Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

A Little Romance

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Sally Kellerman, Arthur Hill.
1979.
It was spring of 1979 when 12-year-old Diane Lane made the cover of Time magazine back when that really meant something — ostensibly as part of a cover story on “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids” but spurred primarily by her utterly beguiling screen debut opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance, the first film released, albeit through Warner Bros., by the then brand new Orion Pictures.
Read the Full Review

Salesman

Criterion, Documentary, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
1969.
Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. We end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments.
Essay: The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film.
Read the Full Review

 

A Little Romance

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray
;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Laurence Olivier, Diane Lane, Thelonious Bernard, Sally Kellerman, Arthur Hill.

It was spring of 1979 when 12-year-old Diane Lane made the cover of Time magazine back when that really meant something — ostensibly as part of a cover story on “Hollywood’s Whiz Kids” but spurred primarily by her utterly beguiling screen debut opposite Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance, the first film released, albeit through Warner Bros., by the then brand new Orion Pictures. I can’t believe the pans the picture originally got, though I did just notice that Frank Rich provided a very enthusiastic blurb at the time, and Rich’s film criticism was always as dead-on as his political writing (his current Intelligencer column in New York magazine is never to be missed). But the movie has aged well despite all of its potential minefields, due in huge part to Lane, who was worthy of making the cover of almost any magazine that comes to mind, including Civil War Times, Just Jazz Guitar and that White Castle’s monthly house organ (I actually have a friend who collected a consecutive run of the last for years).

Almost by definition, the picture sounds all but inevitably as if it’ll be plagued by a rampant “case of the cutes” — while Sir Larry’s performance is rather, uh, broad here (I won’t say hammy, though, because it’s too funny and besides, it’s in the spirit of the movie). Then and now, I always looked at Romance as a keen move by director George Roy Hill to develop some filmography “rhythm” after having just done Paul Newman’s Slap Shot, a hockey comedy that comes pretty close to being an all-timer but which also had what was probably the most profane script of any Hollywood film released up to that time. Of course, with 1964’s The World of Henry Orient, Hill had already done one of the best of all adolescent-centered comedies.

Per its title, the focus here is adolescent romance, as unaffected Lane’s child of privilege falls for the scruffy, street-smart 13-year-old son of an uncouth French taxi driver — a pleasing turn by another screen newcomer, Thelonious Bernard, who almost immediately gave up acting in real life and eventually became a dentist. His character is also a film buff (they, of course, know how to grow them in France), and the movie gets off to a rough start when we see a montage of his screen favorites that somehow finds room for True Grit and Hill’s own Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn’t exactly suggest Bertolucci’s The Dreamers when it comes to that film’s more accurate portrayal of what a French student of film might be watching. The Bernard character (Daniel) is, however, enough of an auteurist to love Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall and knows an omen when he finds one upon discovering that the Lane character’s name is Lauren.

Sally Kellerman plays Lane’s toxically flighty thrice-wed mother at a time when Kellerman did “impossible” better than anyone. Her good-guy husband No. 3 and Lane stepfather (Arthur Hill) is work-stationed as an American executive in Paris, which is how the movie’s storyline comes to be. This, in turn, gives mom the opportunity to pursue a currently shooting film director (David Dukes), and one of the funniest gags here is that fact that while commercially popular, he’s a total hack. Bernard’s Daniel is, of course, movie-savvy enough to know this, compounding his total disdain for someone he’d dislike on sight for a number of other reasons. Another good gag is that Broderick Crawford, who looks as if he entered the wrong door on his way to the Highway Patrol set, plays himself in all ways but full literal moniker (here, he is “Brod”) as one who ends up cast in Dukes’s movie. Brod only has two or three scenes, but he gets some laughs, even though he probably agreed to do the picture for a couple pops.

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Lane’s Lauren is caught in the middle of all this (Dukes is as much of an aggressive pain as Kellerman), which makes credible what might have been a too-appealing-to-be-true characterization: an absolute seventh-grade dreamboat with all seventh-grader vulnerabilities but also a bookish one with literate-adult interests and reading taste at least half-a-decade beyond her years, at least for the era in which the movie is set. But she’s still a Romantic with a thing for Elizabeth Barrett, so it makes a certain kind of sense that she’d fall for a boy who loves handicapping and playing the horses and also sneaking out and into movies like one the young rascals in Francois Truffaut films.

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Every young couple needs a Cupid, which is where Olivier fits in — a role that, top billing notwithstanding, initially looks like a small one (nearly an hour in before his second show-up but expands substantially in the second half). It all comes to be after the kids meet this courtly old-school French charmer of somewhat vague background after he is felled by a flying soccer ball. Inspired by romantic memories of his late wife, Olivier agrees to aid and abet the youngsters on their daring journey to Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, where the two plan to kiss at sunlight (though Lane lies about the reason for the trip). Their challenges have to do coming up with the money, the fact that as minors they’re way too young to travel legally without an adult, pursuing authorities who assume they’re looking at a kidnapping case, and missed train connections.

This is a movie that probably shouldn’t work, but it does for me, and it isn’t all Lane, though she’s the nucleus of this pure confection’s sleeper uccess. Adapting a Claude Klotz novel, Allan Burns’s Oscar-nominated script brandishes a TV series brand of humor, but it’s good TV (Burns worked on “The Bullwinkle Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and plus a lot of “Lou Grant” and “Rhoda”). The young actors who play the respective best friends of Lane and Bernard could have been throwaways, but their roles are not only well written but exceptionally well directed by Hill. Georges Delerue’s score took the Oscar, and cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn had previously shot Truffaut’s Day for Night for automatic street cred (DFN’s score came from Delerue as well). I used to think Arthur Hill was on the bland side, but the more I watch, I’m impressed by his malleability in playing sympathetic characters but also occasionally sinister types. His scenes with Lane are genuinely warm, and he keeps it under control when the kids get looped on champagne during what is otherwise not much of a birthday bash for her, which Kellerman has insisted be combined with a wrap party for Dukes.

This Warner Archive release has no real extras, but I didn’t really care because it was so much fun watching Olivier approaching the end of his career as Lane was just beginning hers. It’s been fun watching her grow up on the screen into a perfect woman, an assertion I base not just on her multi-level attractiveness but the fact that in Jay Roach’s Dalton Trumbo biopic, we see her having a normal backyard conversation while juggling.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Salesman

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. The team’s real breakthrough, if you’re talking about audience magnets, came a couple years later with Gimme Shelter, aka the Rolling Stones/Altamont train-wreck-on-film — which every hip person of a certain age just had to see at the time (its shelf life has been robust, too). But Salesman, which the Brothers had to go out and sell all by themselves, did garner a lot of ink and outstanding reviews from its very opening.

The result is a highly specialized real-life portrayal that personally hit me between the eyes the first time I saw it — and still does. More on this later, but the salient point here is that we end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments. There are tough ways to attempt a living, but making cold calls on straight commission as far as six U.S. states away from home is right up there. And then you drive somewhere else the following week.

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The 1969 documentary was lucky in a sense because it found a star in the making with soul-of-a-poet main protagonist Paul Brennan, the colorfully blarney-spouting member of the sales quartet (when it suits his needs or fancy) who, by coincidence, became the focus here because he is losing his touch. The old bag-of-tricks formulas that riff on a largely canned presentation aren’t working lately, and he’s starting to press — which then has a way of feeding on itself to make things worse. The other salesmen, who’ve been doing fairly well lately against equally tough odds, are sympathetic — but can’t get too close to Paul (nicknamed “The Badger”) or his escalating woes because they might rub off and poison their own well. But segregation isn’t easy to pull off when they’re all looming in close quarters at this week’s anonymous motel.

At this point, I should probably mention that during that flailing period after grad school when I was awaiting my Big Break (which did eventually come), I went on the road myself under the tutelage of my local Encyclopedia Brittanica rep/manager selling Great Books of the Western World on college campuses from Buffalo to Denton, Texas. It was a much younger crew than the one we see in Salesman, working a classy product (Ptolemy, anyone?) to a sharper clientele. But the documentary’s portrayal of the day-to-day lifestyle (a generous term) is chillingly on the mark, unearthing memories I was happy to relegate to eternal slumber miles beneath the earth’s core.

First, it was the long drives to the selling destination, which meant you began your work day at night when you were already whipped. You shared a motel room with someone who was a decent guy as long as you kept the conversation to the two male basics — sports and women — but with whom you otherwise had nothing in common, starting with the fact that, ironically, they never read books during the job’s rare down time). If motel fluorescent lighting could kill you, I wouldn’t have lived to see The Godfather Part II. And then there were the motivational tapes (something we don’t see the Salesman crew have to endure) that we were strongly motivated to buy; I think my manager (someone I liked but one slick Willie), had a piece of that action. In any event, the recorded motivator talked of nothing but attaining material goods and how you could now arrange your schedule to play a lot of golf (really deep stuff here). Negative thoughts were frowned upon, and here I was in the final chapters of the great Warren G. Harding bio The Shadow of Burning Grove, at a time when the administration’s suicides were beginning (“That’s positive,” said my boss, sardonically). When I finally decided to quit mid-week on the road — and I’d had some boffo sales weeks, though they were strongly front-loaded — he had me on a long bus ride back home in a blink, and I never saw any of the crew again. I would have infected the operation, which I understood and accepted.

One thing these two situations had in common were these impromptu customers’ inability to pay once the vendor got in the door (in Salesman, the crew members say they’re “with the church,” which is at best true only on a whopper of a technicality). The Maysles did their filming — and they found that most customers liked, and soon got used to, being on camera — in 1966 or early ’67. One offshoot of this is that everyone here smokes (“Sure, come right into my home and light up”), and truth to tell, this is equally so of the housewives-in-curlers who have to listen to the pitch, occasionally bite and then get read the riot act when their husbands get home that night to see that the family budget has been ambushed. By this time, it’s impossible to cancel the order, though laws were later enacted by the time of my own employment to provide a short “remorse” window.

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The Maysles divide their shooting time between miserably snowy Massachusetts not far from Boston and Miami, with the latter a seeming respite except for the fact that the neighborhood streets where Paul is assigned are such a byzantine tackle box that he can’t locate the household on which he has a lead, however shaky. Adding narrative rhythm to all this are the crew’s bull sessions back in their motel rooms (lots of low-stakes poker gets played for a quality-of-life bonus) and also the large national group meeting that’s intended to provide both motivation and a little ass-kicking. The sales manager isn’t exactly ogre-ish Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but he makes it clear that they’d better produce — while the publisher rep, spiritual dimension quickly dispensed with, concedes they are basically pushing “product.” Paul and one other guy on his specific crew are thin and bony, but practically everyone else here is overweight, middle-aged and a figure of sympathy unless he happens to be on a sales roll.

The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film. As he has proven before, Hader is no movie dilettante, but a funny man who also truly knows and loves film history. He is a treasure.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’

The Day of the Dolphin

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.
1973.
When I first saw The Day of the Dolphin, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script, but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter.
Extras: Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer a Blu-ray bonus commentary. Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette offers an interview with Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann.
Read the Full Review

X … the Unknown

Shout! Factory, Sci-Fi, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern.
1956.
Despite what looks like a glorified Ed Wood budget that’s mercifully camouflaged by a lot of nocturnal outdoor shots and a generally zippy pace, X … the Unknown is an affectionally regarded member of the Hammer Films family that’s sometimes mistaken for one of that studio’s “Quatermass” pictures.
Extras: Acreenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the most revered of the Hammer nucleus of talents who made the organization “go,” is the predominant subject of the Blu-ray’s bonus featurette about the original Hammer gang, not only for his ability to pull off a cheapie like this one but for his exceptionally expressive color horror films. The other featurette is a slapdash jumble of film clips in which the music drowns out a huge percentage of what narrator Oliver Reed is trying to say.
Read the Full Review

The Day of the Dolphin

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.

When I came out of The Day of the Dolphin in 1973, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script (from a sprawling-times-12 Robert Merle novel) — but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter. Which is to say that here were Henry and Mike Nichols making a George C. Scott “family” (or close) ‘PG’ movie about sincere straight-faced love for trained the trained dolphins to whom Scott and his small scientific crew are trying to teach English. And at this point (his fifth feature), Nichols was coming off the edgy quartet of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (with a Henry screenplay), Catch-22 (Henry screenplay) and the still psychologically brutal Carnal Knowledge.

The picture’s Wikipedia entry quotes the Pauline Kael review as suggesting “that if the best subject that Nichols and Henry could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether” — which I now realize is one of the crummiest and most patronizing things she said in her entire career, or at least crummy and patronizing enough to place it in her top 5,000 transgressions. (But. Don’t. Get. Me. Going. On. Pauline.) On Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette, Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself, notes that Kael also said that he and Nichols had put enormous effort into a movie whose main distinction was “scaring children” (his comment and look of eye-rolling disgust are worth the price of admission). The point is, though, there are career departures and career departures, but this was something like Vincente Minnelli taking a crack at a spaghetti Western.

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The first thing I noticed this time out was not just how thoroughly invested actor Scott is in swimming, communicating and otherwise interacting with the creatures to whom his character and a handful of scientific colleagues are trying to teach English just outside their island laboratory — a place so isolated that it requires a rough speedboat ride through sometimes choppy waters to reach what ultimately comes off as a working paradise. This kind of thing can’t be faked, especially on the off chance that you’ve coincidentally just seen Scott in The Hospital as I just did a couple weeks ago when I was preparing taxes and thus in the mood for some Paddy Chayefsky bombast (in this vein, I also watched Taxi Driver as well).

In the Chayefsky/Arthur Hiller concoction from two years earlier, Scott looks all too believable as a walking coronary who heads up a unit in a prestigious New York medical center: he’s unkempt; has pasty skin tones (though United Artists DeLuxe Color did this to a lot of actors in the early ’70s); is drug abusing, self-loathing and all those other traits that make it something less than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But as wags use to say of Richard Nixon in the ’80s in Dolphins, he’s “tan, rested and ready” — which I never got the impression Scott ever was even in real life aside from the last count. (A woman I used to work with had a newswire photo hanging in her cubicle of Scott exiting a plane after he had all-too-obviously wet himself big-time). Here, he looks in strapping shape with lots of color (the solar-induced kind) in his face.

The entire second half of Dolphins is a spoiler minefield of plot twists — or, more precisely, one huge plot twist from which additional tinier ones then emanate — so I’d better “write around” a lot of the film’s content. What has to be noted, though, is that the surprise(s) ought to be jarring and maybe even all-out movie-killers when, it, fact, the whole picture is tonally seamless. There aren’t many filmmakers who can pull this kind of thing off, and seamlessly, which ought to give some indication of how much in control Nichols was with his early movies (more on this in a minute), even if Catch-22 got away from him despite some great scenes. In this case, we actually segue from Ivan Tors Flipper territory into an early example of the kind of mid-’70s paranoid thriller that used to be Alan Pakula’s bailiwick.

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Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer the Blu-ray bonus commentary with the former doing most of the talking; he  makes the case that in addition to whatever else it is, Dolphins is a metaphor for film directors with vision battling studio suits who are deciding whether or not they’re going to come through with the necessary financial backing. More often than not, I find these speculative flights a little much, but I have to say that Berger makes a persuasive case here.

There’s a beautifully Panavision-framed scene — could Nichols block actors or what? — where the endowing string-pullers sail out to the island to pass judgment on the research project’s feasibility. So director Nichols lines them up horizontally in chairs on an oceanside platform above Scott and then has them looking down at him as he relates his progress and intentions in what is basically a pitch meeting out of Robert Altman’s The Player. These show-me types range in personality from a Mr. P-R-smoothie who’s presumably supportive (Fritz Weaver, whose slick characterization is perfect) to transparent creeps who haven’t a clue about anything scientific (John Dehner) to those who think they know more than they probably do (Severn Darden).

Even in its most family-oriented ‘PG’ moments, we sense that Henry and Nichols are not unmindful of certain ethical questions that can be raised even when the scientists involved are genuinely loving and have the best intentions. They are, despite kid-glove care from Scott and colleague/wife Trish Van Devere (this has to be her high-water mark on screen for the then real-life Mrs. Scott) taking the dolphins out their natural habitat, which is OK for now when the returned affection is palpable but may cause problems if they ever return to their original way of living well out into the ocean.

Commentator Berger makes a big point here of something that’s been on my own mind for a long time, which is that if you walk in blind to any of director’s first six features up through The Fortune, his identity will be pretty obvious without much time expenditure. Nichols’ debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was in 1.85:1, but all the others were in superbly utilized Panavison; the sextet’s cinematographers were Haskell Wexler, Robert Surtees, David Watkin, Giuseppe Rotunno, Chinatown’s John Alonzo and (here) William A. Fraker of Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby fame — a Murderer’s Row if there ever was one. But after the severe box office underperformance of Dolphins followed by the total drubbing of The Fortune (which today looks redeemed to a point by the production design and really funny Jack Nicholson performance), this specific Nichols era came to an end.

Aside from the indifferent Gilda Live, Nichols retreated for eight years and when he returned, his movies immediately looked different from anything that had preceded — and for the rest of his career. This isn’t to say he didn’t go on to make some impressive ones — his first feature back was Silkwood, while HBO’s Angels in America is a contender for best film of his career — but he never worked in 2.35:1 again. (Not even, as Berger points out with Closer, which seemed to call for it.)

Dolphins, which Nichols basically took on to get out of his Avco-Embassy contract after the Sharon Tate murders ended Roman Polanski’s participation, went from mixed initial reviews to delayed disdain to what I perceive has been more recent favorable revisionism; it’s truly old-school Mike Nichols, no matter the its subject matter. This is the most favorably surprised I’ve been at a movie in quite a while — the Georges Delerue score is close to an all-timer, which helps — though no less unexpected is watching Scott so thoroughly ace it in a relatively demon-less role, though (this being Scott) still bringing some edge to it. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann, and like Henry, could not be more infectiously personable.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’

X … the Unknown

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Sci-Fi;
$24.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern.

Despite what looks like a glorified Ed Wood budget that’s mercifully camouflaged by a lot of nocturnal outdoor shots and a generally zippy pace, X … the Unknown is an affectionally regarded member of the Hammer Films family that’s sometimes mistaken for one of that studio’s “Quatermass” pictures. This is understandable because X, too, deals with the threatening onset of some hitherto unknown-to-man affliction, supernatural pestilence or, more specifically in this case, highly visual creepy cruds.

