Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’

Klute

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi.
1971. Released in relatively stealth fashion during a unforgettable movie summer, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute is a psychological drama wrapped in thriller/mystery trappings rather than a thriller/mystery per se — which possibly resulted in its being underrated at the time, though Jane Fonda did win a Best Actress Oscar for a performance that is among the significant ones of the modern screen era.
Extras: Blasting out of the gate with a new 4K remastering of Gordon Willis’s trademark anti-solar cinematography, Criterion’s new Klute release is one of the best-produced Blu-rays I’ve ever seen, and its combined package of nary-a-dud bonus extras now pounds it into me how unusual this film was. We get two remarkable Fonda interviews, conducted decades apart, that artfully operate in tandem here.
Read the Full Review

The Leopard Man

Shout! Factory, Horror, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.
1943.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur shortly after he and producer Val Lewton turnedThe Cat People into one of the most profitable sleepers of the entire World War II movie era, The Leopard Manwas the third of nine creepy features Lewton made for RKO during his famously remarkable run from 1942 to 1946.
Extras: There are two bonus commentaries — one by The Exorcist director William Friedkin, the other a highly informative nuts-and-bolts one by film historian Constantine Nasr that gives a compelling back-dropper about the kind of miserable-sounding life that source author Cornell Woolrich seems to have led.
Read the Full Review

Klute

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi.

Released in relatively stealth fashion during a unforgettable movie summer in 1971 that put and puts the last 10 (at least) to shame, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute is a psychological drama wrapped in thriller/mystery trappings rather than a thriller/mystery per se — which possibly resulted in its being underrated at the time. Don’t get me wrong: Almost everyone save Jane Fonda bashers thought it some degree of good or better. But speaking for myself and not in isolation, it paled somewhat next to the concurrently released McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge and Walkabout (and let’s not forget that Two-Lane Blacktop is pretty close to a deity to the carburetor set and/or blackbelt cultists).

Blasting out of the gate with a new 4K remastering of Gordon Willis’s trademark anti-solar cinematography, Criterion’s new Klute release is one of the best-produced Blu-rays I’ve ever seen (Susan Arosteguy). And its combined package of nary-a-dud bonus extras now pounds it into me how unusual this film was — though credit as well half-a-century of the Women’s Movement, which was more or less in its torch-lighting phase around the time Klute came out, especially in and around where I had the good historical fortune to be: NYU. Of course, it always had what seems even more impressive today: an Oscar-winning Fonda performance that is among the significant ones of the modern screen era.

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Criterion always seems to know what kind of supplemental material we want to see and, equally important, how or where to get them — so we get two remarkable Fonda interviews, conducted decades apart, that artfully operate in tandem here. The first was when she was young, pregnant and amid a personal political controversy (“Hanoi Jane”) that has abated only a sliver to this day. The other sit-down is a recent one, conducted by Illeana Douglas specifically for this release, in which Fonda (who is really smart regardless of where you stand on her politics, which were mostly way ahead of their time) talks about what she went through to research the role. And how she wanted to bolt the project on the eve of shooting because weeks spent with real-deal parties had convinced her that no one would accept her as a call girl.

This is what her “Brie” character is and a New York one as well, though she’s moved from more fashionable clientele and digs in a better part of town to something a few rungs down — she’s by no means a street person, or barely better, which is what some of her old colleagues have become. This is the New York before Giuliani turned it into Disney World (no value judgments here; I like Disney World) when “litter” was a cottage industry and even on the Upper West Side where I lived, I could see a guy urinating in the street late at night as I came home to my apartment after a double feature at the New Yorker or Thalia rep movie houses, which all the NYU film students regarded as second homes. Into this world comes the title small-town cop (Donald Sutherland) hired to investigate the year-long disappearance of a friend and possible onetime Brie client. Hers is not a profession, though, where one remembers customer physical descriptions, even of the ones who beat her up.

There’s some evidence that the missing man is one who did just that, yet this kind of violence is or was against his character, depending on whether he’s now still alive. Beyond this, someone has been recently barraging Fonda with frightening phone calls (no caller I.D. in this era, folks), the kind where the caller breathes into the receiver like an asthma victim. Thus, Sutherland/Klute — whose backstory isn’t defined, which in this rare case, may be to the dramatic good — becomes both a sleuth and a bodyguard as the two odd acquaintances retrace her old haunts in an attempt to follow up on scanty hints. One of these involves a former pimp (compared to many, “polished”) played by Roy Scheider, about four months before he broke through with an eventually Oscar-nominated performance in The French Connection.

A major player in the movie is one john’s sinister-sounding collection of portable tape recordings of Brie/Fonda on the job, a techno side issue that became dramatically cutting-edge for its day (three years, even, before Coppola’s The Conversation). This eerie invasion of privacy subtext — and the participation of cinematographer of Willis on all three films — made Klute the first of Pakula’s oft-termed paranoia trilogy, preceding The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. (Parallax is nowhere to be found on Blu-ray because its rights controller is hapless Paramount, who’d prefer to bring out Grease XLVII if it could.) This was only Pakula’s second feature after a fairly distinguished producing career, and though Willis had already shot at least two worthy-plus commercial flops since his debut the year before, Klute was his first wave-maker. Visually and audibly (the picture has great mono sound and Michael Small scoring), the print caliber here is comparable to what might have been shown at the first critics’ screening in the Warner screening room, 1971.

