Up in Smoke

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Comedy;
$12.99 DVD, $16.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Stacy Keach, Tom Skerritt.

I’m running late on this vibrant-colored commemorative 40th anniversary paean to cannabis capers — and given the specifics of one gag that opens it, plus the disoriented and judgmentally addled states of its two protagonists, detractors could just as well call it a pee-on. But given that, for all its raggedness, Cheech & Chong’s screen debut has aged so much better than Jeff Sessions, attention must be paid — which is the same advice one might give to protagonists Pedro and “The Man” when they’re behind the wheels of motorized vehicles.

Up in Smoke was directed by record producer Lou Adler, and no one will mistake his mis-en-scene for the seamless elegance of, say, Josef von Sternberg’s in Criterion’s imminent Sternberg-Dietrich box set. Cheech & Chong, however, came from improv and knew how to play to an audience, and their album cuts were essentially sustained routines (at times, more sustained than the humor itself) with unexpectedly impressive sound effects. I became a fan listening them send up “Sister Mary Elephant” (on the Big Bambu LP) — where an understandably frazzled nun’s attempts to impose order with her ear-shattering “Shut Up!!!! screams on her suddenly silenced classroom were interrupted by a pupil aside. Even though these were the days of two stereo speakers and nothing else. the response seemed to come from about 20 feet in back to me and off to the side: “I gotta go to the can, man.”

Vinyl and concert popularity notwithstanding, the picture’s box office success came after everyone’s conventional wisdom (mine included) speculated that Paramount probably had another The Last of the Secret Agents? (which, in 1966, deservedly became the last of the Allen & Rossi comedies) on its hands. Matter of fact, I seem to recall that Steven Bach opens his great account of how Heaven’s Gate sank United Artists — Final Cut — with a lot of lot of old white-guy studio executives sitting in a studio screening room trying to figure out what Paramount’s genies were smoking inside their bongs.

Cheech is Mexican-American Cheech Marin, who — and I don’t say this lightly — is one of the greatest mimics ever. Tommy Chong (sometimes billed as Thomas, though it hardly fits) is a mix of Scots-Irish-Chinese raised in Canada. In later years, he was so persecuted by the U.S. government on a minor drug charge that a documentary was made about it (I have a copy) — but in terms of the act, he’s mostly a passive straight man to Marin despite displaying a pleasing personality on this set’s bonus interviews. Albeit one that probably couldn’t be mined because it would have thrown off the act’s dynamics.

Basically, the movie is about the twosome’s sole motivating force in life: getting stoned, with occasional breaks for band rehearsals and sex with buxom hitchhikers. Though it peters out some at the end — an affliction it shares with some of the team’s other and progressively inferior screen comedies — this hook sustains itself better than expected for much of its length. Much of this is due to casting more inspired than one might assume for a low-budget production that took six or seven years to get green-lit.

Right off the bat, there’s Strother Martin and Edie Adams (fading trophy wife) as Chong’s parents. We also get Tom Skerritt as a cousin and pot source who thinks he’s still back in Vietnam; and most of all, Stacy Keach as a narc who’s only a little less inept than his subordinates and whose K-9 police dog ends up on his back with all fours sticking up after picking or ingesting fumes from an entire van made of grass. Two of the bonus deleted scenes feature Harry Dean Stanton as a prison guard who sells pills at rip-off prices on the side, though he was edited out of the final release print. (Best of the excised clips is one where C&C try to smoke a joint that is half-made with Hamburger Helper in an attempt to cure the munchies problem in one fell toke).

At its best, this is funnier than most of the Abbott & Costello movies I’ve seen, in part because I’ve never been crazy about comics who lack a sexual dimension (and before you ask, W.C. Fields definitely had one). Everyone was talking at the time (well, I guess Alistair Cooke wasn’t) about the aforementioned van of pot and how it would interact with the exhaust fumes. And also the scene where the kind of woman who would smoke Hamburger Helper accidentally snorts Ajax and gets a still-funny rush that must have had the boys in the Colgate-Palmolive boardroom being if it was too late to change the ad campaign.

This was a rich brief period for distributor Paramount, the kind they haven’t seen in a while. There was the box office grosses of the godawful Grease to presumably off-set the commercial underperformance of Days of Heaven; Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which scored with both critics and public; and then the surprise success of this poster child for stoner cinema to prove that not everyone was into Star Wars and the lesser galaxy rides it spawned.

