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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

November Review (continued)

The Italian Job (1969)
The Italian Job (2003)
(both released on DVD by Paramount on October 7th, 2003)

The Italian Job (1969)

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The Italian Job (2003)

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There's one good thing about a modern remake of an older film. When it comes to the DVD release, there's a decent chance that you'll get a version of the original included with it or in a separate disc release of its own. That's what happened with the likes of Meet Joe Black (1998)/Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Cape Fear (1962)/Cape Fear (1991), The Truth About Charlie (2002)/Charade (1963), Scarface (1983)/Scarface (1932) to name a few, and now The Italian Job (2003)/The Italian Job (1969). In the latter case, for once we've got an original and a remake that are both worth seeing. A central character named Charlie Croker, a fleet of Mini Coopers, and an Italian robbery are common to both films, but the framing stories are considerably different. The 1969 version was a British film starring Michael Caine that presented a tale involving a mob of working-class Brits giving the finger to the continental types by staging a daring robbery under their noses in Turin, Italy. The 2003 version takes the carrying-out of an Italian heist as its starting point for a tale of pay-back that leads to an even more daring robbery in Los Angeles.

The 1969 film starts off with a fine opening credit sequence involving a drive, through a European alpine pass, that ends rather abruptly. This serves to introduce us to the infighting amongst various elements of the European underworld, a situation which Charlie Croker and his boys will exploit as they plan and carry out their heist in Turin. The pleasure of the film is found in the interaction between the various gang members and Charlie's barely-controlled frustration arising from trying to keep everyone in line. The actual heist is well-staged and the sequences with the minis are exciting and tightly cut, but not so much as to defy belief. The conclusion is a literal cliffhanger that at first catches one by surprise, but upon reflection is the perfect ending. The film is not your conventional thriller, but its combination of just enough elements from one with its slightly tongue-in-cheek style, results in something much better. Michael Caine is the class of the film playing Charlie Croker, but good work is also provided by Raf Vallone and Benny Hill. Noel Coward seems diminished by a role as a criminal mastermind.

Since 1969, we've had all sorts of thrillers with the result that it's pretty hard to find one with anything really new in it. The 2003 version of The Italian Job doesn't really offer novelty either. It is, however, well-oiled. By that I mean that all the usual elements that we expect - suspenseful build-ups, great action sequences, a not completely unbelievable plot-line - are bound together by a cast of characters who are actually appealing in themselves and in their relationships with each other. As a result, we aren't sitting there just waiting for the next bit of action because the cardboard characters and banal dialogue are tedious. Charlie Croker and his gang enjoy each other's company and recognize each other's strengths, so we do too. Mark Wahlberg is no Michael Caine, but his amiable approach to the Croker character works well here. The supporting cast of Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland, and Edward Norton are fine (although one does wonder when Edward Norton is going to try to stretch himself in a film again). Particularly entertaining are the characters portrayed by Rob Statham (Handsome Bob) and Seth Green (Lyle - "I am the Napster"). Director F. Gary Gray ties it all up nicely in under two hours. And one final welcome note - the film manages to tell its tale without the blizzard of four-letter words that characterize too many literacy-starved scripts nowadays. Amazing!

Amazing too is Paramount's effort on making the 1969 version disc something special. Unlike its standard classic film DVD release, which is usually a bare-bones job, included here are an informative and pleasantly-chatty audio commentary by the film's producer Michael Deeley and the author of the book "The Making of the Italian Job" Matthew Field, three very interesting making-of featurettes which comprise over an hour of fresh material, a great deleted scene, and trailers for the film and its remake. The film transfer itself is handsome. We get a 2.35:1 anamorphic effort that is very film-like in its effect. The image is crisp and clean with but a slight hint of grain and no edge effects. The perfectly satisfactory original mono track is present, restored, but many will also be pleased to know that Paramount has also delivered a 5.1 surround track that is quite dynamic and does enhance the whole film experience. The disc for the 2003 remake sports a standard pat-each-other-on-the-back making-of documentary and four shorter featurettes focusing on the script, the car driving, the Mini Coopers, and the stunt sequences. Six deleted scenes are included along with the theatrical trailer. The film itself looks very good - again a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer (watch out you don't get stuck with useless full screen versions which are also available for sale) which provides a sharp, clean image with good shadow detail and fairly vibrant colour. Edge effects are minimal. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is good, but not particularly memorable as action thrillers go. Both discs feature English subtitles and both films are recommended.

Lon Chaney Collection - Ace of Hearts, Laugh Clown Laugh, The Unknown (1921, 1928 and 1927)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on October 28th, 2003)

One of the more surprising announcements to have appeared earlier this year was WB's intention to release a set of Lon Chaney silent films. It was certainly welcome, mind you, but still surprising given that the major studios had so far shown virtually zero interest in making their silent titles available on DVD. Columbia was the only one to actually retail a silent film under its own imprint - Frank Capra's The Matinee Idol - although Universal has shown some willingness to at least allow independent DVD releasers access to them, e.g., Kino's release of William Wyler's The Love Trap. Fox did make Sunrise available in its Studio Classics series, but for a long time it was only accessible through a mail-in offer and even now is only otherwise available as part of a Studio Classics box set. But back to Lon Chaney.

Lon Chaney Collection

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Lon Chaney is one of the handful of silent actors whose name is still almost sure to invoke healthy discussion whenever it's raised. While many of his films were and continue to be highly entertaining, few of them were the masterpieces that the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton could point to. It is likely that Chaney's reputation as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" is the main reason for the continued interest in him and his films, for the offbeat and the bizarre have always been audience magnets. In this respect, Chaney certainly delivered although it must be said that a surprising number of his films do not fit that mold. It is in such films that one realizes that Chaney was more than just a master of makeup. He was a fine actor indeed, with an ability to convey an amazing range of emotions through facial expression and body language. The expressiveness of Chaney's hand movements is truly amazing, for example. It is possible that that quality was a vestige of the sign language that Chaney had to master, as his parents were both deaf.

In the 1920s, Chaney made films principally for Universal and MGM. His two most-widely recognized films were made for Universal - Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, but it was at MGM and its forebears that he really cemented the wide diversity of characterizations for which he has become known (clowns, circus performers with and without arms, Chinese gentlemen old and young, gangsters, an old woman, a magician, a vampire, a Scandinavian farmer, and so on). TCM has drawn upon its access to the MGM library for the titles included in the Lon Chaney Collection. The choices are perhaps not the obvious ones. I suspect that The Unknown would have general agreement as to its selection, but Laugh Clown Laugh and especially The Ace of Hearts are more questionable. One may wonder why West of Zanzibar or The Unholy Three were not among the first choices. Part of the answer may relate to TCM's Young Film Composers competition which has yielded scores for Laugh Clown Laugh and The Ace of Hearts. In any event, veteran laserdisc collectors won't complain. They already have West of Zanzibar and both silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three on laser, so this DVD adds a couple of new Chaneys to their collections.

The Ace of Hearts is strictly a programmer about a secret society that sets itself up as executioner for unworthy members of society. The actual sentence is carried out by the member who is dealt the ace of hearts during a meeting of the society. Two men (one of whom is Chaney) who both love the same woman (Leatrice Joy) hope to be dealt the "assassin" card in hopes of gaining the upper hand for the woman's favour. In Laugh Clown Laugh, Tito the clown (Chaney) and his partner take in a young orphan girl whom they name Simonetta, but once she grows into a young woman (a very young Loretta Young), Tito finds that he has fallen in love with her. Simonetta, however, loves someone else and Tito realizes eventually that he must not stand in her way. The Unknown tells the tale of a performer named Alonzo (Chaney) who pretends to be armless in order to maintain a job as an armless knife thrower in a Spanish circus. Alonzo loves Nanon (an early role for Joan Crawford), who fears any man putting his arms around her. So Alonzo actually has his arms amputated so that Nanon can truly love him, only to find that in the meantime, she has overcome the arm phobia and taken up with the circus strong man.

All three of these films are united in their common theme of unrequited love and in the fatalistic resolution of the main character's quandary. Chaney excels in each in making the main character physically and emotionally interesting and in conveying the tragedy of his character's situation. This was common ground for Chaney and he improved noticeably in his efforts throughout the 1920s as these films clearly show. Another pleasure is the demonstration of the above-mentioned fact that Chaney was not simply a one-dimensional boogie-man as he tends to be thought of now. Although there are better examples in Chaney's filmography than The Ace of Hearts, it does give us a Chaney entirely free of the grotesque and in a way, simply a man in love (even if the secret society plot allows him a non-conventional way of demonstrating and eventually resolving it). If your experience with Lon Chaney is solely through seeing a clip of his face in Phantom of the Opera, you owe it to yourself to see what he was really capable of. The Lon Chaney Collection is your opportunity.

The DVD release is in the form of a two-disc digipak, similar to Warner's two-disc special edition releases of individual titles. The first disc contains a short introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne and then the two features, The Ace of Hearts and Laugh Clown Laugh. The Ace of Hearts is the roughest-looking of the three features. There is pronounced speckling and scratches and numerous instances of debris and some decomposition. Still, it's quite a workable transfer with middling black levels and acceptable contrast. Accompanying it is an audio commentary by Chaney biographer and historian Michael Blake. His talk is extremely interesting in all respects as he relates production details, player information, and historical context. Other supplements are a stills gallery and a short profile of the composer of the film's new musical score, Vivek Maddala, the 2000 winner of the TCM Young Film Composers Competition. For me, this score was very pleasing indeed, as its tone seemed to mirror my own reactions throughout the film. The presentation is in stereo (surround stereo according to the packaging although it certainly doesn't give that sense), which allows the music a dynamic feel without intruding too greatly on one's sensibilities in terms of the film's era. French and Spanish sub-titles are included. The presentation of Laugh Clown Laugh pretty much mirrors the comments about the audio and supplements for The Ace of Hearts except that the composer is different, this time 2002 winner Scott Salinas. The big difference is in the image transfer, which is the best of those for the three films in the Collection. There are speckles and scratches of course, but otherwise the film looks very bright and clear for the most part. Blacks are deep and solid, and the shadow detail and contrast are very good.

The second disc begins with the third Chaney feature, The Unknown. Once again we get an excellent audio commentary from Michael Blake and a stills gallery. There is no young composer's profile for the obvious reason that this film's score is a slightly older one by the Alloy Orchestra. It's okay, but not of the same complexity as those for the other two features. The image transfer is quite acceptable for a film of this vintage, but softer looking overall than that of Laugh Clown Laugh. Contributing to this at times is the use of gauze over the lens for a number of scenes (sometimes obtrusively so). The second disc concludes with Rick Schmidlin's fine photo reconstruction of the lost Chaney film London After Midnight, which runs about 50 minutes, and Photoplay's excellent documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (80-odd minutes). Both of these are worth the price of admission in themselves. The Lon Chaney Collection is altogether an admirable package and one that I highly recommend.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
(released on DVD by Fox on November 4th, 2003)

When the titles of the Fox Studio Classics for 2003 were first announced, The Ox-Bow Incident and Laura were among the three or four that I was most looking forward to. As most of you are well aware, Laura was to be the November release, but was cancelled by Fox (hopefully to appear sometime in 2004) and replaced by what was to be the December release - The Ox-Bow Incident. This was a highly acclaimed film when it first was released and its powerful story of mob vengeance remains potent today. Its story concerns the inhabitants of a town frustrated by widespread cattle rustling that hears that popular rancher Larry Kincaid has been murdered. Eager to see the murderers lynched, a posse is formed under the command of self-styled town leader Major Tetley. Dragged along is cowboy Gil Carter who, along with his buddy, has just ridden into town for some entertainment after the winter round-up. The posse eventually comes across three strangers who have cattle with Kincaid's brand on them and using that as proof of their guilt, the posse prepares to string them up.

