Halloween Blitz ’17: Heady Bizarre

I am admittedly prejudiced toward the 1965 Amicus horror flick THE SKULL (now on spectacular Blu-Ray from the gang at Kino Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment), having been exposed to it at an impressionable age, while relegated to the Kiddie Section of the RKO Coliseum.  And I’m proud to say that fifty-two years later, I can still unashamedly sing its praises.

Then again, why shouldn’t the pic be top-notch?  The handsome production, on-screen and behind its camera, is filled to the brim with first-rate artists and technicians.  The narrative, based on a chilling Robert Bloch short story, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade (that very exploitable full title couldn’t be used, due to legal threats from the notorious nobleman’s still percolating bloodline), concerns a progressive phrenologist (Maurice Good) who unceremoniously chops off the head of the deceased in a graveyard-robbing spree during (naturally) a violent thunderstorm.  The skull, however, is apparently immortal as, according to the legend, the human monster de Sade wasn’t insane, but possessed (a mental illness-defining theory that many ancient volumes purported).  The disembodied cranium wastes no time taking the scientist over, a la Donovan’s Brain, causing him to off himself, then inhabit his friend, who then offs the head-swiper’s French mistress (April Olrich).

And that’s just the prologue!

Cut (or chop, your choice) to modern day.  Macabre supernatural collectors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are bidding at a satanic auction, presided over by Michael Gough.  Can it possibly get any better than this?  It can.

Cushing’s artifact procurer is slimy Marco, ably portrayed by Patrick Wymark.  Marco snatches the dastardly bone head from Lee, and offers it to Cushing.  The latter eventually succumbs to not only the thrill of owning such a horrific item, but becoming the latest victim of its fiendish powers, that threaten to even destroy the collector’s solid marriage (must mention that Cushing’s wife is played by the wonderful Jill Bennett).  And, once the murders and mutilations start occurring with Jiffy Pop regularity, the investigating detective is Nigel Greene (with Patrick Magee as his M.E.!).

So ya see, the cast is A-1. Did I mention that the crazed Mademoiselle-dicer in the opening is George Coulouris?  Well, I am now.  The direction is by the formidable Freddie Francis, and certainly represents one of his best efforts.  The beautiful ‘scope camerawork comes courtesy of John Wilcox.  Francis, of course, had some input regarding the visuals, and they are appropriately bathed in goth greens, reds and purples.  There are also inventive uses of color filters, plus POV skull shots that are truly a hoot.

The music is also kind of brilliant, a rare score by the genre-friendly Elisabeth Lutyens.

All in all THE SKULL is likely one of the best Amicus productions ever made.  The only fly in the ointment remains the actual screenplay, penned by studio co-founder Milton Subotsky.  Subotsky may have been worn many hats, but the writing one was a bit too small.  His scenarios generally tarnish the Amicus output, a Hammer competitor mostly known for their omnibus collections.  THE SKULL, being a full-length excursion, left a lot of leeway for Francis and the cast.  The director himself called the final script really nothing more than an elaborate outline.  Cushing, who often contributed greatly to the writing (uncredited), likely did same, as did Lee & Co.  How much will probably never be known, as all the major characters are now long gone.  But the atmospheric set pieces (which I surmise are not even hinted at in the script) marvelously add to the pacing and creepiness of the proceedings.  The next Amicus/Francis/Bloch collaboration, the underrated 1966 pic The Psychopath, was entirely conceived and scripted by Bloch with virtually no creative Subotskying in by the obtrusive mogul.

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE SKULL is phenomenal.  It truly resembles a 1960s Techincolor and TechniScope 35MM print.  There’s also a cache of extras, all worth exploring, including two near-half-hour featurettes (Jonathan Rigby on “The Skull,” Kim Newman on “The Skull”), running audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a Trailers from Hell segment with Joe Dante, and a Kino horror trailer gallery.

As the movie is in its own charming way about obsessive collectors, THE SKULL Blu-Ray becomes a gotta-have-it addition to any fanatic’s library.  And best of all, you don’t have to be possessed to possess it.

THE SKULL.  Color.  Widescreen.  [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K21125.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Halloween Blitz ’17: Waximum Exposure

Often incorrectly cited as the picture that ignited the 3-D craze in the 1950s, 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX should nevertheless cause a wildfire reaction amongst classic movie collectors with its Special 3-D Blu-Ray release from Warner Home Video.

The pic that actually begat America’s brief but first potent fascination with third-dimension cinema was Bwana Devil, a B-movie from UA, released a year earlier. The brainchild of Arch Oboler, Bwana Devil, with no real name cast or budget, caused the best visual effect the process could bestow upon Hollywood: money comin’ at ya from all directions.

It didn’t take a still TV-fearful gaggle o’moguls to grasp the possibilities. Soon the majors (Universal-International, Columbia, RKO) and the minors (Monogram/Allied Artists) were scrambling like frenzied monkeys, angling to throw their celluloid feces into the eager faces of their patrons. Even the lofty likes of MGM, Paramount and Fox got into the act, but it was Warner Bros. that pulled out all the stops with the announcement of “the first 3-D movie from a major motion picture studio”: HOUSE OF WAX.

Still a bit wary, however, most of the cautious producers chose projects already owned by the studios (often scripts rejected as “unshootable”) or remakes of long-forgotten gems. HOUSE OF WAX was a refurbishing of the great 1933 Michael Curtiz horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum.

“Everything’s been thrown at the camera except a good story,” boldly stated RKO producer Edmund Grainger whilst on-location in Mexico for his 3-D thriller Second Chance, costarring Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell and Jack Palance. The overall quality of the choices made to promote the process are likely a prime reason for its demise, and not that old chestnut that audiences tired of the headache-inducing joyride (in fact, very few customers ever complained about the Excedrin effects of stereoscopic flickers; likewise, the advent of the glasses-free widescreen splendors of CinemaScope and VistaVision no doubt also played a large part in the en masse exodus abandonment of the process).

HOUSE OF WAX turned out to be an inspired choice on many levels – way more pertinent than Jack Warner’s proud boast of “we already own it.”

The Grand Guignol chiller offered a plethora of ways to use the process for jolting, shocking and even cajoling audiences into uncomfortable laughter, all of which it did admirably. It gave star Vincent Price one of his signature roles, and unquestionably steered him into his remaining career path of horror icon. It’s also the movie most identifiable with director Andre de Toth (although he was an expert in a variety of genres, specifically film noir and westerns).

De Toth was truly a strange pick for director, as he was blind in one eye, and therefore couldn’t physically experience the 3-D effects. Yet, he was a great filmmaker and dived into the project with relish (and ketchup on the side; in fact a lot of ketchup…in fact Max Factor Stage Blood # 5). De Toth worked laboriously with the Milton Gunzberg and Dr. Julian Gunzberg from the Natural Vision company, visual consultant Lothrop B. Worth, as well as with the three wonderful veteran d.p.s assigned to the picture, Bert Glennon, J. Peverell Marley and Robert Burks. De Toth was determined to get every ounce of gotcha out of the technology – and then some. Not content with exploiting a gimmick, De Toth strived (and succeeded) in cinematically utilizing the process to its best potential. This is most notable in a spine-tingling sequence where the cloaked killer stalks the heroine through the deserted, nighttime fog-bound streets. The angles and tracking shots are downright creepy and magnificently showcase in-your-face photography. But the high point comes when the woman (nicely played by Phyllis Kirk) turns a corner and a building seems to jut out at her (and does into the audience). Have to admit, I jumped, recoiled and then chuckled while I thought: “De Toth, you sonofabitch!,” a thought many folks in Hollywood often mouthed out loud).

