Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.

Given Kino Classics’ laudable current endeavor to bring the cream of the 1929-49 Paramount library out on Blu-ray, it will will likely get around to releasing what remains one of Billy Wilder’s least-seen films (and an early collaboration with producer/co-writer Charles Brackett as well), maybe even sooner rather than later. But one of my ubiquitous “twilight” life projects is to go through Wilder’s output chronologically (as well as that of other filmmakers of his stature) in their best available renderings, and All-Region Elephant Films from France has done standout work with vintage Paramounts-that-matter almost straight down the line. So, here we go.

Set in slight flashback for in the time it was made against what looks to be one of the most geographically granular parts of Egypt, 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Wilder directed, sandwiched between the still charmingly hilarious The Major and the Minor and all-timer Double Indemnity, whose sordidness apparently so offended Brackett’s outward Southern gentleman to such a degree that he took a pass on contributing to it. In World War II terms, Cairo’s geographical backdrop is here located in what at least for now is German Gen. Erwin Rommel territory, with Franchot Tone playing the one surviving member of a British Eighth Army tank crew who’s been whipped along with his other  colleagues during the recent conflict. The picture’s opening visual is a British tank full of corpses and an unconscious Tone — which means that no one is actually piloting the currently aimless vehicle that keeps rolling up and then down one sand dune after another. I first saw Cairo when I was about 12 in 1960 and have never forgotten this shot. Movies are funny that way, just as brief real-life remembrances are.

After what seems like a long hike during which he has to be seriously dehydrated, the barely alert Tone stumbles upon a town and its “Empress of Britain Hotel” — which is about free of Brits as you’d expect at this time. Actually, it’s pretty well free of everyone, though there is a proprietor played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor whose ham Wilder can’t always control here. (Speaking just for myself, my perception of Tamiroff only occasionally overcame J.D. Salinger’s characterization of him in one of the author’s anthologized Nine Stories — whichever one it is that describes Tamiroff as the actor who always says, “You make beeg joke — hah?”) There’s also a French chambermaid (Anne Baxter), who’d like to find some way to get help for her permanently injured brother who’s been captured by Germans. The role needs someone more exciting and alluring, and I wish Simone Simon, who apparently tested for it, had been cast instead.

Fortunately, Tone is pretty good here, and there are a couple supporting gems with future echoes of the Brackett-Wilder Sunset Blvd. One is the appearance of that masterpiece’s Erich von Stroheim himself, who cuts an imposing monocled figure as Rommel — a performance whose tone differs a lot from James Mason’s in Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox, an intelligent Rommel wartime biopic that I’ve always liked (it was one of the first films ever aired on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”). The other is an Italian general played by Fortunio Bonanova, who shortly thereafter would have a funny bit in Wilder’s Double Indemnity as a trucker/insurance scammer who fails miserably trying to pull a fast one on Edward G. Robinson, cast as the firm’s near-infallible cheat-sniffer. Wilder goes to town with these characterizations and the fun he pokes at the Italian general — with Rommel always making certain that the latter gets the hotel room where the bathroom doesn’t work when these members of the Axis powers take over the hotel for powwows from time to time.

This officer invasion demands some quick thinking on the part of Tone, who is neither German nor Italian. Conveniently, he takes over the identity of a clubfooted waiter who’s just been killed in a blast — a guy who never previously met Rommel met eye to eye but whom the general knows to have been a Nazi spy, which adds to Tone’s good fortune (at least for a while). Meanwhile, amid all this in-house intrigue, Baxter is reluctantly playing up sexually to Rommel/Stroheim’s favorite staffer lieutenant (it probably helps that she holds no love for the Brits) in an attempt to pull strings for her brother. The young officer’s role is a predictably comfy fit for Peter Van Eyck, who was in the early stages of career of playing German officers that lasted all the way up to swan song The Bridge at Remagen in 1969.

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Things get more complicated after this, and how could they not? This is definitely lesser Wilder, but it’s still a movie for grown-ups, which a lot of old Paramounts were. I’m constantly amazed at the level of assumed intelligence on the part of the audience that this old romantic cynic always worked on, and it’s impossible to imagine any Cairo ever having come from MGM — or if so, not unless Louis B. Mayer could shoehorn in a production number or two by Virginia O’Brien or Ginny Simms. (Ironically, the best by far of the era’s Hollywood-produced WWII dramas ended up coming from MGM right at the end of the war with They Were Expendable. Even L.B. wasn’t going to tell the future Rear Adm. John Ford how to go about his business.) I remember reading an interview with Wilder sometime in the early ’60s, when he’d recently caught Cairo on the late show and thought it too preachy. There’s a little of this, but not that much of it for the day, and it comes late in the film.

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As old Variety reviews used to say, “Technical credits are ‘pro’” — and the picture got Oscar nominations for cinematography, black-and-white art/set decoration and plus editing by longtime Wilder teammate Doane Harrison, whose association lasted until Sabrina. The cinematographer was John Seitz, who would shoot several of Paramount’s best movies (early Wilders included), and the score is by Miklos Rozsa, whose allegiance stretched, with long layoffs, from Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend to Fedora). As a result, there’s an “old home week” feel to the movie, which I personally find appealing enough to elevate material that, to an extent, probably cramped Wilder’s style out of a need and necessity to support the troops. As expected, it looks very good on Blu-ray as well.

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”

Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment,’ Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Serpent’s Egg,’ De Niro-De Palma Teamings Highlight December Disc Releases from Arrow and MVD

Films from Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, Robert De Niro and Brian De Palma are among the December Blu-ray releases coming from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group.

Up first on Dec. 4 is The Serpent’s Egg from director Ingmar Bergman, who teamed with Italian director Dino De Laurentiis. In this mystery, David Carradine stars as an out-of-work circus performer that gets caught up in a tangled web when he begins to ask questions about his brother’s bizarre death. Special features include audio commentary with Carradine; “Bergman’s Egg,” a newly filmed appreciation by critic and author Barry Forshaw; “Away From Home,” an archival featurette including interviews with Carradine and Liv Ullman; “German Expressionism,” an archival interview with author Marc Gervais; a stills gallery; a theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices; and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Geoffrey Macnab.

Due Dec. 11 is the boxed set “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films,” showcasing Robert De Niro on the big screen for the first time and highlighting the beginnings of his relationship with director Brian De Palma. The set includes three films from the duo — The Wedding PartyGreetings and Hi, Mom! — all of which have been newly restored. Special features include new commentary on Greetings by Glenn Kenny, author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor; a new appreciation of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger; a new interview with Charles Hirsch, writer-producer of Greetings and Hi, Mom!; a new interview with actor Gerrit Graham on Greetings, Hi, Mom! and his other collaborations with Brian De Palma; a new interview with actor Peter Maloney on Hi, Mom!; the Hi, Mom! theatrical trailer; newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; a limited collector’s edition booklet featuring new writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland; and an archive interview with De Palma and Hirsch.

The ‘80s slasher film Bloody Birthday is due Dec. 18 with a new 2K restoration. In the Ed Hunt-directed film, a trio born on the same solar eclipse develop a habit for murdering adults. Special features include a new audio commentary with Hunt; a new interview with actress Lori Lethin; “Bad Seeds and Body Counts,” a new video appreciation of Bloody Birthday and the killer kid sub-genre by film journalist Chris Alexander; a archival interview with producer Max Rosenberg; the original theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and for the first pressing only, a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Lee Gambin.

Coming from Arrow Academy Dec. 11 is the classic comedy The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon. The film, which took home five Academy Awards including Best Picture, features a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative produced exclusively for this release. Special features include audio commentary with film producer and historian Bruce Block; “The Key to the Apartment,” a new appreciation of the film by film historian Philip Kemp; select scene commentary by Philip Kemp; “The Flawed Couple,” a new video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon; “A Letter to Castro,” a new interview with actress Hope Holiday; “The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder,” an archival interview from the Writers Guild of America’s Oral Histories series; “Inside the Apartment,” a half-hour making-of featurette from 2007 including interviews with Shirley MacLaine, executive producer Walter Mirisch and others; “Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon,” an archive profile of the actor from 2007; a theatrical trailer; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.

