Movies On Demand: La Cava and Lumet

gallant-lady

Clive Brook with a bottle in his hand is the most memorable image in Gregory La Cava’s Gallant Lady, an unusual melodrama that skews from an engaging women’s picture into an unrepentant celebration of alcoholism. A recent release from the Fox Cinema Archives, their DVD burn-on-demand service, the film continues to alter my understanding of La Cava, following my consideration of Bed of Roses and The Half Naked Truth in last week’s post. The more I watch of his work, the more it becomes clear how little I knew. An anti-authoritarian rage bubbles beneath his dry humor, coming out in full force in Gallant Lady, pushing it off its genre moorings and becoming a vagrant’s statement of purpose. Far less personal is Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982), which arrives in the first batch of Warner Archive Blu-Rays (alongside Gypsy, while The Hudsucker Proxy and others are promised in the future). An adaptation of Ira Levin’s hit play, it’s an actor’s showcase in which Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve duel in a battle of crime fiction writer wits, a clever bit of meta-Agatha Christie.

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Warner Archive Roundup

The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

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Home Video Roundup: Witches and the West

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

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Edward L. Cahn’s You Have To Run Fast (1961)

Edward L. Cahn directed 11 films in 1961, and You Have to Run Fast was one of them. MGM recently released it on their DVD burn-on-demand service in a crisp transfer, making it easy to appreciate the thriller’s tight construction and  open-air location shooting. The AFI Catalog lists no production dates but it was undoubtedly completed in a week or two before Cahn and producer Robert E. Kent moved on to the next programmer (17 of which are now streaming on Netflix). I was tipped to Cahn’s work by Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in the November/December 2011 Film Comment, where he says, “Cahn…seemed to embrace the aesthetic of speed with a passion and personal commitment not always apparent in the work of his more feverishly productive Poverty Row peers.” Cahn reportedly filmed “an astonishing 40 setups a day”, but as You Have to Run Fast clearly shows, they flow with an ironclad visual logic, and establish a moral equivalency between a mob boss and the innocent he is tracking down.

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The King of Comedy: Jerry Lewis at 86

On Friday, March 16th, Jerry Lewis will be celebrating his 86th birthday. Jerry’s been on my mind a lot lately so I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without making note of it. I love Jerry Lewis but it’s not always easy being a Jerry Lewis fan.

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Spy Games: The Prize (1963)

For my third installment of Spy Games I thought I’d take a look at Mark Robson’s THE PRIZE (1963) starring Paul Newman, Elke Sommer, Edward G. Robinson and Diane Baker. Last year The Warner Archives made THE PRIZE available on DVD for the first time and their release of this chic espionage film is commendable. I don’t know if the film has ever looked or sounded better but it definitely benefits from Warner’s careful restoration. It’s the perfect popcorn movie for a slow Saturday night if you’re willing to endure a few stiff line readings and bypass Robson’s uneven direction. The film’s appeal lies in its ability to dazzle the senses and entertain audiences without ever taking itself too seriously.

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All Aboard the HORROR EXPRESS!

It’s hard to imagine that there are any seasoned horror film fans that haven’t seen or at least heard of Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS (1972). It often gets a mention in widely read books about horror movies. And many questionable companies out to make a quick buck have released this surprisingly entertaining Spanish/British production on video and DVD over the years but the quality was always lacking. The one minor exception was Image Entertainment, which made HORROR EXPRESS part of their impressive EuroShock Collection in 2000 but even their DVD was sub-par. Thankfully Severin Films has stepped up to plate to restore this cult classic in all of its bloody widescreen glory.

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Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine

After the phenomenal success of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (Marc Robson; 1967), Hollywood was eager to work with Jacqueline Susann again. Producers and studio executives didn’t have to wait long because the best-selling author quickly got to work on another novel, which was immediately optioned by Columbia Studios. The Love Machine was Susann’s third book and like Valley of the Dolls, it received plenty of negative press and lackluster reviews but that didn’t stop the enthusiastic public from buying it.

During Susann’s highly publicized writing career she used her experience in Hollywood as a would-be actress in the 1940s to write lurid tell-all novels that promised to shine a glaring light on the dark underbelly of stardom. Susann’s books avoided hot button issues like the war in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement while focusing on the glamorous and decadent lives of the rich and famous. These trashy tell-alls were more fiction than fact but they appealed to millions of readers who were eager for some escapist entertainment. When The Love Machine was released in 1969 it quickly became a bestseller and competed with Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as well as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint for the number one position on the New York Times best-seller list before it was adapted for the screen in 1971.

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The Nostalgia Merchants

Let me start with an anecdote: when I was producing my DVD compilation of the restored films of Harry Langdon, I had gone to my bank to take out a loan to help finance the project.  I sat down with a banker and started to explain what my company did, and what this specific project entailed.  She listened, and nodded her head politely.  But she was puzzled.  “Silent comedies?  How does that work?  How do people hear the jokes?”

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Every once in a while I find myself getting dragged into some arcane argument with other slapstick nuts like myself (the sometimes controversial stances I take in this space should clue you in to why that happens to me a lot).  And when the arguments get heated–over such trivia as the proper frame rate for silent comedies, or whether that’s really Mal St. Clair as “Deadshot Dan” in Buster Keaton’s The Goat—I like to remember that as passionate and fanatical as we can get, there are a great many Americans who don’t understand how a silent comedy could even exist.  How d’ya hear the jokes?

And they outnumber us.

And it is at times like that when I curse the nostalgia merchants.

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Plucking the Petals of Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower

“Tokyo… After three long years. It makes my head spin. Just look at it. Why so many people crammed into tiny cage-like boxes? People… Such strange animals. What keeps them all going? They look like they’re half dead. Making a frantic pretense of being alive. What was so wrong about killing one of these stupid animals? I served three years… This is my territory… With no second thoughts, I’m back again.” – Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) in Pale Flower

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964) opens with this telling monologue recited by the Japanese actor Ryo Ikebe. In the film, Ikebe plays an aging Yakuza mobster called Muraki who has just been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for killing another gang member. Instead of being overjoyed by his newfound freedom, Muraki expresses his personal despair as well as the disappointment that many of his fellow countrymen were feeling in post-war Japan.

The film smartly examines the constant upheaval Japan was undergoing under American occupation. There was a lot of anger and resentment towards the powers that be at home and abroad. In turn, the country’s uneasiness and aggravation often found an outlet in popular cinema. This is particularly apparent in films made during the 1960s and 1970s, which gave birth to the Japanese Wave. Although the Japanese New Wave isn’t as familiar to western audiences as its French counterpart, Pale Flower is one of the finest examples of this extraordinary period in Japan’s cinematic history.

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