The idea of a 3-D movie set in a wax museum is in and of itself a brilliant one. 3-D effects are best realized when shot with an abundance of high-key lighting (a necessary artificial technique for museum tableaux). The lousy WarnerColor (here restored to near-perfection) rendered dull images unless it was doubly-flooded with lights. Long story short, HOUSE OF WAX must have been one hot shoot!

The pic’s narrative, now legendary, is a keeper. Genius wax sculptor Henry Jarrod prides himself on his flawless depictions of great figures in history. Matthew Burke, his scumbag partner/financier, is anxious for a return investment and when Jarrod refuses to go the Jack the Ripper exhibit route, decides to torch the joint for the insurance, even though a kindly millionaire (yeah, right!) has indicated that he will buy him out upon his return from abroad.  Killing Jarrod’s “children” isn’t the only tragedy. Burke (a thoroughly despicable Roy Roberts) has also left the unconscious artist to burn with his creations. Jarrod survives, horribly disfigured physically – and even worse mentally. He’s now a raving psychopath, intent upon seeking revenge on all who wronged him. His hands useless, Jarrod uses underworld dregs to fashion his new models, covering human bodies with layers of wax.  Sounds fair to me.

Eyeing Kirk (a virtual replica of his beloved Marie Antoinette) finally sets him into total WTF mode and he can think of nothing else but pouring hot molten wax over her nude living body.

While this may sound a bit severe, it’s like Henry Jarrod on Abilify compared to the antics of de Toth. Costar Paul Picerni told me (still with terror) about how de Toth almost killed him during the production – and this was nearly fifty years later!

De Toth loved danger, and had no qualms exposing himself to rather unorthodox (and generally unnecessary) ways and means of making movies. If he could do the same (or worse) to cast and crew – even better.  He, himself, recounted the delights of working as an A.D. on 1942’s Jungle Book, willingly volunteering to tempt fate by practically sleeping with the many wild (non-SAG) members of the animal kingdom recruited for the production. Nothing pleased him more, he recalled with rose-colored euphoria, than those early morning arrivals when the aroma of the soundstage was filled with the intoxicating “…sweet smell of urine.” Okie-dokey.

De Toth thought nothing of plunging Price into perilously burning sets (that frequently ain’t a double, folks). The idea of roasted, melting flesh sent the director into swoon gear; while this wasn’t CGI possible in 1953, De Toth more than compensated by having lengthy montages of realistic looking wax heads tumbling off their torsos, eyeballs lovingly rolling out of their sockets as cheeks and chins peel, leaving only skeletal grimaces. Ah, ars gratia artis!

The script to HOUSE OF WAX is by former silent-screen star Crane Wilbur (who also coproduced). While it naturally is censored from many of the sexual innuendoes that permeated the pre-Code Curtiz version (which took place in modern New York City; the ’53 edition is a period piece played out in Big Apple, ca. 1905), there is a sprinkling of risqué/amusing lines. When evil Roberts flashes his ill-gotten gains in the face of giggly (and equally mercenary) mistress Carolyn Jones, he offers her a trip to anywhere she wants. Right away we’re thinking Paris, London, Rome, but no. In addition to being a murderous slimeball, Roberts is also a cheap bastard, suggesting Atlantic City. Jones counters with Niagara Falls. Roberts, simultaneously ogling his trophy GF while contemplating the concept of legal tender, replies with the hilarious capitulation: “Who knows, might be fun.”

When two morgue attendants wheel in a new arrival, they macabrely discuss the advancing lethal qualities of the horseless carriage. When one remarks that he didn’t think they went fast enough to hurt anybody, his buddy gleefully counters with, “They’re getting better all the time.”

Other departures from the earlier version comprise the hybrid combination of the two lead female characters. Kirk is both Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell; one of the perks of the ’33 version was that fast-talking news reporter Farrell was actually the hero of the piece, a role now delegated to Frank Lovejoy as the detective assigned to the case. Like its time period, another step backwards.

Finally, the derelict artist working for Price (Lionel Atwill in the original) was a cocaine fiend in Mystery. In HOUSE, the addiction is alcoholism.

The jaw-dropping cast member in HOUSE OF WAX is Igor, the snarling mute lunkhead played by Charles Bronson (still billed as Buchinsky). His realistic portrayal of a grunting and groaning dummy was an ideal run-through for his later work for Golan-Globus.

Some grainy shots aside, HOUSE OF WAX looks spectacular. Even in its standard 2-D version (also included in this set), it’s a lot of fun. The sets, the lighting, everything works like a charm.

But let’s face it – it’s the 3-D that makes this picture the classic it is. Every shot in HOUSE OF WAX is geared for three dimension – and at least 95-98% of it works.  Again, the lion’s share of credit must go to de Toth, who correctly mastered the format by sandwiching his prime action between foreground and background planes (not as obvious as it sounds, as evidenced by his many failed contemporaries and even current 3-D schlock-meister efforts).

Probably the most famous sequence is the opening of psycho Jarrod’s new museum wherein paddleball meistro Reggie Rymal bounces rubber balls into the audience. 3-D-wise, that never worked for me. Even in the good 3-D prints I’ve seen, it was an effect that my eyes couldn’t adjust to. But it does in this Blu-Ray! I mean, not all the time, but midway through his demonstration, I did find myself ducking. Honestly, one can never have enough balls in their lives (although, admittedly, perhaps not in one’s face).

A later sequence is much more amusing. Picerni takes Kirk out on a date to a local beer hall/nitery. For entertainment, a lineup of Warners cuties perform the can-can. Ads for the movie showed some curvy female gams kicking out into the audience. While this indeed does happen, like the initial paddleball FX, it didn’t really work. Ironically, the tail end of the segment, wherein some arguably method-trained starlet shoves her posterior into the camera does indeed deliver the goods. I have to bluntly say it: her ass was in my face; it was like I could reach out and touch it. Truly, it is cinema’s greatest booty shot ever!  A variation on this image is achieved during the exciting climax.  As Igor and Picerni’s character battle it out, Buchinsky lets loose with a haymaker that beautifully pops right out of the screen.

The audio on HOUSE OF WAX is as good as it gets. Warners was always known for their great sound department, and this movie underlines it with thumping bass dynamics. Originally recorded in WarnerPhonic Stereo, the multi-tracks were long-thought lost. Well, either they found them or replicated the tracks from existing cue sheets, ’cause the stereo on this Blu-Ray, like its lead, is a killer. And, like its visuals, it comes at ya from all sides.

While Warner was confident that they had a winner, he was also concerned that the competition would beat him to the punch. Columbia, going neck-and-neck with their first 3-D outing, the noirish Man in the Dark (shot quickly in eleven days), rushed the modestly budgeted B-plus pic into theaters just prior to HOUSE OF WAX‘s premiere. Suffice to say, it cleaned up – but did nothing compared to the business HOUSE OF WAX generated. WAX is still on many All-Time Box Office Champs lists, some calculating that, in 2017 terms, it has amassed close to a billion dollars in ticket/TV/home video sales. If there was any doubt as to whether this fad was big-studio worthy, HOUSE OF WAX squelched it, opening the floodgates for 3-D movies helmed by A-list directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, George Sidney) and stars (Rita Hayworth, John Wayne, Mitchum, Martin & Lewis, Kathryn Grayson).

