Pre-Code Sinema Four Play

Yes, I am still mourning the demise of the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood series, but, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining.  This is doubly true when it comes to gold-diggers, and, like the folks at Warners said, there still will be a number of pre-Code releases as single-only titles.  To try and combine the best of both worlds, I’ve selected a quartet of WB titles from the 1930-31 seasons that might have been a FH set.  These are quite obscure, unusual considering some of the talent involved (John Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett) with fun turns and curves from favorite twists (Billie Dove, Alice White, Ona Munson, Marjorie White) and nice snarky work from the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Neil Hamilton, Frank McHugh and, most delightfully, Bela Lugosi.  In keeping with the Archive tradition, print material on each title has been transferred from existing 35MM elements.  So break out the hooch, lock the doors, roll down dem stockings and take a load off.

In 1930’s THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO, Edward G. Robinson does a vicious precursor of Little Caesar (released later that year), except a bit more polished and less psychopathic.  While Robinson (aka Dominic) runs a major portion of the Chicago mob and dominates his generous screen time, the true star of this embryonic gangster epic is pert and cute Alice White, whom Warners was heavily pushing as a main star attraction (she headlined the Show Girl series and many another silent and Vitaphone pips).  White’s Kewpie-doll voice and take-no-prisoners demeanor serve her well in this guns ‘n’ roses opus.  White portrays Polly Henderson, whose detective brother Jimmy (Harold Goodwin) is murdered by Robinson’s gang whilst undercover (gossips getting the wrong idea about the sibs living together, whisper “Draw your own delusions.”).  The thug he impersonated was thought dead, so White is as shocked as Robinson when, after posing as the gunman’s widow, she comes face-to-face with the still breathing hood (a dashing Neil Hamilton).  Because it’s pre-Code, White and Hamilton get hot and heavy, causing a jealous Robinson to slip dangerously into not thinking with his brain.  When Dominic gives White a gig at one of his clubs (as Palpitating Polly), she reveals her penchant for brilliantly fending off pervs.  “What d’ya take for a little dance?,” asks a creep.  “With you, I’d take arsenic!” is her masterful reply.

The picture moves fairly quickly in its 62-minute time slot, due to able direction by comedy expert Eddie Cline.  The snarky script is by Earl Baldwin, with luminescent photography by the always-reliable Sol Polito.  Other members of the sterling cast include a ridiculously young Frank McHugh, Brooks Benedict, E.H. Calvert, Betty Francisco and Al Hill.

FYI, the swastikas decorating Hamilton’s valise aren’t a shape of things to come; it was the Roman symbol for “good luck,” infamously adapted by Adolf & Co.  And speaking of baddies, Warners was so high on this project that they reportedly asked Al Capone to make an unbilled guest appearance.  He declined, having other pressing business to rectify in the title’s town.

Warners’ 1930 adaptation of MOBY DICK is one of cinema’s infamous classic train wrecks (or should we say “shipwrecks”?).  Any connection to the iconic novel is purely coincidental.  It’s more closely based upon the studio’s 1926 silent version, entitled The Sea Beast, that also starred its talkie lead, John Barrymore.

The movie deceptively begins with the title page of the novel, but “Call me Ishmael” is nowhere to be seen (nor is Ishmael).  More like call me schemiel – and we’re referring to the scriptwriter J. Grubb Alexander, who adapted this future Carol Burnett sketch candidate from a failed literacy test by Oliver H.P. Garrett.

Barrymore as Captain Ahab belongs in the same camp as Desi Arnaz, Jr.’s, Marco Polo.  He’s not a driven, maniacal obsessive character out for revenge, but actually New England’s ultimate babe magnet.  No fooling.  We first see him swinging around the crow’s nest like Gene Kelly in The Pirate.  He then slides down the pole, striding down the gangplank, gawking at New Bedford’s willing lasses, giving one a greeting of “Hey, babe!” with a simultaneous slap on the ass (the only prop missing is a badge, emblazoned with “Chicken Inspector”).  And things go downhill from there.

When Ahab does become compulsively obsessed it’s not with the great white whale, but with Joan Bennett, as Faith – unfortunately going steady with Ahab’s smooth operator brother Derek (Lloyd Hughes).

Rather than cause a family rift, he valiantly gives up the golden-haired beauty and sets sail on a whaler, the notorious voyage that causes the title character to chomp off one of his pole-swinging legs.  Ahab becomes a bitter mammal-hating seaman (that’s whales and women).  Imagine his shock when destitute bro Hughes turns up as one of his crew (he’s fallen hard ’cause Faith, rife with hope and charity, decided she’d prefer Ahab over him, even minus a gam).  Hughes decides to kill off Barrymore, but fate takes him first.  And Ahab, seeing the evil of his former ways, reforms, journeys back to Massachusetts and hooks up with Faith, living hobbily ever after.

Barrymore understandably looks drunk during most of the picture’s 78-minute duration – and who can blame him?  Indeed, the whirring audio you hear is not the camera nor a Vitaphone malfunction, but likely the sound of Herman Melville’s corpse spinning around in its grave.  That said, the picture is shamefully entertaining for both the right and wrong reasons.  The direction by Lloyd Bacon is (dare we say?) crisp, the camerawork by Robert Kurrle praiseworthy, with a caveat.  One will undoubtedly notice that many exteriors are grainy and (seemingly) over-exposed.  That’s because, in the original release, these sequences stretched out into MagnaScope, a primitive widescreen process.  We should mention that the special effects (including rear screen match-ups) are quite good.

Unavailable for many years (along with other Warners/Barrymore titles like the much better Mad Genius), due to an ownership clause in Barrymore’s contract with the studio, MOBY DICK is less of the saga of the great white whale than a great blight wail.  Or howl.  I kinda love it.

1930’s ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S is an unabashed WTF classic!  Susie (Helen Ware) is an aging, hard-boiled dame who runs a halfway house for thugs.  That is, they lam it there halfway and she houses (i.e., stashes) them until it’s cool to blow.  In Susie’s defense, she also attempts to make them stop bootlegging, extorting, kidnapping and killing.  Or else.  Susie’s, the joint and not the lady, is also a combi-speak/roadhouse.  Best of all, the cops all seem to know about it (and her), but don’t care, because, after all, she means well.

