Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.
These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.
The timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.
Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.
It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.
The 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.
This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.
Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.
Deep in My Heart (Warner, Blu-ray) – MGM was the king of movie musicals in the 1940s and 1950s and one of their specialties was the musical biopic celebrating the great songwriters, a formula that guaranteed a great soundtrack and all the production numbers they could squeeze in. After tackling the likes of George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and Rogers and Hart (Words and Music), MGM turned to the life and music of Sigmund Romberg, a classically-trained composer who became a success composing songs for popular musical revues and operettas produced for Broadway by the Shubert Brothers, for the highly fictionalized Deep in My Heart (1954).
Jose Ferrer, never known for comedy or singing, acquits himself just fine as the Hungarian-born but American-raised Romberg and displays uncharacteristic energy and comic chops when he performs an entire show in digest form, performing all the parts, singing and dancing and even providing pratfalls. The story, however, is pure formula and basically a framework for Romberg’s songs, many of them performed by MGM’s stable of musical stars in colorful production numbers. Among the featured performers singing numbers from such shows as “Maytime,” “The Student Prince,” and “The New Moon” are Rosemary Clooney, Jane Powell, Vic Damone, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Tony Martin, and Gene Kelly performing with his brother Fred Kelly in his only credited film role. Though not among the great MGM musicals, it’s fun (thanks in part to director Stanley Donen) and features 22 classic songs and a great cast.
It makes its Blu-ray debut from the Warner Archive line and includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including outtakes of three additional unused songs plus an Oscar-nominated short subject and a cartoon from 1954.
Also new and notable:
The Vincent Price Collection III: Master of the World / Tower of London / Diary of a Madman / An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe / Cry of the Banshee (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – The third collection of Vincent Price horrors hasn’t the classics of the earlier sets, which include the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for Roger Corman and the Dr. Phibes films, among others. Poe is represented here by Price’s made-for-TV An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), a one-man-show featuring Price reciting four Poe tales. The rest look to other authors for inspiration: Jules Verne for Master of the World (1961), directed by William Whitney and co-starring Charles Bronson; Guy de Maupassant for Diary of a Madman (1963), and while it’s not really an adaptation, I guess you could say Tower of London (1962), directed by Roger Corman, is inspired by Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Cry of the Banshee (1970), it’s more in like a rehash of the superior The Witchfinder General, but Shout! Factory offers both the American theatrical version and the director’s cut. The theatrical features are from new high-definition masters, there’s commentary on four of the five features, and new interviews with Roger Corman and Gene Corman among the supplements, plus there’s a booklet with stills and promotional art.
American Horror Project Vol. 1: Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood / The Witch Who Came from the Sea / The Premonition (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), dedicated to the unsung heroes of American horror, features Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), directed by Christopher Speeth, Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), featuring Molly Perkins, and The Premonition (1976), directed by Robert Allen Schnitzer. All are newly mastered in 2K from archival elements. There’s filmmaker commentary on The Witch Who Came from the Sea and The Premonition, three bonus short film by Robert Allen Schnitzer, bonus interviews, and a booklet.
Comin’ At Ya 3D (MVD, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D) presents the home video debut of the original 3D version of the 1981 spaghetti western from director Fernando Baldi and producer / star Tony Anthony, from a 4K master of an original polarized 3D print. It requires a 3D-capable Blu-ray player and TV, but it also features a standard 2D version of the film.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray), Wes Craven’s 1987 voodoo drama starring Bill Pullman as an anthropologist in Haiti, debuts on Blu-ray in a collector’s edition features new commentary by Bill Pullman and the original featurette “The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow.”