Cyclopian de Toth himself would helm another pair of 3-D pics, both excellent Westerns starring Randolph Scott: The Stranger Wore a Gun and Bounty Hunter (the latter being an interesting historical footnote, as it was produced by Judy Garland and Sid Luft via their Transcona company, part of the package deal with Warners for A Star is Born).

Warners stacked the deck by having the WAX premiere presided over by Bela Lugosi and a guy in a gorilla suit, which, for me, is the psychotronic equivalent of Lunt-Fontanne. In classic blooper fashion, Lugosi’s cue cards got mixed up and he ended up talking gibberish to his simian pal, occasionally announcing punchlines followed by their jokes.

Lugosi had nothing on the biggest and worst joke: a re-issue of HOUSE OF WAX in 1972 by the thoroughly disreputable Sherpix Corporation. Sherpix ditched the two-projector Polarized system for a cheap single strip, bogus widescreen mess (the movie was shot in standard 1.37:1) that resulted in soft, bleeding images with virtually no 3-D effectively discernable. This actually did cause headaches and basically ruined the beautiful cinematography, as the smeary color looked like a faded snapshot exposed to the sun. Worse, the deceptive posters and promotions copped the ads from Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, which featured a naked Jane Asher (as a nose) caressing Vincent Price’s face. Insult to injury was the billing – listing Charles Bronson third above the title with Price and Kirk. It’s as if this travesty had been orchestrated by the Roy Roberts character. I vividly recall hearing a couple exiting in disgust, grumbling, “No wonder this process died. What a piece of s#$t!”

Trust me, this isn’t the case by a long shot with the Warners Blu-Ray. Again, I can’t commend this disc enough. HOUSE OF WAX is what 3-D is all about (the packaging, in a lenticular 3-D slipcover, adds to the hoot factor).  Like the earlier standard DVD, this B-D also includes the original two-strip Technicolor Mystery of the Wax Museum (never looking better), premiere newsreel footage, audio commentary by David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr, the 1953 3-D promo trailer and a documentary House of Wax: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before! They ain’t kidding!

HOUSE OF WAX.  Color.  Full screen [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HA MA.  CAT # 1000413340.  SRP:  $35.99.

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Cliff-Hangar

For sheer movie adrenalin rushes and pure 100% fun thrills, nothing beats a classic serial – a staple of kiddie Bijou-pop-eyed wonder from the 1920s-50s (prior to the Jazz Age, the chapter plays were more adult-oriented).  The excitement and “holy crap!” factor from the vintage stuff remains unsurpassed, since, before CGI, blue and green screens and even back-plate projection, all that derring-do was breathtakingly real.  And sometimes with dire consequences.  These folks were truly insane, risking (and, as indicated, occasionally giving) their lives for a couple of reels of celluloid.  Seriously, WTF!?

A good amount of this craziness is apparent in a surviving silent serial, 1928’s THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, now on DVD from the picture show addicts at The Sprocket Vault.

Is the above the greatest serial ever made?  No.  Is it the most exciting? Nuh-uh.  Is it relevant in any way to cinema?  Actually, yes.  Is it fun?  HELL, YEAH!

The plot, like most chapter plays, can be described in one sentence (stretched to ten weekly episodes):  Ace flyer has revolutionary new equipment that baddie airman and motley crew desire.  Of course, the ace flyer and his adversaries can be seamlessly replaced by detective, cowboy, railway engineer, circus performer or orthodox rabbi (well, nix the last one – just wanted to see if you’re paying attention) – you get the idea.

What makes THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN so remarkable is its timing in history – a year after the Lindbergh flight, as well as basking in the smash aftermath of the blockbuster Wings.  Aviation always held a fascination for movie buffs, and these aforementioned events simply underlined that jones with a passion.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN also has an amazing take on wing-flapping flappers.  Not one, but TWO gorgeous ladies are integral to the plot – not stay-at-home girlfriends of the rock-jaw heroes, but actual aviatrixes, who get in on the action without any male condescending title-card comments, smirking or eye-rolling glances.  Pretty cool for 1928 (also the year when the fictional Phryne Fisher took to the air).

In the ten chapters that comprise THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, we learn that Frank Baker (Walter Miller) and his flying mate Shirley Joyce (Eugenia Gilbert), thanks to the latter’s genius pop (C.H. Allen), are privy to a new device that will change the future of aviation.  This MacGuffin is called the James Joyce Aerometer (as if writing Ulysses wasn’t enough!), and, of course, the evil Pilot X and his nasty (and revoltingly unhygienic) Air Hawks want to get their grubby mitts on it, so that they can sell it to an unnamed foreign power (who nonetheless have Russian-sounding names).  Enter detectives, Secret Service agents, government muckety-mucks and more to help (and even hinder) Frank and Shirley’s fighting the good fight.

Like all solid serials, THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN has its share of red herrings and clichéd characters.  There’s a sneaky eavesdropping butler (Arthur Morrison), a good-bad rival air service, headed by Bill Craft and Fawn Nesbitt (Robert Walker and Dorothy Tallcott), a less scrupulous couple than Frank and Shirl (and therefore, far more compelling and interesting).  And, natch, there’s Pilot X, who, we all know, is likely to be one of the trusted Baker crew.  Note:  if you can’t figure out who it is from the first chapter, you need to turn in your Captain Midnight Decoder Ring immediately!

What’s unusual about THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is the villain’s killing off a main character early in the game.  Generally, captured good guys get mussed up, but survive.  Here, it’s absolutely insidious.  Pilot X takes the poor bastard up to high altitudes knowing he has a coronary condition, thus causing the dude to suffer a fatal heart attack.  If I must play Devil’s Advocate, Pilot X, in his favor, does have a monkey accomplice, always a good thing.

Another atypical sidebar of THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN revolves around one of the two women mentioned previously.  It’s Fawn, and we’re fawning over her.  Looking amazing in leather and silk ascot togs, Fawn is introduced in every chapter as the lass wanting to be the first woman pilot to go “around the world.”  Of course, they’re referring to flying, as the lady seems to be more than experienced in another more salacious meaning of that term.  Ergo, a mid-serial segment where her squeeze, Bill (and Frank’s rival) suggests she “vamp” Baker to get crucial information and/or the actual aerometer. Fawn shrugs, with about as much shock to being pimped as having to go with vanilla yogurt ‘cause the honey-cinnamon was sold out.  Compounding this rather extreme move is the fact that Fawn and Shirley are BFF’s.  Indeed, THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN sometimes seems to transcend mere Saturday matinee kiddie filler, aspiring to the loftier heights along the lines of Mabuse for Juniors.

Then, there are the planes – including a 1920s state-of-the-art private passenger cabin cruiser – gorgeous stuff!  And the era’s roadsters, which, like their flying counterparts, are frequently involved in chases and pursuits with hair-raising results.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, was a decently priced serial, released by The Weiss Brothers through their Artclass Pictures Corporation (their motto:  “APC, The Sign of a Good Picture”).  Its obscurity is infamously heralded by the reams of inaccurate information listed in books and online sites regarding the picture’s credits, narrative and even chapter titles.  To keep it clear, the movie was directed by Harry Revier, though “supervised” by George M. Merrick, written by Arthur B. Reeves (from an adaptation by Harry P. Craft), and photographed by William Miller and Bert Longenecker.  The chapter titles are as follows: Air Raid, The Girl Who Flew Alone, Flaming Wings, The Flying Torpedo, The Air Pirate, The Hawk’s Nest, A Leap for Life, The Winged Avenger, The Warning from the Sky, and The Air Battle.

