Phantom Lady

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez.

Known earlier in his career as co-director of a German-cinema milestone on which seemingly every future Hollywood émigré legend labored (People on Sunday), Robert Siodmak enjoyed a mostly terrific and certainly prolific Hollywood run from about 1944 to 1952, until a subsequent life of hard bumps and relative oblivion commenced. He’s among the directors who first come to mind in any discussion of film noir, though let it be noted that he managed to cap his American career with Burt Lancaster’s widely adored The Crimson Pirate, which can still show the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise a thing or two (and this is speaking as one who’s not un-fond of the first one).

Phantom Lady was Siodmak’s noir launcher, sandwiched between Son of Dracula (Lon Chaney as Count Alucard, and you’d better spell it backwards) and Maria Montez’s Cobra Woman (in Technicolor and with a script co-penned by Richard Brooks, who probably didn’t learn too much he later could bring to Blackboard Jungle from the experience). After an extended build-up that makes one wonder if the movie will break out into something more, Lady is ultimately put over by three extended sequences that easily carry the story beyond what turns out to be a resourcefully versatile lead actress (Ella Raines) is already doing. These set-pieces benefit from Siodmak’s accomplished eye and, one would assume, Elwood “Woody” Bredell — a cinematographer I had to look up because he was unknown to me. Turns out he shot two other Siodmak noirs (and two of the best: Christmas Holiday and Burt Lancaster’s star-maker The Killers) and then a pair of Warner Technicolor achievements that have been 60-year personal favorites: Doris Day’s star-maker Romance on the High Seas and Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, which I love almost as much as The Adventures of Robin Hood (there, I said it). Why didn’t Bredell work more?

Anyway. The Lady script (Bernard C. Shoenfeld adapting William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich) asks a lot in terms of asking us to accept coincidences and other unlikely events. A New York architect under the thumb of his estranged wife’s money (Alan Baxter) is accused of strangling her, and his alibi is a classy but depressed woman he picked up at a bar but whose heavily depressed state at the time kept her from divulging her name. Baxter later can’t locate her, the bartender claims never to have seen her, and soon this rather abruptly convicted victim is on death’s row. In lieu of help from a best friend (Franchot Tone) who’s out of the country, Baxter’s only hope is the sleuthing of his secretary (Ella Raines) who is constantly finding herself in life-threatening situations once it becomes clear that something about the whole deal smells highly suspect.

Here’s an 87-minute movie in which top-billed Tone doesn’t show up for nearly an hour, which means that the burden is on the mostly straight-arrow, Wichita-bred assistant Raines is playing — though in one of those three standout scenes, she rather spectacularly tarts herself up to masquerade as what used to be a called a “chippie” (a good word whose common usage I miss). This part of the story includes the famous drumming sequence by one of the bribed heavies here (Elisa Cook Jr.), whose studio-dubbed playing at a jam session is either supposed to come off as orgasmic or some kind of Gene Krupa-ish reefer madness. (Poor Gene. Whenever he’d come on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, the disapproving mother of a friend of mine used to yell, “dissipated” at the screen. She also did the same to did as well as any tube image of comedian and game show host Jan Murray, but I’m not necessarily her to give you my life story.)

When Tone finally shows up, he displays a few eccentricities of his own, which means he fits right into the package. It’s a twitchy performance that works for me and is certainly unlike anything else I can think of in the actor’s history (had he played the vice president’s role like this in Otto Preminger’s better-than-ever adaptation of Advise and Consent, it definitively would have put a decidedly different cast on the movie). Tone’s extended scene with Raines late in the picture is another of the picture’s big moments, along with Cook’s drum frenzy and Raines’s nocturnal pursuit of the bartender in her attempt to determine why the guy lied about never having seen the woman who was sitting at the bar with Baxter.

By this time — and even though his situation is what motivates the entire plot — the Baxter character becomes kind of the forgotten man. An actor who died in real life at 43 — and was, I’m flabbergasted to see, onetime Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth’s real-life uncle — Baxter was one of those actors who, like John Carroll and John Lund (though I always liked Lund), donned a mustache in some futile attempt to become the new Clark Gable. Ultimately, this is Raines’s picture from her biggest year in the movies (1944), when she also had the female lead in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (my favorite Sturges, says this son of a World War II Marine) and Tall in the Saddle — in which the bluejeaned/tomboy persona she projected in it made her one of John Wayne’s best leading ladies ever. I don’t know why Raines didn’t become a bigger star, but working for Universal in the ’40s and then Republic in the ’50s likely wasn’t the way to go about it.