But Susie has a secret (which ain’t that secret).  She’s been raising the kid of a rubbed-out mug to be respectable (only half-succeeding, as he becomes a writer).  It’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., (as Dickie Rollins), and he has a secret, too.  He’s about to be married to a honey of a honey.  Susie is delighted, as she imagines it’s some hifalutin’ DAR broad.  Nuh-uh, it’s gorgeous Billie Dove, a (wait for it) showgirl.  This pisses off Susie to no end.  As far as she’s concerned, there are only two kinds of showgirls, the ones smart enough to use their beauty to get whatever they can out of men, and the ones too dumb to shake down the johns.  Billie (as, no kidding, Mary Martin) is plenty smart, but plenty in love as well.

The conflicts between the two strong women, amidst the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine gun gangster mishegos is what raises this early (and, admittedly, occasionally creaky) talkie above the rest.  What is really nifty (and SO pre-Code) is that the true crooks aren’t the mobsters, but the dubious members of law enforcement. The most heinous creep in the pic is a former detective turned dirty dick (James Crane), not above blackmail, slapping babes around and moider!

It’s great to see any movie with Billie Dove, who, once again proves how effortlessly she successfully made the transition from silent to sound.  It’s additionally kinda fascinatin’ to ponder the fact that within the space of four short years, she made rapturous on-screen love to both father and son (Doug, Sr., in The Black Pirate, and Jr., in SUSIE’S).

The movie, listed at 92 minutes on the jacket (but actually clocking in at 62), is competently directed by John Francis Dillon (who also produced).  The story, with its unusual trappings, was conceived by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and scripted by Forrest Halsey and Kathryn Scola.  Non-gat shooting was achieved by the great Ernest Haller in silky black-and-white.

FYI, in an unpleasant sidebar, Susie makes the repentant thugs go through a baptism of fire by wearing Tully Marshall’s underwear, easily the male equivalent of a fate worse than death.

I really like the Warners Joe E. Brown comedies, especially the pre-Code ones; thus, I’m a bit prejudiced toward 1931’s BROAD MINDED, a wacky slapsticky sojourn, tailor-made for the satchel-mouthed funnyman.

Swiftly paced by Mervyn LeRoy BROAD MINDED lifts the crux of its Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby-penned narrative from the slim plot of Girl Crazy.  Millionaire playboy Jack Hackett (William Collier, Jr.) is dizzy for the dames, and papa (Holmes Herbert) can’t stand it.  So he hires Jack’s best pal, staid, quiet wallflower Ossie Simpson (Brown) to be the lad’s guardian and keep him out of the clutches of flappers, vamps and other garden-variety gold-diggers.  Unfortunately for pops (but not for sonny), Ossie is an even worse womanizer than his BFF, keeping a graphic little black book that spans several volumes.  Together the pair motor out west, intent on sowing more oats than the Quaker breakfast food company.

Of course, they meet two hotties (Marjorie White and Ona Munson) who are essentially good girls, chaperoned by a harpie aunt (Grayce Hampton), but not before running afoul of the likes of Margaret Livingston and ravenous, rapturous Thelma Todd (“She’s lost every friend she ever had,” quips an associate, when “the fleet shipped out.”).

Best of all for viewers, Ossie and Jack also ruffle the feathers of international bon vivant Pancho Arrango (Bela Lugosi, in a wonderful comic performance).  Brown, in quick succession, manages to destroy Lugosi’s meal (in a diner), clothes, and finally the back of his jazzy sports car (“Now you ruined my rear end!,” screams Bela with angry vengeance, a far cry from his iconic Dracula pic, which had been released six months earlier).

With nice Pasadena location work by Sid Hickox and lively music by Herbert Taylor, BROAD MINDED is a delightful way to spend 72 pre-C minutes.

So, off with the shrink wrap (and I mean that in a clean way), and on with the show(s)!

THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 1000619326.  SRP:  $21.99

MOBY DICK.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000619321.  SRP:  $21.99.

ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000516711.  SRP:  $19.99.

BROAD MINDED.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT#  1000384397.  SRP:  $19.99.

All Warner Archive titles are high quality made-to-order DVD-Rs, and are available from The Warner Archive Collection at http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Youngson at Heart

What a joy to be able to write about and celebrate the DVD release of the 1960 comedy riot WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, now available in a dynamite 35MM transfer from Kit Parker’s new company, The Sprocket Vault.

Robert Youngson, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a silent-movie aficionado who turned his love of early cinema into a career.  Producing/assembling a series of successful shorts at Warner Bros. (Magic Movie Moments, This was Yesterday, When the Talkies Were Young), he eventually graduated to features in 1957 with the release of his slapstick compilation The Golden Age of Comedy.  The feature, distributed by 20th Century-Fox, surprisingly (or maybe not, considering the wide appeal Laurel & Hardy, costars in the picture, were then having on TV) made several Year End Ten Best lists.  More importantly, industry-wise, the movie made a tidy profit, guaranteeing a further excursion into pre-talker laff-riots (Youngson and Fox continued their association until 1970).

The second installment, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, wowed the crowds as much as the previous homage to the great silent comedians.

I can’t praise this collection of gags, guffaws and giggles enough.  It’s a super comedy, ideal for slapstick buffs, but, even more so, a perfect primer to introduce the silent era to novice curiosity-seekers.  Suffice to say, they will not be disappointed.

