Mike’s Picks: ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ and ‘Rider on the Rain’

Can’t Stop the Music

Shout! Factory, Musical, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Bruce Jenner, Valerine Perrine, The Village People, Steve Guttenberg.
1980.
Feel-good Can’t Stop the Music has all the makings of a cult movie with the passage of time, but its disco DNA ultimately might have been a commercial liability in its time as it tried to beckon fickle audiences.
Extras: The compatibly teamed writer-comic Bruce Vilanch and filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz provide a commentary. There’s also an interview with The Village People’s Randy Jones.
Read the Full Review

Rider on the Rain

Kino Lorber, Thriller, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13.’
Stars Charles Bronson, Marlene Jobert.
1970.
Despite a scene in which Charles Bronson dispatches a trio of polished punks in an upscale brothel, the onetime sleeper arthouse hit Rider on the Rain often emphasizes the actor’s sweeter side.
Extras: Includes a commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.
Read the Full Review

Can’t Stop the Music

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Musical;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Bruce Jenner, Valerine Perrine, The Village People, Steve Guttenberg.

Around the time mainstream movies belatedly began paying heed to the “Gay Zeitgeist” (now there’s a rock-group moniker in the making), feel-good Can’t Stop the Music was shooting on location very close to where William Friedkin’s sordid Cruising was doing the same. Feel-good or not, as things turned out, you can’t say that ‘PG’ Music made its investors feel all that invigorated — any more than the Friedkin picture could be sold as anyone’s mainstream movie at a South Bucyrus multiplex, despite United Artists giving it a release.

The compatibly teamed writer-comic Bruce Vilanch and filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz (The Life and Times of Allan Carr) make a point of this ironic production coincidence a couple times on the commentary for Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray premiere of what one can confidently assume will be the only screen teaming of Bruce Jenner (well, back in the day) and The Village People. But speaking on a camp level, it’s just as instructive to note that Music opened only a month after The Gong Show Movie, which had its own approach to synergistic casting: TV holdovers Jaye P. Morgan and the Bait Brothers but this time in 1.85:1. For those who gaze at current-day marquees and lament the preponderance of superhero movies for latently developed boy-men and coffee table fare for the blue-hairs, this match-up shows that there was an absurdly titillating time when the movies really did offer more than “a choice, not an echo,” as the Goldwater Republicans used to say. Call it a different kind of diversity.

Producer Carr was coming off Grease-on-screen plus several movie-marketing triumphs behind the scenes and was thus seen as one who had all the box office answers of the day. Uncredited Vilanch, who was the project’s first writer, recalls how a litany of actresses starting with Jacqueline Bisset kept turning down offers to be Music’s female lead. And they’d do this after the script had been refashioned (again) to their specific personas —to such a degree that you almost got the sense that Maria Ouspenskaya would have gotten her shot had she still been alive. In the end, Valerie Perrine took it on when just six years earlier, she’d gotten a deserving Oscar nomination for Lenny.

This, perhaps, should have been a hint that Music’s disco DNA ultimately might prove to be a commercial liability by the time it tried to beckon fickle audiences. Another eyebrow-raiser was Comiskey Park’s notorious 1979 “Disco Demolition Night,” which occurred as the picture was shooting. It, of course, remains a National Pastime catastrophe as riotously indelible as 1974’s Cleveland Indians “Ten Cent Beer Night” (or, “Cuyahoga Drunks Storm the Field”) as we approach the Comiskey 40th anniversary next month. To the chanting of “Disco Sucks,” thousands of fans tossed disco records onto the groundskeeper’s best work between games of a Chicago White Sox-Detroit Tigers double header — eventually storming the field after a monsoon of 45s and LPs had been literally detonated and exploded by Chicago shock-jock Steve Dahl. I was working in Detroit at the time and feared that Tigers co-announcer George Kell (a Hall of Fame third baseman) was going to have a stroke right in the booth.

Be that as it may, here’s what (few) paying customers saw in 1980 and what they’ll see again on the Blu-ray of this almost inevitable cult movie (thanks to, of course, the passage of time). First off, we get Perrine as a professional model with a brotherly thing going with Steve (“Direct from the Weight Room”) Guttenberg — the latter’s first major role, though he’d previously played a murder victim in The Boys From Brazil. This time, he’s a songwriter with a rich mom (June Havoc, the real-life “Baby June” from Gypsy); perhaps this is the time to note that Music has quite a smorgasbord cast.

