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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #1 (continued)

1950s TV's Greatest Westerns (1949-1960)
(released on DVD by Falcon Picture Group)

Falcon Picture Group is one of numerous public domain specialists that are currently active in releasing product on DVD. Falcon's first group of offerings included four box sets focusing on TV shows from the 1950s: TV's Greatest Shows, TV's Greatest Comedies, TV's Greatest Detectives, and TV's Greatest Westerns. Each box set consists of three discs, each in a separate case. Each disc contains four half-hour shows, resulting in over five hours of material in each box set.

TV's Greatest Westerns is typical of how each set is structured and the quality of the transfers. There are a total of twelve episodes, each an example of a different western television series that aired during the 1950s. The series range from the generally juvenile television spinoffs of B-westerns featuring the likes of Roy Rogers and The Cisco Kid to the somewhat more sophisticated stories in Bat Masterson and Death Valley Days to western stories set in modern times such as Fury and Sky King. Here's what's included in detail:

The Lone Ranger - "Legion of Old Timers" episode aired October 6, 1949. Stars Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, with DeForest Kelly as a young rancher.

Bat Masterson - "Stampede at Tent City" episode aired November 5, 1958. Stars Gene Barry, with William Conrad as the principal heavy.

The Cisco Kid - "Ghost Story" episode aired October 15, 1951. Stars Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo. In colour as originally shot.

The Roy Rogers Show - "Ranch War" episode aired October 23, 1955. Stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, with Pat Brady. Modernized western setting.

Death Valley Days - "Little Washington" episode aired October 1, 1953. Guest star Jim Davis. Includes the introduction by The Old Ranger and the original Borax commercials featuring Rosemary DeCamp.

Sky King - "Sky Robbers" episode aired December 28, 1958. Stars Kirby Grant. Modernized western setting.

Tate - "The Mary Hardin Story" episode aired June 29, 1960. Stars David McLean, with guest star Julia Adams. Directed by Ida Lupino. This was the pilot episode, but the series was short-lived.

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon - "Scourge of the Wilderness" episode aired January 10, 1957. Stars Richard Simmons.

Judge Roy Bean - "The Judge of Pecos Valley" episode aired September 1, 1955. Stars Edgar Buchanan, with Jack Buetel. Originally filmed in colour, but version on the disc is in black and white.

Fury - "Search for Joey" episode aired February 18, 1956. Stars Peter Graves and the horse Fury. Modernized western setting.

The Adventures of Jim Bowie - "The Land Jumpers" episode aired November 16, 1956. Stars Scott Forbes, with Claude Akins.

Annie Oakley - "Shadow at Sonoma" episode aired September 24, 1956. Stars Gail Davis.

1950s TV's Greatest Westerns

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There's no doubt that there's a certain pleasure in seeing examples of these old favourites once again. Some of them hold up reasonably well (Death Valley Days, Tate); others at least evoke fond memories (The Lone Ranger, Bat Masterson); but a few are best left to posterity (The Cisco Kid, Judge Roy Bean). The latter two include the irritating performances of Leo Carrillo as the Cisco Kid's sidekick Pancho and Edgar Buchanan as a folksy Judge Bean respectively. Unfortunately, the Falcon Picture Group's prominently displayed claim of "digitally restored" does nothing to show these programs in their best light. Digital they may be, but restored they're not. The best looking episodes (Death Valley Days, Tate) are VHS quality at best; the others are watchable, but suffer from varying degrees of fuzziness, excessive grain, and poor contrast. All are full frame as originally broadcast. One episode is shown with some footage out of order and some repeated (The Cisco Kid). The mono sound is workable, but is characterized by plenty of hiss and crackle on most episodes. There are no supplements.

One use that the set has is to identify possible series that one might like to see more episodes of and vice versa. In this regard, Falcon will be releasing sets focusing on single series alone (such as Judge Roy Bean, Jim Bowie, and others) in the coming months. See my latest announcements of new classic releases for the full list. The best bet to my mind would be a set of Death Valley Days episodes (over 500 made between 1952 and 1975), but unfortunately that's not planned at this time.

Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
a.k.a. Journal d'un curé de campagne
(released on DVD by Criterion on February 3rd, 2004)

By 1950, director Robert Bresson already was recognized as one of the leading lights of French cinema with his work on several films during the mid-1940s, including Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945). The five-year interval before his next effort - Diary of a Country Priest - was typical of Bresson.