The 81 minutes fly by, nearly as fast as the ingeniously timed visual set-pieces.  Of course, the masters are all here:  Chaplin (The Masquerader, Kid Auto Races at Venice, His Trysting Place), Keaton (Cops), Arbuckle, Normand (Fatty & Mabel Adrift), and, natch, Laurel & Hardy (wisely saved for last, and beautifully paid tribute in their 1929 classic Big Business) – and each in their prime.  Even Harry Langdon, celebrated as one of the “greats,” but whose appeal I personally could never warm up to, makes an appearance in a short, 1924’s The First 100 Years (alarmingly, even in 1959, when the footage was researched for inclusion, the negative was rapidly succumbing to nitrate disintegration), that admittedly, made me laugh out loud, and frequently (the only instance where the comedian has been able to get that response from me).  My problem with Langdon is the man-baby character.  A grown-adult, looking and acting like a toddler, never was my cup of pablum.  That his character actively pursued women, worked dangerous jobs and parented children (with that Gerber label face), was…well, uncomfortable for me to watch, to say the least (glad to say, I wasn’t alone).  Langdon was enormously popular for a brief period, and, according to his “creator” (then gag writer) Frank Capra, he never quite understood his own persona.  This proved true when the comic branched out, wrote his own material, and flopped into oblivion (before posthumous rediscovery).  Don’t like man-babies on the screen, as coworkers or in politics.  So there!

Okay, demons wrestled – and that’s my one detour in this piece, I promise (but not a terrible one, since, as indicated above, I actually liked COMEDY‘s Langdon segment).

Other wonderful funnymen (and women) are beautifully showcased in this feature; some I worship, like Jimmy Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy.  There are also tributes to Hal Roach and Mack Sennett (featuring the Keystone Kops and the Sennett Bathing Beauties), the wacky debuts of Gloria Swanson (with then-hubby Wally Beery), Teddy the Dog (plus other jaw-dropping canine stars), Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Ben Turpin, Anita Garvin, Madeline Hurlock, Mack Swain, Al St. John, Charles Murray, Daphne Pollard, Bobby Vernon, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, Andy Clyde, Alice Day, Chester Conklin and a ridiculously young Stuart Erwin.

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING also offers a generous sidebar to unsung heroes like Billy Bevan, and, specifically, Snub Pollard, highlighted in a remarkable 1923 Pee-Wee-esque short entitled It’s a Gift.

On the negative side, there are few complaints, but ones I feel merit mentioning.  While Youngson’s written commentary (voiced by Dwight Weist) is overall historically interesting, there’s a bit too much don’t-we-suck-now digs to spike the fun.  A lovely pastoral seaside sequence is marred by Weist’s reminding us that this beach is now littered with beer cans.

On the standout side is a sensational running-gag ice-cream cone bit from 1929’s A Pair of Tights, with comedienne Marion Byron, a valuable contribution that Weist/Youngson acknowledge, save the fact that they pronounce her name wrong, as “Brian.”  Surely, such a cineaste as Youngson should have caught this, but, never mind; it’s a minor carp, I suppose (unless you’re a Byron fan, which I am now, DRAT).

The picture quality of the WHEN COMEDY WAS KING DVD is generally excellent and razor-sharp, transferred from the 35MM negative.  There is a slight blister effect during some dark scenes, mostly notable during the opening credits with Charley Chase (from Movie Night).  It looks like a print with water damage, and may have been irreparably ruined during decades of neglect.  Again, it’s not that marring, but worth noting.  The mono audio, with some genuinely funny sound effects and suitable score by Ted Royal, is just fine and dandy.

The Sprocket Vault has further sweetened the silent comedy pot by including three full-length silent shorts (from the Richard M. Roberts collection) as supplements.  Quality-wise, these two-reelers sadly resemble what most people perceive silents to look like. They are a grim statement on how we take care of our filmic heritage.  Or don’t.  The shorts themselves are a varied bunch.  1920’s An Elephant on his Hands is more highway-accident addictive than falling-down hilarious.  And 1926’s Heavy Love, a Ton of Fun offering, produced by the dubious Joe Rock (a filmmaker with whom Stan Laurel deservedly had issues with during his tenure at the Rock studio) is often disturbing – unless seeing morbidly obese comedians fall through floors, painfully squeezing into small spaces and huffing, puffing and panting for twenty minutes is your thing.  Only the 1924 Lige Conley entry Fast and Furious, rings true with inventive gags (and a BFF African-American costar, comedian Spencer Bell); the fact that it was directed by the prolific and talented Norman Taurog (who kept on helming major comedies into the late 1960s) is a likely reason.

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is that rare motion picture that truly lives up to its title.  While I try to avoid using erudite terms to underline my recommendations, this time I can’t resist.  To quote the great scholars of yore:  You’ll plotz!

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films. CAT # 35053.  SRP:  $19.99.

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Black Shirt, White Hat

One of those “if they made it up, you’d never believe it” true-life stories, CESARE MORI, a 2012 two-part Italian TV mini-series comes to American DVD, via the folks at MHz (as part of their superb International Mystery Collection) and RAI.

A genuine modern Italian semi-folk hero, Cesare Mori was a no-nonsense, incorruptible police chief (“If they kill one of my men, they kill part of me!”) in the city of Caltabellotta, ca. 1916.  Caltabellotta was a key Sicilian hub of the Mafia (then known as the Honored Society).  Mori, the Pavian real-life equivalent of John Wayne (or Gianni Wayne-a, as Ernie Kovacs might dub him) swore an allegiance to wipe the mobsters off the face of the Earth.  And he almost did it.

Mori and his beloved (but seriously infirmed) wife, Angelina (Vincent Perez, Anna Foglietta), are, on the surface, one of the most respected couples in the Sicilian province.  Underneath, it’s another story, as the duchy is honeycombed with mafioso (including the village priest).  The convenient seaside metro’s harbor provided a conduit for a myriad of nefarious activities, including drug shipments to America.

Mori and Angelina dream of having children, but her heart condition forbids it.  In a seemingly perfect act of God, Mori’s “elimination” of a Mafia bigwig leaves the gangster’s small son (Rocco Nigro) an orphan.  The Moris take him in, and a true love bond cements them (far different from the child’s parents’ overshoes-in-the-drink kind).

