Friday, May 30, 2014

JOHNNY CARSON - THE KING OF LATE NIGHT: Blu-ray (American Masters/Peter Jones Productions 2012) PBS Home Video

“By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. 
He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the ‘salto mortale’ (somersault). What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight!”
-        Billy Wilder
When Johnny Carson bid farewell to The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992 it wasn’t simply the marked retirement of a beloved pop icon, but the real end of an era; a spectacular run as the 20th century’s most revered, admired, and undeniably, treasured figures in the history of television. Certainly, nothing before or since has come to rival Carson’s legacy. As enjoyable as Jay Leno was, he pales to Carson; as do Letterman, Ferguson, Conan O’Brien and even Arsenio Hall; once viewed by NBC’s executive brain trust as a genuine threat to Carson’s supremacy. Carson quipped that to be hailed “the king of late night” was a bit much. “Prince” would have suited him better.
Indeed, Carson came to the microphone third best after both, Steve Allen (The Tonight Show’s original host from 1954–57) and Jack Paar (1957–62) decamped for other projects. NBC, however, was unwilling to retire the show. And so, Johnny – with his many failed attempts to break into television prior to striking it rich herein, and reigning supreme from 1962 to 1992 – finally found his niche on The Tonight Show. He hit his stride with a departure from the formula Jack Paar had helped to establish and cultivate. Where Paar conducted his hosting duties, often with severity and reverence for the movers and shakers appearing as his guests, Carson took the approach to finding the lighter side in everything. For Carson The Tonight Show wasn’t so much a mood piece or even his own political soap box as a way for his audience to simply relax and unwind from the ills of the world after a long, hard day.    
Johnny once said that at the heart of any joke there is sincerity and cruelness.” And yet, in reexamining the myriad of guests who appeared on The Tonight Show, one is hard pressed to find moments when Carson jibes became uncomfortable for a laugh. Instead, Carson is self-deprecating while poking holes in the balloons of hypocrisy. Considered something of a sex symbol in the late 1970’s, perhaps because most who partook of his good nature and pithy retorts during the show’s monologue did so from the comfort of their own bedrooms after the lights had already been turned out, Carson in life was far more circumspect than flirtatious – and occasionally frank – about his three failed marriages, though faithful as a birddog during each. In retrospect, it’s the contradictions in Johnny’s private life that continue to make him so fascinatingly complex.
By his own admission, Johnny really couldn’t handle his liquor. In fact, his Jekyll into Hyde transformations remain legendary. Asked by celebrated 60 Minutes co-host, Mike Wallace to explain the aegis for Carson’s humor about alcoholism, Johnny explained the difference between good humor – or rather, jokes done in the spirit of fun – as opposed to those made out of vitriol and spite – using the example of Wilbur Mills; a Democratic representative from Arkansas who had long been the brunt of many a Carson monologue, until Johnny discovered Mills was a serious alcoholic with emotional problems. When Wallace responded with “Takes one to know one”, Carson effectively withdrew into a charming chuckle, followed by an explanation – rather than a defense – of his own battles with the bottle. “I don’t handle it well…rather than a lot of people who become fun-loving and gregarious and love everybody, I would go the opposite. I like to keep certain things private. I probably put up a barrier until I get to know people.” 
Debatably, recovering from his own habitual drinking made Johnny Carson a better host; one more accepting and mindful of other people’s foibles and personality quirks. It’s really no secret Carson’s monologues were all scripted. We’ve seen the cue cards, the pre-show prep; Carson – the consummate professional, cherry-picking one liners from a litany of writers, cribbing from the day’s events and twisting them to suit Johnny’s inimitable style. Sure, Johnny knew his way around a good gag. What remains unique about Carson is his ability to recover from a bad joke: also, his adlibs. Many a time a scripted gag laid an egg on The Tonight Show…but never Johnny. No one (and I mean no one) could think faster - or better - on their feet than Johnny Carson. When told by the reigning Mr. Universe his body was the ‘only home’ he’d ever have, Carson’s pithy retort Yes…my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman who comes in twice a week” brought down the house.
Johnny’s humor greatly benefited from his impishly playful delivery; also, his unassumingly bookish good looks. When Dolly Parton, for example, chose to confide that her breasts were real, Johnny preempted the audience’s laughter by suggesting he’d give a year’s pay to take a peak under her dress. When Zsa Zsa Gabor arrived with a preening white feline across her lap, asking Carson if he’d like to pet her pussy’, Johnny’s rebuttal, ‘Gladly – if you remove that damn cat’ sent NBC into a frenzy. It also caused one of the network’s top executives, Fred Silverman, to publicly chastise Carson for, among other things, being too risqué; also, for refusing to work Mondays and for taking ‘too much’ time off in between.
By virtue of his birth, Carson was a quiet Nebraskan who fairly craved parental acceptance – readily denied as much by his mother, who remained a remote figure, fairly critical of his life’s work. After Ruth Carson’s death it was discovered she had kept a memory box in her closet of virtually every story about her son’s many accomplishments. Clearly, Johnny was a source of pride. With regards to his four marriages, there is little to defend the fact Carson really never lived up to the illusion of his public persona; apparently more disarming when the cameras were on than he ever was behind closed doors. And Johnny’s aloofness equally put a genuine damper on his already strained relationship with three sons from his first marriage; Christopher, Cory and Richard. And yet, Carson was utterly destroyed upon learning middle child, Richard had died in a terrible car accident near Cayucos, California in 1991, even paying homage to Richard’s photographic work as part of the show. There is, of course, that certain generation of men who found it difficult – nee, impossible – to express and share their emotions. And Johnny was, to be sure, a very private man. But Carson doted on his boys in other ways; most notably, financially; affording each of them a comfortable – if, decidedly not lavish – lifestyle at his own expense.
At the height of his fame and popularity, Carson also established the John W. Carson Foundation, dedicated to supporting children, education and health services. He was immensely philanthropic in other ways too; a $5.3 million endowment to the University of Nebraska’s fine arts program, with $5 million more paid out upon the reading of his will, and another $1 million used to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Johnny’s hometown of Norfolk also benefited from the Carson Cancer Center, the Elkhorn Valley Museum and the Johnny Carson Theater. Finally, in 2010, it was revealed Carson had been quietly squirrelling away $156 million from personal investments to augment his foundation’s charitable works; making the Carson Foundation the largest Hollywood charity of its kind.
By now, Carson had become a media institution, responding to his detractors with the threat of quitting at the height of his popularity; a move, David Brinkley equated to George Washington asking to be removed from the American one dollar bill. Mercifully, it never happened, although Carson would remain critical of NBC for the rest of their contentious alliance, often with subtle jabs made during his monologue – as when telling the audience in honor of his birthday NBC gave him the day ‘on’; or more directly, when asked by Ed McMahon what his life’s goal was, Johnny responded with “…to be a good person, a worthy citizen, and to rip NBC off for everything they’ve got!”
While the mood on The Tonight Show always seemed convivial to downright boisterous – even the embarrassing moments (as in the one and only time sidekick, Ed McMahon infamously turned up drunk and emotional, forcing Carson to play tender nursemaid to his bruised feelings while the audience gasped and roared in tandem) the reality was perhaps far more telling of Carson’s own private uncomfortableness in his own skin. On occasion this insecurity would overwhelm his public persona. But it also created something of an invisible wall of defense between Johnny and his guests. The New Yorker’s Kenneth Tynan put it thus: “The other talk shows in which I have taken part were all saunas by comparison with Carson’s. Merv Griffin is the most disarming of ego strokers; Mike Douglas runs him a close second in the ingratiation stakes; and Dick Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat. Carson, on the other hand, operates on a level of high, freewheeling, centrifugal banter that is well above the snow line. Which is not to say that he is hostile. Carson treats you with deference and genuine curiosity. But the air is chill; you are definitely on probation.”
Carson was, of course, working with the most extraordinary talents of our time; borrowing from a nearly inexhaustible pool of Hollywood alumni that included such favorites as Bette Davis, James Stewart and Doris Day, while also bringing out contemporary favorites like Michael Landon, Bette Midler, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and Robin Williams. Carson also introduced more up and comers on The Tonight Show than perhaps even Ed Sullivan; his legacy as a star maker witnessed in the meteoric rise of such beloved comedians as Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres, Leno and Letterman. But, like the hand of God, Carson’s own benevolence could also swing the other way; as when frequent Tonight Show sub-in, Joan Rivers elected not to tell Johnny until the eleventh hour that her option had been picked up by CBS for a show of her own. The wound inflicted by what Carson regarded as a complete betrayal, ultimately ended their lifelong friendship. The pair never spoke again.
All of this fertile history – and much, much more – is readily on display in American Masters tribute to the man and his legacy: Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night (2012). At just under 2 hours, produced by Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones and narrated with great sincerity by Kevin Spacey, this affecting and informative biography is as intriguing as the man of the hour. Chocked full of snippets from The Tonight Show, and a myriad of reflections from Johnny’s friends (including Steve Martin, Dick Cavett, Letterman, Joan Rivers, Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart and many others), Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is required viewing for anyone who wants to remember Carson in his prime and bask in the afterglow of one of the greatest all-around entertainers of his – or any other – generation. Clearly, the project was a labor of love for Jones, who had engaged Carson for fifteen years with an annual letter extoling his passion to do a biography. While cordial (Carson presumably told Jones You write a damn fine letter…but I don’t have anything more to say), Johnny remained disinterested in the project. Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones pursued the matter through Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing; the president of Carson Entertainment Group.
Watching Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is like visiting an old friend not seen in far too many years, catching up on the past, living vicariously through the ‘good ole days’ and coming away from the experience with that warm – yet strangely sad – and far-away tear caught in the eye; perhaps in the realization the times have moved on; that what once was, can never be again. Jones’ documentary has done more than pay homage to Johnny Carson, the man, the entertainer and the legend. It has resurrected a sumptuous memoir (a valentine, actually) to the golden age of Johnny Carson’s America. Here is a potpourri of moments sure to make us smile; Sotzing’s complicity in the endeavor allowing Jones (and by extension, the rest of us) an unprecedented backstage pass into Johnny’s world. Perhaps, Carson would have hated this; his penchant for privacy superseding any perceived entertainment value from the exercise. And yet, entertainment is exactly what’s to be had herein; with a capital ‘E’ and not just for ‘effort’ either.
Owing to a bitter and ongoing feud Carson had with NBC for most of their tempestuous alliance (Johnny even threatened to walk off The Tonight Show, buying back the rights to all his archived episodes after NBC admittedly ‘lost’ several early seasons) The Tonight Show: starring Johnny Carson remains diligently mothballed in an underground vault in Kansas – roughly 3,500 hours, since digitized and made available as an online pay-per-view.  What remains fairly perplexing is just how little of The Tonight Show has been released to home video in all these many years since Johnny’s passing. Only a few heavily truncated offerings, featuring little more than selected sound bytes from Johnny’s tenure, many poorly mastered at that, have surfaced on DVD, with ‘Tonight’: Four Decades of The Tonight Show – starring Johnny Carson being the biggest transgressor. Will we ever see The Tonight Show justly anthologized as complete and unedited whole seasons on Blu-ray? Hmmmm.
Debatable, since Carson Entertainment Group seems wholly disinterested in the prospect. The various DVDs currently in print are but wan ghost flowers of The Tonight Show in its prime; excising virtually all of Doc Severinsen’s orchestral performances. We also have yet to see any of Bette Davis’ memorable appearances on ANY of these DVD sets. The Vault Series presently being circulated as ‘complete’ episodes are actually slightly altered from their original broadcast length.  Hence, the first real competent assessment of Johnny Carson’s legacy remains this American Masters bio. It too may not be comprehensive – but it is by far the most heartfelt and legitimate attempt to critique, understand, and ultimately celebrate Johnny Carson as the national treasure he so obviously was, is and will always be. 
Prepare to be royally entertained. PBS’s Blu-ray is presented in 1.78:1 with most of the vintage Carson clips retaining their 1.33:1 framing. The home movie footage, as well as stills are all reframed and the newly instated interview footage is, of course, formatted for widescreen presentation.  Arguably, you’re not watching reruns of The Tonight Show for their video quality, and yet there is some remarkable effort put forth herein to bring these vintage materials into line with modern expectations for audio/video clarity. Bottom line: you won’t be disappointed by this disc. While some inevitable image ‘banding’ remains the overall BD retains a brightly graphic quality; the older footage looking remarkably clean and free of distracting age-related artifacts. Wow and thank you!  
The image is both colorful and detailed, revealing – at times – a startling amount of information in clothing, hair, etc. with video noise kept to a bare minimum. Hence, this is Johnny Carson as we’d like to remember him: the undisputed king of late night in a princely presentation on home video. The 2.0 Dolby Digital sound mix is, of course, largely at the mercy of vintage materials. The newly recorded interviews, as well as Kevin Spacey’s narration are all frontally placed, presumably to keep their fidelity in check with the vintage clips; no jarring jumps from the show’s original mono to stereo surround.
Parting thoughts are rather obvious but worth mentioning. While Carson Entertainment continues to sit on a goldmine, the legacy of Johnny Carson comes across loud and clear in Peter Jones’ exquisite biography.  Johnny Carson was more than a late night talk show host. He was a legend in his own time – one that continues to ripen with age and is still primed for the podium. In reflecting on his career, Carson remained perfectly balanced on that tightrope between introspective humility and glib repartee, beginning with The first week after I leave the show, could you all line up in front of my house for a couple of hours? Then come in, I'll sit at a desk, and we can talk” before concluding his formidable reign with a faintly sad epitaph, “If I could magically do it all over again, I would. I bid you all a very heartfelt goodnight.”
One fact is irrefutable: there will never be another Johnny Carson. As good as Leno and presently, Jimmy Fallon are, either from a lack of good material or even more astutely observed – the absence of those truly inimitable Hollywood icons who once shared the stage with Johnny - they’ve paled by comparison. It isn’t entirely their fault. For Johnny Carson gave aspiring late night television talk show hosts an act virtually impossible to follow. Heeeeeeeere’s (to) Johnny!
Bottom line: very highly recommended!

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


Sunday, May 25, 2014

TWO RODE TOGETHER: Blu-ray (Columbia 1961) Twilight Time

Billed as “the west’s most violent story and valiant hour”, director John Ford once referred to Two Rode Together (1961) as “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years!” Hardly. What Ford considered excrement, the rest of us have come to treasure in the many years since its release. Two Rode Together is a far more engaging movie than most critics of their day gave it credit; also fairly revealing of Ford’s new and profoundly bittersweet trajectory in his mythologizing of the American west. He’s come a long way from the picturesque mesas and towering buttresses of Monument and Death Valley, endlessly and lovingly eulogized in movies like Fort Apache (1947), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and My Darling Clementine (1946).  Gone is the magisterial quality of these better known and more beloved masterworks; replaced herein by a brittle angst and more probing cruelty to deny us the legends and folklore Ford almost single-handedly was responsible for instilling as substitutions for the real American western experience. Ford’s curmudgeonly reflections in Two Rode Together may have inevitably worsened with the passage of time, also amplified by the loss of character actor, Ward Bond, one of the beloved alumni in Ford’s stock company – appearing in virtually every western the director made.
The similarities between Two Rode Together and Ford’s opus magnum, The Searchers (1956) are irrefutable and bear mentioning. Here is a tale told by an artist unafraid to carry over the ugliness of bigotry and racism almost exclusively ascribed to his anti-hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in the former endeavor, but now more broadly attributed to virtually all of the settler class and military personnel who inhabit this stark and uncompromising landscape they have neither become accustom to nor, arguably, have even the right to call their home. It’s a brave creative type who can stand such time-honored precepts he helped to create on their end, unapologetically rewriting history (or rather, fiction) yet again, in order to bring the more unflattering realities of history itself to light. And Ford offers us little to no reprieve from the inherent unattractiveness of his story. Even the comedic elements in Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay are tinged in spite.
Although Two Rode Together is often misjudged as inferior to Ford’s own The Searchers, it is a nevertheless powerful indictment of lost hope and a thoroughly fascinating deconstruction of Ford’s own disillusionment with both his personal life and professional career. By 1960, the director who had once commanded respect from studio execs was being judged as more a liability than an asset. Ford, who could be known to be his own worst enemy in wanting his way in all things, particularly when things weren’t going his way at all, was not entirely to blame for the shift – or rather, loss of his authority. Hollywood had changed; the system faltering under governmental pressures and television’s insidious erosion of bankable butts in the seats at the local Bijoux or elegant mid-town movie palace. It wasn’t a modicum of fear lurking around the corners any more, but a genuine and frosty sense that the old ways in Hollywood had suddenly, and inexplicably, come to a definite end. The smashing of Hollywood’s autonomy as the sole purveyors of star-studded popcorn entertainments was, by extension, a devastating blow to Ford’s ego; hindering his ability to assemble the cast and crew he preferred at a moment’s notice.
Nevertheless, Two Rode Together is blessed with familiar faces working both in front of and behind the camera; screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent (who also wrote The Searchers) cribbing from Will Cook’s blistering 1960 novel, Comanche Captives; Ford’s favorite comic relief, Andy Devine as the befuddled Sgt. Darius P. Posey; John McIntire as stoic, Maj. Frazer; Anna Lee (busybody, Mrs. Malaprop); Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Mary McCandless, half mad with grief over the loss of her only son), Henry Brandon (reincarnated from The Searchers in similar garb and feathers as Chief Quanah Parker), John Qualen (doing a variation on his stock lovable Swed’ as Ole Knudsen) and Harry Carey Jr. as Ortho Clegg – one of a pair of halfwits reared without the ‘feminine influence’. To this mix, Ford brought the prolific and remarkably versatile composer, George Duning to write the sobering underscore; a world-weary ode to this gallant, if fading memoire of western frontier mythologies.
The stars of Two Rode Together are new to Ford’s pantheon; Richard Widmark as First Lt. Jim Gary,  long since broken loose from his wild-eyed Tommy Udo/Jefty screen persona and undeniably the nobler of our two anti-heroic misanthropes on this vision quest with no proverbial happy ending in sight. The other half belongs to James Stewart; his own career in transition away from everyone’s loveable everyman. Stewart had come close several times to working with Ford. In Two Rode Together he is wholly unscrupulous as the graft-driven Marshal Guthrie McCabe who gets ‘ten percent of everything’ – including the bordello – in this tiny hamlet of Tascosa. McCabe couldn’t care less about reuniting a small sect of grief-stricken families with their offspring, wives and lovers kidnapped by the Comanche some five years ago – unless, that is, the army can make it worth his while. Eighty dollars a month doesn’t really cut it, so McCabe elects to charge by the head for his services, though he bitterly doubts there will be anyone left to return to these misguided hopefuls.
Indeed, there is an uncharacteristic darkness and often grotesque cynicism permeating virtually every frame of Two Rode Together; Ford relentlessly stripping away any residual illusions the audience might have about the gallantry and/or nobility of the ‘old west.’  The Indians are, of course, still the enemies of this piece; cut from that relatively familiar swath as steely-eyed savages. But within the Comanche communal structure, Ford manages to implant seeds of further dissention, to vary and defy our time-honored western misnomer of one race/one mindset; establishing an inner conflict between enterprising half-caste, Chief Quanah – who values nothing except the point of a gun, and the traditionalist pure blood – and blood-thirsty – Mohawk warrior, Stone Calf (played with considerable aplomb by the towering and impossibly muscled Woody Strode).
By contrast, it’s the settler class who seems incredibly singular in their convictions; wounded, lost and desolate souls united only by their grieving and pursuit to learn what became of their loved ones already lost to them for all time. Even feisty Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) – vicariously living half her life for a kidnapped brother by dressing in frontier man’s attire and eschewing virtually any and all feminine and/or romantic advances, is something of a lost cause; albeit one salvaged at the last possible moment by Gary’s feeble proposal of marriage and Marty’s very awkward acceptance.
Two Rode Together is unapologetically bleak. Arguably, it plays far better today, removed from the cowboys and Indians milieu once dominating popular entertainment with cardboard misinterpretations of life on the ponderosa. We begin in Tascosa, an isolated and very dusty outpost overseen by laconic Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart); a man so unprincipled that even the mention of his name is enough to frighten off a pair of duded up gamblers (William Henry and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan) initially intent on scaring up some rough trade business at the local saloon/whorehouse, run by very icy madam, Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes). Belle can’t stand the sight of any man before noon – except, perhaps McCabe, whom she tolerates in increments, affords ten percent off the top, and, plies with free beer served to him on her veranda.
Enter Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) with his military patrol and Sgt. Darius P. Posey (Andy Devine) in tow. McCabe respects Gary. He has little use for Posey. The feeling, alas, is mutual. Gary is on a mission, assigned by Army Major Fraser (John McIntire) to recover survivors of a Comanche ambush five years removed from the present day. It’s a fool’s errand and McCabe knows it. The Comanche have mated, killed or sold their captives to other tribes in the interim. And McCabe, despite his tin star, isn’t particularly interested in upholding the law; at least, not without a sincere profit to be made as a direct result. Fraser offers McCabe eighty dollars a month. But McCabe is callous and more interested in what he can squeeze out of the settlers, desperate to be reunited with their kin.
And so the bartering for human lives begins. At least at some level, McCabe seems – if not empathetic – then, at least, intent in sobering up the relatives. He’s harsh and unflinching in his crude assessment of the situation; also, regrettably, closer to the truth than anyone else would care to admit. Some, like Ole Knudsen – anxious for news of his kidnapped daughter, Freda (Teri York) or Mary McCandless – having lost touch with reality and ready to see the face of her son, Tommy in any male child McCabe might bring back – will never surrender the fantasy their loved ones are still alive and struggling to return home to them. At some level, Gary recognizes the futility, though he is far more optimistic about becoming a potential love interest for Marty Purcell. But Gary will do as his regimental command dictates.
Hence, both men set off in search of victims; McCabe negotiating a truce – the exchanged of firearms and knives with Chief Quanah Parker – for the return of two hostages; Running Wolf (David Kent), later revealed as Marty’s long lost brother, and, Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal); Stone Calf’s squaw. McCabe and Gary also briefly come in contact with Freda – driven insane in her captive state – and Mrs. Hannah Clegg (Mae Marsh) who emphatically pleads to keep her survival a secret from her husband, Rev. Henry (Ford Rainey) and their two – now adult – sons; Greeley (Ken Curtis) and Ortho.  Departing the Comanche camp with the very defiant Running Wolf bound to one steed and Elena reluctantly following of her own free will on another, McCabe and Gary reach a parting of the ways over their conflicted decisions about what to tell the families back home.
McCabe threatens Gary at the point of his gun; the latter electing to go on ahead with Running Wolf while McCabe stays behind to make camp for the night with Elena. Around the campfire, Elena tells McCabe about the soldier she once loved and was engaged to marry. She also confesses her apprehensions about returning to ‘civilized society’ where she knows she will be harshly judged. McCabe endeavors to quell Elena’s fears; alas, soon to be well-founded. But an ambush by Stone Calf resurrects Elena’s horror; McCabe making short shrift of his attacker with a single bullet.
Back at base camp, Gary attempts to return Running Wolf to his rightful family. However, no one will claim this savage who makes every attempt to escape his captors. Mrs. McCandless pleads with her husband, William (Cliff Lyons) to recognize the boy as their own. And although Will knows damn well Running Wolf is not his son, he placates his grief-stricken wife with the satisfaction of assuming the role as the boy’s father; alas, with very tragic results. For given the first opportunity to flee and return to the Comanche, Running Wolf stabs Mary McCandless in the heart with a knife; her murder leading to Running Wolf recapture and lynching by the angry mob moments before Marty realizes the wild-eyed defiant is actually her long lost brother; Running Wolf’s memory stirred by the music box in her possession.
McCabe returns to base camp with Elena, lying to Ole about Freda while attempting to make a lady of Elena with the help of Mrs. Abby Frazer (Olive Carey); the empathetic Major’s wife. However, introducing Elena at the military dance, McCabe quickly discovers both he and his date are persona non grata; the womenfolk impudent in their nosy inquiries about Elena’s sexual history, the men priggish as they casually spurn even the prospect of sharing a spin around the dance floor. Gary proposes to Marty in the shadows. Having miraculously recovered from her own personal grief, Marty is now ready to embrace her future as the wife of this dyed in the wool military man. At the same time, McCabe has had quite enough of this uppity class’s slum prudery and elects to take Elena home with him to Tascosa. However, upon his return, McCabe quickly realizes Belle has replaced him in her boudoir with Deputy Ward Corby (Chet Douglas); a simpleton and McCabe’s former underling, who now commands the authority as Tascosa’s new marshal.
Belle is brazen in her admonishment of Elena, calling her out as a half-caste who will never truly be a lady. Darting for the stagecoach, tear-stained and shell-shocked, Elena is pursued by McCabe. He has finally decided to make her his wife. Asked by Belle to explain McCabe’s sudden change of heart – or rather, his uncanny acquisition of this unlikely appendage, where before only a void seemed to exist, Gary glibly replies, “I guess he finally found something he wanted more than ten percent of!”  
In this penultimate reconciliation, John Ford is at least attempting to lighten the general tenor of Two Rode Together; a groundswell of George Duning’s thematic score filling the ear as a cloud of dust trails behind the departing stage for California with Elena and McCabe on board. In fact, this is a fitting conclusion; one aspiring to illustrate goodness in every man, even one as morally bankrupt as Guthrie McCabe. To some extent, James Stewart’s cache as Hollywood’s ‘every man’ helps to convince us that the life Elena and McCabe are bound for, presumably to share in together, will be both meaningful and tinged with tenderness. Yet, there is very little in McCabe’s makeup to suggest as much.
In one of only a handful of performances given by Stewart throughout his illustrious tenure, he manages to convey a fascinating emotional complexity, utterly at odds with our public perception of his more straight forward and beloved public persona; his eyes beady and constantly shifting, his voice low and threatening as he stares down Richard Widmark at the point of a gun; the familiar quaver in his voice now ironically imbued with strains of uncharacteristic bitterness and contempt as he explains to McCabe’s contemporaries – if only to satisfy their insidious curiosity – why Elena chose to survive her ordeal rather than kill herself; because her Catholic beliefs regard suicide as a sin.  
Two Rode Together is deceptively flamboyant, even as it remains one of John Ford’s more low key endeavors. The buddy/buddy relationship between McCabe and Gary is the stuff of cinema dreams. This isn’t a friendship, per say, and yet there is a far deeper appreciation shared by these men of action than perhaps either is even initially aware exists. At one point, John Ford and his cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr. hold steady on a two shot of James Stewart and Richard Widmark; Ford utterly confident in the ability of his performers to sustain the drama exclusively with their exchange of dialogue: eight and a half minutes of expository human bing-bang without a single cut, not even to favor either actor with a close-up. Two Rode Together is an exquisite work of genius, considered as ‘minor’ only because John Ford gave himself a very tough act to follow; an impressive and unparalleled canon of movie magic.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via a sparkling new 1080p transfer from Sony Home Entertainment, is a most gratifying affair, alas, at the mercy of Eastman/Pathe’s notorious film stock that, on occasion renders the image slightly soft and with a very murky palette. Mercifully, the image is mostly razor-sharp and filled with excellent detail, eye-popping hues and a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. Thank Grover Crisp and Sony’s technological wizards for working miracles on inferior and improperly stored elements; willing most of the vibrancy of Two Rode Together’s opening night splendor back from the brink for this home video presentation.  
Things definitely snap together, the image remarkably free of age-related debris and artifacts. When the vintage elements align with Crisp’s meticulous restoration/preservation efforts, we are treated to a very fine overriding arc of quality; the ‘wow’ factor revealed in gorgeous hi-def background detail in foliage, dust, wood grain, etc. Alas, the Eastman/Pathe process intermittently betrays these efforts, even from shot to shot; color and detail occasionally faltering (mostly in long shot); looking slightly out of focus. There’s also a queer moiré pattern happening in the reverse shot near the end of the film, when Elena (already aboard the stagecoach) catches the welcomed reflection of McCabe in her jewelry box mirror. All of these aforementioned shortcomings are quite minor and indigenous to the source material – not the fault of this hi-def mastering. So kudos is, decidedly, in order and well deserved.
The 1.0 DTS is exceptionally nuanced for a mono track, with clearly delineated dialogue and effects. Modestly disappointing is TT’s lack of extras on this disc. We do get their usual commitment to an isolated score showcasing George Duning’s marvelous efforts, and a theatrical trailer. But that’s it. Popular opinion still regards Two Rode Together as an inconsequential among John Ford’s many great works of art. But I prefer it as an ‘as yet’ undiscovered tour de force by a master craftsman, the likes of which – sadly – we’ll probably never know again. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


FATE IS THE HUNTER/TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1964/Redwind Productions 2012) Twilight Time

Ralph Nelson’s Fate is the Hunter (1964) bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean Negulesco’s 1952 potboiler, Phone Call from a Stranger; a fairly straight forward tale about people brought together after a tragic loss of life in the blink of an eye following the crash of a commercial airliner. Apart from the movie’s title, very little remains of Ernest K. Gann’s bestseller on which the movie is supposedly based; screenwriter Harold Medford aspiring to little more than a ‘nuts and bolts’ investigation of Consolidated Airways Flight 22. Medford’s approach to Gann’s operatic material is pedestrian at best. And Gann, who actually began in earnest to write his own screenplay before throwing in the towel, forever regretted this decision – not so much for Medford’s mangling of his central plot or even the distillation of the novel’s piquancy into timid textbook melodrama, but rather, because he received no residuals whenever this movie was replayed on television (and in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it played a lot!).
As scripted by Medford, the plot revolves around stewardess, Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette), who just might be able to piece together the clues for Consolidated Airline’s CEO Sam McBane (Glenn Ford). Alas, Medford’s screenplay is fairly mechanical. His use of the flashback to resurrect the late Capt. Jack Savage (played with roguish aplomb by Rod Taylor), and thus providing us with a bit of personal backstory contrary to the frame-up presently taking place inside Consolidated’s damage control command center, (sure…let’s blame the crash on pilot error – a dead man who cannot defend himself) is not altogether successful.  In the movie’s climactic reenactment of the perilous events that brought down Flight 22, it all boils down to a cup of coffee; bad timing, engine failure and the presence of a wooden pier scheduled for demolition two weeks earlier – in short – fate: that omnipotent set of circumstances conspiring against we mere mortals.
Fate is the Hunter is a noticeably cumbersome and not terribly prepossessing melodrama – owing part of its problematic pacing to director Nelson’s insistence on conducting the affair as something of a noir police procedural from the 1940’s. The movie’s salvation comes partly from its performances, predominantly Glenn Ford’s cleverly cryptic/outwardly caustic man of action, determined to get to the bottom of things even if it means dashing to pieces his competitive prospects for a promotion within the company. Flight 22’s disaster could not have been more ill-timed for McBane, locked in a heated race for the presidency with wily coworker, Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff); the latter, only too eager to buy into the scenario Savage was drunk and therefore solely responsible for the crash.  Alas, even this revelation does come first to Sawyer – something of a conflicted, backstabbing corporate stooge; the nugget implanted by a little bit of investigative journalism from ambulance chaser/eleven o’clock newshound, Dan Crawford (Max Showalter). According to Crawford’s sources, Savage was spotted at several bars around town with confirmed drunkard, Mickey Doolan (40’s second-string heartthrob, Mark Stevens, herein effectively gaunt and careworn in a startling departure from his ensconced pop image).
It will take McBane the better half of the movie’s 106 minutes to track Doolan down; also to piece together inklings with the help of empathetic radio controller, Ralph Bundy (Wally Cox); Savage’s latest fling, the queerly philosophical marine biologist, Sally Fraser (Nancy Kwan) and his former flame, Lisa Bond (Dorothy Malone as a thoroughly heartless Marilyn Monroe knock-off who doesn’t allow a society soiree to intrude upon her…um…grief). Alas, Fate is the Hunter plays to the stereotype of the cold-blooded corporation, in this case, helmed by the unscrupulous Dillon (Bert Freed), Proctor (Robert F. Simon) and Mark Hutchins (Howard St. John), who almost immediately upon getting wind of Savage’s pre-flight bar-hopping escapades, decide to pin sole responsibility for the crash on him; skewing the reassembled evidence, including a flight box recording of Flight 22’s last airborne moments, and encouraging McBane to thrown Savage’s reputation under the proverbial bus for sake of saving the company’s face – also, his own skin; hopefully to avoid some very expensive and soon to follow lawsuits from victim’s survivors.
It would be all too easy for McBane to do simply this. After all, Jack Savage was hardly a friend; more like a barely tolerated coworker; Savage too brash and cocky for his own good. No, Jack Savage was not very likeable except as the devil-may-care ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ lady’s man to whom all life’s advantages came much too easily, garnering envy as everybody’s ‘good time Joe’ – a very thin sheath indeed, masking their abject contempt for the man. Even McBane’s secretary/love interest, Peg Burke (Constance Towers) – only interested in seeing her man’s chances for the presidency not go up in flames – and Savage’s landlady, Mrs. Llewlyn (played with nattering perfection by Mary Wickes) have their stake in wrecking Savage’s ‘good name’. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Savage’s reputation as a hotshot pilot is impeccable. He would never think to gamble his career on a binge just before takeoff. 
During the war years, Savage thwarted McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with actress, Jane Russell (Russell, playing herself) by sending McBane on a wild goose chase. Male machismo and animosity aside, the more level-headed and introspective McBane secretly admired Savage; or, at least, Savage’s bon vivant defiance; not to play by the rules and/or live up to everyone else’s expectations. McBane, however, has always been ‘by the book’. He may not live life to its fullest, but there’s a conscious thread of honesty permeating his life’s work. It’s precisely this quality as the noble company whore and McBane’s repeated attack of conscience that will lead him to dispel the myth about Savage’s incompetence; speaking truth for a man who perhaps never gave even the concept of genuineness much thought in life, and now, can no longer offer even an appraisal of it in his own defense.
Fate is the Hunter begins with a riveting pre-title prologue; the disastrous last minutes of Consolidated’s Flight 22. Savage confides in McBane shortly before takeoff, that he suspects McBane is on the rise within the company hierarchy – soon to become its new president. McBane reminds Savage of Ben Sawyer, also up for the job. Moreover, Sawyer knows how to manipulate the variables to win this race. But if wily deception is the only way to ascend to the top, then McBane would just as soon have none of it. Thus, we enter the plane with stewardesses, Martha Webster and D’Arcy (Marianna Case); the latter a last minute replacement who has already caught the eye of our randy captain, despite the fact he has two women on the go on the ground; fair-weather good time gal, Lisa Bond, and devoted – though hardly naïve – Sally Fraser.  We briefly meet a few of the nameless passengers on board; one (Jim Boles) having taken out an exorbitant life insurance policy just prior to the flight (suggesting a possible terrorist plot, immediately contemplated by Consolidated’s brain trust after the crash, but thereafter just as quickly dispelled) and four year old, Angela Dawson – on her way to visit her grandmother in Seattle.
The preflight checklist cleared by Savage and his copilot, Flight 22 takes off. However, almost immediately it experiences engine failure. Savage remains calm and collected as he requests permission to land. Alas, the fates have conspired against the passengers and crew; three incoming planes deferring Flight 22’s emergency landing to a sandy stretch of beach. It ought to have been manageable, if only the contractor assigned to tear down a rickety wooden pier had done his job on schedule.  Regrettably, the pier remains intact, Flight 22 slamming into the embankment nose first and bursting into a hellish ball of flames. In an instant, fifty-four lives are lost; McBane and a gaggle of news-hungry reporters rushing down the tarmac to inspect the wreckage for survivors. Only three are pulled alive from the twisted metal – two dying en route to hospital – and one; stewardess, Martha, left to tearfully lament how she could have made it through this nightmarish ordeal in one piece.  
Thus, begins McBane’s investigation of the facts; momentarily interrupted when TV reporter, Dan Crawford shares his tidbit of information with Dillion, Proctor and Hutchins; that Savage may have been flying under the influence. McBane refuses to believe it. After all, he saw Savage just prior to takeoff; collected, suave and self-aggrandizing as ever. Recovery of the flight recorder reveals no such lapses in judgment either or slurred outbursts by Savage just before the plane went down.  No, something other than pilot error must be responsible for this terrible loss of life. In short order, McBane tracks down friends who knew Savage best, discovering kindred spirits in Sally, Ralph and Mickey that will help exonerate Savage’s public image from any wrong doing. 
Fate is the Hunter might have had more to offer if it just stuck with this exculpatory reconnaissance. Instead, Harold Medford’s screenplay regresses into a lengthy and decidedly tedious flashback set during the war, triggered by McBane’s discovery of a garter dangling off the mantelpiece inside Savage’s rented bungalow. We see McBane and Savage in their younger years as two pilots in the South Seas; Savage already full of himself as he usurps McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with USO singer, Jane Russell (won fair and square after McBane catches the garter Russell tosses into the audience). But Savage doesn’t play by the rules – particularly where women are concerned. He also has no compunction about advertising his playful dishonesty; recklessly driving his jeep with Russell in tow past McBane and the other envious flyers. If McBane wanted to, he could choose to hate Savage on principle alone. Alas, McBane is the more introspective and forgiving sort; recognizing he could never play the part of the lone wolf convincingly. Hence, he allows Savage to have his kicks and way with the ‘fate’ life has dealt them both.
The device of a movie flashback can reveal new information otherwise unable to be relayed to the audience. But in Fate is the Hunter’s case it just takes up a fair chunk of the movie’s runtime; perhaps, because without it Medford’s screenplay really doesn’t have all that much to say and has already painted itself into an impossible narrative corner. Returning to the present, McBane attempts to give testimony at the public inquest, contrary to the wishes of his superiors; upholding Savage’s honor and integrity by suggesting Martha’s theory of a double engine failure moments before the crash is actually correct, despite the physical evidence: Flight 22’s second engine was recovered from the wreck virtually intact and seemingly in perfect working order. To prove his point, McBane elects to take an empty plane – Consolidated’s Flight 24 – on the same fateful trajectory as its predecessor, encouraging Martha to partake in his experiment. She understandable refuses out of fear at first, but then comes to McBane’s aid with cathartic professionalism. With McBane assuming Savage’s role, the crew reenact the fateful last moments of Flight 22; Martha bringing McBane a cup of coffee and placing it at arm’s reach, just as she had done for Savage.
As the first engine deliberately cuts out, Flight 24 experiences some minor turbulence, toppling the coffee cup and spilling its contents inside the control panel. This short circuits not only engine number two, but also the plane’s radar communications. McBane fires up the undamaged engine and manages to land his plane successfully. Realizing a coffee cup and a design flaw in the control panel played an integral role in the crash, McBane is confident Savage will be cleared of any wrong doing. He did his best in an impossible situation; failing only because ‘fate’ had conspired against him. In these final moments, McBane encourages Martha to meet the others who were instrumental in believing in his investigation when almost everyone else merely sought the quickest route to a convenient scapegoat.
Fate is the Hunter lacks in consistent dramatic impetus, marginally made up by its taut and convincing performances. Of these, Glenn Ford’s is the standout and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette and Rod Taylor.  These are very fine actors capable of more than the Harold Medford screenplay offers them. At times, the exchange of dialogue is woefully absent of something intelligent to say, the riveting high-stakes drama diffused into marginal conversations that systematically drag us from one plot point to the next with virtually no suspense. The story waffles in banal and occasionally, dead end vignettes; the pointless inclusion of Jane Russell (who is featured with a song no less) really stalling the plot. Fate is the Hunter’s ace in the hole is Milton Krasner’s superb B&W cinematography; always discovering fascinating ways to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope with compelling compositions. When all else fails, we can admire and appreciate the look of this movie, even as its plot continues to lumber from one boring backstory to the next.   
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via their alliance with 2oth Century-Fox, yields a middling 1080p transfer. The pluses: razor sharp clarity and consistent contrast levels - very rich, deep and velvety blacks and whites that are never blooming. Although this transfer reveals a stellar amount of fine detail throughout and considerable amounts of indigenous film grain accurately rendered, the image is also infrequently marred by gate weave and wobble, and, vertical streaks and modeling; also plagued by a barrage of age-related nicks, chips and scratches. Honestly, a simple (though somewhat costly) blue wash would have filled in a lot of these time-inflicted anomalies. Fox, however, seems to be slipping back into its habit of ‘hit or miss’ remastering, depending on how valid they believe a title is for receiving the full treatment.  The bigger transgressor here is the 1.0 DTS audio; very strident sounding. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse score is grating on the ear. Jane Russell’s song is painfully screechy. Extras include TT’s isolated score and an audio commentary featuring Nick Redman and co-star Nancy Kwan.
Now for the biggest reason of all to buy this disc: Brian Jamieson’s lyrical ‘letter of introduction’ to the world of, Nancy Kwan – “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey” (2010) – a seminal biography of this Eurasian/American beauty who defied Hollywood’s racial barriers and stereotypes to dazzle us in films like The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). Kwan’s poignant and largely untold story is the sort of rags to riches from which both daydreams and fairytales are stitched together. However, like the best of fantasy, Kwan’s familial saga is also tinged in heartrending tragedy – though arguably, never personal regrets.
Ironically, few biographical accounts aspire to breathe life into their subject matter. Jamieson’s is the exception to this rule: a superbly relayed, evocative valentine to Nancy Kwan: his juxtaposition of Kwan’s career with her more intimate and probing search beyond those bittersweet kernels of truth, suppressed in youth, are the starburst in Kwan’s own sunset of middle-age exploration, and, at the crux of this poignant cinematic memoire.  I’ll just go on record here and state that To Whom It May Concern could so easily have been a standalone Twilight Time release, or paired up with either of the aforementioned undisputed hits in Kwan’s movie repertoire. 
Here is a tale so clearly told by people in love with Nancy Kwan; culled from a myriad of personal and unvarnished reflections put forth by family and friends – also from Kwan herself, and introspectively narrated by TT’s Nick Redman, who adds an immeasurable air of authority to this conversation. Kwan’s own 2008 return to Hong Kong, for the ballet interpretation of Suzie Wong, provides the momentum, as well as bookends for this outpouring of personal reflection.  While I didn’t particularly care for Fate is the Hunter, I absolutely adored To Whom It May Concern. It is an expressively joyful, yet angst-ridden, life-affirming masterpiece. Better still, great care has been taken to remaster this biography in hi-def. The 1080p image is, for the most part, breathtaking. Inserts from Kwan’s movie classics looks incredible. I was blown away by the remarkable clarity in Flower Drum Song. Why this movie has yet to materialize on Blu-ray is beyond me! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of  5 – 5 being the best)
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 5+
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 4.5


THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO/THUNDERBIRD 6: Blu-ray (Century 21st Cinema/United Artists 1966/68) Twilight Time

Sitting through approximately three hours of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds 2-film anthology – 1966’s Thunderbirds are Go and 1968’s Thunderbird 6 – is a little bit like being stuck in a lavishly appointed E-ticket ride at Disneyland (both the Magic Kingdom’s Carousel of Progress and Epcot’s Spaceship Earth immediately come to mind); enveloped by director, David Lane’s comprehensive dioramas, populated with bobble-headed and uncannily animated puppets; dubbed Supermarionation by their creator – Anderson - to distinguish them from either conventional puppetry or traditional marionettes; although they decidedly bear a striking resemblance to the latter rather than the former. Alas, one has to set aside a certain level of expectation – also, more than a modicum of jadedness in this era of CGI on demand – to truly appreciate either movie as anything more substantial beyond quaint. However, it is still quite possible to greatly admire the technological wizardry; decidedly cutting edge and masterpieces of their own unique kind.
To anyone of a certain vintage growing up in Britain, even the very mention of the name Thunderbirds conjures fond recollections of Anderson’s hour-long children’s television series; so complex it took a small army of passionate creatives, toiling under SFX supervisor – and genius – Derek Meddings, almost three weeks to film a single episode (and at a considerable cost); producer Lew Grade (footing the bill) so immeasurably impressed with the results he reportedly marched up to Anderson after viewing some test footage and shaking his finger, declared “This isn’t a television series…it’s a movie!” Alas, Thunderbirds never managed to break through to the American market – ironic, actually, considering Anderson’s premise for the show was about the Tracy family; a decidedly all-American brood of aeronautic millionaire jock-types (well, minus their Poindexter inventor/designer, Brains – voiced by David Graham) modeled after the Cartwright clan on television’s popular, Bonanza (1959-73).
There’s no denying the other major influence on Anderson’s short lived, though wildly popular television series (1965-66) and films: the James Bond franchise. With its gadget-laden espionage-infused scenarios, and the inclusion of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (voiced by Anderson’s then wife, Sylvia) – a sort of female Bond, flanked by her ever-loyal and lovably obtuse ex-con/chauffeur, Aloysius Parker (also voiced by Graham); the pair working in cahoots with the International Rescue squadron, helmed by silver-haired patriarch, Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley) from his remote private island somewhere off the coast of…well…; Thunderbirds is a fascinating hybrid of the kiddie matinee meets the iconographic fast-paced/high fashion playground of Ian Fleming’s treasured super spy.
That neither Thunderbirds are Go nor Thunderbird 6 comes off as bona fide ‘family entertainment’ or entirely captivating adult-infused action/adventure drama is a bit disappointing, as – clearly – they have been designed to straddle this chasm between two irreconcilable spheres of pop-u-tainment. Also, something of a letdown; Thunderbirds are Go never entirely caught on in the U.S. where the movie regrettably failed to catch the tail fire as part of the so called ‘British Invasion’. In fact, Thunderbirds are Go sank like a stone at the box office state’s side; Lew Grade immediately pulling up stakes – also, his financing – and leaving Anderson to fend for himself on the sequel.   
I confess: it took me more than one viewing to warm up to the concept and actually enjoy these movies for what they were meant to be; rollicking, mildly silly, and very ingeniously scripted thrill rides, catering to the swingin’ 60’s mod mentality and dedicated to over-the-top glamor and implausible action/adventure.  Appropriately, Anderson’s creations were sculpted out of more space-age materials than conventional marionettes; polymers, plastics, fiberglass and silicone – each oversized head fitted with a solenoid motor to synchronize the movement of their lips with the pre-recorded dialogue. Thunderbirds are Go also taps into the 60’s mania surrounding the ‘space race’; Anderson’s puppetry – by its very merit – already unencumbered by any adherence to reality, and, thus, having conquered the farthest reaches of infinity with atypically American chutzpah, yet distinctly British noblesse oblige.
At some level you just ‘gotta’ love a movie that bypasses man’s ambitions for a lunar landing (still three years away when Thunderbirds are Go had its world premiere in Lester Square), for an even more ambitious, yet casually observed rendezvous on Mars (oddly, no longer ‘the red planet’ but a desolate coal dusty gray wasteland populated by red-eyed Cyclops snakes spewing firecracker sparks from their gaping nostrils). Ditto for the even more fanciful and nonchalant dream sequence where the Tracy’s fair-haired Joe Studly – Alan (Matt Zimmermann) indulges Lady Penelope at an interplanetary nightclub, ‘The Swinging Star’; shamelessly featuring the U.K.’s chart toppers, Cliff Richards and The Shadows as – what else? – his offspring, Cliff Jr. and…wait for it…The Shadows.    
Thunderbirds are Go takes place in the then unfathomable year of 2067. Following the disastrous crash of its new spacecraft, Zero-X, the Inquiry Board of the Space Exploration Center (SEC) reaches its inevitable verdict of industrial sabotage. Almost immediately, a second Mars mission is planned, with the Tracy’s International Rescue team brought in to beef up security and provide safe conduct for the new spacecraft.  Jeff Tracy dispatches his eldest son, Scott (Shane Rimmer) to Glenn Field, Virgil (Jeremy Wilkin) and Alan as aerial escorts until the Zero-X has left the atmosphere. Interestingly, while SEC is still presumably in the infancy of figuring things out with the Zero-X, the Tracys already have a floating space module orbiting the earth.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Lady Penelope – posing as a member of the press corps – offers the four man crew of the new Zero-X St. Christopher brooches to wear, ostensibly, for good luck. However, inside each circular pin is a homing device (the idea lifted in its entirety from ‘The Duchess Assignment’ episode from the Thunderbirds TV series).  When all but the brooch belonging to Dr. Tony Grant (Charles Tingwell) begin to broadcast signals back to Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls-Royce, she immediately knows something is seriously wrong. Penelope alerts Jeff who orders Scott to investigate. Unmasking the saboteur taking Grant’s place aboard the flight, Scott is held at gunpoint; the terrorist escaping the launch pad, first by car, then later in a speedboat with Lady P making chase in her chauffeur-driven car. The Rolls turns amphibious in its hot pursuit of the suspect. It also comes with built-in machine guns that bring down a marauding helicopter assigned to protect the assassin’s escape.  
The real Grant is found bound and gagged inside a nearby hangar and reinstated to the flight deck without further incident. Now, the Zero-X departs for the farthest reaches of space and Alan returns home, only to discover Scott and Virgil have gone with Penelope to the nightclub, ‘The Swinging Star’ to blow off a little steam. It sounds good to Alan too, who invites another member of the International Rescue team, Tin-Tin Kyrano (Christine Finn) for a night on the town. Alas, Jeff quashes their plans, reminding Alan that the command center cannot be left unattended in his brothers’ absence.  We’re not sure why Jeff can’t man things alone and simply radio his boys if he needs their assistance…but there it is. Feeling undervalued, Alan storms off to bed, suffering a fantastic dream where he and Penelope indulge in a glamorous night on the town – the town having been relocated to a floating Jetson-esque nightclub in outer space. Curiously, everyone can breathe without the benefit of oxygen in Alan’s dream; he and Lady P. entertained by Cliff Richards and The Shadows. The dream ends disastrously; Alan losing his footing just outside the club and plummeting back to earth, awakening in a heap on the floor of his bedroom.
Meanwhile, the real intergalactic voyage of Zero-X encounters coiled rock formations on Mars. These turn out to be one-eyed python-esque alien life forms; the ship’s captain, Greg Martin (Alexander Davion) narrowly avoiding extraterrestrial annihilation.  Forgoing the rest of their Mars mission, the crew of the Zero-X dock at an orbiting command module piloted by space navigator, Brad Newman (Bob Monkhouse).  Attempting reentry to the earth, the Zero-X encounters a perilous malfunction; its escape unit circuit damaged in flight. Jeff sends the entire Thunderbird rescue team to intercept before the inevitable crash can occur in Craigsville, Florida.  Scott and Virgil manage to winch the Zero-X to their aircraft, Alan shimmying down a wire into its belly, with Brains instructing him on how to reroute the damaged escape circuitry and save the rest of the crew. It all works as it should, the crew ejecting to safety moments before the Zero-X slams into the heart of Craigsville, taking out half the town in a fiery ball of flame.
Presumably, because none of this property damage – or anticipated loss of life - seems to matter within the context of this film (heck, Jeff could probably cut a check and rebuild the town before sunset), the Tracy’s gather for a victory celebration at the real Swinging Star; everyone except Lady Penelope incognito as they toast Alan’s heroism.  F.A.B. – which became something of a moniker for the show, actually stands for an abbreviation of ‘fabulous’. In many ways, Thunderbirds are Go was a decided departure from the television series; more of an exercise in competition with the Bond franchise, ratcheting up the level of pyrotechnics and model stunt work; Derek Meddings really giving the movie a super-duper A-list sheen with his SFX expertise.
Thunderbird 6 returns to more familiar territory – or rather, material more aligned with the general tenor of the TV show; its screenplay again written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, but now focused on more wordy byplay between these beloved characters. We’re still in 2068, the New World Aircraft Corporation (NWAC) hiring Brains to invent a revolutionary mode of commercial travel. Brains elects to build an airship; a decision drawing jeers and sneers from NWAC’s board of directors who, nevertheless, green-light the project to its completion.  Skyship One isn’t your ordinary ‘blimp’, nor is its maiden voyage, the circumnavigation of the entire world just a skip across the millpond, what with pit stops in Cairo, New York and Geneva. No, we’re in for some uber-glamorous globe-trotting.
Alan, Tin-Tin, Lady Penelope and Parker are assigned by Jeff as goodwill ambassadors from the International Rescue team. Alas, Brains is denied the fruits of his labors, asked instead by Jeff to begin work on Thunderbird 6; a new rescue vehicle to add to their fleet. Brains shows Jeff a prototype for a rather conventional-looking fire rescue unit. Unimpressed, Jeff tells Brains he will have to rethink the concept from scratch.  In the meantime, Lady Penelope begins to suspect Skyship One’s captain, Foster (John Carson) and his stewards are not what they appear to be. Indeed, Foster and his cohorts have murdered the real captain and crew, dumping their bodies over the Atlantic Ocean; secretly bugging the entire ship with recording devices that continue to pick up Lady Penelope’s words; later remixed to formulate a distress message sent to Jeff. In fact, the message is a trap put forth by ‘the hood’ (Gary Files) who escaped harm from the first movie and now seeks bloody revenge on the entire Tracy clan.
Operating as the ‘Black Phantom’ from an abandoned airfield near Casablanca , the hood instructs his impostors to play it safe and indulge their guests with every onboard luxury and convenience. Alas, Lady Penelope has begun to harbor feelings for Foster; that is, until she discovers one of his recording devices concealed in her bedroom. Meanwhile, the hood sends his distress call, reconstituted from Lady Penelope’s sound bytes, to Jeff at International Rescue; the transmission instructing them to come to her aid at the abandoned airfield outside of Casablanca. The plan is to murder the Tracy’s upon their arrival, and steal their airships. Thankfully, Lady Penelope gets word to Jeff ahead of time that the recording he’s heard was not sent by her. Alan attempts to stop Foster and his henchmen in the bowels of the ship, their exchange of gunfire damaging its’ ability to sustain cabin pressurization, thus bringing it down. Meanwhile, Scott and Virgil keep their rendezvous with the hood, instead decimating and destroying his stronghold without much effort or incident.
Aboard Skyship One, Alan is forced to surrender when one of Foster’s operatives takes Tin-Tin hostage. Without sufficient pressurization, Skyship One becomes hooked on a radio tower at a missile base in Dover, England. With its anti-gravity field failing, the weight of the ship begins to pull the tower down. Scott, Virgil and Brains attempt to keep the airship balanced by tethering it to their own ships, at least long enough for Brains to pilot Alan’s old WWII Tiger Moth, landing atop Skyship One’s quaking hull. Foster attempts to hijack the biplane. But Alan once again saves the day by shooting his captor dead.
Now, everyone climbs aboard the rickety dowels and wings of the antiquated Tiger Moth, Alan instructing Penelope on how to steer it through a series of barrel rolls in and around the highway, everyone escaping the hellish fireball that consumes the missile base as Skyship One comes crashing to the ground. Narrowly avoiding their own crash landing, Alan and Penelope bring the Tiger Moth down in an open field, Parker caught by a low branch and left dangling from a nearby tree – bruised, but otherwise alive and unharmed. Later, at Tracy Island, Brains unveils his prototype for the new Thunderbird rescue craft; a rebuilt version of the Tiger Moth that amuses everyone.
Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 are decidedly artifacts – nee relics – from another place and time; the mindset that conceived them almost irreconcilable with what passes for mainstream entertainment today.  Alas, apart from being the end of an era, Thunderbird 6 was also the end of the line for Gerry Anderson’s beloved creations. By the time of its premiere, the television series had already fallen off the radar of public consciousness. Thunderbird 6 was not a success, either in America or Britain; the public’s interest in ‘Supermarionation’ effectively retired for good. It took AP Films nearly four months to shoot the first movie; a little less than three to complete its sequel. Yet, in some ways, Thunderbird 6 is a more ambitious and visually impressive movie than its predecessor; Anderson and his crew improving on their designs; the puppetry more fluent, the sequel incorporating a good deal more live action footage to augment this story.
The convincingly executed Tiger Moth sequence that caps off Thunderbird 6 is almost entirely conceived in full scale, with pilot Joan Hughes flying perilously close to an incomplete stretch of steel and concrete girders from Britain’s M40 motorway, still under construction; full-sized dummies of the International Rescue cast strapped to the wings of her biplane.  Local police had forewarned Anderson and director David Lane, Hughes would not be allowed to ‘fly’ under the overpasses, but rather have to taxi through them. However, once airborne, Hughes informed Lane via radio communication of the impossibility in maintaining control of her plane if she were to touch down. At a moment’s notice, Lane approved the harrowing flyby instead and was then forced to go to court to defend his position in a lawsuit brought against the company. Thankfully, the presiding judge was an immense fan of the series, throwing the case out of court.  
Viewed today, Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 were decidedly ahead of their time, Paddy Seale’s photographic work and Derek Meddings' SFX remaining unsurpassed and breaking new ground. An interesting postscript: their work captured the fascination of no less passionate and prolific a film-maker than Stanley Kubrick, who engaged Sylvia Anderson for a luncheon date to discuss the prospect of her husband’s firm doing some special effects work for him. Alas, Sylvia prematurely thwarted this deal by politely informing Kubrick over the telephone that AP Films were not in the business of doing effects for other directors; Kubrick promptly revoking his invitation to dine before hanging up the receiver.
In retrospect, both Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 owe a great deal to the lavish absurdity of the decade that spawned them; John Lageu and Keith Wilson’s production design in the original, and Bob Bell’s art direction in the sequel, heavily cribbing from production designer Ken Adams’ superb full scale creations for the James Bond franchise. Yet, in this awkward amalgam of sci-fi ‘cartoonish’ fantasy, the seamless blend of miniatures, marionettes and full scale live action comes across as just spookily artificial; tricked out in a stunning array of ‘in the moment’ ultra-trendy costume designs (for which we mostly have Sylvia Anderson’s influence to thank).
Despite the admirably meticulous craftsmanship on display throughout both the original and its sequel, and Gerry Anderson’s ambitions for the series – to appeal to Americans (and thus corner the market share on family entertainment) it’s somewhat understandable neither Thunderbirds are Go nor Thunderbird 6 succeeded in finding their audience. Neither movie sustains our interests for the entirety of their runtime; the amusement factor only appealing as precursors to Claymation and Jim Henson’s Muppets alter-universe, but wearing decidedly thin.
In spots, both movies are clever, witty, and decidedly, expertly conceived. And yet, something seems remiss – I mean, apart from the fact these characters are made of plastic and resin. Perhaps, it’s that Anderson has taken the plots of his movies far too seriously. We’re meant to invest ourselves in Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6 as though each was a James Bond movie; to set aside the creepiness of these bobble-headed beings, with their darting eyes and perfectly timed lip sync; their super-sized noggins loosely rattling about as though to suffer from some form of Parkinson’s. Are these really our humanoid counterparts?
Alas, no.  As I prefaced in this review, observing Anderson’s puppetry for more than a few minutes at a time is very much like being trapped inside an audio-animatronic pavilion at any one of Disney’s many and varied theme parks. Observed from the relative safety of a traveling suspended car or boat traversing the calming waters inside ‘It’s a Small World’ the effect is uncanny but tolerable. Flatted out for an hour and a half on the expansive Techniscope/Technicolor movie screen it just becomes a little shy of unbearably weird.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray transfers on both movies, via Fox/MGM’s alliance, reveal an impressive image that will surely not disappoint. Both features exhibit extremely vibrant colors. We won’t bother to discuss…um…flesh tones…herein for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say, each movie looks fairly accurate in its hues; the tangerine and black board room, and Lady Penelope’s flamingo pink Rolls-Royce popping as they should. Occasionally, film grain gets just a tad heavy.  Again, we have to consider the extreme lighting conditions required to shoot some of these SFX shots – explosions exposed at 123 frames per second.  I believe I also detected some very minor artificial sharpening – negligible at best. Contrast is superb and black levels are very satisfying.  Also, age-related artifacts are practically nonexistent. In both cases, Fox/MGM must have sourced these transfers from very well preserved negatives or expertly restored digital elements. Either way - nicely done.
We’ll also tip our hats to Fox/MGM’s efforts on the soundtrack. We get our choice of the original mono in DTS or a brand new 5.1 DTS, the latter giving full range to Barry Gray’s adventuresome score on both movies. Dialogue sounds very crisp and explosions come across all five channels with predictably thunderous results. Finally, we give a hefty nod to Fox/MGM for their weighty cavalcade of extra features. Wow! Who would have thought there was this much to know about supermarionation?!? Twilight Time affords us two fabulous isolated score track – one for each movie. Thunderbirds are Go also has two distinct and exceptionally fine audio commentaries; one featuring historians Jeff Bond and TT’s own Nick Redman; the other with director, David Lane and Sylvia Anderson. Lane and Anderson also provide insight on an isolated commentary track for Thunderbird 6.
Featurettes are too numerous to discuss at any length herein, but suffice it to say you will be given a crash course in AP Films, supermarionation, the making of both movies, some fascinating back stories and a wealth of history on Gerry Anderson’s enduring creations.  In most cases, these featurettes are holdovers from MGM’s previously released DVDs, although ‘Excitement is Go! – The Making of Thunderbirds’ seems to have been newly produced exclusively for this Blu-ray release.  Bottom line: if you’re a fan of these movies then this Blu-ray double feature from Twilight Time comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Both films: 3
Both films: 4