Tuesday, September 29, 2015
This year Kino Lorber has released a couple of films on Blu-ray featuring great horror star team-ups (THE CRIMSON CULT, MADHOUSE). Now the company has brought out another release with a Master of Menace-filled lineup--HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.
English director Pete Walker made his reputation in the mid-1970s with a series of brutal contemporary horror films. As Walker tells it on an audio commentary for this Blu-ray, he was all but retired when producers Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus of Cannon Films asked him to make an "old-fashioned" horror movie. Why Golan & Globus approached Walker for the project is unclear--Walker's work was about as far away from old-fashioned horror as you could get--but the director took on the job. Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong decided to remake the mystery novel Seven Keys To Baldpate, and they also decided to cast as many classic horror film stars as they could.
The cast Walker gathered was indeed impressive--Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. (Walker also tried to get Elsa Lanchester, but her health problems prevented her from taking part.) Like most monster mash-ups, however, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS just doesn't live up to the pedigrees of the legends starring in it.
The real star of the film is Desi Arnaz Jr. as a young American novelist on a book tour in England. Desi and his publisher make a bet on whether the writer can complete an entire new novel in 24 hours. The publisher sends the writer to a deserted large house in Wales called Baldpate Manor. Desi thinks he will have plenty of peace and privacy to write, but strange people keep turning up, and soon the novel gets forgotten as the bizarre Grisbane clan hold a weird family reunion. (A real British manor house, Rotherfield Park, was used for Baldpate Manor, and this is a major highlight of the production.)
HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS is very much a "old dark house" type of story, with all the requisite cliches present. If Cannon wanted an "old-fashioned" type of horror picture, they certainly got one. The movie is rated PG, and not only does it look tepid compared to all the other horror product of the early 1980s, it appears weak alongside most of the horror outings of the 1960s. It is a treat to see the Fearsome Foursome--but the reality is they don't have a lot to do here (Desi Arnaz and Julie Peasgood, who plays the leading lady role, get the majority of the screen time). Price is his typical grandiloquent self, and Lee plays another of his uptight upper-class Englishmen. Peter Cushing gets a chance to do something different with his role of the cowardly (and tipsy) Grisbane brother--Cushing even uses a Elmer Fudd-type accent! Poor John Carradine's acting was obviously limited due to his health. Shelia Keith, a veteran of many Pete Walker films, actually just about steals the film playing the role of the Grisbane sister.
Almost everyone who has commented on HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS goes out of their way to disparage Desi Arnaz Jr. I'm no fan of him myself, but to be fair, he's stuck with the "David Manners" role here, and that is one of the worst roles any actor can be saddled with. Desi's part is also not written very well--he's a cocky American writer, and it is insinuated that he's not even a very good writer. But it has to be said that Arnaz doesn't do much to make his character interesting, or likable to the audience.
If one has to discuss HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, one has to mention the movie's double-twist ending. I'm not going to tell you exactly how the movie ends--I've probably given away too much by even mentioning that there is a double-twist ending--but suffice to say that some viewers may by annoyed by it (even Pete Walker admits in the commentary that the climax disappointed several people). Looked at today by those familiar with it, I guess you could say that in a way it's kind of cute--but I know that when I first saw HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS on home video in the mid-1980s, I was rather ticked off by it.
This movie was released on DVD-R by MGM a couple years ago, and the reviews on the disc's picture quality were so uniformly terrible, I didn't even bother to get it. This Kino Blu-ray makes the film look as good as a low-budget production from the 1980s can. As already mentioned, Pete Walker takes part in an audio commentary moderated by British horror film expert Derek Pykett. This is definitely worthy of a listen, as Walker (unlike some filmmakers I could name) has a total recall of all the events surrounding the production, and he shares some fine anecdotes about the members of the cast. There's also another commentary from David Del Valle, who has contributed talks on just about every Blu-ray I have bought this summer. There's also a short on-camera interview with Pete Walker.
For a long time I had a lot of bad feelings about HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS--Desi Arnaz Jr. hogging all the screen time, the trick ending, etc. Looking at it now, I can't say I've totally changed my mind about it, but I would say I respect it a bit more. It takes a long time to get going, and at 100 minutes the movie is too long for its type of material--but it is a nice little film, and seeing Price, Lee, Cushing, and Carradine together on screen at the same time is a true cinema history moment. It should have been more than what it turned out to be, but let's give Pete Walker and Cannon credit for giving these four gentlemen this opportunity. And let's remember this fact--HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS is the very last official Peter Cushing--Christopher Lee film.
