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Reviews Round-Up #1 (continued)
1950s TV's Greatest Westerns
(released on DVD by Falcon Picture Group)
Falcon Picture Group is one of numerous public domain specialists
that are currently active in releasing product on DVD. Falcon's
first group of offerings included four box sets focusing on TV shows
from the 1950s: TV's Greatest Shows,
TV's Greatest Comedies, TV's
Greatest Detectives, and TV's
Greatest Westerns. Each box set consists of three discs,
each in a separate case. Each disc contains four half-hour shows,
resulting in over five hours of material in each box set.
TV's Greatest Westerns is
typical of how each set is structured and the quality of the
transfers. There are a total of twelve episodes, each an example of
a different western television series that aired during the 1950s.
The series range from the generally juvenile television spinoffs of
B-westerns featuring the likes of Roy
Rogers and The Cisco Kid
to the somewhat more sophisticated stories in Bat
Masterson and Death Valley
Days to western stories set in modern times such as Fury
and Sky King. Here's what's
included in detail:
The Lone Ranger - "Legion
of Old Timers" episode aired October 6, 1949. Stars Clayton
Moore and Jay Silverheels, with DeForest Kelly as a young rancher.
Bat Masterson - "Stampede
at Tent City" episode aired November 5, 1958. Stars Gene Barry,
with William Conrad as the principal heavy.
The Cisco Kid - "Ghost
Story" episode aired October 15, 1951. Stars Duncan Renaldo and
Leo Carrillo. In colour as originally shot.
The Roy Rogers Show - "Ranch
War" episode aired October 23, 1955. Stars Roy Rogers and Dale
Evans, with Pat Brady. Modernized western setting.
Death Valley Days - "Little
Washington" episode aired October 1, 1953. Guest star Jim
Davis. Includes the introduction by The Old Ranger and the original
Borax commercials featuring Rosemary DeCamp.
Sky King - "Sky Robbers"
episode aired December 28, 1958. Stars Kirby Grant. Modernized
Tate - "The Mary Hardin
Story" episode aired June 29, 1960. Stars David McLean, with
guest star Julia Adams. Directed by Ida Lupino. This was the pilot
episode, but the series was short-lived.
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon
- "Scourge of the Wilderness" episode aired January 10,
1957. Stars Richard Simmons.
Judge Roy Bean - "The
Judge of Pecos Valley" episode aired September 1, 1955. Stars
Edgar Buchanan, with Jack Buetel. Originally filmed in colour, but
version on the disc is in black and white.
Fury - "Search for Joey"
episode aired February 18, 1956. Stars Peter Graves and the horse
Fury. Modernized western setting.
The Adventures of Jim Bowie - "The
Land Jumpers" episode aired November 16, 1956. Stars Scott
Forbes, with Claude Akins.
Annie Oakley - "Shadow at
Sonoma" episode aired September 24, 1956. Stars Gail Davis.
no doubt that there's a certain pleasure in seeing examples of
these old favourites once again. Some of them hold up reasonably
well (Death Valley Days,
Tate); others at least
evoke fond memories (The Lone Ranger,
Bat Masterson); but a few
are best left to posterity (The Cisco
Kid, Judge Roy Bean).
The latter two include the irritating performances of Leo
Carrillo as the Cisco Kid's sidekick Pancho and Edgar Buchanan
as a folksy Judge Bean respectively. Unfortunately, the Falcon
Picture Group's prominently displayed claim of "digitally
restored" does nothing to show these programs in their best
light. Digital they may be, but restored they're not. The best
looking episodes (Death Valley Days,
Tate) are VHS quality at
best; the others are watchable, but suffer from varying degrees
of fuzziness, excessive grain, and poor contrast. All are full
frame as originally broadcast. One episode is shown with some
footage out of order and some repeated (The
Cisco Kid). The mono sound is workable, but is
characterized by plenty of hiss and crackle on most episodes.