What makes the movie (we know the mystery with an hour to go) is the manner in which it takes dramatically risky time to examine Brie’s very confused psyche. It’s divulged not just by her actions but by monologues to her psychiatrist — something we didn’t see much in major studio cop movies of the day (see Clint Eastwood’s thematic fourth cousin Coogan’s Bluff as a reference point). This is a person who’s totally confident in her trade where she controls the situation but an emotional shambles outside the bedroom — especially in actress/modeling auditions that end in rejection, even though from the evidence we see, she ought to be garnering more respect.

This is a woman who likes to needle and even ridicule cop Klute, who responds negatively just once. But he gets under her skin, and she sometimes feels an extremely cautious emotional attachment. In off hours, she ditches the party scene and curls up in bed with a hardback book — not the best choice, but this a crowd where you don’t see much reading oaf any kind; she’s stylish about her clothes but can’t keep the rubble off the floor of her apartment. Ultimately, all this is much closer to what the movie is really about, which is a major reason it has aged so well.

Michael Chapman was the camera operator here (I didn’t know that), and he supervised the transfer. Vanity Fair’s Amy Fine Collins gives the full rundown on the film’s fashions and Brie’s character-enhancing accoutrements, and delivers a massive amount of revelatory info seemingly off the top of her head. Pakula gets his day via a documentary that includes Annette Insdorf and Steven Soderbergh just for starters — and there’s a half-hour of the director on a Dick Cavett show right after his reunion with Fonda on Comes a Horseman (or “How To Look Fab Out on the Trail in Jeans and No Makeup”). Mark Harris wrote the essay (you don’t get any classier than that), and even the thrown-in promotional featurette that Warner did at the time is pretty good. (Where did these play? They were too long for a TV spot, and I never saw one in a theater — only several in 16mm years after the fact.)

Pakula had a much more scintillating visual style than his ex-partner Mulligan did, though I suppose that having Willis as cinematographer (he shot five of the 16 Pakula features) could have turned Lesley Selander into an auteur. Before his wretchedly flukish 1998 death on the Long Island Expressway, Pakula definitely had his share of bombs — several of which I’d like to see again for reevaluation. But he had a highly praised track record with actresses (Fonda, Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith, Liza Minnelli), which is noted on one or more of the bonus extras. Of course, with All the President’s Men (by far my favorite movie of his career), he didn’t do too shabbily with male actors, either.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’

The Leopard Man

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Horror;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur shortly after he and producer Val Lewton turned The Cat People into one of the most profitable sleepers of the entire World War II movie era, 1943’s The Leopard Man was the third of nine creepy features Lewton made for RKO during his famously remarkable run from 1942 to 1946. It is also, for some, the most problematic due to its unusual story construction, and it didn’t help matters that when Warner Home Entertainment released an overall terrific Lewton box in 2005, The Leopard Man print was the one entry whose print didn’t look very good.

This second problem has been solved by this new Scream Factory release of a new 4K remastering off the original negative; seeing it at its best, one marvels (at least in its interiors and street scenes) how Lewton was able to create an acceptable New Mexico town on 59 cents and a lot of sets/costumes scavenged from past RKO films. Beyond this, was there ever a movie from that studio that didn’t benefit from its Roy Webb score? I only have to hear a few strains from any of them to be transported back to a TV set in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the RKO catalog got played to death by local stations everywhere. Welcomely.

The structural oddity of this 66-minute feature (which was actually cut some for its re-issue before the footage was eventually restored) has to do with the lobbing of its most chilling salvo so early in the picture. A borrowed leopard from a traveling circus has escaped town and nocturnally kills a screaming young girl (after a late trip to the store and then a desperate chase to her front door). Mom’s inside, and she’s temporarily miffed at her daughter’s tardiness; as a result, she takes her time answering it until the screams and pounding get a little too insistent, by which time, it’s too late. One can easily see why The Exorcist director William Friedkin calls this one of the great horrific suspense scenes of all time, which it is.

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Even though this set piece is powerful enough to carry a bottom-line interesting curio over its short running time, the movie does peak early — though it is interesting to see how the borrowed leopard escapes in the first place. An overeager press agent (Dennis O’Keefe) borrows the creature to upstage in real time the nightclub act of a rival to one of his clients; spooked, the animal escapes and runs out the entrance into the night. It’s really tough to see how the leopard could possibly be rattled; it’s only hit by nightclub lights, well-dressed patrons reveling at their tables and the fact that the rival performer (Margo) is insistently playing her castanets.

Margo, who should have had a better career, is really good as the woman who for a while is the central character — worried about what a local fortune teller’s “cards” might hold. Previously memorable in Lost Horizon and (if memory serves) her screen debut in the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion, she was apparently politically blacklisted in later years — though you’d think that just the fact that she was married to Eddie Albert (who reputedly rescued 70 Marines at Tarawa) would have gotten her over that hump. As far as I know, I hosted Margo’s last public appearance of note a little more than a year before her death — an impromptu affair when we pulled her out of the audience at the AFI Theater when I was interviewing Albert in stage during a weekend tribute that included a sell-out Green Acres afternoon. (Footnote: He was so happy to learn that he and Acres were in Gene Sculatti’s must-read Catalog of Cool — along with 3D View Masters and Louis Prima — that I gave him my copy.) But I digress.

O’Keefe was around in bit parts forever before kind of making it in the mid-’40s and early ’50s as a dependable ‘B’-movie regular. He wasn’t an actor of much depth, but he had a likable presence both in light comedies and crime melodramas (I was surprised by how easy he was to take playing an insurance investigator during my recent viewing of the 1949 ‘B’-pic Cover Up, which you wouldn’t really expect to be on Blu-ray but is). With a few exceptions, ‘B’-pictures are what he made, as with the first movie I ever saw him in (a theatrical first-run of 1955’s Chicago Syndicate, a passably time-killing glob of Sam Katzman/Fred Sears cheese whose ad copy could and should have screamed, “And with Xavier Cugat as Benny Chico”). The Leopard Man is one off the few O’Keefe movies whose title might spark recognition by the non-hard core that nonetheless knows a little something about the movies.

Instead of his character being arrested on some kind of charge after the first killing (yes, there are more) or having Nancy Grace put him on her hit list, we’ll note that this was a nowhere Southwestern town away from big-city forces, though you’d think that some of its young men would have been draft-eligible. (WWII is rarely, if ever, a force in Lewton horror, even those few taking place in time settings or milieus where it would apply.) Instead, O’Keefe and the performer he manages (Jean Brooks, a versatile actress who succumbed to alcohol) are allowed to sleuth the case — which becomes a case with each new homicide. The victims are always young women, which gets increasingly suspicious, leading some to wonder if the cat really is responsible. As in the first killing, Tourneur gets a lot out of his “is the creature nearby?” scenes, including a beaut where you can’t tell if a tiny speck of light at night is the cat’s eyes or a reflection of something.

There are two bonus commentaries — one by Friedkin, the other a highly informative nuts-and-bolts one by film historian Constantine Nasr that gives a compelling back-dropper about the kind of miserable-sounding life that source author Cornell Woolrich seems to have led. These voiceovers are complementary, with Friedkin mounting a vigorous defense of the picture while acknowledging certain shortcomings. Even though The Leopard Man tends to take up one story, drop it and go on to another with perhaps a haphazard sense of direction, Friedkin likes this structure and offers a brief that this was one of the first modern Hollywood movies of its type due to its unconventional, non-linear storytelling. As with Alfred Hitchcock pulling the rug out from Janet Leigh a third of the way into Psycho.

I can’t say I totally agree, though I do see his point, which had not occurred to me before. And besides, Lewton follow-up The Seventh Victim doesn’t cohere particularly well, and yet it’s probably my favorite of the series (out of four or five contenders) because I can think of few Hollywood films from the 1940s that so get under your skin. This is a great service that Shout/Scream Factory is performing, getting this milestone collection out in even better prints than I was able to get for the AFI Theater when I was programming. I would really salivate to see Victim and I Walked With a Zombie, in particular, get their Blu-ray day.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

The Wild Heart/Gone to Earth

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jennifer Jones, David Farrar, Cyril Cusack.
1952/1950. Kino Classics’ cover art trumpets The Wild Heart, the U.S. edit of the perpetually snakebitten Gone to Earth, which indisputably is the main event here despite being relegated to adjacent fine print on the same jacket as a so-called bonus offering.
Extras: The Blu-ray has two highly compatible commentaries, one for each version.
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Bandolero!

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13.’
Stars James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy.
1968. Bandolero! isn’t anywhere close to great, but it is on the higher side of drive-in boilerplate adequate, and nothing could have kept me away from a Jimmy Stewart-Dean Martin pairing in 1968, even if they are supposed to be playing brothers.
Extras: The Blu-rya includes an engagingly enthusiastic commentary by Tony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo.
Read the Full Review

The Wild Heart/Gone to Earth

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, David Farrar, Cyril Cusack.

One movie, two edits and three strikes on David O. Selznick, if you ask me.

Kino Classics’ cover art trumpets The Wild Heart, but the perpetually snakebitten Gone to Earth (indisputably the main event here) continues its sorry history by being relegated to adjacent fine print on the same jacket — that is, as a so-called bonus offering. None of this should obscure the fact that we’re looking at a standout Blu-ray release and one I hope to rewatch plural times. But in a word … man. Maybe some sort of contractural obligation mandated this.

In any event, headlining Heart is the universally regarded lesser cut of the most underrated achievement from the great British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Michael Pressburger — a period melodrama about flaunted adultery that has had to settle for cult status that one suspects is as feverish as its protagonist. And how did 1950’s Earth (in other countries) become 1952’s Heart over here? It was when the editing knife of and ordered reshoots by U.S. distributor Selznick gutted the original cut of nuance so that the Mayberry demographic could understand it better. There’s even a slapped-on opening narration by Joseph Cotten that “Tells Us What We’re About to See” (and I say this as one who could listen to Cotten reading schedule changes at the Cleveland bus station). Selznick’s take further built up the lead performance by his real-life wife Jennifer Jones with more closeups and emphasized footage. This after she’d already delivered one her best performances in the first place.

