Category Archives: Uncategorized

Alcohol Poisoning

One of the most underrated movies of the Seventies, 1970’s THE MOONSHINE WAR, directed by the equally underrated Richard Quine, comes (at last) to made-to-order DVD-R from the folksy brood at The Warner Archive Collection.  An MGM picture from its fade-out days, MOONSHINE is a grim glimmer of dark greatness that the studio had occasionally achieved when not putting on a show in a barn approximately the size of Dallas.

Based on a terrific novel by Elmore Leonard, who also penned the excellent script, MOONSHINE chronicles the unsavory activities of a number of shady characters during the peak of the Great Depression.  It’s 1932, and out of a muggy, misty sweltering night drives Frank Long, an IRS agent assigned to track down the makers and flow of illegal liquor.  But Long is more than just an imposing, creepy symbol of law enforcement.  He’s a greedy racist – out to score the coup of his life.  For here, in the small, sleepy Kentucky town, resides Long’s former Army buddy, the genial, stalwart, but defiant John W. “Son” Martin – who also happens to the best white lightening brewer in the territory.  While convivial with the rest of the community (they drink, joke and carouse together at his farm), Son’s claim to fame is a supposed stash of 150 barrels of prime stuff.  With Roosevelt about to be elected, and the end of Prohibition practically guaranteed, Long wants to partner up with Martin and pass the bootlegged hooch off as the real McCoy before the legit labels can get back to business.  But Son doesn’t need any partners (except his pal, Aaron, an African-American confident (whom Long threatens to lynch).  If Frank wants the merch, he can pay – like everybody else.

The dichotomy between Long and Martin would be rich enough to fuel the narrative – if this wasn’t simply the hillbilly noir gold mine it is.  Long and Son are mirrored bad/good opposites (Frank’s sexual longing for the beautiful manager of the hotel he’s staying at is another connection; turns out, she’s John’s lover).  While, as indicated, Long is genuinely spooky, corrupt and bigoted – he’s bad, not evil.  This distinction is underlined in blood when the Revenuer calls in assistance to aid his quest.  That nightmare arrives in the personification of  Doc Emmett Taulbee, a “defrocked” dentist, whose license was revoked for gassing female patients who he subsequently raped.  Doc travels with two young ‘uns, at first glance – possibly his children.  ‘Ceptin’ they ain’t.  There’s the thoroughly psychopathic Dual Metters, one of the most scary SOBs ever to stain a reel of celluloid, and Miley Mitchell, an under-aged teen prostitute simultaneously naively innocent and carnally bankrupt; depending on his whim, Doc passes her off as his daughter, wife, ward…

It doesn’t take a stable genius to figure that the partnership between Long and Doc ain’t gonna hold.  Soon the degenerate ex-medical man has called in a company of killers to pose as Feds and (hopefully) confiscate the truckloads of Holy Grail booze for himself.

The sanguinary conflict soon involves the entire locale, including Lizann (the manager), Mr. Baylor (the wily sheriff) and all the neighboring farmers who count on their ‘shine to keep them afloat during these days’ worst times.

As mentioned, the script and direction are top-notch.  While at first glance, Quine, mostly known as a comedy director (Bell, Book and Candle, The Notorious Landlady, How to Murder Your Wife), might seem a weird choice for this scenario; not so, as he was additionally a master at depicting the lower depths of Americana.  Earlier on, he made a series of noirs, including the superb 1954 Pushover and the brilliant 1960 drama of sexual predators in the suburbs Strangers When We MeetMOONSHINE ranks as one of his best works.

Of course, none of this would work if it wasn’t for the cast, and THE MOONSHINE WAR is a prime-tier pantheon of thespian versatility.  As the quiet, intrinsically decent but no-nonsense Son, Alan Alda has perhaps his best big screen role.  And as the slimy Long, Patrick McGoohan definitely delivers his best American movie performance.  Top honors, however, may have to go to the actor portraying the terrifying Doc – Richard Widmark, in likely his finest late career appearance.  Widmark, who (like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan) could excel as either hero or villain, made cinema history with his breakout 1947 debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death.  Along with his racist turn in 1950’s No Way Out, THE MOONSHINE WAR cements a trilogy of three of cinema’s worst cases of humanity (Doc even has Udo’s laugh).  A wild card is the debut of the maniac assistant Dual, spectacularly envisioned by Lee Hazelwood (yep, THAT Lee Hazelwood – the “Boots are Made for Walking” dude).  One scene, that had me gasping in 1970, still remains a shocker.  In a dingy diner, Hazelwood’s Metters notices a young couple having lunch.  He is taken by the man’s tan suit, and compliments the wearer on it.  And then tells him he wants it.  He systematically forces (at gunpoint) the male to strip, then demands the underwear as well.  When the victim’s companion screams to Doc to help, the psychopath turns to Miley, and decides he’d like the woman’s dress for his baby lover.  The terrified woman, too, is forced to strip down to her skin.  Again, even these roles are wonderfully cast:  Claude Johnson and Terri Garr (billed as Terry).  Other fantastic actors in the pic include Will Geer (as the sheriff), Melodie Johnson (as Lizann), Suzanne Zenor (Miley), Joe Williams (Aaron) and Bo Hopkins, Harry Carey, Jr., Max Showalter, John Schuck, Charles Tyner, Dick Crockett and Tom Skerritt. 

One of the downsides of THE MOONSHINE WAR was its being assigned to MGM’s Martin Ransohoff.  A producer with a true feeling for a worthy project, he nevertheless often botched every Metro vehicle he took over (the most notorious being Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers).  For all its merits, THE MOONSHINE WAR looks tampered with (obvious to even an untrained eye) via jagged missing continuity.  Like the Polanski flick, it still rises to greatness, and remains a must-see for fans of the magnificent actors in the show.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE MOONSHINE WAR is near-pristine 35MM, and looks pretty much as good as it did when I caught in 1970.  The widescreen MetroColor photography of Richard H. Kline is warm and gritty – a necessary function to invoke the seamy, steamy atmosphere and downright ugliness of the proceedings.  The mono track nicely replicates the original release, including the country-tinged (if not a bit anachronistic) score by Fred Karger and Neal Hefti, plus an original Hank Williams, Jr. song “Ballad of the Moonshine,” with lyrics by author Leonard.

A nasty look at the worst of humanity, THE MOONSHINE WAR remarkably remains consistently engrossing.  And, when all is said and done, the ending will make you cheer in a classic Bijou popcorn way.

THE MOONSHINE WAR. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 mono. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Turner Entertainment.  CAT # N/A. SRP: $19.95.

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

The Color Line

As I’ve often written (cinema-wise), nothing gives me greater pleasure than when the home video companies catch up with through-the-cracks obscurities and make them available in pristine 35MM Blu-Ray editions.  Win/win, again, folks, for the Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios release of the 1952 war drama RED BALL EXPRESS.

