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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

More Reviews


I Love Lucy: Season One, Volumes 7 & 8 (1952)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 1, 2003)

I Love Lucy: Season One, Volume 7

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I Love Lucy: Season One, Volume 8

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If you're a Lucy fan and have been collecting the discs covering the show's first season (1951-52), you pretty well know what to expect from these recent offerings. (The ninth and final one for the first season will be released on September 23rd along with a box set containing all nine discs together.) In terms of program content, Volume 8 is the better of the two under consideration here. It contains two of the best episodes ever - The Freezer, in which Lucy seizes on a fine way to save money on beef, and Lucy Does a TV Commercial where she gets progressively drunker sampling vitameatavegamin as she tries to perfect her commercial delivery. The other two episodes are Cuban Pals and The Publicity Agent, with the latter particularly suffering from a limp conclusion. Volume 7's best episode is Pioneer Women with the well-known 10-foot-long loaf of bread. The Gossip has a good premise involving a bet that Lucy and Ethel can't stop gossiping, but somehow the results just aren't as funny as one expects. The Marriage License and The Kleptomaniac are merely average episodes in my estimation. Still, average I Love Lucy is much better than most other sitcoms, so you won't be disappointed in either of the discs.

Both discs originate with CBS DVD and come to us courtesy of Paramount. They maintain the high standards that have been set by the earlier entries. The image transfers are crisp and clear for the most part with scratches and speckles virtually absent. The mono sound is free of any age-related hiss or distortion. Each disc has a nice selection of extras that include flubs, lost and/or restored footage, excerpts from the My Favourite Husband radio shows upon which the I Love Lucy TV series was based, guest cast information, production notes, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. Both discs are an easy recommend, although if you have not been collecting them individually to date, there are savings to be had by purchasing all together in the upcoming Season One box set.



In Cold Blood (1967)
(released on DVD by Columbia on September 23, 2003)

Despite the passage of over 35 years and the numerous acts of brutality that have been depicted on the screen during that time, In Cold Blood is a film that retains all the power and intensity that characterized it upon its original release. Based on Truman Capote's book of the same title, the film recounts the true story of the brutal murder of a Kansas family by two ex-convict drifters (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock) and their eventual capture.

The film's strength reflects that of the book - its ability to convey what is going on in the murderers' minds and to make us really understand the grim reality of the phrase "in cold blood". Robert Blake, as Perry, does his best work on the screen with a thoroughly believable portrait of a man tortured by thoughts and images of a past that intrudes upon his present-day actions, often with sudden and violent results. Perry, as much a victim of himself as being a cold-blooded murderer, is the more sympathetic of the two killers, if it's possible to talk of sympathy in a story such as this. Dick, played by Scott Wilson with a combination of insolence and barely-controlled fury, seems to have no redeeming characteristics at all. The plan is his; he provides the shotgun; he exhibits no remorse; he has the perpetually insolent look that suggests it's all a game to him; and he is quick to throw all blame on Perry when it becomes clear the game is over. The difference between the two is exemplified by the relatively high amount of introspection that Perry exhibits in the film compared to Dick.

In Cold Blood

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Under the direction of Richard Brooks, the film has been carefully crafted to recreate time and place. Shooting was carried out at many of the actual locations where events took place. The black and white Panavision image conveys the open spaces of the mid-west and south-west states yet the predominantly gray palette continuously reminds us of the film's downbeat mood. Accompanied by an evocative score by Quincy Jones, the film is brilliantly edited by Peter Zinner, particularly during the opening sequences as the film's main characters converge and later during Perry's memories of the murders. As the film unfolds, its power is such that one can frighteningly imagine the central event it depicts happening anywhere, anytime, to anyone and being powerless to do anything about it - there, but for the Grace of God...