Mori’s success, however, is his downfall, and the powerful local factions triumphantly remove him from office and transfer the law enforcer to an ineffectual position in (no pun) Bologna.  As a final stab in the back, Saro, the boy they have come to love, is kidnapped by his biological father’s cronies.  The child escapes, yearning to be with the Moris, but misses their departure by mere minutes; his return to the new Mafia is rewarded by the boy growing up to be a numero uno assassin (Marco Mandara).  The Pirandellian irony will be challenged in a final confrontation that, again, is beyond belief.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, the years become a trial for the Moris.  The rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini take their toll.  Soon the Black Shirts target Mori and his wife with death threats.  Once again, the powers that be remove him from office.  In a fit of rage, Mori writes a scathing letter to Mussolini.  Surprisingly, Il Duce (Maurizio Donadoni), spurred by the honesty and courage of this upstart rapscallion, orders Mori to a private counsel and restores him to his former rank as Caltabellotta’s precinct of police.  Why?  Benito wants to take over the country, and not be associated with the likes of the thuggish Mafia (talk about the pot calling the kettle black shirts).  There also may have been an element of vanity involved, as photos of the actual Mori bear a striking resemblance to the Iron Prefect.  He gives the honorable crime fighter carte blanche; all Mori must do is to embrace fascism.

This Cesare Mori does, as he considers it a mere means to an end.  Names and politics mean nothing – his goal is to take the Mafia down, and, once again, he comes within a hairsbreadth of doing so.

Leaving Angelina in Bologna (where she is recovering from new, revolutionary cardiac surgery), Mori attacks his restored and empowered gig with ferocious vigor.  It is here that his fleeting relationship with the local Baroness Elena Chiaramonte (Gabriella Pession) strengthens (her titled husband was an early Mafia victim, done in by the Chiaramonte’s own “trusted” workers, led by rising psychopath Tano Cuccia).  The Baroness, snarky, gorgeous and often naked, literally throws her voluptuous body in Mori’s face (they both like Liszt, an important point as the woman comments that his music is, like themselves, the perfect combination of romance and violence).  That Mori, miles apart from his wife (and likely not carnal for years) turned this goddess down repeatedly seems (dare I say) hard to fathom, but, at least, according to this retelling of the Mori saga, actually did transpire; it’s the one false note in this otherwise magnificent series, excitingly scripted by Pietro Calderoni, Gualtiero Rossella and Nicola Rafele (from a story, based on fact, by Calderoni, Rossella and Antonio Domenici).

How Mori achieved his near obliteration of the Mafia was brilliant; he simply followed the template of the gallant knights of old – in this case, Spain’s legendary El Cid.  He cordoned off the village, banning shipments of food, water and, in a rare nod to the twentieth century, the transmission of that recent miracle of science, electricity.

The Arthurian knight theme is crucial to understanding Mori’s m.o.  Early-on, the police head’s first assistant (Adolfo Margiotta) inquires why he doesn’t embrace the new technology of cars and trucks to track criminals.  Mori’s refusal and total reliance on horse power is as simple as it is heroic.  A man or troop on horseback is far more imposing, foreboding and intimidating than driving up in an automobile.  Truth be told, this clinging to the past is in perfect tune with the Mori mythos; but, also remember that this is a period spanning the decade of 1916-26.  There was even still a wild west in parts of America.  Thus, the anachronism beautifully meshes with the Mori ideology, remarkably working until change indignantly kicks down the detective’s pre-Great War door, once and for all.

And the door-basher, in human form, is again, Benito Mussolini.  Within the reach of snuffing out the Mafia, Mori is summoned by the despot.  The Mafia’s connections have far exceeded the dictator’s original beliefs.  He now needs their money and power.  To this end, he tells the “decent” fascist that he only lives “by black and white.”  This is not realistic or acceptable, as the world is becoming ever-increasingly filled with grays.

Mori and his wife are reassigned to Rome, where he is installed as a senator, and where the couple remained till their deaths, both in 1942, and within days of each other.  We again reiterate that ancient chestnut about truth being stranger than fiction.

CESARE MORI is lavishly produced for the small-screen on a big-screen scale.  Its tapestry is spectacularly envisioned with accurate period detail, sensational photography and a tremendous music score.

But, of course, all of the above would be piffle, if it wasn’t for the acting.  A plethora of fine performances bring this bio-pic to life, leading with star Perez as Mori, and a number of other wonderful turns by the aforementioned Foglietta, Pession and Margiotta, plus Franco Trevisi, and Paolo Ricca as the frightening Tano Cuccia.

The direction by Gianni Lepre is terrific as well; the movie brings to mind the country’s classic 1960s-70s Italian dips into the fascist history pool – although leaning more toward Bertolucci than Visconti.  The widescreen photography by Gino Sgreva is stunning, as is the stereo-surround audio (in Italian, with nicely displayed English subtitles), highlighted by the bravura music by the great Pino Donnagio (with definite nods to Morricone).

The two-disc MHz DVD is a pleasure to view (especially on a big screen TV).  It’s very sharp, bristling with color, only coming up a bit short via some fleeting, grainy low light/night sequences.

This is not so much a mini-series, as it is an epic odyssey – the stuff Italians do so well.  A dazzling, sprawling historical cocktail that’s equal part Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, with a liberal dash of John Woo, CESARE MORI delivers the goods on a massive operatic level.

CESARE MORI.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16×9 anamorphic].  2.0 stereo-surround.  MHz Networks/RAI.  CAT # SKU-16810.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Doc Savaged

With the world seemingly spinning more out of control each and every day, it’s reassuring to know that folks who populate the beauteous seaside hamlet of Cornwall’s Port Wenn are well ahead of the curve.  This has never been more apparent than in the recently released, much-anticipated Acorn/RLJ Entertainment Blu-Ray of DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.

The all-new 8-episode two-disc set admirably picks up where the last cliffhanger left off.  Louisa (Caroline Catz) has gone off to Spain to reside with her mum, whilst Martin, that cold, compassionate human contradiction of terms (aka Martin Clunes, hilariously glum as ever) faces the genuine agonies of loneliness, wondering if his beloved spouse will ever return.

