Review Page and Column
Four Faces West 12/12/17
Westerns are all about values: good and bad, law and lawlessness, etc. Joel McCrea and Frances Dee’s ‘bad man’ saga isn’t faith based, exactly, but it’s great for humanitarian values, the simple notion that the good in people should be encouraged. And one important detail may make Four Faces West unique. Hint: John Milius might be strongly prejudiced against this picture. Co-starring Charles Bickford and Joseph Calleia. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Night Passage 12/12/17
‘Die Uhr ist abgelaufen’. It’s the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart western that Mann didn’t direct: Stewart goes it alone, over-filling a good western idea with ‘cute’ scenes and conservative messages Mann had no use for. But it’s an exciting picture, and one of co-star Audie Murphy’s best — and it’s the first feature in the splendid oversized format known as Technirama. The cast sprawls as wide as the screen: Elaine Stewart, Dianne Foster, Brandon De Wilde, Jay C. Flippen, Robert J. Wilke and Hugh Beaumont. On All-region Blu-ray from Explosive Media (Germany).
Letter from an Unknown Woman 12/12/17
This devastating romantic melodrama is Max Ophüls’ best American picture — perhaps because it seems so European? It’s probably Joan Fontaine’s finest hour as well, and Louis Jourdan comes across as a great actor in a part perfect for his screen personality. The theme could be called ‘No regrets,’ but also, ‘Everything is to be regretted.’ Produced by John Houseman with Mady Christians and Art Smith; the extras are excellent. On Blu-ray from Olive Signature.
Craig Reardon tops me for Lon Chaney Jr. musical numbers, with a quick YouTubeclip from Josh Max entitled, Lon Chaney Jr. Sings! Now we just need to see Lon dance.
Bruce Dern lives! Douglas Trumbull and his producer Michael Gruskoff will be hosting a special screening of their 45 year-old movie Silent Running in Beverly Hills tomorrow; it should be a great opportunity for effects fans to get up close with their hero. The details are at the Laemmle Theaters page.
And it’s time for me to get to work on ‘Savant’s Best Of 2017’ article — which is going to be rough this year. Expect another wholly idiosyncratic set of titles, for which the appropriate reaction will be, “He liked that movie?”
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Casualties of War 12/09/17
Charlie Largent takes the pulse of Brian De Palma’s true-life Vietnam story of an appalling ‘Incident on Hill 192.’ Combat is combat and boys will be boys, they say, and their horrible crime against a young woman is good ‘for the morale of the squad.’ Michael J. Fox is a throw back to the Audie Murphy-style of soldier: fresh-faced, optimistic and decidedly the odd man out in his own platoon. Sean Penn and John C. Reilly co-star; the music is by Ennio Morricone. On Region B Blu-ray from Explosive Media (De).
Welcome to a pair of vintage mysteries with George Simenon’s popular Inspector Jules Maigret, a gumshoe who gets the tough cases. Top kick French actor Jean Gabin is the cop who keeps cool, until it’s time to rattle a recalcitrant suspect. In two separate cases, he tracks a serial killer in the heart of Paris, and travels to his hometown to unearth a murder conspiracy. With Annie Giradot and Michel Auclair; on Blu-ray from Kino Classics.
A New Leaf 12/09/17
Filtered through her experience as an unequalled comic performer, writer-director Elaine May scores a bulls-eye with this grossly underappreciated gem, fashioned in a style that could be called ‘black comedy lite.’ And that’s the release version mangled by the producer. What might it have been if May had been allowed to finish her director’s cut? Elaine May and Walter Matthau star, with major help from Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, Doris Roberts, Renée Taylor and William Redfield. On Blu-ray from Olive Signature.
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival 12/09/17
Criterion lavishes a major upgrade to its older box set celebrating the first major rock concert event, the ‘California Dreamin’ idyll that some say marked the beginning of the Summer of Love. Get ready to hear and see some history-making performances from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who. Plus two more features and a bundle of ‘extra’ music sets . . . including Tiny Tim. On Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Thanks for the thoughts regarding the fires here in the Southland. We’re fine. Being upwind of most of the serious blazes, we weren’t affected except on the commute — Santa Monica College shut down about an hour later, and I ended up making two trips there in heavy traffic jammed from the freeway closure. So for us it was just an inconvenience — for the homeowners it’s clearly horrifying, but for the rest of us it’s mostly just smoke on the horizon.
I worry more about friends out in Thousand Oaks, Agoura, etc., living in ‘God’s Country (fresh air, quiet) but surrounded by twenty years’ growth of underbrush. Los Angeles is a DESERT with developments that have sprawled out in places that burn off naturally two or three times per century, without help from faulty car exhausts, malfunctioning power lines, arsonists, terrorist gophers, etc.. I love California. It has earthquakes, but for some reason I’m not afraid of those. What scares me are those hurricanes and tornadoes from the Midwest and South.
