California Screaming

Red Lynch is quite a guy. An avid movie-lover, and admirer of exotic women. Hey, he might be me – or even you…if it wasn’t for the unfortunate fact that he’s also a serial killer, rapist…and (gasp) a fisherman!

It’s Red’s latest vocational skill, that of an extortionist, that warrants our discussion, since he’s actually the main character – and certainly the most interesting one – in Blake Edwards’ great 1962 noirish thriller EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, now available for microscopic inspection in a limited edition from Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Now let me say up front that while I enjoy many of the movies Blake Edwards is famous for – specifically the Peter Sellers comedies, I far more prefer his darker, nastier explorations of the human condition.

Edwards, of course, started out co-scripting vest pocket noirs with Richard Quine at Columbia, then wrote and/or directed a labyrinth of hard-boiled TV programs (Mind Over Murder; Mike Hammer; The Lineup; Mr. Lucky; Richard Diamond), before scoring big with the Peter Gunn series in 1958. Pursuant to the latter, I am a big fan of the virtually forgotten 1967 Gunn movie…and also long for a complete version of his butchered 1973 abortion mystery The Carey Treatment. I’d like to add that my favorite Edwards-obscura is the 1957 Tony Curtis crime drama Mister Corey, a CinemaScoped Blu-Ray I wish Universal would serve up to at least compensate for their 900 E.T.: The Umpteenth I’ve-Had-Enough-of-this-Shit Editions.

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, one of a gaggle of major studio releases following in the wake of Psycho, crept onto the screens the same year as Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

While less of a camp outing, it is no less a freak show. And the 123-minute black-and-white roller-coaster ride doesn’t waste a minute. No sooner does drop-dead gorgeous Kelly Sherwood (aka drop-dead gorgeous Lee Remick) arrive home from her job as a bank teller than her borderline-normal (i.e. boring) world is shattered. She’s attacked in her garage by a phantom-cloaked maniac, whose only identifiable trait is his heavy asthmatic breathing. Guess who? Yup, it’s Red Lynch.

Lynch has mastered the art of terror to instantly bring his newest victim to her breaking point. His demand: steal 100k from her bank…or suffer the consequences…To underline the fact that he’s thoroughly researched his target, he threatens Remick with an appended ultimatum: do not refuse or contact the authorities “…or I’ll kill your sister.”

Now while – kinship-wise – this personally wouldn’t bother me, it does upset Kelly, as Toby, her beloved teenaged sib, is the almost as beauteous (and up-and-coming starlet) Stefanie Powers (the two live together, Remick acting as surrogate mom).

One of the picture’s most frightening sequences follows. Thinking she’s safe in her secured home, she logically contacts the FBI…only to have Lynch leap out in a startling you-think-I’m-fucking-kidding?! sociopathic display of inappropriate behavior. Lovingly snuffing her face into the carpet, he grinds his foot into the back of her neck, repeating his demands and threats.

Alas for Lynch, Kelly did manage a telling thirty seconds of phone time, and was lucky enough to capture the attention of agent Glenn Ford, who, with less to go on that the law enforcement factions who solved the Boston marathon bombings, locates the shaken-but-not-stirred woman.

This is the basic set-up for the narrative, and it’s a honey. EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, above anything else, is a movie that relentlessly succeeds in twisting a knife in the viewers’ guts via its theme of invasion of privacy. That’s the main tag here. Reflecting the then volatile fear-of-frying atomic-political climate, Kelly and everyone else immediately go on paranoid alert (the movie’s working title was Grip of Fear). LSS, no one is safe in 1960s America; to this distressing goal, the advent of technology is alarmingly demonstrated to work both ways. That no idiot producer has thought to remake this underrated classic – with the even more potent threat of identity theft and persecution in the cyber 2020s – is a solemn nod to the probable fact that these boneheads have no idea this movie exists.

Anyways, Remick’s performance is so (no pun) on the money that you’re really grieve for her. All of a sudden, her coworkers, neighbors, passersbys – even the FBI agents – are all suspect. This is in perfect contrast to Ford, in one of his finest portrayals. Now at first look, you might think: What are you saying? He’s acting by-the-numbers…almost phoning it in. Check it out again. He’s keen on getting facts, and it’s only after he receives them that he becomes thoroughly detached and disinterested with his “clients.” Craggy, weary and displaying the shellacked hairdo from the era where the aging star seemingly decreed to combat advancing years by dipping the top of his head in a tar bucket, Ford is apathy personified.