I didn’t see this unexpected Dean Jagger starrer when it hit the U.S. in ’57, though my best friend did and gave me the enticing-to-a-kid plot rundown, but I did see the previews for it a couple times — which typical of black-and-white genre pictures of the day whose coming attractions always got under your skin (or at least they did mine). It would go like this: A neighborhood or small-town theater would divide its week’s playdates into sections: maybe a color big-star vehicle Sunday-to-Tuesday and an ‘A’ Western on Friday-Saturday. Sandwiched in between midweek, however, would be these frequently socially disreputable cheaper entries whose theatrical trailers often seemed to be rendered via prints that looked and sounded more worn than those for the weekend attractions. Whether they were tawdry crime melodramas or frugally filmed sci-fi, they seemed less a product of Hollywood spectacle than of moving-image versions of the photos I used to look at in from the pile of Police Gazettes my barber had stacked on  the floor as I waited to get a buzzcut.

Of course, X wasn’t Hollywood product even from its inception but a 1956 British film that Warner Bros. picked up for U.S. distribution the following year after its intended stateside conduit RKO hit the permanent skids. The casting of American character actor Jagger (who’d won a supporting Oscar for Twelve O’Clock High) was a surprise, but in a very happy coincidence, Jagger had more than a passing physical and stylistic resemblance to Dr. Frank Baxter, who was already a huge Boomer grandfather-figure. Baxter was the warm, beloved non-scientist who played one on TV (his character name was “Dr. Research”) in the network broadcasts of those wonderful Frank Capra science documentaries produced in conjunction with Bell Telephone. The two that everyone remembers — Our Mr. Sun and Hemo the Magnificent — had already run by the time X hit U.S. screens, and I have to believe that more than a few kids of the day made this “good will” connection, however subliminally, (Later, 16mm prints of these were run for years in junior high classes whenever science teachers wanted to take a day off, which is not to shortchange their value).

Back to the glop, which we don’t really see is glop until much later in the movie, which takes place in Scotland. Jagger, employed by the Lochmouth branch of the Atomic Energy Commission, is called in after soldiers on a routine Geiger counter assignment to locate the source of supposedly modest radioactivity turns into a disaster. Water starts to bubble and boil at the marshy point of origin, followed by an explosion that kills one of the soldiers from radiation and leaves another with a back of truly grisly-looking blisters. Jagger isn’t helped very much in these endeavors by an unsympathetic superior (Edward Chapman) who’s tone deaf when it comes to gauging the possible severity of the situation. In the annals of big-screen portrayals of bankrupt management, this one is right up there.

To borrow a term once employed by Alexander Haig, this “sinister force” soon branches out in its choice of victims — including even a staff scientist who’s trying to steal a quickie with a nurse in the radiation lab and ends up seeing God, all right, but not in the usual good sense. Whatever this radioactive matter is, it can bore its way through fortress-like constructions, though this matters little at the outdoor point of origin that the soldiers are still guarding despite doing what you or I would do: go AWOL. One of these gents is played by a young Anthony Newley, back before he started writing too many lousy songs.

Here, back at the marshes, he ought to be singing “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (whose Newley co-authorship admittedly can’t be denied).

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There’s also a young Leo McKern, an actor most are used to seeing with a bit more weathering, as in A Man for All Seasons, where he played Thomas Cromwell, or the Beatles’ Help! (now, there’s a double feature). Here, he’s the security officer for the U.K.’s branch of the Commission but also the Everyman stand-in for us whenever Jagger advances explanatory scientific hypotheses that even he has to concede represent some flailing on his part. McKern, who leans toward Jagger’s POV, such as it is, is still caught in a kind of tug-o-war because honcho Chapman is so recalcitrant to give these concerns the time of day until the ooze starts flowing.

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Without giving away the game, let’s just say that “X” suddenly manifests itself in a more recognizable form, at least if you’re a fan of The Blob — though the latter didn’t come out for another year. Imagine being able to say on your resumé that one of your creations anticipated the young Steve McQueen’s notable box office sleeper-dom for which he infamously took a modest flat salary in lieu of an also offered percentage of the gate. In this case the brains behind X was screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the most revered of the Hammer nucleus of talents who made the organization “go.” Sangster is the predominant subject of the Blu-ray’s bonus featurette about the original Hammer gang, not only for his ability to pull off a cheapie like this one but for his exceptionally expressive color horror films of which Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula) is probably the most revered.

This mini-doc is quite informative and entertaining and doesn’t shy away from discussing Sanger’s roving eye (Hammer films employed so many babes that they once rated their own coffee table book). The other featurette is pretty hopeless, though: a slapdash jumble of film clips in which the music drowns out a huge percentage of what narrator Oliver Reed is trying to say, a boo-boo I don’t believe I’ve ever seen replicated since the New York  roadshow engagement of Heaven’s Gate in 1980 (in that case, the culprit was the sound mix) and never in a documentary. Reed died in 1999, so it also has some mold on it — or perhaps a glob of “X.”

