Rock Star

By the late 1950s, after many years of being shunned as a serious force in the Hollywood universe, Rock Hudson proved the wags wrong, winning over critics and an ever-increasing fanbase – and becoming the Number One Box Office Star in America (no small feat, when one thinks of the competition).

Born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., the “Rock” moniker came by way of legendary agent Henry Willson, who also coined Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun, Dack Rambo, and, in a snarky turnabout to his critics, John Smith. Hudson’s earliest role was in the 1948 Warner Bros. war pic Fighter Squadron. Director Raoul Walsh saw something in the 6′ 4” thesp, and put him under personal contract – hoping to share the spoils with a major studio. Warners didn’t take the bait, but Universal-International, looking to build their own stable of stars, did. Hudson immediately caught on, and by 1952, had moved from featured supporting roles to heroic starring vehicles. Universal, grinding out endless (but lavish-looking) westerns, historical epics and Arabian Nights extravaganzas found the perfect male lead to carry it off. The reward for their faith came when Hudson proved he could actually act (a loan-out for Giant, to Warners, the outfit that originally turned him down, and the home-grown Douglas Sirk dramas); more relevantly, Hudson showed an instinctive flare for romantic comedy, making 1959’s Pillow Talk a mammoth worldwide hit.

Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, in conjunction with Universal Studios, has made available an entertaining trio of the star’s early action-adventure pics. These three Technicolor sagas, in new striking 1080p transfers from 35mm elements, haven’t looked this good since their original release. They dutifully underline the actor’s star power and define Saturday afternoon/summery drive-in evening Fifties movie-going at its peak.

1953’s SEMINOLE is an unfairly neglected work by the great Budd Boetticher that owes much of its narrative to actual events. It’s about the Native American uprising in Florida, ca. 1835. The movie additionally provides an excellent vehicle for rising star Hudson. He portrays Lieutenant Lance Caldwell, a Floridian, now a member of the U.S. forces stationed in the Everglades. To say he’s conflicted is an understatement. West Point-trained Caldwell owes dual allegiance to his childhood friend, mix-ish Osceola, now the feared leader of the Seminoles (nicely played with intelligence, strength and wisdom by Anthony Quinn), and, the military in which he serves (sadly, under the command of a psychotic racist autocrat, enacted with sneering vigor by Richard Carlson). Hudson’s passion for another native-born citizen, Revere, is also jeopardized, especially after she sides with Osceola. Curse them damn pesky hormones!

Be prepared for lots of action and beautiful Technicolor photography (lensed on-location at Everglades National Park by Russell Metty). Aside from the excellent cast mentioned, Boetticher gets splendid support from Hugh O’Brian, Russell Johnson, James Best, Robert Bray, Charles Horvath, Fay Roope, Walter Reed, Soledad Jimenez and, most notably, Lee Marvin, who soon would top the director’s pantheon of movie villainy in 1956’s Seven Men from Now. A standard music score by house talent Milton Rosen and a whippersnapper named Henry Mancini doesn’t deter from the excitement and love stuff. An enticing way to spend 87 minutes!

An amusing entry into the what-was-then shamelessly categorized as the tits-n-sand genre, 1953’s THE GOLDEN BLADE offers up the prerequisite swashbuckling derring-do, palace treachery, smoldering romance, and outstanding equestrian antics…all in the name of popcorn munching escapism. The deliberate sway toward a lighthearted approach (by story creator and scripter John Rich, later to make his name as an ace comedy director of such TV classics as The Dick Van Dyke Show) bears out the rumors that the project was originally pegged for rival U-I star Tony Curtis; it would have been his third pairing with female lead Piper Laurie, after The Prince who was a Thief and Son of Ali Baba. Reportedly, Laurie (to put it kindly) wanted a change from Curtis. Nevertheless this is an unusual Hudson offering, insomuch that it sprinkles supernatural whimsy into the plot (involving the magic sword of Damascus). A perfect get-your-feet-wet test for director Nathan Juran, who would go on to helm such SFX-laden fare as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer.

