All posts by Mel Neuhaus

MEL NEUHAUS has spent the past three decades writing almost exclusively about and for his lifelong passion: the movies. His articles/interviews/reviews have appeared worldwide in such renowned publications and on-line sites as Turner Classic Movies, Home Theater, The Perfect Vision and Sound & Vision. He is the author of the crtically-acclaimed eBook "Gray Matter," a snarky look at the NYC fringe show biz populace. Raised by wolves in what is now known as Washington Heights, Mr. Neuhaus currently resides in Brooklyn.

We’re Gonna Need a Broader Church

There is a Loch Ness monster.  It’s just not of the infamous serpent variety; it’s a two-legged homo sapien maniac prowling the picturesque tourist attraction of the Scottish coast.  And it’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride of suspense and terror, beautifully produced and presented in a new Blu-Ray 2-disc set, appropriately entitled LOCH NESS (aka The Loch), now available from the folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.

Indeed, many of the blow-by-blow strings in this 2016 6-episode/2-disc gripping yarn emulate from the smash international success of its inspiration, the 2013 series Broadchurch. True, numerous imitation Broadchurchery has been scattered throughout the mystery mini-series universe since the original first appeared, but LOCH NESS, in my humble opinion, is the best.  In fact, in many ways this pupil is superior to its teacher.  A key factor in this decision has to do with the locale itself.  In Broadchurch, the seaside village was bleak, rather unpleasant and, granted, unnerving.  Here, the setting for these horrific crimes is gorgeous.  To my way of thinking, this makes the impact of the savagery even more shocking.

The people, on the other hand, are just as freakish in this scenario as in its mentor.  Once again, the protagonist is a rising star female detective (Laura Fraser) in the community.  And, once again, she is stymied by the arrival of a big city investigator, this time, a team – led by another formidable female sleuth (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran).  The conflicts, firings, re-hirings, and continuous discoveries are consistently exciting and engrossing – never letting up for any of the series’ six-episode 275 minute running time.  The mystique of Loch Ness, too, adds to the haunting paradoxical beauty and creepiness.

Homegirl fuzz Annie Redford (Fraser) thoroughly enjoys her work and lifestyle on the Loch.  Her husband (Coronation Street’s Gray O’Brien) makes a decent living scamming visitors on his “monster” boat tour.  Their daughter (Shona McHugh) has inherited the smarts from both her parents, and can hardly wait to leave for college and go all urban.

In a last-minute nod to her dad’s business (plus the opportunity to pull a cool gag), she and her teenage pals beach a fake monster, compiled of various animal entrails.  Problem is, upon closer investigation, some of these remains are human.  Soon, a well-liked teacher (Jordan McCurrach), is found murdered, then one of the local pranksters (Keiran Gallacher), and then…and then…More organ parts are uncovered, all belonging to different inhabitants.  And then there’s that (literally) heartless man, chained to the bottom of the Loch.

As the out-of-town detectives soon discover, everyone in the Loch has a secret – all of them heinous.  Aside from adultery, homophobia, rape, torture, drug abuse and sadism, there’s Annie’s knowledge that longtime kindly village fave (William Ash) is a convicted murderer.  Topping that off is the arrival of his psychotic former cellmate (Fraser James), bent on tracking him down and teaming up for a bloody crime spree.  Then there’s the concerned mom (Anita Vettesse) of an apparently severely handicapped soldier (Oliver Greenall), who is actually keeping the boy near brain death via toxic stimulants.  Then there’s the horrific high-school shooting massacre, perpetrated by yet another disturbed teen (Conor McCarry) obsessed with America (what a fucking sad comment that is on us, eh?).  The detectives themselves carry their own baggage, too, the rigid, short-tempered DCI Quigley (Finneran) and the brilliant forensic expert Blake Albrighton (Don Gilet), prone to violence – like thrashing a suspect (Alastair Mackenzie) he doesn’t like (in his defense, we don’t either).

The frightening conclusion of the piece will have you on the edge of your seat.  I guarantee you won’t see it coming, will never figure out who the psycho killer is (although, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense), and be ever quick to grab this gem to tantalize your home theater audiences, looking for a dazzling, breathtaking way to spend a rainy afternoon and/or the always welcome dark and stormy night.

The performances in LOCH NESS are top-notch, especially the leads, Fraser, Finneran and Gilet.  Appending the formidable acting chops is the superb writing by Stephen Brady and Chris Hurford; ditto the stunning photography by Denis Crossan and Nic Morris and the churning score by Ben Bartlett.  The shared direction of Brian Kelly and Cilla Ware seamlessly complement each other and masterfully triumphs in raising every goose bump to maximum level.

As usual, the Acorn Blu-Ray is showroom quality, meticulously detailed in 1080p High Definition clarity, offering a palette of hues and tones that our forebears used to cite as a riot of color.  The stereo-surround is often chilling and adds to the building tension of the narrative.

To enthusiastically recommend an Acorn title as one of their recent best is about as high a praise as any home video platter could aspire to.  Without reservation, I enthusiastically recommend LOCH NESS.

LOCH NESS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/itv Studios.  CAT # AMP-2579.  SRP:  $49.99.

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Simian Cinema

As any dedicated celluloid archeologist/anthropologist follower of the renowned Jules White knows:  anyone in a gorilla suit is funny.  This was something not specifically learned via the antics of Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, etc., or even the Eddie Bernds exploits of Slip and Sach, but from wherever and whenever the tag “lowbrow”was accepted as a badge of honor.  True, this phenomenon was even more riotous when the anthropoid in question was not intentionally supposed to be a dude (or babe) in a frisky hair suit, as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and even Karl Malden could soberly tell you.

Thus, it is no surprise that when a budding young upstart moviemaker by the name of John Landis decided to get his feet soaked in emulsion, he did so with joyous relish in a 1973 (filmed in 1971) low-low-budget debut feature aptly entitled SCHLOCK, now available in a meticulously restored Blu-Ray/DVD dual package Media Book from the German company Turbine Medien, GmbH.

For its cost and its special effects, SCHLOCK is remarkably technically sophisticated (the last time we’ll EVER use that word in this piece), and already paves the way for the director’s trademark gags:  background hilarity going on unbeknownst to the characters in the foreground, wild car zig-zags and flivver destruction.  All that stuff is here.

And how can anyone NOT love a movie that begins in a school playground strewn with the bodies of children and hippies, a death toll that brings a rash of local murders to 789 within three weeks.  This is ably reported by repulsive TV reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison), who likewise touts a body bag contest (how many complete people do the dismembered pieces actually contain?) and a plug for the town’s ubiquitous late-night movie attraction, See You Next Wednesday, an irresistible photoplay (boasting different plotlines during each mention), and featuring (in at least one incantation) Mickey Rooney trapped in a leper colony.  Oh, if only!

The perp of these horrible crimes, as paleontologist Professor Shlibovitz (E.G. Harty) informs us, is a Schlocktrapoid missing link (aka “Schlock”), a monstrous ape freed after millions of years in frozen suspended animation.  A key clue comes early when a surviving victim screams, “Bananas!  Bananas!,” therefore giving us psychotronic buffs the first of a gazillion references to classic horror and sci-fi pics (this one obviously being THEM!).  What follows is a loving homage to such standards as (natch) King Kong (and Konga), Frankenstein (and its sequels), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, countless AIP flicks, Japanese kaiju and even 2001 and Laurel & Hardy’s chaotic masterpiece of destruction Big Business.  According to Landis, however, the major influence on SCHLOCK was the 1970 Joan Crawford starrer Trog – itself a near-parody, but still much revered in the monster kitsch universe.

