Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch (1973) and Her Career in the 60s and 70s

As of today, it has been six years since Elizabeth Taylor left us. In remembrance of this unique actress and humanitarian, I am spotlighting one of her lesser known films, Night Watch (1973). This single horror entry in Taylor's resume was long unavailable until its release on DVD from Warner Archive. Based on a play by Lucille Fletcher, it's a tightly-wound, atmospheric bit of terror.

The late sixties and early seventies were a rough patch in Taylor's career, mirroring the movie industry overall. Society was going through massive changes and studios struggled to keep up with the times. In addition to these challenges, Taylor was dealing with the increasing tensions of her often combative, and sometimes toxic marriage to Richard Burton. The pair lived large and loud, and in the hippie age that often made them the subject of scorn.

In part because of these factors, many of Taylor's films in this era have become essentially lost. There has been a general critical opinion that her work during this time was a disappointment, a baffling conclusion to make when so many of her films from this time have not been readily available for years. While films like Boom (1968), The Driver's Seat (1974) and X, Y & Zee (1968) certainly have their over-the-top moments and eccentricities, they are also showcase Taylor in some of her most complex and intriguing performances.

This was Taylor's unruly period. After years of playing placidly beautiful, often obedient women, she took off the gloves and made a great show of giving her image a good smacking. In her early career, even when she played rebels, her characters tended to stay within the acceptable boundaries of female behavior. She began to show what she had in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), BUtterfield 8 (1960) and The Sandpiper (1965), but it wasn't until her Oscar-winning performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) that she showed how beautiful she could be when she got truly loud and emotionally messy.

By the mid-sixties, Taylor took on a persona that was unusually unruly for a female. It made her the object of ridicule, a position which was often mirrored in her films. This Elizabeth felt hurt and betrayed by the world. Instead of retreating to lick her wounds, she raged about it. Her films were populated with people who didn't believe in her, husbands who betrayed the raving beauty for blander, more subdued blondes, and disapproving bystanders who just wanted her to calm down. But she would not calm down. She would keep making ripples on the status quo, expanding the idea of what it meant to be female.

Taylor's performances during this era had many flamboyant moments that went beyond any concept of good or bad. They grabbed your attention and brought you into her orbit. That's what people tend to remember, but these wild displays were offset by some of the star's most subtle acting. Sandwiched between the tirades were quiet, excruciating moments of great emotional complexity, where you saw the woman who lived beneath the noise. I'm sure many would say that this was the real Elizabeth emerging, but it took great skill for her to translate those emotions for a movie camera, a talent for which she was never given enough credit.

Night Watch ticks off many of the boxes from this time in Taylor's career: she plays a wealthy woman who seems to be losing her mind, she is betrayed by her husbands, and her greatest competition is a more subdued, well-behaved picture of femininity. She is Ellen Wheeler, resident of London, the insomniac wife of John Wheeler (her BUtterfield 8 co-star Laurence Harvey) and best friend of Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw) who is currently visiting the two on holiday.

Unhappily married and haunted by violent dreams from the past, Ellen becomes fixated on the horrific abandoned gothic mansion next door. Dusty and decrepit, but with a perfect garden tended to by caretaker Appleby (Robert Lang), she spends much of her time staring at its windows on rainy nights. One especially stormy evening she claims to have seen a dead body sitting in a chair next to the window, and says that it resembled her dead husband.

Ellen's terror over what she thinks she has seen throws her into hysterics. She can't sleep, refuses to eat and constantly calls the police to report her suspicions about the murder. John and Sarah try to manage her, but she is not the kind of woman who can be managed. Her seeming madness pushes them all towards a surprising climax and amusingly subdued conclusion.

Night Watch shows its roots as a play, with very little location shooting. For most of the film Taylor is confined in her home, which enhances the tension by reflecting the way she is trapped by her own fears. A brilliantly suspenseful score by John Cameron and some horrific flashbacks add to the building terror. It's a tense, unsettling bit of drama.

Taylor and Harvey were delighted to work together again and hoped to find another project on which to collaborate, but both were ill during the production and struggled to complete the film. Harvey would die of cancer not long after. It is possible they may not have had the leverage to launch another project as it was, since the UK-based production was not a hit with critics or audiences. It's a worthy film though, with intriguing performances, subtly building tension and a great, chilling atmosphere.