The lad dreams of mounting an album and who knows what else, given the character’s somewhat vague sexuality, though our best guess is that he’s simply a guileless innocent calculated to appeal to all those ‘PG’ family audiences who possibly got ambushed by seeing Perrine frolicking naked in a bubbly pool with the Village People. Entering the picture, direct from Squaresville, is lawyer Jenner, who’s also involved in getting the People’s act off the ground. He also has rich parents (Barbara Rush is mom), though only at the movie’s end do both mothers’ mad-money reserves turn into a GoFundMe account during their offsprings’ otherwise desperate financial straits.

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This is one of those movies where somebody always knows somebody who knows somebody can help realize this kind of impossibly lofty goal in a relative snap. Were this a picture where Guttenberg wanted to blast off to the moon in a homemade rocket from the top of his apartment, someone in the cast would have an uncle who used to clean the boiler room at NASA, and after an hour of screen time, Steve would be in orbit. To be sure, 1980 was a long time ago — Rubik’s Cube and Post-It Notes both launched that year — but this kind of Mickey-Judy premise wasn’t going to sell even then, at least with leads who had no flair for light comedy.

On the other hand, how do you put a price on seeing the Village People naked and immersed in suds during the “Y.M.C.A.” locker room/shower montage? (Say, all you ‘PG’ kids, isn’t this more fun than watching “The Jetsons”?) Or Rush and Havoc joining the rest of the cast in a bop-out to the title tune at the end? Or having Jack Weston improbably show up out of nowhere? (As Vilanch notes, “Carr filmed his Rolodex” here.) Or noting the ‘A’-list talent helping out director Nancy Walker, including Bill Butler (Jaws) as cinematographer and Theoni V. Aldredge for some of the costuming? So is this what it took to deliver what the Blu-ray box art still calls “The Movie Musical Event of the ’80s”? Let’s just say that it’s a good thing the ad department added the “Movie” qualifier to the copy because, otherwise, Bruce Springsteen might have been hacked. Besides, Xanadu was waiting in the wings; it opened later that same summer.

The Village People’s Randy Jones gets interviewed in this release’s bonus section, and he seems beyond grateful for the experience, which was a way for an ADHD kid (and I empathize there) to find his place. Vilanch is surprisingly restrained on the voiceover but is unusually first-and-informative because he observed a lot of the production from both inside and out. Whenever his memory infrequently falters, co-commentator Schwarz manages to be fairly encyclopedic in terms of his overall knowledge.

Vilanch says that when he finally saw the movie, it was in a regular theater with Bette Midler, who turned to him and said (despite her liking for Carr), “I can stop the music.” Seeing this kind of movie with Midler is indisputably cool, so let me take the opportunity here to note that Bruce (Vilanch, that is, not the Neo-Caitlin in any form) are old college newspaper buddies, and that back in 1968, I saw Barbarella first-run with him. In fact, he talked me and a couple other fellow college newspaper scribes into huffing our way up the Midwest aisle at its conclusion and stage-whispering “shocking” and “outrageous.” This is a theater that had previously played Mary Poppins for six months, followed by a year-and-a-half run of The Sound of Music (aka Can’t Stop the Germans).

Mike’s Picks: ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ and ‘Rider on the Rain’

Rider on the Rain

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Thriller;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Charles Bronson, Marlene Jobert.

Despite a scene in which Charles Bronson dispatches a trio of polished punks in an upscale brothel, the onetime sleeper arthouse hit Rider on the Rain often emphasizes the actor’s sweeter side. What, you say? Well, OK, this isn’t to deny that Chuck doles some out pretty rough psychological treatment (albeit for a cause) to co-star Marlene Jobert, who plays a woman who has just been brutally raped. But his anti-Death Wish persona here isn’t truly consistent with a Photoshop mash-up I saw last year of a so-called Bronson Christmas album, whose dreamed-up selections included at least three personal favorites of mine: Knock Off Those Jingle Bells, If I Catch You Kissing Santa Claus and Make With the Gifts … Pronto!

There’s a relative minimum of that kind of attitude here. In fact, you can make a pretty fair case — and bonus track commentators Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson do — that Rider is the movie that put Bronson over for international audiences that included a lot of women, which had a trickle-down effect on his lead-actor fortunes in America. Before then, Bronson had been a distinctive face (billed by his real name, Charles Buchinsky) all the way back to George Cukor’s Pat and Mike and a little before, including a memorable turn as the well-named “Igor” in House of Wax. After that, Vera Cruz, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Once Upon a Time in the West cemented his status as an action “reliable.” But this picture was something different because Bronson got to wear a suit, though apparently Bronson had initial misgivings about fancier threads the way that Steve McQueen did when he

In this case, Bronson plays … well, maybe I shouldn’t say because Rider isn’t all that well known these days, though it once got a lot of 3 a.m. showings on TV. Come to think, the entire picture is a spoiler maze of twists and turns as we try to figure out what the hell is going on, though thankfully, the script seems aware that it’s been a bit scatterbrained throughout and does a satisfying job of mopping up during the final scenes. In its defense, the movie does begin with a quotation comparing Jobert as the heroine to Alice in Alice in Wonderland, which can be seen as a ticket for the filmmakers to go full crazy-quilt.

