Monthly Archives: April 2020

Chippings From A Monument… Indicator’s JOHN FORD AT COLUMBIA Box Set Reviewed.

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BD. Indicator. Region B. PG.
Limited edition box set of 6,000 numbered units.

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING (1935) UK BD premiere.
THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955) World BD premiere.
GIDEON’S DAY (1958) UK BD premiere.
THE LAST HURRAH (1958) UK BD premiere.

The pictures John Ford made on loan (from RKO, Fox, Argosy, wherever) at Columbia (over quite a period of time) are often considered minor, even aberrant fixtures in his monumental legacy but this Indicator box reveals consistent auteurist preoccupations alongside many incidental bits of fun.

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Given what he achieved in The Searchers just a year later, it’s intriguing to learn that Ford initially baulked at shooting The Long Gray Line in CinemaScope. Adding insult to injury, the picture was subsequently released States side in black and white… and cut! Such is the fate of “minor” films, even those of major directors. But this biopic of West Point stalwart Marty Maher (played by Tyrone Power), from “straight off the boat” eejit to pally audiences with President Eisenhower is thematically much of a piece with the recognised classics of the Ford canon… humour, humanity, sadness, stoicism, mortality, compassion… the passing parade of life and death.

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While not as outright anti as e.g. Jack Garfein’s The Strange One, The Long Gray Line evidences shadings of ambivalence towards the military and notions of patriotism, tradition and the like. A more personally felt battle, against the anti-Mick stuff, is only lightly touched upon here…

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… but more pointedly in The Last Hurrah, a story of old school paternalistic American politics (if, indeed, such a thing ever existed) being supplanted  by plastic personalities and PR spin (I was watching this one on the very day that the current occupant of the White House suggested shooting up disinfectant as a cure for Coronavirus).  The giants are leaving the stage here, and what screen presence could be more gigantic than that of Spencer Tracy as Frank Skeffington, standing for re-election as mayor of “a New England town”? Ranged against him are the vested interests of old money WASPs, represented by Basil Rathbone and John Carradine, the latter a J. Jonah Jameson type newspaper proprietor who harbours a historical grudge on account of an ancient run in with Skeffington’s mother. Ford himself wasn’t above pursuing such vendettas, as Donald Sinden has related in his memoirs concerning the making of Mogambo (1953).

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In our more cynical times, it’s easy to get snotty about sentiment verging on sentimentality but (just as with Spielberg, who learned so much from Ford) you see the big emotional punches coming, you know how much contrivance went into them and they still get you every time (even when, for instance,  Skeffington’s very last hurrah is signalled by some ripe old over acting from Jeffrey Hunter as his nephew…)

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The other two titles here are regarded as the real departures from “orthodoxy” but you don’t have to poke too far into them to find familiar Fordian concerns and anyway, the ways in which they do differ from more canonical material make for some of the most interesting and entertaining viewing on this set. Gideon’s Day (Gideon Of Scotland Yard in the States and released in the same year as The Last Hurrah) is a very English affair, adapted from the novel by John Creasey, written by T.E.B. Clarke (who also penned, among so many others, the Ealing classics Hue And Cry, Passport To Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Lavender Hill Mob), shot by David Lean’s favourite DP, Freddie Young and starring the redoubtable Jack Hawkins, whom Ford described as the best actor he ever worked with (what John Wayne thought of this is not recorded). For all its Englishness, that country’s upper classes don’t get away without the expected kicking. The story is pretty much “what it says on the tin” and beyond that I’m not going to say too much, as I’m meditating a separate posting devoted to this (and another) film.

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The Whole Town’s Talking is the earliest and probably most atypical of this bunch. Milquetoast office clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) yearns hopelessly for sassy Wilhelmina (Jean Arthur) until he is mistaken for public enemy number one “Killer” Manion (Edward G. Robinson) with predictably riotous consequences. Robinson had of course established his crime kingpin credentials beyond debate in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) but proves here, if such proof were needed, his dramatic range (Robinson had already essayed a dual role in Archie Mayo’s distinctly odd The Man With Two Faces, the previous year) … kudos to for DP Joe August for split screen process shots, some of which have you wondering: “Hang on, how did they do that?”