The cast is chock full of fetching starlets, superb character actors and rising luminaries, including George Macready, Gene Evans, Kathleen Hughes, Steven Geray, Edgar Barrier, Anita Ekberg, David Sharpe, Mel Welles and Guy Williams (with narration by Richard Carlson). The expert Technicolor camerawork is by the fine craftsman Maury Gertsman, and, the music score (compiled from various pieces by house talent) contains pieces by Herman Stein, Irving Gertz, and, once again, Henry Mancini. There’s even a lip-biting hookah sequence. What more can one want?

A sort of Four Feathers vibe permeates 1954’s BENGAL BRIGADE, another mini-historical epic, played out on the backlot of Universal-International. This time, the period is Christmas, 1854 in India, the end of the British 100-year rule. The by-the-book but nevertheless fair Captain Jeffrey Claybourne allows compassion to cloud a crucial decision, and is relieved of his command.

This faux pas naturally causes a chink in his otherwise spotless armor, and Claybourne – now without both the job and the woman he loves (yep, his beauteous commanding officer’s daughter fiancee calls it quits, too) – relentlessly awaits a moment where he can redeem himself in the eyes of his country and main squeeze. This doesn’t take long, as the ex-Captain soon uncovers a devious plot (is there any other kind?) to wipe out scores of British soldiers, leading to the thrilling climax.

Rock is pretty good as a British officer, and wisely doesn’t go for the accent; he’s 100% believable, and, to his credit, no one ever questions his Americanisms. He is, in turn, boosted by a fine, supporting cast including Arlene Dahl, Urusla Theiss, Torin Thatcher, Arnold Moss, Dan O’Herlihy, Michael Ansara, Leonard Strong, Shepard Menken, and Harold Gordon.

The picture looks terrific (and bigger than it is), too, thanks in great part to Maury Gertsman’s excellent Technicolor camerawork. A standard thundering U-I score (cobbled together by music from Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein and Stanley Wilson) does what it is supposed to do without any nuisance.

The script (by Richard Alan Simmons, as adapted by veteran Seton I. Miller; from a Hall Hunter novel) also benefits from its cut-to-the-chase pacing, thanks to Laszlo Benedek’s fast action-filled direction.

For me, the shock of BENGAL BRIGADE was seeing this extraordinary print. For years, during the 1960s and early 1970s, even the Technicolor 16MM TV prints looked dull, gritty and on the dark side. This 35MM transfer is resplendent in its display of vivid hues and tones. LSS, it looks gorgeous. AND, it’s in the original widescreen aspect ratio, too (no doubt, for the first time since 1954). Time-wise. BENGAL BRIGADE was important for its lead as it commenced the beginning of the end of his swashbuckling days. Later that year, Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession would be released – careening Hudson into superstar territory. Then came the previously mentioned Pillow Talk, in 1959, and yet another facet of the actor’s persona (the excellent light comedian) that would further delight his millions of fans. Universal-International really lucked out.

THE ROCK HUDSON COLLECTION. Color. Full Frame [1.37:1]/Widescreen [BENGAL BRIGADE: 1.85:1] 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25097. SRP: $49.95.

Nightmare Galley

The lure of the sea, swirling, foreboding mist, two beautiful women, one mysterious death and an increasing number of unexplained circumstances. These comprise the narrative components of the extremely underrated 1948 film noir thriller THE AMAZING MR. X, now on Blu-Ray, thanks to the seers at The Film Detective.

The movie is practically invisible – lost in a sea of way better-known noirs and suspense pics released during the post-war period. It capitalizes on spiritualism – an American obsession back then, and duly rendered to cinema by other late Forties pics, like Nightmare Alley, The Night Has a 1000 Eyes, and hybrids such as Whirlpool.

Of course, the main problem for mystery fans was/is the title. As a kid, I always mixed it up with The Man from Planet X. Was one a sequel to the other? Never could figure out if this was a crime pic or a horror show (it does have many creepy fright elements, which is a good thing). Apparently, the small indy outfit Eagle-Lion thought so, too. The movie was pulled and reissued as The Spiritualist, a better moniker, to be sure; still, I think it needed the word “Night” in the title to hit the core audience (otherwise it was soooo Monogram/Sam Katzman). Well, never mind. It’s here now, and, boy, was it worth the wait.

To be concise, at a smooth, brisk 78 minutes, THE AMAZING MR. X (in this version) is a great movie.

The screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter (the latter being one of my script-writing profs at NYU; an Oscar-nominee for Roman Holiday, and the dude who famously fronted for Dalton Trumbo during the HUAC travesty, Hunter, too, would later be blacklisted) is top-notch (from a pulpish story by Crane Wilbur), filled with crazed, engrossing situations (including being made privy to some “impossible” mind-reading tricks) and polished, realistic dialog.

Christine Faber and Janet Burke are sisters living together in a spacious, but scarifying California mansion perilously situated on a cliff overlooking the sea. Wealthy to the max, due to their late father’s bequeathing them all his riches, the ladies suffer from an encyclopedia of psychological maladies. Janet, the youngest of the pair, is romantic-cum-carnal-oriented, bordering on nymphomania (she openly has no qualms about stalking/competing for Christine’s beaus, claiming her blatant desires are just a joke; yet, she truly loves her sib and would die for her sis. Janet may get the chance). Christine is a far more difficult case. She lives in a world of morbidity, traumatized by the puzzling death of her husband. He, we learn, showed her a universe of perverse delights. To quote the perennially mourning Christine (“we did a lot of crazy things – a lot of them bad!”). As compensation, Ms. Faber is involved with a neighbor, Martin Abbott, a super-successful lawyer, who admits he’s boring, a caveat he will try to overcome.

This would all be enough for any drama, if it wasn’t for Alexis, a recently-arrived mystic who is cleaning up with a growing array of rich, female clients. How does he know so much about Christine? It does seem uncanny. Frequently appearing out of nowhere, often with a pet raven on his shoulder, Alexis’s predictions about Christine’s future and accurate recounts of her past win over both sisters, especially Janet, who is now sexually drawn to him.

Nothing in this movie jibes with a standard noir yarn. Even when Abbott hires a private investigator to get the goods on Alexis, we learn that that shamus is also a magician. This is a genuine noir fairy tale. When revelations come to light about the dead Mr. Faber’s sinister past, the tension and danger ratchets up to a chilling and jaw-dropping climax.

A wildly ambitious entry from Eagle-Lion, THE AMAZING MR. X benefits greatly from a terrific cast. A very Barbara Stanwyck-esque Lynn Bari likely gives her best performance as the suicidal Christine; in a lip-biting instance of art imitating life, Bari was a last minute replacement for Carole Landis…who had committed suicide. Cathy O’Donnell is excellent as the kid sister, balancing a contradictory seesaw of innocence and skankapaloosa. Richard Carlson is his usual reliable self as the would-be suitor; and Harry Mendoza as the prestidigitator p.i. registers big time. Other wonderful turns are provided by the magnificent character actress Virginia Gregg (never saw her this early), Donald Curtis, and Norma Varden. The majority of the thesp kudos go to lead Turhan Bey, delivering the best performance of his career. Suave, slimy, believable, amorous and even, at times, heroic, Bey’s Alexis is a perfect noir villain with benefits.

THE AMAZING MR. X was directed by Bernard Vorhaus. It is undeniably his finest work (he, too, worked on Roman Holiday, as an a.d.). All the formidable talent mentioned aside, the REAL star of this movie is d.p. John Alton, or, more specifically, his mesmerizing, atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. One of greatest cameramen of all-time, Alton’s work here is a veritable feature-length demo reel of how lighting, framing, and photography can dominate and create mood, raise goosebumps and visually depict insanity. Alton, best-known for his work with Anthony Mann (there are moments that recall the director’s 1944 noir Strangers in the Night), also authored a textbook volume on film, Painting with Light. Anyone even peripherally interested in cinematography should seek out a copy.

And herein lies the rub.

For years, this pic was the victim of public domain debauchery. The 16MM dupes, barely viewable VHS tapes and other negligible incarnations made this title unwatchable. Without the brilliant camerawork, this movie flatlines.

We must credit The Film Detective for restoring this obscure classic to the spectacular quality it so needs and deserves (it’s a 4K transfer from existing 35MM materials). This Blu-Ray is a testament to Alton, with virtually every shot displaying an outstanding composition and/or stunning effect. This version and ONLY this version is a must for the legions of noir-obsessed collectors. Extras include audio commentary by film professor/scholar Jason A. Ney, a full-color illustrated booklet on star Turhan Bey by Don Stradley, and a mini-documentary on the cinematic world of spiritualism.

