Thursday, June 4, 2020

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED










The other film on the Mill Creek "Classic Crime Double Feature" Blu-ray is NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED, a 1955 Columbia film produced by Sam Katzman and directed by William Castle.

Former Navy man Dan Corbett (Arthur Franz) arrives in New Orleans looking to purchase a military surplus boat in order to start his own business. To earn money for it, Corbett starts working on the local docks, where he finds out that corruption means more than honest effort. Dan becomes friendly with his foreman Joe (William Henry). The foreman is killed on the orders of a crime boss (Michael Ansara) who is the real power on the docks. Dan decides to join up with the city authorities to root out the gangsters, at the risk of his life.

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED starts out with narration stating how important the city's port is, along with a recommendation of the story by a Louisiana senator, and a text thanking various officials for their cooperation. It's fairly obvious those behind the movie didn't want to tick off anyone in New Orleans so they could film there--a few real-life city bigwigs, including a labor leader, have roles as themselves in the picture.

Despite all the official a-okays, the movie still tries to act as if it's a hard-hitting expose of the Big Easy....which it really isn't. There's a couple of dock brawls (in which the participants spend most of the time stumbling and fumbling about), and the murder of Joe the foreman is brutal for the time--he gets multiple slugs in the back. Michael Ansara is a quite effective villain, with Mike Mazurki as one of his main goons. But one has to wonder--if New Orleans is really on the up and up as all the real-life officials attest, how was Ansara able to build up such a criminal organization over the years?

Whenever I see Arthur Franz, I think about all the science fiction movies he was in during the 1950s. Even as a good guy Franz seemed to have a pensive quality about him, and he uses it well here. Franz's character impresses the men at the docks with his fighting prowess, but it must be said that the actor throws some very awkward punches here (even though he had already played a boxer in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN).

Beverly Garland does her usual fine job as Joe's wife, who becomes close to Dan. Her natural manner gives life to the good girl role. The "bad girl" role (even though she isn't that bad) is filled by Helene Stanton, who plays Ansara's moll.

What makes NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED stand out is the use of actual locations throughout the city, including (of course) the French Quarter. It gives the story a much more refreshing look than the usual studio backlot sets that would normally be used for such a production. The city locations also breathe some life into William Castle's directorial style.

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED is in black & white, and it is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There are no extras.

I wouldn't call either of the films in this Mill Creek "Classic Crime Double Feature" great, but they are decent endeavors with notable performers in each. Both movies also prove that William Castle could handle a "regular" screen story.







Monday, June 1, 2020

HOLLYWOOD STORY










Mill Creek has recently released what they call a "Classic Crime Double Feature" on Blu-ray. The gimmick is that both films on it (HOLLYWOOD STORY and NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED) were directed by the famed William Castle. Before Castle re-invented himself in the late 1950s as a self-proclaimed master of exploitative shock, he helmed several low-budget Hollywood features.

The first film I'll be looking at is HOLLYWOOD STORY, a 1951 murder mystery made by Universal. It concerns a New York producer named Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte), who has traveled to Hollywood to make his first movie on the West Coast. While examining a run-down studio lot, O'Brien finds out that a leading silent film director named Franklin Farrara was murdered on it in 1929. The case was never solved. O'Brien thinks that Farrara's story would make a great picture, and he begins to investigate what actually happened to the murder victim. O'Brien is warned off the case by a number of people, most of them suspects themselves. The producer keeps digging, endangering his own life along the way.

HOLLYWOOD STORY is an okay B picture which will be of interest to film buffs. Many real-life Hollywood locations are used (at one point we are shown a Christmas parade going by Grauman's Chinese Theater). One can't help but think of SUNSET BOULEVARD when discussing HOLLYWOOD STORY, but Castle's approach is far lighter in tone. Four silent film veterans are given cameos here: Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, Helen Gibson, and Betty Blythe. SUNSET BOULEVARD portrayed leftovers from the silent era as veritable phantoms, but the quartet of past stars in HOLLYWOOD STORY are shown as happy and well-adjusted.

Conte's investigation of the long-ago murder of a silent film director brings to mind the real-life homicide of William Desmond Taylor. Taylor's case had all sorts of tawdry details attached to it, while Franklin Farrara's murder is humdrum in comparison. At one point Conte goes to a screening room to see some of Farrara's movies....and a clip of the 1925 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is shown. It is stated that it was directed by Franklin Farrara! (This must have been big news to any of Rupert Julian's relations.)

