Running Wild (1927)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$19.95 DVD; $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin. 

Getting a simultaneous release with Kino’s Blu-ray release of the W.C. Fields-Louis Brooks pairing It’s the Old Army Game from 1926 — which arrived too late to include here, though it’s long been a personal want-to-see — the following year’s Running Wild saw Fields working with Gregory La Cava, the director he is said to have most admired. A decade later, La Cava delivered one of the more potent consecutive 1-2 punches from any filmmaker in the 1930s: My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, which is not to suggest this one is like either of those. Nor, in the unlikely case you’re wondering, does it resemble Mamie Van Doren’s j.d. mammary melodrama Running Wild from 1955, though it absolutely follows the blueprint of some of the comedian’s Paramount talkies.

Or to put it another way, we get a slightly softer version of the standard harridan wife, a worthlessly doughy inherited stepson who’d like to outdo Jaws as an eating machine, an attractive daughter from a previous marriage who loves him, plus, as expected, headaches at work. The movie is very much like 1935’s The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a big favorite of mine from the middle chunk of its decade and probably my preferred Fields of all except for the incomparable It’s a Gift, which is a contender for my No. 1 guffaw-maker of all time.

Wild, as is noted on the bonus commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films), may be more familiar to some moviegoers than other Fields silents because Paramount Home Entertainment — in a rare acknowledgment it had had ever even heard of titles in its “deep archive” — included this title as one of the releases it issued to celebrate the studio’s 75th anniversary back in the VHS era. Even without comparing the Paramount reality to the heroically yeoman effort by Ted Turner and his colleagues in preserving and easily making available the MGM library, horrifically few Paramount silents even exist terms of numbers — a jinx forever exacerbated when some genius also sold the studio’s 1929-49 early-talkie library (the greatest single TV movie package of all time) to MCA in the late ’50s, which is how Universal eventually ended up owning them. But at least controlling Paramount has now leased some of these onetime VHS silents to Kino for Blu-ray distribution, which is how Army Game is also getting a fresh higher-def release and how 1923’s The Covered Wagon got one a few weeks ago. Were the latter Western milestone not such a certified stiff despite its onetime prodigious popularity, acclaim and impressive location atmospherics, I’d probably write about it here. After all, it was said to have been Warren G. Harding’s favorite movie — adjust the marquee for the blurb — though I notice that he died just a few months after seeing it.

But: La Cava’s crowd-pleaser is anything but a stiff and even funnier than I expected, given that Fields without his vocal deliveries would seem to be an ultimate in cramped style. And yet, he was such a physical performer — and, at his best, La Cava was a deft visual director even in cramped spaces — that surprising little is missed here. A big difference to fans of Fields talkies will be the caterpillar mustache he sports — and an overall appearance that doesn’t look young, exactly, yet subtly different. Like, say, Spencer Tracy, Fields was seemingly born on the senor side — and even were he 24, we’d look at Mary Brian, who plays his comely daughter and immediately wonder, “Uh, what did mom look like?”

The deal here is that Brian needs something than more than a housedress to wear to an upcoming rug-cutting event she’ll be attending with the son of her father’s boss, with Fields unable to come through with the payment because he hasn’t had a raise in 20 years from his novelty-wares employer. Wife No. 2 is no help, given her lack of sympathy for any daughter from a previous marriage — and she, in fact, laments her vanished past life by decorating the living room with a huge framed picture of her original spouse. The manner in which the worm turns for Fields is not just funny but sustained-funny, and a movie that’s amusing enough in the early going turns outright riotous in its second half. The catalyst here is a professional hypnotist who works his magic on Fields in front of a theatrical audience, the kind of mass entertainment that only a limited few can claim to have witnessed. (As late as 1960, I can recall one of my town’s mammoth movie houses presenting “The Amazing (Joseph) Dunninger” — a nationally known mentalist who made frequent TV appearances during my gleefully misspent ’50s childhood and got spoofed by a young pre-Carnac Johnny Carson on daytime TV as “The Amazing Dillinger.”)

