March Blues – Take 2

Powerhouse/Indicator have two further releases this month, John Huston’s gritty boxing movie Fat City and The Front, the Martin Ritt/Woody Allen satirical take on HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist.

Fat City (1972) offers a glimpse into  the lives of two fighters, the tired and jaded Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) and the youthful Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). Typically, boxing dramas use the fight backdrop to tell stories of crime or ambition, or often just human triumph in the face of adversity. As such, Fat City is an atypical boxing film but, somewhat paradoxically, a classic example of early 70s cinema. It’s one of those frank appraisals of struggling types that seemed to become increasingly common in an era still hung over from the JFK assassination and wearied by the latter stages of the war in South East Asia.

A lot, though not all, of John Huston’s work had a cynical edge, a bitter way of looking at life and human nature – think about the endings of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and you’ll see what I mean. While Fat City had an undeniable harshness and bleakness, the tendency towards cynicism is replaced by compassion. If Leonard Gardner’s script (from his own novel) and Huston’s direction aren’t exactly uplifting, the end result is nevertheless satisfying.

The new Blu-ray is yet another David Mackenzie encode of a 4K restoration. What that means is that Conrad Hall’s cinematography looks particularly fine. The film, as befits the theme and locations, is subdued and shadowy, but in a good way with plenty of detail and natural-looking grain.

In terms of supplements it’s another stacked package. The disc carries a commentary track by Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs in addition to a 1972 interview with Huston recorded at the NFT and, similar to a commentary, plays out over the film. Sucker Punch Blues is an extensive analysis of the film with input from surviving cast and crew members. This is backed up by an audio interview with writer Leonard Gardner, a brief bit of footage with Huston, the trailer and an image gallery. The accompanying 28 page illustrated booklet opens with a strong piece by Danny Leigh, follows up with a contemporary Sight & Sound review, and ties it all up with comments on the film by both John Huston and Stacy Keach.

The Front (1976) looks at one of the most painful and shameful periods of film and television history, the era of HUAC and the blacklist. Like all satire, it has a serious point to make. Woody Allen’s cash-strapped cashier starts out like one of his trademark angst-ridden opportunists, jumping at the chance to do a blacklisted friend a favor, and himself an even bigger one, by becoming a front for him – i.e. allowing his name to be used on the scripts and passing them off as his own. While the money and romantic possibilities are hugely attractive, the charade also reveals its uglier side as he witnesses the relentless grinding down of the spirit of Zero Mostel’s comic actor.

Tye movie features solid work from Allen and former blacklist victims director Martin Ritt, writer Walter Bernstein and Zero Mostel. And the film really belongs to Mostel; clearly feeding off his own experiences, he delivers a performance that ranges from the barnstorming to the heartbreaking, and culminates in a final scene that is quite sublime.

The Powerhouse/Indicator Blu-ray is, yet again, a David Mackenzie encode of a 4K restoration. The Image looks great throughout with lots of detail, depth and clarity. The extra features on the disc are a little lighter this time. There’s a commentary track with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Andrea Marcovicci, one of the film’s stars. In addition we get a short interview with cinematographer Michael Chapman, an isolated score track, a gallery and the trailer. The booklet is a substantial one, coming in at 36 pages. Gabriel Miller, who has written about Martin Ritt, provides the detailed article that kicks it off. This is followed up by extracts of interviews with Ritt, Bernstein and Allen.

So, we’re talking about another two worthy releases by Powerhouse/Indicator. Both films have been treated to fine presentations that highlight their strengths, and come with the kind of carefully chosen supplements that make for highly desirable packages. I’d watched Fat City a number of times before and it therefore held no surprises for me, although it does look as good as I’ve ever seen it. The Front,  however was a new one for me and I have to say I was very favorably impressed. It’s a good story and well made but the performance of Zero Mostel lifts it up to another level, making it a memorable and moving piece of cinema.

All told, these releases are first-rate editions of two fine examples of 70s cinema. The strong visuals and the comprehensive extras are evidence of how seriously the label is taking its place in the market. It all bodes extremely well for their upcoming titles.

March Blues – Take 1

As has already been noted on this site and elsewhere, UK boutique label Powerhouse/Indicator are in the process of rolling out a series of high quality dual format (DVD/Blu-ray) releases. March sees three titles on the way and I’ll be posting short comment pieces on each one.

First up is Fritz Lang’s superior The Big Heat. Now I’ve already talked about the movie at length so I’m not going to go back over the same ground as my assessment of it as a piece of cinema hasn’t changed – those thoughts can be found here. Instead, I want to refer to the new upgraded package now available. The image is very strong and solid, looking as crisp and clean as I’ve ever seen it, the kind of classy result that you can almost take as read with a David Mackenzie supervised encode.

This version also comes with a comprehensive and worthwhile package of supplementary features. There’s good a three-way commentary track involving Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs. In addition, we also have the opportunity to listen to the isolated score. Then we have the filmed features – two short pieces from filmmakers Martin Scorsese & Michael Mann, both giving their thoughts on the movie. Then there is a longer half hour appreciation of the film, presented within an overview of Lang’s career, by Tony Rayns. Round it all off are subs for the hard of hearing, the theatrical trailer and an image gallery.

The movie is accompanied by a chunky, and handsomely illustrated, 35 page booklet edited by Jeff Billington and Nick Wrigley. Contained within is a detailed essay by Glenn Kenny as well as an extract from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1967 book on Lang, which is essentially an interview with the director. Following on from that is a critical anthology and a short piece on way the movie was viewed by the Production Code.

All told, this is a fine package, the type of comprehensive appreciation the film richly deserves.

The Money Trap

It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.

The Saga of Hemp Brown

Tales of revenge are a staple in the western genre, the better ones pressing home the point about the self-defeating nature of it all and how it ends up inflicting more harm on the seeker than anyone else. That’s a perfectly valid theme and one which has a wealth of potential when handled appropriately. However, variations are to be welcomed and The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958) successfully does just that by laying the groundwork for a very understandable quest for vengeance yet adds a twist right at the beginning by making it plain that justice is more desirable, and that revenge is necessarily precluded as a result.

I like films that waste little time getting to the point, ones which draw us right into the heart of the story at the earliest opportunity. Here we have a military detail bringing the payroll, and an officer’s wife too, to the nearest outpost. The detail is under the command of a young lieutenant, Hemp Brown (Rory Calhoun), and we first encounter them on a twisty mountain road. They in turn encounter an apparently stranded traveler looking for a ride. He’s Jed Givens (John Larch), a former soldier who once served under Brown. As the party gets moving once again, Givens real motives become brutally and violently clear – his purpose was to facilitate a ruthless ambush. The upshot of this is that the patrol is wiped out, with the exception of Brown. No, Givens hasn’t had an attack of conscience and decided to spare his old commanding officer out of any sense of altruism. Instead, he wants a fall guy, someone to hang the blame on. He knows that Brown will face a court-martial under the circumstances and he’s also carrying around an added bit of insurance – officially, Jed Givens is a dead man and knows this fact is going to torpedo Brown when he tries to explain what happened. So, to cut to the chase, Brown is duly found guilty of cowardice and dismissed in disgrace. Despite the fact that, or perhaps because, nobody believes him and his name is now mud, he takes the only course open to him. He saddles up and heads off to see whether he can trace this murderous and larcenous ghost, and restore his own tainted reputation. Ironically and paradoxically, he will find himself fighting to save the neck of the very man he’d dearly love to see swing.

By the time The Saga of Hemp Brown was made the western was close to its apogee as an expression of cinematic art. Even medium range pictures like this were effortlessly examining complex themes and concepts. The old west has frequently presented the ideal canvas for looking at the clash between the individual and society, how the aims and objectives of each can be reconciled with the other and how or whether they can coexist comfortably. The Saga of Hemp Brown presents what I’d refer to as a reluctant individualist, a man standing apart from society but against his will. We see an outcast, albeit one who has been wronged, not so much railing against a restrictive society but searching for the key that will grant him readmission. Somehow though, I can’t help wondering if he will really want to be absorbed back in again; by the end of the movie he will have experienced the haste to judge unfairly, the tendency towards mob rule and also only found support from one who, similar to himself, is living on the periphery of society. Anyway, alongside the traditional western action, there’s much to occupy the viewer there, and actor turned director Richard Carlson smoothly blends all this into a nicely paced 80 minute film.

Rory Calhoun makes fairly regular appearances on this blog, which shouldn’t be any big surprise given his westerns were very often both entertaining and also quality productions. This was his second collaboration with Carlson, following on from Four Guns to the Border – and  no, before anyone asks I still haven’t watched that one. Calhoun’s work here is typically strong, dealing well with the action and physical stuff and also coping just fine with the more dramatic moments. He gets sympathetic support from and a believable romance with the prolific Beverly Garland. She came to this movie off the back of a role in the excellent The Joker is Wild and gave an attractive performance which played up her soulfulness and emotional bruises. The principal villain was John Larch, another familiar face in countless movies and shows over a long career. It just happens that I was watching him in an episode of The Untouchables the other day and was struck, in both instances, by the ease with which he could alternate between swaggering cruelty and craven fear. And good as Larch is here he faces some competition in the rottenness stakes from a hook-handed Russell Johnson. In other supporting roles are Fortunio Bonanova, Morris Ankrum and an uncredited but memorable Victor Sen Yung.

Sadly, The Saga of Hemp Brown is one of a handful of problematic titles when it comes to finding suitable copies for viewing. The film was shot in CinemaScope and any film using that kind of wide framing really suffers if it is cropped down. The movie begins, in the edition I watched,  with the credits in the correct (though not anamorphic) ratio and  then zooms in to a panned and scanned 1.33:1 image. That’s how it is on the Spanish DVD I own but I understand that’s the case with other releases too. Frankly, this is an unacceptable way to view a film and it’s extremely disappointing that no option to see it in the correct ratio appears to exist at the moment. I can only hope that a decent version turns up at some point in the future. Actually, the fact that the rather rough-looking trailer included on the DVD is in (non-anamorphic) scope adds to the irritation. The movie itself is quite good, absorbing and intelligent, and I can well believe a better presentation could only enhance that impression. As such, I find myself in the slightly odd position of championing a film but feeling unable to recommend anyone make much of an effort to track it down given the state of what is currently available.

DEATH IN THE TUNNEL (1936) by Miles Burton

I try, as much as possible, to keep my writing on this site focused on cinema and film related material. However, that doesn’t mean my interests extend no further. My friend Sergio is a regular visitor and commenter here and, seeing as his site is a bit more flexible in its approach than mine, he was kind enough to allow me to contribute my thoughts on a novel a while back and left the offer open. As a result I took him up on that and if you follow the links in this post you can see my latest effort. And while you’re there, you could do a whole lot worse than browse around his ever excellent site.

Tipping My Fedora

burton_death-in-the-tunnell_blThis is a bit of a special post – I have so far managed to get through life without reading a single novel by John Rhode, who often published as Miles Burton and whose real name was Cecil John Street. So I am really happy to have one of his books reviewed here at Fedora – only not by me. Instead this fine analysis come to you courtesy of our very good blogging buddy Colin (aka ‘Livius’) of the mighty party Riding the High Country blog, who has once again graciously agreed to write a guest post for Fedora.

We submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.

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