But howzabout some links? First up is a nice tip from Gary Teetzel for Orson Welles fans:
“In case you hadn’t heard, Indiana University now has a website devoted to the radio work of Orson Welles, with many of the recordings coming from Orson’s personal copies. The recordings are divided up by program:
Of special interest to Welles fans might be “Orson Welles Commentaries”, conveying his political views, including his crusade to get justice for Isaac Woodard, Jr., a black soldier who had been beaten and blinded by cops in the south.
There is also “Hello Americans”, a continuation of his efforts to help foster good relations between the Americas that was to have begun with the unfinished feature It’s all True.
Although the site is devoted mostly to radio shows Orson was involved in creating, the section “More” contains a grab-bag of other items of interest: Welles meeting H.G. Wells; interviews performed at the premiere of Citizen Kane (at one point the interviewer asks Orson if he thinks Kane will be a film that directors look to for inspiration, etc. in the future. How prophetic!); raw recordings of Rita Hayworth looping lines for The Lady from Shanghai; and some episodes of The Jack Benny Show that Orson guest-hosted, in which he spoofed his image as a pretentious, multi-talented egomaniac. Yes, Orson could laugh about that image in those days–before it destroyed his career. Happy listening! — Gary
I daydreamed on CineSavant that Hammer’s These Are the Damned would appear on Blu-ray, and in response I’ve received several inquiries, asking if I am leaking inside information. Nope, it’s just wishful thinking. Again, Gary Teetzel shot me a link to an older (2016) Video Watchblog entry called On Reading CHILDREN OF LIGHT, H.L. Lawrence’s hard to find source book for the Joseph Losey movie. It’s Tim Lucas once again bringing us the scoop from out there on the cutting edge of fan interest.
And yet more fantasy link fun from Gary Teetzel: ancient magazine articles, online: The first up is about Upcoming Horror Pictures in 1932-1933,
followed by a 1932 profile on that interesting actor Creighton Chaney . . .
and lastly an article about miniature movie effects, supposedly written by Willis O’Brien
And finally, Joe Baltake brings up the subject of Colossus: The Forbin Project at his The Passionate Moviegoer (12.08.17) and revisits his own review from a number of years back. I was about to review a German disc a month or so ago but decided to wait for the domestic Shout! Factory disc due next February 27. I’ll wait ’til then to read Joe’s coverage — he seems a fan of director Joseph Sargent, which is a righteous thing to be.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Casual fans of A Christmas Story likely don’t know that Bob Clark had once made creepy horror pictures with Alan Ormsby, but this independent shock effort of the early ’70s still casts a spell of dread. Listed as deceased, Richard Backus’s infantryman returns to his hearth and home on a fiendish mission. Although Vietnam is never mentioned, the war’s shadow strikes deep into the heart of a small-town family. John Marley and Lynn Carlin lead a fine cast; an exacting new transfer brings renewed life to the dead. A Dual-Format edition on Blu-ray and DVD from Blue Underground.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a precedent! Barbet Schroeder’s documentary gets up close and personal with a narcissistic dictator consumed by his own ego. Idi Amin rants and raves incoherently and demands to be the center of all attention while taking his country down a road to ruin. This is Africa in 1973, where Uganda has been converted into ‘The Idi Amin Reality Show’ — and where a minion in disfavor might be fed to the crocodiles. Schroeder is fearless — he asks the dictator on camera to explain his support for Adolf Hitler’s ideas — and Amin just laughs. On Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Savant Book Review
A Book Review today, and a very positive one. Good books about film directors are not easy to come by, and when a real winner surfaces like Bernard Eisenschitz’s book on Nicholas Ray or Foster Hirsch’s on Otto Preminger, I take notice. Joining those for reference-quality value and getting an A+ for sheer entertainment, Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz A Life in Film is engaging from the start and doesn’t let up. Curtiz is different because he was never a cult director or one likely to be studied from an academic viewpoint — he was an artisan that for the bulk of his career worked at just one studio. But he had a terrific, recognizable style and made more ‘great’ golden age Hollywood pictures than anybody — Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas among them. He wasn’t an outright rebel or a hyphenate that generated his own scripts; he didn’t have highly personal themes to express. He also did everything — high adventure, literary adaptations, tense thrillers, ‘women’s dramas’ and even light comedies. Although Curtiz tangled with his studio bosses Jack Warner and Hal Wallis as much as anybody, before this book all I really knew about him was that he had made silent films in Hungary, and that he tied mogul Sam Goldwyn for quoted malapropisms, the most famous being “Bring on the empty horses,” from The Charge of the Light Brigade.
