The DVD Department
Here in the DVD Department we have a unique system for reviewing DVDs: Because we don’t have the resources to evaluate every release, we simply review the ones that your editor likes best. Since I’m the one who actually buys them, just like a real person, this always seemed like a good system to me. You might find the odd exception to that rule, of course—I’m thinking of Down With Love, here, as sometimes the public just have to be warned at all costs. But generally speaking, the films you will find here are here because I think they should be seen and remembered.
That said, I don’t mind providing a platform for someone else to review a favourite—or even a most hated—DVD of their own; just bear in mind that we’re generally concerned with the Golden Age of Widescreen here; that wonderful period in which certain, spacially aware, directors discovered the wonderful possibilities of the wide frame—and that ended around 1969 as far as I’m concerned, (with a few notable exceptions: Carpenter, Eastwood, Hyams, Besson, etc.) so, even though you will find the occasional, neglected, gem from more recent times here, no reviews for the latest Bond movie, please.
John Hayes, Editor.
Index to DVD Reviews
One important strand that ran through Walt Disney’s film career was the fact that he was an innovator: first sound cartoon*; the multi-plane camera; an early form of stereo sound, for Fantasia; the development of special colour pigments for cartoons (more recently, digital projection—though I’m sure readers will realize that Walt did not personally have a hand in this current development) and in the early 1950s, the application of CinemaScope, for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
Disney had first used the anamorphic process on a 1953 cartoon short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and his move into live-action features from animation may have been, in part, prompted by union unrest around the time of the production of Dumbo, combined with the problems of a protracted production times and tied-up finances of full-length cartoon production. The union unrest episodes are thought by some to be red herring, though.
20,000 Leagues was the first film to be distributed by the newly set up Buena Vista organization—a subsidiary of the Disney company. Disney had previously released his films through the Howard Hughes owned RKO company, but had been unhappy with the arrangement for some time. As it turned out, setting up his own distribution arm would prove to be a successful move.
For the director’s job, Disney selected Richard Fleischer (Compulsion, TheVikings, The Boston Strangler, Fantastic Voyage), the son of his greatest animation rival in the 1930s, Max Fleischer (Out of the Inkwell, Betty Boop, Popeye, Gulliver’sTravels). According to Richard Fleischer’s autobiography, Just tell me when to cry, Disney informed Fleischer that he had been picked because Disney had seen a previous Fleischer picture, The Happy Time, which featured child actor Bobby Driscoll (who had previously appeared in Disney’s Song of the South and Treasure Island), and was of the opinion that anyone who could make an actor out of Driscoll was the right man for the job!
Kirk Douglas played the titular hero Ned Land. Douglas was later annoyed with Disney for including footage of his family in a Disneyland television special. James mason (the only actor who’s voice is the nearest aural equivalent to Tat & Lyle’s Golden Syrup) was cast as Nemo. Now, Here are some interesting factoids: Ian Fleming was a fan of the film and used Nemo as the inspiration for Dr. No, with a little bit of Fu Manchu thrown in for good measure. The original Bond novel features an octopus sequence, which was not included in the first Bond movie because of budget limitations. And Nemo is Latin for ‘no’…you learn something new every day.
The Nautilus—in fact the whole look of the film—was designed by Harper Goff [also production designer for Fleischer on The Vikings] At the time, Disney paid a salary rate lower than the union minimum. Disney gave Goff—who was not a union member but was about to join—a hint that his prospects with the Disney company may be blighted if he…I think you can fill in the rest. Disney then hired—as a one-off—John Meehan, who was a union member, to execute Goff’s designs. It was Mehan who won the Academy Award while Goff went back to designing the Disneyland amusement park.
Although 20,000 Leagues was shot in CinemaScope, it was also released in a flat version, which I saw when it was re-released in the late 1950’s/early 1960s. That’s a thing that rarely happens these days. The underwater scenes were shot by Till Gabbani, using a Disney-designed camera. It was discovered that there was insufficient light for some of the submarine model shots. At that time, CinemaScope lenses did not have large enough apertures to handle a low light environment. Goff solved the problem by building a ‘squeezed’ Nautilus model, which was photographed with a standard Mitchell camera. When this footage was projected through the theatre’s anamorphic lens—hey presto—the submarine assumed its correct shape.
The film was edited by Elmo Williams, who was also the editor on High Noon (1952—and which in this writer’s humble opinion is a text book example of perfect editing), and who would later edit The Vikings, again for Fleischer.
The DVD release of 20,000 Leagues is a wonder to behold. The CinemaScope image is 2.55:1 and the audio has been remixed into 5.1 surround. The print is spotlessly clean and sharp, and the Technicolor hues are as rich as peaches. There are several surprises in stor on the disc. The cover wraparound does not list any extras, but the disc is a loaded treasure chest. The one extra that will be of great interest is the original octopus sequence, which was shot in ‘daylight’. Disney felt [quite correctly] that this sequence didn’t work, and ordered it to be re-shot, at a reported cost of a quarter of a million dollars, as a night storm sequence, which is the one featured in the film.
The real star of the film is the Nautilus itself. The design of the submarine is a classic, and its influence can be seen in the 1961 feature, Mysterious Island. A few years ago there was a high quality model kit of the Nautilus available.
This UK release omits the commentary by noted prop collector Bob Burns, which is on the region 1 version, but that’s a small quibble.
20 ,000 Leagues does have its minor faults—one being the spine-chillingly embarrassing rendition of the song, ‘Whale of a Tale’, by Kirk Douglas. The other is the cute, medallion-wearing seal, forced into the plot by Walt himself. However, these two aberrations can be overlooked in what is now a classic movie, and the best English language version of a Jules Verne novel.
2.55:1 Anamorphic. Dolby Digital 5.1, with English, French and Spanish languages.
A KissBefore Dying (Region 2). For a complete change, we jump from ancient mythology to modern murder. Well, I guess this film was modern when it was made in 1956, with Robert Wagner as the murderous social climber, Bud Corliss. Originally made by United Artists, the DVD is now released by MGM with a very pleasing 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of an equally crisp and colourful print.
Wagner puts aside the pageboy wig from Prince Valiant to play a smoothly sinister college graduate who murders his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend—an early role for Joanne Woodward—by pushing her off a tall building, and then resurfacing some months later as the boyfriend of her unsuspecting older sister (Virginia Leith), as he continues his attempts to worm his way into her wealthy mining family. Jeffrey Hunter is the college professor who smells a rat and begins to look into the past of the handsome Corliss—cue more murders as Corliss rushes around tidying up the loose ends, before meeting a suitably grisly end himself.
When transferring Ira Levin’s novel to the screen, the trick was to get round the fact that in the book you can’t see the face of each sister’s boyfriend, so it’s comparatively easy to prevent the reader from realizing they are one and the same person. Writer Lawrence Roman tweaks the novel’s plot enough to make it work nicely. They used the same trick in the 1991 remake, too. Director Gerd Oswald uses the CinemaScope frame to great effect, considering that the bulk of his career was in television, directing dozens of episodes of Bonanza and Twilight Zone etc.
Released as part of the MGM 80th Anniversary collection, A Kiss Before Dying is retailing for around a fiver—a very reasonable price for a nice little thriller, even with the mono sound. You also get the trailer—in ‘scope.
The Alligator People (Region 1). At this point in our review section —and on a more sombre note—we leave behind such mundane topics as murdering gangsters, historical confrontation and rampant miscegenation, as we examine the lessons that can—and should—be learned by all of us when we permit foolhardy scientists to misuse the awesome power of the atom, in order to create The Alligator People.
Or more precisely: person, as you really only see one of ‘em—the rest being sort of implied, as the budgets for this kind of movie rarely stretched to the creation of a whole monster population.
But none of that matters because these films are what they are: low budget, exploitation shockers for the teenage audience of the 1950s. In the UK, this one, very aptly, went out on a double bill with the final part of the original Fly trilogy, Curse of the Fly (1965), and a handsome pair they were indeed.
During the fifties—and even into the swinging sixties—the aforementioned ‘awesome power of the atom’ was a useful device on which to hang plots that involved shrinking men, colossal men, assorted giant bugs of all types, and not forgetting, of course, mutants, into which category The Alligator People (1959) falls.
Dr Lorimer (Bruce Bennett—former 1930s Tarzan actor Herman Brix) is invited to the Webley Sanitarium by his friend, Dr. MacGregor (Douglas Kennedy) to witness the startling tale told by one of MacGregor’s nurses, Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland), while she’s under the influence of a hypnotic drug. From her subconscious mind we learn that she was once a newlywed, called Joyce Webster, suddenly abandoned by her husband, Paul (Richard Crane), after he’d received a mysterious telegram. All she really knew about him was that he had survived a horrific plane crash that had left him with catastrophic injuries—though strangely, he bore no scars whatsoever. The resourceful girl tracks him to his family home in the Louisiana swamps, where she finds that he had undergone some kind of regenerative, radioactive hormone treatment, involving a serum derived from alligators, which had healed his injuries completely. Unfortunately, he is now turning into an alligator…
Alligator People’s cast is made up of extremely competent actors—all familiar faces—who play it dead straight—although George Macready’s mad scientist, Dr. Mark Sinclair, veers dangerously close to Criswell in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Filmed on location in exotic Louisiana, the black and white CinemaScope photography is bright and sharp and this nice clean print is presented anamorphically at 2.35:1—and it even has the option of stereo or mono sound in English, or just mono in Spanish, with optional subtitles also in English or Spanish. Originally released in 1959, it has a running time of 74 minutes. Great fun—and yet another bargain from Amazon UK, at under £4 this time, though I believe there is also a region 2 version available that you might pick up in the shops at a similarly reasonable price.
Dino De Laurentiis production has been a long time coming to DVD. It's
been available for some time as a rather indifferent VHS transfer—pan-and-scan,
of course; but at long last this magnificent Technirama 70 epic is presented
here, anamorphically, in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which would suggest
a transfer from a 35mm print rather than a 70mm.
gives one of his most powerful performances as Barabbas, the thief and
murderer who was released in place of Jesus. The plot, which is loosely
adapted from Par Lagerkvist's nobel prizewinning novel, charts Barabbas'
increasingly tormented life from the point of his release to his death,
many years later. Unable to give up his old ways, he is once again captured
and sentenced to life in the sulphur mines on Sicily. After an incredible
twenty years of slavery he emerges into the light after inexplicably surviving
an horrific cave-in—which is depicted with incredible realism—only
to be trained as a gladiator and sent to the arena in Rome. At this point
two more fine actors appear in supporting roles, Ernest Borgnine as the
slave, Lucius; and Jack Palance as the truly psychotic gladiator trainer
Torvald. Richard Fleischer's thoughtful direction is perfectly complemented
by cinematographer Aldo Tonti's lighting and designer, Mario Chiari's
colour palette. Particularly stunning is the awesome, genuine, total eclipse
for the crucifixion scene (ready when you are, Mr. DeMille!) . The cast
also includes Arthur Kennedy as Pilate, Silvana Mangano as Rachel and
Katy Jurado as Sara. Notable also is Mario Nascimbene's innovative score,
utilizing unusual (for the time) recording techniques and electronic effects.
