Wednesday, April 19, 2017

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI: Blu-ray (Columbia 1947) Indicator U.K.

For me, Orson Welles’ career remains that of a vanishing shadow; a great talent snuffed out in its prime and relegated largely to B-grade performances in movies one can almost as easily forget as belonging to the canon of a supreme artist. Orson Welles, who shocked a disbelieving nation into exquisite terror with his authentic radio broadcast of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds; who dared incur the ire of omnipotent newspaper magnet, William Randolph Hearst by created one of cinema’s irrefutable masterworks – Citizen Kane (1941); to whom free reign was granted and then rather unceremoniously yanked by the executive brain trust at RKO (the studio undertook to eviscerate Welles’ other masterpiece – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – re-editing, re-shooting and tacking on an utterly ridiculous ‘happily ever after’ to what had been a dark and harrowing familial saga of incestuous and self-destructing love. There is no way of getting around it. The fallout from this devil-may-care enfant terrible of the American cinema was as epic as it was painful to observe. Still, Hollywood could not ignore, discount or dismiss Welles’ genius outright. And so the cannibalization of his acting talents began. Occasionally, Welles would resurface in a film of quality; 1943’s Jane Eyre and 1949’s The Third Man immediately come to mind. But these are mere flashes of the overpowering zeitgeist whose showmanship, for the most part, was restrained for the rest of his days. Over the next decade, Welles would try – mostly in vane – to recover his lost reputation as an auteur. It never happened. Despite some plum opportunities in the 1950’s, Welles had become his own worst enemy; losing interest in projects half begun in earnest and turning to excessive food and drink to self-medicate his moody temperament. In 1943, Welles married Columbia’s ultimate cover girl, Rita Hayworth – a decision that did not sit well with the studio’s autocratic president, Harry Cohn.  Still, if Cohn feared the influence Welles might exert on his new bride, he was blissfully relieved when the marriage began to almost immediately deteriorate.
In later years, Welles would acknowledge his own responsibility in the demise of their sad union. But in 1947 he had more pressing concerns. His out-of-town tryouts for a stage spectacle of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days had stalled, thanks to Welles’ complete lack of pre-planning and funds. In attempting to shore up his concerns elsewhere, Welles made an impassioned pitch for the necessary moneys to save his project, and to the one man he neither despised nor feared: Harry Cohn who, in turn, demanded a picture from Welles as compensation. Welles, who was standing next to a magazine rack at the time, turned to a copy of Sherwood King’s lurid thriller, If I Die Before I Wake, ordering Cohn to get coverage on the property and promising to make it into a movie. Initially, Cohn liked the idea, so much he decided to cast Hayworth in the lead. Welles had hoped to shoot the newly rechristened The Lady from Shanghai (1947) with relative unknown, Barbara Lang. But Hayworth’s participation necessitated a bigger, glossier production than Welles was interested in making. Nevertheless, with his check for $55,000 already spent on costumes and props for the aforementioned failed venture, Welles dove headstrong into The Lady from Shanghai before he even had the opportunity to refine his screenplay. Welles incurred Harry Cohn’s wrath yet again when he elected to bleach and lop off a goodly portion of Rita Hayworth’s trademarked auburn tresses. To Welles’ mind, the decision was made in service of the story; to present a new Rita to audiences. Hayworth did not buck this decision. In fact, she was even pleased with the results. For a brief moment it looked as though a possible reconciliation to their crumbling marriage was afoot.  Apart from an outbreak of the flu, sidelining Hayworth at the start and halting production for nearly a month, the mood on set was amicable to downright jovial. But when the picture wrapped, Welles and Hayworth mutually agreed to a separation, followed by a speedy divorce.
Viewed today, The Lady from Shanghai is yet another of Welles’ fractured masterpieces; exhibiting flashes of its creator’s magnificent genius, yet without ever achieving or sustaining the magic from beginning to end. The opening sequence where Hayworth’s mysterious femme fatale is kidnapped from her Central Park coach by a trio of twenty-something rape-happy hooligans plays with near lethal and supremely pedestrian mediocrity. Welles directed this sequence but would later acknowledge even the thought of it made him cringe. The film’s ultimate thud at the box office in America led Welles to believe he had directed another half-baked artistic soufflé. Not until Truman Capote met him years later in Sicily did Welles realize how influential The Lady from Shanghai had been; its’ response elsewhere in the world overwhelmingly positive, despite mixed reviews. In what had become an all too familiar pattern, Cohn elected to remove The Lady from Shanghai from the Welles’ autocratic control even before the picture was finished, hacking into the rough cut with all the decorum of a buzz saw cutting through a snow pea. Lost in this shuffle was an extended ‘fun house’ sequence. Surviving stills reveal a rather macabre set personally created by Welles with disembodied arms and legs dangling from the ceiling, and, a grotesque representation of Hayworth stripped down to skeletal remains. None of this survived the final edit; a formidable loss, leading directly into the climactic showdown inside a hall of mirrors.
So too was Welles extremely displeased with Heinz Roemheld’s underscoring of the picture; begrudgingly referring to it as ‘Disney’. Indeed, when listening to the movie purely for its dramatic content one is dumbstruck by the heavy-handedness of Roemheld’s score; his central theme of ‘Please Don’t Kiss Me’ repeated over and over again, incongruously punctuating some of the most benign moments in the movie; as when Hayworth takes a casual dive off a rocky precipice into the ocean. Here, the music suddenly swells as though to suggest some imminent danger or, at least, to foreshadow a moment of suspense to follow – a moment that never actually happens. To better inform the composer of his intentions, Welles had laid in his own tracks from Columbia’s stock library, suggesting if Roemheld followed these cues he could not go far wrong in capturing the essential flavor of the piece. Virtually all of Welles’ creative suggestions were ignored. When the movie premiered the general consensus was that it ‘cost a million/lost a million’ and was responsible for ending Welles’ directorial autonomy in Hollywood.
The reality is The Lady of Shanghai cost about as much as a standard Columbia release from its time; just under $2 million. Removed from the hype of being a Welles’ picture, The Lady from Shanghai yields some extraordinary visual set pieces, many worked out in the editing room by second unit cinematographer, Rudolph Maté, who made the most of the exotic locales mostly shot by Charles Lawton Jr. The film is unusual too in that it represents something of Welles’ second to last great attempt at creating ‘serious art’ – something he arguably hadn’t considered since Citizen Kane and would make only one more stab at achieving with Touch of Evil (1958). That this ‘lady’ fell short of audiences’ expectations seems to have more to do with what happened after Welles was unceremoniously deposed from the project, rather than any contribution – or lack thereof - he might have made to influence its’ negative outcome. Better still; removed from her emblematic sex goddess image, Rita Hayworth emerged as the undisputed madam of mystery and intrigue. Reportedly, Welles made Everett Sloane, an alumni from his Mercury Player days and Citizen Kane (herein cast as the conniving attorney, Arthur Bannister), an elaborate cripple to skirt the fact Sloane, while eloquent with his diction, was rather clumsy in his mannerisms and movements. Welles also hired Glenn Anders to play the suicidal George Grisby because he appreciated the way Anders laughed; a rather sinister chuckle and sneer all rolled into one. For his own part, Welles adopted an Irish accent most convincingly; the rather butch persona of his character, roguish grifter, ‘black’ Michael O’Hara, somewhat at odds with Welles’ cherub-esque physical features.  Welles also peppered the movie’s climactic trial sequence with his general disgust for the law; casting Erskine Sanford as a thoroughly befuddled and ineffectual judge, and Carl Frank as the highly manipulative and power-hungry D.A., Galloway.
Yet, it is Rita Hayworth’s Elsa ‘Rosalie’ Bannister that we remember best; an intoxicatingly desperate, frightened child one moment/unscrupulous, plotting octopus the next. When Hayworth flashes us a glance or clutches at Welles’ in her dying embrace, whispering in his ear “You know nothing of wickedness,” she exudes a malignant sex appeal; corrosive to any man’s soul and thoroughly destructive to his safety and well-being.  Just who else could have been so impious as to lure this man with the proverbial heart of gold from his relatively devil-may-care lifestyle and into the midst of these self-professed sharks, playing the part of the innocent until her nefarious plan – to rid herself of a loveless marriage – could take hold?  It’s Elsa Bannister that feigns quiet fear to elicit Michael’s empathy. He nobly come to her aid – not once, but twice; first in the park; then, much later, to rid her of a controlling spouse…or is it, to frame him for a double murder he never intends to commit?