The movie’s low-budget black-and-white in a frequently nighttime backdrop makes this stuff look more effectively imposing than it otherwise might have. Still, the movie gets some extra kick from a new mastering even if it originally only cost about $60,000 total. And of this, possibly more than we think went to the then fairly ubiquitous Jagger, who in 1957 also worked with Pat Boone and Samuel Fuller, though unfortunately not in the same film.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ and ‘X … the Unknown’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Cimarron

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn.
1960.
MGM’s large-scale remake of the 1931 Best Picture Oscar winner looks so impressive on a big screen TV that I pleasurably breezed through its 2 hour, 38 minutes in one sitting, though without being truly stimulated.
Read the Full Review 

Jungle Fever

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sensuality, strong language, drug content, and for violence.
Stars Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.
1991.
Though Jungle Fever is a movie I really like and possibly more to the point, really enjoy, it’s a prime example of the tendency of director Spike Lee to overstuff his narratives to a degree that would altogether wreck a lot of pictures that lack most of his filmography’s redemptive drive, dependably provocative subject matter, imaginative smorgasbord-like casting and sheer filmmaking passion. Never has that been more true than here, where there are two distinctive storylines that Lee can’t find a way to mesh without large 1.85 seams showing — even if they do feature (but don’t always emphasize to equal degree) at least some of the same characters.
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Cimarron (1960)

 BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via Warner Archive;

Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray; Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O’Connell, Russ Tamblyn.

MGM’s large-scale remake of screen history’s deadliest Best Picture Oscar winner looks so impressive on a big screen TV that I pleasurably breezed through its 2 hour, 38 minutes in one interrupted sitting, though without being truly stimulated. This basically replicates my original theatrical-run reaction to this Oklahoma-set soaper/epic, whose old-school cinematography by the perpetual class-act Robert Surtees washed over me at my favorite local downtown movie palace as the studio’s more-or-less pre-Christmas attraction (the national opening date was Dec. 5, 1960). But capital city didn’t get it — in a situation I’ll bet was replicated in many other markets — until mid-March of 1961 when The Absent-Minded Professor was just opening one block over (my 12-year-old self did a double-header that day).

So to some extent, MGM dumped what was obviously an expensive undertaking — and this was when no one knew or could have dreamed that the two “little” movies the studio served up was well that previous December  (Village of the Damned and Where the Boys Are) would end up seeing their stock rise so substantially with the passing years. Yet at the same time, remaking Cimarron may have seemed like a good bet, at least to the front-office hard arteries who didn’t realize that audience taste changed a lot in the later 1950s. Edna Ferber adaptions had enjoyed a remarkably successful run dating back to the Richard Dix-Irene Dunne original’s 1931 Oscar win. And just four years before the remake, Giant had become the most financially successful picture Warner Bros. had ever had up to that time. In fact, 1960 had begun with the release of the Ferber-originated Ice Palace, which my faint memories tell me isn’t even as good as Cimarron despite Richard Burton and Robert Ryan headlining its cast and the underrated Vincent Sherman directing.

This is the context. The story, or at least its basic structure, will be familiar to most or all Ferber followers: a decades-spanning chronicle involving young principals who wed, and not always happily, in an out-of-the-way but economically developing geographical setting — eventually living to see their children grow up and occasionally rebel as the family fortunes (and those of paupers mom and dad knew in their youth) improve. Other instant identifiers sometimes include unrequited love on someone’s part; a tendency on the part of at least one decent guy from the early part of the movie turning pompously ostentatious when he starts to smell the green; and fun times for the studio make-up artists who finally get to “age” principals who’ve remained youthful-looking on screen over the previous three or four decades.

My generalization here is an over-simplification — I don’t recall any of the above happening the last time I saw Ferber-stable standouts Dinner at Eight or Stage Door — but it’s true enough. What we have here is a young wife from a pampered upbringing (Maria Schell, whose high-profile Hollywood tenure was brief) wedding a well-traveled lawyer (Glenn Ford) — a “dreamer” as well who wants to take part in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush and, though it’s against his character, allegedly settle down. Instead, and despite his near-overnight transformation into the ensuing local newspaper’s editor/publisher, Ford spends the entire picture running off for five years or more at a time on one or another of his witness-to-history sprees. This means, of course, that the long-suffering Mrs. is left holding some bags, namely the newspaper’s daily production grind and motherhood (the latter just once, possibly because Ford is rarely home). She suffers, but because bubbly Schell is playing her, she smiles a lot through it all until finally getting fed up. Schell even laughs in the scene where she’s delivering their son, but this is possibly because the neighbor acting as mid-wife gives her several snorts (one woman’s medically questionable approach to natural childbirth).

There are two ways to interpret Ford’s character, who is named, in colorful Ferber fashion, “Yancy Cravat.” One is that Yance is a bigger-than-life visionary of uncommon gravitas, kind of like what Rock Hudson’s towering version of Bick Benedict in Giant might have been had he had incurable wanderlust and not preferred to do what most guys would: stay home on that isolated Reata spread and make it with Liz Taylor. The other way to go look at Yancy is as an irresponsible flake — and though Ford’s performance got some critical drubs at the time, I think you can at least make the argument that the actor’s familiar fidgets and tics in his dialogue deliveries make him a credible choice for that take on the character. The picture definitely loses something when he’s not on screen.