The Ox-Bow Incident

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Virtually no one thought that this film would make a profit, neither the makers before nor the critics after its release. When the story rights were brought to him by director William Wellman, Darryl Zanuck was finally persuaded to make the film (despite his recognition of its uncommercial nature) by Wellman agreeing also to do two other films for Fox. Fox apparently did not turn a profit on it until after its release abroad and eventual re-release domestically. The "uncommercial" tag arose because the film was unrelenting in its depiction of how the mob mentality feeds upon itself until things go beyond the point of no return. Even a basically decent man like Gil Carter is powerless in the presence of such a force. The ending is an inevitability that for once was not subverted by a typical Hollywood white hat riding to the rescue. As Carter, a low-key Henry Fonda is the only star in the film and clearly its conscience. The rest of the mob is comprised of numerous familiar character actors (Henry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport, Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, and so on) which gives the audience a sense of complacency about the proceedings. After all, if the mob is composed of decent people we know and whom we expect to do the right thing in the end even if they're a bit caught up in emotion at the start, surely nothing really bad can happen. All the more effective then when it does. Two actors then on the verge of stardom - Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn - play two of the strangers. Andrews is particularly affecting in his part. Director Wellman maintains tension throughout while moving things along briskly and with panache (for example, note how he films Henry Fonda reading the letter that the Dana Andrews character has written to his wife).

Fox has cranked out a winner on all counts in this latest Studio Classics release. The image transfer is crisp indeed in the full frame presentation that is in accord with the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Deep blacks, clean whites, and a finely detailed gray scale characterize the results. There are the odd speckle and some minor grain, but edge effects are absent and the overall effect is very film-like. High marks to Fox on this one. Both English stereo and mono audio options are included, but as with most such offerings for older films, there's really little to choose between the two. Both provide a very satisfactory sound experience, free from the usual age-related sound imperfections. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish sub-titles are also available. Supplements include the theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills, and a restoration comparison, but most interesting are the A&E Biography, Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero, and an excellent audio commentary by western scholar Dick Eulain (although it sounds like Etalain when he introduces himself) and William Wellman Jr. Their contributions were separately recorded and then edited together. Eulain's somewhat academic but highly informative approach is nicely balanced by Wellman Jr.'s more relaxed and anecdotal one. The Ox-Bow Incident gets a very strong recommendation from me.

New Classic Release Announcements

Well, as we get near the end of the year, new announcements and rumours are coming in fast and furious for 2004. In fact, as good as 2003 has been for classic releases, 2004 is shaping up to be every bit as good if not better. I've listed the announcements alphabetically by studio (first the majors and then the independents) and once again I acknowledge several readers for bringing release news to my attention. The Classic Release Database has been updated accordingly.

On January 13th, Columbia brings us its fourth release of a Judy Holliday film - It Should Happen to You (1954), in anamorphic widescreen - and the latest Three Stooges collection, Stooges At Work, which reportedly only contains four shorts.

Disney has confirmed the delay of this year's Walt Disney Treasures releases. Previously scheduled for December 2nd, The Chronological Donald Volume 1 (1934-1941), Mickey Mouse in Living Color Volume 2, Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond, and Walt Disney On the Front Lines are now all slated for a May 18th, 2004 appearance. Disney's explanation for the delay is unexpected consumer demand that could not be met on the original release date.

Fox's February 3rd Studio Classics release of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) will be presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Supplements will include audio commentary by George Stevens Jr. and Millie Perkins, the Diary of Anne Frank: Echoes from the Past special, footage from a George Stevens press conference, a Millie Perkins screen test, Academy Award highlights, a still gallery, and two trailers.