Columbia has released the film with a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that thoroughly captures the dark, gritty look of the original film. The image is crisp for the most part and only suffers during the darker scenes when there are instances of murkiness that obscure shadow detail. There is modest film grain in evidence, but edge effects are minimal. Overall, Columbia's work does justice to the film. A Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track (not 3.1 as indicated on the packaging) conveys dialogue clearly and Quincy Jones's score with some punch. The track demonstrates some decent separation although surround and low-frequency effects are minimal. There's an interesting theatrical trailer that emphasizes the similarity in looks between the principal actors and the actual people being portrayed. Three other trailers with nothing to do with In Cold Blood or its artists round out the disc.


The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
(released on DVD by Fox on August 5, 2003)

The late 1950s seemed to be a time for inspirational films, particularly but not exclusively with a religious background. Good examples were the likes of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum), The Nun's Story (1959, with Audrey Hepburn), Ben-Hur (1959, with Charlton Heston), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, directed by George Stevens). Fitting nicely into the category, although perhaps a little too comfortably so, was 1958's The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which continued Ingrid Bergman's renaissance on the screen.

The story concerns an English domestic named Gladys Aylward who is determined to be a missionary in China. She is rejected as an accredited missionary due to her lack of experience and education, but manages to travel to China on her own. There she has a contact in Jeannie Lawson who is setting up an inn in one of northern remote mountainous areas of the country. The idea is to operate as lodging for the mule train drivers who pass through Yang Cheng and at the same time relate stories of Christ that may entice the drivers to learn more about becoming Christians. Initially her life is greatly affected by the local Mandarin and a Chinese army officer, Captain Lin Nan. Gladys soon becomes an accepted member of the community and is known as Jan-Ai (The One Who Loves People). But war comes to the region and Jan-Ai soon finds herself faced with a great responsibility.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

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In many ways, this is an absorbing tale that is well acted and impressively mounted. Bergman does her normally fine work as Gladys while in his last role before succumbing to the asthma that plagued him throughout his career, the superb Robert Donat added one final triumph playing the Mandarin. (One may object to western actors playing eastern charcters, but when it's done this well, it's hard to complain.) Extensive location shooting was carried out in Wales, standing in for China and shown to good effect by the cinematography of Freddie Young. The film also benefits from a compelling score by Malcolm Arnold, reminiscent in parts to that of The Bridge on the River Kwai (not surprising since Arnold was responsible for both of them). Director Mark Robson coordinates the various resources at his disposal (a budget of $5 million for the CinemaScope production, a large cast including 2000 extras, and an impressive half-million dollar set) quite well and received an Academy Award nomination for his efforts. On the down side, however, is the questionable casting of Curt Jurgens as Captain Lin, who is supposed to be half Dutch/half Chinese, and a somewhat pat script that tends to sugar-coat adversity with simplistic solutions. If you can look beyond these issues, however, the rest of the package provides a satisfying if lengthy (158 minutes) piece of entertainment.

This entry in Fox's line of Studio Classics is up to the usual standard. We get a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that is consistently pleasing. It is perhaps a little soft-looking at times, but colours look accurate and fairly bright. Blacks and whites are well rendered and shadow detail is good. Edge effects are virtually non-existent and the image exhibits little in the way of speckling or debris. The stereo sound track has no real directionality to it, but it is fairly lush, conveying Arnold's score nicely. The main supplement is an audio commentary by documentary filmmaker Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon (co-author of "The Films of 20th Century Fox"), and Bergman biographer Donald Spoto. Two short Movietone newsreels and a restoration comparison round out the disc.


The Mark of Zorro (1940)
(released on DVD by Fox on October 7, 2003)

It's a pleasure to welcome the best of the various Zorro film incarnations to DVD. Known as The Californian until just before its actual release, the 1940 Mark of Zorro has just about everything going for it. Tyrone Power, the reigning top male star on the Twentieth Century-Fox studio lot, starred as the handsome Don Diego Vega newly returned home to California from Spain where he finds the peasants oppressed by a greedy tyrant, the Alcalde, and his chief henchman, Captain Esteban Pasquale. Don Diego plays the fop by day, but takes up the people's cause by night disguised as Zorro. Power would become closely associated with swashbuckling roles such as Son of Fury, The Black Swan, and Captain from Castile, but The Mark of Zorro is the one for which he is best remembered. The highlight from the film is Power's sword-fighting duel with Pasquale played by Basil Rathbone with his usual air of superiority and malevolence. It of course evokes memories of Rathbone's duel with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Each has its advocates, some preferring the Flynn-Rathbone effort for its choreography and Flynn's athleticism, others preferring Power-Rathbone for that effort's more technical display of swordsmanship.