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Adapted from a 1917 novel by Mary Webb and set near the end of the 19th century in the gorgeously rural Shropshire countryside not too far from Wales, Earth was the most successful of screen attempts to give Jones more of an on-screen sexual dimension. The P&P execution of this is much less blatant than it was in two films Jones made with director King Vidor (Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry) amid that filmmaker’s so-called “hysterical period,” which also produced Beyond the Forest and The Fountainhead. Basically, Jones’s character here is a naive coffin maker’s daughter and occasional reader of gypsy literature who’s torn between wanting respectability in the community and satisfying normal sexual needs that seem anything but to her oppressively dull Methodist neighbors. On the other hand, Jones does pull off a reckless whopper or two when it comes to behavior. If Selznick’s aborted version gets one thing right, it’s that she really does have a wild heart, albeit one that becomes much more tender when it comes to her pet fox (“Foxy”), which becomes a major plot point. (In the revamped Heart, the fox is visibly stuffed in one key scene, which just doesn’t help anybody.)

This wild dimension is enough to attract a swaggering squire played by David Farrar, a P&P favorite who was also memorable in my favorite of the team’s pairings: Black Narcissus. This guy is not a good dude, which is something apparently well known to the locals — inclined to take whatever he wants no matter the collateral damage. He also partakes enthusiastically in fox hunts, which you can see might lead to no good. But he’s a dashing guy with means (one can see Farrar playing a highwayman in a different kind of period romance), cuts a good figure, and the reciprocated itch he has for Jones is real, even if love is probably beyond his capabilities. Unfortunately, Jones — who respectively juggles physical and spiritual love between two contenders — is first betrothed and then wed to the village’s new minister (Cyril Cusack, looking much, much younger than in his ’60s supporting-actor heyday of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Fahrenheit 451). Not that any of this prevents her from acting on her impulses.

I can’t think of many movies that more adeptly mine the tension between the beauty and the brutality of its landscapes, though footage emphasizing the physical milieu is one of the cut version’s key casualties. Credit cinematographer Christopher Challis, who began collaborating with P&P in 1949 and then into the ’50s. Up to this time, Jack Cardiff had been the director of photography most associated with the team’s deliriously expressive Technicolor achievements, culminating in 1948’s The Red Shoes (Challis had been his camera operator). Many regard Cardiff as the greatest color cinematographer ever, but it’s as if he simply handed the baton or threw a lateral pass directly to Challis, who finesses Earth into a visual piece with Cardiff’s work on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and Shoes (Georges Perinal shot The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). It’s inconceivable to me that anyone who loves the overheated emotions of Narcissus and Shoes (and I mean that affectionately) wouldn’t respond enthusiasm to Earth, even though it is not nearly as well known and is, in fact, fairly obscure.

The Blu-ray has two highly compatible commentaries, one for each version. Troy Howarth is far more sanguine than I’d ever be giving the re-edited Heart its due, but he’s an encyclopedia on stars, crew and the ins-and-outs of the second version’s editing process. Speaking over Earth, Samm Deighan designates several preceding P&P titles as close or distant kin to Earth — in particular, 1944’s A Canterbury Tale, which would not have been an obvious guess for me. Deighan’s ambitious analysis is unusual because she alternates between being starchy and (more frequently) chummy, sometimes practically in the same sentence. There’s a lot of depth here, and Deighan seems extremely well versed in the period literary traditions from which this movie springs. Though I disagree with her that Selznick was basically good for Jones’s career. Given the number of times she seemed to be miscast, I think he severely harmed it, especially in later years.

Having both versions here turns the package into an instructive classroom exercise on how to turn a gorgeous grabber into not so much a disaster as a dispiriting shrug-off whose plot points at least “play out” in similar fashion (assuming that’s all you want from a film). The contrast brings to mind  the advice one film critic (I think it was David Edelstein) gave regarding the theatrically released vs. longer expanded DVD edit of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which was maybe the most written about but least seen great or near-great movie of the 2000-09 decade: Which was that viewers could now begin using the shorter version as a drink coaster. You can’t literally do this here because both versions are on the same disc, but you get my drift.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

Bandolero!

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy. 

Say, what did mom and dad look like? This is the unavoidable stumper posed by 1968’s Bandolero! when we’re handed the proposition of James Stewart and Dean Martin cast as brothers — this, apparently, after someone either shook or stirred the gene pool with a mighty big swizzle stick. Of course, these were the days when John Wayne and Michael Anderson Jr. (respectively 56 and 22 at time) had played bros as well just three years earlier in The Sons of Katie Elder, proving that these two siblings’ own folks did not want for protracted action on the range. But to argue the other side, did you want to see Stewart or Wayne in a ’60s Western or Alex Cord? And besides, if you went by Wayne and Stewart’s advanced ages alone when they made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance before seeing it, you’d never know it was a great movie.

