The Rainmaker (1956)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Romance;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Katharine Hepburn, Wendell Corey, Lloyd Bridges, Cameron Prud’Homme, Earl Holliman, Wallace Ford, Yvonne Lime.

For a long time, it appeared as though The Rainmaker would remain unchecked on my list of films to see before dying. But if a studio is savvy enough to send me a Blu-ray, I’m sappy enough to review it. Why the decades of avoidance? I tend to favor movies told through the lens of a camera, not a typewriter or, worse, a proscenium arch. As a filmmaker, Joseph Anthony was an accomplished stage director. This was to be his first foray into motion pictures, and if the midnight blue construction paper sky that opens the picture is any indication, be on the lookout for a stagebound western that leaves one wishing male lead Burt Lancaster had thrown a chair through a painted flat to let in a breath of fresh air.

Lancaster delivers a one-note performance as Bill Starbuck, a charismatic traveling snake oil salesman working a drought-driven part of the Southwest who, in exchange for $100, promises the Curry family he’ll devote the next 24 hours to conjuring up a cats-and-dogs downpour of biblical proportions. Katherine Hepburn co-stars as Lizzie Curry, the town spinster whose father H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme) and two brothers, Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman), work overtime to marry her off to the best breeding stock their burgh has to offer. Deputy Sheriff J.S. File (Wendell Corey) is the pick of the litter, but there’s a problem: Rather than admitting that his first marriage ended in divorce, he tells the locals his ex is dead.

Lancaster preens while Hepburn burns. If I was uncertain of Anthony’s ability to command a feature, one thing was for sure: A little Hepburn in her ultra-virginal mode goes a long way. With the back of her wrist dramatically pressed to her forehead, she delivers a noisy “pay attention to me” performance, her pearl-clutching bursts of Bryn Mawr rah-rah spiked with enough “gollys” and “jeepers” to thicken (and sicken) the proceedings. Starchy spinsters like Lizzie and The African Queen’s Rose Sayer would eventually lead Hepburn down the decrepit path to Grace Quigley and Eula, the prig who put the “cog” in Rooster Cogburn.

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Working from his play, screenwriter N. Richard Nash whipped up a tsunami of obvious symbolism, starting with equating the drought and Lizzie’s barren lovelife. Lizzie can cook and sew, but there’s more to being a woman than that, something extra that doesn’t necessarily involve using the brain God gave her. The worst performances are those that allow an actor to draw attention to her/himself, and Hepburn’s Lizzie is more inflated than a self-basting turkey. Symbols begin clashing with clichés, and in quick time, Starbuck is letting the virgin’s hair down for her. Not surprisingly, the film’s most memorable moment takes place far outside Paramount’s Bronson Gate. It’s in a grassy field where Jim and his cute-as-a-button honey Snookie (Yvonne Lime) rig her red roadster to drive in circles while the young lovers partake in a brief but inventive backseat make out session. Of all the trips the film tried to take us on, this was the only one that proved necessary.

The special features include the trailer and a commentary track by Julie Kirgo that, like Anthony’s direction, devotes more time to the performances than visual storytelling.

 

Kino Lorber Sets Jan. 4 Disc Dates for Trio of 1940s Classics

Kino Lorber has added three classics from the 1940s to its Jan. 4 release slate. China, Golden Earrings and All My Sons will be released on Blu-ray Disc only under the Kino Lorber Studio Classics line.

China is a 1943 wartime drama from director John Farrow that stars Alan Ladd as an American gasoline salesman in 1941 China who supplies his wares to the highest bidder — in this case, the enemy Japanese. His unbiased business philosophy is tested on a trip to Shanghai when he meets an American schoolteacher (Loretta Young) and her Chinese students, who tell him of Japanese cruelty. In a surprise show of allegiance, he joins a band of Chinese guerrillas on a daring heist. The film set a Hollywood record of using 70 pounds of precious, rationed gunpowder.

Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.
 
Golden Earrings (1947) is an adventure film in which Marlene Dietrich plays a lusty gypsy. Escaping from the Nazis, British colonel Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) and his partner arrange to meet in Stuttgart to steal Hitler’s poison gas formula. On the journey, Denistoun meets Lydia (Dietrich), who keeps him out of harm’s way. Only with the help of the extraordinary gypsy woman can he finish the mission that will make him a hero in this tale of espionage and intrigue from Hollywood ace Mitchell Leisen, the director of Death Takes a Holiday, Hands Across the Table, Easy Living, Midnight, Arise, My Love and No Time for Love.

Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle.

All My Sons (1948) is a drama based on the work of acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller and stars Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster. The film is a wartime tragedy of a family torn apart and forced to come to terms with their inner demons. Chris Keller (Lancaster) returns home from war with news of his impending engagement to Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), the fiancée of his missing-in-action and presumed-dead brother. As the ghosts of the past creep back into the Keller home, Chris’s father (Robinson) makes a stunning and painful revelation that will change the family forever. Directed by Irving Reis and shot by Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), the film has been hailed as unforgettable tale of moral dilemmas.

Bonus features include a new 2K master and a new audio commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Lee Gambin.

Local Hero

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Comedy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Peter Reigert, Burt Lancaster, Denis Lawson, Jenny Seagrove.

Better than any movie of its era, Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero comes closest to pulling off full-fledged whimsy — or at least, that’s what I thought in 1983 and up to about a week ago. But now, I can assert my huzzah without qualification because time indeed has been kind, and this deserving (but, to me, somewhat unexpected) Criterion release now seems like feel-good perfection without need of any “closest to” stuff.

Of course, as is noted in one of this release’s accompanying supplements (which are, as DVD Beaver’s Garry Tooze likes to say, “stacked”), there was some financial resistance to green-lighting this Houston-to-Scotland dose of chuckle bait at the time because everyone in it is so likable — the implication being that without anyone for audiences to hate, no one would come. Now, there’s a telling commentary for you on something, and one wonders if this would still apply to mass taste in 2019. Whatever the case, even this comedy’s potential villain — a CEO played by Burt Lancaster whose deep pockets want to turn a Scottish village into an oil refinery — is hard not to like. Part of this is due to the character’s compensating virtues and some is due to Lancaster’s trademark spectacular charisma, even in, as here, business attire.

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Still basking a little in residual ensemble glory for his role in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Peter Riegert turned out to be a felicitously droll choice to play the ambitious company exec that Lancaster picks to negotiate the deal. Riegert’s assignment is due to the fact that with “MacIntyre” as his character’s last name, Lancaster’s assumption is that this guy must be Scottish, though it turns out that this was just another case of immigrant name-mangling when the former’s Hungarian ancestors came to America. No matter: Lancaster’s “Felix Happer” — how can any audience dislike a Felix? — keeps failing to recognize his underling on subsequent meet-ups, even though the two have shared a passionate conversation (at least on the boss’s side) about this corporate giant’s overriding passion: astronomy.

The central joke here is that the Scottish locals are assumed to be financial patsies when, in fact, they can probably negotiate a deal as well as Hollywood’s old-school finest could (think Lew Wasserman or Swifty Lazar). This is less a case of villager veins getting a fresh infusion of ice cubes every morning than of this supposedly unassuming populace being set in ways that sometimes stretch back centuries if you factor in inherited land holdings. On the other hand, the populace isn’t so adverse to change that enough green might not make them reconsider. There is one key holdout: He lives in a ramshackle pile of something that doesn’t even have a front door, so to gain entrance, visitors have to climb in through a window. In other words, he’s not exactly motivated by money.

A good filmmaker might come up with one idiosyncratic writing or directing “ping” to enhance a scene, but writer-director Forsyth, who at the time was coming off the sleeper success Gregory’s Girl, floods us with as many as Robert Altman did. They can come out of anywhere: hilariously set-up gags about the degree to which the Scottish point-person played by Denis Lawson turns out to be a professional jack-of-all trades; a humble village dance (guys playing the fiddle and all that) where a punker stands out as much as Pavarotti would have; divulgence of the true biological identity of a dreamboat marine researcher played by Jenny Seagrove; Lawson’s pragmatic or lackadaisical approach (take your pick) to wedded bliss when every negotiating tool is in play; and the escalating extremes in the actions of a certifiable nut job that Lancaster has hired to insult and even humiliate him at work. The last is likely over Felix’s inadequacies over having inherited the family business, which kept from marrying and otherwise fulfilling his own potential.

Local Hero has a couple secret weapons. One is the unbeatable score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, which captures both the comedy and the strain of melancholy that runs through the movie (Riegert’s character is lonely, too). To my surprise, because the score has a cult, it’s the one major component not really covered in the bonus section, though Fortsyth’s voiceover (with film critic Mark Kermode, who asks really good questions) does go on about Knopfler’s contribution at one point.

The other is the almost incalculable contribution of Chris Menges, who within four years of Hero’s release would win two cinematography Oscars (The Killing Field and The Mission). Usually, with whimsical screen material, one expects the premise, dialogue, comic situations and a deep bench of supporting players to carry the load. To be sure, all of that happens here, but this is also a movie laced by an underlying sadness, as well as one that deals substantially with the pull of the universe: bigger game, though it wouldn’t think of rubbing our noses in it. The imagery here is frequently thrilling and that’s not too strong a word. Menges even manages to elicit a substantial emotional kick from the manner in which he frames and lights a phone booth, which Criterion appreciated enough to make the structure the centerpiece of its cover art.

Menges rates his own nearly hourlong documentary in the bonus section, dealing with earlier works, which is instructional because they deal with films not widely known. My favorite extra, along with the Forsyth-Kermode voiceover, is a primer with how the picture came to be from inception through the ad campaign — an unusually specific fly-on-the-wall chronicle (Hero producer David Puttnam makes his one major appearance in this section) for which I can remember few screen precedents. As I keep asking with nearly every look at a Criterion release: How do the company’s sleuths keep finding the mausoleums where this stuff is buried? In this case, a lot of the material comes from the archives of Scottish TV.

One thing that wasn’t a factor in 1983 was the existence of You’ve Been Trumped, a 2001 documentary that everyone should have seen pre-election. With Forsyth’s fiction replaced by fact, though with meanness subbing for ultimate decency, it tells how Donald Trump high-pressured Scottish locals who wouldn’t sell him their land by turning the off their water as stacks of unwashed dishes piled up in their sinks. All so that he could build another of his golf courses for fat-cats and, presumably himself when he needed a spare place to shoot his standard 212 on the first nine holes before rewriting his scorecard.

Seeing Hero again made me long for the years when I programmed the AFI Theater because here was a dream double bill plunked in front of me. Just about the time I was congratulating my brainstorm after making the connection between the documentary and Forsyth’s more life-affiriming riff, my self-admiration was dashed upon hearing Forsyth and Kermode make the link themselves. The two thoroughly destroyed my thunder with a wink, the way the Scots do to do Big Oil here.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Local Hero’ and ‘Whirlpool’

Desert Fury

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lizbeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, Mary Astor.

Sometime in the past month (on a Facebook posting, pretty sure), the Hal Wallis-produced Desert Fury got categorized as “the gayest” of all film noir. Of course, I’d be derelict in duty overlooking those joy-boy hitmen that Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play in Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo — yet the point is well taken here whenever John Hodiak and Wendell Corey get into messy housecleaning discussions in the rustic Nevada cabin they share (though it’s 1947 Hollywood, so they sleep on separate floors). Fury also has a mother-daughter relationship between Mary Astor and Lizbeth Scott that’s a little strange even at its best, but one thing at a time. Meanwhile, and of all people, Burt Lancaster gets stuck in a cop uniform, usually the utmost in marquee anonymity.

The revisionist word has gotten around on this once critically drubbed Technicolor potboiler, though it’s a movie I’ve always liked since catching it as a young teen on the late, late show around 1961 or so. Paramount, in fact, had even re-issued it nationally in 1959, probably because it was in color and because Lancaster was at the top of his box office game; I remember that it played downtown at one of my local movie palaces (the Loew’s Broad) billed under Fess Parker in The Jayhawkers! and then worked its way out to neighborhood theaters. By then, the so-called youth audience probably knew Scott and Corey for the last movie both made to fulfill their long-standing Wallis contracts: as the music promoters who “sell” Elvis Presley’s character in Loving You (the movie that first sold Dolores Hart to me).

