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

House by the River

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt, Dorothy Patrick.
1950.
When a gothic late 19th-century murder melodrama is titled House by the River, it can really get off on the wrong foot if the river itself doesn’t look very sinister when it predictably provides the backdrop to the opening credits.
Extras: Australian academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a commentary.
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Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)

All-Region French Import
Elephant, Drama, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.
1943.
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, Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Billy Wilder directed.
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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”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

The Tall Men

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell.
1955.
A substantial hit in its day that made Clark Gable give a damn because he took a percentage deal against his already meaty salary, The Tall Men is a combination cattle drive drama/wagon train epic with a long stop-off in San Antonio.
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There’s Always Tomorrow (Demain est un autre jour)

All-Region French Import
Elephant, Drama, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD, NR.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett.
1955.
Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow had been previously filmed under the same title in the 1930s, but it couldn’t have offered the same trenchant observations of what at times can be maddeningly rigid suburbia that distinguish one of the most unjustly overlooked and certainly underrated Hollywood movies of its decade.
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There’s Always Tomorrow (Demain est un autre jour)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$39.99 Blu-ray/DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett.

Douglas Sirk’s 1955 entry There’s Always Tomorrow had been previously filmed under the same title in the 1930s, but it couldn’t have offered the same trenchant observations of what at times can be maddeningly rigid suburbia — see also All That Heaven Allows — that distinguish one of the most unjustly overlooked and certainly underrated Hollywood movies of its decade. Other than the fact that it’s in black-and-white during what was mostly Sirk’s color heyday (two more near-masterpieces excepted), any trained eye could correctly guess Tomorrow’s director in a nanosecond — but this said, the movie marches into places that others do not, or at least any movies I can recall.

For one thing, it’s a romantic weeper with a long-suffering protagonist who’s now in middle age, and yet, in this case, we’re talking about a guy. For another, it broaches what is often a very uncomfortable and equally unspoken truth: That children, when you add them to necessary work pressures, are deterrents and maybe even roadblocks to sustaining romance. That’s a tough one from which the picture never flinches.

As ever, Fred MacMurray’s acting style was generally that of a walking arched eyebrow, which is no knock because he could do surprisingly expressive things with it. It could convey misplaced eagerness about to be foiled (Murder, He Says); amused cynicism (The Caine Mutiny); or sinister intentions under a smooth veneer (the two Billy Wilder all-timers, Double Indemnity and The Apartment). In this case, the eyebrow is in recession or even more subtlety employed, conveying a MacMurray character as one sometimes slow to size up a situation before finally understanding better than anyone once it fully registers.

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In this case, the actor plays an L.A. toy manufacturer (robots are about to be big) who begins to realize there’s a pattern to the fact that his devoted wife (Joan Bennett) can never spend any private time with him, be it theater outings or getaway weekends at some local paradise on the water. Taken individually, the excuses are legitimate, but again, there is a pattern. The middle-daughter (Gigi Perreau, who’d worked with both MacMurray and Sirk as a child actress) is preoccupied with piano recitals. The younger one (Judy Nugent) is all dance programs, and now she’s sprained her leg. Both require mom’s undivided attention, so maybe it’s a blessing that the oldest child (William Reynolds) needs no outside help to be such a Butch Waxed dunce — albeit one with a head-on-straight squeeze (Pat Crowley, making something of what might been a throwaway role). You knew his type if you were around in the era: A guy who checks to make sure that Crowley will be wearing his Kappa Tau Gamma pin and, one speculates, likely grooming himself as the head of “Pasadena Youth for Nixon” in the 1960 election. Were the character still alive today, he’d probably have just wangled his way into seeing Ed Meese somehow get the Presidential Medal of Freedom a couple weeks ago.

And then, literally at the front door, appears an old work associate and onetime acquaintance (Barbara Stanwyck) who is now a highly successful New York fashion designer getting the lay of the land for a possible expansion to Los Angeles. Fred’s in an apron because everyone else is out doing something (typical), so he asks Stanwyck if she’d like them to take advantage of his unused theater tickets. They do, which leads to subsequent innocent meet-ups that are misinterpreted by pouty Reynolds to be something a lot more, which causes a lot of unspoken tension in the household and then a rude dinner at home that is humiliating for everyone, other than perhaps unflappable Bennett, who can be kind of a “what, me worry?” type. And then, suddenly … it’s all not so innocent.

No matter how aged she got to be, Stanwyck always had it — so on full career-length balance, she’s my favorite actress of all time, though eventually, my heart could not resist being overwhelmed by Audrey Hepburn nor my hormones Grace Kelly. Stanwyck has a great standout scene here that I’ve never forgotten tearing into the two older children; I also think that Sirk gets something out of MacMurray that no one else ever got, even in the finales of Double Indemnity and Pushover, and that’s truly abject pain that rates one or two powerful close-ups. Some think the film’s final 30 seconds or so tack on an upbeat ending as so many ’50s movies did, but I don’t read it that way. However you cut it, the move makes it challenging to look at era suburban sitcoms about perfect families (white, of course) in quite the same way. Growing up, most of my buds fantasized about being the gas man lucking into quickies with either Donna Reed or Shelley Fabares while their husband/father Carl Betz was shaking down kids’ thermometers at the clinic — or son/brother Paul Petersen was out somewhere asking Don Drysdale to show him how to “dust” batters. But we were a frivolous bunch, and this is serious stuff

The Blu-ray here is another from France’s now extended Sirk Universal catalog made available by Elephant Films that’s close to complete (though let’s have Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, please). Given Kino Classics’ current and welcomely promiscuous flood of releases from the ’50s Universal library, maybe Tomorrow will rate a domestic version soon or eventually. But one is never sure, and Tomorrow is such a personal pet of mine that I didn’t even try to score a screener but immediately shelled out my own bucks. And not because Amazon needed the money.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

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

The Heroes of Telemark

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.
1966.
This movie about resistance fighters in Norway plotting to destroy the Nazi program to develop heavy water for an atomic bomb plays out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Anthony Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes.
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Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

All-Region Import
Elephant Films, Adventure, $45 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.
1942.
A seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist, Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind 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.
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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’