Bandolero! isn’t anywhere close to great, but it is on the higher side of drive-in boilerplate adequate, and nothing could have kept me away from a Stewart-Martin pairing in 1968. And in what’ll likely be a surprise for many to hear (as it was to me), Larry McMurty himself must have liked this film a lot because he borrowed some of the character names and situations when he wrote Lonesome Dove. At a time when 20th Century-Fox was fast depleting a lot of its Sound of Music haul on a lot of big-budget projects that tanked, here were Jimmy and Dino offering (for them) unusual characterizations against the usual backdrop of the era’s Western character-actor pretty faces: Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Don “Red” Barry, Rudy Diaz and the like. And for a legitimate pretty face, there was also Raquel Welch, at a time when her One Million Years B.C. poster adorned more college dorm walls than post-party-time Thunderbird upchuck. That couldn’t have hurt the grosses — and in fact, Bandolero! proved to be solid small-town fare, though I seriously wonder if it did as well as the engagingly enthusiastic commentary by Tony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo (film buff extraordinaires when it comes to  All Things Rat Pack) says on this new and extremely good-looking Blu-ray’s bonus feature.

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The major surprise here is that Martin plays his role as an habitual outlaw responsible for the bank robbery deaths of townsfolk deaths totally straight, and this was at a time when his Thursday night NBC variety hour highlighted him as the consummate tuxedoed jester. In fact, it was fairly unusual for him to play a villain of any kind, though this film was sandwiched between two late-career Westerns in which he did as well: Rough Night in Jericho (so reprehensible in this one that he gives Jean Simmons a tough time) and Showdown. A lesser surprise here but still a bit out of left field is a Stewart performance that’s alternately twinkle-eyed and dead serious, which somewhat reflects the picture’s uncertain tone, There are some funny early touches involving Stewart disguising himself as a hangman — before a grim final quarter where the body count piles up.

Tossed into this an unlikely Welch, cast as former prostitute who’s just been widowed by the richest fogey around and sitting on a lot money (which, interestingly, isn’t pursued as a plot point). After the post-bankjob Martin and his grungy gang escape the gallows with a major assist from Older Brother, Welch by fluke joins the getaway, where it’s inevitably rough on the Texas-to-Mexico desert trail. Even so, and after days of this, her hair looks great, face looks great and the great William Clothier’s ornery camera momentarily reveals that she’s wearing pantyhose in an attempted rape scene. No wonder Dino is smitten, as is a sheriff played by George Kennedy. Good luck on the latter yearning, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kennedy later did get to make out on screen with Bibi Andersson in The Concorde … Airport ’79. Kennedy and Andersson: It kind of reminds me of the time Sandra Bernhard was on Letterman and noted how much she wanted to see 1986’s Delta Force because  “Chuck Norris and Hanna Schygulla don’t work together that often.” (Geez, George Kennedy was in that one, too, as was Joey Bishop; I’d better pull the old DVD out of my jeans closet.)

Martin and Welch had some history. The bonus commentary trio mention the YouTube-available clip from the 1979 Oscarcast (honoring ’78 releases) when a slurring Dino got so gamey with his statuesque co-presenter that she got embarrassed and tried to move on. But there’d also been the classic “Hollywood Palace” show of 1964 — the same one where Martin dissed the Rolling Stones on their first U.S. TV appearance and introduced “Everybody Loves Somebody,” whose 45 had been in out in stores for such a short time that he said they “haven’t even punched the  holes in it yet.” At show’s end, a pre-stardom Welch came out (introduced as simply “Raquel”) with Donald O’Connor, and Martin spent the entire interlude looking down her dress. This was not exactly “Omnibus.”

Cinematographer Clothier was a constant enhancer of films with and by John Ford, John Wayne, Stewart and Bandolero! director Andrew V. McLaglen, and I was glad to hear Messrs. Latino, Pfeiffer and Scrabo note that even the intentionally drab Liberty Valance is actually superbly shot in terms of shadows and lighting (as when Wayne emerges from the alley in the climax). And if the movie by itself isn’t enough to offer a hint why Jerry Goldsmith was one of the real go-to composers of the day, someone in that trio rattles off Goldsmith’s stellar credits from this same general period, and you wonder how the guy even had time to shave in the morning.

Both the robbers and Kennedy’s unenthusiastic posse become predictable targets of the title’s gringo-hating Mexican Marauders, which likely would make Bandolero! a favorite in the White House viewing room were Trump not the first president since, like, Polk not to watch movies in the WH (whatever you want to say, Nixon was movie-crazy, and not just for Patton). Also doing their part to up the corpse quotient is the crew of lowlifes who make up Martin’s gang (to brother Stewart’s chagrin). These include Sean McClory, who looks as if he never left that Irish pub in Ford’s The Quiet Man, a cantankerous old slug played by Will Geer and the latter’s cretinous son, who should have been put down not long after his birth.

The movie isn’t distinguished, but in some ways it’s a mild curio, and this Twilight Time release can serve as a demonstration Blu-ray of how a Panavison DeLuxe Color Western of the late ’60s would have looked on its best pre-release mint-print day (say, in Fox’s old New York critics’ screening room that was on or around Tenth Avenue, the one where I saw Rex Reed make a dismissive gesture on the way out of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). I appreciate that the commentators here love their red-meat cinema — the same trio is great on Twilight Time’s release of the Sinatra-in-Miami toughie Tony Rome — but let’s just say that every movie and every person would love to be as lauded with same vigor these enthusiasts throw Bandolero!’s way. This is all well and good, but even before we get to foreign releases or co-productions released earlier in other countries, 1968 was the source of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Petulia, Rosemary’s Baby, Madigan, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Faces, Bullitt, Night of the Living Dead, Pretty Poison and Monterey Pop. It’s hardly the biggest deal in the world, but let’s allow our historical dimensions to take a deep breath.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

A Patch of Blue

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford.
1965.
A Patch of Blue is at once a star vehicle for Sidney Poitier plus a terrific ensemble piece, though its No. 1 takeaway is still Elizabeth Hartman’s knock-you-on-your-duff performance in what is actually Blue’s central role.
Extras: The late writer-director Guy Green provides a commentary carried over from the old DVD.
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This Island Earth

Shout! Factory, Sci-fi, $26.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason.
1955.
Scream Factory’s unexpectedly lavish new Blu-ray is still the definitive presentation of a ’50s sci-fi biggie that entranced a lot of kids at the time — not only because it was in Technicolor but because it had a larger than expected budget all around, though probably not one as large as it needed.
Extras: Includes a 47-minute documentary on the film’s production and reception, plus a long printed history of Perspecta Stereophonic Sound.
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A Patch of Blue

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford.

Of all the “Super Sidney” screen showcases that Sidney Poitier headlined during the 1960s, A Patch of Blue remains my favorite — which isn’t to deny the lasting impact of In the Heat of the Night, an Oscar-winner for 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate likely split that landmark movie year’s “New Hollywood” vote. As with Night, this earlier picture is at once a star vehicle for Poitier plus a terrific ensemble piece, though its No. 1 takeaway is still Elizabeth Hartman’s knock-you-on-your-duff performance in what is actually Blue’s central role.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to separate the Hartman character’s tough-luck plight from the actress’s own tragic real-life conclusion, but more on that later. What impresses about this fairly modest undertaking then and now is how, through pure gut conviction and filmmaking craft from everyone involved, it triumphs over what even its late writer-director Guy Green volunteers (on the old DVD’s carried-over bonus commentary) is perilously close to a cornball premise. Which is: That a blind 18-year-old from a racist background (her mom’s a real package) is befriended by a friendly stranger she eventually falls for without realizing he’s black. In other words, everyone had better be at the top of his or her game with that baby.

Before we get to the actors, there was quite the array of table-setters working on the margins here and then some, starting with the fact that Green’s direction probably guaranteed that the movie was going to look good, given that in his day he was a top cinematographer himself. In fact, I remember that in one of the multiple feature documentaries there’ve been that’d devoted themselves to the cinematographer’s art, Spike Lee’s onetime great cameraman Ernest Dickerson (he shot Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) was inspired to pursue his calling after seeing a telecast of Green’s work on one of David Lean’s two great Charles Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations or Oliver Twist; I forget which one, but Green shot both).

The cinematographer that Green-the-director got here was merely Robert Burks, who (Psycho excepted) shot every Hitchcock film from Strangers in a Train through Marnie — plus House of Wax, The Spirit of St. Louis and The Music Man. Burks makes working in close quarters with multiple actors (at least half of the film takes place in small apartments) look easy while delivering a crisp image that makes this Warner Archive Blu-ray quite the black-and-white looker. And highly appreciated even at the time was Jerry Goldsmith’s soft-sell score, which has some of the emotional power of Elmer Bernstein’s for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is just about on every list you’ll see of the best movie music ever.

The producer who helped assemble the package was veteran Pandro S. Berman, whom Green credits with taking on the wearying conversations with the MGM money men who were somewhat resistant to this “little picture” when they had a movie ready for release around the same time (Doctor Zhivago) that could rescue what was starting to look like a teetering studio (Ben-Hur and 2001 were, in different years, poised as similar studio saviors, though the Kubrick turned out to be a surprise one). Of course, given that Berman had produced all but the first and last Astaire-Rogers pictures, plus Father of the Bride plus Blackboard Jungle plus Jailhouse Rock, he probably could fend off at least excessive guff, and Green praises him multiple times in his commentary.

Like most of the films Green directed, Blue pounds the nail head a little too directly for it to be in my natural wheelhouse in terms of personal preference, but it wasn’t the first time he surprised me by making an unlikely premise play better than it should (see also 1962’s Light in the Piazza, also from MGM). As Hartman’s blowsy-to-the-fifth-power mother whose carelessness was responsible for her daughter’s blindness in the first place, Shelley Winters got the year’s supporting actress Oscar (her second). It’s undeniable that she’s really broad here in multiple senses, but then again, her character is a obstreperous bigot whose career ambition is to quit punching the time clock to open a whorehouse with her girl friend — one that’ll presumably service equally dumpy men and include Hartman as part of the package. Given these specifics of the role, who you gonna call?

