failed (didn’t help that he was going blind).  By this point, Lupino was checking her options and bolted from Paramount to Warners – the most lucrative acting portion of her career.  She hit the ground running as the psycho-nympho wife in 1940’s They Drive by Night, followed by High Sierra (1941), The Man I Love (1946), and others.  By the late 1940’s, wanderlust again pushed her to change courses – this time, not merely studios, but as the head of her own production company (with husband Collier Young).

Their first outing, 1949’s NOT WANTED, chronicled the physical and psychological trauma of an innocent girl who discovers that she’s carrying her older experienced lover’s/seducer-predator’s child.  This would be a rough contemporary narrative, so imagine how it was received in 1949?  When not being harassed by the righteous Breen Office, the young filmmaker (as she preferred to regard herself; Lupino’s and Young’s company was, in fact, called The Filmmakers) had a more serious problem.  The director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a fatal heart attack as production unwound.  To save the pic, Lupino stepped in and finished the movie – and brilliantly so. A rarity in the post-talkie Hollywood era, a woman directing successful movies that she also cowrote, coproduced and would even (on occasion) costar in, Ida Lupino remains a beacon to every lady taking the motion picture reins.  To those fans of Kathryn Bigelow, Jennifer Kent, and the increasingly welcome scores of other talented female artists, hail to Ida Lupino – she helped make it possible!

1949’s NOT WANTED is a dynamic indictment of the treatment and torment suffered by unwed mothers (while the opposite end of the “two to tango” duo gets the free pass).  Sally Kelton is a young, blossoming healthy female from a typical small town American home (yep, THAT bad!); her burgeoning womanhood is playing tricks on her body, and the attraction to smooth musician Steve Ryan pretty much seals the deal.  He up and vanishes just as she realizes their “urge to merge” will be resulting in a little bundle of joy.  Devastated, abandoned, and with her mental health now in jeopardy, Sally wanders the streets of post-war America into the world of noir, a territory that Lupino knew only all too well.

A difficult tale to tackle in 1949 (the Code was still in effect), the movie proved no exception to the rule.  Lupino saw it as a challenge.  NOT WANTED was a perfect controversial subject for the novice director, the title itself being a dual sword – referring to both the baby and the mother.  Cowritting the script (from a story by Malvin Ward) with Paul Jerrico (The Search, All Night Long) and coproducing through her recently-formed company, Lupino found herself in a jam when, as indicated, the veteran pedestrian director she hired, Elmer Clifton, succumbed to a coronary shortly before filming began.  Yearning to move down that artistic avenue anyway, Lupino grabbed the reins and beautifully completed the project that ignited her new career.  Most relevantly, while gritty and even nasty, NOT WANTED does present the narrative’s viewpoint as it really MUST be told – from the woman’s point of view.  Tragedy aside, Clifton’s departure was probably the best thing that could have occurred on the project.  Lupino gave the subject power, style and truth (Clifton retains full directorial credit).

The cast is excellent, beginning with soon-to-be Lupino stock lead actress, the diminutive Sally Forrest.  Great at playing innocents or angel-faced harpies, Forrest is one of our underrated thesps of the late 1940’s-mid 1950’s.  Keefe Brasselle, also a soon-to-be Lupino regular, has become the butt of many comedian puns (usually because of his name).  That said, he’s not a bad actor, and, in fact, could be quite touching.  Off-camera, it was another story.  He was a veritable thug, involved with the mob and even a murder. His Hollywood demise wasn’t helped by his misogyny, filling a rap sheet with multiple wife beatings and death threats.  Brasselle had the dubious honor of being the only person Jack Benny ever publicly trashed (Brasselle scored the lead role in the very awful bio-pic of Benny’s pal Eddie Cantor).  Leo Penn as the callous love ’em and leave ’em horn player is excellent as well.  His heinous procreation acts in the movie rivaled a terrible real life aberration: siring Sean Penn. Also of note in the pic are Dorothy Adams, Wheaton Chambers, Ruth Clifford, Lawrence Dobkin, and Lupino’s kid sister Rita.

NOT WANTED is starkly photographed on-location throughout L.A. by Henry Freulich.  A music score by Leith Stevens, whose career was on the rise, appends the visuals (he, too, would become a Lupino regular).  Extras in the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray include audio commentary by Barbara Scharres.  It’s astounding that this movie isn’t better known, hopefully an error that will be corrected by this release.

