Mar 31, 2017

On DVD: 1940s Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face and Flamingo Road

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The forties were an interesting time for Joan Crawford. In that decade she left her long time studio MGM for Warner Bros, finally won a coveted Oscar for best actress (Mildred Pierce [1946]) and her performance style matured beyond the movie star mannerisms upon which she'd relied so heavily in her early career. Two of Crawford's best titles from this era, A Woman's Face (1941) and Flamingo Road (1949), from MGM and Warner Bros. respectively, are now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

A Woman's Face (1941)

Crawford was in the last years of her long association with MGM when George Cukor directed her in the Hollywood remake of A Woman's Face (Ingrid Bergman starred in the Swedish original in 1938). She is Anna Holm, a woman made bitter by an ugly scar, that covers one side of her face, the result of a childhood accident. Unemployable, she runs a tavern as a cover for a large blackmail operation through which she takes pleasure in torturing ladies who have the kind of breathless, illicit romances she only dreams of having herself.

One night at her establishment, she hosts the charming and wealthy Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). Though he can have any woman he wants, he is intrigued by Anna, connecting with her darkness. She is stunned by the attention, and falls in love for the first time.

When Anna is caught in the midst of blackmailing unfaithful wife Vera (Osa Massen) by her plastic surgeon husband, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas), the doctor insists on fixing her face. In some respects it is a matter of pride for him to attempt the surgery, but he also claims that he wants to know if she will remain ugly inside if she becomes superficially beautiful.

The operation is a success and Anna's whole life changes, but in her new beauty Torsten sees only the means to achieve his own dreams. He convinces her to take a job as nanny for his nephew, the only person who stands between him and a large inheritance, so that she may kill him. She takes the job, and under Dr. Segert's watchful eye, struggles with what ugliness remains in her when faced with a kinder, more welcoming world.

It is thanks to Cukor that Crawford seems to have matured overnight as an actress here; this is a transformative role for her. He insisted, with her agreement, that she drop her movie star act and truly become her character. Together they worked to make Anna angry, humble, tender and conflicted. It is one of her most complex performances and one of the first times the actress truly got lost in a role.

The film itself has plenty to say about women, and how their self-worth and value in society is tied to beauty. As an actress beginning to be seen as past her prime, Crawford must have felt Anna's turmoil deeply. She also was seeing her value decline because of age, though she was on the cusp of achieving some of the best, most unaffected performances of her life.

Special features on the disc include the short You Can't Fool a Camera, the cartoon Little Cesario, two radio adaptations of the film, one starring Ida Lupino, the other Bette Davis, and a theatrical trailer.

Flamingo Road (1949)

Crawford was well into a successful run at Warner Bros. Studios when she made Flamingo Road with director Michael Curtiz. She had won the Oscar and achieved some of the best performances of her career in films like Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947). 

It was also the start of a period where, while the actress was maturing as a performer, she continued to take parts for younger woman, which sometimes gave an odd feeling to a film. This small town drama is one such occasion, where she plays a carnival showgirl who should be in her late twenties or early thirties, but 40-something Joan, who was at least aging gracefully, makes it work.

As dancer Lane Bellamy, Crawford is tired of skipping out on hotel bills and constantly traveling with the low-class carny set. She decides to settle in a Southern town, attracting the attention of deputy sheriff Fielding Carlisle (Crawford's Mildred Pierce costar Zachary Scott), who buys her a meal and gets her a job. This is all to the chagrin of Sheriff Titus Semple, who is grooming Carlisle to one day serve as his puppet governor.

Semple bullies everyone, this is a man who becomes angry if he is not given a separate chair for his hat, but he is hardest on Lane. He gets her fired, has her picked up for soliciting and does everything in his power to get her out of town. Yes she is not good material for a politician's wife, but Temple also seems to find it unnerving the way Lane has of detecting and speaking the truth, something he works very hard to conceal when it proves inconvenient. Years on the carnival circuit have toughened Lane though and she refuses to back down.

As she builds a life for herself, finding work, and eventually marriage and a home, Lane faces constant pressure from Semple. He treats everyone with contempt, calling Fielding "Bub" as if to continually reinforce that he considers the younger man beneath him, and only a tool for his use. While while he presents an exterior of smooth, psychopathic evil, from the way he guzzles milk instead of liquor it seems he is suffering from ulcers, a sign of a man who is more tormented than he lets on.

Flamingo Road plays like a melodrama, but has the look of a film noir. Even on a sunny day, long shadows haunt Semple's porch, a constant reminder of the grime beneath the cheerful exterior of the town. Lane is set up at every turn to be the victim of that darkness, but she is stronger than the easily blackmailed men who give the illusion of being in control of that town.

Special features on the disc include the featurette Crawford at Warners, the cartoon Curtain Razor, a radio adaptation of the film and a theatrical 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.

Mar 30, 2017

TCMFF Prefunc: 10 Reasons I Dig Sidney Poitier

As film fans, many of us get so wrapped up in the idea of Sidney Poitier being a pioneer, because of the advances he has made for actors of color, that I think we forget that he is also one of the greatest film actors of all time. There's no part that is beyond his abilities and he's also a huge movie star.

Poitier's drawing power was enormous at the height of his career. In an age where star-driven vehicles were starting to fade, people went to his movies specifically because they wanted to see him. Roles were written with him in mind. For many years he was in demand, and he has maintained respect in a turbulent industry for his entire adult life.

