Once again I must tip my hat to Twilight Time for inspiring me to watch a movie I had heard of but never had the slightest inclination to experience. I always assumed that the 1945 Fox flick Leave Her to Heaven was just another soap opera romance. However,the new Twilight Time Blu-ray release presents this film in its all its Technicolor splendor-- and it seems safe to proclaim this complex drama as a true classic. In fact, according the informative liner notes by Julie Kirgo, the film really tested the boundaries of the dreaded motion picture "Code" that ensured most adult subject matters had to be watered down. Not so with this movie. Kirgo describes it as a true "film noir" despite the fact that its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography won an Oscar for Leon Shamroy. The point is that, if a movie is "noirish" enough in all other aspects, it does not have to have been photographed in black and white in order to be included in the genre. The story opens with a dashing but mild-mannered young novelist named Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who is on a train traveling to New Mexico to visit an old friend, Glen Robie (Ray Collins), who has invited him to stay at his impressive home in the desert. He finds himself seated opposite a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who just happens to be reading his latest book. After meeting cute, the two engage in some suggestive banter and flirting. Richard is pleasantly surprised to find that the young woman, Ellen Berent, is also going to be a guest at Robie's home. After disembarking from the train, Robie is at the station to greet them, along with Ellen's mother (Mary Philips) and vivacious younger sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Turns out the family has come to the Robie house for a rather somber undertaking: they are spreading the ashes of Ellen's father in the desert, in accordance with his wishes to keep an old family tradition alive.
During the course of their stay at the ranch, Richard and Ellen continue their flirtation, even though he notices an engagement ring on her finger. The ring suddenly disappears and, before Richard can get his thoughts together, Ellen announces to one and all that she and Richard are getting married. Too smitten to resist the offer of bedding his gorgeous bride-to-be, Richard relents. However, an uncomfortable moment comes about with the unexpected visit of her fiancee Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), a prominent Boston attorney who is about to embark on a political career. Quinton is outraged at being snubbed and humiliated and leaves for Boston in a huff. Ellen is dismissive of her treatment of him and in the blink of an eye, she and Richard are married. The first few weeks are blissful, as the couple spends time in a backwoods cabin at a resort where Richard is writing his next novel. Soon, however, Ellen becomes disgruntled at the amount of time Richard's writing takes away from their time together. She tempts him to give us his writing career and live off of her sizable bank account, but Richard refuses. Tensions grow as it becomes apparent that Ellen is a total narcissist who can only find happiness when she is the center of a man's attentions. Things worsen considerably when the couple arrive in Georgia to visit Richard's teenage brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is in a sanitarium where he is combating physical ailments that have left him unable to walk. The younger boy idolizes his big brother, who does all he can to motivate Danny to continue with therapy in the hopes that he will one day be able to become mobile. At first, Ellen displays a loving and compassionate concern for the young boy...but she soon resents the amount of time Richard spends with him. Her jealousy of their relationship leads to one of the most chilling screen moments I have ever seen-- a plot device that is quite shocking, so I won't reveal it here. However, it only opens the door to the gradual deterioration of the Harland's marriage. Ellen tries to ensure Richard's affections by "accidentally" becoming pregnant, then, on a whim, concocts a plan to lose the baby because she is unhappy with the change in her physical appearance that the pregnancy is bringing. This is an equally shocking sequence, one that must have resulted in plenty of debate among the self-censors at the Code office. That the scene survived ensured that Leave It Heaven could take its place among the great dramatic screen stories of the era. As Ellen becomes more paranoid, she begins to unjustly suspect her own sister of bedding her husband-- a suspicion that leads to the film's very dramatic conclusion that features Vincent Price is a truly impressive performance.
The entire cast performs very ably under the assured direction of John M. Stahl, but it's clearly Gene Tierney's triumphant showcase. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance, Tierney must certainly go down in movie history as one of the screens' great villains. The scene in which she allows an unspeakable horror to take place in front of her eyes while she sits like an iceberg watching the tragedy unfold will haunt viewers long after the film has ended. The movie also benefits from a great score by Alfred Newman, that is alternately romantic and threatening. Leon Shamroy's cinematography- particularly in the desert sequences- adds to this juxtaposition between romance and menace. He photographs Ellen as though she were a goddess- but does so in a way that also hints at the menace in her character.
The Twilight Time limited edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) boasts a superb transfer that does full justice to the film's rich production design. The release features an audio commentary by Darryl Hickman and Richard Schickel as well as a trailer and short bit from Fox Movietone News. A terrific release of a terrific film.
Ernest Borgnine's final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez has been released on Blu-ray on the Indican video label. The following is my review of the film's recent theatrical release:
The independent production is a modestly-budgeted family comedy/drama that presents the legendary Oscar-winner with the kind of showcase role that actors in their nineties almost never have. Borgnine makes the most of it, too, giving a terrific and moving performance that earned him the Best Actor award at last year's Newport Film Festival. Written and produced by Elia Petridis, Fernandez centers on Rex Page (Borgnine), a cantankerous old coot given to griping about every aspect of life. He seems oblivious to the fact that he has an adoring wife (June Squibb), a devoted middle-aged daughter (Dale Dickey) and and a worshipful granddaughter (Audrey P. Scott). Rex is frustrated by his failure to fulfill his dream of becoming a big time actor on the silver screen. He once came close to landing the leading role in a spaghetti Western, but lost out to a competing actor. He's spent a lifetime in self-imposed hell, obsessed with watching this B movie and learning every line of dialogue, which he repeats to anyone in his presence. When a health crisis sees the fiercely independent Rex move into a nursing home, a series of incidents motivate him to reevaluate his life. The nursing home is a money mill for corrupt bureaucrats who use the patients as cash cows. It doesn't take Rex long to figure this out and he quickly wears out his welcome by insulting and chastising fellow elderly patients who are part of a click belonging to the corrupt family that owns the facility. He also is abrasive towards the largely Hispanic staff of nurses and orderlies, often referring to them in unflattering racial insults.
The relationship between Rex and his caregivers gradually softens, however, when the young staff members learn that Rex, a former popular DJ, once briefly met and shook the hand of the film's titular character, Vincente Fernandez, a "Mexican Frank Sinatra" who enjoys mythic stature in the Hispanic community. Rex transfixes the staff by telling and retelling his account of this brief meeting in the 1970s. This common bond allows Rex and the staffers to form a mutually respectful relationship that grows stronger by the day. Rex particularly takes a shine to his nurse Solena (stunningly beautiful Carla Ortiz)- and he comes to her defense, saving her from the clutches of would-be molester Dr. Dominguez (Tony Plana), the chief administrator. In a scenario that is a clearly geriatric version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Rex inspires his young friends to stand up for their rights and take on the oppressive bureaucrats who exploit them. He must also deal with challenges in his own life when his family feels he's been alienating them in favor of his adopted family at the nursing home.
The film contains more than its share of sugary scenes and corny cliches. (The villains are so lacking in any redeeming qualities that they practically twirl their mustaches.) Nevertheless, director Petridis offers Borgnine the finest role he's had in more years than I can remember. He dominates every scene and, ironically for his final film, looks like the picture of good health. Petridis, who must clearly be obsessive about spaghetti westerns himself, cleverly manages to intertwine many aspects of Western movie lore into this contemporary story so that even a card game between Borgnine and a nursing home nemesis is drenched in Leone-like imagery and music. This homage extends to the brilliant title credits which are cleverly derived from the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Dollars" trilogy. This is a feel good family film that is marred by one easily correctable misjudgment: the insertion of a completely unnecessary expletive said from a mother to her young child. It's wildly out of place in an otherwise uplifting tale for all ages. If director Petridis is wise, he'll exclude this from the video and pay-per-view versions of the film.
I only had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Borgnine once several years ago for an interview for Cinema Retro magazine. He struck me as a warm, honest and kind individual. Thus, perhaps I had a bit more of a personal outlook when viewing Borgnine's final sequence in this film, which Elia Petridis handles brilliantly. It's so touchingly filmed and directed that I was moved to watch this scene several times. Not since John Wayne's final scene in The Shootist has a legendary actor had a more appropriate on-screen send off.
The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is not high art, nor does it pretend to be. However, it is an enjoyable film that refreshingly extolls family values. The supporting cast members are all very talented and a pleasure to watch, but is Ernie Borgnine who justifiably dominates the movie and your memories of it.
The Blu-ray release, which boasts an excellent transfer, includes commentary track by director Elias Petridis and producer Darren Brandl, who both enthusiastically share their memories of making the movie. They both acknowledge that the film has been praised for its superb title sequence, but bizarrely don't seem to be aware of the fact that it is a brilliant homage specifically to Sergio Leone's Man With No Name movies. Instead, they simply imply it is based on traditional Westerns. Come on guys, watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and you'll see exactly why everyone loves the credits to Vicente Fernandez. Even the film's ad campaign is creatively based on that classic. The Blu-ray also contains the original trailer and other trailers for Indican video releases, most of which are films centered on themes of social significance. There is also a bonus supplement of raw footage shot by Brandl on his cell phone of the behind the scenes aspects of the production. While the footage doesn't shed much light on how the movie itself, it does illustrate how the production team had to cope with a very limited budget (everyone is crammed into a small work space). There is also a good deal of reverence in seeing young Petridis return from his first meeting with Ernest Borgnine and speaking incredulously about how the legendary actor promised to defer to him as director and call him "sir". It's nice to see how much respect this new generation of filmmakers had for the revered star.
When I came of age in the eighties and nineties, cinema
art houses were filled with American independent films, most of them gems. It
seemed that then movie lovers could see nearly every film released. In the
years since the number of independent films have grown exponentially, and I
often worry that I’m bypassing, or even worse completely ignorant, of some
worthwhile films that get lost in cinematic obscurity.
Exhibitionists (2012), the second feature from director Michael
Melamedoff is such a film, a compelling chamber piece about seven characters
revealing their true desires over the course of two nights. At the heart of the
film is fragile Regina (Pepper Binkley), who we meet nervously awaiting the
arrival of her husband Walter (Richard Short), an agent provocateur filmmaker
just returned from a cross-country film shoot. In tow he brings fellow
crewmember Gordo (Daniel London), whose dutiful wife Gretchen (Lauren Hodges)
has been keeping a tight watch on Regina, and Lynn (Ella Rae Peck) their lovely
and vivacious intern who has been earning extra credit with George off the
clock. Tensions between the five occupants at Walter and Regina’s apartment are
already strained when the arrival of Regina’s brother George (Mike Doyle), on
leave from a seminary, and musical diva Blithe Stargazer (Laverne Cox) set a series
of betrayals and revelations in motion.
First conceived as a stage play, screenwriter Michael
Edison Hayden has adapted his own work into a film that bears a strong
resemblance to higher profile plays-turned-films closer (2004) and carnage
(2011). All three examine the private truths behind seemingly healthy
relationships through expertly written characters. The Exhibtionists never quite reaches the probing dexterity of the
other two pieces, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for with a
titillating and refreshingly ambiguous sexuality. Both Hayden and Melamedoff are
aided by a group of skilled and attractive actors. Viewers expect a few thin
performances in micro-budgeted films, but this cast is uniformly committed and
capable. Particular standouts are Ella Rae Peck of NBC’s deception, whose
natural beauty and delivery make an instant impression and Laverne Cox
(Netflix’s orange is the new black), a force of indeterminate sex whose palpable magnetism affects everyone else in
the film. Their two scenes together sizzle and mark a tipping point in the
Shot in just over ten days, Melamedoff deftly places
the viewer in the middle of the action often utilizing reverse shots to canvas
multiple characters’ perspectives. It’s
a shame he didn’t have more funds to work with because although the film has
definite style, it also cannot hide it minimal budget. The score by Teddy Blanks,
who also created the opening sequence, is unapologetically electronic and
retro. It’s a little too similar to music heard in soft core cable offerings,
but manages to establish and sustain a sense of unease throughout the film.
Perhaps it is the association with the music cues, but The exhibitionists ultimately fails to fully deliver on its title
and promise of sexual provocation. I thought I might be watching a modern take
on the sexploitation films of the sixties and seventies such as Score (1973) by Radley Metzger, but this
film never evolves into erotica. Despite that The Exhibitionists is an intriguing work and engages the viewer
from the first shot to the last.
The Exhibitionists was unfortunately
relegated to a few festival appearances in lieu of a theatrical run. Now it’s
available on VOD and DVD, presented along with a few extras. Best amongst the
special features is Michael Melamedoff’s very informative commentary which
illustrates how purposefully he went about constructing the film. Also included
are some behind the scenes stills, Walter’s edited pitch for Blithe that
features some hardcore footage and a festival interview with director
Melamedoff and actor Richard Short, all short but nifty. Viewers can also
download the score if they want to stage their own party at home. Hopefully with this release The Exhibitionists will finally find the
audience it deserves.
It's pretty amazing how many ways studios have devised to market and re-market The Three Stooges. The latest attempt is Sony's made-to-order 3 DVD set titled Rare Treasures from the Columbia Vault. It's a bit misleading in that the bulk of the material pertains to individual short films starring Stooge cast members, but for this reviewer, that's also what makes the set so special. There are eleven hours of material in the set including two feature films and 28 shorts. The features are Rockin' in the Rockies, a 1945 musical comedy that features the Stooges as inept prospectors in the modern west. The film seems to have been made to promote promising musical talent of the day. The story has the boys kidnapping a Broadway talent agent and holding him hostage until he hears their friends perform their revue, which includes numbers by Spade Cooley, the "King of Western Swing". The Stooges comedy bits are strewn too infrequently throughout, so I confess to keeping my finger on the "fast forward" button during some of the dated song sequences. The second feature is Have Rocket Will Travel, a late career feature for the Stooges during their renaissance period with Curly Joe taking over from the original Curly and Shemp. It's a pretty limp affair, but there is a certain charm about the total innocence of the comedy skits. It depicts an era in which three grown men could be depicted snuggling together in one bed without the slightest hint of a sexual connotation. The script finds the Stooges accidentally ending up on a space ship to Venus. Even within the way out realm they often operated in, this premise is over-the-top. Fortunately, the film ends with a more traditional setting with the boys upstaging snooty guests at a black tie dinner party. Keep an eye out for future Time Tunnel star Robert Colbert as the romantic lead.
The set also contains some brilliant Columbia cartoons from the 1930s that feature first rate animation. The cartoons depict famous movie stars of the day including the Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Kate Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Charles Laughton, etc. They are truly wonderful pieces of entertainment. Most refreshing is the inclusion of numerous shorts featuring solo gigs by Stooge actors who never quite got the acclaim they deserve. Shemp Howard headlines some of the funnier efforts, but there are also terrific turns by Joe DeRita and Joe Besser. Although Besser was married in real life, he always played overtly fey (dare we say "closeted"?) characters long before Paul Lynde had come along. His starring roles in these shorts finally afforded him the spotlight he deserved. Similarly, the porcine DeRita was a terrific comedic presence who never quite got the acclaim he deserved. Both men were of considerable girth which makes their obsession with performing high risk pratfalls even more impressive. Both Besser and DeRita's films find them in almost identical plot situations. They are generally married to conniving women or outright battle axes who henpeck them mercilessly. Kitchens often provide ample opportunity for widespread destruction as the simplest of cooking tasks inevitably meet with disaster. These post-War era shorts also accentuate the military and one of the funniest finds Besser drafted into the Army, where he drives his top sergeant crazy with his goofy behavior. (It's pretty easy to see where the inspiration for the Gomer Pyle character derived from.) It should be noted that these short films feature a stock company of brilliant comedic second bananas who appear numerous times. If the films resemble Three Stooges humor, it's not by coincidence: many were directed by the Stooges' own Jules White. Curiously, a couple of the Joe Besser shorts appear twice in re-titled versions that exclude the original prologues.
In all, this 3 DVD set is manna from heaven not only for Stooges fans but for anyone who appreciates great comedy of this era.
The set contains the following :
Rockin' In The Rockies (1945) (feature film with Curly)
Have Rocket--Will Travel (1958) (feature film with Curly-Joe)
Shemp Howard solo shorts: Home On The Rage (1938) The Glove Slingers (1939) Pleased To Mitt You (1940) Money Squawks (1940) Boobs In The Woods (1940) Pick A Peck Of Plumbers (1944) Open Season For Saps (1944) A Hit With A Miss (1945) Off Again, On Again (1945) Where The Pest Begins (1945) Jiggers, My Wife (1946) Mr. Noisy (1946) Society Mugs (1946) Bride And Gloom (1947)
Joe Besser solo shorts: Waiting In The Lurch (1949) Dizzy Yardbird (1950) Fraidy Cat (1950) Caught On The Bounce (1952) Aim, Fire, Scoot (1952) Spies And Guys (1953) The Fire Chaser (1954) G.I. Dood It (1955) Hook A Crook (1955) Army Daze (1956)
Joe DeRita solo shorts: Slappily Married (1946) The Good Bad Egg (1947) Wedlock Deadlock (1947) Jitter Bughouse (1948)
Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons The Bon Bon Parade (1935) The Merry Mutineers (1936) A Hollywood Detour (1942)
A year after their Oscar-winning triumph, The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden and writer/producer Carl Foreman teamed again for another drama set in WWII, The Key. The 1958 drama is primarily a love story but there is plenty of action on the high seas, all superbly photographed in B&W by the great Oswald Morris. The offbeat story is set in England in the early days of the war before America entered the conflict. Britain stands alone against the seemingly unstoppable German forces and fights to maintain shipping on the high seas in the face of ever present U-Boat threats. William Holden is Capt. David Ross, a Canadian serviceman who is reluctantly assigned to skipper a rescue tug boat that is sent to retrieve men from sinking ships that have been torpedoed. There is good reason for his less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of his assignment: the tugs are lightly armed sitting ducks for the U-Boats. The specter of death hangs over every mission. Ross is pleasantly surprised to be reunited with fellow tug captain Chris Ford (Trevor Howard). The two old friends bond again by getting drunk then returning to Chris's apartment. He has a rare commodity. While most servicemen are crammed into barracks-like hotel rooms shared by numerous other men, Chris has been fortunate enough to secure his own apartment. He explains that the place has an eerie tradition. The present occupant is to make an extra key and give it to his best friend, who will inherit it in case he dies. Ross is startled to find that the apartment comes with another fringe benefit that is passed down from doomed owner to doomed owner: Stella (Sophia Loren), a beautiful but somber Swiss refugee who acts as housekeeper and lover for the latest tenant. Still, Ross sees that there is genuine affection between Stella and Chris and the two even announce plans to marry. A premonition convinces Stella that Chris will never return from his next mission: a prophecy that sets in motion an engrossing series of events of which nothing else can be revealed here without providing "spoilers".
It's glorious to see three great stars of the cinema playing off each other. (While Holden and Loren reached superstar status, Howard was always regarded as a character actor- albeit, one of the best in the business.) Under the sensitive direction of Carol Reed, the leisurely-paced story contains elements of the supernatural with the premonitions and apparitions accompanied by Malcolm Arnold's eerie score. The supporting cast is also impressive with the great Bernard Lee in fine form as a naval officer with the unpleasant duty of sending rescue boats on virtual suicide missions. In all, a fine film all around- and one that neatly avoids the cliched final sequence you believe the script is building to.
Sony has released The Key as a burn-to-order DVD. The transfer is excellent, though no extras are included.
Loophole is a 1954 low-budget crime movie that is one of a number of a "B" movie titles now available from the Warner Archive. These minor gems remind us of the glory days of cinema when movies were made expressly to be shown as second features. Loophole, directed by Harold D. Schuster, was originally released theatrically by Allied Artists. The film presents Barry Sullivan as Mike Donovan, a respected bank teller who is living a comfortable middle class existence with his wife Ruthie (Dorothy Malone) in L.A. In the midst of a high profile annual bank audit, a nondescript man named Tate (Don Beddoe) manages to pass himself off as one of the auditors. His sexy girlfriend Vera (Mary Beth Hughes) poses as a customer to distract Donovan while Tate cleans out his cash drawer without his knowledge. At the end of the day, Donovan is astounded to learn he is $50,000 short. He makes the first of several mistakes by not reporting the loss immediately to his boss. It's Friday afternoon and he wants the weekend to ponder what could have happened to the money. By the time he reports the theft on Monday morning, he's the prime suspect. The insurance company assigns a bulldog of an investigator, Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw), to tail him everywhere. In those days before suspects had Miranda rights, Donovan feels the full fury of being interrogated by police and Slavin without the benefit of a lawyer present. His boss believes he is innocent but he is forced to fire Donovan anyway. Every new job he finds ends abruptly when the Javert-like Slavin inevitably shows up and spreads the word that he is a suspected thief. A chance encounter brings Donovan face to face with Tate and triggers his memory of the phony auditor who had access to the cash. Donovan makes another mistake by taking after the man himself, a tactic that results in Tate being mistaken for his accomplice. The entire affair ends with a tense confrontation between Donovan, Tate and Vera in a Malibu beach house.
Loophole is consistently engrossing throughout its scant 80 minute running time. Filmed mostly on actual locations, the movie gives retro cinema lovers a great view of L.A. as it appeared in the mid-1950s. The cast is peppered with excellent character actors and the black and white cinematography is crisp and impressive. It's a real treat that such forgotten treasures are now readily available on made-to-order DVD. There are no extras on the DVD.
Impulse Pictures has released Sexcula, a 1974 Canadian hardcore horror spoof, on DVD. The film is more notable for the story behind its production than the finished product, which is generally fairly anemic. It was made in Vancouver with the aid of a loophole in the Canadian government's tax shelter funding even though hardcore porn was illegal in the country until 1978. Consequently, the movie was never shown beyond an alleged initial screening for cast and crew. Many doubted the very existence of the film, which is presumed to be the first ever Canadian feature length porn flick, since it hasn't been seen at all over the decades. . The bizarre scenario finds a young couple who discover a diary from 1896. In it, an incredible tale is told about a female mad doctor named Fallatingstein (get it?) who used her skills to create an artificial life form: a hunky would-be sex slave named Frank (get it?) The only problem is that while Frank is desirable to the doctor, the "monster" is uninterested in the doctor. In frustration, she reaches out to her relative, Countess Sexcula (Debbie Collins, Canada's answer to Marilyn Chambers). The two women attempt to "raise the dead" in terms of Frank's flaccid sexual state. Although the title hints at overt horror themes and most of the action takes place in a dungeon, Sexcula herself just seems to be an exotic, perpetually horny young woman with no particular ties to the supernatural. (The tag line for the movie promises "She'll suck more than your blood!") The rest of the film consists of humorous vignettes in which the two females try every imaginable scenario to get Frank aroused. Even the inevitable lesbian scene fails to do the trick. The joke is carried on throughout the cheaply made production, which intersperses soft core sex with a few hardcore sequences. The comedy is overt, obviously having been inspired by the goofy appeal Deep Throat held for mass audiences. However, the movie is completely lacking in wit and Ms. Collins' performance makes Marilyn Chambers look like Kate Hepburn. The actresses seem stiff and uncomfortable. There is also footage from what appears to be an unrelated production showing a young couple in a wedding chapel who turn their exchange of vows into an orgy. (Being polite Canadians, they ensure that the preacher joins in as well.) Perhaps the most offbeat sequence features a comely female robot sexually assaulted by a gorilla! The film lurches towards a Blazing Saddles-like conclusion with cast members clearly walking around the sets, indicating the whole production has been a joke.
Sexcula strives to be a cut above average porn but the talent simply isn't there to carry off the gimmick. Even the hardcore sequences are dimly lit and not very erotic. However, the Impulse release deserves praise because it represents the first public distribution of this film, which was rumored to exist but had been lost in Canadian archives. Liner notes by Dimitrios Otis, who is referred to as a "Porn Archaeologist" (how does one get a degree in that field?) present the interesting tale of how the movie reels were located and salvaged. An original trailer is included as well as a pop art comic synopsis of the movie by Rick Tremble. In all, an impressive package for a relatively unimpressive film. However, there is that terrific poster art concept used on the sleeve.