Here, finally, are a couple more reviews. Since my last review posting I was released from the hospital October 18th and moved into the Gift of Life transplant recovery house a few blocks from the Mayo Clinic, settling in just in time to catch the 1916 SHERLOCK HOLMES on TCM’s prime-time broadcast that night. It’s still a long, slow process for my new immune system to settle in and replace the old one, not to mention just getting back to a semblance of physical strength and normality after two months in the hospital, and I’ll probably be at the recovery house another six to eight weeks or so, though I'm hoping I'll be able to leave a bit earlier. In any case, I should have a few more reviews ready soon.
The last reviews I posted and the first of the three below were of movies I actually watched before coming down to Rochester MN in August. The last two of the following three reviews are movies that will be officially released next week and which I’ve managed to watch on Blu-ray here at the recovery house (though sadly only on large-screen HDTVs rather than projected in HD onto a screen).
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) 130m **** (released to Blu-ray 12/2//14)
One of the key classics of 20th century cinema is Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, yet another of the major films premiering in 1939. It earned 11 Academy Award nominations, but amazingly did not win a single category. Nevertheless, it’s a film that should be shown theatrically every few years during election and campaign seasons in every country. The moving story of political corruption and cynicism clashing with sincere political idealism and patriotism documents the attitudes of 1930s America, but applies to all ages from ancient Greece and earlier up to the present day. It’s also a good presentation of the power of the media as well as the media's own blasé cynicism.
James Stewart has one of his most memorable roles as an average, intensely patriotic, but naïve young man from the upper Midwest who suddenly finds himself appointed to the U. S. Senate after the death of a senator has the state’s political machine scrambling to find an appropriate substitute they can count on not to upset the status quo. He is even more overawed by seeing the city of the nation’s founders first-hand than by his own new political status, soon making him a laughing stock. To keep him out of the way, the establishment recommends he write up his own new bill to present to the Senate, something he takes to enthusiastically, proposing a summer camp to help the Boy Rangers club he ran back home, as well as disadvantaged children across the country.
Unknown to Smith and to his more experienced colleagues, the piece of ideal land he has specified is already earmarked on another bill as the site of a new dam, which will provide lucrative kickbacks for the state’s political bosses including the much-admired senior senator (Claude Rains). Once this news is revealed, and Smith refuses to cooperate with the political machine despite threats on both career and personal reputation, the heart of the plot begins, with Smith encouraged to do all he can by his secretary (Jean Arthur) and a cynical reporter (Thomas Mitchell) to fight the political graft in his state. Capra brilliantly handles the screenwriters’ expert blend of conflict in personal characterizations, shattered political ideals, and vicious political manipulation, always giving the film a strong emotional heart that excuses some sentimental overindulgences here and there. Other standouts in the cast include veteran character actors Harry Carey, Edward Arnold, and Guy Kibbee, among others.
Sony’s Blu-ray, released in December 2014, is beautifully transferred from their recent and meticulous 4k scan and restoration. The film-like crisp, glowing black-and-white image looks like you’re seeing in a theatre on opening night with its rich contrast and lack of film damage. Minor scratches and slightly-soft images are a by-product of original duping and wear in stock footage inserts and montages. Audio is very clear and clean, quite good for a 1930s soundtrack.
Bonus features are thorough and numerous, with an attractive digibook packaging including photos and a good essay, among other things. The on-disc extras are mostly standard-definition, ported over from DVD editions, including a commentary with Frank Capra, Jr., five featurettes on Capra and the film, plus a nearly two-hour documentary on Capra hosted by Ron Howard. There are also two original trailers in HD, one with footage not used in the final release of the film.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON on Blu-ray --
Indie films (past and present) can be strong personal cinematic visions or slick packages designed to sell tickets and fill a particular bill. This month Kino Video comes out with great-looking Blu-ray editions of movies from the 1940s and 50s that demonstrate both approaches, each film fitting to various degrees into the “film noir” category.
PITFALL (1948) 86m *** ½ (released to Blu-ray 11/17/15)
One of the classic noir films of the 1940s is an independent production that breaks many of the film noir “rules” but hits even harder on several of the most common noir themes as a result, mostly in subtler ways than a standard Hollywood production. The main themes pervading the film are alienation and dissatisfaction – with job, with relationships, with life and the status quo in general. Talented director André de Toth twists what seems mostly a domestic romantic melodrama of modern (i.e., post-war) suburbia into an increasingly darker look at American values, morals, and dreams. As in noir tradition, a fair amount of ironic wisecracks pepper the dialogue in certain scenes but it may take more than one viewing to appreciate how the film both uses and subverts what one expects of film noir.