One of the major attributes of HOLLYWOOD STORY is its supporting cast of fine character actors, such as Henry Hull, Fred Clark, Jim Backus, and Paul Cavanagh. The story is much enlivened by the always welcome presence of Julie Adams, who plays the daughter of a silent screen actress who was involved with Franklin Farrara. Richard Egan plays a police lieutenant that acts so shady, you wonder if he had something to do with the murder. Joel McCrea has a cameo as himself (he's working on the set of a movie that Conte happens to be visiting).

I've always thought that William Castle, once you take away his gimmicks, had a somewhat flat directorial style. HOLLYWOOD STORY has a livelier tone than Castle's usual work, but that's probably due to the fact that Castle didn't produce as well. The style here owes more to what Universal was doing at the time than Castle. The actual mystery isn't all that mysterious, due to the fact that there's not that many suspects.

Surprisingly, Mill Creek gives each of the two films on this set its own disc. HOLLYWOOD STORY is in black & white with a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The sound and picture quality are fine, and there are no extras.

HOLLYWOOD STORY is a decent film, and at 77 minutes, it won't take up too much of your time. But don't expect a hard-edged thriller.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

DANGER: DIABOLIK On Blu-ray From Shout Factory








A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on my favorite comic book movies. Included in the list was the 1967 film DANGER: DIABOLIK, which was based on a Italian fumetti character. A few folks thought that was a mystifying choice. But DIABOLIK stills holds up as a great comic adaptation, and it is now on Region A Blu-ray courtesy of Shout Factory.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Mario Bava, DIABOLIK is pure comic escapist fantasy. The movie isn't worried about being realistic or gritty--the story doesn't even reveal what time or location it takes place in. The super-criminal Diabolik (John Phillip Law) isn't given a backstory, or an explanation on why he commits his fantastic robberies. There's no social or political aspect to what Diabolik does--he's in it for his own pleasure, and for the pleasure of his unbelievably gorgeous girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell, who happens to be the film's best special effect).

The wild world that Diabolik inhabits is a fertile playground for Mario Bava's visual and technical artistry. The movie is bold, colorful, and fast moving, and it's not worried about logic or trying to make sense. The entire production is helped immeasurably by Ennio Morricone's vivid and vibrant music score, one of his all-time best.

DANGER: DIABOLIK was released on Region 1 DVD by Paramount in 2005. The new Shout Factory Blu-ray is in 1.85:1 widescreen. There's been a few people on the internet that have complained about the transfer on this Blu-ray.....personally, I think it looks fine (I think some have been spoiled by the many outstanding-looking Blu-ray releases of Bava's work in the past few years). The soundtrack on this disc features the original American voice dub, and Morricone's music in particular comes out bold and clear.

All the extras that were on the old DVD are carried over to this release, including the audio commentary with Tim Lucas and John Phillip Law. This talk is important in that it contains Law's memories and opinions on the making of the film.

The only extra provided by Shout Factory is a brand new commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. Both are Bava fans and experts (Troy wrote the fine book THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA). They reveal plenty of pertinent info on the making of the film, but they do it in an enjoyable manner--they obviously had a lot of fun talking about this film. They also discuss various aspects of Bava's career and his style.

Just about every film Mario Bava ever directed has been given a major Blu-ray release in the past decade. DANGER: DIABOLIK finally joins the list. It may not have as many new extras as other Bava releases, but any true fan of the director--or of 1960s cult cinema--has to pick it up.


Friday, May 29, 2020

The American TV Version Of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN





My last blog post covered the release of the new Blu-ray of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN from Shout Factory. Among the many extras on the disc is the TV version of the film, prepared by Universal Studios for American network broadcast. (Internet sources claim this TV version was first shown in 1968.)

For this TV version, Universal filmed brand new scenes to lengthen the running time to fit into a two-hour TV time slot with commercials. (The TV version on the Shout Factory Blu-ray runs about 98 minutes.) The new scenes detail a backstory for the character listed in the original movie credits as "Beggar Girl", played by Katy Wild.

In the added scenes, the Beggar Girl is shown as a child, and she's given the name of Rena. Her mother and father are shown, along with a village doctor. The scenes detail how Rena was struck deaf and dumb just by seeing Baron Frankenstein's creation stumbling about in the woods. Later it is revealed that Rena's mother has died, and her father has become a useless drunk. The village doctor suggests that the father take Rena to see a man with new ideas about diseases of the mind--a man called Dr. Freud!!

The added scenes are shot in a rather generic style, and the acting is acceptable, under the circumstances. Needless to say, no one at Hammer Films had anything to do with these added scenes.

