Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’

The Great Buster: A Celebration

Cohen, Documentary, $25.99 DVD, $30.99 Blu-ray, NR.
2018.
Filmmaker/journalist/historian Peter Bogdanovich provides a Buster Keaton overview that hits most of the key points with some major surprises when it comes to unearthed twilight TV footage — unexpectedly but shrewdly stockpiling a lot of the central features’ most evocative clips until the final third or quarter to send everyone out with a laugh.
Extras: The bonus extra is a half-hour public Bogdanovich appearance/Q&A.
Read the Full Review

The River’s Edge

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget.1957.
The River’s Edge, filmed in CinemaScope and with a fairly electric dose of DeLuxe Color, is impressive in how Allan Dwan and veteran production designer Van Nest Polglase made it look more expensive than it possibly could have been.
Extras: A sometimes gently amusing commentary from film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini carries over from the old DVD.
Read the Full Review

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The Great Buster: A Celebration

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Cohen;
Documentary;
$25.99 DVD, $30.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Though he spent act 2 of his life being discarded for years in the manner that Americans, in particular, so often subordinate and even toss away genius, Buster Keaton did live to see the early stages of acclaim that he deserved just before his death — though this was nothing compared to the huzzahs that followed. His inventively risk-heavy comedy and not always recognized skill as a director have both been the subjects of many books and documentaries over the years, including the wonderful Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow doc that Kevin Brownlow and David Gill produced for Thames TV in 1987. Now, here’s The Great Buster from non-slouch Peter Bogdanovich, a project made on commission and for good reason.

Charles S. Cohen of Cohen Media Group, which brings out consistently handsome Blu-rays of keenly curated fictional movies and documentaries, acquired the library of the independent Keaton features that constitute the latter’s best-known works and decided to do something more than just show them. As a result, the bounty has gotten new 4K treatment, and if the excerpted clips here are any indication of what’s coming when Cohen releases the features, someone should be cueing up Alfred Newman’s famed sis-boom-ba-ish Conquistador theme from Captain From Castile. Practically as we speak, I just got the Cohen press notice marking May’s release of a twofer made up of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., a double bill that’s about as good as life until the day that Amy Adams calls me up to do shooters or to play baseball trivia the way she did in Trouble With the Curve.

Cohen hired Bogdanovich, who was an apt choice for this tie-in tribute, though the filmmaker/journalist/historian does sound a bit fatigued reading what is otherwise a concise narration (well, he’s been through a lot over the years). Continuing a subject-matter zig-zag that has already produced previous PB docs on both John Ford and Tom Petty, this hour/40 Keaton overview hits most of the key points with some major surprises when it comes to unearthed twilight TV footage — unexpectedly but shrewdly stockpiling a lot of the central features’ most evocative clips until the final third or quarter to send everyone out with a laugh.

Many of the “amazers” are here, including the waterfall rescue of Natalie Talmadge (Keaton’s real-life wife) in Our Hospitality); the acrobatic flips, falls out of windows other invitations to contusions (one of which resulted in a broken neck that escaped notice for years); and, of course, the front of the house falling on Keaton in Sherlock. According to the narration, the star had just been hit with a couple instances of bad news in his personal life before taking on the stationary stunt — so in addition to its built-in danger in the first place, Keaton’s mind probably wasn’t fully on a bit that could have easily have killed him.

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Keaton had a generous spirit. He never knocked his father for all but dribbling him like a basketball during toss-arounds in the family vaudeville act that trained him, nor (as an adult) did he particularly hold a grudge for the cretinous suits at MGM who basically ruined his career after Keaton ignored the advice of Chaplin and others to relinquish his indie status to labor for the Metro machine. Leonard Maltin, who’s one of many interviewed here, makes a point that hadn’t occurred to me: that Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello all did their worst work at MGM, one of the lesser publicized legacies of a studio that hadn’t a clue of what to do with them. It all brings to mind Jerry Lewis’s old line that accused someone (Hal Wallis?) of having “a sense of humor like Goebbels” — and though Red Skelton had some success at the studio, maybe it’s no coincidence that it was Keaton himself who supervised the gags on a couple Skelton vehicles, including one of the best (A Southern Yankee, which was a kind of riff on Keaton’s The General).

As previously alluded to, Keaton did a lot of TV commercials late in his career, and someone here has done a yeoman job assembling these, many of which are quite funny — as is Keaton’s bit in Richard Lester’s fractured film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (excerpted as well). There’s even a clip or clips from Keaton’s foray into Roger Corman bikini-ville for AIP in the ’60s shortly before Keaton’s death, serving to remind us that there was indeed a time in the industry when Keaton could share a frame with Frankie Avalon. Such were the changing routines in an era when one could see The Maltese Bippy and I Am Curious (Yellow) theatrically as new releases on the same movie night (which I did, though admittedly, the second was at an Ohio vice squad screening).

A lot of comedians from differing generations show up to pay homage, and many are quite good. Dick Van Dyke had and has street cred because he delivered Keaton’s eulogy at the time, while Mel Brooks claims BK as a major influence when it came to shattering the fourth wall on screen. Bill Hader has already established himself as legitimate film enthusiast who knows what’s what and what’s not, and I have to say that Johnny Knoxville (whose oeuvre does not rank with my favorites) earns major bonus points for the warm awe he projects in his appreciation for the Keaton derring-do that undeniably links with Knoxville’s own work, if not exactly with the same artistic payoff.

The bonus extra is a half-hour public Bogdanovich appearance/Q&A — introduced by Cohen and moderated by Richard Pena, who has to work mightily to keep Bogdanovich awake during exhaustion from the preceding hours’ promotion of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was being prepped at the time. On top of this, there’s a jarring sound problem that obscures the questions from the audience (Gay Talese is somewhere out there), making the experience less than ideal, though what Bogdanovich has to say is interesting. The main event, though, falls squarely into the what’s-not-to-like category.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’

The River’s Edge

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget.

The River’s Edge (with a “The”) hasn’t anything to do with plain old River’s Edge (1986), whose sundry plot points centered on wayward teen slackers, a murder victim and an inflatable blowup doll that Dennis Hopper loves in one undesignated fashion or another. Instead, this earlier near-namesake has other things on mind, but in its own way managed to be nearly as tawdry by the tepid standards of 1957, when I first managed to see it at age 10 on a double bill with Pat Boone’s screen debut in Bernardine. This was the great thing about neighborhood theaters at the time: “It’s OK, mom, we’re going to see Pat Boone, and I know how much you dig ‘Love Letters in the Sand’” (true enough) but failing to add that the co-feature featured an adulterous love triangle and at least one exceptionally blood-soaked killing for its day.

Though it’s tempting to say that director Allan Dwan had been involved in visual communication since the days that people drew illustrations on the walls of caves, his career only went back to 1911, which was still just three years after D.W. Griffith began dabbling in moving images himself. That was a 46-year career up to this point with four more still to go, and though Dwan got mired in “B’s” after directing some higher-profile projects in the 1920s, he did bring enough storytelling distinction with what he was given to become an auteurist figure to ’70s film scholars. Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), which was late in the game itself, is solid by any standards.

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The River’s Edge, filmed in CinemaScope and with a fairly electric dose of DeLuxe Color, is impressive in how Dwan and veteran production designer Van Nest Polglase made it look more expensive than it possibly could have been — something noted by ace film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD. But they also point out continuity problems more likely than not are the result of the limited budget. One case in point are the da film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a somet film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD imes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD y-for-night photographic limitations in an otherwise well-shot outing from Harold Lipstein, whose credits included the absolutely gorgeous-looking Heller in Pink Tights for George Cukor three years later.

And yes, Edge at least has “elements” of noir — or so say these authors of one of the definitive noir books, even though the picture is in color and often takes place in the wide open spaces during daylight hours. Certain key elements are definitely here, though, including a heavy sexual undercurrent and stolen money that has put one of its principals (Ray Milland) on the lam. Plus a dissatisfied wife (Debra Paget) at the center of two competing males — though in this case she’s simply more dissatisfied than the usual all-out noir “Trouble.” Paget is, however, playing a redhead, which is always a good way to accrue noir-ish bonus points.

In a locale that just as easily could be known as South Hellhole, NM, we begin with what’s presumably this rural route’s only known pink Thunderbird — with its driver/stranger (Milland) asking for directions to find the area’s best known guide (a role played by Anthony Quinn, who had just won his second supporting Oscar in five years, though he took the money and ran here all the same). Living with Quinn on his spread, if that can possibly be the word, is parolee Paget — a marriage that kept her from going back to jail (say, how about a movie about the court system that so ruled?).

Still, despite legitimate feelings for Quinn, she’s had it: he’s nearly gotten badly gored just outside; the kitchen appliances blow up; a scorpion crawls into one of her high heels; and the shower rains mud all over her when she’s trying to look extra nice for her man’s birthday.

Quinn’s place is no efficiency but a trailer whose incredibly shifting dimensions amuse Ursini and Silver (and likely many viewers) to no end. From the outside, using a movie’s screen size as an analogy, it’s about the size of a nickelodeon peep show from around the time Dwan started directing. But if it’s an indoor shot, we (comparably speaking) find ourselves in an Imax frame; it’s like when the screen expands at the beginning of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. Be that as it may, Milland shows up carrying a cache of cash (stolen), and the divulgence of some past history emerges. Paget is his former lover and partner in crime (which got her sent to prison), and Milland would like to reclaim her, as well as get Quinn to guide him across the border into Mexico where he hopes to escape with his bounty. Through circumstances having to do with all the dead people who seem to materialize whenever they cross Milland’s path, regretful accessory (and, again, parolee) Paget joins them on the mountainous trek as well.

