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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #5 - May 2004 (continued)


Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1964)
(released on DVD by Columbia on March 16th, 2004)

Baby, does my head hurt from having to sit through this tripe, at least the parts with Steve McQueen in them. McQueen, an actor with limited range whose work in a number of tough-guy roles both urban and western I still admire, should not be going around trying to impersonate a singer in southern roadhouses. He's not believable in such roles (never mind that the dubbing during McQueen's singing efforts is lamentable) and that exposes his limited range even more than usual. The story here is that of Henry Thomas (McQueen) who is paroled from the penitentiary after serving time for stabbing a man during a drunken brawl. Henry hopes to develop a career as a singer/songwriter while trying to deal with his wife Georgette and their small daughter who have come to join him. There's a bunch of nonsense about Henry's stepmother who seems to have placed a curse on him. Along for the ride is a deputy sheriff who tries to keep Henry in line. It all ends very predictably.

Baby, the Rain Must Fall

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There is one bright spot - Lee Remick. She plays Georgette and as in virtually every film she was in, she adds beauty, class, and realism to the proceedings. Given the trusting face that Remick gives Georgette, it's heart-rending to see what she and her daughter have to put up with in Henry, especially when it appears obvious that it's all going to end badly no matter what she does. The production design and photography are both good, effectively paralleling Henry's dead-end life with the dusty, stark setting of a dead-end town. You just know that the trees that Henry plants around the house don't have a hope in hell of surviving to maturity.

Columbia's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer makes the film look about as good as possible. The source material has some scratches and modest grain comes through, but the overall effect is one of clarity and crispness. There are a couple of sequences where the image seems a little soft, but it's not a major concern. There are no edge effects. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is quite adequate, providing a decent range to the music and clear dialogue. Sub-titling in English and French is provided. Trailers for three unrelated Columbia films are included.


My Side of the Mountain (1969)
(released on DVD by Paramount on April 27th, 2004)

Jean Craighead George has written over 100 books during a writing career that dates back to the middle of the 20th century. In 1960, her story, My Side of the Mountain, about a young boy, Sam Gribley, who leaves his family in New York City to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains was published and immediately won widespread acclaim. It was recognized as a Newbery Honor Book, an ALA Notable Book, and a Hans Christian Andersen Award Honor Book. The author later wrote two sequels - On the Far Side of the Mountain in 1990 and Frightful's Mountain in 2000. In 1969, My Side of the Mountain inspired a film version that transposed the story to Quebec with the bulk of it being set in the Knowlton area.

My Side of the Mountain

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Having not read the book, I can't attest to how closely the film follows Sam's adventures aside from the change in setting of the story. Undoubtedly, as the book is a much-beloved tale for many young readers, there will be sharp differences of opinion as to how well one's mental images of it are conveyed in the film by Teddy Eckles as Sam, the campsite he sets up, and the various animals that he befriends. Strictly as a stand-alone film, it does provide reasonable family entertainment with a good blend of youthful resourcefulness, some dramatic tension, and fine Panavision images of the natural world. Teddy Eckles is okay as Sam although there is a bit of the know-it-all to his portrayal that tends to grate after a while. Pleasing support is provided by Theodore Bikel as the wandering troubador, Bando. For me, however, Frightful the falcon and Gus the raccoon do the best acting of all.

Paramount does its usual fine job with its DVD presentation. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very crisp and clear with vibrant, natural colour and deep blacks. There's some minor grain in evidence, but nothing distracting. The mono sound is clear and free of age-related hiss or distortion. English subtitles are also provided. There are no supplements.


A Man Called Sledge (1970)
(released on DVD by Columbia on March 30th, 2004)

James Garner made one appearance in a spaghetti western and this is it. He plays Luther Sledge, leader of an outlaw gang, who is seeking a way to steal $300,000 in gold that is shipped regularly from the mine where it's extracted. Heavily guarded though the gold is, the weak spot in the shipment process may be the prison fortress where it's held temporarily en route. Sledge contrives to have himself locked up in the prison as part of his plan to make off with the gold.

A Man Called Sledge

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The story was written by actor Vic Morrow who also started off as the film's director. He was soon replaced by Giorgio Gentili after a disagreement with producer Dino De Laurentiis, although contractually, he retained the main on-screen directing credit. The film has a polished look to it and benefits from the wide Techniscope image, but the resolution of the plot seems rushed and for me, somewhat unsatisfactory compared to the methodical build-up. The ending obviously owes much to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and in comparison that diminishes the result in my eyes. Although the film is Italian made, it's somewhat different in feel to the standard spaghetti western. There's less reliance on hot, dusty settings than normal and less time is devoted to Leone-like, lengthy pauses while characters contemplate their future actions. The action is plentiful, but has a less-graphic nature to it than most films of this genre. James Garner, who always looks good in western get-up, offers a gritty, against-the-grain performance for him and he is clearly the class of the picture. Of course, he can't hide his standard easy-going approach to things completely, but he certainly tries. Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins provide good, reliable support as members of Sledge's gang while John Marley is effective as the old man whose past holds the key to the gold's release. Not a classic of the western genre by any means, but still an entertaining outing.

Columbia offers a 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer of the film that for the most part looks pretty attractive. Colours are bright and realistic and picture detail is very good although there is noticeable grain at times. The image has some speckling, but is otherwise quite clean. There are some minor edge effects. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound is adequate for the film's dialogue and effects. The music ( a couple of songs) comes off less well, but since the songs are pretty forgettable, you don't miss much. English and Japanese subtitles are provided. There are no supplements although there are three forced previews (none of which have any particular relevance to the title at hand except that one is for a western) at the start of the disc that one can skip over.


The Molly Maguires (1970)
(released on DVD by Paramount on April 27th, 2004)

By 1970, Sean Connery had only one more outing as James Bond ahead of him and had already started to widen his acting horizons with parts in the likes of The Hill (1965) and Shalako (1968). The Molly Maguires was certainly an improvement over the latter even though it was more Richard Harris's movie than Connery's. It tells the story of a secret society of militant Irish-American coal miners who struggle, with the use of sabotage, intimidation, and murder, against the miners' exploitation by Pennsylvania mine owners. A detective is assigned to work undercover in the mines in order to win the trust of the miners and thence the Maguires themselves, with the intent of exposing the group and breaking up its influence.

The Molly Maguires

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While the background to The Molly Maguires is broad in scope, the focus of the story (unlike the later and somewhat related Matewan) is much more confined than expected, a fact that plays on the claustrophobic nature of the film's setting - the scenes in the mine and the apparent self-contained nature of the miners' town. The Maguires themselves comprise a very small and close-linked group of men, whose exclusivity is emphasized by the fact that they are called upon to deal with the foreman of another mine outside of the community within which they work daily. Appropriately enough, we learn little about these men's backgrounds. As the leader of the group, Sean Connery emphasizes that exclusivity through his intense and prolonged suspicion of Richard Harris's newcomer to the miners' midst. Connery's taciturn yet forceful portrayal is entirely believable and the mere presence of his imposing figure provides the Maguires with instant credibility. It is Richard Harris, however, who delivers the film's most compelling performance and indeed its heart and soul. His character clearly is no one-dimensional owners-are-right, miners-are-wrong undercover agent. As he gradually wins the Maguires' confidence, it is apparent that he also develops some sympathy for their point of view. In a different set of circumstances, he could have been one of them. To its credit, the film's ambivalence in this regard is not compromised by the ending.

Although the source material used by Paramount seems somewhat the worse for wear as evidenced by a considerable amount of dirt and debris in the transfer (particularly in the earlier parts of the film), the 2.35:1 anamorphic image is quite nice-looking with vibrant colour and fine shadow detail. This is particularly welcome given the excellence of the film's photography by veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Martin Ritt's shot selection which really convey the flavour of the dank and dirty mines, the limited horizon of the company town, and the wasted countryside beyond. A restored mono track and a newly constructed 5.1 surround track (which offers little significant improvement) are provided. Either conveys the story quite adequately, although restoration efforts have not removed all hiss and crackle. English subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.


Posse (1975)
(released on DVD by Paramount on May 11th, 2004)

By 1975, nearly any western was welcome to fans, given the decline of the genre's popularity. Doubly welcome was a western that offered quite a twist to the standard posse-after-an-outlaw plot. Of course, being a film of the mid-70s, its stance was entirely in tune with contemporary society's distain for politicians and the political process. Thirty years later, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The film was a production of Kirk Douglas's own company, Bryna, and starred him as marshal Howard Nightingale who has hopes of becoming the state's next U.S. senator. Nightingale has trained a small, loyal posse of six men with whose help he is trying to capture wanted train robber Jack Strawhorn in order to fulfill a pre-election promise he has made. Nightingale has initial success, but Strawhorn manages to turn the tables and brings the story full-circle with the issue of loyalty at the heart of the plot's resolution.

Posse

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Posse is one of only two films that Kirk Douglas both directed and starred in (the other was 1973's Scalawag) and he proved himself quite adept at the dual role. It helped too that Douglas was comfortable with the western, having played in many such films during his career. His rugged features always made him a credible westerner. Here, he also had a good adversary in Bruce Dern as Strawhorn. Dern was always effective as a bad guy, particularly of the weasel-like kind, but in Posse, his bad guy was more authoritative and in the end almost more likable than that of Douglas's good guy. There aren't too many Bruce Dern roles that you can say that about and it's a refreshing switch. The supporting cast reflects little of the rich western character heritage of the Hollywood western, but at least familiar faces Bo Hopkins and David Canary are around for the ride. Oh, and it's always nice to see a train in a western. Douglas gives us some nice visuals involving it.

Paramount presents Posse in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that offers a pretty decent presentation of the Panavision and Technicolor image. Colours appear accurate although not very vibrant. Picture detail is quite good and source material deficiencies are restricted to some modest speckling and debris. Paramount offers up a restored version of the original mono track which sounds fine, but they have also included an new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix which works quite well. Its main impact is on Maurice Jarre's music score which exhibits some good directionality and modest use of the surrounds as a result. English subtitles are provided, but there are no supplements. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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