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    • Drums Along the Mohawk on Blu-ray

    • For John Ford the late 1930s were the years of his greatest success. The director had already chronicled the building of the transcontinental railroad (The Iron Horse) and the case of the unfortunate Dr. Mudd (The Prisoner of Shark Island). Drums Along the Mohawk became his second history-themed feature with Henry Fonda, made directly after Young Mr. Lincoln. Filmed in brilliant Technicolor, Mohawk is only 104 minutes in length yet has the feel of a national epic. It tells history the John Ford way - using noble imagery to venerate the experience of individuals caught up in great events. During the Revolutionary War, settlers in New York's Mohawk Valley are far out on the Western frontier, and also at risk from raids by their Tory neighbors and their Indian Allies. These are the people that 'built the nation'. It may be the White Man's version of events, but it's also the one that's stuck for 240 years.

      Newlyweds Gil Martin and Lana Borst (Henry Fonda & Claudette Colbert) take leave of a fancy wedding reception in Albany, and three days later arrive at his tiny cabin in the near-wilderness. Lana is at first appalled at by the primitive conditions and terrified when she meets her first Indian, the friendly Blue Back (Chief Big Tree). Come harvest time Gil's work has produced a crop, and Lana is expecting and happy. Then the Tory officer Caldwell (John Carradine) leads a party of Indians to burn out most of the farmers. The Martins lose everything and must hire on to work for Mrs. McKennar (Edna May Oliver), a well-to-do, outspoken widow. The likelihood of earning back their independence seems even more dubious when the Valley enters the war in earnest. Along with every other man "aged sixteen to sixty", Gil must leave to fight the Redcoats.

      Drums Along the Mohawk initially hits us like a 5th Grade textbook come to life, with Lana's palatial Albany home contrasting strongly with the green trees and blue skies of "The West". The place is packed with Ford's stock company of actors -- John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, Francis Ford. But Ford and screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien keep the drama centered on top-billed Claudette Colbert. Lana leaves home as if heading for a country picnic, and has a rough first couple of nights. The community they join is composed of rowdy frontiersmen who like the freedom of the wild, and transplanted city folk that have brought their customs and biases with them. Lana keeps a cupboard in the corner to hold her wedding gifts. A snooty neighbor tries to one-up her socially: "At home we always ate off of Wedgewood." Yet another woman desperate to maintain her social status is the Captain's wife, who repeatedly identifies herself as "The Captain's Wife." Out here in the sticks, the social pecking order has been replaced by another set of values.

      In his later post-war films John Ford would postulate the military family as a kind of social Utopia, but Drums Along the Mohawk presents an America too young to have established set traditions. Hence the repeated shots of Lana looking forward to the horizon, as John Wayne would do in later pictures. She may be waiting for Gil or worrying about Indians, but Ford's low angles give the impression that Lana is gazing into the grand future to come.

      Ford's superb compositional pictorialism is in full force here. He expressed strong opinions about the positioning of horizon lines: high in the frame, or low? Many scenes play foreground action against wooded backgrounds as much as a mile or two distant. It may be just a painterly pictorial effect, but the depth effects of rivers and trees stretching away into the distance, suggest a temporal distance as well. The events of the past are as remote as the far-away hills the characters at which the characters gaze. When Lana collapses onto a green field to watch Gil and his troop marching off to battle, down a road disappearing into the distance, it's as if she's at the mercy of history: is Gil already gone forever?

      The image of war forcing lovers to part may also have struck a topical nerve in 1939. Were audiences watching Drums Along the Mohawk already preoccupied by the prospect of America entering the European war?

      In 'historical' films by most other great directors, the heroes succeed by taking charge of history. Ford's characters are caught up by history, and swept along by it. Gil is a civilian soldier fighting for simple survival, not fervent patriotism. When their new flag is raised, Gil and Lana stare at it without perceiving exactly what it means. Patriotic music swells on the soundtrack, but they exit to return to their work. There's a lot of acreage to be cleared and cultivated between the Mohawk Valley and the Pacific Ocean, and the implication is that Americans will get the job done.

      Ford's stars make an attractive, energetic frontier couple. From the moment we see Colbert's broad smile and Fonda's blue eyes, we realize how big a deal Technicolor was at the time; these were definitely two of the Beautiful People. Ford's economy with camera angles may have made him a good choice for the expensive Technicolor process. The director builds drama and suspense without complex cutting. For a movie with little or no action montage -- close combat is only shown at the end -- Drums Along the Mohawk still feels like an action epic. Audiences are thrilled by the proto- The Naked Prey chase scene, in which Gil must outrun three Indian pursuers in a cross-country race for help.

      Edna May Oliver steals most of her scenes, and even makes her flirtatious moments with the much younger Ward Bond (!) seem amusing. The properly villainous John Carradine is used sparingly, but would be back the next year with an outstanding, inspiring performance in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Arthur Shields' preacher is good for some comic touches and hammy drama; Roger Imhof is excellent as the immigrant German General with bushy eyebrows and a fat belly. The meek, squeaky-voiced Eddie Collins is amusing as the company clerk; Walt Disney may have borrowed his screen persona for a recurring cartoon character. Chief Big John Tree had been in Ford's silent The Iron Horse and would be seen again as an old warrior hoping for peace in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He's the 'good' Indian, while the enemies fighting for England are faceless savages, pictured more or less the way the Mohawk settlers (invaders?) would see them.

      In the 1960s Drums Along the Mohawk was practically considered an educational film. I first saw it in the 4th grade, in B&W. It's an exciting picture that just might make a kid more interested in history. Some moments do need a bit of explanation. One of the proud settlers regarding the fort's new flag is Mrs. McKennar's black housemaid, who may not be freeborn: history tells us that some of the Mohawk Valley pioneers were slave holders, including General Herkimer. But the general charge against John Ford as a sexist director really doesn't hold for the films he made prior to his WW2 Navy service. The narrative is seen almost completely through Lana Martin's experience. A wedding, childbirth and the struggle to establish a home get equal stress with scenes of combat. Ford would soon win back-to-back Oscars with stories about established families crumbling under cruel social pressures, but this more optimistic show is about a family fighting just to survive. Its most telling personal moment may be when Lana, after observing her husband taking the time to go watch his baby sleeping in its crib, sits on the stairs and quietly cries for happiness, "O Lord, let this go on forever."

      The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Drums Along the Mohawk is a real stunner. The older Fox DVD looked pretty good, but this HD encoding must be an all-new restoration referencing original Technicolor elements. Twilight Time was wise to snap it up, even if no discrete score existed to put on an isolated music track. By 1939 3-Strip was no longer experimental, and cameramen Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan can work with a full range of hues and tones. Ms. Colbert must have been thrilled to see herself in such glorious close-ups. We can see how much light the process required when we see fireplace flames that give off little or no light and daytime exterior shadows that are jet-black. Even when standing in direct sunlight, the actors must have had Klieg lights blasting in their faces to fill shadows.

      The delicate images fully register the film's many textures, starting with the fabrics of the costumes and extending to the furniture and the wooden cabin interiors. In 1939, these images must have been a feast for the eyes.

      With only a trailer as an extra, Twilight Time has seen fit to include a second show, a feature-length documentary. Becoming John Ford uses the comments of numerous critics to tell the story of John Ford's career at the studio, and his mostly excellent creative relationship with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Director Nick Redman has directors Walter Hill and Ron Shelton recite words written by Ford and Zanuck, the same approach used for Redman's earlier Oscar-nominated short subject on The Wild Bunch. The show is not afraid to get into personal details, a welcome quality in these days of featurette docus that go no further than Wikipedia for vital research. I was particularly impressed when director-critic Joseph McBride generously credited author Janey Place for her positive feminist criticism of the great director. The docu is academically rewarding as well as entertaining.

