Monday, September 18, 2017
Hen's Tooth Video has released THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) and TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1971) on Blu-ray as a twin pack set. These are two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Spaghetti Westerns ever made.
Italian actors Mario Girotti and Carlo Pedersoli (better known under the names Terence Hill and Bud Spencer) had already been paired before in Euro Westerns, but it was the Trinity films that made them international stars. The blond Terence Hill, with his leading man looks, and the physically imposing Bud Spencer made a great team, and they would continue to make movies together into the 1990s. The writer and director of the Trinity films, Enzo Barboni (working under the name of E.B. Clucher) wanted to send up the Western format, and the movies were massively popular, especially in Europe. Many blame the Trinity films for starting the downward spiral of the Spaghetti Western, but the fact is that by the early 1970s the genre was already being hurt by over saturation of product.
Terence Hill plays ne'er-do-well Trinity, and Bud Spencer is his grumpy brother Bambino. In both movies the two men try to con and scavenge their way across the Old West, but their schemes fall flat as they wind up reluctantly coming to the aid of various folks instead. In THEY CALL ME TRINITY, Hill stumbles upon his brother posing as a sheriff in a backwater town. (The real sheriff was trying to bring Bambino in, but Bambino shot him and usurped the lawman's identity.) The brothers decide to help a group of peaceful religious settlers from being driven out by the town boss (played by Farley Granger, a long long way from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN).
TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME has the brothers visiting their parents (Harry Carey Jr. has a small role as the boys' Dad). The visit prods Bambino into trying to train Trinity as a "proper" criminal, but the duo become mistaken for a pair of federal agents, and they attempt to waylay the plans of a devious gun-runner.
The Trinity films have a legendary reputation, but I must admit that from my perspective, they don't hold up very well when viewed today. I find the movies more amusing than flat-out funny. Terence Hill does have huge screen presence, and while some might find his antics ingratiating, others may consider him exasperating. It's hard to get excited about a character whose main goal in life is to avoid any type of responsibility whatsoever. The main joke about Trinity is that while he's incredibly lazy, he has almost superhuman powers with a gun. Despite this the Trinity movies have very little gunplay (both films are rated G!). Most of the action, such as it is, involves the brothers getting into fistfights with numerous opponents. These fights are almost on a Three Stooges-type of level (the mountain-like Bambino beats up several men at once). I was actually more impressed with Bud Spencer than Hill--especially Spencer's Oliver Hardy-like reactions to all the events happening around him.
The style of the films are very much like the main characters themselves--they sort of meander along, without seeming to be in any of a hurry to get anywhere. Both movies have a running time of nearly two hours, and that's very long for material such as this. Enzo Barboni had been a cinematographer on a number of other Spaghetti Westerns, such as the original DJANGO, but for the Trinity films he leaves the camera on Hill and Spencer and lets them carry the load.
Hen's Tooth Video has put each of the two films in this set on its on disc. Each movie is presented in HD 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the transfers look fantastic. The audio on both films is in English (it sounds like it is the original English dubbing). There is not an Italian audio track on these discs, which will no doubt disappoint purists. Both discs feature a short photo gallery for each film. Both discs have an original trailer--the one for TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME is German. It's too bad that audio commentaries for the films were not included. The movies appear to be uncut--but when it comes to Euro Westerns, one can never be too sure.
The Trinity films are certainly not on the level of Sergio Leone--or Sergio Corbucci, or Sergio Sollima, for that matter--but Spaghetti Western fanatics will appreciate having official fine-looking Blu-ray versions of them.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Arrow Video delves once again into the work of the Italian Maestro of cinematic fantasy with their release of Mario Bava's 1961 Viking epic ERIK THE CONQUEROR.
A number of Viking adventure films were made in Europe during the 1960s, at the height of the sword & sandal genre known as peplum. Mario Bava had a great deal to do with the development of the peplum film due to his work on the original HERCULES movies, so ERIK THE CONQUEROR was more in accord to his stylistic tastes than one would initially assume. What at first glance this seems to be nothing more than a cheap imitation of the Kirk Douglas vehicle THE VIKINGS becomes a tale worthy of note thanks to Bava's visual talent. Tim Lucas calls ERIK THE CONQUEROR the director's most underrated film, and I'd have to agree with that assessment.
