The Day After 07/21/18
Will the world end with a bang or a whimper? Back in ’83 a hundred million viewers tuned in to ABC to find out. Edward Hume and Nicholas Meyer’s daring docudrama reacquainted Americans with their status as hostages in a global game of nuclear roulette. Gruesome nuclear annihilation visuals complement fine performances led by Jason Robards. The tense, thoughtful show is presented in separate TV and theatrical versions. Co-stars under the fallout are JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, Jim Dahlberg, John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, Lori Lethin, Amy Madigan, Jeff East, Georgann Johnson, William Allen Young and Calvin Jung. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
The fine presence of the marvelous Helen Slater redeems this last film in the Salkind Superman franchise, which we’re told features the first live- action theatrical film super-heroine was. CineSavant likes the show for the right reasons — his very young kids adored it — and can see its turnip screenwriting and frayed corners showing through. The release combines a 125-minute Blu-ray with an overstuffed 139-minute DVD. Also starring Faye Dunaway, Brenda Vaccaro, Peter Cook Marc McClure, Hart Bochner, Maureen Teefy, Peter O’Toole, Mia Farrow and Simon Ward. On Blu-ray from The Warner Archive Collection.
Meet Me at the Astor 07/21/18
With the help of correspondent ‘B’ CineSavant poaches on Greenbriar Picture Shows territory with a quick sideshow of photos from New Yawk, New Yawk: Once upon a time, any old film release might get a gigantic ‘your name in lights’ opening on the Great White Way. The Astor – Victoria theater combination created a giant wall that regularly carried enormous, elaborate film advertising signs — and not just for road show epics.
I finished Joseph McBride’s major new film book How Did Lubitsch Do It? a few days back, and needed some time to think about what I’d read. Really good books about directors don’t come along very often, and of the newer breed this one joins Bernard Eisenschitz’s book on Nicholas Ray, Foster Hirsch’s on Otto Preminger and Alan Rode’s recent study of Michael Curtiz as a fascinating, illuminating read.
McBride has written some of the closest studies of John Ford, who he was able to interview; the great Ernst Lubitsch passed far earlier in 1947, yet left his mark as one of the most influential directors in Hollywood history. McBride digs into the producer-director’s roots in Germany, when he worked with Max Reinhardt on the Berlin stage. Lubitsch transplanted his talent to America early in the 1920s and was thus firmly established before the arrival of waves of refugees from the Hitler regime. Interestingly, although his special gift was comedy, Lubitsch’s extravagant epics caught the attention of Hollywood, which was always on the prowl to snap up ‘artistic’ European directors. He worked for stars like Pickford and moved between several studios, gaining a reputation for bedroom farces pitched at a higher level of wit than those from homegrown directors like Cecil B. DeMille.
Author McBride never lets go of his prime mission, which is to try to isolate, explain and define what was meant by ‘the Lubitsch Touch.’ Even in silent films, Lubitsch consistently invented comic situations loaded with innuendo and irony, that illuminated visual jokes that seemed to spring from the characters, as opposed to being imposed on them by a gag writer. Often slyly suggestive, a perfect Lubitsch Touch construction was understated, sometimes ironic but seldom cynical. A ‘shared understanding’ generated by direct author-viewer communication, a Lubitsch effect expressed his love for things European, elegant and sentimental.
McBride finds The Touch in German films made during WW1 and several key silent comedies in Hollywood. The style really came together when sound was added. Toying with the possibilities of the musical format, Lubitsch confected affectionate, playful & naughty romantic comedies with Maurice Chevalier. The big Lubitsch films are given a serious going-over, examined from multiple angles using a wealth of research. McBride adds his own interpretations to trends in the director’s work, praising some pictures to the skies (Trouble in Paradise) and surprisingly, not others (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife). The analysis of Trouble in Paradise convinces us that it may be the most sophisticated picture ever made. The show suggests all manner of sexual excess without once making anything overt, yet was shelved as wholly unacceptable when the Production Code was enforced.
