Friday, November 26, 2021



Universal loves to constantly release home video editions of their most famous classics such as FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but they seem to have little interest in their more obscure titles. Thankfully companies like Kino Lorber have taken up the slack. Kino has just put out SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, a 1933 release that, while not a straight horror film, contains many elements from Universal's better known chillers. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is actually a locked-room murder mystery. Somewhere (apparently) in Europe, Irene von Helldorf (Gloria Stuart) is celebrating her 21st birthday at her family's estate, along with her father (Lionel Atwill) and three of her suitors: Captain Brink (Paul Lukas), Frank (Onslow Stevens), and Thomas (William Janney). During the night the subject of the estate's notorious Blue Room comes up. This room has been locked up for twenty years after it was the scene of three mysterious deaths. The young Thomas decides to show his courage to Irene by volunteering to stay the night in the Blue Room. The next morning, Thomas has disappeared, and it seems that the room has claimed another victim. Another death happens, and a police commissioner (Edward Arnold) is called in to get to the bottom of the matter. 

Fans of classic Universal horror of the 30s and 40s will find plenty to enjoy about SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM. The main and end titles use the "Swan Lake" music, there's sets familiar from other Universal thrillers, and the very recognizable spooky wind sound effect used so much by the studio is here. This was Lionel Atwill's first film at Universal, and while he doesn't have as much to do as a film geek would want, it's fun watching him beginning his long association with the company. Gloria Stuart (who looks quite lovely here) of course starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN, and Onslow Stevens would years later make an impact as Dr. Edlemann in HOUSE OF DRACULA. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is actually a remake of an earlier German film (it even uses some stock shots from that production). It's not the greatest mystery story in the world, but screenwriter William Hurlbut (another Universal veteran) throws in enough incidents to keep the viewer engaged for the 66-minute running time. Director Kurt Neumann and cinematographer Charles Stumar keep the film from being too static. The cast and production elements make SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM far more diverting than the typical movie mysteries of the period. 

The print used for this Region A Blu-ray is very good visually--it's not as brilliant looking as the recent more famous Universal monster title HD releases, but one has to consider that SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM has never had, as far as I know, an official home video release on disc. The main extra is a new audio commentary by Michael Schlesinger. His talk is enjoyable and well-paced, containing facts about the film and good-humored comments on some of the plot details. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM has long been considered a somewhat "lost" film in the Universal thriller-mystery canon, and it's great that Kino has put it out on Blu-ray. For fans of Universal that have never seen this picture, it will be a revelation--it's familiar and new at the same time. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

THE GIANT CLAW On Blu-ray From Arrow


Since this is Thanksgiving morning, I might as well present one of the biggest (literally and figuratively) cinematic turkeys of all: THE GIANT CLAW (1957).

This is by far the most notorious film included in Arrow Video's COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray set. Its notoriety comes from the look of the title creature--a giant bird (as big as a battleship, we are constantly told) that comes from outer space. 

If you have seen THE GIANT CLAW, you know how ridiculous this "monster" is. If you haven't...there's no description I can give that can accurately define it. Whoever did design this..."thing"...must have been under the influence of some controlled substances, or they must have had a huge grudge against producer Sam Katzman. (The effects work was apparently farmed out to some people in Mexico--I say apparently because even the critics involved in this Blu-ray's extras do not agree or know for certain how they were done.)

It's not just the big bird that is so awful--the other FX are terrible as well, with plenty of toy cars, trains, and planes involved. There's also some incredibly inane dialogue ("You keep your shirt on and I'll go get my pants on." "We've got kitchen sinks to spare, son!"). 

One could say that because of all the accumulated silliness, THE GIANT CLAW has had far more staying power than the usual 1950's low-budget sci-fi flick. I'm not one to get enjoyment out of movies because of how bad they are. If one takes away the jaw-dropping effects and some of the goofy plot elements, THE GIANT CLAW could have wound up being at least a standard genre film from this period. The plot structure is like most giant monster movies, and science-fiction veterans Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday (as a couple of scientists) play the main characters. Joining them in their fight against the flying beast is none other than Morris Ankrum, who of course plays a high-ranking member of the U.S. military. All three actors do the best they can--they certainly didn't know what the effects were going to be like. 

