|Classic Reviews Round-Up #50 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions. I have the usual mix of reviews and new announcement news for you. Classic reviews include Criterion's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold; Paramount's Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, and Sabrina; Legend's The Last Man on Earth, The Devil Bat, and Bride of the Monster; Lionsgate's One Touch of Venus; VCI's Stranger on Horseback and Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc.; Fox's Charlie Chan: Volume 5 and Tyrone Power: Matinee Idol Collection; Universal's The Gregory Peck Film Collection; Questar's Victor Borge Classic Collection; and Sony's The Films of Budd Boetticher. I've also had several non-classic releases cross my desk in the past little while and I've included comments on them as well: HBO's The Sopranos: The Complete Series; Acorn Media's Edward the King and First Among Equals; and A&E's The Jewel in the Crown: The 25th Anniversary Edition. I hope you enjoy them.
New Reviews - New Editions of Previous Releases
It looks as if this section may become a regular part of the column as well-known films continue to receive their second or third release on DVD - perhaps as final kicks at the can before the inevitable Blu-ray treatment.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965) has just been released in a two-disc edition by Criterion courtesy of its arrangement with Paramount. Paramount itself had already released the film on DVD in 2004.
The film was presented there with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looked fairly crisp with the almost noirish black and white cinematography decently conveyed though characterized by a fair bit of dirt and debris. Both the original mono and new 5.1 audio tracks were provided. Criterion's new version is a noticeable improvement in all areas. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image demonstrates excellent contrast and is very sharp with facial detail of almost HD caliber at times. Even better is the significant effort that has been made to remove the numerous instances of dirt, debris, and scratches. The mono sound (at least it sounds like mono, despite the packaging's claim of a stereo mix) is clear, with dialogue and music well balanced. Criterion's supplements comprise a worthy mix. The best items are an almost 40-minute interview in which author John le Carré speaks very perceptively about the making of the film and a selected-scene commentary of comparable length featuring director of photography Oswald Morris. Vintage profiles on le Carré and star Richard Burton are also included along with the original trailer. The new Criterion version is the one to have and worth investing in even if you have the earlier Paramount release.
Paramount has embarked on a new series of releases called the Centennial Collection which aims to present the studio's best films with remastered video, new supplements, and uniform packaging that includes side-numbered slip cases. So far the titles released have all been previously released on DVD by the studio. The first wave comprises two-disc presentations for Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, and Sabrina. Sunset Boulevard was first released on DVD in 2002 in a single-disc version, following an extensive Lowry restoration effort that yielded a sharp, sparkling full frame image marred only by slight flicker at times and the complete absence of the film's original grain. The film's mono sound was in very good shape and there was a nice suite of supplements including audio commentary by Billy Wilder biographer Ed Sikov. The new Centennial version is at pains to improve much on what was already a superior image, but it does appear to have addressed the flicker issue noticeably and improved image detail modestly. The mono audio sounds the same as before. The 2002 supplements are repeated, but are supplemented by a substantial number of new featurettes (on the film, its cast and crew, its place in history, and on Paramount itself), none of which are deal-breakers in themselves, but collectively represent a very significant upgrade. Roman Holiday's history on DVD is similar to that of Sunset Boulevard. It underwent a Lowry restoration in 2002 and the DVD's full frame image looked splendid with the same caveat about lack of grain, and the mono audio sounded quite good. The new Centennial version's image is but modestly improved over the previous release. With the film given its own disc, any minor compression issues have been overcome and contrast is perhaps heightened a little. The mono audio sounds the same as before. As for the supplements, there are more with the new version, but a good making-of featurette from the 2002 version has been dropped although some of its material is covered by the new featurettes on the Centennial version. If you don't have a copy of Sunset Boulevard or Roman Holiday, these new Centennial Collection versions are the ones to have, but if you already have the 2002 versions, the improvement in video and audio is not enough to warrant upgrading. Sabrina was originally released on DVD in 2001 with a nice crisp full frame transfer that also exhibited some mild edge effects. The mono sound was quite clear. The only supplements were a short making-of featurette highlighting Audrey Hepburn and a photo gallery. The new Centennial edition improves on the image transfer with a sharper brighter look, enhanced contrast, and no edge effects. It's presented full frame although evidence suggests that the preferred aspect ratio of the time is 1.75:1. The mono sound is the same, but the supplements have been expanded to an additional six featurettes. This new Centennial edition of Sabrina is the one to get and is a worthy upgrade even if you already have the earlier release. Notwithstanding these comments, however, Paramount should have brought these titles to Blu-ray at this time, not just launched a new DVD line for them.