So out of the French rain — this is one overcast picture throughout — comes a bus passenger who’d look pretty scary even without the face mask he eventually dons. And he’s especially so, since he’s stalking Jobert — a puzzling-to-me total innocent who’s married to a loutish airline navigator (and this is near-incidental to the plot) with few redeeming values. With her husband is away on a another of his frequent flights, the stalker breaks into the house, puts on his mask and rapes Jobert — an ugly scene by any standards but one whose specifics are largely suggested (the film now carries a ‘PG-13’ when it originally had a long ago — and long-discarded — ‘M’). The result sets off some mayhem involving corpses — a mystery that for reasons of his own, stranger Bronson shows up to sleuth.

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I’ve been a 50-year Jobert fan, and I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I also think she’s one of the best-looking actresses who was ever in the movies (I have a history of redheads being my downfall). Here, though, I think that despite strong chemistry with Bronson, her attempts to play a mostly guileless hottie who eventually wises up (some) makes her come off as borderline simple — especially given that the character was eyewitness to some rather sordid behavior when she was growing up. This is to say that her still attractive mother (Annie Cordy, rounding out great mom-daughter casting) has, as used to be said, “been around.” She is now, of all things, running a bowling alley, though she’s a lot more chic in appearance than the women who give me my own size-11’s before I prepare to roll a 101. By the way, Wikipedia notes that Cordy’s recording of “La Ballade de Davy Crockett” (which is what you think it is) was No. 1 on the French charts for five weeks. I need a drink.

Rider’s standout virtue is its character dynamics, and the voiceover trio is correct on the bonus track in noting that were this an American TV movie (which would be its more likely Hollywood genesis), the running time would be 74 minutes instead of the two hours we get and would have the guts completely cut out of it. Instead, the great producer Serge Silberman (a slew of super late Bunuel films and Kurosawa’s Ran) found himself with France’s third-biggest grosser of its year and a big-city crossover hit with sophisticated audiences over here, who probably weren’t going to Airport; I saw it first-run in New York amid a lot of buzz. This would have been the dubbed version, which is a yahoo-magnet I generally hate, though the job done here isn’t bad. I’ve written this piece from seeing the Blu-ray’s also included and barely longer French cut, which is still very close to what I saw in 1970, with techno-changes that are on the inside-baseball (or inside-something) side.

Veteran director Rene Clement gave the movie has a soft look, which many French thrillers/mysteries had back then, and the visual rendering is pretty close to what I remember, which was never going to sport a vital color palate in the first place. After taking all the time to learn his French phonetically, it must have irked Bronson when U.S. distributor Avco-Embassy then dubbed the movies for American audiences (and he’d already been a kid, as the son of an immigrant Lithuanian coal miner, who didn’t learn English until he was in his teens). It all worked out, and Bronson became something of a drive-in/grindhouse superstar in the ’70s, but you have to wonder if his initial reaction was to flash on a fourth title that appears on the LP jacket of that fanciful Christmas LP: Meet Saint Smith & Saint Wesson.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ and ‘Rider on the Rain’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Between the Lines’ and ‘Warlock’

Between the Lines

Street Date 6/18/19
Cohen, Comedy, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum, Gwen Welles.
1977. As an easygoing, era-specific comedy that both lauded and poked mild fun at the disillusioned hip, Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (with a knowing script by Fred Barron) also had at least a couple of elements that made it ahead of its time and thus an attention-getting view when seen today.
Bonus: There’s about a 15-minute bonus interview with Silver on this Blu-ray that isn’t too revealing, but she does come off as one to whom actors would respond. Favorably.
Read the Full Review

Warlock

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone.
1959.
This heavily psychological reworking of the Wyatt Earp saga is about as good as anything Edward Dmytryk did after Broken Lance, courtesy of a talky but grown-up script by Robert Alan Arthur, adapted from an Oakley Hall novel.
Read the Full Review

 

Between the Lines

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 6/18/19;
Cohen;
Comedy;
$29.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum, Gwen Welles.

As an easygoing, era-specific comedy that both lauded and poked mild fun at the disillusioned hip, Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (with a knowing script by Fred Barron) also had at least a couple of elements that made it ahead of its time and thus an attention-getting view when seen today. One was general and the other specific — the first dealing with male attitudes toward their co-workers and girlfriends in and around the Boston newsroom of an alternative weekly. The guys aren’t exactly blatantly crude; in this milieu, you’re going to see centerfolds on the walls. But often they’re unmistakably patronizing toward women — especially when it’s women who seem to work more and procrastinate less.

