Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

Beau Brummell

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley.
1954.
A flop at the time, this superbly cast costume drama has picked up a cult following who should be pleased by the Blu-ray’s 4K scan off the original negative that pays off with such vivid reds and dark blues on its British military uniforms.
Read the Full Review

Canyon Passage

Kino Lorber, Western, $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.
1946.
Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Technicolor Canyon Passage on Blu-ray makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.
Extras: Includes a commentary by Toby Roan, who knows Westerns as well as anyone.
Read the Full Review

 

Canyon Passage

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.

So it’s sometime in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the local TV stations was giving my adolescent self his first chance to see Canyon Passage, a Walter Wanger-Jacques Tourneur Western that sounds as if it has a lot going for it even beyond its status as a generously budgeted undertaking by Universal Pictures in 1946 — shortly before the merger that transformed the studio into Universal-International for close to 17 years. I notice that an unexpected curiosity in Passage’s fairly pressure-packed cast is brilliant songwriter, surprisingly engaging singer and sometimes actor Hoagy Carmichael, which inspires the broadcast’s host to ask during one of the commercial breaks (yes, kids, this is how they did it until the dawn of the 1980s), if anyone knows which Carmichael movie was the one where he sang the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which was among his best compositions.

That’s the setup. Later, my host came back sheepishly to admit that just as it said in the opening credits, Carmichael sang it in this one — though in a way, he could be forgiven. Here’s a song that ended up going No. 2 Billboard for Hoagy himself and No. 1 for Kay Kyser (a super-catchy rendition with future talk show host Mike Douglas as vocalist). Even so, the movie throws it away just before the end credits roll. I’m going through all this because it’s indicative of an impressively budgeted production that always seems to be a little “off,” though you can make a case that some may regard its idiosyncrasies as a plus. Plus, in addition, as noted, it has a lot of ‘A’-list components.

Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Passage was, I think, only the second Technicolor Western Universal made following the previous year’s Frontier Gal. That one was no more ambitious than the usual Rod Cameron picture, but Passage had no lack of casting cred (note the actors listed up top here); Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait, The Gang’s All Here and Desert Fury) behind the Technicolor camera; Ernest (Stagecoach) Haycox providing the original literary source; and director Tourneur taking his first stab at color in any genre between his black-and-white masterpieces of Cat People and Out of the Past. Of course, the visual component meant nothing on early ’60s TV showings because mass purchasing of color sets was a couple years off, and stations weren’t yet even running color prints. Thus, this Kino Lorber release makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.

Dana Andrews is the lead, from during that remarkable three-year run in which he also starred in Laura, State Fair, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun (if you like), The Best Years of Our Lives, Boomerang! and Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon. More interested in conquering the new frontier financially than getting serious about romance despite his definitely enjoying the company of women, he’s part of a situation that we don’t usually see in Westerns, at least as a major subplot: the inability of its protagonist to decide which comely lass in the territory (there’s more than one) he might want to wed, despite not exactly being awash in passion. The same is true of the women as well, which can sometimes threaten to induce viewer whiplash.

Andrews’ ostensible sweetheart is played by Patricia Roc, a major screen star in Britain seen here in her only Hollywood film, though she did reunite with Tourneur back home a few years later for the sleeper Circle of Danger, opposite Ray Milland. Though she and Andrews seem to have an “agreement” of some sort, he also has a repressed attraction to buddy Brian Donlevy’s semi-betrothed (Susan Hayward), who is much more obvious about a yen that’s more obviously reciprocated, though she mostly maintains decorum. Adding further complications are: a) a younger man in town who’s really crazy about Roc; and b) the fact that Donlevy is a very flawed and self-destructive character, albeit one of some sympathy. This is the kind of role underrated Donlevy knew how to play, though he could also do through villainy (Oscar-nominated for Beau Geste); comedy (The Great McGinty); military brass (Command Decision and playing Gen. Leslie Groves in The Beginning or the End) — all top an array of Westerns and sci-fi, some of it memorable. To say nothing of The Big Combo (now, there’s a movie).

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This is a mining boom town, and Donlevy is kind of a banker of the miners’ gold holdings, shelling out crystal dust (same as money) to customers whenever they need it for day-to-day expenses or reveling. But because he’s in heavy gambling debt to the town’s professional gambler, Donlevy has started filching a little here in there from the bags left in his care, and you know that’s not going to have a happy ending. Meanwhile, we have Ward Bond playing the town’s utter slug — one so lacking in a single virtue that I sensed that Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan (who knows Westerns as well as anyone) couldn’t get over it. Yet Bond was such a great actor despite having the most odious politics in Hollywood that the character seems real and not a cartoon stereotype.

He and Andrews have longtime bad history, and the entire town (not just the local goons) keeping egging them on to settle things with a fist-fighting so they can place bets for pure entertainment — not unlike the way the Irish villagers do during the John Wayne-Victor McLaglen climax to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The only one above all this is Carmichael’s town songbird on a mule; has there been a bigger market for them, he could have cornered the market on all Ichabod Crane parts. When the two adversaries finally do mix it up big-time, the result is one of the most brutal brawls I’ve ever seen in a vintage movie; Roan says that that both actors needed stitches at its conclusion, and I can believe it. The other major issue is attacking Indians (more often than, egged on by worthless whites), and Bond naturally has to be a major catalyst here as well.

According to Roan, Wanger and Tourneur had diametrically opposed ideas on the movie’s tone: producer Wanger wanted more emphasis on punched-up characters, while Tourneur (who won out) preferred distancing the story to make it more about the land and the era. Roan thinks Tourneur was right, but I don’t agree because that approach makes the picture just chilly enough to make it highly watchable but without that ultimate oomph that enables it to break from the historical pack.

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Not too many years later, Andrews’ heroic battle with alcohol started hurting the quality and certainly budgets of his pictures— intermittently at first and then permanently, though some cult movies remained here and there including his Tourneur reunion on Night of the Demon. By the time the actor reunited with Hayward on 1949 for My Foolish Heart, he still commanded top billing, but she’s the one who got an Oscar nomination (her second since Passage). Life comes at you fast in terms of Hollywood careers, something that’s never changed and still true today. For a while, at least, Andrews came pretty close to being a superstar.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Kino Lorber Sets Home Release Dates for April Classic Movie Slate

Kino Lorber has set home release dates for its April 2020 slate of classic movies. The 19-movie slate begins rolling out April 7 with the following releases, available on Blu-ray Disc only:

Angel — a 1937 comedy from the legendary director of The Love Parade and The Merry Widow, Ernst Lubitsch. The film features the wife of a British diplomat who goes to Paris and has a short-lived affair with an American, who turns out to be old war buddies with her husband. Included with the film is a new audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of How Did Lubitsch Do it?

Murder, He Says — a 1945 comedy about a public opinion surveyor who is sent to the town of Plainville after the previous one went missing. As he works with one of the local families, he begins to suspect that the lady and her two sons murdered the previous surveyor. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel.

The Lives of A Bengal Lancer — a 1935 feature depicting the tale of the heroic men who guarded the British Empire’s perilous Khyber Pass in India. Deadly threats escalate when the men join a mission to overthrow an evil chieftain, Mohammed Khan. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.

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The General Died at Dawn — a 1936 feature directed by Lewis Milestone about a soldier of fortune who winds up falling into conflict between two warlords, when General Yang and General Wu each attempt to purchase arms to control the Chinese provinces. The General Died at Dawn was nominated for three Oscars: Actor in a Supporting Role (Akim Tamiroff), Cinematography (Victor Milner) and Score (Boris Morros, Werner Janssen). Bonus features include a new audio commentary by author and film historian Lee Gambin and Actress and film historian Rutanya Alda.

Beau Geste — a 1939 action film from William A. Wellman, featuring three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, where they fall under the rule of a tyrannical sergeant. The brothers fight for their lives as they plot a mutiny against tyranny and defend a desert fortress against a brutal enemy. Included with the film is new audio commentary by William Wellman Jr. and historian Frank Thompson.

Subsequent releases will be issued on Blu-ray Disc as well as standard DVD.

Coming April 14 are The Limit, a 1957 feature about a major in the U.S. Army who is accused of aiding his captors while held in a North Korean prison during the war and brought up on charges of treason; Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a 1981 Western from Lamont Johnson; Jenny, a 1970 drama about a woman who winds up pregnant and moves to New York City, where she marries a local filmmaker who wants to avoid getting drafted into Vietnam and offers to support her if he can claim the baby as his own; and Song of Norway, a 1970 musical biography based on the life of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

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Due April 21 are Secret Ceremony, a 1968 drama from Joseph Losey about a mysterious young woman, who, when riding a bus in London, mistakes a middle-aged prostitute for her recently deceased mother and invites her to move into her home and act as her mother; Woman Times Seven, a 1967 anthology film of seven episodes starring Shirley MaClaine, mostly  based on aspects of love and adultery; Connecting Rooms, a 1971 drama about two older people whose lives are linked when they become lodgers in the same seedy boarding house in London; Love Among Ruins, a 1975 drama and winner of six Emmy Awards from director George Cukor that stars Katharine Hepburn as a recent divorcee and Laurence Olivier as her lawyer and, as it turns out, an old suiter of hers from decades before.

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Rounding out Kino’s April 2020 slate are five more releases arriving in stores on April 28: Outcast of the Islands, a 1952 film about a man who is dismissed from his management position at a Dutch East Indies port after being accused of stealing; The Sound Barrier, a 1952 feature about a wealthy oilman with a passion for aviation who, in his quest to break the sound barrier, has already lost his son and chooses his daughter’s husband and World War II pilot to be one of the test pilots; Billy Liar, a 1963 comedy from director John Schlesinger about a working-class man who has dreams of escaping his dead-end job that finally meets a woman who just might inspire him to move out of his parents’ house; The Caper of the Golden Bulls, a 1967 comedy from writer and director Russell Rouse about a retired bank robber that is blackmailed by a former companion in to stealing some precious jewels at a bank in Spain; and Don’t Drink the Water, a 1969 comedy based on a play by actor, writer, and director Woody Allen.

 

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

The Day of the Dolphin

Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.
1973.
When I first saw The Day of the Dolphin, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script, but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter.
Extras: Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer a Blu-ray bonus commentary. Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette offers an interview with Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann.
Read the Full Review

X … the Unknown

Shout! Factory, Sci-Fi, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman, Leo McKern.
1956.
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.
Extras: Acreenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the most revered of the Hammer nucleus of talents who made the organization “go,” 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. The other featurette is a slapdash jumble of film clips in which the music drowns out a huge percentage of what narrator Oliver Reed is trying to say.
Read the Full Review

The Day of the Dolphin

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver.

When I came out of The Day of the Dolphin in 1973, my reaction was akin to that of so many other film folk in that we couldn’t quite figure out what the hell we’d just seen. This had nothing to do with always on-point storytelling courtesy of what I now realize was an outstanding Buck Henry script (from a sprawling-times-12 Robert Merle novel) — but, instead, with the mix of talent and subject matter. Which is to say that here were Henry and Mike Nichols making a George C. Scott “family” (or close) ‘PG’ movie about sincere straight-faced love for trained the trained dolphins to whom Scott and his small scientific crew are trying to teach English. And at this point (his fifth feature), Nichols was coming off the edgy quartet of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate (with a Henry screenplay), Catch-22 (Henry screenplay) and the still psychologically brutal Carnal Knowledge.

The picture’s Wikipedia entry quotes the Pauline Kael review as suggesting “that if the best subject that Nichols and Henry could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether” — which I now realize is one of the crummiest and most patronizing things she said in her entire career, or at least crummy and patronizing enough to place it in her top 5,000 transgressions. (But. Don’t. Get. Me. Going. On. Pauline.) On Kino’s wonderful bonus featurette, Henry, who was never absolutely crazy about the film himself, notes that Kael also said that he and Nichols had put enormous effort into a movie whose main distinction was “scaring children” (his comment and look of eye-rolling disgust are worth the price of admission). The point is, though, there are career departures and career departures, but this was something like Vincente Minnelli taking a crack at a spaghetti Western.

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The first thing I noticed this time out was not just how thoroughly invested actor Scott is in swimming, communicating and otherwise interacting with the creatures to whom his character and a handful of scientific colleagues are trying to teach English just outside their island laboratory — a place so isolated that it requires a rough speedboat ride through sometimes choppy waters to reach what ultimately comes off as a working paradise. This kind of thing can’t be faked, especially on the off chance that you’ve coincidentally just seen Scott in The Hospital as I just did a couple weeks ago when I was preparing taxes and thus in the mood for some Paddy Chayefsky bombast (in this vein, I also watched Taxi Driver as well).

In the Chayefsky/Arthur Hiller concoction from two years earlier, Scott looks all too believable as a walking coronary who heads up a unit in a prestigious New York medical center: he’s unkempt; has pasty skin tones (though United Artists DeLuxe Color did this to a lot of actors in the early ’70s); is drug abusing, self-loathing and all those other traits that make it something less than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But as wags use to say of Richard Nixon in the ’80s in Dolphins, he’s “tan, rested and ready” — which I never got the impression Scott ever was even in real life aside from the last count. (A woman I used to work with had a newswire photo hanging in her cubicle of Scott exiting a plane after he had all-too-obviously wet himself big-time). Here, he looks in strapping shape with lots of color (the solar-induced kind) in his face.

The entire second half of Dolphins is a spoiler minefield of plot twists — or, more precisely, one huge plot twist from which additional tinier ones then emanate — so I’d better “write around” a lot of the film’s content. What has to be noted, though, is that the surprise(s) ought to be jarring and maybe even all-out movie-killers when, it, fact, the whole picture is tonally seamless. There aren’t many filmmakers who can pull this kind of thing off, and seamlessly, which ought to give some indication of how much in control Nichols was with his early movies (more on this in a minute), even if Catch-22 got away from him despite some great scenes. In this case, we actually segue from Ivan Tors Flipper territory into an early example of the kind of mid-’70s paranoid thriller that used to be Alan Pakula’s bailiwick.

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Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson offer the Blu-ray bonus commentary with the former doing most of the talking; he  makes the case that in addition to whatever else it is, Dolphins is a metaphor for film directors with vision battling studio suits who are deciding whether or not they’re going to come through with the necessary financial backing. More often than not, I find these speculative flights a little much, but I have to say that Berger makes a persuasive case here.

There’s a beautifully Panavision-framed scene — could Nichols block actors or what? — where the endowing string-pullers sail out to the island to pass judgment on the research project’s feasibility. So director Nichols lines them up horizontally in chairs on an oceanside platform above Scott and then has them looking down at him as he relates his progress and intentions in what is basically a pitch meeting out of Robert Altman’s The Player. These show-me types range in personality from a Mr. P-R-smoothie who’s presumably supportive (Fritz Weaver, whose slick characterization is perfect) to transparent creeps who haven’t a clue about anything scientific (John Dehner) to those who think they know more than they probably do (Severn Darden).

Even in its most family-oriented ‘PG’ moments, we sense that Henry and Nichols are not unmindful of certain ethical questions that can be raised even when the scientists involved are genuinely loving and have the best intentions. They are, despite kid-glove care from Scott and colleague/wife Trish Van Devere (this has to be her high-water mark on screen for the then real-life Mrs. Scott) taking the dolphins out their natural habitat, which is OK for now when the returned affection is palpable but may cause problems if they ever return to their original way of living well out into the ocean.

Commentator Berger makes a big point here of something that’s been on my own mind for a long time, which is that if you walk in blind to any of director’s first six features up through The Fortune, his identity will be pretty obvious without much time expenditure. Nichols’ debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was in 1.85:1, but all the others were in superbly utilized Panavison; the sextet’s cinematographers were Haskell Wexler, Robert Surtees, David Watkin, Giuseppe Rotunno, Chinatown’s John Alonzo and (here) William A. Fraker of Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby fame — a Murderer’s Row if there ever was one. But after the severe box office underperformance of Dolphins followed by the total drubbing of The Fortune (which today looks redeemed to a point by the production design and really funny Jack Nicholson performance), this specific Nichols era came to an end.

Aside from the indifferent Gilda Live, Nichols retreated for eight years and when he returned, his movies immediately looked different from anything that had preceded — and for the rest of his career. This isn’t to say he didn’t go on to make some impressive ones — his first feature back was Silkwood, while HBO’s Angels in America is a contender for best film of his career — but he never worked in 2.35:1 again. (Not even, as Berger points out with Closer, which seemed to call for it.)

Dolphins, which Nichols basically took on to get out of his Avco-Embassy contract after the Sharon Tate murders ended Roman Polanski’s participation, went from mixed initial reviews to delayed disdain to what I perceive has been more recent favorable revisionism; it’s truly old-school Mike Nichols, no matter the its subject matter. This is the most favorably surprised I’ve been at a movie in quite a while — the Georges Delerue score is close to an all-timer, which helps — though no less unexpected is watching Scott so thoroughly ace it in a relatively demon-less role, though (this being Scott) still bringing some edge to it. The Blu-ray bonus interviews also include featured players Leslie Charleson and the late Edward Hermann, and like Henry, could not be more infectiously personable.

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

Kino Lorber to Issue Vintage Exploitation Films on Blu-ray Disc

Film distributor Kino Lorber Classics has set a Feb. 25 release date for Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture volumes 1-3, including new restorations of classic exploitation films Mom and Dad, Reefer Madness and Sex Madness, Unashamed: A Romance and Elysia: Valley of the Nude.

The collection will be available on Blu-ray Disc at a suggested retail price of $29.95, and will be presented in association with Seattle-based distributor Something Weird Video.

Volume 1 includes Mom & Dad (1945), in which the boyfriend of a pregnant high school girl dies, prompting her sex-ed teacher to show her a film about childbirth and the dangers of venereal disease. The Blu-ray includes audio commentary by Eric Schaefer, author of Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films 1919-1959; the original theatrical trailer, Mom & Dad radio spots; the short film Sex Hygiene, and vintage childbirth footage.

Volume 2 presents a double-feature Reefer Madness (1936) and Sex Madness (1938). Both are exploitation films designed to warn teenagers and young adults of the dangers of becoming addicted to, respectively, marijuana cigarettes and the dangers of venereal disease. Special features include audio commentary by Eric Schaefer, a gallery of exploitation trailers, and more.

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Volume 3 showcases two examples of the “nudist film” genre, Unashamed: A Romance (1938) and Elysia: Valley of the Nude (1933). Unashamed: A Romance includes audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, as well as three short films: Nudist-Land (1937, 11 min.), Why Nudism: An Exposé of Nudism (1933, 22 min.), and Hollywood Script Girl (1938, 5 min.).

 

Jungle Fever

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
‘R’ for sensuality, strong language, drug content, and for violence.
Stars Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.

A whole big bunch of things are much easier to accomplish than figuring out just what the genre of this ambitious 1991 Spike Lee potpourri is, which means that “Romantic Social Drama” will have to do for now. Though Jungle Fever is a movie I really like and possibly more to the point, really enjoy, I do wonder about the second feature Lee made after the outrageous failure of Do the Right Thing to win the Best Picture Oscar a couple years earlier. Yet if I overrated Fever in my original USA Today review, it still scintillates for me in a way that several best picture winners of the past 20 years have not (though, no, this wasn’t the case with Parasite). Yet, it’s on the messy side, as well as the first historical indication I had of a problem that has plagued the writer-director’s features throughout his career (though not, I would add, his great documentaries).

This is the tendency of Lee to overstuff his narratives (and the running times that usually go along with this) to a degree that would altogether wreck a lot of pictures that lack most of his filmography’s redemptive drive, dependably provocative subject matter, imaginative smorgasbord-like casting and sheer filmmaking passion. Never has that been more true than here, where there are two distinctive storylines that Lee can’t find a way to mesh without large 1.85 seams showing — even if they do feature (but don’t always emphasize to equal degree) at least some of the same characters. In fact, even within the same storyline, the movie sometimes stops to digress, as when a spurned light-skinned Harlem wife (Lonette McKee) and her women friends spend maybe 10 minutes bandying about the frequent tendency of black men to pursue white women in a way that complicates matters for everyone. It doesn’t quite stop the picture but just misses doing so.

Interracial “jungle” attraction is indeed Fever’s main thrust, as McKee’s otherwise sturdy architect husband (Wesley Snipes) shoots past the 98.6 standard with his new Italian temp/secretary (Annabella Sciorra), a Bensonhurst native whose hiring he initially resisted. This is all happening during a period of Snipes resentment toward his white superiors, who are going the namby-pamby route to foil his partnership aspirations despite the highly visible contributions he has made to the firm. Tim Robbins and a cleaned-up Brad Dourif have these roles, and can Robbins ever play this kind of smoothie in his sleep. Snipes ends up getting himself in what one would assume to be financial peril from the accumulation of these events, though this presumed cause-effect is curiously unaddressed.

What is addressed is the racist cretinism of Sciorra’s father and brother, Italian stereotypes of a certain sub-breed who unfortunately don’t come off as stereotypes here — or at least in the way that an unbridled Anthony Quinn (one of those Quinn performances where he risks a hernia reading his dialogue) does playing John Turturro’s oppressive father. Turturro, as the spurned Sciorra boyfriend who works the counter in the family neighborhood drug store, is the sole voice of reason despite getting no help from his own black-hating buddies, who include the Sciorra brothers. Turturro will have nothing of the latter vitriol and despite his pain over having been dumped, is toying with asking out a frequent black store customer who encourages his self-improvement regimen (the exceptionally attractive Tyra Ferrell).

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The movie’s in-name-only other half rates significantly less than 50% screen time but nonetheless provides Jungle with its one indisputably great claim to fame. Nowadays, Samuel L. Jackson is so ubiquitous that if you’re in bed having one of those surreal Melatonin dreams at night, he’s as likely as not to show up in it, even if the dream’s setting is, say, your boss’s toddler daughter’s birthday party. But there was a time when he wasn’t well known, and his performance as Snipes’ crackhead brother so ambushed critics and audiences that, to give one example, the Cannes Film Festival created its first supporting actor award just so that Jackson could be recognized. He’d been around in small roles — there’d even been an appearance in GoodFellas the year previously — but nothing like this. It was something akin to when a relatively obscure Morgan Freeman got cast as a pimp in 1987’s Street Smart from the more often than not ignominious Cannon Films and made such a striking surprise impression that he eventually got an Oscar nomination.

Compared to brother Snipes and, for that matter, nearly everyone else in the picture, Jackson is the bad seed — regularly putting the financial touch on his desperate but enabling mother (Ruby Dee) after his father (Ossie Davis) long ago forbade him even to enter their home. Sometimes, mom’s out of enough cookie-jar money, so dad’s color TV will have to do, whose theft will provide either solace or the funds to go up his nose in a street-side crack den in the company of his companion (Halle Berry — does this movie have a cast or what)? This leads to the movie’s most powerful set piece when Snipes, as a favor to mother Dee, pounds the pavement to find Jackson as Stevie Wonder’s timeless “Living for the City” provides the musical backdrop.

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I would have thought, by 1991 and with an entire Wonder score, the movie would have a stereo track, and matter of fact, there’s one listed at the end of the glorious end credits (more on these in a second). This Blu-ray doesn’t, nor is there any commentary nor much to speak of in terms of chapter stops, which I’m speculating is true as well with other Universal-released Lees that Kino has just issued and that I’m hot to re-see: Mo’ Better Blues; Crooklyn; and Clockers. Also not here is (and I think it would have been) is that great sweaty blacksmith coda — amusingly purloined from Jack Webb’s old Mark VII Productions — that signified one of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks productions.

But in any rendering, Fever’s exit music is “Feeding Off the Love of the Land,” my favorite Stevie ballad ever and for some reason a song not on the original soundtrack CD, an omission that rated a zillion-decibel string of profanities from me in 1991 before it much later showed up on a couple of pricey Wonder sets. (Motown released it as a single, but I suspect it was without the strings that Spike’s musician father Bill Lee added for the movie’s version, which I personally think “makes” the finale.)  I also love the way its lyrics splash across the screen a line at the time, an effect I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other movie. It’s a very powerful way to send audiences home (or wrap up a viewing-room evening) — even if, as frequently compelling as Jungle is, a viewer can be forgiven for wondering what exactly he or she has just seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Jungle Fever’

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

The Great McGinty

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.
1940.
It’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject of political corruption as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty. However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt.
Extras: Includes a voiceover commentary by Samm Deighan.
Read the Full Review

Watergate

Region 2 British Import
Dogwoof/History Channel, Documentary, $15 DVD.
2019. Charles Ferguson’s four-hour, 21-minute documentary on the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration overcomes, for the most part, its inclusion of mostly unfortunate live reenactments.
Read the Full Review

 

The Great McGinty

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.

Few traditions are more eternal than political corruption no matter the country in question, and even as we speak, Americans are seeing it in Imax three-camera Cinerama with 96-track stereo sound, just to mix some exhibition metaphors. Thus, it’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty — though there had been, just thinking here, some satirical jabbing from The Dark Horse (1932, Warner Bros.). But that one’s release came less than half-a-year before FDR’s first election ushered in a period of the president-as-deity except in certain Alf Landon circles — leading to a subsequent period not conducive to all-out comical skewering, though, of course, played-for-laughs political grifters and grafters were often side-issue mainstays in the Golden Age.

However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt. (Or if you write about film, and it’s not instantly identifiable, I hear there’s a job opening down the street at my car wash.) As in other Sturges comedies, the fortunes of the central character are inverted almost overnight by a chance or flash occurrence, and his staging of knockabout physical comedy is almost as pronounced as anything you’d see in the silent era. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff brawling with each other (once in a moving car, no less) isn’t much different in life-attitude from the club-car slapstick mayhem in The Palm Beach Story or William Demarest landing on his behind when trying to kick someone in the pants in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Anyway, the story behind McGinty, which voiceover commentator Samm Deighan reiterates on Kino Classics’ bonus commentary, is that Sturges, like Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, was in a “let’s bash Mitchell Leisen mood” at Paramount. Though a lot of today’s historians raise amazed eyebrows over this, these ace writers (who worked predominantly but not exclusively for that studio) supposedly hated what Leisen kept doing or not doing when it came to interpreting their scripts. In McGinty’s case, Sturges supposedly offered to sell Paramount his script for a measly sum (Deighan says $10, though I’ve also heard a buck) if they also allowed him to direct it as well for what would be his directorial debut. When the studio agreed, it was a big deal and not just for Sturges. Shortly thereafter John Huston and Billy Wilder joined him to usher in a new era of the writer-director.

Paramount didn’t have that much to lose. The cast was modest (Donlevy, Tamiroff, the now obscure Muriel Angelus), and so was the budget. Nor was this exactly Leisen’s historical extravaganza Frenchman’s Creek when it came to lush Paramount production design — though even at once, Sturges showed himself to have a camera eye, a definite way with actors and a certain deftness with crowd scenes (this you can also see already as well in the same year’s Christmas in July). Low expectations gave the burgeoning filmmaker the freedom to indulge his love-hate attitude toward American foibles with very little sentimentality, which (as Deighan notes) makes Sturges’ political films seem more contemporary today than Frank Capra’s.

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Told in flashback from the banana republic from which he now tends bar, McGinty relates what is arguably the vintage screen’s most telling comic portrayal of ward heeling (though, yes, John Ford’s movie of The Last Hurrah has its moments as well). In an unnamed city that has the “feel” of Chicago, local “boss” Tamiroff hires Donlevy/McGinty as one of many to cast a bogus vote for the local machine’s lackey choice of a mayoral candidate — for the princely sum of $2. Because soup kitchens qualify as his second home, McG overcomes his confusion (the guy is affably dim) and votes 37 times — good not only for $74 but also to show the bosses that he’s an out-of-the-ordinary guy who might fit into the operation. He starts out successfully as heavily pugnacious debt-collecting muscle, though from the example presented does charm at least some of the female victims with a more soft-soap approach.

With his improved fortunes come an upgrade of sorts from a wardrobe best described as “flophouse-traditional” — though at least one of his new-era suits is nearly as sartorially haphazard as anything Spike Jones ever wore, though I suppose it doesn’t quite have the decibel level of those floral prints that preyed on your pollen allergies whenever Roy Rogers donned them during his Trucolor period. Improved fortunes also result in a mostly harmonious arranged marriage to his secretary Catherine, played by Angelus — a London-bred actress who only made a handful of Hollywood films (this was her last before early retirement, not counting a few more years of Broadway appearances).

It’s all for image — women voters supposedly want married candidates — and both sides get something because the bride is a single mom with two young children (a fact she takes a suspiciously long time to divulge, imo). But it works out well because McGinty takes to the children and enjoys, in one amusing scene, reading them the funnies. Somehow, the onetime bum ascends to becoming governor of the state, at which point Catherine’s motherly reformer instincts take over, at which point the picture lingers toward conventionality though not to artistically perilous extremes. But as for McGinty, it becomes a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation, which is what you get when you do the right thing for the only time in your life. This is not, getting back to what I noted before, an attitude Capra ever would have voiced, though I can imagine Sturges and Wilder having lunch in the studio commissary and chuckling about how people always vote against their own interests.

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Commentator Deighan seems to have done her homework discussing Sturges’ salad days (as opposed his eventual suffering of a shockingly severe artistic and box office declines), but I winced when twice she noted that Tamiroff and Donlevy won Oscars for performances in other films when, in truth, they only received nominations. And speaking of Oscars, McGinty took one for best original screenplay when The Great Dictator and Foreign Correspondent were among the competition — an indicator of just how much this modest box office success (no more) was admired in the industry. Bigger budgets and bigger stars for Sturges would follow, though the actors — peppered with Demarest and a slew of other loony types who’d make up Sturges’ future stock company of regulars — can’t be faulted at all here.

This isn’t a movie with the visual tools to showcase its 4K mastering, but it made for a very satisfying view on my 75-inch screen. Thank you, again, Kino Classics for what you’re doing for the Universal-controlled Paramount library in general (they hold rights to the 1929-49 titles, with a couple exceptions). This library was the last, Goldwyn’s excepted, to sell its titles to TV back in the day (in my local market, it was fall of 1959). It held Holy Grail status for on-the-ball film fans then, and for a long time history was repeating itself until not long ago. Now, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with Kino having just announced Beau Geste, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and more for April 7 alone (I think Murder, He Says might be in there, too).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

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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