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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

September Survey of Current Classic Releases

Welcome once again to the Classic Coming Attractions Column. This time out, I'll be reviewing a batch of the current classic releases (since I have quite a few to catch up on) as well as providing the usual update of new classic announcements. The reviews this time include a couple from independent releasers Milestone and All Day (The Chess Player and Christ in Concrete respectively), as well as titles from Columbia (The Bedford Incident, Die! Die! My Darling!, In Cold Blood), Fox (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Mark of Zorro), MGM (633 Squadron, The Ghoul, Terror in a Texas Town, Zulu), and Paramount (I Love Lucy: Season One Volumes 7&8, Scrooge, Targets).

Before turning to the reviews, I'd like to ask for your assistance. For some time now, I've been thinking of devoting one of these columns to public domain issues and releases. I recently began a thread over at the Home Theater Forum asking for input on the topic and particularly the names of titles and their disc distributors that people either recommend or condemn. I've had good feedback from that and for those who have not seen it, I urge you to take a look and contribute to it as appropriate. Of course, anyone who prefers to just email me privately is welcome to do that too. I look forward to any help that you can give me on this.

With that, on to the reviews. They're organized alphabetically by title.


633 Squadron (1964)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 20, 2003)

This is a film that, if you'll pardon the expression, doesn't quite take off. And yet, it's still a film that I've always enjoyed. It was originally released right in the middle of a cycle of war films dealing with the Second World War that lasted almost 15 years from the mid-1950s to about 1970. Fox and MGM have both been effectively mining this period with their DVD releases for a couple of years now, and in its spring 2003 wave of action releases, MGM has given us several key titles including a superior Battle of Britain and this version of 633 Squadron. (Now if they'd just revisit The Great Escape, all would be well with the world.)

The story involves the assigning of 633 Squadron to the task of destroying a fuel plant located on a Norwegian fiord. The fuel is intended for use in new rockets whose launch from sites being developed in western Europe by the Germans in 1944 could prolong the war. The key protagonists are a Norwegian resistance fighter who delivers information about the fuel plant to the British before returning to Norway to prepare the ground support for the bombing of the plant, and the leader of the squadron charged with carrying out the bombing runs. The key problem to be overcome is the fact that the plant is built into the side of a mountain and is thus protected from any direct bombing.

633 Squadron

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There's a lot that's familiar in this film - from the stiff-upper-lip commanding officer who's in charge of the overall operation (the ever reliable Harry Andrews) to the stalwart, slightly-troubled squadron leader (the also reliable Cliff Robertson), to the obligatory love interest (provided by Maria Perschy) to the usual faceless German foes (except for one female Gestapo officer who's quite a hoot). The script is workmanlike at best (lacking the inspiration that one might have expected given the writing talents of James Clavell and Howard Koch). Balancing this is the unexpected appearance of George Chakiris as the Norwegian resistance fighter (a little stiff, but at least a novel face in such a role), some excellent cinematography (Edward Scaife, John Wilcox) that delivers good aerial footage although it is a bit repetitive, and an ending that is suitably ambivalent. Ron Goodwin contributes a fine score that hints at greatness, but never quite gets a chance to really soar. At 95 minutes, the film doesn't overstay its welcome, and anyone with an interest in World War II in the air, if not exactly inspired by the proceedings, is unlikely to be disappointed.

MGM provides a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that provides quite a decent rendition of the film. The image is crisp and provides fairly vibrant colours although there is a tendency for some scenes to be a little darker than they should be. There are some minor edge effects, but they're generally not a distraction. The source material is in decent shape and age-related speckles and scratches are minimal. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track provides adequate sound. The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.

The Bedford Incident (1965)
(released on DVD by Columbia on September 23, 2003)

The Cold War provided the raison d'être for many films in the 1950s and 1960s whether it was science fiction with thinly disguised Communist subtext such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or spy thrillers ranging from the broad appeal of the early James Bond films to the more gritty realism of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The threat of nuclear deterrence was the basis for some of the most effective of such films, many of them produced during the early 1960s including Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and The Bedford Incident. The latter tells the story of a NATO destroyer (the USS "Bedford") on patrol in the Arctic waters off the east coast of Greenland. Its commander, Captain Findlater, seems to favour brinkmanship as an approach to dealing with Soviet submarines that trespass into the territorial waters of NATO countries. One such occurrence drives him to pursue a submarine relentlessly hoping to force it to surface, admit its transgression of international conventions, and thus embarrass the Soviet government. Unfortunately, his relentless driving of his own crew places them under such stress that the end result is far from the expected one. Observing the whole incident is a photojournalist assigned to record a "typical" mission.

The Bedford Incident

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The Bedford Incident is a taut thriller that relies on its actors to sustain tension during its 102-minute running time. In this regard, it is well served by Richard Widmark in one of his typically intense and barely controlled performances as the obsessive Captain Findlater. Sidney Poitier has the other main role in the person of journalist Ben Munceford. His part serves mainly to allow us to see what sort of a man Findlater really is so we learn little about Munceford himself. In this sense, the part is somewhat unrewarding, but Poitier does a reasonable job with it. A strong supporting cast conveys the sense of a crew under stress very effectively. Notable are James MacArthur as a junior officer, Martin Balsam as a doctor who arrives on the ship along with Munceford, and Michael Kane as the ship's Executive Officer. It's also good to see Eric Portman as a veteran U-Boat commander, now acting as an advisor to Findlater. At a time when colour was the predominant filming choice, The Bedford Incident was shot in black and white, effectively conveying the drabness of the environment and the ultimate monotony of the ship's work. The film is only slightly less effective than the previous year's Fail-Safe, due to the apparent level of the stakes involved.

Unfortunately The Bedford Incident suffers much more greatly in comparison with Fail-Safe when it comes to its DVD release. Both are Columbia releases, but the latter was issued a couple of years ago when the company was doing a much better job overall with its classic titles. The Bedford Incident is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, but it's not one of the better ones. The image is quite dark throughout and shadow detail suffers accordingly. The occasional edge effect is in evidence but that's minor in comparison with the darkness problems. The film's theatrical trailer (included on the disc along with trailers for three other Columbia films - The Caine Mutiny, Fail-Safe, and Tears of the Sun) is noticeably brighter and clearer, indicating what might have been possible with a different film transfer. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound track is adequate for this dialogue-driven film. The only supplements are the four trailers previously mentioned. There's no director's commentary, making-of documentary, or production notes such as were included with Fail-Safe. Another opportunity missed with several of the principal players still around to have participated.

The Chess Player (1927)
(released on DVD by Milestone on July 29, 2003)

Milestone has been doing some nice work this year with several fine DVD releases including The Cook and Other Treasures, Without Lying Down, and the forthcoming definitive version of Phantom of the Opera. Most recently, they have given us an attractive edition of The Chess Player (Le joueur d'échecs) - a 1927 French film directed by Raymond Bernard that offers an epic production of a story set in the 18th century and inspired by the Turk, a chess-playing automaton that caught the fancy of the best minds of Europe and America. The tale concerns one Boleslas Vorowski who heads a secret liberation movement that seeks to free his Polish homeland from its Russian rulers. The spirit of the secret rebellion is embodied by Vorowski's foster sister Sophie, who in reality is Russian born. When the rebellion fails on the battlefield, Vorowski must go into hiding. Still determined to succeed, however, he turns to his mentor, the inventor Baron von Kempelen. Von Kempelen constructs an apparent mechanical automaton - the Turk, that can play chess. Secreted inside the contrivance, Vorowski continues his efforts against the Russians, but now they are on the chess board.

The Chess Player

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At two hours and twenty minutes, this is a long film. Yet, if one sticks with it through the first portions, the pace of the last two-thirds of it is ample reward. Director Raymond Bernard, who had been active in French silent film since 1918 and would continue to direct for three decades after the appearance of The Chess Player, builds the story very slowly as he delineates the Russian oppression of the Polish people and the various relationships among the Polish and Russian individuals and factions. There's no doubt that this is all handsomely mounted, but Bernard is in danger of losing his audience until he finally gives us the elaborately staged battle between the opposing forces. From that point on, we're hooked by the role of von Kempelen, the actions of the automaton, and the human relationships between Vorowski, his Russian friend Serge Oblomoff, and Sophie. The intrique provided by the suspicions of Russian Major Nicolaieff once the story switches to the Russian court makes for a suspenseful final couple of reels as he encounters an army of von Kempelen's mechanical soldiers while trying to unearth evidence of von Kempelen's complicity with Vorowski. One of the film's real strengths in all of this is its collection of generally restrained performances by Pierre Blanchar (Vorowski), Pierre Batcheff (Oblomoff), and Charles Dullin (von Kempelen). Edith Jehanne (as Sophie) is, however, less successful in this regard. In retrospect, the film is hardly "a film that surpasses all films" as a quote from Le Soir on the DVD cover trumpets, but it is an interesting and ultimately entertaining one well worth your time.

The DVD of The Chess Player (issued on Milestone's behalf by Image Entertainment and available from Milestone directly [1-800-603-1104] as well as many of the standard sources) is a tribute to the efforts of Photoplay Productions in restoring the original film. The full frame image is in very good shape throughout although there are plenty of speckles and scratches. The tinting is nicely rendered and the transfer is never an issue diminishing one's enjoyment of the film. The music accompaniment is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that effectively conveys the wonderful original score composed by Henri Rabaud, here played by the Luxembourg Radio Television Orchestra as conducted by Carl Davis. The disc offers several supplements, the most interesting being an aural transcript of an interview with Tom Standage conducted on The Lenny Lopate Show (WNYC radio, New York). Standage had written a book on the 18th century automaton that was the inspiration for the film. There is also a stills gallery, reproductions from the original presskit, and a transcript (accessible as a download from the disc) of an interview with the film's director conducted by Kevin Brownlow.

Christ in Concrete (1949)
(released on DVD by All Day Entertainment on June 17, 2003)

It's not often that a film of quality manages to get almost completely forgotten. But such has been the case with Give Us This Day, as the film Christ in Concrete was entitled upon its original release. The film was director Edward Dmytryk's response to being placed on the Hollywood Blacklist, made in England in the late 1940s and starring Sam Wanamaker who had been similarly blacklisted in Hollywood along with Dmytryk for refusing to account for past political affiliations to the House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUAC).

Based on an acclaimed novel of the same title by Pietro Di Donato that owed much to the experiences of Di Pietro's own father as a brick-layer in New York in the early part of the twentieth century, the film is a powerful allegory about moral responsibility that pulls no punches. It presents an amazingly evocative picture of work in the New York building trade given that it was all filmed in England. Only the occasional instance of a British accent (mainly from the children) betrays its source. The story concerns Geremio, a young brick layer who imports a young woman named Annunziata from Italy to be his wife partly by claiming to have his own house. The reality is that he lives in a very modest tenement and the young couple struggle for years to reach their goal of saving enough money for a house. Just when they are on the verge of having enough, the Great Depression occurs and their savings are soon depleted as Geremio is unable to find work. When one of Geremio's past associates offers him a foreman job on a construction project that is rife with safety hazards, Geremio's desire for money outweighs his good sense. He soon finds himself alienated from his friends on the job and from his wife, having predictably turned to a past love for affection.

Christ in Concrete

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Christ in Concrete benefits strongly from fine performances by Sam Wanamaker (very earnest, if a bit plodding) as Geremio and especially Lea Padovani as Annunziata. The expressiveness in her face and voice is remarkable. The rest of the cast is generally not well known, although it is a pleasant surprise to see Sid James (yes, he of "Carry On" fame) show up in a key role. The film is well written and the ending is quite a shocker even 54 years on.

While the film is substantially more interesting than most of what passes for screen entertainment nowadays, perhaps it doesn't completely satisfy because it's not quite sure of exactly what sort of film it wants to be. Its look and tone suggest hints of film noir; its story and labour point of view imply a film of realism and social conscience; its style of writing at times suggests a poem. Dmytryk works hard to unite all these elements, but the fact that they at times make us aware of themselves shows that he has not been completely successful. That's not unexpected given that Dmytryk's background at the time was almost entirely in genre films. It was only later that his career really broadened to include films of some depth and complexity (The Caine Mutiny, The Left Hand of God, The Young Lions). His experience with Christ in Concrete was undoubtedly an important step in that direction.

We have All Day Entertainment (the reclaimers of Edgar Ulmer's films as well as several lesser-known films noir) to thank for the availability of Christ in Concrete on DVD. The image transfer (full frame in accord with the OAR) is from original 35mm nitrate elements, but certainly won't win any prizes for best restoration of the year. Doubtless All Day has coaxed the most out it that it could and indeed the results are fairly decent with middling sharpness and good black levels. There is, however, appreciable speckling and scratching, and occasional softness. It's quite watchable; just don't expect a Citizen Kane like DVD image. The Dolby Digital mono sound track is workable, but is characterized by obvious hiss and crackle. In the area of supplements, All Day has outdone itself for this title. Side A, which contains the film, includes an interesting if at times annoying audio commentary and the isolated musical score while Side B has a whole raft of things including a spoken-word opera version performed by Eli Wallach, an interview of Peter Di Donato, home movie footage of Pietro Di Donato, a photo gallery, talent biographies, and DVD-ROM supplements (PDF files) tracing the development and distribution of the film.