The public domain title, The Last Man on Earth (from the Richard Matheson story that was also the basis for last year's I Am Legend), has received a number of releases, but only three of them are worth even considering because they at least provide proper 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers. (Other widescreen DVD versions exist, but they are not anamorphic to my knowledge.) The latest anamorphic version is a recent Legend Films release that also includes a colourized version (which is the release's main raison d'etre). The previous two versions were MGM releases, one in 2005 when it was paired with Panic in Year Zero as a Midnite Movies entry, and the other a stand-alone 2007 edition. Both releases offered the same transfer - a very clear and sharp effort, and good mono sound. The only supplement on both editions was a short Richard Matheson featurette. The new Legend release sports what the packaging calls a restored black and white version. Unfortunately it doesn't look nearly as crisp or detailed as the previous MGM releases. Yes, the odd bit of debris and dirt may have been addressed but that is far from compensating for the poorer overall impact of the image. For those who care, the colourized version is not only an anemic-looking effort, but one that does a disservice to the atmospheric black and white compositions of the original film. The additional of a half-hour TV program, It Happened in Hollywood, hosted by Vincent Price is no compensation. Legend also shoots itself in the foot by advertising the DVD (on the packaging) as being full frame even though it isn't. The 2005 MGM Midnite Movies edition of this title remains the version to get.
The 1940 PRC film, The Devil Bat, starring Bela Lugosi has had numerous DVD releases due to its public domain status. Among those I'm aware of are editions from Alpha, Platinum, Mill Creek, Lumivision, Roan Group, BFS, Genius, and Platinum. I have the 1997 Lumivision and 1999 Roan Group ones and have seen a couple of the others. Legend Films has now released its edition, one that contains a restored black and white version as well as a colourized one. None of the DVD releases to date have had a really top notch transfer; the Lumivision and Roan efforts are as good as any I've seen. That said, I believe the new Legend effort is slightly superior to either of them, at least in terms of sharpness. Dirt and debris seem fairly comparable. The colourized version isn't quite as pallid as some other such efforts, but it is out of keeping with the film's low budget, horror genre nature. Colourized version aside, if you don't have a copy of The Devil Bat, your best bet is this Legend release's black and white version. Although somewhat better than other releases on the market, however, it's not substantially so as to warrant an upgrade if you already have another version.
Another Bela Lugosi effort is 1955's Bride of the Monster, directed by Ed Wood Jr. It is a public domain title that has been released on DVD by a handful of companies. The best available edition until now is the 2000 one released by Image, sporting a fairly crisp and clean image, decent sound, and supplemented by the theatrical trailer. Now Legend Films has released a new version that tops the Image one somewhat, in terms of augmented image detail and black levels. The sound is much the same, but a couple of brief supplements are of interest - a short Lugosi interview and a very short featurette on Tor Johnson. The disc also sports a colourized version. The Legend Films release is the one to get if you don't have this title. If you already have the Image version, an upgrade probably isn't really justified.
One of the great benefits of the expanded television universe of the past few decades has been the rise of cable stations such as HBO who have made a real commitment to quality programming. One series that presumably everyone has heard of and very many have followed faithfully during its extended six-season run is The Sopranos. I don't think I can say anything new about the series other than to suggest if you somehow haven't seen it, you're in for a treat of writing and acting. Each season has already been released on DVD with the sixth also available in Blu-ray. HBO has now released an impressive package of The Sopranos: The Complete Series on DVD. I don't usually dwell too much on packaging, but the effort here is impressive. HBO houses the set's 33 discs in a 2˝" thick cloth-covered book of some 26 thick cardboard leaves. The book has a nice soft fabric bag and is further housed in an extremely strong linen-covered box. The whole package weighs in at about 10 lbs. As far as for what's in the book, two leaves are devoted to each season (four for the two-part sixth season) and contain the particular season's four discs and a detailed listing of each disc's content (episode titles, writing and directing credits, bonus features). The discs are embedded in glossy enclosures within the cardboard leaves that ease access and should minimize wear. So far, if you already have the individual season releases on DVD, there's nothing new - the transfers and content are the same. Next up are two discs of new bonus content. There is a two-part "Supper with the Sopranos" in which some of the cast and crew sit down to talk about the series, recounting many interesting bits of trivia along the way. It's about an hour and a quarter in length. Also new are an informative two-part interview of creator David Chase by series fan Alec Baldwin; a lengthy Paley Center for Media seminar on series characters who were "whacked"; over 20 minutes of deleted scenes covering all seasons; and several short parodies of The Sopranos including one from Saturday Night Live. The set finishes up with three CDs of music from the series (comprising the two soundtracks previously released separately) and a detailed episode story-line guide. All in all, this is a very impressive offering befitting a fine series. The new material is extensive and worthwhile. It's obviously not enough to recommend a purchase of this set (available on-line for about $260) for those that already have all or most of the individual season sets, but for those who do not but have been intending to get them, this is a highly recommended alternative - the only caveat being that you know a Blu-ray release is inevitable and some may prefer to wait for that.