The print here is in very good shape for its age, and Niebur’s commentary has the germane info about the supporting players one would hope for one these kind of backgrounders — including the fact that this is the only screen credit of Barnett Raskin, who plays the eating-machine stepson. He’s a standout here both in terms of physical perfection for the role and his own expressive abilities, and one would think he could have rated subsequent employment, at least in this kind of role (Grady Sutton would kind of take over this franchise in the talkie era). Teenaged Raskin is an even better foil for Fields than Marie Shotwell as the Mrs. (and she’s quite good), figuring in a satisfying adversarial wrap-up in which Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment is at its jauntiest.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’

Night of the Living Dead: Criterion Collection

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Horror;
$39.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman.

In any form, the opening shot seems exactly right: a moving car finessing all the twists and turns of a pastoral setting that turns out to be a graveyard entrance that its sibling passengers would have been better off zooming by — 100 MPH and going backwards. But it’s the heavy contrast and overall crispness of the image that grabs me immediately about Criterion’s 4K, stops-pulled, whoop-de-doo, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up crack at George A. Romero’s original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, a onetime un-pedigreed cheapie that I just can’t believe has looked as good (if then) since its opening night a few months short of 50 years ago in … Pittsburgh?

As a D.C. area dweller for 45 years, I can remember when an exhibitor buddy gave literal klieg-light-and-carpet treatment to the local premiere of John Waters’ Polyester, so unexpected gala treatment does happen, But you have to believe (and please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong) that not many three-river locals at the time splurged too much for what ended up being (for me) the greatest example of Pittsburgh horror since Bill Mazeroski’s home run to end the 1960 World Series. Yet now, after half-a-century, here’s Dead carrying the Criterion imprimatur atop its 1999 selection into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

can tell you how the movie was treated in my hometown of Columbus, which is about a three-hour drive west from the production’s city of origin. I was working during high school and college in the film department of the local CBS affiliate, and we wouldn’t play its grisly TV ads on the air — I can’t recall if these are the ones that show up here in the bonus section — no matter what the sales department wanted. One of my department colleagues was the station’s exceedingly stringent screener/censor, even though he had managed to let a hilarious reference to female genitalia in 1962’s Invasion of the Star Creatures get by for airing on Flippo the Clown’s afterschool “Early Show.” As a result, I recall, these Dead trailers were immediately consigned to a reel of excised film clips that my boss annually showed to TV classes at Ohio State for mornings of revelry. Always saved for last, just to give you some context, was Gertrude Michaels’ Sweet Marijuana showstopper from Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities, which had been snipped during the days when the station owned the original MCA package of 1929-49 Paramount titles, the greatest single movie package of all time.

Dead was, of course, strictly area drive-in fare — and not the ‘A’-class drive-ins that at one time or another offered the local Columbus premieres of films by Wilder, Huston, Leone and Polanski. (The local neighborhood indoor theaters were, of course, completely out of the question because they were too busy showcasing George Kennedy’s oeuvre.) And yet: it didn’t take too long — and this in laughably pre-Internet days — for Dead’s rep to take hold. By 1971 or ’72, which is when I first saw it in my town’s one decent repertory house, it was billed as a marquee equal with Tod Browning’s Freaks for a real “Mayberry R.F.D.” alternative, if there ever was one. Which was a status it deserved, for several reasons.

First all, there’s the white-hot pacing that never flags, despite most of its action restricted to either the main floor or the basement of an abandoned house adjacent to the graveyard while fire-fearing ghouls do their outside marauding in an imaginative array of costuming. (Say, what was it like at the local dry cleaner when the better-dressed ones went in to get their suits pressed, and what did they do upon noticing that someone had crushed their collar buttons?) Then, there’s the issue of interracial leads — handsome African-American Duane Jones and blonde Judith O’Dea — provocative teaming that likely wouldn’t even have been mentioned in ’68, though let it be noted that the script makes absolutely nothing about it (and if it had, the picture would likely only play as a period piece today).