As a footnote, I did my part to sustain the C&C spirit (coincidentally, as it turned out) by programming Maryjane with Fabian in the AFI Theater around the same time — a film series about high school and college, as opposed to a Fabian retrospective. I simply felt that the Kennedy Center could use some loosening up, and I didn’t have a key to the supply cabinet where they kept the Ajax.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’

Up in Smoke

Paramount, Comedy, $12.99 DVD, $16.99 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Stacy Keach, Tom Skerritt.
1978. For all its raggedness, Cheech & Chong’s screen debut has well enough that attention must be paid — which is the same advice one might give to protagonists Pedro and “The Man” when they’re behind the wheels of motorized vehicles.
Extras: Includes interviews with the stars and some deleted scenes.
Read the Full Review

The Woman in the Window

Street 6/19/18
Kino Lorber, Mystery, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.
1944. As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s
Extras: Historian Imogen Sara Smith’s commentary is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up.
Read the Full Review

 

 

The Woman in the Window

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Kino Lorber;
Mystery;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated
.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.

As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s — though hardly the shake-i-est because there’s always Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from the following year. Let’s continue hoping that all the yahoos who instigated creaky censorship boards of the day have been moaning in pain half-a-century or more Waaaaaay Down South where the fires burn, watching the hundred most impoverished PRC releases on a loop.

Fritz Lang directed Window from a Nunnally Johnson script to launch that period in the mid-’40s when the former briefly enjoyed commercial success after immediate follow-ups Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street also proved popular. (And before The Secret Beyond the Door — also with Window/Street’s Joan Bennett — materialized in 1947 to turn any money-related magic touch back into a pumpkin. In one of his greatest career years (1944), Window also gave the now freelancing Edward G. Robinson (post-Warner) a role worthy of capping his memorably dynamic insurance sleuth in Double Indemnity from a few months earlier. In contrast, the married assistant professor Robinson plays here isn’t dynamic at all but notably meek — albeit one who turns uncharacteristically daring once his life turns messy after meeting the title subject on the street (she’s been the model in a conspicuous storefront painting that has captured his imagination).

Though what really makes Bennett tick is one of the movie’s more intriguing questions, she definitely isn’t a dangerous femme fatale in the usual noir sense (that would be Scarlet Street). And as for what she and Robinson are doing before an out-of-the-blue violent act that substantially alters the film’s direction … well, it’s kind of foolhardy for a man in Robinson’s situation to be on the scene at all but necessarily over the line.

This “situation” includes a wife and two children who are away on a trip, an absence that brings to mind a more serious take on this hook, courtesy of The 7-Year Itch. Before you go “uh, huh,” one should note that this family unit is reasonably harmonious in an un-stimulating way — and that the wife is by no means the disagreeable sort who’d automatically destroy anyone’s quality of life by walking into the room. For one of those, see the crone Charles Laughton is married to in Siodmak’s splendid The Suspect from the same year.

Window is full of potential spoiler minefields, though I gotta say that it was a movie that had been substantially written about even when I was a kid. So let’s merely set the table by noting that Bennett turns out to be a lonely and insecure kept woman with fleeting flashes of confidence; that Robinson gets in deep; and that one of Robinson’s men’s club cronies is a well-cast Raymond Massey as a snooping D.A. who, for fun, is taking Robinson on his investigations to help solve a crime the former knows all too well about.

There’s also Dan Duryea’s terrific show-up late in the picture to make such a strong impression that I (all well as bonus-commentary contributor Imogen Sara Smith) am always surprised to be reminded that his part isn’t bigger. Though Duryea had been quite memorable recreating his stage role three years earlier in the Goldwyn-Wyler film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, this in reality was his breakthrough screen role, paving the way for the Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea reunion in Scarlet Street, a movie I like even more.

Historian Smith’s voiceover is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up. Among other things, they make us wonder if the movie can’t be just as easily seen as an exploration of what makes men’s roving minds tick when they’re jawboning at a men’s club (who the hell would want to go to a men’s club, anyway?) — though, OK, tons-o-fun relationships between senior marrieds likely didn’t offer that many socially normalized alternatives at the time this movie was set. Robison wasn’t likely to be asking the Mrs. to go running with him.

Whatever the interpretation, events are all photographed and constricted in superb Lang style, though aside from some newsreel satire and one bullseye replication in one scene of what old radio commercials sounded like, Lang was never going to be mistaken for Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I remember Jonathan Demme once telling me in an interview that it was actually Brian De Palma who came up with the idea to open Married to the Mob with Rosemary Clooney’s recording of Mambo Italiano — quickly noting that one didn’t usually go to De Palma for comical music advice. Not dissimilarly, you don’t watch Lang movies for knee-slapping fun (though the last particular bonus always gave Hitchcock an extra boost), but he could really immerse you in a sinister world.

In keeping with this, Smith offers up some of the stories about Lang’s tyrannical moods and mistreatment of actors (especially minor ones); though Bennett and others would continue working with him, these were not “loose” sets. Maybe this explains how it came to be that Sylvia Sidney wrapped her long career by working with Tim Burton, the second time against a Slim Whitman soundtrack.

