Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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Raft Noir: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949)

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George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.

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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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A Celluloid Revolution – James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

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“In sixteen months of acting, he left a more lasting impression on the public than many stars do in thirty years.”
- Henry Ginsberg (GIANT producer)

The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as a one of our greatest actors. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it’s a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films that have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
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Bumbling Angel: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

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For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.

A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.

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Lee Tracy: A Welcome Nuisance

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“It didn’t take those women at the stage door to convince me I was nobody’s hero. I’d looked into a mirror once or twice. These light eyes, these limp features, these scars all over my face!”

-Lee Tracy, Picture Play Magazine, 1933

Although his career lasted until 1965, the image of Lee Tracy will forever be of a chatterbox on the make, established during his prolific run of pre-codes in the early 1930s. Whether he plays a tabloid reporter or ambulance chasing lawyer, Tracy’s characters were always looking for an angle as sharp as the crease in his fedora. His catalytic personality, a shotgun blast of nasal putdowns, led him to leading man roles, overcoming the perceived shortcomings of his pockmarked face, thinning hair and bantamweight build. Audiences, though, liked to root for this ruthless underdog. The Warner Archive released three Tracy pre-codes on DVD last week: The Half Naked Truth (’32) Turn Back The Clock (’33) and The Nuisance (’33). In The Half Naked Truth, Tracy is a con-man/publicist as he turns hoochie coochie dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star. A hidden gem directed by Gregory La Cava, I wrote about it last year. So today I’ll focus on the latter two. He is cast against type in Turn Black the Clock, a proto It’s A Wonderful Life where his meek tobacconist is granted a time-traveling chance to re-live his life for money instead of love. The Nuisance, though, is a prime rat-a-tat Tracy, in which he hammers the local train company with phony injury claims, with the aid of his drunken doctor pal Frank Morgan. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Jack Conway make sure the camera moves with as much agility as Tracy’s tongue.

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Above and Beyond: 7th Heaven (1927)

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In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix.  But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.

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Death Grip: The Beast With Five Fingers (1947)

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Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.

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Opposite Directions: Going Hollywood (1933)

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Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show.   Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywood is out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.

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