Also not surprising is that SCHLOCK was picked up for distribution by none other than Jack H. Harris, himself a mojo schlockmeister (he makes William Castle look like one of the Schuberts).  Harris’ claim to fame is being the moving (or sludging) force behind 1958’s The Blob and, to a lesser extent, 1960’s Dinosaurs! (no shock that after the mammoth success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Harris re-released SCHLOCK under the title Banana Monster, hyping Landis’ name and the “fact” that the movie was “Crazier than Monty Python, John Belushi & National Lampoon!”).  Indeed, when Schlock terrorizes the town, he seeks refuge in a movie theater playing a double bill of the Harris twofer – the scene becoming a parody of the actual similar moment in the Steve McQueen “classic” that takes place in a Bijou.  The major difference here is that a popcorn-loving Schlock seats himself next to an engrossed viewer, who just happens to be Forrest J. Ackerman.  And both enjoy the show.

The pivotal role of Schlock is played by Landis himself, and he seems to be having as much fun as the audience.  Landis wrote the picture as well, and gave a monstrous share of creative leeway to his new pal and burgeoning SFX artist Rick Baker, who designed the costume.  It was the shape of things to come, paving the way for their groundbreaking 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London.

The budget for SCHLOCK was estimated at around $60,000.  It really looks (at least in this fresh transfer) like money well spent (thumbs-up to d.p. Bob Collins).  It’s a spectacular restoration with bright, bubblegum colors (well representing the ugliest era in American movies) and clean mono sound.

The remainder of the cast is a game bunch, to be sure.  As Joe Putzman, Allison’s performance is revolting and condescending enough to get him a permanent gig on Fox News.  As the winner of the Body Baggers Body Count Contest, local school teacher Mrs. Blinerman, Enrica Blankley is cringe-worthy funny, as is Eliza Roberts, her blinded, beauteous bimbo daughter Mindy, who becomes the object of Schlock’s affection.  Kudos, too, to Saul Kahan as the freakish Detective Sgt. Wino, a sort of 1970’s version of Alexander Granach’s Renfield in Murnau’s 1922 production of Nosferatu.  And cheers to the nubile teen contingent, who perennially respond to their monkey attack plight with shrieks of “Oy!”

SCHLOCK contains over an hour of wonderful extras, including a 41-minute interview with Landis, Landis and Baker audio commentary, original and re-issue trailers, an interview with cameraman Collins, American radio spots, and more.  It’s also housed in a hardcover book jacket, featuring a lavishly illustrated discussion of the movie and its roots, as well as the careers of Landis and Baker (in both German and English).  There’s so much fascinating info here that one can barely pick which nuggets to cite.  I’ll cherry-pick two:  that Baker was still living with his parents when this movie commenced, and that Landis had previously gained experience by farming himself out to European productions as cheap labor, working as a stuntman on a number of international productions, including Once Upon a Time in the West.  Who knew?  Landis even skewers the often pretentious Special Edition Director Introductions that plague many a Blu-Ray/DVD.  In all of ten seconds, he notifies the camera “You’re about to watch SCHLOCK.  I’m sorry.”

As indicated above, the folks at Turbine have done a marvelous job with this title.  I vividly recall the trailers looking like Super 8 blown-up.  This version absolutely resembles a 35MM print (which it may not have originally been).  Landis, too, was stunned by the quality of the final result.

Of course, SCHLOCK helped send Landis and Baker on their respective ways, but also was as influential to such subsequent American movie comedy as SNL, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  SCHLOCK‘s follow-ups, Kentucky Fried Movie and other shoestring entries as The Groove Tube, gave creative freedom to the likes of the Zucker Brothers, Jim Abrahams and others.   The hilarious payoffs would culminate in such laff essentials as Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, and, in Landis’ case, the aforementioned Animal House, American Werewolf, plus The Blues Brothers and Trading Places.  And it all began here.

NOTE:  This is a limited numbered edition of 2000.  No doubt this title will be sold out rather quickly, so it’s best to order your copy ASAP.  It can be purchased through Amazon (via their German arm); or simply Google SCHLOCK Blu-Ray Limited Edition and/or Turbine Video.  I should mention that the jacket claims that the B-D is Region B (playable only outside of the States, unless you have an all-region machine).  This is false; the set is A, B and C, and will play anywhere.

SCHLOCK.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Dual Limited Edition of 2000 Media Book, also includes DVD version.  Turbine Medien GmbH. CAT# 9485651.  SRP: $39.99.

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Bogie, Betty, Blue-Ribbon Blu-Rays

Not simply recommended, but MANDATORY editions to any classic movie collector’s library are the quartet of terrific pics Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made for Warner Bros. between 1944-48.  All are now available on extremely economical new Blu-Rays from the Warner Archive Collection.

Of course, this is an easy gig for me, as I don’t have to acquaint anybody born within the last seventy years or so with these classics.  They redefine celebrity star power, movie-making expertise and genres (mostly, film noir); in short, veritable textbook patterns for Hollywood’s Golden Age at its most garl’dernest goldenest.

In case you’ve been in Captain America coma land, the four in question are TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE and KEY LARGO.  Indeed, all have been readily available in decent DVD renditions for some time (even the old laserdiscs weren’t too shabby).  So why offer ’em up again?  Blu-Ray!  Truth be told, folks, there’s no comparison.  It’s as if the four have just blown in on freshly lensed celluloid.  The clarity, the detail, the contrast, the multi-leveled texture…all of that and more brings out the superb artistry of those in front of and behind the cameras.  These 35MM transfers accentuate the thesps’ histrionics, but also display first-rate cinematography, lighting, set and art direction, wardrobe and, natch, direction – each at the very essence of cinematic epoch.  The crisp, clear audio ain’t chopped liver, either.

But the know-it-all in me is pushing to say at least something on these must-have titles, so here goes!

 

Howard Hawks was truly an American star-maker.  Well, perhaps personality-maker is more accurate.  When one thinks of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Katharine (gag me) Hepburn, it’s generally the way they act and react in a Hawks movie.  This holds true for Humphrey Bogart, or, to be specific, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  They became (and remain) an iconic Hollywood couple.  And it’s all due to Howard Hawks.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT began, according to the often Commander McBragg part of Hawks’ “creative” revisionist brain, as part of a bet between the director and author Ernest Hemingway.  “Give me your worst story, and I’ll spin it into movie gold,” Hawks told Hemingway.  “That’s easy,” the writer replied.  He tossed him TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, sprinkled with his own critical expletives.  Again, according to Hawks.

The movie was changed from an American fisherman on the California coast to an American soldier of fortune fisherman in a Vichy-controlled French colony.  Nineteen-year-old model-turned-actress Bacall, coached by Hawks’ then wife Slim (a nickname Bacall’s character is called in the movie), was unleashed on the Warner Bros. lot, and when her smoky eyes met Bogie’s bloodshot lids, the fireworks went off.  It’s absolutely true that one can see the pair panting with genuine lust that evolves into everlasting love as the movie progresses.  By wrap time, they were a not-so-secret item that the Warners publicity department thanked the Gods in heaven for.  Coupled with some classic dialog (you know, that “whistle” line, etc.), courtesy of a rare script outing by William Faulkner (along with Hawks and von Sternberg favorite scribe Jules Furthman), plus a dynamite supporting cast (including Hawks favorite supporting actor Walter Brennan), and the pic had blockbuster written all over it.