      Julie Kirgo provides one of her consistently well-written insert essays. On this disc she also contributes a wealth of informative content to a full commentary shared with Nick Redman. Biographical and film-related aspects are well covered, and Ms. Kirgo also devotes a great deal of thoughtful discussion to the film's historical basis. We learn that the Mohawk Valley was indeed a strategic point in the Revolutionary War. Both sides used Indian allies. We also get more of an idea of the scale of the colonial experience. Much of the war was fought in isolated skirmishes, so that large parts of the colonies saw no action or threat. And although Gil and Lana appear to be taking a long journey away from her comfortable home in Albany, their overland trip may have taken them less than two hundred miles -- a journey that today can be made in a few hours.

      By Glenn Erickson

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  1. New Books

    • Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood's First Superagent

    • By Brian Kellow

      Before agent Sue Mengers burst on the scene in the mid-1960s, Hollywood agents were known more for their three martini lunches, signing ingénues and occasionally getting in the gossip columns. The life of a Hollywood agent was thought to be fairly staid. But brash, straight-talking Sue Mengers never wanted to be that kind of agent.

      She rose through the ranks by working hard and establishing connections in New York City during that city's mythic post-war theatrical scene. She ultimately joined Creative Management Associates which was then run by David Begelman and Freddie Fields. Recognizing Mengers' talent, when it came time to establish a Hollywood beach head, they sent Mengers west to help run their new office.

      A true original with a gift for making the biggest stars in Hollywood listen to hard truths about their careers and personal lives, it wasn't long before Mengers thrived in the heady atmosphere of movie stars, deals and Los Angeles sun. Sue quickly took the staid stereotype of the Hollywood agent and turned it on its ear. An invitation to dinner at her home became one of the most coveted requests in town

      She became as well known for a clientele that included Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Ryan O'Neal, Faye Dunaway and Michael Caine as she did for her trademarked oversized glasses and out-sized personality.

      Sue Mengers forever changed the image of the Hollywood agent and along the way, she changed the way that agents and their clients did business. Her story from New York beginner to Hollywood superagent is well researched and irresistibly told in this deft, new biography.

      Brian Kellow is the author of Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, which was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also the author of Ethel Merman: A Life, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, and the coauthor of Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. He is the features editor of Opera News. Kellow lives in New York City..


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    • I Said Yes to Everything

    • By Lee Grant

      Lee Grant grew up in New York City and dreamed from an early age that she could fly. She studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse, became a member of the famed Actor's Studio, a Vogue model, and then soared to new heights when, at the age of 24, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Detective Story (1951). She celebrated that new fame with marriage and a new family.

      Within a year, however, she was blacklisted, and the life she had built was in shambles.

      But Grant has always been resilient and despite the loss of her marriage, she picked up the pieces of her life and reinvented herself. She threw herself into work, accepting every theater or teaching job that came her way. She met a younger man and began a wild, liberat¬ing fling that she never expected would last a lifetime. Her tenacity paid off. After twelve years of fighting the blacklist, she was finally exonerated. With cour¬age and style, Grant rebuilt her life on her own terms: first stop, a starring role on the television drama, Peyton Place, and then leads in Valley of the Dolls andIn the Heat of the Night. Twenty-four years after her first Academy Award nomination, she won her first Oscar for her work inShampoo.

      Set amid the New York theater scene of the fifties and the star-studded parties of Malibu in the seventies, Grant evokes a world of political passion and movie-star glamour. She shares delightful tales of costars and friends such as Warren Beatty, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Sidney Poitier, and writes with unsparing candor about her multi-faceted life.

      Lee Grant is an Emmy and Academy Award-winning actress and director. In 1989, Women in Film honored Grant with their first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Grant founded the production company Feury/Grant with her husband and is an adjunct professor at Tisch School of the Arts. She lives in New York City.

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    • A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan

    • By Carl Rollyson

      After years of uncredited work in the silent film industry of the 1920s, actor Walter Brennan finally got his break as silent films were giving way to new fangled talking motion pictures. It was a break the young actor seized for all he was worth and, for the next forty-five years, would make the most of.

      During those ensuing years, he became one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history, and between 1936 and 1942, he won three Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (a record that still stands). He easily made the transition from film to television with The Real McCoys and was the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting that drew upon his unique roles in Western films.

      Over the years, with his craggy voice and unmistakable laugh, he supplied support to some of the biggest names in film, including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Author Carl Rollyson reveals Brennan's consummate mastery of virtually every kind of role, while playing against and often stealing scenes from these and other-luminary stars.

      He also explores Brennan's work with some of Hollywood's greatest directors, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang and also delves into Brennan's conservative politics, which were often at odds to those he worked with.

      Drawing on material in archives from around the country and written with the cooperation of Brennan's family, this first ever biography of Walter Brennan reminds us of the man behind so many memorable characters we love.

      Carl Rollyson is the advisory editor of the ,i>Hollywood Legends Series from University Press of Mississippi and the author of several biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress and Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews . He is also a professor of journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

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    • The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age

    • By Al Hirschfeld and David Leopold

      "I am down to a pencil, a pen, and a bottle of ink. I hope one day to eliminate the pencil." -Al Hirschfeld

      His work is part of our collective memory. Al Hirschfeld redefined caricature and exemplified Broadway and Hollywood, enchanting generations with his mastery of line. His art appeared in every major publication during nine decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as well as on numerous book, record, and program covers; film posters and publicity art; and on fifteen U.S. postage stamps. Few artists have been so celebrated.

      Now, The Hirschfeld Century brings together for the first time the artist's extraordinary eighty-two-year career, revealed in more than 360 of his iconic black-and-white and color drawings, illustrations, and photographs as well as his influences, his techniques, his evolution from his earliest works to his last drawings. David Leopold, who has spent more than twenty years documenting the artist's extraordinary output and worked as a Hirschfeld archivist, supplies the biographical text.

      His early doodles on the backs of theater programs in 1926 led to his work for the drama editors of the New York Herald Tribune, an association that lasted twenty years, to his receiving a telegram from The New York Times in 1928, asking for a two-column drawing of Sir Harry Lauder, a Scottish vaudeville singing sensation making one of his numerous farewell tours, which began a collaboration with the Times that lasted seventy-five years. His theater caricatures became a sensation and were soon appearing every week in one of four different New York newspapers.

      Here, through Hirschfeld's pen, is a litany of stars: Ethel Merman, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Elia Kazan, Mick Jagger, Ella Fitzgerald, Laurence Olivier, Martha Graham, and many, many others. Among the productions featured: Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Rent, Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz -Hirschfeld drew five posters for the original release-, Gone with the Wind, The Sopranos, and more.

      Also included are his brilliant portraits of writers, politicians and the like, among them Ernest Hemingway (a pal from 1920s Paris), Tom Wolfe, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

      Through the captivating images and illustrative text, a portrait emerges of an Hirschfeld, an artist and his age.

      Al Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis in 1903, grew up in New York City, and studied at the Art Students League. His work is in the collections of many museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvard Fogg Museum. Hirschfeld died in 2003 at the age of ninety-nine.

      David Leopold was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and studied at the University of Pittsburgh. He has organized several landmark exhibitions on a variety of aspects of Hirschfeld's art, among them Hirschfeld's Hollywood for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He lives near Philadelphia.

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  1. DVD Reviews

    • Point Blank on Blu-ray

    • When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank, where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

      Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker's odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker's attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

      Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence. It opens on a gunshot that should have killed him and he struggles to put it all together when he wakes up: "Cell. Prison cell. How did I get here?" Marvin is enigmatic, to say the least, as he tracks down his unfaithful, guilt-ridden wife (Sharon Acker), his wife's sister (Angie Dickinson), his old friend turned double-crossing heist partner Mal Reese (John Veron), and finally the syndicate bigwigs, all just to get his due: "I want my 93 grand."