Of course, you’ve never heard of it; that’s why it’s obscure.  And we’re not simply talking about the movie.  I’m also referring to the operation depicted in the motion picture.  Why no one has heard of a 1952 black-and-white movie is understandable (although, in my world, unacceptable).  But how come the actual Red Ball Express?  And why haven’t there been more movies made about it?

Okay, let me backtrack.  We’ve seen newsreels and movies and TV shows, read books and magazine articles about major battles during wars, particularly World War II.  You see the tanks firing, the half-tracks rolling, the soldiers fighting.  Now, how was that possible?  I mean, who supplied the gasoline, the food (you know, they travel on their stomach), the medical supplies?  You NEVER hear about that.  Well, battalions of unsung heroes braved the war zones to do just that.  And they were christened the Red Ball Express.  Interesting cinematic idea, what?  Well, there’s more.  While the military (and even baseball, fer Christ’s sake) was still segregated, the Red Ball Express was equally populated by black and white soldiers. No favoritism, no outranking – all equals: fighting, driving, dying together.

True enough, not one of the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Warners, Paramount, RKO) was interested in the project, largely based upon veteran author Louis L’Amour’s autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man (he was a proud RBE trooper), so the vehicle ended up at Universal-International.  They bit, and greenlit the pic, with the cooperation of the armed services who allowed the studio to do extensive filming at Fort Eustis, Newport News, Virginia.

The cast was to be a roster of U-I contractees, led by one the company’s stars Jeff Chandler, a top attraction in 1952 (plus newbies Hugh O’Brian and Gregg Palmer).  In addition, RED BALL features such familiar Forties, Fifties, and Sixties faces as Alex Nichol, Howard Petrie, Harry Lauter, Richard Garland, Judith Braun, Arthur Space, and (a very early appearance by) Jack Warden.  Other cast members (specifically the African-American actors, Bubber Johnson and Davis Roberts) were recruited independently.  The script (a wonderful one, by the way) is by my candidate for screenwriting god, John Michael Hayes.  Hayes wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rear Window; had he done no other picture ever, he’d still be on the first tier of the Neuhaus Hollywood scribe pantheon (he also penned several other Hitch titles, including To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and one of my favorite big-budget westerns of all-time, Nevada Smith).

The movie was shot by Russell Metty, another Neuhaus nominee for best at his art (just check out his Sirk work!).  Finally, the direction is by the brilliant Budd Boetticher, who beautifully infuses the narrative with the correct amount of drama, suspense (specifically, a seemingly cakewalk trek through a minefield), action (a breathless finale) and humor.  And, yes, nothing is sugar-coated.  The prognosis was grim for the RBE – a Rogue’s Gallery of “volunteers” considered expendable-plus (many of the selected troopers were a la Dirty Dozen picks).  But they showed ’em.  Boetticher tackles the obvious initial conflict of racism, and handles it well.  Soon, even the pre-MAGA-type asshole becomes team player.  Boetticher even manages to make the usually stodgy Charles Drake more animated than ever (he plays a former civilian writer, no doubt based on L’Amour).

The Red Ball Express mostly went “by the book,” as enforced by their reluctant, but liberal commander (Chandler), yet often veered off the road to aid suffering villagers on the brink of starvation and in dire medical need.  It was truly a humanitarian outfit.

The jagged collision of cultural harmony is another plus in the pic’s DNA, working as unit of one – and occasionally shaming the dogfaces they’re serving.  There’s even a feminist equality vibe, as the RBE often worked side-by-side with nurses/USO traveling convoy.  This movie genuinely does have everything.

For Universal-International, RED BALL eventually paid off in big dividends.  The excellent actor James Edwards was originally cast as the rebellious hothead Robertson, but proved to be too controversial when he refused to testify before HUAC.  Searching the thesp directories for a last-minute replacement, the U-I suits settled upon a young up-and-comer with only a couple of movies under his belt.  His name was Sidney Poitier.  With Poitier, Chandler, O’Brian (as the reformed racist) and Maverick’s Jack Kelly heading the lineup, TV screenings were plentiful throughout the 1960s.  Again, why it kind of subsequently disappeared is a head-scratcher.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of RED BALL EXPRESS is a treat and a half.  Not only in rediscovering this movie and piece of American history, but doing so in a crisp 1080p transfer. Extras include audio commentary by film historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin (author of Combat Films: American Realism), plus a collection of related trailers.

A war flick that absolutely deserves a better rep, and certainly one of the best of director Boetticher’s U-I output, THE RED BALL EXPRESS is an authentic diamond-in-the-rough, worthy of a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.

THE RED BALL EXPRESS.  Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24925. SRP: $24.95.

The Ugly, the Ugly and the Ugly: Spaghetti with Extra Sauce

One of the most unusual, freakish and violent spaghetti westerns ever made (and that’s saying a lot!), 1972’s THE GRAND DUEL, directed by Giancarlo Santi, comes to Blu-Ray in an extras-laden special edition, thanks to the folks at Arrow/MVDvisual.

The movie, while predominantly spaghetti in flavor and origin, is actually a co-production with France and Germany – so add sides of crepes (pronounced “creeps”) and brats.

The story, while on the surface seems typical of the genre, is remarkably fresh and different – yet, dutifully pays homage to Leone, as well as to the great Sergio Sollima 1967 entry The Big Gundown (DUEL’s alternate Euro title was The Big Showdown); the movie additionally is a nod to it’s spaghetti superstar lead Lee Van Cleef.  You’ll also notice references to Death Rides a Horse, The Mercenary, and other staples of the beloved genre; furthermore, you can throw in Stagecoach and Man Without a Star, among the slew American masterpieces, likewise duly paid tribute in a revisionist, stylish way.

Van Cleef plays Clayton, a fairly honest lawman, whose striving for justice in an unjust land, gets him the boot – and not in a nice way.  He rescues a young fall guy, Newland (Horst Frank) – about to be dealt with for the murder of a local icon, known as The Patriarch.  Together, the pair set out to solve the killing, leaving a trail of bodies and carnage behind.

As you might have guessed, THE GRAND DUEL is as much a mystery as a western.  Credit this to screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, acclaimed scribe of many classic gialli.  Director Santi, a former a.d. to Leone on GBU and Once Upon a Time in the West, excels in creating the necessary suspense and pulling off some amazing action sequences.

Most bizarre is the confrontation with the despicably evil Saxon family, particularly sociopathic son Adam.  Adam Saxon is more than a mere vicious psychopath – he’s a bisexual vicious psychopath, his face pockmarked with remnants of decades of STDs.  It’s that kind of a show.

Van Cleef, as usual, is terrific, using all of his formidable tricks of the trade, aka them “angel eyes,” a penchant for delivering lean dialog with scalpel effect, and fast gunfighting skills.  The supporting cast admirably backs him up, and deserves mention – especially the aforementioned Frank, Peter O’Brien, Jess Hahn, Antonio Casale, Dominque Darel, Matt Mazza, Alessandra Cardini, and  Anna Maria Gheraldi.  Most prominent is the actor portraying the loathsome Adam – Germany’s Klaus Gunsberg.  It’s an astonishing performance from a thesp whose only other pic I’ve seen him in was as the likeable, doomed protagonist in Barbet Schroeders’ 1969 psychedelic noir More (playing opposite the great Mimsy Farmer, in possibly her finest role).

The remaining credits are top-notch as well, specifically the beautiful scope camerawork of Mario Vulpiani and the wonderful score by Sergio Bardotti (pseudonym for Luis Enriquez Bacalov, best known as the composer of the original Django, The 10th Victim, and  It Can Be Done Amigo. A recent posthumous credit is as music contributor to the current hit BBC series Killing Eve; Bardotti/Bacalov passed in 2007).

The new Arrow 1080p High Def Blu-Ray remaster of THE GRAND DUEL looks, well…grand, I’m sure better than any U.S. print did in 1972 or since (this, by the way, is the complete rendition – not the badly edited and censored nonsense, released in many Anglo territories under the title Storm Rider); it is accessible in either the English dub or the Italian cut (the latter with excellent English subtitles).

As indicated above, a fistful of supplements append this release, and include vintage and newly filmed interviews with director Santi, costar Peter O’Brien (aka Alberto Dentice), writer Gastaldi, producer Ettore Rosboch, and assistant director Harald Buggenig.  There is also a documentary on the pic by Austin Fisher, audio commentary by film critic Stephen Prince, plus a visual gallery of stills, international poster art and home video sleeves.  There is also a comparison between the various versions of THE GRAND DUEL, and a rare sci-fi 1984 short, Game Over, featuring costar Matt Mazza (there’s even a separate mini look at Mazza’s career!).

A thoroughly engrossing and underrated late spaghetti offering, THE GRAND DUEL checks off all the boxes, and then some.  Or, maybe, I should have said “coffins.”

THE GRAND DUEL. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Uncompressed 1.0 LPCM mono audio.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV189. SRP: $39.95.

Kick-ass Lass

These are extraordinary times, to be sure – and you don’t need the likes of me to inform the reading public of such things.  Nevertheless a ripple effect has, not surprisingly, spread its concentric circles of contemporary inequality into the motion picture industry, aka the revenge genre.  One of the spinoff results has been the flourishing of a deserved sub-genre: the lower-middle class female payback flick.  Perhaps the best example of this (to date) is the 2019 action-horror pic A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND, now on DVD from the terrific (and progressive) gang at Film Movement (in conjunction with February Films and Frakas Productions).

An Irish-Euro co-production (largely filmed in Belgium), A GOOD WOMAN takes the genre to new heights.  Whereas previous entries like the misguided Trumpian racist Peppermint and the entertaining blaxploitation throwback Proud Mary heralded women wronged and/or fed up, A GOOD WOMAN doesn’t center on a super female killing machine (either groomed from adolescence nor trained in the martial arts).  Sarah Collins is an average single mom, a widow with two small children, whose husband, an alleged drug dealer, was murdered.  Steadfastly loyal, Sarah refuses to believe the evidence of her spouse’s wrongdoing, but is stymied because she’s basically a nobody.  Even less so, as the police couldn’t be more apathetic in finding the victim’s killer (“Just let sleeping dogs lie.”).  The situation becomes worse at home when Collins’ own acid-tongued mother sides with the cops and eschews her daughter.

But Sarah knows better, and she is right.  With total ostracization and dwindling finances becoming an issue, the determined woman has to find resources to keep her going, and to prevent the walls (physically and psychologically) from closing in.  Also, she must keep on the “good face” for her son (who saw the murder and has been mute-traumatized ever since) and daughter.

And this isn’t even the crux of her woes.

Tito, a local scumbag druggie/thief hits a hood’s main cartel, and, as (rotten) luck would have it, breaks into Sarah’s home to hide-out.  The thug thinks he’s hooked into a dream deal.  Making a fortune from the stolen drugs and having a terrified woman as his new sex toy.

And here is where Tito lives to regret his decision, and Sarah asserts herself to salvage respect, dignity and fight for the safety of her children.  And it ain’t pretty.  The violence the young woman is capable of shocks Collins as much as her targets, but wins over her estranged mater (“You have to be a bit of a bitch!”), helps to solve the murder and horrifies the baddies.  LSS: Don’t mess with a mom!

The fact that it’s all believably and logically presented is a big nod to director Abner Pastoll, writer Ronan Blaney, and star Sarah Bolger.  Other key performances include Andrew Sim, Jane Brennan and Sean Sloan as a predatory supermarket detective who pegs Sarah as easy prey (his comeuppance is a highlight).

What makes this movie so engrossing and relevant transcends the gloom-and-doom scenario and gore (the latter, which is on view a-plenty).  There are several sequences of genuine situational humor sprinkled throughout – the best being a sexually deprived Collins desperately rummaging through her kids’ toys trying to find batteries for her vibrator (it reminds me of a less hilarious, but equally memorable moment from Jennifer Kent’s excellent Babadook, starring the great Essie Davis).

The DVD of A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is quite shipshape, with nicely composed  anamorphic widescreen imagery (by d.p. Richard C. Bell) rendered faithfully and an effective stereo-surround track (containing a churning score by Matthew Pusti).  There are some nifty extras as well, including deleted scenes, outtakes, a “Making of” featurette and audio commentary by director Pastoll.

Of course, the pic did not get a major release here, due to it’s being a foreign item (albeit in English) from a small distributor and, of course, the emerging pandemic.  Social media comments certainly reflect the misogynist attitudes of dumbass males who can’t fathom the concept of an enraged average 2020 female movie character while having no credibility problems with John Wick.  Ignore them, and check this out.  Methinks you’ll be rewarded by the results and will champion the fantastic work of Ms. Bolger.

A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND. Color. Widescreen [2.39:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Film Movement/February Films/Frakas Productions.  SRP: $24.95.

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Law of the Lawless

AUGUST IS ACORN/RJL ENTERTAINMENT MONTH

Imagine if Aubrey Plaza was head writer on Midsomer Murders, and you have a good idea what to expect from the wonderful 2019 Australian crime series MY LIFE IS MURDER, now on Blu-Ray from Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/Screen Australia/Network 10/Film Victoria.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but some real careful sarcastic planning went into this irreverent detective series starring Lucy Lawless, in what is likely to become her mature signature role.  Lawless (who also functions as co-Executive Producer) plays Alexa Crowe, a former top sleuth on the force (and a widower of her apparent male counterpart), now happily eking out a living as a gourmet pastry chef/supplier for a chic Melbourne cafe.

But Alexa, who also majored in verbal smackdowns, was sooooo good at her job that old boss, D.I. Kieran Hussey, occasionally drops by with unsolvable homicide case files that Crowe manages to dash off as expertly as one of her brioches.  So, unofficially, she’s back in (infrequent) action, and even has been given an equally cynical tech-savvy sidekick, Madison Feliciano (The Heart Guy‘s terrific Ebony Vagulans).

Granted, the cases are high-profile and upper class situated – and, frankly, probably will be solved by experienced armchair gumshoes scrutinizing the narratives.  But, as I often like to say, getting there is half the fun; well, in MY LIFE IS MURDER, it’s ALL the fun.

The shows are superbly scripted (Matt Ford, Peter Gawler, Ainslie Clouston, Chris Hankshaw, Claire Tonkin, Tim Pye, Monica Zanetti, Paul Bennett, Chris Corbett), directed (Leah Purcell, Mat King, Jovita O’Shaughnessy. Ben C. Lucas) and, most importantly photographed (Matthew Temple).  In regard to the latter, I can’t recall recently seeing any series so beautifully rendered in urban and suburban imagery; damn, Melbourne is one gorgeous place.

Blowing the lids off such corrupt-friendly targets as cooking schools, the music business, psychics, health clubs, posh private learning institutions, the cosmetic industry, funerals, P.R. firms and more, MURDER, as indicated, benefits from the sharp dialog and, seamless chemistry between Lawless and Vagulans.  Their can-you-top-this byplay mercifully transcends the Spielbergian antagonistic cuteness that has infantilized the American motion picture and television factions; it is genuine and, oft-inspired gotcha snarkasm (again, it would be negligible if it weren’t for the fact that Alexa and Madison’s quips thinly mask an under-the-surface mutual affection).

While the other regulars (Alex Andreas, Todd River, Dilruk Jayasinha, Kate McCartney) do excellent work, Lawless is flawless in her depiction of a don’t-fuck-with-me shamus.  The guest casts additionally ratchet up the fun element of the show, and include such stellar Oz punims as Don Hany, Magda Szubanski, Adrienne Pickering, Nadine Garner.  One ep (The Locked Room), features former Xena inhabitant Danielle Cormack, and you can practically see the two formidable actresses lip-biting to not break up during some of their confrontational moments.

The Acorn Blu-Ray of MY LIFE IS MURDER is (what else?) stunning.  The High-Def visuals matched by the 2.0 stereo-surround will rock your home theater (a perky music score by Burkhard von Dallwitz and Brett Alpin is another plus.  The ten episode set (spread over three platters) is appended by over a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and even some animated gag shorts.

Soooooo looking forward to Alexa’s further adventures.  Hey, if you can’t laugh at killing, why bother living?

MY LIFE IS MURDER. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Screen Austrailia/Film Victoria/CJZ Productions/Network 10. CAT# AMP-2733. SRP: $59.95.

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That’s a (Partial) Wrap! Loose Ends, Part Two

AUGUST IS ACORN MEDIA/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT MONTH

DETECTORISTS and DELICIOUS, two of the quirkiest comedies ever to grace the international airways, chose 2017 and 2019, respectively, to wind down after a riotous and acclaimed run in the UK (three series for each).  I will truly miss both these whimsical, surreal forays into the bizarre traits of unusual humans (and, in DELICIOUS‘ case, the talking dead); thankfully, I’ll have many of the episodes available at my beck-and-call, due to their availability here on DVD from the eclectic folks at Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record when discussing final seasons (or, in the matter of DELICIOUS, the middle installment) of beloved shows; I guess that also applies to my liberally dropping “Ealing” comparisons.  Well, I do that for one good reason.  These Acorn DVDs and Blu-Rays deserve it.  I AM sorry that a number of wonderful series are ending; and, being a big fan of the classic Ealing comedies, my praise for these Brit shows isn’t as liberal as, shall we say, justified.

 

Case in point:  DETECTORISTS, SERIES 3.  This show has an abundance of eccentrics, charm, serenity, beauty (those locations and the music) and frequent laugh-out-loud humor.

The final six episodes (on two DVDs) from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment keep the lovely flow moving along as we track (likely for the last time) the adventures and misadventures of the inhabitants of Danebury, the small, fictional suburb in Northern Essex (actually Wantisden Farms in Suffolk), mostly personified by Andy Stone and Lance Slater, two members of a detectorist club.  For those new to this show, detectorists are hunters of ancient historical artifacts buried beneath the sod of rural England.

In SERIES 3, Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and his loving, but snarky wife Becky (Racheal Stirling) have returned home from abroad – a super dream job not being what it promised.  With nowhere to live, they move in with Beck’s even-more snarky mater Veronica (played by Stirling’s real-life mum, Diana Rigg, who, not surprisingly, is terrific).  Meanwhile, Lance is having his own share of domestic turmoil – living with two women: his new girlfriend Toni and his grown daughter Kate; it redefines oil and water, plus a dash of nitro.

But there’s trouble afoot throughout the land.  A solar farm company has purchased the land the detectorists vigorously explore.  While solar seems, on the surface, a modern solution to pollution, the powers-that-be behind this particular organization aren’t necessarily types you would deem synonymous with the word “ecology.”  This becomes so crucial, that the long-festering animosity between the vicinity’s two detectorist factions (yes, there are two) is temporarily salved when they team up.  Yep, Philip and Paul (aka Simon and Garfunkel) appear to now be working with Andy and Lance; can this actually be, or is there more chicanery on the horizon?  Furthermore, Andy’s acquiring a new gig as a local excavator (and, therefore, giving him reign/access to his archeological jones while simultaneously opening up a desperate house-hunting/mother-in-law-less search) likewise is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s all an addictive, ephemeral comedic bon-bon that fully lives up to the previous two series.  Enough kudos cannot be accorded to writer/director/star Crook, Toby Jones (as Lance), and Stirling; ditto, the rest of the sensational cast for mining their rich characterizations: Lucy Benjamin, Adam Riches, Gerard Horan, Sophie Thompson, Orion Ben, Pierce Quigley, Divian Ladwa, Laura Checkley, Aimee-Ffion Edwards and David Sterne.  Nods must also be given the gorgeous camerawork of Jamie Cairney (lushly rendered in the Acorn widescreen DVD), and the lilting folksy music of Johnny Flynn (in stereo-surround).  With nearly an hour of extras, DETECTORISTS, SERIES 3, is a satisfying conclusion to a brilliant, original comedy, although bittersweet for me, as I’m sorry to see it end.