Scott, about 24 here, plays a headstrong school college dropout of 19 who returns home to rural Nevada, where mom Astor runs a Western-themed casino that rolls her in dough but buys no social standing for a daughter who’s shunned by local mucky-mucks (or as mucky-muck as you can be in a flannel-shirt community). Gambler Hodiak and Corey blow into town, where the former’s Scott-lookalike wife was previously killed in an auto mishap — though it turns out that Hodiak and then married Astor also had some history “back East” (Eastern corruption of the Western U.S. in a sub-theme here). Meanwhile, in what looks like an attempt by Fury’s sporadically great screenwriter Robert Rossen to flesh out Lancaster’s role, our local lawman is a former rodeo performer trying to come back from an injury, which at least allows a frequently indoor movie to get out and take a whiff of rural air sans casino cigarette smoke.

Scott develops a yen for Hodiak, which a) tramples on Corey’s own happily-ever-after fantasies; and b) unleashes an Astor competitive streak (not that she needs another one) with a daughter she’s already smothering. For his part, Lancaster ultimately isn’t above a little symbolic bomb-throwing himself when it comes to messing up this fling. Spending more time in his cruise car that Broderick Crawford did on any three episodes of Highway Patrol, he always seems to be pulling someone over on specious grounds, and it’s usually Scott.

The movie is heavier than it needs to be on people standing around and talking to each other, though, to be sure, the talk can be stinging. But the electric three-strip Technicolor and the attendant decor go along way toward carrying the movie and its notably twisted subtext before we get to some brutal action at a roadside eatery in the final reel. A further plus is a Miklos Rosza score from that early film noir period of his, back before he became to the go-to guy to pump up footage of Charlton Heston scratching his loincloth (more or less). So is Desert Fury even noir, despite the Technicolor? Well, Niagara is and Leave Her to Heaven probably is, though not many examples abounded until the modern screen era’s occasional forays into the genre when color was commercially mandated (if Taxi Driver isn’t noir, I’ll buy you a new hat, as my mother used to say). By this token, Fury likely is noir, in that it has “dangerous” women, a casino backdrop, a wide underbelly of moral corruption and a certain jaded attitude toward life despite the script’s hint at climatic happiness that rings a tad hollow.

The bonus commentary is another exceptional one by Imogen Sara Smith — and for a film very much in the wheelhouse of a film historian who wrote In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, a book I recently bought for Kindle reading to satisfy a New Year’s resolution. Typically, I learned a lot from her — from the ways Edith Head’s wardrobe contributions service the mood of each scene to Smith hitting me with the realization (well, actually they’re more like non-threatening nudges) that nearly all of Lancaster’s early screen appearances were in noir. Speaking of performances, Corey’s screen debut here may be the best role he ever had, though I’ve always enjoyed the personal spin he put on a potentially thankless role as James Stewart’s buddy in Rear Window. As for Astor, this is for me the role of her career and one that definitely merited a nomination, though the film didn’t get the kind of reviews to get the Academy’s attention. Bosley Crowther of the Times was among those who missed the boat (not that that would have ever stopped anyone’s presses).

Lewis Allen directed, and I always thought him somewhat underrated: The Uninvited (sublime), So Evil My Love, Appointment With Danger (with Alan Ladd “dropping” Jack Webb on the handball court), Frank Sinatra’s blistering Suddenly! and some long-unseens (including The Unseen, come to think) that I suspect may have a little something as well.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Desert Fury’ and ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’

Trapeze

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/25/18;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez.

Though Burt Lancaster eventually finessed the transition into senior emeritus status as skillfully as any actor who comes to mind, he and Tony Curtis were close to their irresistibly youthful peaks when they teamed up for Trapeze, the box-office chances of which were already tableset with the kind of title that looked irresistible on a marquee. To be sure, this onetime circus performer, who not long before had rewritten the book on screen gymnastics with The Crimson Pirate, was already past 40 when his production company took on this transparent labor of love. But no matter. Lancaster still looks here as if he could easily benchpress even portly Thomas Gomez, who plays the picture’s circus owner.

For that matter, Gina Lollobrigida, who shares top billing, doesn’t exactly look out of shape in her skimpy costume, though she’s more successful dressing up the poster art than struggling with English whenever her character is agitated — her perpetual state when so much (and too much) of the drama is driven by a love triangle.

