Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gordon Scott, Sara Shane, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery.
1959. Tarzan joins the hunt for some nefarious jewel thieves in this robustly spun yarn.
Read the Full Review

The Ice Harvest

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
Stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt.
2005.
Even by noir standards, Harvest is uncommonly brutal in language, graphic bodily harm and, well, life attitude. Especially for a movie with recognizable stars and filmmakers.
Read the Full Review

 

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gordon Scott, Sara Shane, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery.

As the first of two unusually well-received Tarzan adventures released by Paramount Pictures in 1959 and 1960, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure opens with an outrageous visual that some might momentarily think is from an unaired episode from Megyn Kelly’s defunct NBC morning show. At a time when 007 was still three years away from the big screen, we are treated to, of all things, Sean Connery in blackface, though not for any racist reasons on the part of the script. In fact, if for no other reason than that the cast is almost totally Caucasian, this isn’t another Tarzan movie where some white savior saves the black locals from scummy invaders. And having just re-seen Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey via Criterion’s new Blu-ray, I can opine that movie natives are capable of doing pretty well for themselves, thank you.

So as it turns out in this robustly spun yarn, Connery’s character and his equally nefarious colleagues are posing as black Africans to facilitate their nocturnal heist of dynamite, which ends up with the death of a doctor and radio operator in the process. As a result, their pursuit becomes a big-league affair that demands a pro, even one who lives in a tree with a chimpanzee. So in comes Tarzan (Gordon Scott) — or, if you prefer, Robert Mueller on a grapevine. And as it turns out, the ringmaster baddie (Anthony Quayle) has some history with the jungle man, and when the latter gets word of who his new adversary is, this becomes perhaps the first movie I can recall where our Tarzan has a look cross his face that might called “world-weary.”

With our late-’50s emergence from the so-called Eisenhower years (which aren’t looking all bad these days), it was obvious even back then that “ungawa” was no longer going to cut it, either in Beat coffee shops or the Duluth car wash. So if Scott and whatever actor it was who played Cheetah aren’t exactly up in their tree reading Remembrance of Things Past, this Tarzan is on a comparably erudite side when compared with Johnny Weissmuller or Lex Barker. Or, at very least, he speaks in complete sentences, albeit ones with fewer clauses than, say, David Halberstam used to employ.

Quayle’s cruds need these explosives for blasting purposes in an as yet un-located mine that they hope and assume contains diamonds. Among the colleagues not played by Connery (who’s pretty nasty here, BTW) is a doughy mold-culture type with coke-bottle glasses — and, it is suggested, a former Nazi. There is also, obeying international law in movies like this, a babe girlfriend (Scilla Gabel) for Quayle. I grew up looking at old issues of Saga and Argosy in the barber shop — the ones whose jungle-motived covers featured buxom women in low-cut blouses, open midriffs, ammunition belts and a live python for the capper style touch. Gabel, though, is no such adventuress but just another looker who mostly sunbathes a lot on their boat. When she eventually meets her end in film spectacular fashion, you can almost hear her mother saying, “I told you that if you didn’t exhibit better taste in men, you’d end up in quicksand.”

What makes this Adventure a little different is the presence of an additional babe — the other one played by Sara Shane as something of what used to be called a “playgirl.” Cocky, traveling alone and seemingly self-sufficient, she nonetheless lands her Cessna in jungle muck the way Jim Backus, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett might have in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This means that she has to depend on Tarzan as the alternative to being stranded with crocodiles who haven’t flossed, though how she emerges unscathed from her honey of a crash is a mystery the movie doesn’t pursue.

Given that The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Rio Bravo and Anatomy of a Murder all came out in 1959 as well, this isn’t really a screen achievement to rate one of those aggressive old TV sales jobs of the Art Fern/Ginsu knife variety. But there isn’t any fat in the narrative, and even the mild suggestion of sexual attraction between the two principals seems natural enough and not a shoehorn job — though personally, I wouldn’t care to rub my hands through the hair of anyone who swims near the hippos. Eventually, in what must be a Tarzan-pic first, Shane is apprehended trying to steal some penicillin from the villains’ boat to cure the Big Guy, which suggests exciting new directions the series might have taken (think: Tarzan Gets a Dose). But no: The injury is suffered as part of everyday Tarzan labors — though, as we know, these can get mighty strenuous just by themselves.