On February 10th, MGM will release two box sets. The first will be The Ingmar Bergman Collection which will include special editions of Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna, Hour of the Wolf and The Serpent's Egg, as well as a sixth disc containing the Sven Nykvist: With One Eye He Cries and Faro Island Mystique featurettes, the Intermezzo 2002 Swedish TV special, a 1970 interview with Bergman, the Film-Making in Sweden article gallery, a still gallery including never-before-seen, intimate photos from Bergman's personal archives, and a poster montage. The five Bergman features will also be available separately. The second box set will be the five-disc Sidney Poitier Collection. It will contain They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, The Organization and For Love of Ivy (all new to DVD and all widescreen, but only Ivy anamorphic) and the previously released Lilies of the Field and In the Heat of the Night. Also due on the 10th is the thriller X-15 (1962, with Charles Bronson), in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. In April, it appears that MGM plans to release a six-disc, special-edition DVD box set of the first five films in the Pink Panther series [The Pink Panther (1964), A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)] and a wealth of supplementary material.

Other MGM releases for 2004 will include I Could Go on Singing (1963, Judy Garland), Man of La Mancha (1972, Peter O'Toole), Duel in the Sun (1946, Gregory Peck, postponed from late 2003), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969, with Goerge Kennedy), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), Ned Kelly (1970, with Mick Jagger), and Chastity (1969, with Cher in her acting debut), A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (1967, with Alex Cord), Junior Bonner (1972, with Steve McQueen), Shalako (1968, with Sean Connery), Follow That Dream (1962, with Elvis), and Billie (1965, with Patty Duke).

Part of Paramount's release schedule for the first half of 2004 has surfaced. If this pans out, we can expect these titles of interest: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and an SE of The Ten Commandments (1956) both on March 9th, Half a Sixpence (1967, with Tommy Steele) on April 6th, Posse (1975, with Kirk Douglas) and The Tin Star (1957, with Henry Fonda) both on May 11th, Day of the Locust (1975), Goodbye Columbus (1969), and The President's Analyst (1967) all on June 8th, and Fancy Pants (1950, with Bob Hope), Here Comes the Groom/Just for You (1951/1952, both with Bing Crosby), and The World of Suzie Wong (1960, with William Holden) all on June 29th. Hogan's Heroes: Season One (1965) is also expected to appear in 2004.

Universal has no new concrete news this time, but a Region 2 happening has some interest. On October 6th, they released the following eight westerns, all with new transfers: The Spoilers (1942), The Virginian (1946), The Man from the Alamo, Ulzana's Raid, Joe Kidd, Rooster Cogburn, High Plains Drifter, and The War Wagon. Could these possibly comprise Universal's slate of western releases for May (a traditional western release month) 2004 in Region 1? The first three titles would be new to DVD while the others all would replace older releases needing an anamorphic transfer.

Warner Bros. has its usual healthy amount of new release news. For February 3rd, it is offering a major Oscar promotion with the release of five Best Picture winners: Grand Hotel (1932), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and My Fair Lady (1963, a new 2-disc SE). Each disc will have a mixture of contemporary shorts, newsreels, and cartoons as well as new documentaries in a couple of instances. Being released as part of the same promotion will be Gaslight (1944, with Ingrid Bergman's Best Actress performance, and the 1940 British version of the film as a supplement) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939, with Robert Donat's Best Actor performance). February 3rd will also see the appearance of Gilligan's Island: Season One (1964). It will be a three-disc set featuring all the black & white first season episodes (including the ultra-rare pilot episode) and commentary by creator Sherwood Schwartz. On February 17th come Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969, the 157-minute version) and Death in Venice (1971), and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966). All will be anamorphic.

April is shaping up to be the month for a WB Judy Garland festival with four titles apparently planned for release. They include: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), For Me and My Gal (1942), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), but no details as to content as yet.

August appears to be the month when WB will release Freaks (1932), a double bill of Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned (1960, 1964), and a 2-disc SE of Forbidden Planet (1956). Other WB releases in 2004 will include Back to Bataan (1945, John Wayne), Helen of Troy (1955, directed by Robert Wise), Mogambo (1953, Clark Gable), Three Godfathers (1949, John Wayne), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and The Flintstones: Season One (1960) and The Jetsons: Season One (1962).

