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    • Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV on DVD

    • For its fourth film noir volume, the TCM Vault Collection has licensed five more titles from the Columbia back catalog. It's an interesting batch: an artsy mystery from Joseph H. Lewis, an excellent romantic thriller from Robert Rossen, one police procedural melodrama and two anti-Commie spy hunt pictures. As is typical with Sony product, the transfers and restorations are nearly flawless. Columbia's Torch Lady logo stands like an optimistic beacon to greet five more tales of murder, revenge and traitorous skullduggery. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV may all but exhaust the studio's holdings on titles remotely suggesting the noir style.

      The aptly titled So Dark The Night is an atypical, ambitious picture from the creative Joseph H. Lewis, who had already scored big with Columbia's sleeper success My Name is Julia Ross. Its leading player is actor Steven Geray, a very non-leading man type perhaps being rewarded for his fine supporting turn in Charles Vidor's Gilda. It's Geray's only starring role but he's excellent as a master detective.

      Reteaming with cameraman Burnett Guffey, Lewis makes a minor masterpiece from a script by the mostly underachieving writers Martin Berkeley and Aubrey Wisberg. Inspector Henri Cassin (Geray) is an eccentric but brilliant sleuth sent to a French countryside Inn for a fortnight's rest. There he meets young Nanette Michaud (Micheline Cheirel), a small town girl engaged to local farmer Leon (Paul Marion). Nanette's advances overcome Henri's misgivings about taking a much younger wife, and he allows himself to be swept up by romance. But when their plans are interrupted by a series of murders Henri vows to catch the killer. Despite his inspired sleuthing, he soon runs out of leads.

      So Dark The Night sees Joseph H. Lewis directing at his peak powers, making the most of a not extravagant budget: a patch of the San Fernando Valley becomes a credible substitute for rural France. Lewis's camera is always on the movie. He introduces characters with fast details, like feet on a sidewalk, and fingers on clothesline. "Wagon Wheel Joe's" predilection for foreground objects is in full force in many shots composed with dramatic depth indicators. Lewis does a fine job of distributing suspicion between several cast members. Is the killer the unhappy maid? (Helen Freeman) The angry father? (Eugene Borden) The hunchback? (Brother Theodore)

      Concentrating on Steven Geray's marvelous performance, Lewis contrasts the man's gentle decency with his dogged determination to identify the murderer, complete with Sherlock Holmes- style clues and theories. Meanwhile, the director adds expressionist touches -- deeper camera angles, strange pauses -- to indicate something unsuspected is amiss. A surprise revelation is accompanied by a radical lighting effect cued by emotion alone. The film presents visual hints of "memory sensations", but no tiresome formal flashback to explain the mystery. A doctor's final theory reminds us of the finish of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. A definite film noir for its dark mood and stress on psychological chaos, So Dark The Night is a bold departure from the Hollywood norm.

      A front-rank noir, 1947's Johnny O'Clock is the first directing job by the talented Robert Rossen, who would proceed to the classic Body and Soul and earn the Best Picture Oscar for 1949, All the King's Men. The title character is none other than Dick Powell, who here tempers the tough-guy hardboiled talk as he negotiates a path through various intrigues, including murder. The movie also features a trio of notable noir beauties, each in fine form.

      Womanizing Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell) lives a risky life. His partner in a swank nightclub is Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez), and a crooked, ambitious detective is trying his best to elbow Johnny out. Worse, Pete's wife Nelle (Ellen Drew) still has a yen for Johnny, and recklessly displays her affections. One murder leads to the apparent suicide of Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), the club's hatcheck girl. When Harriet's sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) arrives, Johnny finds himself seriously falling for her. Meanwhile, Detective inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) is sizing up Johnny as a main suspect in the deaths, and Pete Marchettis finds evidence that Nelle and Johnny are a secret item. No matter how Johnny looks at it, he's in a solid frame. His only choice is to try and get Nancy free of the trouble.

