Let’s dispense with one myth right away: the Marx Brothers did not make A Night in Casablanca to pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Though Chico always needed the money, Groucho and Harpo were itching for a big-screen comeback to erase the memory of their underwhelming MGM farewell film, The Big Store (1941).
Enter David L. Loew and the profit potential of independent production, which was appealing enough to end the brothers’ self-imposed cinematic retirement. The Marxes and Loew joined forces to create Loma Vista Productions, with United Artists handling the distribution chores on their low-budget venture.
Released in May 1946 to mixed reviews but solid box office, A Night in Casablanca would prove a fitting finale to the team’s movie career. Perhaps their best effort since A Night at the Opera (1935), this postwar escapade features the trio in splendid form while recapturing some of the rough-edged spontaneity of their early Paramount comedies.
Before its DVD debut in 2004, A Night in Casablanca had an elusive history on the videocassette market — briefly issued by Independent United Distributors in 1983, followed by a GoodTimes budget release in 1990. Castle Hill Productions (the copyright owner) finally rectified matters by teaming with Warner Home Video to give the film a long-overdue remastered version in excellent quality.
However, there is a comic irony associated with Warner Home Video’s involvement. In 1945, Warner Bros. expressed concern over the storyline of A Night in Casablanca, fearing that the Marxian farce would emulate the studio’s legendary 1942 drama. Groucho fired off a letter to Warner that has since become a classic. In 1997, Groucho’s letter was read during the Library of Congress’ bicentennial celebration:
“Apparently, there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. . . . You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. . . . This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers.”
After Groucho explained the plot in a few bizarre follow-up letters, the Marxes heard no more from the Warner legal department. “It might have been better if we filmed the letters to Warner Brothers and left the picture we made in the can,” Groucho later remarked.
In truth, the Warner correspondence was a publicity stunt, which Groucho happily admitted in a private letter: “I wish they would sue, but as it is, we’ve had reams in the paper.” Nevertheless, the Marxes avoided a direct parody of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic — except for the “round up all likely suspects” line (spoken by none other than Casablanca cast member Dan Seymour) and Harpo’s lively turn at the roulette wheel.
Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”
What makes A Night in Casablanca a standout among the later Marx efforts is the re-emergence of Harpo’s anarchistic brilliance, which was toned down after Duck Soup (1933). Thanks to uncredited contributions from Frank Tashlin, Harpo dominates the proceedings from the start with the famous sight gag involving a collapsed building. After playing second fiddle to Groucho and Chico in the MGM films, the horn-honking pantomimist enjoys a long-overdue free reign. In fact, Groucho and Chico do not appear until 10 minutes into the picture.
Directed by Archie Mayo — a Warner craftsman best known for The Petrified Forest (1936)and Black Legion (1937) — A Night in Casablanca dispenses with the MGM musical gloss and syrupy romance in favor of a more free-wheeling approach. Set largely within the confines of the Hotel Casablanca, Groucho plays the iconoclastic manager and Chico is appropriately cast as a taxi-camel driver. Harpo initially appears as a disobedient valet to Heinrich Stubel (wonderfully played by character actor Sig Ruman — returning as a Marx foil for the first time since 1937′s A Day at the Races), an escaped Nazi who has stashed a valuable treasure in the hotel.
Amid this B-grade plot are several wild scenes and some memorable Groucho dialogue (“Never mind the staff. Assemble the guests. I’ll tell them what I expect of them”). Placing the Marxes in a postwar setting may seem unusual, yet their shenanigans inside the Hotel Casablanca are a refreshing throwback to their first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). In many ways, Groucho, Harpo and Chico have come full circle.
The frenetic (if somewhat belabored) climax finds the brothers on board a Nazi plane, with Harpo knocking out the pilot and taking over the controls with devilish glee. However, art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky found a deeper meaning to this sequence when A Night in Casablanca was first released: “The disproportion between the smallness of [Harpo’s] effort and the magnitude of disaster is a magnificent and terrifying symbol of man’s behavior in the atomic age.” No doubt Chico would have responded to this social commentary by playing the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.
Loew had little doubt that A Night in Casablanca would make money, but no one expected the picture to become one of 1946’s surprise hits. Moviegoers and devoted fans welcomed back the Marxes with $2.7 million in worldwide ticket sales — resulting in the highest grosser of their career.
Despite renewed box-office success, the trio retired once again from the silver screen. “We decided we were coming down the stretch and that it was high time we quit while we were still partially alive,” Groucho wrote in his 1959 autobiography. (For all intents and purposes, 1949’s Love Happy was a Harpo Marx vehicle, with Chico in support and Groucho as narrator and guest star. The three never share a single scene together.)
Though not without its faults, A Night in Casablanca is a better film than its critical reputation would suggest. And how do the Marx Brothers bid farewell as a full-fledged team? They chase beautiful Lisette Verea through the streets of Casablanca — an appropriate finale for these anti-establishment pioneers.
William Friedkin names 1977′s Sorcerer as his favorite among his movies. That’s possibly because he put so much blood and sweat into the show, with a grueling, disaster-plagued shoot in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, as well as Israel, Paris, New Jersey and New Mexico. Impressed by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear, Friedkin embarked on a costly remake. In many ways it’s a beautiful show, but it lacks its director’s double-whammy of powerful filmmaking plus incredibly lucky timing. When his The French Connection became a hit in 1971, audiences were seemingly primed for a gritty & profane cop show with thrilling action scenes. In addition to its brilliant marketing campaign, 1973 The Exorcist showed Friedkin willing to pull out all the stops for a horror story that literally brutalized the audience.
Commercially speaking, Sorcerer had big problems. The title led everyone to believe it had something to do with the supernatural, like his previous film. Roy Scheider was the only known actor in Friedkin’s excellent cast. Unrelentingly dark and pessimistic, the movie arrived in the wake of the big Spring release Star Wars, when no other film seemed to exist. As Friedkin himself explains, Sorcerer played exactly one week at Mann’s Chinese before being dropped in favor of a return of George Lucas’s film.
Most critics clobbered Sorcerer as a complete misfire. I saw it on Independence Day (in a packed Westwood theater, I must say) and felt unfulfilled by Friedkin’s suspense-challenged narrative and humorless characters. But how does it play today?
Friedkin and his screenwriter Walon Green open up Georges Arnaud’s novel La salaire de peur by showing how four men came to flee their home countries and end up trapped in a South American oil outpost. Paid assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) and Palestinian bomber Kassem (Amidou) flee retribution for their crimes. Caught embezzling funds, French gentleman Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) runs to escape public humiliation and a long prison sentence. Finally, getaway driver Jackie Scanlon (Roy Schieder) takes his one-way trip to nowhere after a botched robbery of Mob money in New Jersey.
As in the Clouzot movie, these four and many other foreigners are struck in a wretched shack town outside an oil company outpost in a South American dictatorship. They haven’t enough money to leave the isolated location and can’t get jobs. They also lack legitimate passports. Their chance comes when rebels blow up an oil well, which must be extinguished with high explosives. The only supplies are too volatile to move by legal means, so the oil company manager Corlette (Ramon Bieri) puts out a call for experienced drivers to transport the unstable cargo 218 miles over ridiculously rugged roads. Three of our renegades make the cut, and the fourth earns his spot through murder. Yet the job is a suicide mission: the oil company is sending two trucks in the belief that at least one won’t make it.
Sorcerer looks great and contains impressive action scenes. The first time I saw the traffic accident in New Jersey I was genuinely jolted. The riot over the burned corpses in the village is also pretty strong stuff; in 1975 it seemed shockingly obvious that the mob would direct its anger at the innocent soldiers and truck drivers. In many ways Friedkin’s jungle trek improves on the first film. The rain-soaked tropical locations are more realistic than the dry mountains in the South of France (?) where Clouzot filmed. The four men endure a worse trip in this picture, that’s for sure.
The most remarkable scene is of course the near-absurd river crossing on a wind-tossed cable bridge that barely has enough wood remaining to support the trucks. The trucks inch their way across, splintering what support planks still remain and at times tilting dangerously. Friedkin judges this scene beautifully. It looks so real that we believe it could actually be done… well, we believe it long enough for the scene to work. Friedkin also can’t be faulted for not sticking to his ‘vision’: the crew tried for weeks to make the scene work in the Dominican Republic, and then had to start over in Mexico. Sorcerer ended up so costly that Friedkin knew it would have to be a big success not to cripple his directing career.
On this truly handsome Blu-ray Sorcerer is a pleasure to watch just for its audacity and spectacular set pieces. But as a fully realized entertainment it misses the mark. Friedkin insists that the show is not a remake, yet it obviously is. The story particulars and what happens to the characters are largely the same. Friedkin and writer Green succeed in making their characters unlikeable, but the actors seem to be fighting that effort. We have naturally positive feelings toward Roy Scheider’s Scanlon, even when he roots for the other truck to blow up, so that his take-home salary will double. Likewise, we want to like the other three crooks- turned suicide drivers. The terrorist bomber’s expertise with explosives comes in handy at one point, and even the loathsome assassin Nilo has the right skill for the moment when he and Scanlon are waylaid by murderous bandits.
Friedkin refuses to give any of his adventurers a sense of humor. He apparently doesn’t want to dampen the tension, but little tension develops if we can’t identify with the characters enough to invest in their survival. That doesn’t happen here. Friedkin concentrates on his precise angles and cutting, and short-changes the human factor. Because Sorcerer is so much like The Wages of Fear we can’t help noticing that nothing that happens is as tense as in the first film. The people are credible but very thin — in the final couple of scenes Scanlon and Nilo’s acting seems to be provided by a makeup job that gives their faces a blood-drained ghost quality. Friedkin’s spooky mood and cynical throwaway finish fall very flat. We admire Sorcerer but aren’t particularly engaged by it.
Roy Scheider is well cast but isn’t given enough to build a full screen personality for Scanlon. Bruno Cremer should have been a bigger star, as he’s excellent; he has a tough face that would have looked great in a Melville-style crime picture. Here Cremer at least gets to show with his expressive eyes what he’s lost: a chateau, a fancy wife, fine cuisine. Amidou is the film’s concession to youth, even though he was 41 at the time of filming. When his Kassem almost falls through the cable bridge, we think that he might get run over, just like Charles Vanel in the original.
Francisco Rabal’s ruthless hired killer is the most mysterious and least probed character, the one that breaks down in fear yet marshals his killer instincts to save the day for Scanlon. Friedkin wanted Rabal to play Frog One in The French Connection but was saved by a providential screw-up: he confused Rabal with his fellow Spanish actor Fernando Rey, who got the part. Rey’s magical performance opposite Gene Hackman provided the chemistry that made French Connection connect big-time with audiences. In Sorcerer no such chemistry is permitted.
Less important but still relevant is the fact that Friedkin’s remake lacks the original’s sense of political outrage, and replaces it with a dull pessimism. The original film carries a fierce anger against an economic system that dispossesses the Third World and places profits above human lives. The Sorcerer just accepts those conditions as a given. ‘Terrorists’ get the blame for the oil disaster.
Viewers may not know what a great actor Francisco Rabal was. A favorite of Luis Buñuel, he played his share of weird creeps but also embodied the movies’ most interesting religious figure, Nazarín. He played Che Guevara and Francisco Goya (twice), and was also the perverted Euro-horror movie director Máximo Espejo in Pedro Almodóvar’s ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!).
Sorcerer is yet another Blu-ray release of this year to carry a music score by Tangerine Dream. In this regard William Friedkin displayed a good ear — 1977 was before Thief, Dead Kids and Risky Business.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of Sorcerer is a stunning transfer, with 5.1 audio, of William Friedkin’s impressive production. After years of low-grade video presentations the color and sharpness of this encoding really stick out. Only one shot seemed bogus, an aerial angle of the jungle in which the greenery leaps out with a blast of oversaturated chroma. But Friedkin hasn’t indulged in any color experiments and the transfer overall is stunning. The bridge sequence in particular looks terrific, half obscured by curtains of pouring rain. It’s unforgettable.
There are no video extras on this presentation. In the fancy illustrated color souvenir book packaging we instead get an adapted chapter on the making of the picture from Friedkin’s book The Friedkin Connection. The director gives an exciting account of the perils of the shoot. From editing the extras for To Live and Die in L.A., I remember hearing that editor and co-producer Bud S. Smith amassed a wealth of film materials from the shoot for the express purpose of making a “Burden of Dreams”- style documentary, or at least a long-form featurette. If Sorcerer had been considered a bigger picture, it might have been possible for such a show to be made.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Warner Home Video
1977 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date April 22, 2014 /
Starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, Peter Capell, Karl John, Fredrick Ledebur, Joe Spinell.
Cinematography Dick Bush, John M. Stephens
Film Editor Bud Smith, Robert K. Lambert
Production Design John Box
Original Music Tangerine Dream
Written by Walon Green from a novel by Georges Arnaud
Produced and Directed by William Friedkin
Supplements: color illustrated souvenir book with William Friedkin essay.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Packaging: 1 Blu-ray disc in plastic holder in book-style packaging
From an artistic standpoint, the realm of cinema was not particularly kind to Elvis Presley. Though he appeared in 33 films, only a handful did justice to his talents. Even the singer’s best efforts — King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960), Viva Las Vegas (1964) and the criminally underrated The Trouble With Girls (1969) — showed that he was capable of doing more, if only Hollywood had given him a chance.
In 1969, Elvis (who detested the fact that he became a box-office commodity relegated to a series of musical “travelogues”) bid adieu to the silver screen and resurrected his career as a live performer. Naturally, Hollywood came knocking once again by producing a concert film that would capture Presley in all his glory.
The result was Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970), directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Denis Sanders and shot by veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Despite some unnecessary interviews with star-struck fans and Las Vegas hotel employees, the MGM documentary showcased Presley’s talent and charisma better than any of his previous films. At his finest, Elvis was a spontaneous and imaginative artist who thrived in the presence of a live audience.
Utilizing six Panavision cameras, Sanders shot a tremendous amount of Presley footage during his August 1970 engagement at the International Hotel — considerably more than what was seen in the finished product. This became apparent when 60,000 feet of camera negative, along with the original 16-track stereo masters, was discovered in the Turner Entertainment vaults in the late 1990s.
Elvis Presley and director Denis Sanders.
Filmmaker Rick Schmidlin, who oversaw the historic reconstructions of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), produced a recut and remixed version of the Presley documentary. Seven years after its 2000 theatrical premiere, the refurbished That’s the Way It Is was finally paired with the original 1970 documentary in a two-DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
No stranger to concert films having produced and edited The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1987), Schmidlin was excited by the opportunity to re-edit That’s the Way It Is. “I wanted fans to see something on Elvis that was more personable,” he said in a 2001 interview. “What I wanted to do as a filmmaker was try to understand the character and psyche of who [Elvis] was as a performer and how he wanted to be represented — not how Hollywood wanted to represent him.”
Compared to the 1970 release, Schmidlin’s “special edition” is a more cinematic work. The interviews and Vegas hotel promotions have vanished, with the emphasis remaining on Presley and his music. As a result, the revamped That’s the Way It Is runs 97 minutes — 11 minutes shorter than the original — yet incorporates a treasure trove of never-before-seen material.
The 2000 version includes restored footage of Elvis in rehearsal: engaging run-throughs of “My Baby Left Me” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”; the “Little Sister/Get Back” medley; and a surprise rendition of “The Happy Yodeler.” Schmidlin’s reconstruction also features different concert performances of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender” and “Suspicious Minds.” Another unearthed moment occurs during the end credits when an excited Cary Grant meets Presley backstage after the opening-night show. (Grant praised Elvis as “the greatest entertainer since Jolson.”)
“This was a chancy film, because it wasn’t like Touch of Evil or Greed,” Schmidlin explained. “This was re-cutting a movie and performing major surgery — taking a dated documentary and re-examining it 30 years later. That had its difficulties. Both films act as bookends. One film tells one story, and the other film tells another — and they’re the same film. That’s a unique situation.”
British quad poster.
Unlike his fictional movies, That’s the Way It Is captured the energy, humor and creativity of Presley that somehow eluded Hollywood. It also revealed an artist at the peak of his powers. Interestingly, this aspect was not lost on Elvis, who knew his performances were being filmed for posterity. Having starred in 30 features, he understood the camera and knew how to work with cinematographers.
Schmidlin believed Elvis took charge of the direction whenever he was filmed: “There wasn’t any apprehension. It was like, ‘Oh, great — they’re doing a movie without a script, and they’re doing it about me, so I can have fun in front of the camera.’ In some ways, Elvis has given himself his own great performance.”
The critical and commercial success of That’s the Way It Is encouraged MGM to produce Elvis on Tour (1972). However, the Golden Globe-winning film revealed an artist in decline who already was tiring of the concert grind. As a result, the latter documentary paled in comparison to this revitalized portrait of Presley — a significant, influential force in 20th-century music and culture.
“He’s 35 years old, he’s in great shape, and he’s having fun,” Schmidlin said. “It’s the last time we look at Elvis in this condition and in this environment. You get the fact that he’s a leader and you understand the magnetic personality that others have talked about. If I had an alternate title for the film, I would have called it Elvis on His Own Terms.”
“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.) But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”
Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”
Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)
It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)
Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’”  (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)
The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)
Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.
The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.
But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.
There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.
Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”
Ira: “Harry, who did it?”
Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”
Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”
Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”
Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”
Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)
Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)
The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”
Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.
Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.
“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”
Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.
The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.
While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.
Ira: “The Whiting job.”
Margo: “What? Who?”
Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”
Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”
Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”
Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”
Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”
Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”
Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”
Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”
After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.
From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hellcommentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.
As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.
Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”
Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”
Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”
Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”
Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”
On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.
Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”
Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” 
It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.
For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.
As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)
In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)
 Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books: 2002)
 A reference to The Thin Man television series that ran for two seasons on NBC, starting in the fall of 1957, and later went into syndication. Margo was, after all, a child of the 50s.
Despite continued dire assertions that “DVD is dead” and that Blu-ray is a fading niche market in an era of downloadable movies, from our vantage point we’re seeing more desirable titles premiering on DVD and Blu-ray than ever before, even if some of these best new releases require a region-free player to see them, or are titles increasingly farmed out to independents charging higher prices than we’ve gotten used to. This year we give a particular round of applause to labels like Olive Films, Inception Media Group, Cohen Film Collection, and Flicker Alley, places run but dedicated, film-savvy entrepreneurs who clearly love these movies as much as we do.
And so, in ascending order, here’s our list of the best of the best of 2013:
10. Paul Williams – Still Alive (DVD only; Virgil Films)
The past decade has been great for documentaries about singers and songwriters: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (both 2010). Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) is yet another funny, moving and ultimately revelatory portrait of the ubiquitous if diminutive songwriting superstar, who seemed to vanish into thin air after the early 1980s. Director Stephen Kessler’s unusual approach makes the show as much about his mostly awkward personal relationship with his reluctantly willing subject, who now seems much happier living in comparative obscurity than he did at the height of his celebrity. A profoundly entertaining film about a supremely talented artist whose intimate, confessional songs about loneliness and depression always seemed negated by the clownish, cocky media star far more complex than anyone imagined.
9. The Damned (Cohen Film Collection)
Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, but René Clément’s The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie we’ve ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war. Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich. This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.
8. The Right Stuff (Warner Home Video)
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” The Right Stuff (1983) is the best American movie of the 1980s. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie essentially tells two stories: Chuck Yeager’s exploits as a test pilot, in particular his attempt to break and go beyond the sound barrier; and the earliest days of NASA, as seen through the eyes of its seven Mercury Program astronauts (and their wives). The material is by itself compelling, but what makes The Right Stuff so special is in the telling. It tells its familiar story of heroic American pioneers in unusual and unexpected ways. Some see it as a modern variation of John Ford’s last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an apt comparison. In Ford’s film, a cowboy and gunfighter emblematic of the Old West, played by John Wayne, essentially steps aside so that an aspiring attorney, James Stewart, symbolizing a tamer, civilized West, can take his place. The lawyer becomes a celebrated political figure while the once-famous gunfighter dies in total anonymity, completely forgotten except by his closest friends. In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is the Wayne character (even if Shepard plays him like Gary Cooper), while the seven Mercury astronauts are Stewart’s. In some ways it’s the last great movie epic with, among other things, the subsequent CGI revolution and Ron Howard’s obscenely overrated Apollo 13 making not the slightest dent in its lasting impact. It simultaneously satirizes Cold War politics and mass media hyperbole with its prefabricated American heroes yet, almost indescribably, this only serves to make each act of personal bravery all the more awe-inspiring. In a way, the Mercury astronauts are also Wayne’s character, outwardly enjoying the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity, with the public oblivious to or simply not interested in their genuine but mostly private and personal heroism. The Blu-ray has been among the most anticipated releases of the last few years, and from a technical standpoint it does not disappoint, offering a near-perfect video presentation supported by spectacularly good audio. There are numerous extra features, though nearly all are ported over from a 2003 DVD release.
7. Olive Films
More than any other home video label in recent years, Olive Films has been a movie-lover’s dream come true. Culling mainly from Paramount’s long-neglected library holdings, they plucked from obscurity movies never before released to home video and have presented them with dazzlingly good high-def transfers. Neglected films, particularly from Republic Pictures’ B-movies, previously available on VHS and DVD with awful, ancient video transfers, have been revelations as Olive Blu-rays. From Betty Boop to ‘50s sci-fi to classic and recent French thrillers, Olive Films is the home video label of the year.
6. The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory)
American International Pictures releases licensed from MGM, this Halloween release containing House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witchfinder General (1968), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) brought back fond memories of the NuArt Theater’s glorious AIP film festival of 20 years ago, when these movies, available then only in the murkiest of panned-and-scanned video transfers, could be experienced as they were meant to be seen: good 35mm prints on a big, wide screen. These high-def transfers, with their rich color, gorgeous cinematography and extraordinarily good art direction, reveal riches lost when they were played to death on TV throughout the seventies and eighties. Shout! also went the extra mile combining MGM’s preexisting featurettes with some wonderful new material, including introductions to most of the films by Mr. Price himself, videotaped for Iowa Public Television back in the 1980s!
5. The Puppetoon Movie (Inception Media Group)
A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.” The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
4. Nashville (Criterion)
For once the tag lines were accurate: “Wild. Wonderful. Sinful. Laughing. Explosive.” Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), one of the best films of the 1970s, is a divisive, inarguably indulgent film, but also one uniquely experimental and prophetic, especially so when it was new. The epic, 160-minute has no single protagonist and instead is a tapestry cutting among 24 major characters and numerous minor ones. It has no plot to speak of, despite an undercurrent of political maneuvering and a vague exploration of professional ambition and fame set against Nashville’s country music scene. Altman had been evolving toward this kind of storytelling beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and, after crystalizing the form in Nashville would return to it again in the underrated A Wedding (1978), the somewhat overrated The Player (1992) and a few others. But in 1975 Nashville was quite daring, the work of a supremely confident, in some ways self-destructive filmmaker to whom ordinary movie-making rules did not apply. Nashville had previous been released by owner Paramount as an okay if no-frills DVD in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers vastly improved picture and wonderfully immersive sound, the latter vitally important in fully appreciating the work’s complex sound design. The new Blu-ray-plus-DVD combo also includes scads of extra features, including an original making-of documentary featuring some of the film’s key participants.
3. Pierre Étaix (Criterion)
Though we like to think we’re well-versed in the art of film comedy, we confess we had never even heard of circus clown-turned-actor-director Pierre Étaix until Criterion’s revelatory boxed set of this delightful disciple of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Included are three charming short films and all five of his ‘60s/early ‘70s features: The Suitor, As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. The transfers of these long-unavailable films (due to legal problems) all look and sound great and, happily, the 85-year-old Étaix is on-hand to introduce each film.
2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Criterion)
One of Criterion’s best-ever home video releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is also an incredible value. Smart shoppers were able to purchase the set at one point for less than $100, but even at its suggested retail price of $224.95, for 25 feature films plus the many valuable extra features it’s still quite a bargain. Most readers are probably unaware that a near-simultaneous release in Japan, but covering only the first 18 movies, retails for a wallet-busting￥ 56,700, or about $550. That’s more than twice Criterion’s SRP yet minus the last seven films. The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu’s unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema. At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.
1. Cinerama Holiday/Cinerama South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley)
Let me say this right up front: you’re going to want to get these. The original Cinerama travelogues were never exhibited in conventional movie theaters, never shown on television, and until now, never before released to home video. Indeed, after about 1963 they weren’t shown anywhere. Restoring these once hugely-popular but virtually lost films has been a personal crusade of many film buffs, historians, and preservationists, but it took the tenacity and ingenuity of Cinerama reconstructionist David Strohmaier to get the job done, aided by innumerable craftsmen and technicians. Via distributor Flicker Alley, the first two Cinerama Blu-ray releases, This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958) were issued last year to much-deserved acclaim. These discs were beautifully packaged, compromised only by the lesser elements available: 70mm film. These next two releases, Cinerama South Seas Adventure and Cinerama Holiday (1955) have gone back to the original three-strip, six-perf high original camera negatives, replacing unusable bits and pieces with three-strip material deposited with the Library of Congress. The results are, in a word, glorious, and Strohmaier’s exacting recreation of the original road show experience comes as close as possible to replicating the Cinerama experience. It’s still not quite true Cinerama: a large, deeply curved screen is essential in order to experience the “audience participation” effects of the process, but it’s darn close. Further, the Blu-ray (a DVD version of the film is also included, but you’ll definitely not want to watch the film in that format) comes with many invaluable extra features including, appropriately, a reproduction of the original theater programs.