The other element was real crystal ball stuff in terms of what is still happening to newspapers: There’s a potential new publisher working the wings — the type who talks a good game but will likely, if the deal does materialize, purge what he can from a publication whose sales are already slipping so it can more easily fit it into his cookie-cutter chain. The 1977 movie didn’t know it at the time, but the feel-good Reagan era was just three years away, and alternate papers aren’t designed to make readers feel all that great. The makers also couldn’t have known that the actor playing the potential publisher (Lane Smith) would end up playing Richard Nixon in the TV movie of The Final Days (and to considerable acclaim). It’s the kind of kicker that can make a movie get better with the years without even trying.

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Otherwise, low-budget Lines is modest enough to pass as a more politically savvy feature version of “Friends” — though, so as not to go overboard on the comparison, one that’s far more up-front about the sex and where the quality of apartments is about 20,000 leagues down the food chain (as is the quality of the food in the refrigerators). At the time I first saw this picture — which was when I showed it in the AFI upstairs screening room to the key DC entertainment journalists to rollicking enthusiasm — I didn’t know a lot of the key actors, who were not yet widely known. It marked the first time, for instance, I’d ever seen John Heard and only the second time I’d seen Jeff Goldblum after he’d blown a hole in the screen with a couple amazing scenes in Paul Mazurksy’s grand Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Lindsay Crouse, though, had recently made a strong impression with her memorably down-to-earth turn in Slap Shot, the Paul Newman/George Roy Hill hockey romp that had opened just two months earlier.

So in terms of engaging performances coming out of left field, the movie was something of a surprise. Heard is the paper’s borderline funk-affected reporting ace with an on-and-off thing for photographer Crouse. Colleague Stephen Collins, an object of envy because he’s just gotten a book advance, is in a stormy relationship with his dancer wife (Gwen Welles, previously the unforgettable “Sueleen Gay” from Robert Altman’s Nashville). Goldblum plays the rock critic/wannabe pickup artist— how could he not in this kind of movie? —  perpetually stoned on life.

Jill Eikenberry is the office typist plus seemingly the staff’s least assuming member, but then we see her come through in the clutch at the end. Bruno Kirby is the rookie reporter — so green that he makes even Goldblum look polished, and bean counter Lewis J. Stadlen outfits himself in manner fully consistent with his litany of social gaucheries, which include pawing Eikenberry (with whom he is smitten). Michael J. Pollard wanders in and out of the story’s edges hawking the paper on the street — and as usual with the actor, we immediately think, “Not a single brain cell is left.” There’s a lot of camaraderie here, a lot of musical beds, a lot of dust-ups and a lot of drinking — the last after work in a more intimate saloon setting or when Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are appearing at a booze-soaked event (it was a nice touch having them appear here).

Silver was coming off Hester Street, which turned out to be a surprise indie hit after few had given it much commercial encouragement (the reviews were good, too), followed by the very well received TV movie Bernice Bobs Her Hair. You can see from Between the Lines that she didn’t do very much with the camera, but she had a rapport with actors, and it was no puny feat getting this level of ensemble work out of a large and largely untested cast. In Lines’ case, she had even worked a short while at the Village Voice, though it was likely Barron’s experiences at the Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper that shaped the narrative (his screenplay already existed before Silver became involved). There’s about a 15-minute bonus interview with Silver on this Blu-ray that isn’t too revealing, but she does come off as one to whom actors would respond. Favorably.

I realize that some of the characters here are full of themselves and when, like everyone else, they’re looking out for old No. 1 while trying to convince themselves they’re not. This puts off certain viewers, but these were the times, and maybe they still are, as young turks juggle for position in a cutthroat position profession — one that, in this case, pays Goldblum $75 a week (plus all the review-copy vinyls that he can unload at the local used record store).

Of all the actors at the time, I was probably most taken with Heard because Goldblum, who’s just as good here, was at least a slightly known quantity (the hot temper he displayed in his Greenwich Village characterization is gone here, but the tics and neuroses remain intact). Heard would soon parlay this movie into Silver’s follow-up Chilly Scenes of Winter and his great Cutter’s Way performance — an over-the-top achievement that totally pulls off its flamboyance when it could have been a haunch of ham. Both are cult movies that rated Blu-ray releases from Twilight Time, and (with Lines) formed a very promising triumvirate for the actor. Later, when I had to pick lint off my socks watching Heard in Home Alone, my popcorn congealed.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Between the Lines’ and ‘Warlock’

Warlock

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone.

