Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

Criss Cross (Pour toi j’ai tué )

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Mystery;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally.

Even in terms of the lowlife-laden melodramas Burt Lancaster made right out of the career gate, Criss Cross seems somewhat undervalued, at least relative to its merit. The Killers and Brute Force are probably the early Burts that come automatically to mind, but Steven Soderbergh, for one, apparently thought enough of Criss Cross to refashion it into 1995’s The Underneath — a remake he says he doesn’t care for much though one included as a “stealth” bonus on the Criterion Blu-ray of Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. At least up to a point, I rather like the revamp myself, and yet this not quite brainstorm always did seem superfluous given what the original has to offer.

On the last point, we don’t have to start with Dan Duryea’s suits — and most people wouldn’t. But part of the fun in the predominantly Universal noirs Duryea made in the ’40s — and Kino Lorber is about to pay homage to quintessential Duryea by releasing a new Blu-ray of RKO-released The Woman in the Window June 19 — is watching him saunter around in duds that don’t exactly advertise him as the new Presbyterian minister on the block. I hope the actor’s costumers here at least rated auditions when it came time a few years later to dress all those chorus boys in the original Broadway product of Guys and Dolls.

In this case, Lancaster and Duryea are the two guys and Yvonne De Carlo the doll who have them both itchy, which is probably playing with a flame-engulfed oil refinery when all three find themselves as participants in or accessories to an armored car robbery. The edge Lancaster has is previous marriage to De Carlo; they may have resumed arguing all the time, but both still have a mutual yen (a circumstance that disturbs his well-meaning mother, whose olfactory powers are apparently keen when it comes to trollops). Duryea’s edge is as a potential money source and, I suppose, a certain swagger that’s part of his makeup. Hard as it is to believe in terms of the 1950s Burt, the latter doesn’t display much of a toothy dimension and is, in fact, basically playing a chump. Albeit an almost laughably fit chump who looks as if he’s been bench-pressing the sadistic prison guard Hume Cronyn plays in Brute Force about 500 times daily.

After some wound-licking time away from after the divorce, Lancaster returns to his home in the old Bunker Hill area of L.A., whose location photography by the great Franz Planer is a monster plus here. He then returns to his old place of employment to become (uh, oh) an armored truck driver, which is probably not a good move when you’re also in need of fast cash to get your ex away from her new husband (yes, Duryea). One thing leads to another, including a memorably staged heist scene and a wrap-up that may match Detour’s for having the courage of its conditions.

Criss Cross reunited Lancaster with Robert Siodmak, who had directed him in his star-making Killers debut amid the supreme noir-ish run this cult filmmaker enjoyed, spanning roughly 1944-50 (though in terms of Lancaster, their decidedly un-noirish The Crimson Pirate collaboration was yet to come). De Carlo is especially good here, but then she was always underrated — and if you doubt this, ask yourself how many actors come off with their dignity fully intact in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. In this case, she projects a little vulnerability that crucially keeps her from coming off as totally evil (or, for that matter, overly obvious in her sexuality).

There’s also a major casting footnote: Criss Cross was also Tony Curtis’s screen debut via a wordless sequence (again, memorably staged) in which he dances with De Carlo — thus enabling this one to become the rare film noir to give major screen credit to a rhumba band (that of Esy Morales, who’d played with Xavier Cugat and died at 33 of a heart attack shortly thereafter). Curtis’ character name is “Gigolo” per the IMDb.com listing, which I suppose is more credible than “Antoninus” in Spartacus or anyone named Bulba (in this case, it was “Andrei”) in Taras Bulba. In any event, this bit apparently got Universal-International’s press department about a zillion letters wanting to know who this Mr. Wavy-Hair was, and on a dime the studio buildup mechanism got in motion by giving Curtis slightly larger parts in subsequent releases including the ultimate U-I reward: featured billing as an army captain in a Francis picture.

This splendorous release from France’s Elephant Films has been released as Pour toi j’ai tué, which my Googled French translates into For You, I Kill You — which does a better job of describing my relationship with a couple editors from my long past than Criss Cross’ does to portend the movie’s complex flashback structure. By any name, this is another of Elephant’s beautiful renderings of from Universal and Universal-controlled libraries, which include all but a handful of Paramount talkies from 1929 to 1949. Pricey two-fers — with, that is, bonus DVD inclusions — that do play on Region ‘A’ machines, they have only minimal extras (and in French, at that). But visually, the ones I’ve seen are of Criterion quality, and programmatically, they go places that most high-def distributors don’t. (Douglas Sirk anamorphics, anyone? Or how about One Hour with You and If I Had a Million, two just-out Paramounts from the early ’30s?

My visiting younger son walked in when I was watching Criss Cross on a 75-inch screen and asked, “What’s the matter with that black-and-white?” But before I could clobber him verbally, he then clarified with, “It looks so sharp — almost more like color.” Putting it another way, he was seeing black-and-white the way it’s supposed to look and how it was conceived; it’s just that b&w transferring has become such a specialized skill that only a handful of Blu-ray distributors (and this excludes even some good ones) have the skill to go the full route. Here’s one release that does, and oh, do some of those Bunker Hill exteriors look like pristine b&w glossy photos.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Next Stop, Greenwich Village’ and ‘Criss Cross’