Arrow gives this turkey a fine presentation in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and the sharp black & white picture makes the effects look even worse. The disc includes an introduction by Kim Newman, who tries to defend the FX work (sorry, Kim--I'm not buying it). A featurette called FAMILY ENDANGERED!, by Mike White, examines how the four films in this Arrow set deal with Cold War paranoia and the safety of the American family. There's also a new audio commentary with Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard, that goes off on all sorts of tangents. Included as well are a condensed Super 8mm version of the film, and a trailer and image gallery (it's telling that the publicity stills do not show the big bird). 

I've gotten quite good at making excuses for movies like THE GIANT CLAW, but this one is really bad. Still, there is a train-wreck sort of fascination in watching such asinine effects work, and any monster movie fan will appreciate seeing Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, and Morris Ankrum. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

My 1,000th Blog Post: VIGIL IN THE NIGHT


This is post #1000 of The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog. One Thousand!!?? I can't believe I've written a thousand of these things....and I can't believe that they've had much of an overall effect. Nevertheless, I plan on continuing to write them for the time being. 

I tried to figure out something special that I could do for this particular post, and I was at a loss for ideas. I then decided to write a review on the only film that features my favorite actress (Carole Lombard) and favorite actor (Peter Cushing). 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was made by RKO, produced and directed by George Stevens, and released in 1940. It is the third in a quartet of consecutive films starring Carole Lombard in which she attempted to move away from her comedic persona (the other films were MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED). Here Lombard plays a dedicated and determined English nurse named Anne Lee. 

The story begins with Anne and her irresponsible sister Lucy (Anne Shirley) employed as nurses at a remote country hospital. Due to Lucy's negligence, a child dies, but the selfless Anne takes the blame to protect her sister. Anne obtains work at a city hospital that is short of money and staff. There she meets the distinguished Dr. Prescott (Brian Aherne), and the two become interested in one another. Anne goes through numerous trials and tribulations, but no matter what, she still remains hardworking, upbeat, and absolutely devoted to her chosen profession. 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was a major production for RKO, George Stevens, and Carole Lombard. It was based on a well-received novel by A. J. Cronin (which I have not read). Everyone involved in the film had high hopes for it. It is very well made, but it is basically a soap opera, and very grim at times. This is a movie that begins with a child dying onscreen, and things don't get much more optimistic from there. 

Among the things that Anne Lee has to deal with are shame and guilt after taking the blame for her sister's mistake, a bus crash, unsatisfactory conditions at the hospital she winds up at, being accused of coming on to the rich, middle-aged, and married chairman of the hospital's board (when it was he who was coming on to her), and, finally, a deadly epidemic. And she still has to put up with her sister's continuing personal problems. 

Anne responds to all these issues with confidence and equanimity--so much so she almost borders on being unbelievable. It's to Carole Lombard's credit that Anne doesn't come off as being too goody-goody or ridiculous. Lombard plays Anne in an understated, reserved manner, without any dramatic histrionics. (She doesn't get to wear any glamorous fashions, but she still manages to look beautiful nonetheless.) I'm sure that many of Lombard's fans may not like this performance--her usual liveliness and spontaneity are tamped down here--but one has to remember that she is playing a truly decent and dedicated individual, and a English lady at that. (Lombard doesn't use a full English accent--she modulates her voice with a trace of Mid-Atlantic, but I think it works.) Lombard isn't playing an overly emotional screwball girl--Anne Lee is a serious professional, who sublimates her own feelings in order to deal with whatever task is at hand. There are such people in the world (at least I hope there are), and I believe that this is one of Lombard's best and most underrated performances. 