Monday, September 21, 2015
One of the latest additions to my movie collection is a DVD of 1935's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, starring Peter Lorre and directed by Josef von Sternberg. I had never seen this film--in fact, I don't ever remember it being shown on TV within my knowledge--but I just couldn't pass up a movie that teams Peter Lorre and von Sternberg.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is based on the famous novel by acclaimed Russian writer Feodor Dostoyevsky. The movie was produced by Columbia Pictures, Studio head Harry Cohn had scored a great coup by bringing over Peter Lorre from Europe to the United States, and it was Lorre who wanted to appear in Dostoyevsky's story. (One can only imagine Cohn's response to the project.) The result is one of the most "art for art's sake" movies ever made at any major studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The brilliant young student Raskolnikov (Lorre) graduates from his university with high honors. He soon has a paper on criminology published, but he is not even granted a byline. The young writer is arrogant and proud, and he believes that extraordinary men (such as himself) have the right to commit crimes that an ordinary man would not. Raskolnikov is also very poor, and his frustrations over his financial plight lead him to murder a greedy old pawnbroker. The writer is convinced that his superior mind will enable him to get away with the crime, but he underestimates the abilities of Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold). The two men engage in a cat-and-mouse game for the rest of the story.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is without doubt one of Peter Lorre's best showcases. The role of Raskolnikov allows Lorre the opportunity to give an acting tour de force. At one moment Lorre is fearful and anxious, the next haughty and confident. Raskolnikov goes through so many mood swings you can't help but wonder if he is a manic-depressive. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is one of the rare times in 1930s Hollywood where an off-beat character actor gets the lead role, and Lorre makes the most of it.
Even though Lorre does have the lead role, it is Edward Arnold who is listed first in the credits (Lorre gets special billing as "The Great European Star"). Arnold holds his own as the more humanistic Inspector, whose surface affability covers a determined sense of justice. Watching Arnold constantly chuckling over Lorre's antics reminded me of Peter Falk's Columbo--Raskolnikov may be the "genius", but the Inspector has him sized up the moment he first sees him. Porfiry notices that Raskolnikov has pictures of Napoleon and Beethoven in his cheap apartment, and the Inspector makes mention of how much the writer even looks like the French emperor.
The other major role in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is that of Sonya, a poor young woman who attracts Raskolnikov's attention. Sonya is played by Marian Marsh, the Princess of Pre-Code herself. Because this is not a Pre-Code film, it is not blatantly stated that Sonya has been reduced to being a streetwalker, but it is made rather obvious to the viewer. Marsh as usual is all sweetness and innocence, and she is drawn to Raskolnikov due to his act of generosity toward her. That being said, Peter Lorre and Marian Marsh have to be one of the strangest romantic couples in movie history.
What I really took away from CRIME AND PUNISHMENT was how much it reminded me of a true film noir. It isn't set in 1940s America--the film tries to be vague about where and when it actually is set--but almost all of the classic film noir elements are here. An anti-hero down on his luck, haunted by guilt; an urban setting, drenched in claustrophobic shadows; and the presence of fate hanging over the story. Marian Marsh as Sonya may be more fallen angel instead of hard-boiled dame, but she fits the noir atmosphere as well (just look at the publicity photo of her at the end of this post). I've never heard of this version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT being called an early noir, but I believe it should be.
Whenever you watch a film directed by Josef von Sternberg, you are going to be treated to a visual feast. In CRIME AND PUNISHMENT von Sternberg, and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, fill the screen with staircases, window frames, and those ever omnipresent shadows. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT does not rise to the wild excesses that von Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich did--and in this case that is a good thing, for it allows Lorre to dominate the screen.
This new DVD of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT has been released by Mill Creek Entertainment. Mill Creek is known for putting out inexpensive product (some would say cheap--I got this for $7 from Amazon). The transfer used on this DVD looks great, but there are no extras whatsoever.
Peter Lorre is one of the great cult actors, and Josef von Sternberg is one of the great cult film directors. I'm surprised that this version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT hasn't more of a reputation. It's worth seeing just for Lorre's performance alone, and I would love to know what hard-core film noir fans would think of it.
Marian Marsh in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Saturday, September 19, 2015
I can't tell you how many great movies I have seen for the very first time on the Turner Classics Movies cable channel. What I love most about being a film buff is "discovering" a film I had never heard of, or a film I assumed I would have no interest in. It's too easy for film buffs to watch the same movies over and over again. Being able to see something you have no knowledge of, and being pleasantly surprised by it, is a fine way to recharge one's cinematic batteries.
One of my most memorable TCM "discoveries" is 1940's REMEMBER THE NIGHT, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The movie was produced at Paramount, and it was directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges. On the surface it appears to be a typical classic screwball comedy--a man and a woman, who have totally different personalities, are stuck together in a situation that both of them do not want to be in--but REMEMBER THE NIGHT is much more than that.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, who is arrested for shoplifting in New York City right before Christmas. The case is prosecuted by rising young D.A. John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray). Sargeant gets the trial postponed until after the holidays--he's more worried about going back home to his family in Indiana. Sargeant pays Lee's bail so she doesn't have to spend Christmas in jail. Lee complains that she has no money and no where else to go, so Sargeant winds up taking Lee to Indiana with him when he finds out that she has family in Indiana too.
One can easily figure out that Lee and John will start falling for each other on the trip, but things get to be more complicated than that. The couple wind up getting into trouble for trespassing in Pennsylvania, and Lee gets them out of it by starting a fire in the courthouse. The scene is funny, but it also shows the audience that Lee's value system is somewhat skewed.