The story begins with a raid on a Viking settlement on the coast of England in the 8th Century. During the raid, the Viking king is killed, and his young sons Eron and Erik are split up--Eron is taken back to his homeland, and Erik is found and adopted by the English Queen Alice. Twenty years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) and Erik (George Ardisson) come into conflict with each other, with the added complication of a pair of beautiful vestal virgins, played by the Kessler sisters (German-born twins who were famous in Europe for their cabaret act).
ERIK THE CONQUEROR has plenty of the action one would expect from the usual peplum film--the opening raid on the Viking village, a battle at sea, and a climatic attack on a English castle. What makes these sequences even more impressive is how little time and budget Bava had to make them. Bava was not just the director here, he was also the cinematographer and co-writer. His visual flair is imparted in every scene in the film, and the result is some truly outstanding widescreen compositions. I could give you several examples of how Bava brought this story up a notch by his staging and lighting, but the main one I will use is what he does with the Vikings' subterranean main hall. Bava turns it into a phantasmagorical realm set next to the roots of a giant tree--the set is more expressive and emotionally stimulating than most of the cast.
Arrow Video has released ERIK THE CONQUEROR on Region A Blu-ray with a brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative. ERIK THE CONQUEROR was released on DVD by Anchor Bay a few years ago, and I've always thought that version looked pretty good--but this Blu-ray blows it out of the water. This disc features rich, saturated colors and increased detail throughout the film. It's a stunning display, and a prime showcase for Bava's artistry.
This Blu-ray has Italian and English mono audio and newly translated English subtitles. Bava biographer Tim Lucas has revised his audio commentary that was presented on the Anchor Bay ERIK THE CONQUEROR DVD and it is featured here. Lucas does his typically excellent job, and he works in snippets of an interview he conducted with Cameron Mitchell (the entire interview is provided on the disc as a separate extra). A 24-page booklet is included, with a number of stills from the film and an essay on the production by Kat Ellinger. The author makes the case that Bava's forays into the peplum genre have very much in common with his more renowned horror films.
Another fine extra is a short featurette from Michael Mackenzie detailing the similarities between THE VIKINGS and ERIK THE CONQUEROR. The disc package features a reversible sleeve with art from Graham Humphreys--one side uses the Italian title of the film: GLI INVASORI.
I've highly complimented every disc I've bought from Arrow Video, and that is because they are deserving of such praise. ERIK THE CONQUEROR isn't BLACK SUNDAY, or PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but this Blu-ray is a must-buy for anyone who admires the visual brilliance of Mario Bava.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
Another actress who was associated with Hammer Films has passed away recently--Jennifer Daniel, who starred in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and THE REPTILE for the company.
Daniel was born in Wales and spent most of her performing career appearing on stage and television in England. She will be most remembered for her Hammer roles. My devotion (and weakness) for the Hammer ladies is well known, and Daniel was one of my favorites. Many of the Hammer ladies were so spectacular looking that it was hard to even conceive of them doing normal everyday things, but in her two roles for Hammer Daniel exuded a kindly, down-to-earth realism. You could say that she was the domesticated Hammer Scream Queen.
In THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE Daniel plays Marianne Harcourt, a young wife travelling in Central Europe with her husband Gerald (played by Edward de Souza). The couple's automobile breaks down and they become the prey of Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) and his "family" of vampires. Daniel's Marianne is not the usual all looks no brains female in danger, despite the fact that she is absolutely stunning in the red dress she wears during a party at Ravna's castle. Daniel firmly establishes Marianne as a sensible, loving wife and a decent person--which makes the scene of her spitting into Gerald's face while under the spell of Ravna all the more shocking. Daniel makes Marianne into someone the audience can truly care about.
