Sunday, July 31, 2016

THE GANG'S ALL HERE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Twilight Time

Claptrap and calamity hinder Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) from becoming more than a psychedelic footnote in the canon of truly great musical entertainments. The claptrap comes from Walter Bullock’s screenplay, so full of inconsistencies that it is ever in danger of toppling into a messy heap of glossy mayhem. The calamity arises from the fusion of Busby Berkeley’s usual flare for staging his numbers with military precision; his style clashing with the more robust gaudiness of 2oth Century-Fox’s musicals from this vintage. The Gang’s All Here is ‘trippy’ and I suspect this is part, if not all of its charm. The rest of the pleasures to be had derive chiefly from its two female stars; Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda; each, a radiant presence for very different reasons: also, the hallucinogenic and inadvertently Freudian musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley – a peerless master in maneuvering his camera through this labyrinth of scantily clad chorines, creating vertiginous displays of arms and legs all rearranged. Berkeley vacillates in this, his first movie musical expressly designed for the lushness of 3-strip Technicolor; indulging in intricate and befuddling exhibitions of spandex-attired ‘space vixens’ balancing neon-lit hula hoops (that sparked and gave everyone minor shocks), and other fresh young faces in island attire, coddling, contorting and caressing some very phallic bananas.
It’s an A-1 mash-up of art meets super kitsch as only Berkeley’s uninhibited creativity could evolve when given free rein to explore the infinite possibilities. Berkeley always said his best ideas were born in a cool bathtub… undoubtedly, given the water-logged cutaway nature of almost all of them readily on display herein; the discombobulated array of heads floating in a black ether during the film’s opener, Aquarela Do Brasil or the incongruous and very forced kaleidoscopic effect  - heads again - this time rotoscoped in a panacea of ever-changing shapes and colors to cap off The Polka Dot Polka and ballet; children decked in 19th century finery – top hats and floor length skirts, and adult women in lurid hues of body-hugging  stretch-ware. What a folly and a startle to see so much good talent turned to Technicolor gumbo by Berkeley’s unwieldy voyeurism.  If not for its two iconic stars at the helm, The Gang’s All Here would be a real misfire or worse – an epitaph to Berkeley’s otherwise trend-setting career.
First: to Alice Faye, luminescent as the nightclub chanteuse, Edie Allen; one of Darryl F. Zanuck’s irrefutable glamor gals. Interestingly, the film’s score does not favor Faye so much as it gets parceled off, bits going to Carmen Miranda and the undisputed king of swing, Benny Goodman. Faye does get two ballads – her forte; the rather lazily nondescript ‘No Love, No Nothin’ and the infinitely more melodic ‘Journey To A Star.’ Faye’s personality shines through, and not just in these songs – doling out equal portions of kittenish enthusiasm and sassy sex appeal. It’s an interesting blend, to be sure, and so rarely – successfully – achieved in the movies; a girl in a woman’s body who knows her own mind, isn’t afraid to use it, but equally naïve enough to be ‘the one’ any man would kill to take home to mother. The story of how Faye rose to prominence at Fox is almost as intriguing as the rather perplexed way she took her exit; walking out of the screening of 1945’s Fallen Angel, after realizing Zanuck had left some of her best scenes on the cutting room floor to favor costar, Linda Darnell; tossing her keys to the guard at the gate and adding “Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these!” Faye’s Fox tenure had begun ridiculously modeled on MGM’s platinum Venus, Jean Harlow. Despite this inauspicious start as a Harlow clone, Faye would come into her own in a string of highly profitable Fox musicals made throughout the mid-1940s. Along with veteran Betty Grable, she canonized the Fox studio-bound musical of this rarified vintage, even warbling the Oscar-nominated ‘You’ll Never Know’ from perhaps her most fondly recalled contribution, 1943’s Hello Frisco, Hello.
It wasn’t all joy galore; Faye, fighting off Zanuck’s advances and his verve to recast her as ‘another Jean Harlow’ – then the reigning box office sexpot. Faye began as nothing better than a chorine, gradually landing a plum spot as a singer on The Fleischmann Hour (1932-1934) with wildly popular radio personality, Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees. Her deep whiskey voice made her immediately identifiable. Alas, an erroneous alienation of affections suit brought by Vallee’s wife put a premature end to her early radio career. But by then she had already been chosen to replace temperamental star, Lilian Harvey in the movie version of George White’s Scandals (1933), Alice’s voice, if not her presence, was so well known by the public, it catapulted the picture onto a sizable success. Faye was not particularly pleased with her early start in pictures however; her head dipped in a bottle of peroxide, her eyebrows thinned, given the brash demeanor of a twenty-cent tart in films like She Learned About Sailors (1934) and Every Night at Eight (1935). At this point, Zanuck did an about face with his new leading lady; a new buildup ‘au naturel’ (or, at least as ‘au naturel’ as the glamor mavens in Hollywood could conceive back then); Faye looking more herself than a Harlow knock-off and winning the hearts and minds of a generation in picture after picture. Zanuck tested Faye’s new look in several Shirley Temple movies; Temple, then, the biggest box office draw, rumored to have accused Faye of kicking her down a flight of stairs on the set of Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). Nevertheless, from this moment on, Alice Faye would be given star billing in the movies she appeared.
In Hollywood, as in life, timing is everything. The Gang’s All Here falls right in the middle of Alice Faye’s legendary streak at Fox, her first marriage to singer, Tony Martin in 1937 lasting barely three years, despite their whirlwind romance on the set of Poor Little Rich Girl. Her second marriage, to radio star, Phil Harris, would take a lifetime to evolve. As early as 1936, Zanuck entered into negotiations with MGM’s L.B. Mayer for the loan out of Jean Harlow to appear in Fox’s biggest movie to date, In Old Chicago (1938). Tragically, Harlow died of uremic poisoning at the age of 26; the industry’s formidable loss, but ironically, Alice Faye’s gain, cast in In Old Chicago and practically running off with the show, despite playing opposite Fox’s prettified he-man, Tyrone Power. With her second marriage to Harris solidified – if never entirely sanctified by Zanuck - film work became less important to Faye, who discovered wife and motherhood far more richly satisfying than any part Zanuck could offer her. By the time The Gang’s All Here went before the cameras Faye’s impatience with the system had worn thin. She was one of the studio’s highest paid and most highly prized assets; yet, increasingly discontented.
Earlier, she had incurred the ire of the real Fanny Brice by aping her style in a loose biopic, Rose of Washington Square, and, along with the public, thought herself hopelessly miscast in the title role as Lillian Russell (1940) for which Zanuck ordered Faye to gain weight to play the Wagnerian-sized singer, then forced her to submit to being strapped into ultra-form fitting corseted costumes. Faye was also displeased by Zanuck’s more proactive endeavors to advance Betty Grable’s career at the expense of her own. Although she bore no ill will towards Grable, Faye deeply resented Zanuck’s sudden loss of interest in her own career. Thus, The Gang’s All Here would mark Faye’s penultimate appearance in a Fox musical, her acrimonious departure leading to an ‘unofficial’ blacklisting that kept her off the screen for well over a decade. To any other actress, this might have led to some very bitter times. However, Faye was arguably ‘done with’ Hollywood long before it had finished with her. Alongside her husband, Phil Harris on his popular radio hour, Faye played the doting wife; the program later rechristened The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and quite enough to fill this artistic gap.
The other great performer in The Gangs All Here is undeniably Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda (born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha); that electrifying stage presence featured in the ensemble stage smash, Streets of Paris, who helped to popularize (some say, bastardize) the iconography of the ‘Latina’, invariably hailing from Brazil, Portugal, Argentina and/or Mexico. Miranda’s appeal lay in her charmingly fractured English, an accent thicker than her platform sandals, idiotically exotic and often floral attire, capped off by a mind-boggling array of elaborate headdresses, sporting everything from miniature lighthouses and umbrellas to an increasingly lopsided bowl of fruit. The oversized turbans, hoop earrings and other jewelry became legendary overnight; Miranda’s style mimicked, though never duplicated (except for Mickey Rooney’s ribald transformation into ‘la Miranda’ for the ‘show within a show’ in 1941’s Babes on Broadway – even more ironic because Miranda herself coached the diminutive Rooney through his deliciously wicked lampoon).  The image Fox helped to solidify for Carmen Miranda would prove something of a dead end to her movie career; repeatedly cast as the fun-loving, if fiery, gal on the side; like Lena Horne at MGM, inserted into movies starring somebody else, merely to take full advantage of her colorful sex appeal and playful mismanagement of a lyric. “Ah…that’s the kind’a music I like it…it talks to my skin!”
In many ways, Miranda’s appearance in Down Argentine Way (1940) dovetailed perfectly into President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor policy’ toward Latin America. Increasingly, however, Miranda was ill-received in her native Portugal where her fame steadily eroded under the adoption of America’s farcical impressions of her exotic heritage.  Nevertheless, in Brazil, her adopted nation, Miranda’s reputation was galvanized as a goodwill ambassador abroad. But by 1946 the bloom of her exoticism had quietly worn off. Increasingly, it became clear Miranda could not ‘star’ in a picture, needing ‘straight’ performers to play off. Zanuck allowed her contract to lapse. She was quickly picked up by MGM for two quaint Jane Powell programmers, A Date with Judy (1948) and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950).  And although both movies were successful at the box office, neither reinvigorated Miranda’s movie career. But her last act came much too soon. As a popular nightclub entertainer, she readily appeared as a guest on the talk show circuit and variety hour programs of the mid-fifties. On Aug. 4, 1955, Miranda felt ill prior to appearing on The Jimmy Durante Show, falling on one knee during her live performance and mentioning, with a fanning hand, she felt a little out of breath. She would die later that same evening; ruled as a heart attack until it was later discovered in an autopsy she was pregnant and had likely died of pre-eclampsia -- a pregnancy-related condition characterized by high blood pressure and kidney malfunction. She was only 46 years old.