Peter Cushing and Carole Lombard in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT

As for Peter Cushing, he only has a few scenes, but he gets to act with Lombard in every one of them. Cushing plays Joe Shand, who is (understandably) attracted to Anne. After the incident with the death of the child at the beginning of the film, Joe marries Anne's sister Lucy, which causes more complications--the couple go to London, Joe can't find a job, and Lucy leaves him to work at a shady "rest home" where she gets in trouble again. In one of the many coincidences in this movie, Anne and Dr. Prescott come to Lucy's rescue, and Anne and Lucy wind up working in the isolation ward during the epidemic. Lucy redeems herself at the climax, but she also "pays" for her earlier mistakes as well, in classic Hollywood fashion. Anne Shirley is good as Lucy, although I suspect that the real-life Lombard would have given the character a few slaps upside the head, or at least chewed her out. Cushing gets to have an emotional scene at the end, where he blames Anne for Lucy's fate. It's a bit startling to see Cushing look so young on screen, and to see him play someone who is basically a bumpkin. One wonders how Cushing's career would have fared if he had stayed in Hollywood--he would soon leave California and start a long and complicated trek back to his home in England (he felt uneasy about being away with World War II going on). 

Brian Aherne is efficient as Dr. Prescott, but the character seems too stuffy to be all that appealing (that's a good description of the film overall). Film geeks will appreciate that Donnie Dunagan, who played Basil Rathbone's boy in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, has a cameo as a child Prescott is trying to help. (This means that two members of the cinematic Frankenstein family--Dunagan and Peter Cushing--appear in this film.) 

One expects any film directed by George Stevens to be well-crafted, and VIGIL IN THE NIGHT certainly is. But the entire film is dark and moody--as is the cinematography by Robert de Grasse and the music by Alfred Newman. This is a story extolling the virtues of the nursing profession, so one understands why it must be serious--but one wishes that Stevens had injected some touches of humor in the story, and made Anne Lee a bit more ordinary. 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was not a box office success for RKO, and I doubt that audiences of 1940 would have been all that receptive to seeing a toned-down Carole Lombard dealing with sick & dying children. If the film had been better received Lombard might have even snagged an Academy Award nomination for it. This movie isn't popular among Lombard buffs, but it proves that she was a much more well-rounded actress than she has been given credit for. VIGIL IN THE NIGHT is nowhere near as fun to watch as MY MAN GODFREY or NOTHING SACRED, but it does show how talented Carole Lombard really was. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021



James Stewart's feature movie debut was the 1935 MGM production THE MURDER MAN, in which he played a supporting role to Spencer Tracy. Stewart and Tracy would go on to become two of MGM's biggest stars, but the only movie in which they actually co-starred together was MALAYA (1950). 

James Stewart and Spencer Tracy are two of my favorite actors, but it wasn't until recently that I got to see MALAYA. The movie almost never plays on TV, and it doesn't have much of a reputation. After viewing it I can understand why--it's set up to be a hard-hitting WWII action-adventure, with two major stars, but the end result is less than satisfactory. 

The film's plot is based on a true incident concerning the smuggling of much-needed rubber out of Japanese-controlled Malaya for use by the Allied cause. A cynical reporter named John Royer (James Stewart), who was based in the Far East during the beginning of the war, informs a newspaper editor (Lionel Barrymore) that he knows how to get rubber out from under the Japanese in Malaya. Royer tells the government of his plan, which involves an incarcerated smuggler named Carnahan (Spencer Tracy). Carnahan is released from Alcatraz and he and Royer sneak into Malaya, where they make contact with a shady nightclub owner called the Dutchman (Sydney Greenstreet). Their plot goes well at first, but the Japanese eventually catch up with them. 

MALAYA tries to be like CASABLANCA--a title from an exotic foreign location, a plot involving intrigue during WWII, and numerous eccentric characters, such as the one played by Sydney Greenstreet (he's basically reprising his role in CASABLANCA). The director of MALAYA, Richard Thorpe, is no Michael Curtiz, and there's more talk than action. Both James Stewart and Spencer Tracy are playing Humphrey Bogart-type roles, but there's no dramatic moment where the men show that they realize that there's more important things than their own self-interests. The characters played by the two stars stay so cynical throughout the whole movie that one wonders why they are so obsessed with getting the rubber out from under the noses of the Japanese. (Tracy, by the way, gets the far better role here.)

We also don't get much background on the main characters. We don't know why Stewart's reporter is so surly most of the time, or why Tracy's Carnahan became a smuggler. Carnahan is given a love interest, a singer (Valentina Cortesa) who works at the nightclub owned by the Dutchman, but she's really just the obligatory female in the story--if she had written out of the film it wouldn't have affected it one bit. 

