This Gun for Hire, The Big Clock, The Landlord, The Bedroom Window, and The House of Games have all now been given Blu-ray upgrades.
Alan Ladd had been in films since 1932, mostly in uncredited roles, when talent agent Sue Carol took charge of his career and the actor himself, marrying him in 1942, the year of his breakthrough performance as the tough-as-nails hitman in Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire, a property that Paramount had been sitting on for six years.
Taken from a Graham Greene novel, the plot of This Gun for Hire is a bit convoluted, but it was the perfect vehicle for the type of film that would come to be known as film noir. Ladd was fourth billed below Veronica Lake as a nightclub singer whose fiancé Robert Preston is the local prosecutor, the only two actors billed above the title. Laird Cregar (two years before The Lodger) is the mob boss who hires Ladd to kill blackmailer Frank Ferguson and his girlfriend and then double-crosses him. He’s also the owner the nightclub in which Lake is performing.
Preston (Beau Geste) and Lake (Sullivan’s Travels) had no chemistry together, but Ladd and Lake in their one scene together sizzled, so much so that Paramount had the screenwriters add scene after scene for the two to appear in together. It would be the first of seven films in which the two appeared together, the most famous besides This Gun for Hire being 1942’s The Glass Key and 1946’s The Blue Dahlia.
Commentary on the Shout Select 4K restoration is provided by film historians Alan K. Rode and Steve Mitchell who also provided the commentary on The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, both of which were previously released by Shout Select.
Films noir don’t come any finer than 1948’s The Big Clock, directed by John Farrow (Wake Island), starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and both Farrow’s wife (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Laughton’s (Elsa Lanchester).
The Heiress, given a new 4K restoration by the Criterion Collection, is a prime example of a film that improves upon both Henry James’1880 novel and the 1947 Broadway play on which it is based.
William Wyler’s 1949 film was adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from their 1947 play starring Wendy Hiller as the plain title character, Basil Rathbone in a Tony award-winning performance as her heartless father, Peter Cookson as the ne’er-do-well after her fortune, and Patricia Collinge as the aunt who encourages the ne’er-do-well. Hiller’s replacement was Beatrice Straight who met and married Cookson after the run of the play. Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson played the roles originated by Hiller and Rathbone in the 1949 London production. Olivia de Havilland and Richardson then starred in the film version along with Montgomery Clift and Miriam Hopkins in the roles originated by Cookson and Collinge.
Having sued to get out of her Warner Bros. contract in 1943, a case she won in 1944, de Havilland wasted no time in going after the kinds of roles she was not given while under contract. In quick succession, she played the unwed mother reunited with her clueless grown son in 1946’s To Each His Own; twins, one good, one evil in the same year’s The Dark Mirror; the housewife suffering a nervous breakdown in 1948’s The Snake Pit; and the homely, shy, awkward, naïve, and gullible young woman in The Heiress, winning Oscars for To Each His Own and The Heiress and back-to-back New York Film Critics Circle awards for The Snake Pit and The Heiress.
The Heiress was filmed with great care by William Wyler. Wyler’s last two films, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, had both won him Oscars for his direction along with a slew of other awards. He was hand-picked for The Heiress by de Havilland, but there was never any doubt as to who was in charge as evidenced by the actress’s frequent recounting of Wyler’s making her climb those two long flights of stairs in the film’s closing scene forty times until he was happy with her performance. In addition to de Havilland, the film won Oscars for its Black-and-White Art Direction, Black-and-White Costume Design, and Score and was nominated for four others including Best Picture, Directing, Supporting Actor (Richardson), and Black-and-White Cinematography.
A Face in the Crowd may have been a flop on its initial release in 1957, but the film, given a new 4K restoration by the Criterion Collection, has long since been recognized as one of the great films of its era.
Released the same year as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men, Paths of Glory, and Sweet Smell of Success, Elia Kazan’s film about a TV blowhard who convinces the sitting U.S. president to create a cabinet position for him as national morale booster, has never seemed more real than it is now, sixty-two years later.
The film marked the film debuts of Andy Griffith, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick and was a milestone in their careers for both Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.
Griffith had been a stand-up comic with several successful long-playing albums when he was chosen to play the lead in the 1955 Broadway comedy No Time for Sergeants, which led to his casting as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd.
Rhodes was sleeping off an overnight drunk in the local jail when he was found by radio promotor Marcia Jeffries (Neal) for her program “A Face in the Crowd.” She’s the one who gives him the name “Lonesome” on the local radio station which leads to national prominence on a Memphis station and eventually TV stardom, during the course of which he morphs into the kind of small-minded, isolationist supporter of the kind of demagoguery he once lampooned. Along the way he ditches first wife Kay Medford, intending to marry Neal but instead eloping with a 17-year-old baton twirler (Remick) he met at a contest in which he was the judge. Franciosa plays Griffith’s self-serving talent agent and Matthau a cynical writer carrying a torch for Neal who is either unwilling or unable to cut Griffith loose until the film’s startling denouement.
The House of the Seven Gables, a 1940 Oscar nominee for Best Original Score, has been given a Blu-ray upgrade by Kino Lorber.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 gothic novel followed the author’s oft-filmed The Scarlet Letter by one year, but unlike that work, The House of the Seven Gables had been filmed only once before as a short silent film in 1910 and made its first on-screen appearance since 1940 as one of the three stories in the 1963 anthology film, Twice-Told Tales. It hit the big screen once again in limited release as a 2018 animated short.
The screenplay for the 1940 version by Lester Cole (Born Free) changes some of the characters from Hawthorne’s family curse drama in which Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon were brother and sister and the evil Jaffrey Pyncheon was their cousin. In this version, Clifford and Jaffrey are brothers and Hepzibah is their cousin, as well as Clifford’s love interest. Originally set to star Robert Cummings as Clifford, Margaret Lindsay as Hepzibah, and George Sanders as Jaffrey, Cummings bowed out and was replaced by Vincent Price subsequently billed third behind Sanders and Lindsay as Sanders and Lindsay were bigger names at the time.
The casting of Price suggests to modern audiences that this is a horror film in which both Price and Sanders could be the villains since both have long since made lasting impressions in such roles. Rest assured, however, that Price is the good guy and Lindsay’s faith in him is not misplaced. Lindsay’s (G-Men) haunting portrayal of Hepzibah is the film’s most memorable performance despite fine work from both her co-stars as well as a long list of supporting players led by Dick Foran and Cecil Kellaway.
The film was directed by Joe May (The Invisible Man Returns). Insightful commentary is provided by film historian Troy Howarth.
None Shall Escape, a 1944 Oscar nominee for Best Original Story, has been given a Blu-ray only release by Sony. Although not a huge hit in its original engagements, this film, directed by André De Toth (House of Wax) was not a “B” picture as is commonly believed, but a major release from Columbia, whose only other Oscar nominee that year was the musical Cover Girl, which had been nominated for five Oscars and won one for its score.
Although largely dismissed in its initial run, None Shall Escape has grown in stature. Filmed in 1943 and released in early 1944, it is an uncanny predictor of things to come. Acknowledged as the first Holocaust film, its handling of the fictional post-war Nazi tribunal in Warsaw predates the similar handling of the real-life 1948 Nazi tribunal depicted in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg.
Alexander Knox stars as an unrepentant Nazi Reich Commissioner in the same year in which he would receive an Oscar nomination of his own for playing Woodrow Wilson in Best Picture nominee Wilson. His character’s post-war trial in the not-so-distant future begins with Henry Travers (It’s a Wonderful Life) as a Polish Catholic priest recounting his behavior in 1919.
Knox had been a German teacher in a small Polish town before the outbreak of World War I. He had returned to Germany to fight in the war, returning to the Polish town after the war where he is greeted with skepticism even by Travers’ niece, local teacher Marsha Hunt (The Human Comedy) who had been his fiancée. That skepticism turns to anger when he rapes one of his students (Shirley Mills) and her boyfriend (Elvin Field) is blamed for the crime before the girl confesses to Hunt that it was Knox before committing suicide. Getting off in the courts due to lack of evidence, Knox returns to Germany where he joins the rising Nazi Party and rises with it.
The next witness is Knox’s brother (Erik Rolf), a socialist writer with a wife (Ruth Nelson, later the first Mrs. Wilson to Knox’s Wilson) and two children. We first see a harmonious relationship between the brothers when they are reunited in 1923 but see a different relationship in 1933 when Knox has his brother sent to a concentration camp for treason and takes his son and turns him into a Nazi youth. No one will tell Rolf what happened to his wife and daughter.
Welcome to Marwen and On the Basis of Sex pose the same conundrum. What should we watch first, these recent narrative films about the real-life people portrayed, or the more acclaimed documentaries about their lives? I would say that if you have limited knowledge of them, watch the narrative film first, you might learn something. You can then watch the documentaries for additional insight. If you think you already know a great deal about them, it doesn’t matter which you watch first.
Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen is a dramatization of the 2010 documentary Marwencol about Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New York man who was attacked and nearly beaten to death in a vicious hate crime in 2000. He was attacked outside a bar by five men he had been drinking with after he admitted that he was a cross-dresser.
After spending nine days in a coma, Hogancamp had no memory of his previous life. He is kicked out of the hospital after two weeks due to his inability to pay, and in time, provided his own recovery by collecting dolls and building a village in his backyard where he imagines the dolls to be American and Nazi soldiers, along with local women, in a World War II Belgium village.
The documentary unfolds through Hogancamp’s eyes in two directions, his real-life recovery and his imaginary tales of the dolls. Zemeckis’ film does the same, except that the dolls come to life in what sometimes appear to be hallucinations. Zemeckis, of course, made his reputation with such fanciful films as 1985’s Back to the Future, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and 1994’s Forrest Gump for which he won an Oscar so he is easily at home with this material.
Zemeckis’ 2015 film The Walk was criticized for being a weak adaptation of the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Welcome to Marwen drew the same complaints from the same critics, but there were others who found hidden gems in the film. Several reviewers compared the relationship between Steve Carell as Hogancamp, Leslie Mann as the woman he obsesses over, and Merrit Weaver as the woman who waits.
Vice is the seventh of 2018’s eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture to receive a home video release. Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, A Star Is Born, and winner Green Book have all been previously released. Roma may never be released owing to the whims of streaming service Netflix, which owns its worldwide video rights.
Based on an original screenplay by writer-director Adam McKay, Vice‘s title is a double entendre, referring to both Dick Cheney’s status as Vice President of the United States under George W. Bush (2001-2008) and his alleged immoral or wicked behavior, both in office and throughout his life.
While Cheney’s actions deserve scrutiny, there is nothing in the screenplay that hasn’t been covered in the media. We don’t learn anything we didn’t know before. The best that can be said for the film is that it gives interesting acting opportunities to its principal players – Christian Bale in heavy makeup as Cheney, Amy Adams as his shrewish wife Lynne, Steve Carell as a sleazy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as an ill-equipped President Bush.
The film won just one of its 8 Oscar nominations, that of Best Makeup and Hairstyling, primarily thanks to Bale’s transformation. Not only didn’t it deserve to win any of its other nominations, in my opinion it didn’t deserve to be nominated for any of them. Although I found it better than 2015’s The Big Short for which McKay was previously nominated for Best Direction and Best Screenplay, I didn’t find anything in it the least award-worthy.
Vice is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Clint Eastwood’s greatest achievements have generally been considered his direction of such films as Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima ,and American Sniper with his acting taking a back seat, yet he has always been a good actor from his iconic performances in Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me through 2008’s Gran Torino. Last seen in 2012’s disappointing Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood is back at the top of his game in The Mule.
If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, was one of the best reviewed films of 2018, a major year-end award winner that somehow managed to miss an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ prior film, Moonlight, won three Oscars out of the eight it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), so expectations were high going into the Oscar race, but not guaranteed, and the film ended up with just three nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, and Supporting Actress (Regina King). Only King won. What happened between the film’s initial euphoria and its cool Oscar reception?
Critics and discerning audiences may have loved it, but the general public found the narrative about a young man falsely accused of rape and sentenced to a long prison term, slow and uninvolving, which hurt the film’s box office and may have kept Oscar voters from seeing it for themselves.
Slow it may be, but uninvolving it is not. There is real poetry in the romance played out in flashback by Kiki Layne and Stephan James and real heartbreaking drama in the confrontation between their two families early on. Better still, is King’s big third act scene as Layne’s mother as she tries in vain to get the rape victim to acknowledge that she identified the wrong man. It’s that scene that won her the Oscar.
The film makes for ideal home viewing on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Another film that did lackluster business at the box office and earned no Oscar nominations despite receiving year-end recognition from other groups is the British film Stan & Ollie about British born Laurel and American born Hardy’s 1953 theatrical tour of England.
Mary Poppins Returns tries to recapture the magic of the 1964 original, and mostly succeeds.
The film is a mirror image of the original, with characters and situations in the same mode, but different. Emily Blunt is the practically perfect nanny without Julie Andrews’ lilting voice, but with the same ability to beguile almost everyone she meets. She’s the glue that holds the film together. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter is in the same mold as Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep. Emily Mortimer is a grown-up Jane Banks with the same zeal for unit organizing that mother Glynis Johns had for women’s suffrage. Ben Whishaw is the now widowed Michael Banks who has fallen into the same tired banker’s mold as his father, David Tomlinson, did in the earlier film. His three children have the same awe for their new nanny that he and his sister had for her in their childhood.
Several of the other characters from the original return as well. Ellen the housekeeper is now Julie Walters instead of Hermione Baddeley. Admiral Boom is now David Warner instead of Reginald Owen. Dick Van Dyke returns in his secondary role of Mr. Dawes. Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert has been replaced by Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy while Jane Darwell’s beloved Bird Woman has been replaced by Angela Lansbury’s instantly lovable Balloon Lady.
The animated portions of the film stand up to the animated portions of the original. The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, though not quite as catchy as the originals by the Sherman Brothers, are nevertheless quite good. They seemed to me to be more in the mode of the Sherman Brothers’ songs for Bedknobs and Broomsticks than those they wrote for Mary Poppins. The Oscar-nominated “The Place Where Lost Things Go” sung by Emily Blunt, reminds me more of “The Age of Not Believing” sung by Angela Lansbury in that film than anything else.
Green Book is an Oscar-winning film in the tradition of Wings, It Happened One Night, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Sting, Chariots of Fire, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Chicago, and The King’s Speech in which two disparate characters bond over unusual circumstances. As was the case with It Happened One Night, Rain Man, and Driving Miss Daisy, those circumstances take place largely on the road. Peter Farrelly’s film is not, as its detractors claim, a “white savior movie.”
As in all ten of the previous films cited, the two characters help each other unlike in the so-called white savior films in which a white person, through whose sacrifices, a black person is saved. Examples of that type of film include Glory, Amistad, Finding Forrester, Half Nelson, Gran Torino, The Blind Side, and The Help.
The green book referenced in Green Book was officially called “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guidebook for African-American road-trippers during the Jim Crow era from 1936 through 1966. It was published by African-American New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green, whose life story might make an interesting film of its own. This is not that film, though. The book plays a very small part in this one about a road trip through the deep south in which a distinguished black musician hires a Copacabana Night Club bouncer on hiatus to drive him to a series of engagements. They use the green book to find a place to stay in just one scene in the film.
Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen is the Italian-American chauffer, Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali is classical pianist Doctor Don Shirley who hires him. Although the film has comic overtones and was pretty much sold on those moments, its best scenes are those involving Dr. Shirley’s confrontation with bigotry and the gentlemanly way in which he deals with it from being told he can’t try on a suit in a men’s store but could have it altered if he buys it first to being told he can’t use the restroom in an establishment in which he is performing but must use the outhouse instead to not being able to be seated in the restaurant in another venue where he is the headliner.
The Favourite is quirky, charming, and hilarious. It is brilliantly acted, superbly directed and beautifully designed, costumed, and shot. Just how much of it is accurate, however, we may never know.
Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland for a little over seven years from 1707-1714 from the age of 42 to her death at 49. Prior to succeeding William and Mary (her sister) as ruler, she suffered through seventeen pregnancies, resulting in only five live births. Four of the five died before the age of two. The fifth died at the age of eleven. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark, died the year after her succession. With the support of her friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, she fought the War of the Spanish Succession aka the second French and Indian War in the thirteen colonies aka Queen Anne’s War. One of Lady Sarah’s descendants, Winston Churchill, later called it the First World War.
The film explores the tug of war between political parties, the Tories, which Anne favored, and the Whigs, of which Lady Sarah, whose descendants also include Princess Diana, was one. The film, however, mostly focuses on a lesbian triangle that is not in the history books. It revolves around a fight between Lady Sarah and her cousin, Abigail, a servant who gains favor with the queen during one of her fallouts with Lady Sarah. To say more might spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Mary Queen of Scots was one of last year’s most anticipated films. Oscar prognosticators were beside themselves predicting back-to-back nominations for Lady Bird‘s Saoirse Ronan and I, Tonya‘s Margot Robbie. Then, as they say, the movie came out. Its only Oscar nominations were for Makeup and Hairstyling and Costume Design. Ronan received no awards recognition in the title role, but Robbie did receive Best Supporting Actress nods from both SAG and BAFTA.
Directed by Josie Rourke, the British stage director making her screen debut, this was the third major production about the 16th Century Scottish Catholic queen and her rivalry with her cousin, England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth. The highlight of all three versions was the fictionalized meeting of the two queens who never met in real life.
The first major production was 1936’s Mary of Scotland, directed by John Ford, starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary and Fredric March as her protector, the Earl of Bothwell, with March’s wife, Florence Eldredge, in support as Elizabeth. Critics of the day thought Douglas Walton as Mary’s weakling husband, Henry, Lord Darnley, gave the film’s best performance although both Ford and the film itself received awards recognition at the Venice Film Festival. Hepburn received a single vote for Best Actress at that year’s New York Film Critics Awards, which went to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld.
A Star Is Born is a tale as old as the movies, the talking ones anyway. It made its first appearance under the title of What Price Hollywood? (1932), directed by George Cukor, in which waitress Constance Bennett becomes a star under the tutelage of a washed-up alcoholic director, the real-life alcoholic director Lowell Sherman, while her stardom has a detrimental effect on her marriage to Neil Hamilton. Nominated for an Oscar for Original Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns and Jan Murfin, it’s worth a watch.
William Wellman’s beloved A Star Is Born (1937) was the first to use the title. Although it has plot similarities to What Price Hollywood?, it is considered an original story. In this version, the star being born is an aspiring actress played by Janet Gaynor who goes to Hollywood where she achieves her dreams of stardom with the help of an alcoholic has-been actor played by Fredric March, who becomes her husband. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won one for director-writer Wellman and co-writer Robert Carson for Original Story as well as an honorary award to W. Howard Greene for his color cinematography. It was the only Oscar legendary director Wellman (Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident), who was also nominated for Best Director, ever won. A Best Picture nominee, former winners Gaynor (7th Heaven, Sunrise, Street Angel) and March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) were also nominated.
Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a terribly profound film, but it’s a highly enjoyable one for what it is – a typical Hollywood tribute to a great artist with an emphasis on the joy he or she brought to the world. As such, it works. It is, after all, already the highest grossing biographical musical of all time with an infectious star performance.
Rami Malek’s remarkable performance as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, may well be the best of its kind since James Cagney inhabited master showman George M. Cohan’s totally different style of singing, dancing, and strutting in 1942’s Yankee Dandy Dandy. The best moments of that film, aside from its musical numbers, were the moments of family togetherness with Joan Leslie as his wife, Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, and real-life sister Jeanne Cagney as his sister. The same is true of Bohemian Rhapsody, although the emphasis here is on Mercury’s professional family consisting of Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello as his bandmates, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, as well as his biological family and various lovers from Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin to Allen Leech as Paul Prenter to Aaron McCusker as Jim Hutton. The real-life bonding between the actors playing the members of the band is palpable. It’s no wonder the film was nominated for an ensemble award by the Screen Actors Guild, and certainly no wonder that Malek has been winning awards for best actor over more established competitors.
Widows was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018, widely predicted to be a box-office smash and a major Oscar contender in numerous categories including Best Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress, and more. It ended up being a box-office flop and getting no Oscar or Golden Globe nominations. It did manage to get a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress for Viola Davis, but that was it as far as major awards recognition was concerned. What happened?
The problem was that awards prognosticators based their predictions on the past performances of the film’s director and cast and the previous awards recognition given the 1983 British TV miniseries, which was accorded two BAFTA TV nominations, assuming what clicked before would click again.
Directed by Steve McQueen, this was his first film since winning the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave, for which he had also been nominated for Best Directing. It moved the action of the earlier miniseries from 1980s London to contemporary Chicago, which may have been a good idea in itself, giving the film a fresh location. The problem was that it packed too much into its two-hour-and-nine minutes running time to allow audiences time to get used to one situation before it moved onto another without fully understanding what they were seeing. Eventually, most of the confusion was sorted out in flashbacks, but it was all so cold and matter-of-fact that audiences simply didn’t care. Even the usually superb Viola Davis who led the cast, couldn’t hold it together. She plays a dour, always angry woman who doesn’t flash her million-kilowatt smile until the last scene. It was too little too late. The few audiences that did see it did not recommend it to their friends and it was quickly gone from theatres.