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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #21 - October 2005
(Continued)


June, July and August 2005

Taking a bit of a break in the summer months, Fox doled out a total of 10 classic titles. Six of these were in the Studio Classics and Film Noir series (Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte, In Old Chicago, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, House of Bamboo, Nightmare Alley, The Street with No Name) and all received considerable attention, but the other four again seem to be in danger of being overlooked (The Man Who Never Was, Curly Top, Heidi, Little Miss Broadway). Here are comments and recommendations on each of the June-to-August classic releases starting with the latter group.


The Man Who Never Was

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The Man Who Never Was (1956)

This film stars Clifton Webb, but it's not a Clifton Webb film, in the sense that Webb doesn't play his usual irascible, know-it-all character. Here he provides a straight-forward portrayal of Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu in the true story of a World War II intelligence operation designed to mislead Germany concerning possible Allied plans for the invasion of Sicily. The operation involves the planting of false information on a dead soldier on a beach in German-controlled territory. Both Webb and Robert Flemyng (playing the Webb character's intelligence associate) offer realistic characterizations as the intelligence operation is planned and executed, but the film's success really turns on its second half when a German operative is sent to England to verify the truth of the information that has been planted. A well-acted cat-and-mouse game results with Stephen Boyd shining as the German operative and Gloria Grahame doing fine work as a woman whose powers of persuasion are key to the success of the intelligence operation. A methodical but intelligent film, well-made and nicely mounted in CinemaScope. Fox's 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer is very good, particularly in colour fidelity which is low-key and doesn't detract from the story with extreme saturation. The stereo and mono sound is in fine shape with clear dialogue and some separation effects noticeable in the stereo version. French and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.


The Shirley Temple Collection: Volume One

Curly Top (1935)
Heidi (1937)
Little Miss Broadway (1938)

The Shirley Temple Collection: Volume OneCurly Top

HeidiLittle Miss Broadway

After an embarrassing first foray into releasing several Shirley Temple films three years ago, Fox has apparently decided to revisit the star who was the studio's bread and butter in the 1930s. Fans will recall that the 2002 DVDs of Heidi, Bright Eyes, and Dimples were abominable presentations of the young star's work, both in the original black and white and even more so in the colourized versions that the studio felt compelled to include. The obvious point of comparison is Heidi. Fox's new version is night-and-day better than the old one, offering a generally crisp and luminous transfer that reflects the restoration efforts that were carried out. Equally as good is Little Miss Broadway. Curly Top is somewhat rougher-looking than the other two with noticeable debris and speckling in evidence, but still quite acceptable. Tempering these fine B&W results is the fact that Fox still finds it necessary to include a colourized version (by Legend Films) on each disc. These efforts are the usual pallid disc-space wasters that colourized versions always are. Generally clear stereo and mono tracks are offered on all three films, but there's little to choose between them except on Heidi where some actual separation effects can be heard on the stereo version. English and Spanish subtitles are offered on all discs while a Spanish mono track is provide on Curly Top and Little Miss Broadway only. Supplements include the original theatrical trailer on the Heidi disc, the theatrical trailer missing sound and text on the Little Miss Broadway disc, and trailers for Heidi and Dimples on the Curly Top disc. As for the films themselves, all are enjoyable but Heidi is clearly the class of the group with Curly Top a close second and Little Miss Broadway trailing. The films are most economically purchased all together as The Shirley Temple Collection: Volume One, but are also available separately. Recommended.

Note that The Shirley Temple Collection: Volume Two (including Baby Take a Bow, Bright Eyes, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) will be forthcoming on November 22nd.


Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte

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Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Former Warner Golden Age stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland teamed with former Mercury player Joseph Cotten in this gothic suspense story about an elderly spinster who may have murdered her lover many years earlier. Directed with gusto by Robert Aldrich, the film is an obvious effort to recapture the flavour and success of the Aldrich/Davis teaming on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? three years previously. For the most part it is successful although the script is not as strong, being at times rather hard to follow. The supporting cast is decidedly better, however, as Agnes Moorehead (almost unrecognizable as the housekeeper), Cecil Kellaway, Victor Buono, Bruce Dern, and another former Warner player Mary Astor all make fine contributions. Fox has issued the title as an entry in its Studio Classics series and provided it an excellent black and white 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that offers top-notch image detail and excellent contrast. The stereo sound is quite vibrant, providing good fidelity and crisp dialogue. The English mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplement package is a little thin for a typical Studio Classics presentation with an audio commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson (whose presentation is thorough but generally not very engaging) being the only substantive item. There are also a number of theatrical trailers and television spots. Still the film is high entertainment and the disc is recommended.