Kino’s Blu-ray isn’t up to the impossibly high standards of the French release of Siodmak’s Criss Cross, but neither does it suggest the difference between Grace Kelly and Maria Ouspenskaya in terms of cosmetics and, in this case, delineation of shadow and light. It’s certainly the best presentation of this independent production (originally distributed by RKO) that I’ve ever seen and another example of Blu-ray turning me into a Milton Krasner fan when I didn’t know I was. With me, he’s almost getting to be another Joe MacDonald when it comes to consolidating credits that I didn’t realize were all his — as in, he “shot that, and that … and THAT?!!!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’ and ‘Criss Cross’

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Lenny Baker, Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Lois Smith.
1976. Blume in Love has always been my favorite achievement from writer-director Paul Mazursky’s treasured output spanning (mostly but not exclusively) 1969 to 1978. But after seeing Next Stop, Greenwich Village for the first time in decades via this new Twilight Time release, it may have some competition.
Extras: Star Ellen Greene and director Paul Mazursky both praise Shelley Winters to the sky here in a voiceover commentary from a previous release. Mazursky died in 2014, which points up the timeless value of home-release commentaries in general for all your streamer/pretenders out there.
Read the Full Review

Criss Cross (Pour toi j’ai tué )

All-Region French Import
Elephant, Mystery, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally.
1949. Even in terms of the lowlife-laden melodramas Burt Lancaster made right out of the career gate, Criss Cross seems somewhat undervalued, at least relative to its merit.
Read the Full Review

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Lenny Baker, Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, Shelley Winters.

Blume in Love has always been my favorite achievement from writer-director Paul Mazursky’s treasured output spanning (mostly but not exclusively) 1969 to 1978. But after seeing Next Stop, Greenwich Village for the first time in decades via this new Twilight Time release, it may have some competition. Even though the soundtrack’s Paul Desmond staples somewhat predate the story’s setting, not many musical selections would so instantly suck us into the milieu. And for bravery of the especially brazen sort, how do you put a price on a scene where Shelley Winters pulls her dress up in a tap dancing fantasy sequence?

After years of self-imposed exile, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and even my old grad school alma mater NYU, which has probably made me susceptible — though, yeah, a Brooklyn girlfriend has inevitably helped — to this extraordinarily personal coming-of-age comedy-drama, though the milieu still seems a little seedy to a wider-open-spaces Midwestern type such as myself. But the movie rings true on its own merits without need of any outside boosting, thank you, and gets quite a shot from some casting in a couple roles that means more than it did at the time.

The last said, Village’s two leads are Lenny Baker, whose character-actor looks and premature death limited his screen career — and Ellen Greene, who scored only modestly in the movies, though she did also het to re-create her stage role in Frank Oz’s screen version of Little Shop of Horrors. Standing in as Mazursky’s autobiographical surrogate, Baker is the focus here, though Greene helps create such a determined soul here as his rocky squeeze that I suspect a lot of women come out of the picture affected by her own story, which involves a then illegal abortion and a fear of feeling trapped. Everyone here, by the way, benefits from exceptionally strong writing, though choice casting sampling from a pool of the era’s best New York actors really puts it over.

Much or even most of Village is about acting, which is the side of the profession Mazursky pursued before finding his true calling behind the camera; he was in Stanley Kubrick’s shaky debut pic Fear and Desire (and unlike Kubrick, seemed happy to enough to concede its existence), and then as one of the hoody classroom cutups who made Glenn Ford wish he were teaching home economics in Blackboard Jungle. The Brooklyn-to-GV subway ride isn’t very far in minutes, yet it separated two entire worlds in the more traditional ’50s, when moving away from one’s parents without the impetus of marriage could seem like an affront to a Jewish mother (and can Winters ever play a Jewish mother, or at least a certain identifiable brand of one). And to make things even worse with mom: Here’s Mazursky/Baker not even leaving to learn an honest trade but to pursue a perceived folly that attracts dream-world rabble.

And yet the mother, who reciprocally loves him but also drives him up the wall, is something of a closet case — as was Mazursky’s own — when it comes to her own show biz appreciation. Along these lines, she can also jitterbug for real (Winters’ aforementioned fantasy tap pops up in a slightly different context), which she ends up doing during another of her unannounced “drop-ins” — this one at a rent party full of assorted pro-Rosenberg bohemians dancing to and floating on vintage 78s and old-school beer bottles. Acquiescent to all this maybe 90% of the time is a passive husband played by the instantly familiar Mike Kellin — who, here (as was often the case in his other movies) had one of those faces that divulge his character’s entire story.

I love the casting here, which includes lifelong favorite Lois Smith, whose single scene in East of Eden got to me as a child and who’s still around these days (Lady Bird and Marjorie Prime in just the past year). But the big bonus points these days come courtesy of seeing Christopher Walken in his first role of real note: as the intellectual stud of the aspirants’ group and one whose surface charm betrays his lack of character. Walken at least gets billing, but the truly wondrous ambush here is an unbilled Jeff Goldblum, who shows up late to blow a hole in the screen with a couple scenes as a self-destructive neurotic who does everything in an audition to make the producers not even desirous of asking him to read. Not long after I began programming at the AFI Theater four decades-plus ago, a resourceful guest lecturer got Mazursky to bring a print of Village down to D.C. from New York for a pre-opening screening — just as he did with Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver the same month. And I remember people (myself included) just marveling at Goldblum — the way we had a year earlier with Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson in John Milius’s Dillinger — in a “Who is this guy?” kind of way. Added note to star-gazing completists: The mustached guy standing off to the side in a fairly early saloon scene is Bill Murray.

The standout, though (and about a quarter-century after she was a newcomer) has to be Winters, someone I’ve cracked wise on for a lot of years but an actress whose chutzpah I’ve also secretly admired for just as long. Due to a geographical scheduling conflict, I once had to turn down an opportunity to attend a small dinner with her, leaving it to a pair of AFI colleagues and also two of my closest friends to witness the sight of her taking off her pantyhose in a Georgetown restaurant. Greene and Mazursky both praise her to the sky here in a voiceover commentary from a previous release; the latter died in 2014, which points up the timeless value of home-release commentaries in general for all your streamer/pretenders out there.

I always thought Mazursky a particularly keen industry observer, dating back to the time I heard his claim (in a documentary) that when someone talks about the advance “word” on an unreleased movie, it means that “someone who hasn’t seen the picture talked to someone who hasn’t seen the picture.” Here, he matter-of-factly tosses off the assertion that Winters didn’t get a much deserved nomination for Village because it didn’t make money. Don’t you love it when someone gives voice to obvious truths that no one feels comfortable about addressing?

Mike’s Picks: ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’ and ‘Criss Cross’

Criss Cross (Pour toi j’ai tué )

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Mystery;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally.

Even in terms of the lowlife-laden melodramas Burt Lancaster made right out of the career gate, Criss Cross seems somewhat undervalued, at least relative to its merit. The Killers and Brute Force are probably the early Burts that come automatically to mind, but Steven Soderbergh, for one, apparently thought enough of Criss Cross to refashion it into 1995’s The Underneath — a remake he says he doesn’t care for much though one included as a “stealth” bonus on the Criterion Blu-ray of Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. At least up to a point, I rather like the revamp myself, and yet this not quite brainstorm always did seem superfluous given what the original has to offer.

On the last point, we don’t have to start with Dan Duryea’s suits — and most people wouldn’t. But part of the fun in the predominantly Universal noirs Duryea made in the ’40s — and Kino Lorber is about to pay homage to quintessential Duryea by releasing a new Blu-ray of RKO-released The Woman in the Window June 19 — is watching him saunter around in duds that don’t exactly advertise him as the new Presbyterian minister on the block. I hope the actor’s costumers here at least rated auditions when it came time a few years later to dress all those chorus boys in the original Broadway product of Guys and Dolls.

In this case, Lancaster and Duryea are the two guys and Yvonne De Carlo the doll who have them both itchy, which is probably playing with a flame-engulfed oil refinery when all three find themselves as participants in or accessories to an armored car robbery. The edge Lancaster has is previous marriage to De Carlo; they may have resumed arguing all the time, but both still have a mutual yen (a circumstance that disturbs his well-meaning mother, whose olfactory powers are apparently keen when it comes to trollops). Duryea’s edge is as a potential money source and, I suppose, a certain swagger that’s part of his makeup. Hard as it is to believe in terms of the 1950s Burt, the latter doesn’t display much of a toothy dimension and is, in fact, basically playing a chump. Albeit an almost laughably fit chump who looks as if he’s been bench-pressing the sadistic prison guard Hume Cronyn plays in Brute Force about 500 times daily.

After some wound-licking time away from after the divorce, Lancaster returns to his home in the old Bunker Hill area of L.A., whose location photography by the great Franz Planer is a monster plus here. He then returns to his old place of employment to become (uh, oh) an armored truck driver, which is probably not a good move when you’re also in need of fast cash to get your ex away from her new husband (yes, Duryea). One thing leads to another, including a memorably staged heist scene and a wrap-up that may match Detour’s for having the courage of its conditions.

Criss Cross reunited Lancaster with Robert Siodmak, who had directed him in his star-making Killers debut amid the supreme noir-ish run this cult filmmaker enjoyed, spanning roughly 1944-50 (though in terms of Lancaster, their decidedly un-noirish The Crimson Pirate collaboration was yet to come). De Carlo is especially good here, but then she was always underrated — and if you doubt this, ask yourself how many actors come off with their dignity fully intact in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. In this case, she projects a little vulnerability that crucially keeps her from coming off as totally evil (or, for that matter, overly obvious in her sexuality).