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Visually, the Arrow Blu-ray is definitely a step up from the old TCM DVD, and that’s important when we’re dealing with shadows, fog, streetlights on pavement and that sexy/trashy black outfit Raines uncharacteristically dons when working undercover to determine just what Cook’s seamy story is. Extras include an Alan Rode essay (class) and a vintage noir doc that runs just under an hour that is better in the early and more germane going (appearances by Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk) than it is later on when John Dahl, Dennis Hopper, Carl Franklin and Bryan Singer talk about neo-noir, which tends to date the package, though some may disagree. It’s never a loss, though, seeing directors talk about their works, especially ones that have followings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’

The Adventures of Hajji Baba

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Derek, Elaine Stewart, Amanda Blake, Thomas Gomez.

I’ve always been a looney-tunes sucker for Arabian adventures in which caliphs, emirs and peasants look like someone you might see working a Motel 6 desk at 3 a.m. Thus, it was a personal delight a while back to see my old quiz show buddy Hal March in 1954’s Yankee Pasha playing someone named “Hassan Sender” — a casting coup I thought might never be topped. But here we are at the very opening of the same year’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba — and in full 2.55:1 early CinemaScope, we have Peter Leeds, Percy Helton and Claude Akins popping up in the same frame. As is often true, there’s no substitute for verisimilitude, and, of course, we haven’t even gotten to title lead John Derek yet.

So we will. In terms of Derek’s career timeline, this surprisingly lavish ‘B’-plus extravaganza come from fairly deeply back in Derek’s pre-“Bo” era, when the actor was still a couple years away from getting Debra Paget to take part in what amounts to Golden Calf submarine races in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments before the two repent from sin. But here, he’s cast as the lowly (if confident and handsome) Persian barber Hajji, who shaves and works out the shoulder kinks of his clients who include Thomas Gomez sporting a large enough gap between his upper front teeth for Chuck Yeager to do some stunt flying. You know: A little deep-tissue massaging here and a little Barbasol aftershave (or whatever the going product was) there — though I didn’t see much evidence of Butch Wax. This is almost surprising, given that the movie’s entire 94 minutes are given to palming off ancient times as the mid-1950s.

Lowly or not, Hajji ends up being viable suitor for Princess Fawzia (Elaine Stewart), who never stops letting everyone know that she’s smack atop the uppermost rungs of the “1%” or whatever they called that in those days. Worse, she has the entitled temperament of, say, a Trump Cabinet wife who finds a way to expense imported room service caviar and a new bra (I guess it would have to be Persian silk) out of some Treasury fund meant for hurricane relief. Plus a box of Wheat Thins for the caviar.

The movie thus becomes a cross between The Taming of the Shrew and It Happened One Night amid an assortment of desert adventures once Stewart’s Princess Faksia escapes from her fancy digs in an attempt to run off with a womanizing prince who’s also a rival to her exasperated father. These include being taken prisoner by a hoard of Turcoman Warriors (escaped slave babes who are now marauding land pirates) who string up their prisoners the way John Wayne and Stuart Whitman temporarily are in The Comancheros. Their leader (further minting the Western motif here) is Amanda Blake of “Gunsmoke,” which reminds me: Dennis Weaver’s Chester character wouldn’t have felt totally out of place here had he shown up in a cameo.

And yet all this ticklish nonsense doesn’t matter much on a purely sensual level because a name producer (Walter Wanger, just after Riot in Cell Block 11 but a little before Invasion of the Body Snatchers) sprung for major production values that probably helped the picture become a minor hit after Allied Artists wangled a distribution deal with studio-of-release 20th Century-Fox. So, OK: maybe Allied would stint a little on budget-busting the following year when they released Leo Grocery and Huntz Hall in Bowery to Bagdad (say, I’d better plunder my Bowery Boys archives because I see that the great Joan Shawlee is in that one). But not here.

To wit: Hajji production designer Gene Allen and color consultant [George] Hoyningen-Huene are a large reason why George Cukor’s movies looked so consistently smashing in the period spanning A Star Is Born (the version that ultimately matters, I mean) through My Fair Lady. And for that matter, Hajji cinematographer Harold Lipstein shot Heller in Pink Tights, which is among the most gorgeous of that bunch. Musically, the movie went all over the way with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin — and from the same year of his Oscar-winner for The High and the Mighty. In Twilight Time fashion, the score is isolated on this exceedingly immaculate Blu-ray’s alternative track, which is welcome.

In keeping with the ’50s, there’s also a Tiomkin-Ned Washington title tune sung by Nat King Cole — a fairly sizable hit that I remember vividly from my pre-rock early childhood. A Nat King Cole inclusion, even one with a really cool Nelson Riddle arrangement, shouldn’t work in this kind of movie, but Hajji is such a ludicrous anything-goes affair that the tune’s employment almost manages to be haunting — and might even be if the acting were better (though I suppose you have to say that Derek half-successfully goes with the flow). Taking a Tex Ritter cue from the frequently reprised Tiomkin-Washington theme to High Noon during that earlier film’s own narrative, a Cole refrain pops up throughout here, almost subliminally on the soundtrack.

Elaine Stewart was a really terrible actress, though I will say there are some beach shots of her in 1953’s A Slight Case of Larceny (from Hajji director Don Weis) that stopped my clock. Weis had a tiny and brief cult (quite so — and on both counts) that rated notice in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema; he had recently directed Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in I Love Melvin, which, for all its lack of pedigree is a more entertaining musical than La La Land will ever be. Hajji is similarly unpretentious, but it was actually considered to be racy in its day, which no doubt upped the grosses. My same-age friend Kathy from a next-door suburb tells me that she and her 7-year-old cronies really wanted to see it at the Grandview Theater in ’54 but were deterred by that old bugaboo before it became, more specifically, that Jack Valenti bugaboo: “parental guidance.” (My closest friends all ran a fast elementary-school track.)

Just three years later, Derek was back in soundstage Persia, though by this time, his career had slipped enough that he rated only fourth-billing in William Dieterle’s Hollywood swan song Omar Khayyam, which, for reasons unknown, Paramount green-lit for lead Cornel Wilde, the still ubiquitous Debra Paget and, yes, even window-shattering Yma Sumac, whose high notes could have taught Frankie Valli a thing or two. I actually even programmed OK once at the AFI Theater, which was ill-advised even for me, though, frankly, I would have run “The Complete Fred Sears” if I could have gotten 35mm VistaVision prints (I know, buffs: wrong studio). Some guy even drove down from Baltimore to Washington to see it, and that wasn’t even the year the Orioles opened the season at 0-and-21.

There’ve been no good prints I’ve ever seen around of Hajji; the TV prints rip out the transmission when they lurch into pan-and-scan after the film’s lengthy pre-credits sequence. I was more excited about this release than probably any other moderately sane person who’s been capable of attaining, say, a car loan, and seeing it look as intended gave me a huge kick. The scenics are splendid, and there’s more room for the campy acting to breathe (or, if you prefer, wheeze).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Naked Prey’ and ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’

Trapeze

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/25/18;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez.

Though Burt Lancaster eventually finessed the transition into senior emeritus status as skillfully as any actor who comes to mind, he and Tony Curtis were close to their irresistibly youthful peaks when they teamed up for Trapeze, the box-office chances of which were already tableset with the kind of title that looked irresistible on a marquee. To be sure, this onetime circus performer, who not long before had rewritten the book on screen gymnastics with The Crimson Pirate, was already past 40 when his production company took on this transparent labor of love. But no matter. Lancaster still looks here as if he could easily benchpress even portly Thomas Gomez, who plays the picture’s circus owner.

For that matter, Gina Lollobrigida, who shares top billing, doesn’t exactly look out of shape in her skimpy costume, though she’s more successful dressing up the poster art than struggling with English whenever her character is agitated — her perpetual state when so much (and too much) of the drama is driven by a love triangle.

Even so, Trapeze was a big deal at the time for boomer kids who wanted to see real stars (and not always their stunt-folk) photographed way up high, back when (Disney aside), there was only minimal distinction between adult and kids’ Hollywood fare. It was one of the three top box office draws of 1956, a very good movie year, and commercially hefty enough to play three weeks solo at one of my local downtown palaces, including one of them over the July 4 weekend. And sometime in the give-or-take early ’60s, United Artists even re-released it in a killer double bill with 1958’s The Vikings, which even could have made guys coming up for air in the local drive-in passion pit look at the screen at least once in a while. (This pairing would have made the aggregate tally here a pair of Tony’s, one Burt, one Kirk, profile shots of Janet Leigh and the sight of Ernest Borgnine doing a cannonball into a pit of wolves — that’s entertainment!).

Now, is Trapeze actually a good movie? Well, IMDb.com notes that Pauline Kael dug the star power (check) and Robert Krasker’s camera work (check), while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther (a reviewer I don’t usually quote) called the dialogue “dull and hackneyed” (check; good work, Bos, though this is much truer in the romantic scenes ). Kael also liked Carol Reed’s direction, and I will say that he and Krasker really do pack the CinemaScope frame with detail and circus “business” — working, in the process, a few magician’s diversions on the eye to make us think that the actors are doing more of their own stunts than they are. Then again, and depending on how you feel about 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings (a half-naturalistic color fantasy I personally love), Trapeze is really the dividing line for Reed. Though more successful than not, it was, up till then, his one relatively weak movie of the postwar era. After this, he fell off his Fallen IdolThird Man throne for the remainder of his career — the sole exception being the glorious oasis of Oliver!, a best picture Oscar winner and one of my favorite movies of all time.

Despite all the illusionary glitz (the spectacle doesn’t exactly extend to the performers’ spartan living conditions), the Trapeze story basics aren’t complicated. With circus aspirations in his blood, Curtis journeys from Brooklyn to Paris because he wants to learn how to perform the dangerous and super-specialized “triple” — which in trapeze terms is just what it sounds like. Once-famous Lancaster now works as a rigger in a Paris circus — no longer able to perform, other than maybe catching a healthy flier, after having taken a terrible bounce in the movie’s opening scene while attempting a triple himself. After initial reluctance, Lancaster agrees to act as teacher, leading to a flier act that decorative Lollobrigida would like to crash — though she seems a little taken aback upon learning that she might have to develop at least cursory high-wire skills. To scheme her way in, she shafts her old partners while strutting her stuff and wedging herself between the equally smitten Lancaster and Curtis. The hetero jealousy angle really grinds the movie down, though there’ll inevitably be some who see some gay subtext in the guys’ dynamics — a subject that bonus commentator Kat Ellinger accordingly examines in a very strong commentary, especially since the Lancaster character was gay in the Max Catto novel. My own opine on this is just as a country boy myself, though by 1956, my 9-year-old self was reading the Police Gazette in the barber shop. Most of what really puts the movie over are the far more kinetic scenes where the mechanics of flying are explained.

In 2014, Germany’s Concorde Video put out a Region ‘B’ Trapeze Blu-ray that I would have ordered at the time but for reviews that were consistently awful — so much so that they’ve stood out in my memory ever since. The hope was that this new Kino Lorber salvo would rectify these problems, but what we get must be (guessing here) a moderately polished-up version from the same inadequate ancient master — a Blu-ray oddity in that almost every other color United Artists release I’ve seen from this era has looked acceptable or better in home renderings. Though some of the non-big-top scenes do look a lot better than some of the panoramic stuff within the tent, the dribbly color takes a lot away from some very keen Reed-Krasker CinemaScope framing (this was Reed’s first widescreen effort) and doesn’t do Lollobrigida’s makeup any favors. She looks almost incomparably better in MGM’s Never So Few (see below), which came out four years later.

For all my reservations about Trapeze, I rarely resist giving it repeat glances or even more — undoubtedly due in part to personal nostalgia (I saw it at the time at a Saturday matinee; what could be better?) but also because of the no longer common “guy” star power on exhibit here. Home studio Universal-International had loaned out contract player Curtis twice before for Houdini and Beachhead, but the latter had cast him with Frank Lovejoy, which was not the means by which to afford Malibu domiciles or jumbo prawns anytime you wanted them. Trapeze, though, was the big leagues, and just a year later, Curtis would be back with Lancaster again in Sweet Smell of Success — a flop at the time but a Real Deal masterpiece, and in the long run, how many actors have had their historical standing imperiled by one of those?

Mike’s Picks: ‘Trapeze’ and ‘Never So Few’

Captain From Castile

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Tyrone Power, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero, Lee J. Cobb, Thomas Gomez. 

There’s no shortfall of goodies to carry Captain From Castile, and fairly easily at that, over the lumps you might expect from a 140-minute epic directed by Henry King, who in his day was probably the most prized house director at 20th Century-Fox (at least after the more freelancing John Ford left). The down side: King was also known for one the greatest disparities I can think of between the really good movies he made and the clunkers, of which there were many.

All components considered, my take has long been that you have to weigh Castile, and in not insubstantial ways, somewhat toward the former grouping — which would include Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter and Margie for personal starters. And a lot this is due to Alfred Newman’s durably famous and oft-recorded score for this shot-on-location 16th-century Technicolor epic, which is one of my three or four favorites screen compositions of all time. For the record, No. 1 would be Newman’s score for How the West Was Won, whose LP version I wore out even more in 1963 than Rat Pack vocals and the early Bob Dylan. As for Newman himself, he put Castile in his own personal top-3 along with his scores for Wuthering Heights and The Song of Bernadette (but while we’re at it, how about a little love for How Green Was My Valley?).

Appropriately, then, Twilight Time’s familiar virtue of isolating the musical score of its Blu-ray releases takes on added significance here with Castile because we can now concentrate on how Newman specifically applied one of his foremost achievements to the action at hand, courtesy of both the lushly romantic “Catana” theme written for leads Tyrone Power and Jean Peters and the majestically ass-kicking “Conquest,” which the USC Marching Band has employed as one of its staples dating back to when I was a very young kid. The latter piece is, of all things, used to enhance our respect for Cesar Romero’s military muscle — though this eye-twinkling comment from me isn’t intended as a diss. Next to his comically oily turn as the island governor in Donovan’s Reef, which always cracks me up just thinking about it, Castile contains my favorite screen performance from Mr. “CR 2” — which I’m told was Romero’s license plate number by a friend who once ended up next to the actor’s gas-guzzler at the same red L.A. traffic light. Regardless of the digit next to his initials, his characterization turns famed conqueror-with-a-mean-streak Hernan Cortes into a tough but fair relatively nice guy who just incidentally finds all-in-a-day’s-work pleasure in plundering Aztecs.

Adding to the musical emphasis is a commentary by music producer and Twilight Time guiding force Nick Redman and writer/producer/historian Jon Burlingame (who are all things to the history of movie music) and the ever-agreeable historian Rudy Behlmer — someone whose writings I began following when I was a young teenager. Behlmer has always been all things to just about anything filmic that ever happened anytime, including (it wouldn’t surprise me) how many bennies David O. Selznick sprinkled each morning on his All-Bran.

Good thing, because there’s a lot of rich screen history for the trio here to discuss: the massive wartime popularity and necessary truncation of Samuel Shellabarger’s doorstop source novel; a long, long location shoot in multiple Mexican locales; censorship problems with the Breen Office over the book’s treatment of Catholicism (there was a little thing called he Spanish Inquisition that didn’t reflect too well on the Church); and returning Marine Power’s attempt to reestablish his mammothly successful career at postwar Fox in a way that never totally took hold. Then there was Peters being plucked from the campus of The Ohio State University and into the lead of a costly picture her very first time out (fairly successfully, too); her courtship by, and eventual marriage to, Howard Hughes; and the ultimate inability of the picture to recover its sizable cost despite otherwise healthy box office in a year (1947) when overall attendance plummeted after wartime peaks (and with TV’s mass acceptance and viewing habits transformation yet to come).

As for the story, Cortes doesn’t even show up or become a factor until Spanish nobleman Power has had a pronounced fall from grace after aiding an escaped slave and onetime friendly acquaintance (Jay Silverheels, pre-Tonto). As a result, Inquisition forces come after Power and his family; his wedding plans go on the rocks; he forces a dastardly pro-Inquisition stooge (John Sutton, who had the market cornered on this kind of role) to do something truly terrible from his point of view before giving this crud a sword in his soft underbelly (the only kind he has). Oh, and he’s nearly executed. After all this, I’d go to Mexico as well, or any other country that Donald Trump hates, just to get away.

The print here has to be real-deal IB Technicolor, which I strongly suspect isn’t true of Twilight Time’s also recent release of the same year’s Forever Amber, another period spectacle I like a lot and one with another all-time great score (by David Raksin). I think there are a lot of preservation horror stories about Fox having scrapped original negative materials on Amber and other three-strip titles, though I wouldn’t absolutely go to the bank on my memory here. But I do absolutely remember that several decades ago, an employee of Warner Bros.-TV (foreign division, which also distributed certain Fox titles at the time) had a beautiful 35mm print struck of Castile just before the cessation of inarguably superior IB printing as a viable endeavor. So maybe (or not) this was the source. In any event, this is the real-deal visually in a manner that’s up to Newman’s scoring, and even the humble tablecloth that Peters’ tavern girl takes to the creek to bang on some rock for cleaning purposes looks sharper than most of my personal wardrobe.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Captain From Castile’