Only one 35MM nitrate print is known to exist, and this was the source material that The Sprocket Vault was able to obtain from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Archive.  For the most part, the quality of the surviving film is in outstanding shape.  Slight surface wear aside, the clarity, contrast and physical condition is terrific.  Having just recently watched a double-bill of Hands Up! and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, I bemoaned the sad truth that these “A” Paramount titles don’t look one-fiftieth as good.  AIRMAN even contains some of the original tints and tones; that said, decomposition has taken its toll on Chapter 9, giving up Reel One (which is explained via inter-titles and stills/lobbycards).

The Sprocket Vault has gone the distance to include a specially prepared serviceable score by Andrew Earle Simpson, audio commentary by film historian Richard M. Roberts, publicity materials, the 1928 New York Board of Censor recommendations, and a suitable short subject (also from 1928), Flying Cadets.

Aviation fans make up a large sector of the DVD/Blu-Ray collector base, so I’m sure they’ll be champing at the bit to add this rarity to their libraries.  Serial junkies will want it, too – to say nothing of silent movie aficionados.

Serials, of course, should never be watched in one sitting, a lesson I learned all too well many moons ago.  A chapter prior to the main feature – be it a selection from the serial’s vintage or Get Out!, is the way to go.  It was with great remorse that I saw the final two reels spin on my DVD player.  For the next couple of weeks I missed many of those clueless, cloud-hugging knuckleheads.  But mostly, I yearned for the further adventures of Fawn – sincerely hoping that she insatiably at last made it around the world.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN.  Black and white w/tints and tones.  Full frame [1.33:1]; silent w/2.0 stereo score.  The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Holdings, LLC.  CAT # 35059.  SRP:  $24.99.

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Two Broken Girls…

Thanks to the folks at the International Mystery division of MhzNetworks, I am rapidly becoming addicted to Swedish crime drama,

Well, this time they’ve really done it – topping the thrills and suspense of Crimes of Passion and Johan Falk with the 4-DVD set of 2011’s blockbuster mini-series THE BRIDGE (aka BRON/BROEN).

This outstanding 10-part riveting nail-biter not only will give your goosebumps goosebumps, but ratchet up the sardonic laugh factor as well, being that the engrossing, chilling narrative is heavily tempered with hearty, dark comedic segments; together these two emotional responses meld surprisingly well, resulting in one of the best mysteries I’ve ever seen unfold on the TV screen.

So, what is THE BRIDGE?  The title refers to the Oresund architectural marvel that connects Copenhagen (Denmark) to Malmo (Sweden).  One night, the structure’s electrical works malfunction, causing a temporary blackout; the next morning, directly in the center of the trestle, is the body of a woman.  When the summoned police attempt to move it, they’re in for a shock, a la the Black Dahlia.  The lady’s torso has been perfectly severed in two.  But that’s only the beginning.  Coroner investigation reveals that the halves belong to two different women, one a rising Swedish politco/attorney – the other, a Danish prostitute.  So the case, like the corpse, is divided between the Swedes and the Danes – with the best each has to offer joining forces.  The oil and water combination is what makes THE BRIDGE the sensational viewing experience it is.  The Danes send earthy Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), a top dick who often bends the rules when deemed necessary.  The Swedes offer up Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) a beauteous, albeit socially, inept detective who never deviates from the book.  Immediately the pair clash, with Saga putting the breezy Martin on report for a number of minor infractions.

Before returning to the plot, I have to emphatically state that Saga Noren is one of the greatest and inevitably most endearing (if not paradoxically frustrating) characters I have ever encountered in any entertainment arena, being movies, stage, radio plays or, natch, TV.  It is a groundbreaking, fantastic career-defining performance by the wonderful actress Helin (not that Bodnia as Martin isn’t nifty as well).  There’s truly never been anyone like Saga.  Adorned in skin-tight inappropriate black leather pants, this detached personification of a cold case is a methodical sleuth, unfazed by any event, no matter how horrific.  The result of a so-so family background with an awful episode involving her sister’s suicide, Saga shrugs the human condition off like it’s nothing.  The job, however, is everything.  Dealing with sociopaths when you’re one yourself (albeit a non-violent, law-abiding specimen) has its perks via promotions and accolades.  Saga’s coworkers adore the detective’s amusing faux pas, but understandably become annoyed by her frequently irritating presence (a scene where she tries to fit in with her coworkers by attempting small talk will concurrently have you giggling yet feeling sorry for the valiant misfit). Saga’s lack of social skills actually define her highpoints, she’s a brilliant shamus, the most-honored on the force, and, thus, respected by all.  That is, until an infuriated Rohde is saddled with her.

The complicated guilt-ridden Dane is an adulterous husband to Mette, his latest spouse (Puk Scharbau), whom he nonetheless loves passionately.  Everything about Martin Rohde confuses Saga, who initially enquires about his difficulties walking and sitting. “I’m recovering from a vasectomy,” he tells her – his antidote to becoming faithful (it doesn’t work, karma-compounded by the fact that a last pre-op encounter leaves Mette pregnant – with twins!).  This piques Saga’s interest, who greets her new partner the next morning with a boisterous, “How’s your scrotum?”  “Fine, Saga,” replies the embarrassed law enforcement official.  For Martin, this all becomes fodder for an endless array of anecdotes to regale his family with, especially his 18-year-old son, August, who becomes infatuated with the complicated woman crime-solver (a seemingly innocent sidebar that morphs into a crucial part of the case).

And this continues throughout the approximately ten hours of THE BRIDGE until Martin, like all of us exposed to Saga Noren, becomes indelibly attached to the woman.  When asked if she has a boyfriend or lover, Saga answers in the negative.  Martin isn’t surprised, but doesn’t expect his associate’s counter-offer to explain how she fulfills her needs. Rohde cuts her off with a resounding “NO!,” but, of course, we, the audience, do want to know.  And so it comes to pass.

In one of my favorite BRIDGE detours, Saga hits an all-night bar, and is soon approached by a hunky dude named Anton (Magnus Schmitz). When she refuses to accept his “Can I buy you a drink” ice-breaker, Anton stealthily retreats.  When Saga asks where he’s going, the rejected player serves up a sad retort about being shot down.  “I just said I didn’t want a drink.  I didn’t say I don’t want to take you back to my apartment for sex.”  Happy camper Anton thinks he’s died and gone to heaven, and he sort of has.  A vigorous and graphic sex scene follows, subsequently dissolving into a morning-after moment.  Anton awakes seeing his naked lover fastidiously working on her laptop.  He peers over and sees a gruesome montage of dismembered human body parts.  When asked what she’s doing,   the cheery, satiated woman replies, “My job.”  The understandably frightened lover quietly but quickly sneaks out as fast as he can.

But, alas my friends, we haven’t seen the end of Anton.  Nor the multitude of characters who travel THE BRIDGE.  None are red herrings, not really.  All play a part in the series of crimes that began with the Oresund incident.  They are the work of a psychopath dubbed TT (short for Truth Terrorist).  He’s apparently a thoughtful maniac, who kills and/or tortures the homeless, abused children, drug addicts, immigrants, and the mentally ill to make their otherwise ignored plight front-page news; to this end, he involves an over-zealous journalist (Christian Hillborg), to whom fate you just know is not going to end well.

