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And A Happy New Year… December 30, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film General , 2 comments

10 classic films for a New Year’s Eve:

2006 And All That… December 28, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : General, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

What a really strange year. There have been so many fine releases of classic films on DVD during 2006 that only some crook-backed misanthrope would complain. Well, I’m not crook-backed, but…

It has been postulated elsewhere that 2005 was the year DVD hit the profitability ceiling, and that after what was a truly great 12 months for film fans, that 2006 was always going to be a ‘top that if you can’ kind of year. 2005 - a tough act to follow indeed.

That’s probably true, but chez ‘aitch, that was only part of the bigger picture. Around the turn of last year, we decorated. No biggie there, but it did mean that my entire DVD collection had to be boxed and stored for a while, and in doing so, I was slapped right in the kisser by that huge, slippery wet codfish also known as reality. Several truisms became crystal clear, coalescing right before my disbelieving eyes; my collection was quite simply out of control. My spending was beginning to rival the GDP of a small South American dictatorship, that I was buying too many films because I felt I should own them and not because I really wanted them. And, worse, as Mrs H was none too shy at pointing out on many an occasion, we were running quickly out of space.

Something had to be done. So I worked the ‘one out, one in’ principle for a while, selling off titles that I felt I would no longer watch, that were dupes, that were inferior transfers or that would simply make money because something else would inevitably come. Worked well too and was quite satisfying. I was buying films that I felt I really wanted, and I was making a little dough from others that were only gathering dust. I haven’t, sadly, reclaimed too much shelf space, but at least we haven’t had to move house to accommodate my DVD collection. Which would have been a little, ah, well…nuts.

I strongly suspect that 2006 was the year many a film collector woke up and smelt the celluloid, DVD wise. Only a hunch, but I get the feeling that my experience, or something resembling it, has been replicated in many a consumer household and that for various reasons those of us that gathered little shiny discs like they were going out of fashion, suddenly hit the brake.

I think we’ve also been helped in that respect by the major studios and distributors. 2006 appears to be the year that many of them simply upped and switched direction. Paramount, never the most prolific, had quite a decent 2005 - the Batjac releases a case in point (the last of which were postponed from 2005 until this year) - but 2006 was the year they could care less about releasing classic back catalogue movies from their vaulted little prisons. Still, they managed Reds, The Conformist and Oh! What a Lovely War, so it’s not all bad news.

Fox on the other hand seemed to realise that there was not enough profit in their own back catalogue, and that in particular their ‘Studio Classics’ line was not cutting the mustard when it comes to the corporate balance sheet. So, they brought in the higher price point ‘Cinema Classics’ line and chucked into the mix a number of dusted off and made over previous releases.

Their box sets - laudible though the titles and stars chosen were - were considered to be a little beyond the pale; placed against some of the offerings from Universal and Warners, Fox raised the bar price-wise and for many, it was just a little too much. Odd when you think of the prices many of us were paying at the turn of the century for DVDs; the price we paid then for a single disc is now considered much too much for a box set of three or four movies. Market forces indeed.

Which brings me neatly to Warners. Unchallenged at the top of the tree for several years now when it comes to that balance of quality and price, but I get the impression that even their accountants are beginning to squeal a little. Gone, in most cases, are the handsome gatefold digipacks, gone too are the inserts, the printed chapter listings and so forth. And gone too is an impeccable quality control with Warners dropping the ball on several occasions and making some quite silly, irritating, mistakes. There is no doubt that when it comes to classic releases, Warners are still the kings; maybe, just maybe, it is the sheer quantity of their output that is affecting quality? That may be considered a tough assessment when for every The Naked Spur you’ve got an impeccable The Maltese Falcon, that for every On Dangerous Ground, you’ve got a Grand Prix. Which is why Warners still get my vote for Region 1 supplier of the year.

We’ve tended to take Warners for granted, that they’ll hit the spot every single time. And, don’t forget, for a fraction of the profit that they made on similar releases five or six years ago. Tough, tough competitive game. When you’re a big name on the top of the DVD mountain, it seems you make an easier target to hit.

I suppose the same can be said of Criterion. Criterion has after all, set itself up as the byword for DVD quality. We still call them expensive, but that’s only in relation to the rest of the market. When they produce work of the quality of their latest The Seven Samurai iteration, managing to secure a copy for circa £20 seems to me to be a bargain in the great scheme of things. They have turned out some excellent stuff this year, from Young Mr Lincoln to Kind Hearts and CoronetsA Canterbury Tale and the aforementioned Kurosawa, only blotting their copybook by continuing to window box Academy ratio transfers, but for the most part, Criterion does indeed equate with quality. My Region 1 suppliers runners-up.

Universal meanwhile, plods on, generally suprising us with the quality of their transfers, causing few eyebrows to be raised by supplying few if any extras (this has mostly been their style for some time). It’s slow progress, but at least it’s progress inasmuch as the transfer appears to be king, and for that reason they get the Region 1 suppliers third place spot.

Sony, well, what can I say? How can a company that can produced such beautiful package as The Cary Grant Box Set or The Frank Capra Collection be so generally awful otherwise? Hopes that they would come up with the goods at least with their MGM catalogue were raised when the marketing of same was handed to Fox, but thus far, all that appears to have happened there is a number of bland re-releases. For shame; Sony, of all the big names, is without doubt the worst Region 1 supplier.

In the UK, the Region 2 suppliers among the big name studios are generally worse than their Region 1 counterparts, certainly when it comes to classics. Only Universal is exempt; ironically, while others get black marks for releasing titles in R2 that have fewer extras than in R1, Universal can’t do any less than ‘none’, so all we can go off is the quantity and quality of their transfers - which are pretty good.

In the UK, the big name player is Granada Ventures which holds the rights to 100s of great - and not so great - British films. For 2006, Granada made the decision to release fewer titles itself, licensing them out itself to other companies - Network DD Home Entertainment - and doing deals for joint box sets with themselves and Optimum, which itself was transformed from a minor to a major player the instant it was taken over by the giant French company Studio Canal.

Unlike their American counterparts, companies like Network and DDHE, have generally eschewed boxed sets, and their output has been, in terms of quality, highly variable. But there is no doubt that they have both upped their game; witness Network’s fabulous release of Odd Man Out. Whether they can go a step further, however, is questionable. Optimum, meanwhile, has been on something of a binge, issuing titles and re-issuing others that only went out of print a few months previously when the Warners / Studio Canal deal lapsed. Again, quality has been variable; some downright dreadful, others - like their The Third Man - beautiful.

The sometimes esoteric Masters of Cinema range from Eureka has rightly earned the British outfit comparisons with Criterion and quite rightly so. Eureka continues to turn out quality discs, and even if you can’t always appreciate the content, you can’t fail to recognise that they are striving for top quality with every single release. My Favourite? The Prisoner of Shark Island

Eureka then has earned the title of UK Region 2 supplier of the year, with Network and Optimum coming a close joint second for the huge strides they’ve made. Universal must take third spot, and it’s quite satisfying in some perverse way to see releases like the forthcoming Douglas Sirk box ruffling a few feathers among the insular ’why can’t we have that?’ multi-regionless DVD fans over the Pond. They must remember that the real shame for us over here is that when it comes to most of the big studios, R2 has to be content with the scraps from R1’s table.

And so, in no particular order…

My Top Three Classic DVD Releases of 2006 - Region 1

The John Wayne / John Ford Collection & The John Ford Collection: Released the same month, I cannot split these superb boxed collections containing 13 films by arguably America’s foremost director of the 20th century. There was some controversy over Warner’s restoration of the The Searchers with some complaining (and Warner admitting) it lacked the vibrant Technicolor shades, unique to VistaVision, of original prints. The row threatened to knock the gilt off this golden box set, but for my part, the latest transfer was streets ahead of previous releases on home video. Presented for the first time in its full width, this magnificent film overcame any shortcomings in the transfer and remains truly breathtaking.

The Gary Cooper Signature Collection: Bravo Warners; an excellent collection, some of the films marvellous, some less so, but all celebrating the fact that ‘Coop’ was a major star, and a damn fine actor.

Mr Arkadin: I can’t imagine any other company other than Criterion coming up with such a comprehensive package. Utterly wonderful; and the film’s not bad either…

Highly Commended 

The Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection: To have these films collected together at what was then a bargain price (and moreso now), seemed more than enough back in January, and it’s possibly churlish to gripe over the mostly frothy extras. I can even overlook the monstrous travesty that is the new cut of ‘Garrett’ (what were you thinking of Warner?); after all, I have Peckinpah’s cut, even if it appears to have been chucked in to the set like some overlooked orphan. Artististic appreciation is subjective I know, but I don’t think, in this case, it was wise to try and second guess one of the great cinematic geniuses.

The Cary Grant Box Set: Sony hasn’t done much worth a damn, and this could so easily have been a bunch of previous titles warmed over and tossed out on to the market. Not so. In terms of presentation, this is a quite beautiful set with mostly excellent new transfers, nice extras, and all at a very nice price indeed.

Young Mr Lincoln: Criterion’s pristine transfer of Ford’s homage to the ‘young jake-legged lawyer’ and President to be, complete with some excellent extra features, not least the excellent Parkinson interview licensed from the BBC plus one half of the Lindsay Anderson narrated BBC documentary on Ford. I can’t wait for part two…in fact I can’t wait to see the title that accompanies it (whatever that may be…)

My Top Three Classic DVD Releases of 2006 - Region 2

The Ipcress File: Network kicked off the New Year with this ’special edition’ also available with Len Deighton’s novel and the movie soundtrack in a nicely designed box. It was this kind of presentation that raised hopes that we would be getting something similar at least once a month. Alas…

Buster Keaton - College / Steamboat Bill Jr. / Three Ages: A quite wonderful set from Cinema Club and French outfit Mk2; beautiful transfers and sparse but informative extras.

Odd Man Out: Another winner courtesy of Network from the Granada vaults. Granada had been boasting of their restorations of a number of British films, but nothing could prepare me for the tear-jerking beauty of Carol Reed’s masterpiece. It is quite stunning.

Highly Commended

Adam Adamant Lives!: A superb set from 2 Entertain, with mostly fine quality transfers of what remains of both wonderfully entertaining series, excellent extras and quite possibly the best researched and most informative booklet included with any DVD presentation.

The Prisoner of Shark Island: Beautiful transfer, excellent, authoritative extras, a John Ford film. What more do you want?

High Noon SE: Cheating here because this is a Paramount Dutch release, but cheat I must. I’ve stated before that this possibly the best restoration and transfer of any black and white film of 2006, or maybe any other year. Superb.

I’m terrible at lists. No doubt in several hours I will have changed my mind on several of the above selections, and wonder why I didn’t choose ‘x’ or ‘y’. Yes, there are many, many other releases that could have - probably should have - maybe made either of those lists; The Seven Samurai (I haven’t waded though all the extras, so I thought it would be cheating to include it), any of the the Bette Davis Collection, the Clark Gable and James Stewart sets, the Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection 2 (what kind of numpty could miss the three-disc The Maltese Falcon off any list like this?), the Paul Newman and Brando sets, Forbidden Planet 50th AE, the Busby Berkeley Collection, the Astaire Rogers Ultimate Collectors Box Set (I already owned set one, and bought the exclusive partial set from Amazon.com - fabulous, just fabulous) excellent The Quiller Memorandum from Network, and the Jack Rosenthal set again from Network, The Innocents from the BFI, any of the value for money Universal ‘Glamour Collections’, or any of the releases of films from more recent years, the tremendous Brokeback Mountain for one, on and on…

On and on into 2007 in fact; let’s hope it’s a classic…

A Ghost Story For Christmas… December 23, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Horror , 12 comments

What was that?

That…that something that skittered quickly across the room, just there by the window. No, no - I can’t tell you what it was exactly, I only saw it from the corner of my eye and only for a second, it made a sound like someone running. Could you not hear it? No, not truly like footsteps, but the merest echo, the smallest scintilla of a shadow, of a tread. And now it’s stopped. But it is nearby, I can feel it. Quite nearby.

When I looked up, it wasn’t there. But, I know this; it’s in the room with us, a formless, nameless, something. I can feel it, that prickling sensation on the back of my neck. So close, it’s within touching distance. Right here. Right now. With me.

My heart is pounding so hard that it seems to fill my gullet, constricting my throat, I can’t breathe properly, getting light-headed, suffocating in here.

It’s…it’s over there. I know it’s over there, reaching out, getting closer now. So close.

It’s nothing. All I have to do is turn my neck and look. That’s all I have to do…

Holding your breath? Well, I tried. I’m not a skilled enough writer to find the words to scare the bejeesus out of you. That task is best left to the masters of that particular black art, Henry James, Charles Dickens who penned possibly the most famous Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol, and without doubt the finest author of such tales, medieval scholar Montague Rhodes James who wrote his 30-odd skin-crawlers basically as entertainments for his companions. The gift of terror at Christmas.

James, like old ‘Boz’, followed a fine Victorian English tradition of telling hair-raising Christmas Eve tales. He would gather his guests, students and colleagues (he was Provost at both King’s College, Cambridge and Eton), around a crackling Yuletide hearth and chill them to the very marrow, reading aloud some of the most flesh-tingling narratives of malevolent and supernatural horror written, stories that took place mostly in broad daylight in locations many of those listening knew well. 

Dark, dark forces in the most familar, ordinary places. Very English indeed.

The BBC transferred the tradition to television in 1971, possibly inspired by their 1968 adaptation for the Omnibus strand Whistle and I’ll Come To You, broadcasting the first of what became an annual ‘ghost story for Christmas’ with The Stalls of Barchester. This series of chillers, most based on MR James (he rid himself of punctuation marks as a literary affectation) stories but including a couple of original scripts and one particularly effective adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman, ran annually until 1978. Since then, we’ve had to make do with repeats, plus a brief series of chilling fireside tales told in typically avuncular manner by Christopher Lee some six years ago now (and which thoroughly deserve their own DVD release). They weren’t, by the way, ever officially titled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, but for eight Christmases running they arrived on our screens like little seasonal gifts from Auntie Beeb, very welcome, but always a trifle unexpected. Until we began to expect them. And then they stopped.

That is until last year when the increasingly excellent BBC4 broadcast The View From The Hill during their Christmas schedule, and followed it up this December with another MR James story, Number 13; fairly successful stabs at recreating what made the ’70s series so effective - a glimpse ‘from the corner of the retina’ of dreadful shades, a mere hint of something truly awful from beyond the grave.

It’s disappointing that, thus far, only two of BBC ‘ghost stories for Christmas’ have made it to DVD, plus the superb Omnibus film, all courtesy of the BFI. Fortunately, they are all rather good. And, handily, the British Film Institute has also just released a quite wonderful DVD of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, from Henry James’ novel The Turn of The Screw, another very British ghost story by way of a very American screenwriter.

Have yourself a scary little Christmas…

Whistle And I’ll Come To You (1968)

‘QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT’
‘I ought to be able to make it out,’ he thought; ‘but I suppose I am a little rusty in my Latin. When I come to think of it, I don’t believe I even know the word for a whistle. The long one does seem simple enough. It ought to mean: “Who is this who is coming?” Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him…’

MR James
Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad.
 

Based on the MR James story, Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, but very much director Jonathan Miller’s interpretation, Whistle And I’ll Come To You is probably the best of all the BBC James adaptations if not the most faithful. In James’s tale, ‘Professor Parkins’ is a young academic, holidaying on the east coast with a view to improving his golf game. As adapted by Miller, and beautifully enacted by Michael Horden, Parkins is a mumbling, somewhat introspective, late middle-aged eccentric, taking a winter break simply to walk, read and study; “Golf? Noooo…Not. Much” he tells the ‘colonel’, a fellow guest, relishing the words, constantly amused, and repeating phrases to no-one save himself.

Miller and Horden sketch an effective portrait of a very strange chap, one who lives almost entirely within himself and who is possibly on the edge of mental collapse. In his own voiceover introduction, Miller says that James’s story is “…a story of solitude and terror. It hints at the dangers of intellectual pride and show’s how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.”

Parkins takes a walk along the bleak Norfolk beaches and cliffs, including a old, long abandoned coastal cemetary. One grave, at the cliff’s edge, takes his eye and he spots a bone protuding from the sandy earth. As he reaches down over the cliff face, Parkins sees something a deal more interesting; a hand-crafted whistle, a clearly ancient latin inscription, barely legible, running down its side.

Eschewing most of what he called James’s ‘ludicrously stilted’ dialogue Miller tells his story with a stripped down economy; a series of sometimes mudane - to draw us in to the ordinariness of Parkins situation and to set up our story at a leisurely pace - sometimes stunning, visual vignettes. No manipulative musical soundtrack is used, natural sounds providing their own atmosphere - the rasping call of crows, the crunch of boot on sand, the sea crashing against the groynes. Parkins’ grasp on the certainties of existence are steadily eroded, as thoughts of an afterlife, of the supernatual, which he has debunked in conversation with the colonel, become an internalised obsession. One he finds impossible to explain in a rational manner, and which leads to a deeply disturbing mental conflict.

Miller, and his Director of Photography Dick Bush, paint this picture superbly, underlining Parkins’ loneliness - and even hinting at a sexual frustration when, at dinner, he avoids a female diner’s coquettish smile - as he strides across miles of empty beach, a watery winter light bathing him in a cold, oneiric, evening glow. He’s quite alone…until he finds the old whistle, and looks back, troubled, over his shoulder. There, in the far distance, stands a deeply unsettling and shadowy figure, ominously threatening and eerily motionless against the setting sun.

From this moment on, Miller quickens the pace as the Professor’s world descends into sheer bloody terror. A number of small but unexplained incidents, a terrifying waking nightmare - complete with sparely used sound effects which have the power to make most viewers jerk out of their seats - combine to chip away at what Parkins knows to be true, to be real. And at last he’s reduced to a whimpering, gibbering, thumb-sucking wreck of a man, still denying the undeniable. As Kim Newman says in his BFI DVD liner notes, Miller doesn’t entirely abandon the ghostly and we are still left with an unanswered question: is Parkins insane, or did he really unleash some kind of supernatural force?

That Miller and his production team did all this, chilling and genuinely unnerving viewers with some backwards, slowed down ‘cow noises’ and ‘bedsheets on strings’ on a BBC Omnibus budget almost beggars belief; although, bless ‘em, it is film - no video is used here. Whistle and I’ll Come To You is still, nearly four decades on after its first broadcast in May 1968, quite spine-tingling and hideously entertaining. The BFI’s disc is excellent with a beautiful, almost unmarked transfer, the wonderful black and white, full-frame, photography rendered perfectly. I found Ramsey Campbell’s introduction interesting, though it was a little choppily edited, he does have a tendency to gabble - and I wish he hadn’t worn that T-shirt…

Campbell also reads his own MR James inspired story The Guide, on reflection it might have been better had someone else delivered it. Rather more interesting is Neil Brand’s reading of Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, which underlines exactly how much Miller changed things, and precisely what he means by ’stilted’ dialogue.

It’s classic television, and although not part of the subsequent strand, the classic Christmas-tide ghost story, which subtlely draws the audience in, and which refuses to insult the viewers’ intelligence. Another DVD presentation the BFI can be justly proud of.

The Perils of Paulette December 20, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Comedy, Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

Reap The Wild Wind (1942) 

I’m desperately in love with Paulette Goddard. There; I said it, and I don’t care who knows! The only impediment to my ardour is the age difference - the luscious Ms Goddard was born in 1910 - and the fact that she died nearly 17 years ago. But nevertheless, I’m in love…and I sigh when she hits the screen. *Sigh*…

1942’s Reap The Wild Wind was a genuine Hollywood blockbuster from the Paramount studios, and had all the ingredients, and then some, necessary for a big, flashy slice of hugely entertaining hokum - a fantastic cast, a rip-roaring story, Oscar winning special effects, three-strip Technicolor cinematography that is good enough to make you weep. And the last vital ingredient to pull this circus together and make it all work. What’s that? Well if I tell you that the full USA title was Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind.

Not in any sense a great auteur, C.B. knew how to entertain, even if he was scathing in his private assessment of the audience that lapped up his brand of three-ring showmanship. His trademark was entertaining, and entertaining BIG. So here we have a movie that DeMille himself - he was never shy - sells to his audience in his opening narration, a story, set in the 1840’s, that ’sweeps the ocean, with mighty ships plying their trade, braving the hurricanes off the Florida Keys, providing the lifeblood for American commerce…’ It’s a bit of a flag waver, what with the war and all…

We open with ‘Captain Jack Stuart’ (John Wayne) unconscious on the deck of his own ship, his villainous first mate ‘Mathias Widgeon’ (Victor Kilian) about to drive the clipper onto the unforgiving rocks of Key West.

It’s a vile plot by the most evil of salvage men ‘King Cutler’ (played with wonderful relish by the great Raymond Massey) to get himself half the value of the ship’s cargo for nothing more than a simple bribe; a game he’s been playing to make himself and his cohorts fantastically rich, while the ship owners, and principally their attorney ‘Steve Tolliver’ (Ray Milland), determine to seek him out and hang him and his kind from the yard arm.

Slap in the middle is ’Loxi Claiborne’ (the aforementioned Ms Goddard), who runs a decent, honest salvage company. While Cutler and his men scurry about ripping the cargo out of Stuart’s sinking ship, it’s Loxi and ‘Capt. Phil Philpott’ (another superb sketch by character actor Lynne Overman) who set about rescuing the crew, even though Capt. Phil grumbles ‘men don’t bring no salvage money’.

Stuart is wrongly dismissed as Captain and he blames Tolliver. But it’s the attorney who, despite the acrimony, fights for Stuart to be given command of the line’s new steam flagship The Southern Cross. However both men’s love for Loxi is about to lead them into deep water, double crossing and death. The action gets a little bogged down in a meldodramatic courtroom sequence, but the film balances that with a superb underwater sequence, which took two months to film, involving a giant rubber squid (oh, c’mon give ‘em a break - in 1942 that looked as real as, well, ‘Bruce’ did in Jaws), a race against time and a Florida hurricane.

It’s one hell of a romp; Goddard gives us glimpses of what her ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ might had been like had she passed her screen test, flouncing about in petticoats and tossing off a ‘fiddle di dee’ here and there at her black ‘mammy’ (the black characters are treated, I’m afraid, shamefully). Milland’s Tolliver is something of a ‘Scarlet’ too, a Pimpernel figure, ever so slightly camp with his ‘talking’ lap dog, dandy clothes and just where did he get that hairstyle? Thankfully, he is not quite the hapless fop he appears - he’s an action man when required (of course), taking charge when Waynes angry, but dithering, Stuart can’t get his act together.

It’s worth mentioning here that for the 1954 theatrical re-release, the ‘Duke’ was given top billing in posters because of his increased star status, and Susan Hayward (who plays Goddard’s little sister), and who had since 1942 become a major star instead of a supporting player, was misleadingly billed second. Formerly top-billed Milland got third billing in the new campaign, while leading lady Goddard was demoted to fourth billing. I might add that Milland’s likeness doesn’t even make the front cover of the current DVD release (that’s Goddard and Wayne) where he’s given third billing…it’s worse on the back cover, where Milland comes a lowly fifth. Ah, fickle Hollywood…

Look among the cast too for Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Walter Hampden, Louise Beavers, Hedda Hopper (in her last film role before she started to bite the hand that fed her). Victor Young’s sweeping score is very redolent of the period, all in all, fans of the Golden Era of Hollywood will be delighted to see the film again…and again.

Universal’s DVD has been around in R1 almost since the dawn of the format, but was only released as a stand alone disc in R2 a couple of years ago, after previously being part of the same studio’s generally poor John Wayne Box Set. Not that long ago (not least for slapdash stuff like the ‘Wayne’ box) the mere mention of Universal would send shivers down my spine. Thankfully, the studio has upped its game both in Region 1 and Region 2, and now - what a turnaround - can be generally relied on to do the right thing at least as far as transfer quality is considered. But what a revelation Reap The Wild Wind is - it’s nigh on Warners top-standard quality, true eye candy.

The colours - and I just love three-strip Technicolor when it’s presented as well as this - are wonderfully rendered; just check the plumage on the parrot in the tavern sequence for instance (or the plumage on Ms. Goddard…). There’s a little grain early on, but not too much to complain about, and it’s as clean as a whistle with very few nicks and marks. Universal has done a fantastic job with a beautiful transfer that can only have come from elements in top class condition. The mono sound is clear and strong.

The shame is that there are no extras, save for a trailer, also in excellent shape. It would have been nice to have had a featurette on Reap The Wild Wind, or a documentary on Milland, Goddard, or DeMille, that larger than life figure himself. But really, with the film looking this eye wateringly good, it’s almost churlish to gripe, and this is Universal after all, a studio that is oft times quite casual, and a little stingy on the extras front, particularly as far as many of its Oscar winning back catalogue films are concerned.

But the film, the standard of the transfer, is paramount (sorry Universal; no pun intended). We have to be thankful for small mercies.

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Geoff Montgomery: It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
Larry Lawrence: You mean like Democrats?
 

Two years earlier and Ms Goddard and Bob Hope were busy trying - and succeeding - to recreate the success of their previous year’s smash The Cat and The Canary. The veteran, and versatile, George Marshall was in the director’s chair, picking the bones (pun fully intended) out of Dickey & Goddard’s (no relation) pre-WW1 Broadway play The Ghost Breaker. They added an ’s’, made some tweaks to the gags, put some backbone into the female lead’s character and came away with an 85 minute comedy thriller, a ‘frightmare’ with laughs, the very epitome of both the genre and cinematic efficiency.

‘Mary Carter’ (Goddard) inherits an eerie castle, her family’s ancestral home built on glum, forbidding island off the coast of Cuba. Mary is off to claim her birthright, and gets tangled up with radio star ’Larry Lawrence’ (Hope on cracking form), who’s on the run from the mob and the law for a murder he thinks, mistakenly, he’s committed. With attempts on Mary’s life, voodoo warnings and threats of death and disaster dogging their every move, our heroine, Larry and his butler ‘Alex’ (Willie Best), come up against spooks, zombies…and an all too human menace.

There’s not a scene wasted, not a line of spare dialogue in The Ghost Breakers. The strengths of The Cat and The Canary are here yet again; plenty of laughs, lots of frights all in a tight, economical package. Yes, Willie Best, is there to roll his eyes and knock his knees, but he’s a great foil for Hope, who can’t himself appear too much of a dunderhead. He does, after all, have to solve the mystery, save the girl and find the family treasure.

It’s light family fare, but it’s still marvellously entertaining with a snappy script that cracks wise, Bob Hope-style (naturally), impressive sets, mattes and lighting (Oscar winner Charles Lang was the cinematographer) that create a suitable ‘haunted house’ ambiance. The special effects - particularly the ‘ghost walk’ - are still quite impressive and Noble Johnson as the zombie is really very creepy indeed.

Goddard herself is not quite the woman in distress that some may expect. She screams to order, certainly, but she also brings an eye-flashing feistiness to the character that’s quite refreshing. Though, it has to be said, it is typical of some of the better films of the period. The ’40s, I think, provided a bumper crop of fantastic roles for women, at a time when, by sheer necessity, women were coming into their own in a society at war. Ironically, as the decade faded so did the gorgeous Ms Goddard’s star. A star that burned for a relatively short time, but wonderfully bright.

You’ll find a decent supporting cast too, among them; Richard Carlson, Anthony Quinn, Paul Fix and Robert Ryan’s first ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ screen appearance.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Paramount’s The Ghost Breakers is again pretty impressive for a 66-year-old black and white film; it’s very clean and tidy with decent contrast and no evidence that I could see of any obtrusive edge-enhancement. The soundtrack is similarly free of any clicks, or distortion with clear dialogue and an atmospheric score by Ernest Toch.

All that and Paulette Goddard in a bathing costume? A no-brainer, gentle reader…

Don’t Watch That, Watch This… December 13, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film General , add a comment

A freezing cold day in December ‘64; a chill wind sending ominous clouds, pregnant with snow, scudding across grey Manchester skies, and my first trip to the cinema.

Just eight-years-old, I was neatly togged out in a small but weather-proof overcoat, the belt tied fast, a cap shoved hard down over my ears, one sock pulled to the knee, the other at half mast. A minor but satisfyingly rebellious gesture that appealed to the ‘Just William’ side of my character. 

There were seven of us piled into what I think it was a magenta Bedford Crewbus (no-one in the family owned any kind of vehicle, but it was a ‘treat’ courtesy of a friend), intending to see a re-issue of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. But the queues extending right around the cinema meant we were to be bitterly disappointed, and my sister’s new hairdo (think ‘Sandra Dee lite’) was in desperate need of sanctuary. Of any kind.

So. We took pot-luck. Quite why we ended up watching Whistle Down The Wind I’ll never know. I was a small child, and not privy to such decisions, only the consequences. Hayley Mills, Alan Bates, Bernard Lee in Bryan Forbes tight little tale, scripted by the immensely talented Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, from Mary Hayley Bell’s (Mills mother and wife to the late, and very great, John Mills) touching novel. A beautiful film (like the first kiss, the memory, the fondness for it grows with the years), but not the slice of Hollywood escapism we had been seeking.

A party of Lancastrians, looking for some colour in their sometimes grim little lives courtesy of Mr Disney end up watching a minor British film about a party of Lancastrians, looking for some colour in their sometimes grim little lives. Ironic really. In black and white, of course; it was a time for monochrome.

Still, we sat and fumed for a while over missing out on Ms White and her vertically challenged associates. However, as the disappointment subsided, we thoroughly enjoyed Whistle Down The Wind. Well, at least I did. Sat in the dark, in velour swaddled luxury, staring in awe as a group of children, not unlike my contemporaries, pondered over whether they were entertaining ‘The Prophet’. “It’s Jesus” said little Alan Barnes, his cheeks a rosy (mono) red. And - and as my gran was wont to utter - by the Crin, I thought it was too…

For 99 minutes I was transfixed as Alan Bates was hunted, worshipped then crucified and all - the whole lot - filmed not a million miles away from the little Lancashire mining village where I was brought up, and as near as damn it, the people up on that seemingly luminescent screen talked like me, lived a little like me. Talk about bringing the story of Christmas home. Magic time; the stuff of real cinema, a story well told.

Now what’s the point of all this rambling? Misty eyed nostalgia? To encourage you to watch the very excellent Whistle Down The Wind on DVD? Yes, all of the above (of course). But I want to join the debate, encouraged by listening to Mark Kermode on Radio 5 Live! (I love that - as if there’s a Radio Five The One We Prepared Earlier!) the other day, on the apparent demise of not only decent and thoughtful children’s films, but family films as a whole.

Kermode was bemoaning the lack of narrative, invention, and entertainment in lazy, by the numbers, bloated Hollywood clunkers such as Over The Hedge, Barnyard or Ice Age. Not that he was railing against computerised animation per se. Indeed Kermode quite rightly sang the praises of Toy Story and it’s sequel (which he considered superior to the original), which were both endowed with interesting, entertaining and amusing scripts with a ‘fairy tale’ quality, which were performed well and satisfied not only the kids in the audience, but also their parents.

But said Kermode, a succession of today’s digi-mation movies were: “…blandly running into each other, making $100m in the process; as a child, I remember seeing wide variety of releases from Ben-Hur to Kes, films which added to my film education; where are the timeless kids movies of today when all you need to do is bang out another Madagascar, films which only seem to entertain for the moments they are on screen.”

