Saturday, October 31, 2009

NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Bluray (MGM 1959) Warner Home Video

Arguably, the Hitchcock thriller by which all others are measured, North By Northwest (1959) is a superior example of all the technical mastery and visual storytelling craftsmanship that director Alfred Hitchcock acquired during his American tenure in films. After the abysmal box office performance of his psychologically complex Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s last film of the 1950s returned to his more reliable blend of dark sadism and light humor and his 'wrong man' scenario to ensure audience popularity.

Determined to write a ‘wrong man’ movie to top all the rest, screenwriter Ernest Lehman devised a stylish thriller incorporating nearly every Hitchcockian film devise from the director’s illustrious tenure into one seamless roller coaster ride of masterful thrills and humorous suspense.

Over the years rumors have circulated that Hitchcock unintentionally mentioned the idea for the project to James Stewart while production was wrapping on Vertigo. When Stewart became eager to play the part of Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock was forced to admit that he had Cary Grant in mind all along. However, there are problems with this story.

First, Hitchcock seldom worked far in advance in planning his subsequent projects. In general, but specifically at this point in his career, Hitch’ took his time deciding what film would come next. Also, once he was involved on a movie, he committed himself wholly to that project until it was completed. Since North By Northwest was not a pre-sold play or movie property already waiting in the wings, but one commissioned from Lehman by Hitchcock, it seems unlikely that the idea came to him well in advance of wrapping production on Vertigo.

Second, given the solid working relationship between Hitchcock and Stewart, it does not make much sense that Hitch’ would have mentioned a movie idea to his star without having Stewart in mind for the lead. More than likely, MGM did not want Stewart cast – either because he seemed too old for the part, was not one of their stars under contract or was inadvertently being blamed for Vertigo’s poor performance at the box office.

Whatever the reason, North By Northwest stars Cary Grant as harried ad man, Roger O. Thornhill. After being mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Van Damme (James Mason), Roger quickly discovers that he is a sitting duck, rift for multiple assassination attempts by Van Damme’s men unless he can get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, Roger’s attempts at contacting UN political analyst, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) goes horribly awry when one of Van Damme’s assassins kills Townsend in the middle of the United Nations lobby, making it appear as though Roger is the killer.

Considered a fugitive from justice, Roger next stumbles onto Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious flirt traveling by train and oddly intent on helping Roger elude the authorities.Slowly Roger comes to trust Eve and the two have an affair. However, when Eve appears to be working for Van Damme, Roger confronts their motley crew in the open, thereby exposing Eve to terrible danger because Eve is the double agent that Van Damme has mistaken Roger.

Hitchcock relied heavily on matte paintings and process photography in North By Northwest to sustain a level of purely escapist make-believe. The film’s two most memorable set pieces – a bi-plane assault on Roger along a lonely stretch of North Dakota road – and the scaling of Presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore were both elaborately staged at MGM in front of sets and process screens rather than shot on location.

In the former instance, Grant was placed on a treadmill in the foreground, running for his life while reacting to rear projection; the bi-plane photographed separately. In the latter sequence MGM’s scenic art department crafted an elaborate plaster replica of Rushmore’s faces, relying on equally elaborate matte paintings to capture the steep downward perspective as Eve and Roger appear to be dangling from the jagged precipices for the film’s climactic showdown.

Some surviving studio memos indicate that this final race across Rushmore was recreated out of necessity rather than from Hitchcock’s innate dislike of location shooting. It was only after the State Park denied MGM access, or even permission, to the real location that the decision was made to recreate Rushmore on the back lot.

At Hitchcock's request, MGM licensed Paramount’s patented VistaVision process for North By Northwest after Hitchcock refused to photograph the film in Cinemascope. Although the making was an enjoyable experience for all concerned, North By Northwest was to be the only film Hitchcock ever made at MGM. It also marked the last time Cary Grant worked for Hitchcock.

Today, rumors abound as to why these two alumni never reunited for another try – especially since North By Northwest was one of Hitchcock’s most profitable thrillers. One plausible reason is that Grant had begun to feel as though his days as a leading man were numbered. While the actresses Grant was frequently being paired with were increasingly getting younger, Grant himself was already well into middle age at the time North By Northwest went before the cameras. Following the success of the film, Grant would reluctantly agree to make only one more thriller: Stanley Donen’s faux Hitchcockian spy movie: Charade (1963).

