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TCM Spotlight: The Charlie Chan Collection Sidney Toler

Available from 8th June 2010.

The Charlie Chan Collection is available from Amazon.com.

Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers in 1923 and went on to feature in fiction, comics, radio, television and at the movies. In all there have been a total of fifty-seven film adaptations of the character.

Warner Oland starred as Chan in 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On and went on to make a total of 15 films as Chan for Fox. After his death in 1938 Sidney Toler took over as Chan and made another 11 films for Fox. Toler himself bought the rights to the character after Fox ceased production on the Chan movies, and took the character to Monogram Pictures, one of the key minor studios on poverty row, where he continued to star as Chan.

This Chan collection contains three films starring Sidney Toler and one starring his successor Roland Winters.

Charlie Chan has been well served on DVD with five box sets already available, covering a total of 24 of the Fox Chan films. But this four-disc TCM Spotlight set is notable for two key reasons: they contain four Chan films made by Monogram Pictures and the prints have been restored, resulting in an image and sound quality that are remarkably clear for films made on poverty row.

Dark Alibi (Monogram Pictures, dir: Phil Karlson, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Benson Fong.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in Dark Alibi

Dark Alibi (1946)

Dark Alibi is the most satisfying of the four films in the set, kicking off with a surprisingly authentic noir sequence: gunmen in dark glasses raid an atmospheric, shadowy bank vault. It’s a visually stark and surprisingly violent sequence, and triggers a narrative about Chan attempting to get an innocent man off death row. As a detective Chan is calm, measured, and experienced – like many detectives he is always one step ahead (in some cases inexplicably so). He is joined by his son Tommy Chan, played by Chinese-American actor Benson Fong, who constantly tries to impress his father with his own amateur sleuthing. Chan’s other sidekick is chauffeur Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, and along with Fong provide comic relief as a convincing double act.

The plot of Dark Alibi contains a chain of clues based around fingerprints forgery. The Chan films are clearly B-movies that function in the realm of pulp crime fiction, and for fans of the genre Dark Alibi is a particularly entertaining example of that.

One of the pleasures of B-movies is noticing moments that contrast to mainstream movies. In this case it takes the shape of unusual compositions, such as an economically composed shot of Chan, Brown and Moreland in a car, perfectly composed from an angle towards the side so that all three are in view. When Chan visits the  prison cell of the wrongly accused, through the bars we see a back projection of the prison corridor moving off into the distance, producing a striking visual effect.

This is also a really interesting film about race. It is not unusual in American cinema to find Caucasian actors playing characters of different races, and here Chan is played by Toler, a white Scottish-American. The mechanics of Sidney Toler’s performance as Chinese are as follows: a slight accent and affected use of English, prosthetics around his eyes, and a thin beard. While these are certainly symbols associated with stereotypes, in this case they almost act as elements of costume. They become signs for the audience that Toler is playing a Chinese-American character without requiring you to be entirely convinced that he is actually Chinese-American. In that sense the performance is quite self-conscious, as though Toler is letting the audience know that he is only playing a part. This is further backed-up by the juxtaposition of Toler with Benson Fong, the Chinese-American actor who plays his son.

Of course black actors in classical Hollywood were often sidelined into minor parts, parts that perpetuated stereotypes, or ignored altogether. In this series, the actor Mantan Moreland at least is allowed a decent amount of screen time. Yes, he provides much of the comic relief along with Benson Fong, and he does play Chan’s chauffeur, but the space provided to him does allow him to display his talent as a comic actor. One very interesting and funny moment sees Moreland engage in a quick-fire double-act routine with another black actor during the prison sequence, which could have been a routine straight out of vaudeville. Frankly exchanges between two black actors in mainstream Hollywood cinema was very rare at the time, and it suggests that these B-movies and other films by Monogram Pictures catered for audiences neglected by mainstream Hollywood.

Extra Features: None.

Dangerous Money (Monogram Pictures, dir: Terry O. Morse, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money

Dangerous Money (1946)

Unlike Dark Alibi, Dangerous Money takes on the shape of a straight whodunit in the mode of Agatha Christie: several confined passengers of different nationalities are all suspected of murdering a member of the United States Treasury Department. There is a knife-throwing assassin on-board to contend with, so skilled that he can throw a knife through impossibly narrow spaces. No one seems to notice that it was actually Chan who led the victim to his death; he persuades him to head to the dining room instead of his own quarters, and he is promptly assassinated. Here Benson Fong is replaced by Victor Sen Yung, playing Chan’s ‘Son Number Two’.