Warlock has surprised me in recent years by showing up in multiple chat room discussions I’ve stumbled across that deal in particular or in passing with underrated Westerns. The surprise comes from my having actually seen the picture during its initial theatrical run in spring of 1959 at a downtown movie palace (called The Palace) and not having been particularly bowled over. (For one thing, Rio Bravo had opened just a few weeks previously.)

Looking at its new Twilight Time Blu-ray, I still think that a lot of the directorial fire went out of Edward Dmytryk’s belly after he came back from the Blacklist, but Warlock isn’t another of his later pictures that never quite deliver on their potential, such as The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County (which was an admittedly troubled production), The Young Lions and even The Mountain, which had Spencer Tracy and VistaVision photography of the French Alps. Instead, this heavily psychological reworking of the Wyatt Earp saga is about as good as anything Dmytryk did after Broken Lance, courtesy of a talky but grown-up script by Robert Alan Arthur, adapted from an Oakley Hall novel. Thanks to Julie Kirgo’s liner Twilight Time notes, I learned that Hall’s source novel was a Pulitzer finalist and that Thomas Pynchon himself was a big fan of Hall’s work.

To get a little cute here on the Pynchon front, let’s just say that Warlock (the town) has its share of inherent vice. It originates with a local thug who’s shacked up just beyond town limits and played to general surprise by that literal boy-next-door Tom Drake; he’s good enough here to have had a better post-MGM career than he had. Displaying a slightly cooler demeanor than the band of hothead hoods under his wing, Drake is still a part of their regular ride-ins to wreak mayhem and dispatch local lawmen to their graves. The more moneyed citizens have finally had it and agree to pay a professional town tamer $400 a month, which embarrassingly outpaces the salary of the official sheriff. The deal is that this uncommonly polished usurper will basically set up himself up as a dictator, his approach to keeping these and other lawbreaking creeps on the straight and narrow on penalty of instant death. Expect town egos to be ruffled here and there — and to be sure, this gunman has a history of past employers eventually turning against him.

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Henry Fonda has this role, and it’s an interesting characterization. In his frequent urbane moments, Fonda recalls his own performance and visage as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s all-timer My Darling Clementine. But other times, his manner of dress at times anticipates his dark garb in Sergio Leone’s Once Up a Time in the West, which wouldn’t be filmed for nearly another decade after some full-gonzo casting made possible Fonda’s bravura turn as one of the bedrock villains in Western-movie history. It’s as if Dmytryk and the costumers acted upon the dichotomy of the character’s personality without knowing it.

And now for the central wrinkle: Fonda has a traveling companion (his Doc Holliday, so to speak) who’s cozy enough in their uncommon buddy arrangement — say, what’s going on here? — to reduce the film’s two lead actresses (Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels) to not much more than marquee bait. Rarely are they credible romantic forces, even granting that Michaels is involved with a third party in what is essentially a serious bromance. As Fonda’s tag-along buddy with, I’m guessing here, a great cologne collection — Anthony Quinn is a snappy-looking silver-hair who’s faster with a gun than Fonda but with a huge inferiority complex from being afflicted by a clubfoot. Because Quinn is as restrained here as I’ve ever seen him, he’s also as good as I’ve ever seen him, and both he and Fonda tend to relegate top-billed Richard Widmark to “dependable” status when it comes to dominating scenes.

Widmark’s character, however, fits in with the movie’s sub-theme of redemption: He’s an increasingly reluctant and disillusioned member of Drake’s gang who maintains threadbare allegiance so that he can watch the back of a  younger brother (a minor but mouthy Drake subordinate) from getting killed. I did not remember that Frank Gorshin has this kid brother role, which would indicate that the mannerisms for Gorshin’s hysterical Widmark impression of later years — one of the comic’s many — came halfway from the source. (And yes, they two did look a little alike.) Eventually, Widmark has a complete change of heart and becomes officially designated town lawman, which puts him into not always unfriendly conflict with Fonda.

For a movie shot by the great and underrated Joe MacDonald (a Dmytryk regular who also photographed Clementine), Warlock has a lot of those static compositions we see in too many Fox widescreen pictures from the era, and it was around this time that my 12-year-old self started to notice that the color values of, say, even minor Paramount releases blew concurrently released Fox titles out of the water. The presentation here can’t do much to alleviate these built-in limitation, but again, this is a picture that makes it on the strength of some not infrequently pointed writing, two key performances and a posed moral dilemma that remains intriguing.

