For a Few Dollars Less

The 1950s hybrid of Poverty Row and the exploitation pic spawned Regal Films, a sidebar company that ruled many a drive-in and hardtop bottom-of-the-bill during its short 1956-59 reign.

Regal, in actuality, was the po’ boy arm of 20th Century-Fox – its movies considered too lowly for the House of Zanuck.  But because it functioned under the auspices of a major studio, Regal had some perks, mainly decent leftover production values from wrapped Fox titles, plus top-level staff members manning the cameras, music batons and editing scissors.

Regal’s rules were simple:  all pictures would be in black-and-white and CinemaScope (redubbed RegalScope); for me, that’s personally a big perk right there.  Regal’s library would be comprised of low/no-budget horror/sci-fi extravaganzas, noirish crime dramas, and backlot adventure epics; mostly, however, Regal became associated with westerns.  Occasionally, one or two titles would ascend to box-office and/or critical heights (the sci-fi pic Kronos and the heist thriller Plunder Road), but generally they were designed as filler for Fox A-product.  The one mistake Fox made was relegating the 1957 UK Hammer pickup The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas to Regal:  it remains the most respectable movie ever connected to the outfit.

That said, a trio of oaters, lensed during the 1957-58 season, have attained special status (and 1960s and ‘70s grindhouse re-release/big TV ratings chops), due to their stars and/or featured players.  The three entries, The Quiet Gun, Ambush at Cimarron Pass and Showdown at Boot Hill all had impressive post-Regal life due to the formidable presence of actors who became key figures in the spaghetti western:  Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  All are now available in excellent 2.35:1 High Definition Blu-Ray evocations from the pardners at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

 

In 1957’s THE QUIET GUN, extremely bad man Lee Van Cleef has only a supporting role, but it’s so showy and already chock full of his trademark steely-eyed evil that, aside from terrorizing the townsfolk, he easily absconds with the picture.  It’s Angel Eyes nearly a decade before The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and, as Doug Sadler, Van Cleef opens the movie with a bang (literally).

Sadler rides into a prejudiced-filled town where he was hired/lured to kill his way to rancher-baron status.  Even before the Paul Dunlap opening credit music ends, Van Cleef is already torturing lovable town simp Hank Worden, chiding him for his biblical-sounding name (Sampson) and sadistically taking pleasure in inflicting pain.

The movie itself carries quite a narrative load for a little “B.”  The main protagonists (Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis) were once great friends, but now are at odds – due to their rivalry for a beauteous but vacuous woman (Kathleen Crowley).  Sheriff Tucker idolized the lady, but Davis won her, realized his mistake and tossed her out in favor of a stunning Native American common-law spouse (the fetching bullet-bra era temptress Mara Corday).  This promotes racism and murder that in the hands of a Sam Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson, Robert Aldrich or Anthony Mann could have elevated the pic to cult level.  Instead, director William Claxton sticks to what he knows best, sidesteps the controversy, and concentrates on black hat vs. white hat politics.  Still the script by Eric Norden (based on the novel Law Man by Lauran Paine) simmers with enough uncomfortable moments involving bigotry, vigilantism and misogyny rarely seen in 1950s drive-in cinema.  It likely remains Claxton’s finest work. The great John Mescall (The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Bride of Frankenstein, the 1936 Show Boat) shot the no-budgeter, and did so magnificently in the monochrome RegalScope dimensions.  And, to reiterate, Van Cleef shines like the glint on a six-shooter in the high noon sun.

 

On various occasions, Clint Eastwood has proclaimed 1958’s AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS either the worst western he ever made or simply the worst movie he ever made.  He’s wrong on both counts.  Not that this 72-minute time-filler is any classic, but for the sheer fact that it costars some excellent character folk like Frank Gerstle, Irving Bacon (way against type as an evil, murdering scumbag), plus lead Scott Brady, and, that it’s nicely lensed in black-and-white scope (a cinematic mating for which, as you know, I’m a sucker for) by John M. Nickolaus, Jr..  Of course, the plot (which unbelievably took four writers: Robert A. Reeds, Robert W. Woods, Richard G. Taylor and John K. Butler) is thin even for a B-movie:  a beleaguered cavalry command rounds up Rebels (including hothead Clint) who refuse to accept the end of the war (I wager they’re either en route to some Andersonville-type prison or, worse, a seven-year contract at Universal-International).  They’re also transporting a mercenary judge who has illegally been involved in arming war-mongering Apaches (who, in turn, have decided to test their ill-gotten weaponry by attacking and killing all palefaces, with and without Southern drawls).  Badly matched Iverson Ranch locations with sparse studio interior/exteriors don’t help this essentially standard TV episode shot in RegalScope.

More confusing is the late plot addition of a rancher’s daughter/Apache hostage, thrown to the “white wolves” as bait whilst the wily Native Americans abscond with the troopers’ equines.  It’s Margery Dean, proof that she costarred in another movie besides The Quatermass X-Periment.  Dean is a real (or reel) head-scratcher, as her character instantly segues from victimized innocent with a bad Spanish accent (“they keeled my sister”) to frontier skank on the whorepath, seducing every man, blue and gray, to mere exhausted black and blue.  It’s as if the writing department sent up script changes from the wrong movie.  Her ragged, conveniently torn clothes and sweaty looks were no doubt tossed into the mix to add a sex tease on the poster and trailer promotion.  The violent ending is actually pretty lively, with Eastwood’s participation a guarantee that the picture would continually play drive-ins and grindhouses for almost another thirty years.  The direction by Jodie Copeland and score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter concurrently defines “professional” and “routine.”  Nevertheless, this is a must for Eastwood completests.

 

Arguably the best title in the bunch, 1958’s SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL, starring Charles Bronson in his first leading role, is a tidy saga that underlines the public’s then fascination with the “adult” western.  SHOWDOWN, a sincere attempt to make something out of nothing, was written by Louis Vittes and directed by the always interesting Gene Fowler, Jr., adept in any genre from sci-fi/horror like the sprightly I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space to more socially responsible fare, such as Gang War, another 1958 RegalScope pic that also starred Bronson in what was basically a B-pulp run-through for Death Wish.

Luke Welsh (Bronson) is a social outcast (and also sociopath) with the perfect Wild West gig: deputy marshal/bounty hunter.    A human encyclopedic collection of complexes, speared by his diminutive stature, Welsh makes up for his height by his prowess as a top gun killer.  Greeted with disdain by all, Welsh rides into yet another sleepy town in search of his latest meal ticket.  Unfortunately, while legally enabled, the dude on the bounty hunter’s Wanted Poster is revered by the townsfolk, although they know he’s a ruthless killer outside the burg’s vicinity.  Insult to injury, homeboy felon is likewise reciprocally fond of the one-horse tank and the people in it, lavishing his ill-gotten gains upon their businesses and hypocritical charities.  When Bronson kills him, he effectively derails the local gravy train, and the populace turns against him en masse.  Welsh eventually bonds with the town misfit, an intelligent, scholarly thirty-ish spinster (the wonderful Fintan Meyler in her big-screen debut), repressed by the knowledge that she’s the spurned illegitimate daughter of the town whore (now a phenomenally successful Madame).  How these two survive the walls-closing-in claustrophobia of the sinister parish (in itself a figurative outcast in the realms of justice) makes for one engrossing gem of co-feature.  Before you B-movie fans run for the hills, fearing the plot is a bit TOO deep-dish, let me emphatically state that there’s plenty of action within its 72-minute confines.  Plus, there’s a terrific supporting cast, including John Carradine, Robert Hutton, Carole Matthews, George Pembroke and Argentina Brunetti.  The stark black-and-white/scope photography (once again, by John M. Nickolaus, Jr.) provides another excellent reason to check this curio out (FYI, a great 1958 draw for outdoor fans, as SHOWDOWN generally supported the A-Fox Stewart Granger action adventure Harry Black and the Tiger, directed by Henry Hathaway).