The Lady from Shanghai opens with that aforementioned tragically ill-conceived ‘cute meet’ in Central Park where passerby, Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) first sees the cool and sultry Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). It’s a flawed sequence, first for its utter lack of authenticity; the coach used is a Hansom cab made famous in England instead of the open back carriages readily seen in Central Park. There’s really no attempt to replicate either the foliage or fixtures of Central Park either; the whole sequence shot on a rather obvious back lot exterior. Even the choice of lamp posts is all wrong. Elsa toys with Michael as all spider women do, tempting him with hints of her sordid past in Shanghai. He offers her a cigarette. She puts it in her beaded handbag before they part, the discarded purse discovered by Michael not long thereafter lying on the ground near some bushes. It seems three rather clean-cut ruffians have waylaid the coachman, forcing Michael to come to Elsa’s aid. In short order, he pummels this nefarious trio senseless before taking hold of the horse’s reigns to drive Elsa to a nearby parking garage where her car awaits. There, Michael once again flirts with Elsa, and sees George Grisby (Glenn Anders) and Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia); although, as yet both Michael and the audience are unaware of the significance of this introduction. In point of fact, both men have been sent to spy on Elsa by their boss/Elsa’s husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane).
Michael reveals to Elsa that he is a sailor newly arrived in port after learning she and Arthur have come from Shanghai to New York, passing through on their way back to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Despite his misgivings, for anyone with half a mind can see this lady is bad, Michael agrees to sign on as an able-bodied seaman and charter Bannister's yacht. Elsa’s maid, Bessie (Evelyn Ellis) attempts to forewarn Michael of danger; the yacht mooring briefly to take on Bannister’s partner – none other than George Grisby. Once again, with rather cool resolve, Elsa toys with Michael’s affections. He strikes her across the cheek and she reverts to the unsteadiness of a wounded child, once again arousing his sympathies and chivalry, and perhaps, other less honorable intensions. Not long thereafter the yacht moors in Mexico, the mood growing more ominous as Grisby suggests Michael help him fake his own death. Grisby will pay Michael $5,000 to pretend to murder him. Without a body as proof Grisby assures Michael that he will never be convicted of the crime. Blindsided by his lust for Elsa, Michael decides he can use the money to take Elsa away from Arthur. It’s all perfect, or rather…the perfect setup. For on the eve of the crime Sydney Broome (Ted de Corsia) confronts Grisby with his knowledge of the plot afoot and is shot by Grisby and left for dead. Unaware of the forces conspiring against him, Michael goes through with Grisby’s plan, seeing him off on a motorboat before firing Grisby’s gun into the air, thus drawing undue attention to himself from passersby on the docks. Broome, who is not yet dead, pleads for Elsa’s help, confiding in her that Grisby intends to murder Arthur. He is, of course, quite unaware that Elsa is, in fact, working with Grisby.
The film never shows what comes next, but makes a sizable hint Elsa has put a period to Broome after Michael hears him dying on the other end of an open phone line, confessing to Grisby’s setup.  But the biggest wrinkle is yet to come, as Michael rushes to forewarn Bannister of the assassination plot against him only to discover Grisby’s remains being carried out of Bannister’s office; the police already in possession of Michael’s signed confession.  Despite his protestations, Michael is booked for Grisby’s murder. However, at trial, Bannister acts as Michael's attorney, encouraging Michael he can win the case but only if Michael pleads justifiable homicide. The trial is a superb example of Welles’ narrative ability to tie up various plot points with clever bits of shock and surprise. There is also considerable comedy at play – idiotic reactions from the jury and court observers that turn the proceedings into a proverbial ‘three ring circus.’  Bannister learns of Michael’s affair with Elsa and plots to throw the case so Michael will hang for a crime he did not commit. Realizing he cannot escape the death penalty, Michael fakes a suicide attempt by swallowing a handful of pills curiously left in plain sight. Hurried into the judge’s chambers while a doctor is summoned to save his life, Michael instead knocks out the guards assigned to watch over him before making his break into Chinatown.
Witnessing Michael’s escape through the window, Elsa pursues him into a downtown Kabuki theater where she reveals to Michael elements of the case that lead him to suspect her as being Grisby’s killer. Sure enough, Michael discovers the murder weapon tucked inside her purse. However, laced with the powerful narcotic he swallowed, Michael passes out and is taken away by some of Elsa’s Chinese friends before the police arrive, awakening inside an abandoned funhouse on a boardwalk pier out of season.  Michael realizes Elsa and Grisby were in on a plot to murder Arthur and frame him for the crime. Broome’s discovery of their diabolical plan necessitated Grisby killing Broome, just as Elsa later panicked, murdering Grisby to keep her secret. Now, Michael stumbles blindly through the funhouse, arriving at a hall of mirrors where Arthur is waiting to shoot both he and Elsa dead. “Of course, killing you is killing me,” Arthur bitterly admits before taking dead aim. Elsa removes the pistol from her handbag and returns his fire, the ricocheting bullets symbolically shattering all of their false fronts before mortally wounding their true selves. Arthur is shot in the head, Michael in the arm, and Elsa lies mortally wounded on her stomach, surrounded by splintered glass. Unable to bring himself to attend this diabolical vixen who was nearly the death of him, Michael strolls away from the funhouse, assuming the events that have transpired will surely exonerate him of any wrong doing.
While Welles imbues his visuals with an eye for the macabre, The Lady from Shanghai remains an imperfect B-grade noir thriller at best. Technically, it is proficient film-making on a very high level, and such a shame the script does not quite live up to the flashier stylistic elements.  If Citizen Kane unequivocally proved Welles a master craftsman in the visual medium, then The Lady from Shanghai illustrates how unwieldy his creative fervor could become if his un-tethered cinematic imagination was allowed to run rampant. In point of fact, the triple-cross scenario is confusing to follow; Welles’ reckless indulgences in ‘evolving’ the project as he went along most certainly contributing to the movie’s occasionally incomprehensible narrative structure. But The Lady from Shanghai was also submarined by Harry Cohn; Welles’ 2 ½ hour rough assembly butchered in the re-editing process to a mere 90 minute distillation of what it had once been - or rather, promised to be. The film was also hastily dumped on the market as the second half of a double bill one full year after it was actually made. Put bluntly, The Lady from Shanghai didn’t have a chance. Smelling blood in the water, the critics went after the movie with hammer and tong, criticizing virtually every aspect without so much as a nod to its many virtues. The public, unimpressed – or perhaps even unaware of the movie’s soft release - stayed away in droves. When the books were finally added up The Lady from Shanghai barely made back $1.5 million; a commercial flop by most any calculation.
And yet, from a purely artistic perspective there is a great deal to admire. Even with all the lethal edits in place The Lady from Shanghai defies outright dismissal as an all-out failure. The cinematography, as example, is first rate, as are Jean Louis’ costumes and Sturges Carne and Stephen Goosson’s art direction. True – production value alone is not enough to guarantee a satisfactory entertainment. But Welles’ screenplay is not quite the overly complex and confusing quagmire the critics made it out to be; perhaps, suffering more from Viola Lawrence’s uninspired editorial inability to make sense of Welles’ rough cut in her re-editing process. And what’s here works, if not ideally, then at least on a level well beyond base superficiality. We are entertained – if slightly confounded - by the turn of events and elusive nightmarish quality that builds into the movie’s baffling climax. So too is the cast memorable and given over to some very fine performances throughout. In the last analysis, The Lady from Shanghai emerges as an imperfect disappointment, though utterly tantalizing as an interrupted and oft’ misinterpreted footnote in the oeuvre of Orson Welles’ directorial career. Welles would have preferred it as his pièce de résistance. Frankly, so would have we.