The Mark of Zorro

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Aside from all that, however, the film benefits from its methodical but steady pacing by director Rouben Mamoulian, a tremendous score by Alfred Newman (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music), and the presence of a raft of fine supporting players including Eugene Pallette as Father Felipe and Montagu Love as Don Diego's father (both links to The Adventures of Robin Hood), J. Edward Bromberg as the Alcalde, Gale Sondergaard as the Alcalde's wife, and the beautiful Linda Darnell as the Alcalde's niece who becomes the object of Don Diego's love.

Sumptuously mounted by Fox as one of its major releases of the year (although initial plans to film in Technicolor were dropped), The Mark of Zorro was very well received by both critics and the movie-going public. It's easy to see why. It's tremendous entertainment, despite comparisons that suggested it lacked the athleticism demonstrated by Douglas Fairbanks in his 1920 silent version of the same title. Tyrone Power carries the day here and it's easy to understand his popularity with film-goers of the time. Highly recommended.

For a film as fine as The Mark of Zorro, we want an image transfer to match and this entry in the Fox Studio Classics series delivers. The transfer (full frame in accord with the OAR) is crisp and clear with very deep blacks and clean whites. There is some film grain evident and the source material is not pristine with the occasional scratch and speckle appearing, but none detract from what is a handsome-looking effort overall. Both stereo and mono sound tracks are provided. The stereo track does well by Newman's score by delivering fairly striking presence and good fidelity. Dialogue is clear throughout, with age-related hiss virtually absent. An informative but not particularly animated audio commentary is provided by the seemingly ubiquitous Richard Schickel, and a good A&E Biography profile of Tyrone Power ("The Last Idol") plus trailers for nine Studio Classics releases are to be found on the disc. There is no trailer for The Mark of Zorro.


Scrooge (1970)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 23, 2003)

Charles Dickens' s "A Christmas Carol" has received quite a few film treatments over the years ranging from several in the silent era to the well-known classic versions in 1938 and 1951 to numerous latter-day efforts for both the big screen and particularly television. Of all the versions, the 1951 Alastair Sim version remains the overall champion, but of the more recent efforts, the most satisfying is the George C. Scott version made in 1984. Many people also enjoy the 1970 musical version called Scrooge and starring Albert Finney.

Scrooge

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Not me particularly, however. Oh, Albert Finney doesn't do a bad job as Scrooge and guest stars such as Alec Guinness as Marley's Ghost, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present are fine. The whole production looks very handsome, but Scrooge is another dramatic story that didn't need to be made into a musical. The music does nothing for the story and is in fact more distracting than anything else. It doesn't help either that the music is mainly forgettable. Only "Thank-You Very Much" works at all, and that's partly because its reprise occurs at the only point in the story when an extravagant musical number possibly could work - on Christmas morning when Scrooge has seen the light.

For those, like me, who believe this to be lesser Scrooge, it won't really matter that this is a very nice-looking version of the film. Paramount has released the disc on behalf of CBS DVD, and whichever of the parties it is that's responsible for the transfer deserves recognition for their efforts. The colours are bright, well-saturated, and appear accurate. The image is generally very sharp with only an occasional instance of softness and generally exhibits a very film-like quality without intrusive edge effects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is very good delivering noticeable separation and surround effects during special effects sequences and the musical numbers. The music has warmth and fullness to it and the one particularly memorable song ("Thank-You Very Much") really shines. The disc includes the film's overture and exit music, but no other supplements.