There is also, for Western fans, a remarkable roster of bedrock supporting players, with familiar faces like L.Q. Jones, Richard Arlen, Ann Doran and Gary Lockwood entering and leaving before they can barely make an impression. Also around are a bearded Wallace Ford as a judge and borderline crackpot; Don Beddoe, who to my recollection must have played enough pioneer town docs to rate a career citation from the Dropsy Foundation; High Noon heavy Ian MacDonald (he was Frank Miller, in fact) as a guy named … MacDonald; Walter Coy, who was John Wayne’s massacred older brother in The Searchers; plus DeForest Kelley in a fairly important role as a gang member with a conscience.

And yes, you probably asked for it, so you’re going to get it: There’s also good old ubiquitous Whit Bissell, the actor who told Melvyn Douglas to shoot the sick cattle in Hud; tried to make sense of Kevin McCarthy’s pod rantings in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and  “invented” Michael Landon’s hairier self in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Back in its heyday, I read once that if the porn industry were ever to be outlawed, the entire Southern California economy would go with it. This must have been what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s when Bissell’s incessant employment presumably facilitated studio cash flows. There’s no way you could have this kind of movie without Bissell showing up somewhere — though in this case, Beddoe had already cornered the market (again) regarding Warlock’s doctor role, relegating Bissell into playing yet another “town father” — one of his specialties.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Between the Lines’ and ‘Warlock’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

The Big Clock: Special Edition

MVD/Arrow, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready.
1948.
With a larkish approach to drinking straight plus several wacky asides, the toned-down movie of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock isn’t exactly “noir” yet would still be a tough one to leave off a comprehensive list of films that are.
Extras: Among the extras is an impressively thought-out commentary by scholar Adrian Martin.
Read the Full Review 

Baby the Rain Must Fall

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray.
1965.
Despite its shortcomings, Baby is still a rewarding view for pure historical perspective if you love to follow career trajectories.
Read the Full Review

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The Big Clock: Special Edition

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready.

With a larkish approach to drinking straight out of The Thin Man plus several wacky asides in keeping with Elsa Lanchester’s chortle-bait presence in the supporting cast as a bohemian artist, the toned-down 1948 movie of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock isn’t exactly “noir” yet would still be a tough one to leave off a comprehensive list of films that are. For one thing, Gilda’s George Macready is in it, looking as ever as if his bed likely has a built-in shelf under the mattress for a stash of whips. For another, one homoerotic scene with publisher Charles Laughton and his “fixer” (a relatively buff Harry Morgan) in a massage table milieu doesn’t exactly portend a Great Outdoors Technicolor musical set against a wagon train.

Fearing’s novel has enough of a rep to have rated inclusion in a Library of America volume, but there was no way 1948 Hollywood was capable of indulging its casual approach to adultery or one major character being a lesbian. There’s so much hustle-bustle going on here, though, that the absence of these narrative possibilities is barely missed. Either via the actor involved or fictional character from the written page, I’ve already alluded to four individuals in the narrative without even completing a second paragraph. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the main protagonist (Ray Milland), who edits Crimeways magazine for the Manhattan-based Laughton empire whose building lobby boasts an imposing giant clock that’s always correct down to the last sliver of a second.

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The picture is quite astute in having anticipated today’s media conglomerates, and though Roger Ailes was a No. 2 who still had to answer to Rupert Murdoch at Fox, Laughton does a great job that he obviously wasn’t aware of in portraying Ailes’s corpulence while cast here as the key corporate honcho. Armed with a revolting personality and power-wielding amorality, he at one point threatens to blackball Milland in the profession merely because the latter would like a vacation. He also plays around, which gets him into trouble when his current mistress ends up dead in brutal fashion; putting a memorable spin on the role is Rita Johnson, an actress whose career was largely curtailed when brain surgery largely failed to correct the aftereffects of a hair dryer freakishly falling on her just a few months after the movie premiered.

Complicating screen matters is the fact that Milland rather publicly had drinks with this once mercurial victim in nightspots (both trendy and un-) shortly before her ugly payoff. (Milland doesn’t serially cheat on his wife the way he does in the novel but will still always have a drink or 12 with a strange woman if asked). The story’s subsequent gimmick — and it’s a good one — is one of the few things that remained in the acknowledged yet all but unrecognizable 1987 remake, No Way Out, much of which is set in the Pentagon. And this is that the person in charge of the sleuthing (Laughton wants Crimeways and Milland to solve the case) finds all the evidence pointing in his direction. This takes a most tolerant wife, and the one here is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, who is adamant that she and Milland take a years-delayed love trip with their son to Wheeling. (Apparently, the conglomerate doesn’t own a travel-tips publication.)

But O’Sullivan turns out to be a valuable assistant to her husband, who otherwise has only an assortment of colorful barflies to watch his back when the increasingly malevolent Laughton becomes adversarial. Laughton’s own helpers are more threatening, the kind that power-mad sociopaths who work in buildings named after them can afford. Macready, his No. 2, is the polished, dominant one (though the way things are going, he’d better watch his back), and Morgan is around for rough stuff — never once speaking a word in the movie, preferring to let his actions do all his shouting. Without giving much away — note that the movie begins in flashback with our protagonist on the lam inside the corporate headquarters — the deeply-in-trouble Milland has to ankle it all over the skyscraper looking for hiding places, the clock among them.

The director is John Farrow, who was married to O’Sullivan in real life and fathered a sizable brood that included Mia. On an impressively thought-out Blu-ray commentary, scholar Adrian Martin tries making the case (and he’s not alone) that Farrow was badly underrated. Maybe, but he made a lot of clunkers, with this picture and John Wayne’s Hondo probably topping the list of his career achievements. (Other high-enders include Milland’s Alias Nick Beal, the intentional camp-fest His Kind of Woman, and a few solid entertainments like Two Years Before the Mast and A Bullet Is Waiting.) Along with a really good script by Jonathan Latimer, one has to concede that Farrow’s flair for movement here (note the all the scenes where multiple characters zip out of the frame and back) really carry the day over one of two things I could do without (the final bit is a little cutesy).

Another Adrian (Wootton) appears on camera to discuss Farrow and the movie’s origin as well, while the actor Simon Callow brings to his discussion of Laughton the historical and analytical ammo he attained writing an outstanding ‘90s bio of the actor, which I read not long after its publication. Callow makes a tough-to-refute case that 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame so burned out Laughton that the actor lost his edge until almost the end of his career — though this movie, Witness for the Prosecution and, of course, his direction of The Night of the Hunter were standout exceptions. Otherwise, what’s an Oscar-winning actor to do when, for whatever reason, he’s electing to do Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd.

The great John Seitz, who backed up Billy Wilder during the latter’s Paramount period, photographed The Big Clock, and I was a little surprised that the Blu-ray was somewhat on the rough grainy side the way the DVD was as well. (We could be talking the same old master.) The appearance is striking enough but hardly as luminous as Shout Select’s recent Blu-ray of This Gun for Hire, which Seitz also shot at that same studio. Better, though, that luminosity be saved for Hire’s Veronica Lake if a viewer has to choose; there’s so much mayhem going in Clock that the eye has less time to focus, anyway. This is a movie I saw for the first time at age 12 on a TV late show in 1960, and has continued to grab me through years that would include my programming days at the AFI Theater when we’d run the UCLA Film and Television Archive print ion the movie in 35mm.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

Baby the Rain Must Fall

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama; $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray.

Despite a screen career that was then very much on the move, Steve McQueen didn’t have a film in current release throughout all of 1964 thanks to the sometimes oddball exigencies of theatrical distribution (or, hell, maybe the timing was just a fluke). That’s a long layoff in terms of career momentum, but there’d been three McQueen features in 1963, including two that stoked his rapid-fire ascendency in audience popularity.

Soldier in the Rain is the one that didn’t — though Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld, in particular, have always given me a soft spot for it. But compensating mightily was motorcyclist McQueen’s iconographic fence-jumping in The Great Escape (or, rather, his stunt double’s) and the actor’s potent year-end chemistry with Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger. The last is my favorite Robert Mulligan movie, which means I’ve always liked it a lot more than that filmmaker’s immediately preceding career-maker: To Kill a Mockingbird. As it turned out, Mulligan was also the director of the next screen feature McQueen made: Baby the Rain Must Fall, which Columbia plopped into the mid-January 1965 ghetto after apparently speculating that a Christmas ’64 release would be box office suicide.

At this point, co-star Lee Remick rated top billing, and it’s her picture all the way — this more of a comment on how great she is here than any McQueen shortcomings, though truth to tell, nearly every McQueen performance of the middle 1960s is more interesting. Remick is the reason to see the movie, along with Ernest Lazslo’s cinematography (this was in the waning years of black-and white, a loss from which the movies have never recovered), though music enthusiasts will be attracted to Elmer Bernstein’s era-evocative scoring. Otherwise, this tweaking of playwright Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady commenced a period in which that he must have felt a bit snakebitten at Columbia Pictures. Just a year later, the studio released Arthur Penn’s The Chase — a Foote book/play that Lillian Hellman and about a million other screenwriters almost exactly a year later to megaflop reaction. Though in this case, the result eventually gained some qualified chops as a major cult movie a few years down the Texas road.