1949’s NEVER FEAR is another daring drama with noir overtones.  Carol Williams and Guy Richards, an attractive dance team, are about to make the big time when Carol is struck by polio.  The sweet, forgiving nature of the young woman degrades into sneering, angry psychosis as she lashes out at everyone who attempts to help her in rehab.  Remember, this is 1949, and the institute where she is to be rehabilitated stresses the physical, not the mental – a point progressively approached by cowriter (with then-husband Collier Young)/director Lupino.

Once again, Sally Forrest plays the lead and does an excellent job – as does Brasselle as her on-and-off stage partner, who likewise undergoes a psychological metamorphosis.

Previously rarely seen, NEVER FEAR, thanks to Kino-Lorber and BFI-Forever, this new 2K restoration will (as in the case of NOT WANTED) hopefully remedy that unfair situation.  It’s an important picture not only for women, but for sensational movie-making.  Archie Stout, a John Ford favorite, photographed the documentary-like black-and-white imagery and Leith Stevens provides the suitable score.  A nice supporting cast rounds out the proceedings, headed by newcomer Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Jerry Hausner, and (once again) Rita Lupino.

No mere disease-of-the-month weepie, NEVER FEAR tackles the then-common affliction as any noir would a villain, a stunning and original approach.  And with great results.

Paving the way for Kathryn Bigelow, Karyn Kusama, Julia Ducournau, The Soska Sisters and others, Lupino’s 1953 masterpiece THE HITCH-HIKER is likely (up till then) the roughest, most vicious movie ever directed and cowritten by a woman.  It’s an unrelenting suspense thriller, filled with nightmarish images and electrifying moments.  For her basically three-man cast, Lupino wisely chose three strong presence males, indicative of the era: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman.

Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (O’Brien and Lovejoy) are two BFFs whose annual get-away-from-the-family time is their ultimate bonding journey.  They drive out into the desert dividing the California/Mexican border for an outdoor man-cave camping excursion.  Big mistake.

Emmett Myers (Talman), a psycho killer, has escaped from captivity, and has already chalked up new victims, as he maps (and slaughters) his way to Mexico.  He comes across Collins and Bowen, and sadistically holds them hostage, forcing them to drive him to safety.  Myer’s mind games drive the two friends to the edge, as they wonder if and when they can make a play, knowing all too well that they will be killed once they reach their destination.

The performances of the three leads are phenomenal, particularly Talman in his first villain role.  To his dying day, he told interviewers that because of this movie, drivers on the freeway would roll down their windows at traffic stops and give him the finger.

O’Brien, in particular, learned much from Lupino, whom he respected as a fellow thesp; encouraged by what he saw her do as a director, prompted him to take the behind-the-camera plunge.  Post-HITCH-HIKER, he directed a pair of excellent noirs, 1954’s Shield for Murder and 1961’s Man-Trap).

The script by Lupino and Collier Young is tight as a vice cranked to the extreme.  One bit, giving the Talman character a lazy eye, proved to be a brilliant stroke.  A), it adds an additional monstrous touch to his already grotesque appearance, and B), it taunts Collins and Bowen when he sleeps (the eye never closes properly); they don’t know if he’s watching them, waiting for the pair to make a play, or if he’s actually asleep.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences in movie history.

Moved up a notch production-wise from small indy Eagle-Lion (who handled earlier Lupino-directed efforts), THE HITCH-HIKER was distributed by RKO.  The picture deservedly delivered excellent reviews and box-office.  The one negative aspect of the movie is that it fell into public domain during the 1980s.  This resulted in a trash bin of awful prints, video tapes, laserdiscs, etc.  What a relief to finally see a decent 35MM transfer from the Library of Congress, where THE HITCH-HIKER was preserved as an important American work.  Thank you, Kino-Lorber (once again) for being able to appreciate Nicholas Musuraca’s fine cinematography and crackle-free audio (to enjoy the tense background audio design and score by Leith Stevens).  The Blu-Ray includes also includes a supplemental track featuring motion-picture historian Imogen Sara Smith.

Oh, yeah, this frightening odyssey is based on a true story!

Yet another difficult topic, spilling over with noirish overtones, 1953’s THE BIGAMIST hits all the promises in the smarmy ads…and then some.  The man with two hot women scenario is quickly shot down by director (and uncredited cowriter, Collier Young) Lupino.  It’s a supposed male fantasy from a woman’s point-of-view.  And probably the most honest depiction of an emotive and ultimately disastrous situation.

