My 2021 is off to a good start with some stellar films and some not-so-great “cellar” films. Any film with a + designation was chosen at random in an attempt to watch all the unseen Blu-rays and DVDs in my collection. Here we go:
Space is the Place (1974) John Coney (Criterion Channel)
Previously discussed here.
+The Manchurian Candidate (1962) John Frankenheimer (Criterion Blu-ray) 2x
The first film in director John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy (which also includes 1964’s Seven Days in May and 1966’s Seconds) is perhaps even more frightening now than it was upon its release nearly 60 years ago. Foreign powers, brainwashing, political machinations. Terrifying and superb filmmaking.
Stolen Identity (1953) Gunther von Fritsch (borrowed from a friend)
Lacking the proper papers, taxi driver Toni Sponer (Donald Buka) has to be careful he never gets stopped by the police. When Toni’s latest fare ends up dead in the backseat from a bullet, he knows he’s going to have to cover it up. Even worse, he takes the dead man’s papers and assumes his identity. But will the killer come back for Toni? And why does the dead man’s lover (Joan Camden) pretend in front of others that Toni is the man she loved? This Austrian-produced English language film noir was produced in two versions, English and German, with different casts (the German edition from 1952 titled Abenteuer in Wein) and directors (Emile E. Reinert for the German version) but this one is worth seeking out.
Perry Mason: The Complete First Season (TV 2020)
Previously discussed here.
The Proud Rebel (1958) Michael Curtiz (Kanopy) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our virtual library movie discussion with special guest Alan K. Rode. I first saw The Proud Rebel as a teenager (many years ago) and enjoyed it. This time around, I found it to be a solid western that avoids many cliches and stereotypes, thanks largely to the stars Alan Ladd, Olivia de Havilland, and young David Ladd (Alan’s son), as well as expert direction by Michael Curtiz in one of his last films.
Sanford and Son: The Second Season (TV 1972-1973) Sony DVDs
Sanford and Son was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid and I love it just as much - if not more - now. I can see so much of my relationship with my mom when I was an adult (but not living with her) in this show, yet I can see elements of Fred (Redd Foxx) creeping into my own life. You have to laugh. What else can you do? Season Two includes the first appearance of Bubba (Don Bexley), my favorite episodes “Whiplash,” “Tooth or Consequences,” “Rated X,” “Lamont Goes African,” “The Puerto Ricans Are Coming,” “Fred & Carol & Fred & Donna,” and many more.
+The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) Sam Peckinpah (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
Jason Robards stars in the title role, a man cheated by his friends (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), seeks enlightenment from God and gets it. But what does he do with it? Peckinpah apparently intended this as a comedy, but it contains too many tragic elements for an effective comedy. The film also seems to be just as much the story of Hogue’s lover/prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) as Hogue’s. I have mixed feelings about this one, but plan to revisit it in a year or so.
Dead Man’s Eyes (1944) Reginald Le Borg (Inner Sanctum Mysteries Blu-ray set, Mill Creek)
Artist David Stuart (Lon Chaney Jr.) is about to complete his greatest painting featuring his model Tanya (Acquanetta, real name Mildred Davenport), Ah, but Tanya, jealous of Stuart’s fiancée Heather Hayden (Jean Parker), causes an accident which blinds Stuart. But there’s hope! Stuart finds a doctor who can perform the operation, if he can find a donor… And it descends from here with some awful acting. But the film does have Thomas Gomez, who is always worth watching. The weakest of the Inner Sanctum movies so far.
The Invisible Man (2020) Leigh Whannell (library DVD)
Only the excellent acting of Elizabeth Moss kept this one from being an overhyped experience.
My Best Fiend (doc. 1999) Werner Herzog (Amazon Prime)
My Best Fiend explores one of the greatest and strangest creative working relationships in cinematic history between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, who worked together on five feature films, somehow without killing each other. Watch at least one Herzog/Kinski film first, perhaps Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo.
+Tsotsi (2005) Gavin Hood (Miramax DVD)
Stunning film about a young South African boy called Tsotsi (meaning “gangster”) who commands attention from his fellow gang members with his fists, a gun, or both. When Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) steals a car after shooting its driver, he makes a startling discovery. This film could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but is smart enough to avoid such pitfalls. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2006.
Underworld (1927) Josef von Sternberg (3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg box set, Criterion DVD)
Underworld is an essential component of film noir archeology, if you will, yet seems to point the way toward the types of movies we would see several years later. Crime kingpin “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) finds a former lawyer, now a drunken derelict named Wensel (Clive Brook), renames him “Rolls Royce,” and making him his right-hand man. When rival gangster “Buck” Mulligan (Fred Kohler) muscles in on Weed’s territory, Rolls Royce shows his loyalty. Or does he? RR is beginning to fall for Weed’s girl Feathers (Evelyn Brent). If all of this sounds like standard gangster fare, it’s not. The Oscar-winning Ben Hecht screenplay, Bert Glennon’s cinematography, superb acting, and von Sternberg’s own genius make Underworld a stunning picture that seems at least 10 years ahead of its time.