(If you can get hold of the vinyl LP release of the score, which was extremely
rare and much sought after by collectors until its re-release in the late
1980's, there is a demonstration track on side 2, which, incidentally,
isn't on the CD version).
Sound is Dolby 4.0 and the print is fine. The trailer is included, though sadly, no documentary or commentaries. Nevertheless, Barabbas is an essential addition to any DVD collection. 8 out of 10
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958, Region 1) tells the story of the American diplomat, Townsend Harris (John Wayne) and his attempts to establish a trade agreement with the insular and hostile Japanese government (“Remember, Duke, this isn’t Sands of Iwo Jima—be nice.”
The Duke’s somewhat inauspicious debut for 20th Century-Fox finally surfaces after nearly fifty years in limbo but, sadly, will probably sink into the depths again fairly quickly. Like House of Bamboo it is ‘filmed on location in Japan’ (though there is nothing on view here that couldn’t have been easily replicated on the Fox back-lot— and some of it was.) but in this case the action—what there is of it—takes place a century earlier than the previous film.
Wayne is plainly miscast here and seems uncomfortable in a role that is mystifyingly underwritten, considering Townsend Harris’s historical significance, giving him nothing with which to put flesh on the bones of this character. To make matters worse, he receives surprisingly little help from director John Huston, a screen veteran with classics such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The African Queen (1951) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) behind him, but here directing on autopilot. The true story of Townsend’s romance with the geisha, Kichi (Eiko Ando) is similarly un-involving when it should, in fact, be completely the opposite, considering that the real Kichi was only seventeen years old at the time. This kind of romance was never going to work with the Duke, and indeed, Eiko Ando in no way resembles a seventeen year old, so there is much controversy avoidance in the plot right there. Events are enlivened by a couple of assassination attempts—one unsuccessful—and a cholera epidemic, which requires Wayne’s character to burn down a local village, but not much else.
This film was also shot under watchful eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, during his European period. Exotic locations had worked wonders for his previous effort, Island in the Sun (1957)—and this time, he had Wayne as well. It couldn’t fail. Unfortunately, it would prove to be a vain assumption. It fared poorly at the box office in spite of Wayne’s star status, and he was happy to put it behind him.
That said, fans of the Duke—like me—will want this in their collection anyway, alongside his other rarities: The High and the Mighty (1954), Island in the Sky (1953), and of course the oddities: The Conqueror (1956 —not the turkey that critics fashionably claim it to be, and we will be looking at this film in a future issue of WSMM).The print here is clean but, curiously, not as vibrant as similar Fox releases from that era—maybe it was just shot that way—and the sound is clear Dolby 2 stereo. Presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 ratio, with subtitles for the hearing impaired. Also included are four Movietone segments, a photo gallery and the original trailer. Feature running time is 100 minutes approx.
Not Wayne at his best, then, but it does have the added bonus of being in the same price bracket as House of Bamboo—and the ADDED, added bonus of a scene with the Duke wearing knee britches. Don’t laugh, pilgrim.
We have waited far too long for this magnificent movie to arrive on DVD, and that’s for sure. But it must be said that the wait has been well worthwhile considering the beautiful restoration treatment that it has been given. I have owned the earlier laserdisc and VHS widescreen versions for some time, but they pale into insignificance before the spectacular, 2.75 aspect ratio of this new presentation—with fully restored DD 5.1 soundtrack.
Regular readers will know that I’m always banging on about colour in modern movies—well compare the fabulous colour on display here, in this 1965 movie, to the drab pseudo-colour of Spielberg’s recent offerings like, Saving Private Ryan or Minority Report—even his latest, War of the Worlds. Yuk!
Apart from its superb presentation, Battle of the Bulge is a terrific war film, boasting an excellent cast, which includes Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Robert Shaw, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and the beautiful Pier Angeli, in what would be the last of her mainstream movie appearances (her health and career went into decline after this film, and she would feature in a succession low-budget continental films until her untimely death, at the age of 39.
The film tells the true story of a last ditch breakthrough by a German tank force, as the Allies advance towards Germany after D-Day. The giant King Tiger tanks blast through everything that stands in their way—under the command of an impressive Robert Shaw—and seem, at first to be unstoppable, until their weakness is finally spotted by a dogged Henry Fonda, as an Army Intelligence officer and former police detective.
Director Ken Annakin handles the action scenes superbly—he also directed The Longest Day—and also handles two more intimate interludes with equal aplomb; one scene between Robert Shaw and Barbara Wherle as the courtesan—first class—and another particularly poignant scene between Telly Savalas, as an enterprising black-marketeering tank commander, and Pier Angeli as his business partner who also loves him.
An absolutely essential addition to any DVD collection, it boasts gorgeous picture and sound quality, a couple of interesting vintage ‘making ofs’ and the trailer—oh, and not forgetting the magnificent score by Benjamin Frankel.
2.75 Anamorphic 177 min.
Billy Liar (Region 2). It's nice to see this old favourite back after nearly forty years—and in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio at last. A comtemporary comedy when it was made in 1964, it's now something of a period piece; those of us over fifty will remember Twisting, like Billy, (Don't ask—you had to be there ) at the local Palais or Locarno, or our mums listening to Godfrey Wynn and 'Housewive's Choice' on the radio. Another era, really, but Keith Waterhouse's fantasizing hero is as fresh and comic as ever, thanks to Tom Courtenay's brilliant turn as Billy Fisher—undertaker's clerk, but aspiring comedy scriptwriter—who can never quite come to terms with reality. Director John Schlesinger complements Courtenay's performance with supporting cast of British stalwarts, all on top form. Mona Washbourne and Wilfred Pickles as Billy's mum and Dad. A pre Likely Lads Rodney Bewes, as his best mate; and a pre Rising Damp performance from Leonard Rossiter, as Shadrach, his boss.
The plot concerns several events in a pivotal day in Billy's complicated life, when his ambition to become a scriptwriter for current big-time TV comic, played by Leslie Randall, is thwarted; his two fiancées find out about each other and his granny dies,—not to mention the whereabouts of the firm's Christmas calendars that Billy should have posted. A way out is offered by the enigmatic free-spirit, Liz- played by Julie Christie in her debut film- if only Billy has the courage to take it
Billy Liar, surprisingly, for the subject matter, was shot in Cinemascope, and the print used for this DVD transfer is clean and damage free, with the crisp black and white images encoded anamorphically. The mono soundtrack seems to have been recorded at a low level, so you'll have to turn the volume up a bit, though. This region 2 version lacks the Schlesinger/Courtenay/Christie commentary of the region 1 Criterion Edition, and the BBC documentary, is also absent, but hey—it's a fraction of the price, and you do get the trailer! Highly recommended.
This entertaining little sci-fi actioner swept through the multiplexes almost in the blink of an eye, attracting very little attention (or ticket sales) on the way. Which is a pity, really, as this movie is entertainment at its best: a completely bonkers plot, a witty script with a great cast not taking any of it too seriously, and some pretty good effects along the way.
These US Government scientists have done something to stop the Earth’s core spinning (oops!), which will result in spectacular volcanoes, earthquakes and the extinction of all life on the planet, unless a group of oddball scientists (Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Tcheky Karyo, Hilary Swank—an Oscar winner, even!) can save the world by traveling to the Earth’s core in a huge drilling machine—which looks not unlike the Eurostar Express—and detonating a series of nuclear devices at strategic points, which will re-start the core spinning. Of course it will.
This bizarre premise, however, is carried off splendidly by this very slick cast, and director Jon Amiel (remember the brilliant BBC version of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective? Or Entrapment? Or The Scarlet Letter?—they were all directed by Jon Amiel) who together, contrive to make this stuff amazingly believable.
The disc comes with some deleted and extended scenes, a commentary from Amiel, a ‘Making of’ documentary and a visual effects deconstruction.
Highly entertaining, pleasing colour and sound—and more fun than Armageddon and Deep Impact put together. Excellent.
2.35 Anamorphic DD 5.1 129 min.
Curiosity—and a bargain price—drove me to purchase this DVD. Also affection for the Doris Day romantic comedies of the early sixties, rather than an appreciation of the dubious talents of Ewan McGregor and Rene Zellwegger, had me parting with a fiver of my hard-earned cash. Apparently, that’s what this film is supposed to be: a recreation of those much-loved Doris Day/Rock Hudson (or Doris Day/James Garner) films, that gave such an unexpected boost to the careers of the stars involved.
In his director’s commentary, Peyton Mead—in only his second directorial outing—explains how they tried to duplicate the techniques of sixties cinematography, set and costume design and music scoring, almost to the point of obsession, and for the most part it is a reasonable approximation of how movies of that period looked. Unfortunately, having expended so much attention on the film’s appearance, he seems to have forgotten about the content, which seems to be the reworked plots of Pillow Talk (1959) and Sex and the Single Girl (a very successful Tony Curtis/Natalie Wood comedy from 1965). You would imagine that here might be the basis for a very funny movie, but you would be wrong.
Rock Hudson was an unknown quantity, with regard to comedy, when he was cast opposite Doris Day in Pillow Talk, and he proved to be a revelation. Having usually appeared in action roles or the romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk, he proved to be extremely adept at light comedy—as, of course, was Doris Day—and they both went on to appear in similar vehicles, together and separately, with much success. This was because they both had tremendous screen presence as individuals, and terrific chemistry together.
Not so McGregor and Zellwegger. They are hopelessly miscast and way out of their depth; totally unconvincing as Mr. Smooth and Miss Prim and Proper, they affect strange mannerisms and poses throughout the film, to what purpose I am unable to fathom. Zellwegger wears a lot of silly hats, too.
One of the saddest things about this travesty is the presence of the—since deceased—Tony Randall, presumably to give the film some sort of dubious authenticity, or even a tenuous connection to the original movies. It fails dismally on both counts.
All that this lame, misguided effort proves is that they were much better at this sort of thing then than they are now, and that applies to several other genre revivals that have been inflicted on an unsuspecting public of late. Not to mention any names, but Oliver Stone’s appalling Alexander springs to mind almost immediately.
The best thing about Down With Love is the use of a beautifully restored, original 20 th Century-Fox logo, with the CinemaScope extension, before the credits—now THAT really takes you back! It’s almost—note: ‘almost’—worth buying this DVD just to see that logo, but you would do far better with a genuine Doris Day/Rock Hudson DVD instead.
2.40 Anamorphic, with DD 5.1 97 min.
I’ve always had a fondness for portmanteau horror films—you know, the type where there are several stories wrapped around a linking device. The classic example of this particular sub-genre being, of course, Ealing Studios 1944 production, Dead Of Night (currently available as a region 1 single disc and a region 2 box-set). To my mind, though, Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors runs it a close second.
