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.

Rainbow Fright

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

Another Holy Grail title I’d thought I’d never see, a correctly-hued edition of Michael Curtiz’s frightening 1932 two-strip Technicolor classic, DOCTOR X, creeps magnificently onto 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray (thanks to the folks at The Warner Archive Collection, along with a crypt-load of movie historians and film restoration experts, comprising the UCLA Library, The Film Foundation and the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation).

Back in the early 1970s, I was delighted when it was reported that DOCTOR X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, two pre-Code horrors, directed by Michael Curtiz and costarring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had been discovered in Jack Warner’s private collection.  True, each had been available for years in black and white; but this was a prize package:  35MM nitrate two-strip Technicolor prints.  We movie and horror fans had heard of these versions, but never thought we’d actually see them.

My delight soon turned to “feh,” when quickly-made Eastman color slop prints were run off for TV distribution (I missed the actual 35MM screenings at MoMA).  They looked like monochrome with a Winky Dink screen over them.  “Oh, well,” I thought with great disappointment.

CRI improvements and genuinely dedicated movie archeologists remedied this slightly with the advent of DVD, aided when all the old Warners product, “curated” by MGM/UA, reverted back to its rightful owners.  The Burbank studio did everyone proud – giving us the beautiful home vid platters (and TCM presentations) we now cherish.  Big YAY!

Still, my general take on the two Technicolor horror pics was:  Wax Museum noted and corrected the difficulties of shooting in color that made DOCTOR X such an unmemorable Technicolor experience.  LSS, the latter way outshined the former.  As is often the case, I was wrong.  A gorgeous restoration of Wax Museum surfaced on Blu-Ray in 2020.  Too bad nothing could be done about the latter (I thought).  Hold on to your hats, folks.  The new DOCTOR X Blu-Ray will knock your socks off.  It’s simply stunning – a perfect example of HOW to film a horror movie in color.  It quite possibly now may be the best two-strip I’ve ever seen.  You read right – it actually blows away Wax Museum (which, as noted, looks terrific).  The rich ghoulish greens and crimson reds are jaw-dropping.  And all the available hybrids in-between are amazing as well.  The most marked improvements are the flesh tones – no more orange-tinged.  They often look real.  And the washed out backgrounds are lush with color – the spliced jump cut reel changes and dirt and emulsion scratches gone!  This was obviously a labor of love, and dudes such as Scott MacQueen (head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive) must be given their due.  This was a mammoth undertaking and the results will forever change the way anyone has judged the early Technicolor process (it makes sense, Herbert Kalmus and the Technicolor Company were constantly striving for upgrades; DOCTOR  X utilized the then-new single film print (Process #3), rather than pasting red and green emulsions together (all while they were concurrently working on three-strip imbibition).  Translation:  Ray Rennahan’s innovative use of lighting and color, combined with Michael Curtiz’s stylish and taut direction is a Technicolor win/win!

The movie, which I always liked (even with the typical wise-guy Warners snarky reporter as the hero) nevertheless always seemed a bit murky – as if the studio, not known for the genre, really didn’t care.  Not so.  This is a carefully plotted “A” title, obviously looking not-so-hot in black and white – the only way I could watch it during my childhood.

DOCTOR X, like so many Warners movies of the era, is a New York picture, opening on a fog-enshrouded night on Mott Street.  Another victim of the Moon Killer has been found.  The bodies have not just had the throats ripped out – there are definite signs of cannibalism.

Tabloid maestro Lee Taylor is determined to get to the bottom of these killings – even if he is creeped out by the surroundings…and the suspects.  All clues seem to lead to a university cartel of professors, led by Dr. Xavier.  On hiatus, during the school recess, these men use their time for research – almost exclusively concentrating on cannibal rites and organ transplants.  This crew, as Taylor rightly assumes, are rather macabre, starting with Xavier  himself,  then young, deformed amputee Dr. Wells, crippled Satanic-resembling Dr. Haines (casting a Devil silhouette shadow), and others.  At least half of the doctors have been involved in cannibalistic rituals which doesn’t help salve the police investigations, Xavier’s striving for innocence, or Taylor’s suspicions.  For Lee, that all changes when he spies Xavier’s  beautiful daughter Joanne, who, at first has an oil-and-water response to the reporter, then becomes attracted to him.  Won’t give away the goosebump-raising climax, save with the words “synthetic flesh!”

Major fright sequences (including hideous makeup, courtesy of Max Factor) highlight this excursion into monster mania – the result actually being far more terrifying than anything in Universal’s Dracula or Frankenstein, the success of which spurred DOCTOR  X into production.  The excellent actor Lee Tracy effortlessly glides through the proceedings, along with pros Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and a wonderful supporting cast, including Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Robert Warwick, Leila Bennett, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers, and Selmer Jackson.  The script by Robert Trasker, Earl Baldwin, and costar Rosener (from a play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller) shows you how far a pre-Code horror pic could go – not only with gore and shock (of which there is plenty), but with some risqué dialog, and even a sequence in a Lower East Side whorehouse (with Mae Busch as a Madam, her only appearance in color!).

DOCTOR  X in color played only a scant few houses around the country (color was rather expensive, and Warners, who had initially embraced the process, was now trying to veer away from it); most theaters played it in black and white.  And here’s another falsity.  It was assumed that the monochrome prints were mere strike-offs from the color neg.  Nope.  The black and white version was actually a separately simultaneously-shot film with several scenes utilizing different angles, compositions and dialog (of course, the color X is “the” edition to see).  To prove the point, the B&W DOCTOR X is also included as a supplement for comparison.  With early Technicolor relegated to limited runs, sometimes of only 30, 50, 80, 100 prints (depending on the production), as opposed to the later general rule for a major studio wide release of as many as 1500 prints for a top title, it’s astounding that ANY two-strip survives!

Other wonderful extras in this package encompass a featurette on the horror flicks of Michael Curtiz, a UCLA before and after restoration reel (highly recommended), audio commentaries by Scott MacQueen and Curtiz author Alan K. Rode, and the theatrical trailer.

DOCTOR X, in restored two-strip Technicolor, is one of the finest discs in my collection.  Get your own copy and prove me wrong!  One more time: “synthetic flesh!”

DR. X. Color. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT #B08YDNPHW8.   SRP: $17.99.

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

Donovan’s Grief

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

A beautifully-crafted, low-budget gem melding sci-fi and horror, 1953’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the top medulla oblongatas at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

While a common theme now, transplanted for such guilty pleasures as The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (aka Jan in the Pan) and the comedic delights of The Man with Two Brains, DONOVAN’S BRAIN, the original sourcework, hailed from the most-talented cranium of author/screenwriter Curt Siodmak, whose scary 1942 novel was adapted for the movies by Hugh Brooke, and scripted by director Felix Feist.

It’s an extraordinary idea involving high-tech (for then) brain surgery, the burgeoning concept of telepathy and basic themes from Shelley’s Frankenstein (some things Man just shouldn’t futz around with – and, if he does, get the right brain, damn it!).

Dr. Patrick J. Cory is a brilliant scientist married to Janice, an equally accomplished egghead.  They conveniently live off the main road of a typical suburban community; many think they’re a bit off the main road themselves.  Recovering alcoholic Frank Schratt, a once-promising professor/doctor, is a close friend and works with them on their groundbreaking experiments.

All good, so far.

The crash of a private plane brings the grim news for 1%-ters that billionaire Warren H. Donovan has perished.  Carting the corpse to the nearest home (guess who?) until the authorities can claim the body provides the Corys with the perfect op to advance their work on thought and thought progression.

Turns out that Donovan’s brain wasn’t damaged in the crash – it was demented way before then.  A cruel, vicious psychopath, the oligarch got his way by terrorizing those around him – making them rich along the way.  He raped companies, ravaged women, destroyed men – totally believed he was above the law.  Sound familiar?  Except he wasn’t an idiot, merely pure evil.  Donovan’s brain does respond slowly to the lab work…then begins to look for a host, selecting the liberally progressive Patrick as his latest victim.  Soon, Dr. Cory is adapting Donovan’s mannerisms, figures of speech, and fits of violence.  His misogyny emerges as he brutally mistreats Janice.  Now occupying Cory’s body, Donovan’s brain begins a nationwide assault on his competitors, and former partners (who were relieved that he was dead).  When a reporter guesses the unbelievable truth, Donovan/Cory resorts to murder.  And he likes it.

Can Janice and Frank reverse the process before they become the maniac’s next victims?

As one might expect, this is one wild 86-minute ride.  The performances are excellent, particularly that of lead Lew Ayres (essentially inhabiting two personas).  Nancy Davis (soon to be “Reagan”), as Janice even comes off unscathed, giving a respectable account of herself.  The always-reliable Gene Evans is another plus (he does, pre-DeForrest Kelley, get to utter the line: “I’m a doctor, not an electrician!”).  Other support is valiantly provided by sleazy Steve Brodie (as the unethical reporter), Tom Powers, Lisa Howard, James Anderson, Harlan Wade, Shimen Ruskin, Don Brodie, and John Hamilton.

Director Feist was an underrated force in Hollywood, known for doing a lot with a little; his noirs 1949’s The Threat, 1951’s Tomorrow is Another Day, etc. are quite good, and worth seeking out.  DONOVAN’S BRAIN is likely Feist’s most famous movie, and definitely worthy of a spot on your library shelf.  The crisp black-and-white photography is by Robert Aldrich fave Joe Biroc, and a suitable music score is provided by Eddie Dunstedter. 

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks and sounds swell, and comes with the original theatrical trailer, as well as a short “Trailers from Hell” segment, hosted by Joe Dante.

Adding this tense item to one’s collection is…well, a no-brainer.

DONOVAN’S BRAIN. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K20068. SRP: $29.95.

Kongquistador

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

One of a handful of horror flicks that scared the bejeezus out of my little preadolescent ass, 1958’s GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN rises from grave (in a High Def 1080p widescreen 4K transfer from 35MM camera elements yet!), thanks to those kiddie-frightening ghouls from The Film Detective/The Wade Williams Collection.

That so much of my childhood was spent cowering under the covers at night was due, in part, to director Richard E. Cunha, who helmed this “classic” along with Frankenstein’s Daughter (which even scared me more).  I get it now – it was largely the spooky makeups that did it.  But for an impressionable 8-year-old, that’s really all you need (even his laughable Missile to the Moon gave me the willies, thanks to a scene were a juvenile delinquent gets his flesh melted off by exposure to the lunar sun).  The fact that other pics that terrified me at the time included William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, Edgar Ulmer’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll puts the former TV commercial director in good company (okay, Monster from Piedras Blancas did its job, too).

Examining GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN now, as I quickly descend into old age, offers up some intriguing revelations.  Cunha is actually quite a good director, setting up the shock sequences rather well, doing some nifty widescreen compositions and utilizing the Fawnskin, CA locations to excellent advantage.  The plot, too, as scripted by Frank Hart Taussig, and Ralph Brooks (from their story), is a notch above the usual outlandish misghegas.

In the 16th century, a band of Spanish conquistadors arrive on the shores of what is now California as part of the Ptolemy Firello expedition, ostensibly to explore – but mainly to greedily search for gold.  They are never heard from again.  Key to anthropologists and archeologists delving into this mystery is the uncovering of a rather disturbing fact:  among the crew was one Vargas, a gargantuan specimen, revealed to have been a sadistic psychopath.  Vargas especially enjoyed tearing his victims limb from limb, particularly indigenous women after he ravaged them.  To this day, the local Native Americans in the area fear the myth and curse of the monstrous goliath.

So, natch, a dedicated professor and his prerequisite hottie daughter arrive to do some excavating, and…well…do I need to go any further?

What freaked me out then is what still works on a lesser level now, the image of the resurrected, behemoth Vargas.  Encased in rusted armor and towering over everyone, Vargas is enacted by the equally imposing Buddy Baer (one of them Baers, the Max and Max, Jr. variety…and, reportedly, a truly nice guy).  The makeup is hellish, and comes to us via the genius of Jack Pearce, creator of the original Universal grotesques of Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy and The Wolf Man.

The cast itself is genuinely game (even though many of them end up as game), and features a cluster of familiar thesps, including Morris Ankrum, Bob Steele, and, as the love interest, Sally Fraser and Ed Kemmer.  A beautiful actress, Jolene Brand, is on view briefly before she, like the vicinity’s horses and cows, gets “ripped to pieces.”

The location photography by director/auteur Cunha is, when viewed in 35MM, really top-notch.  A music score by Albert Glasser adds to the creepiness and, undoubtedly, tingled the tiny pliable spines of brave Fifties and Sixties kiddies (although today’s crop of sanguinary sprouts may find the proceedings a bit too pedestrian).

The new Film Detective Blu-Ray of GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN comes with a grave full of extras, comprising audio commentaries by Tom Weaver (who also contributed liner notes) and GIANT costar Gary Crutcher, plus mini-documentaries on Crutcher and Bob Steele, an interview with film historian C. Courtney Joyner, an illustrated booklet, the theatrical trailer and a still gallery.

A movie I still proudly defend, GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN is a disc well-worth reviving (if only as a co-feature) for Drive-In retro horror movie nights.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN.  Black and White. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective/The Wade Williams Collection. CAT # FB1009.  SRP: $24.95.

In the Beginning…

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

“The film that started it all” is how Christopher Lee described 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN – an absolutely on-the-money (in many ways) fact that can now be physically appreciated with the fantastic new two-disc Special Edition of this classic, now available from The Warner Archive Collection.

Anyone who’s been following this column for even a short time knows that I’m thoroughly biased when it comes to Hammer Films.  They were literally part of my adolescence, an addiction that I can’t nor want to get over.  The modest British company, although lingering around the UK since the 1930s, decided to take a bold move – to revisit classic horror, but to do it positively seriously, gearing the productions toward adults, hiring the best art, set, and costume design people (who could work creatively on a tight budget), and, most prominently, to shoot the pics in color.  I know that last part doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, in the 1950s, the idea of a color horror movie was practically revolutionary.  Almost unheard of.  I mean, there was House of Wax, a couple of gorilla pictures…and that was it.

Hammer, with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, rocked the international market, immediately having the major Hollywood concerns clamoring for more – while the Bray-based concern’s own Brit counterparts embarked on an instant copycat voyage (Anglo-Amalgamated, Artistes Alliance, Tempean Films, Insignia Films, etc.).  Soon goth/color horror even hit our shores, and the Corman/Poe/AIP series began.  But it all started here.

The Carreras family was Hammer, and they went to great lengths to scour the country for eager artists willing to work for diminutive funds in return for unlimited freedom (within budgetary reason).  This double-edged lure at once snagged writer Jimmy Sangster, a now-legend in the genre, who freely adapted the Mary Shelley novel – keeping the God complex narrative, making the mad Baron concurrently charming, ruthless, logical, (on occasion) sympathetic, but definitely sociopathic.  Unlike the degeneration of the Universal series, “Frankenstein,” throughout the series, referred to the scientist/doctor, not the monster.

The casting of Peter Cushing was probably the most perfect choice that anyone could have made.  Throughout his turn as the Baron, he has flashes of sanity, but also a vent for psychopathy…before ending up (in the last installment) as a completely deranged inmate at an insane asylum (an ideal place to continue “experimenting”).  In this first episode, he is a brash, pampered, pompous titled nobleman harboring a massive superiority complex.  Yet, even when he resorts to grave-robbing…and murder, you’re still fascinated by his personality…and want to know what he is up to next.  As an orphaned landowner, he eschews the usual bourgeoise schools…and hires his own personal tutor, Paul Krempe, a noted proctor, who becomes a live-in mentor.  It is here that the pair delve into the unthinkable and impossible worlds of heart and organ transplants, brain surgery, and neuroscience.  Not so crazy today, but it still was in 1956 (when the movie opened in Britain), to say nothing of 1860, when the movie takes place.  Of course, you know where this is going – and the seesaw into madness is quite stunning and frightening.  The revolting creature Victor Frankenstein reanimates defines “pathetic” (another excellent performance – one of the pic’s many – by another soon-to-be Hammer icon, Christopher Lee).  All the performances, in fact, are (no pun) dead-on, including the beauteous women (another integral part of the Hammer universe), as ably portrayed by Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt.  Other nifty thesp turns are delivered by Robert Urquhart, Melvyn Hayes (a remarkable actor who portrays the young Baron; four years later, he would play a pitiful mentally-challenged victim in Flesh and the Fiends, also with Cushing), Paul Hardtmuth, Fred Johnson, Noel Hood, Alex Gallier, and Claude Kingston.

Behind-the-camera, in the growing Hammer army, were three masters of their craft – director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and composer James Bernard.  The end result resembled a PBS/Madame Tussaud’s hybrid of the famed novel.

While many hack contemporary critics trashed the movie as being repugnant, a few saw the light.  Even some directors caught on.  Hammer and, specifically Fisher became great favorites of Joseph Losey (who would work for the studio, and, who had actually been tossed off CURSE‘s co-feature, X-the Unknown, by right-wing star Dean Jagger), Nicholas Ray (who also was big Cushing fan), Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, and others.  Fisher’s penchant for period detail, and the romanticizing of the era was noticed by serious critics from the get-go (his favorite director, not surprisingly, was Frank Borzage).

The pickup by a major was a Jack Warner decision; grabbing interesting curios for his studio was cheaper than producing your own.  When he saw CURSE, he promptly snatched it for a Warners release…in WarnerColor; he would also have terrific success with additional pickups (Italy’s early peplum Hercules, Toho’s Godzilla sequel Gigantis, the Fire Monster, and spiraling downward to no-budget drive-in schlock Teenagers from Outer Space, to name a few rather diverse examples).  CURSE, however, was the biggest and sealed the deal – although not everyone involved was delighted with the results.  Co-star Robert Urquhart (as Victor’s tutor Paul Kemper) hated the results, terming it as vulgar; he refused to ever appear in another Hammer project (ironically, in a Nelson Muntz “Ha-Ha!” moment, it forever remains his most famous screen appearance).  Likewise, Sally Walsh shuddered whenever her brief, young acting gig came up in conversation.  Playing the child Elizabeth (promised to Victor’s family in an arranged marriage), Walsh was the actual six-year-old daughter of grown-up Elizabeth Hazel Court.  Butterfly nerves and anticipated nightmares of failure would follow her into adulthood.  As with Urquhart, she, too, preferred no one remind her of an “unpleasant” past.

The problem (if there was any) was the aforementioned WarnerColor.  Already passe by 1957, the inferior process replicated the UK Eastmancolour in washed-out tones that quickly faded to magenta.  D.P. Jack Asher (my favorite of all the Hammer cameramen) would have to wait until the Technicolor pics Revenge of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy and Brides of Dracula to demonstrate the extent of his genius (CURSE, BTW, was his first color effort).

That is until now.

This new Special Edition contains THREE VERSIONS of CURSE.  An open full-frame 1.37 cut (the one generations of viewers saw on TV), the European 1.66 presentation and the American 1.85 version.  While the 1.66 is likely preferable to the way Hammer envisioned it (and it looks fine), I tend to lean toward the 1.85; this was the way, after all, CURSE debuted on U.S. shores, in 1957 (and in the 1965 re-issue).  All three High Definition 1080p remasters have stunning restored color and clarity, like nothing you’ve seen before (and CURSE had a decent CRI in the 1970s, and even an earlier presentable Blu-Ray transfer).

Sound, too, has been cleaned up (even though that never was a crucial issue, but why argue?), giving us the added joy of Cushing’s delivery and Bernard’s lush score.

A number of marvelous extras supplement the CURSE restoration, notably audio commentaries, the original trailer, and FOUR new featurettes, including ones on Jack Asher (Torrents of Light) and James Bernard (Diabolis in Musica). The former is hosted by cinematographer David J. Miller (Veep, The Newsroom), the latter by composer Christopher Drake (Tales of Halloween, Creepshow: The TV Series).

The original ads taunted us with the tag “The CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN will haunt you forever.” They weren’t kidding, it does. But in a good way.

CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Color. Full Frame/Widescreen [1.37:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collecton/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT #   B08N3X6751.  SRP: $13.69.

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

The Subject was Lilies

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

One of the most monstrous true-life horror stories in history, the saga of Burke and Hare, comes to cinema via the excellent 1960 British pic THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, now available in its uncut glory, thanks to the villainous folks at Kino-Lorber, conspiring with Smart Egg Pictures.

Of the many screen accounts of this tale, FLESH is the best, and, in the complete 95-minute version, the most elusive (until now).  It began in 1828, in Edinburgh.  Dr. Knox, an eminent surgeon and teacher, is always on the lookout for fresh corpses to dissect for his classes and his experiments.  Not surprisingly, in the poorer regions of Scotland, the largest cottage industry is body snatching (the payments from Knox are quite fair, depending upon the condition of the subject).  Burke and Hare, two loathsome layabouts, can’t seem to get ahead of the competition – until fate deals them an icy cold hand.  Burke’s hag wife runs their shabby boarding house; it barely pays the bills.  Pissed that her latest tenant has died on the premises, she is, at first, put off by the ambitious Hare, who suggests that rather inform the authorities, they sell the cadaver to Knox.

It all turns out so well that Mrs. Burke hopes more tenants will succumb during their stay.  Hubby and Hare sweeten the pot by helping the process along.  They cut out the middle man, so to speak, and begin to murder loners, drifters and various slum transients.

As one might surmise, THE FLESH AND FIENDS is not exactly a subtle, light-hearted romp.  It’s a grisly, gritty incision into the macabre, courtesy of director John Gilling, who also cowrote the script (with Leon Griffiths).  Taking no prisoners, the movie additionally presents a Grand Guignol celebration of 19th century lust, greed, sadism, and obsession.  Certainly influenced by Hammer, this modest indy was one of the handful nicely produced pics spearheaded by Robert Baker and Monty Berman.  The caveat, being the tiny budget, meant no color (a check that helped put Hammer on the map); that said, there was no scrimping when it came to the cast.  Peter Cushing plays Knox, giving his usual expert performance, balanced between dedicated medical practitioner and proctor, and ruthless scientist.  The disgusting Burke and Hare are brilliantly enacted by Donald Pleasence and George Rose, with Renee Houston divinely revolting as Hare’s wife.  Excellent support is supplied by Dermot Walsh, June Laverick, John Cairney, June Powell, Melvyn Hayes, Andrew Faulds, Philip Leaver, George Woodbridge, Michael Balfour, Steven Berkoff, and Ian Fleming (not the Bond writer); most prominent is an early appearance by Billie Whitelaw, concurrently poignant and brash as a callous whore, who becomes the love interest of one of Knox’s students…and a victim of Burke and Hare’s machinations (FUN FACT: in a grotesque example of karma payback, Burke’s hanged corpse was itself dissected as a specimen; his skeleton is still displayed in the anatomical division of the Museum of Edinburgh Medical School).

The uncut version of the movie was known as the Euro-edition; this was filmed alongside the general release, and contained not really that much more gore (just longer languishing on it), but mostly sex sequences featuring topless tarts cavorting with their johns in pubs and houses of ill-repute (lots of grubby faces rubbed in bare chested cleavage, amongst female cackling and cries of “’Aving fun, dearie?”  You get the picture).

Sadly, like most Berman-Baker productions, FLESH AND THE FIENDS suffers from the deterioration of the original elements.  Along with the team’s 1959 Jack the Ripper, FLESH is the victim of worn and ragtag visuals and opticals.  It’s a sad testament to Baker, who also served as cinematographer on these pics.  One would hope for restorations, but do these 35MM materials even exist?  FLESH, while thankfully in its correct 2.35:1 DylaScope aspect ratio, looks like an acceptable 16MM print.  This is particularly distressing for fans of Gilling (whose Hammer output exists in stunning condition, and includes such favorites as Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, and Pirates of Blood River), as this is arguably his finest work.

Knowledge of the above information should prepare you for the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray.  To reiterate, it’s not awful by any means, merely disappointing.  The mono track, too, has issues, being a bit noisy and on the low side (another blow, as it diminishes Stanley Black’s score).

Extras on this nevertheless must-have item include the cut 74-minute American/TV version (entitled The Fiendish Ghouls for theaters and Mania for the telly), audio commentary by Tim Lucas, and related trailers. Ghouls, it should be noted, looks and sounds markedly better than FLESH; curiously, not only has the title and running time changed, but also the widescreen process, listed in the credits as Vitascope.

Again, don’t be put off by FLESH’s tattered remains; to date, this is the best available on this title.  Until better elements magically surface, this FatF is definitely library shelf-worthy.

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Smart Egg Pictures.  CAT # K24546.  SRP: $29.95.

Heads of the Class

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

Boston’s prestigious women’s school Wendell College is undergoing a strange phenomenon – many of its most comely students are ending up losing their heads in their studies…literally.  This is the basis of the narrative for 1981’s NIGHT SCHOOL, now on Blu-Ray from the faculty at the Warner Archive Collection.

Filmed by Lorimar, in 1980, during the first wave of slasher frenzy following the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, NIGHT SCHOOL is a bit deceptive, as it more resembles a giallo than a mere Friday the 13th slaughterfest.

