Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’

The Day of the Jackal

Street 9/25/18
MVD/Arrow, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig.
1973. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s fictional novel dealing with a paid assassin’s attempted 1962 assassination of French president Charles De Gaulle, an outstanding screenplay delineates a lot of complex material in ways that always keeps us up to snuff on what we’re seeing, and without any fuss.
Read the Full Review

The Man Who Cheated Himself

Street 9/25/18
Flicker Alley, Mystery, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lis Howard.
1950. The new Blu-ray of the nifty UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration of this indie noir produced by Jack L. Warner’s estranged son (Jack B.) showcases how director Felix E. Feist got everything there was to get out of his shoe leather and tire tread, and this picture is a veritable travelogue of vintage locations.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes a retrospective featurette and a terrific then-and-now look at this same shorelines and structures used in filming.
Read the Full Review

The Man Who Cheated Himself

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/25/18;
Flicker Alley;
Mystery;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard.

Folks familiar with The Man Who Cheated Himself often bring up its offbeat casting, though speaking as one who just recently fell into a YouTube clip of Lee J. Cobb as one of five singing-dancing personalities on an episode of “The Dean Martin Show,” I’m not irrevocably floored at seeing the then future Johnny Friendly taking on a romantic dimension in this indie noir produced by Jack L. Warner’s estranged son (Jack B.).

In other words, Cobb does get to wear a suit, puff on cigarettes at work (Cheated’s cool San Francisco locales aren’t the only thing that make it a period piece) and kiss a dame for whom he has an itch.

As for the dame … well, that casting is indeed something else. On the bonus look-back featurette included on Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray of the nifty UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, Eddie (“Czar of Noir”) Muller quotes Folsom Prison Blues to elucidate the character of this rich society type, who has caught Cobb’s eye, to say nothing of his libido. Which is to say that she shoots a man just to watch him die — even though it must be said that events transpire so quickly that it’s no slam-dunk to pinpoint her exact motive. Still, it’s messy, because she did indeed hate the victim in the first place. And he was her husband (messier still). And, cop boyfriend Cobb was in the room, even if it wouldn’t necessarily have been his preference (a full plate of lasagna tossed at the wall).

But getting back to the casting, this unholy wife — a description I’ll just lift from the title of 1957’s Rod Steiger-Diana Dors Technicolor potboiler — is played in atypically over-the-top fashion by, of all people, Jane Wyatt. And, yes: that Jane Wyatt — once of Lost Horizon but most memorably identified with the role she’d soon own: “perfect” mom Margaret Anderson on TV’s “Father Knows Best.” You can just hear her saying to the Anderson kids: “Well, before your father and I were married, I shot my first husband to death — though, actually, he was my second husband — and then a detective friend who was kind of sweet on me took charge of disposing the corpse.” This, at least, would answer the question of why not just Bud but all three Anderson offspring were so messed up (which I, for one, always thought was a great show’s secret weapon).

So, this is the Cheated premise, though there’s still one more wrinkle. New to the police force is an about-to-be-married rookie (John Dall, in more against-type casting) who is not just Cobb’s younger brother but one assigned to work alongside him. And the kid has so much aptitude when it comes to dissecting inconsistencies in a case that’s ironically under Cobb’s very jurisdiction that the older sibling doesn’t know quite what to do (he has enough problems as it is). In terms of a broad, barebones reading, the premise is not too dissimilar to the one in 1952’s Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson from Sam Fuller’s source novel) in which the editor of a New York rag kills his long-estranged wife and now must deal with a talented young reporter/protege of his who’s about two steps behind in cracking the case.

Actor Dall, of course, played a good guy at heart in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy (bank knockoffs or not) — but there was something about him that seemed a little “off” in his craving for bad-girl wife Peggy Cummins. Turns out, per the Cheated bonus doc, that Lewis cast Dall because he was gay in real life, and Muller notes that the actor’s projected screen image was more in sync with his role in Hitchcock’s Rope — and, I might add, for his small role in Spartacus, where Dall’s unctuous Marcus Glabrus character sits with Laurence Olivier’s Crassus in the George Steinbrenner box seats as Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode prepare to fight to the death. In Cheated, Dall is decent enough at projecting rookie enthusiasm, and that’s a necessity in the role). Quite striking, though, is actress and future ABC news personality Lisa Howard, who plays his new bride. Though potentially stuck in a throwaway part, Howard is quietly but potently attractive as a kind of well-kempt bohemian that I’ll just bet was true to the period. Howard, who in real life apparently slept with Castro in pursuit of what became a big scoop at the time, was eventually fired by her network over other politically-related activities. Later, she took hundred or so pills in a parking lot, which immediately killed her at age 39. On a July 4th.