Extra Features: None.

The Trap (Monogram Pictures, dir: Howard Bretherton, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan and Victor Sen Yung as Son Number Two in The Trap

The Trap (1946)

With pulp crime fiction you can often expect suspension of disbelief to kick in. With this whodunnit tale of showgirls living in a beach house you may require more than usual. When one of their number is strangled, the girls decide to go on living there and continue having carefree fun on the beach. Of course another of their number is swiftly killed. Part of the enjoyment of pulp crime fiction is watching convoluted plots unfold, and there are some enjoyably absurd sequences to be found in The Trap.

Extra Features: None.

The Chinese Ring (Monogram Pictures, dir: William Beaudine, 1947)
starring Roland Winters, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

The only film in the set to star Ronald Winters as Chan, The Chinese Ring concerns a plot about a murdered Chinese princess. It’s a standard pulp narrative, but a series of new vivid characters livens up the action and pull it back from the more contrived moments of the The Trap. Winters steps into the role of Chan with ease, and the transition from Toler is very smooth; after a few minutes you’re completely at ease with Winters as Chan.

Extra Features: None.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in The Trap

The Trap (1946)

About the Prints

B-movies often fall victim to neglect, with titles going out of copyright and damaged, duplicated prints circulating in the public domain. Warner Bros. have done an excellent job in making sure these films look as good as possible. By doing so Warner are giving the films the respect they deserve, and making sure they are presented in as optimal a condition as possible. This is especially admirable in the case of these Monogram titles. Since they weren’t even produced by Warner, the work they have done on this suggests that they have a genuine interest in the preservation of cinema more broadly than their own production history.

Overall

For any fans of Charlie Chan, this is an obvious purchase. But it is also recommended to anyone interested in detective fiction, poverty row cinema, or depictions of race in 1940s cinema. They are also damn entertaining, with excellent prints, and at their hour-long running times they make an easy watch.

Buy The Charlie Chan Collection from Amazon.com.

Sidney Toler Charlie Chan Dark Alibi

Dark Alibi (1946)

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The Louis L'Amour Western CollectionRelease Date: 19 May 2010

Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) is still the most successful western writer of all time. His prolific output of over ninety novels and six short story collections continue to sell and remain distinctly popular with fans of the genre. Naturally his work was called upon for adaptation on the big and small screen, and this 4-disc DVD set brings together three distinctive westerns: Catlow (1971) starring Yul Brynner, The Sacketts (1979) featuring Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Glen Ford, and Conagher (1991) starring Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross.

Buy the The Louis L’Amour Western Collection here.

Catlow (MGM, dir: Sam Wanamaker, 1971)
starring Yul Brynner, Richard Crenna and Leonard Nimoy.

Yul Brynner in Louis L'Amour Western Catlow

A lively performance from the legendary Yul Brynner is the highlight of this pacy, comic western. He plays gunslinging outlaw Catlow, whose attempts to escape the law are thwarted by the determined yet dignified Sheriff Cowan, played by Richard Crenna. The chase kicks off in Apache country, where sniping bullets are accompanied by arrows, and leads Catlow’s posse over the border to Mexico where they attempt an ambitious gold robbery. Cowan gets his hands on Catlow every once in a while, only to be given the slip by his wily, charismatic adversary. But it’s not only Cowan who’s after him; a mysterious hit man is also on his tail, played by none other than Leonard Nimoy.

Yul Brynner was made famous by the exotic, brooding persona that was developed through films such as The King and I and Anastasia. He of course made a name for himself in Westerns through his role in The Magnificent Seven, and Catlow was made only a couple of years before that mysterious persona was used to brilliant effect in the unnerving sci-fi western Westworld. In Catlow he plays against his usual persona with an upbeat comic performance. He’s a man-of-the-world, quick-witted, sly and charismatic. Brynner’s trademark Russian accent and distinctive look almost feel out of place against the dusty surroundings of the Mexican border, but add an appealing mystery to his character.

Since we are in the western world of Louis L’Amour, the film is pleasingly loaded with traditions of the genre, such as gunfights, stagecoach heists and the requisite saloon bathtub sequence. Yet while this is certainly familiar territory, the film distinguishes itself through its breezy tone and easy blending of comic drama with action. Brynner and Crenna as the outlaw and sheriff create a double act, enjoyably playing off each other in their game of cat-and-mouse, and Nimoy is totally convincing as the tough, mysterious hit man. One particularly extraordinary sequence sees Brynner fist-fighting a nude Leonard Nimmoy. It’s as though Women in Love was relocated to the old West.

