Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1978) Twilight Time

It is impossible to view Steve Rash’s 1978 biopic, The Buddy Holly Story without the pall of Holly’s fateful last act hanging over the entire exercise as though it were the sword of Damocles. Holly, who helped originate and pioneer a new musical style (eventually quantified by some brilliant record producer as ‘rock and roll’); who seemed to appear out of the nothingness of the Texas tumbleweed in an instant, soar to meteoric heights in an equally as short period of time, then vanish into the night as though he’d never existed at all (along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper; their plane crashing just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa in 1959); this is, most regrettably, the stuff from which dreams – alas, nightmares, too – but moreover, and, to the point, genuine legends are made. In its bittersweet epilogue, The Buddy Holly Story is dedicated to ‘the three who loved him first’ – and arguably, most; Holly’s parents (played in the movie by Neva Patterson and Arch Johnson) and his wife, Maria Elena Santiago (Maria Richwine). What the film does spectacularly well, especially considering its miniscule $1.2 million budget (you can’t even shoot a half hour kids show today for that figure), is to capture and bottle the essence of a mania, when middleclass American ‘traditionalism’ was suddenly overtaken by the strains, hiccups and growing pains of its more vibrant youth culture, itching to bust out of suburbia and ‘shake, shake, shake’ their collective booty.
Gary Busey, who only a scant few years earlier had made an unremarkable debut in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), electrifies the screen with a blistering presence of mind to give us Buddy Holly – as a man, performer, legend and the most unexpected pop sensation; also, in retrospect, something of a martyr before his time, instilling every last frame of The Buddy Holly Story with the sort of monumental sincerity sparking off a seasoned pro, performing all of Holly’s songs - in his own voice – and live, no less – a daunting prospect for any actor. The frenetic energy bursting forth from Busey’s diminutive frame (the actor shed 32 lbs. to play Holly) sears itself into our collective consciousness with the white hot glow of Holly’s lightning genius, giving us a sense of Holly’s accomplished, chameleon-like agility, and, a truly profound and intuitive compassion on Busey’s part for his subject.  We get Buddy Holly as a frustrated, socially inept adolescent; also, utterly driven perfectionist, and finally, something of a puckish rebel; dumping his Waspish girlfriend, Cindy Lou (Amy Johnston) at the bus depot with an abrupt, if cheery ‘Boola Boola’ as she disbelievingly looks on in stunned dismay.
Too few biographical films misplace the essential kernel of ‘truth’ when relaying the past. Arguably, one of the selling features of any biopic is its period recreation; resurrecting a bygone era for nostalgic purposes. But good camouflage is no substitute for great acting, and what The Buddy Holly Story lacks in the scope of its vintage authenticity it more than makes up for with Gary Busey’s pluperfect performance. An actor playing a character who was actually a real person is a little like tightrope walking as a human, but dressed like a dancing bear, attempting the same feat on roller skates. The actor truly has to ‘make it’ in the performance; not merely appear in familiar garb as a competent (even superb) mimic, but sincerely thrive, overcome and transcend the mystique; making the past live again in the present – if only for an hour or two. Busey’s Charles Harden Holley does this in spades and then some; the actor disappearing inside the cocoon of his alter ego, only to emerge as a living testament to his twenty-two year old man of the hour.
To truly appreciate and contextualize the film as art – as opposed to reality – we must first, pause, give ourselves a moment’s silence to decompress from its toe-tapping sensationalism, and, alas, marginally digress, to point out The Buddy Holly Story was never intended as either fact or history. Initially, it wasn’t even being conceived for the movie screen – rather, a teleplay later expanded for theatrical consideration.  Despite the real Buddy Holly’s clairvoyance in helping to introduce and trademark a ‘new’ sound in American pop music, his reputation as an innovator in the business had been almost forgotten by the time The Buddy Holly Story went before the cameras.  In fact, another Holly film project (Three Sided Coin, in which, ironically, Busey was scheduled to appear as The Cricket’s drummer) had already been shelved by 2oth Century-Fox due to lack of interest. So, The Buddy Holly Story was hardly a slam dunk with a pre-sold title and subject matter to sell tickets.   
Much has been made of the fact Robert Gittler’s screenplay takes enormous artistic liberties in translating Holly’s life and times into movie magic. Fair enough, Holly’s band, ‘The Crickets’ were marginalized, reduced from three to two cast members (more manageable/less expensive), and renamed after the real Crickets had already sold their portrayal rights to another producer for the aforementioned defunct Holly movie. And equally valid, the conflict emerging between Holly and his drummer, Jesse Charles (played with sullen grace by Don Stroud), depicted as something of a closet racist in the film, is said to have zero validity and no comparative value with Holly’s real drummer. But we’ll forgive screenwriter, Gittler his ‘liberties’ for just a moment, because what he’s managed to do is unearth that ‘kernel’ of verisimilitude about Holly as a human being from which all points of his virtuosity stem. The film also has much to say about the perennially clichéd (though thankfully not in this film) pitfalls of discovering heartache along the road to fame and success. Alas, Gittler needs no help in concocting genuine tragedy.
The Buddy Holly Story opens inauspiciously at Parker’s Roller Rink in Lubbock Texas, circa 1956; Holly already the modest celebrity of his own locally aired radio program, KDAV’s Holley’s Hay Ride’; his band consisting of base fiddle player, Ray Bob Simmons (Charles Martin Smith) and drummer, Jesse Charles. Holly’s penchant for testing the boundaries of popular music gets him in hot water with local sponsorship. But it garners him the adoration of his own generation, much to the chagrin of their ultra-conservative parents.  The radio’s DJ and producer of the Holley Hayride, Riley (William Jordan) is sympathetic to Buddy’s plight. Moreover, he respects Buddy’s talents, quietly making a copy of the band’s live performance and telling Buddy he definitely has ‘something’. Alas, Buddy’s prudish gal pal, Cindy Lou (presumably, the inspiration for the song ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’) is determined to break her young buck of his musical aspirations and straightjacket Buddy with conditional love, the proverbial white picket fence and 2.5 children before the age of thirty.
After all, in the post-war Eisenhower era, this just seems like the ‘safe’ thing to do; Buddy’s parents agreeing to as much after the preacher (Richard Kennedy) of their church singles out the Holley family, in a particularly grotesque and caustic Sunday sermon, as wicked purveyors of sinful ‘jungle music’. Buddy’s dad is less sympathetic, pointing out that his music has steadily grown into an obsession when it ought to be considered as nothing more than a hobby. It’s certainly not a career, and nobody’s idea of a life. Nevertheless, and without a venue to publicly perform in after the cancellation of their show, the band continues to rehearse in the Holley’s garage, garnering their inspiration to rename the band ‘Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ after a cricket’s chirp interrupts their practice. In the meantime, Riley has sent a copy of the recording made of Buddy’s final performance at the roller rink to a producer in Nashville. The boys are over the moon when the producer picks up their option. Regrettably, excitement turns to excrement with the record producer, T.J. (John Goff) turns out to be a racist pig, attempting to pigeonhole Buddy and the band in the traditional vein as hillbilly folk singers. After attempting to cut a few tracks T.J.’s way, the episode ends badly for all concerned, Buddy socking T.J. in the face after the latter condescendingly tells him to get his ‘nigger-loving’ ass back home.
It’s back to the garage for Holly and his band when Buddy receives an impromptu phone call, long distance from New York from another D.J., Madman Mancuso (Fred Travalena), who has been inundating the Manhattan airwaves with a 24hr. Buddy Holly marathon of the three tracks recorded by Riley at the roller rink. Unaware these recordings even exist, record producer, Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) is even more disturbed to realize the minor stir Holly’s songs have created without his first being able to secure the rights beforehand, or even offer Holly and The Crickets their first major contract.  Consulting with Eddie (Albert Popwell), his producer, Turner signs the band sight unseen; shocked to discover he’s just bought himself a white trio: the dismay amplified by the fact, Holly’s first big gig in Manhattan is at the Apollo: the all-black nightclub review.  Instructed by the club’s promoter, Sol Gittler (Dick O’Neill) to vacate the club should things turn ugly, Buddy and The Crickets take the stage with trepidation, completely winning over the patrons and shortly thereafter going on tour with other black groups; experiencing reverse racism while attempting to book themselves into the same hotel as the rest of the entourage.
Turner offers Buddy and the boys a contract. But Buddy, recalling their disastrous experiences in Nashville, refuses the offer unless he is given absolute creative control. Bluffing they might have a better deal down the road with RCA, Buddy is elated when Turner agrees to his terms. Almost immediately, Buddy becomes smitten with Turner’s secretary, Maria Elena, whose aunt, Mrs. Santiago (Gloria Irizarry) does not approve of musicians – especially, white ones.  Dressed in his Sunday best, Buddy approaches Elena’s aunt with a respectful inquiry to court her niece; his openness and congeniality completely winning over Mrs. Santiago.
Sadly, the romance is cause for a rift between Buddy and Jesse; the latter revealing his own racist predilections with an off-color comment. From here on, Buddy and The Crickets begin to drift their separate ways. Jesse grows sullen and bitter, increasingly jealous of Buddy after he is cheered to the rafters by adoring fans during one of their performance at the Avalon and brought back on stage, but without his bandmates, to vamp a little with headliner, Eddie Cochran (Jerry Zaremba) and his band (John B. Jarvis, Richard Hayward and David Miner). Buddy and The Crickets part company after a holiday special on the Ed Sullivan Show; Jesse and Ray Bob revealing their plans to return to Lubbock and form their own group.
Buddy and Elena are married and Buddy turns his attentions to successfully arranging and producing records for other artists; Turner pleased with the results, but also desiring Buddy go on the road to promote himself. Alas, without the Crickets, Buddy absolutely refuses to even entertain the notion.  At Elena’s behest, Buddy reconsiders Turner’s offer. Elena, pregnant with their first child, is unable to travel with Buddy on tour, remaining in New York and pleasantly surprised when Ray Bob and Jesse – both feeling nostalgic (the latter, seemingly divorced from his narrow-minded racial prejudices) - arrive unexpectedly at the apartment to inquire whether Buddy would consider reuniting with the band. Earlier, Buddy telephoned Elena from Clear Lake to inquire about her health; also to reinforce his enduring love for her.  Alas, it is their last goodbye.
We cut to the concert in Clear Lake, Holly electrifying the crowd, performing a medley of his greatest hits, at the end of, sweaty, physically depleted, but surviving on the ether of their frantic applause, he buoyantly declares “Thank you Clear Lake! C'mon. We love you. We'll see you next year”, the cheers ominously stilled with a freeze frame and a caption, detailing how Holly, along with Richie Valens (Gilbert Melgar) and the Big Bopper (Gailard Sartain) were killed in a plane crash only a few short hours later...and the rest is rock and roll.
The Buddy Holly Story remains an infectious slice of rock and roll history, despite an utterly skewwhiff reconstitution of history itself. The movie is actually a loving memoir to the enigma that was Buddy Holly and not a concise chronology of the events that gave, then cruelly deprived us of, his musical genius. Gary Busey's perceptive accomplishment carries the film beyond its fundamentally lacking element of truth; his immersion into Holly’s skin, far more resilient and enduring than the facts. When all else fails, Busey delivers mesmerizing exuberance in his Oscar-nominated role.  Maria Elena Holly, who is still very much with us and remains the active custodian of her late husband’s legacy, has praised The Buddy Holly Story and continues to hold Gary Busey’s evocation in very high regard. Alas, the Crickets do not share her enthusiasm, particularly, drummer, Jerry Allison, who vehemently denies having the same racist attitudes his fictional counterpart, Jesse Charles reveals throughout the movie. Since its’ debut, debate has continued to rage over the percentage of truth reflected in The Buddy Holly Story
While we cannot argue the facts, the movie’s modus operandi was never intended as a verbatim chronicle of Buddy Holly’s life and times; rather, a loose representation of his mystique, telescoping Holly’s vast storehouse of dreams and personal desires into a manageable, if symbolic, gesture of what his legacy has meant to the world of rock and roll ever since. This, the movie does unabashedly - and well - with a certain disregard for getting into the specifics.  Unapologetically, director Steve Rash never claimed this movie to be a history of Buddy Holly – only, a reasonable facsimile with some of the warts removed/others added in for dramatic measure. Rash, and screenwriter, Robert Gittler understand the necessary dramatic arc of movie-making that must be served. Fiction and reality rarely run a parallel course, and it is at such times the biopic – as parable – serves the public interest far better as a living testament than any ‘documentary’ ever could. The Buddy Holly Story is, like Holly himself, greatness personified: not truth, but a towering achievement all the same.   
Imperfect film stocks, equally as imperfect archival storage methods over the years have conspired to deprive us of the perfect visual presentation herein. We’ll tip our hats to Grover Crisp and Sony for doing their utmost to reinvigorate these problematic elements in hi-def. Alas nothing can stave off the ravages of time entirely.  Released via Twilight Time as a limited edition, The Buddy Holly Story looks fairly impressive in spots and abysmally careworn in others. Again, this isn’t the fault of the transfer. When things snap together, we get a startling amount of clarity; fine details in hair, makeup, clothing, all of it popping as it should. Image inconsistency is the biggest issue. Establishing long shots are the weakest of the lot, with contrast levels ever so slightly boosted, accompanied by residual softness, minor color bleeding and advanced levels of film grain – a necessary evil in optical zooms - that actually gives the movie an added ‘documentarian’ quality I rather enjoyed…at least, in so far as it goes.
Close-ups and medium shots are the most impressively rendered. Here, grain looks quite natural and flesh tones less orangey. Sony doesn’t appear to have done any untoward digital tinkering. Depending on one’s point of view, that’s either a plus or a minus. Personally, I would have preferred Sony to have leveled off the film’s grain structure (as Universal Home Video did on their Blu-ray release of To Kill a Mockingbird 1962); not to temper or eradicate it with excessive DNR, but merely to create a more consistent transitioning from close-ups to long shots. As it stands, the shift from light/moderate to excessively heavy grain is jarring on the eyes. Personal opinion, for what it’s worth. We have no quam over Sony’s new 5.1 DTS audio, exhibiting some fairly aggressive spread across all five channels and with considerable kick during the musical performances. Good stuff. Extras are limited to an informative audio commentary from director, Steven Rash and Gary Busey; also, TT’s isolated score (fantastic, as always) and another superior mini-essay by TT’s resident writer, Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, August 29, 2014

THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 1969) Twilight Time

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is that there are over a million bottles of wine hidden somewhere in the catacombs beneath this tiny, bucolic, Tuscan hamlet. Stanley Kramer’s nearly forgotten 1969 masterpiece proved an unfortunate box office disappointment for the director; also something of a most unhappy working experience between costars, Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani, who could not stand one another. In his biography, Kramer would recount how Magnani introduced herself as “a perfect lady”, impeccable dressed and speaking exquisite English as she took Kramer on a tour of Cinecittà; the film studio founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937 that would serve part of the production shoot. “I thought, ‘wow’ – what a lady!” Kramer added, “Then she gave me a warning… ‘Don’t eat in the commissary – the food is shit!’ Right then I realized there was another side to her.” 
Indeed, Magnani had developed something of a reputation for being ‘difficult’. In Anthony Quinn’s case, she seems merely to have taken an immediate dislike to his gregariousness; believing he was deliberately trying to upstage her and steal every scene in the movie. In retrospect, there may be something to this; Quinn’s vigorous turn as the befuddled ‘blow with the prevailing political wind’ mayor elect, Italo Bombolini, shaping up to be a rather transparent throwback to his Oscar-winning performance in Zorba the Greek (1964). In one particular scene, Magnani’s Rosa Bombolini is so enraged by her husband’s embarrassing display of drunkenness atop a water tower she patiently waits for him to awaken from his stupor before terrorizing him in the kitchen, flinging a series of pots, pans, and a rather phallic rolling pin at his head.
Reportedly, Magnani wasn’t kidding around during this scene; striking her co-star with everything she had and even fracturing her ankle while attempting to kick him in the backside. Ever the pro, Magnani bandaged up her broken foot and returned to the set to continue the shoot, her venom for Quinn unabated. Interestingly, the tempestuousness between these two tigers translates into self-deprecating charm in the movie; Rosa’s constant chiding of her ‘clown’ husband met with infrequent outbursts by Quinn’s sheepish and shrinking patriarch, who rises to the occasion by sparing his town the indignation of surrendering its one indisputable export – the wine – to the Nazi high command.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria is based on Robert Crichton’s beguiling best seller; the Ben Maddow/William Rose screenplay treading very lightly on artistic license and adhering – mostly – to Crichton’s prose for inspiration. Kramer had envisioned the movie as a ‘celebration of principle and resistance’; a subtle tale of ‘one town’s indomitable spirit’ – bound, but unbreakable by the influences of the waning German stronghold after a political vacuum is created by Mussolini’s ousting from power.  While interiors were shot at Cinecittà, for authenticity the production moved to the quaint – and, as yet, untapped, cliff side village of Anticoli Corrado after it was discovered the real Santa Vittoria had long since been transformed by post-war architectural development.
Kramer would employ a fair portion of the town’s populace, working various jobs both in front of and behind the camera, the residents pooling their earnings to beautify and restore some renaissance frescos, the Romanesque National Monument and the inside of the Church of San Pietro. The movies’ centerpiece is undeniably the town’s collective endeavor to move, hide and camouflage 1,317,000 bottles of wine, thereby denying Nazi Capt. Sepp von Prum (Hardy Kruger, giving a sublime performance) his trophy to take back to Berlin. Kramer’s staging of this mass exodus of alcohol, from its warehouse to the underground catacombs, utilized 1000 extras, lined from Anticoli Corrado’s tight byways and alleys, down its steep embankment, past endless bowers of ripening grapes. It’s a magnificently staged sequence; Kramer (and Ernest Gold’s ebullient underscore) devolving from pie-eyed optimism and frenetic energy committed to such an ambitious undertaking, inevitably brought down by disquieting physical exhaustion. Many of the extras were indigenous to the region; cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno augmenting the flavor of old Italy caught in their sunburnt, gnarled, toothless and careworn faces. The movie’s main titles also give us a lay of the land; Santa Vittoria (or rather, Anticoli Corrado) and its’ inhabitants, posed and photographed through some cheesecloth; like relics recast in a forgotten, yellowing postcard. 
From this auspicious – almost historical beginning, Kramer delves into some daftly inspired screwball comedy; Santa Vittoria’s enterprising youth, Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) racing his bicycle through the town square at dawn, ringing the church bell to alert the peasantry of Mussolini’s toppling from power. No one is particularly impressed or even interested; the town’s devil’s advocate, Babbaluche (Renato Rascel) explaining, in crass terms that the people can understand, how the local Fascist government has lost its bite and control over their lives; pointing a deliciously accusatory finger at its local representative, Francucci (Francesco Mulé) who is immediately pursued by the angry mob, easily swayed; each taking their turn in a cacophony of swift kicks, meant more to bruise the ego than harm Francucci’s ‘fat ass’. Nearby, local wine merchant, Italo Bombolini fears a similar treatment in store for him. After all, he’s been a Fascist supporter. Actually, Bombolini isn’t interested in politics at all – nor even wine; except, of course, to drink it. He’s merely keeping the peace by whatever means is necessary – a rank pacifist with a wife, Rosa whose proverbial fuse is as short as her patience.
Bombolini gets drunk and scales the local water tower where previously he had painted his message in support of Mussolini. Now, he endeavors to whitewash it out. Alas, too wasted to commit even this simple act, Bombolini must be rescued by Fabio, who ties a rope around Bombolini to bring him down safely; Rosa wringing her hands in shame from an open window as she declares in front of their daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri) the family name has been disgraced for all time. Ironically, all is not lost; the Fascist government surrendering on its own terms; Fabio seizing the opportunity to put forth Bombolini as Santa Vittoria’s new mayor.  The crowd, lost in the spectacle of this man’s childish folly, suddenly begins to chant their instant approval. Alas, Bombolini hasn’t the faintest notion how to be a great politico - or even a competent one, for that matter. Bombolini is racked with insecurities, shouted out of his own house by Rosa whom Babbaluche suggests needs to have Italo’s fist buried in her face to shut her up.
In the meantime, Angela makes it known to both parents that her…uh… ‘juices’ are flowing for Fabio. Bombolini is outraged, Angela’s comical declaration of her own womanhood, vigorously massaging her breasts in the town square, causing Bombolini to accuse Rosa of not explaining the facts of life to their daughter. Rosa attempts to dissuade Angela from her romantic folly by illustrating a particular part of the male anatomy, using two apples and a stalk of celery, to which Angela confidently explains she already knows about. To quash the slightest chance his new appointment as Santa Vittoria’s mayor will be short-lived, Bombolini appoints the ousted fascists as figureheads in his new administration; garnering their reluctant support. Fabio elects to leave Santa Vittoria to pursue his studies in Rome. However, once in the big city, Fabio discovers the Nazis are planning an all-out annexation of Italy. Santa Vittoria will fall in a matter of days; its vast storehouse of wine exported to Berlin.
To prevent the inevitable, Fabio returns to Santa Vittoria, employing ex-fascist army deserter, Tufa (Sergio Franchi) to help him concoct a plan of action. Tufa has been hurt in his escape, Bombolini urging the sultry Contessa Caterina Malatesta (Virna Lisi), considered something of a social outcast, but also a very competent nurse, to tend his wounds. Tufa suggests the wine be moved to the town’s abandoned underground caves. But Bombolini’s first orchestration of this mass exodus proves a chaotic nightmare. Tufa reorganizes the people into four human chains running parallel the full distance from the winery warehouse to the caves far below the city; Bombolini working the villagers around the clock with only fifteen minute respites until the task is completed. Babbaluche suggests a little over 300,000 bottles be left in the stockpile for the Germans to discover, the logic being they will not look for the missing million if they are led to believe there is no more wine in Santa Vittoria. It’s a clever ruse, readily agreed upon by Bombolini and Tufa. Hence, when Capt. Sepp von Prum arrives with his military escort he is slightly amused to discover Bombolini so bumbling and…well…accommodating. Rosa isn’t nearly as pleasant, ordering von Prum out of her establishment and incurring his considerable displeasure.
Bombolini manages to pull the wool over von Prum’s eyes; the Nazi captain accepting the tally of a little over 300,000 bottles and bartering back and forth as to how much of this stockpile will be left behind in Santa Vittoria.  Sometime later, Angela sneaks off to Fabio’s bedroom in the dead of night, her inveigling him into a consummation thwarted by Rosa, who nearly wakes up the whole town, informing Bombolini of their clandestine rendezvous. In reply, Bombolini proposes a shotgun wedding that comes off without a hitch. In the interim, the Contessa and Tufa have also become passionate lovers, their hot and heavy romance complicated twofold; first, by Tufa forced to remain concealed to spare his own execution as a deserter, and second, by von Prum who has since developed his own voluptuous interests, desiring Caterina for his own.
Von Prum’s orchestrated seduction over a candle-lit dinner is thwarted by the arrival of S.S. officer, Cpl. Heinsick (Chris Anders) who informs von Prum there are more than a million unaccounted bottles listed in the winery’s record-keeping ledger. Pummeling Bombolini to make him confess their whereabouts, the Nazis instead get nowhere fast and are forced to conduct an exhaustive search of the city, only to come up empty-handed. Von Prum uses repeated threats, but to no avail. He also decides a show of force is necessary; electing to assassinate two people from the village to prove his point, forcing Bombolini to choose the victims. Thinking quickly, Bombolini advocates fate choose the intended at random, thereby absolving him of the burden of their deaths – merely, the first two people who enter the town square will be killed. Von Prum agrees, Babbaluche and Tufa scurrying to release a pair of hardcore fascists; Copa (Quinto Parmeggiani) and Dr. Bara (Pino Ferrara) who they’ve been keeping under lock and key  thus far, under the pretext the Germans have come to liberate them.
Von Prum discovers Tufa in Caterina’s bed, taking Tufa hostage and exclaiming for the whole town to hear, that unless someone reveals the ‘secret’ of Santa Vittoria, Tufa will be assassinated at daybreak by a firing squad. That evening, von Prum takes out his sexual frustrations on Caterina. She allows the rape to occur in trade for Tufa’s life. Von Prum releases Tufa, receiving orders from the Nazi high command to evacuate Santa Vittoria immediately – wine or no wine. Having turned up nothing, von Prum prepares to leave. He does, however, make one last stab not to depart the town empty-handed, threatening to shoot Bombolini in the head. Remembering what Rosa said earlier, about his brains being in his ass rather than his head’ Bombolini decides to defy von Prum for what, presumably, will be his last time. To add insult to injury, he offers von Prum a single bottle of wine – the only one he’ll be taking from the village now that his orders have been rescinded. Disgusted with his own failure, von Prum departs, the town breaking into impromptu celebration; a buoyant good riddance to their captors.
At 140 minutes, and, in the era of the road show, The Secret of Santa Vittoria ought to have clicked – if not with audiences, then most definitely as a charming, if fanciful, little fable set near the end of WWII; yielding some beguiling vignettes, superb acting and exquisitely lush travelogue visuals. Alas, it all remains fairly transparent and only marginally captivating on a whole. Stanley Kramer has difficulties keeping the narrative taut and on target – or rather, moving in a smooth narrative arc from points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with all letters of the alphabet momentarily intervening between. Kramer is cribbing from an exceptional source – also, a fairly competent script. But he’s somehow unable to keep the various secondary threads in play without distracting us from the central story. The Secret of Santa Vittoria is really a tale about two male rams locking horns; Hardy Kruger’s urbane and emotionally complex Nazi stooge pitted against Anthony Quinn’s even more complicated/slovenly and emasculated boob.   Kruger’s von Prum is the more satisfying of the two performances, his calm, cool and collected uber-aristocrat imploding as an eye-twitching, joyously perturbed fop, overcome by his own kneejerk vexations.
The romantic maneuverings between Fabio and Angela, Rosa and Bombolini, Tufa and Caterina, are meant to augment our appreciation for these private lives. Instead, this trifecta of imperfect relationships proves a hindrance; Kramer unable to make up his mind whether these intimate affairs are the crux or the cream of his jest. Characters drift in, then out of this revolving door, also the director’s focus; the Maddow/Rose screenplay problematically juggling the WWII ‘secret’ wine scenario with the aforementioned couples in love. After Fabio and Angela are married, as example, the movie all but loses interest in them.
Kramer’s salvation is, of course, his pacing: as with his brilliant use of the cutaway from the moment Anna reveals to Bombolini their daughter is having an adulterous affair with Fabio. Bombolini declaring he will punish the boy so he will always remember it; Kramer juxtaposing this stern declaration with a shot of Fabio and Angela emerging from the chapel as happily joined newlyweds, presumably at the point of a gun. At moments such as this, Stanley Kramer gives us a pluperfect blend of earnest drama and nimble comedy with his own peerless light touch that can sell almost anything as both entertainment and high art.
Alas, there aren’t enough moments such as this in the movie. The middle act of The Secret of Santa Vittoria suffers from too much exposition and not enough intrigue; also, an absence of the aforementioned comedy. It’s odd, because Kramer suddenly seems only to be interested in getting to the juicy parts near the end, forgetting the connective tissue of any great movie must function as more than the obligatory link from one great scene to the next. Mercifully, Kramer is blessed by the cursed backstage animosity between Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani; adept chameleons who pivot between electric bits of conflict and some sincerely amusing glimpses into their all but forgotten romantic past. Quinn and Magnani walk this tightrope with grace, humor and a modicum of wicked double-entendre. They’re a joyously satisfying combination on the screen, even if their backstage association was less than conciliatory.
In the final analysis, The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a minor work by Stanley Kramer, its scope somewhat diminished by the director’s inability to give us everything he has; the success of the movie resting squarely on Quinn and Magnani’s shoulders. In retrospect, she seems better equipped for the heavy lifting; Quinn (who made a career playing lusty Mediterranean males with plenty of old world charm and foibles) merely content to phone in another performance, cut from the same tapestry in his acting repertoire. The movie is populated by other fine performances too; Hardy Kruger’s impassioned Nazi; Renato Rascel’s village sage, on occasion masquerading as its idiot; Giancarlo Giannini’s astute youth (all but discarded in the movie’s second act – a shame) and Sergio Franchi’s stern patriot (more a lover than a fighter). These are expertly crafted and meant to keep The Secret of Santa Vittoria afloat even as Stanley Kramer struggles to maintain basic narrative cohesion during his middle act. They do click, even when the movie doesn’t, forming a distracting daisy-chain around its dithering plot.
MGM/Fox’s 1080p transfer via Twilight Time boasts a sublime palette: rich hues, sun-kissed oranges, earthy browns, lush greens and eye-popping sky blues. There are a few, fleeting moments where the DeLuxe color temperature wildly shifts from warm to cool, and one or two instances of some minor wobble, most likely caused by gate weave. I’ll pause a moment to point to another truly curious anomaly; white sliver-like scratches, randomly running on a diagonal plain from left to right. At first, I thought it was the remnants of a rain shower, occurring as they did during an outdoor sequence where the villagers await the arrival of the Nazis around the 72 min. mark, and, immediately following a scene where actual rain had been falling.
Good continuity on Kramer’s part, I thought.  Alas, when this same anomaly reappeared in the middle of an indoor scene at approximately 121 min., I suddenly realized it had nothing to do with continuity or the natural elements. Is it distracting? Hmmm. On smaller monitors, arguably no. Actually, I didn’t mind it on my 42inch display. Blown up to 85 inches on my other monitor, it became a minor, but forgivable nuisance. Only in projection does it prove fairly annoying. Again, this oddity only occurs twice in the film and for only a very brief few minutes.     
The pluses here are overall image stability; also pitch-perfect contrast, and some truly absorbing depth and clarity with a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. The original mono is presented in 1.0 DTS and remains remarkably robust. Dialogue is clearly represented and Ernest Gold’s score sounds fantastic. As expected, Twilight Time gives us Gold’s music on an isolated score; also, a theatrical trailer, with TT’s resident scribe/author and historian, Julie Kirgo’s offering some keen observations on the liner notes. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

FOLLOW THAT DREAM: Blu-ray (The Mirisch Co. 1962) Twilight Time

In relative terms, director, Gordon Douglas’ Follow That Dream (1962) is an above par Elvis Presley movie musical, chiefly because its onus is not on the music (5 forgettable songs penned by eight different composers no less, it nevertheless, sold like hotcakes on the tie-in EP), rather Richard P. Powell’s 1959 novel, ‘Pioneer Go Home!’; a fairly eloquent indictment and cause célèbre against bureaucratic intrusions on the individualist spirit of America’s citizenry. As in the novel, the movie illustrates the power of one against this system. Elvis Presley’s Toby Kwimper is half country bumpkin/half philosophizing moralist: the most unlikely of patriots ready to defend his country against its government.  Presley’s own naturalist approach to the material – as only Elvis could deliver (and repeatedly did throughout his movie career - alas, mostly in big and splashy, though utterly vacuous concert-travelogues) is fittingly matched herein by Arthur O’Connell’s curmudgeonly truth-seeker – Pop Kwimper. Charles Lederer’s screenplay remains a winsome mix of potent social commentary and daft (at times, almost screwball) comedy, the two irreconcilable thematically; the latter, effortlessly coating the picture’s deeper message in a digestible outer shell of entertainment value, shamelessly married to Leo Tover’s utterly gorgeous vistas of swaying palms in the Florida Keys.
I must confess a bias. I didn’t hold out much expectation for Follow That Dream – a picture that has completely won me over as one of the most astute and honest critiques about America’s founding principles and the institutionalized threats set against personal liberty, prosperity and accountability; high-minded freedoms pitted in contradiction of the stringent edicts of rank statism – tragically, a topic more relevant today than arguably, even in the 1960’s. Elvis is the Edward Abbey of his generation; forsaking Davey Crockett’s coonskin cap for that inimitably Presley saunter in rolled up shirt sleeves and pants, some ‘good ole boy’ soft-spoken Southern comfort and that turbo-charged charisma always able to set cash registers ringing at the box office. It is a fairly safe assessment Elvis Presley’s promise as a movie star remained unfulfilled in his lifetime, particularly after his return from U.S. military service; the intensity Elvis revealed in his pre-service repertoire traded in for a kinder/gentler chick magnet with a thick mop of perpetually quaffed hair; often sporting the skimpiest attire to showcase the star’s more obvious talents.
It remains one of the great oversights of the twentieth century Presley’s overzealous and shamelessly self-promoting manager, Colonel Tom Parker along with movie producer, Hal B. Wallis – who made nine moneymakers with the hip-swiveling superstar in rapid succession (and whom Elvis would refer to as a ‘double-dealing son of a bitch’) - failed to exploit (or even acknowledge) Presley’s tangible gifts as more than a preening pinup. Let us be fair but honest in assessing the colossal waste of the Elvis who might have been on the screen.  Follow That Dream may not be vintage Presley – as in King Creole (1958) or even Jailhouse Rock (1957), but it packs an unexpected wallop just the same; Presley’s hillbilly logician managing to turn convention on its end, elude the ravenous man trap/social worker, Alisha Claypoole (Joanna Moore), and hold his own with brute strength against the nefarious gangland racketeer, Nick (Simon Oakland) and his bewildered right-hand, Carmine (Jack Kruschen).  That Presley’s Toby Kwimper cannot fathom how close he repeatedly comes to being played the fool, is, of course, the cream of the jest. We can cheer for this man, so utterly pure of heart he could still believe the best in people is possible - even as they only show him their worst possible character traits.  
Follow That Dream attempts to straddle an impossible chasm; between Elvis – the actor – and that megawatt sex symbol of crass commercialism concocted by Colonel Parker’s slick packaging of his acolyte as the proverbial bad boy with a soft center; Parker’s dealings with Paramount studio execs netting him millions while keeping Elvis a prisoner of this image by design. Mercifully, Follow That Dream has a fairly weighty tome to counterbalance this usual nonsense as well as the deadly pedestrian roster of songs. For once, the plot isn’t inconsequentially sandwiched between an obligatorily inserted back catalog of buoyant, but feather-weight pop tunes that, sung by any other artist except Elvis, would have been laughed off the screen. Such was Presley’s ‘lightning in a bottle’ screen presence, able to command even when the lyrics penned by these money-grubbing muses betrayed the strength of Presley’s own character, but especially - his talents. 
Elvis is very much an Americanized Alan-a-Dale in Follow That Dream; derelict in his military service, thanks to a trick back that gave out during basic training at Fort Dix, forcing Toby Kwimper to collect a disability pension; the money pooled along with his father’s welfare checks to support the family. The Kwimper’s extended family includes three orphaned children – doppelgangers, Gavin and Robin Koon (played by twins Eddy and Teddy Bascombe) and Adriane Pennington (Pam Ogles): plus, another adoptee, Holly Jones (Anne Helm) on the cusp of womanhood and fashioned as a love interest for our naïve and commitment-shy stud – also, something of a devoted matriarchal figure to this blended family. The Kwimpers stumble upon a natural sanctuary in the middle of the Florida Keys; a highway betterment project with lands allocated for the public good by H. Arthur King (Alan Hewitt), though arguably without the general public in mind. Using a bureaucratic loophole to his advantage, Pop evokes the Homesteader’s Act to get around King’s legalese; also to ingratiate himself to the governor (Harry Holcombe), who, after all, isn’t really interested in anything except getting the vote to remain in power.
King threatens to expose the Kwimpers as money-mooching wards of the state; a blight on the welfare system that, frankly, insults his own middle-class morality.  King is determined to cut off the Kwimpers’ government support; also to have their meager abode condemned as unhygienic; perhaps, even to suggest Toby and his Pop are unfit to raise young children, thereby splintering the serenity of this close-knit family unit. It’s a dismal prospect, until Toby befriends Mr. Endicott (Herbert Rudley), the president of a local bank, offering the usually shirt and tied (ergo, straightjacketed) Endicott the opportunity to exercise his own spirit of adventurism by reeling in a very large marlin off the bridge near their property. Endicott suggests the family establish tourism in the region to make their living without social assistance. In no time, Toby and Pop manage to exploit this opportunity to its fullest; Holly concernedly pointing out the bridge belongs to the state; ergo, Arthur King will likely disallow their tourist trade from using it as a pier. To help bolster their plan, Holly suggests Toby approach Mr. Endicott for the necessary bank loan to help pay for their dock, main house and the purchase of other supplies to launch their full-scale enterprise.
In what remains one of Follow That Dream’s most adroit and effervescently farce-laden vignettes, Toby inadvertently mistakes the bank’s vault for Endicott’s office, entering beyond its security door by following the bank’s easily befuddled chairman, George (Howard McNear) who immediately mistakes Toby for a robber and faints dead away. The bank’s security guards attempt to subdue Toby as he calls out for help, carrying George’s limp remains to safety. Eventually, Endicott emerges from his office; shocked to find his patrons clutching their wallets and purses in fear of a holdup; both guards relieved of their firearms by Toby’s quick thinking and genial approach to diffusing the tense situation. Endicott is impressed by Toby’s forthright request to borrow $2000 for necessary improvements to their property. The money is granted almost without question on Endicott’s blind faith in the Kwimpers, who do not disappoint.
In the meantime, King hires local social worker, Alisha Claypoole to administer a psychological exam of Toby; perhaps using the results to indict him as mentally unfit. Although not fleshed out, Charles Lederer’s screenplay hints King and Claypoole were perhaps more than colleagues at an earlier time and place. Much to King’s chagrin, Alisha is instantly attracted to Toby’s robust manhood, making fairly transparent advances he nevertheless easily thwarts. Toby suggests women can be detrimental to a man’s wellbeing; Alisha determined to test this theory by coaxing Toby to take her to a secluded spot in the woods where she again tries to seduce him – again, to no avail. Aware of Claypoole’s ulterior motives – even if Toby seems oblivious to them – Holly stalks the pair and interrupts Alisha’s orchestrated flagrante delicto. When Claypoole condescendingly refers to Holly as an Indian squaw, Holly cordially calls Claypoole’s bluff before submerging her in the lagoon; clothes and all. 
News of the Kwimper’s hideaway spreads quickly, attracting the criminal element along with other good-natured individualists yearning to breathe free. When racketeer, Nick brings his floating casino to the region, the atmosphere turns from pastoral to hedonistic; Endicott once again coming to the rescue by suggesting first, the Kwimpers call the police, then by evolving an even more brilliant line of defense. Since neither the county nor the state can lay claim to the Kwimpers’ land, they may elect their own sheriff to uphold the law with absolute immunity. Nick attempts to convince Toby – who has been appointed – to back off; Toby’s suggestion the casino close nightly at eleven o’clock shrugged off by Nick. 
When Toby refuses to budge on his unbelievably polite requests, Nick orders his right-hand, George to hire a hit squad from Detroit to take care of Toby and the family. Alas, the trio of goons meant to put a period to the Kwimpers instead find themselves at Toby’s mercy, trudging through the dense Florida terrain in the dead of night, getting lost along the way, and eventually being disarmed one by one by Toby – who mistakes them as mere harmless drunks who just happened to be carrying firearms. Diffusing the situation, Toby orders the goons to vacate the premises on the double. A short while later, Nick orders his own thug muscle, Jack (Frank de Kova) and Blackie (Robert Carricart) to plant a nitroglycerin bomb beneath the Kwimpers’ modest cottage. If they can’t be persuaded or chased off the land then they’ll simply be exterminated. 
Again, the family’s naïveté rescues the moment; Toby and Holly mistaking the bomb as a misplaced package belonging to Nick, and returning it to his casino trailer. As Nick and George have given themselves the perfect alibi by fishing with Pop on the docks, certain their hit squad is out murdering Toby and Holly in the underbrush, the pair are naturally befuddled when Toby and Holly return home unharmed; even more perplexed as they quietly observe their trailer burst into flames and burn to the ground. Nick and George clear out. But the Kwimpers are in for a horrible shock when Alisha has Teddy, Eddie and Adriane removed from their custody, using a court order to declare the Klempers’ unfit to raise a family. The Kwimpers are now charged with using ‘extreme force’ to chase Nick and George off their property at gunpoint. Furthermore, Alisha suggests an erroneous adulterous affair between Holly (who is underage) and Toby. Such salacious surmising perks the interest of the presiding judge (Roland Winters).
However, in the subsequent hearing, the tables are turned on Alisha by Toby and Pop; Alisha exposed for having unrequited romantic designs on Toby; also for harboring a distinct bias in the way she grades Pop’s replies to her psychological exam administered in the courtroom. Unbeknownst to Alisha, the judge has substituted his own replies in this word association game; appalled when Alisha is able to effectively twist his answers to suit her own agenda. The case against them dismissed, the Kwimpers are reunited with the rest of their family. In the penultimate moment, we find Toby serenading Holly on the veranda of their makeshift cottage; she disappearing inside to change into decidedly more adult and womanly attire to convince Toby, once and for all, she belongs to him. The romantic mood is broken when Pops sets off the portable toilet; its high water pressure release soaking him from top to bottom.
Visually, Follow That Dream isn’t all that ambitious; at least, not compared to other Presley pictures of its ilk and vintage. That isn’t the point, however. I’ve read numerous reviews claiming the movie simply falls flat, resting on Elvis’ laurels as a misguided fluff piece, decidedly missing its anticipated creampuff center. But this isn’t true at all. The intrusion of five disposable songs (four, if one discards the prerequisite ballad sung under the main titles) - all marginal and frankly, distracting – suggest ‘just another Elvis picture’ lurking around the corner. But Follow That Dream is far more and much better than any Elvis movie from the 1960’s; Presley delivering what seems to be, and undeniably remains, one of his two or three most unrehearsed and genuine performances; his delivery so slight, it becomes nuanced almost by accident. Yes, the picture rises and/or falls on Elvis’ ability to entertain. The rest of the cast are very much relegated to support and pushed back into the shadows via Presley’s own screen time, though never by his presence; appearing as equals when they share the screen with him. It’s this generosity in Elvis’ own presence some perhaps will find off-putting; Elvis somehow unimpressed by the status of his own star power and willing to share the spotlight in a two shot with humility and appreciation for his co-stars.
But entertain us he most certainly does – mostly as an actor of sustainable merit, who occasionally lets out with a song; infrequent missteps leading back to the mire of that anticipated pop-u-tain-ment never meant to reveal itself in full flourish this time around. Mercifully, there’s no hip-swivel here; no gyrations and only the faintest glimmer of Elvis’ trademarked rockabilly twang; accompanied by the Jordanaires. Instead, we get a nice and easy good ole boy, out to please by virtue of his big-hearted self-deprecating style. It’s impossible not to feel for, and fall in love with, this Elvis…a.k.a. Toby Kwimper, the chaste ‘free spirit’, dogged by others’ misconceptions; expecting his sinfully handsome physicality to translate into a more confident cock of the walk. Toby is more a ‘man’ than emblematically ‘manly’; Elvis’ own inner grace shining through. It is a joy, in fact, to watch him exude masculinity without actually having to strut – i.e. ‘sell’ his wares like that oft’ traded and trained circus pony, turning tricks for Colonel Parker’s benefit.       
In pre-production Elvis put his foot down, insisting the already pre-recorded song, ‘Sound Advice’ be omitted from the movie altogether; refusing to shoot the accompanying scene…just in case, lest Douglas – with the Colonel’s complicity – renege on promises made ahead of time. Again, it’s the songs that tend to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in Follow That Dream. The movie is far more effective when it adheres to its socially mobile critique of America’s flawed political system; a very strong message sheathed in the cordial trappings of the polite screwball/romantic comedy. Interestingly, when author, Richard Powell first learned of The Mirisch Company’s plans to transform his book into a movie starring Elvis Presley he was bitterly disappointed. By the time the movie made it into theaters, Powell was singing Presley’s praises. Clearly, it was more than Elvis’ charm having won the author over.
In retrospect, the tug o’ war between Powell’s ethically conscious prose and the traditional milieu of an Elvis picture becomes more transparently preposterous as the picture wears on; Presley’s Toby, in one scene, rolling about the sand (on a sound stage with rear projection badly subbing in for the Florida Keys), serenading Alisha with the impossibly buoyant Fred Wise/Ben Weisman title track. I mean, seriously – the composers aren’t even trying to tie in the songs with the plot, nor even to camouflage the fact Elvis is belting out these pop tart ditties with the benefit of a full orchestra, presumably concealed in the dense tropical underbrush just out of camera range.  It’s during such moments Follow That Dream has the proverbial ‘brain fart’. What were director, Gordon Douglas and producers, Walter Mirisch and David Weisbart thinking? Dollar signs, most likely. Early on, Hal Wallis gave his own assessment about the trajectory of Elvis’ movie career, saying “we did not hire Elvis as a second string Jimmy Dean. We signed him as a number one Elvis Presley.”  As such, this Elvis – like the others incarnated as carbon-copied triplicate in virtually all of his other movies – sings!
Mercifully, the inescapability of this predicament does not sink the enterprise as a whole because at 110 minutes, the less than six minutes of score is subservient – if hardly complimentary – to the plot. We get Elvis - the actor - with just a light sprinkling of Elvis – the musical phenomena. Those expecting more of the latter are certain to be doubly disappointed by the weight ascribed both story and character development, seemingly at the expense of the usual concert-styled program, usually pre-sold to audiences as par for the course of the typical Presley picture. But Follow That Dream is a movie marching to its own beat, and mostly with immense sincerity. In hindsight, it’s refreshingly offbeat and poignantly effective and affecting when it turns away from those formulaic aspects, giving us something more interesting to contemplate, digest and remember.
Although undeniably a major upgrade from Fox/MGM’s old non-anamorphic DVD, this new Blu-ray via Twilight Time is hardly perfect. At least it’s properly framed in 2.35:1. The DeLuxe palette exhibits vinegar syndrome – at times, so obvious it creates gritty ringing halos around background information. Thankfully, such instances are infrequent. Long shots are fuzzy in appearance. The court room sequence, as example, has some excruciatingly awful inserts; image sharpness taking the proverbial backseat to blurry, desaturated dreck; a hazy patina with moderate to heavy film grain that is most distracting. The use of rear projection is transparent, adopting a more brownish/beige level of color fading. Flesh tones waffle from remarkably lifelike to ruddy orange. When the image snaps together, we are treated to some lush green foliage, aquamarine and sky blues and sparkling candy apple reds. But there’s a built-in inconsistency at play; some scenes mostly solid one moment, teetering on the verge of complete color implosion the next.
The DTS mono audio is remarkably aggressive, particularly the songs, with a startling amount of midrange giving renewed life to the background vocals supplied by the Jordanaires. Personal opinion, of course, but I don’t really get the same oomph from Twilight Time’s isolated mono score; a rare occasion where I think we have a much better opportunity for sonic appreciation via listening to the integrated soundtrack of score, SFX and dialogue. Speaking of extras, the aforementioned isolated score and a crummy theatrical trailer is all we get…oh yes, and Julie Kirgo’s very fine mini-essay, effectively summing up the Elvis Presley mystique; alas, also the many reasons for his lack of good movie roles. I wouldn’t classify Follow That Dream among this disposable lot. It was a minor treat and a major revelation, particularly for someone whose appreciation for Elvis movies never ranked very high in the pantheon of great American cinema. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MAN HUNT: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1941) Twilight Time

With its ubiquitous deep chiaroscuro lighting, some magnificently performed suspense sequences (at times, shot almost in total silence), Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) arguably, remains the quintessential noir political crime/thriller; an odd amalgam, transfixing and austere; so effective without hyperbole or cliché, in essence, it has not dated since its debut. Who better than Lang to know the threat of Nazism before its grim and uncivilized methodologies were unleashed upon the unsuspecting outside world: Lang, an impassioned Jewish filmmaker (ironically, wed to a Nazi), but forced to flee his homeland after being asked by Hitler’s right hand, Joseph Goebbels, to organize and manage der Führer’s propaganda machine. In hindsight, Man Hunt is as lurid as it proves prolific; based on Geoffrey Household’s 1939 masterpiece, Rogue Male; a novel of such clairvoyant projections it garnered rave critical reviews in both the U.S. and Britain. In Hollywood, however, such enthusiasm was decidedly tempered, thanks to an unwritten pact with the U.S. government, effectively forbidding any movies meant to stir America from its’ predominantly isolationist policies.
However, Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck was never known to shy away from a challenge. With his writer’s instinct, he also knew a very good property when he read it; and Household’s novel – first serialized, then published as a whole – had already caught the popular zeitgeist as a best seller. The times were rife to stand apart and alone…well, sort of…to make a picture effectively challenging the status quo. Man Hunt can effectively be called Fritz Lang’s ‘first’ American masterstroke; shot, edited and unleashed to favorable reviews and respectable business in a record three months – a very timely piece of wartime propaganda, imbued with Lang’s unmistakable bite. Lang knew too well the perils of Nazism, having taken the proverbial night train out of Munich days before the borders were officially closed.  What atrocities had already begun to unfurl behind Hitler’s policed stronghold would remain a secret for a little while longer, the blitzkriegs yet to stealthily extend like the bony fingers of Dr. Caligari across the European front, plunging half a hemisphere into flames.
And Lang, unlike say, John Ford (first asked by Zanuck to helm the production - but declined) is unapologetic in sharing his bluntness of anti-German sentiments throughout the rechristened Man Hunt. Clearly, Lang was unafraid to illustrate this for the rest of the world. If the director’s opinion of the ‘good Nazi’ (superbly characterized by a crew-cut, monocle-wearing, perpetually scowling George Sanders) seems like a bad cliché of an even more awful villain, it’s only because we’ve seen this sort of caricature again and again since, in virtually every American movie having at least one Nazi; the brainwashed, dark and soulless gargoyle, obsessively devoted in his calculating ruthlessness.  Lang may not have invented this image, but he certainly ensconced its iconography in Man Hunt; Sanders speaking a few lines of German at the beginning of the movie with such clipped brusqueness, he all but convinces us of that globular determination more artful and nefarious than even the devil’s own. 
Lang has less success convincing us of Walter Pigeon’s Englishness as Captain Alan Thorndike, a good-time Charlie simply out for a ‘sporting stalk’ of der Führer when he is inadvertently captured and taken to Major Quive-Smith (Sanders) for interrogation and, presumably, extermination. Like Fritz Lang, Pigeon’s career in Hollywood had yet to hit its stride as the ‘other half’ of an enduring screen team with the eloquent Irish lass, Greer Garson. Although Pigeon’s tenure in the movies was already considerably longer than Lang’s – if equally marginalized – for both men, Man Hunt would prove a major graduation into the big leagues; particularly for Lang who had helplessly watched as his reputation as Germany’s premiere auteur all but evaporated in sunny California. It’s almost a given Walter Pigeon had more box office cache than Fritz Lang at the time Man Hunt went into production; Lang’s standing as the creator of such iconic German classics, Metropolis (1927) and ‘M’ (1931) never equating to the sort of celebrity he felt was owed him state’s side. Arguably, Lang would never recapture his former glory, despite the fact some highly competent movies were made as Lang frequently railed against Hollywood’s assembly line system for manufacturing art.
Man Hunt would also prove a showcase for co-star, Joan Bennett, cast as Jerry Stokes – rechristened a seamstress in the movie from the novel’s original prostitute at the behest of the Production Code. They even went so far as to predominantly feature an old Singer sewing machine as part of the props in Jerry’s crummy little flat, although her digs remain located near the wharf on the seedy side of town where one profession, rather than the other, would be more likely to flourish.
Fritz Lang was hardly an actor’s director. In fact, he proved exacting to the point of maniacal. Yet, Joan Bennett thrived under his tutelage, so much that the actress was instrumental in helping this temperamental showman land his next big gig over at RKO, The Woman in the Window (1944) after a series of high profile flops once more threatened to knock Lang’s standing back into the stone age. Their farewell project together, Secret Beyond the Door (1947) is hardly a classic, hampered more by a menial screenplay than anything else. But by then a mutual respect had blossomed between these two. It is rumored – though unconfirmed – Bennett and Lang were having an affair on the set of Man Hunt. Perhaps – perhaps not. Lang was hardly anyone’s idea of a lady’s man and never thought of himself as such. But he was a powerful presence and such strength of character does parallel the intoxication of a magic elixir for some women.   
Man Hunt feeds off Lang’s predisposition for themes of persecution; an innocent man betrayed by circumstances beyond his control and forced to flee into increasingly claustrophobic environments. In some ways, this is also the modus operandi of the conventional (though, as yet unestablished) film noir movement. But Lang gives us much more than the stock and trade noir in its penchant for criminal activity and menace lurking around every fog-filtered street corner, under every murky bridge, or seeping/creeping out from each inky shadow; the perpetually rain-soaked cobblestone barely lit by the weak flicker of gaslight. No, Man Hunt devours its audience in the perversity of political intrigues, matched and married to yet another festival of the macabre – the sadism of a nation already begun to implode on its own self-professed smug superiority. As such, Man Hunt exudes a sort of disquieting moody magnificence we don’t see in movies anymore; primarily evoked in its riveting visual flair (Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography is peerless); master wit, Dudley Nichols providing the narrative substance to effectively back it up.
In Man Hunt, Capt. Thorndike is a trapped animal, surrounded by spurious agents working for the Gestapo who are hell-bent on delivering him to Adolf Hitler like a prized trophy – dead or alive – or, if not, then using his signature on a forced confession to frame England’s government as the true aggressors, in order to kick start the Second World War. Remember, again – all this espionage was first conceived by author, Geoffrey Householder in 1937; a full year before the Anschluss (Hitler’s peaceful annexation of Austria); Householder’s novel published the same year Hitler invaded Poland. In 1941, Man Hunt was still very much ‘of the moment’: its assassination plot coming even before the Allies had…well…allied against the Axis. So, in one respect, Man Hunt is fairly fanciful; its lone gunman thwarted by an unholy twist of fate in his nobler motives to murder a madman (thereby sparing us from WWII); the resultant chase for this man with the scar on his face leading from Berchtesgaden to London where, so Lang would have us believe, there were even more Nazis (albeit, ones with thick cockney accents) diligently working to dismantle and discredit libertarianism.
Lang’s great gift to Man Hunt is, of course, his ability to make even the most innocuous street corner and byway appear as something of a seismic rupture in the earth’s crust, our hero always one false move away from becoming entombed in this contemporary Dante’s Inferno. In fact, the penultimate moment of Man Hunt has our hero trapped inside a very narrow cave, an inner-earth purgatory – literally – spared suffocation at the last possible moment by using his cunning; his motive – revenge – most foul and equally as bloody (he leaves George Sander’s Nazi lying face down in the swampy mud with an arrow pierced through his eardrum).  In between the botched attempt on Hitler’s life and Man Hunt’s finale (Thorndike parachuting back into Germany with his trusty rifle, under the apocryphal notion his will be the bullet to eventually assassinate Hitler), Fritz Lang revels in the salaciousness of the exercise. In essence, Man Hunt is an extended chase across Europe with Thorndike forced to suffer a conversion of motive; his loner’s quest to splinter the Nazi stranglehold of the continent by eliminating its figurehead, distilled into a more highly personal vision quest, predicated on vengeance for the unanticipated death of his beloved, Jerry.
Much has been made of the fact, Jerry and Thorndike never make it to even first base in their romance – interrupted either by circumstance or casually thwarted by Thorndike’s increasing inability to commit to this much younger paramour who so obviously desires more from him than money, gratitude or even their infrequent casual embraces. However, Thorndike’s approach is far more paternal than lascivious. He sleeps on Jerry’s cot, dries her tears with a soft linen hanky and tenderly tweaks her nose and cheek, plying her with tender words, meant more in guidance than love. Thorndike even nobly insists Jerry remove herself from the equation before Quive-Smith and his Nazi goon squad get wise to their affiliation. Ironically, it is Thorndike’s reluctant decision to involve Jerry in his escape plans – adopting her last name ‘Stokes’ as his cover and living obscurely in the countryside, using Jerry as his courier, that gets her killed. The realization his sins have been visited upon this unsuspecting innocent turn Thorndike from wartime crusader toward steely-eyed vigilantism. By the end of Man Hunt we no longer fear for Thorndike’s safety from the Nazis, but sincerely wonder if the Nazis have yet to realize what a faceless soldier of (mis)fortune they’ve unwittingly unleashed upon themselves by removing the one impediment – a woman’s love – that might have softened Thorndike as more of mensch and less the killing machine.
Man Hunt begins with Capt. Alan Thorndike’s ill-fated ‘sporting stalk’ of Adolf Hitler, crawling through some dense and heavily guarded underbrush just beyond the Nazi stronghold near Berchtesgaden. His subject framed within his telescopic sight, Thorndike’s perfect kill is thwarted by a falling leaf, notifying one of the guards to his presence. The pair struggle to regain control over the rifle and Thorndike gets off a wild round. Pummeled by his Nazi captors, Thorndike is dragged into the sparsely decorated sitting room of Major Quive-Smith, in the process of entertaining a game of chess with the doctor (Ludwig Stössel); a sort of portly and balding, Josef Mengele. A fellow sportsman, Quive-Smith is at first filled with admiration for Thorndike’s ability; also his sheer chutzpah to get so close in his assassination attempt. Thorndike offers a half-hearted explanation – compelled by the art of the hunt, but having no obvious reason or passing interest for that matter, to actually ‘kill’ Hitler. It was all just a game.
Quive-Smith isn’t buying Thorndike’s act. Instead, he suggests Thorndike as a spy for Her Majesty’s government; a claim Thorndike vehemently denies. Quive-Smith coolly explains that Thorndike may have his freedom immediately; deposited on a plane bound for England, but only if he signs a forced letter of confession. Thorndike refuses and Quive-Smith orders him taken to be tortured for several days on end, repeatedly dragged back into his parlor in ever-increasingly worse condition and asked to recuse himself of his supposedly more altruistic motives. Still, Thorndike refuses. Furthermore, he has the audacity to warn Quive-Smith that should he die suspiciously abroad his brother, Lord Gerald Risborough (Frederick Worlock) - a very important diplomat - will make it his mission to launch formal inquiries likely to create a stir between the two – as yet, tenuously peaceful – governments. Quive-Smith is not so easily fooled. In fact, Thorndike’s threat gives the wily Nazi a splendidly ghoulish idea; to toss Thorndike from a precipice in the dead of night, thereby making his murder look like a tragic accident.
Alas, Thorndike’s knapsack gets lodged in a tree branch on the way down, breaking his fall. The next day, Quive-Smith and the doctor pretend to go on a hunting excursion, certain they will ‘accidentally’ discover Thorndike’s body in the underbrush at the base of the cliff. Instead, there is no sign of him; Thorndike – severely battered and bruised, but otherwise unharmed, having skulked into the dense foliage, crossing a shallow stream to throw Quive-Smith’s hunting dogs off his scent. Regrettably, the hunting party finds Thorndike’s coat and passport among the debris. Quive-Smith files the latter away for safe keeping. Making his way to port, Thorndike steals a rowboat. A German patrol notices his abandoned vessel adrift near the wharf, Thorndike already swum to a nearby Danish trawler after overhearing its captain, Jensen (Roger Imhof) and the cabin boy, Vaner (Roddy McDowell) conversing in English. Exhausted, Thorndike collapses on the trawler’s deck, concealed by Vaner, who is British and therefore compassionate towards his countryman.
The ship is searched by Quive-Smith and the Gestapo, Thorndike managing to outfox the lot by hiding in an undiscovered hold; its trapdoor hidden beneath a rug in the captain’s quarters. Not even Jensen knows Thorndike is aboard. Too bad the Nazis have another plan afoot, ordering Jensen to take on an imposter; the spurious ‘Mr. Jones’ (John Carradine) masquerading as Thorndike by using his passport. Unaware, Jones is not Thorndike, Jensen sails his ship to England. Fritz Lang spares us the tedium of daily intrigues; instead using a few well-placed scenes to establish the constant peril the real Thorndike and Vaner find themselves in; Jones menacing from the peripheries, though quite unable to pinpoint his suspicions. The ship docks in London, and after making one last attempt to intimidate Vaner, Jones disembarks; leaving behind a pair of Nazi stooges to quietly observe the vessel from the docks.
Vaner steals the first mates pea coat and sweater for Thorndike, who disembarks the ship shortly thereafter, utterly confident his return to England has been a success. Alas, it only takes a few brief moments for Thorndike to realize he is being followed by Jones and his goons, narrowly avoiding capture several times and finally ducking into a dreary apartment building where he inadvertently stumbles upon Jerry Stokes, who is leaving her flat for a quick drag in the foyer.  After subduing her screams, Thorndike forces his way into Jerry’s apartment; the edgy détente between these two gradually softening to the point where Jerry reluctantly agrees to loan Thorndike necessary cab fare to visit his brother, Lord Risborough.
Lady Risborough (Heather Thatcher) is a prude. But she agrees to entertain Jerry in the parlor while the men hurry into the study to debate Thorndike’s future course of action. Lord Risborough informs Thorndike the Nazis have already anticipated his contacting him, pretending to be Thorndike’s friends come to call for old time’s sake. Risborough suggests Thorndike cannot reenter the country without his passport: to do so will cause the German ambassador to assume the attempt Thorndike made on Hitler’s life was, in fact, sanctioned by the British government, thus giving the Germans the perfect scapegoat and alibi to declare war on England. To quell this threat, Thorndike agrees to virtually disappear, making plans to go abroad at the earliest possible convenience. Before leaving his brother, Thorndike asks for a loan of five pounds. But this he gives almost immediately to Jerry; partly to repay her the moneys he borrowed; also, to sincerely thank her for the kindness and faith she has shown towards him.
Thorndike also agrees to buy Jerry a new hatpin for the one she lost while helping dodge the Nazis. The new pin is silver and in the shape of Cupid’s arrow, the shopkeeper suggesting the obvious; Jerry is already desperately in love with Thorndike.  For the briefest of moments, Thorndike and Jerry are obtusely happy together. It’s not to last however, as Quive-Smith arrives in London to take up the man hunt. After Thorndike attends his solicitor, Saul Farnsworthy (Holmes Herbert) at his downtown offices, the Nazis once more pick up his scent Thorndike and Jerry separate, he descending into the bowels of the Underground, jumping from the isolated station platform onto the tracks and running into the darkened recesses of the tunnel.
In one of Lang’s best moments of high intensity suspense, Jones – who is, as yet, unaware how close he is to discovering Thorndike’s hiding spot, removes a silver-tipped knife from his rather innocuous looking walking stick. Confronted by Thorndike in the tunnel, the two men struggle until Thorndike manages to electrocute Jones after his blade touches the tracks. Regrettably, Thorndike forgets to search the body before running off; its discovery by the police later revealing Thorndike’s passport still inside Jones’ coat pocket. Since the body was struck and run over by a train, no positive identification is possible. The police naturally assume the deceased is Thorndike. Officially dead, Thorndike can now be pursued by the Nazis and killed without anyone ever knowing any different. After all, Thorndike’s already been declared legally dead.
Sneaking back to Jerry’s flat, Thorndike instructs the heart sore girl to remain behind. She can no longer be involved in his death-defying intrigues. Instead, he instructs Jerry to have his brother send him a letter in three weeks, care of the Lyme Regis post office. Jerry bids her would-be lover farewell on the bridge, their one chance for a passionate kiss goodbye thwarted when a bobby mistakes Jerry for a girl of the streets who is pestering a gentleman as part of her stock and trade. It’s a fascinating moment in the movie; Jerry playing along with the officer’s insinuations so as not to blow Thorndike’s cover; returning to her flat a short while later, only to be startled by Quive-Smith and his cronies, awaiting her return.
Meanwhile, Thorndike hides in a cave not far from Lyme Regis, assumes the name of Stokes and growing a beard as camouflage. He returns to the post office three weeks later. Inquiring about a letter for Stokes, Thorndike suddenly becomes aware of the postmistress’ (Eily Malyon) erratic behavior. She even manages to sneak into the back for a brief moment to alert one of her helpers to hurry off. To what purpose? We’re not exactly sure, and neither is Thorndike, as he absconds with the letter back to his hideaway, barricading himself inside the cave with a bolder cleverly lodged with a heavy wooden branch as its failsafe, only to discover the letter is not from Jerry or Lord Risborough, but Quive-Smith, who has also managed to tail Thorndike to the cave.
Quive-Smith informs Thorndike there is no escape. He has obstructed the cave entrance from the outside with another bolder and branch. Quive-Smith now gloats with sinister pride as he tells Thorndike how Jerry died – ‘falling’ out of her second story window. As Thorndike clearly remembers how he himself was pushed from the cliff by the doctor, he knows the Nazis also murdered Jerry; proof now given to Thorndike by Quive-Smith through one of the air shafts; Jerry’s beret with Thorndike’s silver arrow pendant still affixed to it. Quive-Smith gets Thorndike to admit his initial ruse about a ‘sporting stalk’ was just that. Thorndike had every intention to assassinate Hitler, though not on orders from his government. Quive-Smith gives Thorndike an ultimatum; sign the letter of confession or be suffocated inside the cave. Instead, Thorndike uses his wits to quickly construct a bow and arrow from wooden planks, using Jerry’s silver tipped pendant as its piercing head. He gets Quive-Smith to remove the bolder blocking his escape, sinks the arrow into his arch nemesis’ temple. Believing Quive-Smith is dead, Jerry emerges from the cave only to be shot and gravely wounded by the dying Nazi.
The resultant montage that concludes Man Hunt takes us cyclically back to the movie’s prologue ‘somewhere in Germany’; beginning with a series of hallucinatory snippets showcasing Thorndike’s gradual recovery from Quive-Smith’s gunshot; his enlistment in the RAF and his disobeying direct orders by leaping with a parachute and his trusty rifle from a war plane flying over Germany; a voice over narration declaring that “Somewhere in Germany” a man is out for justice (i.e. revenge rechristened ‘as justice’) because it is now in service to his country. It’s a symbolic – and not altogether satisfying – conclusion to our story; Thorndike standing in for the Allied Forces, never to rest until Adolf Hitler is either taken captive or lying in his grave.
Until this finale, Man Hunt remains an exhilarating thriller, by far one of the earliest – if not the first – to take a stand against Germany’s growing presence in the European theater and its ominous premonitions of another looming world war. We can forgive Lang his casting of Walter Pigeon because the actor is so marvelous in his delivery, so utterly charming and, at times, even devil-may-care, so eager to please, he easily wins our hearts – if not as the stoic Brit with stiff upper lip and chin stuck out, then as the unconsciously American objector to tyranny, thrust like a hothouse flower transplanted to the studio back lot milieu of a pseudo-London, complete with narrow cobblestone and fog-machine laden streets, gorgeously backlit by Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography.
Joan Bennett is delicious as the winsome cockney tart whose heart believably melts like butter at the very first sight of her scruffy Lochinvar. Bennett’s expressive, sad eyes betray her youth. She was thirty-one at the time. Yet, Bennett gives us this tarnished angel as a girl who has lived – and not well, though nevertheless by her wits. Jerry has no illusions about who or what she is. And yet, Bennett reveals a tender, wholly believable naïveté, particularly where Thorndike is concerned; the very flaw in her good nature contributing to her own undoing.
Fox’s resident composer, Alfred Newman provides the capper for this stylish noir with a magnificent score, an uncredited assist from David Buttolph; effortlessly interpolating thematic elements of the daring adventure, tender romance and ominous strains of a traditional chase-thriller. It all works, spectacularly well, in fact. Ultimately, however, the stars that align significantly pale to Fritz Lang’s overriding directorial influences. One can argue most directors have a personal imprint or style that undeniably shines beyond the material.
But Man Hunt is prototypical Fritz Lang; the director’s not so subliminal smite against the upper classes revealed Lang’s wicked contempt for the aristocracy at large. The ‘haves’ are never lovingly represented in a Fritz Lang movie. But herein, Lang plays them strictly for laughs – particularly the Brits: Heather Thatcher’s delightfully rigid, socially wounded prig, quite unable to reconcile her biases toward Joan Bennett’s playful and ironically virgin-esque guttersnipe, at least, until our hero coaxes the haughty Lady Alice down from her tuffet with a sly wink and a genial nudge.
Man Hunt is vintage A+ Lang in other ways too; chiefly in creating a possessively dark and disturbing world, so absent of any moral code (apart from survival of the fittest) or even ethical center of gravity that the characters seem to exist and/or survive largely by happenstance. Fate is Lang’s vindictive god, looming large above men of action, like Thorndike, and those like Quive-Smith, utterly capricious in their singular thirst to destroy by whatever means is currently at their disposal. George Sander’s Nazi Major is the embodiment of bone-chilling efficiency; distilling the whole of non-German humankind into a disposable and easily annihilated foe.
Finally, we get Lang’s bleak notions about the war itself that, in hindsight at least, turned out to be very ominous and clairvoyant, indeed. Man Hunt is a compact, if far-fetched spy story, expertly crafted and even more surprising played to perfection by all concerned; unrelentingly twitchy and morosely spellbinding. Penetratingly scripted by Dudley Nichols, Man Hunt also prefigures America’s tsunami of Allied propaganda war movies soon to dominate cinema culture for decades to follow. Today, it holds up remarkably well - and not merely as a cultural artifact from this bygone epoch. Man Hunt is fancifully sinister and intensely fulfilling.
We really need to tip our hats to Fox Home Video and their limited edition Blu-ray release via Twilight Time; a stunning 1080p 1.33:1 transfer, showing minimal signs of age-related wear and tear. Prepare to be very impressed. This B&W image has been superbly rendered in hi-def; the ‘wow’ factor in evidence immediately following the main titles. Fine detail abounds – the image so refined we can see minute textures in wood grain, hair, foliage and other background information. Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography has been gorgeously preserved, the tonality in the grayscale quite simply astonishing with pitch-perfect contrast. We’ll also give kudos to the handsome DTS mono audio, perfectly supportive of this dialogue-driven movie. Last, but certainly not least, Twilight Time offers us an isolated score and a brief featurette on the making of the film, as well as a theatrical trailer and the usual superb essay from TT’s Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)