While watching MALAYA I started to think that a studio like Warner Bros. would have been much better suited for this film. (One can imagine James Cagney and Bogart playing the leading characters.) The pacing would have been improved, and the story's more cynical elements would have been far better realized. The very last scene in MALAYA seems to have been added just to give the story a somewhat happy ending. 

MALAYA isn't bad--but considering that it's the only film where Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy co-starred as equals, it should have been much better. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021



When it comes to the American TV Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS, I have to admit that I am not a major expert on it. I own a Blu-ray of the first theatrical film based on the series, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (which is very good), and I know the basics behind it, and its impact on popular culture. But I have seen very few episodes of the original series, and I really don't have the time (or the inclination) to watch hundreds and hundreds more. 

Nevertheless, DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND: THE JONATHAN FRID STORY is a fine and engaging documentary on the actor who portrayed the series' breakout character--the complex vampire Barnabas Collins. I watched this on AppleTV, and it is available on home video from MPI.

Jonathan Frid (1924-2012) was born in Ontario, Canada, and he got the acting bug as a youngster in school. He had a long and distinguished stage career before he joined the cast of DARK SHADOWS in 1967. This erudite gentleman, with a talent for interpreting Shakespeare, soon became an unlikely pop icon, with plenty of young and enthusiastic fans. Frid's run as Barnabas came and went rather quickly, but he never let the role define him or his career. 

This documentary gives extensive coverage to Frid's entire life (it runs a little over 100 minutes). Obviously DARK SHADOWS is a main element here, but the film truly does go beyond that, showing an actor who was committed to his craft rather than fame or money. 

After DARK SHADOWS, Frid never developed much of a TV or film career, but that didn't seem particularly important to him. His main love was the stage, and performing the classics before a live audience. Frid's striking looks and mesmerizing voice were perfect for the theater, which this documentary makes very clear. 

The film also makes clear that Frid was a hard-working professional who didn't have ego trips or temper tantrums. Several of Frid's friends, co-workers, relatives, and associates are interviewed, and they paint a portrait of a man who was kindly, cultured, and decent. Despite the fact that Frid spent several years in America, he never lost his understated Canadian sensibility (he moved back to his native country during the latter part of his life). 

There's plenty of footage here of Frid in various interviews (and audio as well). He comes off as thoughtful and articulate, with a dry sense of humor. Unfortunately the documentary cannot present how Frid was while acting on stage night after night, but it does gives a sense of how charismatic a performer he was. There's also footage from the various one-man shows that Frid (with the help of some friends and fans) put together later in his life. 

DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND: THE JONATHAN FRID STORY was produced and directed by Mary O'Leary, who knew the actor personally. The pace never sags, and there's no tabloid aspects to this film--I found that quite refreshing. 

I assume that most rabid DARK SHADOWS fans have seen this documentary already, but you don't have to love the show to enjoy this film. I believe that, for those with an interest in acting and performing, DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND might even be inspirational. It defines Jonathan Frid as more than just a daytime TV vampire--he was a serious artist who lived his life the way he wanted to, and he made a positive impression on many people during it. 

Saturday, November 13, 2021



ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO is writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone's reinterpretation of his famed ROCKY IV, one of the ultimate examples of 1980s American pop culture. I wasn't able to see this at its only recent theatrical showing, but I did view it on AppleTV. 

There's a bit of a difference between ROCKY VS. DRAGO and the original ROCKY IV. The main change is the tone. Stallone has tamped down or removed most of the cheesy aspects of ROCKY IV (fans of Paulie's robot are going to be sorely disappointed). The thing is, the cheesiness of ROCKY IV is what made it so entertaining. 

The pacing of ROCKY VS. DRAGO is also much quicker than that of ROCKY IV. (Even with added material, it only runs about 90 minutes.) I assume that Stallone used faster cuts here because that's what 21st audiences are used to, but for me I thought the pace was too fast at times--there's more than a few instances of choppy editing. 

Most of the "new" scenes involve discussions between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire gets more to do here than in the original ROCKY IV). According to reviews Stallone also used a number of alternate takes. Stallone also changed the aspect ratio from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1. I thought this move was strange--did Stallone do this to make the film seem more epic? 

