Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DEATH BECOMES HER: Blu-ray (Universal 1992) Shout!/Scream Factory

I have always wondered about Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992); the ground-breaking/effects-laden Grand Guignol; ostensibly, another minor masterpiece from Zemeckis - this one about sex, betrayal, lust, jealousy, death, immortality and murder…well, sort of, though decidedly not in that order - since the movie I saw in 1992 bore no earthly resemblance to the one being peddled in the trailer used to promote it. Granted, trailers are made months in advance of any theatrical release and often contain outtakes never used in the final cut. But Death’s trailer incorporates snippets of whole subplots and glib social commentaries about fading youth and stardom, never again to materialize on the movie screen. For decades thereafter, the lore surrounding the prevue cut of Death Becomes Her grew to near mythic proportions; some attesting to the greatness of an unseen ‘classic’ screened before these revisions were made; others, hinting to be in possession of these missing pieces that even Universal Studios was unable to locate in their vaults. After a 2008 fire decimated a sizable portion of the studio’s back lot the rumor surfaced all of this excised footage had been among its casualties. In hindsight - always 20/20 - the reality seems less opaque; Death Becomes Her was ill-received during its sneak peaks.  Heavily edited by Zemeckis, it was to evolve into a more tightly paced, often witty, if jovially macabre variation on the old ‘fountain of youth’ tall tale; updated and relocated to – where else? – Hollywood, where such cravenly mad obsessions to stay eternally firm and fabulous seem more a syndrome than symptomatic of our natural fear of death, thus creating a Mecca (some would say, a mockery) from the cottage industry of plastic surgery.
Two major plot devises were ultimately lost in Zemekis’ revamp: first, the original ending, but even more egregiously, Tracy Ullman’s entire performance as the empathetic bartender who befriends and eventually marries a befuddled and frantic Dr. Ernest Menville (the character played by Bruce Willis). She believes his story – that the socially affluent are populated by a cloistered sect of perennially ageless pseudo-zombies, given eternal life by a slinky - if slightly demonic sorceress, Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). Zemeckis’ original intent was to create a parable exposing the destructiveness of our youth-absorbed culture. According this premise, Ernest’s first wife, screen queen, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and her fair-weather friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) were to be inadvertently reunited with Ernest and Ullman’s second Mrs. Menville in Switzerland near the end of our story; these two bitches left to contemplate eternal happiness in stark contrast to the happily aging marrieds while they, although as luminous as ever on the outside, had allowed personal jealousy and bitterness to add a layer of moral/intellectual decay to their character from the inside.
Evidently, prevue audiences did not appreciate this highbrow subtlety; Zemeckis also believing he had somehow sidestepped the insidiously wormy venom permeating the first two-thirds of this never-to-die rivalry between girlfriends. Thus, a new vision emerged; darker, more aberrant and apocalyptic, and, with more sequences scattered throughout the movie falling prey to the cutting room floor, including an elaborate prelude to the mummification yet to follow. Here, Ernest – driven half-crazy in his Dr. Frankenstein-ish pursuit to mask Madeline’s ravages of bodily decay, and having transgressed from one-time gifted plastic surgeon into the perverse custodial care of his decomposing wife and her ongoing ‘repairs’ – keeps Madeline in the kitchen freezer to delay her inevitable rot; occasionally taking her out of this deep freeze to test new theories; desperate to keep her externally sound for decades, possibly even centuries. Hmmm….perhaps, eternal life is a death sentence after all. Arguably, Zemeckis embraced these changes, though in the final analysis they altered both the premise and tone of his film. Aside: I had sincerely forgotten how ominously grotesque this comedy is; the Oscar-winning visual effects pioneered by Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Douglas Smythe and Tom Woodruff Jr., truly at the forefront of the CGI revolution that has since taken over and all but obscured Hollywood’s present storytelling age.
Whatever the reasons for Zemeckis’ alterations, the results arguably proved worth the effort. Despite overwhelming negativity from all but a handful of critics, Death Becomes Her opened at #1 with a respectable gross of $12,110,355.00. It would go on to earn an even more impressive $149 million; along the way, rewriting the technical know-how in then state-of-the-art visual effects.  As with other films made by Zemeckis, the focus herein is not on the barrage of mind-bending/body-contorting SFX, but rather an intricately plotted story, co-written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp; high-powered by obviously relished performances from Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Interestingly, Streep would famously decry making the movie as a ‘tedious exercise’, hampered in her acting prowess by being forced to emote in front of a green screen rather than intimately relate to a real life costar in many of her key scenes. Death Becomes Her was a transitional piece for Streep – revered as a ‘serious’ actress. However, at the age of 42, she had fast become the victim of Hollywood’s insipid and unoriginal ambition to prematurely brand every actress over forty as ‘over the hill’ has-been. Film critic Gene Siskel infamously suggested, Streep’s endeavors to “lighten her (screen) image” had severely “clouded her ability” to choose good scripts. I disagree. While no one could confuse Death Becomes Her as another Out of Africa (1985), despite the fleeting appearance of that latter movie’s director (the late Sidney Pollack) in a cameo as a very nervous doctor who suffers his own fatal heart attack after examining the ill-fated (and already quite dead) Madeline, Streep’s performance in Death Becomes Her is a superb departure from the sort of forthright, if suffering, grand dames she had played, imbued with the same caliber of dedication to the part, ingeniously tweaked to accommodate the precepts of screwball comedy.
And let us never mistake that at its core, Death Becomes Her is a comedy; a ghoulish and repulsive one at that, but playing into the time-honored traditions of adult silliness found in such iconic masterpieces as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). The screenplay, while hardly perfect, is far more imaginatively structured than its initially vapid fashion-conscious parody about imploding Hollywood-types, nursing very fragile egos, would suggest; pumped full of a rare vintage of richly rewarding/darkly conceived philosophies about life, the ethereal, and, the hereafter. Yes, we get the point about these two insidiously competitive gal pals, too far gone down the proverbial rabbit hole of cosmetic frontiers in collagen shots and chemical peels. Madeline and Helen would rather be reincarnated as that ancient flower of false youth – even after death – than sincerely face the reality they were born mortal. How cruel is Mother Nature with her promise of youth stolen away by the natural law, replaced with decades of slow, steady and very sad decline?  The film asks us to reconsider both sides to its Rip Van Winkle-esque fantasy; pro and con and not only from the perspective of our feuding female protagonists, already irreversibly afflicted by the gift…or is it curse...of spending eternity in a limbo consciousness as two rapidly putrefying corpses.  Conversely, having chosen the uninterrupted path of life, Ernest Menville will learn how to maximize the potential of whatever years he has been afforded – making the most of life while it lasts, unlike his ex and her best friend, who never even first consider the true meaning of Lisle’s declaration, ‘sempre viva’ before swallowing this ‘touch of magic in a world obsessed with science’ that will ultimately make them both miserable for all time without end.  
Death Becomes Her opens on a rainy eve in 1978; Madeline Ashton, a one-time shimmering movie star, already considered something of a has-been by her dwindling fan base, is staging her big comeback on Broadway in ‘Songbird’; a musicalization of Tennessee Williams’ famed play, Sweet Bird of Youth. Most of the audience finds Madeline’s disco-tech cavorting with a male ensemble utterly distasteful and void of virtually all artistic merit.  Not so for Dr. Ernest Menville, seated in the audience next to his plain-Jane fiancée, Helen Sharp. After the performance, Helen reluctantly indulges Ernest’s desire to go backstage and congratulate Madeline. She is an incurable flirt, more so after discovering Ernest is a gifted plastic surgeon; just the sort of guy she could wrap around her little finger to get some free cosmetic work done to shore up the first signs of crow’s feet and a few wrinkles in her forehead. Ernest tries to assure Helen, who is desperately tugging at her handkerchief, that he has absolutely zero interest in Madeline. But a jump cut later and we are at Madeline and Ernest’s wedding, Helen suffering a complete nervous breakdown from this betrayal and abandonment as she clutches her scarf so tightly that her hands begin to bleed. Flash forward seven years: Helen, grown obscenely obese, and, barricaded in her apartment full of cats, is hauled off to an asylum where she drives both her psychiatrist (Alaina Reed-Hall) and the other patients into fits of wild distraction with her chronic need to blame Madeline for her unhappy life. Jolted from her cyclical contemplation by the analyst’s suggestion she needs to eradicate Madeline from her mind Helen instead takes the advice literally. Let the games begin!