After the grainy credits have unfolded, the lush Massachusetts location photography (by Mark Irwin) becomes quite rich and beauteous, belying the charade of it being a mere low-budget Beta-axe pic.

Even the scenario, once the weary detectives latch onto it, is a…dare I say?…cut above the rest.  As scripted by co-producer Ruth Avergon, a scholar of anthropology, the plot of NIGHT SCHOOL revolves around a very authentic ritual used by headhunters in New Guinea, and elsewhere.  It was, by her account, the germ that begat the gore. The conclusion (which we, of course, will not reveal) is quite satisfactory, as viewers and the movie’s large fanbase can attest to.

Since the producers knew quite well that sanguine events alone wouldn’t sell the goods, they wisely set the scenario in an all-girls’ college and liberally included numerous sequences of nudity to put the whole shebang (no pun) over the top.

Prime suspect, womanizing predator Professor Vincent Millett, can’t help but wonder why his most attractive former assistants are being strewn piecemeal all over the place.  Is he a raving psychopath, prone to blackouts?  Could be.  This concerns the lead sleuth, Judd Austin, assigned to the case, as well as Millett’s latest personal staff hiree, sultry British exchange student Eleanor (sultry Rachel Ward, in her big screen debut).  Being drop dead gorgeous at Wendell is, after all, not likely to get you anywhere except for the morgue.

As indicated above, NIGHT SCHOOL has a lot more going for it than the usual slasher opuses that flooded the theaters back in the Eighties.  The plot and lead aside (Ward does give it extra class), this horror item also features Leonard Mann (as Austin), Drew Snyder (as Millett), Joseph R. Sicari, Nick Cairis, Karen MacDonald, Annette Miller, Bill McCann, Margo Skinner, Elizabeth Barnitz, Holly Hardman and Lisa Allee; there’s also a nifty score by Brad Fiedel, a name that would soon, too, become an A-list standard for the era.  Most unusual is the choice of director, Ken Hughes, a veteran of a number of big entertainment pics, bizarrely enough best-known for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Despite the aforementioned credits, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray looks and sounds terrific in 1080p widescreen and 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  At 89 minutes, the flick never gets dull, and, unlike so much of the competition, doesn’t insult one’s intelligence.  The fact that the victims aren’t bubbleheads, and that audiences aren’t secretly rooting for them to be killed alone makes NIGHT SCHOOL a more palatable splatter platter, and a nice slice of nostalgic Eighties scare fare.

NIGHT SCHOOL. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT # B075TDQX5J SRP: $17.97.

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

I Wanna Scare Ya

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

The horror comedy has been one of the most durable offshoots of the phantasmagorical genre, long a big favorite of supernatural buffs. Indeed, since the dawn of the silent era to current day, laffs ‘n’ screams have gone hand-in-claw.  From Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The 3 Stooges, Martin & Lewis, Mel Brooks, Eddie Murphy, The Wayans Brothers and the Ghostbusters clownshows, this riotous sidebar has never worn out its welcome.  For many comics, the horror-comedy was a given…for one, it was career-changing.  That one was Bob Hope.  Hope, who had been signed by Paramount in the late 1930s as a popular radio personality, finally broke the wall to A-list movie star with 1939’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY.  The smash box-office further propelled his shooting comet power on radio, where he hurriedly moved from Frank Fay-type m.c. to major comedian.  No surprise that the success of CAT had Paramount scurrying for a follow-up for Hope and his game leading lady, Paulette Goddard, who also became a top-line movie luminary because of her role in the blockbuster old dark house spoof.  Soon, THE GHOSTBREAKERS was readied for production, on a larger and funnier scale than its predecessor.  The difference was that Hope had now transcended the quasi-goofy leading man and was quickly morphing into the snarky wise guy that millions of fans would embrace – a character that he ably portrayed until his passing in 2003, at age 100.

Kino-Lorber Studio classics has given us the perfect trick or treat double bill via newly-mastered Blu-Rays (sold individually) of both Hope-Goddard scare fests, each worth discussing and acquiring.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY was already a dusty, old property in 1939, when Paramount chose to remake it as a vehicle for their newly-signed players Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.  They chose wisely.  A parody of the “dark and stormy night” thrillers that flooded the Teens and the Twenties, the 1922 play by John Willard had been successfully filmed in 1927 by Paul Leni, with comic actor Creighton Hale and luscious star Laura La Plante (it would be remade as a talkie in 1930, and again in 1979).

Tinkering around with the narrative to suit Hope didn’t take much (many gags were already in place), and writers Walter DeLeon, Lynn Starling and director Elliott Nugent concentrated filling Charles Lang’s black-and-white frame with oodles of atmosphere, which they did superbly.  A spine-tingling score by Ernst Toch adds the final shivering touch.

The plot revolves around gorgeous, struggling Joyce Norman – who becomes understandably gobsmacked when called to spooky Louisiana bayou surroundings after learning that that she is heiress to a vast fortune.  Natch, there are greedy relatives a-plenty, so Joyce is relieved that her pal/pseudo boyfriend Wally Campbell has agreed to come along for moral support.  But there are other possible suitors amongst the rogue’s gallery of dubious folks, like accommodating cousin Charlie Wilder and angry, sarcastic Fred Blythe.  Terrified (but mercenary) females are also on-hand and comprise Aunt Susan and spinster Cecily.  Then there’s the Mrs. Danvers-esque housekeeper Miss Lu (the movie, Rebecca hadn’t come out yet, but the book was flying off the shelves).  And you can’t go wrong when this bunch is topped off by an ominous lawyer, especially when enacted by George Zucco!  ‘Nuff said.  Well, not really.  The deceased may have been murdered – by a monstrous heavily disguised creeper, known as The Cat (as uninvited asylum attendants verify while they perennially search the grounds for the escaped maniac; additional red flag: they’re pretty scary, too).  With haunted house precision, the movie lovingly checks all the necessary genre boxes from secret passageways, screams in the night, “spying” moving eye portraits, etc. 