When the two finally get to Indiana, the movie takes a dark turn. Lee's family home looks like a haunted house, and her mother wants nothing to do with her, calling her a thief. The meeting devastates Lee, and it lays out the case that she has major emotional problems.
John decides to take Lee to his family's home. Lee is warmly welcomed by his family, and the love and kindness that they display have a profound effect on Lee. This is another sequence that defies the viewer's expectations--at first it seems Sargeant's relatives are going to be portrayed as stereotypical country folk, but they wind up being well-rounded and human. Lee experiences a type of lifestyle she's never had, and badly needs.
John's mother (Beulah Bondi--who else?) senses that Lee is falling for her son, and she goes out of her way to tell her that John has worked hard to get to his present position, and he has a bright future ahead of him. Lee of course is all too aware of this, and all too aware that her past would hurt John's career. The young prosecutor is falling for Lee as well, but both of them know that there is something hanging over their heads--the fact that soon they will have to go back to New York and deal with Lee's trial.
I would love to discuss the ending of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, but I simply can't, because I want those who have not seen this film to experience it for themselves. Let me just say that there is no standard Hollywood contrived climax where everything comes out all right in the end. The movie ends on a vague, unsatisfying note--just like real life does.
I think the reason why REMEMBER THE NIGHT stays in my memory is that the movie wasn't anything like I expected. Instead of a rollicking romantic comedy with wacky characters, we get a long discussion about the definition of law and justice and right vs. wrong between Sargeant and Lee. What's noticeable about Lee is that she is almost a 21st Century character. She has many issues, and deep emotional problems. The movie makes no bones about the fact that Lee will steal, or lie, or cheat, to get what she wants. Even so the viewer is still sympathetic to Lee, and that is due to the brilliance of Barbara Stanwyck, who shows that the woman is all too aware of her failings.
REMEMBER THE NIGHT is also a Christmas movie, and like most great features set during the holidays, there is a sense of longing and melancholy. The love and warmth of John's family during their Christmas reunion is contrasted with the emptiness of Lee's life. The result is that despite a then-in-force Hollywood production code which demands that Lee pay for her crimes, the audience does not want her to go to jail--serving time would probably send a person with Lee's emotional problems down a far darker path.
Before I had seen REMEMBER THE NIGHT for the first time on TCM, I had never even heard of the movie. Now I consider it one of the best films of the late 1930s, and one of Barbara Stanwyck's best performances. If it wasn't for TCM I might not have ever seen this movie....or dozens of other films I could mention. Hopefully TCM will continue to show those classics that don't seem to get the attention that they deserve.
Monday, September 14, 2015
This is my contribution to The Lauren Bacall Blogathon, hosted by the site In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollwood (crystalkalyana.wordpress.com)
For this blogathon I decided to do something a little different. Instead of covering a certain Lauren Bacall movie performance, I am writing about a single photo.
I'm sure if you know anything about Lauren Bacall, or have happened to read anything about her, you are familiar with this picture. It is one of the most famous publicity photos of all time. It was taken on February 10, 1945, at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
At the time Bacall was engaged in a publicity campaign for her debut film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. That movie would change her life professionally and personally. The very young model-turned-actress had not yet reached major superstar status, but she was definitely on her way--and this photo helped.
On that day in 1945 Bacall and her press agent, Warner Bros. publicity chief Charlie Enfield, were visiting the National Press Club. Vice-President Harry Truman just happened to be playing the piano in the bar area at the time (Truman had only been sworn in a couple weeks ago, and he was already bored of the office). Enfield suggested to Bacall that she should climb on top of the piano....and the rest is history.
As a publicity stunt it worked like a charm...this photo, and others taken at the same time, ran in all the major newspapers. For some Americans this photo would be the first time that they had heard of, or even seen, the name "Lauren Bacall" (the young lady, born with the name Betty Perske, had only changed it a short time ago). The photo session caused some controversy--at the time a Vice-President was not expected to be publicly seen in such a situation. There's no doubt, however, that the photo gained Harry Truman several fans.
What is so striking about the photo today is the juxtaposition between the homespun, plainspoken, ordinary-looking middle-aged Truman and the young, sleek, and alluring Bacall. Truman was obviously enjoying himself (can you blame him?), and that just makes the shot work even more.
Today one sees so many photo-ops involving stars and politicians, they barely register anymore. If an image was released of a skirt-wearing Jennifer Lawrence perched on top of Joe Biden's desk, while the Vice-President was typing away on a laptop, it might trend for a couple days or so...but it wouldn't have near the impact that the Bacall-Truman encounter had. If you read any books, or anything on the internet, written about the life of Lauren Bacall or Harry Truman, you are going to see a version of this photo.
Most of the great historical photographs are purely a matter of chance. It all comes down to a combination of the right moment, the right subjects, and the right atmosphere. The Bacall-Truman photo has that combination--and a lot of that is due to the presence of Lauren Bacall. When viewing the photo it feels as if she belongs on top of that piano. If any woman could have looked totally natural in such a pose, and in such a setting, it was Lauren Bacall.