TT utilizes multi-media to press his point, hacking into TV newscasts and creating renegade YouTube-esque sites so that the citizenry of both countries can get in on the fun.  The countdown to destroying companies employing under-aged children is turned into a lethal video game, each firm represented by a kidnapped tot.  As individuals play these hunger games, a child is released as a business is torched.  It becomes a national pastime.

The clues to THE BRIDGE are scattered everywhere, and once you finish watching the show for the first time, it’s recommended you go back and trace the tidbits of evidence.  Everything is there in front of you.  Of course, Saga is the only one on-screen who gleans it, and her reputation is such that it mercifully goes unquestioned…well, the majority of the time.

Ultimately, the socially-conscious sociopathic TT’s agenda is but a sham to wreak personal vengeance that transcends monstrous lunacy.  The moral stance of THE BRIDGE is nevertheless a modern take on the age-old “beware of thinking with your dick.”  And that’s all I’m going to say.  You need to appreciate and savor the series from fade-in to fade-out.

Saga and Martin turn out to need each other.  He becomes (for once) sincerely remorseful; she attains human emotions, first evident while tearing up when her superior (Dag Malmberg) announces that he’s leaving.

Even more telling is the genuinely moving finale.  Anton earlier asks his kooky hook-up if he can take her to dinner.  No sex, just a date.  “Why?  Don’t you enjoy sex with me?”  Anton emphatically swears he does, but yearns to swim into Noren’s forbidden relationship current, insisting that he sincerely wants to explore the possibilities of non-carnal companionship. Saga practically short-circuits, not knowing how to react, and sloughs him off.

The harrowing and gut-wrenching last two episodes change both the detectives’ lives, veering them toward another direction previously thought impossible.  Martin learns that one can love (and respect) a beautiful woman sans biology; Saga, under Rohde’s tutelage, acquires the ability to lie.  Perhaps not a fair trade-off, but it humanizes both of them.  Appropriately, as Saga travels the bridge alone, back to Sweden, she picks up her cell at the halfway point, and dials Anton to nervously discuss “that dinner…”  It’s a lovely, touching moment – enough to make a snarky, cynical bastard weep (and I did!).

As one might suspect, THE BRIDGE was a smash hit in Sweden and Denmark (so much so, that it has spawned at least three more sequels), and driven by the powerhouse performances by Helin and Bodnia, it’s easy to comprehend why.  Of course, the nearly 600-minute series demands that the two thesps have bravura assist, and, indeed they are admirably aided by the fantastic supporting cast, the superb writing (by Hans Rosenfeldt, Man Marlind, Bjorn Stein, Camilla Ahlgren and Nikolai Scherfig), and the stunning direction (divided into thirds, with Lisa Siwe, Charlotte Sieling and Henrik Georgsson sharing the honors).  Can’t leave out the amazing widescreen photography of Jergen Johansson.  Indeed, the look of THE BRIDGE is so startling that it qualifies as one of the thriller’s characters.  These are not the gorgeous frescos seen in Crimes of Passion, but more along the lines of the Dragon Tattoo movies and Wallander.  The Sweden and Denmark of THE BRIDGE comprise a nightmarish landscape, where even the daytime sequences look like eternal night; yet, the compositions, particularly opening shots of the Copenhagen’s famed statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid monument remain eerily enchanting.  Another intriguing aspect of BRON/BROEN encompasses the numerous cultural differences between the Danish and Swedish lifestyles.

The MHz DVDs of THE BRIDGE are excellent, with great care going into the transfers, including the fine stereo-surround audio (in Swedish and Danish, accompanied by effectively translated and readable English subtitles), featuring a creepy score by Patrik Andren, Uno Helmersson and Johan Soderqvist; a haunting tune, Hollow Talk, by the Choir of Young Believers begins and ends each installment.

A highly recommended supplemental extra delves into the thoughts and takes on the characters by the three directors and the principal players.  The piece de résistance is, of course an interview with Helin, who reports of her extensive prep for the role of Saga.  That alone is worth the viewer’s time investment of this mini-documentary.

The callous title of this above article/review all but guarantees my spending eternity in hell (handbasket optional), but don’t let that stop you from experiencing the current earthly Scandinavian version.  I surmise that it’s infinitely way more beguiling.  But don’t quote me.

THE BRIDGE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.75:1; 16×9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround [Swedish and Danish w/English subtitles]; MHz Networks/Filmlance/ZDF Enterprises.  CAT# SKU-16796.  SRP:  $39.95.

BRIDGE_COVER

 

Gold-Plated Copper

Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment, in conjunction with ITV Studios, has once again delivered big-time with the American DVD release of the obscure 2005 police drama JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD.

The series, comprising four feature-length movies on two discs, is what our friends across the pond refer to as “a corker.”  Imagine a progressive detective in 1950s London.  Add to the fact that he’s brilliant at his job as a cop, but leaves much to be desired as a private citizen (or human being, if you want to go all biological).  Not that he’s a bad person.  Au contraire, he’s a thoughtful, caring dude, but has so much personal baggage (a haunted past, his Jewish heritage in an anti-Semitic environ), plus the overt jealousy of his coworkers, due to the fact that he’s their most honored and celebrated shamus (heralded in the press and grainy B&W newsreels for his amazing sleuthing success rate).

That’s just the multi-layered background of JERICHO, the man and the show.  Suffice to say, the quartet of cases he’s saddled with and cerebrally solves are just as intriguing as the top cop himself.

JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD represents a tough-loving homage to film noir by a creative team, consisting of writer Stewart Harcourt and three extremely inventive directors (Nicholas Renton, Diarmuid Lawrence, Tom Shankland).  It’s also a triumph of set design (Rob Harris), art direction (Phil Harvey) and photography (Alan Almond, Cinders Forshaw and Sue Gibson), faithfully and lavishly capturing the look and feel of late 1950s Britain (to me, it’s reminiscent of the visuals in Ford’s 1957 underrated Gideon of Scotland Yard, which it, no doubt, tips its cap to, and Roy Ward Baker’s shamefully overlooked 1961 racial drama A Flame in the Streets).

But in order to ignite a dynamite keg of action and suspense, ya need a cast up to the task.  JERICHO more than accomplishes this with its marvelous lead, Robert Lindsay, the great supporting regulars (more on that later) and an array of spectacular guest stars, including Francesca Annis, Laurence Fox, Claire Bloom, Jane Horrocks and James Wilby.

The aforementioned emotional minefields D.I. Michael Jericho must deal with include his father’s possibly turning rogue cop (was his death suicide or murder?), his determination to assimilate into a society that is less than gracious (the condescending treatment his aged mother gets is cringe-worthy), and his failure to engage in a satisfying romantic relationship.  As a buffer, he becomes the adopted family member of his chief assistant Sergeant Clive Harvey, a splendid portrayal by David Troughton.

The casting of Troughton is probably the most inspired in the show, as his look and demeanor perfectly apes 1950s actor Jack Warner, who often played the exact same kind of roles.  Harvey and his wife (Eve Matheson) and daughter (Zoe Colton) take Jericho into their lives with fervor and joy (that almost comes apart in a controversial case).  Jericho wishes he could have the life his underlings have, not only Harvey but his whippersnapper newbie DC John Caldicott (Ciaran McMenamin), just married, to the increasingly impatient Lydia Leonard, and champing at the bit to have a proper honeymoon.  This third link is the weakest in the series, reminding one of Frank McHugh’s similar plight in All Through the Night; that’s not to say that Caldicott and his bride are washouts.  That they are likeable in their own way mercifully avoids the treacle possibilities. In true noir fashion, Jericho has a favorite dodgy informant (Lee Ross), who ultimately, too, gets caught up in the danger that surrounds the heralded DI.