Milland is the same kind of corrupt smoothie he played in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and is effortlessly superb at it, while Quinn is atypically a nice-guy cuckold instead of his standard force of nature (read: Zorba the Anything). Paget is OK with a couple standout scenes, though she seems to have been foisted on Dwan due to her status as a 20th Century-Fox contract player (she’d been the center of another love triangle between brothers Richard Egan and Elvis Presley just half-a-year earlier in Love Me Tender). This is the kind of movie where you’re in danger of being killed merely by being in the supporting cast; those dispatched include not just a a cave-dwelling rattlesnake but a harmlessly grizzled Western “old-timer” played by Chubby Johnson, who’d previously sat atop the stagecoach with Doris Day during her great Deadwood Stage opening to Calamity Jane.

As if this weren’t exactly the kind of screen entertainment we 10-year-olds wanted to see, there’s also a heavy sexual undercurrent throughout the entire narrative, something that Dwan (per Ursini and Silver) loved injecting into his films — and at his age, no less. When he made Edge, Dwan had recently come off Slightly Scarlet, a tantalizingly lurid James M. Cain adaptation for Edge producer Benedict Borgeaus that featured another redheaded ex-con (Arlene Dahl) lounging around provocatively while sis Rhonda Fleming (redheads, redheads) tried to have Dahl’s back despite the latter’s abject looney-tune-ness. Two decades earlier, Dwan had directed the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, but now he had the kind of material where the big boys played. Oh, Allan, you devil.

Depending on how you feel about marginal The Restless Breed or how adequate or not Dwan swan song Most Dangerous Man Alive turns out to be (I recorded it maybe a year ago off Turner Classic but haven’t gotten to it yet), Edge was not too arguably his last smoothly finessed film, one that always comes up with compelling framing and actor blocking when there couldn’t have been much time or money to help. Interestingly, Dwan lived 20 more years after he retired in 1961, a remarkable achievement — though it’s not so much that he lived to be 96, as impressive as that is. It’s that he lived to be that age despite at one point having directed three Vera Ralston films in a row at Republic — the third a World War II drama where Phil Harris found a way to perform his No. 3 Billboard hit The Thing. Good genes, buddy.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’

Mike’s Picks: ‘At the Drive-In’ and ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’

At the Drive-In

MVD, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.2017.
Filmmaker Alexander Monelli’s At the Drive-In is such an affectionate doc about one community’s approach to cinemania that it has potential to become a fan favorite, though I suspect it already is one to those who’ve seen it.
Extras: There are three voiceover commentaries, 17 minutes of outtakes and a Q&A session with principals from a showing of this doc at a Yonkers Alamo Draft House.
Read the Full Review 

The Whole Town’s Talking

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur.
1935.
The Whole Town’s Talking is more obscure than it ought to be, and in addition to being a rare John Ford comedy against a backdrop contemporary to its filming — it’s a Ford mistaken-identity comedy movie that plays like a Frank Capra vehicle, and there are reasons for that.
Read the Full Review

At the Drive-In

DVD REVIEW:

MVD;
Documentary;
$19.95 DVD;
Not rated. 

Filmmaker Alexander Monelli’s At the Drive-In is such an affectionate doc about one community’s approach to cinemania that it has potential to become a fan favorite, though I suspect it already is one to those who’ve seen it. This would only be fitting because this real-life story is to a great degree about fans, starting with Jeff Mattox, the good-guy owner and projectionist of the Mahooning Drive-In in Leighton, Pa. (about 40 miles from both Allentown and Wilkes-Barre and not all that far from the area where Barbara Loden shot Wanda, now out on a Criterion Blu-ray).

In addition, we get a basic primer on the legacy of drive-ins and what that experience was all about in their heyday — and another on the aesthetic tension between theaters’ now-standard digital projection and the traditional 35mm kind with real film (and not on a potentially print-damaging platter system but with a real human being who changes and inspects reels). The latter approach, of course, is nearly a lost art due to the advancing age of the individuals who know to thread up those old machines (the fully operational Mahooning ones date back to 1949). When I was working at a theater in 2014 that was showing an actual print of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in one auditorium, it took about three days for an in all other ways on-the-ball projectionist to put something between a scratch and a divot for the entire length of one reel, making the image look like something on which Donald Trump had been practicing so that he could better mangle his chip shots. Even so, digital is not going away. Shipping costs on 35mm prints just by themselves might be enough to put a theater with multiple screens on panic alert. I used to lift and carry these babies around for years (Baby Huey is more like it), and I’m tellin’ ya: Hernia City.

