Frank Borzage is one of the most neglected masters of the classic Hollywood era, which is odd considering how many of his films have come to disc in the last few years, beginning with the great Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set in 2008. Since then, a number of films have debuted from the Warner Archive line of manufacture-on-demand discs, and now Olive releases three late films he made for Republic on both DVD and Blu-ray.
The 1946 I’ve Always Loved You (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is the masterpiece of the trio. What appears to be a simple romantic melodrama in the world of classical music is transformed into a sophisticated drama of love and art and desire and jealousy by director Frank Borzage, one of the most overlooked master directors of Hollywood’s golden age. Dutch star Philip Dorn, who came to Hollywood during World War II, plays the arrogant, womanizing piano maestro Leopold Goronoff and Catherine McLeod is Myra Hassman, the daughter of fellow European master who become his young protégé. Though impressed by her talent, he insists “There is no woman in music, only man.” When her debut at Carnegie Hall (a superb sequence) shines so brightly that it threatens to eclipse his fame, he banishes her from his home and she turns her back on the piano to marry the farm boy (William Carter, who barely registers in the film) who loves her and raise a daughter, but of course there is unfinished business between them.
The story sounds trifling but it offers a complex and mature look at love and commitment and responsibility and Borzage’s belief in love as a transcendent power informs his direction. There is a spiritual dimension to the film and a powerful use of music as both thematic accompaniment and dramatic action. Artur Rubenstein performs the piano pieces for the film, which presents an extended presentation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor among the many classical pieces. Maria Ouspenskaya plays Leopold’s wise mother and Felix Bressart is Myra’s loving father, two excellent character actors who are instantly familiar to fans of Hollywood classics.
The transfer is okay, mastered from a good-quality print with no damage but unstable color, which goes in and out of registration. It’s a minor issue but the film is so beautifully photographed that it’s a shame to see the sharpness soften and the color pulse in some sequences.
Also from 1946 is Magnificent Doll (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), with Ginger Rogers as Dolly Madison, and Catherine McLeod is back in That’s My Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Don Ameche as a man who quits his job to raise race horses and becomes a race track mogul who loses it all thanks to a gambling addiction.
High School Confidential! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Trashy, tawdry, and weirdly energetic, with tough talking high school delinquents played by college grads spouting mock-beat dialogue, this B+ exploitation classic from producer Albert Zugsmith (who went from Written on the Wind and Touch of Evil to such artifacts as Sex Kittens Go to College and Confessions of an Opium Eater) and director Jack Arnold is a terrifically entertaining piece of drug scare cinema. Russ Tamblyn blows into school in a hot rod convertible, all smart aleck attitude and high-rolling hoodlum ambition, and muscles his way into the local drug scene, but this hep-talking cat is actually an undercover agent, the original 21 Jump Street–style baby-faced narc working his way up to the local drug lord known as Mr. A.
It’s a thoroughly bizarro collision of teens-gone-wild hysteria and drug scare edutainment (“If you start on the weed, you graduate to the hard stuff”), with beatnik dialogue (“I’m puttin’ it down” / “Well I’m pickin’ it up!”), clueless parents, and stiff authority figures delivering the “truth” about drugs in the high schools in scenes that grind the movie to a halt for moralizing sermons. It opens with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out the rocking theme song on a piano in the back of a pickup (which then drives off, never to be seen again), co-stars Mamie Van Doren as a sloshed slutty suburban housewife who is supposed to be Tamblyn’s aunt but keeps trying to seduce him, and features John Drew Barrymore (Drew’s dad) as the drawling high school kingpin who delivers the story of Columbus as a piece of beat performance art, which is merely prelude to a full-blown beat poetry recitation. Jan Sterling plays the “cool” teacher determined to really understand youth today that she lets her students get away with utterly disrespectful behavior, button-nose cutie Diane Jergens is Barrymore’s weed-head kitten, Michael Landon the clean-cut big man on campus who isn’t as square as he looks, and Jackie Coogan the coffee-house owner with a sideline in mary-jane and heroine.
Jack Arnold is best known for bringing intelligence to fifties science fiction cinema (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man) but actually had quite a range, making everything from westerns to comedies. He has an eye for staging and a great sense of timing, not to mention a way with making overdone performances fit into the same movie universe, and he embraces the outré elements with such energy that they take on a life of their own. It’s camp, to be sure, but great fun as a crazy take on adult fears of high school delinquency and Arnold’s commitment to this ridiculous portrait of teenage life and corruption in suburbia pulls it all together in a crazy warped mirror that has a life all its own. “Tomorrow is a drag, man, tomorrow is a king-size bust.”
This is a CinemaScope production and the only previous legitimate DVD release was non-anamorphic. It’s been remastered in HD for the Blu-ray debut and new DVD release, which alone makes it a necessary upgrade. It’s not perfect, mind you, and there’s a brief rough patch with major scuffs and scratches and damage that sends the picture shaking for a second or two, but it offers a sharp image and a clean soundtrack. No supplements.
The Legend of Hell House (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – Four people enter the Belasco Mansion, the so-called “Everest of haunted houses,” hired by a dying millionaire to investigate the possibility of life after death. Physicist Clive Revill leads the quartet, which includes his wife Gayle Hunnicut and two mediums. Pamela Franklin, young and impulsive, immediately makes contact with what she perceives as a tortured spirit, while Roddy McDowall—the sole survivor from the previous investigation twenty years ago—closes himself off completely, deathly afraid of the malevolent forces that crushed his former comrades in body and spirit.