In THE REPTILE Daniel plays another loving, sensible wife--Valerie Spalding, who moves to Cornwall with her husband Harry (Ray Barrett). Harry's brother has just died mysteriously, and the couple's investigations lead them to the menacing Dr. Franklyn and his strange daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce). Daniel ably portrays Valerie's care and concern for Anna's plight, without realizing that the girl turns into a snake-human hybrid (this is a Hammer movie, after all). THE REPTILE could even be seen as a kind of sequel to THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE--the relationship between Valerie and Harry is very much like that of Marianne and Gerald, and once again Daniel is put in danger by Noel Willman.
Jennifer Daniel and Jacqueline Pearce in THE REPTILE
The only Jennifer Daniel interview I have ever read was published in Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS issue #10/11. In it she seemed to appreciate her time at Hammer. A few years ago a Region B Blu-ray of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was released, which had an audio commentary featuring Daniel and Edward de Souza. I do not have a multi-region Blu-ray player so I have not heard this commentary, but I would certainly have loved to know what she said during it. Jennifer Daniel was married to actor Dinsdale Landen for over forty years until his death in 2003.
Jennifer Daniel may not have the huge cult following that some of the other Hammer ladies, but she definitely made an impression on me. I'm mystified as to why she didn't have more of a big-screen career, and I'm disappointed that most of her TV work is unavailable in America.
Monday, September 4, 2017
Not too long ago I met up with my friend Steve Zalusky at a Chicago White Sox game (needless to say, they lost). Steve is a huge film buff, and he suggested that I seek out a 1937 film called THE 13TH MAN. This 70 minute potboiler was the first release from the "new" Monogram Pictures, one of the most famous makers of B movies in the Classic Hollywood era.
A crusading District Attorney is running for re-election, and part of his campaign is a promise to add to the list of 12 public enemies he has put away. The D.A. promises to announce the indictment of a "13th Man" while speaking on newspaper columnist Swifty Taylor's (Weldon Heyburn) radio show. The D.A., along with Swifty, attends a prizefight...and seated in the audience are several folks who are candidates to be the 13th Man. The D.A. drops dead during the fight, apparently from heart failure...but the prosecutor was hit by a poisoned dart in the neck. Swifty is determined to find the killer, especially after his right-hand man, ace reporter Jimmy Moran (Milburn Stone) is also murdered during the investigation. With support from his long suffering secretary Julie (Inez Courtney), Swifty exposes the killer live on his radio show.
THE 13TH MAN features a number of elements that will be recognizable to movie buffs. The leading couple act like they can't stand each other, but they are really in love, there's a seemingly impossible murder, the story includes gangsters, goons, and scenes set in a swanky nightclub, etc. What hurts the film the most is the leading man, an actor by the name of Weldon Heyburn. In the book B MOVIES, the author Don Miller refers to Heyburn as a "Gable look-alike". Personally, I don't think Weldon looked much like the King of Hollywood--he certainly doesn't have Gable's natural charisma. Heyburn's Swifty is far too glib and obnoxious--the actor didn't have much of a movie career after this, and that's understandable.
Inez Courtney comes off far better as Julie. She's very cute and also funny, which makes it even more puzzling why her character would have major feelings for a lug like Swifty. (Courtney played a much dizzier dame in the 1935 THE RAVEN, alongside Karloff & Lugosi.) A very young Milburn Stone, who of course would go on to be best known as Doc on GUNSMOKE, does very well as the doomed Jimmy--Stone would have been a much better choice to play this film's lead. The script drops all sorts of hints that Jimmy is going to get offed--he's scheduled to get married to his secretary, and because the couple constantly talk about their bright future together, you just know that something is going to happen to the guy. (This subplot is a variation on the "police detective getting killed with one week left to retirement" trope.) The rest of the cast is made up of generic character actors that even I'm not familiar with.