With the dwindling numbers of both projectors and projectionists, non-existent prints inevitably follow, and Monelli’s 2017 doc follows the theater’s fortunes when faced with having to buy digital projectors it can’t afford. At this point, an array of youthful saviors (“characters” all) arrive to save the day with weekend volunteer work to improve the theater’s cosmetics — and additionally go to town with a newly arrived-at decision to become something really offbeat: a drive-in rep house. This way, prints might still exist for booking, however old and scratchy. And besides, the operation’s two standout selling points are its monster screen (among the biggest still in existence) and a keen sense of how to exploit the nostalgia conjured up by the drive-in experience in general, which older movies obviously stoke.

Of course, my own sense of older-guy nostalgia differs from that of the audiences here because I come from a time when memories and movies were more grown-up and there were zoning laws against geek-dom. Despite the tinny speakers, which represented slightly less of a comedown then from indoor exhibition than they would now, I have exceedingly warm takeaways from my drive-in years. In my town (one state away from the Mahooning), a lot of movies — the first two James Bond pics, all the Leone Westerns including Once Upon a Time in the West, John Huston’s Sinful Davy, Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid — played outdoors exclusively.

In terms of second runs or re-issues, you not only got great double features (I once saw Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution with Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman at a drive-in when they were recent movies) or gonzo combos that you weren’t likely to find outside of Times Square Midnight Cowboy territory. With snow on the ground, I saw Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire with a Martin & Lewis reissue pairing of Pardners and Living It Up. In 1971, I was still able to see 1958’s Thunder Road at the end of a triple bill of Ivan Passer’s Born to Kill and Michael Winner’s Lawman — this time with snow coming down on my windshield (those in-car heaters really did work). Before I could drive, I walked three miles each way to a drive-in and sat next to a speaker in a lighter-than-intended jacket to watch a pairing of the Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin It’s Only Money with my fifth viewing of the 159-minute Hatari! (which would make a great Criterion pick) as the temperature hovered around 35 with the long walk home still facing me.

In the documentary’s case, both patrons and staff are products of ’70s and ’80s moviegoing, so they are much more likely to serve and be served a Mahooning diet of Spielberg and horror, which isn’t to say that the theater isn’t creatively programmed. We see that thematic weekends (think comprehensive directors’ retrospectives) often dominate, and the season opener is always The Wizard of Oz with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — the latter a movie I didn’t even like in 1971, though as a onetime film programmer myself, I admire the savviness of the pairing. The Mahooning’s choice of movies also lends itself to having customers and staff dress up Rocky Horror style as the characters being projected, which again differs from my own experience. Had I shown up at a drive-in in 1962 dressed as Jerry Lewis, the entire upscale community would have buried me alive in a lime pit at the quarry that wasn’t too far from the theater: Movie Mike turned Jimmy Hoffa.

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The particulars of exhibition explained here are catnip for those of us true believers who love to journey inside baseball, but a lot of this portrait’s charm comes from the camaraderie conveyed. The staff members, Mattox included, have real paying jobs during the week — which is good to hear because one of them has a pregnant wife who presumably isn’t too crazy about her husband working weekends for free at the drive-in. Truth is, everyone is working gratis trying to save the theater, and a few staffers even sleep on the floor at night because it eliminates travel time.

Aside from Mattox, who’s kind of a stabilizing father figure, everyone who labors at the theater is a piece of work who could easily inspire a fictional film from the Kevin Smith school; Smith, in fact, is regarded as some kind of bearded deity by this  particular crew. And as crucial good fortune has it, there’s even a staff techno-genius in residence who masterfully jerry-builds a digital projector to show a DVD of Jaws when Universal can’t deliver a print on time (boy, does this bring up a slew of malaria-chills memories from my own programming days). Miraculously, it works, though I kept wondering if this emergency set-up would be able to generate enough light to show Barry Lyndon during some Kubrick weekend. Then again, I suspect that Barry would be less than ideal programming choice for the demographic at hand.

This is because the theater “regulars” are no less idiosyncratic as the staff, including the inevitable movie expert who regularly drives hundreds of miles to see the shows. He is so articulate with at least a streak of open-mindedness that you can’t call him pompous, but he could probably give you a five-minute monologue on the brand of canola oil used to make the concession popcorn. Understand that I say all this with considerable affection, but this kind of all-out devotion to movies just isn’t in my own DNA, though it fascinates me. Speaking as a onetime programmer, this one would make a fabulous pairing with 2002’s Cinemania (buff-tom nine mad in Manhattan), which remains the final word on the subject.