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Nobody ever stole the show or so much as  a scene from Edward G. Robinson (let alone two Edward G. Robinsons) but Jean Arthur holds her own against both in the kind of feisty female role that provided the model for Daria Nicolodi’s performance as Gianna Brezzi in Deep Red (1975). Ford, having given Arthur her screen debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), here established her in the persona that would see her through several subsequent screwball comedies for Frank Capra.

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Extras on this box set

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Cymbaline (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • Sheldon Hall on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2020): new appreciation by the film historian
  • Pamela Hutchinson on Jean Arthur (2020): a look at the life and career of the acclaimed actor
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Farran Smith Nehme, an extract from the W R Burnett’s Jail Breaker, Edward G Robinson on The Whole Town’s Talking, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray

THE LONG GRAY LINE

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Audio commentary with film historians Diana Drumm, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
  • Living and Dead (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Long Gray Line’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • The Red, White and Blue Line (1955): rare promotional film, featuring the principal cast of The Long Gray Line
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Nick Pinkerton, archival interviews with John Ford, Maureen O’Hara on The Long Gray Line, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Anthony Nield on The Red, White and Blue Line, and film credits
  • World premiere on Blu-ray

GIDEON’S DAY

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Alternative feature presentation with the US Gideon of Scotland Yard titles
  • Audio commentary with film historian Charles Barr (2020)
  • Milk and Sugar (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘Gideon’s Day’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • John Ford’s London (2020): new appreciation by Adrian Wootton, Chief Executive of Film London
  • Interview with Elaine Schreyeck (2020): the continuity supervisor recollects her work on the set
  • John Ford and Lindsay Anderson at the NFT (1957): rare silent footage of Ford visiting London’s National Film Theatre during the production of Gideon’s Day
  • Original UK theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Robert Murphy, an interview with producer Michael Killanin, Jack Hawkins on Gideon’s Day, Lindsay Anderson on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray

THE LAST HURRAH

  • 2K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • True Blue (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Last Hurrah’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • Super 8 version: original cut-down home cinema presentation
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Imogen Sarah Smith, John Ford on Spencer Tracy and The Last Hurrah, screenwriter Frank S Nugent on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray.

Pity they couldn’t find room for the notoriously icky Sex Hygiene, the VD awareness film that Ford made for the US armed forces in 1942.

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The Long Gray Line’s Betsy Palmer is probably best remembered by our regular readers for her appearance in another film…

 

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Should I Stay Or Should Iago? THE STRANGE ONE Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Indicator. PG.
Limited edition (3,000 units). World BD premiere.

If you’re expecting an uplifting tale of America’s Finest doing the right thing as they heroically uphold truth, justice and the ol’ Red, White and Blue here, you’ve got the wrong film, mister. Try An Officer And A Gentleman, instead. Actually, some of the characters in this one end up doing the right thing. Eventually. Sort of…

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“The Southern Military College” is an ostensibly upstanding institution, propagating a noble tradition. For many of its doughboys, though – certainly those within the orbit of junior officer Jocko De Paris (how’s that for an alpha male name?) – it’s a homoerotic hazing heirarchical hell hole (and that’s only the “H” words!) Jocko (as played by Ben Gazzara in his screen debut) is described on the film’s poster as “the most fascinating louse you ever met” though you’d undoubtedly be better off not meeting him, representing as he does the point on the graph where “evil Sgt. Bilko” meets “dime store Iago”.