Made in 1971, Catlow was one of the final westerns with its roots firmly in the tradition of the classic studio-era western. In 1969 The Wild Bunch had already kick-started a tougher brand of western that would lead to a more self-conscious expression of the genre. This meant stronger violence (The Last of the Hard Men), political agendas (Soldier Blue, Little Big Man), elegiac farewells to old Hollywood (The Shootist), satires (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Hill) and twists on the genre (Westworld). Catlow, then, is an unselfconscious western that sticks to its guns and delivers a concise, star-driven and entertaining action picture.

Extra Features: Theatrical Trailer.

The Sacketts (NBC, dir: Robert Totten, 1979)
starring Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot, Jeff Osterhage and Glenn Ford.

Louis L'Amour The Sacketts Tom Selleck Jeff Osterhage Classic Western

The Sacketts is absolutely worth its three-hour running time. An epic adaptation of L’Armour’s The Daybreakers and Sacketts, it tells the story of the Sackett brothers and their journey from cattle drivers to lawmen. Played with typical gravity by Sam Elliot, Tell Sackett is now a hardened, nomadic drifter, whose wanderings lead him on a quest for gold. He hasn’t seen his other two brothers in a decade, and Orrin (Tom Selleck) and Ty (Jeff Osterhage) have since become cattle drivers under the watch of their world-weary boss, played by Glenn Ford. Orrin is a brave, well-liked and noble man that his younger brother Ty looks up to, so much so that when he settles in New Mexico he earns himself a tin star.

The Sacketts is filled with strong performances. We witness Tom Selleck here in his pre-Magnum days and it’s easy to see how he became such a major TV star, giving his character a kind of quiet charisma. He also makes a very convincing cowboy and surely the success of The Sacketts was a major reason why Selleck has continued a sideline in TV westerns throughout his career.

Sam Elliot is perhaps the definitive on-screen cowboy of the modern age. He has forged a career based upon his wise, low-talking, moustachioed western persona, and even in these times when westerns have remained out of the mainstream he continued on with his on-screen character, turning up in the unlikeliest of places (the bowling alley of The Big Lebowski or the fantasy world of The Golden Compass). Here Elliot’s performance is dark, brooding and dangerous. A nomad wandering through mountainous plains, he has become estranged from his family and is now a withdrawn and troubled man. He talks scarcely, yet when he does he reveals himself to be tough, mean, yet fair.

Glenn Ford is part of the old guard of the Hollywood western, having starred in such classics as 3:10 to Yuma, and here you are reminded at what a powerful and meticulous actor he was. A few striking close-ups convey conflicting emotions all at once. He can convey both toughness and weakness at the same time.

The Sacketts is a film that offers up all the pleasures of the western in one place, from the locales: small towns, big vistas, banks, saloons, jailhouses, hotels, gold-riddled mountains; to the plot and themes: cattle-ranching, small-town politics, familial drama, evil posses, and tense shoot-outs; to the authentic performances: the trio of Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot and Glenn Ford, as well as the handful of character actors (including genre veteran Ben Johnson. It’s a film that galvanises the western genre, that defies its running time and which deserves to be seen more often.

It was originally made for television but the scope of the writing and the authenticity of the production design means that it certainly works as a big screen experience. The combination of the tight, varied, suspenseful plotting and the strong performances carry you easily through the film and it certainly earns its three-hour running time.

Extra Features: None.

Conagher (TNT, dir: Reynaldo Villalobos, 1991)
starring Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross.

Conagher Sam Elliot With Gun

In contrast to The Sacketts, Conagher is a more intimate drama about homesteader Evie Teale (Katherine Ross) who is forced to look after her children alone when her husband never returns from his journey to a distant town. Her home soon becomes used as a temporary rest point for the new stagecoach and there she comes in contact with a lonely drifter, Conagher, played by Sam Elliot.

As in The Sacketts Elliot’s character is tough and uncompromising, but here he proves also be particularly sensitive. While on the one hand being a dangerous-but-moral gunfighter, he is also struck by a deep sense of loneliness on his travels. He is clearly taken by Evie Teale, whose resilience he admires. Indeed at one point she and her children successfully fight off Indians who attack her homestead. Conagher also has his own problems – a no-good posse are on his tail, leading to a particularly suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse up the side of a rocky cliff, as well as tense gunfights with distant snipers.