In Old Chicago


In Old Chicago (1937)

The first teaming of what would become a Fox staple (Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche) occurred in Fox's answer to MGM's San Francisco (1936) - its recreation of the great Chicago fire of 1871 as told by In Old Chicago. The back story is bunkum of course, but it is entertaining as the O'Leary family finds itself in a conflict that is supposedly at the root of the fire. Alice Brady won a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar as mother Molly O'Leary while her combative sons were Power and Ameche (both offering appealing performances, with Power particularly good as the shadier son). The best thing about the film, however, is the impressively staged fire sequence that takes up most of its final 20 minutes. Fox's full frame transfer is quite good although generally somewhat softer than its best Studio Classics offerings. Mild grain is in evidence at times, but never intrusive. The stereo and mono sound are in good shape with clear dialogue and minimal hiss, but there's little to choose between the two. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The main supplement (on the flip side of the disc) is the road show version of the film, which adds some 15 minutes in total to the theatrical version's running time and for whose inclusion, Fox is greatly to be thanked. There's little difference in the quality of the image. The A&E biography on Don Ameche and several Movietone News segments are also included. Recommended.


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) - See my review in my August 4th column. Highly recommended.

House of Bamboo (1955), Nightmare Alley (1947), The Street with No Name (1948) - See my reviews in my June 2nd column. All are recommended - Nightmare Alley highly so.


September 2005

This month, Fox once again ramps up the classic releases with 12 additions to the catalog. And once again, some of the releases are well publicized, especially the new wave of Film Noir (The House on 92nd Street, Somewhere in the Night, Whirlpool) and the often-requested The Innocents. But tending to fly under the radar are various genre titles including comedy such as A Guide for the Married Man and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, mystery such as Dressed to Kill, Prelude to Murder, and Terror by Night, horror such as House on Haunted Hill and The Cabinet of Caligari, and the inspirational biography of A Man Called Peter. Here's my take on each of the Fox September classic releases starting with the latter group.



Dressed to Kill


Dressed to Kill (1941)

Now this is a real surprise, an entry from Fox's Michael Shayne detective B-movie series (7 films produced during 1940-1942). It's certainly welcome, at least to those of us who care about the old B series films, but to release this title sure blows out of the water any claim that the Charlie Chans aren't being released because there's no market for those films. Lloyd Nolan portrays Brett Halliday's intrepid sleuth in this neat little tale of murder among the theatrical fraternity. Nolan is well suited to the character's blend of toughness and irreverence. The script throws up some decent red herrings, but most viewers will likely guess the killer by the time Shayne sets things up for the great revelation. Mary Beth Hughes provides good support as Nolan's girlfriend and William Demarest is also welcome as the main police detective. Fox's full frame transfer is very good, providing a clean, crisp image and excellent shadow detail with minimal age-related speckling. The stereo and mono sound is also in good shape, offering clarity and no hiss. English and Spanish subtitles are included. Trailers for seven other Fox releases comprise the disc's supplements. Easily worthy of a rental, but those wanting to see other B titles released by Fox may wish to spring for their own copy.


Terror by Night (1946)
Prelude to Murder (1946)

Terror by NightPrelude to Murder

These are the final two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, both in the public domain. (Prelude to Murder is actually the retitled Dressed to Kill, not to be confused with the 1941 Michael Shayne film above.) Both films are entertaining, but in the lower tier of the Rathbone/Bruce efforts. When you hear of Fox releasing public domain titles that weren't originally produced by Fox, you should immediately think "Legend Films and colourization". That's what we've got here, colourized versions. Black and white versions are also included on each disc. The latter appear similar in quality to the current definitive DVD versions previously issued by MPI. If you already have those, there's no reason to get these new discs. Certainly not for the colourization efforts either; they're the usual pallid and unrealistic crayonings. For completeness I should note that each disc offers a mono sound track that's in decent shape and the theatrical trailer.


