Sunday, March 29, 2015

IMITATION OF LIFE: Blu-ray (Universal 1934/1959) Universal Home Video

A mother’s love, a daughter’s betrayal and the unbroken bond of friendship between women: by the time director, John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) reached the movie screen it had already garnered minor controversy among the critics. Its subject matter – a woman of mixed racial heritage passing for white – was either wholly dismissed or grotesquely misperceived as subversive satire. Mercilessly, such off the cuff critiques only made the masses want to see it more. Fueled by the pre-sold popularity of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Stahl’s ‘Imitation’ was a superb translation of the author’s unvarnished social critique, made ever so slightly more glamorous (and thus, more palpable) to the segregationist audiences in the deep South. Heralding from an affluent Jewish family, Hurst had moved from her native Ohio to New York to pursue her passion for writing, working menial jobs along the way and ultimately developing a great sensitivity for the common people’s plight in modern society.  Then, in 1920, after several years of publishing serialized stories for various prominent New York magazines, Hurst embarked on an impressive succession of literature: including 17 novels, plays, screenplays and 8 collections of short stories; as prolific as she proved dedicated to her craft.
Imitation of Life remains the jewel in Hurst’s literary crown; made into a movie twice – each time, with overwhelming commercial success.  In retrospect, the novel is a poignantly penned melodrama.  At least part of the novel and the 1933 movie’s popularity is imbedded in the tabloid quality of its taboo subject matter; miscegenation and the troubled offspring it produces.  Hurst, who had been deeply committed to the Harlem Renaissance, her friendship with Zora Neale Hurston contributing to a better understanding of racial inequality, had sought to extol the virtues of their friendship with this sincere homage. It should, however, be noted that Imitation of Life had as many detractors among the African American community – including Hurston – as it did within the white power structure. In fact, noted literary critic, Sterling Allen Brown eviscerated the novel, nicknaming his book/film review, ‘Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake’ in reference to a line uttered in the 1933 film. In retrospect, Imitation of Life, both as a novel and two highly successful movies, is a queerly heavy-handed affair; steeped in stereotypes about sex, class and, decidedly, race relations, more rigidly ensconced than dispelled. To some extent, Hurst’s weighty approach to all these aforementioned criteria is somewhat tempered in William Hurlbut’s screenplay, adapted with an assist from director, Stahl to more prominently feature, then reigning movie queen, Claudette Colbert.
For Colbert, the move into more contemporary melodrama was refreshing. She had begun her career as a DeMille favorite, starring in two of his best remembered trips into antiquity; 1932’s The Sign of the Cross (a delicious pre-code Bible-fiction epic in which she appeared in the raw, bathing in asses’ milk) and 1934’s Cleopatra (as the smoldering temptress of the Nile); shifting focus into mainstream dramas and screwball comedies, including her Oscar-winning turn in It Happened One Night (1934), usually playing saucy vamps or slick women with an agenda. Imitation of Life recasts Colbert as the mother of a teenage daughter. While playing a parent usually spelled the kiss of death for any young actress’ career (the movies generally preferring sexy young things as lovers to housewives) Colbert’s decision to mature her on-screen persona added yet another layer of respectability to her craft. It also won Colbert the admiration of her peers as well as her fans and, in retrospect, relaxed Hollywood’s preconceived notions about, what actress Goldie Hawn would much later astutely summarize as the three phases of a woman’s acting career: ‘babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy’.’
The novel is set in New Jersey, circa 1910 with a lengthy prologue explaining the past of its central character, Bea Chipley; a mousey girl keeping house for her father and a male boarder,  Benjamin Pullman, whom she will later marry at her father’s behest. Alas, tragedy strikes twice. Mr. Chipley is stricken with a debilitating stroke and Pullman is killed in a terrible train accident shortly before their daughter, Jessie is born. As Bea is not of an affluent family, her financial situation is immediately threatened. For a time, she takes in boarders and peddles her late husband’s syrup door-to-door. A chance encounter with single mother Delilah Johnson, an African American woman with a ‘light skinned’ daughter of her own, leads to an unlikely bond of friendship, and later, a business venture profitable for both ladies. Alas, trouble dogs Delilah’s daughter, Peola; able to pass for white, but increasingly ashamed of her own African American heritage. Peola breaks her mother’s heart by severing all ties, marrying a white man in Seattle and moving to Bolivia where her assimilation as a white woman is never again questioned.  Back in New Jersey, Delilah dies in despair. Alas, Bea has begun to fall in love with a much younger man – aptly named, Flake who also takes up with Jessie, now in her late teens. The last few chapters of the novel are dedicated to this tragic love triangle. Suffice it to say, it does not end happily ever after for anyone.
Stahl’s reconstitution of the novel for the 1933 film is not as dire as all that; particularly forgiving of Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter, Jessie (variably played by Juanita Quigley as a toddler, Marilyn Knowlden as little girl, and finally, as a burgeoning young adult by Rochelle Hudson). William Hurlbut’s screenplay dispenses with the entire first act of the novel, also Bea’s first husband and father, instead concentrating on the warm-hearted friendship blossoming between Bea and her black housekeeper, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) who also has a daughter, Peola (Sebie Hendricks as a child, and the sublime Fredi Washington as a young adult). Owing to concerns raised by Joseph Breen and Hollywood’s self-governing board of film censorship, Delilah’s earlier marriage to a white European is never mentioned, although Peola’s ability to pass for white remained a bone of contention for Joseph Breen.
After struggling to make ends meet, Bea latches onto an idea to create a pancake house on the New Jersey boardwalk with Delilah’s help. The place is hardly a hit, but it causes passerby, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks) to make the winning suggestion Bea market her pancake flour, exploiting Delilah as a sort of Aunt Jemima knockoff and trademark. This proves the kick start to a highly lucrative business venture for which Bea gratefully offers Delilah twenty-percent of the residuals.  Despite her newfound prosperity, and either out of loyalty or tradition (the classical Hollywood machinery particularly adept at seeing African Americans only as suitable ‘hired help’), Delilah remains Bea's factotum. Ten years pass, the matriarchs united and solidified in both their professional and personal allegiances; also, in their shared concerns and woes over their daughters. Herein, the old axiom ‘small children/small problems; big children/big problems’ will suffice.
Both Peola and Jessie give their respective matriarchs a run for their money. Jessie is not a scholar, but rather self-centered and content to rely on her good looks and charm to get ahead. She is also the first person to refer to Peola as ‘black’ in an unflattering way, thus establishing the impetus for her social dilemma. At school, Peola does not tell her classmates she is ‘colored’, and is chagrined when Delilah arrives one afternoon to collect her from class, thus spoiling her secret. Later sent to a ‘Negro college’, Peola instead drops out, gets a job as a cashier in a prominent ‘white’ store, and increasingly distances herself from her African American heritage, romantically pursuing young white men who have no idea Delilah is her mother. When Delilah discovers this, it breaks her heart. Meanwhile, home from college for the summer break, Jessie develops a naïve school girl’s crush on her mother’s boyfriend, Stephen Archer (Warren William).  Her lust is unrequited, but Bea breaks off her engagement to Stephen nevertheless, assuring him she ‘may’ return once Jessie has awakened from her day-dreamy infatuation.
Emotionally destroyed by her daughter’s betrayal, Delilah suffers a fatal heart attack and dies with Bea at her bedside. Determined to honor her best friend’s final wish, to depart this world with a big and splashy New Orleans-styled funeral, Bea arranges for a grand processional, complete with marching band and horse-drawn hearse; a repentant and overwrought Peola running alongside her mother’s casket, begging in vain for her forgiveness.  Presumably, realizing the error of her ways, a tearful Jessie embraces her mother; Bea poignantly recalling a moment from childhood to realign their enduring mother/daughter bond, predicated on unconditional love that has not been broken.
The 1933 version of Imitation of Life, while taking a few artistic liberties along the way to satisfy the production code, is nevertheless fairly faithful to Fannie Hurst’s novel; the film’s narrative structure effectively split roughly down the middle: its’ first half an idyllic portrait of early family struggles and successes; its latter portion dedicated to a uniquely American tragedy. In retrospect, what must have seemed progressive in 1933 now has a decidedly tinny ring of Uncle Tom-ism about it; particularly a scene where Delilah retreats after a long day’s work as housemaid inside Bea’s fashionable mansion down a staircase into her own basement apartment beneath its glittery salons. After all, it was Delilah’s recipe that made Bea a very wealthy woman, and for which Delilah only receives 20% of the profits, plus a lifetime of servitude as her recompense. 
Universal’s negotiations with the Breen Office were spirited to say the least; Breen insistent the story’s miscegenation was extremely ‘dangerous from the standpoint of industry and public policy.’ Indeed, early Hollywood sought to expunge sexual relations between the races not only from its storytelling, but also presumably, as a rewrite of the historical record by creating its own artificially conceived notion it had always been a taboo. To satisfy the Code, a scene depicting the near lynching of a young black man for misreading a white woman’s smile as an invitation to approach her flirtatiously, was dropped.  Curiously, after 1938, all subsequent reissues of the film also did away with its title card prologue immediately following the main titles, which reads thus: “Atlantic City in1919 was not just a boardwalk, rolling-chairs and expensive hotels where bridal couples spent their honeymoons. A few blocks from the gaiety of the famous boardwalk, permanent citizens of the town lived and worked and reared families just like people in less glamorous cities.”
Imitation of Life was an immediate sensation with audiences, nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, eclipsed by that ‘other’ Colbert vehicle, It Happened One Night – a forgivable loss. Colbert is, in fact, a primary reason why the 1934 version works so well; also Louise Beavers – two troopers who elevate the maudlin treacle and sentiment of the piece with a social conscience. Neither actress is giving ‘a performance’ per say, but reacting truthfully to the situations and scenes with an almost intuitive inflection, minus guile or grandstanding. It is saying much for the movie too, that although rarely revived after 1938, its reputation with audiences endured in the memory’s eye. Owing to its perennial appeal, director, Douglas Sirk– the grand master of all movie-land soap operas – elected to remake Imitation of Life in 1959.  Alas, Sirk’s version deviates in almost every regard from both its predecessor and Hurst’s original intent, retaining the title, but precious little else. And he is doubly hampered herein by having Lana Turner as his star.
Turner’s post-MGM career had continued to rely on her wartime status as an elegant pinup and sweater girl, and, in re-envisioning the role of Lora Meredith (a.k.a. Bea Pullman) Bill Thomas’ costume budget on the 1959 movie tipped the scales at over $1 million dollars for Turner’s garments alone; one of the grandest expense accounts ever in Hollywood history until that time, perhaps not all that surprising, given Ross Hunter was the film’s producer; a man whose penchant for resplendent escapism matched Sirk’s own.  Although an irrefutable fact of life, Turner had aged beyond the ‘fresh young fine’ that had once set Metro’s cash registers ringing, she had proven her acting chops in this interim (most notably, in Mark Robson’s 1957 movie version of Peyton Place). Moreover, and miraculously in spite of her frequent binges and all-night carousing, Lana was still a very well preserved thirty-eight years old when principle photography began on Imitation of Life.  But having Turner as its’ star tended to unbalance the film’s intimate bond between Lorna and her devoted maid, rechristened as Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore).
In retrospect, Sirk’s reputation in Hollywood is perhaps one of the most fascinating and largely untapped stories. In his own time, his melodramas were rarely regarded as art, despite their overwhelming commercial success. Setting aside Jean-Luc Godard’s gushing ode to Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), begun with “I am going to write a madly enthusiastic review of Douglas Sirk's latest film, simply because it set my cheeks afire,” most reviewers readily pounced on Sirk’s verve for what they misperceived as ‘style’ over ‘substance’. Indeed, the real renaissance for Sirk’s legacy began nearly eleven years after Imitation of Life’s premiere, with an article first published in the April issue of Cahiers du cinema in 1967. The reinvention of Sirk’s reputation in America was begun by Andrew Sarris one year later. By 1974, Sirk’s contributions on film had been rewritten by the same critics who had once chastised his efforts, now as having acquired a mantel of quality, and steadily embraced by a whole new generation of film makers like Todd Haynes, who would find themselves knee deep in Sirk-land sized glamor. Aside: apart from its nod to homosexuality, as well as updating the central romance to contain a very ‘Imitation-esque’ miscegenation scenario, Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) is almost a shot for shot remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) with a dash of Imitation of Life thrown in.
Still, there is no getting around the fact Sirk’s conspicuous consumption of all material signifiers attesting to ‘the good life’ – or, at least, the affluence of upper middle class morality – is a heavy-handed intruder on Fannie Hurst’s decidedly intimate tale of the downtrodden makes good; now gussied up in widescreen and Eastmancolor. Earl Grant’s rendition of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s title song became a jukebox favorite for a time, as did Mahalia Jackson’s stirring gospel rendition of ‘Trouble of the World’ – a funeral dirge sung to tear-wringing effect at Annie’s funeral. And Universal ensured its remake some stellar production values; second unit location work in New York, most of it used for long shots and/or process plates to lend an air of authenticity to an otherwise studio-bound production. Together with screenwriters, Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, Sirk’s updated premise allowed Lora to become a famous actress on her own steam while Annie assumes the responsibilities to rear Lora’s daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee) as well as her own, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner).  In casting Kohner, of Mexican/Czech/Jewish descent, as the movie’s mulatto, the pivotal plot point of ‘passing’ as another race acquire an unintentionally picaresque quality.
In essence, Sirk’s remake retained the general framework of the original movie, advancing to postwar America, circa1947, where widow, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is frantically scouring the beach at Coney Island for any sign of her young daughter, Susie (Terry Burnham) who has wandered off. Lora pleads with a total stranger, Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her look for the girl. Eventually, Susie is discovered in the care of Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother with a daughter, Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) who is about Susie's age.  Lora is so grateful to Annie she decides to offer them both a room in the back of her cramped New York apartment. It isn’t much, but Annie is receptive to the notion she can make something from this new start. Indeed, she makes herself indispensable as a cook and maid, persuading Lora to stay on so she can pursue her ambitions for a career on the stage full time.  Of course, this appeals to Lora’s minor streak of narcissism. After some initial hardships, Lora garners a pair of allies in agent, Alan Loomis (Robert Alda) and playwright, David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy). Professionally speaking, it’s smooth sailing ahead; not so for Lora’s private life. Alas, Steve doesn’t want her to become a star; shades of the 1950’s sexual stereotypes and politics about the little woman’s place being in the home effectively woven in.  
Herein, Sirk makes his own minor comment about parental responsibilities too; Lora’s rather selfish concentration on her career plans causing a deep separation between mother and daughter, nursed by Annie’s gentle and guiding presence in both their lives.  Too bad what Annie can do for Susie’s morale she seems unable to satisfy within her own daughter’s increasing frustrations to ‘pass’ for white. Sirk advances his timeline to 1958. Lora is now the toast of Broadway, living in a luxurious brownstone in Manhattan. Having hired Annie as her live-in nanny/housekeeper and confidant, Lora and Annie present a united front against the male-dominated social structure of their own times. Indeed, Lora has since resisted David’s proposal of marriage. Professionally, she’s been having second thoughts about his latest script too. She’s tired of doing light romantic fluff and instead breaks tradition – as well as David’s heart – by accepting a part in a weighty drama.
The show turns out to be a big hit. At its after party, Lora is reunited with Steve who has been absent from her life for more than a decade. But the embers from their one-time love affair have not entirely cooled. Moreover, Steve is as handsome as ever; his effect on women not lost on the now teenage Susie (Sandra Dee), who develops an unhealthy crush on her mother’s boyfriend while Lora is off shooting a movie in Italy. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) has been seeing Frankie (Troy Donahue); a hot to trot stud from a socially affluent white family whom she sincerely hopes will marry her. Tragically, news of her mixed race heritage precedes one of their clandestine rendezvous and Frankie, enraged by the notion he has almost become intimate with a black girl, instead brutally assaults Sarah Jane in a back alley. Sometime later, Sarah Jane gets a job as a seedy nightclub chanteuse, lying to Annie she is a respectable girl working at the library.  When Annie learns the truth she marches straight to the club to collect her daughter.
Sarah Jane is humiliated. But even more debilitating to Annie is her own daughter’s rejection of her. Thus, when Lora returns from Italy, she discovers a house in turmoil; Sarah Jane having run away and Annie prostrated in grief. This being the 1950’s, where a woman – even one as independently minded as Lora – can do nothing on her own, or so it would seem, she instead asks Steve to hire a private detective to locate Sarah Jane. Time passes, unabated by Annie’s sorrow. Eventually, word arrives that Sarah Jane is in California, living as a white woman under an assumed name and having found work as a chorus girl. Annie’s emotional duress eventually weakens her physical resolve. As worry translates into depression she summons up all her strength to make the journey out west to look in on her daughter, wish her well and bid her goodbye.  The reunion is hardly a happy one. Sarah Jane is cruel and nervous anyone should take notice of the dark-skinned woman who bears no immediate physical resemblance to her. Realizing it was a mistake to come to California, Annie returns to New York where she suffers a collapse and becomes bedridden.
Meanwhile, Susie’s infatuation with Steve grows ominous and critical after she learns Lora has decided to marry him. Annie breaks the news to Lora from her death bed. Lora is hurt by the revelation, whereupon a mother/daughter confrontation ensues and Susie confesses as much. Afterward, Susie realizes what a fool she has been and elects to go away to a private school in Denver to forget Steve.  News of Susie’s departure breaks Annie’s heart for the last time. After all, she has regarded Susie as much her own child as Sarah Jane. Unable to recover from this crippling sadness, Annie quietly dies of a broken heart with Lora at her side. As per her final request, Annie is afforded an absurdly lavish funeral, Sarah Jane assailing the horse-drawn hearse and throwing herself across her mother’s casket to beg for forgiveness. Lora helps the grief-stricken girl into their limousine where Susie and Steve are already waiting to comfort her as the procession slowly begins to navigate its way through the crowded, rain-soaked city streets.
The 1959 incarnation of Imitation of Life has its champions. Strangely enough, I’m torn in my assessment of this movie. It’s certainly more ostentatious than the 1934 original; infinitely more over-the-top in its emotional content in place of genuine human emotions and substance, as only any movie by Douglas Sirk can be and generally is – at least, on the surface – made ridiculous by its exotic accoutrements. Luscious Lana remains dressed in the same frock for no more than a few minutes at a time, never wearing the same outfit twice, thus putting on a real fashion parade as the quintessence of what’s wrong (or perhaps right) with the woman’s weepy circa 1959.  Evidently, she could never be the dowdy Bea Pullman as written by Hurst or played with supreme conviction by Claudette Colbert. But as Lora Meredith she is both a vision and a sight, and something of an attention whore, scene stealing practically every moment from the more exquisitely restrained Juanita Moore; except, perhaps, Annie’s death scene.
As it had happened in 1934, critical reaction to Sirk’s remake was once again split. Most critics derided it as pure drivel. Interestingly, it has that flaw. But its’ flaw is equally its’ appeal. And the public, for better or worse, generally speaking – are the arbitrators of what constitutes ‘good taste’ (God help us). They flocked to see it, making 1959’s remake of Imitation of Life the 9th highest grossing movie of the year with a whopping $6.4 million intake. For nearly a decade thereafter, this ‘Imitation’ would remain Universal’s biggest money maker of all time, until the release of 1970’s drama/suspense classic, Airport. Viewed today, Sirk’s remake retains a strangely hypnotic allure; like a car crash one is privy to but not a part of, it is virtually impossible to turn it off once the main titles have begun. Melodrama, syrupy or not, is indeed an ‘imitation’ of life; a means for audiences to live vicariously through the imagined scenarios of a fiction that often hits too painfully close to home to be virtually ignored or dismissed outright as mere sentimentalized hogwash.
So, which film holds up better today? Hmmm. While Claudette Colbert’s performance is bar none the superior of the two and Stahl’s adherence to Fannie Hurst’s novel in the ’34 version is commendable, the idea of two broke gals getting rich off a pancake recipe is a little unconvincing by today’s standards. Again, contemporary opinion ought never be the deciding vote as to what constitutes good solid entertainment. But Sirk’s glossier treatment has color (no pun intended) and a lot of kilowatt sparkle to recommend it; also Lana Turner, who looks ravishing from head to toe. She isn’t Hurst’s heroine – not by a long shot. But she’s all Lana and, for most this, quite simply, will be enough.
Universal Home Video has finally come around to reissuing Imitation of Life on Blu-ray. Both films have been readily available on DVD for many years; the 1959 version actually issued twice in competing editions, alas, sporting the same flawed and badly faded transfer. Prepare yourself, then, to be amazed by what’s here. Despite Universal’s insistence on using the same cover art as their old DVD ‘book’ release of the two editions as a combo, everything else about this 1080p Blu-ray is brand spanking new and ‘wow’ do the results speak for themselves! My one complaint – and, it is an extremely minor one at that – is Universal has housed both versions on a single Blu-ray disc, instead of utilizing a higher bit rate by spreading each film across a single disc. What? The whole $1.95 it must cost to add an extra disc to this packaging was too much for Universal to splurge on?
But why quibble when the results are so emphatically a vast improvement over the way either film has looked on home video before. First, the 1934 edition, sporting an exceptionally clean and free from age-related artefacts B&W image that is superbly contrasted and contains a natural patina of film grain looking very indigenous to its source material.  Bravo and thank you to whoever is responsible for this remastering effort. It’s A-1 all the way, the mono DTS audio also given an upgrade, sounding years younger with minimal hiss and virtually no pop. Fantastic!
Now, about the 1959 version: as already mentioned, the DVD incarnations herein looked atrocious with pale and washed out colors, orangey flesh tones and a heavy patina of grain looking more like digitized grit. The Blu-ray is a quantum leap ahead in overall quality. There’s really no point to my apples to pomegranates comparison except to say, double ‘wow’ and triple ‘thank you’ to Universal for making this reissue a reality. Part of the appeal of the 1959 remake is Douglas Sirk’s extraordinary use of color to evoke mood. Here, at long last, is the embodiment of Sirk’s vision brought forth with all the garish va-va-va-voom one might imagine from Imitation of Life’s opening night splendor. Not only do colors pop and gleam with an impossible fulsomeness, but the image is razor-sharp without appearing to have been digitally enhanced. Film grain that was intrusive and distracting on the DVD has been brought back into line in hi-def, looking very earthy and spot on accurate.  You are going to LOVE this disc. Again, the DTS mono audio is deftly handled.  
Virtually all the extras contained herein have been ported over from the old double disc DVD release; including a documentary on the making of both films and two highly informative audio commentaries; the first, from African-American Cultural Scholar, Avery Clayton, the other by film historian, Foster Hirsch, plus theatrical trailers for both movies. We really need to commend Universal for this effort; the best way, with a flood of orders that will support their efforts and encourage them to do much more of the same on their, as yet, wellspring of untapped classics in hi-def. Hey fellas, my vote would be for a new Tammy and the Bachelor, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Okay, I will be silent. Again, and obviously, highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

1934 version 4
1959 version 3.5


1934 version 5+
1959 version 5+



Saturday, March 28, 2015

BEST SELLER: Blu-ray (Orion Pictures 1987) Olive Home Video

Don’t expect much from John Flynn’s Best Seller (1987), an occasionally atmospheric, but badly mangled suspense/thriller, written by Larry Cohen, whose other ‘gems’ from this period include Maniac Cop (1988) and Bette Davis’ tragic swan song, Wicked Stepmother (1989: the one where she morphs from an old hag into a cat and then, Barbara Carrera). Best Seller ought to have been more than it is: the tale of a semi-retired assassin, Cleve (James Woods at his most scummy, slick and treacherous), intent on exacting bloody revenge on his former employer, David Madlock (Paul Shenar). To achieve his goal, Cleve has concocted a particularly inane plan of action: exploit a forthright cop cum best-selling author, Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy), whom he nearly murdered back in the late 1970’s, to write an exposé on Madlock’s criminal activities.  Indeed, Cohen’s script ties in the fact Dennis and Cleve have met before; during a raid on the police department’s property room – inexplicably accessed through a secret passage via the men’s room at city hall. Cleve, along with three other men, all wearing Richard Nixon masks, leave a bloody trail inside this hidden bunker, murdering three of Dennis’ fellow officers and damn near killing him too. At the last possible moment, Dennis plunges a concealed knife into the gut of his would-be assassin – Cleve – who nevertheless takes a few pot shots before stumbling into the getaway van.
Fast forward to the present – or rather, 1987: Meechum, still on the force, despite his formidable girth and advancing years. Ah, but here he is, plain clothes and involved in a high security sting operation on the docks that, predictably, turns ugly and leads directly into a prolonged and not terribly prepossessing chase sequence. It seems every mystery, drama, suspense thriller from the 80’s had one of these to recommend it. Best Seller’s hot pursuit is a fairly inarticulate and wasteful affair; staged with pedestrian theatrics by director, Flynn, occasionally from an interesting overhead or low angle to elevate the overall intensity; Jay Ferguson’s tinny industrial-sounding score never going beyond the tradition of canned excitement; just something cooked up on a synthesizer to fill the aural gap between heavy breathing and even heavier soles beating across the tarmac.  
Unexpectedly, Meechum is reunited with Cleve, whom he does not recognize at first without the mask. Cleve saves Dennis’ life by executing a drug-smuggling longshoreman (Branscombe Richmond) who nearly puts a bullet in Meechum’s back. It’s all very dramatic in a ho-hum sort of way – Meechum puffing like a rhino; his suspect opening fire on an unsuspecting crane operator (presumably, to illustrate for the audience his gun is, in fact, loaded) before taking to some overhead mechanized rigging in a large hanger; the God spot from which he intends to do away with Meechum once and for all. Cleve’s omnipotent quality (he seems to be everywhere all at once all the time, knowing exactly what is going down or about to happen and how best to effectively diffuse the situation). This is more than a little unsettling – at first.
We can almost buy into this notion too, mostly because James Woods is a consummate actor; gutsy, self-involved, egotistical and full of cunning. Believing Dennehy as the rough n’ tumble, burn out of a cop/author with an axe to grind and an almost unquenchable thirst to have Cleve scraped off the pavement, takes a little more convincing; chiefly because Dennehy is always above his character’s limited pugnaciousness and seriously flawed modus operandi. He’s a widower, a father, and a frazzled wordsmith with writer’s block. His ‘relationship’ with Woods’ is a little like Foghorn Leghorn vs. the dog in those old Warner Brothers cartoons; Dennis, perpetually itching to send Woods’ antsy and preening hitman through a plate glass window or brick wall with his bare fists all the doo-dah day. Dennis does, in fact, split Cleve’s lip wide open during a nightclub brawl. He matches him with half-cocked weaponry during a bedroom confrontation in the wee midnight hour, the moment laced with some cheap Freudian ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ homoerotic subtext; even less convincing than the notion these two warring whack jobs could wind up being good friends.
Best Seller is already a B-grade/C-budgeted effort. As though to prove this point we are introduced to some other fairly nondescript characters, given next to nothing to enliven the plot; Victoria ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Tennant as Dennis’ frigid editor, ice queen/snow bitch, Roberta Gillian, her knickers in a ball over Dennis’ lack of motivation to finish another ‘best seller’ on the advance her publishing house has already afforded him; George Coe as Graham, Madlock’s personal attorney with a pocket full of congenial threats that go nowhere fast; Jeffrey Josephson, as Madlock goon, Pearlman, whom Dennis makes fun of for bad hair plugs, and finally, Edward Blackoff, as Thorn, a particularly ineffectual stooge in Madlock’s army of gun-toting idiots; his big moment – threatening Dennis’ sixteen year old daughter, Holly (Allison Balson) before having his neck snapped by Cleve; Holly caught in perpetual teary-eyed cringe mode.  And then there are Cleve’s parents (Mary Carver and Charles Tyner) to consider, or rather, to forget. I am genuinely at a loss to explain director, Flynn’s retrospective on Cleve’s childhood, particularly as it intrudes upon the main plot with virtually no tie-in or payoff later on.  
As far as thrillers go, Best Seller begins with an absolutely nonsensical premise. Dennis discovering it was Cleve who shot and nearly killed him during the diamond heist gone awry nearly a decade ago ought to have spelled the end for their already strained buddy/buddy alliance of convenience. After all, Dennis is the Dudley Do-right of this piece; a little frayed around the cuffs and collar, and increasing getting steamed underneath it, but otherwise, basically, a ‘good guy’ counterpoint to Cleve’s cookie full of arsenic; unrepentant about killing for hire, except now he wants retribution to rain down on the man who made his oily cock of the walk possible. You know what they say about biting the hand that feeds; what it does for the cool cat tempted by curiosity too? Cleve will not come out on top. He really hasn’t that option. Alas, instead of explaining away the reasons why an autonomous assassin would expose his identity to the cop he nearly murdered, even out of desperation to have him write a ‘tell all’ to destroy his own arch nemesis is more than a little fishy. Okay, honestly, it stinks to high heaven. Why Dennis should follow Cleve from L.A. to New York on a whim – or rather, for proof against Cleve – and damn near miss getting blown to bits by a failed car bomb for his troubles – making a pilgrimage to Cleve’s family home; a little farm where good, honest and hardworking folk first spawned the Frankenstein monster, as yet, without knowing it; these are moments of introspection in Larry Cohen’s script dealt with in the most clichéd inadequacies of screenwriting 101 yet.
Worse, the central ‘vengeance is mine’ scenario just doesn’t hold up. Cleve wants Madlock dead. So why not do the job himself? Why involve Dennis? The most his book could do is smear Madlock’s nose in the already foul stench of his own reputation. But why does Cleve want this instead of Madlock’s blood spilled? Good question. Evidently, Cleve is persona non grata; an exile from Madlock’s criminal organization, now using charitable philanthropy to cloak deeper sins and ongoing political corruption, drug smuggling, etc. and et al. Larry Cohen’s screenplay is a little vague into which piles of manure Madlock is up to his elbows. But why should any of this matter to a big shot like Madlock? He could easily have Cleve rubbed out instead of fired from his organization. Somewhere along the way, Cohen’s script gets very sloppy, to the point where it cannot quite justify exactly what the story is about or where exactly its characters are within its ever-unraveling chain of events. To bolster the plot, or perhaps confuse and divert the audiences’ attentions even further, we momentarily digress to a spookily lit industrial laundry service, where one of Cleve’s complicit former paramours (Jenny Gago) now fears for her life. Good intuition on her part. For within moments of meeting this scared mountain goat, all hell once again breaks loose; leaving Cleve and Dennis on the defensive and this young disposable gal on her knees with a fatal knife wound to the chest. Another one bites the dust!   
Pity, none of these loose narrative threads are tied up with any degree of finality, much less competence. Madlock’s arsenal of supposedly high paid mafia-styled protection are the equivalent of the Keystone Cops; bumping into furniture and each other as they struggle in vain to escape Cleve’s dead aim. And then there’s Cleve. Who is he? Practically psychotic during the diamond heist prologue; later, reveling as he slits the throat of a New York City cabbie, Foley (William Bronder) inside a photo-mat booth (the most gruesomely unexpected moment in the movie), after he learns from Foley Madlock paid him to abandon Cleve and Dennis in the backseat of a taxi with a bomb about to go off. Later, Cleve takes Dennis to a brownstone on the lower east side merely to prove to him he’s been there before and murdered its former owner, pleasantly bribing the current proprietor (Anne Pitoniak) into letting them in; picking a bar fight he can’t win without his gun against a Texas-styled longhorn (Michael Crabtree) over a silly young blonde trick, dumb as a post, but bumped out in all the right places, and who ultimately winds up splayed for the obligatory thirty-second nudie shot, reading a magazine in Cleve’s bed.
But again, who is Cleve? James Woods gives us some compelling insight peppered with that usual self-assured neuroticism that infiltrates virtually all the actor’s finely wrought characterizations. Too bad Cleve is less three dimensional than a variation on a very flatly premised mama’s boy who was never quite able to crawl out from under the Midwestern angst and pall of being just a good ole boy turned rancid without a cause or purpose. He’s a freak, as Meechum goads; illustrating the epitome of his volatile bipolarity in the movie’s climax; a balls in/guts shot out finale at Madlock’s palatial beachfront home, playing host to some sort of underprivileged children’s house party.  Remember, Cleve is a ruthless killer. He enjoys it. But knowing Dennis has suddenly made him soft – mostly, in the head. He rescues Holly twice, takes out Madlock’s bumblers with ease, demanding to know their names before each kill, but then pursues a totally implausible policy of altruism that costs him his own life in the end. Does Cleve want to die? Nothing about the character indicates as much. And Madlock is hardly the kind to get his own hands dirty at the point of a gun. That’s what the hired help is for – however ill-conceived for the job they may be.
It’s frankly painful to watch Woods and Dennehy go through the motions of this last act finale, so unsatisfying and contrived, both actors must have set their artistic integrity from ‘stun’ to ‘comfortably numb’ with a good bottle of scotch after cashing their paychecks. Best Seller achieves a level of mediocrity few thrillers have by misfiring at even the most base level. Suspension of disbelief is one thing. But Best Seller strains the audience patience for even a straight forward suspense yarn. Larry Cohen ought to have steered clear of the twists and turns; all of them ultimately leading to a dead end. ‘Clever’ is so obviously not his thing! Ditto for director, John Flynn, whose post Best Seller career speaks for itself; badly achieved B-grade shoot ‘em ups with Stallone and Seagal; also a quickie schlock horror flick.  Best Seller is about as captivating as watching pudding harden. Nothing wrong with that if you like either your tapioca runny or your smooth vanilla with more than a few clunky lumps mixed in. But honestly, there’s better work out there to feed your fix for a solid two hours. This one has excised two from my life I can never get back. Regrets!
Okay, moment of truth for the folks over at MGM/Fox, the custodians of the old Orion Pictures library, who continue to offer us such crap-tac-u-lar 1080p transfers as this. As already explained, Best Seller is hardly a great film. But if it’s deemed worthy enough for a reissue in hi-def the least that can be done is to clean up these existing elements to satisfy Blu-ray’s long abandoned claim of ‘perfect picture’ and ‘theater quality sound’. When was the last time ANY vintage catalog from MGM/Fox met those requirements?!? Best Seller has been farmed out to Olive Home Video, presumably to keep its’ crummy quality a solid distance from the MGM/Fox banner. It’s properly framed in 1.85:1; probably the best that can be said of this disc; otherwise cribbing its visuals and audio from tired old and improperly archived elements in need of preservation and restoration. The opening several minutes include optical dissolves and montages and are among the most unstable and pathetically subpar looking visuals yet achieved in hi-def. Frisbee disc, anyone? Grain – exceptionally heavy. Overall softness? Yep, you bet. Crushed blacks, weak contrast, faded, dull and muddy colors? Oh yeah! Sign me up. If I wanted this film on VHS I would have sought it out in a $1.99 bin at my local thrift shop, thank you very much!!!
The counterbalance to all my caterwauling is that once this prologue has ended, the image begins to snap together as it should.  Colors and contrast both improve and outdoor sequences deliver an admirable amount of clarity. I should, however, point out MGM’s old DVD from 2002 offered similar improvements, leading me to deduce this Blu-ray transfer is another of the studio’s quiet bait and switches, using the same digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal herein. No new remastering to satisfy Blu-ray’s vastly superior technology. More proof: age-related artifacts are present in exactly the same frame captures from both the Blu-ray and the DVD. Overall, nicks, chips and scratches do not distract. Biggest disappointment: the color. Orangey flesh persists. Overall color is dated and occasionally quite muddy. Best Seller's DTS 2.0 audio sounds about on par with the old DVD tracks, albeit, minutely crisper with slightly better separation between dialogue and effects. This is a base effort – if even the word ‘effort’ can be used to describe MGM/Fox’s commitment to external catalog titles currently under their distribution umbrella. Pass – and be sincerely glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, March 27, 2015

ADVISE AND CONSENT (Columbia Pictures 1962) Warner Home Video

The truest movie yet made about the insidious nature of American politics remains Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962); based on Allen Drury’s intriguing best seller, first published in 1959. The book would remain on the New York Times best seller list for a whopping 102 weeks and, despite a minor brouhaha, won the Pultizer Prize for fiction. The title derives from the U.S. Constitution Article II, Sec. 2, cl. 2, in essence affording the President the ability to nominate high ranking officers with the ‘advice and consent’ of the U.S. Senate. Upon publication, the novel was sincerely praised, Saturday Review admitting “It may be a long time before a better one comes along.”  What Drury had done was to create a wholly new subgenre in popular fiction; the political drama that neither relied on the time-honored clichés of international mystery or espionage nor a subplot involving a political assassination. Despite its occasional ‘out of print’ status, Advise & Consent has remained popular with readers throughout the years, its politicized and sexual revelations contributing to a vivid and truthful arc, setting the template, and making it one of the most gripping page turners of its ilk.
Like most of Preminger’s later movie projects, Advise & Consent pushed more than a few ‘hot’ buttons in Hollywood, not the least for the caustic director’s decision to hire blacklisted actors, Will Greer and Burgess Meredith; also, discarded former star (and Preminger favorite) Gene Tierney (once a reigning glamor girl, but then suffering from a debilitating bipolar condition) in one of her final roles, as Dolly Harrison, a sort of Perle Mesta ‘hostess with the mostess’ knockoff; unceremoniously discounted by Dolly’s own assessment as “any bitch with a big house, money and a good caterer can be the social darling of Washington!” Of more immediate concern to filmdom’s self-governing production code was the character of Brigham Anderson, the young idealist whose senatorial carrier is threatened when, in an attempt to unearth some dirt about the President’s potential nominee, Robert Leffingwell, leaders of the opposition to this appointment also discover the married senator with a young family was involved in a homosexual tryst while serving in the military in Hawaii.
To be gay in 1950’s America was decidedly tantamount to being a communist or communist sympathizer, the stigma analogous to political suicide and, both in Drury’s novel and the movie, ‘actual suicide’, in order to save face and escape the inevitably crippling public scrutiny.  Yet Drury, who was both staunchly anti-Communist and a conservative besides, approaches Brigham Anderson (played by Don Murray), not as the villain of his piece, but with an uncharacteristic empathy, decidedly railing against the muckraking sensationalism that could cause a basically good man to sacrifice even his life because of a private matter that, in essence, had harmed no one, not even his own wife (not yet met or married at the time of his gay involvement in Hawaii). In translating the delicacies of Brigham’s predicament to the screen, Preminger was neither weary nor timid about remaining faithful to Drury’s point of view.  Indeed, by now Preminger was used to Hollywood’s highly sanitized, ‘holier than thou’ approach to popular entertainment, had readily despised both its arrogance and hypocrisy, and, had steadily challenged its boundaries, forging a new permissiveness on the screen with or without the code’s seal of approval.
In retrospect, Advise & Consent is one of Preminger’s most brilliant movies, sadly underexposed to the general public and commonly maligned by the critics; mis-perceiving Wendell Mayes’ screenplay as intermittently ‘wordy’, without even ‘trying to be accurate or fair about the existence of a reasonable balance of good men and rogues holding political office.’ In fairness to the critics, Advise & Consent must have seemed like Preminger’s deliberate slap at the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Preminger had even hired Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Peter Lawford to play the womanizing Lafe Smith, (ruthlessly modeled on Kennedy himself) and further, had drawn parallels between the two men by having Smith a representative from Kennedy’s former constituency of Rhode Island whereas, in Drury’s novel, Smith is actually from Iowa. Noted critic, Bosley Crowther also took umbrage to the homosexual affair, referring to it as the movie’s ‘latter complication’ exposing the drama as ‘deliberately scandalous, sensational and caustic; unrealistic, except as a splashy high point.’
Before it was a movie, Advise & Consent had debuted as a play on Broadway, adapted for the stage by Loring Mandel and directed by Franklin Schaffner. Starring Farley Granger, the stage version ran for a little over a year, but was only a nominal success. Like the play, Preminger’s movie would be largely overlooked in its own country, despite the fact he was nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Burgess Meredith, cast as a mentally unstable former card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Herbert Gelman, would go on to win the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor. In Britain, Charles Laughton was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Actor for his portrait of Seabright ‘Seab’ Cooley; a corrupt and enterprising senator from South Carolina whose devious admonishment of Leffingwell, as Senator Smith points out “denotes a closed mind and an ancient crust of prejudice.” Laughton’s brilliant performance would be his last, dying within mere months of the movie’s premiere from renal cell carcinoma.
For the pivotal roles of Leffingwell and Senate Majority Leader, Robert ‘Bob’ Munson of Michigan, Preminger turned to two of the most distinguished actors from their time; Henry Fonda and Walter Pigeon respectively; packing his A-list cast with such noteworthy talents as Franchot Tone (The President), Lew Ayres (Vice President Harley Hudson, the former governor of Delaware), George Grizzard (embittered rabble-rouser, Senator Fred Van Ackerman of Wyoming), Paul Ford (Senate Majority Whip, Stanley Danta of Connecticut) and Inga Swenson (as Brig’s long-suffering, though ever-devoted wife, Ellen). In her movie debut, future TV alumni of both Mary Tyler-Moore and The Golden Girls, Betty White, was afforded a plum cameo as Senator Bessie Adams of Kansas, who joyously challenges Washington’s ‘ole boys’ club’ with a decidedly offbeat feminist critique of their tactics on the Senate floor. 
After another superbly conceived main title sequence from former Madison Ave. ad man, Saul Bass, the remnants of only the stripes of the American flag endlessly overlapping against one another, Advise & Consent opens with the arrival of Stanley Danta on the steps of the Capital Building. He buys a paper from a newsboy, reads its headline about the President’s nomination of Leffingwell for Secretary of State, and promptly hails a taxi to the Sheridan Park Hotel to confront Bob Munson. Alas, Munson is as much in the dark about the President’s decision; the pair quickly hurrying over to Senator Smith’s suite for damage control; also, to begin their more thorough investigation of Leffingwell’s chances for succession. Leffingwell is, by all accounts, a confirmed ‘egghead’, generally frowned upon, not only by members of the opposing party, but also from within the President’s entourage, as too daring and progressive. There might be something to their animosity: for Leffingwell, unbeknownst to anyone, once attended clandestine meetings in a chapter of the Communist League of America.  Evidently, a youthful folly with no basis in fact as to whether Leffingwell is ‘actually’ a communist, or even a communist sympathizer, the stain created by Seab’s exposure of Leffingwell’s past creates a minor stalemate during the committee’s deliberations on his potential candidacy.
Preminger was granted unprecedented access to various locations in Washington, shooting inside the state capital during the Senate’s summer shut down, adding yet another layer of verisimilitude to the story. Presumably, to break up the intensity of all these startling politicized revelations, Preminger briefly moves us to the stately manor of widow, Dolly Harrison; her vast salons dotted with the crème de la crème of Washington society. Bitterly disappointed at having been overlooked to partake in Leffingwell’s due process as the committee’s chair, Senator Ackerman nevertheless vows to remove every obstacle standing in Leffingwell’s way. Dolly breaks up his passionate confrontation with Senator Orrin Knox of Illinois (Edward Knox), decidedly not a Leffingwell supporter. Leffingwell, however, has chosen to remain fairly autonomous in Washington. He doesn’t hobnob or even pretend to play ball under their established guidelines, and this – at least partly – has unsettled the status quo. These initial sequences in the movie remain faithful to Drury’s novel, but they also reveal Preminger’s overall contempt for political machinations and politicians in general. None is operating with the purest of intentions; not even Munson, who has chosen to keep a tight rein on Leffingwell’s past, even after learning the truth, serving the President faithfully, though perhaps at the expense of almost placing an unworthy atop this democracy with the potential to topple, or at the very least, undo its time-honored precepts. 
Some hours later, the party at an end, Senator Munson returns to Dolly’s house where it is revealed the two are lovers and have been for quite some time. He would prefer to marry her. But Dolly enjoys her independence and politely refuses to entertain his proposal. Meanwhile, the second term President has reason enough – both personal and political – to hurry along Leffingwell’s nomination. Along with just about everyone else in Washington, the President marginalizes his V.P. Harley Hudson. In fact, the President only picked Hudson as his running mate out of political necessity. He does not believe he would be good for the administration's current foreign policy. Munson, who is about the closest thing to a friend Hudson has in Washington, confides in him that last year’s operation on the commander-in-chief was not a success. The President is gravely ill and failing.
At the Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearings, presided over by Senator Brigham Anderson, Seab Cooley entertains the notion Leffingwell is a communist. A general cry of outrage ensues, the press clamoring for evidence to support this claim. To illustrate his point for the committee, Seab brings forth a surprise witness; Herbert Gelman, a minor Treasury clerk who professes to being one of Leffingwell’s former students from the University of Chicago, and who also claims he and Leffingwell were part of a Communist cell, along with two other men, in their youth. Asked by Brig’ to qualify these allegations, Leffingwell requests a recess to reformulate his thoughts. Instead, he takes a taxi to the home of Hardiman Fletcher (Paul McGrath); the mysterious ‘other man’ who once partook in the communist activities as suggested by Gelman. Fletcher pleads with Leffingwell to keep his former activities a secret from the committee. Instead, Leffingwell manages to dig up some dirt on Gelman; exposing his mental instability to the committee and suggesting his hypotheses are mere figments of an ongoing delusion.
This counterattack is effective at quelling the committee’s suspicions. But it also severely humiliates Seab, now more determined than ever to learn the identity and whereabouts of this ‘other man’ who attended the communist meetings. In the meantime, Leffingwell attends the President in the Oval Office and confesses the truth: Gelman’s credibility, although brought into question, was nevertheless sound and essentially correct. Leffingwell has committed perjury to save face and spare the President embarrassment. He now pleads to withdraw his nomination. But the President, buoyed by Leffingwell’s honesty, is as resolved as ever to stand behind him. In the meantime, Seab identifies Hardiman as the ‘other man’ and forces him to reveal it to Brig’ who, in turn, confides this discovery to Munson. Despite personal lobbying by the President, Munson now insists on Leffingwell’s withdrawal. Gridlocked in his appointment, the President is begrudgingly forced to admit the White House will soon have to nominate another candidate. Brig’ agrees to delay his findings in the committee's report, giving the President enough time to quietly exile Fletcher; thus, anteing up this game of political hardball.
Not long afterward, Brig’s wife, Ellen begins to receive anonymous threatening phone calls from Van Ackerman’s men, forewarning that unless the subcommittee proceeds favorably on Leffingwell’s behalf, certain information will come to light about a cryptic incident involving her husband and another veteran, Ray Shaff (John Granger). Outwardly, Brig’ assures Ellen there is no need for concern. The threats are hollow and can in no way impact either their marriage or his political future. Ellen, however, begins to suspect Brig’ is lying about his past. While attending Munson in the commissary, Brig’ receives a phone call from one of Van Ackerman’s cronies; another thinly veiled threat, it sends Brig’ into a tizzy and straight to the airport for the first available flight to New York.
Arriving at a nondescript social club, Brig’ quickly realizes it is patronized by gay men, among them, his former lover, Ray who attempts to explain how he was being blackmailed for some quick cash. In the meantime, Ellen receives a parcel on her doorstep; an envelope with an affectionate letter written in Brig’s hand to Ray about their love affair; also, several photographs attesting to the intimacy in their ‘friendship’. Ellen is, understandably heartbroken. But she remains devoted to Brig’, attempting to reach him by telephone at his office. Alas, she is too late to save Brig’ from himself. He commits suicide in the bathroom with a straight razor; news of his death reaching Munson and Smith during a friendly card game at Dolly Harrison’s home. 
The President denies all knowledge of blackmail to Munson and Hudson, ordering Munson to push through Leffingwell’s nomination. Time is running out. Munson turns on Seab for using cheap tactics to oppose Leffingwell, all but blaming the southern polecat for Brig’s suicide by creating an impossible situation from which no other means of saving face was possible. Brig’s death has had unexpected fallout; allowing the subcommittee to proceed with the nomination.  To salvage his own reputation, Seab apologizes in the assembly for his ‘vindictiveness’ and suggests while he will stand firmly opposed to Leffingwell’s nomination, he will also not encourage any of his fellow senators to follow his lead, merely their own conscience in casting their votes. Listening in on the radio from the Oval Office, the President suffers a heart attack and dies. Word reaches the Senate chambers and Harley is sworn in as the new President, quietly informing Munson he intends to put forth his own candidate for Secretary of State; thus, ending whatever hope Leffingwell may have had of assuming the post.
Advise & Consent is unapologetically harsh about the business of politics, its’ real purpose (to do the people’s bidding and work as a cohesive element for the good of the nation) blunted by turmoil stirring from without and within. Stop me if this sounds vaguely familiar and relevant to the frequent stalemates occurring in D.C. these days! Ironically, the overall purpose in making this movie – to expose political corruption – may have been dulled if Preminger had had his way.  Originally, the director wanted to offer prominent cameos to both, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Former Vice President, Richard Nixon. Only King took Preminger seriously for a brief moment or two, eventually deciding his appearance in any movie might sincerely hamper his own legitimacy in the civil rights movement. Nixon, on the other hand, was quick to point out what he classified as ‘glaring and obvious’ errors in the screenplay. Given Nixon’s own future ambitions for the White House, he might also have taken umbrage, as well as a chapter or two from Drury’s playbook, thereby seeking to distance himself from parallels in what would ultimately shape the political backbone of his own presidency.
It has always been an irony of humanity in general, and the citizenry of the United States in particular, that the heart of its own democratic system of checks and balances – that is to say, the very essence of the machinery designed to make democracy a reality, capable of functioning outside its theoretical framework (and we can sincerely debate both the speed and accuracy with which it has either achieved or failed in these goals in more recent times; missing the mark when living up to the altruisms of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or even, F.D.R.); nevertheless, politics has remained one of the most shielded and misunderstood of all human endeavors, ironically and increasingly so in spite of our supposedly transparent era in modern mass media.  As the novel before it, Preminger’s adaptation of Advise & Consent is thematically a film meant to shake American audiences from their complacency about the role government plays in all our lives; the enigma of Preminger’s ‘history lesson’ wrapped in a decidedly more appealing outer shell of ‘entertainment value’ for the popcorn crowds with celebrated stars at the helm.
The beauty of the exercise is it functions on both levels; as both an entertainment and as insight into how this imperfect system works in spite of itself and despite hidden forces who seek to keep the public naïve as to its inner truths and deceptions daily put into motion, either to move certain ambitions along with lightning speed or bring the entire enterprise to a grinding halt via competition, not always attained under the rubrics of honesty and fair play. Advise & Consent is therefore something of an eye-opener, just as Preminger had intended. Audiences of its day may not have necessarily grasped its overall importance, the concept of politics itself still very much a cherished and revered part of the American landscape. But with the assassination of J.F.K. one year later, and the perennially renewable rumored involvement of various factions of its own government complicit in the murder itself, America’s collective faith in government as an agency for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ would be dealt a fatal blow. In more recent times, politics itself has taken on a highly inflammatory and more venal connotation. In retrospect, Preminger’s film was very much ahead of its time. Yet, from today’s vantage, it seems more readily and steadily to fuel and satisfy our collective cynicism about government itself and the conspiracies permissible under its easily misled guise dedicated to the democratic due process.
Exactly how Warner Home Video have become the custodians of Advise & Consent, I am not quite certain. Preminger made the movie for Columbia Pictures. Nevertheless, this DVD release is firmly a WB product. Overall, it’s adequate, though hardly great and this is indeed a shame. The B&W image generally suffers from contrast levels ever so slightly bumped, particularly sequences shot under natural lighting conditions outdoors. We lose the mid-register here, the image harshly contrasted. One can argue with indifference due the sun, but Advise & Consent was lensed in deep focus by the great Sam Leavitt, so this ought to have looked stunning. Mostly, it does; interiors revealing a good deal of fine detail in hair, clothing and backgrounds. Exteriors can, on occasion, appear bleached out and fuzzy around the edges; undue flairs caught off the gleam of a sparkling chrome fender looking strangely out of place.
The audio is mono, leaving Jerry Fielding’s majestic main title march a little on the flat side. Interestingly, Advise & Consent has no score to speak of, apart from this superb march. Overall, however, dialogue is well placed with little distortion. Extras are limited to a fairly informative commentary track from Dr. Drew Casper. It veers slightly on the side of Casper’s verve for self-pontification (do we really care or need to know the man holds the position of chair for the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock association? After all, he’s not critiquing a Hitchcock movie here.). Nor is he nearly as comfortable in his own ‘full flower’ of egg-headedness when covering Preminger’s career. His comments seem more apparently and heavily scripted than spontaneous with occasional long pauses as Casper waits for the screen’s visuals to catch up to a point of view he has already plotted ahead.
Again, it’s an okay commentary, though hardly a fascinating one. Herein, I’ll just put in a plug for Gregory Mank, whose commentaries are never anything less than spontaneous, informative and highly educated introspections, done with great passion and heart. But I digress. Advise & Consent belongs on everyone’s ‘must see’ list. It is a great film.  One can argue Drury’s superb novel has given the movie its cache in drama, but Preminger’s unique vision and his own caustic skepticisms about the democratic due process gives the movie an air of impassioned cynicism all its own. This is powerful stuff. So buy today and cherish forever. And hey, you just might learn something about politics besides. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ST. ELSEWHERE: Season One (MTM 1982-83) Fox Home Video

Before ER, Chicago Hope, House M.D. or Grey’s Anatomy, there was St. Elsewhere (1982-88); the ingeniously scripted, landmark and Award-winning prime time hospital dramedy created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, about the complicated lives and loves of a troop of dedicated medical professionals toiling at Boston’s perennially beleaguered St. Eligius teaching hospital. Throughout its seven year run, behind its weather-beaten façade and crumbling interiors, St. Elsewhere played host to an ever-evolving roster of up and coming stars; Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Bruce Greenwood, Ronny Cox, Howie Mandel, Ernie Hudson and Tim Robbins among them. It also featured one of television’s finest ensembles headlined by Ed Flanders (as the venerable and devoted widower, Dr. Donald Westphall) and, at least in season one, David Birney (as the venereally challenged Dr. Ben Samuels) with other plum roles afforded time-honored thespian, Norman Lloyd (as proud cancer survivor, Dr. Daniel Auschlander), Christina Pickles (compassionate nurse, Helen Rosenthal), David Morse (kindly Dr. Jack Morrison), G.W. Bailey (probing psychiatrist, Dr. Hugh Beale) and William Daniels (the frequently perturbed and always caustic heart surgeon, Dr. Mark Craig).
The series was decidedly noted for its strong acting and superior narrative bloodlines; most coursing a constant flow of riveting drama, culminating in one of the most startling finales in all of series’ television: executive producers, Mark Tinker and Bruce Paltrow suggesting the entire run of the show had been imagined in the mind of an autistic savant (Chad Allen) gazing into a snow globe with the likeness of St. Eligius inside it. What set St. Elsewhere apart from similarly themed programming gone before it (Emergency, Trapper John M.D., et al) – and virtually any and all themed drivel with a pulse since attempting to step from under its shadow – was the unorthodox approach taken by co-creators, Mark Tinker and John Masius, employing a small army of writers to develop and address relative, often heartrending and occasionally harrowing issues of life and death with a delicate balance of utmost sincerity, honest emotions, and, congenial humor. Class warfare, gang-related violence and racism, domestic violence, male-on-female (and male-on-male) rape, abortion, transgender sex changes, AIDS, Down’s Syndrome, autism, suicide, insanity; these were par for the course of the show’s weekly digest – deftly handled with unusual introspection and reverence.
While hospital dramas have come and gone since – and there is little doubt more are in development to satisfy our ongoing and communal fascination with the medical profession – St. Elsewhere’s distinction remains its writing. At a time when the replacement of any cast member in a television series usually sounded the death knell for the series in totem, revealing an inherent weakness in a top-heavy reliance on ‘star power’, Tinker’s approach to St. Elsewhere would leave the audience perpetually ill at ease about the uncertainties of life. It’s a hospital, after all. Like a hotel, people come and go – and not always of their free will or on their own power. Major characters like Terence Knox’s Dr. Peter White were written out with startling revelations (after suffering a disastrous marriage and divorce, White becomes a serial rapist and is murdered in the O.R. by Nurse Shirley Daniels, played by Ellen Bry) while others, like Eric Laneuville’s Luther Hawkins graduated in their overall importance from junior grunt into supervisory positions.  Indeed, TV Guide labeled St. Elsewhere ‘television’s most imaginative hour…a wildly inventive mixture of drama and humor’.  It’s tough to argue with that call. 
Most of what’s on TV these days is action-orientated, punctuated by shaky handheld camera work. Hence, the sincere pleasure of watching St. Elsewhere today derives from our investment in virtually every character’s true-to-life circumstances. Here, at last, is a show made about adults for adults; situation-based, though rarely catering to the soppy claptrap of artfully told romance; rather, what happens in the daily struggle to find purpose and meaning in life after love’s bloom has left and the strain of pulling twelve hour on-call shifts has worn down already frayed nerves to the bare bone. Characters who partake in casual unprotected sex, as example, are faced with venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies and/or AIDS. Rarely, has TV shown us life as it is. St. Elsewhere takes its artistic licenses too. But it does not cheat the audience of that unusually probative and fairly documentarian style. It merely leaves the boring parts of the daily grind on the operating table.  Season One of St. Elsewhere is a benchmark in television history. But like most series, the show struggled not only in the ratings, but also to find its niche and style. There are some exceptionally fine moments to recommend the debut season; starting with the pilot. Alas, with an ensemble as top-heavy as St. Elsewhere’s it was inevitable some of its roster would be cast aside; East Indian actor, Kavi Raz  (as the homesick Dr. Vijay Kochar, suffering from a mild bout of culture shock) being a prime example. He’s often glimpsed, lurking from the peripheries of a narrative lifeline dedicated to another character’s story.
From the get-go, the series wastes no time establishing its archetypes: the staunchly independent, Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes) confronting Dr. Morrison after one of her patient’s has gone missing. In reality, the patient died only a few moments into the first episode; Morrison, suffering from exhaustion, forgetting to file the death certificate of death. In another part of St. Eligius, Dr. Craig browbeats a reluctant patient into accepting the fact he needs triple bypass surgery. Down in the morgue, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) is quietly being seduced into kinky sex with pathologist, Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery). Cate’s a queer duck, indeed; luring Fiscus into her flagrante delicto, then refusing to entertain even the prospect of taking their sexual encounters to the next level by becoming a couple. Meanwhile, Dr. Beale is treating two psychiatric patients, affectionately nicknamed Tweety and Ralph. Each believes he/she is a bird. Tweety becomes pregnant with Ralph’s child; an unanticipated circumstance that snaps her out of her delusion. Alas, Ralph’s determination is not as strong as his love or his illness. He eventually commits suicide by jumping from the hospital’s rooftop while Beale and janitor, Luther Hawkins helplessly look on.
The series shifts focus to the enduring friendship between Chief of Staff, Dr. Donald Westphall and managing director, Daniel Auschlander. The two have known one another for decades. Despite being the elder statesman, stricken with inoperable cancer, Dr. Auschlander is the eternal optimist, frequently beating Dr. Westphall at tennis. Moreover, he is the heart of St. Eligius and an inspiration to the others. The series jumps around a little, becoming slightly unevenly paced around midseason as plot points unravel and bunch together. Fiscus moves in with Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Bagley Jr.), who is not at all pleased to have a roomie. Dr. White’s strained marriage to Myra (Karen Landry) leads to an inhospitable separation. He takes up with a young nurse to ease his anxieties. Moving on: Dr. Philip Chandler (Denzel Washington) attempts to get a senior nurse fired after a clash and struggle of wills ensues. Dr. Craig takes Dr. Ehrlich under his wing. But Craig’s stern refusal to brook no nonsense leaves Ehrlich perpetually bumbling and insecure. As with most series drama, all of these disparate plotlines gradually build to the first of seven season cliffhanger finales.
Dr. Westphall’s decision to close Ward 5 after a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease meets with unfavorable press, threatening to shutter St. Eligius forever. Dr. Craig is reunited with an old college football buddy who reveals he has come to St. Eligius for a sex change operation. First year resident, Dr.  Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori), accuses an established heart surgeon of needlessly operating on patients to fatten his wallet with kickbacks, putting Dr. Craig on the defensive until he realizes Armstrong is right. Meanwhile, Nurse Rosenthal has had quite enough when a prostitute’s stay for gallbladder surgery results in the rest of her working girl colleagues and her pimp turning Ward 5 into a veritable brothel for the more spry orderlies and patients. At approximately the same time, Dr. Cavanero learns from Dr. Samuels the distinguished British bookseller she has been treating for appendicitis is actually a well-established porn star. Dr. Morrison develops unrequited affections for a young female patient he is treating; also, more paternal concerns toward Cora (Doris Roberts), an elderly bag lady who thinks he has kind eyes, after he diagnoses her with gangrene, necessitating the amputation of both feet; something the woman absolutely refuses to do.
The season culminates with a few unexpected surprises; beginning with Dr. Chandler unable to shake the stigma of racism after an Irish teenager is treated for a terrible assault reportedly perpetrated by a gang of black hoodlums. The boy loses a kidney as a result of his beating, only to confess to doctors, Chandler and Morrison his own father is responsible for the abuse.  Unbeknownst to his wife, Ellen (Bonnie Bartlett), Dr. Craig begins to contemplate an extramarital affair with visiting Hungarian surgeon, Dr. Vera Anya (Rita Zohar). Doctors Morrison and Ehrlich clash over how to treat a patient whose symptoms seem changeable; both unaware the patient is actually suffering from Baron von Munchhausen’s Syndrome.  As St. Elsewhere rounds out its season finale, Dr. Morrison learns he is to be a father and his wife, Jenny (Alice Cadogan) goes into premature labor. The pressures of life overtake Dr. White’s better judgment and he begins to steal prescription medications from the dispensary to feed his increasingly out of control drug addiction.
It’s hard to imagine St. Elsewhere without its co-creators, John Falsey and Joshua Brand at the helm. And yet, the network was very wary of their darker influences on these narrative storylines, referring to the team as Dr. Death and Depression. NBC was also incredibly nervous about Brand and Falsey’s affinity for long takes; the camera following multiple characters involved in many conversations at the same time; the camera, completely omnipotent as it broke the traditional barriers of ‘the third wall’ and conventional wisdom to provide coverage in establishing two shots and close-ups.  Perhaps, in retrospect, the most startling performance in Season One belongs to Tim Robbins, cast as Andrew Reinhardt, an embittered anarchist, born into a privileged family, who, upon blowing up a bank, is superficially wounded and forced to convalesce only a few rooms away from one of his victims, Catherine McCalister. She eventually dies from wounds sustained in the blast. Later, Catherine’s husband murders Reinhardt at point blank range as he is being wheeled to admitting for his discharge.
The totally inexperienced Robbins gives a riveting star turn in these all too brief three episodes that bear his presence, riddled with a deft blend of cynical humor and perverse disregard for the sanctity of human life. By his own accounts; Robbins was a self-professed arrogant piece of work, who knew not how to get into character except to jump immediately into the part by playing it full on, both while the cameras were rolling and in between takes. This ‘attitude’ – plus Robbins’ misguided outing to see The Clash perform the night before his first day of shooting, making him late by several hours on the set, did not exactly ingratiate him to the rest of the cast or his producers and director.  Ultimately, Robbins recognized the importance of doing the series. Indeed, the tape he received afterward became his calling card in Hollywood for bigger opportunities.  
At the end of Season One, St. Elsewhere’s Nielsen Ratings were hardly enviable. The show wasn’t even listed in the top 50; a far cry from TV Guide’s 2011 poll, rating the series #6 in all-time great television programming and its remarkable series finale (the aforementioned ‘snow globe’) #12 amongst the greatest moments in TV history. At the end of Season One, Falsey and Brand received the double-edged news; while the series they had created had been picked up for a second go around, Mark Tinker and Bruce Paltrow would now be assuming the creative reins.  NBC also urged set designers to redress portions of the drab St. Eligius in more becoming colors – presumably to brighten the atmosphere. Finally, they encouraged their new producing team to keep ‘long takes’ to a bare minimum. NBC may have thought that without Falsey and Brand they would have more say in the overall arc and direction of the series, pushing it towards lighter fare. But producer, Bruce Paltrow ensured the high standards set by Falsey and Brand in Season One endured for the run of show.  Today, St. Elsewhere remains beloved amongst fans old enough to recall its first run in prime time. For decades thereafter, it was in steady syndication as late night filler, its theme by David Grusin still instantly recognizable at a listen. With the proliferation of cable channels, St. Elsewhere’s permanence as a cultural artifact and television icon seems even more readily assured; truly – one for the ages.
Alas, we cannot seem to convince anyone at 2oth Century-Fox, the custodians of the MTM television library, of as much. Since, 2006, only Season One of St. Elsewhere has made it to home video. The results are questionable to say the least. The show’s cinematography, variably lensed by Marvin L. Gunter, John McPherson, Rick F. Gunter and Sol Negrin, was never intended to be slick and stylish, but gritty and rough around the edges. Alas, what Fox Home Video has furnished herein is grainy, dull and uninspiring to a fault. I am still trying to deduce the ‘conventional wisdom’ applied when authoring these discs; compressing four episodes on Side A of a flipper disc, and only 2 episodes on Side B. Why not three and three, to even out the compression ratio and possibly alleviate, or avoid altogether, the horrendous digitized noise incurred on a good many of these episodes? St. Elsewhere was photographed on film stock, not digital tape. So the results ought to have yielded a very film-based look with solidly rendered grain and rich colors. Instead, we have perpetually washed out and faded colors; flesh tones flat and pasty pink.
As I said before; St. Elsewhere was never intended to look ‘pretty’ – but what’s here is fairly muddy and thoroughly unimpressive – even ugly, at times. The inconsistent rendering of indigenous grain is appalling. We get moments where grain almost entirely disappears, followed by scenes where it has been artificially enhanced by the lack of proper compression authoring to the point where it breaks apart fine detail and is thoroughly distracting to the action taking place within the scene. Awful! Just awful! The mono audio ranges from adequate to subpar, a few episodes having a decidedly muffled characteristic. St. Elsewhere deserves much better! It also deserves to be reissued in its entirety on home video! Representatives at Fox…are you listening?!?
All of these seasons, please – and remastered on single-sided discs. If you’re unwilling to do so, farm it out to a third party like Shout! Factory.  To be fair, Fox has actually spent money on this debut season; gathering a few cast members and creative personnel for three featurettes. But I am at a loss to explain the logic behind this, since the featurettes are all less than ten minutes in length and border on absurdly truncated sound bites, linked together by inserts of scenes from Season One.  Bottom line: St. Elsewhere remains one of television’s finest hours in absentia on home video. Frankly, it is a travesty to think its successors, ER and Grey’s Anatomy already given their due, but no such consideration forthcoming for the grand-daddy that started it all. Shocking! Shameful! And honestly, very – very – disappointing! Come on Fox. More St. Elsewhere!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)