Targets (1968)
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 12, 2003)

I had not had the pleasure of seeing Targets prior to this release on DVD. It's a film with a very interesting production background and is also Peter Bogdanovich's first directorial effort. The film came about when Roger Corman offered Bogdanovich the opportunity to direct. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days of shooting, which Corman was willing to let Bogdanovich use. This, along with access to footage from Karloff's recent film "The Terror" and a budget of $125, 000 would be the basis of the film. Bogdanovich and his wife Polly Platt came up with a storyline and with polishing based on ideas from veteran director Samuel Fuller, the final screenplay was created.

Targets

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The story follows two plot lines - one concerning aging horror star Byron Orlok who is determined to retire after one final personal appearance at a drive-in theatre, and the other about a seemingly average young man who accumulates an arsenal of guns and then goes on a shooting rampage that culminates at the drive-in.

Bogdanovich creates real tension in this film and the gradual meshing of the two plot lines is handled adroitly. He makes the most of his limited resources in the sense that this looks like a much more polished and generously cast film than its budget actually allowed. The final sequences in the drive-in are excellent examples of making much out of little. So too are the scenes of the sniper shooting at cars on the freeway from atop a refinery complex, filming that was done without the proper approvals to do so. Surely the best aspect of the film though is Boris Karloff whose role here suggests an easy, comfortable character that reportedly was similar to what Karloff was actually like in real life and gives a completely different face to him than his many final horror films conveyed. The result of Bogdanovich and Karloff's efforts is a tight little thriller that belies its modest resources and consistently entertains. Recommended.

Paramount has also done amazing work with its DVD release. For a low budget film, the widescreen anamorphic transfer looks very good. The image is crisp and clear, particularly for indoor scenes. Colours look natural and shadow detail is fine, except during some of the final night-time sequences. The mono sound track is quite adequate and age-related hiss or distortion is for the most part absent. The icing on the cake is an interesting introduction by Bogdanovich and then one of his typically illuminating audio commentaries. At a suggested price of $10, this one's a real bargain.


Terror in a Texas Town (1958)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 20, 2003)

This western is often celebrated by aficionados of director Joseph H. Lewis, but it doesn't do quite so much for me - much as I like westerns of all kinds. For those unfamiliar with Lewis, he managed to craft a generally fine body of work in B pictures from the mid-1930s until 1958. He started off mainly in westerns, but while he worked at many studios and in many genres, his best films are generally considered to be those he did at Columbia after World War II - particularly My Name Is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night. Both were films noir, a genre that Lewis specialized in thereafter, eventually leading to Gun Crazy and The Big Combo - two other films of his that are well worth your attention. It is Lewis's visual style that sets many of his films apart; it combines low-key lighting, long takes, multi-level camera placement and fluid camera movement, location shooting, and carefully choreographed action. In the mid-1950s, Lewis returned to westerns and wrapped up his feature film career with four of them - A Lawless Street, 7th Cavalry, The Halliday Brand, and Terror in a Texas Town.

Terror in a Texas Town

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One could well sum up Terror in a Texas Town is a victory of style over substance. It possesses all the elements of Lewis's visual style with a notable reliance on low-level camera placements and several nicely executed camera movements. It even possesses a villain (played by Ned Young) of some complexity and interest even if he is a gunslinger all dressed in the traditional black. Beyond that, however, the film offers diminishing returns. The story is the old standard of the greedy land grabber (played by Sebastian Cabot) who tries to drive out the farmers so that he can take over their oil-rich lands. Except, one of the farmers he has killed is the father of George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) who has returned from the sea to live on the farm. Hayden predictably proves to be more than match for Cabot and Young. The film's climax involves a shootout between Young and Hayden with Hayden armed with a rather unconventional weapon. Some have hailed this final confrontation, but it seems more silly than anything else to me. Director Lewis fails to extract any performances of note from his cast, other than Hayden's. But then, Sterling Hayden could normally be counted on to be better than the script. Familiar faces such as Frank Ferguson and Glenn Strange have small supporting roles.