John Guillerman directed, who mixed at least a couple movies I like among his bombs: Guns at Batasi and the “actor” portions of The Towering Inferno. He also did The Blue Max, of which I have no recent opinions, though I sure have rich memories of hearing the late radio evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong ranting on the airwaves about taking his young son to a movie about World War I planes and instead getting Ursula Andress with a towel slung over her nude upper torso (“Hey dad, maybe it’s God’s Plan”). Looking attractive enough on Blu-ray despite the muddy limitations of Eastman Color, Adventure was shot by Ted Scaife, who also worked with Jacques Tourneur, John Ford and Jack Cardiff (Young Cassidy), Robert Aldrich, Andre de Toth, John Huston and George Cukor.

But I couldn’t, by coincidence, watch this movie again the day after Nicolas Roeg’s death without being disproportionately struck by the fact that “Nick” (as billed) was one of the two camera operators here, which points up how long it can take to establish a career that additionally makes the leap from DP to director. As far as I know, Bernardo Bertolucci never worked on a Tarzan movie in any capacity — though, if he did, I’d really like to see it. Though given that monster arachnid in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (a big one for me at a give-take kiddie matinee in 1953 or ’54), he might have done a bang-up job with a variation on The Spider’s Strategem.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

The Ice Harvest

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for violence, language and sexuality/nudity.
Stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt.

The wildest double-bill I ever saw an ad for involved an Ohio drive-in the mid-1960s that managed to splice Becket with a re-issue of the Martin & Lewis girls’-school romp You’re Never Too Young. Some direct descendent, or at least sanitarium soulmate, of the film booker responsible must have worked at Focus Features 40 years later when the decision was made to position The Ice Harvest, with all its foiled-caper nastiness, as a holiday picture (Friday after Thanksgiving, 2005). Talk about an exercise in perversity, to say nothing of commercial suicide — but I still think, as I did at the time, that Harvest deserved a better shake than it got (critics, with some brand-name exceptions, didn’t like it, either).

Even by noir standards — and this one has a lot of noir DNA, including Connie Nielsen’s vintage-movie-poster-caliber babe — Harvest is uncommonly brutal in language, graphic bodily harm and, well, life attitude. Especially for a movie with recognizable stars and filmmakers (with the latter working out of their wheelhouse). For starters on the last count was Robert Benton, who co-scripted this adaptation of a Scott Phillips novel, and even Bonnie and Clyde (the picture that made him) wasn’t this down and dirty. And Benton’s writing partner here was novelist Richard Russo, whose novel Nobody’s Fool became the wonderful, big-hearted Paul Newman movie the two co-scripted and Benton directed.

Though their dialogue here is funny — and a key point here is that Harvest has a lot of laughs — it’s still an eye-opener to find it on Harold Ramis’s own behind-the-camera filmography. Nor does Ramis fumble the assignment; this is one of the better pictures from a spotty directorial career, even if it’s minor fare (no shame in that) that’s more along the lines of what a satisfying drive-in movie used to be. At 88 minutes, it’s tight, and doesn’t let up from an opening that wastes no time in letting us know that the most successful, well-dressed mob lawyer in Wichita (John Cusack) has ripped off $2 million from his employer on Christmas Eve and in a manner that won’t remain secret for very long.

But in keeping with the movie’s basic attitude that life is futile, the winter roads are too dangerous to facilitate a quick getaway with his sleazier partner-in-crime (Billy Bob Thornton — whose dialogue deliveries, as always, are spot on). And Wichita isn’t a large enough place to maintain a low-key presence, especially when Cusack is spending a lot of visible time at his strip bar of choice, which at least has a sympathetic bartender and other employees willing to supply him with a hiding room when certain local “figures” come in looking for him. Nielsen’s character owns the establishment, and it’s no small mental exercise wondering what her background might be. Whatever it is, and the movie is purposely sketchy about this, divorced Cusack has a big-time yen.

Indicative of the manner in which this story enjoys going in warped directions, Cusack’s ex is now married to an alcoholically loquacious lawyer buddy played by any movie’s secret weapon this side of Thornton: Oliver Platt. He seems to be the only close buddy that Cusack has, and the affection is real, though it does lead to a bleak if hilarious confrontation with Cusack’s kids and former in-laws when he drops in with Platt for dinner. Not that Platt gets much of a better reception given his blitzed state, which eventually leads to him passing out near a tree of presents with no one else (and much less the Mrs.) to be seen.

Cusack is flawless here, though this is the kind of take-for-granted performance that never garners much critical notice even in a movie that’s been enthusiastically received. I can’t figure out what has happened to his career, though I’ve always sensed that he might be something of a hothead. In contrast to, say, Jeff Bridges, the slower-fuse excellence of all the cult movies he made earlier on eventually caught up with audiences and made him a bigger star in later years than he’d been.