 

In 2016, the fantasy-comedy-drama DELICIOUS sent me into a euphoric spin that I still haven’t fully recovered from.  So, natch, I was pumped for the second season, and wasn’t disappointed.  For those out of the loop, who have yet to hear of this show, it philosophically and physically lays out the arguably two greatest pleasures afforded to the human condition:  sex and food.  Both are, as the title states, delicious.  And both are on view in the verdant Cornwall resort where the narrative plays out.  Gourmet chef and successful hotelier Leo Vincent lives with his stunning second wife, Sam, their grown son, Michael, and gran Mimi while overseeing the sumptuous resort/restaurant that his first wife, Gina, and their daughter, Teresa, reside in and operate (she’s the real foodie maestro).  All this frenemy antagonism and inwardly-outwardly attraction takes a jolt when Leo drops dead of a heart attack.  Nevertheless this doesn’t stop him from commenting on ongoing events, which include mentoring fragile but spectacularly witty Teresa.  Of course, financially, this results in some difficulties – possibly smoothed over when the two wives join an uneasy alliance to keep the business afloat.  Not so easily explained is the sexual liaison between Teresa and her half-brother Michael.

In SERIES 2, Sam and Gina face new hazards in addition to their own confrontational relationship, including the still off-and-on romance of their children with each other, Adam, a new handsome brilliantly “endowed” chef, James, a former guest from a long time ago, and, perhaps most alarmingly, the arrival of the latter’s charming con-artist Italian papa, Joe.  But, again, key to all the twists and turns in the scenario is the ever-present intertwining of lust and rapture encompassing the borderline libertine and the epicurean.  This time even outspoken gran gets into the act, enjoying some “afternoon delight” with the devious, rapacious Joe.  But there are secrets revealed along with the new characters, some quite shocking – and for this series, that’s quite a feat.

As usual, the performances are extraordinary, with top honors going to Dawn French (Gina), Emilia Fox (Sam) and Iain Glen (as dead Leo).  Special note must be accorded to Sheila Hancock as the passion-released octogenarian Mimi, and to Tanya Reynolds as Teresa, a truly a gifted, remarkable actress.  On a personal level, the gobsmack factor is in the casting of Franco Nero as Joe.  FRANCO FRIGGIN’ NERO!  The guy from Django, The Mercenary, Companeros, and Hitch-Hike.  Believably playing Dawn French’s parent.  Damn, I’m old!

The behind-the-scene/tech credits rival the on-camera thesps.  The beautiful production, lavishly filmed at Pentillie Castle in Cornwall (by Rasmus Arrildt and Toby Moore) is one of the most sumptuous looking television shows you’re apt to ever feast your eyes on.  The direction (Claire Kilner, John Hardwick) is inventive, the writing (by creator Dan Sefton, with assist from Lee Coan and Ursula Rani Sarma) sardonically offbeat as ever and the music (Rob Lane) quite diverting.  Extras abound, and we hope to be able to sample the already-produced Series 3 in the future.

An addictive albeit spicy recipe, possibly not for everyone’s taste?  Sure.  Wonderful and satisfying –DEFINETLY.

DETECTORISTS, SERIES 3. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/DRG/BBC/Channel X/Lola Entertainment. CAT # AMP-2630.  SRP: $39.95.

DELICIOUS, SERIES 2. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/EndemolShine Group/Sky 1/Bandit Television. CAT # AMP-2597. SRP: $34.95.

 

iClunes

AUGUST IS ACORN MEDIA/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT MONTH

Since 2004, it’s been a hoot to anxiously await and ravenously enjoy the antics of the populace of Portwenn, DOC MARTIN’s fictional Cornwall district (in actuality, the seaside community of Port Issac).  Aside from being about the closest thing contemporary audiences can relate to the eccentrics that once resided within the gates of Ealing, DOC MARTIN is ruled by its title character, the irascible fish-out-of-water transplanted physician Martin Ellingham (brilliantly played by Martin Clunes).  For the past several seasons, avid TV viewers from both sides of the pond were wondering if the newest series would be the last – a decree issued by the show’s producers.  But the popularity of the show and its wonderful characters kept the ratings and praise so high, that the suits (happily) had to keep it going.  Well, SERIES 8 was to be the last installment, but…Well, then, SERIES 9the positively final word on the matter.  Well, we’ll see.  Meantime, we can bask in the pleasures both these collections offer via the recent Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/DRG DVD and Blu-Ray renditions.  In a nutshell, the high bar MARTIN is renowned for has been fastidiously maintained, exploring new avenues for the familiar cast – some quite poignant.

While each SERIES has a number of interesting sidebar scenarios: an upcoming wedding, Ruth considering selling her farm, the Larges’ continuing attempts to become solvent, various diseases and ailments, the further adventures of now-widowed Mrs. Tishell (although hubby, aka Malcolm Storry, is briefly on view in his SERIES 8 swansong appearances), child-rearing for Martin and Louisa, and even a hefty chunk devoted to Buddy, the lovable pooch that has attached himself to pet-hating GP, the key narratives can be whittled down to a pair of crucial scenarios surrounding the lead and his beloved.

Indeed, the major plotlines of the two series’ total of 16 episodes (each spread over three discs) are quite serious on the surface albeit handled in a snarky fashion:  The Ellighams’ having to deal with James Henry’s (played by twins Noah and Luca Frucella-Tildesley in 8, and Elliott Blake in 9) upbringing once their nanny splits, and, Martin’s being offered a high-end position at a revered London hospital.  Each collection is beset by drama:  the former causing Louisa to rethink her career guideline, and ultimately choosing to leave the school she loves to pursue a career in psychology, and, Martin being investigated by the staunch Medical Review Board after a complaint is issued against him concerning his blood phobia.  The latter is quite damning, as it may cost him not only the desired position, but his license to practice medicine.  But even a “disabled” Martin is far more qualified to handle the Portwenn maladies than the array of inept temp replacements and investigators – one who ends up owing Martin his life!

Personally, I found the “final” SERIES most illuminating, as it completely punched me smack dab in my superiority complex.  Early in the productions, local PC Mark Mylow left to go the Barney Fife route in the big city.  His replacement, the fumbling, bumbling Joe Penhale instantly annoyed me from frame one.  Throughout the years, I begrudgingly accepted his presence (due largely to the wonderful portrayal by John Marquez).  Well, in SERIES 9, Mylow returns to the village a failure (Paint it Black) – ready to pick up where he left off.  I had forgotten what a pompous ass the character was, and, more importantly (for all his foibles), how much I’ve grown to really like Penhale.  Another Neuhaus mistake exposed!  Good riddance, Mylow! Other recurring folks and guest stars in the SERIES include Lucy Briggs-Owen, Robyn Addison, Rosie Ede, Rory Wilson, John Hollingworth, Hermione Guilliford, Angela Curran, Conleth Hill, Lucy Russell, and extra special appearances by Sigourney Weaver (All my Trials in 8), Art Malik (Sons and Lovers, also 8), Danny Huston (Wild West Country, in 9) and Tom Conti (Licence to Practice also 9), all obviously fans of the show.  And, aside from those already listed, we’re tickled pink to welcome back Jessica Ransom, Selina Cadell (Mrs. Tishell), the wonderful Eileen Atkins and, as the Larges, Ian McNeice and Joe Absolom.