Can we just get on our soapbox right now and sing our renewed praises for U.K. distributor, Indicator and its re-re-release of The Lady of Shanghai; at long last, given a comprehensive ‘must own’ release on Blu-ray. It only took four fractured North American releases to prove yet again that when it comes to respecting vintage classics, the more progressive efforts are still being achieved on the other side of the pond. Blessings to Indicator for this effort – region free, no less, and sporting not only the audio commentary from Peter Bogdanovich, but also his nearly 20 min. ‘discussion’ piece (a part of Sony’s original DVD release, but inexplicably jettisoned from all the NA Blu-ray releases). Better still, Indicator adds another 20 min. ‘appreciation’ from noted actor and Welles’ scholar, Simon Callow; plus a theatrical trailer with Joe Dante’s commentary, a gallery of 60 images and a limited edition essay by film critic, Samm Deighan. As for the transfer: its advertised as a 4K remaster (as was the U.S. Mill Creek release), only this time with a maxed out bitrate that appears to have enhanced not only the subtleties in darkness, but equally the film’s textures and grain. This is a stunner in 1080p. Point blank: The Lady from Shanghai has never looked better in hi-def and Indicator, thanks to Sony’s due diligence in association with The Film Foundation, ought to take another sincere bow for this one. Beautifully done. It sounds about as good as it looks too, thanks to a lossless DTS audio in glorious mono.  Quality will out. We get a premium transfer and extras to envy – highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR: Blu-ray (Columbia 1962) Indicator U.K.

Movies either cater to our collective dreams or play upon our greatest fears; the purpose of Hollywood’s classic film noir decidedly slanted toward this latter endeavor – yet, bringing lightness (usually in the form of justice – poetic or otherwise) to the moral opacity preceding it. While the movement collectively known as ‘film noir’ (coined apropos) undoubtedly celebrated its most prolific flourish throughout the 1940’s its influence lingered for some time thereafter. Arguably, it has never fallen entirely out of fashion. Crime – that perennial fav in the movies – thrives and lives on. Call it suspense, a thriller, the chase for the man with the face, or a whodunit to set the world topsy-turvy, only to iron out all of the plot wrinkles in the end and, well… you have, Blake Edward’s Experiment in Terror (1962); a movie that seems to vaguely fall somewhere between the precepts of three well-established sub-genres in the noir movement: the crime/thriller, police procedural, and finally, the proverbial ‘damsel in distress’ melodrama. That Experiment in Terror remains the lesser known in Edwards body of work is more a testament to that body in totem than any great defect within the movie itself. For Experiment in Terror may very well be Blake Edward’s finest movie yet – and this from the director who gave us such iconic masterworks as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Pink Panther (1963) and Victor/Victoria (1982); to name but three of his more prominently and perennially resurrected achievements. Experiment in Terror is undeniably Edwards working outside his comfort zone; abandoning his usual frothy light touch for comedy and penchant for romantic musicals to delve into a truly sublime deconstruction of terror. That the movie continues to works so incredibly well is a testament to Edward’s directorial prowess.
From its opening shot of a slightly fog-obscured Golden Gate Bridge, vaguely shimmering in the dusty headlamps of oncoming traffic, to its initial isolation and assault of our heroine, Kelly Sherwood (superbly infused with looming trepidation by Lee Remick ) inside her spookily half-lit garage in Twin Peaks; onto Edward’s delicious staging of the seemingly unrelated murder of nymphomaniac mannequin artist, Nancy Ashton (given appropriately unsettling flourish by Patricia Huston), and finally, building to its demophobic climax inside San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Experiment in Terror achieves a heightened mantle of quality and unrelenting dread with almost lyrical precision; Edwards playing his audience like a harp, knowing exactly when and what strings to pluck in order to mount, then shape and re-shape our collective unease into occasional nail-biting frenzy. Add to this, Ross Martin’s thoroughly creepy turn as the asthmatic assailant, Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch (his wheezing, a cross between promiscuous heavy-breathing and Darth Vader), and, Glenn Ford’s righteous G-man, John Ripley (a variation on his hard-bitten lawman from Fritz Lang’s irreproachable, The Big Heat 1953) and you have the essential ingredients for a paradigm in the noir movement.
Experiment in Terror would be a straightforward – if harrowing – tale about a seemingly unrepentant and psychotic stalker, taunting his doe-eyed prey into blackmail robbery with repeated threats of bodily harm, except that neither Martin’s Red Lynch nor Remick’s Kelly Sherwood is as simply defined in the screenplay or, in fact, as conventionally played by our mesmerizing stars. For starters, Lynch isn’t all bad – his affinity for Asian honey, Lisa Soong (Anita Loo) and her ailing son, Joey (Warren Hsieh) seemingly turned him to a life of crime; or perhaps simultaneously proving to be his Achilles heel and moral salvation (blackmailing, then murdering unsuspecting women as explained by Ripley in the movie’s back story – merely to help Lisa pay for Joey’s expensive treatments and chronic care, while presently indulging his freakier side, expertly disguised as an old crone, sneaking into a women’s public restroom to terrorize our protagonist; then appearing in dark sunglasses, kabuki white pancake make-up and a hoodie, reminiscent of one of those biologically plague-ridden undead from Boris Sagal’s 1971 cult classic, The Omega Man for the fitful/fateful finale). It’s a hard heart that cannot relate to this man pushed to the edge of his own existence and desperation; Blake Edwards, giving us a glimpse into Lynch’s private suffrage - awakening in a cold sweat while suffocating from another horrific asthma attack, gasping into his puffer, merely to survive. There’s something odd about Lynch – and not just in the superficial, obvious way, even as he allows Toby, whom he has kidnapped, to keep her dignity – if not her clothes – the latter, mailed as a present to better inform Kelly their plotted thievery of $100,000 must go through at any and all costs.   
Besides, Remick’s Kelly Sherwood is hardly the victimized shrinking violet of this story. Lest we forget, this is an actress unafraid to do ‘gusty’ – superbly cast as the twenty-cent tart and presumed rape victim trapped in Otto Preminger’s underappreciated, Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Whether she is disobeying Lynch outright by attempting to telephone the Feds, or refusing to back down from Ripley’s rather methodical plan to ensnare Lynch; Remick’s heroine knows how to play both sides against the middle – singularly focused on saving her sister’s skin, while intent on regaining the freedom to be able to look over her own shoulder without reprisals. Kelly Sherwood is committed to say the least, and, Remick gives her all of the astute observations of a tougher-than-anticipated gal, driven to succeed. Where others might cower, she will instead conquer. It’s a refreshing take on that traditional ‘save me’ scenario usually placing the male protagonist firmly in the driver’s seat. But Glenn Ford’s competent G-man comes almost too late to this party; working at a chronic disadvantage and left to pick up the pieces of either a botched détente between Kelly and a hapless nightclub Lochinvar (Al Avalon) mistaken by both for Lynch; or unable, at first, to spot Nancy Ashton’s upside down corpse dangling from the rafters inside her warehouse of petrified plaster busts.  Ford’s great acting strength is downplayed heroism. He isn’t the perfect hero – or perhaps ‘hero’ is, itself too strong a word for what Ford brings to this characterization. Nor does he aspire to acts of heroism for their own sake. No, Ripley’s just doing a job – presumably well paid for it too – but interested only in the mechanical exercise of solving a crime. When he does noble, it’s always with the quid pro quo of sacrificing something – or someone – to achieve his objective; derailing Lisa Soong’s monetary gains or accidentally shooting stoolie newspaper hound, Popcorn (Ned Glass) merely to satisfy an itch for getting closer to the truth. 
It’s something of a letdown that Stephanie Powers – cast herein as Kelly’s sister, Toby – never rises above tepid timidity; the otherwise stellar screenplay co-written by Gordon and Mildred Gordon (based on their novel – Operation Terror) forcing the buxom teen into virtually every pitfall and cliché known to the noir movement as its’ token ‘silly white girl’. But Experiment in Terror has so much going for it – not the least being Philip H. Lathrop’s stylish cinematography: a moodily sumptuous and veritable travelogue in and around this cosmopolitan city by the bay. And then there are Henry Mancini’s exemplary orchestrations to consider – turning his usual verve for sixties swing on end, underpinning virtually all his cues in minor chords to maintain and elevate the story’s persistently threatening climate. Experiment in Terror is undeniably a superior example of just how far the noir movement had come since the post-war years. The movie remains, arguably, one of the last examples from its ilk; bidding the crime/police procedural thriller a bittersweet farewell until Roman Polanski’s evocative Chinatown (1974) brought it all back with vintage style. That Experiment in Terror remains something of a misplaced gem – absent, really - among the many truly great examples made some two decades before it; this arguably remains its biggest mystery of all. Perhaps the movie was merely overshadowed by Edward’s other accomplishments as a director. Indeed, when one thinks of the typical Blake Edward’s outing, Experiment in Terror does not come to mind – either immediately or even as a postscript in his illustrious career.  And from a purely chronological perspective, Experiment in Terror seems too far removed from the 1940’s - that generation of ‘legitimate’ noir thrillers - to be considered a viable candidate for proper canonization.  Finally, there are the movie’s stunning use of location to consider – then reflective of a more contemporary and naturalistic approach to telling stories of film, arguably running counter intuitive to the great tradition of noir, set in a world of highly stylized chiaroscuro lighting.  Whatever the reason for its long overdue absence of acknowledgement as a fascinating, powerfully wrought and exquisitely acted suspense movie, Experiment in Terror is all of the above and sincerely worthy of reconsideration.
Our story begins on a dark, cool evening; Kelly Sherwood crossing the Golden Gate in her convertible en route to her modest bungalow on the other side of the bay, nestled in the unassuming suburb of Twin Peaks (oh, now there’s an inspiration for director, David Lynch if ever one existed).  But as she pulls into her garage and kills the motor, a foreboding sense of danger begins to mount. Is that someone’s belabored breath she hears seeping from the darkened recesses, even as her loyal dog continues to bark in the front yard? A few baited moments of ambiguity and we learn, of course, that Kelly Sherwood is not alone; her unseen assailant reaching out from the peripheries of the screen to subdue her with gloved hands; his deep wheezes becoming more prominent as he whispers into her ear. Herein, Blake Edwards holds the camera steady on an extreme close-up of Lee Remick’s panicked face, Ross Martin’s polished white fingers gleaming in the moonlight as they tighten around Kelly Sherwood’s mouth and throat; groping at her waistline; Martin’s Red Lynch whispering innocuous words in between heavy gasps that sound more threatening than they actually are.
Lynch’s initial contact is cryptic. He’s not there to maim, murder, or even take advantage of his victim, but to outline the details for future plans involving her. Kelly’s to steal $100,000 from her place of employment – the bank – or face the real possibility of losing her life and sacrificing her younger sister, Toby to Lynch’s depraved will. Lynch delights in telling Kelly all about herself. He seems to know everything about her life; daily rituals and habits, her favorite places to hang out, and even the name of Toby’s boyfriend, her school and after school activities, and the fact she’s currently spending the night at a friend’s house. Taunted by this omnipotent presence without ever seeing his face, Kelly is allowed to leave the garage and go inside, so long as she doesn’t double-cross Lynch or make any attempts to wreck his plans. Of course, given the first opportunity to run for help, Kelly tries to telephone the FBI. She is promptly subdued by Lynch who knocks her momentarily unconscious, then steps on her neck to pin her to the shag carpet after she has already made initial contact with agent, John Ripley.
The phone call terminated before Ripley can get details, he spends a frantic few moments telephoning every Sherwood in the telephone directory before once again making contact with Kelly. This time, she’s fearful and noncommittal about her initial reasons for the call, forcing Ripley to concoct his own scenario; Kelly cleverly answering ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to his probing questions, thus alerting Ripley to the fact she may still be watched or, in fact, not alone. In response, Ripley tells Kelly to leave the line open, placing twenty-four hour surveillance on her phone before agreeing to meet her at the bank the next afternoon for a more formal interview.  In the meantime, Ripley is approached by Nancy Ashton, a nymphomaniac who openly flirts while attempting to explain her seemingly unrelated case to Ripley – about a friend who may or may not be in danger. Given Ashton’s overtures, Ripley is apt to discount Ashton as just a loose woman with ulterior motives.
This changes when Nancy invites Ripley to her apartment that also happens to be her place of business. She’s a mannequin sculptor, her rather elaborate workroom riddled in half-assembled busts, disembodied arms and legs mounted on racks attached to her ceiling. After consulting with Kelly inside her bank’s boardroom, and with the complicity and understanding of her manager, Ripley and his partner (Gilbert Green) arrive at Ashton’s apartment, discovering her strangled remains swinging from one of the overhead racks. Ripley also notices Nancy had Kelly’s address scribbled on a piece of note paper. Consulting with his captain – Moreno (Clifton James), Ripley manages to piece together a few clues, provided to him by ‘Popcorn’ – a weasel of a newshound. These clues lead Ripley straight to Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch; a known felon suspected in several murders of bank tellers and the disappearance of a sizable fortune in stolen monies. Presented with this information, Kelly elects to help Ripley find Lynch before it’s too late for either her or Toby.
Ripley has Kelly keep her sister in the dark about Lynch for some time; the impressionable teen probing Kelly to explain what’s been going on until Kelly finally breaks and regales Toby with the less lurid details. From here, the story momentarily waffles; regressing poolside to follow Toby and her boyfriend, Dave (Harvey Evans) as they unapologetically bask in the California sun without a care in the world.  Days pass, Lynch baiting Kelly on the phone, eventually instructing her to meet him at a bizarre downtown nightclub; part seedy pub featuring scantily clad showgirls reclining on swings suspended over the crowd from the ceiling/part neglected fairground, complete with various gaming tables and a shooting gallery. Kelly’s eyes dart around the congested, noisy club, hoping to catch Lynch’s eye. Instead, she picks up – or rather is picked up herself – by a barfly who lures Kelly into his car, intent on taking her home for the evening. When Kelly realizes the man is not her contact, she panics and jumps from the moving vehicle; almost struck down by an oncoming van. Ripley and his partner spring into action, the bewildered would-be pick-up artist interrogated, but then released.
Not long afterward, Lynch telephones Kelly at home, breathing heavily and vowing to teach her a lesson for having stood him up at the club. Kelly grows belligerent at the suggestion she has deceived Lynch and the two get into a heated argument that ends with Lynch hanging up. The movie’s narrative takes an unexpected turn when Ripley tracks down Lisa Soong, Lynch’s suspected gal-pal. Initially denying all claims of even knowing the man, Miss Soong later confesses on the advice of legal counsel (Clarence Lung) that she and Lynch dated only briefly. She knows nothing of his prior crimes - statutory rape, forgery, criminal assault, armed robbery and quite possibly even the murder of three women – and frankly she really doesn’t care upon learning these truths. Ripley is baffled by Soong’s noncompliance, but later unearths the real reason for her apprehensions. It seems Lynch has been philanthropic to both Soong and Joey – her paraplegic son – paying for his lengthy hospital stay and sending him toys and other treats to ease his mind.
The next afternoon, Ripley places two policemen to shadow Kelly’s every move. But even they are powerless to prevent this clever blackmailer from resurfacing inside a lady’s restroom in a crowded diner, momentarily tormenting Kelly with promises of retribution should she be having second thoughts about going through with his master plan. The bank’s manager, Raymond Burkhardt (William Sharon) promises Kelly a shallow promotion for her participation in Ripley’s counterplan – to draw Lynch out of hiding by offering him what he wants – the $ 100,000.  Popcorn contacts Ripley, explaining that he just might have a lead. Only Popcorn isn’t willing to divulge his sources. So, Ripley takes him to the local pool where Kelly and Toby are lounging, explaining to him that what he calls ‘editorial ethics’ might just as easily result in both women losing their lives. The movie’s narrative takes an even more unexpected twist when Lynch contacts Ripley by telephone, suggesting he has information about the Kelly Sherwood case. Knowing he has his man on the other end of the line, Ripley attempts to keep Lynch talking, all the while denying he knows anything about the particulars of the case. But Lynch grows suspicious and hangs up.
In the meantime, Popcorn telephones, explaining to Ripley he has decided to help him out – on the house, as it were - having it on good authority that someone is preparing to aid in Lynch’s escape from the United States to an undisclosed country with no extradition once he’s stolen the $100,000. Popcorn takes Ripley to a seedy boarding house where the mysterious contact, Don Schumaker is hold up. But when Schumaker spies Ripley hiding in the wings, gunfire ensues. Ripley kills Schumaker, but not before he accidentally shoots Popcorn dead; Captain Moreno arriving too late to avert this bloodbath.  Ripley now returns to the hospital to question Joey about his ‘uncle’ Lynch; Joey telling Ripley he’s never met Lynch, but that he sent him a big stuffed tiger for his birthday. Realizing that the scene is getting much too hot, Lynch decides to kick his plans up a notch, telephoning Toby to meet him outside a local diner, plying her with a lie that Kelly has been badly injured in a near-fatal car accident. Toby gets into Lynch’s car, only afterward learning he is actually the man who has been threatening her sister with bodily harm. Lynch takes Toby to an abandoned furrier’s shop, forcing her to disrobe down to her panties and bra before locking her in the dank basement cellar and giving Toby’s sweater and pants to a cabbie wrapped in brown paper, instructing him to give the parcel to Kelly after picking her up at the bank.
Knowing her sister’s life depends on what happens next, Kelly agrees to meet Lynch at Candlestick Park with the ransom money; Ripley sending his partner to retrace Lynch’s steps. This eventually leads the police to the furrier’s and the safe return of Toby. Meanwhile, Lynch bides his time until the Giant’s baseball game ends; blending into the crowd and finding Kelly, whom he attempts to escort from the stadium without incident and right under the nose of the advancing police. Instead, Ripley spies the duo about to leave, charging the frantic Lynch, who shoots one officer dead before retreating into the open-air stadium in his last feeble attempt to escape capture. Instead, Lynch is gunned down by Ripley; Toby arriving by police escort and reunited with her sister before Lynch’s body is recovered from the stadium green; the camera dramatically rising into the air for a final panoramic view of the police descending the stands on all sides to join Ripley who is standing over Lynch’s corpse with bitter resolve.
Experiment in Terror concludes on an atypical moment for film noir – the restoration of order, but without an underlay of traditional moralizing placed over the futility of the crime.  Still, it’s a dower finale; one thoroughly in keeping with the time-honored precepts of the noir movement. What it all means for Miss Soong (earlier threatened by Ripley as an accomplice after the fact in Lynch’s spree of criminal activities) remains unresolved as ‘the end’ flashes across the screen. So too are we denied any sort of satisfactory closure between Kelly and Toby; not even a moment’s embrace except in distant long shot, the sisters’ emotions riding high or strangely absent? We are never quite sure. If anything, Experiment in Terror fades to black prematurely, or rather, just a tad too succinctly to completely satisfy. Given Edward’s finely wrought attention to narrative detail throughout, he sort of drops the ball in this last act; the open-ended conclusion leaving the viewer mostly unfulfilled. That’s a shame. But it’s not a deal breaker because the rest of Experiment in Terror is so exquisitely counterbalanced to enthrall. Edward’s – a formidable storyteller – hews a fairly human saga from the conventions and mechanics of this crime/thriller; the caricatures dissolving into flesh and blood, curiously caught in their own webs of deceit and desperate struggle of wills; each with a feral desire to succeed no matter the sacrifice.
On the surface, Experiment in Terror ought to have never clicked as succinctly as it ultimately does; the story rather absurd at face value. As example: why does Red Lynch stalk Kelly Sherwood in the first place?  He takes his sweet time to learn all he can about her life (and this, back in the day when one’s personal information was not readily available for all to see on the internet). Ripley’s dossier on Lynch does more than suggest he brutally raped, then murdered three women – all of them bank tellers – presumably to satisfy his own fetishistic avarice. Yet, Lynch’s threats to Kelly and Toby do not scream sexual sadism; only the prospect of imminent death if they fail to comply. Why not simply rob the bank himself, as Lynch has proven, most convincingly in the bathroom confrontation with Kelly, to be a master of disguises? And what about the money? The suggestion herein is that it will be partly used to continue Joey Soong’s treatments even as Lynch makes plans to flee the country before retribution for his prior bad acts can catch up to him. But why the philanthropy? Certainly, it helps to humanize Lynch; a refreshing departure from the clichéd unscrupulous and irredeemable noir villain. Yet, is this the mark of a psychotic serial killer? No, the elements that make the story work in the first place are not to be found in the Gordon’s intricately crafted screenplay, but rather in the performances put forth throughout; the narrative arc further subdued by the movie’s stylistic panache. We are captivated, or rather – distracted – by everything going on near the peripheries of the screen; the vignettes more elusively compelling than the whole: discovering Ashton’s dangling corpse in her apartment, Kelly’s flubbed contact with Lynch inside the seedy carnival-esque nightclub, and so on - these become pivotal moments of suspense despite the fact they depart from the central narrative, even in inexplicably captivating ways that neither augment nor flesh out our story in any sort of meaningful way. It’s a very clever bait and switch on Blake Edward’s part and in Experiment in Terror’s case it works magnificently. Like John Huston’s The Big Sleep – another convoluted spellbinder, Experiment in Terror generally makes no sense at all; but unravels into a thoroughly beguiling quagmire – or perhaps, quicksand - the audience does not mind getting stuck in. They certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Perhaps, they shouldn’t even try.
Experiment in Terror gets a region free release from U.K. distributor, Indicator on Blu-ray. In North America we had Twilight Time’s limited edition, but with decidedly limited extras.  I didn’t think it possible to improve on TT’s transfer, except that in motion the new hi-def transfer via Sony’s association here, and advertised as a 4K remaster, appears to have been ever so slightly tweaked for an even more engrossing, reference quality presentation. The B&W image showcases solid detail and superior tonality that perfectly captures the quasi-noir ambiance in Philip H. Lathrop’s cinematography. Invariably, location work is marginally less refined – at the mercy of imperfect lighting conditions – and decidedly softer in focus than the studio-bound footage.  But the original film elements are in near perfect condition, film grain realistically reproduced. Experiment in Terror’s lossless DTS-HD mono audio packs a punch. Better still, Indicator has given us some well-rounded extras – justly deserved and sorely lacking on the TT release.  For starters, there is a comprehensive audio commentary from film historian/critic, Kim Morgan, who also provides us with some astute liner notes to peruse. Indicator ports over TT’s isolated score, showcasing Henry Mancini’s sublimely spooky score. Perhaps best of all, we get an exclusive interview with Stephanie Powers; a great ‘reflection’ piece sure to delight. Add to this, the original theatrical trailer and TV spots and, well…Indicator proves yet again there isn’t anything it can’t do better. Best of all, this disc is region free!!! Bottom line: Experiment in Terror comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

BOY ON A DOLPHIN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Kino Lorber

The majestic sun-kissed coastal enclaves of the Greek Saronic Islands, notably Hydra, and the sight of a bra-less Sophia Loren, rising like Venus from the sea, her soaked-through, lemon yellow dress exaggerating the bulbous contours of a pair of very perky breasts, nipples protruding, are the main selling features in Jean Negulesco’s Boy on a Dolphin (1957); a very loose adaptation of David Divine’s 1955 novel by the same name; the book more heavily concentrated on the rivalry between an affluent English archaeologist and an impoverished Greek student in search of sunken treasures.  2oth Century-Fox and the Ivan Moffat/Dwight Taylor screenplay sought to inveigle the charm of these locales (and Loren’s undeniable talismans in exotic beauty) on a romantic triangle, thereby bungling most of the page-turning excitement to be found elsewhere. With Fox’s debut of Cinemascope, the edict on high was for pictures with ‘width’ instead of ‘depth’. There is plenty of gorgeous scenery to fill the screen in Boy on a Dolphin, but precious little beyond to captivate once the allure of both Greece and Loren – in her English-speaking (such as it is) debut has worn off…or rather, worn thin. Loren compensates for her Carmen Miranda-esque fracturing of the English language with a sort of Chaplin-esque verve for being a comedian, occasionally at odds with her already ensconced reputation as the movie’s ‘Italian Cinderella’.
Worse for Loren, and the picture, is the casting of Alan Ladd as love interest, Dr. James Calder. At a diminutive 5 ft. 6 inches (to Loren’s 5 ft. 8), and looking as though his head had been used for a punching bag (aged beyond those matinee idol good looks that made Ladd so gosh darn appealing in movies like 1942’s The Glass Key, and, 1953’s Shane), producers herein were to compensate by digging trenches on the beach for Loren or having Ladd perched upon a box to even out their heights for love scenes – a considerable blow to his conceit and very awkward for either to play genuine passion. It might explain for the complete lack of it in Boy on a Dolphin; virtually zero chemistry here, except in a sort of antiseptic and acrimonious way; Ladd, constantly restrained or clumsily diverted in his amour by his character’s ‘pure of faith’ archaeological pursuit of an ancient Greek statue depicting a boy astride a dolphin, rumored to be at on the bottom of the Aegean Sea, and for whom a portion of its mate already hangs in Calder’s modestly established museum of artifacts. Into this mix is dropped the unscrupulous ‘treasure hunter’; Victor Parmalee (the sublimely effete and wicked Clifton Webb) whose only real interest in the statue is to beat Calder to the chase and claim grazing rights. Phaedra (Sophia Loren, in a part originally announced for Joan Collins), an impoverished Greek sponge diver, toiling for her lazy Albanian boyfriend, Rhif (Jorge Mistral) off the coast of Hydra, inadvertently discovers the statue beneath the waves, obscured by a sunken wreck and heavy plankton, while on one of her routine dives. Shortly thereafter Phaedra becomes Parmalee’s unwitting accomplice, helping to misdirect Calder from finding it first – this, after having already promised Calder to take him directly to its whereabouts.
The rest of the plot is basically a half-ass and very cockeyed attempt to enrich the (choke) ‘love story’ between Calder and Phaedra; Loren’s devious poor girl not nearly as clever as she pretends to be smart; Calder, never fooled for a minute by her naïve dumb show, but tolerating her repeated delay of his efforts, I suspect, if only to be near her skimpily clad hourglass figure as they repeatedly scuba dive up and down the coastal islands in search of fortune and glory. Calder befriends Phaedra’s young brother, Niko (Piero Giagnoni). Running true to movie-land lore, the child possesses more intellectual wherewithal and perceptive clarity in making judgements about people than the adults who surround him. Niko gives away Phaedra’s secrets one by one; Calder taking advantage of their ‘father-ish/son-ish’ friendship to eventually beat Parmalee at his own game; though not before the latter, with Rhif’s brutish complicity, has dragged the boy on the dolphin half way across the bottom of the Aegean to a remote sunken grotto: yet again to misdirect Calder from reclaiming it as a true object of art. Depending on the source consulted, either Sophia Loren (or Marni Nixon) warbles ‘What is this thing they call love?’ (Tι΄ναι αυτό που το λένε αγάπη in Greek), ably assisted by a guitar-strumming Tony Maroudas. It is a diverting vignette, staged at an outdoor nightclub where seemingly all of the patrons are immediately enamored by Phaedra’s olive-skinned beauty and prowess as a sultry seller of songs. There’s dancing too, by some of the local color, and a glass-smashing sequence aboard Parmalee’s palatial yacht, just in case the audience has forgotten our story is set in Greece – Ώπα! And an easy thing to do, since the very Roman Catholic Loren is frequently heard praying ‘sancta Maria’; words that would never be uttered in a Greek-Orthodox setting. Oh well, I suppose ‘Panagia mou’ was too cryptic and chichi for the ticket-paying public of 1957. 
Boy on a Dolphin would have more going for it if only its central focus were not so heavily weighted on extolling the virtues of Cinemascope on location. Greece is the real star of this movie, as Milton R. Krasner’s extensive outdoor cinematography (with very few interiors photographed at Rome’s famous Cinecittà Studios) and the movie’s prologue (a TripTik through the various Greek Isles, also, an extensive pan through Athens ancient city ruins) attest. There’s also a sequence in which Parmalee, out to conduct all the research he can on the missing statue, takes a brief respite at the reclusive Eastern Orthodox monastery at Metéora (later, to be made more enduringly famous in the 1981 James Bond flick, For Your Eyes Only); only to discover Calder already pouring over ancient texts inside its suspiciously set-like library. Jazz singer, Julie London contributes a smoldering love song under the main titles, and composer, Hugo Friedhofer affords the picture some lush groundswells of orchestral accompaniment elsewhere (and in the lushness of Cinemascope’s 4-track magnetic stereo no less), but basically, Boy on a Dolphin is just a flimsy reason to island hop around the Aegean; the weakest part of the excursion, the script – barely linking up these causal passages, and even less coherently palpable, thanks to Loren’s exquisitely misfiring English. Honestly, I had to watch a few of her exposition scenes more than once to figure out what the hell she was trying to convey; frenetic hand gestures and fragmented – if nevertheless, passionately punctuated on all the wrong syllables.   
Sophia Loren’s allure as a movie star in English-speaking films has always escaped me. I think her best work here derives from the two elephantine epics she made for producer, Samuel Bronston – 1961’s El Cid (for which she caustically co-starred opposite a very demanding, and not altogether tolerant Charlton Heston) and 1964’s as gargantuan, The Fall of the Roman Empire (where she was nearly burned at the stake along with her love-interest, Stephen Boyd). I will also give Loren top marks for knowing exactly how to market her sex appeal, both on and off the screen – savvy enough to trade in a flagrante delicto with Cary Grant on the set of 1957’s The Pride and the Passion (briefly to spill over into 1958’s Houseboat) for a life and career-altering amour with film producer, Carlo Ponti; chiefly responsible for her transformative international celebrity. It’s hard not to watch Loren in Boy on a Dolphin, though purely as a sexual object with the enviable proportions of an ancient Roman goddess. She generates kilowatts of sensuality to the point of near arousal…until she opens that garage door-wide mouth of hers to reveal those perfectly capped teeth. From then on, her influence is purely cerebral – at least for the male of the species – imagination blotting out the clumsily punctuated and often chirpy dialogue, perhaps even conjugating a few irregular verbs in Loren’s own native tongue to make time, as well as the illusion, pass for earthy sexuality.
The two male leads in Boy on a Dolphin are real wet noodles; Alan Ladd, his one-time chiseled visage appearing puffy and soft, his gazes as careworn and as bored with either prospect: of finding the statue in time or undressing his costar with his eyes (other appendages optional), and Clifton Webb (who developed a head cold that quickly blossomed into pneumonia during filming - dear boy/poor boy), emitting his usual subliminally gay-grandfatherly ‘charm’ as an aged oily ‘sugar daddy’ for whom no woman need fear he has sex on the brain as remuneration for the trinkets being offered in exchange.  Exactly what Webb’s Parmalee is expecting from Phaedra – well, that’s really left open to interpretation, and never explored in the Moffat/Taylor screenplay, all too interested in just getting through 111 minutes of Fox fluff on the way to cashing their own paychecks. Boy on a Dolphin might have been at least fun, in say, the same way some of the studio’s other Cinemascope travelogues, like 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain (still MIA on Blu-ray); another Jean Negulesco classic, are; but herein, the writers and cast have sincerely forgotten that in absence of a good story, Cinemascope still needs more than sun-drenched cityscapes and a good-looking costar to sail this tale to port. A few light touches of comedy might have helped. But instead what we get are Parmelee applying Clifton Webb’s smugness; a quality for which erudite social commentary undeniably takes its backseat to ethnocentric arrogance, referring to the Greek peoples as ‘simple’ and later, showing outward disgust for the primitive hoist used to deliver him to the clifftop retreat at Metéora. Dull, dumb and diminishing of an entertainment so transparently assembled with glittering coastal scenery and shiny stars to settle the score for a celebrated ‘good time’. It never happens alas; because there is virtually no suspense to the treasure-hunting sequences, no sex appeal to the romance, and absolutely no symbiosis between characters and plot beyond the floodgates of gorgeous imagery taking the casual viewer on a horse and buggy ride through ancient Greece. Disappointing – very!
One could say the same about Kino Lorber’s new to Blu transfer, except that the results are actually modestly impressive to down-right ravishing with minor caveats to be addressed herein. A slight teal bias still persists, especially during the underwater sequences and a few of the scenes shot under the cover of night. I really cannot explain why so many of Fox’s Cinemascope movies released to Blu-ray have adopted such a skewed color palette; the most egregious transgressors mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Boy on a Dolphin isn’t nearly as awful as some, but it continues to lean toward a queer ‘teal’ tint for which vintage Color by DeLuxe did not suffer and surely did not adopt. Vinegar syndrome or just some colorist asleep at the helm during the remastering process? Who can say? Flesh tones are rather jaundiced throughout this presentation. Contrast is weaker than anticipated during interior photography. But exteriors look positively picture postcard perfect. Vintage Cinemascope had its disadvantages and this Blu of Boy on a Dolphin exposes some of them in 1080p; blurry dissolves and fade outs, softer than anticipated background detail, a slight vertical warping of the image to the extreme left and right of center frame, and, finally, an exaggerated amount of film grain during transitional sequences, montages, etc. On the plus side, the image is free of age-related artifacts and has obviously been given some consideration in preparation for this hi-def release. The 5.1 DTS audio delivers some startling clarity; Julie London’s song and Hugo Friedhofer’s score sounding magnificent. Less impressive, Sophia Loren’s dialogue, infrequently grating and strident. Extras are limited to trailers for this movie and a few others starring Loren that Kino Lorber is hoping to market. Bottom line: Boy on a Dolphin is a middling effort. The Blu-ray is as unprepossessing. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

COMPULSION: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1959) Kino Lorber

com·pul·sion: noun
1. - the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something; constraint.
2. - an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes.
Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) deserves further consideration, though arguably, not much praise for honing, though nevertheless, regurgitating the plot points already fine-tuned in Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, Rope’s End, foreshortened to Rope, for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie adaptation, and later still, rehashed with more absorbing clarity in Meyer Levin’s novelized account, published two years before this movie. All of the aforementioned ‘fictionalized’ endeavors derive from one rather morbid true-to-life tragedy: the heinous murder of fourteen year old, Robert Franks, committed by two upper crust Chicagoan college students, Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb, merely to prove a point; or rather – disprove it: that, the perfect crime does not exist. Murdering Franks merely because they could - for a thrill kill – Leopold and Loeb would enter infamy as one of the most unrepentant and remorseless pair, brainwashed by their smug superiority afforded them by a philosophical book-learned arrogance and their parents’ affluence.  And while the particulars of the crime are nauseating, the killers systematically obscuring the license numbers on a rented car, luring Franks inside, only to bludgeon him with a chisel, then gag and hide the corpse beneath a blanket in the backseat, later to be deposited in a culvert near a lake; the boy’s birth marks and genitals obscured with repeated applications of acid; the plan then to mail the boy’s father, Jacob a ransom note; deriving further pleasure from watching the police squirm while repeatedly being misdirected in their investigation; the ‘perfect crime’ was to hit its first unanticipated snag when Franks’ lifeless remains were unearthed and identified before the ransom could be delivered; Leopold’s distinct pair of eyeglasses recovered near the body and traced right back to him. So much for ‘superior intellect’ and ‘the perfect crime’.
Erroneously believing Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the superman could absolve them of responsibility for their actions, Leopold and Loeb were in for a very rude awakening when not even a twelve-hour court room summation put forth by the legendary Clarence Darrow was enough to get the pair off; though it did sway the hand of justice from exacting its pound of flesh at the hangman’s noose; capital punishment swept aside as retributive, rather than transformative justice. That Loeb was murdered in his prison cell by fellow prisoner, James Day in 1936 and Leopold eventually released on parole in 1958 is rather a moot point, except to speculate whether or not the latter found his way to the inside of a theater in 1959 to see what actor, Dean Stockwell had made of his fictionalized counterpart, Judd Steiner in Fleischer’s movie. That Leopold lived to marry a widow, teach mathematics, publish an ornithological book and eventually die of a heart attack in Puerto Rico, really makes me want to throw up. In case, you have not guessed it – I do not support Darrow in his views on capital punishment or quest for clemency herein, given that at least one killer was set free to live out his duration on this planet while Bobbie Franks lay in six feet of cold earth some seventy-plus years before his natural turn. Justice, indeed!
Yet, for all its congenital disrepute – however iniquitous and scornful – Compulsion is a fairly subdued account of Leopold and Loeb; capped off by an immaculate recital from Orson Welles as the jowly and weather-beaten, Darrow-esque attorney-at-law, Jonathan Wilk. Welles was hardly in an enviable position in 1959; having burned virtually every bridge in Hollywood after the disastrous implosion of his final American-funded picture, Touch of Evil; the actor informed on his last day of shooting by producer, Richard Zanuck that his entire salary for Compulsion had already been garnished by the IRS for back taxes. Welles’ genius never did equate to anything but heartbreak for the man, though it undeniably translates to more than a handful of exceedingly fine-tailored performances for the rest of us to admire. The part of Jonathan Wilk is what Welles might have coined the ‘Mr. Woo’ of the piece; Welles, later to explain how the first two acts in which a pivotal character is absent from the screen, then suddenly appears to give a brief, if memorable performance, essentially overtakes the entire piece in the public’s estimation through sheer forcefulness. And Wilks (a.k.a. Woo) is a part virtually engineered, in tandem, to master the sheer bloat in Welles’ physical girth, gravitas, grand-standing bravura and maniacal ego. Welles, who insisted on doing his own makeup (a holdover from his days in the WPA he carried with him beyond his RKO movie career) transforms himself into the epitome of a barnstorming legal beagle with all the fire and brimstone leveled at ‘then’ prevailing Old Testament jurisprudence, decidedly in favor of capital punishment.
Compulsion opens with a fairly lurid vignette set in 1924, the year Leopold and Loeb committed their shocking thrill kill. We catch a glimpse of Judd Steiner – a.k.a. Leopold (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) stealing a typewriter from a fraternity house; the instrument to craft the morbid ransom note planned to be sent Jonas Kessler (Wendell Holmes); the father of the late, Paulie – a fourteen year old abducted from the school yard whose body is later discovered drowned near a remote lake. Artie, the more flamboyant of the two, orders Judd to run over a hitchhiking drunk in the street; a second crime narrowly averted at the last possible moment as Judd swerves to avoid catastrophe. Returning home at an obscene hour, Judd is lectured to by his elder brother, Max (Richard Anderson) who threatens him with thinly veiled references about his ‘unnatural’ friendship with Artie (about as close as fifties’ American cinema dared tread on the subject of homosexuality). Indeed, Judd is a recluse; a renowned ornithologist, his room a veritable museum of taxidermy birds (in hindsight, Mark-Lee Kirk and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction foreshadowing Norman Bates’ office and backroom sitting area in Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960).  From here we flash ahead, first to a newsroom where Sid Brooks (Martin Milner) is assigned to investigate the discovery of a body in the morgue. The Medical Examiner (Jack Lomas) is unmoved by the disturbing condition of the corpse (we never see). But Sid is quite shaken, dislodging a pair of round-lensed eyeglasses from the stretcher. These innocuous-looking spectacles fall to the floor. Their curious ‘Harold Lloyd’ quality; also, their petite-ness, leave Sid mildly perplexed.
Next, we move to a university criminology lecture attended by Judd, who unsuccessfully attempts to help sneak Sid past Prof. McKinnon (Jack Raine). After class, the pair hooks up with Artie, holding court with a group of their fair-weathers while spinning a yarn about a small tear in his sport jacket; the fallout from his supposedly narrow escape from police for smuggling liquor across the Canadian border. Also in attendance is Sid’s gal pal, Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi) who is empathetic, and mildly sexually attracted, to Judd. Artie makes everyone promise to meet later at a jazz club. There, Ruth pursues Judd a little more. He awkwardly shares a few of his flawed theories about life with her; then, a more intimate story about losing his mother while he was still very young. Ruth is touched, placing her hands on his to comfort; a very human reaction for which Judd is wholly unprepared. Judd invites Ruth to partake of his bird-watching skills at a remote lake the next afternoon and she agrees, flirting that any opportunity to spend more time with him alone is a bonus. But the jovial mood turns sour when Sid, arriving too late to the party, confides in all that the ‘morning edition’ will publish a new find in the Paulie Kessler criminal investigation; the glasses discovered near the body do not belong to the victim, though quite possibly, the killer. More enraged than disturbed by his cohort’s incompetence, Artie cuts his hand by smashing a glass at their table upon hearing the news. His reaction is so transparently suspicious it is a wonder no one at the party connects the dots. Instead, Judd escorts Artie home – the two frantically discussing how best to cover up this latest blunder. Artie reasons there is no possible way the police can trace over 4000 pairs of glasses back to him; overlooking the fact Judd’s pair is a new model, unique designed with spring mechanisms in their handles. Only three such pair has been currently sold.
Learning of Judd’s ‘date’ with Ruth, Artie orders him to rape her; again, as an experiment in domination and control. Mercifully, Judd still possesses an ounce of self-restraint. For although he does take Ruth into the woods near the lake where Paulie Kessler was murdered, on the ruse of bird-watching, and then makes a momentary advance to force himself on her, Judd cannot bring himself to complete this act; instead, tearfully backing away as a bewildered, but otherwise unmolested Ruth looks on. Meanwhile, Artie delights in repeatedly deflecting Police Lt. Johnson’s (Robert Simon) investigation with alternative theories of the crime; suggesting any one of Paulie Kessler’s ‘odd’ teachers might be responsible for his death; then, staging an anonymous phone call about evidence hidden in a sewer (forcing the police to tear apart the street near his home with jackhammers), and finally, playing devil’s advocate with Sid and his editor, Tom Daly (Edward Binns). Mrs. Straus (Louise Lorimer) is obtusely unaware her son has had anything to do with the gruesome murder. Indeed, she dotes on Artie as a mildly possessive matriarch. By now, Detectives Brown (Simon Scott) and Davis (Harry Carter) have managed to trace at least one pair of glasses back to Judd. Unable to locate his pair in time to dispel their curiosity, Judd is brought before District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) for an ‘off the record’ interrogation at the local hotel. Judd coolly refuses to buy into Horn’s alternative theories as to how Judd may have lost his glasses near the same lake where Paulie Kessler’s body was discovered.
Judd attempts to fabricate a story about him and Artie picking up ‘a couple of chippies’ (prostitutes) on the afternoon the crime was committed; a lie retold by Artie. But their cover-up turns to vinegar when the Steiner’s chauffeur, Albert (Peter Brocco) inadvertently reveals that on this particular afternoon Judd’s car did not leave the garage; thus, causing investigators to inquire why he should ‘rent’ a car to entertain some hookers. It’s one too many lies and coincidences. The police have their man, Horn using Artie to play off Judd’s insecurities and vice versa. The pair reluctantly and independently confesses to Paulie’s murder, though each suggests the other delivered the fatal blow. While Horn prepares for the trial, the Straus’ retain renowned attorney, Jonathan Wilk for Artie and Judd’s defense. Wilk pleads the pair as ‘not guilty’, but is stirred to reconsider this decision when a delegation from the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in front of his hotel room.  The plea is changed to ‘guilty’ by reason of mental defect; Wilk engaging psychiatrists to back his strategy. The ‘guilty’ plea absolves a jury from ever hearing the particulars of the case. Now, Wilk further muddies the clarity of the facts by putting the law on trial, suggesting capital punishment is murder sanctioned under the law, though murder nonetheless.  Unable to disentangle himself from Wilk’s sound logic, Judge Matthews (Voltaire Perkins) nevertheless reaches a verdict of life behind bars with no chance of parole. As Artie and Judd are led away, Artie scoffs at the careworn and exhausted Wilk, who suggests God has had his day in court; a higher authority than his own sealing the boys’ fate by providing the circumstances by which Judd’s glasses fell from the pocket to incriminate their rightful owner in Paulie Kessler’s murder.
Compulsion is an uneven entertainment at best, heralded as Hollywood’s first legitimate stab at the ‘thrill kill’ movie. Perhaps in part due to the prison release of Leopold, the picture garnered morbid curiosity from amateur sleuths more fascinated by crime than confounded by the warped machinations of the criminal mind. Unhappily, Compulsion is a fairly turgid and straight-forward account of a crime made more abominable and legendary on the stage; in which co-star, Dean Stockwell already assumed the part of Judd Steiner. Stockwell’s cohort on stage had been Roddy McDowell; once considered a child star par excellence at Fox, but whose reputation had somewhat slipped since puberty, to the point where McDowell basically lost a decade in films, concentrating his formidable talents in live theater until the movies once again came to call. Bradford Dillman was initially not welcomed by Stockwell as McDowell’s replacement for the movie; an animosity set aside after the first day’s shoot, when Stockwell apologized for his behavior. Dillman accepted the apology and the actors went forth with a mutual respect for each other. Alas, Richard Fleischer’s direction here is rather flat; the arrogance that Dillman brings to the part, compounding his lack of empathy for either of these two antagonists (perhaps, Fleischer’s point to the story – neither deserving of as much). Dillman’s bravura is offset by Stockwell’s tortured submissiveness; but the heinousness of the crime itself is unbalanced by both Dillman and Stockwell’s discrepancies in age; much older than the real Leopold and Loeb (still in their late teens at the time the real murder was committed. In the end, nothing about the first two acts of Compulsion compels the viewer onward to witness its finale; Orson Welles’ magnificent oration of the facts (or rather, the case as he re-conceives it) as an impassioned stance against capital punishment is a tour de force. Welles is a firestorm of attenuated emotions; toggling between bombastic outbursts and hushed reverence. It’s quite a good show.
Yet Compulsion ought to have been a far more gripping drama. Diane Varsi, who renounced her Hollywood career, forcing her off the screen for seven long years, is thoroughly wasted in the bit part of Ruth that any of the studio’s lesser contract players could have played with their eyes closed; hardly a successor to the powerful and star-making performance she delivered as Alison MacKenzie in Mark Robson’s blockbuster, Peyton Place just two years before. Fleischer has populated the backdrop of his movie with some stellar support, but none are given very much to do; Richard Murphy’s screenplay waffling in and out of the particulars of the case and becoming mired in the repeatedly diverting police procedural back story. It might have worked, except that Fleischer never manages to go beyond the mechanics of the plot, drawing a relatively straight line from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is brightly lit, straight out of a TV serial; albeit, tricked out in the elongated framing of Cinemascope.  In the final analysis, Compulsion is a movie with little fresh or exhilarating to say about the crime that virtually shook 1924’s socially affluent jazz babies to their core and sent shudders down the spines of all who followed its daily revelations in the tabloids. As a movie, Compulsion is a blip on the radar. It lacks the girth, greatness and gingerly massaged guidance to be anything more than diverting melodrama.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a revelation; sourced from a restored 4K master, the image is immaculate and mostly razor sharp, revealing superb tonality in the B&W grayscale, and startling amounts of fine detail in hair, makeup, clothing and background info. There is virtually nothing to complain about with this release. If only Fox would pay a little more attention to some of its more prominent classics still MIA in hi-def or those already released in decidedly lackluster Blu-ray renditions, then we might expect some very fine work in the future. We’ll see! Personally, I think it is high time Fox made some of their vintage musicals like Down Argentine Way, Week-end in Havana, The Dolly Sisters, Star!, Doctor Doolittle and so on available in 1080p. We could also stand for complete restorations of 1954’s Demetrius and the Gladiators, 1956’s Anastasia, and a remaster to fix the notorious teal color issues on Desk Set, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Wild River, The Blue Max (very blue, indeed) and, The Black Swan. But I digress. Nothing about Fox’s efforts on Compulsion will disappoint. In fact, prepare to be as astonished by the bombastic 5.1 DTS audio, surprising robust and subtly nuanced. Extras are limited to a sporadic audio commentary from Tim Lucas and a few theatrical trailers to promote other Fox catalog being released by Kino Lorber. Bottom line: a winner in hi-def for sure. Just not a great film to warrant as careful preservation, it is nevertheless a welcomed surprise to see from Fox; a studio notoriously neglectful of its back catalog.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)