I also like the skill with which Harvest conveys the bitter cold of this movie winter. On a commentary carried over from the original DVD, Ramis (who died in 2014) mentions the CGI that helped out convincingly on this count, as in the snowy highway late in the movie that got a computer assist on the snow. Ramis apparently did this easygoing commentary a few days before the movie’s theatrical release, when he wasn’t certain how its reception would go. It kind of adds poignancy to the entire enterprise, especially given that Harvest was his only big-screen feature in a seven-year period as serious and eventually fatal health problems loomed on the horizon.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ and ‘The Ice Harvest’

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’

A Man Alone

Kino Lorber, Western, $19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.
1955. A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct, with him playing a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town to be immediately accused of several robberies.
Extras: Includes a bonus commentary by historian Toby Roan.
Read the Full Review

The Last Hurrah

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien.
1958.
Both an unusual and natural project for John Ford to have taken on (and with enthusiasm at that), adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s durably relevant bestseller about politics is instantly recognizable as carrying the Ford stamp.
Extras: Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs enjoy some spirited back-and-forth on the Twilight Time bonus commentary, with colleague Nick Redman wisely electing to relax and mostly just listen to the passing parade.
Read the Full Review

A Man Alone

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.

As the latest Kino Blu-ray of an under-appreciated sleeper shown at this year’s two MoMA Republic Pictures tributes under Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur, 1955’s A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct. It’s also a childhood and early adolescent favorite that I used to watch every time it aired on TV — though as recently as a year ago, I would have thought its chances of getting its own Blu-ray were as remote as a guy attempting to bump off his wife when she was played by Grace Kelly. Of course, the actor had done quite well with that impossible concept just a year before Alone’s original release when he had the lead in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Milland was pretty polished in that one, but in Alone, his Western character eats so much sand that in one scene (the first, in fact), it really looks as if he’s spitting some out for real after his horse takes a fatal desert fall. Maybe this is what you’re willing to do when acting in your own picture, though I doubt if Republic’s famously parsimonious chief Herbert J. Yates (who managed to hack off Roy and Gene and John Wayne) gave him a piece of the gross. This said, bonus commentary historian Toby Roan quotes Milland as saying Yates’s word was ultimately solid once financial bandying was completed, and the actor returned to Republic just a year later to direct the also new-on-Blu-ray Lisbon — another movie I’ve always liked and one that felicitously traded in on Nelson Riddle’s possibly unexpected chart buster of Lisbon Antigua in early ’56 as counter-programming to the Elvis boom.

Though it would be a stretch to describe Alone as an attempt to fashion something of an art film out of a well-worn genre, the picture remains an intriguingly curious mix of backlot jawboning involving a lot of familiar-looking Western character actors and a shaky-‘A’ that largely pulls off an attempt to do something different starting with a long opening without any dialogue. Milland (speaking of “alone”) commands this section by himself, and it’s roughly 30 minutes in — or nearly a third of the running time — before there’s any conversation. Perhaps this was all laid out neatly in a script and story credited to John Tucker Battle and Mort Briskin, but it’s worth noting that just three years earlier, Milland had headlined Russell Rouse’s The Thief, an espionage drama that utilized sound effects and nothing more for its entire running time.

Working from a theme for which Henry King’s The Gunfighter is still the final word, the movie poses Milland as a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town (and I mean dusty town) to be immediately accused of past robberies and now the latest and most heinous: a stagecoach stickup in which a young girl known to all was slaughtered. Barely given enough time to utter “what the hell?” to himself, Milland takes cover in the first available basement — but not before finding himself just feet away from an opaque conversation that has a bad smell to it. As coincidence would have it — and there are a few of them here — it’s information that comes in handy down the road when he can attach names and faces to their community standing. Which is to say that a lot of the town heavyweights — and in Raymond Burr’s case, you can take this literally — have been up to no good.

Stuck in the basement with a cat, some peach preserves, and gritty pores, Milland is secretly situated well enough in to witness a young woman (Mary Murphy) coming down the stairs to interact … well, hopefully … with her hope chest. Maybe this is why Murphy remains surprisingly sanguine throughout at having a) a strange man and also b) accused killer, on the premises. This is one of those burgs where all the men are either over 50, younger hired-gun creeps or the world’s most ineffective sheriff’s deputy (“Gilligan’s Island” star Alan Hale Jr., and yes, you read that right). It’s also one of those familiar movie-Western towns where the women must be hiding out making peach preserves of their own: the only other female role of note goes to character actress and biddie specialist Minerva Urecal, who was just as aptly cast around this time in a TV version of Tugboat Annie that I used to watch as a kid. Well, it’s a way of controlling the population, though from all appearances, it could use a fresh influx.