The thing is, ROCKY VS. DRAGO is meant to be a more intimate, serious film. Almost all the humorous elements have been taken out, and even Rocky's climatic "Everybody can change" speech seems muted here. I have the feeling that Stallone was influenced by the CREED films, and that he wondered what would happen if he took one of the earlier Rocky adventures and made it more like the recent Creed stories. ROCKY IV was an obvious choice, since Ivan Drago is such a factor in CREED II. 

ROCKY VS. DRAGO is interesting, especially if you are a fan of the Rocky franchise. But did Sylvester Stallone really need to do a George Lucas on one of his most famous movies? Stallone certainly has the right to do so--it's his film, his character. I still prefer the original ROCKY IV. Special editions of famous movies are not necessarily better ones. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

THE WEREWOLF On Blu-ray From Arrow


It's back to Arrow Video's COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray set. This time I'll be looking at THE WEREWOLF (1956). 

THE WEREWOLF is by far the best film in this set. It's not as outlandish as the other entries, and it's downbeat and realistic tone makes it stand out. 

In a small remote Northern California community, a violent creature is on the loose--but it's actually a man who has been injected, without his knowledge, by an experimental serum. The man, named Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) has no idea what is happening to him, or why he essentially changes into a werewolf. The local sheriff (Don Megowan) is determined to protect the locals, while his girlfriend nurse (Joyce Holden) wants to help the man and find out the reasons behind his plight. Also on the lookout for Marsh is his wife and young son, and the two doctors (George Lynn & S. John Launer) who are responsible for his condition. The doctors don't want to help Marsh--they want to kill him to prevent exposure of their activities. 

THE WEREWOLF has a distraught, put-upon man on the run, who doesn't comprehend what's wrong with him, it's in black & white, and it has a tragic ending. I would call THE WEREWOLF a "rustic noir", since it takes place in a rural, wooded setting. Steven Ritch is very good as the sympathetic Marsh. There's nothing extraordinary about Ritch as an actor, but that makes his situation all the more real. The two doctors who secretly experimented on Marsh are not Mad Scientist types, but bland ordinary fellows, which makes them seem more dangerous. The small town setting is clearly defined by director Fred Sears, and his use of the snowy outdoor locales makes the story stand out from the usual sci-fi/horror fare of the same period. 

Don Megowan (who played the transformed Gill Man in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US) is the by-the-book sheriff, while Joyce Holden is good as the sympathetic nurse. Eleanore Tanin plays the sad role of Marsh's wife. 

The look of the werewolf in this film resembles a lycanthrope from another Columbia film, 1943's THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. It's still an effective makeup job--and because Marsh's rages are triggered by anger instead of the full moon, we get to see him transformed in full daylight. 

As in the other films included in this set, THE WEREWOLF gets plenty of extras. There's an introduction to the movie by Kim Newman, and he briefly discusses the career of director Fred Sears, then talks a bit about the movie's combination of science-fiction and traditional horror elements. There's a visual essay called BEYOND WINDOW DRESSING, written and narrated by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. In it she examines the leading female characters in each of the Sam Katzman films in this set. There's also a very pedantic audio commentary by Lee Gambin (he believes there are a LOT of subtexts in this low-budget 80 minute B movie). Also on this disc is a short 8mm version of the film, a trailer, and an image gallery. Like the rest of the films in the set, there's a reversible disc cover, and three mini lobby cards in the case. 

THE WEREWOLF is the most notable feature in Arrow's Sam Katzman set. It has a thoughtful, almost realistic much so that one is a bit surprised that Katzman produced it. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

AN ANGEL FOR SATAN On Blu-ray From Severin


AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1966) is the last true Italian Gothic film that the iconic Barbara Steele starred in. The movie finally gets a proper official Blu-ray release courtesy of Severin Films. 