If you don’t teach kids now that you need films with proper stories, argued Kermode, films with decent narratives then you’re in deep danger of poisoning the well in terms of the next generation of adult film-goers.

“There is so much money washing around childrens films today - Shrek 2 took over £200m -  there is no financial reason to make a film like Kes; I don’t think I’d ever seen a film like Kes before or since for that matter and that’s what I’m talking about, films with proper stories - not simple minded rubbish like Pirates of the Caribbean 2.”

Now, Kes, a sometimes grim, granite hard film but is it a children’s film? I should damn well think so, but if it were produced now, would it attract the kind of audience it did back then, or would we have to make it a musical, complete with happy ending? And set it in L.A. (I see echoes of Whistle Down The Wind in Spielberg’s E.T., by the way; maybe you’ll conclude that I am stretching that one, but I really don’t think so…)

I actually saw Ken Loach’s film at school, courtesy of a forward thinking educator who ran an after lessons ‘film club’ and it spoke to me, much as I suspect it has to Kermode, in a way that no film had done before. Time, place, the person I was, the society I lived in, certainly added to the experience. But I hope - I really do - that tough sell that it might be, that today’s children would love it every bit as much as I did. Indeed, love Whistle Down The Wind too. At the risk of sounding like some kind of a ‘new-films-bad-old-films-good’ Luddite, I suspect Kermode’s correct, that the film industry is taking the easiest dollar it can (should we be surprised at that?), talking down not only to kids but their parents as never before, force feeding them empty headed dross.

But we, as the parents and guardians of that next generation, can do something to change that.

Last year the British Film Institute produced a list of films that they recommended children should see. The top 10:

  • Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italy)
  • ET The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982, USA)
  • Kes (Ken Loach, 1969, UK)
  • The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955, USA)
  • Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959, France)
  • Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998, Sw/Dk)
  • Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001, Japan)
  • Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995, USA)
  • Where is the Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987, Iran)
  • The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939, USA)
  • Now, whatever you think of that list (and there are three on there I’ve never seen - more on their full list of 50), you can have a little fun producing your own - Time Bandits, The Searchers, The Thief of Bagdad, Duck Soup, The Fallen Idol, a little light Hammer - be adventurous (even our school ’film club’ scheduler had a penchant for Hammer and ‘Carry On’ movies; they don’t always have to be pure and worthy, it is, after all, about entertainment too). You can’t actually make your children sit down in front of something they don’t want to watch (well, you can, but it’s called ‘kidnapping’…), but my own son, after I’d tied him down, surprised me with a fondness for instance, firstly for Laurel & Hardy & Abbot & Costello and latterly - someone call the RSPCC - The Wild Bunch. Your children are not simpletons, they view the world in a suprisingly sophisticated way; feed their minds. Feed ‘em the good stuff. Persevere.

    And there’s the point. When your list is complete, your mission over the Christmas holiday, should you choose to accept it, is to persuade the little ones in your family that there is life beyond Pixar and Disney, that black and white can represent the most colourful films of all, and that for all the wonders of our modern age, the computer generated special effects, the whizz-bang sound, the dazzling High Definition video, you still cannot beat a good story well told.

    Watch them on DVD, watch one of the many classics that will be on TV over the next few weeks, but, if you can, find a cinema near you that is actually screening a classic film. And preferably serving Kia Ora and choc ices during the interval too…

    Magic time.

    …Young Man, Go West! December 9, 2006

    Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

    The fire’s a dyin’ down, the cattle are peaceful, and those beans have yet to do their work; guess it’s time, little pards, (oh, do get on with it!) for a look at three more westerns…

    Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

    “Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap an’ mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. ‘Make your life go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Injuns ‘n wild men.’ ‘Mother Gue’, I says, ‘the Rocky Mountains is the marrow o’ the world,’ and by God, I was right.”

    John Milius was co-author of the screenplay for Sydney Pollack’s 1972 mountain man epic Jeremiah Johnson alongside Edward Anhalt. Who wrote what, I couldn’t really say, but Milius’ stamp lies on most of the rich dialogue that runs like a skein of pure gold in this story that is also notable for its stunning cinematography of the towering mountain ranges of Utah.

    We first see our eponymous hero (Robert Redford), a young man, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, fresh from the army and the Mexican American War of the 1840’s. He’s determined to start a new life by becoming a trapper and hunter; one of the legendary mountain men. Johnson buys his supplies, a 30 calibre Hawkin rifle and makes his way into a vast wilderness, where he’ll either flourish or die lonely.

    The greenhorn discovers his new environment to be incredibly hostile, and is just about to throw in his lot when he happens across a grizzled old bear hunter, ‘Bear Claw’ Chris Lapp (a really nice vignette by Will Geer). Lapp takes pity on the naif and teaches him the raw basics of staying alive. And staying alive is the trick, for Johnson faces not only nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, but also Crow indians whose land he will be trapping on. Land is life; it’s possession, to paraphrase John Lennon, ‘nine tenths of the problem’.

    Leaving Lapp and striking out on his own, Johnson comes across a settler’s cabin, recently raided by Crow. There he finds a woman driven mad after the slaughter of her son and daughter, and another child who is mute. Of the woman’s husband there is no sign. The mountain man reluctantly takes the boy after a plea by the woman, in a rare moment of lucidity. Later he also acquires (in an echo of The Searchers) a bride, a sullen, plain, Flathead, ’Swan’.

    Against all the odds, Johnson, decides to settle down with his new family. Swan blossoms and very soon he achieves something he’s been struggling to find but has stumbled on by sheer accident - contentment. But back into his life rides the U.S. Cavalry. Searching for lost settlers, they turn to Johnson to help guide them and again, reluctantly, the mountain man agrees. To get to the wagon train in time they must cross and therefore desecrate a Crow burial ground…and Johnson must thereafter face the wrath of the tribe and their ‘big medicine’.

    At this point the film, scripted from a combination of the Vardis Fisher novel Mountain Man and Raymond W. Thorp’s story Crow Killer, switches tone entirely. Pollack orchestrates Johnson’s transformation from a man defending what is his, to a vengeful and bloody killer with great aplomb. We see the breathtakingly savage killing of a war party, a shocking scene though without any really graphic violence, and Redford, pretty boy looks and all, is convincing, as he becomes a ‘dead man’, devoid of any emotion, any pity, any hope.

    Johnson, once an irritant to the Crow and an intruder, is now a targetted by the tribe, who send out brave after brave to match him in single combat, anywhere, anyplace, at any time. Killing many braves is another test for the mountain man, and for the Crow, their courage and manliness can only be measured by the strength of their enemy - and Jeremiah Johnson is a mighty enemy.

    The story seems to become a simple allegory for life itself; can any man face the day to day trials of existing, of putting bread on the table, of loss and emotional trauma and survive, his wits intact? And, of course, the central question; what’s the point of it all, why do we exist? What’s it all for? Johnson meets Chris Lapp again, who looks more God-like than ever in furs and long white beard. ‘T’were it worth the trouble?’ asks the Deity / Lapp. ‘Huh? What trouble?’ says Johnson jutting out his jaw, daring life to smack his chin good and hard again.

    Tired, and haunted, Johnson returns to the cabin where he discovered the mad woman and the boy. He finds it now occupied by another terrified settler who has put his family in the grain store, at the mountain man’s approach, for safety. Johnson looks at the upturned faces of the women and children sadly, and tells the settler ‘It won’t do any good’. What’s the message here? That we should stop hating each other and get on instead with the business of living together? That when tempted to dance to the tune of the military, you should run, and run fast? Vietnam-era American films were full of this kind of stuff; but if the message lacks subtlety, it’s probably understandable.

    Jeremiah Johnson has been labelled an ‘eco-western’, yet there’s no huge ‘man bad, nature good’ subtext to be found in the movie, though it is, surely more than just a simple tale of one man’s struggle to stay alive in a beautiful but deadly environment. The Utah locations provide a blinding cathedral of snow, they give the film the feeling of a vast emptiness that can both embrace or destroy. Johnson is insignificant in a world such as this, his battle with the Crow the struggle of ants, and world looks on, as it always has and will, without judgement, or pity.

    Pollack’s film is pretty good, but has probably suffered over the years because potential viewers may now be expecting some kind of Grizzly Adams adventure. Thank ’Chris Lapp’, there’s none of that here; Redford is not the best - nor is he the worst - actor in the world, nor does he have a huge range, but within certain perameters he’s always been more than quite watchable. Like many stars, he was protective of his image, and despite a beard, he still looks like, well, the ’70s movie star Robert Redford, and could have done with at least a haircut in keeping with the mid-19th century. His female fans would have run riot and sacked the cinema.

    Will Geer is utterly superb in a his small (Godlike) role, and Delle Bolton, as ‘Swan’, is charming. Special mention for Stefan Gierasch as the somehow achingly sad ’Del Gue’, because every film like this needs someone who can speak authentic frontier gibberish (especially when it’s so well written). But, as said, the real star is Utah. Did I mention Will Geer as the Almighty? Well, I like him…

    This is a disc produced in the early days of the DVD format by Warners, and still comes (if such things bother you) in a snapper (at least my R1 did). Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 Panavision, the picture is pretty good, with decent colour and contrast. Warners have also retained the original overture and entr’acte music; nothing special by John Rubenstein (I actually prefer Tim McIntire’s song). There’s a little print damage and dirt on show, particular in the last reel with some white speckling, but nothing too serious. The sound is also acceptable; could be worse (it’s a little thin), could be improved on. There’s a back slapping, brief, featurette, a trailer and some production notes.

    Warners would do much better today, and there have been some hints of Jeremiah Johnson coming again, possibly in ‘07 in a Robert Redford box set. I’ll also have Downhill Racer and The Candidate please.

    Another potential double-dip then; I’ll be there for more of Jeremiah Johnson

    Along Came Jones (1945)

    In 1945, a still youthful looking Gary Cooper, produced and starred in Along Came Jones, a witty and exciting comedy western that made the most of the 44-year-old star’s talents. The film was written by Nunnally Johnson, an urbane and intelligent former New York Post journalist who’d made his mark in Hollywood scripting for John Ford (The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Grapes of Wrath), Henry King (Jesse James), William Wellman (Roxie Hart) and many, many others.

    Such was Johnson’s reputation by the end of WWII, that not only does he get a rather large screen-writing credit (at a time when ‘written by’ was usually tucked away with ‘Associate Producer’), but the title shows it is Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones. Impressive stuff.

    All the better then that this amiable western tale boasts an intelligent and quip-filled script, and while it’s a ‘comedy western’, it never forgets that it is really a ‘western comedy; the jokes subservient to the story and not the masters of it. ‘Always shoot ‘em in the right eye’ Cooper is advised, ‘Spoils their aim…’ Made me laugh.

    Our tale starts with evil bad guy Monte Jarrad (deliciously played by the evil Dan Duryea), wreaking havoc while holding up a stagecoach, stealing a saddle bag full of loot and getting winged in the process. The law wants Jarrad, a quick shooting tyrant who holds the town of Payneville in his thrall, and puts a price on his head and that of his dull-witted sidekick.

    So…into Payneville rides Melody Jones (Cooper), a man described as a ‘butter-fingered gun juggler’ and his partner George (the brilliant Bill Demerest). The good folk of Payneville haven’t seen Jarrad for some time, they spot ‘MJ’ stamped on Jones’s saddlebags, and his sidekick does indeed seem to be a few cartridges short of a full revolver. Two and two quickly make five.

    Jarrad’s girl (the eye-candy that is Loretta Young), does her bit to finger Jones as Jarrad to aid her man’s escape, but then they fall for each other, and all hell breaks loose as Jones attempts to (a) stay alive, (b) prise the girl away from a man she describes as ‘mean..and getting meaner’, (c) neatly sidestep the bullets of Jarrad, his gang, the sherrif, and a private detective.

    Johnson’s script manages to cram alot of narrative into the 90 minutes run time, but it never seems forced or contrived. Cooper is excellent; he was as delightfully a sly light comedian, adept at handling bits of business, as he was terrific in action roles. And this son of a real westerner always seemed at home on a horse or wearing a stetson.

    Hack director Stuart Heisler’s helming is competent. If I have a criticism it’s that some of the action seems a little studio bound, but the cast and the writing make up for that, and for a war-weary America, this dleightful piece of fluff was probably just the tonic.

    Along Came Jones is available in R1 as part of the MGM ‘Western Legends’ series. There is good news and bad. The good is that the transfer isn’t half bad; nice & sharp, decent contrast and no signs of white blooming or edge enhancement. The bad is that MGM haven’t done a great deal by way of restoring the print. There’s a deal of damage, speckling, a little dirt, some ‘wonky’ frames, lines and what appears to be water damage. Not disasterous, but it could have been better. The mono sound is okay and the only extra is a trailer.

    When The Daltons Rode (1940)

    George Marshall started his Hollywood career churning out westerns in 1916, and he finished some six decades later still knocking ‘em out for TV. One of the great solid and reliable directors of the movie industry, there are some little gems in his CV including The Blue Dahlia, (due to be released in the UK soon by the way)Destry Rides Again and The Ghost Breakers (probably Bob Hope’s finest hour).

    And then we have his 1940 oater When The Daltons Rode, part of the Universal Western Series. Topping the bill is Randolph Scott, later to make quite a name for himself in this genre, but not courtesy of this film. More of that later.

    When The Daltons Rode was fashioned at a time when the public were eating up westerns with a ‘Robin Hood’ twist. Henry King had scored a huge and deserved hit with his film Jesse James in which the brave James boys - Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda - were forced into a life of crime by the real bad guys, carpet baggers / banks / ranchers (delete as applicable). And so, Universal figured that anything that Fox could do…

    Thus we have the four Dalton brothers - played here by burly Broderick Crawford, the usually hissable Brian Donlevy (but wearing the white bad guy’s hat if you see what I mean), Stuart Erwin and Frank Albertson - being railroded by all and sundry, forced to leave their ailing Ma, and in the case of Bob Dalton (Crawford) his girl Kay Francis. The truth - for, gentle reader, the Daltons really did ride - was rather less savoury but then again it wouldn’t have been a family oriented shoot-’em-up western without a little embellishment or the addition of Andy Devine as Dalton buddy and comic relief ‘Ozark Jones’. Jones, by the by, has woman trouble. Just go back and read that again, make sure you saw  it right. Andy Devine. Woman trouble. Yep, that’s right.

    I’ll return to that billing. Randolph Scott plays ‘Tod Jackson’ a tenderfoot lawyer who moseys into town, falls for Bob’s gal just as the gang are forced to flee. There’s a great moment midway through the film when Scott takes Francis into his arms, tells her that surely they’ve waited long enough, that their love cannot wait and the long gone Bob cannot still be enamoured of the girl he’s left behind? At that very same moment a brick crashes through the window with a note attached and a rider gallops away. ‘Don’t forget you’re still my girl’ Bob’s scribbled. Damn! And Jackson’s ardour is suitably and understandably cooled…

    But Scott is simply there as window dressing, as a box-office draw. He’s hardly in the darned film and when he is it is to indulge in some pretty ropey dramatics.

    Despite it being a second rate western there are some things to recommend When The Daltons Rode not least of which is a series of quite excellent stunts with the Daltons holding up trains, leaping on to moving carriages from horses and vice-versa, from bridges, and on and off stagecoaches. For the latter the legendary Yakima Canutt once again pulls the stunt he made famous in Ford’s Stagecoach only this time it’s not an indian who falls beneath the horses and stagecoach, it’s Bob Dalton. Bob plunges ‘neath the hooves and the stage, grabs the carriage’s trailing straps, pulls himself up and completes the hold-up. Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

    When the boys leap on to a passing train - seriously, it’s presented almost as: ‘There’s a train! Lets rob it!’ - they find it stuffed to the baggage car with armed to the teeth marshals and deputies out for their hides. Nonetheless, in a scene which would later be emulated in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, they carry out their hold up, then steal the posse’s horses, on the backs of which they jump from the train into a river. It’s breathless stuff and gallops along at a frantic pace.

    Even the ending is redolent of the Newman / Redford romp (Bill Goldman would probably call it a ‘homage’), though ‘Butch Cassidy’ didn’t have the film’s marquee star popping back in again at the end, almost as an afterthought, to grab the gal.

    Universal’s R1 DVD is the usual for this seemingly stalled series; no extras and a decent if far from stellar transfer. The mono sound is adequate.

    In truth When The Daltons Rode is not a great classic western, but it’s fair, good natured fun for those of us that remember the blue remembered hills of childhood, the fringed cowboy hats (’Kiss Me Quick’ removed when your older brother has done with it) and chrome silver six shooters, accompanied by much slapping of thighs as we galloped into sunsets on endless summer evenings. Of course, home in time for a glass of Dandelion and Burdock plus a hastily slapped together salmon paste and butter doorstep.

    And we had to water the horses…

    Go West… December 7, 2006

    Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 4 comments

    Gather round the campfire boys, for a tin plate filled with something indeterminately brown, a mess ‘o beans, some hot joe, and a peek through suitably narrowed eyes at three ’70s westerns…

    Breakheart Pass (1975) 

    Tom Mix meets Agatha Christie could possibly sum up Tom Gries’s 1975 western Breakheart Pass. Based on the eponymous Alistair MacLean novel, this is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘whatthehellisgoingon?’. But it’s decent, undemanding fun that’s enlivened by a good cast, beautiful Lucien Ballard cinematography, a very hummable Jerry Goldsmith main theme, and some excellent stuntwork choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt.

    A train is speeding through the snowy mountain passes of Nevada (actually it’s Idaho, but we’ll not nit-pick…), taking much needed medical supplies and troop replacements for the stricken men of a U.S. Army outpost. Stopping for water, they also pick up a Deputy Marshal (the ever excellent Ben Johnson) who has just apprehended a low down skunk killer and - gasp - card sharp (we’re not told which crime is worse) John Deacon (Charles Bronson).

    But something nasty is waiting at the end of the line and no-one on the train is quite what they seem…

    MacLean, who also scripted this couldn’t really write a damn; but his books had a certain popular ‘unputdownable’ appeal that meant millions of readers worldwide and film deal after film deal. His real skill was in the story; he could plot up a storm even if his prose was considered clunky and his dialogue, risible. Example; Bronson to the only man on board wearing cooks whites: “You must be Carlos; the chef.” Well, duh, Sherlock.

    Most of the time we don’t know what on earth’s happening (a MacLean signature) as we are drip fed little bits of narrative - men disappear, men die, the train ploughs on and on through a chilly, snowbound landscape. Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) is clearly up to no good (he is a politician after all), the Reverend, he’s played by shifty Bill McKinney, so he’s got to be a bad ‘un (or is he..?), and Charles Durning’s there, so he could go either way, as could Ed Lauter and David Huddleston. As for Deacon the neon light flashes early on that he’s no killer and soon we, and Maria (Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland) are rooting for him to, well, do whatever the hell he’s doing.

    The gorgeous scenery and veteran locomotive make for striking imagery for Ballard to play with. The veteran Canutt, second unit directing a stunt team that includes his own son, does so with great verve and we get the obligatory fight atop the train scene; we even get a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ indian attack - hurrah!

    If anything, in style and plotting, Breakheart Pass almost has the structure of a silent western. The dialogue, thankfully, is pared down to a minimum and there’s a decent amount of action to keep us on the edge of our seats. What do you mean those aren’t medical supplies? The men in the Fort aren’t sick - they’ve been taken prisoner by Red Beard (a badly dubbed John Mitchum, brother of Robert and clearly not on the same acting planet) and a band of renegade injuns? Hang on, who just decoupled the troop carriage…heavens to Betsy, who will save the day? At the risk of repeating myself; well, duh…

    The denouement is a tad disappointing, as both the train and MacLean seem to run out of steam. The odds are firmly in favour of the men in the white hats, of course, and there’s a gunfight for Deacon to win before he can ride off with the girl. As said, undemanding stuff, but this is damn fine fluff, Bronson is always watchable and it’s entertainment that leaves one smiling. Breakheart Pass remains one of my many guilty pleasures. I love the stylised Saul Bass influenced (who hasn’t he influenced?) main titles, which for some reason I can’t explain (though it’s almost certainly time, place and genre), remind me of TV’s The Virginian; but then again it is a cracking Goldsmith theme playing behind them. Once in my head, I just can’t get it out…

    This R1 disc is from the MGM/UA range, and as such I always approach them with fear and trepidation such has been MGM’s treatment of the UA catalogue generally. It’s not bad; a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (and full screen on the flip side), with a few nicks and marks and a little dirt, but nothing too intrusive. Colours, in the main, are pretty good. The mono soundtrack is quite good. The only subtitles are French and Spanish.

    The Hunting Party (1971)

    You know exactly where you are with The Hunting Party right from the off; Frank Calder (the brilliant, much-missed Oliver Reed) and his gang butcher a calf, cutting hunks of flesh off its still warm carcass and greedily devouring them. At the same moment, brutal cattle baron Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) - whose animal we assume Frank has killed - is viciously raping his wife Melissa (Candice Bergen), the last act before he sets off on an annual hunting trip with his millionaire buddies. Not Riders of The Purple Sage then.

    When Frank mistakes Melissa for a schoolteacher and kidnaps her in order to get her to teach him to read, Ruger and his hunting party decide to set their long range rifle sights on a much more dangerous game than buffalo…

    Dismissed by some as a throwaway Euro-western, it’s a tale that stumbles (sometimes awkwardly) into Peckinpah territory (and that’s not simply because of the presence of LQ Jones). Indeed, hack director Don Medford, a mainstay of American TV from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Untouchables, Mrs Columbo (I know, I know…) and The Colbys, even tries a little fast editing and slow motion to quite good effect, but Frank’s relationship with his fellow gang members - which Peckinpah would have explored in greater depth - is, understandably perhaps, rarely touched on.

    Bergen’s character’s fate is to be raped and raped again (then nearly raped), but her decision to turn to Frank is not as baffling as it might seem. Indeed all the lead roles are nicely done (even some of the second string roles, where the English members of the cast blend seamlessly with the Americans), particularly Reed who pulls off the western ‘hard man’ role with greater success than Connery did in Shalako. Hackman doesn’t have a lot to do save glower and be thoroughly nasty, though who better?

    It’s an almost great film, but nevertheless an engrossing tale that almost manages to transcend its graphic brutality; it doesn’t revel in buckets of blood as many from this era did (trying to ‘out-Leone’ Leone, the misguided seemed to think that pointless violence was the way), it simply attempts to be as realistic as it can, though, it has to be said, the repeated rapes are hard to take. The ending is shocking, almost inevitable, yet thought provoking; I can only imagine that writer Lou Morheim must have gone through, or been the observer of, a particularly messy divorce. Kill ‘em all; let the lawyers sort ‘em out.

    MGM’s 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on the R1 disc I viewed is merely okay. It’s quite soft, and watching the nice full colours in the trailer (which is in good shape), it appears a little washed out too. So, it could be better, but I think this is about as good as it’s going to get, and at the price it’s hard to gripe too much. The mono sound is fine; and a word here for Riz Ortolani’s sub-Morricone score, which is nicely done.

    Valdez is Coming (1971)

    Mexican American Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a constable, a deputised lawman in the Mexican quarter of a fly-blown, pissant little Texan border town. Bob is tired and weary, worn down from years of being kicked around by his white bosses, his hunched shoulders and wheedling obsequiousness coming as second nature. But it wasn’t always like that.