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Ahhhhhh, but Remick, who’s cast in Baby as a young mother with daughter in tow (the production’s “find” of a satisfyingly natural one-shot child actress, Kimberley Block). We begin with their bus trip to Southeastern Texas in search of a wayward husband/father (McQueen), who’s part of a weird-to-me parole agreement that’ll spring him from prison on the mandate that he attend night school to learn a trade. Nonetheless, Remick loves him for reasons that aren’t as explicable as the camera’s love for its lead actress, and Laszlo is smart enough to allow his camera to take its time lingering over Remick’s subtly expressed emotions. Elia Kazan did something similar with her in Wild River, the best movie Remick ever made, possibly excluding Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (talk about a challenging academic argument, given the contrast in those directors’ individual styles).

McQueen plays a hothead when he’s not being contrite or even affable, with a tinderbox personality that contributed to his imprisonment in the first place. The seeds for this were planted by the now bedridden harridan who ended up raising and taking a belt to him, and this prune’s still palpable presence hangs over the picture to such a degree that Baby all but veers into enters Southern-Gothic-land, Texas setting or not. The timing wasn’t the best on this count because Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte had just come out and rendered that form of stylization borderline risible. Even so, this plot detail dovetails not uninterestingly with the actor’s real-life history in a correctional institute after scrapes with the law and his endurance (barely) of a physically abusive stepfather.

Currently the recipient of a single-room live-in residence as a friendly couple’s handyman, McQueen’s character isn’t really the night-school type — choosing instead to pursue the Elvis dream in roadside joints singing compositions he’s penned and dealing more with hecklers a lot more than screaming women. One gets the sense that even if a little career lightning strikes, he won’t advance much above this station, though Glenn Yarbrough’s recording of the title tune whose lyrics McQueen mouths became one of the catchiest MOR hits during the British Invasion, when even Freddie & the Dreamers could manage to rate groupies.

The trouble is that — and this was mentioned a lot at the time — the vocal matchup between actor McQueen and his voice double is among the most jarring in movie history. A simpatico match on this kind if thing is not easy to achieve, though I noticed that the voice doubling for Veronica Lake on the recent This Gun for Hire Blu-ray was exceptional. Here, the differential is so pronounced that it takes you out of the picture.

Baby begins promisingly enough to sustain good will throughout a lot of its running time, and the opening bus sequence is one of the best in the film (given The Trip to Bountiful, Foote must have ridden a lot of rural Texas buses in his formative years). As a widowed local deputy and childhood friend of McQueen’s (which seems a stretch), Don Murray is about what he always was on screen: easygoing, likable and rather colorless. The movie seems to be setting him up to be a fallback romantic option in case McQueen self-immolates, but either because a) it doesn’t want to seem clichéd; or b) can’t make up its mind (either in conception or the editing room), this possibility is never realized.

Despite its shortcomings, Baby is still a rewarding view for pure historical perspective if you love, as I do, to follow career trajectories (though Remick doesn’t even need that qualification). The days of major studios bankrolling major-league leads in small-scale movies about real humans and their day-to-day economic fears went out with push-button driving. In today’s movie market, McQueen and Remick would be knocking off small-town Texas banks, even if the screenwriter had to jump through hoops to determine what to do with their daughter. This said, the picture could use a little more “event,” if only in moderation. But the Blu-ray is generally handsome except for some bleached-out exteriors, including one that I’m surprised got by (either originally in theaters or via this release). Overall, I’m glad I took a look after anticipating this release as heavily as I did. I’m not sure I’d seen since it since ’65 when I caught it at a nearly empty campus theater.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’

The Heiress

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins.
1949.
Adapted from the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz play whose springboard was Henry James’s source novel Washington Square, the William Wyler-directed The Heiress allows Olivia de Havilland to undergo a subtly eerie transformation before our very eyes in a spellbinding example of refined worm-turning.
Extras: The Criterion essay is by Brit critic and historian Pamela Hutchinson. There’s also a conversation between film essayist Farran Smith Nehme and Jay Cocks; a featurette about Edith Head’s costumes; 1981 footage of Ralph Richardson that was shot for Catherine Wyler’s documentary on her father; an anecdotal interview of de Havilland; a Merv Griffin tribute to Wyler; and Wyler’s brief acceptance speech for the AFI Life Achievement Award.
Read the Full Review

This Gun for Hire

Shout! Factory, Drama, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd.
1942. The best of the Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake quartet was also the duo’s first teaming. In this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, Ladd plays a twisted hired killer contracted for a scheme that tangentially involves a nightclub where Lake performs as a singing magician.
Extras: Historian/biographer Alan Rode and producer/filmmaker Stephen Mitchell make a compatible team discussing Ladd’s insecurities and Lake’s temperamental personality/personal problems.
Read the Full Review