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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #28 and New Announcements

This edition of the column takes on a modestly altered approach to classic reviews. I've provided a more narrative format with one review leading into another without individual headings. I've also chosen to be less exhaustive in listing or commenting on every single feature or supplement, instead just mentioning those of significance. The idea was to use a little less wordage and have time for more reviews, but I'm not sure it's really worked out that way. Anyway, some 17 releases are covered including The Passenger and The Young Riders: The Complete First Season from Sony; I Love Lucy: The Complete Sixth Season from Paramount; The Best of Sid Caesar from New Video; Winter Soldier from Milestone; Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Yellow Sky, The Last Wagon, These Thousand Hills, and The Proud Ones from Fox; The Dirty Dozen from Warner Bros.; and Flaming Frontiers, The Oregon Trail, The Master Key, Tim Tyler's Luck, and Forgotten Noir: Volume One from VCI.

I should call your attention to my review of Sony's Guys and Dolls in the previous column. In concentrating on comparing the image quality of the new SE compared to MGM's earlier version, I inexplicably managed to miss seeing the forest for the trees. As reported elsewhere, the new edition is considerably cropped resulting in some very poorly framed sequences. Sony gives us virtually no classic releases at all of late, and now when they do offer something, they can't even get that single initiative right. One despairs of Sony and the large classic catalogs it controls, although there is a ray of light as reported in the New Announcements section later in this column.

Some readers have commented on the virtual absence of reviews of Warner titles of late. Unfortunately the company has apparently decided that coverage of their classic releases by The Digital Bits isn't worth their while, for they have made virtually no review copies available to us since early winter. That's disappointing to me personally and presumably to Bits readers also, given Warners' considerable share of the classic market both quantitatively and qualitatively.

This edition of the column ends with the usual new classic announcements, although there's a rather small crop to report on this time.

Reviews of New and Current Releases

Well, there's quite a mixed bag of stuff accumulated here and I'm going to start by getting some of the dross out of the way. Real dross is Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, a stunningly dull 1975 exercise in boredom and inaccessibility that Jack Nicholson somehow found himself convinced to star in. He plays a film journalist who seizes an opportunity to switch identities with a dead man who turns out to have been an arms dealer. The film turns into a game of hide and seek in North Africa and Southern Europe as Nicholson tries to flee from both his new identity's past as well as people related to his own real past. Maria Schneider plays a young woman who travels along with him, but one who may be more than she appears on the surface. Is she the passenger of the film's title or is it Nicholson who's a passenger in the life of the man whose identity he's assumed? The film drags along for over two hours to a bizarrely filmed conclusion and it's a good thing that Sony (Columbia) added audio commentaries by Nicholson and by screenwriter Mark Peploe or else we wouldn't know what the hell is going on. Mind you, Sony rarely graces its catalogue offerings with any thought when it comes to supplements. It's ironic then that they managed to do so on a film that doesn't merit the attention. The disc's anamorphic transfer looks soft at times and has modest debris.

Only slightly up the food chain and something completely different is The Young Riders: The Complete First Season. Dating from the 1989-90 season and capitalizing on the then-current vogue of putting young Hollywood players in western outfits (think Young Guns and Young Guns II), this series focuses on a group of young riders working for the Pony Express and based in Sweetwater, Kansas. Fair enough, but then it turns out that, gosh, two of them happen to be Buffalo Bill Cody (Stephen Baldwin) and Wild Bill Hickok (Josh Brolin) while a third is a young woman obviously disguised as a man (obvious to us but apparently not to any of the rest of the young riders, although the Hickok character does get let in on the secret). Of course we also a few other characters among the riders including the obligatory native American and a young man with a speaking disability. This bunch, a sort of Magnificent Seven in figurative short pants, gets involved in all the usual sorts of western plots despite the fact that they're supposed to be working full-time for the Pony Express. There's a sort of contentment, however, with the individual episodes because they tend to have traditional and generally satisfying western resolutions, even if the characters themselves are so obviously television contrivances. Sony (MGM) gives us the first season's 24 episodes on five discs and they generally look quite sharp with good colour fidelity. Of course there are no supplements. There's no indication yet about the DVD fate of the show's second and third seasons.

While I'm in TV mode, more welcome fare is I Love Lucy: The Complete Sixth Season, dating from 1956-57 and also the show's last season. Paramount's release of the CBS DVD offering is up to the same high standard as other entries in the series with fine transfers and the usual wealth of supplementary material (audio commentaries, original series openings and cast commercials, episodes of Lucy's radio show "My Favorite Husband", flubs, lost scenes, etc.). In the final season, Lucy and Ricky have trips to Florida and Cuba before moving out of their New York apartment for good and settling in Connecticut where they're joined by the Mertzes, opening up various new plot lines for the show's last episodes, including a hilarious outing involving eggs that Lucy feels compelled to hide inside her blouse just before Ricky decides it's time to practice their tango steps. Guest stars included the likes of Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Barbara Eden, and George Reeves (as Superman). The series continued to do well in the ratings even in its sixth season and thus went out on a high note. Recommended.

