On Blu-ray: Rory Calhoun Rocks a Toga in The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

Before Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone made his name with spaghetti westerns, he began his career taking a stab at the sword and sandal genre with The Colossus of Rhodes. It is astonishing that the director’s first credited directing job is an epic-sized production like this one. While he did have some uncredited work covering directing duties on a couple of productions before winning this plum assignment it is an impressive work of genre filmmaking for a director still learning the ropes. The film has now been released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive.

The Colossus of Rhodes is the kind of movie with large crowd scenes, grand set pieces, orgies, betrayal, and slaves who are forced to taste suspicious goblets of wine before they stagger two steps and collapse in the middle of the dancing girls. I suspect I dug it partly because I was in the prime mood for it: drinking a beer, eating take-out and slightly logy from a warm summer day.

The film’s basis is the true story of a massive statue of the Greek sun god Helios (Apollo in the film) that was erected in the harbor of the Island of Rhodes. It follows Darios (Rory Calhoun) a military hero visiting his uncle in Rhodes. There he becomes involved in various plots to bring down Serse, the evil king.

Though packed full of all the earthquakes, battles and coliseum scenes the genre has to offer, Colossus can move a little slow, and ultimately, it goes on for too long. It looks good, but the action never really cooks. Still, it has well-crafted grandeur, beautiful people, hedonism, and the unmatchable Rory Calhoun in a shorty toga, with his twinkly eyes and fluffy forelock.

The deadly Colossus itself is a great prop, clever and horrific. It straddles the entrance to the harbor, and men inside open a trap door and pour flaming oil upon any vessel that passes between its spread legs. True to the cinematic spirit, the statue is shown to be about three times the height of the actual structure, which now only survives in historical renderings.

The Warner Archive disc includes a commentary by film historian Christopher Frayling. Image and sound are good, with the varied soundtrack by Francesco Angelo Lavagnino coming off especially well.

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

Book Review--Leonard Maltin's Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom

Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom
Leonard Maltin
Good Knight Books, 2018

Before the movie guidebooks, television review gig, and thriving podcast, film critic Leonard Maltin was a teenage cinema fanatic living in New York City. There he had access to archives, rare film screenings, and some of the best performers and creators in the business. He made the most of these connections, writing thoughtful reviews of what he saw, putting in diligent research, and coming to interviews with a wealth of knowledge about and respect for his subjects. Now a great treasure trove of this early work is compiled for the first time in Maltin’s latest: Hooked on Hollywood.

The book is organized into four parts: a collection of essays about film and television, Maltin’s early interviews, a collection of more in-depth later interviews, and a final section which is a fascinating history of RKO studio. Much of the material collected here has been in storage for over forty years, and is as remarkable for the pre-VHS time it captures as much for Maltin’s already well-developed critical and interviewing skills.

Maltin draws honest, candid comments from stars like Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell and Henry Wilcoxon, who perhaps let their guard down a bit in the presence of this curious and unusually knowledgeable young man. He draws an even more interesting perspective from those in the industry who were not superstars, and thus had the advantage of a perspective out of the spotlight. The conversations with prolific radio, stage, television and film performer Peggy Webber and television and film director Leslie H. Martinson are two of the best, revealing the experiences of a pair of industry legends who are not household names, but have contributed a lot and have a knack for telling a good story.

I enjoyed the earnest tone and thorough research of Maltin’s early writings, but it was the interviews that moved me the most. In his respectful, even reverential treatment of these people who for the most part had been forgotten by the public, or at the very least undervalued, he reminded me a lot of the gentlemanly way Robert Osborne would celebrate industry greats. As much as I have seen Maltin as a promoter and lover of all aspects of film history, I hadn’t seen this side of him before. It wasn’t surprising, but it was a pleasant revelation.

This was an enjoyable, educational read and one I plan to revisit.

Many thanks to Good Knight Books/Paladin Communications for providing a copy of the book for review.

Quote: Joe Dante on Movies

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For any movie, it means what you make it mean….Movies are Rorshach tests. There is what you mean when you make them and then there’s also what people get out of them. And sometimes those two things are not always the same.

-Joe Dante

On DVD: Bebe Daniels Charms in My Past (1931)

With a title like My Past and that cover art with Bebe Daniels giving a “seen all, done all” look, I expected a different film than I got. It is pre-code in tone and deed, but more subdued about it: racy, but not saucy. What I liked best about this film now available on DVD from Warner Archive, is that I found a new appreciation for the charming Daniels.

The plot is familiar: a gorgeous showgirl (Daniels) is loved by a wealthy older man (Lewis Stone), but she’s got the hots for his younger, unhappily married friend (Ben Lyons). It’s all just a framework for beautiful costumes and settings, and reliably appealing performers like Stone, Lyons and the always marvelous Joan Blondell as Daniels’ best friend.

There are some typically pre-code sleeping arrangements and flexible ideas about marriage, but the thing that makes it pop is the chemistry between Daniels and Lyons, who were married from 1930 to her death in 1971. This isn’t a screen partnership with a Bogie and Bacall sizzle, but there’s a warmth between them that elevates the familiar material. It’s pleasant to see them at play together. You feel the affection.

My introduction to Bebe Daniels, as with many classic film fans, was as the distraught musical star Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street (1933). Though she is technically the star of that production, it is Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell who people remember. I now realize this sour, if not entirely unsympathetic character was not the best way to get to know her, much like seeing Norma Shearer for the first time in The Women (1939) is not a great introduction to her persona.

By the time of My Past, Daniels had been in films for over twenty years. She came from a theatrical family and had been before the camera since her silent short debut as a child. Though she faltered a bit at the start of the talkie age because she’d become associated with the overdone musical fad, Warner Bros saw her potential and picked her up for a great run in the 1930s. This film was the start of that period, which also included starring roles in Counselor-at-Law (1933) and in the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) (in an amusing scene in My Past, she cheekily signs a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel).

Here, for the first time, I finally appreciated what made Daniels appealing to audiences. She’s got the beauty and glamour of a movie star, but there’s always a part of her that feels relatable in a deeply humane way. It’s not the gal pal warmth of Blondell or the weary shopgirl earthiness of early Joan Crawford, but rather an air of truly taking things to heart. It was satisfying to see her take center stage, where her appeal could be fully appreciated.

While this isn’t a remarkable production, it offers many low-key pleasures and will especially satisfy pre-code fans.

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.

Quote of the Week: About Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens

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The critics were apoplectic. They seemed to feel that Little Edie, in particular, was just crazy, and therefore wasn’t capable of giving informed consent for the filming. I totally disbelieve that: Edie managed her life just fine after her mother died. She was eccentric, certainly, but not crazy.

-Muffie Meyer, about Grey Gardens (1975)


Quote: Stanley Kubrick on Plot

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A very good plot is a minor miracle; it's like a hit tune in music.

-Stanley Kubrick


Book Review--When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals

When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals
Edited by Vanessa Morgan, B.L. Daniels
Moonlight Creek Publishing, 2016

In search of a light read, I came across When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals on NetGalley and decided to give it a try. It’s a collection of brief essays by an international array of authors with highly variable skills. This unusual read was often hard to put down, though not always easy going.

When Animals Attack covers flicks from the forties to the present day, but for the most part the essays are about films from the 70s through the 90s. The coverage hits where it should: classics like Them!(1954) get attention and the best of the 1970s nature’s revenge heyday is well represented. You get a good sense of the arc of angry creature features, as they evolved from paranoia to parody.

This is not a consistent read where quality is concerned. The writers run the gamut from student bloggers to award winning authors and filmmakers. Gems can be found along that whole range of experience, in addition to much lesser works.

For the most part it doesn’t seem meant to be terribly deep and the generally casual tone of many of the reviews is playful and much like a friend describing a good time at the movies. Still, several of these essays could have used a more thorough edit. There are also some unusual format choices here. My heart was racing by the time I got through the review in which every other sentence was punctuated with an explanation point.

The best of the essays are fascinating though. Among my favorites are those that share the films through a personal, nostalgic lens. I loved Erich Kuersten’s childhood memories of the TV movie Day of the Animals (1977), where he describes simmering with frustration in bed, not allowed to stay up as late as he wishes to watch the films he is curious to see. Warren Fahy shares amusing memories of his many times watching Jaws (1977) in the theater, including one viewing on vacation in Mexico where a theater employee frustrated him by putting a piece of cardboard over the screen during the gory parts in an awkward bit of DIY censorship. A few industry insiders also share their experiences. Beverly Gray worked for Roger Corman for several years, and her insights into of the production of Piranha (1978) provide great perspective on this unique filmmaker and the way he worked.

Ultimately I got the mixed bag I expected from When Animals Attack. There is a bit of wading through less than polished writing, but when the essays connect, they are immensely enjoyable. I was also satisfied to come away with a long list of films to see. In that respect the book is most successful.

Many thanks to Moonlight Creek Publishing for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in Kansas City Princess (1934)

Throughout decades of movie fandom I’ve seen astonishing sights and transcendent works of art, and yet, if you asked me what I want to see at any given moment, I would probably ask to watch Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell doing stuff. Whatever production they are in, they never let you down, whether individually or as a team. Pure charisma wins every time. I thought this as I settled down to watch Kansas City Princess (1934), which is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

This is one of five comedies that Farrell and Blondell headlined together for Warner Bros. In it they follow the familiar plotline of two dames on the make. This time they are manicurists with gold digging ambitions. Blondell loses the diamond engagement ring thrust upon her by a volatile gangster (appropriately named “Dynamite”, played by Robert Armstrong) and so she and Farrell hop a cruise ship to Paris to escape his wrath. They hook up with a millionaire to retroactively fund their trip.

It’s not the best of the Blondell/Farrell pairings; I think that honor goes to Havanna Widows (1933), which was more solidly pre-code, but it’s fun to watch them banter as they slide in and out of trouble. You’ve never any doubt that these ladies could talk any man into anything.

Fans of 1930s Warner Bros. flicks are familiar with the amazing players the studio rotated in and out of productions like a community theater group. Aside from the leads though, the cast is not as typically fantastic here. The exception is Hugh Herbert who is game as the easily manipulated millionaire Junior Ashcroft.

The disc image is essentially clear, though with a fair number of specks. The sound has a bit of crackle and pop, but does the job. There are no special features on the disc.

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.

Quote: Fellini Describes Ingrid Bergman's Arrival in Rome

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For us in Italy, it was as if the Virgin Mary had just descended upon us from Disneyland.

-Federico Fellini about Ingrid Bergman's arrival in Rome


On DVD: Dick Miller in Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959)

A Bucket of Blood (1959) perfectly illustrates why producer Roger Corman never lost a dime on a film. Produced in five days, with a budget of $50,000, this dark comedy took a playful swipe at beatnik and art culture with thrift and efficiency, relying on sensational content and bizarre characters for impact. I recently revisited this darkly quirky film on a new DVD release from Olive Films.

It saddens me to live in a world where an intriguing face like Dick Miller’s isn’t considered matinee idol material, but sometimes life gets things right. Often a supporting player in Corman productions, A Bucket of Blood was one of a few films in which the actor starred.

Miller is Walter Paisley, a busboy in an arty beatnik café who aspires to be a sculptor, despite the mocking of his workplace patrons. After struggling hopelessly with a lump of clay, Paisley discovers a novel way to make art when he mistakenly stabs a cat to death and decides to cover it in clay. The resulting sculpture is a hit at the café and, much to his horror, he soon finds himself following up with human subjects. As his reputation as an artist blooms, the hapless busboy suffers guilt and fear of discovery.

In this twist on the House of Wax concept, the villain is neither imposing or outwardly horrific. He’s just a weak, unlucky, and untalented man. The horror is in what he is willing to do in order to escape being ordinary.

This is one of the best films Roger Corman directed, primarily due to the one-two punch of Miller as lead and Charles Griffith as screenwriter. Griffith was expert at creating oddball characters who would never dream that the strange things they do are unusual in the least. He creates a ridiculous world, made all the more wild by the fact that these people are actually quite familiar.

A year later, Corman would direct The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) under much the same conditions, with Dick Miller in a small, but memorable role as a man who eats flowers, Charles Griffith as screenwriter, and a soundtrack which recycled much of Fred Katz’s jazzy Bucket score. The formula worked again.

The Olive disc has good sound and a clean, slightly soft image. It’s great to have this film available in a high quality release.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

Quote: Marlon Brando on Stardom

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It grated on me that movie stars were elevated into icons; Hollywood was simply a place where people, including me, made money, like a mill town in New England or an oil field in Texas.

-Marlon Brando


On Blu-ray: Les Girls (1957)

Les Girls (1957) was Gene Kelly’s last contracted MGM musical. It’s a curious film, modern in some respects, old-fashioned in others. In this Rashomon-like story of a successful dancer, and his various entanglements with the trio of women who form his troop, elation and tedium rest side-by-side. I recently had the opportunity to watch this intriguing film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The film begins in a courtroom. Retired dancer Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) is being sued by her former troop mate Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg) for claiming in her memoir that she once attempted suicide because of her lover Barry Nichols (Kelly). Most of the rest of the film is in flashback, as the two women, and the third dancer in their group Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor) share their widely differing perspectives on the situation. This drama is juxtaposed with a series of saucy song and dance numbers, written by Cole Porter (this would be his final film score).

Les Girls starts out with a boisterous feeling: colorful, alive, and showing great promise. However, as the songs gradually take a backseat to the drama, it becomes less engaging. No one wants to see a long scene with Kay Kendall and Gene Kelly discussing their relationship difficulties. It’s better when she gets drunk and wheels around her apartment singing at the top of her lungs, or really does anything that showcases her ability to show complete faith in absurd behavior.

The five Porter numbers are the highlight of the film, combining a modern sensuality with more dated elements like the back-up dancers in brown face. Kelly could get pretentious in his ambition to be arty; a number in which he tangles with a metallic rope is more silly than avant garde. There are some intriguing numbers though, the best of them partnering Gaynor wit Kelly, a wise choice, because she is more suited to the choreography than ballet-trained Elg and non-dancer Kendall.

Elg and Gaynor are engaging in their roles, but as she often did, Kendall steals the film. I doubt the humanity of anyone who is able to resist the charms of this astoundingly charismatic woman. Everything about her sparkles. That she would die of cancer only two years later is one of the great losses of cinema.

The disc image is sharp and clean, as is the sound. Special features include the interesting short Cole Porter: Ca C’est L’Amour, hosted by Taina Elg, which is actually more of a general overview the production. There’s also a theatrical trailer and the vintage cartoon Flea Circus.

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

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

It was impressive to see a full theater for the Sunday afternoon screening of Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). I didn't expect this lesser known work of the director to get such a turnout. The film played at SIFF Cinema Uptown for the third weekend of the 44th Seattle International Film Festival.

René Lefèvre is the titular Lange, a publishing company clerk who longs to find an audience for his Arizona Jim cowboy stories. He’s never been to the American West, but clearly the movies and a big imagination have given him lots of ideas. His salacious boss Batala (Jules Berry) decides to publish the stories, but tricks the young man into signing away his rights to them.

Batala then appears to die in a train wreck, inspiring the workers at the publishing company to continue on as a collective. Together, they make the Arizona Jim stories a sensation. When their devious boss makes a surprise return, Lange becomes determined to keep the rights to his work at any cost.

Renoir’s leftist ode to socialism brought him both praise and danger as Germany began to advance upon France. When encouraged by the Communist party, he was happy to make more films in that vein as a way to fight fascism. He secured a visa to the United States when the Nazis also showed interest in his filming talent.

Monsieur Lange is Renoir in the middle of his career, on the edge of making his greatest work. While films like La Chienne (1931) and Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932) had plenty of bite, the director would soon take his talent for poking at social convention and human absurdity to a transcendent level with films like La Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). This production sits balanced between those two periods.

Renoir captures a typically busy cast of characters, always in motion or conversation, rarely taking time to reflect on their actions. They don’t have the charm of his later ensembles, where even the most shallow characters have some power to seduce, but they are funny and sweet. You want them to succeed. 

Though Lefèvre’s passion for his cowboy world is endearing, the rest of his personality is a bit of a blank compared to his costars. You find yourself caring more for his ideals, or the happiness of his devoted girlfriend Valentine (Florelle), than him.

It was a treat to see this rarely screened film in a restored print. While there were some moments where the image would get fuzzy, it was of essentially consistent clarity and the sound was remarkably good.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Hal (2018) and Being There (1980)

Last night at SIFF Cinema Uptown, I enjoyed the first SIFF screening of Amy Scott’s documentary about filmmaker Hal Ashby, Hal (2018). Brilliantly edited, compassionate, and full of insightful interviews, I learned a lot about this director who I have always admired, but I realize now not fully understood. 

I've always found Ashby to be a rabble-rousing rebel, but he is only that if striving for peace, love, and human connection is rebellious. Perhaps that is true; I hope not. Where the studios he worked with are concerned, the rebel label fit. He always had to fight to fulfill his artistic vision.

Ashby found his first Hollywood success as an editor, winning his only Academy Award for his work cutting In The Heat of the Night (1967). That film was one of several he made with his mentor and friend, director Norman Jewison. While Ashby was married five times and fathered a daughter, it is clear that his most significant bond was with Jewison, who understood this workaholic, peace-loving rebel and gave him his first opportunity to direct: The Landlord (1970).

The film starred a baby-faced Beau Bridges as a trust fund kid who buys a building in the black ghetto with gentrification on his mind, but finds himself increasingly involved with his tenants. A work of great idealism and anger at the status quo, it would possess all the elements of Ashby’s best work: empathy, eccentricity, and a core built on vibrant relationships.

Scott follows Ashby through these great works (and the less satisfying productions to follow), which form one of the most remarkable runs of artistic and commercial success in the film industry. After The Landlord there was Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). They are all iconic works, created with frequent resistance from the studio, which Ashby and his savvy associates fought off with determined fidelity to their work.

Scott weaves together a wild brew of letters, interviews and vintage footage, pacing it all as if she is seducing a viewer with waning interest. It really pops, confidently drawing you into Ashby’s passions. In a Q&A following the screening, producer Brian Morrow mentioned how many more recordings of Ashby they had and other fascinating stories that couldn’t be included in the film. Her fidelity to flow over the lure of all those other elements pays off.

Ashby’s complexities are slowly revealed as the focus shifts occasionally from the work that consumed him to his less successful personal life. A teenage father, he abandoned his daughter, and after those five tries, he abandoned the idea of marriage in favor of taking up with a series of girlfriends who could accept that his true love was film. Childhood trauma also colored his life, as he was all peace and love in expressing his art, but less placid when it came to confronting his own demons.

Unfortunately, Ashby could not maintain his all-consuming passion for film and work in an industry focused on profits. It was painful, but moving to see people he worked with like Jewison and Rosanna Arquette tear up with regret that he was not able to launch a third act and fulfill his ambition. Perhaps Ashby is not in the upper pantheon of directors as he deserves, but here you see many who have worked with, admired, and understood this uniquely gifted filmmaker.

During the post-film Q&A I asked the film's producer Brian Morrow if anything he learned about Ashby during the production had surprised him. He talked about the overwhelming amount of audio content the director left behind and how impressed by the extent that he was a “wildly committed artist,” who would refuse to compromise his vision. He talked about remarkable clips where the director said he understood white privilege and the challenges of racial identity. It sounds like he was ahead of his time.

In addition to Morrow, Ashby’s friend, former LA Weekly critic Michael Dare, shared some memories about the director; one of the best to be revealed later in this review. 

I was also amused that the projectionist leaned out to ask a question. That’s the first time I’ve seen that!

One of Ashby’s best films, Being There (1979) screened at SIFF Cinema Uptown the next afternoon. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas, the D.C. set drama might be more relevant today that it was upon release.

Sellers is Chance, a gardener who has spent his entire life in the home of a wealthy man. Chance appears to be on the spectrum, emotionally disconnected and possessing the intellectual development of a child. Obsessed with television, his understanding of the world is almost entirely drawn from the shows he watches, flipping constantly through channels. When the old man dies, he is abruptly thrust into a world he has never seen up close.

Instead of struggling, the empty slate Chance presents to the world is like a blank check for this dignified, well dressed white man. He finds himself in the home of a dying millionaire (Douglas) with a loving, but lonely wife (MacLaine) who falls hard for him. His benefactor is well-connected, granting him an audience with the president (Jack Warden), who like everyone else sees his simple talk about gardening as profound musings about life.

Chance becomes a celebrity: invited on talk shows and circulating with the international elite. Everyone sees what they want to see in his pleasant talk. Only Douglas’ doctor, played with intelligent compassion by Richard Dysart, understands the truth about this simple man. His is an important character that can be found in the best of Ashby’s films: the one who truly sees into people. It is Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude and Beau Bridges in The Landlord. Dysart knows that Chance is not a towering intellectual, but he also understands the people in his orbit and how the truth is something they construct to create their own safety. It’s all chillingly familiar.

During the Q&A for Hal, Dare mentioned that the famous ending was not in the script and made up by Ashby on the set. Making that unusual scene happen depended on winning over the on-set spy Lorimar had put on the director. He told an amusing anecdote about how the director convinced the young man that he didn’t want to be responsible for blocking this remarkable shot. I hope that he realizes how important his cooperation was for film history.

Hal screens again at The 44th Seattle International Film Festival on Sunday, 6/3, 12:30pm at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.

On Blu-ray: Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart in Cold Turkey (1971)

When Olive Films announced that it was releasing Cold Turkey (1971) on Blu-ray, it was the first I’d heard of this film starring Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart and directed by Norman Lear. It isn’t shocking that this comedy about a town that temporarily quits smoking in a bid to win a fortune never came across my radar before. It was filmed in 1969, deemed poor potential box office by the studio and released years later to little fanfare. This is a shame, because it’s an entertaining flick. I was glad to have the chance to give it a look.

Dick Van Dyke stars as a highly moral preacher who always hopes for a little more from his congregation than he can realistically hope to get, a fact his wife (Pippa Scott) understands with stoic silence. When the town mayor (Vincent Gardenia) tells him about a contest a tobacco company is sponsoring, where if an entire town can quit smoking for 30 days, it will win $25 million, Van Dyke realizes the civic improvements this windfall could fund and becomes determined to sign every last reluctant resident to a pledge of going cold turkey for a month.

The contest is the brainchild of an advertising executive (Bob Newhart, in an uncharacteristically and delightfully sleazy performance) who convinces the frail head of the Valiant Tobacco Company (Edward Everett Horton) that much like the Peace Prize established by weapons manufacturer Alfred Nobel, offering the prize could help the profile of Big Tobacco. It is a cynical effort though, as he doesn't believe any town could qualify for, let alone complete the challenge. Panic sets in when he realizes how much influence the reverend has on his town.

Cold Turkey is Norman Lear at an interesting point in his career. He’d built up a solid reputation as a television writer and producer, but was on the edge of his greatest successes with a remarkable run of shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time throughout the 70s and 80s. Here you even get a peek at Lear regular Jean Stapleton before she would forever be known as Edith Bunker.

While Cold Turkey follows the townspeople as they struggle to stay away from cigarettes, it’s really about the greed the experience arouses in them. At first they focus on the pain of withdrawal, and how ravenous, horny, and angry it makes them. Then the town’s seemingly impossible quest become the focus of national attention. Ad money begins rolling in, merchandise featuring the reverend and other town leaders begins to sell, and these ordinary people get to experience the glamour of appearing on TV.

Lionized and idolized, Reverend Brooks is wary of the hero worship and dismayed to no longer recognize his neighbors. Sure they were always tacky, and self-centered and shallow, but they were also essentially humble, hard-working, and more satisfied with life than the greedy, demanding mob they have so quickly become.

Backing up this intriguing premise is a cast of astonishing talent. It is remarkable that they were all assembled in the first place. In addition to those previously mentioned, television mainstay Tom Poston plays the town alcoholic and comedians Bob and Ray make an appearance as a pair of godly television presenters. Perhaps the most remarkable is Edward Everett Horton though, who in his last role communicates plenty, while remaining completely silent except for a single fart, which was apparently the first passing of gas recorded in a mainstream film. I could see him being amused that this moment was his swan song.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Belle de Jour (1967)

The audience attending Belle de Jour (1967) at the SIFF Cinema Uptown last night alternated between stunned silence and nervous giggles, a clear sign that Luis Buñuel’s tale of desire has retained its power over time. In a new 4K restoration from the original negative, the colors popped and Catherine Deneuve looked icily serene as she played a wealthy housewife rebelling against convention by pursuing her fantasies.

Deneuve is a young wife of leisure, somewhat happily married to, if a bit emotionally disconnected from a surgeon (Jean Sorel). His cheerful wholesomeness is at odds with her S&M-tinged sexual fantasies. Anxious to relieve the tension these daydreams create, she begins to work afternoons in a high end brothel, where she is called Belle de Jour. There a violent criminal becomes obsessed with her, a fact which both frightens and arouses her, and brings her fantasy life into harsh reality.

I was delighted to see that the house of Yves Saint Laurent was a donor to the restoration effort. The designer created Deneuve’s costumes, which do as much to establish her character as anything she says or does. The military-influenced structure, and the epaulettes on her shoulders, are a vivid reminder of the way society restricts fantasies like hers. On the other hand, she also garbs herself in furs, leathers and one particularly kinky-looking shiny, black raincoat which point to her animalistic and adventurous side.

Deneuve's YSL raincoat, from a 2016 exhibit at Seattle Art Museum honoring the designer Photo: A Classic Movie Blog

Buñuel’s fetishistic camera adds to the erotic appeal of those artfully crafted costumes. His obsession with shoes is especially pronounced, as he lingers on shiny pumps with pilgrim bucklers and patent leather boots that scream danger and perversion. He gives the same treatment to the objects in his heroine’s life, sweeping over an array of perfectly arranged bottles on her bathroom counter to announce her return to safety and order after her first afternoon at the brothel.

The highly-disciplined craft of these elements: the camera, costumes and Deneuve combine to create an erotic, dangerous tension which keeps the viewer intrigued and excited, but also uneasy. Much like the BDSM it reveals, Buñuel’s film demands the release of that tension, without regard for propriety and fully in service to desire. It is this boldness that gives Belle de Jour a timeless edge.

On DVD: 5 Pre-Codes from Warner Archive

I love it when Warner Archive releases a flood of pre-codes. It almost makes up for the end of the Forbidden Hollywood box set series--almost. The company has thankfully stayed true to its promise to continue to make films from this era available on DVD. I enjoyed this latest batch, which includes a pair of flicks starring Ronald Coleman, early Kay Francis and Loretta Young talkies, and a good mix of genres.

A Notorious Affair (1930) is an unusual melodrama in that it features Kay Francis, but stars Billie Dove in what would eventually be the standard Francis role. Dove is a young heiress who falls in love with an impoverished musician (Basil Rathbone) and leaves her wealthy enclave for a more humble life. Rathbone falls for his thrill seeking patron, the Countess Balakiereff (Francis), causing Dove heartbreak and falling into ill health himself.

After watching Francis suffer nobly through so many melodramas, it is fun to see her be bad. With her slicked back bob and dangerous smile, she is the type to cap a flirtation with an attractive specimen below her balcony by tossing down her keys. I would have loved to have seen her in more roles like these, because it looks like she’s having a blast.

It’s rough to watch the usually dashing and devilish Rathbone play a weak and whiny character, though he does possess some consumptive glamour. Dove seems to think she deserves him, though she has better prospects. Still, despite her faulty romantic radar, she suffers elegantly, with those big eyes and a delicate bird beak nose that points down just so.

The Ship From Shanghai (1930) begins with a jaunty Chinese ensemble playing Singin’ in the Rain in a Shanghai nightclub. It’s about the last light moment in this tense flick that all but creates the template for many a shipbound terror flick.

Wealthy Conrad Nagel and and Kay Johnson join a group from their set on 3-month yacht voyage across the Atlantic. There they are eventually held captive by the vengeful ship steward (Louis Wolheim) and crew, who despise the snooty passengers and their high-handed ways. Of course, the truth is the steward only longs to be a part of their world, a fact made clear when he puts the moves on Johnson.

The film takes a sharp dive from playful luxury, to sweaty, nasty horror. You spend the first part of the film observing the off-putting privileged passengers and the next repulsed by Wolheim and his men. It isn’t enthralling drama, but it serves its purpose as a solid entertainment and keeps a good pace through its 67 minute running time.

The Devil to Pay (1930), stars Ronald Coleman as an irresponsible playboy attempting to bounce back from his careless loss of another chunk of his father’s fortune. Cut off from the family coffers, he returns to his mistress, but soon abandons her for a young heiress. This airy set-up then begins to deflate, as the necessary romantic conflict is something more easy to resolve than the plot would have it.

The film features a teenage Loretta Young as the heiress and Myrna Loy as Coleman’s actress mistress in a rare early role where she doesn’t play an Oriental temptress. As Coleman’s love interests, the effect they have varies widely. While Loy is charming and more age-appropriate for her male lead, she hasn’t yet honed the edges of the sharply appealing persona that would be the cornerstone of her legend. On the other hand, Young seems to have arrived in the talkies with her image fully-formed, if a bit coltish.

Coleman is reliably elegant and mischievous in a role that John Gilbert could also have mastered with ease. It’s a fun romp, enjoyable because for most of the running time you get the simple enjoyment of watching these attractive people at play.

Condemned (1929) also headlines Ronald Coleman, this time as a prisoner on Devil’s Island. Upon his arrival on a tightly-packed ship, he and his fellow prisoners are told there is not escape, upon which he turns to wink at his friend (Louise Wolheim). The warden (Dudley Diggs) observes Coleman’s elegant manner and decides to put him to work for his wife (Ann Harding) in their home.

The pair hit it off right away, establishing a friendly rapport. They are two attractive people though, and the inevitable happens: Coleman buys Harding a monkey in the market, inflaming her passions and Diggs’ envy. The pair plan to escape together, with the help of  Wolheim (he's one of those bruisers with a big heart and a delightfully smooshed nose).

Coleman and Harding have a solid, if not sizzling, chemistry and the action moves along efficiently. While much of the story runs along familiar lines, there are a few good jolts away from predictability.

Of the films reviewed here, Condemned has the most notable wear and tear, with lots of hiss and popping on the soundtrack, though the image is for the most part clean and clear.

The best of the bunch is The Lost Squadron (1932), a post-World War I drama set in Hollywood. Upon release from the army, a quartet of American fliers (Richard Dix, Joel McCrea, Robert Armstrong, and Hugh Herbert) pledges allegiance to each other and their fallen countrymen, who they refer to as “the lost squadron.” Jobs are scarce, but alcoholic Armstrong finds success as a stuntman in the movies and eventually the other three find work alongside him.

Hollywood is no safe haven though, as Dix runs afoul of a sadistic director (Erich von Stroheim). The men find themselves faced with an enemy more deadly than any they ever faced in wartime. Mary Astor and Dorothy Jordan are the women in their lives, and while this is an emphatically male-driven film, these actresses have a powerful presence.

The Lost Squadron has an unusually vibrant soundscape for an early talkie, drawing much of its drama from eerily rushing wind, whistling, and the shifts between quietly eerie or contemplative scenes and more raucous, celebratory moments. It is this high level of craft, and the charisma of the varied cast which make this an unsung gem worthy of classic status.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival:The Beales Before the Maysles in That Summer (2017)

The documentary That Summer (2017), which I viewed last night at a SIFF screening at the Ark Lodge Cinema, has been called the “Prequel to Grey Gardens,” because it features footage of Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the mother and daughter captured before that famous 1975 Maysles brothers film, in 1972, years before production. In a project conceived by Lee Radziwill, cousin and niece to the Edies, and the photographer and collage artist Peter Beard, the women were to play a role in a documentary the pair planned to make about the effect development had on the environment in the Hamptons.

After capturing hours of footage at the Beales’ home, the project died for reasons unknown and the film was put into storage. Now that film has been edited into this free form documentary,in which Radziwill and Beard also provide insight about what they filmed and what it was like to spend time with the Edies.

It is a less expertly crafted film than Grey Gardens, but in a way more revealing and compassionate. While the Maysles concentrated on the Beales, here you are given a more detailed view of the decay of Grey Gardens and efforts to restore it somewhat. As Radziwill discusses plumbing and electrical wiring with contractors, Little Edie flits around the edges. You wonder if reality has punctured her bubble of fantasy when it appears a bit of humiliation flickers across her face. She explains that she has done the best she can to manage, that the garbage piled up because the trucks would not come to pick it up.

It is also more clear how much Big Edie controlled her daughter, and how, despite her love for her mother, Little Edie resented her imprisonment as her caretaker. This magnetic and attractive woman could likely have escaped in marriage in her early years, but clearly prefers full independence with a side of romance, which was not an option.

Though Little Edies’ dissatisfaction is clear, Beard chooses not to see it, revering the women as brilliant creators of their own world. While this is true of Little Edie as a matter of survival, it is clearly not the life she desires. From his perspective they are both happy. Though it is hard to be sure, it seems Radziwill also sees both the women as living how they choose. That they cannot see this woman’s depression and her unmet desires is frustrating.

That said, Radziwill is for the most part appears to be an entrancing and compassionate woman. She loves and respects her aunt and cousin, accepting them for who they are completely. Garbed in immaculate, expensive, and highly inappropriate ensembles for overseeing remodeling, she is polite and refined, but never stuffy. Her genuine warmth, and the funds she was able to secure from brother-in-law Aristotle Onassis, are the reason the Beales were able to stay in their home and made to feel they belonged, at least to a degree.

That Summer succeeds on the strength of the remarkable people it features. It isn’t well constructed; the clips of the Beales are presented unedited, essentially padded with the home movies and musings of Beard and Radziwill (he in brief vignettes that bookend the film and audio clips, she via the audio from a 2013 interview with Sofia Coppola) so that the film is barely feature length. As entrancing as the Edies can be, there are moments when their bickering becomes repetitive and tiresome, the footage would have benefited from an edit.

Grey Gardens fans will love this film though, flaws and all. It takes the viewer deeper into the Beales’ world and expands it to people only referenced in the Maysles documentary. Those not familiar with these eccentric East Hampton outcasts are likely to find it less compelling and even a bit confusing, if maybe somewhat dazzling because of cameo appearances of Radziwill’s and Beard’s social circle including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Bianca Jagger.

The film will show once more at SIFF on Tuesday, May 28 at 6:30 PM at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Godard, Mon Amour (2018)

My first day of the 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival was a varied and long, starting with a Secret Festival screening at the Egyptian Theater (that’s all I can say about that) and traveling through time, from feudal Japan to 1960s France.

I didn’t know anything about Sansho the Bailiff (1954) going into the film, except that director Kenji Mizoguchi is among the most celebrated Japanese filmmakers. I looked forward to seeing a restored version of the film for my first viewing and I was not disappointed. It sounded great and the mistily beautiful cinematography was presented to great effect.

Sansho is the story of a wealthy family who are separated when their governor father is exiled. They each fall into misfortune, primarily due to the heartless actions of the titular Sansho, whose trade is human bodies and the labor and pleasures they offer. Imprisoned and abused, all these unfortunate souls possess is the strength to stay true to their beliefs, though even that is not always assured.

Mizoguchi had a talent for finding the right people and setting them free on his productions. The wisdom of this approach is most evident in the achingly elegant, long shots of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the simultaneously enchanting and menacing music score composed by Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, and Tamekichi Mochizuki. These beautifully composed elements give the film a grace that does nothing to diminish the horrors on display, but does give the viewer the strength to absorb it all.

You do need strength to watch this film too, because it isn’t out to bring villains to justice, but rather to bring their evil deeds into the light. No resolution is offered, but in the end, everything lands in a place of love and forgiveness which can only come from the pursuit of integrity.

Godard Mon Amour (2017) is the lighter, vaguely slapstick story of film director Jean Luc-Godard in the period after he had made the revolutionary Maoist flick La Chinoise (1967) and married its young star, Anne Wiazemsky. 

The film passes through the decade plus they spend together. In this time Godard is faced with fans who want him to “be funny again” and engage him in conversations with no purpose or end. The director struggles to find acceptance for his new work, a film about revolution, while he tangles with what it means to be a revolutionary in the first place.

This exploration takes place in public, in the midst of protests and rooms of passionate youths who are always pained and outraged when Godard takes the mike and tries to work out what he means to say in real time. He realizes he is aging out of being an angry young man and that his youthful wife will not turn the clock back for him.

As Godard, Louis Garrel captures some of the edgy, itchy restlessness of the filmmaker in a mostly comic performance in which he is shown to be out of sync when it comes to interacting with the world, a fact emphasized with a running gag in which his glasses are constantly broken.

Rather than exude the pouty reproachful look of Wiazemsky, Stacy Martin has the appearance, and passive air of Chantal Goya in Godard’s 1966 film Masculine Feminine. Because of this, I was never able to accept that the woman on the screen was meant to be the same person as that budding revolutionary in La Chinoise. The real Wiazemsky appears more passionate and intelligent than this blank-faced, if strong-willed waif.

There are laughs and insight enough for Godard aficionados in Godard Mon Amour. Fans of director Michel Hazanavicius will likely not get the same charge here as with The Artist (2011) or the OSS:117 films, though at times there is similar humor at play. Overall, it gives you the feeling that you are passing time with these characters without ever understanding much about them but that they existed.

The film plays SIFF again at the Majestic Bay Theater on Tuesday, 5/22 at 9PM.

On Blu-ray: The Passionate Charge of Gun Crazy (1950)

I can never get enough of Gun Crazy (1949). It’s an addictive flick. The high-energy performances, its erotic charge, the rhythm of it, and director Joseph Lewis’ economical, effective style elevated this ‘B’ production to classic status. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut with a new 1080p HD master, from Warner Archive.

The story itself, based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor is basic crime noir: a pair of gun fanatics meet at a carnival, become fanatical about each other, and start robbing people. In the performance that made her a noir legend, Peggy Cummins is Annie Laurie Starr, a sideshow sharpshooter who will not hesitate to kill in order to get what she wants. Bart Tare (John Dall) wants her the moment he sees her, because he has always been obsessed with guns himself, though he is her opposite in that he is strongly averse to killing.

Nestled within this dark, violent story is one of the most passionate and true cinematic love affairs. So often romance is insincere in noir. It’s the tool of a femme or homme fatale, used but not felt. That is not the case here, where Annie and Bart are so ecstatically in love that they sometimes can’t think straight. Cummins is most adept at demonstrating this passion, though it should be noted that she appears to get the same erotic charge from robbing a bank.

The film is at its best when Lewis films his lovers as if they have been caught in a candid moment, interacting casually instead of acting. The best example of this is in the famous bank robbery sequence that was shot with one camera, set up in the backseat of the getaway car. As they drive towards the scene of the crime-to-be, Annie and Bart speak casually, like a couple heading to the grocery store. He lights her a cigarette and gives her directions; she comments on the heavy traffic and makes little explanations with the appearance of spontaneity. No romantic clinch could demonstrate their intimacy better than this scene.

Gun Crazy a great film, because it effortlessly combines its seemingly offhand scenes of intimacy with more conventional, and adeptly framed action scenes and passionate declarations.

The picture quality is great, retaining that bit of grain necessary to emulate the warmth of film. Special features on the disc include commentary by author/film-noir specialist Glenn Erickson and the 2006 documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, which is an excellent primer to those new to film noir and has some interesting tidbits for genre enthusiasts.

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

Book Review--Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics

Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

Even from the early days of film, cinema fanatics have existed in some form. Though not always known as film buffs, these mostly white, male, and socially awkward aficionados have been present and of an essentially consistent character over the decades. In a new book, prolific film writer Anthony Slide explores the world of these super fans for whom the movies are a life-consuming obsession.

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here. 

There are plenty of likable, or at least enjoyably eccentric characters featured in the book, but for the most part this is an unpleasant bunch. There’s the man who stalked Leonard Maltin, calling him in tears in New York from LA, (unsuccessfully) inviting himself on a trip with him and his wife Alice, and actually showing up at their apartment building and leaving a letter for the film critic in the lobby. Another film fanatic kidnapped a woman who lived in his building, stripped her naked, taped her to a chair and spray-painted her black. And among the most devoted collectors of film and memorabilia there are many who took advantage of those who wanted access to their rare collections, some even exhibiting psychopathic behavior.

In the midst of these lurid can’t-look-away tales of social dysfunction is a mostly unorganized, and in some cases unintended movement to save and promote cinematic history. The beauty of that passion and preservation in the midst of this fandom is like a rose in a trash heap. 

All told, it’s a fascinating story, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Slide doesn’t hesitate to share who he thinks is boring, sleazy or unattractive. He also has plenty of love for those he admires in this scene. Often, he feels both ways about the same subject. You need never wonder what he really thinks.

The digs, which come with a sort of affection for these people who have through their obsession done much for film history, give the book a personal feel. Slide is often a a part of the story, whether through his presence at various events he describes, the friendships he has had with film buffs and those connected with them, and his connection with the community as a writer and film expert. Whether or not he sees himself as a film buff is not made clear, but he knows the world of film fanatics intimately. The title of his book is apt; this is truly an "Outrageous History."

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

On DVD: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway (1938)

No actress gave the classic melodramatic weeper more depth than Kay Francis. In a genre crafted to manipulate emotions, she threw herself into the drama with such abandon that you can’t help forgiving her for working your tear ducts so relentlessly. Now on DVD from Warner Archive, Comet Over Broadway (1938) showcases the actress at her glamorous, self-sacrificing best.

Francis plays an ambitious newsstand worker who lives with her husband and baby daughter. She spends her days reading Variety and her nights performing in community theater, always dreaming of big stage success. When her husband accidentally kills a visiting famous actor who he suspects of putting the moves on Francis, he is put in prison for life.

