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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Reviews (continued)


Ship of Fools (1965)
(released on DVD by Columbia on December 2nd, 2003)

This was a classy filmization of the Katherine Anne Porter best-selling novel and maintains that feel almost 40 years after its original release. The story is a sort of Grand Hotel on the ocean with its many characters and their intertwined stories which play out aboard a passenger liner sailing from Vera Cruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1933. Lest one think that this is some early version of The Love Boat, however, let me say that there is some weight to the relationships and liaisons that develop during the film's two and a half-hour running time. Of most interest are a doomed affair between the ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) and a Spanish noblewoman (Simone Signoret) being deported as a political prisoner, an inevitable collision between an alcoholic ballplayer (Lee Marvin) and an aging divorcee (Vivien Leigh), and the familiar yet prophetic rantings of a bigoted, German businessman (Jose Ferrer) clearly taken with the ideology of the new Nazi party in power in Germany. Less interesting because of its predictability is the relationship between two young artists (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley). What makes the film stronger than just the individual stories is the cement provided by the observational comments of little person Michael Dunn and the presence of a troupe of Spanish dancers (headed by Jose Greco) whose work extends beyond the dance floor. The significance of the film's title will be obvious to anyone after seeing the film.

Ship of Fools

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Ship of Fools was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer and marked somewhat of a return to critical if not exactly financial success for him after 1963's A Child Is Waiting and 1964's Invitation to a Gunfighter. Kramer was eager to work with Spencer Tracy again, but Tracy was ill and unable to undertake the role of the ship's doctor. Oskar Werner, whom Kramer turned to instead, was little known in America, but proved to be a superlative choice. He would receive an Academy Award nomination as would Simone Signoret and Michael Dunn. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture, one of nine nominations in all, but it would win only for set decoration and cinematography. One aspect not even recognized with a nomination was the beautiful theme music, but that's probably because it is sadly underutilized during the film. Kramer himself said that even as he finished the film, he sensed that he had fallen short of the great accomplishment he had visualized. Perhaps that's so, at least in the sense that there is somewhat of a "been there, seen that" feeling about the film. Still, there's a worthy effort here that maintains interest throughout and offers a clutch of fine performances. The film is a fine candidate for repeated viewings.

Much as it did with Anatomy of a Murder and Cowboy, Columbia has for some unknown reason delivered what appears to be a full frame open matte transfer when the original theatrical presentation was almost certainly matted at 1.85:1. This practice continues to annoy collectors and obscures the fact that Columbia, as with several of its recent catalog releases, has once again done a very nice job with the image quality. The black and white film was beautiful photographed originally and much of that is well captured by the disc which delivers a nicely detailed gray scale. There are a few speckles, some scratches a couple of hours into the film, and some edge effects but their impact is minor. The mono sound is very clear and distortion free; subtitles in English, French, and Japanese are provided. Trailers for All the King's Men, Born Yesterday, and From Here to Eternity round out the disc.


He Walked by Night (1948)
Crime of Passion (1957)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
(all released on DVD by MGM on December 2nd, 2003)

As part of its most recent package of DVD releases, MGM has given us three film noir titles that provide a nice suite of examples of the style's progression from the 1940s through the 1950s. He Walked by Night most closely adheres to noir's stylistic roots with its use of expressionistic lightning, a city setting, and the focus on a lone alienated male lead. It is also a good early example of the police procedural that was becoming common and would last into the early 1950s. Crime of Passion combines the branch of noir that focused on suburban settings but with the twist of a wife who, rather than being at the mercy of some lone intruder, effectively takes on the role of a femme fatale. Odds Against Tomorrow is a late entry in the noir canon that brings together three alienated individuals in an uneasy alliance that eventually goes wrong partly due to racial intolerance and culminates in a White Heat-like ending that evokes memories of noir's heyday.