I won’t share the climactic results of SERIES 9; that said, I WILL tell you that they’re not absolutely resolved to any cut-and-dried conclusion.  This gives us hope that somewhere down the road there may be a SERIES 10 looming in the wings.  I pray this so, as, now more than ever, we NEED Martin’s blunt, searing and oft angry advice.  It would almost qualify as a mandatory PSA to have a DOC MARTIN in the time of COVID, with the short-tempered physician dealing with the a-holes refusing to wear masks.  The possibilities of situations are limitless.  LSS, if anyone can sway idiots, its Martin Ellingham!  But, again, that’s my pipedream.

As mentioned above, the Acorn Media DVD and Blu-Rays of SERIES 8 and 9 are, not surprisingly, up to the company’s lofty standards.  Acorn probably has the best looking DVDs on the market (SERIES 8 is no exception, in excellent anamorphic widescreen), and the Blu-Rays of SERIES 9 display outstanding 1080p resolution.  The stereo-surround tracks are equally impressive, allowing us to savor the background oceanic effects that append the frequently hilarious dialog and charming music scores of Colin Towns. The direction (Nigel Cole, Stuart Orme, Charlie Palmer), writing (Jack Lothian, Richard Stoneman, Colin Bateman, Aschlin Ditta, Julian Unthank, Andrew Rattenbury, Alastair Galbraith, Chris Reddy), and camerawork (Simon Archer), likewise, couldn’t be better.  As usual, each SERIES contains supplemental behind-the-scenes extras, including a segment hosted by the show’s unofficial masters of ceremonies, McNiece and Absolom.  In case I haven’t praised them enough, the cast of regulars remains as terrific as ever.  And Martin Clunes is a comic god!

DOC MARTIN, SERIES 8.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround. CAT# AMP-2593.

DOC MARTIN, SERIES 9. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. CAT # AMP-2599. 

Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/DRG/Buffalo Pictures Production.  SRP: $39.99@

 

That’s a Wrap! Loose Ends, Part One

AUGUST IS ACORN MEDIA/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT MONTH

My absolute acceptance of the cliché, “all good things must come to an end” doesn’t necessarily mean that I like it.  And, true enough, there are so few good things, especially now.  What I have trouble wrapping my need-to-escape brain around is when all GREAT things come to an end.  Thus, I mournfully report on the Blu-Ray Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/EndemolShine Group releases of the final third seasons of THE FALL and HUMANS.

 

2013’s THE FALL quickly became one of the most fascinating, thrilling and creepy shows ever to emerge from either end of the pond.  The story followed two obsessed individuals:  serial killer Paul Spector, who chalks up victim after victim, while perfectly playing the role of dedicated husband and family man (plus being a highly thought of social worker!), and Stella Gibson, a likewise sexually fucked up but brilliant detective sent from the England to Ireland to investigate the case.

The work both put into their “quests” are superbly paralleled via the magnificent writing and directing, but mostly from two standout performances, Jamie Dornan (that Dornan is essentially identifiable here because of the Fifty Shades franchise is unfair, but, I imagine financially suitable) and Gillian Anderson (already an icon for a quarter of a century, internationally known as “Scully” from The X-Files; although this role alone should be her beacon performance).  Dornan and Anderson, the latter who also co-produced, share the final third portion of this chilling story with ace direction from creator and writer Allan Cubitt, David Grennan’s photography (lushly and eerily capturing the pros and cons of the Northern Ireland locations) and a score (by Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes) that audibly works in tandem with the visuals to raise the goosebumps.  The double-disc Acorn Blu-Ray is (as with the previous two sets) technically top-notch, rendering crystal-clear 1080p clarity and excellent stereo-surround sound (there are also nearly a half hour of extras, comprising a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, plus a photo gallery).

In the 2017 finale, Spector, wounded and recovering after surgery in a closely guarded hospital ward, reflects on what he’s done, while grooming the doctor who operated on him (and the entire female staff) with his patented sympathy technique – the prerequisite to victimization.

Gibson, meantime, is conflicted about contact, as she knows only too well what the killer laid out:  that they’re closer to one another than she thinks.  While in denial verbally, psychologically, she realizes that his smirky accusation is likely a cold, hard fact.

Unraveling Spector’s horrible childhood, as a victim himself of a sexual predator, Gibson and her crew do everything to guarantee his recovery for trial and, probable execution.  As indicated, Spector has other plans.  So does his support group:  a wife, now teetering on suicide, and his last uncompleted score:  Katie, a lovesick teen, hopelessly devoted to the psychopath, to paraphrase the Grease lyric.  Terrific supporting acting turns from Aisling Franciosi (as Katie), Denise Gough, John Lynch, Bronagh Taggart, and Sarah Beattie really deliver the goods, and help to ratchet up the breathless tension.

While I really enjoyed the various locations from the first two installments, the endgame, largely set in the hospital was, for me, a bit too claustrophobic.  At least, at first.  As the walls close in on Spector, another twist occurs – taking the narrative to a shocking climax.

Leaving Belfast at the conclusion, we are, like Stella Gibson, wasted, empty, relieved.  We’re additionally disappointed that the engrossing story and characters are to be no more, but we come out ahead of the ace lady sleuth.  She’s stuck with a lulu of a “what if.”  The show may haunt us for a while – in fact, I suspect, quite a while, but the dark twisted thoughts they unleashed will haunt Stella forever.

 

The last third of 2018’s HUMANS (or, to be specific, HUMANS 3.0) is riveting, heart-wrenching and exciting.  The series, as it always has, combines the best sci-fic has to offer with allegorical allusions to contemporary politics…and horror.

While the underlying theme of THE FALL was that the heroine and villain were more alike than each (or, at least, one) would choose to admit, the narrative in HUMANS is that the synths are more human than the flesh-and-blood counterparts.  And so it continues.

The unsettling punch that the scenario too easily fits into the current fascist state of America is thoroughly frightening.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.  I mean, taking “people” who are different and putting them in border camps, lying to the public, instigating racism by inciting riots for violence that doesn’t exist…Yeah, who’d do that?

I was crushed to see the fates of some of my favorite characters (won’t go into details, check it out for yourself), but hopeful at the revolution and evolution of Niska.  She takes no shit, has been softened to an extent, and has a new goal.  Again, that’s all you’ll get out of me.