For added goodies, there are three voiceover commentaries, 17 minutes of outtakes (mostly of short duration) and a Q&A session with principals from a showing of this doc at a Yonkers Alamo Draft House. I’ve always liked exhibitors as a breed, and one in particular (if you don’t count my paternal grandmother) was my biggest mentor of my life when I was first trying to learn what movies were all about. Mattox is instantly recognizable as this brand of prince, which conjures up all kinds of warm feelings on my part — though honest to God, and even from the get-go, I couldn’t see how anyone could have the painstaking patience to string up a fresh reel of film every 20 minutes or so while at least half-watching A Girl Named Tamiko or Dirty Dingus Magee for the 10th time. Bring on the combat pay.

Mike’s Picks: ‘At the Drive-In’ and ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’

The Whole Town’s Talking

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur.

Released during one of John Ford’s typically hectic ’30s years where he also directed Steamboat Round the Bend at Fox and The Informer at RKO, 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking (from Columbia) is more obscure than it ought to be because it is so full of … well, talking points. For starters — and in addition to being a rare Ford comedy against a backdrop contemporary to its filming — it’s a Ford mistaken-identity comedy movie that plays like a Frank Capra vehicle, and there are reasons for that.

The screenwriters here were Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Robert Riskin (10 Capra’s, including most of the big ones spanning The Miracle Worker to Meet John Doe), working at Capra’s home studio for Harry Cohn, a bully it would have been fun to see in the same room with future Rear Adm. Ford. The female lead, charged with playing opposite two Edward G. Robinsons, is Jean Arthur, in the role that finally put her over with critics and audiences at age 34, though she had made her Cameo Kirby screen debut way back in 1923 (for, as symmetry would have it, Ford). And Arthur would soon become the actress most identified with Capra, what with the soon-to-follow Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the first two with Riskin screenplays). Are you putting this all together? Take a cleansing breath.

The other talking point is the picture’s employment of trick photography in what then must have been pretty close to a state-of-the-art rendering because it’s still pretty effective, even in a Talking print that’s not exactly immaculate but cleaner by far than any I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of techno-storytelling that Ford usually eschewed, possibly because there’d come a time in the filmmaking process where, by definition, he might have something less than total control once the lab guys took over. So this is definitely an oddity, though one not likely to be viewed as such by the great unwashed who prefer just to view a movie as a movie and enjoy being tickled by its gimmick.

Which is: That lowly advertising clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Robinson I) bears an uncanny physical resemblance to escaped con “Killer” Manion, whose every move rates banner headlines in the local papers, the way they always do in vintage gangster pics. Jones is meek, though with a very occasional devilish streak — living alone in a modest apartment with a cat, caged bird and an on-the-wall glossy of Wilhemina (“Bill”) Clark (Arthur), devilishly stolen from the office. Manion is just about what you’d assume and what audiences of the day wanted: the “do it my way, see” Robinson who wouldn’t surprise anyone — censors aside — if he referred to the Virgin Mary as a “mug.”

Arthur is finally her prototypical self on screen, and I’d be curious to know if, after a long apprenticeship, this sudden but permanent locking-in of what became her screen persona had anything to do with Ford directing. Here, she’s the one woman in a less than glamorous office of guys (note Ford’s opening shot of the lousy working ambience) and also one of the guys — though least one co-worker pest is hitting on her and there’s the unrequited crush that Jones/Robinson has (hence the stolen picture). Arthur’s character is a wisecracker all the way and cares little if she’s late to work, even in an office run by martinets when it comes to punctuality. Friendly enough toward Jones, the meek clerk is still not anyone who’s particularly on her mind. Meanwhile, and as befitting the “Killer” moniker, this alternative Eddie G. doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities, though Julie Kirgo does a good job in the Twilight Time liner notes noting certain similarities between these two male principals without forcing the issue (and, in fact, they hadn’t occurred to me).

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According to Kirgo and other sources, Robinson was in a career slump when the Warners lent him out for this project, a slide this film’s popularity abated. By 1935, he had branched out a lot since his career-launching Little Caesar days, even at one point donning Chinese makeup for The Hatchet Man. But it’s also true that ’35 was the first full year that the Production Code had teeth (or yellowed dentures, if you prefer), and it also found James Cagney himself moving to the right side of the law as the lead in Warner’s scrappy G-Men and a new tendency to treat gangsters as comical subjects. Audiences for Talking got satisfied both ways with  the sweet Robinson they couldn’t often enjoy (think, say, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes for another example) and the prototypical “do it my, way, see” kind of tough guy that Robinson was even spoofing in the ’60s on his Maxwell House Coffee commercials. He was such a subtly versatile actor that there were a couple of personas left that don’t show up here: the no-nonsense ball of competence (that would be Double Indemnity) and whatever it is that he’s doing in The Ten Commandments (a performance I love because I go into convulsions from the time he first shows up in VistaVision).