New Reviews - First-Time Releases
The 1948 Universal production of One Touch of Venus had a somewhat circuitous route to the screen. Based on the play of the same name staged by Elia Kazan on Broadway in 1943, the film was originally planned by producer Mary Pickford, who had acquired the rights, to star many of the original stage performers including Mary Martin.
This fell through as did later plans to use Technicolor and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in major supporting roles. Pickford's direct involvement ended in favour of a business partner at the time, Lester Cowan. Finally, the film was readied for production by Cowan as a Universal release after the services of Robert Walker and Ava Gardner were secured on loan from MGM for the leading roles. Despite its impressive Broadway success, the film version is a lightweight affair. The story is that of department store window decorator Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker) who is asked to fix the curtains around a statue of Venus to be unveiled by the store owner (a good performance by Tom Conway). The statue comes to life when kissed by Eddie and in the person of Ava Gardner, proceeds to complicate his life enormously. Unlike the stage version which was a musical, the film is presented as a comedy with some musical numbers that are pleasant but not particularly memorable ("Speak Low", Don't Look Now But My Heart Is Showing"). As an amiable timepasser, the film succeeds marginally due to a good supporting cast that includes the afore-mentioned Conway, Eve Arden, Olga San Juan (reminiscent of Betty Hutton), and Dick Haymes and the luminous presence of Ava Gardner. The major failing is Robert Walker who, as a non-comedian, tries too hard to be funny and never gains the audience's sympathy. The film is available on DVD from Lionsgate , deriving from the company's Republic catalog rights. The full frame image is quite good, offering a reasonably sharp image and good shadow detail. There are dirt, debris, and scratches particularly noticeable in the early going but nothing that severe thereafter. The mono sound is clear and there are no supplements. Worth a rental at most.
After 1946's The Unseen, Joel McCrea devoted the rest of his lengthy acting career to westerns. A minor such one was 1955's Stranger on Horseback, an independent production released through United Artists. McCrea plays circuit judge Richard Thorne whose rounds include a small western town where a murder has occurred, but the young killer (Kevin McCarthy) allowed to go free due to the power of his father (John McIntyre) who essentially controls the town. In the face of considerable odds, Thorne strives to bring McCarthy to trial with only a reluctant sheriff and two witnesses to back him. This is a fairly conventional western plot with only the twist of a judge being the protagonist to differentiate it from many others. McCrea is good as always in the lead role, but the script lets him and what is a decent supporting cast - McIntyre, John Carradine, Nancy Gates - down. The first few reels provide a good build-up, but the resolution is disappointing in its construction and in its staging by director Jacques Tourneur. The film does take advantage of some good location shooting in Sedona, Arizona. The film is available on DVD from VCI courtesy of its partnership with rights holder Kit Parker Films. The source material is a BFI archive print, but the DVD image (1.66:1 anamorphic) looks rather ragged. It's not particularly sharp and the colour is problematic. The main issue is one of consistency. At times, the colours look okay, but frequently they are completely artificial-looking (greens particularly) with skin colours being overcooked. The mono sound is passable. Supplements consist of the original theatrical trailer and three audio features - two "Tales of Texas Rangers' radio shows starring Joel McCrea, an audio biography of McCrea, and an audio making-of essay on the film set to various stills and posters (the audio on my copy had some annoying repetition problems). For McCrea fans only.