If HUMANS has taught me anything, it is never to trust humans (either the right wing or the do-the-right-thing wing).

Don’t get me wrong, HUMANS doesn’t exist to cram and ram messages down your gullet and in your face, its terrific entertainment from the get-go (the deep dish stuff is insidious and occasionally subliminal).  So, come on, folks, a spoonful of artificial substitute helps the medicine go down!

As usual, the writing (Jonathan Brackley, Sam Vincent and Debbie O’Malley, Namsi Khan, Jonathan Harbottle, Daisy Coulam, Melissa Igbal, based on the Swedish TV series by Lars Lunstrom), performances (prominently Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington, Ivanno Jeremiah, Katherine Parkinson, Lucy Carless, Tom Gordon-Hill, Theo Stevenson, and Pixie Davies), direction (Jill Robertson, Al Mackay, Ben A. Williams, Richard Senior), photography (Kieran McGuigan), and music (Sarah Warne) is/are exemplary, particularly the on-screen work of Mia (Chan), Leo (Morgan), Niska (Berrington) and Max (Jeremiah).

And, as usual, Acorn’s Blu-Ray presentation of HUMANS 3.0 (the uncut international version, not the oft syndicated abridged nonsense) is first-rate.

HUMANS comes with a 24-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and (like THE FALL) is housed in a slipcover.  Both shows are also available in complete series boxed sets (Google the Acorn Media website).  That said, I kinda wish a HUMANS 4.0 eventually sees the light of day.  It’s Niska’s time.

THE FALL (CAT # AMP-2574) and HUMANS 3.0 (AMP-2677):  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/EndemolShine Group. SRP: $39.95@.

The Commie-Knockers

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

What a delightful treat to become re-acquainted with Norman Jewison’s charmingly hilarious 1966 romp, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, now on Blu-Ray from the comrades at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios..

This picture was da bomb (in that good Nineties-speak way) in 1966, THE comedy to see that year, and millions of Americans (and “feriners”) did; another box-office wallop for UA (with the Bonds, the Beatles pics, The Great Escape, The Pink Panther, etc., UA  really was all that!).

The movie, based on Nathaniel Benchley’s humorous novel, The Off-Islanders, draws much of its mojo from two contemporary (but diverse) comedy hits, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (another UA smash) and Dr. Strangelove;  the plot involves the less lethal aspects of the latter, and much of the slapstick/mirth of the former.  To this point, the producers even hired the Stanley Kramer pic’s screenwriter (the wonderful William Rose), and cast some of Mad‘s super-roster of comics, notably lead Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters, plus Paul Ford and Ben Blue (even the master cartoonist Jack Davis, who drew the iconic IaMMMMW poster was recruited back to service for RUSSIANS).  To bolster the already formidable thesp power, RUSSIANS added Eva Marie Saint (as Reiner’s savvy wife), Theodore Bikel, Michael J. Pollard, the brilliant character actors Doro Merande, Parker Fennelly, Vaughn Taylor, Richard Schall, Cliff Norton, Larry D. Mann, Philip Coolidge, and, prominently, Brian Keith (a funny non-funnyman in essentially the Mad World Spencer Tracy role – a weary but less larcenous top cop).  Making their screen debuts in a major motion picture were the excellent and underrated John Phillip Law and the magnificent Alan Arkin, who received an Oscar nomination (one of the flick’s five Academy nods) for his portrayal as Rozanov, the flustered Russian officer determined to makes sense of American mores, and, thus, doomed before he starts.

The plot takes place during the post-Labor Day summer weekend on Gloucester Island, in Massachusetts (Eureka, CA ably standing in for the picturesque New England coastal community).  An over-zealous Russian commander (Bikel) determined to sneak a peek at the U.S. gets his nuclear sub stuck on a sandbar.  Arkin, Law and a handful of sailors attempt to arrange for some fishing boats to help pull the vessel off safely and back out to sea, but Cold War mindset sets the town into Pearl Harbor mode in a very uproarious fashion.  Indeed, the script (as concocted by Rose, who authored the classic Brit comedy The Lady-Killers), creates a mini-society of Ealing-type characters reacting to an outlandish situation; but, since, they’re Americans, the response is less droll and more batshit crazy.  And there you have it.

Reiner’s irritable Walt Whittaker, his wife and two children are packing to head home to New York (he’s a successful musical-comedy scribe suffering from writer’s block and “damp!”).  “We’ll never go away anywhere again, I promise,” purrs wife Saint to her complaining spouse.  Their nine-year-old, a small fry version of what we today call a MAGAt (‘cepting, it’s the 1960s, so they hate Russians) blurts out his desire to kill them all – a request mirrored by the town’s lunatic gun-owners (or, simply, the town).  How it all works out amiably was kind of bold then, and almost lovely now.  But, again, very funny.

For director Jewison, it was the final kiss-off to years of formulaic TV and movie fare (albeit fine ones), and a further leap into the big-screen big-time (RUSSIANS was preceded by The Cincinnati Kid, and followed by In the Heat of the Night).  Reiner, superb in a rare leading role, makes the viewing bittersweet in lieu of his recent passing on June 29, at age 98 (sadly, composer Johnny Mandel, who supplies the jaunty, perky score left us the same day, age 96).  It’s Arkin’s show, however, and it’s a virtuoso comic performance.  Nevertheless, my two favorite scenes are Arkinless.  One is a bug-eyed Morande, bound and gagged on a cupboard shelf while aged hubby Parker Fennelly quietly and unbeknownst to her plight, calmly has his breakfast; when finally cognizant of the situation, his deadpan response is “Muriel, what cha doing hanging up there on the wall?”  The packed house in 1966 howled at this for a full half-minute, one of the biggest yuks I ever recall at the movies.

The second sequence is when Reiner and telephone operator Tessie O’Shea are tied up together, and attempt an escape plan.  Popcorn was flying out of the bags, people were so doubled up with laughter during this moment (both scenes have lost none of their bite, I can happily report).

The movie was luxuriously shot in Panavision and DeLuxe Color by the great Joe Biroc.  He really captured the beauteous flavor and essence of a brisk late summer New England dawn, even if it turns out to be a “red” one.

For me, RUSSIANS was a deal-with-it experience.  After years in the Catskills, where the local bijou was a mere fifteen minute walk, we had re-located to Budd Lake, NJ – with no theater nearby.  We were, therefore, at the mercy of our parents – well, their cars.  I was also additionally disturbed to discover that admission price was now seventy-five cents!

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING is quite nice, perhaps a bit warm and a tad soft; that said, it’s also perfectly acceptable, and near-pristine 35MM quality (as is the mono audio).  A Making Of featurette, hosted by Jewison, is included as a neat extra, plus, the theatrical trailer.

