Classic Reviews (Continued)
I've received several releases from Restored Serials Super Restoration Corporation. They include The Green Hornet Strikes Again on both DVD-R and BD-R and The Green Archer on BD-R.
I previously reviewed VCI's version of The Green Hornet Strikes Again here and recommended it with the observation that it offered "rather good detail and overall contrast, and a quite clear if not strikingly crisp image". Restored Serials' version provides a slightly better-framed and brighter image, but the brightness comes with a price in the form of some blooming whites and less shadow detail than the VCI version. Despite the better framing, I found Restored Serials' image quality sufficiently compromised that I would have to rate the VCI version higher overall. The BD-R version of the serial was created by performing line doubling on the DVD source material and then burning to a BD-R disc. This does improve the sharpness of the image somewhat, but the overcooked whites and loss of shadow detail remain. As for The Green Archer, I previously reviewed Restored Serials' DVD of it here, giving the release a recommendation with the comment that the image was bright and sharp, and dirt and debris substantially minimizedů but characterized by a degree of black crush with shadow detail less than one would prefer on some occasions. The new BD-R version, again created via line doubling, enhances the sharpness slightly, but doesn't improve on the black crush issue. Both BD-R releases contain the same supplementary material as their DVD-R counterparts except they are delivered on CD-ROM instead of DVD-ROM. Restored Serials is asking $2 more for its BD-R versions over the DVD-R and that level of extra cost seems about right for the modest improvement in image.
In 1942, Warner Bros. filmed American Ambassador to the USSR Joseph Davies' book Mission to Moscow.
The film accurately conveyed Davies rather sympathetic view of the USSR and was made at a time when the Axis Powers were firmly in control of the Second World War and Allied fortunes were very much in doubt. The positive view of the USSR was intended to mitigate concerns about Russia's recent inclusion in the Allied effort and was successful in that regard though not with unanimous approval. Its lauding of that country's industrial progress was given a pass, but its tacit approval of the Soviet form of government was questioned and the recounting of the anti-Soviet purge was viewed as being particularly egregious in its whitewash nature. The film would be one of several that would come back to haunt the studio at the time of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings half-a-dozen years later. Aside from its stance, the film is characterized by Warner's potent style of directness and economy with some effective montage work (by Don Siegel and James Leicester). Sets are detailed but not lavish, and events are conveyed with authority and clarity. That fine actor, Walter Huston, portrays Davies with a pleasing blend of forthrightness, humanity, and even modest wit. Ann Harding is also notable in the thankless role as his wife. The Soviet political leaders are well conveyed by a raft of Hollywood character actors including Oscar Homolka, Gene Lockhart, Victor Francen, and Vladimir Sokoloff. Direction is by Michael Curtiz who injects his characteristic use of shadows and keeps things moving along so that the film's two-hour running time never seems like it. The DVD-R release is part of the Warner Archive and delivers a crisp full frame (as released theatrically) image with very fine shadow detail and a well-defined gray scale. There are a few speckles and most of the archival footage included looks its age, but overall, the results are most pleasing. The mono sound is clear. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended if only as a showing of how wrong an official view can be.
One of my favourite actors, Claude Rains, stars in the 1937 drama They Won't Forget, a stunningly chilling film that many people seem unaware of.
Rains plays a Southern district attorney (interestingly named Andy Griffin) who utilizes his prosecution of a mild-mannered Northern teacher for the murder of a young woman as a means to further his political ambitions. The Warner Bros. film was based on the Leo Frank trial of 1915, and is a rousing indictment of manipulation of the justice system as well as the lasting enmity in the South over the outcome of the Civil War. The production has the typical Warner urgency of the studio's 1930s socially conscious dramas and adds in mob violence, courtroom suspense, and an ending that pulls no punches. Rains is a little over the top at times, but he galvanizes the film with energy. Edward Norris and Gloria Dickson are particularly impressive as the accused murderer and his wife respectively - Dickson particularly scoring strongly in her final reproach of Rains and his newspaper colleague Allyn Joslyn. Lana Turner, sporting an eye-catching top that led her to be dubbed "The Sweater Girl", appears as the murder victim and would accompany director Mervyn LeRoy to MGM the following year where she would sign a long-term contract. The Warner Archive DVD-R release looks quite nice despite quite a few speckles and scratches. Image sharpness is impressive, only yielding to softness in a few sequences. Shadow detail is notably good. The mono sound is in good shape. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.
A Walk in the Sun (1945) is another finely-crafted war film from director Lewis Milestone who was also responsible for the likes of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Edge of Darkness (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), and Pork Chop Hill (1959).
In A Walk in the Sun, he follows a small troop of infantrymen as they work their way across the Italian countryside to take a German stronghold in a farmhouse. Using an almost documentary-like approach and focusing on the thoughts and actions of the soldiers as individuals via a literate script by Robert Rossen based on Harry Brown's book, Milestone really captures the personal side of war. He has an excellent ensemble cast that seems well suited to the approach Milestone has chosen. That underrated actor, Dana Andrews, is very good indeed as an infantry sergeant thrust into command when his superiors are lost upon landing in Italy. The rest of the troop comprises the likes of John Ireland, Norman Lloyd, Lloyd Bridges, George Tyne, and Sterling Holloway. The almost two-hour running time seems at first excessive, but the leisurely pace proves to be very much in tune with the film's thoughtful approach to its subject matter. This is no simple-minded WWII actioner, but a introspective appreciation of the everyday nature of war and its impact on individual soldiers. It's one of the best war films to have been made during the war. The film has been available before on DVD, laserdisc, and VHS in ragged and sometimes truncated public domain versions, but we now have a restored and un-cut DVD version from VCI courtesy of its arrangement with Kit Parker Films. The black & white full frame image is a little inconsistent - usually quite sharp but characterized by stretches that are somewhat soft. Moderate grain is evident, particularly in the darker sequences. Blacks could be deeper, but overall, the image is definitely the best I have seen this film look. The mono sound is reasonably good, though there are some fluctuations in volume and background hiss is evident. The supplements are very good. They include an hour-long interview in which actor Norman Lloyd discusses the film in detail and a featurette (slightly over a half hour in length) in which Joel Blumberg discusses the actors and their roles. The film's trailer and one for Surrender - Hell! are also included. Recommended.
There may be lots of water around in Island of Desire, a South Sea island romance, but the film's a pretty dry affair, rather much parched for any spark of originality.
In what was her second film as a free-lancer, Linda Darnell stars as a Canadian nurse stranded on a Pacific island with a young Marine (Tab Hunter) after their ship is sunk during the Second World War. An initially strained relationship blossoms into a degree of romance before an RAF officer (Donald Gray) crashes on the island, creating a love triangle. The film was partially financed in Britain (where it was known as Saturday Island) and shot with a mixed British-American crew mainly in Jamaica. Aside from the exotic location work and the promise of Technicolor, the film seems a curious choice for Darnell given its hackneyed script. She certainly also gets little support from Tab Hunter who looks uncomfortable and delivers a mediocre performance of a rather irritating character in what was his first screen role. VCI has released the film on DVD in a full frame transfer that preserves the original aspect ratio. The film's Technicolor looks quite good at the film's beginning and end (sequences that were shot in England), but the Jamaica footage is less satisfactory as the colour frequently looks washed out and image sharpness overall is not that crisp. The mono sound is satisfactory. The only supplements are three trailers, including one for Island of Desire.
In 1955, Burt Lancaster finally realized his desire to make a good circus picture with the United Artists release of Lancaster's own production company's Trapeze.
Rather than an epic-type spectacle like Demille's The Greatest Show on Earth, Trapeze focused most of its attention behind the scenes with its story of a former trapeze artist (Lancaster) who had suffered a serious injury when attempting a triple somersault in mid-air. Reluctantly he becomes a mentor and catcher for a brash young flyer (Curtis) who aspires to the triple himself. The success of their act and the possibility of accomplishing the triple are jeopardized when the young flyer falls in love with a young woman (Gina Lollobrigida) who seeks to join their act solely to further her own desire for the spotlight. The story is set in Paris and location filming was carried out there utilizing the venerated Cirque d'Hiver which Lancaster had rented. The film is very successful in capturing the danger and athleticism of the aerial stunts, with the athletic Lancaster doing some of the very simple catches himself. He was otherwise doubled by Ringling Brothers' Eddie Ward, considered one of the best catchers in the business. Lancaster and Curtis develop a fine rapport on screen and that apparently reflected their off-screen relationship. The two would work together again in Sweet Smell of Success soon thereafter. The love triangle involving the Lollobrigida character is fairly formulaic, but so well acted by the principals that it has a reasonable air of reality and doesn't detract from the spectacular aerial work that otherwise characterizes the film. The production exudes an air of professionalism and dramatic tension that reflects both Lancaster's attention to detail as producer and a strong director at work - in this case the renowned Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man). The film is available as a MOD DVD-R from MGM via its arrangement with Create Space via Amazon.com. The CinemaScope image is correctly framed at 2.35:1 and delivered with an anamorphic transfer. Image sharpness is somewhat variable with close-ups faring best, but colour fidelity is quite decent. There's a fair amount of grain evident. The mono sound is clear. There are no supplements. Recommended.
Classic Blu-ray Disc Reviews
The long saga of bringing The African Queen to DVD in Region 1 has finally ended with Paramount's recent release of the title. I received a copy of the Blu-ray version for review and the wait has certainly been worth it.
The film of course is John Huston's 1951 production that was filmed in Africa and in the U.K. under the aegis of the Woolf Bros.' independent Romulus Films. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn star in C. S Forester's tale of grizzled river rat Charley Allnut and missionary Rose Sayer thrown together in an attempt to sink a German gunboat in early WW1 East Africa. The acting from the two principals is superb (Bogart won his Oscar for his work here) as they give us two characters that we really care about, while the impressive location shooting gives the film an realistic and exotic look that heightens the unexpected relationship that develops between the pair. This is a film that begs to be seen on a big screen so that the Technicolor camera work can really shine, and Paramount's Blu-ray release affords that opportunity in all its glory. The image is essentially pristine looking and the sharpness and colour fidelity are both impressive. Gone entirely is the washed-out colour that characterized all previous home video incarnations. The Blu-ray image is bright and vibrant (note especially the lush greens of the jungle foliage) and skin tones look spot on for people exposed to the African environment for a lengthy time. Paramount provides cleaned up two-track mono sound in Dolby Digital that is strong and clear. Given the amount of effort Paramount put into the project, presumably the studio considered a lossless track, but determined that no advantage was gained by using it in this instance. The only supplement is a good one - a 59-minute documentary that does a fine job of telling the production story using vintage photographs combined with archival and new interviews with some of the original cast and crew and many biographers and film historians. Very highly recommended. The film is also available on DVD and in a deluxe boxed set (either DVD or Blu-ray) that was publicized as including a Lux Radio Theater version of the story, a restoration featurette, a copy of Katharine Hepburn's book on her experiences in Africa making the film ("The Making of The African Queen: or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind"), a Senitype film frame reproduction collectible, and several postcards of film stills and posters.
In 1955, Alec Guinness made his second-last appearance at Ealing Studios in order to make The Ladykillers. (His last Ealing film would be 1957's Barnacle Bill.)