What I really dig, however — and maybe this gets back to my days at the TV station — is the bulls-eye verisimilitude of its portrayed radio and TV coverage, which is full of unassuming reporters who do not look like Katie Tur, falling into the greatest story of their lives. I love the shots of the local camera crew — which is basically a guy with a portable home movie camera that is probably just as suitable for bar mitzvahs — and the way that all the journalistic atmospherics remind me of something seen as a young kid in a still photo whenever I was leafing through my barber shop’s pile of Police Gazette while awaiting a buzz cut. (They also remind me of CBS’s very short-lived “Wanted” series from 1955, which spooked the hell out of me around the same time — I can even remember the musical theme — by going around to trailer camps and the like in pursuit of real-life criminals on the run.) In fact, I have 20-some hours of network JFK-assassination coverage from 1963, and even it isn’t any more visually sophisticated. CBS had to throw up a slide for about 20 minutes when it interrupted “As the World Turns” for Dallas reportage as they scrambled to assemble a crew who could photograph Walter Cronkite reading wire reports. This is a great, great time-capsule aspect of Dead that is rarely mentioned.

There isn’t, though, a whole lot you can imagine being left out of this Criterion package — though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the real mind-blowers here comes early on in what I think is a recycled but engagingly jokey group voiceover (Romero included) in which it’s noted that a subsequent real-life hurricane around the graveyard site disentombed a whole bunch of buried individuals. There’s also a shorter work-print edit (of predictably wobbly quality) that the hardcore may even want to see more than once; a new featurette/appreciation whose homage-paying filmmaker appearances include one by super-trendy Guillermo Del Toro; a new appreciation of the music, which was kind of cobbled together from an existing library but is nonetheless superb; a germane Tom Snyder “Tomorrow” episode, which makes me wish that there could be a Snyder box, given that he interviewed everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Marilyn Chambers (who were probably wise not to work together); a look-back at filming on a dime in flyover country (Learning From Scratch); a Stuart Klawans essay; and even — atop more goodies I’m leaving out — a primer about directing ghouls (who, gotta say, are indeed well-directed).

This last leads to a plug for my former USA Today colleague Susan Wloszczyna, who once actually got to appear on screen as a zombie extra — and in color, which is how I saw her everyday at work — in 2005’s Land of the Dead after Romero turned the franchise into a cottage industry with more sequels than you could shake a fiery object at. To her credit, Woz never high-hatted me about this, though she had to know that little in my life could equal it. To be sure, and at the same TV station I referenced, visiting “Password” host Allen Ludden once said hello to me when I was returning from lunch. But no one can say that’s the same.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The L-Shaped Room’

The L-Shaped Room

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Leslie Caron, Tom Bell, Brock Peters.

Buoyed by surprise lead casting that worked at the time and still does, The L-Shaped Room fairly seamlessly smooshes one of those British kitchen-sink dramas that a lot of critics diss (but I rather like) with an unwed mother saga — the latter a sub-genre that once meant more than its ilk does now. Just four years after Leslie Caron’s toast-of-Paree Gigi had enabled co-star Maurice Chevalier to (in Bob Hope’s words) “put champagne on his Wheaties,” this sometimes grubby slice of life got its 1962 London opening — a whiplashing chain of events necessitated by musicals quickly going into a commercial fade, and Caron learning the hard way that co-starring in an Arthur Freed production of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans wasn’t the answer. (What was wrong with people? I’d pay to see George Peppard plunked into a beatnik culture any day of the week.)

Room was a Caron career antidote that led an actress I’ve always loved to her second Oscar nomination, a BAFTA win and (if you like) a Golden Globe, oddly followed by a severe career decline. So, OK, this chronology is a little pat because this Room’s arthouse acclaim was sandwiched between 1961’s Fanny (a huge popular hit that was also overrated by some of the lesser critics) and 1964’s Father Goose (another hit and also the last “real” Cary Grant movie before swan song Walk, Don’t Run put him into a kind of gramps mode). But the assertion is basically true, probably not helped by some scandalous off-camera publicity involving Warren Beatty, who had to pay court costs in her divorce. And by arthouse success, I mean that seeing Room in the U.S. outside of a major city amid its ’63 U.S. opening likely necessitated a drive of some duration to some lonely prestige theater on the outskirts of town. And this was at a time when flight attendant fluff like Dolores Hart and Pamela Tiffin in Come Fly With Me could still rate a downtown opening in a 2,800-seater.