So though I find Talking more on the mild side than a lot of its enthusiasts do (I prefer Steamboat and the fallen-from-grace The Informer, to be honest), there’s no question that Ford has a lot of fun with this yarn — whose plot contrivances at various points force the meek Robinson to pretend that he’s the malevolent one and vice versa. The supporting cast is filled with several familiar faces as cops or other spoofable figures of authority (Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Paul Harvey), while Stagecoach’s Donald Meek has a very funny bit as a pest who keeps trying to collect a reward for having spurred the police to arrest the wrong man.

For those who like to follow the trajectories of actor-director teamings, we get Edward Brophy working for Ford as the two-timing minor hood that Manion wants to rub out above all else; two decades later, Brophy ended his big screen career with the best role he ever had in Ford’s adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (it, too, a recent Twilight Time release). According to Kirgo, Robinson and Ford (the latter a near-sociopathic needler) got along during the making of the picture, which certainly puts Robinson in an exclusive club. By all accounts, the actor was one of the nicest guys around, and this would seem to ice the assertion.

Mike’s Picks: ‘At the Drive-In’ and ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’

Wanda

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins.
1971. What stands out about Wanda, aside from the fact that scouting its locations could well have been the most depressing gig in the business, is the degree to which its narrative is still such a downbeat grabber despite all of its raggedness.
Extras: Amy Taubin penned the Criterion essay, and there’s an hour-long audio interview that was done at the AFI in which star Barbara Loden talks a lot about simply getting this labor of love on the screen. We also get the actress/director in a half-hour educational film about a pioneer woman, yet the transcendent standout here is an hour-long documentary on Loden filmed just three months before she died in 1980 at age 48 from cancer.
Read the Full Review 

Phantom Lady

MVD/Arrow, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez.
1944.
After an extended build-up that makes one wonder if the movie will break out into something more, Phantom Lady is ultimately put over by three extended sequences that easily carry the story beyond what turns out to be a resourcefully versatile lead actress (Ella Raines) is already doing.
Extras: Includes an Alan Rode essay and a vintage noir doc that runs just under an hour.
Read the Full Review

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Wanda

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins.

Barbara Loden went from small-town, Southern-bred model to winning a Tony for Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a controversial play full of Marilyn Monroe under-and-overtones that was directed by Loden’s real-life husband, Elia Kazan. Before that, she was also memorable in two Kazan films: as Montgomery Clift’s down-to-earth secretary in Wild River (a tiny role on which she put unique spin) and as the Warren Beatty sister and self-destructive pistol in Splendor in the Grass. Also impressive in its own loonier way was her earlier stint as an Ernie Kovacs TV sidekick, where it’s been said she donned heavy ape makeup to become a sometimes member of the three-simian Nairobi Trio, a contender for Kovacs’ standout concoction along with martini-swilling poet Percy Dovetonsils.

Then, roundabouts 1971, Loden wrote, directed and starred in Wanda (she also raised the money) — something that just wasn’t being done at the time in any mainstream movie milieu and certainly not by a woman. Extremely personable in ways that come across forcefully in bonus features from Criterion’s new Wanda release, Loden is sometimes regarded as one who died (at 48) without fully realizing her artistic gifts, but anyone with this resumé is one I’d automatically have wanted to meet. And what stands out about the finished film — aside from the fact that scouting its locations could well have been the most depressing gig in the business — is the degree to which its narrative is still such a downbeat grabber despite all of Wanda’s $115,000 raggedness. And its origin as a 16mm endeavor blown up to 35mm for the inevitably limited theatrical distribution it got. Well, yesterday’s underachiever sometimes becomes today’s side-door feminist salvo.

The unnamed setting, at least before Wanda becomes an on-the-lam road picture, is the lower-than-low-rent outskirts of Scranton, Pa., a decade before the term “Rust Belt” got coined. The title character (Loden) is introduced sleeping on her sister’s couch with a screaming and possibly unchanged baby niece or nephew nearby; Wanda’s mere presence in the household then precipitates an argument between her sister and brother-in-law as he storms off to work. It’s a discombobulating beginning to a day when she’s scheduled to appear in divorce court, an early appointment to which she is late before showing up in curlers. For her part, the journey just to get there would be arduous for anyone: a protracted trek across coal fields — the long shot of her doing so might be the most effective visual of its type since Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston duked it out from afar in William Wyler’s The Big Country — followed by a bus ride. This is not a story that takes place in Steve Mnuchin-ville.

As both the judge and an estranged husband await her, the latter — who may or may not be a lout; he seems reasonable — is advancing a credible case that Wanda is an unfit mother who flubs nearly all of their children’s needs. When she’s finally able to show up, Wanda agrees in a blink that the kids should go with their father and his new companion. This is a key to her character: She’s passive to a fault, which is probably not inconsistent with her blatant tendency to bed-hop. The fact that she still has her looks — and with no help from her wardrobe or makeup — means that she frequently gets unnuanced opportunities from the litany of male slugs who come her way. Then, purely by chance, she meets someone who gives her life some much-desired regimentation by telling her exactly what to do with the threat of punishment — even down to which condiments to order on his carryout hamburger.

