Warner Archive: Dopes Sell Dope in Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

With an off-kilter jazzy score, hapless young anti-heroes and a slightly sensational edge, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) is a classic Roger Corman production. The music and slick photography are the strongest elements of this teen crime and drug flick. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, it is notable for being the first film directed by The Empire Strikes Back (1980) helmer Irvin Kershner and featuring for featuring the early work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler

A trio of teens come into possession of a two pound can of uncut heroin tossed aside during a police raid. They are essentially good kids, but impatient for the finer things in life, so they decide to sell the drugs. It should come as no surprise that things don't go well; the shocker here is a surprisingly frank extended sequence that tackles heroin addiction.

Of the leads Jonathon Haze, Yale Wexler and Morris Miller, Corman regular Haze is the most memorable, with his doofy manner, but incongruously dangerous-looking eyes. It isn't so much the way he handles a line, but his presence that distinguishes him. He's such an unusual performer, sometimes seeming to have simultaneously millions of faraway thoughts and absolutely nothing on his mind. However, he doesn't have much to do here and is essentially the third wheel to Wexler and Miller.

Neither Haze nor anyone else distinguishes themselves as a performer though. The acting here is generally awkward, and lends the production an oddly intriguing theatricality, as if you are watching a dramatic marionette show. No one seems to know how to speak a line like it hasn't been written or make a move without showing the thought behind it. As a sad sack heroin addict, Allen Kramer is especially wooden, which is unfortunate as he is featured in one of the film's major sequences.

There's a chatty, rambling narration that drones on over much of the action. I'm guessing there's so much of it because it was cheaper to film scenes silent and fill in explanations later, because in many sequences it would have been just as easy to have the characters speak for themselves. In one of the more extended narrative passages, the audience is given a lengthy list of the different names for heroin ("mooch" was a new one for me).

This fascinating clumsiness is at odds with the slick camerawork which lends the action an extra bit of momentum. Fast, sometimes unpredictable edits and eccentrically arranged close-ups add to the uneasy feeling that something is going to go very wrong. These jittery scenes are offset by quirky longshots, like a mesmerizing, if somewhat drawn-out scene of the three boys searching a dump when they have mistakenly discarded the can holding the drugs.

The frantic, but hip West Coast jazz soundtrack is a standout. Performed by The Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group, it's a frenzied compilation of snappy hi-hats and staccato horns.

These stylistic elements, and some interesting Los Angeles area location footage, are the highlights in what is essentially a routine film with little to distinguish it. While the heroin addiction sequence is remarkably frank for an age when even marijuana was barely mentioned on the screen, it is so different from the rest of the film that it barely seems a part of it. It is as if an educational short were dropped in the middle of a teenage delinquent drama.

It feels like the work of filmmakers who have something to offer, but haven't quite worked out what that is yet. Lacking in unique appeal and draggy in spots, the film is worth the watch for fans of Haskell and Kershner.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive: George Hamilton and Joseph Cotten in Jack of Diamonds (1967)

Joseph Cotten is master and teacher and George Hamilton is the protégée jewel thief in this cheerful caper comedy, now available on DVD from Warner Archive. The pair are notorious as Ace of Diamonds and Jack of Diamonds respectively; in public life the Jack is known as Jeffrey Hill. In Jack of Diamonds (1967), Ace emerges from retirement for one last great heist with Jeffrey.

Before diving into the plot, the film begins with an extended scene featuring jewel theft victim Zsa Zsa Gabor, who plays herself with evident glee. When she discovers her empty jewel drawer, the actress seems mildly disappointed, as if she has forgotten to buy champagne. Much more exciting is the arrival of the police and the press, an unexpected, but welcome audience.

In a pair of brief segments as previous victims of Jeffrey, Carroll Baker and Lilli Palmer in similar cameos seem equally delighted to be the center of attention. There's nothing more flattering to an actress than being hired to make an appearance as herself.