THE 13TH MAN isn't an outstanding film, but it does have a few interesting quirks. The best scene by far is the D.A.'s death during the prize fight. As the prosecutor begins to feel the effects of the poison, the referee is counting out one of the fighters in the ring. Every time the ref says a number, we see one of the faces of the D.A.'s enemies who are sitting in the vicinity. When the ref gets to 10, the D.A. slumps over and dies. It's a finely edited sequence that stands out in this type of low-budget fare. THE 13TH MAN was directed by William Nigh, who cranked out dozens and dozens of these types of pictures during his prolific career--his name is mentioned several times in the FORGOTTEN HORRORS series of books. As a matter of fact, THE 13TH MAN is covered in FORGOTTEN HORRORS 2: BEYOND THE HORROR BAN.
The other notable thing about THE 13TH MAN is the climax, which has one of those "Gather all the suspects in a room and reveal the killer" scenes. This one stands out due to Swifty's announcing the murderer live on air in the same room. I actually guessed correctly who done it--but don't worry, I won't give out the culprit's name here. I watched THE 13TH MAN on YouTube--the quality wasn't too bad, but the main titles were missing.
I don't think THE 13TH MAN deserves major reevaluation, but it did remind me of the many TV crime drama episodes I saw as a kid in the late 1970s-early 80s. It's not meant to be an outstanding epic--it was designed to be program filler, and reliable entertainment. For what it is, it's not bad--but Weldon Heyburn and Inez Courtney won't make you forget William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
One of the things about being a film buff is that you have a tendency to pay more attention to the cast & crew of certain movies than you do to the movie itself. A perfect example of this is the 1969 British feature CROSSPLOT, starring Roger Moore.
I saw this film for the first time on television a few days ago, and what struck me was the number of actors in the cast that had cult associations, particularly with Hammer Films. CROSSPLOT has the lovely Veronica Carlson, Francis Matthews, and Bernard Lee, all of whom have co-starred with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee at one time or another in their respective careers. Toni Gilpin, who was the very first victim of Hammer's THE GORGON, has a very small role, and David Prowse--the future Darth Vader--is an extra in a wedding scene! So there is an obvious incentive to view CROSSPLOT from a geek standpoint....but the movie itself is a fun, fast-paced thriller that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Roger Moore plays advertising executive Gary Fenn, and we are first introduced to him as he is making out on the couch with Veronica Carlson. Fenn's alarm goes off, and he realizes he's late for work, so he leaves Veronica rather abruptly, which makes the young lady quite mad (you can understand her frustration when you find out she doesn't have another scene in the entire picture). Fenn is preparing a big ad campaign, and he plans to use Veronica's character as the main spokesmodel. Before Fenn's presentation, Veronica's photo is switched with someone else's, and since the ad campaign is approved, Gary now has to find this mysterious beauty. He does track down the woman--a gorgeous Hungarian named Marla Kugash (Claudine Lange). Gary gets more than he bargained for when he finds out that Marla is unwittingly involved in a vast conspiracy--her Aunt Jo (Martha Hyer) belongs to one of those secretive international groups that cause chaos throughout the world. Gary's investigations lead him to be accused of murder, and while the ad man and Marla are on the run, they unravel a plot to assassinate an African leader in Hyde Park.
The story of CROSSPLOT may seem like a James Bond tryout for Roger Moore, but for me it is more like a lighthearted Hitchcock film. It's very reminiscent of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, though nowhere near that film's scale. Roger Moore has a very Cary Grant-like way about him in CROSSPLOT. He's an ad man, just like Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill was in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Moore, like Grant, has a wry sense of humor concerning his situation, and he's rather resourceful in dealing with professional killers despite the fact he is not a secret agent. One of the most famous sequences in NORTH BY NORTHWEST has Grant elude his pursuers by acting as obnoxious as possible during a high-class auction--in CROSSPLOT Moore does the same thing at a wedding, but he goes Cary one better by driving off in the couple-to-be's car! In another scene Moore takes a shower fully dressed, just like Grant did in CHARADE, a film very much along the same lines as CROSSPLOT. The "Wronged Man on the run with an uncooperative female" plot is one of Hitchcock's most basic stories, and the climax of CROSSPLOT, which has Gary and Marla trying to stop an assassination in Hyde Park that is timed to coincide with cannon fire, can't help but remind you of the climax of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.