Sometime in the 19th Century, a young artist named Roberto (Anthony Steffen) travels to an Italian villa in order to restore a 200-year old statue. The statue was recovered from the bottom of a lake next to the villa--and local superstition claims that it is cursed. Also arriving at the villa is the young & beautiful Harriet (Barbara Steele), who will soon inherit the estate. Roberto and Harriet start to fall for one another. The statue bears a startling resemblance to the lady, and Roberto tries to learn more about the curse, but Harriet's uncle (Claudio Gora) and the locals are evasive. Harriet's demeanor starts to change greatly--she becomes a vindictive seductress, ensnaring men from the area. Is Harriet possessed by the model for the original statue, or are there other sinister forces at work? 

AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (original Italian title UN ANGELO PER SATANA) mixes several elements from many of Barbara Steele's other 1960s Italian horrors, but the result is something a bit different. The black & white film has no gore, but there's plenty of aggressive actions, and while there's no nudity, the story has a definite erotic charge. Once again Steele plays a character with a dual nature, and she appears to be reveling in it. When the actress is being "bad" Harriet, she seduces nearly everyone in sight, including a schoolteacher, the villa's doltish gardener, and a country lout (played by Euro Western legend Mario Brega). Harriet even turns her devilish charms on her maid (who is the girlfriend of the schoolteacher). Those who worship at the altar of Barbara will luxuriate in this film--the excellent cinematography of Giuseppe Aquari wallows in Steele's cruel beauty (she's quite ravishing and striking in the costumes she wears here). 

Director Camillo Mastrocinque (CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE) injects the story with a moody, dreamlike atmosphere, and the various Italian locales used for the production make the budget seem much bigger than I'm sure it probably was. AN ANGEL FOR SATAN isn't another cheap foreign shocker--at times it has a European art house feel. Unfortunately the attempt to rationally explain things at the climax leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. 

This film has never had an official home video release until now. (I first saw AN ANGEL FOR SATAN on YouTube.) Severin, as usual, goes all out for this one. The visual quality is magnificent, revealing plenty of detail and depth. Two audio tracks are provided--an Italian one (with English subtitles), and an English one that was considered lost. 

Two audio commentaries are provided. One features the icon herself, Barbara Steele, along with David Del Valle and Severin's David Gregory. Steele has plenty of stories to tell about her time making films in Italy in the 1960s, and she seems a bit bemused by her horror star status. (I also got the feeling that she would have much rather watched the film rather than talked about it.) As expected, Del Valle provides a lot of gossipy anecdotes, while Gregory tries to keep everything on track. The second commentary is by Kat Ellinger (I haven't listened to this one yet). 

Also included is a short interview with actor Vassili Karis, who played the schoolteacher in AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (he really doesn't have all that much to say about the film). There's also a short film starring Barbara Steele based on VENUS IN FURS, which was made in 1967. It plays out like a bizarre music video/fashion shoot, a true product of the Sixties. A audio commentary is also available for the short in which Steele talks about it. 

Two original trailers are provided, and the Blu-ray comes with a case sleeve that is made of much sturdier material than usual. The artwork used on the actual case (see picture above) and the sleeve (see picture below) is very impressive. 


AN ANGEL FOR SATAN has long been a somewhat lost film among Barbara Steele's horror entries, but now thankfully Severin has provided it with the home video release it deserves. (I have to mention that this Blu-ray is Region A.) I believe it contains one of Barbara Steele's most notable performances--any true devotee of the lady has to have this disc. 

Now....I have a suggestion for Severin Films. Could they possibly release a special edition of Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST, also starring Steele? 

Friday, November 5, 2021



French filmmaker Abel Gance will always be known for his stupendous silent-era epic NAPOLEON. But he also made another movie featuring the famed conqueror--a 1959 production called THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ (aka just AUSTERLITZ). 

I recently purchased a bargain-priced DVD of this film from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers. The DVD was produced by Reel Vault, and I was wondering what the quality of it would be. I have to say I was presently surprised. Not only was the movie in anamorphic widescreen, the sound was in stereo--and the picture quality was excellent, with a very colorful and sharp print. 

As for the movie itself--needless to say, it has nowhere near the virtuosity and ingenuity of Gance's 1927 NAPOLEON. The story starts out right before Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France, and deals with his problems with the English, and his relationships with various aides and family members. Eventually Napoleon calls off his planned invasion of England, and he marches his Grande Armee into the heart of Europe, to fight the famous battle near Austerlitz. 