Murphy not only doesn’t live alone, but her father is the town sheriff (Ward Bond) — though one helpfully out of commission because he’s quarantined upstairs in bed with a case of yellow fever, another coincidence. Even so, the narrative grips surprisingly tightly despite abundant dialogue, playing out a lot better than it should due to the conviction the leads bring to their roles; even the stock villain (Burr) gets brownie points because the role is so ideally cast. This was about two years before TV’s “Perry Mason” changed Burr’s image and forced him to drop significant weight (maybe Milland sent along a few cases of the fresh cactus juice his parched character is glad to have out in the desert during the film’s opening). Here, Burr looks as if he’s wearing about a 96-long playing the transparent phony his character is — transparent, that is, to everyone except the townsfolk who matter.

Commentator Roan, who seems less enthusiastic than I about the film, notes that reviewers at the time had a tough time accepting Murphy as a blonde, given that she was a natural brunette during her undeservedly short heyday on the screen (I love her as the negliged schemer in Phil Karlson’s VistaVision/Technicolor toughie Hell’s Island, last in the director’s fruitful noir trilogy with John Payne). It’s true that her makeup is distractingly heavy for one just hanging around the house caring for pop, and if the goldilocks look as if they’d had some “help” from the makeup department, they still look pretty good. Murphy also played the coffee-shop/bar counter-babe who reforms Brando’s hood in The Wild One and basically turns him into a “Whatever. You. Want. Comma. Honey” type, no matter what pigment she brandishes. Murphy’s Alone character is, by the way, no sweet-ums pushover but a attractive mix of tough analytical logic and vulnerability. Bond’s sheriff isn’t boilerplate, either; there’s something of a surprise in store.

Though it’s in some ways a psychological or “adult” Western — which, in Republic terms, means that there’s no shoehorned-in song break with Lee Van Cleef, who has a small part — the old-school fan base is rewarded with some gunplay when matters are on the line. There’s even a particularly brutal fistfight between Milland and Burr (stay down till the 9-count, Mr. Burr, you look a little winded breadbasket). During which, Milland (or his stunt double) flips Burr (or another stunt double) off his back. Hernia City.

As Variety used to say, technical credits are “pro” — though even with 4K scanning, cinematographer Lionel Lindon obviously doesn’t have as much to work with here as Jack Marta had shooting on-location Portugal locales in Lisbon (which was also shot in Republic’s in-house anamorphic process: Naturama). There’s also a very good score by workhouse Victor Young that illustrates the degree to which film artists must hop around and go where the work is. One year, it’s a Republic Western. The next it’s Lindon and Young laboring on the extravaganza that won them their Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’

The Last Hurrah

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien.

Both an unusual and natural project for John Ford to have taken on (and with enthusiasm at that), the director’s Fenway double-to-triple adapted in 1958 from Edwin O’Connor’s durably relevant bestseller is instantly recognizable as carrying the Ford stamp, notwithstanding the book’s own significant following. If it isn’t the subject matter — male members of Ford’s own family had been involved in New England politics — it’s the idiosyncratic humor he brought to nearly every set-up here, most evident in a wake scene that’s as much of an emblematic set piece as the Dodge City hijinks in Cheyenne Autumn or the twisted Nativity Scene in Donovan’s Reef. Then, there’s casting that pretty well cleaned out the roster of the industry’s Irish character actors, which is not to say that flinty WASPS (they lunch in the “Cotton Mather Room”) don’t get their licks in as well.

This is major Spencer Tracy, career-wise, though Ford had actually considered James Cagney (another automatic natural) and even John Wayne (who might have been surprisingly interesting in this Wings of Eagles stage of his career, though hardly a natural) in the role of Frank Skeffington, a four-time mayor of a city who’s running for one more term in an Eastern city coyly not identified as Boston. The character was famously modeled on Boston mayor James M. Curley, who like Skeffington, had also been governor of the state. Curley was less of a pure Robin Hood than his fictional counterpart, so it was something of a joke when he balked at the book’s publication and later sued producing Columbia Pictures for basically putting him on the side of the angels. Everyone should be lucky enough to rate the big-screen legacy that the tough if benevolent ward-heeler Curley ended up with here. Tracy’s Skeffington is a Catholic prince (and prince of a Catholic), even if his big-stick-right-up-there Brahmin adversaries are ravenous to throw their support behind a transparent dufus in the coming race.

