Twilight Time’s February slate is out and it’s another fine line-up of interesting films and high-quality Blu-ray transfers.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.
Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.
Corman gets a good cast of venerable characters, among them Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Reed Hadley, Alex Rocco, and Leo Gordon, and adds in a few of his favorites, including Bruce Dern in a sympathetic role as an earnest mechanic just trying to support his family and unbilled appearances by Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson. Corman is adept at creating human moments between the plot points, reminding us of the little guys caught up in the war and the human cost of the violence, while the narration provides the death dates of each character in their respective introductions. Nobody gets out of this life alive. Some just survive it a little longer.
It’s a superb-looking transfer of the CinemaScope production and shows Corman’s talent for repurposing standing sets and stretching resources to make a low-budget look far more expensive. The colors are bright and vibrant and the image is so sharp and detailed that you can just make out the tips of California palm trees behind the Chicago backlot set in one scene. The new interview featurette “Roger Corman Remembers” is brief, barely three minutes, but Corman is always a good interview and he packs in a lot of information (all of it also found in earlier interviews and Corman bios), and the archival Fox Movietone News section includes clips from three newsreel reports on Capone, including a raid on one of his distilleries.
In Lenny (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Bob Fosse’s biographical drama Julian Barry’s stage play (adapted to the screen by the playwright), Dustin Hoffman channels the passion of legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, who pushed the envelope of comedy with his excoriating satire and profane language. Valerie Perrine gave the best performance of her career as the sweetly naïve street smart stripper turned spiraling heroin addict Honey Bruce. It earned the actress her sole Oscar nomination, one of the six that the film earned, which included nods to Hoffman, Fosse’s direction, Barry’s script, Bruce Surtees’ searing B&W photography (his images of Bruce on stage looks like a vibrant 1950s paparazzi shoot come to life), and the film itself. Moments of glibness stand out in the otherwise intense portrait of the man who used words as weapons, in the theory that if you used them enough they lost their ability to hurt. But it’s the passion in the face of hypocrisy, and Bruce’s own obsessive drive to take on each and every legal challenge as a bully pulpit to battle censorship, that drives the R-rated drama.
It’s a great looking transfer of the 1974 black-and-white film, which goes for rough immediacy and the high-contrast vibrancy of yesteryear documentary. It gives the visuals a searing quality of life under a spotlight. Features new commentary by Twilight Time’s resident film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.
Stormy Weather (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the 1940s, African-American faces were rarely seen in Hollywood films outside of roles as servants or entertainers. This performance-packed 1943 musical, directed by Andrew Stone, is indeed set in the world of show business, but it’s also in the tradition of big entertainment biopics and backstage musical at which 20th Century Fox and MGM had become expert, only with an all-black cast. The great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson gets a rare leading-man role (his most famous big-screen roles appearances were dancing opposite Shirley Temple) as show business veteran Bill Williamson who remembers back over his life and career, and Lena Horne gets the glamor treatment that was otherwise reserved for white movie stars and performs the title song.
Fats Waller (who performs “Ain’t Misbehavin'”), Cab Calloway, Mae Johnson, The Nicholas Brothers, Babe Wallace, Ada Brown, and Dooley Wilson co-star. Jazz legend Benny Carter is an uncredited musical director (he also performs in the film’s band with Coleman Hawkins) and the film is packed with superb performances (The Nicholas Brothers’ specialty number to “Jumpin’ Jive,” sung by Cab Calloway, is simply put one of the most exhilarating and impressive dance performances in film history), and it was a big hit among both black and white audiences.
This is also a black-and-white production and it has a top-notch transfer from Fox. The disc features commentary by USC film professor Dr. Todd Brown originally recorded for the earlier DVD release.
In Love and Death (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Woody Allen spoofs of epic Russian literature, Chekov plays, and Bergman movies with a mix of philosophical vaudeville and Borscht Belt one-liners and sight gags. It was his sixth feature as a director and his third screen appearance with Diane Keaton, who gets as many punchlines as Allen does, and often in the same comic voice. It’s also a turning point in his career, the last of his genre parodies with scripts that string gags together rather than tell stories, and the first to really engage his love of philosophy, literature, and the existential drama of Bergman movies (as when his Doystoyevskian Russian serf debates a Bergmanesque appearance by Death). His next film was Annie Hall, which was his first film to develop fully-realized characters and apply his comic instincts to commentary as well as generating laughs. Love and Death has a rather endearing innocence in its anything for a laugh aesthetic aimed at an audience who can appreciate both the high art and low comedy colliding in his jokes.
While well-photographed by Ghislain Cloquet (who shot films for Jacques Demy, Louis Malle, and Robert Bresson and went on to win an Oscar for Tess), the film has a haphazard direction that never really gets at the visual elegance or careful art direction and lighting of the films he’s parodying—Allen made a great leap as a filmmaker with Annie Hall—but it looks very good in this edition. It’s sharp, colorful, and clean. No supplements beyond the Twilight Time trademarks (isolated score and booklet).
To Sir, With Love (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), starring Sidney Poitier (just a couple of years after winning his Academy Award) as an out-of-work engineer who takes a job teaching a class of tough kids in London’s East End, is an inspirational educator drama with the novel combination of an American teacher in a British culture. Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, and Lulu are among the students, and Lulu scored a major hit with the film’s theme song. It came out in 1967, the same year as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (it was a very good year for Poitier). And the director was James Clavell, a Hollywood veteran who turned to writing novels in the mid-1960s and went on to write the best-selling “Shogun.”
This disc packs in the supplements, all new to disc. Actress Judy Geeson joins Twilight Time’s resident film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman for one commentary track while author E.L. Braithwaite joins author, teacher, and education advocate Salome Thomas El for a second commentary track. And there are five featurettes: “E.R. Braithwaite: In His Own Words,” “Lulu and the B-Side,” “Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music,” “To Sidney with Love,” and “Principal El: He Chose to Stay,” which isn’t about the film so much as education and commitment.
All of these releases feature Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Each release is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.