By the way, there is still a piano in the bar area (now called "The Truman Lounge") of the National Press Club. Legend says it is the same piano...but since so many women have tried to imitate Lauren Bacall by sitting on it over the years, the piano has had to have been rebuilt.
Friday, September 11, 2015
I bought Kino's Blu-ray of MADHOUSE earlier this summer. Even before the disc was officially released there were reports that the dialogue did not synch up with the actors' lip movements. When I got my disc I watched it and honestly felt that the problem wasn't really all that bad. However there was a hue & cry about it all over social media, and Kino decided to ship out replacement discs. I went ahead and signed up for one, and this one has no sound issues. What will I do with the first disc? How about a Hitless Wonder Movie Blog giveaway contest? Anyway.....
Now that I have a "fixed" Blu-ray, I can go ahead and write a blog post on this film. It's rather ironic that so much attention has been paid to it recently because of the sound problems, because, quite frankly, MADHOUSE is a flat-out mess.
MADHOUSE (1973) holds the distinction of being the very last film Vincent Price appeared in for American International Pictures. In the 1960s, AIP and Price (along with producer/director Roger Corman) helped redefine the American Gothic horror film. By the early 70s, Gothic horror was on the wane, and so was Price's relationship with AIP. The company decided to hook up once again with Amicus productions in England for Price's next horror movie. This time Price would get to really co-star with Peter Cushing (both men had appeared in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, but they shared no scenes together). Price would also have to deal with Robert Quarry again as well--Quarry was becoming AIP's new horror star, and a rivalry was beginning to develop between the two men.
MADHOUSE would also feature scream queens Adrienne Corri and Linda Hayden. With all these elements--Price, Cushing, Quarry, Corri, Hayden, American-International, and Amicus--what could go wrong? Plenty.
MADHOUSE tells the tale of Hollywood horror star Paul Toombes (Vincent Price), who has become famous playing a character known as "Dr. Death". The character was created by Toombes' friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), who writes the Dr. Death movies. During a New Year's Eve party Toombes finds his fiancee horribly murdered, and he suffers a breakdown. After years of therapy Toombes is invited to England by Herbert to appear in a new Dr. Death TV series. Toombes fears reviving the character--most people assume that it was Toombes who killed his fiancee--and sure enough, bodies start dropping all over the place, forcing the actor to once again question his sanity.
If MADHOUSE had actually been about the Dr. Death character, it probably would have turned out a lot better. (The original title of the film was even supposed to be THE REVENGE OF DR. DEATH). Having Vincent Price play a horror movie actor instead of a horror movie role could have turned out interesting, but the jumbled screenplay fails to capitalize on the idea. Because the movie opens with the murder of Toombes' love, and someone dressed as Dr. Death runs around for the rest of the film and kills people in gruesome ways, the audience just assumes that Toombes is crazy all along, and the situation of a real horror movie actor commenting on his life through a film gets lost.
The Dr. Death makeup for Price (see picture above) is rather striking, and so is the Doctor's costume--black cloak, wide-brimmed black hat, and black gloves. That costume has caused some to venture that MADHOUSE has some similarities to an Italian giallo film. MADHOUSE has nowhere near the visual style of a typical giallo, and the screenplay certainly isn't up to the usual intricate standards of that genre. Where you can compare MADHOUSE to a giallo is in the fact that a black-gloved killer who likes to fondle knives commits brutal acts of violence against women. You could even make the point that MADHOUSE has a misogynistic bent to it. At one point Toombes complains that "everyone's on the make", and he's referring to women. Just about every female cast member gets finished off, and the one who doesn't--Adrienne Corri's character--is disfigured and mentally imbalanced. In her small role Linda Hayden almost steals the film, due to her sporting some eye-popping costumes, but since she's a predatory golddigger you can guess how she winds up.
Peter Cushing doesn't have much to do until the end, but unfortunately it is too little, too late. Robert Quarry gives another one of his snide performances--he doesn't have much to do here either--but I have to admit he's the perfect guy to play an arrogant producer. Vincent Price spends most of the story looking tired and dispirited. Of course you could say that's what Paul Toombes is supposed to look like, but I have feeling it was much more than that. While making MADHOUSE Price was going through personal issues, and he was disappointed with the script and angry at AIP. Price gets to have a nice soliloquy toward the end, but you can't help but feel that MADHOUSE should have been more of a showcase for the genre legend.
One point that needs to be made about MADHOUSE is that throughout the running time, many clips from Vincent Price's 1960s AIP films are presented as "highlights" of Paul Toombes' career. It seems like every ten minutes somebody turns on a projector and shows a Paul Toombes "movie"(The late actors Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone even get a "special participation" credit!). The clips featured are from such films as HOUSE OF USHER, TALES OF TERROR....we even get to see the "burning barn" footage again!! Not only do these clips bring the actual story to a halt, they remind us how great these films were compared to the one we are watching now.