He Walked by NightCrime of PassionOdds Against Tomorrow

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As well as being the earliest film in this group, He Walked by Night is the best known of the trio. Originally released by Eagle-Lion, the film utilizes the documentary-like approach that was popular at the time with a voice-over narrative by Reed Hadley. It tells the tale of loner Roy Martin who steals electronic equipment, modifies it, and then launders it through an electronics supply company. In the course of an attempted robbery, Martin kills a police officer and the rest of the film documents how he is tracked down, culminating in a chase through Los Angeles' underground flood control tunnels. Although its direction is credited to Alfred Werker, it is widely understood that much of the filming can be attributed to Anthony Mann who was active at Eagle-Lion at that time with such films as Raw Deal and T-Men. Richard Basehart's understated but compelling portrayal of Roy Martin is the film's strongest aspect, but the detail of the police work involved in tracking him down is also handled with assurance so that even though character motivation is lacking, the film maintains our interest throughout. The final chase is well-edited and the limited lighting accentuates the claustrophic nature of the underground setting and the gradual closing-in of the forces pursuing Martin. The film is peopled with numerous familiar faces including Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, and Jack Webb as members of the police team. Webb is understood to have used the film as inspiration for his later successful Dragnet television series.

In Crime of Passion, Barbara Stanwyck plays Kathy Ferguson, a newspaper columnist who gives up her job when she meets and marries Los Angeles policeman Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden). She soon becomes frustrated by the life of a police wife and by Doyle's lack of career progress. She cultivates one of Doyle's superiors, Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), and Doyle soon progresses to become chief of homicide. Even so, progress is still too slow for her liking and Kathy becomes angry, committing a crime that becomes her husband's to solve. The film's story is actually less rewarding than might appear at first glance as it almost descends into soap opera as Kathy becomes enmeshed in a web of her own making. It is rescued by three excellent performances by actors closely identified with film noir. Stanwyck's involvement began with Double Indemnity (1944) and can be traced through the likes of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Sorry Wrong Number (1948), The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Clash By Night (1952), and Witness to Murder (1954). Raymond Burr was one of noir's best heavies with rewarding work in, but not limited to, Desperate (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Abandoned (1949), The Blue Gardenia (1951), and Rear Window (1954). Sterling Hayden made his film noir reputation on heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956), although his character is less compelling in Crime of Passion. The opportunity to see all three of these individuals together in one film noir is what makes the otherwise unspectacular Crime of Passion special. The likes of Royal Dano, Fay Wray, and Virginia Grey provide effective support.

Odds Against Tomorrow features an excellent Robert Ryan performance as racially prejudiced ex-con Earl Slater. Slater is recruited by ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley) to carry out a bank robbery in a town in up-state New York. Also recruited is black singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) who joins in because he has gambling debts that threaten to affect his ex-wife and young daughter if he doesn't pay them off. As the robbery gets set up, small things go wrong that presage the job's ultimate failure. The magnitude of the failure is much greater than one might predict, however. The film conveys a fatalistic atmosphere from the beginning as it introduces us to the flawed characters played by Ryan and Begley. The actual robbery sequences and the wet, early-evening streets of the bleak town of Melton comprise classic noir images. The film's real pleasure, however, lies in seeing exactly how everything unravels and particularly the manner in which Ryan's character is going to be the catalyst. Robert Ryan never got his due as an actor and his work here is just one more example of an often over-looked effort. Ryan's film noir work is highly regarded but it never seemed to translate into the sort of recognition that elevated the careers of lesser actors. His portrayal of the doomed boxer in The Set-Up (1949, also directed by Odds Against Tomorrow director Robert Wise) is surely one of noir's most memorable performances, but Ryan was equally as good in Crossfire (1947), Caught (1949), The Racket (1951), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and House of Bamboo (1955). Look for one of noir's great female players, Gloria Grahame, in a short but juicy portrayal.

MGM's work on its DVD releases of each of these black and white titles, considering the limited market that likely exists for them, is quite good although there are quibbles with the two later films. The full-frame DVD (in accord with the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio) of He Walked by Night is a noticeable improvement in sharpness and contrast over the best of the laserdisc versions (Lumivision's). In fact, the image is surprisingly free of major speckling and debris. Shadow detail is quite good except in a few of the darkest scenes. Crime of Passion also looks very nice and probably rates as marginally the best of the transfers in terms of image sharpness and overall shadow detail. It's letterboxed at 1:66:1 and looks properly composed at that ratio; however, as is standard with MGM, has not been anamorphically enhanced. Odds Against Tomorrow exhibits a sharp image too, with a nicely graduated gray scale, although it does show more grain in some of the darker scenes than does either of the other transfers. It's presented full frame which, despite what the packaging says, does not reflect the correct aspect ratio if the cramped opening credits are indicative. Composition does not look greatly compromised, but that's not the point. All three transfers are free of edge effects. Mono sound tracks are presented on all and they do an adequate job. The jazz sound track of Odds Against Tomorrow is memorable in itself, but not particularly enhanced by the disc's audio. Each disc offers English, French, and Spanish subtitles, but is devoid of any supplements. Each is recommended despite the transfer caveats above.