At the time of this film, Howard was married to its director (Felix E. Feist). The latter never had big bucks to work with, but even beyond teaming Nancy Reagan with a severed head in 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, he made some movies I like: this one; Deluge; The Threat, Tomorrow Is Another Day; and especially The Devil Thumbs a Ride. (The last is one of those movies, along with Dillinger, Born to Kill and Reservoir Dogs, to offer a guarantee that Lawrence Tierney, even if he were still alive, wouldn’t be starring in any fictional adaptation of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). According to film historian Julie Kirgo — who’s interviewed here along with czar Muller, Feist’s son Raymond and recent Michael Curtiz biographer Alan Rode (who, along with Muller, is one of this disc’s four credited producers) — Feist only had something like five days of on-the-pavement location shooting in San Francisco. This is beyond amazing.

I’m always struck by the irony of how low-budget postwar filmmakers often had to shoot on the streets of out economic necessity — which is now one of the components that make those films look so vital today (D.O.A. is another that comes to mind). Meanwhile, the same era’s studio-bound noir from the majors looks like exactly that, as taxis make their ways down backlot streets that weren’t really that mean. In any event, Feist got everything there was to get out of his shoe leather and tire tread, and this picture is a veritable travelogue of vintage locations. And then, these visuals get punctuated by a terrific then-and-now bonus section look at this same shorelines and structures, including the buildings and especially corridors of formidably photogenic Fort Point near the Golden Gate Bridge. Vertigo fans will have a grand old time here.

Cheated is the latest baby from the Film Noir Foundation, which was also a major player in the rescue of Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears before they became Flicker Alley Blu-ray releases as well. It, too, was a distribution “orphan” that fell through the preservation cracks; the younger Warner put it together for distribution by 20th Century-Fox, which apparently gave it somewhere between one and a smattering of year-end, 1950 bookings before putting it into general distribution in ’51. As a point of reference, it didn’t get to my hometown until the first week of May, where it got booked into the smallest downtown movie house — the one where the classier Republic Westerns played — in subordinate billing to Britain’s 7 Days to Noon, which had just taken an Oscar for best story.

That’s a pretty fair double bill — and certainly more enticing than what I saw listed for most of the summer on my neighborhood marquee. The print here is better than I ever anticipated, with big chunks of it nearly immaculate. I don’t know where the restorers are even finding these acceptable copies, which are then simonized to the hilt, but this is a laughably keen improvement over the Cheated atrocities that run on YouTube. And though I’ve never seen it on the old Alpha DVD, even the jacket on that one makes my eyes bleed.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’

The Day of the Jackal

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/25/18;
MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig.

When Fred Zinnemann agreed to direct The Day of the Jackal practically on the spot in 1972, he hadn’t made a movie since A Man for All Seasons took home a half-dozen of the ’66 Oscars, including one for best picture. Part of this was due to MGM chief James Aubrey (aka “The Smiling Cobra”) canceling the proposed late-’60s screen version of Man’s Fate days before Zinnemann was ready to roll cameras, apparently operating on the studio’s then guiding premise that what the culture and exhibitors (not always the same) really needed was a fresh influx of George Kennedy movies.

Even at the time I felt the time-gap loss because Zinnemann remains one of those filmmakers I always go to (like, say, Carl Dreyer in a different cinematic universe) when I feel like jettisoning all nonsense and simply watch a movie made by someone who really knew where and how the big kids played. I remember coming out of Jackal back in ’73 with my late friend Burt, a seen-them-all expert who tolerated no movie fools and knew more about world cinema than anyone in my personal experience (as well as music, including classical, baseball and college basketball). He turned to me and said, “Now, that was a pro job.”