This is not a publicity still from a James Bond movie--it's from CROSSPLOT
There are some elements in CROSSPLOT which do anticipate Moore's future as 007. The relationship between Moore and Claudie Lange as Marla--a mixture between flirtation and frustration--is very much how Moore's Bond would behave toward his leading ladies. Gary Fenn is very much the ladies man--whenever he walks into a room all the ladies take appreciative notice of him, even the conniving Aunt Jo. Moore plays Gary Fenn very much like he would Bond--he gets out of jams through a combination of natural charm, wits and sometimes dumb luck. One could say that Moore played all his roles that way--but that was his persona, and when it came to that, nobody did it better than Roger Moore (pun intended). Moore had a likable screen presence that made you buy into whatever situation he was in. If CROSSPLOT does remind you of an elongated episode of Moore's TV series THE SAINT, it is no coincidence--the producer of THE SAINT, Robert Baker, also produced CROSSPLOT, and the movie is very much tailored to Moore's strengths.
Director Alvin Rakoff keeps things moving at fast clip, and he doesn't dwell too much on the plot inconsistencies. The one major action sequence in the film has Gary, Marla, and a associate in an antique car being chased by a helicopter. (It appears to me that some of this sequence was filmed in Black Park--another of the film's connections to Hammer.) The sequence is good, but it is hurt by too much reliance on rear screen projection, and this effect is prevalent throughout the film. One of the movie's subplots deals with a group of peace protesters that Marla is friends with. The attempted injection of Swinging London/Flower Power elements into the plot is one of the movie's weak points--it's fairly easy to discern that none of the cast or crew had any real knowledge of the hippie generation.
Overall, though, CROSSPLOT is a enjoyable film that shouldn't be analyzed too extensively. It's more of a light dessert than a full meal, but it is diverting entertainment with a interesting and notable cast, and it gives Roger Moore one of his best screen roles other than James Bond.
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Kino Lorber continues their classic silent movie releases with a Blu-ray of director William Wellman's 1928 BEGGARS OF LIFE.
I was greatly anticipating this disc since I had never actually seen BEGGARS OF LIFE. The movie is now famous mostly for featuring Louise Brooks, but it is an engaging tale set on the back roads of America. Richard Arlen (who had just starred for Wellman in the director's monumental triumph WINGS) and Brooks play a couple of young wandering souls trying to find some sort of stability in their restless lives.
BEGGARS OF LIFE is a combination of gritty realism and old-fashioned sentiment. The story begins with Louise Brooks' character explaining to Arlen's why she had to shoot her foster guardian in the head! The guardian was trying to sexually assault Brooks, which is shown in flashback, including the man's death (a very grim sequence for the period). Arlen stumbles upon Brooks while looking for a meal, and the two decide to get away by hopping a train out of the area. Brooks puts on men's clothing in an attempt to disguise herself as a young boy. Whenever a female character wears men's clothes in a classic Hollywood film, she winds up looking even more feminine, and that goes for Brooks in this movie. The duo meet up with a group of hobos led by the boisterous Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who tries to claim Brooks as his "property". The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Brooks is now wanted for the murder of her guardian, and the authorities are hot on their tails.
What makes BEGGARS OF LIFE unique as a "Life on the Road" film is that it is not set during the Great Depression. Wellman does not try to inject any type of social commentary into the story, and there is no message concerning the vagabond's plight. The characters played by Arlen and Brooks (they are listed in the credits as "The Boy" and "The Girl") have obviously led hard lives, but they take a matter-of-fact attitude toward their situation. Brooks gives a very modern, low-key type of performance. Her natural beauty and charisma are still more than apparent, even under her unusual wardrobe. With all respect to Clara Bow, Louise Brooks was a true "IT" girl--she was blessed with a magnetism that made you watch her every move whenever she is on the screen. BEGGARS OF LIFE gave her a chance to play a very different type of role. She spends most of the movie in a state of wary apprehension--which is understandable, since it is very obvious what the hobos would do to her if they got the chance.