Produced in 1965 by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky—the latter being a long time fan of Dead Of Night—under the banner of their Amicus Productions, it was shot in Techniscope, to my knowledge their only production which used this system.
Five men, who have never met before, find themselves sharing a railway carriage with the sinister Dr. Shrek (Peter Cushing). We know he is sinister because he speaks with a studied European accent, and sounds as though he lives two doors down from Dracula. He is also adept at reading tarot cards, and to while away the time on their journey, he offers to give each of his companions a glimpse of their future in the cards… Suffice it to say that the unfortunate travelers can look forward to encounters with voodoism, vampires, crawling hands, triffid-like plants and a werewolf. How we miss good old British Rail.
Two visual in-jokes to look out for: Alan Freeman, who is featured in the Triffid segment, can be seen reading a gardening magazine in the railway carriage, and the Roy castle segment has Roy walking up a deserted street where a poster for ‘Doctor Terror’ can be seen on a nearby wall. I’m sure you’ll all be relieved now that these two vital facts have been revealed.
Anchor Bay have produced a very handsome package here, with a fine print presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, showing no signs of fading or wear and retaining its vibrant colour.
Sound is clean and punchy, offering Dolby 5.1 and, surprisingly, DTS too.
Extras include commentary by director Freddie Francis and ‘Dark Side’ editor Alan Bryce; photo gallery, film notes and bios. The cover features a reformatted copy of the original UK quad poster. Phew! What more could you ask for?
It’s always fun to spot an actor at the beginning of his or her career, more often than not looking a complete fool; happily that’s not the case here. A fresh-looking Donald Sutherland is featured in the vampire story and acquits himself very well with his performance. Also, if you look closely, you’ll spot Isla Blair as Christopher Lee’s personal assistant in the crawling hand story.
As a final note, the partnership of Rosenberg and Subotsky ended in a business dispute between the two men. Ironically, Amicus, the name of their company, means friendship.
Run time: 92 min. Anchor Bay.
The Eagle Has Landed (1976 region 2) is another Sunday afternoon favourite, now thankfully re-released in a splendid 2-disc special edition, which contains a fully restored and extended version as well as the original theatrical print—and it is quite interesting to compare the two.
The excellent cast includes Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland and Jenny Agutter, with the veteran action director John Sturges at the helm (Bad Day At Black Rock 1954, The Magnificent Seven 1960, The Great Escape 1963)
It tells the story of an attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, which has been devised by German Colonel Radl (Duvall) and to be carried out by Colonel Steiner (Caine) and his highly experienced team of paratroopers. They infiltrate an English village disguised as Polish soldiers, but a courageous rescue of a drowning child soon reveals them to the villagers, and brings US soldiers from the nearby army camp. Donald Sutherland plays an IRA man working with Steiner and Jenny Agutter is the naïve local girl who falls for his Irish charm.
A great—and allegedly true—story (from the book by Jack Higgins) with plenty of action and effortless performances all round, presented in a handsome 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Strangely, the restored and extended version on disc one is claimed to be in mono, while the original theatrical version is in stereo, but they both seem to be in surround to these ears.
Extras include interviews with Caine, Sutherland and Sturges made at the time of filming, theatrical trailer and two location reports from the 1970’s, plus biographies and stills gallery. There’s supposed to be a split-screen restoration demo, too, but wherever it is, it’s well hidden because I couldn’t find it—maybe one of you readers can let me know if you discover its whereabouts?
A very nice package from Carlton, generally retailing for an inviting £10 or so, which more than makes up for the shoddy full screen version that’s been lurking around for some time.
Le Cid (El Cid) (1962). Here we find one of the biggest and best of the true epics—multi-million dollar budgets, big stars, 70mm roadshow presentations, etc, transferred, similarly to The Last Days Of Pompeii, from a beautiful print (albeit 35mm version) and presented anamorphically at a ratio of 2.35:1, with very nice stereo surround, although you can’t turn off the French subtitles on the English language version. An important point to mention here, in case you’re wondering, is that this is NOT a bootleg, but in fact an authorized DVD releases in France only, so you won’t find it on the shelves in Woolies or HMV. If you want to get it, it will mean surfing around the net and buying on-line, bidding on Ebay or a day trip to France, whichever is the more convenient.
El Cid is one of the super-epics from the Spanish studios of Samuel Bronston Productions and tells the story of Spain’s national hero, the tenth-century knight, Rodrigo de Bivar and his battles against the Moorish invaders. Directed by Anthony Mann, who is more usually identified with his James Stewart westerns, such as The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73, it stars Charlton Heston—who has played practically every historical icon from Moses to Mchaelangelo—as the Cid and a radiant Sophia Loren as his lady, Chimene.
The film opens with the aftermath of a battle, in which Rodrigo, en route to his wedding, has defeated and captured several Moorish commanders. Refusing to hand them over to the king for execution, he earns the enmity of his future father-in law, who happens to be the king’s champion. A duel ensues in which the champion is killed by Rodrigo, causing Chimene’s love for him to turn to hate. Replacing the champion in a tournament-to-the-death with the champion of a neighbouring kingdom, Rodrigo is victorious and demands the hand of Chimene as his reward, in spite of her feelings toward him. Rodrigo’s reputation for courage and fairness (he’s even kind to lepers) continues to grow, and a huge army gradually rallies to his side, along with Chimene, who comes to realize what a decent bloke he is, after all. Always loyal to the weak, conniving king, Sancho (John Fraser), the Cid, as the Moors call him, rejects the crown when it is offered to him, causing Sancho to see the error of his ways and fall in behind Rodrigo with everyone else. On the eve of the final, decisive battle for the city of Valencia, Rodrigo is fatally wounded by an arrow. Before he dies, he makes his commanders promise not to reveal his death, but to strap his body, upright and in full armour, astride his horse, Babieca, so he can still lead his troops into battle. In a tremendous final scene, the Cid, with sun blazing off his armour, gallops into history, trampling evil Moorish leader, Herbert Lom and several of his associates, to death along the way (only a corpse played by Charlton Heston can do this).
Heston always felt that El Cid would have been a better film with William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Big Country) at the helm, rather than Mann, but who can tell? Mann delivers a most satisfying picture, anyway, with excellent performances from both principal and supporting players alike, delivered against a magnificent backdrop of medieval castles and pageantry. Bronston never stinted on his sets and costumes—a fact which would ultimately lead to the demise of his company as the public’s taste for spectacular epics waned in favour of the brutal, dusty violence of the new Spaghetti Westerns.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964, French DVD; see El Cid for details). Anthony Mann’s second film for the Bronston company, like El Cid, is played out against a series of spectacular backgrounds, in this case ranging from a snow-covered Roman fortress, to the gilded splendour of the Roman Forum itself—a colossal three-dimensional set covering several acres of land. Mann shot El Cid in Technirama for Super Technirama 70 presentation, but for The Fall of the Roman Empire, he would use the widest of the 65mm photographic systems, Ultra Panavision, composing some stunning shots for the wide frame.
Like Bronston’s other road show spectaculars, King Of Kings (1961) and 55 Days At Peking (1964), a stellar cast recreate the various historical characters with consummate ease. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, we join Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and his favourite General, Livius (Stephen Boyd) in the middle of a snowy winter campaign against the barbarian tribes of the Danube frontier, who are led by Ballomar (John Ireland). The ailing Emperor knows that his Pax Romana—Roman Peace—for which he has long strived, will fail if his crazy son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer) succeeds him. To prevent this, he names a reluctant Livius as his heir. When Commodus turns up at the camp to join his best mate Livius in the imminent battle, he is more than a little miffed to find himself out in the cold, in more ways than one.
Aurelius is poisoned by the blind Cleander (Mel Ferrer) and Livius is more than happy to step aside for Commodus because he’d rather marry Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Sophia Loren, again) and become Commander of all the Roman armies instead. The barbarians are subdued and persuaded by Timonides (James Mason) to settle outside Rome and become farmers. Commodus, however, is going quietly insane, and gives Lucilla to the King of Armenia, Sohamus (Omar Shariff). Rebellion is in the air. Timonides is killed and the now peaceful Ballomar and his barbarians, along with Livius and Lucilla, are to be burned alive in the Forum. Commodus challenges Livius to a duel to death, the latter’s victory to mean freedom for all. Commodus loses, but before he dies, he orders the burning to commence anyway, bad sportsman that he is. As the pyre blazes, Livius manages to free Lucilla and they flee to safety, (At this point, I like to imagine that I can hear John Ireland yelling “What about the rest of us, you bastard!”) as the Roman Empire begins its long slide into oblivion.
Sadly, The Fall of the Roman Empire was the last of the big historical epics, and it has been rumoured for years that ‘Special Editions’ of this film, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking and Circus World, are to be released. Until they are, these will do very nicely, thank you.
The other day, a chap came up to me and asked me If I knew who Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor was. Why he picked on me I have no idea, but still… “Laurel and Hardy” I said—I did recall that he wrote a script for them called ‘Waiting For Hal Roach’. The stranger shook his head. Buster Keaton was my second guess. He shook his head once again. I gave up.
“Billie Whitelaw” he said, and walked off into the distance. He never did come back.
So what does this have to do with a simple DVD review? Why, Miss Whitelaw is one of the featured actresses, along with the ever so sweet June Laverick, in The Flesh And The Fiends. (1959).
I don’t know what Samuel Beckett thought of June Laverick, either.
William Burke and William Hare are two working class layabouts, played respectively by Donald Pleasance and George Rose, who decide to supplement their income by going into the business of re-cycling cadavers for the medical experiments of Dr. Knox (Peter Cushing) in Victorian-era Edinburgh. They start off with simple grave-robbing, but soon progress to murder—much fresher bodies with a longer sell-by date—until they are caught out and put on trial. Burke is acquitted because he turns King’s Evidence against his partner, Hare, who is hanged. Justice catches up with the unscrupulous Burke however, when he is subsequently blinded, by a member of the public, in revenge for his crimes. And the good doctor? Well, Knox is brought before the Medical Council and acquitted for his crimes—no surprise there—one law for the rich and another for the poor.
Fiends is released under the banner of ‘Euroshock’. The print is absolutely immaculate and sharp as a pin. There is no sign of print damage and even the reel dot markings are excluded. Anamorphic 2.35:1, with no loss of composition that I could spot, the disc features the original UK release along with the European version, which lasts one minute longer and features nudity and extra violence (yummy). Normally, when extra elements are inserted into a film of this vintage, you can spot the drop in picture quality (check out the recent release of WitchfinderGeneral ), but not in this case—it’s absolutely seamless.
Extras featured are the trailer, bios and the opening credit/title sequence of the American release, which was re-titled as Mania .
Performance-wise, George Rose hits the spot for me, with Donald Pleasance coming in a close second. Rose’s portrayal of Hare is mainly comic with a hint of malevolence, while Pleasance is full-on nasty. What really impressed me about their performances, though is their subtle use of Ulster, rather than Southern Irish accents, for immigrants Burke and Hare—perhaps to maintain the connection with the historic Ulster/Scottish immigration. The Flesh And The Fiends has been described by other critics as being not strictly a horror film, and I can see what they mean. Let’s call it a ‘Gothic’ entertainment and leave it at that.
