Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY: Blu-ray (MGM 1962) Warner Archive

A sad-eyed/clear-eyed and unabashedly sentimental elegy for the Hollywood western of old, foreshadowing of things yet to come, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) teems with the sort of tropes, trials and tribulations of male/female courtship and that buddy/buddy male chest-thumping camaraderie that bodes well for this classic tale of right and wrong. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, partisans of the genre, ride like the wind, roll with the thunder and deliver the penultimate message no lover of this golden epoch really wants to hear; that its age of chivalry, where men of honor came to know themselves by the lessers faced down at the point of a rifle, as well as an entire way of depicting such daring exploits on celluloid has rather unexpectedly come to an abrupt finale. Scott gets some of the drollest dialogue ever conceived and has just enough craggy lines etched into his impossibly handsome matinee idol good looks to bring careworn cache to this weather-beaten saga, depicting man against man, man alone, man against nature, his best friend, and his sworn enemy. 
As much beloved for its revisionist trappings as it has since garnered the respect and admiration of generations taken their cue from Peckinpah’s nostalgic valediction; Ride the High Country proves likewise a very classy parting glass to Randolph Scott and, for some years thereafter, Joel McCrea (who would only appear twice more in front of the camera).  In hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect upon Ride the High Country as Scott’s grand finale; begun as a bit player in 1928 and steadily moving through the ranks into ‘A’ list pictures, although curiously, never as ‘the star’. Scott certainly had the charisma and rugged masculinity (impossibly chiseled from horn to hoof) of an amiable leading man. But he steadily found himself bringing up the rear, a popular player in the Zane Grey cycle of westerns; also shadowing the likes of Fred Astaire (who became one of his best friends in life) and Cary Grant (with whom he shared a swingin’ bachelor pad from 1932 to 1944). Scott’s retirement from pictures was likely predicated on the fact he no longer had to work, having managed shrewd investments in real estate, gas, oil wells and other securities, totaling a cool $100 million. Perhaps the most fascinating part about Scott’s movie career is how he possessed a disturbing liquidity to effortlessly assuage between playing heroes and villains; a duality impeccably crafted in Ride the High Country.
Scott is Gil Westrum; a charlatan, peddling crooked carnival games at the local county fair (a shooting gallery where all the guns are filled with blanks). Gil is stunned by the return of Steve Judd (McCrea); a man of integrity he once knew well, but from whom he has long since drifted away. As corruptible as Gil has become, time has not managed to wither Steve’s granite-like veracity for truth or justice. Since their time together, Gil has taken on an impressionable sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr); a young buck, naïve in his passions. Starr’s performance is likely the weakest in the picture, though not entirely without its merits or moments. Starr’s ephemeral legacy (he appeared in only three features and a handful of television shows, in supporting roles) is another oddity about Ride the High Country; Heck’s flip-flopping loyalties, unsuccessful at straddling the screenplay’s preoccupation with the emotionality of men. Although Heck likely has two of the greatest mentors to finesse his gracelessness into typified manhood, he is seemingly too wet behind the ears, and too unwilling to ever truly assimilate into this aged brotherhood of real men. It is, in fact, a little hard to take Heck’s burgeoning interests in Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) seriously; Elsa, the forthright, strong-willed, but as independently stubborn and silly daughter of a religious zealot/rancher, Joshua (R.G. Armstrong) who looks upon her un-tethered beauty as a curse rather than a virtue.
In spots, Ride the High Country is as dynamic and flamboyant as the adventurous spirit of the American west; herein, laced by screenwriter, N.B. Stone Jr. (with un-credited assists from William Roberts and Peckinpah) with a weather vein of crisis of conscience. Steve Judd is an honorable man, plunked in the middle of a wilderness that no longer supports his cause or his archetype; God’s lonely man in pursuit of the ephemeral American dream – the tinny echo of ‘go west young man’ trampled underfoot in this muddy, stark and unforgiving terrain. The dream is already dead and Steve knows it. Indeed, virtually all the individuals we encounter in Ride the High Country – from Joshua to Jenie Jackson’s piggish and rosy-cheeked whorehouse madam, Kate (with the most scandalous set of projectile milk glands ever glimpsed in a major motion picture), to the Hammond clan, headlined by the slovenly, off kilter, violent and thoroughly possessive, Billy (James Drury) suggest a frontier milieu already having gone horribly to seed; attractive only to, and regrettably, made unattractive by these dregs, departed from more polite societies elsewhere; come to carouse, defile and otherwise tainted these virgin territories with their lowest common denominator of humanity. Gil is uniquely situated within this infestation of sin; not quite sold out to its debased primitiveness, though nevertheless not above applying its precepts to escape incarceration. Foretelling of where Peckinpah would take the western in just a few short years, Gil outlasts Steve (virtue, decidedly not its own reward on this outing, nor even likely to be preserved in the end).
Ride the High Country opens in the early dawn of the twentieth century – the end of that daydreamer’s promise to ‘civilize’ the untamed frontier. The goal now is merely to populate and survive it. Weather-beaten yet stoic ex-lawman, Steve Judd has come to town, entering into an agreement with bankers, Luther (Percy Helton) and Abner Sampson (Byron Foulger) to escort their shipment of gold from the Californian backwater of Hornitos. The last six miners who tried as much were murdered along the lonesome trail in the Sierra Nevada. The Sampson brothers are far from legit. And Steve is far removed from his own reputation as a once-respected defender of the right, skulking off to the latrine to read over his contract, requiring the use of spectacles. Whatever his physical failings, Steve is still a man of his word. Time has not eroded his sense of duty, morality or fair play. His paths cross with a former colleague, Gil Westrum, sporting a very Custard-esque moustache and goatee, passing himself off as The Oregon Kid: a fictionally celebrated sharpshooter.  Gil’s young protégé, Heck Longtree is a follower, as yet unaccustomed to the social graces of squiring, but as naïve in believing he is the cock of the walk where the ladies are concerned when, in reality, he is little more than the boy, ever trying to impress with his misguided notions of the truer stature of a real man. Gil doesn’t mind Heck’s naiveté. In fact, it makes him more pliable to his mentoring.
Yet, even as Gil agrees to help Steve escort the gold down the mountain he has far less altruistic motives; assuming he can sway his old friend into absconding with the loot (incorrectly estimated as ten times its actual worth at the start of their journey); then, plotting to do away with Steve when he absolutely refuses to partake of this scheme. But Gil has underestimated Steve; also, Heck, who slowly comes around to seeing there is the nobility of the man to reconsider, respect and admire. Heck’s reasons for converting to the side of righteousness have a lot more to do with the trio’s chance encounter with rancher, Joshua Knudsen and his comely daughter, Elsa. Saddened by the loss of his wife, yet warped in his adherences to the Christian principle, Joshua strikes Elsa with the back of his hand, presumably to tame her burgeoning femininity (she’s tired of being a tomboy, though equally as unaware how being a woman in the wilderness could have its drawbacks), Joshua is adverse to Heck’s flirtatiousness. Elsa is grotesquely green; welcoming Heck’s advances to a point, but then utterly startled when he attempts to take their fractured courtship to the next level. In reply, she runs off after the departing trio to defy her father, determined she should be escorted with or without their help to Hornitos where her beloved, Billy Hammond awaits.
Elsa has horrendously misjudged Billy. For although he wants to, and proceeds to make Elsa his bride, the ceremony officiated by the drunken, Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan) transforms sainted wedlock – particularly the honeymoon (hosted inside Katie’s brothel) into a grotesque bacchanal of disillusionment; Elsa’s marital rape at the hands of her inebriated hubby inside one of Kate’s upstairs bedrooms narrowly averted when Heck valiantly comes to her rescue. Surrounded by his brethren, Elder (John Anderson), Sylvus (L.Q. Jones), Henry (Warren Oates) and Jimmy (John Davis Chandler), Billy is nevertheless outnumbered by the impromptu prowess of Heck, and a show of steel from Steve and Gil who take the newlywed Elsa into their custody. Forcing Tolliver to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact his minister’s license is not valid in the state of California, thereby rendering Elsa’s marriage to Billy null and void, Gil, Steve, Heck and Elsa proceed on their return journey down the mountain with the Sampson’s gold.
Henceforth, Ride the High Country enters its most prophetic forecasting about the future of the Hollywood western; Gil’s needling attempts to feel out the depth of Steve’s loyalties. At every subtle inference Gil makes about possibly looking out for themselves, Steve quietly reiterates the virtues of right over wrong. “That’s just something you know,” he explains. We learn how Steve’s bravura and misguided notions of what being a ‘real’ man meant in his youth cost him the best woman he ever knew. This sacrifice, and all of the ‘lost years’ that followed it have matured Steve’s outlook, and in the interim he has valiantly struggled to regain his self-respect; a commodity he now defiantly intends to hang on to “with the help of you and that boy back there.” When Gil inquires if this is all he desires, Steve quietly forewarns, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Recognizing the futility in trying to convince Steve to part with the gold as their spoils, Gil now plots to seize the first opportunity to claim it all for himself. He is ambushed in this initiative; first, by Steve, not nearly so blind in reading Gil’s truer intentions; second, by Heck, having come around to Steve’s honorable way of looking at the world, in part because of his genuine affections for Elsa.