There are no supplements.
use that the set has is to identify possible series that one might
like to see more episodes of and vice versa. In this regard, Falcon
will be releasing sets focusing on single series alone (such as
Judge Roy Bean, Jim Bowie, and others) in the coming months. See my
latest announcements of new classic releases for the full list. The
best bet to my mind would be a set of Death
Valley Days episodes (over 500 made between 1952 and
1975), but unfortunately that's not planned at this time.
Diary of a Country Priest
a.k.a. Journal d'un curé
(released on DVD by Criterion on February 3rd, 2004)
By 1950, director Robert Bresson already was recognized as one of
the leading lights of French cinema with his work on several films
during the mid-1940s, including Les Dames
du Bois de Boulogne (1945). The five-year interval before
his next effort - Diary of a Country
Priest - was typical of Bresson.
his 50-year career as a director, he completed but 14 films,
roughly one every four years. Every one is an intensely personal
journey and a reflection of Bresson's style, one which includes
maintaining the essence of his source material, keeping his
themes simple and uncluttered by extraneous sub-plots,
concentrating on an isolated individual as the core of his
films, collapsing scenes by often omitting their middles, and
being interested in the consequences of startling events rather
than focusing on their occurrences. Diary
of a Country Priest is perhaps as true an example of
what Bresson was about as any other of his films.
Based on the 1934 George Bernanos novel of the same title, the
film presents the voyage of a young priest who is assigned the
country village of Ambricourt as his first parish. The young
priest never seems able to touch the ordinary villagers and his
main impact is confined to the village aristocracy where he runs
afoul of the Count and tries to reconcile the Countess to God.
Even his apparent success with her is misinterpreted and in the
end he is a figure of ridicule, questioning his own faith and
looked upon by all as an apparent drunkard due to the wine he
drinks to excess because it seems to be the only thing that will
ease his stomach ailments. There is a shattering air of
desolation and disillusionment to the priest's life that only
seems to be eased by his devotion to his daily writings. In the
end, even they are unable to provide sustenance.
is a bleak tale indeed - one from which Bresson never provides any
relief. Yet it is mesmerizing in its execution through the
beautifully modulated almost-non-acting of Claude Laydu as the
priest contrasted with the more traditional styles of virtually
every other player. Similarly, the reality of what Bresson shows us
(only parts of scenes, beginnings and endings of events, the sounds
of happenings) is a striking departure from our expectations of
standard narrative film-making. On the other hand, it is film-making
recognizable in its evocative cinematography and its simple yet
engaging musical score. The result is a richly rewarding experience
that leaves one emotionally drained at the end, yet intellectually
energized to experience the film's many nuances again and again.
Fortunately, doing so is a pleasure indeed due to Criterion's work
on its DVD presentation. I suspect few people if any have ever seen
this film look better. Its deep blacks and finely detailed gray
scale are a pleasure to behold, yielding a crisp black and white
image (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) that
more than compensates for the odd speckle and scratch that crop up
and the occasional instance of minor edge effects. The Dolby Digital
mono sound track is in good condition allowing the French dialogue
to be easily understandable. The English subtitles convey the
essence of the dialogue quite acceptably. Supplements include a very
enlightening audio commentary by well-known film historian Peter
Cowie, the film's original trailer, and a three-page version of an
essay on the film by Frédéric Bonnaud that originally
appeared in the magazine "Film Comment". Very highly
The Prisoner (1955)
(released on DVD by Columbia on March 2nd, 2004)
This British-made film released by Columbia, and adapted from a
play of the same title by the play's author Bridget Boland, is now
little known some fifty years after its original release. That's a
shame because it features two marvelous performances by Alec
Guinness and Jack Hawkins. The story concerns the arrest for treason
of a strong-willed cardinal (Guinness) who subsequently undergoes a
lengthy and rigorous interrogation by a state inquisitor (Hawkins).