Irma La Douce

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi.

As both the most commercially successful movie Billy Wilder ever enjoyed and, paradoxically, the last box office hit of his career, Irma La Douce seems like something of a benchmark oddity when viewed from 55 years of perspective. This, of course, assumes that you can even employ such a diminutive term to describe a 143-minute comedy that just misses tying Avanti! as the longest the writer-director ever made. Irma doesn’t hold its length nearly as well as that later masterpiece, which has probably contributed to the decline in its reputation, though critics weren’t all that crazy about it at the time. But Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray reminds us of how gorgeous the movie is despite its inherently squalid content — and how its recent lack of availability in a decent edition has helped is lose track of its compensations. Because there are lots of them.

By 1963, the Last Rites hadn’t yet been read for Hollywood’s Production Code, but the cemetery plot had been bought and the siblings were already arguing over the china. Even so, the sight of colorfully dressed prostitutes all lined up on a Parisian street courtesy of Alexandre Trauner’s magnificent production design — among the best I’ve ever seen — was something new in blockbuster Hollywood entertainment. On one of two excellent bonus Blu-ray commentaries here, ‘A’-team film historian Joseph McBride recalls the Catholic guilt that resulted in his taking three incremental viewings to complete the picture once Shirley MacLaine’s scanty costumes and bare shoulders started getting to his teenaged self in Wisconsin the way they did to mine in Ohio, even if we lapsed Presbyterians never had to deal with such hypocritical nonsense. (Martin Scorsese once told a similar story to me on the stage of the AFI Theater, recalling his own out-of-the-theater-and-back-in wrestling with John Farrow’s 1957 The Unholy Wife.) Oddly enough, there are no actual sex scenes or even off-color language beyond Wilder and Diamond’s — that would be longtime co-writer I.A.L Diamond’s — penchant for double entendres. There’s also a second commentary by Brit film historian Kat Ellinger that’s also good as well and also compatible — which like McBride’s cares little about being scene-specific. It devotes a lot of time to subjects that obviously intrigue — like MacLaine’s career and the varied historical approaches to treating prostitution as a subject.

Irma was based on a stage musical, but Wilder didn’t like musicals, and during production he kept jettisoning songs until none were left. Instead, he had Andre Previn adapt portions of its melodies with extraordinary romance and passion into a) an Oscar for himself; and b) a fabulous soundtrack album I literally wore out on vinyl in ’63. A rose-colored rendering, Irma certainly never poses as realism and almost has the jaunty spirit of a musical — though it does devote a lot of well-utilized screen time to the economics of prostitution and how a lot of the monetary compensations (which aren’t much to speak of, anyway) go to pimps and bribes for corrupt policemen. This said, the plot turns on the introduction of an honest cop (Jack Lemmon, reuniting with MacLaine and Wilder-Diamond after their all-timer The Apartment from 1960). Or at least he starts out as one until he unknowingly and almost immediately arrests his superior for easing his work day in the neighborhood’s professional love-nest hotel and gets bounced from the force — launching him on his own career in pimp-dom.

Though Lemmon and MacLaine are about as French as Ezio Pinza, they emit the kind of casting goodwill for which Wilder was famous — that is, likable actors plunked into a seamy milieu so that audiences can more easily identify with the characters. MacLaine got a deserved Oscar nomination in an Irma role once mentioned for Marilyn Monroe, whose 1962 death just by itself made the idea of her casting a non-starter. But even though Lemmon ends up having to don Brit disguise in a plot turn that eventually grinds down the pace, he’s pretty close to his best here and surprisingly deft with physical comedy. A further delight is Lou Jacobi as proprietor of the saloon across the street from the hotel of sin — a role originally intended for Charles Laughton, who’d gone so far as to grow the character’s mustache before his own 1962 death. Given Laughton’s brilliance (or brilliant ham) in Wilder’s movie of Witness for the Prosecution, one’s what-might-have-been imagination goes to town.

There are several popups from Wilder’s ’60s stock company to pepper the action: Joan Shawlee, Cliff Osmond, Howard McNear and Hope Holiday, just to rattle off a few names from the top of my head. McBride’s voiceover devotes a lot of time to tracing Wilder’s career trajectory during this period (and beyond) when audiences once receptive to his liberation of rigid American screens eventually came to regard him as being old-fashioned. After helping promote Irma with a tie-in Playboy Interview in ’63 where he (affectionately) termed the now classic onetime flop Ace in the Hole “the runt of my litter,” Wilder suffered a more serious blow with his next picture from which his career never recovered.

It was the critical/commercial bludgeoning of Kiss Me, Stupid — a corrosive satire on blind careerism and small-town sexual hypocrisy that now has a monster cult (then reviewer Joan Didion “got it” even at the time) and which McBride notes here that he “adores.” KMS is much superior to both Irma and the comedy that followed (The Fortune Cookie), ranking with the editorially butchered The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and then Avanti! as significant Wilder achievements. But neither critics nor the public bit — or at least the American contingent didn’t — though matters fared better in Europe, where screen taste is less myopic and more historically informed.

None of this is to suggest that Irma doesn’t have a slew of seductive features and moments — a much better career choice for Lemmon at the time than, say, a stage-bound leer like Under the Yum Yum Tree, which came out later the same year. Along with Sherlock Holmes and (though no one would ever think of it) The Emperor Waltz, it’s a contender for the best-looking movie Wilder ever made, and the first 75 minutes are pretty close to a consistent breeze, with the design, costumes, cinematography and scoring in flawless sync. This is a major production that really needed 4K scanning — and gets it, to very most visual results. The sound, though, is tinny, which is a rude surprise, given Previn’s achievement.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Irma La Douce’ and ‘Strait-Jacket’

The Apartment

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Comedy;
$49.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Edie Adams. 

When it comes to my personal choice for best/favorite Billy Wilder movie, I usually zig-zag among Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and The Apartment — though let it be noted in the name of Joey Bishop that my strongest emotional attachment goes to Kiss Me, Stupid (absolutely and eternally) and Stalag 17 (probably in second place due to how much I loved it as a youngster, particularly in the mail call scenes: “At ease, at ease”). But re-savoring The Apartment in Arrow’s new limited edition and absorbing the bonus backgrounders both new and recycled from a past release, it’s tough to deny the perfection of 1960’s best picture Oscar winner all the way down the line, which in Wilder’s case, always extended to the care he took with, say, the 125th-billed actor.

And though topicality can be a trap when gauging a movie’s effectiveness due to how today’s dominator of news can eventually turn into tomorrow’s LP of Anita Bryant’s Greatest Hits, it’s a real punch to the face (and here, I mean this in a good sense) to see how a once controversial comedy-drama from 58 years ago can be so spot-on about sexual harassment in the work place. This, of course, is an issue not likely to fall prey to topicality limitations, so when we take a fresh jaded look at the comical sleazeball execs who populate the story’s Manhattan-based insurance company — and with its big boss the worst offender of all — there’s simply no way anyone can deny that the movie is more potent than it even was at the time.

Interestingly, especially in view of its commercial success with a public that “got it,” the picture got mixed reviews when it opened in the summer (Psycho, The Apartment and Kazan’s Wild River all opened in close proximity; ponder that the next time you deny that movies have gone to hell). Critically speaking, Pauline Kael got tiresomely huffy about it, but in truth — and in retrospect, this probably isn’t very surprising — it was her male colleagues who were predominantly offended by the idea of a career-hungry insurance company exec (Jack Lemmon) advancing up the “Mad Men” ladder by lending his apartment out to superiors for their extra-marital flings. (After, of course, packing his modest digs out with vodka and the right kind of cheese crackers.) Yeah, right: We all know this didn’t happen in the Rat Pack era.