+Kings Row (1942) Sam Wood (Warner Bros. DVD)
This late 19th/early 20th century melodrama is a movie I wanted to love. The acting is generally good, but no one gives top-billed Ann Sheridan enough credit for trying to overcome the script and keep it somewhat restrained. Of course we understand this is melodrama, but the melodramatic comes dangerously close to running the picture into the ditch. The ending is far too rushed, but Erich Wolfgang Korngold makes the best of it with a score that's tremendous throughout. (Maybe Hal Wallis was on the set with a stopwatch during the last 10 minutes. It sure feels like it.) I kept thinking that this could've made a better television or mini-series, then discovered that it *was* a television series in 1955. I rarely say this, but I would love to see this film remade.
The Gay Falcon (1941) Irving Reis (The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection, Volume 1, Warner Bros. DVD)
The first movie in a 16-film series introduces us to Gay Lawrence* (George Sanders), a successful amateur detective and ladies’ man whose fiancée Elinor (Nina Vale) wants him to give up both ventures, become a stockbroker, and settle down to a nice, quiet, boring life. Nothing doing. When a socialite named Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper) gives a party where one of her diamonds is stolen, Wood asks for Gay’s help. Of course, when Wood’s lovely secretary lovely Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie) offers to help, Gay and his sidekick Jonathan “Goldie” Locke (Allen Jenkins) simply can’t refuse. Of course, Elinor isn’t too happy about this… The Gay Falcon is a fun start to a series I’m looking forward to exploring, even though Gay Lawrence (Sanders) hands the series over to his brother Tom (Tom Conway, Sanders’s real-life brother) in the fourth film, The Falcon’s Brother (1942) for nine more films. (The last three in the series star John Calvert as Michael “The Falcon” Waring. Confused? Here’s the whole history of the series.) If The Gay Falcon is any indication, the series probably contains limited noir interest, but it does promise a good bit of fun.
*I’ve seen both spellings, Lawrence and Laurence.
+Wuthering Heights (1970) Robert Fuest (MGM DVD)
I haven’t read the classic Emily Brontë novel, but there has to be a reason people are still reading it nearly 175 years after it was first published. I’m fairly confident that the novel contains far more depth of story and character than what I saw in this adaptation, which varied between dull and over-the-top. At least the young Timothy Dalton (only 24 here) as Heathcliff looks good.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) Terence Fisher (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
A true horror classic: the tremendous Hammer version of the Frankenstein tale starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Amazing that I’d never seen it before. The Warner Archive two-disc Blu-ray contains a wealth of extras I can't wait to explore.
Roadgames (or Road Games, 1981) Richard Frankiln (Indicator Blu-ray, Region B)
Stacy Keach plays Pat Quid, a truck driver traveling across an Australian highway, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of a mysterious van, a man Quid believes is a serial killer. When Quid picks up a hitchhiker called “Hitch” (what else?), played by Jamie Lee Curtis, he tries to convince her that there’s something odd going on. Roadgames is an effective thriller combining elements of Rear Window, bits of odd-couple comedy, and more. Richard Franklin has captured just the right tone with the film, although many of its elements strain your suspension of disbelief. The film is available in Region A from Shout Factory (but is not a scan of the 4K restoration), but the Indicator (which is a scan of the 4K restoration) is the one to get. You can find a comparison of the two here.
Ghosthouse (aka La Casa 3, 1988) Umberto Lenzi (Amazon Prime)
Discussed here as part of a larger essay called "Life's Too Short to Watch Bad Movies."
Forbidden Games (1952) René Clément (Criterion - Library DVD)
I’m finally back on track working through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. Forbidden Games is a tremendous film about a little girl named Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), whose parents (and her puppy) die in the opening moments of the film while fleeing a Nazi flyover of a small French country road. Befriended by a peasant boy named Michel (Georges Poujouly), Paulette tries to make sense of the death of her parents and her dog in the only way she knows how. Heartbreaking and darkly comedic at the same time, Forbidden Games is unforgettable.
Sansho the Bailiff (1954) Kenji Mizoguchi (Criterion Channel)
It’s odd that the film is named after not just the villain, but one of the most cruel villains you’re likely to see. During 11th century feudal Japan, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), the wife of an important government official, and her son Zushio and daughter Anju, are captured by body merchants while traveling. Tamaki is sold into prostitution, the children into slavery under the sadistic eye of the slave camp master Sansho (Eitarō Shindō). I’m not sure what else to say about this movie, other than this quote from Roger Ebert: “Sometimes it is difficult to say exactly why a story strikes us with such power. In the case of Sansho the Bailiff, it may be the unrelieved tragedy that strikes this good family for no good reason. They are not destroyed instantly, in a natural cataclysm, but separated for long years to know and experience their fates. That gives us time enough to know and believe the depth of Sansho's cruelty. Some humans are born without kindness or mercy, and do with pleasure what others could not do at all.”
The President’s Analyst (1967) Theodore J. Flicker (Criterion Channel)
James Coburn stars as… well, the President’s analyst, who begins to feel mounting stress, leading to anxiety, leading to paranoia, leading to spies eager to capture or kill him, all in the midst of some groovy ‘60s sights and sounds. This is one that’s aged badly.
+War and Peace (1966-67) Sergey Bondarchuk (Criterion Blu-ray)
This adaptation of the Tolstoy novel isn’t perfect, but my goodness, what a vision. Tremendous in every aspect. You simply must see all seven hours (divided into four smaller films) of this wonder. Oh, to see this on a big screen…..
+Warn That Man (1943) Lawrence Huntington (Network UK Region B Blu-ray)
Light, somewhat silly British thriller/comedy that’s sort of The Old Dark House with Nazis. A kidnapping/impersonation plot goes awry when Gordon Harker and Finley Currie show up to wreak havoc. Some harmless fun, but nothing great.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946) Jean Cocteau (Criterion Blu-ray) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our Great Movies virtual discussion on February 5. Do join us!
+The Long Gray Line (1955) John Ford (John Ford at Columbia, 1935-1958 Blu-ray box set, Indicator, Region B)
John Ford does it again. He takes a premise I have seemingly little interest in, gives me a plot whose end I can see from the first frames, and fills it with characters whose actions and motivations I can see from a mile away. And yet somehow he makes me care and even tear up. Dang that guy! The Long Gray Line is based on the life of Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), an Irish immigrant whom we meet as he looks back on his 50-year career at West Point. Co-starring many of Ford’s usuals - Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond, in particular - as well as Donald Crisp, Betsy Palmer, and many others, you can’t help but enjoy every moment of The Long Gray Line.
Les parents terribles (aka The Storm Within, 1948) Jean Cocteau (Kanopy)
More Cocteau with Jean Marais and Josette Day returning from their appearance in Cocteau’s classic La Belle et la Bête (1946). Based on a Cocteau play, Maris plays Michel, who informs his parents Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray) and Georges (Marcel André) that he’s in love with a wonderful girl. Calling Michel a mama’s boy just scratches the surface of his relationship with mom, but there’s more: Michel’s true love Madeleine (Josette Day) is the mistress of his father Georges. You may think you know what’s going to happen when Madeleine comes to meet the family (which includes Michel’s Aunt Léo, played by Gabrielle Dorziat), but don’t expect a traditional French sex comedy.
+Dead End (1937) William Wyler (MGM DVD)
Humphrey Bogart plays notorious mobster “Baby Face” Martin, who comes home to his East Side neighborhood in New York, but is unrecognized after plastic surgery. Martin’s intent is to visit his mom and his old girlfriend, but he’s spotted by Dave (Joel McCrea), a childhood friend who chose college over crime, but is struggling to find work. Meanwhile, an overworked young woman named Drina (Sylvia Sidney) struggles to keep her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop) from becoming a gangster like “Baby Face” Martin. Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley and Norman Bel Geddes, with a script by Lillian Hellman, Dead End contains several moving parts, none of which move with more speed, agility, and shenanigans than the Dead End Kids, making their first screen appearance here. It’s amazing that so many plots and subplots are crammed into 93 minutes, but most of it works, although the Dead End Kids’ antics get a little tiresome. The picture includes great cinematography by Gregg Toland, and appearances by Wendy Barrie, Claire, Trevor, Allen Jenkins, Marjorie Main, Ward Bond, and James Burke, who would appear with Bogart a few years later in The Maltese Falcon as the hotel detective. Dead End is a powerful crime picture worth discovering.
Stranger from Venus (aka Immediate Disaster, aka The Venusian,1954) Burt Balaban (Amazon Prime)
I began January with science fiction, and I’m ending it with science fiction, and that’s about all I can say that’s good about Stranger from Venus. Take the script from The Day the Earth Stood Still, use about 3% of its budget, keep Patricia Neal, take away Gort, any good special effects, and add the most boring dialogue (and delivery) imaginable and you’ve got Stranger From Venus. There’s a reason the film’s American title was called Immediate Disaster. That’s truth in advertising.
Okay, I hope I’ve given you a few ideas about what to watch or what to avoid. Please share what you watched in January 2021.