It’s been a few months since I’ve surveyed the MOD market – that’s the manufacture-on-demand line that Warner, Fox, and Sony currently present as a way to release films that the sales market no longer supports – and there have been a lot of releases in that time. Not all are ‘classic” in the essential sense, mind you, but why should that be? The deluge of New Releases in any given month is filled with titles you’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. What’s so much fun in the stream of MOD releases is the ongoing conversation with old Hollywood movies and vintage TV shows, and the continued connection with favorite stars through their less familiar films. There are always films and filmmakers and stars waiting to be discovered.
Cry of the City (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is one that should be known better. It’s one of Robert Siodmak’s darkest film noirs, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature as an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Richard Conte personally. Siodmak shoots much of it on location in New York but still manages to get those studio shadows and rain-slicked streets into shot after shot, creating a nocturnal underworld within the urban jungle of the city.
Conte gets the showboating role of the glib, smart-talking hood whose grinning charm and sardonic wit never flag, not even in custody, until that smarmy confidence gives way to panic and predatory self-interest under pressure. Mature’s stoic stillness gives a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role: the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Conte. This is the classic noir world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. It’s a good-looking disc, too, mastered from a good print with minor scuffing, with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image.
Moss Rose (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is in the British Gothic mystery tradition of Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Gaslight, set in turn-of-the-century Britain and starring Victor Mature as a prodigal son returned from Canada to his now-widowed mother (Ethel Barrymore) and their country manor. He’s the prime suspect in the murder of a London showgirl and Peggy Cummins blackmails him into passing her off as a fellow moneyed aristocrat. British-born ingénue Cummins, curiously enough, gets top billing over Mature (who was by far the bigger star in 1947) and Vincent Price is the wily detective who knows how to play upon the arrogance of the upper class as he builds his case against Mature. Gregory Ratoff directs with an understated sense of shadowy threat—he does love those hard shadows and partially obscured faces and stormy nights—and makes great use of the Victorian-era backlot street scenes and set. It’s a solid B&W transfer.
The 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive) sounds like a twist on The Hands of Orlac—it does, after all, have a famed musician and a killer hand—but is actually more of an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives have been gathered for the reading of a will. They, of course, start turning up dead. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of a crippled piano virtuoso. Robert Alda enters as an American con man and leaves a hero and J. Carroll Naish puts on his meatball Italian accent to play the village Commissario, but Peter Lorre makes the biggest impression as the personal secretary of the dead man, a scholar obsessed with the secrets of ancient magic. Robert Florey does just fine with the atmosphere and even better with the superb optical effects. While you can sometimes see the seams in this well-mastered edition, transferred from a preserved print, Florey makes the imagery of the disembodied hand skittering around like a spider so wonderfully weird that you hardly care. There’s a marvelous madness to it at its best and, true to the time, a little twist of humor in the epilogue, complete with ethnic flourish.
Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 Young America (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) but the film is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon) who is called “the worst kid in town” but is really a good boy with bad judgment, loyal to his friends and uncompromising with bullies. Art is a hard-luck saint among kids, ready to sacrifice all to steal medicine for a dying friend or take on gangsters in the middle of a high-speed car chase. Tracy is a drug store owner with a streetwise attitude and a high society lifestyle. It’s amazing how many of the most widely parodied clichés of Hollywood melodrama are crammed into this one film (adapted from a stage play), and how enjoyable it is nonetheless thanks to Tracy’s lively personality and up-from-the-streets manner and to Borzage’s verging-on-sentimental-overkill affection for his working class characters. Seriously, at the risk of a spoiler, a dying child moans about flying through the air before croaking out “It’s getting dark…” Ralph Bellamy co-stars as a compassionate judge.
Lee Tracy, the brassiest wise-guy hustler in the Warner Bros. company of players, is in two pre-code films debuting on home video. He plays support to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Love is a Racket (Warner Archive), with Fairbanks taking the classic Tracy role as the Winchell-like Broadway columnist and Tracy teaming up with Ann Dvorak (fabulous as always as the adoring gal Friday) as his loyal support team. William Wellman directs the snappy but slight picture and slips in the sorts of dubious behavior and scheming characters that made films of the pre-code era so much fun.
Tracy takes the lead in Turn Back the Clock (Warner Archive), a 1933 depression-era fantasy about a struggling businessman who wakes up in the past with a chance to live his life over again and reach for the brass ring of success (armed with his knowledge of “future” events). His adenoidal voice and supercharged patter were usually put to less mercenary characters but here he’s genuinely likable even through his prickly manner. It co-stars Mae Clarke and Peggy Shannon as the women in his lives and Otto Kruger as the old friend whose success sparks the wish, and you can see the young, pre-fame Three Stooges singing barber shop harmonies in a single scene at the wedding reception. Both discs look fine, mastered from decent but unrestored prints with minor wear and speckling.
The 1930 Three Faces East (Warner Archive), a World War I spy drama adapted from a stage play, comes from the early sound era, while the studios were still conquering the challenges of sound recording. Roy Del Ruth was one of Warners’ most reliable directors of the era but he never manages to open up the drawing room atmosphere of this stagebound production. The cast carries this one, especially Constance Bennett as the beautiful double agent Z-1 and Erich von Stroheim as her colleague, a German spy playing butler in the house of an English Lord.
Roy Del Ruth also directs the romantic comedy Private Number (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), with Robert Taylor as the playboy son in a society family and Loretta Young as the family servant he falls for.
Sony releases a pair of Italian imports from the sixties, both starring Monica Vitti and both in English-dub editions. She’s the lead in Kill Me Quick, I’m Cold (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), playing a beautiful con-artist who teams up with the handsome Jean Sorel (“It feels so good to know I don’t have to seduce you for money,” she tells him as they first make love) to pull off cons posing as brother and sister. Roberto Bisacco and Daniela Surina play the marks in their most elaborate scam, which involves madness, murder and an insurance policy. If you don’t see the end coming, you haven’t seen many “sting” movies. Along the way, there’s grand style, fabulous fashions, exploding boats and two songs by The Hollies that keep popping up on the soundtrack. Francesco Maselli directs the 1967 film in cool color. The dialogue is all in English but all the text is Italian and Sony forgets to subtitle important notes scribbled by the characters, which renders one key scene virtually incomprehensible.
Bambole! (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), which translated to “dolls,” is an anthology film with four segments (adapted and updated from Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”), four directors (Mauro Bolognini, Luigi Comencini, Dino Risi and Franco Rossi) and four gorgeous leading ladies: the dolls of the title (Vitti, Virna Lisi, Elke Sommer and Gina Lollobrigida). It’s in black and white and co-stars Nino Manfredi, Jean Sorel and Akim Tamiroff.
I didn’t get a chance to do more than sample Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a lush romantic adventure set among rival sponge-diving families off the coast of Key West starring Robert Wagner, Terry Moore, Gilbert Roland and J. Carroll Naish, but it earned an Academy Award for its color Cinematography. This film has been out previously in poor public domain editions and this disc finally does it right. Though listed as 4:3 letterboxed on the case, this CinemaScope production is in fact presented in proper anamorphic widescreen and mastered from a fine print with good color. With so many widescreen Fox features getting poor treatment from the Fox Cinema Archives, you want to celebrate the ones it does right by.
All of these are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order.
Warner Archive releases are available exclusively from Warner Archive.