      This vision of urban Los Angeles is alternately crowded and noisy and urban, and austere and empty and dislocated. His footsteps echoing through an empty, anonymous hallway becomes the disembodied beat of his march of revenge. A scatting, screaming R&B singer at a chic night spot called The Film Club is the feral soundtrack of a brutal backstage fight, at once visceral and abstracted in the clutter of 35mm film cans and nightclub supplies. The aftermath of a suicide becomes a psychedelic vision of destruction, which disappears in a cut to the apartment suddenly empty, a ghost house with no evidence of life or death, just transition.

      The dialogue is loaded with references to "a dream" and characters constant remind Walker that he's supposed to be dead. Keenan Wynn adds another level of remove as the devil whispering in Walker's ear, another unreal figure with a carefully concealed agenda who is preternaturally attuned to Walker's movements. More than an informant, he appears from nowhere to provide a name, an address, a piece of information on the trail to the top man in the Organization as Walker's debt keeps getting passed up the chain of command.

      Walker is both an unstoppable sentinel who seems more than flesh and blood and a vulnerable man wounded by betrayal who has armored over his emotions with a mission. Marvin delivers both sides of the character without compromising either. There's a cold fury under his deliberate movements and his eyes betray a moment of regret and sadness when he finds his wife dead by her own hand, but it is all pushed down and kept in check by his single-minded focus. "I just want my money" is his mantra, not a matter of greed but a debt to be settled to balance the scales. Marvin is at once deliberate and relaxed, a veteran criminal soldier alert to everything, which makes his character even more fascinating. He doesn't demand attention on screen, he commands it through confidence and ability and cool focus.

      That alone makes him more admirable than Mal, who is played by John Vernon as an oily, arrogant, amoral rat, selling out anyone and everyone to buy his way back into the Organization. The rest of the members of the cast don't play characters as much as cogs, functionaries in a criminal enterprise as a cutthroat corporation, simply doing their jobs as if Walker was a rival in a hostile takeover. Only Angie Dickinson's Chris has the passion and fury and emotional life of a human being, siding with Walker out of both loyalty and for payback against Mal ("He makes my flesh crawl") and the Organization that has taken over her business and her life. Sharon Acker, who plays Walker's wife, comes off less haunted than simply weak. She barely leaves an impression, which is fitting for her character but fails to offer any sense of tragedy to her story, and she's almost instantly forgotten after she exits the film. It's really the only weak element of the film, which otherwise is strong, confident, and sure from beginning to end.

      Point Blank has been called a modern film noir but it has more in common with Performance, another crime thriller that fractures time, offers enigmatic and ambiguous characters, and equates organized crime with big business. Boorman delivers meticulously executed set pieces that are designed for the wide CinemaScope frame with a sure sense of space and a dispassionate perspective. He emphasizes intelligence over action and presents Walker as total professional, never flustered and always emotionally removed from the situation. And if Walker is an extreme incarnation of the revenge driven noir anti-hero, the modern syndicate has transformed the old school mob into a world of paper jungles and corporate businessmen, an alienating concept to a two-fisted, gun-wielding independent like Walker. "Profit is the only principle," is their motto. Almost 50 years later, it's more modernist than modern, a fascinating time capsule of an era when young directors brought nouvelle vague style to classic genres, and a cryptic crime thriller that turns Marvin into the most enigmatic criminal professional in the movies.

      Boorman creates a hard, austere look for the film and the new Blu-ray delivers a sharp clarity to his vision of Los Angeles as an impersonal modern city. Apart from a few scenes, he strips the frame down to isolated figures in an empty urban landscape under the hard light of the California sun. It's an urban desert and the disc preserves that atmosphere of a ghost city by day and a shadowy underworld at night when the crowds gather on the streets and in the clubs. The impersonal palette of concrete surfaces and blank office interiors in the day gives way to the color of human habitation after dark, which oddly enough has a warmer atmosphere than the harsh light of day.

      Carried over from the earlier DVD release is an audio commentary track with director John Boorman and fellow director Steven Soderbergh, a fan of the film who essentially hosts the commentary. He engages Boorman in conversations about the film's style, the use of color and camera lenses, working with Lee Marvin (who became close friends with Boorman), and making his Hollywood debut with a film that refused to play by the studio rules. Soderbergh's The Limey was clearly indebted to Point Blank in both its theme of revenge and in its fractured storytelling and unconventional use of flashbacks. Taking part in this commentary is like paying tribute to his inspiration.

      Also features the vintage promotional featurette The Rock (in two parts), which looks at shooting the film on location in Alcatraz, and the original trailer.

      by Sean Axmaker

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    • Ravenous on Blu-ray

    • Ravenous (1999) channels the story reminiscent of the Donner Party disaster and the legend of Alferd Packer (the only American ever convicted of cannibalism) into a gruesome survival thriller with a crimson-hued streak of black humor and an elemental hint of the supernatural. The resulting film takes top honors as the definitive frontier cannibal movie. Not that there's a long list to choose from, mind you, but this earns its position with honors, thanks to a gleefully weird and savagely bloodthirsty sensibility.

      Guy Pearce is Captain John Boyd, whose battle cowardice during the Mexican-American war inadvertently results in making him an accidental hero. The ordeal of playing dead under the bleeding corpses of his fellow officers also puts him off meat, as the opening scenes so vividly illustrate. Director Antonia Bird cuts straight to the heart of the situation as she intercuts soldiers devouring bleeding-rare steaks at a military luncheon with the bloody casualties of battle stacked like cordwood: meat is meat, at least as far as this film is concerned. Boyd's commanding officer (John Spencer of The West Wing), who knows that his valor is a fraud, ships him out to the fringes of military reach: a fort in a California mountain pass, which runs with a minimal compliment during the impassable winter months. "This place thrives on tedium," smiles fort commander Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who takes everything with a bemused indulgence. How else to survive a company made up of a useless drunk second-in-command(Stephen Spinella), a giggling weed-head idiot (David Arquette), a twitchy, mumbling chaplain (Jeremy Davies), and a macho soldier boy (Neal McDonough) who holds the rest of the company in utter contempt?

      The tedium is quickly dispersed when a bedraggled disaster survivor (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into camp. He spins a horrific story of a lost wagon train and an incompetent scout who strands them in the mountains, where as the winter snows traps them and desperation leads to feeding on human flesh. It's a tale right out of the Donner Party until it turns feral, but it's not even close to the real story of Carlyle's wild-eyed survivor. For a starving man, he looks remarkably fit when he doffs his shirt, and other clues suggest that this is no production gaffe. One night, while camping on the trail to his old camp to search for survivors, he's caught licking the bleeding wounds of an injured soldier. You know, tasting his next potential meal.

      That's when the film takes its twist into weird and wild horror, a bizarre plot that doesn't really make much logical sense but sure makes for a wicked mix of psychodrama and visceral body horror. The Native American Wendigo myth is referenced to explain madness, but you could say it's a vampire tale without the supernatural dimension--it turns out human flesh is addictive, and it helps to have a nest of fellow flesh-eaters to keep the diet coming--or call it a particularly gruesome metaphor for manifest destiny. However you label it, it is off-the-charts crazy, an eat-or-be-eaten thriller served very, very rare.

      British director Antonia Bird seems like an odd match for this material. She honed her craft on TV drama and made her reputation with the tough, wrenching dramas Priest and Face, two films with complex characters and socially conscious themes. What they have in common with Ravenous is star Robert Carlyle, who recommended Bird after the film's original director Milcho Manchevski was let go after three weeks and the producer's chosen replacement, Raja Gosnell, was rejected by the cast. Bird (who passed away last year at the relatively young age of 62 after a battle with thyroid cancer) was frustrated by the conditions of the production and the oversight of the producers and she complained that her cut was compromised in post-production. That may explain the awkward pace, jarring turns, and a climax that feels tossed together--an uninspired way to end such a devious film--but she is clearly the architect of the odd, offbeat key of the film's blackly comic tone and surreal atmosphere and Carlyle is her partner in outsized madness. He leads the cast in playing their eccentricities big, though next to Carlyle's juicy performance, Arquette and Davies come off more like actor's studio sketches in twitchy weirdness or fidgety indecision than actual characters. Guy Pearce provides the contrast, creating a character fighting to maintain control and keep his emotions and his reflexive revulsion in check as everyone else lets their freak flag fly. It oddly enough makes him the most intense character on screen. As all that fear and disgust and anxiety just bottles up behind his desperate eyes and increasingly battered body, Pearce shows us the toll this ordeal exacts on him. In this survival drama, he's the one in true survival mode.

