We've previously taken a look back at the films of 1957 and 1958. This week, I'd like to take another stroll down memory lane and look at the films of 1959 starting with that year's ten best, all of which are available on DVD.
The year's best film, certainly the most fun, was Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot in which musicians Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon unwittingly witness Chicago's St. Valentine's Day massacre and spend the rest of the film hiding out from the mob disguised as women in an all-girl band with a gig in Florida.
Curtis alternates his female character with a suave faux millionaire in order to romance fellow band member Marilyn Monroe while Lemmon stays in character and is pursued by nearsighted real millionaire Joe E. Brown. The film ends with one of the most hilarious and famous lines in movie history.
The film won Golden Globes for Best Picture - Comedy, Actor (Lemmon) and Actress (Monroe). It was nominated for six Oscars and won one for its black-and-white costume design. Director Wilder and Lemmon were nominated, but Curtis, Monroe, Brown and the film itself were overlooked.
Based on the true story of a Belgian nun who entered the convent in 1930 and endured years of questioning her order's strict code of obedience in the face of overwhelming odds, Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story provided Audrey Hepburn with her finest performance as Sister Luke. The daughter of a famed doctor, she is ordered by the Mother Abbess to fail her exams to show true humility, but can't. Despite her high test scores she is denied a longed-for assignment in the Congo and is assigned to a mental institution in Brussels instead. Finally allowed to go to the Congo, she later serves in France during World War II but is forbidden by the Order to take sides in the war.
Hepburn is beautifully supported by such luminaries as Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Dean Jagger, Mildred Dunnock, Patricia Collinge, Ruth White, Barbara O'Neil and Colleen Dewhurst, but it is her film all the way.
The film was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actress. Hepburn won the New York Film Critics Award for her performance and Edith Evans, as the Mother Abbess, won the National Board of Review's award as the year's outstanding supporting actress.
Another film about the questioning of one's faith, William Wyler's Ben-Hur was the prestige film of the year, a thinking man's spectacle with Charlton Heston as the Jewish nobleman who loses his position and is falsely enslaved due to the betrayal of life-long Roman friend Stephen Boyd. He returns to seek vengeance on Boyd and eventually becomes a Christian. Spectacularly filmed amidst a slave ship's galley, rich Roman estates, on the road to Galilee, and in a leper colony, the film's centerpiece is its famed chariot race in which Heston and Boyd battle to the death.
Nominated for twelve Oscars, the film won eleven, a record it still holds, although it was tied 38 years later by Titanic. Among its awards were Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actor Hugh Griffith in a minor role as a slave trader. Griffith's nomination and win over Boyd as the malevolent Messala was something of a surprise.
One of Alfred Hitchcock's most exhilarating films, North by Northwest is a deft comedy as well as high-octane suspense thriller about an advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a ring of spies. From a murder at the United Nations to an aerial chase over a cornfield to a climax on Mount Rushmore, the film is as breezy as it is spectacular with Ernest Lehman's script providing one droll line after another.
Cary Grant was still, in his mid 50s, the most suave of leading men, Eva Marie Saint the loveliest of leading ladies, and James Mason the meanest of villains. The strong supporting cast includes Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and the wonderful Jessie Royce Landis, in real life the same age as Grant, delightfully playing his wisecracking mother.
Based on the best-selling novel by Wendell Mayes, Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder provided James Stewart with one of his last great roles as a folksy small town lawyer defending an Army officer accused of murdering the man who may or may not have raped the officer's wife. Highly controversial in its day, the clinical language used in the courtroom is mild compared to the more graphic descriptions heard almost daily in today's TV dramas.
Stewart won the New York film critics Award, as did Mayes for his screenplay. Lee Remick as the Army wife, Joseph N. Welch as the acerbic judge, and Preminger were all nominated for Golden Globes, while the film won seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Actor and two Supporting Actors, Arthur O'Connell as Stewart's alcoholic partner and George C. Scott as the tough prosecutor. Stewart, O'Connell and Eve Arden as Stewart's secretary were all also nominated for the now-defunct Laurel Awards.
Joseph Schildkraut repeated his acclaimed stage role as Otto Frank in George Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank, the harrowing story of the young Jewish girl who is forced into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with her family and friends. Newcomer Millie Perkins is quite good as Anne, interacting nicely with veterans Schildkraut, Shelley Winters, Ed Wynn and others.
The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won three for its black-and-white art direction and cinematography as well as supporting actress Winters in the showy role of a difficult friend of the family reluctantly forced into hiding with them. The film had also been nominated for Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor Ed Wynn as a crotchety old man who also shares the hiding space. Schildkraut, who gave the film's best performance had to content himself with a Golden Globe nomination in the crowded best actor category.
One of several fictionalized films clearly based on the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case of the 1920s, Richard Flesicher's Compulsion was also one of two films released a year apart in which legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow is depicted under another name. Spencer Tracy famously plays him in 1960's Inherit the Wind. Here he's played by Orson Welles who commands attention as he makes an impassioned plea to spare the two crazed killers from the death penalty.
Welles, as well as Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as the thrill killers, won the Best Actor award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Flesicher was nominated for the Golden Palm as Best Director at the Festival, an honor later duplicated by the Directors Guild of America (DGA), but neither he nor anyone connected with the film received an Oscar nomination.
Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn set off acting fireworks in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's film of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer. The film, which deals with all sorts of deliciously macabre subjects such as cannibalism and a threatened lobotomy, is basically a showcase for the two actresses with Taylor the unwitting witness to her cousin's death and Hepburn the wealthy aunt who tries to keep her from telling the truth of what happened. Basically all the other actors including Montgomery Clift, Mercedes McCambridge and Albert Dekker can do is get out of their way.
Taylor and Hepburn were nominated for most of the year-end awards including the Golden Globe and the Oscar.
Douglas Sirk's re-working of Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life is much more than the remake of a classic film. Whereas the first version gave equal weight to businesswoman Claudette Colbert and maid Louise Beavers, this version clearly sides with the maid in subtle ways. Sirk is constantly undermining the superficiality of Lana Turner's character's, a stage actress turned movie star, life and that of privileged daughter Sandra Dee by showing them in some trivial situation followed by a great tragic event in the lives of maid Juanita Moore and her daughter, Susan Kohner in her attempts to pass for white.
Turner, despite the superficiality of her character, delivers her best screen performance, but it's Moore and Kohner who deservedly reaped the accolades. Both were nominated for Golden Globes and Oscars, with Kohner winning the former. Sirk won a DGA nod.
A standout among the British kitchen sink dramas of the period, Jack Clayton's Room at the Top told the tale of a socially ambitious lout who abandons his older woman mistress to marry the boss's daughter who he doesn't love. Laurence Harvey gave one his best performances as the social climber but it's Simone Signoret as the cast-off mistress whose performance lingers.
The film was a surprise Oscar nominee for Best Picture. It also won nominations for Best Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress Hermione Baddeley in a minor role as Signoret's friend. Signoret and the screenplay won.
A top ten list only scratches the surface, of course. Among the many other outstanding films released in the U.S. in 1959 were Ingmar Bergman's reflections on old age, Wild Strawberries, featuring a masterful performance by Victor Sjostrom; Francois Truffaut's reflections on youth, The 400 Blows, featuring Jean-Pierre Leaud in the first of five portrayals of Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel over a period of twenty years; Satyajit Ray's Aparajito, the second and possibly best film in his Apu trilogy about Calcutta's poor; Stanley Kramer's On the Beach with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins facing the end of the world to the strains of Austrailia's "Waltzing Matilda"; and Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan in Hawks' rebuke of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon.
Other films of note available on DVD include J. Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay featuring Hayley Mills in her stunning screen debut; Vincent Sherman's The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman holding his own against estimable scene stealers Billie Burke, Brian Keith and Oscar-nominated Robert Vaughn; Fred Capra's jaunty A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Thelma Ritter and the Oscar winning "High Hopes" which became JFK's campaign song; Henry Levin's special effects-laden film of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason, Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl; and Delmer Daves' overheated teen romance, A Summer Place, with Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue, Dorothy McGuire and that great Max Steiner score.
Among the films of 1959 without a DVD Region 1 release are Delmar Daves' pacifist western The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and Karl Malden; Michael Anderson's Irish troubles melodrama, Shake Hands With the Devil, withJames Cagney, Don Murray and Sybil Thorndike; Ranald MacDougall's post-nuclear war drama The World, the Flesh and the Devil with Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer; Henry King's wine country melodrama This Earth Is Mine with Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons and Dorothy McGuire; Frank Tashlin's comedy about a show business priest, Say One for Me, with Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds and Robert Walker; Frank Borzage's epic tale of St. Peter, The Big Fisherman, with Howard Keel, Susan Kohner and Beulah Bondi; and Irving Rapper's spectacle about a nun in love with a soldier, The Miracle, with Carroll Baker, Roger Moore and Katina Paxinou.
Next week: back to new DVD releases.
-Peter J. Patrick (May 27, 2008)
Buy on DVD!
Though genuine masterpieces from The Grapes of Wrath to Annie Hall to The Silence of the Lambs have been released in the month of January, Hollywood wisdom holds that this is the time to release films with low expectations while audiences are still catching up on the big year-end films. They are generally at best a pleasant time waster.
One such time waster, though I hesitate to call it a pleasant one, is Gregory Hoblit's Untraceable. As a TV producer/director, Hoblit was responsible for some groundbreaking drama series, most notably L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. As a film director, he hasn't been quite so lucky, though he has provided us with some intriguing thrillers, including Primal Fear, Frequency and last year's Fracture. Like those films, Untraceable seems derivative of other films of the genre, in this case most noticeably David Fincher's Se7en, which was itself derivative of The Silence of the Lambs and other more gruesome modern thrillers.
Diane Lane stars as a widowed FBI investigator assigned to the internet policing unit in Portland, Oregon. Though the film tends to move quickly, you can't help but stop and pause to notice that her eyebrows do not match her hair in close-ups.
Lane, computer buddy Colin Hanks, and local police officer Billy Burke are on the trail of a killer who devises ingenious death tortures for people and uploads them to the internet. The more people that tune in to watch, the faster his devilish demises play out. Big burly guys are no match for him, but I don't think it's giving too much away to say that tiny Diane Lane gets the best of him in the end. On the plus side, there are some nice location shots of Portland.
One of the late holiday releases that was still in theatres when Untraceable opened was The Great Debaters. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, this is the film that she hyped to death on her TV show before the film's premiere...the one that her legion of TV fans failed to support. A pity, because it's actually a very good, inspirational film about the debate team from little Wiley College in a backwater Texas town that went on to best all the black colleges and then took on Harvard.
Directed by Denzel Washington, the actor also has the plum role of the professor who puts together and coaches the debate team, but second lead Forest Whitaker, as the conservative dean of the school, has the juicier one. Playing the three main debaters are rising stars Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker, who is no relation of either Washington or Whitaker, though he was named after the former.
Oprah's fans did support the maudlin TV movie For One More Day, which has also been released on DVD.
Officially called Oprah Winfrey Presnts Mitch Albom's For One More Day, this film is as much of a chore to sit through as it is to contemplate why it has to have such a long possessive title. It got me thinking that Winfrey's tombstone will have to read "Oprah Winfrey Presents Herself in Her Final Resting Place" in order to be worthy of her. This is not inappropriate as the film is about death, dying and coming back for, yes, one more day.
A suddenly middle aged Michael Imperioli stars as an alcoholic ex-baseball near-great interviewed by a young reporter about the day he attempted suicide but was stopped by a vision of his dead mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. He and his mother reminisce about their younger days (played by other actors). The always-classy Burstyn is a treat to see, but she would be an even bigger treat to see in a more substantial role.
One of the better singer biopics, the Tina Sinatra-produced Sinatra mini-series is a warts-and-all look at her father fascinatingly played by Phillip Casnoff, who lip synchs perfectly to a scores of songs, many of them to Frank's own voice. The huge supporting cast is led by an excellent Olympia Dukakis as Dolly Sinatra (his mother), Gina Gershon as Nancy Sr. and Marcia Gay Harden as Ava Gardner.
On the classic movie front, Paramount is re-issuing the Indiana Jones trilogy in a new box set with new extras, but the film transfers are the same as those previously released. Buy the new set only if you don't already own copies of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Universal, on the other hand, has re-mastered six of James Stewart's classic westerns in honor of his centenary in James Stewart - The Western Collection. Included are Destry Rides Again, Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Night Passage and The Rare Breed. With a retail price of under $40, the set is available at Amazon.com and elsewhere for under $30. At less than $5 a film, it's a steal.
If you are unfamiliar with any of these films, you shouldn't be. George Marshall's Destry Rides Again is the 1939 comedy western classic that resurrected the career of Marlene Dietrich as Frenchie, the saloon singer who falls for good sheriff Stewart. Winchester '73 is the 1950 classic about the history of the rifle that was the first collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann and the first film for which an actor took a low salary in exchange for a share of the profits. It made Stewart a very rich man.
Made in 1952, Mann's Bend of the River is one of the best of the Stewart-Mann collaborations, with an outstanding supporting performance by Arthur Kenendy as a nuanced bad guy. The other three, though of lesser reputation, are still worth your time.
MGM, through its distribution deal with Fox, is releasing three 1960s comedies made by United Artists. Does it sound confusing? It's not, really. Warner Bros owns old MGM movies, MGM owns old United Artists movies, and Fox, when not dipping into its own vast library of old films, gets to dip into MGM's - that is, United Artists'.
Anyway, of the three, Mel Stuart's 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium is probably the best known. The title became a catch phrase for European bus tours ever after. Suzanne Pleshette, Ian McShane, Mildred Natwick and Peggy Cass star, and Donovan, Joan Collins, Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes have cameos.
William Friedkin's 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky's is more interesting for its title than anything that actually happens in the film. With that title, one would expect lots of pretty girls. There are some, but the emphasis here is on second rate comics played by Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. Genuinely-great comic Bert Lahr has a featured role and the narration is by Rudy Vallee, so it's not a complete loss.
The funniest of the trio is Blake Edwards' 1966 film What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? about a platoon of zany American soldiers who take over a town in Italy. James Coburn, Dick Shawn, Harry Morgan, Carroll O'Connor and Aldo Ray are among those taking part in the merriment.
If that's not enough to keep you busy, try sitting through a season of a classic TV show. My current favorites in that regard are two series I missed in their initial runs.
Although it ran from 2001 to 2007, I was never curious enough to check out a single episode of Crossing Jordan. That was my loss, as it turns out to be a really wonderful whodunit series set in a morgue. Less clinical than CSI, it features great character development as it follows the travails of assistant coroner Jordan Cavanaugh and her Boston colleagues. Jill Hennessey is quite good as Jordan, but the standouts in the cast are Miguel Ferrer as her melancholy boss, Ken Howard as her retired policeman dad and Jerry O'Connell as the goofball detective who melts her heart.
The series starts off tentatively with characters that come and go, but by the end of Crossing Jordan: Season 1, which is now on DVD, the main characters are all in place. I can't wait for Season 2 to be released.
Both Ironside - The Complete First Season, which includes the 1966 pilot, and Ironside - Season 2, a series that ran from 1967 to 1975, have been released on DVD. Incredibly, I never once checked this series out during its long run. I suppose it's because I so identified star Raymond Burr with Perry Mason, which ran from 1957 to 1976, that I couldn't accept him in another role. That was a big mistake on my part, as it turns out that Burr's detective in a wheelchair is both a complement to, and the antithesis of, the stoic detective he played in the previous decade.
With Perry Mason, we never got to see the home life of the character. Ironside, on the other hand, lives and works out of the same place as a "special consultant" to the San Francisco Police Dept. with two officers and a driver/caretaker assigned to him who also form his surrogate family. Don Galloway, Barbara Anderson and Don Mitchell fill those roles perfectly.
The first season, though it allows for some intriguing cases, relies too heavily on the long-gone flower power of the hippie movement to give it then-contemporary relevance. Nevertheless, the series features some great location scenes and A-list guest stars. The second season takes on heavier issues, including race riots and TV demagogues. It holds up better than the later Streets of San Francisco, which now seems badly dated.
-Peter J. Patrick (May 20, 2008)
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It's a bountiful week for classic film releases. Warner Bros., Fox/MGM and Universal have all released films that have been in demand since the dawn of DVD eleven years ago.
Ten years after his death, Warner Bros. pays tribute to Frank Sinatra with the release of four collections celebrating his lengthy career.
Sinatra's popularity as a singer in the 1940s was unprecedented and has been matched only by the popularity of Elvis Presley and The Beatles since. His concert appearances stopped traffic, and women swooned and fainted the minute he appeared on stage. It was inevitable that he would become a movie star.
Sinatra's persona as an actor in the 1940s was as an amiable, good-natured yokel, a persona far from the real streetwise Sinatra, and one he rebelled against. Considering him ungrateful, MGM dropped his movie contract at about the same time Columbia Records dropped his recording contract. Washed up he offered to play the part of Maggio in 1953's From Here to Eternity for scale. He was given the part, won an Oscar and resuscitated his career. His films, as well as his records for Capitol in the 50s were the artistic highpoint of his career.
While he continued to grow as a singer in the 1960s, his movies of the period in which he now generally played a wiseass clown, The Manchurian Candidate and a few others excepted, were mostly crap.
Rather than re-master Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town for its Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection, Warner Bros. merely repackaged them in keepsake cases. There is no need to buy this set if you have the original releases unless you really, really need to get rid of those horrible old snap cases.
The new releases start with the Frank Sinatra Early Years Collection featuring 1943's Higher and Higher, 1944's Step Lively and 1951's Double Dynamite from RKO; and 1947's It Happened in Brooklyn and 1948's The Kissing Bandit from MGM.
Featuring Sinatra as himself, Tim Whelan's Higher and Higher is a bit of fluff about a group of servants including Jack Haley and Michele Morgan who put on a show to help their master, Leon Errol, keep his 5th avenue mansion from going into foreclosure. Victor Borge, Mel Torme, Barbara Hale and Mary Wickes are featured. The song "I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night", as well as the score, won Oscar nominations.
He received top billing in Whelan's Step Lively, a remake of the Marx Brothers' Room Service with George Murphy in Groucho's role. Sinatra has the role of the songwriter played by Frank Albertson in the earlier film, considerably beefed up to suit his personality. Adolphe Menjou, Walter Slezak and Eugene Pallette co-star and in place of Lucille Ball and Ann Miller in the original, we get Gloria de Haven and Anne Jeffreys. The film won an Oscar nomination for Art Direction.
Sinatra had the best role of his early career as the homecoming G.I. in Richard Whorf's It Happened in Brooklyn, managing to hold his own against scene-stealing Jimmy Durante as his old friend. Kathryn Grayson, Peter Lawford and Gloria Grahame co-star. Sinatra sings one of his signature tunes, "Time After Time", not to Grayson as might be expected, but to Durante!
Having lost Kathryn Grayson to Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh and Peter Lawford in It Happened in Brooklyn, Sinatra finally gets her for himself in Laszlo Benedek's, The Kissing Bandit. J. Carrol Naish and Mildred Natwick add their customary class, but the best that can be said for this excruciating parody of The Mark of Zorro isthat it looks good in Technicolor.
Sinatra and Groucho Marx more or less play themselves while Jane Russell channels Judy Holliday's character from Born Yesterday in Irving Cummings' Double Dynamite, Sinatra's disastrous penultimate film before From Here to Eternity revived his career.
Better films and bigger box office greeted Sinatra after his triumph in Eternity. Featured in the Frank Sinatra Golden Years Collectiion are 1955's The Tender Trap The Man With the Golden Arm and The Man with the Golden Arm; 1958's Some Came Running; and 1965's None But the Brave and Marriage on the Rocks.
Although back in comic mode, the Sinatra of Charles Walters' The Tender Trap is a much more serious actor than he was before Eternity. Featuring a lovely performances by Debbie Reynolds as the kook who loves him, David Wayne and Celeste Holm, the film won an Oscar nomination for its catchy title tune.
Two years after winning his supporting Oscar for Eternity, Sinatra won his only Best Actor nomination for Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm, for what is generally regarded as his greatest performance. He plays a strung out junkie with a needy crippled wife, played by Eleanor Parker and a younger woman who truly loves him, played by Kim Novak. The film also won Oscar nominations for Art Direction and its evocative score by Elmer Bernstein. Previously available in public domain prints of varying quality, this is the only film in the set to have been previously available on DVD.
Personally, I have always had a problem with this film. The characters, Sinatra as a homecoming G.I. patterned after author James Jones, Dean Martin as his boozy buddy, Shirley MacLaine as a floozie with a heart of gold, Arthur Kennedy as Sinatra's straight-laced brother, and Martha Hyer as a prim, uptight schoolteacher all seem to me to be out of place in the conservative small town Indiana of the Eisenhower fifties. As a dramatic work, this film was bookended in Minnelli's canon by Tea and Sympathy and Home From the Hill, two films in which the characters fit perfectly within the framework of their environment. Clearly, though, I am in the minority on this one, as MacLaine, Kennedy and Hyer all received Oscar nominations for their work, as did the film's Art Direction and song "To Love and Be Loved".
Sinatra's only directorial effort, None But the Brave, is a solid anti-war film in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front about a World War II truce between Americans and Japanese combatants on a Pacific island. Pre-dating Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima by more than forty years, it is from a story by Japanese writer Kikumaru Okuda and features Sinatra along with Clint Walker, Tommy Sands, Brad Dexter, Tony Bill and Sammy Jackson.
Sinatra and Dean Martin were paired for the last time in the contrived Marriage on the Rocks, directed by Jack Donohue. Deborah Kerr, in a failed effort to change her ladylike image, plays Sinatra's wife who leaves him for Martin. She, Cesar Romero, Hermione Baddeley, Tony Bill and Nancy Sinatra are completely wasted.
Three of the four films that comprise the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack Collection, 1960's Ocean's 11, 1964's Robin and the 7 Hoods and 1963's 4 for Texas, have previously been released complete with commentary by Frank Sinatra Jr. Added to the collection is 1962's Sergeants 3 sans commentary, a remake of Gunga Din set in the old west with rat packers Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. Davis plays the character patterned after Gunga Din. This film is available for separate purchase.
Everything this week is not Sinatra. Also being released are two major British war films and a Hollywood farce about different aspects of World War II as well as a number of classic westerns and sci-fi films and a film that challenged obscenity laws in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the former, directed by Roy Ward Baker, Hardy Kruger engagingly plays Luftwaffe pilot Franz von Werra, the only World War II British P.O.W. who got away. This highly suspenseful film chronicles his various escapes including the one that eventually led him to the U.S. on his way back to Germany.
In the latter, directed by Lewis Gilbert, Virginia McKenna plays British war widow Violette Szabo who joins British Intelligence and becomes a liaison to the French underground. Paul Scofield, Jack Warner and Maurice Ronet are memorable in support, but it's basically English rose McKenna's show and she shines throughout.
Anthony Quinn plays the buffoon in Stanley Kramer's 1969 film The Secret of Santa Vittoria in which Quinn, as the mayor of a small Italian town, must hide a supply of wine from the Nazis toward the end of the war. Despite the best efforts of Anna Magnani, Hardy Kruger and Giancarlo Giannini to bring some class to the project, nothing really works, though the DVD transfer does full justice to the film's gorgeous art direction and set design. The film is not without its supporters, having won Oscar nominations for Editing and Score. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy and nominations for Actor, Actress, Director, Score and Song ("Stay").
Oscar nominated for its story, The Gunfighter marked the second teaming of director Henry King and star Gregory Peck. As they had done the previous year with the war drama Twelve O'Clock High, they brought a new sense of realism to an old genre. Peck is the retired gunslinger who young hot shots won't leave in peace. Co-starring Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Verna Felton, Ellen Corby and Richard Jaeckel, the film is packed with small moments that add up to a memorable whole.
Taut and suspenseful, Henry Hathaway's Rawhide was the first pairing of Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward as a stagecoach driver and his passenger who are held siege by outlaws. Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger and Edgar Buchanan co-star in Hayward's first box office smash under her Fox contract.
Hayward is back under Hathaway's direction and this time Gary Cooper's gets her in Garden of Evil in which Hayward hires Cooper, Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell to help free her husband, Hugh Marlowe, trapped in a collapsed gold mine. The tension between Cooper and Widmark is palatable in one of the best westerns of the mid-1950s.
Fox is also releasing a number of westerns under its distribution deal with MGM including 1955's Man With the Gun, 1958's Man of the West, 1959's Day of the Outlaw and 1967's The Way West, as well as re-releasing 1940's The Westerner.
An early DVD release, William Wyler's The Westerner has long been out of print, fetching big bucks for scarce copies on eBay. Although Gary Cooper gets star billing, the focus of the film is on Walter Brennan as rascally Judge Roy Bean. Brennan's performance, which is arguably his greatest, won him his third Oscar in five years, a record he holds to this day. The film was also nominated for its Art Direction and Original Story.
One of the more obscure westerns of the mid-1950s, Richard Wilson's Man With the Gun is redeemed by the casting of Robert Mitchum as the man who goes searching for missing wife Jan Sterling. Karen Sharpe, Henry Hull, Emile Meyer and a young Angie Dickinson co-star.
The last of the great Anthony Mann-directed westerns of the 1950s, and the only one not to star James Stewart, Man of the West provided Gary Cooper with one of his finest late-career roles as an aging, reformed outlaw. Not only does Mann get powerful work from Cooper, but also from Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Lord and Royal Dano as well. Cooper's character's name is Link, highly appropriate for the film that was the link between the optimistic westerns that preceded it and the violent, pessimistic ones that followed.
Starkly filmed amidst the snows of a bleak Montana winter, Day of the Outlaw provides Robert Ryan with one of his best leading roles as cowman in a town of farmers he's at odds with but who risks his life to save them when gunmen take over the town. Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshall, David Nelson, Venetia Stevenson, Nehemiah Persoff, Dabs Greer and Elisha Cook Jr. have prominent supporting roles.
Based on the true story of a former Missouri Senator's wagon train trek across the U.S., Andrew V. McLaglen's The Way West provided strong characterizations for Kirk Douglas as the taskmaster ex-Senator, Robert Mitchum as his scout and Richard Widmark as the settler who eventually takes over the march. The huge supporting cast includes Lola Albright who nearly drowned during filming, and Sally Field.
Originally available only at Best Buy, Universal's The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection - Vol. 1 & 2 is now available everywhere.
The class act of Volume One is Jack Arnold's 1957 classic The Incredible Shrinking Man with Grant Williams as the businessman on holiday who begins to shrink due to exposure
The cream of the crop of Volume Two is Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1940 film, Dr. Cyclops, which, highly unusual for its day, was filmed in Technicolor with Albert Dekker as the mad doctor who shrinks his enemies. Unlike The Incredible Shrinking Man, however, this has a less unsettling, more traditional movie ending.
Shocking in its day, Louis Malle's 1958 film The Lovers stars Jeanne Moreau as a woman who leaves her husband and children after one night of passion. Moderately successful at the time, the film became a cause-célèbre when a city in the Midwest declared it obscene. The Supreme Court eventually became involved, causing Justice Potter Stewart to make his famous pronouncement about pornography: "I know it when I see it". This wasn't it.
-Peter J. Patrick (May 13, 2008)
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Short films have been a staple of the movies since the beginning. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, short films - both live action and animated, were part of the movie going experience for everyone. Though there were no specific rules about their exhibition, the shorter films, roughly those running ten minutes or less, were generally shown between films on double feature programs while longer ones, those running up to 40 minutes, took the place of the second feature when the main feature was longer than two hours.
Though they were combined on one laserdisc and recently distributed together theatrically, Criterion has released two short films from celebrated French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse in separate packaging befitting their unique place in movie history.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) annually bestows its Oscars on short films in special categories for which designated voters must attend special screenings to insure that they have seen all the candidates. Rarely does a short film break out of the mold and find itself competing in another category. Clocking in at a mere 34 minutes, Lamorisse's 1956 film, The Red Balloon not only managed to land a nomination outside of the short film category, it actually won that category.
The Red Balloon holds the distinction of being both the shortest film and the film with the least amount of dialogue to win a Best Screenplay Oscar. In fact the film about a boy and his balloon has practically no dialogue at all. Beautifully photographed in vibrant colors on the streets of Paris with the director's young son, Pascal Lamorisse, this enchanting film is the perfect vehicle for introducing children to the wonders of world cinema.
Lamorisse's 1953 film, White Mane, about a young fisherman who captures a wild stallion, clocks in at a slightly-longer 40 minutes. Beautifully filmed in black and white in the south of France, this is another fine film for children. A new English narration to this multi-award winner is provided by Peter Strauss.
Largely unseen at Oscar time, the short films that were nominated for last year's Oscars were packaged together and travelled the country as A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films. That collection has now been released on DVD. Included are the live-action winner The Mozart of Pickpockets and animated winner Peter & the Wolf as well as live action nominees At Night, The Substitute, Tanghi Argentini and The Tonto Woman, and animated nominees Madame Tutli-Putli and Even Pigeons Go to Heaven. Two additional animated nominees, I Met the Walrus and My Love, are not included.
First up is the Danish At Night written and directed by Christian E. Christiansen, a grim, sparse, yet strangely life affirming 40-minute short about three girls, aged 18 to 20, living and dying in a hospital's cancer ward at Christmas time. The film is somewhat reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers in its more dour aspects.
Next up is the Italian entry, The Substitute, a farce that is jarringly at odds with the short film that precedes it. Even at ten minutes it seems mercilessly too long. There is no writer's credit, but one can assume director/star Andrea Jublin is the guilty party. With an over-the-top performance that makes Roberto Benigni look reserved in comparison, Jublin and the most obnoxious kids you've ever seen act like idiots over a signed rubber ball.
The winner, a 35-minute French short, The Mozart of Pickpockets , takes the center position in the program. A deft comedy about a couple of inept pickpockets who glom onto a deaf-mute kid who teaches them a thing or two, it was written and directed by Phillippe Pollet-Villard. Though charming, it is not the best of the lot. That would be the next short in the program.
The 13-minute Belgian charmer, Tanghi Argentini, won twenty international awards before being nominated for the Oscar that it sadly lost. Written by Geert Verbanck and directed by Guy Thys, the short holds a special place in the hearts of members of Oscar Guy's discussion board as Geert (aka Sijmen) is a long-time member who attended this year's Oscars as a guest of the producer and kept us apprised of all the events leading up to and following this year's ceremony.
His little movie is a sophisticated gem about an office clerk with the internet screen name of Bing Crosby who gets a co-worker to teach him the tango in two weeks in order to impress a woman he met online. There is a very sweet O Henry-style surprise ending that may not be what you'd expect, but it is perfectly fitting. It's really quite a treat.
Taken from a story by Elmore Leonard, The Tonto Woman, with its screenplay by Joe Schrapnel and direction by Daniel Barber, clocks in at 36 minutes but plays like a full length feature. Exploring issues that recall films as disparate as John Ford's The Searchers and Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, this little film is about a desperado, played by Francesco Quinn, who meets the love of his life, a young woman kidnapped as a newlywed and held captive by various Indian tribes over the course of eleven years.
The three animated shorts all employ stop-motion animation as opposed to traditional hand-drawn cartoon presentations.
The Canadian Madame Tutli-Putli, which kicks off this part of the program, is about a woman traveling on a night train in the 1920s. It's lovely to look at, but what does it all mean? Written by Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerboski and Maciek Tomaszewski and co-directed by Lavis and Szcserboski, it's open to the audience's interpretation.
The French Even Pigeons Go to Heaven, written by Karine Banaux, Olivier Gilbert and Samuel Tourneux, and directed by Tourneux, is a deft comedy about a priest trying to trick an old man into accepting his death with the aid of a time machine with the old man outsmarting both the priest and the Grim Reaper. It's very funny.
Finally, Suzie Templeton's Peter & the Wolf produced in the U.K. from Sergei Prokofiev's timeless tale proves the best of the three, showing us that Oscar voters of these specialized categories can get at least one of their selections right. Elaborately produced in a big, bold color production, the story of a boy who is not afraid of the big bad wolf is, at 30 minutes, the longest of the three animated nominees.
One of last year's most audacious films, I'm Not There, features six actors interpreting various aspects of the life and career of Bob Dylan. Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett plays a character named Jude who looks and talks the most like the real Dylan, while the others, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin play characters that embody just one of his aspects. None are named Dylan.
Avant-garde director Todd Haynes' films are never particularly straight forward, and this one is no exception. In Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, he used Barbie and Ken dolls to tell the story of the anorexic singer with the beautiful singing voice; in Safe he had Julianne Moore play a woman slowly dying from ailments caused by the environment; in Far From Heaven, his most mainstream film, he didn't so much hold a mirror up to life in the 1950s, he held it up to what it looked like in half-hour television situation comedies of the period.
Much of the dialogue in I'm Not There is taken from Dylan's mumblings of the mid-1960s, which, unlike his songs, were far from profound. The Blanchett segment features Michelle Williams as a fictional character patterned after Andy Warhol's superstar Edie Sedgwick and ends up mining the same territory as last year's Factory Girl with Sienna Miller as Sedgwick and Hayden Christensen as a singer modeled after Dylan, referred to simply as the "musician". The Blanchett and Whishaw segments are in black and white, the others in color. The score consists entirely of Dylan songs, some of them recordings by Dylan, while others are sung by imitators. As I said, it's audacious, but it's not for all tastes.
One of the first films to be released on DVD eleven years ago, Clint Eastwood's seminal romantic drama, 1995's The Bridges of Madison County, was released only in full frame format. It has finally been re-mastered in its original aspect ratio and given a spiffy Deluxe Edition release as befits its place in Eastwood's canon.
Taken from a popular, if soppy, novel, Eastwood's film improves immensely on the source material as it tells the poignant tale of a National Geographic photographer who wanders into the life of a frustrated Iowa farm wife and brightens her lonely existence for a few days, the memory of which lasts a lifetime. Eastwood's laid back acting style perfectly suits the character of the photographer and Meryl Streep who has more Oscar nominations than any other performer, really earned the one she got for playing the long-ago Italian G.I. bride whose husband and children are conveniently away attending the Illinois State Fair.
It's a simple story told in flashbacks as Streep's children gather for her funeral, but keep a box of tissues handy because by the time those now-grown children get around to carrying out her last wishes you will need them.
Restored to its original brilliance, Anthony Mann's1964 epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire was filmed outside of Madrid on the largest set ever constructed for a motion picture. Mining more or less the same territory as the Ridley Scott's Gladiator four decades later, the film, which features the usual blend of real life characters with historically-accurate ones for dramatic effect, has long since been eclipsed by such TV productions as I Claudius and Rome. Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Alec Guinness, James Mason, John Ireland, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle head the huge cast. There was serious talk of an Oscar nomination for Mason at the time, but the only bid the film ended up getting was for Dimitri Tiomkin's score. Available in both a Deluxe Edition and a Limited Collectors' Edition with a booklet and lobby cards, the DVD package lists two discs, but there are actually three, the third being an Encyclopedia Britannica documentary on the sets built outside of Madrid to scale replicas of the buildings of ancient Rome.
-Peter J. Patrick (May 6, 2008)
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