Thursday, August 17, 2017

DUEL IN THE SUN: Blu-ray (Selznick International 1946) Kino Lorber

When David O. Selznick elected to make a picture from Niven Busch’s infamous novel, Duel in the Sun (1946) he had but two primary objects; the first, to create another opus magnum on par with his unimpeachable masterwork, Gone With the Wind (1939), still – thanks to reissues – ringing cash registers around the world; and second, to force through the curiously stagnated career of his lover (and soon to be wife) Jennifer Jones. What ‘Wind’ had done for the South, ‘Duel’ was going to do for the ‘West’ – or rather ‘western’; a much maligned genre. Indeed, prior to Duel in the Sun, even Selznick shown little interest in the western as ‘legitimate’ entertainment; once asked by a reporter, how far it had come, slyly commenting, “From Wyoming to Arizona…and back!” Perhaps Selznick was blind sighted in this former endeavor by his own affaire du coeur with Jones, whom he had helped launch to critical acclaim in her first major role; a loan out to Fox for The Song of Bernadette (1943), before recalling her to his own stable for the then renowned (though today, largely forgotten, Since You Went Away (1944). Lest we remember, Hollywood then needed to at least imply it adhered to the moral stringencies that the rest of the United States subscribed, and Selznick’s divorce from Irene Mayer (Louis B. Mayer’s daughter) to marry Jones, after wrecking her marriage to actor, Robert Walker, had its share of hectoring detractors. Selznick may have thought he could merely whitewash and glad-hand all of this bad blood away. The Song of Bernadette ought to have made Jennifer Jones a great star. Instead, and with the exception of Since You Went Away, she all but languished thereafter. Hence, Selznick approached Duel in the Sun as a star re-making opportunity to elevate Jones’ stature to that of the bona fide grand dames from this golden epoch. The difficulty here was Jones herself, whose wholesomeness in ‘Bernadette’ was rechristened as unadulterated sexpot sinfulness – an awkward attempt on Selznick’s part to transform her into another Hedy Lamarr after Lamarr first turned Duel in the Sun down.
To this end, Selznick assembled the finest cast of the year, headlined by Jones and Gregory Peck, amply supported by Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish and Walter Huston; to say nothing of Dimitri Tiomkin’s iconic score, and the formidable cinematographic lushness achieved by three of his stellar contract artisans, toiling in Technicolor: Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson. To direct, Selznick handed the reigns of his unwieldy and mammoth production to Hollywood war horse, King Vidor – who hadn’t made a good picture since 1939’s Stella Dallas. The property had come to Selznick’s attention as early as 1944, when RKO expressed an interest for the loan out of Jennifer Jones to star as Pearl Chavez, the Mestiza blossom of the sagebrush and pampas, pursued by two brothers from the same family. In the novel, the spitfire is repeatedly raped by the younger brother, Lewt McCanles (Gregory Peck) from the age of fourteen until her young adulthood when, after refusing to marry her, she pumps a bullet into him, leaving open another path of desire to pursue his elder and more forthright brother, Jesse (Joseph Cotten), always in love with Pearl from afar. Try as he did at considerable expense to fashion another road show epic in blazing Technicolor, lightning would not strike twice for Selznick on Duel in the Sun. Referenced by its detractors as ‘Lust in the Dust’, big, sprawling, overheated, colorful, but not very good, Selznick could only stand back and observe with incredulity as his staggering wealth of talent fell short of everyone’s expectations, on a particularly problematic and occasionally dull screenplay cobbled together from his own efforts, slightly augmented by playwrights, Oliver Garrett and Ben Hecht.
In retrospect, Duel in the Sun is hardly an artistic disaster, as say Selznick’s forced march entrenchment on his remake of A Farewell to Arms (1957 and a genuine fanny-twitcher), although, conversely, one could never confuse it with a creative triumph either. On this rare occasion, Selznick elected to deviate considerably from his source material (highly unusual for a man who considered himself a literary purist); deleting pivotal sequences from the novel and transforming Pearl and Lewt from their psychologically complex flagrante delictos in the book into mere sexual ciphers, simply indulging in the trigger impulses of their unbridled lust, ultimately to lead both to their ethical mortification in the desert. Duel in the Sun was to be more lurid, earthy and steamy than the novel; Selznick, charged to launch into in the raunch as it were, but hesitant his foray would cause the censors to get their proverbial knickers in a ball as they had done on Howard Hughes, The Outlaw (1943); a relatively shameless fluff piece of sexploitation with the amply endowed Jane Russell’s heavin’ cleavage – loosely fitted in thin cotton to show off every curve – enough for the Hays Office to revoke the movie’s seal of approval. Regardless, the picture made money. Something else to consider: Selznick too had changed and arguably, not for the better. Ten years earlier he had been a happily married, aspiring indie filmmaker, diligently toiling to make the best pictures in the biz under a somewhat diplomatic self-importance, disseminated throughout his entire organization with a hearty balance of frenzy, good humor, idealism and all those ‘damn memos’ attesting to his daily ‘collaborative’ involvement with cast and crew. However, by the time Duel in the Sun went into production, Selznick had morphed into an almost intractable and calculating autocrat; relentlessly myopic where his passions lay and increasingly at odds with everyone – particularly as his ego had already decided for him he was increasingly surrounded by ineptitude and stupidity. 
Selznick spent a then whopping $3 million on Duel in the Sun; a sizable chunk going to the lengthy location shoot fort miles from Tucson, Arizona where Selznick had Production Designer J. McMillan Johnson and Art Director James Basevi construct a sprawling 2-story prefabricated ranch house, complete with two barns and a windmill. Crew repainted cacti so they would properly photograph in Technicolor and trucked in nearly eight hundred head of cattle and horses; the lavishness of it all hemorrhaging $15,000 a day. It might have been worth it, except the weather refused to comply; a light snow blanketing the area, causing Jennifer Jones lips to turn blue and the sets steadily to deteriorate; constantly in need of touch-ups. As King Vidor settled in to create what Selznick had initially promised him would be “an intimate picture” unencumbered by his constant meddling, Vidor was instead quick to learn Selznick had virtually no intent on remaining true to such a promise. Daily, rewrites came down from on high; Selznick fastidiously authoring ‘new’ additions to his screenplay with giddy excitement to see them filmed. “This began to happen more often,” Vidor would later reflect with startling magnanimity for all the struggles he had endured on the set “…and, of course, it cost extra money…and in that sense, David was the only producer I ever worked with who really earned the title of producer because he wanted the best of everything and he worked like hell to get it…he made sure you go what he thought was necessary.”  
Somewhere in the midst of all this chaos, a general strike of all the set designers and decorators ensued, forcing Selznick to keep cast and crew on the payroll at a staggering expense of $360,000 until their issues could be resolved. And then there was the sudden and untimely death of President Franklin Roosevelt to consider. Roosevelt had been such a watershed ‘father figure’ in the social fabric of the nation that to cogitate on an America now without him seemed almost heretical. As a spokesman for the Republican Party, Selznick wrote one of his finest declarations to both mark and set the tone in Hollywood’s commitment to Roosevelt’s ‘dream’. “Here in Hollywood…” Selznick suggested, “…we of the motion picture business are humbly conscious of the power of the medium which is ours (and) will do its share to the end that “my friends” (Roosevelt’s catch phrase in his addresses to the nation) will be not merely a nostalgic phrase, but a national pledge toward all mankind.” The day after Roosevelt’s funeral, Selznick was back at work. So was Vidor, recovering from the flu and in constant flux with Jennifer Jones to get the motivations of her character down pat.
“Pearl was dominated completed by her physical emotions,” Vidor later explained, “…and Jennifer wasn’t like that at all… (But) she’s like putty in your hands.” Vidor had less difficulty getting co-star Gregory Peck ‘in the mood’. Despite the actor’s reputation for being a man of integrity, after one consultation with Vidor, Peck slipped into the insolent and smoldering sexuality of his alter ego. More delays and another strike, and Duel in the Sun’s budget ballooned to $4 million; by far the most expensive production shooting in Hollywood then, and arguably, the costliest of all time until then. In the middle of preparing the picture’s absurdly lavish $1 million dollar marketing campaign, Selznick and his wife split for good. Irene Mayer Selznick had been more than David’s mate. Indeed, he had often referred to her as “…the smartest woman I ever knew” and the multifaceted nature of the parts she played in their marriage, as confidant, confessor, counselor and the singular stabilizing figure in an otherwise totally chaotic lifestyle, were what kept David sane, if hardly humble. But she had had quite enough of her husband’s erratic behavior. Meanwhile, Selznick was incurring wrath of another kind from censor Joe Breen, who, upon viewing the rushes from an erotic dance choreographed by respected Viennese Tilly Losch and performed by Jennifer Jones, where Ms. Jones appeared to be ‘humping a tree’, reasoned the picture would never receive his approval. The ‘obscenity’ was promptly re-choreographed. And then there was the final split with Vidor, who walked off the set, forcing Selznick to regroup, direct part of the picture himself, before hiring William Dieterle, who had emphatically refused any part of it the first time around.
In retrospect, Duel in the Sun attests to an old adage in an industry that considered directors mostly as ‘part of the staff’, interchangeable and frequently to share the rigors of a single production without receiving any credit for their work. In tandem with Vidor’s sizable efforts, ‘Duel’ possessed the expertise of such stalwart filmmakers as Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies and Josef von Sternberg. Selznick, more wounded than baffled by Vidor’s exacerbated refusal to partake any longer and his sudden departure, now sought to have their contractually agreed upon title card “King Vidor’s production of…” removed from the credits; a decision incurring Vidor’s displeasure and a lawsuit where Selznick attested to the Screen Directors Guild Vidor has shot 6,280 ft. of useable footage in comparison to 7,739 ft. photographed by himself and the aforementioned ensemble of talent that had replaced him. For whatever reason, and in their infinite wisdom, the Arbitration Board awarded Vidor sole credit. As the dust had yet to settle on Duel in the Sun, Selznick reasoned he had already spent $4,575,000 more than the negative cost of Gone with the Wind; his extensive rewrites/re-shoots yielding 26 hour and 13 minutes of footage now in desperate need of editor, Hal Kern’s gentle finesse. Even under Kern’s guidance – with Selznick right at his side – the nearly 4 hr. rough cut preview held at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater elicited some of the worst reviews of any Selznick picture. Desperate to save Duel in the Sun, Selznick began two months of extensive retakes, toting more additional scenes that added another $500,000 to the post-production budget. Whittling down the run time to just 2 hrs. 18 min., Selznick turned his attentions to Dimitri Tiomkin’s scoring sessions. 
In the meantime, RKO’s studio chief, Charles Koerner unexpectedly died; his replacement, Dore Schary whom Selznick released from his ironclad contract with the provision that virtually all of Schary’s already scheduled Vanguard Productions would be made by RKO. The studio agreed, but United Artists (UA) was appalled Selznick had orchestrated such a lock, stock and barrel sell-off of properties in whose considerable profits they would have preferred to partake. Now, UA retaliated, absolutely refusing to distribute Duel in the Sun for Selznick and filing a lawsuit against Selznick for breach of contract. Selznick reacted with a suit of his own against both Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin (co-founders of UA), asking $13.5 million in damages. Refusing to bend, and with time running out to recoup Duel in the Sun’s epic $5,255,000 outlay, Selznick finally did what he had been threatening to do all along: set up his own distribution apparatus, calling it Selznick Releasing Organization, and slashing the costs of distribution by almost sixty percent.  But a last minute strike at Technicolor threatened Selznick’s plans to simultaneously release Duel in the Sun into several theaters at once. Prostrating himself on the altar of Technicolor founder, Herbert Kalmus, the deadline to produce two prints for a dual release at Hollywood’s Egyptian and Vogue theaters was narrowly achieved on time. Only one thing worried Selznick now: how the Catholic National League of Decency would respond to his efforts. Unlike Hollywood’s governing board of censorship, the league held no ‘official’ authority on the matter. But its influence on parishioners of the Catholic faith in deeming certain pictures ‘morally unsuitable’ was enormous and could ostensibly hamper Duel in the Sun’s market saturation. Indeed, Selznick’s greatest fears were realized when Archbishop John J. Cantwell condemned ‘Duel’ as ‘morally offensive and spiritually depressing’ urging Catholics in good faith to abstain from attending it. More disconcerting to Selznick was the harsh reaction ‘Duel’ was presently receiving in the press; Life magazine leading the charge with “When a single movie offers murder, rape, attempted fratricide, train wrecking, fisticuffs, singing, dancing, drunkenness, religion, range wars, prostitution…sacred and profane love – all in 135 minutes, the fact it has neither taste nor art is not likely to deter the unsqueamish!”
Immediately following Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic main title, Duel in the Sun opens on a saloon in an almost forgotten Texas backwater. Like everything else in the picture, the saloon is neither squalid nor small, but a sprawling western-esque gambler’s paradise, complete with live entertainment for the men. It is here that we catch a glimpse of Pearl Chavez’s mother (Tilly Losch), an Indian performing a bawdy dance for the patrons, much to the chagrin of her husband, Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who shortly thereafter murders his beloved and her lover (Sidney Blackmer) out of sad-eyed jealousy and regret. The couple’s daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones) is overwrought with guilt. Scott’s one true regret is he did not give his broken-hearted girl a better start in life. As something to make the mends, on the eve of his execution he arranges for Pearl to make a journey far away and live with his prosperous second cousin, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) who has married the boorish, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). Pearl’s journey is dealt with short shrift in a montage of picturesque sunsets; her arrival on the McCanles’ gigantic cattle ranch, Spanish Bit, cause for some consternation.
The Senator is, in fact, a racist, regarding Pearl’s half-blood heritage as something of a curse upon her otherwise potent womanhood. Pearl’s stagecoach is met by the elder son, Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten); gentle, polite and thus, considered the slighter in line to inherit Spanish Bit. The younger McCanles is Lewt (Gregory Peck), a drop-dead handsome lady-killer, manipulative, decisive and cruel. Lewt’s overt and immediate attraction to Pearl is outwardly rejected; Pearl, determined not to meet a similar end as her own mother. However, sensing the hypnotic pull Lewt has on her, Laura Belle calls upon Mr. Jubal Crabbe, (Walter Huston), a gun-toting preacher, to sternly counsel the girl on the evils of temptation. Pearl is also introduced to the family’s dimwitted servant, Vashti (Butterfly McQueen); increasingly, a constant reminder of her own ‘impure’ bloodline. Though Pearl may ‘pass for white’ she cannot deny her heritage. Hence, when she finally submits to Lewt's hard-hitting advances one night she views her indiscretion as deriving from the inherent weakness of her own mixed race. Vowing to take an interest in Jesse instead, Pearl’s future with the more sensitive brother is ruined when the Senator orders him off the ranch for siding with the railroad men headed by Mr. Langford (Otto Kruger).
Jesse can see to reason. The railroad must – and will – go through. Moreover, it is a sign of progress for which Sen. McCanles counterintuitively represents stagnation and eventual regression into the past from whence his own fortunes came, but shall now be destroyed. Despite his genuine love for Pearl, Jesse departs for Austin to pursue his political ambitions; later, becoming engaged to Mr. Langford’s daughter, Helen (Joan Tetzel). Pearl willingly falls prey to Lewt; their passion, all fun and games until he eventually reneges on his promise of marriage. To spite Lewt, Pearl takes up with neighboring rancher Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford): an engagement that ends only when Lewt jealously, and without remorse or cause, guns Sam down inside a saloon. Branded an outlaw, surely to be hanged for murder, Lewt rides out of town, vowing Pearl will ‘belong’ to no man but him.  As Lewt was always the Senator’s favorite son, his status as a ‘wanted desperado’ nearly breaks Jackson’s heart. Lewt continues to live obscurely by his devious wits, derailing trains and sneaking back to Spanish Bit under the cover of night to continue his adulterous affair with Pearl, now completely his love slave. She refuses to be parted from him; but after one of their torrid rendezvous, Lewt brutally casts Pearl aside, even dragging her across the floor before kicking her to near unconsciousness.
Aware of the mess and mayhem brought upon their household, Laura Belle’s health takes a turn for the worse; the Senator admitting his love for her before she dies. Jesse returns to Spanish Bit an accomplished statesman – too little/too late to see his mother alive. Despite his stature, the Senator continues to shun ‘the good son’ in favor of the black sheep. Aware Jesse still harbors a yen for Pearl, Lewt confronts his brother as the town looks on, threatening him to get out of town. Jesse is un-phased; Lewt, upping the ante by tossing a loaded pistol in his direction and ordering him to pick it up. Jesse refuses, and instead forewarns Lewt he will hang for murder. In reply, Lewt callously shoots Jesse. At last stirred to compassion, the Senator is comforted by old friend Lem Smoot (Harry Carey) who informs him Jesse's wound is not mortal. A livid Pearl is relieved. Hence, when Helen arrives, Jesse offers Pearl a way out - to leave Spanish Bit forever to live with them in Austin. Pearl agrees. However, as she prepares for their departure she is tipped off by one of the ranch hands, Sid (Scott McKay) Lewt is one the prowl, intending to come after Jesse and finish the job. Refusing Jesse and Helen’s kind offer, Pearl instead arms herself and hides in the nearby craggy dunes to wait for Lewt. She lures her former lover to a high plateau with the promise of rekindling their passion. Instead, she turns her pistols on him and Lewt, mortally wounded but still very much alive, reciprocates the gunfire, mortally wounding Pearl. As the two old flames flicker to extinction, they claw their way through the blood, sweat and dirt, dying in each other’s arms as the noonday sun overtakes them.
It is not overstating the fact to suggest Duel in the Sun shook Hollywood’s ensconced puritanism to its core. Threatened with a ‘C’ rating from the League of Decency, Selznick begrudgingly made several appeals to the Producers Association that fell on deaf ears and was then even more un-generously forced to make thirty separate cuts to the picture after its sneak previews, totaling a very slight loss of three minutes of actual content – most of it virtually unnoticeable. Duel’s initial widespread release caused audiences in New York and other major metropolitan hubs to flock to see what all the fuss was about. For the most part, they were not disappointed. For Duel marked the first time a motion picture of such stature and star-power dared to be so blatantly tawdry; a magnum opus of super-kitsch and the quintessence of Hollywood’s then noteworthy neurotic romanticism; in hindsight, a dizzying ‘last fling’ before the industry, recovering from Selznick’s daring and sweat-laden curiosity with carnality and eroticism seemingly run amuck, settled back into a decade’s worth of ‘good taste’ for the duration of the buttoned-down 1950s.  Alas, Selznick’s reputation, and that of Jennifer Jones, was to suffer greatly thereafter. Despite his formidable marketing campaign, and Duel’s fairly spectacular performance at the box office, its $20,408,163 was offset by Selznick’s crippling final budget of nearly $8 million, not counting his obscene outlay spent profligately to publicize and promote the picture. In the end, Selznick’s reputation as a purveyor of ‘good taste’ was all but left in tatters, save MGM’s re-release of Gone with the Wind in 1947; encouragement for Selznick that a younger audience might come to re-investigate the ole master in his prime.  
Alas, the specter of Selznick’s ambition to transform Jennifer Jones into a big star after Duel in the Sun could not be quelled. Throughout the late 1940s, Selznick struggled to keep his reputation, as well as his financial standing above the high water mark of personal debt, hoping against hope his later projects – including Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, would turn the corner and rejuvenate his coffers. They did not. During this same period, Selznick was also forced to sell off ‘package deals’; projects he had hoped to make himself, now sold in totem to competing studios; albeit at a premium. Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) all went to RKO and, to Selznick’s everlasting chagrin, proved rainmakers for that company; as did I’ll Be Seeing You (1945), a wartime weepy initially begun by Selznick International’s offshoot, Vanguard, but later carried over by Dore Schary as part of his RKO deal. Selznick would make last ditch efforts to resurrect Jones’ career in another home-grown production: the doomed fantasy, Portrait of Jennie (1948). Gradually, Jones’ reputation in the industry recovered from this, but her best work would be done for other studios throughout the 1950’s.
Today, the jury remains out on the legitimacy of Duel in the Sun. Some regard it as a truly great Selznick picture, while others cite it as the beginning of the end for Selznick’s indie empire and a sign of his having lost the ability to be a great storyteller. To some extent, this latter assessment is not entirely unfounded. There are moments in Duel that hark back to Selznick’s very transparent desire to transform it into another Gone with the Wind; most notably, in the casting of Butterfly McQueen in a part almost carbon-copying Wind’s simply-minded Prissy. The look of the picture is very Wind-esque also; its’ lurid Technicolor hues taken even more to the extreme; the impeccable matte-work suggesting those iconic imaginary vistas from Selznick’s 1939 masterpiece. And yet, Duel is a picture that stands alone and, once seen, is almost osmotically absorbed, continuing to haunt from the peripheries of the mind. A bad movie can achieve a similar effect, remembered for the audacity of its awfulness. However, Duel in the Sun is not such a movie. Rather, it is Selznick’s last hurrah as a filmmaker of quality beyond compare. If the sum of its parts proved more powerful than the whole, this remains quite another aspect from its production to consider best upon repeat viewings and further analysis.
For now, we turn to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. The original film elements were re-composited more than a decade ago at Disney Inc.’s ABC Video offshoot, and this Blu-ray is characteristic of the limitations achieved in an analog world with no further digital re-visitation and/or clean-up. There are some wonky opticals scattered throughout this 1080p release and a few cringe-worthy problems where the recombine of the cyan, magenta and yellow records is a complete fail. Without a proper restoration – hell, even a half-ass appropriation of necessary dollars assigned to do the bare minimum – nothing more could have been achieved herein. Color saturation on the Blu-ray is far cooler than anticipated. That said, the bulk of Duel in the Sun in 1080p is still very impressive looking…for the most part. The technical shortcomings exhibited herein could only be addressed by a full-on 4K rescan of the original camera negative (it still exists). Cost prohibitive, perhaps. Necessary? Well, it would have been prudent to see Kino or Disney go the extra mile. As the former cannot afford to and Disney of late seems most unwilling to revisit even its own catalog in hi-def, we will begrudgingly accept this is the best Duel in the Sun will ever look in hi-def…for now. The DTS 2.0 mono is more than acceptable; occasionally strident, but otherwise in keeping with the vintage Westrex track. Kino has gone the extra mile with a pair of great extras; chiefly, an informative audio commentary by historian, Gaylen Studlar, plus another 10-minute interview puff piece with Gregory Peck’s children, Cecilia Peck, Carey and Anthony, waxing about the making of Duel in the Sun and Selznick. Bottom line: Duel in the Sun is required viewing for many – and a hell of a big and boisterous picture for the rest. The Blu-ray is imperfect – as far too many Blu-rays of vintage Hollywood product are – but watchable nonetheless. Enjoy. With caveats, I certainly did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, August 13, 2017

NIGHT PEOPLE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1954) Kino Lorber

“You have never really seen Gregory Peck until you’ve seen him in Cinemascope…” so declared 2oth Century-Fox’s marketing campaign for Night People (1954) – one of the studio’s earliest efforts in the then new-fangled anamorphic process, directed by Nunnelly Johnson. It’s Johnson’s inexperience as a first-time director, grappling with this clumsy widescreen process, lending to severe limitations, rather than his ineptitude as a storyteller, that makes Night People something of a woeful anomaly in the Cinemascope canon; the visuals, a veritable textbook ‘how not to…’ shoot any movie in Fox’s patented process (placing characters too close to the edge of the frame, resulting in their wraith-thin vertical elongation; panning too quickly from left to right or right to left, creating an equilibrium-induced queasiness as virtually everything with a vertical plain bows and warps inward towards the center of the frame, and, finally, occasionally getting much too close to characters’ faces, thus provoking what would affectionately become known in the industry as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’ – horizontally squished heads).
Nunnelly Johnson, who began his career as a journalist and author of several short story collections, became interested in film criticism as early as 1932. These interests denied him professionally he quietly packed up to try his hand in Hollywood instead. Almost immediately he found work as a screenwriter at Fox; by 1935, one of their most prolific contributors. Despite an Oscar nomination for his 1940 classic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Johnson’s interests began to diversify. He turned to producing, cofounding International Pictures with William Goetz in 1943. Evidently, Zanuck took notice and an interest in Johnson’s future at Fox. Thus, Nunnelly Johnson became a director. The transition, alas, is not smooth, hampered – perhaps – by the elongated frame and the constraints of those early and very primitive Bausch & Lomb lens. Night People is an anomaly in other ways too. Johnson’s screenplay, based on a story idea by Jed Harris and Thomas Reed (with an uncredited assist from W.R. Burnett) has enough hairpin turns for three heavily plotted Cold War pictures; strychnine-poisoned double agents, an imposter/lover, a devious bait n’ switch with the Russians, and a lot of cloak and dagger spread thickly along the way.
But there is no getting around it: Gregory Peck’s Col. Steve Van Dyke is a fairly unlikable bastard with Peck working against type to portray Van Dyke as part ‘off the nut’ mercenary and part military strategist extraordinaire with a decided mean streak opposite Broderick Crawford’s boorish industrialist, Charles Leatherby. It’s Leatherby’s son, Cpl. John (Ted Avery) that is at the hub of all their consternation and chest-thumping. Seems John, after departing his gal/pal’s apartment in Berlin one dark night, has been targeted and abducted to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Leatherby Sr. is used to throwing money to make any unpleasant situation ‘go away’. Alas, this is one precariously perched set of circumstance no amount of greenback can cure. Peck enjoyed making Night People, perhaps because it provided him with the opportunity to play a sadist (decidedly way out of his ensconced reputation as the movies’ amiable purveyor of the moral right). Perhaps it is just me; but I cannot buy into Peck’s performance herein. He is more crotchety than decisive and less pit bull with a pulse than an insecure ‘little man’ desperately trying to camouflage this reality. He says some great lines – none of them with total conviction to make us forget here is one of Hollywood’s finest actors when he elected to play ‘good’, ‘truthful’ and ‘clear-eyed’ men of personal integrity. Van Dyke is decidedly not that!
Night People was developed under the working title, The Cannibals; later, changed to avoid audiences’ confusion for an African safari-styled picture. Night People was, in fact, a title already owned by Fox and ascribed to a sci-fi flick to have starred Richard Widmark. As this was never produced, the title was simply ported over to Johnson’s project instead. Johnson desperately wanted to direct Night People. As he and Gregory Peck were good friends, having toiled together on 1950’s The Gunfighter, the actor wholeheartedly agreed to give Johnson his first big break. Rumors circulated that Peck was readily displeased on set. If so, his discontent had nothing to do with Johnson. Interestingly, Fox elected to shoot Night People overseas, in authentic locations in Berlin, with interiors cobbled together from sets built at Munich’s Geiselgasteig Studios. Both Zanuck and Johnson felt strongly about locations adding authenticity to their story. And yet, a lot of this movie takes place inside cloistered hospital rooms and military base offices; hence, the scenic value of locations in Cinemascope is greatly minimized. 
To show off Cinemascope to its best advantage, Night People begins with the vast canvas of a military parade in progress before seguing to a few spookily lit cobblestoned winding streets in Berlin where Cpl. Leatherby is abducted. It all makes for a nice little travelogue. However, immediately following the main titles, the movie settles into an anticlimactic series of claustrophobic and not terribly prepossessing interiors created by Hanns Kuhnert and Theo Zwierski. For all its claims to international intrigue and espionage, Night People quickly unravels into a wordy and occasionally pretentious drama with a lot of heated exchanges between Peck and Crawford; the two proverbial bulls locked together in the same china shop – or, in this case – hospital wards while Van Dyke does damage control and battle in tandem with Leatherby, the Russians and Anita Björk’s platinum-tressed Nazi viper; having murdered the real freedom fighter, Hoffy Hoffmeier to impersonate her and seduce Van Dyke, already having taken this absinthe-drinking double agent to bed. Whoops and chalk one up for Hitler’s honey.
For comic relief we get Buddy Ebsen’s constantly kerfuffled Sgt. Eddie McColloch, and, as the strong-willed virtuous woman, Rita Gam as Ricky Cates, Van Dyke’s right-hand. With all this talent on tap, one would anticipate a much more involved and engrossing picture. Instead, Night People comes alive only briefly in fits and sparks; the sparing between Van Dyke and Leatherby Sr. intermittently interrupted by a lot of ominous back and forth between the principals, running around like chickens with their heads cut off; infrequently bumping into one another, but thankfully, no furniture on their way in or out of these confined sets. Due to the taut nature of occupation that actually existed in Berlin at the time of shooting, a scene where a truck is escorted by U.S. military to the edge of the Brandenburg Gate was enough to incur armed Russian guards’ suspicions. They remained poised and ready to attack cast and crew until the pivotal sequence was completed.
Night People begins with the Allied kidnapping of Corporal John Leatherby, an American soldier stationed in West Berlin. In America, news of John’s sudden disappearance reaches his industrialist dad, Charles who vows with every breath in his body to get the boy back. Calling every marker in his little black book, the well-connected Leatherby raises a considerable stink from Toledo in Berlin. As far as he is concerned neither the Army nor his government are doing enough or moving fast enough and bring Johnny home. So Leatherby boards a plane to Berlin, determined to confront the men in charge of what he has already mis-perceived as a badly bungled operation. What Leatherby does not count on is the guy at the other end ready to give as good as he gets in their verbal fireworks, lobbing all those heavy-hitting questions right back at him. American provost marshal, Lt. Col. Steve Van Dyke is not about to take any guff from Leatherby. In short order, Van Dyke lays down the law. He will be the one calling the shots – not Leatherby. He knows how to negotiate for ‘hostages’, unlike Leatherby, who mistakenly believes he can simply write a check and buy them off.
Through his East German contact, Frau Hoffmeier, Van Dyke discovers John has been kidnapped by East German agents who want to trade him for a pair of elderly anti-Nazi Germans, Herr (Anton Färber) and Frau Schindler (Jill Esmond). Previously, they tortured the couple, even gouging Mr. Schindler’s eyes out. Learning of the trade, the couple elects to poison themselves with strychnine rather than face whatever fresh hell is brewing for them on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Prior to this, Van Dyke takes Leatherby to dinner at the Katacombe restaurant, because he wants Leatherby to see firsthand the two humans that will be sacrificed so his son might live. Van Dyke’s due diligence spares Mrs. Schindler’s life. Alas, the strychnine has taken hold of her husband, who later dies from it while in hospital under the care of Major Foster (Walter Abel). Now for the wrinkle: Sgt. Eddie McColloch discovers ‘Frau Schindler’ is actually Rachel Cameron – a British agent and wife of Gen. Gerd von Kratzenow, an anti-Nazi conspirator involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler during the war. It now becomes clear to Van Dyke the people who want the ‘Schindlers’ back are not Russian but former Nazis working with the communists.
Meanwhile, Van Dyke learns from his Russian contact, Sergei Petrochine (Peter van Eyck) that his good friend and Soviet counterpart, Col. Lodejinski has been betrayed while attempting to smuggle himself and his family to the West; instead, forced to commit suicide along with his entire family. Who betrayed Lodejinski? Hoffy, it seems; as she is not who she appears to be.  Still playing the part of a semi-devoted lover, Van Dyke coaxes Hoffy out of a sticky detainment, assuming full responsibility for her release. He negotiates a trade: Mrs. Schindler for Johnny, the latter to be delivered by ambulance at the hospital. Instead, upon her early arrival at the hospital to supervise this exchange, Hoffy is detained by Van Dyke, who, placing his hands about her throat, next proceeds to knock her unconscious and disguise her as Mrs. Schindler. Hoffy’s body is quickly put in the back of the ambulance and Johnny hurriedly ushered inside the hospital to assess his injuries. To ensure the ‘Russians’ cannot renege on their deal; Van Dyke uses a noisy military escort to flank their return to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Having narrowly averted disaster and also spared Rachel Cameron from a fate worse than…, Van Dyke retires to breathe a sigh of relief. Sometime later, he is reunited with Johnny, his fiancée and Leatherby who, having once contemplated sacrificing his own flesh and blood, now is eternally grateful for Van Dyke’s ruthless maneuvering on Johnny’s behalf. The picture ends with Van Dyke staring across a balcony at the cityscape, a look of sly satisfaction overtaking him.
Night People ought to have been a better thriller than it actually turned out. There is, in fact, a lot of good material here. But it almost always gets submarined by Nunnelly Johnson’s overly wordy repartee between these characters – too much talk and way too little action, with locations arbitrarily inserted to assure the audience Fox has spent the extra money to take its cast and crew abroad. Alas, most of the picture is shot on sets; none particularly inspiring or adding to the suspense that ought to have been generated. Cyril J. Mockridge’s underscore is sparse, but even so, overly melodramatic, while Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography leaves a good deal to be desired. Placing people at the fringes of the vast Cinemascope screen, the severe warping inflicted upon them by the limitations of early ‘scope’ lenses, the effect is repeatedly laughable and ugly; actors gaining and losing 20 lbs. as they negotiate their marks from one corner of the frame to the other; heads stretched like toy balloons. Nunnelly Johnson’s lack of experience with Cinemascope results in a most clumsily staged proscenium. He is trying way too hard to fill every last corner with movement of some kind. As such, his visual compositions look cluttered and very static. He also appears to have some difficulty lighting his night exteriors, with edges of the frame disappearing into a very murky darkness.
Acting wise: Gregory Peck does his level-headed best at pretending cold-hearted arrogance. He is only partly successful. In the movie’s rooftop reunion with the Leathery, Peck lets this ruse slip. He becomes the Greg Peck we have known and loved elsewhere – compassionate and interested in other peoples’ lives. It’s a complete one-eighty about face from the character as written or portrayed thus far. More consistent on the whole is Anita Björk’s devilishly unscrupulous double agent; evil incarnate with an Aryan Nation crop of bleached blonde tresses to remind us where her loyalties dwell. Buddy Ebsen is woefully wasted in Night People; thankless comic relief that never quite comes across as one half of a buddy/buddy alliance with Van Dyke; more like Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. The other unforgivable sacrifice; Rita Gam – as a sharp-shooting secretary who burns the candle at both ends because of her transparent – if unrequited – affections for Van Dyke. The best performance in the picture arguably belongs to Broderick Crawford, only because he runs true to form while suffering a major conversion and change of heart midway through the plot – willing to tempt fate by allowing Johnny to remain ‘out there’ on his own in order to spare Rachel Cameron’s life. Crawford always played a blowhard and herein he gives us shades of Harry Brock; the unscrupulous mug he portrayed to perfection in 1950’s Born Yesterday. As far as it goes, it’s competently rendered, if hardly distinct.
Night People’s debut on Blu is advertised as a new 4K scan from Fox made available via Kino Lorber’s distribution. It has taken Night People forever to get a DVD release. But when it did, it went directly to MOD burn-on-demand via Fox’s severely botched Cinema Archive Collection in a notoriously faded pan-and-scan transfer that outraged virtually every videophile on the block – as well it should. Fox’s movie legacy is, of course, at the mercy of a prior regime’s shortsightedness in improperly archiving its past for future generations to study and enjoy. What is here is more impressive than I would have expected, but nevertheless inconsistently rendered. When the image snaps together as it should, color fidelity is frankly ‘odd’ and ‘off’; the image leaning slightly to a blue tint, though mercilessly not to those egregious levels we are used to seeing from some of Fox’s other ‘scope’ DeLuxe color transfers.
Black levels are particularly problematic; weak, milky, and with hints of scattered pixelization.  Well-lit scenes are often a showcase for the more detailed costumes and set decoration. But colors generally veer toward muddier hues and flesh tones remain very pasty throughout. Also, the middle portion of the picture is very softly focused; from about 39 minutes in to almost 79 min. in. Dupes? Don’t know, exactly but with Fox anything is possible. Contrast is also weaker than anticipated, everything settling into a sort of mid-register that belies any sort of shadow delineation. There are no age-related artifacts. That’s something, I suppose. And we do get a DTS repurposing of the vintage 2-channel ‘scope’ stereo. I’m not a fan of the horrendously truncated ‘conversation piece’ featuring all three of Gregory Peck’s adult children waxing affectionately about their father. It ends as abruptly as it began. Honestly, just spend the extra time and coin to do a proper interview or don’t do one at all. Snippets and sound bites are a snore and a bore. Kino Lorber has flooded the ‘extras’ tab with a ton of trailers for other Peck classics either presently out on Blu, or soon to arrive from this distributor. Bottom line: recommended for Peck completionists only! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, August 11, 2017

SILKWOOD: Blu-ray (ABC Pictures 1983) Kino Lorber

The murder of chemical technician and labor union activist, Karen Gay Silkwood on November 13, 1974 has never been properly explained away. Despite an ‘official’ report of accidental death (Karen conveniently smashed her white Honda Civic on an isolated stretch of road, into a culvert while en route to an explosive interview with New York Times’ reporter, David Burnham, that would have blown the lid off scandalously lax operations management at corporate leviathan, Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication facility near Cresant, Oklahoma) and a toxicology report to suggest she had been ramped on marijuana and the prescribed sedative, methaqualone at the time of the crash; the single car wreck that claimed Silkwood deviated in other highly suspicious aspects from the ‘official’ findings. For starters, skid marks were noted on the road immediately before the crash site, suggesting Karen had tried to prevent her demise. And there was also considerable damage to the rear bumper of her Honda, with minute traces of another car’s paint deeply imbedded implying a direct hit from behind that the frontal impact alone could not have created. Lastly, Karen had left the Hub Café in Crescent barely a half hour earlier following a union meeting, toting a binder-full of valuable research and other documentation from the plant to expose their cover-up. No such documents were discovered at the crime scene by police.  
The life of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is perhaps as tragic as her untimely passing; a diligent employee, toiling under hazardous work conditions and living in relative squalor with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend, Sherri Lou ‘Dusty’ Ellis (changed to Dolly Pelliker in the movie to avoid a lawsuit, and played to perfection by Cher).  Based on Karen’s unprepossessing and dead end circumstances, to be overturned in turmoil and death, Mike Nichols’ movie incarnation, Silkwood (1983) benefits from a passionate screenplay co-written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. At the time of production, Cher’s stardom outranked Streep’s – if not in movies, then world-renown for her lucrative recording career and tenure as the snarky, pacifying, yet below-the-belt hitting ‘better half’ on the long-suffering Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74/1976-77). Indeed, when autograph hounds began to litter the outdoor locations it was Cher’s signature/not Streep’s they were after. Silkwood would change both women’s fortunes: Streep and Cher each nominated for an Academy Award; alas, neither winning the coveted statuette.
The picture proved something of a departure from Mike Nichols’ usual fare; first, that it was based on a true story, and second, because it took on, with unvarnished raw humanity, to expose certain fundamentals about these socially awkward misfits. The relationships explored in Silkwood are indelible, largely because they are painfully genuine. When Cher’s wounded tomboy playfully refers to herself as a ‘dyke’, the word sticks in her throat; her declaration of ‘love’ toward Karen, while in full acknowledgement it will, and can never be reciprocated, is a reminder just how unfathomably careworn and grotesquely marginalized these characters are; no more so than when Karen’s own life begins to unravel after she is repeatedly contaminated (deliberately or otherwise) and forced to endure abusive scrub downs, stripped of all human dignity, and later, every last possession she owned. From the ashes of this dehumanization, Karen Silkwood emerges as an outspoken advocate for worker’s rights. It is a passion perhaps not even she was aware she possessed.
Polarizing Silkwood’s anti-nuke sentiment is one thing; popularizing it – quite another.  In hindsight the picture’s success really is owed to Meryl Streep – then, something of an unknown quantity with the wellspring of her acting chops as yet to be fully plied in the movies. She runs the gamut here, from self-possessed to radicalized and finally petrified, infusing her performance with a sort of grassroots astuteness married to her own yen for playful sass. At once, this Karen Silkwood is hauntingly human and fragile, yet funny and compassionate. Whether defying her impishly sinister boss, Mace Hurley (Bruce McGill) or coyly flashing a milky white breast to shock another belligerent coworker into submission (a scene Streep consternated over because of her stance against nudity and female exploitation in the movies) our empathy here is firmly anchored to this marginalized mother of three, cruelly estranged from her kids, never entirely secure in her new love and even less settled as those forces conspiring against her intervene to disrupt and dismantle this already precariously perched imperfect world, brought to the edge of extinction…and finally, pushed beyond the point of no return. Streep would later confide, “(Karen) was unsavory in some ways...Mike spoke of the film as being about people asleep in their lives and waking up: ‘How did I get here?’ And that's exactly how I felt...I think the movie is about human nature more than about any issue...I get very creepy feelings if I think about it…but my heart breaks for her. She was only twenty-eight or twenty-nine when she died, and it was a real waste. I'm really glad I got the chance to try to step into her shoes for a while.”
I suspect the chief hurdle for today’s movie-goer, unaccustomed to such heavily involved dramatic character studies, is to set aside his/her own prejudice chronically in search of a narrative trajectory where one, in fact, does not exist. Nichols’ movie is not about or even modestly interested in cleverly delineating the ‘emotional arcs’ that any basic ‘screenwriting 101 class’ would suggest as essential to establish the connective tissue between these intersecting lives. Rather, the picture vacillates, to the point of wallowing, in that formless mendacity begun to fester and infest the truth that is Karen Silkwood’s daily grind and inescapable reality.  The Ephron/Arlen screenplay sucks the viewer into its black hole of unqualified exactitude, turning this bucolic backwater on end. The equilibrium of the piece is quite simply not there and the movie steadily becomes more of an abstract tome to Karen than a definitively examination of her downward trajectory. Arguably, it’s not even a movie about the perils of plutonium. Nevertheless, when Silkwood’s producer, Michael Hausman proposed to shoot the picture in authentic locations, he was quietly encouraged by Oklahoma governor, George Nigh to take his business elsewhere. Evidently, Kerr-McGee’s corporate influence extended well beyond its deeply entrenched ‘closed door’ production facilities. Henceforth, while Silkwood – the movie – would not shy away from the specifics of the company’s monstrous mismanagement; even going so far as to connect the dots for the audience and lay blame for Karen’s death squarely at the stoop of their corporate footprint, the authenticity of the piece would have to be reincarnated at production facilities expressly built far away from her home town - in Texas.
This much about Karen Silkwood's life is not in dispute: that she earned a reputation as someone with an implacable resolve, doggedly amplified by her rising consciousness, bitter life circumstances, and, a subtle smear campaign indulged by Kerr-McGee to erroneously suggest she brought ruination upon herself. Was Karen Silkwood a saint? Hardly. Were the particulars of her personal imperfections used against her to insinuate a greater level of responsibility owed her than the company? Absolutely. Was anyone buying this ruse? No. Indeed, after Karen’s death, her father, Bill, sued Kerr-McGee and was awarded $505,000 in damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, this judgment was reduced merely to cover the loss of Karen’s rental property for barely $5,000; the case reversed yet again on appeal to the Supreme Court, who restored the original verdict. Eventually, Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million, while admitting zero liability. A year later, the Cresant, Oklahoma facility was shuttered for good.
Silkwood picks up Karen’s cause as an avenging angel; her commitment to union activism never more steadfastly pressed into service than after being contaminated by radioactive materials. In the immediate aftermath following her death, a public spin was put into place to intimate Karen Silkwood was a chronic troublemaker, unpopular with her fellow employees who lived in fear of losing their jobs because of her.  Silkwood illustrates some of these stressors afflicting Karen’s relationships at work – mostly with management – though only with her fellow employees when they begin to worry about a similar fate. To date, there is little to support Kerr-McGee’s claim Karen willfully contaminated herself and the residence she shared with Dolly and Drew, merely to bolster an unsubstantiated opinion the company was knowingly endangering the welfare of its employees through improper handling of its toxic payload and lax safety precautions.
While the laissez faire attitudes toward relationships established in Silkwood can appear rather blasé by today’s standards, we must recall that in 1983, American movies in general had yet to address homosexuality as anything more or better than in a quaint condemnation or as figures of fun; also, that the idea of men and women cohabiting without a wedding ring to establish their ‘moral fidelity’ essentially meant the parties involved were either of dubious sincerity or usually ‘unlikable’, doomed and/or prescribed as counterpoints to the focus as the ‘villains’ of the piece. Indeed, Silkwood is unapologetic and frank about Karen’s complicated lifestyle; her free-wheeling promiscuity (indulging in a brief fling with union rep, Paul Stone, played by the late/great Ron Silver) after Drew has moved out, and her even more casual flirtations with her practicing lesbian/housemate, Dolly, who moves another lover, Angela (Diana Scarwid) into their roost when it becomes clear Karen will never fully indulge Dolly’s love for her. Meryl Streep gives us a lustily ‘inappropriate’ portrait of this feisty gal who takes no lip from her bosses, navigates her way around an oversexed coworker, Winston (Craig T. Nelson) a beefy boar who would like nothing better than to get in her pants, and, sounds off – mostly without carefully thinking her way through just about every situation.
What makes Silkwood click as it should are the performances; uniformly strong, with its principle trio among the best assembled for this sort of character-driven display of acting fireworks. Kurt Russell and Cher definitely hold their own. As the previously contaminated and cancer-ridden coworker, Thelma Rice, actress, Sudie Bond reveals unexpected depth while Craig T. Nelson’s company whore, assigned the task of doctoring negatives and falsifying Kerr-McGee’s safety records, generates unexpected menace – sustained and very low key. Cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek’s starkly lit compositions and Georges Delerue’s understated underscore, visually and aurally amplify the contradictions between this petrochemical- nuclear landscape, and the isolated communities who call these vast plains, with their one road main streets and dirty little roadhouses, home. While most biographical movies give us the basic lay of the land and a linear set of circumstance to chart a lifetime either successfully or ‘un-‘ condensed to fit into two hours of drama, Silkwood endeavors (and mostly excels) at slowing down and avoiding this formulaic thumbnail. Perhaps most miraculous of all, the picture never allows Karen Silkwood to become a martyr, a symbol or even a catalyst for change. Instead, Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols elect to maintain her integrity as a flawed, but fundamentally pure of heart woman, perhaps unknowingly helping to bring about her own demise.
Movies as good as Silkwood decidedly deserve a 1080p Blu-ray transfer far better than this! Produced by ABC Pictures and presently under the rights of MGM/Fox Home Video, the hi-def transfer farmed out to Kino Lorber for this release is anemic and flawed at best. Contrast is weak, for starters. Miroslav Ondricek’s palette of colors are inherently bland – yes – but Silkwood’s transfer teleports them into the unnatural realm of muddy and uninspiring flat hues. The image is also riddled in age-related artifacts indicative of a transfer derived from faulty archival elements that have not been given either the basic clean-up or color correction they so desperately require and deserve. Flesh tones waffle between pasty pink and garish orange. Dimly lit scenes suffer from an excruciating loss of fine detail; only marginally more appealing during brightly lit outdoor sequences. Nothing about this transfer pops as it should. I would have settled for basic overall visual clarity. But whole portions of Silkwood are very softly focused – unintentionally so. Grain appears to have been scrubbed with ample DNR applied. While there are moments where one can almost settle back and ‘accept’ this transfer as imperfect, much of what is here screams a genuine lack of interest and investment on the part of the distributor. For shame!  I am more forgiving of the 2.0 DTS mono sound mix. It covers the essentials of a dialogue-driven movie circa 1983 without undue bells and whistles and/or distortions added via the ravages of time. The movie sounds fine. But it looks like hell. Extras are limited to an interview with producer, Michael Hausman and a slew of theatrical trailers for other movies Kino Lorber is hoping will whet the consumer appetite. Bottom line: while Silkwood is a movie that should be screened far more often, this Blu-ray really isn’t the way it ought to be seen. Junk in/junk out. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WHERE THE BOYS ARE: Blu-ray (MGM 1960) Warner Archive

Singing sensation Connie Francis made her auspicious movie debut in Where the Boys Are (1960), a Joseph Pasternak production that cast her as Angie, just one of the girls out to take advantage of the annual Fort Lauderdale pilgrimage for college-age men seeking…well.  Arguably, the real star of the picture is Dolores Hart, playing forthright and intellectual, Merritt Andrews, one of the poorest academics at this undisclosed Midwestern University, chiefly because she clashes with her cultural studies professors about their outdated and archaic curriculum. Right off the bat, George Wells’ screenplay jettisoned a vignette from Glendon Swarthout’s novel where the students are seen raising money for arms to support Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. Replacing political activism with a light smattering of burgeoning sixties feminism, our Merritt confronts her fairly prudish and decidedly buttoned-down professor, Dr. Rausch (Amy Douglass) on the rights of young women in contemporary society; in full support of exploring their own sexuality on their own terms rather than suppressing it, ‘playing house’ with the right – even the wrong – boy before marriage to get a little ‘experience’. Naturally, this incurs Dr. Rausch’s displeasure. Dean Caldwell (Mary Patton) is none too thrilled by Merritt’s outspokenness either, suggesting it may threaten her future at the college. Nevertheless, Merritt is admired by introverted fellow student, Melanie Tolman (Yvette Mimieux) who, in allowing her inhibitions to slip while on spring break, will come to bear the scarlet letter of rape, presumably a very unjust penitence for her naiveté. In retrospect, this incident ominously foreshadows a similar fate to befall Connie Francis on November 8, 1974; raped and nearly suffocated to death under the weight of a heavy mattress at the Jericho Turnpike Howard Johnson’s Lodge where she was performing.
Where the Boys Are does, in fact, have a lot to say about the foibles of human sexuality, albeit from the still largely homespun and antiseptic perspective of the ultra-conservative 1950’s; splashy in Metrocolor and Cinemascope (a hallmark of virtually every Joe Pasternak picture since his discovery of Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell); its ‘message’ interpolated with light comedy, more than a tinge of idiotic slapstick, and a popular singer of her day – in this case, Connie Francis – warbling the title tune under the main titles and hitting another out of the park by taking over a jazz jam session conducted by her soon-to-be boyfriend, near-sighted Basil; belting the sassy ‘Turn On the Sunshine’. Both songs were written by Francis’ long-time collaborators, Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka. Interestingly, Francis had absolutely no ambitions as a movie star. Indeed, Pasternak’s invitation to partake of Where the Boys Are was almost immediately shot down by Francis until she had had the opportunity to do a little bit of research on the producer’s track record for turning relatively unknown singers into international super stars. Where the Boys Are may not have given Francis much to do, but it nevertheless served as the springboard for the lucrative film career that followed it; the plot of this movie far more intricately focused on Merritt’s burgeoning love affair with wealthy playboy, Ryder Smith (George Hamilton – who thought he was making a ‘little nothing’ and did not enjoy it) and cohort, Tuggle Carpenter’s (Paula Prentiss) awkward romance with TV Thompson (Jim Hutton); a lanky booze hound with big feet and a roving eye for buxom aqua-star, Lola Fandango (Barbara Nichols doing an utterly cruel – if hauntingly spot on lampoon of Esther Williams).    
Billed as a coming-of-age comedy, Where the Boys Are is loosely based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel of the same name with Pasternak, then in the twilight of his illustrious Hollywood tenure, proving he still had what it took to create a mega-hit, targeting the bull’s eye of the teen market. Where the Boys Are is shameless pop-u-tainment; featuring exotic locales, fresh-faced and mostly good-looking youth, and typical ‘fun in the sun’ escapism. Fort Lauderdale, already the ‘destination paradise’ for more than 20,000 affluent college-bound kids, received an influx of nomadic citizenship to its sun-kissed shores when Pasternak elected to hold the picture’s world premiere there. Curiously, Paula Prentiss won a Laurel Award as Best Comedy Actress. Both she and Jim Hutton were immediately signed to long-term contracts. But the real appeal for Pasternak making the picture derived from the novel’s relatively clean subject matter. “There isn't a gat, knife, or marijuana cigarette in the whole thing. These are good students.” During the preliminary stages, Natalie Wood, successfully graduated from child star to teenage pin-up, was seriously considered for the starring role. Wood, however, thought the premise quite juvenile and a decided step back from the trajectory her career had taken as a ‘serious actress’. Besides, Wood had already appeared in such heavy-hitting dramas as 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar. The cotton floss and fluff of four girls out to snag future husbands in Where the Boys Are therefore must have seemed simplistic and silly by comparison. To direct the film Pasternak turned to stalwart warhorse, Henry Levin who, by 1960 had illustrated nearly two decades of on-time and under budget competency in the picture biz, making mostly forgettable movies that nevertheless made money.
Pasternak, always keenly attuned to the vanguard of pop culture, with an uncanny knack for tapping into its trends and fads, sometimes even before they had evolved as such, herein tapped into the college-craze for ‘dialectic jazz’; original compositions written and performed by Pete Rugolo, if transparently owing their inspiration to such iconic west coast jazz musicians as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Chico Hamilton. Given the picture’s success, rather inexplicably MGM elected not to release a soundtrack album to coincide, although Connie Francis did release a single of the chart-topping title song. Even more incredibly, this song was not the one Francis and her song-writing cohorts preferred. Having recorded two completely different versions to pitch to Pasternak, the trio never dreamed the producer would choose the silken smooth ballad, much to Francis’ dismay. Nevertheless, in years yet to follow, the song ‘Where the Boys Are’ would become an anthem and signature tune for Francis, recorded several times thereafter.
Where the Boys Are is essentially a ‘coming of age’ comedy charting the exploits of four Midwestern university students on Spring Break. Merritt, Melanie, Tuggle and Angie all come from privileged, but isolated upbringings, amplified by their cloistered ‘all girls college studies’ that Merritt in particular finds woefully outdated. Indeed, what more is there to be said about a university whose professor of Cultural Studies uses such artificially constructed jargon as ‘interpersonal relations’ to describe the sexual impulses bouncing between college-aged boys and girls, and whose Dean references sex as ‘a problem’ to which the highly literate and more forthright Merritt swats back, “What could be more interpersonal than backseat bingo?”, and, to the latter query, “I’d say there were probably a half a million co-eds…with 98% of them…overly concerned with that ‘problem’. So, in that respect, I guess I’m fairly normal!”
Merritt’s declaration, apart from causing a few suppressed giggles to permeate the otherwise austere atmosphere, also serves to inspire Melanie to lose her virginity soon after the young women have arrived in Ft. Lauderdale. But Where the Boys Are takes its time getting to these sunny shores with a preamble in some snowy Midwestern campus (actually shot on MGM’s ‘girl’s college dormitory’, seen in countless movies: from everyone’s favorite varsity musical, 1947’s Good News to 1955’s intense melodrama, The Cobweb).  We segue to Florida (or a reasonable facsimile of it, again on the MGM backlot); as kindly police captain (Chill Wills) instructs his officers to be on the lookout for trouble-makers among the revelers about to descend on their quiet beach community, but also to exercise restraint and treat everyone with the dignity and respect of a visiting guest. And so, the girls head to Ft. Lauderdale, along the roadside picking up TV Thompson; a hitchhiker desperate to partake of the advantages of a spring fling. Tuggles is immediately attracted to TV and why not? They are the same height and have the same shoe size! Oh yeah…it’s love!
Ft. Lauderdale is decidedly not without its temptations; then, as now, boozin’, ballin’ and brawling – young hot-headed blood and testosterone chasing after bikinis and skirts, hoping to lose both inside a seedy un-air-conditioned motel room. While Tuggles follows TV into one bar after another (he gets sloshed and attempts repeatedly to reintroduce ‘sex’ into the conversation), Merritt catches the eye of Ryder Smith (George Hamilton), a bronzed and wealthy Ivy Leaguer who wastes no time whisking her off to his parents’ moneyed summer estate, and then onto their yacht. Attended by the family’s butler, Wesley (Owen McGiveney), Merritt is impressed: just not enough to toss her knickers into the air for this smooth-operating Lothario. As is often the case in life – and particularly, in movies – her forthright clarity translates to charm and proves the magic elixir for Ryder. He wants the one he seemingly cannot have. Meanwhile, in another part of this perpetual party zone, Melanie has landed herself a Yallie, Franklin (Rory Harrity) who is none too serious about practically everything. Actually, the guy is a cad. Naïvely, Melanie mistakes Frank’s passionate advances for true love. The two indulge in some heavy make out sessions before Melanie confides in him that one of her girlfriends came to Ft. Lauderdale the previous year a virgin, but went home with a new husband. Frank’s not into this level of commitment; nor clingy relationships with doe-eyed females for that matter. So after Melanie agrees to meet him in an out of the way motel, Frank sends his hot and bothered wingman, Dill (John Brennan) in his stead. As the word ‘no’ is not in this stud’s vocabulary, Dill takes advantage of Melanie against her will.
Sometime thereafter, Tuggles, TV, Ryder, Merritt, Angie and her new beau, jazz musician Basil, all partake of a fashionable nightclub where the star attraction is Lola Fandango – an Esther Williams knock-off, cavorting acrobatically in a gigantic glass tank. Alas, TV, already three sheets to the wind, slinks backstage, diving into the tank after Lola, accompanied by Merritt, Angie, Basil, Tuggles and Ryder. It’s the campiest sequence in the picture; goofy to a fault, hardly amusing, and frankly, too silly to be taken seriously, even as a counterbalance to the aforementioned rape. Fishing everyone out, the waterlogged entourage is arrested and brought before the Police Captain. Quickly dismissed, but ordered with some disgust to behave thereafter, everyone retreats for a moonlit rendezvous at the beach. TV makes a play for the simple-minded Lola who performs a raunchy dance, much to Tuggles’ chagrin. She weeps genuine tears, is admonished by TV for her faith in him and runs away to weep some more. In the meantime, Merritt returns to her motel room, taking a cryptic phone call from a half-shell shocked Melanie.
Ryder has his suspicions as to where Mel’ might be and takes the girls in his convertible to the motel where she was raped. The inference he has been there before sickens Merritt. But they find Melanie wandering in the middle of the highway, sideswiped by an oncoming vehicle that drives off without even acknowledging the incident. Rushing Mel’ to hospital, later, in the corridor, Merritt becomes enraged and lashes out against Ryder; applying the typical broad brushed accusation to all men for their ‘healthy’ sexual proclivities; presuming women do not endeavor to explore their sexuality in the same way (and this, despite Tuggles’ earlier declaration she plans to be a ‘baby maker’ for the right guy!). As Melanie awakens in her hospital room, tearfully aware of both her actions and their consequences, Merritt vows to remain at her side until she is fully recovered. Tuggles, Angie, Basil and a reformed and apologetic TV prepare for the long drive back to reality and the cold harsh Midwestern winter that awaits them. Alone and left to contemplate her fractured romance, Merritt takes a quiet stroll along the vacated beach. Suddenly, a shadow appears from behind. Ryder has returned, confessing his love – not just as a spring fling. It’s a little too simplistic a resolution to what was always a very superficial romance with barely a chaste kiss to recommend it. But the couple’s reconciliation serves as the proverbial ‘happy’, if somewhat sober, ending amidst all the chaos and otherwise ‘party hard’ ridiculousness preceding it.
Where the Boys Are’s sexual politics time capsule has dated over time. Even its wholesome frankness harks back to a simpler time in American culture when sex and love seemed more clearly divisible as two-halves comprising the perfect union. Yet remarkably, not all that much regarding the wants, desires and basic needs of the sexes has changed in the interim. Man/girl-chasing remains the popularized pastime of youth everywhere – if distinctly, in Ft. Lauderdale; everyone desperately in pursuit of their first real introduction to that mature and ever-lasting relationship. Despite its naïve impressions, Where the Boys Are remains contemporary in its treatment of young women; canny, dynamic, and mostly capable at distinguishing and intercepting those game-changing strategies and sex-traps designed to get them into bed. The picture also does not shy away from depicting rape as a humiliating and soul-stealing act. Despite its light and fluffy trappings, Where the Boys Are is mostly straightforward about the potential payments and perils courtship presents as college-bound women prepare to take control of their futures, while juggling the wolves.  
The picture was so successful Pasternak announced plans for a follow-up rather than a sequel, Where the Girls Are – to star George Hamilton. It was, in fact, Pasternak’s goal to reunite Hamilton with Prentiss, Hutton and Mimieux for the romantic comedy, Only a Paper Moon. The movie was, in fact, eventually made as A Ticklish Affair, although without any of these actors. In addition to spawning a whole slew of ‘beach blanket’ youth in love and in crisis knock-offs (with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon), MGM, already in the throes of a steep financial and artistic decline, did its level best to launch a new screen team in Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton who went on to costar in Bachelor in Paradise, The Honeymoon Machine (both made and released in 1961) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).  In 1984, TriStar Pictures remade Where the Boys Are, costarring Lisa Hartman, Russell Todd, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson. Alas, with the focus of Stu Krieger and Jeff Burkhart’s screenplay squarely resting on the appeal of hot bodies pressed tightly together, the picture’s emotional core was lost and the movie tanked at the box office. And although the original movie is hardly as ‘progressively’ minded as it once seemed, Pasternak’s Where the Boys Are remains a lithe and lovely pastiche to the way we used to be. In some ways, I would have these more innocent times again.
Where the Boys Are arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). The picture was shot in Cinemascope by Robert J. Bronner and, in remastered MetroColor herein, looks about as good as to be expected. In fact, for this new to Blu release, WAC commissioned a brand new 2K scan with considerable color-correction and cleanup applied for good measure.  As director, Henry Levin was only allowed to shoot part of his movie on location, we get to see the transgressions of ‘rear projection’ in Cinemascope; virtually all of the interiors photographed on sound stages at Culver City. Look closely and you will be able to recognize a lot of these backlot facades from a multitude of other fondly recalled MGM productions from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Under these varying lighting conditions, colors are mostly bold and fully saturated; though darker scenes tend to suffer from a muddier palette, amplified by a loss of fine detail. Sharpness is also variable, but in keeping within the limitations of early Cinemascope lenses. Aside: the main titles give credit to Panavision for supplying the lenses rather than Bausch & Lomb.
Also, while virtually all of the music was recorded in full stereo, MGM went for a cheaply engineered mono mix, faithfully reproduced on the Blu-ray in 2.0 DTS. It’s a pity not to hear all that great jazz and Connie Francis in remastered 5.1. But at least this restored mono remains faithful to the original intentions of the studio; albeit, as short-sighted as they were. We get all of the extras that came with Warner’s defunct DVD, ported over on the Blu – none of them properly remastered. There is a brief ‘look back’ featurette with Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis; a newsreel outtake from the Ft. Lauderdale premiere, the original theatrical trailer, and a commentary track – rather meandering – with Paula Prentiss. Bottom line: Where the Boys Are will not win any awards for Blu-ray of the year. But most of its limitations are inherent in the original film stocks, lovingly preserved with marginal clean-up to boot. Recommended for fans.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)