Which it is — and even more of one than I realized at the time. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s No. 1 bestseller, which by no means guaranteed any surefire box office follow-through, Jackal is a work of fiction dealing with a paid assassin’s attempted 1962 assassination of French president Charles De Gaulle, who at the time had a lot of very real right-wing OAS enemies (that would be Organisation armée secrète) who were livid at his having granted independence to Algeria (you could have a long night but rewarding evening by pairing this movie with Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers). The movie’s main challenge, which is always noted (as it was by Zinnemann) was built-in: How do you build suspense (and over 143 minutes, as it turned out) in a story whose outcome was known from the get-go because De Gaulle lived until a blood vessel unexpectedly ruptured and killed him in 1970?

What’s more, the picture is by nature something of a cold cookie — a complete “procedural” that not only deals with the POV of the brazen assailant (Edward Fox) but the equally clinical ones of other parties. These would be the OAS villains behind the Jackal’s hiring and then the police and military charged with tracking down enough advance clues to nip him before he can complete his task. An outstanding screenplay by Kenneth Ross delineates a lot of complex material in ways that always keeps us up to snuff on what we’re seeing, and without any fuss: even the story’s one sexual byway is bereft of any emotion. Crucially, though, it still keeps us involved in lull-less fashion because scenes communicate precisely what they must, and then we’re off to another dimension of the story. Not surprisingly, the film’s one Oscar nomination (’73 was a super-competitive year, with a lot of movies as good or better than Oscar winner The Sting) was for editing. But so much of the film’s effectiveness had to do with Zinnemann’s dexterity when it came to telling a story and (as I really noticed here) where to place the camera. As my friend Burt also used to say of favored filmmakers: “They know where the eye wants to go.”

The then all but unknown Fox got cast after Zinnemann caught the actor’s small role in The Go-Between, another superlative film from the era, and one that has never even gotten a DVD release in this country. Working against contrary sentiments from distributor Universal, the director wanted an unknown because the (assassin) “Jackal” character has been hired as an outsider — he’s an Englishman, in fact! — because a Frenchman would be smack inside the channel of well-known homegrown suspects. In addition, this particular Englishman has the kind of personality that enables him to blend into the everyday woodwork, above and beyond the fact that he’s of an above-average master of disguises. Matter of fact, Fox’s Jackal seems to be something of an impromptu handyman all around: presto painter of stolen cars, assembler of rifles, a mole when it comes to improvising hiding places and so on. You almost get the sense that if he could find a good career fair (did they even have career fairs in 1962 France or anywhere else?), he could have found constructive employment. Of course, the guy is, at minimum, a sociopath (albeit one without occasional surface charm), which might cut down on his referral rating.

The picture is huge on verisimilitude, due in part the staggering number of locations to which Zinnemann gained access in an array of cities and countries — some of these due to a connected and/or persuasive member of the production staff; there’s a long list of these on the film’s Wikipedia page, and that sound you heard was of maybe three to four choking horses. Another thing that puts this very handsome-looking movie over is a cast chosen for role suitability over automatic star power; fans of foreign films will immediately recognize (if not by name, certainly face) Michael Lonsdale, who is terrifically good as the chief sleuth; Delphine Seyrig, Alan Badel, Cyril Cusack, Derek Jacobi (looking really young), Jean Sorel, Philippe Leotard and more. I’m trying to wrap my mind around 2018 audiences embracing a movie — and Jackal was a hit — that was both politically sophisticated and headlined by this kind of international cast. Of course, they’d have to give up Spider-Man Meets Silverfish or its ilk for a night.

I don’t see as many Arrow releases as I should or as I’d like, but Jackal follows The Big Knife and The Apartment in terms of my personal viewing as being a first-rate release — and one that’s very easy on the eye, as transfers go. There are a couple short promotional vignettes from ’72 — always good to see Zinnemann talking on camera — but the main bonus is an interview with personable Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience. This is a director who was sometimes dissed as a non-auteur, but Sinyard does make the point where this is another Zinnemann picture — though for the first time, the protagonist is reprehensible — to deal with an individual standing up against some kind of power structure or, say, “system.” And the other examples were not mere assignments (though Zinnemann didn’t take on many or any of these after 1951) but four of his signature movies: High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story and A Man for All Seasons.

In 1997, Universal released a very loose riff (remake would be too generous) called The Jackal with Bruce Willis. It was released eight months after Zinnemann’s death, but he apparently had enough left during the newer film’s production or at least announcement to wear a clothespin on his nose. Despite a current 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it was an even better performer at the box office, but your hearing would have to be as good as Ted Williams’ eyesight to pick up any blip it has made on film history. Zinnemann’s original, though, is the real deal, and if it’s that chilly, why was I able to devour it in just two sittings when the current political news gets all my time these days?

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’

My Man Godfrey

Street Date 9/18/18
Criterion, Comedy, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette.
1936. With My Man Godfrey’s light-touch treatment of a serious underlying subject (the Depression) and a cast of characters that “loopy” doesn’t even begin to describe, there are about a dozen ways this history-book classic could have gone of the rails, and yet it doesn’t.
Extras: Includes interviews with film critics Gary Giddins and Nick Pinkerton. Also included is a minute-long presentation of blown takes, which is a rarity for Criterion.
Read the Full Review

The Last Hunt

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn.
1956. Into the mix of an already busy year for Westerns and adapted from a highly regarded novel by Milton Lott came MGM’s The Last Hunt — respectable, engrossing and a movie that didn’t deserve to be a box office disappointment, particularly given what the crew but especially the cast had to go through, wearing winter apparel in the toughest 110-degree weather that South Dakota could provide.
Extras: Includes a couple of extras from the old “MGM Parade” show.
Read the Full Review

My Man Godfrey

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/18/18;
Criterion;
Comedy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette.

Of the three great ’30s screwball comedies that Criterion has released in bang-up Blu-ray fashion, It Happened One Night is at least partly grounded in the Depression, The Awful Truth not much at all and My Man Godfrey most of all, which is one reason why Godfrey’s 1957 remake never had a chance. It takes a certain kind of time and place (to say nothing of a mind) to come up with the hook that launches the Godfrey original: Rival socialite sisters who begin their days with breakfast in bed comb a New York dump to find a “Forgotten Man” (see also Joan Blondell in Gold Diggers of 1933 for an even more famous screen reference). This way, they accrue enough points to win a scavenger hunt that’s centerpiece of a mucky-mucky society bash packed with tuxes and pearls.

The certain kind of mind we’re talking about belonged to director Gregory La Cava, who apparently also dominated a script credited to Eric Hatch (who wrote the source story) and A Night at the Opera’s Morrie Riskind. Profusely admired by both W.C. Fields and (after Godfrey gave her the best role offer career) co-lead Carole Lombard, La Cava had severe problems with the sauce that truncated and then ended his career not long after World War II. But at his best (as here and in the following year’s also superb Stage Door), he could somehow fashion a movie that seemed both structured and the product of a “let’s just wing it” sensibility. With Godfrey’s light-touch treatment of a serious underlying subject and a cast of characters that “loopy” doesn’t even begin to describe, there are about a dozen ways this history-book classic could have gone of the rails, and yet it doesn’t.

I’m not as up on La Cava as much as I should be because there are titles even from his relatively limited outfit that I haven’t seen (though I’m fond of 1940’s Primrose Path and enjoyed my fairly rare copy of the 1935 drama Private Worlds). Fortunately, La Cava was the kind of filmmaker who’s directly on the wavelength wheelhouse of Criterion-interviewed Gary Giddins; other bonuses (and they are) include Farran Smith Nehme liner notes, and film critic Nick Pinkerton apparently just ignoring a camera that blatantly says, “enthrall me” planted on his face; he delivers what looks like an effortlessly off-the-cuff analysis of La Cava’s career history that can’t be.

As Giddins points out, most of the cast members do what they had done or would do in other movies — only better. William Powell (in the title role and despite of his literal dump of a domicile) is urbane; Lombard sister Gail Patrick is catty and presumably irredeemable; mother Alice Brady is dizzy enough to make some of Billie Burke’s screen characters look like Madame Curie; and exhausted father Eugene Pallette barks in that unmistaken voice-of-gravel that he always had. Of course, there’s also Mischa Auer, who got one of the movie’s four Oscar nominations for acting.

Though Auer was later in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, which is somewhat in the same family tree of movies, his is the one character here without many antecedents, even if he does serve the same not-quite-a-gigolo-but-close contribution Alexander D’Arcy makes to The Awful Truth. This is in large part due to the scene where Auer delivers what Nehme (a film historian with whom you can go to the bank — and also one whose writing is so much fun that you might also want to go with her to the Dairy Queen) calls “the single best gorilla impression in the history of American film.” This seems a safe bet, and I would be surprised if David Warner didn’t give Auer’s big scene some serious study before embarking upon, access the shores, 1966’s Morgan!

Powell pulls kind of a Jack Benny here (a germane reference to Lombard’s final co-star from To Be or Not To Be) by letting everyone else in the movie get the laughs, which only improves his standing in the picture. Hired on by Lombard as the family butler — none of his predecessors have lasted too long — Powell/Godfrey treats his tenure as a learning experience for himself while quietly dispensing wisdom that might just remind his employers that there’s another whole world out there, especially in the rubble. Lombard is as oblivious as anyone (with nuts-and-bolts Pallette the expected exception), but at least she’s sweet about it. She’s also as dizzy as her mother when the line between dizzy and batty can be a thin one, but Lombard finds a way to make the character appealing. A lot of people forget that Lombard was Powell’s pre-Gable (and friendly) ex-wife, and Powell lobbied La Cava to get her the role.

Speaking of Powell, Universal somehow got MGM to loan out the “Thin Man” of all franchises for this one-shot, contributing to a Universal project that has never to me felt like one (the unforgettably art deco-ish opening credits seem more as if they’re setting us up for 93 minutes from an RKO universe). Regardless, you can bet that the studio was happy to claim My Man Godfrey. In an achievement that stills impresses while simultaneously making you ask, “What the hell?” about a dozen times, it got Oscar nominations for direction, screenplay, Powell, Lombard, Brady (in support) and Auer (in support) —but not for best picture in one of those years when there were 10 available nominations to play with in the top category. Then again, Modern Times didn’t get nominated for best picture in 1936, either.

Thus, if your opinion of the Oscars (then, now or both) can be reduced to simple invective, included on this release is a smattering of something close (well, cursing) in a dupey-looking bonus extra that runs a minute and some change. It’s a series of blown takes, which is a rarity for Criterion, that confirms Lombard’s beguiling flair for foul-mouth. This is old news, but it’s a special treat to see Powell in standard debonair mode also coming forth with some goodies, one of which really cracks up featured player Alan Mowbray.

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’

The Last Hunt

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn.

To Western lovers, 1956 is synonymous with The Searchers, but there was a pretty fair bumper crop from all directions. Budd Boetticher’s 7 Men from Now comes immediately to mind, I’ve always been partial to Donna Reed’s cool cowgirl duds in Backlash (especially the hat), and there were a couple underrated Delmer Daves achievements (The Last Wagon and Jubal, though the latter did rate a Criterion treatment five years ago). For embracers of the “big tent” theory, we had the definitive screen “Texan” with Giant, and those with a taste for the outrageous could go with Martin & Lewis in Pardners, Elvis in Love Me Tender (a Civil War aftermath pic, but the future King was riding a horse) and Guy Madison bringing a dinosaur to the chuckwagon in The Beast From Hollow Mountain. I even once had a poster for Tony Martin in the same year’s Quincannon, Frontier Scout hanging on my office wall, but I will not go there. (Though if Tony could later record for Motown, why not?; it was good enough for Albert Finney.)

Into this mix and adapted from a highly regarded novel by Milton Lott came MGM’s The Last Hunt — respectable, engrossing and a movie that didn’t deserve to be another of production chief Dore Schary’s box office disappointments, particularly given what the crew but especially the cast had to go through (because they were in winter apparel). An epic about the decimation of buffalo that combines on-location CinemaScope panoramas with disfiguringly obvious outdoor sets, a lot of it took place during what the script claimed were frigid temperatures but were actually the toughest 110-degree weather that South Dakota could provide. Co-lead Stewart Granger endangered his health with the heat, and I’m almost surprised that Robert Taylor didn’t have what certainly looks like hair dye running down his forehead.