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)
(released on DVD by Columbia on August 12, 2003)

The release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 was one of those events that triggered a spate of similar films. Thus for much of the mid-1960s, horror films starring veteran actresses were a constant presence. Few if any, though, could live up to the quality of Baby Jane and the dual pedigree of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Certainly both Davis and Crawford tried again separately. So we got the likes of Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Nanny from Davis (the former also with Olivia de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead), and Strait Jacket and I Saw What You Did from Crawford. Not to be left out, an aging Tallulah Bankhead made her contribution with Die! Die! My Darling! - a 1965 British Hammer Films Production (originally released as Fanatic) that is actually better than the title might suggest.

Die! Die! My Darling!

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A young woman, Pat Carroll, decides to pay a courtesy visit to the mother of her former fiancé who had committed suicide in an auto wreck. The mother, Mrs. Trefoile, lives in a large rambling house with a staff of three. What was meant to be a short visit turns into an overnight stay and eventually Pat's imprisonment in the house's attic. Mrs. Trefoile, it turns out, is obsessed with her dead son's spirit and feels it to be her mission to reunite Pat with her son in the afterlife. The film is entirely Bankhead's as she gives a bravura performance as the increasingly mad Mrs. Trefoile. She plays it straight and invests the character with real menace; she's a delight to watch. The supporting cast is equally good with Stefanie Powers in an early role as Pat, Donald Sutherland as a mentally deficient gardener, Peter Vaughan as an antagonistic, menacing odd-job man (the sequence where he uses Miss Bankhead's old publicity photos for target practice is a nice touch), and Yootha Joyce as Mrs. Trefoile's maid. The story is familiar and simply told, but done with conviction, suspense, and professionalism. One could spend a much worse hour and a half.

Visually, Columbia's DVD presentation is very good. Working from what appears to be pretty decent source material, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is crisp and bright with generally very nice colour saturation and good shadow detail. The odd speckle and scratch and occasional pale sequence do not detract in any significant fashion from what is otherwise a transfer that is a pleasure to watch. The Dolby Digital mono track is more than adequate. The most important thing was to have Tallulah Bankhead's distinctively throaty voice come through clearly and there it is successful. Columbia restricts its supplementary material to three trailers, none of which are for Die! Die! My Darling!.

The Ghoul (1933)
(released on DVD by MGM on August 26, 2003)

Somewhat reminiscent in style to The Old Dark House and in plot to The Mummy, The Ghoul was Boris Karloff's first British-produced film. It came about because in 1933 after making his early mark in horror films for Universal, the studio was unwilling to give Karloff the raise in pay that he wanted. So he accepted an offer from Gaumont-British to make The Ghoul and traveled to England to begin shooting.

The Ghoul

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The story revolves around a valuable jewel known as "The Eternal Light" that supposedly conveys immortality to those who possess it. It is acquired by Professor Morlant (Karloff) who instructs his man-servant Laing to place it in his hand after his death. Laing at first complies, but later steals the jewel. When Morlant's heirs gather at the house to settle the estate, others who also want the jewel start to appear. Then Morlant himself rises from his grave to retrieve it.

The film is nicely paced with a gradual build-up that sees the various characters all introduced. Then events pick up noticeably once Karloff returns from the dead. The cast members take no liberties with the story and play their parts with conviction, but not to the point of ultra-seriousness. They seem to be enjoying themselves and as a result, so do we. Karloff is as creepy and effective as ever. Nice work is done by Ernest Thesiger as Laing, Cedric Hardwicke as Morlant's lawyer, and Ralph Richardson as a phony parson. At 80 minutes, the film tells its story without overstaying its welcome.

The quality of this disc is amazing for such a venerable film, particularly given the only passable quality of the previously available video incarnations that I've seen. Aside from some occasional softness, the full frame image (in accord with the OAR) is crisp with deep blacks and clean whites. Shadow detail is quite good and no edge effects intrude. The lack of age-related scratches and speckles is a revelation. The mono sound is quite adequate although it does betray some hiss. There are no supplements. Despite that, MGM deserves high marks indeed for this effort.

On to Part Two

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