In The Ladykillers, he plays Professor Marcus who rents a room in the house of elderly Mrs. Wilberforce and gets her permission to allow four of his friends to come by occasionally for music practice. The reality, however, is that Marcus is a criminal mastermind and his music-playing friends are his gang. The five carry out a daring robbery and then involve Mrs. Wilberforce in moving the stolen goods into her house, unknown to her. When Marcus and his gang divide the money and try to leave, Mrs. Wilberforce realizes what they have done when one of the gang members accidentally drops his musical instrument case, revealing part of the stolen money. The gang then decides it must kill the old woman if they are all to get away safely, but who's going to do it and how? The Ladykillers was another dark comedic effort for Guinness and a return to the Ealing glory days with a film that was the company's last really fine comedy. Guinness's criminal gang leader sports some fake teeth and stringy hair that make him seem somewhat ridiculous, but with the ferret-like look, he manages to pull off the part quite successfully. Although he is first billed, the film is an ensemble effort from Guinness and the other gang members (played by Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers in an early role), and especially Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce. Johnson actually has the largest part and she steals the film handily, later winning the 1955 British Film Academy Best Actress award for her efforts. Take note of the railway tracks that appear prominently in the film's opening shot. They play a rather important role in the last half of the film. The Ladykillers is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate as part of the company's Studio Canal Collection. The film is presented in a full frame format that conveys the full image that was exposed when shooting was being done. That image was, however, protected for possible projection at 1.66:1 given the 1955 release, early in the widescreen era. Anchor Bay's previous DVD release of the title was delivered as 1.66:1. The Lionsgate Blu-ray thus delivers more information at the top and bottom, but the framing does not look unbalanced. The transfer itself reflects considerable restoration and the Technicolor appears quite consistent with the film's original look. It is not as vibrant looking as some of the classic Hollywood films we're used to, but then it should not. That said, there is evidence of colour misalignment that presumably reflects unequal shrinkage of the three-strip elements. That can only be corrected via expensive digital adjustment such as Warners' Ultra Resolution process allows. As it stands, the film looks much better than it ever has on home video. The DTS-HD Master audio is a two-channel mono offering that's very clear and free of any hiss, crackle, or distortion. The supplement package is impressive and is highlighted by an exhaustively informative audio commentary by film historian Philip Kemp and a 50-minute documentary (Forever Ealing) on the history of Ealing Studios hosted by Daniel Day Lewis. Also included are three interview featurettes, a restoration featurette, a trailer, and an introduction by Terry Gilliam. Highly recommended.
For an Alan Ladd fan such as myself, it's great to have another Ladd film available on home video - in this case, The Iron Mistress.
The 1952 film was Ladd's first at Warner Bros. under a lucrative contract that he signed with them in 1951 after not being able to come to terms with Paramount. Ladd was at the time one of the world's most bankable stars and Warners delivered top-notch production values on this first film - a biographical epic about Jim Bowie shot in Technicolor. Handsome looks alone aren't sufficient, however; some substance is advisable and that's where The Iron Mistress disappoints. Instead of a tale detailing Bowie's rousing if somewhat legally suspect exploits across the south from New Orleans to Texas culminating in his death at the Alamo, we get a romanticized picture that introduces Bowie as a rather innocent backwoods boy in the big city where he falls hopelessly in love with beautiful, self-centred schemer Judalon de Bornay (Virginia Mayo - an expert at such roles). Though Bowie soon proves himself more than match for the urban "gentlemen" who look down on him, his actions continue to be driven by his desire for Judalon until the death of two men finally open his eyes. Most of the story takes place in Louisiana with only a brief portion occurring in Texas due to a romantic subplot. The exploits at the Alamo are not even hinted at. Given what's covered, the 109-minute running time is somewhat bloated with long segments of exposition only occasionally punctuated with action. It must be said, however, that when it arrives, the action is well staged by director Gordon Douglas. Notable are a knife and sword fight in a darkened room, a pistol duel between two men that escalates into a larger gunfight, and a vicious knife fight between two men tethered together. Despite the film's unevenness, the mere presence of Alan Ladd gives it luster and an appeal that it would otherwise not have. Despite his stature, Ladd always possessed an inner intensity that one could see seething just beneath the surface and he dominates every scene he's in. The film is available on DVD-R in the Warner Archive. There appears to have been no particular clean-up of the full-frame image undertaken. It does retain its Technicolor glow and reasonable colour fidelity, but there are numerous speckles and scratches with small blotches intermittently appearing. The mono sound is in good shape and the only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended as a rental.