The PassengerThe Young Riders: The Complete First SeasonI Love Lucy: The Complete Sixth Season

Turning from sitcom to sketch comedy, the work of Sid Caesar is, or should be, known to everyone. During the days of live TV, he starred in the Emmy-winning Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour, spearheading sketch comedy at its finest. Frequently appearing with him were Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, and Howard Morris, and contributing to the rich writing of the material were the likes of Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Mel Tonkin. New Video has made available a sampling of Caesar's best skits in The Best of Sid Caesar. This is a single-disc offering of material previously released in the three-disc Sid Caesar Collection. If you already have the latter, there's no point in getting the new disc, but for those wishing to get an initial taste of what Sid Caesar's all about, The Best of Sid Caesar is a good starting point. It contains nine of Caesar's best sketches (one designated as a bonus sketch) including the hilarious "This Is Your Story" (a take-off on TV's This Is Your Life). The disc also includes short biographies of and extensive interview material with the performers and writers, virtually all of whom are still alive some 50 years later, as well as some great footage from Sid's 1999 Friars Club of California roast. The sketches look fairly decent although somewhat soft overall and generally far from the quality of material like I Love Lucy which is of a similar vintage. A restoration comparison on the disc illustrates the extent to which clean-up work was performed on the source material. Recommended.

George C. Scott's 1970 portrayal of General George S. Patton Jr. in Twentieth Century - Fox's Patton constitutes the finest piece of acting work that I've seen on the screen. I've probably watched the film in its entirety 20 times over the past 35 years and I never fail to be impressed by Scott's complete immersion in the role. He convinces you utterly that he is Patton and there is never a second in which the characterization wavers. It's a mesmerizing and powerful performance. That the rest of the film - from its casting (including a great job by Karl Malden as Omar Bradley) to its writing (a brilliant script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North), well-organized direction by Franklin Schaffner (who succeeds with both the film's reflective moments and its action sequences, the latter powerfully effective without the ridiculous rapid cutting that characterizes current-day battle scenes), and a memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith - is also superior makes for an entertainment that is everything that a motion picture experience should be. Of course, Patton has been released on DVD before in both two-disc and single disc editions, but the newest two-disc SE issued under the Cinema Classics Collection heading is the best one. The 2.20 anamorphic transfer is cleaner and looks more film-like than the last two-disc offering with edge effects having been minimized. The 5.0 Dolby track does full justice to Goldsmith's score as well as delivering appropriate oomph for a war film. The supplements constitute a superior package including all those on the previous DVD versions as well as a new introduction and an audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola plus two new documentaries including the 90-minute History Through the Lens: Patton - A Rebel Revisited. Jerry Goldsmith's complete score is also presented separately in conjunction with a production still gallery. Very highly recommended.

Tora! Tora! Tora! has had a similar history in its DVD life. It has received two single-disc releases (the second an SE with an improved anamorphic transfer) and now gets the full two-disc SE treatment under Fox's Cinema Classics Collection Banner. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer appears to be the same as that of the previous release (which was a generally superior one with a crisp image and accurate if slightly worn colour) so if that's one's sole reason for contemplating an upgrade, then one need consider no longer. If supplements turn your crank, the offerings are good indeed. Repeated from the previous SE is the excellent audio commentary by director Richard Fleischer and Japanese film historian Stuart Galbraith IV. New are the documentaries History Through the Lens: Tora! Tora! Tora!: A Giant Awakes (90 minutes) and the AMC Backstory: Tora!Tora! Tora! (25 minutes), as well as ten Movietone newsreel segments. The film itself is a blow-by-blow depiction of the actual events surrounding the build-up to and execution of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, as seen through both Japanese and American eyes. The 1970 filming purportedly cost four times what the actual raid did in 1941, and it shows on the screen as the film delivers fully the grand scale of the events as well as the detail of raid's various aspects. Events take centre stage over people, particularly on the American side as casting focused on acting competence instead of star cameos. Recommended.

The Best of Sid CaesarPattonTora! Tora! Tora!

Two war films of entirely different shades are Winter Soldier, released on DVD by Milestone under its Milliarium Zero imprint via New Video, and The Dirty Dozen (1967) which arrives in a new two-disc SE from Warner Bros. Both are highly recommended. Winter Soldier, when it appeared, if briefly, back in 1972, provided little comfort to those still supporting the Vietnam War. The film documents the testimony of numerous Vietnam veterans who either committed or witnessed atrocities while stationed in Vietnam. Gathering at a hotel in Detroit in early 1971, these veterans spoke out against the wrongness of the war and the training that apparently conditioned them to think that such actions were acceptable. The event was captured on film by filmmakers calling themselves the Winterfilm Collective and the resulting documentary was first screened publicly at the 1972 Cannes festival. Viewed over three decades later, the film remains a stunning indictment, and one with continued relevance in the context of the current Iraq conflict. The film has never looked particularly pretty, but Milestone has delivered a more-than workable transfer with satisfactory sound for the most part. A number of fine supplements have been added, of which the most interesting are an in-depth profile of one of the veterans who receives extended coverage in the film itself (about 40 minutes) and a conversation with a number of the original filmmakers (almost 20 minutes).