Hamilton is also full of self-confidence, envisioning himself as more sexy than he is. He's too eager and says his lines too loud to be especially slick. Whenever he tries to flash a sly smile, rather than appearing sophisticated, he looks like a teenager giggling about silently breaking wind at a fancy dinner party.

The actor is interesting to watch though, with a well-placed mole over his lip, an elegantly pointed nose and hair so thick it looks like a shiny brown hat. He doesn't take himself too seriously either. Perhaps Hamilton isn't all he'd like to be, but he's never dull.

Jack of Diamonds is a goofy film, much more so that it intends to be. It's always reaching a bit for effect, but full of things that must be seen, like Hamilton shimmying into a zip-up tux, swinging nonchalantly across his living room on a trapeze bar and skiing down a mountain with a sexy lady in pursuit, the soundtrack blaring with singers yodeling and belting out enthusiastic "do do's" over mariachi-like horns.

It begins to slow down by the half point, getting a bit too engrossed in the police procedurals, making you wonder if Jeffrey is still up on that trapeze, or if perhaps he's doing flips on a fold-out trampoline normally hidden in his couch. Things eventually perk up with a groovy nightclub dance scene which has some awesomely awkward dancing (check out the guy constantly thrusting his arm in the air: mad? or hot moves?). As long as there aren't extended stretches of dialogue, it keeps moving well enough.

While the big heist drags, and doesn't add much to the genre, the continually odd soundtrack adds to the amusement. In an apparent attempt to emulate Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin, the staccato sounds of a man either gagging or quacking like a duck are punctuated with jazzy horns and jaunty flutes.

The accomplices in the heist: Wolfgang Preiss as Nicoli Vodkine and Marie Laforêt as his daughter Volga, don't feel entirely necessary. As Jeffrey's Man Friday Helmut, Karl Lieffen is more entertaining and adorably in love with his employer.

For the most part, the picture is of VHS quality, with light dirt and scratches, some washed out color, and a bit of fuzziness in spots. While it isn't a pristine image, its faults don't detract from the viewing experience.

Though not an entirely brisk ride, Jack of Diamonds offers plenty of fun for fans of lightweight sixties caper and spy flicks.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Doffing Dresses and Drinking Cocktails in Three Broadway Girls/The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)

This post is my entry in the Hot and Bothered: The Films of 1932 Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch. A lot of great films are being covered, so go check out the rest!

Gold-digging, boyfriend stealing, drinking all night and yes, dress doffing. The three ex-showgirls at the center of Three Broadway Girls (also known as The Greeks Had a Word for Them) were the inspiration for many movies about girlfriends on the make. Few of the films to come would have the sizzle and snap of this one though. Most famous as the inspiration for How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), this comedy of acquisitions, friendship and frenemies has a naughty sparkle that is firmly pre-Code.

The movie is all about the ladies. As the love interests, David Manners is blandly handsome and unexciting as usual and Lowell Sherman (also the film's director) is a snob and has an unsettling habit of wearing eyeshadow all the way up to his eyebrows. Stars Ina Claire, Madge Evans and Joan Blondell, as the ex hoofers Jean, Polaire and Schatze respectively have the best quips and the most fun.

The trio is in the business of finding wealthy benefactors, and it is implied that they've made a better success of that than show business. Schatze and Polaire live in a fancy apartment beyond their means so that they can better lure wealthy suitors. Jean is more freewheeling in her pursuit of wealth, which leads to her being forced to leave her steamer trunk and a large hotel bill and jump on the next boat out of France.

Manners, Evans, Blondell and Claire
Each of the ladies is an easily definable type. Polaire is the good girl, who uses gold-digging to survive, but is close to marrying the wealthy Dey (Manners) for love. Schatze is seemingly a ditz, but dumb like a fox, and lusts over large club sandwiches as much the riches of her elderly sugar daddy. These two are essentially kind-hearted, unlike Jean, who is the ambitious party girl and not to be trusted. She'll do anything to get her man, apologize and go right back to causing trouble again.

While Polaire and Schatze scope out millionaires with survival and a little fun in mind, Jean does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, just because she feels like it. She doesn't care about anyone but herself, but it's hard not to admire how free she is. Maybe you wouldn't trust her as a friend, but she'd be fun over cocktails (for which you would end up paying).

Jean is also the one of the trio who brings the most Hot and Bothered pre-Code zing to the film. Her sexuality is a tool that she uses with all the emotion and zeal of a carpenter wielding a hammer. The pursuit of wealth is serious business for her.

When Polaire's boyfriend Dey (Manners) introduces Jean to the concert pianist Boris Feldman (Sherman) while she is out with Polaire and Schatze, she threatens to leave, thinking he's an ivory tickler for a jazz combo. When she finds out how wealthy he his, the crafty dame is suddenly on the market. Boris is so sure of the sexual potency of his playing that he bets her the price of a mink that she will fall in love with him when she hears him perform. Her interest aroused, she agrees to the pact like a businesswoman closing a deal.

The group moves on to Boris' apartment, where Jean's progress is slowed when his playing makes her fall asleep and he in turn becomes fascinated with Polaire after she plays for him. Claiming that he can make her wealthy and famous, he manages to convince her and Dey to give each other up so he can take her on tour. Boris offers her the price of the coat, but Jean is having none of the golden egg if she can get the goose.

As Schatzi and Dey prepare to leave, Jean wiggles out of her dress. Polaire discovers the slinky garment hanging out of the back of her fur coat when she complains of being cold. Suspicious of her ambitious friend's motives, she nevertheless leaves to prepare for her travels with Boris.

With the apartment cleared out, Jean gives Boris a peek at what's under her fur coat. The pianist realizes he may not like her, but he'd sure like to give her a try. Polaire doesn't take long to figure out why Boris doesn't answer the bell when she returns.

In the end, sex doesn't hold Boris. No musician can handle his lady constantly snoozing through his performances. If she'd managed to prop her eyelids open long enough, maybe a missing dress would have been enough.

This episode does nothing to discourage Jean. She goes after Dey, and failing that, goes after his father. When she realizes she doesn't want to marry Papa either, she escapes with Schatzi, and the reunited Dey and Polaire to a Paris-bound ship. There she finds her next conquest, and hints that there will be plenty of dress-doffing to come.

Three Broadway Girls is a lot of fun, and thanks to Ina Claire, it also is a perfect example of what made Hollywood films in 1932 so Hot and Bothered.

The film is in the public domain, and unfortunately in desperate need of restoration, but if you'd like to take a look, it can be found at Internet Archive and is free to stream for Prime customers at Amazon.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Bogie and Bacall in Dark Passage (1947)

The four film partnership between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall worked because the growing affection they felt for each other off-screen translated so well to the characters they played. That love is most evident in Dark Passage (1947), which despite all its bitterness and hard edges is also an intensely romantic film. Joining The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948), this Bogie and Bacall noir is now also available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Bogart is Vincent Parry, a recently escaped convict on the run. Once Vincent gets free from prison, he hitches a ride, only to be exposed when the car radio reports the man hunt. Acting in panic, he knocks out the now suspicious young man (Clifton Young, a former Little Rascal and still looking it) who has picked him up. As Vincent deals with the fall-out, a mysterious young woman insists that he get in her station wagon and she safely transports him to her apartment.

Her name is Irene Jansen (Bacall) and she thinks that Vincent may be innocent of killing his wife, just as her own convicted father was years ago. Determined that not another man should suffer a wrongful conviction, she dedicates herself to saving the bewildered Vincent. Her efforts are stymied by persistent beaux wannabe Bob (Bruce Bennett) and the high strung Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who coincidently has a lot to do with Vincent's dilemma.

