King Creole

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray:
Not rated.
Stars Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones,Walter Matthau, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger.  

Well known to even cursory fans as Elvis Presley’s fourth and final film before Uncle Sam got him — and also, in the opinion of many, his best film — 1958’s King Creole was, like three of his four pre-army screen outings, shot in black-and-white. But there was nothing stingy about the production, and the New Orleans locales that producer Hal Wallis sprung for add immeasurably to the ambience right from the opening, synching beautifully with the studio-shot material that makes up the bulk of the drama. A lot of writers claim that KC is in VistaVision as you’d expect a Paramount realease of that time to be, but neither posters nor the on-screen credits say this, nor does it look like VistaVision to my eyes. It does, though, boast a first-rate cinematographer, Russell Harlan (Red River and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of many shot by him).

One of several seemingly endless projects intended for James Dean and taken over by other actors upon his death, Elvis’s character was changed to a busboy-turned-nightclub-singer caught between competing owners and two very different women. Of the latter, Carolyn Jones — heavily into that “kookie” phase that defined her entire career — is a bag of neuroses as mistress to the drunken nasty one of the two club rivals (Walter Matthau in one of the best of his early movie roles). The other woman is a dreamboat “nice girl” played by Dolores Hart, still my absolute favorite of that era’s newcomers, lover of porcelain beauty that I am. Working the counter at a local five-and-dime, she seems surprisingly OK with wanting to date Elvis, even though she’s the one employee who picks up on the fact that his singing-troubadour stroll through the store for the customer’s enjoyment is in reality an planned distraction so that his so-called colleagues ran rifle the joint.

Ahhhhhh, Sister Dolores, who is what Hart became after leaving Hollywood to become a nun in the early ’60s, but that’s for another time. Other than to note that this was the second time she’d performed heart-melting labors in an Elvis pic, following the previous year’s Loving You (which, by the way, is in VistaVision and badly needs a restoration.)

Elvis has, as they used to say, “fallen in with a bad lot” — partly in response to his proclivity for being forbidden from graduating from high school (this time, he pops a guy on school grounds before the very last day of classes). And partly in response to the lifelong wimp-dom of his pharmacist father (Dean Jagger), which was exacerbated by the death of the Elvis character’s mother, which led to the loss of the old man’s pharmacy and his worsening life reality of taking the worst kind of guff from everyone. (Including his new boss, something that Elvis covertly witnesses. This is after dad preaches unyielding adherence to the idea of graduation from school in lieu of the much bigger bucks his son can make headlining as a singer. Elvis sees how far that got him.

Of course, he’s hardly a headliner right off the bat and has to take patronizing guff himself of the kind busboys sometimes endure — until, in standard showbiz movie fashion, Matthau tries to humiliate him by asking him to sing for the customers, whereupon he’s a smash. At this point, what has been a straight drama becomes a drama with lots of music — too much for my taste, given that the score has its share of clunkers. Oddly, the tune that RCA Victor elected to release as an RCA Victor single — “Hard Headed Woman” (b/w “Don’t Leave Me Now”) is totally thrown away, though it went to No. 1, as did the soundtrack LP. Of course, this isn’t to say that winners don’t abound as well, including the title tune, also “Trouble” (which he reprised to kick off his 1968 comeback TV special), and “As Long As I Have You,” one his best ballads ever, which contributes to one of the most emotionally satisfying movie wrap-ups I know.

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Man, no wonder this is Elvis’ longest picture because his sister is falling for Matthau’s owner rival (Paul Stewart) despite a 20-year age difference (I love it that no one in those days, morals police or otherwise, gave a damn). To say nothing of mistress Jones going off the rails increasingly by minute, Matthau now trying to pimp her out, a needless production number by Liliane Montevecci, whose big-screen appeal I never got, and Elvis’s punk buddies (led by a very young-looking Vic Morrow) back in the alley with weaponized broken bottles trying to reengage him in crime. Maybe this is an argument for staying in school, but the money is suddenly good.

Directing this is veteran onetime superstar Michael Curtiz, whose career kind of fell apart after the collapse of the studio system, but he did manage White Christmas, this semi-ringer and my very soft spot for swan song The Comancheros, but by that time Curtiz was dying, and star John Wayne reportedly took over as director. Elvis responded with enthusiasm to having a name filmmaker, and both the star’s smirkily amused reactions to Jones’s machinations and reciprocated affection are credible. As natural as Elvis’s raw talent was, I doubt if frequent director and career-long albatross Norman Taurog could have gotten nearly as much out of him.

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For the launch of “Paramount Presents,” its sparse so-called Blu-ray “line,” Paramount has employed my old bud Leonard Maltin to give about a seven-minute overview — a pro job, obviously, but hardly an example of hoopla. He opines himself that this is Elvis’ best movie, but by a sliver-and-a-half, I think I’ll go with the second movie he made back from the army (Don Siegel’s Flaming Star), which was a commercial flop but tighter.