This black and white United Artists release is given a 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced transfer by MGM and the results are quite pleasing. The image is sharp with good detail and demonstrates an excellent gray scale. There's some minor evidence of excessive grain. Edge effects are not an issue. A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track conveys the story adequately. The only supplement is a somewhat curious trailer that has no voice-over or text accompanying it.


Zulu (1964)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 20, 2003)

The age of the British Empire has inspired many epic films over the years with the Victorian era particularly coming in for attention with the likes of Around the World in 80 Days, Gunga Din, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and Khartoum. Among the best of the films dealing with events of that time was 1964's Zulu, which recreated the incident at Rorke's Drift, South Africa in 1879 when a small detachment of British soldiers withstood repeated attacks by the Zulu army.

Zulu

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The event has all the makings of a boys-own adventure wherein the gallant few manage to withstand raging hordes of savages, but fortunately the film avoids such clichés. There is heroism here, but it is on both sides and the film makes it clear that although a magnificent stand is achieved by the British forces, their ultimate defeat is inevitable. The conclusion is hardly the expected ending and is a further affirmation of the respect that the film demonstrates for both sides of the conflict. There is very little about which the film sets a wrong foot. A strong cast and well-written script generally transcend the usual character stereotypes. Stanley Baker as an officer without field experience and Michael Caine (in his first major role) as the younger officer whose right to command is superceded by Baker's seniority are both excellent. The film builds suspense well during its first half and then capitalizes on that with breath-taking battle scenes that are well-edited if ultimately saddening due to the slaughters that ensue. The film's cinematography is one of its highlights as the bright reds of the British uniforms and the colourful Zulu costuming blend well with the beautiful South African locations. This is adventure film making at its best. Highly recommended.

Up until now, one's best bet for seeing Zulu at its best was Criterion's laserdisc issued quite some time ago. Earlier DVDs from Roan Group/Troma, Good Times, and a couple of other companies were inferior to the laserdisc. MGM's new 2.35:1 anamorphic DVD is now the benchmark for this film at least from an image point of view. The image is crisp and clear with bright, fully saturated colours. Edge effects are not a concern and there is minimal evidence of print debris. The sound is another issue. John Barry has written a fine, expansive score for the film and my understanding is that it was originally presented in a multi-channel stereo format. As a consequence, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track on the disc is a disappointment although I must admit that for a mono presentation, it possesses a reasonable amount of fidelity. The disc's only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.


New Classic Release Announcements

I have just a modest list of announcements this time. Thanks also to several readers for corrections and additions that are included here. The Classic Release Database has been updated accordingly.

Let's start with Columbia. On September 30th, we'll get Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966, with James Coburn) and October 7th brings Cromwell (1970, with Alec Guinness and Richard Harris). Both are in anamorphic widescreen with the usual dearth of supplements. November looks like a promising month with the release of Frank Capra's fine Platinum Blonde (1931, with Jean Harlow) on the 4th. Then on the 11th, Columbia offers The Silencers (1966, with Dean Martin), The Trouble with Angels (1966, with Rosalind Russell), and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968, a sequel again with Rosalind Russell). Unfortunately, it appears that the latter two may only be available in full screen versions. Then on the 25th, the next Three Stooges compilation appears, this time entitled In Orbit. Initial reports indicate the continuation of a disturbing trend. Most of these discs have had six shorts on them, but the last one had only five, and the upcoming one was announced as having only four. Coming on December 2nd are the excellent Ship of Fools (1965, with Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin), the middling The Horsemen (1971, with Omar Sharif) and the lesser There's a Girl in My Soup (1970, with Peter Sellers).