    Our film opens as Bob comes across a riotous carnival of racist viciousness; men and boys -  whole families - pound away with rifles, shotguns and pistols at the pitiful shack of a man the local gang boss, Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), has fingered as the killer of the one-time husband of his current squeeze. The fact that the man is black and has an Apache squaw in tow, only adds to the ‘fun’.

    Lawman Valdez takes it on himself to stop the violence, but when it all goes horribly wrong, thanks to cowardly R.L. Davis (Richard Jordan), Bob finds himself degraded, abused and ultimately tortured - crucified indeed - by Tanner and his men.

    Valdez must make a stand; and it’s now that Tanner finds out he’s not dealing with the town ‘greaser’, but with a highly skilled professional manhunter and former 7th Cavalry sergeant, a man who fought the Indian wars, who went toe to toe with Geronimo, under the command of Brigadier General George Crook.

    1971’s Valdez is Coming is a neat, intelligent, western with a fine cast; former theatre director Edwin Sherin handles not only the consummate professional Lancaster, but also first timer Cypher and newcomers Hector Elizondo (who delivers the fateful message ‘Valdez is coming…’) and Jordan pretty well, though only Lancaster manages to make his character thoroughly interesting. The others are mere sketches of stock characters; the rat (Jordan), the sadistic boss (Cypher), loyal friend Diego (Frank Silvera), and so on. Having said that, Susan Clark makes the most of not very much in the part of ‘Gay Erin’, Tanner’s woman, and Barton Heyman does the same as Tanner’s ambiguous lieutenant ‘El Sugundo’.

    But it’s Lancaster’s movie and it’s fascinating watching him morph from the town punch bag into a one-man army, capable of taking a man down at 1,000 yards with his Sharp’s buffalo rifle. It could easily have become cliched in the hands of one less skilled, but Lancaster, baby blues and all, gives his honourable Mexican American an innate nobility even when he is shamelessly playing the white man’s game. And you’ll see that this legendary actor, well into middle age, doesn’t shirk from his role’s more physical aspects.

    This is never less than interesting material provided by screenwriter Roland Kibbee who adapted Elmore Leonard’s source novel; it’s not the first time Leonard has tackled racism in a western setting. He covered much the same territory in the excellent Hombre, filmed four years earlier with Paul Newman.

    There’s a wonderful scene with Lancaster and Silvera who act out the roles of master and slave, the latter a role that their characters have played all their lives, their sad smiles saying much about the hand that life has dealt them. Sherin underscores this when old Bob gazes at a dog-eared photograph of General Crook and the 7th; a uniformed Valdez is there standing tall and proud on his own, away from the group, an outsider even then. Late on there’s a super exchange between Valdez and El Segundo, with the latter weighing whether he should kill the former:

    El Segundo: “You ever hunt buffalo?’”
    Valdez: (looking at him with a quiet defiance) “Apache.”
    El Segundo: “When?”
    Valdez: (slight pause) “Before I knew better.”

    If Sherin has a major flaw it’s that he doesn’t handle the action scenes too well, he doesn’t engage viscerally in the same way as Peckinpah. But what both Leonard and Sherin do very well is set up a terrific ending; don’t worry I won’t give it away for those that haven’t seen it, save to say it’s one of these satisfying yet totally unexpected endings that’s so well written, so well performed that it leaves the viewer with a warm glow, having been slapped right in the kisser by a tremendous cinematic high.

    MGM’s R1 disc, under the ‘Western Legends’ umbrella, is available very cheaply; I point this out because, like many of their United Artists back catalogue DVD releases, it’s not much to write home about. First we have a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer that is a times awful and then really quite good often in the same scene. Early on there’s evident print damage, scratches, even what appear to be water marks, but things do improve. Colours are pretty faded, and the Spanish filming locations look pretty drab as a result. I repeat, things do pick up in particularly in the last couple of reels; the picture is nice and sharp, colours are excellent and marks are fewer - a mixed bag. The mono sound is adequate.

    Despite that slightly worrying DVD report card, Valdez is Coming is a good enough western to earn a recommendation without hesitation.

    Oh, What A Glorious Thing To Be… December 6, 2006

    Posted by John Hodson in : DVD News & Info, British Film , add a comment

    For fans of vintage British entertainment - and surely there must be one or two of us still around - the news in my last post of the upcoming DVD release of George Formby’s first film proper, 1934’s Boots! Boots!, by DD Home Entertainment, should cultivate the hope that this must herald further DVD announcements featuring the man who was - in a country that now seems far, far away gentle reader - a veritable film superstar, a huge money making machine for the British film industry.

    Boots! Boots! is now up for pre-order at Play.com where it says:

    George Formby stars together with his wife Beryl in his very first feature film, a musical comedy that helped to launch him to stardom! George plays John Willie, the shoeshine boy at the posh Crestonian Hotel. He’s a cheeky little man with no time for authority, a head full of dreams, a pocketful of songs and a heart full of love for the hotel’s scullery maid (Beryl Formby). After causing more than his fair share of chaos at the hotel, he finally gets the chance to redeem himself - and show off his hidden musical talents - when he finds himself topping the bill at the hotel’s Gala Cabaret Night!

    For Formby fans, this early performance features a host of moments to treasure including rare song performances - Why Don’t Women Like Me?, Sitting on the Ice in the Ice Rink and I Could Make a Good Living at That - George accompanying wife Beryl’s tap routines on mouth organ and ukulele and a duet with Beryl on Baby.

    This special DVD edition has been extensively restored to include a number of ‘lost’ scenes originally cut from the film on its re-release in 1938. Among these is the musical number performed by a young Betty Driver (Coronation Street’s Betty Turpin).

    Ah, the formidable Beryl - and Betty Driver, by the way; another big, big star in her day, now more famous for her ‘otpots, humongous floral print dresses, and being largely ignored by ‘our Gordon’ (the ungrateful whelp!). I digress.

    IMDB says that Boots! Boots! was: “Re-released in an edited 52-minute version. For many years this was thought to be the only available print. However, in 2000, a nitrate version of the original full-length film was found, and is in the process of being restored.”

    It looks like this is the fruit of that restoration. Exciting news n’est pas?

    Meanwhile, ITV DVD seems determined to sneak DVD releases out without anyone noticing. Largely unheralded, they’ve recently released the previously mentioned David Lean Collection and an 11-disc Powell and Pressburger Collection superceding their 9-disc set with the addition of Black Narcissus and The Tales of Hoffman. From what I can gather, extras seem largely as before, and I’m not even sure they’ve been able to port across the extras currently on the version of Black Narcissus Network licensed out from Granada Ventures. Interestingly a shot of the rear of the box I managed to locate on the web reveals the logos not only of ITV DVD, but also of Studio Canal and Optimum (does that mean, with Optimum prepping an SE of Peeping Tom, we’ll see a 12 disc set at some point?).

    The $64,000 question is; does the box contain spiffy new transfers? The recent French releases of many of these P&P films were highly lauded, and I rather fancy - well, indeed I hope - they the standard of the transfers be replicated in this new box; any information one way or the other will be gratefully received!

    Back to marketing by stealth; it looks like ITV DVD is also behind the six disc Arthur Askey Collection: Miss London Ltd., King Arthur Was A Gentleman, I Thank You, Bees In Paradise, Band Wagon, Backroom Boy due in January.

    That’s a very attractive price for the set don’t you think? Even though it’s almost certain to be extras free. Also at HMV, you’ll find each of those titles in the collection available individually for £3.99 each. Again, that set, featuring a veteran of stage, screen, radio and TV, a giant of the British entertainment world - I kid you not - has just popped up without fanfare at several etailers, which, when ITV DVD obviously wants to sell as many shiny little discs as it can, is all very strange…

    Lastly, I promised to keep you up to speed on that new 16-disc Will Hay Collection; as feared, it didn’t appear as scheduled, but Amazon has a new date - September 17, 2007. Fingers crossed. If you can’t wait that long, and are currently ‘Hay-less’, the 9-disc set can be found at several etailers under £18.

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