The obligatory femme fatale in this film is not scheming to use the protagonist for a doomed crime plot, but is instead serves as merely a temptation for three of the central male characters, although the jealousy she unwittingly creates among them leads to at least a killing or two by the end of the movie. There’s also an ambiguity in characters’ pasts and futures that major studio films of the era (or even today) would likely take the time to explain.
Our erstwhile hero/antihero John Forbes (Dick Powell) is an L.A. insurance executive with a comfortable job, a beautiful wife (Jane Wyatt), and an adoring if often irritating son (Jimmy Hunt). Nevertheless he feels empty, like life has passed him by and left him in a boring rut of repetition. Then he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the sultry girlfriend of a convicted embezzler named Bill Smiley (Byron Barr) that his company insured and is attempting to recover their losses, most of which paid for various gifts from Smiley to Stevens. They start a passionate but brief affair that both realize is wrong and can’t continue. This was all it took for Forbes to rediscover an interest in his home life, but it’s a bit too late. The trouble is that shady private detective J. B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr), who discovered Stevens’ role in the case, is unhealthily attracted to her himself, to the point of stalking her and threatening Forbes even after they have broken off with each other. By this time the film has shifted into full noir mode with plot threads and events building to various final showdowns.
Powell is at his darkest in a role tailored especially for him, after transitioning from juvenile lead in romantic musical comedies to detective dramas four years earlier with MURDER MY SWEET (available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection). Scott, who died earlier this year at 92, is also in fine form as the vulnerable fashion model who always gets mixed up with the wrong men. She considered it her favorite role. Burr, decades before becoming a TV icon as the respectable lawyer Perry Mason and later as Detective Ironside, is at his smarmiest and most intimidating as the movie’s villain.
Picture quality is outstanding on Kino’s Blu-ray, with only some very minor wear visible. It’s drastically sharper than my old laserdisc as it’s been newly mastered in HD from a duplicate negative at the UCLA archives, and the sound is also fine. Bonus features, on the other hand, are sparse, just two HD trailers (for A BULLET FOR JOEY and HE RAN ALL THE WAY, both available on Blu-ray from Kino) and an audio commentary. However, the commentary is an excellent one by noir expert Eddie Muller that gives great insight into the film as well as interesting background information on the cast and crew and the production itself.
PITFALL on Blu-ray –
A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955) 87m ** ½ (released to Blu-ray 11/17/15)
The trailer to A BULLET FOR JOEY makes it look like it’s going to be a fast-paced and moody film noir in the classic tradition starring two big-name actors popular as tough guys in gangster films a couple of decades earlier. However, by a short time into the feature itself, it soon becomes apparent that this is a routine police procedural crime drama using the familiar formula of foreign agents trying to kidnap a brilliant scientist (George Dolenz) who’s working on a top-secret government project. When the action finally picks up in the last reel or so, the film becomes a laughably (or at least an eye-rollingly) over-the-top melodrama with no surprises. Journeyman director Lewis Allen and most of the cast seem to be simply doing a job rather than showing dedication to the material.
For whatever reason, the film is set in Montreal. Edward G. Robinson plays Raoul Leduc, a no-nonsense but relatively low-key police inspector investigating a series of murders he gradually realizes are related. Meanwhile, the ominous and well-funded Eric Hartman (Peter van Eyck) brings deported gangster Joey Victor (George Raft) to Canada to reassemble his gang and pull off the kidnapping for a hefty fee. Victor recruits his reluctant aging ex-girlfriend Joyce (Audrey Totter) to seduce the romantically-challenged scientist. It’s not too hard to figure out most of what happens next.
Raft has a few good scenes with his trigger-happy henchmen, but is rather heavy-handed with Totter and frequently a bit subdued, like Robinson. Dolenz is adequate if underwhelming as the scientist and van Eyck is merely a caricature as the villain. Totter delivers the most interesting and complex performance in the film, world-weary with a mind of her own even though she knows she’s being used.
Kino’s Blu-ray has a fine, film-like HD transfer at the appropriate 1.75:1 aspect ratio, a major aspect in enjoying this film, as well as very decent audio. The only bonus features are three trailers, including one for A BULLET FOR JOEY plus two other Kino noir releases.
A BULLET FOR JOEY on Blu-ray