Super successful traveling salesman Harry Graham has been happily married to loving wife Eve for over eight years.  The one thing missing from their union is a child.  So they begin to seek out adoption agencies.  This puts them under the radar of meticulous child adoption investigator Mr. Jordan (a very Kris Kringle-ly Edmund Gwenn, who seems to also be a relative of Eddie Robinson’s “Keyes” in Double Indemnity).  The Grahams appear to be the perfect couple for raising a child – with one exception.  Harry has another wife on his West Coast route.

The “other woman” is a total opposite from demure Eve; Phyllis (a terrific performance by the director) is a saucy, lovable, sexually unbridled dynamo.  Having met Harry earlier, they respectively engaged in conversation, then coffee, then dinner, then…What on the surface looks like pure lust was actually genuine blossoming of love.  Harry realizes he should have told her he was married, then questions whether it is possible to truly love more than one person.  A law, after all, is merely words on paper.  This changes drastically when Phyllis becomes pregnant; so Harry does the right/wrong thing.

As Jordan gets closer to the facts, the walls and the world start closing in on Graham.  While his lonely fling/cowardice was initially self-serving, he has now ruined a trio of lives (more, if one counts the baby).

THE BIGAMIST is a powerful movie, sensitively acted, scripted (from Lawrence B. Marcus’ and Lou Schlor’s story) and masterfully directed.  Gwenn may speak for a number of us when he delivers his final denouement upon Harry:  “I despise you. I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand, but I almost want to wish you luck.”

Like THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST, distributed by RKO, fell into public domain.  The decades of lousy PD prints, VHS tapes, and DVDs never did the movie – particularly George E. Diskant’s excellent cinematography – justice.  Until now.  This new remaster, from 35mm elements, and, at last, in its essential widescreen dimensions (probably for the first time since 1953), gives the pic the edition it deserves.  A nice Leith Stevens score accompanies the now-worthy visuals.

Also featuring Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell, Peggy Maley, and Lilian Fontaine (costar Joan’s mom), this Blu-Ray also contains audio commentary by Kat Ellinger. 

All in all, a superb box set, honoring an important artist and deserving a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.

IDA LUPINO FILMMAKER COLLECTION. Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1 for the first three titles; Widescreen [1.66:1, for The Bigamist; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTA-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K23818.  SRP: $79.95.

Southwest Side Story

Cut to the chase:  The rare and raw 1950 noirish drama THE LAWLESS, boldly dealing with Anglo vs. Chicano prejudice in small-town America, finally gets its much-deserved resurrection on DVD from the folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

This remarkable movie grabs you from the fade-in – wherein white teens get confrontational with Hispanic youths. Ostensibly, it’s all about who gets the jobs – or who’s taking the jobs; but it’s veritably all a bullshit excuse to fan the flames of hate. The town is uneasily dealing with growing population of Mexicans who are relocating to the community as migrant fruit-pickers. Their “stealing” the jobs facade is nonsense, as the corrupt law enforcement and political figures gloat about how they’ll keep bringing ’em in at two dollars a head until they’re not needed. So much for the good ol’ days! The schism that becomes Mexicans against white America is further defined by slumming journalist Macdonald Carey, who has had enough of the miserable big-city bastards and yearns for the “simpler life.” He angers the big-shot honchos by going against his race and working for a left-leaning newspaper, which is not only run by an Hispanic, but (oh, the horror!) an Hispanic woman (Gail Russell).

Reluctantly, Carey drifts toward the opposition, alerting his former urban employers to what’s going on in the supposed bucolic paradise. And it blows up in his face. Interracial dating, rape, juvenile delinquency/gang warfare, equal rights for minorities (and women) and equal pay end up exploding into an all-out race riot, with the bigots refusing to acknowledge anyone who looks and/or acts different from them. Conform or get the hell out is the cretin credo, as the town becomes an embryonic blueprint for the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is more than coincidental – the original screenplay is by Daniel Mainwaring, who penned the 1956 Don Siegel sci-fi classic.

And it was the liberal Mainwaring who brought in his pal to direct – controversial and similarly progressive Joseph Losey, here helming his second feature film.