There’s also a major casting footnote: Criss Cross was also Tony Curtis’s screen debut via a wordless sequence (again, memorably staged) in which he dances with De Carlo — thus enabling this one to become the rare film noir to give major screen credit to a rhumba band (that of Esy Morales, who’d played with Xavier Cugat and died at 33 of a heart attack shortly thereafter). Curtis’ character name is “Gigolo” per the IMDb.com listing, which I suppose is more credible than “Antoninus” in Spartacus or anyone named Bulba (in this case, it was “Andrei”) in Taras Bulba. In any event, this bit apparently got Universal-International’s press department about a zillion letters wanting to know who this Mr. Wavy-Hair was, and on a dime the studio buildup mechanism got in motion by giving Curtis slightly larger parts in subsequent releases including the ultimate U-I reward: featured billing as an army captain in a Francis picture.

This splendorous release from France’s Elephant Films has been released as Pour toi j’ai tué, which my Googled French translates into For You, I Kill You — which does a better job of describing my relationship with a couple editors from my long past than Criss Cross’ does to portend the movie’s complex flashback structure. By any name, this is another of Elephant’s beautiful renderings of from Universal and Universal-controlled libraries, which include all but a handful of Paramount talkies from 1929 to 1949. Pricey two-fers — with, that is, bonus DVD inclusions — that do play on Region ‘A’ machines, they have only minimal extras (and in French, at that). But visually, the ones I’ve seen are of Criterion quality, and programmatically, they go places that most high-def distributors don’t. (Douglas Sirk anamorphics, anyone? Or how about One Hour with You and If I Had a Million, two just-out Paramounts from the early ’30s?

My visiting younger son walked in when I was watching Criss Cross on a 75-inch screen and asked, “What’s the matter with that black-and-white?” But before I could clobber him verbally, he then clarified with, “It looks so sharp — almost more like color.” Putting it another way, he was seeing black-and-white the way it’s supposed to look and how it was conceived; it’s just that b&w transferring has become such a specialized skill that only a handful of Blu-ray distributors (and this excludes even some good ones) have the skill to go the full route. Here’s one release that does, and oh, do some of those Bunker Hill exteriors look like pristine b&w glossy photos.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’ and ‘Criss Cross’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’

Gun Crazy

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Dall, Peggy Cummins.
1950. Despite a marked disparity between its best scenes (many) and clunky or merely functional ones (just a few), the punchy and innovative Gun Crazy is one of the titles that defined film noir.
Extras: Author James Ellroy leads off an hour-plus “what is noir?” doc that’s carried over from a Warner film noir DVD boxed set. This pristine Blu-ray edition also includes a commentary from “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson.
Read the Full Review

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Kino Lorber, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
2017. Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story deftly walks the dividing line between chronicling the actress/raving beauty’s screen career and — now much more notably — the scientific achievements for which she’ll ultimately be remembered.
Read the Full Review

 

Gun Crazy

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

Paul Schrader, who should know, wrote an essay decades ago listing 10 or so titles that defined film noir, and the ‘B’-with-better-than-‘B’ talent initially known as Deadly Is the Female ended up making the cut. Yet even on the modest grindhouse level, the ultimately retitled Gun Crazy didn’t perpetuate the turning of many box office turnstiles, which is kind of surprising given how punchy and innovative so much of it is.

It doesn’t take much clairvoyance to speculate that this is a movie likely admired by author James Ellroy — who, most appropriately, leads off an hour-plus “what is noir?” doc that’s included on this pristine Blu-ray edition and carried over from a great previously released Warner Entertainment DVD box set devoted to the genre. L.A. Confidential’s source author has his own definition of noir, which is a little more brass-tacks basic than Schrader’s. It has to do with those women who give you the best sex of your life and then end up {insert the predictable Ellroy verb} in the other way as well. Think of the fatalistic Detour syndrome, even if it’s kind of tough to imagine Ann Savage’s character in that dime store classic offering much in a filmy negligee. Spiked heels, maybe.

As one of two married Midwest stickup practitioners whose prolific work habits eventually clog up the region’s APB transmissions, Brit blonde Peggy Cummins plays Crazy’s deadly female half, though she seems more mentally unbalanced than all-out evil. Or at least she does until later in the game, when her self-proclaimed perpetual “nervousness” when pulling off jobs unleashes a previously submerged violent streak — to say nothing of her willingness to use a child as a shield against pursuing authorities while on the lam with her husband. As “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson notes on the commentary, their official vow-taking was obviously mandated by film censors of the day because living in sin was worse than bumping off victims during armed robberies.