There is one thing that makes MADHOUSE a true madhouse, and that is the ending. I'm not going to give it away, but it is so far out of left field that you will either be grudgingly impressed or you will look at the screen and say "Whaaa??" Needless to say, the ending makes absolutely no sense.
Kino's Blu-ray of MADHOUSE has far superior picture quality than the old MGM "Midnite Movies" DVD of this title. As I stated at the start of this post, the sound issues appear to be fixed. The Blu-ray extras are a nice little featurette from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures concerning the making of MADHOUSE, and a gossipy audio commentary from David Del Valle, who personally knew many of those involved in the production.
If MADHOUSE is a disappointment, why would you want to buy it? Well, classic monster movie fans like me will buy just about anything representing the genre--like I've mentioned, there was a huge uproar over the sound issues when this Blu-ray came out. It is the only real teaming of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in a horror film, and it is the last time Price worked for American International, the studio that made him an icon. MADHOUSE was supposed to have been Vincent Price's SUNSET BLVD., but the final result falls way short of that level.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
I recently made another YouTube movie "discovery"--this time it is a 1967 James Bond spoof called O.K. CONNERY. It was released in the U.S. under the title OPERATION KID BROTHER. Both titles refer to the fact that the star of the film is none other than Sean Connery's younger brother, Neil Connery.
1967 was the height of the spy craze in the entertainment industry, with all sorts of James Bond rip-offs and knock-offs appearing all over movies and television. For his Bond knock-off, Italian producer Dario Sabatello came up with the audacious idea of casting the "real" James Bond's sibling, even though he wasn't a professional actor. The very concept seems ridiculous, and I expected this movie to be terrible--but in all honesty, it's not that bad!
What helps the movie out is the involvement of several actors who had already played roles in the official Bond films. There's Bernard Lee, "M" himself, in the role of spy chief Colonel Cunningham (does that make him "C" in this picture?). Lois Maxwell, who at the time played "M"'s secretary Miss Moneypenny, here plays....the Colonel's secretary, "Miss Maxwell". Both Lee and Maxwell have much more to do here than in almost all of their Bond credits combined. Moneypenny fans may be interested to know that Maxwell even gets to participate in a gunfight!
The movie's main villains are played by Adolfo Celi and Anthony Dawson. Celi had played Largo in THUNDERBALL, and Dawson had been in DR. NO, along with being the "figure" of Blofeld in a couple Bond movies. Their characters in this story work for an evil organization called "Thanatos", which of course is a take-off of SPECTRE from the Bond films. The master plan of Thanatos is to destroy the world's technology with the use of ultra-magnetic power.
As for Neil Connery's part, he plays a world-renowned Scottish plastic surgeon named--Neil Connery. (Seriously, that is what he is called in the film....hey, if you're gonna make use of the Connery name, you might as well use it to the full.) One of Connery's patients is caught up in the Thanatos plot, so the Colonel and Miss Maxwell ask for his help in the affair. They tell Connery that he can be trusted because his brother is their "top secret agent" (which is exactly true, when you think about it). Neil Connery wears a goatee in this movie, but other than that (and the fact that he is not as well-built as Sean), he does look a bit like his brother. On this version of this film that I watched on YouTube, Neil Connery was a dubbed by an American actor, so it is hard to give a definitive judgement on his performance. All things considered, he's really not all that bad...most Italian sci-fi and action movies of this period had wooden leading men, and Neil Connery doesn't do any worse than most of them. Neil just didn't have the dangerous screen presence his brother had.
Neil Connery's character in this film may not be a true spy, but he does have some talents of his own. Not only is he a cutting-edge plastic surgeon, he is also an expert hypnotist, master lip-reader, and a champion archer. All these abilities come into play during the story.
Every James Bond imitation needs a pseudo-Bond girl, and O.K. CONNERY has the distinct advantage of having an official Bond girl, Daniela Bianchi, who starred in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Bianchi looks simply stunning here, and in literally every scene she is in, she gets to wear a different fantastic costume. At the climax she sports skin-tight orange leather pants (that fact alone is enough to qualify O.K. CONNERY for a Blu-ray release). In every Bond film there is a "good" Bond girl and a "bad" Bond girl. Here Bianchi gets to be both--for most of the running time she is working for Thanatos, but toward the end she sides with Neil Connery. Bianchi's character even has a gang of her own--a bevy of scantily-clad beauties who take part in her schemes (such as wearing showgirl costumes while stealing a nuclear device). While watching this scene I couldn't help but think of Maud Adams and her circus girls in OCTOPUSSY--did O.K. CONNERY happen to inspire someone in the official James Bond production team? More than likely not--but O.K CONNERY isn't that far removed from some of the weaker Roger Moore Bond outings.