House on Haunted Hill


House on Haunted Hill (1958)

In the same vein as the above releases, Legend Films has also colourized this amusing Vincent Price old dark house thriller with the usual unfortunate effects. Further, it's presented full frame instead of the preferred 1.85:1 which Warners' existing fine disc release preserves (as well as the original black and white). Of course, Legend's efforts include a black and white version too. But why bother? It's full frame and no improvement in image quality. There's also an audio commentary by Mike Nelson of TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000" but his inanities offer little incentive either. Along with the Holmes colourizations discussed above, that makes at least three classic discs you can save your money on this month.


A Guide for the Married Man

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A Guide for the Married Man (1967)

I know this film directed by Gene Kelly has its advocates and it does have a few amusing moments, but it strikes me as exceedingly dated - more so than many films much older. Walter Matthau plays the naïve husband with wandering eyes who gets some pointers from swinging husband Robert Morse on how to get a little on the side without his wife knowing. A lot of well-known players have brief bits in the course of it all (Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, Phil Silvers, Jayne Mansfield, Art Carney, Wally Cox, Terry-Thomas) and it's nice to see them, but the film's sexist slant (with few balancing scenes) merely leaves a bad taste in the mouth despite an ending that tries to negate all that's gone before. Fox's DVD doesn't falter though. It provides a very fine looking 2.35 anamorphic transfer with bright, accurate colour and a sharp, clean image. The sound is equally satisfactory (both stereo and mono, but with little evident difference). Keep your ears alert for "Johnny" Williams' score (yes, he of Star Wars fame). Spanish and French mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are included. The supplements consist of the original theatrical trailer.


Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation

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Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)

I think there's a film genre comprising films that deal with bad-things-that-happen-on-hopefully-good-vacations. James Stewart tries his hand at it in this early 60s effort that also offers Maureen O'Hara as his wife and throws in the likes of Fabian to keep the teen set happy. This time the vacation is a family getaway to a house on the beach that proves to be somewhat less than advertised. Of course, Stewart is a master at this sort of material, although he has surprisingly little to work with here. There are a few gentle chuckles and there's good chemistry between him and O'Hara, but the supporting cast isn't too inspiring (John Saxon, Marie Wilson, Reginald Gardner). Fox's DVD presents the CinemaScope film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that again is reasonably impressive. Colours are realistic and the image is quite bright and clean although crispness seems a little less intense than some of Fox's other September releases. There's the usual stereo and mono sound (decent fidelity, but no significant difference between the two), supplemented by French and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer and trailers for four other titles, as well as a short Movietone news sequence. Worth a rental. Stewart completists who want their own copy won't be disappointed at the disc's quality even if the film is lower-tier Stewart.


A Man Called Peter

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A Man Called Peter (1955)

Richard Todd stars in the inspiring story of Peter Marshall, the Presbyterian minister from Scotland who became the pastor of the Church of the Presidents in Washington and also Chaplain of the Senate. The two-hour CinemaScope production relies greatly on Todd's performance and he comes through. His delivery of some of Marshall's sermons is mesmerizing and more than compensates for the somewhat sanitized version of Marshall's life that the film presents. Jean Peters also stars as Marshall's wife Catharine, but her performance is less memorable, partly because the script doesn't allow it to be. The film is based on Catharine's own book about her husband, well worth reading as a follow-up to the film. Fox's 2.55:1 anamorphic DVD is excellent. Colours are very vibrant and the image is crisp and virtually free of dirt and speckles. The stereo sound is also in good shape offering clear dialogue (very effective in the lower registers), but little directionality. English and Spanish subtitles are provided. The supplements consist of the original theatrical trailer, some Fox Movietone newsreel footage of the film's premieres, and thoughtfully, a full-length audio presentation of an actual Peter Marshall sermon. Recommended.


The Cabinet of Caligari

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The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

This film owes its title to the famous 1919 German production with the impressive expressionistic character, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Beyond that, it goes pretty much its own way with a tale of a woman kept prisoner in a country estate by the mysterious Caligari. Her eventual freedom depends on her willingness to reveal her inner-most thoughts and sexual fantasies. The film was scripted by Robert Bloch of Psycho fame, but that film's inventiveness is but a distant memory here. The whole thing is rather tough slogging as we're forced to suffer through a succession of strange camera setups, general psycho-babble, and rather artificial performances - a three-pronged attack that makes the 105-minute running time seem an eternity. Glynis Johns stars as the woman and Dan O'Herlihy appears as Caligari. Fox's 2.35:1 black and white transfer of the CinemaScope film is very pleasing. There's a nicely rendered gray scale with fine image detail only marred by some minor flicker at times. As usual, both stereo and mono tracks are offered. Both are quite satisfactory although for once the stereo one actually suggests a real stereo mix with some nice separation effects. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are included. The supplements consist of the original theatrical trailer and some trailers for other Fox releases.