McBride’s focused assessment of Ernst Lubitsch’s contribution is compared to that of Rouben Mamoulian, who is found wanting when he imitated Lubitsch’s style. The hothouse exercises in style and glamour of Paramount’s hot director Josef von Sternberg were not to Lubitsch’s taste. Sternberg’s career took a nosedive when Lubitsch became the Paramount production chief for a couple of years, but we are assured that Lubitsch did not have it in for his fellow director. When he gets his directing career going again, Lubitsch intersects with more writers (Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder) and continues to develop his signature style. Unlike some directors Lubitsch was a friend and true collaborator with his writers, challenging them to perfect their jokes into constructions that paid off in extra, even funnier jokes. Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be Or Not To Be and Heaven Can Wait are all originals with few repeated elements, by turns satirical, sentimental, politically savage and sweetly fantastic.
Although some of us tend to relate to Ernst Lubitsch through his most vocal, loyal acolyte Billy Wilder, McBride uses Wilder mainly to help zero in on the concept of The Lubitsch Touch. Wilder often returned to film subjects that seemed to be direct attempts to recapture Lubitsch’s elegant perfection of form; and often adapting the work of some of the same European playwrights Lubitsch favored. The book’s title is derived from a motto Wilder kept on his office wall, an oath-reminder to remember the Master.
Joseph McBride’s holistic approach doesn’t try to sort Lubitsch into biographical and thematic pigeonholes, which makes the read an intense experience for film adepts that want their analysis thoughtful, straight and deep. McBride doesn’t button up a topic and move on, but instead keeps angles of study afloat in an ongoing discussion. A particular film title will bounce back scores of times when some scene or event becomes relevant again. Some readers may confuse this with repetition, but it begins to pay off when we think we’re gaining purchase on an understanding of what the elusive Lubitsch touch might be. Billy Wilder never claimed that his hommages to his mentor ever quite equalled the Master’s work. I think McBride gets as close as anybody to an understanding of Lubitsch’s twinkle-eyed genius.
Yes, the McBride How Did Lubitsch Do It? is a heavyweight item. Grab it when you have some solid reading time, and prepare some bookmark placeholders to allow a return to the good parts.
(How Did Lubitsch Do It? Columbia University Press, June 26 2018, 576 pages)
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Strange Victory 07/17/18
‘This Picture Kills Fascists’ might be a motto for this bombshell essay documentary. Leo Hurwitz’s film wasn’t made welcome in 1948 and would surely be controversial today, as it’s just too &%#$ truthful and blunt about good old American bigotry and injustice. The passionate, jarring plea for humanist sanity really shakes up viewers, in a constructive way. Hurwitz said that one TV executive compared it to The Sermon on the Mount. It’s still a lightning bolt against fascist ideas flourishing in the Land of the Free. Narrated by Alfred Drake, Muriel Smith, Gary Merrill, Saul Levitt and Faith Elliott Hubley. On Blu-ray from The Milestone Cinematheque.
I Walk Alone 07/17/18
One of a number of Paramount noirs seemingly forever MIA on disc, Hal Wallis’ glossy production reunites Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott with promising newcomers Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey. It’s light on action but strong on character — and it contains a key scene in the development of both the noir style and the gangster genre. Co-starring Kristine Miller, George Rigaud, Marc Lawrence, Mike Mazurki, and as a cocksure hoodlum, Mickey Knox. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Ready Player One 07/17/18
Lifelong gaming fan Steven Spielberg goes all-in for motion capture, with much different results than The Adventures of Tintin. It’s an ode to 1980s videogame fads and pop culture that could be re-titled ‘Astounding Adventures in Licensing.’ It’s Star Wars, TRON and Avatar mashed together for young teens, and more interesting than it ought to be. With Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance. On Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
Just a note today from correspondent Bill Dodd, after screenings of The WAC’s Billy Budd brought back memories of renaissance talent Peter Ustinov. July 14, 2018:
Glenn — one of the less desirable things about getting older is the feeling that one may be repeating one’s self. If I’ve already waxed poetic about Billy Budd back when the DVD came out, please forgive me and disregard this.
I saw the movie when it first came out, and three things are burned into my mind: Robert Ryan’s performance which deserved every award possible. Terence Stamp’s first role which probably also deserved every award in the book. The end, when Billy shouts “God Bless Captain Vere,” the look on Sir Peter’s face was beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the movies.
Later, in 1966, Ustinov was in town for the San Francisco Film Festival. I walked a couple of blocks from the radio station where I was the morning guy and stumbled into him, almost literally. I told him how much I loved the movie, and left him to his activities.