Of course, transitioning the silent era romp to sound did take some scripting rehab, and this was achieved by Hope’s (already) growing gaggle of writers (even though the sourcework was a play, this adaptation relied mostly upon the 1927 filmed version).  While it would take the genius of Barney Dean to fully realize the “Bob Hope” character (sometime between 1941-and 1942), Rapid Robert’s team weren’t sleeping on the job.  Some early (of what would soon be typical) Hope asides shine.  When being transported through the nocturnal swamp by a stone-faced Cajun, Hope, aka Wally, shoots off what he thinks are zingers.  The only deadpan response from his captive audience is that he heard it all last week on The Jack Benny Show.  Later, after the prerequisite reading of the will, Hope sneers that the deceased was so crooked that they didn’t bury him, “they had to screw him into the ground.”  When the gruesome murders and foreboding events further hamper the fog-shrouded gathering, Campbell replies that at least “it keeps my mind off the malaria.”  And so it goes.

Truth be told, the horror stuff is really unnerving, the killings surprisingly gory (particularly, for 1939, and, for a comedy), and the ending genuinely frightening.

The movie, when released in November, 1939 was an immediate sensation, with both critics and audiences.  It souped-up Hope’s and Goddard’s growing candle power, and Paramount – no fools they – instantly looked for a cash cow continuation.

Because of rights problems, this rendition of THE CAT AND THE CANARY never played TV during the Golden Years of MCA Paramounts; it wasn’t until the late 1970s that official 16MM prints first saw the light of day.  Fortunately, we can now appreciate this comedic killer-diller in an excellent 35MM transfer, and, best of all, in 1080p.  Extras include audio commentary by author Lee Gambin and the theatrical trailer.  Hollywood-wise, CAT was the most important early rung for Hope’s swift climb up the movie star ladder.

With a bigger budget and bigger name supporting cast, 1940’s THE GHOST BUSTERS easily eclipsed the yuks and thrills of its predecessor; George Marshall replaced Elliot Nugent as the director, a much slicker and way more hep choice.  Paramount, still unwilling to go whole hog on an original story, used their 1922 long-forgotten (but hit) Wallace Reid silent as the basis for the update.

Hope is already so much closer to his cowardly-hero transformation (the metamorphosis would be complete within a year, thanks to the aforementioned participation of the great gag writer Barney Dean) that the movie instantly appears more modern than CAT.

Hope’s character, along with his manservant Alex (the terrific comedian Willie Best, played in the silent by a white actor Walter Hiers in blackface) are plunged into a whirlpool of murder and mayhem, thanks to Bob’s on-screen persona, Larry L. Lawrence (the “L” is for “Lawrence,” he tells a double-take reacting Goddard, adding “My parents had very little imagination”), a true-crime radio reporter who runs afoul of vicious East Coast gangsters.  With fear of a contract being put out on him, Larry and Alex prepare to sneak out of Manhattan at the first opportunity.

Concurrently, living in their hotel is Mary Carter, who has just been left a Cuban castle, located off Havana on a lovely christened atoll, known as Black Island.

The murder of someone out to warn her, plus sinister attempts on Lawrence’s life cause enough confusion to have them “meet cute,” with a terror chaser “Some day you may have a little boy who grows up to commit an innocent murder.”  The upshot is that Lawrence hides in Mary’s steamer trunk, causing a hilarious sequence where a dockside drunk mistakes Alex for a ventriloquist.

While the clever script by Walter DeLeon (based on the creaky 1909 play, The Ghost Breaker, by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, singular like the earlier movie), seems to point in the usual logical direction of “it’s really gangsters, not monsters,” once the trio hits Black Island, the actual zombies and ghosts rise from their mist-shrouded tombs.

GHOST BREAKERS (and, yeah, it did inspire the later title Ghostbusters), as indicated, sports a formidable supporting cast (Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan, James Flavin, Douglas Kennedy, Dolores Moran, Paul Newlan, Jack Norton, and, if you keep an eye peeled, Robert Ryan!).  Outside of leads Hope and Goddard, who further capitalize on their chemistry, third wheel Best carries on valiantly.  Hope loved the comedian, and often gave him roles on his radio show; it’s been suggested that the property was originally slated for Jack Benny and Rochester, but that the grosses on CAT overruled the decision.  Best, indeed, has some of the top lines in the show.  While rowing to Black Island, Larry, deservedly unnerved by the creepy atmosphere, asks Alex to speed it up.  “You told me you rowed for Harlem Tech.” “Yeah,” replies his companion, “but we knew where we were going!”  Not that Hope doesn’t fill his quota; the ferocious Manhattan thunder storm which opens the picture is sloughed off by Lawrence with the hysterical “Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party.”

Like CAT, the climax is quite hair-raising, leaving audiences grateful for Hope’s accurate aside to Goddard, “I’ll flip ya for who faints first.”

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE GHOST BREAKERS looks grand, with Charles Lang’s eerie photography once again rising admirably to the occasion.   Returning with Hope, Goddard, DeLeon and Lang is composter Toch providing an appropriately goosebumpy score.  Extras include another audio commentary by Lee Gambin, a Trailers from Hell segment with Larry Karaszewski and the original 1940 coming attractions.

GHOST BREAKERS was a top earner for Paramount, enough for them to prepare another teaming for its leads.  The 1941 result, Nothing But the Truth, was a pleasant comedy – this time sans any supernatural overtones – but using the plotline that would essentially become the basis for the Jim Carrey pic, Liar, LiarGHOST BREAKERS itself would be remade a third time, in 1953, as a vehicle for Martin & Lewis (Scared Stiff), with Jerry playing the Best role (in Dean and Jerry Paramount remakes, Lewis either was given parts previously enacted by women or African-Americans; do with that what ye may).

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (CAT # K24898)

THE GHOST BREAKERS (CAT # K24638)

Black and white; Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  SRP:  $24.95.

Children of the Cane

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

Arthouse meets Grindhouse in the thoroughly entertaining, thought provoking and downright creepy French import, ZOMBI CHILD, a 2020 sleeper blocked from a wider release due to COVID, but now thankfully available on DVD from Film Movement (in collaboration with Indefilms 7/Cofinova 15/Cinemage 13/Playtime/Canal+).

The movie opens in 1962 where politically persecuted citizen Clairvius Narcisse is assassinated, zombie-tized and doomed to work in an enemy’s sugar cane fields.  But Narcisse still has a spark of human left in him.  He strives to regain his identity back, slowly and painfully – eschewing the zombie ethics of sustenance and plotting a seemingly impossible escape.  This, he does, and, aided by his people’s spells and ways, eventually arrives back in the pseudo-civilized village where he was raised.  Here, the survivor is taken in by a former love.  They rekindle their romance, marry, and procreate.  And Clairvius feels cured.

