The Wild Heart/Gone to Earth


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, David Farrar, Cyril Cusack.

One movie, two edits and three strikes on David O. Selznick, if you ask me.

Kino Classics’ cover art trumpets The Wild Heart, but the perpetually snakebitten Gone to Earth (indisputably the main event here) continues its sorry history by being relegated to adjacent fine print on the same jacket — that is, as a so-called bonus offering. None of this should obscure the fact that we’re looking at a standout Blu-ray release and one I hope to rewatch plural times. But in a word … man. Maybe some sort of contractural obligation mandated this.

In any event, headlining Heart is the universally regarded lesser cut of the most underrated achievement from the great British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Michael Pressburger — a period melodrama about flaunted adultery that has had to settle for cult status that one suspects is as feverish as its protagonist. And how did 1950’s Earth (in other countries) become 1952’s Heart over here? It was when the editing knife of and ordered reshoots by U.S. distributor Selznick gutted the original cut of nuance so that the Mayberry demographic could understand it better. There’s even a slapped-on opening narration by Joseph Cotten that “Tells Us What We’re About to See” (and I say this as one who could listen to Cotten reading schedule changes at the Cleveland bus station). Selznick’s take further built up the lead performance by his real-life wife Jennifer Jones with more closeups and emphasized footage. This after she’d already delivered one her best performances in the first place.

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Adapted from a 1917 novel by Mary Webb and set near the end of the 19th century in the gorgeously rural Shropshire countryside not too far from Wales, Earth was the most successful of screen attempts to give Jones more of an on-screen sexual dimension. The P&P execution of this is much less blatant than it was in two films Jones made with director King Vidor (Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry) amid that filmmaker’s so-called “hysterical period,” which also produced Beyond the Forest and The Fountainhead. Basically, Jones’s character here is a naive coffin maker’s daughter and occasional reader of gypsy literature who’s torn between wanting respectability in the community and satisfying normal sexual needs that seem anything but to her oppressively dull Methodist neighbors. On the other hand, Jones does pull off a reckless whopper or two when it comes to behavior. If Selznick’s aborted version gets one thing right, it’s that she really does have a wild heart, albeit one that becomes much more tender when it comes to her pet fox (“Foxy”), which becomes a major plot point. (In the revamped Heart, the fox is visibly stuffed in one key scene, which just doesn’t help anybody.)

This wild dimension is enough to attract a swaggering squire played by David Farrar, a P&P favorite who was also memorable in my favorite of the team’s pairings: Black Narcissus. This guy is not a good dude, which is something apparently well known to the locals — inclined to take whatever he wants no matter the collateral damage. He also partakes enthusiastically in fox hunts, which you can see might lead to no good. But he’s a dashing guy with means (one can see Farrar playing a highwayman in a different kind of period romance), cuts a good figure, and the reciprocated itch he has for Jones is real, even if love is probably beyond his capabilities. Unfortunately, Jones — who respectively juggles physical and spiritual love between two contenders — is first betrothed and then wed to the village’s new minister (Cyril Cusack, looking much, much younger than in his ’60s supporting-actor heyday of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Fahrenheit 451). Not that any of this prevents her from acting on her impulses.

I can’t think of many movies that more adeptly mine the tension between the beauty and the brutality of its landscapes, though footage emphasizing the physical milieu is one of the cut version’s key casualties. Credit cinematographer Christopher Challis, who began collaborating with P&P in 1949 and then into the ’50s. Up to this time, Jack Cardiff had been the director of photography most associated with the team’s deliriously expressive Technicolor achievements, culminating in 1948’s The Red Shoes (Challis had been his camera operator). Many regard Cardiff as the greatest color cinematographer ever, but it’s as if he simply handed the baton or threw a lateral pass directly to Challis, who finesses Earth into a visual piece with Cardiff’s work on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and Shoes (Georges Perinal shot The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). It’s inconceivable to me that anyone who loves the overheated emotions of Narcissus and Shoes (and I mean that affectionately) wouldn’t respond enthusiasm to Earth, even though it is not nearly as well known and is, in fact, fairly obscure.