You can't really compare O.K. CONNERY alongside the official Bond films. It should be compared to the hundreds of other imitation Bonds made during the same era. Most of those imitations try too hard to be funny, or outlandish. There's intentional humor in O.K. CONNERY, and outlandish moments, but all in all it is a solid, well-made film. It certainly isn't cheap--it was filmed at several photogenic European locations, and Daniela Bianchi's wardrobe alone must have been a major expense. Director Alberto De Martino does a fine job handling all the offbeat ingredients, and the editing and cinematography are more than adequate. The music score is by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, and it is more retro-lounge than fake John Barry (there is a musical passage that features a take-off on the famous James Bond theme guitar riff). I went on Amazon to see if the O.K. CONNERY score was available on CD, and it is....but be prepared to pay a pretty penny for it (I passed).
I had low expectations for O.K. CONNERY when I started to watch it, but I wound up being pleasantly surprised. No, it's not GOLDFINGER, but it is entertaining in its own right. If you are a huge James Bond fan you should check it out just to see Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell play "special enlarged" versions of their usual roles. I would love to see O.K. CONNERY get an official American Blu-ray release....and I know I would much rather watch this movie again instead of, say, A VIEW TO A KILL or QUANTUM OF SOLACE.
Monday, September 7, 2015
In this age of film remakes, reboots, and reworkings, it's worth pointing out that some remakes are better known than the original. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is universally considered one of the best comedies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a career highlight for both star Cary Grant and director Howard Hawks. There are many fans of HIS GIRL FRIDAY that may not even be aware of the fact that the movie is a remake of THE FRONT PAGE, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Kino.
The popularity of HIS GIRL FRIDAY has all but overshadowed THE FRONT PAGE. It hasn't helped that THE FRONT PAGE is almost never shown on TV, and when it is, the quality of the print is very poor (I tried to watch it once on TCM, and it looked and sounded so bad I couldn't get through it). Kino's version isn't perfect by any means, but it looks much better than any other one available.
THE FRONT PAGE is an adaptation of a renowned Broadway play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The play revolves around the machinations of Chicago newspaper reporters in the 1920s. The two main characters are big-shot editor Walter Burns (played by Adolphe Menjou in the film) and his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien). The story begins with Hildy planning to marry his sweetheart (Mary Brian) and move to New York. Editor Burns schemes to keep Hildy from going by any means possible. Burns takes advantage of the situation surrounding the upcoming execution of presumed radical and cop-killer Earl Williams (George E. Stone) to get Hildy to stay on the job.
Most of the story takes place in the press room of the city court house, but director Lewis Milestone goes out of his way to avoid things from being static. There's an incredible amount of impressive camera work on display in THE FRONT PAGE--zoom-ins, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, full-circle camera movements, etc. The cinematography is even more impressive when one realizes that this production was made during the early days of talking pictures, when supposedly the camera barely moved, and the actors' motions were limited because of the primitive sound equipment. (I have to say that in most of the pictures I have seen from 1930-1931, the camera--and the actors--are moving all over the place.)
Because it is an early talkie THE FRONT PAGE does have some creaky moments. It is nowhere near as polished as HIS GIRL FRIDAY. But I think this works in THE FRONT PAGE's favor. This is a true Pre-Code film--the reporters really do look and sound like the rough & tumble guys that would work in such an environment, and the main set of the film, the press room, is as un-glamorous as you can get. The movie is very politically incorrect (the fact that Earl Williams has shot an African-American police officer seems to be a source of amusement to everyone in the cast). The character of Molly (who also appears in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) is without doubt a prostitute here. The whole atmosphere of THE FRONT PAGE has a seedy, grimy tone to it.
Of course the main difference between THE FRONT PAGE and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is that in the earlier film Hildy is most definitely a man, whereas in the later film Hildy is re-written as a woman, and Walter Burns' ex-wife to boot. In HIS GIRL FRIDAY the appealing looks & personalities of Cary Grant (as Burns) and Rosalind Russell (as Hildy) soften the hard edge of the original play & film. While HIS GIRL FRIDAY can be called a screwball comedy, you can't say that about THE FRONT PAGE--it is more of a biting satire.
There's not really any appealing characters in THE FRONT PAGE. Hildy may be trying to get away from people like his boss Burns, but in the end he's still basically the same guy he's always been--a guy willing to do just about anything to get a big story.
Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien are very good in the lead roles. You totally believe these guys would cut someone's throat for a headline (I don't think you would necessarily believe that about Cary Grant or Rosalind Russell). The other reporters in the press room are played by such great character actors as Edward Everett Horton and Frank McHugh. I have to make special mention of Mae Clarke in the role of Molly, the streetwalker who feels sorry for Earl Williams. Once again she all but steals the film--the more and more I see of Mae Clarke, the more and more I am impressed of her as an actress.
Kino has attempted to put out the best version of THE FRONT PAGE as possible. As I have stated earlier, the visual quality here is much improved from other versions of the film that I have (attempted) to see, but I wouldn't say that it is outstanding. As for the sound quality...there are many times during the story where the sound level goes up and down, even during the same scene. At times it is hard to understand what the characters are saying (it doesn't help that most of the dialogue is spouted off in rapid-fire fashion). I honestly think that Kino should have added some English subtitles to this Blu-ray.