That’s my American-release context, which is nothing compared to having the bonus track commentators here being Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo to fill in a lot of my ignorance gaps — with the first two, in particular, serving as been-there geographical guides to the setting’s then-and-now leap in real estate prices (pairing this with 1999’s Notting Hill would be the kind of double bill I used to float during my youthful film programming days). Caron moves into the title flat that’s located up some creaky stairs — a kind of architectural afterthought though a dwelling of choice of the bedbugs that provide co-scripter/director Bryan Forbes (adapting frequent kiddie writer Lynne Redi Banks’s novel) with his single most memorable shot. This said, and no doubt challenged by cramped working quarters, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe does a not unexpected stellar job of turning the room (and the flat in general) into movie characters; you have to love a guy who managed to adapt his camera to a smorgasbord of The Lavender Hill Mob, Circus of HorrorsBoom!, The Music Lovers, Travels With My Aunt and two of the Indiana Jones adventures. He also shot those Kris Kristofferson/Sarah Miles sex scenes in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From the Sea, which is probably how he lived to be 103.

Caron, who looks splendid here despite her character’s emotional turmoil, is a French woman who’s steadfastly determined to have her baby when a surprising number of people (including a cash-sniffing upscale doctor played by Emlyn Williams in a juicy cameo) want her to abort. Kirgo quotes Caron as saying that making the character French probably helped the film get by with the British censors of the day because … well, everyone knew about those French women, right? (No wonder England was so rocked by the Profumo scandal.) The flat thin walls’ possibly bored tenants contribute to Room becoming the ultimate in nosy-neighbors cinema — a situation that evolves (though not with me, it wouldn’t) into an ultimate communal situation. A prostitute, a forgotten music hall performer, an almost certainly gay West India musician, and a novelist who isn’t making sales: This is the array that must survive a landlady from hell who is not part of the community.

Brock Peters plays the musician and delivers, with an impressive accent, a performance directly on the heels of his role as the railroaded defendant in To Kill a Mockingbird. The role of Caron’s new-neighbor lover, who can’t abide her pregnancy by another (not exactly an odd-man-out attitude half-a-century ago) goes to Tom Bell, whose career is said to have been folkloric-ly derailed by his drunkenly heckling a not unamused Prince Phillip at an awards ceremony. Maybe this really was the reason, but despite Bell’s later success as a character actor (particularly on TV’s Prime Suspect”), his looks were on the sinister side for a lead, and I suspect he was the type women liked a lot more than guys. On the other hand, guys dig Ernest Borgnine, which is what makes the world go around.

Of its era ilk, I think I prefer Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, which opened in Britain about a year earlier, but still, I have to say that this recent viewing of Room after a long layoff won me over despite the movie’s weighty running time (126 minutes) and a general so-so attitude toward most of Bryan Forbes’s directorial output in general, including the much praised Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The wrap-up scenes are strong, the final shot is enticingly ambiguous, and the Caron-Slocombe combo is winner. Not too much later, the cinematographer reteamed with the actress in the ever-deadly Arthur Hiller’s Promise Her Anything, a farce she made with Beatty. It was really awful — as I recall, a 55-year-old Bob Cummings has mother issues in it – but as a curio, it might offer a compensation or two these days.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The L-Shaped Room’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The L-Shaped Room’

Night of the Living Dead: Criterion Collection

Criterion, Horror, $39.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman.
1968. In any form, the opening shot seems exactly right: a moving car finessing all the twists and turns of a pastoral setting that turns out to be a graveyard entrance that its sibling passengers would have been better off zooming by — 100 MPH and going backwards. But it’s the heavy contrast and overall crispness of the image that grabs me immediately about Criterion’s 4K, stops-pulled, whoop-de-doo, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up crack at George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead.
Extras: There isn’t a whole lot you can imagine being left out of this Criterion package — some holdover commentaries from earlier releases; a shorter work-print edit; a new featurette/appreciation whose homage-paying filmmaker appearances include one by super-trendy Guillermo Del Toro; a new appreciation of the music; a germane Tom Snyder “Tomorrow” episode; a look-back at filming on a dime; a Stuart Klawans essay; and even a primer about directing ghouls.
Read the Full Review

The L-Shaped Room

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Leslie Caron, Tom Bell, Brock Peters.
1962. Buoyed by surprise lead casting that worked at the time and still does,The L-Shaped Roomfairly seamlessly smooshes one of those British kitchen-sink dramas that a lot of critics diss (but I rather like) with an unwed mother saga.
Extras: The commentary track features the likes of Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo.
Read the Full Review

Steve McQueen: American Icon

DVD REVIEW:

Universal;
Documentary;
Box Office $1.23 million;
$19.98 DVD;
Not rated. 

As boilerplate shorthand goes when it comes to documentaries that brandish “icon” in the title, 2017’s Steve McQueen: American Icon really throws the word around in the laziest cheerleading fashion from a few of its on-camera principals in the early going — leading one to suspect and fear that this portrait might turn out to be for fans only (if that). We live in an age when seemingly every actor who made it even a little is made a member of the “I” club, plating the suspicion that similar paeans to Percy Helton or maybe John Agar will eventually come our way.

Two things, though. If anyone was a screen icon, McQueen certainly was; past McQueen docs have carried titles like An American Rebel and The Essence of Cool — and at minimum, no one would dare argue with the second designation. And the other redeeming point is that a significant part of this feature-length limited theatrical release deals with a key part of McQueen’s life that never gets a whole lot of attention: his conversion to active Christianity at the very end of his days during his final rejection of the Hollywood rat race. The timing, of course, suggested something even more wistful: This life change   possibly came before he knew he was going to die but probably not before he knew something was really wrong with him. One of those interviewed notes that ultimate cancer victim McQueen’s cough on the set of his penultimate movie (Tom Horn) was the most horrible he’d ever heard.

You don’t have to go very far into the IMDb.com commentary section for this doc to note the griping from several moviegoers who saw Icon theatrically and felt burned at having walked into what was an ad, however softly the message was sold, for accepting Christ. I suppose if I’d paid top dollar here, I’d have felt a little singed myself, but as a rental or perhaps a viewing that you might fall into, it has its moments — and occasionally from unexpected sources.

One is the fairly extensive appearance of Mel Gibson, an apparent “friend of the production” and one who’s in no position these days to turn down the chance for some decent publicity. My first inclination was to say, “What the hell is he doing here” — but Gibson is so wired and enthusiastic talking about an actor he didn’t even know that it’s not tough to see how he turned into a director of some merit (though count me in with those who call The Passion of the Christ flagellation porn). Gibson is good talking in general about the life trade-offs that go with superstardom and more specifically in about the ways that McQueen obviously knew about camera placement and lenses (all the better to accentuate “cool”) and also the actor’s dexterity with props, which now seems obvious but is nonetheless a subject that hadn’t occurred to me.

The latter skill gets back to the story (oft-repeated and repeated here) of how the then relative newcomer McQueen drove Yul Brynner crazy on the set of The Magnificent Seven by cheekily stealing scenes with any gesture or doohickey that was at his disposal. It also may explain why McQueen was such a natural fit with his greatest role (as gunboat engine-room specialist Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles). Oddly, that commercially brave blockbuster is noted only in passing, even though it got McQueen his only Oscar nomination (almost no performance in movie history has ever gotten to me more on a purely personal level). Similarly — and possibly because those involved in the production are vroomvroom enthusiasts who lean more toward The Great Escape and Bullitt — there’s no mention of the doomed labor of love An Enemy of the People (as in Henrik Ibsen), which was McQueen’s only movie between 1974 and 1980 (his remaining two came out in 1980, the year he died at age 50). It rarely shows but is worth catching due to the tension between the actor’s on-paper obvious miscasting and the not unmoving personal passion he brought to the chore.