Unfortunately, the value of such tutelage is limited, given that this colossally dyspeptic sort (Michael Higgins) is a petty thief who, unknowingly to Wanda, is robbing the otherwise empty bar where the two meet late at night as the bartender lies unconscious-or-close out of sight under the cash register. Faced with an existential decision — not that “existential” is a word thrown around too often in this film — she elects to join him for a life in shabby hotel rooms and convenience store “eats.” We immediately have a sense that this isn’t going to end well — and, in fact, it didn’t for the real-life woman whose news story inspired Loden to make this film in the first place. Yet in an odd way, as things turned out, the result actually may have, a pitiful resolution (Loden often related it in interviews) that’ll intrigue anyone with a sense of irony.

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For all of Loden’s accomplishments in getting a largely successful movie on the screen, Higgins deserves a lot of credit here because his characterization is so eminently watchable. With glasses and close-cropped hair that make him look like certain pictures of John Dillinger — it’s a visage much closer to the Warren Oates/John Milius screen Dillinger than Lawrence Tierney in the ’40s sleeper at Monogram — he’s the complete tinderbox of exploding emotions without many redeeming qualities. And yet, he does display genuine affection for a couple senior men here, one of them his father. It would be fascinating to get a bead on this guy’s backstory — though, as with everyone in this movie, he probably started without a single card in the deck that would have even allowed him to break out into, say, Pittsburgh.

The big women critics of the day — Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Kathleen Carroll — all dumped on Wanda in large part because of the title character, who wasn’t much of a role model then for young women and is even less of one now. But in terms of portraying basic survival instincts (the day-to-day kind, that is, without any long-term goals), it immerses one in its story pretty well from the get-go. Loden also thoroughly immerses herself in the role, a performance that never gives away that she was a whole lot sharper than the character she was playing. The contrast is so striking that it almost rates a chuckle when we see Loden comparably dolled up but still looking natural on a Dick Cavett promotional appearance in early ’71, included as a bonus extra. (The other guests are Jimmy Breslin and Howard Cosell, just before the first Ali-Frazier fight, further proof that the ’70s Cavett shows had no talk-show peers when it came to smorgasbord guests — ever).

Amy Taubin — who’s a critic I’d want to read on this movie — penned the Criterion essay, and there’s an hour-long audio interview that was done at the AFI where Loden talks a lot about simply getting this labor of love on the screen (after several attempts with others, she basically stumbled into finding a financial angel when she wasn’t even trying). We also get the actress/director in a half-hour educational film about a pioneer woman, yet the transcendent standout here is an hour-long documentary on Loden by Katja Raganelli that was filmed just three months before the former’s death in 1980 at age 48 from cancer. Loden looks amazingly in shape here — and, in fact, was on an intensive dance regimen — but she has that look through the eyes that often hints that someone is really sick.

Briefly appearing in the doc is cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes, who always seems to have the camera in the right place throughout Wanda without making deal of it; he subsequently shot Kazan’s The Visitors not much later when that two-time Oscar winner decided to go minimalist himself. Loden often compared Wanda’s passivity to her onetime self, and Kazan had to have been a demanding companion, judging from his autobiography (which is in a total class by itself when taken with all the other show biz memoirs I’ve read over nearly 65 years). Take it from there, but there’s also a long passage in the Raganelli documentary where Kazan goes on and on and on praising Loden’s virtues both as a talent and as a human being. It’s really moving and certainly appears to come from the heart.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’

Phantom Lady

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez.

Known earlier in his career as co-director of a German-cinema milestone on which seemingly every future Hollywood émigré legend labored (People on Sunday), Robert Siodmak enjoyed a mostly terrific and certainly prolific Hollywood run from about 1944 to 1952, until a subsequent life of hard bumps and relative oblivion commenced. He’s among the directors who first come to mind in any discussion of film noir, though let it be noted that he managed to cap his American career with Burt Lancaster’s widely adored The Crimson Pirate, which can still show the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise a thing or two (and this is speaking as one who’s not un-fond of the first one).

Phantom Lady was Siodmak’s noir launcher, sandwiched between Son of Dracula (Lon Chaney as Count Alucard, and you’d better spell it backwards) and Maria Montez’s Cobra Woman (in Technicolor and with a script co-penned by Richard Brooks, who probably didn’t learn too much he later could bring to Blackboard Jungle from the experience). After an extended build-up that makes one wonder if the movie will break out into something more, Lady is ultimately put over by three extended sequences that easily carry the story beyond what turns out to be a resourcefully versatile lead actress (Ella Raines) is already doing. These set-pieces benefit from Siodmak’s accomplished eye and, one would assume, Elwood “Woody” Bredell — a cinematographer I had to look up because he was unknown to me. Turns out he shot two other Siodmak noirs (and two of the best: Christmas Holiday and Burt Lancaster’s star-maker The Killers) and then a pair of Warner Technicolor achievements that have been 60-year personal favorites: Doris Day’s star-maker Romance on the High Seas and Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, which I love almost as much as The Adventures of Robin Hood (there, I said it). Why didn’t Bredell work more?