The time is during the Cold War soon after World War II and the
place is an un-named Eastern European country.
focus of the film is the interrogation process and it is here
that the film shines as Hawkins' interrogator gradually and
unrelentingly erodes the cardinal's resolve. At first, the
efforts seem fruitless as the cardinal easily parries all his
interrogator's thrusts, even dismissing with several succinct
observations some crude attempts to manufacture evidence against
him. Nor does torture succeed as the cardinal has already proven
his resistance to such techniques when similar efforts were used
against him during the war by the Nazis. The weakness in the
cardinal's armour proves to be his lack of love for his mother
and his admission that he became a priest through pride rather
than religious conviction. How Hawkins' interrogator is able to
mine these weaknesses and ultimately break down the cardinal's
resolve provide the film's most memorable sequences.
The film was the initial directorial effort by Peter Glenville
and his success can be measured by the deeply claustrophobic
atmosphere that he is able to create and the powerful
performances that he draws from Guinness and Hawkins. The film's
feel of confinement is only briefly compromised by an irrelevant
love affair involving one of the prison staff. One presumes that
the intent was to try to open up the story's stagebound feel,
but that is unnecessary. We want to be bound up with Guinness
and Hawkins because that's what allows us to really experience
the effectiveness of interrogation at its most subtle,
especially when Guinness and Hawkins make it all seem so real.
DVD provides a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the black and white
film that looks quite decent. There's no real evidence of any
restoration efforts here, but reasonable source material has
resulted in an image that is quite sharp for the most part. Shadow
detail is not uniformly good as some dark sequences are a little
murky looking. There's the usual speckling and some debris, but no
edge effects so that all in all, the transfer doesn't detract from
one's immersion in the film's cat and mouse game. The Dolby Digital
mono track is quite adequate for this dialogue-driven film. There
are no relevant supplements. Trailers for three other Columbia
classic releases are included. Overall the disc presentation won't
make you forget any of the many other excellent classic film DVDs
available, but the content is so good that the disc is still
Peyton Place (1957)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 2nd, 2004)
The latest in Fox's Studio Classics series is another winner. Peyton
Place, based on Grace Metalious's best-selling novel of
the same title, was brought to the screen by prolific producer Jerry
Wald. Just as they did with Johnny
Belinda and The Glass
Menagerie, many questioned whether Wald could actually
film Peyton Place without
running so afoul of the censors that the book's controversial
content would be completely gutted. Once again, however, Wald was
successful as the initial stirrings of allowing films increased
latitude to reflect some of life's less uplifting realities forced
some relaxation in the strict requirements of the Hayes Office. The
result was a film that preserved many of the racy plot lines of the
book and generally pleased viewers with its overall faithfulness to
its source material. Nowadays, of course, it all seems incredibly
tame, but in 1957, the film was hot stuff.
I suspect, for many, Peyton Place
is a guilty pleasure. Pot boiler its source may be, but as is so
often the case, such material does draw you into a good story.
Peyton Place is a small New England town with a cloak of
respectability that hides virtually the complete range of sexual
taboos of the time - teenage lust, repression, children born out of
wedlock, incest, and abortion. The story focuses on high school
senior Alison MacKenzie and her mother Constance. As Alison
struggles to find herself and her mother tries to shield her from
the world's realities, Alison's friends have their own crosses to
bear including domineering fathers, possessive mothers, and in the
case of Alison's closest friend, Selena, sexual abuse. It is the
latter that leads to murder and a trial that finally reveals all the
town's dark secrets.
Place is somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Sirk's
glossy melodramas of the 1950s in tone and particularly in look.
Beyond that, there is the obvious link with Sirk's Imitation
of Life in the appearance of Lana Turner who plays
Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place.
Turner gives a restrained performance that helps to anchor the
film. It resulted in the only Academy Award nomination of her
career. (She lost to Joanne Woodward for The
Three Faces of Eve.) Other fine performances come
from Diane Varsi as Alison, Hope Lange as Selena, and Arthur
Kennedy as Selena's father. Further familiar faces in the cast
include Russ Tamblyn, Terry Moore, Lloyd Nolan, and Leon Ames.