      Scream Factory's Blu-ray features a solid new HD transfer that preserves the dynamic contrast between the white-out daylight scenes of snow and the ominous shadows of the deep forest and the dark rough-hewn quarters of the frontier fort. Night doesn't have to fall for the darkness to seep into the image. Given the elemental quality of the imagery--much of the film takes place in the snowbound wilderness, with the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia standing in for California--the transfer has a satisfying level of grain that not only preserves the texture of the film but gives the entire atmosphere an added level of authenticity. These images feel like they were carved into the film.

      The film was previously released on DVD over a decade ago with three separate commentary tracks. Director Antonia Bird and composer Damon Albarn team up for the most informative track, with Bird talking in detail about the physical challenges of the production. Screenwriter Ted Griffin and co-star Jeffrey Jones tend to lapse into silences in their track and actor Robert Carlyle is even more intermittent in his the solo track. Also carried over from the earlier disc is a collection of deleted scenes (many of them in rough-cut form) with optional commentary by Bird and a gallery of stills. New to this edition is a 20-minute interview with Jeffrey Jones, who looks back on the themes of the film.

      by Sean Axmaker

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    • Southern Comfort on Blu-ray

    • A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It's 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors--a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft--are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They've got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don't know that it's just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn't matter if they did. They've been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.

      Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only. Beyond the swaggering banter of the soldiers and self-deprecating comments of Spencer (Keith Carradine), the self-appointed company joker, they have no real training, no experience under fire, and no commitment to one another. These guys are more like barroom buddies playing soldier than a disciplined force.

      There are two voices of restraint in the wilderness, Spencer and new guy Hardin (Powers Booth), a transfer from Texas who doesn't know anyone in the company but sizes up their weaknesses quickly and realizes that they haven't much a chance as long as wild cards like Reece (Fred Ward) and Stuckey (Lewis Smith) go charging through the swamps looking for payback. Casper (Les Lannom) takes command by virtue of an essentially meaningless detail of rank and bumbles around quoting regulations and making speeches, doggedly following the book because he hasn't a clue what to do next. The filmmakers don't make him a figure of ridicule, mind you, just a guy falling back on the only thing he knows. In fact, none of them are necessarily "bad guys," though like any Hill ensemble, it has its share of jerks, bullies, racists, and anger management candidates and the pressure brings out their worst instincts.

      So yes, it's a story of American soldiers in an alien land, lost in an unfamiliar landscape and outmaneuvered by a guerrilla army at home in the jungle. Director / screenwriter Walter Hill and producer / co-screenwriter David Giler insist to this day that Southern Comfort was never intended to be an allegory for Vietnam, simply a survival tale in an overwhelming and unfamiliar environment. It's hard to take them at face value but it is easy to forget the allegory in the heat of the drama. It also shares DNA with Deliverance, another film about city boys with guns who take their sense of ownership and entitlement into the wilderness, threaten the locals, and end up hunted by them. But where John Boorman's primal thriller turns his Appalachian backwoods men into brutal outlaws who take pleasure in stalking the city invaders, Hill and Giler keep their Cajun soldiers hidden, seen as figures in the distance or blurs running behind the trees, ghosts on the fringes of sight. They treat the would-be soldier like wild game, silently shadowing their progress and whipping them into a state of panic to steer them into their traps. And whatever the short-fused guys in the platoon think, this is no cultural conspiracy to wipe out the invaders. Their enemy consists of a handful of isolated hunters who didn't start the war but by God are determined to finish it. The rest of the Cajun folks they meet don't seem to be a part of it, though after a couple of days in the swamps, the paranoia is powerful enough to make every sidelong glance look ominous. Ry Cooder's eerie and haunting score only intensifies the paranoia.

      What ultimately differentiates them from the soldiers of a classical platoon drama is that they haven't bonded under fire and have never had to put their trust in one another. This group unravels and tears itself apart from fear and panic and unfocused rage. And in classic Hill manner, there are no philosophical musings or existential conversations. The closest the film comes to putting its theme into words is from the mantra of a terrified Simms (Franklyn Seales), who finds himself cut off from the group and suddenly aware of just how vulnerable he is. "I'm not supposed to be here," he repeats, as if begging the universe to correct some cosmic planning error. And then he's no longer there.

      While this band of infighting brothers wades blindly through the swamp without a clue as to their bearings or direction, Hill's direction never falters. He has always had a sure hand as a storyteller, keeping his plots uncluttered and letting the details of character, conflict, and the world around them define the story. Southern Comfort limits the world to the middle of the swamp, where we (like the soldiers) are unable to find any point of reference, and observes how the discomfort of the environment and the constant disorientation takes its toll on what little good sense the characters bring with them to the mission. It exacerbates the already dysfunctional dynamics of this platoon of battle virgins and is as deadly on its own as the native hunters who use the environment as a weapon in their arsenal. It's not necessarily skill or even luck that saves the guardsmen who survive the ordeal. In classic Hill fashion, it is a matter of intelligence, awareness, teamwork, and the commitment to do what is necessary to survive. There's no sense of victory in survival, merely relief.

      Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack. Both discs feature the new HD master but the Blu-ray of course features superior clarity and richness of color. Both are clean, strong images while the Blu-ray shows off excellent detail. The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack puts the mix right up front. A couple of scenes of chaos and confusion overwhelm the dialogue with background sound, which is surely intentional but still seems a little out of balance to my ears.

      New to this release in an original 27-minute featurette with new interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Lewis Smith, and Peter Coyote and, on low-resolution video via Skype, director Walter Hill and producer David Giler, who collaborated on the script with Hill. The actors share stories of shooting in the Louisiana swamps in February with wet suits under their uniforms, six weeks of working in the cold and damp, and they remind us that they were all in it together. The crew endured the same conditions so no one had the right to complain. More interesting is the discussion around the themes of the film. Hill and Giler maintain that while they did not intentionally set out to make a Vietnam allegory they were aware that audiences would make that connection, while the actors admit that they knew it was an allegory from the moment they read the script. Keith Carradine's reading is particularly detailed and interesting. Curiously, none of the six participants mention Deliverance.

      Carried over from the old DVD release is a brief collection of outtakes and the original trailer. All of the supplements are featured in both the Blu-ray and DVD discs of the Combo Pack.

      By Sean Axmaker

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    • Tess on Blu-ray

    • Tess (1979), Roman Polanski's film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1890 novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, has in 2014 received a sublime Blu-Ray and DVD release from Criterion. Restored by Pathe under the direct supervision of Polanski himself, the movie looks and sounds magnificent. At first glance, the lushly beautiful Tess is a seemingly unusual work for Polanski, whose films we tend to associate with horror and sex, but this was actually a highly personal project for the master filmmaker. It was his first picture after fleeing the United States in 1977, and also a project that his wife, Sharon Tate, had suggested he make as a vehicle for herself -- just before she was murdered by the Manson gang in 1969. Polanski read the novel after her death and realized it was indeed right up his alley, and he dedicated the eventual film to her with an on-screen inscription.