Turning to the independents, Alpha has its usual string of monthly releases with the latest announced list scheduled for January 27th. It's the usual mix of the familiar and the obscure. Consult the database for all the titles, but items of interest may include: Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939), I Cover the Waterfront (1933), Phantom of the Range (1936), Sea Raiders (1941 serial), Valley of Terror (1937), and The Whispering Shadow (1933 serial). (By the way, anyone who has tried Alpha's discs is kindly asked to let me know about the quality of specific titles.)

Anchor Bay is planning on packaging five of its previously released spaghetti westerns in a box set entitled Once Upon a Time in Italy - The Spaghetti Western Collection. The films included are: A Bullet for the General, Companeros, Four of the Apocalypse, Keoma, and Texas Adios. Release date is February 10th.

Criterion is showing cover scans of three new releases on its website raising speculation that these will comprise the company's February release slate. The films are Le Corbeau (1943, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot), Salvatore Giuliano (1962), and Tunes of Glory (1960, with Alec Guinness).

Previously announced in this column were a number of Cecil B. DeMille silent features to be brought to DVD by David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates (via Image). The latest news on these titles suggests that release is still many months away (perhaps late 2004 at the earliest). Seven titles are involved, but only two have been scored so far. The films are: Why Change Your Wife, Don't Change Your Husband, Old Wives for New, The Golden Chance, Miss Lulu Bett (William DeMille), The Whispering Chorus, and The Volga Boatmen.

Image's January releases include a double bill of Gamera Vs. Monster X and Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (1970, 1967) and two 1941 Gene Autry films, Back in the Saddle and Under Fiesta Stars, all on January 20th. The company is also planning to release more seasons of the Dick Van Dyke Show in 2004. Season 3 is set for February 10th, Season 4 for April 13th, and Season 5 for June 15th.

Kino plans a nice edition of The Thief of Bagdad (1924, with Douglas Fairbanks) for release on February 4th, as well as a re-release of Robin Hood (1922). Also in 2004, Kino will be releasing a collection of eight Charley Chase silent shorts. Some of the titles include Mighty Like a Moose, Mum's the Word, April Fool, Crazy Like a Fox, Long Fliv the King, and All Wet.

Milestone has just released (on November 25th) Norman McLaren: The Collector's Edition. This is a box set focusing on the acclaimed Canadian animation expert that includes two discs and a book Norman McLaren and the Creative Process. The discs contain 14 of McLaren's films and an extensive documentary, The Creative Process: Norman McLaren, that explores McLaren's approach to animation. And in news that somehow slipped by me before, Milestone (via Image) will release Michael Powell's 1937 film The Edge of the World on December 9th. The disc will include an audio commentary and a documentary that Powell made 41 years later, Return to the Edge of the World.

VCI plans an ambitious serial release program over the next couple of months. The company doesn't always meet its targeted dates, but here they are for your consideration. On December 16th: the previously rumoured King of the Royal Mounted (1940), Jack Armstrong The All American Boy (1947), and Zorro's Cliffhanger Collection [Zorro Rides Again (1937), Zorro's Black Whip (1944), Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)]. In January (no specific date as yet): The Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943) and The Miracle Rider (1935, with Tom Mix). And in an interesting move and one which I'm surprised no one else thought of, VCI will release The Great Train Robbery: 100th Anniversary Edition on December 16th. The film is only about 10 minutes long; I wonder what else they have planned for the disc?

And finally, in a bit of Region 2 news, Warner Bros. will release the Boulting Brothers' Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right Jack (1959) on February 16th.

So we come to the end of the column for another month, but I'm hoping to increase the frequency and likely decrease the length of these efforts in the future. This may not take effect until the new year, but we'll see. One way or another, I'll certainly have another edition of the column before Christmas. So, see you all soon.

Barrie Maxwell
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