 

Hawks, who was desperate to do a Southern gothic vampire horror movie (to be written by William Faulkner), was promised by Jack Warner to get the green light for Dreadful Hollow (the working title) if he delivered another Bogie-Bacall special.  The director lassoed Faulkner, along with Leigh Brackett, to create one of the most intoxicating, confusing and brilliant noirs ever made, the ultimate adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP.  With growing fascination about the star couple escalating even beyond the studio’s dreams, the final cut proved a bit disappointing.  Although it had already gone out to our troops in the South Pacific, Warners suits, including the pic’s associate producer (J.L. himself) felt the movie lacked “…something.”  That something was more Bogie-Bacall mojo (this didn’t stop our servicemen hooting and screaming in jubilant ecstasy whenever Bacall slinked upon the sheets stretched across jungle banyan trees).  A year after the movie was completed, Warners put the title back in production, an unusual and expensive move that nevertheless reaped a goodly share of the 1946 box-office harvest. Key to the pic’s unprecedented success was the addition of the now-legendary sexual horse-race byplay between the Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) characters.

Hawks never got to make his Dreadful Hollow movie, nor any further Bogart-Bacall outings.  The former was due to the fact that Jack L. Warner was a bigger liar than Hawks, the latter essentially an unpleasant incident at one of the director’s parties.  In front of Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske), Hawks made a crude anti-Semitic remark.  Bogie stepped forward, but Betty stopped him.  “Let’s just leave.” They did, and never had any contact with the director again.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP represent the pinnacle of 1940s popcorn art.  They are quintessential titles for the stars, the director, the genres and the history of Warner Bros.  To reiterate, I have NEVER seen these two movies looking as fantastic as they do in these new Warners blu-rays.  D.P. Sid Hickox has been rewarded after years – decades, really – of marginally acceptable (and frequently downright awful) prints.  Added to this is the cache of extras on each disc.  TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT contains a documentary on the two leads, the 1946 Technicolor Bob Clampett Merrie Melodies WB cartoon Bacall to Arms, a Lux Radio broadcast of the piece (with Bogie and Betty) and the trailer.  THE BIG SLEEP takes supplements to another level, including BOTH versions of the movie, plus an exhaustively researched documentary, hosted by Robert Gitt, that examines the two editions of the Hawks work that is fascinating to the nth degree.

 

1947’s DARK PASSAGE is the sick child of the quartet.  By that I mean it was the least successful at the box office, and the movie that (at the time) bore the brunt of a critical backlash.  I’ve always loved it.  Today, it’s considered a noir masterpiece, and rightly so.  It also proved to be the cornerstone of the Delmer Daves following, most deservedly due to the innovative, on-location visual storytelling.  The plot, which writer/director Daves derived from a fantastic David Goodis novel, concerns a wrongly accused wife-murderer who escapes from San Quentin and hooks up with a variety of mysterious (and lethal) dames before hitting upon the answers that could likely solve the case and vindicate him.  His coincidentally-on-purpose connecting with a sultry artist (and shacking up in her abode) blossoms into true lust/love, but not before he must make some difficult decisions – like using plastic surgery to change his appearance.  Only in film noir can a guy on the run meet a cab driver who knows a defrocked doc who performs illegal operations at three in the morning.  It’s moments like these that give me hope for our troubled world.

The accused, one Vincent Parry, is, of course, Bogie, and Irene Jansen, the amorous babe, be Bacall.  The neat device of having the camera play POV Parry for the first half of the movie (where Bogart supposedly looks like character actor Frank Wilcox, shown in a newspaper photo from his trial) is what soured Jack Warner on DARK PASSAGE.  He claimed not showing Bogart (although we hear him) for such a long duration is what killed the movie’s potential box-office take.  The weird fact is that the identical procedure was done the same year at MGM and by star-director Robert Montgomery for his Phillip Marlowe noir Lady in the Lake (it wasn’t a big draw during its initial release either).

But DARK PASSAGE holds up way better than Lake, and is thoroughly thrilling from fade-in to fade-out.  It also boasts a magnificent supporting cast, including Agnes Moorehead, in possibly her greatest screen role.  Others of note are Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea (as that cabbie), House Peters (as the unlicensed plastic surgeon) and, my favorite, comic Clifton Young as one of noir’s sleaziest and detestable individuals (think of a satanic hybrid of Richard Widmark and Troy Donahue).  Young was the comedian/actor best-known for his multiple turns in the popular Warners Joe McDoakes shorts, starring George O’Hanlon.  Sadly, he never really followed up his ace portrayal here, and, even more depressingly, died at age 33, rumored to a suicide.

DARK PASSAGE has it all:  dames, tough guys, violence, sinister surgeons, wiseguy hacks and even a jazz-music subplot – all beautifully wrapped up in a mean-streets black-and-white celluloid package by the ubiquitous Hickox (the music by Franz Waxman is another plus).  After THE BIG SLEEP, this is often the Bogart-Bacall title most requested by fans (especially those who lean toward noir).  In short, time has aged this vintage flick quite well, joining the throngs of debut flop classics, Vertigo, Marnie, Sweet Smell of Success, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Ace in the Hole, The Red Badge of Courage and others.  The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic, and is appended by some neat extras, including the documentary Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers and the sensational “all-star” 1947 Technicolor Warners Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare (featuring Bogie & Baby).

 

1948’s KEY LARGO has always been the most problematic Bogart-Bacall title for me.  And that rested solely on the eons of lousy prints I suffered through during what are laughingly called my formative years.  Agreed, this is firmly relegated to the murky, gray 16MM copies that were screened throughout the 1960s and early 1970s on WNEW-TV, here in New York.  To put it mildly, the negligible visuals were a turnoff. Trust me, as much as a spectacular print can elevate a mediocre movie, a bad print can ruin a great one.  KEY LARGO is a great one.

The screenplay, based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, and updated to post-WWII America by director John Huston and Richard Brooks, is a tense, hellish swan dive into film noir.  A disturbed ex-Army officer, Frank McCleod (Bogart), visits the title Key Largo locale, residence of a hotel, owned by the father and widow of his deceased friend who served under his command.  It’s off-season, and the fishing resort is populated by a gaggle of big city lowlifes, who ostensibly are there to monopolize the wide open deep sea opportunities.  Ain’t so.

The group of aliases comprise a ferocious mob, led by an illegally returned deportee, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson, in, possibly his most loathsome role – one that makes Little Caesar look like a Hugh Herbert gag reel).

The conflicts and body language that during my adolescence I viewed as “too talky” are, in actuality, lip-biting riveting.  The interplay between the stellar cast is extraordinary; undeniably, LARGO easily contains the finest roster of board-trodders in any Bogart-Bacall outing.  Aside from the three already mentioned, there’s a non-over-the-top Lionel Barrymore, Tomas Gomez, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, John Rodney, Monte Blue, John Litel, Jay Silverheels, and, best of all, Claire Trevor, in her Oscar-winning performance as a one-time primo torch singer reduced to an alcoholic wretch by Robinson’s character.  Indeed, we learn that Rocco is not only a vicious mob ruler, but a pathological liar, racist, sexual predator (the moment when he merrily whispers a personal request into Bacall’s ear is particularly stomach-turning), and, maybe even a traitor.  The snarky possibility discussed during the proceedings (“Let him be President”) is thus contemporarily cringe worthy.