But naturally, there’s evil afoot in the Jericho universe, and one doesn’t have to search the underworld to find it.  It’s right down the hall, brutally personified in sociopathic rival Inspector Christie.  This thug-with-a-badge is none other than Downtown Abbey‘s sympathetic Mr. Bates, Brendan Coyle, here a loathsome, violent villain more at home on the streets than on the force.

When Jericho at last finds love with a beautiful French escort who lives in his building (a touching performance by (Aurelie Bargeme), Christie makes a point to become one of her clients.  Jericho, already ill at ease by the relationship (he worships her, but is fearful of what others might think, an aspect of British assimilation he has mastered perfectly), treads softly – a misstep that goes woefully wrong.  Personally, Jericho’s home life, particularly the look of his flat, reminds me of the equally troubled Robert Ryan character’s in Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (mercifully, Lindsay’s Jericho is a much nicer guy).

The cases themselves (A Pair of Ragged Claws, The Killing of Johnny Swan, To Murder and Create and The Hollow Men) take on a variety of 1950s topics and taboos, including S&M sex/torture, private knocking shops, Cold War Russian espionage, the nuclear arms race, interracial coupling, bisexual coupling, post-war trauma, plus those old reliable standbys:  kidnapping, blackmailing, corporate theft, and serial killing.

It’s the final point that makes up the narrative of my favorite in the series, a string of horrific Ripper-like murders that recall a long-forgotten 1920s killer known as the Butcher.  Is he back in action after a thirty-plus year hiatus?  Or is there a copycat picking up where the original fiend left off?  The added spice of making the then-UK (and worldwide) smash hit The Bridge on the River Kwai an integral part of the mystery (and solution) underlines why this movie fanatic is nuts for this show (and, Hammer fans, check out the coming attraction posters in the theater manager’s office).

Sadly, there were only four JERICHO movies made, as, apparently after the first favorably received installment, ratings fell off drastically (that said, the series racked up a number of OFTA award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Direction and Best Writing).  Now there’s a real crime worth investigating!

In any event, the entire collection has been beautifully packaged by Acorn for your pleasure (the anamorphic widescreen transfers and 2.0 stereo-surround audio are terrific).  And for armchair crime-adoring devotees, there are many pleasures indeed!

JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD.  Color. Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios.  CAT # AMP-2540.  SRP:  $49.99.

JERICHO_COVER

 

Sam’s Twilight People

With the impact of a right and left cross, Twilight Time (in conjunction with 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment and Columbia Pictures Industries) proves itself to be the Blu-Ray heavyweight champ of the month with the near-simultaneous release of two great 1950s Sam Fuller classics, 1954’s HELL AND HIGH WATER and 1959’s shamefully underrated THE CRIMSON KIMONO.  Both of these magnificent-looking transfers are now available in limited editions (3000 each), so Fuller buffs, noir aficionados, and just downright great movie fans need to rush to their Blu-Ray emporium of choice.

The variance in the narratives of HELL and KIMONO underline the genius of Fuller, as his key themes are prevalent in both.  The perversity of love has always been a major plot-point in a Fuller pic, and here the scenarios run in conjunction.  As you may have already gleaned, I cannot recommend these movies highly enough.  So let’s get moving!

 

1954’s HELL AND HIGH WATER is a kick-ass action adventure movie with a very Fulleresque scenario.  A group of pacifist entrepreneurs, including the world’s leading nuclear scientists, forms a cartel to expose a plan by the Reds to start an atomic war.

To this end, they’ve refurbished a derelict WWII Japanese submarine, and secured the services of derelict WWII commander Richard Widmark, now a merciless mercenary.  With an international handpicked crew, including the top two physicists, one a drop-dead gorgeous egghead, the peacenik subversives head for the Arctic to spy on Chinese and Russian secret operations.

WOW!

HELL AND HIGH WATER was Fuller’s most elaborate effort to date.  It was his first stab at CinemaScope, and, like all great directors, he grasped the possibilities immediately.  After all, what better a subject for CinemaScope than a submarine (although Frank Tashlin might cite the Jessica the dachshund in Bachelor Flat)?  HIGH WATER was only the fifth ‘Scope movie released (the ads still heralded the boast “You can see it without glasses!,” a swipe at the waning 3D format, although a Fuller stereoscopic outing would have undoubtedly been something to behold).

Fuller not only had ‘Scope, but Technicolor and stereophonic sound.  His script, cowritten with Jesse Lasky, Jr., (from a story by David Hempstead), hits some potent issues, enough so that the final result was considered too hot for some international venues (it was banned in France).

HIGH WATER is sumptuously lensed by the masterful d.p. Joe MacDonald, contains a rousing Alfred Newman score (the main theme would end up in a number of subsequent Fox movies) plus large-scale action sequences and special effects (with second-unit location work done in Paris).

Widmark, who’s (not surprisingly) terrific in the picture, plays Captain Adam Jones as a kin to his Skip McCoy in Fuller’s earlier masterpiece Pickup on South Street.  Both men peg politics as a sucker game ripe for the taking.  And both become reluctant patriots when the stakes get personal (for Jones, it’s seeing a Red bomber being disguised as an American plane, geared up to drop an atomic mushroom cocktail on an unsuspecting city).

There’s some lip-biting violence in HELL AND HIGH WATER, including a grueling moment when a character’s fingers must be cut off in order for the sub to successfully make a hairbreadth dive/escape.

Widmark aside, the cast is aces, including Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, Richard Loo, Henry Kulky and Fuller’s always welcome stock company participants, Gene Evans and Neyle Morrow.

Life imitated art when the female scientist sets foot upon the sub (the old “woman on board bringing a seagoing vessel bad luck” wheeze). In this case, the lady in question was newbie actress Bella Darvi, the latest Darryl F. Zanuck protégé – with accent on the “F.”

Darvi was born in Poland as Beyla Wegier; she had barely survived WWII, and, frankly, had been through hell (the high water would soon be replaced by hot water).  Renamed Darvi (the hybrid of Darryl and “official” mate Virginia Zanuck’s given monikers), she sprang upon the Fox lot like a panther in heat.  Fuller had asked Widmark to help coach the actress with her negligible English;  Darvi must have been quite a handful, as the usually gracious Kiss of Death star outwardly refused (one of the rare times that Widmark ever responded negatively to anyone in the biz).  Fuller countered by tricking his Steel Helmet lead Evans to do the deed, by implying that Darvi had a thing for the burly thespian.  Evans responded in kind, and only later discovered who Darvi really was (revealing to Fuller her gratitude gift of silver ornaments. “That explains this,” he told Sam, displaying the piece’s engraved DFZ inscription).

Darvi, who was virtually universally panned by critics (and audiences), was definitely unfairly victimized.  She really wasn’t that bad; truth be told, she was quite good as Princess Skankerina (or whatever her name was) in The Egyptian, but it was too late.  In addition to her reputation preceding her, Darvi proved to be more trouble than she was worth; a number of extracurricular torrid affairs with both men and women had to be hushed up.  This didn’t faze Zanuck as much as the woman’s gambling jones, which was diminishing his bankroll.  By 1956, Bella was gone, paving the way for the mogul’s next mistress/star-to-be, the infinitely cooler and more reasonable Juliette Greco.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of HELL AND HIGH WATER is a pip, the platter’s great color and clarity doing the rectangular-composed visuals justice.  The 1950s directional stereo sound is pretty good, although the 5.1 separations on my system tended to dwarf the all-important center channel; the alternate 2.0 stereo tracks worked perfectly.  Newman’s aforementioned score is available as an IMT (in further homage to Fuller’s and Widmark’s previous collaboration, Darvi’s lovely “Denise” theme is the ballad “Mam’selle,” composed by director Edmund Goulding – the tune that Pickup on South Street’s Moe/Thelma Ritter kept playing on her phonograph); in addition, the disc contains the excellent supplement that adorned the old Fox 2007 DVD, a Biography episode, Richard Widmark:  Strength of Characters.