The Dirty Dozen continues to stand the test of time as it still succeeds as both an action film and less overtly as a comment on the perception of war in the late 1960s tinged by the Vietnam experience. Both aspects owe much to the influence of the film's director, Robert Aldrich. The film's first two-thirds during which the dozen are trained seems somewhat hackneyed now, but that's only because so many films since have drawn inspiration from the original. The actual mission played in the last third is still exciting and boasts impressive special effects even compared to today's CGI-inspired extravaganzas. The film's real strength, however, continues to be its impressive cast headed by Lee Marvin who does some of his finest screen work, the always reliable Ernest Borgnine, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas. Warners' package delivers an effective Dolby 5.1 track and a top-notch anamorphic transfer that offers very good image detail and fairly rich colour. There's some modest grain in evidence and edge effects are not an issue. The supplements are highlighted by a good audio commentary that edits together comments from a variety of cast and crew members as well as others and a new 30-minute documentary that draws on interviews from many surviving cast and crew members. Also included is the complete made-for-TV movie from 1985 - The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, but the less said about it the better. Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Jaeckel recreated their roles for this poorly scripted and generally ill-advised endeavor, but Marvin particularly looks tired and bored with the whole thing. He would be dead barely two years later at age 63.

Winter SoldierThe Dirty Dozen: Two-Disc Special EditionYellow Sky

On the western front, there's a real passel of titles to consider. Leading the charge are four good ones from Fox. The class of the bunch is 1948's Yellow Sky, which reunites director William Wellman and producer/writer Lamar Trotti who had previously been responsible for The Ox-Bow Incident. The film has the same stark, stylized look this time beautifully photographed by Joe MacDonald. Gregory Peck stars as the leader of a band of bank robbers who stumble upon a ghost town while escaping across the salt flats after their latest job. The town's remaining inhabitants are a prospector and his grand-daughter (Ann Baxter), guardians of a secret that soon begins to divide the outlaw band. Peck as usual is a tower of strength and Richard Widmark provides able support as the chief gang member at odds with him. This one has shades of western noir in its look and in Baxter's role. Alfred Newman's score is effective although his opening and closing music is taken from 1940's Brigham Young. The other three Fox efforts are CinemaScope productions from the 1956-1959 period.

The Proud Ones (1956) is the best of these with its traditional story of a veteran sheriff (Robert Ryan) who finds his authority threatened by both an old nemesis (Robert Middleton) and townsfolk who won't entirely back him up. He hopes to pass the torch to a younger man, but his choice (Jeffery Hunter) has reservations since Ryan may have killed his father. Ryan's work (as one might guess) is by far the best thing in the film, but Hunter does well too, which is fortunate since it is the relationship between their two characters that is at the heart of the film. Virginia Mayo, Walter Brennan, and Arthur O'Connell all provide effective support.

In The Last Wagon (1956), Richard Widmark (boy, it's been a good month for Widmark fans) stars as a trapper who takes revenge for the murder of his Indian wife and children, but after being taken into custody and falling in with a wagon train, finds himself trying to lead the wagon train to safety after an Indian attack despite the racist attitude of the wagon train pioneers towards him. The film is directed with some flair by Delmer Daves and contains the sort of voyage of self-discovery typical of many Daves films (Broken Arrow, Jubal), but it is in the end a traditional wagon train/Indians story that plays out as one might expect.

These Thousand Hills (1959) is based on the A.B. Guthrie Jr. novel and starts off promisingly as it tells the story of a money-hungry cowboy (Don Murray) intent on making his mark in the world. Unfortunately he uses many of his friends (Lee Remick as a dancehall hostess who stakes him, Stuart Whitman as a fellow cowboy who helps him) to do so and loses them one by one as his ambition grows. Only when Remick's life is threatened by local bully Richard Egan does Murray finally start to weigh the value of loyalty against success. The film has the feel of an epic for much of its first two-thirds, but seems to rein itself in over the last two reels leading to a rather pat ending. Still, it looks lush and is very well acted by the entire cast. All four of these Fox offerings look very nice on DVD, apparently benefiting from good quality source material. Yellow Sky (full frame as originally shot) exhibits a very fine gray scale and with modest grain has a very film-like look to it. The CinemaScope films (all 2.35:1 anamorphic) are sharp with good colour fidelity and no edge effect concerns. The mono sound is in good condition on all the films and each offers stills galleries and theatrical trailers as extras. All are recommended, but if you have to limit yourself to a couple, go for Yellow Sky and The Proud Ones.

The Proud OnesThe Last WagonThese Thousand Hills

On to Part Two

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