With this September's appearance of Charlie Chan: Volume 5, Fox completes its release of its Chan films. The format is a little different this time. Whereas previous volumes generally included four titles on four single-sided discs and a generous array of supplements, this time we get seven films on four discs (three double-sided) but a lesser number of bonus features. As with the previous volume, all these titles star Sidney Toler as Chan. By this time, Toler had settled in nicely in his role and if he's not quite Warner Oland, he's a pretty strong substitute. Toler would later obtain the Chan film rights from Fox and go on to make a further series of Chan films at Monogram. All the entries in the fifth volume are from 1940-1942 and are well up to the series' high standard to date with at least three of a superior nature in my view (although I fully realize that Chan fans may well have differing favourites in this set) - Charlie Chan in Panama (wartime intrigue threatens the Panama Canal with Chan undercover trying to ferret out the saboteur - topical nature of the time adds extra interest to the more standard Chan mystery plot); Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (escaped killer hides out you know where, vowing revenge on Charlie who originally brought him to justice - very atmospheric with a few unexpected twists); and Castle in the Desert ( a super "old house" mystery set in the Mohave desert and ending the Fox Chan films with a bang). Murder in New York also is a strong entry, exploiting the wartime conditions and finding Chan involved in murder and sabotage while on vacation in the Big Apple. More standard Chan fare is to be had in Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (pleasure cruise murder), Dead Men Tell (murder on board a ship again), and Charlie Chan in Rio (nightclub singer murder). All seven films continue with the Chan series hallmarks - generally well-scripted plots with economical running times (all titles 60-70 minutes in this volume), frequent use of Fox sets built for other films to heighten apparent production values, and excellent supporting casts. In the latter regard, Victor Sen Yung appears in all seven films as Number Two son with female leads including the likes of Mary Beth Hughes, Marjorie Weaver, Jean Rogers, Sheila Ryan. Well-known character actors that appear include Lionel Atwill, Leo Carroll, Douglas Dumbrille, Henry Daniell, Victor Jory, Ricardo Cortez, Melville Cooper, Robert Lowery, Marc Lawrence, C. Henry Gordon, Don Beddoe, and Donald MacBride. All the presentations on DVD look fully up to the high standard that Fox has set with previous volumes in the series. Some transfers have warnings attached, indicating that Fox has used the best surviving material, a caveat that usually suggests some problem with the titles in question. Honestly though, I didn't notice any problems significant enough to warrant the warnings. The full frame transfers generally all look very sharp with very good image detail so that the atmospheric moods of the films is well conveyed. Modest grain imparts a nice film-like feel to the images. The mono sound is in very good shape. Each title is supplemented with a still gallery and the original theatrical trailer. The single-sided disc containing Castle in the Desert also sports a good featurette on the era of these last seven films and the legacy of the Chan films in general. Highly recommended.
One of the best surprises of this year was Fox's second box set devoted to Tyrone Power entitled Tyrone Power: Matinee Idol Collection. It is a set of five two-sided discs containing ten films some of which are the sort of titles one would expect such as This Above All (1942) and Johnny Apollo (1940), but others never before on home video and completely unexpected such as Girls Dormitory (1937), Café Metropole (1937), Love Is News (1937), Second Honeymoon (1937), and Day-Time Wife (1939). Rounding out the set is a trio of films from later in Power's career - That Wonderful Urge (1948), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and I'll Never Forget You (1951). This Above All was based on Eric Knight's very successful romantic novel of the time about a love affair between a disgruntled British soldier/deserter (Power) and the daughter of an upper class family who enlists as a private in the Woman's Auxiliary Air Force (Joan Fontaine). The film which had to temper some aspects of the novel to meet the strictures of the Hays Office received a mixed reaction at the time and has now lost a great deal of its impact. Fontaine's work stands up well, but Power never convinces us that he's actually suffered enough to give substance to his cynical words and actions. Johnny Apollo, in which Power turns gangster when his father (Edward Arnold) is convicted of embezzlement, fares better. It always was a well-acted and engrossing melodrama and it still entertains today even though the ending is a little pat. The fine supporting cast of Arnold, Lloyd Nolan, Lionel Atwill, Dorothy Lamour, Charley Grapewin, and Marc Lawrence helps a lot. The suite of five films from the late 1930s, book-ended by Girls' Dormitory and Day-Time Wife, is the highlight of the set. Although the roles offer Power little variety, they do show a young actor growing steadily in confidence and screen presence. Girls' Dormitory was Power's first film for Fox (the one that the studio used as a vehicle to introduce its French import Simone Simon to American audiences) and he had only a small part near the film's end, but it was apparently enough to generate a good response when the film was previewed. Day-Time Wife is a screwball comedy that is a very entertaining and brisk little film. Its revelation is Linda Darnell in a winning and sly performance as a young wife who decides to find out what it is about secretaries that causes husbands (her own in particular, played by Power) to wander. The film treads a fine line as far as acceptability to the Hays Office is concerned. The players are superb with the likes of Binnie Barnes, Wendy Barrie, Joan Davis, and one of pre-Code films' most familiar leading men - Warren William, all well cast. Café Metropole, Love Is News, and Second Honeymoon are three of the five films that teamed Power with Loretta Young at Fox. All are lightweight efforts, with Power increasingly showing that he could handle such fare with ease. As a young, debonair romantic lead he was in the top Hollywood echelon of the time. He and Loretta Young made a very attractive pair on screen. Love Is News (Power as a star reporter trying to get a scoop from pampered heiress Young) and Café Metropole (Power must pose as a Russian count wooing a rich American heiress in order to pay off gambling debts) are both a cut above the familiarity of Second Honeymoon (a couple divorces only to find they really still love one another).