The extras include a couple radio adaptations of the story, and a very informative and enlightening audio commentary by Bret Wood. Wood relates numerous facts about the original play and the making of the 1931 movie, and he also points out the censorship problems the production had, even in the Pre-Code era. Wood also goes out of his way to mention Howard Hughes' involvement in the film as producer, and how Hughes' movie career was more important than it is usually given credit for.
THE FRONT PAGE is more of a title for film buffs than a general audience. It makes a great comparison to HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and in some ways I think it is just as good as the remake. Don't get me wrong--HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a great film, but it is a mainstream, cleaned-up version of THE FRONT PAGE.
Saturday, September 5, 2015
There is no doubt that Barbara Steele is one of the most iconic figures in the history of fantastic cinema. Severin Films pays homage to the Queen of Spaghetti Horror with a Blu-ray release consisting of three of the actresses' 1960s shockers: NIGHTMARE CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, and TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE.
Severin had already released NIGHTMARE CASTLE on DVD a few years ago uncut, along with special features. This Blu-ray also has the uncut version of the film, but this time with English credits naming the movie THE NIGHT OF THE DOOMED. Severin's DVD of NIGHTMARE CASTLE looked good, but the Blu-ray looks simply spectacular, highlighting Enzo Barboni's exquisite black & white cinematography. The movie itself is one of Barbara Steele's best showcases, with her playing two roles--a shrewish wife tortured & killed by her mad scientist husband at the beginning of the story, and her timid stepsister, who the scientist also marries in an attempt to get control of the family fortune. The scientist hopes to do this by driving the stepsister insane, but the spirit of the first wife beats him to it. NIGHTMARE CASTLE may be the ultimate representation of the Italian Gothic horror film, containing all the main ingredients of that particular genre: madness, adultery, and characters constantly roaming around old dark houses while holding up candles. (What stock military footage is to the 1950s American science-fiction movie, people walking around with candles is to the 1960s Italian Gothic horror movie.)
NIGHTMARE CASTLE also features some other familiar genre names alongside Steele, such as Paul Muller (LADY FRANKENSTEIN) as the scientist and Helga Line (HORROR EXPRESS). The movie's organ-laden music score is by none other than Ennio Morricone.
Carried over from Severin's NIGHTMARE CASTLE DVD is a 30-minute interview with Barbara Steele, in which she goes over her entire career. It's a fascinating talk, and a must-see for any Steele fan. Also carried over to this Blu-ray is a short talk with NIGHTMARE CASTLE director Mario Caiano. New to this release is an audio commentary with Barbara Steele and genre expert David Del Valle. Del Valle makes some interesting observations on the production (some of which Steele does not agree with), and even compares Steele's persona to that of Louise Brooks. Steele makes some very insightful comments herself, and one hopes that she does more commentaries. (By the way, Steele was able to dub her own voice on the English soundtrack of NIGHTMARE CASTLE for her role of the stepsister, so this is one of the very few times viewers get to hear her real voice during one of her horror movies.)
Next up is the American version of director Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD. This may be Margheriti's best film (he's better known as Anthony M. Dawson in the U.S.), a tale brimming with pure Gothic atmosphere. A journalist attempting to interview Edgar Allan Poe during the famous writer's visit to England winds up agreeing to take part in a wager where he attempts to spend an entire night at a haunted castle. As the night goes on the man becomes involved in the past lives of the castle's undead occupants, including the lovely Steele, who must be the most attractive ghost on record. Like most Italian Gothics, there's a fair amount of hanky-panky going on here (as a matter of fact, Steele plays adulterous wives in every feature on this Blu-ray). The interior production design of the castle is magnificent, and Margheriti certainly knew how to make an entertaining film.
If you happen to own the Synapse DVD of CASTLE OF BLOOD, make sure you hold on to it, because this Blu-ray version of the movie is not uncut. The picture image here is sharper, but it has lots of scratches on it. as does the version of TERROR CREATURES OF THE GRAVE included on this disc. Watching the movies this way, with all the scratches and the sound pops, made me feel as if I was watching them on late night TV--I have a feeling, however, that some people out there may not appreciate seeing CASTLE OF BLOOD and TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE in less than pristine condition, especially on a Blu-ray.
The main extra for CASTLE OF BLOOD is a short featurette which includes an audio interview with Antonio Margheriti. An original trailer for the movie is also on this Blu-ray.
I had never seen TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE before, and I had never really heard much about it, so I was pleasantly surprised when I did watch it on this Blu-ray--it was much better than I anticipated. The story begins with a solicitor receiving a mysterious letter from a man with the wonderful name of Jeronimus Hauff. Hauff asks the lawyer to come to his European villa and help change his will. The lawyer arrives only to find out that Jeronimus died (supposedly from an accident) nearly a year ago. The spooky villa is built on the remains of medieval plague victims (because of this, did Jeronimus get a discount when he bought the place??), and apparently Jeronimus was attempting to make contact with them. The lawyer joins up with Jeronimus' young daughter to solve the strange goings-on, all the while having suspicions about Jeronimus' slinky second wife Cleo (Barbara Steele of course). During most of the story one assumes that it is going to wind up being one of those "the dead person isn't really dead" tales, but once the climax starts up the movie really goes out of left field in a way that will impress fans of weird cinema. (One of the advantages of Italian Gothic horror movies is that they were willing to go off on bizarre tangents that English and American-made Gothics would not.)