No self-respecting fan of horror/fantasy should be without this film in their collection.
Dyaliscope/Regalscope, Black & White, Mono sound. Image Entertainment, 94/95 min respectively.
This double feature package from Fox represents terrific value for money; with two classics sci-fi films for the price of one. Released in 1958, The Fly—for the benefit of anyone out there who might actually be unaware of the plot—concerns a scientist (David Hedison), whom, having invented a teleportation machine, decides to test it himself without realising that he has a fly for a fellow passenger. What emerges at the other end is not a pretty sight. However, you will be able to enjoy this chiller whilst eating your TV dinner, unlike the grisly David Cronenberg remake of 1987. Vincent Price is along for the ride as the sensible older brother who picks up the pieces—oh, and the ending has to be seen to be believed!
Excellent colour and CinemaScope compositions, and with Dolby 4.0 stereo sound, this George Langelaan original story, co-scripted by James Clavell and directed by Kurt Neumann, makes a welcome return.
And speaking of returns Return of The Fly rounds off this two-disc set nicely. This—it must be said—less successful sequel was released in 1959, and picks up the story 15 years after the first one with the son of the deceased scientist/fly deciding to follow his father's example. Unfortunately, he follows it a little too closely and finishes up with a fly head of his own. (for some strange reason it's twice as big as the one in the first film. I've always been curious about that.) But this, coupled with a plot that involves treacherous partners and industrial espionage, gives our hero plenty of justification for roaming the Canadian countryside in search of some villain's henchmen to strangle. Great fun.
Shot in 'Scope, but black and white this time, Return of The Fly also has Dolby 4.0 surround. Both films have been given crisp 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, and the prints are clear and damage free. As I said, an excellent package, and extremely good value for money.
Some news for the soundtrack fans out there: Percepto Records have just released a fantastic 2 CD set of Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter's music from the three "Fly" films—the two reviewed here plus 1965's "Curse Of The Fly". Included in the set is a 56 page booklet describing the making of the films, profusely illustrated with dozens of never-before-seen photographs. These wonderful scores are an essential purchase for collectors and the set is a limited edition of 3,000 copies. Price is $29.95 plus $3.50 shipping ($7.55 airmail to UK).
Percepto's website is at www.percepto.com and their postal address is: PO Box 70075, Pasadena, CA 91117, USA.
Goliath and the Barbarians. When I compiled the original Wish List in Issue 10, I already had my eye on the Spanish release of the Steve Reeve’s classic, Goliath and the Barbarians. The problem was that the websites of the Spanish sellers were all uniformly vague about the aspect ratio of this transfer, some describing it as ‘Fullscreen’ others as ‘Widescreen’. Emailing a couple of them elicited no replies. And when my wife was on holiday in Spain last year, she could find no DVD stockist who’d even heard of it. It appears regularly on eBay, via American sellers, as an overpriced ‘import’, even though the price quoted by the Spanish DVD retailers in euros is very reasonable. Anyway, as I’m just a martyr to my readers, your editor decided to purchase a copy—at no small cost, let me tell you—so we could check out this ‘official’ studio release. And then—no sooner had I acquired this version—another one appeared, this time in the US, courtesy of Wild East Productions, who have repackaged it in a double bill with another ‘Goliath’ picture, Goliath and the Vampires, at a much more sensible price.
Note: This review continues; please use the link below:
Helen of Troy (Region 2). You may recall that I had a dig at Troy, Wolfgang Peterson’s ‘re-imagining’ of the ancient Greek legend. Well I’m happy to report that the film is not a complete waste of time as it has prompted the DVD release of the proper version, Warner’s 1956 CinemaScope epic, Helen of Troy (region 2), and all-time favourite number two.
Way back in issue 1 we looked at the making of this spectacular production in some detail, so I won’t go over the same ground again. Suffice it to say that you will not be disappointed by this disc. A pristine print, presented anamorphically at 2.55:1, with the stereo sound remastered to Dolby 5.1, Helen of Troy is a treat for the eyes and ears.
Shot in Italy, and directed by Robert Wise, with a largely British cast who can handle the 50s type period dialogue with the same ease as James Mason in Prince Valiant, Helen of Troy sticks to the generally accepted version of the story, with the characters of Helen and Paris at centre stage where they belong—at least until the siege begins. Continental stars Jack Sernas and Rossana Podesta acquit themselves well as the lovers—even though their voices are dubbed—against such stars as Stanley Baker (Achilles), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Priam), Harry Andrews (Hector), Niall MacGinnis (Menelaus) and Janette Scott (Cassandra).
Director Robert Wise crafted one of the better CinemaScope epics of the 50s with no small thanks to the sumptuous sets created by Edward Carrere and (uncredited) Ken Adam and the fabulous armour and costumes of Roger Furse. All presented in proper colour—Troy producers please note. Helen of Troy also features an awesome wooden horse—unlike the more recent driftwood monstrosity featured in—well, you know which film I mean.
Also included on the disc is an ‘interview’ with Helen (Rossana Podesta in character), a brief TV ‘making of’ introduced by Gig Young (He did many of these for Warner Bros’ television promos) and some ‘sounds of Homeric Troy’. Great film. Great presentation—an absolute must-have!
I could not
let the release of this classic crime thriller (in December 2002) pass
unnoticed. The redoubtable Anchor Bay have brought us a splendid transfer
of this 1961 Hammer Films production, directed by Val Guest. Shot in and
around Manchester, and starring Stanley Baker, as the hard-bitten police
inspector Harry Martineau, Hell Is A City was considered shockingly
violent in its day, though it's actually no worse than an average episode
of The Sweeney. That said, the casual brutality of gangster-on-the-run,
Don Starling, played by John Crawford, would probably have been an eye-opener
at the time.
A jewel robbery that turns into the senseless killing of a young girl triggers a manhunt that draws Martineau onto the trail of his childhood adversary, Starling. These two equally ruthless protagonists embark on a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, each determined to outwit the other, no matter who gets in the way. Val Guest's taut screenplay was nominated for a British Academy Award, and the film is still powerful today with its gritty, realistic portrayal of life in a provincial city in the mid-20th century. Mancunians who were around then will have some fun spotting the locations in a city that has changed more than most in the forty something years since this film was made! Shot in black & white CinemaScope, the print used here is crisp and damage-free and is presented anamorphically in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with clear, mono sound. The disc also includes an entertaining commentary from Val Guest with journalist, Ted Newsome; an alternate ending; trailer and talent bios. An extremely welcome package for fans of the old British crime thrillers. 9 out of 10.
Having an issue of a magazine delayed is not always a bad thing, and this case it has worked to our advantage by enabling us to include a review of the even longer-awaited John Wayne classic, The High and the Mighty (1954), which was released on the 8th August.
Based on Ernest K. Gann’s best selling novel, this smash-hit movie disappeared into limbo, never to be seen again except for a one-off television broadcast in the 1960s, which was the source of the notorious bootleg VHS copy that has been circulating for years at ridiculously inflated prices.
Well, thankfully, no more. We now have this, utterly magnificent, restored CinemaScope print to drool over, complete with a whole bunch of fascinating extras and commentaries, in a two-disc set which, retailing for just under £10, is the bargain of the century for all fans of the early ‘Scope movies.
The High and the Mighty is the forerunner of all the airplane disaster movies that would become so popular for a later generation of filmgoers, and at the time, even though the book was so successful, Jack Warner—head of Warner Bros, who were distributing the films of John Wayne’s own company, Wayne-Fellows, didn’t think the public would sit still for two hours of ‘people trapped in an airplane’. But, as Wayne was then the top box-office draw in the world at the time, who was he to argue? As it turned out, The High and the Mighty proved to be hugely popular with audiences, and was a tremendous success, financially—a fact which makes its ‘disappearance’ even more inexplicable. Rumours of legal wrangles following the break-up of Wayne-Fellows and the subsequent creation of the Batjac company were rife. And it was also reported that Wayne’s son, Michael, who eventually became president of Batjac, refused to release the film again until ‘The time was right’.
Happily for us, that time seems to have arrived, and after an extensive restoration—which includes footage that was believed to have been lost—The High and the Mighty can now be seen in its original form.
Wayne is the co-pilot with a past—an horrific plane crash which killed his wife and child, for which he assumes responsibility—and Robert Stack is the unstable pilot, coming apart during an engine failure during a storm. Backed up by an impressive cast, which includes Robert Newton, Claire Trevor, Sidney Blackmer and William Campbell. The two-disc set features a fabulous 2.55:1 transfer (although it doesn’t indicate this on the packaging) presented anamorphically, and with the option of stereo sound or Dolby 5.1—the latter being extremely impressive, having being remastered, presumably, from the original 4-track magnetic soundtrack.
Disc 2 comprises a series of extensive, making of and restoration documentaries plus interviews with many of the cast and crew, including writer, Ernest K. Gann, and co-stars Robert Stack and Doe Avedon.
This is an absolutely terrific package, and, like the Battle of the Bulge DVD reviewed above, is an essential addition to any widescreen collector’s library.
And, of course, there is also that unforgettable, Oscar winning score by Dimitri Tiomkin…
Sam Fuller is not very well served on DVD, with many of his movies not available anywhere. This has always seemed quite surprising to me, as Fuller has long been acknowledged as a major influence on many well-established mainstream directors working today. His grimly realistic war films, such as The Steel Helmet (1951) Fixed Bayonets (1951), China Gate (1957) and Merrill’s Marauders (1962), and his equally uncompromising noir/crime thrillers, Underworld USA (1961), Pick-up on South Street (1953) and The Crimson Kimono (1959), all set benchmarks in their respective genres. And regular readers will, of course, recall my mentioning one of Fuller’s westerns, Run of the Arrow (1957), in our DVD Wish List in the last issue of WSMM.
Happily, however, 20th Century-Fox has recently released one of the several movies that he made for that studio in the fifties. House of Bamboo (1955) is a tricky one to classify insofar as it has the characters and plot of a noir thriller—it is actually in their Fox Film Noir collection—it abandons the monochrome 1.33:1 ratio, dark, rain-washed streets and smokey bars of New York or Chicago in favour of CinemaScope, brilliant sunshine and full colour and a Japanese setting.
Drifter and petty criminal, Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) attempts to carve out a piece of the lucrative Tokyo protection rackets for himself, running foul of ex-pat gang boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), in the process. Joining the Dawson gang in their ruthless, kill-anyone-who-gets-wounded robberies, Spanier soon becomes Dawson’s right-hand man. But is Spanier who he appears to be? Further plot description would be a spoiler, but there is plenty here to keep you interested. And though Stack gives a typically wooden performance, Ryan excels as the ruthless Dawson. A great supporting cast includes a menacingly unstable Cameron Mitchell, with Brad Dexter and the lovely Shirley Yamaguchi.