What’s so amazing about THE LAWLESS is its dealing with racial profiling – remember this is 1950 – and its villainous personification via characters right out of the Joe Arpaio playbook. Even more astounding is the fact that this movie sprouted from the bread-and-butter Pine-Thomas unit, Paramount’s efficient B-picture department. Actually, how this came about isn’t that crazy when one considers what was going on in the industry at the time. Post-war audiences craved the neo-realist sociological messages increasingly fueling motion-picture fare. Big pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust, No Way Out and Crossfire had/were doing well at the box office. More relevantly, “little” pics like the Stanley Kramer productions Home of the Brave and The Men, plus the racially charged Lost Boundaries and The Well, got some major juice in markets thought impenetrable by independents. So, long story short, if there was money to be made by being edgy with a message – sound the clarion call. Body Snatchers aside, THE LAWLESS, with its live TV hookup of the circus surrounding the vigilante race riot, prefigures Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (released by Paramount a year later; ironically, Carey’s character is named Wilder).

Mainwaring got his bosses, the notoriously tightwad producers William H. Pine and William C. Thomas (known throughout the industry as The Dollar Bills, a moniker I can never mention enough), to greenlight THE LAWLESS not only because of the above pitch, but also due to his innumerable past successes as a writer for the skinflints. He had a reasonably good working relationship with the Bills; not so with Losey, who clashed with the mini-moguls from Day One.

Losey deflected from calling Pine-Thomas the Dollar Bills, far preferring the term “monsters.” He recalled a script session a Bill had with the director while the producer was attending to business…on his toilet. According to Losey, their inane and inappropriate suggestions caused him to fling the script in their faces with a terse “Direct your own fucking picture!” He was fired at least once (possibly twice, depending upon which source one chooses to believe) with Mainwaring serving as a go-between/referee. The location work (which constituted most of the production) buffered the flare-ups, but had its own share of problems.

In Michel Ciment’s engrossing 1985 book Conversations with Losey, the director discussed the bizarre casting mix surrounding THE LAWLESS:  “Lalo Rios [the juvenile lead]…was a Mexican-born boy that I found in downtown Los Angeles at a church where he was master of ceremonies.  And he was very young, 15 or 16…Maurice Jara came from the Pasadena Playhouse…”  The two stars, Carey and Russell, both Paramount contract players, were, according to the director, an oil and water cocktail. Carey, a total professional – a trained stage actor – was pitch-perfect, a person Losey praised as a “genuinely nice guy.” (They would work well together again in Losey’s wonderful 1961 Hammer thriller The Damned).

Russell, on the other hand came with a Samsonite warehouse full of demons. “Gail Russell…died of alcoholism because she was so deathly frightened of acting, but she had in her the makings of a great star. I think she had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen…And she was immensely sensitive.  She didn’t know anything.  Paramount had her under contract – like a horse.  She got a big salary then, and I had absolute instructions…not to let her have a drink.  The very first time I shot with her I had a long-night tracking shot…She couldn’t remember a single line and it was three or four pages of important dialogue…Finally…she grabbed me, her hands were icy cold, she was absolutely rigid, and she said, ‘Look,…I never had a director who gave me a scene this long before.  I can’t do it…I’ve never kidded myself.  I’m not an actress.  I hate it.  I’m frightened of it.  Get me a drink and I’ll be all right.’   So I said, ‘You know, I’ve been told not to get you a drink?’  She said, ‘Get me a drink!’  I got her a drink and she did the scene…By this time Macdonald Carey couldn’t remember his lines.  She had absolutely destroyed him.  It was a very hard bad start on a quick picture, to spend the whole night on one set-up…Anyway this started her drinking and she was drunk throughout the rest of the picture.  That isn’t to say that she was bad.  I think she was very good often, but sometimes I had to shoot scenes in ways to disguise the fact that she was drunk and sometimes I had to shoot scenes with a stand-in because she was too drunk to stand up.”

Russell, who is very good in the movie, is backed up by a roster of fine supporting players, including Herbert (Guy) Anderson, Lee Patrick, John Hoyt, Frank Ferguson, Paul Harvey, Willard Waterman and, in early appearances, Martha Hyer and Tab Hunter.

The stark black-and-white photography is by the superb cameraman J. Roy Hunt, whose near 200-title filmography began in 1916.  Losey credited Hunt for his early success:  “An extraordinary man who had invented lots of the little mechanisms on the Mitchell camera we were then using.  He was the one above all others who taught me how to work intensely and well and still fast.  We’d hardly get finished with a shot and he’d have the camera on his back, still on the tripod, and run to the next set-up which I’d already given him.  He was marvelous.” The music was another matter, being a workable but pedestrian score by Mahlon Merrick.  “[Pine-Thomas] forced a score on me which I detest and which I think damaged the film very much,” recalled Losey bitterly almost right up until his death in 1984.  “It made it cheaper and more melodramatic and it slowed the tempo.  And that was a battle I simply couldn’t win.”