The big problem with the TV version's backstory for the Beggar Girl is that it doesn't make a lot of sense. One of the subplots of the original film is that the Beggar Girl has some sort of emotional connection to the Monster, and she treats him with sympathy. If the little girl was so terrified by the Monster that she went deaf and dumb, why would she feel pity for it years later?

Not only did Universal add new scenes to the film, they made a few other changes to it as well. In the original film, the main credits run over a sequence where the Baron is removing a heart from a corpse. This sequence doesn't have gory details--we only see the Baron's face and upper body as he's working. But apparently Universal still thought it was too much, for the TV version has the credits running over a solitary shot of the Baron's laboratory. The heart that the Baron removes is barely shown in the TV version.

The other main changes are the scenes where the Monster attacks the Burgomaster and Zoltan--both of these incidents have been shortened.

As I mentioned in my last post, the TV version of the film that is presented on the Shout Factory Blu-ray looks terrible. The colors have faded considerably, and the sound quality is poor. (I do have to say that the shot compositions are framed rather well for a TV version.) It would be easy to whine and moan about what the TV version looks like here, but at least Shout Factory should get some credit for including it at all.

Watching the poor quality TV version of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN actually brought back some memories for me. You see, when I first starting watching classic horror and science fiction films on TV as a young teenager, they almost always looked as bad, especially the Hammers.

In the 1980s, when I was starting to become a film buff, there wasn't any widescreen TVs, or internet access, or streaming capabilities. Watching any obscure vintage horror film on TV was a treat. Yes, the colors were faded, it was probably edited, and the sound was poor, and it wasn't in widescreen....but back then the important thing was that you were able to see it, period.

There's no doubt in my mind that today's film geeks are spoiled. Every week we get all sorts of super-duper home video releases of films that are not particularly mainstream, and they are filled with all sorts of extras--and inevitably the first thing people do is complain about them. (I'm guilty of this as well). We should be happy that we are able to obtain these films at all--but we obsess over bit rates, aspect ratios, color saturation...yes, these are important, especially with the costs of some of these releases, but when I first saw the majority of Hammer movies on TV back in the day, I wasn't worried about those things.

Watching the TV version of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN took me back to a time when watching the movie was the main thing, not arguing about the minutiae of it on the internet. It was as if I was a teenager again, enjoying the adventures of Peter Cushing, and it was late at night....the only thing that was missing were commercials for local small businesses.


Monday, May 25, 2020

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN On Blu-ray From Shout Factory








Another Hammer Blu-ray from Shout Factory--this time it's the third film in the Peter Cushing Frankenstein series, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, released in 1964.

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is the odd man out when it comes to Peter Cushing's portrayals of the Baron. It is the only Cushing-Frankenstein film not directed by Terence Fisher, and it does not follow the continuity of the first two films, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The entire affair is something of a reboot, with the Baron given a different backstory and a different monster (he also has a somewhat different manner and attitude).

Freddie Francis was the director for this one, and he concentrates on the visual aspects of the story. There's a great laboratory sequence, and a fiery climax...but Anthony Hinds' script is very disjointed, and the pace drags. Hammer made this film in conjunction with Universal Studios. This is the one Hammer horror film that does feel like it could have been made in America during the 1940s.

Wrestler Kiwi Kingston plays the monster, and Roy Ashton's makeup for the creature does bear a certain resemblance to the famed Jack Pierce design for Boris Karloff. But the makeup for Kingston is mediocre, and it comes off worse in HD. Kingston is more of a Glenn Strange type than Karloff.

Even the Hammer Glamour element is toned down in this one. Buxom Caron Gardner has a small role as the Burgomaster's wife, but the main female character is a dirt-caked mute beggar girl played by Katy Wild. With all the old-fashioned elements--and some very hammy acting by the supporting players--THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN feels like a run-of-the-mill monster flick (not that there's anything wrong with that).

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN has been released before on Region A Blu-ray, as part of the Universal Hammer horror set that came out a few years ago. I thought the transfer on that set looked great, and this one does as well. The movie is presented here in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the sound quality is excellent.

As usual, Shout Factory gives this Hammer release a number of worthy extras. The new audio commentary features Constantine Nasr, and while he appreciates the film more than most, he does point out its weaknesses. Nasr also refers to the film's original script. There's a making of documentary, with appearances by a number of folks who worked on the film.