O’Connor’s novel actually coined the term of “last hurrah” — which makes the casting here of so many actors like Pat O’Brien, Wallace Ford, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, a spectacularly good Edward Brophy, Donald Crisp and four more mouthfuls of their like so aptly poignant. And all of them wearing suits, with the exception of Crisp, who plays the tough but objectively fair Cardinal Burke. This last gets back to why I noted earlier on that this was in some ways an unusual Ford project: You can exhaust a lot of hours looking over his filmography trying to find another contemporary-to-its-time project, much less one that takes place in a major metropolis. And someone enlighten me: is this the only Ford movie that acknowledges the existence of television? Possibly so, I think; I cannot recall what Gideon of Scotland Yard does at home beyond presumably drinking tea.

Not that we get much sense that we’re in a vibrant city, which is one of the movie’s drawbacks; for a film of its ambitions, it’s a little too cramped and possibly on the cheap (though the budget wasn’t puny, and there were all those actors to pay). Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs enjoy some spirited back-and-forth on the Twilight Time bonus commentary here: the hall-full glass vs. the half-empty (with colleague Nick Redman wisely electing to relax and mostly just listen to the passing parade). In his biography of Ford, Scott Eyman likens the movie to a fat pitch down the middle that’s manages to get popped up — too harsh, maybe, though this is a movie that’s a little bit less than the sum of its parts (but oh, what parts). I wish it were more expansive; even some of the music, as appropriate and occasionally affecting as it can be, is lifted from the Columbia vaults and the soundtrack to Ford’s The Long Gray Line (talk about a great Twilight Time possibility).

The commentators also give a fairly rough time to Jeffrey Hunter, who, let it be said, was more than respectable in Sergeant Rutledge after having kicked off his three-film relationship with Ford by delivering what I think is one of the era’s really undervalued performances in The Searchers (justly itself, the inflection he puts on Skip to My Lou by is …). I read and loved O’Connor’s novel twice as an early adolescent (but not since) and seem to recall that even as conceived, the nephew Hunter plays is mostly a foil for Skeffington’s quickie graduate course in rough-and-tumble electioneering, which results in a somewhat didactic narrative. Hunter (and Dianne Foster as his wife) aren’t given much to do in the movie, but you have to think that Ford could have given them at least a little more to play with (Hunter does get to carry around a pipe).

But Tracy and his predominantly old-folk supporting players really do shine (all 212 of them or however many there are). I crack up every time the camera captures John Carradine as the cantankerous Yankee newspaper editor Skeffington one-ups in humiliating fashion over the collaborative refusal of the city’s moneyed WASPs to bankroll public works; as I think someone once said of a character played by fellow player Basil Rathbone (also great here), a grapefruit wouldn’t dare squirt in his eye. And the director really must have had some fun decking out Wallace Ford (who had merely played the victim in The Informer) in something close to Buddy Holly glasses, rendering him near-unrecognizable as a fairly friendly political adversary.

This is not, however, totally an exercise in nostalgia. With the Richard Nixon Checkers episode still in recent memory, the movie was savvy enough to envision how media-manufactured personalities eventually would put the end to all the benevolent godfathers who worked the neighborhoods. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, which had come out just a year before, still holds the patent on this particular type of screen satire — but with Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump still to come, there was plenty of material to go around in anticipation. The movie is not — or does not choose to be — as savvy with much realization that once the formerly oppressed Irish entered the middle class (and also had official social programs to lend a hand), it was all over for the old school. For his part — and Tracy has dialogue to this effect — Skeffington knows it.

Like most political movies, and especially those of that day, The Last Hurrah lost money; in my hometown, it got booked into the most prestigious of the downtown movie palaces as a solo attraction and just couldn’t fill those seats. And in one of those hopeless lapses in judgment known only to Joan Vohs or whatever folks were placing that year’s ballots for in Academy voting, Tracy did get an Oscar nomination — but for The Old Man and the Sea. Which, by the way, also took home the year’s top honor for scoring in a year when Bernard Herrmann’s mammoth contribution to Vertigo wasn’t even nominated (I could have easily lived with Jerome Moross and The Big Country as a compromise.)

Well, you could spend the entire 121 minutes here just watching Tracy alone and listening to him when he takes his voice down really low with at times a near-mumble. His silver hair and anti-makeup look also cut a striking figure in late-career black-and-white (color, of course, would have destroyed the movie, and I’m talking to YOU, Millennials). As stated before, I wish Charles Lawton Jr.’s camerawork were a little more imaginative, but a lot of the images here are pretty searing on a large home screen, something noticed in particular during the memorable and extended vote-counting scene.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Naked Prey’ and ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’

The Naked Prey

Criterion, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu, Gert van den Bergh.