Diary of a Country Priest

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During his 50-year career as a director, he completed but 14 films, roughly one every four years. Every one is an intensely personal journey and a reflection of Bresson's style, one which includes maintaining the essence of his source material, keeping his themes simple and uncluttered by extraneous sub-plots, concentrating on an isolated individual as the core of his films, collapsing scenes by often omitting their middles, and being interested in the consequences of startling events rather than focusing on their occurrences. Diary of a Country Priest is perhaps as true an example of what Bresson was about as any other of his films.

Based on the 1934 George Bernanos novel of the same title, the film presents the voyage of a young priest who is assigned the country village of Ambricourt as his first parish. The young priest never seems able to touch the ordinary villagers and his main impact is confined to the village aristocracy where he runs afoul of the Count and tries to reconcile the Countess to God. Even his apparent success with her is misinterpreted and in the end he is a figure of ridicule, questioning his own faith and looked upon by all as an apparent drunkard due to the wine he drinks to excess because it seems to be the only thing that will ease his stomach ailments. There is a shattering air of desolation and disillusionment to the priest's life that only seems to be eased by his devotion to his daily writings. In the end, even they are unable to provide sustenance.

This is a bleak tale indeed - one from which Bresson never provides any relief. Yet it is mesmerizing in its execution through the beautifully modulated almost-non-acting of Claude Laydu as the priest contrasted with the more traditional styles of virtually every other player. Similarly, the reality of what Bresson shows us (only parts of scenes, beginnings and endings of events, the sounds of happenings) is a striking departure from our expectations of standard narrative film-making. On the other hand, it is film-making recognizable in its evocative cinematography and its simple yet engaging musical score. The result is a richly rewarding experience that leaves one emotionally drained at the end, yet intellectually energized to experience the film's many nuances again and again.

Fortunately, doing so is a pleasure indeed due to Criterion's work on its DVD presentation. I suspect few people if any have ever seen this film look better. Its deep blacks and finely detailed gray scale are a pleasure to behold, yielding a crisp black and white image (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) that more than compensates for the odd speckle and scratch that crop up and the occasional instance of minor edge effects. The Dolby Digital mono sound track is in good condition allowing the French dialogue to be easily understandable. The English subtitles convey the essence of the dialogue quite acceptably. Supplements include a very enlightening audio commentary by well-known film historian Peter Cowie, the film's original trailer, and a three-page version of an essay on the film by Frédéric Bonnaud that originally appeared in the magazine "Film Comment". Very highly recommended.

The Prisoner (1955)
(released on DVD by Columbia on March 2nd, 2004)

This British-made film released by Columbia, and adapted from a play of the same title by the play's author Bridget Boland, is now little known some fifty years after its original release. That's a shame because it features two marvelous performances by Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. The story concerns the arrest for treason of a strong-willed cardinal (Guinness) who subsequently undergoes a lengthy and rigorous interrogation by a state inquisitor (Hawkins). The time is during the Cold War soon after World War II and the place is an un-named Eastern European country.

The Prisoner

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The focus of the film is the interrogation process and it is here that the film shines as Hawkins' interrogator gradually and unrelentingly erodes the cardinal's resolve. At first, the efforts seem fruitless as the cardinal easily parries all his interrogator's thrusts, even dismissing with several succinct observations some crude attempts to manufacture evidence against him. Nor does torture succeed as the cardinal has already proven his resistance to such techniques when similar efforts were used against him during the war by the Nazis. The weakness in the cardinal's armour proves to be his lack of love for his mother and his admission that he became a priest through pride rather than religious conviction. How Hawkins' interrogator is able to mine these weaknesses and ultimately break down the cardinal's resolve provide the film's most memorable sequences.

The film was the initial directorial effort by Peter Glenville and his success can be measured by the deeply claustrophobic atmosphere that he is able to create and the powerful performances that he draws from Guinness and Hawkins. The film's feel of confinement is only briefly compromised by an irrelevant love affair involving one of the prison staff. One presumes that the intent was to try to open up the story's stagebound feel, but that is unnecessary. We want to be bound up with Guinness and Hawkins because that's what allows us to really experience the effectiveness of interrogation at its most subtle, especially when Guinness and Hawkins make it all seem so real.

Columbia's DVD provides a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the black and white film that looks quite decent. There's no real evidence of any restoration efforts here, but reasonable source material has resulted in an image that is quite sharp for the most part. Shadow detail is not uniformly good as some dark sequences are a little murky looking. There's the usual speckling and some debris, but no edge effects so that all in all, the transfer doesn't detract from one's immersion in the film's cat and mouse game. The Dolby Digital mono track is quite adequate for this dialogue-driven film. There are no relevant supplements. Trailers for three other Columbia classic releases are included. Overall the disc presentation won't make you forget any of the many other excellent classic film DVDs available, but the content is so good that the disc is still recommended.

Peyton Place (1957)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 2nd, 2004)

The latest in Fox's Studio Classics series is another winner. Peyton Place, based on Grace Metalious's best-selling novel of the same title, was brought to the screen by prolific producer Jerry Wald. Just as they did with Johnny Belinda and The Glass Menagerie, many questioned whether Wald could actually film Peyton Place without running so afoul of the censors that the book's controversial content would be completely gutted. Once again, however, Wald was successful as the initial stirrings of allowing films increased latitude to reflect some of life's less uplifting realities forced some relaxation in the strict requirements of the Hayes Office. The result was a film that preserved many of the racy plot lines of the book and generally pleased viewers with its overall faithfulness to its source material. Nowadays, of course, it all seems incredibly tame, but in 1957, the film was hot stuff.

I suspect, for many, Peyton Place is a guilty pleasure. Pot boiler its source may be, but as is so often the case, such material does draw you into a good story. Peyton Place is a small New England town with a cloak of respectability that hides virtually the complete range of sexual taboos of the time - teenage lust, repression, children born out of wedlock, incest, and abortion. The story focuses on high school senior Alison MacKenzie and her mother Constance. As Alison struggles to find herself and her mother tries to shield her from the world's realities, Alison's friends have their own crosses to bear including domineering fathers, possessive mothers, and in the case of Alison's closest friend, Selena, sexual abuse. It is the latter that leads to murder and a trial that finally reveals all the town's dark secrets.

Peyton Place

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Peyton Place is somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Sirk's glossy melodramas of the 1950s in tone and particularly in look. Beyond that, there is the obvious link with Sirk's Imitation of Life in the appearance of Lana Turner who plays Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place. Turner gives a restrained performance that helps to anchor the film. It resulted in the only Academy Award nomination of her career. (She lost to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve.) Other fine performances come from Diane Varsi as Alison, Hope Lange as Selena, and Arthur Kennedy as Selena's father. Further familiar faces in the cast include Russ Tamblyn, Terry Moore, Lloyd Nolan, and Leon Ames. Direction is by Mark Robson who had started at RKO in the 1940s and was by 1957 building an impressive filmography with the likes of Bright Victory, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and The Harder They Fall (his next film would be The Inn of the Sixth Happiness). Robson manages to weave all the story's strands together very effectively so that there is continual interest and the film seems to zip along despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Franz Waxman's score is a positive influence overall, although it punctuates a few of the dramatic highlights too loudly and obviously.

Fox has utilized both sides of a single disc for its presentation of Peyton Place. The film along with an audio commentary is on one side, while the bulk of the supplements are on the other. The Cinemascope film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks lush and generally free from significant speckling or age-related debris. Aside from a few slightly soft-looking segments, the image is sharp and colour fidelity is very good. There is some minor grain, but shadow detail is good and edge effects are not an issue. The Dolby Digital 4.0 sound mix provides some excellent examples of the period's use of directional stereo and there is even some nice surround presence evident during passages of Waxman's score. Spanish and French mono tracks are provided as are English and Spanish subtitles. A very fine transfer by Fox!

The audio commentary comprises comments by actors Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn that have been edited together. Both actors concentrate more on reminiscences about the various players on the screen than on the technical aspects of the production. The result is somewhat rambling and repetitive on occasion, but is entertaining to hear if not quite as incisive as one might want. The AMC Backstory program on Peyton Place provides some of the essential production background, but can't really do the film justice at only 27 minutes in length. A couple of Movietone newsreels dealing with the film's premiere and Photoplay Magazine awards as well as the film's teaser ad and original trailer round out the disc. Recommended.

The Best of Mister Ed: Volume One (1961-1963)
(released on DVD by MGM on January 6th, 2004)

The Best of Mister Ed: Volume One

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Over the course of five seasons from 1961 to 1966, there were 143 episodes of the popular television series Mister Ed broadcast. MGM has now collected 21 of the best from the first three seasons in a two-disc DVD set entitled The Best of Mister Ed: Volume One. The series was a sitcom that related the various adventures of architect Wilbur Post and his horse Mister Ed. The twist was that Mister Ed talked, but only to Wilbur - a situation that predictably entangled Wilbur in some rather bizarre situations. Beyond his ability to talk, Mister Ed was a rather precocious horse too and never shrank from taking matters into his own hands, er, hooves. Thus, one might find Ed dressing up as a doctor, or pulling down a television antenna, or making rude comments on a party line, or refusing to trot up a hill because he believed himself afraid of heights, or, well you get the idea. If all this sounds pretty ridiculous, the simple fact is that it was. That it succeeded so well was due to a happy blend of good writing, Alan Young's unaffected playing of Wilbur, and Ed's fabulous deep voice, supplied for him by cowboy star Allan "Rocky" Lane. The interaction between Wilbur and Ed was a pleasure to behold and listen to, making virtually every episode easy to take. It is not surprising then that the shows hold up very well some 40 years later. The program also attracted a number of guest stars, with George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Clint Eastwood being represented among the episodes in this DVD collection.

MGM has packaged the 21 episodes in a digipak containing one double-sided and one single-sided disc. The source material is in very good shape and the resulting black and white images look very crisp for the most part, with deep blacks, clean whites, and a finely detailed gray scale. There are no edge effects. The mono sound is more than adequate. Episodes can only be played individually; there is no play-all option. The only supplement is a 12-page booklet that provides details on each episode including the title, the original air date, a brief synopsis, a list of cast and crew, and a still. Recommended.

Pressure Point (1962)
For Love of Ivy (1968)
The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
The Sidney Poitier Collection
(all released on DVD by MGM on January 20th, 2004)

January added considerably to the number of Sidney Poitier films available on DVD. In addition to Let's Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, and Uptown Saturday Night - all made available by Warner Bros., MGM has released three United Artists titles: Pressure Point (1962), The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), and For Love of Ivy (1968). The latter is available separately and also as part of The Sidney Poitier Collection which includes it together with four previously released films: In the Heat of the Night, They Call Me Mister Tibbs, The Organization, and Lilies of the Field.

Pressure Point

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For Love of Ivy

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The Wilby Conspiracy

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The Sidney Poitier Collection

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Let's start with the least of these films - For Love of Ivy. This was Poitier's follow-up film to the very successful Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and was based on a story by Poitier himself. Poitier plays Jack Parks who operates various gambling games in the back of a tractor trailer that keeps on the move during the night. He is blackmailed by the son of a client into seducing the client's housekeeper, Ivy, who has announced her intention to quit her job and seek self-improvement in the city. Jack has no intention of falling for Ivy, but love has a strange way of making up its own mind.

There's some good stuff here, but it's all around the edges. Things like fine performances by Carroll O'Connor and especially Beau Bridges as the father and son respectively of the family for which Ivy works, or the background premise of the moving gambling establishment, which is a little out of the ordinary, or even a pleasing background score by Quincy Jones. Unfortunately, underneath all this icing, the core of the film is weak, both in concept and in execution. The story's situation is an uncomfortable one for Jack Parks and Sidney Poitier looks very uncomfortable playing him. The relationship between him and Ivy (played by Abbey Lincoln) builds methodically to a first kiss and fails to generate any real sense of passion thereafter. The couple's main love scene looks more awkward than anything else. The film also conveys a sense of self-consciousness about the protagonists' skin colour with unnecessary references to it, sometimes in derogatory terms. Perhaps this seemed less obvious 35 years ago, but somehow I doubt it. The resolution of Jack's illegal activities in terms of their impact on any future for him and Ivy is handled a little too patly to make for a satisfactory conclusion to the film, even allowing for what has gone on before.

MGM provides a 1.85:1 transfer that has not been anamorphically enhanced. Despite that, the results are quite good, reflecting the use of superior source material. Colours are accurate and vibrant with good shadow detail on the whole. There is some minor shimmer in evidence in the patterns on some of Poitier's suits. Edge effects are not a factor. The mono track clearly conveys both dialogue and music, even the insipid original song "For Love of Ivy" which was somehow accorded an Academy Award nomination. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There is no supplemental material on the disc.

Pressure Point is a very fine drama that for the most part is a two-man acting job by Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin. Darin plays a prison inmate who has been jailed for sedition while Poitier plays a prison psychiatrist who attempts to help him deal with his hate-filled past. As the psychiatrist comes to recognize the underlying violence in the inmate's nature, the inmate is cultivating a perfect prisoner image that he hopes will ensure his early release.

During the 40-odd years since Pressure Point's release, many films have had characters with similarly stunted backgrounds to the inmate depicted here. Few, if any, have delved quite as deeply into that background, however, choosing instead to use it as a secondary theme that explains the reasons for particularly heinous crimes that are those films' main focus. Recent films such as Se7en and Silence of the Lambs are good examples. One might imagine that a film focusing strictly on such a background and relying on two actors talking to each other would be in tough in trying to retain audience interest. Such is not the case with Pressure Point, because of two very fine performances. The revelation here lies in how good Bobby Darin is. Known primarily as a singer (who doesn't automatically think of "Mack the Knife" when you hear Darin's name?), he also carved out a pretty reasonable film career (Hell Is for Heroes and Captain Newman, M.D. contain two other fine Darin portrayals) of over a dozen films before succumbing to heart problems at an early age. Darin's prison inmate is a beautifully controlled portrait of an outwardly innocent-looking but inwardly tormented young man. Sidney Poitier's doctor is the less showy role, but he invests plenty of emotion in it and effectively conveys the doctor's torment over his inability to make others see the inmate's true character. Peter Falk has a small early role in the film's framing story. The film was produced by Stanley Kramer.

MGM's DVD release presents the black and white film in a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer that is very attractive-looking. Black levels are deep, whites are clean, and there is a very finely detailed gray scale yielding excellent shadow resolution. Speckling is minimal as are edge effects. A very good effort. The mono sound track is in good shape with no age-related hiss in evidence. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include the theatrical trailer and a reasonably interesting audio commentary by co-writer and director Hubert Cornfield. Unfortunately, Cornfield's effort is rather compromised by the ravages of age on his voice, which make it difficult to listen to for an extended period. Still it's good to have his thoughts, particularly considering the apparent effort he had to make to provide them. Recommended.

The Wilby Conspiracy is effectively a chase picture with a twist, in which a South African black activist is freed from prison in Cape Town, but soon finds himself on the run from the law along with a friend of his lawyer. The pair head for Johannesburg hoping to get out of the country, unaware that events are being orchestrated behind the scenes by a member of the South African security service who has much bigger game in his sights.

Partially reminiscent of The Defiant Ones in that it forces a black man (Sidney Poitier) and a white man (Michael Caine) to work together for their common good, The Wilby Conspiracy is in the end just another buddy action film. There's nothing particularly novel about it except that the setting is a nice change from urban America. The principal actors all do a good job with Poitier and Caine maintaining a nice light sense of camaraderie throughout even given the suspicions each of their characters has of the other. The juiciest role, however, is that of the South African security agent which is played in a droll fashion and with obvious relish by Nicol Williamson (The Seven Percent Solution, Excalibur). Rutger Hauer has a small role as a pilot who reluctantly assists the would-be escapers. The film's plot manages to conceal the details of its various twists quite well, generating a modest amount of suspense along the way. Nevertheless, I'd rate this simply as a pleasant time-passer for a cold, wintry night - no lasting impression but no bitter aftertaste either.

MGM accords the original United Artists release one of its standard 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfers. The image is quite pleasant - reasonably colourful if a trifle pale at times; free of significant speckling, dirt, or debris; and characterized by reasonably deep blacks and decent shadow detail. The mono sound (also available in Spanish) is not particularly distinguished in any way, but the film doesn't demand more. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.

The Sidney Poitier Collection is a nice idea by MGM, but could have been better in its execution. Only one of the titles in it (For Love of Ivy) is new to DVD, while the other four were previously released and include the three films in which Poitier plays detective Virgil Tibbs as well as Lilies of the Field. A better representation of the variety in Poitier's career (at least, for the films under MGM's control) would have seen the second and third Tibbs pictures (They Call Me Mister Tibbs, The Organization) dropped and replaced by this month's other two new DVD releases, Pressure Point and The Wilby Conspiracy. This would have provided more incentive to purchase the box set, as most Poitier fans will already have acquired the four previously released films in it. As for those four films, both In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field are well worth having although the former is much the better film of the two. Its disc provides a fine 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer accompanied by a good audio commentary with Rod Steiger, Lee Grant, director Norman Jewison, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Lilies of the Field has an almost equally good-looking 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer. Both films have theatrical trailers. They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Organization are both workmanlike police thrillers worth a screening, but without much repeat viewing potential. Tibbs has a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks a little dark at times. The Organization has an adequate 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer. Both discs include theatrical trailers.

On to Part Three

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