 

Fuller’s 1959 Columbia directorial debut, THE CRIMSON KIMONO, one of his two brilliant Gower Gulch exercises in late noir (the other being 1961’s extraordinary Underworld, U.S.A.), is an unbridled opus of sex, violence, love and passion that concurrently rips the hypocrisy mask off American race relations.  It also is one of the first U.S. motion pictures to depict the use of martial arts.

On the surface, the movie is a startling thriller about the search for the psychopathic murderer of stripper Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) in Los Angeles’ Japanese quarter.

But the real story of THE CRIMSON KIMONO is a bromance between the detectives working the case.  Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett, in his movie debut) is a decent straight-up guy with an obsession for doing the right thing.  No one gets a free ride.  His BFF, Japanese-American Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is also his savoir.  They met during Korea, and their bond extended to Joe’s agreeing to an emergency blood transfusion, saving Charlie’s life.  Thus, they are blood brothers in every sense of the word.  Kojaku even follows Bancroft back to L.A. and joins the force.  They’re also roomies, pooling their salaries to have virtually nothing but their swank man-cave apartment.

This relationship is ideal until the Crimson Kimono case breaks.  The aforementioned Sugar, trying to elevate the vocation of stripping, wrote and choreographed an artistic dance piece surrounding the title garment.  It’s basically Madame Butterfly with T & A.  The artist she hired to create the exquisite posters is tracked down after the interpretive dancer’s murder.  Both Charlie and Joe are amazed and pleased to discover it’s a woman, the masculine-named Chris Downs (top-billed Victoria Shaw).

Charlie falls hard for her, and she begins to feel likewise – until she meets Joe.  You see, aside from being a class-A cop, Kojaku has the soul of an artist (he plays and composes music and is a scholar of ancient and contemporary culture; his father is a revered painter).  Joe goes ga-ga in a big way, with his guilt being simultaneously unveiled, as his raging hormones kick in.  The revealing of the dangerous triangle has the unexpected (and, thus, perfect Fuller) effect.  In the contrast, the sensational ads Columbia placed hit the interracial couple with notorious vengeance (“YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” screamed the one-sheets).  It’s Bancroft who understands, and, though hurt, is gratified that two great people in his life are together.  Kojaku, on the other hand, reacts viciously, believing Charlie despises him for stealing his woman, but, more so for being the non-white dude who did the deed.  Their mutual respect and affection quickly erodes into a vengeful and bigoted animosity (but, again, nearly totally emanating from Joe’s damaged psyche of being a minority in America).

Their regeneration and healing makes up the crux of the final act that intertwines with resolving the tabloid-sensational case, culminating in a cinema verite chase (some in 16MM) through the authentic mean street locations in Little Tokyo during a Japanese celebratory event.  The outstanding supporting cast includes Paul Dubov, Neyle Morrow, Jacqueline Greene, Walter Burke, Stafford Repp, and best of all, Anna Lee in possibly her greatest role ever, avant-garde artist Mac (interestingly, the role reversal ideas extend to the given names; pronunciation-wise, Charlie and Joe could be mistakenly taken as female monikers, while Chris and Mac would definitely be initially pegged as male characters; in fact, in Chris’s case, it is).

From the director’s blistering script to the stark monochrome photography of Sam Leavitt and the appropriately sleazy chic score by Harry Sukman (available as an IMT) Sam Fuller pics don’t get much better than THE CRIMSON KIMONO, and one couldn’t ask for a better rendition than in this spectacular Twilight Time widescreen Blu-Ray.  Additional special extras include two documentaries: Sam Fuller Storyteller and Curtis Hanson: The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, plus theatrical trailers.

Twilight Time has certainly done the maverick right; this is their third Fuller title on their label (the other being the quintessential 1955 color noir House of Bamboo (check out my take via this link: https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/stacked-deck/).

These are all limited edition Blu-Rays, and there is no doubt in my mind that they will be scooped up in record time, so youse Sam/noir addicts better get cracking!

 

HELL AND HIGH WATER.  Color.  Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.0 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT #: TWILIGHT281-BR.

THE CRIMSON KIMONO. Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT #: TWILIGHT285-BR.

Both titles are limited editions (3000@); available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time Movies (www.twilighttimemovies.com). SRP:  $29.95@

 

True Brit

The 1960s British Invasion didn’t just affect our music; it took over the one movie genre thought to be impenetrably American…well, until the Italians proved us wrong.

It was thus almost inevitable that the British would switch riding English to western and carve out a path that I hereby dub the Tombstonehenge Trail.  As early as 1962 Hammer icon Michael Carreras tried his hand at an oater (The Savage Guns), followed, most humorously, by the Carry On gang (Carry On Cowboy).  But the success of Leone and the mass exodus to filming in Spain’s Southwestern doppelganger terrain provided an easy route for the filmmakers across the pond to give it a go.

Of course, the American west was primarily made up of immigrants, but the American western was Yankee Doodle Dandy to the core.  The influx of Brits to Hollywood’s prairie, was, to say the least, fascinating.  A few actors were actually good at it, for example Donald Pleasence (The Hallelujah Trail, Will Penny) and Christopher Lee (Hannie Caulder).

But in 1968, the floodgates officially opened with the all-star roundup entitled SHALAKO, and, later, the eyebrow-raising appearance of Oliver Reed in THE HUNTING PARTY (the first of his TWO excursions to the American wilderness).  Both of these movies are now available in remarkably fine Blu-Ray editions from the trail bosses at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.  So mount up, ya varmints.

 

The pros far outweigh the cons in 1968’s SHALAKO, and there sure are a lot of pros.  The epic western is based on a Louis L’Amour novel dealing with the supposed actual incidents of rich Europeans going on 19th century Western safaris in the U.S. of A.

And what Euros!

Headed by German teeth-gritting Nazi precursor lunatic Count Peter van Eyck (in his final role), the gang includes titled grifter couple Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman, and skeevy Senator Alexander Knox and his spectacular Mexican trophy wife (Valerie French).  The point of this pointless exercise in bourgeois bravado is to impress Polish countess Brigitte Bardot, whom van Eyck wants desperately to nail.  Obviously oblivious to checking references, the mad Bavarian has hired Stephen Boyd to lead them onto what they don’t know is sacred Apache ground.  BOING!

Amidst the champagne and caviar on the range (with Boyd and his scurvy crew angrily reduced to guzzling rotgut), is the arrival of mountain man Moses Zebulon Carlin, aka Shalako (the Native American moniker for “rainbringer”).  It’s Sean Connery, looking about as thrilled as being invited to a screening of Operation Kid Brother.

Doesn’t help that the naturally riled Apaches are led by the blood-thirsty Chato (Woody Strode), who doesn’t care if the hemoglobin is red or royal blue.  From this point on, it’s a rock-’em-sock-’em action packed widescreen extravaganza that, while posing no threat to The Searchers or Red River, is nonetheless a fun canter through the west (well, Almeria, Spain) that is never boring and often full of WTF double-take moments.