Richard Arlen is okay, but he gets all but pushed off the screen when Wallace Beery shows up. His Oklahoma Red is the type of character Beery would play over and over again at MGM in the 1930s and 40s--the menacing blowhard who turns out to be a softie in the end. Beery makes the most of the role, and even though this is a silent movie, you can't help but hear the actor's voice in your head whenever Oklahoma Red's dialogue is presented on an intertitle.
BEGGARS OF LIFE is a great film for train buffs, and it's amazing now to see the lead actors gallivanting about fast-moving rolling stock. William Wellman definitely achieves a sense of time and place, and despite the sentimentality the movie doesn't feel phony. I'm really glad that Kino decided to release this title on Blu-ray, because now more silent film fans will have a better chance to see it.
The print used on this Blu-ray was digitally restored from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman Museum. It has some wear but it looks very fine--and most important, it doesn't have the over processed look of some silents on Blu-ray. The score was performed by the Mount Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and it is presented in 2.0 DTS stereo.
Two audio commentaries are provided--one by William Wellman Jr. (which I have not listened to yet) and the other by Thomas Gladysz from the Louise Brooks Society. Gladysz's talk is an excellent one, going into all the relevant details of the production and the various adventures Louise Brooks had during the making of the film.
A 12-page booklet is also included, which has stills from the film and analysis from Nick Pinkerton. The Blu-ray has a reversible cover sleeve, with Louise Brooks featured on one side and Wallace Beery on the other (I'd rather look at Louise).
Monday, August 21, 2017
Here is the list of my favorite film actresses of all time. I will absolutely admit that how much I am attracted to these ladies plays a large role in who got picked. Is that politically incorrect? Oh well...you can bring down my statue if this bothers you.
Having said that...acting ability does matter here. Just because you've been on the cover of MAXIM doesn't mean you're a great actress. And I know somebody out there is going to say, "Most of these women are dead!!" So be it.
1. Carole Lombard
Favorite Film Role: Hazel Flagg in NOTHING SACRED
2. Ingrid Bergman
Favorite Film Role: Alicia Huberman in NOTORIOUS
3. Barbara Stanwyck
Favorite Film Role: Sugarpuss O'Shea in BALL OF FIRE
4. Kim Novak
Favorite Film Role: Judy Barton in VERTIGO
5. Uma Thurman
Favorite Film Role: Beatrix Kiddo in KILL BILL VOL. 1
6. Thelma Todd
Favorite Film Role: Connie Bailey in HORSE FEATHERS
7. Maureen O'Hara
Favorite Film Role: Mary Kate Danaher in THE QUIET MAN
8. Joan Blondell
Favorite Film Role: Carol King in GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933
9. Marlene Dietrich
Favorite Film Role: Lola Lola in THE BLUE ANGEL
10. Linda Darnell
Favorite Film Role: Netta Longdon in HANGOVER SQUARE
11. Jean Arthur
Favorite Film Role: Clarissa Saunders in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
My favorite actor, Peter Cushing, and my favorite actress, Carole Lombard, in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT
12. Dorothy Malone
Favorite Film Role: Abigail Parker in ARTISTS AND MODELS
13. Barbara Steele
Favorite Film Role: Katia Vajda/Princess Asa in BLACK SUNDAY
14. Madeleine Carroll
Favorite Film Role: Pamela in THE 39 STEPS
15. Kumi Mizuno
Favorite Film Role: Miss Namikawa in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO
16. Carrie Fisher
Favorite Film Role: Princess Leia Organa in STAR WARS
17. Eva Green
Favorite Film Role: Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE
18. Louise Brooks
Favorite Film Role: Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX
19. Ziyi Zhang
Favorite Film Role: Jen Yu in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
20. All of the Hammer Ladies (I can't pick one over the others because I come into contact with some of these women every so often)