Any one of his biggest successes could have made a legend of him: To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, just to name his output in 1967. There's his Oscar-winning performance in Lilies of the Field (1963) and his remarkably assured starring debut in No Way Out (1950). He was a standout in Blackboard Jungle (1955), a sensation in The Defiant Ones (1958) and did some of the most sensitive acting of his career in A Patch of Blue (1965). This doesn't even include his fruitful directing career and the high profile roles he continued to play as he became a grandfather and later a great grandfather.

Since Poitier has been announced as a guest attending the opening night film, In the Heat of the Night (1967), at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival. What better time to celebrate some of the qualities that have made this remarkable man one of the most intriguing actors of the past century?

1. That Voice

Smooth, seductive and often laced with a hint of humor, Sidney Poitier has one of the most entrancing voices of the silver screen. As he has aged, its power to mesmerize has only increased. Listen to the way he lingers over the names of items as he shops for groceries in this charming scene from A Patch of Blue (1965), lengthening the words and really enjoying playing with sound:

2. He's Romantic

Women go crazy for Poitier in his films. Too often racial politics made him written to be inaccessible, but when he played a romantic lead, he was hot. A smooth-talking, handsome man who knows how to treat a lady? How could you not love him? He is especially sexy as an American jazz musician living in Paris in Paris Blues (1961). Paired with Diahann Carroll, he makes much of their considerable chemistry, purring his way through a sizzling flirtation scene on a bridge, and swooping up with puma-like grace to get close to her on a train. He's great at playing a lover, because he gives the woman before him his undivided attention and behaves as though no one else could be more fascinating.

3. He's Gentle

Cary Grant once said "it takes a strong man to be gentle." Poitier often seemed to take that idea to heart, playing many iron-willed, determined men who nevertheless could be gentle in demeanor. His tenderness towards an abused blind teenager in A Patch of Blue (1965) [can you tell I love this film?] is the perfect example of the powerful compassion he could bring to a role. You feel that he has power, but that he also knows how to use it without causing damage. When he appears, you know this girl is in good hands and that his kindness will help her to blossom. He is similarly tender with the rough-edged students of To Sir, With Love (1966), watching them carefully and never backing down, but always pushing back with the knowledge that they are fragile people. 

4. He's Charming

There's a sort of signature Poitier move that I love: it's an ironic tilt of the head, followed by a wry smile. He's done it in many of his films, and it never fails to charm me. This is an actor so appealing he all but forced those who would doubt him to fall under his spell. He is one of the few stars with such a powerful X-factor to push beyond the studio age into modern cinema. 

5. He's Confident

From his first major film role in No Way Out (1950), Poitier held the screen with unfailing confidence. For that job he had lied about his age, adding on a few years, but having already lived a challenging, intense youth, he had no trouble portraying a young intern preparing to take on the full responsibilities of his profession. From that film onward, he always held the screen as if he was lit with belief in himself, and given the resistance he faced, that is an especially admirable accomplishment.

6. He's Passionate

Poitier often played men who felt deeply and he rarely left any mystery as to what he was thinking. It can be exciting to watch him process all that is before him, and exhilarating when he decides to speak up and launch a perfectly-executed verbal takedown. 

7. He's Funny

Funny, silly, carefree: these are not words you typically hear used to describe Poitier, but he has often been all these things. There's a devilish sense of humor to him that pops up in many of his films. He is especially fun to watch as a young stevedore in Edge of the City (1957) who tries to help his drifter friend (John Cassavetes) lighten up. It's a big job, and he takes it on with the determination of someone who feels inherent joy. Playfully teasing his wife and mother-in-law, dancing in his apartment living room and cracking jokes at work, he shows the best of that lightness of spirit that is such an important part of his appeal.

8. He's Dapper

It doesn't matter what Poitier wears: suits, sports clothes, jeans jacket, it all looks impeccable on him. He should be as renowned as Gary Cooper or Cary Grant for the way he wears clothes.

9. He's Tough

Poitier has a knack for playing relentlessly tough characters. The tightly-coiled, barely contained, but utterly controlled way he played police detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) is his boldest moment as a man who wouldn't bow to those who would oppress him. The actor, who was an active civil rights activist himself, came up the idea of responding to a slap from a white man with an almost instinctual return smack. He also made sure that the scene would appear in all prints of the film, wherever they would be shown. This was a bold move in an age where he had to request that as many scenes as possible be filmed in the north to ensure his own safety.

While I love the power of that classic moment, I'm more strongly affected by the small moments where Poitier asserts himself. He doesn't play characters who take abuse without a battle. Perhaps they might bend a bit in the moment, intent on self-preservation, but he made a point of not caving in to anyone who felt superior to him. 

One of the best of those brief interludes is in Lilies of the Field (1963), in a scene where where he is talking to a construction manager who in their first moments has called him "boy." When that happens, Poitier barely reacts, but later in the conversation, when they are discussing employment, with subtle sarcasm he also calls the man "boy," readjusting his status with one word, and he does this to a man for whom he hopes to work! The gamble pays off too; he wins the respect he should have had at first glance.

Poitier lets it all out with Dan Akroyd in Sneakers (1996)
10. He's Profane

I think it's funny that Poitier so often gets stuck with the noble label, because aside from having a mischievous sense of humor, according to a recent Hollywood Reporter profile, he is also quite foul-mouthed. Of course, as his godson Mike Jordan remarks, "He's one of the most eloquent curse-word users." While it is a bit of a shock to see Poitier drop the 'F' bomb in one of the climactic scenes of Sneakers (1992), it's also amusing, because he does make it seem graceful, though also perfectly cathartic.

At 90-years-old, Sidney Poitier still possesses all these qualities, and they are only the start of what makes him a legend.

Mar 27, 2017

On Blu-ray: Alan Arkin Terrorizes Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967)

Though I will never get over the trauma of my first viewing of Wait Until Dark (1967), I have returned to it several times over the years. Even once you know its secrets, it retains its stomach churning power to chill. It is also a showcase for some of the best performances of its stars, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Crenna, Jack Weston and the utterly terrifying Alan Arkin. The horrors are intensified by Henry Mancini's most twisted soundtrack, full of off-kilter, discordant piano and the menacing grumble of cellos. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Audrey Hepburn is Susy, recently blinded in an accident, and struggling to adjust to her new reality. She is married to Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) a photographer who is on his way home from a business trip as the film begins. A model-gorgeous blonde in a fur coat flirts with him on the plane. When they disembark, she gives him a doll and asks him to hold onto it for her. As he walks away in confusion, she is grabbed by a shady-looking man in sunglasses and led out of the airport.

Sam makes no mention of the doll when he returns to Susy. Instead he gently scolds her about her lack of initiative in adjusting to blindness. He means well, but comes off as a bit patronizing and insensitive, especially when he must leave her almost right away to return to his studio.

Left alone, Susy is subject to the mild tortures of Gloria, the slightly bratty, but essentially good-hearted girl who lives upstairs. Already unsettled by their interaction, she is subjected to further anxiety when a pair of criminals (the excellent Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) play a charade with her in order to find the doll, which it turns out is stuffed with heroin.

The men play on Susy's fears, but only to get the job done. They don't care about her, but they don't wish to cause her unnecessary trouble either. That all changes when their associate Groat (Alan Arkin) enters the picture. He is even more interested in getting what they came for, but if he takes pleasure in any chaos he can cause along the way.

Essentially a one set movie, Wait Until Dark keeps these characters in close quarters, the tension between them growing with disturbing intensity. That escalation in emotion is made more wrenching by Mancini's music, which has got to be one of the most horrifying scores ever made for a film. By making his piano-dominated backing discordant and uneven, he emphasizes the dysfunction of these villains and the instability of Susy's situation.

After years of essentially cheerful musicals and comedies, with enough drama to show her chops, Hepburn made an unusual excursion into a truly dark story. As uncomfortable as it can be to see sweet Audrey being terrorized, its wonderful to behold the intensity she was capable of when given the chance. As Susy she is vulnerable, insecure and still adjusting to blindness, but she possesses the determination and resourcefulness of a survivor. She makes you want to help her while proving that she can manage just fine on her own.

According to Arkin, no one had yet attempted to portray a psychopath with the ferocity he did in Wait Until Dark. As the studio era came to a limping end, Roat's sadism and cruelty were an alarming change and a sign of things to come. This was new territory, and the slow burn build of Arkin's performance was puzzling even to the film's crew. When he eventually unleashed his fury, it is possible it was as alarming for his co-workers as it was for audiences.

Arkin's Groat is not all business; he's a gleeful sadist. He'll do the job he's set out to do with ferocious commitment, but indulge in some perversions along the way. Seeming to take delight in the smooth evil of his own voice, he finds sensuality in the process of his torture, sniffing the lingerie in Susy's dresser drawer and approaching his questioning of her like a deviant seduction.

While Crenna and Weston always remain determined career criminals, Arkin and Hepburn descend into an animalistic battle for survival. As she becomes increasingly more frightened, Susy's voice tightens into guttural moans of terror, which seem to arouse Roat, until he realizes she's already survived too much to simply submit.

Just writing about this film makes me feel tense, but I know I will continue to revisit it, because it is worth the torture to see these performances and the perfectly executed suspense.

I've always seen this as an essentially grey-toned film, but the Blu-ray print makes the colors pop a little more, lending it a richness I haven't experienced in previous viewings. Special features include the featurette Look in the Dark, where Arkin admits that he felt horrible pretending to terrorize someone as kind as Audrey Hepburn. There's also a pair of theatrical trailers which tease the intense thrills of the film.

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

Mar 24, 2017

Navigating the TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule: My Choices

It is almost time for TCM Classic Film Festival 2017. As always, it will take place at several venues along Hollywood Boulevard. This year the event will take place from April 6-9. The theme: Comedy in the Movies, which I love. We could all use some laughs.

Perusing the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule, which came out this week, can drive you to drink. There's so much to take in: films, guests, special programs and ceremonies, and so many good things scheduled at the same time.

I have to keep reminding myself that I've had a wonderful time at each festival no matter what I ended up seeing. While the options can be overwhelming, the reality is that you can only see one movie at a time, and that's a beautiful thing.

It always helps to approach the TCMFF schedule with some priorities. Over the years I have often made seeing special guests a priority. It is a bittersweet necessity given the age of those we admire as a part of the classic film fandom. We're lucky to be able see the actors and filmmakers who inspire us, but there's always the possibility that it could be the last time.

My other priorities this year: see as many nitrate films as possible, try a few new titles cold, with no research other than reading the program description, see some old favorites for the first time on the big screen and most importantly, catch up with friends who I only communicate with on social media for the rest of the year.