Fox has modified its Studio Classics schedule. Laura's anticipated appearance in November has been cancelled, with the disc presumably to be rescheduled at a later date. Consequently, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, with Henry Fonda) will now appear on November 4th. It had been scheduled for a December release. There will now be no Studio Classics title appearing that month. The remastered Ox-Bow Incident disc will be full frame in accord with the OAR and will include an audio commentary, the A&E Biography: Henry Fonda television special, a still gallery, a restoration comparison, and the theatrical trailer. The new year brings the first of a new round of Studio Classics in the form of My Darling Clementine (1946, with Henry Fonda) on January 6th. The disc will reportedly include John Ford's original cut of the film in addition to the theatrical release version. The same date will also see the release of four Cary Grant titles including the unexpected Born to Be Bad (1934, also with Loretta Young) made under the 20th Century imprint before the merger with Fox, and three more-well-known films - I Was a Male War Bride (1949, with Ann Sheridan), People Will Talk (1950), and Kiss Them for Me (1957).

There are no new announcements from Warner Brothers, but in related news, the company has apparently completed a new transfer of Kiss Me Kate to address the framing issues that arose from its April release. An official announcement will likely be made in a month or two with the replacement discs available about the end of the year. Feeding the rumour mill, Warners may be working on the rest of its Best Picture winners not yet out on DVD, for release in the first half of 2004. That would include titles such as The Great Ziegfeld (1936, MGM), The Life of Emile Zola (1937, WB), and Mrs. Miniver (1942, MGM). Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, MGM) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956, UA) have previously been mentioned as being in Warners' plans.

On December 2nd, MGM offers Crime of Passion (1957, with Barbara Stanwyck), Darling (1965, with Julie Christie), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, with Robert Ryan), Lord Love a Duck (1966, with Tuesday Weld), and He Walked by Night (1948, with Richard Basehart). Darling and Lord Love a Duck will be in anamorphic widescreen. All will have trailers.

Paramount has Day of the Locust (1975, with Donald Sutherland) in its plans for 2004.

Image will release a new entry in its Drive-In Collection on November 11th, this time a double bill of King Dinosaur (1955) and The Bride and the Beast (1958). Two more entries in the Gene Autry Collection will also appear then - Heart of the Rio Grande (1942) and Shooting High (1940). November 18th will see the arrival of Our Town (1940, with William Holden). It looks like it will have the same supplements (a couple of shorts) that appeared on an earlier FocusFilm release. On November 25th, The Emperor Jones (1933, with Paul Robeson) will appear.

Kino's release of the German Titanic (1943) has been pushed back to early 2004.

Milestone will release It (1927, with Clara Bow) on November 25th. The disc will feature a restored image and a musical score by Carl Davis. The company has also acquired the rights to E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly (1929, with Anna May Wong) and will be bringing out a DVD with many bonus features, presumably sometime in 2004. The Dragon Painter (1919, with Sessue Hayakawa) and Henri de la Falais's Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935) are also in Milestone's DVD plans for 2004.

MPI's long promised Becket (1964) has been delayed from the end of September until later in the fall. MPI is apparently committing to no new specific date at this time.

The Danish Film Institute hopes to make August Blom's Atlantis (1914) available on DVD in late 2004, and Das Himmelskibet (1916, aka The Spy Ship) in 2005.

Criterion indicates that its November release of The Rules of the Game (1939, directed by Jean Renoir) will be delayed until early 2004 due to the discovery of better source material.

Home Vision has three offerings on November 18th - James Ivory's Bombay Talkie (1970), Vittorio De Sica's A Brief Vacation (1973), and Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower (1964). All will be in anamorphic widescreen.

Alpha Video has another 22 classic titles scheduled for release on November 18th. Titles of interest, more from a curiosity factor than anything else, include Corregidor (1943, from an Edgar Ulmer script), the ubiquitous Great Guy (1936, I keep hoping for a good transfer of this Cagney title from Grand National), House of Mystery (1934), Seven Doors to Death (1944, a great title but a PRC production), and Waterfront (1944, more PRC). See the database for the complete list.

Finally, in Region 2 news, Argent Films will release Gillo Pontecorvo's acclaimed The Battle of Algiers (1965) on November 3rd.

Well that's it for now. As a teaser for future columns, I hope to complete my survey of musicals and also do a focus piece on the year 1939. See you again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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