The direction is by veteran Edward Dmytryk.  Like most of his late pics, it comes close to being intriguing, and certainly 100% professional, but, as with all his post-HUAC efforts, refuses to go that extra distance – that fine line between adventure and adventurous.  The SHALAKO Dmytryk is definitely the guy who directed Where Love has Gone and The Carpetbaggers, and not Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire.

Of course, the cast is what makes this movie, and, not surprisingly, it was Bardot who received most of the press, even if it wasn’t exactly positive.  Just out of a celebrated messy divorce, followed by the end of a torrid affair with Serge Gainsbourg (who apparently is still hurting from that breakup to this day), Brigitte, reportedly, immediately engaged in a hot and heavy liaison with Boyd (the two had previously collided in her then-husband Roger Vadim’s steamy 1958 sex tale The Night Heaven Fell); the rumors seemed to gain additional credence when the French actress threw the Irishman a mammoth St. Patrick’s Day soiree on-location.

The script for SHALAKO is a too-many-cooks barbecue.  Cowritten by actor James Griffith (who could have played the Boyd role himself), Hal Hopper and Scot Finch (screen story by Clarke Reynolds), the narrative turns too unbelievably into a mutual admiration society toward the end.  Like my problem with the Ben Johnson transformation in Shane, while I could get van Eyck’s arrogant begrudging appreciation of Connery’s character, I cannot accept scumbag, racist politician Knox going all regeneration-sweet.

The movie is gorgeously shot in FranScope by the renowned UK d.p. Ted Moore.  Grainy main credits aside, the bulk of the Blu-Ray genuinely looks like 1960s Technicolor (an enticing extra is audio commentary by director/writer/actor/film historian Alex Cox).

The music, on the other hand, is problematic, to say the least.  One would think that in the genre’s Golden Age of 1960s Soundtracks, it would be impossible for a major western to have a substandard score.  But noted British composer Robert Famon (Captain Horatio Hornblower, Expresso Bongo) achieves the almost unfathomable – a super-production Western that sounds like an A.C. Lyles oater.  The “B” score is almost comical, suggesting a Carry On parody – a claim not aided on-screen by the appearance of Eric Sykes as van Eyck’s manservant, nor the ridiculous title song lyrics (heralding the pleasures of owning a woman) by (Carry On alumnus) Jim Dale.

The top performances are by the nasties, Boyd, Strode and Blackman – with Woody’s final exchange to his chieftain father (Rodd Redwing) being the best line in the picture.  Suffice to say, Blackman, who dumps obsessed hubby Hawkins to copiously shag Boyd, rapaciously redefines the name Pussy Galore.

 

1971’s THE HUNTING PARTY, also filmed in Spain, is a much better picture, but additionally a far more disturbing one.  The plot is paradoxically simple though complicated.

The beauteous wife of a vicious rancher is kidnapped by a notorious bandit and his gang in the midst of the infamous Lincoln County War.  That’s the simple part.  The bizarre addendum follows.  She wasn’t taken for a ransom (in fact, she was mistakenly abducted from a schoolhouse where she was visiting a friend); she was snatched by ruthless brute Frank Calder so the woman can teach him to read.

“Why do YOU want to read?,” she snottily asks.  “Because I can’t,” is his honest reply.

Now I should tell you that the animalistic outlaw is played by none other than the animalistic top-billed Oliver Reed, and he’s swell in the part (authentic accent and all).  Melissa, the wife, is Candice Bergen, in the second of her three western cinematic adventures.  The third lead screwball in the cast, psycho husband Brandt Ruger, is Gene Hackman, just coming into his own as a major star.  Bergen’s body language and facial reactions are perfect; however her line delivery leaves something to be desired, as if she was coached by Hymie from the Get Smart series.  She is also brutalized like nobody’s business.  Remember, this is post-Wild Bunch territory where the Western comeback had to be a pissing contest over who could spill the most blood (even John Wayne’s Big Jake got lambasted for its violence, although it scored millions at the box-office, the Duke’s last mammoth hit).

Bergen’s character takes the brunt of the savage histrionics.  A writhing opening sequence shows Reed slicing the throat of a steer (removed by the British censor) so that he and his men can eat while (no pun) cross-cut with Hackman performing rough sex on a screaming Bergen (not removed by the British censor).  Nanoseconds after she’s taken, Melissa is victim of an attempted rape by gang member L.Q. Jones.  And later, when Reed tries to show his kinder, gentler side, it degenerates into a sexual assault.  Truly, within the first half hour of THE HUNTING PARTY, Bergen is exposed to more wood than she was with a lifetime of Charlie McCarthy.

Oliver Reed being Oliver Reed, his half-assed apology is capped with “But I’m not sorry,” ostensibly a declaration of Ollie love if ever there was one.  Bergen reacts by trying to kill him, followed by a vigorous chase on horseback before the abused woman realizes that Reed’s sexual demands are far more affable than Hackman’s.

Meanwhile, Hackman and his capitalist buddies go on a hunting party – an excuse to show off his new telescopic rifles (“They cost $700 apiece.”), a weapon/gift he generously bestows upon each of the oligarch scumbags (including Simon Oakland and Ronald Howard).  Their ride on Hackman’s private train, featuring his bordello car, is something to behold, albeit revoltingly when a gorgeous Asian hooker (Francesca Tu) becomes Ruger’s human ashtray.

When word comes that Melissa has been kidnapped by Calder, the hunting party changes prey, as a gleeful Hackman relishes picking off the unsuspecting culprits from nearly a mile away (this finally disgusts the fat cats, who all but desert him).

Even today, THE HUNTING PARTY is often hard to watch.  It’s excruciatingly violent and uncompromising.  The one humane scene with Reed, best pal Mitchell Ryan (quite excellent as the more erudite member of the gang) and Bergen melting the ice over a jar of peaches is genuinely lovely even if it is the movie’s misfit moment.  Does it excuse rape? Methinks not, but Bergen (well, her character) seems to disagree.  From that point on, she and Reed are a couple.

The movie, magnificently shot by Cecilio Paniagua and scored by the great Riz Ortolani, was directed by Don Medford.  Medford, known mostly for his TV work, only directed one other feature (the Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night sequel The Organization).  This is likely his best work, a gig he got from controversial TV producers-turned-big-screen-moguls Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner (revered for their series The Big Valley).  The script by William W. Norton, Gilbert Ralston and coproducer Lou Morheim (from a story by Morheim and Ralston) doesn’t flinch for an instant, pushing the Peckinpah card (slo-mo bloodshedding and all) to the edge.

The ending is an Erich von Stroheim fantasy in buckskin, but the movie in general pays mucho lip service to such then-contemporary fare as The Professionals, Faccia a Faccia (perhaps inadvertently) and, natch, The Wild Bunch.

The Blu-Ray is terrific, sharp and rich in color, with a crisp audio soundtrack so that you hear every squib squish.

A mandatory extra, produced for Kino by Frank Tarzi, comprises an interview with Mitchell Ryan, who reveals some stunning background information about the shoot, mostly involving him and his relationship with Reed, which, as was part and parcel with the volatile Brit’s reputation, resulted in some outrageous events.  There’s also supplemental commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.

SHALAKO.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Kingston Film Productions. CAT #: K21512.  SRP:  $29.95.

THE HUNTING PARTY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT #:K21633.  SRP:  $29.95.