New This Week
One of the best films about childhood ever made, it’s hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s early masterpiece, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is now thirty years old.
An extra accompanying the new Blu-ray release from Universal, features a reunion between Spielberg, co-producer Kathleen Kennedy and the film’s five principal cast members. Dee Wallace, who played the mother; and Peter Coyote, who played government official “Keys,” have hardly aged at all. Drew Barrymore, who played the baby sister, has never been out of the public eye, and Henry Thomas, who played 10 year-old Elliott, we've seen from time to time in the intervening years. The big surprise is Robert McNaughton, who played older brother Mike. Now 45 years old, the former actor at first doesn’t look like he did as a kid, but then he smiles and speaks and it couldn’t be anybody else.
The film itself has aged quite well. The interplay between the kids and the alien with the big sad eyes is just as wonderful now as it was then. The Halloween sequence evokes memories of two other masterpieces focusing on childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird from twenty years earlier and Meet Me in St. Louis from eighteen years before that.
One sequence I’d forgotten about has E.T. watching 1952’s The Quiet Man on TV. That film, which was exactly as old then as E.T. is now, should have had a 60th Anniversary upgrade this year, but hasn’t. What are they waiting for?
The 30th Anniversary Edition of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is available in Blu-ray and standard DVD.
This is a big year for Alfred Hitchcock, who will be a character in two films this year, one a TV movie later this month, and one a big screen comedy-drama focusing on the making of Psycho. Blu-ray upgrades of most of his films from The 39 Steps through his last, Family Plot, have or will have been released by the end of the month. Newly released are two controlled by Warner Bros., Dial M for Murder and Strangers on a Train.
Dial M for Murder was Hitchcock’s only film released in 3D. Released in 1954 near the end of the brief wave of 3D films hitting the market in the early 1950s, the film was released in both 2D and 3D. The late, great Andrew Sarris is quoted on the Blu-ray cover as saying “In 2D, it’s minor Hitchcock. In 3D, it’s major Hitchcock.” This is presumably from the film’s 1978 re-release in 3D. I will probably never know if Sarris’ assessment is correct because I will probably never see the film in 3D. I do not have a 3D TV, 3D Blu-ray player or 3D glasses nor do I plan on getting them any time soon.
The film itself is minor Hitchcock. It’s the film version of a hit Broadway play that betrays its origins. The performances of Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are fine, but it’s character actor John Williams who stands out as the police inspector with the droll delivery.
The Dial M for Murder Blu-ray contains both the 3D and 2D versions of the film. The newly re-mastered version is not available on standard DVD.
There is nothing minor about Hitchcock’s 1951 masterpiece, Strangers on a Train from the novel by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley). The screenplay was co-written by famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler, the last in a career that included the screenplays for Double Indemnity and other mystery masterpieces.
Strangers on a Train received only one Oscar nomination, but it was a much deserved one for Robert Burks’ marvelous cinematography. Neither Hitchcock nor Robert Walker’s extraordinary over-the-top performance were nominated.
The much imitated narrative concerns unhinged Walker meeting Farley Granger on a train, striking up a conversation and proposing each murder someone the other despises, perfect crimes in which neither will be suspected. The nightmare that begins on the train ends on a Ferris wheel, but don’t tell anyone!
The Blu-ray upgrade contains both the final release version with commentary and the original preview version.
The venerable Bette Davis is featured in four new releases from Warner Bros. She co-stars with Joan Crawford in the Blu-ray upgrade of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and stars opposite herself as twin sisters in the Blu-ray upgrade of 1964’s Dead Ringer. In addition, the Warner Archive has finally released the last of her great films to make it to DVD, 1945’s The Corn Is Green, as well as one of her most curious early films, 1934’s The Big Shakedown.
The battle of the two old has-beens as they were thought of then is what drew audiences in droves to the November, 1962 release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? . This sharply drawn character study has elements of horror, even though it’s not really a horror film. Both Davis and Crawford deliver the goods in their only on-screen pairing. The success of the film opened up new career opportunities for the two whose careers were re-born.
Davis had one of her juiciest roles in her next film, Dead Ringer, in which she gets to chew the scenery as both the rich twin and the poor one, both of whom are murderesses, the poor one killing the rich one and impersonating her for the remainder of the film. Davis is directed in this one by her Now, Voyager co-star, Paul Henried.
One of Davis’ most fondly remembered films, The Corn Is Green, was remade as a TV movie in 1973 with Katharine Hepburn. Davis at 38 was a bit young for the role of the semi-retired schoolteacher who energizes a Scotch coal-mining community, whereas Hepburn, seemingly a bit too old at 64 was actually the same age as Ethel Barrymore was when she triumphed in the stage version that marked the end of that phase of her career. Nevertheless the role fit both Davis and Hepburn like a glove.
Davis’ forthright portrayal of the dedicated teacher who takes an interest in a young coal miner, played by John Dall, is nothing less than terrific. That it has taken this oft requested title this long to make it DVD is really quite puzzling.
One of the last of the films Davis made prior to her breakout role in 1934’s Of Human Bondage was the potboiler The Big Shakedown. Although this gangster melodrama plays like a B picture, it was actually a major release. Warner Bros. marketed stars Charles Farrell and Davis as a “new team”. They failed to click as a team and Farrell, who had made eleven films with Janet Gaynor, went back to Fox and Gaynor for their twelfth and final film together after this.
Fox’s 1934 film, Change of Heart featuring Gaynor and Farrell in their twelfth film together is not one of their greats, but it isn’t bad. Newly released by Fox Cinema Archives, we get a glimpse of what made them such a joy to watch together, but they are a long way from the ecstasy of Borzage’s 7th Heaven; Street Angel and Lucky Star. James Dunn and Ginger Rogers co-star as friends of the couple who keep getting in their way to true happiness.
This week’s new DVD releases include Moonrise Kingdom and Mad Men: Season Five.