This is no knock on the somewhat underrated Taylor, who gets top-billing with his very atypical villain’s role as a guy who, in addition to hating Indians and slaughtering buffalo, isn’t too bright and is sometimes challenged by grammar. He also treats women badly, drinks too much and thinks little of shooting people at will. Equally well cast as Taylor’s partner/adversary is Granger, who reluctantly gets back into buffalo-hunting after his hopes of becoming a cattleman are dashed by his dead cattle (which will do it) Rounding out the principals are an unlikely Debra Paget as a Native American with child (a high-profile year for the actress, with Love Me Tender and The Ten Commandments still to come); Russ Tamblyn as an even more unlikely half-Indian who’s trying to assimilate (though, as ever, Tamblyn remains an appealing screen presence); and Lloyd Nolan as an affable, one-legged old coot of a jug-swigging buffalo skinner. After a long period on the road rolling steel balls on stage as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, this was Nolan’s first feature in three years. He is terrific and, as ever, malleable; compare him here to his performance as town-conscience Doc Swain in the movie of Peyton Place the very next year.

Schary got Richard Brooks to adapt and write after the latter skyrocketed MGM into the rock-and-roll era with Blackboard Jungle, a movie that still gives me the willies whenever I flash on the fate of Richard Kiley’s 78 collection. We even see them together in one of two Blu-ray excerpts from the old “MGM Parade” show that George Murphy hosted during my TV youth, a vehicle designed to promote the pictures the studio was about to put in theaters (Tamblyn shows up in the other included segment). This was an ambitious picture that didn’t quite live up to turnstile hopes because, in part, Taylor’s box office potency was fading — though he’d last longer at MGM than even Gable and Tracy and go out on a lurid favorite of mine: Party Girl. Meanwhile, Granger never quite caught on in America the way he deserved (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most would have liked to have directed, he said James Mason and Granger, and may even have listed Granger first).

Still, The Last Hunt is a fast-mover with Russell (Red River, Hatari!) cinematography of real buffalo being “thinned out” — a process that was all on the up-and-up because the filmmakers were allowed to capture an official government reduction of herds, which had to be done periodically. The climax is capped by a chilling shot that even got to me when I saw the picture (for the first time) on NBC’s old “Saturday Night at the Movies” weekly viewing ritual, albeit in a presentation that hardly approached the one here. The Blu-ray’s stereo track has some punch, though even with a magnifying glass, I couldn’t read the damned specs on the back of the disc jacket (a bad layout habit that too many distributors have picked up). The image also has a lot less of the mud we’ve all seen in other mid-’50s Eastman Color MGMs, maybe due to all that bright sunlight from those impossible South Dakota location temperatures. I only wish the Warner Archive Blu-ray of my much beloved but Eastman-plagued It’s Always Fair Weather looked as satisfactory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’ and ‘Village of the Damned’

Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Lionsgate, Drama, $14.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Martin Landau, Joan Allen, Frederick Forrest.
1988. Aptly and often characterized as a screen biography with direct applications to its director’s own life and psyche, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream feels totally fanciful, but a consistent directorial vision throughout makes it work against the odds.
Extras: Beyond Coppola’s intro and commentary, the Blu-ray also comes equipped with a making-of featurette and a 1948 promotional film for the car that Coppola modified and used as the basis of Tucker’s opening scene.
Read the Full Review

Village of the Damned

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Horror, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars George Sanders, Barbara Steele, Martin Stephens, Michael Gwynn.
1960. For a movie that proved popular enough to inspire 1964’s Children of the Damned as a sequel, MGM’s Village original unsettled the studio so much that it initially delayed even filming John Wyndham source novel — then kept the completed picture on the shelf in America until a successful Brit release paved the way for a December 1960 launch over here.
Extras: Includes an effectively low-key but occasionally droll bonus commentary from horror specialist Steve Haberman.
Read the Full Review

 

Tucker: The Man and His Dream

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Lionsgate;
Drama;
$14.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Martin Landau, Joan Allen, Frederick Forrest.

Aptly and often characterized as a screen biography with direct applications to its director’s own life and psyche, Tucker: The Man and His Dream is the one Francis Ford Coppola movie made after Apocalypse Now that ranks with my FFC favorites. My overriding concern about this new Blu-ray release was whether or nor it would do justice to the picture’s electric pigments — and not just with the cars that are its heart and soul but even in day-to-day household scenes that include some out in the Tucker family barn. The result turns out to be (for a $14.99 list price) one of the most gorgeous Blu-rays I’ve ever seen of a movie made after the three-strip Technicolor era. As its standout visuals go, this is Vittorio Storaro, baby, photographing resplendent paint and wax jobs beyond Earl Scheib’s wildest dreams.