Even so, Trapeze was a big deal at the time for boomer kids who wanted to see real stars (and not always their stunt-folk) photographed way up high, back when (Disney aside), there was only minimal distinction between adult and kids’ Hollywood fare. It was one of the three top box office draws of 1956, a very good movie year, and commercially hefty enough to play three weeks solo at one of my local downtown palaces, including one of them over the July 4 weekend. And sometime in the give-or-take early ’60s, United Artists even re-released it in a killer double bill with 1958’s The Vikings, which even could have made guys coming up for air in the local drive-in passion pit look at the screen at least once in a while. (This pairing would have made the aggregate tally here a pair of Tony’s, one Burt, one Kirk, profile shots of Janet Leigh and the sight of Ernest Borgnine doing a cannonball into a pit of wolves — that’s entertainment!).

Now, is Trapeze actually a good movie? Well, IMDb.com notes that Pauline Kael dug the star power (check) and Robert Krasker’s camera work (check), while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther (a reviewer I don’t usually quote) called the dialogue “dull and hackneyed” (check; good work, Bos, though this is much truer in the romantic scenes ). Kael also liked Carol Reed’s direction, and I will say that he and Krasker really do pack the CinemaScope frame with detail and circus “business” — working, in the process, a few magician’s diversions on the eye to make us think that the actors are doing more of their own stunts than they are. Then again, and depending on how you feel about 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings (a half-naturalistic color fantasy I personally love), Trapeze is really the dividing line for Reed. Though more successful than not, it was, up till then, his one relatively weak movie of the postwar era. After this, he fell off his Fallen IdolThird Man throne for the remainder of his career — the sole exception being the glorious oasis of Oliver!, a best picture Oscar winner and one of my favorite movies of all time.

Despite all the illusionary glitz (the spectacle doesn’t exactly extend to the performers’ spartan living conditions), the Trapeze story basics aren’t complicated. With circus aspirations in his blood, Curtis journeys from Brooklyn to Paris because he wants to learn how to perform the dangerous and super-specialized “triple” — which in trapeze terms is just what it sounds like. Once-famous Lancaster now works as a rigger in a Paris circus — no longer able to perform, other than maybe catching a healthy flier, after having taken a terrible bounce in the movie’s opening scene while attempting a triple himself. After initial reluctance, Lancaster agrees to act as teacher, leading to a flier act that decorative Lollobrigida would like to crash — though she seems a little taken aback upon learning that she might have to develop at least cursory high-wire skills. To scheme her way in, she shafts her old partners while strutting her stuff and wedging herself between the equally smitten Lancaster and Curtis. The hetero jealousy angle really grinds the movie down, though there’ll inevitably be some who see some gay subtext in the guys’ dynamics — a subject that bonus commentator Kat Ellinger accordingly examines in a very strong commentary, especially since the Lancaster character was gay in the Max Catto novel. My own opine on this is just as a country boy myself, though by 1956, my 9-year-old self was reading the Police Gazette in the barber shop. Most of what really puts the movie over are the far more kinetic scenes where the mechanics of flying are explained.

In 2014, Germany’s Concorde Video put out a Region ‘B’ Trapeze Blu-ray that I would have ordered at the time but for reviews that were consistently awful — so much so that they’ve stood out in my memory ever since. The hope was that this new Kino Lorber salvo would rectify these problems, but what we get must be (guessing here) a moderately polished-up version from the same inadequate ancient master — a Blu-ray oddity in that almost every other color United Artists release I’ve seen from this era has looked acceptable or better in home renderings. Though some of the non-big-top scenes do look a lot better than some of the panoramic stuff within the tent, the dribbly color takes a lot away from some very keen Reed-Krasker CinemaScope framing (this was Reed’s first widescreen effort) and doesn’t do Lollobrigida’s makeup any favors. She looks almost incomparably better in MGM’s Never So Few (see below), which came out four years later.

For all my reservations about Trapeze, I rarely resist giving it repeat glances or even more — undoubtedly due in part to personal nostalgia (I saw it at the time at a Saturday matinee; what could be better?) but also because of the no longer common “guy” star power on exhibit here. Home studio Universal-International had loaned out contract player Curtis twice before for Houdini and Beachhead, but the latter had cast him with Frank Lovejoy, which was not the means by which to afford Malibu domiciles or jumbo prawns anytime you wanted them. Trapeze, though, was the big leagues, and just a year later, Curtis would be back with Lancaster again in Sweet Smell of Success — a flop at the time but a Real Deal masterpiece, and in the long run, how many actors have had their historical standing imperiled by one of those?

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

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’