Yet, something happened over the next few months (most likely, commercial acceptance), and by the time spring rolled around, The Apartment won five Oscars — including three to Wilder himself for producing, directing and co-writing with I.A.L. Diamond. Despite Lemmon’s supporting Oscar for 1955’s Mister Roberts, it was Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in 1959 that had “made” the actor, and Wilder knew even during Hot’s production that not only did he want him for this immediate follow-up — and that if he couldn’t get Lemmon and his ingratiating personality as an audience buffer amid an undeniably sordid premise, the picture probably wouldn’t be made. It was genius casting, as was Shirley MacLaine’s as the plot-central elevator girl (as they used to be called), as was Fred MacMurray as the firm’s slimy personnel director, Mr. Sheldrake — albeit in this case, casting that emerged from tragedy.

Paul Douglas, who hadn’t looked too healthy in swan song The Mating Game from ’59, was signed and ready to go in the Sheldrake role before suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack. Though Douglas is a lifelong favorite of mine and had played the brashly crude Harry Brock character on Broadway in Born Yesterday, he was almost always lovable (if gruffly lovable) in the movies, and I can’t recall his ever having played an absolute heel on screen. MacMurray (and his eyebrows) convey the character’s all but transparent dark side at once, and the No. 1 revelation I’ve taken from this recent viewing is just how great MacMurray is here. Though he initially resisted the part due to his then recent Disney association and the launching of TV’s “My Three Sons” (on this week’s episode, dad cheats with a pert employee who eventually tries to kill herself), this is one of MacMurray’s two career performances. Both were for Wilder — the other being his all-timer as the insurance agent who makes the worst sale possible policy sale this side of the one Bob Hope writes up for you-know-who in Alias Jesse James.

Technical credits are pro here, as Variety reviews used to say, with the visual showstopper being the set for Lemmon’s impersonally cavernous work “hangar” — the creation of Children of Paradise’s always-brilliant production designer Alexandre Trauner, who won an Oscar here. These key scenes were in turn heavily influenced by parts of King Vidor’s The Crowd, a silent so brilliantly off-the-charts that you’d naturally expect it to be on DVD or Blu-ray yet one that only enjoyed a laserdisc release back in the Cro-Magnon video era. Meanwhile, versatile (and nominated) cinematographer Joseph LaShelle gives The Apartment an appropriately noir-ish look while doing a flawless job of navigating Lemmon’s just-functional digs (for him and for the work cronies who use it). Adolph Deutsch’s score wasn’t nominated, but this has to be because his main theme was borrowed or swiped from an obscure British film of the ’40s (I’d like to hear the story behind this). Even so, the music and its many moods give both the comedy and drama a huge boost, and the aforementioned theme caught on with the public and made it to Billboard’s No. 10 when Ferrante & Teicher hugely tickled 176 ivories in their tie-in recording.

MGM’s old Blu-ray never struck me as one of the most obvious titles that begged for a revamp, but the clean-up job Arrow has done here re-emphasizes the point that imagery delivered as the filmmaker intended it can go a long, long way toward totally putting over even a screenplay as verbally kinetic as The Apartment’s. (I love it when Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen, as Lemmon’s doctor neighbor, refers to the younger man’s perceived sexual dalliances with a wide array of women, on certain evenings, as a “twi-night double header.”) Bruce Block, who delivers an outstanding commentary carried over from the previous release, has a visual background — which, when combined with his massive research, makes for a wall-to-wall informative two hours.

This Arrow version also adds a slew of featurettes that include a Wilder archival interview where he speaks extensively and sweetly about Diamond and a sturdy booklet with critical writings more on the ball than some of the original reviews. From what I’ve seen to date, Arrow has become one of those companies whose name on the box means you can go to the bank, and this fresh viewing has, for me, been somewhat of a revelation. And this despite the fact that The Apartment has always been one of my favorite films since seeing it in a summer drive-in double bill the following year with Elmer Gantry — quite a night for a then recent 14-year-old and one that killed Disney Fred MacMurray’s for me forever. Matter of fact, I’d walked across the street to see Some Like It Hot in ’59 immediately after exiting the Fred-Walt original of The Shaggy Dog, and even then, the comparison was one of “Give me a break.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Captain From Castile’