All three black-and-white Blu-Rays are in 2.35:1 1080p High Definition with DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

SRP: $29.95@

THE QUIET GUN.  CAT # OF958.

AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS. CAT # OF728.

SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL. CAT # OF672.

 

ZZ Tops

An unbridled celebration of womanhood, the Jazz Age and the arts, Allan Dwan’s magnificent 1923 comedy-drama ZAZA, starring the superb Gloria Swanson, arrives in a stunning Blu-Ray evocation from the cineastes at Kino-Lorber, in association with Paramount Home Entertainment.

The movie, based on the 1898 play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, has been updated to modern times (well, 1923) to encompass changing technology, The Great War and the unflappable flapper, aka, the new woman.

Zaza is a cabaret superstar, and much reviled by her female contemporaries.  And for good reason.  A foul-mouthed sidewalk performer (that’s the nice word for former prostitute) turned major celebrity, the bratty twenty-something is, to put it mildly, a volatile bitch.  Her talent and beauty being her saving grace, she terrorizes all within striking distance, often hilariously.  When she tongue-lashes her long-suffering maid (Yvonne Hughes) about the whereabouts of a garment, the servant meekly replies that her employer is wearing it.  The responding title card pretty much says it all:  “Idiot, why didn’t you leave it in my trunk where I could find it?!”

When it comes to love, Zaza (whose monogram “ZZ” covers her wardrobe, luggage and likely unseen lady parts) pulls no punches either.  Having early-on discovered the power of her sexuality, the woman uses it like a weapon upon her barrage of unsuspecting lovers.

Life finally deals Z a twofer when, a), frenemy Florianne (Mary Thurman) tries to kill her, and, b) true love at last kicks her in the ass with a vengeance.  The former is resolved by one of cinema’s ultimate cat fights, while the latter proves a bit more difficult to resolve.  The male in question, Bernard (H.B. Warner), is an elusive diplomat, knowledgeable of what a dangerous liaison with the temperamental star might unleash; yet, his obsession matches hers, and they embark on a torrid affair, with the statesman ignoring his professional duties while ensconcing his paramour in a posh rural love nest.

It is Florianne who finally uncovers the secret of Bernard’s strange behavior; he’s married with children.  Zaza’s refusal to believe this draws the two women into a bizarre but thoroughly believable bond that melds into a lifelong friendship.  It’s an amazing transformation.  It’s also a sad visual on what could have been another terrific career (a la Martha Mansfield, Olive Thomas, etc.) sadly cut short.  Effervescent Thurman, boldly holding her own against the formidable Swanson, was Dwan’s fiancée at the time.  In autumn of 1925, the former Sennett Bathing Beauty contracted bronchial pneumonia in Florida while filming Down Upon the Suawanee River, quickly succumbing three days before Christmas.  The camaraderie between Swanson, Dwan (who directed Gloria in eight features and one embryonic sound-on-film short) and Thurman is evident in every frame (as Swanson herself stated in her 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, “Watching the rushes, I could see that the energy level…was higher than in any other film I had made in years.”).  It certainly must have been a hoot of a shoot (lensed in New York City at the Paramount Astoria studios, admirably subbing for France).

The decade following the first half of ZAZA isn’t your typical 1920s movie fairy tale.  It’s a journey of transition.  Zaza enters her thirties, free of her mean-girl histrionics, relying upon savvy, logic and a perfect union of brain and heart.  Never throughout the proceedings (particularly the final act) is the woman NOT in control.  What’s outstanding about ZAZA is Swanson’s intuitive acting.  Her emerging adulthood is only part of it; through eye contact, luxurious close-ups, and body language (the gold standard for silents), one sees the character conveying thought.  It’s one of the greatest performances of the silent era.  If all you know about Swanson is Sunset Boulevard, you really need to check this pic out.  Had there been an Academy Awards in 1923, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gloria Swanson would have copped the statuette hands down.

The remaining supporting cast warrants mentioning, too, as they masterfully append the lead’s luminous presence.  Warner, the always-welcome Ferdinand Gottschalk, Riley Hatch, and Lucille La Verne (as Zaza’s dotty, drunken “aunt”) are quite wonderful.  And as Bernard’s daughter, there’s a super turn by future star Helen Mack, who I never knew went back that far in cinema history.

Natch, the scenario is tailor-made for Swanson, so kudos to Albert Shelby Le Vino, who specialized in risqué female-star sex dramas in the 1920s, before turning bizarrely enough to westerns with the arrival of sound.  The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is by the great Hal Rosson.  Finally, one can’t fail to mention the fantastic direction by Dwan, easily one of his best efforts.  His breezy, fluid style perfectly matches the mood and temperament of his protagonist.  And, for the most part, it’s done with wacky delight (an after-show drinks meeting/rendezvous is riotously supplanted by various hijinks going on in the background).

The aforementioned catfight, obviously a key hype moment, was approached with caution and verve.  Dwan purposely had only one set of clothes and props on-set for both Swanson and Thurman.  That way both actresses were on heightened call to make every move count; there could be no retakes. It was a strategy that worked beautifully.  The battle royal makes the Dietrich/Merkel saloon brawl in Destry Rides Again look like the kiss in Notorious.

ZAZA also answers a question (albeit a trivial one) that has haunted me for decades.  In rural 1923, horse cabs were still prevalent, and, at last I see what I’ve always suspected:  a taxi meter on the side of the rig.  I know it’s a silly bit to bring up, but it’s the kind of stuff I think about.

The Kino Blu-Ray disc of ZAZA is often spectacular, and, I should happily reveal, the first of a series of Paramount silents to be released under the Kino-Lorber banner.  Yay!  The high-def 1080p images are nicely rendered with surprising clarity and contrast; in addition, a newly composed score by Jeff Rapsis references the original 1923 cue sheets.  There is also second audio commentary by Frederic Lombardi, author of Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios and a booklet essay by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.

ZAZA, quite understandably, was a massive hit.  Swanson (and it’s easy to see why) listed it as one of her favorite movies (“the fastest, easiest, most enjoyable picture I ever made”).  Paramount remade it in 1939 with Claudette Colbert starring and George Cukor directing.  I’ve never seen this version, so I am unable to comment on it, save that I can’t fathom Colbert going the thespian tsunami range Swanson emits (but, they could have taken a completely different approach, so I won’t pursue it).

For Swanson fans, for silent fans, for movie fans, ZAZA transcends being a fascinating, entertaining time capsule; it’s a classic collector library shelf must that brilliantly delves into and defines the mystique of star power.

ZAZA.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21222.  SRP: $29.95.

