The Blue Dahlia

Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay serves as the vehicle for one of the four times Alan Ladd paired on screen with Veronica Lake, this time in a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a postwar Los Angeles housing shortage.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Drama;
$22.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake co-starring in Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay sounds well nigh irresistible on paper, and 1946’s The Blue Dahlia mostly satisfies the concept’s potential as well as intriguing additional considerations that go tangentially beyond sleuthing the murderer of boozy Mrs. Ladd (Doris Dowling). These last include portrayals of the postwar L.A. housing shortage — which is why the future Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) has to shack up with William Bendix here — and also the as yet un-termed PTSD, which is more serious in the latter’s case because he’s also wearing a metal plate in his head, which makes him susceptible to mentally incapacitating migraines.

As the leader of these three vets who all served together, Ladd comes home to discover that Dowling has spent their wartime marriage pouring booze and quite likely sexual favors as well during constant partying in their courtyard apartment while her husband was away being a busy Navy flier. Before long, someone bumps Dowling off, and we sense pretty soon that it may not have been her nightclub proprietor/adulterous squeeze (Howard da Silva) — a not unagreeable type with an understandable sad-sack dimension because he’s squandered the affections of his own wife (Lake — who at this point still had the allure that drove real-life servicemen wild and doesn’t do a bad job of it today). As a result, and as the two leads commence some detecting work in an attempt to exonerate eventual suspect Ladd, it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll get together romantically. More than not, this is a movie about men, though Dowling does really give it her all in limited screen time.

Of all people, the director here is George Marshall, whose career spanned about 55 years of non-stop work without too many permanent wave-makers to show for it. For posterity’s sake, you do have to give him Destry Rides Again and also the insane cult-heavy farce Murder, He Says — atop, for pure entertainment, not infrequently pleasing vehicles starring the likes of Bob Hope, Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Plus, lest we forget, the singular Red Garters for your LSD trips. Even so, finding style points in his work over more than a half-century is at least as tough as finding Doris Dowling’s murderer — nor is Marshall’s the face you’d see if you looked up “hard-boiled” in a slang dictionary. At one point, Dahlia Blu-ray commentator Alan Rode (paired with filmmaker Steve Mitchell) concedes that perhaps Marshall didn’t get every last ounce out of this project that a more stylish director might have.

Even so, this is a good time at the movies, and whenever I’d program UCLA’s 35mm print of Dahlia at the AFI Theater many lifetimes ago, we always got good (also enthusiastic) houses. Bendix, Dowling, da Silva and (as da Silva’s crooked partner) Don Costello are all exceptional here, Ladd-Lake chemistry is again palpable, and as the sleazy house detective who snoops on everyone at Dowling’s apartment, the instantly recognizable character actor Will Wright may have had the best role of his career. The picture also has a Paramount luster that always made it my favorite studio when growing up — something very dispiriting to think about when you read the recent New York Times article chronicling the studio’s train-wreck fortunes over, by this time, many years. This said, it looks to me as if — in a cursory run through it — that the Arrow Region ‘B’ edition of Dahlia has a bit more visual snap.

But it doesn’t have Michael Curtiz’s recent biographer Rode, who (with good-foil Mitchell) is personable and in all ways compassionate talking about the personal problems of the two leads — dominated in both situations by alcoholism but, in Ladd’s case, further exacerbated by the added insecurity over his short physical stature that sparked a lot of cruelly stupid jokes. The commentary is also on target enough to note that actor Costello sports a broken toe (which, when it’s pointed out, we can see) after a late-movie fight scene that went awry. Matters obviously weren’t breaking Costello’s way because shortly thereafter, he accidentally killed himself with a pill overdose amid sleeping problems; Dahlia was his last film.

Having worn his miner’s cap into the studio files, Rode also casts a lot of doubt on producer John Houseman’s have-to-be spurious assertions about certain aspects of the shooting that were part of his biographical writings. For his part, co-commentator Mitchell wonders if Chandler’s script was originally intended to veer in another direction, given that Bendix’s character does seem to change marginally late in the game, which further clutters what is both the movie’s penultimate and worst scene (aside from a delicious “Columbo”-like capper at its very conclusion). It’s an Agatha Christie knock-off where all the suspects are gathered in one room and, of all things, we get a target-shooting exhibition right in the police precinct (uh, huh). The movie’s finale, though, is kind of cute, almost anticipating the wrap to Rio Bravo.

Thanks to Shout Select (which has just put out the Ladd-Lake-Bendix The Glass Key), Kino Classics and France’s Elephant Films, a whole bunch of Universal-owned Paramounts are finally hitting Blu-ray near-simultaneously — all from the old MCA package that first sold to TV in the late 1950s and remains the single greatest TV movie package ever. Rode notes that the final of four Ladd-Lake teamings remains very obscure (and going from its rep and my own memory, not very good). But with a title like Saigon, maybe even it will eventually show up in high-def; you can’t say its title lacks a promotional hook.

The Blue Dahlia

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

Shout! Factory Releasing ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Feb. 12

Shout! Factory will release Four Weddings and a Funeral: 25th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray Feb. 12 through its Shout Select premium imprint.

A new 4K scan and a new interview with the Director of Photography are among the many special features on the release.

The 1994 romantic comedy, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, focuses on the relationahip between Charlie (Hugh Grant), a charming bachelor and frequent best man at the string of weddings he attends with his friends, and Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an enchanting American who catches his eye just as she is about to marry the wrong man.

The cast also includes Kristin Scott Thomas and Rowan Atkinson.

The Blu-ray includes new 4K scan of the film from the original camera negative, and the “The Wedding Photographer,” a new interview with director of photography Michael Coulter.

Additional extras include an audio commentary with director Mike Newell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and writer/co-executive producer Richard Curtis; “The Wedding Planners” documentary; “Four Weddings and a Funeral … In the Making” featurette; “Two Actors and a Director” featurette; deleted scenes; promotional spots; and the theatrical trailer.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Atomic Cafe’ and ‘The Glenn Miller Story’

The Atomic Cafe

Kino Lorber, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
1982.
An artful assemblage of Cold War propaganda films about dealing with the atomic age and potential nuclear war, The Atomic Cafe’s near-singular mix of solemnity and gonzo remains as relevant as ever. The new Blu-ray restoration makes the film look and sound as good as it ever did.
Extras: This is a Blu-ray where the film at hand, superb as it is, is almost literally only half the package. The full-length string of bonus short subjects run over three hours, and there’s 80 minutes more of material — President Eisenhower and Richard Nixon get respectively showcased in two of the entries — from what is described as an “ill-fated” 1995 CD-ROM project about the Atomic Age. There’s also a podcast with the filmmakers.
Read the Full Review

The Glenn Miller Story

Shout! Factory, Drama, $22.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’ Stars James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan, Louis Armstrong.
1954. Director Anthony Mann’s The Glenn Miller Story stars James Stewart as famed bandleader whose plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. The biopic really gets going in the second half thanks Mann’s staging of the musical numbers and Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.
Extras: Contains a commentary by filmmaker Jim Hemphill.
Read the Full Review

The Glenn Miller Story

Director Anthony Mann’s The Glenn Miller Story stars James Stewart as famed bandleader whose plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. The biopic really gets going in the second half thanks Mann’s staging of the musical numbers and Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Drama;
$22.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘G.’
Stars James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan, Louis Armstrong.

Notwithstanding Thunder Bay (oil drilling) and Strategic Air Command (self-explanatory), the surprising outlier in the fruitful James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration (read: five highly-regarded Westerns as well) is The Glenn Miller Story. If that is, a movie as popular as the last was really can be an outlier — one that even managed to kick off something of a Miller boom nearly a decade after the famed bandleader’s airplane death over the English Channel during World War II. For all of its narrative goo — and hour one has as much as you’ll find in any musical biopic — GMS is one of those mid-’50s releases that transformed James Stewart from superstar into to something of an institution. The emblematic Miller glasses that the actor dons and his own controlled performance as the trombonist bandleader really transform him his image.

I was disappointed to miss the picture during its February 1954 release when I was 6, despite already having had Miller pretty well “covered” by all the 78s I inherited from my parents and my Aunt Carol, which I’d already played to death in my bedroom (had to change that damned needle every 10 plays) by the time I started kindergarten. Permanently burned in my brain are “In the Mood,” “American Patrol,” “A String of Pearls,” “I Know Why” (utilized magnificently in The Shape of Water), “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a ‘B’-side I’ve always liked (“Sleep Song”) and so on a few times over. If I’ve come to appreciate Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw on a purely musical level, there’s something more elusive about the Miller classics that captures the World War II era zeitgeist better than anything.

As it turned out, I ended up seeing 1956’s The Benny Goodman Story first (I was immersed in BG, too) — it the only movie ever directed by Valentine Davies, who penned its Miller predecessor at Universal and was burdened by a leaden lead performance by Steve Allen. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for a few Davies screenplays, most notably Miracle on 34th Street and the baseball cutie It Happens Every Spring (which I’d be curious to see remade with more up-to-date special effects). But his two musical biopics ask a lot, and in GMS’s case, asking it as early as the opening pawnshop scene. It is here that Stewart/Miller notices a string of pearls in an establishment run by schmaltzy Sig Ruman, who really pours on the joviality here as your basic anti-Rod-Steiger kind of hock-it proprietor. Also coming early is the script’s planted seed to establish that Miller will spend the entire movie working on the right arrangement for “Little Brown Jug,” when actually, it was one of the first huge hits he enjoyed once his band started clicking big-time nationally in the late 1930s.

Add to this a lot of co-star June Allyson (better in small doses, the great Good News excepted), and you also begin to feel the much evident iron hand of widow Helen Miller on the production. With so much to dig out from, it’s quite the testimonial to director Mann and cinematographer William Daniels (Stroheim’s Greed, a slew of Garbo pics, Valley of the Dolls, Rat Pack larks; say, what have you done lately?) that the picture works as well as it does. In fact, once it gets going (there’s a serious shortage of music in the first, say, 45 minutes), we’re talking an unambiguous net plus. Almost all of this has to do with Mann’s staging of numbers once the picture gets around to it and to Stewart’s cooly commanding performance.

Of the first, the outdoor staging of two big numbers for soldiers positively soars with nostalgia, especially when welcome ringer Frances Langford joins The Modernaires for “Choo Choo” — though I do wonder about whatever inside-baseball stuff led to the exclusion of franchise singers Marian Hutton and Ray Eberle from the movie.  Meanwhile, Stewart is a marvel at suggesting Miller’s discipline and drive while still maintaining all kinds of traits “Jimmy.” (In reality, Miller was something of an authoritarian, and Gary Giddins notes in his recent Swinging on a Star Bing Crosby bio that he had an anti-Semitic streak, though he did regard Louis Armstrong as unmatched.)

Stewart himself turned curmudgeon-ish in later years when his hitherto camouflaged reactionary streak became more “out there” — something addressed a little by Blu-ray bonus commentator (and filmmaker) Jim Hemphill. The latter spends most of his voiceover talking about Stewart and Mann (solo and in tandem) while giving very little to Miller’s own career — a shortcoming he addresses late on by simply conceding it is beyond his field of expertise. This is OK, at least with me, because he’s quite illuminating on the filmmaking team, which busted up to such a degree in 1957 over Night Passage (a Western eventually directed by James Nelson and saved by splendid Technirama eye-massaging) that Stewart barely mentioned the collaboration in later years, despite Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie, to name my three favorites of their dual output. Hemphill gave me an added appreciation for a director I sometimes take for granted in his discussion of Mann’s sometimes subtle camera placements.

The Blu-ray is in 1.85:1, and I’m not going to get into the purist nitpicking of whether it should be at a 2.0 aspect ratio, which was one of Universal-International’s ways to go in those early days when wider-screen movies (both anamorphic and non-) took over exhibition; I’m too old to fight yesterday’s battles and just want to enjoy these things (within limits, of course). I’ve noticed some tepid, though not really negative, chat room responses to the mastering and color quality here, but this release looks pleasing enough to my eye, especially in the performance sequences.

Also featured on this release is the 1985 reissue print that had stereo tracks for the musical numbers — recorded but not used in ’54 because not enough theaters yet had the right equipment. Since GMS won the Oscar for sound recording and the Decca soundtrack album went to No. 1, this is no small deal. The re-issue print is about four minutes shorter, but because the excisions are mostly June Allyson material, I’m glad to have the movie both ways, above and beyond the more robust sound. For her part, Allyson does have a much-admired final scene here.

After years of being able to get foreign-region Blu-rays of Universal product but relatively few from the U.S., it seems that the dam has broken, thanks to Shout! Factory and Kino Classics (just got the latter’s new one of 1955’s Foxfire, the Jeff Chandler-Jane Russell potboiler that became the last three-strip Technicolor feature). This could prove to be new life for Douglas Sirk (who’s already well-represented on All-Region reach imports) and certainly Audie Murphy. Even now, we can tell you to don on your track shoes because fast moving Tarantula! (in both senses) is coming from the former around tax time in what I hope is a more satisfactory rendering than the grainy Region ‘B’ release. Depending on how much the delayed fine print from the tax cut kicks in, it might provide an apropos opportunity to say, “Sic ’em.”

The Glenn Miller Story

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Atomic Cafe’ and ‘The Glenn Miller Story’

Shout! Factory Celebrating 30th Anniversary of ‘When Harry Met Sally’ With Special-Edition Blu-ray Jan. 8

Shout! Factory will release a 30th anniversary collector’s edition of the iconic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally on Blu-ray Jan. 8.

The release features a new transfer restored from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, and includes a new bonus interview with director Rob Reiner and star Billy Crystal.

The Blu-ray is being released through the Shout Select imprint, which focuses on special editions of classic and cult-favorite films.

The film stars Crystal and Meg Ryan as buddies who deal with the question of whether sex will ruin a perfect friendship between a man and a woman. The cast also includes Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby.

The When Harry Met Sally: 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray also includes legacy bonus content from earlier Blu-rays such as a Reiner audio commentary; a commentary with Reiner, Crystal and screenwriter Nora Ephron; the “How Harry Met Sally” Documentary; deleted scenes; a Harry Connick Jr. music video; the theatrical trailer; and additional vintage featurettes.