Tuesday, May 28, 2013

CLEOPATRA: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1963) Fox Home Video

For decades the infamy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) has effectively obscured the virtues of its storytelling. By design it was a celebration of the aspirations of its production designer, ‘master builder’ John DeCuir (whose Roman forum set was actually one and a half times grander in scope and scale because DeCuir felt that the real forum was just not as impressive). But Cleopatra also spoke to Mankiewicz’s inspiration to make a damn fine film. The director toiled night and day, exhausting his own resources as well as those of 2oth Century-Fox; the latter nearly bankrupted by the time the film reached theaters where it could never be expected to recoup its initial outlay of $40 million. Even before cameras began rolling in Rome Cleopatra had already become an epic three times more expensive than William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Rounded up for today’s inflation, Cleopatra cost roughly $440 million of which less than half it earned back for Fox.
Even if the final cut had not veered wildly off course, Cleopatra quickly acquired a reputation for the perversity of its expenditures; cast and crew remaining on salary even when they were not working; chauffeur-driven cars supplied to supporting cast; a mineral water bill that could bankroll a third world revolution and daily balance sheets left quietly unchecked; an utter lack of budgetary supervision and costly delays due to weather, Elizabeth Taylor’s failing health, but also in order to satisfy crabby cameraman Leon Shamroy…etc., etc.  Still, it might have all worked out in the film’s favor had Mankiewicz been allowed to release two separate movies following the model of playwright George Bernard Shaw; the first, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’, the second, ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. At just a little under eight hours there was enough usable footage to achieve the director’s goal. But Spyros P. Skouras, then head of Fox, was leery of this high concept for several reasons, not the least of which was the studio’s desperate need for a hit movie in theaters to rebuild their ailing coffers.
The torrid extramarital affair between costars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had been tabloid fodder for months and Skouras was eager to capitalize on this before the public fascination cooled. However, two books chronicling the turbulent behind-the-scenes chaos, The Cleopatra Papers and My Life with Cleopatra, released just prior to the world premiere did much to dampen the movie’s reputation. It quickly degenerated into an easy target for pop camp and rank parody. But even these assaults paled in comparison to Taylor’s own outspoken condemnation, openly admitting to the press that “the final humiliation was having to go and see it.”  Taylor, who had initially refused to do the movie, had profited handsomely by the arrangement; reaping overdraft in the hundreds of thousands in addition to her already agreed upon million dollar salary (the highest ever then paid to a star for a single picture).
Yet, the movie had been an arduous affair for all concerned. Production Chief Johnny Johnston – a main staple in Mankiewicz’s employ died from a heart attack just as production at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios was getting underway. During the movie’s false start at Pinewood Studios in England, Elizabeth Taylor had almost succumbed to a virulent bout of pneumonia and had to have an emergency tracheotomy to save her life. In transitioning from England to Italy the production gave up its Edie Plan tax breaks, jettisoned most of its cast and crew, and, had to begin anew constructing sets on the back lot in Italy. Under such duress, Mankiewicz cobbled together his truncated masterpiece. Yet even at 320 min. Cleopatra occasionally seems bloated and meandering. Variety’s snap assessment of the film as “a series of coming attractions for something that will never come” did little to quell the initial giddy anxiety inside Fox’s corporate boardroom; a nervous friction easily rivaled by the film’s catastrophic box office.
Mankiewicz had committed body and soul to the point of physical collapse and the strain had taken everything out of him. Now, it all seemed hardly worth the effort. “Perhaps you know something I don’t,” Mankiewicz quipped to Burt Parks, MC at the New York World Premiere after being afforded a glowing accolade about the general importance and overall stature of his movie. It was a prophetic epitaph. For although the careers of costars Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would emerge from this financial debacle virtually unscathed, the reputations of producer Walter Wanger and Mankiewicz would never recover: neither worked in movies again. The irony, of course is that in re-viewing Cleopatra today - some fifty years removed from all the gossip and hype - there is a great deal to admire and absorb; much more than either the critics or audiences of its day gave the film or Mankiewicz credit. Despite the studio’s additional tampering, whittling down the run time even further to accommodate multiple showings, Cleopatra is perhaps ‘the most influential film of the sixties’; an assessment first offered by eminent commercial artist Andy Warhol.
To his dying day Mankiewicz pleaded with Fox – unsuccessfully - to reassemble the story into two separate films. Mankiewicz did not live to see the day (he died on February 5, 1993). But in 1995 Fox launched a worldwide search for Cleopatra’s missing footage – nearly three hours in all, long since excised and now – regrettably – presumed to have been discarded by the studio. What a thrill it would have been to have the opportunity to re-judge Cleopatra on those terms as the movie masterpiece(s) Mankiewicz had envisioned; a super colossus instead of the lavish claptrap it ultimately is.
Cleopatra had been a great 1917 silent movie for Fox vamp Theda Bara and a lavish 1934 Cecil B. DeMille epic starring the sultry Claudette Colbert. Yet the decision to remake Cleopatra on such a titanic scale had followed a very insidious run of bad luck at Fox. The studio needed a hit; ‘mega’, if possible, but sizable success either way if Fox was to continue making movies at all. With television uniformly cutting theater attendance by nearly forty percent and the added stress of divestiture from its once prominent theater chain, Skouras compounded the exodus of talent and real estate by liquidating Fox’s back lot of free standing sets to a high-rise developer – considered by many to be second only to MGM’s. But this financial reprieve was temporary at best.
In its initial phase, Cleopatra seemed destined to be made as a modestly budgeted (under two million) sword and sandal quickie starring Fox contract player, Joan Collins. Two overriding factors prevented the project from proceeding as planned; one - Walter Wanger’s driving ambition and two; a gross naiveté on the part of Skouras in his belief in Wanger’s claim that their hefty investment would yield equally impressive box office returns.  As Cleopatra’s budget swelled to $5 million Wanger pursued Elizabeth Taylor for its star, a proposition Taylor thought ludicrous until Wanger agreed to her casual deterrent of a million dollar salary. Taylor was shocked; even more so when her additional demands to shoot the picture abroad, in Todd A-O and with her own choice of director were willingly approved. Regrettably, England’s shoot was anything but smooth. Perpetual rainfall took its toll on the paper mache sets and Taylor’s health. Unable to distill clarity from the chaos, director Rouben Mamoulian was fired, the film’s cast – except for Taylor – dismissed, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought in. Shifting locales from London to Rome generated heat of a different kind when Taylor began carrying on with co-star Richard Burton.
While Mankiewicz directed by day and wrote his script by night Cleopatra slowly began to spiral out of control. Falling behind schedule and going way over budget, Mankiewicz endured constant threats from the studio to either cancel the movie or fire him. These added strain to the already unwieldy production. The extras grumbled even more – about their skimpy costumes and the hot sun. At one point Skouras asked Mankiewicz for a final budget; the monumental figure quoted by the director only a ballpark of where the movies was headed. Unable to go to the Fox shareholders with this princely sum, Skouras instead indulged in a bit of his own creative book-keeping that eventually would get him broomed out of the executive suite.
Cleopatra is basically the story of three formidable titans doomed to the notorious quagmire of history. We first meet Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in his final military campaign against the forces of Pompey. Having secured another victory for Rome Caesar journeys to the port city of Alexandria Egypt for an audience with the joint rulers of the land: Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Caesar quickly discovers that Ptolemy has already launched a palace coup forcing Cleopatra into exile. Ptolemy makes Caesar a gift of Pompey’s severed head; a gruesome reward that does not gain Caesar’s favor.
Later, Cleopatra reenters the palace, disguised in a rug slung over the shoulder of her trusted protector, Apollodorus (Cesare Danova). She warns Caesar that her brother’s forces have surrounded the palace and intend to murder him. In response, Caesar orders his Centurions to burn the Egyptian fleet. The fire spreads to the city, destroying the library where many sacred documents, including the original remnants of the Bible are stored.  Cleopatra is outraged, but her distemper is quelled by a passionate embrace. Ptolemy’s forces attack. Yet Caesar’s brilliant military strategies keeps them at bay. Ptolemy and his lord chamberlain, Theodotos (Herbert Berghof) are brought to justice and sentenced to death for their assassination attempt on Cleopatra who is shortly thereafter crowned the undisputed Queen of Egypt.
Cleopatra’s happiness is tied up with Caesar; a bond made more precarious for the Romans when their illegitimate son, Caesarion (Loris Loddi) is born. Caesar’s pride and acceptance of the child as his heir apparent becomes a scandal for Rome heatedly debated in the Senate. Two years pass. Caesar is made dictator of Rome – a ceremonial post that falls short of his expectations to be king; an anathema to his people. Nevertheless, Caesar sends for Cleopatra who arrives resplendent in a lavish processional that instantly garners the adulation of the Roman people. Despite symbols of foreboding from both his wife Calpurnia (Gwen Watford) and Cleopatra, Caesar enters the Senate where he is brutally murdered.
Caesar’s nephew Octavian Caesar Augustus (Roddy McDowell) is appointed heir apparent, tendering Cleopatra’s position in Rome tentative at best and highly volatile at its worst. Marc Antony (Richard Burton) spirits the queen and her young son away on a barge, promising to avenge Caesar. Two years later Antony’s mission is accomplished. He has caught and put to death all the senators responsible for Caesar’s murder and established a second triumvirate with Octavian. The empire is divided. Antony takes control of the eastern provinces and, like Caesar before him, makes his pilgrimage to Egypt where he too finds passion in the queen’s arms. Cleopatra is consumed by her love for Antony and equally devoured by a venomous rage when she learns he has returned to his wife Octavia (Jean Marsh). Hence, when Antony returns to Egypt many months later, on a military campaign in Parthia, Cleopatra coolly denies him her audience; eventually agreeing to a détente in Tarsus aboard her royal barge.
There Antony becomes a piteous and slovenly drunk. Cleopatra exploits the moment to make a fool of him in public. Bursting into her bedchamber for a night of violent love-making, news of Antony’s seduction reaches Octavian who uses the affair to smear Antony’s good name back in Rome. Antony is forced to grovel at the queen’s behest; an acquiescence that includes a divorce from his wife, Octavia. Branded ‘the Egyptian whore’ by Octavian, who uses the circumstances of Antony’s will – that he should be buried in Egypt/not Rome – for his own campaign of war against Egypt, Rome’s forces begin their preparations to march on Alexandria; a decision stirred into near religious fervor when Octavian publicly murders the ever-loyal Egyptian Ambassador, Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn) on the Senate steps.
The naval Battle at Actium decimates Antony's legions. His devoted second in command, Ruffio (Martin Landau) commits suicide. Cleopatra stirs Antony to challenge Octavian’s forces on Egyptian soil – a battle already lost in Antony’s mind and affirmed when the Romans refuse to fight Antony, but instead regard him as a pathetic figure of fun. Disgraced Antony returns to the palace where Apollodorus - believing him unworthy of the queen - convinces Antony that Cleopatra has died, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Octavian conquers the city without bloodshed. But his plans to return to Rome in triumph with Cleopatra as his slave are thwarted when she arranges to be bitten by a poisonous asp. Infuriated, Octavian asks Cleopatra’s devoted servant, Charmian (Isabelle Cooley), who has also been bitten by the asp and lays dying at her queen’s feet, if the deed was done ‘well’ to which Charmian replies, “Extremely well, as befitting of the last of so many noble rulers.”
Cleopatra is an undeniably resplendent epic – perhaps the last of its kind. Yet, it is not like other epics of its vintage, rather something of an impressively overwrought and overproduced soap opera; its central appeal still the rumored backstage badinage between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The acting throughout is very fine; the production values finer still, and Mankiewicz’s direction, although curiously uncustomary from his usual, nevertheless is more than serviceable with the material at hand. Yet, Cleopatra never seems to attain the sort of immortality afforded epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959). Perhaps the absence of a religious subtext is to blame. The 1934 version of Cleopatra had done more than merely hint at Paganism. But this 1963 remake never concerns itself with anything more, or perhaps better, than this romantic ménage a trois.
Rex Harrison’s formidable display in the first half of the movie is weakened by his absence immediately following the intermission. Richard Burton is an impressive actor to be sure, and arguably a successor to Harrison. But his Marc Antony is a lumbering, heart sore and very weak-kneed sister to Harrison’s towering figurehead. Also, it remains one of the movie’s many curiosities that the smoldering heat so obviously generated by the Burton/Taylor affair behind the scenes never escalates to anything greater than embers on the expansive Todd A-O screen; the couple’s slinky embraces and tender pas deux bested by their backstage reputations as red-hot lovers. Without question, the real star of Cleopatra is John DeCuir’s production design; utterly lavish, regal and meticulously researched down to the last detail. Regrettably, here too the spectacle is distilled into a sort of absurd fashion parade with the antiquity spilling over into the then contemporary high-trend fashion marketplace; endlessly aped and exploited by clothing designers and makeup companies.
To say that Mankiewicz’s involvement on Cleopatra instantly elevated the film’s potential from B-grade quickie to A-list colossus is a bit much, but there’s no denying that the buzz in Hollywood then was that Cleopatra would be one of the greatest movie epics of all time. Tragically, this never happened. What began as a ten week scheduled shoot in Rome quickly escalated into a ten month ordeal buffered by bad timing and ill-planning. At one point, it was estimated that the delays were adding $70,000 of debt to the movie’s bottom line per day, with Elizabeth Taylor’s overtime alone costing the studio $50,000 a week. Hence, the obvious virtues of the production were being submarined by its grotesque budgetary mismanagement; a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the corporate boardroom and slowly trickling out to the press. The oppressiveness of this exercise entirely rests on Mankiewicz’s shoulders and, unfortunately, is occasionally apparent in the finished film.
At times Taylor seems bored or at the very least visibly displeased with herself, while Burton infrequently appears to have found his lines merely amusing. This leaves Rex Harrison as the standout performer – delivering a peerless and very stately Caesar indeed. But he’s only a third of the show and featured in less than half. Without him, the narrative waffles – badly at times – in a sort of ‘what’s to become of me?’ limbo, infrequently resurrected by Mankiewicz’s attempts to seize the reigns and steer his production back on course. Undeniably, the last act is hampered by a final insult – the cutting off of purse strings from Fox’s front office after Darryl F. Zanuck’s triumphant takeover and ousting of Spiros Skouras; the latter a middling executive at best who blindly believed he could ride out the maelstrom. But then, there are the ramifications of Zanuck’s own tampering to ponder.
In its late stages, Zanuck began to tinker with Cleopatra’s continuity without Mankiewicz’s approval or input. Zanuck did eventually recall the director into the editor’s chair, but by then even Mankiewicz had had quite enough of the doomed Egyptian queen. At 320 min. the movie’s theatrical cut is elephantine without ever achieving its trajectory as a truly epic masterpiece. In the final analysis, Cleopatra remains ‘the monumental mouse’ the New York Times so declared in 1963. It is a fascinating catastrophe; a magnificent flop and a marvelous spectacle all at once; a collaborative misfire the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before and is unlikely to ever witness again.
Does this mean Cleopatra is a clunker? Arguably, no. The artistic merits of the movie are as gargantuan as its mistakes. This keeps the movie in a sort of precarious ‘checks and balances’; impossible to dismiss outright. Real failure is easy to spot and label. But Cleopatra isn’t the genuine article. It rises to the occasion as an enthralling entertainment periodically, but just enough to salvage the enterprise from being a total waste of time. The threat of absolute implosion never fully materializes and this keeps our fascination perennially above the water line. We wait for that moment when our patience is pushed over the edge, to completely bash the movie as nothing better than over-produced tripe, yet are pleasantly surprised when this seemingly inevitable moment is denied us. Is the manipulation deliberate? Hardly - more likely just some unhappy, or very lucky chance; the staving off of our collective ennui making the movie more impressive as a topic of discussion all these many years later. Cleopatra therefore holds a very dubious distinction. It isn’t a bad movie. Haplessly, it isn’t a great one either.
Fox has outdone itself on this hi-def Blu-ray. First up, Cleopatra is offered in a bare-bones two-pack or an exquisitely produced digi-book. My opinion is that you invest in the digi-book; handsomely, yet succinctly produced with good linear notes and a spectacular array of vintage photographs reproduced in full color. Wow!  The disc content for both releases is virtually identical. For starters, we get the movie looking absolutely fabulous; the spectacle all the more vibrant and pronounced for having been re-scanned in full 1080p. Colors pop off the screen. Fine detail is superbly realized. Contrast is exceptional. Age related artifacts are not an issue and film grain looks very natural indeed. You will be amazed – decidedly so – and perhaps even more by the gorgeous DTS 5.1 audio that reveals subtle  nuances in Alex North’s score. Dialogue sounds better than ever. Honestly, this is really good stuff.
Extras are also very impressive. For starters, we get ‘Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood’ – a 2 hr. plus chronicle of the movie’s debacle and resurrection as a pop-u-tainment with an abundance of archival footage and interviews. Truly, it’s one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on the making of a movie. I dare say I think I like it better than the movie itself! We also get a vintage featurette ‘The Fourth Star of Cleopatra’, and, a lengthy audio commentary from Martin Landau and others. These were all extras jam-packed onto Fox’s Five Star DVD from 2000. But this Blu-ray has also given us several newly produced gems; Cleopatra Through the Ages gives us a look and insight into the real queen and the ‘reel’ pretenders who have long since deposed her memory. There’s also, Cleopatra’s Missing Footage – a featurette that explains how short-sightedness on Fox’s part back in the 1970s led to virtually all of Mankiewicz’s extemporaneous archival material being junked. There’s also ‘The Cleopatra Papers’ a private correspondence that is fascinating. Fox pads out the extras with vintage ‘Movietone’ news reels and snippets taken at the Hollywood premiere. Yep folks, if you’re a fan of Cleopatra then Fox’s new Blu-ray is a must own experience; very classily put together. For Fox – it’s nice to see, for a change!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 23, 2013

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1945) Twilight Time

With its bleak and foreboding subtext of all-consuming jealousy saturating virtually every frame, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven (1945) remains an impressively perverse and diabolically delicious noir thriller – albeit bedecked in the uncharacteristic trappings of a ravishing 3-strip Technicolor extravaganza extolling the ruggedly handsome and bucolic scenery of New Mexico, Arizona and California Sierra’s Bass Lake. Based on the gripping page turner by Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her To Heaven unfurls more than a modicum of disdain for the fairer sex, herein presented either as a malignancy unleashed upon the uncomplicated world of our male protagonist, writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) or vacuous purity, dulcet while not nearly as intoxicating as the elixir of unscrupulous venom encapsulated in a statuesque beauty, masking a very diseased mind.
Gene Tierney, a stunningly beautiful creature, whose private life would come to mirror at least part of her character’s odd derangement in years yet to follow, is cast as Ellen Berent – an impossible gorgeous woman with piercing blue eyes and lips so lusciously red one could almost believe they had just devoured a rosebush. Tierney, who only a few short years earlier had been miscast as everything from the burgeoning gunslinger Belle Starr (1941) to an oversexed country bumpkin (Tobacco Road 1941), was a very peculiar bird of paradise indeed, thankfully being groomed for better things. On her way to stardom she defied her mentors to marry fashion designer Oleg Cassini; a move that nearly ended her contract at Fox but provided Gene with the necessary escapism from her increasing anxieties at work – at least, for a time.
Knowing how the last act of Gene Tierney’s own life ended – in and out of asylums, enduring electroshock therapy and plagued by crippling bouts of memory loss – unintentionally overshadows her characterization of Ellen Berent in Leave Her To Heaven with an unintentionally eerie subtext that is impossible to overlook.  Is she playing the part as written or exposing the first prominent glimpses of that deeper darkness soon to infest her own well-being? We’re never quite sure and perhaps neither is she; with fatalism oozing like sap from every pore, her eyes bizarrely vacant; her lips moist yet lacking inner warmth.  In the wake of Hurricane Tierney the rest of the cast merely cling for their lives to Jo Swerling’s screenplay; a cacophony of twisted implosions drawing us nearer to the inevitable and penultimate moment of self-destruction.  
Yet, director John Stahl is clever and restrained enough never to allow the toxicity of his star to devolve into grand guinol or worse - rank melodrama that stokes the already three alarm blaze of Ellen’s demented plotting. It’s all just as well, because Tierney’s characterization is far more subtly nuanced. For although Ellen commits despicable to downright vial acts throughout the film – murdering Richard’s crippled brother, Danny (Daryl Hickman) and deliberately killing her own unborn child in a sort of ‘homemade abortion’ by throwing herself down a flight of stairs – our fascination (rather than our repugnancy) is always with her from first moment to the last. She’s a devil; soulless beneath all that glacial exoticism and ever more the imperious gargoyle from under that blood red-lipped congenial smile.
Yet, Ellen Berent is defiantly compelling – not as incarnated death or even the tragically flawed possessive female imbued with the specter of a viper - or is it just rank jealously run amuck – but with a spellbinding Janus-faced austerity; unwilling to pull back from her ‘scorched earth’ desire to completely captivate, yet utterly incapable of perceiving the cataclysms in her own wickedness.  Leave Her To Heaven was a project personally supervised by Darryl F. Zanuck – a vehicle designed to catapult Tierney into the stratosphere of super stardom. The movie does just that. Tierney received her one and only Oscar nod for Leave Her To Heaven, losing out to Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce.  
Cornel Wilde is often overlooked in reviews of this movie; the undeniable ‘male beauty’ and muscled eye-candy destined to pay dearly for his spur of the moment curiosity aboard a westbound train; thereafter blindly following the enflamed desire of his loins to his own detriment – a fleeting glimpse of salvation tacked on for good measure just before the final fade out. But Wilde’s brooding author is so much more than just the misguided sexy fop who cannot fathom the evil he has brought into his bedroom. There’s an uncanny uncertainty to his performance, a mounting perplexity that tantalizes from the peripheries. In the 1980s, film scholarship infrequently referenced this as the character’s closeted homosexuality, although upon repeat viewing it tends to play much more like enfeebled naiveté.  
While the audience is likely to scream out ‘can’t you see she’s no good!’ long before such a revelation comes into Richard’s mind or heart, the moment when he is confronted at trial by venomous district attorney, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) badgering interrogation – a man who also happens to be Ellen’s ex-fiancée (no conflict of interest there, I’m sure!) with the supposed fancifulness of Ellen’s own heartless brutality since past and having matured him in a more sobering way – begrudgingly confessing to the world that “Yes…she was that kind of monster!” is both a cathartic release for Richard as much as it shatters what, until this moment, seemed an unbreakable loyalty to a woman he once thought he could never live without.
Setting aside for a moment that the movie is photographed in lurid Technicolor, Leave Her To Heaven has all the earmarks of a classic film noir; beginning at the end of our story instead of the beginning; with novelist Richard Harland’s (Cornel Wilde) return home after two long years in prison. The story is regaled to us by Richard’s friend and attorney (Ray Collins); beginning with Richard’s fate sealed mere moments after his reluctant ‘cute meet’ with the beautiful, but decidedly remote socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a train heading for New Mexico. Richard’s initial interest in Ellen is predicated on the fact that she is reading one of his books, seemingly without realizing the author is in her midst.  Nevertheless, Ellen instantly falls in love with Richard, primarily because of his resemblance to her late father whom she was obsessively attached.
In this early scene one can already sense an element of the damned about Ellen Berent or, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quoted, “leave her to heaven…and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” While Richard’s gaze is adoringly playful yet cursed by his inability to look beyond Ellen’s fetching visage, her reciprocated stare is both penetrating and suggestively emasculating. It unsettles Richard – who attempts to feign nonchalance and even disinterest, but ends up burning his fingers on a lit match instead. This is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, for Richard Harland is about to get a very nasty third degree burn; first from Ellen’s jilted fiancé, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) who can plainly see that Ellen’s commitment to him has cooled beyond the point where she has decided to marry Richard on a spur of the moment.
The whirlwind of this decision is news to Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) and her younger sister, Ruth (the impossibly precocious Jeanne Crain) but it also turns Richard’s head. He is not thinking clearly at all but rather caught in full ‘chest-thumping’ mode, enraptured by the perversity of the notion – having stolen another man’s prized trophy right out from under his nose. Ellen is a feather in Richard’s cap; a very regal plumage to be sure, but one pricklier than the quills of a porcupine. The next afternoon as Richard observes Ellen astride her palomino, spreading the ashes of her cremated father across the barren desert landscape a queer sense of foreboding loss suddenly overtakes him; perhaps his first fleeting realization that in forgoing Russell’s proposal Ellen has begun to turn his own life to excrement.
Regrettably, what lies ahead will mimic more the trappings of a nightmare than euphoric marital bliss. The most immediate fly in Ellen’s ointment is Richard’s disabled brother, Danny (Daryl Hickman); the one true innocent and loving brother who takes an immediate shine to Ellen as the sister/mother figure he hasn’t had in a very long while. Like all her relationships, Ellen’s initial regard for Danny is tainted with a savage possessiveness to monopolize all of Richard’s time and energies. She tolerates and plies the boy with faux kindness that, at least on the surface, mimics loving concern, while secretly plotting to either keep him in the sanitarium or send him away to boarding school so that she can have Richard all to herself.  When Danny refuses to go on her proposed ‘holiday’ Ellen decides there is only one alternative; to dispose of Danny and make it look like an accident.
Ellen coaxes Danny into his daily swim in the pristine lake, despite the fact that its frigid waters are likely to induce a cramp in his already weakened leg muscles. When the cramp does catch the boy off guard, compounded by a dangerous undertow, Ellen quietly sits back with an almost paralytic – certainly, demonic – fascination as she watches Danny slip beneath the calm to his watery grave. Only after she is assured Danny is beyond rescue does Ellen make a dramatic dive after him – done entirely for effect, knowing she will return with a body in the child’s stead. Danny’s death all but destroys Richard’s ability to concentrate on his latest novel. He becomes despondent and aloof – his grief counterintuitive to Ellen’s desire to completely possess him. In his despair Richard turns to Ruth – not sexually – but because he senses in her a more understanding heart; someone who can convalesce and empathize with that vacancy in his own; a void Ellen cannot fill.
Enraged and even suggesting to Richard that he has begun to harbor romantic feelings towards her own sister, Ellen next methodically plots to get pregnant; then has misgivings about the imminent birth ruining her figure, and moreover, detracting from the time Richard is likely to spend exclusively with her. Instead, she plots a more sinister revenge; placing her own life in jeopardy by throwing herself down a flight of stairs to induce a miscarriage. Ellen loses the child. But she has also aborted whatever waning remnants of affection Richard may have had for her. In fact, it has finally donned on Richard that his wife may have deliberately caused the death of Danny and their child. Painted into an impossible corner from which she can perceive no other escape Ellen decides to poison herself; ruthlessly framing her sister as her everlasting revenge to keep Ruth and Richard apart by sending a phony confession letter to Russell Quinton moments before she expires.
Ruth is placed on trial for murder; the prosecution mercilessly pounding away at her alibi and pressuring her to confess her love for Richard. Realizing the sacrifice Ruth has made, and what it will cost her, Richard takes the witness stand in defense of her honor. He testifies under oath that Ellen was insanely jealous of anyone who showed even a remote kindness to him; and reveals that his late wife was responsible for Danny’s death and the murder of their unborn child. Richard’s testimony exonerates Ruth. But it also convinces the prosecution of his own complicity in his brother’s homicide by withholding crucial evidence at the time about Ellen’s actions. We return to the present; the flashback concluding with Richard’s weary return home where he is met by a longing embrace from Ruth.
Leave Her to Heaven is a superior melodrama; full of incendiary suffrage and heart-wrenching turmoil – just the sort of celluloid fodder forties film lovers could not resist – and didn’t. Viewed today, it continues to pack a wallop, ably abetted by Alfred Newman’s ominous score; the main title and central theme a sort of heavenly choir singing slightly off key; suggestively heralding the arrival of our Median tragic goddess. Leon Shamroy, the caustic cameraman, infamous for making actors wait until clouds in the sky had convened into a visually pleasing array, has lensed some of the most sumptuous sequences ever devised for the movies; his meticulous attention to detail, down to casting artificial shadows on the ground in specifically arranged patterns, creates an ever-constricting sense of claustrophobia.   
It should be noted that all incarnations of this classy color noir, including Twilight Time’s Blu-ray are not derived from 3-strip Technicolor fine grain elements for the simple reason that no such footage exists. Regrettably in 1976 Fox decided to ‘transfer’ all of its highly flammable nitrate stock by taking original 3-strip Technicolor negatives and without testing them simply combining their individual records into a single dupe negative. As a result of this shortsightedness virtually all of Fox’s Technicolor masterpieces from 1930-1949 have been at the mercy of print masters often plagued by blown out contrast levels and an inherent exaggeration of film grain. To add insult to this injurious assassination of film art, virtually all of the original 3-strip elements and every B&W nitrate negative was junked – rumor has it, by being taken into the middle of the ocean on a barge and cast over the side. The only salvation herein, and it is a minor concession at best, is that Fox’s nitrate print masters all went to UCLA; custodians better equipped to maintain and preserve them for posterity.
So, what does any of this mean for Leave Her To Heaven on Blu-ray. Well, for starters I’ll simply point out that the image on display is NOT glorious Technicolor but colorfully Technicolor-esque; an aping of both the clarity and vibrancy that in no way replicates the true intent of Leon Shamroy’s fastidious craftsmanship. Now, for the good news. Those unaccustomed to what true Technicolor should look like will be extremely pleased with the results. Leave Her To Heaven sports a rather impressive 1080p rendering. Thanks to the many digital tools currently available this restoration may not be an exact replica of the film as audiences first saw it in 1945. On the other hand, and for the most part, it’s not all that far off.
Apart from a scant amount of built in flicker during the scene in the hospital where Richard learns that Ellen has lost their baby, the image is razor sharp and rock solid. Contrast is strong and colors – although untrue to the golden age of Technicolor, are nevertheless closer to their original intent than ever before. The work that has gone into making Leave Her To Heaven look this good ought to be commended. There is nothing more that could have been done under these circumstances. So, kudos to Fox and Twilight Time. Also, the DTS audio yields a richness and precision, particularly to Alfred Newman’s dominant underscoring that has never before been heard. Newman’s music also appears on an isolated track – a blessing that all Twilight Time releases have thus far been accorded. The only other extra is a rather meandering audio commentary that accompanied Fox’s original DVD release from 2002.
I will voice one pet peeve that I have already made known elsewhere regarding Twilight Time releases and it is this; their cover art continues to be quite atrocious. I’m not all that savvy with Photoshop but even I can do better cover art than this! Personally, I would have more respect for these releases if they simply adhered to using original marketing campaigns and poster art. On the inside sleeve we get a reproduction of the original poster art for Leave Her To Heaven. I have already rescanned and reformatted it to fit over the front cover of my Blu-ray. Otherwise, top marks are in order. Again, this isn’t Technicolor – but it is a vast improvement over Fox’s DVD and it does come highly recommended! Let’s hope we see more of the same. Wilson, anyone?!?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

WHITE HEAT: Blu-ray (WB 1949) Warner Home Video

Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) is an exuberant epitaph to the classic gangster movie; the last hurrah of James Cagney’s screen reprobates that had been his, and Warner Bros., bread and butter throughout the 1930s and early 40s, before the actor moved into character parts for the rest of his career. By the mid-1940s Cagney had segued from playing thugs. He had even won his one and only Oscar portraying Broadway’s James M. Cohan in the patriotic musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Yet the grime of this subgenre still clung to Cagney’s on-screen persona; even if it had been blunted by the mid-1930s with Hollywood’s self-governing board of censorship that absolutely forbade any explicit glorification of the mob lifestyle. Nevertheless, WB, the studio that had made an art form out of these ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories of gritty realism had found creative ways to sidestep the Breen office. Even so, the proof of Cagney’s enduring legacy as a ruthless Mafioso has been ensconced in the minds of movie lovers everywhere, the emblematic line “You dirty rat…” endlessly lampooned and parodied when the actor’s iconography is invoked by comedians and impersonators alike.
By the late 1930s the gangster movie had gradually morphed into something else entirely: the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ noir/detective melodrama with its focus shifting to lawmen responsible for apprehending the bad guys, but also with a decidedly psychological underpinning – almost an apology or explanation to illustrate for the audience why the criminal element was as it appeared. As the decade wore on the mugs, thugs and their molls were downgraded even further as figures of fun in movies like A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Brother Orchid (1940); entertaining, but a far cry from the diabolical loose cannons depicted in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (both made in 1931).
In many ways White Heat is a retrofitted gangster movie; reintroducing the time-honored clichés and conventions while ever so slightly tweaking the formula to reflect changes in the Production Code and keep the censors happy. James Cagney reprises the role of an unrepentant and enterprising gangland thug, though perhaps nowhere more astutely than with his Cody Jarrett, an imploding and very tortured psychotic. In as much as it is virtually impossible to work up even a modicum of pity for this impenitent killer whose only real pleasure is derived from eluding the law, by virtue of his own screen presence, James Cagney makes it incredibly hard for us to entirely discount Cody Jarrett as nothing more - or even better - than a lunatic with a gat in his hand. 
It’s not sympathy that Cagney’ criminal is after but a sort of waning respect – perhaps a commodity his middle-aged self has suddenly begun to realize he will never possess despite his daring anti-heroic deeds. Cody Jarrett might have envisioned himself a Tom Power – the ultra-violent and slightly sexy incarnation Cagney had created in The Public Enemy – only he isn’t a young man anymore, but a slightly paunchy and very angry elder statesman past his physical prime, with deeper psychological issues lurking beneath his beady-eyed glower. Infrequently, Cody’s fractured sanity gets the better of him. He suffers crippling bouts of some sort of epilepsy that liquidate his usual confidence into a whimpering mass of contradictions plagued by primal doubts and mounting insecurities; perhaps, that his once undisputed mystique as an underworld figure has been eroded away.
The middle third of White Heat is a departure from the classic gangster movie; belonging almost exclusively to a prolonged ‘G-man’ scenario owing to the aforementioned ‘crime doesn’t pay’ edict, as Hank Fallon – a.k.a. Vic Pardo (Edmund O’Brien) – an undercover planted in Cody’s prison cell – feverishly works to ‘befriend’ him so he can gain Cody’s confidence and a confession that will send him to the gas chamber. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay deftly butts the conventions of the gangster genre against those belonging to the more streamlined ‘police procedural’ crime story. The two narratives run a parallel course for the bulk of the movie – book-ended by escapist flights back into the looming darkness of a more undiluted homage to the classic gangster yarn.     
We begin our excursion with the beginning of the end. Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang stage a daring train robbery, murdering the conductor and three others in cold blood before making off with a mint. Cody shoots the train’s engineer, causing his hand to slip on the brake. A powerful blast of piping hot steam sears Cody’s accomplice, Zuckie (Ford Rainey) who is helped into the getaway car by fellow accomplices, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) and Cotton Vallenti (Wally Cassell). Hold up in an isolated cottage with his young wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo) and scheming matriarch, Ma (Margaret Wycherly), Cody superficially promises Cotton that he will get Zuckie the medical attention he needs for his burns. Actually, Cody has no intention of sending Zuckie to the hospital. To do so would incriminate them all in the daring heist. After admonishing Big Ed for the way he seems to be flirting with Verna, Cody suffers one of his debilitating ‘headaches’ and rushes into the next room clutching his head. He is attended to by Ma – a diabolical and sycophantic influence who gives her son a shot of whiskey to steady his nerves, exclaiming, ‘top of the world’ – a phrase that will have acquired a more ominous distinction by the end of the story.
Verna is a schemer. It’s also suggested that she used to be a working girl before Cody made an honest woman of her. But this veneer is thin at best. Verna would prefer a life of diamonds and sables, of parties and getaways. More recently, she has steadily begun to realize that Cody isn’t the man who’ll be able to give her what she wants. But she can’t just leave. Nobody ever walks out on Cody Jarrett. So instead she continued to play the part of his dutiful gal Friday who can satisfy the one impetuous urge mama cannot, even as she continues to cast her net for her husband’s ambitious right-hand man, Ed.
A sudden storm provides the perfect cover for Cody and his men to make a break from the cabin; only Cody has already decided to leave Zuckie behind. He is encouraged by Ma to go one better and put a definite period to Zuckie suffering with a bullet. Instead, Cody passes off the responsibility to Cotton, who outwardly agrees; then sneaks back into the cabin, firing two shots into the ceiling instead – telling Zuckie that, if at all possible, he will send help back. Regrettably, by the time help arrives Zuckie has died of his first degree burns.
The narrative shifts to the Tahoe County Morgue where US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) has already deduced that the dead man was a part of Cody’s mob. Through some clever police work Evans tails Ma from the local market back to the Milbanke Motel – a quiet little nothing on the highway where Cody and Verna are already feverishly packing for the next length of their escape. Evans confronts Cody in the parking lot and is wounded in the arm. Cody, Ma and Verna drive off. But even Cody realizes he cannot outrun the law. So he comes up with an even more brilliant plan. He will confess to a robbery of the Palace Hotel – a lesser crime occurring at approximately the same time as the train robbery; thereby giving him the perfect alibi. The maximum sentence for this heist is only one to three years. The courts accept Cody’s guilty plea. But Evans is no fool. He wants Cody to fry for the train robbery and murders.
So he plants undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in Jarrett’s prison cell. Fallon has spent his career coercing confessions from convicted men on the inside, playing a con named Vic Pardo. Fallon’s other central purpose is to learn the true identity of Cody’s ‘Trader’ – Winston (Fred Clark); the fence who’s been laundering his stolen money. For Big Ed, Cody’s incarceration presents the perfect opportunity to muscle in on his lifestyle and Verna while doing away with his former boss. Ed pays a fellow convict, Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle) to drop a heavy piece of machinery in the prison’s workshop on Cody. But the plot goes awry when Pardo sees what’s about to happen and pushes Cody out of the way, thereby saving his life. Cody is grateful to Pardo but still not entirely willing to befriend him as a confidant. He’s sure of only one thing. That Big Ed must die. So, on visiting day Cody confides to Ma his suspicions. She concurs and promises to ‘take care’ of Big Ed herself in short order.
Regrettably, life on the inside isn’t what Cody imagined. Before long he begins to be plagued with crippling self-doubt and worry. Cody’s world all but implodes when word leaks from the outside that Ma has died – or perhaps has been killed by Ed – sending Cody into a mental tailspin. He loses it in the mess hall and tears the place apart, but is eventually subdued by guards and carried off to the infirmary where prison doctors diagnose him with psychosis – the same condition that led to his late father’s lifelong commitment to an asylum. Pardo pleads with Cody not to do this crazy thing. In fact, Pardo has begun to develop a curious empathy for Cody. He can see that the man is hardly responsible for his own actions but rather dictated to by some terrible internal derangement that has taken control of him. Still, it’s no use. Cody wants out. He takes hostages, cellmates Pardo and Parker, the latter whom he locks in the trunk of their getaway car and later cold-bloodedly murders for the near fatal machine shop incident on his life.
Meanwhile Big Ed has learned of Cody’s escape and is nervously awaiting his return. Realizing that she is in between the proverbial rock and hard place, Verna makes a desperate attempt to slip away. She is apprehended by Cody, but lies to him that Ed murdered Ma. In fact, Verna was the one who shot Ma in the back. The gang reunites and welcomes the new escapees into the fold including Pardo whom Cody is insistent will share in the proceeds from the train robbery for helping him escape. Cody dispatches with Ed in short order. But Pardo is amazed when he is taken even further in Cody’s confidence, introduced to Winston – the fence he has been looking for all along.
The story now shifts to its climactic showdown. To forever secure his good fortune Cody has concocted a scheme to make off with the payroll from a Long Beach chemical plant, using a tanker as the gang’s Trojan horse. Realizing that Cody and his boys will likely disappear after the heist, Pardo sneaks off to get a message to Evans. Regrettably, the tanker’s driver, Creel (Ian MacDonald) instantly recognizes Pardo as Fallon; the informant who set him up. Faced with the truth, Cody takes Pardo as his hostage to the chemical plant – perhaps intent on killing him once the robbery is complete. Instead, Evans and the police arrive on the scene, firing tear gas into the gang who frantically disperse and are thereafter shot dead by the police in short order. Cody makes a break, fleeing to the top of a bulbous gasoline storage tank. He will never be taken alive. Thus when Fallon shoots Cody with his rifle, the maniacal madman points his gun at the storage tank beneath his feet instead, defiantly shouting “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” The tank and several nearby ignite from the sparks into a hellish and all-consuming fireball as Evans and Fallon look on in disbelief.
White Heat is justly famous for this penultimate moment of defiance and retribution; in retrospect a fond farewell to the gangster genre in totem. Cagney is superb as the self-destructive hood who would rather burn to a crisp than face the consequences of his actions like a man. Until this moment Cagney’s Cody Jarrett had been just another mindless, cold-hearted, gun-toting cutthroat looking for his next big fix. But with this decision to destroy the only person he ever truly loved – himself – his apprenticeship from common goon to iconic brute is complete.
