Feb 28, 2018

Pre-code on DVD: Goodbye Again (1933), I Like Your Nerve (1931), and The Finger Points (1931)

One of my favorite things about Warner Archive is the label’s commitment to releasing a steady stream of pre-code titles on DVD. As physical media appears to be firmly on the decline, I am increasingly glad to see rare films like these made available for purchase. The latest batch is a solidly entertaining trio: two comedy romances and a drama, starring some of the most appealing stars of the era.

Goodbye Again (1933)

Joan Blondell and Warren William shared the ability to make any film they appeared in better, just because of their presence. While they’ve made plenty of mediocre films, neither of them ever turned in a bad performance or even worse, were ever boring.

Here they play famous novelist Ken Bixby (William) and his loyal secretary Anne (Joan Blondell), who are on the road to promote his latest novel. On their latest stop, Ken runs into Julie (Genevieve Tobin) a long forgotten lover who is bored with her husband (Hugh Herbert) and all atwitter because she believes that she is the inspiration for the heroine of his new book. Julie gets Bixby into a compromising position, inflaming the town, her family, and in his way, her husband.

Of course you know William will finally see the light and love up Blondell. All the fun here is in watching them tangle with the establishment. I like Ms. Joan any way I can get her, but as far as William is concerned, he’s at his best as he is here, mischievous, quick tongued and goofy. He has such a severe look: tall, thin and with that pointed nose and stick straight mustache; it’s great to see him play off that by resisting convention and seriousness in every other way.

Tobin, Helen Chandler, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, and Wallace Ford are lively and quirky support, working up that Warner Bros company momentum that made the studio’s flicks the most satisfying of the era.

I Like Your Nerve (1931)

As a romantic pairing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Loretta Young don’t quite sizzle, but the are still gorgeous, sexy and vibrantly youthful in this fast-paced romance. Fairbanks is Larry, a playboy in Latin America who seems to adore getting in trouble with the authorities because of the thrill of escape. Young is Diane, stepdaughter of Areal Pacheco (Henry Kolker), a shady embezzler. She is marrying a much older man, Clive Lattimer (Edmund Breon) to keep her stepfather from being killed, but only for the honor of her dead mother.

Larry falls for Diane and quickly cuts through the hypocrisy around her so that he may have her for his own. When it comes to the title, the young, mischievous lover may come first to mind, but Lattimer and Pacheco also have plenty of nerve in the way they treat Diane. At least Larry is an honest troublemaker.

It’s fun to watch Fairbanks and Young flirt and fight their way out of the various messes they’ve gotten themselves into. Boris Karloff also makes a pleasing, if brief appearance as a servant. This is an hour of froth and a delightful one at that.

The Finger Points (1931)

This newspaper drama starring Richard Barthelmess is the darkest of the trio, though there is plenty of light humor to balance the mood. Barthelmess is a country boy just arrived in Chicago with a letter of recommendation from the small town newspaper where he got his start. He finds himself a job at a big city rag and becomes friends with reporters Fay Wray and Regis Toomey. Soon he finds himself falling under the influence of the mob, including Louis Blanco, played by a young, pre-King Clark Gable.

I respect Richard Barthelmess more than I enjoy him. His talent is unmistakable, but that tense hunch of his and the feeling that he hasn’t got any sense of humor always make him difficult for me to stomach. That said, this is the most I’ve seen him tap into human warmth, which I credit mostly to his chemistry with Fay Wray, who doesn’t act so much as bless everyone with her presence.

Seeing Gable in this role, it is clear that he could have easily fallen into a career of playing thugs. He exudes star charisma, just like Cagney did in his early parts, where he similarly didn’t make sense playing support, but the muscular, bold man wasn’t yet in vogue as a desirable romantic lead. Watching him opposite Barthelmess, you can see the shift happening: the more delicate gentlemen of the silent age falling aside for the likes of Gable.

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.

Feb 23, 2018

Catching a Pair of Double Features at Noir City 2018

Eddie Mueller speaks before a film at Noir City Seattle, Egyptian Theater

After years of not quite making it to the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival, I finally decided that 2018 was going to be my year. While I only saw four of the eighteen films programmed, I am now hooked. Sign me up for a series pass in 2019!

There are two elements that make this series essential: it has the perfect mix of familiar and rare flicks, all presented with a high standard of quality, and each is preceded by fascinating film introductions from the knowledgeable Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller. Now TCM viewers can also get a taste of Mueller’s cinema smarts via his weekly Noir Alley program, but I must say it is worth seeing him in person, where he clearly delights in interacting with the crowd and chatting up noir fans face-to-face.

I attended two nights of this year’s festival in Seattle, at the Egyptian Theater, and had distinctly different experiences with each of these double features, all four of which were presented in 35 mm.

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
I’ve never been a big fan of omnibus films. They often feel too scattered to me and made with not enough understanding of how differently short stories must be approached. This European-flavored production, directed by Julien Duvivier and starring a fascinating cast of Hollywood stars works brilliantly though, because it keeps a steady thread of magical fatalism winding through its episodes, giving it a cohesive feel. The three stories have been compared to the dark, supernatural Twilight Zone television series and the description is apt. In essence, they are tales of lovers struggling to survive widely varying difficulties. Given this theme, there couldn’t be a more perfect cast than the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer and Betty Field, all of whom could easily grasp the romance, hope and pain of their roles.

Destiny (1944)
This short film was originally intended to serve as the opening segment of Flesh and Fantasy. Instead it was excised by Universal Studios and expanded into its own feature. Starring former child star Gloria Jean as a blind farmer’s daughter and Alan Curtis as an accused robber on the run, it has a few magical elements that unfortunately gave some audience members the giggles. While I could see how a few moments where Jean’s songs attracted animals to her might have had an amusingly Disney princess-like feel, it was a bit disappointing to be taken out of the moment by the laughter. While the story worked as a stand-alone, it would be interesting to see how the footage intended for Flesh and Fantasy would have fit into that film.

While my first night at the festival was magical and surreal, the second had a much rougher edge. This pair of thrillers left me plenty tense.

The Accused (1949)
I have never felt more empathy for Loretta Young than I did for her here as a college psychology teacher who kills a student who attempts to rape her. Knowing that she had had a similar experience with Clark Gable (as noted by Mueller in his introduction) and who knows who else in her Hollywood career, I was especially anxious watching her deal with her trauma while observing the police hunting for her without knowing she is the killer. She has a romance with a lawyer played by Robert Cummings, an actor who used to seem useless to me, but who has grown on me because of a dark understanding of human nature he brings to the best of his roles. Police detective Wendell Corey watches their romance unfold with good-natured envy, while slowly realizing he’s really not going to like doing his job this time around. It's an interesting flick because of the tenderness with which it treats its assault victim and the way it breaks with convention here and there, ending how you expect it to, but not where.

The Threat (1949)
As tense as The Accused made me, I quickly realized it was a cocktail party compared to this violent, tightly-wound suspense noir. Charles McGraw is a sociopathic nightmare as an ex-con who escapes from prison and sets out to get revenge on his enemies before he makes a full getaway. His lack of conscience gives him power over his showgirl ex (Virginia Grey), the district attorney, a police detective, a truck driver and a pair of greedy hoods. The crazy thing is that you believe this one man could control them all and you even wonder if he’s going to get away with it all. Grey is especially moving as a woman who appears weak, until you realize how much she has to have survived living the way she does. McGraw is one of the nastiest noir hoods I’ve ever seen, much scarier than the more cartoonish villains like Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. He reminds me a lot of Lawrence Tierney, who is perhaps the only one who could top him in nasty behavior, and that's just because he always makes you wonder if he was acting or just being himself.

Even catching a couple of nights of this festival was a thrill. It was wonderful to see four completely new-to-me films, lovingly presented and with an appreciative audience. I was especially glad I went into the screenings knowing nothing about what I was going to see; it was a good situation in which to put my trust in the programmers. If you have the chance to check out any of the festival's remaining engagements as it travels across the country, I enthusiastically recommend it!

Feb 15, 2018

On Blu-ray: Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and Karl Malden in The Hanging Tree (1959)

As Gary Cooper neared the end of his career he appeared tired, ill, and not quite himself due to a facelift that might not have turned out the way he’d hoped. While he no longer had the bashful, baby-giraffe-lashed sex appeal of his youth though, he was still magnetic. He aroused different emotions, but they were no less intense. It is this Cooper that you see in his final western, The Hanging Tree (1959), which has now made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

While Cooper spent much of career in a cowboy hat, it was as a rider of the plains, not as a doctor lancing a carbuncle on Karl Malden’s behind. That’s just what he does here as Dr. Joseph Frail, a medical man with a dark past who sets up shop in a Montana gold camp.

The mysterious Frail has lives by a varied moral code, frequently giving in to his anger, but protective in his own way of those who are vulnerable. When he takes a sluice thief on the run Rune (Ben Piazza) into indentured servitude, it seems a foul move, until you realize the boy would probably die without the protection and productive life Frail offers him. His protection of stagecoach hold-up victim Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) is less complicated; she arouses his sense of chivalry, and while a romance must inevitably develop between the star and leading lady, his paternal impulses as well.

With her wet, icy blue eyes and soulful demeanor, Schell is out of place in the Wild West. She also seems a better match for Rune, who matches her energy and naivety. While the pair bond over their determined and businesslike pursuit of gold, they are both beholden to Frail, to whom they are aware they owe their survival.

In a complicated role that inspires a mix of amusement and revulsion, Karl Malden injects much-needed energy as a miner who is capable of decency, but imprisoned by his desires. George C. Scott is also a stand-out, in his debut role, as a fiery preacher who is Frail’s nemesis.

The film is ultimately an intriguing oddity. It doesn’t quite gel, but its disparate elements entertain in their own way. It is a decent farewell to cowboy Cooper.

The disc includes a trailer for the film.

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

Feb 7, 2018

Streaming Movies for Free: Kanopy

There are so many streaming services available to movie fans that it took me a while to find my way to Kanopy, but once I did, it immediately became a part of my viewing rotation. That is because this fabulous company lets patrons of participating libraries stream great films for free on platforms like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and web browsers. We’re talking offerings from labels the likes of Criterion Collection, Milestone Films, and Kino Lorber.

Kanopy began as a service to increase access to cinema for university students in Australia. You can see those academic roots in the title selection, as in addition to narrative films, there’s a lot of documentaries in the mix, including several PBS titles.

Eventually Kanopy expanded to universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, and more recently, public libraries. Now it is available to a much wider audience, as movies can be viewed via public libraries in cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.

The Kanopy layout looks like an ad-free version of YouTube, with suggested videos queued to the right side of the screen and a section for viewer comments below. As far as functionality and image quality go, it runs smoothly, looks good, and is easy to navigate. The viewing experience tends to be of better quality than Overdrive, another platform used by libraries (and which I still love and recommend). The main page of the streaming site has the standard set up of arranging films in categories for viewing recommendations and offering the capability for a personal viewing list.

About the only drawback to Kanopy is that each cardholder is allowed to view only five movies a calendar month. This is of course nothing for your standard movie fan, so it would be difficult to satisfy a full-blown cinema obsession with this service alone. Still, as a supplement to other services it has a lot to offer. It’s also pretty exciting to get that email that you are welcome to enjoy five more movies the first of each month.

When it comes to the selection, I’ve found that having a well-curated array of choices has led me to some great titles I’ve never heard of before and inspired me to be a bit more adventurous in my viewing as well. My first month using the service I revisited Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), finally caught up with the brutal, but beautiful Belladonna of Sadness (1973), got in a little over my head with the hallucinogenic Eden and After (1970), and enjoyed the new-to-me comic adventure That Man From Rio (1964) starring Françoise Dorléac and Jean-Paul Belmondo. I finished the month with a re-watch of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962).

As a supplement to other services and discs, Kanopy is a great way to explore high quality films from around the world and across time. I’m glad to have an additional, budget-friendly viewing option.

Update: I wanted to highlight a comment about Kanopy viewing limits posted below. It seems the number of films allowed per month varies, depending on the library: 

"That monthly limit seems to vary from library to library, too. One user of the New York Public Library said that they are allowed 10 items a month. I'm a patron of the Kansas City Missouri Public Library and they allow 12 a month, and they give you three days per video to view them.

Thank you for the additional information Mark!

Feb 2, 2018

On Blu-ray: Genre Throwbacks Night Moves (1975) and The Man With Two Brains (1983)

It’s interesting the many ways a film can pay tribute to the classic age of Hollywood. As proof of this there is Night Moves (1975) and The Man with Two Brains (1983), two flicks which are completely different in tone and structure, but share affection for classic Hollywood genres. The former is both a throwback and a modern progression of film noir, the latter a humorous tribute to the many sci-fi flicks from the 1950s with wacky premises. Both films are now available in their Blu-ray debuts from Warner Archive.

Night Moves

At its core, Night Moves is much like a classic World War II era noir. The sense of doom, devious characters, and determined detective protagonist are all reminiscent of the great crime films from that time. Most of what makes it modern is on the surface: more explicit sexuality, extensive location shooting and a looser sense of morals.

As the detective unraveling the mystery surrounding a reckless wild child, and his own uneasy marriage, Gene Hackman is the more profoundly modern element of this neo noir. While he is as physically tough and fearless as Bogie, Mitchum, and their kind, he is a more emotionally vulnerable hero. He doesn’t pretend to be without feeling and he exists in a time where no one would fault him for expressing his emotions.

There is also a difference in the female leads. While the femme fatale here remains an erotic figure as in classics of the genre, the sexual revolution has also made room for sensuality in the warm-hearted dame, played here with confidence and sexy nonchalance by a teenage Melanie Griffith. While it could be said that she is punished for that freedom, it is a progression of sorts that the heroine can enjoy erotic expression instead of being forced to telegraph her goodness by remaining chaste.

Overall it is an interesting progression of the classic detective noir and one of the more successful modern interpretations of that cinematic style.

Special features on the disc include a vintage featurette about the film: The Day of the Director and a theatrical trailer.

The Man with Two Brains

While director Carl Reiner’s joke-packed comedy about a brain surgeon (Steve Martin) pursuing true love is presented as an homage to classic sci-fi flicks with wild premises, it draws upon other genres with glee. It’s got Kathleen Turner as a film noir-style femme fatale, a murder mystery, lots of screwball-style wordplay, and even a little slapstick. For all its goofball antics though, it is at heart a great tribute to the movies.

It is those antics, combined with the film love behind them, that make The Man with Two Brains a classic in its own way. Reiner and Martin both have a knack for creating precise comedy that ends up with the feel of globs of paint being thrown at a canvas. They make a sort of comic stew, tossing recurring jokes alongside brief, throwaway jabs, and stopping the action from time-to-time for more elaborate gags like an astonishing scene where a little girl is given a long list of instructions for a hospital and recites them back perfectly, in addition to adding her own medical diagnosis. It flows so well that you can miss how complex it all is.

There are no special features on this disc.

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