The Looking Glass War (1970)
(released on DVD by Columbia on December 9th, 2003)

This film was based on a John Le Carré novel of the same title. I remember trying to read the book, but being defeated by what I felt was an ultimately mundane plot - certainly a disappointment compared to "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold". Others, however, didn't agree and the book was a best seller at the time. My opinion of the book resulted in my passing up the film when it first appeared, so this DVD release provided the opportunity for my first viewing. I'm glad I didn't spend the money to see the film in the theatre originally as the DVD kept putting me to sleep. The film moves along at a snail's pace and it doesn't help that it's headlined by Christopher Jones who looks decidedly wooden throughout. Jones was a bit of a flavour-of-the-month in the late 1960s (Wild in the Streets, Three in the Attic), but his star soon faded as people realized his limitations. Certainly he did nothing in The Looking Glass War to pump up his resumé.

The Looking Glass War

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The disc plays up the fact that Anthony Hopkins is in the film. His is the only name on the disc package cover and the large headshot suggests he's the star, but it's an early role for him and he's actually billed fourth. He's fine as a young operative who has the stock role as a man ultimately aghast at the inhumanity and cynicism of the spy game. Ralph Richardson also has a middling role, but he just looks a little tired rather than deeply involved in his part. Neither is able to add any urgency to a script that plods through the spy story of a defector who agrees to travel to East Germany to photograph an illegal rocket site, but gets sidetracked by a young woman.

Columbia has released a pretty decent 2.35:1 anamorphic disc of the film. Colours are accurate and bright. The image is in general nicely detailed and characterized by only minimal edge enhancement. Speckling and debris are not a significant issue. The mono sound is clear throughout and allows modest enjoyment of the somewhat melancholy jazz-like sound track. Trailers for four Columbia films are included, but not for The Looking Glass War.


New Classic Release Announcements

As you can imagine, the Christmas season brings a slackening-off in the new announcements coming out. There's enough new to brighten classic enthusiasts hearts, however. This time I present them alphabetically by DVD releasing company with the major studios and independent releasers all mixed in together. The Classic Release Database has been updated as usual. Incidentally, I hope to introduce a more-user-friendly version of the database in the New Year. Thanks also as usual to several readers for their tips.

Alpha has a new monthly list of some two-dozen announcements posted on its website. The latest ones will be for February 24th. All the titles can be found in the database. Items of interest include a couple of serials (Burn 'Em Up Barnes [1934] and Don Winslow of the Navy [1943]), Border Phantom (1937, with Bob Steele), Ghost Patrol (1936, with Tim McCoy), and Peck's Bad Boy at the Circus (1938, with Spanky MacFarlane).

February 10th will bring three titles from Columbia including Bogart's Tokyo Joe (1949), Fire Down Below (1957, with Robert Mitchum), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962, with Laurence Harvey). The Chase (1966, with Marlon Brando) will appear on February 24th. Take note that on February 3rd, there will be list price reductions to $19.95 on several classic titles, such as The Caine Mutiny, From Here to Eternity, Gilda, The Guns of Navarone, The Howards of Virginia and A Man for All Seasons. Also note that contrary to my indication in the previous column, there will be five shorts on the next Three Stooges compilation (Stooges at Work, out January 13th), all with Curly: Three Missing Links (1938), How High Is Up? (1940), Dutiful But Dumb (1941), Crash Goes the Hash (1944), and Booby Dupes (1945).

Added to Le Corbeau (1943, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot), Salvatore Giuliano (1962), and Tunes of Glory (1960, with Alec Guinness) - all announced in the previous edition of this column as Criterion releases for February - will be Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (February 3rd) with an audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, deleted scenes and a new essay by critic Frédéric Bonnaud; Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (February 17th) with a one-on-one interview with Fuller and film critic Richard Schickel, excerpts from the "Cinema Cinemas" series, an illustrated biographical essay by Jeb Brody, a still gallery, trailers, and a booklet including excerpts from Fuller's autobiography "A Third Face"; and Laurence Olivier's Richard III (February 24th) which features a cut of the film incorporating newly discovered footage from the original theatrical release, audio commentary by playwright Russell Lees and former Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre John Wilders, a 1966 BBC interview with Olivier, a still gallery, excerpts from Olivier's autobiography "On Acting," an essay by historian Bruce Eder, the trailer, and an extended 12-minute television trailer with Olivier and crew.