ZAZA_COVER1

 

Bridal-pathic

It’s been oft said that comedy is tragedy that happens to others.  If one needs any more proof of that, he/she needs go no further than two recent additions to the Warner Archive Collection, the DVD-R made-to-order 1948 Warners title JUNE BRIDE and the new Blu-Ray of the 1950 classic FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Getting married has been noted as a frequently stressful experience; the prep for getting married is worse.  And the prep for getting hitched in America is a fucking nightmare.  It’s cleaned more people out than Vegas, sent many a parent into therapy and destroyed long-term relationships by trying to essentially please people that you don’t otherwise give a crap about.

The movies were quick to glom on to this commiseration of misery, dating back to the silent days.  But it’s the post-war arrival of two high-profile comedies that permanently cemented the feet of brides, grooms, parents, brothers and sisters into a pail, which was then unceremoniously tossed into the sea of debt.

And, oh, yeah, there’s rarely been a more fun time at the picture show!

1948’s JUNE BRIDE proves once again that when Warners lassos a winner, they never let it go.  The movie, about New York sophisticates in small-town America, liberally takes swatches from such past WB hits as The Man Who Came to Dinner, Christmas in Connecticut, Janie, etc.  The plot teams two snarky adversaries, Dinner‘s Bette Davis, and Robert Montgomery, who work rather well together.  Montgomery comfortably slides into the role of forcibly removed foreign correspondent who, now that the war is over, is relegated to Davis’ woman-oriented Home Life Magazine (add Hi, Nellie to the Warners reference rack).  Davis plays it like Regina Giddens by way of George S. Kaufman (the premise being that the pair must prepare an Indiana family’s June wedding for the main periodical feature).  The caveat(s):  Davis and Montgomery are former lovers, and the latter, sickened by the treacle, is determined to add spice to his piece by stirring things up.  He doesn’t have to look too far, as, under the surface, the Brinker family is quite a load.  Papa Tom Tully is a closet moonshiner, hiding bottles of jack a la Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, mom’s an overweight dim (social-)light (Marjorie Bennett).  Teen babe Boo (Betty Lynn) is panting for the groom (Raymond Roe), her one-time boyfriend, stolen by superficial sib Jeanne (Barbara Bates) when his older bro ditched her.  No wonder Montgomery wrings his hands with glee, anxious to get down to some dirty work.  Coupled with their Manhattan crew (Mary Wickes, Fay Bainter and George O’Hanlon) in tow, there are many ripples of laughs, and even a few eyebrow-raising guffaws.

It all begins early-on when cowardly publisher Jerome Cowan informs Montgomery of his new gig.  To break the ice, he gives the famed journalist a tour of his leather-walled office.  “Must be like living in a wallet,” muses the ace reporter.

And it continues.

“What are these harpies like?” asks Montgomery before he is bitch-slapped by Davis into silence.  “Do they have plumbing?”  The dull home is in as much need of a fashion upgrade as Mrs. Brinker (Davis demands that they take some weight off her before the shoot.  “What with – a hacksaw?” is the response).  Wickes first look at the abode is priceless: “A real McKinley stinker!”

The crème de la crème comes when an inebriated Tully is privy to a misinterpreted conversation regarding his wife’s treasured bust (i.e., architecture vs. anatomy).  Alarmed that it has been “removed to the garage,” he becomes even more horrified to learn that they “painted it black.”  This is nothing when compared to the follow-up, when the New Yorkers lament about the supposed item’s coverage in the magazine.  “It’s pretty battered, but seems to have a certain sentimental value.”

Smoothly directed by Bretaigne Windust, JUNE BRIDE benefits from a breezy script by Mildred Pierce‘s Ranald MacDougal (adapted from a play by Eileen Tighe and Graeme Lorimer).  Anton Grot did the sets, David Buttolph composed the score (utilizing a segue into “Love Nest”).  The great Ted McCord photographed the pic (a far cry from his other 1948 outing, Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

An interesting sidebar:  When Montgomery’s character is probing to find journalistic mud on the Brinkers, he is apprised of Uncle Henry.  Hoping for a mass-murderer, the eager writer presses for details.  “We don’t talk about him.  He’s a Republican.”  Nice to know that in almost seventy years things in Indiana remain status quo.

 

Far better known than JUNE BRIDE, 1950’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE is an unabashed comedy classic, directed by Vincente Minnelli and featuring an all-star cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s really very little to say to commend this pic, as it’s such a perennial on TCM and for fans of the stars and the director.  But to see it in a new 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is indeed an event far more joyous than some of the supposed merry situations faced by the characters in the flick.

The script, by old reliables Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is based on a bestselling novel by Edward Streeter.  Streeter was the go-to guy when it came to parodying the American middle-upper-middle class family of the post-war/baby boomer years (another favorite Streeter screen adaptation is 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation).  Streeter’s key protagonists were the male household heads, usually employed as lawyers or bankers.  BRIDE‘s flustered and frustrated narrator and primary player is Stanley Banks, whose usual comfortably, boring lifestyle is violently (albeit riotously) uprooted when his only daughter, Kay, announces her engagement to Buckley, someone he barely recalls.  “What’s his last name?  I hope it’s better than his first one.”  Dealing with relatives, mercenary wedding merchants, and even Coke bottles becomes a battlefield of a seemingly impossible winnable war.  And Banks is the first to see the analogy between his last name and bankruptcy.

The movie is concurrently hilarious and frightening.  A Banks dream of terror where he is thrown into an expressionistic Caligari-esque world of melting church floors, demonic guests and unforgiving loved ones is a brilliantly staged sequence, beautifully shot by the wonderful John Alton.  The Adolph Deustche music is another plus, as are the roster of memorable supporting actors, including Leo G. Carroll, Melville Cooper, Paul Harvey, Don Taylor, Frank Orth, Carleton Carpenter, Russ Tamblyn, Charles Smith, Frank Cady, Willard Waterman, Jeff York, Dewey Robinson and former silent stars Dorothy Phillips, Philo McCullough, Harold Miller and Stuart Holmes.

Not surprisingly, FATHER OF THE BRIDE was a mammoth hit, and soon MGM geared up to reunite the Banks family (and Minnelli) for Father’s Little Dividend, chronicling the birth of the title lead’s first grandchild.  This, too, proved box-office gold, and producer Pandro Berman and the Metro suits announced a third and more elaborate installment wherein the Banks take a European holiday.  The picture was to be lensed in Technicolor and shot on-location, utilizing MGM’s still considerable Euro frozen funds.  But it was not to be.

Apparently, from day one, Tracy and Bennett did not see eye-to-eye (and that’s putting it mildly).  Although the pair had costarred together as far back as in 1933’s pre-Code gem Me and My Gal (directed by Raoul Walsh), they each experienced a strong hate-at-first-sight mix.  Strange, as their on-screen characters melded so well together.  Indeed, in the BRIDE pictures, they really do act like a married couple, but one whose union exhibits subtle cracks (wise and otherwise).  Check out Bennett’s glaring at Tracy’s scene-stealing tricks, or relishing her line (“Well you’re not an alcoholic!”) about his worrying about whether to imbibe or not.  Tracy’s serious drinking problem was one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets.

