All posts by Stuart Galbraith IV

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3-D Blu-ray Review: “The Bubble”

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I first saw (Arch Oboler’s) The Bubble (1966) in the late-1970s under its reissue title, The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. The sci-fi/special effects boon instigated by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) was just getting underway, and here was a movie with a decidedly retro-looking one-sheet prominently feature a ‘50s-style flying saucer, one that, as is it turned out, wasn’t even in the movie. I could tell right away that I was looking at a strange movie at least ten years old, and its very existence baffled me. Nonetheless, its 3-D effects, filmed in “4-D” Space-Vision, were nonetheless impressive, sometimes even startling. Decades later Rhino released a very poor, unrepresentative DVD of the film, badly converted to anaglyphic (i.e., “red-green”) process. It only delivered about one-tenth of its full impact.

Conversely, the 3-D Film Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of The Bubble, here under its original title, far surpasses all expectations. As a movie, The Bubble is draggy and obviously fairly cheap, resembling as it does a protracted episode of ‘60s sci-fi shows like The Outer Limits and The Invaders. But it’s also so strange that, even though it borrows elements from those TV shows, written science fiction, and even E.C. comic books of the early ‘50s, as to be a unique synthesis all its own. Even without the 3-D, there’s no movie quite like it.

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The primary reason to watch The Bubble, however, is for its 3-D photography and effects, and on that count the picture is quite remarkable. An early scene, which in terms of the plot has no reason to exist at all, features a tray holding two glasses and two bottles of beer. It floats about the room, gradually drifting out into the movie audience. The effect is almost perfectly realized (the wires suspending it become visible toward the end of the shot); it’s still one of the most impressive 3-D effects shots ever done.

The 3-D Film Archive, primarily Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, have done another incredible job here, literally rescuing the nearly-lost film: the original negative was rotting away in a stiflingly hot public storage locker rather than an environmentally-controlled film vault, its reels kept in rusted film cans. A restoration demonstration makes clear how much work was done to remove visible negative splices and other viewing imperfections. The presentation now is probably better than when the film was new, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout.

The 3-D craze of 1952-54 petered out quickly after 20th Century-Fox’s hugely successful dissemination of CinemaScope during late-1953 and early-1954. The only major 3-D release between Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Bubble had been a Fox film called September Storm (1960) shot in Stereo-Vision 3-D and converted to 3-D CinemaScope. However, it was not a success, and led to no additional 3-D productions.

Radio writer-producer-director Arch Oboler, a kind of Bush League Orson Welles, broke into films in the 1940s and almost all of those he wrote, produced, and directed are unusual. His first film as a director, Strange Holiday (1945) had Claude Rains returning home from a fishing trip only to find America had been taken over by fascists. Five (1951) was the first American feature to depict life after a nuclear war. The Twonky (1953) has Hans Conried at odds with a strange, walking television set that takes control over his life.

But Oboler’s greatest success came with Bwana Devil (1952), the first sound-era feature-length 3-D movie, an independent film that, along with This Is Cinerama, released that same fall, caused a firestorm within the Hollywood film industry, leading eventually to the widescreen revolution, the biggest sea change since the Dawn of Sound.

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Oboler returned to 3-D moviemaking with The Bubble, which utilized Robert V. Bernier’s special 3-D cameras and lenses. Primarily, Space-Vision allowed for “polarized” 3-D movies to be photographed and exhibited on a single-strip of film, rather than the two interlocked cameras and projectors system used during the ’50s craze. This significantly reduced production and exhibition costs and allowed for color and ‘scope productions such as The Bubble.

The movie is a more a vehicle for this process rather than a film enhanced further by 3-D. After an unseen narrator instructs the audience to put their 3-D glasses on, the picture opens with young married couple Mark (Michael Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) aboard a small plane piloted by care-free Tony (Johnny Desmond). Catherine has gone into premature labor while the couple was vacationing, and they’re frantically trying to reach the nearest hospital.

A big storm forces Tony to land on a runway that turns out to be an ordinary road leading to an anything-but-ordinary small town nearby. Catherine gives birth at a small hospital without incident, but Mark and Tony gradually – too gradually – begin to realize something is amiss. The town resembles a studio backlot (and so it was; The Bubble was filmed at the former Republic Studios, then called CBS Studio Center, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood). A New York subway entrance leads nowhere. Several buildings are strangely fused. Old West buildings, including a saloon, are located further down one street, along with a partial carnival. A road leading out of town is dotted with gargoyles (possibly from 1963’s The Raven), statues and fake boulders. And, just out of town, is a partial representation of the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of Lincoln being the same one Eddie “Rochester” Anderson falls onto during the climax of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

More disturbing, the residents of this strange place wander about with glazed-over eyes like zombies, saying the same few words over-and-over again. A bartender at the old saloon repeatedly asks, “What’ll it be, gents?” while a taxi driver (Vic Perrin) asks “Cab, mister?” ad infinitum. Unbelievably, Mark and Tony initially find this rather amusing if bemusing. They help themselves to drinks at the saloon, cars parked in the streets, etc., and initially aren’t terribly concerned by everyone’s strange state.

The real trouble begins with the threesome decide to leave town, only to find the entire area encased by an impenetrable bubble many miles in diameter and stretching across the sky, thus explaining the distorted sun and moon.

The Bubble premiered at 112 minutes but almost all reviews of that version complained that at that length the movie was interminably paced. It was subsequently cut to 91 minutes, its Blu-ray length, and even that is a bit overlong, the pacing partly dragged down by Mark and Tony being so slow on the uptake about the strangeness of the town and its potential dangers. The deleted scenes, offered in screenplay form as an extra feature, help to explain some matters obliquely referenced in the shorter cut, but overall the picture is probably better off with all the editing.

If you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey perplexing, The Bubble positively confounds. Mark, without any evidence, suggests some possible explanations for the bubble’s origins and particulars about why things are what they are, but the story pretty much ends without any real answer about what the audience has just witnessed. Just what the bubble is, who put it there, and why remains a baffling mystery. If one tries to make sense of The Bubble’s plot, they’ll probably be disappointed. But on a dream-like, Twin Peaks-type level, the movie and all its strangeness is moderately effective.

While many have pointed out the story’s resemblance to various Twilight Zone/Outer Limits/The Invaders episodes, the movie is peculiarly adult in other ways. Mark and Catherine’s baby was conceived while the couple “made love” and she forgot her contraception. (Later on is a scene where she breastfeeds her newborn.) He complains about her “bitching” in one scene, and it’s clear Tony is having a sexual relationship with the Old West saloon’s dancer (called “Talent” by him and on the credits), even though she’s basically a mindless zombie.

The cast is good, particularly Michael Cole (Mod Squad), whose second film this was. He’s so good, in fact, one is reminded of Steve McQueen’s similar “debut” in The Blob. Indeed, The Bubble almost plays like The Further Adventures of Steve and Jane, as if the young teenagers from that film had gotten married and were expecting a baby only to run afoul of The Bubble.

The rest of the cast consists of actors Oboler must have known from his radio days, many of whom coincidentally worked regularly with Jack Webb, notably Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin, and Olan Soule. The credits and the IMDb list Gregg as playing the ticket cashier but this is incorrect. She plays the nurse, who in the short version at least has no lines. The actress playing the ticket cashier (“Tickets? Tickets?”) resembles Patricia Barry.

As a showcase for 3-D effects, the film is a delight. The Bubble bursts open with an exterior shot of the plane, one of its wings sticking way, WAY out toward the movie audience. There are startlingly good 3-D shots every few minutes: a baby in an incubator, Talent’s high-kicking saloon dance, numerous shots of Mark and Catherine in a mine shaft, he hoping to tunnel their way under the bubble. Even ordinary scenes are staged to maximize the process. Although a few ideas are more than a little silly (Tony having visions of floating rubber masks, for instance), visually speaking, The Bubble is quite spectacular, a real crowd-pleaser.

The picture allegedly cost around $500,000 to make. It looks inexpensive but not desperately cheap. Many Blu-ray fans that recently purchased Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection II set will be amused. If, as I did, you watched Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, and The Bubble over the last few weeks then you’ve heard the same Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter music three times.

The 3-D Film Archive restored The Bubble from the inaptly stored, original camera negative and the results are extremely impressive. With its 2.50:1 aspect ratio, the image is sharp with accurate, corrected color, while many imperfections, including film damage and apparently a few misaligned shots, have all been fixed. It’s too bad Oboler didn’t release The Bubble is stereophonic sound as well (as many early 3-D titles were) but the mono audio here is more than adequate.

Supplements include a standard, 2-D version of the film, as well as original and highly deceptive reissue trailers, both in 2-D as well. A restoration demonstration is offered in both 2-D and 3-D. There’s also a nice still gallery, screenplay excerpts of the deleted scenes, and a BD-ROM essay about The Bubble by Bob Furmanek, which is also available on the 3-D Film Archive’s website.

As a movie, The Bubble is far from great but, perhaps having already experienced it several times before, this time I found myself rather liking its bizarre plot as well as its plentiful, eye-popping 3-D effects. For aficionados, The Bubble is a must.

Dragonfly Squadron

3-D Blu-ray Review: “Dragonfly Squadron” (1954)

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Well this is a treat! As a movie, Dragonfly Squadron (1954) is fairly ordinary, a war movie with a familiar story and genre stereotypes: hardline, humorless commanding officer; sly second-in-command; subordinate with a personal grudge against his commanding officer; a woman emotionally torn between the dedicated, self-sacrificing doctor she married and the commanding officer she loves, etc.

Conversely, Olive Films’ release of this 3-D Film Archive restoration is one of significant historical importance. Dragonfly Squadron was photographed but never released in 3-D. By the time it opened in March 1954, the new widescreen and stereophonic sound format pushed by 20th Century-Fox, CinemaScope, had won the technological dissemination battle. The original 3-D negative film elements managed to survive, but a 3-D Blu-ray release of a movie as obscure as Dragonfly Squadron, a movie produced not by one of the major Hollywood studios but rather by lowly Monogram/Allied Artists, a Poverty Row company, was practically nonexistent until Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz of the 3-D Film Archive came along and pushed for its stereoscopic restoration.

For fans and admirers of older 3-D movies, Furmanek and Kintz are providing an invaluable service, preserving, restoring, and making available 3-D features and shorts that might otherwise be lost forever. Classic 3-D movies are rarely theatrically revived, and when they are almost invariably what gets shown is either House of Wax (1953) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), with a few scattered other titles (Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance) exhibited less frequently. I’m reminded of a press conference Jackie Gleason gave announcing the redistribution of “Lost” Honeymooners episodes. Asked why he chose to make them available, Gleason slyly replied, “I’m sick of watching those other Honeymooners,” referring to the “Classic 39,” episodes rerun ad infinitum. The same holds true for classic 3-D, turning even a movie as  minor as Dragonfly Squadron into a major viewing event.

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Though set just before and during the outbreak of the Korean War in May 1950, Dragonfly Squadron’s story harkens back to World War II movies like Flying Tigers, They Were Expendable, and Back to Bataan, with maybe a dash of Go for Broke! (1951). John Hodiak stars as Maj. Mathew “Matt” Brady, a celebrated but grounded-for-medical reasons Air Force instructor tasked with training green American and South Korean pilots at Kongku Air Base, with little more than three weeks to whip them into shape. (Among the young pilots is James Hong, uncredited.)

He discovers that his ex-fiancée, Donna Cottrell (Barbara Britton) is also stationed there. They planned to marry until she learned that her supposedly dead husband, Stephen (Bruce Bennett), a prisoner tortured in Indo-China was, in fact, alive. He loves her and as he’s a saintly, dedicated physician (despite mutilated hands) she remains devoted to him, despite her feelings for Brady.

More familiar plot points emerge: Capt. Veddors (Harry Lauter) resents Brady, blaming him for the death of their mutual best friend in a plane crash. Other genre stereotypes: Capt. Woody Taylor (John Lupton) and Anne (Pamela Duncan) are a young married couple anxious to return to the States after being stationed in Korea for two years without a break. Matt’s best friend is Capt. MacIntyre (Gerald Mohr), whose genial wisecracks contrast by-the-book Brady’s stiffness. Also in the squadron are the requisite southern hick (Fess Parker), an elfish flyer (Eddie Firestone, uncredited) always hiding a mutt under his leather jacket, and a soft-spoken, efficient junior officer (Adam Williams) who all but has “Doomed” painted across his helmet.

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Dragonfly Squadron’s plot may be familiar but its execution, under the sure hand of efficient B-movie director Lesley Selander, is nonetheless involving and well-paced for a picture of this type and budget. Reportedly the film’s cost was around $300,000, dirt-cheap by major studio standards but a bit more expensive than the usual Monogram/Allied Artists programmer from this period. Air Force and Marine Corps. hardware helped make the film look a bit more expensive than it actually was, but Selander’s good direction adds to the film’s modest polish.

The film also makes use of stock shots, some in regular 2-D, and there are few opticals. A battle and evacuation near the end of the picture offer the best 3-D effects, with everything done full-scale with on-set special effects. Much of this material looks great.

It also helps that good actors populate the story. John Hodiak was a bona fide star, albeit a fading one, Hodiak one of dozens leading men who established themselves during the early ‘40s, when many established stars had abandoned Hollywood temporarily to fight the war, only to leave actors like Hodiak struggling once they returned.

There are a few up-and-comers in the cast, notably Fess Parker and, much later in the story, Chuck Connors, both oozing charisma and obviously on the ascent. Decent actors who regularly toiled away in cheap films dominate: Bruce Bennett, Gerald Mohr, Adam Williams, Frank Ferguson, etc. Pretty Barbara Britton’s career was, like Hodiak’s, in gradual decline; she co-starred in the first 3-D feature of the 1950s, the one that launched the craze, Bwana Devil (1952).

Dragonfly Squadron lacks the kind of in-your-face 3-D effects many wrongly assume all ‘50s 3-D movies overdid, the Western Charge at Feather River being an obvious example. Despite a dearth of eye-popping effects, Selander subtly and intelligently stages many scenes to bring out multiple planes of depth. In a bar, for instance, all the chairs are stacked up on tables while on the bar itself are various half-empty glasses, to emphasize the depth of the bar a bit more, while many of the sets have doorways leading to back rooms and whatnot. It’s a far cry from the drab art direction of a typical Monogram movie, e.g., Louie’s Sweet Shop in the Bowery Boys pictures. It’s not a great showcase for 3-D, but what’s there is well executed. Several scenes are also staged in darkened rooms, and the perception of depth is quite interesting.

Dragonfly Squadron is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format. The black-and-white film has its share of speckling and, surprisingly, little bits of faint, barely perceptible color (on the tip of an actor’s nose, for instance) I would guess was somehow used to align the image during postproduction. Mostly though the picture looks very good, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout. Cheap as Dragonfly Squadron may have been, in some ways the use and ultimate look even of ordinary 3-D scenes here is somehow more impressive compared to how unimaginatively most new 3-D films use the process today. (The same proved true on another cheap 3-D title now on Blu-ray, Man in the Dark.) The presentation includes the film’s original intermission card, a nice touch. While some of the bigger 3-D movies were exhibited with stereophonic sound, Dragonfly Squadron was always mono, and thus presented that way here. It’s fine, on par with other mid-‘50s mono releases. It’s also worth noting that the film’s original 3-D title cards, heretofore presumed lost, have  been reinstated.

The Blu-ray comes with a standard 2-D version of the film, along with a lively (2-D) trailer.

Dragonfly Squadron might not rank alongside the great Hollywood war movies, but its release, finally, in 3-D deserves all the accolades Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz are receiving. Also with this title they’ve clearly demonstrated how desirable titles like this one can be restored and presented in flawless 3-D for a reasonable amount of money. And that, in turn, will hopefully prompt more 3-D Blu-ray releases like this one in the future.

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Snowman Featured

Blu-ray Review: “The Abominable Snowman” (1957)

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Movies produced by Britain’s Hammer Films, especially the most famous examples of “Hammer Horror,” are slowly trickling out onto Blu-ray. Generally, up to now, the pattern has been for each picture to debut on Blu-ray first in the United Kingdom then, often months or even a few years later, they’ve been making their way to other parts of the world, including the U.S., mostly with identical transfers and extra features. A few, however, turned up first in Australia, while The Abominable Snowman (1957)*, Val Guest’s film version of Nigel Kneale’s television play, inexplicably debuted in Japan.

Bearing a “Hammer Films Legacy Limited” copyright notice, this Happinet home video release is legitimate, and while the video and audio show no signs of any restoration work, the 1920 x 1080i high-def transfer shows off this early 2.35:1 “Hammerscope” production to good effect.

The movie is an intelligent, tensely exciting adventure-thriller, writer Kneale’s forte. The first two of his “Quatermass” TV plays, “The Quatermass Experiment” (1953) and “Quatermass II” (1955) had both been filmed by Hammer, in 1955 and 1956, Guest directing both. Although Kneale disliked the condensation of his much longer, multi-episode TV serials into relatively short feature films, and especially the casting of American Brian Donlevy in the leading role, both movies are excellent, with Quatermass II among the most intelligent and suspenseful science fiction films ever made. In between these first two Quatermass stories (two more, also superb, eventually followed) Kneale adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), one of the high-water marks of early British television drama, a production that also made Peter Cushing a star. Next came “The Creature,” again with Cushing, this time as scientist-mountaineer John Rollason, and headlined by rising film star Stanley Baker (Zulu) as the story’s antagonist, Tom Friend.

The play was inspired by recent mysterious reports concerning the Yeti, an elusive creature or creatures supposedly residing high in the Himalayas. Interest in the Yeti peaked around the time Kneale’s television play aired. Eric Shipton’s photographs of alleged Yeti footprints in 1951, Sir Edmund Hillary’s sighting of more footprints while ascending Mt. Everest in 1953, and a 1954 Snowman Expedition sponsored by the Daily Mail all fueled intense public interest.

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The television play, apparently presented as a self-contained episode rather than the serial format of the Quatermass stories, is not known to survive. The movie, however, is generally quite faithful to the TV version, the main difference being the addition to two characters by Kneale: Rollason’s wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), and their colleague, Peter “Foxy” Fox (Richard Wattis). Both characters add to the film’s effectiveness, adding shading to Cushing’s character.

The story has the Rollasons and Foxy collecting medicinal botanical samples in the Himalayas while guests of a remote Buddhist monastery. Unknown to Helen and Foxy, John has made arrangements to participate in a second expedition led by American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker in the film version) to prove the existence of the Yeti.

Intelligent early scenes revolve around Rollason’s conflicted emotions. Though all three Brits are respectful of the monks and their alien culture at the monastery, only Rollason actually embraces it, and this impresses the Lama (Arnold Marlé, an Austrian-born German actor who looks anything but Asian; he reprises his TV performance). The Lama, however, tries to dissuade Rollason from searching for the Yeti, as do Foxy and especially Helen, who distrusts Friend and his American trapper collaborator, Ed Shelley (Robert Brown, with unconvincing accent). She’s also concerned about her husband’s safety. He’d given up climbing after a serious accident, and only two others are joining the dangerous expedition: photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), who claims to have seen the Yeti once before, and Kusang (Wolfe Morris), their lone Sherpa guide.

The premise of both the TV play and the movie, unlike other Yeti stories filmed around that time (Man Beast, The Snow Creature), supposes that the Yeti are an intelligent, even advanced race in many ways superior to man. The Lama (and, later, Rollason) suggests that the Yeti may have fled high into the mountains to hide from a more violent mankind, patiently awaiting their inevitable extinction, an idea that plays better in 2014 than it did in 1957. In other words, Kneale posits that man, rather than the Yeti, is the monster, more violent and brutal than the barely-glimpsed white-haired giants seen in the film.

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The main criticism lobbied at The Abominable Snowman is that the greedy and brutish natures of the ironically named Friend and trigger-happy Shelley are overdone. Stanley Baker, Tom Friend in the TV version, was mostly playing villains at this time and may not have been much more subtle than Tucker, but it’s possible. That both Friend and Shelley are inelegant, sometimes outright rude and crude Americans provides an obvious contrast to articulate, diplomatic, and cultured Rollason, but there’s no shading, either (particularly when one compares the subtle, better-written differences among the three English characters in the first act).

If Kneale bludgeons home his message, it’s still a legitimate one done with great intelligence, if lacking in subtlety. Further, Tucker and especially Cushing give good performances that make their characters believable. Director Guest found fault with Tucker, a concession to the American market, but the problem isn’t with his performance, but rather the way the character is written. (However, Robert Brown, normally an excellent actor specializing in reserved, sometimes stuffy authority figure types, is really out of his element and unpardonably hammy.)

The movie seems to have enjoyed a larger (though still modest) budget compared to other Hammer films of the period. Guest was allowed a 10-day second-unit shoot in the French Pyrenees for the film’s climbing footage, which matches well with Bernard Robinson’s seemingly expansive sets built mostly at Pinewood. Their components could be swiveled or repositioned so that the same boulders and rock faces could be used multiple times. This becomes apparent after awhile, but the atmospheric lighting hides much of this.

The advantages of the Blu-ray format greatly enhance the viewing experience. I’d seen an excellent 35mm print at the Directors Guild, part of a festival sponsored by the American Cinematheque (Val Guest was in attendance). Anchor Bay’s good DVD followed in 2008, but this new release offers a viewing experience much closer to what it was like seeing the film in 35mm. Here, the big monastery sets built at Bray Studios look all the more vast and impressive, while Guest’s superb direction of the tense action in the lonely mountains comes off better, its characters seeming more isolated in this suffocating snowy wilderness than ever. (Guest is particularly good handling the film’s many nighttime scenes.)

The region “A” encoded disc presents an unrestored version of the film, whose master exhibits fair amounts of negative damage that varies from reel-to-reel, even shot-to-shot at times, as does the English-only audio. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono (billed as stereo on the disc) is rather muffled on the first reel but gets better, and the volume likewise changes from reel-to-reel. The Japanese subtitles are removable. Like the Anchor Bay disc, there are no special features. (Correction: As several on the Classic Horror Film Board have helpfully pointed out, the disc, actually released in 2000, did include an audio commentary track with Guest and Kneale, a trailer, and “World of Hammer” episode, so you’ll want to hold onto that DVD and I’ll want to stop relying on Amazon for DVD release data.)


* The movie was retitled The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in the U.S. The Japanese Blu-ray reviewed here is listed under the title 恐怖の雪男.

Brannigan featured

Blu-ray Review: “Brannigan” (1975)

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“Knock knock.”

Brannigan (1975) is a guilty pleasure. John Wayne, in one of his last films – he made only Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976) after this – plays a fish-out-of-water Chicago cop in London, in a movie all too clearly inspired by the success of Dirty Harry (1971), a project originally offered to but rejected by Wayne. But Dirty Harry eventually grossed $36 million domestically ($18 million in rentals during its initial release) against a budget of just $4 million – and at a time when Wayne’s pictures were marginally successful at best.

Wayne responded with McQ (1974), a Dirty Harry clone much less enjoyable than the supremely ridiculous and touchingly elegiac though unrelated Brannigan. Most reviewers then and now unfavorably compare both films to Clint Eastwood’s now very dated Dirty Harry series (all but the first of the five films are virtually unwatchable today). The offbeat setting and obvious though entertaining cultural clashes are a plus, and Brannigan is more relaxed and less imitative of Dirty Harry, even though its premise resembles yet another Eastwood picture, Coogan’s Bluff (1969). Wayne, then 67 but looking much older with his deeply-etched features, big gut and bad toupee, is barely credible as an active police officer, but a few amusing lines of dialogue (“Get Brannigan! Use a forklift if you have to!”) amusingly address these issues while his relationship with co-star Judy Geeson is, thankfully, more paternal than romantic.

MGM holds the rights to this United Artists release. They in turn have licensed their video master to Twilight Time. There are some good extra features, but the transfer itself appears old and/or inadequate. It’s not terrible, but falls into that I-guess-it-looks-a-little-better-than-the-DVD category, as evidenced by the high-def trailer that’s also included. Using inferior source elements, it’s clearly sharper and brighter than the feature presentation.

The movie opens in Chicago (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh was based in Seattle) where police Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) bursts through a door, interrupting a small-time counterfeiter hard at work. “Knock knock,” Brannigan says, with exquisite John Wayne deadpannedness. He’s looking for notorious racketeer Ben Larkin (John Vernon, the Mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry) but Larkin, threatened with a grand jury indictment, has already done a runner to London, where Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) stands ready to arrest and extradite the underworld kingpin.

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Brannigan’s boss, Capt. Moretti (Ralph Meeker) puts Big Jim aboard the next flight to London, where DS (Detective Sergeant) Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), Brannigan’s driver and liaison officer, is there to meet him.  However, just as Brannigan arrives in London Town, cocky, confident Larkin is kidnapped by two hoods (one is James Booth from Zulu, the other is Straw Dogs‘ Del Henney) who make huge ransom demands from Larkin’s attorney (Mel Ferrer) – and who show they mean business by mailing one of Larkin’s severed fingers to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, a hit man (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin back in Chicago makes several extravagant attempts on Brannigan’s life.

The cinematic Old West didn’t change much as Wayne himself aged. Conversely, it’s a little jarring to see him in then-present day London madly trying to jump the Tower Bridge’s drawbridge in a yellow Ford Capri. The film tries hard to be a fish-out-of-water Western in modern dress, even to the point of staging a completely superfluous comical barroom brawl (What exactly instigates it anyway?) that, minus the bowler hats and pints of Guinness, could be straight out of McLintock! (1963).

The movie works best watching the British characters react with dismay, disgust, or bemusement to Brannigan’s American swagger (he insists on carrying his flagrantly illegal handgun, all but telling an appalled Sir Charles to buzz off) and vice versa. In other hands Sir Charles might have been a painful stereotype, an English version of John Vernon’s Mayor character from Dirty Harry, but Attenborough nicely underplays his role, alternately amused if puzzled by the oversized American and only occasionally loses his cool, helpless against Brannigan’s inelegant meddling. Geeson, 41 years Wayne’s junior, is well cast: believably efficient and friendly but also clearly doing a job, she and Wayne have better rapport than many of Wayne’s late-career female co-stars.

Douglas Hickox directed. His short list of credits is nothing if not eclectic. His previous film was the horror-black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), maybe Vincent Price’s best-ever film, and soon after Hickox would helm the vastly underrated prequel to Zulu, entitled Zulu Dawn (1979). Despite good reviews that film died at the box office. Hickox segued into television and died too young, in 1988.

The picture has a few good action set pieces, an excellent car chase undermined only by the sequence’s final stunt, clearly faked via some sort of optical or miniature effect. Though old and fat, Wayne in his old age still could throw a visually spectacular punch, and behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot by Geeson during the filming of the picture’s climax suggests Wayne may have thrown his considerable weight in other areas, influencing how at least his character should be photographed. (The home movies show something else likely never seen on any other Blu-ray extra: actor Mel Ferrer picking his nose.) The locations are used well. Scenes in Picadilly Circus show off marquees advertising The Sting and The Great Gatsby, while the nearby Picadilly Theatre promises A Streetcar Named Desire headlined by Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw.

Disc extras include an audio commentary by Judy Geeson, prompted by Nick Redman. The aforementioned home movies are limited to footage of filming the climactic scene, but they are interesting for showing Wayne’s particular way of filming such sequences.  There’s an isolated score track featuring Dominic Frontiere’s frequently derivative music (a scene with Ferrer eluding the police sounds all too much like a cue Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Planet of the Apes, for instance; other cues are reminiscent of Shaft).  Julie Kirgo offers some good liner notes, and there’s that better-looking-than-the-movie trailer.

Not a great film but far more entertaining than one might expect, Brannigan’s impact is undermined by a lackluster transfer but still a whole heck of a lot of fun.












Equus Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Equus” (1977)

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Equus (1977) is the Sidney Lumet-directed film version of Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 play. Both the play and the film (which Shaffer adapted) grapple with weighty issues including primarily acute mental illness, and the spiritual advantages/disadvantages of religious passion and psychological therapy. The story focuses on the relationship between a psychiatrist, played in the film by Richard Burton, and his patient, Peter Firth. The case, suggested to Shaffer by a real-life incident, is about a 17-year-old boy who with a hoof pick viciously blinds six prized horses at the stable in which he’s employed. In both the play and the film there are undercurrents of bestiality and arguably themes of repressed homosexuality as well, though it’s also less about the boy than the psychiatrist’s reaction to his mental state. As in most London and New York productions of the play, in the film there is much full-frontal male nudity and, in the film more than the play, squirmily uncomfortable footage of Firth’s character physically as well as spiritually bonding with real horses. The subject matter made for one of The Onion’s better jokes.

In the play, instead of using real horses onstage, actors generally in black tights or body suits wear elaborate but singularly unreal horses’ heads. For the movie, Shaffer and presumably Lumet decided to use real, live horses instead, though the movie retains many other theatrical devices: at one point Firth plays himself at age six in a flashback scene, there are long monologues spoken directly into the camera by Burton, and deliberately theatrical, not realistic, lighting is utilized in several key scenes. Nonetheless, the decision to literalize the horses angered some purists, and partly for this reason reviews were mixed-to-negative. The subject matter turned audiences away and it was not a great commercial success.

This is unfortunate, for while Equus is a difficult film on many levels, it’s also adult and intelligent if at times a bit pretentious and self-conscious, though overall superbly acted by a peerless cast. Lumet’s direction is among his most accomplished. In addition to his usual uncluttered approach, often as simple as pointing his camera at the characters the audience will want most to watch at any given moment, his handling of all the scenes involving the horses is among his most subtly cinematic.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, offers a flawless transfer of the film, beautifully shot in spherical 1.85:1 Panavision by Oswald Morris. Further, the label’s usual extras are supplemented with a superb two-hour-plus documentary on Burton, In From the Cold? (1988), making this effectively an intriguing double-feature.*

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The movie, like the play, is set in England but filmed, apparently for tax reasons, in and around Toronto, Ontario. Court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Eileen Atkins) presses esteemed but overworked psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Burton) to take on the case of Alan Strang (Firth), a 17-year-old boy who blinded horses at the stable where he worked.

Alan proves hard to treat. He’s either catatonic or, when questioned, replies with television commercial jingles. Looking for answers Dysart visits Alan’s parents, housewife Dora (Joan Plowright), a devout Christian, and her printer husband, Frank (Colin Blakely), an atheist. Through this contradictory child-rearing Alan develops a strange spiritual interest in horses. After destroying a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion, his father gives him a painting of a horse, which glowers down at Alan in his bed. Dysart later visits the stables where its wealthy owner, Harry Dalton (Harry Andrews), express disgusted shock over what has happened. Until Alan went mad, he gave every indication of being a hard-working polite young man. Dysart also learns that a young woman Alan knew there, rider Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter), suffered her own breakdown and became reclusive after the incident.

Dysart gradually penetrates Alan’s psyche. Alan’s attraction to horses takes on a religious, as well as sexual significance. He sees the horses, which he calls by the name “Equus,” their Latin origin, and the bits they wear as enslaved and tortured like Christ, and that in becoming a stable boy, Alan has been granted entrance into their holy temple. Alan’s confessions become increasingly dark, as he attempts to become one with the horses by sneaking them off into the night, nakedly riding and caressing them.

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Ultimately though, Equus is less about Alan than it is about Dysart, an unhappily married man with existential concerns about the treatment he provides. However cross-eyed Alan’s religious epiphanies, Dysart argues, through his passion (in the religious sense) he’s experienced something Dysart has not. To “cure” Alan is to make him “normal,” but at what cost? The film reminded me of friends I’ve known with bipolar disorder. Medication might provide some stable, manageable middle ground between the manic highs and cripplingly suicidal lows but, once experienced, those unimaginable maniacal highs are pretty hard to give up, which is partly why so many manic-depressives go off their medication.

The original London production starred Firth, with Alec McCowen as Dysart. Firth reprised the role on Broadway and in Los Angeles productions featuring, in turn, Anthony Hopkins, Burton, Leonard Nimoy, and Anthony Perkins as Dysart, with Tom Hulce eventually replacing Firth.

Firth is fine but Burton is almost revelatory, giving one of the best performances of his career. He could be overly theatrical or walk through certain movie parts, but apparently he recognized this as a major opportunity and, with Lumet’s directions, gives a remarkably restrained performance. The entire supporting cast operates at the same high standard.

The video transfer of Equus is basically flawless. It’s a clean source with great detail and nearly perfect color, while the DTS-HD Master Audio, a 2.0 mono mix, sounds good also, and includes optional English subtitles. The region-free disc is a 3,000-copy limited edition.

In addition to Twilight Time’s usual extras – audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo with liner notes by the latter, an isolated score track, and trailer, the disc includes a marvelous two-hour-plus documentary of Burton made shortly after his death (but with a mysterious 2010 copyright notice), In From the Cold?, featuring interviews with his vast Welsh family and hometown friends, tracing his life from beginning to end and buttressed with generous film clips (reflecting more on Burton’s stormy life than chronologically unspooled) and archival interviews with Burton (and wife Elizabeth Taylor). Fascinating stuff: Burton obviously drunk and self-loathing in several of the interviews, Lauren Bacall’s scathing criticism of Dick and Liz’s opulent lifestyle, and John Gielgud reflecting on a bemusing encounter with Ringo Starr (“He had no idea who I was, and a daresay he didn’t know who I was, either!”) aboard the famous couple’s yacht. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

Equus is a challenging work, not entirely successful and in many respects unpleasant, but it ambitiously tries to make sense of what may ultimately be unknowable. As Dysart himself, paraphrasing Alan, says, “At least I have galloped. Have you?”


* Another double-bill an imaginative film programmer might try would be to pair Equus with John Huston’s similar Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).

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Blu-ray Review: “The Front” (1976)


Since his directorial debut in 1969, Woody Allen has rarely appeared in movies he himself did not at least write. A rare exception was The Front (1976), a comedy-drama made by his regular producers, Jack Rollins (nearly 99 today!) and the late Charles H. Joffe. It proved a very worthwhile project, a movie about, directed, written, and co-starring real-life victims of the Blacklist. The film strikes a somewhat uneasy balance tailoring its script, somewhat, to Allen’s familiar screen persona with fact-based anecdotes and even a few autobiographical ones.

At the time of the film’s release, victims of the Blacklist had been able to work openly for only the past decade or so, the House Un-American Activities Committee having only been abolished the year before, and then as now attitudes toward American Communists or communist sympathizers remain divided. But for those unaware of how talented (and predominantly Jewish) artists were tragically and unjustly treated, The Front is like a crash course in dark period of American history.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this Columbia release is exceptionally good. The film had always looked pretty grainy in previous home video incarnations, but their disc is almost impressively clean and includes a couple of good extra features.

Lowly cashier and small-time bookie Howard Prince (Allen) is approached by school chum Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, Manhattan), who needs a “front” so that the blacklisted television dramatist can continue to support himself. Offering a percentage of his writing income, Miller has Prince present himself to the network as a talented new writer. Miller’s teleplays, submitted under Prince’s name, impress drama anthology producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci). Prince hits on Florence, already dating somebody else, but through the tenderness and insight of “Prince’s” scripts she gradually finds herself drawn to the supposed scribe. So in demand are Prince’s teleplays he agrees to front two more blacklisted writers (one played by Lloyd Gough), which in turn gets Prince out of perennial debt.

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Meanwhile, the anthology show’s serio-comic host, comic Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) runs afoul of the network after his past participation in Communist meetings is exposed by Freedom Information Services, an organization pattered after Red Channels. Sussman is forced to fire Hecky (while vehemently denying his past political associations is the reason) and the comic is forced to accept a low-paying gig in the Catskills, where the hotel owner, taking advantage of Hecky’s inability to otherwise work, blatantly short-changes his previously agreed-upon fee.

The Front is unusual in the way it grafts something like a typical Woody Allen movie (the schlemiel seducing a beautiful woman with his self-deprecating humor, the Bob Hope comedy-influenced ruse constantly in danger of completely unraveling) with a straightforward dramatization of how the Blacklist operated and its devastating impact on its victims. Allen’s performance isn’t great; he’s a bit awkward in the straight dramatic scenes especially, though for the most part he’s okay. He’s also playing against type insofar as he’s playing a three-time loser: a bookie who can’t pay his debts, and a “nearly-illiterate” and apolitical working class New Yorker.

But as a primer on the Blacklist, particularly in terms of its impact on New York-based network television, The Front is all aces.  The end credits, in which director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Mostel, Bernardi, Gough, and Joshua Shelley (as Sam) are listed alongside the year in which they were blacklisted, validates everything that came before, and usually startles first-time viewers of the film.

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Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated screenplay draws on real events. The three writers Allen’s character fronts for were based on Bernstein, Abraham Polonsky, and Arnold Manoff, while Mostel’s character is a composite of Philip Loeb, co-star of the early television comedy-drama The Goldbergs, and Mostel himself. Hecky’s humiliating weekend in the Catskills happened for real to Mostel after he was blacklisted and it’s easy to read a kind of post-traumatic rage in his performance of those scenes. Myriad other moments, from Prince’s complaints that one writer’s latest work isn’t up to snuff to a gas company’s complain about a concentration camp script (it’ll give gas a bad name) likewise really happened.

And humiliation is mostly what The Front is about: pressure from sadistic (and frequently anti-Semite) people in power to pressure the helpless into untenable name-naming, of surrendering friends and colleagues whose political leanings are already known. The Front lays bare this raw bitterness, taking form as a kind of glorious revenge film.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this 1.85:1 release is positively pristine, with no signs at all of age-related wear or damage, and on larger monitors and screens it’s fascinating to looks at this sometimes anachronistic ‘70s depiction of early-1950s New York. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English, with optional English subtitles, is also good considering its monophonic limitations.

The disc includes an audio commentary featuring Marcovicci and Twilight Time regulars Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, the latter also providing the disc’s booklet essay. Also included are the original trailer and a limited isolated score (by Dave Grusin) track.

Diagram showing how Cinerama works, 1952.

Eight Reasons Why You Should Dump That LCD Television and Buy an HD Projector


The mounted screen, retractable for when I want to watch news programs and the like on the 45-inch plasma, behind the screen in this photograph

For the last two years I toyed the possibility of upgrading from a 45-inch plasma to a 90-inch projection system. I love my plasma but it’s nearly ten years old, two pixels have burned out, and big widescreen epics like Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cinerama Holiday just don’t quite cut it like they do on big movie screens. Further, while I had little interest in 3-D television when it was new – Did I really need to see Cats and Dogs 2 at all, let alone in 3-D? – my assumption that few of the classic and not-so-classic 3-D movies from the 1950s-80s would ever get released is, thankfully, proving incorrect. Not only have obvious titles like House of Wax and Dial M for Murder made it to 3-D Blu-ray, nowadays so are obscurities like Man in the Dark, The Bubble, and Dragonfly Squadron. Who’d have thought it? How great would it is if you could watch your favourite TV shows, favourite channels, etc. wherever you went? Well, you can do that now easily with your smartphones. But the constant incoming calls are extremely disrupting when you are enjoying an NFL match. That is why having a portable TV is the best way to entertain yourself. A portable television can be the best device for you when you are planning to travel or go camping. For an ideal guys’ night out, you can easily watch your sports channels with your gang of boys. Visit for the best portable TVs of 2020.

And so early this year I began doing research on-line and in stores, looking for the best HD projectors, screens, and 3-D Blu-ray players within my limited budget. All the best information I found on-line. Electronics stores, at least in Japan, make a pathetic non-effort to sell projector-based home theater systems. Here in Kyoto I visited every major retailer. Many chain stores like Kojima and Edion (formerly Midori) don’t sell projectors at all. Others, like Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera, are dominated by LCD models, with a new emphasis on 4K technology. While 4K sets are certainly impressive, they strike me as a transitional video format lacking the striking, sign-me-up contrast between 4:3 CRTs and their standard-def signals and the first 1080p widescreen TVs.

High-def projectors were exiled far from the HDTV section of these shops to far-flung No Man’s Lands of the sales floor, near things like high dryers and toaster ovens, hidden behind curtains barely hinting at what lay behind them. At one store five or six projectors were set up under less than ideal circumstances and all were showing Monsters University (in-2D), hardly representative of what these babies can do. Worse, at another outlet, projection beams bounced off mirrors onto screens barely larger than most laptops. What’s the point of that?

But technophilic websites provided detailed reviews of almost every piece of hardware I had under consideration and, without ever really having the opportunity to actually see even a single HD projector optimally displayed I decided to take a chance. I had a gut feeling I’d be happy with what I purchased, and anyway I was still keeping my 45-inch plasma, figuring I could continue to watch the news and older TV shows (like Kinescoped episodes of The Honeymooners) on that.

I ended up buying an Epson Dreamio EH-TW5200 projector (cheaper in Japan right now than in America), a Sony BDP-S5100 3D Blu-ray player (none of my existing players were 3-D), three pairs of Bluetooth 3-D glasses, a Sanwa 16:9 90-inch screen (model number PRS-KBHD90), and a generic, universal ceiling mount (NB T717M).


The generic mount came with terrible installation instructions but I saved a small fortune buying this no-name one (about $25) vs. an Epson model (about $300).

I saved a lot of money installing everything myself, and purchasing the screen, ceiling mount, and glasses via less costly brands. To get everything mounted and up and running, I also invested in an extra-long HDMI cable (10 meters), and additional material from the local hardware store to mount the screen to the wall. Looking back, I’m glad everything arrived piecemeal over several days, allowing me the time to carefully install and check each component properly.

Once, all set up, I was dazzled. Absolutely dazzled.

During that first week I gave the system a workout with movies filmed over different eras, countries, and in a variety of formats: Bolt (3-D), The Hidden Fortress (in Toho Scope), Dial M for Murder (3-D), The Blues Brothers (1.85:1), Tron Legacy (3-D), Creature from the Black Lagoon (3-D), The Seven Year Itch (CinemaScope), Perfect Friday (1.66:1), The Great White Silence (a silent film in 1.33:1 format), Destroy All Monsters, The Flesh and Blood Show (part-3-D), Grand Prix (Super Panavision 70), Man in the Dark (3-D), Fantasia 2000, Toy Story (3-D), The 300 Spartans, and Chain of Evidence (a 1.85:1 Sony Choice Collection DVD-R), Wild Oceans (IMAX 3-D), Phantom of the Paradise, and Samson and Delilah (1.37:1 Technicolor).

And so I offer eight reasons why you should dump that LCD television today:


  1. The Price. Sharp’s 90-inch 1080p 3-D television retails for $10,999.99 (though as I write this it’s on sale for a “mere” $7,997.99). Conversely, for absolutely everything described above – the projector, screen, ceiling mount, 3-D Blu-ray player, three pairs of 3-D glasses, and various lumber, screws, wall brackets, etc. (to wall-mount the projector myself) I spent around $1,250. My 45-inch plasma cost more than three times that ten years ago. It was also close to what I paid for a 28-inch 16:9 tube set some years before that. As my hard-to-impress wife said upon seeing it projected for the first time, “Gee, I guess you’ll never need to go to a movie theater ever again.” For $1,250, that’s quite a bargain.
  2. The Picture. My budget didn’t allow a 4K projection system but, truth be told, I don’t need one. My Epson delivers the goods, with an extremely sharp, bright, and color-filled image that, frankly, looks a heck of a lot better than I see in most movie houses. The two big concerns I had were brightness and blacks. The former isn’t a problem because Japanese houses have big metal shutters on all the windows (useful when there’s a typhoon) and even in broad daylight I’m able to make the room completely dark. This will also help me extend the life of the expensive-to-replace projection bulb, as I’m able to set it at “Cinema” (i.e., economy mode). But even if I wanted to let a little light into the room, projection systems these days seem to be plenty bright. Blacks are a little less inky than on my plasma, but this is more than compensated with advantages noted in Points #5 and 6.
  3. The Sound. My 5.1 sound system enhanced movie-watching on my plasma, but the much bigger screen also meant moving my left and right speakers farther apart, and I’m also sitting much farther back from the screen than I did with my plasma. All this has led to much more obvious directionality in terms of the sound effects and, in the case of early CinemaScope and big road show titles, more directionality with the dialogue, too.
  4. The 3-D. I’ve seen 3-D projected 80 different ways, from optimal viewings like the House of Wax screening I once attended on the Paramount lot with director Andre de Toth in attendance, to wretched showings of Gorilla at Large on commercial television in the early ‘80s. Once again, the Epson really delivers, with a perfectly bright, near-perfect presentation on everything I looked at, with Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wild Ocean (which had my six-year-old reaching out to “touch” the dolphins swimming toward the camera), Man in the Dark, and Bolt looking particularly glorious. No complaints here.
  5. The Big Screen. First, yes, obviously, BIG movies like Cleopatra, Star Wars, Patton, The Big Country, and South Pacific look much better. But there’s also something subtler going on here. Technically, I’m probably not actually seeing that much more detail on the 90-inch screen that I couldn’t also perceive on the 45-inch plasma, but the much larger screen (area-wise, more than three times larger) psychologically makes images much more immediate, intimate, and lifelike. I’d liken it to the difference between having big coffee table arts books and actually seeing big canvasses up on real walls in real museums. I started watching the British heist film Perfect Friday (a region “B” Blu-ray) on the plasma, before the system had arrived, and the second-half on the projection system, and it was a completely different experience. I found myself much more engaged with what I was watching. I was less tempted to check my cellphone, to see what was new on Facebook. For the first time in a long while, I regularly watched whole movies fully engaged and all the way through without a break.
  6. The Advantages of a Projected vs. Plasma/LED Image. No more over-scanning. 1.85:1 is 1.85:1, not 1.78:1. More subtly, watching a projected image reflected off a screen offers a distinct aesthetic advantage over plasma or LCD television light directly entering the eye. This is something hard to explain, except to say that whites aren’t as harsh, and colors seem both more natural and richer at once.
  7. The Return of the Communal Viewing Experience. Another subtly different viewing experience watching movies with family and friends on the projection system vs. huddling around my plasma is equally different to pinpoint. It’s both easier to “lose oneself” watching a movie this way while at the same time I’ve noticed a return of the kind of communal viewing experience that’s hard to achieve even with a big monitor. With my daughter, it’s no longer “Let’s watch The Little Mermaid in Daddy’s “TV room,” but, according to her, “Let’s go to the theater.”
  8. The Surprising Fact About DVDs. While awaiting delivery of my new system’s various components I anticipated limiting the projector to Blu-ray discs while continuing to watch regular standard-def DVDs on my plasma. Standard-def DVDs were going to look pretty terrible on a 90-inch screen, right? But then, because during those first few days I was still trying to figure out how best to retract the screen I decided to give Chain of Evidence and an old Monogram Western starring Johnny Mack Brown a try. These were Warner Archive DVD-Rs (one 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen, the other 1.37:1 standard size) drawn from less-than-pristine film elements. Yet even these looked surprisingly good, with the built-in upscaling on the projector they were perfectly watchable. Blu-ray, naturally, looks better, but my DVD collection has hardly become obsolete.

I toyed with getting a 100-inch screen instead of a 90-inch one but I made the right choice. The room is relatively small and, zoomed as wide as it will go and mounted near the opposite wall, the Epson projects a nearly perfect 90-inch image.

Those retail stores I visited were, in my view, simply nuts not to push HD projectors more than they do. If consumers saw what these machines are truly capable of I’m certain they’d fly off the shelves. I couldn’t be happier with mine, and I urge all hard-core cinephiles to consider a projection system the next time they are ready to upgrade.

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Blu-ray Review: “The Blue Max” (1966)

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Over the years I tried several times, and failed, to watch John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966), the big-scale adaptation of Jack D. Hunter’s novel about German fighter pilots during World War I. Neither the widescreen laserdisc nor the later DVD version quite worked for me; I think I got through about the first half-hour in each format.

But Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition is something else entirely. The transfer is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. On big screen TV’s, The Blue Max really comes to life, with some of the most spectacular aerial photography ever done, and in this CGI-dominated movie world we live in now, is more impressive than ever.

The superb video transfer is matched by an equally impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that does particularly good service to Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of his best-ever, while Twilight Time offers an invaluable supplement by including not only Goldsmith’s score on an isolated track, but also music recorded but cut from the film, as well as alternate cues. It’s like getting both a great Blu-ray of the movie and a super-deluxe soundtrack CD all in one.

In 1918, German trenches Cpl. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard; “stachel” is German for “sting”) joins the German Army Air Service, he from a working class background in a squadron dominated by flyers with aristocratic bearing.

Stachel becomes obsessed with proving himself an equal ranking with the best flyers by earning Germany’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Mérite, or “Blue Max,” awarded to those fighter pilots who’ve shot down 20 or more enemy aircraft.

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The focus of Stachel’s blind ambition is rival elite pilot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Meanwhile, Stachel’s commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler) is increasingly disturbed by Stachel’s ruthlessness and utter lack of German chivalry. In one early scene, Stachel shoots down a British S.E.5 but because there are no witnesses to the downing, Statchel is denied credit for this “kill.” Undeterred, Stachel searches the French countryside in the pouring rain in search of the wrecked aircraft, showing no sympathy for its dead pilot and zero interest in helping Germany win the war.

Later, he incapacitates an Allied two-man observation plane, shooting the rear gunner and motioning to the pilot to follow him back to the German airfield. However, moments before landing the gunner revives and reaches for his machine gun, forcing Stachel to shoot the plane down. Based on past behavior, Stachel’s fellow pilots wrongly assume he shot the plane down in cold blood for all to see and the self-obsessed Stachel becomes a pariah within his own squadron.

However, Stachel’s ruthlessness attracts the attention of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Willi’s uncle. With Germany losing the war, he sees Stachel as a valuable propaganda tool in a last push for German victory. The General’s wife, Kaeti (Ursula Andress) has secretly been having an affair with Willi while Stachel, obsessed with matching the aristocrat off the battlefield as well as on, embarks on an affair with Kaeti as well.

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The $5 million production is justly famous for its flying sequences, directed by Anthony Squire in the skies over Ireland. The filmmakers took great pains to recreate the period aircraft and wartime air combat as accurately as possible, and to this day aviation buffs consider The Blue Max one of the finest films of its type. Further, the aerial scenes are always photographed in interesting, very cinematic ways. One beautifully shot scene near the end of the picture has the camera dollying in a semi-circle about waist-high, peering through the large crowds that have come to watch a test flight, the experimental plane seen taking off the distance beyond. Other footage shot from a camera plane is equally impressive, and the stunt flying is about par with the incredible flying scenes in Wings (1927) and Hell’s Angels (1930), The Blue Max’s only serious rivals.

Dramatically, the movie works better in terms of Willi’s and Heidermann’s contrastingly amused and appalled reactions to Stachel, and von Klugermann’s manipulation of same, rather than as a portrait of Stachel himself. As a character he’s too single-minded and cold-blooded to be anything more than merely reprehensible, though the movie deserves points for its atypical absence of romanticism, the usual treatment in movies about fearless flyers. No actor could have made the character as written in any way sympathetic, and though George Peppard is fairly good in the role, a Terence Stamp/Richard Harris type undoubtedly could have provided more subtle shading. On the other hand, Peppard actually did some of his own flying in the film, adding to the verisimilitude of those scenes.

The rest of the cast, however, is outstanding, particularly the always excellent James Mason, whose subtle, aristocratic ruthlessness, a kind of proto-Nazi, makes an interesting contrast to Stachel’s bludgeoning one. Karl Michael Vogler, who’d go on to play Erwin Rommel in Patton (1970), a role essayed by Mason in two films himself, is also very good. But it’s Mason’s performance, not Peppard, who completely dominates the film’s climax.

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Swiss-German Andress has the right voice (reportedly dubbed though it sounds like her) and bearing though also comes off as anachronistically ‘60s as Countess Kaeti (pronounced “Katie”) though, as she often was during this period, indescribably voluptuously sexy. Startlingly for a Hollywood feature released in the summer of 1966, Andress fleetingly appears nude several times. The pre-MPAA ratings system film nonetheless received a Production Code seal and released without cuts.

The Blue Max was among the last official CinemaScope releases. The aforementioned laserdisc and DVD versions were simply inadequate, but Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray, especially when seen on big screen TVs and via projection systems, looks outstanding from start to finish. Except for the blue skies and lush green Irish countryside, the rest of the film is by design muted and dark. This and the widescreen compositions tested the limits of standard-def but here everything simply looks and sounds great. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio likewise adds immeasurably to the presentation. An Intermission break and entr’acte are also included. Optional English subtitles are included, and this limited edition is restricted to 3,000 units.

Extras include a trailer, and a music-centric audio commentary track featuring moving-scoring authority Jon Burlingame, who joins Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. The big supplement on this release is Jerry Goldsmith’s complete score on isolated tracks and not limited to music that made the final cut. As mentioned above music scored but cut by Guillerman is included, along with alternate takes/cues on a second track. And, as usual, Kirgo contributes her usual insightful liner notes.

I, for one, am glad that I held off seeing this until Twilight Time’s visually and aurally spectacular Blu-ray release, short of a 35mm screening under optical viewing conditions, this is definitely the way to see the picture.

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Blu-ray Review: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974)

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There seems little doubt that, 20 years from now, many of Clint Eastwood’s formula blockbusters, movies like The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Firefox (1982), and all of the Dirty Harry sequels will gradually fade from public consciousness, while his more ambitious and unusual starring films – The Beguiled (1971), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Bronco Billy (1980) – will be reappraised as far more interesting works. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) belongs in this latter category. It’s a road movie-crime film with, for the time and its genre especially, surprisingly rich and offbeat characterizations. It’s also, contrastingly, brutally violent at times and features especially good action set pieces, particularly some dangerous-looking car stunts supervised by Carey Loftin (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). Eastwood alone gets his name above the title, but up-and-comer Jeff Bridges received most of the accolades, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Eastwood’s Malpaso Company produced the film for release through United Artists, but the actor reportedly was unhappy with UA’s handling of the movie (though it still grossed a robust $25 million against its $4 million negative cost). He may have a point. Warner Bros., home to most of Eastwood’s filmography, aggressively releases and re-releases all of Eastwood’s movies, good and bad, while Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, part of the MGM library, has been released to DVD exactly once: in June 2000, in a widescreen but unenhanced video transfer. Despite the grossly outdated transfer, as I write this Amazon is currently selling new copies of this old DVD for $75.98. Huh? Why MGM has chosen to all but ignore probably the most internationally bankable star of the last half-century is a mystery.

But now, through Twilight Time, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot comes to Blu-ray and 1080p high-definition. Needless to say, it’s a vast improvement over the DVD, especially considering writer-director Michael Cimino’s and cinematographer Frank Stanley’s excellent, frame-filling Panavision compositions. The disc also includes an audio commentary and trailer.

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The movie starts with a literal bang as the sermon by a rural Idaho preacher (Eastwood, hair neatly slicked back and wearing bifocals) is interrupted by the shotgun blasts of Red Leary (George Kennedy), clearly gunning for the minister. Meanwhile, carefree young drifter Lightfoot (Bridges) steals a Trans Am right off the lot of a used car dealer (Gregory Walcott). Lightfoot and the preacher meet as the latter effects his escape from Leary, with the younger ne’er-do-well gradually recognizing the preacher as Thunderbolt, a fugitive bank robber who with muscle Leary, driver Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), and two others audaciously used a 20mm cannon to blast open a seemingly impenetrable vault and steal the $500,000 inside it.

Thunderbolt squirreled away the loot behind the blackboard of a one-room schoolhouse, but the two return there only to find a modern school built in its place. Leary and Goody eventually catch up to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seeking revenge, all because Leary wrongly assumes Thunderbolt double-crossing everyone. Instead, Lightfoot convinces the others to simply break into the vault a second time, using the same cannon.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot came about after Michael Cimino impressed Eastwood with his cocky personality and rewrites on Magnum Force (1973), the second Dirty Harry movie. Eastwood generously acquiesced to first-time director Cimino’s desire to adapt his own script, though Eastwood reportedly was later annoyed by Cimino’s perfectionism and endless takes. (Cost-conscious Eastwood has one of the lowest shooting ratios in Hollywood, and during the making of the film Eastwood-as-producer often vetoed Cimino’s excesses.) While overlong at 114 minutes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s screenplay is nevertheless far superior to Magnum Force and most of Eastwood’s ‘70s output.

In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot Eastwood is polar-opposite of his short-fused, grimly neo-fascist Dirty Harry, nor is he the reticent, brawling good ol’ boy of comedies like Every Which Way But Loose. Instead, here he’s unusually relaxed and even smiles broadly several times, Thunderbolt clearly amused by Lightfoot’s cocky, charming naïveté. It’s Lightfoot’s ambition to pull off a big heist that drive the plot, his childlike enthusiasm spurring the more experienced if aimless middle-aged career criminals.

That the heist becomes something as enjoyable as it is dangerous and even deadly is one of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s many unusual qualities. Like the slam-bang opening, Cimino’s idiosyncratic script is full of surprises. Amusingly, to stake their heist the four work minimum-wage jobs: Goody drives an ice cream truck, Leary works as a third-shift janitor at a department store guarded by man-eating Dobermans, etc.

In one of the best (if entirely tangential) scenes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride with what turns out to be a completely balmy driver (Bill McKinney) who keeps a caged raccoon in the passenger seat while his car’s trunk is packed to the gills with fluffy white bunny rabbits. (Cimino seems to have given Bridges especially room to improvise. One possible example of this is an exchange where Lightfoot accidentally puts his hand in some raccoon shit. Eastwood’s amused reaction doesn’t look rehearsed.)

Ultimately though, it’s the beguiling father-son like bonding among thieves Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that cements the picture, the former amused and paternal, fulfilling an unstated longing by the latter, eternally optimistic, for someone to look up to. Some read a gay subtext to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but really it draws on a tradition common to myriad B Westerns, with Bridges a Russell Hayden/Lucky Jenkins-type admirer to father figure William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy.

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The 1080p transfer of this 2.35:1 Panavision production is excellent. The title elements are quite grainy, but overall the transfer is true and accurate with minimal manipulation. In high-def the careful framing and gorgeous rural Idaho and Montana locations really shine, while the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio maximizes the limitations of the mono audio. (Optional English subtitles are provided.)

Extras include Julie Kirgo’s observant liner notes, and she joins Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on a somewhat meandering but okay audio commentary track. An original trailer is included, along with an isolated score track.

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Book Review: “The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K”

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Niche publishers McFarland & Company are well known for their essential and often outré cinema books. A friend and I used to come up with imaginary titles reflecting McFarland’s quirky catalog: The Moon Voyage Films of Ray Harryhausen, The 2,341 Malaysian Films Beginning with the Letter “F”, Smelly Movies: The Creation, Production, and Distribution of Mike Todd Jr. Smell-o-Vision (Wait a minute – that’s a book I’d like to read!).

The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K is one such actual McFarland title. The great comedy team of Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) are positively beloved around the world for the silent and sound comedies they made for producer Hal Roach, but an entire book devoted to their disastrous last feature, a movie even Laurel himself regarded as “an abortion,” one so notoriously bad even many die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans outright refuse to watch it?

But, in fact, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy is a fascinating read. Though Atoll K is, undeniably, severely flawed for myriad reasons, not the least of which is Laurel’s shocking physical state – he became gravely ill partway into the production, and in much of the picture looks positively cadaverous – author Norbert Aping rightly reappraises the film as not the complete catastrophe most have long assumed, that against all odds the picture has scattered moments of pure Laurel & Hardy comedy in line with their ‘20s and ‘30s films for Roach. More importantly, Aping collates his exhaustive original research into an almost day-by-day account of the film from the development of its multiple screenplays, its problem-plagued production, and labyrinthine release versions.

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The first generation of Laurel & Hardy scholars, notably the late John McCabe, outright dismissed all of the team’s films after 1940, when they left Hal Roach Studios for what they thought would be greener pastures at 20th Century-Fox. However, once ensconced Laurel particularly was horrified to discover that the creative freedom he’d enjoyed at Roach was practically nonexistent at Fox as well as MGM, where they were loaned out for two additional films. The eight features they made during this period, as well as the subsequent Atoll K, were simply dismissed as total rubbish and barely mentioned in any of the early Laurel & Hardy books about their careers.

But DVD releases of the Fox (and, later, MGM) movies beginning in 2006 necessitated at least a perfunctory reexamination and, lo and behold, some of these long-reviled movies weren’t nearly as bad as their reputation suggested. Their first two for Fox, Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) are pretty terrible, and their two for MGM, Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944) arguably are even worse, but in fact their Fox movies gradually improved. Jitterbugs, The Dancing Masters (both 1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters (1945) aren’t exactly masterpieces of screen comedy, but the best of these films are really no worse than the team’s weaker Roach features. Where movies like Bonnie Scotland (1935) and Swiss Miss (1938)  get bogged down with romantic subplots, musical numbers, and Roach’s A-feature ambitions, these later Fox films wisely focus on the team’s unadorned antics.

Nevertheless, the team left Fox after 1945, wrongly assuming their modest but profitable movies assured them employment elsewhere. But the industry was changing rapidly in those early postwar years and Laurel & Hardy, considered “old-fashioned” clowns even during the 1930s, were all but washed up as far as Hollywood was concerned.

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But a comedy-starved Europe had not forgotten them. After the war their older movies were reissued and even their newer films were warmly welcomed. They embarked on a fabulously successful series of British music hall tours where they were mobbed everywhere they went.

Given their huge popularity in Europe, a French-Italian co-production starring Laurel & Hardy must have seemed like a sure thing. Indeed, though Aping’s book doesn’t speculate much on this, had Atoll K been a pleasant and rewarding experience for the team, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Laurel & Hardy might have enjoyed a brief but fruitful second career making one or two features per year there until Hardy’s untimely death.

Unfortunately, and despite a huge budget about equal to the negative cost of all of the team’s Roach features combined, Atoll K was positively cursed from the get-go. As Aping documents with extraordinary detail, the film was plagued with myriad screenwriters working in three languages (English for Laurel & Hardy’s scenes, French and Italian for everything else), each with his own comedy agenda and interests (including political satire), none particularly suited to the team’s style of screen comedy. They were also saddled with a director, Léo Joannon, completely out of synch with their brand of humor, and who infamously strutted about in pith helmet and puttees, armed with megaphones of various sizes and functions.

Meanwhile, the team’s physical health evolved into a major crisis. Hardy was never fatter, though this impacted his comic timing not in the least, and he’s actually less uncomfortably obese than he appeared in his cameo role in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), in which he sweats with alarming profusity. Rather, during the course of Atoll K’s absurdly long production, Stan Laurel undergoes a complete transformation brought on by illness. In most of the location footage, shot first, he appears older but reasonably fit, but in all the studio scenes he looks like a man recently liberated from a concentration camp, the 5’8” actor’s weight dropping down to 115 lbs. at one point. He’s so disturbingly thin and weak, even in some of the team’s best scenes Laurel’s appalling physical state becomes an insurmountable, painful distraction.

Aping’s book is movie archeology at its best. With most of the cast and crew dead or not interviewable, he had to rely on surviving archival documents that are surprisingly plentiful. For instance, he details each version of the treatment and screenplay, weighing their pros and cons, and later clearly examines each of the film’s various final edits, including differing French, Italian, German, and two very different English-language cuts of the film.

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In the larger sense, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers detailed accounts of the team’s movements during pre-production and filming, particularly during its many long delays, as they bide their time in Paris and, later, travel to Italy to help promote the film. Other books have satiated those interested in Laurel & Hardy’s music hall career in Britain, and their last days appearing on the American television show This Is Your Life and preparing for a sadly unmade television series. But Aping’s book reveals a significant part of their later lives never before so thoroughly documented.

As someone who always liked and/or was fascinated with at least big swaths of Atoll K, by the end Aping’s book had me genuinely longing for a complete restoration of the best complete version of this now-public domain movie (the most widely available in America, called Utopa, is cut and compromised in several important ways), one that would allow viewers to see Atoll K in the best possible light. Until then, Norbert Aping’s The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers a tantalizing examination of this long-reviled but fascinating film.