Preston Tucker was the imaginative but brazenly cheeky-to-a-fault dreamer who tried unsuccessfully (aside from moral victories and even one in court) to ruffle the auto industry’s Big Three. He, unlike them, wanted to serve returning veterans who were looking for what his advertising termed the “Car of Tomorrow — Today.” And compared with the tank-like clunkers we see every day chugging down MGM backlot streets on Turner Classic Movies, the Tucker was a handsome structure. Coppola says on the disc’s bonus extras that as a kid whose not particularly flush father invested some money in the enterprise, it looked to him like a rocket ship.

Beyond the cool design, which featured the engine in back and luggage compartment in the front, it was full of safety innovations. You know: really crackpot ones like padded dashboard, pop-out windows to minimize the damage of wrecks, and seatbelts. (As late as 1958 or ’59 in my own experience, I can remember a cousin-by-marriage who sold car seatbelts for a living, and every family member, behind his back, thought, “tee-hee” and “isn’t that cute?”) Detroit, like today’s movies, simply followed what it thought the public wanted to the exclusion of all else. More than one observer has drawn a correlation between the rise of oversized fins and taillights and Jayne Mansfield’s emergence as a star.

Coppola, of course, once had his own ideas about how movies should be made and distributed, and his heavy personal losses when One From the Heart tried to buck the Hollywood system forced him into becoming a sometimes uninspired for-hire filmmaker who, let it be said, also makes wine that I really like. With George Lucas as executive producer and some magic that made a $24 million budget look like more, Tucker was the realization of a dream project that Coppola had once envisioned as, of all things, a collaborative musical endeavor with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Jeff Bridges plays Tucker as an eternal optimist, and it’s a role that comes naturally to him — a guy prone to temper fits that last about five seconds before returning to the mostly perennial smile that’s his way of facing by-the-minute challenges (only 51 Tuckers got made). The movie feels totally fanciful, but a consistent directorial vision throughout makes it work against the odds; Coppola claims on the bonus commentary here that at least in broad-stroke terms, the incidents portrayed stick fairly close to real events. Well, maybe, but the movie would still play like a dream (Tucker’s or the filmmaker’s) even if they didn’t.

The villains here are the colluding auto companies, the slick silver-hairs in Tucker’s boardroom who want to substitute their own product vision, and Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson — the person who later wrote the original bill that shoehorned “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance when I was in second grade and is here played by Jeff’s real-life papa Lloyd Bridges. As the movie’s standout heavy, the Ferguson we see here recalls Alan Alda’s slimy portrayal of Maine Sen. Owen Brewster in The Aviator, even though it’s hard to claim that Brewster was totally out of line for feeling a little weary when it came to Howard Hughes. I always wonder what it must be like for descendants of these sharks (Brewster was a Joe McCarthy acolyte) to see gramps portrayed so repulsively by filmmakers with the stature of Coppola and Scorsese.

Joan Allen has always come off as a submerged dish to me, and one of the things I like most here — and this is, no doubt, fanciful — is the way Mrs. Tucker always seems to be decked out in seducto-duds of one kind of another when entering and exiting her scenes in the French farce known as the Tucker home. It’s complete with a blur of children, eternally stressed designers and mechanics (Frederick Forest, Mako, Elias Koteas) and dogs. Christian Slater plays one of the kids, and he barely looks old enough to get hired at the Dairy Queen.

In 1988, a great movie summer where paying customers also more or less ignored The Last Temptation of Christ, Bull Durham, Running on Empty, Clean and Sober, Married to the Mob, Labor Day’s Eight Men Out (and I could go on), Tucker underperformed but did spur renewed interest in the cars themselves, most of which were still runnable at the time of its release and sold in the collectors’ market for prices that only folks like Lucas or Coppola could afford. As a Blu-ray, the movie is something of a demo model for tank-sized home screens. Beyond Coppola’s intro and voiceover, it also comes equipped with a making-of featurette and a 1948 promotional film for the car that Coppola modified and used as the basis of Tucker’s opening scene.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’ and ‘Village of the Damned’

Village of the Damned

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Horror;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars George Sanders, Barbara Steele, Martin Stephens, Michael Gwynn.