The Innocents

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The Innocents (1961)

In contrast to The Cabinet of Caligari, here is a horror film worth its salt. Based on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw", the film is a compelling tale of possession about the experience of a governess (Miss Gibbons) with her two charges, an orphan named Flora and her brother Miles. The two children have an unusually close relationship and appear to be possessed by the spirits of a former governess and a valet, both of whom were murdered in the house. It's a situation that Miss Gibbons only slowly comes to understand and then struggles to resolve. Deborah Kerr gives one of her best performances as Miss Gibbons, but Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin almost steal the film as the children. The script is taut and unusually intelligent, sporting an interesting pedigree (including contributions from both John Mortimer of Rumpole fame, and Truman Capote). Best of all, the film itself never settles for cheap theatrics or showy special effects, but relies on its actors and direction to build its suspense and air of foreboding. Fox's 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation of the black and white film is a model of such efforts, sporting a crisp image with excellent shadow detail. The film's gray scale is very well rendered, highlighting the terrific cinematography of Freddie Francis. We get only a stereo English track on the disc and it's an adequate effort that delivers the dialogue clearly. There's also a Spanish mono track and English and Spanish subtitles. The only supplements are the original theatrical trailer and trailers for a few other Fox releases. Recommended.


The House on 92nd Street (1945)
Somewhere in the Night (1946)
Whirlpool (1949)

The House on 92nd StreetSomewhere in the NightWhirlpool

These three films comprise the current wave of Fox Film Noir, and three fine films they are, even if one doesn't really fit noir criteria well. The latter is Whirlpool, an Otto Preminger-directed film that is pretty much straight melodrama with a psychological angle. The latter doesn't automatically a film noir make; nor are the major noir stylistic or thematic conventions strongly in evidence. Nevertheless, the film is an entertaining outing with Gene Tierney starring as woman whose kleptomaniacal tendencies are exploited for his own ends by a sleezy psychologist (Jose Ferrer, in a really juicy portrayal, although it does stretch things to have him committing crimes and disregarding severe physical pain while under self hypnosis). Tierney is superb as ever in such roles, although one wishes her capabilities would be more fully utilized. Good support is provided by Richard Conte as Tierney's husband (also a psychologist) and Charles Bickford as a police detective.

The House on 92nd Street, directed by the reliable Henry Hathaway, introduces a documentary-like approach to a full-length feature and uses location work effectively in its telling of an FBI investigation of German fifth columnists operating in New York prior to the beginning of World War II. The film is not really film noir, but it does have an aura of menace in the dark photography of the German conspirators that was a likely influence on subsequent noirs. Lloyd Nolan (who by the way is featured in a number of these recent Fox releases and seems more likable with each film) stars as the chief FBI investigator. Signe Hasso delivers a great performance as the chief conspirator. The film has a briskly executed conclusion and the whole thing is narrated with authority by Reed Hadley (a familiar genre player whose great voice was frequently so employed). Look for a brief appearance by a rather young E.G. Marshall in a morgue sequence early in the film.

Somewhere in the Night is the best of the bunch and is the quintessential noir film with an amnesia theme, as ex-marine George Taylor struggles to find out about his past and his connection to the mysterious Larry Cravat and a missing $2 million. John Hodiak (who grows on you) stars with strong support from Richard Conte and Lloyd Nolan (him again!). The script with its smart dialogue and the taut direction (the film's 110 minutes whiz by) are attributable to Joseph L. Mankiewicz and typical of the sort of intelligent product he turned out.

All three films are correctly presented full frame by Fox and all look sensational - crisp, clean, with inky blacks and nicely rendered shadow detail with just a hint of grain. The sound on all (mono and stereo) is equally satisfactory. All three discs offer English and Spanish subtitles and two of them have Spanish mono tracks (Whirlpool doesn't). Each disc includes an audio commentary. Those on Somewhere in the Night and House on 92nd Street are by noir specialist Eddie Muller and are great listens. Richard Schickel's one on Whirlpool is more low-key. Original theatrical trailers and/or trailers for other Fox noir titles are included on all the discs while House on 92nd Street also has a photo gallery and material from the film's original press booklet. All three discs are heartily recommended - Somewhere in the Night, highly so.


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