The main extra for TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE is a featurette with an audio interview with director Massimo Pupillo, who explains why the on-screen credits for the movie list "Ralph Zucker" as the director. The featurette also includes an interview with actor Riccardo Garrone, who admits that he barely remembers appearing in TERROR CREATURES. Garrone is amused (and amazed) that anyone would even care about the movie today. A few deleted scenes from TERROR CREATURES are presented, along with an original trailer.
Severin has done an excellent job with this Blu-ray....even though it is only a single disc, it might as well qualify as a Barbara Steele box set. When one thinks of Barbara Steele, the movies BLACK SUNDAY and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM automatically come to mind, but it was titles like those on this Blu-ray that really cemented the lady's Gothic reputation. If this Blu-ray has enough sales, perhaps Severin (or another video company) will release decent Region A Blu-rays of other Steele films such as THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE GHOST, and AN ANGEL FOR SATAN.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Kino Lorber has been putting out a lot of Spaghetti Westerns on Blu-ray recently, and one of the latest is 1966's NAVAJO JOE, starring of all people Burt Reynolds.
After he was shown a print of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS by his buddy Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds thought that maybe he should try the Italian Western route. The actor was hired by producer Dino De Laurentiis to appear in NAVAJO JOE, and legend has it that Reynolds assumed he was going to be working with Sergio Leone. Once Burt got to Italy, however, he found out that the director of the film was to be Sergio Corbucci instead.
Corbucci had just made the very popular, and very violent European Western DJANGO. If anything NAVAJO JOE is even more violent, but Corbucci replaces the muddy Gothic atmosphere of DJANGO with the bleak, barren plains of Spain.
How violent is NAVAJO JOE? Consider what main villain Duncan (Aldo Sanbrell) and his 50-odd member gang perpetrate in just the first 25 minutes of the movie:
They first massacre an entire Indian village
Then they pillage & burn a Western town
Then they commandeer a train, and kill all the passengers on board and the soldiers guarding the money on the train.
And there's still plenty more killings to come during the rest of the story. Most of those killings are done by Burt Reynolds as Navajo Joe, as he picks off Duncan's men (Joe wants revenge for the murder and scalping of his woman during the Indian massacre). Reynolds does most of his own stunts, and he's amazingly athletic here (considering what I've heard about the disorganized way most Italian Westerns were shot, it's hard to believe that the actor did not wind up badly injured). Joe offers to help the citizens of another town from Duncan's men, but the real reason he is doing it is to get a chance to finish the gang off once and for all. As you might expect, the townspeople are snobbish, weak hypocrites--when Joe demands to be made sheriff, one of them protests that Joe isn't even an American citizen. Joe responds by saying that his forefathers were all born in America--it's Reynolds best dialogue moment in the film (one could say it is his only dialogue moment).
Of course one does not watch a Spaghetti Western for dialogue exchanges. Most people watch them because of the action--and Corbucci doles it out here in spades. NAVAJO JOE may be brutal, and it may even be called nihilistic, but it certainly isn't boring.
The most important feature of NAVAJO JOE isn't anything that is actually in the movie....it is the music score from the Maestro himself, Ennio Morricone (on the credits he is listed as "Leo Nichols"). The soundtrack is so bizarre and otherworldly that it defies description. It's as if a group of Native Americans are trapped in Hell and are wailing to get out. The score is so overpowering that at times it seems what is going on pictorially is nothing more than a video for Morricone's music. NAVAJO JOE remains one of the Maestro's greatest scores, and it received a whole new audience in the 21st Century due to Quentin Tarantino using parts of it for his KILL BILL films. I happen to have the NAVAJO JOE soundtrack on CD and vinyl--I got the record for only $1 at a vendor's booth during the last Monster Bash Conference.
The NAVAJO JOE soundtrack on vinyl and CD
Kino's Blu-ray of NAVAJO JOE has a rather soft picture and a thin sound, but that is probably due to the source material (I'm sure that very few 50 year old Spaghetti Westerns look and sound perfect). The only extra, other than some trailers, is a low-key audio commentary by Kino executive Gary Palmucci. He mentions some details about the movie and Ennio Morricone, but a true Spaghetti Western expert would have been more welcome as a commentator.
From the standpoint of pure brutal violence, NAVAJO JOE has to be looked upon as one of the most memorable Italian Westerns. The idea of a young Burt Reynolds appearing in this type of movie may come off as a joke at first, but he's very good as a physical manifestation of vengeance. You may disagree with Sergio Corbucci's taste in material, but you have to admit the man was a more than capable director. It is worth watching this just to listen to Morricone's score. Those who prefer the traditional old-fashioned Western are advised to take a pass on this one.