The great Richard Matheson, adapting his own novel, brings a rare intelligence, a literate sensibility, and a refreshing seriousness to this mix of haunted house thriller and paranormal science from 1973. There’s no complication due to people making dumb decisions in the face of the inexplicable, just eerie ghostly doings and sudden explosions of supernatural phenomenon, and is has both an old-fashioned sensibility (a la The Haunting) and a modern approach that sets it apart from the more popular strain of demonic horrors in films like The Exorcist and The Omen. Director John Hough follows Matheson’s lead with a moody but sober approach, balancing the physical threats of objects lethally leaping to life with the slow, subtle possession of the characters by a truly evil spirit. Simple things like the sudden shaking of a table, or shadows coming alive on a wall, or doors opening and closing, become scary more than eerie, a threat from an unseen force that becomes a palpable presence through the course of the film. Parts of the script feel like so much scientific mumbo jumbo, with characters discussing the finer points of supernatural manifestation and ectoplasmic activity, but Hough’s deliberate direction gives it the necessary solemnity to take it all seriously.
This is remastered in HD for its Blu-ray debut and feature all-new supplements produced from this release: commentary by actress Pamela Franklin and a new interview with director John Hough.
Film Chest continues to release new editions of films that have slipped into the public domain, which means that most (if not all) discs are cheap editions from bad prints and terrible transfers. Film Chest promises “restored” editions but in fact their recent releases have leaned on heavy digital noise reduction (DNR) to scrub away scratches and scuffs and other print damage, and the process has scrubbed the film of detail, sharpness, and texture as well.
That’s the case with Fear in the Night (Film Chest, DVD), a nightmare film noir featuring DeForest Kelley in his first starring role, playing a man who dreams that he murders a man and then finds clues that suggest that it happened in real life, only he can’t remember it in his waking mind. Kelley is dazed and jittery as the man in a waking nightmare and Paul Kelly (no relation), who plays his police detective brother-in-law, is the voice of reason who to convince him it was only a dream, then starts to believe that he’s really a killer. Made on an extremely low budget, it makes the most of limited resources by shooting close in to the actors and creating an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s a minor but memorable film noir made outside of the studio system that slipped into the public domain many years ago. The Film Chest edition is a small improvement from previous editions, with details and visual texture digitally scrubbed from the image along with scratches and other imperfections, and the soundtrack has a distracting high-pitched hum of audio interference.
I haven’t seen a better edition of Fear in the Night so this disc is an advance, even if it is a disappointment. I can’t say the same about Detour (Film Chest, DVD), Edgar Ulmer’s poverty row masterpiece of doom. Image put out a fine edition, from the Wade Williams collection, on DVD a decade ago, not perfect but mastered from a good-quality 35mm print. Film Chest’s “Restored Classic” is soft and squishy compared to the Image release and I can’t recommend it. They’ve also released Quicksand (Film Chest, DVD), which I haven’t seen. For a while, Film Chest looked to be filling a niche with good quality editions of PD film but these and other recent releases show that they are no longer living up to the standards set by Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD), The Bigamist (Film Chest, DVD) and The Strange Woman (Film Chest, DVD), all released earlier this year (and reviewed on Cinephiled here).
Queen Margot: 20th Anniversary Director’s Cut (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) – Patrice Chereau’s bloody historical drama set in the royal struggle for power in 16th century France and religious war that erupted in the brutal Massacre of St. Bartholomew, as cut by 20 minutes for American release. This edition is restored to the full original cut and presents the film on Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S..
Universal is repacking its classic horror movies of the thirties and forties in another round of re-releases. Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (Universal, DVD) is the first time the entire collection of classic monster movies have been collected in one box set. Meanwhile, the masterpieces previously released on The Essential Collection Blu-ray set are now available as singes: Dracula (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), Frankenstein (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), The Mummy (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), The Invisible Man (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), The Wolf Man (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), Phantom of the Opera (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD).
And these DVD collections are released with new art and packaging: Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD), Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD), Invisible Man: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD), Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD), Wolf Man: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD), and Creature from the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal, DVD).
Also from Universal is the Blu-ray debut of the Frank Langella Dracula (1979) (Universal, Blu-ray) and a re-release of The Hammer Horror Series: 8-Film Collection (Universal, DVD).
Two more new releases from Criterion: Bob Fosse’s Oscar-nominated, semi-autobiographical All That Jazz (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) and Shohei Imamura’s true-life crime thriller Vengeance is Mine (Criterion, Blu-ray).
On the Beach (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
What’s New Pussycat? (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Cast a Giant Shadow (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Hell of the Living Dead / Rats: Night of Terror (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)
Firestarter (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Casper (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The People Under the Stairs (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Return (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Watcher (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
White Noise (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Western Double Feature: The Hills Run Red / Apache (Shout Factory, DVD)
Gene Autry Movie Collection 7 (Shout Factory, DVD)
The Men From Shiloh: Special Edition (Shout Factory, DVD)
Space Raiders (Scorpion, DVD)
Friendly Fire (1979 TVM) (Scorpion / Kino Lorber, DVD)
The Elephant Man (1982 TVM) (Scorpion / Kino Lorber, DVD)
Aces High (Cheezy Flicks, DVD)