"The Men Who Made Hammer" series continues, this time with Tony Dalton discussing the life and career of Freddie Francis. It's revealing and informative, and I wish it could have been longer. I can also say the same thing about a new interview with Katy Wild that is provided. She talks about her work on EVIL and has a telling anecdote about Peter Cushing. There's a very short featurette with Caron Gardner (who seems to enjoy her Hammer girl status), and a short interview with William Cartlidge, who was an assistant director on the film (he reveals he didn't get along with Freddie Francis). The pilot to the proposed late-1950s Hammer-Columbia TV series, TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, is included as well (this is in the public domain and can be found just about anywhere). A trailer and a stills gallery is also on this disc.

One extra that I have to make special mention of is the American TV version of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN that was prepared by Universal. It has new scenes added by Universal to lengthen the film to fit into a two-hour TV slot. The quality of this TV version is horrible--nearly all of the colors have faded. Yet I have to say that it reminded me of how I first watched many of the Hammer films on late-night TV as a young teenager way back in the 1980s. As a matter of fact I'm thinking about writing a blog post just on the TV version.

Once again Shout Factory has used the talents of artist Mark Maddox to entice Hammer fans to purchase this disc. Those that ordered the Blu-ray direct from the company got an 18x24 poster of Mark's fantastic artwork for the disc sleeve cover (see photo above). The reverse of the disc sleeve shows the original American poster art for the film.

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN may be the least entry in the Hammer-Cushing-Frankenstein series--but the fact that it is part of that series makes it suitable for multiple viewings. As expected by now, Shout Factory's extras provide the impetus for Hammer fans to purchase this title on home video again.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

ESCAPE TO ATHENA





Last night, courtesy of the Tubi streaming platform, I watched a film called ESCAPE TO ATHENA. It is one of those many 1970s big-budget action films that feature an international cast and exotic locations. The movie is set during World War II, and it was made by the same company and producers as THE EAGLE HAS LANDED.

ESCAPE TO ATHENA is a strange concoction. The best way I can describe it is that it's a combination of THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, and HOGAN"S HEROES. The story takes place somewhere in the Greek islands in 1944, with the country under occupation by Nazi Germany. On one particular island a German POW camp doubles as a archaeology site. The camp commandant is a Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore). The Major happens to be an Austrian art dealer who is more interested in looting ancient treasures than furthering the Nazi cause. Among the prisoners in the camp are a British professor (David Niven), an Italian cook (Sonny Bono), and a American GI (Richard Roundtree). This motley group works with the local native resistance, which is led by Zeno (Telly Savalas). Zeno's headquarters is disguised as a bordello run by his love interest (Claudia Cardinale). Two vaudeville performers with the USO are interred at the camp, played by Elliott Gould and Stefanie Powers. All of the main characters are really interested in the gold plates supposedly hidden in a local mountaintop monastery. But the monastery is hiding something else--a secret Nazi V-2 rocket base. Zeno uses everyone's greed to convince them to attack the monastery and help the resistance.

The first thing one has to discuss about this movie is the casting of Roger Moore as a Wehrmacht officer. If you can't believe Moore in this role, he plays it as if he can't believe it either. Moore uses a slight German accent, but it just makes him sound more comedic. He's still playing "Roger Moore"--complete with his usual 1970s hairstyle and eyebrow raised in bemusement. Moore spends a lot of time trying to charm Stefanie Powers, and much is made of the fact that he's not a Nazi--so you can probably figure out how his character is going to wind up by the climax.




Roger Moore and Stefanie Powers in ESCAPE TO ATHENA


Moore's light approach seems to have affected most of the cast. Nearly everyone else appears to be enjoying their paid Greek vacation, and the scenes in the POW camp come off as silly at times. The camp hi-jinx do not sit comfortably with scenes of Greek partisans being executed by Nazi firing squads. Elliott Gould in particular overdoes the wise-cracking con artist bit. There's nothing wrong with having some fun in an action-adventure war movie. The problem is that the characters played by Gould, Powers, Bono, and Roundtree are set up as goofy, so when the time comes for them to be involved in violent daring-do, their actions feel phony. There's a great motorcycle chase in this film, with the vehicles zooming in and out of narrow back alleys. The chase would have been even more memorable if Gould's character was not on one of the bikes--you can't believe this guy could get on a motorcycle, let alone drive it at hair-raising speeds on unfamiliar terrain. At least Telly Savalas is absolutely serious as the determined resistance leader. (Due to his ancestry, the actor of all people would know how Greece suffered during Nazi occupation.)