Direction is by Mark Robson who had started at RKO in the 1940s
and was by 1957 building an impressive filmography with the
likes of Bright Victory,
The Bridges at Toko-Ri,
and The Harder They Fall
(his next film would be The Inn of
the Sixth Happiness). Robson manages to weave all the
story's strands together very effectively so that there is
continual interest and the film seems to zip along despite its
two-and-a-half-hour running time. Franz Waxman's score is a
positive influence overall, although it punctuates a few of the
dramatic highlights too loudly and obviously.
has utilized both sides of a single disc for its presentation of
Peyton Place. The film along
with an audio commentary is on one side, while the bulk of the
supplements are on the other. The Cinemascope film is presented in a
2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks lush and generally free from
significant speckling or age-related debris. Aside from a few
slightly soft-looking segments, the image is sharp and colour
fidelity is very good. There is some minor grain, but shadow detail
is good and edge effects are not an issue. The Dolby Digital 4.0
sound mix provides some excellent examples of the period's use of
directional stereo and there is even some nice surround presence
evident during passages of Waxman's score. Spanish and French mono
tracks are provided as are English and Spanish subtitles. A very
fine transfer by Fox!
The audio commentary comprises comments by actors Terry Moore and
Russ Tamblyn that have been edited together. Both actors concentrate
more on reminiscences about the various players on the screen than
on the technical aspects of the production. The result is somewhat
rambling and repetitive on occasion, but is entertaining to hear if
not quite as incisive as one might want. The AMC
Backstory program on Peyton
Place provides some of the essential production
background, but can't really do the film justice at only 27 minutes
in length. A couple of Movietone newsreels dealing with the film's
premiere and Photoplay Magazine awards as well as the film's teaser
ad and original trailer round out the disc. Recommended.
The Best of Mister Ed: Volume
(released on DVD by MGM on January 6th, 2004)
the course of five seasons from 1961 to 1966, there were 143
episodes of the popular television series Mister
Ed broadcast. MGM has now collected 21 of the best
from the first three seasons in a two-disc DVD set entitled The
Best of Mister Ed: Volume One. The series was a
sitcom that related the various adventures of architect Wilbur
Post and his horse Mister Ed. The twist was that Mister Ed
talked, but only to Wilbur - a situation that predictably
entangled Wilbur in some rather bizarre situations. Beyond his
ability to talk, Mister Ed was a rather precocious horse too and
never shrank from taking matters into his own hands, er, hooves.
Thus, one might find Ed dressing up as a doctor, or pulling down
a television antenna, or making rude comments on a party line,
or refusing to trot up a hill because he believed himself afraid
of heights, or, well you get the idea. If all this sounds pretty
ridiculous, the simple fact is that it was. That it succeeded so
well was due to a happy blend of good writing, Alan Young's
unaffected playing of Wilbur, and Ed's fabulous deep voice,
supplied for him by cowboy star Allan "Rocky" Lane.
The interaction between Wilbur and Ed was a pleasure to behold
and listen to, making virtually every episode easy to take. It
is not surprising then that the shows hold up very well some 40
years later. The program also attracted a number of guest stars,
with George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Clint Eastwood being
represented among the episodes in this DVD collection.
has packaged the 21 episodes in a digipak containing one
double-sided and one single-sided disc. The source material is in
very good shape and the resulting black and white images look very
crisp for the most part, with deep blacks, clean whites, and a
finely detailed gray scale. There are no edge effects. The mono
sound is more than adequate. Episodes can only be played
individually; there is no play-all option. The only supplement is a
12-page booklet that provides details on each episode including the
title, the original air date, a brief synopsis, a list of cast and
crew, and a still. Recommended.