Following three serious films after World War II including The Razor's Edge and Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power appeared in the last two romantic comedies that he would make. That Wonderful Urge did team Power with Gene Tierney, but it was simply a stale remake of Love Is News, although the supporting cast does provide a diversion (Reginald Gardner, Lucile Watson, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Chill Wills). Better is The Luck of the Irish which found Power playing an American political writer in Ireland where he meets a leprechaun (Cecil Kellaway) who complicates his life first in Ireland and then back in New York. The film is a polished product with Power handling his duties suavely and nicely supported by Anne Baxter as the female lead. When originally released, the film was projected with a green tint accompanying the Irish sequences. I'll Never Forget You is based on the play "Berkeley Square" and was made in England with a largely British cast. Power plays a modern-day nuclear physicist living in an old house on Berkeley Square who finds himself mysteriously transported back to the 18th century. The film is quite engrossing with Power delivering a strong performance throughout. Good support is provided by Michael Rennie as a modern day associate and by Ann Blyth as the 18th century woman Power loves. Fox mounts the film lavishly and uses Technicolor for the 18th century sequences. Fox's DVD box set is another in what has become a highly attractive line of classic releases. Several of the films begin with warnings that they have been transferred from the best available materials, but despite that, there's not a great deal of difference in the quality of the transfers. They are generally very sharp and exhibit good contrast with fairly decent black levels. There is dirt and debris evident, perhaps more so than with the best Fox efforts, but I expect that the degree of restoration work that Fox has done on these titles is not as great as on their more high profile titles. The Technicolor sequences on I'll Never Forget You are in fairly decent shape though sharpness wavers at times. Note that the green tinted segments of The Luck of the Irish are retained for its DVD presentation although a straight black and white version is also provided. The mono sound on all titles is clear; some minor hiss is evident on the earlier titles but nothing to be concerned about. The supplements are highlighted by five featurettes on Power's years at Fox, his films with Loretta Young, a reminiscence by Jayne Meadows (who appeared in The Luck of the Irish), memories of Power's three children, and Ann Blyth touring London. Each title is accompanied by one or more galleries of posters, stills, and other advertising material. Café Metropole offers some deleted scenes and several titles have their original trailers. Highly recommended for all classic enthusiasts, but a must for Tyrone Power fans.
VCI has just brought Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc., the fourth Dick Tracy serial from Republic, out on DVD. In this 15-chapter outing released in 1941, the definitive screen Tracy, Ralph Byrd, appears in his final serial as the famous detective. He would play Tracy again in several B features for RKO later in the 1940s. In this serial, Tracy has been shed of all the characters that regularly populated his long-running comic strip and acts as a government agent rather than a city detective. His adversary in this serial is the Ghost, a master criminal who has the ability to make himself invisible. We're never quite sure why, but the Ghost wants to wipe out New York City with a gigantic tidal wave and Tracy is tasked with bringing him to justice. The serial was made during the halcyon days of the Republic serial with veterans William Witney and John English directing, and the results are very agreeable indeed provided one is aware of the limitations of serial productions. With Republic, one can count on plenty of action, fine miniature work, and interesting villains. Cast members are usually a bit less wooden than in many Columbia and Universal serials. All that holds true in Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc., making this outing a fitting ending for Tracy's adventures in the serial format. The chapters have a good range of cliffhanger endings with generally satisfactory resolutions. In the Ghost, a character in a skin-tight black mask when he's not invisible, Tracy has a worthy adversary. As always, the best way to view these serials is a chapter at a time, once every few days or even once a week as audiences originally saw them at the theatre. VCI's presentation is on two discs and looks pretty much as the other Tracy serials did. The image is quite workable although not as sharp as one would like. Contrast is decent. There are frequent instances of dirt and debris. The mono sound is clear though accompanied by some hiss and crackle. The only special feature is an introduction by Max Allan Collins who wrote the Tracy strip after Chester Gould retired in 1977. Recommended.