Looking back on Carmen Miranda now, miraculously, time has not withered nor even diminished her appeal; those sparkling eyes full of unbridled happiness; that impossibly broad and heavily lip-sticked mouth, sounding out an impossible array of half-fractured syllables and pseudo-Portuguese flimflam in swing tempo with the Latin beat of her Bando da lua serenading on all sides. She exudes a sort of fanciful exuberance, her sheer joy as an entertainer, utterly infectious and instantly appealing. At the writing of this review I can almost hear her ‘cuanta le gusto-ing’ in my head with a chica-chica-boom-chic for good measure. And if she never went beyond being a cameo performer, then what a cameo performer she was; a sizzling mania in tinkling jewelry, spouting Anglo-Portuguese fireworks to a samba, and easily towering over the rest, despite her relatively short physical stature – barely 5 feet. Taking a cue from Down Argentine Way, The Gang’s All Here opens with a Carmen Miranda spectacle; the more traditional ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’ perfectly segueing into ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ to set the proper tone in merriment and magic.
Our story begins in earnest with Sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison) arriving at New York’s hottest nightclub to sample a bit of the wild side of Broadway before being shipped off to war. Against the strenuous objections of his stogy father, Andrew (Eugene Palette), Andy gets involved with nightclub singer, Edie Allen (Alice Faye). Meanwhile, Andrew’s friend, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) becomes entangled with the nightclub’s other knockout performer, Dorita (Carmen Miranda). Peyton is a stuffed shirt whose wife (Charlotte Greenwood) and daughter, Vivian (Sheila Ryan) think him respectable. Anyway, Andy gets sent to the front lines during WWII, but returns a hero several years later; only now - inexplicably engaged to Vivian, leaving Edie with a broken heart. Dorita decides to help the confusion along by revealing Peyton’s flirtations with her at the café to Mrs. Potter who, in turn, demands to know what in the world is going on. All of this loveable nonsense doesn’t quite add up and it is made even more confusing by the fact Busby Berkeley frequently interrupts the romantic comedy to insert lavishly appointed production numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with the story.
The most successful of these intrusions is undoubtedly Carmen Miranda’s ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat’; a garish tropical routine complete with organ grinders and their monkeys, a spate of plastic palm trees lazily swaying in the breeze of an off-camera fan, and, a bevy of artificially tanned Fox contract beauties, forming geometric patterns in the studio-bound sand; Berkeley capturing the magic from his craned camera aerial perch in the rafters overhead.  There are really only two ways to look at The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat; either as a lot of fun or as a wan ghost flower of Berkeley’s more elaborate work committed in B&W over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s. In point of fact, it is a little of both; Fox keeping Berkeley’s request for a hundred chorines down to less than fifty, and skimping on the ‘coverage’; Berkeley maneuvering his camera back and forth in slow-mo as the chorines raise and lower their bananas over their heads. Carmen Miranda is the treasure of this moment, using the bananas as a xylophone as she warbles the captivating Harry Warren/Leo Robins’ lyrics. “Americanos tell me that my hat’s too high, because I will not take it off to kiss a guy. But if I ever take it off to say, aiy-aiy, I dood that once for Johnny Smith and he is very happy with the lady in the tutti-fruitti hat!”  The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat ran into considerable clashes with the prevailing censorship (the sight of island girls hugging gigantic bananas unduly suggested as deviant fetishism best left to the imagination).
Nothing else in The Gang’s All Here tops The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat. For its sheer audacity and execution, nothing even comes close. The other numbers are a mostly uneven affair. Carmen Miranda’s other splashy tune, ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ – accompanied by Tony De Marco and her own Bando Da Lua is truncated; Miranda barely given a chance to samba as Berkeley’s camera zig-zags around patrons in this Hollywoodized Manhattan hot spot. Alice Faye’s romantic ballad ‘A Journey to A Star,’ is first sung aboard a ship, Berkeley wisely resisting to deviate from Faye’s luscious visage for even a moment. But he frequently finds reasons to leave Benny Goodman awash in a sea of faces as his orchestra contribute two of the better musical moments to the picture; ‘Minnie’s in the Money’ and ‘Paduka’; Berkeley again going for ‘crowd shots’ of the various couples ‘cutting a rug’ on the dance floor. Less promising on every level is the fractured amalgam of styles thrust into The Gang’s All Here’s elephantine finale. It begins promising enough with Faye’s sultry warbling of the playful ‘Polka-Dot Polka;’ Faye, looking ravishing in costume designer, Yvonne Wood’s spotted ensemble, surrounded by a delightful gaggle of children in their ‘gay nineties’ formal attire.  The tune, bouncy to a fault, leads into one of the most bizarre disconnects in all musical history; a display of cat-like vixens wrapped from horn to hoof in snug-fitting spandex, each clutching a neon hula hoop changing color with the proscenium. These hoops miraculously morph into giant wafers as the girls continue to rotate them overhead. Seemingly unable to escape from the delirium he has created, Berkeley merely dissolves into a forced perspective of a kaleidoscopic vision of Faye’s head swirling in a sea of rotating color wheels; the entire cast’s disembodied faces dangling in a firmament of twinkling stars for the reprise of ‘A Journey to a Star’.
The Gang’s All Here is often cited as a stellar example of ‘luscious’ escapist entertainment. If ‘mindless’ is what you desire, then I suppose this musical fits that bill nicely. But it must be stated co-star, James Ellison is a thoroughly ineffectual leading man; handsome enough in a sort of non-descript brawny way, though without the A-list personality to make those looks count for anything more than window-dressing. Character actors, Eugene Palette, Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton are wasted; great comedians with precious little to do except act befuddled and pretend they have not already figured out where all this lunacy is headed. Carmen Miranda rescues the plot – such as it is – but only momentarily in the very brief sound bites she appears outside of singing a song. Perhaps wisely, Zanuck has parceled Miranda off to a purpose: to splash across the screen like a sunburst before setting in the backdrop. Too bad, there is precious little going on in the foreground of Walter Bullock’s mangled screenplay. There is no focus to the piece outside of its ‘sheer entertainment value’; a sort of Vaudeville routine that occasionally outstays its welcome but is salvaged from inducing absolute tedium by the inclusion of several memorable musical sequences – and one truly awful one. Yet, when all is said and done, The Gang’s All Here resonates as an exercise in gaudy excess rather than starlight and magic.
Resident restoration expert, Robert A. Harris has gone on record, stating “I'm never quite certain how to relate to the Fox three-strip Technicolor films, as they no longer provide anything close to the original look of Technicolor. And that concept needs to be taken a step further, dependent upon what efforts have been used to try to help what elements that do survive.” Alas, it is begrudgingly for certain, Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of The Gang’s All Here is one of biggest disappointments of the season. What ought to have been a big and splashy, robustly colorful extravaganza has been distilled into a rather mediocre readdressing of some tired old surviving Eastman stock that has decidedly seen better days. In the mid-70’s, Fox famously junked all of their archival materials in favor of these inferior ‘preservation’ masters, simply to cut down on the amount of space the old film library was taking up in their non-air-conditioned vaults. Rumor has it, the elements were loaded onto a barge and unceremoniously dumped off shore, but that may be an apocryphal tale. Whatever the case, no satisfactory elements have survived in the interim, leaving The Gang’s All Here a very faded memory of its original opening night glory.
I have spent many a day burning in effigy the executive brain trust responsible for this 1970’s purge. Those unaware of how vibrant original 3-strip Technicolor can look need only have a gander at some of the spectacularly gorgeous hi-def transfers being done over at Warner Bros. on Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St. Louis or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon to make the comparison, while shedding a few pang tears for The Gang’s All Here on Blu-ray. Under the circumstances, could it have been better in 1080p? Apparently so. Again, I defer Robert Harris’ comments about “a glorious surviving dye transfer print” via a mid-70’s reissue of the movie in “blazing three strip” by Eric Spilker. Mr. Harris goes on… “If you're ever serious about seeing the film properly, the experience is attainable.” Okay, so now I am even more disappointed by Fox’s mismanagement of assets that are on tap but were incongruously never utilized – or even considered, for that matter – for this hi-def parceling off to third party distributor Twilight Time. At this point I can only sincerely speculate as to why Mr. Spilker’s archival elements were not even inspected for a new scan to Blu-ray.
Overall, I don’t have issues with this disc’s sharpness or contrast, though neither ever rises to the level a real re-alignment of 3-strip Technicolor would have yielded. But it’s good – if not great. Again, color is the real issue here; saturation and density – and for a movie so utterly dependent on the brilliant hues of Technicolor, this one left me flat, flat, flat! Age-related artifacts have been cleaned up; no real damage, dirt or scratches to speak of, and that’s a good thing. The audio is presented in 2.0 mono DTS and sounds adequate, if not remarkable. Better is Twilight Time’s isolated musical score and a new audio commentary from Glenn Kenny, Ed Hulse and Farran Smith Nehme. TT has also ported over the old Drew Casper commentary, plus the featurette: Busby Berkeley: Journey to a Star, and Alice Faye’s promo shot in the twilight of her own career – ‘We Still Are’, plus a deleted scene and original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: I sincerely wanted to get excited about this release.  It ought to have been better. Realizing that it also could have been better has left me pining for a studio mantra that is not merely ready to settle for baseline competency. But then again, it wouldn’t be Fox! Not good, folks. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, July 28, 2016

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: Blu-ray (UA 1978) Shout! Factory

Shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $350,000, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) became one of the most influential and profitable independent movies ever made. Few horror movies manage to retain their insidious charm and appeal with the passage of time. It is, after all, one of the ironies of the human condition that repeat exposure to impulses of shock and/or laughter tends to have a ‘been there/done that’ anesthetizing effect on an audience who already know a scene and therefore can anticipate either the ‘surprise’ or ‘humor’ yet to be derived from the first time viewer in it. Siegel’s original movie is an exception to this rule, perhaps because its subtext is timely rather than timeless; the movie’s harrowing depiction of humanity transformed into a mindless rabble of preprogrammed alien lifeforms, a rather spooky parable for the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts and Red Scare. The premise, based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel (simply titled, ‘Body Snatchers’) also fit rather succinctly into filmdom’s B-budgeted matinee sci-fi craze, then afflicted by giant radioactive bugs and man-eating plants; the imagined lore of the atomic age kicking in with fanciful tales of cosmic terrors from outer space. Many postmodern critics and political historians have since reinterpreted Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay as a scathing indictment of declining individualism in a radicalized conservative America, humans becoming soulless clones subservient to the will of a higher – if more insidious - authority. It all worked spectacularly well in 1956. But how would audiences react to a ‘remake’ in 1978? A better question: would they?
If Siegel’s original rang ominously true, playing to the built-in paranoia of communist infiltration, than Philip Kaufman’s remake emits a positively bone-chilling and apocalyptic majesty that goes strictly for the scares; sound logic in the gritty seventies and long since having become the template for all ‘end of the human life’ scenarios popularized in our present spate of sci-fi/horror movies. In hindsight, both the fifties and the seventies had this much in common: each, a decade plagued by high anxiety over circumstances beyond seemingly ‘everyone’s control’ that any clever film maker worth his weight in celluloid could tap into and feed off of to create an enduring masterpiece. And 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, unquestionably, a magnum opus of the genre, railing against feminist-induced man-xiety: our hero, health inspector, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) caught between his own internalized disassociation from the world and a staggering inefficiency in his unrequited affections for married chemist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams); a failed flagrante delicto teetering on the verge of a crying gag. The original movie’s subliminal and propagandized communist threat is replaced herein by an agonizing fear of the unknown, and an increasingly ‘squirm-worthy’ sense of claustrophobic guilt for having survived the phase one deluge, rounded out by Russ Hessey and Dell Rheaume’s truly squeamish special effects as the city by the bay steadily descends into its supernatural day of reckoning.
In hindsight, the simplest effects proved the most effective; the initial interplanetary descent of these outer space spores achieved on a relatively limited scale and budget, employing a translucent and gelatinous substance purchased cheaply from a local art supply store, set against a plywood and paper mache backdrop convincingly substituted for outer space. For the record, the ominous ‘budding sequence’ - whereupon this gelatin takes on the more concrete form of miniature green rhizomes with their fan-like tentacles stretching across the unsuspecting foliage of various plants; a precious pink flower emerging from these tiny veined pods - was shot in reverse; the silken petals and spider-like talons pulled back gently by a series of cleverly concealed nylon threads; the flowers closing, their webby roots retreating; later, played back at the correct speed and backwards to uncannily suggest the opposite. Shooting mostly at night or on curiously gray afternoons, Kaufman and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman get a lot of mileage out of these unsettlingly sun-less California exteriors; San Francisco looking lifeless, anemically pale or darkly lit and extremely moody; a ‘not quite right’ metropolis where queer little pink flowers have already begun to grow from pods attached to virtually any and all plant life.  
Relying on the old mantra, ‘from little things come great beginnings,’ this Invasion of the Body Snatchers builds to a malignant crescendo of absolute dread. Kaufman can take an ordinary office janitor with a floor polisher, backlit in shadow and photographed from a low angle, and make him appear hideously suspect. He alters the darkened recesses of otherwise incredibly innocuous looking streets, afflicted as uneasily confined and shadow-cast dead ends of fatal intent. As example; an unassuming elevated backyard garden is unexpectedly transformed into a mortuary of thick mucusy/web-encrusted clone fetuses, oozing from pod-like cocoons. The effect, elaborately executed, is actually comprised of latex molded impressions of the actors with a tiny compressor pumping air to suggest the ‘birthing’ phase of these clones; the goo gushing from inside them little more than a mix of non-toxic chemicals with green dye added and spritzed lightly with water to glisten as embryonic fluid might. Oddly enough, the flashier SFX in the movie are less convincing; a pug, inexplicably having adopted the face of its homeless, guitar-strumming keeper; presumably, some Brundle fly DNA crisscrossing experiment gone horrible awry during the slumber mode of this alien exhumation. However crudely executed, it remains a seamless effect, yet somehow more inexplicably grotesque than terrifying.   
Like so many horror movies from its vintage, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers hails from a decade where the concept of character development is neither foreign nor excluded to satisfy cheaper thrills. We get to know these characters about to be absorbed into the abyss; two ‘couples’ actually – the aforementioned Bennell and Elizabeth, and, failed poet, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldbloom) and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) – owners of a prototypically proletariat bathhouse, catering to new age relaxation therapies. Jack’s beef is with psychiatrist, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy); a pop psychologist doling out ‘feel good’ therapy-in-ten-minutes-or-your-pizza’s-free and writing self-help books that are more about achieving and maintaining his own notoriety as a media darling than actually fixing the emotional problems of his high-paying clientele.  Fittingly, Kibner turns out to be one of the early ‘pod people’ leading Matthew astray, murdering Jack and narrowly causing Matthew and Elizabeth to succumb to the transformative ‘black sleep’ from which no human ever returns. The best scenes in this remake play to a sort of social disunity and isolation. Mankind will not triumph over this intergalactic treason because we are neither focused nor of one mindset; the collective-ness of the pod people effortlessly gaining dominion over a species that chooses individualism over the solidarity of withstanding Armageddon together.
While the tone of the story represented on the screen remains tautly adversarial, attitudes behind-the-scenes proved anything but – cast and crew famously getting on. “It was a pleasure to do it,” Donald Sutherland recalls, “I’m proud to have played a part in its success.” While Sutherland’s participation was always assured, and, in fact, backed by the studio, Kaufman cast Leonard Nimoy against the strenuous objections of United Artists; their top brass fearing Nimoy’s iconic turn as the Vulcan genius ‘Spock’ on TV’s Star Trek (1966-69) had severely typecast him. Meanwhile, VP in Charge of Production, Mike Medavoy made a veiled ‘request’ of Donald Sutherland - to sport the same curly mop of hair he had first made famous in 1973’s Don’t Look Now; a rather ineffectual thriller. Sutherland was not adverse to the demand, despite the daily added requirements to maintain such meticulous grooming. Co-star, Veronica Cartwright would later muse, “They set poor Donald’s hair in pink rollers every morning to give him these ringlets…like Harpo Marx! He spent so many hours in that chair. I think they paid more attention to the way his hair looked in that movie than they did mine!” Today, one sincerely wonders about the point of it, except to argue Sutherland’s character was originally intended to be a sort of offbeat and aspiring jazz musician in the first draft of the screenplay. While the vocation did not survive, the hair did, looking rather frilly and foppish.
In reinventing Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the more morally ambiguous 1970s, Kaufman was to rely on at least one link with the past to carry over and reintroduce the narrative; a cameo agreed upon almost by accident with Kevin McCarthy reprising his role as the ‘last man standing’ at the end of Siegel’s classic, now more frantic than ever as he collides with Bennell’s sedan, pleading and pounding on its windshield for Bennell and Elizabeth to heed his warnings about the fast approaching Judgment Day.  No – they don’t want to coexist. They want to take over.  Naturally, this omen is not taken seriously. Despite repeat exposure to the increasingly dehumanized population (Elizabeth’s disassociation from her dentist/husband, Dr. Geoffrey Howell, played with menace by Art Hindle, or Mathew’s jarring realization that the wife of his Chinese launderer, Mr. Tong, played with great sincerity by Wood Moy, has already succumbed to a ‘sickness’ of the mind) Matthew and Elizabeth remain skeptics of the grandly dismissive sort for far too long, unable to fathom the horror they have as yet to witness with their own eyes. It is, after all, quite fanciful at a glance – the world taken over by aliens who come to us via plant form, and, capable of duplicating every aspect of the human condition except our ability to feel – the one characteristic that makes us truly compassionate.
It is one of those idiosyncratic and uniquely human traits that, as humans, we have steadily come to be more and more enamored by the prospect of our own demise. The classic disaster, horror and sci-fi movie all draw upon this fundamental beguilement to witness the end of times from the relative safety of a darkened theater. Particularly affecting when envisioned for the summer popcorn blockbuster, such devastation gets built into the DNA of our morbid curiosity. Sick – but fun too. And Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much more than just a light smattering of death, playing into T.S. Elliot’s iconic poeticism “…this is how the world ends…not with a bang, but a whimper.”   Indeed, it may be one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Quite easily, it is one of the best remakes yet done. The novel’s cosmic terrors were intriguing enough; the 56’ movie’s reinvention, tantalizing as a parable. The remake’s strength is that no such parable applies; the circumstances and the results left spuriously open to our own imaginative powers of deduction. In W. D. Ritcher's screenplay, the migration of these ‘pods’ preys upon humanity from the most innocent of circumstances, a cleansing spring rain, the pods themselves stealthily attaching to other plant life and producing colorful blooms to entice.
The flowers are first observed with curiosity by micro-biologist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) as she heads home after a long day, working in the Public Health sector. Liz’s live-in boyfriend, Dr. Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle) thinks her speculation about parasitic plants is farfetched to say the least. Actually, he doesn’t care about much of anything except sports. Very shortly however, Geoffrey discovers the truth firsthand – becoming one of the first human/alien hybrids. The new Geoffrey looks pretty much the same, except he is utterly void of emotions. At first Elizabeth suspects Geoffrey is having an affair. But she dispels this theory after witnessing him engaged in the silent transfer of strange pod-like materials between men and women from all walks of life, their clandestine meetings in deserted parking lots and back allies. To get a better handle on what might be going on Elizabeth consults her friend and mentor, Board of Health inspector, Matthew Bennell. At first, Matthew is just as reticent about entertaining Elizabeth’s theory of alien colonization: that is, until he begins to witness similar changes first hand afflicting patrons and owners from some of the local establishments in the city he frequents, only to discover an emotionless population staring back at him.
Meanwhile across town, massage therapist Nancy Bellicec and her husband, Jack suspect their establishment has already been frequented by the pod people. Eventually the Bellicecs approach Matthew and Elizabeth after discovering a look-a-like of Jack grown from a pod inside their backroom. The body is quickly disposed of by a mysterious group of ‘waste disposal’ men after Jack refuses to fall asleep and thus, succumb to the transformation from human into pod. Arriving too late to witness the proof firsthand, Matthew consults Kibner who readily assures him there is no cause for alarm. While many San Franciscans have approached him with similar stories, Kibner is almost entirely convinced the crux for this sudden and mass paranoia stems from a sort of congenital anxiety that has been stifled and resisted for too long and only now erupted to blindside the entire population, in the middle of having a collective nervous breakdown. Although Matthew does not realize it yet, he has had his first encounter with a pod. Kibner is not really Kibner. Sensing he is being led astray, Matthew gathers the Bellicecs and Elizabeth at his hillside home. Alas, one cannot remain awake forever. As sleep overtakes the group, pods begin to hatch around Matthew’s garden; each, containing a replica of one of the afflicted. Matthew is stirred from his slumber by Nancy’s terrorized shrieks, awakening to find his own likeness writhing in gasps of short, slimy breath at his feet. Unable to quantify what has almost happened to him, Matthew takes an axe to his likeness, destroying the pod person and then proceeding to kill the rest of the offspring to save his friends’ lives.
The victory is short-lived, as Matthew places a frantic phone call to the police for help. “Wait right there, Mr. Bennell,” the 9-11 operator coolly insists; both her tone and the fact she knows his name without first asking for it, leading Matthew to concur with Jack. It’s too late for San Francisco. The pod people have taken over and outnumber the human populace of the city. Fleeing into the night moments before a pod congregation overtakes the house, Matthew, Elizabeth, Jack and Nancy attempt to mask their feelings and infiltrate the city center to learn the true extent of the pod occupation. To their collective horror, they discover the city overtaken by pods, carrying more and more of this embryonic plague to various destinations around the globe from stockpiles awaiting shipment at the wharf. Nancy and Elizabeth are startled by a genetic mutation; the distorted face of a local homeless musician grafted onto the diminutive form of his beloved pug. The animal/human hybrid is repulsive and the women scream, revealing to the pods they still possess the innate human ability to feel fear. The pods retaliate, pursuing the Bellicecs and Matthew and Elizabeth down darkened streets. Jack and Nancy become separated from Matthew and Elizabeth; the latter couple eluding capture and making their way to the wharf where Matthew assumes they might find safety aboard one of the newly docked freighters.
Regrettably, the ship has already been commandeered by pods. Matthew is defeated and exhausted. He collapses in a sorrowful heap in the nearby rushes, clutching Elizabeth in his arms. But she has already fallen under the spell of the ‘black sleep’; her body disintegrating before Matthew’s eyes; her pod clone rising from the ashes only a few feet away. Matthew flees, discovering a warehouse nearby where even more pods are being readied for their deliveries abroad. Climbing the scaffolding to the second story, Matthew seizes a fire axe from the wall and chops away at the overhead lighting; sending banks of fluorescent lamps tumbling into the pod greenhouses below, electrocuting and destroying many pods in the process. Elizabeth’s clone identifies Matthew to her brethren. There is no time for regrets. Matthew flees into the night as the warehouse is consumed in a fiery blaze. The next day, Matthew is seen strolling through the Board of Health, his emotions presumably guarded as he makes his way into the park just beyond City Hall. Nancy emerges from the tree-lined periphery, cautious but assuming she has found the last surviving human on the planet. Regrettably, her trust is misplaced. For as she calls to Matthew he suddenly turns on her with the ominous shriek of a pod – having been consumed sometime between the last evening’s encounter and this hellish morning after. Nancy is the only human left and likely to befall a similar fate now that she has been found out.   
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a sobering horror movie, chiefly because it relies on a good solid story with exceptionally well-crafted characterizations to buoy its’ implausible narrative. Kaufman’s foreboding prescience promotes incremental dread and suspicion. The most elaborate of the special effects are truly grotesque, yet mere icing on an already well-frosted cake and continue to hold up under contemporary scrutiny. But it is the exceptional cast who really sell this monster mash as plausible entertainment. The net result is that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays much more like Shakespearean tragedy than a traditional B-grade horror flick shot on a shoestring – the penultimate moment where Nancy approaches Matthew, only to discover much too late he has become a pod, leaves the audience shell-shocked and uncertain as to who – or what - we might encounter exiting the theater. The ensemble acting herein is uniformly among the best ever featured in a ‘horror’ movie. We can easily bypass the star personas of Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nemoy with Veronica Cartwright and Brook Adams simply taken at face value. Even better, Michael Chapman’s moody cinematography transforms Frisco into a dreary, very careworn, and, exceptionally creepy landscape, truly fit for these night terrors. Most of the movie takes place at night. Yet, even daytime sequences exhibit a constricting sensation – suggesting everything belonging to the age of man is already in very steep decline.  Bone-chilling on every level and sure to lead to a few sleepless nights once seen, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers is never easily dismissed from our consciousness. The horror presented from without in our story is devastating to say the least. But the real horror that continues to linger, long after the houselights have come up, is undeniably born from within.
Generally speaking, I am not in favor of reissues, my philosophy akin to the old MGM motto of do it once, do it big and give it class. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a UA title: translation, it belongs to the ‘new’ MGM which in no way, shape or form resembles that spectacular ‘dream factory’ of yesteryear where the Gables, Garlands, Garbos and Hepburns freely roamed. We are constantly hearing of the financial crises rocking MGM’s corporate boardroom. And MGM’s track record for producing quality hi-def transfers for their deep catalog is not good to say the least. I mean, here is a company presently mismanaged by an executive brain trust who have virtually zero interest (and, if we are to believe the trades, zero funds) to restore John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960, and about as big a catalog title as one might hope to find anywhere in filmdom history), and furthermore, have force fed consumers a steady stream of lackluster Blu-ray releases of such iconic film fare as Separate Tables, A Kiss Before Dying and Hawaii among others, in pathetic reincarnations so woefully undernourished they barely are worth mentioning except to say – they’re terrible! So, it is more than a little surprising to see a reinvestment on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this brand ‘spanking’ new release via Shout!/Scream Factory, cited as a new 2K scan of the inter-positive. Without a doubt, this is a ‘new’ scan; considerably different from the previously issued Blu-rays and favoring a cooler palette of hues.
Never having seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers projected theatrically I can only offer the following observations. That, at least to my eyes, the new Blu-ray looks more pleasing and refined. Colors are not more saturated, but somehow less artificially boosted; browns, reds, blues and greens brought back into balance. In direct comparison, the old Blu-ray leans rather heavily toward a boosting of the warmer/browner tones. Flesh tones on the new Blu-ray are extremely satisfying and there is slightly more information revealed on the left and right sides of the film frame. The image is also augmented by a light and consistently represented smattering of indigenous grain. Curiously, the bit rate on this new disc is lower. Nevertheless, the results are the same – a solid, crisp image, free of age-related debris. Really good stuff! Shout! provides us with two audio options: the previously available DTS 5.1 and the similarly purposed 2.0. Extras are a bit of a mutt, culled from various ‘previously’ available sources and a few new goodies. We get the same audio commentary from Kaufman, the fifteen minute junket, ‘Re-Visitors from Outer Space: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod’, ‘The Man Behind the Scream’ interview, ‘The Invasion Will Be Televised’ and ‘Practical Magic: The Special Effect Pod’. These were featured on the old MGM/Fox Blu-ray and are little more than perfunctory in their praise; a shame too, because they feature Kaufman, Veronica Cartwright and Donald Sutherland – among others, all of whom look as they have much more to say but are somehow being stifled in their comments by an editor eager to simply move on to something else. 
More gratifying on every level is the new audio commentary by author/film historian, Steve Haberman who provides comprehensive back stories that are fascinating.  As edifying: the 10-minute interview with Brooke Adams entitled “Star-Crossed in The Invasion.”  The lengthiest new featurette teeters around the 25 minute mark with actor, Art Hindle offering more revelations you won’t find elsewhere on this disc. There are also short interviews with writer, W.D. Richter and composer, Denny Zeitlin. Lastly, Shout! dips into the archives for some TV Spots, Radio Spots a Photo Gallery and a vintage episode of Science Fiction Theater; “Time is Just A Place”, based on another Jack Finney short story.
Lost in the shuffle are a few very comprehensive extras that remain exclusively the domain of the Region B Arrow Blu-ray release from a few years ago: a 51 minute, 'Pod Discussion' with critic, Kim Newman and filmmakers, Ben Wheatley and Norman J. Warren; Dissecting the Pod: 20 minutes with Kaufman biographer, Annette Insdorf, and, Pod Novel: an 11 minute interview with Jack Seabrook, author of ‘Stealing through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney’. Personally, I continue to be more than a little miffed by the fact Euro-releases of classic Hollywood movies remain more plentiful and more comprehensively produced for the Euro/Asian market than for their North American counterparts. There are fans on this side of the pond too, fellas. Cut us some slack, why don’t you? By now, this compartmentalizing and parceling off of ‘rights’ and special features to various regions – especially for ‘vintage’ deep catalog releases – ought to be antique rather than the gold standard bearer. But I digress. Bottom line: for we who reside in Region A, Shout!’s new Blu-ray of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the way to go. It’s still missing some good stuff compared to the Arrow release, but well worth a double dip. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, July 24, 2016

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1944) Warner Archive

Picture it: Hollywood – 1944. A young girl, barely established in her modeling aspirations departs Manhattan, determined to etch out a career in the movies.  What she lacks in experience will be made up in her tenacity to succeed, and, by the Svengali-esque transformation under the auspices of her mentor, already well established in the industry; also, by an unlikely and enduring alliance cum whirlwind romance with one of movie land’s biggest box office names. Betty Joan Perske could not have dreamed a more perfect fairy tale kick start to her daring legacy. Under the tutelage of director, Howard Hawks, her transformation from naïve upstart into the mythological unicorn of smoldering sex appeal and sly impertinence, better known to movie fans around the world as Lauren Bacall, was made iconic in To Have and Have Not (1944). Not only did the picture bring Bacall to world renown, it inadvertently launched one of the most iconic love affairs Hollywood has ever known. It takes a lot to be immortalized in Hollywood. Indeed, had Hawks known of this latter wrinkle, he might never have given Betty Perske her big break; Hawks – magnanimous to a point, rather obsessively protective of ‘his discovery’ in this quid pro quo casting couch scenario, still being vetted and leveraged in the Hollywood of today. Too bad for Hawks, his grand seduction became the stuff of ‘lamb bites wolf’; Bacall moving on to bigger and better things. After all, why have part of the married grey fox’s swag and lolly when she could take it all with one of the most revered screen he-men of his era and in his prime; tough, with or without his gun.  
There was, in fact, little to suggest Bacall, duly noted in Harper’s Bazaar for her feline grace and blue-green eyes, would become the object of Humphrey Bogart’s amorous attentions, much less his life companion and wife. Given their age disparity alone (Bacall barely twenty to Bogart’s forty-five), the likelihood of any lasting affection between the two seemed doomed from the start. And Bogart, who had taken the slow boat to becoming a major ‘name above the title’ (some 20 years in pursuit of the dream) was already married. The nightmare that was Bogart’s connubial martyrdom to Mayo Methot is legendary; Methot’s usually unwarranted jealousy (basically accusing him of having a notorious flagrante delicto with every leading lady in his repertoire) having the completely opposite effect on Bogart’s association with the women he costarred opposite in pictures. Ingrid Bergman, cast opposite Bogie in Casablanca (1942) famously insisted, “I kissed him, but I never knew him” – an astute assessment of Bogart’s remoteness between takes; usually to be found alone in his dressing room, drink in hand, indulging a game of solitaire.
By 1941, Mayo and Humphrey were dubbed ‘the feuding Bogarts’; their mutual animosities boiling over into infamous rows. Born in 1899, Bogart always considered himself a 19th century man, devoted to that more chivalrous period of manhood when commitment remained paramount – for better or worse. But then he met Lauren Bacall; the two famously hitting it off over Bacall’s bad case of upstart’s jitters and Bogart increasingly admiring the ingénue’s observant good nature; diverting and different from his usual heated exchanges with the opposite sex. Originally, Bacall’s role in To Have and Have Not was to have been very minor; secondary, in fact, to co-star, Dolores Moran; just a walk-on to test audience response: Bacall’s insolent pickpocket, Marie ‘Slim’ Browning asking for a match to light her cigarette, then, casually tossing a lighter back to Bogart’s Capt. Harry Morgan. Reportedly, Bacall was so utterly terrified during her first day her hands shook to an extent where it showed on camera. Empathetic to the newcomer’s jitters, Bogart taunt Bacall a trick to control her shakes, seeing her through this iconic introduction to the movies. After only a few days’ work, it became rather obvious to Hawks something more was brewing on the set. Bacall and Bogart had chemistry – the kind that not only ignites but incinerates movie screens. To capitalize on these unanticipated sparks, Howard Hawks recalled his screenwriters, Jules Furthman and William Faulkner to rework the screenplay, beefing up Bacall’s part at the expense of toning down Dolores Moran’s.
Hawks – a taciturn, if brilliant storyteller, already well on his way to establishing his iconic reputation as one of filmdom’s greatest directors, was likely – if obtusely – unaware the attraction roiling between Bogart and Bacall was genuine, already begun to spill over into their after hours’ badinage. Hawks could be a remote figure, invariably allowing his braggadocios to get the better of him. Indeed, he had even had the chutzpah to challenge Ernest Hemingway, the author of To Have and Have Not with the claim he – Hawks – could make a silk purse from what he deemed the author’s worst novel, openly referring to To Have and Have Not as “that bunch of junk.”  Tossing out everything except a few names and, of course, the title, the cinematic To Have and Have Not would relocate the plot to Vichy-held Martinique after pressure was applied to Warner Bros. by the Roosevelt administration, encouraging Jules Furthman to temper Hemingway’s story – originally located in Cuba – and centered on an unrepentant rum runner/revolutionary who meets with an untimely end. Such alterations appeased and upheld the U.S.’s ‘good neighbor’ policy with its Latin American satellites.  
Hawks was generally dissatisfied with the several drafts Furthman submitted to him, hiring William Faulkner to spruce up the situations and dialogue; Faulkner, then going through a fallow period, elated to be in collaboration with his idol, Ernest Hemingway. And truth be told, Hawks was as interested in hand-crafting the rough clay that was Betty Perske as to create one hell of a good picture from his revisionist perspective on this original material. In fact, Hawks had given the character Marie Browning the nickname ‘Slim’; an affectionate pet name for his own wife, but also a rather transparent precursor of where his affections for Bacall resided. To test the waters of his ‘discovery’, Hawks first introduced the newly rechristened Lauren Bacall to Bogart while he was shooting Passage to Marseille (1944). Alas Bogart, then distracted by that picture’s arduous schedule and Mayo’s constant alcoholic-induced badgering, virtually ignored Bacall. However, on the set of To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s palpable feistiness immediately won Bogart over. And Bogart, having endured decades of his wife’s unwarranted chastisements; perhaps, with a little dark satisfaction, at long last gave Mayo Methot something for which to be jealous. Bacall was immediately smitten. Just three weeks into shooting, she and Bogart began their affair; Bogart, impulsively planting an unscheduled kiss on her lips and asking for her phone number. Much to Hawks’ chagrin, Bacall obliged. If not for Hawks’ own marriage, one could almost feel twinges of empathy for what could only be considered an outright betrayal.
Indeed, Mayo Methot was hardly pleased as rumors began to circulate about Bogart’s roving eye for this ingénue, young enough to be his daughter. Alas, one can argue Methot brought such misery upon herself; her insanely jealousy all but predicting Bogart would eventually stray into the arms of another woman. That he staved off the urge for so long when he might just as easily have bedded a bevy of female costars, but instead repeatedly tried to make the very best of this tragic union, is commendable. Nevertheless, when production wrapped on To Have and Have Not, Bacall temporarily went back to Hawks and Bogart to Mayo. Ultimately, Bogart asked Mayo for a divorce; begrudgingly granted and allowing him to pursue Bacall yet again. Bacall and Bogart would marry just three days after production on Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1945). In the interim, Bacall had made Confidential Agent (1945) a notorious fizzler co-starring Charles Boyer; the picture’s grotesque implosion at the box office, and in particular, the scathing reviews lobbed at Bacall, immensely pleasing Hawks, who unwisely deduced that without his hand-crafted manipulations of Bacall’s career, the starlet he ruinously regarded as belonging exclusively to him, would ultimately fail in her aspirations. Instead, Hawks would rue the day he ever laid his own aspirations for Bacall at the head of Humphrey Bogart; likely, left asking himself “was you ever bit by a dead bee?” – the memorable query, intermittently asked of various costars in To Have and Have Not by the irrepressible Walter Brennen; cast as the lovable rummy, Eddie.  Mercifully, Bacall’s momentary fall from grace would be buffeted by the release of The Big Sleep, followed by Key Largo and Dark Passage; cementing Bogie and Bacall as one of the all-time legendary screen teams who really could – and did – have it all.         
To Have and Have Not is a rogues’ gallery of familiar faces in the back lot pantheon; beginning with Walter Brennen’s exquisitely nuanced performance as Eddie; twitching from alcohol withdrawal, and pleasantly oblivious to the fact he is considered mostly a nuisance by everyone except Harry Morgan, who finds his harmless doddering diverting and worthy of all the respect of a fallen father-figure. “He thinks he’s looking after me,” Morgan tells the boorish, Johnson (Walter Sande), his latest charter client who increasingly has come to resent Eddie’s infrequent interference in their fishing expedition. Eddie casually, if chronically suggests of Johnson’s inability to snag a marlin, “You’re just unlucky, Mr. Johnson…that’s all. I never seen anybody so unlucky.”  Brennen, largely forgotten today, was highly respected and enthusiastically sought out by the studios for plum roles in his day, becoming the only actor in Hollywood to win 3 Academy Awards in 1936, ’38 and ’40 respectively; a record never topped, but later tied by Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis – very distinguished company to say the least. Notoriously, Brennan arrived in Hollywood penniless, his real estate fortunes virtually wiped out by the Great Depression; falling back on ‘film work’ to survive and steadily build his credits from 1925 onward. His forte was often playing drunkards of varying degrees, either bitterly contemptuous or obtusely lovable, the latter of which his Eddie in To Have and Have Not is among his best.
One is, in fact, rather startled to discover Brennan was only fifty years old in To Have and Have Not; the loss of most of his teeth in a 1932 accident, rapidly thinning hair, anemic physicality and unusually frail voice, making him appear much older. To Have and Have Not falls right in the middle of Brennan’s golden period as an actor, his breakout performance in Two-Fisted Law (1932), leading to an ever more impressive array of cameos. By the early 1940's, Brennan was one of Hollywood’s most prized character actors; achieving ever-lasting screen immortality as the considerate preacher who shapes the moral fiber of Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York (1941), costarring again with Cooper, atypically cast as something of the sage in Pride of the Yankees (1942).  One of Hollywood’s most steadily employed and hardest working actors, Brennan’s face later became a fixture on television. Like a good many of Warner’s finely wrought gallery of character actors, Walter Brennan would never achieve fame as ‘the star’. And yet, his presence in any movie is immediately felt; in To Have and Have Not, his paternal good nature towards Bogart, proving skillfully the unlikeliest of charmers.
Our story begins in Fort-de-France; a tiny coastal hamlet on the island of Vichy-occupied Martinique. Capt. Harry Morgan procures his daily license with the local constabulary to take his fishing vessel out to sea. Morgan makes his living taxiing rich tourists up and down these fertile waters in search of good sport.  Eddie is Morgan’s unofficial first mate, though he is of little use because of his rank alcoholism. Nevertheless, Morgan feels a sense of duty toward Eddie and vice versa. Their latest fare is Johnson, a boorish American who repeatedly ducks Morgan’s inquiries for remuneration, insisting he will pay up his tab of $825.00 in full at the end of their chartered cruise. Morgan is not particularly worried since Johnson is staying at the Marquee Hotel he too calls home. Nevertheless, Johnson is planning to step out at the break of dawn without settling his account. That night, the hotel bar is populated by an eclectic assortment of weary travelers. The hotel’s manager, Gerard – a.k.a. Frenchy (Marcel Dalio) tries to inveigle Morgan in an urgent plot to assist the French Resistance in smuggling a small contingent of Free French freedom fighters onto the island. Morgan is unimpressed. Moreover, he has written off his responsibilities to the war effort. It’s no dice, and as far as Morgan is concerned, nothing Frenchy can say will change his mind. The expats try more aggressive persuasions inside Morgan’s hotel room. But Morgan reminds them of the dangers involved. Men have been exiled to Devil’s Island for far less than what they are proposing. Without compunction, Morgan sends the group away.
Meanwhile, the piano player, Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) engages the crowd with a few songs, one of the visitors, Marie Browning, helping along his little ditty. Marie is chummy with Johnson – to a point. But Morgan cynically reasons her interests in the dull American are purely mercenary. In fact, Morgan quietly observes as Marie, whom he has since nicknamed ‘Slim’, picks Johnsons pocket without his knowledge. She’s good – very good; only Morgan is not about to let Slim walk away with the monies owed him, nor the $1400.00 Johnson already possesses in traveler’s checks. Instead, Morgan confronts Slim. Johnson is decidedly not her first stooge, and knowing Morgan knows it, forces Slim to give back Johnson’s wallet. Unhappy luck for all concerned, the hotel is fired upon by several revolutionaries fleeing arrest. In the resulting hullabaloo, Johnson is killed by a stray bullet and his wallet – along with its cash – is confiscated by the portly Prefect of Police, Capt. M. Renard (Dan Seymour). Renard interrogates Morgan and Slim. While he is satisfied with Morgan’s sullen replies, Renard is not about to let Slim get away with such churlish obstructions; at one point, giving her cheek a light smack with Johnson’s wallet to show her he means business.
Renard confiscates Johnson’s money and takes Morgan’s passport – for safe keeping. Without it, it is virtually impossible for Morgan to operate his chartered cruises. Released from custody, Morgan – whom Marie has rechristened ‘Steve’ – and ‘Slim’ pause a moment at the Bar de Zombie; a voodoo-themed local watering hole (shades of Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie -1943, on display). With no money to pay for their drinks, Slim picks out her latest pigeon rife for the asking; a French lieutenant. Morgan is mildly amused by the ease with which she ingratiates herself into this stranger’s company, but leaves the bar and later, comes to resent her for it. Slim confronts Morgan about his fickle jealousies and he attempts to wangle the story of her life to cool the air. Herein, we are exposed to some delicious and brilliantly scripted repartee; all barbs and sexually-charged innuendos, as Bacall’s whisky-voiced insolence simmers with a juicily erotic tenor from even the most benign double entendre; ‘the pot calling the kettle…’ as it were, and Morgan feeding into and off of Slim’s glacial scorn; an elixir for his hypocritical male pride; this sly one’ using sex like a fly swatter to get exactly what she wants from him.
Frenchy returns with renewed appeals and incentives for Morgan; now broke, and in desperate need of some quick cash. He could transport Resistance fighters, Hélène (Dolores Moran) and Paul de Bursac (Walter Surovy) to Martinique. With zero prospects ahead of him, Morgan reluctantly agrees to this daring mission but elects to go it alone. The heat is on and much too high profile for Morgan to take anyone else along. Meanwhile, his hot romance with Slim proves combustible. Slim tells Harry she thinks him ‘a stinker’ but wastes no time planting a passionate kiss on his lips, adding “It’s even better when you help!” Slim’s alright; tough and razor-backed – just the way Morgan likes his women. But his dalliances with her will have to wait. Instead, Morgan sets out in a dense fog to pick up the Bursacs. He has underestimated Eddie who, even after being ordered off the boat, finds a way to sneak back aboard. Morgan confides the purpose of his mission to Eddie; the two collecting the Bursacs – Mr. and Mrs. – from a remote island.  Regrettably, Morgan’s boat is spotted by the Vichy harbor patrol. They open fire and Paul is wounded. Stealing away into the relative safety of a low-lying fog bank, Morgan unloads his human cargo nearby before lumbering into port. Frenchy implores Morgan to feverishly work to exculpate the bullet from Paul’s shoulder, even offering to wipe the ledgers of Morgan’s sizable hotel bill as remuneration for once again jeopardizing his own safety. While Morgan agrees to save Paul’s life, he refuses to accept Frenchy’s charity. Hélène’s austere disdain for Morgan melts away. Indeed, she faints at the first sight of her husband’s wound; Slim bringing her back to life with some smelling salts as Morgan diligently digs the projectile from Paul’s gaping wound.  Realizing she can trust Morgan, Hélène confides the real purpose of their arrival in port; to help a prisoner of war escape from the penal colony on Devil’s Island.
Morgan is not interested in sticking his neck out for anyone (shades of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine rearing up), much less with the very real threat hanging overhead like the Sword of Damocles. Returning to Morgan’s hotel room, Slim offers to help the weary Morgan untie his shoes, make him a hearty breakfast and/or draw his bath. Morgan is unimpressed. He asks Slim to have a stroll around him, inferring he will not be coaxed into any sort of cheap and doe-eyed ‘romance’ with ‘strings attached’. But only moments later, the couple is locked in a passionate embrace, Slim suggesting they continue their détente after Morgan has had a shave. Alas, love will have to wait - again. Frenchy alerts Morgan Renard is in the hotel’s bar, plying Eddie with rum in the hopes to have him confirm his own suspicions; that it was Morgan’s boat caught in the crossfire and thus, force Morgan to divulge the whereabouts of the Bursacs. Renard tries to bribe Morgan, first with a small stipend; then, the return of his passport and all monies previously confiscated, if only he will reveal the Bursac’s hiding place on the island. But Morgan has dug in his heels and Eddie, even under the influence, is artfully vague about any such midnight crossing Renard suspects of them.
Morgan hatches an escape plan for two…or rather, three; himself, Eddie and Slim. Their daring disappearing act will cause Renard to tear Frenchy’s hotel apart and discover the Bursacs hidden in the cellar. But before any of this finely tuned plot can be set into motion, Eddie inexplicably disappears; Renard and his men arriving at Morgan’s hotel room with Frenchy in tow. Renard informs Morgan Eddie is in police custody. Renard has deviated from his usual interrogation method. Instead of plying Eddie with strong alcohol, he intends to withhold it until Eddie suffers a severe withdrawal and breaks under pressure. Pretending to reach into his desk drawer for a match to light his cigarette, Morgan fires a loaded pistol, wounding one of Renard’s men. With Frenchy’s help, Morgan handcuffs Renard to Lt. Coyo (Sheldon Leonard); Morgan mercilessly pistol-whipping both men until Renard relents and makes a telephone call on Morgan’s command, ordering Eddie’s release. Morgan also has Renard fill out harbor passes for himself, Slim, Eddie and the de Bursacs. With narrowly a moment to spare, Slim says ‘goodbye’ to Cricket. He asks her if she is happy to which she smugly replies with a Cheshire grin, “What do you think?” Morgan, Slim and Eddie depart the Marquee for the last time; their futures uncertain, their enduring love assured. 
To Have and Have Not is a winner on many levels, chiefly for its first on-screen pairing of Bogie and Bacall. We expect Bogart to be insolent. He is good at it. Hell, his entire career has been built on variations of the noble savage, reconstituted as the brooding, hard-drinking God’s lonely man with an ax to grind and a chip the size of Gibraltar teetering on his shoulders. And Bogart never disappoints. Impudence comes second natural to him. But Bacall’s brashness is totally unforeseen. Observing Bacall’s statuesque Slim take no guff from Bogart’s salty sea scamp is a refresher course in the art of oblique subtlety; Bacall giving as good as she gets, taking it on the nose now and then, but more frequently out in front of her man like a fine thoroughbred with the bit firmly chomped between her teeth. Marie Browning is not a femme fatale, and yet, Bacall lends her an air of slick, sly and stylish foreboding. She can mesmerize the room with just a bat of her long lashes, or tantalize the gentry with a seemingly effortless swish and sashay of those angular hips and padded shoulders, exaggerated in Milo Anderson’s exquisitely utilitarian fashions. Of course, in hindsight, the added appeal is knowing, or rather, attempting to figure out which scenes were shot by cinematographer, Sidney Hickox after the real-life amour had taken hold; the clamor of Cupid’s artful noise, perhaps most transparently on display in the moment when Bacall’s vixen, wearing nothing more exotic than a bathrobe, suggests to her man that he pucker up and blow. A naughty sensuality permeates; Bacall, both scintillating and genuine, the frisky amusement she generates reflected in Bogart’s eyes as he half winks, then smiles, mustering an anemic whistle, trailing behind either his own or Morgan’s sudden realization - “the kid’s alright.” Indeed.   
My one regret each time I view To Have and Have Not is Warner Bros. never wrote a follow-up charting the rocky course of this interrupted love affair; Slim and Morgan’s daring escape across the high seas, culminating (presumably) with Slim going back to America. It would have made for one hell of a picture. With only four movies in their shared repertoire, Bogart and Bacall managed to carve an indelible niche in the cinema firmament; the gutsy, brooding, and confrontational sweethearts happily ensconced in our hearts and minds as sexy compatriots with oodles of charisma to spare. Apart, Bogart had the more enviable career, seguing from star to producer, and even founding his own independent company - Santana - while still committing to other projects as a freelancer; Bacall, willingly, all but retiring from the screen to be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart until her husband’s death from esophageal cancer in 1957; a loss of security that caused her to stumble back into the limelight; alas, older, wiser, but unprepared to navigate through a string of largely forgettable pictures with too few bright spots to recommend the comeback.
Prepare to be astonished, because Sidney Hickox’s sumptuous B&W palette has been perfectly preserved on Blu-ray. Your ole DVD is officially a Frisbee. Fling!  It is one of the unforgivable sins that no original camera negative for this iconic movie exists. Generally speaking, Warner Bros. was always a forward thinking studio. Regrettably, they somehow overlooked this one. But the Warner Archive has once again worked its magic for this hi-def release, utilizing a brand new scan of a nitrate fine-grain master positive archived at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Because of age-related deterioration this fine-grain element required extraordinary care and, in addition to this Blu-ray release, Warner has also taken great pains to strike new preservation elements on film stock, ensuring To Have and Have Not will be around for decades to come. In rare instances where the fine-grain was not able to be utilized because it had deteriorated past the point of no return, and no viable image could be scanned from it, a dupe safety negative was used in its place. Thanks to WAC’s technical wizardry, these transitions are not perceivable.  Only the critical eye looking for such things will likely notice a minute change in image quality.
Extensive repair and density/shading correction were performed to yield what can only be described as a resurrection of the opening night splendor of this almost lost masterpiece.  With exceptions noted, as regarding stock footage and rear projection, the image herein is crisp and refined, nuanced in subtle details and shading to the point where we see exceptional amounts of fine detail in hair, skin and fabrics that is exceptionally pleasing and, for those who have long endured less than stellar renderings on home video, a real revelation. As the original soundtrack has long been lost to the ages WAC has reconstructed a 2.0 DTS mono mix, drawing on several sources to achieve an acoustically seamless presentation.  Extras are nil but honestly, given the amount of time, effort and money WAC has poured into restoring To Have and Have Not for this Blu-ray release, all we can do is doff our caps at the monumentally satisfying results from all their fine efforts. Permit us to worship and give immeasurable thanks. Bottom line: very highly recommended! Very highly, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, July 22, 2016

THE MARK OF ZORRO: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1940) Kino Lorber

There has never been another Errol Flynn…although the same could be said of Stewart Granger, and, of course, Tyrone Power. To some degree, virtually all of the aforementioned inherited their mantle of quality from the swashbuckling arena of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. – arguably, the screen’s first modern-day rapscallion. Despite changing times and tastes, and the introduction of sound in 1928, the poses struck by these he-men of the cod piece and sword remain variations on a template first trademarked by Fairbanks in his prime. Indeed, The Mark of Zorro had been a much-celebrated 1920 adventure; the thirteenth movie in Fairbanks’ career, for which Douglas eschewed the comedic trappings to don the black cape and mask of author, Johnston McCulley’s famed hero, Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’). The novel, The Curse of Capistrano was serialized to great acclaim only one year earlier and Fairbanks’ depiction of the cloaked crusader sent romanticized chills of exhilaration down the spines of his adoring female fans. Fairbanks, whose career had momentarily sagged just prior to the release, was to quickly discover an entirely new outlet for his finessed athleticism. From this movie on, he would be popularized on celluloid and immortalized for all time in the hearts and minds of millions around the world as the epitome of the dashingly robust rogue.  Fairbanks would also set the standard for Zorro’s wardrobe; the black satin mask, large hat and flowing cape not a part of McCulley’s original characterization.
Two decades later, the legend of Zorro returned; this time resurrected by Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox for the biggest thing to hit the back lot since sound: Tyrone Power. Heralding from a thespian’s background – Ty Sr., also an actor – Power’s early appeal lay in his impossibly beautiful fine-boned features, a pair of dark and flashing eyes, framed by thick brows and a pate of slick black hair; his screen presence oddly boyish yet manly. At least in hindsight, Power owed more to the legacy of the late Rudolph Valentino than Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, Power would be cast in a glossy Technicolor remake of Valentino’s bullfighting classic, Blood and Sand one year after The Mark of Zorro, and, go on to star in a half dozen actioners as the devilish heartthrob who either took what he desired by force or could just as easily charm any woman of his choosing into handing it over for nothing. Power’s slender build may have lacked Fairbanks’ barrel-chested/bicep-popping muscularity, but otherwise he proved the perfect fit for Zorro, revealing a rather edgy sense of mischief married to his undeniable sex appeal. The latter is worth considering for just a moment. 
Sex appeal on the screen is as much, if not more so, the yardstick by which public response to both men and women is duly measured. Some actors have it. Others do not. The public decides exactly what sex appeal is on an individual basis. If one has it, then name your price. Yet, sex appeal goes well beyond the physical contents of any man or woman. It is a perennial state of mind; an elixir more imagined than ascribed; an intangible for which Power arguably matched Metro’s he-man, Clark Gable, and Warner’s Tasmania devil, Errol Flynn, sly grin for grin, and with a diseased little twinkle caught in his eye, suggesting he had lived a man’s life and was equally as unashamed of it. 
Zanuck would exploit The Mark of Zorro to launch the career of another Fox contract player into the stratosphere.  Linda Darnell had been ‘discovered’ by the studio’s talent scouts in her native Dallas in 1937. Pushed into the limelight by an overzealous stage mother who likely wanted this dream for her own, but settled to live it vicariously through her daughter’s accomplishments, Darnell was thrust into the gristmill of Hollywood’s star-making machinery, by her own admission, without the blind ambition to excel at becoming a ‘great star’.  With only a few artistically negligible movies to her credit, Darnell set the screen afire opposite Power’s lusty bandit in The Mark of Zorro, as the lovely, Lolita Quintero. Alas, unlike Power’s reign at Fox, Darnell’s meteoric rise in popularity as ‘the fresh-faced’ sex bomb would be brief; her plummet from this perch, as swift as it proved devastating.  In later years, Darnell would suggest her overnight flourish had been deliberately sabotaged by Zanuck’s deliberate mis-casting of her in shoddy parts after she refused to acquiesce to his lascivious advances. “He was after something I wasn’t willing to give,” Darnell mused, “…and so I found myself at the back of the line, other actresses getting the parts that ought to have come to me. Even if the public wanted me.”  Indeed, Zanuck’s transparency in letting Darnell ‘know her place’ was only slightly offset by his disastrous gamble to cast her in one of the studio’s biggest costume epics; Forever Amber (1947) – the story of a treacherous courtesan brought to heel by her own greed; equally as big a disappointment at the box office.
Only in retrospect does the oddity of Linda Darnell’s stardom become more perplexed; seemed effortless, mildly erotic and very appealing when working opposite Tyrone Power, but elsewhere faintly benign with an almost petulant attitude when cast opposite other big male stars on the Fox back lot. The romantic chemistry between Power and Darnell is palpably adversarial in The Mark of Zorro, particularly during their early scenes where Power’s ego-driven fop sparks fiery discontent; a little of the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland attraction smoldering like sensitive embers all too ready to ignite into a four-alarm blaze. For the vial Captain Esteban Pasquale, Zanuck turned to a rather predictable, though no less effective choice; Basil Rathbone, who, apart from appearing to excellent effect as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Edwardian-era sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, in two lavishly appointed pictures made back to back at Fox the previous year, was better known for his expert swordsmanship, culminating in an, iconic duel opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
The Mark of Zorro is an obvious prestige picture for Fox; John Taintor Foote’s screenplay cribbing only partly from McCulley’s novel and tricked out in Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright’s stunning art direction, magnificently photographed in B&W by Arthur C. Miller – a true artisan of his craft.  To helm the production, Zanuck hired Rouben Mamoulian; one of the screen’s unbridled romanticists, better known for coaching performances from temperamental beauties like Greta Garbo than for his swashbuckling prowess. What Mamoulian brought to the palette goes well beyond his usual idiosyncratic lushness; the open air training grounds (supposedly photographed in Madrid – actually, on the Fox ranch with matte paintings to add an air of authenticity), where young blades are taught the fine and fashionable art of killing, and the palatial settings of ole Spain – again, built on the back lot, exquisitely contrasted against the relative squalor of ancient Los Angeles and the rural trappings of California. Mamoulian’s penchant for stylish film-making elevates the picture’s glamour and escapism. But he does not cheat the audience out of its oft dark, and suggestively homoerotic subtext brewing between Rathbone’s majestically vial Pasquale, overcompensating with a sword perennially clutched in his fist, and Power’s impossibly handsome, Don Diego, feigning effeteness as a dandified fop to guard against his truer intentions as the masked savior of the people; the perfect camouflage.
Don Diego is a respected guardsman. But his training in Madrid is cut short by an urgent request from his beloved father to return home at once. At first, Diego is bitterly disappointed to give up his appointment in Spain. He is a respected caballero with a wicked track record for satisfying gentlemanly duels. Asked by his fellow guardsmen what he will do in California, Diego bitterly explains the tepidity of the people will yield no earthly pleasures for his adventurous spirit. Alas, Diego is in for an happy surprise. Informed by his boatman (Victor Killian) of the people’s displeasure with the reigning Alcalde’s (a.k.a. governor) mismanagement – a post, Diego’s father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love) once occupied – this errant knight’s anxieties are only marginally relieved upon discovering that his father has since resigned the post. Don Vega is still one of Los Angeles’ most respected citizens. The same cannot be said of the newly appointed Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who cruelly manhandling its citizenry with Captain Esteban Pasquale’s uncompromisingly militaristic might. Quintero’s wife is the coolly aloof gargoyle, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), immediately attracted to Diego’s suave – if slightly effeminate – interests in ‘the latest fashion’. Alas, Diego is distracted by a glimpse of the couple’s young ward, the virginal, Lolita. Having only just missed out on the opportunity to meet Diego for herself, Lolita persists to have Inez make the necessary introductions; her aunt jealously threatening to have her sent off to a convent – in these ole-fashioned times, a fate to result in the depravation of a young woman’s fancies for attractive young men Inez would rather keep for herself. 
On the road to his ancestral home, Diego encounters Sergeant Gonzales (George Regas), a simple-minded oaf commanding a small contingent of Pasquale’s men. Gonzales casually admits to using his whip on ‘stubborn’ peons who are unable to pay their strained share of the ever-escalating taxes leveled against their homes and families to satisfy the expensive whims of His Excellency. A brighter outlook emerges upon Diego’s arrival at his father’s estate; his mother, Isabella (Janet Beecher), father, and friar, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette) most eager to welcome him with open arms. Diego discovers his father did not retire, but rather was forced out to make way of this new corrupt regime. Don Alejandro refuses to take up arms against the government he has served for thirty years, much to Felipe’s chagrin. But soon, the Don and this padre are aligned in their disturbing contempt for Diego’s laissez faire disinterest in their present woes. Diego’s indifference is, of course, a ruse, designed to throw everyone off his grand plan: to avenge the people by using a mysterious alias to achieve the miracle for which they have all been praying.  In short order, Diego launches a daring counteroffensive, ambushing the Alcalde and Inez in his robber’s disguise on the open road as they are preparing to meet with a banker from Madrid; carving the letter ‘Z’ into the plush upholstery of their carriage before absconding with all of Quintero’s ill-gotten gold ducats and a prized necklace taken from Inez.  Aside: in outtakes shown to Zanuck purely for his amusement, Tyrone Power performed this same stunt; but with actor, J. Edward Bromberg’s look of utter bewilderment and nail-biting fear followed by a declaration of ‘Zanuck!’ instead of ‘Zorro!’; Power topping off the gag by adding, “…and let that be a lesson to you – damn it!”   
Now, with a 5000 peso price on his head, Zorro’s reputation among Los Angeles’ beleaguered citizenry begins to take hold. He is their savior; not boastful or proud, but a true liberator to challenge Quintero’s authoritarian rule with a clash of steel if necessary. Indeed, Zanuck could not help but see the parallels between Quintero’s fictional regime and that of Adolf Hitler’s SS already sweeping through the whole of Europe with an iron fist. Disguised as Zorro, Diego attends Quintero in his study, blind-folding, then ordering the frightened aristocrat to resign and go back to Spain immediately; also, to appoint Don Alejandro Vega as his replacement or face the full wrath of his sword. Disappearing into the night without further delay, Quintero is discovered by Pasquale, more determined than ever to rid the landscape of this vaporous avenger who would dare dictate his policies to them with unabated aplomb. Diego’s escape is detoured through the chapel with another disguise as the padre. Inadvertently, he meets Lolita praying at the altar. She too is fooled by his appearance at first, but gradually realizes the man in cleric’s robes is no priest. Thus, when Inez bursts in on them, Lolita keeps Zorro’s secret to assure his safety. Diego remains silently grateful for her candor. Alas, he is discovered by one of Quintero’s men in the courtyard, leading to an even more death-defying race on horseback. The price on Zorro’s head is raised to 20,000 pesos.
More than ever, Zorro is the people’s crusader. He thwarts Pasquale and Gonzales’ in their tax collecting and evades capture by Pasquale’s men, doubling back to the monastery. Fray Felipe is befuddled by Diego’s midnight arrival; even more so after a small contingent of the Acalde’s men intrude to question them as to Zorro’s whereabouts. Diego fluffs off their concern in preening jest. This incurs Felipe’s ire once more. To think the boy he once regarded as highly as a son could make light of Zorro’s daring do. But now Diego confesses his secret to the one man he can trust to keep it holy. He is Zorro. Handing over his loot to Felipe for safe-keeping, Diego suggests it is only a matter of time before Quintero peaceably leaves office. To hasten Quintero in his decision, the next afternoon Diego pays a call, exploiting the opportunity to fabricate a tale about a madman from Madrid who, like Zorro, plundered at will. Diego’s ebulliently suggests to Quintero that like this fictionalized villain, Zorro is quite insane and sure to slit many throats before his reign of terror is over. Terrified, Quintero confides this story to Pasquale who is quite unimpressed. Pasquale suggests that since Zorro is demanding Vega’s return to power, Vega himself is likely in cahoots with the masked bandit. Pasquale further proposes an alliance, or rather, a marriage of state to establish a new détente: Quintero’s niece to Diego, sure to keep the peace and put an end to Zorro’s marauding.
In the meantime, Diego works on Inez’s vanity to convince her she is being wasted in Los Angeles. As the wife of the ex-Alcalde she would most certainly be a welcomed edition at court in Spain. Now, Quintero approaches Vega to propose the marriage. Don Alejandro is, quite understandably insulted by the prospect their two households should be united for the sake of some bastardized political entente. But Diego alleviates their tension, hinting he might be interested, provided he finds the young girl attractive. To sweeten the deal, Diego is invited to dine at Quintero’s estate, making a dandyish nuisance of himself and thus deliberately alienating Lolita, who finds him boorish, silly and quite unsuitable as a love interest. Electing to retire early to her bedroom, Lolita is surprised by Diego, now dressed as Zorro, on her balcony. His confession is thwarted by Quintero’s reentrance, Diego retreating, only to return dressed as himself. Lolita now realizes the man she loves and the one she absolutely abhors are one in the same. But Inez, who has become rather smitten with Diego herself, suggests to Lolita she reject this marriage of state under the guise that no woman should ever be sacrificed for political gains.
Diego applies his most heavy-handed influence to sway Quintero; pretending to be disinterested in Lolita; then, suggesting his disinterest might improve if the Alcalde will fetch them both some wine from Quintero’s private cellar. Beneath his study, Quintero discovers wine barrels with a ‘z’ carved into them and their taps left open, the contents having spilt all over the floor. Zorro’s footsteps have left their imprint in the dirt floor. Yet, they seem to lead nowhere except a solid stone wall. Is Zorro a man or a ghost?  Meanwhile, Pasquale discovers the stolen tax monies and Inez’s necklace inside a locked box in Felipe’s monastery. Unable to grind a confession from his lips, Pasquale instead imprisons Felipe without trial to improve his memory. Confronting Quintero in his study, Pasquale finds Diego’s amusement at their predicament quite disturbing. Pasquale challenges this man he has misperceived as a popinjay to a duel, a grueling test of swords that ends badly for the Captain of the Guard, but also for Diego, who has at last been found out by Quintero.
Locked in the same cell as Felipe, Diego tricks their jailer into unlocking the door. Alas, he is too late to plan an escape; Quintero, arriving with Don Alejandro and the caballeros, presumably to gain a confession from Vega’s own lips as to the extent of his own complicity. Unaware, his son and Zorro are one in the same, Vega suggests Quintero to be the biggest fool that ever lived. Now, Diego ambushes Quintero, and, together with the caballeros, launches into a full-scale revolution. The town’s people, barred from the prison, break down the gates and thwart Quintero’s autocratic rule. Quintero is forced into accepting Zorro’s original call for his resignation.  Part of the condition is for Quintero and Inez to leave California on the first ship bound for Spain; Vega reinstated to the exalted position as Los Angeles’ Alcalde. Inez is elated by this turn of events until she suddenly realizes her dreams of court life, with Diego as her kept man, are not to be. Diego intends to follow the customs of California; to marry Lolita with all speed, raise a family, and, tend to their vineyards. The crowd rejoices as Zorro hangs up his sword for good.
Given the overwhelming success of The Mark of Zorro, and Tyrone Powers’ iconic resurrection of the masked hero for the sound era, it is rather surprising – and more than a little disappointing – Zanuck never bothered to spin off the story into a lucrative film franchise. Interestingly, 2oth Century-Fox lacked in the serials department. Elsewhere in Hollywood, serials were considered highly profitable B-budgeted programmers. Fox would eventually get around to two franchises of their own; Charlie Chan, and later, Mr. Moto. Oddly, they let one of their very best – Sherlock Holmes – languish after only two pictures; the franchise relocated to Universal where serials were not only prized, but in fact buoyed their yearly output.  While the legend of Zorro would remain a perennial part of our movie-going pop culture, with various incarnations attempted elsewhere on the big screen, as well as a TV series produced by the Walt Disney Co. in the mid-1950’s, Tyrone Power would never again don the cape and black mask he had helped make famous herein. Without a doubt, The Mark of Zorro launched Power as a swashbuckling lothario; his youthful virility brought into check with a more earthily rugged appeal. Power’s career was slightly derailed by his enlistment in the marines. From 1942 to 1945, he was absent from the screen; Zanuck only too eager to capitalize on his return with Fox’s biggest prestige picture to date, The Razor’s Edge (1946).
We will never know for certain what sort of movie career Tyrone Power might have had, had he managed to evade military duty as so many others of his ilk chose to do. Unequivocally, the war changed Power’s audience appeal and, equally, his iconic good looks. The Tyrone Power returning to Fox in 1946 is a different man entirely; his adolescent handsomeness given a harsher edge. While Power was eager to return to Fox, he had increasingly tired of Zanuck’s insistence to merely pick up where his career had left off before the war; the cod piece and tights not aligning with Power’s own ambitions to stretch his artistic wings.  The spate of pictures that briefly followed retained Zanuck’s high standards in production value, but they no longer suited Power’s transformed mystique, nor did they satisfy his own impressions as to what a leading man he could be given half the chance and better opportunities. Indeed, Power’s singularly impressive post-war achievement would not be made at Fox, but rather as an independent for producer, Edward Small in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1958) in which Power, cast against type, played Leonard Vole, the cold-blooded murderer of an unsuspecting widow.  
That same year, Power departed for Spain to begin work on Solomon and Sheba, the movie that prematurely ended his life. Engaging George Sanders for the climactic duel, Power was suddenly taken ill, collapsing on the set. He died on November 15, 1958 – aged, only 44. While great heroes of the silver screen are oft’ judged by their elemental sex appeal; their athleticism and their ability to dazzle us with daring feats, the best of the lot are imbued with a far more intangible quality that transcends mere ‘good looks’. As Power entered middle-age he illustrated he was far more than just another ‘pretty face’. But he was unceremoniously denied the longevity to prove anything else beyond that. Even so, his legacy remains happily ensconced as one of those rarefied male specimens – a great star, stud and vigorous striking hunk du jour. Regrettably, Powers’ real influence in pictures ended much too soon to be more properly assessed. But The Mark of Zorro endures among his finest films and performances given.  It still only tells half the story of Tyrone Power – that graceful paragon for the ages.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of The Mark of Zorro is a welcomed improvement. The old Fox DVD was very problematic on two levels: first, because much of the B&W image was riddled in disturbing amounts of edge enhancement (very distracting to say the least) and minor gate weave; and second, because Fox equally elected then to provide us with a painfully ugly ‘colorized’ version of this gorgeous movie that all but destroyed the exquisite tonality in Arthur C. Miller’s original and utterly superb B&W cinematography. Both sins have been rectified for this 1080p reissue. The colorized version is gone. Yes! And the B&W incarnation presented on this Blu-ray reveals a startlingly detailed image virtually free of age-related artifacts. There is a lot to admire here; Thomas Little’s set decoration and Travis Banton’s exquisite costuming, a real visual feast in hi-def. Minor imperfections do exist, but they are negligible. The Mark of Zorro looks very appealing on Blu-ray and we suspect Fox has gone back to the drawing board for this one with admirable results. Great stuff! The DTS 2.0 mono audio offers up exceptional clarity with a few moments of unanticipated bombast – particularly in Alfred Newman’s iconic score. Extras have been ported over from the old 2005 DVD and include an A&E Biography on Tyrone Power, and, a rather bumbling audio commentary from Richard Schickel; plus trailers to promote Witness for the Prosecution (already available via Kino Lorber on Blu-ray) and Rawhide, currently being readied for its hi-def debut. I have to say, it is about time Fox took a more aggressive path to reissuing their vintage catalog on Blu-ray. For too long their association has been limited to Twilight Time exclusives with their trickle of output rather disturbingly subpar in terms of quality in a lot of cases. We could certainly use mainstream Blu-ray reissues of Anastasia (1956), The Song of Bernadette, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and, Jane Eyre for starters; plus a host of iconic film fare from Fox’s early output, including all of their Shirley Temple movies, The Keys of the Kingdom, In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and, The Rains Came (1939) – the latter three, Tyrone Power classics sorely absent in hi-def. We will have to wait and see. But Kino Lorber’s new alliance has already yielded some very good stuff with more promised in the pipeline before year’s end. As for The Mark of Zorro – it comes very highly recommended in 1080p. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)