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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

The Best of 2004, Reviews and the Latest Classic Announcements

I'm going to start off the new year with a short rundown on my ten top classic releases of 2004. The year was a particularly good one for classic enthusiasts and continued the progress on the classic front that we first started to see become really significant in 2003. My list consists of what I consider to be the top release of the year and the other nine in no particular order, just because there are so many competing factors in the quality of any of the top releases as to make it almost impossible to rank them realistically. I give an overall winner just to let you know where my prejudices lie and also to satisfy convention in this regard.

Elsewhere in the column, I provide a few reviews (including early ones for a couple of titles in the next wave of Fox Studio Classics) and the news on the latest classic release announcements. Just a few words in regard to the latter. From time to time on the various internet forums, I notice comments about the lack of source attribution for some of the news I provide here. From the beginning I have made no secret of the fact that this column is merely a service to readers that attempts to bring all such news together from all sources whether they be other internet DVD news sites, DVD forums, newspapers and magazines, online retailers, studio and other distributor sites, my own industry contacts, or my readers. In many cases there is no immediately obvious original source for news as for example, an item that may be cited on one forum based on something seen at another forum or at the site of an internet retailer. I don't have the time to track such items all the way back to the start, nor do I expect that readers care too much - they just want the news. After all, this is just DVD information not ground-breaking news on new scientific theories or breakthroughs. Of course, in some instances what I report isn't exactly news but more like informed opinion or even creditable rumour. In those cases I try to let people know that by the language I use in conveying the information. I should emphasize that I'm not particularly interested in taking credit for breaking any of the items I include here, even those that I may have run down myself, but rather just making such news as widely available as possible. I regret if it offends anyone not to have every single release news item tagged with a specific source, but the column is long enough now and it would just detract from the readability to add such information. Of course in those isolated instances where I receive a piece of information directly from someone who asks that if I use it, I provide the appropriate attribution, I'm happy to do so. Otherwise, I ask that you just take it on faith that my intent here is altruistic and not based on a desire to steal others' thunder. I welcome your comments on this approach.

Now, on with the show!

The Top Ten Classic Releases of 2004

My top classic release of the year is Gone with the Wind, the four-disc special edition from Warner Brothers. There are several elements that are keys for any release to be among the year's best - a great film (or films in the case of a box set), superior transfer(s), top-notch supplementary material, and overall repeat entertainment value of the package. Gone with the Wind scored heavily in all categories. It was the best film of Hollywood's golden year 1939 and has stood the test of time with repeated successful re-releases in the theatre and on television, and then home video. Some 65 years later, it retains the power to entertain and amaze by the pure scope of its story-telling done on a scale that would be cost-prohibitive today. They don't, and can't, make them like this anymore, and that's a shame. Warners applied its Ultra-Resolution restoration process to the Technicolor film and the DVD results were extraordinarily good. All the supplementary content provided true value-added in the form of the extensive making-of documentary, Rudy Belmer's audio commentary, the lengthy profiles on the stars and the shorter featurettes on the many supporting players, and a super featurette on the restoration process. Truly a presentation for other studios to aspire to.

My other nine are highly subjective and I'm sure will occasion many a "how could you overlook such and such", "what about such and a title" or ""are you crazy". That's the nature of the annual top-ten game. Anyway, here they are, listed alphabetically. Please refer to my reviews of many of these films in previous columns for further details.

Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection (WB)
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The (MGM)
Grapes of Wrath, The (Fox)
Meet Me in St. Louis (WB)
Rules of the Game, The (Criterion)
Shadows, Lies and Private Eyes: Film Noir Classic Collection (WB)
That's Entertainment Collection (WB)
Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines (Disney)
White Thunder/The Viking (Milestone)

The appearance of Warner Bros. five times on my list is a fair indicator of where the top work on classic Hollywood titles is being done among the major studios. Classic enthusiasts owe Warners a debt of gratitude for its current and apparently ongoing commitment to its deep catalog items. Fox appears only once on the list, with a title from its Studio Classics line. Unfortunately, the selection of titles (not the transfers) in that line was uneven in 2004, but the appearance of two genuine classics in 2005's first Studio Classics wave (see reviews later in this column) bodes well as does the studio's forthcoming film noir line. Paramount didn't manage a title in my top ten, but it's a studio that does consistently fine work on its classic transfers even if the releases are otherwise barebones in nature . Unfortunately it doesn't have access to its pre-1950 sound titles (they're controlled by Universal). The assumption of control over the Republic Pictures catalog later this year and reassessment of doing something with its silent titles provide the studio with a window to broaden its classic output. Among the independents, Criterion is a reliable source of superior work on classic titles, although unfortunately it has limited access to Hollywood Golden Age material. Milestone continues to issue a small but thoughtfully-mounted roster of silent and early sound titles each year.

Classic Reviews Round-Up

This time, I address six releases comprising three leftovers from last year (5 Film Noir Killer Classics, Susan Hayward Double Feature, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and three of 2005's early releases (Carrie, Leave Her to Heaven, A Letter to Three Wives). One way or another, I'd rate all to be worthy additions to your collections.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
(released on DVD by Fox on February 22nd, 2005)

Based on a novel of the same title by Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her to Heaven was put into production by Fox in the spring of 1945 and opened in New York City on Christmas Day 1945. It tells the story of Ellen Berent who falls in love with writer Richard Harland, proposes to him, and then becomes so obsessed with keeping him entirely to herself that she murders to ensure it. Despite that, her grip on Richard loosens as he begins to realize the lengths to which she has gone and his affections gravitate to Ellen's adopted sister, Ruth. A final fateful effort by Ellen to maintain her grip on Richard leads to an explosive courtroom conclusion. The story is conveyed in a flashback as recounted by Glen Robie, a lawyer who represents Richard.

Leave Her to Heaven

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Leave Her to Heaven occasions some debate as to its film noir character. Its central figure - a woman obsessed to the point of committing murder - is clearly within the noir domain. Yet, its lush, sun-filled, non-urban settings are clearly at odds with noir conventions. In this case, however, they operate in powerful counterpoint to the darkness of Ellen Berent's character, accentuating the horror of her actions by placing them in an environment that by its brightness and surface calm would belie such possibilities. Analysts of this and several other colour noir films have commented on their accentuation of orange tones to convey in the films' colour their dark plot content. In this case, cinematographer Leon Shamroy employs that hue very effectively, gradually though subtly increasing its dominance as Ellen's actions become darker. The overall use of Technicolor is one of the film's most striking characteristics and appropriately won an Academy Award for Shamroy's efforts.

The film features a very fine cast that actually ended up being far from initial speculations as the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Ida Lupino, and Thomas Mitchell (as Ellen, Ruth, and Glen Robie respectively) gave way to Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain, and Ray Collins in the end. The chief male roles went to Cornel Wilde as Richard and Vincent Price as Russell Quinton, a man spurned by Ellen when Richard comes into her life. Gene Tierney's work as Ellen is masterful. At the time she was riding high with her preceding work in Laura and A Bell for Adano and here confirmed her skill with a mesmerizing portrait of surface beauty concealing an ice-cold heart. She received an Oscar nomination (her only one) as Best Actress for her efforts, but lost out to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Director John Stahl maintains a tight grip on the proceedings so that the film's eventful 110-minute running time seems shorter.

