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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Classic Reviews Roundup #16 - March 2005 (continued)

Holt of the Secret Service (1941)
(released on DVD by VCI on December 28th, 2004)

This is a 15-chapter serial originally released by Columbia in 1941 in which a pair of Secret Service agents acting as a vicious criminal and his wife go undercover to try to get the goods on a counterfeiting gang and unearth its shadowy leader. The two agents are played by Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent. Holt actually goes by his own name as the agent (hence the serial's title) as well as Nick Farrell in the undercover role. The plot takes Holt back and forth between the gang's hideout near an old mine, an offshore gambling ship, and a nearby tropical island as he gradually inches his way towards determining who the gang leader is. Complicating things are various double-crosses among the gang members themselves. The usual collection of cliffhanger endings are utilized, ranging from a canoe going over a waterfall, an exploding shack, and poisonous acid fumes, to car crashes and falls over rocky cliffs.

Holt of the Secret Service

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Holt of the Secret Service is fairly typical of the sort of serial product that Columbia turned out and within the serial canon as a whole is an average entry at best. Columbia first entered the serial business in 1937 joining Republic and Universal who were both already active. It would actually turn out the last serial in 1956, just shortly after Republic ceased serial production. Universal had withdrawn after 1946. Although each studio has its adherents when it comes to their serials, most enthusiasts recognize the Republic entries as being the best, certainly in terms of production values and action content. Universal generally tried to compensate for shortcomings in these areas with more intricate plots. Columbia seemingly just tried to make viewers overlook them by substituting speed, usually achieved by undercranked camerawork. This is much in evidence in Holt of the Secret Service and the various fights that Jack Holt finds himself involved in portray him as a virtual whirling dervish dispatching groups of the bad guys, four or six at a time, with ease.

Aside from this, Holt is actually quite a pleasure to watch as he spits out the simple dialogue or thrusts out his lantern jaw whenever he gets tough with anyone. He would have made for a good Dick Tracy on the screen. Evelyn Brent also gives a juicy performance as his sharp-tongued associate. Unfortunately both their characters are made to look pretty dumb at times by the plodding script. On several occasions, it has them writing incriminating notes to each other and allowing them to fall into the hands of the bad guys. The serial was directed by James W. Horne who typically introduced a fair bit of humour into his serials, often to the dismay of many serial aficionados. Fortunately, that's little in evidence here. The excessive undercranked camerawork is dismaying enough. As with any serial, the chapters should be watched one at a time with a decent time interval between each. It also helps to tune your mind to the nature of the times within which they were made and particularly the age of the targeted Saturday matinee audience. If you're looking for your first serial experience, however, I'd look elsewhere than Holt of the Secret Service. There were 11 serials released in 1941 and entries such as Jungle Girl or The Adventures of Captain Marvel would be better choices.

VCI has released the serial on DVD on a two-disc set and presents it full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The image is quite decent-looking. It's rather dark, resulting in a loss of image detail in night-time and shadowy sequences, but otherwise blacks are deep and glossy and contrast is fairly good. There is quite a noticeable amount of speckling, but it's not distracting. The mono sound is quite workable. There is no subtitling provided. The supplements include good biographies of Jack Holt, Evelyn Brent, Tristam Coffin (one of the chief gang members and a frequent serial heavy), and director James Horne, as well as trailers for four other Columbia serials and a promotional piece on the various serials available from VCI.

The Dark Mirror (1946)
(NOTE: This is a 2004 Region 2 release by Wild Side Video in France. The DVD is in PAL format and will require a region-free player for viewing. The French release title is Double Enigme.)

Very much the brainchild of Nunnally Johnson, who both produced and wrote the film, The Dark Mirror was produced under the International Pictures imprimatur although it would be released by Universal as a consequence of the 1946 merger of the two companies. It is a tale of twin sisters (Terry and Ruth Collins, both played by Olivia De Havilland) who fall under suspicion when a prominent physician is murdered. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen one of the sisters with the physician on the fateful night, but other witnesses corraborate one of the sisters' stories that she was at an outdoor concert when the murder was committed. Since Ruth and Terry will not cooperate with the police and none of the witnesses can distinguish between the two, the sisters are able to escape arrest for the murder. Exasperated investigating police officer Stephenson (Thomas Mitchell) calls upon psychiatrist Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) for help. Elliott, who was already friendly with the sisters, manages to persuade them to be interviewed separately as part of his ongoing general study of twins. Secretly, he hopes to be able to determine which of the two is capable of murder.

The Dark Mirror

Interestingly, 1946 was the year in which former studio colleagues Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland both appeared in films about twins. Davis's picture was the more melodramatic A Stolen Life which though stretching credibility at times was quite an entertaining effort with Warners' production values and typically bravura performances by Davis on display. De Havilland's The Dark Mirror is quieter and more disturbing, with De Havilland delivering less showy but very effective performances. She gets good support from both Ayres (in his first role after wartime service as a non-combatant in the Pacific) and the ever-reliable Thomas Mitchell. Robert Siodmak, well-known for such noir efforts as The Killers, Phantom Lady, and Criss Cross, directed. The film's noir connection is less through style (except perhaps through the use of the broken mirrors) than theme in this case, as it focuses on twins who look identical but have psychological profiles that are strikingly and lethally different. Films of the late 1940s seem to favour themes with psychoanalytical aspects to them, sometimes rather simplistically so. Although the approach used in The Dark Mirror was no more persuasive than others, its integration into the plot is smoothly enough done that it does not detract from the film's overall impact.

Wild Side's DVD release is part of its reference label series known as "Les Introuvables", a collection of important classic films restored using the best source material available to the company. The full frame image (original aspect ratio 1.37:1) is excellent-looking. Blacks are glossy and deep while whites are very clean. Shadow detail is impressive. There is a very modest level of grain that contributes to a good film-like image. There are a couple of instances of shimmer apparent in the early stages of the film, but no edge effects are evident. Both English and French mono tracks are provided and both are clear with virtually no background hiss present. The English track is accompanied by French sub-titles that cannot be turned off. This may prove to be a distraction for some, although I found the effect of negligible importance after the film had been on for 10 or 15 minutes. The disc has some nice supplements (all in French, of course) including an informative interview with Hervé Dumont, director of La Cinémathèque Suisse and author of a book on Robert Siodmak; a 12-page insert booklet written by Nicolas Saada that includes a useful overview of the career of Siodmak and particularly The Dark Mirror and filmographies of Robert Siodmak and Olivia De Havilland; and finally a photo gallery. Recommended.

Call Northside 777 (1948)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 15th, 2005)

When James Stewart returned to Hollywood after the war, he was determined to remain a free agent rather than sign another studio contract. His success was mixed with the likes of It's a Wonderful Life and Magic Town, both films whose initial reception was lukewarm although the former would gain in appreciation over the succeeding years. Faced with what some were calling a career decline, Stewart decided that he would have to start projecting a tougher image. His first step was to appear as an investigating reporter in Call Northside 777, a 20th Century-Fox production done in the semi-documentary style that studio was then popularizing. It was a filmization of Chicago newspaperman James McGuire's efforts to free Thomas Majczek who had been imprisoned for a murder that he didn't commit. In the film, McGuire becomes Mickey McNeal (James Stewart) and Majczek becomes Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). The saga leading to Wiecek's pardon begins with a personal ad that offers $5000 to anyone who can shed light on an 11-year old killing. Sensing a public interest angle, editor Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) assigns McNeal to look into the ad. He finds that it has been placed by Tillie Wiecek, a scrubwoman who has saved the reward money from years of washing floors in order to try and get her son Frank freed from prison. Although initially skeptical, McNeal eventually becomes intrigued and starts on a lengthy investigative trail that he hopes will prove Frank's innocence.

Call Northside 777

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People alive at the time of the film's original release knew the outcome of the story as it was a well-publicized saga at the time and viewers nowadays can guess theultimate conclusion. Thus it's more interesting to observe the various plot twists as Stewart's character investigates. As one might expect, the law enforcement and state prosecution apparatus is not particularly helpful to McNeal. The police are not anxious to assist anyone looking to help a cop-killer, nor does the state offer any assistance in dealing with parole hearing that might be favourable to Wiecek. Much of McNeal's efforts are directed to locating the witness (Wanda Skutnick) who identified Wiecek as the killer, but even when he finds her, McNeal is stymied by her refusal to change her testimony. In the end, he must rely on a new piece of technology to provide the break in the case.

At 111 minutes, Call Northside 777 was one of the lengthier films of the time, but veteran action director Henry Hathaway moves the story along relentlessly so that interest never wanes. Most of the film was shot on location in Chicago and its surroundings, and that works successfully to set the mood of the film and give it much of its noir feel. The sequences when McNeal prowls the cafés and bars of the seedier areas of the city in search of Wanda are particularly effective.

Stewart gives a fine performance as McNeal, conveying McNeal's changes in moods from skepticism to intrigue to zeal with equal conviction, and successfully beginning the transition to the tougher image that he wanted. Good support is provided by Conte and Cobb, and the presence of familiar faces such as Moroni Olsen, John McIntyre, E.G. Marshall, Addison Richards, Percy Helton, Charles Lane, and Cy Kendall will please character actor watchers.

The film has been issued as number 2 in Fox's Film Noir series. The full frame black and white transfer is another fine effort from Fox. Consistent with the original aspect ratio, the image is crisp and has excellent shadow detail. There is some modest grain. There are somewhat more speckles and scratches in evident than on Fox's other two releases in this first noir wave (Laura and Panic in the Streets), but they do not distract one from enjoying the film. Both stereo and mono tracks are offered, but as usual, there's no great difference between the two. Either does a good job with the dialogue-driven film. A French mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplements are highlighted by a fine audio commentary by noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver. They provide a wealth of information on production detail, the film's noir pedigree, and the differences between the film and the story it's based on. There is also a Movietone newsreel segment on the film's premiere, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for several other Fox Film Noir titles. Highly recommended.

Easter Parade (1948)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 15th, 2005)

This of course is the well-known musical from the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. It was originally intended as a vehicle for Judy Garland and Gene Kelly with Cyd Charisse in support and Vincente Minnelli directing. Both Kelly and Charisse suffered injuries and had to be replaced at the last minute, by Fred Astaire and Ann Miller respectively. What a letdown! Fred is only magnificent in the lead male part and makes it such that you can't really imagine anyone else playing it. Ann delivers one of her best tap-dancing routines captured on film so she's not too shabby a replacement either. The task of directing the film in the end fell to Charles Walters who only manages to make the film one of the best-moving and entertaining of musical spectacles. Of course, it helps that the story is structured around 17 Irving Berlin tunes. That story concerns dancer Don Hewes (Fred Astaire), whose partner Nadine Gale (Ann Miller) accepts a solo starring role in a Broadway play. Miffed, Don declares that he can teach anyone to dance with him as well as Nadine could. He selects Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) from the chorus line of a local club. The two have a rocky start, but Hannah soon shows that she has the talent to match Don. Hannah, however, falls in love with Don who at first seems oblivious to Hannah's feelings and then unsure of his own. During this period of uncertainty and jealous of the pair's success, Nadine schemes to split them up and for a while, it looks like she might be successful.

Easter Parade

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Initially, it appeared as though a musical based on a number of Irving Berlin's songs might be produced by 20th Century-Fox, but that studio balked at the price Berlin was seeking for the rights. MGM then quickly stepped in with the cash Berlin wanted at the urging of Arthur Freed and the blessing of Louis B. Mayer, and a deal was agreed to. Reportedly, that deal was for $600,000 and included the use of a number of Berlin's catalog songs, various new songs to be specially written for the film, and Berlin's consultation on the story. In the end, seven of the 17 songs used were newly written ("It Only Happens When I Dance with You", "Better Luck Next Time", "Drum Crazy", "Stepping Out with My Baby", "A Couple of Swells", "A Fella with an Umbrella", and "Happy Easter") while another new one ("Mr. Monotony") was performed, but not used in the final film. Each of the film's stars has one or more chances to shine - Fred singing and dancing "Drum Crazy" and dancing to "Stepping Out with My Baby", Judy singing "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" and the cut "Mr. Monotony" and teaming with Fred in "A Couple of Swells", and Ann Miller dancing to "Shakin' the Blues Away". Even featured performer Peter Lawford comes off well doing "A Fella with an Umbrella". The film is a great example of an instance of the whole being more than the sum of its parts Given the excellence of those parts - a simple but pleasant story, the seamless integration of the songs, and the presence of incomparable singing and dancing talent, you can imagine how impressive the whole is.

Those interested in Easter Parade should be aware that there are two new versions available - a one-disc set for Canadian release and the originally announced two-disc set for elsewhere in Region 1. The reason for this is the American Masters Judy Garland documentary for which Warner Bros. apparently does not have Canadian rights. As a consequence, Warners has dropped it along with a gallery of Garland trailers from its Canadian release and placed everything else on a single disc.

Warners has once again scored a knockout with its impressive Ultra Resolution treatment of the Technicolor film. The colours are magnificently bright; the image is sharp and spotless; blacks are deep and glossy; and image detail is impressive. This full frame transfer (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is a real winner. The mono sound is also in good shape, providing crisp dialogue, but more importantly the songs are well reproduced, suggesting a good level of fidelity and allowing decent amplification without distortion and background hiss. A French mono track and English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements start off with an audio commentary by Fred Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie and Judy Garland biographer John Fricke. The two interact very well together and the result is an interesting and entertaining commentary that is fairly screen specific. Fricke provides somewhat the greater amount of the commentary. Also included is an excellent new making-of documentary, Easter Parade: On the Avenue, the out-take song "Mr. Monotony", a radio promotion for the film featuring Fred Astaire, a 1951 radio broadcast of the film as heard on the Screen Guild Playhouse program, and the film's theatrical trailer. All of this material is included on a single disc for the Canadian release as mentioned above. For the U.S. two-disc Special Edition, a Judy Garland trailer gallery has been added to the first disc (which contains the film and commentary) and a very enjoyable American Masters Judy Garland documentary has been added on the second disc (which contains all the other supplements mentioned above). The Canadian version is certainly highly recommended, but if you have the choice, the two-disc SE is the one to have and is very highly recommended.

Panic in the Streets (1950)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 15th, 2005)

In 1950, director Elia Kazan continued his run of successful pictures at 20th Century-Fox. Behind him were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Boomerang!, Gentleman's Agreement, and Pinky. Looming was Panic in the Streets, a film that Kazan was looking forward to because it would afford him the opportunity to film entirely on location in New Orleans and without the presence of producer Darryl Zanuck to keep track of Kazan's every move. The story concerns the killing of an illegal immigrant who is found to be a carrier of a deadly plague. The search is then on for the murderers who have been exposed to the disease and need to be caught within 48 hours before the disease risks being irrevocably spread throughout the city and potentially beyond. Leading the search are Dr. Clinton Reed of the Public Health Service and police captain Tom Warren. Warren has little appreciation for the magnitude or urgency of the problem, so Reed finds that he must investigate himself if the murderers are to be found in time.

Panic in the Streets

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Panic in the Streets is one of the great film noirs, relying on a somewhat documentary-like feel to convey its story. It uses the typically noir theme of a man forced to act alone and beyond the law, with the twist that the man is not the standard society outcast or misfit, but a simple public servant whose devotion to duty drives him to circumvent standard procedures because of the unique time factor involved. Richard Widmark is well cast in this role (Reed) and many ways it became a prototype for the type of competent and conscientious, but somewhat cynical and impatient protagonists he would often specialize in playing in future films. As Tom Warren, Paul Douglas gives his standard abrasive-on-the-outside, but fundamentally-decent-on-the-inside performance. The most memorable characters in the figure, however, are Blackie, the head of the murderers played by the coldly malevolent but smooth-tongued Jack Palance in his film debut, and his obsequious, ever-sweating underling Fitch played by Zero Mostel. Equally as important to the film's success is Kazan's use of the city's waterfront locations for much of the film's action. The gritty and shadowy images of the area's warehouses, cafes, union halls, and wharves all suggest an air of menace and decay that accentuates the urgency of the pursuit. The film's climax among the pilings underneath the wharf is particularly effect as is the symbolism of the manner of Blackie's capture.

The film is number 3 in the Fox Film Noir series and has been released on DVD full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The results are quite impressive. The image is sharp and characterized by deep blacks and an impressive gray scale. Shadow detail is good. There are no edge effects. Only the occasional speckle and scratch are in evidence. Both mono and stereo tracks are provided and as is common, there's little obvious benefit to the stereo remix. The film's dialogue is clear; you don't need to ask for anything else. English and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. The disc's chief supplement is a fairly scene-specific audio commentary by film noir specialists James Ursini and Alain Silver. Many of their remarks focus on Kazan - his career, the place of this film in his filmography, and his film-making techniques - but we learn quite a bit about the film's production background and cast as well. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for four other Fox Film Noir titles (currently available and forthcoming). Highly recommended.

The Band Wagon (1953)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 15th, 2005)

Following closely on the heels of Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon vies with that film to be the most popular if not the best of the great MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. It has now made its way to DVD courtesy of a new two-disc special edition from Warner Bros. The film has about as good a pedigree as any musical could have - the genre's greatest male and female dancers, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse; its most inventive director, Vincente Minnelli; a top-notch supporting cast including Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray, and Oscar Levant; a supremely entertaining script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; a barrelful of choice songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (mainly originally written in the 1930s); choreography by Michael Kidd; and the whole supporting production crew of the renowned Arthur Freed unit. The result is sparkling entertainment that should make a convert of even the most anti-musical of classic film lovers.

The Band Wagon

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The plot is a quintessential backstage story about putting on a show. Fred Astaire plays a Hollywood song and dance guy whose films have lost their luster so he travels to New York for the opportunity to star in a new stage musical. It is to be written by two old friends (Fabray and Levant, effectively playing versions of the real-life Comden and Green), directed by the latest Broadway directing sensation (Jack Buchanan - a riff on the real-life Jose Ferrer), and co-star a talented New York ballet dancer (Cyd Charisse). This seemingly ideal situation soon becomes complicated when director Buchanan sees a dark tale of Faust in the play rather than the light entertaining piece it was meant to be and when Fred and Cyd's characters seem unlikely to be able to dance together effectively.

Aside from this familiar but polished story and the obvious chemistry of the cast performing it, the film's great attraction is a wealth of really memorable musical numbers - Fred Astaire singing "By Myself" in a train station and dancing "A Shine on Your Shoes" in a penny arcade, Astaire and Cyd Charisse together dancing "Dancing in the Dark" in Central Park and "Girl Hunt" in a smoky café, Astaire and Buchanan together singing and dancing "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", and Astaire, Buchanan, and Fabray together singing and dancing "Triplets" (a number which was physically very taxing to get right) as well as a new number, the now very familiar "That's Entertainment", written especially for the film.

The Band Wagon is a film that can lighten the darkest mood and its presentation in Warners' new Special Edition is admirable. It starts with a pristine-looking full-frame transfer of the 1.37:1 Technicolor production. Warners has applied its Ultra-Resolution process to the restoration and the results are equivalent if not superior to its efforts on the likes of Singin' in the Rain, Adventures of Robin Hood, and Gone with the Wind. The image is sharp and vibrant with sparkling colour, deep blacks, clean whites, and excellent image detail. There are no edge effects and with a slight amount of grain in evidence, the overall effect is very film-like indeed. The sound track has been effectively remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, yielding a fairly lush musical experience that is mainly confined to the front speakers but modestly enveloping in the musical numbers. The original mono track is also included and it is in good shape although some minor background hiss is detectable. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. The package's supplements begin on disc one along with the feature. There is an audio commentary with Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein that is enthusiastic and informative, along with a Fred Astaire trailer gallery that includes eight of his films extending from 1940's Broadway Melody to 1968's Finian's Rainbow. Disc two begins with a model of what a making-of documentary of a classic film can be - Get Aboard! The Band Wagon. Clocking in at over 35 minutes, it packs film clips, production information, and revealing interviews together in a way that conveys the film's many attributes with warmth and clarity. There is also an excellent edition of "The Men Who Made the Movies" focusing on Vincente Minnelli and a Vitaphone short Jack Buchanan and the Glee Quartet. Very highly recommended.

All in a Night's Work (1962)
(released on DVD by Paramount on February 22nd, 2005)

After the last Martin and Lewis film (Hollywood or Bust [1956]), many felt that Dean Martin would be hard pressed to fashion a successful career on his own and his first film thereafter (the lamentably uncomedic romantic comedy Ten Thousand Bedrooms) seemed to bear that out. Good work in a variety of subsequent projects such as The Young Lions, Rio Bravo, Bells Are Ringing, and the first true Rat Pack film, Ocean's Eleven, proved otherwise, however, and Martin became one of the 1960s' major stars. An early project in that decade was All in a Night's Work, a romantic comedy co-starring Shirley MacLaine. On the surface, its story does not appear particularly promising. The head of a New York publishing firm is found dead in his hotel bed in Palm Beach, and a mysterious young woman is seen running from the room clad only in a bath towel. Tony Ryder, the nephew of the dead man, becomes the new head of the company and his first concern is to avoid any scandal arising from his uncle's death since it may derail a large bank loan that the firm is depending on for future expansion. Ryder is determined to track down the mystery woman and pay her off, only to find to his great surprise that her name is Katie Robbins and she works right in the firm's research department. Not only that, she's the new member of the firm's union bargaining committee and she's very attractive. Ryder decides that some personal negotiations between the two is the only way to resolve everyone's concerns.

All in a Night's Work

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I think this is a film that you have to be in the right mood for - relaxed, not expecting too much, willing to suspend disbelief, and pleased to be in the company of numerous Hollywood character actors. In that situation, All in a Night's Work is an amiable time-passer. If not, beware! The two stars are in very good form. For Martin, it's a typical self-centred playboy-type role that he plays with assurance but without quite the excess that characterized similar later roles. MacLaine balances the demands of comedy and Doris Day-like innocence nicely. She and Martin play off each other well. Matching the warmth and good humour generated by the stars are performances from a number of very familiar and welcome character actors - Jack Weston, Gale Gordon, Charles Ruggles, Jerome Cowan, and Ian Wolfe. Cliff Robertson has a featured role as Katie's rather stolid boyfriend, but doesn't really register too strongly. Director Joseph Anthony moves the story along briskly. All-in-all, the film has a smooth and polished production feel to it - not surprising since it came from the independent unit at Paramount headed by veteran producer Hal Wallis.

Paramount presents the film on DVD in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The result is quite pleasing. Other than a few soft sequences, the image looks sharp and bright. Colours appear accurate and natural. There are no edge effects. The mono sound is just fine - providing clear dialogue free of age-related hiss. English subtitles are provided, but there are no supplements. The film has little repeat potential, but enough entertainment value to warrant a rental.

Barrie Maxwell

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