      Hardy's tale, to which the film is very faithful, is about a poor English girl, Tess, whose father learns he is a distant descendant of a once prominent, rich family, the D'Urbervilles. He sends Tess to the home of a remaining D'Urberville to find employment (or at least a handout), but Tess winds up being seduced by the ne'er-do-well Alec D'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who becomes obsessed with her. Fleeing Alec, she eventually finds work at a dairy farm and starts a passionate relationship with a young farmer named Angel Clare (Peter Firth). But in this society, the revelation of the sins of her past, even if they were not her fault, could doom Tess to shame, ostracism and worse. Ultimately, Tess is about a woman struggling to make her way in the world, looking for happiness, or at least survival, but finding that a judgmental society, timing and even luck are all working against her.

      Polanski explores this theme vividly, sympathetically and cinematically. Costumes, speech and physical mannerisms of the actors all convince the audience of the time period and of the distinctions among the social classes, and the film's pictorial beauty does much to stress the contrasting cruelty of some of the characters. The movie is not "pretty" for prettiness' sake. Most important, one really feels the isolation of Tess throughout the film, which is at once sprawling and intimate. The plot itself, while important, feels less vital here than the depiction of Tess' emotional experience of the world she is forced to inhabit, and as a result, the long running time feels entirely appropriate and never tedious.

      Tess was shot entirely in France, mostly on locations in Normandy and Brittany, because Polanski worried that if he traveled to England he would be extradited to the United States. Polanski later wrote, "To tell the story at all, it was essential to find the proper setting, a twentieth-century equivalent of Hardy's nineteenth-century Dorset. The only way to convey the rhythm of his epic was to use that setting as an integral part of the film, signaling the passage of time and the change in Tess herself by means of a visible, almost palpable change in seasons. Once our rural locations were chosen, we would have to film throughout the year from early spring, through high summer, to the depths of winter." With such a shooting strategy, filming wound up lasting nine months over 80 separate locations, and Tess became, at $12 million, the most expensive film ever made in France to that point. Freak weather and labor strikes only added to the overall time and expense.

      If Tess is atypical of Polanski, it's in the way that The Age of Innocence (1993) is atypical of director Martin Scorsese. But in fact, both films are completely emblematic of their directors' concerns and are indeed suffused with violence. It's just that the violence is emotional, an undercurrent beneath a pristine surface -- exactly like the societies the films depict.

      That being said, it's hard to shake some of Tess's most exquisitely beautiful imagery, such as the lovely natural light of an outdoor dance, or the riders and dogs on a fox hunt who appear out of a sublime mist, or the face of Nastassia Kinski, who is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (a quality, incidentally, that is vital to the story). Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who had shot such films as Becket (1964) and Cabaret (1972), died a few weeks into production and was replaced by Ghislain Cloquet, who sadly would himself pass away two years later. They shared the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also won for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score.

      Criterion's dual-format release contains one Blu-ray disc and two DVDs, with both formats containing the film and identical extras. And there are plenty, starting with three short documentaries about the film's making (originally included in Columbia's 2004 DVD release), directed by Laurent Bouzereau and totaling 73 minutes in length. Bouzereau expertly interviews key players like Polanski, producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill, co-writer John Brownjohn, actors Nastassia Kinski and Leigh Lawson, set decorator Pierre Guffroy, costume designer Anthony Powell, hair and makeup artists, the crew electrician, the assistant editor and others. The artists discuss fascinating details of production, like the challenge of getting the "strawberry seduction" scene between Kinski and Lawson just right (which astonishingly was shot on a rainy day despite looking on-screen like the height of warm summer), the creation of the Stonehenge set outside of Paris, and the design of the costumes to be authentic and truly expressive of character -- beautiful without being decorative. Powell is fascinating as he discusses his approach, and also about the little splotch of blood he put on the hem of Tess' dress at a key point in the story, which Polanski shot for maximum impact.

      Burrill recalls that on location the filmmakers were only able to see the rushes days after shooting, rather than the next day, and not always under the best conditions. But gradually, he says, "we started to see what was happening, the magic that was coming off the screen, and the extraordinary professionalism of Nastassia.... I don't think there was ever one day when she fluffed a line. She was word-perfect, always."

      Second is a 52-minute documentary from 2006 by Daniel Ablin and Serge July entitled Once Upon a Time... Tess. This is also interesting, but it covers much of the same material as the Bouzereau pieces, with many of the same interviewees telling the same stories. It's also not as smoothly edited. But unlike the Bouzereau film, it includes composer Philippe Sarde, and delves more into Polanski's pre-Tess life and career. It also recounts the difficulties in Tess's post-production, particularly concerning the running time. Francis Coppola was brought in by producer Claude Berri to trim the film, which was deemed overlong, but Polanski hated the result, leading to a falling-out between Berri and Polanski and between Polanski and Sarde. Polanski himself eventually trimmed the film by about 20 minutes, resulting in the current running time of 171 minutes.

      Third, there's a 1979 episode of the French TV program Cine Regards, running 48 minutes, that looks at the making of Tess and interviews Polanski during the film's production. The interviews with Polanski are revealing, but the real strengths of the piece are the long, uninterrupted slices of life on the set as Polanski directs and thinks through scenes, conducting his orchestra of crewmembers. These sequences go on long enough to make us feel as if we are there.

      Fourth is a 1979 episode of the British TV program The South Bank Show, 50 minutes in length, in which host Melvyn Bragg interviews Polanski. And Criterion rounds things out with the film's trailer as well as a handsome printed booklet containing a fine essay by Colin MacCabe and crisp, colorful photos from the film, almost all of which feature the entrancing Nastassia Kinski. It's a beautiful package and motion picture, all very highly recommended.

      By Jeremy Arnold

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    • Used Cars on Blu-ray

    • The opening of Used Cars (1980) has the ominous, wind-scoured character of a modern crime film in a desperate southwest town where a Sergio Leone western wouldn't be out of place. The camera cranes down from a high shot over a struggling used car dealership, where a few pathetic beaters line the lot, and slowly glides over to one car with someone is crammed under the dashboard. The only sound is the lonely wind--the kind of strangled, desolate howl you get in dustbowl dramas and desert survival thrillers--and the grunts of the man struggling with the mechanics under the dash. And then we see the odometer turn back, shaving some 40,000 or so miles from the record. The title hits the screen, a brass band jumps in with "Stars and Stripes Forever," and the unidentified mechanic wriggles out to reveal Kurt Russell in a cheap, loud suit making his rounds to mask the sorry condition of the cars on the lot. It turns out that this is a crime movie after all, or at least a film of multiple misdemeanors and bald-faced misrepresentation, and the perpetrators are the good guys.

      The second feature from director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Used Cars comes right out of the screen comedy culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the underdogs snubbed their collective noses at authority, propriety, property and privacy laws and anything else that crossed their paths in slobs vs. snobs comedies like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984). Used Cars is raucous and reckless and far more gleefully corrupt than any of its brothers in rebellion, embracing the confidence games and illegal stunts pulled by the skeleton crew that works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), who is the closest thing that the film has to an honest man. The devotion of salesmen Rudy (Russell) and Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and mechanic Jim (Frank McRae) to Luke is really all that separates them from Luke's rapacious brother and across-the-street rival Roy L. Fuchs (Warden again) and his slick sales force. That and the fun they have ripping off the rubes who wander on to their lot.

      The premise of film - two used car outfits at war with one another - was hatched by John Milius, who was one of the executive producers (along with Steven Spielberg), but the script is pure Zemeckis and Gale. The rivals are twin brothers, the Cain and Abel of used car dealers. When impending freeway construction threatens to destroy bad brother Roy's dealership and make the good brother Luke rich, Roy finds a way to speed the demise of Luke's bad heart and Rudy makes good on his promise to keep Roy from taking over the lot. Rudy has his own, more immediate motivation, of course--he's trying to buy his way into the local political machine and he's still a little short on the down payment--but it's also personal. Luke is something of a father figure to the crew, which makes them the mischievous sons who break the rules whenever dad's back is turned. After Luke dies, their antics more outrageous, from secretly burying Luke on the lot (his beloved convertible fittingly serves as his casket) to jamming satellite signals with wild pirate commercials replete with gratuitous nudity and senseless destruction of private property. The plot seems to careen from one comic collision to another but there's a nicely-constructed plan under it all, simple but ingenious enough that you don't actually see how the pieces are laid in place until it all comes together in the ragged spectacle of final act.

      It's not really a satire of American business so much as a wicked lampoon: lie, cheat and steal as the American way, as long as you do it with a sense of fun. Kurt Russell was just breaking out of his clean-cut post-Disney persona when he took on the role and he sinks his teeth into Rudy, turning the brash characters into the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises. Gerrit Graham is his partner in commercial piracy, unfazed by anything but harbingers of bad luck, notably red. Deborah Harmon is both romantic interest and plot complication as Luke's long lost daughter, who shows up just after dad's death. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is ubiquitous character actor and future director Alfonso Arau in his first great comic role in an American film (Romancing the Stone and Three Amigos soon followed). But the entire cast is in danger of being upstaged by the adorable dog Toby, who has his own role to play in the sale stunts. This pooch's hilarious performance makes him one of the greatest movie dogs.

      Zemeckis matured into a polished filmmaker and an ambitious storyteller and went on to make more sophisticated, more provocative, and certainly more subtle films, but he never made anything as savagely funny as Used Cars. Its banged-up ingenuity and rough-and-tumble energy and warped mirror reflection of the American Dream as a snatch and grab free-for-all is wickedly funny. Everyone is a crook here and the epilogue even enshrines mendacity as a virtue, at least when it comes to stepping into the used car game.

      Used Cars has a remarkably tidy visual aesthetic for a film about a seedy, shabby culture, with a screen that is uncluttered and flooded with desert sunlight in day scenes and blasted with floodlights as bold as a football stadium night game for the after-dark stunts. The new HD transfer shows a well-preserved print and is sharp and clear. Simply put, it looks superb.

      The commentary track with Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell, carried over from the 2002 DVD reelease, is almost as fun as the movie. "We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, except he's totally corrupt," is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of Rudy. Kurt Russell laughs back: "So you cast me!" These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Few commentaries manage to balance the information and entertainment so well.

      There's a four-minute reel of outtakes (apparently taken from surviving video dub; it's all quite hazy), a radio interview with Russell, a car commercial featuring Russell, galleries of art and stills, and not one but two isolated score tracks: along with Patrick Williams' musical score heard in the film is an alternate, unused score by Ernest Gold. We don't quite get it in the context of the film (at least not with dialogue and sound effects) but it's a more conventional, less satirical approach. The accompanying 8-page booklet features another fine essay by Julie Kirgo.

      By Sean Axmaker

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  1. Press Release

    • TCM Remembers Dickie Moore (1925-2015)

    • Turner Classic Movies Pays Tribute to Dickie Moore on Thursday, September 24 with the following festival of films. This program will replace the previously scheduled movies for that day so please take note.

      The new schedule for Thursday, September 24 will be:
      6:15 AM Three Who Loved (1931)
      7:30 AM The Star Witness (1931)
      8:45 AM So Big (1932)
      10:15 AM Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
      11:45 AM The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
      1:15 PM My Bill (1938)
      2:30 PM Sergeant York (1941)
      4:45 PM Out of the Past (1947)
      6:30 PM Bad Boy (1949)

      A cherubic boy with pronounced dimples, Dickie Moore was a prolific child actor in features from the late 1920s through the 1950s in such films as Blonde Venus (1932), Sergeant York (1941) and Heaven Can Wait (1943) among his hundred-plus titles. Moore hit his stride at age seven, when he appeared in over 20 films, including Oliver Twist (1932), for which he played the title role, and numerous Our Gang shorts. Like many juvenile actors, his career slowed as he reached his teenaged years, though there were occasional choice parts, like the courageous Kid in Out of the Past (1947). He also co-produced and starred in an Oscar-nominated short film, The Boy and the Eagle (1949), but by the 1950s, he had abandoned acting for public relations, which kept him active for several decades. Moore's long, successful and turmoil-free life stood in stark contrast to the countless stories of child actors whose lives crumbled into disarray after their stars had dimmed.

      (Biographical info courtesy of TCMDb)

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    • DESERT NOIR: A Review of the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs

    • As I drove from Los Angeles to Palm Springs on the morning of May 15 in the pouring rain -- it rained literally all the way to the Riviera Hotel -- I thought how appropriate this extremely rare late-season rainfall really was. After all, I was driving into the desert for only one reason: to watch film noir. And what is more "noir" when it comes to weather than darkness and rain? Let's just say it put me in the perfect mood for the sinister, shadowy, doom-laden world of film noir, with its fedora-wearing mugs, shadowy settings and rain-soaked streets. (Or at least water-truck-soaked streets.)

      The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival has been happening annually for sixteen years. Once again, festival producer and host Alan K. Rode organized a superb showcase of film noir screenings and special guests over a 72-hour period beginning Thursday night, May 14, and ending Sunday evening, May 17. Twelve films were shown (most in 35mm), five of which were followed by in-depth discussions with actors from those films or with film scholars. And all the films were given intriguing introductions by Rode or two of his colleagues from the Film Noir Foundation, a festival sponsor.

      Overall, this was a fun, relaxed, hassle-free event, with no jostling crowds (even though each show was close to sold out), no rushing about to get a good seat in the Camelot Theatre (they're all good, with amazing legroom), and no stressing between screenings about getting a bite to eat (the films are spaced far enough apart that there's time). The audiences were respectful, friendly, and engaged.

      And just as the rain put me in the mood for the festival, the festival itself put me in the mood for TCM's fast-approaching Summer of Darkness series this June and July -- nine Fridays in a row filled with 24 hours of film noir each day. Five of the twelve films in Palm Springs will be featured in the Summer of Darkness series. Read on for the details.

      I had been unable to get to Palm Springs on Thursday for the opening night film, Miller's Crossing (1990), the Coen Brothers' famous neo-noir. By all accounts, special guest Jon Polito gave a wonderful, rollicking interview to Alan K. Rode after the screening, enlightening the audience with his tales of working as an actor on that film plus four other Coen Brothers pictures. And I arrived a bit too late to catch the Friday morning screening of They Won't Believe Me (1947), a film I have seen before and admire very much -- and which I remember well for its twist ending. Robert Young plays a man on trial for murder, generating flashbacks which recount his tale of marriage and affairs that led to death. This was one of a few noirs produced by longtime Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison, and it's well worth catching when it airs on TCM on June 26.

      While They Won't Believe Me was unspooling, I arrived to check in at the Palm Springs Riviera Hotel. If there's a more perfect hotel in Palm Springs in which to stay while attending a classic-movie-related event, I don't know what it is. The Riviera opened in 1959 as an immediate go-to hotspot for Hollywood celebrities, notably Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. Elvis Presley stayed there often. A few years ago it was renovated to recapture its swinging '60s vibe, and it still boasts mid-century design, furniture and color schemes in its rooms and public spaces, starting with a pool table just off the lobby. It looks and feels just like a place where Mad Men's Don Draper would stay on a Palm Springs vacation, and it really put me into more of an old-school, classic-Hollywood mindset than usual.

      But after checking in, it was off to the Camelot Theatre, just a couple of miles away, for an early afternoon screening of On Dangerous Ground (1952), one of my all-time favorite noirs. It had been a few years since I'd last seen it, and as soon as Bernard Herrmann's score came on over the opening images of dark, high-contrast, wet city streets, I was enveloped in its strong atmosphere. Directed by Nicholas Ray, it stars Robert Ryan as a city cop who is too rough, too violent, too aggressive when dealing with hoods, suspects, or, for that matter, anyone. Things reach a boiling point and he is sent by his commander to cool off out of town by investigating a murder case upstate. Off goes Ryan into a snowy, rural landscape, where he encounters Ward Bond as a vengeful father of a murdered child, and Ida Lupino as a blind farm-woman who may hold the key to the mystery. The contrast between urban and rural, dark and light, suffocating cramped space and wide-open fields, is totally visual and perfect for a filmmaker of Ray's caliber to explore. That he lends the rural area with just as much noir menace, but with an underlying beauty that begins to soften Ryan's hard edge, shows Ray as one of the great directors. Ryan and Lupino are each spectacular here, and On Dangerous Ground is a must-see when it airs on TCM July 10.

      Following the screening, Alan K. Rode welcomed to the stage film critic J.R. Jones, who has just published a biography of Ryan (The Lives of Robert Ryan) and lent some worthy insight into a star who generally shunned the limelight and kept his life quite private. Ryan is one of my favorite actors -- he has a volatile quality that makes his performances, and characters, unpredictable, and he's just as convincing playing tough, violent and scary as he is playing sensitive and wounded. When a film like On Dangerous Ground offers him the chance to show off his wide range, he really shines. Jones said that Ryan himself considered On Dangerous Ground to be just a routine crime film, one of many he made in the period, and that he was longing at the time to do what he considered to be more serious work. Among Ryan's favorites of his own films were The Set-Up, Inferno, The Naked Spur, Billy Budd and The Iceman Cometh. Jones also discussed Ryan's late-in-life relationship with Maureen O'Sullivan, which was something I had not known about.

      Coincidentally, Maureen O'Sullivan appeared in the day's next noir, The Big Clock (1948), directed by her husband, John Farrow. It's an excellent, taut suspense tale of a tyrannical publisher (Charles Laughton, modeled on Time magazine's Henry Luce), and an editor (Ray Milland) who races against time to clear himself of murder. Time is the key thematic and dramatic concept of his film, whose story is as intricately and perfectly designed as a fine Swiss watch. Film scholar/author/professor Foster Hirsch introduced the film as "really a story about control." The novel on which it is based, Hirsch said, "was written by a man, Kenneth Fearing, who lost control of his life, over and over again. He was an uncontrollable alcoholic, and he drank himself to an early death." Hirsch also related that Farrow made O'Sullivan audition for the role even though they were married, and that he considers Laughton's mustache here to be "the worst mustache in the history of movies!" You can see it for yourself in TCM's Summer of Darkness series on July 3.

      Following The Big Clock, there was time to head to the Riviera for a quick poolside dinner. The hotel itself is shaped like the spokes of a wheel, and so is the pool, creating many nooks and crannies of pool and terrace. In one area is a comfy restaurant area that grows out from a bar inside. (Next door is a more formal restaurant space.) It was the perfect spot to grab a tasty burger and salad while other guests soaked up the last rays of sun, as the rain had since ended.

      Back at the Camelot a little later, the day's final film got going: Chicago Calling (1951). This little 75-minute picture may contain Dan Duryea's best performance. It's a tour de force for an actor best known for oily, scheming bad guys. Here he's a sympathetic (if struggling) father, desperately trying for most of the movie to raise 50 bucks so as to pay his phone bill -- so that the phone won't get disconnected and he can receive word of his daughter, who has been injured in a car accident across the country with his estranged wife. Shot on location all over downtown Los Angeles, Chicago Calling positively aches with Duryea's well-meaning, good-hearted, deeply flawed character's struggle. He takes on a sidekick in a little 10-year-old boy (Gordon Gebert) who accidentally hits Duryea's dog with his bike. Gebert quickly becomes a surrogate son, helping Duryea on his quest to raise the money and learning some valuable, touching lessons in morality. It's very possible that The Bicycle Thief (1948) inspired director John Reinhardt's treatment of this story -- the films have very similar feels and narrative devices.

      Gordon Gebert, now 73, appeared on stage for an interview with Alan K. Rode following the movie. A child actor in such other films as Holiday Affair, Fourteen Hours, The House on Telegraph Hill and To Hell and Back, Gebert left acting as a young adult to pursue a career as an architect and college professor. He spoke fondly of his years as a child actor for RKO, which often loaned him out, and said that he still receives fan mail -- thanks largely to TCM's occasional airings of his films. Gebert said that Duryea was a sweet guy, a devoted father in real life, and totally unlike the smarmy characters he excelled at.

      The next morning kicked off with another little-known film noir, but one which will also be shown on TCM this summer, on June 12: Tomorrow is Another Day (1951). Introducing the film was Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, who will be serving as the primetime host for the Summer of Darkness series. He cited Tomorrow is Another Day as one of his favorite films and mentioned that he was excited to have programmed it on TCM this June with Gun Crazy (1950), another lovers-on-the-run story. "But they each handle the theme differently," he said, with differences in point of view and emotional emphasis demonstrating quite compellingly how the little choices by a writer and director can make all the difference in audience response to what are otherwise similar stories. Here, Steve Cochran plays a just-released prisoner trying hard to forge a new life and leave his past behind -- usually a losing battle in film noir! The leading lady is Ruth Roman, outstanding. As Muller said, "To people who only know her from Strangers on a Train (1951), she can seem kind of plain, a little patrician maybe, but in this film she is a revelation. She plays one of my favorite hard-as-nails dames ever in film noir. And she's a blonde in half the film!" Cochran, too, is at his best in this picture, showing a vulnerable side that engenders much audience sympathy. In fact, the film's most penetrating "noir" feeling comes from the early scenes of Cochran unable to find work or a footing in life. The world is seen as a big, strange, unrelenting place, with no room for this man who only wants a fair shake. Further, Cochran is like a boy in a man's body as a result of having grown up in prison. He has limited skills and no clue how to talk to or behave with women. It's a fascinating notion, but the movie is only able to hint at his virginal state, due to production code requirements.

      Up next was M (1951), a remake of Fritz Lang's 1930 classic. This 1951 version, directed by Joseph Losey, holds its own as a powerful take on the story of a child murderer hunted by police and citizens. Shot on location in downtown L.A., with a memorable setpiece in the Bradbury Building, it's evocative and often visually stunning, and David Wayne is superb as the psychotic killer, lending shades of complexity. Also in the cast are noir stalwarts such as Raymond Burr, Howard Da Silva, and Steve Brodie. The film was shown in a restored 35mm print but is not currently on DVD or available on TCM. Afterward, Rode welcomed to the stage 100-year-old Norman Lloyd, who plays a supporting role in this film. Just as he was at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, Lloyd was positively charming and entertaining as he regaled the Camelot audience for half an hour with tales of his career. M was not a particular favorite of his, but he did speak of Joseph Losey, whom he first met and worked with in 1934 in a Harvard Dramatic Club play. ("I thought, this is the nearest I'll ever get to going to Harvard, so I said yes!") Lloyd worked with Losey on four plays in the '30s, the most important of which was the The Living Newspaper -- a production of the Federal Theater and the Works Progress Administration put in place under Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lloyd recounted his work with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater and described firsthand Welles' famous all-black production of Macbeth. Asked by Rode about his longevity, Lloyd said, "You've got to look ahead. If you don't, you're dead. You've got to be working, you've got to be making mischief!" Judging by all the racy asides and jokes he made to the audience, the crowd-pleasing Lloyd seems to have no problem on that front.

      "Wow, Steve Cochran and Lawrence Tierney on the same day? This is almost like badass overload!" exclaimed Eddie Muller. Indeed, not long after Tomorrow is Another Day with Cochran, we were treated to Born to Kill (1947) with Tierney, whom Muller described as "the meanest man in the history of motion pictures." Tierney wasn't acting when he played his despicable, ruthless lowlifes, Muller said. "He really was that character. And that's the secret of Lawrence Tierney on camera: he is a dangerous man. But there's something magical that happens on screen." In this tale, based on what Muller described as "one of the most depraved and perverse novels in the annals of crime fiction," James Gunn's Deadlier Than the Male, Tierney plays a psychopathic killer who essentially infiltrates a wealthy San Francisco family, marrying the sweet sister of devious, cunning Claire Trevor for only the most contemptible of reasons. Trevor is excellent in one of the best bad-girl roles she ever had. In a 1976 interview, she called her character here "a real psycho, a real mixed-up girl. And I got a big kick out of that... I found [her] more interesting to play than gangster's molls, because I don't think a gangster's moll is that psychologically disturbed." The novel, Muller said, "goes David Goodis and Jim Thompson one better. The resulting film is pretty incredible. But be aware of the fact that much of what is depraved about this story has to find its way under the limits of the production code." Definitely see all this for yourself when Born to Kill plays on TCM in the Summer of Darkness on June 5.

      The Saturday night film was Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950), with Richard Widmark as a doctor chasing disease-infected criminals through the seedy underworld of New Orleans with cop Paul Douglas. The plague has been brought to town by an infected illegal alien, and the film becomes a race against time to avert an epidemic. Kazan brings his usual topnotch character shadings and strong sense of atmosphere to the dark, lowlife world of New Orleans criminals, which, while it is not included in this summer's TCM series, is well worth seeking out next time it does air. Following the film, a stroll down Palm Canyon Drive for pizza and beer was in order, followed by drinks with friends and hours of discussion about film noir. Then it was back to my fairly awesome Mad Men room at the Riviera Hotel for some peaceful slumber.

      The final day began with another rarity that is otherwise very hard to see: Abandoned (1949). In fact, the print shown is the only archival 35mm print known to exist. After Miklos Rozsa's distinctive score from The Killers (1946) sets the tone over the opening credits, we are introduced to a dark, urban Los Angeles setting. A woman (Gale Storm) arrives in the city looking for her missing sister (shades of The Seventh Victim, 1943), and she quickly hooks up with a reporter (Dennis O'Keefe) to track her down. But that's Raymond Burr skulking around in the shadows, watching them... For once Burr plays sort of a weak dunce, whom O'Keefe easily gets the better of, and later on Burr is even tortured -- a truly delightful sight for weathered fans of film noir! After Storm and O'Keefe find the missing sister (in the morgue, unfortunately), they set out with eventual help from police chief Jeff Chandler to track down her killers, exposing a black market baby adoption ring. That's an especially seedy and disturbing subject which seems rather bold for a film of the period.

      Indeed, Eddie Muller in his introduction explained that "B films made during this time often were the only ones that tackled uncomfortable issues that other films would not even go near." Abandoned is a solid noir, beautifully shot by William Daniels and featuring "additional dialogue" by crackerjack screenwriter William Bowers, one of the best writers of dialogue in Hollywood history. As O'Keefe says to Burr at one point: "You going legitimate is like a vulture going vegetarian." Muller recounted that back in the day, Bowers "would essentially sit at the corner bar on a stool and write these screenplays while getting progressively more lubricated. And it just flowed. He really had a gift."

      After a lunch break, the festival was back at full steam with Hangover Square (1945), a great film with a superb performance by Laird Cregar. But as Alan K. Rode explained in his insightful intro, Cregar never even saw this film because he died before it was released -- due to a crash diet in which the heavyset actor lost too much weight too quickly. A period noir, Hangover Square casts Cregar as a Victorian-era London composer who is prone to memory lapses -- and episodes of murder! It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde type character, and Cregar is most sympathetic and compassionate in the role. He didn't want to play it originally because he thought he was just being cast as yet another ogre-like character. Luckily for fans ever since, he was persuaded otherwise. George Sanders and Linda Darnell add excellent support, and John Brahm's direction is fluid and atmospheric.

      Furthermore, in a film about a composer, in which music takes an important role in the story itself, film composer Bernard Herrmann really stepped to the plate to deliver a haunting score, featuring his "Concerto Macabre" as a dramatic centerpiece. There to discuss Herrmann after the show with Alan K. Rode was Steven C. Smith, a producer, director and author, and a biographer of Herrmann (A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann). Smith was fascinating as he spoke of Herrmann's life, career and working methods on this and other films, including many for Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann loved Hangover Square and felt that Brahm had successfully "photographed my music," Smith said. But he was often a very difficult and temperamental artist to work with, and many of his creative partnerships ultimately ended in bitterness. Often this was due to Herrmann's own exacting standards not being met by other directors or collaborators. With directors like Brahm or Hitchcock, however, things went smoothly (until, in the case of Hitchcock, Hitchcock fired him off Torn Curtain and ended their relationship as well). He also wrote all his own orchestrations, which was not the norm with most composers. Late in his career, after being shunned by Hitchcock, he was rediscovered by a new generation of directors; his final film was Taxi Driver (1976), and he died the night after supervising the final recording of his score. Smith's talk truly enhanced my appreciation of this great artist.

      Finally, the festival wrapped up with Thieves' Highway (1949), director Jules Dassin's striking and strongly noir take on A.I. Bezzerides' novel (adapted by Bezzerides himself) set in the world of produce wholesaling and trucking. As odd as that sounds for noir subject matter, this is a deeply felt, tough picture in which Richard Conte plays a war veteran seeking vengeance from fruit kingpin Lee J. Cobb for Conte's father's injuries. As with every other film playing here, it is a must-see for film noir fans at some point.

      The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival is a jewel of a classic movie festival. It's set up to allow for a weekend of movie watching and simply vacationing, and it offers excellent value for its cost. Mark your calendars now for May 2016 and you will be sure to enjoy another mixture of fairly well-known, famous noirs and otherwise-impossible-to-see little gems. All of them are enhanced tremendously when seen on the Camelot Theatre's big screen with a sizable, enthusiastic audience. Alan K. Rode and his colleagues and festival supporters put on a class act.

      For more information about the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, go to

      For more information about the Palm Springs Riviera Hotel, go to

      Video-recorded interviews of the special guests will eventually be posted on the Film Noir Foundation website and can be seen here:

      By Jeremy Arnold

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      DICK DINMAN SALUTES NOIR MASTERWORK "NIGHT & THE CITY" (PART TWO): Producer/host Dick Dinman welcomes back Dvd Savant Glenn Erickson as both marvel at the excellence of the NIGHT AND THE CITY cast with special emphasis on the virtuoso fever pitch performance of Richard Widmark in what is unquestionably his finest acting triumph and both comment on the comparatively disappointing turn his career path would take during the ensuing decade and beyond.

      The award-winning DICK DINMAN'S DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR is the only weekly half hour show devoted to Golden Age Movie Classics as they become available on DVD. Your producer/host Dick Dinman includes a generous selection of classic scenes, classic film music and one-on-one interviews with stars, producers, and directors. To hear these as well as other DVD CLASSICS CORNER ON THE AIR shows please go to or

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      Among the remarkable people who appear in this special are the late actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (award-winning star of The F.B.I. and son of famed violinist Efrem Zimbalist); Broadway veteran Patricia Morison (star of the original production of Kiss Me Kate); film and television composer Lalo Schifrin; author Daniel Selznick (son of famed producer David O. Selznick, and grandson of MGM founder Louis B. Mayer); composer/conductor David Newman (son of Alfred Newman, longtime head of the 20th Century Fox Music Department and composer of over 200 film scores); Miles Kreuger, founder of the Institute of the American Musical; and Gene Allen, former president of the Motion Picture Academy and the Art Directors Guild, Academy Award-winning art director (My Fair Lady), and longtime production manager for famed director George Cukor.

      Each of the fascinating interviews relates to, and is shown in conjunction with, a musical selection. For example, Patricia Morison talks about her role in Kiss Me Kate, her relationship with composer/lyricist Cole Porter and the song "So In Love," followed by Richard Glazier performing a glorious piano transcription of the song.

      FROM BROADWAY TO HOLLYWOOD WITH RICHARD GLAZIER features these performances:

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  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2011

  • Removed: 10:00pm Springfield Rifle
    12:00pm Casablanca
    Added: 1:00pm Virginia City
    12:15pm Casablanca