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray transfer doesn't necessarily best their beautifully remastered standard DVD so much as it presents us with an alternate viewing experience. The original DVD's color palette has been considerably toned down on Blu-Ray; particularly the red levels, yielding more realistic flesh tones but robbing us of the blood red patina of Eva Marie Saint's sultry cocktail dress.

Directly comparing the Blu-Ray to the standard DVD illustrates some stark differences. Overall, the image is considerably darker. Flesh tones appear more natural. Blues are more pronounced. Night scenes are now very dark and saturated in deep blue hues.

It's no surprise that Blu-Ray's infinite capacity for storage yields a more robust image with finer details jumping off the screen. The image is startlingly sharper, crisper and more refined. Wow! is the first word that comes to mind. Also, colours and flicker have been stablized. For the first time since its release, we truly get to see North By Northwest in VistaVision's motion picture 'high fidelity'. The remastered True HD audio is the welcomed upgrade; crisper, cleaner and more finely balanced than the old 5.1 audio on the DVD.

Extras are also a reason to trade up for the Blu-Ray. They include the SD's audio commentary by Ernest Lehman and the Eva-Marie Saint hosted documentary on the making of the film. Also added into the mix is the extensive bio on the life of Cary Grant that previously appeared as an extra feature on the Bringing Up Baby collector's set offering from WB. Newly created featurettes on the making of the film and Hitchcock's prowess as a director round out the extras.

Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/SIDE STREET (RKO 1948/MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video delves deeper into noir lore with two gems starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The first, director Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) is a tour de force cautionary morality tale that pits the fragile – if slightly embittered - naivety of youth against the more sullen and corrupting voices of experience. Based on Edward Anderson’s novel ‘Thieves Like Us’, the film stars Granger as Arthur ‘Bowie’ Bowers, the driver for a three man bank robbing crime syndicate fronted by Henry T-Dub Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and thuggish Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley (Howard Da Silva).
After a harrowing escape from the law, the trio decides to take refuge at an out of the way motel run by drunken Pa Mobley (Will Wright) and his sullen granddaughter, Catherine ‘Keechie’ Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell). The trio also secures the services of Mattie Mansfield (Helen Craig) by promising to spring her husband, Robert (Frank Marlowe) from prison.
Keechie cannot abide a life of crime and, at first, takes an intense dislike to Bowie.

Soon, however, she realizes that Bowie yearns just as much for a legitimate existence far away from his partners in crime. After a fleeting and flawed romance, Keechie and Bowie decide to steal off into the night with Bowie’s third of the group’s robbery monies.

In one of the film’s most tenderly awkward and utterly poignant moments, Keechie and Bowie are married in a dingy chapel before retreating to an isolated cabin motel to begin what they believe is a fresh start and a new life. Unhappy chance for both Keechie and Bowie; the motel’s plumber (Guy L. Beach) recognizes Bowie from a newspaper mug shot and scurries away to warn the police. Worse, disgruntled and psychotic Chicamaw has decided to re-enter their lives by forcing Bowie to help him and T-Dub knock off one last bank. The robbery goes awry and T-Dub is shot dead by the police. Later, we learn that Chicamaw too has been killed while trying to break into a liquor store.

Believing that their troubles are at an end, Bowie and Keechie arrive at Mattie Mansfield’s trailer park to lay low. Unfortunately, Mattie – having grown tired of waiting – has worked out a secret deal with the police to apprehend Bowie in exchange for Robert’s release from prison.

In his debut film as a director, Nicholas Ray hits one out of the park with They Live By Night. His edgy, no holds barred script adaptation – finally written by Charles Schnee – and his quick shot direction move the narrative and the action at breakneck speed, balancing the finer tragic elements of young love destined not to last with the unrelenting brutality of disreputable figures fated to lose everything over greed.

The second film in this set is Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950); a reunion picture of sorts for Granger and O’Donnell in two very different roles but with a similar outcome in the last reel. From its opening magnificent overhead aerial shots of Manhattan and masterfully conceived prologue to its extensive use of New York landscapes utilized in the best tradition of film noir, Side Street is a spooky, unsettling – if unconventional - masterpiece.

