Saturday, December 31, 2016

THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1944) Twilight Time

Few actors of any generation have exhibited the princely grace of Gregory Peck. Even when playing conflicted, solitary men like General Savage in 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High or downright disreputable bastards - Lewt McCanles in Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946) immediately comes to mind - Peck could convey an unusual soft-centered ambivalence to his characters’ outward austerity. Early on, the movies were quick to recognize Peck’s inherent integrity, mine it to its fullest effect and effectiveness. Given the right role in the right movie, Peck embodied an outward gentility married to an unflinching moral code. He knew his own mind; better still, his own heart, and, possessed that rarest of qualities to expedite generosity to those fortunate enough to be basking in the afterglow of his magnanimity. In Gregory Peck we have the supreme mensch whose innate on-screen chemistry emits, at least in hindsight, an extension of the man himself. In the twilight of his life, proof of Peck’s stature was confirmed during his ‘one man’ series of guest lectures; a woman, journeyed all the way from England to attend, remarking to him afterward that the man she thought him to be, via impressions solely gleaned from the righteous characters he played in the movies, and those more intimately derived from meeting him in person were, in fact, one in the same; a very fine and justly deserved compliment indeed.
In case there is any doubt, we absolutely adore Gregory Peck at our house, not the least for his gentlemanly fortitude, his uniquely inspired fairness and liberality (he famously insisted newcomer, Audrey Hepburn be giving star-billing in Roman Holiday 1953) and his graciousness and good humor; hallmarks of a very unique individual. We are the poorer for Peck’s passing at the age of 87 in 2003. I am a little bit more selfish than most in this regard. I would have preferred God to have given Gregory Peck immortality, or at least, twenty some odd years more to share with the rest of us. Mercifully, the movies have bestowed on Peck their own kind of enduring deification; anointed and canonized in our collective consciousness with repeat viewings of his Addicus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; voted #1 in AFI’s poll of the top 100 heroes of all time.  Peck’s ascendance in Hollywood is truly ‘the stuff’ from which dreams – and careers – are made; having appeared in a half-dozen Broadway flops, but only once before the cameras at the time he was cast in the title role as Father Francis Chisholm in director, John M. Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). Based on A.J. Cronin’s novel, and riding the crest of the then trend in movies extolling the virtues of Christianity and Catholicism – not necessarily in that order, The Keys of the Kingdom is an uplifting tale of merciful manliness fashioned to blind belief triumphing against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Catholic League of Decency essentially used such movies (Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Come to The Stable and The Song of Bernadette et al) for its own agenda, elevating martyrdom to a fine art; usually exploited with the subtlest air of saintly comedy.
Yet, The Keys to the Kingdom is a far more unsmiling parable by comparison; Francis (played as a boy by the superb child star, Roddy McDowell) losing both parents in a hellish flash flood in his native Scotland, sacrificing his fledgling adulthood and love for the empathetic Nora (Peggy Ann Gardner as a girl, Jane Ball as an adult) to the precepts of his chosen calling in the Catholic church and thereafter repeatedly, his conviction to be tested, both by circumstance and a cloistered sect of rather rigid contemporaries. These include Rev. Mother Maria-Veronica (Rosa Stradner), Bishop Angus Mealey (Vincent Price) and the Monsignor at Tweedside (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).  Despite the Catholic League’s involvement, the church is hardly represented with the same warm fuzzy ‘feel good’ affecting such pictures as Going My Way; instead, as a rather aloof and rigidly structured enclave, meant to bend the spirit of man to its will, rather than God’s (the two ostensibly different and conflicted); all except the benevolent Father Hamish MacNabb (Edmund Gwenn) who becomes Francis’ mentor, confidant and friend. For moral levity, Francis relies on boyhood chum, Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell), whose fiery renunciation of faith and physician’s clear-eyed perspective provide occasionally necessary reflections on the sincerely flawed and more concrete tangibles of life. In their friendship, both men’s diverging principles are challenged, though ultimately reconciled for the greater good, though not without sacrifice; Francis’ Chinese mission brought to the brink of extinction by a hellish civil war and a far more intimate tragedy (more on this later). 
In hindsight, Gregory Peck is ideally suited to play Father Chisholm; the actor’s upright/ forthrightness matching Peck’s reputation as an actor, as yet unproven in the movies. In hindsight it all seems to work so spectacularly well we can easily forget 2oth Century-Fox’s mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck was taking a huge gamble on Peck then; a virtually unknown in a $3 million dollar epic (a sizable investment); Zanuck, hedging his bets by hiring two of his top writers, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson to condense the sweep of Cronin’s prose into a manageable screenplay.  Zanuck would come to greatly admire Peck and, on the success of this movie, considering him his point man thereafter for roles requiring an indomitable spirit with the purest of heart. At the tender age of twenty-eight, and with all his youthful faculties fully on display, Peck assumes the daunting task to age some fifty years in The Keys of the Kingdom. Though hardly the first to tackle such a weighty assignment (34 year old Robert Donat famously delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in 1939’s Goodbye Mr. Chips), Peck would prove amply endowed with the necessary acting chops to convincingly morph from a young statuesque priest with high ideals to the physically decrepit sage about to be put out to pasture by the archdiocese, still unwavering in his clear-eyed and very passionate resolve to do God’s work in his emeritus years. 
In hindsight, The Keys of the Kingdom is something of a sad farewell to actress, Rose Stradner (billed Rosa in this movie), whose burgeoning Austrian film career ended with her 1939 marriage to Joseph Mankiewicz and immigrating to America. In Hollywood, Stradner made only three pictures, her most enduring performance given in The Keys of the Kingdom as the stolid, stern and uber-sophisticated nun, Rev. Mother Maria-Veronica who considers her sojourn into China’s war-torn provinces an interment, and Father Chisolm, more the dotty mystic than devout man of the cloth. Over time Mother Maria is humbled by Chisolm’s fortitude as a confidant to the local mandarin, Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong). She too will come to regard Francis as a trusted friend.  The picture’s last act is almost entirely devoted to the unlikely blossoming of this friendship and its heartrending separation after Chisholm is recalled home by the archdiocese.  In private too, Stradner’s life was a relatively sad one; her father murdered by the Nazis at the start of WWII, her elder brother turned to become an SS officer, executed by the Allies at war’s end. Escaping just before the Anschluss, Stradner eventually made her way to MGM’s hallowed ground, much to L.B. Mayer’s delight; the studio then in its full flourish of acquiring European stars like Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson; valiant successors to the mantel about to be vacated by their reigning bird of paradise - Greta Garbo. Stradner might have established herself among the best and brightest of these Euro-imports; except, she caught the eye of producer/writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Retiring from the screen to become his wife, after the birth of their two children, Stradner would find it increasingly difficult to reconcile her artistic ambitions with motherhood; the struggle brought to an abrupt end in 1958 when the actress took her own life; a suicide later blamed on a mild form of schizophrenia.
Some of Stradner’s inherent sadness is undeniably re-channeled through performance in The Keys of the Kingdom; particularly as Mother Maria comes to respect Francis’ unerring compassion for his flock. Much earlier Sleeth, the Monsignor at Tweedside undergoes a similar epiphany from delving into the 1878 journal account of Chisholm’s expedition to China. What follows then, is an exercise in humility for all as the Mankiewicz/Johnson screenplay regresses us into the past. The Keys of the Kingdom is unapologetic in its sentimentality almost from the moment we meet the convincingly aged Father Chisolm returning from a fishing trip with one of his young charges. On the surface at least, Chisolm’s pragmatism when administering to his parishioners flies in the face of the Church’s strict doctrines. Chisolm’s documented belief that all atheists are not ‘godless’ is particularly disturbing to Sleeth, who hints that his recommendation to the Bishop after a week-long evaluation will only hasten the Church’s decision for enforced retirement. However, upon retiring to his bedroom in the rectory, Sleeth is confronted with the particulars of Chisolm’s well-documented life via a journal. We regress to Francis’ boyhood; the night his father, Alec (Dennis Hoey) ventured into town to settle accounts. Alec is brutally beaten by a small gathering of hooligans, who regard him as a dirty papist. As a fitful thundershower turns into a full-on gale, Mrs. Chisolm (Ruth Nelson) ventures beyond the relative safety of the family’s modest home, Alec’s kindly cousin, Polly (Edith Barrett) and her young daughter, Nora (Peggy Ann Gardner) encouraging prudence.
Mrs. Chisolm cannot wait for the storm to break. She discovers her husband greatly weakened by the assault. Alas, while attempting to cross a low bridge the raging river rises and consumes the couple as young Francis (Roddy McDowell) looks on in horror. Although not related by blood, Francis is given a new and loving home with Polly, her husband, Ned (J. Anthony Hughes) and Nora, who steadily grows to love him as more than just an adopted brother. Now young adults, Nora (Jane Ball) and Francis (Gregory Peck) enter into an understanding. And although Francis is quite sincere in this, Nora astutely proposes that upon graduation he will likely follow his old friend, Angus Mealey (Vincent Price) into the seminary at Holywell College and never again return to Tweedside. Also at the depot to see them off is close mutual friend, Willie Tulloch (Thomas Mitchell); an agnostic studying medicine – not religion – as his vocation. Willie tosses Angus and Francis a bottle of Scotch as his ‘going away’ present; the bottle joyously returned to him – a bit of foreshadowing.  At Holywell, the college’s dean, Father Fitzgerald (Arthur Shield) emphatically opposed Francis’ keen mind. But Father Hamish McNabb (Edmund Gwenn) is quite the understanding sort; furthermore, greatly allied to this inquisitive young man’s love of fishing; a passion akin to his own.
The two set out to land the catch of the day. But their idyllic sojourn is intruded upon by Francis’ moodiness. He is unsettled by a letter from Aunt Polly, encouraging him to remain at school rather than come home for his summer holidays. With no explanation pending, Francis plans to take the next train to Tweedside. He is thwarted in his curiosity by Father McNabb who reveals an unholy little secret: after Francis left home, Nora became increasingly bitter; losing herself to strong drink and sacrificing her virginity to a man (men) from which an illegitimate child has since been born. Unable to withstand their separation any longer, Francis takes the next train home, only to be confronted by Willie who has been looking after Nora since her spiral as the town’s notorious ‘fallen woman’. In the interim, Nora has tragically died. Returning to his studies, Francis enters the seminary. McNabb, now a Bishop, keeps close tabs on Francis’ progress as a curate. Regrettably, Francis’ first two appointments are abysmal failures.  But McNabb senses greatness in his protégée, perhaps even before Francis can recognize it in himself. NcNabb praises Francis’ uniqueness as his greatest strength: his ability to deny conformity intrusions on his catechisms. NcNabb proposes Francis accept a commission in the Chinese province of Chekow; a dangerous assignment, but one Francis accepts without question.
Arriving in the city of Paitan, Francis mistakes the warm welcome afforded by its citizens for him, when in actuality they have come to honor the local mandarin, Mr. Chia (Leonard Strong) returning from aboard on the same sailing ship. Father Chisolm’s escort is far more modest; the insidious couple, Hossanah (H.T. Tsiang) and Philomena Wong (Si-Lan Chen); converts to Christianity, expecting Francis to have arrived with a bagful of money to support them. Taken into the hills by Hossanah and his wife, Francis is shown the burned out remnants of a rather large missionary outpost, deserted and in ruin. The couple explain how the mission thrived only so long as it continued to receive an influx of capital from the Church; that the bulk of its congregation was made up of ‘Rice Christians’ – those who stayed on merely to benefit from free food and shelter, but actually showed little to no genuine interest in pursuing Christianity as their chosen faith. When Francis informs Hossanah and Philomena he has no money; that he too has come under the false assumption and pretext of administering to an already established flock, the couples’ benevolence evaporates and Hossanah forewarns Francis to reconsider what being alone in China can mean to a foreigner, already widely regarded as ‘the devil’ by the locals.
Repeatedly accosted, pelted with rocks and rotten food, and forced to move into the stables – the only salvageable building on the property, Francis becomes isolated and defensive. As such, he is initially quite incapable of recognizing the unanticipated kindness shown by Joseph (Benson Fong), the converted Christian missionary. Joseph offers Francis eggs and vegetables, food stuffs gathered from his five days sojourn on foot from the established Christian village; also, tea. In addition, Joseph offers Francis his services; as interpreter, brick maker/layer, and all around useful teacher and servant. Suspecting Joseph to be another ‘rice Christian’ Francis explains he can offer him so very little as recompense for these many gifts willingly offered him. “I have not asked you for money,” Joseph declares, “I want to serve you because there is work to be done and I am a Christian…Father can share with me his privilege to work for God.”  And thus, the work at St. Andrew’s Mission begins anew, with Francis’ faith in humanity restored. A badly needed boost to the fledgling enterprise comes by way of a consignment of medical supplies and a book of instruction supplied by Willie Tulloch, as ever, a self-proclaimed heathen, but by now, a doctor of some repute back home. Willie’s advice is simple: “Cure what you can. Kill what you can’t.”     
Francis also accepts two challenges almost simultaneously; the first, to care for a very small child, Anna (Eunice Soo-Hoo), otherwise to be abandoned because she is female. The second experiment is by far more ominous; the healing of the local Mandarin’s young son, Chia Yu who, upon wounding his finger while at play, has contracted a virulent infection, presently threatening his life. The Mandarin’s cousin, Mr. Pao (Philip Ahn) is most anxious for Francis to bring “whatever medicinal blessings” he can. Knowing well the ramifications…should he fail - to be considered wholly responsible for the boy’s death, Francis valiantly applies Willie’s remedies. Chia Yu’s miraculous recovery garners Mr. Chia’s unwavering respect and allegiance. He offers himself as a convert to Christianity. Francis graciously turns down this offer, explaining to Mr. Chia, true Christianity is neither bought, sold nor traded for favors, but come upon willingly as the faith of all men who desire everlasting life. In reply, Mr. Chia magnanimously bestows upon Francis the land rights to a nearby hillside property; further to, a small army of his best workers to rebuild St. Andrews from the ground up. Two years of planning and hard work result in St. Andrews evolution into a thriving community.
Alas, with such prosperity comes yet another wager; this time, put into play by the arrival of Mother Maria-Veronica and her two travelling companions, Sister Martha (Sarah Allgood) and Sister Clotilde (Ruth Ford). Through a miscommunication, they have arrived one day earlier than anticipated with Francis quite unprepared for them. Mother Maria is a hard one; refusing all of Francis’ charitable welcome; his plans for a celebratory meal in their honor. She insists on an immediate separation of their duties to the church; Francis to allow her complete autonomy in matters concerning the schooling of the local children. As per his inquiry about Mother Maria receiving payment from the church to sustain the sisters, a decided departure from ‘holy poverty’ Mother Maria bluntly explains, “Holy poverty does not require me to beg!” Francis’ inability to ‘befriend’ the sisters is counterbalanced by his admiration for their efficiency and the speed with which, under their tutelage, the mission continues to flourish and expand its sphere of influence. Alas, Mother Maria makes a critical error when she welcomes Hossanah and Philomena back to the mission as her ‘helpers’. Francis attempts to forewarn of the looming catastrophe. But Mother Maria’s judgment is clouded by her distrust, nee contempt, for Francis. Running true to form, Hossanah and Philomena steal all of the sisters’ rations, money and a treasured crucifix made of silver.
In the meantime, Francis receives an unexpected visit from Willie Tulloch; a most welcomed reminder of home. The two old friends rekindle their friendship and Willie elects to stay at the mission for a while. Unhappy circumstance for all, Imperial forces under Gen. Wai have given Paitan an ultimatum of surrender or face total annihilation. The Rebels hold their territory for as long as they are able, but the Imperials are both relentless and ruthless. Paitan is all but destroyed. During the deluge Willie is gunned down for attempting to rescue one of the wounded officers. He dies a short while later, comforted by Francis at his bedside. Wai’s Captain (Abner Biberman) confronts Francis with a laundry list of demands; all of their foreign food stuffs, medicines and a tally of rice, the release of all eligible fighting men to join Wai’s army immediately and finally, a return of all wounded rebels, likely to be executed for treason. If these demands are not met, the Captain promises to reduce the mission to rubble. His mortar shells have already decimated the mission’s church. There is also the inference he and his men will not hesitate sacrificing the local young girls to satisfy more earthly pleasures. Unable to resist Wai’s plans, Francis nevertheless manages to stall the exchange; enough time to contact the Rebel’s captain (Beal Wong). Despite being outnumbered, he agrees to a last ditch effort to ambush Wai’s Captain and destroy the army’s gigantic canon perched on the hillside overlooking Paitan. Francis pretends to offer the Capt. a giant burlap sack of tinned food stuffs. In reality, the tins are loaded with kerosene; the bag placed next to the canon. Gunfire erupts. Wai’s Captain is killed and Francis manages successfully to toss a lighted torch under the canon. The sack explodes, destroying the gun and killing thirty-two of Wai’s men. Knocked unconscious, but otherwise unharmed from the blast, Francis is taken to the mission to recuperate and heal his shattered leg.
In due time, the mission is favored with a visit from Monsignor Angus Mealey (Vincent Price), whose initial good tidings are offset by his dismay at discovering the mission’s church has yet to be rebuilt. Inadvertently, Angus reveals to Francis that Bishop McNabb has since passed away from pneumonia. The enormity of this loss is deeply felt by Francis. But Angus, far more interested in his own pontificating, has overlooked its impact, or rather, seems quite obtuse and oblivious to the pain inflicted by his words. Angus rather cruelly suggests Francis is wasting his opportunities to ‘impress upon the Chinese’ the ‘superiority’ of his Christian faith. Francis defends his decision to live among the common classes he serves and reminds Angus those he would consider heathens are not always ‘lowly’ just as not all Christians are to the kingdom of heaven born with the milk of saintly altruism coursing through their veins.  Angus is unmoved by the argument but allows Francis to have his way. After Angus’ departure, Francis reassesses the damage to his beloved church. He is attended by Mother Maria who has a confession to make; she has always known Francis’ was the truest faith; that she only possessed the arrogance of acknowledging faith in her duties, and, that she had hoped to implore Angus to send her away, far from the hardships of her present assignment. Alas, since then Mother Maria has experienced her own epiphany. She can see Francis’ true faith for what it is; what her own might – and should – be.
From this edifying vignette, the Mankeiwicz/Johnson screenplay settles into the dramatist’s tradition of the montage; fast tracking some ten uneventful years, briefly summarized by a voiceover narration, accompanied by a few fleeting glimpses of Francis, sufficiently aged to reflect the passage of time.  We learn Mother Maria used her considerable influence with a wealthy family back in Austria to procure funds to rebuild the church. To date, the mission thrives with two hundred school children, novices preparing to enter the sisterhood and other scholars looking toward their future prosperity otherwise denied them in the outside world. Mother Maria makes it known to Francis American Methodists have intentions of establishing their own mission not so very far away; complete with a more modernized dispensary, school and other amenities surely to rival their own. Francis pays a social call on Dr. Wilbur Fiske (James Gleason) and his wife, Agnes (Anne Revere); old campaigners, some twenty years removed from the life they once knew in Maine. Francis makes an immediate friend of the good doctor when he not only echoes Fiske’s opinion, having met Monsignor Angus Mealey, only to find him ‘formal’ to a fault, but adds his own, suggesting Angus more ‘stuffy’ than smart. Afterward, Francis is met by Mr. Chia. The years continue to roll by; perhaps a little too quickly. His strength withered; his time in China nearing an end, Francis reflects on what his life’s work has meant; both, to him and the peoples he has touched. He confides in Mother Maria a certain lack of envy towards Angus, and yet, equally a very real consideration he has someone failed to fully live up to his own potential. “I mean no disrespect to your Bishop,” she offers him, “But it is my considered opinion you are closer to God than he is.”
Francis offers Mother Maria his most heartfelt prayers; words tinged with sage wisdom unfettered by pride. She is humbled and stirred almost to tears, regarding him as her oldest and dearest friend. We also learn from Francis, Nora’s unhappy pregnancy has resulted in a child whom Francis, with Aunt Polly’s aid, has helped to shelter these many years; Andrew (Georgie Nokes) the son he never had. Francis departs Paitan with an escort worthy of the one he once mistakenly believed to be for him upon his first arrival to the city. Only now, the bearers, their families, and, the many cheering along the roadside have come to honor him with their warm salutations as he prepares for the long journey home. Under Sister Martha’s instruction, the choir sing Francis’ favorite hymn. He is reunited with Anna and her daughter; Mr. Chia, and finally Joseph who, unable to recite from a memorized scroll, offers with humility his sincere thanks to Francis. In reply, Francis blesses the citizens of Paitan. Having reached the end of Francis’ journal, the Monsignor at Tweedside is shamed to reconsider his own hasty recommendations to the Bishop. Overjoyed at learning he will not be cast from his home, Francis encourages Andrew to fetch the fishing rods for their daily sojourn to a nearby lake. “Wasn’t it just fine,” he explains to Andrew, “God made all the rivers and filled them all with little fishes and then sent you and me here to catch them?” The movie concludes with a passage from scripture; Christ’s gift to Peter, “…and I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”    
The Keys of the Kingdom is one of movie-lands finest fictional films of faith, unencumbered by the oft overused gemütlich charm so readily exploited in these movies, seeking to put a ‘happy face’ on Catholicism and Christianity. Yet, herein this (un)natural inclination is replaced by an unvarnished deference for Christianity itself and genuine passion to tell of one man’s simple kindness; the art of a life’s work following the familiar martyr’s trajectory, perhaps, yet without becoming self-sanctifying or maudlin.  The lion’s share of the pictures’ success is owed to Gregory Peck’s articulation of this earnest spirituality.  Here is an actor who not only understands the material as written but is able to bring its intangibles to bear on the success of his interpretation.  Peck’s Father Francis is precisely the stubborn antidote for a Godless world in quiet desperation, still refusing to be forgiven its sins (boy, could we use his kind right about now), yet ultimately unable to resist falling under his spell. True faith is not a slight of hand. It cannot be conjured as a magic trick or via an actor’s craftiness in make believe (see Frank Sinatra’s profoundly misguided interpretation of Father Paul in 1948’s The Miracle of the Bells to compare). Rather, it must be embraced and believed wholeheartedly.  And Peck, a Roman Catholic, brings a most rewarding satisfaction to the part without venturing nearer my God to cloying manipulations.
For this, The Keys of the Kingdom relies upon a miraculous uplifting score by 2oth Century-Fox’s resident composer, Alfred Newman; a deeply romantic central theme, orchestrated in towering refrains for the movie’s main and end titles. Newman gets a lot of mileage from this one piece of music, re-orchestrated and interpolated over and over again; engrossing and malleable as it serves many scenes of varying emotional satisfaction throughout the movie’s ever-shifting dramatic arc. Interestingly, most of the Asians featured in The Keys of the Kingdom are of Asian extraction; a luxury not always afforded the representation of non-Caucasians in classic Hollywood movies. As fine as a movie as MGM’s The Good Earth (1937) is, it has a Ukrainian (Paul Muni) and a German (Luise Rainer) donning painful makeup applications to affect their Chinese heritage. The Keys of the Kingdom was one of Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised productions, utilizing virtually all of the resources Fox had at its disposal in the 1940’s; recycling sets from How Green Was My Valley (1941) to convey Ireland, and extremely effective, newly constructed villages, supervised by Production Designers James Basevi and William S. Darling, on the Fox ranch for St. Andrew’s Mission and the city of Paitan.  We must also give praise to cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur C. Miller, again for lighting a star with such regal resplendence, it is quite simply impossible not to fall in love – however improper – with Peck’s Scots Catholic man of the cloth. In hindsight, The Keys of the Kingdom serves as something of a bridge in the wartime milieu and Hollywood’s own output as part of the later to be canonized ‘films of faith’; begun from a novel written by a physician recuperating from an ulcer at the start of America’s involvement in WWII; the movie, completed just before war’s end; nominated for a slew of Oscars, before finally completing its initial run just as the guns in Europe fell silent.
Author A. J. Cronin, whose predilection for story-telling precedes any of his accomplishments as a physician is one of those astonishingly prolific literary giants whose reputation has since inexplicably faded into relative obscurity. Arguably, his most enduring masterwork is The Citadel, charting the rise to prominence of a Welsh doctor; followed by The Stars Look Down, Hatter's Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years – all of them eventually made into movies of varying degrees in quality and success. Even his novella, Country Doctor became a long-running BBC radio and TV series, Dr. Finlay's Casebook; retired in the late forties only to be revived two decades thereafter. A self-professed agnostic in his youth and throughout his medical studies, Cronin would suffer his own epiphany, migrating from the opinion God was “an outworn myth” to an absolute deconstruction of this cynicism, later re-accounted in his biography, “If we consider the physical universe we cannot escape the notion of a primary Creator.... Accept evolution with its fossils and elementary species, its scientific doctrine of natural causes. And still you are confronted with the same mystery, primary and profound. Ex nihilo nihil, as the Latin tag of our schooldays has it: nothing can come of nothing.”
The Keys of the Kingdom is Cronin’s most overtly religious work and, in retrospect, it came at a particular crossroads in both his self-discovery and the U.S.’s emergence as an irrefutable world power – the ‘grand experiment’ forging into the uncertain hours of the Second World War, taking the conflict to its bosom after Pearl Harbor and achieving what no gentleman’s politician in Britain could; a tenable ‘peace in our time’ five years later. The shadow of war is all over Cronin’s novel, re-channeled as conflict between varying Chinese factions; the depiction of Paitan’s near collapse under Imperial bombardment, no less stirring as reinvented for the screen with varying shades of Hitler’s blitzkrieg clearly as its inspiration. To suggest the film version encapsulates all of the novel’s magnitude and momentum is to deny Cronin the more expert subtleties rooted in his prose. To be frank, no movie based on a book as richly textured as The Keys of the Kingdom – even one that is lesser so – can ever scratch beneath a layer or two of subtext, dictated by the forward trajectory of both plot and character development (however expertly plotted and played, and in this case, very expertly indeed) and equally as hampered by the concision of a mere two hours to tell the tale (it takes director, John M. Stahl exactly 137 min. to do as much) – herein, spanning the formidable girth of decades between childhood and the infirmities of old age. And yet, in an unconfined and then current fashion, this cinematic adaptation does manage rather succinctly to suggest a lot of the nuances captured in this literary portrait without ever touching upon a lot of its particulars; impressively maintaining an affinity for Cronin’s finer artistry as well as to illustrate for the audience (who perhaps have not read the book) impressions of this saintly man of the cloth, afflicted by an infallible humility.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is derived from a new image harvest of a recently unearthed fine grain master provided by Fox Home Video. Prepare to be dazzled because what is here is superior in every way to Fox’s own DVD release of The Keys of the Kingdom as part of their now defunct Studio Classics franchise. The gray scale on this Blu-ray is, in a word – gorgeous, revealing all of the staggering beauty in Arthur C. Miller’s sumptuous cinematography. Even in long shots, image detail is extremely satisfying, providing crispness with film grain properly registered. Tonality is taken to the nth degree and contrast is ‘bang on’ with zero presence of age-related artifacts and/or untoward digital manipulations (no edge enhancement, boosting, etc. et al). One sincerely wishes TT’s Blu-ray of The Song of Bernadette (1943 and currently out of print) had been paid as much care. The audio herein is DTS 2.0 mono and extremely satisfying.  Biggest disappointment; save TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score there are no new added extras; just the recycled audio commentary from 2004 featuring historians, Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankewicz. Bottom line, and particularly in the spirit of optimism as we turn toward a more promising New Year, The Keys of the Kingdom is required viewing. It’s kindly precepts have not dated these many decades since the picture’s release and this Blu-ray, mastered to perfection, easily belongs on everyone’s top shelf. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, December 23, 2016

CINERAMA's RUSSIAN ADVENTURE: Blu-ray (Cinerama Releasing Corp. 1966) Flicker Alley

Conceived over an eight year period with footage culled from no less than six movies originally photographed by the Russians in their inferior Kinopanorama process, Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (1966) was seen by its producer Harold ‘Hal’ Dennis as a way to bridge the socio-political chasm between the U.S.S.R. and America; a goodwill gesture on the part of the Russians too, who preserved and presented over fifteen hours of raw footage to the U.S. production team to whittle down into a manageable 122 minute feature-length presentation. Russian Adventure is hosted by Bing Crosby (a close personal friend of Dennis, he occasionally – and forgivable – has trouble pronouncing some of the more florid names of those depicted from the Bolshoi ballet). There are many reasons why Russian Adventure should be the final jewel in Cinerama’s travelogue catalog to receive a home video release via Flicker Alley; not the least, because for almost three decades it was considered a ‘lost film’ – all but vanishing from movie screens after its illustrious and highly profitable premiere engagement. Two things to consider here: first, Russian Adventure was not a true Cinerama production but cobbled together as an independent feature made “in Cinerama” (more on this in a moment); the machinations and necessary clearances required from both the Russian and U.S. State Departments a logistical quagmire, skillfully resolved by Dennis in his passion to make this dream project a reality. Second, apart from its world premiere on March 29th, 1966 and very limited engagement thereafter at Chicago’s McVickers Theater, virtually all of the other theatrical engagements were shown in an inferior 70mm composite, not Cinerama’s more cumbersome (but more spectacular) 3-panel method of projection. Hence, when restorationist and Cinerama enthusiast, David Strohmaier elected to give Russian Adventure its second theatrical debut in 2000 the version then screened for audiences was derived from this same flawed 70mm master; then, recently discovered, unloved in an un-air-conditioned and abandoned metal storage container outside of Los Angeles. The reissue proved fortuitous, as Strohmaier was informed by members of the Dennis family in attendance of a complete tri-panel separation master having survived the years, and still very much a part of their private archives. It is these elements that have been loaned out for this more ambitious home video restoration.
We really do owe the Dennis family and David Strohmaier a sincere nod of gratitude (the latter, not just for this release – but actually, for making the entire Cinerama travelogue catalog – long neglected and even more lengthily absent from public view, finally available to home theater enthusiasts in region-free hi-def home video releases). Strohmaier’s efforts thus far have managed to rekindle at least a part the majesty of the Cinerama experience in a theater. Let us address the elephant in the room: true Cinerama can never been ‘fully’ experienced at home. It requires a curved screen to create an uncanny illusion of depth and scope; in short, an immersive movie-going experience. The 180 degree focus of the human eye does, after all, see the world in ‘Cinerama’. But experiencing Cinerama full scale is something quite unique; hearing 7 tracks of true stereo enveloping on all sides. Alas, Strohmaier is only one man and his efforts have been uniformly stifled by limited resources. It takes money, folks – a lot of it – to save and preserve Cinerama and Strohmaier and his highly competent team of digital restorationists, in part, have exercised ingenuity as well as diligence in their efforts.  Employing floating mattes and other stabilization tools at their disposal, the image quality generated on virtually all of Flicker Alley’s previous Cinerama travelogues look years younger than they once did. Regrettably, all of these releases are still only an approximation of Cinerama and an imperfect result in hi-def, despite all the meticulous attention paid. In a perfect world, we might hope for some badly needed infusion of capital to come Strohmaier’s way via interventions from The Film Foundation, The AFI and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – to list but three more fiscally robust organizations – to spend their time and money correctly in support of Strohmaier’s efforts. But no – he is working alone, or rather – practically – and from a profound passion for the format, to achieve some impressive results. These nevertheless fall short of re-producing the sort of complete and ‘ground up’ restoration as Warner Home Video’s How The West Was Won (1962), only one of two actual plot-driven movies photographed in true Cinerama (the other, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm still MIA on home video and yet to be given a ‘proper’ Blu-ray release).  
Cinerama’s Russian Adventure is more than a tad naïve in its voice over narration, the production attempting to recreate the kinetic energy of 1952’s This Is Cinerama virtually by emulating its structure; the screen immediately ‘expanding’ to its full aperture after Bing Crosby’s brief introduction (he is even seen talking in an office setting vaguely reminiscent of the one used as backdrop for Lowell Thomas’ memorable introduction in the aforementioned movie). “What is a Russian?” Crosby inquisitively inquires; a crooked smile, perhaps to suggest a good many Russians from the Cold War period likely making similar queries about Americans. Russian Adventure is a more engaging movie than most of the other Cinerama travelogues, for the most part because the Russian cinematographers responsible for this footage seem to have had no quam about keeping their cameras in constant motion. Unlike a lot of the American photographed productions, usually relying on single stationary setups – the three-cameras simply fixed to a spot on the horizon while action takes place in front of them for interminably long stretches – the camerawork throughout a good deal of Russian Adventure feels less encumbered by such stiltedness; the Cinerama cameras strapped to planes, trains, automobiles and horse-drawn troikas racing across the frozen wilderness. Crosby’s narration does dispel a few myths about Russia along the way; covering 1/6 the earth’s landmass, its hardly snow and ice from side to side or top to bottom, but as diverse in its climatology as its indigenous peoples. We get prairies of waving grain, and cultured palaces; metropolitan cityscapes juxtaposed with lush, exotic - even tropical - forest vegetation; the garish spectacle of the circus vs. the refinements of the ballet; plus a few truly unanticipated sights – a brutal whale hunt at sea, the cruelty of its slaughter sure to impress and stagger (also likely nauseate a few of the more faint-heart Greenpeacers along the way), and, a playful – almost cartoony/screwball pantomime – featuring bears, hungry for fresh honey, assaulting a beekeeper’s colorfully decorated farm and stealing his sleigh after loading it with several battered hives.
Cinerama’s bug-eye view of the world is, as always, a little off-putting to those unaccustomed to its panoramic extreme depth of focus, the effect of distance amplified in home video presentations, never able to approximate, much less replicate the wrap-around effect of the theatrical engagement and thus adding even more distance between the images on the screen and the home viewer.  The result: some of the most startling displays of color and action on the screen on opening night tend to fall more than a tad flat herein; the ballet and circus sequences in particular, appearing as frozen tableau. There are some ingenious attempts to ‘animate’ the art of dance here; low angle shots to concentrate on the Cossack dancers’ feet in foreground with a row of Ukrainian-attired female dancers caught between their high-kicking legs and in full body view in the extreme background. It all makes for a diverting pastiche/homage to Russian heritage. The biggest complaint I have with Russian Adventure is that unlike American-produced Cinerama outings, the Kinopanorama footage provided to Hal Dennis and his team is rarely aligned to perfection and in a lot of cases, horribly misaligned and highly unstable; the vignetting (or color darkening between the seams of ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘B’ and ‘C’ panels) further distorted by some nightmarish gate weave between all three panels and truly horrendous overlap that cuts off figures unlucky enough to cross from one panel into the next. The skiing sequence at the start of the first half of Russian Adventure, and the harrowing road trip into the Ural Mountains featured after its midway Intermission painfully reveal the shortcomings of the Kinopanorama process. Cinerama was not free of these distortions either. But Cinerama’s inventor, Fred Waller was very keen on clever ways to mask these imperfections. The Russians appear simply to have embraced the flaws of the system outright and run with the notion nobody else would care.
Interestingly, having seen a few Cinerama features in 3-panel projection at various revivals, a lot of these shortcomings do not immediately distract nearly as much when witnessed on a gargantuan louvered screen, I suspect because one is so enamored with the overall size and clarity of the image itself, the built-in flicker is dwarfed by the spectacle of it all. Alas, home video draws out these peculiarities and imperfections – hi-def presentations, even moreso. Again, we ought to doff our caps to David Strohmaier and his team for ‘stabilizing’ the image herein, as much as is technologically possible on a limited budget; also give thanks for the considerable amount of color balancing ably to have restored continuity to these visuals – again, not to a refined level as more money thrown at these restorations might have – but to a point where the abnormality of independently-plagued color fading (from panels ‘A’ to ‘C’) is marginally camouflaged to the point where it can be tolerated, if not entirely overlooked. Honestly, I really would love for some indie investor with deeper pockets than my own to have a crack at all of Flicker Alley’s Cinerama’s travelogues (with Strohmaier’s complicity and participation, of course) because while I do sing the praises of Strohmaier to the rafters on each of these outings, I must in the same breath suggest none of the currently reconstructed Cinerama home video releases except How The West Was Won adequately recaptures the essential ‘wow’ factor of opening night Cinerama splendor.
What I love about Cinerama in a theater – the dwarfing of the spectator in a completely darkened room with a 360 degree vista of towering images hurtling at the screen; careening from the front seat of Rockaway’s roller coaster, almost driven under the hooves of speeding stallions caught in a spirited troika, plowing into a blustering gail with a windjammer traversing the seven seas, Tahitian gals in their grass skirts doing an exotic hip-swivel, Russian ballerinas hippity-hopping on point, nose-diving into craggy canyons and cresting over glacier-covered mountain tops from the nose of a B-57, etc. et al – indelibly preserved images, only to be culled from the memory of those fortunate enough to have actually ‘experienced’ Cinerama full tilt under such optimal conditions. All of these wonders in Cinerama evaporate when pseudo-Cinerama is attempted at home. I have sincerely tried to replicate the ‘Cinerama’ experience at my home. Yet, even in up-rezed 4K projection on a 140 inch screen – albeit, flat instead of curved – something gets lost in translation. Even a hint of the Cinerama experience simply isn’t there when viewing ANY Cinerama travelogue on a conventional TV monitor, no matter the size of the monitor or positioning of one’s armchair just so, to approximate the ‘scope’ value of these ‘Smile-boxed’ images. So, what we are left with then is an experience at home more quaint than epic and very much seeming even more ‘out of touch’ with the expectations of what Cinerama had to offer back in the 1950's and 60's. It is important to note not all movies purporting to have been photographed in Cinerama actually were, nor were but a handful ever projected ‘in Cinerama’, leaving a good many spectators – having heard of its wonders– more than a tad disappointed by the experience. We cannot stress enough – for sheer equilibrium-altering, stomach-turning discombobulation, nothing – absolutely NOTHING – beats 3-panel photographed and projected Cinerama. Not even single, bug-eye lens Todd A-O, and certainly never 70mm Panavision. We won’t even broker the argument for IMAX. IMAX is bigger vertically, but not nearly as all-encompassing from side to side. In Cinerama you either hold on to your head or your heart, but ultimately end up losing both to the overwhelming spectacle of its ‘carnival ride’ styled exposés.
Apart from ‘This Is Cinerama’ – the granddaddy of them all - Cinerama’s Russian Adventure is probably my favorite escapist travelogue of the lot. Covering 1/6th of the globe from corner to corner, Russia itself is the ideal subject matter for a larger-than-life format like Cinerama (or Kinopanorama, if you prefer). As with most of Strohmairer’s impeccably preserved Cinerama Blu-rays, Russian Adventure has been culled from a reassembled 3-panel composite and is presented in hi-def in a 2.56:1 aspect ratio. As already mentioned, alignment issues persist, chiefly because this footage has been gathered from multiple film and audio sources.  Strohmaier and his team have done their utmost to cushion the inherent distortions. They have been mostly successful at eliminating a lot of age-related anomalies, including color stabilization, built-in flicker and color density issues glaringly obvious between the tri-panel seams (minimized, though never fully eliminated). Aside, I am not certain how much more could have been achieved here, even with a Warner-styled ‘dream’ budget. But it should be noted image depth and color reproduction is decidedly a notch below other Flicker Alley Cinerama home video releases. That said, this is by far the most technically robust presentation of Russian Adventure yet seem – apart from its theatrical release. Since this feature has been assembled from various film sources, also various Kinopanorama movies shot under varying conditions, image quality ranges from middling competency to extremely satisfying.  Again, Flicker Alley and David Strohmaier have done there absolute best here with particularly impressive results, but especially under such budgetary restrictions. So, while the overall impressions herein can best be described as adhering to a time-capsule, dated quality, Russian Adventure nevertheless looks and sounds very organic. About the sound: we get 2 tracks to consider: a newly mastered 5.1 and 2.0 – both LCPM. Curiously, Russian Adventure’s audio is not quite as robust as I anticipated, and, on occasion, more than a tad lacking in bass tonality.  It has been curated to perfection without excessive digital tinkering and, again, we give thanks for the results if, in tandem, acknowledging more might have been done under perfect conditions.
I think the biggest disappointment for me was the absence of an audio commentary to accompany this feature. It would have been beneficial to have a blow-by-blow account of the locations as well as some backstory on the Russian ballet stars and circus performers appearing herein. Instead, we get some fairly interesting footnotes to consider: first, Fortress of Peace (1964): an Oscar-nominated Swiss propaganda movie shot in Cinerama in 1964. We also get 1966’s Concordeshot in 70mm, but advertised as ‘in Cinerama’ about the then soon to debut supersonic plane. Hal Jr. and Craig, the sons of the late producer, Hal Dennis weigh in on the making of Russian Adventure with a 23 minute puff piece interview. The two have a lot of fun recalling those heady days with their dad, but are rather light on the particulars. David Strohmaier regales us with the trials and tribulations of preserving and remastering Russian Adventure for Blu-ray – it’s quite a tale, alas told in miniature. Finally, there are ads, publicity campaigns, theatrical trailers and a reproduction of the original ‘press kit’ to sift through: overall, nicely packed this kit. Viewed from the rubric of today’s even more attenuated political uncertainties between Russia and America, Russian Adventure is a fascinating time capsule made in the spirit of goodwill at a time when it all but seemed to be in very short supply. Then as now, the footage on tap herein gave westerners unprecedented access to a way of life behind the Iron Curtain; traditions and progress intermingled, and definitely, to captivate and satisfy. A lot of good stuff here with the added bonus of being in ‘the miracle of Cinerama’…well, not quite. But close enough to gratify this cinephile for the time being. Bottom line: Russian Adventure is a lot of fun with a few caveats to consider and recommended today, more for its historical value than as a ‘must see’ entertainment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

THE LODGER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Kino Lorber

Jack the Ripper is a macabre fascination for many. His legacy absolutely refuses to die; partly, because an actual identity has never been affixed to this shadowy figure responsible for a series of throat-slashing, disembowelment and other sexually-charged mutilations perpetuated on five unfortunates in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888. For over a century, historians, criminologists, amateur sleuths and filmmakers alike have been endeavoring to put a face to the moniker affixed at the bottom of a series of perversely eloquent letters received by both the London Times and Scotland Yard. Purporting to be in ‘the Ripper’s hand’ these letters, including the infamous ‘from hell’ installment (which included a freshly excised human kidney as a souvenir) are today largely regarded as part of an elaborate hoax, either perpetuated by a demented – if aspiring – fan of the real serial killer (who never acted on such impulses but did not mind taking credit for whoever’s grotesque handiwork was responsible for these crimes) or perhaps, concocted in a press room to give an identity to the nondescript fiend, only ever officially referenced as ‘The Whitechapel Murderer’ and/or ‘Leather Apron’ killer within the crime case files. Jack the Ripper may have sold a lot of copy in his time, but he thus remains an enigma.
Alas, the real problem with classifying dear ole Jack as a ‘serial killer’ is that after a relatively short-lived franchise of victims, gruesomely dispatched between Sept. and Oct. of 1888, the murders and letter-writing abruptly ceased without explanation or an arrest ever to be made. Those more up on their psychiatric profiling must acknowledge a certain incongruity between the modus operand of serial killers and this anomaly to their brethren. Real serial killers cannot stop themselves from the ‘art of murder’; their voracity and bloodlust never satisfied. For them, killing is a compulsive hobby triggered by any number of signifiers to haunt them from the peripheries of their mind. Nor did the Ripper continue his reign of terror elsewhere in Britain, France or even America after the Whitechapel murders ended. Generally speaking, serial killers do not switch from one method of murder to another. If they prefer a gun or strangulation as their effective means of inflicting death, it remains so throughout their dastardly deluge. And Jack preferred a knife; possibly a scalpel too, leading to speculations the Ripper was either a surgeon or very closely tied to the medical community in other ways, due to his uncanny knowledge of human physiology. Over the years, a theory of revenge has been put forth with even grander speculations; the Ripper avenging a wrong done to him by loose, fallen women. Alright – I’ll bite: revenge for what? Ah, now there the motive becomes murkier still, unless of course one buys into the ingenious notion of a connection between Jack and the Royal house of Queen Victoria, as put forth in the Hughes’ brothers’ masterfully told 2001 thriller, From Hell. Hmmm.
Long before this, the Ripper’s reputation was firmly cemented in popular culture after the 1913 publication of Marie Adelaide Elizabeth Rayner Lowndes’ novel, The Lodger; the page-turning tale of a recently arrived stranger who appears on the doorstep of a cultured middle-class family one foggy eve, only to take up residency in their attic under an assumed name; using the secluded rental as his base of operations to carry out a series of unspeakable crimes.  Interestingly, the killer in the book is a figment of Lowndes’ imagination, never once referenced as ‘the Ripper’, although his fictionalized crime spree unmistakably parallels the real Whitechapel atrocities, then barely twenty-five years old. Lowndes deliberately set her novel in the then present to avoid any direct comparisons. And Alfred Hitchcock, who tackled the novel for his 1926 suspense movie, had remained true to this own time. Hence, I sincerely wonder what the authoress thought of director, John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944); itself, a remake; Brahm and 2oth Century-Fox deliberately setting the action in 1888 to more directly parallel the actual Ripper’s blood-thirsty assaults. In hindsight, Brahm’s The Lodger is a rather expertly staged composite of several ambitious motives simultaneously at play; first, production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s desire to make arguably the first intelligently transcribed and rather lavishly appointed American thriller about the Ripper; second, to unravel the mystery behind the mayhem, and third, to give one of his prized and rising stars, Laird Cregar the most plum role of his entire movie career.
Zanuck also likely delighted in thumbing his nose at the ensconced Puritanism of the Production Code of Ethics that otherwise forbade him to pursue this subject matter on any level. Indeed, Brahm skirts almost all of the code’s moral objections by staging the Ripper’s ferocious butchery under the cover of night and through a heavy coat of manufactured fog – the fumes of which sent actors scrambling for the exit in between takes to gasp and take in some fresh air. With all due respect to historian, Gregory Mank (whose reputation and work I greatly admire…he really can do no wrong) I do not subscribe to his sentiments on The Lodger as the greatest horror movie made in the 1940s, instead, preferring to ascribe the honor to any one of three psychological horror masterpieces made at RKO by the Sultan of Shudders – Val Lewton: beginning with 1942’s Cat People and ending with I Walked with A Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both made and released in 1943). But The Lodger has genuine star power in Laird Cregar, fast established at Fox as a superb villain, and, indeed, in this movie he delves deeply into the Ripper’s psychosis – inwardly and outwardly expressed by Cregar’s wounded, drooping eyes, caught with a desperately ill, far-away look of homoerotic tension as he professes an unhealthy ‘love’ for his own younger and more handsome brother, deceased and yet very much ‘with’ Cregar’s mystery man, self-christened as Mr. Slade (the name borrowed from a signpost not far from the upper middle-class neighborhood where the Bonting family will shortly come to know death on their own terms and under their roof.   
The Lodger is a fabulously appointed B&W period costume melodrama, fleshed out by some great supporting performances from Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), Sarah Allgood (as his wife, Ellen), Merle Oberon (top-billed as rising music hall performer, Kitty Langley – with a singing voice dubbed by Lorraine Elliott) and George Sanders (playing virtuous against type as Inspector John Warwick). From top to bottom, this Lodger is a quality affair; Zanuck investing considerably in James Basevi and John Ewing’s superb production design, lensed with an air of unsettling German expressionism by cameraman extraordinaire, Lucien Ballard. Add to this René Hubert’s exquisite costuming and Hugo Friedhofer’s sparse underscore, and you have the makings of a memorable bone-chiller. Except The Lodger somehow never quite attains its exalted place in the top-tiered recesses of our collective consciousness as anything more or better than par for the course of what was possible under the studio system then, afforded the proper cast, crew and budget to make it all come together as it should. As a disturbing thriller set in period evocations of merry ole London, I actually prefer MGM’s remake of Gaslight (made and released the same year) or The Picture of Dorian Gray (debuting one year later) to The Lodger; not entirely for their visual style but moreover for the subtly taut scenarios presented. Barré Lyndon’s screenplay for The Lodger has its own issues, not the least, grappling with the Production Code preventing more graphic accounts of the Ripper’s crime spree.
Actually, apart from director Brahn’s expertly staged opener, depicting a blood-curdling assault on a drunken busker, Katie (Helena Pickard), the rest of the Ripper’s victims are left the exclusive domain of the imagination; fueled by mounting speculations in the Bonting’s front parlor, perpetuated by the strange behaviors of their lodger, Mr. Slade – who comes and goes at all hours of the night. A word about this initial sequence: it was intended to take place after Kitty’s music hall debut and actually features the same actress we meet in those scenes later on, playing an entirely different character – a washed up actress named Annie Rowley. Due to imposed restrictions, the Ripper’s intended victims were switched from prostitutes to actresses (a fine line of distinction). But even more fascinating is Zanuck’s eleventh hour decision to recut the movie so Annie’s murder opens the picture; necessitating a redubbing of a line of dialogue at the start in which Pickard’s character is instead referred to as ‘Katie’ – not ‘Annie’. Shot in half shadow, from a high angle and under a dense curtain of fog, Zanuck likely assumed no one in the audience would notice if the first victim and the one we later encounter shortly before her own demise are one in the same. And in this regard he was absolutely vindicated. Not a single critic or critical eye in the audience spotted the doubling up of this performance. Because of air-raid restrictions, virtually all of The Lodger’s night scenes were shot during the day – the entire outdoor set tarped to achieve the desired moonless and fog-laden murky effect.
The Lodger opens with Katie’s murder. As the discovery of her mutilated corpse insights a gathering of gawkers come to marvel at the fiend’s handiwork, we settle in on a mysterious figure swiftly parading through the fog with medical bag in hand. The audience, if not the residents of Whitechapel, have seen their first glimpse of Jack the Ripper – a.k.a. Mr. Slade, appearing on the Bonting’s doorstep in reply to their advertised room for rent. Robert Bonting is a one-time aristocrat brought to financial ruin by several mismanaged business decisions. His wife, Ellen is doting and patient, suggesting to Mr. Slade he must not take Robert’s austerity too seriously. Robert has suffered a nervous breakdown and is apt – unintentionally, of course – to be short with strangers. Mr. Slade is shown to rooms on the second floor but prefers the isolated solitude of their attic to the suite once occupied by a now deceased aunt.  He will rent both rooms as it suits him for twice the going rate Ellen was hoping to get. Ellen explains to Mr. Slade that if she can amass the moneys her husband lost through misfortune via the rent, then she will have a handsome present to give Robert for his pending birthday. She also introduces Slade to the housemaid, Daisy (Queenie Leonard) and their niece, Kitty Langely – something of a congenial woman in private but an audacious flirt on the stage, mimicking a Parisian accent as she performs can-can styled revues that quickly make her the toast of London’s west end.
Mr. Slade remains rather aloof and cryptic about his profession. In the meantime, Kitty meets Annie Rowley at the music hall in between performances. The one-time aspiring star never made it past a few performances beyond the footlights. But she has a few words of advice for Kitty; rather cruel in her superstitions and darting off into the night before Kitty’s big night. Only a few hours later, at the wrap party, Kitty is informed by Inspector John Warwick and Superintendent Sutherland (Aubrey Mathers) of Annie’s grisly murder – the latest of the Ripper’s victims. Kitty offers what evidence she can to aid in Warwick’s investigation, although at present he seems far more interested in her legs than her mind. The two begin a social courting ritual, much to Ellen and Robert’s approval. But now, Ellen begins to suspect Mr. Slade might be the man the police are after. She heard him leave the house at midnight and return in the wee hours of the morning. Only the other night, she discovered the remains of his medical bag burnt in their downstairs stove; Robert suggesting the police are on a witch hunt for any man who possesses such a kit as early descriptions from various witnesses have described such a bag in the Ripper’s possession. Indeed, on the night in question, an old frump was slaughtered in her rundown flat only moments after lending her prized concertina to Wiggy, the barfly (Anita Sharp-Bolster). Ellen has even begun to doubt Mr. Slade as a legitimate doctor working at the nearby hospital; a claim Kitty cannot resist to confirm by tailing Mr. Slade to the hospital’s clinic the next afternoon – discovered in her deception, but neither offending Slade nor inciting his rage over her curiosity. Instead, he apologizes for his suspicions about her profession. In reply, she offers him free tickets to her next performance, believing it will ease both their cynical minds.
Alas, in attending the theater, Slade’s Jekyll and Hyde vindictiveness is triggered. He stalks Kitty and sneaks into her dressing room after the performance, threatening her with bodily harm, determined to separate the perceived wickedness from this beautiful creature who now realizes she is in grave danger. Slade is Jack the Ripper! She screams. He flees and the chase is on. Warwick and Sutherland seal the area with a small army of bobbies; Slade wounded in the neck by one of Warwick’s stray bullets before being cornered atop a narrow precipice overlooking the Thames. Wild-eyed and with knife drawn, Slade prepares to meet his end; shot once more – this time in the chest, and hurtling from an upstairs window, presumably to his death in the icy waters far below. Ellen offers a brief benediction; a queer if penultimate arousal of empathy for the Ripper as the camera holds tight on the waters below and the brief appearance of something floating face down. Could it be? Did Jack the Ripper survive?
The Lodger was such a huge hit for Fox, Zanuck immediately ushered in a sequel of sorts; Hangover Square (made and released the following year). Alas, it would be the final jewel in Laird Cregar’s crown. Towering well over six feet and tipping the scales at 300 lbs. Cregar was a formidable presence on the screen, yet by all accounts, a real pussycat and bon vivant with his costars whom he adored and was beloved by in return. The hefty Philadelphian, born Samuel Laird Cregar, was bitten by the acting bug early on, and, in his teens was performing at California’s Pasadena Playhouse. Chronically concerned his weight would limit his appeal, Cregar was encouraged by mentor, Thomas Browne not to lose an ounce of it, but rather develop a ‘thin man’s personality’ to compensate. And thus, Cregar emerged, first in bit parts, as the screen’s most enigmatic terror with brashness lighter than air. Toggling between stage and screen work, Cregar carved a niche for himself at Fox as one of their top ‘heavies.’  Dissatisfied with being typecast as the villain, Cregar was looking forward to his role as Javert in Fox’s remake of Les Misérables; a project repeatedly postponed while Zanuck pressed ahead with Hangover Square; Cregar again hired to play the haunted brute: pianist, George Bone.
Determined to change his prospects and image, Cregar went on a crash diet, taking prescribed amphetamines to trim his waistline. Alas, they also put a severe strain on his system, resulting in abdominal ulcers necessitating immediate surgery. While under the knife he suffered a massive heart attack and as a result, was hospitalized, dying several days later. He was only thirty-one. Since his time, The Lodger has been remade twice more, first in 1953 as The Man in the Attic, starring Jack Palance; then again in 2009 as The Lodger again, this time directed by David Ondaatje. Both versions are staged in a contemporary setting – cheaper and less likely to confuse with the already convoluted rumors, legends and stereotypes perpetuated about Jack the Ripper.  John Brahm’s reputation is not well-known today; considered – if, at all – as just another workaday director in the studio system gristmill. But he brings a real moody finesse to The Lodger; an overriding dread, perfectly complimented by Cregar’s central performance. Brahm takes Basevi and Ewing’s art direction, utilizes pre-existing and redecorated sets on the Fox back lot and maneuvers his camera throughout the action into penetratingly dense fog banks with a genius for maximizing the cinema space. What he does here goes well beyond mere ‘coverage’ or simply ‘showing off’ the gargantuan sets to their best advantage; though, this is a byproduct of his invisible style. But Brahm is more interested in using sets to reveal something deeper about the Ripper’s psyche; an innocuous spiral staircase backstage at Whitechapel’s Palace Theater, as example, back-lit as the vaporous tendrils of a spider’s web, revealing the complex circles in Slade’s demented mind, but also foreshadowing his unsuspecting ruination and capture.
The Lodger arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and although being advertised as ‘restored’ this 1080p transfer leaves much to be desired. We should point out that, owing to improperly stored elements, previous home video incarnations of The Lodger have looked poor to downright abysmal, with streaking and mottling throughout; compounded by a barrage of age-related dirt and scratches. A lot of these anomalies have been corrected and/or tempered, marking a vast improvement herein in hi-def. What continues to lack here is overall image clarity. I suspect, though do not exactly know, whether or not a lot of The Lodger did not survive in original camera negatives (OCN) and what is here is gleaned from second – or possibly – even third generation dupes with an obvious loss in overall sharpness and image refinement. There are moments scattered throughout The Lodger where fine detail is so blurry, soft and out of focus, whole portions of the screen are reduced to impressionistic blobs of starkly contrasted B&W. Contrast is another issue; occasionally bang on, but more often than not, boosted – and on several occasions – to distracting levels; whites blooming, blacks registering tonal gray at best. Inconsistent is the way I would sincerely classify this transfer. Disappointing, too – especially given the stature of the movie.
The audio is DTS 2.0 mono. Mostly, it sounds right, but lapses into moments of stridency. Extras are all ported over from Fox’s previous DVD release and include a ‘making of’ featurette in which a slew of historians weigh in with sound bites on their opinions and fun factoid info. We also get a stills montage set to music and two separate audio commentaries; one from Gregory Mank, the other cohosted by Alain Silver and James Ursini. Mank’s is the better of the two, although I sincerely enjoyed what all three historians had to say about this movie’s backstory and afterlife. Finally, we get a Lux Radio broadcast of The Lodger, starring Vincent Price and Cathy Lewis, the 2007 restoration comparison featurette and trailers for this and other movies in Kino Lorber’s canon. Bottom line: The Lodger is a seminal work in Fox’s deep catalog. Again, it is given short shrift on home video. Although I am not entirely certain how much more can be done with less than stellar elements several generations removed from the OCN, I suspect more could have – and should have – been attempted to ready this title for Blu-ray. Disconcerting of Fox to take the low road yet again, though hardly surprising given their track record. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


SUDDEN FEAR: Blu-ray (RKO Pictures 1952) Cohen Media Group

Since Shakespeare’s time, the honored tradition teetering on cliché has been ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. But I sincerely think a case can be made in David Miller’s sublime and occasionally overwrought thriller, Sudden Fear (1952) for the male of our species to suffer from a similar affliction. In Sudden Fear we have not only a clear cut case of the homme fatale interceding on hallowed ground usually ascribed to the ‘femme’ (in this case, one of Hollywood’s heavy-hitting power brokers, Joan Crawford), but also a blood-curdling powerhouse of a performance from both Crawford and co-star, Jack Palance; each looking quite angular, haunted and spooky to downright horrifyingly unattractive. Curious to say what Crawford’s accomplished playwright and heiress, Myra Hudson sees in Palance’s Lester Blaine; the actor she fires from her latest stage hit, Halfway to Heaven, while the play is still in rehearsals – not, because he gives an incompetent reading of her work (au contraire, it is the most passionate reading of an intense love scene to impress both the play’s director, Bill – Lewis Martin, producer, Scott Martindale - Taylor Holmes and Myra’s doting secretary Ann Taylor - Virginia Huston) but rather because he lacks what Myra envisions as raw animal magnetism capable of making her female audience instantly swoon. Given the bad news by Bill, Lester confronts Myra with the physical particulars of that most legendary of lovers - Casanova; who suffered a crooked jaw, birthmark just above his chin, Dumbo-sized ears and a heavy scar near his left brow. Lester’s point is well taken. Sex appeal is in the mind and exuded by presence and character, as a good many of the legendary male stars from Hollywood’s golden era, considered ‘hunks’ in their day, have occasionally lagged in the physical department, yet nevertheless managed enduring careers as leading men and/or perennially sought after ‘love interests’.
For many, Jack Palance never quite attains this level of desirability however, and yet there is something rather fascinating about him; a rare and intangible quality emanating off the screen as it simultaneously burrows into Myra’s fickle heart as she first empathizes with his wounded rejection; then, even more uncannily, begins to harbor more deep-seeded amorous aims during their New York to San Francisco train trip. And Crawford, after embodying the house style of at least two studios in her ever-reinvented career (first, at alma mater, MGM, chiefly responsible for rescuing a little known Charlston cup-winning flapper named Lucille LeSeur from the chorus and transforming her through their glamour gristmill into the presence we think of today as Joan Crawford) then, at Warner Bros. (where Crawofrd usurped grand dame Bette Davis’ screen supremacy) that studio, reshaping and tweaking Crawford’s persona to fit their ‘ripped from the headlines’ star quality in uncompromising and gutsy drama queens; Crawford was by 1952 her own free agent, though arguably not by choice (well…sort’a) under agent, Lew Wasserman’s inspired tutelage. I suspect Crawford would have preferred to remain either at MGM or Warner Bros. for the duration of her fame – if only these studios had not already tired of her as an artist and grotesquely considered her more ‘has been’ than the legend she would arguably remain until the very last act of her professional life. By 1952, Crawford was already well into the ‘warrior princess’ phase of her movie career; her once glycerin facial features acquiring a rather square-jawed harshness; perhaps hastened by her bouts of alcoholism.  
Personally, I think Crawford and Palance are well-suited to each other in Sudden Fear; neither particularly desirable physical specimens; Crawford, once the epitome of all ‘shop girls makes good’, now, undeniably past her peak, and Palance possessing some of the most deceptively weird and audacious angularity of any man ever to appear on the screen; their combined ugliness transmitted equally by and through their respective character’s actions (reactions) to one another - even more enterprising and vindictive in the picture’s third act; a harrowing game of cat and mouse with a killer (literally and figuratively) trek through the back alleys of Frisco under the cover of night, ending in a tragic case of mistaken identity, murder and death – how very Shakespearean indeed!  We really need to give Joan Crawford top marks; a star to the bitter end, unrelenting in her pursuit of perfection. Even in the campiest or flimsiest of screen vehicles (most coming near the end of her career) she could exude a sort of careworn regality; the aged glamour queen gone hopeless to seed, yet utterly refusing to accept the inevitable passage of time. Crawford’s pluck and guts could likely respect the megalomania of a Lester Blaine, possibly because Crawford equally possessed this unflattering characteristic; an affliction later to be abused and with even more incendiary contempt, to be remade as the butt of a truly bad joke – and horrendous ‘tell all’ bio written by her vindictive adopted daughter.
We ought not qualify nor quantify the content of Joan Crawford’s character by the notions conceived about her in Mommie Dearest; nor entirely discount the intent of the woman who clawed her way through the ranks of a star system that, at least in the infancy of her career, frequently conspired against her until only the public’s adulation cobbled together with a studio’s greed to exploit their ‘new find’ led to the re-conceptualizing of her image, starting with a name change. In Myra Hudson, Joan Crawford has found a kindred spirit; a woman stricken by genius and in desperate need of proving something to the world. Unlike Crawford, who began life impoverished and so hungry for success, Myra Hudson is an accomplished lady of leisure. Time and circumstances have favored Myra with privilege and money. Yet, Myra and Joan are otherwise first cousins in their resolve to disentangle themselves from the incidents of their upbringing. In Crawford’s case, this proved all to the good as time passed and for a very long time thereafter.  Alas, her alter ego is in for a rude awakening.
Crawford had devoured author, Edna Sherry’s Sudden Fear with relish; a book in whose heroine she felt an immediate connection and, as a freelance artist, ambitiously pursued as the project to re-re-launch her waffling career. It should be pointed out some of Crawford’s most ambitious projects were still ahead of her in 1952; although arguably neither she nor Jack Warner could conceive of as much then. Much to Crawford’s initial dismay, Sherry’s novel had already been optioned by indie producer, Joseph Kaufman. Nevertheless, Crawford made her ambitions for the part known to Kaufman who could neither afford her going salary nor expect she would play the part for anything less. Crawford surprised Kaufman by agreeing to forego her take for 40% of the profits instead; Kaufman’s acceptance of these terms netting his star a cool million after Sudden Fear became an unqualified sleeper hit. Crawford would further her own stake in this production by essentially becoming its de facto associate producer; demanding and getting screenwriters, Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith, also director, David Miller to partake of the exercise. Crawford’s star pull in getting exactly what and who she wanted out of Sudden Fear cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Certain, in agreeing to direct the picture, Miller was to initially put his foot down on the matter of ‘creative control’, bluntly telling Crawford that once his name was signed on the dotted line he reserved the right to tell her “to go fuck herself” should Crawford – ever the perfectionist – rear an ugly head in an attempt to usurp his authority.  Amused by Miller’s cheek, Crawford willingly agreed to his terms, acquiring an immediate respect for both the man and his work ethic thereafter.
Sudden Fear opens with New York tryouts for Myra Hudson’s new play – aptly titled, Halfway to Heaven. Her fastidious attention, only to actor, Lester Blaine’s outward appearance has sincerely overlooked the fact he possesses other rewarding characteristics ideally suited for the part of the ‘great lover’. Nevertheless, Myra has the play’s director, Bill fire Lester. Lester’s confronting of Myra about the physical shortcomings of Casanova is an early high point in Jack Palance’s performance in Sudden Fear; soon to be amplified by another unanticipated sequence of events. Despite Myra’s shortsightedness, her latest Broadway offering is the toast of the theater season. Months effectively pass in just a few carefully orchestrated and extremely brief scenes; Myra, bidding her secretary and producer farewell to return to the West Coast, even as Halfway to Heaven continues to sell out to record audiences.  Inadvertently, Myra comes in contact with Lester Blaine again. By now, both have softened in their opinion of the other. She invites him to her private train compartment and the two resolve to share all their meals together in the dining car. Lester’s intimate reflections of an imperfect past endear him to Myra. By the time the train has reached San Francisco, Myra is hopelessly in love, confiding in her attorney, Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett) her intentions to marry this man she once described as lacking the necessary ‘oomph’ to convince any woman he could melt her heart like butter.
Lester is penniless and frankly just the sort of fellow to set off a few red flags with Steve until he discloses to Steve a need to find suitable work for himself; refusing to become an appendage in Myra’s well-heeled lifestyle, leeching off her millions. Steve is completely taken in by Lester and so is Myra, who continues to consider herself the luckiest woman in the world for having found the right man to satisfy all her needs. Alas, a chance meeting with a woman from Lester’s past, Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) is about to wither to chalk these blossoming hearts and flowers. Lester is briefly repulsed by his first reunion with Irene; a poison in his blood he quickly realizes he would rather be sick in heart with than contented without and living with Myra. Part of Sudden Fear’s success relies on the fact we are never entirely certain whether Lester has deliberately planned all of this from the getgo. Sherry’s novel was rather clear cut about Lester’s duplicity; once spurned by Myra and deprived of his chance to become a big star in her play, now hellbent on marrying, then murdering her to gain access to her wealth so he and Irene can run away together. Too bad Myra has decided to give away all of her familial wealth to charity, living off the stipends and residuals from her plays. There are remnants of this betrayal lingering in Lester and Irene’s initially caustic exchanges of dialogue out of Myra’s earshot, though not beyond being recorded by her automated Dictaphone in her private study; Irene suggesting to Lester she has returned into his life after having read of his society marriage in the papers, hoping to blackmail him as the kept woman on the side. Herein, Gloria Grahame exhibits the early hallmarks of Debby Marsh, the gun moll she would play in The Big Heat one year later, with tinges of Laurel Grey, the sad-eyed/street savvy/love-naïve gal she had already given over to opposite Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place (1950).
Irene and Lester’s clandestine rendezvous go unnoticed by Myra. Nevertheless, Irene makes Lester quite jealous by simultaneously pursuing a relationship with Steve’s son, Junior (Mike Connors); a budding attorney at law who is oblivious to the fact he is being used, merely for the luxuries his moneys can provide. Myra does not suspect the man in her life of infidelity and is shocked to the brink of becoming physically ill after discovering the hidden recording of Lester and Irene plotting her swift demise. But fear turns to calculated revenge. Accidentally smashing the record, thus destroying evidence to support any claim she could make against Lester’s complicity in her death, Myra concocts a series of insidious and vindictive passive/aggressive confrontations, gradually causing Lester to suspect she knows much more than she is letting on. Even so, he is unable to bring Myra to a confession and thus, the game of cat and mouse evolves with Myra faking a tumble down the steep staircase of their home on the eve she was supposed to attend the opera with Lester and a small contingent of their friends, including Irene. Myra also thwarts a plan she initially approved of, having Lester drive out to the country house where they spent their honeymoon, presumably to make ready for a weeklong retreat, but actually, just another of Myra’s ploys to get Lester away for the afternoon while she steals his key to Irene’s apartment and has a copy made for herself.
Myra’s revenge scenario kicks into high gear after she breaks into Irene’s apartment to search for tangible clues. After she skulks off in the dead of night with Lester’s stolen pistol, intent perhaps either on murdering Irene and blaming the homicide on Lester, or waiting for the two lovers to reunite so she can kill them both in the throws of passion, Myra instead suffers a crisis of conscience upon catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Preparing to leave Irene’s apartment, she is instead forced to hide in the closet after Lester arrives unexpectedly and lets himself in to wait for Irene. In one of Sudden Fear’s best recalled scenes of screen suspense, Lester plays with a wind-up toy, placing it on the floor and casually observing as it steadily approaches the closet, unaware Myra is hiding just beyond and utterly terrified she will be discovered by him. Instead, an interrupted telephone call diverts Lester’s attention. Discovering his own gun on the floor nearby, Lester assumes Irene is already dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. He reacts in panic, frantically searching the apartment, leaving the room for only a split second and returning to find the closet door wide open and, the front door to the apartment unlocked. Putting two and two together, Lester realizes Myra knows about his affair. He rushes out of the apartment and catches a fleeting glimpse of Myra fleeing on foot. Lester races after Myra in his car, intending to run her down in the streets. She repeatedly eludes him by ducking into the back alleys and scurrying down dark byways that prevent his pursuit except on foot. Lester is unaware of the fact Myra and Irene, newly returned home from a date with the younger Kearney, is similarly attired in a fur and head scarf, making her appear as Myra from a distance as she hurries up the steep incline back to her apartment. Determined to put an end to his wife once and for all, Lester drives his car up onto the curb and sidewalk, striking and killing Irene and himself in the process. Having witnessed this harrowing case of mistaken identity from a safe distance, Myra marches off toward the horizon where the dawn has begun to crest; a queer look of absolute vindication about her face. Her ordeal is at an end.
For all its suspense, Sudden Fear is a rather feckless, if occasionally diverting, and – in spots – marginally entertaining post-MGM/Warner Bros. high point in Crawford’s career. Indeed, the picture was so successful at the box office it led to several Academy Award nominations and a re-invigoration of Crawford’s career prospects, this time over at Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, the plot is conventional to a fault and greatly altered from Sherry’s novel – a genuine and enduring page-turner. I mean, a rich woman marrying a man who intends her harm…this is a Dateline episode at best. As such, we really owe Crawford props for managing to pull off much of Sudden Fear’s sincerely flawed and marginally contrived caper/foiled murder scenarios. The picture’s plotting is uneven at best; its first act given over to exactly the sort of homogenized Crawford melodrama that had become something of a clichéd standard by 1952 after achieving the height of its popularity in the infinitely more appealing, and sadly still absent from Blu-ray mystery/thriller, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), made and released two years earlier. Sudden Fear has the look of a Crawford movie made at Warner Bros. but not its’ ‘ripped from the headlines’ immediacy to make the action stick. Sudden Fear was independently made by Joseph Kaufman and distributed via RKO Pictures who otherwise had absolutely no involvement in its production.  At 110 minutes, Sudden Fear seems overly long in its first act and just a tad too brief in its dénouement to be entirely effective.
Director David Miller uses the San Franciscan locations to optimal effect, particularly during the penultimate chase between Myra and Lester – arguably the second greatest scene in the movie, narrowly trumped by the aforementioned ‘closet’ sequence where Myra sweats bullets as Irene’s wind-up toy steadily approaches her secret hiding place with Lester obtusely unaware she is observing his every move. If only the rest of Sudden Fear had lived up to these two pivotal sequences in screen tension it might have been a considerably more exhilarating thriller. Sudden Fear also lacks badly needed humor; a commodity all too familiar in a Hitchcock thriller to counterbalance the tautness and break up, though never diffuse, the mounting elements of terror. And then there is la Crawford’s performance to reconsider; superb for the most part, but prone to at least two moments of overwrought play acting, threatening to devolve into pure camp. The first instance is Crawford’s reaction as Myra to hearing for the first time the recording of Lester and Irene plotting to do away with her. Crawford’s expressive eyes dart wildly, her pacing about the office, arms raised with fists clenched and pressed against her cheeks, is about as laughable as scenes depicting the ‘terrorized female’ can get. But it is Crawford’s reaction to Myra holding Lester’s revolver in Irene’s apartment that wins the gold star for ridiculousness: her character discovering just how close she has come to committing murder, rather idiotically overplayed; Crawford turning from her own reflection in Irene’s mirror to the gun in her hand, back and forth, with mounting dread, panic, disgust, and the wicked realization that, under the right circumstances, she and Lester are very much kindred in their passion to do one another great harm.
Jack Palance is far more believable in the early scenes where he ruthlessly and rather sinisterly plots against Myra with Irene. Part of Palance’s success is directly correlated to his aforementioned spooky physical features. He just looks the part of the villain so completely that to see him unravel into a scared little boy at the end, eratic in his pursuit of Myra both on foot and by car, when a cruel plotter like Lester Blaine ought to have caught up to Myra at least a half dozen times and taken her to task and an early grave, deprives us of the rather insidious competency Lester otherwise possesses. The rest of the cast are wasted in Sudden Fear. Even Gloria Grahame lacks the potency earlier exhibited in In A Lonely Place; Irene, very much the conniving bitch, but given all too few scenes to truly mark her as an enterprising third wheel in this equation. Exactly how much of Grahame’s lack of participation herein was dictated by Crawford’s need to be ‘the star’ of the piece at all times is open for discussion. Certainly, Crawford could afford to be magnanimous and yet, frequently exercised a streak of jealousy to keep her female costars off the screen and minimize her competition. Grahame, who could run the gamut from playing disarming dim bulbs like Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1955) to clear-eyed street-savvy tricks like circus performer, Angel in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is regrettably wasted in this walk-on cameo; Irene never presented as anything more involved than the sly gal on the side. Bruce Bennett, who costarred to better effect with Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) is put out to pasture here; a thankless part in service to the diva. In the final analysis, Sudden Fear is Crawford’s picture through and through, and, she chews up its scenery at a considerable expense to her costars.
Chewed up is a good way to describe Cohen Media’s Blu-ray release. Reportedly mastered from a brand new 2K transfer, I can only speculate the original elements were in very bad shape indeed. For starters, the B&W image looks to have been sourced from less than perfect second or third generation elements; contrast severely boosted in spots, enough to wash out all fine detail and bleach any tonality in flesh to a ‘Casper the friendly ghost’ white. Close-ups fare the best. Occasionally, the image even snaps together with some very complimentary detail in hair, skin and fabric. But the overall quality – or lack thereof - just seems ever so slightly out of focus and/or soft; film grain, much clumpier than anticipated. Again, 2K remastering is capable a far better than this so the source is likely to blame and not the mastering effort per say. Age-related artifacts have been tempered rather than eradicated. On the whole, the image is too severely contrasted to be enjoyed. Day scenes in particular are much too bright. Whites sporadically bloom but never toggle down to anything less than a distracting glare. The 2.0 DTS mono audio is strident in spots, illustrating hiss in quiescent scenes that more efficient mastering could have greatly modulated and/or cut out almost entirely. Unusual for Cohen, we get virtually no extras on this disc, save a fairly comprehensive audio commentary by TCM Essentials historian, Jeremy Arnold. Actually, Arnold’s verbal notes on the background and making of this movie are the best thing about this disc. Personally, I would have settled for a better mastering effort. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)