Berman had tolerated the pair’s bickering on two successive movies for the sake of the studio (and the big receipts).  A third reunion, away from the studio, might result in an international incident involving celebrity murders.  Early-on, Tracy demanded a meeting with the frazzled producer.  During the session he outlined his own ideas for the third Banks adventure.  He basically announced that all the audiences cared about were his character and Liz Taylor’s (probably true), so here was what he proposed:  Ellie (Bennett’s role) breaks her leg or needs to visit a sick relative on her side of the family and will join them later on.  Getting her out of the way would allow for Stanley and Kay (Liz) to frolic through Europe with many comedic misadventures.

Berman could see the writing on the wall, and no sooner had Tracy left than Bennett opted for equal time.  She, too, had a blueprint for the new scenario:  Stanley has a last-minute emergency court case and will join the girls later.  Meantime, she and Taylor could cavort through Rome, Paris, London, etc., attend fashion shows, be pursued by gigolos… And so it would go.

As Berman’s ulcers planned a mass counterattack, he quietly pulled the plug on the project and the continuation of the series, thus dually preventing a potential on-going franchise and likely bloodbath.

Interestingly enough, while Tracy owns the Stanley Banks role, he wasn’t the first choice.  Initially Jack Benny was bandied about as a natural for Banks (a gag being the name itself).  I imagine that the comedian would have done justice to the part, and certainly would not have caused any of the turmoil that went on behind the scenes.  But, again, Spencer Tracy’s genius is his natural amiability, his magnificent penchant to turn food, shoes, and other inanimate props into veritable costars.  “Don’t let them catch you at it,” was his acting advice to novice board-trodders.

The Blu-Ray comes with sparse extras, but ones worth mentioning:  silent newsreels of Taylor’s real-life (first) wedding, plus a White House screening and cast meeting with Harry Truman.  It’s a rare glimpse of Tracy off-camera, and he seems to be having a grand time.  So will you.

JUNE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio.  CAT # 1000564782.  SRP:  $21.99.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT# 1000597141.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive, or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.

 

Roaming Atwill

In such a terrific year for major DVD and Blu-Ray releases, it’s almost apt that a contender for one of the best vintage titles of 2017 is a poverty-row potboiler, now on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective.

Now wait, we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill/bottom-of-the-bill potboiler, but an iconic horror one, 1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT, a pre-Code pip from Majestic Pictures.

For over a half-century, THE VAMPIRE BAT has been a collector’s public-domain staple, infamous for its lousy quality (both picture and sound), cheesy dialog, ridiculous narrative (of a potentially intriguing scenario), etc.

So how does this 65-minute antique ascend to near-classic status?  Simple.  For one thing, the cast — essentially a Dinner at Eight roster for Majestic.  The four leads are Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye, with excellent support in the (bat) wings.

The story, for what it is, takes place in the tiny Bavarian village of Kleinstadt (roughly translated as “tiny Bavarian village”).  A series of gruesome murders are rapidly diminishing the already sparse population.  The mostly female victims are being discovered with strange marks on their throats, drained of every drop of hemoglobin.

Kleinstadt is unique, as it seems that bats outnumber the people (and vampire bats at that).  The townsfolk are in a dither.  Can these bats be working on their own, or are they controlled by a vampire – or even a werewolf?  Yeah, I know, that last part doesn’t make much sense, but the hackneyed scripter (Edmund T. Lowe, Jr., author of such subsequent kiddie horror faves as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) doesn’t miss a genre-friendly code word (other mentions in the storyline include Svengali, released a year earlier, plus references to telepathy, pulsating life forms…the usual suspects; Lowe’s greatest cinematic glory, BTW, was as scenarist for the 1923 Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Naturally, the most trusted personage in the burg is Dr. Otto von Niemann, a mysterious, erudite sawbones who conducts nocturnal experiments with blood, bats and a gorgeous assistant (Wray); of course, no one suspects him.  They opt for the village idiot, Herman (Frye), a lunatic who loves the flying rodents with a creepy passion (often seen petting them in an inappropriate manner).  The wonderful character actor’s impersonation heavily relies upon his earlier incarnations of Fritz and Renfield (laugh included), but with the mentality of Lenny in Of Mice and Men.  The villagers themselves act like nine-year-olds playing grown-ups.

The only rational person on view seems to be Karl (Douglas, slumming in his only poverty-row outing; a quick stop, too, as months earlier, he appeared opposite Garbo – the first of three teamings – in As You Desire Me; from then on, it was “eat my dust, only A-pictures for me!”).  Indeed, even in this low-budget crowd-pleaser the underrated actor displays the self-assurance and humor that would make him a much-in-demand costar for the likes of Crawford, Dietrich, Dunne, Loy, Swanson, Colbert, Stanwyck, etc.  Much of his demeanor and attitude is actually quite consistent with his turn as Leon in Ninotchka (that said, I wonder what a vampire version of the Lubitsch masterpiece would have been like:  “Garbo Sucks,” perhaps?).

Let’s cut to the chase.  Everyone in the audience knows Atwill is the maniac culprit, planning to conquer whatever he needs to achieve with all that female blood; this also encompasses controlling his beauteous assistant in what can only be called a mind-boggling fifty shades of Fay relationship.

THE VAMPIRE BAT obviously spent most of its meager budget on the cast.  Atwill and Wray were both major stars at the time, having had a huge success in the 1932 two-strip Technicolor horror fest Dr. X.  They had just wrapped a Technicolor follow-up, Mystery of the Wax Museum, filming VAMPIRE BAT on brief hiatus before rushing back to primo studio work (Atwill to Paramount for Murders in the Zoo; Wray to Radio for some picture about a giant ape).

As indicated above, the supporting cast is aces, too, with Lionel Belmore as the not-too-bright burgomeister and George E. Stone as a local coward who does everything but put a bullseye on his back.  There’s also Maude Eburne, Robert Frazer, William V. Mong, Fern Emmett, and Paul Panzer.

Although the immensely impressive thesps are responsible for the movie’s incredible appeal (and replay value), one cannot slight the excellent direction of Frank R. Strayer, a name many late-night movie fans do not know, but whose prolific work they have more than likely been exposed to.

Strayer was a master at piling on oodles of atmosphere with virtually no money.  His churning out thriller after thriller in the mystery and horror genres at Majestic attests to his talents.  Everything this guy did is watchable, and, while VAMPIRE BAT (again, primarily because of the cast) remains his epic, I prefer 1935’s far darker and eerier Condemned to Live, a picture that doesn’t offer a logical explanation capper.  Strayer, himself, after years of slaving on the row, finally scored big (well, by his standards), netting a deal at Columbia where he helmed a plethora of the enormously successful Blondie comedies (running from 1938-1950!); not surprisingly, many consider the 1940 quasi-old dark house entry, Blondie has Servant Trouble, to be among the best in the series.

But there’s still more to admire in THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Seeing it in an almost perfect 35MM transfer (and with excellent mono audio to boot, even with the awful stock music – out of date in 1933, but really more of a sore thumb ten years later when utilized in Monogram’s Eastside Kids adventures), digitally re-mastered in 1080p from UCLA’s archival print, makes one realize how nicely photographed the pic was; kudos to d.p. Ira Morgan, who effectively used the rented space/existing goth sets on the Universal lot, where this movie was shot.  The real coup is that this print contains the restored Gustav Brock hand-colored Handschiegl sequence.  This transcends mere interesting; it’s outstanding.  Who knew it even existed on this pic? One wonders that, if they went through all this trouble to utilize this painstakingly achieved effect, why didn’t they just opt for a two-strip sequence?  Glad they didn’t, though.  Two-strip Technicolor wouldn’t have done it justice.  The weird result of perfect yellow, orange and gold torch flames (and the orbs emanating from them) in a cave scene comprising the Kleinstadt fools (pursuing and persecuting Dwight Frye) is hauntingly stunning.  It’s worth the purchase of the disc just to see it.  How many other talkies used this technique is a question I desperately need to research; it’s THAT addicting.

