Sep 29, 2014

On DVD: The Thrilling Arrival of The Lusty Men (1952) on DVD

I had a belly full of stitches the first time I saw The Lusty Men. It was at a screening of a beautiful 35mm print at SIFF 2014. I was so determined to see it that I gave myself a week to recover from minor surgery. You could say I related, in a small way, to the beaten and bruised rodeo men up on the screen.

It was more than worthy of the effort, which is why I was thrilled to learn Warner Archive would be giving this brutal, funny and lively film a DVD release. This modern day Nicholas Ray western is the kind of discovery classic film fans yearn for.

Set in the rodeo circuit, The Lusty Men reveals this dangerous, but intoxicating world with almost documentary detail. It smoothly blends those moments of realism with gritty, often risqué drama and a battle-scarred sense of humor.

At the center of it all is Robert Mitchum, who has a lived-in comfort with his role as legendary rodeo rider Jeff McCloud. Recovering from a bad run-in with a bull, the limping cowboy retires from the circuit. He visits his childhood home, a humble shack on an old ranch. There he crosses pathes with Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), aspiring rodeo star and his loyal wife Louise (Susan Hayward).

Merritt convinces McCloud to teach him his trade so that he and the wife can save up for their own ranch. He reluctantly accepts, drawn in by the promise of shared winnings, and maybe just as much because he still has sawdust in his veins. Before long the two have hit the circuit, with a highly reluctant Louise in tow.

Mitchum has trained his prodigy well, and Wes is immediately a star. He becomes intoxicated by his success, taking increasing risks and seeming to forget why he has stepped into this crazy world in the first place. When a rodeo floozy attempts to brand him with a bite, it is Louise who has to kick her in the can and shove her away. He takes the attention, and his success for granted as soon as he wins his first wad of prize money.

Louise fights for her husband, while McCloud smoothly tries to convince her to try the domestic life with him. This against a backdrop of rowdy, traumatized rodeo stars past and present and the wives who watch anxiously from the sidelines.

Ray's drama throbs with adrenaline, though he wisely cuts into the action with moments of calm. When an injured Mitchum limps across an empty stadium, the director takes his time examining the debris floating through the lonely arena, chased with perfectly billowing blankets of dust. For every wild party or raucous event, there's space given for yearning and anxious reflection--those times when the players wonder if they are in the right game.

The rodeo scenes are alarming in their brutality. It all seems less sport that survival, with men throwing themselves into danger over and over again. You feel how out of control the riders are, holding on with one hand, everything spinning around them in a blur.

As dangerous as it all seems, through McCloud's eyes you see how the money is only the initial draw. Rodeo brings out the primal in these men. By riding well, they prove themselves warriors. The feeling of invincibility intoxicates them as much as the wealth, booze and sex.

The film was even richer viewing the second time around. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to revisit it whenever I wish. I certainly intend to do so.

Disc image quality is sharp and clean. The DVD includes a trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Check out my review of the SIFF 2014 screening of The Lusty Men here.

Sep 28, 2014

Quote of the Week

People like her never won awards. They just saved movies.

-John Kobal, About Joan Blondell

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Sep 22, 2014

The Great Race (1965) on Blu-ray

To get in the proper mood for The Great Race, you need only read the title card at the beginning of the film that respectfully announces, "for MR. LAUREL and MR. HARDY." While the classic comedy duo never attempted a 160 minute comic epic in brilliant color, if they had, it might have turned out a bit like Blake Edward's madcap tribute. While no film could completely recapture the particular brilliance of the silent age and its remarkable stars, this comedy gets a bit of its flavor. Now the film can be enjoyed in a sparkling clear Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Edward's story of competing daredevils on a worldwide race from New York to Paris goes for laughs with complete disdain for subtlety. Despite its poor initial critical and box office reception, this is an entertaining and joyfully silly comedy. Stars Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood attack their roles with madcap gusto. With the exception of Wood, who is game, but never entirely at home in the mayhem, the cast seems to relish the opportunity to play characters who are so over-the-top.

I went into The Great Race wary of the 160 minute length. Comic momentum is tricky and not generally compatible with a long running time. While the film did drag in spots, and after watching I still felt that it was unnecessarily long, it kept that momentum well enough that it never fizzled out. In fact, I laughed out loud many times. The gags thunder along at such a relentless pace that sometimes the giggles came out of surprise.

Of course, there's a lot more to good comedy than clever gags, they've got to be well executed. The timing is often fantastic in this movie, drawing laughs out of moments that wouldn't read funny on paper. In an early scene, Wood asks Curtis for something cold to drink and he pauses, frozen in a courtly pose while he briefly considers her motives. It's one of the many ways the smallest moments add to the overall spirit of comic anarchy.

While Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis don't have as many opportunities to play off of each other in Race, they capture the same great, goofy rhythm they did in the Billy Wilder classic Some Like it Hot (1959)--a feeling that's simultaneously loose and precise. Peter Falk is the perfect partner to Lemmon, letting him chew up scenery while he draws plenty of his own attention by never playing exactly straight. Though she is slightly miscast, mostly because she can never let loose quite as thoroughly as her co-stars, Natalie Wood is nevertheless charming, funny and manages to hold her own.

I've never been a big fan of movie pie fights, with the exception of Laurel and Hardy's Battle of the Century (1927), which may be impossible to top, but Edwards stages one so epic that it's impossible not to be impressed. It took five days, and 4,000 pies, to film this famous scene. Quite an undertaking, but ultimately funny because Tony Curtis wanders freely among the flying desserts without getting a single smudge on his white costume. All those pies for one joke. The silent movie comedians would approve.

Special features include a trailer and a brief behind-the-scenes documentary that includes an interesting glimpse of Natalie Wood's life as a movie star.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Sep 21, 2014

Quote of the Week


I might run from her for a thousand years and she is still my baby child. Our love is so furious that we burn each other out.

-Richard Burton, About Elizabeth Taylor

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Sep 17, 2014

Brainstorm (1965)

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This hip, slick sixties take on film noir didn't excite me the way I'd hoped, but it has a fair share of thrills and a great jazzy score. The strong cast, with Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Jeffrey Hunter and Viveca Lindfors, keeps things bubbling as long as it can.

It's one of two slightly off-kilter thrillers directed in 1965 by William Conrad (the other My Blood Runs Cold), who is perhaps most famous for his starring roles in the television shows Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, and for being one of the titular gunmen in the 1946 noir The Killers.

Hunter is Jim Grayam, a brilliant systems analyst who comes upon an unconscious woman in the passenger seat of a car stopped across some railroad tracks. He drives her out of danger, infuriating his supposed damsel-in-distress, who had intended to commit suicide. She is Lorrie Benson, wife of Cort Benson, who is also the owner of Benson Industries where Jim works.

Cort views Lorrie as an amusement, a pretty bird in a gilded cage. She only stays with him for the sake of her daughter, who he promises he will make miserable if she leaves him. His cruelty disgusts Jim and he returns Benson's reward check, impressing the missus in the process. She reels him in, delicately, as if she is too innocent to understand the danger she is courting. But this is not her first affair.

When Cort learns of his wife's newest conquest, he begins a campaign of stealth harassment, making Jim look crazy to his co-workers. He uses Grayam's past experiences in a sanitarium to further trash his image. Soon Jim and Lorrie are plotting Benson's murder.

Of course, murdering a spouse to eliminate the competition never works. After all, how could things work out with a partner who's cool with killing unwanted lovers? If only these people would go to the movies. They'd learn so much.

Jim is determined to win Lorrie though, and he plots the murder in such a way that afterwards he will make the jury think he's insane, and then gradually prove sanity again and win his freedom. Lorrie goes along with his plan, though she is careful not to get explicitly involved.

While the murder and trial go as expected, Jim begins to actually go crazy in the mental hospital. He realizes that he has trapped himself. Or has he simply discovered his true nature?

Up to this point, Brainstorm has brisk appeal. Ann Francis is kittenish and sweet and it is easy to see how the overworked and deeply serious Jim could be drawn to her. They make eyes at each other during a swinging party and the montage of their love affair is cute, if awfully familiar.

When Cort begins his assault, the tension increases as you wonder how far Benson will go with his smear campaign. Up to that point, the plotting and reprisals keep you on your toes. Then the long scenes of Grayam learning how to be insane begin, and it's as if a pin has been poked into a balloon and the air begins to drain from the movie.

The murder scene is surprisingly bland, almost matter-of-fact, which is interesting in a way, though it just adds to the lack of energy in the second half of the film. Once Jim is captured, there are long scenes with psychiatrist Dr. Larstadt (Vivica Lindfors), in court and finally, in the mental hospital. There's so much detail it gets tedious. Every scene feels like it could have been half as long.

This is a worthy film though, if flawed. Francis rarely had the chance to dig into a role this substantial; though she's no heroine, she is appealing as a femme fatale who is dangerous more for her weaknesses than typical cold calculation. Dana Andrews has a small role, but it's shocking, because he's never been so mean and the change in persona suits him. Swedish actress Lindfors is appropriately enigmatic as a doctor who wants to help Jim, though perhaps not in the way he would prefer.

I wasn't able to decide what I thought of Jeffrey Hunter's performance. It was difficult for me to separate my feelings about his character, which I found totally unappealing, from how he portrayed him. I think I'd need to see Hunter in another role to be able to appreciate what he has accomplished here. He may have done his job too well, or maybe he just doesn't appeal to me at all.

Overall I liked the film well enough to watch it a couple of times, but I'm disappointed that it lost momentum after such a promising start. However, it's still a must-see for fans of late-period noir or any of the actors in the cast.

Sep 14, 2014

Quote of the Week

Since I'm a print collector and I screen movies at my home, I heard from other collectors and projectionists that [they] might have to close down, so, I just started paying [them] that per month. I considered it a contribution to cinema.

-Quentin Tarantino

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Sep 10, 2014

On DVD: Gary Cooper in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)

Welcome to 13th century China, Samuel Goldwyn-style. There's a Chinese princess played by Norwegian-American Sigrid Gurie, Kublai Khan is Philadelphia-born George Barbier and the devious emperor's advisor is Brit-to-the-bone Basil Rathbone. To be fair, there are a wide array of Asian faces among the extras and supporting cast.

With syrupy-strings alternating with jauntily "Asian" music and by-the-numbers romance and intrigue, this is glossy Hollywood product all the way, with a few surprise punches, and it's now available in a clean, sharp print from Warner Archive.

Though the Goldwyn take on the adventures of the first European to explore China is not the strongest work of its talented cast, it's a well-crafted flick, dutifully presenting the best traits of all involved.

Uncomfortably cast as Polo, Gary Cooper gamely alternates between his gentle romantic and sturdy action personas, while Rathbone is magnetic and reliably evil. In her screen debut, Gurie's take on an Asian princess is to generally play her as if she is a bit slow, but she is lovely in an otherworldly way. Alan Hale is especially amusing as a barbarian more charismatic than threatening. In an early bit role as a maid, Lana Turner already exudes budding star power in her towering dark wig.

Polo unrolls in a pleasantly efficient way. The high-spirited explorer discovers spaghetti and gunpowder, gets moony over the princess and bunks with barbarians. In an especially thrilling final sequence he even storms the castle.

The music sparkles, the costumes are impeccable and each scene is set with a perfect balance of light and shadow. There's also a tinge of darkness that gives the gloss a much needed-edge, such as the vultures threatening to feast on a chained princess, or the pit of lions that hungrily waits for human flesh.

Though a box office bust on original release, it's still a fun diversion, best suited to fans of its stars or devotees of carefully-calibrated classic Hollywood tales, though the exciting action scenes do widen its appeal.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Sep 7, 2014

Quote of the Week


When I was younger, all my friends were older...John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. I loved talking to those people. And now they all have passed away. I’ve mourned a lot of friends, much more than I should have at this point in my life. It was a different world. It was a better world.

-Peter Bogdanovich

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Sep 3, 2014

On DVD--Maya: The Complete Series, Jay North from Dennis the Menace Goes to India

The lavishly-filmed Maya stars Jay North in a television role worlds apart from his famous turn as Dennis the Menace. Shot on location in India, it was an expensive show, and so-so ratings could not justify the cost beyond a single season. It's an unusual and interesting program though, and well worth a look. In a new release from Warner Archive, all eighteen episodes are presented in clean, bright color.

Maya first hit the screen as a movie in 1966. In it North is Terry Bowen, a still very boyish teen who travels to India to live with his hunter father (Clint Walker) after his mother's death. Accustomed to the freedom of life in the wild, dad is happy to see him, but not when he finds out his son plans to stay for good. Discord between the two drives Terry to run away.

This is where Maya comes in. The titular heroine is an elephant, mother to a rare white elephant. Terry meets the sturdy pachyderm and her guardian Raji (Sajid Khan), a boy about his age, and decides to help them take the young elephant to safety in a temple, away from unscrupulous poachers. It's an exciting family drama, with lots of action, suspense and fascinating scenes of India.

The series version of Maya goes at the story from a different angle. This time when Terry arrives in India to stay with his father, he is told the hunter has gone missing on an expedition and is believed dead. Escaping the authorities who wish to send him back to the United States, Bowen plunges into the wilds of India to conduct his own search. Along the way he meets Raji (again played by Sajid Kahn), a fugitive from the law, and his elephant Maya.

Much has been made of the close relationship between Terry and Raji, with some even going so far as to point out homosexual undertones. While I didn't catch that vibe, I can see how the tight-knit pair could have been encouraging to a young gay teen watching the series. It's an interesting friendship in that it is so peaceful and mutually supportive. I wish I could think of a better word for it, but basically, it's a bromance. Though they are together constantly, the drama in the series is primarily drawn from events around them.

While the film was presented as a family adventure, with a fair amount of peril, the show often has a much darker tone. The trio encounters some seriously scary threats, such as a mysterious force that is killing off the members of a village where they seek medical help and a psychopathic hunter who threatens them with murder when they plan to expose his illegal elephant hunt. Even a take on the Prince and the Pauper that starts out light-hearted eventually leads to a whipping, though it is filmed off screen. While this could still qualify as family viewing, it is best suited to older viewers.

Though the television show was made only a year after the movie, North grew a lot in that short time. The movie Terry still had a strong resemblance to the tow-headed, high-voiced Dennis the Menace. In the series he is greatly changed, much taller, with a deeper voice and darkened hair. In making the transition from boy to young man he has also found more self-confidence and power. This compelling teenager is barely recognizable as Mr. Wilson's former pesky neighbor.

While it would be impossible for the T.V. version of Maya to have the magnificent scale of its movie counterpart, it is still beautifully filmed and of remarkably high quality. It's easy to see why the series was so expensive to make, but the location filming and attention to detail are what gives the show enduring appeal. It doesn't always flow easily, but the novelty of its story and strong production values keep it interesting.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.