House of Bamboo is a reworking of William Keighley’s Street With No Name (1948—and a more typical noir), with some additional Fuller dialogue filling out a script by Harry Klein. It was the first post-WWII American film to be shot in Japan—and shot beautifully by cinematographer Joe MacDonald, it must be said. This is an excellent 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer, with Dolby 4.0 surround, and includes a delightful commentary by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver—find out about the homosexual sub-plot, mischievously added by Fuller, that almost no-one picked up on at the time. Very funny. The disc also includes a couple of trailers and Fox Movietone News spots. Subtitles in English and Spanish are included. Incidentally, for the film music buffs out there, the gorgeous Leigh Harline score is now available as a Limited Edition (1200 copies) CD in the Intrada Special Collection series—more details at www.intrada.com. But going back to the DVD, I bought mine for around a fiver, plus £1.46 postage at Amazon UK—and it’s worth paying that just to see the amazing climactic shoot-out on an actual roof top fairground in 1950s Tokyo. Highly recommended.
Island in the Sun region 1. Continuing 20th Century-Fox’s tour of the world, we touch down among the Caribbean islands—Barbados in particular—for Zanuck’s previously mentioned first independent production, and now part of Fox’s Cinema Classics Collection.
In the mid fifties, Darryl F. Zanuck left 20th Century-Fox, the studio he had founded, and based himself in Paris, where he amused himself with a succession of mistresses—he’d left his wife, too—and by becoming a producer of independent movies. As he remained the major stockholder in Fox, the studio continued to finance and release his European based films—the biggest success, of course, being The Longest Day (1962)—until his return to Hollywood in the early sixties in order to rescue Fox from the ravages of Cleopatra (1963 -see the next issue of WSMM for the full story!)
Based on Alec Waugh’s runaway bestseller (30 million copies sold according to John Stanley’s excellent commentary track), Island in the Sun is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta (actually Barbados), where the wealthy plantation owning Fleury family have held sway for decades. But times will soon be changing for the Fleurys as family secrets are exposed and jealousy and murder are in the air. Quoting from the neat little pamphlet which accompanies this rather handsome DVD package:
The Fleury family is a hotbed of intrigue: As Maxwell Fleury (James Mason) suspects his wife of having an affair, his sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) catches the eye of a titled, Oxford-educated bachelor (Stephen Boyd), but she lives in fear that he will learn that she is part black. At the same time, Fleury’s sister-in-law Mavis (Joan Fontaine) has a growing romance with David Boyuer (Harry Belafonte), while Boyuer’s sometime girlfriend (Dorothy Dandridge) has captured the heart of the governor’s aide (John Justin).
Crikey! It’s like the whole of Peyton Place, but in one family—and the splendid cast, which also includes Michael Rennie, Patricia Owens and John Williams, carry it off with panache. Sun, sex, suspense—and even a couple of songs, courtesy of Mr. Belafonte—what more could you want?
The print used here, presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, looks gorgeous, and it sounds just as good, too, with Dolby 4.0 surround in English, mono Spanish and French, with optional subtitles in English or Spanish. The running time is 119 minutes. Some great extras are included also: a terrific commentary by film writer and historian John Stanley—you MUST listen to this—and the documentary Dorothy Dandridge: Little Girl Lost, which you may have seen on the Biography channel if you have SKY TV. The original trailer is on here, too.
And there’s MORE: The DVD keep case is enclosed in a sturdy cardboard slip case, and contains, in addition to the pamphlet mentioned above, four very nice black and white postcard size lobby cards in a envelope. All in all, an extremely handsome package, currently available from Amazon UK at around £7.30 plus postage.
funniest comedians and Jerry Lewis star alongside Spencer Tracy in Stanley
Kramer's fabulous 1965 crash, bang road movie.
Career criminal Jimmy Durante sails his car of a cliff, witnessed by several
drivers who happened to be following behind him.
conscious, but close to death, this motley bunch, comprising such talents
as Mickey Rooney, Sid Caeser, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers,
Jonathan Winters and Buddy Hacket, all hear him gasp out the location
of some buried loot "
underneath a big 'W'
the craziest car chase you've ever seen as they try to outrace each other
to Los Angeles and the buried riches—the original 'equal shares' idea
rapidly cast aside.
to make the biggest, noisiest, most action-packed comedy of all time—hence the big-star line-up and the 70mm Ultra Panavision photography—and was largely successful. How successful, of course, depends on the
viewer's opinion of the various comic talents on show. But funny it most
certainly is, and the film is helped tremendously by Spencer Tracy's laid-back
performance as the cop who watches them all from a distance, never upstaged
for a second by some of the most notorious scene-stealers in the business.
Presented, allegedly, in a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer, " from the original 35mm theatrical version"—OK, we'll let that go, for now; the print is fine and clean, with good colour. Sound is Dolby Digital 5.1. It comes with the original trailer, the 1970 reissue trailer and a great documentary; Something A Little Less Serious. It also has the added bonus of Jerry Lewis only being in it for three seconds. Lose two marks for the "Original 35mm theatrical print"— where's the 70mm one?? 8 out of 10.
Les Derniers Jours De Pompeii—better known to us, of course, as The Last Days Of Pompeii—is a splendid 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer from a virtually pristine print supplied by Titanus, the original Italian production company. The Last Days of Pompeii was essentially a vehicle for the late, great Steve Reeves*, of Hercules/Hercules Unchained fame, and was originally released in 1959, just as the fondly remembered (by this writer, anyway) cycle of Italian-made, sword-and-sandal pictures were beginning to unleash a swathe of Goliaths, Samsons and Macistes on an unsuspecting public. Reeves was by far the most popular and successful exponent of the genre, and 1959 was a particularly busy year for the Californian-born bodybuilder turned actor, with Hercules Unchained, The White Warrior and Goliath And The Barbarians (my favourite) also on release that year.
Pompeii was not one of Reeve’s personal favourites, the experience being marred by several disagreements with the assistant Director, a gentleman by the name of Sergio Leone, (Directorial credit is to Mario Bonnard, but Leone directed around 90% of the picture) one of which was so intense, that Reeves had to be restrained by the crew as he wanted to “…tear him apart!”
The story tells of a Roman Centurion, Glaucus (Reeves), returning to Pompeii to find his home burned and his father murdered by—it is believed—a rebel Christian faction that have been blamed for a series of similar raids. His investigations reveal that the Christians are innocent, and that the murders are the work of Julia (Anne-Marie Baumann), mistress of the Aedile (whatever that is) of Pompeii and sinister High Priest, Arabaces (Fernando Rey). Falsely accused of treason, Glaucus is condemned to the arena, along with the Aedile’s daughter, Ione (Christine Kaufman) whom he had earlier rescued from a runaway chariot. In the arena, Glaucus battles with gladiators and lions to protect Ione, whom he loves, and the Christian families who have been condemned with them, until they are rescued by Glaucus’ companions—just as Vesuvius erupts…
A spectacular example of the modestly-budgeted peplum genre, with good sets and costumes, and presented with very effective stereo surround. You will be able to select a dubbed French language version, or the original English (dubbed) version with French subtitles that you can switch off. The disc also has some filmographies and a short feature on peplum films –in French and without subtitles—which is probably interesting. Hard to believe, too, that the lovely Christine Kaufman was only fourteen years old when she made this film.
This is a
must-have disc for any fan of classic horror/fantasy, being the (Hollywood
style!) story of the great Lon Chaney as portrayed by the equally great
James Cagney in this 1957 CinemaScope film. Chaney was the son of deaf-mute
parents and the cruel prejudice that he and they suffered coloured his
entire outlook on life, but ironically, it would also give him the drive
to succeed, first as a sad-faced clown in vaudeville and then as the creator
of the legendary silent horror film characters such as the scarred musician
in Phantom Of The Opera and the deformed Quasimodo in The Hunchback
Of Notre Dame. Cagney gives a heartfelt yet forceful performance as
the tormented actor and is ably supported by Dorothy Malone as his first
wife, the unstable Cleva, mother of his son Creighton—Lon Chaney Jr.;
and Jane Greer as his second wife, Hazel, with whom he found lasting contentment.
is played by Roger Smith in an early role before his hit series 77
Sunset Stripas Jeff Spencer, and his subsequent off-screen role as
the manager of his wife, Ann-Margret. Robert Evans, eventually to be the
head of production at Paramount Studios in the 1960's and 70's makes his
debut as Irving Thalberg who had the same job at Universal and MGM back
in the 1930's.
The disc is one of Universal's earlier entries into the DVD market and as such is not encoded anamorphically, but letterboxed at 2.35:1 instead. The black and white picture is crisp and clear, with the source print clean and damage free. Sound is mono only, but nevertheless is as clear as the images. Frank Skinner's score is particularly memorable also. 7 out of 10.
North West Frontier (1959, Region 2). J. Lee Thomson’s film is another personal favourite, because it’s a ‘train’ film (Regular readers may recall that I have a weird fascination for films that are set on trains). Quoting from the back of the case: “Kenneth More keeps his upper lip stiff in this colourful adventure set in colonial India. Captain Scott (More) is sent to rescue a five-year-old IndianPrince and his American governess, Catherine Wyatt (Lauren Bacall), when a rebellion breaks out amongst the tribesmen. Scott and his men take them into the hills in order to bring the young Prince to safety in Kalapur, 300 miles away, because while the Prince lives, no rebellion can succeed. But the last convoy has left, and their only chance of escape is a temperamental old train, called “Empress Of India” ‘.
A simple and effective story with a great cast of supporting characters, such as Wilfred Hyde White, Ursula Jeans, Eugene Deckers and the splendid Herbert Lom as the sinister journalist who is not all he seems. A special mention too, for I.S. Johar’s splendid turn as the Indian engine driver—absolutely priceless!
More is terrific in these kinds of roles, and the slowly developing, but unlikely, relationship with Lauren Bacall’s governess is surprisingly convincing. Plenty of action, too in this CinemaScope film, presented here in a disappointingly non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, with clear, but mono, sound. The print is far better than the one they usually show on TV, though.
I bought mine for less than a fiver in Woolies—an absolute bargain for a little gem of a film.
Peyton Place (region 1). This is producer Jerry Wald’s 1957 film of Grace Metalious’ steamy novel, and I hope you appreciate the trauma that I subjected myself to in order to review this sordid tale of sin and sex on your behalf. Will I ever be the same?
I never read the original novel—I was a Harold Robbins man myself—but I understand it was pretty controversial for its time. It’s actually a sort of variation on Frank Capra’s picket-fence American small towns, with incest, rape, suicide and murder instead of Clarence the Angel.
The action takes place just before the outbreak of WWII, and follows the intersecting lives of the inhabitants of a small New Hampshire town, as parents desperately try to cope with the raging hormones of their teenage children, while struggling to keep their own carefully hidden skeletons from falling out of the closet. It’s all done in the best possible taste, though.
Peyton Place was a kind of showcase for up and coming talent by providing roles for young stars such as Hope Lange, Terry Moore, Russ Tamblyn, Barry Coe and Diane Varsi, with veteran stars Lana Turner, Arthur Kennedy and Lloyd Nolan as the grown-ups. Directed by Mark Robson, it was a box-office smash and was nominated for an amazing nine Oscars, including Best Picture. The CinemaScope frame has seldom been used to better effect, which is complemented handsomely by this beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, with stereo sound.
Extras include commentaries by Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, with a Movietone news item, Premiere and Photoplay Magazine awards.
I make no
apology for being the only person to see this 1996 film, or buy the DVD.
Discussing The Phantom with some of my more intellectually minded
friends, I have often said that I can't understand why this film didn't
perform better at the box-office. "Because it's crap" is the
usual explanation offered. I beg to differ. It has Billy Zane in a purple
rubber suit, and there's yummy Catherine Zeta Jones striding around in
a jumpsuit, hitting people—what more could you want?
though, The Phantom really deserved to be a success. Relying more
on action and humour for its thrills, rather than special effects, director
Simon Wincer delivers a high-speed adventure from the Indiana Jones era.
The cast play it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks—and have
a ball in the process! And speaking of cast, you can spot the underrated
James Remar (remember him in The Warriors—the one who gets handcuffed
to the park bench?) as an associate villain, and there is also a delightfully
vicious performance from Treat Williams—another underrated actor—as
ruthless tycoon, Xander Drax. Also featured is a voice-over and brief
appearance by Patrick McGoohan as the Phantom's ghostly dad.
I reckon that
its lack of success is really down to two other factors, rather than the
quality of the production. The aforementioned paucity of effects (though
what there are are first-rate), usually expected in super-hero films,
is probably one reason; and the other is the character of The Phantom
himself: he is simply of another age and today's kids are simply not in
tune with him. The same condition afflicted the excellent Alec Baldwin
vehicle, The Shadow, with similar results.
However, all that notwithstanding, don't let this one pass you by without checking it out. Anamorphic 2.35:1 framing and a beautifully rendered image, with excellent Dolby 5.1 sound, let down only by Paramount's usual policy of giving you zilch in the way of extras—apart from the theatrical trailer. Slam Evil! with The Phantom—you'll enjoy it! 7 out of 10.
Prince Valiant (1954, Region 1), from 20th Century-Fox, is the first of my all-time favorites. This splendid adaptation of Hal Foster’s beautifully drawn comic-strip, is given a terrific 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer from a very nicely restored print, revealing gorgeous Technicolor hues and a vibrant stereo soundtrack.
A young Robert Wagner is a dead ringer for Val, and his exuberant performance has him leaping about the screen with abandon, hacking and slashing at marauding Vikings in order to win a place at the Round Table of King Arthur, and the hand of the fair princess Aleta, played by a rather pointy-breasted Janet Leigh. Villain-in-Chief is the treacherous Sir Brack, played with sinister ease by the great James Mason, completely at home in any period film, unlike the unfortunate Sterling Hayden; completely miscast as Sir Gawain, who struggles manfully with the scurvy knave-type dialogue that the writers have inflicted on his character. In spite of that, veteran director Henry Hathaway keeps the action going at breakneck pace—right up to a spectacular battle in a blazing castle.
I have to confess that I enjoyed this film so much that I find myself reluctant to point out that it perpetuates the myth of Vikings with horned and winged helmets—a Victorian fantasy creation—but then so did the original strip; and this film is nothing if not faithful to the original. The other divergence from reality would be the ludicrously large, joke-shop swords that Val, and his nemesis, Sir Brack, wield in their climactic duel. That said, I guess ‘reality’ is not exactly an essential requirement for the appreciation Foster’s Prince Valiant—or the screen version either. And speaking of versions, no mention of this comic strip would be complete without recalling the brilliant parody which appeared in E.C.’s MAD comic book in the same year of the film’s original release. Just as beautifully drawn by the late, great Wallace Wood—who actually ghosted Foster’s strip for a while—‘Prince Violent’ was one of the best things MAD ever did; check out the title page we’ve reproduced here.
This DVD is splendid entertainment—plus a little nostalgia for your editor—with only a couple of modest extras: a 2.55:1 trailer (“You see it without special glasses!”) and a brief Movietone News item with Dan Daily and Mitzi Gaynor. A commentary track from Robert Wagner would have been a nice addition. There are also Spanish and French audio tracks and subtitles in English or Spanish. Feature run time is 100 min. Prince Valiant comes in a keep case with surprisingly dull cover art, compared to the original posters; a couple of which we have reproduced here for comparison. Oh, and here’s a little trivia for you: The castle, to which Val and his family have been exiled at the start of the film, is the same one used in Highlander (1986) and The Master of Ballantrae (1953).
Black and white images are from the Dell Comic edition of Prince Valiant, 1954
MGM/UA Home Video is currently blazing the trail with bargain basement classic—and not so classic—movie titles, and large bunch of these can be snapped up for as little as £5.99. First, let’s take a peek at the Roger Corman 1963 release, The Raven.
Taken from a poem written by Edgar Alan Poe, the title, and a few character names, is all that this film has in common with Poe’s original. This movie belongs to the ‘horror comedy’ genre. Not an easy combination to pull off successfully, but The Raven manages it quite well.
The leading players are Vincent Price—acting with the assistance of his eyebrows in overdrive—Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre—who steals the show—Hazel Court, Olive Sturgess, and a young Jack Nicholson, making one of his earliest appearances. Nicholson had previously played with Karloff in a straight horror film, The Terror (also 1963)—a segment of which was used by director Peter Bogdanovitch in his 1967 release, Targets.
The slender plot concerns two wizards, Price and Karloff, dueling for magical supremacy—and Hazel Court. One thing to note about the casting of Price, Lorre and Karloff is that they were from a strong theatrical background—rare combination in modern films.
The film is presented anamophically in a 2.35:1 ratio, though there are some shots where a character is partly outside the frame. This could be explained by a slight cropping of the image, or it may even be the way the movie was originally shot, but it doesn’t detract too much from the viewing pleasure. The print shows very little sign of wear and tear, except for the opening titles, but that’s nothing to feel cheated about. The sound is Dolby mono, clean and strong, with no fluctuations in quality, though the sleeve notes mention that there has been music edits. The Raven was shot in Pathecolor—an inferior version of Eastmancolor -which had a tendency to turn pink after a few years, but you wouldn’t think so to look at the quality of this print. The colour scheme is rich and vibrant for a movie of this vintage—must have been hermetically sealed!
The only extras featured are the original American trailer, four language and three subtitle options, but what do you want for little more than a fiver?
The Raven is a fine looking movie and the DVD does it proud. Run time: 83min.
My favourite film arrives, at last, on DVD—and just as I am in the middle of preparing these reviews, so I've stopped the presses to include it! For me, this rip-roaring tale of 9th century England and Norway is the perfect example of the genre—it has the lot; a good cast; a decent story; brilliant set-pieces—the fight on the round tower, anyone?—and absolutely stunning photography by Jack Cardiff. The whole package is delivered by director Richard Fleischer at break-neck pace, never letting a scene go on an instant longer than necessary.
Sneered at by some critics on its release in 1958 (and many since), who couldn't resist making lame "Norse opera" jokes, The Vikings was a smash hit for Kirk Douglas, who's own company, Bryna, had produced it—going well over budget in the process, and no doubt shredding the nerves of some United Artists executives. They needn't have worried—it made an awful lot of money. Telling the story of a Viking slave (Tony Curtis) and a Viking chieftan (Kirk Douglas) who go to war with the English king (a slimy Frank Thring) and each other, for the hand of the beautiful princess Morgana (a beautiful Janet Leigh), MGM, who now own United Artists' back catalogue, have presented the disc in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Shot in "Horizon spanning Technirama", the double sized, horizontally running negative produced a marvellous image to begin with, and as all vertically running, anamorphic prints extracted from this were therefore reduction printed, the clarity of the screen image was remarkable.
The print sourced for this DVD is immaculate, and I am wondering if there has been some restoration work done on it, so clear and detailed are some of the scenes. And the colour is gorgeous. The film is accompanied by the original theatrical trailer—also in 2.35:1 anamorphic, and a very informative interview with Richard Fleischer, who lets us in on some behind- the-scenes secrets, and includes plenty of production stills to round out the package. Unfortunately, sound is only mono—the only disappointment—but at least it's as clear and sharp as the pictures.
This one gets11 out of 10, without hesitation—buy it!
This Oscar winning musical is a must-have for any collector of widescreen movies, and is given a splendid treatment on this disc. Restored (it says on the sleeve) from the original 65mm negative (Super Panavision) the film is given a beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I'm not sure how you get a 2.35:1 ratio from a 65mm source, but the image quality is astonishing, and the colour is gorgeous—remember, this is a film that's over forty years old! West Side Story won 10 Oscars in 1961—still a record for a musical—including the only joint award for Direction, for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The Romeo and Juliet story—transposed to the tenements of New York, stars Natalie Wood (with the singing voice of Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. Co-stars Rita Moreno and George Chakiris also won Best Supporting actress/actor awards. It has one or two good songs as well. 10 out of 10.
When Eight Bells Toll (1970, Region 2) A decent enough action thriller from the pen of Alistair Maclean, although it must be said that this is not in the same league as Where Eagles Dare (1969),or The Guns Of Navarone (1961), whatever the producers may have been hoping. This is Sunday afternoon stuff that is interesting only insofar as it provides an early role for Anthony Hopkins as Phillip Calvert, a sort of James Bond without the gadgets, and his attempts to foil gold bullion thieves, or pirates, or something. It all happens in the Hebrides, anyway, so we get plenty of Panavision sea and island scapes as a backdrop for the quite decent action scenes. Many of the outdoor sequences take place in dull light against overcast skies, and if they had been shot in black-and-white, they might have been far more effective than they are in colour, which just makes them, well, dull.
A good supporting cast, including Robert Morley, Corin Redgrave and best of all, Jack Hawkins, who was sadly nearing the end of his career—and his life—having already lost his vocal chords due to cancer. Hawkins’ familiar and distinctive voice is dubbed here by Charles Gray.
Anamorphic 2.35:1 with mono sound, and a naff trailer, but it’s another budget-priced disc, so that’s not so bad.
DVD Reviews from Issue 12
As this issue of the print version is taking me so long to compile, I find myself being overtaken by events yet again, even with the two Wish List updates that I’ve shoe-horned into this issue already. As I now have in my possession the long-awaited DVD of Land of the Pharaohs, it seems only natural to include it this collection of DVD reviews. Then I found that another rather interesting box set had appeared recently, one of them being a collection of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton films—both of whom happen to be the stars of a Cleopatra feature that I am working on at the moment. These Taylor /Burton films had never been available previously—which then started me looking for similar collections which might contain rarities surfacing for the first time. This led me to The Marlon Brando Collection and The Joan Collins Collection (don’t laugh), which happen to contain a Taylor film in one and a Burton film in the other, along with several other long-sought-after movies, which have previously been unavailable. So the DVD Review section for this issue is now about FOUR DVD collections, which comprise FOURTEEN ‘Scope feature films between them (gasp). Can your editor accomplish this incredible feat in the limited space available? Well, if I type very fast, I just might.
Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics (Region 1)
Some comedian at Warner’s has decided that their Cult Camp Classics series is the appropriate place to dump Land of the Pharaohs. Admittedly an unhappy directing experience for Howard Hawks—his only CinemaScope feature—it nevertheless remains superior to many of its contemporaries in the 1950s ‘Scope/spectacle genre. Earlier volumes in the Cult Camp Classics series have featured such ‘cult’ favourites as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Hot Rods to Hell, Trog, Zero Hour (mercilessly parodied in Airplane) and—possibly the only one in the whole series to have anything ‘camp’ about it—Queen of Outer Space. And while, for the most part, featuring very nice transfers, interesting commentaries and a few modest extras, the very title of the series trivialises the nature of some quite good genre examples contained within. So although I don’t like the title of this series at all, I guess it’s better here than nowhere else.
Jack Hawkins is the pharaoh who is determined to protect his huge pile of looted gold from, well, other looters, by having a burglar proof tomb (the Great Pyramid) constructed by the captive engineering genius, James Robertson Justice. Enter the scheming Joan Collins, who inveigles her way into the pharaoh’s affections, determined to have all his riches for herself after the pharaoh dies. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know about the clever pyramid sealing system that she is tricked into triggering herself as the pharaoh is interred in his tomb. Brilliant!
So what’s the DVD like? Well, disappointing is the word that springs to mind. The standard bit-rate transfer has produced a fairly mediocre picture that is quite inferior to the earlier laserdisc version – a copy of which I acquired just to check. Even worse: the DVD has been transferred with an aspect ratio of about 2.1:1 (I measured it), unlike the laserdisc’s 2.55:1. Travesty is another word that springs to mind. A couple of years ago, Warner’s made a splendid job of the DVD version of their subsequent historical epic, Helen of Troy, so it is a great pity that similar thought didn’t go into the presentation of this earlier (one year earlier) and equally as impressive production. Warner’s attitude to the film seems to be underlined by Hawks aficionado, Peter Bogdanovitch, who delivers a commentary as though at gunpoint. He almost grudgingly points out the clever cut in Hawks’ seemingly continuous pan over the thousands of extras, which enabled Hawks to reposition them, effectively doubling their number to almost astronomical proportions. Hawks never had never used ‘Scope before – and never would again – and Bogdanovitch homes in on the lack of close up shots. Hawks shot everything in wide or medium shots for the CinemaScope frame, and, uncomfortable he may have been with the format, he was utterly correct; his compositions were spot on; something that cannot be said for some of today’s CGI epics.
Here’s a useful tip for Warner Home Video: have the commentaries given by people who actually like the film. Okay, Land of the Pharaohs was not a huge hit for the studio and the critics gave Hawks a rough ride at the time – he wouldn’t make another film until Rio Bravo (1958), four years later, but viewed now, at a distance of more than fifty years, it more than holds its own in the canon of fifties costume epics – check out the awesome pyramid building sequence; no wobbly matte shots here, as in de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). Frankly, it deserves better than this, as does Dimitri Tiomkin’s stupendous score; no Dolby 5.1 here, just mono sound, which is clear enough, but the music cries out for surround sound. Thankfully, Tiomkin’s score is now available in its entirety, thanks to Film Score Monthly’s magnificent 2-CD release: www.filmscoremonthly.com
An indifferent presentation of a fine film, and, sadly, this is probably the best we will get.
Pharaoh’s contemporary companion in the set is MGMs The Prodigal, sporting a splendid transfer, with colour, sound and aspect ratio spot on. It’s just a pity that this film is not as much fun as Land of the Pharaohs. Based on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the basic story has Edmund Purdom taking his inheritance in advance, heading off to the bright lights of Damascus and blowing the lot on Lana Turner. As that plot would only need around fifteen minutes of screentime, some additional characters have been created so that the storyline can be expanded up to a couple of hours. Our prodigal falls victim to the scheming of Louis Calhern, Francis L. Sullivan and a bald-headed Neville Brand as a trio of slimy villians. He also gets to lead a slave rebellion and battle with the wobbliest vulture this side of The Giant Claw.
The Prodigal looks gorgeous. Sets and costumes are fabulous, and there’s an added bonus in the splendid commentary track by Dr. Drew Casper, who delivers an almost non-stop stream of facts and information on the film in particular and the genre and Hollywood in general. Anamorphic 2.55:1 with stereo sound. This is a very nice presentation, indeed and is an example of how Land of the Pharaohs should have been treated.
This box set is rounded out by the inclusion of another long sought-after film, this time from the early 1960s. The Colossus of Rhodes was peplum veteran Sergio Leone’s first credited film as director, and as Christopher Frayling’s continuous and informative commentary informs us, by this time was utterly bored with the genre—he really wanted to make westerns. Colossus is an entertaining adventure, if a little over long at 128 minutes. A bemused Rory Calhoun wanders amiably around Rhodes—a Greek on holiday on the island—oblivious to the to the rebellion simmering in the background and the impending take over by unscrupulous Phoenecians, until he finds himself up to his neck in trouble and is forced to lend a hand. Sets and costumes look fine and the Spanish coastline makes a splendid stand-in for Rhodes. The Colossus himself looks extremely impressive—a miniature in the long shots and full-size recreations of the legs (below the knee) and head and shoulders for the more detailed shots —described in the commentary as being influenced the Mount Rushmore scenes in North by North West and the Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur. While the cast is made up of many capable and familiar actors from sword-and-sandal industry, including Mimo Palmyra and George Marschal, Rory Calhoun is not the most convincing Ancient Greek I’ve ever seen. Presented anamorphically at 2.35:1 and with stereo sound, Colossus of Rhodes is a welcome addition to anyone’s DVD collection. In addition, the disc includes the theatrical trailer—as do both Prodigal and Pharaohs. All titles are available separately.
The Joan Collins Collection is released as part of 20th Century Fox’s Cinema Classics Collection, a series which so far has presented excellent, restored presentations from that studio’s back catalogue (with the exception of the disappointing The True Story of Jesse James), and this collection is no exception. The five films included here, Seven Thieves, Stopover Tokyo, Sea Wife, Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, all have uniformly excellent anamorphic transfers at 2.35:1 (except The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which is 2.55:1) and all have crystal clear Dolby 4.0 surround sound (except Sea Wife, which is stereo only).
The star of the package is undoubtedly The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), a glossy, sumptuous recreation of the ‘crime of the century’ killing of architect Stanford White by playboy millionaire Harry K. Thaw in 1906. The reason for the shooting of White centred on a previous relationship that the architect had had with Evelyn Nesbitt, the startlingly beautiful wife of the jealous and mentally unstable playboy, Thaw. The resulting court case was the sensation of the day, and of course, the public couldn’t get enough of it. Zanuck authorised a suitably generous budget in order to recreate the period in grand style, and the result is little short of breathtaking, visually. Milton R. Krasner’s colour cinematography has been rendered beautifully on this disc— among the best I’ve seen for some time—so Velvet Swing is extremely nice to look at. Unfortunately, director Richard Fleischer moves the story along at a leaden pace, and even worse, holds the normally effective Ray Milland under such tight restraint that his performance verges on the wooden. A nice bonus is having Leigh Harline’s beautiful score on an isolated music track.
As will be apparent throughout this collection, Joanie was essentially a ‘B’ list actress finding herself cast in ‘A’ list movies. Nevertheless, she holds her own against stars with much more impressive acting capabilities: Newman, Burton, Steiger, Wallach, Edward G. Robison, etc. Real fame was still many years away, when the character of Alexis Carrington in the TV series Dynasty, would make Joan a household name— along with an apparently ageless appearance, which continues until the present day.
Henry Hathaway’s Seven Thieves (1960) is a decent caper movie built around a plot to rob a casino in Monte Carlo. Edward G. Robinson enlists the help of his recently out of jail protégé, Rod Steiger, to organise the disparate group of rogues that he has recruited for the job. With four million French francs at stake, the heist requires split-second timing and perfectly co-ordinated tasks to be performed by this edgy crew, who watch each other warily. Robinson is reliable as always, and Steiger, unusually, underplays his role effectively, while being somewhat miscast as the reluctant robber, Mason. Joanie works well alongside an impressive cast, and gets to perform a couple of sexy dance routines, too. But ultimately the film is let down by its meagre budget, with the stars playing out their scenes against filmed Monte Carlo backdrops and very obvious doubles, filmed from a distance by a second-unit crew in the actual place. Crisp black and white CinemaScope photography by Sam Leavitt and the aforementioned Dolby 4.0 surround, make Seven Thieves a reasonably entertaining heist thriller.
Stopover Tokyo at least takes its cast to the actual locations, in Fox’s reworking of one of their Mr. Moto stories, which starred Peter Lorre as the Oriental sleuth. On this occasion, though, Mr. Moto has been excised from the script, only to be replaced with the ‘wide boy’ himself, Robert Wagner, as some sort of Government agent on a mission in Japan. You can’t help feeling that the studio were hoping that the exotic location might just generate some decent box-office returns—and they might have been right in 1957—because Stopover Tokyo has very little else going for it. The forgettable plot has Wagner trying to foil a suspected assassination attempt by the jovial –and duplicitous—Edmond O’Brien, while persuading Joan to babysit a cute Japanese kid that he’s picked up along the way. There is zero chemistry between Joan and Wagner—Wagner’s character supposedly having a wife and family back home, and similarly, the ending of the movie, with Wagner leaving the kid with the hapless Joanie after making a speech about how much he’ll be thinking about them both as he jets back the USA, or something, is just as flat. On the plus side, Japan looks great in CinemaSope and this film has been restored with the same care as the rest of the set, so it’s not all bad. Very much a film of its time, it will have some nostalgic resonance for people of a certain age, like your Editor.
Based on J.M. Scott’s popular adventure novel, Sea-Wyf and Biscuit, Sea Wife (1957), as it was re-titled, casts Joan as a nun, so there are few sexy dance routines in this movie. Original director Roberto Rossellini supposedly saw “a face of innocence” in our Joanie, and it must be said, she carries it off very well. The film takes the form of a flashback, as Richard Burton—‘Biscuit’—tries to find the girl –‘Sea Wife’— he fell in love with on a desert island after their ship has been torpedoed by the Japanese. Escaping in a dinghy, along with two other survivors—known only as ‘Bulldog’ and ‘Number Four’, they survive for some months before being rescued and going their separate ways. The only problem is that Sea Wife is really—as I mentioned previously -a nun! Only Number Four (Cy Grant) knows her true identity and he is unfortunately eaten by a shark—thanks to selfishness of the racist Bulldog (Basil Sidney)—before he can put the love-struck Biscuit straight.
After Roberto Rossellini departed abruptly, directing chores fell to associate producer Bob McNaught, who handles his extra job very well. The film is largely a four-handed piece, and once again, Joan handles herself very well against the, often, formidable Burton and veteran Sidney –as does then newcomer, Cy Grant—though in Burton’s case, this was his last film under his Fox contract, and he seems to be merely coasting in this role. No surround sound for Sea Wife, only Dolby 2.0 stereo, but the picture quality is fine. The Jamaican locations are largely wasted, though and the dinghy sequences have obviously been filmed in a studio tank.
Slick and Glossy, Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys is easily the weakest and most puzzling curiosity in the set. Based on a best selling book (probably only in America) it stars Paul Newman—right after Somebody Up There Likes Me—and his wife, Joanne Woodward—right after her Oscar-winning performance in The Three Faces of Eve, teamed in ‘one of the wittiest satires of our time’, as it was described at the time. Unfortunately, this film breaks the cardinal rule of comedy by not being funny. It swings—no, staggers—unsteadily between an excruciatingly un-funny to mildly amusing farce, at best. Joanie has only a supporting role in this mess, along with Jack Carson, and yet they effortlessly manage to steal every scene they’re in. The plot involves a top-secret army project being established in a swish New England town, despite the protests of the local citizenry—led by serial committee member, Joanne Woodward. Hapless husband, Paul Newman finds his reserved Navy status being reactivated, placing him in direct conflict with his wife, who already suspects him—quite wrongly—of having an affair with her best friend, Joanie. Oh, and there’s a chimpanzee in it, too. There’s probably a lot more to it than that, but I fell asleep in the middle.
Newman used to profess embarrassment over his role in the unfairly maligned The Silver Chalice, but it’s this film he should have avoided. Surprisingly, there is very little screen chemistry between Newman and Woodward, either. Beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy, the transfer is stunning—the better to show off Joanie’s slinky outfits—but this one is strictly for die-hard Newman and Woodward fans.
To sum up: a reasonably priced collection of a fairly mixed bag of movies with only Joan Collins in common. All with beautiful transfers of restored prints, trailers and press books on each disc, sparse commentaries on each by Aubrey Solomon, an envelope of stills inside each case and a nice little introductory booklet to round of the package. The discs in the set are contained in those nice slimline cases, which take up so much less room, but are all available separately, presumably in standard keep cases.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: The Film Collection doesn’t actually contain all the films they made together; but, happily, four of the best. I’m not including the two-disc Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which is part of this set, because (a) It’s been available for quite a while separately, and (b) it was filmed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. However, it is an amazing film, with well-deserved Oscars all round, except, most unfairly, for Burton, who should have got one, too. (Burton was nominated for Oscars an incredible seven times—and never won).
The V.I.P.s, for which Taylor and Burton had signed up for even before filming on Cleopatra had finished; a shrewd move on the part of producer Anatole de Grunwald, as his stars had rarely been off the front pages during the previous two years. Originally titled International Hotel, then Very Important People and, finally, The V.I.P.s was scripted by Terence Rattigan and details the problems encountered by a group of people stranded at Heathrow Airport as fog closes in, leaving all flights grounded. The film is an interesting study in desperation—every one of the cast is a desperate character: Frances Andros (Taylor) is desperate to leave before her husband, Paul Andros (Burton) finds out what she’s up to—running away with gigolo boyfriend Louis Jourdan, who is desperately in love with her. Rod Taylor, desperate to get to New York before a cheque he’s written has chance to bounce, costing him his company— his secretary, Maggie Smith desperately (and secretly) in love with him desperately begging Paul Andros to help her boss—a brilliantly moving scene. Orson Welles’ film producer, desperate to leave England before his income tax deadline. Margaret Rutherford’s Duchess, desperately hoping to raise funds in America before she looses her stately home—and so on.
The V.I.P.s was a smoothly successful amalgamation of great talent and witty script, very popular at the time of its release, and eagerly anticipated for DVD release. The film gets a beautiful restoration—as do all the films in this set—but the print seemed a little dark to me. Anamorphic 2.35:1 and the sound is your basic Dolby mono. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the Burton/Taylor/Jourdan sequence is supposedly based on an incident witnessed by Rattigan, when Laurence Olivier tried to stop his then wife, Vivien Leigh, running off with Peter Finch.
The Sandpiper (1965) was hated by the critics—who don’t buy tickets—but loved by the public, who do. Not a great film, by any means, but beautifully shot—in California’s Big Sur coastal region—and directed by Vincente Minelli. Burton plays Dr. Edward Hewitt, the minister/headmaster of an exclusive boys’ school, who falls for artistic free spirit Laura Reynolds (Taylor) when her son is assigned to his care as punishment for killing a deer. Hewitt’s mental anguish as he is torn between his loving wife (Eva Marie Saint) and the irresistibly beautiful and intelligent Laura is entirely understandable and is convincingly played by Burton —the master of inner turmoil. Solid support comes from Eva Marie Saint, reunited with Taylor for the first time since 1958s Raintree County, though her role is somewhat underwritten. An always reliable Robert Webber appears as a jealous, discarded lover from Laura’s past; but a strangely cast Charles Bronson fails to convince as a sculptor pal of hers. A gorgeous, 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation, with crystal clear mono sound—plus the Oscar-winning theme song, The Shadow of Her Smile. Very nice, indeed.
The Taylor/Burton team had tremendous clout while it lasted, and while the results of their collaborations weren’t always as financially successful (for their backers) as they might have expected, they were able to get some interesting films made that otherwise might never have happened. The Comedians (1967) is just one such example. Set in Haiti during the days of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Grahame Greene’s novel, which he adapted and scripted, tells of the apolitical hotelier, Brown (Burton) and his return to Haiti in order to rescue his ailing business. Brown has been conducting an intense love affair with the wife (Taylor) of Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). Against his better judgement, he offers assistance to an English Major (Alec Guinness), who has run into trouble with the Haitian government over a shady arms deal that is rapidly going wrong, resulting in them both falling foul of the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute, Papa Doc’s vicious secret police.
Reunited with Burton after the success of Becket three years earlier, director Peter Glenville keeps the story moving forward despite its longish running time of 152 minutes, and his impressive cast never fail to hold the viewer. In order to secure the services of Elizabeth Taylor at less than her usual fee of one million dollars, he told her that Sophia Loren was to be cast in the role of Martha Pineda, so she immediately reduced her fee to $500,000—receiving less than Burton for the first time, as he had already agreed a fee of $750,000. Dahomey stands in for Haiti, and is photographed splendidly by Henri Decae. Presented anamorphically at 2.35:1 (some 70mm 6-track prints were struck), The Comedians makes a handsome debut on DVD, albeit with mono sound (why couldn’t Warners find stereo masters for these three films?). Slimline cases again, with the three films reviewed NOT being available separately.
The Marlon Brando Collection is very interesting indeed; five excellent films, all beautifully restored and all making a first appearance on DVD. Unfortunately, two of them fall outside our remit; Julius Caesar (1953), filmed in the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1, and The Formula (1982) filmed in 1.85:1; though both films are handsomely presented, in particular, Julius Caesar, which looks stunning.
Some time ago, the restored 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty was given an impressive two-disc release, and that same two-disc set has been included in this package, which might a bit of a nuisance if you bought the earlier release—as your editor did, dammit. However, it is very, very nice, and this much underrated film has not looked as good as this since its initial release. It hasn’t sounded as good, either, with the Dolby 5.1 sound doing sublime justice to Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous score—one of the very best among epic scores. Mutiny on the Bounty was one of only a handful of films that were shot in Ultra Panavision 70— formerly known as MGM Camera 65—delivering a super wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, most of which is, thankfully, on show here. Which leads me to an interesting phenomenon that I discovered when I played my two copies simultaneously, one on my big TV and the other on my laptop (as you do): my TV is slightly underscanning the picture. There was more picture information at the sides of the image on the laptop, while vertical picture information was identical on both images. Interesting.
However, moving back to film content, this version has always been somewhat unfavourably compared with the 1935 one, which starred Clark Gable as Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh (“Mistah Christiannn!”)—probably because Laughton became so identified with the role in the public’s mind—a fact he came to resent deeply. Don’t let that put you off; Trevor Howard is great in the role, and suffers only from being continually upstaged by Brando’s bizarre English accent. This is a great big, beautiful, spectacular movie in the grand tradition of the Epic form. And, as such, it comes with a pleasing collection of extras: a new documentary on the production, After the Cameras Stopped Rolling: The Journey of the Bounty; four vintage featurettes; a Marlon Brando Trailer Gallery and, most interestingly, the original Prologue and Epilogue sequences which were removed prior to the roadshow release (These are presented in a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, with the Ultra Panavision anamorphic compression still evident). An outstanding movie, handsomely presented.
Teahouse of the August Moon sees Marlon Brando—almost unbelievably—cast as a native Okinawan interpreter, running rings around the occupying American forces in this delightful culture clashing comedy. Colonel Purdy (Paul Ford) sends useless captain Fisby (Glen Ford) to build a Pentagon-shaped schoolhouse for the islanders. Unfortunately, what they actually want is a teahouse—where they can happily drink their lethal brandy according to centuries-old tradition. Sakini (Brando) manipulates the hapless Americans mercilessly, and his performance as a Japanese is quite amazing. During its initial release, many American patrons didn’t recognise Brando, and wondered where he actually appeared in the film, so convincing was his performance! The PC stormtroopers would never allow this film to be made today, so in that respect it’s a breath of fresh air—even though it’s more than fifty years old. Great picture and clear Dolby 4.0 surround, plus a vintage featurette; Operation Teahouse.
John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye brings another Brando tour de force acting performance to DVD. Indeed, the entire cast deliver first-rate performances in this adaptation of Carson McCullers’ controversial 1952 novella, set on an army base in America’s deep south. Brando plays a repressed homosexual army officer, married to the fort commander’s blowsy daughter (Elizabeth Taylor), who is having an affair with Brando’s fellow officer (Brian Keith), whose wife (Julie Harris) has suffered a mental breakdown and sliced off her own nipples with a pair of garden shears. Brando is obsessed with a young recruit—who enjoys riding horses while naked—who is in turn obsessed with Brando’s wife. And then there’s the murder… This was tricky stuff to portray in 1967 (it was hammered by the critics and did poorly at the box-office) and it is to everyone’s credit that they pull it together magnificently. Not an easy film to watch, but riveting nonetheless. The print here is restored to the original golden tint that Huston wanted, but which the studio withdrew a few days after it went on release. A ‘normal’ coloured trailer is included (the gold colour is better) and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Great image quality and clear mono sound. An impressive DVD set, with only Mutiny on the Bounty available separately, now.
All the films in each of these box sets are presented anamorphically, in case you’ve been wondering.
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Last revised: 6 November, 2009
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