Flash forward 55 years later.  Narcisse’s stunning granddaughter, Melissa, attends a prestigious French boarding school.  Always feeling a bit different, and glomming onto the clique of goths, Melissa is shocked when, teased by the prerequisite mean girls, she exhibits strange powers…and hungers.  Determined to investigate these cravings, the young woman confides in her aunt Katy (with whom she lives), who is far from normal herself, and feels that it might be time to divulge some family secrets.  It all goes to Hell (literally) when a supposedly innocent classmate gets spurned by her first love(r), and seeks out Melissa’s and Katy’s special gifts for the worst vengeance possible.

ZOMBI CHILD joins the diverse group of walking dead movies that offer more than mere flesh-eating carnage (Maggie, Warm Bodies, Miss Zombie, etc.).  A true original, the pic, as excellently directed, written, scored and coproduced by Bertrand Bonello garnered rave reviews by the few who were able to see it during the height of pandemic.  Sumptuously shot on-location in Haiti and France by Yves Cape, ZOMBI CHILD boasts a terrific cast, including Wislanda Louimat (as Melissa), Katiana Milfort (as Katy), Mackenson Bijou (as Clairvius), and Louise Labeque (the not-so-innocent innocent), Sayyid El Alami, Adile David, Ninon Francois, Mathilde Riu, Ginite Popote, and Nehemy Pierrre-Dahomey (as the infamous Baron Samedi).

The Film Movement DVD of ZOMBI CHILD looks and sounds wonderful in its anamorphic widescreen dimensions and 5.1 (or 2.0) stereo-surround (in French, Creole, and English with English subtitles).  Extras include audio commentary by auteur Bonello, and a related short, Child of the Sky, directed by Phillip Montgomery.  Yeah, I wish it was Blu-Ray, but I’m happy to own this beguiling emotional thrill ride in any disc format.

ZOMBI CHILD. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 or 2.0 stereo-surround [French, Creole and English w. English subtitles].  Film Movement/ Indefilms 7/Cofinova 15/Cinemage 13/Playtime/Canal+.  CAT # ZOMBICHILDFM.  SRP: $24.95.

Who Wouldn’t Take Precautions During a Plague!?

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2021

One of the most atmospheric and underrated in the remarkable series of Val Lewton-produced RKO horror thrillers, 1945’s ISLE OF THE DEAD, directed by Mark Robson and starring Boris Karloff, is resurrected on Blu-Ray, thanks to the ghoulish gang at The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.

Mixing history with horror can, if done correctly, add goose-bump realism to the frightening proceedings – and here it’s done correctly.  With a vengeance.

It is 1912 Greece, and the First Balkan War is an ongoing atrocity.  General Nikolas Pherides, one of the most feared military leaders – a man known for his brutality and take-no-prisoners demeanor – is being interviewed for a series of articles by Oliver Davis, an American war correspondent.  In the midst of the grim surroundings, a plague – a super-lethal pandemic – breaks out.  Davis, General Pherides, and a handful of his men become the disease’s captives as they choose to remain on a small island, inhabited by ex-pats and reclusive civilians.  The guests become unnerved as the pandemic closes in – claiming victim after victim…some of whom are then seen roaming the fog-bound shores, adjoining woods and ancient cemetery.  Myths prey on the minds as the plague does on the bodies, and whispered rumors of vorvolaka, a vampiric demon, become the believed facts as death and insanity take over the few remaining humans.  Along with star Karloff (as the General) and Marc Cramer as Davis, the fine cast includes Ellen Drew, Jason Robards, Sr., Alan Napier, Katherine Emery, Helene Thimig, and Skelton Knaggs (always a good choice for a horror show, as he really didn’t require much makeup).

Skin-crawling terror is the perfect way to describe this triumph, thanks to the aforementioned fine performers, ace direction (considered by many to be Robson’s best movie), and a tense script by Ardel Wray and Josef Mischel (with uncredited assist from Lewton).  Jack MacKenzie’s moody photography increases the fear factor, as does the staccato-punctuated score by Leigh Harline – now looking and sounding better than ever in this new Warner Archive 1080p transfer.

Strangely enough, there were outside forces that plagued the production, appending the narrative’s pandemic.  Star Karloff shut down production for five months, due to emergency back surgery.  Rose Hobart, an excellent actress (best known for her “good girl” role in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), was cast in a major female role, but had to leave the picture by the time of Karloff’s return because of a prior commitment (ironically, another horror pic – Columbia’s thoroughly bizarre Soul of a Monster, well-worth checking out since it features Hobart as Satan!); she was replaced in the pic by Katherine Emery. ISLE OF THE DEAD has, thus, become one of Hollywood’s infamous “curse” movies (Hobart, who passed away in 2000, swore that she still recognized herself in the long shots); it also remains the only Lewton RKO horror title to barely rise above the break even line (it only showed a profit of $13,000); this is in direct opposition to 1942’s Cat People, which helped save the financially-stressed studio.

Featuring audio commentary by Dr. Steven Haberman, and the original theatrical trailer, ISLE OF THE DEAD is guaranteed to make your classic horror night a screaming success.

ISLE OF THE DEAD. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B08WSDW22X.  SRP: $14.49.

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

Dark Victories, Part Two

Up to cinematic no good in sinister back alleys, pitch black nocturnal streets, and, surprisingly, respectable homes and strange locales, FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA, VOLUME IV (a three-disc set, now on Blu-Ray from the gunsels at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/ Universal Studios) opens with a bang.  And, of course, we mean that literally.

As suggested above, what makes this volume different from the others is the diverse choice of shadowy dramas – a perfect example of how, during its peak, the genre could adapt to almost any situation. Case in point, the action-packed steamy-seamy exotic 1947 hit CALCUTTA.  The penchant for noir to be placed in foreign, mysterious locales took on an almost sidebar genre after the war.  Saigon, Singapore, Tokyo Joe, The Bribe, Captain Carey, U.S.A., Mara Maru and a slew of others peppered the spicy fare for nabes, along with the homegrown mean street stuff.  Natch, they were all filmed on the backlots in Hollywood; and, likewise, as in this selection, often starred Paramount’s (again, literally) fair-haired boy, Alan Ladd.

Ladd’s in his tough guy noir element here, as a member of a post-WWII Far Eastern air transport service, along with pals William Bendix and John Whitney.

