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Blu-ray and DVD Review Round-Up: Films by Les Blank, Chris Marker, Terry Gilliam and more!

Les Blank: Always for Pleasure
The Criterion Collection

Les Blank: Always for PleasureI’m not sure I can think of a more apt descriptor of Les Blank’s films than “humanist.” The 14 short- to medium-length documentaries included in Criterion’s new box set are vivacious, warm and fascinating looks at some of life’s most sensual pleasures. Not to be trite, but these are works that make you feel grateful to be alive and able to experience the world around you.

Over and over, Blank shows himself to be a master of distilling down the essence of a subculture into a brief but substantial package. Blank resists explanation — his films are defiantly free form, roaming from moment to moment — in favor of immersion, and one can’t help but feel edified after living in one of his cinematic worlds.

Food and music are Blank’s two constants in this collection of work. Even films that have a broader focus tend to incorporate these elements as part of the basic building blocks of culture, whether he’s documenting Cajuns (Spend it All, 1971), a black Creole community (Dry Wood, 1973) or Los Angeles hippies (God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance, 1968).

The music films explore blues guitarists (Lightnin’ Hopkins in The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1968, and Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life, 1971), Creole Zydeco (Clifton Chenier in Hot Pepper, 1973), polka culture (In Heaven There Is No Beer?, 1984) and African-Cuban rhythms (Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, 1995), among others. The sheer joy of the performances captured on film would be enough to justify these films, but each one feels like meaningful time spent with the artist in his environment.

As for food, well, it’s rarely looked this good on screen before. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) and Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) aren’t merely food porn (still, prepare to salivate); they’re contextualizing tributes to the surrounding cultures.

All 14 films in the three-disc Blu-ray set have been granted 2K digital restorations, and the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are beautifully film-like, superb reproductions of the 16mm photography. All of the films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks, save for Sworn to the Drum, which has a lossless stereo track. Clean-up work has left these soundtracks crisp and clean.

As if collecting all these films in one place wasn’t enough, Criterion has supplied at least one extra to accompany each film, including five additional short films, outtakes, an excerpt from forthcoming documentary Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation and extensive interviews with family and collaborators, including sons Harrod and Beau, editor Maureen Gosling and friend Werner Herzog. An extensive booklet contains film notes and an essay by Andrew Horton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Criterion’s Les Blank: Always for Pleasure Blu-ray rates:

The Films (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
The Criterion Collection/ 1968-1995 / Color / 1.33:1 / 563 min total / $124.95

Level Five (1996)
Icarus Films

Level FiveChris Marker returns to many of his favorite themes in Level Five, a characteristically dense and beautiful essay film that touches on the pain of loss and the role of memory in dealing with that loss. Can the past be changed if memories — both the intangible human memories and the tangible technological ones — are changed? In some ways, Level Five plays like a sequel to Sans Soleil (1983), with Marker again focusing on his beloved Japanese culture, this time looking closely at the tragedy of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, a precursor to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Marker adds a technological wrinkle, as a woman called Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) seeks to carry on her late lover’s work by completing a video game about the conflict. She addresses him directly, peering into the camera in a series of monologues that dovetail with Marker’s own observations about technology and history. Images of primitive computer graphics mingle with newsreel footage, and Marker’s deft editing constantly creates fascinating juxtapositions between the future and the past that these images represent.

Though the film’s philosophical underpinnings aren’t easy to pin down, the dizzying imagery and the film’s elegiac tone ensure Level Five is anything but dry, academic pondering. Marker again returns to referencing Vertigo (1958) at one point, and it’s no stretch to say that his investigations into the ability to recreate, restructure and re-contextualize memories are every bit as moving and cinematically wondrous as Hitchcock’s film.

Fresh off a theatrical run in 2014 that saw Level Five finally receiving a release in the U.S., Icarus Films brings Marker’s masterpiece to home video in an essential DVD release. The variety of sources all look good in this nice transfer, and the DVD comes with a booklet with an extensive essay from Christophe Chazalon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Icarus Films’ Level Five DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Icarus Films/ 1996 / Color and black & white / 1.33:1 / 106 min / $29.98

Kinetta (2005)
Second Run DVD

KinettaGreek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a filmmaker with an eerily alienating style with his most recent works Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). His debut feature as a solo director, Kinetta, now getting its worldwide home video debut from intrepid UK label Second Run, is clearly those films’ progenitor, examining similar themes in a less formally assured manner.

Like its successors, Kinetta deals with a close-knit community of people that’s developed a series of odd rituals in order to relate to one another. Here, a hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), a plainclothes detective (Costas Xikominos) and a photo clerk (Aris Servetalis) pass the time by filming awkward recreations of murder scenes. This uncomfortable role-playing fills the void in what seems to be mostly colorless existences for these people, playing out in a vacation town during the off-season that might as well be an actual ghost town.

Unlike Lanthimos’ later films, especially Dogtooth, which displays a Michael Haneke-like formal precision, Kinetta features mostly queasy handheld camerawork, fraying the nerves even more than the off-putting but inscrutable actions of the people on-screen, who are more types than actual characters. On its own, Kinetta might feel like a filmmaker valuing obliqueness for its own sake, but take in conjunction with his subsequent films, it fits into a discomfiting oeuvre of estrangement from reality.

Second Run’s 1.85:1 transfer is quite strong considering its standard-def limitations, with a crisp image and a detailed reproduction of Lanthimos’ almost colorless palette. Extras include a newly filmed conversation with the director and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Ewins.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Second Run’s Kinetta DVD rates:

The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
Second Run DVD / 2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 94 min / £12.99 / Region 2 (PAL)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)
Raro Video

Slaughter HotelFernando Di Leo is better known for his gritty, violent crime dramas, but with Slaughter Hotel (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo), he serves up a thick slice of giallo-sleaze. Veering between jarringly disjointed and laughably languid, hardly anything here makes a lick of goddamn sense, even by standards of the genre. Still, there’s something admirable about Di Leo’s willingness to abandon sense and style from scene to scene. Frenetic barrages of canted angles will give way to elegant, gliding takes, while scenes juggle varying combinations of sex and death.

Klaus Kinski nominally stars as Dr. Francis Clay, the head of a mental institution that caters to rich women, most of whom are being treated for having a sex drive. But Kinski’s presence is mostly a red herring, as he’s not even in the top 10 of weirdest things in the film. Like most of the performances, Kinski’s borders on medicated, as a series of brutal murders can barely arouse much of a reaction in anyone besides those being murdered (and sometimes, not even them).

The nudity, which approaches gynecological levels, is far more graphic than the violence — beheadings, impalements and slashes are more stolid than your average giallo. It’s hardly an exemplary entry in either the genre’s canon or Di Leo’s filmography, but worth a look for enthusiasts of either.

Raro Video presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that will do little to dissuade critics of the company’s highly variable technical output. There are some things to like about this transfer, including the consistent color reproduction and strong levels of image clarity. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of digital manipulation visible, from over-sharpening to heavy-handed edge enhancement. One scene features significant telecine wobble. Elements seem to be in good shape, but the transfer is merely watchable rather than anything commendable.

Two audio options are included, both in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This disc defaults to an English dub, while an Italian dub is also offered. The original Italian track is far preferable, featuring sound that is much less tinny and harsh than the English track.

Extras include an interview with actress Rosalba Neri, a fairly in-depth archival making-of and a couple minutes of deleted scenes. The set also includes a booklet with film notes and essays.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Raro Video’s Slaughter Hotel Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: **
Audio: **1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
Raro Video/ 1971 / Color / 2.35:1 / 94 min / $29.95

Flaming Star (1960)
Twilight Time

Flaming StarMovies starring Elvis Presley don’t typically cause much excitement among cinephiles, but he proves himself to be a capably understated performer in Don Siegel’s lean western Flaming Star, which opens with a couple of songs before turning into something considerably more sober.

Tensions are rising between white settlers and a Kiowa tribe in post-Civil War Texas, and Presley’s Pacer Burton, a half-white, half-Indian man, finds himself torn as he’s forced to consider loyalties to heritage, family and community. While his white father, Sam (John McIntire), and his Kiowa mother, Neddy (Dolores del Rio), just want to live peacefully, spates of violence on both sides threaten to ignite all-out war.

Siegel’s film has a hair-trigger capability of turning suddenly violent, and he sustains that tension throughout. The film also manages a reasonably fair-minded portrayal of Native Americans, emphasizing the similar community aspects of both cultures while recognizing the vast gulf between them.

Presley communicates a sense of being rent in two with his sensitive, introverted performance. Any of his persona’s braggadocio has been replaced with the wandering, unsure eyes of a young man forced to make a decision he’s not sure he’s equipped to make.

Siegel shoots the action sequences with a tough-minded precision, while he allows more room for the complex interpersonal relationships to play out on screen. That means less of a perfunctory sort-of love interest in Barbara Eden and more of the alternating clashing and bonding between Pacer and white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

Twilight Time presents Fox’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of the film, which is an exceptionally clean and sometimes stunningly vivid high-def presentation. The image possesses excellent clarity and sharpness and the somewhat muted color scheme is still capable of displaying vibrant beauty. Audio options include a mostly useless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which shunts some of the score to the surrounds and an uncompressed 2.0 track, which gets the job done fine in original mono.

Extras include Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, a commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman and the theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s Flaming Star Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Twilight Time / 1960 / Color / 2.35:1 / 92 min / $29.95

The Zero Theorem (2014)
Well Go USA

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam is a filmmaker of boundless imagination, which can sometimes result in overstuffed cinematic worlds in his lesser works. There’s a fair amount of frenetically detailed production design in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, but it somehow feels cheap and insubstantial — a thinly realized knock-off of a Gilliam film instead of the real thing. The same goes for the ideas in Pat Rushin’s script, which shamelessly borrows from Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985), reshaping story and character elements into a discount version that sort of gets the broad strokes right but haplessly botches the details.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an office drone in a futuristic society tasked with unlocking the meaning of life. Qohen toils under the watchful eye of superiors both nosy (David Thewlis) and aloof (Matt Damon), but his work is merely a distraction in his obsessive patience for a phone call that he believes will unlock the key to his own destiny.

Miserable and neurotic, Qohen gets glimpses of a happy life courtesy of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute whose idyllic virtual reality experiences become a source of comfort. The artificial beach in these sequences brings to mind the fractured mental state of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry in the bitterly ironic conclusion of Brazil, but with a half-hearted effort at incisive commentary. Similar broadsides on pervasive advertising and Big Brother surveillance just don’t muster up much energy. Even the normally vibrant Waltz delivers a somnambulant performance that rarely brings any specificity to the character.

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton does appear as a rapping virtual psychiatrist, so it’s not like the film has nothing going for it.

Well Go’s Blu-ray presentation of the film features a roughly 1.75:1 transfer in 1080p. The image features rounded corners in an ostensible attempt to replicate vintage photography. Color reproduction of both garish and muted palettes is nice, and there are solid levels of fine detail to be seen throughout. The image is rarely super-sharp, but this seems to replicate the theatrical look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t tested too often, but it offers a reasonably immersive experience when the material calls for it.

Extras include one big EPK chopped up into smaller chunks on the costuming, sets, visual effects and a general behind-the-scenes piece. The theatrical trailer is also included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Well Go’s The Zero Theorem Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): *1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***
Video Transfer: ***
Audio: ***
New Extra Features: *1/2
Extra Features Overall: *1/2
Well Go USA / 2014 / Color / 1.75:1 / 111 min / $29.98

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Hollywood-Sign-at-Night

Top 10 Movies I Saw For the First Time in 2014

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An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw via https://best-putlocker.com/watch-last-added-online.  So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.You can visit https://freecouchtuner.com/couchtuner to watch best movies and web series. For the best assassin movie go through the link.

Love is a Racket (1932)loveisaracket6Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ann Dvorak

William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds. You can visit Lorraine Music to check more awesome movies.

Northern Pursuit (1943)Errol-Flynn-Helmut-Dantine-Northern-PursuitErrol Flynn, Helmut Dantine

One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…

Cloak and Dagger (1946)cloak-and-daggerGary Cooper, Lilli Palmer

When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.)  The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.

Crime Wave (1954)dt.main.ce.Stream.clsGene Evans, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden

Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.

The Lone Ranger (1956)07_1956 Lone_Ranger_and_TontoJay Silverheels, Clayton Moore

In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect  Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)

The Hanged Man (1964)origNorman Fell, Robert Culp

Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

The Yakuza (1974)vlcsnap-9280052Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum

As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)much-ado-about-nothing-nathan-fillion-600x315Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion

Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)captain-america-winter-soldier-sliceChris Evans, Anthony Mackie

This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)new GOTG header 3-10Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bastista, Vin Diesel (voice)

This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.

assassin movie

Bigamist Featured

DVD Review: “The Bigamist” (1953)

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Seeing how much the movie industry and the media outlets covering it love to pay lipservice to women in film, it’s a mystery why they actually give so little coverage to pioneering female filmmakers, particularly Ida Lupino. Lupino was Hollywood’s first female producer-director, and she even co-wrote some of her films as well. (Director Dorothy Arzner preceded Lupino, but Arzner wasn’t a producer.) And, more to the point, Lupino was a damn good filmmaker whose work in movies and television has stood the test of time very well. And now, one of her best films The Bigamist (1953) has been remastered by Film Chest and is being released on DVD.

Outside of a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Lupino’s achievements behind the camera have largely been ignored in favor of her work as an actress, particularly her performances at Warner Bros. in the 1940s as tough, hard-boiled dames in melodramas like They Drive by Night, High Sierra, The Hard Way, and The Man I Love. (Occasionally, Warners cast her in more conventional ingénue roles in films such as The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, and Deep Valley, her last for the studio.) “The poor man’s Bette Davis” was Lupino’s own self-depreciating description of her standing at Warners. (Her first film for the studio, They Drive by Night, was a semi-remake of Bordertown, with Lupino in the role that Davis played in the original.)

When her contract at Warners ran out in the late 40s, rather than renewing it, Lupino decided to try freelancing, like so many other actors did at a time when the “studio system” first began to unravel. Lupino had spent a great deal of her time at Warners on “suspension,” the studio’s notorious punishment for “rebellious” actors, something she had in common with Davis, James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland. (It was de Havilland who successfully sued Warners over the practice, with the Supreme Court of California ruling it to be illegal, the first nail in the coffin of the aforementioned studio system. The US Supreme Court’s anti-trust ruling forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and the growing popularity of television were the next two major setbacks to the studios.) It was during these “suspension” periods that Lupino first became interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking, hanging out with directors and writers and learning the tricks of the trade from them. She was also motivated by wanting to have total control over her film work.

As a result, in addition to acting in other studios’ movies, Lupino and her second husband Collier Young formed an independent production company called The Filmakers, after first producing Not Wanted (1949), in which Lupino made her directorial debut unintentionally. Elmer Clifton, the director contracted for Not Wanted (about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) suffered a heart attack before filming began and Lupino took over (uncredited). Lupino’s subsequent directorial efforts for the Filmakers included Never Fear, Outrage (dealing with rape, another feminist-oriented subject that was considered taboo by the Production Code), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful. In 1953, Lupino made her two most notable directing efforts, The Hitch-Hiker (her only out-and-out film noir) and The Bigamist. At this point in her career, Lupino amended her self-description to “the poor man’s Don Siegel.” (A filmmaker who could work wonders on meager budgets, Siegel directed The Filmakers’ 1954 production of Private Hell 36.) After The Bigamist, Lupino’s directing career continued mainly on television, with the exception of the last theatrical film (and only comedy) she ever directed The Trouble with Angels in 1966. (Much of Lupino’s work for the small screen also revealed a flair for the macabre, particularly in the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone that she directed.)

As the title makes obvious, The Bigamist dealt with another taboo subject. Originally, as was the case with Not Wanted, Lupino was not supposed to direct The Bigamist; she was only going to act in the film, which was co-produced (with Robert Eggenweiler) and co-written (with Larry Marcus) by Lupino’s then ex-husband Young. (Soon after the divorce, both Lupino and Young had remarried, she to Howard Duff and he to Joan Fontaine.) That game plan changed when Jane Greer, who was set to play the other female lead, dropped out. Fontaine offered to take Greer’s place, but only if Lupino would direct The Bigamist as well. Lupino never wanted to direct herself, but she agreed in order to get the film underway. Which is how the two Mrs. Youngs ending up playing the two wives of the title character Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien, previously the lead in The Hitch-Hiker), a San Francisco-based small business owner who doubles as his own traveling salesman.

We first meet Harry and Wife #1, Eve (Fontaine), when they’re being interviewed by kindly child welfare official Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) as part of their adoption application. (Eve is unable to have a child.) For the most part, the interview goes well… until Harry betrays a momentary discomfort at signing the required form that gives Jordan permission to investigate their backgrounds to determine their suitability as adoptive parents, a hesitation that does not go unnoticed by Jordan. After the Grahams leave, Jordan expresses his doubts for the record in the Dictaphone recording of his notes: “From a preliminary interview, in my opinion, they would make fit parents, but something bothers me about Mr. Graham. He seemed impatient during the interview, a chip-on-the-shoulder sort of attitude. He… he behaved rather strangely when signing the… the permission to investigate form. Perhaps it is my imagination. I’ll report further when I visit the Grahams’ home for the customary inspection next week.”

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From this point, The Bigamist follows a traditional “three-act” structure of storytelling. Act One is in the form of a miniature mystery in which Jordan acts as a sleuth determined to unearth Harry’s secret, even to the extent of trailing him to Los Angeles, where he conducts most of his out-of-town business. Eventually, Jordan stumbles onto the fact that, rather than staying in a hotel, Graham owns a home in the LA suburbs. Turning up on Harry’s doorstep one night, Jordan discovers what the audience already knows, thanks to the film’s title and advertising, that there’s a second Mrs. Graham. Not only that, but Harry and Wife #2, Phyllis (Lupino), have an infant son as well.

Act Two is a lengthy flashback that takes up about half the movie as Harry tells Jordan the story of how he came to have two households. It seems that Harry and Phyllis “met cute” (to use the old screenwriters’ term) when, out of sheer boredom, Harry took an LA  bus tour of the stars’ homes and struck up a conversation with Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. They had a one-night stand that resulted in Phyllis’ pregnancy. Too weak-willed to divorce Eve (who’s also his business partner), but wanting to do the right thing by Phyllis, Harry proposed marriage to Phyllis and started the family that Eve couldn’t give him.

The sequences dealing with Harry and Phyllis’ brief fling and her subsequent pregnancy are a prime example of the absurdities imposed by the then-weakened but still enforced Code. Thanks to the Code’s infantile restrictions, there’s no hint of Harry and Phyllis enjoying a night of intimacy, nor is the word “pregnant” ever uttered in the scene where Harry learns that Phyllis is carrying his child, which is couched in the most evasively suggested terms possible. The Code was also responsible for the abrupt, unsatisfying resolution of the film’s third act, which conformed to the demand that all lawbreakers must face legal retribution.

The Bigamist’s script, Lupino’s direction, Leith Stevens’s music score, and George Diskant’s black-and-white cinematography waver between domestic drama and noir (particularly in the first two acts) before settling on the former. (Although the seedy restaurant Phyllis works in and the scarred, scowling face of its owner seemingly promise that noir will be the film’s dominant mood.) Despite the somberness of the subject matter and the sober approach taken to the material, the script does indulge in some playful Hollywood in-jokes. There are not one but two references to Gwenn’s most famous role, his Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Eve tells Harry that she thinks Jordan “looks like Santa Claus.” And during the bus tour, the driver/guide points out Gwenn’s home, referring to the actor as “the little man who is Santa Claus to the whole world.” The homes of Lupino’s former Warners colleagues Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman are also name-checked in this scene.

As she always did, Lupino got excellent performances from her cast, including herself.  She and Fontaine both contribute subtle, understated acting turns as the two Mrs. Grahams. Gwenn gives a charming, low-key performance as a dedicated public servant who is torn between duty and pity when confronting Harry about his deceit. O’Brien manages to make Harry an ultimately sympathetic (and rather pathetic) character, while still imbuing him with the sweaty neuroticism that was typical of his roles in the late 40s and early 50s.

Although Film Chest’s press release says that this version of The Bigamist was “restored from original 35mm materials,” the state of those materials obviously were not as well preserved as Film Chest’s previous remastered film release Hollow Triumph. For most of the film, the visual quality of Film Chest’s The Bigamist DVD is sharp and crisp, but noticeable scratching appears periodically and there is a little jumpiness in the opening credits. Still, the overall quality of this version of The Bigamist is light years ahead of Alpha Video’s earlier DVD version with its murky print and muddy soundtrack.

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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

 

Jones Featured

Whatever Happened To Christopher Jones? (Part 1)

Chris Jones 1 Wild in the Streets“Christopher Jones, an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career, has died. He was 72,” The Hollywood Reporter stated in his obituary on January 31, 2014.

I was touched by a shock of recognition and a sense of loss when this appeared on my Facebook page the next day, a feeling I rarely experience when reading about the deaths of far better known and more accomplished Hollywood figures.
I discovered Christopher Jones in the mid-’70s, thanks to a TV showing of Wild in the Streets. I was obsessed with James Dean at the time, and became transfixed by Jones, who seemed like the second coming of Dean and the answer to his fan’s prayers. Only later would I learn that Jones had already abandoned his career by the time I became aware of him.

“He had excitement. He was a movie star,” Quentin Tarantino said in a 1999 episode of E! True Hollywood Story. “He looked like James Dean, but Chris Jones didn’t take himself seriously like James Dean. He had the same exact sensuality and appeal as Jim Morrison. He was a big comer at that point, as big as anybody!”

Christopher Jones exploded into stardom with the July 1968 release of American International Pictures’ Wild in the Streets, where he played a 24-year-old rock star who manipulates the youth vote to become the President of the United States and sends everyone over 30 to concentration camps where they’re force fed LSD. “If you were a teenager in 1968, chances are good you would have given up just about anything to run Wild in the Streets with Christopher Jones,” the author of his website writes.

Jones quit acting after making only four more films after Wild in the Streets, becoming a charismatic enigma with a cult following. “Over the past 26 years, Jones has been the subject of so many rumors––that he was a drug addict, lived on the streets, became a hustler, had been confined in a mental institution––his disappearing act gave him, perversely, near legendary status among show-biz insiders,” Pamela Des Barres wrote in her introduction to a rare interview with him in 1996.

When Playboy magazine’s interviewer asked Jack Nicholson, “What is the downside of celebrity?” he said, “There is none.” Yet Jones gave up stardom, its rewards, and a ready-made audience, prompting us to ask: whatever happened to Christopher Jones?

Christopher Jones was born William Frank Jones on August 18, 1941 in Jackson, Tennessee, the younger son of father J. G. Jones and mother Robbie Jones. Billy and his brother Robert lived above a grocery store where their father clerked for Billy’s first three years. Robbie Jones, a talented artist plagued by mental instability, was committed to the state hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1945, where she died in 1960. Jones had only one memory of his mother. “I can remember her picking me up once,” he said, “but I can’t remember what she looked like.”

While Robert remained with his father, Billy was sent to live with his aunt after his mother’s commitment. On her recommendation, their father sent his sons to Boys Town (then known as Gailor Hall) in Memphis, Tennessee, the orphanage where Billy resided until he was almost 16. Though he resisted such things as school uniforms and evinced no interest in academics, he displayed a talent for sketching that led Boys Town’s executive director, Joe Stockton, to arrange an art school scholarship for Billy.

In 1988, Robert Duke told journalist Michael Donahue that he became best friends with Billy after older boys forced them to fight each other for their entertainment, “like dogs or chickens. It was kind of cruel and mean, but that’s the way life was back then.”

“When you’re a long-term resident of an institution like that, you become institutionalized,” Duke said, providing an insight into Jones’ troubled personality. “You learn not to form relationships with people . . . You learn to be a loner. You learn emotionally not to become too vulnernable to relationships because they’re transient in most cases. I think Billy Frank was typical of that pattern.”

“Duke remembered Jones as moody, withdrawn and a loner,” Donahue reported. “He didn’t have many friends, and he idolized James Dean.”

Dean became Billy’s idol after a formative experience that influenced his ambition to pursue acting. Joe Stockton called Billy into his office one hot summer day. “I must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time and I was sure I was going to be punished for something,” Jones later recalled. “Instead, the man handed me a copy of Life magazine with a photo of James Dean on the cover. After a long silence he said, ‘You know Billy, you look just like this guy!’ and as I studied the picture, he sat staring at me. I saw a resemblance, although I’d never seen a picture of James Dean before.”

“Dean had a sophisticated subtlety about him and although people have always compared me to him, at the time I would have preferred to be thought of as more flashy, like Elvis,” Jones said. “After seeing Love Me Tender [1956] and East of Eden [1955] at about the same time, I realized how brilliant James Dean was. I’ve always been torn between the two role models though.”

Billy’s fascination with Dean intensified after he read an article about his fatal car accident. “Sometimes I feel like James Dean’s avenger . . . maybe I’m a continuation of the whole thing,” he later said. “A piece of the puzzle’s gone, because Dean was too wild and had an accident, but he was the real thing. Most people are afraid to die––and that’s what makes you the real thing, whether you’re afraid to die. Dean was something divine, like no actor before or since. I’m fascinated with death. That kind of death.”

When Jones’ star began ascending in the mid-’60s, stories about him made the inevitable comparisons to James Dean. Jones’ story resonates with similarities to Dean’s life as well as that of Cal, the character he played in East of Eden.

Dean’s father sent his son to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother from uterine cancer when he was nine. He felt like an orphan, and had a strained adult relationship with his father, who didn’t support his ambition to be an actor.
“My mother died on me when I was a kid, and I used to cry on her grave and say, ‘Why did you leave me?,’” Dean told Dennis Hopper. “And that changed into, ‘I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna be great!’”

“I wasn’t close with him,” Jones said of his father. “He was six foot something––not like me––and looked just like Paul Newman, with ice blue, cold-blooded killer eyes. I went to live with him when I was 16 and he signed me into the Army.” He didn’t resent his father for casting him off. “No, I loved him. I love him still. Did you ever see East of Eden?” Jones said that he hated his mother for dying on him, evidently unaware as a child that she was alive but institutionalized. “That was a good reason to hate her. She shouldn’t have died.”

Jones escaped from Boys Town when he was 15, taking up with a married 18-year-old woman with two children in Memphis, Tennessee, who he said was the sexual aggressor in their relationship. “From then on, I expected it. Women liked me, probably because I didn’t have a mother. I lived with my 18-year-old [lover]––she was separated from her husband––and then I just left her, up and walked out.” He repeated this pattern with other women throughout his life.

His father remarried and fathered three children while his first two sons remained at Boys Town, only joining him for rare holiday visits. Jones attempted to reunite with his father after abandoning his teenage girlfriend, living with him until he enlisted  in the Army when he turned 16.

Jones’ life was rife with dysfunctional relationships and family tragedies. “My dad, who rode around on a Harley-Davidson, picked up a beautiful 18-year-old girl,” he said. “They were very close, but he killed her on his Harley. Shaved the top of her head right off. When he died, in 1963, they buried him right next her to her.”

If that wasn’t enough, Timothy Roman, who Jones claimed was his son, fatally bludgeoned his mentally disturbed mother, actress Susan Cabot, in 1986.” “I had only seen him once in my life,” Jones said. “She had told him his father was an Englishman––Ryan’s Daughter, right? [where he played a British officer]–– and that I was dead.” Why? “We’d only been together three weeks. Then I sort of disappeared.”

Though studio biographies claimed Jones stayed in the Army for two years before deserting, he went AWOL after only two days. He stole a car and drove to New Orleans, then headed to New York with a friend, making sure to include a pilgrimage to James Dean’s grave and boyhood home in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean’s aunt and uncle, the Winslows, who welcomed––or at least tolerated––visits from Dean’s acolytes, must have done a triple take when they opened their front door and saw Jones, who bore a striking similarity to Dean. “I went up to his room. His jeans were laid out on the bad like he was coming back.” For a moment, maybe the Winslows thought he had.

Acting was not yet a glimmer in Jones’ mind. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “Someone who knew I was AWOL said, ‘Turn yourself in. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.’ So I did, and spent six months on Governors Island, close to the Statue of Liberty. It was . . . prison. A guard made a pass at me.”

Jones found refuge with the head buyer for a local department store whose husband was in prison for selling marijuana. “She looked just like Marilyn Monroe. Man, was I in love!” He studied painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, working as his apprentice. He immersed himself in learning artistic technique, but was ultimately drawn to acting.

Jones met an actor who introduced him to director Frank Corsaro, a teacher at the Actors Studio who had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. He adopted his stage name of Christopher Jones (the same name as the captain of the Mayflower) and began auditing classes at the Actors Studio.

“He was a very on and off again student who had a kind of personal charisma,” Corsaro recalled. “He drew very well. He was rather impecunious at the time so I gave him a scholarship of sorts. He was like Dean––he had very good instincts, he had a natural kind of sense of acting. As with Dean, he was not really ultimately as disciplined in the work. He took it as a measure that he deserved it, given his own sense of ease with acting but not as a committed student. Neither was Dean a very committed student at the Actors Studio. In fact, he did very little work there. He just picked up what he could and was in the right atmosphere and with Christopher it was the same case and that’s where Shelley [Winters] kind of took an interest in him and she really gave him his boost.”

Corsaro cast Jones as one of two Mexican cabana boys (James Farentino played the other) in his 1961 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, which initially starred Bette Davis. Every night after the show closed, Shelley Winters, who replaced Davis, got into her Jaguar and tooled around New York with Jones and Farentino, enjoying the nightlife. Sometimes they were joined by actor Alex Cord (christened Alex Viespi). Jones claims he and Winters had an affair. “Of course. She was all over me like a cheap suit.” [In the second volume of her autobiography, Winters reveals her relationship with Cord, but never mentions having one with Jones.]

Jones got his first role playing a member of a street gang in an episode of the TV series East Side, West Side (1963-1964), starring George C. Scott. “He kept telling me to stand still,” Jones recalled. “I kept fidgeting in the scene and Scott put his foot on top of mine when the director yelled ‘Action!’ So, I couldn’t move during the scene.”

While hanging out with Shelley Winters at Downey’s, a New York restaurant that was a watering hole for the show business crowd, Jones implored her to introduce him to Susan Strasberg, the daughter of Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio. Winters refused, telling him, “I don’t like the way you treat your girlfriends.“ In her autobiography, she recalls Jones saying, “That’s Susan Strasberg. I’m going to marry her.” He told Pamela Des Barres that he said, “I’m going to fuck her.”

He entered into a tumultuous relationship and marriage with Strasberg that she related in detail in her 1980 memoir Bittersweet. Strasberg recalled her first sight of Jones at Downey’s. “We talked for a few minutes and she [Winters] introduced me to Christopher. He had medium brown hair streaked with gold, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a bowed sensual mouth. He was wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skintight faded jeans, and although it was freezing outside, a lightweight leather jacket.”

In Bittersweet, she describes a memorable incident that took place one time when she and her brother were joined at their parent’s Fire Island beach house by Jerry and Marta Orbach, actor Richard Bradford, Frank Corsaro and a group of his students, including Jones.

“There was a thunderstorm that night. It was terrifying, yet beautiful. Christopher tore off his shirt and ran onto the beach into the pelting rain. ‘I’m going swimming,’ he called. ‘You’re crazy, come back inside . . . it’s not safe,’ we implored him. Instead, he began to do a rhythmic, erotic dance between the flashes of lightning. It was as if in the eye of the storm he became the storm itself. And, like it, appeared both beautiful and dangerous [emphasis added].”

According to Strasberg, Jones was envious of anyone who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. “I grew up in a shack with outdoor plumbing and a coal stove,” he told her. “Hell, in Tennessee that meant you were poor white trash.” Jones once tried to bait Lee Strasberg into an argument. “They’re out to destroy anyone who’s too alive,” he said. “But they can kiss my ass. I’ll get them before they get me.” He looked around at Strasberg’s book-covered walls. “You can’t learn anything about life from a book,” he said. “Nietzsche said, ‘We can only find freedom and happiness, without thought, without intellect, through pure will,’ he paraphrased. “It’s all a power play . . .”

“Christopher, here as in New York, didn’t like my friends,” she wrote. “Hell, they’re too square and uptight, too intellectual,” he said. She claimed that he convinced her to take mescaline and other drugs. “You’ve got to cut loose from all your tight-assed, conventional crap,” he told her. “I wanted so much to be loved unreservedly, for myself, that I was willing to pay any price including subservience,” she wrote. “But if I said no when something was offered, I became the enemy, and because I still desperately wanted to be accepted, even by people I did not care about, I never refused. After a while, I didn’t want to. Alone at home or while working, I never took anything or missed it. The drugs were a bond between Christopher, myself, and our peers. My addiction was emotional, not physical. I had drifted onto a merry-go-round that did not stop. And as always, the only self-discipline I had left was in relation to my work.”

Jones later admitted to hitting Strasberg and accidentally discharging a shotgun in their apartment, but he disputes her nightmarish characterization of their relationship, including her claims that he forced her to indulge in a drug-laden lifestyle. “She’s lyin’ like a dog,” he told Pamela Des Barres. “She just wanted to be in with the scene. She’s so square.”

He told Des Barres that he sampled amphetamines, marijuana and LSD, but claims that he disliked their effects. “And I hated acid,” he said. “I swear, I did not take drugs. The hippies were interested in that stuff. I was interested in Ferraris, women and clothes. I was mainly interested in fucking––and in becoming famous.”

In late November1963, Jones and Strasberg accepted their friends Jerry and Marta Orbach’s invitation to drive out to California. Strasberg supported Jones until he landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, produced by Don Siegel. In his autobiography, Siegel, who directed the series’ half-hour pilot, called Jones, “a disturbed young man,” but did not elaborate. Jones’ success exacerbated his rebellious behavior. One of the puff pieces printed about him headlined the quote, “I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me.” Publicists often plant these statements to give their client the appearance of integrity, but it fit Jones. He showed up late for a TV Guide interview about his TV series and off-handedly called it “garbage.”

“Mr. Chris Jones, who plays the late Mr. James as if he were a three-way cold tablet comprising equal parts of the late Mr. James Dean, the present Mr. Marlon Brando, and a difficult teen-age girl,” TV Guide’s critic, Cleveland Amory, wrote in his review of the show. Jones’ show generated an outpouring of fan letters from female fans, some explicit enough to shock his wife. The series, filmed at 20th Century-Fox, aired on ABC for only one season from September 1965 to May 1966, before falling victim to the ratings competition from The Lucy Show on CBS and Dr. Kildare on NBC.

Chris Jones 2 Jesse James castWhile movie offers poured in for him, Jones’ relationship with Strasberg deteriorated. She alleged that he alternated unpredictably between tenderness and sudden explosions of paranoid jealousy, when he would pummel her face and body with his fists, punishing her for the infidelities he imagined she engaged in. One evening in their apartment, after she tried to flee their moving car, he pointed the Colt revolver he played Russian roulette with at her and said, “I could shoot you.” She closed her eyes and heard the report of his gun. The bullet tore apart her prized English Regency desk. “You have to learn to trust me,” he told her.

Strasberg discovered that she was pregnant just when she had finally decided to leave him. The couple married in Las Vegas on September 25, 1965. She gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer, on March 14, 1966.

In August, Jones began making his first film, Chubasco (1968), on the Warner Bros. lot. One day, early into production, Strasberg received a frantic call at home from the film’s director, Allen Miner. “Susan, Christopher is acting a little rambunctious with the girls we’ve been testing. He hit the last one when he kissed her. He is balking at doing the love scenes.”

She reluctantly agreed to take the role. She divorced Jones after Chubasco was finished. He fought her for custody of their daughter. Strasberg claimed he harassed her enough to compel her to obtain a restraining order against him. Jones’ tempestuous relationship with her set a pattern he was to repeat throughout the remainder of his life with other women.

Jones plays the eponymous character in Chubasco, a rebellious youth who agrees to straighten up and fly right by working as a spotter on a tuna boat. He eventually marries his pregnant girlfriend Bunny (Strasberg), the daughter of the boat’s skipper (Richard Egan), in a sanitized Mexican whorehouse presided over by a madame played by Ann Sothern. Though Chubasco contains a scene between Jones and a benevolent judge (Edward Binns) that takes place in his office and another where he writhes in pain after injuring his hands that evoke similar scenes in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s an unmemorable movie. “I didn’t think it [casting Strasberg as his girlfriend] was too good of an idea and the movie wasn’t that great, but it paid for a house with a pool in Beverly Hills,” Jones said.

Wild in Streets Poster Vertical MediumJones next film, Wild in the Streets (1968) gave him his breakout role.

Next Time: Wild in the Streets, The Looking Glass War, Ryan’s Daughter, and Jones’s sudden and mysterious decline. 

Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).