The Warner Archive disc comes with no special features. The remastered image does justice to the rich Technicolor, though in some scenes there are several subtle dirt marks. It isn't a pristine copy, but the flaws do not distract from the viewing experience.

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.

A Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway! Win a Copy of the Newly Restored Behind the Door (1919)

I am a huge fan of Flicker Alley, as can be seen from my past reviews of their titles. So many amazing films are available to a wide audience, and in amazing packages, due to their diligent efforts.

Now, along with Flicker Alley and several fellow classic movie site owners, I am excited to give you the opportunity to win the new release Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu ray/DVD.

I'll let Flicker Alley tell you the rest:

Legendary producer Thomas H. Ince and director Irvin V. Willat made this—“the most outspoken of all the vengeance films” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow—during the period of World War I inspired American patriotism.

Hobart Bosworth stars as Oscar Krug, a working-class American, who is persecuted for his German ancestry after war is declared. Driven by patriotism, Krug enlists and goes to sea. However, tragedy strikes when his wife (Jane Novak) sneaks aboard his ship and is captured following a German U boat attack. Krug’s single minded quest for vengeance against the sadistic German submarine commander (played with villainous fervor by Wallace Beery) leads to the film’s shocking and brutal climax.

This newly restored edition represents the most complete version of the film available since 1919, thanks to the collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Sourced from the only two known remaining prints and referencing a copy of Willat’s original continuity script, this edition recreates the original color tinting scheme and features a new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne. Flicker Alley is honored to present Behind the Door on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time ever.

Bonus Materials Include:

• Original Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
• Original Production Outtakes: Featuring music composed and performed by Stephen Horne.
• Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door: An inside look at the restoration process with the restoration team.
• Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat: Directed by Patrick Stanbury, an in-depth interview with renowned historian and honorary Academy Award® winner Kevin Brownlow on the career of director Irvin Willat.
• Slideshow Gallery: Original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material.
• 12-page Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, film restorer Robert Byrne, and composer Stephen Horne.

Official Release Date: April 4, 2017

Pre-order now at the special sale price of $29.95 for a limited time!

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on April 12, 2017.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Stop-Motion and Skin in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

While fantasy movies with stop-motion creatures have a reputation as being for kids, that has not always been the case. The Hammer Films production When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970) is an example of a more adult take on the genre, at least in the original version, before US studios made a few edits to make it family friendly. Now the uncut UK version of the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

One Million Years B.C. (1966), featuring Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, was a hugely successful British production. It inspired Hammer to produce another dinosaurs and skin adventure fantasy. Though this take on cave life can drag, impressive dinosaurs, attractive performers and an amusing script made up entirely of an invented "cave language," make this an entertaining flick.

There is a loose plot involving Sanna (Victoria Vetri), who is about to be given up for a ritual sacrifice, when she is rescued by Tara (Robin Hawdon), a man from another tribe. A coincidental celestial change makes the old tribe pursue Sanna, certain she has brought on trouble with her escape. This light framework holds together a heavy helping of dinosaur scenes, a cast of actors hired to be eye candy and a sprinkling of sex scenes.

Effects designer Jim Danforth's dinosaurs still hold up. He gives them a sense of danger and play, and they are part of several still appealing action scenes. While these figures dominate the film, in some respects it is more accurate to call this movie Hot Bods of the Prehistoric Age or maybe Sex and Dinosaurs. All of these cave people seem to work out, and their glistening, tanned torsos and scant loin cloths and bikini tops are presented without subtlety. 

I've often noticed a distinct youth quake vibe in British movies of the sixties, whether or not they take place in that time. It isn't the same as in American films attempting to tap into youth culture, which were often so literal, and tended to come off like a dad trying to learn slang from a book so he could seem hip to his kids. The Brits had a way of weaving the feel of the times into whatever they made, so whether it is Alexander the Great or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, you feel like you are watching a real troop of hippies, and you can't help but wonder what the parties were like after hours.

There are some draggy spots where everyone's just running around screaming "Akita!" "Neeco!" while the musical blares away, but you can generally count on a spontaneous dino fight or sexy cave people clinch to liven things up before it gets too painful.

This is one case where subtitles are essential, because the Hammer cave people language is actually transcribed for your reading pleasure. Apparently there are around a couple dozen words in this lexicon, so it doesn't take long to feel like you're getting fluent in cave talk.

American studios imported the film with some scenes of brief nudity edited out, though none of the more violent images, hoping to reach a family audience. The version on this release fully restores all scenes.

The picture quality is almost too good for a flick of this genre. Sometimes the crackles and dirt are part of the fun, but at least you can get a good look at the dinosaurs and company.

There are no special features on the disc.

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

Book Review: Edith Head and Classic Hollywood Featured in Dangerous to Know

Dangerous to Know
Renee Patrick
Forge, 2017

This is a mystery for those who think that cocktails, and conversation, should sparkle. Set in late 1930s Hollywood, when the word Hitler sent a chill down many a spine, and David O. Selznick was about to set his version of Atlanta aflame, it exists in a world of classic movies and pre-war intrigue. This installment follows Design for Dying, which like this book features Hollywood social secretary Lillian Frost and a fictionalized Edith Head, who in addition to their daily duties, solve mysteries on the side. Written by Renee Patrick, the pen name for husband and wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, this engaging riff on the past juggles laughs, intrigue and suspense with a pleasing zest.

The first chapter of Dangerous to Know is a torrent of details and I had a hard time getting my footing at first as I jumped into this second installment without the benefit of reading the first. I finally established who was who and what they did. By the second chapter all was clear and the narrative hit its stride.

Frost is a failed actress who works for Addison Rice, a millionaire with Hollywood connections. She is friends with Edith Head, who is in her early days at Paramount Studios and not yet proven to her employers. Head asks Frost to help Marlene Dietrich solve the mystery of a missing friend, a request which seems simple, but becomes increasingly more complex. As Lillian plunges deeper into danger, she finds herself mixed up in murder, a smuggling operation and even gets caught in the cross-hairs of the Nazis.

I sometimes feel a bit let down by fiction that references classic Hollywood because the details don't ring true. Sometimes the stars will say things that don't jive with their off-screen character or be given values that don't fit their personalities or the times they lived in. There's a big difference between a writer who is drawn to old movies and one who really understands what makes them great.

Patrick has done the necessary research to get period details right, but also has a knack for expressing the feel of the era and the personalities of the stars. Sometimes those bits of information can seemed like they are wedged a bit awkwardly into the narrative, but for the most part they are entertaining, and even enlightening. The most successful portrait is of Marlene Dietrich, the catalyst for Frost and Head's latest mystery. She is portrayed as dramatic, prone to weaving fantasies, motherly to the point of interfering too much and absolutely stunning to all she meets.

It is particularly amusing how the physical effect Dietrich has on others is communicated, from the mention of her name causing men to straighten their posture to this amusing exchange after she sweeps out of the room: "I exhaled and sank into a chair. "Does talking to Marlene cause the bends?" Edith polished her glasses and smiled without displaying a single tooth. "One gets used to it." I could hear Dietrich's voice in my head in her scenes; the text captures her off-screen persona delightfully.

There are other cameos and brief celebrity appearances. Jack Benny and George Burns play a role in the smuggling sub plot, while Billy Wilder drops by to partake in a picnic lunch with Head. Errol Flynn and Leni Riefenstahl also make extended appearances and there's a blustering cameo by C. Aubrey Smith on the cricket field. It's fun because their patter does ring true with their screen personas and the biographical details that have been revealed about their lives.

Edith Head isn't as present in the novel as I expected given her equal billing with Lillian Frost on the cover. Rather than being a partner in solving the crimes, for the most part she serves as a sort of elegant fairy godmother, bailing out our heroine from time to time and offering good advice. That said, she does appear more in the latter part of the book. Along with her boss Addison, the designer is Lillian's in to the more glamorous parts of Hollywood.

Dangerous to Know is an immensely entertaining book, cleverly written and with enough surprises to keep you on your toes. The first half is full of fabulous zingers, the sort of witty asides you might expect from an in-the-know party guest at a glamorous affair. While the action slacks a bit going into the final third of the book, the suspense increases as it enters the final stretch. I enjoyed it enough to want to catch up with Patrick's first installment of what I hope will be a continuing series.

Many thanks to Forge for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: A Cast of Sympathetic Characters in Battleground (1949)

We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning. To put out the fire before it starts spreading.

Battleground (1949) performs a balancing act of great precision. It plunges you into the devastation of war, but it also shows flickers of light. Though it can often be difficult to watch, this is an entertaining, engrossing film that succeeds because of and despite its bleak message. Now it is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The setting is Belgium in 1944. A platoon of American soldiers struggle with homesickness, discomfort, loss and the horrors of war as they fight the Battle of Bastogne in a final, horrific counteroffensive against Hitler. With an Oscar-winning screenplay written by Robert Pirosh, a veteran of the stand-off, this is a tense film because the details feel true-to-life.

It opens with a shot of a Christmas tree, decorated with the naked leg of a female mannequin. Soldiers in formation sing about the home they left, the baby they left. Though they constantly make jokes and lightly jibe at each other, you can feel how homesickness continually plagues them. A piece of bread or the prospect of getting real food, like a plate of eggs, symbolizes not only comfort, but the homes to which they wish to return.

To make it all the more touching, director William Wellman's cast is packed with some of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. Most famous for lighter musical and comedy fare, it is almost disorienting to see stars like Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy in such a bleak milieu. The actors who are more strongly associated with dramas, like James Whitmore and John Hodiak, serve as a sort of comfort, because you know how the characters they play have triumphed over darkness.

It's an interesting cast, diverse in character, but simpatico. They play off of each other with such lightness that when they can no longer shut out or gloss over the tragedy surrounding them, there is a feeling of profound loss. One moment they attempt to casually chat during a bombing, the next, they face death.

For all the forced gaiety among the soldiers, the atmosphere is one of pure horror. A haunting fog envelopes most of the action, and is a constant reminder of their vulnerability to sneak attacks and starvation due to the lack of supply drops. The battlefield covered in snow hints at the discomfort of the men and the fear of muffled steps in the snow masking a deadly approach. Half the time the soldiers can't see their target, the rest they are unsure if they are speaking to Americans or German soldiers succeeding at a brilliant masquerade.

Audiences must have still felt raw from the wounds of World War II as they watched this upon its first release. This is the fear that they either felt themselves or saw their loved ones experience. That terror is stripped down to the basics, where a makeshift shelter under a jeep can be a tomb or a pair of empty boots can cause a man to choke in helpless grief.

A harrowing experience, Battleground is nevertheless a deeply satisfying film that rewards multiple viewings. It elicits empathy by drawing you into the battle, the boots and helmets of these brave, but ultimately vulnerable men.

The black and white imagery on the disc is especially striking, with a soft, velvety look that enhances the feeling of a disconnect from reality on the fog-shrouded battlefield. Special features include a trailer for the film, a vintage featurette and the cartoon, Little Red Riding Hood.

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

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Twiggy Literally Kicks Up Her Heels in The Boyfriend (1971)

Director Ken Russell's take on Sandy Wilson's stage musical, The Boyfriend (1971), is cheerful and bright to the point of insanity. It's full of colorful sets and vigorous toe tapping, while mod British supermodel Twiggy shines as the effortlessly sparkling center of it all. This unusual film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Twiggy is Polly Browne, a seemingly awkward stage assistant at a small time theater. When the leading lady of the current production breaks her leg, the errand-running ingénue is pushed into the spotlight; apparently it is part of her job duties. Her director gives her the same pep talk Warner Baxter gave Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (1933), but instead of prancing onstage to entertain the masses, she faces an uninspiring sprinkling of bored daytime patrons.

No matter though, because there is a Hollywood director sitting in a box above the stage who is looking for new talent. Everyone but Polly performs directly for him (even Russell's camera), which of course makes her irresistible to him. The newly-minted stage star is oblivious to it all though, focusing all her attention on her dreamy blonde co-star Tony (Christopher Gable), on whom she has a devastating crush.

Whatever shape this big and boisterous musical took onstage, it has fully translated to the screen as a Russell production. The wild-eyed boldness of his style is a good fit for the always-on energy of show people. Supernaturally long and lean Tommy Tune clicks his heels in impossible ways as he dances down the hallway of the theater, demonstrating the inborn drive to perform, but it is also simply fun to watch this unusual dancer at play, and Russell seems to know it.