In any event, Ford/Yancy is a crusader always on the side of right, especially when it comes to racist treatment of Native Americans (Charles McGraw plays the key heavy here, and who better?). This fairly extensive side issue conjures up more narrative interest than some of the other subplots, but truth to tell, the movie peaks early with a re-creation of the Land Rush that’s really something to see, as it must have been in real life. Wagons topple, axels break, a senior citizen gets trampled, and I especially liked the shot of one lone guy on a big-wheeled unicycle, trying to compete with galloping horses in the race to lay claim to the most choice land because the losers have to make do with barren dirt where crops won’t grow.

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As noted, the film was shot by the great senior Surtees (fellow cinematographer Bruce was his son), who was the go-to guy for a full Leo the Lion share of MGM biggies from a spectacle-heavy extended era: King Solomon’s Mines, Quo Vadis, Mogambo, Ben-Hur, Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty and (on loan-out, wouldn’t you know) Oklahoma! Later, as proof he couldn’t be typed, he then tried around and photographed The Graduate, The Last Picture Show and the studio-shot scenes (Britain’s Robert Krasker did the rest) for William Wyler’s The Collector. And do you want even more class when it comes to Cimarron? Franz Waxman did the score.

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This is a movie where the techno credits are more exciting than the casting, and I could never figure out, even when I was a kid, why an actress with almost no sex appeal (Anne Baxter) ended up playing the town’s most glamorous prostitute — though, of course, her place of work is presented as some kind of social club for local males to purge their urges as the biddie demographic walks by the building and goes, “Tsk, tsk.” Still, and as noted, it’s all pretty watchable if you have a big screen, and certainly preferable to the ’31 Oscar version (a year when City Lights wasn’t even nominated), which is basically Richard Dix sporting 10 pounds of pancake makeup on a dusty street.

On paper, Cimarron-’60’s large budget would seem to make it a transitional film for director Anthony Mann. It was situated between the director’s series of five celebrated James Stewart Westerns plus Man of the West with Gary Cooper — and his very pricey entry into the Charlton Heston loincloth arena (though if you press me, I’ll concede doubts that anyone ever even claimed that Chuck wore one in Mann’s El Cid. We’re speaking symbolically here, folks.) Instead, I recently learned that despite receiving solo screen credit for Cimarron, Mann left the project early, leaving MGM mainstay and former outstanding dance director Charles Walters to complete a huge chunk of the film’s second half. Walters’ top directorial achievements included Good News, Lili, The Tender Trap, High Society and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which also came out in 1960. All are crowd pleasers, but Walters was never much of a stylist, which suggests to me that producer Edmund Grainger kind of bailed on the project even during production. Mann, interestingly enough, then went into Spartacus before taking on El Cid, but left that project even more quickly. No wonder the guy ended up dying on the set of a heart attack mid-picture in 1967.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Jungle Fever

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
‘R’ for sensuality, strong language, drug content, and for violence.
Stars Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.

A whole big bunch of things are much easier to accomplish than figuring out just what the genre of this ambitious 1991 Spike Lee potpourri is, which means that “Romantic Social Drama” will have to do for now. Though Jungle Fever is a movie I really like and possibly more to the point, really enjoy, I do wonder about the second feature Lee made after the outrageous failure of Do the Right Thing to win the Best Picture Oscar a couple years earlier. Yet if I overrated Fever in my original USA Today review, it still scintillates for me in a way that several best picture winners of the past 20 years have not (though, no, this wasn’t the case with Parasite). Yet, it’s on the messy side, as well as the first historical indication I had of a problem that has plagued the writer-director’s features throughout his career (though not, I would add, his great documentaries).

This is the tendency of Lee to overstuff his narratives (and the running times that usually go along with this) to a degree that would altogether wreck a lot of pictures that lack most of his filmography’s redemptive drive, dependably provocative subject matter, imaginative smorgasbord-like casting and sheer filmmaking passion. Never has that been more true than here, where there are two distinctive storylines that Lee can’t find a way to mesh without large 1.85 seams showing — even if they do feature (but don’t always emphasize to equal degree) at least some of the same characters. In fact, even within the same storyline, the movie sometimes stops to digress, as when a spurned light-skinned Harlem wife (Lonette McKee) and her women friends spend maybe 10 minutes bandying about the frequent tendency of black men to pursue white women in a way that complicates matters for everyone. It doesn’t quite stop the picture but just misses doing so.