Cummins’ better half (and he is) is played as a child by Russ Tamblyn when he was still billed as Rusty and then by John Dall. The latter is best known these days as the half of the murdering duo in Hitchcock’s Rope who isn’t Farley Granger — though you can also see also see him being smarmy-and-a-half as Laurence Olivier’s guest in the pricey seats (the kind the Steinbrenner family would have at Yankees games) to watch Kirk Douglas battle Woody Strode to the death in the Spartacus arena. Despite this screen history, Dall is a rather sweet guy here: irresistibly drawn to guns but exclusively for their tactile features and not out of any any desire to harm people. Thus, when he meets Cummins as part of her target-shooting job in a carnival, he likely figures that her own attraction to “heat” must be purely recreational as well.

As miscalculations go — though make no mistake, these two really love each other, which may be all he more twisted — this lapse of judgment has to rank with convincing yourself that you’ll be set for life after one last job, despite the fact that you splurge for furs and hit the nightclubs every time you pull a big score. A lot of Gun Crazy’s reputation rests on the superb point-of-view feel to a couple robbery scenes in particular: its influences on Bonnie and Clyde that were even noted in the late ’60s by in-the-knows. I was surprised to learn on Erickson’s commentary that director Joseph H. Lewis had a 30-day shooting schedule — not the kind of time, to be sure, that gave David Lean his countless hours to “wait for the light” but maybe enough for a resourceful ‘B’ director like Lewis to give far more shots than not a novel angle.

Like the breakthrough Dillinger, which to this day gets a surprising number of comely women to “go” for the real life Lawrence (Rap Sheet) Tierney, Gun Crazy was produced by the King Brothers — who were so penny-pinching that I even heard the late humorist Art Buchwald (who was once a friendly  acquaintance) make an out-of-the-blue wisecrack about them. But the Kings weren’t above hiring Blacklisted writers at a fraction of their cost, which is how the non-existent Robert Rich (“fronting” for Dalton Trumbo) later got a writing Oscar for The Brave One, which ended up becoming a preliminary step in breaking HUAC’s hold on the industry.

In Crazy’s case, it’s Millard Kaufman fronting for Trumbo (sharing credit with MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the source short story) to further class up a melodrama that already had Victor Young score and Russell Harlan behind the camera. I’m always amazed how a lot of the great cinematographers often hopscotched between big productions and small ones (Harlan, a Howard Hawks favorite, had shot Red River just two years earlier). And also that he later pulled off Oscar nominations for black-and-white and color work in the same year, 1962: To Kill a Mockingbird and Hatari!

The Blu-ray is quite a showcase for Harlan’s abilities on a tight budget, and I’m not just talking about camera movements. We don’t often see a ‘B’-movie — or, if you like here, “shaky ‘A’” — getting major-scale high-def treatment, and there are shots here of rain puddles during a nightclub chase scene and of a listening brook that almost made me blink with their clarity and element of surprise. It really makes me wonder what the new 4K version of Detour can possibly look like — a joint effort of worldwide archives way beyond the imagination of the ’40s Hollywood establishment for a movie that probably hasn’t looked all that good since the time I was spitting up on my crib bumpers.

Like a lot of talented working directors who didn’t have their projects handed to them on a platter, Lewis had a spotty career. A lot of people love My Name Is Julia Ross from 1945 and some of his other postwar Columbia’s, though my No. 1 choice has to be 1955’s The Big Combo, complete with its gay henchmen and what Jonathan Demme once volunteered as having the “first cunnilingus scene in American movies” when I expressed my love of the film after spotting a VHS copy in his office. (I suspect this is technically true, unless there are some ancient Stroheim outtakes floating around the MGM archives).

Despite a marked disparity between its best scenes (many) and clunky or merely functional ones (just a few), Gun Crazy would be a clear No. 2 on my Lewis list — one of the achievements that does indeed define film noir, as well as a presumed show-up on just about anyone’s standout movies from 1950 (and it was a very fine year). Great job, Warner.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Documentary;
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated. 

Direct from its 96% Rotten Tomatoes huzzahs (and you’d have to be a real prune not to take to it), Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story deftly walks the dividing line between chronicling the actress/raving beauty’s screen career and — now much more notably — the scientific achievements for which she’ll ultimately be remembered.

A little chilly on screen for my taste — though an excerpted clip here seems to bear out memories of her being better than respectable in King Vidor’s H.M. Pulham, Esq. — Vienna-born Lamarr was initially best known for the once scandalous Czech film Ecstasy from 1933 (in which she frolicked naked and even simulated an orgasm) and for being Charles Boyer’s co-star mannequin in 1938’s Algiers (say, why don’t there seem  to be an even average print of this, anywhere?). But post-breakthrough, even her more indelible landmarks were parody-bait. There was, of course, the top-billed role as Cecil B. DeMille’s Delilah opposite Victor Mature’s Samson in Lamarr’s one certified box-office blockbuster other than maybe MGM’s Boom Town — though it inspired Groucho Marx’s famous crack that he’d never go to a movie where the actor had bigger breasts than the actress. And there was her “I Am … Tondelayo” introductory hello in MGM’s camp-fest White Cargo ( there’s a TV clip here of Lucille Ball sending it up).

No wonder, then, that Lamarr took her real enjoyment from scientific “tinkering” that ended up reaping prodigiously significant rewards (but  belatedly — and not to her), offering a lot more satisfaction than a patronizing “know-your-place, honey” Hollywood and, to be sure, six husbands. The successful conversation-stopper of her experiments, intended for World War II usage, is the patent she and composer/lab partner George Antheil got for the technology — inspired by what a player-piano does — meant to prevent jammed frequencies from imperiling the trajectory of Allied torpedoes. The military sat on it, later utilized it as standard practice after the patent may or may not have expired, and she never got a cent when, late in life, she needed a lot of them. Not exactly incidentally, this is also the technology that later led to Wifi and Bluetooth. So when I’m out on my deck and under BOSE wireless headphones listening to Bill Evans play Polka Dots and Moonbeams, I should say, “Thank you, Hedy.”

Accessibility may not be everything, but it comes mighty close to being so in a doc biopic. To this end, filmmaker Dean has Lamarr’s three children (including one who was treated shabbily, though he seems philosophical about it); her biographer Richard Rhodes (whose Pulitzer merely came from writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb); the universally revered film historian/academic Jeanine Basinger; the late Robert Osborne, in what is said to have been his last interview; and even Mel Brooks, who got sued by the actress (who seems to have had a strong litigious streak) for naming Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles “Hedley Lamarr.”

There’s no shortage of movie clips here, though missing is anything from swan song The Female Animal (1958), in which she plays, of all possibilities, Jane Powell’s mother (the movie is quite the curio because it’s Powell’s final movie as well). Surprisingly, there was a 15-year age differential between them, but this still wouldn’t have made Lamarr feel too great or secure — for as much as she disliked the industry’s all-too-common treatment of her, she did seem to have a taste for glamour. Though she did live long enough (to 2000, though barely) to experience the early innings of scientific recognition, she felt the money squeeze due a failure of income to materialize from any source. Glamour may have been kind of a last grasp.

There were a couple of shoplifting busts, though these likely stemmed from the unstable behavior that nearly every celebrity displayed when their attending physician was Max (Dr. Feelgood) Jacobson of amphetamine notoriety. (As in: “Gee, doc, your miracle vitamin shots are really giving me that same fountain-of-youth feel that they gave Eddie Fisher.”) There were also needless nips, tucks, lifts or whatever specialists of all capabilities do that bring to mind those awful tabloid front pages you see in grocery store lines devoted to botched plastic surgeries. The last is apparently what kept Lamarr from basking in tribute to her scientific work at a ceremony that at least had one of her sons acting as a stand-in — though there’s a surprising amount of home movie footage where she allowed herself to get within the camera’s eye. In audiotaped interviews, though (and there are quite a few here), she comes off as warm, polite, intelligent and sincere in the give-and-take.

At least there was a happy ending — at least in terms of justice and posterity, if not personal payoff. Though the comparison ends quickly when it comes to nourishing feedback, Lamarr was like Ronald Reagan in that she had one of the more interesting lives of the 20th century. When Criterion brought out Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words in 2016, I remember thinking that it was a going to be a long time before anyone gave that one a run for its money as a revelatory actress portrait. Overall, I prefer that doc, but Dean gives it a run for the money.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’

Cleopatra (1934)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith. 

I can remember back in early 1963, when everyone was wondering if the still not released Taylor-Burton Cleopatra would do to 20th Century-Fox what Heaven’s Gate later did to United Artists (which, by way, it almost did). This would have been a serious matter — for one thing, had Fox gone under, we wouldn’t have had the 1970 movie version of Myra Breckinridge — so everyone was grasping for any news. At this point, I fell into Red Buttons doing a standup routine on some variety show, at which point he announced that he had seen the picture. And then he added after the pause for effect: “Claudette Colbert was great.”

By this point, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version had been on TV for four or five years depending on the whims, taste and pocketbook of your local market’s buyer. And having positively eaten up, in theaters, Anne Baxter all but lusting to rip off and then catnap with Chuck Heston’s loincloth in the VistaVision/Technicolor remake of The Ten Commandments, I naturally took to this example of more vintage DeMille and still do. Universal’s new Blu-ray of the Colbert take on the legend — Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” collection has already issued the spectacle in a Region ‘B’ version — is one of the most immaculate presentations of a vintage black-and-white movie that I’ve ever seen. So if you whip through its hundred minutes and still find it too pandering to the yahoo masses who made DeMille the most commercially successful director of day (actually, many days), it won’t be the physical quality of this Blu-ray that causes your eyeballs to roll back into your head.