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I’m as dazzled by Poitier’s sheer star power as much as anyone else, but the two performances that get to me most here are Hartman’s and Wallace Ford’s. The latter’s career went back to the early ’30s; he was the nominal lead in Freaks and was also the informed-against Frankie in John Ford’s The Informer. His role here as Hartman’s sympathetic old sot of a grandfather was his last (Blue came out about six months before is death) and, I think, the best of his screen career. He’d been working fairly in TV for several years, but hadn’t made a feature since Warlock and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah — both characterizations in sharp contrast to what you see here (in the earlier films, he was respectively a loquacious judge and a savvy political pro).

 

As for Hartman, whose screen debut this was, Green was virtually certain when he tested her that he had lucked into The One — for a role he instinctively (and correctly) thought sensed needed to be played by a newcomer. Like the movie overall, the motivating Selina character has a sweet inner core, which doesn’t mean she can’t be tough. Generally shy, she can occasionally surprise you by being unambiguously direct in the questions she asks and the personal history she reveals. There’s a scene late in the film where Hartman/Selina, alone in her family’s rundown apartment, throws an A-team fit against everyone and everything in the world, Poitier excepted; for a movie about blindness — and a new chance friend trying to get her professional help — it is a real eye opener. Green says he was personally moved and stripped of his usual professional coolness while watching Hartman play out this amazing scene, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

The year was an extraordinary one for actress newcomers and relative newcomers; Julie Christie won the Oscar for Darling, and nominations went to The Collector’s Samantha Eggar and Hartman herself — all honors deserved. After that, however, Hartman’s career floundered (she’s one of The Group in The Group), and though anyone can see from her still photos that she could be a stunner when photographed the right way, she probably didn’t automatically come to casting directors’ minds as a conventional movie lead and additionally had a tough time adjusting to so much initial acclaim. In 1987, after a long history of depression, she jumped out of her Pittsburgh fifth-floor apartment to her death at 43.

Racially speaking, Green consciously walked a tightrope, and the movie is probably tamer than it would have to be even three years later. On the other hand, this is MGM in 1965, and here’s a white actress kissing a black actor on screen, however chastely — and this was three years before all hell broke out after a TV special’s sponsor (or, rather, its head of advertising) went ballistic when Petula Clark gave Harry Belafonte’s forearm an extended touch during a musical duet. For sponsor Plymouth’s part, it didn’t take long for the guy to start looking a little silly carrying his ass around under his arm, but it was a huge deal at the time. There’s also a scene here where Poitier’s more racially militant brother (Ivan Dixon, who’s also good here) refers to Selina’s family as “trash.” If there was a major studio movie up to this time where a black character described any white person as such, its title does not immediately come to mind.

In the end, MGM was able to give both Blue and Doctor Zhivago slow platform releases in December 1965, where they both did well at the box office (Zhivago was obviously in a different league) and at Oscar time. Fortunately, Winters (whose determination I always admired despite the jokes I’ve always made at her expense) went through the car wash or something and then the beauty salon before the ceremonies. She looked more than presentable when she won her award and specifically thanked Green, who rated Blue as his favorite picture as a director.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

This Island Earth

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Sci-fi;
$26.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason.

To borrow the parlance that my third-grade colleagues would have used at the time, This Island Earth is quite “neat” for its day yet remains wounded by the same cardboard dramatics that have always plagued it. But this said, Scream Factory’s unexpectedly lavish new Blu-ray is still the definitive presentation of a ’50s sci-fi biggie that entranced a lot of kids at the time — not only because it was in Technicolor but because it had a larger than expected budget all around, though probably not one as large as it needed.

Just as the replicated art ad still says on the Blu-ray box, Earth was “2 1/2 Years in the Making” after director Joseph M. Newman found the property himself — though I always figured that maybe a year-and-a-half of this went toward fitting and pasting on those distinctive skull caps that gave lead Jeff Morrow and his lackeys sky-high foreheads, to say nothing of those that adorn the movie’s villainous mutants whose corresponding skulls resemble exposed brains. No one who’s ever seen them has ever forgotten them, and this is one thing no one will ever be able to take away from a film that works at least fitfully in spite of itself.

In other words, the picture takes a long time to get rolling, and it’s not exactly an actor’s paradise — aside, perhaps, from the pathos Morrow brings to his role as a friendly alien caught between the hardline sentiments of rulers on his own planet (Metaluna) and the affection he feels for Earthlings, with whom he’s spent considerable time. Not so sure of this benevolence is a hunk-ish scientist/electronics whiz (Rex Reason), who can also pilot a jet — an authoritative guy all around who is always savvily asking the right questions. On one of the myriad bonus commentaries/interviews here (the sheer number of them dazzle), someone gives Reason’s performance a little credit; beyond having a great voice, he was handled a stiff role and pretty well filling this bill with the poor hand he was handed. Unfortunately, femme lead Faith Domergue doesn’t fare as well on this count (and ’55 was the actress’s big boomer-kid year, given that Cult of the Cobra and Ray Harryhausen’s irresistible cheese slice It Came from Beneath the Sea were two of the four other Domergue films that had recently preceded Earth in theaters).