Flash ahead again – another seven years. We learn married life has not been kind to Ernest and Madeline, she indulging her sexual desires in a series of meaningless affairs while henpecking her husband’s self-respect into tatters.  He begrudgingly tolerates her whoring around. The couple is united in their mutual desire to see what has become of Helen in the interim, having received an invitation to her book launch party. While Ernest is sincerely set to embrace the new Helen, Madeline is insidiously hoping she has aged more obviously. Thus, when both Madeline and Ernest catch a glimpse of a heavy-set creature in a trench coat from the back, each assumes this must be Helen; the woman stepping aside to reveal a svelte and remarkably youthful Helen instead, surrounded by a slew of sycophantic admirers. Time has stood still for Helen – or so it would seem; actually, improved upon her looks and demeanor. She is accomplished and sexy and Ernest quite simply cannot take his eyes off her for a moment.
Naturally, this drives Madeline to wild distraction. Her pursuit of a more rigorous regiment of pills, lotions and injections at her local spa to stave off the specter of Father Time is met with a rather cryptic referral to an imposing Gothic-styled Beverly Hills mansion presided over by the sultry and half-naked vamp, Lisle Von Rhuman. Who is this woman, flanked by a pair of Dobermans and as equally impressive set of muscle-bound male companions (John Enos III and Fabio)? Lisle introduces Madeline to a mysterious pink potion that harbors the secrets of eternal life. At first, Madeline does not believe her hostess. However, after a brief demonstration of its potency, Madeline agrees to pay a shocking one million dollars in return for a small flask of this elixir she drinks before considering a warning: that in achieving eternal youth and vitality Madeline has incurred an everlasting responsibility to be kind to her body; to nurture and look after it; also, to agree to disappear from public view after a period of ten short years – either, by faking her own death or simply moving somewhere remote, to stave off suspicions bound to grow about her perennial youthfulness. Madeline wholeheartedly agrees to these provisos but almost immediately becomes a victim of her own vanity, eager to test her new body on some old lovers sure to find her even more desirable now.
Meanwhile, Helen has arrived at the mansion Ernest and Madeline share, seducing Ernest with visions of murdering his philandering wife so Helen and he can take up right where they left off so many years ago. As Helen has obviously taken better care of herself in these intervening decades, and Ernest is, as a plastic surgeon, superficially drawn to firm bodies, he entertains Helen’s ambitious plot; to taint all the wine glasses with a strong narcotic, knocking Madeline out and carrying her lifeless body to the edge of a steep ravine; staging everything as a drunken incident. Alas, this plan goes awry when Madeline, returning home later that same evening, is confronted by an angry Ernest on the spiral staircase leading upstairs. Ernest tells Madeline he knows all about her various trysts and she berates him yet again about his inadequacies as a lover; a miscalculation that causes Ernest to fly into an unanticipated rage; first attempting to strangle Madeline, then push her down the flight of stairs, presumably to her death; Madeline breaking virtually every bone in her body on her epic descend to the bottom.
Ernest is at first elated by the realization Madeline is no more, telephoning Helen with the good news, only to discover Madeline risen from the dead and angrier than ever at him. She is, however, in need of his help – to reset her twisted limbs. Ernest takes Madeline to the local emergency. There, the attending doctor is both perplexed, and then utterly horrified to learn the extent of Madeline’s injuries seem to indicate she is no longer among the living. Though she is still quite able to talk, her heart has stopped beating and her body is slowly returning to room temperature.  Unable to explain this phenomenon, the good doctor suffers a fatal heart attack and dies; Ernest hurrying to rescue his wife from the morgue and stealing away with her remains for further consideration and study. Meanwhile, Helen has followed Ernest and Madeline home. She confronts Ernest with their plan having gone awry and Madeline, now realizing her husband and best friend intended for her to die, instead exacts revenge on Helen by shooting her in the gut with Ernest’s hunting rifle; the blast propelling Helen into the terrace lily pond where she momentarily lays lifeless in a watery pool of blood.
It does not take long for Helen to stir. Madeline realizes what has occurred. Helen drank Lisle’s potion too. Though murdered, she cannot die. Alas, both women begin to realize that although they are unable to expire, they have, in fact, destroyed their bodies beyond any form of natural repair. Ernest attempts to shore up the damage by applying layers of airbrushed flesh tone paint to their graying cadavers, but it is no use. The paint gradually begins to peel, revealing the ravages of their mutually destructive jealousy lurking just beneath. The girls reconcile their differences and agree to bond together. However, when Ernest informs both Madeline and Helen he has kept true to his promise to remain at their sides ‘until death did them part’, the girls plot to kidnap Ernest to Lisle’s and force him to drink the same potion; thus making him their eternal slave. Ernest resists Lisle’s invitation to partake of this secret elixir; escaping her Dobermans and security personnel into a vast ballroom where assorted celebrities, including the likes of James Dean (Eric Clark), Elvis, Andy Warhol (Bob Swain), Jim Morrison (Dave Brock) and Marilyn Monroe (Stephanie Anderson) (apparently, all having escaped their fates by similar circumstances) are indulging in something of a reunion. Unable to make it beyond the bolted front doors, Ernest scales the rooftop instead. This ends badly when he loses his footing, becomes entangled on a dislocating eaves trough, then plummets through the glass ceiling of Lisle’s atrium and into her pool. The splash breaks his fall and spares his life. Ernest escapes into the night.
Flash forward for the last time: 37 years into the future. Ernest Menville is no more. Having eluded Madeline and Helen all these years, he remarried, and lived a fruitful second life that enriched not only his own prospects but also those who knew and loved him best. The eulogy is interrupted by a pair of dissenting cackles from the cheap seats; Madeline and Helen hidden beneath their mourning attire, later revealing the grotesque ravages of their earthly bodily decay; skin creped, rotted and peeling (I can only imagine the stench); the pair still bitter/still fighting over the last can of spackle Helen has misplaced. Tripping on the discarded can on the steps of the chapel, Helen and Madeline take a severe tumble to street level. In their advanced state of decomposition their bodies break apart from the strain; dismembered arms, legs, torsos and heads lying on the pavement with Madeline’s upside down visage idiotically inquiring as to where they have parked the car.
Death Becomes Her is so wickedly appealing as a cautionary ‘be careful what you wish for’ parable that it lingers in the mind long after the houselights have come up. If it were ever to be remade, in all likelihood it would acquire the trappings of a B-budgeted horror flick instead of a perverted screwball comedy. The cache in hiring three major stars and an award-winning director to helm this piece ensured considerably more effort put forth to achieve even more unsettling results.  Deliciously, the film stands its ‘fountain of youth’ premise on end; the serum sealing the fate of these two highly unworthy custodians of eternal life. Madeline and Helen have destroyed themselves. Now, they have forever to reconsider the illegitimacy in this exercise. Unabashedly, Zemeckis and his writers present us with even more contemplation along the way; Ernest’s confrontational inquiry to Lisle – “then what?” followed by a laundry list of ‘things to consider’ before swallowing the potion. What if he gets into an accident or is physically damaged in some other irreparable way? How does one live comfortably forevermore without say an eye, or a finger or a foot? And what of the loved ones who have not partaken in this nightmare. To watch the world known best to us all grow old, wither and die while we remain perennially trapped in a time capsule of our own design.
This is not the template for eternal happiness but rather an everlasting purgatory from which no amounts in ageless beauty can offer sufficient compensation. Topically, if not philosophically, Death Becomes Her challenges the audience to briefly reconsider this crisis in living beyond the natural order. As written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, Death Becomes Her may not be existentially deep. It is however, wildly entertaining with some truly ‘gross out’ moments and cringe-worthy special effects cleverly timed along the way, though always to make a point against the argument that life eternal is preferable to our present state of aging toward the inevitable end game. Moreover, Death Becomes Her just feels like a Robert Zemeckis movie, imbued with the director’s trademarked jauntiness and energy, his verve for acid good humor counterbalanced by these queasy and ghoulish moments. We are, after all, watching two dead bodies fight to preserve at least the appearance of life. The superb audio-animatronic technological wizardry and tech-savvy dawning of computer-generated SFX still hold up remarkably well, perhaps because Zemeckis never allows them to take over and dictate the action of his narrative.
Even the gaping hole in Helen’s abdomen gets a perverse hearty chuckle when, during a subsequent confrontation, Madeline thrusts a shovel handle like a javelin through this gaping hole, missing her mark but achieving an astonished gasp from the audience as a weary Helen sits down with one end of the implement stuck between the pillows of the couch directly behind her, the other protruding like a stiff phallus from her middle.  Again, no one could confuse Death Becomes Her with high art. It is palpably pulpy and downright farcical to the point of absurdity. But its principles play its highly implausible narrative with an air of conviction that is pretty hard to top; especially Isabella Rossellini’s frequently nude, though artfully photographed demigod who adds unexpected girth to her declarations “Sempre viva” and “screw the natural order!” with wild-eyed and sadistic abandonment.  In the final analysis, Death Becomes Her is a healthily balanced SFX extravaganza with a compelling story to tell; far more than the sum of its monstrous head-twisting, gut-exposing, fantastical age-defying dark ride effects into the great unknown: a satirical comedy elevated by its Hollywood trickery instead of slavishly devoted to it, unabashedly hostile, occasionally sexy, and thoroughly hilarious with oodles of sass to spare.
Were that we could champion Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. For almost a decade, Death Becomes Her has been available in Europe in a Region B locked disc from Universal Home Video proper. It appears Shout!’s ‘new’ Blu-ray is sourced from these identical digital files. Last year, I was trumpeting the ‘new’ Universal edict that seemed to suggest their tight-fisted old ways had had their day and the studio had since turned a corner in its preservation philosophy; wholeheartedly invested to release complete restorations in hi-def of some of their deeper catalog titles. Heck, last year’s Spartacus (1960) seemed to hint as much. Alas, my mistake. We have seen too many less than stellar efforts put forth this year from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Xanadu and other catalog titles, either released via Universal Home Video or via third party distributors like Shout! Worse, at least for Shout!, they seem to have cut out providing a host of extra features to augment their ‘collector’s edition’ series. What we get here is a truncated – if newly produced – ‘making of’ – scant on sound bites from Zemeckis, and others who worked on the film behind the scenes. No discussion about the sneak peek that necessitated cuts and changes; no mention of Tracy Ullman’s deleted scenes, no audio commentary to accompany the movie, and most regrettable of all, no deleted scenes to showcase the missing footage that fans had sincerely hoped would add to their viewing enjoyment. The only other extra included herein is a badly worn vintage ‘making of’ – even shorter on insight, depth and fruitful conversations than the aforementioned featurette.
Death Becomes Her isn’t a washout entirely on Blu-ray. Indeed, there is much to admire; certain scenes illustrating some impressive clarity and considerable amounts of fine detail. Colors are robust. But flesh tones veer to either extreme pink or orange, depending on the scene. There are also more than a handful of scenes that suffer from a residual softness. The main titles are plagued by edge effects, while certain scenes also appear as though some artificial sharpening has been applied to unnaturally enhance their visuals. Film grain is rarely natural or appealing; a few scenes looking very thick and unattractive indeed. The audio is DTS 5.1 and fairly aggressive. It supports the movie’s action without providing any standout moments. Overall, factoring in Shout! does not do its own transfers, Death Becomes Her on Blu-ray looks about as good – or as lackluster – as almost Universal releases put forth during Blu-ray’s infancy. By now, we ought to have expected a lot more from Universal. This is a middling effort – passable, but just that. Pass or stay…you decide.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, April 18, 2016

A KISS BEFORE DYING: Blu-ray (UA/Crown Productions 1956) Kino Lorber

Based on Ira Levin's 1953 novel, Gerd Oswald's A Kiss Before Dying (1956) casts one of the 1950's most congenial heartthrobs, Robert Wagner, as a psychotic murderer; his good looks sheathing more than killer charm. Levin's novel won the Edgar Allen Poe Writer's Award and it is to Oswald's credit the movie retains a goodly amount of its’ darkly sinister atmosphere - even if the book's more salacious aspects are implied rather than revealed in this lush Cinemascope production. The screenplay by Lawrence Roman jettisons the first act of Levin's novel - the back story or 'making of' a psychopath – to jump right into the present day. In hindsight, the genius of the picture lay in the decision to cast Wagner; then, considered the slick and stylish male pin-up of his era. The irony of Wagner’s career is that it is mostly predicated on his astonishing good looks and a bravura ego. While other male beauties of any vintage have fallen by the waste side with the passage of time, in proportion to the erosion of their undeniable physical assets, Wagner has continued to find gainful employment in both the movies and on TV long into his emeritus years; perhaps, something about that toothy, devil-may-care swagger perfected as the rather impudent young buck, forgiven just about anything because he fears nothing in front of a camera. Hollywood then, as now, is tenuously balanced on an illusion of smoke and mirrors. Sex appeal goes a long way – too far, perhaps - but only so far in the end. Eye-candy is simply that – and not altogether satisfying without the personality and/or chutzpah to make it stick.   
In A Kiss Before Dying, Wagner becomes the unsuspecting root of all evil. At least in hindsight, he makes evil so innocuous – if sinfully handsome – his performance seems to foreshadow Hitchcock’s decision to supplant author, Robert Bloch’s original notion of the pudgy middle-aged serial killer with all-American Tony Perkins for the big screen adaptation of his novel, Psycho (1960).  A Kiss Before Dying is subversively elegant – beginning with Wagner’s self-assured cock of the walk. The film is patently a product of the fresh-faced California lifestyle, circa mid-1950’s; Hollywood’s idealized post-war America, observed as a panacea of fin-tailed cars, plush shag carpets and weekend respites to fashionable country club retreats, populated by ivy-leagued/poodle-skirt debutantes and crew cut, cardigan sweater/varsity letter-wearing young men, deprived of their precious male initiative, and thus, never even thinking to take advantage of a young girl’s easy virtue. Emerging from the shadows, like a jungle cat ready to pounce into all this undisturbed modernity and classicism, is Bud Corliss – not of their ilk, though fitfully eager to acquire his toehold into this parallel universe of privilege and affluence. 
Alas, Bud has not played his cards right. In short order, we will come to realize he has absolutely no intension of playing by their rules either. He might have found his ‘niche’ with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward) – an exceptionally naïve good girl from a good home who has made at least two glaring blunders that will ultimately cost her everything. Overly zealous, jealous and sexed to the gills, Bud has broken the cardinal rule of admission into this cultured sect; namely, having knocked-up the virgin-esque daughter of a wealthy industrialist, certain to squash both Bud and his chances for future advancement like the proverbial bug once the truth comes out. Overnight, Bud’s options in life have been whittled down to two…okay, one. He could marry Dorie on the sly, incurring her parents’ wrath temporarily though nevertheless making ‘an honest woman’ of her before anyone realizes the deed is already done. But even Bud can see this would likely have its immediate and stifling repercussions and lingering fallout on his long-term social mobility; his Teflon-coated reputation no longer intact. So, on to option two – murder. It all sounds like a Dateline episode, doesn’t it? But for the button-down fifties, the idea any man – but particularly one as smolderingly sexy as Bud – would kill his lover and their unborn child simply to avoid the altar and ‘get ahead’ in life, was not only shocking but (choke!) progressive.   
In lieu of the whole Natalie Wood scandal that continues to swirl around Wagner to this day, his performance as Bud Corliss has taken on a far more picaresque quality than it probably possessed in 1956. For those living under a rock or unknowing of any past history that predates their origin of birth, Wagner and Wood were one of Hollywood’s fairytale couples of the mid-1950’s; incredibly talented and impossibly sexy. Alas, like all good fairytales, this one had its dark side. The couple would separate and later divorce in 1962, only to remarry a decade later, after Wood’s second marriage failed; a reunion lasting until the night of Nov. 28th, 1981 when Wood ‘disappeared’ from her husband’s moored yacht; her body fished from the surf near Santa Catalina Island the next morning. Although Wood’s death was ruled as accidental at the inquest, in 2009, the former captain of the vessel openly admitted he had lied under oath. Wood’s body was later exhumed and a second autopsy conducted; the cause of death altered from ‘accidental’ to ‘undetermined’. Interesting now to think of life imitating art or art foreshadowing life, as the case may be herein; Wagner’s performance in A Kiss Before Dying doing more to suggest he possesses a disturbingly roguish streak, capable of anything. I suspect that is why they call it ‘acting’. And in the many years that have since shrouded Wood’s demise and dogged Wagner’s reputation with tabloid-esque fervor to intimate either he, or fellow passenger aboard the yacht, Christopher Walken – were more insidiously involved in a cover-up –  Wagner’s performance in this movie, at least, continues to evolve on a more disquieting verisimilitude.
Bud Corliss is a working class guy, doted on by his mother (Mary Astor). He can hear the lonely whistle of the trains even if he cannot afford the fare to ride them. Enrolled in college, Bud has been hot and heavy with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward), an impressionable young woman of wellborn pedigree. Dorie cannot see past Bud’s adoring gaze. She might have first tried to analyze his petty larceny by peering into them a little deeper. Why is Bud so secretive about their affair? He will not even hold hands with Dorie in public. It doesn’t make any sense, particularly as Dorie is one of two heirs to a copper mining fortune. Regrettably, her father, Leo (George Macready) is something of a tyrant. Actually, he just wants Dorie to straighten up and fly right. Getting knocked up is not part of George’s future plans for his little angel – nor Bud’s grand love ‘em, then leave ‘em seduction after he gets what he wants. Knowing Leo will likely disinherit Dorie if he finds out about the illegitimate baby she is carrying, Budd plots to get rid of the evidence. But Dorie wants this baby. So, Bud decides to dispose of his girlfriend instead; first, by poisoning her with pills stolen from the chemistry lab. Pitched to Dorie as vitamins to keep her and their child healthy, Bud's plot goes awry when Dorie decides not to take the drugs. Bud's next move is to devise a clever suicide. He gets Dorie to 'transcribe' her own suicide letter into English from a Spanish text, then tells Dorie they are to be married by a Justice of the Peace the next afternoon.
Deliberately arriving during lunch hour, at which time the office is closed, Bud suggests to Dorie they trot up a few flights to the roof and wait for the office to reopen (shades of George Stevens’ 1951 masterpiece, A Place in the Sun). Bud tells Dorie she will never know how much he loves her; then tosses her over the side of the building to her death. Post haste, Bud sneaks from the building unseen and mails Dorie's 'suicide note' to Leo. It all seems perfect. But murder never is, and as time passes neither Professor Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) nor Dorie's devoted sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith) believes her death was an accident. Leo urges Ellen to put the nightmare behind them. She agrees, to satisfy daddy, but does exactly the opposite. Learning from Gordon her sister was involved with someone on campus, Ellen accidentally comes to suspect Dwight Powell (Richard Quarry); a tennis pro in his senior year. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, Ellen tricks Powell into meeting her at a local watering hole, but quickly realizes she has made a terrible mistake. Unhappy chance, Powell remembers Dorie's boyfriend quite well and even believes he has a name and address he can give Ellen back at his dorm.
Powell takes Ellen to his residence. As it is not co-ed, Ellen agrees to wait in the lobby while Powell goes upstairs to search for the information. Unfortunately, Bud is already waiting there to ambush Powell and shoot him dead. Making off with Powell's phone book, Bud lays low for several months, gradually ingratiating his way into Ellen's life. The two become involved and later engaged. Meanwhile, Gordon connects the dots between Dorie and Bud and confronts Ellen and Leo with the news Bud was Dorie's lover. Leo believes Gordon, but Ellen defies them both and decides to take Bud on a tour of her father's copper mines to clear the air. Despite her belief in Bud's innocence, Ellen's conscience will not rest until she knows the truth for sure. She goads Bud into revealing certain intimate aspects about her sister's life that only a lover would know. On a narrow stretch of road overlooking the Kingship Mines, Bud confesses to Ellen he is Dorie's cold-blooded killer. Now, he tries to murder Ellen too by throwing her in front of an oncoming truck. In a twist of fate, this attempt backfires. Ellen is hurled to the ground, the driver of the truck, swerving to avoid her, runs over Bud instead. Leo rushes to his daughter’s side; the sadder but wiser girl left to reconsider her naïveté as Bud’s battered remains are taken away.
A Kiss Before Dying is more melodramatic than suspenseful; though I suspect this to be part of its enduring charm. Levin's book is far more gruesome than the film. In fact, in the novel, Bud murders Ellen too, pursuing a third relationship with Marion, the youngest daughter of the Kingship clan (a character entirely omitted from the film). In the novel's climactic confrontation, Marion actually tosses Bud into a molten hot vat of copper where he is boiled alive. Despite the sanitizing of this rather lurid and pulpy material, director Gerd Oswald gets a lot of economy out of Lucien Ballard's evocative noir-ish cinematography in DeLuxe Color, and, Lawrence Roman's masterful condensing of the finer plot points that move the story along at a breakneck pace in just a little over an hour and a half. Robert Wagner is particularly engaged as the corrosive lover with murder in his heart. Again, it is hard –and mildly painful - to watch Wagner’s performance and not be reminded of the late Natalie Wood or the possibility the more artful ‘kismet’ ending of the film has avenged a sin no amount of time, revised autopsies or more probing investigations into ‘the truth’ can.
Wagner gives a bone-chilling performance as Bud Corliss; a man with no scruples or personal integrity. Joanne Woodward is convincing as the young innocent. We can skip Virginia Leith’s rubber-bra padded version of Nancy Drew meets Bettie Page; stock sexpot, possessing zero on-screen chemistry; and almost forgive Jeffrey Hunter - relegated to the backdrop, with only a handful of lines to involve his character in this story – for being more wooden than a stick of kindling. In 1991, someone at Universal Studios thought it prudent to remake A Kiss Before Dying; director, James Dearden’s epic misfire yielding predictably disastrous results, co-starring charm-free Matt Dillon and stiff-as-a-board, Sean Young – playing the sisters as twins.  Like so many movies, it is the original that counts. A Kiss Before Dying still holds up; I suspect because of the ongoing and insidious infatuation we have with the final hours of Natalie Wood’s life. Did Wagner kill his wife, using the template as concocted for the almost perfect crime gleaned from this movie? Hmmmm.
Kino Lorber, the custodians of far too many substandard MGM/UA releases in hi-def, deliver yet another underwhelming 1080p experience.  A Kiss Before Dying was independently produced by Crown, but distributed through UA. Regrettably, in remastering this film for home video, MGM has lopped off the UA logo and replaced it with their own. MGM’s old DVD was fairly impressive, so A Kiss Before Dying ought to have looked stellar on Blu-ray. But it’s MGM, remember…and cribbing from the same elements used to master the DVD. And so, what we have here is a master predating today’s technologies and achieved for one format, up-rezed merely to accommodate another. Yes, things do tighten up, but never to reveal outstanding levels of sharpness or clarity. Want more proof it’s an old master? The brief examples of age-related damage evident on the old DVD appear in exactly the same spots on this Blu-ray. Colors are vibrant, but again – not of the eye-popping brilliance we are used to on Blu-ray. Contrast is okay, but blacks look a tad anemic. Whites are generally pristine; flesh tones, natural. The middle reel exhibits slight 'breathing' and the occasional soft flicker and strobe; again, not terribly distracting but obvious and easily corrected using today’s technologies. Don’t expect refined grain, though occasionally the image can look passably accurate and satisfying. We get a tad more information revealed on all four sides of the anamorphic frame. Ho-hum – expected. The audio is DTS but misses out on giving us the original 4-track Westrex stereo. Why am I not surprised? The only extra is a well-worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you already own this one on DVD, keep it and save your cash for a studio willing to put up some of theirs – along with more than a modicum of effort – into doing better work and right by their back catalog of golden oldies. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


SUSAN SLEPT HERE: Blu-ray (RKO 1954) Warner Archive Collection

A middle-age Dick Powell, perhaps still on the fence about ridding himself of the career-altering pall from playing Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944) and even more cynical screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, returns to more familiar territory in Frank Tashlin’s fluffy but disposable, Susan Slept Here (1954); a cordial, if slightly creaky and quaint romantic comedy about a tart-mouthed and womanizing screenwriter, Mark Christopher (Powell), who unexpectedly becomes paternal towards – then amorously interested in – an underage delinquent left in his care by the police over the Christmas holidays. Susan Slept Here hails from a period when good writing had more to do with the implication of thought and deed rather than the graphic illustration of either. For some, the comedy may seem rigidly structured around a singular plot point; one that nevertheless effectively building on a hilarious case of misdirection, destined to keep the curmudgeonly Christopher from making a cataclysmic misfire in his adult relationship with thrice divorced, peroxide plaything, Isabella Alexander (Ann Francis) by becoming even more naively entangled with the perky minor, Susan Beaurgard Landis (Debbie Reynolds).  The shtick is thick; its pseudo-intellectual/sexual double entendre, rich, clever and, at intervals, charming.
Observing the dapper Dick Powell in all his refinements as an actor, never mind looking fairly youthful at the age of 46 (pretending to be 35), it is difficult, if not entirely heart-breaking, to reconsider he had barely less than a decade of life left to live; dead at the age of 58 in 1963 from lung cancer. Powell’s perennial prowess both in front of and behind the camera, knowing his way around such slickly packaged dramedy, has been somewhat overlooked in the decades since his passing. If he is remembered at all today, it is generally for his contributions alongside Ruby Keeler as the winsome male ingénue and crooner in a series of Busby Berkeley musicals over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s. He really ought to be celebrated as a more versatile and consummate professional; driven by an uncanny knack for recognizing when one trend was dying and another on the cusp of re-launching his sagging prospects; seemingly with effortless aplomb, eschewing the trappings of a light musical/comedy star to take on the heavy-hitting arcs of suspense, action and drama, before becoming a prominent director/producer in the then new-fangled medium of television.
The other talent to be extolled herein is undeniably a natural: Debbie Reynolds. There seems to be an exquisite disconnect between the devout Nazarene who, despite numerable setbacks in her private life (including a very messy public scandal involving first husband, Eddie Fisher’s extramarital affair with her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor), not to mention subsequent romantic misfires that have left her destitute but with the elasticity of a rubber band, capable of incalculable ‘comebacks’; Reynolds not only has endured, but thrived for 83 glorious years, apparently without a kernel of bitterness left behind from these aforementioned hardships; one of golden-age Hollywood’s truly iconic personages and an ardent proponent of old-time Hollywood glamor, who single-handedly amassed an enviable collection of its memorabilia (buying up everything she could afford), only to be forced to auction it all off after the failure of her Vegas casino/museum. Reynold is the gregarious, multi-talented extrovert of stage and screen who, by her own admission, has suffered for her art from the chronic condition of ‘stage love’.  Above all else, she remains a superb raconteur, a sublime comedian, a vivid storyteller and a great lady to be admired. So it is perhaps not all that surprising to find her an absolute gem as the blue-jeans bon vivant of this piece, more hamburgers than hot cars in Susan Slept Here; completely oblivious as to how, at least at a glance, her overnight layover in a bachelor’s pad might be misconstrued by his more worldly – if not more intellectually sophisticated – paramour, as something tawdry.
Susan Slept Here is really a no-nothing toss away entertainment. But the cache brought to it by Powell and Reynolds is enough to make it click as it should. Ah me, star power. How I do miss it. There is not a talent working in movies today to pull off such a nonsensical May/December romance and make it seem anything more or better than cheaply silly. But Reynolds is the linchpin here; vivacious to a fault and as hilarious as she foists her wide-eyed innocence on the more worldly Christopher, outwardly at home ogling shapely starlets poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Okay, it is a little difficult, if not damn near impossible to think of Reynolds as a motherless juvie in need of fatherly firm-handed guidance, and even more of a stretch to imagine Dick Powell as any teenage girl’s dreamboat in a decade populated by the likes of Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Tab Hunter and Bobby Rydell. But Reynolds is a superb actress – something she is rarely given credit for – and one of golden-age Hollywood’s greatest alumni to weather the storm of changing times and tastes. Her joyousness and determination invested in the hunt to win herself a man is what keeps Susan Slept Here from devolving into abject treacle, despite director, Frank Tashlin’s best efforts to submarine this glossy confection with an extended pantomime; a decidedly bad ‘dream sequence’ in the penultimate moments of the picture’s third act. Powell, looking uncomfortably effete in a pink and blue sailor’s suit is pursued by Anne Francis’ spider woman – literally, spinning her web to ensnare him, with Reynold’s naïve young Miss, unschooled and left swinging from a perch in an over-sized birdcage.
Susan Slept Here is very much a byproduct of the fifties sexual stereotyping of women. According these precepts, the ‘good girl’ is chaste; the bad girl…well…less so. Intriguing to see Anne Francis as the viper, considering how effective she would be just a few short years later donning the decidedly skimpy apparel of doe-eyed and pure-as-the-driven-snow, Altaira Morbeus in 1954’s Forbidden Planet. But herein, Francis is delectable as the sinfully impatient and smoldering Isabella.  She really is more Christopher’s speed than Susan and he knows it. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Mark needs reforming – desperately – having thrown his heart into the ring on one too many times and had it trampled upon until Susan unexpectedly waltzed – or rather, stampeded - into his ersatz pad of 50’s chichi high-life, typified by the plush shag in his living room, a breathtaking view of the glittery Los Angeles skyline, an art deco Christmas tree (pilfered from the set of 1942’s Holiday Inn – or so it would appear) and a Best Screenplay Oscar staring back at him from his stonewall mantle fireplace. Difficult to say what AMPAS was thinking, affording their coveted gold guy the honorary post of serving as narrator to this rather sordid and sorry little comedy. In more recent years the Academy has become extremely territorial about loaning Oscar out for any guest appearances other than his annual night of a thousand stars. But here he is, regal and immaculate, and, as voiced by Ken Carpenter, pointedly glib and condescending about the way Mark lives his life. Poor Mark – pity the rich, but thoroughly miserable – Hollywood screenwriter, having lost his muse and superficially, his talents to ever win a mate – or at least, bookend – for Oscar, who solitarily adorns as the centerpiece of Mark’s moneyed accoutrements.     
Our story opens with Oscar’s contemplations; woeful and comedic, telling of how fame, fortune and the pursuit of glory have gone to the head of his owner, Mark Christopher. Mark’s not a bad egg, nor even much of an egotist. But he has made more than his share of blunders in life; wild and wooly times with any number of gold-digging starlets. His personal secretary, Maude Snodgrass (Glenda Farrell) is getting rather tired of typing out the drivel Mark’s been churning out since winning Oscar for writing ‘reel’ art. Maude is a tough ole bird; a sort of clear-eyed madcap lurking beneath the façade of a gin-soaked and slightly embittered cougar who despises “all gorgeous women with gorgeous figures…especially when they’re gorgeous!”  Maude doesn’t think much of Mark’s buddy, Virgil (Alvy Moore) either, referring to the crewcut and scrawny one-time war hero and Mark’s superior/now his gofer as ‘Junior’. Virgil and Mark were in the navy together – best pals. Virgil actually saved Mark’s life so Mark naturally feels he owes him something. Alas, the road paved with good intensions…well….along the way, Virgil has lost his self-respect. After all, there is not much Mark wants that he cannot procure all by himself, leaving Virg’ to skulk around the posh apartment, soaking up, but turning green from the afterglow of limelight. What should we call him…kept man? More like ‘house boy’ with a wicked slant on life of the rich and superficial in Hollywood; those dumb enough to think they have caught the proverbial tiger by its tail.
In this case, Mark had better watch out for the claws of his latest paramour; the slinky, Isabella Alexander – a senator’s daughter. She’s a knockout and perhaps not above knocking Mark on his celebrated assets in the process. It wouldn’t be hard. Mark quit his high-priced and steady studio gig to become a ‘serious writer’. One problem; he hasn’t suffered; ergo, he isn’t cut out for write the great American masterpiece. Neither is Isabella: just a girl who wants to settle down, or rather, calculatedly wrap herself in a money-lined mink or two as the very rich wife of a one-time highly successful screenwriter. Too bad for Mark, only his maid, Georgette (Maidie Norman) is in his corner.  Worse, Mark’s big plans to spend a romantic Christmas getaway with Isabella are repeatedly foiled, after Sergeants Monty Maizel (Horace McMahon) and Sam Hanlon (Herb Vigran) saddlebag him with custodianship of an annoying teenager. It really is Mark’s own fault, having once told Sam he was planning a hard-edged exposé on juvenile delinquency. One problem – Mark knows nothing about delinquents…well, nothing he can commit to paper without incriminating himself – and nothing to hint of a whiff of truth since he has pretty much forgotten what it is like to be young. Mark just wants to be left alone. Too bad, Sam preys on his pity. Susan Beauregard Landis is about to be carted off to a detention home for wayward youth. Alas, it’s Christmas and the bedding arrangements are all full up. Sue could spend a few days in county lockup or she could live large in Mark’s penthouse.
Why any self-respecting bachelor – even a proverbial nice guy like Mark – would entertain such an idiotic and preposterous arrangement is, frankly, beyond me. And Susan’s initial mistrust of all men in general, and our Mark in particular, does little to ingratiate her to him. In fact, from the get-go Mark realizes what a colossal mistake he has made in wanting to be the Good Samaritan. Susan is determined not to like Mark. But she is as determined to make it big as an actress. Mark has no time to debate these finer points. Unable to reach Maude, Mark instead elects to dump Susan off at a motel and find Maude later. Maybe she can look after Susan for the holidays. Alas, the hotel manager misconstrues Mark’s intentions in wanting to rent a seventeen year old kid a room ‘for the night’. And so, it’s back to Mark’s place; Susan inadvertently incurring Isabella’s ire when she answers Mark’s phone and gives every innocent indication of being ‘the other women’ in Mark’s life. Meanwhile, Mark has begun to warm to Susan in unexpected ways. He’s paternal, at first, calling upon his personal attorney, Harvey Butterworth (Les Tremayne) to find a loophole in the law that will set Susan free. But where and why?
For all intent and purposes, Susan is an orphan. Oh, she has a mother still alive – that much is true; but living her own life in Peru, having married rich and given her written consent for Susan to marry whoever and whenever she so desires. It doesn’t take Sue long to set her cap for Mark; a very bad case of puppy love at first sight. Anyone can see that? Or can they? Although professing no affection for the girl, Mark nevertheless allows himself to be swayed, arguably by compassion. After all, the cops cannot arrest a ‘married woman’ for vagrancy. So, Mark agrees to marry Susan in Vegas against the strenuous objections of his high-powered mouthpiece.  She takes the vows seriously. He doesn’t, electing to dance Susan’s feet off until the wee hours of dawn, then drive her all the way back to Los Angeles, deposit her on his bed, before telling Virgil and Georgette to take good care of Susan while he is away. Where is Mark going? To his private cabin in Tahoe – a real writer’s retreat, where he hopes to finish his ‘serious’ story. But before too long Mark begins to realize he is also in love with Susan. Too bad for Mark, Isabella is not yet willing to let him go. And so, the tug-o-war begins for Mark’s affections.
Susan is not easily dissuaded, not after Maude gives her a good piece of her mind; laying down the rules of engagement for a knockdown drag-out battle of the sexes. Fast learner, our Sue. After a fitful dream, in which Susan envisions Mark, dressed rather effetely, being seduced by a spider woman while she remains trapped inside a gilded bird cage, separated from the man she seemingly cannot live without, Susan awakens with a newfound resolve. She confronts Virgil and hits hard below the belt: “You? Who needs you? Mark? You know what you are, with your crewcut and fancy sailor talk? You’re nothing! Well, maybe you’re okay with the phony position he’s created for you but I won’t be a phony wife!”  Virgil does his best to have Sue see to reason, calling her into Harvey’s office to quietly begin the annulment proceedings. But Susan is a lot slicker than the men give her credit; ever the sophisticate about matters of the heart vs. a tabloid headline.
No, if Mark wants to marry Isabella he will have to divorce her and that is final. Seeing Susan in the commissary, eating cream, pickles and strawberries, Harvey forgets she is a teenager and begins to suspect that maybe Mark’s version of their platonic honeymoon was not the whole truth. The miscommunication continues as Harvey relays this news to Mark and he begins to suspect Virgil has been taking advantage of Susan behind his back. The two men come to blows and Virgil takes it upon himself to walk out on Mark and his cushy setup. It’s the navy for Virgil.  Meanwhile, Isabella has had quite enough of the enterprising young Mrs. Christopher. Interestingly, Mark too has had his fill – not of Susan – but Isabella. The senator’s daughter is out and Susan is decidedly in. As his last bit of duty to his former employer, Virgil explains the obvious to both Mark and his new bride; they are the perfect pair, leaving Mark and Susan to discover the depth of their affections in private. They do and in his penultimate moment of farewell, Virgil, now looking rather dashing in his naval officer’s gear, gets a wolfish whistle from Marilyn (Mara Lane); one of Mark’s sexy neighbors who previously would not even give him the time of day much less a come hither glance. It’s all for not, since Virg’ has to return to his ship or be court-martialed. Predictably, all ends happily for Mark and Susan, swinging together in the gilded cage of her fantasy, now a reality for the burgeoning love birds.
Susan Slept Here is a rather obtuse comedy with a few anomalies that bear mentioning. The froth is thick, though only occasionally dreamy. Director, Frank Tashlin makes several miscalculations in translating Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb's stage hit to the big screen. The worst of the lot is the dream sequence; pointless and visually absurd, with Dick Powell looking as though he has only just escaped a gay fashionista’s pride parade float, wearing costume designer, Michael Woulfe’s glittery pink and royal blue sailor’s suit and sequined cap. Remember, this is supposed to be a young girl’s fantasy about her perfectly idealized, attractive and strapping middle-age guy toward whom she has developed a healthy sexual attraction. But it is difficult if not impossible to see beyond Woulfe’s homoerotic camouflage; the sultry Anne Francis intermittently bedecked in smoldering hot outfits contrasted with the checkered-print calico top and satiny stretch pants worn by Debbie Reynolds – who very much looks the part of a tomboyish little girl by contrast. Dick Powell doesn’t really do himself any favors in this plot-less pantomime either; half sashaying about as though he were back on the set of one of those glorious Busby Berkeley musicals, unable to decide whether to work against the clothes he has been given to wear or merely dive headstrong into his pretty boy’s lampoon of masculinity.
Early in the film, Tashlin offers us an even more uncanny homoerotic exchange between Mark and Virgil; a conversation between the boys while one is taking a shower! Here, we get an overall disquieting sense of too much familiarity. Oh sure, the boys were in the navy together so I suppose it stands to reason they showered together without any concern as to what might occur if either one of them dropped the soap. But I don’t know too many heterosexual guy pals who would be nearly as comfortable in peace time discussing their plans for the evening while one – Virgil – has been thoroughly emasculated, and the other – Mark - casually struts back and forth wearing nothing but a towel; exiting his steamy glass shower (presumably, in the raw), donning an oversized bathrobe, and chatting away while Virgil follows him like a puppy around his bedroom suite, living vicariously through Mark’s extracurricular pursuits. We have transgressed beyond the usual bromantic chemistry; Mark socking Virgil in the eye later on, not so much to defend Susan’s honor, but rather jealously, for presumably betraying him with Susan in his absence. Draw your own conclusions, but Virgil has been missing out on this one-sided ‘friendship’; Mark content to keep his ole navy pal on a very short leash while flaunting his sexual prowess with the ladies right under Virg’s nose. Mark could have any woman he wants. That he settles on Susan Landis seems more like a beard worn for the convenience of the neighbors than a budding love affair.
I had hoped the Warner Archive (WAC) to be busy on some of Debbie Reynolds’ more memorable movies in hi-def: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Two Weeks With Love, I Love Melvin or The Tender Trap. But no; WAC has shown an affinity for the oddities as well as the irrefutable gems in their deep catalog. Susan Slept Here is neither, though it arguably strains toward the former than the latter. While I could sincerely complain (but won’t) about the executive logic that has placed this movie ahead of some far more worthy contenders, I certainly have no gripes with the way WAC has been handling any of their hi-def releases on home video. This is another peerless example of what deep catalog mastering is all about – or rather, should be; WAC raising the bar ever higher with a flawless 1080p rendering in superb Eastman Color that looks almost as delicious as a vintage 3-strip Technicolor release.
Color reproduction is, in a word, superb. The palette favors a lot of candy-floss hues, faithfully reproduced. Flesh tones are startlingly genuine. Few ‘color’ releases from this particular vintage have looked this good so far on Blu-ray. Contrast is bang on and consistent. Prepare to be pleasantly startled by the amount of fine detail on display. This is a reference quality visual presentation of a just so-so movie. The mono DTS is almost as delicious; sonically rich in unexpected ways, particularly the bookended main and end titles; the chorus warbling the song, ‘Susan Slept Here’; all bounce and no substance, just like the movie – a flavorful panache that like candy floss, sticks to your heart, if not your ribs. No extras, alas – or perhaps, fittingly. I cannot imagine wanting to know anything more about Susan Slept Here after having seen it once. It’s fun but that’s about it. If you like fluff, you will positively adore this disc.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

OLIVER STONE'S UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 2012-13) Warner Home Video

“From the outset, I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history.”
-        Oliver Stone
Whatever you think you know about U.S. history in the 20th century you can damn well set aside. Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States (2012) is nothing short of an eye-opener, imbued with Stone’s inimitable sad-eyed/clear-eyed search for the truth in an era and a nation hell-bent on preserving its own mythology and canonization for political sainthood, despite the overwhelming record of atrocities its various presidents have committed under the guise of preserving their own version of ‘truth’, ‘justice’ and ‘the American way’. According to Stone, it is either this way or the highway, as countless third world regimes, from Asia to South America have discovered under the rancor of U.S. interventions in their internal affairs. Under the guise of liberating the world from communist tyranny, each presidency since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time has increasingly anted up this margin of error with a devastating loss in human life; magnifying the numbers of its own military casualties while utterly distorting, minimizing or even more egregiously expunging the shocking sacrifices incurred by ‘the enemy’ – both military and civilian.
Stone’s exposure of America’s checkered past will likely be viewed by some as muckraking sensationalism of a different kind. Yet, it remains Stone’s most noteworthy attribute that he neither takes sides nor vilifies any of the leaders who have held the highest office in the land, but rather, with dispirited clarity, seeks to illustrate the rather psychotic repetition of past blunders recreated with each new rudderless leadership occupying the Oval Office; the escalation in terror, bloodshed and worldwide oppression, defended in the name of democracy and capitalism, reaching their tipping point almost by accident. Stone’s factual recitations, collaborated on by American University historian, Peter J. Kuznick, are shockingly clairvoyant in crystalizing America’s present age of iniquity as merely the last stop on this out of control nightmare we, who understand far less – or perhaps, even more embarrassingly, far too little – have laughingly rechristened as ‘progress’ in ‘American exceptionalism’. 
No nation is without its sins. This much is for certain. And surely, from Sun Tzu’s art of war to the political theorizing of Italy’s Niccolò Machiavelli – and beyond, into the hellish regimes of Adolf Hitler, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and virtually all points serving as connective tissue in between, humanity – if one can even suggest it as much - has witnessed either first hand or been given unfettered access to an unprecedented compendium of the very worst aspirations man is capable of and can so easily descend into as a bottomless purgatory, given half an ounce of ambition, a shot glass of moral ambiguity, and, more than a modicum of thirst for political power, predicated on nothing greater than greed. In the history of the world, since man learned to stand erect on his two feet, he has regrettably not learned any more valuable lessons that would either support or embrace the Christian doctrine for everlasting peace. It is rather unlikely that in his future pursuits, given his track record thus far, he will do any better.
And Stone’s Untold History is actually a testament in support of the notion man has, in fact, remained not only ignorant of this past, but occasionally reveled in surpassing the flagrant aggression of his predecessors. Ambition, after all, knows know master. It considers God, only as an afterthought – corrupting Biblical precepts to reshape and defend its own irreprehensible behaviors. In an era where it seems no one is at fault for either the precedent or the present, Stone’s documentary series – divided into 12 bone-chillingly corrosive installments – seeks to reestablish and expose a chronic malaise of ongoing political deceit, long since buried by a corruption – or rather, exclusion – of these more unflattering chapters; history, given to wild interpretations made by those who have remodeled it in the image they choose to present to the nation as fact, with little, if any regard for anything more or better than the promotion of America as a fairy tale. Like all bedtime stories taught to children, there is darkness as well as light to this allegory; alas, far more than anyone might at first anticipate.
The Untold History of the United States is not an outright condemnation of America as an aspiring ‘great nation’, a brutal debasement of its mythologized ‘greatest generation’ or a dismantling of ‘the great society’ that ought to have followed it. But it remains a sobering and provocative de-glamorization of the lies that have fermented, proliferated, afflicted and obscured the national social consciousness for well over a century; trading impressions in an ongoing political agenda – perpetuated by both sides – for the systematic dumbing down of the American cultural mindset. Even as American presidents have pushed hard to expand the plunder and pursuit of natural resources from all over the globe, America’s peoples have been misdirected in their world views about anyone existing beyond their borders of language and culture; assuming a God-given natural authority and entitlement, while believing their best interests have remained at the forefront of these various government regimes. Such an isolationist mentality – on the surface, utterly thoughtless and idiotic - really cannot be entirely blamed on the American peoples. For nearly a hundred years, they have been force-fed such fanciful parodies of their place or origin and its’ importance upon the world stage; further colored by the lingering clear-cut gullibility of childhood ‘good vs. evil’ repeatedly drummed into their heads, re-framed as an ‘us vs. them’ scenario – communist Russia the favorite, fear-mongering punching bag; the narrative made palpable with repeat or, as Hitler once astutely pointed out “the greater the lie, the more apt people are to believe it”; entire generations kept in the dark about every political coup, assassination, orchestrated public execution and botched imposition of puppet regimes, spreading like a cancer to infect the U.S.’s interests abroad at the expense of third world nations.
It is, after all, more than a little unnerving to grow up and realize the whole world does not revolve around you; that the nation in which one resides and has been taught to take immense pride in since birth, is not without its foibles; some, so egregiously vial, that it has served more than the overweening reach of the media to shield the fragile national psyche from the realizations America has long since devolved into a rudderless leviathan, bent on achieving global destabilization to maintain its supremacy as a super power. The mask of obscenities perpetrated at home and abroad is staggering; defying the very precepts of self-preservation elsewhere for fear an out-and-out people’s revolution is looming somewhere on the horizon. Like the lingering vapors from one of those many hydrogen or atom bombs detonated much too close to home, the capacity for exposure has mushroomed to pulverize its own master until it is nothing more than dust in the aftermath of its own nuclear fallout; also, to set off a chain reaction of humanity’s rants and inhuman cries that are fast advancing into a macro chaos as yet unknown. The human devastation, mostly glimpsed, though never dwelt upon, in Oliver Stone’s latest masterwork, has thus far been quite enough to simultaneously whet the appetite of cultural historians with or without a humanitarian streak, yet sour the belly of most anyone possessing the egocentric, nation-building audacity to still consider the other side in any conflict as inconsequential to this equation.
The Untold History of the United States is a far-reaching, if thoroughly incomplete record of the hellish wreckage U.S. foreign policies have wrought all over the world since the end of WWII. To fully digest the scale of these atrocities would have resulted in a gargantuan orgy of newsreels for which Stone’s expansive 10 part miniseries has neither the opportunity nor the time to fully invest. Even so, with its ongoing critical discourse ever advanced by Stone’s running commentary, delivered in Stone’s atypical deadpan style, this groundbreaking series has managed the minor coup of taking copiously researched materials from an abundant wellspring, processing them into a mostly coherent and textually dense overview of the mid-to-latter half of the 20th century and dawning of the 21st; stripped bare of the benefits of those halcyon memories usually ascribed through very rose-colored glasses. It is, perhaps, an imperfect investigation, marred by Stone’s infrequent dyad between real history and reel references culled from Hollywood movies of the period; also, by some truly laughable voice characterizations that in no way mimic the historical figures they are attempting to imitate. Oft criticized for being an alarmist, extreme in his alternative conspiracy theorizing, Oliver Stone remains one of the 20th century’s most prolific and imaginative cultural mandarins of his ilk and generation. While some may find Stone’s particular brand of hypotheses veer dangerously into self-aggrandizing pontification; one cannot – and should not – discount the essence and/or potency of his methodology. At the very least, he offers us an alternative to the pre-processed junk that has passed for mass public education for far too long and at his most provocative, Stone points to a more insidious denial, often misappropriated or reclaimed by those who seek to distort and rewrite history with themselves as the irrefutable, philanthropic victors.  
One of the most rewarding aspects of Oliver Stone’s film-making genius, is his general unwillingness to take sides, coupled with his determination to remain as objective as possible to the cold hard testaments of history – some of which have never been entirely disclosed to the public until more recent times when the transparencies of the internet age have made it virtually impossible to maintain such whitewashed silence. Those who would discredit Stone’s quest as simply a callous venture to sensationalize history itself, merely for entertainment purposes, would do well to reconsider that in his running commentaries he never once falters, shies away from, or outwardly ignores the contextualization of irrefutable facts and figures that point to a systematic betrayal of the American people’s best interests. These pale by comparison to the grotesque duplicities and annihilations endured by nations unlucky enough to come under the U.S.’s scrutiny and/or microscope; deemed viable commodities for what they can offer the various U.S. governments in the moment – natural resources, shifting political alliances against a temporarily held ‘common’ foe or simply, control over another military secret or burgeoning technology that can best serve the corporate greed at the expense of the nation’s constitutional mandate towards its own peoples.  
Stone has used the atomic age as the framework for most of his postwar theories on U.S. history; this understandably cataclysmic discovery of how to split the atom for maximum devastation, resulting in an ever-escalating fear of reprisals from offending nations whose governments equally aspire to possess such monumentally injurious apparatuses in our on-going tug-o-war devolution toward world domination. One figure alone should stagger the imagination; a record 1132 nuclear devices detonated as ‘tests’ in the United States since the mid-1940’s; another 981 in the USSR, with descending numbers of experiments conducted by the British, French, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and North Koreans; for a total documented 2475 bombs detonated to poison the earth, wind and water. Frankly, it is a minor miracle any part of it has survived humanity’s mad inhumane noise in these ensuing decades; that we are not all born with four heads, eight arms, three testicles and other perverted and cancer-causing deformities with greater frequency incurred from all the radioactive fallout that has showered the atmosphere and encircled the globe hundreds of times over. How idiotic is man; misguided in his seemingly Freudian male preoccupation with ‘size’; ever desiring to build the ultimate weapon of mass destruction that will render the point of whose is bigger moot by killing every last living thing on the planet, while plunging the few remaining survivors into a hellish and ultimately smothering nuclear winter from which there is no escape.
It would be so easily adolescent to dismiss Oliver Stone’s history as conspiracy theories or to merely label them as correspondingly misguided, if not for the fact Stone is neither an doom merchant nor a sensationalist seeking to shock, revile and disgust.  He requires no such help there; history itself far more disturbing and ominous than anything his filmmaker’s camera eye could invent or reinvent. And Stone, for all the negative hype swirling around his endeavors – chiefly perpetuated by those who would seek to discredit him without actually reviewing the cruel facts of history itself first – has proven time and again to be one of the most unreservedly clear-headed investigators. His Untold History of the United States is sensational without ever succumbing to rank sensationalism; his densely packed narrative, viewed through the rubric of the U.S.’s variously flawed presidencies and failed foreign policies reveals a nation slowly left to feed upon itself, along the way reinventing its own mythologies as fact, while broadsiding the American public with media-sanctioned lies masquerading as the truth.  
To those unable, or perhaps too nervous and therefore unwilling to appreciate what Oliver Stone has wrought herein, it would be so lovely – I suspect – to bury one’s head in the sand like the ostrich; to continue to believe in the Hollywood-ized version of America: the beautiful – all wishing wells and fairytales; a cosmopolitan Disneyland that the post-Camelot era of disillusionment, left behind by an assassin’s bullet in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963 (if, in fact, the lone gunman theory foisted upon a Lee Harvey Oswald holds any validity anymore) momentarily shook America to its very core; since left to molder with a past, presumably bygone, but without lessons learned; political mentalities of subsequent regimes reframed by even greater misfires; race riots, the threat of Islamic terrorism and spank of a still relatively fresh 9-11 be damned – or rather polluted and later expunged from the record entirely. Stone’s documentary, like a good many of his ‘fictional’ movies loosely based on fact, is like the proverbial mad dog pit bull, utterly refusing to let go of our collective consciousness.  
If, as John 8:32 first proclaims, “the truth shall set you free”, then arguably Stone’s documentary can be viewed as a liberating experience; the first nail in the coffin of deceit, long overdue for its proper exhumation. Alas, the fateful beauty and tragedy of the historical record is that it unequivocally exists in perpetuity to be reconsidered from various vantages of interpretation for all time. Untold History of the United States is a harrowing, blistering, unflattering, and sadly, mostly accurate depiction of that miraculously misguided notion we have been led to recall ad nauseam as ‘history’. Imperfect in the extreme, and with much to atone for, America’s future fate may lie somewhere in revisiting this pit of despair, perpetuated by a plague of some very bad karma it has already disseminated elsewhere over the last 100 years. If one is spiritually inclined to believe in such vengeance from an omnipotent force greater than America’s own, I shudder to think of what this future will bring.  The past is, after all, the past; though it should never be forgotten, mislaid or rewritten as a reinvention of itself: something finer, less deviant or more altruistic beyond its own self-serving avarice.
In the end, America is no more that shining beacon on the hill prophesized by the late Ronald Reagan than the warring empires that preceded it and once held dominion over vast quantities of the earth: the Egyptian, Roman, British, French, Spanish and Germanic influences all with their own crosses to bear.  For a long while, the pall of the Eisenhower era, with its cloak of postwar American prosperity, was outwardly to imply a long overdue evolution in this ongoing chain of world empires: America somehow elevated and made to consider itself as more pure of heart and willing to stand up for nations around the world unable to do as much for themselves. Alas, in hindsight, this template of the perfect society rings ominously like Hitler’s own ambitions for a pure race of super-intellectuals. It also reveals the inherent flaw of placing our absolute blind faith in heroes when humanity is, in fact, made up of either the easily tainted or morally corrupt.
For decades, America aspired to better itself – to be better than the rest – or, at the very least, present itself as such to the world. But it increasingly has gone about this evolution in decidedly the wrong way. Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States plays out this hand with surprisingly unvarnished tiers to suggest how mind-bogglingly horrific things have become, not because America is evil, but rather, because it has shrouded its own historical record in the flag-waving artlessness of buying into its own myth. America’s nation-building days are over. There may be hope in this, as their political structure requires no help these days to self-destruct; nor do I suspect this as Oliver Stone’s primary motivation for making this monumental and compelling series. But if nothing else, the Untold History of the United States ought to serve as a cautionary tale; a sort of ‘how not to’ blunder from misfire to misfire or, at the very least, realign as well as illustrate what ruin can come to roost on any nation that readily shares in the effrontery of disbelief it can do no wrong. Kudos to Oliver Stone for being brash enough to tarnish the reputation, if not the hopes of a great nation, with the even more sincere endeavor to provide its free-thinking peoples with a more productive and proactive education so it might, at least, strive to do better in future generations. As Stone himself once suggested, “…the past is prologue.” So now, let the process begin, for America to redefine itself anew. It has at least the oath of that characteristic in history to fall back upon and draw from.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is presented on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video, in a rather lavishly appointed hard-bound box set. Part One is divided into three chapters: WWII, Roosevelt, Truman & Wallace, and, The Bomb – gripping in Stone’s ability to contextualize America’s nation-building era. In Part Two, Stone examines The Cold War, The Fifties/Eisenhower and The Third World, JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Vietnam; indeed the most telling and turbulent of times. Part Three is the least revealing of this exposé perhaps because the jadedness of our present era has resulting in a lot more questioning of the scandals and cover-ups we have been exposed to in our lifetimes. Finally, this set includes a superbly produced ‘prologue’ to the series – never aired on TV – that looks back on WWI, The Russian Revolution, Woodrow Wilson and America’s dawning as the ‘new’ empire. There is also a fascinating conversation piece, featuring political philosopher, Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone. As most of the footage featured in this documentary is culled from both film and video-tape based archival materials, the quality ranges from fairly impressive to downright poor; dirt, scratches and other vintage damage left intact, presumably to add a layer of verisimilitude to this exercise. What I found rather off-putting were the digital anomalies not inherent in the original sources; such as chroma-bleeding during some of the B&W footage and a disturbing video-based line running across the top of the screen – removed only by slightly zooming in the image with my remote. The 5.1 surround is satisfying, and Stone’s running commentary is never anything less than spectacular. Overall, this is well worth the price of admission. Prepare to be dazzled and ashamed by what you are about to see.  Hemingway once said, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” After seeing Untold History of the United States, I sincerely have misgivings the ole wordsmith was only partly right. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)