When Whitney’s character, Bill Cunningham, gets knocked off in a dead end row, Neale Gordon (Ladd) and Pedro Blake (Bendix), sick of official red tape, decide to take matters into their own hands.  Before you can say, blackjacked, Gordon is torpedoed into a whirlpool of oily casinos, oilier casino plungers, ruthless gun runners, jewel smuggling and drop-dead gorgeous dames (Gail Russell AND June Duprez). “You’re cold…and egotistical,” mouths a memorable inhabitant to our hero.  “Yeah, but I’m alive,” is his reply, in a delivery worthy of Mitchum.  The script by producer Seton I. Miller is chock full of lethal bon mots, including this smoothie-doozie: “I would have hated to have killed you.”

The no-nonsense direction is by genre specialist John Farrow, and features shimmering black-and-white photography by John F. Seitz.  A memorable score by Victor Young tops the package on this replay-friendly disc (the movie was one of those Paramounts that used to air on TV constantly throughout the 1960s, then disappeared in the 1970s; it’s so good to see it back in this striking 35MM transfer) that also offers great thesp support from Lowell Gilmore, Edith King, Paul Singh, Gavin Muir, Benson Fong, Gertrude Astor, Jimmy Aubrey, Don Beddoe, Harry Cording, Milton Parsons, and Bobby Barber.

The platter includes audio commentary by critic Nick Pinkerton and the theatrical trailer.

1948’s AN ACT OF MURDER draws the fine line between straight drama and noir, placing people usually divorced from the genre into noose-tightening situations.  In this case, the protagonists aren’t private dicks, returning war vets or guilty amnesiacs, but a happily married middle-aged couple.

Judge Calvin Cooke and his wife Cathy have raised a family and are gleefully looking forward to finally enjoying some golden years alone time.  Cooke, a conservative member of the bar who’s lived by the black or white rule of law is about to be thrown a curve.  Cathy begins suffering from excruciating pains that their family doctor discovers is the worst case scenario.  She has cancer, and will disintegrate mentally and physically, slowly and agonizingly.

The judge, unable to take the stress of watching his spouse die a horrible death fantasizes, then decides to bring to fruition a quicker solution.  He will murder her, thus ending the woman’s torture.  An idea his professional self would have loathed, Cooke learns that there are instances where drastic measures might become the moral and right thing to do.

The final denouement reveals one additional shocking layer to the judge’s story, as the walls keep closing in.

Certainly a movie meant to cause a debate (especially in 1948), AN ACT OF MURDER was directed by then-noir ace Michael Gordon (The Web, Woman in Hiding, The Lady Gambles), before becoming known for his most famous work…Pillow Talk (his second most famous work is grandson Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and coscripted by Michael Blankfort (Gordon would be blacklisted; Blankfort would hire out as a “front”) with Robert Thoeren (from the novel The Mills of Gods by Ernst Lothar).  The cast is first-rate, led by real-life husband and wife Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, and also featuring Edmond O’Brien, Geraldine Brooks, Stanley Ridges, John McIntire, Will Wright, Virginia Brissac, Francis McDonald, Don Beddoe, Clarence Muse, Harry Harvey, Thomas E. Jackson, Ray Teal, and Russ Conway.  The slick black-and-white cinematography is by Hal Mohr and the score by Daniele Amfitheatrof wrap up this controversial package, handsomely remastered for this Kino-Lorber set in 35MM 1080p perfection (extras include a trailer gallery and audio commentary by Sammi Deighan).

For me, 1955’s SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS is VOLUME IV’s gem.

A fictional depiction of the events surrounding the world-famous 1950 Great Brinks robbery, screenwriter Sydney Boehm (working from Joseph F. Dinnen’s story “They Stole $25,000,000 – and Got Away With It”) leaves no crooked stone unturned, as he goes for the grittiest, most violent and authentic lifestyles that a major studio could get away with in the mid-1950s.  The cast is noteworthy (more on that later), the lead spectacular:  Tony Curtis plays Jerry Florea, a person so “genuine,” that I used to think he was he was based on a real dude.

Florea grows up in the slums of Boston, never trusting a cop – always going for whatever it takes to live in high style.  But Florea isn’t a mere thug, he’s an intelligent, savvy, charming playa who quickly learns how to buck the system.

When rookie cop Ed Gallagher takes a liking to him, things seem to be pointed toward the turning-over-a-new-leaf direction.  But, as the years pass, (with Gallagher now a detective), Florea is carving it both ways – an informant for the police, and the mastermind behind the most famous heist in the history of the State, if not the country.

The not-so-secret reason behind Gallagher’s guardian angel jones for Florea is guilt.  He had earlier shot the young thief in a…very vulnerable area.  No exact mention is made (it is 1955 after all), except that he “can never have children.”  Still, pretty raw for the period.  When Gallagher realizes he’s been played for a fool, it’s quite a noirish moment to savor.

Director Joseph Pevney keeps the action and twisting human emotions in check, and master cinematographer William Daniels provides a stark black-and-white tableau of Fifties Massachusetts (where much of the movie was shot).  The cast supporting Curtis is top-drawer, although his two costars aren’t shown to the greatest advantage. George Nader (as Gallagher) is a basically your standard jughead cop, certainly no match for Curtis.  Julie Adams is totally wasted (in a non-alcoholic way) in the role of Ellen, Gallagher’s wife; there are rarely any scenes of the hausfrau outside of the Gallagher kitchen, gratuitously doling out the vittles with a plethora of platitudes (“How was your day?” “Dinner’s ready.” “You look so tired.”  “Hi, Jerry, there’s plenty for three.” You get it).  Everyone else, however, is way up to snuff.  Sal Mineo plays teen Tony and the remainder thugs ‘n’ mugs are ably impersonated by Jay C. Flippen (I think it was the law that every Fifties movie HAD to have either him or Robert Keith in the cast), Jan Merlin, Tito Vuolo, Paul Dubov, Peter Leeds, and Curtis’s real-life off-screen pal Nicky Blair.

The widescreen transfer is aces, and the score by Frank Skinner and Herman Stein functions well, with the credits offering a surprise treat of a title song composed by no less than fellow Universal-International star Jeff Chandler, and sung by Sammy Davis, Jr.!  Extras include commentary by Deighan and a wonderful 1955 TV promo piece with Curtis.

Early proof that Tony Curtis was more than a pretty boy, SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS was the actor’s stepping stone to Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones and other later successes.

FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA, VOLUME IV.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]/Widescreen [1.85:1 for Six Bridges to Cross].  1080p High Definition.  2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24734.  SRP: $49.95.