Thursday, January 19, 2017

WAIT UNTIL DARK: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1967) Warner Archive Collection

It was a stroke of genius casting Audrey Hepburn in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967); a psychological thriller, far more engaging for its winsome ingénue than its trio of would-be brutes, intermittently succumbing to lugubrious apoplexy between bungling their relatively straight-forward interception and recovery of a certain porcelain-faced doll into which several packets of heroin have been stitched. By happenstance, the doll is misdirected to the basement apartment of a blind woman who, quite simply, refuses to surrender to the plotters and is smarter than all three of these embryonic assassins put together. Wait Until Dark is, of course, based of Frederick Knott’s Broadway play, itself problematically structured around the long-suffering Suzy Hendrix (Hepburn); newly blinded and thus still learning how to cope with her condition. Suzy’s husband, Sam (Erfem Zimbalist Jr.) is empathetic to a point, yet determined his usually independent-minded and free-spirited wife re-gain the courage to be self-reliant. Brit-born Knott, who only wrote three plays in his lifetime, two made into memorable movies (this, and the other being, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Dial M for Murder 1954) always regarded Wait Until Dark as his chef-d'oeuvre. Despite enough holes in the plot to put a block of fine-aged Swiss to shame, Wait Until Dark clung together spectacularly on the stage with Lee Remick in a Tony-nominated lead on Broadway in 1966, and Honor Blackman (my favorite Bond girl, Pussy Galore), reprising it for London’s West End. Yet, as fine as each lady is (at least, elsewhere in their respective movie careers), in viewing this picture today, it is virtually impossible to consider anyone except Audrey Hepburn as the terrorized victim; her frozen stares (the result of Hepburn’s fine-tuning an approach to convey blindness by attending a school for the visually impaired, and learning Braille to augment her reflections), utterly convincing of the affliction, while still managing to emanate appropriate pathos and tension in tandem as propriety, the script, and this venomous game of cat and mouse perpetuated by Roat (Alan Arkin), by far the most lethal and psychotic of the cohorts, permits.
Wait Until Dark hails from a long and oft distinguished traditional of ‘women in peril’ to have made and popularized martyrs out of some of the biggest glamour queens in show biz; Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number 1948), Joan Crawford (Sudden Fear, 1952), and, Doris Day (Midnight Lace 1960) among them. Wait Until Dark is, in fact, the final jewel in Audrey’s crown; her farewell to the movies for almost a decade to focus more astutely on aspects in her life that mattered more; the rearing of son, Sean (the offspring of her marriage to actor, Mel Ferrer – who produced Wait Until Dark and whom Hepburn would divorce a year after the picture’s release) and charitable work for which, arguably, Audrey is as fondly remembered today. “I suppose people could blame me for ending Audrey Hepburn's career,” Sean has admitted, “She knew her potential. If she had kept working, the parts were there for her, and her success professionally would have continued at a high level for years. But she wanted to be with her family. She wanted a private life. And she couldn't bear the thought that she might fail as a mother. It was too important to her.” With the exception of Marilyn Monroe and perhaps Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn’s iconography remains the most resilient and readily resurrected by today’s spate of leading ladies in Hollywood (desperate to cash in on her inimitable loveliness, alas reconstituted as mere affectation without actually being gracious themselves) and wannabe daydreaming teenage girls who perennially submit to the worship of her recurrently salubrious and never dating sophistication. Wait Until Dark strips away the superficiality of Hepburn’s trademarked stardom; the clothes, as example, are off the rack Parisian cast offs (Hepburn spends most of the picture in cozily frumpish outfits); not the uber-chichi, head-turning runway apparel of Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy for whom it can justly be said each had become the other’s muse by the late 1960's.
Wait Until Dark is undeniably Hepburn’s movie, despite the fact she does not appear in it for the first 21 minutes. Even so, the entire plot is built around her character’s increasingly nerve-jangling isolation and burgeoning resourcefulness against a trio of would-be assassins come to call one dark and stormy night. Yet, Alan Arkin manages a minor coup; to distinguish himself in relief from his cohorts with a decidedly delicious bit of ‘out of the box’ acting. Interestingly, producers had a hell of a time trying to cast this part; firstly, because none of the actors approached wanted to be known professionally for having brutalized the beloved Audrey Hepburn; even in play-acting jest. Alan Arkin would later quip how easy it was for him to get the part. And from our first introduction to Harry Roat, Arkin establishes a rare, unsettling quality along the lines of Shakespeare’s classically derived declaration – “he that smiles may smile and be a villain”. There is a slithery decadence to his nasally annunciations as he tempts and taunts con artist, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and his disgraced cop/cohort, Sergeant Carlino (Jack Weston) into accepting his terms and conditions in the doll’s recovery; a wicked sense of the theatrical after he dons several disguises (rather pointless, considering Suzy is blind) to cajole, then intimidate her into divulging the doll’s secret hiding place. As a pledge of good faith, or rather to prove he means business, Harry Roat lets Mike and Carlino discover the body of their New York contact, Lisa (Samantha Jones), left to hang in Suzy’s apartment closet. Arkin’s breed of villainy is not immediately apparent; not until he quietly encourages Mike and Carlino to put their weapons on the table while refusing to relinquish rights to ‘Geraldine’ – a stylish, jade-handled switchblade whom Roat suggests will serve as mediator in their negotiations.
Throughout most of Wait Until Dark Arkin gives every indication Roat is an exacting sadist; a real monster to be reckoned with and never to be crossed. Yet Arkin resists the obviousness built into the part. There is something decidedly tantalizing about him; magnetism not usually ascribed the villain. Only during the picture’s last act does Arkin’s perverse ne’er-do-well revert to the precepts – nee clichés – of pure and undiluted screen evil; leaping from the darkened recesses of the room and spewing menace as Suzy retaliates by dousing him in gasoline, threatening to ignite the spark that will send his wickedness up like a tinderbox. The oft overlooked performance in the picture belongs to pint-sized 10 year old child actress, Julie Harrod as Suzy’s upstairs neighbor and uber-smart moppet, Gloria. After some initial jealousies, the girls establish a bond; Gloria becoming devoted to Suzy and, in fact, taking possession of the doll while Suzy prepares for a little cloak and dagger with her arch nemeses. Harrod, who quit acting after only one other appearance, and went on to champion environmentalist causes in San Francisco, herein plays the seemingly unloved and abandoned ‘homely’ girl nobody except a blind woman would want to be friends. It’s the camaraderie between Suzy and Gloria that generally raises the stakes and the tension in Wait Until Dark’s third act; Gloria, innocuously maneuvering in and out of the brownstone right under Roat’s nose.
We tip our hats to Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington for their screenplay, a vast improvement on Frederick Knott’s rather weighty one-act premise, superbly divided into three herein. Wait Until Dark opens with a prologue in Montreal. Succinctly, we are introduced to Lisa (Samantha Jones), a drug courier nervously waiting for her handler, Louie (Jean Del Val) to finish stitching heroin packets into the slit back skirts of a child’s antique doll. Under the credits we follow Lisa on her flight from Canada to New York City, sensing something gone terribly awry as Lisa spies a mysterious man waiting for her at the airport. By coincidence, she befriends fellow passenger, Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) whom she implores to look after the doll until such time as they are reunited in the near future. Given the curiosity of their ‘cute meet’, Sam willingly – and almost unquestioningly – agrees to keep the doll safe. He might have first inquired what an adult woman is doing, protectively coddling this Victorian antique in the first place. No sooner has Lisa handed over the merchandise then she is manhandled and taken into custody by the mystery man. We follow Sam back to his brownstone on the lower east side; our first introduction to Suzy – the champion blind lady, still acclimatizing herself to the permanent loss of sight caused earlier that year by a horrific auto accident. A photographer by trade, Sam is called away on assignment, leaving Suzy to fend for herself.
The next afternoon, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), Lisa’s contacts in the Big Apple, arrive at the Hendrix apartment, mistakenly assuming it to be Lisa’s. Picking the lock and letting themselves in the pair can find no trace of the heroin doll; their frantic search ambushed by the arrival of the sinister, Harry Roat Jr. (Alan Arkin). Roat enjoys toying with them. Clearly, he has the upper hand. Casually, Roat encourages Mike and Carlino to continue conducting their search while suggesting the doll is not among these belongings. Roat lays out a scenario; an exchange, actually – offering to cut Mike and Carlino in on a percentage from the sale of the heroin. To prove he means business – Roat directs the men’s search to the bedroom closet where Mike makes the grisly discovery of Lisa’s remains zipped into a semi-translucent carry-on bag hanging on the door. After a few taut moments, Mike and Carlino strike a truce with Roat. But the particulars of their arrangement are cut short when Suzy returns to the apartment unexpectedly. Although her sixth sense immediately kicks in, hinting she is not alone, Suzy is too trusting to comprehend she has just stumbled into a den of cutthroats. After Suzy has gone, Roat blackmails Mike and Carlino into disposing of Lisa’s body under the cover of night.
The next day, Roat sets into motion his plan to case the apartment, sending Sam on a dead end photographic assignment in Asbury Park in New Jersey. As he will be gone for quite some time, Roat now launches into his intricate plan to get Suzy to confess to the whereabouts of the doll. Mike poses as an old friend of Sam’s, ingratiating himself to Suzy. Implicitly, Suzy comes to trust Mike and he begins to harbor a modicum of sympathy for her, particularly after he coaxes Suzy to admit Sam brought the doll back to the apartment from the airport. She explains how a woman later telephoned to make inquiries about the doll but that when both she and Sam began to look through his luggage for it, the doll had already mysteriously vanished into thin air. Mike believes Suzy’s story. Now, Carlino applies less subtle pressure to get Suzy to divulge the whereabouts of the doll. He asks if Suzy has heard about the murder of a woman and the discovery of her body in a nearby abandoned field. Carlino then connects the dots, suggesting the doll as a vital clue in the case; Sam’s last chance to be cleared of the suspicion of murder. Finally, Roat stages an elaborate hoax, donning several disguises and pretending, first to be an old man, and later, his as erratic son. Roat puts the fear of God into Suzy who wastes no time telephoning Carlino to report the incident.
Mike returns to find Suzy terrorized and alone. Presumably as a comfort, he gives her the number for the phone booth across the street, claiming it as his own; then, falsely forewarns a police car is already stationed outside, waiting to nab Sam upon his return home. Alas, daylight has begun to glimmer for Suzy. She now suspects Carlino and Roat are in cahoots. In the meantime, Gloria – a lonely girl living upstairs in the brownstone – and Suzy’s only real contact with the outside world, confesses to having stolen the doll earlier from Sam’s luggage. Remorsefully, she returns it to the apartment. Grateful, Suzy asks if the police cruiser Mike told her about is still stationed outside. Gloria explains no police car was ever outside the apartment, thus elevating Suzy’s paranoia. The girls work out a code, Gloria to quietly observe the phone booth across the street and send a signal to Suzy if it is in use. After Carlino makes yet another impromptu visit to the apartment, Gloria sends a signal; then, another after Suzy has telephoned Mike to inform him of her recovery of the doll. Realizing too late Mike is also in on the con, Suzy hides the doll. Thus, when Mike hurriedly arrives to collect it, quietly trailed by Roat and Carlino, Suzy lies about it being at Sam’s studio. To ensure Suzy cannot contact anyone else while they are gone to investigate her claim, Roat severs the telephone wire. Roat and Mike leave for Sam’s studio, leaving Carlino to stand guard outside the building. Now, Suzy hurries Gloria to the bus station to forewarn Sam, due home this evening.
When Suzy discovers the cut telephone wires she prepares for a showdown, breaking all the light bulbs in the apartment and thus plunging everyone into the discomfort of her own blindness. She pours some of Sam’s photographic chemicals into a large bowl. When Mike returns he suddenly realizes Suzy has unearthed the truth. He demands to know the whereabouts of the doll. But Suzy refuses to cooperate. Having spent more time with her than the others, Mike has come to admire her fortitude and craftiness. In a last ditch effort to win Suzy’s confidence, Mike admits they are all working together as she suspected. He implies her only hope of surviving is to give him the doll. Besides, he has already taken steps to do away with Roat; Carlino waiting in the abandoned parking lot across the street to finish him off. Alas, both men have underestimated Roat, who easily kills Carlino by running him over, before doubling back on foot to knife Mike in the back just as he is about to momentarily leave Suzy’s apartment. Intent on acquiring the doll, Roat chains the door shut and pours gasoline on the floor, setting a piece of newspaper on fire. Suzy feigns surrender until Roat has extinguished the open flame. Now, she douses him in the bowl of photographic chemicals at arm’s length and desperately unplugs the one remaining light in the room. Roat lights a match to see what has become of Suzy, but is visibly shaken when Suzy, having discovered his canister of gasoline, begins indiscriminately splashing its contents everywhere.
Roat discovers the one light in the room Suzy has overlooked, propping the refrigerator door open to guide him to her. Having lost the struggle, Suzy relinquishes the doll to Roat who now leads her to the bedroom, presumably to rape her. Instead, she reveals herself to be in possession of a knife taken from the kitchen, severely injuring Roat. He lunges and begins to claw his way back to her. These final moments prompted Warner’s publicity of the day to issue a gimmicky press release regarding the dimming of all lights in the theater to enhance the ‘terror’ of a blind woman’s eternal blackness. In a theater the effect was appropriately uncanny; a little less so when viewing the movie at home, even in a completely darkened room. What does endure are the relentless and seminal performances given by both Hepburn and Arkin; the former, filled with enough heart-palpitating panic to quicken more than a few pulses; the latter, doggedly teeming with rage, the full breadth of his psychotic venom on display as Roat, grimaced and dying, tries to plunge the knife recovered from his own wound into this screaming blind girl, claustrophobically wedged between her fridge and the wall. We hear a blood-curdling cry as Suzy unplugs the fridge, pitching the rest of us into the murky darkness; followed by an interminable silence. Sam, Gloria and the police predictably arrive too late to have an impact one way or the other; relieved to discover a shell-shocked, though otherwise unharmed Suzy sobbing in the corner with Roat’s body lying nearby.  
Wait Until Dark continues to hold up spectacularly well despite some truck-sized loopholes in its plot; chiefly, why Roat should fear no reprisals in applying pressure to two small-time, though nevertheless seasoned cons, yet endures Suzy’s cat and mouse games that drag out the inevitable discovery of the doll. Also, Roat donning not one but two disguises to ‘fool’ Suzy is more than a bit overplayed. Remember, he had no compunction about rather crudely doing away with Lisa. But Suzy is, after all, quite blind and therefore unable to appreciate all of Roat’s theatrical efforts at camouflage. Masterfully, it is the performances that keep these feeble-minded twists afloat. The cast is uniformly solid and apart from Arkin’s brief interludes into absurd mania, his Roat Jr. is as well-oiled, bone-chilling and utterly perverse as any screen villain thus far come to our silver screens. I can still hear his velvety smooth and slightly effete inquiry, “Where’s the doll, Suzy?” – Arkin’s unusual, almost sing-song punctuation reaching all the way to the back of the house with a slithery cynicism that damn well means business. Uncorking Roat’s pressurized craziness in act three is slightly deflating. Arkin is far more effective when he skates on the very thin edge of volatility, generating a queer uncertainty in both his contemporaries and the audience at large. Wait Until Dark was a huge hit for all concerned. Produced by Hepburn’s hubby, Mel Ferrer, as a means to restore the foundations of their crumbling marriage, the picture’s popularity would outlast the couple’s vows by several decades; Hepburn and Ferrer separating before the year and divorcing soon thereafter. Viewed today, Wait Until Dark remains creepily enjoyable for a good night’s scare; a real ‘reel’ midnight movie classic. Let’s be immodest here. No time spent basking in the intangible screen luminosity of the ethereal Audrey Hepburn is ever wasted. She trades in the magic of screen glamour herein for guts; a quality the lady herself possessed in spades in life. It’s a fair trade and just as richly rewarding to behold on the screen.
Thanks to the Warner Archive we no longer have to ‘wait until dark’ to enjoy this minor masterpiece. WAC has gone to the mat again, with a remastered image derived from an interpositive. How does it look? In a word – glorious! One of the most worthwhile aspects of our present ‘digital age’ has been re-experiencing the past we only thought we knew, or perhaps never knew (if we were not old enough to see these flicks theatrically), represented in hi-def with clarity to rival – and occasionally even surpass – what we might have seen in theaters. Wait Until Dark on Blu-ray sports a clarity and crispness surely to be appreciated. Film grain appears indigenous to its source and colors are so subtly nuanced and accurate, watching this disc up-rezed at 4K gave me the illusion of looking through a pane glass window into the Hendrix’s dingy little flat where very bad things are about to occur. Flesh tones are appropriately wan, given its New York in winter, and the sparsely employed bolder colors register as they should. Tonality and contrast are superb. The mono audio has been lovingly preserved in DTS 2.0. Extras are limited to a vintage featurette with Mel Ferrer and Alan Arkin; too brief but welcomed nevertheless and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Wait Until Dark is a treasure soon to be rediscovered on Blu-ray by film lovers everywhere. Another winner from WAC. Permit us to worship and give thanks…many, many thanks!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, January 16, 2017

TWO FOR THE ROAD: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1967) Twilight Time

Few romantic comedies treat their adult subjects as adults; fewer still, willing to go out on a limb and explore what happens after the wedding bands have been properly affixed to the appropriate fingers. For one reason or another, Hollywood has always suffered from the chronic fairy tale affliction and myth that suggests ‘…and they lived happily ever after’ once the bloom of love has progressed from ‘cute meet’ to wedding chapel. T’ain’t necessarily so, according to Stanley Donen’s magnificent (and at least in its own time, stupendously underrated) Two For The Road (1967); a unique and wholly refreshing take on the slow, often morose disintegration of these fanciful notions about love and a life. Two For the Road is, at least in hindsight, a breakout movie; using the nonlinear narrative to chart the course of a pair of reluctant lovers who meet neither cute nor with their fifty shades of lust generally ascribed to the proverbial ‘hot-blooded’ romance; the narrative, juxtaposing a veritable potpourri of snapshots from their awkward first encounter to penultimate struggle in re-discovering meaning from their meandering and occasionally severely bungled lives. Each has an extramarital affair along the way. Ultimately, however, despite whatever differences, disappointments, elation and sins come their way, here are two for the proverbial road of life; perfectly mated if imperfectly matched.
The project has the mark of Stanley Donen’s originality to recommend it; also the ideal casting of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as Mark Wallace and his wife, Joanna; a superb score by Henry Mancini and Oscar-nominated screenplay from Frederic Raphael. In hindsight, the pieces seem to fit so succinctly, it is shocking just how close the picture came to never being made. Donen’s clout in Hollywood was considerable; a visionary in the director’s chair, who had begun innocuously as a contract dancer, brought from Broadway’s cast of Best Foot Forward by MGM; his services eventually picked up by star, Gene Kelly and graduating with seeming effortlessness from choreographer to director, along the way creating some of the studio’s most beloved musicals, including On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957, and made at Paramount). When musicals fell out of fashion, Donen simply applied his craftsmanship to other genres; most notably, the light romantic comedy, but also showing off his creativity in a startlingly good Hitchcockian thriller, Charade (1963). Still, Donen could find no takers in Hollywood to produce Two For the Road. Worse, early on it looked as though Audrey Hepburn would not commit to the picture, despite having enjoyed working with Donen on the aforementioned Funny Face. Evidently, she believed the concept – as pitched by Donen over the phone long distance - and before Raphael had actually completed his script – simply would not work.
Donen was undaunted – I would suggest ‘relentless’ – in his pursuit of Hepburn, even flying to Switzerland to implore her the movie could only be done with her participation. At this point, Donen had already secured a tentative arrangement with Universal Pictures; the deal eventually falling through and leaving Donen perplexed and frustrated until Richard Zanuck and David Brown agreed to back the picture over at 2oth Century-Fox. Mercifully, Hepburn loved the script and her cache, along with Donen’s provided the impetus for Fox to push it on ahead. In casting Albert Finney, Donen made a risky choice. Although Finny had carved a name for himself in his native England immediately following the release of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) he was an unknown quantity in America, more so as he would be expected to play an American. Two For the Road’s narrative structure is slightly gimmicky, though eloquently reformulated in the editing process to provide the audience with an ingeniously stitched together travelogue through this marital relationship, complicated by waning love and missed opportunities, nearly torn asunder by lust, boredom, frustration and periodic feuds over money, lack of intimacy, child-rearing, etc. Donen begins his sojourn in the middle of this multifaceted, if unsatisfactory partnership; then grows the story out in all directions, finding causal links in Raphael’s narrative passages to provide us with visuals that are completely logical as excised in the nonlinear progression.  
Life is undeniably a succession of events from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. But the luxury of memory often clouds this chronology with regressions – fond and otherwise – from the not so distant past; haunting the peripheries and bringing everything to the present with a considerable amount of convolution, afterthought, and occasional clarity. In visualizing Raphael’s story, Donen’s imperative was every moment in the picture should be viewed as the present; in other words, despite the TripTik through various snapshots from this knotty love affair turned occasionally harsh, then exuberantly romantic, Two For the Road’s métier would illustrate each segment as though it were happening right now for the audience. Miraculously, the effect is never jarring or off putting; the stars sufficiently aged and/or regressed in their actual age to play younger than they are. In some ways, Two For the Road is a tragedy, while in others, an enthusiastic test of endurance for this couple, put through the paces of the proverbial thick and thin (in sickness and in health…for better or worse…yada, yada, yada) taking the curves and roadblocks in stride. In essence, it’s a ‘road picture’. Nearly all of its action takes place in a car – or rather – ‘cars’, as Mark’s affluence as a budding architect begins to take hold – the couple on a perpetual and ever-evolving holiday drive through the south of France.
We only ever see Mark and Joanna in their spare time, unencumbered by the grind of a nine to five. Curiously, they are largely friendless; Mark relying on his work to keep him focused and occupied/Joanna maintaining the façade of a doting wife and mother, while increasingly unhappy in either lot in life. Alas, this journey is anything but a lark and a spree. There are two reoccurring motifs in the picture; the first, Mark perpetually mislaying his passport, inevitably never too far from Joanna’s grasp. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an efficient woman,” he bristles with coyness, rarely with affection, and usually to suggest contempt. The second motif actually begins the film, as a brusque Mark and disenchanted Joanna wait inside an airport terminal.  "What kind of people can sit across from one another and say nothing to each other?" a forlorn Joanna inquires. "Married people," says Mark sternly. Joanna telephones home to check in on their daughter, Carolyn (Kathy Chelimsky); Mark so absorbed in his portfolio he momentarily is unable to connect with the name as Joanna hands him the telephone to say something nice to their child. Two For the Road is revelatory in the way it analyzes these awkwardly mated individuals. There is no judgement call. Neither is entirely to blame for what follows; the yin and yang in their turbulent follies never suggesting a ‘head over heels’ affaire de coeur; the arc in their emotional evolution from passing strangers to convenient lovers and finally, frustrated marrieds, creating a naturalized friction that anyone in any relationship for more than six months will instantly be able to recognize and relate to on a multitude of levels.
Donen intrudes with his first carefully-timed vignette: the first time Mark saw Joanna aboard a ship bound for France. His passing fascination as she shoots him a somewhat accusatory stare from a lower balcony is later compounded when he panics over his mislaid passport. She comes to his aid, discovering it all in his knapsack.  It is an inauspicious beginning. But sometime later, their paths cross again; Joanna now a part of a travelling girls’ choir, catching a glimpse of Mark from the back of their VW bus, lazily bumming a ride on the back of a hay wagon. Distracted by Mark’s good looks, the bus’ driver, Pat (Judy Cornwell) veers off the side of the road, leaving Mark to come to their rescue; hardly a gallant gesture. At first, he almost willingly ignores their dilemma with amusement, before convincing the wagon’s driver to hitch his tractor and tow them from their rut. In return, the girls give Mark a ride into town, the new designated driver, Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) becoming immediately attracted and flirtatious. Too bad the entire troop is stricken with chicken pox; everyone except Mark and Joanna, who have already had it as children. Mark would have preferred to spend a few ours alone with Jackie over Joanna and she knows it. He lacks imagination.  Now, his wandering feet itch to move on. Kismet: Joanna endeavors to become his travelling companion.
Mark really isn’t up to it. However, unable to come up with at least one good reason why they should not continue on together, Mark instead decides to make their journey as marginally unpleasant for Joanna as he can; cracking oversimplified sexist statements about a woman’s ambitions for a man and casting generalized responsibility for all men’s unhappiness squarely at the high-heeled shoes of all women, to which Joanna astutely comments, “Who was she?” Indeed, Mark has been wounded by a previous amour. He is bitter with a sizable chip on his shoulders; his defenses and his dander up: hardly any woman’s ideal. Still, there is something refreshingly affecting about him. The pair pauses in a small town so Mark can photograph the exquisite architecture of a century-old church. Joanna is oblivious to the fact Mark doesn’t want her in the picture – figuratively and literally. Simultaneously, both assume correctly what the other is thinking, Mark explaining his camera has been designed to document three dimensional objects. “I’m three dimensional,” Joanna coyly persists. “I meant buildings,” Mark insists. “Well, I’m not a building,” she begrudgingly admits.
A short while later, Mark and Joanna come to a parting of the ways. Mark suggests the reason they have not been successful at bumming a ride is because they are together. A passerby is much more apt to pick up a hitchhiker if there is only one. Reluctantly, Joanna agrees and very quickly she manages to land herself a ‘ride for one’ along this open road. However, she takes pity on Mark, appearing from behind a construction sign post a short piece up the road and quite suddenly earns his respect. After all, she has sacrificed her own comfort to be with him. This too will be a reoccurring theme in the plot, Joanna’s increasing unhappiness, mostly inflicted by Mark’s burgeoning career with wealthy builder, Maurice Dalbret (Claude Dauphin). But first, we are introduced to Mark’s old flame, nee – the girl who done him wrong back when, Cathy Seligman (Eleanor Bron), now married to a level-headed/philosophy espousing accountant, Howard Maxwell-Manchester (William Daniels). Embracing the child-rearing liberalism of Dr. Spock, the two have a thoroughly spoilt daughter, Ruthie Belle (Gabrielle Middleton); a little monster who dictates the particulars of their tension-riddled road trip shared with Joanna and Mark. The brat tosses the keys out the car window, repeatedly embarrasses Howard with her accusatory line of questioning and enjoys pinching Cathy to the point of inflicting pain. “You still want to have a child?” Mark mutters beneath his breath. “Yes, I still want a child,” Joanna insists, “I just don’t want that child!”
Before they were married Mark and Joanna had agreed they would not become parents. But now Joanna’s biological clock is ticking and Mark begrudgingly agrees to sire an offspring. Although Carolyn is well brought up and behaved, she nevertheless adds yet another layer of dissatisfaction to their least, for Mark, who by now considers married life a nuisance and detriment to his career.  Mark and Joanna met Maurice and his wife, Francoise (Nadia Gray) while they were struggling to make ends meet; the road trip nearly turned disastrous when Mark’s MG caught fire. Mercifully, Mark and Joanna escaped unharmed, taken into the comfort of the posh country retreat where their car stalled and burst into a hellish ball of flames. Unable to afford both their meals and room, Mark smuggles fruit and canned goods into their suite until the insurance company can square away the details. Not long thereafter, Mark and Maurice become partners, leading to even more time spent away from Joanna: also, an afternoon dalliance with Simone (Karyn Balm) - a playful sex bomb who races Mark along the open road in her convertible, the two eventually meeting at a remote hotel. Mark’s affair is one of the cruelest vignettes in Two For the Road; played as pantomime with Mark’s voice over narrating a letter he has supposedly written to Joanna, proclaiming not only his fidelity, but also how he longs to return to her at the earliest possible convenience.
Tensions brew at Maurice’s estate, Joanna bored and feeling neglected, taking up with one of the couple’s intimate friends, David (Georges Descrières). Mark is wounded by this infidelity. Joanna returns to his side, tearful and chaste, only to be admonished by Mark after a series of passionate and redemptive kisses. “Are you sure you know which one I am?” he coolly inquires. Joanna’s heart is shattered. She races from the room, pursued by Mark who clumsily topples into the pool in his pursuit of her. Not long thereafter, the couple attends one of Maurice’s chichi parties; Joanna momentarily reunited with David and Mark becoming jealous once more; taking up with Sylvia (Dominique Joos); a random girl he grabs off the dance floor. Mark playfully introduces Maurice to Sylvia as his fiancée, insisting he has left Joanna once and for all. But only a few moments later, David and Joanna intrude on the lie; Joanna explaining David is engaged to Sylvia. At this point, Maurice is utterly confused. Indeed, he has his own wrinkles to iron out on a new construction project giving him grief; one he intends to inveigle Mark into yet again, thereby sacrificing his relationship with Joanna. An impromptu power failure provides the perfect escape; Mark and Joanna disappearing in the dark. “I love you Joanna,” Mark confides on the car ride home. “Well, then,” she quietly insists, recognizing that whatever pain each has inflicted on the other, ultimately their bond is marked by a genuine commitment that keeps them coming back for more.
Two For the Road is extraordinary in so many intangibly truthful ways it is difficult to quantify them all with any degree of critical clarity in brief. Any proper analysis of the film would have to begin by deconstructing Mark Wallace; incredibly selfish, driven, obsessed with being successful – at the expense of becoming a mensch – and usually concerned only with his own satisfaction. There is really nothing about this man any woman in her right mind should find endearing. And yet, Albert Finney manages an incredible coup. He wins us over with an undercurrent of conflicted insincerity. Part of Mark’s appeal is Finney’s good looks; blonde and blue-eyed and exuding independently-minded masculine virility; the kind that generally proves catnip to all women, goaded by ego-driven machismo and a turbo-charged engine of self-appointed/testosterone-infused vanity.  Nevertheless, Finney lures us into his court in other unexpected ways. Mark is a fellow utterly misguided in his intent, but ultimately with a soft center buried somewhere beneath his genuinely caustic and occasionally imperious outer shell; his brutal aloofness coming across as a defense mechanism. And Finney, lest we forget, even in his youth, is an actor of rare qualities. While some actors rely on their eyes or vocal capabilities to convey more intimate thoughts and ideas, Finney is using the full-faculty of his free-form body politics to get across and sell the notion Mark Wallace really is not a bad apple or a gross pig of a human being, despite leaning – occasionally with desperation – toward that end of the guy’s guy spectrum. It’s the internalized conflict Finney gives us that translates so intoxicatingly well and salvages our opinion of Mark as just someone stumbling through the emotional content of his character, discovering some unexpected surprises for himself along the way.
Audrey Hepburn’s Joanna is far from the love-struck little lamb or sex-driven viper a la her counterpart, Jackie. Jackie might have given Mark a real run for his money and made his life a complication full of reckoning. Joanna is less resolved to chase after Mark as a woman and far more interested in pursuing him as her equal. She is fascinated by his byzantine struggle to make meaning from a lonely life, perhaps partly because it appeals to her mothering instinct, but moreover, because she too is a very complicated lady of substance and brains. She wants Mark, but not enough to make him want her back. He has to come to this decision on his own and in his own good time. But Hepburn’s Joanna is willing to wait, and not about to let the interim pass without exploring other options along the way. Yet, even her affair with David is not meant to make Mark jealous; rather, to quell a temporary frustration in their marriage. While Mark has used Simone to satisfy this same urge, and later, exploits Sylvia merely to spark some jealousy within Joanna, she takes a lover to pass the time until her husband comes to his senses. Within this milieu of the swinging sixties, such laissez faire sexual attitudes and diversions were perhaps less pronounced. Despite the equal opportunity in these infidelities there is no salaciousness to the exercise itself, and, in the end, the marriage bond is strengthened rather than ruptured.
Stanley Donen would later comment that while most movies about love end in marriage, or with the understanding ‘they lived happily ever after’, Two For the Road is a valiant attempt to illustrate merely that ‘they lived ever after’ – though only occasionally in harmony, often with discord or under a cloud of self-inflicted disillusionment and/or disappointments. The interwoven texture of Mark and Joanna’s tapestry of life is fraught with such frayed threads. But these are never enough to split the couple apart, perhaps because each is stubbornly resolved to make something beautiful from the mess of their lives. Stanley Donen trundles out his series of ingeniously concocted vignettes, made all the more extraordinary by his unconventional editing; creating the very antithesis of the traditional ‘road picture’ as established in films like Frank Capra’s immortal classic, It Happened One Night (1932). It is Donen’s intuitiveness and aestheticism in the editing process that makes the picture click as it should; his juxtaposition of semi-humorous, somewhat tragic and impossibly poignant moments to cumulatively capture the luminosity of this martyred love affair. It all works spectacularly well and such a shame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not acknowledge Two For the Road as the obvious masterpiece it is; sinful too, audiences failed to make it the smash sleeper hit of the season. In years yet to follow, Donen would recall how he was repeatedly approached by marrieds and new couples alike who found the film’s verisimilitude of this modern marriage in crisis a poignant reminder of their own struggles in love and life; high praise indeed for which Donen has remained extremely grateful.
In fact, he regards Two For the Road as the very best of his non-musical movies…and so do we. What Donen had originally perceived as a relatively inexpensive and presumably ‘easy to shoot’ road picture evolved into an entirely different animal; the menagerie of weighty camera equipment, dollies, cast and crew being trucked around France leading to an ordeal of sorts, one rescued in the editing process; the pieces coming together with brilliant clarity and precision. One curiosity about Two For the Road persists: in two biographies written about Audrey Hepburn there are passages attesting to the actress’ apprehensions to film a ‘skinny dip’ sequence. Although Hepburn does appear – presumably nude – in a bathtub (shot only from the neck up and surrounded by bubbles), with only her exposed back to the camera, and Donen has attested in interviews to Audrey’s intense fear of deep water, reluctantly committing to a sequence in which Mark tosses her fully clothed body into a swimming pool, there is no ‘skinny dipping’ scene in Two For The Road! None was ever even scripted by Frederic Raphael. Today, Two For the Road’s clear-eyed take on ‘modern marriage’ seems even more vatic. The purity of the work itself and the performances given have made it as relevant today; perhaps perennially so.     
It has taken far too long to get Two For the Road released in North America. Twilight Time’s new to Blu appears to mirror the quality of Eureka! Masters of Cinema release from several years ago – which is a blessing. We gain a new audio commentary from Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, also TT’s usual commitment to providing an ‘isolated score’ (and actually, the first time the actual film score has been available anywhere – previous album versions were re-orchestrations done by Mancini). They have also managed to port over Stanley Donen’s originally produced audio commentary for the now defunct Fox Studio Classics DVD. Regrettably, we lose the featurette, Frederic Raphael - Memories of Travelers – 25 introspective minutes with the screenwriter; also, the 36 page booklet with introspective critique by Jessica Felrice, replaced herein by Julie Kirgo’s usually adroit, though too brief 4 page liner notes. I like Kirgo’s writing style, but on this outing I prefer Felrice’s more thorough reflections. When extras like this are cut from intercontinental reissues it is usually due to a ‘rights issue’. Pity that. To my eyes, the new TT is identical to the MoC Blu-ray, everything looking gorgeous; colors eye-popping brilliant and fine detail in hair, skin, clothing and those gorgeously lit location backdrops revealing a startling amount of razor-sharp/picture perfect clarity. The DTS audio is predictably robust. Remembering that virtually all the audio had to be post-sync back at Fox - Jacqueline Bisset actually dubbed by another actress after Donen could not get Bisset back in time to do her own vocals - the Blu-ray seems to handle the limitations of then complicated post sync rather well. Bottom line: Two For the Road via Twilight Time comes very highly recommended. Your old Fox DVD is officially a coaster for your drink while enjoying this classy classic remastered in high def.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, January 13, 2017

MILDRED PIERCE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1945) Criterion Collection

It must have seemed foolhardy folly on Jack Warner’s part to hire Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce (1945).  Never mind James M. Caine’s hard-boiled noir thriller contained enough incendiary dialogue and situations to send the production code into a forbidden fruit coma, and Mildred herself was hinted as a closeted lesbian with weird fetishism; maiming her second husband’s unmentionables after discovering her own underage daughter, Veda in his bed. Mildred Pierce was a property long-desired for screen dramatization by the dream merchants of Hollywood, yet for which no suitable actress seemingly could be found. Indeed, many were sought for the part; all – including Bette Davis (usually immune to the squeamishness of playing any juicy part) rejecting it outright. The real mystery was not who shot Monte Beragon (played with oily finesse in the film by Zackery Scott), a plot entanglement concocted to suit the movie’s noir-styled murder mystery premise and equally appease the governing body of censorship, set to have a minor conniption if the due process of their own self-righteous morality police was not acknowledged and strictly observed; no – the biggest conundrum facing Jack Warner then was how to convince the public any movie based on Caine’s salacious page turner was worth seeing if it starred Joan Crawford.
By 1940, Crawford’s appeal had thoroughly slipped at the box office. Once considered the queen of all ‘shop girls make good’, Crawford had watched with powerless horror as her galvanized reputation and bankability evaporated at MGM, the studio that had fostered her career for more than two decades with great care and consideration. L.B. Mayer had taken a virtual unknown named Lucille LeSeur, and, with a little of the studio’s fairy pixie dust, sprinkled Hollywood glamor to transform her into Joan Crawford. Joan never forgot the favor. “When I leave this apartment I am Joan Crawford!” she fondly mused, “If you want the girl next door – go next door!” Crawford’s glamorous façade was a pure fabrication of the star system back in the day and she took every ounce of stardom derived from it with the utmost seriousness, especially where her fans were concerned; often staying up until the wee hours of the morning replying to handwritten mail in kind and making it her mission never to appear in public as anything less than the glamor queen and elegant clothes horse. Joan Crawford gets top marks for being the unimpeachable diva we think of today as real ‘reel’ old Hollywood; in vigorous competition with her brethren then, but a veritable unicorn by today’s Babylon standards.
Even so, L.B. Mayer had sincerely tired of Crawford’s need to dominate the parts she played. Rumored to have seduced and slept with every leading man and director she ever worked with, Crawford’s bewitchment with her own fame (and gardenias) was to get the better of her by 1939, the year she appeared opposite her arch nemesis, Norma Shearer in the all-star sizzler, The Women. “How can I compete with her?” Crawford had publicly decried of Shearer, “She sleeps with the boss!” Fair enough, although Shearer also happened to be married to MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg until his untimely death in 1936. Crawford had assumed that with Thalberg’s passing she would be up for more plum parts at the studio. She even submitted to a salary cut to remain at MGM for several more years, hoping against hope for an image boost with meatier roles on the horizon. Alas, Crawford had made herself an undesirable on the back lot; her expanded repertoire unable to salvage her sagging public persona as a fast fading movie queen. Besides, Mayer was moving his studio away from the more adult, female-based regality of the Thalberg era into a fresh-faced stable of younger, more malleable stars he could boss around with impunity.
So, when Variety branded Crawford – among others – with the deadly career-ending moniker of ‘box office poison’, Mayer took it upon himself to buy out Crawford’s contract and give his former number one female star, whose combined pictures had earned him enough revenue to build the writer’s building, the old heave hoe. Mercifully, at Warner Brothers Jack L. Warner was not at all entirely convinced Crawford was washed up. She had, for some years held the title ‘Hollywood royalty’. And more to the point, she was ripe for the picking at a bargain basement price; the perfect foil to keep his own grand diva – Bette Davis – in check. Warner hoped to put Crawford to work straight away in a series of modest programmers. But Crawford, doubtless aware another few duds at the box office could finish her off for good, chose instead to play it cagey; refusing script after script and doing virtually no work for her new studio from 1942 to 1945. When she reemerged in Mildred Pierce, no one – least of all Jack Warner – was prepared for the meteoric results. Mildred Pierce had been rejected by virtually every major leading lady under Warner’s creative umbrella. Even Bette Davis declined the part of a self-sacrificing mother who, in her aspirations to give her spoilt daughter the world, ultimately brings ruin upon her own marriage and family. Davis did not want to play a mother. But Crawford seemed unafraid to embrace the prospect. In 1939, after a series of commercial flops, she had campaigned with voracity to be cast as the unscrupulous man trap, Crystal Allen in The Women. When Mayer inquired why any star of her magnitude should wish to play such “an awful bitch”, Crawford hungrily replied, “I’d play Wally Beery’s mother if the part were right!” Miraculously, none of this nail-biting desperation comes through in Crawford’s peerless performance as Mildred. She assuages the part from middle-age housewife to hard-working business woman, to glamorous gal about town (a Crawford specialty) as though it were tailor-made for her, in the process wearing some of the most gorgeous furs and frocks to boggle the eye.
Warner put his top men on the project: Jerry Wald to produce with his usual soap opera-ish charm; caustic Hungarian director extraordinaire, Michael Curtiz and topflight screen scenarist, Ranald MacDougall to succinctly bring the more hellacious episodes into line with the production code’s wishes for a ‘clean’ picture.  In hindsight, everything clicks, and Crawford worked like an animal to ensure her reputation both in front of and behind the camera as the consummate professional remained intact. Viewing Mildred Pierce today, one can immediately see how little Mayer understood his ex-star. Crawford radiates high wattage desirability from every pore; also, a python-like venom, briefly displayed at pivotal moments in the movie; as Mildred’s daughter, Veda slaps her face for tearing up a check, obtained from a wealthy dowager, presumably as hush money for the abortion of an unwanted love child sired by the woman’s son. Crawford is magnificent as she runs the gamut from startled, to disappointed matriarch, the slap stirring bizarre rage from within, best exemplified in those darting Crawford eyes, suddenly bulging with brimstone and a mass of wounded, downturned lips as she declares, “Get out, Veda. Get out before I throw you and all of your things out into the street. Get out before I kill you!”
The rest of the cast are really in service to la Crawford; Warner padding out the story with a trio of ineffectual male suitors, brilliantly conceived by former Olympian, Bruce Bennett – as Mildred’s philandering first husband, Bert; the aforementioned Zackery Scott (as hubby #2, the elegant sponge, Monte Beragon) and Jack Carson, as Wally Fay; a disreputable cad with only one thing on his mind. As Mildred’s right hand, Warner assigned Eve Arden the plum part of sassy manager, Ida Corwin, a gal who has more scathing one-liners than Oscar Levant.  Leered at by Wally in her calf-exposing skirt, Ida astutely replies, “Leave me something, I might catch cold.” To Mildred’s bookish and easily flustered accountant, Mr. Jones, who inquires why she must always interrupt, Ida frankly teases, “It's only because I want to be alone with you. Come here and let me bite you, you darling man!” before barking at him like a St. Bernard. The forties at Warner Brothers were particularly rife with this sort of sidekick relief ascribed the hero or heroine as a delightfully obtuse diversion for which the shoot-from-the-hip Arden seems to have been born to play.
The part of Veda went to Ann Blyth; a kitten-faced ingénue being groomed by the studio, she could play angelic or pure acid as propriety and the part demanded. Veda Pierce is one of those iconic screen bitches you absolutely love to hate; a soulless, manipulative monster without a scruple to her name. And Blyth gives us this wicked tart in all her tawdry adolescent glory; the girl most likely to exploit any love affair for a quick buck and pump a discarded lover so full of holes he resembles Swiss cheese. Veda is pure poison to anyone – though, in the final analysis, chiefly detrimental to herself. Her sense of entitlement, secured by Mildred’s hard work and ambition, Veda runs through the latter half of the picture with a sinfulness rarely seen on the screen then, particularly in one so young. She also damn near runs away with the picture. But Crawford had nothing to fear. From start to finish, Mildred Pierce is her movie and she is clearly relishing the return to glamour; also Warner’s personal commitment to resurrecting her career from oblivion. She might have first considered why the old mogul had done it. Crawford’s arrival on the Warner back lot was given A-list pomp and circumstance, leaving the studio’s undisputed grand dame, Bette Davis, with her nose out of joint. Crawford tried everything to win Davis as an ally but it was no use. From the moment she set foot on those sound stages, Crawford was viewed by Davis as her adversary to be squashed and openly ridiculed, leaving Crawford to reinvigorate herself with the leftover war paint from her skirmishes with Norma Shearer.
Mildred Pierce opens with a superb main title by Max Steiner, the crashing tides set to his bombastic theme as the credits appear from beneath the foam. From here, we digress to some equally exquisite nighttime noir photography by Ernest Haller; a long shot of a fashionable beach house and the sound of echoing gunfire from within. Cue Monte Beragon, the unwitting victim of a cold-blooded assassination, stumbling about the darkened living room, the flicker of flames from a nearby hearth dancing across his sweaty visage as he cryptically mutters ‘Mildred’ before collapsing on a bearskin rug; a pistol tossed next to his body and the sound of someone fleeing the house. Cut to a moody and fog-laden pier; Mildred, tear-stained and emotionally overwrought, walks towards the edge, about to take a dive off its most perilous point; thwarted in her suicide attempt by a curmudgeonly cop walking the beat. These opening sequences are, as Bogart put it in The Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that (noir) dreams are made of”; the tone shifting ever so slightly as Wally Fay, observing Mildred through a damp window from his seedy bar, ushers her inside for a drink. She suggests a midnight rendezvous at her beach house instead. For Wally, who has been entertaining such notions for far too long, the offer is too good to pass. But once alone at the beach house, Mildred does everything to dissuade Wally from the very reason he followed her home. Spilling a drink on purpose, Mildred skulks off to the bedroom, presumably to change, instead sneaking out the back way and leaving Wally to quickly discover he is being framed for Monte’s murder.
We regress to an even more posh estate, home to Mildred, the late Monte Beragon and Mildred’s daughter from her first marriage, Veda. Presently, a visibly shaken Veda is entertaining two detectives from the county police come to inquire about Monte’s untimely end. Leaving Veda at home, Mildred is taken downtown and confronted by Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) with the facts of the case; the allegation Mildred’s first husband, Bert is the prime suspect, sparking a prolonged confession. Thus begins the elaborate flashback that is Mildred Pierce. We see Mildred as the middle-aged mother of two; toiling in the kitchen while her daughters, Veda and Kay (Jo Ann Marlow) are afforded every luxury, despite Bert’s meager salary. When Bert returns home to explain he has lost his job; Mildred’s suggestion she could take in some neighborhood laundry to tide them over, disgusts Bert. At the same time, Mildred is well aware of her husband’s philandering with the wealthy, Mrs. Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick).  Wally offers Mildred the stability of a guy who’s making good money as a realtor. But Mildred finds him physically repulsive.
Mildred has scrimped and saved for a new dress for Veda, mildly ashamed when Veda scorns the offering in private. Veda’s vanity is all-consuming. Bert, in fact, warns Mildred her spoiling of the girl will be her undoing. Besides, he prefers the more tomboyish, Kay to Veda. She’s bright, quick-witted and unassuming. A short while later, Mildred’s marriage to Bert falls completely apart. She orders him out of the house and sets about establishing a career for herself as a waitress at a local greasy spoon, run by Ida Corwin. To make even more money on the side, Mildred takes to baking pies for the diner, able aided by her new, if simple-minded maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen).  Veda is condescending of her mother’s work ethic, considering it degrading. However, she has absolutely no compunction spending her mother’s hard-earned money on frivolities of every shape and size. In the meantime, Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. Mildred and Bert are briefly brought together by this tragedy. But afterward, Mildred takes it into her heart to become the owner of her own restaurant; picking out a property on the old highway and asking Wally to help her buy it for a song. The building is worn but of the necessary size to accommodate her dreams. It also happens to be owned by Monte Beragon who takes an immediate interest in Mildred, offering her the property for nothing down. Mildred hires Ida to help her run things and Lottie to work in the kitchen. Within no time, she has established a chain of highly successful restaurants; the revenue from these endeavors affording Veda even more ways to get into trouble.
Monte, who had once pursued Mildred with an oily passion, now shifts his attentions to Veda on the sly. He marries Mildred to ensure his own lucrative cash flow; also, to be near Veda while Mildred is away running her restaurant empire. Only Ida is clear-eyed enough to see what is going on. She forewarns Mildred of a looming disaster without giving away the goods on Monte and Veda. Alas, a short while later, Veda has orchestrated a rather coy deception involving an impressionable suitor, Theodore 'Ted' Ellison Forrester (John Compton); Mrs. Forrester (Barbar Brown) confronting Mildred with the notion their two families would be entirely unsuitable for a marriage that, alas, has already occurred. Wally helps orchestrate a settlement from the Forresters to keep the elopement quiet; also some shush money to help Veda in ‘her condition’; the bombshell dropped in Mildred’s lap when Veda actually confesses she has faked the pregnancy merely to extort money from Ted’s family so she can get away from her. Outraged, Mildred destroys Veda’s settlement check; mother and daughter coming to blows before Mildred orders her out of the house.
A short while later Wally informs Mildred that Veda is performing as a lounge singer in his disreputable beachside bar. Mildred pleads with Veda to return to her new home with Monte and Veda sets about finagling her way back into Monte’s heart. On the eve of Veda’s lavish birthday party, Mildred learns Monte has been siphoning badly needed investment from her restaurants to settle his mounting gambling debts. Mildred is broke and her creditors are about to close in. Mildred learns Monte has gone to the beach house after the party and, taking a gun from the register, tails him there, whereupon she discovers husband and daughter locked in each other’s arms. Veda proudly declares Monte will divorce Mildred to marry her. Distraught and penniless, Mildred suffers a breakdown and tosses the gun to the floor, hurrying away in a tear-stained fit of shame. Monte turns on Veda. She was never his idea of a lasting love interest.
And now, without Mildred’s money, she has all but ruined his chances to continue to sponge off of the family until the well has completely run dry. Realizing Monte never loved her, Veda shoots him dead with unrepentant scorn. Hearing the shots, Mildred burst into the beach house, discovers the body and decides to telephone the police. At the last possible moment, Veda tearfully pleads for Mildred to help cover up the crime; blaming Mildred for the way she has turned out. Unable to send her daughter to prison, Mildred agrees to this misdirection and sends Veda home. We return to the police station where the flashback began; Inspector Peterson revealing Veda as the killer. Mildred is horrified to have let her daughter down. But Veda is as remorseless as ever; even slightly psychotic as she coolly tells her mother goodbye before being led away in handcuffs. Departing the precinct at the break of dawn, Mildred is surprised to discover Bert waiting for her on the steps. The two walk past a pair of drudges washing the marble steps on their hands and knees; shades of Mildred’s former self reflected back at her as she turns toward the sunset – hopefully with a new and more promising life cresting over the horizon.
Joan Crawford desperately wanted to win the Academy Award for Mildred Pierce. Hell, she deserved it. There are conflicting stories as to the much publicized photos taken of Crawford accepting the award from director, Michael Curtiz at her bedside. In her scathing tell-all, adopted daughter Christina cruelly suggests the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, Joan merely suffering from an acute attack of nerves, lest she lose to one of the other nominees and be forced to go home from the auditorium empty-handed. Whatever the case, Crawford did win her one and only statuette for Mildred Pierce; the press waiting with cameras poised to capture her moment of triumph from bed. Mildred Pierce is a perfectly packaged entertainment with Crawford as its most decorous centerpiece. She runs the gamut of emotions. Yet, her performance is remarkably restrained; the screen queen knowing exactly when to hold her punches and when to give the scene her all. In virtually all subsequent movies Crawford would make for Warner Bros. this artifice increasingly becomes unbalanced to the point where Crawford eventually becomes a parody of herself; wielding tears and tortured screams as though she were a mad woman unable to contain such raw emotions.
Interestingly, at the height of her Warner tenure, Crawford elected to make a hilarious cameo in the Doris Day musical, It’s A Great Feeling (1949), attacking a studio exec’ played by Jack Carson and slapping him in the face. Asked what prompted the outburst, Crawford reverts to her usual retiring self, sweetly smiling as she declares with shrugged shoulders, “I do that in all my pictures!” And, indeed, by then Crawford had devolved into such camp.  Mildred Pierce is effective precisely because it catches Crawford at a particularly vulnerable moment in her career. She is still as sophisticated as ever, but slightly chaste in the knowledge her last four or five pictures at Metro were not hits; also, that Jack Warner is taking an incredible gamble in hiring her when no other studio would, and finally, that any misfire at this particular juncture could spell utter disaster for her future feasibility as a star. Joan would have severed her right arm to maintain the status of ‘Hollywood royalty.’ As such, her performance in Mildred Pierce has been given the benefit of Crawford’s two decades of wisdom and experience at MGM; also, the reserved charm of a woman clever enough – if desperate – to defy the moniker of ‘box office poison’ in usual Crawford fashion; with sensational charisma.
Sadly, today the name Joan Crawford has become rather synonymous with Christina Crawford’s vulgar tell-all, Mommie Dearest; the ensconced image of a wild-eyed gargoyle played by Faye Dunaway in the movie version, beating her children wire coat hangers in the middle of the night, completely at odds with the self-sacrificing martyr Crawford plays in Mildred Pierce. There is, however, another image of Crawford the public ought to take with them; that of the regal movie diva who, for each and every Christmas, bought members of the crew working on her movies lavish gifts in thanks and gratitude; the woman who schooled and raised four adopted children, mostly on her own (none of Crawford’s husbands lasted long enough to aid in the cause) – three of whom have come to regard Christina’s novel as a largely fictitious hatchet job. Mildred Pierce gives us Crawford at the height of her glory. It also affords her the opportunity to rise like cream to the top of her profession as a bona fide Academy Award-winning actress; a status unattainable from all her workmanlike and money-making servitude while toiling inside MGM’s dream factory. Mayer was likely chagrined to see his castoff diva earning big bucks for a rival; enough for new management to invite Crawford back to Metro for the abysmal musical clunker, Torch Song (1953); easily one of the tackiest musicals ever made on their back lot. Only a few short years before, on her last day at MGM, Crawford had driven past the front gates without fanfare, escort or even so much as a polite nod of gratitude for all the years and millions her star power had helped funnel into the studio’s coffers. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford was back on top, proving she could well do without Mayer or his studio, so long as the material at her new digs was good enough and glamorous enough to perpetuate the mythology of her manufactured star status.
Fans have waited much too long for Mildred Pierce to debut in hi-def. I would have thought this one would have come down the pike via the Warner Archive. But no – Warner has licensed it to Criterion instead. Back in DVD’s infancy, Mildred Pierce enjoyed a fairly stellar restoration. It is these elements that have been refurbished for a new 4K scan, dumbed down to 1080p. Personally, I am not exactly comfortable with the results. Like The Asphalt Jungle before it (also via Criterion), the overall B&W image herein is brighter, leading to a more homogenized level of contrast. Blacks offer more tonal gray values but whites occasionally look ever so slightly washed out. Of course, in motion this image offers superior fine details, textures and a light smattering of film grain looking extremely indigenous to its source. So, no complaints here. But I keep going back to a scene depicting Crawford at her writing desk; the DVD image offering more detail in Crawford’s face because of the sharper contrast; the Blu-ray actually looking less detailed by comparison with Crawford’s eyes and eyebrows less potently realized.  There is also more information available at the bottom of the frame on the Blu-ray, offering a marginal difference in overall presentation.  Criterion loves its linear PCM audio, so we get 24-bit mono, sounding appropriately one dimensional; if very clean, with particularly crisp dialogue.
Mercifully, this release includes Peter Fitzgerald’s 2002 TCM documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, and – wait for it – in full HD. It’s one of the best documentaries on ANY star I have ever seen, comprehensive and chocked full of archival and (then) new interviews with the likes of Anjelica Huston, Judy Geeson, Virginia Grey, Margaret O’Brien, Diane Baker and Christina Crawford (who cannot help herself but to continue to poke holes in her mother’s reputation). We also get a brand new 23 minute, conversation piece with Molly Haskell and Robert Polito who go into great detail discussing the discrepancies between the book and the movie; a bit too academic for most, but still worth a listen. We get 15 min. of a Crawford interview on a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show and a 24-minute Q&A with Ann Blyth, recorded in 2006 and also featuring historian, Eddie Muller. Finally, there is a 10 minute interview with novelist James M. Cain on The Today Show in 1969, a trailer, and liner notes by Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: it is so nice to finally retire my old ‘flipper’ DVD for this hi-def incarnation of one of, not only my personal favorite movies, but truly one of the greatest noir and Crawford pictures of all time. Crawford was a renaissance gal with a nail-biting resolve virtually nonexistent today, and rivaled only by Bette Davis’ cat-clawing perfectionism. Mildred Pierce is Crawford at her best. This disc comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, January 12, 2017

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK: Blu-ray (MGM 1955) Warner Archive Collection

In 1947, an eastbound train carried with it the seeds of change for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; at one time considered the Cartier of all film studios. As an interesting aside, although MGM movies from this particular vintage bore an end credit that read ‘Made in Hollywood U.S.A.’, Metro’s back lot was actually located in Culver City, CA, thus rendering the point moot. Loew’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck could forgive this oversight. What he found increasingly impossible to overlook was the fact MGM’s once Teflon-coated reputation as ‘the king of features’ had been steadily eroded by mogul, Louis B. Mayer’s Victorian prudery; also, Mayer’s slavish devotion to telling gentile little family stories elegantly. In an era when audiences went to movies almost as much for a certain studio’s style as they did based on the drawing power of the names of its stars plastered high atop a theater marquee, MGM had a reputation for extravagance and quality; also, for star power. Of the top ten box office draws in America, seven were then currently under an exclusive contract to Mayer’s dream factory. Alas, with the silencing of the guns after WWII, audience tastes began to shift from the kinds of stories that pleased Mayer. Worse, Mayer seemingly lost his verve to oversee daily operations; dividing his hours between work, a new romance and possibly his greatest love of all; acquiring a stable of highly prized thoroughbreds. 
But on that particular cold and drizzly afternoon, with the train hurtling down the tracks, MGM’s fate was arguably sealed when its parent company President, Nicholas Schenk caught the ear of Isadore ‘Dore’ Schary; a staunchly liberal jack of all trades with a checkered past in the movie-making biz. With stints Columbia and Metro, by 1933 Schary was in an enviable position, albeit as a lowly screenwriter working under the tyrannical Harry Rapf. Mayer, a dyed in the wool conservative, never cared for Schary’s liberalism, though be could not argue with his success after Boy’s Town (1938), a project repeatedly shelved and almost discarded, went on to win Schary a co-writing Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, earn Spencer Tracy a much deserved Best Actor Academy Award for his formidable portrait of Father Flannigan and fill Metro’s coffers to their rafters. To say Dore Schary’s appointment to Metro’s top brass was badly done is a bit much, particularly since he continued to write and produce pictures of distinction, some of which invariably continued to turn a handsome profit; Joe Smith, American, and, Journey for Margaret (both in 1942), and, the quintessential ‘family film’, Lassie Come Home (1943) among them. Yet for all his merits, Schary was a bit of a pontificating poop, walking out on his contract – arguably, ‘on principle’ – after Mayer refused to green-light his passion project, Storm of the West. Apparently, Schary did not ascribe to the age-old adage of never biting the hand that feeds. Thus, from this point of embarkation Schary drifted; first to Selznick and his little-known indie division – Vanguard – followed by a move to RKO where, arguably, Schary was most at home; at least, until his autonomy was usurped by millionaire, Howard Hughes, who bought the studio, lock stock and Schary in 1948.  In accepting Schenck’s offer to return to MGM under a renegotiated contract (effectively giving him as much – if not more – clout to make life-altering decisions for the company), Schary likely overlooked the fact Loew’s wily New York President had ulterior motives.
Indeed, Schenck had wanted to stick the hypothetical knife between Mayer’s shoulder blades ever since the latter had used his connections in Congress to thwart a corporate takeover of MGM by William Fox back in the mid-thirties. The deal was not so much hostile as openly sanctioned by Schenck and Mayer’s ability to shoot it dead in the water despite Schenck being the company’s president had left a sour taste behind. Then, as now, all the stockholders cared about was dividends and the winning combination of Mayer and his V.P. in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg were then unstoppable. Mayer, in fact, was handsomely rewarded for these efforts, becoming the highest paid executive in the United States for years yet to follow. A tidal wave of profits engorged their coffers at a time when virtually all the other major studios were struggling merely to keep their heads above the high water mark of the Great Depression. But now, Schenck had the upper hand. Mayer’s lavishly appointed postwar attempts to regress Metro back to those halcyon days before the war had miserably flopped. Costs were up and profits down; the perfect storm for Schenck’s insistence Mayer accept Schary as his new V.P. Mayer tried to convince Schenck he would do just as well to hire back his son-in-law, David O. Selznick who, like Schary, had worked for the company in the mid-1930's and had great successes. But Selznick, long since an independent – and still enjoying his autonomy – absolutely refused even to consider ‘coming home’. From the outset, Mayer and Schary did not get on and on June 22, 1951, Dore Schary suddenly found himself occupying Mayer’s front office in the Thalberg Building at MGM; the ousting of Mayer by Schenck creating a seismic shift that sent shock waves not only around the back lot, but throughout the entire industry. “The name of the company is not Metro-Goldwyn-Schenck,” director, Stanley Donen astutely pointed out, “It’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”; completely overlooking the fact indie producer, Samuel Goldwyn had been the first of the fledgling company’s ‘founding fathers’ to find himself on the outside looking in, in 1924 when MGM officially began operating as a corporate entity.
In some ways, director John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) represents the pinnacle of Dore Schary’s tenure at the studio; the bleak ‘B-picture’ Schary so obviously preferred to MGM’s otherwise lush and lovely escapist fantasies, herein tricked out with an A-list budget, Cinemascope, 6-tracks of stereophonic sound and a bombastic score by André Previn. Interestingly, the picture opens with a train too; the arrival of mysterious one-armed man, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) causing a curious tension to permeate through the ramshackle remote desert backwater of Black Rock. Bad Day at Black Rock is precisely the type of movie that, in its own time, seemed impossibly out of step with MGM’s edicts of ‘do it big, do it well and give it class.’ Despite his natural abhorrence of Mayer’s star system (indeed, Schary would do everything he could to trim what he perceived as the unnecessary fat from Metro’s top-heavy roster of top-tier talent), Schary nevertheless adored Spencer Tracy, whom he regarded as “the finest American actor ever to appear in movies.”  And Tracy, a consummate pro, delivers on all accounts herein; his craggy visage capable of conveying monumental thoughts, emotions, ideas and even action with just a flick of his eyebrows or those cool, critical eyes suddenly darting off in a particular direction. Tracy’s acting style is so natural it can almost be called minimalist. There is so much going on behind the eyes his portrait of wounded masculinity on the cusp of regaining confidence is riveting from start to finish; a tour de force for a star who, arguably, never gave a bad performance, despite appearing in some questionable fare along the way.  
Bad Day at Black Rock straddles an interesting chasm between old and new Hollywood; Spencer Tracy, decidedly a holdover and main staple of the old home guard, entering his emeritus years as the resourceful seeker of truth in a town with far too many lies to keep successfully hidden. Tracy holds his own opposite the already well-established (though today, largely forgotten) Robert Ryan (as the murderous Reno Smith, who crumbles into rank cowardice in the picture’s third act), as well as then up and comers, Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble – a real goon) and Lee Marvin (Hector David – blood-curdling cruelty personified). There is a tenuous, nerve-jangling animosity at play throughout the movie, its one misfire, arguably the miscasting of Anne Francis as Liz Wirth as the too naïve for her own good ingénue, looking as though she has just stepped from the Central Casting salon; quaffed, upscale and decidedly out of place in this craggy wasteland, overrun by some very bad men. Bad Day at Black Rock takes Schary’s concept of the gritty RKO programmer and elevates it with A-list accoutrements – an odd, though decidedly salvageable fit. Tricked out in Cinemascope, with Andre Previn’s main title demonstratively pouncing forth from six tracks of vintage stereo; a passenger locomotive hurtling toward the expansive bleak vistas caught in the camera’s lens; it all gives the illusion – or rather the promise – of a big and splashy actioner to follow. Yet, the events unfolding immediately thereafter from a screenplay by Millard Kaufman (itself, based on Howard Breslin’s story and Don McGuire’s adaptation) are remarkably subdued; pitting Metro’s built-in prestige against some truly bone-chilling xenophobia.
Schary had tackled this subject before; though only as B-unit B&W at RKO and in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with Crossfire (1947) employing the claustrophobic noir style to evoke a certain dread. In the broad light of day – and in widescreen and stereo no less – the effect might so easily have become overblown, even silly; too much clearly delineated dead space to the left and right of center, leaving the audience wondering what all the fuss was about. Yet, Bad Day at Black Rock increasingly reveals itself as an ardently alarming existentialist’s masterpiece, long before probative existentialism in the movies was in vogue. Like the western heroes of yore, John R. Mcreedy rides into town destined to affect social change. Yet, he hardly enters this isolated enclave with a cowboy’s ‘yahoo’ mentality, diverging further still from direct comparisons within that genre by being both well past his prime and astride the iron horse instead of his own steed; also, by being a cripple (an unfashionable moniker today, but fittingly applied in the fifties to anyone deprived an essential limb afforded them at birth). Miraculously, the loss of Mcreedy’s arm has little emasculating effect on the man. In fact, he repeatedly proves, with manly finesse, to possess more ingenuity and physical prowess using the one good arm he has left, to effectively withstand the town baddies and, on more than one occasion, subdue them with physical force, though (in keeping with the hallmarks of his creed) only when provoked. Mcreedy is a mensch; albeit, one who takes no guff and can survive on wits alone when backed into a corner. And he will need all of these faculties to triumph over the thug muscle jockeying for power in Black Rock.
Bad Day at Black Rock marks director John Sturges’ 23rd year in Hollywood, his tenth as a director with already 20 movies to his credit. Like Schary, Sturges preferred gritty realism to the glossy sheen of then traditional film-making, cutting his teeth on a string of lucrative B-budget programmers; arguably, his best, 1950’s moodily lit police/procedural detective/thriller, Mystery Street – costarring Ricardo Montalban and Sally Forrest, with a memorable turn from Jan Sterling as the B-girl who pushes her married lover too hard and pays dearly for it. Throughout his tentative years, Sturges illustrated a genuine knack for solid storytelling; also, contributing real style on an oft’ minuscule budget to have hamstrung most any other director into succumbing to a work-a-day mentality, simply to get the damn thing finished. Bad Day at Black Rock really is Sturges’ first opportunity and hurrah to play with all the bells and whistles of an A-list studio in an equally as plush production, and he illustrates a very keen camera eye for imaginative compositions; often situating his actors in deliberate poses to heighten their shifting positions of power within the story, almost entirely avoiding the POV shot, yet with a distinct depth of field that utilizes multiple plains of reference in the foreground, middle ground and background. You really have to pay attention to Sturges’ approach because he cleverly avoids drawing obvious attention to his craftsmanship; the placement of scenery and the stars possessing a graphic naturalness we readily take for granted in widescreen movies today, but as yet unaccounted for as the dreaded close-up in most early Cinemascope movies.
Among its other attributes, Bad Day at Black Rock contains some stellar support from its bit players who run the gamut from seasoned veterans, Walter Brennan (as the caustic Doc Velie) and Dean Jagger (thoroughly emasculated sheriff, Tim Horn) to then newcomer and rising talent, John Ericson (as Liz’s brother and hesitant hotel proprietor, Pete). Brennan and Jagger are the old campaigners here and their years of experience show in darker, more psychologically wounded portraits of careworn, browbeaten men, full of self-loathing and disillusionment. Doc fights back, an inspiration to Tim who, having succumbed to the bottle long ago, barely remembers how. Yet, Ericson is the real standout here; and arguably, the genuine disappointment for showing such genuine promise in this, and a few other big budget Metro projects of the fifties before being relegated to television work for the rest of his thirty plus year career. In one of those Hollywood ironies that befell a good many contract players like Ericson, his name today has been practically forgotten; denied the luxury of longevity in Hollywood’s overflowing wellspring of talent. The thirties – even the forties – might have transformed Ericson into a bona fide star. Alas, the fifties were a time of financial retrenchment for virtually all of the studios and their steady, slow, and very sad decline. Thus, Ericson’s career aspirations were repeatedly derailed. The freelance market is not conducive to career longevity and Ericson’s trajectory would prove, with time, no different and no less disheartening. In Bad Day at Black Rock he illustrates an intuitive inner strength desperate to emerge from under an outer shell of rank cowardice. It is a nuanced bit of play-acting, extremely well thought out and a real asset to the production as a counterbalance to Spencer Tracy’s unflinching man of moral integrity. While Mcreedy is always the image of forthright steadfastness, Ericson’s Pete Wirth is a young buck of latent qualities on the cusp of becoming a ‘real man’.
Bad Day at Black Rock is set in 1945, one-armed John J. Macreedy getting off a passenger train at this isolated desert hamlet and almost immediately raising the curiosity and ire of its town folk unaccustomed to having strangers in their midst. Indeed, the conductor lets it be known no train has stopped in Black Rock in the last four years and, arguably, for good reason. Black Rock can hardly be called a town – perhaps not even an outpost; its one main thoroughfare just a ramshackle of huts and storefronts leading to nowhere in particular. From all sides, the place is surrounded by a sandy abyss and craggy mountain rocks. In truth, Macreedy has no intentions to stay either. He is merely looking for an Asian man named Komoko (whom we never see); to return to him a medal of honor earned by his late son, killed fighting for America in WWII. Macreedy is, at first, unable to comprehend the open hostility he encounters in town. Marginally he is amused by Pete Wirth’s claim there are no vacant rooms for rent at the hotel he manages. Exactly who is occupying any of them in this one horse town remains a mystery.  Macreedy is also mildly amused by the intense hatred exhibited towards him by locals, Hector David and Coley Trimble. Least imposing, though nevertheless meaning business is Reno Smith. As per Macreedy’s inquiry to locate Komoko, Smith coolly informs him that as a Japanese-American, Komoko was interned in a camp for the duration of the war.
It all might make sense, except that Macreedy is not buying any of it for a moment. Instead, he decides to make further queries at the Sheriff’s office; soured to find Tim Horn a careworn rummy with zero interest in helping to further his claim. Doc Velie, Black Rock’s veterinarian/undertaker advises Macreedy to clear out immediately. But before that, he also lets it slip Komoko, whose home is located not so far off in Adobe Flat, is quite dead. With no more details forthcoming, Macreedy hastens to rent a jeep from resident mechanic, Liz Wirth. He drives into the forgotten wilderness, arriving at the burnt out shell of a small shack; wild flowers adorning a nearby well. Although not for certain, it does not take long for Macreedy to reason foul play at work; a suspicion confirmed when Coley, who has tailed him to Adobe Flat, attempts to run Macreedy off the road. Back at his hotel, Macreedy encounters more threatening opposition from Hector, who has let himself into Macreedy’s room. The men size one another up. But Hector is too cunning to react. Mcreedy and Reno have their first real confrontation. Reno tells Mcreedy he would be wise to clear out on the next train. Mcreedy suggests he intends to do precisely that; but then ups the ante by also hinting he knows Komoko’s body is buried somewhere on Adobe Flat. Reno expresses his rank hatred for all Japanese; inexplicably married to his own failure to enlist in the Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For Reno, Komoko is a painful reminder; worse; a bug to be squashed, though particularly when no one is looking.
Unable to procure another rental of Liz’s jeep and sincerely concerned for his own well-being, Macreedy tries to quietly telephone the State Police. Regrettably, all long distance calls go through the hotel lobby; Pete alerting Reno, who refuses to put the call through. Next, Macreedy tries to sneak through a telegram at the train depot. This too is intercepted by Hastings (Russell Collins), the telegraph operator, shown to and vetoed by Reno. It now becomes apparent to Macreedy, not only is he isolated in Black Rock, but Reno and his men never intend him to leave. At the local diner, Macreedy’s meal is sabotaged by Hector, who dumps too much ketchup into his plate. Now, Macreedy is openly threatened by Coley as Hector and Reno look on. But Coley has underestimated Macreedy’s ex-military preparedness. Thus, when Coley tries to attack Macreedy using brute force he is instead promptly beaten into submission, incurring Hector’s considerable ire, but Reno’s distinct – if curious – satisfaction. The cripple has guts. Moreover, he is an admirable foe with hidden talents Reno can respect. Returning to the hotel, and angry for the first time, Macreedy confronts Pete for being a coward. Doc rallies Tim to his side and reveals to Macreedy the heinousness of the town’s dirty little secret: that Reno took it upon himself to torture and then murder Komoko simply because of his Japanese heritage; trapping the poor frightened man in his shack and setting it on fire. When Komoko emerged burning Reno ruthlessly shot him dead as Hector, Pete and Coley looked on. While Pete was sickened by the murder, he has remained silent and cowering ever since; arguably, not only to preserve his own safety, but equally Liz’s, who is in love with Reno.  
Realizing Macreedy’s fate has already been decided, Doc offers him his hearse as a getaway vehicle. Regrettably, Hector rips out the distributor cap and spark plugs. Doc demands Tim take a stand as the sheriff. It is certainly within his discretionary powers to do so. Alas, enfeebled by alcoholism, Tim is no match for Reno, who now strips him of his badge and authority; giving both to Hector. Reno further reveals to Macreedy the telegram he gave to Hastings was never sent. It’s hopeless. Macreedy is going nowhere. After their departure, Macreedy reveals to Doc, Pete and Tim that until his arrival in Black Rock he had wallowed in self-pity over the loss of his arm. Indeed, Komoko’s son died in combat - a real hero of the war, saving Macreedy’s life. Now, Macreedy has been reinvigorated to stand up and fight back in peace time. With Tim and Pete’s complicity, Doc hatches a plot to get Macreedy to safety under the cover of darkness. Luring Hector into the back of the hotel, Pete feigns a query as to Macreedy’s fate, allowing for Doc to sneak up from behind and knock Hector unconscious.
Pete also gets Liz to agree to drive Macreedy out of town, presumably to safety. Instead, still naïve and ever loyal to Reno, she drives Macreedy into a remote canyon in the wilderness where Reno is waiting for an ambush. But Liz has miscalculated Reno’s devotion to her. She knows too much and Reno ruthlessly shoots her dead as Macreedy takes cover behind the jeep. Filling a glass jar with gasoline drained from the jeep’s undercarriage, Macreedy hurriedly creates a Molotov cocktail, hurling it at the rocks near Reno. The explosive ignites and Reno is subdued; charred, though nevertheless still alive to face criminal charges. By dawn’s early light, Macreedy returns to Black Rock to turn over Reno to the authorities. He informs Pete of his sister’s murder and departs on the noonday train presently pulling into the depot. For the first time since his arrival, the residents of Black Rock reveal themselves; presumably, good people frightened by a few tyrants now removed from their self-appoints seats of authority. Doc requests Komoko's medal to stand as a beacon of hope for the community. Seeing no reason to hang onto it any longer, Macreedy gives the medal to Doc, boards the train, and departs Black Rock for the last time.
Bad Day at Black Rock is a sublime nail-biter; a morality play efficiently sheathed in the trappings of a would-be actioner with more brains than brawn on display; the chest-thumping kept to a bare minimum by Spencer Tracy’s particular brand of authority as it slowly, but steadily begins to tower, then take precedent over the outmoded use of bullying force holding dominion over the town; depicted herein as boorish, wasteful and destructive, equally to one’s own self-preservation as that of the entire community it seeks to keep under its unprincipled rule. Bad Day at Black Rock is the ‘message picture’ done right; providing entertainment with a capital ‘E’ and message with a small In years shortly to follow, Dore Schary’s verve for such ‘message pictures’ would bring about the end of MGM’s reign as the undisputed ‘king of features’ in Hollywood. It would also put an end to Schary’s affiliation there. Deprived of his finger-pointing to Mayer as his arch nemesis, Schary was increasingly forced to accept responsibility for the lumbering, top-heavy, mismanaged corporate structure he now presided over with little more experience than that of an impatient middling exec, eager to see his own re-envisioning of Metro’s product up there on the screen. Although Metro’s balance sheet in 1952 would show a profit, by 1955 Schary was merely treading water, his decision to revamp and launch several franchise TV serials including The Thin Man and MGM Parade (both licensed to ABC) the same year as Bad Day at Black Rock had its theatrical debut, foreshadowing the real end of MGM’s glory days. One year later the axe would fall, Schary putting into production the badly received (and at $1.9 million, very expensive) Forbidden Planet and the even more elephantine misfire, Raintree County (released in 1957 and, at $5 million, the most expensive movie ever made until that time on American soil).
Typical, the Warner Archive (WAC) is batting a thousand with this Blu-ray release. Bad Day at Black Rock is a reference quality affair with one minor caveat – more on this in just a moment. The transfer has been struck from an interpositive derived from an original negative and it looks fabulous beyond expectation. As is usual, though nevertheless increasingly extraordinary for vintage deep catalog releases in hi-def, exceptional care has been taken to restore and remaster these 60+ year old elements. The Eastman Color looks pretty spiffy; bold, rich and vibrant. The mesas are appropriately burnt umber and the scorched landscape looks affectingly petrified. Flesh tones are spot on. The image has received a major face lift. There is really no comparing it to Warner’s old DVD release. Density and grain sparkle as they should.  Prepare to be impressed. Just never take releases like this one for granted. Under George Feltenstein’s tutelage, WAC has shown great foresight in their custodianship of the classics. We owe them a debt of gratitude. The one oversight, through no fault of their own; the original 4 track magnetic stereo has not survived. What’s here is a 2 track stereo, but I have to add, it’s as potent and crisp as I would expect, with some very clean dialogue and Previn’s score sounding as aggressive as ever. Top marks! One extra: Dan Polan’s DVD audio commentary, and a trailer in HD. Ho-hum. Could’a, should’a, would’a done more. Bottom line: Bad Day At Black Rock is required viewing and this Blu-ray gives us the movie looking decades younger and more revitalized than ever. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)