Granger is part time letter carrier, Joe Norson, delivering his mail without a care in the world, living at home with his in-laws (Esther Somers and Harry Antrim) and expectant young wife, Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell). Unfortunately for Joe, he has a moment of weakness on one of his routes and steals $30,000 from spurious attorney, Victor Backett (Edmund Ryan) to provide for his new family.

The money has actually been paid out by wealthy broker Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey) as hush money to keep quiet Lorrison’s extra-marital affair with call girl Lucille Colner (Adele Jergens). However, having secured the monies, Victor has assigned thug George Garsell (James Craig) to put a definite period to Ms. Colner’s demand for part of the payback.

Racked with guilt and fear – and, not knowing that the men he has stolen from are murderers – Joe decides the money must be returned. One problem, Nick Drumman (Ed Max) the bartender Joe gave it to for safe keeping has decided to steal the cash instead. Meanwhile, Joe is suspected by police captain Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly) of Lucille’s murder, leaving Joe in a race against time to track down Garsell through his gal pal, Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen).

Side Street is stellar noir entertainment – brilliantly scripted by Sidney Boehm and photographed to dark and brooding perfection by Joseph Ruttenberg. Farley Granger’s career, largely predicated on being cast as the young handsome stud whose emotional stability doesn’t quite match his physical stature, gives a marvelous performance fraught with nervous tension.

Warner Home Video houses both films on a single sided disc. Image quality is not compromised, however, only They Live By Night appears to have been the benefactor of digital clean up. Side Street suffers from a considerable amount of edge enhancement, a softly focused image and weaker than expected contrast levels. Overall, the gray scale on both films is well balanced. Fine details are generally more evident on They Live By Night. Film grain fluctuates from moderate to intense on They Live By Night but is practically none existent on Side Street.

The audio is mono as original recorded and quite adequate for both presentations. In addition to providing two separate and comprehensive audio commentaries (one for each film) Warner Home Video also provides us with two featurettes on the films in which various noir and film historians briefly wax about the finer points of the genre in general and each film in particular. Theatrical trailers are also included. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
They Live By Night 4
Side Street 3.5



WHERE DANGER LIVES/TENSION (RKO 1950/ MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video unleashes two more noir thrillers, one made at RKO, the other at MGM with their Classic Film Noir Collection Double Feature Series. Director John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives (1950) is a bit of brooding nonsense that pits one of noir’s iconic leading men, Robert Mitchum against a heap of trouble attractively embodied in the form of Faith Domergue.

The screenplay by Charles Bennett is desperately plying the conventional wisdom of the suspense thriller, though arguably without the intense scrutiny to know when to use more restraint than pulp to get each plot point across. The story opens with noble doctor Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) saving the life of attempted suicide victim, Margo Lannington (Domergue).

Cameron is sweet on nurse, Julie Dorn (Maureen O’Sullivan) for about thirty seconds; until Margo’s poisonous venom seeps into his consciousness and thereafter takes over entirely his every thought. Through a series of nightclub liaisons Margo and Jeff become intimate. She confesses – or rather, lies – to Jeff about the maniacal tendencies of her rich but controlling husband, Frederick (Claude Rains).

Tragically, Jeff believes Margo’s every word, leading to a confrontation between him and Frederick at Margo’s stately home. Jeff accidentally murders Frederick in a brawl but not before Frederick manages to give Jeff a concussion that will most likely lead to his slipping into a deadly coma. Margo packs Jeff in to her car and together the two make a break for the Mexican border, along the way running into all sorts of blockades that threaten to send both of them to prison. Where Danger Lives isn’t particularly engaging entertainment.

Mitchum is doing his best drowsy-eyed, devil-may-care and to hell with the world take on life that made him so right for noir suspense thrillers. But he’s hampered by an ineffectual and wildly inconsistent performance from Faith Domergue; part Audrey Totter/part Jane Greer – neither wholly convincing. The inimitable Claude Rains is wasted in the thankless part of the bitter hubby. Still, there is Nicholas Musuracas’cinematography to revel in, as well as Eda Warren’s swift editing of the chase sequences that ad a spark of brilliance to the proceedings.

Much more satisfying on every level is director John Berry’s B-movie, Tension (1949); an acidic and capable minor noir that stars the now largely forgotten Richard Basehart as Warren Quimby. Warren is a milquetoast pharmacist doing his best to live up to the impossible expectations of his sexually ruthless and utterly emasculating wife, Claire (Audrey Totter).

It seems Claire wants it all; danger, sex and money – none of which Warren is able to provide. Hooking up with tough guy, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), Claire leaves Warren for Barney’s beach house only to be tailed by Warren. In the resulting confrontation, Barney beats Warren to a pulp, leaving Warren with just one option: to plot Barney’s murder.

Adopting the name Paul Sothern, Warren moves into a nearby seaside apartment where he meets aspiring photographer, Mary Chandler (Cyd Charisse). After breaking into Barney’s beach house, Warren has second thoughts about killing him. Instead, he holds a sharp poker to Barney’s throat until Barney wakes up – then, confronts Barney with a two fold revelation: first, that Claire is probably out on the prowl for her next love interest and second, that all of Barney’s brute strength is for not against Warren’s own cunning that has led to this moment where he could so easily stab Barney to death if he so chooses.

Leaving Barney to contemplate his own insignificance, Warren returns to Mary to pursue a romantic relationship. But Claire has other ideas – especially since she has just murdered Barney herself and plans to pin the crime on Warren to escape prosecution. But neither Warren nor Claire plan on the estate powers of deduction of Police Ltn. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan). Pitting Claire and Warren against one another and revealing to Mary Warren’s true identity, Collier pulls no punches in coaxing an inevitable confession from the guilty party.

Tension is nail-biting good fun; its cast all working at top speed to ensure finely wrought performances throughout. Basehart is a natural at this sort of characterization; as proven by his other outstanding turns in such noir classics as 14 Hours and The House on Telegraph Hill. In Tension, he successfully balances his performance between the Egbert chemist and suave traveling salesman – the henpecked hubby eventually giving way to a manlier mate for the voluptuous Mary. Totter is perfection too; the very embodiment of sinful repulsiveness. Barry Sullivan makes a winning detective. It’s a wonder he never did more sleuthing in other movies or on television. In the final analysis, Tension generates plenty of it with a fitting conclusion to boot.

Warner Home Video has housed both films on a single sided disc. Nevertheless, image quality does not seem to have been compromised. Both films exhibit similar tonality, sharpness and clarity with Tension marginally crisper than Where Danger Lives. The gray scale on both films is well balanced. Fine details are generally evident. Age related artifacts appear more prominently on Where Danger Lives than Tension. Both films exhibit several lapses in overall sharpness with more than an acceptable amount of film grain evident in several scenes. Minor edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details is also evident throughout both features.

The audio is mono as original recorded and quite adequate for both presentations. In addition to providing two separate and comprehensive audio commentaries (one for each film) Warner Home Video also provides us with two featurettes on the films in which various noir and film historians briefly wax about the finer points of the genre in general and each film in particular. Theatrical trailers are also included. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Where Danger Lives 3
Tension 4



Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ESTHER WILLIAMS VOL 2 (MGM 1945-53) Warner Home Video

A little over two years ago Warner Home Video, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, released Volume One of Esther Williams; a mixed blessing, since none of the 5 films included in the set had been restored and two in particular (Easy To Wed, and, Bathing Beauty) were in pretty rough shape. Hence, the celebratory tribute was somewhat blunted by a less than stellar visual presentation. Even more curious for fans was the fact that many of Esther's better screen efforts had been omitted - most noticeably Easy to Love and Million Dollar Mermaid. Perhaps the most promising feature of Volume One was that it was clearly marked as 'volume one' - with the commitment to more volumes to follow in the future.

Now, Warner Home Video and TCM have lived up to that promise with their Spotlight edition of Esther Williams Vol. Two - an all together more satisfying launch of America's mermaid. The films in this set span Esther's career from 1945 to 1953 - the flourishing years of the MGM musical and Esther's career as one of the studio's most popular and bankable stars.

Richard Thorpe's Thrill of a Romance (1945) kicks off Volume 2's selections; an all together enjoyable and light hearted romp. Williams is Cynthia Glenn, a swimming instructor living blissfully with her slightly obtuse and loveable Uncle Hobart (Henry Travers) and Aunt Nona (Spring Byington). After spying Cynthia poolside, an improbable romance ensues with uppity business tycoon, Robert Delbar (Carleton G.Young). Cynthia quits her job and the couple retreat to a fabulous country resort for their honeymoon - one of MGM's implausibly lavish concoctions that makes even the Beverly Hills Hotel look second rate by comparison.

Unfortunately for Cynthia, Bob gets called away to D.C. almost immediately, leaving Cynthia with nothing to do but mingle with the other hotel guests; these include world-renown opera star Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior) and returning war hero, Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson). A comedy of errors has mantrap Maude Bancroft (Frances Gifford) erroneously assuming that prize fighter, K.O. Karny (Donald Curtis) is Milvaine, leaving Cynthia wide open to pursue a platonic relationship with the real Major. They share long walks through the country and pleasant enough turns in the pool as Cynthia teaches Milvaine to tread water.

There's really not much more to the story, as Bob remains respectfully out of view long enough for Cynthia to realize what a mistake their whirlwind marriage is. What makes Thrill of Romance so enticing is therefore not so much plot as it is presentation , with MGM pulling out all the stops via glamour and gaiety to really package up a neat entertainment. At 105 minutes we get Helena Stanley (as Susan Dorsey) playing The Man with The Horn - a sort of fractured classical meets swing tribute to Tommy Dorsey, as well as Buddy Rich performing a mean drum solo. And Melchior is in fine voice, belting out a series of favourites including Viva La Company. All in all then, Thrill of a Romance scores as effortless entertainment, charmingly put forth by MGM's dream factory at the height of its producing powers.

Far more curious is the next film in Volume 2, Richard Thorpe's Fiesta (1947); arguably not an Esther Williams vehicle at all, but rather a launching pad for the careers of Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse. Cast as twins, Williams and Montalban are Maria and Mario Morales - heirs to their father Antonio's (Fortunio Bonanova) estate. Mario's love is music, but Antonio believes that his son's future is in the arena as a great bullfighter. A father/son rift develops after Antonio deliberately sabotages Mario's chances of meeting famed Mexican conductor, Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) to further his music career, forcing Mario to flee amongst the people. Bitter and forsaken, Mario accidentally hears one of his own compositions 'Mexican Fantasia' played on the radio while in a street cafe. Rushing into Contreras' office, Mario learns that it is Maria who has arranged for his composition to be played. In the implausible finale that ensues, Maria bribes one of her father's servants, Chato (Akim Tamaroff) into taking Mario's place in the arena and is nearly skewered by the bull for her efforts.

Assuming that it is Mario in the ring, Antonio realizes that his son's true passion is music - not bullfighting - and gives his blessing. Somewhere in between this implausible plot line, a budding romance develops between Mario and Conchita (Cyd Charisse); tapped out to electrifying perfection in 'The Flaming Flamenco'. There's also a rather tepid relationship in store for Maria and milquetoast Pepe Ortega (John Carroll). None of these subplots seems to gel however, but the musical numbers, including 'La Bamba' keep the pace lively enough.

Next up is typical Esther fare with Richard Thorpe's This Time For Keeps (1947); a frothy, tune filled escape that MGM so readily excelled at in its heyday. The son of famed opera star (Lauritz Melchior), Richard Herald Jr. (Johnny Johnston) is a returning GI who is expected to join his father's opera company and marry Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart); a high society gal. Tragically, young Herald has other plans - set to jazz and the thrill of another romance with lusciously leggy, Aquacade star Nora Cambaretti (Esther Williams).

Richard attempts to get a job with the Aquacade as a means to procure their romance. However, Nora's accompanist Ferdi Farrow (the ever-loveable Jimmy Durante) keeps the young Locinvar at bay by arranging work for Richard with Xavier Cugat's orchestra instead. Pursuing Nora to Mackinaw Island, Richard ingratiates himself with Nora's grandmother (Dame May Whitty), a retired circus performer. Unfortunately for Richard, the jilted Ms. Allenbury arrives to threaten his budding aspirations on both fronts.

The film clings together, precariously so, with some truly lush photography and winning musical performances by all concerned. Threadbare on plot, This Time For Keeps maintains a momentum that producer Joe Pasternak was generally famous for - mixing the light, the heavy, the implausible and the down right fantastic into an intoxicating blend of good cheer.

Robert Alton's Pagan Love Song (1950) is perhaps the only dud in Volume 2's canon. At 76 minutes, it's one of the shortest films in Esther's canon and one of the most unrelentingly dull.

Rich baritone, Howard Keel is cast as Ohio school teacher cum coconut plantation owner, Hap Endicot. After initial disappointment at discovering that the plantation is virtually in ruins, Hap becomes inspired and rallies the locals into helping him rebuild. The only excitement on the island materializes in the sultry form of half Tahitian/American Mimi Bennett (Williams), who is slated to depart for New York unless Hap can get his romantic game on.Inconsequential to a fault, Pagan Love Song's nimble plot is fleshed out by a few moderately enjoyable musical numbers: none that are enough to distinguish this musical as anything but largely forgettable. Alton's camera work is commendable and the Hawaiian locales (subbing for Tahiti) are sumptuous to be sure - but it somehow doesn't seem quite enough to hold the audience's interest.

Next up in Esther's best film, Mervyn LeRoy's Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) - a largely fabricated out of thin air bio pic reporting to be the life and times of aquatic sensation Annette Kellerman. Australian born to doting father, Frederick (Walter Pigeon), as a sickly child the young Annette (played by Donna Corcoran) strengthens her polio-crippled legs by learning to swim in the pond not far from the Kellerman's Conservatory of Music. Fast tracking through a series of competitions, Kellerman (now sufficiently aged to be played by Williams) becomes a champion swimmer, only to learn that Frederick's finances have been bankrupted.

Selling the conservatory on the promise of employment in London, Frederick and Annette board a luxury liner where they meet James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and Doc Cronnal (Jesse White); a pair of shameless charlatan promoters whose latest act is Sidney - the boxing kangaroo. Sullivan is convinced that Annette has a future as an aquatic star and offers to help promote her when they arrive in London - an idea immediately shot down by Frederick who believes that swimming should remain Annette's hobby rather than her career.

Unhappy circumstance for the Kellermans, who arrive in London to learn that Frederick's new place of employment has closed, leaving Annette and Frederick penniless. Desperate for cash, Annette catches onto Sullivan's plan to swim the English Channel, thereby attracting instant media attention. Sullivan convinces the Kellermans that America is where they belong, with Annette headlining New York's gargantuan Hippodrome. Although the theatre's manager, Alfred Harper (David Brian) agrees that Annette would be a sensation, he cannot promote a virtual unknown along with the other big acts and quietly turns Sullivan down.

However, after Annette makes headlines for appearing in a scandalous two piece bathing suit off the Coney Island pier, she once again garners media coverage. Sullivan crafts his own modest showcase for her to appear in and eventually the management of the Hippodrome decide to give Annette her big break. She appears in several spectacular ballets and Harper, who has by now developed a romantic yen for her, proposes marriage. He even sweetens the deal by hiring Frederick to conduct the Hippodrome orchestra. Tragedy strikes, however, as Alfred dies of a heart attack.

Annette attempts to convince James that he should settle down, but the wayward Sullivan has his own plans to be the first man to fly across the United States in his homemade plane. A tiff leads to a break up and Alfred moves in with designs on making Annette his own. Romantically torn between James and Alfred, Annette leaves the Hippodrome for a movie deal in California. But the glass in Annette's swimming tank breaks, flooding the set and damaging her spinal cord with the very real threat of lifelong paralysis.

Million Dollar Mermaid presents Esther Williams with the first genuine acting assignment of her career - a challenge she admirably rises to with dramatic perfection. Busby Berkeley's inventive Smoke and Fountain sequences, presumably taking place in the Hippodrome's tank, are the musical highlight in an otherwise largely musical free drama that miraculously retains both our admiration and respect.

Charles Walters' Easy To Love (1953) rounds out Volume 2's offerings on a spectacular - if ultra-fluffy - note with Esther cast as Julie Hallerton; a Cypress Garden aquacade star under the guiding hand of Ray 'Cash Register' Lloyd (Van Johnson). Ray knows how to market his bevy of beauties to the public. He also knows how to play fast and loose with Julie's romantic affections.

Presumably to make Ray jealous, Julie begins dating Hank (John Bromfield); a buff Texan who co-stars with her in several water spectaculars. Julie tells Ray that Hank is about to propose to her; a move that leads Ray to pack Julie off to New York - but not because he's jealous. Only because he believes that marriage to anyone - least of all him - will ruin her career. The plan of escape backfires when Julie catches the eye of nightclub crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) who promises marriage, money and a life for Julie away from Cyprus Gardens. So, what is Ray to do?

For starters, he recalls Julie to Florida, believing that the separation will make her forget about Barry. Unfortunately for Ray, Barry isn't one to so easily give up. He pursues Julie to Cyprus where a curiously unromantic menage a trois ensues with Ray, Hank and Barry all attempting to procure grand overtures to win Julie's affections.

The film's strengths are obvious; the lush Florida locations captured in brilliantly saturated hues of Technicolor, plus the beautifully staged climactic water ski finale, shot from every conceivable, and occasionally, seeming logistically impossible angle. Also soothing is Cole Porter's title track and the less than memorable Didja Ever - sung by Martin as part of Barry's nightclub act. The chief misfire is arguably casting. Van Johnson's Ray is so unappealing in his scheming and lack of genuine affection for our Julie that it's difficult to understand why she would prefer him to either Hank or Barry - except that both are about as animated as wet paint of a horizontal surface.

All the films in Vol. Two are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio and Technicolor. Of the lot, Fiesta's image is the most problematic with bumped contrast levels and a rather unhealthy reddish hue cast over almost the entire camera negative. The most perfectly realized transfer in the bunch is Easy To Love with eye-popping colors and a startling amount of fine detail evident throughout. A close second is Thrill of A Romance - though there are several glaring instances of Technicolor mis-registration that create annoying halos and blur the overall sharpness of the image. This Time for Keeps delivers a pleasing enough transfer, though it's color seems slightly less saturated than it ought to be. Pagan Love Song's image is not quite as sharp as the others and exhibits some rather obvious fading of the original film elements. Million Dollar Mermaid's transfer is solidly average with several sequences looking fairly impressive by comparison - most noticeably, the fountain and smoke water ballets.

The audio on all films is mono as originally intended, but Easy to Love's audio appears slightly more strident in spots than the rest; particularly during the orchestrations for the climactic water ski finale. Extras are superfluous at best, with several musical outtakes being the highlights. There are also short subjects and theatrical trailers to indulge in. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 3
This Time For Keeps 3.5
Pagan Love Song 2.5
Million Dollar Mermaid 4
Easy to Love 4.5

Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 2.5
This Time For Keeps 3
Pagan Love Song 3
Million Dollar Mermaid 3.5
Easy To Love 4.5


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ALLY MCBEAL: THE COMPLETE SERIES (David E. Kelly Productions 1997-2002) Fox Home Video

At the time of its cancellation in 2002, David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal (1997-2002) was one of the most widely revered and heavily criticized television drama/comedies. Influenced by the musical styling of Vonda Shepard (then, a virtual unknown on the music scene), the series was an eclectic and humorous blend of socially retarded misfits thrust together into the mélange of a Boston legal firm presided over by Richard Fish (Greg Germann); whose life pursuit seemed to teeter between accumulating vast amounts of money at any cost, and, a bizarre obsession with women's wattles.

Feminists decried the series for its flighty heroine, Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) as a throwback to the indecisive female of sit/coms in days of old, claiming that Ally was an insult to women in general and working women in particular. This snap analysis however, did not stop audiences from taking to the series with an almost religious following - tuning in each week to see the waifish attorney balance her own emotional psyche against an ever more curious roster of cases. Whether confronting threesome marriages or suing God, Ally tackled her workload with an apprehensive gusto for the law, love and life itself - thereby giving the series its emotional center.

The initial premise for the series stemmed from Ally's struggle to rid herself of the memory of a painful break up with her college lover, Billy Allen Thomas (Gil Bellows) who unfortunately worked at Cage, Fish and Associates and thereby was in constant proximity to Ally - creating sexually charged friction. Ditto for Billy's wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith); who came to work for the firm after losing her own place in litigation at a rival law office.

Ally's roommate, assistant DA, Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson) was constantly pricking Ally's insecurities in an attempt to illustrate just how insignificant and superficial they were to her, occasionally incurring Ally's wrath and distemper along the way. As a counterbalance, law associate John Cage (Peter McNichol) presented his own roster of emotional insecurities that, at times, seemed to overshadow Ally's and make her appear quite normal by direct comparison.

Also in the cast were ex-Broadway star, Jane Krakowski as the firm's obsessively curious and meddling secretary Elaine Vassal and Dianne Cannon as Richard's much older love interest and voice of reason, 'Whipper'.

Season One of Ally McBeal ultimately pivoted more on Ally's social life than on her caseload - a focus somewhat blunted in Season Two with the addition of Lucy Liu as Ling Woo - a client who eventually became a partner in the firm and develops a genuine distaste for the inner office dynamic of this inbred gathering. Also new to the firm in Season Two was Portia di Rossi as Nell Porter - the sometime object of John Cage's affections.

Reflecting on the series today, one can see its perceptive blend of sex-charged comedy and dramatic scenarios paving the way for HBO's Sex and the City; its light touch and memorable score (made up mostly of updated standards sung by Vonda Shepard in a bar located at the base of Richard's law firm) providing the perfect blend from which David E. Kelley had a veritable field day indulging in various back stories about the absurdities of the law.

Ally's quirky projections, both onto her own state of mind and perceptions of what others were thinking proved charming staples to the series. For example, when Billy confesses to Ally that he has married Georgia since their breakup a sudden flourish of imaginary projectile arrows pierce Ally in the heart. Likewise, when Elaine begins to natter on about her own proficiency, Ally perceives Elaine's head to be inflating like a balloon with her own self importance until Ally pops it.

But perhaps the most memorable of these surreal and imaginary gags was 'the dancing baby' - a computer generated, disco churning and diaper clad, cherub stepping to the tune of 'Hooked on A Feeling'. Symbolic of Ally's own biological ticking clock and sexual frustrations, the dancing baby made frequent appearances, thereby flustering Ally into several flawed love affairs along the way.

When David E. Kelley - who also produced and wrote all of the episodes to Seasons 1, 2 and 3, creatively moved on into developing The Practice for prime time, it was inevitable that a crossover of plots and characters would ensue. But in Season Four the series chose to kill off Gil Bellows character, thereby leaving the show without its sexually charged center. Shortly thereafter Robert Downey Jr. joined the cast as Ally's new love interest Larry Paul.

Regrettably, Downey's private demons prevented his continuation on the series and unfortunately, various attempts thereafter to resurrect the show's unique balance of character driven chemistry did not gel with audiences. As such, the ratings reflected the public's sudden and immediate loss of interest and Ally was canceled.

Due to music licensing issues, Ally McBeal has been absent from DVD since going off the air, save a rather claptrap assembly of six episodes plucked from Season One and repackaged as a compendium by Fox Home Video. But now, Fox gives us the real deal and a fitting tribute with Ally McBeal: The Complete Series - a handsomely bound 32 disc offering that includes all five seasons of this multi-Emmy Award-winning television drama/comedy.

Image quality is generally consistent with a very nicely remastered picture that is mostly sharp with rich, vibrant colors. Season One is presented full frame as originally aired with subsequent seasons all presented in anamorphic widescreen. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly soft or include some edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Flesh tones are slightly orange, but given the stylized lighting throughout the series, this is probably as intended. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital and remarkably aggressive during Vonda Shepard's vocal arrangements.

Extras include 'Bygone Days'; a retrospective documentary where most of the principal cast reunite to talk about their involvement on the show. There's also the Fox produced TV Special: The Life and Times of Ally McBeal narrated by Bill Maher and Season featurettes on seasons 2, 3 and 5 - plus a tribute entitled 'Goodbye, Ally'. Fox has also graciously included the crossover 'Axe Murderer' episode from season 2 of The Practice in which Ally's character appeared and Vonda Shepard's music video 'I Know Better'. Bottom line: for fans of the show this is Ally McBeal as one would want to remember her - with each episode intact and with enough extras to remind us all how good prime time TV used to be. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One: 4.5
Season Two: 5
Season Three: 4.5
Season Four: 4
Season Five: 3.5