With all these bumps and glitches, it’s incredible that THE LAWLESS turned out as well as it did – or even that it got made at all (several times, the picture was halted with the prognosis being to cut the losses and run). It remains, with Losey’s terrific 1951 thriller The Prowler, a peak of his underrated American period. Unquestionably, in part, the politics of THE LAWLESS (coupled with the director’s outspoken liberalism) zoomed him to HUAC’s Deport At Once status. The blacklisted director left the country in 1952 and spent the rest of his career working in Europe.

The lynch-mob sidebar in THE LAWLESS was favorably compared to the narrative of Fritz Lang’s 1936 masterpiece Fury (a movie Losey loved, and had seen many times, but dubiously claims had no influence on the Pine-Thomas pic; it’s undoubtedly also likely that THE LAWLESS resulted in getting the director the 1951 remake of Lang’s M). This sounded promising, except to Pine-Thomas who knew that while Lang’s movie was critically acclaimed, it didn’t make a dime. Undaunted, the producers set their publicity machine into motion utilizing shameful and contentious tactics. Using some of the extras from THE LAWLESS, a campaign began stressing that Mexicans like movies just like everyone else; images of Chicano kids lining up at a local theater filled the pressbook; notably, the show these eager picture-goers were champing at the bit for was the John Payne-Rhonda Fleming epic The Eagle and the Hawk, a (what a surprise!) concurrent Pine-Thomas production.

As positive word-of-mouth spread, Paramount took the reins and upped the promotion to a more respectable level. The studio began a rigorous trade-show screening agenda for their sleeper. And the press responded in kind, with accolades from no less than The New York Times and celebrated newscaster Drew Pearson, who hyped the picture extensively.

Once the repeated comparisons to Fury filtered down, Paramount employees could hear the groans coming from the Pine-Thomas offices. Indeed, the die had been cast; despite the glowing reviews, THE LAWLESS became the lowest-performing entry in the Pine-Thomas canon. In addition, the leftie politics of the piece prompted the producers to remove it from its television syndication packages during the early 1960s (and throughout the 1970s). In effect, it became a quasi-lost movie (occasionally turning up in Losey retrospectives, often hailing from private collections).

Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment should be heartily congratulated for making this important title available to classic movie fans. The DVD, mastered from excellent 35MM materials, looks and sounds just grand.

Losey saw THE LAWLESS as the anti-Capra picture, presenting a brutal modern world where would-be Mr. Smiths and Mr. Deedses (aka the Macdonald Carey character) came to the stark realization that there are was no such thing as a Capra America:  it was an ugly sugar-coated myth. For critics and the few popcorn eaters who saw it, THE LAWLESS presented a message that resonated with a cynical vengeance. For Pine-Thomas that message boiled down to two words: Never again!

THE LAWLESS.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono.  Cat #: OF393.  SRP:  $24.95.

Just One More Step…

A superb tribute to one of the most brutal campaigns of World War II, Sam Fuller’s unfairly ignored 1962 epic MERRILL’S MARAUDERS comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the patriotic folks at The Warner Archive Collection.

During the first half of 1942, the U.S. military in the Pacific was faced with a seemingly impossible task:  specifically, stopping the Japanese from getting into India, and, while they were at it, to later take the town of Myitkyina.  At that period, the Japanese were far better prepared, had greater knowledge of the area, were ruthless in their ambush tactics and, worse, torture.  Aiding them was the terrain:  deadly, oppressive heat and humidity in a lethal environment loaded with natural living death (infested swamps, poisonous snakes, etc.).  Frank Merrill was assigned the job to stealthily reach the 500 mile objective with 3000 game troops quickly made “experts” in jungle warfare.  For every victory inch gained, it appeared to be two miles back – achievements not helped by the top brass, who added new tasks to the already overworked, physically and psychologically damaged participants of the 5307 Composite Unit, now known as Merrill’s Marauders (thanks to the publicity generated by the war press).  Merrill himself, gallant and heroic as he was, remained a questionable choice, as he suffered from a heart condition that made the journey a tense ordeal for those who knew the score.  Out of the original 3000 soldiers, only 100 survived.