And speaking of purchasing, how, in toto, is the Film Detective’s Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE BAT?  It’s as if one has never seen the picture at all, that’s how good.  Razor-sharp with spectacular contrast, this movie now often looks as good as anything its A-pic competitors could come up with.  And it’s complete and uncut, containing an oft-snipped insert of blood being drained out of an unfortunate.  In fact, THE VAMPIRE BAT could be the best title Film Detective has ever released.  They must have known it, too, as they have additionally gone the distance in the extras department, serving up audio commentary, and, even better, an exclusively filmed interview with Gregory Hesselberg, Melvyn Douglas’ son.  Hesselberg has definitely inherited some of his pater’s savoir faire, and his first-hand accounts of living with movie royalty in the 1930s are priceless.  My only complaint is that the supplement is way too brief.  I wanted more (I could be prejudiced; my parents named me after the debonair star).

Trust me, if you’re even slightly interested in any of  VAMPIRE BAT‘s stars, the genre itself or the period, this blu-ray is a must-have to (dare I  say?) sink your teeth into.

THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Black and white with hand-colored sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1].  DTS-HD MA.  Region free.  The Film Detective/UCLA Film & Television Archive.  CAT # FD0740.  SRP:  $19.99.

vampirebatCOVER

 

 

 

Grizzly and Grisly

Since I first reviewed the 2010 TV3 Television Network Ireland Set JACK TAYLOR, starring the ubiquitous — albeit wonderful — Iain Glen, I pondered how soon (if, at all) there would be a follow-up.  You see, I think this dark, neo-noirish, snarky show ranks among the best across-the-pond television productions I’ve ever seen (and just think about that!).  It’s totally uncompromising, a vivid, sardonic depiction of a sinister twilight world (richly envisioned by the cool/cruel goth-gorgeous Galway location photography) where anything goes.  And I’m not kidding!  Fortunately, SETS 2 and 3 followed, and are now available in separate DVD sets from the wonderful folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

In the first series, we learned that the scruffy Gaelic investigator was an extremely well-read man of letters (though short-fused, with a decidedly violent streak) who (win/win) had a classic DVD collection.  Oh, yeah, he also was a disgraced member of the Irish Gardas, an alcoholic, and a too-trusting pal tight with a vast populace of the underbelly of Irish criminal society.  To put it kindly, his personal choices are disastrous, although he does harbor affection for the beauteous detective Kate Noonan (Nora-Jane Noone), who dangerously puts her career on the line to associate with his undesirable self.

We also gleaned that he took a “he reminds me of me” fancy to Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) an ambitious would-be Taylor; reluctantly, he acquiesces to the lad’s request that they partner up in a two-man private shamus agency.

Hunting down serial killers, often molded in the groove of modern Jack the Rippers (who, sadly, frequently turn out to be your best mates) is a trying job.  Add fighting with your dying mum (Aine Ni Mhuiri), herself a formerly abused Catholic school girl.  And/or the hypocritical local priests, so corrupt they’re funny.  Who can blame you for drunkenly sleeping it off in a rain-drenched cobblestone gutter, warmed only by the “eewww” companionship of your own vomit?  It’s an evil world, in an amusing, sanguine sort of way.  Long story short, how can one NOT love this show?

The three feature-length pics that make up 2013’s  SET 2 are all corkers, perhaps some of the best exploits Jack Taylor has even nearly died for.

 

In my favorite of the trio, Dramatist, female theater majors are being found murdered and mutilated within the campus of a local university.  The learned professor (the prophetically named Niall Buggy), another buddy of Jack’s, asks him to investigate and, hopefully, put a stop to these atrocities; it’s really having a negative effect on school registration.

Jack and new partner/underling Cody work the case, along with “keep it under your hat” assist from Taylor’s super-gorgeous Garda contact, Kate.  The ruddy-faced ex-police detective has now been sober for six months (a feat that shouldn’t be considered permanent), and is still attempting to mend bridges with his stroke-paralyzed mother, like his sobriety; a virtual impossibility.  Taylor’s aloof demeanor serves him well (“When I trust people, shit happens”), and his scholarly knowledge of John Milton aids in obtaining clues (not the least is a quote, “The sorrows died with me,” tattooed on a victim’s back) that lead to a genuinely horrifying conclusion, one that almost severs Kate’s ties with the former police detective…and everyone else.  Taylor’s ultimate take, intoned over a haunting forest backdrop, says it quite eloquently: “Sorrows are not spread by beautiful women, but by…bastards like me.”  Truth.

Priest, the second and most controversial of the three, opens rather alarmingly with long-absent priest Father Royce’s (John Kavanagh) return to Galway, where he is soon found beheaded in his church.  Soon priests galore are getting hate mail, including Jack’s local cleric, Father Malachy (Paraic Breathnach), who is terrified that he’s next.  No matter what Galway’s resident holy man might be hiding, it can’t compare to the slaughtered Royce, who seduced women, men and boys, and delighted in torture and procreating with parish members.

“The date of retribution has arrived,” warns a chilling note, prior to Taylor’s involvement in the case.  Jack, snarkily amused, offers that “Asking [me] for help is like the Pope leading the Gay Pride parade.”

The hypocrisy of the denizens of the cloth (particularly in Taylor’s parish) leads to some marvelous verbal combat.  Says Malachy to Jack “I was dreaming of your mum.” “I have those nightmares, too,” sighs Taylor.

The circumstance of Jack’s newly deceased mater coincides with his unsurprising return to the bottle.  Nevertheless, the bleary-eyed sleuth rips all the scabs off the priest’s scandals (leading to a shocking climax), but not before telling us (in a brittle noirish narration), that “When it comes to leaving well enough alone, I’m an idiot.”

Feeling guilty for possibly causing Cody’s death (not helped by his doing the nasty with the lad’s mother) convinces Taylor to leave Galway for the hinterlands, engaging in “dirty dick” type cases.

The opening of Shot Down gives us a taste of what that ensues, a woodsy payoff for a sleazeball in the dead of night.  The event goes without a hitch until a young, bloodied girl (Hazel Doupe), hysterical with fear, comes screaming out of the darkness.  Her mother’s gruesome killing gives Jack his newest case, involving a battle between factions of local Irish gypsies.  Adultery, kidnapping, drug dealing and other unsavory activities keep the action moving as Taylor tries to bring an end to the feuding clans’ rivalry (and key to solving the brutal opening homicide).  As Jack’s involvement is shunned by the violent, ungrateful vagabonds, who inform the shamus that their affairs are none of his business, Taylor is quick to remind the transient caravan’s leader, “When someone points a shotgun at me, it BECOMES my business.”  That seems to work; well, that and some typically inappropriate Taylor use of muscle.

As with Set 1, the behind-the-scenes work is superb, beginning with director Stuart Orme and the exceptionally fine scripts by Marteinn Thorisson and Marcus Fleming (from the acclaimed Taylor novels by Ken Bruen).  The atmospheric photography by P.J. Dillon and Ciaran Tanham couldn’t be any better; nor could the original soundtracks by Stephen McKeon.