Auntie Ruth, however, saves the day; in fact, Dr. Ruth Ellingham (Eileen Atkins) is the unsung savior of this delightful season of mishaps, insults and infamous examples of bad decision making.  Ruth convinces Martin to seek out a therapist, the local and fetching Dr. Rachel Timoney (Emily Bevan).  Amazingly, he agrees, as does the returning Louisa – not too thrilled about her visit to Spain, particularly the food (“…full of salt and fat and God knows what!”).

As the couple charge head-on into marriage counselling (“Happiness is overrated,” Dr. Ellingham tells Dr. Timoney early on), we viewers are gob-smacked by Martin’s taking to the advice of their specialist while Louisa has doubts (due partially to jealousy), as the two docs eventually seem to hit it off).

While the pair’s agreeing to spend more time together doesn’t exactly shake the classic poetic definition of romance, it does make it quiver in fear.  When Dr. Timoney suffers a head-trauma accident, she is shot off into Bonkersville, giving out bizarre guidance that could only placate the Addams family.  Coming down, the shrink apologizes, pleading with the logical Martin to excuse her freakish behavior as understandable.  “No.”  End of therapy (and, ironically enough, a new and hopeful beginning for the troubled marrieds).

With regard to physical illnesses and maladies, the prime concern focuses upon Ruth’s own battle with polymyalgia, which she plays down, but has her nephew on the lookout as the disease worsens.

The already-diagnosed lunatic/pharmacist Mrs. Tishell (Selena Cadell) appears to be almost normal in comparison with the crazies and craziness that propel the Port Wenn citizenry to…well, crazy.  Continuing the thread of over-medication, her spouse (Malcolm Storry), too, has returned home after a long absence (who can blame him?), and, wanting to sexually make up for lost time, raids his wife’s store supplies.  The result ain’t pretty.

And speaking of pretty, Constable Penhale (John Marquez) has fallen in love with a ravishing babysitter (Robyn Addison), who, sadly, is as good at her job as he is at his; she promptly locks Baby Ellingham (ably impersonated by four thespian tots:  Archer Ray Gilliard Langridge, Harry Rossi Collins, Maverick William Bentley and Olly John Malcolm Gard) up in an empty abode.

Ruth, meanwhile, saves the day for the Large family (Ian McNiece, Joe Absolom, as father Bert and son Al, respectively).  Having invested in Al’s B&B, she is distressed that it’s taking longer than anticipated to get off the ground.  That turns out to be the best thing, as, once the holiday respite officially opens, it’s a disaster – giving the first vacationing couple (Bruce Alexander, Melanie Walters) a weekend in hell (ending with a potential food poisoning episode at his father’s restaurant).

As for Bert’s eatery, it’s on wobbly legs (as are most of the diners).  The elder Large can’t make a go at it, the final nail in his business coffin being driven by the questionable choice of hiring the town mean girls as staff.  What could possibly go wrong there?

Out of work and wandering through the countryside in his ramshackle trailer/caravan, Bert lights on Ruth’s property, where he regresses to the Large family’s age-old expertise:  bootlegging whiskey.  This illegality threatens to toss both him and Ruth in the clink, and might well do so except for the doctor’s sneaking a taste of his brew and realizing that it’s brilliant.  She agrees to help him get a proper liquor license and, like son/like father, go into business with him.  The Larges might finally be living up to their name.

Martin’s troubles, however, aren’t merely domestic.  There’s coping with the ubiquitous pesky mutt, who adores him, and those always-annoying tourists (including yank Sigourney Weaver).  There’s also the case of a psychotic backwoods woman (The Duchess of Duke Street‘s great Gemma Jones) and her demented son (Richard Riddell), unhappy with the fatal diagnosis for her husband (Nicholas Lumley).  She kidnaps Martin at gunpoint and holds him prisoner until he examines and (supposedly and magically) deems her ailing partner well.

All of this certifiable, manic magnificence is beautifully directed by Nigel Cole, Charles Palmer and Ben Gregor, written by Jack Lothian, Richard Stoneman, Charlie Martin and Julian Unthank, and sumptuously photographed on-location in Port Issac by Simon Archer.  The 1080p crystal-clarity high definition is showroom-worthy; ditto the 5.1 surround audio, featuring the jaunty score by Colin Towns, and the realistic sound effects that envelope one’s media room with seagulls, harbor sounds and trees blowing in the wind.

The Acorn blu-ray is terrific, making one wish and feel they were in Cornwall, despite the populace (the episode titles themselves: Rescue Me, Shock of the New, It’s Good to Talk, Education, Education, Education, Control-Alt-Delete, Other People’s Children, Fasta Non Verba and The Doctor is Out, provide an excellent indication of the direction these exercises in comedic frenzy is headed). There is also over 70-minutes of behind-the-scenes extras that, unlike the food at Bert’s, are definitely worth sampling.

This quirky, absolutely addictive comedy just gets better and better, the best wrap-up of SERIES 7 being the announcement of a Series 8.  Can hardly wait!

DOC MARTIN, SERIES 7.  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Buffalo Pictures Productions.  CAT # AMP-2416.  SRP:  $39.99.

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Anime-zing

For those hard-to-please sci-fi fans who additionally crave 3D to go with their fantasy cocktail, I heartily recommend the recent release of 2013’s HARLOCK:  SPACE PIRATE, now on limited-edition Blu-Ray from the gang at Twilight Time/Ketchup Entertainment/TOEI.

Admittedly, I’m not an anime expert, although I have often been agog at the exquisite artwork indigenous to the genre.  I do recall liking Vampire Hunter D immensely when first exposed to the animated re-animated Japanese lady back in the early 1990s.

A few years prior to that, whilst perusing the quarterly Japanese laserdisc catalogs, I spied the first home-video releases of Captain Harlock, (originally making his debut in a strip, or manga, by Leiji Matsumoto in 1977, the same year as Lucas’s you-know-what).  The color illustrations looked sensational; I was thoroughly awed by the imagery; but, being unable to understand the language (plus the then-1980s exorbitant yen/dollar exchange rate) stopped me from taking a chance.

Looking at this recent fantastic full-length feature proves my gut feeling was right.  This is truly outstanding stuff.  Harlock, the title dude, is a ruthless, seemingly invincible interplanetary warrior, marked as The Most Wanted by a traitorous cartel known as the Gaia Coalition.