No one could better tell the tale of fighting men under pressure than Sam Fuller, who had previously proven his cinematic American warrior mettle with The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and China Gate.  Promised by Warner Bros. that if he embarked on this production, he’d get his dream project, The Big Red One – a European theater variation of the 5307 odyssey (where Fuller had been an actual participant) – sweetened the pot.  Alas, it wasn’t to be; although this movie did well, Sam would be denied his Big Red One for another 18 years (eventually spectacularly filmed by Lorimar, and, ironically, subsequently becoming a Warners property).

Agreeing to Warners demands, the writer-director was forced to share screenplay duties with producer (and Warner son-in-law) Milton Sperling.  Not a terrible situation, as Sperling was a pretty good scribe.  His “tick” was that he would never be satisfied with his efforts, and constantly came to the set with re-writes (Otto Preminger once told me that Sperling was “the only person I ever saw who could get Gary Cooper angry”).  But the script (based on Charles Ogburn Jr.’s book) works quite well, adding mere suggestions of Hollywood “glory” to the realistic Fuller approach (“Look okay to you?, is asked of the MD Captain during the mission.  “NOTHING looks okay to me!,” is his quintessential Fulleresque reply).  To further bring the drama to the screen, MERRILL’S would be filmed on-location in Pampanga in the Philippines, a decision that put the cast and crew into quasi-Marauders peril.  The heat and humidity, along with the powerful lights were nearly unbearable.

From the outset, the movie was fraught with jinxing – both man-made and act of God variety.  Original choice Gary Cooper was set to play Merrill (and would have been outstanding), but his real-life illness paralleled his character’s (not coronary thrombosis, but cancer), and he had to bow out.  The real Brigadier General Merrill’s stirring command of “just take the next step” helped move his men to their goal; in the pic, they are his last words before he succumbs to a heart attack (a great Fuller touch, but only half true.  Merrill, indeed, did suffer his first heart attack during the campaign – on March 29th of 1944; he lived another eleven years, passing on December 11, 1955.  The remainder of the actual operation was overseen by Executive Officer Chas. Hunter, and completed in August of that year).  Ultimately, the underrated Jeff Chandler was given the role, and played it beautifully, but the project’s on-screen/off-screen curse continued; while on-location, the actor engaged in football games with the crew, and injured his back – causing him to undergo surgery, once he returned stateside.  A botched operation, causing blood poisoning took its toll, and Chandler died on June 17, 1961.

The remaining casting hook was to make the Marauders familiar Warners TV faces:  Broncho‘s Ty Hardin, Sugarfoot‘s Will Hutchins, Lawman’s Peter Brown, plus Andrew Duggan, Claude Akins, John Hoyt, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Mark Slade and others (one of the Merrill survivors Vaughan Wilson, acted as supervisor on the show, and also appeared in the pic as Bannister).  Being thousands of miles from Hollywood proved to be a trick card in Warners deck.  Many of the costars were informed via telegraphed pink slips that their series were not being renewed.  The anger and frustration of the beleaguered soldiers is, thus, often quite authentic (Hutchins genially shrugged it off.  “I always wanted to visit Japan, here was my chance”).

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of MERRILL’S MARAUDERS is a must-have for war pic and/or Sam Fuller fans.  It looks pristine gorgeous, as good as the Technicolor prints did in 1962.  Curiously, the anamorphic “scope” process was never given a credit in the ads or in the picture (it was the rarely heralded WarnerScope); suffice to say, William Clothier’s vibrant 2.35:1 location work is nothing less than sensational.  A music score by Howard Jackson sounds great in its original mono (using variants composed by Franz Waxman for 1945’s Objective Burma, another grueling tale of WWII jungle fighting.

My buddy, Will Hutchins, told me that it was indeed a rough shoot, but credited Fuller as one of his finest directors, and, equally important, “an all-around great guy.”  There were some perks to the production, he added.  “Now you’d never think this, but Andrew Duggan, who usually played these staid, stoic, humorless dudes, was hilarious. It turned out he was a classic movie fanatic, just like me.  Much of the down time (of which there was lots) was spent listening to him do expert mimicry.  He did fantastic impressions, and on one memorable afternoon did the entire Edgar Ulmer Black Cat, with not only flawless Karloff and Lugosi vocals, but every other character as well!”  Who’d a thunk it?

MERRILL’S MARAUDERS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B07T3NQBST.  SRP: $17.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold*