Sunday, February 25, 2024

SPEED (1936)


No, this isn't that movie with Keanu Reeves. This SPEED was made in 1936, and it was the very first leading role for James Stewart. The actor was under contract to MGM at the time, and the studio put him in a low-budget B-type of picture for his first starring turn. 

In SPEED Stewart plays Terry Martin, a mechanic-test driver for Emery Motors. Terry is a cynical type who has a grudge against the front office, and he's also trying to invent a new type of carburetor. Terry gets distracted by his interest in Jane (Wendy Barrie), who has just gotten a job in the publicity department. But Jane is also being wooed by Frank (Weldon Heyburn), an Emery engineer who is assigned to work with Terry on the carburetor idea. Terry and Frank test the carburetor out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on the Muroc Dry Lake, and after a number of crashes and romantic mix-ups, everything is resolved at the end. 

SPEED isn't so much a James Stewart movie as it is a promotional film for the American automobile industry. The viewer is shown plenty of footage of cars being made on an assembly plant and being tested in all sorts of ways (this footage was filmed by MGM at a Chrysler plant in Michigan). We also get a lot of stock footage of racing at the Indy 500 and high-speed auto testing at the Muroc Dry Lake in California. The viewer is also constantly reminded by the characters that all this racing & testing is for the safety and comfort of the average American driver (I wonder if some MGM executives got some nice deals on new cars because of this production). 

James Stewart had only been at MGM for about a year when he worked on SPEED, but he already shows a natural likability and notable onscreen presence. It's a good thing he does, because the character of Terry Martin does him no favors. Terry has a chip on his shoulder, and he's bullheaded--a lesser actor would have wound up just annoying the audience. I don't want to give away the ending of SPEED, but in it Terry becomes the one in need of rescue, an unusual circumstance for a leading character in a film like this. 

Wendy Barrie does a competent job as June, but she and Stewart don't seem to have a lot of chemistry together. Weldon Heyburn (there's a name for you) was one of the many generic-looking, dull actors during this period who played second leads and romantic rivals who never got the leading lady. Former Stooge leader Ted Healy plays the comic relief role of Terry's buddy Gadget (you can tell he's supposed to be comic relief because he has a "funny" moniker). It appears as if Healy is ad-libbing dialogue in every scene he's in. 

The real surprise in this film is Una Merkel. She plays an executive of Emery Motors, and we are told that she worked her way up from being a secretary. This time Merkel is not playing a flighty or zany lady--her character is actually somewhat disappointed in her white collar life, and she has eyes for Frank. I felt that the story of Merkel's character would have been much more interesting than what goes on in SPEED. Something else about Merkel here--she has only a few moments of screen time with Jimmy Stewart, but the two of them have way more chemistry than Stewart did with Wendy Barrie (it would have been more fitting if Stewart and Merkel wound up as a couple at the end of this film). Ralph Morgan plays an Emery vice-president. 

SPEED was directed by low-budget veteran Edwin L. Marin, and it is only about 70 minutes long. The film will be of interest today to James Stewart fans and classic car and racing buffs. This was one of the very few Jimmy Stewart films I had never seen. It's not a major part of the actor's resume, but it is historically notable as his first lead in a film. 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK On Blu-ray From Vinegar Syndrome


Vinegar Syndrome has released a super special edition of the famed Italian Gothic horror film THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK on 4K and Blu-ray. (For the purposes of this blog post, I will be reviewing the Blu-ray on this set, since I don't even have a 4K player. If there's anyone out there who would like to buy me a 4K player, go right ahead!) 

Vinegar Syndrome's release contains  two discs, a 4K and a Blu-ray. The 4K and Blu-ray discs have both the Italian and American cuts of the film, and the Blu-ray has all the extras as well. 

THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK is famed due to its starring Barbara Steele, and due to its rather lurid subject matter. For those who have not seen this film, let's just say that the main character, Prof. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), likes his women passive--very, very passive. In 1885 London, the good doctor secretly subjects his wife to one of his kinky experiments, and the woman dies. The distraught Hichcock goes into exile for 12 years, and returns with a new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). The doctor tries to go back to his old life, but that also includes his perverse hobbies....and is the first Mrs. Hichcock still alive, roaming the grounds of the estate? The innocent Cynthia soon realizes that there's a lot more to this marriage than she expected. 

THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOK (originally titled L'ORRIBILE SEGRETO DEL DR. HICHCOCK) was directed by Riccardo Freda and written by Ernesto Gastaldi, two important names in Eurocult cinema. Despite the main character's unusual tastes, the movie has very little gore and no nudity. It's a true 19th Century Gothic tale with luxurious color cinematography by Raffaele Masciocchi and opulent-looking production design by Franco Fumagalli (who in the main credits goes by the name Frank Smokecocks!) There's all sorts of stories about how little time it took to make this movie, but the visual aspects of it are right up there with the best Hammer horrors made during that company's golden period of the late Fifties and early Sixties. 

The name Dr. Hichcock was obviously a nod to Alfred Hitchcock, but there's more to the title than just a blatant name drop. THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK will remind viewers of such films by Sir Alfred as REBECCA, UNDER CAPRICORN, and SUSPICION. There's also a heavy influence from JANE EYRE. 

Despite Barbara Steele getting top billing, this is Robert Flemyng's film all the way. The English character actor was a strange choice for Dr. Hichcock (Flemyng wasn't even a major name in his native country). Flemyng plays the doctor in an unexpected manner--the man is quietly sinister instead of mad or outrageous (Hichcock does go off the rails during the climax). I think Flemyng's portrayal works very well, though some might want a mad scientist in the Bela Lugosi-Lionel Atwill mode. As for Barbara Steele, this is the only time in her Italian Gothic career where she played a truly generic damsel in distress. The role of Cynthia doesn't take advantage of Steele's ability to play dual characters, or at least characters with a dual nature, but she does make an extremely attractive scream queen. Harriet Medin offers up fine support as Hichcock's creepy housekeeper, a role the actress would inhabit in a number of other Italian Gothics. 

The original Italian 87 minute version of THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK is included on the Blu-ray, along with the 76 minute American cut. (Both versions are also on the 4K disc.) Vinegar Syndrome states that the full-length Italian version has been restored from its original 35mm camera negative, and the results are simply stunning. The American cut has also been restored from a 35mm negative, and it looks very impressive as well (though not as fantastic as the Italian version). Both versions have a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Italian version has Italian and English mono voice tracks with available English subtitles. The sound quality on the Italian version is much better than other home video releases of DR. HICHCOCK. The American version has an English mono voice track which is slightly different from the one on the Italian version, and this track also has some distortion on it. 

Vinegar Syndrome has filled this release with plenty of extras. There's a 40 page illustrated booklet with essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Erica Shultz, and Nathaniel Thompson. Heller-Nicholas and Shultz focus mainly on the depraved desires of Dr. Hichcock, while Thompson discusses the film's production and its themes. Nathaniel Thompson also takes part in a brand new audio commentary which is on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs. Thompson is joined by Troy Howarth and Eugenio Ercolani. It's an excellent discussion, with the trio talking about the careers of Riccardo Freda and Ernesto Gastaldi. They also bring up the intriguing idea that Barbara Steele should have played both of Dr. Hichcock's wives. 

The Blu-ray also has a audio track featuring Barbara Steele and Russ Lanier. It is referred to as a scene select commentary track on the back of the disc case, but it's mainly a nearly half-hour interview in which Steele voices a number of opinions (at times it sounds as if she's reading from something she has already written down). It would have been much better if Steele had been able to do a full-length proper audio commentary. The Blu-ray also has three short featurettes. Two spotlight Marcello Avallone, who was an assistant director on DR. HICHCOCK. One has Avallone relating his memories about his relationship with Riccardo Freda, and the other has him discussing Italian horror films in general. The other featurette has an interview with Ernesto Gastaldi. Gastaldi is one of the few important names of Italian cult cinema still with us, and due to this he has been featured on the extras for many home video releases. If you buy the same time of cult movies as I do, you've no doubt heard most of the stories Gastaldi tells in this program from the other disc extras he has been on. I must point out that the three featurettes have very little discussion of DR. HICHCOCK. There's also an alternate English main title sequence, an original Italian trailer, and a still gallery. 

Vinegar Syndrome has put the Region A 4K and Blu-ray discs inside a slipcase with advertising art inside an overall case with new artwork. 

This is an outstanding release from Vinegar Syndrome, giving one of the great Italian Gothics the spotlight it deserves. Candelabras, negligees, sumptuous color, large portraits of dead wives, secret crypts, Barbara's all here, along with a very disturbing fetish. This is by far the ultimate version of THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK. 

Monday, February 19, 2024



This is another Tubi discovery. THE PERFECT KILLER (original Italian title QUEL POMERIGGIO MALEDETTO) is a 1977 Italian-Spanish crime drama starring the legendary Lee Van Cleef. 

Van Cleef plays career criminal Harry Chapman, who in the beginning of the story gets nabbed during a robbery at a dog racing track while his lover Krista (Carmen Cervera) and his partner Jack (Aldo Bufi Landi) get away with the loot. Harry gets out of jail early, due to "The Organization", who springs him so he can serve them as a hitman. Harry decides to get out of the assassination game when he's ordered to kill a friend, but the organization won't let him leave that easily, and the devious Krista still has the power to ensnare him in her web. 

The plot of THE PERFECT KILLER--a tough con betrayed by his comrades and/or a lover--will be quite familiar to movie buffs. THE PERFECT KILLER resembles a number of more famous action movies and film noirs, and it has a lot in common with VIOLENT CITY, another Italian production with an American star (Charles Bronson). Longtime Van Cleef fans might take a while to get used to seeing the actor in 1970s sportcoats and slacks, but the taciturn Harry is a perfect role for him. 

It must be said that THE PERFECT KILLER is not a bullet-riddled thrill ride. There's more character interaction than violent action, and the movie has a measured pace. Van Cleef even gets overshadowed a bit by his co-stars. Alberto Dell'Acqua (who started his film career as a stuntman) plays Luc, a grinning psychopath sent by the mob to deal with Harry. Dell'Acqua has the showiest role, and he makes the most of it. Carmen Cervera makes a sexy femme fatale, with her Krista screwing over--or just plain screwing--every man she has dealings with. The title of this film could easily refer to the characters of Luc and Krista as much as it does Harry. 

John Ireland plays a buddy of Harry's, and Fernando Sancho (like Van Cleef and Dell'Acqua, a longtime Spaghetti Western veteran) has a small role. 

THE PERFECT KILLER was directed by Mario Siciliano. The movie has plenty of attractive European locations, but action fans might be left wanting more. Like a lot of Italian genre films of this period, there's more than a few weird elements, such as the character of Luc getting in a fight with a trio of transvestites, and Harry being chased around by a hot-to-trot model who looks young enough to be his granddaughter. There's also a fair amount of nudity. 

Tubi presents THE PERFECT KILLER in a fine-looking 2.35:1 transfer, and it appears to be uncut. It has an English dub track, but a few lines of dialogue are in Italian, and there's even a few times where it sounds as if someone else other than Van Cleef is voicing Harry. 

THE PERFECT KILLER will be a revelation to those who only know Lee Van Cleef from Westerns. If Van Cleef had gotten better opportunities, he could have easily gone the Charles Bronson route and done all sorts of cops and crime action flicks in the late 1970s. THE PERFECT KILLER gives Van Cleef a good leading role, even though I don't think it made the most out of him. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024



I recently purchased Vinegar Syndrome's special edition 4K/Blu-ray release of the Italian Gothic THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, starring Barbara Steele. I intend to write a blog post on this release, but one thing I learned from the extras on it is that Barbara Steele had a connection to Alfred Hitchcock. She appeared on an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS called "Beta Delta Gamma", which is available on the Roku and Peacock streaming channels. 

"Beta Delta Gamma" was first shown in 1961 during the seventh season of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, the year before the show transitioned to an hour-long format. The episode deals with a group of college students who are partying at their fraternity's beach house. The group appears to be led by Alan (Burt Brinckerhoff), who tries to get his buddy Mark (Duke Howard) to engage in a beer-drinking contest. Alan passes out, and the group, annoyed by Alan's behavior, decides to play a prank on him. Encouraged by Phyllis (Barbara Steele), the group sets it up so that it appears Mark has been killed by Alan. As expected, the prank works all too well. 

"Beta Delta Gamma" isn't one of the better ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episodes. If you've watched enough of these 1960s TV anthology shows (as I certainly have), you can easily predict what will happen at the climax. The episode was directed by Alan Crosland Jr. and written by Calvin Clements, both longtime network TV veterans, and most of the story takes place in the beach house or on the beach itself, both generic-looking locations. 

Barbara Steele in "Beta Delta Gamma"

What hurts the episode is that the group of college students are not very interesting or sympathetic. They spend most of their time lounging around drunk, and the main reason they come up with the prank seems to be because they are bored. Barbara Steele by far has the most screen presence of the small cast, and there's the added benefit of seeing her in shorts. The viewer also gets to hear Steele's actual voice. 

The two lead actors in the story, Burt Brinckerhoff and Duke Howard, are rather bland, and I had not heard of any of them before. (Brinkerhoff actually went on to become a TV director/producer, while Howard didn't have a very long acting career.) One of the story elements of "Beta Delta Gamma" is that Phyllis is attracted to Alan, but it's hard to believe that Barbara Steele would have any interest in any of the characters in this tale--one wonders why she's even hanging out with this group in the first place. Severn Darden and Barbara Harris (who would later star in Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT) are also in the group, but other than looking like a couple of beatniks, they don't get much to do. 

One thing that "Beta Delta Gamma" shows is that Barbara Steele could easily play a "normal" role in a contemporary story, and her actual voice was just fine for acting purposes. BLACK SUNDAY and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM had already been released in the U.S. when the episode first aired, and it's surprising that the folks behind ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS didn't try and give Steele a much more flamboyant role in a much more flamboyant story. (She did at least get a "with Barbara Steele" special credit at the end of "Beta Delta Gamma".)

If Barbara Steele had stuck around in Hollywood, there's no doubt she would have had plenty of opportunities to appear on American network TV. But if she hadn't of gone back to Italy, she wouldn't have become the icon she is now. 

Monday, February 12, 2024



THE SAINT OF SECOND CHANCES, directed by Jeff Malmberg and Morgan Neville, is a documentary concerning the life and times of independent baseball pioneer Mike Veeck. 

Mike Veeck is the son of legendary baseball executive and Hall of Fame inductee Bill Veeck. The beginning of the film details that as a young man Mike wanted nothing more than to get out of the shadow of his famous father, but when Bill Veeck took control of the Chicago White Sox in the mid-1970s and asked his son to come work with him, the younger man couldn't pass up the opportunity. Mike Veeck was filled with ideas and enthusiasm, and he hoped to impress and get to know his father at the same time. 

But during the summer of 1979, one of Mike's promotions, the infamous Disco Demolition Night, literally blew up in his face. A riot ensued, causing the White Sox to forfeit a game, and Mike Veeck was forever associated with that incident. The younger Veeck left Major League Baseball a marked man, and spent years trying to find a niche for himself. In 1993, Mike became involved with the St. Paul Saints, an independent professional baseball team. Being independent (especially in the early 1990s) meant that Veeck was just about on the lowest rung of baseball operations one could be--but it also meant Veeck could basically do whatever crazy scheme entered his head. Veeck soon got the Saints national attention, and he wound up having control of several other minor and independent clubs, bringing his unique way of having fun at the old ballpark to fans throughout the United States, and inspiring other club owners to copy (and outright steal) his innovations. 

THE SAINT OF SECOND CHANCES covers all of this, along with various personal trials & tribulations Veeck dealt with along the way. At numerous times in the film, Mike's history is dramatized in flashback scenes with actor Charlie Day as Mike (Mike himself plays his dad Bill in a few of these sequences). At first I thought the flashback scenes were a bit hokey, but I started to realize that the filmmakers were framing Mike's story as a goofy sentimental 1980s style comedy flick, which is essentially what it is. (The narration in the film is by Jeff Daniels.) 

One big story point in the film is how much Mike Veeck wanted to get back to the Major Leagues in some sort of capacity. Eventually Mike learns that his family and his minor league work are far more meaningful to him than anything that MLB could provide. Mike Veeck achieved his own redemption through his work as an independent baseball operator, and he enabled others along the way to find redemption as well. 

The ironic thing is that even without getting a long time job in the Major Leagues, Veeck made a huge mark on baseball. Go to any ball game at any level--professional or amateur--and one of Veeck's ideas is being used. Most of the promotions and events that fans take for granted when they go to any ball game more than likely originated with something Mike Veeck thought up or put into practice. 

Baseball fans will certainly appreciate THE SAINT OF SECOND CHANCES, especially for some of the vintage footage involving the White Sox. And yes, there's plenty of actual footage of Disco Demolition as well...some of it amazingly up close and personal (during the Disco Demolition sequence you almost feel as if you are right in the middle of the maelstrom). Watching this sequence makes one realize that it's fortunate that no one was seriously injured or even killed during that notorious night. 

Like all great sports documentaries, THE SAINT OF SECOND CHANCES is much more than just sports. It's a story about life, family, and what's really important. It's funny, and moving, and you don't even have to know anything about baseball to appreciate it. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024



The last James Bond film, NO TIME TO DIE, was not a favorite of mine by any means. When its title was officially announced, I thought it was rather generic for a 007 movie. It certainly didn't have anything to do with the works of Ian Fleming....but I later found out that the title did have a connection with the James Bond movie franchise. 

Before he started up the Bond film franchise with Harry Saltzman, Albert Broccoli produced a series of action movies in England in the 1950s with his then-partner Irving Allen. One of those films was a 1958 WWII story set in North Africa that was titled NO TIME TO DIE. In America the film was released through Columbia as TANK FORCE (talk about generic titles). 

This NO TIME TO DIE shares plenty more connections with the Bond franchise than just a name. Its director (Terence Young), co-writer (Richard Maibaum) and cinematographer (Ted Moore) all worked on the early James Bond films, and set the course for the rest of the series. 

Calling the film TANK FORCE for the American market is a bit of a misnomer. There are two tank battles, at the very beginning and the very end, but most of the story deals with the travails of a handful of Allied soldiers who have escaped from a POW camp in Libya. 

One of the soldiers happens to be an American, serving in the British Eighth Army, named David Thatcher (Victor Mature). A number of lower-budget British movies made in the Fifties would use an American star, and those films usually had a plot explanation about why the American character was in the story. The explanation for Thatcher's presence in TANK FORCE is a doozy--he was married to a Jewish woman who was sent to a concentration camp and died, so he threw a bomb at Joseph Goebbels!! (Apparently TANK FORCE is set before America's entry into the war, and Thatcher seems to have joined the British army to continue to get back at the Nazis.) Needless to say, Thatcher doesn't want to be captured by the Germans and have his identity found out, so he's determined to lead his small group to safety behind the Allied lines. 

Among the group of escaped POWs is a stiff-upper lip, by-the-book sergeant (Leo Genn), who acts as a counterpoint to Thatcher. There's also a very young British soldier who acts as a sort of comic relief (Anthony Newley), and a trigger-happy Pole (Bonar Colleano) whose main focus is to kill as many Germans as he can. 

The group goes through plenty of trials and tribulations along the way, including being assisted by the hostess (Luciana Paluzzi) of an Italian officer's club, dealing with sandstorms, and being pursued by Arab tribesmen. The group also deals with an unexpected betrayal, and unexpected help. (Luciana Paluzzi would also be involved in the Bond franchise--she played the femme fatale in THUNDERBALL.) 

What helps make TANK FORCE stand out from other WWII tales is that it was filmed in color and Cinemascope, and most of the story was actually shot in Libya. (There's also as many Italians in this story as there are Germans.) The tank sequences were filmed with the assistance of the British army, and the footage is impressive, even though most of the vehicles are not of WWII vintage. It's not the most realistic war film ever made, but it was designed to be a crowd-pleasing action adventure. Terence Young (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Richard Maibaum) keeps things moving, with one incident after another. Kenneth V. Jones contributes a rousing musical score. 

Victor Mature was in his mid-forties when he worked on TANK FORCE, but he appears older, and he also looks as if he hasn't had a lot of sleep (and no, I don't think that was his attempt at being an accurate-looking POW). According to internet sources, Mature got the part after a number of other leading men were considered. Leo Genn does much better in the role of the practical sergeant--he's more the type of person a group of escaped POWs would follow, but movies like this have to have the notable American name as the lead. 

TANK FORCE/NO TIME TO DIE isn't a major WWII epic, but it's entertaining enough. A much more charismatic leading man certainly would have helped. I will say I'd much rather watch this NO TIME TO DIE again than the later James Bond film with the same title. 

Saturday, February 3, 2024



RED SUN technically qualifies as a Euro Western--it was filmed in Spain, at many locations that would be familiar to Spaghetti Western fans. The movie has an international cast, with Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Ursula Andress, and Alain Delon in the leading roles. RED SUN was directed by James Bond veteran Terence Young. With that type of cast and director, one expects a lot out of the picture, but it doesn't live up to them. 

In post-Civil War America, bandits Link (Charles Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon) lead a raid on a money-laden train. One of the passengers happens to be the new Japanese ambassador to the United States, who is bringing with him a ceremonial samurai sword to present to the President. Gauche takes the sword, then attempts to kill Link in an explosion so he can keep more of the loot for himself. Link survives, and he teams up with a samurai named Kuroda (Toshiro Mifune) who was assigned to guard the ambassador. Link and Kuroda form an uneasy alliance--the former wants to find Gauche mainly to retrieve the loot, while the latter wants to kill Gauche for the insult of stealing the sword. Link, Gauche, Kuroda, and Gauche's lover Cristina (Ursula Andress) wind up being besieged by Comanches. 

RED SUN opens with a massive train robbery (Gauche's gang seems to consist of dozens and dozens of men), sets up the situation with Link and Kuroda going after Gauche, and then settles into a "Odd Couple" type of relationship between Bronson and Mifune. The two men are constantly trying to one-up each other, with Link attempting to take advantage of Kuroda's presumed lack of awareness about the American West. The taciturn Mifune winds up stealing the film from his co-stars, and he's able to put across much while saying very little (this is one time in a Charles Bronson movie where one of his co-stars has less dialogue than he does). Mifune's Kuroda is really the only sympathetic character in the story--he's a man of honor and principle, whereas everyone else in the movie is out for themselves. 

Alain Delon is surprisingly quite good as the nattily attired black-garbed Gauche. Despite his pretty boy looks Gauche is a cold-blooded killer who'll betray anyone. (Delon has a lot less screen time than Bronson and Mifune do.) Despite being second-billed, Ursula Andress doesn't show up until about an hour into the picture. Her character is used as bait by Link and Kuroda to get to Gauche, and she spends most of her screen time complaining about her plight. It won't surprise anyone to know that Andress appears topless during one scene. Of course Andress had worked with Terence Young before in DR. NO. As for Charles Bronson, he's much more talkative and personable than usual--was this his way of trying to compete with Toshiro Mifune? (I'm sure Bronson had to have known that Mifune had the better part.) 

Capucine plays the madam of the brothel that Ursula Andress' character works at, and another DR. NO alumnus, Anthony Dawson, plays a member of Gauche's gang. (Note: this is Anthony Dawson the British actor, not the Italian director Antonio Margheriti who was often billed as Anthony Dawson and who made a number of Euro Westerns of his own.) Much of the supporting cast consists of Spaghetti Western veterans, while the climax is hurt by the "Comanches" being played by a group of dull-looking European extras. These Comanches are set up as a major threat, but they come off as dangerous as a bunch of kids dressed up for Halloween. The film has a music score by Maurice Jarre, but in my opinion it's not one of the composer's best. 

RED SUN is not a bad film--it's a decent time-filler--but one has to wonder what would have resulted if a true Spaghetti Western director, such as Margheriti or Sergio Corbucci, had been in charge. Terence Young was an efficient, capable filmmaker, but he isn't able to provide the elaborate elements a Euro Western like this usually has. The main reason to watch RED SUN is the four international stars in it. 

Friday, February 2, 2024

ALBERT R.N. On Blu-ray From Cohen


ALBERT R.N. is a 1953 British WWII POW story, included on a Blu-ray disc along with THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM that has been recently released by the Cohen Media Group. Both films were directed by Lewis Gilbert, both are in black & white, and both pictures share many of the same cast & crew. 

ALBERT R.N. takes place in a 1944 POW camp in Germany for naval officers. Most of the men have been in the camp for years, and they have seen several escape attempts fail. One of the prisoners, an artist named Geoff (Anthony Steel), constructs a life-like dummy. He suggests to the POW's senior officer (Jack Warner) that the dummy be used during head counts to take the place of men who have escaped. The ruse succeeds, but it is later learned that the man who ran away was killed. Geoff starts to feel guilty about building the dummy in the first place, while other prisoners debate how and when Albert should be used again. 

ALBERT R.N. (the R.N. stands for Royal Navy) is a restrained POW tale that doesn't have any major action sequences or any elaborate escape attempts involving dozens of men. Still, Lewis Gilbert manages to get a lot of drama and suspense out of what is admittedly a rather talkative story (it was based on a stage play). The focus of ALBERT R.N. is on the interplay of the characters and on the situation that the ensemble of actors is in. There isn't one character that particularly stands out among the rest, and that includes even "Albert" himself. 

All of the actors give fine, realistic performances. The POWs in the camp appear to be treated decently for the most part--the camp's commandant is a German naval officer, played by Frederick Valk, and he is portrayed as efficient and fair (most British WWII movies did not feature stereotypical over-the-top Nazis). Anton Diffring is an SS officer under Valk's command, and while he is certainly the main threat to the POWs, he's not shown as outlandish or unbelievable. Diffring plays the SS officer as a determined, cold-blooded, calculating fellow, and out of the many, many German officers the actor played during his film career, this performance ranks very highly. 

Among the rest of the cast are William Sylvester as an American flyer (from Texas!) who is desperate to get out of the camp, Robert Beatty (who would, along with Sylvester, appear in 2001; A SPACE ODYSSEY), and Eddie Byrne. James Bond fans will recognize Walter Gotell as a German guard. Just like THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM, ALBERT R.N. has a number of connections to Hammer Films. The associate producer was Anthony Nelson-Keys, the art director was Bernard Robinson, and the cinematographer was Jack Asher. Asher is known for his work on the Hammer color Gothics, but he also did well in black & white, as in this picture. 

By the way, ALBERT R.N. is based on a true story. A dummy really was constructed in an actual POW camp in WWII, and it was used to facilitate an escape attempt....and the POW who built the original dummy went on to build the dummy used in the film!

ALBERT R.N. is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and it looks much better than THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM--the image is very crisp. Unfortunately, the only extra is a new trailer for the film created by Cohen. Audio commentaries would have been most welcome for both the films on this disc. 

Like THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM, ALBERT R.N. focuses more on human drama instead of explosions or large-scale battle sequences. It's a very good film, and it has the benefit of an ironic, and very fitting, climax. 

Thursday, February 1, 2024



SERGIO LEONE: THE ITALIAN WHO INVENTED AMERICA is a 2022 documentary on the great filmmaker, written & directed by Francesco Zippel, and co-produced by the company run by two of Leone's children. I watched the film on the Max streaming channel. 

This documentary has a number of big names involved in it, including Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Robert De Niro, and Dario Argento. These men, and others, talk about their love for Leone's films and the legacy that they have today. 

Sergio Leone is one of my favorite directors of all time, and I know all his films backwards and forwards. Someone like me is certainly going to appreciate this film, but I must say that even though all three of Leone's children provide their thoughts and memories, it doesn't give much personal insight into the man--the most a viewer finds out about his personality is that he loved cinema and he had a childlike sensibility. There are a number of film clips and audio snippets of Leone, but at times these seem almost inserted at random. The result is that instead of a film dealing with Leone, it's instead a film dealing with a group of famous folks discussing Leone (not that there's anything wrong with that). 

As expected, there's plenty of clips from Leone's films, something like a "Greatest Hits" collection of famous scenes. There's also behind the scenes footage taken during the making of some of the films. Needless to say, Ennio Morricone plays a large part in the proceedings, whether speaking on-camera or his music being featured on the soundtrack. 

If you are a major Leone fan, and love his films like I do, there's nothing here that will be surprising or revealing. The celebrated anecdote about the premature explosion of the bridge during the Civil War battle in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is brought up, and Leone biographer Christopher Frayling makes an appearance. 

There are a few items the documentary does not cover, such as MY NAME IS NOBODY (Tonino Valerii is the credited director on that one, but Leone was producer, co-writer, and he personally directed a few scenes himself), and the series of commercials Leone made during his semi-retirement. 

SERGIO LEONE: THE ITALIAN WHO INVENTED AMERICA is a well-made project, and it provides the basic knowledge one needs to have about Leone and his directorial career. I enjoyed watching it--heck, I'd enjoy a film about random people on the street discussing Sergio Leone--but I felt that it wasn't as thorough or as penetrating as it could have been.