The climax involving the rocket base at the monastery has a James Bond-like feel (ironic, considering who the main star of the film is). There's plenty of well-handled action scenes here--the movie's director was George P. Cosmatos, who would go on to make RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and TOMBSTONE. The stunts were handled by famed co-ordinator Vic Armstrong, and the special effects by John Richardson. The exotic Greek locations are used to full effect by Gilbert Taylor's cinematography. Lalo Schifrin provides an ethnic-flavored music score that at times resembles his work for KELLY'S HEROES.

ESCAPE TO ATHENA has all the trappings of a great WWII action-adventure, but the approach is too inconsistent. Among the highlights--if that is what you want to call them--in this film are Stefanie Powers doing a striptease to distract the Germans while the POWs are taking over the camp, Sonny Bono beating up Waffen-SS soldiers, Telly Savalas and Claudia Cardinale performing a Greek dance, and a brazen in-joke referencing STALAG 17. There's also a disco song during the end credits!

If ESCAPE TO ATHENA had tried to be a all-out serious action story--and if it had a more authentic cast instead of a notable one--it would have been far more effective. The movie was not a box office success--I don't remember ever hearing about it or seeing advertising for it when I was a kid. If one is interested in seeing it, the widescreen print available on Tubi looks excellent.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

FUGITIVE LOVERS









The main reason I watched FUGITIVE LOVERS is that the film featured the Three Stooges. I assumed the movie was heavily influenced by the 1933 award-winning IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, since the two main characters are trying to avoid trouble by traveling on a bus. The influence is there, but instead of being a screwball comedy, the story goes off on some wild tangents. FUGITIVE LOVERS was made by MGM and released in 1934.

Madge Evans plays Letty, who is working in New York City as a chorus girl (the most common profession for young American female movie characters in the 1930s). Letty attracts the amorous attentions of a pushy (but dopey) gangster called Legs, who is played by Ned Pendleton. (The actor would play almost the same exact role in another MGM film of 1934, THE GAY BRIDE--in that one the chorus girl he's chasing after is Carole Lombard.) Letty decides to get away by taking a cross-country bus trip to California, but the annoying gangster gets on with her. While in Pennsylvania the bus literally drives through a prison break (in a rather violent sequence for the time, we are shown convicts being gunned down by guards). One of the escaped prisoners is Paul Porter (Robert Montgomery), who sneaks on the bus. He obliges Letty by keeping her separated from Legs, and the two start to fall for each other. However, the hunt for Porter is quite intense, and despite various ruses the two are tracked to Colorado, where a horrendous blizzard seals their fate.

If you are watching FUGITIVE LOVERS just to see the Three Stooges, you're apt to be disappointed. The trio have very small roles in the film, and they only appear in the first half of the story. The boys play three vaudevillians, and Moe and Larry have normal hairstyles. Moe isn't bossing or even slapping his partners around--as a matter of fact, Curly yells at him! Ted Healy is in this movie as well, but he and the Stooges do not even interact with one another, which is strange, considering that they were still officially connected with each other at the time. Healy plays the role of an obnoxious drunken passenger (which suits him perfectly). MGM was setting up Healy to be a comedic character actor, but it's obvious they had no idea how to use the Stooges in the short time they were under contract to the studio.

FUGITIVE LOVERS starts out as a situation comedy, but then veers off into something different. It's hard to figure what MGM wanted this film to be. Director Richard Boleslawski and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff use several off-kilter camera angles and extreme close-ups, and the story has many abrupt shifts in tone. The whole production has a very expressionistic attitude to it, and the pace is lightning-fast. Robert Montgomery isn't a lighthearted playboy here--he's unshaven and downcast, constantly darting his eyes to see if anyone is on to him. We find out that Montgomery's character is in jail for manslaughter, but it's suggested that he may have been railroaded and not guilty of the crime. Montgomery is very good and natural here (I've always thought the actor was much better at drama than comedy).

Madge Evans is one of the dozens of young and pretty Hollywood actresses of the 1930s who all seem to look and act alike. Her Letty comes off as too smart and sophisticated to be just a chorus girl. C. Henry Gordon gives good support as a law officer determined to bring Paul Porter in.

What makes FUGITIVE LOVERS stand out is how unusual it winds up being. At the beginning it appears to be a romantic comedy about a bus trip--but then it segues into a determined manhunt, and then at the climax it changes over to heavy melodrama when Porter and Letty have to save a busload of children trapped in a deadly snowstorm. (Five different writers are listed on the movie's credits.) Watching FUGITIVE LOVERS is like watching two or three different movies at once--and you get an appearance by the Three Stooges to boot.