Cody Jarrett comes from a long line of emblematic criminals who have graced the gangster subgenre with their bizarre mother fixations. Herein, Raoul Walsh has taken a page straight from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook. Hitchcock never portrays a middle-aged woman as anything but an absolute gargoyle, and in Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Jarrett, Walsh has evoked just such a demigod in petticoats. Wycherly’s matriarch is an aider and abettor to Cody’s self-destruction. She reinforces his confidence even though she recognizes just how much he is his father’s son. Under Ma’s seemingly tender and guiding hand the element of madness taunting Cody Jarrett is allowed to proliferate; infrequently tempered – perhaps, even controlled and/or managed by this wicked puppet master. Deliberately or otherwise, it is Ma who proves to be Cody’s downfall. She inadvertently brings the law to his front door at the Milbanke Motel. It is in her promise to rid Cody of Big Ed that Cody begins his gradual spiril into unhinged frustrations. Ma’s own demise – at Verna’s hands - touches off the penultimate powder keg of rage within her son that will eventually ruin Cody’s chances to finish out his prison stay so that he can wreak havoc on society once more.
Edmund O’Brien provides good solid support, as do Steve Cochran and particularly Virginia Mayo; an actress who began her career playing wide-eyed innocents in movies like Wonder Man (1945) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), though arguably achieved her most enduring success when cast as vial gold diggers with hidden agendas; as herein or in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In the final analysis White Heat sears itself into our collective consciousness because of Cagney’s blistering central performance. The film would be nothing at all without his intoxicating star turn, proving that - even past his own physical prime - nobody was better at playing the common hood than James Cagney.
White Heat arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p dual-layered transfer. The B&W image sharpens up considerably over its DVD counterpart and film grain is refined into a layer of texture previously unseen on home video. The image is noticeably darker. Contrast is solid. Age related artifacts have been tempered but are still present. Several inserts still appear to have been sourced from less than perfect first generation elements or original camera negatives, but this is the very best White Heat has ever looked on home video. The audio is DTS mono and adequate. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including an audio commentary, brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

THE PETRIFIED FOREST: Blu-ray (WB 1936) Warner Home Video

Humphrey Bogart’s movie career was officially launched with Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936): a frank and powerful indictment of America’s seismic fascination with the criminal element. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood never set out to write a socio-political piece, although viewed today it is impossible to forgo the kernels of wisdom or ‘message’ in the melodrama. Few stars have made as iconic a debut as Bogart in the role of the quietly crazy Duke Mantee; a morose and morbidly cynical desperado whose face is both a road map, radiating paralytic darkness from within, and a haunted death mask of all the victims he has thus far killed. But Bogart’s meteoric success is even more impressive when one considers the exceptionally fallow period preceding it. Bogart was 37 in 1936 – an age when most actors have already begun to crest in both their prowess and popularity with the paying public. Certainly, he was well beyond the status of matinee idol. And yet the calculus of success had eluded Bogart entirely. Furthermore, it seemed as though the movies had little use for him, his two-bit character parts downright banal background fodder that in no way established even a glimmer of his preeminence as a leading man that was to quickly follow.
Bogart had come from a wealthy family to pursue an acting career. By the late 1920s he had even gained considerable appeal as ‘the male beauty’ on Broadway. But by 1936 there had been enough hard knocks peppered in along the way, including the death of his beloved father, two failed marriages and several crippling bouts of alcoholism, to unsettle his good looks. By the time cinematographer Sol Polito began lensing close ups on The Petrified Forest Bogart’s visage had already begun to yield to these ravages; his eyes sunken yet piercing, his sallow skin revealing a remorseless ruggedness from the mileage added by time and that tally of flawed false starts. All of this bode well for the character of Duke Mantee however – a Dillinger-esque and uniquely American gangster/villain. Mantee effectively marks the break between that once courtly, polished and more gentile era of the robber baron and the severity and grit into which American society had been instantly plunged following the Great Depression.
Yet Warner Brothers had very little faith in Bogart’s ability to carry the part.  In fact, he would not have made the film without playwright Robert E. Sherwood’s insistence. Sherwood owned the movie rights and refused to sell them to the studio unless Bogart was signed to reprise his role; a sentiment echoed by co-star Leslie Howard, then the biggest name in the cast and who absolutely refused to commit to the project without Bogart – a kindness that Bogart never forgot. Howard’s career on both the stage and in films had been a smashing success. He seemed to effortlessly bounce from one hit play to another, interspersing his time spent on the stage – both in New York and in his native England – with star turns in some very high profile movies throughout the 1930s; usually reprising roles he had made famous in the theater. Howard’s magic touch had been just as instrumental in resurrecting another Petrified Forest co-star Bette Davis’ sagging movie career when the two appeared in Of Human Bondage (1934).
Howard could afford to be gracious. A man of impeccable charm and class, he had been ensconced as a British matinee idol and formidable thespian in London’s West End seemingly without even trying. It was, of course, all smoke and mirrors with Howard dedicating his life to his craft and consistently striving to improve his prospects by committing whole-heartedly to some very good solid work along the way. And yet, in viewing The Petrified Forest today it is not Howard’s Alan Squier – the effete and impoverished, though high-minded intellectual, standing up for his outmoded ideals and dying for his moral code in this Arizona bone-yard – that yields the film’s tragic richness, but Bogart’s defining turn as the soulless and quietly tortured antithesis of those ideals, so nicknamed by Alan as ‘the last great apostle of rugged individualism’ that sets the screen afire. “You may be right,” Duke begrudgingly concurs. “Sure I am,” admits Alan, “What good does it do me?”   
It did not take producer Hal B. Wallis very long to recognize Bogart’s talent – the virtual unknown whose reputation had been discounted to bargain basement bedrock was obviously running away with the picture despite being aligned with such heavy hitters as Leslie Howard and WB’s own rising star, Bette Davis.  Viewed from our own presently bankrupted moral storehouse of lost ideals, Bogart’s performance seems even more the obvious one to watch – chilling in its motivations, brilliantly enigmatic in its execution; a prelude to all the anti-heroes yet to follow, though arguably never to recapture the essence of this vacantly utilitarian killing machine. Of course, Sherwood, and screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves had written to Bogart’s strengths. But Bogart infuses Mantee with something more – a scurrilous insolence reaching well beyond mere contempt for humanity. Bogart’s killer doesn’t merely supplant a way of life already well into its own death throws. He buries the hatchet deep into this seemingly indestructible heritage, forever severing its roots. With the death of Alan Squier, Duke Mantee symbolically advances the America tradition from its affinity for corseted manners and Victorian bric-a-brac. Only the new dawn on the horizon is neither assuring nor celebratory; the winds of change growing stark, bitter and without escape; dragging the stragglers from this other time, both bloodied and battered into an era that promises nothing – not even survival – in return.      
The Petrified Forest begins with penniless drifter Alan Squier (Howard) walking along the open road through northern Arizona’s famed landmark en route to California – actually Red Rock Canyon near Mojave – and coming upon the Black Mesa Barbeque - a remote diner/gas bar run by Jason Maple (Porter Hall). Jason is a failed dreamer grown bitter and cynical with time and age. But his daughter, Gabrielle (Bette Davis) remains a bright-eyed idealist, who reads poetry and aspires to be an artist. Her grandfather (Charley Grapewin) is a notorious – but lovable – lush; a fragile stick of kindling who’s only real pleasure comes from regaling infrequent visitors to the café with his story of once coming in contact with the infamous outlaw Billy The Kid. Hired hand Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran) – a failed football star – fancies himself Gabrielle's blue-collar boyfriend; an unrequited ambition she decidedly does not share. For Boze - like Gabby’s father and grandfather, is a relic as fossilized as the craggy rock formations that surround the café. Gabby wants something better for herself, not out of conceit or even expectation that she deserves more out of life, but because she understands so well that the world beyond is more than this life at the café has thus far revealed.
Gabby daydreams of moving to Bourges to become an artist; aspirations not unlike her own estranged mother’s, who was a WWI bride madly in love with Jason but who left him to brood and has lived in her native France ever since from whence she continues to send her daughter poetry. Yet, this world of fiction has clouded Gabby’s good sense. She imagines a sort of undiluted escapism from her current mundane life, despite being naïve and unknowing of what lies beyond. Gabby becomes fascinated by Alan, much to Boze chagrin. Alan represents that spark of culture and class Gabby so desperately craves. He politely regales the eager young waitress with tales of his own European exploits, not with braggadocios but a genuine compassion to preserve her schoolgirl fantasies unlikely to ever be experienced firsthand. Moreover, Alan takes an interest in Gabby’s art. She shows him her paintings and reads to him her most-prized Villon poem.
Boze is jealous of Alan – a man who hasn’t even the money to pay for the meal he has just enjoyed and who finagles a free ride for the last length of his journey to the coast from wealthy tourists Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin) who have paused a moment to refuel their automobile. As the car pulls from the station Gabby and Alan’s eyes lock in a sort of quiet desperation and sad farewell; one short-lived when the Chisholms and Alan are carjacked by Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his posse. Racing back to the café on foot to forewarn Gabby and her family of Mantee’s proximity, Alan too late discovers that the café and its unfortunate guests have already been taken hostage.  While the others are understandably terrified of Mantee and his men, Alan takes the situation in stride. 
The middle act of the play and the film belongs to a spirited banter between Alan and Mantee; each coming to a disturbing, though genuine, mutual respect for the other. Alan can admire Mantee for his proactive determination to get what he wants at any price; while Mantee reasons that the selflessness of that dwindling age to which Alan so clearly belongs has had its merits for which the present realm of possibilities and circumstances cannot and will never be able to fully comprehend or appreciate. Boze and Jason regard Mantee as a menace. But grandpa basks in his presence, perhaps reliving his encounter with Billy the Kid vicariously through his own sycophantic admiration of this rank hoodlum. 
The situation grows perilous as Mantee and his men learn from the radio that the police are closing in. As the café prepares for an all-out showdown, Alan comes to a tragic inspiration. Unbeknownst to Gabby, he signs over an insurance policy he has been carrying in his back pocket, making her his beneficiary before encouraging Mantee to shoot him so that she will be able to collect on the policy and escape this drab existence. “It couldn't make any difference to you, Duke,” Alan explains, “Living - I'm worth nothing to her. But dead I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, and golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets.” Mantee obliges Alan before charging to his own death into the police who have surrounded the café. In the final moments Gabby is seen coddling Alan’s dead body in her arms, reciting a favorite passage of poetry from heart; her wide-eyed innocence replaced by a doleful, reticent understanding that in life there are no truly happy endings.
The Petrified Forest was a gamble for Warner Bros., running over schedule and budget but delivering rich returns to the box office; the public absolutely lapping up the movie and making Bogart an instant overnight sensation. In retrospect, The Petrified Forest seems to also foreshadow the movement that would eventually become ‘film noir’ – its narrative structure and focus on the deification of the anti-hero adding to the already claustrophobic atmosphere inside the Black Mesa Diner. In fact, after the film’s preliminary shots we are entirely confined to the indoor cyclorama inside Warner’s stage 8; the tumbleweed and cacti quaintly artificial but adding to the brooding atmosphere of ever-constricting melodrama.  As already mentioned, Bogart is the standout; a wan ghost of his former ‘pretty boy’ self, his face a chiseled façade corroded by hard times and the even harsher reality that if he didn’t make a success of this movie his career in Hollywood was likely finished.
Bette Davis and Leslie Howard make an amiable romantic couple; her doe-eyed optimism rekindled in Alan Squier’s vaguely sadness, perhaps realizing Gabby’s dreams are in conflict with the reality he knows too well to be true. Viewed in this light, Alan giving up his own life to procure a future for Gabby beyond the Petrified Forest seems oddly less self-sacrificing and perhaps even tinged with a tad of cowardice. For having recognized the fragile weakness in his own makeup, his inability to accept or even face the future on whatever terms it has in store for him – rather than the other way around – Alan has doomed the cockeyed optimist who touched his heart with her dreamy understanding of the world as both of them might have wished it to be – all but guaranteed to shatter these preconceived notions once Gabby has left the dust of the Arizona desert far behind. 
The Petrified Forest remains a class ‘A’ effort from Warner Bros. with a very fine cast giving it their all. The film’s success proved the necessary springboard, not only to launch Bogart’s career, but also to propel Bette Davis’ ambitions for more meaningful parts at the studio. For Leslie Howard, it was one of his finest efforts; adding to his already impressive repertoire of on-screen achievements. Today, Howard’s performance seems an ominous precursor to the fateful last act of his own life; Alan Squier’s fatalism and frankness about death a haunting reminder of how little time Leslie Howard had left on this earth. But if anything The Petrified Forest unequivocally proved – at least for the studio – that crime does pay
The Petrified Forest arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p dual-layered transfer. Out of all the Warner gangster movies released to hi-def this one sports the biggest improvements. The B&W image is considerably brighter; sharper too and with an impressive amount of film grain previously unseen on home video. Age-related artifacts have been eradicated for a smooth visual presentation with good solid contrast and more information present on either side. Viewing The Petrified Forest in comparison to the other titles released it becomes rather immediately apparent that Warner Bros. poured all of their money into remastering this title at the expense of some of the others. The audio is DTS mono and adequate. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including an audio commentary, brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

THE PUBLIC ENEMY: Blu-ray (WB 1931) Warner Home Video

William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) is the movie that made James Cagney a star. Cagney, who only a few months earlier had been little more than a B-grade talent with A-list experience as a hoofer and had appeared to good – if minor effect in The Doorway to Hell and Sinner’s Holiday (both made in 1930) was thrust into Wellman’s iconic gangster flick at the behest of its director who thought Cagney had ‘a touch of the gutter’ about him – a perfect quality for the despicable thug muscle he portrays as Tom Power. Along with Little Caesar, The Public Enemy created a brand for the gangster/crime melodrama – its’ ‘ripped from the headlines’ sordid tales infrequently chastised as contributing to a growing moral delinquency. To stave off the specter of censorship the glorification of the mob lifestyle was counterbalanced by an innate necessity for dark – if slightly obscure – last act finales in which the ‘star’ of such movies usually met with a bitter and untimely fate.
For his part, Production Chief Darryl F. Zanuck vehemently argued that movies like The Public Enemy were performing a public service; not in illustrating a model of ‘how to become’ a gangster, but in laying out the blueprint; thus providing a sociological study of the fundamentals that contributed to the ‘making of’ a criminal and therefore giving society a clear-cut set of circumstances to avoid for their own salvation. Okay, it’s a weak argument at best. Movies are entertainment. How much they reflect/influence the public conscience has been debated elsewhere and ad nauseam. But the gangster genre had not preceded the rise to prominence of such spurious underworld figures like Al Capone or even Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. That die had already been cast in real life. So, if anything The Public Enemy was tapping into a vein of society and the general public’s fascination with crime and its’…uh…heroes…that had yet to be represented on the screen.
The Public Enemy is very circumspect about providing its back story on Tom Power (James Cagney); a boy first glimpsed indulging in a bucket of beer taken from a saloon. Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel ‘Blood and Beer’ had been penned from the vantage of a prohibition America; outlining the sordid machinations that went into the subterranean backroom culture of the speakeasy. Thus, Harvey F. Thew’s screenplay begins in 1909, with Tom (played as a boy by Frank Coghlan) and his best friend, Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro) indulging in a bit of horseplay, eluding the police by sliding down a banister on a department store escalator while knocking the top hat off a well-dressed patron’s head. It is interesting to note that Edward Wood (who plays Matt Doyle as an adult) had been originally cast in the lead with Cagney as Matt. Coghlan looks a lot more like Wood might have as a child than Darro does, and actually production notes indicate that at the time these early scenes were filmed Wood was still slated to play Tom Power. Hence, when the decision was made to switch the actors in their adult roles, director Wellman did not bother to reshoot these early scenes.
We next glimpse Tom and Matt lying by the side of the road in front of Tom’s house where he delights in tripping Matt’s sister, Molly (Rita Flynn) to whom he had earlier given a pair of roller skates stolen from the department store. Molly chides Tom and then gives him back his skates. Tom’s father, a stern disciplinarian exacts his justice on Tom’s hide with the strap. Regrettably, this brutalization does not change Tom’s disposition one bit. The film fast tracks to 1915; Tom and Matt come into the employ of local fence, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnnell); who offers the boys mere tokens in trade for the goods they manage to swipe from local merchants before selling them for pure profit on the other end. Now played by Cagney and Wood, Tom and Matt are given guns as ‘Christmas presents’ by Putty Nose – to improve their prospects for even greater heists. The boys, together with another, Larry Dalton, break into the Northwestern Fur Company to steal some pelts. But in the dimly lit warehouse Tom is spooked by stuffed grizzly bear, firing his gun and thereby attracting the police. The boys make a break for it, but Larry is shot dead and Tom exacts his revenge by killing the cop before fleeing with Matt.
At Larry’s funeral, Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) encourages the boys to stay near and comfort Larry’s grieving mother (Lucille Ward). We move ahead to 1917. Tom’s older brother, Mike (Donald Cook), a streetcar conductor who has always been the straight arrow of the family, has enlisted to fight in the Great War, leaving Ma heartbroken. In his absence she trustingly relies on Tom to do the right thing and support the family. But Tom has already had his first taste of the high life. He won’t kowtow to the status quo. Instead he and Matt hook up with notorious bootlegger, Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) who quickly sets the boys to work on intimidating the local pub trade into buying his beer. Tom has no compunction about roughing up the competition. He and Matt are immediate successes and well-compensated for their roughneck coercions.
With their newfound wealth the boys decide to take up with a pair of floozies at the Congress Hotel. Matt shines up to Mamie (Joan Blondell), a brassy platinum blonde while Tom prefers the more demure Kitty (Mae Clarke). In the meantime, Paddy has decided to promote Tom and Matt into his bootlegging empire. The boys are hired to oversee smuggling operations at Leehman’s Distillery, shuttered since prohibition but secretly reopened under Paddy’s watchful eye. Paddy also introduces Tom and Matt to Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton); the charismatic and dapper man about town who operates on a higher level than any of them. Nails, Tom, Matt, Kitty and Mamie go out for a night on the town where Tom takes notice of Puddy Nose still running the same old racket. Recalling how he and Matt were exploited, Tom decides to tail Puddy back to his rather posh apartment where he murders him in cold blood. Director Wellman pans away just before Tom shoots Puddy in the head to capture Matt’s reaction – one of abject distaste for murder – foreshadowing the diverging trajectories Tom and Matt’s lives will take; regrettably achieving the same fatalist conclusion later on.
Matt marries Mamie. But Tom and Kitty’s relationship has reached an impasse. Tom seems dissatisfied or even unfulfilled in their obvious sexual relationship. The now infamous ‘grapefruit’ scene begins after a dinner party given in Mike’s honor. Suffering from a mild case of shellshock Mike is forewarned by police office and family friend, Pat Burke (Robert Homans) that in his absence Tom has lied to their mother about entering the political arena while becoming one of the most notorious bootleggers in town. Mike keeps his anger and disappointment to himself until he spies a large keg of beer in the center of the family’s dining room table. He coldly admonishes Tom for dishonoring the family. Tom storms out of the house and back to the Congress Hotel but can find no comfort in Kitty’s arms, she coolly suggesting that perhaps he already has someone else to please him. In response, Tom reaches across the table at the morning slice of grapefruit, mashing it into Kitty’s face before leaving her for good.
There has been much debate over just how much Mae Clarke knew about Cagney’s actions going into this scene. Decades later Cagney relayed the story that Wellman had given him the direction but had said nothing to his co-star. But Clarke insists she knew exactly what would happen – her only surprising being when she sat in the projection room to view the final cut and saw the scene left in the movie. She had been told by Wellman it was being played strictly as a gag for the crew.   
The fraternal rift between Mike and Tom widens. Tom takes up with Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) whom he picks up with a sly grin on a street corner. Gwen is high class and experienced – just the sort of moll Tom fancies for himself. The relationships Tom has with both women and figures of authority in the film bears closer inspection. Tom is incapable of abiding the moral precepts of his father or Mike – who becomes the de facto head of the Power family later on.  But his contempt for authority goes even further by murdering the cop in the alley, then Puddy Nose whom he had once regarded as a surrogate father-figure in absence of his own. Yet, despite his prowess as an unrepentant killer – hardly an attribute ascribed a child - Tom is readily regarded as ‘just a boy’ by the women in his life. Kitty, as example, is much too solid and true to herself to remain Tom’s girl for very long, while Gwen is a racy flirt, far more worldly than Tom will ever be; particularly in her sexual conquests. She tells Tom he is ‘spoiled’ – a word having dual meaning herein. She also explains that she has known ‘many men’ – the implication being that Tom is neither her first, nor will he be the last to grace her boudoir. Tom doesn’t really believe this, however. But he is just a passing fancy; an all too prolific foreshadowing into the movie’s tragic climax.
At this point Nails is killed in a riding accident; an unforeseen loss that weakens Paddy’s mob rule. Tom and Matt arrive at the stables; bullying one of the hired hands into selling Rajah, the horse that threw Nails. After paying off the jockey they shoot the dumb animal in its stall. This, of course, draws undue attention to the mob’s other activities. Paddy puts Tom and Matt up in an apartment managed by his much younger girlfriend, Jane (Mia Marvin) who wastes no time seducing Tom, then suggesting she will tell of their affair to Paddy. The rouse backfires as Tom isn’t about to take any guff from a girl. He belts Jane on the chops before leaving the apartment with Matt, walking right into a trap. A rival gang machine-guns the pair in broad daylight. Tom manages to escape but Matt dies in the street.
To avenge Matt’s death, Tom follows the assassins to the Western Chemical Company – waiting until the cover of night and pouring rain to break into the establishment alone. He is wounded in the hailstorm of gunfire and stumbles into the street, eventually brought to hospital where he is reunited with Mike and their mother; each promising to look after him once he is released from hospital. Regrettably, before this can happen Mike receives word that Tom has been kidnapped from his ward. A short while later another phone call to the Powers household suggests that the gang intend on returning Tom to his family. In the gruesome finale they do just that – only as a corpse, bloodied and bound to his hospital bed - Tom’s body flopping through the front door as Mike stoically looks on. How will he ever tell Ma?
The Public Enemy remains a fairly white-knuckled affair thanks to ‘wild’ Bill Wellman’s realistic fast-moving pace. The Public Enemy was made and released the same year as Little Caesar and – in years yet to follow – was frequently reissued as a double feature with some of its racier bits cut out. One such scene involved Tom going to a tailor to be fitted for some dapper clothes. The effete tailor comments on the size of Tom’s muscle and offers to measure his inseam in the crotch. Considered to be overtly homosexual in its content, this sequence was excised after 1933, but has been reinstated into the movie once again.
There’s no comparison between The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. The Public Enemy moves with all the agility of a jungle cat. Ditto for Cagney whose dancer’s training contributes to fascinating bits of business with his feet and hands throughout the film that become a part of Tom Power’s genetic makeup. Cagney is electric. It is impossible to take our eyes off of him for a single moment; those shifty glances, beady eyes piercing back at us from the screen, an animalistic or even psychotic tension coursing through his veins – mingled with a devilish uncertainty that is both intoxicating and dangerous.
Jean Harlow was considered the platinum beauty of the day. Personally, I don’t see it. I never have. Harlow really came into her own in the mid-thirties, her raunchy sass and sharp-tongued retorts able to dish the dirt with the best of both the boys and the girls. But she’s too harsh looking in The Public Enemy, those bee-stung lips trying to be a Clara Bow or Theda Bara – a bad knock off of each while achieving the resident sex symbol status of neither. Harlow’s penchant for smart talk is also subdued in The Public Enemy, thereby diluting her more obvious charms under even more obvious war paint and accoutrements.
Otherwise, everything works in The Public Enemy. Moreover, it clicked with the public’s taste for such racy fare. It’s easy to see why Wellman switched roles between Cagney and Edward Wood who is by far the better looking of the two though hardly the better performer. Wood is arguably at his best when he’s playing dead, his otherwise stoic presence something of a downer; not nearly as naturalistic as Cagney. Wood’s career never recovered from this transplant. He became increasingly relegated to bit parts while Cagney skyrocketed to superstardom overnight. Only the most genuine of stars have such staying power. Cagney had it. Wood didn’t. You gotta love Cagney…I mean, you just gotta!     
The Public Enemy arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p single layer transfer. The B&W image sharpens up and film grain really becomes noticeable. It’s very natural and delivers a layer of texture to the image previously unseen on home video. The image is noticeably darker than its DVD counterpart, arguably as it should be. Contrast is solid. Age related artifacts are still present but have been tempered throughout for an image that is relatively smooth and unobtrusive. More could have been done – primarily in doing a new image harvest and dual-layer scan to improve the bit rate. Again, I suspect Warner has used the same digital files it had on The Public Enemy from their DVD release. This is 1080p, though arguably not ‘full’ 1080p. The audio is DTS mono and adequate, though we still get slight hiss and pop occurring throughout. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including Robert Sklar’s somewhat rambling audio commentary, a brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)