Steve places Gil and Heck under arrest; binding their hands so they cannot escape. Regrettably, the Hammonds have pursued them on horseback, hell-bent on reclaiming Elsa. Forced to free Gil and Heck to aid in their own defense, Steve takes cover behind a row of boulders. Heck climbs high into the mountains, taking dead aim and killing Sylvus with his rifle. Jimmy also takes a fatal bullet; Billy, Elder and Henry retreating to relative safety further down the mountainside. Steve agrees to leave Gil and Heck to their own accord for the time being. But he has no intension of letting them go free once they make it back into town. Heck has come to terms with the likelihood he will have to go to prison for several years. But Elsa confides she will wait for him. Alas, in the dead of night Gil makes a daring escape. Steve, Heck and Elsa return to Elsa’s homestead by late the next afternoon, Elsa taking notice of her father praying over the makeshift grave of her mother; quite unusual, since this ritual is usually a part of Joshua’s morning routine.
Suspecting the worst, Steve orders everyone to take cover. Indeed, his instincts prove sound; the remaining Hammond brothers opening fire from the farmhouse, revealing to all they have already murdered Joshua and staged his body as a lure. Both Steve and Heck take a bullet during the resulting ambush. But Gil resurfaces, charging into the fray with guns blazing. In the hailstorm of bullets that immediately follows the Hammonds are wiped out, but not before Gil is wounded and Steve, riddled in buckshot. As he lay dying near the paddock, Steve quietly surmises, “I don't want them to see this. I want to go it alone,” Gil pledges to carry on as he would have, and Steve, adding, “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all.” Steve quietly expires, his head tilted back towards the high country; the camera’s pan and tilt into the mountains and blue sky.  
It is impossible not to take this penultimate sendoff with the proverbial lump in the throat. For Steve’s demise is not only the death knell for the big-budgeted western but by extension, a farewell to the way movies in general used to be made in Hollywood, with a plotted blend of star power, investment in a good story, a modicum of ingenuity conceived and carried out by a stock company of veterans in their respective crafts and finally, with the finesse of a master showman/storyteller at the helm. Peckinpah’s direction here is a little more slick and studio-polished than in his later movies. There’s more glamor than grit on display; a few of the scenes too cordial and clean to be believed. In fact, Ride the High Country has the look of a fifties Cinemascope adventure (despite being shot in Panavision). At moments, the picture aspires to keep its audience innocent of the derailment of these solitary he-men that are, by the end of this movie, an all but vanquished breed.
Eschewing convention, the west’s most ardent champion, the mythically pure lawman of folklore is sacrificed to these wide open spaces; truth and justice handed down to men of more questionable motives, and, the era from which such legends are etched gone forever. This solitary man will never again peaceably ride into the sunset; resourceful, rugged, asking nothing of the world except to be let alone in it, yet deprived even of this modest luxury. Ride the High Country may not be the best remembered of westerns – nor even the most deified of Peckinpah’s (we still give it to his revisionist opus magnum, The Wild Bunch, made just a scant seven years later). Nevertheless, the picture speaks to Peckinpah’s rather ironic and sad interpretation of the end; a pining for these caliber of men, farther reaching in their integrity than their ambitions.  
Based on N.B. Stone’s originally titled screenplay, ‘Guns in the Afternoon’; Ride the High Country was the brainchild of producer, Richard Lyons, a great admirer of Peckinpah's work on The Westerner TV series. After an extensive rewrite Peckinpah, basing Steve Judd on his own father, elected to weave an almost religious tragedy into the film’s subtext; Steve’s fate/Gil’s salvation. Alas, in a year dominated by such iconic and eclectic fare as the ebullient musical, The Music Man; political dramas - Advise and Consent, The Manchurian Candidate, shocker/thrillers like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and, Experiment in Terror; the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No,  and capped off by David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning/thinking man’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia (to name but a handful of the diverse films on tap), Ride the High Country failed to make even a ripple at the box office. It quietly vanished in the U.S., despite high praise from Newsweek, but became something of a sleeper hit in Europe; beating out even Federico Fellini's for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival. Viewed today, Ride the High Country remains decidedly in a class apart.
Peckinpah’s personal touches have imbued the story-telling with a sort of rare and genuine introspection. The two more popular westerns of the year, at least with audiences; John Ford’s cheaply made, and perhaps as clear-eyed, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and MGM’s colossus of mega-watt star power run amuck in Cinerama – How the West Was Won have remained enjoyable to watch, though equally as dated; time capsules to that ‘other’ Hollywood, now truly dead and gone. By comparison, Ride the High Country has lingered with an invigorating freshness; its astute commentary about the folly and fate of inherently good men, ringing thus even more momentously authentic for those struggling to find or live up to their likes today. Like the movie itself, such paragons among us are oft later canonized, though rarely treasured in their own time.
The Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray is a vast improvement over the original DVD from 2004, though not entirely without its drawbacks. The overall palette here leans to a bluish tint; greens still somewhat muted and flesh tones infrequently piggy pinkish. While overall image clarity snaps together in 1080p, we don’t really get the anticipated razor-sharpness of a Panavision feature; instead, a residual softness creeping in around the peripheries of the frame.  Exteriors shot on location at Inyo National Forest and Malibu Creek State Park possess more overall clarity, sharpness and color consistency and saturation than their studio-bound interior set pieces; contrast waffling between solid to just mediocre. Overall, a valiant effort – if not quite a perfect one. 
Like the image, the DTS 2.0 audio is passable, if hardly extraordinary.  Like virtually all their Blu-rays, WAC has ported over the extras from their DVD release: a comprehensive commentary from Peckinpah documentarians, Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, and the rather curiously brief featurette, A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the Hogue Country, in non-anamorphic 1.78:1. We also get a badly worn original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended for content. The Blu-ray is above average at best, though frequently it hovers at just half as good as it might have been with a little bit more restoration work applied.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

THE LOVED ONE: Blu-ray (MGM/Filmways 1965) Warner Archive Collection

When it was released in the summer of 1965, director, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One was billed as ‘the motion picture with something to offend everyone’. Nauseate is more like it; the sight of some of Hollywood’s then biggest names, more than a handful appearing in cameo, turning to Evelyn Waugh’s bizarre – if astute – 1947 novel of the same name for inspiration. MGM had wanted to buy Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for an undisclosed six-figure sum. But the author’s inability to relinquish nothing less than complete veto power over virtually all aspects of any pictorial attempt at his beloved chef-d'oeuvre caused this project to be scrapped.  In the meantime, Waugh became fascinated…dare we suggest, ‘obsessed’ with California’s interment industry; the business of deifying the dead in baroque and garish memorials, ultimately to flesh out the narrative of The Loved One; at least some of the situations very loosely based on Dr. Hubert Eaton, the founder of Los Angeles’ famed Forest Lawn Cemetery. I suppose any treatise on The Loved One should begin by placing the movie into context; released the same year as David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Sons of Katie Elder and Von Ryan’s Express – to name but a handful of the ‘prestige pics’ on tap during this golden epoch. To misquote Monty Python, “…and now for something completely different!”  
According to critics of their day, (dis)pleasure to be derived from Richardson’s botched attempt at Waugh’s black humor centered on the cavalcade of headliners who float in and out its deliciously tasteless mélange - Roddy McDowell, James Coburn, Sir John Gielgud, Milton Berle and Liberace among them; an eclectic ensemble to be sure. Waugh based his book on recollections gleaned from his own trip to Los Angeles, not only how he found Southern California’s morbid intrigue with eternal resting, but also on his own personal dislike for Tinsel town’s uppity Brit colony; emigres, all of them prior to WWII, congregated at their clubs to condescendingly wax and frown upon an industry they helped to build and whose reputation they too had distinctly contributed. Waugh’s ribald humor may have been too chichi for screenwriters, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. Waugh was, in fact, highly critical of Americans in general, smugly suggesting, “I should not think six Americans will understand it” and was, frankly, baffled - even outraged - when Americans in droves proved him wrong; The Loved One becoming a publishing phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic. Forever after, Waugh would refer to The Loved One as “my humiliating success in the U.S.A.”  More’s the pity then the movie version utterly misses almost every highbrow cue from the novel to create a more abject revulsion in its picaresque vignettes; a few, specifically created to augment this decidedly tawdry fellowship of frauds.
Whether considering Rod Steiger’s pontificating funeral director/embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, with his effete shimmy as he sashays through the cavernous halls of the Whispering Glades mortuary, or the abysmally over the top dual performances from Jonathan Winters as ‘the blessed’ and thoroughly lecherous Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (and his bumbler of a nimble-minded twin brother, Henry – host of ‘The Happier Hunting Grounds’; an even more bizarre pet cemetery where beloved dogs are either kept in the same freezer as the workmen’s lunches or incinerated in a crude oven out back); newcomer, Anjanette Comer, as the thoroughly ineffectual ‘innocent’ of the piece, Aimée Thanatogenos, or even our star, Robert Morse’s thoroughly defeated ‘turn’ – post synced to gruelingly bad effect as Dennis Barlow; the accidental Brit, who stumbles upon these denizens of the cremation and shovel sect, The Loved One fairly reeks of precisely the embalming fluid and formaldehyde long before we surmise the movie is, in fact, teetering on the brink of its own scandalous desecration of hokey-pokey-jokey religious cultism. This takes about the first 25 minutes to really get going.
The Loved One, funded by indie offshoot, Filmways and distributed by MGM, was shot by Haskell Wexler almost entirely in and around the lavishly appointed 55 room Doheny Mansion, situated on 429 acres of prime real estate in Beverly Hills; a Gatsby-esque derelict to rival William Randolph Hearst’s palatial San Simeon, but, left to rot ever since oil tycoon, Edward L. Doheny’s son, ‘Ned’ Jr. was discovered in a ‘murder/suicide’ flagrante delicto with his male secretary back in the late 1920’s. Under Wexler’s expertise, The Loved One in B&W at least appears to possess a mantel of quality: Greystone Manor, the irrefutable magnum opus, willed into prominence by Gordon Kaufmann, positively glistens. Kaufmann, a master builder whose creations included Hoover Dam and the Los Angeles Times Building, would have likely preferred his name not associated with the Doheny ‘scandal’. But since being acquired by the City of Beverly Hills in 1965, Greystone (as it is currently known) has been featured in numerous Hollywood films. For a time, the main house, built in the awe-inspiring elegance of typical English Tudor, served as the headquarters for the AFI. Today, it is fully restored and open to the public on occasion; mostly rented for those with very deep pockets; its grounds – a park-like setting, minus many of its ancillary structures and a few grounds keeping features either torn down or, in the case of several large cement reflecting pools, later bulldozed. What has survived (and a great deal has) is a potent reminder of those blessed years in America before the institutionalization of ‘personal income tax’ when virtually any architectural feat money could buy was, in fact, quite possible for those with very deep pockets. 
Too bad not even the splendor of Greystone is compensation enough for witnessing the perversities run wild in The Loved One. In hindsight, the picture can be viewed as an unmitigated lashing out by Tony Richardson who had arrived in Hollywood in 1961, with aspirations to make a film version of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, with assurances from 2oth Century-Fox he could have carte blanche on locations, casting and script. Ultimately, it was all just a ruse to get Richardson’s signature on the dotted line, and he departed the studio toting his wounded pride, adding, “It is impossible to make anything interesting or good under the conditions imposed by the major studios in America. It is a totally impossible creative setup.” If revenge is a dish best served cold, then The Loved One, with its memory of Aimée Thanatogenos – the one true innocent (the bloom of her naiveté shabbily rubbed off by the realization her faith in the ‘blessed reverend’ has been sorely misplaced – he is a money-grubbing womanizer; ditto for her blind-sided devotion to the ‘choke’ enlightened newspaper ramblings of Guru Brahmin, played with wicked aplomb by Lionel Stander as a booze hound with more gin than clairvoyance in his back pocket), committing suicide with a pair of embalming needles still lingers in my head: proof positive Richardson has indeed created an homage to the crass commercialism of death-obsessed mid-century modern America on the move and march toward the depths of degradation.  I have a pretty good idea what both he and Waugh would have to say about where America has ended up with their pop culture fetishism today.
The Loved One begins with the arrival of young, impressionable Englishman, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) to the City of the Angels. Barlow, a real drifter with no definite plans of any kind, has won his airline ticket in a contest and chosen to spend it on a trip to Los Angeles where his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) resides. Hinsley is the last of a dying breed in Hollywood; the old home guard from its golden age, fast disappearing in the rear view of time. Together with the enterprising, but alas dim-witted Henry Glenworthy, Hinsley has become embroiled in a pitch for a truly idiotic high concept to studio mogul, D.J. Jr. (Roddy McDowall); to transform rural Southern hick, Dusty Acres (Robert Easton) into a James Bond knock-off…with a heart. D.J. gives Hinsley and Wilbur the green-light to at least try out their experiment, but then unceremoniously cans Hinsley who has invested virtually his entire life in the film business. Distraught, Hinsley quietly returns to his crumbling bungalow and hangs himself from the diving board nearest his drained out swimming pool; his dangling corpse discovered by Dennis upon returning home.
Dennis is encouraged by Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (Robert Morley) a pontificating member of the English expatriate community, to liquidate his uncle’s estate for a socially prestigious burial at the renowned Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary. Alas, in perusing its curious and stately facilities, Dennis becomes besotted with Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), a serenely gullible cosmetician who claims to have been named after Aimee Semple McPherson. Despite Aimee’s thoroughly brainwashed innocence, Dennis attempts to woo her for his own. Their romp through these privileged grounds leads to two failed romantic rendezvous as the frantic and virginal Aimee cannot come to terms with carnal lust; even the occasional chaste peck on the cheek. It’s no good for Dennis. But it might translate to something more promising for Whispering Glade’s effete embalmer, Mr. Joyboy; a tubby fop, sporting a crop of blonde Roman-esque curls; slavishly devoted to his disgustingly obese mother (Ayllene Gibbons) who gorges herself in the confines of her boudoir, smearing grease and gravy all over her swollen cheeks as she face-plants into a side of pork roast; her fetishistic addiction to food of any kind generating a ‘queer’ sort of arousal for her son; much to Aimee’s chagrin and repulsion.
Dennis is navigated though the selection process for Hinsley’s burial by Whispering Glades’ ‘counselor’, Mr. Starker (Liberace). Truth be told, Dennis merely runs on the assumption Starker and the rest of the mortuary’s staff know what would best suit his uncle’s memory. Too enraptured with Aimee to care about the final result, Dennis attempts to garner the girl’s trust. His dalliances are badly conceived however, particularly since Aimee’s head is thoroughly racked in her idol worship for the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters); Whispering Glade’s all-seeing/all-knowing man of purity, canonized, at least in Aimee’s mind, for sainthood. Little does she suspect, Glenworthy’s solemnity and piety are a front for a ruthlessly calculating businessman, conspiring with developers to liquidate the cemetery once the plots are filled up, relocating the bodies and transforming the grounds into a privileged retirement community where, presumably, even more untapped revenues can be mined from the aged rich.
Dennis desperately wants to make Aimee his wife. Problem: he is penniless. So he begins his apprenticeship at The Happier Hunting Grounds, the equivalent of Glenworthy’s mortuary, run on a shoestring by the reverend’s screw-up of a brother, Henry (Jonathan Winters again). Dennis courts Aimée, seducing her with excerpts from famous poems she has never even heard of, much less read. Dennis is also acutely aware he must never let Aimee know the money he is earning, presumably to pay for her wedding band, is coming from the pet cemetery, which Aimee considers a grotesque sacrilegious of all the fine work being done at Whispering Glades. Increasingly turned off by Dennis' cynical and disrespectful attitude toward her boss, Aimee’s gullibility is further eroded when Dennis suggests they can wed on her salary after she receives a promotion as ‘the first female embalmer.’  Torn in her decision, Aimee writes to the Guru Brahmin (Lionel Stander); a newspaper staffer more in love with the bottle than achieving true spiritual enlightenment for his readership. The ‘Guru’ enjoys ping-ponging Aimee’s affections from Dennis to Mr. Joyboy, who has by now invited Aimee home to meet is mother; a filthy and cackling harridan, confined by her girth to bed where she feasts on whatever meal her son is currently preparing in the kitchen.
Confiding in the Guru again, Aimee briefly becomes engaged to Dennis. She invites him to her home, a partially finished but condemned property precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, prone to landslides. Alarmed by the occasional, if ominous tremor, and Aimée's complete lack of concern over her own safety, Dennis cuts out from this promising rendezvous before any romantic notions can take place. A few days later, he and Henry are preparing to cremate more dead dogs in their backyard furnace when a homemade rocket suddenly plummets through their metal roof. Gunther Fry (Paul Williams), a boy genius responsible for the crash, lets Henry’s mind whirl with a new gimmick to promote The Happier Hunting Grounds. What if they could offer tenants eternal orbit around the planet as their final rest.  The idea has considerable merit for the ‘Blessed Reverend’; already plotting to relocate the bodies at Whispering Glades so he can transform the property into a posh retirement community; presumably, because the money’s better catering to the elderly while they live. Meanwhile, Mr. Joyboy invites Aimee to a ceremony where his beloved mynah bird, now dead, will be blasted off into outer space. The rocket misfires, shrouding everyone in a thick cloud of heavy soot. Aimee is disgusted by the spectacle and takes off with Mr. Joyboy.  
Learning of the ‘test launch’ Reverend Glenworthy seeks to attain the same procedure for Whispering Glade; his first ‘beloved’ to go into outer space…what else?: an astronaut known as ‘The Condor’ who died in the arms of Miss Benson (Joy Harmon); a burlesque queen. To garner the surplus of rockets needed, Glenworthy hosts a bizarre orgy at Whispering Glades for top Air Force brass, including Gen. Buck Brinkman (Dana Andrews). After a few drinks and more than a few dalliances with the scantily clad escort emerging from one of Glenworthy’s showroom caskets, Brinkman is more than happy to sign off on the deal. Meanwhile, Dennis tries to expose the Reverend for the fraud that he is to Aimee. Alas, she will not hear of him as a charlatan unworthy of her devotion or life’s work and ambitions. Unwilling to believe Dennis, Aimee first attempts to find solace and guidance from the Guru whom she discovers is a fake; then Glenworthy, who exposes his ulterior motives, attempting a lascivious grand seduction in his throne room. With nowhere else to hide, and nobody to believe in anymore, her world completely shattered, Aimee prepares herself with embalmer’s make-up before taking her own life on one of the metal slabs in Mr. Joyboy’s office.
Joyboy’s discovery of Aimee’s remains is concealed to prevent a scandal. Joyboy convinces Dennis to partake in the cover-up; the pair electing to switch the body of The Condor, slated to go into orbit later this same afternoon, with Aimee’s; thus affording his beloved a burial far away from the gutter depravities she has endured here on earth. The Condor’s remains are taken to The Happier Hunting Grounds and incinerated. Having had quite enough of America’s morbid fascination with death, Dennis prepares for his departure. At the airport he catches a glimpse of The Condor’s televised memorial service; the casket with Aimee’s body inside, blasted off into outer space. Dennis, having blackmailed Joyboy to provide him with a first-class ticket to return home to England, now prepares to board for the flight; presumably quite contented to be rid of this lot of twisted freaks and weirdos for good.
The Loved One is perhaps as ambitious in its planning as it proves thoroughly misguided in its execution; Tony Richardson’s direction never rising beyond a distinct level of off-putting revelry for these thoroughly misshapen, warped and unfeelingly wicked characters. Caricature is one thing: but the characters that populate The Loved One are about as ‘unloved’ and ‘unlovable’ as movie cardboard cutouts get. There is nothing here to whet the appetite beyond farce. Yet, even the ribald guffaws in this is tinged with more than an element of the macabre; defeating whatever pessimistically fractured laughs and entertainment value the picture may have had. The irony of the piece is derailed by rank idiocy and the laughter via sheer lunacy for the cheapest, most base and debasing content yet created for a major motion picture by design.
A modicum of empathy might have sufficed or at least helped here; if not for the thoroughly witless and tit-less Aimee, then perhaps for our entrepreneurial fop, Dennis Barlow. Yet, even Dennis’ discovery of Hinsley’s dangling body is given short-shrift; transformed from a moment of wounded dismay and disbelief into a blurry B&W photo for the newspapers with a one-line summation to punctuate Hinsley’s passing. Indeed, John Gielgud’s careworn Brit, the last vestige of his dignity bludgeoned by a wholly cruel world intent on burying the past before its actual last breath: Hinsley is the only character who flashes momentarily across the screen as sincere in life, if never entirely tragic in death. In the end, Richardson’s trigger-happy verve to transform Evelyn Waugh’s novel into a diabolically pert and plucky parade of preening peacocks falls flat on the slab; far more mummified than any stiff under Joyboy’s care.
We really have zero complaints about the Warner Archive’s (WAC) recently released Blu-ray. Well, alright…just one. (More on this in a moment). The Loved One’s B&W 1080p transfer sparkles with sublime textures, a beautifully balanced grey scale, film grain looking indigenous to its source, and superb rendering of fine detail. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is gorgeous. There is one minor oddity to quibble over. When Dennis first arrives at Whispering Glades to make funeral arrangements for Hinsley, he is taken to Glenworthy’s inner sanctum for the briefest of indulgences. The optical zoom that immediately introduces us to Glenworthy’s Janus-faced hypocrite suffers from some nasty looking edge effects. Personally, I have always been mildly confused as to why ‘optical zooms’ were employed, particularly in movies made throughout the 1960s; as opposed to laying some track down and doing zooms the old-fashioned way; in camera, on a dolly. Surely, it has to do with cost; the optical cheaper to achieve, but also a lot less accomplished to look at; amplifying levels of grain as the image is blown up, with built in distortions. We could forgive these ‘built-in’ anomalies inherent in the process, but herein it also appears as though the video-mastering is flawed; edge effects and an odd blurriness and/or line-doubling briefly occurring. The shot is barely 14 seconds in length. So, do we forgive it? Yes. We do not, however, forget it. It’s there and very distracting. The audio is mono DTS and adequate for this presentation. We get a vintage featurette with interviews from the surviving cast and crew; too brief to be of any genuine value. There’s also a theatrical trailer.
Bottom line: The Loved One was a real wet-noodle at my house. Nobody laughed. It has the trappings of a Teflon-coated comedy of errors, but falls apart – depending on one’s point of view – from either too much or far too little to sustain its meandering plot. Buried somewhere beneath the rubble of its doomed implosion is the message California folk are just plain weird when it comes to accepting the transitional process from life into death, or pontificating over the possibility of an eternal life neatly hidden somewhere beyond and after this one. I’ll bite; these nuttier than thou compatriots are off their Johnny Nutbars by a mile – easily! The movie goes too far off the Richter scale, however; its’ most grievous sin, it never allows the audience room for the hearty chuckle or more introspective contemplation. It’s strictly built for strained laughs; none good, most bad, and some – worst of all – tepidly indifferent. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 25, 2017

THE PARADINE CASE: Blu-ray (Selznick International, 1947) Kino Lorber

“With all the skill in presentation for which both gentlemen are famed, David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock have put upon the screen a slick piece of static entertainment (with) Gregory Peck…impressively impassioned; Ann Todd, the pliant Brit and Alida Valli, as a compound of mystery, fascination and voluptuousness with a pair of bedroom eyes. Louis Jourdan, the new boy from Paris, is electric as the badgered valet.”
Bosley Crowthers
The Paradine Case (1947) effectively ended the association between director, Alfred Hitchcock and producer, David O. Selznick, and, depending on one’s point of view the results of it may either be judged as adequate or disappointing; a box office dud to what had always been a rather tempestuous alliance between these preeminent film makers/storytellers in their own right. Selznick wanted ‘another Rebecca or, more astutely, a hugely engrossing thriller a la the girth and loquaciousness of a literary masterpiece. Hitchcock merely endeavored to survive Selznick’s tsunami of damned memos and daily rewrites to produce another sizable hit to exercise as well as advertise his mastery of the cinema language. In the end, neither of these towering  figures from filmdom were satisfied; the complexity of their tug-o-war evident almost from the moment the Selznick International trademark fades into a close-up on the detailed paneling behind the judges box at the Old Bailey – recreated at the studio of course, and the scroll lettering suddenly – and rather inexplicably – gives  way to the bold-typeface popularized in newspaper headlines; flashing ‘THE PARADINE CASE’, filling every inch of the frame, both from side to side and top to bottom.
The Paradine Case should have been another triumph for Hitchcock (who came late to this party) if not Selznick; Hitch’, barely seven years in America and already touted as the irrefutable ‘master of suspense’. Hitchcock manages little suspense in The Paradine Case, I suspect because Selznick’s endeavor was to relay a wordy melodrama with only lightly peppered elements of suspense carefully spread throughout what was originally planned as a nearly three hour epic in crime. Hitchcock’s tastes did not favor the epic – or at least, Selznick’s preconceived notion of one, and he vehemently opposed any and all of the producer’s directives and attempts to morph The Paradine Case into that sort of classless rubbish he felt the picture was steadily veering towards under Selznick’s aegis. Selznick had, in fact, purchased the rights to Robert Smythe Hichens’ novel in 1933 while he was till at MGM and even before it was published; Selznick, with delusions of grandeur to star Greta Garbo. Garbo was in fact Hichens' inspiration for Maddalena Paradine. For one reason or another, the project was repeatedly stalled until such time as Garbo decided to officially retire from the movies with no regrets and even less interest to be wooed back to the screen, rumored to have quietly said to Selznick, “No murderesses, no mamas” (the latter a reference to being offered the title role in George Stevens’ I Remember Mama, 1948; a part eventually going to Irene Dunne).
Howard Estabrook was assigned by Selznick to adapt the screenplay while Selznick preemptively jumped the gun by announcing in the trades that John and Lionel Barrymore would costar with Diana Wynyard. The Hollywood censors forewarned it was impossible to grant their permission on The Paradine Case, since it was quite obvious Maddalena Paradine had murdered her husband to hop into bed with a lover. In the novel, she was equally as guilty of perjury and, in the end, committed suicide. The Hays Office also objected to the portrayal of Judge Lord Thomas Horfield as a sadist who relished sending people to their doom. Embroiled with his difficulties elsewhere on the MGM backlot (indeed, Selznick would depart the studio as something of an ungrateful offspring, being married to L.B. Mayer’s daughter, Irene at the time); a new draft of the script resubmitted to the censors in1942 was almost immediately approved. Again, The Paradine Case languished as Selznick, buoyed by the overwhelming critical and financial success of his magnum opus, Gone with the Wind (1939) pursued other projects of varying stature and similarity. By 1946, he had another draft ready for the censors, again approved after all references to Madame Paradine’s suicide were expunged. Whatever the case (pun intended); Selznick delayed again, eventually calling in noted writer, Ben Hecht to do a polish on the script; then launching whole hog into a project for which Hitchcock’s affinity had distinctly cooled.
The cast is certainly something: every man and the voice of integrity, Gregory Peck as barrister, Anthony Keane (Hitchcock would have preferred either Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier – both turned him down), Italian hopeful, Alida Valli, simply introduced by Selznick to North American audiences as Valli (there is some documentation to support Selznick’s eagerness to promote Alida as a viable successor to the retired Garbo by lopping off her first name to suggest the allure, glamor and mystery of that ‘other’ cinema ‘sphinx’), Ann Todd, as Keane’s ever-devoted ‘little woman’ cum sophisticate, Gay; Ethel Barrymore, as a staggeringly empathetic, tortured wife whose self-confidence is bludgeoned by the merciless philandering of her husband, Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (supremely realized with insidious self-inflicted misery by Charles Laughton); Charles Coburn, as the frankly unvarnished and clear-eyed solicitor, Sir Simon Flaquer, and finally, Louis Jourdan, in his debut as the sinfully handsome valet, André Latour, much to studly to be driving anyone’s car or to be passed over by the madam of this maison with whom he has so obviously had an affair. But did Latour and Maddalena Paradine conspicuously plot to poison her husband together? Hmmmm.
The Paradine Case is full of red herrings. That’s part of its charm; the other portion belonging to this glittering ensemble of superb actors giving it their all. Despite its inability to ever become firmly situated on the precepts of either the melodrama or the suspense/thriller, I have always rather enjoyed The Paradine Case as an exercise in the Selznick/Hitchcock battle royale; a deliciously flawed confection with only a semisweet center. Not all the pieces fit, but what remains is so effective and engrossing one can almost excuse the fact that, on the whole, The Paradine Case never attains the finesse of either a class ‘A’ Selznick Studio’s release or a deliberately engaging whodunit made by Hitch’ in his prime. We can forgive these men their ability to tear at each other’s reputations, each emerging from the fray impervious to the picture’s narrative failures. Chief among these is the way most of Ann Todd, Ethel Barrymore and Charles Laughton’s performances have been left on the cutting room floor; the bits and pieces stitched together herein only whetting the appetite without ever gorging the audience on what was so deliberately a three-course feast of their thespian talents. We get echoes of greatness, but with no actual monument to it forthcoming. That’s a shame, because given over to their undeniable strengths The Paradine Case might have evolved into just the sort of thriller/epic hybrid from which both Hitchcock and Selznick might have seized yet another brass ring of stature and merit. Instead, what is here is a sort of truncated medley to tease; a coming attraction advertising a feature film never to follow it. 
The last film to be made under Hitchcock’s ironclad seven-year contract with Selznick, it is a safe bet Hitchcock was elated to be a freelancer in Hollywood once more. By the time of Hitchcock’s involvement on The Paradine Case, the original screenplay Selznick had commissioned from Howard Estabrook was out; replaced by a first draft co-written by Hitch’ and his wife, Alma Reville, later polished by playwright, James Bridie. Hitchcock approved of this version. Selznick did not. Pushed into production before Selznick had the opportunity to commission another draft, the meticulous producer reworked dialogue and whole scenes by night, hitting Hitch’, his cast and crew with a barrage of rewrites expected to be shot later the next day. It proved a demented process, trying Hitchcock’s patience and keeping both cast and crew on their toes.  Disgusted by these chronic manipulations, the atmosphere on set shifted from general unease to a terse tension as Hitchcock plotted to work around Selznick’s interventions and will ‘the damn thing’ into a final form he could, if not take immense pride in, then at least exhibited touches of his usual brilliance. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s ennui trickled down to the cast; Gregory Peck later commenting “He seems really bored with the whole thing.”
Like all pictures produced under Selznick’s aegis, one faultless aspect of The Paradine Case is its pictorial value; J. McMillan Johnson’s production design and Thomas N. Morahan’s art direction given Selznick’s approval to spend profligately. Thanks to Lee Garmes’ gorgeous cinematography, The Paradine Case has a very slick and stylish mantel of quality. Perhaps recalling how Hitchcock’s North American debut, 1940’s Rebecca, had been a resounding success, Selznick sought to introduce scenes reminiscent of the moment when the second Mrs. DeWinter (played by Joan Fontaine) explores the secret boudoir of the mansion’s former deceased mistress. In The Paradine Case we get Anthony Keane traveling to the Paradine’s country estate where the murder took place, exploring the Gothic trappings in a moodily lit bedroom decidedly overwrought in its homage to Maddalena; her portrait inlaid into the wood-carved headboard.
Partly because of all the back and forth between Selznick and Hitchcock, The Paradine Case had one of the longest shoots in Selznick’s tenure as an indie producer; begun shortly before Christmas 1946, ‘officially’ wrapping on May 7, 1947, though continuously in retakes and re-shoots thereafter until November of that same year.  Only a few stock inserts of the Lake District location shoot survived the final edit; the rest of the picture cobbled together from interiors shot entirely on Selznick’s backlot, including a slavishly accurate recreation of London’s Old Bailey. Selznick was, in fact, granted permission by the London High Court of Appeals to send unit manager, Fred Ahern to extensively photograph the real thing; J. McMillan Johnson building a thoroughly faithful facsimile in just 85 days and at a then staggering cost of $80,000, complete with cove ceilings; unusual for a set, since rigging and lights are typically strung from the open rafters, with matte work later inserted to fill in the gaping hole.
Hitchcock would later describe The Paradine Case as “…a love story embedded in the emotional quicksand of a murder trial” and that is probably closest to the truth of where its entertainment value is situated. If the picture has a tour de force moment, it remains the high stakes courtroom drama that unfolds and unravels Maddalena’s alibi. Indeed, in reviewing the picture today, Hitchcock’s criteria for generating taut and effective drama is working overtime here; utilizing four cameras in balletic choreography to capture the actors’ performances from every conceivable angle simultaneously, thus allowing them to play their scenes straight through. Later, Hitchcock would augment this continuity with a few inserted crane shots and skillful editing. When it was all over, The Paradine Case cost Selznick a whopping $4,258,000; a titanic sum when one compares its barely two hour run time to 4 hours of Gone With The Wind; costing only $46,000 more to make – and in Technicolor, no less!  Perceived from another angle, The Paradine Case is basically half the picture for double the cost. In the end it was Selznick’s fastidiousness, not Hitchcock’s craftsmanship that cost him dearly; Selznick unceremoniously removing Hitchcock from the picture during post-production when Hitch’ insisted on his contractual $1000 a day to supervise the editing and scoring.
After toiling on the picture for a record 92 days of principle photography Hitchcock had, in fact, delivered a 3 hr. crime epic; one with which Selznick was almost immediately displeased. To meet the Oscar deadline for submissions, Selznick’s hurried rough cut was prescreened for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at 132 minutes. Rumor has it this version contained three minutes devoted to Ethel Barrymore’s half-crazed Lady Horfield; a sequence in a museum where she implores Keane to save Maddalena from hanging, and another moment where Lady Horfield frantically tries to conceal one of her nervous coughing spells from the penetrating glare of her vindictive husband. Presumably, these highlights were responsible for Barrymore’s Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress; the statuette, instead forfeited to Celeste Holm for Gentleman’s Agreement. For better or worse, the public never had the opportunity to Judge Barrymore’s performance; her scenes mercilessly excised wholesale as Selznick reworked the picture to 125 minutes; its official run time for general release. For decades, rumors persisted Selznick could not decide upon a title for the movie; coming up with the rather lackluster ‘The Paradine Case’ literally hours before its Westwood premiere. Frankly, it doesn’t wash – since poster art, press and other promotion would have had to been carefully prepared weeks, if not months in advance; to say nothing of the theater marquee. Likely, Selznick consternated, as he usually did, on coming up with a title before settling on the one we have today. Selznick made several additional trims immediately following the premiere that brought the official run time down to 114 minutes for general release.
Viewed today, The Paradine Case is rather a perfunctory installment in the Hitchcock/Selznick library. At best, it is enjoyable for its stellar performances, despite the transient quality of both Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore’s appearances; the pair, simply floating in and out from the screen’s peripheries rather than becoming an integral part of another multi-layered subplot. Brit-born beauty, Ann Todd, sadly underrated as an actress, and even more obscenely underused and absent in American movies (what could Hollywood have been thinking?!?) gives a magnificently understated and empathetic performance as Gay Keane; the ever-devoted wife who clearly sees Maddalena Paradine’s feminine wiles have infested her husband’s heart. Tony is not the philandering type. Nor does he possess the opportunity to act upon his impulses, though he has been bewitched by the widow Paradine’s exotic charms. Gay’s fervent prayer is for her husband to spare Maddalena being hanged for the crime of murder, knowing that otherwise in death she will likely be etched into his heart. Nevertheless, Gay is accomplished, warm and self-assured; truly a mate to the mistress compared, and in this movie’s abruptly rushed finale, Tony realizes as much, to both their satisfactions.
The story that emerges on screen is rather threadbare and in viewing The Paradine Case today one wonders just how much more there might have been to sustain an audiences’ interest for three hours. The plot concerns one Maddalena Anna Paradine (Valli), the widow of a blind, aged Colonel whom she is accused of poisoning. It seems the widow Paradine has been having an affair with her husband’s valet, Andre Latour (Jourdan). On the advice of legal counsel, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) Maddalena hires handsome hotshot barrister, Anthony Keane (Peck) for her defense. But the trial is made problematic when the married Keane begins to invest in Maddalena’s innocence on the basis he has not-so-secretly become enamored by her and may, in fact, wish to pursue her outside the courtroom should an acquittal suffice. Keane’s wife, Gay (Ann Todd) is patient in her married love, allowing Tony his fanciful romantic daydreams. Secure in the overriding arc of Tony’s love for her, Gay recognizes his momentary infatuation as destined for heartbreak; for Maddalena is guilty of the charges.
Tony makes a pilgrimage to the Paradine’s country estate, intent on interrogating Latour, who has remained conspicuously absent. He discovers the house devoted to the Colonel’s excessive pampering of a much younger bride; compensation for her kindnesses towards him. The house is forlorn, and except for a sheepish housekeeper, seemingly unoccupied. Upon retiring to a nearby inn for contemplation Tony come face to face with Latour; young and fiery, yet presumably, pure in his intensions, or rather, grief-stricken because of his sustained guilty over conspiring with, or perhaps simply knowing about, the widow Paradine’s intent before the actual crime was committed. Hitchcock and Selznick are very cagey in keeping Latour’s complicity a secret right up until the climactic courtroom showdown. Even then, we are never entirely certain of Latour’s motives, despite his histrionics during cross-examination. Louis Jourdan gives a rather shockingly disturbed performance, fraught with emotional contradiction, anxiety and bodice-ripping, taut masculine charisma. It’s a great piece of play acting and it undeniably resonated with the female audience, enough to launch Jourdan on an amiable career as the exotic sophisticate in movies like Three Coins in A Fountain (1956) and Gigi (1958).
Given the severity of Selznick’s editing, the distillation of Hitchcock’s ambition into tepid melodrama, The Paradine Case hovers as far more a polite comedy of manners than a harrowing crime/thriller. There are no surprises, no great complexities to wade through and no rivalry between any of the characters, despite some last minute sexual tension between the wormy Judge Horfield and Gay; Tony and Maddalena, and Latour and the widow, brought forth by Keane’s badgering during his cross-examination. The courtroom finale is well worth the wait, but comes just a little too late to salvage the rest of the story from a sort of perfunctory ‘by-the-numbers whodunit. Bottom line: The Paradine Case is definitely worth a second glance. It may not be top-tier Hitchcock or Selznick, but second tier from these boys is pretty much top-tier from everyone else. Good stuff on tap, but nevertheless a letdown once you have seen their other collaborative efforts: Rebecca, Notorious and Spellbound.
In 2008, MGM/Fox Home Video debuted all three of the aforementioned titles on Blu-ray in a slim-case ‘collection; very slim indeed, since the set did not include The Paradine Case or any of Hitchcock’s British tenure offered in MGM/Fox’s more lavishly appointed Premiere DVD box set from 2006. This set in standard def also contained Young and Innocent, The Lodger, and, Sabotage, as well as a reissue of Fox’s Lifeboat, with extensive liner notes and extras on all of the movies. It has taken almost ten years since to get Lifeboat to Blu-ray; alas in a painfully underwhelming hi-def presentation. Mercifully, the results on this newly minted Blu-ray of The Paradine Case, via Kino Lorber’s distribution deal with Fox, are infinitely more pleasing in 1080p. The image is solid, with a supremely satisfying and highly textured gray scale, looking quite consistent and silken smooth in motion. Age-related artifacts are occasionally present, but never distracting.
The DTS 2.0 mono is adequate and free of hiss and pop. Kino has also ported over the 2008 audio commentary from film historians, Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn; plus, a pair of brief, audio-only interviews; the first featuring Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, the second with Hitch’ and Peter Bogdanovich; and, the hour-long Lux Radio adaptation from 1949, starring Joseph Cotten. There is also a succinctly produced 9 minute puff piece costarring Gregory Peck’s adult children, Cecilia and Carey affectionate wax about their dad. Finally, the old isolated score track showcasing Franz Waxman’s contributions is included. A word about this: MGM/Fox included ‘isolated’ score options on their releases of Rebecca, Notorious and Spellbound, but some of these cues have been substituted or otherwise do not contain original recordings: a genuine shame. Bottom line: Kino’s Blu is a quality affair. If you are a fan of The Paradine Case, you will want to upgrade to this disc. It bests your old DVD by miles.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY: Blu-ray (Seven Arts/Joel Productions 1964) Warner Archive

John Frankenheimer’s celebrated Seven Days in May (1964) has everything a blue chip political thriller ought: the traitors - villainous, the espionage - cold and calculating, the heroes - steadfast and undaunted by seemingly insurmountable odds. The picture’s virtues are many; not the least its killer cast, headlined by Fredric March (as a President with plummeting approval ratings), Burt Lancaster (a stoic general of the Cold War home guard), Kirk Douglas (a military aid with mounting doubts) and Ava Gardner (as a Washington hostess with second thoughts on her blundered love life). Seven Days in May also boasts a very taut and articulate screenplay from noted Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling (cribbing from a top notch political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II); Ellsworth Fredericks’ stunning and effective B&W cinematography, and Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse, but as invaluable underscore. And yet, the picture’s overall effectiveness, even its narrowly averted political coup d'état (which must have seemed intriguing - if fanciful to audiences from a far more un-jaded epoch than our own –1964 – despite that decade’s political unrest and turbulence) somehow gets mired in too much stylized mechanics and Frankenheimer’s ambitious staging to ever simply run with its ball and show off what a dynamo it truly ought to have been.
There is a great deal about the picture that holds up remarkably well today – in some cases, uncannily so (the perceived collusion between a U.S. President and Russia, as example…now where have I heard that one before?!?) and, undeniably, the rather incestuous alliances operating just under the radar of the ‘official front’, mostly put on for the public’s show in D.C. If remade today I have no uncertainty some heavy-handed liberal commentator would choose to illustrate and champion the absolute implosion and downfall of America’s institutionalized form of government. Despite more than a handful of truly disconcerting vignettes scattered throughout Seven Days in May, meant to suggest the tenuous fragility of America’s constitution and paraphrasing from Edward Abbey’s universal quote about a patriot’s need to remain ever-vigilant in defense of “his country against his government”, Frankhenheimer’s dénouement is, in fact, a comforting reminder that no government can fold so willingly when the man seated at its head, boldly suffers the slings and arrows of media-based hype, virtually intent on his impeachment almost from the moment he took his oath of office, when personal integrity and faith in the constitution are his allies against such an overthrow and the black hole of unbridled anarchy surely to follow.
It is rather fascinating to consider what the movie might have been if producer, Edward Lewis had had his way. According to co-producer, Kirk Douglas, the finale originally shot showed Gen. James Mattoon Scott (the treasonous character played by Burt Lancaster) departing the White House in disgrace in his sports car; the vehicle suddenly out of control and crashing with Scott instantly killed; the car’s radio continuing to broadcast President Lyman’s penultimate speech about the sanctity of the U.S. constitution. Given the machinations of the plot, particularly those mounted against the President by Scott, the wreck might have been inferred as a political assassination either orchestrated by the opposition or his own side, for Scott’s failure to meet his primary objective (the overthrow of the current regime), a deliberate suicide, or perhaps, quite simply a coincidental ‘accident’; divine justice doled out to the would-be usurper of the throne. Such a finale would have also mirrored the fate of Sen. Prentice in Knebel and Bailey’s novel. But Kirk Douglas and John Frankenheimer, who co-produced Seven Days in May, were of the opinion this was an even more distracting and a really dour note, particularly in lieu of the Kennedy assassination, still a very fresh wound inflicted upon the national psyche in 1964.
The conspiracy theorems of the novel, written and published before Kennedy’s untimely demise, and, the movie (made and released after it) do, in fact, play right into that climate of morbidly dark and sinister disillusionment gripping America then (arguably, this has only continued to fester and ferment since). So, Frankenheimer and Douglas endeavored to soften the blow by concluding the picture – rather abruptly – with Lyman’s stoic, yet hopeful Presidential address to the media and the nation, having only just won his political sparing match with Scott and speaking from the heart, as well as the head, as he summarizes, “There's been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom!”
It is one of Hollywood’s strange little ironies that Seven Days in May was begun with Douglas and Frankenheimer in perfect sync and agreement, but ended with their mutual falling out; the paradox compounded by the fact Frankenheimer had reluctantly agreed to this project (after almost walking out) with considerable acrimony towards co-star, Burt Lancaster. It seems theirs had been a less than amicable working relationship on Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). But Douglas insisted on Lancaster for the role of Scott – accepting the less flashier part of Scott’s assistant, Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey to entice Lancaster into partaking. Lancaster and Frankenheimer’s détente on Seven Days in May would ultimately end with the two becoming good friends. Oh, how fickle, strange and untrue is friendship - and life. The shooting of Lancaster’s scenes was delayed until the end of production to allow the actor his recovery from a particularly virulent bout of hepatitis. Years later, Frankenheimer would conclude Lancaster’s performance was the best in the picture; a notorious mixture of deceit and pathos, eliciting contempt and empathy in tandem from the audience. 
Barring his spat with Douglas, Frankenheimer also butted heads with co-star, Ava Gardner whose scant six days commitment to the shoot forced Frankenheimer to concede that, while beautiful and talented, she proved “a real pain in the ass.” Co-star, Martin Balsam objected to Frankenheimer’s use of a pistol to kick start his scenes. Yet for all their backroom bickering, virtually all of the aforementioned performers give flawlessly and are decidedly at the top of their game. The production toggled between interiors shot at Paramount Studios (the picture was originally distributed by Paramount, but made independently by Seven Arts, in association with Douglas’ own production company – Joel) with location work in Paris, Washington, San Diego, Arizona and California's Imperial Valley. Frankenheimer, who had been inside the Pentagon, instructed Production Designer Carey Odell on the minutiae for the look of its interiors, pronouncing the final results spot on in their authenticity. Frankenheimer also observed that his opening sequence, depicting mob riots outside the White House, was shot under duress. For although he had given permission for the shoot, the local constabulary were quick to inform Frankenheimer his time there was limited; the sequence further hampered by the fact Washington’s crew had no professional stuntmen on the payroll. To compensate, Frankenheimer selected professional athletes from the University to partake, reasoning that if he could not get actual pros to stage a good fight, he could at least conquer some of the necessary requirements for a good dumb show by exploiting their athleticism to lend an air of authenticity to their skirmish.
No kiddingSeven Days in May is actually set during ‘six days’ in 1970; a covert turn of events being plotted at the highest levels of government to overthrow President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) whose approval ratings have plummeted since brokering a tenuous nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, according the movie the Cold War between the United States and Russia is still on; an oddity in Serling’s adaptation that, when viewed today, distinctly grounds its presence as a movie made in the 1960’s (about the sixties) rather than the seventies. The novel, set four more years ahead in the future, is centered on a stalemated war in Iran. With Lyman’s reputation in free fall, all except his closest inner circle of loyalists have begun to doubt not only the effectiveness of his policies, but equally his ability to even govern with any credibility at all. After all, the general consensus is that the U.S.S.R can never be trusted. Even the President’s closest confidents, including perpetually bourbon-soaked Southern Senator Raymond Clark (Edmund O’Brien), personal aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and cabinet minister, Christopher Todd (George Macready) have their sincere doubts about the stability of such a treaty. They do, however, stand firmly behind Lyman’s professional integrity as a noble peacenik, imbued with an interminable spirit of optimism, even in the face of his own impeachment. 
After witnessing the spectacle of protestors brawling just beyond the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Lyman is convinced the nation is on the brink of a collective nervous breakdown. The President’s private physician, Horace (Malcolm Atterbury) has more immediate concerns about Lyman’s blood pressure. It’s too high. Jordan could definitely use a vacation – a few days’ rest at his private residence, away from the chaos and confusion of this public spotlight. And yet, Lyman stands implacably firm on his convictions. Any future welfare for the United States must be built on the unwavering brokerage of peace in good faith toward the Soviet Union; shades and echoes of the sentiment expressed by the late John F. Kennedy in his address to the nation shortly before that fateful November, where Kennedy reasserted “…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.” Alas, Lyman’s most virulent opposition is not from without, but rather, within. As the debate rages on, lines are clearly drawn in the proverbial sand; Clark challenging Scott’s urgency during a congressional meeting to repeal the President’s nuclear disarmament treaty while Sen. Fredrick Prentice (Whit Bissell) sides with the notion Lyman’s current policies are decidedly out of touch with the will of the American people. But are they really?
Things reach their crisis mode as Pentagon insider, United States Marine Corps Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey, Director of the Joint Staff, becomes highly suspicious of the Joint Chiefs, coming to a startling conclusion: led by Air Force Gen. James Mattoon Scott, they intend to stage a coup d’état and depose Lyman and his cabinet in just seven days. According this plan, an undisclosed Army combat unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) has already been set up somewhere in the Arizona desert to carry out a complete ‘black out’ operation of the nation’s telephone, radio, and television networks. This ‘exercise’ has been pitched to Lyman by Scott as a test of the Emergency Broadcast System; a ruse that Lyman, unaware of its actual intent, agrees to partake in, but then withdraws from after being debriefed by Casey of its underlying potential to silence Congress before they can implement his treaty. Despite his opposition to Lyman’s policies, Casey – a lawyer by trade – is compelled to make Scott’s unconstitutional collusion known to the President.  Armed with this knowledge, Lyman gathers together a very small inner circle of trusted advisors to further investigate the claim his presidency is about to be transformed by an old-fashion ‘palace coup’. Secret Service White House Detail Chief, Art Corwin (Bart Burns), Treasury Secretary Chris Todd, advisor, Paul Girard, and Georgia Senator Ray Clark are dispatched to uncover the truth and get proof.
Casey endeavors a ‘chance’ meeting with Scott’s former mistress, Ellie Holbrook (Ava Gardner) at a typical Washington soiree. Ellie is a vulnerable D.C. socialite, prone to self-doubt and pity – the perfect pigeon for Casey to glean all he can about Scott’s ulterior motives. But the situation is complicated by the fact Casey values Ellie, and moreover, once harbored an unrequited romantic yen, thwarted when she took up with Scott. Their affair at an end, Casey continues to carry a torch for her now. He offers to drive Ellie home from the party, but then opts to tail Sen. Prentice to Scott’s private residence instead. Later, Casey makes an impromptu visit to Ellie’s apartment. And although his pretext of a romantic evening together is marred by his determination to find out what Ellie knows about Scott’s plot to overthrow the government, his dodge is defeated when Ellie walks in on him going through her former correspondences from Scott; letters tossed into the ash can to satisfy Casey’s concern about her feelings for Scott. Despite her protestations, these have not cooled in the interim since their separation. Hence, her promise of offering Casey a hearty steak – medium rare – and the truth ‘rarer still’ is revoked; Casey, tossed on his ear after an as invigorated slap across his cheek.
Meanwhile, Clark is sent to El Paso, Texas to seek out the hidden ‘Site Y’ military base. He is found out in his casual queries, captured and detained under a watchful twenty-four hour guard; plied with libations to keep him anesthetized until the coup can take place. But Scott has underestimated Clark’s loyalties to Lyman. Instead of drinking the booze perpetually being topped up by his nightstand, Clark is quietly flushing it down the toilet to keep a clear mind, if not a civil tongue in his head. Eventually, Clark confides his ‘fantastic story’ to Col. William 'Mutt' Henderson (Andrew Duggan); a good friend of Casey’s who has been kept out of the loop about the real reason for Clark’s detainment. Armed with the knowledge he is an unwitting participant in a military-styled coup to depose the President of the United States, Henderson helps Clark escape; using force against his own men and hurrying Clark to the airport to make his timely return to Washington. Clark promises Henderson a thorough reprieve for his actions. But only moments later, Henderson disappears, forcing Clark to get on the plane alone.
It is an ominous precursor. Girard is sent by Lyman to meet up with the USS Kitty Hawk, presently stationed somewhere in the Mediterranean, to obtain a written confession from Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell (John Houseman). Barnwell is believed to have rejected Scott’s coup, but knows of its particulars. When confronted by Girard, Barnswell at first resists admitting anything, but then agrees to sign a full confession of the events as outlined in a prepared statement. Girard cannot believe his good fortune, telephoning Lyman with the news he is leaving at once to deliver the signed confession into the President’s hands. Alas, fate intervenes. Or is it something more ugly – more sinister; news arriving just a few hours later that Girard’s plane ‘crashed’ somewhere in the mountains outside of Madrid shortly after takeoff. Investigating the wreckage, Girard’s protective casing with Barnswell’s letter, perfectly preserved inside, is found by Henry Whitney (Fredd Wayne); a steward working at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. In the meantime, Gen. Bernard 'Barney' Rutkowski (Ferris Webster) alerts the President of a suspicious gathering of fighter planes, dropping off the radar in El Paso. Rutkowski confirms what the White House already knows; a secret base of operations does exist with planned maneuvers for something big. Safely returned to the White House, Clark passionately encourages Lyman to use the letters Casey recovered from Ellie’s trash as proof of Scott’s complicity in the coup, to use them to blackmail Scott into resigning without ever making the reasons for his stepping down public, thus preserving at least the illusion of his integrity.
But Lyman is a man of integrity also; and refuses to go down into the mud to win this fight. Besides, he reasons if he went public now with no proof other than the letters he would be branded as paranoid and delusional by congress; hardly the qualities desirable in a Commander in Chief. Now, the President telephones Barnswell. The Vice Admiral is noncommittal at best. Worse, he lies about Girard’s visit, claiming he never signed any such confession. It’s crunch time. Rutkowski indicates to Lyman his queries have all been brushed off by the Joint Chiefs. However, he has since learned whatever they are planning has been moved up on their itinerary for later this same evening. Todd urges Lyman to ‘face the enemy’. Alas, Lyman has astutely surmised neither Scott nor the Joint Chiefs are the real cancer on his Presidency. Rather, the nuclear age, with its abject paranoia is; having sickened man’s faith in himself, whipped it into a fevered frenzy, blotting out logic under a dark cloud of intellectual impotence from which the likes of a Senator McCarthy, General Walker, and now, a General Scott can pervert the public’s faith in the government entrusted with serving their welfare. Instead, Lyman sends for Scott. The General arrives, unaware of the reasons for the summons. But when pressed to reveal himself as a traitor, Scott belligerently challenges Lyman’s authority instead. “If you want to talk about your oath of office,” Scott suggests to Lyman, “I'm here to tell you face to face… that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.”
Lyman rebuffs Scott’s impudence as sheer and inexcusable megalomania. Scott responds with a renouncement of his own glorification, weighing his concerns with the interests and very survival of the United States. “Then, by God, run for office,” Lyman reasons, “You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?” Unable to convey the brevity of his misguidedness to Scott, the President prepares to hold his press conference. Meanwhile, Scott plots to intercept air time on all three networks at nine o’clock this same evening; his coconspirators, Generals Diefenbach (Robert Brubaker), Riley (William Chalee) and Hardesty (Tyler McVey) gravely concerned that their well-laid plans have already begun to fall apart. Scott ensures them nothing can stop their coup now. But he has grossly underestimated Lyman. Lyman makes Barnswell’s signed confession known to the press during his conference and furthermore, publicly calls for Scott, Diefenbach, Riley and Hardesty to resign. They are traitors against freedom. Their plan foiled, all of the accused except Scott tender their letters of resignation effective immediately; Scott ordering his chauffeur instead to drive him home. The movie concludes with the public announcer declaring: “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of the United States.”
Seven Days in May is an expertly scripted political thriller, its impact somewhat blunted by Frankenheimer’s verve for too much cleverness; his decision to maintain a certain theatricality to the piece loosening the yoke of tension, except in several supremely staged moments of reflection. In hindsight, it is Rod Serling’s trenchant dialogue that gets the real nod here; Serling, one of America’s foremost prolific and prescient wordsmiths, adds concentrated clairvoyance to these verbally combative exchanges. Nothing Serling ever wrote is ‘connective’, merely designed to move us along the plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’. Instead, he possessed that intuitive spark of literary genius for which he is justly renowned now, but in his own time was quite often either overlooked and/or dismissed; particularly for his work on the now legendary and trend-setting TV anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Serling ought to have had a more enduring legacy of writing credits to his name and a more distinguished reputation and career in his own time. Alas, censorship served only to invigorate Serling to find new ways to make his very same points crystal clear, going over their limited intelligence (or lack thereof), though equally burning himself out prematurely in the process.  
Fredric March delivers a towering performance as President Lyman. March, whom I personally believe came into his own late in his career, playing an impressive array of important roles spanning the gamut from men of stature (like Lyman) to outright charlatans (disreputable CEO, Loren Shaw in Executive Suite, 1954, and, Bible-thumping attorney, Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind, 1960), achieves a level of verisimilitude only rivaled in fits and sparks by the rest of this distinguished cast. The second most impressive performance in the film irrefutably belongs to Burt Lancaster; restrained, coupled with an almost stolid body language, able to convey solemnity and vigor in tandem. It’s Lancaster’s vocal range that impresses. It always has; his inimitable thunder from the diaphragm that rattles to the rafters when stirred but can as gingerly coax an almost intimate and tragic, careworn sadness. The hero and the villain rather evenly and impressively matched, Kirk Douglas’ Casey gets rather lost somewhere along the way; relegated in support even when we expect him to take charge of the scene. Even Ava Gardner has more presence during their brief exchanges. Douglas might have played Scott himself, if his admiration for Lancaster had preceded his actor’s ego. But Douglas has shown a certain ignominious humility through Casey; drawing attention to the fact he knows better but is unable to live up to our expectations, precisely when saddled in a supporting part.  
While Frankenheimer was successful at getting permission from the White House to stage his mock-up protest in front of its gates, his request to photograph a shot of Col. Casey entering the Pentagon was adamantly refused. Frankenheimer also shot the pivotal moment where Col. Henderson vanishes into thin air at Washington’s newly constructed Dulles International Airport – the first film crew to utilize its cavernous space. ‘Y site’ was constructed in the sweltering heat of Indio, California. President Kennedy, a huge proponent of the novel, and encouraging of a film to be made from it, would not live to see the debut. Kirk Douglas would later recall how the theatrical release of Seven Days in May somehow seemed more apropos following the President’s assassination. Seven Days in May’s uncanny timeliness may have had something to do with the picture’s critical success in 1964, as well as its enduring reputation ever since. While some attempts were made by Frankenheimer to create an ‘into the future’ glimpse of the world circa 1970, including the use of more exotic foreign cars, the debut of newly issued M16 rifles and unheard technology in direct video conferencing, when viewed today, Seven Days in May has the distinct look and feel of a byproduct from the mid-sixties. Mercifully, this has never dated the movie; only re-situated its time capsule appeal to an epoch just a scant ten years before the events presumably taking place within its plot.
Although released theatrically by Paramount, the entire Seven Arts Production library was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1967 and a blessing it is too, since Seven Days in May gets a nicely restored Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive (WAC). Like virtually all the deep catalog releases WAC has favored us with thus far, this one attests to their hallmark of quality. No other company putting out vintage catalog today has had such a consistent track record; peerless quality miraculously achieved with great care paid along the way to ensure movies like Seven Days in May will endure for many good years into the future and for future generations to enjoy, critique and study for as long as movie-land pop culture endures and there are people around interested in reviewing it in their own good time. As before, we applaud WAC herein for being among the most proactive – if not prolific – of purveyors of classic movies in hi-def.
The B&W elements were in fairly decent condition at the time of the DVD’s release. But they have been given the necessary upgrade herein to even further merit such consideration and praise. Minute artifacts that plagued the DVD release – minor instances of dirt, scratches and other anomalies have been virtually eradicated herein. The image is clean and very stable; one curious jump cut occurring during Gen. Scott’s debriefing of his co-conspirators near the end of the movie. I suspect, although I have been quite unable to find out, that either a portion of Burt Lancaster’s dialogue needed to be excised, or added in post-production without the corresponding necessary footage, resulting in a need to loop the footage that, after all, is dominated by a close-up front and center of the back of Lancaster’s head as he delivers his plan of action to the Joint Chiefs. 
The grey scale herein is immaculate, illustrating the subtle nuances in Ellsworth Fredericks’ cinematography. Better still, grain, that appeared ever so slightly smoothed out on the DVD, looks very indigenous to its source on the Blu-ray. The DTS audio is 1.0 mono and adequate for this presentation, exhibiting no undue hiss or pop. We get John Frankenheimer’s DVD commentary ported over for this re-issue in hi-def. It’s competent but only occasionally engrossing. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Seven Days in May is a movie that ought to be seen today. It has a lot of relevancy within our present political arena. Politics – the sideshow that thinks it’s the whole circus. God help the man in charge of it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)