Determined to get her man out of jail, the guilt-ridden Francis hits the road with her daughter, working her way up from carnival entertainer to Broadway star. Along the way she meets an aging actress on the verge of retirement. She notes the trouble Francis has raising a child on the road and insists that she take on the task of raising the young girl. Though reluctant to part with her, she agrees that it is the best for her daughter.

As the years pass, Francis falls in love, reunites with her daughter and fights for her husband. She is criticized for her ambition and her poor mothering, but is nevertheless determined to do things her own way. There are syrupy strings, eyes full of tears always on the brink of falling, and sacrifices galore.

Sybil Jason plays Francis’ daughter. It’s her second pairing with the actress, they were also mother and daughter in I Found Stella Parish (1935). As in that film, they have a pleasing chemistry, playing off each other well in some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes. Jason was groomed to be a sparkling Shirley Temple type, but she was more appealing as a dramatic star, always approaching her roles with sincerity and genuine warmth.

Bette Davis rejected the lead of Comet Over Broadway because she felt it was beneath her, which is fair, it was. However, in Francis’ hands this is a perfect melodrama. She knew exactly what she was doing in this kind of film and in her way she is just as good as Davis because, like her, she knew her lane and she kept in it.

Few genres are more derided that melodrama, but if it is done well, it essentially thrives in its own universe. It is a heightening of reality, grabbing directly for your emotions and if it is the ride you want to take, Comet Over Broadway is the perfect expression of the form.

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.

On Blu-ray: Peter Boyle is Joe (1970)

As the title character of Joe (1970) Peter Boyle spits out a stream of bigoted patter that would have come as a shock a couple of years ago. Now it is a familiar fact of life, an unpleasant reminder that hatred may go into hiding, but never fully fades away. While some of the issues it explores are relevant to today, this gritty, bleak drama is very much of its time, a sort of farewell to a turbulent era. Now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, it is a surprisingly good-looking film despite its brutal feel.

Boyle plays an angry factory worker who hates black people, hippies, drugs, and youth culture. While drunkenly spouting off at a bar, he meets Bill (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who has killed his daughter’s drug-dealing, junkie boyfriend in a fit of rage. Delighted to meet a man who has fulfilled his dreams of murdering hippies, Joe attaches himself to the frightened executive, finding common ground in their hatred and clashing uncomfortably on just about every other level.

They drink together, have an awkward dinner party with their wives, and go on a scornful tour of hippie-dom where they don’t mind enjoying the attentions of a couple of free-love endorsing women. Adding to the discomfort is that Bill’s strung-out daughter (Susan Sarandon in her first film role) is the same age as these women and living the supposed hippy lifestyle he protests, while enjoying the benefits of the looser morals it inspires. There’s always a feeling of dread when these two are together, but it is Joe who generates the most fear. Bill has already killed, but you always have the feeling that Joe, encouraged by his friend’s perfect crime, could do a lot worse.

Much like the shocking rock documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), released the same year, Joe feels like a sort of death knell for the free-loving, experimental aspects of the sixties. All the hippies are burned out and the establishment remains intact, and ever more determined to maintain control.

It is a grimy, bummer of a story, and so it is astonishing how beautiful it can look. In a film made for a washed out palette, colors are instead often vibrant and sometimes dreamily beautiful. The landscape is bleak, but somehow something pleasing comes out of it.

Boyle plays a repulsive character, but he is true to himself and entirely lacking in pretension. It is likely that these qualities, in addition to his giving voice to views that were becoming unpopular, but remained strongly-held by many, contributed to the heroic image he had among fans of the film, a worship that horrified Boyle, who was repulsed by the man he played.

While for the most part compelling, in the end Joe’s message loses its subtlety. It circles back on previous conversations in a way that would almost be risible if it weren’t so gut-wrenchingly sad. What remains is the feeling that the party has ended, drugs aren’t fun anymore, and not much has changed.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: Friz Lang Does Noir in While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Director Fritz Lang had an astounding career. Influential, enduring, and inventive, he was able to adapt from silents to talkies and then from European to Hollywood filmmaking while keep his own unique style. I recently had the chance to watch two crime noir titles from late in his career: While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), both of which are available now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

It can be difficult to focus on the twists and turns of While the City Sleeps (1956) because of its astounding cast. I found myself spending most of the running time in disbelief that Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino all somehow ended up together in a movie. It has the effect of an explosion of personalities. They’re all so charismatic and there are only 99 minutes to cover their various story lines, and so it is incredible that the final result is as entertaining and well balanced as it is.

That said, there are so many appealing personalities that you never feel like you get quite enough time to enjoy everyone. They all have their moments though: Sanders plotting with Lupino while he bruises peaches in a champagne glass, Price smirking under a portrait of his father as he wrecks havoc on a media giant, and Rhonda Fleming looking like a trophy wife, but acting like a bruiser, both mentally and physically.

The story is set in the media world, where newspaper, television, and wire service magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) dies suddenly, leaving his empire to his underqualified son (Price). At the same time, a young man (John Drew Barrymore, Jr.) is murdering ladies who live alone, a case that Kyne had been following with interest. The younger Kyne decides to use the murder to play his company executives Mitchell, Sanders, and James Craig against each other in a competition for a juicy promotion. Whoever solves the murder first gets the job.

For the most part, the plot zips along efficiently, performances are solid and the proceedings are alternately thrilling and humorous. Barrymore is the weak spot, playing his psychopathic character too far over the top and contrasting badly with his more subtle costars. There is never any mystery as to who is doing the killing, making the methods these men use to win the focus of the action. There’s a lot going on here; it’s the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), has less zing, but is a solid, for the most part straight forward thriller. It once again stars Dana Andrews, in addition to Joan Fontaine as his fiancée. Andrews plays a writer who plots with Fontaine’s father, a newspaper publisher (Sidney Blackmer) to prove the danger of the death penalty by making it appear that the younger man has committed a murder. The plan is for the publisher to exonerate Andrews before conviction, but a car accident disrupts their plans.

While the action proceeds intriguingly enough, it’s a bit off-putting how low energy everyone is about the shocking events unfolding. You’d expect more emotion than this in reaction to alarming and life-threatening dangers. That coolness is in some ways deceptive though and is perhaps of benefit as the plot unfolds.

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.
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