      Suave and unflappable, Dick Powell's Johnny does daily business with crooks and knows better than to be totally honest with anyone. Catching a poker dealer stealing money, Johnny lets him stay on with the reasoning that the next man hired might be smarter with his thievery. Johnny's personal assistant Charlie (John Kellogg) is an ex-con who otherwise wouldn't have a job; we can't tell if Johnny has a soft heart or likes having somebody willing to break the law for him. Johnny makes a strong contrast with his partner Marchettis, an unschooled brute frustrated that he can't hold on to Nelle, his trophy wife. Given his poor standing with the police, Johnny is surprised that the intelligent and caring Nancy should choose to stick with him. Women are O'Clock's stumbling block, but also his salvation. The film builds to a suspenseful finish.

      Johnny O'Clock benefits from fine low-key B&W cinematography by Burnett Guffey, a true noir stylist. Guffey and director Rossen manage a moody tone even in bright cafes and swank sitting rooms. Evelyn Keyes never looked lovelier and Ellen Drew is irresistibly seductive. Nina Foch's role is much smaller, yet she makes a sympathetic impression. In his second film appearance, actor Jeff Chandler has a nice bit as a gambler from out of town.

      Columbia must have liked the title Walk A Crooked Mile as they later released a noir entitled Drive a Crooked Road. But it plays like a re-run of Fox's wartime classic The House on 92nd Street, in which FBI agents infiltrate a Nazi spy ring and discover that they are smuggling top scientific secrets. Now Russian spies are stealing newer formulas out of the high-security Lakeview Laboratory by hiding them in oil paintings. F.B.I agent Dan O'Hara (Dennis O'Keefe) and Scotland Yard 'exchange agent' Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) infiltrate the spy network. They barely escape from the murderous Krebs (Raymond Burr), before sorting the innocent from the guilty back at the lab.

      The film affects a semi-documentary style that's constantly on the movie, hopping from city to city and from surveillance stakeouts to places as mundane as a laundry service. Director Gordon Douglas gets good footage on the streets of San Francisco. He also manages an exciting FBI shoot-out of the kind that never happened in real Cold War confrontations. The scene reminds us of John Dillinger's mob caught in the fishing lodge in the 1935 Cagney movie G-Men.

      The frequently repeated message is that only dedicated F.B.I. agents can save us from the communist conspiracy menacing us from all sides. One loyal immigrant woman sacrifices her life to protect our heroes, as she'd do anything to help America crush the evil she witnessed back in Eastern Europe. The movie also considers scientists as potential enemies. One is an outright traitor and another (Carl Esmond) is blackmailed into espionage work. Curiously, the movie seems to find a woman who did the physical smuggling (Louise Allbritton) innocent because her motive was love. Walk A Crooked Mile's impersonal semi-docu style, with narration constantly explaining everything, prevents us from getting too involved in the characters.

      The poetically named Between Midnight And Dawn is really just a straightforward police story. The original title Prowl Car better describes a pro-police storyline that sees two cops on the graveyard shift take on a dangerous underworld figure. Director Gordon Douglas delivers a handsomely assembled thriller, filmed on permanently wet nighttime streets. But the script's idea of a compelling conflict is to make one cop a softie and the other a cynic about criminals and women.

      Policemen Dan Purvis (Edmond O'Brien) and Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) go after the slimy racketeer Ritchie Garris (Donald Buka) while romancing Kate Mallory (Gale Storm) the dispatcher whose voice they hear on their squad car radio. Kate's cop father was killed on the job, so she avoids romantic attachments with them. But her mother purposely rents an apartment to the eager Romeos. Intuiting that a gang war is beginning, Dan and Rocky are able to arrest Garris and make the charge stick. But one jailbreak later, the gangster takes bloody retribution, and threatens innocent citizens. Only Danny is in a position to stop him.

      The story plays as if it were written in 1935. The police force is predominantly Irish in makeup. The cops marry cops' daughters and an independent girl who wants to break the pattern is humored and harassed until she gives in. The sexism is complete when Kate's meddling mother refuses to let her make her own choices. Dan is secretly angry when Kate chooses the handsome Rocky, but tries to be magnanimous.

      The attitude toward organized crime is equally dated. Two lowly patrolmen on the night shift are the spearheads of a major anti- organized crime bust, without really reporting to anyone. What's more, they parade their favorite girl in front of the gangsters, oblivious to the obvious notion that the criminal might strike back at them through her. Interestingly, the woman most threatened is Garris's own girlfriend Terry Romaine (Gale Robbins).

      A fresh pace, lively acting (Edmond O'Brien could get any film up on its feet) and sharply directed action make Walk A Crooked Mile an exciting show, even if little or no noir content is evident. The only real concession to postwar thriller conventions is an uptick in violence. The final confrontation sees the rotten Ritchie Garris dangle a young girl from a high window, and threaten to drop her unless the cops back off.

      Walk East On Beacon! is a second anti-communist spy drama, released near the end of the cycle in 1952. None of Hollywood's twenty or so contributions to Cold War propaganda were big successes. This one was sourced from an article by J. Edgar Hoover himself, and shapes up as a semi-documentary account of yet another spy ring using an overly complicated system to steal atomic secrets. The noted atom spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg found it so easy to spirit secret formulas away from the U.S. that the aggressive government prosecution of their case can be attributed to a need to cover up gross deficiencies in the F.B.I.'s security policies. Hoover's account of a different case makes it look as if the F.B.I. has battalions of crack agents in reserve, ready to watch and track hundreds of suspects on a 24-hour basis. The story also stresses the importance of informing on one's friends and relatives in the name of National Security.

      F.B.I. operative James Belden (George Murphy) handles a major spy investigation mostly by telephone. An anonymous phone tip soon leads agents to a Soviet spy ring. The ruthless mastermind Alex Laschenkov (Karel Stepanek) secretly directs dozens of deep-cover agents, two of whom steal information that leads the gang to math genius Dr. Albert Kafer (Finlay Currie) of a secret government scientific think tank. They motivate the old man into coughing up secrets relating to a special project called Falcon, by kidnapping his son Samuel in Berlin. The loyal Kafer instead informs the F.B.I., putting in motion a slow process to identify and capture all of Laschenko's many embedded spies.

      Columbia's film hews closely to the semi-documentary form but director Alfred Werker isn't as adept as was Gordon Douglas at instilling ordinary street scenes with drama and tension. With its many locations and dozens of characters (some with double identities), the film's twisting plot must have left many audiences behind. Characters are seen just once or twice and disappear, but their names keep popping up later. One of two deep-cover husband and wife teams runs a florist shop, and an undertaker is also useful because he has a small printing press. There are far too many characters to keep straight.

      British actor Finlay Currie's brave old professor becomes an unlikely double agent for our side. He takes a personal risk to deal personally with Vincent Foss (Jack Manning), a thuggish taxi driver working as a courier-spy. Foss turns out to be an anguished fellow coerced into spying "because of his foolish earlier associations with student radicalism". His own wife informs on him, as do many people in J. Edgar's version of events. Hoover's 'true' story also manages to finish with a standard action scene as the Navy helps nail the atom spies on the high seas.

      Obscure trivia hounds take note: future director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and his wife Louisa Horton play husband & wife traitors, but have only a few seconds of screen time together. Director Alfred Werker is credited on the superb docu-noir He Walked by Night. He actually left that film early to work on a film for producer Louis de Rochemont, who produced Walk East On Beacon! as well.

      The title, by the way, is part of Dr. Kafer's instructions when he's sent on foot to turn over documents to the Soviet blackmailers.

      The TCM Vault Collection's Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV DVD set gives each title a separate disc. As with most all Sony transfers, the films are immaculate and have beefy, clear audio. The only drawback is that TCM discs normally do not carry subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired. The viewing public for these 60 year-old movies skews a little older than that for contemporary films, and many older folk need the subs.

      TCM's good extras include galleries of film stills and posters and occasional text essays. Martin Scorsese offers a relaxed video introduction for the collection, while Eddie Muller's essay dodges definitions of film noir by encouraging that we debate the status of films not immediately recognized as part of the style. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV presents two top-notch thrillers, a good police drama and two unusual Cold War relics. Fans of the noir style will definitely want it.

      By Glenn Erickson

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  1. New Books

    • FELLINI: The Sixties

    • By Manoah Bowman

      Foreword by Anita Ekberg
      Afterword by Barbara Steele

      In an exciting new publishing partnership between Turner Classic Movies and Running Press, comes the lavishly illustrated FELLINI: The Sixties by Manoah Bowman, with a foreword by the late Anita Ekberg and an afterword by Barbara Steele. FELLINI: The Sixties is an awe-inspiring, photo-filled homage to the signature work of Italy's most celebrated filmmaker--Federico Fellini.

      Fifty years since their initial releases, Federico Fellini's films of the 1960s still inspire, shock, and delight. More than just encapsulating the '60s, these films also helped define the style of the decade. With a staggering twelve Academy Award® nominations between his four feature films during this period, Fellini reached the heights of fame, film artistry, and worldwide prominence. Studied, analyzed, and re-released over the years, these films continue to amaze each new generation that discovers them. Their impeccable style makes them timeless. Their images make them unforgettable. Their passion brings them to life. And their singular vision makes them unique in all of cinema.

      FELLINI: The Sixties is a stunning photographic journey through the director's most iconic classics: La Dolce Vita,8½, Juliet of the Spirits, and Fellini Satyricon. Carefully selected imagery from the Independent Visions photographic archive, many published here for the first time, illuminate these films as they have never been seen before, and reveal fascinating details of the director's working style and ebullient personality. With more than 150 photographs struck from original negatives, these images spring to life from the page with the depth and quality of the films themselves.

      Complemented with insightful essays from contemporary writers, FELLINI: The Sixties is a true testament to the man and his work; a remarkable compendium of the legendary filmmaker's greatest achievements.

      Manoah Bowman is a photography preservationist and editor. His photo archive of more than a million unique images details the history of cinema and Hollywood. He has contributed material to many publications, movie studios, and museums, including Eastman House, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Paramount, Universal, United Artists, and Disney. His work as a photo editor includes the books Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema and Buster Keaton Remembered. He resides in Los Angeles, CA.

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    • Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

    • This month, TCM is proud to have author John Grisham as co-host of our Spotlight on Southern Writers (Wednesdays starting at 8pm ET) and to announce the release of his new novel, Rogue Lawyer.

      Sebastian Rudd is not your typical street lawyer. He works out of a customized bulletproof van, complete with Wi-Fi, a bar, a small fridge, fine leather chairs, a hidden gun compartment, and a heavily armed driver. He has no firm, no partners, no associates, and only one employee, his driver, who's also his bodyguard, law clerk, confidant, and golf caddy. He lives alone in a small but extremely safe penthouse apartment, and his primary piece of furniture is a vintage pool table. He drinks small-batch bourbon and carries a gun. Let's just say that unlike several of John Grisham's other protagonists, this is a character on the right side of the law...sort of. In ROGUE LAWYER, John's thirtieth book for adults, he has created one of his most colorful, outrageous, and vividly drawn characters yet.

      Sebastian defends people other lawyers won't go near: a drug-addled, tattooed kid rumored to be in a satanic cult, who is accused of molesting and murdering two little girls; a vicious crime lord on death row; a homeowner arrested for shooting at a SWAT team that mistakenly invaded his house. Why these clients? Because he believes everyone is entitled to a fair trial, even if he, Sebastian, has to cheat to secure one. He hates injustice, doesn't like insurance companies, banks, or big corporations; he distrusts all levels of government and laughs at the justice system's notions of ethical behavior.

      Gritty, witty, and impossible to put down, ROGUE LAWYER showcases the master of the legal thriller at his very best.

      JOHN GRISHAM is the author of twenty-seven novels, one work of nonfiction, a collection of stories, and five novels for young readers. Follow him here:

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    • The First King Of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks

    • By Tracey Goessel

      Watching Douglas Fairbanks on screen, especially during his best acrobatic stunts, it is easy to see how much he enjoyed life and making movies. That love is there in his smile, his eyes and those incredible stunts.

      But there was more to his life than just making movies. He fell in love with silent screen actress Mary Pickford and together they were the first international couple of American film, mobbed where ever they went. Their home at Pickfair in the Hollywood hills became the most sought after invitation in town. Partnering with director D.W. Griffith and silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin, they founded United Artists, and Fairbanks was a founding member of what is now known as the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.

      While much has been written about Fairbanks, a cache of newly discovered love letters from Fairbanks to Pickford form the centerpiece of this new biography of the original Robin Hood, the true Zorro, the man who did his own stunts and built his own studio.

      Renowned film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow considers Fairbanks one of the greats of silent films. With the coming of sound, Fairbanks said, "The romance of movie making ends here." Over eighty five years later, the story of Douglas Fairbanks, with its passion, love of making movies and romance, still enchants.

      Tracey Goessell is on the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Film Preservation Society. She has published numerous articles on silent film history and has lectured on Douglas Fairbanks at venues including the University of Rochester, the University of Kansas's annual Buster Keaton Celebration, and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.

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    • Fantastic Planets, Forbidden Zones, And Lost Continents Book

    • By Douglas Brode

      Ever since George Melies took moviegoers on A Trip to the Moon in 1902, science-fiction films have long captured our imaginations. Whether they are serious looks at other worlds or humorous jaunts across the galaxies, science-fiction films often tap into not only our imaginations but our psyches as well.

      With this book, film historian and pop culture expert, Douglas Brode, has compiled one hundred of the greatest films from this genre and provides a lively discussion for each choice.

      From forgotten gems to blockbusters, he presents his choices in chronological order while providing a history of the genre itself.

      Utilizing striking and often rare photographs, short synopsis of each film and background information on each film's creation, Brode also includes analysis of the major themes and trivia.

      There is also a section on "So bad, they're great" classics and the top ten worst sci-fi films -"those highly ambitious films that promised so much and delivered nil" .

      From the robot of Metropolis (1927) to Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, Brode takes the reader on a trek through time and space that movie lovers will find both familiar and surprising.

      Douglas Brode is a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, film historian, and multi-award winning journalist. He is the author of more than 30 books on film and the mass media.

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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

    • Schedule Change for 24-Hour Tribute to Maureen O'Hara (1920-2015)

    • Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to Maureen O'Hara on Friday, November 20 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 Friday, November 20 will be:
      6:00 AM Jamaica Inn (1939)
      7:45 AM The Deadly Companions (1961)
      9:30 AM Spencer's Mountain (1963)
      11:30 AM McLintock! (1963)
      1:45 PM The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965)
      3:45 PM Big Jake (1971)
      5:45 PM The Wings of Eagles (1957)
      8:00 PM The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
      10:15 PM The Quiet Man (1952)
      12:30 AM At Sword's Point (1951)
      2:00 AM Sinbad the Sailor (1947)
      4:00 PM The Spanish Main (1945)

      Dubbed "The Queen of Technicolor" because of her striking red hair and green eyes, the beautiful, Irish-born O'Hara is perhaps best known for starring in such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Quiet Man (1952). Born in 1920, she came to Hollywood in 1939 after appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (she was cast by its producer and star, Charles Laughton). Her career would include over 60 screen credits, and she made her final appearance in the television movie The Last Dance in 2000. In 2014, she received an honorary Oscar® during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's annual Governors Awards ceremony.

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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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  • 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