The action is divided into three parts: backstage intrigue, the company's stage production, and a series of larger-than-life dream sequences. The backstage bits glue everything together, setting up alliances and rivalries. Onstage, you get not the glamour, but the effort of performance: scenery squeaks, makeup is garish and you feel every bit of the strain on the dancer's calves and strenuously grinning faces. The fanciful joy of musicals, where you have distance from any sense of effort on the part of the players is in the fantasy elements, where boisterous woodland frolics are alternated with the kind of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley-style dances that could never work in a theater.

This juxtaposition of intrigue, sweat and glitter is presented with outrageous costumes, dramatic sets throbbing with color, and chorus girls with enormous wide-open eyes. Watching it is to gorge yourself on sensation. The Boyfriend may be G-rated, but it still has the sensual, overblown thrust of a Russell production.

While the spectacle has its appeal, it can also be disturbing. When you can see the seams in a production, it begins to lose its charm. Uneven floorboards and the sound of stomping, rather than lightly tapping feet dilute the magic. While having all the elements of a musical, this is also a rebellion against its artifice.

Though she is the focus of the film, Twiggy seems almost untouched by the insanity. Polly has not been seduced by the spotlights and the bone-thin model seems much the same. She is an unaffected and natural performer. It's delightful to watch her run through the hallways of the theater with a little spring to her step, very much the flapper. 

It must have been a surprise to see how a woman famous for her long eyelashes and pixie persona was also an intensely charismatic performer and delightful vocalist (she sings in a simple, but smooth way that is a lot like Janet Gaynor's style in her early 1930s musicals) . There's a subtle, entrancing confidence to her that is unusual in any actress, let alone one who had so little experience.

For the most part the Blu-ray image is good, though in some of the outdoor scenes the color is a bit washed out. The bold colors and bright silvers of the costumes and stage sets are presented to satisfying effect. The sole special feature on the disc is an entertaining vintage featurette about the movie filmed at the time of production.

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

UPDATED WITH WINNER! Enter The TCM Classic Film Festival Button Pack Giveaway!

From April 6-9, I will be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival for the fourth year as a member of the media. As some of you may remember, last year artist, classic movie fanatic and festivalgoer Kate Gabrielle created a great set of buttons to help film fans celebrate the highlights of the festival and connect more easily with each other in person. These are perfect to pin onto your pass lanyard, though they are also quite attractive on bags, jackets or whatever surface you might like to lend a little classic movie flair.

Kate is selling the packs (pictured above) on her website. Each set includes:

-One 2.25" social media introduction button. You can choose your username for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

-One 2.25" button displaying how many years you've been attending the festival. You have a choice of Barbara Stanwyck or Gary Cooper on your button.

-Two 1.5" matching buttons featuring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart to celebrate the 75th anniversary screening of Casablanca

-Five 1" buttons with a selection of images of the attendees  and featured films at the 2017 festival

It was great fun to have this set at the festival last year. It really is a great conversation starter. 

I did a button pack giveaway in 2016, and once again, I want to share one with all of you. 

I will be awarding one lucky TCM Classic Film Festival attendee (or classic film fan) with a personalized set of Kate's buttons.

All you need to do is tell me in the comments:

What are you most excited to see or do at this year's festival? If you are not attending: what films, events or guests look most interesting to you?

It can be one thing or twenty! I love to hear what brings you all from all over the world to this event that is as much about connecting with other film fans as it is seeing the stars and watching movies.

The rules:

-Only US residents please.

-While this is an ideal prize for TCMFF attendees, you do not need to be going to the festival to enter.
-All entries must be made by midnight PST, Monday, March 13
-Only guesses made in the comments below are eligible.

I will announce the winner, and share the answers in an update to this post and on my social media accounts on Tuesday, March 14

Good Luck!


I drew a name out of my hat:

and the big winner is...

Thank you to everyone who entered! Paulet, please send me an email at classicmovieblog (at) gmail.com with: 

-Your mailing address
-The Twitter, Instagram or Facebook tag you want on your ID button
-The number of years you have gone to TCMFF and your choice of Barbara Stanwyck or Gary Cooper for your other personalized button

Your prize will be coming directly from Kate Gabrielle. Enjoy! 
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