I’ve been remiss in my Twilight Time coverage. It is one of my favorite Blu-ray labels and has been quietly but expertly releasing beautiful Blu-ray editions of (almost exclusively) classic and contemporary American films. Over the last couple of years, Twilight Time has increased the amount of supplements on their discs, but the value of the company’s work remains in the attention to video and audio quality. Twilight Time has earned itself a reputation for quality. Here are a few of the standout releases from the past few months. A second round-up follow next month.
The Gang’s All Here (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the best—or at the very least the craziest—Hollywood musical you’ve never heard of. Okay, yes, I know that a lot of people have not only heard of it, they love this 1943 wartime musical with a passion bordering on cult adoration. But to those outside the circle of old school Hollywood culture, the name The Gang’s All Here doesn’t register as anything more than another frothy Technicolor musical, a film whose leading lady is practically unknown. Which make this quite the discovery for anyone who appreciates classic outliers of studio conformity.
It’s Busby Berkeley’s first Technicolor production and it’s the last musical that 20th Century Fox’s erstwhile songstress Alice Faye headlined before retiring just a couple of years later. While Faye is at best a vaguely familiar name to 21st century audiences, she was a superstar of the thirties and early forties, with a hearty voice and a strong presence that anchored the flimsiest of scripts. Wooden James Ellison, an actor whose personality matches his olive green fatigues, plays the ostensible romantic lead, a rich kid turned American G.I. who is on leave to see his heiress fiancée (Sheila Ryan) and ends up falling in love with chorus girl Faye. She’s on the verge of breaking out with a singing career, he’s about to ship out, and unbeknownst to even himself he ends up engaged to two women.
The story is as silly and slapdash as any of the era (come on, we don’t love Fred and Ginger musicals for their plots). The real entertainment lies in the fringes: Carmen Miranda’s wild wardrobe, fruity accent, and screwball performance (and she sings “The Lady with the Tutti-Frutti Hat” in a production number that has to be seen to be believed), Benny Goodman and his band, and a supporting cast of comic veterans including the eternally befuddled Edward Everett Horton and frog-voiced Eugene Pallette (a non-singer who kicks off the final song like a live action cartoon character). As far as Berkeley is concerned, it’s all just an excuse f to create surreal musical numbers to dazzle the eye and tickle the imagination (the opening number, “Brazil,” is one of the most impressive and impossible long takes you’ve ever seen) and he goes for broke playing with the abstract possibilities of color in his design and dance numbers. The result of the Technicolor craziness and production number excess is nothing short of psychedelic with color so rich it hurts. Not what you expect from World War II musical.
The saturated color unique to this era of Technicolor splendor pops in its Blu-ray debut, which includes a new commentary track by film critics Glenn Kenny, Ed Hulse, and Farran Smith Nehme along with the supplements carried over from the previous DVD release: archival commentary by film historian Drew Casper, a deleted scene, the featurette “A Woman Like No Other: The Real Lillian Russell,” Alice Faye’s last film “We Still Are!” (a short film made in 1985 by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals), and the trailer.
Unless noted, all of the Twilight Time releases listed here feature an isolated score (this one also includes sound effects) and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and is limited to 3000 copies.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Hammer Films had just launched their full color revivals of the classic movie monsters when they tackled Sherlock Holmes, giving him the Gothic treatment in a mix mystery and supernatural horror. Peter Cushing is perfectly cast as the great detective, the very embodiment of science and reason (which also made him such a great Van Helsing in the Dracula series) in a case wound around a legacy of aristocratic cruelty and a devilish dog wandering the swampy moors. Christopher Lee is a less satisfying fit as young lord Baskerville, the last of the “cursed” family, waffling between fear and apathetic disregard, but Andre Morell is a fine Dr. Watson and a far cry from Nigel Bruce’s sweet bumbler from the Hollywood incarnation of the 1940s. Director Terence Fisher was Hammer’s top stylist and the film drips with the mood of the moors, mist hanging in the air, the dying vegetation itself threatening to come to life and trap the next unwary traveler. It was, as Twilight Time’s house historian Julie Kirgo notes, the first Sherlock Holmes feature shot in color and Fisher brought Hammer’s distinctive, rich palette to the material. It’s a shame that Hammer did not continue making Holmes movies; Fisher brings a different kind of sensibility to the material and Cushing makes one of the great Holmes (he reprised the role in BBC TV series later in the 1960s).
Never before on Blu-ray in the U.S., this edition is mastered from a new HD transfer by MGM. The elements are a little faded and the video quality fluctuates a little. This is not a restoration but it is a high-quality master from archival elements and a major improvement in clarity and color from the earlier DVD release.
The U.S. Blu-ray debut of the film features two commentary tracks—one by horror historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros, another by film historians Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer, and Hank Reineke—plus a 13-minute archival interview with Christopher Lee discussing Sherlock Holmes, a new interview with Margaret Robinson, who created the Hound mask (almost 15 minutes, originally recorded for the British Arrow Blu-ray release), two audio-only excerpts of Christopher Lee reading from the original novel (set to illustrations), and original and rerelease trailers.
Support Your Local Sheriff / Support Your Local Gunfighter (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) — James Garner established himself as a natural for the comic western with the TV series Maverick, playing the reluctant hero who avoided conflict and gunplay with charm, wit, and a con-man’s knack for keeping his opponents off balance. The brought that sensibility to the big screen with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), playing a drifter on his way to Australia (“the last frontier,” he explains to all who will listen) who stops off in lawless frontier town in the midst of a gold rush boom and takes the job of sheriff because he needs the money. “Oh, you’ll get your money’s worth,” he assures the town elders (among them Harry Morgan and Henry Jones) and proceeds to arrest one of the Danby boys (Bruce Dern) for murder, even though the jail hasn’t any bars in it yet.
The film, written by William Bowers, has a laconic pace to it and indulges in the broad, boisterous humor and slapstick brawls common to westerns of the sixties while also quoting classic westerns. Walter Brennan plays a caricature of Old Man Clanton from My Darling Clementine and a gag with his false teeth references Red River. It’s rather silly but the cast keeps it entertaining. Garner is a master playing the easy-going straight man with a mix of wit and practicality, Joan Hackett is the mayor’s disaster-prone daughter and Jack Elam has one of these best roles of his career as the town character who becomes Garner’s deputy.
Garner and Elam reunited with director Burt Kennedy for a sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), this time with Garner as a would-be groom on the run from his bride (Marie Windsor) who lands in the town of Purgatory, where he convinces the townsfolk that Elam is the infamous gunfighter Swifty Morgan (Chuck Connors) they’ve been expecting. This one is written by James Edward Grant, a John Wayne crony with a penchant for broad, boisterous comedy, and it has Suzanne Pleschette in the Hackett role, Harry Morgan back as the town elder, and John Dehner and Henry Jones filling out the cast. It misses the comedy snap of the original but Garner’s easy charm and effortless command sustains the film.
Support Your Local Sheriff features commentary by film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scarbo.
Zelig (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Woody Allen’s 1982 comic mockumentary, is one of his understated masterpieces, a brilliant portrait of the (utterly fictional) Leonard Zelig, a neurotic human chameleon of the 1930s (played by Allen himself) whose desire to be liked and fit in becomes externalized in rubbery physical transformations. He is the ultimate conformist, a man who literally takes on the physical characteristics of the people he’s around, which makes him a minor sensation of the day. Mia Farrow co-stars as his psychiatrist, who films their sessions (which provides even more “archival footage”). At once a lampoon of celebrity and anonymity, at heart it is a tale of loneliness and need, a romantic fairy tale in the trappings of the best fake newsreels since Citizen Kane (kudos to the great Gordon Willis for creating such a seamless illusion in the pre-CGI era). To continue to sell the illusion, Allen even casts Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow as themselves commenting on the legacy of Zelig.
It makes a great companion piece to Shadows and Fog (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Allen’s bizarre, Kafka-esque 1991 tribute to German expressionist thrillers, a visual delight in B&W (photographed by Carlo Di Palma) and a celebration of the power of fantasy and magic. Though critically dismissed on its release for its awkward transplanting of Allen’s comic sensibility to the murky streets of Fritz Lang’s M in 1930s Europe, there are wondrous moments of human comedy and classic Allen lines (John Cusack’s talkative student gets many of them). It’s undeniably as weird as Allen’s film gets, but the handsomely moody sets and shadowy lighting give a unique setting for Allen’s brand of comedy. In such a world of doom, sometimes comedy and magic are all we have. Allen is the ostensible little-man hero and Kathy Bates, Mia Farrow, Jodie Foster, Fred Gwynne, Madonna, John Malkovich, Kenneth Mars, Donald Pleasance, and Lily Tomlin co-star.
Scorpio (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a 1973 war of the spies thriller with Burt Lancaster as the old pro getting out of the CIA and Alain Delon as his protégé sent to kill him, is directed by Michael Winner, an interesting filmmaker back in his British days who descended into the muck of dreary Charles Bronson revenge movies in his final days. Scorpio, an efficiently made paranoid thriller in the disillusioned key of the cynical seventies, falls between those poles. No matter what side you are on, the organization has become corrupt and all about its own power, and it will devour you if you don’t get out.
While not necessarily the smartest film of the cycle, it’s sharp enough. Think of it as The Mechanic as a globe-trotting thriller of spycraft and unreliable allegiances. The old dogs of the various agencies are more beholden to one another than to their ostensible bosses. It is curious to see how quickly we went from Le Carre’s stories of the amorality of the intelligence world in the sixties to making distrust of national spy agencies the default position in the seventies. Delon is fine and Lancaster is Lancaster, which is to say he makes the part sing with what appears to be little effort. Paul Scofield brings the gravitas as a retired vet, John Colicos, Gayle Hunnicutt, and J.D. Cannon co-star, and James Sikking is a tight-lipped assassin.
With commentary by Twilight Time house historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman.
The Russia House (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – British publisher Sean Connery and Russian book editor Michelle Pfeiffer are drawn into a world of international espionage by a manuscript which contains information that could alter the balance of world power. Adapted from John Le Carre’s political thriller by playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, it’s a little ungainly but there’s a nice grown-up quality to this 1990 espionage drama set in the thaw of the Cold War. Fred Schepisi directs and Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, and Klaus Maria Brandauer co-star. Includes the featurette “Building The Russia House.”
Harlock: Space Pirate 3D (Twilight Time, Blu-ray 3D+2D), based on Leiji Matsumoto’s manga series and the subsequent anime series of the 1970s, is a big budget CGI feature that revisits the original space swashbuckler as an old-fashioned space opera in the style of dark, dystopian science fiction drama. Harlock, the notorious interstellar buccaneer with a loyal crew of freebooters, is an outlaw in a universe ruled by a repressive council and slowly dying off as mankind is prevented from returning home to Earth. Their newest recruit, Ezra, looks like he could be Harlock’s little brother but is in fact a spy sent by the council to infiltrate the ship and report back to his brother, an angry, vindictive officer in the government. In fact, Harlock and Ezra are more alike than not: both are haunted by past actions that had destructive consequences and determined to set things right, which ultimately puts them on the same side as underdog heroes fighting the power and turning to a mystical legend to save both Earth and humanity.
It’s a complicated story filled with a series of action set pieces and the spectacle of ships battling in space. Director Shinji Aramaki, the designer and director of the popular anime “Appleseed,” goes for photo-realism, delivering vivid worlds with incredible texture—the elaborate weapons and ships and the gearhead attention to fine details is impressive—but oddly stiff human characters whose mannequin-like faces fall in the cracks of the uncanny valley.
Twilight Time presents both the original Japanese cut and the shorter International cut in both 3D and 2D versions in a 2-disc set, with a half-hour featurette featuring interviews with director Shinji Aramaki, screenwriter Harutoshi Fukui, and “Harlock” creator Leiji Matsumoto, “The Making of Harlock: Space Pirate” (26 minutes), footage from the Venice Film Festival premiere, storyboard galleries, and trailers, and the usual booklet is more than double the page count. The essay is the same length but pages are filled with stills and artwork.
Miss Sadie Thompson 3D (Twilight Time, Blu-ray 3D+2D), the third official screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson,” stars Rita Hayworth as the titular “party girl” (because you can’t acknowledge prostitutes directly in the movies in 1953) who arrives at a South Pacific island and stirs things up with an American Marine (Aldo Ray) stationed at the local base who falls in love with her and a religious zealot (José Ferrer) who becomes obsessed with her. Hayworth performs the sizzling musical number “The Heat is On.”
The film was shot at the height of the fifties 3D boom but the fad had faded by the time the film was complete. After a limited two week run, the 3D version was pulled from theater and it was released wide in the standard “flat” format. This release marks the first 3D version of the film ever available on home video, and it also includes commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros and an introduction by Oscar-nominated actress Patricia Clarkson.
As noted above, all of the Twilight Time releases listed here feature an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and are limited to 3000 copies.