Anyway. The Lady script (Bernard C. Shoenfeld adapting William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich) asks a lot in terms of asking us to accept coincidences and other unlikely events. A New York architect under the thumb of his estranged wife’s money (Alan Baxter) is accused of strangling her, and his alibi is a classy but depressed woman he picked up at a bar but whose heavily depressed state at the time kept her from divulging her name. Baxter later can’t locate her, the bartender claims never to have seen her, and soon this rather abruptly convicted victim is on death’s row. In lieu of help from a best friend (Franchot Tone) who’s out of the country, Baxter’s only hope is the sleuthing of his secretary (Ella Raines) who is constantly finding herself in life-threatening situations once it becomes clear that something about the whole deal smells highly suspect.

Here’s an 87-minute movie in which top-billed Tone doesn’t show up for nearly an hour, which means that the burden is on the mostly straight-arrow, Wichita-bred assistant Raines is playing — though in one of those three standout scenes, she rather spectacularly tarts herself up to masquerade as what used to be a called a “chippie” (a good word whose common usage I miss). This part of the story includes the famous drumming sequence by one of the bribed heavies here (Elisa Cook Jr.), whose studio-dubbed playing at a jam session is either supposed to come off as orgasmic or some kind of Gene Krupa-ish reefer madness. (Poor Gene. Whenever he’d come on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, the disapproving mother of a friend of mine used to yell, “dissipated” at the screen. She also did the same to did as well as any tube image of comedian and game show host Jan Murray, but I’m not necessarily her to give you my life story.)

When Tone finally shows up, he displays a few eccentricities of his own, which means he fits right into the package. It’s a twitchy performance that works for me and is certainly unlike anything else I can think of in the actor’s history (had he played the vice president’s role like this in Otto Preminger’s better-than-ever adaptation of Advise and Consent, it definitively would have put a decidedly different cast on the movie). Tone’s extended scene with Raines late in the picture is another of the picture’s big moments, along with Cook’s drum frenzy and Raines’s nocturnal pursuit of the bartender in her attempt to determine why the guy lied about never having seen the woman who was sitting at the bar with Baxter.

By this time — and even though his situation is what motivates the entire plot — the Baxter character becomes kind of the forgotten man. An actor who died in real life at 43 — and was, I’m flabbergasted to see, onetime Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth’s real-life uncle — Baxter was one of those actors who, like John Carroll and John Lund (though I always liked Lund), donned a mustache in some futile attempt to become the new Clark Gable. Ultimately, this is Raines’s picture from her biggest year in the movies (1944), when she also had the female lead in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (my favorite Sturges, says this son of a World War II Marine) and Tall in the Saddle — in which the bluejeaned/tomboy persona she projected in it made her one of John Wayne’s best leading ladies ever. I don’t know why Raines didn’t become a bigger star, but working for Universal in the ’40s and then Republic in the ’50s likely wasn’t the way to go about it.

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Visually, the Arrow Blu-ray is definitely a step up from the old TCM DVD, and that’s important when we’re dealing with shadows, fog, streetlights on pavement and that sexy/trashy black outfit Raines uncharacteristically dons when working undercover to determine just what Cook’s seamy story is. Extras include an Alan Rode essay (class) and a vintage noir doc that runs just under an hour that is better in the early and more germane going (appearances by Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk) than it is later on when John Dahl, Dennis Hopper, Carl Franklin and Bryan Singer talk about neo-noir, which tends to date the package, though some may disagree. It’s never a loss, though, seeing directors talk about their works, especially ones that have followings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Road to Utopia’

The Body Snatcher

Shout! Factory, Horror, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade.
1945.
The Body Snatcher finds the young Robert Wise in his career breakout (or something close), adapting a Robert Louis Stevenson story into a 77-minute fan favorite that goes against certain expectations.
Extras: Beyond 4K scanning, the Blu-ray is a nice mix between the recycled and new, starting with a shared commentary between Wise (who died in 2005) and Steve Haberman. There’s also the 2005 doc Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, plus the new featurette You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher.
Read the Full Review 

Road to Utopia

Kino Lorber; Comedy; $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Douglass Dumbrille.
1945.
The fourth of the “Road” pictures hinges on a stolen map to an Alaskan gold mine.
Extras: In addition to recycling a long-ago featurette on the series, there’s a new joint commentary by producer/historian Greg Ford and music historian Will Friedwald. We also get the 1945 short subject Hollywood Victory Caravan.
Read the Full Review