Fox may not have an Ultra Resolution process like Warner's to spruce up its Technicolor films, but that doesn't mean it has to bow to them in its restoration efforts for such films. Leave Her to Heaven, released as part of Fox's Studio Classics line, is a fine example. Its colour is exquisite and accurate, capturing the natural beauty of the outdoors and also Leon Shamroy's subtle colour manipulations. The image detail is very good while blacks are deep and glossy, and whites are clean and crisp. There are some minor speckles, but otherwise, this full frame transfer (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is a real winner. Fox provides some restoration image comparisons, but inexplicably omits any supporting text explaining the nature of the source material available to it. Both stereo and mono tracks are provided and they are in fine shape with clear dialogue free of hiss or distortion. Alfred Newman's musical score is well conveyed and does seem noticeably richer on the stereo track - something that's not always obvious on Fox's classic discs with both mono and stereo options. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The main supplement is an audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel and actor Darryl Hickman (who played Richard Harland's brother Danny in the film). The two provide plenty of enlightening information although the editing together of their comments seems strange at times. Many of Hickman's comments are not scene-specific and are inserted at times that seem inappropriate to what's on the screen. The disc also includes newsreel coverage of the film's premiere and some Oscar coverage, as well as a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for several other Studio Classics releases. Highly recommended.

5 Film Noir Killer Classics
(Detour [1945], Scarlet Street [1945], The Stranger [1946], Killer Bait [1949], D.O.A. [1950])
(released on DVD by Questar on March 9th, 2004)

Those familiar with American sound serials are quite used to the standard cliffhanger ending When it comes to film noir and public domain, there are several usual suspects that continually crop up - Detour, The Stranger, and D.O.A. The number of times that these titles have been issued on DVD is probably uncountable. Questar recently made all three available in a film noir collection (entitled 5 Film Noir Killer Classics) along with two lesser-seen public domain titles - Scarlet Street and Too Late for Tears (here titled Killer Bait). Interestingly, four of the five (the exception being Killer Bait) are among the best film noir titles made. That's why it's a shame that they've fallen into the public domain and consequently have been available in less than ideal DVD transfers.

5 Film Noir Killer Classics

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Each has in interesting pedigree. Detour is directed by Edgar G. Ulmer who made a habit of creating small masterpieces out of low budget material. It contains one of noir's quintessential femme fatale performances in Ann Savage's portrayal of a hitchhiker who proves to be the final downfall of Tom Neal's hapless piano player on his way from New York to Los Angeles to see his girl. The Stranger finds Orson Welles playing a Nazi war criminal hiding in a New England college town. Welles also directs this well-acted thriller whose resolution depends upon the gradual revelation of many relationships and character traits previously hidden. Edward G. Robinson, as the investigator, adds another strong film noir performance to his impressive list. D.O.A. has one of film noir's key players, Edmond O'Brien, starring as an accountant desperately seeking the answer to why he has been poisoned (eventually fatally) with a drink containing radioactive material. The victim's paranoia and the hopelessness of his situation are key noir elements taken to the ultimate end in a film that uses its urban environment as a strong character in its own right. Scarlet Street is directed by Fritz Lang and has Edward G. Robinson playing a meek financial officer who becomes embroiled with a beautiful young woman (Joan Bennett) and her sleazy lover (key noir player Dan Duryea). All are ultimately losers in this bleak tale that is among the first post-Code films to allow the protagonist to commit murder and escape conventional justice. Killer Bait is an uneven showcase for key noir femme fatale Lizabeth Scott. See my previous review of this film under its original Too Late for Tears title here.

The transfers in Questar's DVD set are pretty much indicative of the range of quality you get in the better public domain releases. Each film gets its own disc and all are presented full frame as originally released. For D.O.A., The Stranger, and Detour, you're best to look for the individual Roan Group or Image discs for the best presentation on DVD, but the Questar efforts here are not too bad. D.O.A. (actually slightly windowboxed) is probably the best looking of the three. It's quite crisp and detailed most of the time. Both The Stranger and Detour are softer looking with the usual speckles and scratches. Questar's version of Scarlet Street, although grainy and variably soft, is as good a version as I've seen on DVD. Killer Bait is the poorest looking of the lot and is about in the same league (though not quite as dark) as previous Image and Alpha releases (neither of which were very good). The mono sound on all is acceptable although characterized by hiss to a greater or lesser extent. D.O.A. has some hum in the background. There are no subtitles. Questar has added a sixth disc of supplementary material. There are two short featurettes that are entitled What Is Film Noir? and Femme Fatale - The Noir Dame that noir devotees will see as somewhat superficial, but serve as good introductions to those unfamiliar with the style. There is also a gallery of film noir posters, but best of all, an impressive collection of 38 film noir trailers. For those lacking any of the five titles in their collections, this reasonably priced set (available at under $20) is well worth the money. Recommended.

Susan Hayward Double Feature
(Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman [1947] and Tulsa [1949])
(released on DVD by VCI on November 16th, 2004)

At barely 20 years of age, Susan Hayward had her first brush with Hollywood when she was part of the talent search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Unsuccessful with that role, she spent a number of years gradually getting larger parts in films throughout the early 1940s, mainly at Paramount. Moving over to Universal, she received her first Oscar nomination as Best Actress of 1947 for Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. Other nominations followed - for My Foolish Heart (1950) and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) - before she finally won for I Want to Live! (1958). In 1956, she had appeared in The Conqueror, a film made in Utah near the site of atomic bomb testing. Subsequently, many of the cast and crew involved in the film were stricken with cancer - John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, director Dick Powell, and Hayward, who died of brain cancer in 1975.

Susan Hayward Double Feature

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Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman tells in flashback the story of Angie Evans (Hayward), a nightclub singer with considerable promise who marries aspiring singer/songwriter Ken Conway (Lee Bowman). Conway finally gets a break on a local radio station and after introducing his song "Life Can Be Beautiful", becomes a very popular performer. As Conway's fortunes rise, Angie's self-esteem falls and she begins to drink heavily. The marriage is soon on the rocks and threatened with the loss of custody of her young daughter, Angie tries to return to her singing career as a way of stabilizing her life. As had The Lost Weekend two years previously, Smash-Up provides a realistic depiction of the downward-spiraling effects of alcohol, this time from a female point-of-view. The film pulls no punches in presenting the story and a very fine performance by Hayward impels the film forward with great urgency. Only a weak feel-good ending spoils the overall effect somewhat. Bowman does good work as Conway, although not much is required of him. Marsha Hunt is appealing as Conway's publicist, a woman that Angie wrongly suspects of alienating her husband's affections. Eddie Albert is fine in the thankless role of Conway's piano accompanist.

Tulsa tells a somewhat predictable story about drilling rights, oil wells, and environmental pollution that purports to account for the rise of the modern city of Tulsa. It's all malarkey, of course, but the tale of a woman (Susan Hayward) who drills for oil to avenge her father's death and then finds her values compromised by the wealth arising from her success is reasonably entertaining fare. Director Stuart Heisler (who also handled Smash-Up) knows how to move a story along and even with this familiar material manages to create some tension. The cast is competent, but the material demands little of them and none stand out accordingly. As well as Hayward, the players include Robert Preston, Pedro Armendariz, and Chill Wills (who also narrates and sings). The use of Technicolor lends the film some class.

The films are made available on DVD by VCI in a new line of public domain double bills that the company is putting out, called Acme DVD Works. Inevitably for such material, the image transfers are not up to the standard of the better major studio releases, but they are a cut above many of the usual public domain efforts. Both films are presented full frame as originally released. Smash-Up starts promisingly with some crisp main titles, but once they're finished, so is the crispness. The image is still quite workable but dark areas are very murky, image detail is lacking, and scratches, speckles, and debris are common. Tulsa suffers from both a rather dark image that eliminates most shadow detail and colour that's reasonably bright but smeared and sporting an orangy tendency. It's watchable, but typical of unrestored Technicolor that's seen much better days. The mono sound for both films is clear enough but characterized by considerable background hiss. There are no sub-titles. The disc has two supplements - a scratchy trailer for Smash-Up that appears to be missing its ending and the seven-minute-long News Parade of the Year 1949 that covers such items as the end of the Berlin airlift, a severe earthquake in Ecuador, and the Communist uprising in China. Available on-line for well under $10 and with the titles unlikely to receive the sort of proper restorations they need, this disc has enough entertainment value to be worth picking up even with the mediocre transfers.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
(released on DVD by Fox on February 22nd, 2005)

Joseph Mankiewicz's first directorial effort was 1945's Dragonwyck with Gene Tierney and Walter Huston, which he followed up with several other interesting titles in the late 1940s including The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. His real break-through film, however, was 1949's A Letter to Three Wives for which he also wrote the screenplay. As the title implies, the story involves three wives living in a suburban community who receive a letter from the town femme fatale, Addie Ross, indicating that she is leaving town for good and taking one of their husbands with her. As the three wives have just embarked on a boat for a day's outing, they are unable to communicate with their husbands immediately and they spend much of the day thinking back over their lives for possible clues as to which one of them may be the one losing her husband. The answer is revealed (although not completely unambiguously) at a dinner party and dance later that evening.

A Letter to Three Wives

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In his dual role of writer-director, A Letter to Three Wives is Mankiewicz's first film that is a real personal statement both highlighting his incisive and smart writing as well as indulging his desire to make his personal hobbyhorses known to viewers (soap operas, tasteless producers, poor grammar, advertising, and phony airs, for example) and use film-making techniques he favoured (principally the flashback and voice-over narration). He would take the approach to its zenith in the later All About Eve, but for the time being, A Letter to Three Wives represented the ultimate in smart, sophisticated drama and a film for which the term dialogue-driven has real meaning. It's an intelligent and rewarding piece of entertainment that was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture for 1949, but lost out to All the King's Men. It did, however, bring Oscars to Mankiewicz for both writing and directing.

The film is well served by an almost uniformly excellent roster of players. The three wives are very well cast with their real-life acting abilities being very much in synch with the strength of their characters in the film (the forceful Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern as the strong Lora Mae and Rita respectively, and the mild-mannered Jeanne Crain as the weaker Deborah). Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas are both effective as Rita and Lora Mae's husbands, George and Porter, but Jeffery Lynn provides a rather bland portrait of Deborah's husband, Brad. Addie Ross is present in voice only, well handled by Celeste Holm. Each of the three wives gets a chance to shine in individual flashbacks that reveal earlier parts of their relationships with their husbands. All are well done, but the sequence focusing on Rita and George is the most memorable, partly due to the wonderfully revolting characters of the domineering radio producer (Florence Bates) and her obsequious husband (Hobart Cavanaugh).

A Letter to Three Wives is one of three films being released simultaneously as the most recent wave in Fox's Studio Classics series (the others are Leave Her to Heaven and Return to Peyton Place). Fox's decisions as to titles to include in this series have been questionable of late, but at least this one and Leave Her to Heaven are most certainly appropriate. The film's original negative has been lost so Fox turned to a composite fine grain master as source material. The resulting DVD transfer preserves the 1.37:1 original aspect ratio and delivers a very pleasing image that is for the most part very sharp and clear. It delivers a nicely detailed gray scale that provides excellent shadow detail. Considerable digital clean-up was employed and the results are evident on the screen, with only a few speckles and the odd bit of debris in evidence. Fox includes a restoration comparison which clearly shows the improvements made to the previous video master. As is common with Fox releases in this series, both a stereo and mono track are provided, but there's little to choose between the two. For a film like this, we merely want to know that the dialogue is crisp and clearly understandable, and that's what the DVD delivers. English and Spanish sub-titles are also included. The disc's supplements are highlighted by a very fine audio commentary featuring Christopher Mankiewicz (Joseph's son) and Mankiewicz biographers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower. Their comments were apparently taped separately and edited together with quite effective and comprehensive results. There are few slow spots and the speaking styles (from anecdotal to academic) complement each other well. Also included on the disc are the "Biography" television profile on Linda Darnell (a nice overview of her tragic life clocking in at about three-quarters of an hour), newsreel footage of the film's Oscar wins, and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

On to Part Two

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