1966. Of his eight forays into directing, actor Cornel Wilde’s best known feature remains The Naked Prey, which, among other things, became a model of drive-in entertainment in the summer of its release, about a safari guide on the run from African natives when his drunken and transparently odious ivory-trader employer refuses on warped principle to come forth with minor trinkets as payment for hunting elephants on the natives’ lands.
Extras: This is basically an upgrade to Criterion’s 2007 DVD with the same extras: a commentary with film historian Steven Prince, soundtrack musical cues, a Wilde interview, Michael Atkinson essay and Paul Giamatti’s dramatic reading of a 1913 written record about North American trapper John Colter’s brush with death, an incident that inspired the movie.
Read the Full Review

The Adventures of Hajji Baba

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Derek, Elaine Stewart, Amanda Blake, Thomas Gomez.
1954.
The movie becomes a cross between The Taming of the Shrew and It Happened One Night amid an assortment of desert adventures once the central princess escapes from her fancy digs in an attempt to run off with a womanizing prince who’s also a rival to her exasperated father.
Extras: In Twilight Time fashion, the Blu-ray contains an isolated audio track of Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score.
Read the Full Review

The Naked Prey

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu, Gert van den Bergh.

On balance, Cornel Wilde may have ended up being a more interesting presence behind the camera than he was facing it, though that gonzo accent he took out for a joy ride playing the injured trapeze artist in The Greatest Show on Earth has given me far more than its share of overdraft notices from the memory bank across many decades. Even so, and despite a warehouse of clunkers on his resumé, we can pluck Leave Her to Heaven, Forever Amber, Road House and The Big Combo from merely Wilde’s top rung of acting projects — and these were all even before he took his first flier into directing with 1955’s Storm Fear, a respectable-plus escaped con melodrama that I’ll admit to liking a lot at the time, when I was a kid.

Of his eight forays into directing, Wilde’s best known feature remains The Naked Prey, which, among other things, became a model of drive-in entertainment in the summer of ’66 around the time Hanky Panky and Dirty Water were charting, for all you pop time-machine types. Two things were quickly evident early on. One is that Wilde could direct — the choice of Panavision close-ups and long shots is quite accomplished — though, oddly, this almost flawlessly structured picture got Clint Johnston and Don Peters an Oscar nomination for original story and screenplay despite basically no dialogue after the set-up. The other is that at age 52 or so, the actor looked to be in better shape than almost anyone I can recall from my high school class. He must have been doing arm curls even when he was in the bathroom “voting for Nixon” (as my friends all used to say), and this was before the exercise craze had extensively caught on with the masses.

Though it elicits memories of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, which had been considered enough of a staple to have been assigned reading for my ninth grade English class, this man-vs.-elements adventure (to say nothing of man-vs.-spears) isn’t the kind of movie one can imagine as a major-studio release in the modern era unless maybe Mel Gibson took it on. And actually, he kind of did with Apocalypto — which also turned out better than a lot of people expected, though it didn’t ooze “today” any more than The Naked Prey does. This is 101 in survival basics.

Inspired by the fairly famous near-miss survival of trapper John Colter when he took what he thought would be a breather from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, this intended adaptation got a big-screen makeover when the production was offered major tax breaks if it would shoot in South Africa, a geographical up-ending necessitated changing Wilde’s pursuers from Native Americans to insulted African natives. In a yarn that’s not particularly political but, in its own way, moral, safari guide Wilde (known simply as “Man” here) has his fearful suspicions confirmed when his drunken and transparently odious ivory-trader employer refuses on warped principle to come forth with minor trinkets as payment for hunting elephants on the natives’ lands. These slighted inhabitants are dudes who really know how to exact revenge, and there are some shots of a mud-covered safari member being cooked alive over a spit that I’ll never forget and never have over the years. (The natives do supply him with a breathing straw for his mouth so he can remain conscious for a longer time. Thank you.)

This kind of makes the movie sound like a more harrowing version of Road to Zanzibar or of my favorite New Yorker cartoon when I was a kid: the one in which two white guys are about to be roasted in a pot by a surrounding band of natives whose leader says, “But first, our national anthem” before the fire is lit. Beyond this, there is an element here of “savvy white guy outwitting black pursuers” — which Roger Ebert criticized at the time among what were generally fairly positive critical reviews.

And yet, while the Wilde character has no backstory (which actually adds to the classical “pureness” of the adventure), his adversaries are more individualized than a truly racist movie would be: argumentative with each other, wailingly mournful of fallen comrades and somewhat admiring of this one guy (Wilde) to whom they’ve given a fighting chance. Of course, this chance is somewhat compromised: Wilde has no shoes (at first), and he’s given no more than a cursory head start before a dozen or more of his new enemies pursue him over a natural track meet/obstacle course. Whose obstacles include a lot of snakes.