Harlock is the ultimate anti-hero, fighting the centuries-old Homecoming War (the goal being to return victorious to a desolate, long-evacuated planet Earth) for nothing less than the future of humanity (it should be noted that he bears a striking resemblance, eyepatch and all, to actor Akihiko Hirata from the original 1954 classic Gojira, whose character also ended up securing the elongation of mankind).  It’s a kind of post-Trek intergalactic take on Captain Blood, but on a gargantuan scale.  Humanity, is after all, far more relevant than mere booty (no matter what your interpretation of that term is).

HARLOCK has it all: suspense, violence, treachery, adventure, a tincture of lust, drama up the wazoo and (literally) out-of-this-world special effects.  And it’s all inventively realized by director Shinji Aramaki , writer/creator Matsumoto, with screenplay assist from Harutoshi Fukui and Kiyoto Takeuchi and a veritable army of animators, dedicated 3D technicians, trained voice thesps (in both Japanese and English interpretations) and, as the hucksters love to say, MORE.  In fact, there’s barely a restful minute in either of the two versions presented on this double-disc set (the complete 115-minute Japanese cut w/English subtitles, and the 111-minute English language edition; each is available in either 3D or standard flat 2D).

If you’re one of the throngs of anime addicts, you’ve probably already added this to your collection.  If not, what are you waiting for?  Furthermore, if anime and/or even sci-fi isn’t your cup of sake, HARLOCK still delivers the goods. How so?  Because if you’re a 3D buff (like myself), this outer-space in-your-face odyssey becomes a must-have for your home theater.  The dizzying camerawork is roller-coaster gasp-worthy.  In 3D, it’s lightning on steroids (among the picture’s many award nods and noms was a well-deserved 2014 Lumiere Award Winner for Best International 3D Feature, Animated).

While there are plenty of coming-at-ya moments, two in particular merit mentioning.  Early in the picture, Logan, one of a group of young, green potential inductees, hoping to be recruited by Harlock’s band, perilously climbs to the top of a towering cliff (where the pirate’s spaceship is moored).  As the altruistic enlistee hangs on the crags and jagged edges of the mountain, the camera follows his grasping desperation; the resulting stereoscopic effect of depth and vertigo will have your stomach in what is technically referred to as GNNAAAAA-WHOA! mode.

Later on, a master shot of the space fleet in formation is so stunningly achieved that you’ll be engulfed by various-sized craft floating over your head, as well as around the room.  I playfully started grabbing at them, then thought better of this guaranteed strait-jacket reaction. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.  I turned to my companion, and breathed a sigh of relief (she was reaching for them as well).

If the 3D wasn’t enough, HARLOCK contains a state-of-the-art 5.1 digital surround track (with the excellent Tetsuya Takahashi music score available as an IST) that perfectly appends the bravura third dimension visuals.

And if THAT wasn’t enough, Twilight Time has further sweetened the pot with some enticing extras, including interviews with Matsumoto, Aramaki and Fukui, a making-of documentary, Venice Film Festival World Premiere highlights, storyboard galleries and TV spots/trailers.

A word of caution.  Like all Twilight Time titles, HARLOCK is a limited edition of 3500.  LSS, once they’re gone, it’s sayonara.  I can’t imagine that these will be around too much longer (or what horrific amounts the out-of-print copies will fetch on eBay), so, if your interest is sufficiently piqued, you should probably zoom this entry to the top of your “to purchase” platter list.

HARLOCK: SPACE PIRATE.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 3D Blu-Ray and standard 2D Blu-Ray]; 5.1 DTS-HD M A (English dubbed and Japanese w/English subtitles).  Twilight Time/Ketchup EntertainmentTOEI.  CAT# TWILIGHT 187-BR; SRP:  $34.95.

Limited edition of 3500.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time Movies (www.twilighttimemovies.com)

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Wet ‘N’ Riled

A movie I’d never thought I would live to see, the Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films restoration of the “lost” 1933 disaster flick DELUGE, majestically cascades onto Blu-Ray, bringing hope for future discoveries of other missing pieces of cinema.

DELUGE, the brainchild of underrated director Felix Feist (check out his rough “B” noir The Threat – one of the most chilling and meanest celluloid streets ever trod) and screenwriters Warren Duff and John. F. Goodrich (from the novel by Sydney Fowler Wright) relates the (then) unbelievable worst results of ignoring climate change.  Scientists and seismologists worldwide warn of massive earthquakes guaranteed to give way to a rising tsunami (whose path of irreparable destruction will slice through America, particularly up the Eastern seaboard).  Eventually, these disasters will go global.  And it’s too late to stop it.

Pre-Code Depression U.S. couldn’t care less, with the populace concurrently going about their everyday anything-to-survive activities contrasted with the latest events in café society.  Firmly entrenched in the latter is gorgeous Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), a champion socialite swimmer readying for a competition. Nevertheless, some are planning for the worst, like lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer), wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and their two sprouts (Marianne Webster, Ronnie Cosby).

Then, almost directly on target, the forecasted force of nature arrives, with one difference – it’s far worse than the experts predicted.  Within minutes, New York City is leveled in a spectacular display of pre-CGI special effects (marred only by some perspective-screwy rear-screen match-ups).

Blackmer, preparing to wait it out near Long Island, has his hopes dashed when wifey and kiddies are washed away. Shannon, diving into the currents, is carried to a nearby shoreline, unconscious, but remarkably alive.

That all this occurs within the first reel of DELUGE is amazing in and of itself (usually the SFX capper is saved for the last act, just one of the bizarre attributes of this jaw-dropping big-little 70-minute adventure.

What happens from this point on is extraordinary for a 1933 movie (well, maybe not, considering it IS pre-Code).  Blackmer, lonely and desperate, tries to cope with the wretchedness of his new existence, not sure if anyone else is alive on planet Earth.  For Shannon, it’s a fate worse than death, as the beachfront she’s washed up on belongs to two other survivors, Fred Kohler and Ralf Harolde.  YIKES.

