Feeling Blu: Joseph Losey’s Stranger On the Prowl (1952)

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With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.

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Fear and Self-Loathing in Mexico: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

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The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”

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Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Of Time and the Family: The Long Day Closes (1992)

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My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-Ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently).  Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.

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Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

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Martial Fine Artists: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-Ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

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Favorite Home Video Releases of 2013

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Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

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Siege Mentality: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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You Were Meant For Me: Penny Serenade (1941)

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Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens.  Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-Ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.

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Who’s that knocking on my door? GASP! It’s The Uninvited (1944)!

The UninvitedWith James Wan’s recent haunted houser THE CONJURING (2012) scaring up all kinds of big business at the boo-xoffice lately, I’ve had occasion to opine, mostly to the open air of my empty house and in my most lamentable ghostly wail, “Whyyyyyyyyy… whyyyyyyyyyy isn’t THE UNINVITED on DVD in this country? WHYYYYYYYYYYY???” And also, “Wheeeerrrrrrreeeee’s my gooooolllllllllllldddennnn arrrrrmmmmmm?”  Well, silly me, it is available… or is about to be made available. (THE UNINVITED, I mean. Made available on DVD; golden arm still M.I.A.) Lewis Allen’s masterful 1944 ghost tale (not to be confused with the crap-ass 2009 American remake of the 2003 Korean ghost movie A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which cadged the title THE UNINVITED rather gratuitously, rendering generic a brand that had been for almost half a century threaded with the very stuff of mystery and menace), based on the charming 1941 novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish writer Dorothy Macardle, is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by the estimable, the frighteningly comprehensive, and the exceedingly cool Criterion Collection. The announced street date is just over two months away. October 22nd.  Just in time for Halloween!

I’ll tell you exactly where I was when I first saw THE UNINVITED, thank you for asking. It was New York City, it was the late  80s — 1988 or 1989 — and the thing just came on TV. I have no recollection of what channel was showing THE UNINVITED, if I had looked forward to seeing it or just found it already in progress, but my roommate and I found ourselves glued — glu-oo-ooed — to our cheap little black-and-white set as we sat side by side, two 20-something Bohemians with scratchy three days beards and black clothes, on the floor my futon, which doubled in those halcyon days as the couch in our Upper East Side railroad apartment. We both enjoyed the movie thoroughly throughout its crisp, fleet o’floot running time, but it was the ending… the ending, when the whooky-de-woo went all woooooo-oooooooo-ooooooooo and the protagonists were like yeow-ow-ow-ow that made us get all “GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” And then I spent the next, I don’t even know how many years — 20 at least — wondering “Did I really see what I thought I saw?”

Uninvited novelBased as it is on a novel (two radio adaptatons followed within five years, and a stage version in 1979), THE UNINVITED turns not on a shopping list of tricks or feints or special effects but on words, on conversations, on secrets, on declarations, and in superstition and dread given voice. It’s a story that is fundamentally interested in people — the living, mind you — and one that does not suppose (as do so many contemporary ghost stories) that the dead have anything to tell us that we do not already know. This is not to say THE UNINVITED doesn’t believe in ghosts — far from it — but rather it understands that the restless dead derive the entirety of their power from the living, from the oral tradition, from the information we conceal from one another and ultimately from ourselves. Largely faithful to the Macardle novel (apart from changing various location and character names — the nickname of the main character from Roddy to Rick and his profession from theatre critic-cum-playwright to music critic-cum-composer), THE UNINVITED begins, leisurely but assuredly, as vacationing brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) espy an empty old house on the stormy Devonshire coast and decide that they must have it as a change of venue from dreary old London. Not daring to dream they could afford such a manor, Rick and Pam manage to buy Windward House for a song from retired military man Beech (Donald Crisp). Getting chummy with the commander’s granddaughter, Stella, (Gail Russell), a beautiful but demon-drawn young woman, the Fitzgeralds find out there is a tale to be told about their new digs, a proper ghost story, whose third act has yet to be written.

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THE UNINVITED is such an engrossing little yarn that you don’t even care that it throws in your way not one love story subplot but two. Happily, these represent not padding but rather a fleshing out of the overriding theme of loneliness. If Rick seems a bit mature for the budding Stella (while representing for her, it’s worth noting, a happier ever after than she had to expect at Cornelia Otis Skinner’s sanitarium), you’ve got to love the sparks that fly between Hussey and Alan Napier, as the local sawbones (who is able to add a few pieces to the niggling puzzle that is Windward House). The dialogue by Frank Portos (THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR! THE SNAKE PIT!) and Dodie Smith (who wrote the source novel for Disney’s 101 DALMATIONS) is brisk and fulgent, light when it needs to be and then clamping down like a steel glove when things get heavy. The playing is expert, Lewis Allen’s direction (his first go at features after a career in theatre) is efficient yet evocative, and the icing on THE UNINVITED cake is the eerie process photography of Farciot Edouart (relatively fresh from Paramount’s comical but still creepy THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope and United Artists’ I MARRIED A WITCH with Veronica Lake). Edouart’s spectral contributions were not part of the original design and were only added, NIGHT OF THE DEMON-style, in postproduction, after Lewis Allen turned in his cut to Paramount. To say more about what happens specifically would be to do the uninitiated and THE UNINVITED a disservice. When this thing streets, see it. See it for yourself!

The Uninvited Blu-ray backTHE UNINVITED got its British DVD release just last year, with Exposure Cinema’s region 2/PAL issue of the film. The transfer is only adequate, a bit dark, a bit soft, and a bit thumb-rubbed… but still, what a treat (for those of us with multi-region capability) to finally have this one on disc. The Brit release came with both the 1944 and 1949 radio versions of the film as bonus features, along with the original trailer, and a stills and poster gallery. Exposure also included a keepsake booklet, nicely illustrated with original poster art from American and foreign markets, featuring a foreword by The Dark Side publisher Allan Bryce, an essay on the film by Claudette Pyne (which offers a lot of biographical information on the cast and director, though gives Farciot Edouart short shrift), an essay on the ghost movie subgenre by American critic Clydefro Jones, and a bio of Ray Milland by film critic and historian James Oliver. Criterion’s impending release of THE UNINVITED raises the stakes immeasurably with a digital restoration of the film — in and of itself entirely worth the sticker price. Additionally, Criterion is offering as supplements a print essay by film blogger Farran Smith Nehme (aka The Self-Styled Siren) and a visual essay by New York indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda. I love Almereyda and am about the only person in the world who dug his female vampire movie NADJA (1994), though I think I like his TWISTER (1989) just a little bit more. I wish there were more extras but I’ll be happy just to have the film itself, looking grand, on a region 1 disc and you should be, too!

To pre-order THE UNINVITED DVD for $13.99, click here.

To pre-order THE UNINVITED Blu-ray for $19.99, click here.

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