Welcome to a new monthly column here at World Cinema Paradise called “What I’ve Been Watching Lately.” I’ve been loathe to repurpose my DVD and Blu-ray reviews from my writing day-job over at DVD Talk, so you’ll see none of those reviews here. Instead, the focus is going to be the other, more niche titles, including many from outside the confines of region A Blu and region 1 DVD.
And so, in the immortal words of Jackie Gleason, away we go…
Ballad in Blue (1964)
This intriguing little British film, directed by actor Paul Henreid, stars R&B icon Ray Charles, playing himself. In London as part of a European tour, Charles visits a special school for blind children where he meets David (Piers Bishop), a young lad who lost his sight six months earlier. He’s trying hard to adjust, but his overprotective single mother, Peggy (Mary Peach, Scrooge), treats him like a baby. Charles, sympathetic to the boy’s plight, gently intervenes, hiring her alcoholic pianist boyfriend, Steve (Prime Suspect’s Tom Bell), as a new arranger. Though not quite as kinetic as Richard Lester’s contemporaneous Beatles movies, Ballad in Blue nonetheless has much outstanding footage of Ray Charles at the peak of his game, and he’s not a bad actor, either. Some find his relationship with the (white) kid cloying, but I found it straightforward and emotionally honest, plus the movie ends on an unexpectedly but intelligently ambiguous note. Network’s Blu-ray of this black-and-white production looks great though, curiously, it’s presented in 1.37:1 format. The tight framing of the musical numbers especially suggests it just may have been intended to be seen that way, though 1.66:1 widescreen would seem more likely. Regardless, there’s precious little extra headroom and visually works well enough in this format. (Network, Region B)
High Road to China (1983)
A Hong-Kong-U.S.-Yugoslavian co-production, High Road to China was dismissed as a mediocre Raiders of the Lost Ark imitator, which this most definitely is not. Sure, the reason it probably got made had something to due with Raiders’ success, to say nothing of the fact that Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck came within a hare’s breath of playing Indiana Jones. But the movie is nothing more or less than an old-fashioned historical adventure that one easily imagines would have looked exactly the same if the Spielberg-Lucas collaboration had never existed. The plot has a society heiress (Bess Armstrong) reluctantly hiring a hard-drinking World War I flying ace (Selleck) to search for her father, last seen somewhere between Afghanistan and China. Stylistically, nothing about the film resembles Raiders: it’s more methodically paced, has a lushly romantic John Barry score closer to his Somewhere in Time music than John Williams’s Indiana Jones themes, and better characters. There’s a nice scene, for instance, where the audience learns that the pilot’s drinking is the result of having to shoot down pilots barely out of britches at the end of the war, young kids whose frightened faces he can’t forget. And the cast is good: Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Jack Weston (nicely underplaying his comedy relief part), and a nearly unrecognizable Wilford Brimley. On Blu-ray in Region B from Mediumrare, in a clean, satisfying widescreen transfer.
Billy Wilder’s penultimate film nearly bookends an earlier triumph, Sunset Blvd. (1950), even to the point of starring William Holden and featuring some of that same wonderfully cynical narration. Adapted from a novella by actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon, the plot has Holden playing a desperate, aging producer trying to coax a Garbo-esque reclusive screen icon (Marthe Keller) to agree to star in his proposed independent production. He tracks her down to an island villa near Corfu but her handlers – a Polish countess (Hildegard Knef), personal assistant (Frances Sternhagen), and physician (José Ferrer) – won’t let him anywhere near her. Reviled at the time of its release, Fedora’s admirers has been growing steadily through the years, though they’ve tended to go overboard in the other direction. It’s a bitter, funny movie on several levels with many fine moments, but casting problems fatally wound its potential. The movie has a lot of signature Tryon surprises that don’t work. Wilder originally wanted Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway for the roles played by Knef and Keller; the movie plays a lot better imagining them in those parts. (Meryl Streep would also have worked quite well in the latter role.) Wilder realized too late that the Swiss-born Keller and the German-born Knef neither sounded nor looked alike, critical to the movie’s plot, nor could they easily be understood, so he had both performances dubbed by a third actress, Inga Bunsch, for the English-language release. (Keller dubbed both voices for the French version while Knef did double-duty on the German; it would be interesting to see if those play any better.) The results, sadly, are almost ruinous, though as he often did, Holden’s as-usual terrific performance nearly holds everything together, albeit like sticky, past-its-expiration-date glue. Olive Films’ Region A Blu-ray, using a high-def master restored in Germany, looks great.
Shoot the Pianist (1960) / The Soft Skin (1964)
I’ve been slowly making my way through Artificial Eye’s The François Truffaut Collection, an incredible bargain featuring eight great and/or overlooked films, all stunning in high-def. Most I’ve not seen in 30-plus years. In the case of Shoot the Pianist (better known, at least to me, as Shoot the Piano Player), the first time I saw that it was panned-and-scanned with burned-in English subtitles, cut off on both edges of the frame, and using white font, often against white wall backgrounds. I think I caught maybe 40% of the dialogue. Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour stars as withdrawn Parisian dive bar pianist Charlie Kohler, who becomes an accessory to his criminal brothers’ activities. Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress who loves Charlie and aware of his past identity as an acclaimed classical pianist, likewise becomes tangled in their web of crime. In The Soft Skin, Jean Desailly stars as Pierre Lachenay, a famous writer and literary editor popular on the European lecture circuit. On a trip to Portugal he meets and falls in love with a beautiful airline hostess named Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). As he’s married with a young daughter, Pierre struggles to keep his relationship secret and, despite his best efforts, Nicole becomes impatient and hurt living as the “other woman.” Like Shoot the Pianist, The Soft Skin was not a success when it was new – the theme of this month’s column, apparently – and the latter was even reportedly booed at Cannes. One suspects contemporary critics found its story too simple and clichéd. I, however, thought it riveting and highly suspenseful. Reportedly a lot of it was based on Truffaut’s own infidelities, including with Dorléac, and it’s adult, intimate, and immediate as few films today are. Region B.
The Killer Elite (1975)
Sam Peckinpah’s 1970s filmography runs hot and cold with this writer. I find Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen, unjustly unheralded but The Getaway, also with McQueen, repulsive and boring. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is better than its reputation, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid far worse than its. Cross of Iron is simply a mess with little of interest, Convoy is empty-headed but entertaining. Amidst all this is The Killer Elite, with James Caan as a corporate security man charged with jobs the CIA won’t touch, much less acknowledge. Partner Robert Duvall goes rogue, shooting Caan in the elbow and knee in a deliberately career-ending hit, but Caan is determined to recover enough so that he might track down this ex-partner who betrayed him. The movie’s first third, clinically dramatizing the shooting, various operations, and Caan’s grueling attempts at recovery are riveting, but the picture slowly loses its way and, by the anachronistic blend of samurai and chopsocky for its climax, is merely ridiculous if entertaining escapism. (Not helping matters is Arthur Hill, who spent virtually his entire career playing good guys in positions of authority who turns out to be the surprise bad guy. It stopped working when audiences picked up that Hill always played the surprise bad guy.) Twilight Time’s region A Blu-ray, however, looks stupendous, and includes a rare treat: Peckinpah’s Noon Wine, a featurette-length adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, shot on one-inch (analog) video for television in 1966.
Gregory’s 2 Girls (1999)
After enjoying Second Sight’s excellent Region B Blu-ray of an old favorite, Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981), I picked up the British DVD of Forsyth’s barely-released sequel, filmed eighteen years later. Now pushing 40, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, still delightful) remains single and, effectively, is still in high school, now a politically conscious English teacher. His mantra, “Don’t spectate, participate” prompts 16-year-old soccer player Frances (Carly McKinnon), for whom Gregory has had sexual fantasies, to confide in him. She’s convinced an old schoolmate of Gregory’s, millionaire electronics manufacturer Fraser Rowan (Dougray Scott), may be smuggling torture equipment to Third World governments. Fans that dearly loved Gregory’s Girl mostly hated the film. Some, undoubtedly, were put off by the film’s darker political themes, the idea that idyllic, ordinary suburban Scotland might secretly be contributing to tools of war. Others found Gregory’s attraction to Frances, one teetering precariously close to pedophilia, distasteful. But if Gregory’s 2 Girls lacks the original film’s sweet innocence, it also reflects a maturation on the part of writer-director Forsyth. It may not be as disarmingly entertaining as Gregory’s Girl, but it’s a very funny, intriguing film in its own right, making Forsyth’s fall from grace all the more unfathomable. It remains his last film to date. Region 2 (PAL).
The sixties were a kind of Golden Age for British thrillers. Merton Park Studios was cranking out as many as a dozen Edgar Wallace thrillers for Anglo-Amalgamated, while Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster penned some marvelous thrillers for Hammer. Sangster joked that all of his scripts were simple variations of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s seminal French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), but Sangster’s were often very clever and admirably original. Conversely, the very entertaining and quite spooky Catacombs, directed by Gordon Hessler and adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from Jay Bennett’s novel, is a blatant gender-reversal of Les Diaboliques almost scene-for-scene. However, it’s so well done this reviewer didn’t connect the obvious dots until the film was almost over. A big part of its success is the performances: Gary Merrill as the henpecked husband, Georgina Cookson as the shrewish, possessively jealous wife, and a young Jane Merrow as Merrill’s step-daughter, caught between them. Like Clouzot’s film Catacombs is very nearly a horror film, with several impressively tense, genuinely creepy moments. How is it I had never even heard of this picture before, even under its U.S. release title, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die? Network’s Region 2 (PAL) release offers a good, widescreen transfer.
The Medusa Touch (1978)
Another Network title I had never seen before was this wild ride of movie; I knew the title and that Richard Burton starred but nothing else, really the best way to experience it. How could I have known that it’s a religious horror-disaster-science fiction-end of the world-political thriller, all in one? Co-produced by legendary editor Anne V. Coates, directed by Jack Gold, and adapted from Peter Van Greenaway’s novel, the film stars Burton as Morlar, a firebrand novelist obsessed with the idea that he’s been cursed with the ability to consciously and unconsciously cause people’s deaths. After he’s murdered (or is he?) a French police inspector, Brunel, (the great Lino Ventura) questions Morlar’s psychiatrist, Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who dismisses Morlar’s claims, though Brunel isn’t quite so sure. The all-star British cast includes Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, and many others. The region B Blu-ray looks fantastic and helps showcase the film’s impressive sets and one spectacularly realized special effects sequence done with miniatures. Kim Newman’s enlightening liner notes on this one-of-a-kind film provide essential background on novelist Greenaway. A real find.