The doc’s other coup is the participation of widow Barbara Minty McQueen, who seems to have been a really good match for him despite the fact that he all but picked her out of a magazine that showcased one of her modeling assignments. This is a part of McQueen’s life that never comes up in general discussion too much, though Marshall Terrill’s biography (he’s extensively interviewed here and is one of the film’s producers) gives this chapter a lot of space — which includes, of course, the alternative-medicine trips to Mexico (where McQueen died post-op of a heart attack) after his diagnosis of mesothelioma (a specificity I’d forgotten and one that’ll make me look in a different way at the frequent TV spots that deal with the disease. This and other parts of the doc feature reel-to-reel audio from an extraordinary interview McQueen gave just two weeks before his death — this from an actor who went years turning down interviews of any kind except for one to a kid journalist who approached him for his school paper (which thoroughly exasperated the professional press). The last, of course, was when McQueen was in his extended “jerk” phase as the world’s highest paid actor, who was further charging $50,000 just to look at a script.

On the basis of opinions that seem pretty unanimous (and the pastors seen here seem like good guys), the conversion was sincere), which means the entire McQueen saga — impoverished childhood to worldly riches to inner peace in the twilight hours — is fraught with irony. I remember how Andrew Sarris apologized in print for knocking McQueen’s then incomprehensively listless performances in Tom Horn and swan song The Hunter, but the general public just didn’t know what was going on until the actor’s condition started making the national news (we see the evening broadcast clips here). Yet from The Magnificent Seven through The Towering Inferno, it was quite a run, and even some of the occasional box office failures are grabbers today (McQueen even shared a pre-Seven screen with Frank Sinatra himself in 1959’s Never So Few). I wouldn’t exactly include The Blob in this company (though a hit is a hit when you’re starting out), but certainly would include TV’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” — speaking of McQueen’s prowess with props. Though he would soon move on to objects with more horsepower, he was still working with a souped-up … Winchester.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’

The Hanging Tree

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott. 

Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.

Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.

Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)

Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.

Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.

Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.

For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’

The Hanging Tree 

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott.
1959.
Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western absolutely does.
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Steve McQueen: American Icon

Universal, Documentary, B.O. $1.23 million, $19.98 DVD, NR.
2017. A significant part of this feature-length limited theatrical release deals with a key part of Steve McQueen’s life that never gets a whole lot of attention: his conversion to active Christianity at the very end of his days during his final rejection of the Hollywood rat race.
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Raw Deal: Special Edition (1948)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

ClassicFlix;
Film Noir Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr.

Despite enough prowess shooting in color to have won an Oscar for photographing the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, the still revered John Alton ranks way up there with, say, RKO, real-life rap-sheet artiste Lawrence Tierney and the young Anthony Mann as an automatic word-association touchstone when it comes to even rudimentary discussions of film noir. Much of Alton’s photographic work was for Mann himself before the latter went all big-time to direct James Stewart, Charlton Heston and let us not forget Mario Lanza (in Serenade, to save you an IMDb.com stop-off) in major studio endeavors with real budgets. Raw Deal is one of the pictures on which Mann and Alton collaborated for the tiny, relatively short-lived but always-resourceful distributor Eagle-Lion. Running a tight 84 minutes before Raymond Burr takes a memorable big bounce in the climax, it had been preceded by the team’s T-Men, which became one of the standout movie sleepers of 1947 (maybe the sleeper) after that undercover treasury agent melodrama rated a spread in Life magazine, not your everyday occurrence.