 

SET 3 begins with a plethora of changes, both in narrative and in casting.  Jack, it seems is in for a much-needed round of good luck.  His old landlady, Mrs. Bailey (Sighle Ni Chonail), has passed, and, not having (or trusting) anyone close in her family, has left Taylor a 170,000 EU inheritance.  He immediately purchases a posh new pad; this positive swing is abetted by the news that Cody has recovered, but has thought better of continuing his professional liaison with Jack.  He’s off to America to pursue his dreams (hoping to additionally get the images of his mentor and mom out of his tortured memory).

Jack is not without an assistant for long, however, as Kate’s brainy relation Darragh (Jack Monaghan; think an Irish version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is interested in working with the crime-solving diamond in the rough.  Kate, we must note, has been Menudo-ed; the ravishing Nora-Jane Noone has been quietly replaced by Siobhan O’Kelly, (who’s okay, but, frankly, can’t compete with Noone’s amazing presence).  The Garda, who so often has escaped death (usually when in the company of Jack) has a new foe:  breast cancer, which Taylor promises to help her conquer, a pledge that includes threatening an insensitive surgeon (David Ramseyer).  While this might suggest that a kinder, gentler Taylor/softer storylines is/are in the works, I can emphatically respond via the following: no feckin’ way!

The first case, Cross is ample proof.  Within nanoseconds of the initial fade-in, we see a body crucified, with the uneasy premonition that more victims are to come.

Jack, Kate and Darragh soon find the strange Mitchell family, a brood of (mostly) sociopaths, whose angelic female offspring, Gail (a vivacious Elva Trill; truly one of the most beautiful actresses we’ve seen…well, since, Nora-Jane Noone).  That Gail and Darragh become a romantic item is a match made in hell.  Turns out, Gail is the worst of the lot (“She’s a friggin’ psychopath,” Taylor warns Darragh.  “That doesn’t make her less interesting,” is his feeble, whipped reply.  Uh-oh).  Refusing to share info with the Gardas (“they pat your head as they kick your ass”), Jack chooses to work this deadly puzzle out himself.  The results ain’t pretty.

Nemesis is one of the most startling episodes in the history of the show.  Jack, dealing with Kate’s upcoming mastectomy, breaking in Darragh, irritated by a lowlife PI (Christopher Fulford), adds a layer of stressful unpleasantness to his current curriculum.  This isn’t helped when the weary, wary detective is asked to help find an old adversary of his who has been kidnapped.

Videos of a youth hate group, led by a demented teen, Ronan (Diarmuid Noyes), obsessed with American violence (and, specifically, Columbine), encompass mutilation torture sessions, including an elderly man tossed off a pier.  Jack’s attempted rescue of an apparent new victim (Roisin O’Neill) turns pitch black when one of Taylor’s fingers is cut off for his troubles.  This connects the sleuth back to his frenemy, Ronan, whose eye Jack had to once relieve him of.

The last act is harrowing to say the least, but does end on a spectacular up note when Taylor, confronted by dodgy Father Malachy offering lofty platitudes along the lines of, “Well, Jack, your finger wouldn’t have been severed if it wasn’t in the Lord’s plan,” replies with a marvelous, “Don’t ya have an altar boy to grope?”

Purgatory is the final episode in the third set; ironic, as it’s Kate’s first assignment since her flirtation with death; it’s also the name of a new virtual reality game, whose data has been stolen.  Jack is hired by the American billionaire couple (Sean Mahon, Laura Aikman) who own the gaming company, to recover the specs and find the thieves.  Along the way, several 20-something tech geeks are heinously liquidated, providing an ideal opportunity for Darragh to go undercover as a replacement.

As Taylor gets closer to the sick minds behind the deaths, he uncovers some rather disturbing facts about the beauteous sugar ‘n’ spice Texas lunatic wife/partner in the thriving concern.  With his trademark raised eyebrow, the rumpled PI muses out loud to the determined CEO, “Married a murderess, and made her head of Security.”  Jack surmises that this cannot end well, and, indeed it doesn’t.

Once again, the productions are of the utmost quality, led by Stuart Orme and (okay, make your pun) Charlie McCarthy.  The excellent photography this time around is by Billy Keady with all the SET 3 scripts being the praiseworthy handiwork of Marteinn Thorisson.  Stephen McKeon continues his fine work as composer (with the mournful title track sung by Tara Lee).  As with all Acorn discs, the platters look and sound terrific.

Like all previous TAYLOR shows, these new additions earn a justified high five (or, in Jack’s case, high four).

JACK TAYLOR, SETS 2 and 3.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 Dolby Stereo Surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/TV3 Television Network Ireland.  CAT #s: AMP-2181 (SET 2)/AMP-2411 (SET 3).  SRP:  $49.99@.

 

 

Chick Flic

She’s lean, she’s mean, she’s butch-cut buffed and ready for action. And thank God she’s on our side. Well, that is, if our side is in the French city of Montpelier. And, no, she’s not a fantasy version of Rachel Maddow, Cop; she’s Lea Hippolyte, TOP Cop (in fact, Captain) in a not-so-elite squad of ornery officers, known cumulatively as ANTIGONE 34 (ditto the 2011 French mini-series, now on DVD from MHz Networks).

The six-part three-disc set moves like zee queek-silverr with more dangerous twists and turns than the South Corsican roadway. There’s an excellent cast of characters with prerequisite sharp-featured Gaelic punims to make the visuals doubly interesting. Mainly, there are three leads. Helene de Soyere, the group’s resident psychotherapist (believe me, they need it), portrayed by the beauteous Claire Borota; Victor Carlier (Bruno Todeschini), a disgraced physician, just released after serving a decade in prison for the death of his wife; and, last but certainly not least, the aforementioned Lea – an amazing characterization by the extraordinary bi-goddess Anne Le Nen.

As their name implies, Antigone 34 is the go-to last resort outpost for the worst crimes imaginable. Perverts and scum are “how we pay our rent,” offers sage Lea to her new partner – the clean-shaven sprout Serge Ravel (one of the show’s touche touches of reversing gender stereotypes). Prettified Ravel (Aubert Fenoy) is the role usually given to the cute woman while Hippolyte is generally reserved for the craggy, grizzled veteran. Lea immediately crushes Ravel’s awkwardness with a terse “If we’re gonna work together, stop ogling me when I bend over.” This Dirty Harriet is in need of a new partner, since her former cohort “ate his gun” one fateful night. Returning after enforced leave, Hippolyte’s detached demeanor is devoid of any remorse. This is frowned upon by her coworkers, who never liked her to begin with. But nobody in A-34 really seems to like anybody anyway; it’s an eternal clash of surly, bitter, unfriendly misanthropes seemingly sired to offend each other. Did we say they’re French?

