THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: SPECIAL EDITION
(MGM, 1962) D: John Frankenheimer, w/ Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury. Rating: NNNNN
one of the greatest political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate gets this upgrade because of Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake. After the alleged complacency of the 50s, the early 60s were a great era for cinematic paranoia; Fail Safe, Seven Days In May, Dr. Strangelove and this film all embody facets of American political dread. Returning from Korea with a Congressional Medal of Honor, Raymond Shaw (Harvey) has become a very particular weapon, especially as he's the stepson of a McCarthyesque senator (James Gregory), a man he resolutely hates. Sinatra, in his best performance, is an Army intelligence officer who can't understand his strange dreams about Korea.
Angela Lansbury gives the performance of her life - her final scene is the sort most actors dream of. She only lost the Oscar to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.
Quick comparison with the original DVD issue: the pan-and-scan version has been dumped, the letterboxed version has been upgraded to an anamorphic wide-screen transfer, all the original extras are included, as well as a new interview with Lansbury. And while there's a 5.1 soundtrack, the original mono track has been retained for those of us who don't like it when they colorize the sound.
EXTRAS Director commentary, interview with Frankenheimer, Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod, interview with Lansbury, photo gallery. English and Spanish versions; English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Shadows, Lies, And Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection, Vol. 1: Murder, My Sweet; Out Of The Past; The Asphalt Jungle; The Set-Up; Gun Crazy
(Warner, 1944-1950) D: Edward Dmytryk, Jacques Tourneur, John Huston, Robert Wise, Joseph H. Lewis, w/ Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, John Dall, Peggy Cummins. Five discs, also available separately. Rating: NNNNN
This Gun For Hire
(Universal Noir, 1942) D: Frank Tuttle w/ Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake. Rating: NNNN
(Universal Noir, 1946) D: Roy William Neill, w/ Dan Duryea, June Vincent. Rating: NNN
(Universal Noir, 1949) D: Robert Siodmak, w/ Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo. Rating: NNN
The Big Clock
(Universal Noir, 1948) D: John Farrow, w/ Ray Milland, Charles Laughton. Rating: NNN
definitions first. film noir is an extremely amorphous term often applied to any dark-looking crime thriller. I'm inclined to agree with director/critic Paul Schrader, who defines it less as a genre than as a period in American cinema, roughly from 1940 to 1959. These films were brewed out of the influx of central European filmmakers into Hollywood, the readily available pool of hard-boiled fiction by writers like Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, David Goodis and W. R. Burnett as source material and, eventually, a sense of post-war disillusionment. Noir is characterized by dark, defiantly unnatural cinematography, baroque narrative structures (flashbacks, flashbacks, more flashbacks) and a general feeling that the principal characters are pretty much doomed. And, just to confuse things, it's a mood that crosses genre boundaries. There are noir westerns and at least one noir musical.
All five films in Warner Home Video's collection are landmarks of early noir. Ironically, none of them is an actual Warner Brothers film; Warner has simply got into the vaults of RKO.
Generally, the glossier and more prestigious the studio, the less likely it was to come up with great noir, so MGM and Paramount weren't good at it, despite the occasional Asphalt Jungle or Double Indemnity. RKO and Universal, on the other hand, were great noir incubators.
Warner had a nice noir catalogue, but a lot of those films have come out already in the Bogart series. I'm guessing the great Cagney noirs (White Heat, please!) are being saved for some other box.
All the Warner transfers are spectacular. There are some very, very minor scratches that are more than compensated for by the richness of the blacks in John Huston's classic caper-gone-wrong thriller, Asphalt Jungle, the glittering edge that lighting cinematographer Nick Musuraca gave to Out Of The Past and the exquisitely graded grey scale in Murder, My Sweet.
If you have the least interest in film noir, you have to have these. The box is a great bargain - I've seen it online for a little more than the price of two of the single discs.
Unfortunately, the announced prize of Universal's new noir series, Double Indemnity, was pulled from production at the last minute, leaving a line of secondary films. This Gun For Hire and The Big Clock are "classics" from the Paramount library, and are interesting historically, in part because they aren't really noir. If The Big Clock looks familiar, imagine Kevin Costner in the Ray Milland role and Gene Hackman in Charles Laughton's; it was remade as No Way Out. Criss Cross is a good Robert Siodmak/Burt Lancaster film, but it feels like a retread of their masterpiece, The Killers.
EXTRAS There are scholarly commentaries of varying quality on every Warner disc, with the exception of The Set-Up, which has a commentary by now nonagenarian director Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese; also theatrical trailers. The Universals have no extras. They might have gotten Steven Soderbergh to do a Criss Cross commentary - he remade it as The Underneath.
NEVER DIE ALONE
(20th Century Fox, 2004) D: Ernest Dickerson w/ DMX, David Arquette. Rating: NNN
adapted from a novel by legen- dary African-American pulp writer Donald Goines, Never Die Alone is an unflinching portrait of a criminal psychopath. It's hard to argue that the film "glorifies" violence, when it begins with the protagonist in his coffin. Never Die Alone is ghetto noir, its story reconstructed by a white writer (David Arquette, in a rare dramatic role) as a series of flashbacks. The reason to watch it is that Dickerson, who began his career as Spike Lee's cinematographer (literally, his first film was Lee's student short, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads), has found a remarkably toxic look for the film, all bruise and ochre, achieved through filming night for night with available light and a new high-speed Kodak stock. It's a great-looking film in a really ugly way.
EXTRAS Commentary by Dickerson, DMX and screenwriter James Gibson, 11 deleted scenes, short making-of featurette. English and Spanish version; English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, July 20
Quai De Brumes
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1938) Jean Gabin in Marcel Carné's classic of French poetic realism.
Millennium: Complete First Season
(20th Century Fox) Twenty-two hours of Lance Henrikson refusing to crack a smile as a psychic profiler in Chris Carter's TV series.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
(Artisan) What? They actually made this? They were talking this sequel for years.
The Big Bounce
(Warner) George Armitage's popcorn-light Elmore Leonard adaptation, with Owen Wilson as a drifter who gets caught up in a murder plot in Hawaii. One-half of this week's Wilson double bill - Starsky And Hutch also streets this week.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb