Wide Screen Movies Magazine

edited by John Hayes

Issue 11 Preview

Extracts from the print version of the magazine.

Information on purchasing individual copies and subscriptions to the magazine may be obtained by emailing editor John Hayes

An appreciation of widescreen 35mm and 70mm films, past and present, in magazine format.

To obtain the fully-illustrated print edition of the magazine, contact John at the email address above.

DVD Reviews

20th Century-Fox is rapidly becoming one of WSMM’s favourite studios, due to their lack of shyness about dipping into their back catalogue of films from the 1950s, which they release with usually pristine (and anamorphic) transfers and often with commentaries, trailers and even documentaries.  Even some of the less popular or less well-known productions are given as respectable a presentation on DVD as their more popular hits.  For this they deserve much praise and support, so I’ve decided that, for this issue, our DVD review section will concentrate solely on releases from 20th Century-Fox.  I’ve also included purchasing info for you, just as a general guide, so please don’t think I’m plugging a particular seller – shop around!

And not that your editor is showing off or anything, but our DVDs are now viewed on my new 50 inch Sagem Axium DLP television, of which more at the end of the DVD review section.

House of Bamboo    (region 2)

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.

Slightly less impressive is our second selection, this time from the Fox Studio Classics Collection:

The Barbarian and the Geisha   (region 1)

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. 

The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) 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.”)

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.

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:

Island in the Sun   region 1

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 Fluery family is a hotbed of intrigue:  As Maxwell Fluery (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, Fluery’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.

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 create:

The Alligator People     region 1

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.

And now, a word about your editor’s new TV… 

A couple of years ago I decided it was time to upgrade my early model Philips 28” Widescreen TV to something bigger and better – maybe a great big Plasma screen, 40 or even 50 inches at least was something I had in mind.  The only problem was cost, and I couldn’t see myself robbing a bank or selling a kidney, so I put the problem on hold until funds were available – which was about three months ago.  In the meantime, I noticed the prices beginning to come down – though still not far enough for my pocket – until I read an article about DLP television, which featured the new Axium models from the French company Sagem.

Now, I was slightly familiar with DLP – Digital Light Processing – having picked up a second hand DLP projector for use at our monthly meeting of the Society of Fantastic Films, for which I provide and run the projection and sound equipment.  Much as we all love film, we found it was becoming more and more difficult – not to mention expensive - to acquire 16mm prints, especially prints in a decent condition, to show at the meetings.  I also bought an old music centre with Cinema Sound facility and a set of surround speakers.  This combined set up lets me project a CinemaScope picture up to 10 feet wide, with stereo surround as well – and no more faded and damaged prints with popping and crackling sound.

Digital Light Processing had been pioneered by US company Texas Instruments and is now considered to be the natural successor to conventional projection in cinemas; in fact DLP projection systems are now being installed in cinemas all around the world, at an increasing rate.

Sagem have adapted the DLP system into an attractive rear projection TV unit of surprising compactness and style.  This is definitely NOT a bulky, floor-standing colossus – with a dim picture – like the familiar rear-projection CRT sets that have been around for some years.  The image is bright and clear and the Axium TVs are no heavier than conventional sets.  They are also about half the price of a plasma screen of comparable size – which for me was the deciding factor.

In the ensuing two years, the price of the DLP TVs have fallen from the £2,750, 45” screen I first saw down to £995 for the 50” that I now own.  Granted, it’s still an expensive TV, but people pay a lot more than that for a car that they might use for only an hour or two a week, whereas my TV gets a thorough workout every day (note the cunning logic there to justify blowing a grand on a television set)

So, how does it perform?  In a word: brilliantly.  Now, I’m not qualified to give you all the technical jargon about picture and sound quality, but for me it looks and sounds – it’s got a built in sub-woofer - just great.  And for those people who like to know about all the connections around the back of the set, well, there’s everything you could possibly want:  three Scart sockets, two HDMI sockets for High Definition input, RGB/composite sockets, Digital Audio inputs – even compact flash card reader sockets for your digital camera, and more.

And, most importantly, my dear wife, who is the final arbiter in all such things, thinks the animal programmes on the Discovery channel look amazing now, when she watches them, ALL THE TIME!

If you’re looking to upgrade to a bigger screen, with High Definition capability (and no screen-burn problems as with the plasma TVs) and cost is an important factor, you might consider looking at one of these Axium DLP TVS.  Check out an expert review at www.dvdreviewer.com  

Now I’m just waiting for the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD conflict to be resolved.  I’m saving up already.


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John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 7 October, 2007

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