The storytelling is as lean as Wilde’s physique, which is saying something — though the lore is that the actor/director was ill during some of the filming (and, in fact, he occasionally sports that sickly look in the eyes that we often see in our own reflections when we look in the mirror during a bout with the flu or some other malady). And as film historian Steven Prince notes on an instructive bonus commentary originally done in 2007, Wilde is quite accomplished in his use of the wide screen — noting that today the movie would probably be overly heavy on close-ups, which does seems to be the modern-day norm. This, by the way, is not the Steven Prince who’s the subject of Scorsese’s priceless American Boy but the Prince who’s an expert on cinematic violence and teaches at Virginia Tech. Given this expertise, he comes off as mild-mannered and appealing and even notes that he was once a Boy Scout. (That one threw me.)

Until actor-turned-director director Gene Saks started turning out those Neil Simon eyesores in the slightly later 1960s, Paramount always had the most consistently vibrant color processing of any studio, and this Eastman Color release (but print by Technicolor) was and is strikingly clean and handsome. Though the stock shots of animals in combat with each other — we’re never allowed to ignore the milieu here — usually don’t match the main narrative and provide a few jarring transitions that ultimately matter little.

In a way, this is one of those “surprising” Criterion releases — or would be if it weren’t an upgrade to the company’s 2007 DVD with the same extras: Prince, soundtrack musical cues, Wilde interview, Michael Atkinson essay and Paul Giamatti’s dramatic reading of a 1913 written record about trapper Colter’s brush with death. On the other hand, it’s obvious that the movie has quite a following — excluding women who get dragged along to it on a first date (not quite Travis Bickle but getting there). This is because British Eureka! brought out its own Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of it three years ago that shared some of the same extras, though with a different bonus commentary. Someone is satisfying a perceived need on both sides of the ocean.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Naked Prey’ and ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’

The Adventures of Hajji Baba

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Derek, Elaine Stewart, Amanda Blake, Thomas Gomez.

I’ve always been a looney-tunes sucker for Arabian adventures in which caliphs, emirs and peasants look like someone you might see working a Motel 6 desk at 3 a.m. Thus, it was a personal delight a while back to see my old quiz show buddy Hal March in 1954’s Yankee Pasha playing someone named “Hassan Sender” — a casting coup I thought might never be topped. But here we are at the very opening of the same year’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba — and in full 2.55:1 early CinemaScope, we have Peter Leeds, Percy Helton and Claude Akins popping up in the same frame. As is often true, there’s no substitute for verisimilitude, and, of course, we haven’t even gotten to title lead John Derek yet.

So we will. In terms of Derek’s career timeline, this surprisingly lavish ‘B’-plus extravaganza come from fairly deeply back in Derek’s pre-“Bo” era, when the actor was still a couple years away from getting Debra Paget to take part in what amounts to Golden Calf submarine races in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments before the two repent from sin. But here, he’s cast as the lowly (if confident and handsome) Persian barber Hajji, who shaves and works out the shoulder kinks of his clients who include Thomas Gomez sporting a large enough gap between his upper front teeth for Chuck Yeager to do some stunt flying. You know: A little deep-tissue massaging here and a little Barbasol aftershave (or whatever the going product was) there — though I didn’t see much evidence of Butch Wax. This is almost surprising, given that the movie’s entire 94 minutes are given to palming off ancient times as the mid-1950s.

Lowly or not, Hajji ends up being viable suitor for Princess Fawzia (Elaine Stewart), who never stops letting everyone know that she’s smack atop the uppermost rungs of the “1%” or whatever they called that in those days. Worse, she has the entitled temperament of, say, a Trump Cabinet wife who finds a way to expense imported room service caviar and a new bra (I guess it would have to be Persian silk) out of some Treasury fund meant for hurricane relief. Plus a box of Wheat Thins for the caviar.

The movie thus becomes a cross between The Taming of the Shrew and It Happened One Night amid an assortment of desert adventures once Stewart’s Princess Faksia escapes from her fancy digs in an attempt to run off with a womanizing prince who’s also a rival to her exasperated father. These include being taken prisoner by a hoard of Turcoman Warriors (escaped slave babes who are now marauding land pirates) who string up their prisoners the way John Wayne and Stuart Whitman temporarily are in The Comancheros. Their leader (further minting the Western motif here) is Amanda Blake of “Gunsmoke,” which reminds me: Dennis Weaver’s Chester character wouldn’t have felt totally out of place here had he shown up in a cameo.