But there was more. The owner of the British Motorcar Distributors was a friend of Ustinov and asked him to do some radio commercials for the upcoming Imported Car Show. I was elected to record these on a Saturday morning. It was an incredible three or so hours I will never forget. I rolled the tape and he ad-libbed, about 3 minutes each. Voices, sound effects, the whole thing. I was then faced with the agony (you will understand) of cutting these down to sixty seconds each. I managed, and they were incredible. Did I save them? No. What an idiot!
Anyway, during a break we all wandered out onto the roof of the Nob Hill building where the radio station occupied the top floor. I wandered over to the ledge and sat on the very wide surround. Sir Peter came flying across the roof, pulled me off and said “Don’t do that! I can’t stand heights!” So I asked him how he managed to direct all those scenes in Billy Budd where people were up in the masts, and he replied “I let other people direct those parts!”
I have no idea if that’s true or not, but I can tell you that’s what he said. And he gave a 22 year-old broadcaster an unforgettable day. I managed to write a letter to him about a month before he died to thank him for that day. I hope he got it. — Bill Dodd, Retired Broadcaster and movie freak.
I told my own ‘meeting Peter Ustinov’ story in a footnote to my 2010 review of his film Hot Millions.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Irma La Douce 07/14/18
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s lavish movie boils down to a dirty party joke, but they struck gold just the same. Audiences flocked to see Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine reunited in a fantasy Parisian red light district, in a show that looks like Disneyland for fans of Playboy cartoons. Co-starring Lou Jacobi, Herschel Bernardi and Hope Holiday. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Billy Budd 07/14/18
Forget the ‘famous book’ doldrums — this exciting seagoing drama will take your head off. Criminally unseen and unheralded, Allied Artists’ classic is an impressive feat by director-co-screenwriter and star Peter Ustinov. It introduced Terence Stamp and provided Robert Ryan with a deserved career highlight. Filmed on the high seas in CinemaScope, and co-starring Melvyn Douglas, Paul Rogers, John Neville, David McCallum, Ronald Lewis, Robert Brown, John Meillon and Niall MacGinnis. On Blu-rayfrom The Warner Archive Collection.
The Incredible Shrinking Man 07/14/18
I Still Exist! CineSavant’s own Charlie Largent takes on this dee-luxe 2017 English release, the one with the terrific transfer and some glorious extras. Robert Scott Carey takes the plunge into microscopia, a seventh of an inch per day, passing through a Robinson Crusoe world before confronting the Infinite (and he didn’t even have to fly to Jupiter first). Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson’s classic is still the spiritual experience that knocked kids on their tails back in 1957, and its special magic has not yet been surpassed. On Region B Blu-ray from Arrow UK.
Some odd announcements! Severin has just announced a Blu-ray of Del Tenney’s amazing, spectacular, guaranteed-to-have-sprocket-holes fright film The Horror of Party Beach. I’m sure that’s all that need be said to set off a tsunami of disc sales. Actually, it’s fun, especially the wince-inducing songs.
On the other hand, I immediately leaped to order a BFI disc of Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here, the stealth classic about the nature of Fascism. It’s a Savant favorite and one of the first that I reviewed for the old website, eighteen years ago. The audio on that Image DVD was so shaky that I needed to watch the movie with a continuity transcript from MGM. The new disc has subtitles!
Kino Lorber is talking about a new licensing deal with Universal, so we’ll be interested in seeing what becomes of that. Quite a few Universal winners of the ‘forties have come out on Region B discs, but I’m told that the obvious film noir titles are not part of the arrangement. It’s likely half a year off, anyway.
The new Noir City e-magazine is out, from the Film Noir Foundation, and the item being touted the loudest is an Eddie Muller interview with author James Ellroy. The full info on this, and some contests being run this month, is on the Film Noir Foundation’s main page. The cover re-thinks the cast of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential with actors from the classic noir period. Instead of Kim Basinger playing a hooker who has ‘been cut’ to better resemble star Veronica Lake, they just substitute Veronica Lake. How does that work?