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Though Metaluna eventually turns out to be in big trouble (which is why it needs Earth’s help due to an energy shortage), the alien planet wields the standard supernatural powers we came to expect in ’50s sci-fi cinema. It can take over the piloting of Reason’s jet to make an impression, which is why later — when it entices him to board a Metaluna craft to journey to God-knows-where — he lands and is picked up by Domergue in … a woodie station wagon. Turns out that after all this arduous and presumed major star trekking he’s ended up in Georgia with other recruited U.S. scientists that include one played by Russell Johnson (later The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island”). For suspicious reasons, they come off as mum and intimidated — so much so that Domergue denies that she and Reason had a brief relationship swimming in Vermont a few years earlier. Which, in ’50s censorship code, probably means they did it.

Putting aide the drearily obligatory “sidekick” comedy relief early in the picture, there’s all kinds of talk throughout at the expense of action. And yet, it’s also true that the backdrop to all this yakking is mighty easy on the eye because Earth got under the wire enough to have been shot in three-strip Technicolor during the format’s waning days (those hot lights turned the wearing of mutant makeup and costumes into something pretty close to a miracle diet). This wasn’t the first ’50s color sci-fi (Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds were all Technicolor, while Invaders From Mars was in notably expressive “Supercinecolor”). But it was the first time Universal-International took the plunge, and for the intended demographic, this was a big deal.

One of the bonus highlights is what’s billed as an “extended” 47-minute documentary on the film’s production and reception where New Jersey-bred director Joe Dante (who would know) said his circle of buds knew Earth was a big picture because it played alone on a single bill. As for my town, Earth rated a downtown booking but in the least of its four first-run theaters — one that played a lot of Universals, a lot of Republics and a lot of Westerns. In this case, it did have a co-feature — United Artists’ Sabaka, with Boris Karloff and Victor Jory; no turnstile buster it — and this package lasted a week.

Reviews generally were unkind (1955 was a really strong and competitive movie year), though there was also probable prejudice against the genre when at least the art direction should have gotten mention. The payoff climactic scenes — whose volume of explosions make you wonder if someone trucked over to steal a caravan of munitions from the U-I lot where Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back was shooting — look crude today but still remain imaginatively crude once all hell breaks loose on poor Metaluna. The general consensus among commentators here is that the studio’s sci-fi Main Man Jack Arnold did not shoot these or any other scenes, despite frequent reportage to the contrary.

Despite the ballyhooed length-of-production, Earth was kind of rushed into shooting, which means that it was photographed close enough to the dividing line between 1.37:1 and wider-screen renderings that two versions exist; both are included here, and the 1.85:1 version definitely the way to go. One of my favorite bonus features is a long printed history of Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, which offered something like stereo to exhibitors for less money and effort and which lasted from roughly 1954 through 1957. The history’s pages are fairly easy to read off a big screen, and I spent quite a long time with this extra, though the material is elaborate enough to eat up most of a day. A restored Perspecta soundtrack is one of two included on the disc, and uilizing it did a lot to keep me near-fully engaged despite the script’s dramatic shortcomings.

Still, it was really a miscalculated 1996 exercise for Universal to employ Earth as the target when it made Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie — though I grant that the studio had to have something close to an A-picture to lampoon because audiences weren’t going to shell out theatrical admission prices to see Eegah or its like taking lumps. Despite my love for “MST3K,” it really was a cheap shot, starting with the fact that the original movie ended up being butchered so badly that the entire ’96 release ran significantly shorter than the full-length Earth by itself — even with the all the additional screen time devoted to the barbs tossed its way by Mike Nelson & crew. Dante also points out that Earth’s color intensity got badly degraded as part of the techno process of superimposing the “MST3K” jesters over the bottom of the image.

There was always something about actor Morrow that registered positively with boomer male kids even when he played a heavy — as he did in both the Martin & Lewis Western Pardners and The Creature Walks Among Us, both of which I saw twice theatrically in their original ’56 releases. I, at least, always picked up on a possible twinkle-eyed hint that he knew how outlandish a lot of his big-screen situations were (one exception is his played-straight performance in Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot, a movie I really like).

With his impossible hair-forehead combo, Morrow plows his way through Earth fairly successfully in a manner that’s difficult not to acknowledge. But his dexterity ran out a couple years later with producer Sam Katzman’s impossibly and hilariously cheap (even for him) The Giant Claw, which was directed by the prolific Fred Sears (dead of a heart attack the same year at 44, and you have to wonder). As others have previously mentioned, it is Claw that would have been a foolproof “MST3K” target. Morrow’s account of the premiere is on IMDb.com, and it’s worth reading if you’re into mortification.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Mother Wore Tights’

Gaslight

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Mystery, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty.
1944. MGM’s superbly cast George Cukor remake of a 1940 British film is definitely a classic, a stylish mystery about a wastrel who marries a delicate woman for her inheritance, which is mostly wrapped up in the London house once owned by the latter’s aunt, who was victim of an unsolved murder a decade or so earlier.
Extras: Includes the 1940 British version, giving the Blu-ray the feel of a college-level course on how a big-screen mystery on the high side of adequate can be rethought into a classic.
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Mother Wore Tights

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Musical, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, Mona Freeman, Connie Marshall.
1947. Mother Wore Tights is foremost a Betty Grable vehicle: the most popular movie she ever made; her own career favorite; and the top box office performer of its year.
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