With a sure hand, good research and a knack for amusing ironies, author Rode really brings Curtiz to life. Much of the book is entirely new material. The chapters about his life and work in Hungary are a revelation, what with marriages to famous actresses (one of them may have been star Lili Damita) and the artful way Curtiz managed to keep directing despite the wartime upheavals and political intrigues of the 1920s.
Curtiz himself is a real piece of work, a filmmaking maniac who worked crews ’round the clock and would do almost anything to make a picture better. Plenty of directors could be called short-tempered bullying autocrats, but Curtiz was at times genuinely sadistic. It’s documented that he purposely put actors and extras in mortal danger while filming, and not just in the famous silent picture Noah’s Ark. Screen legend tells us that several extras drowned in Curtiz’s irresponsible flood scenes. It’s also been handed down that Curtiz killed horses left and right with lethal stunts in battle scenes. Rode has dug deep enough to debunk most of the mayhem. We also find out that Curtiz was never a studio hack, filming whatever he was handed. He was constantly in Dutch with his bosses for changing things, inventing new scenes and rewriting dialogue. Some of his pictures ran over budget and time because of his perfectionism, but nobody could deny that the results were spectacular. Many of the moments that make pictures like The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Sea Wolf so good were put in place by the director, at the last moment.
Rode pegs Yankee Doodle Dandy as the picture in which Curtiz’s archenemy Hal Wallis realized that the director’s constant changes were what were making his movies work so well. Rode also identifies a major contributor to Curtiz’s work: his wife Bess Meredyth was an accomplished screenwriter, and ghosted script revisions for him, often at the last minute.
I’ve seen entire books about the making of some of these pictures, but Rode’s accounts are a better read, for several reasons. His more discerning research makes a big difference. The annotations show us that he’s sought out really obscure sources, definitely so for the European chapters. The book routinely quotes from unpublished biographies, personal papers on file in archives, etc. Rode also writes with an authoritative voice that steers past obvious Hollywood Babylon- type material to get at the real issues. Some of the details are pretty salacious anyway — the ballyhoo train to promote Dodge City brought along actors, publicity men and invited members of the press — along with two prostitutes to keep the entertainment reporters from molesting the young actresses. Now, didn’t that train cross state lines?
The book separates the legend from the reality, in a business abounding in myth. How many times have I read that George Raft and Ronald Reagan almost played Rick Blaine in Casablanca? Rode doesn’t just reject useless studio publicity sources, he often compares multiple accounts. He ferrets out the likely true sequence of events of how Casablanca came to be, what with producers, actors and writers all claiming to have brought the property to the studio. Rode also straightens out a lot of apocryphal so-called history from the memoirs of big stars. Errol Flynn’s book seems to have gotten almost everything wrong. Flynn even identifies the fight-choking incident that ended his collaboration with Curtiz, as not even happening on their last movie together.
Rode’s realistic appraisal of studio politics sizes up personalities and judges trends — such as the effect of wartime shortages — with the assurance of someone who has been weighing the evidence for years. Curtiz comes off just as one might expect, as a martinet who made a lot of enemies but cared intensely about his work, and played studio politics in a way that made him invaluable to his employer. Whenever there was a break in assignments, he’d step in to finish somebody else’s film, or do random retakes.
As Warners’ top contract director Michael Curtiz worked with the biggest stars, the book covers portions of their careers as well. Bette Davis and James Cagney fought to be compensated properly for the millions they brought in at the box office, and more importantly to be assigned decent roles. Curtiz directed a frustrated Olivia de Havilland on several pictures where she was cast as an accessory for Errol Flynn. Jimmy Cagney dodged the proto-blacklist by making the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy but was still so unhappy with his position at Warners that he left the studio a second time.
A Life at Film settles into a pattern of one-picture-after-another because that was Curtiz’s life; almost nothing else claimed his attention. Rode’s fascinating account continues into the director’s post-Warners years, where he worked on Biblical epics in the new CinemaScope format, directed the first VistaVision film and even directed one of Elvis Presley’s best pictures, King Creole. Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is about Mission to Moscow, a wartime whitewash of the Soviet Union and Stalin packed with lies and distortions. Curtiz mostly held his nose while directing it, but I haven’t read as good (and fair) an account of its making anywhere. Rode’s discussions of the earlier anti-fascist controversies and the postwar anti-communist witch hunts convey the full trauma of the time.