The inevitable showdown aboard a fog-bound boat headed toward Cuba is as suspenseful a vignette of revenge as ever captured on perforated film (it’s interesting to think of the two male adversaries in Bullets or Ballots, filmed twelve years earlier, where the good guy/bad guy roles were switched).  I have never more enjoyed a cinematic instance of the tables being turned.  Nevertheless there’s a sick moment where Bogart seems to relish the sadism he now issues as payback:  one shot, one expression, Bogart and Huston at their best.

The mindset in McCleod’s head seems to muster up the courage to romantically pursue his friend’s widow and to reside in the remote rural spot he can comfortably call home, “home being Key Largo” as he earlier intones.  As with all noir and most Huston pics, there are no guarantees.  To find out if he makes it, you’ll have to take a chance on this exquisite Blu-Ray.  The gorgeous contrast, 1080p crystal clarity and the pristine 35mm quality makes watching this platter (especially if one is lucky enough to do so on a big screen) replicate seeing this picture during the first week of its 1948 debut.  The Blu-Ray does monumental justice to Karl Freund’s blistering black-and-white photography; the audio does likewise to Max Steiner’s excellent churning music.  Ditto, the superb special effects by Robert Burks and William McGann and the haunting, eerily beautiful Florida location work.   It’s a perfect finale to the Bogart-Bacall quadrumvirate.

For Warner Bros., the ocean-engulfed KEY LARGO represented a literal high-water mark for the studio.  Bogart and Huston became Jack Warner’s heroes.  Aside from LARGO, 1948 also produced Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  It was the best year Warners had in a long time.  The usually stingy with praise J.L. admittedly doled out kudos to the actor and director for just short of saving the company.

 

All movies are black-and-white, full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definiton] with 2.0 DTS-HD MA. SRP: @$21.99.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT  [CAT # 1000600530]

THE BIG SLEEP  [CAT# 1000595077]

DARK PASSAGE  [CAT# 1000574975]

KEY LARGO  [CAT# 1000595079]

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

 

3-D Triangle: Cunning with Scissors

Like the adrenalin pumping through the delighted and aroused murderous veins of Ray Milland’s Tony Wendice character, I’m thrilled to death to be able to own a 3-D edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 chiller DIAL M FOR MURDER, now on Blu-Ray (in one 3-D/2-D package) from Warner Home Video.

For eons this has been a Holy Grail lip-smacking fantasy disc perennially invading the perverse dreams of Hitchcock fans and 3-D buffs. I was once privileged to have seen a flawless polarized two-projected version in the early 1980s (at a now-legendary 8th Street Cinema 3-D Fest); ever since then, the movie, which I had up till that point considered marginal Hitch, rose in stature.

It’s groovy to see critics, now exposed to the movie as originally intended, re-evaluating it with a plethora of platitudes – the boldest actually being an Eighties Andrew Sarris declaration that in 3-D, DIAL M is “major Hitchcock.” While I don’t quite agree with that (sorry, scribes, but it can’t compare with Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest or Psycho), I do admit that it is far more important with the carefully constructed third-dimensional imagery on brilliant display. And the specially-composed shots ARE brilliant.

Hitch, who, not surprisingly, avoided the obvious tricks of throwing crap at the camera, studied the process with great scholarly interest. As with the use of long takes in Rope and montage in Rear Window, Hitchcock figured out the pros and cons of 3-D and how to utilize the illusion to the ultimate effect.

The movie, based on an internationally acclaimed play by Frederick Knott (who adapted the work for the screen), concerns the insidious, homicidal plans of a cuckolded husband (a once-famed tennis celeb, now reduced to a sportswear pitchman). Upon the discovery that his gorgeous, rich and younger wife is an adulteress (and, insult to injury, not only schtupping a writer, but an American TV writer!), Tony Wendice sadly realizes his only option: devise a way to fiendishly murder her. And fiendish it is – I mean, George Sanders would…well, have killed to come up with it.

Since most of the movie takes place in the couple’s apartment, it presented a keep-their-attention challenge for the director. Since he had beautifully done this before (Rope, Rear Window, the latter released later that year), Hitchcock, once fully 3-D savvy, rehearsed the picture as if it were a Hollywood stage production and quickly knocked off the entire project in a mere thirty-six days. Hitch himself never thought much of it, sloughing it off to Francois Truffaut’s in the French director’s landmark 1966 Hitchcock/Truffaut book with “There really isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?”  The movie was a last-minute straw-clutcher, replacing a Warners property the director was very much interested in (The Bramble Bush), but, which upon prepping, went cold.  So disdainful of DIAL M was Hitch that he did the unthinkable – he made the final picture of his Warners contract (The Wrong Man) for no salary!  A nutty move indeed, since DIAL M proved a box-office bonanza, with audiences and critics. By May of 1954, when the picture was released, America’s 3-D addiction had gone to rehab.  The movie was generally distributed “flat,” and (with the possible exception of select dates in the UK) not shown in 3-D at all outside of the United States.  Suffice to say, that, even in standard 2-D, DIAL M delivers the big entertainment.

Milland and Grace Kelly, the latter who would win untold accolades for this and two other high-profile ’54 offerings (Rear Window and her Oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl), are terrific as the Wendices; third wheel Robert Cummings, not so much as the aggressive lover (if each were to assume one of the three dimensions, his would certainly not be depth). Yet, the weird chemistry between the trio is astonishing – and can’t be wholly attributed to the Master of Suspense. While Kelly and Cummings are respectively amiable (the way her deteriorating relationship should be with Milland), it’s kinda all topsy-turvy when it comes to her adoring devotion to the spouse her Margot character is cheating on, her contact with Milland is fifty shades of Ray.  And for good reason: Kelly and Milland were involved in a torrid affair throughout the production and shortly afterward, enough to almost railroad the actor’s twenty-year-plus marriage. It’s impossible to not notice her goo-goo eyes at every move Milland makes, even in lieu of his eventual revealing of his dastardly plans. This bizarre aspect adds to the movie’s strangeness-of-attraction theme. One never can really fathom how Kelly could ever prefer Cummings to Milland (early casting rumors of William Holden would have remedied that to some extent).

The supporting players, on the other hand, are superb: John Williams, who became a big Hitchcock favorite (appearing in To Catch a Thief and numerous episodes of the director’s smash TV series), is wonderful as the inspector who unravels Milland’s complex web of deceit and evil. Anthony Dawson as the dupe, chosen by Milland to carry out his wife-killin’ plot, instantly becomes one of the great (if not pathetic) faces of movie villainy (his nastiness would be further cemented by his later appearance in Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer classic Curse of the Werewolf, as the sadistic Marquis, sans chimps).

Of course, as with all best-laid plans (and, in this case, wives), it all goes wrong, propelling Milland into think-fast-Mr.-Moto mode, which he does with (gotta say it) genius.

Not to give away any of goodies (for those who have never it, or, who haven’t seen in a while), let me say that to be able to view this picture in a pristine widescreen, three-dimensional, restored WarnerColor version will have you Hitchcock/mystery fans salivating (if that’s your wont), so keep your drool cups handy.

The 3-D effects, ranging from subtle to awesome, comprise Hitch’s playing with his audience. In homage to the vehicle’s stage roots, he occasionally uses high-angle shots, which, in 3-D, resemble watching a play from a coveted balcony seat. Eye-level alternatives almost literally seem to place viewers in the brightly-lit Wendice apartment (perfect for both 3-D and WarnerColor, as each required increased amounts of light – the former to compensate for the picture-on-picture dual presentation, the latter to kick up the otherwise dull results of the studio’s lackluster color system).  As the director told Truffaut, “I had them make a pit so that the camera could be at floor level.”