Both films shared the same male lead, Dennis O’Keefe, who had recently come into his own with, among other projects, a couple well-received comedies after a long apprenticeship grind. He now suddenly found himself an ideal actor of noir, thanks to looks on the high-side of “Average Joe” and a demeanor that suggested he could take care of himself. I became kind of a fan early on as a child courtesy of Chicago Syndicate (featuring Xavier Cugat as “Benny Chico”) and Inside Detroit — both of them metropolis-underbelly exposés that I caught at my nearby Lane Theater in 1955 and ’56 in a possible attempt to gauge whether five-a-year director Fred Sears (who also had five films in the can when he died of a heart attack at 44) was an auteur. OK, I’m kidding with the auteur crack, but not so about O’Keefe, who’s something of a comfortable presence throughout Raw Deal despite its occasional pronounced brutality, including a pair of wall-mounted antlers that put featured henchman John Ireland’s face in need of Michael DeBakey’s best suture kit. One unexpected extra in this release’s bonus section is an interview with O’Keefe’s son. Nice.

This said, Deal has been equally positioned by some as a “woman’s picture” — notwithstanding the still eye-opening bit where heavy-in-both-senses Burr heaves a flambé at a nagging live-in who’s getting on his nerves (something apparently easy to do). Truth to tell, the picture is a love triangle as much as it is anything, with sympathetic narrator/moll Claire Trevor frustrated that breaking O’Keefe out of jail hasn’t been enough and that Marsha Hunt (employed by O’Keefe’s lawyer) is falling for him against her better judgment and with some small degree of reciprocity. Hunt, an interestingly complicated character, even finds herself a tad excited over entering a world of crime — not nearly to the degree of say, Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy but enough to make us wonder what’s going on in her complicated head. Helping the audience not to be complicit in these shenanigans as well is the fact that O’Keefe has actually taken the rap for Burr and has been stiffed on money owed to him, which explains the latter’s nervy state.

Like most Eagle-Lions, Deal has been fairy seeable for years but in prints of varying quality — none of them capable of showing what Alton could do and does here. I remember a longtime friend of mine coming out of a mint 35mm print of John Ford’s black-and-white My Darling Clementine years ago and raving about how Joe MacDonald’s photography showcased 50 shades of gray (back when there was a different vowel in “gray” and the phrase a purer connotation). Something like that happens here in the nocturnal woodsy scenes in which the permutations of foliage spread out in minute detail — this, of course, in addition to the expected shadowy photography of actors. Which, in this case, is also full of surprisingly complex and situation-revealing blocking that Mann was also great at, even amid a short shooting schedule.

Deal is the newest release from ClassicFlix, a distributor that really knows how to ask for money. But it has also done a stellar job making films that have for decades being seeable in compromised form and making them look the best they have since their original releases, which usually date back to somewhere around the time when I was spitting up on my crib bumpers. There’s some really first-rate talent on the bonus extras: Jeremy Arnold for the voiceover commentary, who, in news to me, is a protégé of Mann expert, movie expert and all-around great person Jeanine Basinger; Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo; director/historian Courtney Joyner; and arguably dominant Alan K. Rode, who’s had a great recent run benchmarked by his mammoth Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film — a 700-pager I was rolling along in, lickety-split, when Michael Woolf’s stop-the-presses Fire and Fury put me on a Rode pause button (absolutely temporary) just as I was getting to The Adventures of Robin Hood. There’s a before/after digital restoration comparison — your eyes will tell the story — and an essay by Max Alvarez, who wrote The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, which constituted most of the director’s early career. And by the way, an on-camera Rode gets off a really good one here about the size of Burr’s shoulders.

Mann would soon branch out in his subject matter, even as his skill with black-and-white briefly sustained itself before he mostly began working in color. Criterion did a wonderful job with the DVD for The Furies — a Mann Western I’ve always liked a lot and one that would almost certainly make a great Blu-ray. And it also would be something to see at least a foreign-region attempt to transfer the outdoor grit of Winchester ’73 into the high-def format. William Daniels shot it for Mann, 36 years years after laboring on (and that must have been the verb) Stroheim’s Greed, which definitely showed he knew a thing or two about photographing Western dust.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’

Belle Epoque

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Olive;
Comedy;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz.