The show opens with a bang – in more than one sense of the word. A university sex party climaxes with the death of a gorgeous young coed (Jennyfer Chabot). These carnal soirees are biz as usual for the writhing student bodies, who even allow outsiders to pay for voyeur privileges (“They get off watching us degrade ourselves” reports one femme to Hippolyte). Soon another corpse turns up. Is there a serial sex-killer on campus? Coincidence is the key to ANTIGONE 34, as it soon becomes apparent that EVERYTHING slimy that goes on within the magnificent surroundings of the coastal community is connected. The dead girl turns out to be the daughter of the newly freed Carlier. He wants answers. Lea is still trying to find evidence to clear the ex-con’s record for what she figures was a frame-up. She’s also attempting to unravel the strange circumstances regarding her partner’s “suicide.” Then there’s Carlier’s refuge: an ocean front gypsy camp run by low level crime lords who were the doctor’s former cellmates. What’s the elegant plastic surgeon Klein (Nicolas Moreau) got to do with this? Or the college drug mule trade? And this is just episode one.

So, what else is there to be deliciously revealed? Allow me to give you a tantalizing taste. Within the subsequent five installments we learn that the gypsies are involved in a credit-card scam possibly related to the murder of a potential terrorist. Carlier is following one Hubert Prudehomme (Xavier Gallais) – a sleazy post-yuppie billionaire industrialist Realtor who pretty much has his doigts gluants is every pie within cellular distance of Devil’s Island. Prudehomme essentially is a baba au rhum Mabuse, and a startling shock reveals Helene – the oh-so-normal-shrink – has an intime passe with le salaud. Meanwhile, Lea divides off-hour time punishing her body – either by rigorous exercise or downing shots till dawn in techno clubs (she also occasionally takes swigs of booze while driving to crime scenes).

Lea and Helene’s marginal respect for one another is underlined by the former’s comment, “You try to understand the criminals instead of taking them out.” The women are the core of the series, and couldn’t be more oil-and-water opposites. Lea salivates taking no prisoners, and is annoyed by rehabilitation; Helene gets through to the ones her coworker do manage to bring in alive – and even gets in on some of the field action. Lea couldn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her looks, attitude or interpretation of the law; in contrast, Helene plays the girly card with a vengeance – trumping a later ace when she turns out to be the mistress of a 70-year old former rock star. Lea’s love life unwinds at the club, via her unnatural attraction to Baptiste (Daniel Lobe) a married Creole customs officer. It’s mutual, much to Hippolyte’s delight (“I see you’re not wearing your [wedding] ring [anymore]”). Their (dare we say) bi-play is highlighted by a sequence of one-upmanship when their impassioned discussion causes them to not notice that the music and background activities have gone graveyard silent. The terrified patrons have seen the burly Custom’s enforcer’s shoulder holster and weapon. When informed of this faux pas, the officer laughs – explaining his profession. Lea joins in. “I’m one too!” she happily adds – displaying her even larger formidable weapon.

But back to the narrative. Ravel is run over by some Muslim hitmen in the pay of a gang kingpin, who’s in the pay of Prudhomme…In the interim, we meet another A-34 duo – Lea’s in-house nemesis Perez (Bruno Lopez) and his lackey associate Libert (Fred Tournaire) – two violent crooked cops and the series’ most unsavory participants. Perez resembles an evil pockmarked Rahm Emanuel, while thick sadistic thug Libert is, to paraphrase Dian Fossey’s landmark work, the ultimate gorilla in the mystery. They torment shopkeepers, extort pay from citizens, run girls, sell drugs and, not surprisingly, were seen at the dorm the night Carlier’s daughter was murdered. They are also in Prudehomme’s employ. Prudehomme, we also learn, was also screwing Carlier’s wife.

Things really start moving when a ruthless 1% anti-science magnate is found frozen to death in a fish locker. This opens the investigation to exhume a million-dollar black market in illegal tuna smuggling (I swear I’m not making this up – apparently this genuinely exists). A pizza delivery boy is actually a hired executioner who blows away a young mother. Her tiny daughter is a witness and is brought to Helene for counseling. At the precinct, the girl embraces Perez – much to Lea’s dismay. Why? Perez’s wife (Vanessa Liautey) is the child’s beloved teacher. Initially, the prime suspect is the dead woman’s husband, but he has an airtight alibi (he’s a bigamist, and was spending the day with his second family).  Alas, the assassination was a botch since it turns out the intended victim actually lived next door. Fifi, Lea’s new partner (Lionel Erdogan) questions her; she’s an acclaimed gourmet cook/author who’s upgrading her credentials to true-crime – doing an expose of…yup, Prudehomme. Fifi and the writer immediately have sex since, as we mentioned earlier, this is France. But wait – what’s an environmentalist have to do with all this? Or the Russian mob? Why did the journalist really seduce Fifi? And why did Fifi let her? And why is Carlier risking more jail time by performing illegal plastic surgery procedures (which we learn are known as “clandestine operations” – see how educational TV can be?). And why was his patient then murdered? And how did Carlier’s knockout professional nurse end up as a lethal high-priced prostitute (hilariously unmasked when an A-34 hacker “penetrates the escort site with a Trojan horse”)?

Many of these answers are clarified at an arranged meeting in Helene’s aged rocker’s villa, the standout moment being a confrontation with the hooker and Lea, who belts the vicious call girl point blank in the nose with unfortunate Owen Wilson proboscis results.

There are many deaths in ANTIGONE 34; also much screwing (literally and figuratively) and lots of other heinous dilemmas that collectively make up what we laughably call the human condition. The theme of the series is that crime not only pays – but it usually pays well. In due course, some people deservedly get what’s coming to them; others do not (Perez and Libert simply keep on trucking). Lea herself bends the rules with the same ease as she maneuvers her pliable torso. The raison d’etre isn’t that criminal events are terrible as much as they are necessary. In order to keep society on an even keel, we need the malevolence and corruption. Eventually everything balances out. How can one show be so cynical and ebulliently anti-social? Did I mention it was French?

If there’s a problem with ANTIGONE 34 (aptly named, as famed editor/author Frank Harris once termed its Greek namesake as the battler of the law; other interpretations suggest opposed to motherhood and even opposed to life), it’s that there’s too much information. The interesting folks and their outrageous foibles are often countered by a lip-biting barrage of cliches that serve no purpose whatsoever. The script by Alexis Nolent and Brice Homs (the latter who also interestingly served as the show’s art director) dutifully juggles the pros and cons with professional panache (finishing in the plus column by tossing an occasional dialog zinger). What makes it acceptable is the MTV lightning-in-the-bottle handheld rapid-cutting style (which normally I generally find offensive); i.e.,this shit moves so fast that one hardly has time to cherry-pick the God-awful from the awfully good. The first three episodes are directed by Louis Pascale Couvelaire with such slick jump-cut ferocity that one doesn’t even realize what a slow poke he is until the far more slick (and faster) final triad is unleashed by Roger Simonsz. The cinematography is by a talented sextet comprising Simonsz (who worked on the three episodes he didn’t direct), Sebastian Dewsbery, Sarah Couvelaire, Caroline Vandamme, Lara Pugh and Marc-Olivier Perrois unfurls the spectacular Montpelier locations to great advantage, especially the dazzling nighttime photography. The music by Claude Samard Polikar is Euro-trash reasonable; however, the phonetic English warbling of supposed soulful, ironic lyrics laid over the end of each episode made me want to see Paris and die without hesitation, save to retch my guts out upon the hearing of every whiny word (trust me, they would make Rod McKuen wince). I kept hoping for a supplement of the fantastic Le Nen (unquestionably the prime reason for watching the series) cornering the singers and blasting them to smithereens with a snarky “Ta gueule!”