The director and 3-D really come into their own with shots of an attacked Kelly reaching her arm out at the audience, as she’s spread over a desk. This is further accentuated when she grasps a pair of soon-to-be-lethal sewing shears (the scissors themselves, an all-important latchkey, and an oversized-constructed telephone are likewise serve as swell third-dimension props).

A later sequence, when Williams questions Kelly, is also third-dimension remarkable for its framing (correctly in multiple planes of action). As the wily inspector asks the confused and frazzled woman about the killing, Milland walks back and forth behind the police detective, shooting reminding glances at his wife/victim (to stick to a prepared alibi/scenario, which will ultimately condemn her). It truly shows how sophisticated 3-D could be (and, sadly, rarely was).

Everything about this Blu-Ray is A+:  the clarity of Robert Burks’ fine cinematography, the 3-D alignment, and, lastly, the audio (featuring Dimitri Tiomkin’s booming score).  A special documentary (Hitchcock and DIAL M), and the original trailer round out this tasty home video confection (wrapped in an incredibly cool lenticular 3-D slipcover).  It is nothing short of a memorable and engrossing movie experience, one that I have no doubt will be (and should be) frequently revisited.

Knott’s works relied upon apartment-trapped women in peril (Wait, Until Dark comes immediately to mind), yet it’s difficult for me to have any sympathy for Kelly’s Margot. She married a celebrity, who then petered out, and had to reinvent himself (admittedly, with lesser results). Then she hooks up with some flashy TV dude.

Not that I’m saying that murder is the answer, but I do kinda feel sorry for Milland (well, Milland’s character). It’s gratifying to know that he’ll never spend more than a few years in prison for a premeditated murder that never came off.

As with all noteworthy plays/books/movies, DIAL M had me a-thinking (perhaps way too much) regarding the futures of the lead characters in later life.  Allow me to reflect.

Mark Halliday: Moved back to Hollywood with new wife Margot. Had three children (all deceased by the early 1970s, a result of booze, drugs and STDs). Writing career faltered (last-known credit, two episodes of The Baileys of Balboa). Divorced Margot in 1967. Moved to Vegas, subsequently married six more times (all chorus girls). Died in 1989, a combination of alcoholism and Alzheimer’s.

Margot Wendice-Halliday: Began a series of affairs amongst the Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive crowd. Started drinking heavily. After divorcing Halliday, jet-setted to Europe and Barbados. Briefly became aging squeeze to Keith Moon. OD’d in 1974.

Tony Wendice: While incarcerated wrote his memoirs, which erupted into mammoth worldwide bestseller. Met gorgeous Brazilian model in 1959, heiress to 100 million dollar rum empire.  Married in 1960. Moved to wife’s home in South America; had six children, all doctors and professors. Annually gave vast fortunes to charities around the globe.  Early proponent of climate change. Celebrated 100th birthday in 2009, and 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 (with family, friends and sixty-seven grand-and-great-grandchildren in attendance). Has never plotted to kill anyone else.

Like I said, too much time.

DIAL M FOR MURDER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. 1.01 DTS-HA MA.  Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000298479.  SRP:  $35.99.

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Space Oddity

I didn’t think anything could startle me more than when Vinegar Syndrome released a Blu-Ray restoration of Dolemite.  Well, they’ve outdone themselves – and in the best way possible.  In a (pseudo) guilty pleasure come true, this awesome company has released one of my seminal coming-of-age wants, 1982’s erotic, surreal New York sci-fi horror/sex classic LIQUID SKY.  And, in its stunning new 4K Blu-Ray (dual format, includes a high-definition DVD version) redux, this schlocker-shocker looks better than ever.

For those of you unfamiliar with LIQUID SKY, allow me to nostalgically glide back to that euphoric fantasyland known as 1980s New York (or, more precisely, early 1980s New York).  If you were over eighteen and under thirty (and not dead or incarcerated), you were clubbing and grooving to the cool new sounds of music that seethed with retro beats, and pretty much left caution to the wind.  You might have also been partaking in the heavy drug scene, which is the focus of this deliriously foggy celluloid flashback.

LIQUID SKY is not only a quintessential time capsule of that period, it’s a clever artiste-fueled exploitation movie that captures the feel of that era via an outrageous, psychotronic narrative involving an alien invasion as the cherry on top of the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll scenario.  It’s a movie that is as comfortable in a Times Square grindhouse as it is at the Anthology Film Archives.

The minuscule-budgeted pic was the brainchild of ingenious Soviet-born avante-garde/independent filmmaker Slava Tsukerman and his wife, Nina V. Kerova, recent emigres (1976) from Israel, who glommed onto the American culture scene via an overabundance of cinema expertise.  LIQUID SKY, the formidable Tsukerman tour de force, is remarkable on so many levels, but primarily for the fact that it is the product of feminist ideology, acted, cowritten and largely crewed and produced by women.  It is, in this area, a fuck you to every wannabe Harvey Weinstein, a revenge movie that insidiously zeroes in on predators of not necessarily solely females, but of youth.

At the core of LIQUID SKY is its protagonist, a beauteous, androgynous model, Margaret, portrayed by the astounding actress/model/writer/artist Anne Carlisle, who lives in a lower Manhattan apartment with her sometime lover, ruthless drug-dealer Adrian (an outstanding performance by Paula E. Sheppard; think Aubrey Plaza possessed by Joe Pesce).

Indeed, when I initially saw the posters for LIQUID SKY in the early 1983, I thought, “Damn, that David Bowie is unstoppable.”  Of course, I was wrong.  It was Carlisle gracing the one-sheets (although a sly reference to Bowie is made late in the picture).  Friends who attended Midnight Showings enthusiastically reported to me that Carlisle seemed to be channeling Mimsy Farmer, which immediately sent me racing to the next screening.  I did see the connection, particularly in the vocal delivery, and it’s certainly possible that Carlisle had seen More.  Looking at the movie in retrospect, Margaret and Carlisle can best be defined as a serendipitous gene splice of Farmer and Emma Thompson.  Hubba-hubba.

In the modeling world and the partying world (an often blurred line during those equally blurred times), Margaret’s chief nemesis is bad boy gay model Jimmy (also played by Carlisle).  Their rivalry and ultimate violent coital clash is one of cinema’s ultimate WTF moments.

What propels LIQUID SKY as far into the mainstream as it dares to go is the aforementioned crafty subplot involving a Johann, a German scientist (Otto von Wernherr) tracking an alien invasion.  He arrives in New York and hooks up with fetching Jewish promoter Sylvia (Susan Doukas), who along with an insatiable hunger for Chinese food, also harbors a lust for Jimmy.  Johann moves his investigation into Sylvia’s apartment across the street from Adrian’s drug haven, and, telescopic sights in hand, prepares to observe the tiny spaceship (the aliens are not only microscopic, but invisible – a big SFX saving).  Skeptical Sylvia inquires as to the rationale behind the invasion.  And his explanation is mind-blowing:  they are eternally looking for the greatest high:  heroin (slang term:  liquid sky).  Knowing that this substance is lethal, they have discovered that the sensation at climatic sexual orgasm is identical to the horse buzz.  Thus, they have targeted and inhabited human organisms who thrive on sex in all its incarnations.  Unfortunately for the humans, the orgasmic release causes the lover of the host to die a horrible death; at first, this is evident by a stylish glass stiletto popping through their head.  As the sexual experimentation grows, the happy vics are simply turned into shards of breakable matter that dissolves into nothingness upon impact.

Not surprisingly, this hypothesis causes the ever-increasingly horny Syl to question her guest’s sanity.  Except that it’s all true, and unfolds into LIQUID SKY‘s Rear Window sidebar, that is if that Hitchcock masterpiece were codirected by John Waters and Stan Brakhage.

Meantime, Margaret is pensively questioning her choices.   Fucking her college professor (causing his demise) prompts her and Adrian to box up the body like a return mail-order catalog item.  When a client of the latter, who had earlier raped Margaret, too, receives a similar fate, the bisexual model becomes understandably unnerved.  During a swinging rooftop party, inhabited by druggies and video artists, Margaret reveals and then proves her fears to the snarky guests.  Yet, the cheeky-chic-kees remains unconvinced in their stoned state, causing  Margaret to be systematically assaulted by an angered Adrian, pissed that her party is turning into such a downer.  The end lesbian result (also the most sensuous sexual encounter in the picture) finally convinces the partyers that all is not right.  By now, Margaret becomes the epitome of the adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and wants to go clubbing with the startled revelers.  As Margaret sees it, she is now the voice of all women who have ever been stepped on; she decrees that it is her duty to wreak vengeance on every man who has ever done her dirt.  And since she’s now in her burgeoning insanity fuck-to-death mode, Margaret, after a pregnant pause, adds that she will then go after the women.  An equal opportunity alien monster psychopath debaucher if ever there was one.

It’s not at all out of the realm to call LIQUID SKY prophetic.  It very clearly relates a tale of strange deaths that seem to plague gays and drug addicts, at least three years before the AIDS epidemic became known and was given a name.

The lush look and sound of LIQUID SKY is phenomenal, especially considering its budget, and Vinegar Syndrome has gone the limit in preparing this terrific 1080p widescreen transfer.  The disc is crystal-clear, exploding with neon pop and pastel colors so indicative of the decade.  I was pleasantly joyful to discover that the movie got a laserdisc release back in the mid-1980s; of course, this in no way compares to the marvelous job VS has done with the Blu-Ray in 2018.  It is a sight-and-sound platter monument to the excellent work of d.p. Yuri Neyman and composers Clive Smith, Brenda I Hutchinson (along with Tsukerman).  The script by Tsukerman (truly and auteur), Carlisle and Kerova genuinely tackles the horrific freakish beauty of the embryonic 1980s.  And the dialog is concurrently subversive and hilarious (“If you fuck me, you die!,” extolls an omnipotent Margaret. “I’m a killer.  I kill with my cunt!”).

Having a pristine copy of LIQUID SKY would be enough for the pic’s legions of fans, as well as sci-fi buffs and 1980s archeologists.  But that’s merely the beginning of this remarkable Collector’s Edition.  There are over 2 1/2 hours of original extras included in this package, and feature a director’s intro and audio commentary (plus an interview), a recent screening Q & A with Tsukerman, Carlisle and Clive Smith, a 50-minute “making of” documentary, featuring rare behind-the-scenes outtakes, a photo gallery, an alternate opening, reversible jacket art (including that 1983 “Bowie” imagery) and various LS trailers.  The most valuable and replay-able (at least for moi) supplement is a recent interview with Carlisle, who accurately chronicles the era, the movie, the characters and herself – proving that the LIQUID SKY success was definitely not an accident.  At a time when getting into the Biz (as much then as now) was a cliquey affair, and therefore, next to impossible, it was fortunate for so many talented individuals to be part of a culture that briefly allowed one’s self to be living performance art (the makeup, outfits, ‘dos).  Carlisle rightly chides the critics who call the pic a punk fest, as it was, in effect, a New Wave movie in every aspect of the phrase.  This is the truism of the LIQUID SKY legacy – a dangerous influential creation whose spot-on depiction of the early Eighties club scene was later bubblegum-hijacked by the Working Girl crowd.  Damn, I miss those days!

LIQUID SKY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  ALL REGION Blu-Ray.  Vinegar Syndrome/Z Films.  CAT # VS-200.  SRP:  $32.98.

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Paramount 3-D Peaks

When one thinks of the groundbreaking players during Hollywood’s 1950s 3-D Golden Age, the name Warner Bros. usually comes to light (deservedly, because of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder), and, to a lesser extent, Universal (primarily due to two Jack Arnold sci-fi classics, It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon).

What I’m getting at is that the lofty major studio of Adolph Zukor, aka Paramount Pictures, rarely is thought of as a 3-D mover and shaker; yet, as with so many Tinsel Town fables, this is egregiously incorrect.  Paramount not only dove into the 3-D pool with a fervor unlike much of its competition, but achieved many firsts in the process.  For one thing, it lassoed top-line stars to be seen in stereoscopic dimensions.  Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine appeared in the thriller Flight to Tangier.  More so, Martin & Lewis, the number-one box-office attractions in the country, jumped out atcha in Money from Home.  But that’s not where their prime contribution to the depth-defying universe ended.  Paramount was the first studio to film 3-D in three-strip Technicolor (Sangaree, just announced as an upcoming Blu-Ray later this year), and commendably released the first musical in the 3-D and also the first (sorta) documentary feature in three dimensions.

These 3-D nods to the process’s amazing array of entertainment possibilities, to realism and to cinematographic artistry can all be enjoyed and relished by the format’s legions of fans via two recent releases from Kino-Classics in conjunction with The 3-D Film Archive (and, natch, Paramount Pictures).  It’s, thus, a pleasure to be able to have viewed and to discuss the outstanding Blu-Rays of 1953 titles, THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE and CEASE FIRE, a pair of must-haves for any 3-D devotee.

The producers of each of these titles are every much as big a star as the leads or the process.  They were, for various reasons, legends at Paramount.  REDHEADS producers William Pine and William Thomas had begun working for DeMille before siphoning off into their own budget-friendly pics (they were known as the Dollar Bills, and for a very good reason).  Nevertheless their output never looked cheap, and they were quick to latch on to whatever promotional advantage could fuel their productions into the big(ger) leagues.  Affordable Technicolor came first, then 3-D, and later VistaVision, all used admirably by these slick skinflints.

 

REDHEADS, as indicated, was not only the first 3-D musical, but the initial Paramount title to be released in the new widescreen format.  In order to achieve the former, the Bills had to rush the picture into theaters ahead of MGM’s Kiss Me, Kate.  In his collectable (but now hopelessly outdated) 1989 volume 3-D Movies, author R.M. Hayes actually preferred REDHEADS to Kate, even going as far as claiming the score to be superior.  Admittedly, while Hayes knows his stuff technically, there’s no way THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE is a better musical than Kiss Me, Kate.  And certainly, while the songs, genuinely tuneful and pleasant ditties by such luminaries as Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Mack David, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, do serve the narrative well, they ain’t Cole Porter.  On the other hand, purely in stereoscopic terms, REDHEADS is a better 3-D musical than Kate, with director/cowriter Lewis R. Foster utilizing the length, width and depth possibilities way more imaginatively than George Sidney.  Of course, it’s not perfect.

Where Foster gets it wrong is where many novices to 3-D bungled it:  trying to fake the depth with rear-screen projection thrills.  In actuality, this only accentuated the phoniness of the situation.  Where Foster gets it right is via tracking shots of the bevy of shapely dancehall girls kicking up their legs into the audience.  In a rather sly wink to the viewers expecting a girly surprise during the rightfully raucous dance numbers, it is character actor Roscoe Ates who gets thrown into the likely ungrateful laps of panting patrons.