Forthcoming from Disney are the following titles. On February 3rd, Bon Voyage (1962), Those Calloways (1965), Follow Me, Boys (1966), and The Misadventures of Merlon Jones (1964) will appear. Then on March 2nd, we'll get Miracle of the White Stallions (1963), and The Gnome-Mobile (1967). April 6th brings Son of Flubber (1963) and May 4th will have The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) [replaces the previous Anchor Bay release], Now You See Him Now You Don't (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).

On March 16th, Fox will release a special edition of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). It will feature an anamorphic widescreen transfer, audio commentary by director Ken Annakin, a featurette, behind the scenes and effects footage, storyboards, still galleries and theatrical and teaser trailers. The same date will also bring the 1950 version of Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952).

Kino has published its catalog for 2004 and mention was already made of the forthcoming release of Charley Chase shorts. Other offerings for 2004 include, for starters, Marcel Pagnol's Fanny Trilogy (Marius [1931], Fanny [1932], Cesar [1936]) which will be a 4-disc set including a bonus disc containing 70 min of interviews, galleries of posters and stills, original reviews (coming in winter 2004). The Trojan Women (1971, with Katharine Hepburn) and Antigone (1961, with Irene Papas) are both planned for spring 2004. The previously announced La Habanera, Munchausen, and Titanic are now expected in summer 2004, as is, from Hungary, Istvan Szabo's Father (1966). Coming soon will be: Regeneration (1915, Raoul Walsh), The Extra Girl (1923, with Mabel Normand, including the 1916 short He Did and He Didn't), three Fritz Lang films - Liliom (1935, with Charles Boyer), Spies (1927), and The Woman in the Moon (1919) - and Before the Nickelodeon (1982, a tribute to Edwin S. Porter featuring 18 short films).

Koch will release The Man Who Changed His Mind (aka The Man Who Lived Again), a 1936 British film starring Boris Karloff, on March 6th.

Marengo had previously announced The Fighting Westerner/Boots and Saddles as a forthcoming double-bill disc. It now appears that it can be expected in January and joining it will be the Republic serial Zorro Rides Again (1937) and a Roy Rogers double bill of On the Old Spanish Trail (1947) and Young Bill Hickok (1940).

Originally understood to be a February release, MGM now plans to make its Sidney Poitier tribute available on January 20th. There will be individual releases of For Love of Ivy (1968), The Organization (1971), and They Call Me Mr. Tibbs (1970) as well as a five-disc box set including these three titles and the previously-released Lilies of the Field and In the Heat of the Night. Two other Poitier films getting individual releases will be Pressure Point (1962) and The Wilby Conspiracy (1975).

Milestone indicates that its release of the Photoplay version of It (1927, with Clara Bow), previously announced for November 25th, has been delayed into January. Coming on February 24th is a collection of the work (Gertie the Dinosaur, Little Nemo) of pioneer animator Winsor McCay from the period 1911-1918. The disc is entitled Winsor McCay: The Master Edition.

MPI will release The Cisco Kid: Volume 1 (20 episodes from the TV series starring Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo) on March 30th.

From Paramount, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) looks to be on the way early in the second half of the year. The new Special Collector's Edition of The Ten Commandments (1956, with Charlton Heston) coming on March 9th will include a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 and mono soundtracks, new audio commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of "Written In Stone: The Making Of The Ten Commandments," a six-part documentary, a still gallery and the 1956,1966 and 1989 theatrical trailers. Paramount may become involved in litigation with Koch-Lorber over Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960). Paramount claims ownership of the title and is reportedly working on bringing it to DVD. This is apparently the reason that Koch-Lorber's previously announced DVD release of the film has not materialized so far.

Universal is reportedly working on several classic titles including a special edition of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) and a couple of un-named W.C. Fields films. Does anyone want to bet that they're My Little Chickadee and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man rather than some of the choice Paramount titles from the early to mid 1930s?