And yet all this ticklish nonsense doesn’t matter much on a purely sensual level because a name producer (Walter Wanger, just after Riot in Cell Block 11 but a little before Invasion of the Body Snatchers) sprung for major production values that probably helped the picture become a minor hit after Allied Artists wangled a distribution deal with studio-of-release 20th Century-Fox. So, OK: maybe Allied would stint a little on budget-busting the following year when they released Leo Grocery and Huntz Hall in Bowery to Bagdad (say, I’d better plunder my Bowery Boys archives because I see that the great Joan Shawlee is in that one). But not here.

To wit: Hajji production designer Gene Allen and color consultant [George] Hoyningen-Huene are a large reason why George Cukor’s movies looked so consistently smashing in the period spanning A Star Is Born (the version that ultimately matters, I mean) through My Fair Lady. And for that matter, Hajji cinematographer Harold Lipstein shot Heller in Pink Tights, which is among the most gorgeous of that bunch. Musically, the movie went all over the way with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin — and from the same year of his Oscar-winner for The High and the Mighty. In Twilight Time fashion, the score is isolated on this exceedingly immaculate Blu-ray’s alternative track, which is welcome.

In keeping with the ’50s, there’s also a Tiomkin-Ned Washington title tune sung by Nat King Cole — a fairly sizable hit that I remember vividly from my pre-rock early childhood. A Nat King Cole inclusion, even one with a really cool Nelson Riddle arrangement, shouldn’t work in this kind of movie, but Hajji is such a ludicrous anything-goes affair that the tune’s employment almost manages to be haunting — and might even be if the acting were better (though I suppose you have to say that Derek half-successfully goes with the flow). Taking a Tex Ritter cue from the frequently reprised Tiomkin-Washington theme to High Noon during that earlier film’s own narrative, a Cole refrain pops up throughout here, almost subliminally on the soundtrack.

Elaine Stewart was a really terrible actress, though I will say there are some beach shots of her in 1953’s A Slight Case of Larceny (from Hajji director Don Weis) that stopped my clock. Weis had a tiny and brief cult (quite so — and on both counts) that rated notice in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema; he had recently directed Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in I Love Melvin, which, for all its lack of pedigree is a more entertaining musical than La La Land will ever be. Hajji is similarly unpretentious, but it was actually considered to be racy in its day, which no doubt upped the grosses. My same-age friend Kathy from a next-door suburb tells me that she and her 7-year-old cronies really wanted to see it at the Grandview Theater in ’54 but were deterred by that old bugaboo before it became, more specifically, that Jack Valenti bugaboo: “parental guidance.” (My closest friends all ran a fast elementary-school track.)

Just three years later, Derek was back in soundstage Persia, though by this time, his career had slipped enough that he rated only fourth-billing in William Dieterle’s Hollywood swan song Omar Khayyam, which, for reasons unknown, Paramount green-lit for lead Cornel Wilde, the still ubiquitous Debra Paget and, yes, even window-shattering Yma Sumac, whose high notes could have taught Frankie Valli a thing or two. I actually even programmed OK once at the AFI Theater, which was ill-advised even for me, though, frankly, I would have run “The Complete Fred Sears” if I could have gotten 35mm VistaVision prints (I know, buffs: wrong studio). Some guy even drove down from Baltimore to Washington to see it, and that wasn’t even the year the Orioles opened the season at 0-and-21.

There’ve been no good prints I’ve ever seen around of Hajji; the TV prints rip out the transmission when they lurch into pan-and-scan after the film’s lengthy pre-credits sequence. I was more excited about this release than probably any other moderately sane person who’s been capable of attaining, say, a car loan, and seeing it look as intended gave me a huge kick. The scenics are splendid, and there’s more room for the campy acting to breathe (or, if you prefer, wheeze).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Naked Prey’ and ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Art School Confidential’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Art School Confidential

Street 11/6/18;
MVD, Comedy, $24.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent.
2006.
Something of a halfway follow-up to Ghost World, Art School Confidential remains the last feature to date of Terry Zwigoff, full of been-there comic observations that give Confidential a distinct point of view.
Extras: This Blu-ray release is basically a replication of the old Sony DVD, but the colors have added vibrancy, a couple of the bonus deleted scenes add to the dark party.
Read the Full Review 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Olive, Sci-Fi, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates.
1956.
Whether viewed as the sci-fi/horror classic it justifiably is, or as an example of inept studio suits sabotaging their own picture, or as an early example of a theatrical underachiever subsequently “made” by television showings, the original screen version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has provided lots of fodder for yarn-spinning over the years.
Extras: Includes a pair of commentaries, one by historian Richard Harland Smith, another by director Joe Dante with stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. There are also readings from director Don Siegel’s autobiography, other filmmakers describing what the film meant to them, a look at the filming locations and numerious retrospectives.
Read the Full Review