King Creole was Elvis’s only predominantly serious drama to catch on and sent him off to the army with great screen promise that Colonel Parker ultimately wouldn’t let him fulfill upon his return.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

X … the Unknown

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Guns

Director Samuel Fuller’s action-packed Western features Barbara Stanwyck doing her own stunts as a ruthless landowner seeking to keep her drunken brother out of trouble when lawmen ride into town in search of a gunman under her employ.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Western;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry.

20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck understandably wouldn’t let Samuel Fuller employ Woman With a Whip as a title for his sometimes gonzo 1957 Western (pause here to absorb this). And then there’s Fuller’s later assertion that queen-of-the-lot Marilyn Monroe herself was interested in the movie’s lead role. One can envision such a mind-expanding combo adding a couple million to the grosses via resourceful counter-programming against a year that also gave us Universal-International’s Tammy and the Bachelor — but wait. Fuller ended up doing more than well enough with what came to be known as Forty Guns, with Barbara Stanwyck establishing quite the physically active on-screen presence once she signed on — and at age 50 at that. Now, a half-century later, here it is getting Criterion treatment.

Per usual when it comes to Fuller, the result can be a matter of taste even for those favorably disposed to this producer-writer-director-auteur. And this was so from the very beginning of an entire career of movies that forewent standard editing rhythms to become a succession of high points (which can be exhilarating for some and numbing for others). There was also the filmmaker’s predilection toward the risible, as in Guns’ roving troubadour who strums his guitar down dusty streets to sing about both the story-central woman and her whip. Well, it was ’57, and guitars were everywhere this side of Eisenhower’s Cabinet.

Fortunately, Fuller opens with a gorgeously shot caravan of lickety-split horses racing across a plain — photographed by Joseph Biroc in black-and-white CinemaScope (if you long for color here, you are not a movie person). In other words, we’re off — and, beyond that, are soon made to realize that all this land serving as the horses’ racetrack is owned by Stanwyck, who built her spread from nothing by a lot of ruthless chicanery that made it tough for her to find a lover who could compete. An added distraction has been her apparently futile attempts to maintain the hide of her drunken, shoot-em-up younger brother played by John Ericson — casting that almost makes you wonder if Cameron Mitchell was on vacation, though the role isn’t totally unlike Ericson’s in Bad Day at Black Rock except for his boozily malevolent streak. As for Stanwyck, her vengeful Western toughness here harkens back to her star turn in Anthony Mann’s even better The Furies (1950), which Criterion released as well in a deluxe DVD set but has not upgraded to Blu-ray.

Into all this rides Barry Sullivan and two brothers, including one played by Gene Barry, who only rates fifth billing here despite having just had the lead in Fuller’s China Gate. They more or less become the surrounding town’s reluctant “Law” — especially given that a going-blind marshal (The Searchers’ Hank Worden) is dispatched for good early on and the compromised sheriff (Dean Jagger) isn’t much help, either. Jagger does try taking Ericson to the woodshed on occasion, but he’s hamstrung due to his yen for Stanwyck, who has apparently given him a tumble somewhere going the way. It’s a relationship that almost anyone can see just wasn’t going to take. What’s more, Jagger knows where too many of Stanwyck’s bodies are buried; think Michael Cohen with less hair.

A long tornado sequence in the middle of the picture is Fuller at his best, and even with effects wizard Linwood Dunn’s usual magic, we can see that real-life horsewoman Stanwyck is doing her own stunts, which do not look un-strenuous by a long shot (or in close-up, for that matter). Given Fuller, the action never lets up, and the casualty rate threatens to reach Hamlet extremes — or, to keep it more in the gonzo feminist Western vernacular, maybe Johnny Guitar’s. The climax here is pretty wild-ass even in this final-release version, which Zanuck forced Fuller to water down because the sales department wouldn’t have been able to market the picture were it as brutal as intended (I can just see the stampede of ’49 Plymouths huffing their way out of drive-ins).

The movie runs only 80 minutes (about right), but that’s less than half of what Criterion has to offer. Also included is the slightly longer 2013 documentary (A Fuller Life) that daughter Samantha Fuller put together, in which former friends and associates (Constance Towers to Wim Wenders to Mark Hamill) read from the filmmaker’s memoirs. It’s a surprisingly effective way to go, but, then again, maybe not all that much so — given that the words are punctuated by dramatic home movies that the senior Fuller shot over his life, in particular the ones from his extraordinary wartime service. Few or no one had seen these because they were tucked away in the shed of archives that survived him, which is either disorganized or substantially organized disarray, depending on when we see it. This is also the setting of an additional bonus interview with Samantha and widow Christa Lang Fuller, who are good at re-enforcing each other’s memories.

Essays are bountiful, including a print essay by film historian Lisa Dombrowski, author of The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You.” Also included — and I’ve noticed the Criterion discs that Susan Arosteguy produces really storm the barricades in terms of production values — is a roughly half-hour sit-down with one of my faves (Imogen Sara Smith), who makes it all look natural and easy in an organized and well-crafted riff on Fuller and Western genre conventions in general. And synched up to the feature on an alternate soundtrack is a 1969 appearance at London’s National Film Theatre by Fuller himself, who seems to love giving 15-minute answers to questions. You just know that he had to have been an interviewer’s dream.

Forty Guns

Mike’s Picks: ‘Forty Guns’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’