Pressure Point (1962)
For Love of Ivy
The Wilby Conspiracy
The Sidney Poitier Collection
(all released on DVD by MGM on January 20th, 2004)
January added considerably to the number of Sidney Poitier films
available on DVD. In addition to Let's Do
It Again, A Piece of the
Action, and Uptown Saturday
Night - all made available by Warner Bros., MGM has
released three United Artists titles: Pressure
Point (1962), The Wilby
Conspiracy (1975), and For
Love of Ivy (1968). The latter is available separately
and also as part of The Sidney Poitier
Collection which includes it together with four
previously released films: In the Heat of
the Night, They Call Me Mister
Tibbs, The Organization,
and Lilies of the Field.
start with the least of these films - For
Love of Ivy. This was Poitier's follow-up film to the
very successful Guess Who's Coming to
Dinner and was based on a story by Poitier himself.
Poitier plays Jack Parks who operates various gambling games in the
back of a tractor trailer that keeps on the move during the night.
He is blackmailed by the son of a client into seducing the client's
housekeeper, Ivy, who has announced her intention to quit her job
and seek self-improvement in the city. Jack has no intention of
falling for Ivy, but love has a strange way of making up its own
There's some good stuff here, but it's all around the edges. Things
like fine performances by Carroll O'Connor and especially Beau
Bridges as the father and son respectively of the family for which
Ivy works, or the background premise of the moving gambling
establishment, which is a little out of the ordinary, or even a
pleasing background score by Quincy Jones. Unfortunately, underneath
all this icing, the core of the film is weak, both in concept and in
execution. The story's situation is an uncomfortable one for Jack
Parks and Sidney Poitier looks very uncomfortable playing him. The
relationship between him and Ivy (played by Abbey Lincoln) builds
methodically to a first kiss and fails to generate any real sense of
passion thereafter. The couple's main love scene looks more awkward
than anything else. The film also conveys a sense of
self-consciousness about the protagonists' skin colour with
unnecessary references to it, sometimes in derogatory terms. Perhaps
this seemed less obvious 35 years ago, but somehow I doubt it. The
resolution of Jack's illegal activities in terms of their impact on
any future for him and Ivy is handled a little too patly to make for
a satisfactory conclusion to the film, even allowing for what has
gone on before.
MGM provides a 1.85:1 transfer that has not been anamorphically
enhanced. Despite that, the results are quite good, reflecting the
use of superior source material. Colours are accurate and vibrant
with good shadow detail on the whole. There is some minor shimmer in
evidence in the patterns on some of Poitier's suits. Edge effects
are not a factor. The mono track clearly conveys both dialogue and
music, even the insipid original song "For Love of Ivy"
which was somehow accorded an Academy Award nomination. English,
French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There is no supplemental
material on the disc.
Pressure Point is a very fine
drama that for the most part is a two-man acting job by Sidney
Poitier and Bobby Darin. Darin plays a prison inmate who has been
jailed for sedition while Poitier plays a prison psychiatrist who
attempts to help him deal with his hate-filled past. As the
psychiatrist comes to recognize the underlying violence in the
inmate's nature, the inmate is cultivating a perfect prisoner image
that he hopes will ensure his early release.
During the 40-odd years since Pressure
Point's release, many films have had characters with
similarly stunted backgrounds to the inmate depicted here. Few, if
any, have delved quite as deeply into that background, however,
choosing instead to use it as a secondary theme that explains the
reasons for particularly heinous crimes that are those films' main
focus. Recent films such as Se7en
and Silence of the Lambs are
good examples. One might imagine that a film focusing strictly on
such a background and relying on two actors talking to each other
would be in tough in trying to retain audience interest. Such is not
the case with Pressure Point,
because of two very fine performances. The revelation here lies in
how good Bobby Darin is. Known primarily as a singer (who doesn't
automatically think of "Mack the Knife" when you hear
Darin's name?), he also carved out a pretty reasonable film career (Hell
Is for Heroes and Captain
Newman, M.D. contain two other fine Darin portrayals) of
over a dozen films before succumbing to heart problems at an early
age. Darin's prison inmate is a beautifully controlled portrait of
an outwardly innocent-looking but inwardly tormented young man.
