|Classic Reviews Round-Up #47 and New Announcements
Welcome to the mid-summer edition of Classic Coming Attractions. I have the usual blend of reviews and release information for you. The reviews total 16 in all (Blues in the Night, from Warner Bros., The Furies, Blast of Silence, and Lubitsch Musicals, from Criterion; Man of a Thousand Faces, The Major and the Minor, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, from Universal; Only the Valiant and High Noon: Ultimate Collector's Edition, from Lionsgate; If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium and The Pride of the Yankees: Collector's Edition, from MGM; Dick Tracy Returns and Dick Tracy's G-Men, from VCI; Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition, from Paramount; The Three Stooges Collection: Volume Two, from Sony; and X Marks the Spot/Gambler's Choice, from Grapevine Video). On the new release side of things, there's good news from Sony and Warners as well as several high definition items, with plenty of other lesser tidbits for your enjoyment. Note that the classics release database has been updated to reflect the latest announcements.
It's always a pleasure to see a lesser-known Warner Bros. 1940s film made available on DVD. Such is the recent release of Blues in the Night, a 1941 production (ear-marked early-on for the likes of James Cagney and Dennis Morgan, and later John Garfield) that eventually ended up featuring many of Warners' second echelon players and a number of future well-known filmmakers.
The film itself is an entertaining blend of blues music and melodrama directed by Anatole Litvak (City for Conquest, The Snake Pit) that clocks in at an efficient 88 minutes. Jack Carson, Richard Whorf, Priscilla Lane, Elia Kazan, and Betty Field head the cast playing an itinerant blues quintet who find themselves mixed up in revenge and murder at a roadhouse. Also on board are the always-reliable Lloyd Nolan and former Dead End Kid Billy Halop. The film is not earth shattering, but is a good example of product from the polished production entity that Warners was in the early 40s. Typical of the Warner expertise is the superb montage work by Don Siegel who would go on to become an accomplished director (Dirty Harry). The script is by Robert Rossen who would go on to the likes of The Hustler; actor Kazan would become the acclaimed director of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront; and actor Richard Whorf would become a director for numerous TV series. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were responsible for the music, including the Oscar-nominated title tune. Warners provides the title with a crisp, clean transfer that preserves the film's mild grain. Contrast and shadow detail are very good. The mono sound is in typically good shape for a Warner DVD release and conveys the film's songs with decent though obviously modest fidelity. Included among the discs's supplements of two musical shorts, an audio outtake, the theatrical trailer, and three cartoons is the superb, Oscar-nominated short Jammin' the Blues, a beautifully atmospheric filming of a jam session highlighting music, singing, and dancing. Recommended.
One of the finest results of Criterion's current access to the Paramount catalog is its recent release of The Furies, a 1950 western directed by Anthony Mann and starring Walter Huston (in his final film) and Barbara Stanwyck.
The film is a King Lear-inspired story of cattle baron T.C. Jeffords (Huston), his daughter Vance (Stanwyck), and their somewhat disturbing relationship as the two butt heads with each other over Vance's choice of husband, her dowry, and ultimately the ownership of the ranch. Complicating their relationship are a family of Mexicans resident on the vast acreage (one in love with Vance and played with some nuance by Gilbert Roland) and a woman (Judith Anderson in a nicely controlled performance) that Jeffords brings home to replace his dead wife. The film is far from a typical western of the time, its psychological aspects making it one of the first of a string of such thoughtfully structured westerns that would characterize much of the first half of the 1950s. For director Anthony Mann, it along with The Devil's Doorway and Winchester '73 (both made the same year), signaled the beginning of a productive period of western films (most with James Stewart) that retain their vitality and interest to this day. Due to previous lack of availability on home video in any format, The Furies is not as well known as Mann's later work, but this Criterion release should correct that. The film's complex inter-relationships and its two dominant characters both played superbly by Huston and Stanwyck make a more potent statement (in this case about power and its seductive nature) than does anything arising from most of Mann's other westerns. At 109 minutes, this is a longish western for the era, but the time is used judiciously to resolve the complex narrative (a resolution the film accomplishes satisfyingly and with style). Criterion's treatment of The Furies comprises a copy of the complete 1948 Niven Busch novel on which the film is based and a single DVD. The latter provides an excellent film-like transfer characterized by very fine contrast, mind grain, and crisp images throughout. The mono sound has been nicely cleaned up. Dialogue is clear and the audio has decent presence when required by gunshots or when conveying Franz Waxman's fine score. The supplements are highlighted by an engrossing though at times somewhat academic-sounding audio commentary by western film historian Jim Kitses. Also included are a new interview with Anthony Mann's daughter Nina Mann, an excerpt from an interview with Anthony Mann from a 1967 British TV series , a short 1931 on-camera interview with Walter Huston, a booklet with two essays on the film, a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.
Continuing with Criterion, I've had a look at 1961's Blast of Silence - a low budget independent film noir written and directed by and starring Allen Baron. One of the last of the true black and white films noir of the 1950s (filming began in 1959), Blast of Silence is little known despite being decently reviewed at the time of its original release and has been treated almost as a rediscovery at several recent film festivals (Munich in 1990 and Cannes in 2006).
The film documents the movements of a contract killer who is in New York to carry out a job over the Christmas period. Baron delivers a solid, edgy performance as the killer, an effort reflective of his lack of experience (he took on the role when Peter Falk, his original choice dropped out in favour of another film) but one that seems to fit the tension that the job of a killer in a strange city might occasion. A voice-over narration by Lionel Stander, voiced in the second person no less, fits the situation perfectly. Plot vignettes involving a young woman in whom the killer becomes interested and a gun dealer whom he must turn to are beautifully realized through the use of unfamiliar actors in what are otherwise quite familiar situations. In fact, there are no familiar faces in this film, unless you count New York itself. It provides the measure of familiarity that allows the viewer to feel an air of comfort that seems to magnify the discomfort of Baron's contract killer. It's a discomfort that seems inevitably to point to a job gone awry. The manner in which things end is starkly in tune with the film's dark atmosphere throughout. The film is presented full frame as originally shot, slightly window-boxed as is Criterion's wont in such situations. The new digital transfer created from a composite 35mm fine grain master positive is very nice given the nature of the original low-budget shoot. Most images are very sharp with a nice gray scale, with some softness and reduced contrast intruding but occasionally. The mono sound is in quite good shape. The supplements are highlighted by an illuminating 60-minute revisitation of the film and its locations by Baron as filmed by a German crew in 1990 and by Robert Fischer in 2006. Recommended.
Released early-on in the DVD era by Image in a non-anamorphic version, Man of a Thousand Faces (1958) has only now been given a proper transfer by Universal.
The CinemaScope picture stars James Cagney in a biography of silent film star Lon Chaney and manages to convey the basics of Chaney's life (born of deaf-mute parents, ill-fated first marriage to a young singer who bears a son Creighton [Lon Chaney Jr.], a career in vaudeville eventually leading Hollywood and stardom with more than 150 films to his credit [most benefiting from his incredible make-up capability], death from throat cancer at age 47 just after completing his first sound film). The two-hour film digs no deeper than these basics leaving plenty of room for a more thoughtful and revealing portrait of Chaney's life to yet be filmed, but it still succeeds because of Cagney's fine performance, particularly in his conveyance of a wide range of emotions and in the delivery of two delightful dance numbers. The make-up attempts at trying to have Cagney look like some of Chaney's most famous characters such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera are less persuasive, partly because the nature of Cagney's roundish face just didn't lend itself to them, not having the more elongated face that Chaney himself had. Cagney's enthusiasm for the role is evident throughout, however, and he always maintained the film was one of his favourites. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is all one could hope for - finely detailed and sharp, excellent gray scale evident, and only minor examples of wear. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. A rental is suggested.
Lionsgate is beginning to make some tentative forays into its Republic catalog and DVDs of two westerns are the current result. Only the Valiant is a 1951 William Cagney production distributed by Warner Bros. at the time of the film's original release.
It stars Gregory Peck as a cavalry officer who incurs the dislike of a number of troopers whom he then chooses to form a small unit that will defend a fort located at a mountain pass. The pass is the only access point for a band of Apaches intent on laying waste to the local territory. Peck is excellent in this sort of role about the loneliness of command and as a result, although it's no Twelve O'Clock High, Only the Valiant turns out to be an intelligent and engrossing entertainment. The film also sports a fine supporting cast including Ward Bond, Gig Young, Neville Brand, and particularly Lon Chaney Jr. - each providing interesting and occasionally offbeat interactions with Peck's character. Barbara Payton provides the romantic interest, but her screen time is mercifully brief. The film is presented full frame as originally released, but unfortunately seems to have received little attention in its transfer to DVD. It's quite watchable, but scratches and debris abound and contrast is somewhat variable. It sort of reminds one of the type of effort that Lionsgate's forerunner Artisan used to put forth on the Republic titles. The sound, supposedly stereo but sounding just like mono, exhibits some hiss at times, but is clear enough otherwise. There are no supplements. As a western fan, I'm glad to have the film in my collection but casual western followers should try a rental first.
Much more familiar is another kick at High Noon, this time in the form of a two-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition. I imagine most readers will be quite familiar with the title with its Best Actor Oscar performance by Gary Cooper, so I'll dispense with any comments about the film itself.
The past DVD versions of the film have been unsatisfying in respect to the transfers which suffered from annoying sharpening and attendant edge effects. This new version, presented full frame as originally released, is better in every respect - sharper, better contrast, good shadow detail, no edge effects. The mono sound is clear and I didn't notice any of the sound synchronization problems reported with the earlier DVD versions. A stereo track is also offered but I couldn't notice any difference from the mono one. The supplements include an audio commentary from the 2002 DVD featuring Maria Cooper-Janis, Jonathan Foreman (son of producer Carl Foreman), Tim Zinnemann (son of director Fred), and John Ritter (late son of singer Tex). This is okay, but it pales in comparison to that by Howard Suber on the old Criterion laserdiscs. The other 2002 featurettes are included, but new is a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film - Inside High Noon. I guess if this were the only supplement, it would seem pretty good. As it is, with everything else on the disc, it seems somewhat repetitive, rather pretentious, and not particularly inventive. Anyway, the main benefit of this new release is the superior image transfer and on that basis it's recommended.
Belatedly, I've taken a look at one of Universal's last wave of Cinema Classics - The Major and the Minor. It's originally a 1942 Paramount film that I've always thought over-rated and fans of the film will probably be disappointed to hear that I still consider it so.
I can never accept Ginger Rogers' cutesy impersonation of a young girl (the ‘minor' of the title) so that the whole film's concept with its many consequent contrivances just falls flat for me. Even the presence of Ray Milland (the “major' of the title) whom I've always enjoyed in films can't redeem it. For those unfamiliar with the film, it tells the tale of a woman who disguises herself as a young girl so that she can buy a cheap train ticket to get home. She ends up sharing a compartment with a handsome major from a military academy. When the train stalls, he invites her to stay at the academy. And guess what, she falls for the major while all the cadets fall for her. The film has a good pedigree in writer-director Billy Wilder, but I sometimes wonder if the film's standing hasn't been gained in retrospect, based on Wilder's career success. Fans will be glad to know that the film does look very good on Universal's DVD. The full frame image is crisp and clear with mild grain and minimal speckling. The mono sound is clear, and hiss and distortion-free. The only supplements are an introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne and the film's theatrical trailer.
Another of my belated looks has been devoted to Criterion's Eclipse Series release of Lubitsch Musicals which appeared this past winter. The release is fruit of Criterion's relationship with Universal who own the rights to these four early Paramount productions - The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), and One Hour with You (1932).
All four pre-Code titles, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, offer a blend of comedy, operetta, and sly innuendo that has come to be known as the “Lubitsch touch”. It's instructive to watch them chronologically as one can observe Lubitsch's increasing assurance at working in the new sound medium and his skill at working music into his story lines so smoothly. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald essentially had their careers launched by these films, as the pair together star in two of them while each has a solo lead role in one of the other two. For my taste, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You are the most entertaining of the four. The former co-stars the always impressive Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins along with Chevalier in a tale of an Austrian soldier who winks at his girl (Colbert) only to have it mistaken as intended for the prissy princess of neighboring Flausenthurm (Hopkins). Colbert's rendition of “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” is a highlight. Only the ending of the film sticks (barely) to convention. One Hour with You (a remake of Lubitsch's 1924 silent film The Marriage Circle) finds Chevalier and MacDonald experiencing marital bliss for a change, until Genevieve Tobin arrives on the scene. She has designs on Chevalier, much to the chagrin of MacDonald, not to mention Tobin's husband (a delightful Roland Young). The Love Parade isn't quite the polished production that the others are, but it does offer a beguiling if Hollywoodized portrait of Paris and amusingly forthright portraits of people with sexual appetites. Chevalier and MacDonald are quite as assured as in their later outings, but it is nice to have the proceedings enlivened by Eugene Pallette (who would later become a staple of screwball comedy). Monte Carlo is the least of the four films as we have to make do with Jack Buchanan instead of Chevalier. Criterion's standard Eclipse presentation is offered on all four films - just the film on a separate disc each with chapter selections but no supplements. Liner notes are provided for each, however. The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You both look quite good - fairly sharp with good contrast. The latter is pretty much in the standard full frame ratio while the former appears closer to 1.20:1. Both The Love Parade and Monte Carlo also come in at about 1.20:1 and both are a shade behind the others in image quality (variable contrast, soft sections, visible scratches and debris). The mono sound on all four titles is quite workable. Some hiss and distortion is evident but not a distraction. It's a pleasure to finally have these on DVD (the old Lubitsch laserdisc box that contained these titles was a much-prized release) and this Eclipse set is highly recommended.
After a rather slow start to Sony's chronological releases of The Three Stooges shorts, the recent rapid-fire announcements of the third and fourth volumes have fans breathing sighs of relief. In the meantime, I've had a chance to look at The Three Stooges Collection: Volume Two.
This two-disc set contains 24 shorts, eight each from 1937, 1938, and 1939. All star Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard. Continuing the fine work on the first volume, this one again features generally excellent-looking film transfers. The images are sharp with very good contrast and nicely cleaned of most scratches and debris. There are a few instances where somewhat softer second generation material has had to be used to compensate for problem areas, but the instances are minor. The mono sound is also nicely cleaned up with only a few instances of hiss evident. There are no supplements. As to the shorts themselves, the entertainment quality is quite high for the Stooges had really hit their stride by 1938. The list of titles is as follows: Grips Grunts and Groans, Dizzy Doctors, Three Dumb Clucks, Back to the Woods, Goofs and Saddles, Cash and Carry, Playing the Ponies, The Sitter-Downers, Termites of 1938, Wee Wee Monsieur, Tassels in the Air, Healthy Wealthy and Dumb, Violent Is the Word for Curly, Three Missing Links, Mutts to You, Flat Foot Stooges, Three Little Sew and Sews, We Want Our Mummy, A Ducking They Did Go, Yes We Have No Bonanza, Saved by the Belle, Calling All Curs, Oily to Bed Oily to Rise, and Three Sappy People. I don't have all the previous Sony single-disc Stooges releases for comparison, but it looks like at least a quarter of these have not previously been released on DVD. For those that have, all look much improved in this new set. For my taste, the best entries in this set are: Dizzy Doctors (the boys try to sell “Bright-O”); Cash and Carry (raising money for an orphan's operation); The Sitter Downers (mayhem in house-building); Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb (Curly inherits money); We Want Our Mummy (the Stooges in Cairo); Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (the boys help a widow fleeced of her land deed); and Three Sappy People (the boys pose as psychiatrists). Recommended.
The appearance last spring of Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition raised some fears for Mason fans that Paramount/CBS were abandoning the season releases. That fear has now abated with the subsequent announcement of this month's release of The Third Season, Volume 1.
Assuming that we continue to get the full season releases, the four-disc 50th anniversary set will be redundant with one possible significant exception - its supplementary content. There is a wealth of material all on a separate disc, including: new on-camera episode introductions by Barbara Hale, the full TV movie Perry Mason Returns, various talent screen tests, a featurette on Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Burr on Person to Person, Raymond Burr's Charlie Rose interviews, new interviews with Barbara Hale and Arthur Marks, the William Talman anti-smoking message, the cast playing Stump the Stars, syndication promos, and a photo gallery. As for the show content, there are four episodes on each of the first three discs. The episodes are drawn from the 1960 to 1966 period and most feature a well-known guest star such as Barbara Bain, Robert Redford, James Coburn, Adam West, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy, Bette Davis, Julie Adams, Ryan O'Neal, and Dick Clark. Each provide the typically fine piece of entertainment that the Perry Mason series is known and appreciated for. The image transfers are also very good, in line with most of the Paramount/CBS classic TV product. Recommended for the supplementary content more than anything else, given that the episodes themselves should show up in future season releases.