The Blu-ray has two highly compatible commentaries, one for each version. Troy Howarth is far more sanguine than I’d ever be giving the re-edited Heart its due, but he’s an encyclopedia on stars, crew and the ins-and-outs of the second version’s editing process. Speaking over Earth, Samm Deighan designates several preceding P&P titles as close or distant kin to Earth — in particular, 1944’s A Canterbury Tale, which would not have been an obvious guess for me. Deighan’s ambitious analysis is unusual because she alternates between being starchy and (more frequently) chummy, sometimes practically in the same sentence. There’s a lot of depth here, and Deighan seems extremely well versed in the period literary traditions from which this movie springs. Though I disagree with her that Selznick was basically good for Jones’s career. Given the number of times she seemed to be miscast, I think he severely harmed it, especially in later years.

Having both versions here turns the package into an instructive classroom exercise on how to turn a gorgeous grabber into not so much a disaster as a dispiriting shrug-off whose plot points at least “play out” in similar fashion (assuming that’s all you want from a film). The contrast brings to mind  the advice one film critic (I think it was David Edelstein) gave regarding the theatrically released vs. longer expanded DVD edit of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which was maybe the most written about but least seen great or near-great movie of the 2000-09 decade: Which was that viewers could now begin using the shorter version as a drink coaster. You can’t literally do this here because both versions are on the same disc, but you get my drift.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

Beat the Devil


Available via;
Twilight Time;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley.

As one of screen history’s most ticklish of  answers to that oft-asked question, “What did you do on your vacation?”, John Huston’s artfully ramshackle Beat the Devil is propelled by one its era’s most memorable displays of loopy ensemble acting. Which is somewhat surprising given that its top-billed actor was Humphrey Bogart, a superstar of (still) nearly singular status who, by the way, seems really relaxed here. Of course, at this point, the grosses were a long way from coming in.

A flop that became one of the all-time cult movies in about the time, say, it takes to complete a sports season, Devil was the final of six collaborations between Bogart and director John Huston, the previous of which had won Bogart his Oscar (The African Queen) in one of history’s most competitive best-actor years. Devil did not win Oscars, and, in fact, wasn’t even shown that much during its brief March 1954 U.S. run following engagements in London and Italy near the end of ’53. Bogart himself was no fan of it, and I once read a quote where he supposedly said, “Only the phonies like it.” Of course, he had a lot of his own money in the picture, which one has to speculate may have affected his love quotient.

Devil is sometimes called the first spoof of macho adventure movies, but it really doesn’t feel like a spoof of anything — and what’s more, 1951’s His Kind of Woman had already completed the assignment in far more direct fashion. Nor does it really take The Maltese Falcon (which had been a dual Huston-Bogart breakthrough a dozen years earlier) and turn it on its ear. Though this said, Falcon-like echoes can’t help but carry at least some volume here, what with the casting of (a blond) Peter Lorre and the fact that once again, we have nefarious ragtags (plus, in this case, a couple pseudo-polished types) who get embroiled in a shifty scheme they hope will make them rich, as good-guy Bogart tries to figure out how to clean up the mess or, failing that, look out for himself.

Not that he’s any Sam Spade here. A onetime rolling-in-dough type with a voluptuous young wife (Gina Lollobrigida speaking at times phonetically in her first English-language film) — Bogart is now just trying to pay his hotel bill in a no-future, if gorgeous, Italian total town (location site Ravello, photographed by the great Oswald Morris, before tourists took it over). To this end, he’s become a wary associate of physically ill-matched Lorre, scene-stealing Ivor Bernard, Marco Tulli and Robert Morley — the last an actor who, if we’re in a comedy) merely has to walk into a room before I start to guffaw.