From a time when we could still enjoy the foibles of our “enemies,” before both sides sired monsters, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING remains a Sixties rose-colored tableau that practically demands the accompaniment of “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K1500. SRP:  $29.95.

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Norse by Norsewest

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

If, indeed, imitation is the highest form of praise, I surmise that Alfred Hitchcock must have been in seventh heaven with the release of the 1963 thriller THE PRIZE, now on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.

The picture was based on a wildly successful bestseller by Irving Wallace, who previously (and scandalously) wowed ’em in print and on-screen with The Chapman Report.  MGM, seeing the endless possibilities, Hitch-ed their wagon to a star (Paul Newman), and re-channeling the droll suspense that made their North By Northwest such a hoot, went for a repeat performance (this blue plate special recipe went so far as to re-cast Leo G. Carroll in basically an offshoot of his NBW role – with a side order of Lewis Stone from Grand Hotel, including a variation of the latter’s final line).  Metro even got NBW‘s screenwriter, the wonderful Ernest Lehman (also of Sweet Smell of Success) to do the cinematic quill-and-ink honors.

But it’s the MGM legacy that melds the Master of Suspense stuff with their trademark lavish all-star presentations (from the aforementioned 1932 Garbo-Barrymore opus to the then-current The VIPs).  That the movie takes place at the (Stockholm) Grand Hotel isn’t a coincidence (there are multiple GH in-jokes scattered throughout).  While the Newman narrative thread carries the body of this espionage tale, the ancillary stories of other PRIZE folks help to weave a complete and tidy tapestry.  Here’s a brief recap, a scenario made-to-order for the Mad Men era.

Alcoholic, womanizing author Andrew Craig (Newman) is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (no year is mentioned, a descriptive post-credit card indicates “the future,” but it’s soooooooo 1963).  While his “genius” novels go nowhere, he secretly makes a decent living banging out detective thrillers under a pseudonym (sort of like the plot-within-the-plot of the Fred Astaire/Tony Hunter musical in the studio’s The Band Wagon).  He curmudgeonly accepts the Nobel for mercenary reasons – i.e., the 50K check that goes with the recognition. His reputation preceding him, Craig is more than delighted to see that the Swedish government has assigned him a handler – especially when he sees her – the not-so-wise decision of selecting Inga Lisa Andersson, aka Elke Sommer, in possibly the most beautiful she’s ever looked (and that’s saying somethin’!).

Ever on the prowl for action, Craig bumps into Dr. Max Stratman, the winner for physics, a survivor from the Nazi Holocaust, along with his (natch) super-gorgeous (and horny) niece Emily (“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he asks the nymph, running into her at an after-hours club.  “I accept!,” she eagerly squeals –  a scene that made it into the trailer, and was received with gales of laughter and rapturous applause).

Stratman, loving his adopted country of America, and despising his now communist-held former residence, known as East Berlin, reluctantly meets an old acquaintance, hoping to personally give him a piece of his gifted mind (a dumb move for so brilliant a physicist).  He’s kidnapped, replaced by his evil brother (who will denounce the U.S.) and then “defect” along with said skanky niece/daughter, who’s apparently enthusiastically in on the switch.

Bickering co-award winners for medicine (heart transplants) Dr. John Garrett and Dr. Carlo Farelli and sex therapist marrieds (who sleep around, and, are, of course, from France), Drs. Claude and Denise Marceau, round out the rest of the cast of characters that swing into high gear when the American upstart writer gives a disastrous half-swacked press conference revealing his true source of income and how he has a “nose for finding devious plots in everything I observe.”  This prompts a Stockholm-based patriot to contact him about the Stratman “exchange,” which ludicrously (but royally entertainingly) puts Newman in the Cary Grant driver’s seat, as nasty, murderous spies descend upon him with a vengeance (including a refurbishing of the NBW auction sequence, now taking place in an indoor nudist colony), and ends in an action-packed, sexy finale that had audiences cheering from coast-to-coast.

The laughs are tense, oft-roller-coaster lip-biters, thanks to Lehman’s deft script.  The direction by Mark Robson, while professional and swift, undoubtedly kept Hitch amused without ever losing him a nanosecond of sleep.  The remaining cast is just terrific – a cornucopia of 1960’s movie and TV international stars, and features Diane Baker, Kevin McCarthy, Sergio Fantoni, Micheline Presle, Gerard Oury, Jacqueline Beer, Don Dubbins, Virginia Christine, Rudolph Anders, Martine Bartlett, John Banner, Peter Coe, Edith Evanson, Gregory Gaye, Stuart Holmes, Anna Lee, Queenie Leonard, Lester Matthews, Gregg Palmer, Gene Roth, Ivan Triesault, actor/director Sascha Pitoeff (as Daranyi, perhaps, the most sinister spy in cinema; for years, I actually thought that Antonio Prohias’ Cold War Spy vs. Spy strip in Mad Magazine was based upon him), and Britt Ekland (as one of the nudists!).  Most diverting is the Greek chorus duo of real-life Swedes Karl Swenson and John Qualen as special Nobel-assigned hotel bell captains.

Other credits are aces, and comprise the sensational camera eye (in Panavision and MetroColor, nicely restored) of an industry great, William Daniels (off and on at MGM since the silents) and rising newcomer composer Jerry Goldsmith, delivering one of his first big assignments.

Without question, the ladies are stunning, and seem to be having a ball playing with and off Newman.   The actor later revealed that making THE PRIZE was probably the most fun he ever had in Hollywood (and very likely got him the role in an actual Hitchcock thriller, Torn Curtain, three years later).  His drunken forays certainly suggest that he’s having a blast, frequently resembling a loving homage to Reggie Van Gleason.  Not surprisingly, it’s Edward G. Robinson (as Stratman) who owns the movie with his superb emoting in two (actually three) roles, each with their own vocal inflections and body language (a route he triumphantly took back in 1935, in John Ford’s The Whole Town is Talking).  I have to tell you a story about my seeing THE PRIZE on a July night in 1963 (sometimes MGM would preview upcoming movies for us in the Catskills before they went into wide release; THE PRIZE opened nationwide that December).  When Robinson made his initial appearance in the pic, the packed house burst into applause, with some members even standing to show their appreciation.  More like something one would see in a live Broadway opening; I had/have never experienced anything like that in any movie theater before or since.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray really does THE PRIZE justice.  In 1080p, it truly looks and sounds like it did first-run 57 years ago.  I’m still amazed at the matching of the extensive second unit Stockholm footage and the bulk of the pic (entirely shot at MGM, in Culver City); that said, a rear-screen of Newman’s character being pushed off a bridge totally propels the situation into High Anxiety territory, a moment that I suspect the Master of Suspense would have secretly loved.

THE PRIZE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Brothers Home Entertainment/Turner Entertainment. CAT # 1000736867.  SRP: $21.99.

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

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