I will focus on these things, leaving myself open to other programs, book signings and the like as my schedule permits. It is best to approach this festival with an open mind; a change of plan can be the catalyst for an amazing experience. You never know when a sunny Sunday will make you suddenly switch out a drama that was a must-see for a wild comedy that ends up being a festival favorite.


There are all sorts of interesting events happening the first day of the festival. I plan to keep things fluid the first half of the day. It might be fun to check out the Hitchcock Fans Meetup or the Remembering Robert Tribute.

I definitely want to snag a seat in the opening night red carpet bleachers. This will be my one chance to see Sidney Poitier, Norman Jewison and several other celebrity guests.

After that, I'd love to see the hilarious William Powell and Myrna Loy marriage comedy Love Crazy (1941), but if I can't make it down to the Egyptian in time, it would be amazing to see one of my favorite comedies, Some Like it Hot (1959) in the much closer Chinese Multiplex.

A screening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), featuring Peter Lorre, will be my first opportunity ever to see nitrate film projected. If I need to skip the first film to get in line for this, I'm going to do it!


I never miss the hand and footprint ceremony in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater and this year's event will be extra special. Not only are Rob and Carl Reiner legendary entertainers, but they will be the first father and son to be so honored at the same time.

I'd love to catch Born Yesterday (1950) next, but the timing will be tight. It will be more likely that this will be my big chance to get a decent meal for the day. Nothing wrong with that!

In the next time slot Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Princess Bride (1987) and Monkey Business (1931) all tempted me, primarily because of the opportunities to see Donald Bogle, Rob Reiner and Dick Cavett respectively introduce them, but I find the idea of the new-to-me French thriller Panique (1946) irresistible.

Then off to the Egyptian theater to watch what will likely be my only silent of the festival So This is Paris (1926). The hilarious W.C. Fields comedy Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) called to me, but I went for another new-to-me film so that I would be right there to get in line for one of my festival must-sees, Red-Headed Woman (1932). This is my favorite Jean Harlow film and the screening will be my first opportunity to see her on the big screen.

Looks like the Egyptian will be my home for most of Friday, because I plan to hop right back in line again for Laura (1944), one of my favorite films. This should be a popular title not only because people love the film, but it will be shown on nitrate.

After that I will call it a day or treat myself to the spectacle of Sean Connery with a handlebar mustache and a red shorts-sling blown up to matinee size in the midnight movie Zardoz (1974).


What? The festival is already half over? Just thinking about it is making me pre-nostalgic.

The last two days of TCMFF are going to be the most brutal for me schedule-wise. So many things I want to see are slotted on top of each other.

For the first film of the day I will either go with an old favorite, The Court Jester (1955), or Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), which I haven't seen in years. I'm leaning toward the latter since Jester, as funny as it is, can drag a bit. If the line is insane for the tiny Chinese Multiplex 4 theater though, I'll nix Arsenic.

I've considered seeing The Awful Truth (1937) in the Chinese Theater next, but will probably grab something to eat and get in line for The Jerk (1979). One of my favorite comedies, also showing in the Chinese Theater, and introduced by Carl Reiner? I definitely need to make sure I get in for this one.

Then on to Chinese Multiplex to catch Best in Show (2000) with several cast members attending, including BOB BALABAN! If I can get into both The Jerk and this one? Well stick a fork in me. I might just need to sit out everything else.

The next time block is KILLING ME. Do I want to see the brilliant Buck Henry introduce The Graduate (1967) in the Chinese Theater? Or do I go to see the already heartbreakingly gorgeous Black Narcissus (1947) on nitrate at the Egyptian? There's no way around this. I am going to have to clone myself.

I am a bit intrigued by the midnight movie The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), but this is already going to be an insane day. Might be better to give myself a chance to simmer down.


It can't be Sunday. I just got started!

This is always an impossible day to schedule due to the TBD openings for films that had overflow crowds early in the festival. My plan is to not get too attached to my plan.

I will start the day with the pre-code Cock of the Air (1932). Can't say no to that title!

The next time slot is a bummer for me because I was so excited to see The Landlord (1970) on the big screen, but there is no way I am missing The Palm Beach Story (1942) in the Chinese Theater.

That is nothing compared to the four-way torture of the next time block. I haven't seen Singin' in the Rain (1952) in a theater yet, I would have loved to see Peter Bogdanovich introduce What's Up Doc? (1972) and I hate to miss my girl crush Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951). But Bob Newhart is introducing Hell is For Heroes (1962). I don't usually like war films, but BOB (I seem to be obsessed with Bobs this year). It doesn't hurt that the cast also includes Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin (another Bob!) and James Coburn.

I had hoped that the Casablanca (1942) screening would be the nitrate print that was screened in Hollywood earlier in the year. Since it isn't, that's an easy skip. Speedy (1928) is one of my favorite Harold Lloyd films, so it was tough to pass on that one, but the prospect of seeing new-to-me Ginger Rogers film Lady In the Dark (1944) on nitrate for my last film of the festival is too incredible to miss.

So that's my game plan. It's going to change. And that's okay, because this festival is going to be amazing!

If you are attending and happen to see my social media pin:

Or my Elizabeth Taylor t-shirt:

Then say hello!

If you are not attending, follow me on Twitter and Instagram during the festival and I will make you feel like you are there!

Check out the schedule choices my fellow film bloggers have made (if you have made your own list, tell me about it in the comments or share your link and I'll add it to the list):

Mar 23, 2017

Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch (1973) and Her Career in the 60s and 70s

As of today, it has been six years since Elizabeth Taylor left us. In remembrance of this unique actress and humanitarian, I am spotlighting one of her lesser known films, Night Watch (1973). This single horror entry in Taylor's resume was long unavailable until its release on DVD from Warner Archive. Based on a play by Lucille Fletcher, it's a tightly-wound, atmospheric bit of terror.

The late sixties and early seventies were a rough patch in Taylor's career, mirroring the movie industry overall. Society was going through massive changes and studios struggled to keep up with the times. In addition to these challenges, Taylor was dealing with the increasing tensions of her often combative, and sometimes toxic marriage to Richard Burton. The pair lived large and loud, and in the hippie age that often made them the subject of scorn.

In part because of these factors, many of Taylor's films in this era have become essentially lost. There has been a general critical opinion that her work during this time was a disappointment, a baffling conclusion to make when so many of her films from this time have not been readily available for years. While films like Boom (1968), The Driver's Seat (1974) and X, Y & Zee (1968) certainly have their over-the-top moments and eccentricities, they are also showcase Taylor in some of her most complex and intriguing performances.

This was Taylor's unruly period. After years of playing placidly beautiful, often obedient women, she took off the gloves and made a great show of giving her image a good smacking. In her early career, even when she played rebels, her characters tended to stay within the acceptable boundaries of female behavior. She began to show what she had in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), BUtterfield 8 (1960) and The Sandpiper (1965), but it wasn't until her Oscar-winning performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) that she showed how beautiful she could be when she got truly loud and emotionally messy.

By the mid-sixties, Taylor took on a persona that was unusually unruly for a female. It made her the object of ridicule, a position which was often mirrored in her films. This Elizabeth felt hurt and betrayed by the world. Instead of retreating to lick her wounds, she raged about it. Her films were populated with people who didn't believe in her, husbands who betrayed the raving beauty for blander, more subdued blondes, and disapproving bystanders who just wanted her to calm down. But she would not calm down. She would keep making ripples on the status quo, expanding the idea of what it meant to be female.

Taylor's performances during this era had many flamboyant moments that went beyond any concept of good or bad. They grabbed your attention and brought you into her orbit. That's what people tend to remember, but these wild displays were offset by some of the star's most subtle acting. Sandwiched between the tirades were quiet, excruciating moments of great emotional complexity, where you saw the woman who lived beneath the noise. I'm sure many would say that this was the real Elizabeth emerging, but it took great skill for her to translate those emotions for a movie camera, a talent for which she was never given enough credit.

Night Watch ticks off many of the boxes from this time in Taylor's career: she plays a wealthy woman who seems to be losing her mind, she is betrayed by her husbands, and her greatest competition is a more subdued, well-behaved picture of femininity. She is Ellen Wheeler, resident of London, the insomniac wife of John Wheeler (her BUtterfield 8 co-star Laurence Harvey) and best friend of Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw) who is currently visiting the two on holiday.

Unhappily married and haunted by violent dreams from the past, Ellen becomes fixated on the horrific abandoned gothic mansion next door. Dusty and decrepit, but with a perfect garden tended to by caretaker Appleby (Robert Lang), she spends much of her time staring at its windows on rainy nights. One especially stormy evening she claims to have seen a dead body sitting in a chair next to the window, and says that it resembled her dead husband.

Ellen's terror over what she thinks she has seen throws her into hysterics. She can't sleep, refuses to eat and constantly calls the police to report her suspicions about the murder. John and Sarah try to manage her, but she is not the kind of woman who can be managed. Her seeming madness pushes them all towards a surprising climax and amusingly subdued conclusion.

Night Watch shows its roots as a play, with very little location shooting. For most of the film Taylor is confined in her home, which enhances the tension by reflecting the way she is trapped by her own fears. A brilliantly suspenseful score by John Cameron and some horrific flashbacks add to the building terror. It's a tense, unsettling bit of drama.

Taylor and Harvey were delighted to work together again and hoped to find another project on which to collaborate, but both were ill during the production and struggled to complete the film. Harvey would die of cancer not long after. It is possible they may not have had the leverage to launch another project as it was, since the UK-based production was not a hit with critics or audiences. It's a worthy film though, with intriguing performances, subtly building tension and a great, chilling atmosphere.

The Warner Archive disc comes with no special features. The remastered image does justice to the rich Technicolor, though in some scenes there are several subtle dirt marks. It isn't a pristine copy, but the flaws do not distract from the viewing experience.

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.

Mar 22, 2017

A Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway! Win a Copy of the Newly Restored Behind the Door (1919)

I am a huge fan of Flicker Alley, as can be seen from my past reviews of their titles. So many amazing films are available to a wide audience, and in amazing packages, due to their diligent efforts.

Now, along with Flicker Alley and several fellow classic movie site owners, I am excited to give you the opportunity to win the new release Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu ray/DVD.

I'll let Flicker Alley tell you the rest:

Legendary producer Thomas H. Ince and director Irvin V. Willat made this—“the most outspoken of all the vengeance films” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow—during the period of World War I inspired American patriotism.

Hobart Bosworth stars as Oscar Krug, a working-class American, who is persecuted for his German ancestry after war is declared. Driven by patriotism, Krug enlists and goes to sea. However, tragedy strikes when his wife (Jane Novak) sneaks aboard his ship and is captured following a German U boat attack. Krug’s single minded quest for vengeance against the sadistic German submarine commander (played with villainous fervor by Wallace Beery) leads to the film’s shocking and brutal climax.

This newly restored edition represents the most complete version of the film available since 1919, thanks to the collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Sourced from the only two known remaining prints and referencing a copy of Willat’s original continuity script, this edition recreates the original color tinting scheme and features a new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne. Flicker Alley is honored to present Behind the Door on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time ever.

Bonus Materials Include:

• Original Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
• Original Production Outtakes: Featuring music composed and performed by Stephen Horne.
• Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door: An inside look at the restoration process with the restoration team.
• Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat: Directed by Patrick Stanbury, an in-depth interview with renowned historian and honorary Academy Award® winner Kevin Brownlow on the career of director Irvin Willat.
• Slideshow Gallery: Original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material.
• 12-page Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, film restorer Robert Byrne, and composer Stephen Horne.

Official Release Date: April 4, 2017

Pre-order now at the special sale price of $29.95 for a limited time!

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on April 12, 2017.

Mar 21, 2017

On Blu-ray: Stop-Motion and Skin in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

While fantasy movies with stop-motion creatures have a reputation as being for kids, that has not always been the case. The Hammer Films production When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970) is an example of a more adult take on the genre, at least in the original version, before US studios made a few edits to make it family friendly. Now the uncut UK version of the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

One Million Years B.C. (1966), featuring Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, was a hugely successful British production. It inspired Hammer to produce another dinosaurs and skin adventure fantasy. Though this take on cave life can drag, impressive dinosaurs, attractive performers and an amusing script made up entirely of an invented "cave language," make this an entertaining flick.

There is a loose plot involving Sanna (Victoria Vetri), who is about to be given up for a ritual sacrifice, when she is rescued by Tara (Robin Hawdon), a man from another tribe. A coincidental celestial change makes the old tribe pursue Sanna, certain she has brought on trouble with her escape. This light framework holds together a heavy helping of dinosaur scenes, a cast of actors hired to be eye candy and a sprinkling of sex scenes.

Effects designer Jim Danforth's dinosaurs still hold up. He gives them a sense of danger and play, and they are part of several still appealing action scenes. While these figures dominate the film, in some respects it is more accurate to call this movie Hot Bods of the Prehistoric Age or maybe Sex and Dinosaurs. All of these cave people seem to work out, and their glistening, tanned torsos and scant loin cloths and bikini tops are presented without subtlety. 

I've often noticed a distinct youth quake vibe in British movies of the sixties, whether or not they take place in that time. It isn't the same as in American films attempting to tap into youth culture, which were often so literal, and tended to come off like a dad trying to learn slang from a book so he could seem hip to his kids. The Brits had a way of weaving the feel of the times into whatever they made, so whether it is Alexander the Great or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, you feel like you are watching a real troop of hippies, and you can't help but wonder what the parties were like after hours.

There are some draggy spots where everyone's just running around screaming "Akita!" "Neeco!" while the musical blares away, but you can generally count on a spontaneous dino fight or sexy cave people clinch to liven things up before it gets too painful.

This is one case where subtitles are essential, because the Hammer cave people language is actually transcribed for your reading pleasure. Apparently there are around a couple dozen words in this lexicon, so it doesn't take long to feel like you're getting fluent in cave talk.

American studios imported the film with some scenes of brief nudity edited out, though none of the more violent images, hoping to reach a family audience. The version on this release fully restores all scenes.

The picture quality is almost too good for a flick of this genre. Sometimes the crackles and dirt are part of the fun, but at least you can get a good look at the dinosaurs and company.

There are no special features on the disc.

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

Mar 20, 2017

Book Review: Edith Head and Classic Hollywood Featured in Dangerous to Know

Dangerous to Know
Renee Patrick
Forge, 2017

This is a mystery for those who think that cocktails, and conversation, should sparkle. Set in late 1930s Hollywood, when the word Hitler sent a chill down many a spine, and David O. Selznick was about to set his version of Atlanta aflame, it exists in a world of classic movies and pre-war intrigue. This installment follows Design for Dying, which like this book features Hollywood social secretary Lillian Frost and a fictionalized Edith Head, who in addition to their daily duties, solve mysteries on the side. Written by Renee Patrick, the pen name for husband and wife team Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, this engaging riff on the past juggles laughs, intrigue and suspense with a pleasing zest.

The first chapter of Dangerous to Know is a torrent of details and I had a hard time getting my footing at first as I jumped into this second installment without the benefit of reading the first. I finally established who was who and what they did. By the second chapter all was clear and the narrative hit its stride.

Frost is a failed actress who works for Addison Rice, a millionaire with Hollywood connections. She is friends with Edith Head, who is in her early days at Paramount Studios and not yet proven to her employers. Head asks Frost to help Marlene Dietrich solve the mystery of a missing friend, a request which seems simple, but becomes increasingly more complex. As Lillian plunges deeper into danger, she finds herself mixed up in murder, a smuggling operation and even gets caught in the cross-hairs of the Nazis.

I sometimes feel a bit let down by fiction that references classic Hollywood because the details don't ring true. Sometimes the stars will say things that don't jive with their off-screen character or be given values that don't fit their personalities or the times they lived in. There's a big difference between a writer who is drawn to old movies and one who really understands what makes them great.

Patrick has done the necessary research to get period details right, but also has a knack for expressing the feel of the era and the personalities of the stars. Sometimes those bits of information can seemed like they are wedged a bit awkwardly into the narrative, but for the most part they are entertaining, and even enlightening. The most successful portrait is of Marlene Dietrich, the catalyst for Frost and Head's latest mystery. She is portrayed as dramatic, prone to weaving fantasies, motherly to the point of interfering too much and absolutely stunning to all she meets.

It is particularly amusing how the physical effect Dietrich has on others is communicated, from the mention of her name causing men to straighten their posture to this amusing exchange after she sweeps out of the room: "I exhaled and sank into a chair. "Does talking to Marlene cause the bends?" Edith polished her glasses and smiled without displaying a single tooth. "One gets used to it." I could hear Dietrich's voice in my head in her scenes; the text captures her off-screen persona delightfully.

There are other cameos and brief celebrity appearances. Jack Benny and George Burns play a role in the smuggling sub plot, while Billy Wilder drops by to partake in a picnic lunch with Head. Errol Flynn and Leni Riefenstahl also make extended appearances and there's a blustering cameo by C. Aubrey Smith on the cricket field. It's fun because their patter does ring true with their screen personas and the biographical details that have been revealed about their lives.

Edith Head isn't as present in the novel as I expected given her equal billing with Lillian Frost on the cover. Rather than being a partner in solving the crimes, for the most part she serves as a sort of elegant fairy godmother, bailing out our heroine from time to time and offering good advice. That said, she does appear more in the latter part of the book. Along with her boss Addison, the designer is Lillian's in to the more glamorous parts of Hollywood.

Dangerous to Know is an immensely entertaining book, cleverly written and with enough surprises to keep you on your toes. The first half is full of fabulous zingers, the sort of witty asides you might expect from an in-the-know party guest at a glamorous affair. While the action slacks a bit going into the final third of the book, the suspense increases as it enters the final stretch. I enjoyed it enough to want to catch up with Patrick's first installment of what I hope will be a continuing series.

Many thanks to Forge for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 17, 2017

On Blu-ray: A Cast of Sympathetic Characters in Battleground (1949)

We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning. To put out the fire before it starts spreading.

Battleground (1949) performs a balancing act of great precision. It plunges you into the devastation of war, but it also shows flickers of light. Though it can often be difficult to watch, this is an entertaining, engrossing film that succeeds because of and despite its bleak message. Now it is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The setting is Belgium in 1944. A platoon of American soldiers struggle with homesickness, discomfort, loss and the horrors of war as they fight the Battle of Bastogne in a final, horrific counteroffensive against Hitler. With an Oscar-winning screenplay written by Robert Pirosh, a veteran of the stand-off, this is a tense film because the details feel true-to-life.

It opens with a shot of a Christmas tree, decorated with the naked leg of a female mannequin. Soldiers in formation sing about the home they left, the baby they left. Though they constantly make jokes and lightly jibe at each other, you can feel how homesickness continually plagues them. A piece of bread or the prospect of getting real food, like a plate of eggs, symbolizes not only comfort, but the homes to which they wish to return.

To make it all the more touching, director William Wellman's cast is packed with some of the most likeable actors in Hollywood. Most famous for lighter musical and comedy fare, it is almost disorienting to see stars like Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy in such a bleak milieu. The actors who are more strongly associated with dramas, like James Whitmore and John Hodiak, serve as a sort of comfort, because you know how the characters they play have triumphed over darkness.

It's an interesting cast, diverse in character, but simpatico. They play off of each other with such lightness that when they can no longer shut out or gloss over the tragedy surrounding them, there is a feeling of profound loss. One moment they attempt to casually chat during a bombing, the next, they face death.

For all the forced gaiety among the soldiers, the atmosphere is one of pure horror. A haunting fog envelopes most of the action, and is a constant reminder of their vulnerability to sneak attacks and starvation due to the lack of supply drops. The battlefield covered in snow hints at the discomfort of the men and the fear of muffled steps in the snow masking a deadly approach. Half the time the soldiers can't see their target, the rest they are unsure if they are speaking to Americans or German soldiers succeeding at a brilliant masquerade.

Audiences must have still felt raw from the wounds of World War II as they watched this upon its first release. This is the fear that they either felt themselves or saw their loved ones experience. That terror is stripped down to the basics, where a makeshift shelter under a jeep can be a tomb or a pair of empty boots can cause a man to choke in helpless grief.

A harrowing experience, Battleground is nevertheless a deeply satisfying film that rewards multiple viewings. It elicits empathy by drawing you into the battle, the boots and helmets of these brave, but ultimately vulnerable men.

The black and white imagery on the disc is especially striking, with a soft, velvety look that enhances the feeling of a disconnect from reality on the fog-shrouded battlefield. Special features include a trailer for the film, a vintage featurette and the cartoon, Little Red Riding Hood.

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

Mar 13, 2017

On Blu-ray: Twiggy Literally Kicks Up Her Heels in The Boyfriend (1971)

Director Ken Russell's take on Sandy Wilson's stage musical, The Boyfriend (1971), is cheerful and bright to the point of insanity. It's full of colorful sets and vigorous toe tapping, while mod British supermodel Twiggy shines as the effortlessly sparkling center of it all. This unusual film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Twiggy is Polly Browne, a seemingly awkward stage assistant at a small time theater. When the leading lady of the current production breaks her leg, the errand-running ingénue is pushed into the spotlight; apparently it is part of her job duties. Her director gives her the same pep talk Warner Baxter gave Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (1933), but instead of prancing onstage to entertain the masses, she faces an uninspiring sprinkling of bored daytime patrons.

No matter though, because there is a Hollywood director sitting in a box above the stage who is looking for new talent. Everyone but Polly performs directly for him (even Russell's camera), which of course makes her irresistible to him. The newly-minted stage star is oblivious to it all though, focusing all her attention on her dreamy blonde co-star Tony (Christopher Gable), on whom she has a devastating crush.

Whatever shape this big and boisterous musical took onstage, it has fully translated to the screen as a Russell production. The wild-eyed boldness of his style is a good fit for the always-on energy of show people. Supernaturally long and lean Tommy Tune clicks his heels in impossible ways as he dances down the hallway of the theater, demonstrating the inborn drive to perform, but it is also simply fun to watch this unusual dancer at play, and Russell seems to know it.

The action is divided into three parts: backstage intrigue, the company's stage production, and a series of larger-than-life dream sequences. The backstage bits glue everything together, setting up alliances and rivalries. Onstage, you get not the glamour, but the effort of performance: scenery squeaks, makeup is garish and you feel every bit of the strain on the dancer's calves and strenuously grinning faces. The fanciful joy of musicals, where you have distance from any sense of effort on the part of the players is in the fantasy elements, where boisterous woodland frolics are alternated with the kind of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley-style dances that could never work in a theater.

This juxtaposition of intrigue, sweat and glitter is presented with outrageous costumes, dramatic sets throbbing with color, and chorus girls with enormous wide-open eyes. Watching it is to gorge yourself on sensation. The Boyfriend may be G-rated, but it still has the sensual, overblown thrust of a Russell production.

While the spectacle has its appeal, it can also be disturbing. When you can see the seams in a production, it begins to lose its charm. Uneven floorboards and the sound of stomping, rather than lightly tapping feet dilute the magic. While having all the elements of a musical, this is also a rebellion against its artifice.

Though she is the focus of the film, Twiggy seems almost untouched by the insanity. Polly has not been seduced by the spotlights and the bone-thin model seems much the same. She is an unaffected and natural performer. It's delightful to watch her run through the hallways of the theater with a little spring to her step, very much the flapper. 

It must have been a surprise to see how a woman famous for her long eyelashes and pixie persona was also an intensely charismatic performer and delightful vocalist (she sings in a simple, but smooth way that is a lot like Janet Gaynor's style in her early 1930s musicals) . There's a subtle, entrancing confidence to her that is unusual in any actress, let alone one who had so little experience.

For the most part the Blu-ray image is good, though in some of the outdoor scenes the color is a bit washed out. The bold colors and bright silvers of the costumes and stage sets are presented to satisfying effect. The sole special feature on the disc is an entertaining vintage featurette about the movie filmed at the time of production.

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

Mar 10, 2017

UPDATED WITH WINNER! Enter The TCM Classic Film Festival Button Pack Giveaway!

From April 6-9, I will be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival for the fourth year as a member of the media. As some of you may remember, last year artist, classic movie fanatic and festivalgoer Kate Gabrielle created a great set of buttons to help film fans celebrate the highlights of the festival and connect more easily with each other in person. These are perfect to pin onto your pass lanyard, though they are also quite attractive on bags, jackets or whatever surface you might like to lend a little classic movie flair.

Kate is selling the packs (pictured above) on her website. Each set includes:

-One 2.25" social media introduction button. You can choose your username for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

-One 2.25" button displaying how many years you've been attending the festival. You have a choice of Barbara Stanwyck or Gary Cooper on your button.

-Two 1.5" matching buttons featuring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart to celebrate the 75th anniversary screening of Casablanca

-Five 1" buttons with a selection of images of the attendees  and featured films at the 2017 festival

It was great fun to have this set at the festival last year. It really is a great conversation starter. 

I did a button pack giveaway in 2016, and once again, I want to share one with all of you. 

I will be awarding one lucky TCM Classic Film Festival attendee (or classic film fan) with a personalized set of Kate's buttons.

All you need to do is tell me in the comments:

What are you most excited to see or do at this year's festival? If you are not attending: what films, events or guests look most interesting to you?

It can be one thing or twenty! I love to hear what brings you all from all over the world to this event that is as much about connecting with other film fans as it is seeing the stars and watching movies.

The rules:

-Only US residents please.

-While this is an ideal prize for TCMFF attendees, you do not need to be going to the festival to enter.
-All entries must be made by midnight PST, Monday, March 13
-Only guesses made in the comments below are eligible.

I will announce the winner, and share the answers in an update to this post and on my social media accounts on Tuesday, March 14

Good Luck!


I drew a name out of my hat:

and the big winner is...

Thank you to everyone who entered! Paulet, please send me an email at classicmovieblog (at) with: 

-Your mailing address
-The Twitter, Instagram or Facebook tag you want on your ID button
-The number of years you have gone to TCMFF and your choice of Barbara Stanwyck or Gary Cooper for your other personalized button

Your prize will be coming directly from Kate Gabrielle. Enjoy!