When Film Chest began releasing their “restored” editions of public domain films a few years ago under the label HD Cinema Classics, they promised superior editions of film previously available in poor copies. After a launch fraught with mishandled restorations, they have finally delivered on the promise with three recent releases on DVD: Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD), The Bigamist (Film Chest, DVD) and their latest release The Strange Woman (Film Chest, DVD), which became available just this week.
Actor Paul Henreid (most famous for playing resistance hero Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) produced the crime thriller Hollow Triumph (1948) as a vehicle for himself and he take two roles in it: as criminal mastermind John Muller, a medical school drop-out who comes out of prison with a scheme to rob a casino owned by a vindictive mob boss, and as a chilly psychiatrist who is his exact double but for a jagged scar running down his cheek. When the heist inevitably goes bad and Muller goes into hiding, he hatches a plan to kill the doctor and put his medical training to use by taking over the doc’s identity, complete with a scar carved into his cheek.
This low-budget film noir has a couple of clever twists that a few sharp viewers will likely see coming, some marvelous nocturnal Los Angeles locations shot by the great noir stylist John Alton, and a confident Joan Bennett in a supporting role as a single woman who has no illusions about dating the seductive but shady Muller. The film has been readily available on poor quality editions. This edition, which is branded “HD restoration from 35mm film elements,” is not exactly restored—there is visible wear on the print and crackle on the soundtrack—but it is a noticeable leap in quality from previous releases. It’s an enjoyable but minor film noir but it did spawn one of the greatest lines in film noir: “It’s a bitter little world.” DVD with no supplements.
The Bigamist (1953), directed by Ida Lupino (one of the rare women directors making films in the classic era of Hollywood), offers an surprisingly sympathetic portrait of its main character Harry / Harrison Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a hard-working salesman in business with his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine). He would like nothing more than to stay home and raise a family but Eve is emotionally distant and cold and career-oriented and she constantly pushes him back on the road to expand their business from San Francisco into Los Angeles. That’s where he meets Phyllis (Ida Lupino), a lonely waitress with a tough exterior but a longing for family, and then marries her after getting her pregnant. His double life is revealed when he and Eve try to adopt a child and his story is told in flashback to the adoption agency officer (Edmund Gwenn).
This isn’t a typical Hollywood melodrama; Lupino produced the film independently on a small budget with her husband, Collier Young, and the screenplay doesn’t offer any convenient bad guys. In fact, the courtroom finale leaves the verdict hanging, letting the audience come to their own conclusions. It features a superb cast given the low budget and they invest their characters with a strength and complexity that is rarely seen in films with such controversial themes. Previously available on cheap, poorly-mastered discs, this edition is well-mastered from a worn 35mm archival print, with some visible wear and scratching but a crisp image and good sound. DVD with no supplements.
The Strange Woman (1946) is another independent project, this one starring Hedy Lamar, one of Hollywood’s brightest sirens but weakest actresses, and directed by Edgar Ulmer. Lamarr is a fiery poor girl in turn of the century Bangkor, Maine, who uses her wiles and her looks to marry into a fortune. She destroys the men she uses along the climb, including aging lumber baron and merchant Gene Lockhart and his son Louis Hayward, before setting her sights on the soft spoken but iron willed George Sanders, her best friend’s beau.
Though modest by studio standard, it’s a rare project with a generous budget for Ulmer, who toiled in B-movies for almost the entirety of his career. He keeps the canvas small and intimate here. Though turn-of-the-century Bangkor is a port boom town, you never get an idea of the size, only views of the docks and, in the riot scenes, the glow from the town below. In fact, the town is like an absent character, talked of constantly and always just out of frame, but tiny slice we see still looks like a small town. Beautifully shot and handsomely designed, it lacks the energy and edge of Ulmer’s best films, but he directs Lamarr to her best American performance as a passionate and contradictory woman, ruthlessly ambitious yet generously philanthropic, always haunted by her own impoverished childhood. He finds the often obscured flash in her personality: her eyes light up, her smile twists in a mad intensity, her face and body are ignited in passion.
The initial HD Cinema Classics releases (Orson Welles’ The Stranger and cult film noir Kansas City Confidential, two name two) relied upon heavy digital noise reduction (DNR) to clean up often poor quality prints and ended up with presentations scrubbed of fine detail along with the damage. These Film Chest editions appear to be mastered from much better source materials and the digital tools have been used more sparingly; you can see that there has been some digital clean-up but not at the expense of detail and image sharpness. The artifacts that do get through the process – a little scuffing and scratching on the film prints – are perfectly acceptable. Also, Film Chest now offers DVD edition only, no Blu-ray. That may be due to the complaints from the earlier releases—Blu-ray buyers are a demanding and at times unforgiving lot—or simply a matter of economics, but it’s a fair trade. I’ll take a high quality DVD over a poorly-mastered Blu-ray any day.
There are no supplements on any of the discs.