Rode’s approach to the workings of Hollywood will seem fresh to well-read film fans, without shutting out more casual readers. The slice of studio history covered incorporates quite a few beloved classics, so it’s wholly accessible. The book plays like an epic character study, not a stack of movie trivia facts — we learn what really mattered to the greats Cagney, Flynn, Davis, de Havilland, Crawford, Bogart. Rode invests the material with a winning author’s personality. He leverages his carefully vetted research to involve the reader in determining which legendary Hollywood tall tales — and funny malapropisms — are actually true. From the University of Kentucky Press, Michael Curtiz A Life in Film puts Alan K. Rode in with today’s best writers on film. The book is a keeper that will go on the ‘read again soon’ shelf. —
Alan Rode will be hosting a gala book signing / Michael Curtiz double bill at the Egyptian Theater on this Thursday, the 7th … the movies to be shown are terrific: The Sea Wolf and The Breaking Point. The vital info is here.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
We’ve all met Tracy Flick — the eager-beaver student that charms the right teachers, wins all the awards and corners the big scholarships. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s witty, perceptive look at High School shows the predicament of a model teacher who can’t help but sabotage a pupil’s run for class president. Reese Witherspoon’s wholly original characterization scores big, and Matthew Broderick plays what is probably his best screen role. On Blu-rayfrom The Criterion Collection.
Stay Hungry 12/02/17
Are ’70s auteur pictures liberated and loose, or flaky and undisciplined? Bob Rafelson’s Alabama escapade places Jeff Bridges amid a wide range of choice-quality nuts, with Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger staking their first claims on the big screen. What do the changing face of The South and competition-level body building have to do with each other? You tell us! With R.G. Armstrong, Robert Englund, Helena Kallianiotes, Roger E. Mosley, Woodrow Parfrey, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Miller, Fannie Flagg, Joanna Cassidy, Ed Begley Jr. and Joe Spinell. On Blu-ray from Olive Films.
Operation Petticoat 12/02/17
Tony Curtis grew up idolizing the suave and funny Cary Grant, emulated his romantic moves as an actor and then performed a brilliant impersonation of Grant for Billy Wilder. The next step had to be co-starring with the great man himself. Blake Edwards’ amiable, relaxed submarine movie allows Grant to play with ladies’ under-things, while Curtis wrestles with a pig. With Joan O’Brien, Dina Merrill, Gene Evans, and Arthur O’Connell; on Blu-ray from Olive Signature Collection.
Gary Teetzel steers us toward a Vimeo link to some quick videos from the fantasy film past:
“A gentleman who was given boxes of films and negatives from the estate of special effects legend Wah Chang has posted online some of what he has discovered, at The Films of Wah Ming Chang. Webster Colcord is managing this Vimeo account with the intention of keeping Wah’s memory and work alive and available to his fans. Included is an uninterrupted outtake of the ‘lava destroys London’ shot from The Time Machine, filmed in 16mm.
A second selection is a 16mm clip of the stop motion/replacement animation done for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I’m guessing that Cinerama dailies were probably out of the question, so he likely used the 16mm as a way of quickly checking his animation. At around the fifty-second mark, the camera angle reveals some off- set area to the right. It looks like a person is writing in a large ledger, perhaps keeping some sort of animation record? A person is briefly glimpsed at 1:46 holding one of the puppets. It’s definitely not Wah Chang, and doesn’t look like Jim Danforth or Gene Warren. I’m guessing that it’s David Pal, George’s son, who did some uncredited animation work on the film.
A third clip is a nine second puppet test, perhaps for a TV spot? A fourth clip Projects Monsters is a quick portrait reel of creatures fabricated by Project Unlimited for the TV show The Outer Limits. Some of the shots appear to be from makeup/costume tests; others look more like outtakes. The word on the site is that more Wah Chang films will be uploaded as they are transferred.” — Gary
Disc news, just a couple of days old: The UK company Indicator has announced another multi-title box for February 19. A collection called Hammer Volume 2: Criminal Intent will feature the Blu-ray premieres of four crime-related titles: the murder thrillers The Snorkel and The Full Treatment (aka Stop Me Before I Kill), the serious, underrated social problem picture Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, and an excellent suspense show with fine performances from André Morell and Peter Cushing, Cash on Demand. The full list of specs and extras is up at the Indicator page. A nice touch for this collection will be featurettes concentrating on lesser-known Hammer actresses. And for one item, favorite Janina Faye (Horror of Dracula, Day of the Triffids) will be interviewed on camera.
This is encouraging — if the series continues Indicator ought soon to get around to some former Hammer obscurities that represent the company’s most controversial work: Val Guest’s war movie Yesterday’s Enemy, Terence Fisher’s colonial horror show The Stranglers of Bombay and Joseph Losey’s (These Are) The Damned, one of the best science fiction movies ever made.
It seems there’s always something great to look forward to. Before the end of the year, we’re expecting domestic Blu-rays of Letter from an Unknown Woman and A New Leaf (Olive Signature), The Hospital, Forever Amber, The L-Shaped Room and Alice (Twilight Time), General Idi Amin Dada, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival and 100 Year of Olympic Films (Criterion).
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson