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 25, 2015

SOLOMON AND SHEBA: Blu-ray (Edward Small 1959) Twilight Time

King Vidor’s swan song to an industry he helped create and shape, along with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, was Solomon and Sheba (1959); a highly questionable Bible-fiction melodrama, nee would-be epic. It’s debatable what the celebrated introduction of Sophia Loren did for American cinema. Undeniably, it opened the floodgates for a small army of fractured English and smoldering voluptuaries like Gina Lollobridgida to follow in her footsteps. But neither the glimmer of sex from Gina nor the immensity of Yul Brynner’s smooth-pated masculinity could salvage this film from becoming a turgid mess. Based on a story by Crane Wilbur, Solomon and Sheba suffered a lengthy incubation period, an arduous shoot on location in Spain and the tragic death of its original star, Tyrone Power – dead at the age of forty-four. Power had endured longer than any of his contemporaries – even Errol Flynn – as the swarthy swashbuckling stud, despite being long in the tooth for it. Having begun Solomon and Sheba with verve, while rehearsing a daring duel with costar, George Sanders in the stiflingly inhospitable heat of Spain, he suddenly dropped to his knees, stricken with a fatal heart attack. Sanders, generally deemed as ‘not very nice’ was equally as stricken, not with a case of conscience but with a bad bout of anxiety. After all, he could now add ‘public executioner’ to his repertoire of professional cruelties.
In recasting the part of the Israelite king with Yul Brynner, independent producer, Edward Small sought to salvage what he could of Power’s footage, using long shots of Power astride his steed in the final edit to keep a reign on the movie’s budget. But the interpretation of the Divine as a sort of ‘seek and ye shall receive’ entity is rather obtusely handled; Paul Dudley, George Bruce and Anthony Veiller screenplay, mangling Christianity and treating God as though he were equal parts glorified tooth fairy and genie of the lamp, granting wishes at will with a complacent air. It seems anyone who prays to the Almighty has their prayers instantly heard and answered, be they Israelite or Pagan - a liberal notion; it rather defeats the purpose of converting Pagans to Christianity. Why bother if God is on speed dial 24/7? Evidently, Vidor had hoped – or perhaps, even prayed – his ‘something new’ approach to the Lord would reinvigorate this time-honored, and badly worn, sword and sandal quickie, conveying less of the Holy of Holy’s and veering disastrously afar and askew from the historical record, more stringently adhered to in the 1921 silent classic, The Queen of Sheba
But tricked out in Super Technirama and stereophonic sound, Solomon and Sheba ought to, at least, have looked the part. Alas, there is pretentiousness and a faux Hollywood glam-bam infiltrating its rugged style. Periodically, the film aspires to rise to the level of a DeMille epic, a sort of Ten Commandments wannabe, fabricated with all the decorous accoutrements a la an Edith Head, or, in this case, Ralph Jester, who vacillates in pouring the hourglass figure of Ms. Lollobridgida into one tantalizingly skimpy outfit after the next. Undeniably, Mr. Jester’s dispensation of chic good taste rises to a level of embarrassing tackiness during an orgy. This scene takes its cue from the ‘Romanesque’ offerings of both DeMille and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, though without the cleverly devised sumptuousness to fully carry it off. Worse, it is as though Vidor has forgotten some thirty years has elapsed since the public was first exposed to this sort of hysterical nonsense; sexy young gals gyrating to a primal drumbeat, their glistening navel jewels bouncing off some very flat tummies and well-rounded hips, accompanied by shirtless, chest-thumping studs, who pulsate, their arms and legs extended in ridiculous silliness, meant to invoke virility. There’s no subtlety to this set piece, and no sense of maturity about it either; Vidor relying on squirmy gesticulations to substitute for a sort of artless and witless eroticism; passé almost from the moment the movies first learned to talk.       
So much for sex, it seems – the objective to titillate the audience with harrowing displays of affection further hampered by Gina Lollobrigida’s inability to render any line of lust-laden dialogue with even a hint of ‘come hither’ spontaneity. English, so obviously her second – and extremely distant – language, she strains to overthink every last word; tongue-twisted and stumbling about in her annunciations; Brynner’s patient and forthright Solomon doing all he can not to laugh in her face or take her over his knee in a sort of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ inspired moment and spank her well-rounded bottom with supreme joy. It might have enlivened their love-making considerably. Knowing Tyrone Power’s rather stiff-britches approach to some of his later Technicolor swashbucklers, I can imagine how he and the loquacious Lollobrigida might have been more aptly suited to one another. But, having lost Power to the ages, jettisoned all notions of good taste and worse, discarded even a hint of fidelity to the historical record, director, King Vidor presents us with pseudo- antiquity in its place; the kind that makes virtually no sense whatsoever in any realm other than the bizarre-land chaos of a typical Hollywood costume drama, expecting the audience to simply fall in love with it for its own elephantiasis.  
Given Brynner’s intolerable fallaciousness in the part – he thunders like a Russian bear in a Victorian novel – and King Vidor’s implacably placid battle sequences (they look as though to have been shot as part of a high school prank on how not to graduate from stunt work finishing school) the final death knell for the film is its script; Messers Veiller, Dudley and Bruce badly bungling the precepts of treason and war, spiritual awakening, familial greed, international relations, and, politics – sexual or otherwise.  George Sanders is a sneering villain straight out of central casting, or, at least, George Sanders-ville; an enclave of justly celebrated, enterprising deviants.  After an ominous main title sequence, given over to a dirge by Mario Nascimbene (with an uncredited assist by Malcolm Arnold), we are introduced to Prince Solomon (Yul Brynner) and his boastful brother, Adonijah (George Sanders); a pair of preening peacocks in weighty robes, breastplates and effeminate headdress. Adonijah has set a trap for the marauding Egyptians near the Israeli border; effectively driving their forces from his encampment. To his great dismay, the warrior prince quickly learns from one of his captives, the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) has pledged her lot with the Egyptians against Israel. Aside: there is nothing either in scripture or archaeology to suggest Sheba was the Pharaoh’s pawn or ally.
Word reaches the encampment King David (Finlay Currie) is dying in Jerusalem. Adonijah is more pleased than concerned, for he has already accepted the throne as his own and vowed to overturn what he misperceives as weaknesses in their father’s rule, to pillage and conquer Egypt in bloodshed. It will not be as easy as he believes. Upon confronting Sheba and her troops in the desert, Adonijah is momentarily beaten into submission with the crack of her whip. Alas, Solomon has already left for Jerusalem, gravely concerned. Arriving home, he is comforted by his ward, Abishag (Marisa Pavan), just in time to hear David’s proclamation. It seems God has spoken in a vision to anoint Solomon as the heir apparent of Israel. Alas, this revelation drives a wedge between the brothers; Adonijah vowing to pledge his troth with the Egyptian armies sooner than see his birthright usurped by his younger sibling.  David makes Solomon promise he will erect a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses; a promise he once made to God, yet left unfulfilled these many years later.
Solomon vows to rule as his father would have wished. He prays for guidance and is granted God’s protection if he will heed the will of the Divine and allow it to rule the course of his own heart in perpetuity.  Solomon’s allegiance to God is repaid with a golden era of peace. He is embraced by the people as a benevolent and just ruler. Moreover, he desires to bridge the chasm created by his appointment to the throne; offering his brother command of the Israeli army – a decision that both perplexes and momentarily softens Adonijah’s heart. The temple for the Ark is built and Solomon dedicates it to the glory of God and the legacy of his late father. Meanwhile, in the land of Sheba, the Queen is informed by her trusted advisor, Baltor (Harry Andrews) the Egyptian Pharaoh (David Farrar) has grown displeased. More amused than threatened by Pharaoh’s wrath, Sheba vows to conquer Solomon not through battle, but by plaguing his heart with lust for her, thereby learning his secrets and his weaknesses and using both to destroy him. While there is little to suggest such a plan was ever hatched, and even less to hint the Queen and Solomon became fated by love – if, at all – undoubtedly, Vidor and his wordsmiths have concocted such obvious trappings to ensure good box office. Regrettably, it worked! Audiences made Solomon and Sheba a solid hit.
The Queen arrives in Jerusalem in a manner befitting her imperious stature, also her own ego; draped with gold and jewels and delivering a menagerie of rare hand-loomed clothes, Arabian horses, acrobats and entertainers at Solomon’s feet. Yet, her greatest offering is yet to follow; a pledge of loyalty to gain Solomon’s favor as an ally. He is most pleased and accepts Sheba’s display without question, even allowing her to sit at his side at court. Her presence is a dividing force amongst the resident courtiers. But Solomon illustrates both his compassion and wisdom during a dispute between two women over a child. The rightful mother (Claude Dantes) explains how her roommate, having accidentally killed her own baby by laying upon it, has stolen her infant son as a replacement. The other woman vehemently denies this claim. So Solomon decrees for the Captain of his Guard, Josiah (Jack Gwillim) to draw his sword and cut the child in two; that both women may claim their half, whereupon the maternal instinct kicks in and the rightful mother casts herself in harm’s way between Josiah’s sword and the boy, offering the child to the other woman to spare its life. Recognizing the truth, Solomon justly awards custody to the woman who sought to protect the child from death.
Sheba uses every feminine wile at her disposal to seduce Solomon but to no avail. And although it was understood Solomon would take Abishag as his wife, his desire is already enflamed by Sheba’s tricks. Unable to rid himself of the suspicion the queen has come to Jerusalem with less than altruistic intensions, Solomon decides to confront Sheba in her private chamber. He bluntly puts to her the question of her purpose. But now it is Sheba who has changed; stirred by Solomon’s kindness, enough to respect him and reveal how her journey had begun as one to destroy him at Pharaoh’s behest. Solomon knows this to be true. But he also realizes the effect his goodness has had on Sheba, and thus accepts her into his bedchamber. A romance, however sterile in its conception, causes consternation amongst the ministers who, at first, approach Adonijah for counsel. Adonijah refuses to act as their intermediary. But he cannot help realize how Sheba might be exploited, perhaps, even against her will, to bring about Solomon’s demise.
Baltor chastises Sheba for softening towards Solomon. She is betraying Pharaoh’s trust and thus threatening her own future sovereignty. To illustrate the sway she holds over Solomon, Sheba asks to hold a Pagan celebration in Jerusalem; a festival denied, but then granted by Solomon. Solomon’s advisors are dumbstruck and angered by his acquiescence. He has betrayed God’s trust by allowing another graven image to be worshipped in the city. Solomon pledges his love to Sheba. In response, her life is threatened by assassins loyal to Adonijah and Solomon’s heart hardens toward his own people. He grants Sheba the right to practice her Paganism in Jerusalem; reluctantly resisting to attend the ceremony. Abishag pledges her devotion to Solomon in Sheba’s stead. But Solomon, driven to distraction, now skulks off to Sheba’s festival, leaving Abishag to return to the temple containing the Ark of the Covenant to pray for forgiveness for her own failure to keep Solomon’s faith pure. Lightning strikes the temple, destroying a portion of its façade and killing Abishag in the process. Sheba outwardly claims a victory, but behind closed doors she is bitterly angry for her part in bringing ruination on this nobleman – God’s emissary on earth, as it were.
God sends a pestilence to Jerusalem. The elders of the tribes rebel and separate; the fertile lands turning to dust. At the same time, Pharaoh engages Adonijah to march on Solomon and destroy his armies and the city. Abishag’s father pledges his armies in defense of Solomon. But the battle is bloody and incurs epic casualties. Sheba repents her sins to God, promising to depart Jerusalem at once and build a temple to Solomon’s God, if only God will hear her now and spare her beloved from death.  The next afternoon, Solomon sets his forces upon a craggy cliff, the reflection from their shields blinding Adonijah’s and Pharaoh’s forces as they charge over the steep embankment to their deaths. In Jerusalem, Adonijah orders Sheba to be stoned; the crowd taking its vengeance on ‘the pagan slut’. Too late, Solomon returns victorious to the city, smiting his corrupted brother in a duel and discovering Sheba’s badly broken body lying at the base of the temple. His loyal guardsman explains how Sheba freely sacrificed everything – even life itself – so God might hear her prayer for the restoration of his throne in Jerusalem. Before the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon hears the voice of God proclaim that because Sheba was pure of heart she will be restored to life, though not to him, so she may return to her own kingdom and bear Solomon’s child; the keeper of the faith in two lands instead of one.
Solomon and Sheba is hardly a perfect entertainment. Moreover, it must rate as one of the most grotesquely inaccurate Bible-fiction epics to emerge from Hollywood.  Awkward moments of stoic introspection aside, the movie is monstrously sentimental in its last act – even ludicrous in its ‘go and sin no more’ happy ending, meant to inspire renewed devotion to the Christian faith. The production is as hampered by its rather miniscule budget and lack of set pieces. Recall, only for a moment, in this same year – 1959 – William Wyler stunned audiences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the grandest Bible-fiction epic of them all; the eleven-time Oscar-winner, Ben-Hur; an infinitely more satisfying and resplendently mounted super colossus from MGM.
Solomon and Sheba lacks this total investment in spectacle. Moreover, it is denied the ‘Wyler touch’; a natural affinity Wyler had for instilling humanity into the grandeur of the exercise. In its place, director, King Vidor toggles between moments of lushness – alas, too remotely parceled off to make a consistent impact on the eye – and his even more tragic adherence to staged melodrama; heavy on the syrup, but all too light and disingenuous on its Biblically inspired truths meant to be taken at face value. It’s the artifice in the spectacle that submarines the glories of the film’s production value and narrative, and the lack of consistently high production values that belie what morsels of verisimilitude ought to have come from this drama bookended by flash, pomp and circumstance. In the end, none of it works, either effectively or perhaps, even as it should on the most remedial level, leaving Solomon and Sheba a real dud.  
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via its alliance with MGM/Fox Home Entertainment, is hugely disappointing, as I must confess a goodly number of MGM/Fox hi-def releases are. Clearly, the studio isn’t ready as yet to fully recognize its wellspring of classics.  Solomon and Sheba was photographed in Technirama; an 8 perf 35mm process that ought to have yielded remarkable results in 1080p, particularly since the movie was shot by cameraman extraordinaire, Freddie Young. Alas, MGM’s hi-def transfer is almost certainly created from less than perfect 35mm reduction prints instead of an original 8-perf camera negative. We have mis-aligned frames and more than a handful of dupes, quite obvious in 1080p and distracting. Color density and balancing are adequate, although nowhere near the level Technirama is capable of yielding. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s heavier than expected.  The DTS 2.0 audio is, again, merely present and accounted for instead of delivering the wallop it likely had in discreet stereo during the film’s original theatrical release. As you’ve probably surmised from these comments, I’m not a fan of MGM’s hi-def efforts in general and this one in particular. It’s not TT’s fault. They’re working with what they’ve been offered. However, this doesn’t let MGM off the hook, in my not too humble opinion. Twilight Time has given us the barebones isolated score track and a trailer as extras. Want some solid advice – pass on this one. MGM and Fox’s general lack of investment on catalog releases in hi-def isn’t worth your time or money. If they want us to buy they need to start giving out with a level of quality worthy of the bang in our bucks - period!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)