Sidney Poitier's doctor is the less showy role, but he invests
plenty of emotion in it and effectively conveys the doctor's torment
over his inability to make others see the inmate's true character.
Peter Falk has a small early role in the film's framing story. The
film was produced by Stanley Kramer.
MGM's DVD release presents the black and white film in a 1.66:1
non-anamorphic transfer that is very attractive-looking. Black
levels are deep, whites are clean, and there is a very finely
detailed gray scale yielding excellent shadow resolution. Speckling
is minimal as are edge effects. A very good effort. The mono sound
track is in good shape with no age-related hiss in evidence.
English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements
include the theatrical trailer and a reasonably interesting audio
commentary by co-writer and director Hubert Cornfield.
Unfortunately, Cornfield's effort is rather compromised by the
ravages of age on his voice, which make it difficult to listen to
for an extended period. Still it's good to have his thoughts,
particularly considering the apparent effort he had to make to
provide them. Recommended.
The Wilby Conspiracy is
effectively a chase picture with a twist, in which a South African
black activist is freed from prison in Cape Town, but soon finds
himself on the run from the law along with a friend of his lawyer.
The pair head for Johannesburg hoping to get out of the country,
unaware that events are being orchestrated behind the scenes by a
member of the South African security service who has much bigger
game in his sights.
Partially reminiscent of The Defiant
Ones in that it forces a black man (Sidney Poitier) and a
white man (Michael Caine) to work together for their common good,
The Wilby Conspiracy is in the
end just another buddy action film. There's nothing particularly
novel about it except that the setting is a nice change from urban
America. The principal actors all do a good job with Poitier and
Caine maintaining a nice light sense of camaraderie throughout even
given the suspicions each of their characters has of the other. The
juiciest role, however, is that of the South African security agent
which is played in a droll fashion and with obvious relish by Nicol
Williamson (The Seven Percent Solution,
Excalibur). Rutger Hauer has a
small role as a pilot who reluctantly assists the would-be escapers.
The film's plot manages to conceal the details of its various twists
quite well, generating a modest amount of suspense along the way.
Nevertheless, I'd rate this simply as a pleasant time-passer for a
cold, wintry night - no lasting impression but no bitter aftertaste
MGM accords the original United Artists release one of its standard
1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfers. The image is quite pleasant -
reasonably colourful if a trifle pale at times; free of significant
speckling, dirt, or debris; and characterized by reasonably deep
blacks and decent shadow detail. The mono sound (also available in
Spanish) is not particularly distinguished in any way, but the film
doesn't demand more. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are
provided. The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.
The Sidney Poitier Collection
is a nice idea by MGM, but could have been better in its execution.
Only one of the titles in it (For Love of
Ivy) is new to DVD, while the other four were previously
released and include the three films in which Poitier plays
detective Virgil Tibbs as well as Lilies
of the Field. A better representation of the variety in
Poitier's career (at least, for the films under MGM's control) would
have seen the second and third Tibbs pictures (They
Call Me Mister Tibbs, The
Organization) dropped and replaced by this month's other
two new DVD releases, Pressure Point
and The Wilby Conspiracy. This
would have provided more incentive to purchase the box set, as most
Poitier fans will already have acquired the four previously released
films in it. As for those four films, both In
the Heat of the Night and Lilies
of the Field are well worth having although the former is
much the better film of the two. Its disc provides a fine 1.85:1
anamorphic transfer accompanied by a good audio commentary with Rod
Steiger, Lee Grant, director Norman Jewison, and cinematographer
Haskell Wexler. Lilies of the Field
has an almost equally good-looking 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer.
Both films have theatrical trailers. They
Call Me Mister Tibbs and The
Organization are both workmanlike police thrillers worth
a screening, but without much repeat viewing potential. Tibbs
has a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks a little dark at
times. The Organization has an
adequate 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer. Both discs include
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