A combination of The Uninvited, Gaslight, and The Spiral Staircase, THE AMAZING MR. X is a treat that will have your movie night guests delightfully pondering “where has this one been all my life?”

THE AMAZING MR. X. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective. CAT # FB1013. SRP: $24.95.

’21 Fun Salute

Yep, it’s that time again – picking the annual best of the best DVDs/Blu-rays and 4K ULTRAs. As I have been stating over the past few years, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult task. True, while some companies have shut their doors, or have pared down their release schedules, others have ramped up the amount of platters jus’ champin’ at the bit to spin on your home players. LSS, it’s still a fairly balanced teeter-totter; so don’t believe the harbinger of doom naysayers.

Case in point: back in the day, I relegated the yearly title selection to ten; these days, I could do that per month – for the quality has matched the quantity of the of the new entries. Let’s face facts: since laserdiscs, the hobby has always been a collector’s market; now it’s more specialized than ever (this is a good thing).

I especially shout out praise to companies giving us 35MM Blu-rays and 4Ks of B-plus/obscure pics, 3-D movies (the stereoscopic disc market ain’t dead, folks!), and Italian giallo classics being presented to American audiences like they never have been before (gorgeous transfers of what were originally edited, sleazy-looking grindhouse fare).

As I’ve said before, I’ve said this all before – so here are my top picks for 2021:

To say that we need comedies now more than ever is an understatement; thus, I was delighted to find an array of gems available for the first time on Blu-Ray: W.C. Fields’ last masterpiece, 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (, two Frank Tashlin classics, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ( and The Geisha Boy ( and three of Bob Hope’s greatest: Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers (, and The Paleface (

Two musicals made the list: 1933’s risque Viktor und Viktoria (the original version of the more famous Blake Edwards blockbuster; and the Frank Sinatra gem Pal Joey (

Politics and noir mixed admirably in Seven Days in May (; but, as usual, noir stands alone, and did so in such offerings as Sudden Fear (, Black Angel (, and Party Girl ( – to say nothing of two fine collections: Film Noir, Vols.II ( ( And, at last, an outstanding director gets the home vid treatment she deserves via The Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection ( Even badass Mamie Van Doren got her own collection, but was also seen in fine additional femme fatale form by way of the Albert Zugsmith classics, High School Confidential and The Beat Generation ( Va-va-va-vroom!

A number of German flicks made during the Nazi era popped up, perhaps the most jaw-dropping being 1943’s Paracelsus (, about a bloated buffoon who leads the country he runs/ruins into a full-blown pandemic! Paracelsus is the heroic scientist/doctor who attempts to save the victims. And, no, we’re not making this up.

More history was served up in the complete pre-Code restoration of Cecil B. DeMilles 1932 opus Sign of the Cross (, and Sam Fuller’s underrated 1962 WWII epic Merrill’s Marauders (

Some fantastic westerns hit Blu-Ray in ’21, including my favorite John Ford pic, Wagonmaster (, and Anthony Mann’s wonderful The Far Country (

Two auteur-3-D titles also appeared: Budd Boetticher’s Wings of the Hawk and Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise (, each with enticing extras sure to please any stereoscopic buff. An under-appreciated spaghetti western-ish/historical hybrid, 1968’s international co-production Guns for San Sebastian (another big personal fave) finally made it to 1080p (, and was a joy to see and hear (damn, that brilliant Morricone music!).

4K showed us what it can do, via the stunning 2160p restoration of Dario Argento’s giallo TheBird with the Crystal Plumage ( Moving slightly over to horror, still the best-selling genre in the disc-collecting market, we were treated to a spectacular remastering of Harry Kumel’s 1971 erotic supernatural thriller Daughters of Darkness ( .

Other terrific horror titles for 2021 included an amazing three-version edition of Hammer Films’ iconic Curse of Frankenstein (, as well as a sensational remaster of the Val Lewton 1945 hair-raiser Isle of the Dead (

The piece de resistance, however, may be the meticulous restoration of the the 1932 pre-Code Michael Curtiz fright fest Dr. X (, demonstrating how beautiful and atmospherically scary two-strip Technicolor can be. You’ve NEVER seen this movie look like it does here. I can’t stop raving about it.

Have to say, 2022 is already looking like another pip. Can’t wait. Yay, team!