It must be pointed out that this is the English-language version of the movie, which runs about two hours. According to my research, the original version of this film is almost three hours long. On the version I watched it was easy to ascertain that the film had been truncated. The story had a very disjointed feel to it, with several unconnected sequences detailing events in Napoleon's life. The movie became much more focused when the actual battle started. 

A number of characters pop in and out throughout the film, and they are played by a number of notable names. Martine Carol plays Napoleon's wife Josephine, and Leslie Caron plays one of the Emperor's mistresses. Claudia Cardinale plays one of Napoleon's sisters, and Vittorio De Sica plays the Pope. Orson Welles is inventor Robert Fulton, while Jack Palance is a cocky Russian general. European stars such as Jean Marais, Michel Simon, Rossano Brazzi, and Jean-Louis Trintignant also make appearances. 

The problem is that all of these performers that I have mentioned have only one or two scenes at the most, and they do not get a chance to make much of an impression. Pierre Mondy plays Napoleon, and here he does look the part. Mondy's Bonaparte is an impetuous and temperamental fellow, but the portrayal is hampered by the flat American voice used in the dubbing. Most of the characters have underwhelming American voices dubbed on them, which doesn't do much for a story set in early 19th Century Europe. Orson Welles dubbed in his own voice, but it's hard to tell if Jack Palance did or not, since he (or the dubber) is using a weird accent that doesn't sound Russian. 

As for the battle itself, it's kind of generic--which is disappointing, when one considers how flamboyantly cinematic Gance was in the '27 NAPOLEON. We see groups of soldiers marching or riding toward each other, but always on what appears to be the same ground. (There's plenty of talk among the opposing generals about capturing the Prazen heights, but we see nothing that resembles a "height".) 

Perhaps Gance did not have the budget to fulfill his vision here, but the overall movie does look fairly expensive, with impressive sets and costumes. (There also had to have been some money paid out to all the notable actors who appear in the production.) 

It's probably unfair to judge this version of THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ without seeing the un-dubbed, unedited original. But one must assume that all the "good stuff" was kept in the English-language version. For me, THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ felt like a dry historical montage. I certainly didn't expect it to reach the heights of the '27 NAPOLEON (almost no film could ever do that), but I was hoping for something a bit more dynamic. 

One also has to realize that Abel Gance was about 70 when this film was made, and his credited collaborator on the project, Roger Richebe, was in his 60s. Age is just a number, but there is a definite lack of gusto here. 

I still think THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ is worth a look to fans of war & historical films, especially if you can get the fine-looking version of it on the low-priced Reel Vault DVD. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

DUNE (Part One)


Denis Villeneuve's new cinematic adaptation of DUNE is the best one so far. The choice to cover Frank Herbert's sprawling novel over two films is an intelligent one, as it gives the filmmakers far more time to cover various aspects of the complex story. (As a matter of fact, this first part of the new DUNE is longer than the David Lynch 1984 version, which dealt with the entire novel.)

Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser present a number of stunning images here, and the important thing is that the viewer is given time to appreciate them. There's no shaky camerawork, or ADD influenced editing to get in the way. The production design and effects fit this film's tone perfectly, and unlike most recent science-fiction/fantasy blockbusters, this picture avoids feeling too CGI-ish. (I do think the visuals were hampered a bit by Hans Zimmer's overbearing score.) 

Villeneuve (who is also credited as one of the film's writers) makes the characters more relatable to an audience, getting away from the clunky dialogue of the David Lynch version. But at the same time he doesn't water the story down. This is a movie that a viewer needs to pay attention to. 

This DUNE features plenty of actors familiar to film geeks and fanboys, with Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho getting the best chance to shine (and he makes the most of it). Rebecca Ferguson in particular deserves attention as Lady Jessica. 

Timothee Chalamet plays the lead role of Paul Atreides, and I must admit that he didn't come off to me as a future dynamic revolutionary leader. But this is the first part of DUNE, and his Paul still has a long way to go in his journey. 

I had a lot of high hopes for this new DUNE (I'm a huge fan of Villeneuve's BLADE RUNNER 2049), and, for this first part at least, I'm quite satisfied. I'll certainly be looking forward to the second film.