For a movie that proved popular enough to inspire 1964’s Children of the Damned as a sequel, MGM’s Village original unsettled the studio so much that it initially delayed even filming John Wyndham source novel — then kept the completed picture on the shelf in America until a successful Brit release paved the way for a December 1960 launch over here. Gotta say that made for a fairly eclectic Metro year-end schedule, what with Anthony Mann’s Cimarron remake (or, put another way, Glenn Ford “essaying” Richard Dix) and the Ft. Lauderdale-frolic-with-an-edge Where the Boys Are coming out at the same time as well.

Of course, fooling around on a Florida spring break can merely result in a standard childbirth, whereas Village has a much creepier hook. Its inhabitants in an English community are temporarily knocked unconscious by who-knows-what, and before long every female of the appropriate age finds herself “with child,” as Pearl Buck used to write. The women remember nothing but neither do the men, which puts some of the former in a steamed state over perceived infidelities. It turns out, however, that aliens are the culprit — and it was this immaculate conception angle, when the Catholic-driven Production Code could still breathe in its oxygen tent, that scared MGM. Just think of the controversy eight years later over Rosemary’s Baby, and you get the idea. Hell, England hadn’t even had the Profumo Scandal yet.

The resulting offspring are the quite the parcel. They have slightly enlarged heads, eerie eyes, platinum blonde hair, grown-up intelligence, telepathic skills, a chilly way of speaking and (I’m guessing on this one) a future disinclination to get loaded at a soccer game rowdily rooting for their team of choice. Young Martin Stephens, who’d be so unforgettable just a year later in Jack Clayton’s standout movie of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (called The Innocents) is the story’s main go-to little creep — now a family member in the household of a professor (George Sanders) and a wife (Barbara Shelley) who delivered this bad seed. Author Wyndham apparently had a thing for this kind of story. He also wrote the novel that inspired 1963’s Day of the Triffids (or, as ads might have trumpeted, “Howard Keel as You’ve Never Seen Him”) — a fun movie that’s been very poorly served on every home version I’ve ever seen, though the ancient laserdisc was probably the best.

On an effectively low-key but occasionally droll bonus commentary, horror specialist Steve Haberman asserts (undeniably) that for a short while, Stephens was Britain’s top child actor until the international love fest with Hayley Mills, which was already imminent. Mills had the advantage of being lovable and being cast in lovable roles; one of my best friends wanted to act upon “Let’s Get Together” with her for years. It was tough to imagine the Stephens seen here in The Parent Trap, though I can someone having fun with the premise that propelled “The Patty Duke Show” and having this creature play cousins with contrasting personalities: one an alien offspring and one a regular kid who listened to Cliff Richards and The Dave Clark Five.

Sanders is excellent here in what Haberman notes is an uncommonly “sincere” performance given the all cads, philanderers and (re his All About Eve Oscar) acidic drama critics he played; I believe it was Sanders to whom one long-ago writer was referring when he said that “a grapefruit wouldn’t dare squirt in his eye.” I remember when Sanders committed suicide in 1972, but the commentary offers some sad detail I didn’t know about events that led up to it. Haberman also notes cult actress Steele’s disappointment that the script didn’t go a few extra miles and examine the effect of these little demons (treated more sympathetically in the lackluster sequel, if memory serves) on the mothers who carried them. Given that this was a major component of the certified smash Rosemary’s Baby, it’s an astute point.

Even so, the picture was a sleeper hit at a time when fading MGM needed them. And speaking just personally, the movie’s tone (singular weirdness in an otherwise normal universe) and central idea (sinister seeds or pods with ideas of their own) do appeal to me — even though Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman brought significantly more punch to their respective takes on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This said, no one can discount the presentation here: the actors’ sweat beads are alive and well on large home screens whenever the action calls for them.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’ and ‘Village of the Damned’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Trapeze’ and ‘Never So Few’

Trapeze

Street 9/25/18
Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez.
1956. Trapeze was a big deal at the time for boomer kids who wanted to see real stars, plus kinetic scenes where the mechanics of flying are explained.
Extras: Includes a very strong commentary by Kat Ellinger.
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Never So Few

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Steve McQueen, Richard Johnson, Charles Bronson, Peter Lawford, Paul Henried.
1959. There’s really only one “must” reason to give this glossy adaptation of a 1957 novel by Tom C. Chamales a cursory whirl, and that’s seeing the emergence of Steve McQueen into what now seems like inevitable stardom.
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