This was the ’50s, and even the Bowery Boys (see 1955’s Dig That Uranium) were after you-know-what. So to this mix — all awaiting ship’s passage to British East Africa and some (hopefully) rich deposits — we add an almost aggressively strange couple with severe delusions of grandeur: he a proper Englishman who can’t quite camouflage his modest roots (Edward Underdown); and she a dizzy blonde who gives the impression that the combined label text on her prescription bottles might equal that of any three James Michener novels. Totally nailing this role is Jennifer Jones, an actress became difficult to cast after the 1940s and often seemed too old or otherwise less than ideal for her choice of projects.

But in this case, Jones gives us a thoroughly entertaining nut job who unloads more lies than Donald Trump, though in a way that makes you want to pat her on her head. Until I can finally get around to giving a second viewing to her star-making The Song of Bernadette and its seemingly 87-hour running time for the first time since the early ’60s, I’d have to say that Devil has my favorite Jones performance, along with her Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie and maybe (after I see the coming Kino Classics Blu-ray) Gone to Earth, which executive producer Selznick took from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and basically destroyed in the editing for U.S. audiences.

Devil, too, has always been editorially mangled — but before we get to that, remember the creative team in a production so “loose” that Stephen Sondheim (all but young enough to have been wearing swaddling clothes) was operating the clapper board. James Helvick was the walking pseudonym who wrote the source novel but was actually Claud Coburn, a Lefty Brit journalist who so needed the movie sale that he apparently left copies of the book all over his residence when Huston came to visit; it’s one of the stories repeated in a Twilight Time interview featurette with the late Alexander Cockburn, who ended up being cut from the same political/professional cloth as his father. Huston “usual suspects” Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel took a crack at the screenplay, but it ultimately got credited to Huston and, of all people, Truman Capote, who (as folklore has it) fought Bogart to a draw in hand-wresting challenges on the set. I also once read — somewhere — that there were touch football games between set-ups (though with this movie, it might have been during) on the set. Though I take this assertion with a grain, the image of “Go out for a long one, Truman” or “Can you manage a flea flicker, Bob?” has always stayed with me.

The version of Devil that almost everyone has seen up to now was cut by about five minutes; scenes were slightly shuffled and a voiceover added, all to Huston’s disdain. All the dreadful public domain-level releases on the home market have been of this standard issue, but Twilight Time’s release is of the recent restoration in which many archives had a hand. It gets the running time back to normal, scuttles the voiceover and puts a crucial, narrative-improving scene up front where it belongs: burning in at once that the Jones character is a certain kind of two-syllable crazy, whose first syllable is “bat.” And because this is a crisp 4K mastering of a newly restored print, we can see (not that this is necessarily a plus), actor wig and hairpiece telltales as well as Bogart’s new bridgework that repaired severe damage after he knocked out several teeth in an auto mishap either just before or during shooting.

To me, Beat the Devil has always marked the beginning of Bogart’s astonishingly productive final period: eight high-profile features from late ’53 through mid-’56 plus NBC’s live 90-minute broadcast of him in The Petrified Forest in May 1955. He was probably sick through all of it, and by January 1957 he was gone. So I have to say that it’s poignant hearing bonus-section commentator and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman talking here of Bogart’s final days, given that Redman himself succumbed to cancer on Jan 17.

Joined on the commentary by wife Julie Kirgo, whose TT liner notes I love, and their longtime compadre Lem Dobbs, the great Nick (my son’s name, too) does sound fatigued — though every late photo I’ve seen of him still showed off that eye twinkle. An Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who celebrated Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, plus a soundtrack producer as well, Redman began our strictly-by-correspondence relationship decades ago by calling me at USA Today out of the blue about something. It was an invigorating yak-fest, and after hanging up, I couldn’t figure out why he was so warm and gracious to me. Then, many years later, I found out that he was warm and gracious to everyone. So, I’ll miss you, man — and if I ever get a couple goldfish (about my speed these days), I promise to name them Lyle and Tector in your honor.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’

Ruby Gentry


Street 4/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully. 

Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.

Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.

As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.

It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.

Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.

Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.

Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’