Interestingly both Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross share a writing credit on this made-for-TV movie and Elliot was also a co-producer, suggesting that he was a driving force in bringing it to the screen. And although it is a Sam Elliot vehicle Katherine Ross’s is fortunately given enough screen time to develop her character of a resourceful woman in the male-dominated West. Female characters are too-rarely the focus of this often-macho genre and Conagher is a welcome exception. Fans of The Graduate would also be interested in seeing Ross give a strong, low-key performance.

Extra Features: None.

About the Transfers

Catlow looks strong with a transfer that convincingly translates a 70s-era print, maintaining good colours in the brighter sequences, strong detail, and conveying the appropriate atmosphere of the darker sequences. It’s important to note that both The Sacketts and Conagher were made for TV broadcast, so are both are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. The Sacketts contains a great amount of vivid imagery, colour and detail and the print has been cleaned up. Due to its lengthy running time, The Sacketts is spread over two discs. Although the most recent film in the set, the image of Conagher is perhaps the weakest, most noticeably in the darker sequences. While it is a little soft throughout, presumably due to the nature of its TV-broadcast origins, the image is strongest in the brightly-lit, outdoor sequences. However I expect that this image reflects how the film would have been seen on its original broadcast.

Conclusion

These three Westerns are distinctly different from each other but provide interesting and entertaining variations of the western and of L’Amours work, from the light comedy of Catlow, to the epic scope of The Sacketts and the intimacy of Conagher. These would be highly recommended to those interested in L’Amour or in post-classical westerns more generally, but also to fans of its stars: Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck, Yul Brynner and Glenn Ford. While an extra feature giving some context to L’Amour and his work would have been appreciated, ultimately all three films really do entertain. At the price it’s a bit of a bargain for fans of the western.

Buy the The Louis L’Amour Western Collection here

Leonard Nimmoy in Louis L'Amour Western Catlow

Leonard Nimmoy in Catlow (1971)


Parade

Jacques Tati's Parade (1972) available on BFI DVD, 22 June 2009

Rarely seen, this is a welcome release of master French comic Jacques Tati’s final film as both director and performer. Made for television, Parade is a live compendium of circus, music hall and magic acts hosted by Tati himself. With opening scenes of audience members taking their seats, the film appears at its outset to be a recording of a 1970s Tati-on-tour live show, a final attempt to sell tickets as a comic giant’s career wanes. But although we may witness a mid-show interval and genuine audience reactions, it becomes apparent that the film is a playful and imaginative take on the experience of seeing a show. Sketches play out in the corridors, in the theatre bar and indeed after the show has ended.

In a similar vein to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, in which he revisits his music hall past, Parade is a return to Tati’s own music hall experiences during the 1930s. Tati’s key performances during the film revolve around the miming acts that gave him early success. He is transformed into a goalie, a boxer and a tennis player, and even at one point becoming an English policeman. While at first these may appear as comic ideas too antiquated to still remain humorous, Tati infuses them with an accuracy that is indeed very funny – in particular watch for his recreation of a tennis match in slow motion.

The film is filled with surrealistic touches, with cardboard cut-outs planted amongst the audience and a set that is constantly being painted even as the show is playing out. During the interval the bartender bursts open a soft drink only to find his own head springing a leak. With the audience playing a key role in the film’s focus, the space between audience and performers become blurred, especially when members of the audience cross onto the stage and participate in the action. One enthusiastic bald spectator finds himself compelled to jump into the ring and ride a wild pony, while a conspicuously bored blonde boy wanders in and out of the action. As these participations occur, the character of the audience shifts from innocence to complicity, yet throughout the film the audience’s reactions are so convincingly spontaneous that they are clearly fulfilling their role as genuine spectators by having a good time.

Other acts performed by the troupe include juggling, acrobatics, sword swallowing, singing and clowning. Even when performed to the 1970s audience, these acts appear as though from another time, each one evoking a lost circus and music hall tradition. As such Parade acts as a kind of final record of long-forgotten acts and entertainments. Traditions such as mimesis, which Tati himself excelled in, have long since been ridiculed as the cliché of outdated entertainment but what Parade does is show us how it is meant to be done. This results in unexpected reactions; a miming showjumper forces us to imagine a galloping horse, only for that very animal to then stride into the ring for real and put flesh to our fantasies.

Parade is the latest in a range of Jacques Tati films that the British Film Institute have strived to make available on DVD, and they have done so in this case with a pristine transfer. The film was originally produced on a combination of video, 16mm and 35mm, and has undergone a digital restoration which has resulted in Parade looking and sounding as good as it possibly can on DVD.

Special features
Previously unseen interview with Jacques Tati, filmed in London in 1977 (19 mins)
Illustrated booklet with essays by Philip Kemp and Jonathan Rosenbaum; director biography and credits

Available At
Amazon.co.uk
BFI Filmstore

Release date: 22 June 2009
RRP: £19.99 / cat. no. BFIVD808 / cert U
France / 1974 / colour / French language with English subtitles / 84 mins /
Ratio 1.33:1


The Criterion Collection have just announced that they have opened up their collection online. For $5 you can rent a film for an entire week, the fee of which will actually go towards the purchase of the actual disc when you want to buy it.

For now there is a small selection including Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987), Cléo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962), Juliet of the Spirits (Fellini, 1965), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983), The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) and The Thief of Baghdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, 1940). Every week more titles will be published.

Perhaps even more exciting is that they have partnered with The Auteurs where you can stream movies for free. Right now. These include a selection of modern quality world cinema, including one of my very favourites, After Life (Japan, 1998, dir: Hirokazu Kore-Eda). Other titles currently available include Le Vent de La Nuit starring Catherine Deneuve, Midnight directed by Walter Salles and another Kore-Eda film, Maborosi.

There are huge possibilities here for serious filmgoers and for films that are costly to publish to DVD and to export. 

Now to see if I can rent Criterion from outside the U.S…

After Life:

afterlife

I have just had word of an upcoming box set from Fox. It contains 12 discs and features two F.W. Murnau films (including City Girl) and ten by Frank Borzage, four of which are silents. This seems to be in the spirit of the monumental Ford at Fox box from last year. The box contains:

Silents
 
Sunrise (Murnau, 1927) 
City Girl (Murnau, 1930) 

Lazybones (Borzage, 1925)
Seventh Heaven (Borzage, 1928)
Street Angel (Borzage, 1928) 
Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929) 

Talkies:

They Had to See Paris (Borzage, 1929) 
Liliom (Borzage, 1930)
Song O’ My Heart (Borzage, 1930)
Bad Girl (Borzage, 1931) 
After Tomorrow (Borzage, 1932) 
Young America (Borzage, 1932)


Warner Bros. continue their exceptional series of gangster box sets with the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection vol. 4. This release contains 4 Edward G. Robinson titles: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, The Little Giant, Larceny, Inc., Kid Galahad, as well as the George Raft vehicle Invisible Stripes. Bogart, as always, features as a welcomed supporting player.

The box features the high standard of extra features we have come to expect: commentaries, documentaries, newsreels and cartoons, as well as an all-new feature-length documentary, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.

This really is film history in a box!

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
Dr. Clitterhouse (Edward G. Robinson) is fascinated by the study of the physical and mental states of lawbreakers, so he joins a gang of jewel thieves for a closer look in this often amusing crime drama. Claire Trevor co-stars as a savvy crime queen, and Humphrey Bogart plays Rocks Valentine, whom Dr. C. calls “a magnificent specimen of pure viciousness.” The movie also marks the start of one of film’s most noteworthy collaborations. John Huston, who was to later direct Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, co-wrote the screenplay of The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.

Special Features:
Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper and Richard Jewell
Racket Busters theatrical trailer
Vintage newsreel
WB short: Night Intruder
WB cartoons:
Cinderella Meets a Fella
Count Me Out
1941 Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Broadcast (audio only)
1944 Gulf Screen Guild Theater Broadcast (audio only)
Theatrical trailer

The Little Giant (1933)
The era of the bootlegger is past but liquor runner Bugs Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson) has a plan for what he’ll do now that Prohibition is history. He decides to head for California’s posh, polo-playing Santa Barbara to become part of the high society. What he finds there — swindlers, gold diggers, great fun – makes first class entertainment in this pre-Code gem. Edward G. Robinson shows his comedic chops for the first time, paving the way for such subsequent films as A Slight Case of Murder, Brother Orchid, Larceny, Inc. and more persona-skewering frolics.

Special Features:
Commentary by Daniel Bubbeo and John McCarty
Vintage newsreel
WB short: Just Around the Corner
WB cartoon: The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon
Theatrical trailer

Larceny, Inc. (1942)
Edward G. Robinson once more turns his gangster image on its head in a gleeful romp based on the Broadway farce penned by Laura Perelman and S.J. Perelman. Robinson plays Pressure Maxwell, who emerges from Sing Sing planning to run a dog track with cronies Jug (Broderick Crawford) and Weepy (Edward Brophy). But the plan needs funding, so the group (assisted by Jane Wyman) opens a luggage shop as a front while attempting to tunnel into the bank next door. Now add the store’s unexpected success, a gabby traveling valise salesman (Jack Carson) and the arrival of a sour con (Anthony Quinn) who wants in on the action, and the laughs are thick as thieves.

Special Features:
Commentary by Haden Guest and Dana Polan
Vintage newsreel
The Big Shot theatrical trailer
WB short: Winning Your Wings
WB cartoons:
Porky’s Pastry Pirates
The Wabbit Who Came to Supper
Theatrical trailer

Invisible Stripes (1939)
Parolee Chuck Martin is going straight when he gets out of jail – straight back to a life of crime. In lockup or out in the civilian world, he knows he’ll forever wear a con’s ‘Invisible Stripes.’ As Martin, Humphrey Bogart continues to battle and sneer his way to career stardom in this volatile social-conscience crime saga adapted from a book by warden Lewis E. Lawes. Top-billed George Raft plays Martin’s ex-Sing Sing yard mate Cliff Taylor, who vows to walk away from crime and be a role model for his kid brother (William Holden). But what awaits Taylor are suspicion, public disdain and joblessness. So he turns to a fellow con for help. Then, as now, he finds crime doesn’t pay.

Special Features:
Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
You Can’t Get Away with Murder Theatrical trailer
Vintage newsreel
WB short The Monroe Doctrine and Quiet, Please
WB cartoons:
Bars and Stripes Forever
Hare-um Scare-um
Theatrical trailer
Kid Galahad (1937)
This influential ring saga dramatically links professional boxing to criminal gambling. Edward G. Robinson is racketeer/fight promoter Nick Donati and tightly coiled Humphrey Bogart is Turkey Morgan. They’re rival promoters who, like fighters flinging kidney punches, end up swapping close-range bullets. Bette Davis plays the moll who has a soft spot for the bellhop (Wayne Morris) that Nick is grooming for the heavyweight title. And prolific Michael Curtiz directs this first of his six collaborations with Bogart that would include the romantic masterwork Casablanca and the sly comedy We’re No Angels.

Special Features:
Commentary by Art Simon and Robert Sklar
It’s Love I’m After theatrical trailer
Vintage newsreel
WB Shorts: Alibi Mark and Postal Union
WB Cartoons:
Egghead Rides Again
I Wanna Be a Sailor
Porky’s Super Service
Theatrical trailer

Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film — Warner Home Video Documentary
As popular as these films were in their heyday, seminal giants like Little Caesar and Public Enemy as well as post-war gems like Key Largo and White Heat still hold power over their audiences today. Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film will explore the invention and development of the crime genre; the rise of Warner stars like Cagney, Bogart and Robinson; as well as directors like Walsh, Wellman and Curtiz. It will cover the films themselves and the influence they had on filmmakers all over the world; and the artistic merit that these defining classic films still warrant. Finally, the documentary will celebrate the impact that Warner Bros. Studios had in establishing the iconic Hollywood Gangster, often imitated but never equaled.

Special Features:
Four WB Cartoons: I Like Mountain Music, She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter, Racketeer Rabbit and Bugs and Thugs

It turns out that another Bogart movie is heading for a Blu-Ray release: Beat the Devil is slated for the High Definition platform. This is particularly interesting since Beat the Devil has always looked terrible on DVD. As an independent production it eventually fell into the public domain. This resulted in poorly produced DVDs from terrible prints. A motley crew of international thieves get together for a complex scheme, and the ramshackle nature of the plot makes the film quite difficult to follow. Featuring such John Huston regulars such as Peter Lorre and Robert Morley, this was one of six collaborations between Huston and Bogart. While the film often struggles to make sense there are some striking close-ups of Bogart’s particularly haggard face and thinning hair.

I’d be surprised if the film has been remastered but if it ever did receive a full restoration, it could indeed turn out to be a revelation?

Warner Brothers has announced a forthcoming edition of Casablanca on Blu-Ray to be released on 2nd December 2008. The ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’ will feature a host of extra features but what is most exciting about this release is of course the High Definition print itself. This will not actually be the first time that the film has been released in High Definition. It received spectacular reviews when it was released on the now (suddenly) obsolete HD-DVD format. Let’s hope the Blu-Ray edition at least matches this previous print and if we’re lucky it could possibly surpass it.

It is interesting how legacy title such as Casablanca continue to make money for studios such as Warner Bros. When films were released during the 20s and 30s it was not conceivable that these films could have a life beyond their initial release. At which point did studios suddenly understand that their giant back catalogues could actually continue to work for them? Did this occur during the late 1970s with the dawn of video or was it earlier?

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of you not only have video and DVD copies of the same film, but have even paid to see them in the cinema several times.

The following are the extras slated for the Blu-Ray release:

Disc 1

Behind the Story

Introduction by Lauren Bacall

Commentary by film critic Roger Ebert

Commentary by film historian/author Rudy Behlmer

1988 TCM special: Bacall on Bogart [Laurel Bacall’s candid and moving reminiscences about her husband’s life and career]

You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca [Bacall hosts this spellbinding backstage tour]

As Time Goes By: The Children Remember [Stephen Bogart and Pia Lindstrom remember their parents, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman]

Production history gallery

Additional Footage

Deleted scenes

Outtakes

Who Holds Tomorrow? Premiere episode from the 1955 Warner Bros. Presents series, starring Charles McGraw

1995 WB Cartoon: Carrotblanca

Audio

Scoring Stage Sessions

Knock on Wood Alternate Version, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part One Alternate Take, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part One Film Version, Wilson with Piano

Rick Sees Ilsa Instrumental Medley

As Time Goes By Part Two Alternate Take, Wilson with Piano

As Time Goes By Part Two Film Version, Wilson with Piano

At La Belle Aurore Instrumental Medley

Dat’s What Noah Done Outtake, Wilson with Piano

April 26,1943 Screen Guild Players Radio Broadcast

Trailers

Theatrical trailer

1992 re-release trailer


Disc 2

1993 documentary: Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul

I can hardly believe my eyes, but it looks like Kino are releasing three of Victor Sjöström’s Swedish silents on DVD. For those who don’t know, Victor Sjöström was an early master of film who began making films in Sweden in 1912. The kind of independence he and his fellow filmmakers, such as Mauritz Stiller, were able to reach, meant that they could develop distinctly personal films. Almost as though cut off from the world during the war, Sjöström made films of such sensitivity and vision that they seemed to be far advanced of filmmakers working elsewhere, including America.

The history books and other critics will tell you that Sjöström is known for his dazzling portrayal of landscapes. And while he certainly was able to create a synthesis between a character and their surroundings, it is certainly not the be all and end all of Sjöström’s cinema. What ultimately makes his films so unique is the psychology that Sjöström manages to draw from these characters. It seemed as though the rest of the world was still learning what Sjöström managed to do with ease.

The first is a two-film set of Ingeborg Holm (1913) and A Man There Was (Terje Vigen, 1917) . Ingeborg Holm is one of the few surviving Swedish silents from before WW1 and it is a fascinating example of the early feature film. It is particularly interesting for its visual style, which is distinctly pre-Classical. It includes lengthy single-shots in which the staging of characters shifts throughout the scene, changing the status and meaning of their relationship together. It is also a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman’s downfall from contented wife to a mental institution.

A Man There Was is an adaptation of an Ibsen poem and tells an epic story of a man torn away from his wife and child at sea, causing their deaths on a remote island. Years later he is given the chance to avenge their deaths when he finds himself in a position of power over the men who imprisoned him. This is a succinct film of only about 45 minutes in which one man’s psychological struggle is played out against striking scenes of the open sea. The central character is played by Sjöström himself who was also an actor and featured in many of his own films.

He also featured in his feature film The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). It is truly difficult to decide which is Sjöström’s greatest since he created a string of brilliant films right through the 1910s (and indeed the 1920s in Hollywood), many of which are little-seen nowadays. The Outlaw and His Wife would certainly be among his finest. This is another epic tale of a couple who are forced to live in the mountains. As always, shot on location with a vivid authenticity, this film portrays the turbulent lives of this couple as they face severe hardships.

I was lucky enough to see every film Victor Sjöström made that still exists, and it was a revelation. This is cinema from the 1910s that is far more complex, thrilling and sensitive than most of the films made since. These films prove that there is little that is primitive about silent cinema and that there are worlds to be discovered. Buy these immediately, if only to actually own a copy of the rare and beautiful Ingeborg Holm.

As the new high-definition format continues to grow, it is becoming a more and more interesting prospect for classic film lovers. Message boards have been filled with young technophiles asking ‘But how can a film made before High Definition look anywhere near as good as movies made today?’ Others are quick to point out that a 35mm frame is far higher resolution than the highest HD currently available. Below are the few titles to be excited about on the new format, and indeed you couldn’t do far worse than wind up on a desert island with these six.

 

1. Black Narcissus (Great Britain, Michael Powell,1947) Probably the title I am most excited about. My DVD copy, released briefly during the early days of the format, is a mangled picture of washed out colours. Being one of the most gloriously colourful of all films, it’s incredible to see what a difference can be made using the new format. A tale of repressed passions amongst nuns in an Indian convent, this is surely one of the greatest of all films?

 

 

2. Great Expectations (Great Britain, David Lean, 1946) Black-and-white British films are often neglected in favour for American product, even where seasoned filmgoers are concerned. They are often equated with war movies, cut glass accents and the afternoon slot on TV. As a fan of the novel, I had seen David Lean’s Great Expectations before but its full power came to me when watching scenes from a newly-restored version from the front row of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank. Watching Magwitch threaten young Pip was a powerful and elemental scene, turning every viewer back into a child. This edition is especially important due to the degraded quality of earlier DVD releases.

 

3. The Seventh Seal (Sweden, Ingmar Bergman, 1957) I don’t know how long this next pick will be available since Tartan Video only recently closed its doors. A pretty tragic affair; Tartan has long been, along with Artificial Eye, the premier distributer of art-house cinema. Long before DVD came about it was only the distinctive design of Tartan and Artificial Eye tapes that lined the World Cinema section. They put out some very important releases on their time, including a heavy emphasis on the films of Ingmar Bergman. Fittingly, their first (and last) Blu-Ray release was Bergman’s most famous, The Seventh Seal. Featuring glorious black and white cinematography – the ominous skies of the opening are not far from Great Expectations – this is a film that actually contains more humour that it is ever given credit for, and is a dense text that warrents many a repeated viewing. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again soon.

 

 

4. Rio Bravo (U.S., Howard Hawks, 1959) The first of two classic westerns on the list. Revered as one of legendary director Howard Hawk’s finest films, Rio Bravo is a western driven by a simple and effective set-up. Misfits John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan are left to protect the small outpost in a world comprised only of a prison, bar and hotel. When the gang of outlaws ride into town, the distance from which they appear seems like an almost mystical place far beyond the trio’s world. The simplicity of the film turns it into a succinct allegory of good vs. bad, but the real joy comes from watching the interplay between Wayne, Martin and Brennan, all in their element.

 

5. The Adventures of Robin Hood(U.S., Michael Curtiz, 1938) Michael Curtiz directed Errol Flynn in many of his films throughout the 1930s, defining the swashbuckler’s persona in his first starring role in Captain Blood. Flynn would go on to repeat that successful formula in period dramas, pirate adventures and westerns. But perhaps it was the vivid Technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood and its pure adventurous spirit that turned it into one of the best loved of all adventure films. I suspect it has a lot to do with viewers’ childhoods and how they connect to the film when they were young (Indeed it was Tony Curtis’s favourite film as a child). Also featuring Olivia de Havilland whose elegance played well against Flynn’s exuberant performance. But as always it is Flynn who acts as the driving force: charismatic, dashing, playful and intense, it’s not hard to see why he was so successful.

 

 

 

6. The Searchers (U.S., John Ford, 1956) There are other great westerns and other great films by John Ford, but over the years The Searchers has risen to become one of the most revered of all films. With its wide open vistas of Monument Valley and the classic images of John Wayne returning home at the beginning and framed in the doorway at his exit at the end, this is an impeccable example of the genre. But with its themes of family, race and redemption it is also particularly complex and sensitive. Ultimately it is the open-ended and almost spiritual quest that Ethan Edwards (Wayne) must set out upon that keeps viewers returning.

For me the most important aspect of these films on Blu-Ray is the clarity of the image. Even if you know these films very well, there will be a definite sense of rediscovery when watching these six titles in High Definition. As a set of bone fide classics – to the point at which we can tend to take them for granted – these six early releases are certainly worth watching and rewatching.

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Christian Hayes
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