Interracial “jungle” attraction is indeed Fever’s main thrust, as McKee’s otherwise sturdy architect husband (Wesley Snipes) shoots past the 98.6 standard with his new Italian temp/secretary (Annabella Sciorra), a Bensonhurst native whose hiring he initially resisted. This is all happening during a period of Snipes resentment toward his white superiors, who are going the namby-pamby route to foil his partnership aspirations despite the highly visible contributions he has made to the firm. Tim Robbins and a cleaned-up Brad Dourif have these roles, and can Robbins ever play this kind of smoothie in his sleep. Snipes ends up getting himself in what one would assume to be financial peril from the accumulation of these events, though this presumed cause-effect is curiously unaddressed.

What is addressed is the racist cretinism of Sciorra’s father and brother, Italian stereotypes of a certain sub-breed who unfortunately don’t come off as stereotypes here — or at least in the way that an unbridled Anthony Quinn (one of those Quinn performances where he risks a hernia reading his dialogue) does playing John Turturro’s oppressive father. Turturro, as the spurned Sciorra boyfriend who works the counter in the family neighborhood drug store, is the sole voice of reason despite getting no help from his own black-hating buddies, who include the Sciorra brothers. Turturro will have nothing of the latter vitriol and despite his pain over having been dumped, is toying with asking out a frequent black store customer who encourages his self-improvement regimen (the exceptionally attractive Tyra Ferrell).

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The movie’s in-name-only other half rates significantly less than 50% screen time but nonetheless provides Jungle with its one indisputably great claim to fame. Nowadays, Samuel L. Jackson is so ubiquitous that if you’re in bed having one of those surreal Melatonin dreams at night, he’s as likely as not to show up in it, even if the dream’s setting is, say, your boss’s toddler daughter’s birthday party. But there was a time when he wasn’t well known, and his performance as Snipes’ crackhead brother so ambushed critics and audiences that, to give one example, the Cannes Film Festival created its first supporting actor award just so that Jackson could be recognized. He’d been around in small roles — there’d even been an appearance in GoodFellas the year previously — but nothing like this. It was something akin to when a relatively obscure Morgan Freeman got cast as a pimp in 1987’s Street Smart from the more often than not ignominious Cannon Films and made such a striking surprise impression that he eventually got an Oscar nomination.

Compared to brother Snipes and, for that matter, nearly everyone else in the picture, Jackson is the bad seed — regularly putting the financial touch on his desperate but enabling mother (Ruby Dee) after his father (Ossie Davis) long ago forbade him even to enter their home. Sometimes, mom’s out of enough cookie-jar money, so dad’s color TV will have to do, whose theft will provide either solace or the funds to go up his nose in a street-side crack den in the company of his companion (Halle Berry — does this movie have a cast or what)? This leads to the movie’s most powerful set piece when Snipes, as a favor to mother Dee, pounds the pavement to find Jackson as Stevie Wonder’s timeless “Living for the City” provides the musical backdrop.

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I would have thought, by 1991 and with an entire Wonder score, the movie would have a stereo track, and matter of fact, there’s one listed at the end of the glorious end credits (more on these in a second). This Blu-ray doesn’t, nor is there any commentary nor much to speak of in terms of chapter stops, which I’m speculating is true as well with other Universal-released Lees that Kino has just issued and that I’m hot to re-see: Mo’ Better Blues; Crooklyn; and Clockers. Also not here is (and I think it would have been) is that great sweaty blacksmith coda — amusingly purloined from Jack Webb’s old Mark VII Productions — that signified one of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks productions.

But in any rendering, Fever’s exit music is “Feeding Off the Love of the Land,” my favorite Stevie ballad ever and for some reason a song not on the original soundtrack CD, an omission that rated a zillion-decibel string of profanities from me in 1991 before it much later showed up on a couple of pricey Wonder sets. (Motown released it as a single, but I suspect it was without the strings that Spike’s musician father Bill Lee added for the movie’s version, which I personally think “makes” the finale.)  I also love the way its lyrics splash across the screen a line at the time, an effect I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other movie. It’s a very powerful way to send audiences home (or wrap up a viewing-room evening) — even if, as frequently compelling as Jungle is, a viewer can be forgiven for wondering what exactly he or she has just seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Kitten With a Whip’

Black Angel

MVD/Arrow, Mystery, $39.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford.
1946.
The big takeaway from Angel, at least speaking personally, is just how much of a visual stylist director Roy William Neill apparently was.
Extras: Alan Rode provides a voiceover commentary, and there’s also an on-camera interview with British film historian Neil Sinyard.
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Kitten With a Whip

Universal, Drama, $21.98 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Richard Anderson, Peter Brown, James Ward.
1964
Kitten With a Whip was kind of an unexpected and even strange choice for Ann-Margret to take on in the immediate aftermath of Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas. As with its title, Kitten’s ad art was provocative, too — eschewing a literal whip but still suggesting that this might be the kind of girl you could take home to dad if dad were the Marquis de Sade.
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