The rap on DeMille’s quarter-century of Paramount talkies — and Cleopatra is another Paramount picture that Universal has owned more for than half-a-century — is a) they’re not especially cinematic and b) that their dialogue is often too tin-eared to serve even a kazoo band. The first is generally true (more on the second later), yet the pacing of even his increasingly long-ish projects is still surprisingly peppy in certain, though not all, cases — and he got attractive performances out of some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, though his casting instincts started going the gonzo route as he got older. Just as we speak, I’m salivating to get a look at the just-out and on-order Region ‘B’ import of DeMille’s 1947 Unconquered, a mid-18th-century epic I seem to recall reading that Martin Scorsese made the cast and crew look at when they were making The Age of Innocence. It’s not every movie where you get to see a Technicolored Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard as an attractive 1753-or-so couple — in a canoe over one of the Fort Pitt vicinity’s most treacherous waterfalls, albeit with a rear-projection assist.)

Anyway. Offbeat water transport figures prominently in Cleopatra as well, even if Egyptian Cleo’s barge-binge seduction of Rome’s Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) is jumping the narrative gun here because, for one thing, Julius Caesar has to die before this happens. Her second consecutive sexually oriented power grab goes a little beyond the usual boilerplate wiles-and-guiles stuff — complete with marauding tigers on deck who are probably wondering what kind of gig this is, flaming hoops, frolicking virgins (maybe) from central casting and a bunch of minimum-wage types doing the galley-slave rowing bit and wondering if someone will even toss them a fig. According to the pro-job commentary here by writer/historian/F.X. Sweeney, this was the last film released before much-tightened Production Code took effect in mid-1934, so C.B. was just able to take advantage of the No. 1 way to take patrons’ minds off the Depression. Or at least suggest it. Low (or no) moviegoer incomes or not, the movie defied economics to become a monster hit.

Though an easier feat to pull off at 101 minutes vs. the Taylor-Burton’s give-take 250, it’s a credit to the ’34 Cleopatra that it doesn’t lose too much gas with the death of Caesar the way the ’63 version does when Rex Harrison takes all those blades. In both cases, the actor playing Caesar is the movie’s best, and here it’s Warren William — though Sweeney takes note of DeMille’s stated disappointment that the actor’s performance was underrated by critics, even though it’s fully credible and absent of any camp dimension. I also like Henry Wilcoxon as a not overly bright Antony — which leaves Claudette Colbert’s mixed bag and notably American performance in the title role. I just can’t accept Colbert as any kind of seductress, even though she’s a personal favorite who appeared in three best picture Oscar nominees in ’34: this, Imitation of Life and It Happened One Night, which won her the best actress award just before Cleopatra began shooting. But she has the spunk, command and frame-friendly presence that puts over one of the movie’s key points: that Cleo has more on the ball than her bedmates. What’s more, you can’t say she doesn’t know how to put over the Travis Banton costumes, which are among the most iconographic (earning the right to that overused term) of Banton’s great career.

The other rap on DeMille is, getting back to Colbert and a previously mentioned point, is the down-home dialogue and deliveries of even his historical epics set in other lands — as in the way that John Derek and Debra Paget of The Ten Commandments suggest two teens who simply want to make it in the back seat at some mid-’50s drive-in during a showing of, say, Queen Bee. Or, to come in from other direction, Pauline Kael wasn’t wrong when she compared Cleopatra’s dialogue to people talking over the backyard fence or clothesline. But like it or not (and no one says you have to), DeMille did this intentionally to make his movies more accessible to the masses — and, more arguably, even better paced for the great unwashed who shelled out for decades to see them.

Thus, not only does William utter, “You, too, Brutus?” when Caesar’s payoff moment comes — but we actually hear a gossiping partygoer utter, “The wife is always the last to know” when discussing Caesar’s infidelity behind wife Calpurnia’s back. Cast as in the latter role is Gertrude Michael — who, in a bit of unintentionally amazing casting from the same year that only history appreciates, also sang “Sweet Marijuana” with a bunch of sweaty chorus boys in Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities. It reminds me that Greer Garson had the Calpurnia role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 Julius Caesar, and does the mind ever go into overdrive over the concept of Garson taking a flier with the Lessen production number over at MGM in Mrs. Miniver Goes Doobie.

The narrative is tight and keenly modulated between lickety-splitting chariots, political chicanery and effectively languid romancing, though were it not for the movie’s production values/décor so remarkably preserved on this release, I wouldn’t be making as big a deal here, at least for predisposed non-enthusiasts. I haven’t even mentioned that Victor Milner won the cinematography Oscar here against a weak nominee field — not that it couldn’t hold its own against a big-gun lineup — though you have to wonder how Bert Glennon’s work on Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (soon to be on Criterion’s Dietrich-Sternberg Blu-ray box) ended up being overlooked. I know the picture was a flop at the time, but come on, people.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’