Even before she regains consciousness, the two grubby predators are undressing her and fighting for who gets to violate her first.  But Shannon, ever resourceful, manages to sneak out and dive back into the sea, mercifully ending up on Blackmer’s property.  For this grateful New Yorker, it’s like manna from heaven.  Well, wo-manna, anyway.

Meantime, Kohler, who has killed the hornier Harolde, tracks the female via his makeshift vessel, arriving at the base of what days earlier would have been a vagrant Hooverville, but now is a rape gang. “I’m looking for a woman,” growls Kohler.  “Who ISN’T?!” replies the thuggish head of the band.

Parallel to this is the growing sex-fueled attraction between Blackmer and Shannon, with the obvious (dare-we-say) climax.  They will valiantly begin to re-populate Earth (with Blackmer undoubtedly eternally thankful that it was Peggy Shannon whom the tide brought in and not Marie Dressler).

Soon, the lovers come across the naked, raped body of a young girl, and realize that civilization has not perished after all.  The unfortunate was a victim of the aforementioned rape squad, and lived in a newly christened community of other surviving members from the tri-state area.

Natch, Blackmer and Shannon are welcomed, but there’s trouble ahead.  As the elders decide to hunt down and kill the rapists, Blackmer discovers that his wife and children survived the flood as well and are living in the town.  Again, since this is pre-Code, there isn’t really that much of a conflict of interest here:  it was an honest mistake (the shagging of Shannon), so while, Martin is content to have two beautiful women, Claire agonizingly tries to come to terms with the situation.

These romantic complications are temporarily put on-hold due to the tracking and killing-off of the rape cartel, another WTF segment, filled with much violence and bravado.

The resolution of the town’s pledge to collective bargaining (with Blackmer now installed as their ruler/President) prefigures Vidor’s Our Daily Bread by at least a year and is less brave new world than brave New Deal.

Shannon’s final decision is, again, only viable in pre-Code cinema (I won’t reveal what she does), and the picture ends with what was likely considered uplifting in 1933, compared to what most Americans were going through.

Some awful (and fortunately brief) racisim aside, DELUGE is sure to wow your audiences, especially if they’re pre-Code fans to begin with.

The performances are pretty good, with Blackmer, best known as the elderly warlock Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (“You name a place and I’ve been there.”) giving it his all.  Other members of the cast include such recognizable faces as Samuel S. Hinds, Lane Chandler, Matt Moore and Edward van Sloan.

The history of DELUGE is almost as disaster-prone as the movie’s on-screen events.  I had always thought it to be another in a line of successful RKO special effects blockbusters, following the studio’s King Kong box-office smash.  Actually, DELUGE was not an official Radio Picture, but an independently made production pick-up.  It had, in fact, been shot at the soon-to-be-defunct Tiffany Studios.  Of course, this makes those outstanding special effects even more eye-opening.

What happened to DELUGE after its short 1933 release is still hard to fathom (no pun intended).  The reel of special effects was sold to Republic Pictures, where it pumped up the excitement in several serials throughout the 1930s and ‘40s.  But the actual negative and elements seemed to disappear, and, while its legend loomed large, no one could find a print (I had only seen stills and read about it in 1960s monster magazines).

Then, in the 1980s, a print surfaced in Italy.  When this rumor was indeed verified (and it was subsequently shown at local film festivals), DELUGE‘s reputation as a must-see epic became a fact.  Even so, the murky remaining print looked worse than furnishings washing ashore in the pic’s flood.  This additionally wasn’t helped that the copy was dubbed in Italian (up until screening this Blu-Ray, I wasn’t totally sure that it would be in English, and was figuring on a subtitled version).

After a decade of terrible bootlegs (including some in subtitle-less Italian), Kino and Lobster Films have achieved the impossible.  They have provided an incredibly decent 35MM print in its original English language.  What, how, where…I dunno, but I’m too happy to care.  The print, while certainly not pristine (exhibiting some grain), is more than acceptable, a nice testament to the work of terrific d.p. Norbert Brodine (Of Mice and Men, The House on 92nd Street, Somewhere in the Night, Kiss of Death, etc.).  The foreboding music by Val Burton is yet another plus.  There are also some nice extras, including audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith and the complete public domain 1934 Peggy Shannon feature Back Page.

And, finally, we can’t ignore the coincidental  goosebump-raising, unnerving foreword to the proceedings of the pic’s monumental Manhattan disaster:  a biblical quote from Genesis (wait for it), 9-11.

DELUGE.  Black-and-white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films.  CAT # K21208.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Lean Streets

When it comes to home video, no single retro genre is more profitable than film noir.  These slick, nasty, amoral, atmospheric thrillers of hopelessness and madness have ruled the filmic roost (for VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray and revival houses) for nearly fifty years.  But, as they say, “it’s so old, it’s new.”

Indeed, with the fantastic successes of The Maltese Falcon, I Wake up Screaming, This Gun for Hire and others, all the studios went noir (before they even knew what it was).  And that especially applied to the lower echelon sausage factories, aka Poverty Row.  And why not?  Look what you’d save on lights alone!

As for the majors, their “B” units went into overtime, cranking out quirky, unsettling crime dramas that tended to veer from mere greedy villainy to lust appended by a myriad of psychological disorders.

Thus, I have taken it upon myself to introduce some (mostly) obscure samples in this bargain basement of unhealthy and nightmarish obsession, more commonly christened twentieth-century America (running the democratic gamut from Monogram to MGM).  All are available as made-to-order DVD-Rs from the (God bless ‘em) Warner Archive Collection, and are presented in excellent crisp 35MM transfers with above average audio to match.

 

MGM’s 1942 KID GLOVE KILLER was a prime B-unit entry populated by soon-to-be A-list folks.  Natch, anything “B” at MGM would generally pass as an “A” at any other studio.  On Poverty Row, it would be DeMille.

