On Blu-ray: Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter in the Boxing Noir The Set-Up (1949)

The rough-edged boxing noir The Set-up (1949) is notable for starring two of the best movie villains, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, as a loving married couple. It’s nice to see them be the good guys for once in a film where the rest of the world feels rotten to the core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Ryan is Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime whose wife (Totter) is desperate for him to stop fighting before he destroys himself. His manager also sees how damaged his client has become, but tries to use it to his advantage by telling a gangster the fighter will take a dive in his next bout. He doesn’t bother to tell Stoker about the deal, because he assumes he will lose.

The Set-up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem novella of the same name about an aging African-American boxer. According to Wise, a white actor was cast because at the time there wasn’t a black star with the stature to star in the film. As Robert Ryan had boxed in college, he was thought to have the skills necessary to convincingly play a boxer.

The film is notable for running in real time, which makes the action feel immediate and true-to-life. That trait is emphasized by a street clock that marks the time at the beginning and the end of the film. It is a characteristic at the heart of film noir: life can change on you very quickly and without warning.

There’s excellent attention to detail here, from the grimy feel of the Thompson’s hotel room to the cauliflower ears sported by the boxers. It’s an airless, sweat-stained milieu full of characters grabbing for what riches they can get, because the minute they stepped into the game, the clock started ticking on their self-destruction.

As Stoker’s worried wife, Totter painfully embodies the grief of a woman well aware of that inevitable decline. She loves him so much that she has gotten to the point that she can’t watch him crumble anymore, a decision he views as a lack of support or even the end of their love. With all the corruption around them, their fight to find each other becomes the core of the film and gives it heart.

This was one of director Robert Wise’s favorite early films, and for good reason. He makes a lot of a spare setting and a bleak situation, creating a compelling and in some ways hopeful story in the process.

Special features include separately recorded commentaries by Marin Scorsese and Robert Wise which are a carryover from the DVD release.

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

On Blu-ray: Bette Davis at Her Best in William Wyler's The Letter (1940)

I’ve always viewed the films that Bette Davis made with director William Wyler as an emotionally charged conversation between actress and filmmaker. There’s something precise about the cinema they made together, as if they are trying to achieve the perfect mix of the authentic and the dramatic. You can sense it in Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but I’ve found that mood most intense in The Letter (1940), which just made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novel, the story of a married woman living on a far east plantation who kills her lover first came to the screen in 1929 as one of the few movie performances of troubled stage actress Jeanne Eagels. Her performance remains remarkable today for its intensity. She doesn’t seem intimidated or restrained by the camera and microphone and somehow makes a playing to the rafters performance work on film. Her stilted costars look like they’re in another world. She’d first performed the role on the stage and seemed to have carried her interpretation to Hollywood intact. It’s a theatrical take, but it’s drawn from real, raw fury.

Davis’ take on Leslie Crosbie seems to have been somewhat inspired by Eagels intensity, but she finds power in repressing her anger at being trapped on a plantation, ignored by her husband, with nothing to do but obsessively make lace. She doesn’t feel guilty about committing adultery and murder, because in her mind, she had no choice but to find ways to entertain herself. She acts as if the true betrayal is by her lover for leaving her alone again.

This is not Leslie’s world though, and while the court is firmly on the side of the white upper classes, her lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) will see that justice is served. In classic Hollywood, even a rich white lady can’t get away with sinning in the end. As opposed to Eagels, who is defiant in her undying love for the man she murdered, Davis’ Leslie is tortured, and on a certain level realizes she will never have a moment of peace without him. It is possible that revenge is a welcome distraction for her.

Wyler and Davis fought hard about how the complicated Ms. Crosbie should be portrayed and the result is a ferociously executed performance that reflects that passion. These two have long been my favorite director and actress combo, because the turmoil of their fiery, but ultimately productive onset battles never fails to translate in some way to the screen. It is lively filmmaking which transcends the essentially orderly nature of making movies in the studio age.

The Blu-ray image is clear and clean without being too sharp. Special features on the disc include two different radio productions of the story starring Davis and her costar in the film Herbert Marshall. There is also a theatrical trailer.

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

On TCM--Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers, TCM is premiering the documentary, Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers on November 6. Drawing upon never before heard interviews from the ASC archives, the film aims to take viewers in to the minds of the greatest early cinematographers.

Image Makers is an essentially straightforward exploration of the work and methods of these craftsmen from silent pioneers W.K.L. Dickson, Billy Bitzer, and Charles Rosher to early sound innovators like William Daniels and Karl Struss. German Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund get their due, as well as innovators like Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe who took cinematography to a higher artistic plane.

Experts including Leonard Maltin and cinematographer Rachel Morrison weigh in, but it is film historian Kevin Brownlow who most effectively communicates the wonder and technical craft these filmmakers brought to their profession. Brownlow’s delight in discussing the topic, which at one point even moves him to tears, inspires a palpable joy which gives life to an otherwise fascinating, but by-the-numbers production.

It can often be forgotten that cinematographers had as many challenges as performers and sound technicians when talkies began to dominate. Image Makers addresses that transition and acknowledges the contributions of cinematographers like Struss who got the camera moving again after recording limitations rendered it immobile.

I most appreciated how thoroughly the film gives cinematographer James Wong Howe his due. A profoundly talented artist and technician, Howe molded his profession as he adapted to decades of innovations, from the beginning of sound films to the birth of Technicolor. It was especially gratifying to see his masterwork Hud (1963) given the attention it deserves for the way it elevated a Hollywood product to a deeply moving work of art.

Images: The Adventures of Americas Pioneer Cinematographers premieres on TCM on November 6 at 8:00 pm ET.

On Blu-ray--A Horror Trio: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), and From Beyond the Grave (1973)

I ended my October horror binge with a trio of unusual horror films recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Not a bad way to close out the month.

The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1966)

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this oddly-paced, eccentric horror comedy about a pair of vampire hunters. It's unique and funny in a low-key way, but for long stretches it bumbles along as if it has gotten lost. The fantastic cast helps, led by director Roman Polanski and Jack MacGowran (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and featuring Sharon Tate in an essentially thankless role which she elevates with her unique charisma (she was born for film) and glowing beauty. The frightened villagers are fascinating with their realistically wind burned faces, a dramatic contrast to the glamorous vampires living in the estate up the hill. The film is at its best when it plays with the conventions of vampires, introducing what has to be the first openly gay cinematic neck drainer and a Jewish vampire who gets a belly laugh out of a damsel wielding a cross which obviously has no effect on him. A spookily hip soundtrack by Chris Komeda suits the slightly scary, mostly goofy feel of the film.

Special features include a theatrical trailer and a very silly making-of featurette The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

In this television horror fantasy classic Kim Darby plays a lonely housewife who has just inherited her grandmother’s lavish, but run down mansion. Going against the advice of a handyman who has long worked on the estate (William Demarest in full Uncle Charlie mode), she opens up a bolted door on the side of a bricked up fireplace releasing a trio of pumpkin-headed goblins who constantly whisper her name and scatter in a symphony of screams whenever they are exposed to bright light. 

They want to drag her into the nether regions of the house as thanks for her releasing them, though it’s confusing because sometimes they also say they want to attack her. It’s an odd film; sometimes it’s laughably silly, but then suddenly you’re thrust into bone-rattling terror. 

I’m not fond of Darby. While I recognize her skill as an actress, something about her has always irritated me. As a result, my sympathy wasn’t with her as intended and I often found myself wishing the little guys would drag her away to put her out of her misery. Still, the slow-building tension is effective, and when you view it as an allegory reflecting the aimlessness imprisonment of life as a 1970s housewife, it becomes more poignant. 

It’s easy to see why this traumatized so many children who stayed up past their bedtimes decades ago. As with Warner Archive’s release of Bad Ronald, it’s also a rare delight to see an older television film with such a sharp clear image.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Steve “Uncle Creepy” Carton, Jeffrey Reddick and Sean Abley and another excellent new commentary by television film expert Amanda Reyes, who talks about a lot more than the film, placing it in context within the world of 1970s TV movies.

From Beyond the Grave (1973)

In this omnibus film from British studio Amicus Productions, Peter Cushing is quietly ghoulish as an antique shop proprietor who seems to have the supernatural ability to curse people who trick or steal from him. He works his dark magic on ill-gotten goods including a mirror, a military medal, a carved wooden door, and a snuff box. The fate of each of the dishonest people in possession of these items is revealed in separate episodes. A remarkable cast, including Margaret Leighton, Ian Bannen, and the wearily middle-aged, but still glamorous Diana Dors does much for this low budget horror flick. The best sequence features Donald Pleasance and his magnetically eerie daughter Angela Pleasance, playing a father and daughter in a cautionary tale with the otherworldly haze of a fairy tale.

The only special feature is a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visitThe Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review: David O. Selznick's Secretary Dishes the Dirt Under a Veil of Fiction in I Lost My Girlish Laughter

I Lost My Girlish Laughter
Jane Allen with Jane Shore
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Vintage, 2018 (Random House, 1938)

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood. 

Jane Allen is the pen name of Silvia Schulman Lardner, a diligent woman who toiled in the administrative departments of RKO and MGM, but clearly got the most inspiration from working as the top man’s personal secretary at Selznick International. It was a lot of fun to read this long forgotten book which captures the spirit of a unique time and an unpredictable business with a screwball sense of comedy.

Though Schulman never got credit for her influence on Selznick’s greatest productions, she had a hand in the development of films like A Star is Born (1937) and perhaps most notably convinced her boss to purchase the rights to Gone with the Wind (1939) after reading the book’s galleys. She also tried to make her own mark as a writer, co-writing the play Adam Had Three Eves with Barbara Keon in 1935. Selznick bought the rights, but never produced it.

Eventually, Schulman married writer Ring Lardner Jr. and left Hollywood in 1937. A year later she collaborated on I Lost My Girlish Laughter with screenwriter Jane Shore, wondering all the while if she was revealing too much. 

It is the story of a well-educated single woman who comes to Hollywood looking for work. She gets more than she bargained for when she takes on the job of secretary for super producer Sidney Brand. Told in letters, telegrams, and of course, given the inspiration, memos, this is a light, if not thoroughly loving take on the movie industry.

More amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, it is nevertheless an entertaining book. Schulman creates a lively gallery of buffoons and kooks, with obvious takes on the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Paulette Goddard, super-agent Leland Hayward, Louella Parsons, and her own husband Lardner. 

While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

While there were rumblings that I Lost My Girlish Laughter would be adapted for the screen, that project never materialized. To the loss of us all, Schulman retired from writing. She became the mother of two, and worked as an interior designer and building contractor. That said, the one book she had in her was as good as a lifetime of writing.

Many thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: October Round-up

Here's this month's round-up of great podcast episodes for classic film fans. Got a great podcast to share? Even your own? Let me know!

Decades of Horror: The Classic Era
Episode 64
Viy (1967)

I love the concept of this series of podcasts produced by Gruesome Magazine: a decade-by-decade exploration of horror films. I’m currently working my way through their 1970s series, but I especially appreciate their coverage of classic Hollywood horror. This conversation about Viy (1967), the Russian horror film, taps into its unique mix of chills, humor, and folk tale style.

San Francisco Chronicle: Datebook
Judy Garland and "Judy," with Tony Bravo, Connie Champagne and Lara Gabrielle Fowler
October 2, 2019

I enjoyed this deeply touching discussion about recent biopic subject Judy Garland and the film starring Zellweger. Connie Champagne has made a name for herself portraying Garland in various venues and Lara Gabrielle Fowler has written about the star on her excellent blog Backlots. The most interesting moments are when they discuss Judy herself, sharing moments from her varied career, analyzing the vulnerability at the core of her appeal and talking how her work has affected their lives personally.

Collider Conversations: The Deep Cut with John Roche
Alicia Malone


TCM host and author (among many other things) Alicia Malone talks about inclusivity in film, the history of women directors of Hollywood and her own struggles to work with her introversion as a public figure. Malone has always been a great advocate for increasing diversity in all aspects of the film industry and she speaks about that interest with great eloquence here. It was also interesting to hear her talk about her journey to becoming a TCM host, including the audition process.

The Film Scene with Illeana Douglas
Pamela Green and Be Natural Documentary9/26/2019

Illeana Douglas talks about the career of Alice Guy Blache, and the challenges of telling her story, with Pamela Green director of a new documentary about the filmmaker Be Natural.

Maltin on Movies
Robert Forster
August 26, 2016

This is one of the first episodes of Maltin on Movies I heard and it remains one of my favorites. The dearly departed Robert Forster is so kind, funny, and no nonsense in this career-spanning conversation with Jessie and Leonard Maltin. His John Huston impression is hilarious and perfect.

On Blu-ray: John Ford's Wagon Master (1950)

It says a lot about the kind of actors director John Ford cast when his supporting players are as good at carrying a film as stars like John Wayne. In the 1950 film Wagon Master, actors and stuntmen Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. shine at a different wattage than Wayne, but they are nevertheless charismatic, funny, and as delightful rising from the ranks to take the lead. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive which beautifully displays its stunning Utah and Arizona valley locations.

Johnson and Carey, Jr. play the new wagon masters of a train of Mormons who have been previously led by another familiar Ford stock player Ward Bond. Over the course of their journey they pick up a bedraggled troupe of medicine show players dying of thirst. They begin to get acquainted, with friendships and romances blooming, until a band of violent thieves called the Cleggs, who were introduced in an at the time innovative opening credit sequence, force themselves into the group.

This familiar plot, which could easily be the bones for a mediocre film, becomes profound because of Ford’s touch. His knack for perfectly casting every part comes in handy here, where he is counting on the strength of the ensemble instead of star power to tell his story. In addition to his pleasantly familiar leads, he draws on the talents of reliable characters like Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Alan Mowbray, and Jane Darwell, and emerging stars like future Gunsmoke lead James Arness. He then places them against that jaw dropping scenery, drinking in the majesty of it all with long, loving long shots which give weight and a sense of wonder to their journey.

There is not as much at stake here, or as strong a feeling of peril or loss as in Ford’s more celebrated classics like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The gut-wrenching feeling those more emotionally resonant films evoked is replaced with a warmer feeling of camaraderie, which is helped along by the inclusion of four songs by the cowboy singers Sons of the Pioneers (they would also sing in Ford’s Rio Grande [1950]). This is not to say that Wagon Master is a less substantial film though, it has just as much to say about the mutual human need for community and connection as Ford's more celebrated works. Here he simply shares that message with a lighter touch.

The only special feature on the disc is an enjoyable commentary from the 2009 DVD release by Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich, which includes clips of John Ford from Bognanovich’s previous interviews with the director.

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