In one incredible scene, he listens to Remick do her best to provide details. When done, she almost collapses in sobbing shock. Once Ford has processed the pertinent information, you can actually see the switch go off in his head: her concerns mean nothing to him; he’s got what he wanted and needed. As Kelly pours her heart out, Ford impatiently taps his wrist, looks at his watch…he just really isn’t that interested. Insult to injury, he then honestly reveals what Lynch will do to get her to pull off the heist; in effect, he’s scaring Remick with the same predatory gory stuff Lynch did. Ford’s agent Ripley is Lynch’s doppelganger. I’m not kidding. Two secondary victims – a silent movie addict/informant named Popcorn (Ned Glass) – and a seductive Anne Bancrofty mannequin artist (Patricia Huston) are sloughed off as pathetic expendables, even when the latter ends up hanging upside-down slaughterhouse-style alongside her plaster of Paris arms and legs. Ford nonchalantly muses to another agent that he guessed wrong about her involvement in the case and calmly exits the crime scene. Later, an equally cold-blooded cohort remarks of another fatality, “Bound to happen…Can’t expect to live forever.” Ford does everything but respond with, “Say, I don’t know about you – but I could sure go for a hoagie.”

Ford reminds me very much of Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray’s 1951 gem On Dangerous Ground. While not as outwardly psychotic, there is that same detached connection. I’m especially referring to a scene where Ryan confronts a blind Ida Lupino, who is instantly attracted to him because he’s the first one who hasn’t been condescending to her, or, more precisely, her affliction…a mistaken emotion, as the cop’s m.o. is that he simply doesn’t care.

Most prominently, Ford’s sober I-don’t-wanna-hear-your-crap attitude is a direct descendent of his own incarnation of detective Bannion in Lang’s The Big Heat. Ripley could be Bannion ten years later…like in the concurrent wildly popular Paladin ballad, “A knight without honor in a savage land…”, the terra firma in question being Kennedy’s Camelot.

Lee Remick’s psychologically pulverized woman at the picture’s taut conclusion isn’t comforted by Ford (the usual wrap-up in a million other crime movies and TV episodes). The job is over; he couldn’t care less what happens to her. He walks off frame.

The climax in question unfolds at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (offering viewers the unintentional jolt of ringside seats to a Giants game for $2.50!); it’s an exciting location, reminiscent of another SF-based police thriller, Siegel’s Dirty Harry, filmed almost a decade later. The nocturnal, fog-enshrouded Frisco locale is used to stunning, if not chilling effect and is played out in the community of Twin Peaks, which I suspect likewise inspired another Lynch.

Many of the “terror” sequence compositions seem to have additionally emboldened a slew of giallo directors, including Mario Bava and Dario Argento…as well as Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi. Edwards has also acquiesced to Alfred Hitchcock’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Film Mayhem. Turn off the sound during some of the confrontational scenes between Lynch and Remick and they could be misinterpreted as rapturous intimate couple moments. In the proper context, however, these segments comprise some of the creepiest visuals in Edwards’ canon, save exposing Julie Andrews’ breasts in S.O.B.

Of course, Red is the Lynch-pin holding the tense narrative together. He’s also the movie’s most complex character – the only one fully-developed. Although seen largely in shadow or disguise, we know more about him than we do of Kelly, Toby or even Ripley (believe it or not, a recurring character in several of the writers’s books, upon which this movie was based on). And it’s frustrating. For the majority of the picture’s two hour-plus running time, I was champing at the bit for someone to kill Lynch. Then Edwards throws a wild pitch: Lynch has a serious girlfriend whom he treats lovingly and compassionately, even paying the thousands of dollars to treat her son’s physical disability. The result is that I ceased to want Lynch killed…now I only wanted him maimed. Lynch is superbly played by Ross Martin (whose identity, as part of the picture’s promotion, was withheld until the very end). While the movie did well critically and chalked up decent box office, it was Martin who ultimately reaped the rewards for his performance. His chameleon expertise garnered him the plum supporting role of Artemis Gordon in the long-running hit television series The Wild, Wild West.

Kelly’s increasingly fragile mental state makes her suspicious of even inanimate objects; everyday utensils (especially the telephone) become objects of terror. Lynch’s “experiment” is to envelop Sherwood into a world governed completely by fear, humiliation and degradation – essentially the current GOP playbook should any moderate Republican even consider running for office. This intrusive horror bodily manifests itself in a shocking sequence where Kelly’s space is defiled by the ultimate invasion: Lynch-in-drag cornering her in the ladies room of a restaurant (made all the more grating by his apparent decision to model his old lady impersonation after Lionel Barrymore in Devil Doll).

The script doesn’t miss a trick – one of the few forays into screenwriting by the husband and wife team, The Gordons. That the male Gordon’s first name was also Gordon is likely a parental faux pas I surmise to have been his own adolescent experiment in terror. Bizarrely enough, the duo’s most famous motion-picture work was That Darn Cat!, filmed by Disney in 1965, starring Hayley Mills and Dean Jones. Like Operation Terror (the name of the novel), the story concentrated on the importance of surveillance in contemporary crime detection (Gordon Gordon spent World War II working for the FBI in counter-intelligence).

The Blu-Ray of EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is aces in all departments. The spectacular black and white photography by Philip Lathrop has never looked as crystal clear. Rich in dark velvety tones and ominous spectral imagery, Lathrop’s sinister canvas truly paints a nightmarish vision of the city. While the old DVD looked okay – the B-D is a revelation, truly befitting the picture’s trappings of noir voyeurism.

The sound is even better. Henry Mancini’s eerie jazzy score is one of his best, certainly my favorite of all his Edwards projects. A couple of years ago, in a jazz club, I was ecstatic when a combo segued into a version of the title theme. Apparently, one of the musicians caught sight of my delighted approval and approached me afterward.

“You must be a movie fan,” he announced to me, hand extended.

“So must you,” I replied.

He nodded, and proudly explained that a baptism by fire prerequisite for all new musicians to the group was to do a cover of EXPERIMENT IN TERROR.

Indeed, the spine-tingling main title has become a standard for seriously cool jazz and rock ‘n’ roll bands (there is a rock version in the movie, playing on Kelly’s car radio).

What’s particularly terrific about this B-D is that the audio is in authentic stereo. I never knew the movie was recorded that way; maybe it wasn’t (certainly no other screening/video master was ever released in anything but mono), but the music surely was. It’s awesome to have that main track fill the room in full digitally-cleansed 5.1 stereo. The soundtrack, like all Twilight Time offerings, can be accessed in IST (Isolated Score Track), which allows film music fans to access the Mancini work as a CD album.

The platter comes with two theatrical trailers and two sixty second TV spots. One of each is a strange take on the pic’s promotion (utilizing the jittery opening montage), the other more traditional. Curiously, we are told by the narrator that the movie uniquely “…uses San Francisco as its laboratory” – something I naturally assumed all stimulant-minded people did back then.

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. Black and white. Letterbox [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $24.95.

Kill the Midwife

Since we’re in the perfect timing mindset to deservedly hate all things with a Russian-tarnished “putina” – especially when it comes to mob/authoritarian figures abusing innocents – give those initial entries into the John Wick and Equalizer franchises a brief rest, and go for the more cerebral (but equally graphic) cinematic artistry of 2007’s EASTERN PROMISES, now on Blu-Ray from the patriots at Kino-Lorber/Universal Studios.

Superbly helmed by David Cronenberg, this shocking thriller reunites the director with his History of Violence star Viggo Mortenson (who also served as one of the producers), and other illustrious alumni, including d.p. Peter Suschitzky (Dead Ringers) and composer Howard Shore (The Fly). Most notably, this movie teams the Cronenberg Davids with another twisted Goliath-slayer namesame (last name Lynch) and his favorite muse, Naomi Watts.

Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a profusely bleeding, battered, and pregnant Ukrainian teenager literally falls in the arms of professional midwife Anna Khitrova (Watts). While the girl doesn’t survive, the infant does – and Anna, of Eastern European heritage herself (sharing a London flat with her single mom Helen and miserable uncle/former KGB member Stepan), takes a special interest in the child.

But that’s not all.

Anna discovers a diary the young woman kept – all in the language of her homeland. She beseeches Stepan to translate the text, but, after scanning through a few pages, he outwardly, if not angrily, refuses. But was it anger…or fear? Bookmarked in the tome is a business card for famed high-end Russian restaurant. Did the girl work there? Does her family have a connection? Perhaps the orphan’s father is employed by the posh bistro? Anna visits the eatery, bypassing two upscale thugs at the entrance, before being ushered in to see owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He, too, glances at the text, doesn’t recall the woman, but offers to translate the journal for determined healthcare worker.

All seems to be on an even keel at last. Except that it isn’t.

The two “thugs” are Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon’s sociopathic son, and Nikolai (Mortenson), his BFF and personal bodyguard/chauffeur. Indeed, Khitrova’s visit turns out to be the worst thing she could have done, as the bistro serves more than food; they specialize in extortion, sex trafficking and more. And the “more” will blow Anna’s mind, if not her brains out.

Exceptional drama, stylistically directed and photographed, EASTERN PROMISES isn’t for the faint-hearted. There are some jaw-dropping scenes of violence and one sexual sequence so NOT for the squeamish that it’s amazing the movie ONLY got an “R” rating.

The performances are outstanding, particularly Mortenson, who was Oscar-nominated, Watts, Cassell, and the great Mueller-Stahl. Kudos, too, to Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski as Watts’s character’s mom and uncle.

The tremendous script by Steve Knight is all-too-accurate in its depiction of the Vory v Zakone (the Red Mafia) in supposed safe Western environs. Cronenberg, in fact, has gone on-record as stating that a major influence for the project was the 2002 non-fiction book Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism by Vladimir Volkov. The details are pinprick precise, right down to Nikolai’s tattoos which, on one occasion, caused quite a stir during production. Mortenson, in search of a beer between takes, entered a pub frequented by Russian clientele; upon seeing his ink work, the patrons gasped and crouched back, some hastily exiting the establishment altogether.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks and sounds sensational in widescreen 1.85 and 5.1 surround. A number of extras, comprising a quintet of featurettes, supplement the engrossing albeit grisly proceedings.

EASTERN PROMISES. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25817. SRP: $29.95.


Nothing defines guilty pleasure entertainment more than big budget Hollywood sextravaganzas, ca mid-1950s-mid-1960s. The key players in this cinematic flesh peddling can be whittled down to two dubious “artistes,” legendary producer/exploiter Joseph E. Levine and legendary author/exploiter Harold Robbins.

But first (as opposed to butt first) a wee history lesson.

Before Levine plied his trade in the rich and infamous genre, there was Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk. Their Fifties Technicolor soaps, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows pretty much elevated Universal-International to…well, universal international status. It made a mega-star out of studio contractee Rock Hudson and gave new life to older female stars like Jane Wyman…By the time Albert Zugsmith (auteur of High School Confidential, Sex Kittens Go to College…to say nothing of Touch of Evil and The Incredible Shrinking Man) came along, the pattern was ripe for ascension to the next salacious level. Written on the Wind not only did this in spades, recounting its saga of the filthy (in more ways than one) rich Texas Hadleys – but, as personified via the deviant brother/sister combo of impotent psycho Robert Stack and nympho (accent on the ‘ho’) Dorothy Malone, broke all box office records. One of the era’s most memorable celluloid moments – Malone fondling a desk ornament oil derrick – probably won her that deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar….But, more importantly, it opened the flood gates.

Peyton Place, a brown paper wrapper best seller, was considered unfilmable. Them’s fighin’ words for an industry struggling with dwindling theater attendance…and 20th Century-Fox pulled out all the stops to bring it to the screen. The super production smashed existing house records worldwide – and recharged star Lana Turner’s fizzling career (as well as giving her a Best Actress nomination). That Turner was then embroiled in a real-life sex scandal – beyond anything in the pages of Grace Metalius’ smoldering pages – certainly didn’t hurt. Turner, whose current lover, gangland maven Johnny Stompanato, died of unnatural causes in the bedroom the pair shared. This termination was due to the actress’ teenage daughter plunging a Dario Argento-friendly carving utensil into his heart. This story became the hottest headline ticket since Sputnik – and sold papers for months and months. Speculation on what really happened (was the teen taking the heat from mom, was she raped by the thug, were the both sharing the stud – finally causing a jealous rage eruption?…) culminated in tabloid manna from heaven.

Cue sleazy writer Harold Robbins, who saw an ideal way to cash in on this tragedy. By changing the names, professions (actress to artist)– adding more drama (if possible), making up ludicrous sexual antics to bookmark his text, he published WHERE LOVE HAS GONE…The book became an in-your-face hit – and created a cottage industry for the writer and his soon-to-be media partner in crime…

Cue Joseph E. Levine. Like many of his predecessors, Levine began as an exhibitor; soon he realized that the real reel money lay in producing…and, through a series of outlandish stunts (armed guards standing over an opened crate containing a million dollars – the amount he spent on promoting the cheaply-acquired Italian pickup, Hercules), and savvy acumen (he was the first to see the value in importing the likes of Godzilla)…he was on his way. Through some unscrupulous dealings and sub-dealings with Paramount, Levine parlayed his low rent beginnings into amazing longevity – truly becoming the last of the colorful (and slimy) moguls. To quote Laurence Harvey in A Dandy in Aspic, that Levine should team up with Robbins was “…as obvious as a whore in a creaky bed.”

Levine’s alternate buddy relationship with Paramount is so convoluted and labyrinthian that, to this day, scads of industry legal eagles have no clue who owns the rights to what. Deals were made so that Paramount would control American distribution – while Levine, through his Embassy Pictures banner – would keep Europe and the Middle East; then, after a time, the music would stop – and the roles and rights would be switched. This became even more complicated when subsequently extended to television and, later home video. Posters thus exist on many Paramount titles – with Embassy logos…and vice versa. The sex pics were the big studio jackpots; the smaller art house pickups (like Divorce Italian Style and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) would be totally Levine property. Ironically, these arty flicks with their undeniably sensual and erotic content, soon became cross-over hits – rivaling the lushly-produced all-star epics divvied up to the majors. Generally, Levine ended up the victor – losing only once when he foolishly gave Paramount all but the American rights to 1964’s Zulu, which, did moderately well in the States – but cleaned up in blockbuster revenues overseas (it briefly became the UK’s all-time box office champ, usurped a year later by Thunderball).

With Robbins, Levine and Paramount engaged in a vigorous threesome – the next hand to be dealt with was the scripting. John Michael Hayes, the brilliant prolific writer of such Hitchcock classics as Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and The Trouble With Harry had bolted from the famed director’s grip when he all-too-quickly realized that greatest suspense from the heralded Master of Suspense was receiving a decent paycheck. Hayes penned Fox’s Peyton Place – and thereby was considered prime cut for the Paramount-Levine-Robbins triad. His penchant for adding witty dialogue to otherwise stolid and clichéd situations would elevate these movies to kitsch magnificence.

When The Carpetbaggers sucked up millions of tickets on both sides of the pond, all involved knew they had made the right decision. Next up was the big screen adaptation of WHERE LOVE HAS GONE. In a case of art imitating life, many still believe that Lana Turner stars in this lurid expose. In all fairness, it’s a reasonable faux pas – due to A) the film’s obscurity in the 58 years since its release, and B) post-Peyton Place, Turner did indeed relegate herself to this kind of movie – appearing in such lip-smacking tantalizing titles as By Love Possessed, Love Has Many Faces, an updated umpteenth version of Madame X, and, most notoriously, The Big Cube – wherein the one-time MGM diva takes an LSD trip. Appearing in Robbins’ sensational rendition of her life would have been a step up. It’s Susan Hayward who has the Turner part – and if you think she cried tomorrow back in 1955 – you ain’t seen nothing yet. She’s not only crying but screaming, drinking, whoring – and even painting and sculpting. The long-suffering fictional ex-spouse is Mike Connors, whom, along with Hayward and her harpie mother’s help, quickly degenerates from a promising architect into a drunken womanizing scumbag – all within the running time of a standard Mack Sennett short. Firmly entrenched in Manchurian Candidate fetal position, it’s the evil mother who scene steals the proceedings…and who better to be a predatory bitch on wheels than Bette Davis? – dressed and coiffed like a primer for Drag Queens For Dummies. To say that Davis’ incarnation of this ultimate mother from hell makes her Little Foxes characterization look like Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch is a gross understatement. Then there’s the smoking smoking gun (or butcher knife) teenage murderess – Joey Heatherton in her debut – whose on-camera emoting and pouting as a potential Lolita wannabee could never match the WTF sexual events that plagued her off the soundstages. What can I say – she was a Harold Robbins car wreck waiting to happen! We can go on about George Macready at his Macreadiest as an oily lawyer or DeForrest Kelley as a horny art critic – but just mentioning it becomes self-explanatory. The A-plus production values, the fantastic supporting cast (framed in ebullient Technicolor and TechniScope by the great Joe MacDonald), the sappy Jack Jones’ title song…all add up for a rollicking time for viewers and fans of great trash movies. Olive Films have secured a perfect transfer – in both picture and sound; Blu-Ray audiences in search of camp will be delighted from fade in to fade out!

With The Carpetbaggers still raking it in by the truckload, Levine and Paramount decided to continue down a similar road. Robbins’ prime literary targets had always been crazed degenerates modeled after the likes of Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow; Carroll Baker scored big as the Harlow character in Carpetbaggers – so when Irving Shulman’s god-awful biography of the platinum blonde hit the bookshelves in the mid-Sixties, the wily producer immediately took an option. Shulman’s work was more of a mystery than a biography – they mystery being for any reader to find one iota of truth within the text. Only Jean, her parents, Paul Bern and Arthur Landau remained within this demented fantasy; no mention of Gable, William Powell, MGM or even Laurel & Hardy. Landau was only implicated, due to his participation in the book’s publication; he had been Harlow’s agent – but more on him later (Note: If you crave the real dope on Harlow, seek out Eve Golden’s marvelous 1991 biography, Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow). Another curiosity was why the usually sharp Levine didn’t know that a rival production company was simultaneously preparing a Harlow bio-pic, based on the same tome. Made on a remarkably shabby scale, the alternate 1965 Harlow, filmed in gritty black and white, starred another Carol – minus the extra ‘R’ and ‘L’, surnamed Lynley. This backyard version, featuring Ginger Rogers as the clinging mother, portrayed by Angela Lansbury in the Levine evocation, was released by Electrovision – the company known primarily throughout the 1960s for their live big screen theater-casts of prize fights. With Paramount behind him and a budget easily triple the Lynley pic, Levine’s HARLOW K.O.-ed its monochrome feeble clone in the first round.

Snagging Hayes to once again create the screenplay, Paramount’s HARLOW has some cool things going for it – if non-discriminating viewers are willing to eschew the art of fact-checking from frame one. The opening credit scene, anachronistic clothes and hairstyles aside, is one of the picture’s best moments – an early morning studio extra call that’s right out of Day of the Locust. Accompanied by Neal Hefti’s cool soundtrack and Gordon Douglas’ smooth direction, HARLOW, while 100% outrageous nonsense, is never boring. Douglas, who like the title star, began at Hal Roach, was obviously having a lot of fun; thus, the embryonic sequences of Jean getting pie-smacked, ass-sprayed and wardrobe malfunctioned have an authentic air of vintage slapstick. The aforementioned Hefti score, while indeed terrific, is nevertheless as out of place as the mod look visualized in club scenes and pushin’-in-the-cushion partying. With its electric organ a-pumping more vigorously than the libido-fueled cast members– the music is about as 1930s as the go-go boots worn by various females sprinkled throughout Joseph Ruttenberg’s spectacularly Technicolored and Panavision-composed visuals.

Baker, essentially reprising her Carpetbaggers role, plays it like a Barbie doll on Spanish Fly – and looks amazingly gorgeous. If the method actress took the money and ran with the Robbins adaptation – she took it, ran, sprinted over the Paramount gate and fled to Europe for 14 years with this haul. Americans unfamiliar with her gialli efforts pretty much associate her with these two Levine portrayals – probably even before Baby Doll, which put her on the sex goddess map.

Apparently no one told co-stars Lansbury and Raf Vallone what was really going down, as they are actually acting – giving the movie it’s only true thespian pedigree. As Harlow’s parasitic parents, they run the gamut from repulsive to funny to poignant – presenting a bona fide flip side to the remaining cast members.

Which brings us to Red Buttons. As cherubic as ever, Buttons plays the previous-discussed Arthur Landau. Seeing Jean’s potential, this oh-he’s-so-cute-you-just-wanna-pinch-his-cheeks walking dashboard troll figurine takes the aspiring starlet under his wing. When she admits that she can’t pay him, he pooh-poohs her. He’ll pay HER! Both he and his equally-goody-goody wife shell out her expenses, nurture and support her through thick and thin. We wonder if this depiction had anything to do with the real Landau’s hovering over the book and the movie; not that we’re suspicious, as we all know that Hollywood agents by nature are loving, sweet non-mercenary benevolent souls. Of course, this doesn’t prevent Landau from essentially pimping her to a Hughesian womanizing millionaire-turned-director. Enter Leslie Nielsen as super stud Dick Manley (I SWEAR I’m not making this up – jeez Hayes must have had a ball with this movie!). With one swift well-placed kick, that wacky Jean effectively disables his naked gun, dives into Red Button’s waiting sedan – and the pair drive off into pre-smog horizon. Early on, Jean told her agent that she’s a virgin (Harlow’s actual first marriage is never mentioned – then again, why am I even bringing this up?!!!) and can’t stand men touching her. Buttons, like all of us in the audience, figures his client to be a frigid freakazoid…but no – here comes the twist on the twist…Jean is a carnal-charged unstoppable animal, and fears that if she let’s her guard down, she’ll man-eat more dudes than Simon Simone in Cat People.

By the time impotent nutjob Paul Bern (a laughable Peter Lawford, as if there’s any other kind) marries Jean, reveals himself and blows his brains out – the platinum dye has been cast for the volatile third act. It’s here that Jean Harlow becomes Jean Harlot – laying more pipe than Roto-Rooter – even attempting to rape step-father Vallone, who, in this narrative, turns out to be a right guy. As he strives to adjust his step-daughter’s askew moral compass, Baker, tear-stained and mascara-dripping delivers her bid for an Oscar nomination – spouting a speech in decided Ronnie Spector whine wherein she realizes that the bad men in her life are not so bad – and the good ones are not so good. Indeed words that all girls whose boyfriends own 4K video cams should live by. Unfortunately, this knowledge comes way too late. As with all sexually-active Hollywood-portrayed women, Jean’s liberation is her death-knell; in short, she’s toast within ten minutes – the result of an all-nighter climaxed by the beloved unloved movie star deliriously wandering along the ocean front like Baby Jane Hudson.

Truth may be stranger than fiction – but not as strange as fiction purporting to be truth (and certainly not as hilarious). If you’ve never seen HARLOW, you owe yourself a treat. The Blu-Ray is a knockout – looking and sounding even better than WHERE LOVE HAS GONE. Those in search of cinematic junk food need search no further than this pair of High Definition doozies.



(both color, mono; Letterboxed [2.35:1]; 1080p High Definition; dual layer)

Olive Films/Paramount Home Video. SRP: $24.95@.

Creepy Old New York

The engrossing, not-for-the-squeamish 2018 mini-series, The Alienist, based on the 1994 novel by Caleb Carr, caught me by surprise. Although I got to it late to the game, it intrigued me enough to ponder what might lie in the future. In 2020, during the worst wrath of COVID, I got my answer, the superb follow-up, THE ALIENIST: ANGEL OF DARKNESS, now on DVD from Paramount Television and TNT Originals, distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In case there’s some confusion as to the content of The Alienist adventures, let me backtrack a bit. And, no, it has nothing to do with visitors from outer space.

The three main fictional characters reside in late 19th century New York. The title lead is one Dr. Laszlo Kreiszler, so-called “alienist” due to his dedication to the new-fangled stuff Freud has cooked up under the wide-spreading umbrella of psychiatry. In short, he delves into the causes and cures of mental illness. Like himself, his two cohorts are progressive as well: Sara Howard, who has the audacity to run an all-female-fueled detective agency and John Moore, a crusading reporter for The New York Times.

A WORD OF WARNING: How ever grotesque the situations were in the first series, they can’t hold a gaslit-lantern to the proceedings in Part Two. Babies are being murdered in what might be sacrificial rite ceremonies. At least, that’s the cover story. Kreizler, Howard, and Moore know better. Attractive, poor women are being used as sex slaves for affluent New Yorkers, who, if/when they become pregnant, commit the ladies to an insane asylum, and subsequently have their offspring mutilated and murdered. One sequence so horrific had my jaw practically hitting the floor (a recurring event throughout the 8-episode, 3-DVD set): the decaying corpse of a newborn is displayed in the doll section of a leading Manhattan department store’s toy section.

In what may be unrelated, a young wealthy couple’s baby, is kidnapped. That the husband is the visiting Spanish consul doesn’t help the local constabulary or the political highbrows, some of whom are involved in the sex trafficking ring. As before, the three principals know better: the abhorrent scandal IS related, and in ways more terrifying than anyone could have imagined.

What is unusual in ANGEL OF DARKNESS is that the maniac killer behind the atrocities is revealed halfway through the series; the remainder comprises much track down investigative reporting, psychological profiling and great detective work – so our heroic trio have their hands full. The midway unmasking of the monster was such a shock to me that I had to immediately go back several episodes to make sure I wasn’t in need of an alienist. Rerunning the shows made sense, narrative-wise albeit all the more skin-crawling (and, yes, I probably DO need an alienist…but let’s not go there now).

As one might suspect, the writing (Stuart Carolan, Gina Gionfiddo, Alyson Feltes, Karina Wolf, Tom Smuts, Amy Berg) and direction (David Caffrey, Clare Kilner) are top-drawer. I really enjoyed melding the make-believe participants with real-live players, including William Randolph Hearst (who is also integral to the saga) and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But it is mostly the performances that seal the deal. Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard is terrific, as is her sleuthing staff; ditto, Luke Evans as John Moore. The one tiny fly in the ointment is Daniel Bruhl as Dr. Kreizler; his whispery, foreboding voice quickly got on my nerves, and, bizarrely enough, as the title character, he’s the one I liked the least. Nice to know he does hookup with lady shrink; maybe she can give him a jolt of “take it down a notch.” Or voice lessons. Speaking of hookups, another couple likewise “gets a room,” much to the relief of the show’s millions of fans. Like the killer’s identity, I ain’t giving away nuthin’!

The remaining cast is superb, and I happily sing the praises of Robert Ray Wisdom, Douglas Smith, Dominic Herman-Day, Matthew Shear, Melanie Field, Bruna Cusi, Frederick Schmidt, Lara Pulver, Heather Goldenhersh, and especially Rosy McEwen and the always-excellent Ted Levine.

The look of ANGEL OF DARKNESS is as important as anything else in the production; in fact, it could qualify as a non-breathing cast member. The series’s design (Ruth Ammon, Reka Gottlieb, Nimrod Hajdu, Missy Parker) and art direction (Robert Cowper, Marco Furbatto, Maichael Alan Glover, Glen Hall) are primo, with stunning photography (Cathal Watters, Alejando Martinez) and ground-breaking CGI (from an army of more than fifty artists); the contrast between the squalor of the slums of lower Eastside Manhattan and portions of Brooklyn with the townhouse brownstone splendor of Central Park West living is Emmy-worthy. A decent score by Bobby Krlic (under the name The Haxan Cloak) nicely appends the visuals.

Housed in a nifty slipcover, THE ALIENIST: ANGEL OF DARKNESS looks great on DVD (would have loved to see the Blu-Ray version, but, seriously can’t complain); included extras comprise five featurettes.

Addictive for the strong hearted, THE ALIENIST: ANGEL OF DARKNESS, harboring a definite early Seventies Hammer Films vibe, provides a tense way to spend a stormy, rainy weekend afternoon or evening. You might not wanna watch it alone, though.

THE ALIENIST: ANGEL OF DARKNESS. Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.0 stereo-surround. Paramount Television Studios/TNT Originals/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B08LR8L91X. SRP: $24.95.

Chase to the Cut

Perhaps the most underrated (if not forgotten) comedian of the masses, Charley Chase, a renaissance man of cinema lunacy, gets a much-needed third volume of his output with CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES, VOLUME 3, 1934-1936 (now available in a 3-disc DVD set from Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault, via mvdvisual)

To those who are only peripherally familiar with his name, Charley Chase is mostly known as that wise-guy, loud mouth whom Laurel & Hardy meet at their Sons of the Desert convention. Not even close to scratching the surface. Move in, and take a gander.

Chase, born Charles Joseph Parrott in Baltimore, MD on October 20, 1893, entered the movies in 1914 playing bits in Sennett comedies. Working under (and observing) the likes of Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Billy West and others, Chase was at last given his own series in 1924 (The Jimmy Jumps). Almost immediately, he caught on, and almost immediately he evolved to a more creative universe, courtesy of visionary producer Hal Roach. The shorts were wildly popular throughout the late 1920s, and then came the sound boom…and the finale for many a career. But not Charley’s Not only was his voice a natural, but delighted fans discovered he was possessed of a set of charming singing pipes. From then on, many of his offerings would include peppy little tunes. But this wasn’t Chase’s only talent (we don’t use the “renaissance man” moniker for nuthin’!). The comic also directed, wrote, unofficially assisted with the editing and did practically everything on his productions but carry the raw film to the developing labs. Furthermore, aside from being likeable, and not bizarre looking, Chase’s m.o., like Harold Lloyd’s, was that he came off as an average guy – the everyman who lived next door, a coworker, the passenger sitting next to you on the bus. Also, like Lloyd, he was an excellent athlete. So, he was, indeed the whole package.

In this collection of 21 shorts, we go from pre-to-post Code, and the change isn’t all that drastic; like the slide from silent to talkies, Chase easily made the most of the new, strict censorship rules – and worked them to his advantage. The shorts, often featuring him and a comely, game spouse play like a sitcom series, which is probably why they hold up so well today. Except, at any moment, they can veer sharply into hilarious slapstick. The cool thing (for me) is that, aside from maybe two or three entries, I had never seen any of these two-reel gems. And, truthfully, there’s not a dud in the bunch.

Charley seemed fascinated by the unlimited possibilities of cinema, and several of these shorts border on the surreal, others take a surprisingly modern look at psychological motivation, and a handful utilize technological movie magic only hinted by his competitors (1934’s Four Parts has the comedian impersonating four extremely different siblings, confusing the one female who is the object of the smitten brother’s affection).

Since the entire three-disc DVD set is purchase-worthy, I won’t go into discussions of all the shorts included, but will comment on a few standouts, aside from the excellent aforementioned Four Parts. In The Chases of Pimple Street (1934), Charley sets up an important client with his pretty sister-in-law, not realizing that the woman is certifiably insane. Poker at Eight (1935) utilizes the art of hypnotism with less than the desired (but nevertheless hilarious) results. In Manhattan Monkey Business (1935), Charley can’t pay his restaurant bill, and must work off the tab as a waiter. Life Hesitates at 40 (1935) has Charley living in an alternate universe where time literally stops, except for him. A visit to a shrink doesn’t help this pre-Twilight Zone sampling, especially since the psychiatrist is James Finlayson! In Vamp Till Ready (1936), Charley’s attractive but dull wife decides to to become a party gal – and likes it. And my favorite, Neighborhood House, (1936) co-directed by actor Alan Hale, has the Chases practically lynched as they always seem to win on Bank Night at their local movie theater.

The casts in the Chase shorts are top-tier comic and character actor pips. As one might suspect, many Roach contractees appear, most notably the already disclosed Finlayson, plus Charlie Hall, Tiny Sanford, Dick Alexander, Arthur Houseman, Dell Henderson, Fred Kelsey, Billy Gilbert, Max Davidson, Kewpie Morgan, and several Our Gang members (Spanky, Stymie, Alfalfa, Tommy Bond, Darla); perhaps, the best-known of this bunch is 1936’s On the Wrong Trek, undoubtedly because of the not-so-secret guest appearance by Laurel and Hardy. The Chase wives and girlfriends deserve their own special nod, too; they’re just wonderful, and include Joyce Compton, Rosina Lawrence, Constance Bergen, Wilma Cox, Jeanie Roberts, Andrea Leeds, Muriel Evans, and Dorothy Appleby. My favorite could be Betty Mack, who has sort of perky Mae Whitman vibe. We should also pay a tip of the hat to the comic’s actual teenage daughter, whom the wily Charley christened “Polly” (she wisely, changed her name from “Polly Parrott” to “Polly Chase,” although it must have been a rough childhood).

As indicated, Chase directed or codirected every title under his born name, Charles Parrott (his brother James was likewise a talented comedy director); I suspect the codirector duties (performed ably by William Terhune, Harold Law, Jefferson Moffitt, Walter Weems, Eddie Dunn) were required when Charley’s increasing benders kicked in (he would die of alcoholism in 1940). After 1936, Roach would go features-only, and cut Chase from his roster. The now-42-year-old comic eventually ended up where so many greats and near-greats went to die (the obvious exception being The 3 Stooges), at Columbia for a final series of very cheap, quickly-made two-reelers.

The remaining credits are aces, typical of Roach, and include photography by Francis Corby and Art Lloyd, editing by future three-time Oscar nominee William Ziegler (Auntie Mame, The Music Man, My Fair Lady) and, natch, those great Roach music scores by Leroy Shield and Marvin Hatley.

The quality of the VOLUME THREE DVDs is quite good, all brandishing the original MGM logos (some with the Film Classics tag, the TV distributor, burned in), in addition to a strong and buoyant mono audio. Extras include Huye, faldas!, a pre-dubbing Spanish language version of Chase’s 1930 pic Girl Shock, with the actors speaking phonetically, plus a still and poster gallery. There are also various audio commentaries by Richard M. Roberts, who produced the package along with Kit Parker.

A comedic visit definitely worth taking, CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES, VOLUME THREE is the perfect way to either begin any classic movie evening, or, better yet, present your own Charley Chase marathon.

CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES, VOLUME THREE. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1]; Mono audio. Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault/mvdvisual. CAT # MVD6013D. SRP: $39.95.