KID GLOVE KILLER is a surprisingly progressive programmer that transcends mere “mystery” and dives headfirst into the sick, swirling, dark world that Dick Powell was always getting drugged/cold-cocked into (post-Busby Berkeley, that is); in short, more noir than detective filler.  Of course, it helps greatly that, aside from the top production values, the picture has a superb cast and director.  Helming this mini-gem is none other than Fred Zinnemann, graduated from his Crime Does Not Pay shorts and kicked upstairs into the full-length-feature big time.  Leading the cast as a top M.E. is the always terrific Van Heflin, one of his only “B” appearances, as he would be winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar later that year (for the noirish “A” Johnny Eager).  Marsha Hunt (still trucking today at 100) is the savvy, sassy smart associate Heflin appoints to assist him above the many male applicants (rather unusual for the time, especially for a “B”).  Lee Bowman, likeable but ever-smarmy, is Heflin’s BFF, a rising politico who, coincidentally, is also a cunning sociopath resorting to gruesome murders to pave his way for a vocational future in local government.

It’s a wild and suspenseful ride watching Heflin and Hunt brilliantly resort to science to solve the crimes and exhibit disbelief at who the culprit turns out to be.  And then there’s Bowman, seducing both of them in friendship and romance (Heflin and Hunt, respectively; it’s not THAT progressive).  The story and screenplay by Allen Rivkin and John C. Higgins (from a story by Higgins) is a tense nail-biter, presenting an admirable blueprint for what would become a Zinnemann specialty (High Noon, Day of the Jackal).  Zinnemann and Heflin would be reunited at Metro six years later for the “A” noir Act of Violence, but, frankly, I prefer this little 74-minute thriller.  The expert photography is by Paul Vogel, the lush score by David Snell (with uncredited help from Daniel Amfitheatrof and Lennie Hayton).  The supporting cast is fantastic, and includes Samuel S. Hinds, Cathy Lewis, John Litel, Eddie Quillan, Leon Belasco, real-life gloveless killer-as-a-kid Bobby Blake and Ava Gardner (as a car hop, ZOWIE).  It’s more than likely that MGM, delighted with the rushes, was already planning a series for Heflin and Hunt, but their supersonic rising stars prevented the sequel possibilities (just like Walter Pidgeon’s ascension stopped the studio’s profitable Nick Carter franchise).  This one’s a keeper.

 

1947’s FALL GUY, directed by the prolific Reginald LeBorg, is what kind critics refer to as “an odd duck.”  The potential here was enormous, but Poverty Row Monogram lacked the testicular equipment to propel this nevertheless engrossing programmer toward greater heights.  The credits are impressive, the basis being a Cornell Woolrich story (the script by Jerry Warner and John O’Dea, not so much).  The Woolrich source-work was an infamous pulp, entitled Cocaine.  This gives you an idea where the narrative was headed.  The plot tells of an easily riled ex-GI who attends a coke party, and ends up wanted for the murder of a sultry blonde, stuffed in a closet.  His best pal is a detective, who puts himself on the line trying to clear him.  Since all the delirium (including snowballed partiers), wrong hallucinatory crime scene locales and ferocious mood swing behavior lend themselves to nose-candy enthusiasts, the Monogram refurbish leaves a less-than-desired effect upon viewers that often makes no sense.  You see, while hyping the notorious title in the ads, the low-rent moguls saw fit to remove the drug from the scenario entirely, relying instead upon that old stand-by “givin’ him a mickey.”

That said, there’s still enough atmospheric, hazy paranoia to keep noir fans in check.  Certainly the cast is quite enjoyable, save the lead.  Clifford Penn  (aka, Leo Penn, is better known as a future TV director; worse than any murder in this pic, he’s also the procreator of Sean Penn, a crime for which there is no punishment heinous enough).  Penn aside, there’s Robert Armstrong as his detective buddy, Rita Hayworth clone Teala Loring as a ga-ga possible femme fatale, the great Iris Adrian as a loudmouth, giggling reveler, plus Virginia Dale and Douglas Fowley to keep things moving.  Since even a fall guy needs a fall guy, Elisha Cook, Jr., turns up with a bullseye practically embossed on his fedora.

FALL GUY was an early effort for producer Walter Mirisch, and it does look good (thanks to the work of cinematographer Mack Stengler, best known as the d.p. on Leave it to Beaver).  For Woolrich fans (particularly of spine-tingling tales of the Black Alibi ilk), you’ll probably figure out who the culprit actually is long before the knockout-dropped lead.  We can only ponder what this nifty little nugget might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis.  And with folks courageous enough to not tamper with a sniffer-to-snifter retread.

 

1954’s LOOPHOLE, an Allied Artists special, has a lot going for it.  The plot, concerning a spiral downward of a Hollywood bank teller falsely accused of grand larceny, offered many possibilities.  The fact that an obsessed insurance investigator is as eager to nail him as the greedy local nasties is a plus.  The script by actor-turned-writer Warren Douglas has some but, frankly, not enough, pep to nevertheless make it a noir essential.  Douglas is hampered with a by-the-numbers story concocted by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker (honest bank executives?  Come now).  But he does get a few quotable lines that define the teller’s plight (“Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an answer to anything.”  “What he needs is a taste of a rubber hose!”).

While the negatives also include pedestrian direction by Harold Schuster (although I’d go as far to say that this might be Schuster’s best work) and too much reliance on ripping off AA’s own The Phenix City Story and TV’s Dragnet, the pluses are major.  The cast alone is representative of the noir gold standard, headed by Barry Sullivan (as the teller) and Charles MacGraw as the Raymond Burr/Pitfall-esque investigator.  Right up there with ’em is Dorothy Malone, Mary Beth Hughes, Don Beddoe, Frank Sully and Carleton Young.

Add widescreen location photography (by William Sickner), a decent score by Paul Dunlap and voila! – you have the recipe for a fun “poor bastard” way to spend 80 minutes.

BTW, LOOPHOLE is a socko title.

 

KID GLOVE KILLER.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000547828SRP:  $21.99.

FALL GUY.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT# 1000388516 . SRP:  $17.99 

LOOPHOLE.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio.  CAT# 1000388504 . SRP:  $21.99.

All titles available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com