A color-drenched period comedy about robustly healthy (i.e., not leering) sex in the physically resplendent Spanish sticks, Belle Epoque won me over in its first-run theatrical engagement for providing an hour/50 of incessant enjoyment — in other words, even before director Franco Trueba upped my good tidings by thanking Billy Wilder for inspiration when he accepted the foreign-language Oscar on 1994’s telecast.

Good man, though there aren’t a lot of obvious direct lines to Wilder’s work here — except perhaps for when impossibly lucky protagonist Fernando (Jorge Sands) finds that he really likes it hot amid a cross-dressing romp with the one of four comely sisters who happens to be gay. No worries, though, because at least during this one solitary romp on the way back from a costume party, she enjoys getting it on with him as she sports a moustache (he’s in drag as a maid). Hey, whatever works, as Tonya Harding might have said.

The year is 1931, the seeds of the coming civil war are being watered, and Fernando falls into a household of free-living republicans. Household patriarch Manolo (the late hard-working character actor Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a sex-appreciating painter who suffers from erectile dysfunction when it’s anything but afternoon delights with his wife. Unfortunately, she’s always on the international road emptying theaters with her Florence Foster Jenkins soprano act, accompanied by a smitten, money-losing manager who’s naturally distraught when she wants to romp with Manolo on her infrequent trips home. But this is getting ahead of the story.

Most of that has to do with young Fernando’s escape from the seminary and his relationship with the couple’s daughters: a young widow; the aforementioned gay one; a third who’s being pursued by possibly the No. 1 nerd in Spain (he’s mother-dominated, too). No. 4 is the baby of the bunch, though she she’s not exactly still in her diapers, given that Penelope Cruz (in one of her first movies) plays her. Eventually, Fernando works his way through the checklist, though without any guile or duplicity — both unneeded, given that the sisters aren’t exactly reserved about the situation and are, in fact, on the aggressive side. It’s a made-to-order male fantasy for someone trying to get the seminary out of his system, though let it be said that this is already a milieu in which the local priest enjoys playing cards at the best/only brothel in the village.

When I heard that Belle Epoque was coming out on Blu-ray, I immediately wondered if the color values would be rendered right because sheer visual splendor is one of the reasons the pace here never flags (along with a slew of vividly-delineated characters who keep hopping in and out of a gorgeous frame). Though distributor Olive Films (and for that matter, Raw Deal’s ClassicFlix as well) continues to exasperate me when its releases always revert back to the movie’s beginning whenever one shuts down the player for not very long, BE in high-def is very much the visual stunner that it would have to be not to disappoint, though a commentary certainly wouldn’t have been unwelcome. (I’m of the school, however, that it’s far more important to get the presentation right before we go onto to any discussions of gravy.) Trueba’s tickler had a lot of strong Oscar competition in its year: Farewell, My Concubine; Ang Lee’s The Wedding Party; The Scent of Green Papaya; and a fourth title I’ve never seen. We were still in an era when foreign-language releases could at least attract U.S. audiences a little before the dumbed-down video game culture took over.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’

 

Mike’s Picks: ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘Belle Epoque’

Raw Deal: Special Edition

ClassicFlix, Film Noir, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr.
1948.
Dennis O’Keefe, who’s something of a comfortable presence throughout Raw Deal despite its occasional pronounced brutality, found himself an ideal actor of noir, thanks to looks on the high-side of “Average Joe” and a demeanor that suggested he could take care of himself.
Extras: There’s some really first-rate talent on the bonus extras: Jeremy Arnold for the voiceover commentary; Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo; director/historian Courtney Joyner; and arguably dominant film historian Alan K. Rode. One unexpected extra in this release’s bonus section is an interview with O’Keefe’s son. Nice.
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Belle Epoque

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz.
1992.
Franco Trueba thanked Billy Wilder for inspiration when he accepted the foreign-language Oscar on 1994’s telecast for this color-drenched period comedy about robustly healthy (i.e., not leering) sex in the physically resplendent Spanish sticks.
Read the Full Review