Voice Switches: In case my recent reviews left the wrong impression, some correspondents have offered corrections to information about who dubbed what, in two movies. Reader Andrew Leblanc wrote director Rüdiger Suchsland, who said that actor Udo Kier only narrated the English-language version of Hitler’s Hollywood. But Suchsland hasn’t yet said who voiced the German-language track.
And correspondent Phil Smoot assured me that, on the subject of the 1960 Village of the Damned, actor Martin Stephens didn’t dub his own voice. Perhaps Stephens told me that he dubbed himself for The Innocents the next year and I confused the films. Smoot is convinced that David Zellaby’s voice in Damned is a familiar woman voiceover artist who specializes in children’s voices, one he’s heard in countless English pictures.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Village of the Damned 07/10/18
Inquiring minds want to know — why you’re thinking about a BRICK WALL. John Wyndham’s diabolically clever alien invasion fantasy is taken straight from nature: children fathered by who-knows-what are found to possess a hive mentality and brain-powers that we puny Earthlings cannot oppose. Is it simply Us against Them, or perhaps a paranoid image of estranged, dangerous 1950s teens? Martin Stephens, George Sanders and Barbara Shelley star. We’ve all seen and loved this thriller; this time around CineSavant writes more of an essay than a review. On Blu-ray from The Warner Archive Collection.
Smash Palace 07/10/18
From reviewer Charlie Largent: This superior drama won co-writer and director Roger Donaldson breakthrough international attention. The breakup of a family is sensitive and shocking, and takes a turn into violent territory without becoming exploitative or crude. Starring New Zealand’s leading actor Bruno Lawrence. A non-molestation court order for a race car driver to stay away from his wife, leads to bad, self-destructive decisions — the title is the name for an auto junkyard, but really describes a failed marriage. On Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.
sex, lies and videotape 07/10/18
Is this show still as daring as it once was? How does it fare in this year of #MeToo? Where are the personal boundaries in relationships, when nobody can risk being entirely honest? We discover a man who wants to relate with women solely through the recordings he makes of them talking about sex — is that OK, or not OK? Steven Soderbergh’s micro-budgeted intimate drama was the definition of independent filmmaking success. With fine, complex performances from Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher. On Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Correspondent Edward Sullivan got snooping for web references to actress Marie Devereaux, the famed Hammer star we’ll be seeing later this month in Indicator’s expected Blu-ray of The Stranglers of Bombay. He first ran into her mention in the diaries of one Edward Jay Epstein, who explains that back in the early 1960s, he filmed a couple-days’ worth of battle scenes in Greece for a never-finished version of The Iliad, that apparently should not have gotten very far, but went forward because the investors and the Greeks thought Marlon Brando was signed up and on the way. It’s a good story; he names a lot of names, and even bad-mouths director Rudolph Maté, calling him a hack.
On his ‘ten years later’ page Epstein mentions that in one of his attempts to salvage the project, The Iliad was to be told from the POV of the Cassandra character — and Marie Devereaux was planned to play Cassandra. At that time she was apparently known as a stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor in the epic Mankiewicz picture Cleopatra, and may be seen in some of the long shots.
Maybe everybody knows about Devereaux and Cleopatra except me. Ed followed up, finding found these images on the IMDB that prove that Devereaux was indeed ‘standing in’ with Richard Burton and others … in full costume. Thanks, Ed !
Miss Devereux is still very much around — this is her facebook page.
New Kino discs just arrived. Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce is reportedly his most popular picture, what with its bright color and co-stars Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. David Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is prime ’30s Technicolor, and has a famous cave rescue scene (topical, huh?) designed by William Cameron Menzies. Also here and worth snooping into are the curious-looking Republic thriller A Strange Adventure, and some kind of crime picture I have never heard of called Tiger by the Tail, the poster of which touts, ‘…and Introducing CHARO.’
Finally, I’m heading straight for Kino’s release of a classic noir that’s been M.I.A. for ages, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone. It’s directed by Byron Haskin.
And, courtesy of Joe Dante, here’s a link to the actual real estate page for the famed Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House. Yes, you too can purchase The House on Haunted Hill; all that’s required is a paltry $23 million dollars, the price of a single Trump trip to play golf. I see the Ennis house every two days or so — I shop at an Albertson’s supermarket just below the hill. I took this fuzzy picture a couple of years ago (gotta get a telephoto lens, I guess). In case the sticker price seems high, they say it comes furnished!
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson