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World Cinema Paradise’s Best of Blu – 2014

Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.

Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.

But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.

Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.

And away we go…

Day Earth Caught Fire

1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!

Mad World

2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.

Werner Herzog

3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.

Seven Wonders

4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.

Pit Stop

5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.

Planet of Vampires

6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.

Infero

7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.

55 Days Blu

8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.

Mack Sennett

9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.

Price 2

10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.

Some Honorable Mentions:

The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Killers” (1964)

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Here’s a real achievement, a new Blu-ray that makes a feature film look far better than it ever has before, even on a big screen. Eleven years ago the Criterion Collection released an impressive double bill of both film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The very brief short story was successfully expanded to feature length in 1946, with the use of Citizen Kane- like flashbacks to a highly romantic, fateful story of crime and betrayal. The Robert Siodmak movie made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. I’ve seen the 1964 remake several times, but Arrow Films’ new disc is so much of an improvement that I feel I’ve seen it for the first time.

As a general rule classic films noir resist remake efforts: much of what works about them is endemic to the time they were made. Restage 1945′s Detour in the present, and Al Roberts’ self-pitying pessimism wouldn’t work for a minute. But noir veteran Don Siegel had been a central figure in the evolution of ’50s noir, in pictures like Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and The Lineup (1958). The romanticism of noir was breaking down in Siegel’s films, as the level of cynicism and violence steadily climbed.

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Gene L. Coon’s progressive screenplay for Siegel’s The Killers remake flips the original storyline like a pancake. The ’46 version followed an insurance investigator obsessed with finding out why the target of paid killers didn’t make an effort to save himself. Siegel’s version has no reassuring cops tracking down the truth, and instead gives the investigating duties to a pair of chatty Pulp Fiction- like hit men, in search of a big payday that will allow them to retire. Siegel develops the hit man ethos more than any other director: Robert Keith and Eli Wallach in his The Lineup may be the real original protagonist hit men, with quirky personalities.

As opposed to classic noir, The Killers takes place almost completely in broad daylight. Brutal hit men Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) track down their contract target Johnny North (John Cassavetes) to a school for the blind, where he teaches an auto shop class. To their surprise, North passively accepts his fate. Charlie is intrigued by this fact. He and Lee crisscross the country to ferret out North’s backstory, both to quench Charlie’s curiosity and to profit from whatever crime their victim was a part of. As it turns out, North was a promising race car driver until a debilitating accident that may have been caused by the distraction of his flashy new girlfriend, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). Starting with the testimony of mechanic Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Charlie and Lee learn about North’s involvement in an armored car robbery, for Sheila and her new boyfriend, crook Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). If the hit men can find Sheila and Jack, the loot can’t be far away.

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The Killers rewrites the rules for screen crime. Almost as if the production code no longer existed, “nice” characters are nowhere to be seen, and the cops are mostly absent as well. The obsessed Charlie and the wisecracking health nut Lee are our protagonists. They terrorize innocent people for information, just like Hemingway’s original Al and Max but with an essential difference of of expedience. In the hepped-up, speed-obsessed sixties, Charlie and Lee have no time to mess around. Rudely cornering their prey, they immediately go for the hard sell, whether it means hanging a woman out of a high window, or driving a helpless blind lady into hysterics. They carry their pistols in a valise, as if they were businessmen paying a sales call.

Making the film seem even more modern, Charlie and Lee already display the “look” that dominates hit man characters to this day. They woudn’t be caught dead without the heavy dark glasses that make them look ominous, almost faceless. Director Don Siegel nails a prime visual that’s become an icon: when Charlie points his gun to take a shot, a wide-angle lens frames his oversized silencer in huge close-up. Charlie’s on the trigger but the gun is given equal graphic emphasis.

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Johnny North’s role as an existential loser is basically the same as in the ’46 version. John Cassavetes received a big career boost when he played a twisted juvenlie delinquent back in Don Siegel’s excellent Crime in the Streets (1956) (which incidentally also seems to have influenced the gang action in the play and movie West Side Story). Here Cassavetes is the cocky driver of a Cobra race car. His stomping ground is the former Riverside International Raceway, which had already seen screen time in the violent car race action scenes in 1959′s On the Beach. One of the hottest actresses of her time, Angie Dickinson is the new brand of amoral thrill-seeker. She’s attracted to Johnny when he’s a winner and quickly abandons him when he’s injured. There’s no longer any romantic mystique with this femme fatale, as she immediately goes where the money is. Cassavetes’ North is already defeated when he agrees to drive a vehicle in Jack Browning’s robbery scheme. This part of the movie seems lifted intact from Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Drive a Crooked Road. Just like Mickey Rooney in the earlier picture, North is hired because he can cover a mile or so of twisting country road in less than a minute. Sheila tempts North with a promise of a mutual getaway when the job’s done… a sucker play if there ever was one.

It’s quite a surprise to see Ronald Reagan playing a humorless crook in the picture, his final feature film before becoming Governor of California. Perhaps the man most hated by U.C.L.A. students in 1970-71, Reagan sent in an army of cops to teach a lesson to demonstrators against the invasion of Cambodia. The amazing thing about Reagan’s performance in The Killers is that he has the same permanent scowl on his face that he showed in newsreels when he promised to deal out punishment to Berkeley and U.C.L.A.. A one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities, Reagan is as rigid as a washboard. But his Jack Browning has a jaw-dropping moment of violence when he slaps Angie Dickinson across a room. It’s a classic piece of film, just on content alone: Burt Bacharach’s woman recoils backward, hair flying, and our cool liberal Cassavetes, Machine Gun McCain himself, decks Reagan with a retaliatory right cross. This utterly priceless scene got standing ovations at UCLA; why doesn’t it show up in Oscar montages, I ask you?

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Lee Marvin nails the buttoned-down shark patter that Charlie lays on his victims, defining the star persona he’d nurture for the next two decades. Clu Gulager affects a giggling hipster cruel streak. He primps like Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip a behavior that hasn’t aged well. Gulager comes off as the weak sister to Marvin’s cold menace, sort of a hit man’s Sancho Panza. Angie Dickinson, the modern man’s woman of choice from China Gate (1957) and Ocean’s Eleven (1960), has an essential toughness that would later make her a perfect mobster’s foil when she reunited with Marvin in 1967′s Point Blank. John Cassavetes contributes his reliable intensity. At this time he was concentrating on his directing career, and reportedly acting to gather production money.

Cassavetes even obtained a brief bit part for his Faces star Seymour Cassell. Familiar actor Norman Fell has a smallish supporting roll. Helping to get The Killers off to a shocking start is the wonderful actress Virginia Christine. In the 1946 original she played a charming cop’s wife. Here she has a brief but strong role as a blind woman manhandled and threatened by Lee Marvin. For viewers old enough to remember, Christine’s television fame as the “Folger’s coffee lady” greatly enhances the scene’s impact.

Don Siegel bounced around for most of the 1960s, trying to stay active in big-screen work but often collecting a paycheck for TV jobs. Initially produced as a TV movie, The Killers ended up being something of a stumbling block for the director. Not long after it was completed John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the film’s nihilistic violence — which includes a pair of sniper killings from atop a tall building — was deemed far too brutal for television. It was instead released directly to theaters in July of ’64. When film critics of the 1970s discovered genre studies, the JFK connection helped The Killers become a standout title in articles and books seeking a conncection between the movies and the accelerating violence in modern life. Lee Marvin and his gun graced the cover of English fine art critic Lawrence Alloway’s rambling essay-book Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. Anyone concerned about screen violence in 1964 was surely in for a rude shock when pictures like Bonnie & Clyde came along a couple of years later.

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Don Siegel and Gene L. Coon’s conclusion makes a strong statement about the culture in general. A main character gets what he wants yet ends up drained of blood on a neat green lawn in suburbia, defeated by the everyday, square consumer life he held in contempt. Several other pictures convey this notion of dissatisfaction with the value system, such as Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap. But Siegel’s final shot gives us the iconic image to remember.


Arrow Academy’s Region B Blu-ray of The Killers is a huge improvement over Criterion’s 2003 DVD. At the time, the best Universal could provide was a grainy flat transfer of the film. The Killers always looked like a fairly ratty TV production until now. Arrow’s grain-free image is as sharp as a tack and colors are bright and accurate; clearly Universal did a bang-up remastering job. The Blu-ray has both television and cinema aspect ratio versions of the movie, which in this case is a terrific choice. Although planned for TV, the picture was composed for theatrical widescreen use, as TV movies (and some series, re-edited) of the time were commonly distributed theatrically in Europe.

The wide screen version is the way to go, as the images look beautiful when framed to exclude extraneous ceilings and floors. Although it’s surely an illusion, the image even looks a bit wider. The cropping also helps minimize the impact of some cost-cutting in the production, which was done on a TV budget. Rear projection driving scenes look less awkward, for one example. Some painted backdrops are also on the weak side, especially the incredibly fake view from Jack Browning’s office window. It somehow seems appropriate, though, to see Ronald Reagan staring blankly at such a phony backdrop.

Arrow’s extras include a couple of presentations by authors with books to sell. Marc Eliot’s coverage of Reagan’s involvement is welcome, as the man did have longevity as an actor. Dwayne Epstein’s remarks on his subject, Lee Marvin, go awry from the start with the unsupported assertion that Marvin was the catalyst for screen violence in the ’60s. The fine actor was more successful during these years in comic roles, for which he was rewarded with an acting Oscar.

The best piece on the disc is a 1984 interview with Don Siegel by a French TV crew. Siegel is marvelously candid about his work and the business. We’re intrigued to hear a couple of remarks that his acolyte Sam Peckinpah would adopt as his own, namely the statement that film directors are whores that work where they’re told (or kicked). We immediately like Mr. Siegel — he’s not the kind of self-promoter that considers himself the star of his movies. Luckily, Siegel’s other pupil Clint Eastwood was more generous, and 1971′s Dirty Harry returmed him to the top rank of directors for a few years.

The disc extras also contain a thorough still gallery. My check disc did not include Arrow’s illustrated insert booklet, which is said to contain an essay by Mike Sutton, interview excerpts with Siegel and contemporary reviews. Final product discs also come with a choice of reversible package artwork.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Killers

Blu-ray

Arrow Academy (UK)

1964 / Color / 1:78 widescreen and 1:37 flat full frame / Street Date February 24, 2014 / £ 15.09

Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager,
Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan

Cinematography Richard L. Rawlings

Art directors Frank Arrigo, George Chan

Editor Richard Belding

Original Music Johnny Williams, Henry Mancini, Don Raye

Written by Gene L. Coon from the short story by Ernest Hemingway

Produced and Directed by Donald Siegel

Packaging: Keep case

Reviewed: March 8, 2014