Which brings me to my favorite credit on ANTIGONE 34 – and one deserving endless praise: Bruno Gaggola di Balthazar pour Creation de la coiffure de Mile. Anne Le Nen. Brother, you ain’t just whistling La Marseillaise.

The three platters from MHz Networks are tres impressive! The 16 x 9 widescreen transfer is crystal clear and pops with a contradiction of rich natural and neon-enameled colors (depending upon the time of day). The stereo-surround showcases an excellent sounding board for the cacophony of regional French accents, subtly enlightening viewers of the differentiation between merde and murder.

ANTIGONE 34. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 Digital stereo-surround; French w/English subtitles. MHz Networks. UPC Code # 815047017481. SKU # 16748. SRP: $39.95.antigoneCOVER

Corporations are People Tunes

It had to happen.  In that populist 1950s culture of men in grey flannel suits following patterns of upper-middle class ascension and/or the women yearning for the best of everything, someone was going to take the next logical step:  turn the paranoia and American dream angst into a musical.  And, boy, did they!  If ya don’t believe me, check out the new Blu-Ray of 1967’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, now available in a limited edition from the CEOs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Debuting in 1962, the Broadway production of HOW TO SUCCEED became a star-making smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Better yet, it became one of only eight musicals to win a deserved Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The brilliant score by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert achieved the seemingly impossible:  creating a likeable, song-filled, toe-tapping universe surrounding the human shite that decides how we look, dress, talk and smell (it was actually based on Shepherd Meade’s 1951 satiric volume of the same name, subtitled A Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune).  Certainly one of the snarkiest musicals ever, SUCCEED succeeds on so many levels; it was obvious that a movie deal would soon be in the works.

The plot revolves around an over-achieving take-no-prisoners go-getter, J. Pierrepont Finch, who, after finding the title book at a subway newsstand, quickly rises from window washer to young executive at a top super-mega-colossal Manhattan firm known as World Wide Widgets (the first prophetic use of the letters “WWW”).

The scenario, like Finch, offers no solace to the myriads of wounded victims, ripping the masks off every ass-kissing, back-stabbing, toadying coworker, skank and relative employed at even a marginally sized company that anyone has ever had the misfortune to share adjoining cubicles with (believe me, I speak from experience).

The songs, as indicated, are terrific – each one a masterpiece that, once exposed to, you won’t be able to stop humming.  I used to apply each ditty to the matching staff member in my office (“hmm-hmm-hmm, the company way…”).  It made the stress so much easier.

The show had legs, not only spreading out into a gazillion worldwide road companies, but joining a mini-genre of cynical “big biz” theater/movie ancestors/spinoffs, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and, the most unknown work of genius ever How Now, Dow Jones (check the credits, you’ll plotz).

UA, which scored big with The Apartment, eventually won the film optioning stakes (the Mirisch Company paying a then unheard-of $1M for the picture rights), immediately began planning the transition to the screen.  The backstage politics involved in that morphing were nearly as hostile as the inappropriate display that had theatergoers laughing (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) in the aisles.

In 1964, Tony Curtis campaigned vigorously to play Finch; the underrated actor surmising he could speak the sensational lyrics a la Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.  The idea of Sidney Falco in HOW TO SUCCEED is indeed an enticing one (in the Broadway version, the Pierrepont Finch character is way darker, and more ruthless).  Alas, by the early/mid-1960s, Curtis’ marquee value had waned, and United Artists told 39-year-old he was too long in the tooth to play the energetic 20-something.  Immediately, they pursued Dick Van Dyke (then also 39).  Van Dyke nixed the part for the identical reason UA trounced Curtis.

Hollywood being Hollywood, no one naturally thought of casting the ultimate Finch, its Broadway personification Robert Morse.  Morse had previously done some TV and a couple of movies, and had just been signed by MGM.  His bravura turn as Finch had also won him a Tony Award.  “Hey, why not use him?” finally cried some wag at The Mirisch Co.  Duh.  Like casting followed suit, and soon the majority of the original Broadway roster caught a jet for the West Coast.

The transition still wasn’t without bumps – and weird ones.  The outrageous Coffee Break number was scratched from the final cut, although the hilarious preamble to it remains (you’re expecting a full-fledged ensemble of lady typists and junior execs to converge upon the screen, but are met only by a guy wheeling in a beverage and danish cart).  More bizarre was the omission of all the Michele Lee character’s songs.  As compensation, she was given Morse’s signature tune I Believe in You; he, in turn, got to perform the piece later on in a washroom reprise.

The reason UA cited was the playing down of musicals, which were not as popular as they had once been.  Odd, since West Side Story, A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music had racked up international grosses of close to a billion dollars (the first two being UA titles).

But, again, who can explain the workings of a Hollywood mind?

What remains on the screen is a firecracker of laughs (many brutal), fantastic music (so many memorable songs, it’s hard to pin down a favorite; I’m torn between Company Way and Been a Long Day — the second malevolent, of the two versions performed by the class-conscious cast) and marvelous performances.  Morse and Lee (who made her big screen debut in SUCCEED) are perfect.  But we can’t NOT mention the splendid participation of the awesome supporting cast, particularly Rudy Vallee, Maureen Arthur, Anthony Teague, John Myhers, Carol Worthington, Ruth Kobart, Jeff DeBanning and Murray Matheson.  That said, the unsung-singing hero of SUCCEED is the amazing Sammy Smith, who perfectly essays the dual roles of meek mail room head Twimble AND the company founder Wally Womper (originally, I never knew until the credits, even taking into account the lousy toupee).

Our retro love affair with the 1960s makes SUCCEED more engaging as ever.  Several years ago, a Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe wowed audiences once again.  Cleverly, it was hyped as “Mad Men – the Musical!”  A not so deceptive tag (just ask the wary young ladies in the show as they harmonize “A Secretary is Not a Toy”).  Furthermore, in a brilliant casting in-joke decision, the groundbreaking award-winning AMC series cast Morse in a recurring role as one of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ top execs.

David Swift, who directed a non-musical look at big business (1964’s very funny Good Neighbor Sam), moves his cast through the proceedings with verve and panache.  The camerawork by the great Burnett Guffey is top-notch, utilizing the decade’s pop colors in a Panavision galaxy, reminiscent of Princess phones, fluorescent ad signs and the New York World’s Fair mod imagery.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a revelation.  This fresh transfer looks as if it was shot yesterday, featuring colors that seem to burst off the screen with 1080p crystal clear visuals.  Unlike the previous 2000 MGM DVD, which was in compromised scope, this rendition is in full 2.35:1 Panavision.  Equally relevant is that all-important audio; the old DVD was mono; Twilight Time presents SUCCEED in spectacular 5.1 stereo-surround (it truly sounds as if one is in a first-run theater).  For SUCCEED‘s legions of fans (like moi), there’s the option of listening to the matchless score as an IST; furthermore, there are several short documentaries, one with Morse, and another with Lee.  Plus the theatrical trailer.

One of the finest musicals ever made, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS finally conquers the home entertainment arena via this must-have platter.  But hurry, it’s a limited run, and once they’re gone…

One final note:  The bloviating, blow-hard, inept, physically unfit, adulterous womanizing, golf-fanatical New York head of WWW – the creep who is lured into a reality-type game show production is named Biggley.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # TWILIGHT267-BR.   SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively at www.screenarchivesentertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com 

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