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Motiveless malignity indeed, as Jocko’s Machiavellian machinations progress from humiliating uptight WASP weirdo Simmons (Arthur Storch) to getting star cadet George Avery (Geoffrey Horne) dishonourably discharged and goading Major Avery, George’s  father (Larry Gates) into slapping him, effectively terminating the military careers of two generations of Averys in one fell swoop. So why does Jocko have it in for this family? After puzzling over that one for a while, Robert Marquales (George Peppard, also in his first film appearance) works out that he doesn’t. He has it in for … everybody! “A man has to have a hobby” offers Jocko, when challenged. Should his peers blow the whistle? He’s taken pains to implicate most of them in some outrage or other and they’ve got a lot invested in their own careers. Will anyone have the moral courage / sheer balls to speak out?

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Calder Willingham adapted his own 1947 novel End As A Man to the stage, achieving  a Broadway run, no less, in 1953/4. Director Jack Garfein and most of the Broadway cast were retained for this screen adaptation (and Julie Wilson’s blousey character introduced to temper the otherwise overwhelmingly gay ambience), hence the strong ensemble playing. There’s inevitably a stagey feel about the film but it also derives much of its sheer power from the same source, much like Sidney Lumet’s almost exactly contemporaneous 12 Angry Men (Lumet would take The Strange One’s themes to their most brutal conclusion in his gruelling 1965 effort, The Hill).

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The film’s in b/w, BTW…

As well as the barely restrained sexual threat always simmering just below the surface at Southern Military College, plenty of other ugly American attitudes linger on. The racism is almost palpable, with several characters openly lamenting the Confederate States’ defeat in the Civil War. Quite the poisonous concoction and when somebody suggests that maybe Jocko is just a bad egg, Marquales develops the food metaphor by pointing out that mushrooms thrive best in a swamp. Tribal dynamics, a charismatic amoral leader, the acquiescence of underlings… what could poissibly go wrong? No surprise that this material was so interesting to Garfein, an Auschwitz survivor. Interviewed in the extras here, the late director recalls how producer Sam Spiegel (of all people) ordered him to remove any shots of black people, so that The Strange One would sell better in The South. Garfein disobeyed and Spiegel retaliated by soft-pedalling the picture, which promptly disappeared. Instead of going on to the Lumet-like career of which he was clearly capable, Garfein only directed one more feature (Something Wild in 1961, starring his then wife and future giallo queen Carroll Baker)… but hey, he’d done the right thing.

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Move along please, nothing remotely homoerotic to see here…

Additional extras include an interview with Gazzara, trailer and image gallery, collectors’ booklet and an audio commentary with critic Nick Pinkerton which alternates dry biographical detail with interesting observations on The Actor’s Studio, Bertolt Brecht and (believe it or not) the thoughts of Morrissey and Mark E. Smith. I’d hate to call Pinkerton a strange one, but Manchester? He’s clearly mad fer it…

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See Ya Later, Imitator… Sergio Martino’s BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER Reviewed.

 

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DVD. Region Free. No Shame. Unrated.

With the likely exception of Mario Bava, Sergio Martino took the giallo more places than anybody else would even have attempted and having given the definitive push to the American “body count” box office phenom with 1973’s Torso (which tellingly played on drive in double bills with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) he pretty much left the genre alone (barring the misfiring crime slime / comedy crossover Suspicious Death Of A Minor and a couple of variable stabs at TV giallo). There were plenty of Sexy Comedies to come and, driven by the ruthless logic of commercial production, he would continue to jump any new bandwagon, e.g. pasta post-Apocalypse with 2019: After The Fall Of New York, killer cyborgs (Hands Of Stone) or revisit any resurgent filone (see his late breaking spaghetti western Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, 1977).

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During 1978 and 1979 Martino essayed a loose trilogy of stonking Boy’s Own adventure yarns, inaugurated by Prisoner Of The Cannibal God (an H. Rider Haggard knock off with enough voguish cannibalism tacked on to see it consigned to the DPP’s dreaded “video nasties” list), continued in Island Of The Fishmen (The Island Of Dr Moreau as if rewritten by Jules Verne) and concluded via the item under consideration here, whose original Italian title translates as River Of The Great Caiman but which is also known as Big (or “Great”) Alligator, Big (or “Great”) Alligator River (as it is identified here) and in some markets the titular beasty was rebranded a crocodile…

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… but let’s not get too nitpicky about our saurians. The film’s story (co-written with Martino by ol’ Anthropophababy himself, Luigi Montefiori, among others) is an obvious cash in on Jaws but so what? What’s Jaws if not Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People with added, er, bite? Mel Ferrer is Joshua, the entrepreneur with no social conscience who’s opening a swinging hot spot on the banks of a Sri Lankan river, oblivious to the man eating menace lurking nearby. He won’t listen to the warnings of his publicity photographer Daniel Nessel (Martino stalwart Claudio Cassinelli) but Dan finds solace in the arms of Alice, a foxy anthropologist played by the luscious Barbara Bach. Literally a Starr in the making, BB isn’t the only rock star’s chick in the cast, which also includes the perpetually bikini-clad Lory Del Santo, later mother of the ill-fated Connor Clapton. Other familiar faces include black muscle dude Bobby Rhodes and (as sassy, pint-sized comic relief Minou) Silvia Collatina (best known for her subsequent role as Mae Freudstein in Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery) in her screen debut. Making up the hat trick of Fish Men holdovers, Richard Johnson cameos as Father Jonathan, a missionary gone native (signified by his Catweazle wig and beard) who subscribes to the theory that the alligator / caiman / crocodile / whatever is actually an incarnation of “The Great God Kruna”.

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Aside from growing resentment about the ecological damage done to the island, local tribe the Kuma take particular exception to a member of their number being seduced by one of the holiday makers during a full moon, a time when their pagan gods demand abstinence. The two miscreants are subsequently wolfed down by Kruna himself, in day for night shots which don’t work at all on this DVD. At least the underwater work of Gian Lorenzo (Inferno) Battaglia is as good as you’d expect.

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Things are getting a bit nippy on the Sri Lankan waterways! And as for that alligator…

The great Kruna now goes on a predictable snacking rampage through the ranks of the assembled 18-30 crowd who go into overacting overdrive and swim for their lives, only to end up impaled on the spiked fences that were supposed to be keeping the critter out or reaching the shore and being butchered by vengeful Kumas (though after Cassinelli has dispatched their alligator god with a handy dandy fistful of dynamite, everybody seems to bury the hatchet with a minimum of fuss). Carlo De Marchis’s alligator looks pretty solid by the general standard of these things (until Cassinelli blows it to smithereens, of course) though like myself, many viewers will probably find the most arresting spectacle in the film that of Ms Bach, kidnapped by the Kumas, lashed to a bamboo raft and attired in a flimsy and progressively wetter shift. Nice shift work if you can get it.

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With the aid of such regular collaborators as DP Giancarlo Ferrando, art director Massimo Antonello Geleng and composer Stelvio Cipriani, Martino has here turned in a more than acceptable slice of spaghetti exploitation that would sit comfortably in a triple Lockdown bill with Fabrizio De Angelis’s Killer Crocodile brace.

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Back in the naughty noughties, Italy’s No Shame label was the best place to go for Martino films on disc and although better editions of his gialli are now available, their “Sergio Martino Collection” is still as good a source as any for some of his non-giallo offerings. Here you get a good 1.85:1 transfer, enhanced for 16X9. Extras wise, you get a collectors’ booklet, the international and domestic trailers (the latter marginally more psychedelic), poster gallery and a featurette comprising the reminiscences of Martino and Geleng. I particularly welcomed the opportunity to enjoy a good nose around the latter’s apartment, which is crammed to bursting with interesting artefacts from various points in his illustrious career.

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You Betti? You Bet! A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION Reviewed.

 

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A Special Cop In Action aka Italia A Mano Armata  (Italy, 1976). Directed by “Franco Martino” (= Marino Girolami).

Even by the generally bleak standards of Italy’s “Years Of Lead”, Turin is having a particularly bad day when this one kicks off. It’s not enough that bank robbers get away scot free after killing a security guard, but adding insult to injury, a schoolbus load of kids is taken hostage by a bunch of low-lives that fashion forgot. “It’s as though the criminal classes are trying to set a new record!” But hey, do you honestly think for one minute that Inspector Betti (Maurizio Merli) is going to let this kind of shit go unchallenged? “I’m bad tempered all right…” admits the meanest maverick moustache in the Italian police force: “… with a certain type of criminal, I lose my self control!”

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Nobody does “righteously pissed off” like Maurizio Merli… just watch how his bobbing adam’s apple belies his steely, inscrutable eyes as Luisa ( the lovely Mirella D’Angelo in only her second screen appearance) agonises over her kidnapped kid brother. Having attempted to reassure the schoolkids’ nearest and dearest, Betti dons a Saturday Night Fever type white suit, gathers his men and follows the kidnapping case to Milan, teaming up with old colleague Arpino (Raymond Pellegrin), who’s looking forward to his imminent retirement so that he can spend more time fishing, playing with his grandkids, etc (immediately shortening his odds on making it to the end of the picture).

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The kids are hidden in a disused mill but lead kidnapper Mancuso (Sergio Fiorentini) has a strange idea of laying low, i.e. going out and attempting to rape a passing cyclist. When she points the cops in his direction they manage to rescue the kids… most of them, anyway. Luisa’s kid brother does not survive the ordeal so she has a bit of a hissy fit at Betti then agrees to go out with him. As she would. They spend a bit of quality time together and Betti tells her that he hates criminals because one of them killed his dad, also a cop. Yeah, that would do it…

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As the investigation of the bank robbery plods on, things get a bit episodic. There are a few fair-to-average car chases (“I think you should take up motor racing…” “I get enough kicks as it is!”) and Betti demonstrates his disregard for the rule book by slapping some crims around. Eventually undercover agent Fabbri (Massimo Vanni) clues Betti in that the current crime wave is attributable to Albertelli (John Saxon), a mobster upon whom no charge can be made to stick but who still resides, in Bettie’s articulate formulation, “at the top of my shit list”. For his trouble, Fabbri’s night out disco dancing is rudely interrupted when he gets lashed to the bumper of a car and driven around till he’s dead.

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Everybody’s talking about Albertelli but Saxon spends a minimal amount of time actually on screen, no doubt saving the production a fistful of Lire. When he does turn up though, he’s wearing an impressive pair of swinging loon pants. He contrives to frame Merli for an extrajudicial killing and our man is soon banged up in a slammer full of dodgy geezers just itching to settle some old scores against him. Needless to say, anyone foolish enough to try anything gets their criminal ass conclusively kicked. Then the judges arbitrarily agree to quash Betti’s sentence and the action relocates again to Genoa for the climactic confrontation. Albertelli gets his, Betti gets Luisa but a Get Cartereque shock ending ensures that this is the final entry in the Inspector Betti trilogy (begun by Girolami’s Violent Rome, 1975 and continued in Umberto Lenzi’s Violent Naples, 1976)… Merli would  be back as identikit irascible Inspectors Tanzi, Murri et al. In some markets those guys were rechristened “Belli” to cash in on the popularity of Betti’s “shoot first, worry about the ethics of it later” credo. Really, there was no belli end to the bloody things…

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Marino Girolami (best known for directing Zombi Holocaust and being Enzo Castellari’s Dad) kicked in a  few contributions to the Poliziotteschi genre (as to so many others). In the same year as this one he made Rome: The Other Side Of Violence , produced with the involvement of 20th Century Fox. He’s not in the same league as Lenzi, Massi, Damiano or indeed his own son when it comes to this stuff but A Special Cop In Action is mid-cycle, run-of-the-mill, reasonably entertaining Crime Slime that will occupy an hour and a half of your Covid quarantine pleasantly enough and with Franco Micalizzi composing /  Alexander Blonksteiner conducting the OST, you know your ears are going to be in for a treat while you check out Merli’s handsome mug running the gamut of emotional expressions from angry A to brusque B.

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