Dark Passage is perhaps best remembered for its extensive use of point-of-view camera. For the first forty minutes of the film everything you see is through Vincent's eyes. You don't even get a full look at his face until an hour into the action. This segment is filmed with remarkable smoothness by what was at the time a newly-developed handheld camera.

Though a gimmick like point-of-view can be an awkward distraction, it is an asset here, because you get to watch Bacall's character falling hard for Vincent and she is beautifully effective. The actress has long had a reputation for being a tough, if essentially friendly dame. Here she demonstrates how tender she could be.

While the Bogart and Bacall chemistry sizzled in all four of their films, in Dark Passage they are at their most intimate. It made me think about the passages in Lauren Bacall's 1978 autobiography By Myself, where she describes the development of her romance with Bogart. You get the feeling that she saved him from despair and that resonates in the film as well.

The Blu-ray debut of the film looks gorgeous, with sharp, clean images. Dark Passage is famous for its liberal use of San Francisco location shots, and that aspect of the film is now particularly striking. The restoration also made me more aware of the complexity of the sound and what an important role it played in building tension and telling the story during the point-of-view scenes.

Special features include a trailer for the film, the Bugs Bunny cartoon short Slick Hare (1947), and Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers a TCM-produced featurette about the making of the film, which includes interviews with Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive: Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) in Technicolor

Early on I wondered what I was in for when watching MGM's 1959 Technicolor take on the Tarzan story. The bongo drums and blaring horns over the opening credits (composed by West coast jazz musician Shorty Rogers) belonged in a drama about teenage delinquents, making me unsure what effect the filmmakers were going for. I recently puzzled over this and other things as I watched the new Warner Archive DVD release of the film.

It's hard to say just who this version of Tarzan was targeting. There are lots of cute baby animal shots, and a clever chimpanzee who is literally the best actor in the movie, all irresistible to kids. But then there is Jane's (Joanna Barnes) near orgasmic groan when she slips out of her corset in the sizzling African heat and the erotic charge she is clearly getting out of splashing in the water with her uninhibited ape man.

As the titular jungle hunk, oiled-up Denny Miller is charisma free, but handsome in a golden California boy way. He is clean shaven and has a perfect blonde bouffant. Apparently that clever chimp is also an expert barber.

Barnes has a bit more life to her as Jane. It's kind of fun watching her go bonkers in the wild, though a scene where Tarzan drags her into his house while she screams in terror is difficult to watch from a modern perspective. She isn't Maureen O'Sullivan, but she brings her own eccentric appeal to the role.

Perhaps one of the most amusing aspects of the film is how much recycled material it contains. With footage from other Tarzan movies and action films like King Solomon's Mines, it is quite the cinematic collage. They even reused Johnny Weissmuller's legendary call from the most famous screen version of the story (this isn't the only time that would happen).

The animals and vegetation are not strictly African, and according to the film, Watusis spend all their time, singing, dancing, paddling canoes and falling off cliffs. Everything is colorful, patched together and a fascinating mess. Sometimes it drags, but it keeps your attention. Great for fans of absurd flicks.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Review: Candid Talk with an Eternal Heartthrob in Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Tad was serious about his career, but he never took himself that seriously.

-John Waters

Blonde, handsome, boyish, and without a hint of being on the make, it's no wonder that Tab Hunter inspired swoons in his heartthrob heyday. The actor and singer had a bumpy ride in the entertainment industry, but he never entirely lost that youthful appeal. To put it simply, he was, and is dreamy.
Tab Hunter Confidential takes a kindly look into the life of this deeply spiritual, charming and life-affirming talent.

Hunter seems to have possessed that unusual mix of blazing sex appeal and down-to-earth decency from an early age. He was irresistible to the girls in his high school; as a youth he would be forced to duck into an empty classroom to avoid the mobs. Overwhelmed by the attention, he escaped to the Coast Guard. That led to a chance meeting with an actor and fast entry into Hollywood, where he was simply too magnetic and attractive to be ignored.

The documentary explores the considerable ups and downs of that career that started with so much ease, and the actor's struggles to thrive as a homosexual in a society that still considered his orientation a mental disease. He began as a B-movie pretty boy, with admittedly limited acting skills, but a contract with Warner Bros led to roles in more prominent films like They Came to Cordura (1959), The Pleasure of His Company (1961) and That Kind of Woman (1959). He would also find great success as a recording star. Hunter made all of those films on loan-out though, and Warner formed a music label just to be able to have control over his recording career as well. The actor began to resent the restraints of his contract. He paid a steep fee to get his release, which in his own words was "career suicide"

Hunter would never reach the same heights professionally again. He exhausted himself to the point of having a heart attack working the demanding dinner theater circuit and made a series of uninspiring films just to make a living. Then John Waters asked him to star in Polyester (1981) opposite Divine.

The success of Waters' film led to a second act career triumph, including roles in Grease 2 (1982) and another positive experience starring opposite Divine in Lust in the Dust (1985). More offers for work began pouring in, but Hunter was disillusioned with public life by then.

The film tells these stories with film clips, photos and interviews with friends, co-stars and film experts, and a great deal of candid conversation with Hunter himself. An impressive roster of interviewees includes John Waters, Connie Stevens, Debbie Reynolds and Mother Dolores Hart. Also on hand are film documentary all-stars Eddie Mueller and Robert Osborne. It was also interesting to get the perspective of George Takai and Portia de Rossi, two actors who know much about the gay experience in Hollywood.

Each of these interviewees, whether they knew Hunter personally or not, express an overwhelming feeling of affection for the actor. He seems to have been the rare Hollywood specimen to have never made an enemy. It is easy to see why in his interview segments. While part of his appeal is still definitely that elusive "X Factor", he is also attractive simply because he is so genuinely kind and generous. He is candid about his troubles, including career disappointments, issues reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of society and his struggles caring for his mentally ill mother, but he refuses to remain bitter, or take out his frustrations on the people around him.

In an especially touching sequence, Hunter fan Jo Ann Cox Burton speaks lovingly of the extent of his generosity. She was the winner of a "Win a Date with Tab Hunter" contest, and was still glowing decades later as she spoke about the time they spent together. Instead of approaching it like the flashy publicity stunt it was, the actor treated the occasion like a real first date, and gave Burton the thrill of her life with his genuine attention and interest.

Hunter has always been reluctant to discuss his homosexuality publicly, even when different sexual orientations became less taboo, because he feared being defined by his preferences. While the "Confidential" in the title does refer to his unprecedented candor here on the subject of his love life, the film doesn't dwell on it. The men he has loved are presented as important to telling his story, but also part of a life that has been rich in many other ways.

Hunter and Perkins

His affairs with men including ice skater Ronnie Robertson, actor Anthony Perkins and his long time partner (and producer of the documentary) Allan Glaser are presented with affection and charm. Though society's perception of homosexuality has caused the actor enduring pain, he does not appear to dwell on the difficulties he has faced. He has admirably pursued healthy relationships and refused to judge the choices of others, such as when former paramour Perkins decided to marry a woman.

Much of Hunter's tolerance and spiritual balance has come from an enduring interest in the church. While he felt essentially exiled from Catholicism because of his sexuality for many years, he never gave up on religion. In later years he found solace in faith again.

Horses have been another major joy in Hunter's life, and his interest in them is prominent in the film. He began riding as a teenager and became increasingly more interested in grooming and competing in events as the actor's life began to lose its appeal. The actor made another career as a successful competitive jumper.

This is an inspiring portrait of a man with an extremely healthy outlook on life.

After a limited release and making the rounds at several film festivals in 2015, the film is now available for purchase or rental in digital HD on platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, and for purchase on DVD. 

Many thanks to Justin Cook PR for providing the above images and a screener of the film.

Meet Your New Insect Overlords: Saul Bass' Phase IV (1974)

The result of super-ant efficiency

While I was at the park one day with my daughter, we found a black column of ants racing along the top of a stone ledge. There was hundreds of them. If you let your eyes blur a little, they looked like a single pulsing line, weaving smoothly back and forth.

I thought how remarkable it was that all these creatures were coexisting in perfect, peaceful efficiency. Though they scrambled over each other and gave each other no space, you never saw them stopping to fight or, really, stopping at all. They were completely focused on the task at hand. This is a skill humans have yet to master. In fact, we may not be capable of it at all, or even want to be.

Structures built by the evolved ants

That's the basic horror of movie credit sequence king Saul Bass' sole feature directorial effort, Phase IV. The leisurely-paced sci-fi features ants who are somehow altered by a cosmic happening, so that they evolve more quickly and achieve hive mind, a sort of collective consciousness, that gives the creatures the power to build structures, create ever more powerful societies, and overtake every other living creature, including the human race. Their chief previous weakness: fighting between different species of ants, suddenly ceases to be an issue and they all begin to work together. Now nothing can stand in their way, because they possess the perfect ability to organize and execute tasks without interruption.

The queen watches a lowly subject. Why didn't this girl grab her when she had the chance?

Just like a gaggle of blank-faced zombies, the ants' advantage over people isn't so much their technical abilities as the trouble they save because they are not distracted by emotion. As they are portrayed in the film, it is implied that perhaps these insects possess some sort of feeling, at one point they conduct a sort of funeral service for fallen comrades, but even then, everything is approached with cool efficiency and a complete lack of the messy disorder human emotions can bring. You're never sure if it is grief or a sense of duty that inspires their actions.

A funeral, ant style

The action in Phase IV alternates between the orderly underground world of the ants and a pair of scientists who are studying them from a sealed dome-shaped lab in the Arizona desert. In an area where all other humans have fled or been killed by the ants, they alternate between spraying the ants with yellow, sticky poison and trying to decipher the urgent messages they appear to be sending them. They are joined by a teenage girl who is the only surviving member of a local farm family that was attacked by the ants.

Another trouble-making ant

It never seems like the scientists are entirely clear as to what they should be doing. They don't hesitate to kill thousands of ants at a time with the easy fix of poison, and yet they also spend considerable time mulling over those messages. It never seems to occur to them that they shouldn't be angering this suddenly mighty force. They are accustomed to looking down on insects, and killing them at will. That attitude leads to their downfall.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Phase IV is its so-called lost ending, which was not so much lost as rejected and forgotten by Paramount Studios. This bizarre series of images shows exactly what the ants end up doing with the remaining humans, and it is a fate both disturbing and fascinating. The footage was rediscovered in 2012 and shown as an alternate ending at select screenings of the film, one of which I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2013.

An image from the "lost ending" that ended up in the film's trailer
I've heard some grumbles that this remarkable sequence is on the pretentious side and a bit too heavy-handed with its message, but that won't matter to any fan of Saul Bass. It is the perfect culmination of his many years of visual experimentation and innovation, and it's presented like a never-ending acid trip. You can see how a room full of movie executives may have been put off by such a bold vision, but the marketing team seemed to disagree, as many of the images in the film's official trailer come from that sequence. While there don't seem to be any official DVD or Blu-ray releases that include the ending, it's easy enough to find online, and well worth a look.

Even sans the bizzaro ending Phase IV didn't make a splash at the box office. That's not too surprising. It's hard to imagine a moody, slow sci-fi film without big scares or effects, or even a charismatic star or two, attracting mainstream audiences. This was a film destined to attracted a cult following, which it has over the years. If you can accept it on its own low-key terms, and view it in a patient mood, it can be a rewarding watch. It definitely makes you afraid of messing with ants, and all without blowing them up to enormous size or resorting to cheap thrills and jump scares.

This is my entry in the Nature's Fury Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis. Check out the site for more entries.

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