December 13, 2011
It’s that festive time of year again, when family ties are maintained through the ritualized exchange of fabrics, wrought plastics and optical discs. This joyous occasion ensures that husband and wife, or parent and child, can contentedly ignore each other until the next wallet-busting holiday. I am here to ensure the smooth operation of this essential human activity, providing an idiosyncratic list of new DVDs and Blu-Rays that, if wrapped in glossy paper, will blind your favored loved one to your significant shortcomings. To prove my goodwill, my wife and fellow writer Andrea Janes will close out the list with her thoughts on a movie I asked her to watch, as a distraction from my lax grooming habits. Seasons Greetings!
The Nickel Ride (1975, DVD)
Released today on DVD from the canny studio library raiders at Shout! Factory (in a set with John Frankenheimer’s dire 99 and 44/100% Dead), this gorgeously elegiac gangster film should be exhibit #1 when making an over-enthusiastic case for the work of director Robert Mulligan. Remembered mainly for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), he was an elegant craftsman who could completely inhabit a character’s point-of-view. In Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon (1991) he restricts it to children through low-angles and gliding, youthfully quick tracking shots. In Nickel Ride Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueler tricks of an addled mind.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
For the 70th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings, 20th Century Fox released a handsome Blu-Ray edition of this sober, ambitious docu-drama of Dec. 7th, 1941. Darryl Zanuck was eager to recreate the box-office bonanza of The Longest Day (1962), and takes that film’s gimmick of telling the historical event from different points of view, and with entirely different crews, an idea which Clint Eastwood adopted for his WWII diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. In this case, Richard Fleischer was tasked to direct the American side, and Akira Kurosawa the Japanese (Joseph McBride notes that John Ford was eager to take on the project, but was never considered for it). Kurosawa dropped out early in the production, after endless disputes with American production supervisors. Fleischer, in his autobiography, writes that Kurosawa, “felt this was a gross intrusion and an insult to national honor.” He was used to total artistic freedom, and that wasn’t the Hollywood way. Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) took over. Fleischer claims the only scene in the film shot by Kurosawa was one of the American ambassador in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, and “it is the worst scene in the picture.” The film was hugely expensive to make, and was a massive failure at the box office. Part of the problem was that The Longest Day dramatized a victory, and Tora! Tora! Tora! an ignominious defeat, hardly an audience grabber. As a film, it is fascinatingly dry, a top-down version of history, in which gray-suited men sit in mahogany chairs and make history. Massive amounts of research went into the film, with Dr. Gordon Prang, appointed by General Douglas MacArthur as the official historian of the Pacific War, hoarding material at the University of Maryland. Fleischer, Masuda and Fukasaku create some pleasing diagonals out of the lines of secretaries, functionaries and soldiers, but for the most part the film plays as a luxuriously illustrated lecture.
John Guillermin is not a director whose work I had sought out, although The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) lingers in the memory as a bracingly cold-hearted and fleet-of-foot heist film. (In)famous for the cheap thrills of The Towering Inferno (1974) and the King Kong remake (1976), I was totally unprepared for the psychosexual intensity of Rapture, which Twilight Time has just released in an excellent Blu-Ray, available through Screen Archive. Shot in silvery B&W CinemaScope on location off the coast of Brittany, it’s an easy movie to get lost in. The novel Rapture in my Rags was initially adapted by frequent Fellini collaborator Ennio Flaiano (8 ½), although the final script credit goes to Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer). It follows the blighted life of Agnes (Patrica Gozzi), a young girl who lives in a crumbling mansion with her eccentric, haunted father Frederick (Melvyn Douglas) and blowsy blonde maid Karen (frequent Bergman actress Gunnel Lindblom). Frederick is an ex-judge who writes crackpot newsletters in his study, while Agnes’s only wish is to build a scarecrow so she can have a friend to call her own. Agnes’ married sister recommends she be confined to an insane asylum. But after she builds her scarecrow, a soulful escaped prisoner (Dean Stockwell) appears wearing its clothes, and it looks to Agnes like her sexual desires have blossomed violently to life. While it has its narrative lulls and repetitions, this is the rare coming-of-age film that captures the inchoate madness of adolescent lust.
Fright Night (1985)
Recently re-made with Colin Farrell, the original is an amiable bit of Hammer horror nostalgia graced with a delightfully mischievous Roddy McDowall performance. Another lovely Blu-Ray from Twilight Time, it shows high-schooler Charley (William Ragsdale) discovering a vampire-next-door, played with evident self-regard by Chris Sarandon. Ragsdale and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse from Married, With Children) seek out Peter Vincent (McDowall) for help, an ex-star of Hammer-style gothic vampire flicks who now hosts a late-night horror movie show. Recently fired and facing eviction, Vincent readily accepts Amy’s cash to flush out the would-be demon, which he assumes is Charley’s childish fantasy. When Chris Saradon’s flowing locks and insatiable thirst for blood prove to be all-too-real, the trio has to fight for their lives. The imaginative creature design from the team under visual supervisor Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters) is refreshingly physical, and an appropriate homage to the menacing effects of the Hammer titles writer/director Tom Holland (Child’s Play) is clearly so enamored with (Christopher Lee is even glimpsed on TV). McDowall is the main reason to see the film though, adding unexpected layers of pathos to this beaten down ham.
Special Capsule review by Andrea Janes: Night Watch (1973, Warner Archive)
At first Night Watch evokes such circa-70s portmanteau films as Tales from the Crypt, with its Gothic tale of a rich neurotic housewife obsessed with the decaying house behind hers (which she views from a Rear Window-esque vantage point through the back garden). Then the 1973 thriller — stuffed with creepy neighbors, incredulous policemen, remote husbands, and resentful housekeepers — froths into a soapy, pulpy revenge drama. Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) navigates this labyrinth of menace in a haze of cigarette smoke, her trembling hands restlessly rearranging the pieces of the enormous jigsaw puzzle perennially strewn across her parlour table, while the haunting memory of her dead former husband keeps her nerves unstrung and her beautiful cameo face blanched with worry. At long last, though, the smoke clears and, as Ellen says of her jigsaw puzzle, “It’s easy to figure out once you see where all the pieces should be.” A third-act reversal is none the less enjoyable for being somewhat expected, and Taylor hammers it home with good old fashioned bloody delight.