Thursday, October 30, 2014

THE BLOB: Blu-ray (TriStar Pictures 1988) Twilight Time

Director Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) is, in hindsight, a fairly impressive achievement on several levels. First, at just under $20,000,000 it’s a fairly low-budget rehash of a 1958 cult classic about a protoplasmic ‘thing’ from another world…or so it would seem. The remake adds a neat little twist; the presumed meteor fallen from the sky is actually a biological test satellite launched by the U.S. military, whose bio unit have arrived en masse, naively endeavoring to ‘contain’ their formless threat with conventional weapons – and even more conventional wisdom. Second, most of the movies effects are done full-scale and in-camera with only a few obvious matte process shots and miniatures evident during the climactic showdown; Russell’s blob primarily constituted from the same thickening agent used in a McDonald’s milkshake.  That alone makes me never want to drink their milkshakes again! Third, the cast – featuring Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith (among others) – are more than competent.
Too few horror movies have hedged their bets on A-class SFX, but third rate forgettable faces with minimal acting talent to carry the load. Yes, The Blob is still chocked full of ‘stock characters’ bordering on cliché; the oversexed football jock (Ricky Paull Goldin), the high school princess/cheerleader (Smith), the leather-wearing/motorcycle-riding rebel without a cause (Dillon), the religious zealot (Del Close) and the emotionless government agent (Joe Seneca). But the actors inserted into these axioms have more to offer and this makes their characterizations not only believable, but fairly compelling, even when the blob is nowhere to be seen.  Fourth, the screenplay by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont (cribbing from the 1958 classic written by Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker), has managed the minor coup of taking a premise we’ve already seen, borrowing its most iconic bits, but taking it in a slightly newer direction that never seems to grossly bastardize or plagiarize from the original.
It shouldn’t have worked, except that Russell has given us an analogous, shapeless terror even more disgustingly toxic and aggressive than its predecessor. Whereas the original blob rolled along the streets like a giant piece of raspberry Jell-o (there is, in fact, a hilarious Jell-o reference in Russell’s remake) and oozed through air ducts and sewers with the consistency and contents of pink Play Doh, this new amorphous bio-hazard warps and twists like a lacerated bowel with colon-esque extensions; acidic, lassoing unsuspecting victims from their theater seats, bitch-slapping them into the pavement or corrosively devouring their flesh in a gelatin tub of goo that drops like a spider from the ceiling, strong enough to crush and consume a glass and metal telephone booth with its victim already paralyzed inside. Of course, the original Blob was blessed with the presence of Steve McQueen, who brought a psychological complexity to the lead role; also, in retrospect, the cache of his megawatt star power – as yet untapped, or rather – acknowledged – when the 1958 film had its premiere. Russell’s remake supplants the importance of the male protagonist; all brawn and street smarts as played by Dillon and vetted by Smith’s proto-feminist warrior/princess who takes charge in the third act. She saves him and he repays the favor in kind. The Blob…a love story?
Hardly. In fact, at 95 minutes the Russell/Darabont screenplay hasn’t the time to give us anything more or better than these cardboard cutouts; remedial in their motivations and even less convincing in their hyper-intensive will to survive. In the post-atomic age, self-preservation remains paramount, coupled with the film’s subtext of exposing an insidious big, bad U.S. government chemical warfare run amuck. The Blob is rather heavy-handed in its telescopic focus on the time-honored cliché of illicit teenage sex leading to dire consequences; nowhere more evident than in the scene where football jock, Scott Jeske (Goldin) attempts to cop a feel (and possibly more) from his presumably inebriated date, Vicki De Soto (Erika Eleniak) who, regrettably, has already been consumed by the blob and thus is lying in wait to swallow Scott whole too. The Blob is one of only a handful of horror movies to graphically illustrate the killing of a child – Douglas Emerson as the hapless Eddie Beckner, ingested by the blob in the aqueducts beneath the town. Interestingly, The Blob did not receive the dreaded R-rating for this infraction, director Chuck Russell taking pride in the fact his movie departed from the tried and true mantra of preserving the innocent. In The Blob nothing is for certain. It isn’t only the peripheral characters who meet with a gruesome end. In fact, Russell seems to relish establishing his cast, then picking them off one at a time; dispatching the all-American clean-cut, Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch Jr.) first; almost immediately followed up by his less altruistic counterpart, Scott Jeske. Along the way we also lose a homeless coot, Hobbes (Frank Collison), the town’s cook/dishwasher, George Ruit (Clayton Landey), waitress, Fran Hewitt (Candy Clark), sheriff, Herb Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn), his deputy, Bill Briggs (Paul McCrane) and, predictably, the evil government agent chiefly responsible for this mutant bio-toxin, Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca).
Like its predecessor, The Blob is a cautionary tale about mankind terrorized and forced to face the unknown. Unlike the 1958 strain, however, this blob is man’s own doing; the criminality behind its Frankenstein-esque incubation our cross to bear. Co-writers, Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont have given us the solemnity and shocks we expect. But they rarely skimp on the comedy either; attaining a careful balance between the scary and the silly that never disappoints or fails to chill to the bone. In hindsight, the golden age of contemporary horror ultimately remains the 1970’s rather than the 1980’s; a decade where blood and guts undeniably replaced spookily lit cheap thrills, rarely emerging in half light from the more foreboding shadows.
The distinction must therefore be made between ‘traditional horror movie’ and the ‘slasher flick’; the latter, generally bereft of a single original idea that goes beyond how many ‘clever’ ways to photograph a person’s head being split open with an axe. All the more refreshing then, this Blob never entirely veers into that gruesome cruelty by brutalizing the audience with such schlock and nonsense. Save a rather stomach-churning moment when one victim is face-planted, then bone-crushingly sucked down a conventional sink drain (aside, I wonder how the skull fit through the elbow joint), and The Blob diverges to a sort of ole time brooding magic for its shudders; Russell giving just enough gore to satisfy without sickening us on his heart-palpating roller coaster ride.
The Blob opens with a few ominous shots of the seemingly abandoned small town of Arborville, California; Michael Hoenig’s eerie underscore punctuating the absence of human life as a cool wind blows a few sparse autumn leaves down these vacant streets.  Interestingly, we’re shown the façade of a church, complete with stone statuary; also a graveyard looking murky and fog-laden (interesting, because never again does the movie bother to revisit or explore the religious ramifications; the Reverend Meeker played strictly for laughs and camp by comedian, Del Close). From here, director, Chuck Russell segues to an ebullient high school football match; jocks, Paul Taylor and Scott Jeske discussing the finer points of seducing the prom princess, Meg Penny. Jeske’s a sly dog with only one thing on his mind. But Taylor needs the right moment to pop the question of a first date. He finds it after being crushed at the fifty yard line by members of the opposing team; Meg leaning over him with concern and accepting his proposition outright before he blacks out.
Russell now cuts to a broken bridge at the nearby, but remote, wooded area of Elkin’s Grove; juvenile delinquent Brian Flagg making his umpteenth attempt to jump, but failing to cross, the precipice on his motorcycle. He is quietly observed with amusement by the mute, homeless man, Hobbes, collecting beer cans with his dog.  The bike needs some work. But Brian is relatively unscathed…well…except for his pride. He promptly hitches a ride back into town to borrow his boss, Moss Woodley’s (Beau Billingslea) ratchet tool set. Meanwhile, at the local diner, sheriff Herb Geller is struggling to finagle his own first date with waitress, Fran Hewitt. She awkwardly resists, but then scribbles a note on Herb’s bill explaining she gets off at 11pm. Could it be love? Alas, no. Because the town is in for a very unwelcome surprise after a meteorite crash lands in Hobbes’ backyard. The inquisitive old coot pokes at the bubbling ooze with a stick and, predictably, the blob emerges to begin devouring Hobbes’ hand.
In town, the Reverend Meeker runs into Jeske, who has already cockily ordered the pharmacist (Art LaFleur) to get him a pack of ribbed Trojans for his hot date with Vicki De Soto. Lying to Meeker, the condoms are actually meant for Taylor’s evening rendezvous with Meg – and quite unaware the pharmacist also happens to be Meg’s father – Jeske hurries off to be with Vicki. In the meantime, Taylor arrives at Meg’s home; meeting her mother (Sharon Spelman), Meg’s much younger brother, Kevin (Michael Kenworthy) and his best friend, Eddie Beckner, who are intent on sneaking into an R-rated movie; aided in their petty larceny by Eddie’s older brother, Anthony (Jamison Newlander), who also happens to be an usher at the theater. It’s just another run-of-the-mill family night in a small town; everyone desperate for an early snowfall to help boost the local economy. Alas, tonight will be decidedly different.
Returning to his bike for repairs, Brian is confronted by Hobbes who endeavors to lop off his hand with a hatchet; the blob continuing to consume him as Brian pursues Hobbes into the forest. Hobbes rushes onto the highway, struck, but only wounded, by Taylor who is driving with Meg. Taylor agrees to take Hobbes to the nearby hospital, but orders Brian into the car as well, as a witness. Russell’s first bit of social commentary follows as the foursome arrives at the hospital, virtually ignored by the attending nurse (Margaret Smith) – who callously never looks up from her paperwork but has the audacity to inquire whether Hobbes has Blue Cross before attending to his wound. Brian elects to skip out, leaving Taylor and Meg to file the lengthy paperwork while Hobbes is taken to an isolated examination room and left there unattended. Some first date! Inadvertently, Taylor catches a glimpse of a queer rumbling beneath Hobbes’ bed sheet, approaching the stretcher and peeling back the covers to reveal the lower half of the old man eaten through. 
Panicked and ordering the attending physician (Jack Nance) to attend Hobbes immediately, Taylor rushes into a nearby office to telephone for the sheriff. Alas, he is unaware – until it’s much too late - the blob has attached itself to the ceiling; the amorphous/veiny gelatin dropping to devour Taylor as a horrified Meg looks on. One of the oddities of this blob is that it seems to discriminately choose its victims. There is, for example, no good reason why this glutinous wad should not ingest Meg as she struggles in vain to rescue Taylor from his fate; or the doctor or everyone else in the hospital for that matter; and director Russell never quite gets around to explaining how Meg manages to survive the ordeal unharmed to be taken home to relative safety by her mother shortly thereafter; Mr. Penny blaming everything on Brian, who he sincerely hopes will hang for Taylor’s death.
Even as it possesses no tangible mode of transport (eg. legs, feelers, etc.) to make it efficiently mobile, the blob covers an incredible amount of territory by simply rolling around; surfacing next at a remote location in the woods where Jeske is all set to have his way with a fairly inebriated Vicki. While this road trip Lothario is busy mixing more cocktails from the trunk of his car – laden with an enviable bartender’s garage of alcoholic libations – the blob sneakily oozes into his car and devours Vicki, who is passed out, from the inside; Jeske returning to his paramour and receiving his just desserts for attempting to cop a feel; the blob bursting forth from Vicki’s chest.  Director, Russell’s homage to both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) are fairly transparent. The original blob was weird, but nevertheless relatively conventional in its consumption of human flesh. It simply oozed all over everybody. This blob is a far more passionate creature, capable of entering the human body in the most devious ways, just like Scott’s alien organism. It also maintains a back catalog of its victims, frequently regurgitating their likenesses moments before it swallows its next hapless prey.  
Meg sneaks out of her bedroom to go in search of Brian, the only one who actually believes her story. He’s glib at first, and condescending as he strolls off to the diner for a midnight snack. Meg calls him out on his macho fakery and he reveals a tender side as he coaxes her to share his sandwich. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, cook/dishwasher George Ruit is attempting to unplug a stopped up drain, unaware the blob is actually hiding inside the pipe. The blob erupts from its hiding spot, pulling, then pulverizing George into bloody pulp; sucking him whole down the pipes before spewing itself like a gooey nuclear thunder cloud into the kitchen and cornering Meg and Brian inside the backroom freezer. Once again, the blob discriminates; allowing Fran, the waitress to escape to a nearby telephone booth where she desperately tries to call the sheriff. The blob drools down the sides of the glass booth, revealing remnants of Sheriff Herb already half digested, before crushing it and absorbing Fran. Reverend Meeker witness the blob slinking into a nearby sewer. Upon exploring the ravaged diner he discovers several frozen crystals of the blob still inside the freezer, collecting and isolating them in a clear Mason jar.
Told by the police secretary the Chief is missing and Deputy Briggs is near Elkin’s Grove investigating a fallen meteorite, Meg and Bryan hurry to the forest; confronted by Dr. Meddows and his crack team of quarantine specialists wearing protective suits.  Meddows lies to the teens, explaining the blob is a biohazard from another world. He orders Meg and Brian into the back of an ambulance bound for town. Brian manages a daring escape. But Meg chooses to remain behind. She arrives in town and is reunited with her mother and father; the inhabitants corralled into the nearby city hall under the false pretext they are in grave danger of succumbing to a plague. As Meg skulks off to the theater to find Kevin and Eddie, she is unaware the blob has already overtaken the movie house projectionist and theater manager (Pons Maar).  The blob now makes its presence known to the movie patrons, who scatter in terror. Many are overtaken by the blob. But Meg manages to find Kevin and Eddie, the trio narrowly escaping into a back alley and down a sewer shaft into the aqueducts beneath the town.
The blob makes chase. Meanwhile, Meddows has sent two of his men in search of the blob; both easily consumed while they distract the creature from destroying Meg and Kevin. Alas, Eddie is not as lucky; wrestled underwater and eaten alive. Brian, who has managed an escape from Meddows and his men, has entered the drain pipe on his bicycle. He finds Meg, but the pair becomes trapped in the sewers when Meddows, endeavoring to contain the creature, deliberately traps them too by parking one of his trucks atop the manhole cover. Retrieving the rocket launcher from the backpack of one of the fallen government agents, Brian blows the truck to smithereens; emerging in the center of town with Meg in tow and exposing the whole cover story invented by Meddows as a fraud. A stand-off occurs between Meddows, Deputy Briggs and Brian, moments before the angered blob erupts from the manhole and kills Meddows.  It also causes Reverend Meeker to become severely burned.
As the terrified inhabitants flee, barricading inside city hall, Briggs is snapped in two by the blob. Realizing the only thing that can stop the blob is the cold, Brian elects to drive his boss’ snow maker into it. The blob retaliates by overturning the vehicle and Meg bravely risks her own life to free Brian from the truck and detonate its tanks of C02. Becoming entangled in the process, she is rescued by Brian moments before the bomb goes off. The frightened town’s folk emerge from city hall to discover the blob neutralized into frozen crystals; Moss declaring they had better get these frozen remains over to the icehouse before they thaw. We cut to a summer tent revival; the Reverend Meeker – apparently madder than a hatter – preaching sin and Armageddon to a small congregation of God-fearing evangelicals. Afterward, Meeker is confronted by one attendee, who timidly inquires when the end of times will come. Meeker, raising his Mason jar with a thawed out mini-blob still inside, declares, “Soon madam, the Lord will give me a sign!”  
For diehard horror aficionados, The Blob is a fairly juicy affair (pun, intended). It has its shortcomings, however, chiefly the dated 80’s milieu, typified by big hair – particularly Dillon’s, resembling a lion’s mane.  In our jaded age of wallpapered CGI effects, there is more than quaintness to be gleaned from this pastiche to the prototypical fifties epoch of ‘it came from another world’ faceless/graceless atomic fallout inspired weirdness.  And director/co-writer Chuck Russell, together with Frank Darabont, have truly done their homework on ‘the blob’ itself. This isn’t that giant piece of Jell-o recalled as the perfect make-out drive-in movie. It’s a more sinister affair; less quantifiable as…well…a blob…and more easily considered some sort of grotesque science experiment gone hopeless awry. Adding a government conspiracy to the equation really doesn’t hurt the movie’s basic premise; although, in hindsight, it doesn’t exactly add all that much to it either. The academic cronies fronted by the perpetually steely-eyed Dr. Meddows are little more than monolithic and powerless ‘suits’ – literally and figuratively – on loan from the conspiracy theorist stooge factory.
Mark Irwin’s cinematography is first rate and there is a certain amount of mileage gained by the fairly convincing special effects. This blob, unlike its predecessor, is a constantly evolving mutant strain of bacteria; one that appears to place favor to its victimization.  It hunts not only with an insatiable appetite but with a vengeance. While the ‘58 blob has often been referenced as a euphemism for the communist Red Scare, this ‘88 blob seems to parallel the cadaverous AIDS pandemic. The creature’s pearly grey and bubbling façade resembles a mucous membrane. It strikes with phallic-inspired tentacles, invading its host stealthily and silently without being recognized. It capably divides its cellular structure, just like a virus, thus aggressively metastasizing to other things, and so on.
Subtexts aside, The Blob marks the pinnacle of that evolution and partnership between Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont, whose symbiosis had begun on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). In creating The Blob’s many and varied special effects, SFX guru Tony Gardner supervised a crew of thirty-three, including artist, Chet Zar and mechanical effects designer, Bill Sturgeon; everyone conspiring to bring out the absolute very best for this loose remake.  Early tests with CGI were tried, but eventually scrapped for the more tactile approach to generating visceral chills. As a result, this blob feels decidedly ghastly and very sincere. While the ‘58 version had Steve McQueen – an undeniable asset – for obvious technical reasons – the ‘88 version excels. However, this blob’s overall success is only partly due to the believability of the actual creature. The other half rests squarely on the shoulders of its cast who sell the freak show with understated authenticity.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, under their licensing agreement with Sony Home Entertainment, has yielded another solid effort. It’s astounding it’s taken this long for The Blob to arrive on home video in hi-def. Alas, this disc isn’t perfect. Most of the 1080p transfer is softly focused, fine detail generally wanting, especially in the darker sequences. Occasionally, effects are less than seamless, owing to Blu-ray’s higher resolution revealing matte work in particular. Another issue is grain; looking a tad thicker than anticipated, particularly during ‘optical effects’ shots. But grain is decidedly distracting in the scene at the diner afterhours when Brian offers Meg some of his sandwich. Contrast too seems a tad anemic.  Still, colors are fairly solid throughout and flesh tones look appropriately nature. We won’t poo-poo it any further. The overall characteristic is decidedly dated and looking appropriately vintage ‘80s.  The DTS-HD 5.1 mix fairs infinitely better, revealing some squishy sound effects and subtly nuanced rustlings during more quiescent sequences. Overall, not flashy but good and solid and well represented on this disc. Extras are limited to an isolate score. It’s sparse at best, but nicely handled. We also get a featurette featuring a brief and truncated Q&A with director Chuck Russell, and an infinitely more engaging audio commentary by Russell and horror authority, Ryan Turek, plus two theatrical trailers. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

POSSESSED: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1947) Warner Archive

Joan Crawford officially entered the ‘crazy lady’ stage of her movie career playing a psychologically deranged caregiver in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947, and not to be confused with Possessed, 1932 – another Crawford vehicle, costarring Clark Gable). The two films are not related, thematically or otherwise; Crawford’s love-starved freak of nature in Bernhardt’s movie, doggedly pursuing playboy/architect, David Sutton (carried off with uncharacteristic charisma by Van Heflin) who would much prefer to have never met Crawford’s Louise Howell in the first place. What makes a person star-struck senseless for somebody else remains the stuff to which volumes of psychological probing by the likes of Freud and his ilk have been dedicated; also, some harrowing case files at the FBI, profiling the hearts and minds of serial stalkers/killers, who can develop their telescopically focused obsession for certain people as easily as the poor bugger lost in the desert, desiring a drink of Perrier because he is dying from thirst.
Crawford’s performance in Possessed is imbued with a stroke of sheer genius; the Randal McDougall/Silvia Richards’ screenplay less so. We’ve seen a lot of Possessed before; the embittered/invalided, nee suicidal wife; the unstable second wife; the dark old house situated on a dreary cliff side, haunted by painful memories and creaking in a late autumn thunderstorm; the devoted husband destined to remain unhappy and the unfaithful lover, preparing to meet his just desserts. The extremes are more exaggerated in Possessed, perhaps, because so is Crawford's trip into this grand guignol; but it’s still the same old pulp. What sets the film apart is Crawford herself; unafraid to look haggard and insane; playing the part of this shockingly confused/terrified matron; the last vestiges of the doting wife and stepmother unable to be reconciled with the polar opposite of her crumbling emotional psyche. Crawford's Louise Howell is doomed to remain terrorized, unhinged and institutionalized for life. She's a tragic figure, a lovelorn frump and a warped human being; just par for the course of what Crawford's later 'heroines' in the movies would become. But here we get our real first taste of Crawford the unconventional star and she remains a force of unbridled nature with which to be reckoned. Put bluntly: I'd much rather have her for a friend than an enemy - even if she is nuts! 
Possessed is actually a lot more psychologically complex and convincing than most movies; Louise’s catatonia serving as the crux for a hypno-regression exercise that delves into the more recent past and illustrates how a seemingly ‘normal’ woman can suddenly turn to ravenous man-trap with just the right tweak to her hot-wiring. In this case, jealousy mixes with an unhealthy blend of expectation; also a wrinkle in Louise’s own fundamentally flawed misconception: that David Sutton is…well…as crazy about her as she is for him. According the Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards’ screenplay (loosely based on a story by Rita Weiman), Crawford’s demented mistress spends the bulk of the movie precariously balanced on the extremely edge of this psychosis; the devoted second wife to millionaire, Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) after his first, who just happened to be Louise’s patient, is found floating face down in the lake near the couple’s summer home.
Could Louise have…? Highly unlikely, since the absence of female companionship immediately paves the road for romantic prospects of a very different kind. Put bluntly, the aging Graham is no David Sutton and Louise isn’t really interested in either him or his money, although it will take the movie’s entire second act to basically convince Graham’s suspicious college-bound daughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks) of as much. Possessed falls in line with other sundry and penetrating movies dedicated to the then hot topic of psychoanalysis. It seems every director from Hitchcock to Otto Preminger had their crack at bat: movies like Spellbound, Laura (both made in 1945), The Snake Pit (1948), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and so on, plying the artful craft of cinema with the more often misunderstood probing of the human mind. Alas, some situations cannot be helped. Some people are like that too.
Possessed comes at a critical juncture in Joan Crawford’s career. Only five years earlier she had been branded ‘box office poison’; MGM’s favorite shop girl/clotheshorse makes good unceremoniously thrown under the proverbial bus by L.B. Mayer to make way for a new crop of younger, more malleable child stars on the rise. Crawford wasn’t the only one to suffer the slings and arrows of this humiliation, with her ever-increasing demands for bigger, better pictures, and, temporarily languishing after a series of high profile commercial flops. But she would prove one of the most resilient against being labeled a ‘has been’; picking up the baton at Warner Bros. with an unlikely Oscar-winning performance in Mildred Pierce (1945).
In an era where one female actress is pretty much a carbon copy of another, seen elsewhere and barely recalled, Crawford undeniably remains the standout; her willful defiance of that early start afforded her in life (as gawky, dance hall queen from a broken and impoverished home, with a closet full of Charleston loving cups and equally as many broken hearts scattered along the road to success); by 1942, Crawford’s ensconced movie queen wasn’t about to take guff from anybody: not even her former boss, Louie Mayer. So off she went, practically willingly, to Warner’s back lot as a rival to their reigning diva, Bette Davis – frequently a very course pebble creating a sore bunion in Jack L. Warner’s shoe. In hindsight, Davis and Crawford were so similar in their upbringings, public ambitions and private desires, they might have just as easily allied against the world as the best of friends…if only the whole darn competition between these two tigresses hadn’t already been put into place by Warner. Alas, Davis ruled the roost at that studio and wasn’t about to share her fame or success with anyone.  And Crawford, despite being the more congenial star at first, grew to despise Davis for her arrogance.
She would, however, prove Davis one better by taking and making something of the parts Bette mercifully turned down – like the title character in Mildred Pierce. On the ether of this surprise Oscar win, Crawford pushed on, her box office cache cemented with Humoresque (1946) and later, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Crawford’s reign at Warner was, in fact, short-lived, Possessed sandwiched right in the middle of all the fanfare and hoopla over her ‘resurrection’ from the oblivion.  Bernhardt’s movie is a minor masterpiece; not quite as effective at tapping into the Crawford mystique, though nevertheless efficacious at expanding her range of possibilities. Crawford is, after all, working against her newly established archetype as the tough-as-nails go getter with the proverbial heart of stone, rather than gold.
Possessed finds Crawford in rather unfamiliar territory. She’s not an evil woman, although she winds up doing wicked things. It’s rather startling to witness the moment in the film when Crawford’s crazed stepmother confronts her husband’s daughter, Carol for staying out late with David, viciously walloping and sending her down a flight of neck and back-breaking stairs with guilty satisfaction dramatically caught in her eyes, only to suddenly be stirred from this sweaty elation by the sound of a car driving up to the house and Carol entering by the front door just a few moments later. We suddenly realize all this vengeance has been imagined; or rather, realistically concocted in Louise Howell’s degenerating mind as an alternative reality. Are we to pity Louise for her mental subsidence or fear for Carol’s safety this second time around? Crawford plays the scene right down the middle; her look of thorough disgust over her own vial thoughts never revealed, coupled with an imploding sense of self-confidence and genuine concern she is about to crack under pressure; all of this is played out in Crawford’s magnificent performance and it provides us with a conflicted empathy for this woman with whom we ought not sympathize, yet cannot but want to help pull back from the precipice of her looming madness.
Possessed is given the A-list Warner Bros. treatment, utilizing slightly redressed sets from previous pictures and taking full advantage of its brief location shoot in downtown Los Angeles. The film actually opens with one of the most startling debuts for a female character in any vintage thriller; our star looking utterly haggard – and obviously wearing very little (if any) makeup as she blindly stumbles down these deserted downtown streets. Crawford gives us Louise Howell warts and all; bug-eyed and sleep deprived, muttering over and over again the name ‘David’ to some of the most non-empathetic people on the planet. The street car driver, as example, ignores her entirely, closing his folding doors in her face. The guy working behind the counter of a greasy spoon isn’t much better; offering her a cup of coffee before telephoning an ambulance to cart Louise off to the insane asylum. Actually, she’s taken to the local hospital (easily identifiable as Los Angeles Country General…the same façade used for TV’s longest running soap opera; General Hospital 1963-present) and wheeled into the curiously labeled ‘psychopathic’ ward.
From here on in, things begin to look up for Louise; marginally speaking. The kindly Dr. Ames (Moroni Olsen) and his assistant, Dr. Craig (Don McGuire) tend to her care; injecting Louise with a magic elixir that stirs her from this self-imposed catatonia. Gaining access to Louise’s mind leads to a lengthy regression into the past. We’re introduced to the Joan Crawford of our expectations; immaculately quaffed and impeccably dressed after a moonlight swim with her paramour, David Sutton. The two have been carrying on an afterhours romance for presumably some time; Louise making her protestations known one too many times to suit our dapper Dave. He isn’t opposed to having his fun, just as long as it doesn’t cost him anything outright. But wedding bells are not in his future – not yet. So, Louise tries to take back the request. It’s no use. David’s mind is made up. He doesn’t want to see Louise any more. Chartering her by speedboat back to the ample country estate at the far side of the lake, Louise takes a mighty last stand to plead for reconciliation. This is met with abject indifference from David and Louise marches off in the direction of the great house to pout; momentarily admonished by its lord and master, Dean Graham for not being present when his invalid wife needed her most.
Louise reminds Graham that Tuesdays are her day off and he apologizes for being so rude. Actually, Graham’s not a bad egg; just a harried hubby whose nerves and patience have worn thin. He and Louise are both under a lot of pressure; not the least for being placed under a microscope by Dean’s wife, Pauline (Nana Bryant) whose unwarranted suspicions have Louise and her husband carrying on an affair right under her nose. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. Louise’s heart belongs to David, even if he doesn’t want it. And Dean is completely devoted to his crumbling marriage. It’s left him curmudgeonly and defeated. For all concerned it really would be better if Pauline could just go away for good.
Providence grimly smiles on the household after Pauline goes missing; her lifeless body eventually dredged up from the bottom of the lake. It’s a blessing, actually; Louise believing she will be free to pursue David now that her responsibilities as nursemaid are at an end. David has recently signed on with Dean’s firm to build a pipeline somewhere in Canada. It will mean a separation of a few months, and in the interim Graham proposes marriage to Louise; the smite of her reluctant acceptance affecting Graham’s daughter, Carol, who refuses to believe Louise didn’t have the whole affair mapped out from the moment she set foot inside her father’s house. She even goes so far as to suggest Louise murdered her mother. Graham chastises Carol for her wicked insinuations. This only creates a deeper rift between daughter and stepmother. Interestingly, time heals even this wound; Carol realizing Louise never meant her parents any harm. However, as the bond between them grows, Louise becomes protective against David’s sudden romantic interest in Carol. She is, after all, much too young for him. Alas, Louise’s opinion of David begins to sour; her maternal nurturing turning self-destructively inward as she begins to resent Carol for being exactly the kind of girl she used to be and for fitting so neatly into David’s idea of the disposable plaything; looking fashionable on his arm at the opera.
So far, Possessed has been a fairly standard melodrama from Warner – a studio that came to foster a whole slew of like-minded ‘family strife’ pictures like Old Acquaintance (1943) and My Reputation (1946); anchored by strong female heroines.  But now, Curtis Bernhardt takes us down a very dark corridor on an unexpected twist of circumstances: Louise’s jealousy transformed into dissociative episodes of persecution and flights into hideous wish-fulfilment, most predicated on achieving some sort of injuriousness that will forever tear these newfound lovers apart. Because almost all of these nightmarish episodes remain locked inside Louise’s brain (she never acts on them) they become even more sinister; the audience recognizing how morally bankrupt and mentally disturbed she truly is. But Bernhardt and Crawford do not give us the leering monster in all her Medean-inspired flourish; rather, a somewhat exhausted and half-beaten ‘good woman’, desperately battling demons destined to drag her psyche into the depths of psychotic despair.
Louise’s spiraling mental condition evolves; voices in her head taking on the disturbing contents of the first Mrs. Graham, despite Dean’s devotion. Alas, he is quite unable to reach Louise for very long; their brief interludes of happiness interrupted by more fantastical plots to murder, maim and otherwise destroy all of their lives. The trigger that pushes Louise over the edge is David and Carol’s wedding announcement. How can they? Don’t they realize what will happen if they do?  Louise makes a last ditch effort to end their relationship. Carol, who has miraculously come around to deeply caring for Louise in place of her own mother, is now deeply wounded by this betrayal of her trust.
Even Graham must acknowledge Louise has slipped beyond the salvation his own love and care can provide. Desperate to spare his family the tragedy of another drawn-out illness, Graham urges Louise to seek professional counseling. Instead, Louise skulks off to David’s apartment, confronting him with a gun; ordering him to cease in his plans to marry Carol.  Unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation, David believes he can talk his way out. However, Louise is void of any vestige of love she might have once harbored for David. He must be destroyed - and is; Louise emptying Graham’s revolver into David’s belly until he is quite dead. We dissolve back to Louise’s hospital room in the psychopathic ward; Crawford’s deglamorized gargoyle insanely screaming David’s name and having to be subdued by the doctors. Afterward, Dr. Ames pledges himself to Louise’s full recovery, promising Graham he will do everything in his power to restore his wife to him. Alas, in misunderstanding the depth of Louise’s obsession for the late David Sutton, Ames may have bitten off more than he can chew; Graham offering Ames whatever support is required to ‘fix’ the problem.
Possessed is a very curious Crawford picture; particularly its ending, that offers not even a shred of optimism for our disturbed heroine. Will she ever see the light of day except through the windows of a heavily padded cell? Unlikely. Possessed does, however, effectively foreshadow Hollywood’s rather perverse predilection for defrocking its own screen queens from the 1930’s and 40’s. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy McGuire, et al. eventually found themselves at the mercy of this grindhouse mentality to debunk their stature as ‘classy actresses’. Crawford’s descent into the mouth of madness eventually led to her casting in other like-minded fare; mostly notably, Robert Aldrich’s sublime grand gingnol, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and, the deplorably subpar screamer, Berserk (1968).
This being the beginning of the end, Crawford is, of course, divine in Possessed; illustrating a wellspring of imaginative talents for playing more than the proverbial ‘bitch’; drawing out our empathy for her character’s dreadful demise. The sing-song way Bernhardt handles the intermittently interrupted flashback somewhat hampers this narrative arc; the dissolves from Louise’s imperfect past to her even more frightening present, clever enough from a photographic standpoint, but jarring the continuity of the story nonetheless.  Raymond Massey and Van Heflin give credible support. But the picture belongs to Crawford and she dutifully holds up her share with delectable determination.  Possessed ought not to have worked except that it does – magnificently so; audiences ready for a deglamorized view of femininity run amuck. Interestingly, in such movies it’s usually the woman who descends into lunacy, leaving the menfolk to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. In the fictional realm of cinema, crazy men are serial killers. But crazy women could easily be your grandmother or the girl you just decided to ask out on a date. Yeow! Viewed today, Possessed is a very fine example of this particular breed of stylized psycho-analytic babble. And Crawford sells it to us as few of her generation could or did. Hers is a performance on par with Gloria Swanson’s warped enchantress in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
The Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of Possessed is another reason why I’ve steadily fallen in love with their corporate model for releasing catalog to home video: pluperfect presentations in 1080p. Possessed has never looked better. Does it look perfect? Hmmmm. Warner has done everything possible to resurrect Joseph Valentine’s superb noir cinematography. For the most part, they’ve admirably succeeded. But the ‘thick’ characteristic of the image hasn’t entirely been licked; grain frequently inconsistent from shot to shot or scene to scene. Location work has a generally softer quality to it than studio-bound sequences. This is, as it should be. But it remains ever so slightly jarring. There’s also just a hint of edge enhancement here and there. Nothing egregious. Contrast is gorgeous, except for one or two moments when it seems ever so slightly bumped. Again, forgivable.  
The pluses are overwhelming: a razor-sharp image, staggering in the amount of fine detail and permissible grain, accurately represented. It’s a stunner, in fact; close-ups revealing minute details in hair and makeup. Gone is that greenish tint with lower than anticipated contrast levels plaguing the DVD. Age related damage has been virtually eradicated, including the excessive speckling that once existed during a scene where David is briefly reunited with Louise – the water/mold damage to the print replaced by a sumptuous, smooth and altogether satisfying presentation. Extras are ported over from the DVD and include an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Possessed looks fabulous on Blu-ray. It now seems a no brainer we can expect Crawford’s Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce via the Archive sometime next year; hopefully Humoresque, Flamingo Road and A Woman’s Face too. Speaking of noir: perhaps Warner would consider some other viable candidates like Mystery Street, Act of Violence, and Murder My Sweet for such sweet treatment. We’ll see – and keep you posted!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, October 25, 2014

I LOVE TROUBLE: Blu-ray (Touchstone/Caravan 1994) Buena Vista Home Video

In the 1930’s and 40’s the coupling of big names stars became a popular marketing ploy in Hollywood: finding the perfect pair, as it were, and re-marketing them in serialized or similarly themed movie franchises: Tracy and Hepburn, Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, Gable and Crawford, and so on. The endurance of such winning teams was proof positive to the movie moguls, that when it came to popular entertainments the best blend was richly achieved by an audience’s familiarity with these iconic couples. Charles Shyer’s spookily lit and deftly executed romantic comedy, I Love Trouble (1994) draws its parallel from another great screen team: William Powell and Myrna Loy. In the 1930’s and 40’s Powell and Loy were America’s great marrieds: Nick and Nora Charles – a pair of dapper dilettantes on a lark and a spree; he the debonair and marginally accomplished sleuth, she the wickedly satirical appendage who had some of the best one-liners in their ‘Thin Man’ franchise. In 1939’s Another Thin Man, as example, when asked on the telephone how their honeymoon vacation went, Loy quaintly replies, “It was wonderful. Nick was sober in Kansas City!”
Flash forward to I Love Trouble and another winning combo…well, at least on paper. By 1994, Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers had been scripting urbane and sophisticated comedy gems for more than a decade; their penchant for razor-sharp, shoot-from-the-hip dialogue augmenting such slickly packaged entertainments as Private Benjamin (1980), Irreconcilable Differences, and, Protocol (both released in 1984), and the superb remakes of Father of the Bride (1991 – 1995). I Love Trouble’s incubation and critical reception would hardly be as rewarding; perhaps because, by then, it had become painfully obvious to both partners their professional alliance had failed to morph into a happy marriage. Shyer and Meyers would divorce in 1999; proving to each other, as well as the rest of Hollywood, there was still life and profits to be derived separately.
I Love Trouble is very much a send up to the ‘Thin Man’ stylish and farce-laden detective stories from the late 1930’s; a sort of pre-marital Nick and Nora Charles romantic thriller, updated to accommodate the progressive social mores of the 1990’s (no separate beds here, although, interestingly, Shyer/Meyers have the couple marry – on the fly in Atlantic City, but hey…it’s still legal… before loveless copulation can take place). I Love Trouble also plays to the strengths of its two costars: Nick Nolte, looking craggily handsome, and at his arrogant best, with Julia Roberts at her most seductively charming and wittily playful. There’s a genuine chemistry at work between these two that harks all the way back to the infectious Tracy/Hepburn model for romantic couplings. The critics didn’t think much of I Love Trouble when it premiered…but what do the critics know that the audience does not?  Still on a budget of $45 million, I Love Trouble’s return of $61,947,267 hardly made it a blockbuster.
Actually, in the U.S. it failed to recoup its initial outlay. Still, I can recall sitting in the theater back then and being held captive by the clever dialogue; the tangibly clicking chemistry between Nolte and Roberts from the get-go, as his established newspaper columnist, Peter Brackett hits on cub reporter, Sabrina Peterson (Roberts) only to be cruelly shot down for his efforts by this gal who only ‘thinks’ she’s holding all the cards in their competitive race against time – and each other. “Look,” Peterson pointedly explains, “I know every cub reporter in a skirt would probably go gaga over the great Peter Brackett but let me set you straight on a point. You have zero chance of scoring here. Trust me. Move on!” to which Nolte’s confident bon vivant merely reclines, rather than recoiling, adding “Where’d you say you were from…Bitch-ville?”
I Love Trouble’s saving grace remains this infectious – if mildly toxic – screen chemistry between Roberts and Nolte; he playing up a decade’s worth of solid work in the movies; Roberts’ still feeling her oats as an actress after the groundswell of mega-popularity foisted upon her by the success of Pretty Woman (1990).  To some extent, the expectations for I Love Trouble, to produce another winning pair like Roberts and PW’s costar, Richard Gere, seems to have held the movie’s popularity back; this and Touchstone’s lackluster press and promotion, unceremoniously dumping it as a mid-summer release without much fanfare. To be pointedly clear, the central plot – that of a mysterious train derailment meant to cover up a far darker crime with political espionage concealing a potentially harmful chemical for the pasteurization of milk, is just a shay this side of kooky to wholly unbelievable. But actually, those expecting a sensational thriller are missing the point. For I Love Trouble is a romantic screwball and, perhaps, the last of its kind; the focus of Meyers/Shyer’s screenplay definitely on the Brackett/Peterson love affair, complicated by the fact these two just happen to be reporters vying for the same scoop on a murder mystery with more twists and turns than an amusement park dark ride.
And it’s a cleverly ambitious and mostly engaging film we get besides; the first act effortlessly spent on the sublime competition between Nolte’s arrogant womanizer and Roberts’ deliciously rigid girl-makes-good; each swatting the insults and attempting to outdo the other. At one point Brackett deliberately drops a hint of a clandestine meeting with the potential next link in the chain of discovery, sending Peterson on a ‘wild goose chase’ – literally: Peterson’s car stopped along a dirt country road by a gaggle of white-feathered fowl. Brackett also sends Peterson a feisty little bulldog to celebrate her scooping him out of his byline; the mutt (she later claims to have nicknamed after its previous owner as ‘Little Dick’) promptly urinating on a copy of her article. All of this revenge is sweetly played out; mildly endearing and drawing the couple closer into each other’s space until, at last, they agree to a truce, working together to unravel the mystery and thus, discover there might be more between them than just the printed word.
I Love Trouble immensely benefits from David Newman’s bombastic underscore; truly capturing the flavor of this passionate rivalry, but with a nostalgic nod to such pluperfect examples in the sub-genre as His Girl Friday (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942). Even better is John Lindley’s moody cinematography. Like the best of its ilk, I Love Trouble begins bright and breezy with an unassuming train trip juxtaposed next to an ever so slightly more ominous country funeral; the piece gradually growing darker as Lindley’s camerawork moves out of the natural light and into the darker recesses of lonely streets, eerily lit/abandoned movie houses and an experimental laboratory after hours at the monolithic uber-modern, though soulless corporate entity – Chess Chemical – serving as the penultimate setting for the last piece in Shyer/Meyers’ highly inventive narrative jigsaw puzzle. 
I Love Trouble begins by crystalizing the duality in this light and shadow that will ultimately become the movie’s métier.  Two children (Hallie Meyers-Shyer and Boone David Cates) witness the passing funeral cortege of retired scientist, Darryl Beekman, who died in a tragic house fire. The moment is interrupted by inserts of Darryl Beekman Jr. (Clark Gregg), forlorn as he stands over his father’s casket, then hurriedly packing a briefcase with some microfilm cleverly concealed in an ordinary writing pen as he nervously makes his way to the railway station. There, Beekman is deliberately bumped into on the platform by a trench-coated character, aptly nicknamed, Mando – the Thin Man – (James Rebhorn), whose veiled purpose is to do Beekman Jr. and the train some harm. We also catch a glimpse of newlyweds, Kevin (Kevin Breznahan) and Jenny (Heidi Huber) boarding the car ahead of Beekman’s; the beginnings of a life together torn asunder a few short hours after sundown, when the train derails while attempting a turn a corner near an isolated bridge, killing Jenny and Beekman.
Shift focus momentarily: to the Chicago Chronicle where its staff is about to put the late day edition to bed when news breaks of the derailment. The Chronicle’s curmudgeonly editor, Matt (Robert Logia) insists Peter Brackett cover the beat, something he hasn’t done since becoming a columnist for the paper. In fact, Brackett’s writing career has really taken off since the debut of his first novel, ‘White Lies’. With his own office, a personal secretary, Jeannie (Olympia Dukakis) and minions like Evans (Jane Adams) and Sully (Joseph D'Onofrio) to do his legwork, it’s safe to say Brackett is somewhat rusty on his probative/investigating skills).  After all, the good life can make a guy soft – physically, but also in the head. Hence, when Brackett arrives at the scene of the tragedy, he instantly becomes more interested in chasing after the long legged Sabrina Peterson than the scoop; covering the basics, but attempting to make inroads into a first date. Much to Brackett’s dismay, Peterson is wholly unreceptive to the idea. The camera cuts away briefly for a bit of integral exposition. We see a pair of teenage thieves, Danny Brown (Kimo Wills) and Dixon (Chad Einbinder) swipe a few pieces of luggage already recovered from the wreck; Mando shielding himself from being discovered at the scene while jotting down the license plate of the pair’s getaway car.
While Brackett hurries off to dictate his findings, before attending his own book-signing party, Peterson gets busy tailing Midrail employee, Ray Boggs (Kurt V. Hulett), who is suspected of having mismanaged the maintenance of the car’s coupling, thus, inadvertently creating the right circumstances for the crash. Spending all night telephoning every Boggs in the telephone directory, Peterson eventually winds up in contact with Ray’s mother, who suggests her son’s former drinking problem may have returned to cloud his judgment.  Thus, the next day, while the Chronicle’s story about the crash is decidedly light on details, the rival Globe newspaper has an inside exclusive interview with Bogg’s mother, written by Peterson.  It isn’t long before a friendly rivalry is sparked between Peterson and Brackett; each attempting to outdo the other; Peterson holding her own against the more seasoned Brackett, despite the fact she falls for a few of his ploys, like the aforementioned ‘wild goose chase’.
The two meet ‘cute’ at an annual newspaperman’s ball, Shyer/Meyers slickly introducing us to yet another character integral to the plot; oily politico, Sam Smotherman (Saul Rubinek), working for Senator Gayle Robins (Marsha Mason) and who has the uncanny knack of dating Brackett’s sloppy seconds. Smotherman’s current flame, Nadia (Laura Maye Tate) is, in fact, Brackett’s latest castoff. Peterson isn’t about to put herself in this queue. Besides, neither reporter seems to have the Midrail derailment story right: Ray Bogg’s having professed his innocence and escaped becoming someone’s scapegoat by passing a polygraph with flying colors. Oh, no: back to square one for Peterson and Brackett; the latter getting his hands on Kevin and Jenny’s videotape shot by their parents at the station shortly before the train departed; Brackett observing the half-concealed body of someone disguised as a Midrail worker, toying with the train’s coupling in the background. 
In the meantime, Peterson is contacted by Danny. It seems the kid has discovered ‘something’ that might be of importance to her investigation, and buoyed by the prospect of collecting a reward for his efforts, agrees to meet her at the old abandoned theater; the upstairs balcony he and Dixon call their home.  Alas, someone gets to the boys first, murdering both and leaving Peterson to discover the corpses. She takes notice of the letters ‘L’ and ‘D’ scribbled in ink on Danny’s palm, jotting them down with a pen pilfered from a nearby desk. Inadvertently, this will turn out to be the same pen Darryl Beekman used to conceal the microfilm; although neither Peterson nor the audience is aware of this just yet. Hurrying back to her car, Peterson is briefly startled by the sudden appearance of Mando; her fitful escape followed by Mando hiring another assassin, Pecos (Nestor Serrano) to trail Peterson and recover the microfilm.  We momentarily shift to Brackett’s investigation; having come to the home of the late Darryl Beekman to ask a few questions, but persuaded by his widow, Delores (Megan Cavanagh) to meet much later at an office building downtown where she insists it will ‘be safer’. What no one yet realizes is the woman who answered Beekman’s door is not the real Delores!
After hours, Brackett arrives at the office building, only to discover Peterson already there; neither comprehending they’ve been set up until their elevator suddenly stalls between floors and is fired upon by yet another paid assassin (Patrick St. Esprit). In their ensuing escape from the hailstorm of bullets, Brackett manages to cause the assassin to slip and fall to his death down the elevator shaft; a slip of paper, with the words ‘Ext. 307’ scribbled on it, slipping out of his coat pocket. Returning to the Beekman home, Brackett discovers a family photo, realizing the woman he met at the front door earlier was not Dolores Beekman. He also finds a discarded, empty envelope addressed to Darryl Jr. from Spring Creek in the wastepaper basket with the number ‘307’ written in pen on one of its corners. At the same instance, Peterson, attending the family’s pet canary with a drink of water, discovers a piece of newsprint from the Spring Creek Clarion used to line the birdcage. Lying to Brackett, that the element of danger is too much for her to bear, Peterson pretends to back down from the race; Brackett confidently boarding a flight to Spring Creek later the next afternoon, only to discover Peterson in the seat next to his.
The two schemers decide to pool their resources and work together to solve the mystery. In Spring Creek, Peterson and Brackett learn of Darryl Beekman Sr.’s demise in a house fire; the obituary stating the elder Beekman was a retired geneticist from Chess Chemical, working on a new chemical compound referenced to only as L.D.F. Next, the pair attempt to contact Beekman’s coauthor on the research, Alan Hervey; arriving at his home only to learn from his wife, Virginia (Lisa Lu) Alan has since suffered a debilitating stroke that has left him in a permanent coma. Taking a hotel room for the night, Brackett and Peterson scope the local watering hole for potential employees who might know something – or at least get them past the front door of the company they so desperately want to search for clues. The two make plans to meet back at a local all-night coffee shop within the hour; Brackett latching on to Kim (Kelly Rutherford), a sexy scientist who openly admits being hot for him. Showing up hours later with Kim’s company swipe card in hand, Brackett becomes nervous when he spies Pecos drinking coffee in a booth on the left. Alas, Brackett’s intuition proves infallible when he hurries Peterson into his car, only to be held at gunpoint by Pecos, who has since hidden himself in the backseat. Realizing their only chance at escape is to put everyone in harm’s way, Brackett drives perilously close to an oncoming semi, averting disaster at the last possible moment by sending his car into a tailspin that knocks Pecos unconscious. 
Escaping on foot into the forest in the middle of the night, Brackett and Peterson become lost. Old animosities are renewed; Peterson telling Brackett he’s gone soft. Alas, Brackett has the last laugh when Peterson decides to take an early morning skinny dip; the couple discovered by a troop of Cub Scouts. Promising to shield her nakedness from prying eyes, Brackett instead instructs the boys to pull out their cameras, darting off with Peterson’s clothes. A short while later, Peterson and Brackett turn up in Atlantic City, pursued by Pecos but sneaking into a Chapel of Love where they are inadvertently wed to escape detection. Brackett attempts to make the best of their situation. He even introduces Peterson to Smotherman, who sets up a meeting with Senator Robbins to discuss L.D.F. – the experimental pasteurization chemical, newly approved by the FDA, thanks to Robbin’s seal of approval. But Peterson is up to her old tricks, disguising herself as a Chess Chemical tour guide and using Kim’s stolen pass to sneak into the company’s restricted areas. She also has Brackett forcibly ejected from the company on a faux charge of harassment. Incensed, Brackett elects to take the next plane back to Chicago. He telephones Smotherman to inform him of these developments; also, to suggest he has had it with the story. No, Brackett’s going back to his old ‘new’ lifestyle; sipping champagne and ogling starlets at poolside.
Only, his own nagging conscience and curiosity will not leave well enough alone. Discovering too late that Smotherman’s extension at the state capital is ‘307’, thereby directly linking him to the various attempts on both their lives, Brackett hurries to Chess Chemical where he discovers Smotherman, along with the company’s CEO, Wilson Chess (Dan Butler) already taken Peterson hostage. She gets the men to confess about their elaborate scheme to defraud and poison the public using L.D.F. It seems Hervey and Beekman Sr.’s findings revealed the product’s cancer-causing properties. Beekman wanted no part of it. His forced retirement could not ensure his silence, so he was killed in a deliberately set house fire. The company could also not be certain of Hervey’s complicity; so, he was given something to bring on his stroke. Learning Beekman Sr. had sent his son the microfilm as proof of his findings beforehand, prompted Wilson to hire Mando to ‘take care’ of things on the train; the blood-letting leading directly to Beekman’s widow, and finally, the various attempts made on Brackett and Peterson’s lives.
Making his presence known merely to deflect attention away and against Smotherman putting a bullet in Peterson’s brain Brackett lures his one-time friend to a suspended catwalk high above the laboratory.  Peterson reveals she has been carrying a concealed firearm – as she puts it “a must for a woman of the nineties.” Threatening to shoot Smotherman, he instead calls her bluff; Brackett instructing Peterson to hang tight as he loosens the wires holding the suspended catwalk in place. Clinging for dear life to its rickety handle rails, Brackett and Peterson are spared the plummet to ground level; Smotherman falling to his death. The next day, both the Globe and Chronicle’s headlines and accompanying stories champion the sort of Macy’s/Gimble’s detente leading to the successful resolution of this baffling case. In the final moments, we learn Brackett and Peterson have decided to give their sham marriage a sincere try; presumably having discovered common ground as rivals at long last; the friction generated from their professional competition creating like-minded sparks of sexual magic. However, only a moment or two later, Peterson is startled by the sound of an alarm going off at the bank across the street from their hotel room, attempting to take down particulars of the heist taking place; Brackett instead taking Peterson in his arms, turning her away from the open window and pulling down the shade.
I Love Trouble is delightfully effervescent. Few – if any – romantic comedies since have so cleverly wedded playful badinage to an almost credible action/adventure yarn, primarily spent in service to the lighthearted romp.  Nick Nolte is a gentleman’s rogue; immaculately quaffed and dressed in some stylish suits, but reverting to a rumpled trench coat (a sort of Bogart gumshoe trademark) to do his best sleuthing in the picture. It’s rather obvious Julia Roberts isn’t quite as comfortable in her pavement-pounding patent leather pumps and power-brokering/shoulder padded ensembles. Her best scenes are with Nolte. Here, there seems to be a sort of anesthetizing chemistry at play; Nolte’s arrogant charm rubbing Roberts’ stiff scissor-legged vixen just the right way; the stultifying bloom of virgin-esque frigidity warming to his playful touch. Mercifully, after a bit of time spent apart in the film’s first act, the pair is together for the rest of its 123 minute runtime.
About this: as early as 1997 it was announced in the trades that I Love Trouble had been rather unceremoniously pruned to accommodate Buena Vista Distribution’s desire to have a more manageable length for its general theatrical release. I can recall the championing of a new 149 min. director’s cut, coming soon to LaserDisc in the fall of 1997. Regrettably, by then, DVD had debuted and with it, the obvious death knell for this larger disc format. As the Walt Disney Company scrambled to re-release its more popular catalog titles to DVD, plans for an extended cut of I Love Trouble were delayed, shelved and presumably, eventually, scrapped – never again to resurface on the home video radar. I’ll admit, at 123 minutes, I Love Trouble doesn’t seem rushed; although there were several minor holes (i.e. clarifications) in its narrative I would have preferred fleshed out. Perhaps such anomalies might have been ironed out in the restored cut, although it seems highly unlikely we’ll ever know.
Not long ago I wrote extensively about the abysmal quality of Touchstone Home Video’s DVD. In the foreign markets I Love Trouble has resurfaced in 1080p. Exciting news? Well…sort of. While the image quality takes a quantum leap ahead of its standard format counterpart (it wasn’t hard to do…the DVD wasn’t even enhanced for widescreen TVs!!!) we still don’t have a perfect rendering and this is, quite simply, a shame. The good news: the foreign market discs are ‘region free’ so you can play them anywhere. Better still: color reproduction is spectacular for the most part, showing off John Lindley’s slick and stylish cinematography to its best advantage. Fine detail pops as it should, although there are more than a handful of shots appearing softly focused.
Flesh tones look very accurate and contrast is bang on: deep, rich, velvety blacks and bright, though never blooming, whites. The bad: age-related artifacts – mostly light dirt, a few minimal scratches but a fair amount of white speckling throughout. The opening credits are in rougher shape than the rest of the film. There’s also some intermittent edge enhancement. When it’s present it annoys. The audio is DTS 5.1 but somehow unremarkable, even though it too is a huge improvement over the DVD. I ordered my copy from Amazon.u.k.; the actual disc coming from Poland, infinitely cheaper than the discs selling from Britain. For several years there have been promises I Love Trouble would resurface state’s side, either from Buena Vista or Mill Creek. Promises, promises! Neither company has stepped up to the plate as yet. So if you really want this movie, it’s currently available in hi-def. Loading the disc immediately defaults to a menu where ‘English’ is the primary option (other languages are available). Click ‘English’ and all of the menus, as well as the feature itself, remain in ‘English’. No fuss, muss, turning on or off subtitles, etc. Just click and go. Nicely done. Tragedy: still no extended cut of the film and NO extras either. It’s unlikely anything will be done to improve this transfer if and when it arrives on this side of the pond. So buy with confidence. But don’t expect perfection. You can, however, anticipate a much more film-like presentation. That’s a plus and the reason I recommend I Love Trouble on Blu-ray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AGAINST ALL ODDS: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1984) Image Entertainment

A few rarely seen exotic locations, two uber-steamy sex scenes with co-stars, Rachel Ward and Jeff Bridges, their tanned, taut and very naked flesh pressed up against one another, and the prerequisite super-duper car chase, played out with a flaming red and midnight black Ferrari attempts to mask the artistic vices in Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds (1984); a misguided, undernourished and narratively convoluted remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), itself a variation on Daniel Mainwaring’s gritty crime novel, Build My Gallows High. At the very least, Tourneur’s adaptation had retained Mainwaring’s overall dramatic arc, infusing the film with all the vintage trappings of an elegant film noir. Superficially, Hackford has kept his remake a fairly stylish affair; somewhat dated now in all its California-noir accoutrements; the sun-scape of Mayan hovels, photographed in Chichen Itza, and their even more exotic ancient temples at Tulum, juxtaposed with slick, big-haired creature comforts, populated by mindless sex kittens and preening yuppie trust fund babies, cavorting inside L.A.’s Palace nightclub or tossing sweaty volleyballs along the sand-baked peninsula of California’s Manhattan Beach. It all looked absolutely ravishing; with cameos for Jane Greer and Paul Valentine; alumni from Tourneur’s decidedly scaled down original. Alas, in the final analysis, Against All Odds lacks the one essential ingredient to make everything click: star power.
Tourneur’s film was blessed with Robert Mitchum - a commanding presence, Kirk Douglas – showing off the sort of beady-eyed criminality that would become his stock and trade for nearly a decade, and finally, Jane Greer as the deliciously kitten-faced, but cat-clawing minx, set to ensnare and devour both men in her web of lies. Hackford’s remake placed its bets on setting instead of character. It also makes several egregious misfires along the way; Eric Hughes’ screenplay deviating too much from Tourneur’s classic to become one in its own right. Mitchum’s world-weary gumshoe is replaced in the remake by Jeff Bridges’ arrogant dinosaur, Terry Brogan; a star quarterback with a bum shoulder and razor-back attitude, showing more brawn than brain where Rachel Ward’s pouty princess, Jessie Wyler is concerned. Looking every inch the leading man (thanks to a crash course diet and exercise regime that shed nearly 20lbs., turning pudge into beefcake) Bridges nevertheless cannot muster up enough of the intangible ‘stud quality’ to make the illusion stick for very long; resorting to a series of pithy, wounded retorts after discovering Jessie has gone back – or rather, been reeled in by the oily racketeer, gambler and nightclub owner, Jake Wise (James Woods).
Donald E. Thorin’s cinematography gives the film its edgy appeal; transforming the Yucatán peninsula, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel, Mexico into steamy enclaves of tropical eroticism. His splendid camerawork also lends an air of foreboding to the Hollywood/L.A. locations dominating the second half of the picture. In retrospect, Hackford is trying too hard to evoke a narrative and visual style that by 1984 had not been seen on the screen since the 1940’s; the look of a vintage noir, a queer fit for the glossy go-go eighties; its steel and concrete jungle never quite adopting that tangibly haunted pang of urban decay feeding off its humanity.  
Still, another blunder is the lover’s triangle. In Tourneur’s classic, Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) is a grotesquely unsympathetic femme fatale; her paralytic stare as she pulls the trigger to dispense with an unwanted inconvenience, a truly vicious act of cold-blooded murder. Greer’s unrepentant mantrap is, in fact, one of the irrefutable highlights of Out of the Past. Against All Odds suffers from the absence of such a strong character; Rachel Ward’s sweat-stained harpy, looking decidedly unrefreshed from her most recent flagrante delicto with Terry inside a Mayan temple, seemingly incapable of emitting anything greater than spoiled, sulking greed and abject panic as she plugs Terry’s best friend and mentor, Hank Sully (Alex Karras) with his own gun.
It isn’t entirely Ward’s fault, though it remains a little hard to think of The Thorn Birds’ Meggie Cleary capable of killing anyone – even with her more warrior-like stance and severely chopped tresses showcased in Against All Odds. Yet, the screenplay’s attempt to transform Ward from fiery vixen to wiry, conflicted sex kitten is not altogether successful.  Ward actually seems rather clumsy and uncomfortable throughout most of the movie, tossing off her lines with a low stammer or tear-stained visage. Like Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward looks every inch the star – or, at least, what was expected of one back in the 1980’s. Naked or sheathed in Michael Kaplan’s costumes, these two make for some fairly striking eye candy. The tragedy, of course, is that neither seem to be able to act their way out of the proverbial paper bag; Bridges holding his own but never rising to a level beyond mere competency. His petulant love-struck puppy, licking wounds after Jessie has gone back to Jake, reeks of adolescent fancy denied, rather than full-blooded mature masculinity, brutalized and emasculated by this revelation.
It’s this sort of ‘wet behind the ears’ take on human sexuality, the act itself procured between decidedly improper strangers, that really weighs the movie down as we segue into the convoluted third act; Hackford apparently aware he is in trouble, puffing out the piece with an ill-timed big and splashy production number, ‘My Male Curiosity’ – featuring a zoot-suited Kid Creole (a.k.a. Thomas August Darnell Browder) and his ‘Coconuts’ (a trio of big-haired pseudo-Rockettes, who should have paid a little more attention to the unshaved hair dangling from their exposed pits than their teased and tweezed bleached blonde tresses shaped like spikey haired football helmets).  Taylor Hackford is a fine storyteller, as movies like 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman and 1995’s Dolores Claiborne attest. But with wooden performances from his central cast and the unnecessary insertions of a few needless – if chart-topping – pop tunes (Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’ becoming the movie’s anthem) Hackford isn’t cutting the mustard on Against All Odds - or even the cheese, for that matter – the odor left behind, one of quiet desperation.
On a $13,000,000 budget, Against All Odds grossed $25,000,000 domestically; a marginally impressive money maker for Columbia Pictures. Alas, the film has no staying power; its cardboard cutout stick figures, utterly disposable and easily purged from the memory once the houselights have come up; the movie’s incessant cling to then trending pop tunes badly dating it ever since. And the story, such as it is, makes no sense at all. We’re not talking about John Huston’s The Big Sleep (1946); a classic noir in which none of the pieces fit and yet everything seems to click anyway; primarily because of the sensual on-screen chemistry between co-stars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. And lest we forget that Bogie and Bacall turn up the heat without shedding a single strip of clothing! If only to have had the good fortune of such kinetic attraction between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward there might have been something in Against All Odds to pin the movie’s smoldering mantra of distasteful sex in a place where not only the janitors could admire it.
Hackford does give us some marvelous set pieces; Jophery Brown and Bill Burton’s doubling for Bridges and Woods in the harrowing car chase down the narrow, winding corridors of Beverly Hills, is a first-rate tour de force; Hackford placing himself in harm’s way in the camera car, the triage of vehicles careening in and out of oncoming traffic and truly raising the blood pressure more than a notch or two. In another sequence, stunt man extraordinaire (but then novice) Carl Ciarfalio (doubling for a deceased Alex Karras) performs a dead fall off a seventy-five foot precipice into a murky lagoon; the belly flop knocking him momentarily unconscious, but nevertheless earning him his stripes to rise to the top of his profession. For what it’s worth, the Kid Creole production number, clumsily hacked together and frequently interrupted with inserts of Terry and Jake at each other’s throats, is mildly amusing for its audacious display of hairy female armpits and misappropriated James Brown moves; Creole, looking as though he’s raided Cab Calloway’s wardrobe for the evening.
However, there are too many loose ends left at the end of the movie; too many good performers utterly wasted and/or lost in the shuffle. There is, for example, no good reason to draw our attention to the likes of Terry’s controlling matriarch, Mrs. Wyler; Jane Greer – looking surprisingly youthful and vibrant (despite her gray hair) – but given short shrift in a walk-on part any B-grade middle-aged actress could have filled without drawing attention to herself: ditto for Richard Widmark’s truncated appearance as the family’s looming attorney, Bill Caxton. Greer and Widmark are old hams with more to deliver than what they’ve been offered. The appearance of Swoozie Kurtz – as a frizzy-haired ‘his gal Friday’ – and Saul Rubinek - the disreputable pseudo-villain/fop, Steve Kirsch – do little to augment the story. Both are making their movie debut in Against All Odds. But neither makes much of a ripple; more distraction than solid, integral characters needed to propel the story along.    
Hackford has trouble breaking into the point of his story. In Out of the Past, the narrative flashback structure greatly benefited from Robert Mitchum’s voice-over narration; one of the main staples of film noir. Hackford opens on a series of cryptic visuals; Terry Brogan driving through the streets of Cozumel, confronting its citizenry on foot with a snapshot taken of Jessie Wyler seated next to Jake Wise. He’s unsuccessful at learning the whereabouts of this mysterious heiress; Hackford regressing into a clumsy and prolonged flashback to explain away the particulars. We see Terry Brogan as the high paid quarterback for L.A.’s Outlaws – a team that hasn’t won a single game all season. The owner, Mrs. Wyler isn’t pleased. Actually, she’s not even concerned; her interests presently invested in a new housing development project met with considerable resistance from local Greenpeacers, fronted by activist, Bob Soames (Allen Williams). All this is back story of a kind; ditto for the head coach (Bill McKinney) putting Terry through the ringer with a tackling dummy. Just come off a fresh and supposedly career-ending shoulder injury, Terry is asked to prove himself. But assistant trainer, Hank Sully is a good friend. He hates to see Terry ruin his chances for a comeback this way.
There’s a light skirmish of words between Hank and Bill Caxton, the latter, a mouthpiece for Mrs. Wyler. Terry is unceremoniously cut from the team without explanation, barging into Steve Kirsch’s office for some answers – or, at least, sound legal advice – after Steve refuses to take any of Terry’s phone calls. Kirsch’s secretary, Edie, attempts to do some damage control. Actually, she’s a groupie with a severely transparent crush on Terry who, even out of his shoulder pads and spandex, cuts an impressively handsome figure. It’s no use, however. Terry has revenge on his mind. It won’t keep either. In the meantime, an old ‘friend’, Jake Wise offers Terry a chance to make a cool $30,000; chump change compared to what he was being paid to play for the Outlaws, but a definite means to an end to shore up his ailing cash flow and keep his lavish lifestyle afloat. It seems Jake’s girl, none other than Mrs. Wyler’s spoiled daughter, Jessie, has run off to parts unknown after stabbing Jake in the leg with a letter opener. Jake’s a notorious racketeer with his fingers stuck in too many pies; his latest endeavor – The Palace nightclub – a hip and trendy place where the elite meet to compete.
After a perilous game of cat and mouse through the congested streets, Jake proposes to send Terry in search of Jessie; not to avenge the wound that has left him dependent on a cane for the time being, but because he wants her back in his bed. Terry isn’t interested – at first. But then he thinks of how such an investigation might place him in closer proximity to Mrs. Wyler and Caxton; using their accidental/on purpose ‘chance meeting’ at the country club to beg for his old job back. Too bad, Mrs. Wyler makes it perfectly clear how disposable she considers him. She doesn’t need another aging football star. As far as she’s concerned, Terry’s best days as a player are behind him. But she will sweeten this bitter pill to swallow by offering Terry twice Jake’s stipend if he will bring Jessie back to L.A. for her. Words are exchanged, and Terry allows his arrogance to overtake and ruin his chances to take Mrs. Wyler’s money instead of Jake’s.  Sully forewarns that accepting Jake’s wager can only end in tears – possible, worse.  Sully campaigns to find Terry a coaching job. But Terry bungles this too, showing up to Mrs. Wyler’s fund raiser and assaulting Kirsch; tossing him into the bandstand after the two have words about Steve’s betrayal of their friendship. Again, all this is back story to the actual plot – and most of it fairly inconsequential to what will follow it. Terry storms off in a rage, informing Sully he has decided to take Jake up on his offer.
We return to the present – or rather, the point where we were when the credits first rolled: Terry locating Jessie in Cozumel. However, Terry’s ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ routine doesn’t win him any points with Jessie. She’s cold and aloof and becoming more suspicious by the moment. His offer to take her to dinner is dismissed outright. Now Terry asks if Jessie’s aversion is to football players, tacos or beer. “I like tacos and beer” she dispassionately explains before speeding away on a motor scooter. The next day Terry tries to wear down Jessie’s resolve once again. His ill timing is compounded when he fails to meet the ferry leaving with Jessie on board for a remote island getaway; Terry chartering a speed boat posthaste to make chase across the open waters. He finds Jessie perched atop the Mayan ruins and flirts with her again. She is belittling and belligerent, and Terry – having had enough – tells her what she can do with herself in no uncertain terms.
Nothing excites a woman like Jessie like rejection. And so, a short while later a shirtless Terry is surprised to find Jessie tapping on his hotel door. The two verbally spar again, but this time it leads to an invitation from Jessie; to her private hideaway where she’s been staying ever since leaving America. In this remote tropical oasis the two become lovers; Jessie confiding her fears about going home and Terry promising to protect and cover for her. He lies to Jake about not having located Jessie just yet, but then confides in Jessie, how Jake knows about his shaving points off an important game to cover a gambling debt. Jessie and Terry share a few blissful weeks together, spending long hours naked in each other’s arms. Ah, but then Sully arrives; another stooge involved in Jake’s sports syndicate and sent by Jake to investigate; catching the lovers in their latest bump and grind inside a darkened temple at Chichen Itza. Wielding a pistol, Sully demands Terry turn Jessie over to him. Terry attempts to chivalrously defend Jessie’s honor. But Sully’s an old pro with at least thirty solid pounds on him. The men spar, Terry losing badly until Jessie seizing the discarded pistol. She fatally shoots Sully, who dies in Terry’s arms. Terry insists they go to the police, but Jessie shrieks about how naïve Terry is and what will become of them if they confess their complicity to a murder. No one, least of all the corrupt local officials, will believe it was self-defense.
So, Terry reluctantly carries Sully’s corpse to a nearby lagoon, weighing the body down with a heavy rock and tossing him over the edge of a high precipice. Returning to his hotel suite, Terry discovers Jessie has fled. He returns to L.A. without her, ready to tell Jake his trip abroad was not a success. Too bad for Terry, Jake already knows this. How? Why from the horse’s mouth; Jessie having returned to his side.  Jake now orders Terry to break into Kirsch’s office and steal some incriminating documents for him; Kirsch also a part of the points-shaving enterprise. Alas, this too is a setup, Terry discovering Kirsch already dead in his office; planted there by a security guard hired to shoot Terry, presumably for committing the murder himself. Instead, Terry manages a daring escape; hiding Kirsch’s body and hooking up with Edie at a nearby local watering hole. He confides what has happened and she tells him about a secret box in Kirsch’s office. This contains the incriminating documents about the entire syndicate.  In one of the clumsiest entanglements, Terry forces Edie to return with him to Kirsch’s office to retrieve these files; encountering a pair of corrupt security guards, but managing yet another successful escape with the files in tow.
Terry now confronts Jake at The Palace nightclub, seemingly for no other reason than for director, Hackford to stage the aforementioned production number with Kid Creole; also to show off the cleverness in Richard Lawrence’s production design; effectively combining Jake’s office set with inserts of Creole’s performance, repeatedly glimpsed through a frosted art deco two-way mirror. In Hackford’s original edit, there ought to have been a scene to follow this in which Terry jealously observes through a window as Jake makes love to Jessie; waiting for Jake’s post-coital departure before bursting into the bedroom to ravage Jessie himself. Apparently, to avoid an R-rating, Hackford was forced to cut Terry’s tawdry observations, the scene (as it exists in the film) incongruously switching from the nightclub confrontation to the moment where Jessie – already alone – is confronted by Terry, who takes his liberties as he pleases. It should be pointed out that the sex scenes in Against All Odds are handled with a general and marginally cruel distaste for the nudity: the…uh… passion, played with the venom of two feral cats, recklessly forcing themselves on each other. There’s even more contempt at play during the aforementioned final encounter; the mutual craving almost devolving into a pseudo-rape; Jessie given to her hunger to possess Terry for what will ultimately be their last time together.
Jessie professes her love for Terry, confiding in Caxton her intimate knowledge of Jake’s spurious racketeering, also his complicity in Kirsch’s murder. What Jessie is unaware of is Caxton is actually the puppet master of the whole syndicate. Caxton sets up a midnight rendezvous with Terry at Mrs. Wyler’s construction site where he intends to murder Terry and make it look like an accident. Instead, Terry manages to disarm Caxton’s henchman, former assistant coach and Jake’s thug muscle, Tommy (Dorian Harewood). Terry barters Jake’s life for the files. When Caxton suggests it would be a fair trade, Jake pulls a gun on Jessie, forcing Terry to emerge from his hiding place and drop his gun. Jessie seizes the opportunity and murders Jake instead. Blackmailed by Caxton for Jake and Sully’s murders, Jessie is forced to return to her mother’s side or face the prospect of going to jail.  A short while later, Terry attends the inaugural of Mrs. Wyler’s construction project; casting flirtatious glances at Jessie from across the way, much to Mrs. Wyler’s chagrin. It seems she has been instrumental at providing Terry with an offer to play pro football in Miami.  “Remember, Brogan,” Caxton reminds Terry, “You’re out of her life.” But Terry knows better, replying, “I figure that's up to her. You're not going to control us forever.”
Against All Odds has its’ moments, but they never quite come together, perhaps because sex and car chases are poor substitutes for substance, regardless of the stylish nature by which each is brought to the big screen. Classifying Taylor Hackford’s efforts as an ‘erotic thriller’ doesn’t give the movie cache, class or star power; the latter absolutely necessary to make the enterprise click as a whole. The biggest transgressor against making any of it memorable is the performances. There’s not a standout among them; the players going through mere motions. The most that can be said of the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward is they look good when pressed up against one another, like a pair of peel and stick dolls from a Colorforms play set; perhaps one that only Fredericks of Hollywood would approve. In the role originated by Kirk Douglas, James Woods – though a generally fine actor – is a wan ghost of his predecessor. Pasting Woods’ gaunt frame into a skin-hugging black wife-beater during the moment of confrontation between Jake and Terry only serves to exaggerate the meagerness of his physicality. True, like Douglas’ Whit in Out of the Past, Woods’ Jake Wise is meant to be ‘lesser than’. He rules by fear. But unlike Douglas, Woods isn’t believable in the part; the penultimate showdown at the construction site revealing a scared little man, cowering when pushed into a dead end situation.
The other big mistake for this remake is keeping both Jessie and Terry alive to rue the day they ever met, but to continue to be stirred by the remnant sting of their obnoxious lust for one another. Jacques Tourneur’s classic wisely dispatched every ne'er-do-well to their untimely – but justly deserved – end. Hackford’s finale is as impossibly unsatisfying as one might expect; Terry going off to wreck his body for another team as its organ grinder’s monkey – albeit, a high-priced one – and a tearful, and seemingly reformed, Jessie left to lament the loss of the only man who could show her a good time and really mean it; her doleful gazes caught across a crowded room and played to the syrupy strains of Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’. Concluding the movie on this pop ballad, played under the end credits, leaves a truly sour note behind; the song’s twang ‘upbeat’ promise of hope and love springing eternal, possibly made renewable somewhere in the near future (most likely after Jessie has managed to pump another bullet into Caxton or drive his car over the edge of a cliff and poison her own mother with some arsenic-spiked herbal tea), is much too plucky and promising to cap off these terrible peoples’ truly sordid lives. Not only is it untrue to the original film, but it is essentially unconvincing to the remake.
There ought to have been no light at the end of this darkened tunnel; something Tourneur understood in Out of the Past. The original movie begins and ends under the cover of night. Against All Odds betrays its noir roots by starting and finishing in the stark pall of California sunlight. Have we been teased into the proverbial happy ending or merely betrayed by Hackford into thinking Jessie and Terry will have a future together someday; one that doesn’t require sandy beaches, swaying palms or perpetually love-making to satisfy and sustain them? Interestingly, Rachel Ward’s enterprising film career was cut short by her marriage to Bryan Brown (her costar in The Thorn Birds); evidently, the two contented to start and raise a family; the couple still happily married – a Hollywood rarity, indeed. Both Taylor Hackford and Jeff Bridges have gone on record, stating Brown seemed to have no problem with his then newlywed wife performing some fairly scandalous nude scenes in the movie. Perhaps Brown was merely confident he had married the right girl. But Ward spends an awful lot of the film completely nude; Donald E. Thorin’s artful placement of the camera and co-star, Jeff Bridge’s limbs providing a sense of false modesty.
Against All Odds debuts on Blu-ray via Image Entertainment in a stunning 1080p transfer licensed from Sony Home Entertainment. This has to be one of the most impressive offerings from Image which, in more recent times, has devolved into a company with a really spotty track record in providing us with such exemplars in the hi-def format. Against All Odds is a reference quality disc. There is absolutely nothing to complaint about: a pluperfect mastering effort, typified by exquisite color reproduction – richly saturated, gorgeous flesh tones, superbly rendered contrast, naturalistic film grain and a complete eradication of age-related artifacts. Wow, and thank you! If you are a fan of this movie then you are going to love this disc. The 5.1 DTS stereo is equally superb; yielding remarkable bass for a vintage 80’s flick. Larry Carlton and Michel Colombier’s score sounds fantastic. We get a pair of audio commentaries; one featuring Taylor Hackford, Jeff Bridges and James Woods, who spend the bulk of the track waxing about superfluous points of only marginal interest. More satisfying on the whole is the secondary track with Hackford and his screenwriter, Eric Hughes. As a matter of interest, the famous poster for Against All Odds (also depicted on the front of this Blu-ray case) depicts a moment never seen in the finished film. This, along with other excised portions, is included as deleted scenes. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while I have my doubts about the movie, this Blu-ray is very highly recommended for quality: a fantastic effort!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)