The movie, as scripted by Foster, Daniel Mainwaring (under the alias Geoffrey Holmes) and George Worthing Yates, concerns the Edmondses, a widow and her grown all-girl brood, who journey toward the Klondike to hopefully reap the rewards of the deceased husband’s inheritance.  The town is corkscrew crooked, run by slick entrepreneur Johnny Kisco.  Natch, he falls for one of the goils, with his underlings going ga-ga for the others.

The cast was pretty impressive for what essentially was a low-budget affair.  Queen of Technicolor Rhonda Fleming was on her way to likewise becoming the Queen of 3-D (this would be the first of her three flirtations with the process before it was phased out).  Mother Edmonds is Agnes Moorehead and is another notable process Queen, as she is one of the few thesps (and the only actress) to have appeared in both 3-D and Cinerama, along with Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Lee J. Cobb and John Wayne.

The songs are belted out by the extremely smart Your Hit Parade casting of Guy Mitchell, The Bell Sisters, and particularly, Teresa Brewer, known for her classic rendition of “Music, Music, Music.”  Brewer’s socko delivery makes one wonder why she wasn’t in more movies, although it’s likely television and nightclubs occupied most of her star time (the Paramount music department, utilizing the efforts of Leo Shuken, Sidney Cutner, Van Cleave, Jack Baker and Joseph J. Lilley, was working overtime in scoring and arrangements).

Gene Barry as Kisco was concurrently the most delighted and frustrated cast member.  A wannabee singer, he, along with Moorehead, were the only two leads NOT to be given a chance to warble.

Kino Studio Classics and the 3-D Film Archive have, once again, given us our money’s worth and then some.  The 3-D Blu-Ray is such a fun spin, even without the extras.  But there ARE extras, and they’re wonderful.  The audio, originally 3-channel stereophonic sound, has been restored (the tracks are also accessible in mono).  There’s the theatrical trailer and audio commentary by Hillary Hess, Greg Kintz, Jack Theakston and Bob Furmanek).  The commentary, plus a before-and-after restoration comparison, is mandatory to demonstrate how much work went into this presentation.  The elements were in fairly risible shape, and the final results here are quite remarkable.  While some of the background registration remains a bit off, almost all of the main foreground action looks great in 3-D, occasionally even spectacular (a fine testament to the work of d.p. Lionel Lindon)

My favorite extra is a 2006 interview with star Fleming, captured during a 3-D Archive theatrical showing of REDHEADS.  Fleming admits that she had never seen the picture in 3-D (“I kept making them…” but can’t remember ever seeing them released any way other than in the standard flat versions).  When interviewed again after the screening, the actress gleefully beams, “3-D really makes that film come alive!” — as terrific a booster for 3-D Archive’s labors and for this rollicking platter as one could want. And absolutely true.

 

CEASE FIRE is a movie I’ve been pining for ever since I heard of its existence, back in the late 1960s.  A 3-D feature documentary, shot on the front lines during the waning days of the Korean War.  Wow.

Of course, as I became more fascinated with and addicted to and with the 3-D experience, I began to get suspicious of CEASE FIRE‘s authenticity.  Not in a bad way, mind you, but rather more in a matter of pure practicality.  I had seen pictures of those mammoth 3-D rigs, reminiscent of those early blimp sound refrigerator-sized cameras from the late 1920s.  How could one maneuver that kind of equipment across a battlefield?

Well, ya can’t.  Yes, CEASE FIRE is, technically, a documentary, but in the tradition of what we now call recreated or simulated dramatized footage.  You know, like you see on the ID Channel.  The key positive difference here is that it WAS shot on the actual Panmunjom Korean frontlines, and with 13 real participants; however, it was all produced after the fact.

The movie unfolds during the final lap of the Korean conflict.  As journalists keep a safe distance, the pockets of troops – from both sides – patrol the perilous, mined regions in question.  All are wondering about the futility of the whole thing, as rumors are flying as to imminent peace.  Unfortunately, so are the bullets.

The Devil’s Dozen of Americans, taken from all walks of life and ethnicities, are a mixed bag.  Some are “naturals,” funny, definitely character actor material; some are terrible – like those NFL players participating in Bob Hope sketches.  Still, the good outweighs the bad.

The picture was conceived by Hal Wallis and ambitious writer/director Owen Crump.  Crump was a rising force in the industry during this period, along with his far more notable relation, Blake Edwards (born William Blake Crump).  Crump began in Hollywood during the 1930s, but it was his notable work with the First Motion Picture Unit during World War II that set the stage for CEASE FIRE. Crump wrote the story and screenplay along with veteran Walter Doniger (writer of Wallis’ 1949 action noir Rope of Sand).

CEASE FIRE plays like a first-rate war movie, with particularly stinging, jaw-dropping dialog.  When an ambush blast’s smoke clears, the G.I.s try and determine the number of fatalities. “It looks like two.  It’s hard to tell,” comments a first-hand observer as the remaining soldiers try not to lose their lunch.  Sarcasm helps.  “I had a friend who was blown fourteen feet,” answers another dogface.  “Did it hurt him?” is the trenchant retort.

The newspapermen, camped near the front are equally snarky in their Front Page way, one standout example being a grizzled reporter on the job since Versailles.

While the narrative has been restaged for the cinema, the sense of realism is astoundingly genuine.  This is due, in great part, to the fantastic use of 3-D.  The movie is gorgeously photographed in widescreen black-and-white by the underrated Ellis Carter.  The compositions are spectacular examples of stereoscopic camerawork, truly putting one in the action.  The steep cliffs, the mountain thickets, the exploding shells…All of that.

The military thought so, too.  CEASE FIRE was hailed as a masterpiece by the armed forces, so much so that General Mark Clark did a 3-D intro for the picture.  Actually, he did several – a fact not known until the 3-D Film Archive assembled the supplements for this wonderful Blu-Ray release (all are included).  The music score, by the legendary Dimitri Tiomkin, is excellent and has been restored (along with the complete soundtrack) to its original 1953 three-track stereo origins.

Kino and the 3-D Film Archive are to be applauded for this presentation.  While often, 1950s 3-D movies understandably have some registration problems, CEASE FIRE is nearly 100% perfect.  To date, I believe it’s the finest looking of any of the 3-D Film Archive Blu-Rays, which is high praise indeed.

THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/3-D Film Archives/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21159.  SRP: $34.95.

CEASE FIRE.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Lorber Studio Classics/3-D Film Archive/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21642.  SRP:  $34.95.

 

Nice ‘N’ Sleazy (Does It All the Time)

A rare Twilight Time Limited Edition double feature (in conjunction with Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment) is available for one’s viewing pleasure, via the video nasties 1960s twofer of Frank Sinatra neo-noirs TONY ROME (1967) and LADY IN CEMENT (1968).

Based on the Marvin H. Albert pulps (and scripted by Richard Breen and then Jack Guss, with assist from Albert himself), these tawdry, sun-drenched, Florida-based gumshoe shows unfold against a changing America, whose protagonist is an aging, semi-anachronistic private eye coming to terms with shifting mores while specifically embracing the sexual revolution.

Tony Rome (aka Frankie Sinatra) is a former Miami police detective turned indie shamus, with an allegiance leaning more toward the underworld’s lovable cast of characters than to Establishment law and order.  That his closest pal is a top lieutenant muckety-muck (the wonderful Richard Conte) gives the weary, snarky bedroom dick an edge – although sometimes straining the limits of friendship (Rome gets chastised for leaving the precinct telephone number on his bookies’ contact sheets).

While Tony is old school, he does attempt to culturally bring himself up to date with the new kind of violence (with relish), the burgeoning gay community (with vinegar), and the preponderance of free love (with honey), but is savvy enough to know that flashy, glitzy 1960s Florida crime is fueled by classic bloodletting.  But, still, it’s a tough pill to swallow; after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

As Dean Martin once famously said, “It’s Frank’s world, we only live in it.”  This brilliant assessment of post-Camelot America is underlined by Tony Rome’s universe – a place where Playboy 20-something hotties can’t wait to get it on with a nearly 55-ish crumpled sleuth.  It’s a cinematic haven where the human background comprises Frank’s real-life cohorts, buddies, hangers-on, etc. (some, admittedly, quite delightful:  Hank Henry, Steve Peck, Joe E. Ross, Joe E. Lewis, Joe E. ANYBODY, B.S. Pully, Jilly Rizzo, Shecky Greene, Michael Romanoff and punch-drunk Rocky Graziano as essentially, well, punch-drunk Rocky Graziano).  The movies were slickly directed by Gordon Douglas, a veteran known for his quicksilver shooting (even though it’s likely Frank was calling some of the shots).  It was far enough away geographically from Fox and Hollywood for Sinatra to pretty much wreak havoc upon the denizens and traditions of the Sunshine State.  A vacation outing (with pay), if ever there was one.

Frank, as it’s well known, was great movie fan, and both these thrillers are packed with supporting actors from the Golden Age, an era where Bijou-addicted Sinatra was just coming into his own.  Thus, it’s a joy to see such wrinkled faces as Robert J. Wilke, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Gough.  And of course, there are the women.  Pin-up pulchritude come to life, in the shapely forms of Sue Lyon (an unfairly maligned Lolita), the great Gena Rowlands, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Lainie Kazan, Deanna Lund, Tiffany Bolling, Joan Shalwee, Lynn Dano…the beat goes.

True, the bikini-clad St. John in the first installment is “the” Frank fantasy:  a beauteous, rich bimbo who covets him; in the second, she is replaced by Welch, in virtually the same role and, likely, the same bikini.  Frank’s reaction to initially meeting St. John on a beach is trademark Italian urban smart-assery:  “Oh, yeah, you gonna be my next case.”  Of course, it’s a female turn-on.

The movies themselves show the underbelly of one of our country’s highest rated winter getaways and retirement communities.  It’s rife with murderous hookers, drug dealers, pimps, psychos, illegally practicing doctors, corrupt detectives and more.  They are shot in appropriately garish DeLuxe Color and 2.35:1 Panavision (Fox having only recently abandoned their CinemaScope process).  The pics were exquisitely shot on-location by Joe Biroc (both movies, served on one 1080p platter, look terrif).  The music, too, is integral to the appreciation of the onscreen narrative; not surprising, considering its star.  TONY ROME is scored by Johnny Mandell.  The jewel of this lounge-music crown is the title song, belted out by no less than the star’s daughter Nancy (and penned by her mate Lee Hazelwood).  It’s a masterpiece.  While I and my fellow Boomers weren’t allowed to see these movies when released, for some reason, we were all familiar with the title tune.  I clearly remember that often, during the summers of ’67 and ’68, whenever an adolescent decision was circumspect, the unanimous response was “Tony Rome’ll get cha if ya don’t watch out!”  Indeed, if Nancy’s boots were made for walking, TONY ROME added some kickass cleats.  The music in LADY IN CEMENT, sans a vocal, is nevertheless superior to its predecessor.  The score, by Hugo Montenegro, is one of my favorite 1960s soundtracks, one I searched for decades to find on vinyl and/or CD (to no avail).  Thanks to Twilight Time, I can now access this quintessential sly, naughty Bob Crewe-esque, Herb Alpert parody as an IST, where it is played often.  Wah-wah-wah.

The plots are nearly interchangeable, but certainly in need of a mention. In his debut, Tony is ostensibly hired to retrieve jewelry, lost by a doped-up heiress (Lyon) found in a fleabag hotel.  The sleazy house dick (Robert J. Wilke) is none other than Rome’s former partner, pretty much the same relationship Robert Mitchum had with Steve Brodie in Out of the Past.  Wilke ends up the same way as Brodie, too.  The whole jewelry deal is merely a pretense for what is to follow; soon, enough additional bodies to turn up to start a private morgue.  As Rome correctly figures, the rich are always the dirtiest.  This holds true for the sequel, featuring a former mob kingpin (Martin Gabel in a concurrently menacing/hilarious performance) determined to become a legitimate businessman.  The Barbara Nichols-type title corpse found at the bottom of the ocean (“She’s one blonde I know didn’t have more fun,” cracks Tony) holds a key to a conspiracy involving mucho greenbacks and a slew of unsavory deals and folks.

Both pics owe an unpayable debt to classic film noir (CEMENT even has a Moose Malloy character, ably played by Rat Pack fave Dan Blocker).  More importantly, Tony mouths a lingo of pure Hammett/Chandler speak, with 1960s codicils.  Tony may have been the coolest peeper post-WWII and through the 1950s, but, by the late 1960s, he was losing his grip on the rapidly evolving culture.  This isn’t too different from what Sinatra himself was experiencing, desperately trying to keep ahead of the lingo curve, with sad results; remember his special, Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing?  Even Rat Pack Confidential author/fan Shawn Levy was forced to honestly comment on Ol’ Blue Eyes donning a Nehru Jacket in the early 1970s (“He looked like an idiot”).  Yet, there’s enough iconic noir in the Rome flicks to warrant admiration for the aging gumshoe.  “Do you really care?” asks a jaded mouse, suspicious of Rome’s motives.  “Sometimes I do,” replies a solemn Tony, in a beautifully acted response that reminds us of how good a thespian Sinatra was.

Rome’s phone calls with unseen bookies, fixers, and various other nefarious characters virtually constitute a string of amusing running gags.  (“A pox on that horse!” shouts Rome, slamming down the receiver.  “I’m working for free again this week!”).  The lechery, so much a part of Rat Packery, is also on display.  The leer Rome initially gives Raquel Welch in CEMENT gives the actress her best line, “Shall I scream ‘rape’ now?”

LADY IN CEMENT was every bit as successful as TONY ROME, and had fans of the possible franchise wondering and champing at the bit for a third installment.  It was not to be.  By 1970, the anachronistic private eye was just too far gone to matter.  The rule-breaking tough dicks were now actually on the force.  Of course, I’m talking about Dirty Harry, Hustle and other 1970s thrillers (ironically, in a show of WTF could they have been thinking, Sinatra and John Wayne were initially offered Harry).

I gotta say, though, as much as I keep Tony Rome high on my guilty pleasure list, I’m sorta glad there wasn’t a third chapter.  Alas, by the Watergate Era, the toups were getting worse, the waistline fuller.  Not a good combination.  That said, I kinda wonder what Tony Rome would be up to today.  I envision him residing in a second-rate Florida retirement home, using the computer work stations in the library to engage in online gambling…with the usual outcome.  I can practically hear him sneering with glee, “Try and collect, you bastards!  I’m 103 fucking years old!”  An internet virus pox on them all.

TONY ROME/LADY IN CEMENT.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HA MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT234-BR.  SRP:  $29.95.

tonyromecement)COVER

 

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com