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Watching Brief; Don’t Go ‘Round Tonight… October 30, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Watching Brief , 2 comments

For Hallowe’en, Watching Brief scorns the accusations of being a corny old hack, and serves up a smörgåsbord of seasonal horror film recommendations…

The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Suspending belief in the existence of werewolves is small beer to imagining the towering Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of the diminutive Claude Rains, not to mention Universal’s all-purpose ‘mittel yurpean’ set of what is allegedly a picturesque Welsh village. We won’t even go into the variety of mid-Atlantic accents, the absence of anyone sounding remotely like Max Boyce replaced by a veritable Cook’s Tour of the English regions, or the fact that Larry Talbot’s 18 year stay in the Land of the Free has rubbed off all the traces of his ‘little Lord Fauntleboyo’ upbringing.

The Wolf Man

Nevertheless, this Curt Siodmak scripted telling of the werewolf legend makes Talbot’s lycanthrope into the ultimate tragic horror figure, and perhaps the most interesting of Universal’s unholy three; cursed to became half man, half wolf ‘when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright’, and to kill those that are nearest and dearest to him. Well, those nearest to him are certainly in big trouble.

The Wolf Man is a thinly veiled allegory on the beast that lurks within man; Talbot is hunky dory until he’s smitten by a gal, takes her into the woods (for a, ah, walk y’know) and gets bitten by Bela the gipsy (Bela Lugosi), who isn’t, puzzlingly, half man half wolf at the time, but all wolf. Thereafter, he’s in the grip of unimaginable forces, and driven to do heavens knows what to Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Gasp.

There’s more than one way to skin a Hays Code…

Tightly written, and neatly directed by George Waggner, with iconic makeup by the real star of The Wolf Man, the great Jack Pierce. From this distance it’s also important to underline that the special effects added a real wow factor. The transfer from Universal, is excellent; they intend to do it all over again with a new special edition DVD set, they’re just waiting on the remake to get to our cinemas early next year. A toothsome prospect. I used to be a werewolf, but (altogether now), I’m alright nooooooow-ow-ow-ooowwwwww!

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Four years on from the incidents in The Wolf Man (only two years in filming terms), we discard the Great Big Book of Lycanthropic Legend, to bring poor, dead, hirsute Larry Talbot back to life. Open the casket, out with the wolfbane, a shaft of moonlight and pretty soon we’re all humming a snatch of the Creedence.

‘I see a bad moon risin’…

All semblance of anything that passes for logic goes out the window, as Larry seeks out Maleva (the always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya), and she has a solution to Mr Talbot’s problem. He wants to die, so let’s hit the high road to ‘Vasaria’ to find Baron Frankenstein, as he holds the secrets of life and death; who better? I mean, honestly.

‘I see trouble on the way…’

Slight impediment. Larry finds the Baron is now dead (obviously, not that much of a master of life and death), but needs to find his ‘Secret Diaries’, for within he’ll get the answers. As you would; ‘Dear Secret Diary, created a monster today, also found a way to kill werewolves, better than those rotten silver bullets (must nip down the patent office…)’

Before he does, Larry wakes the monster (Bela Lugosi), and, well, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Mannering (don’t ask) is mouthing the words of Frankenstein’s diaries like some remedial pupil in ‘Special School’, and mind bogglingly gasps: “I must see Frankenstein’s creation AT FULL POWER!” Uh, oh…

‘…don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life…’

Poor Bela has no dialogue (ironically, the reason Lugosi turned down the James Whale original); preview audiences laughed at his Hungarian accent and all his lines were cut. Worse, the scene where the monster explains he’s nearly blind is excised, so his arms outstretched stagger looks plain daft, though it’s now the lazy, de rigueur method of impersonating said creature at fancy dress parties.

It’s deliriously loopy, but all the more lovable for it; you can imagine a young Mel Brooks watching, and taking notes. Universal’s transfer is, like many of their films from this era, quite super.

The Quatermass Xperiment (R2 DVD); seminal Hammer horror/sci-fi, from Nigel Kneale’s 1953 hit TV series, condensed for the big screen by Richard Landau and director Val Guest. It was Guest’s cunning plan to give the whole a kind of docu-drama feel, and weighing in at a lean 82 minutes (as opposed to the three hour TV production), the narrative fair gallops along. There isn’t a moment of wasted footage.

Hammer’s decision to place Americans as both the male and female leads (Margia Dean as ‘Judith Carroon’ and Brian Donlevy as ‘Professor Bernard Quatermass’) was purely commercial. Dean, it seems obvious, was post-dubbed for some reason, and as a result her performance suffers. But it’s Donlevy, slyly adding copious draughts of brandy to his flask of coffee during shooting, who usually comes in for most opprobrium - ‘over the hill’ and ‘wooden’ are two of more common, and more charitable, accusations. ‘Tom’ Kneale, it’s well known, was unhappy his quintessential English scientist had been replaced by an American tough (and usually bad) guy actor. In truth, as Guest opines on the DVD commentary track, he’s more than adequate, with his Quatermass driven, determined and no-nonsense - frankly, there’s not much screen time for anything else. Besides; I do like Donlevy, sober…or drunk. Allegedly.

The Quatermass Xperiment

While most other sci-fi (Kneale hated the term) films of the period of this kind - i.e. alien invasion - particularly Hollywood product, were simple allegories of the Cold War, Kneale’s piece could be read similarly, though the hugely influential British writer was far too complex for such a simplistic interpretation. Kneale was warning of hubris; when an arrogant, immature mankind reaches out into the unknown, he risks getting his fingers badly burnt.

It’s Richard Wordsworth’s doomed ‘Victor Carroon’ who commands the screen, the actor wordlessly conveying the nascent spaceman’s agony and sheer bloody terror as he transmogrifies into a planet threatening combination of species and lifeforms, with obvious comparisons to, and just as deadly as, the carrot from outer space that was The Thing From Another World. By the by, in his remake of the latter, John Carpenter, a huge Kneale fan, had his ‘Thing’ share a few more characteristics with Carroon than carrot…

The amiable Guest, who made his name with a series of easy going comedies, adapts to a genre that would set Hammer down a profitable path for two decades with effortless ease. He handles the screening of the spine-tingling mute cabin footage beautifully, the scene still oozing a squirming, chilly, menace half a century and more later. Much of the credit here must also go to composer James Bernard, making his film debut and the man whose scores would become Hammer signatures; here, as it does throughout the film, Bernard’s subtle yet ligature tight cue winds the tension.

Wonderful stuff, and the first in a trilogy of Hammer Quatermass (the ‘Xperiment’ of the title was to capitalise on the BBFC certification) films all of which, I simply could not resist watching again.

Incidentally, IMDB lists the OAR for The Quatermass Xperiment as 1.66:1, but also says:

“…This film was originally slated to be released in the United States by 20th Century Fox. However, to convince more exhibitors to install Cinemascope equipment, studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, pledged that all future 20th Century Fox releases would be in Cinemascope or a compatible anamorphic process. Since this Hammer production was shot in standard Academy, it had to be passed over. It was picked up and released through United Artists…”

The BFI can’t even confirm the AR; filmed during 1954 when the world was becoming wide, it’s more than possible that Guest had it shot in 1.66:1 but protected for 1.33:1. I gave it go for the first time at a ratio as close to 1.66:1 as I could. The credits are very tight, but thereafter it looks reasonable with no cut-off heads; However, I reverted to 1.33:1 the moment Dr. Brisco spots the slime trail at the zoo; wide, Brisco looks alarmed, but the trail, at the bottom of the screen, is out of shot.

On the whole, I think I prefer my ‘Xperiment’ in 1.33:1; I don’t think there’s any doubting it was framed thus (EDIT; since writing this, I’ve learned that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong - not only is the DVD badly cropped, but Exclusive Films switched to 1.66:1 in 1953. Never too old to learn…). DDHE’s video transfer is quite good, nice and sharp with decent contrast. There’s a constant background hiss to the soundtrack, and sound levels vary, but it’s not unduly distracting. I hear MGM have prepped a HD version in the US and a Blu-ray presentation would be more than welcome, though the way catalogue releases are shaping up Stateside, I’m not about to hold my breath.

The Quatermass Experiment (R2 DVD); The 1953 television broadcast, or at least what remains of it. The first two parts are all that remain of the BBC’s gripping six-parter. Broadcast live, the initial brace of episodes were thankfully also captured on film; as you might expect, with three hours to play with, Kneale’s horrifying tale of the possible consequences of exploring the unknown has time to breathe. Thus, there are more characters (including a surprisingly sympathetic journalist) and greater characterisation (Quatermass comes across as far more conflicted, indeed desperate, about the havoc his British Rocket Group may have unwittingly wrought), it’s tremendously frustrating we have to leave the BBC dramatisation only a third of the way in.

It’s understandable Kneale was unhappy with Donlevy; his Quatermass is hardly as he envisaged and Reginald Tate plays him most effectively, but then again, he has time to characterise - watching the later Hammer production unfold, how the Manxman must have agonised over all that lost exposition.

The TV production seems to have the budget of half an episode of The Flowerpot Men, as we switch - live don’t forget - from a tiny sparse set to an even tinier and sparser part of the same studio. ‘So the comic strips were right’ says an awestruck onlooker at one point ‘they do wear those kinds of suits.’ Within eight years, the truth would out - spacemen did not in fact wear an odd mix of items fashioned after vintage diving gear, the lot bought wholesale by the Beeb costumers from the Portobello Road Army & Navy Storesvery disappointing!

Despite that, these tantalising snippets of The Quatermass Experiment transcend any problems; you can see why it left a nation spellbound, and Hammer films eager to get their chequebook out. Quatermass would not only provide a template for successive generations of film-makers, but would also enter the language to become a convenient shorthand for hyperbole prone hacks in search of a sensation seeking headline. Kneale’s creation entered the public consciousness to the extent that even those that have never seen the good professor in action have some idea what the dropping of his name entails. Bad things. Very bad things.

Picture quality is exactly as you would expect for 55-years-old TV, and some of the bugbears are part and parcel of the original production; no time to set things up ‘just so’, so the lighting sometimes causes unwanted lens flares, cues are missed and so on. Given all that, it’s not bad but it’s hardly the best example of vintage television preserved digitally, though probably it doesn’t differ much in this respect from the day it was first transmitted. Live TV folks, ’50s style. And it emptied pubs and churches the length and breadth of the land.

The mono sound is actually pretty good, Holst’s Mars hammered out effectively over those stylish main titles. The 2|entertain box set from which it hails, containing all three BBC productions - with the quite fabulous Quatermass And The Pit easily the stand-out - comes very highly recommended

Quatermass II (R1 DVD); Three years after the release of the first film, and Hammer again follows the Beeb’s lead. This time Kneale combines sci-fi and horror with a deep-seated paranoia. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Kneale warned of alien invasion from outer space. Here, it’s an enemy that’s already established and it’s happened even before the opening credits roll; the invaders have infiltrated society at the very highest echelons, both Government and the Police. The population isn’t aware that they are becoming zombie slave workers or, in one instance, being prepped as the main ingredient in a rather nasty inter-galactic bouillabaisse.

Quatermass II

The original BBC script is adapted for the screen this time by Kneale himself with director Val Guest, and once again, the pace is relentless (even if the geography is suspect; Carlisle being a short ride, apparently, from Parliament Square). It feeds Cold War angst of an enemy within, the fears that enemy invasion could be insidious and covert, rather than the wholly overt threat of the first story. Of course, it also reads that you can’t trust anyone, even - or especially - our political masters. The alien landscape of the Shell Haven refinery in Essex proves the ideal location for the supposed manufacturing base for a ’synthetic food’; perhaps the most startling image in the whole film is of the bluff northern MP ‘Broadhead’ (Tom Chatto) covered in a skin-stripping slime, staggering, his smoking flesh boiling, down the ladder of one of the refinery’s huge, unearthly, domes.

This time, there is no doubt about the original aspect ratio; Anchor Bay’s R1 DVD is transferred open-matte, and zooms to 1.66:1 beautifully. The transfer is excellent and the sound mostly nigh on perfect, the chatter of the machine guns given a satisfying thud, and the screams of the ‘thing’ suitably vast and otherworldly. As he does on the DVD of the first film, Val Guest again features on an interesting commentary track, his age at the time of recording no impediment to recalling incidents on and off the set.

Quatermass & The Pit (R1 DVD); the last of the triumvirate of Hammer Quatermass films, and it takes a Scot to get closer to the heart of the English Prof. Bernard Quatermass. 12 years after their last stab at Nigel Keale’s creation, and nine after the Beeb broadcast the TV version of the same story, once again director Roy Ward Baker has to tell the story condensed from a three-hour original at a fair lick.

Kneale eschews the paranoia of the his ‘Q X’ and ‘Q II’ for a mix of ghosties, ghoulies, the paranormal and science - aliens not a million miles from those unseen propagators of planets in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001; A Space Odessey. Good to see James Donald and Barbara Shelley (who is weirdly erotic even here; it’s not just me surely?), but Julian Glover is a little young for the blustering warrior Colonel Breen I feel.

The story builds but, unlike the TV presentation, the genuine chills are few; it sorely misses a James Bernard score, Tristram Cary’s cues a little workaday. However the sound department - taking their cue from the broadcast series - works overtime to cover in this respect with aural effects that help to build tension. If I appear to be a little harsh on the film, I temper that by saying it’s a favourite. Honest. But simply, having now seen the original BBC presentation with André Morell, that towers above it. Yes; it really is that good.

Quatermass & The Pit

The climax is exciting, and nicely achieved, though what the hell was James Donald thinking of? Madness… Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is non-anamorphic, but hails from a clean print.

The Black Cat (R1 DVD); Not the Edward G. Ulmar horror, but the cornball 1941 version with Bela Lugosi lurking about in the shadows, while folks are bumped off in ‘the old dark house’ - Broderick Crawford and Anne Gwynne play the roles Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard did with far more aplomb over at Paramount, while Gale Sondergaard is, well, Gale Sondergaard. Crawford asks of Basil Rathbone at one point: ‘Who do you think you are - Sherlock Holmes?’

Lots of running around, secret passages and amusing business by Hugh Herbert; the kind of thing Universal chucked off in five minutes during the war years to keep folks minds off the fact that the world was going to hell in a handcart. Alan Ladd is bottom of the cast list, but was bumped higher on the posters as audiences were wowed by the simultaneous release of This Gun For Hire.

Perfect late night viewing from Universal (and another nice transfer) that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Man Made Monster (R1 DVD); Take one mad scientist (Lionel Atwill), add an unlikely premise (’electro-biology’), stir in a big, daft affable dupe (Lon Chaney Jr.), season with stock characters (the blonde, the investigative reporter), leave to simmer for about an hour - et voila! A typical Universal horror cheapie, and one that it notable for setting Chaney’s career down a path that both carved his name in movie history, and cursed him to a life on the undercard. It was off the back of Man Made Monster that Chaney got the part of Larry Talbot, another unwitting, doomed monster, one that simply refused to die.

Man Made Monster has Chaney’s ‘Dan McCormick’ able to absorb huge amounts of electricity, and doing so for some unexplained reason, it gives him superhuman strength and makes him the willing slave to Atwill’s ‘Dr Paul Rigas’, a man who is clearly several shillings short of a full leccy meter.

McCormick kills ‘Dr. John Lawrence’ (Samuel S. Hinds - oh no, not that nice Peter Bailey!), he’s then hoicked off to die in the electric chair. Not a good idea. Duly energised by being zapped, and zapped again and again (and again), a glowing McCormick goes on a rampage, carries away ‘June Lawrence’ (Anne Nagel) in true monster stylee, then meets his nemesis - barbed wire. Oh, watch it yourself…

Universal’s transfer is just pristine, with excellent contrast, there’s nary a mark and the mono soundtrack is spot on. There are English (HoH) and French subtitles.

Plague of The Zombies (R1 DVD); Following on from watching the Beeb’s excellent Quatermass & The Pit, I was in the mood for more André Morell. It was Mike Parkinson and Granada’s Cinema that first had me hiding behind the sofa at clips of this as a 10-year-old, and it’s always had a special place in my heart. Plague of The ZombiesI still think the nightmare sequence is one of the most chilling to be found in any Hammer film, indeed - even in a genre now dominated by tawdry horror pornography - any horror. And it is the reason, if I take a short cut through the cemetery, I scurry, occasionally glancing nervously over my shoulder, watching the newly dug earth for signs of movement. My flesh creeps just to think about it.

It’s neatly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed a number of other Hammers, notably The Pirates of Blood River, as well as the effective The Flesh & The Fiends and The Night Caller (not to mention a slew of Department S episodes). Morell’s ‘Good’ is nicely matched by John Carson’s ‘Evil’ squire, and full marks to Roy Ashton’s makeup, Les Bowie’s effects which combine with James Bernard’s score (there really is no substitute when it comes to Hammer) to culminate in a notable chiller. Even if the pay-off proves to be ever so slightly bananas.

Anchor Bay’s transfer is quite good; there’s some evident print damage in the first reel, but’s pretty strong thereafter and the mono soundtrack is more than adequate.

Cue maniacal Vincent Price laugh, a creaky coffin lid closing, end titles; happy All Hallows’ Eve…

Watching Brief; Hammered… October 18, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Watching Brief , 2 comments

TEN MORE FROM Watching Brief; in the order in which they were viewed… 

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976; R2 DVD); What really happened during the period when Sherlock Holmes disappeared, temporarily as it turned out, from the pages of The Strand magazine? Nick Meyer scripts an original Holmes tale, taken from his own novel, which finds our hero in the grip of his cocaine habit and half out of his mind obsessing over an arch-enemy that only he truly believes in (’Moriarty’ - another ’70s cameo from Larry Olivier). The always riveting Nicol Williamson makes a quite superb, invigorating ’Holmes’, Alan Arkin is truly enjoyable as ‘Sigmund Freud’, and Charles Gray sketches a ‘Mycroft’ that he was to reprise opposite the late, great Jeremy Brett.

The Seven-Per-Cent SolutionAlas, no-one could pluck up the courage to tell the usually otherwise brilliant Robert Duvall (Watson) that his English accent is to the Home Counties as Dick Van Dyke’s was to the East End. Think Noel Coward with a very nasty cold. And a speech impediment. It doesn’t fatally damage the film, but it helps that Duvall’s dialogue is significantly briefer than Arkin’s (whose character is, incidentally, more Watsonian than Watson himself).

An engaging and good humoured romp, directed with considerable verve by Herbert Ross, and a great twist. Fremantle’s transfer is in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and though not unmarked, it’s pretty clean and quite handsome. It’s also very cheap; the box claims that there is a stills gallery on the disc (the solitary extra), but I’m beggared if I can find it.

The Black Shield of Falworth (1954; R2 DVD); Universal’s first film in the then brand spanking new Cinemascope format comes to DVD, and at this point, as we enter the panto season, feel free to yell: “oh no it isn’t!”

Apparently the well-publicised fire at Universal Studios a few months ago destroyed a number of video masters, and the result is, sadly, a 1.78:1 cropped print is the best they could do for this Eureka! Classics release, and the best we’ll see until they extract digit, go back to the negative and make another.

‘Falworth’ was not only shot in 2.55:1 by director Rudolph Maté, but also shot again and framed in 1.85:1 while at the same time (are you still with me?) protected for Academy ratio, so that it could be screened in any of the three formats as theatres across the U.S. scurried to go wide in the mid-’50s. But this is not a transfer of a 1.85:1 master, the opening titles trumpet ‘A Cinemascope Production’…and soon it’s fairly clear that not only is it cropped at the sides, it looks to me to be chopped top and bottom too, so tight is the framing.

The good news (and there really isn’t much after that is there) is while it’s not free of the odd specks and marks, ’Falworth’ is reasonably clean (though it could do with a digital do-over), and the colour is really quite good, not the very best that can be achieved, but quite representative of a Technicolor film of the period. As for the film, ‘Falworth’ is right into Prince Valiant territory, indeed it was Universal’s riposte to Fox’s swords ‘n shields romp of the same year. Both films featured Janet Leigh and her pointy, pointy medieval breasts, but in the end it was Robert Wagner’s pageboy haircut in a straight showdown with Tony Curtis’s carefully coiffed, mean ’n moody Middle Ages D.A.

Trial by tonsor; no contest - no-one, after all, ever walked into a barber shop and said “…gimme a Robert Wagner…”

Both pictures are great fun; ‘Valiant’ featuring Arthurian nights in a 15th century setting battling Long Horn Vikings, while ‘Falworth’ has our hero in some bizarre boot camp, marines (verily) in chain-mail, under the blazing hot Californian sun of Merry Olde England, mouthing contemporary phrases, while adding a nod to the period setting by chucking in the odd ‘prithee’ or a ‘mayhap’. What’s not to like?

The story is engaging, the stunts and set piece fights are excellent, sound engineers working overtime to add more weight to balsa lances, and resin maces, and dammit, Tony Curtis, his Bronx accent not too great an impediment, is fab. It’s just a damned shame that The Black Shield of Falworth, a landmark in the history of both Universal and ’scope, could not be presented in OAR. Kudos to Eureka! for providing the screener for this blog, knowing full well it contained disappointing news.

The Seventh Victim & The Leopard Man (Both 1943; R1 DVD); a double-bill from Warners Val Lewton box set, the former a truly eerie and unsettling story from director Mark Robson, ostensibly about urbanised devil worshippers, but, like much of the producer’s films, is really about something else, and something far more interesting, entirely. I was reminded again and again of David Lynch; the closing scene chilled my flesh, but it’s hard to pin down precisely why. Sam Shepherd, describing a Terrence Malick film once likened it to a poem that touches something within. Sometimes you just don’t know why, it defies analysis, but it’s enough that it does. Isn’t that one of the many reasons why we love movies?

Much the same can be said about Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (taken from a Cornell Woolrich novel), the opening reel of which contains a beautifully directed, and still quite spine-tingling, scene in which a young girl is savagely killed by a an escaped big black cat. As others die in similar circumstances, the film becomes a who - or what - dunnit. Both pictures are supreme examples of tight, intelligent, low budget chillers that go well beyond their remit and leave viewers begging for more.

The Ghost Ship (1943; R1 DVD); And more came the following evening in the shape of another Mark Robson film, again from 1943. Yet another cracker from Warners Lewton set - not many ghosts, well, none to be honest, but an absolutely stunning study of madness aboard the Altair (named, aptly, after the ill-omened star of astrology). Seemingly affable, intelligent, ‘Capt. Stone’ (former RKO western star Richard Dix; who knew he could act…), muses on the nature of authority with greenhorn third officer ‘Tom Merriam’ (Russell Wade), but when Merriam finds out that this extends to a homicidal God-complex, he attempts, at landfall, to have his Captain dismissed. Failing, and finding himself ostracised, Merriam gets knocked unconscious in a brawl…and by sheer bad luck, hauled back aboard the Altair where the murderous, maniacal Stone wants his revenge.

Once more, a delicious slice of top quality, low-budget, movie-making from Mark Robson, this tight 69 minute noir-like thriller is filled with quirky characters and dialogue. Robson bookends the film with another typically off-beat figure, a mute, played by the deliciously named Skelton Knaggs, and yet another whose appearance evokes Lynchian comparisons. Is there a better scripted portrayal of insanity at sea (it’s a quite small, but high quality genre…), I don’t think so (and I include The Caine Mutiny). Loved it.

Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear, 1961; R1 DVD); Four films in the new Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, and first, a Seth Holt directed Hammer shocker, scripted by the prolific Jimmy Sangster, that springs no real surprises plot-wise (okay, one…), but still has the capacity to make the viewer (yep, this viewer) jump out of his or her skin. Lots of moody, black and white deep focus, Christopher Lee (and ees verree nawty accent français…) has little to do except attract the punters, but I grow fonder and fonder of Ann Todd with each film of hers I see. Susan Strasberg and Ronald Lewis co-star. A neat, twist filled thriller that does exactly what it says on the tin.

Sony’s 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is quite beautiful and, though it may look a tad soft on occasion, I suspect it reflects the film as shown theatrically. There’s just the right amount of grain, the contrast is nigh on perfect and I could not detect one significant mark on the print. Bravo Sony. The slightly hysterical sub-Saul Bass trailer, presented in 1.85:1 and also in great shape, yells at us to make sure we see the film ‘from the start!’ But why wouldn’t we…?

All we are missing is a Sangster commentary, and perhaps a featurette on Hammer’s Hitchcockian output. It would have been the cherry on a very tasty cake.

The Gorgon (1964; R1 DVD); “There’s nothing wrong with The Gorgonsaid Christopher Lee, referring to the less than special special effects that made the rubber snakes on wires atop Magaera’s head writhe, well, like rubber snakes on wires, “except the Gorgon”. He could also have made mention of his own ludicrous wig and ‘tache, clearly a failed audition for the part of ‘Doctor Who’ that co-star Peter Cushing made his own the following year. In a ludicrous wig and fake moustache of course. Barbara Shelley, as love interest ‘Carla’, suggested to producer Anthony Nelson Keys that they use real snakes woven into a skull cap, but time and budget precluded that. After the premiere, Keys told Shelley that they should have gone ahead with her idea. Alas, too late.

Patrick Troughton and Peter Cushing - The Gorgon

In truth there is nothing wrong with The Gorgon, period. It is top quality ‘Golden Age’ Hammer, with beautiful sets and production design, a decent story, excellent cast, James Bernard at the baton, and a stirring denouement that has Cushing (hero or villain; we are kept guessing to the end) roaring about Bray, grappling with Richard Pasco, like a man possessed, and in his best ‘Van Helsing’ manner. Though I crack wise, Lee is excellent too, oddly enough his ‘Prof. Meister’ only a short nod away, in terms of character, from Stoker’s vampire expert.

Sony’s new R1 transfer is absolutely breath-taking. Again, in anamorphic 1.66:1 it boasts eye-popping colours and a level of clarity that gives it the look of a film shot, not 44 years ago, but yesterday. There is not a mark on it; it’s bloody gorgeous and, like the rest of the transfers in the Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, emanates from the original negative. The only extra is a trailer, also in 1.66:1, that appears just as newly minted.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960; R1 DVD); Terence Fisher helms this relatively lavish Hammer, ‘MegaScope’ production, the twist, courtesy of screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, being that Jekyll is a hirsute, boring, deep voiced, buffer, while Hyde is a fresh faced handsome, sotto voce young devil, both played by Canadian Paul Massie (possibly best known for The Rebel). You can’t help feeling that Christopher Lee would have been better served in the title role rather than as Jekyll’s debauched friend, and Jekyll’s wife’s lover, ‘Paul Allen’. No transformation scenes as such, a slight voice change, beard and wig whipped off/on where necessary but Massie doesn’t, I feel, quite have the acting chops to pull it off (no pun intended).

Not only - Hyde being rarely seen to be truly eee-vil and Massie looking naturally boyish - do you suspect that he’s so fiendish that the worst he does is take two lumps of sugar in his tea (the cad), but in close-up, as Jekyll, our star looks alarmingly like a Gerry Anderson puppet. Think ‘Parker’ with a beard.

Still, it’s 1960 (before sex was invented) and, for the day, some of the scenes are quite risqué (the film was banned in Finland for instance; those Finns purely loved to censor Hammer films - this is the full uncensored version). In London’s most brightly lit brothel, Fisher unwisely concentrates his camera on Norma Marla’s nethers (well, she wears a mask, so conceivably it could be a double) as she does the rumba with a large python. She then - yikes! - fellates it; the snake seems suitably unimpressed, but it is without doubt the most horrifying scene in the whole picture. Please, no more. Put it away Norma.

It is in the same setting (the brothel, not in flagrante betwixt a snake charmer’s ample thighs) that we catch our first sight of Ollie Reed in a Hammer film, as ’Nightclub Bouncer’, a proto-Bill Sykes.

There are better tellings of Stevenson’s tale out there (Lee in I, Monster being one), but there are also worse. Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is the main title music, which suggests that we are about to get a musical. Now there was an idea, since taken up by ‘The Hoff’ no less…

Another spiffy transfer from Sony, in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, not quite as boggling as The Gorgon, but really, it’s hard to fault it. Again, the only extra is a trailer, also in ’scope, also in excellent fettle.

The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964; R1 DVD); Hammer’s second entry in their short ‘Mummy’ cycle, made five years after their original, and written and directed by Michael Carreras. ‘Curse’ is a combination of Stoker’s original ‘Mummy’ story, Howard Carter’s curse of King Tut, with a smidge of King Kong chucked in. That last bit is Fred Clark’s amusing ‘Alexander King’, first cousin to ‘Carl Denham’, the showman (friend of P.T. Barnum, and the man, apparently, who named Turkish Delight) whose plan to tour the relics and remains of ‘Ra-Antef’ ends, predictably, in disaster.

Rich smoothy Terence Morgan is not quite who he first seems, but like archaeologist and love rival Ronald Howard, he also wants to gets his hands on Jeanne Roland’s undiscovered treasures, while Michael Ripper boasts, I think, his briefest ever Hammer appearance. We all know what’s coming, as lumbering, asthmatic ’Ra-Antef’ (Dickie Owen wrapped in the bandages) is revived and rampages round foggy old London town. It’s a bit Elstree bound (there’s not a single exterior) and the low budget, despite the ‘Techniscope’ pretensions, is obvious.

But ‘Curse’, despite lacking any of Hammer’s heavyweights in the cast, is not without its charms during its quite brief 80 minutes. As a horror icon, the Mummy character is always undeniably creepy, and Carreras has some fun (Ripper’s windy moment, the woman’s goosed squeal as the lights go out during King’s premiere, King’s line: “Of course I’ve got enemies, I’m in show business!”). The end suggests Hammer were hot to trot for more, which of course, they were, but it wasn’t a franchise that had real legs. It lumbered too much.

Sony’s R1 2.35: 1 transfer is another beauty; it beats the hell out of the current UK release on several counts. For a start, it has a portentious trailer (again in ’scope, and again in super condition) and a proper menu system (no scene selection menu on the R2). The picture is markedly crisper, slightly more detailed and certainly boasts better colour. The mono soundtrack is quite adequate. Like the other films in the Icons of Horror; Hammer Films set, it’s remarkably unmarked and though it hails from a HD master made from the original negative, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a Blu-ray release; buy NOW.

Charley Varrick (1973; R2 DVD); Don Siegel opens his crime thriller with a montage, a homage to small town America under the titles. It’s an odd way to introduce us to Charley Varrick and his band of bank robbers, Lalo Schifrin’s bouncy score telling us everything’s just dandy. But if we have a hero (albeit an ambivalent one) in Varrick, then perhaps it’s Siegel’s way of acquainting the audience to his idea of heaven. Charley doesn’t want much really; he just wants to get by.

Walter Matthau started his film career as a bad guy, moved smoothly into comedy, and by the ’70s had the kind of easy versatility whereby he could star in something as fairly hard-nosed as Charley Varrick in the eponymous lead. Varrick has no compunction about shooting up a small town New Mexico bank, but despite his undoubted violent criminal nature, Matthau effortlessly manages to make Charley a sympathetic anti-hero.

Maybe we’re rooting for the man whose motto is ‘The Last of The Independents’ because he stands squarely outside ‘The Combine’. It was big business that did for Varrick’s ‘mom and pop’ crop-dusting venture, and it’s the criminal version of the same who are after the bag stuffed tight with hard cash - their money - Charley inadvertently steals. Rugged individualism, so we are told, built America, and Varrick is one resourceful, rugged individual; eluding the law, the mob, and a bullet in the back from his erstwhile partner, forms the plot of the entertaining Charley Varrick. Siegel packs alot of film into his typically taut 111 minute picture; lots of neatly painted characters with excellent dialogue, and lots of business that seemingly has little to do with the narrative but gives them substantive colour; hats off, then, to Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner’s script from John Reese’s novel, The Looters.

There’s an excellent cast; Andy Robinson’s expendable, mouthy ‘Harman’ makes you wonder how Charley ever got tied up with him in the first place, Joe Don Baker’s apparently unstoppable mob hit man ‘Molly’ is a nasty sadistic racist, and hot on Charley’s tale. John Vernon is the smooth be-suited financial front for the Mafia, ‘Maynard Boyle’, who warns, sweaty, terrified bank manager ‘Harold’ (Woodrow Palfrey): “They’ll strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch”. Sounds familiar. The only mis-step is having Varrick bed Boyle’s secretary ‘Sybil’, but as she’s played by Jack Lemmon’s then wife, Felicia Farr, I suspect an in joke.

I read somewhere that Matthau didn’t care much for the film; perhaps he was uneasy with this criminal character apparently getting away with it, and at the same time winning us over. And he’s right. The ending is a bit of a stretch, but what the hell - we are all rooting for Charley Varrick, last of the independents, to get one over the big boys aren’t we?

Charley VarrickThe good news is that Fremantle’s new, very reasonably priced, R2 DVD is transferred in anamorphic 1.85:1, unlike Universal’s R1 from the despised and thankfully short lived ‘Studio Selections’ line, which was open-matte. Like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it’s not perfect; particularly in the first reel there are numerous nicks and white flecks, and reel change markers are still evident. It’s also slightly window boxed, but you shouldn’t notice this if you are watching on a monitor with any kind of overscan. Colour and detail are all, mostly, they should be and, with a nice menu design (missing totally from the R1) and good strong English mono sound; I do love a solid Schifrin score. There are no subtitles, but this time, the stills gallery is most certainly present. Overall, a pretty good effort.

I should point out that Fremantle were kind enough to also send me check discs for their latest iterations of Junior Bonner, Hell in the Pacific and They Shoot Horses Don’t They. It’s a massive disappointment to see them all cropped to 4:3 (the latter is also a horrible transfer in any format), and as such, despite their being priced lower than either the recommended The Seven-Per-Cent Solution or Charley Varrick, they get the thumbs down from me.

Watching Brief; Newman’s Own… October 12, 2008

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

LAZY, LAZY, LAZY JOHN. I sit in front of my computer screen, with all the best intentions and staring VERY hard indeed, meaning to post, promising myself. Honest injun I do. But, well, stuff - ya know; ’stuff’ - just gets in the way. How about a series (providing I can extract digit - okay; how about ’occasional’ series?) of mini-reviews describing what I’ve been viewing on DVD recently? Stuff (that other stuff won’t get in the way of) that doesn’t require too much effort, yet keeps my internet self out of intensive care and merely in rehab? Stuff like this in fact. Sounds like a plan…

In no particular order, ten from Watching Brief…

The Verdict (1982; R1 DVD); big beasts James Mason and Paul Newman slug it out for acting honours in Sidney Lumet’s cracking courtroom drama. It’s a film, scripted by David Mamet, that naturally loves language; Lumet lets the camera linger The Verdictlovingly on Newman’s voluble, electric, silences, but it’s Mamet’s magnificent dialogue that ups the voltage. Newman’s panic stricken scene where he realises that he is absolutely, totally and irrevocably screwed is a master class of screen acting. Fantastic. This was Fox’s first attempt at a DVD transfer of The Verdict with decent extra features, and while it’s acceptable, it has apparently since been bettered.

All or Nothing (2002; R2 DVD); Mike Leigh’s tale of a London taxi driver, his dysfunctional family and life on a sink estate showing that it’s grim dahn sarf. Typically hypnotic, with the ever brilliant Tim Spall in the lead, and a host of Leigh’s stock company in ‘blink and you’ll miss ‘em’ roles. The two hours plus running time flies by, but the unsatisfying conclusion appears oddly rushed and against all expectations. Not first rank Leigh, but even then better than most. Nice transfer from Pathé; I have yet to listen to Leigh’s commentary, but, if past efforts are any measure, it’s bound to be fascinating.

No Country For Old Men (2007; Region Free BD); The Coens at the top of their game, with all the visual and verbal pyrotechnics that marks the brothers very best work. Essentially a chase film, it begs questions that most men of a certain age must ask themselves about fate and chance and our place in a dead eyed world that regards us without pity or sentiment. Ostensibly the narrative follows good (Tommy Lee Jones) who chases evil (the wonderful Javier Bardem), as evil chases Josh Brolin’s suddenly cash rich Llwellyn Moss. Moss, with $2m in white hot drugs money under his arm, stands in a nether world between the two; mere happenstance led him to that case crammed with crisp $100 bills, the moment he picked it up, Moss put it all on the line. The whole bundle. Everything.

Jones, heading a fine cast, proves himself, once again, one of the finest screen actors working today, and the brothers Coen, well, they have nothing to prove really. But prove it they do.

My first BD viewing; yes, I know what I wrote a few posts back, but I was doomed the moment I saw clips of How The West Was Won in Smilebox. Damn you George Feltenstein…

Paramount’s Blu-ray presentation of No Country For Old Men is impeccable, or at least, if it’s not, I cannot see how it can get any better with a lossless audio track that’s as impressive as the visuals are eye-wateringly sharp. Accompanying featurettes pay handsome homage to the Coens, and quite rightly so.

Macbeth (1948; R2 DVD); Welles version of The Scottish Play famously bombed on it’s premiere (apparently Stateside audiences had problems with the accents) Macbethand it wasn’t until relatively recent years that the original version, as premiered, surfaced once more. Welles monkeys around with the Bard a little (who hasn’t?), shuffling characters, lines even whole speeches, to cram the text into 107 minutes. It was a play of which he was intensely intimate, having triumphed with it on stage for over a decade; the result is a work incredibly imaginative, accessible and polished, yet supremely cinematic. While the whole defies the budget and speed of shooting (21 days) some of the imagery is typically, and mind bogglingly, breath-taking, as Welles homicidal and psychotic Thane bestrides a brutal, alien landscape.

The Mercury Theater’s actor manager long suffered under the burden of being dubbed ‘genius’; there is no other word, frankly. 

Second Sight’s transfer starts off a little shakily, but gets significantly better after the first 20 minutes or so, is available cheaply and well worth adding to your collection.

The Spanish Gardener (1956; R2 DVD); Dirk Bogarde reunited with his young Scots co-star Jon Whiteley from Charles Crichton’s Hunted four years earlier, and as cracking as that film was, Philip Leacock’s The Spanish Gardener is pisspoor. Bogarde was never too comfortable playing workin’ clarrrss fugs (the reasons explained, to some degree, in his recently published letters), but he just gets away with it in Hunted. Here, he deals with impersonating Jose, the eponymous gardener, by the simple expedient of blessing him with the accent of a contemporary BBC newsreader (World Service), and the fashion sense, oddly, of not a horny handed son of toil but a fast rising, louche, British act-or…

The boy’s Scottish accent is explained away by the fact his mother lives north of the border, while father Michael Horden, whose received English has impinged on the boy not one jot, grumps around being a royal pain in the arse, painfully arrogant and keeping both the child and Johnny Foreigner firmly in his place. It really is tedious, inconsequential fluff.

Optimum’s transfer, part of the generally very good Dirk Bogarde; Screen Icon Collection, is merely okay, the colours are a little faded, and the print is dirty and scratched. But the real disappointment is that it’s a VistaVision film, which should look much better, and is presented not only full-frame, but, I suspect, cropped heavily on both sides (and thus not even open-matte).

The Appaloosa (1966; R1 DVD); What seems vibrant, imaginative and in keeping with the whole in the stylish The Ipcress File (down to Peter Hunt’s superb editing or am I being unkind?), gets plain bloody irritating during Sidney J. Furie’s Mexican western. I lost count of the number of over the shoulder (hat, rump, gun, you name it…) shots, and every nook and cranny is used as a frame. It’s almost a parody of a Furie film.

As each shot is reshot, relit and come at again from every conceivable (and inconceivable) angle, I empathised more and more with lead Marlon Brando. His patience with Furie snapped early on, to the point where he refused to acknowledge his director, preferring to pointedly read a book on set from the moment Furie said ‘Cut’ until he begged his moody star into ‘Action’ once again.

Pretty in parts, but fer cripes sake Sid, keep the bloody camera still. Part of Universal’s Marlon Brando Collection, the transfer, as per most recent efforts from the studio, is typically excellent.

Brothers In Law (1957; R2 DVD); There’s something uniquely comforting about a Boulting Brothers comedy. Set in time like a mosquito in amber, they have a reassuring niceness, and a sense of culture that’s only a short, slightly more vulgar, step away from Ealing’s England. It is, as we know, a country that never really existed but we wish with all our hearts that it did. Brothers In Law features a wonderful cast from the Boulting’s stock company; it doesn’t glitter as, say, the more acerbic I’m Alright Jack, but it’s amiable enough. Ian Carmichael plays yet another hapless lead (nobody did it better), and any film with Miles Malleson in the castlist is usually the guarantee of a pretty good time. Later to become both a hit radio and TV series with Richard Briers as the bumbling junior barrister.

Optimum’s DVD transfer, part of their Terry-Thomas Collection, is a little shaky, and doesn’t take too kindly to being zoomed to 1.85:1 (which looks a little better than 1.66:1, but either will do) from open-matte, but it’s watchable. It’s hardly a Terry-Thomas film by the way; the Great Gap plays the junior part of, believe it or not, a Cock-er-nee wide boy.

Othello (1955; R2 DVD); Or to give it it’s full title; The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. As reviled as Olivier’s Moor is in some quarters these days, Welles portrayal is considered as one of his finest achievements. Having said that, it may be slightly heretical to say I preferred his Macbeth (see above), but from that bravura opening shot of the magisterial landscape that is Welles Big Giant Head to the final silhouetted funeral procession (which forms both the beginning and end of the film), there’s much to admire. The legendary Micheál MacLiammóir, revered by both Welles and Ford (there; I’ve shoehorned in my mandatory reference), is also impressive; his Iago is truly loathsome, so much so, one wonder’s what the Moor of Venice saw in him to keep such a vile creature so close to his bosom in the first place. Spare a thought for poor old Robert Coote’s Roderigo, for reasons best known to the director, revoiced by Welles himself.

Second Sight trumpets that this is the ‘restored’ version, and it’s not bad, though technology has moved on so much since it was cleaned up that today’s digital do-dahs would no doubt produce an end product far better. It is sometimes excellent, sometimes not, but part of the restoration included re-recording the music soundtrack…and in full, squeaky clean 5.1 surround it simply sets my teeth on edge, like a wristwatch seen on an extra, and permanently in shot. I would love it if someone of the stature of, say, Criterion got their hands on Welles Shakespearian forays, particularly Chimes at Midnight. We can but dream.

Winter Kills (1979; R1 DVD); William Richert’s political satire comes on like ‘Monty Python’s The Parallax View’, played with an almost dead straight face by a stellar cast (Jeff Bridges, Richard Boone, Anthony Perkins, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach and John Huston in bright red under-trollies…).  An off-kilter take on the Kennedy assassination, it has a nightmare quality - the all too fleeting cameos from the likes of Toshirô Mifune, Ralph Meeker, Dorothy Malone and Sterling Hayden only only serve to heighten this dream-like atmosphere - with some genuinely bizarre laugh out loud moments; from Richard Condon’s book, plus added dollops of Lewis Carroll.

Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is very nice indeed, and is stacked with some genuinely insightful extra features rather than the usual fluff. The documentary Who Killed Winter Kills? adds to the production’s mythos, recounting the trials and tribulations during filming, the various breaks while everyone turned out their pockets and coppered up, and how one of the backers was bumped off by impatient dealers for failing to pay his drugs bill.

Cool Hand Luke (1967; Region Free BD); In The Observer, Sam Mendes told a story of how, while he was directing Road to Perdition, he saw the late Conrad Hall in floods of tears as he was filming a close up of Paul Newman. Mendes asked what was wrong, and Hall, who also worked as cinematographer on Cool Hand Luke, replied, great droplets running down his cheeks: “He was so beautiful.”

Director Stuart Rosenberg decides that the tale of this ‘natural born world shaker’ parallels the Christ story, thus we have thinly veiled representations of God (Strother Martin’s Old Testament prison warden, clad in white), the Devil who is the ‘Walkin’ Man’ (he’s in black, natch), Pharisees (the guards) and Apostles (the chain gang). And just in case you missed it, Rosenberg even captures Newman in a pose of crucifixion. Endlessly re-watchable and entertaining, Cool Hand LukeGod bless the Academy for giving George Kennedy his thoroughly deserved Oscar.

And yes, Newman was damned beautiful.   

Another sumptuous Hi-Definition presentation, with an interesting featurette that set me to worrying as all the extant principals were interviewed save one, though in his absence, everyone paid fulsome tribute to their star. Turns out I was right to fret; a couple of days after my viewing, Paul Newman was dead. God (I care not which one) bless him too.

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