VCI's December 16th release of the 100th Anniversary Edition of The Great Train Robbery (1903) will contain the original version and an enhanced version with new music, sound effects, and color-tinted scenes. Included will be three other silent westerns: D.W. Griffith's The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), Tom Mix in The Heart of Texas Ryan (1916), and William S. Hart in Tumbleweeds (1925). According to VCI's latest catalog, the company will release a number of titles on DVD-R in 2004 which it does not consider economically attractive to release via the standard DVD production process. The first 14 titles will be: Bells of Rosarita (with Roy Rogers), Home in Oklahoma (with Roy Rogers), Dawn of the Great Divide (with Buck Jones), Western Cyclone/Sheriff of Sage Valley (both with Buster Crabbe), Rider of the Whistling Pines (with Gene Autry), Rim of the Canyon (with Gene Autry), Trouble in Texas/Oklahoma Raiders (both with Tex Ritter), Ghost Town Gold/Come On, Cowboys (both with Robert Livingston), St. Benny the Dip (with Dick Haymes), The Great Flamarion (with Erich von Stroheim), California (with Jock Mahoney), Jesse James' Women (with Don "Red" Barry), Oklahoma Annie (with Judy Canova), and Road to Hollywood (a 1946 Bing Crosby documentary).

Warner Bros.' major new announcement is its March 2nd release of The Chaplin Collection Vol. 2, a boxed set including newly remastered versions of The Circus, City Lights, The Kid, A King In New York/A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, The Chaplin Revue and the documentary feature Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. Featured aredigitally remastered full-screen transfers from restored vault elements under the supervision of the Chaplin family estate, along with remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 and original mono tracks. Bonus materials will include never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses and exclusive family home movie footage. The Chaplin Revue is a 1959 re-cut compilation of the silent comedies A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim (including Chaplin-added music, narration, and connecting material). The new two-hour documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin is directed by Richard Schickel and narrated by filmmaker Sydney Pollack. It features interviews with a multitude of Chaplin admirers, including Woody Allen, Richard Attenborough, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr, Milos Forman, Andrew Sarris, Marcel Marceau, and Martin Scorsese. The titles within the set will also be available individually (except for the documentary).

In other WB news, on March 30th, the company will release The Sunshine Boys (1975), Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), The Late Show (1977) and Going in Style (1979). Each will feature anamorphic widescreen and include trailers plus other supplements: a commentary by director Richard Benjamin, behind-the-scenes footage and screen and make-up tests of Matthau, Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on The Sunshine Boys; a featurette and Dinah! show appearance by Anne Bancroft on The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and additional Dinah! appearances by Burns and Lily Tomlin on Going in Style and The Late Show, respectively. Other titles forthcoming from Warner Bros. in 2004 and not previously mentioned in this column are: The Searchers: Special Edition (1956, directed by John Ford), Destination Tokyo (1943, with Cary Grant), The Big Store (1941, Marx Brothers), Go West (1940, Marx Brothers), At the Circus (1939, Marx Brothers), Room Service (1938, Marx Brothers) [sounds like a definitive Marx Bros. MGM and RKO box set is in the works, given that A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are also understood to be in the works], Flying Leathernecks (1951, with John Wayne), George Lucas's THX 1138 (1971), and Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).

It is reported that two long-wanted John Wayne films - The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky, whose rights remained in the hands of the Wayne estate although the films were originally released through Warner Bros - have now been made available for restoration by Cinetech and Chace Productions. A DVD release appears likely sometime in 2004.

Turning to some R2 news of interest, M2K (the company involved in the Charlie Chaplin releases from WB) released a restored and remastered version of Laurel and Hardy's The Flying Deuces (1939) on December 10th. At the same time, they also made a three-disc set of a dozen Stan Laurel solo shorts available. More French R2 releases of classic RKO titles are on the way from Editions Montparnasses. Out early in 2004 will be: Narrow Margin (fine film noir), The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (with Cary Grant), Days of Glory (Gregory Peck's first film), Hitting a New High (with Lily Pons), On Dangerous Ground (noir with Robert Ryan), and Journey into Fear (with Orson Welles) .

Well, we've come to the end of another column and also the end of 2003. Let me conclude by wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year. I'll be back with more early in January.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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