Raoul Walsh’s ‘Battle Cry’

That was embarrassing. The reason why Raoul Walsh hasn’t survived the test of time to be considered among Hollywood’s great directors is made clear by his 1955 effort, Battle Cry. While his contemporaries, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, got to ride out into the sunset with a few late-career masterpieces, Walsh was not afforded this luxury. During the 1950s, Walsh lost his way and got stuck with his named attached to a lot of bad movies. One of these is Battle Cry.

image from moviepostershop.com

Based on a novel by Exodus author Leon Uris, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, the movie centers on a U.S. Marine battalion lead by Major Huxley (Van Heflin) during the early days of the Pacific theater in World War II. Clearly, the point of the film was to look at the soldiers, not the war. Even though Walsh himself had done this much better in the silent days with What Price Glory?, the half-baked melodrama of Battle Cry isn’t worthy of his skill. Uris’ script turns the story of young men getting ready to fight into a terrible parody of Douglas Sirk’s best work. There’s even a sequence where Dorothy Malone (who won an Oscar for Sirk’s Written on the Wind) plays a married woman who sleeps with one of the marines!

Why would Walsh be interested in such material beyond a paycheck? The movie doesn’t even show an actual fight until the last half-hour of the film – which you’ll only see if the first two hours didn’t put you to sleep. It’s infuriating to hear James Whitmore’s narration gloss over battles that kill off the marines we’ve been following for so long. Even Tab Hunter is robbed of a death scene!

So not only is there not enough war in this “war movie,” but there’s also not enough Van Helfin. While Aldo Ray is pretty good as the marine who falls in love with a Kiwi (Sunset Boulevard‘s Nancy Olsen), Heflin is the true star in this film. He has two great scenes – his soliloquy about his terrible relationship with his wife and his confrontation with his superior (Raymond Massey) – but that’s it. Heflin was a really great actor and sadly underrated. Had this movie more closely followed his story, it would have been much better.

Battle Cry is a sad movie, not because of its subject, but because of the fact that Walsh wasted his time on the material. I haven’t seen much of his later work, but if most of those films are like this, I’ll skip them. At least Band of Angels (1957) was somewhat enjoyable, mostly thanks to Clark Gable. But these films are a long way from White Heat (1949).

Battle Cry is available on DVD from Warner Bros. It comes with a trailer (which tries its hardest to bill this as a real war movie) and a text bio of Walsh. You can also get it in a two-pack with William A. Wellman’s 1949 masterpiece, Battleground.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics: Jules Dassin’s ‘Topkapi’

While Jules Dassin is beloved for the film noirs he made in Hollywood during the 1940s and the French heist masterpiece Rififi, his later European work is largely forgotten. While he did score critical acclaim for 1960′s Never on Sunday, his post-Rififi filmography is filled with movies that haven’t aged particularly well or just never hit it off with American audiences.

I suspect this is because of his association with Greek actress Melina Mercouri, who later became his wife and starred in nearly all of his later movies. It’s not because she’s not beautiful or a good actress – she’s drop-dead gorgeous and hilarious – but it’s because of her incredibly thick Greek accent. She’s very difficult to understand, but thankfully Dassin excelled at directing silent sequences. And, of course, she excelled in them.

This brings us to Topkapi, which was released on Blu-ray last month as a part of Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line. Released in 1964, Topkapi screams European, with bright, flashy colors, gorgeous scenery and an international cast. We have Mercouri, German actor Maximilian Schell and British actors Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley as a crew planning a heist in Istanbul. They plan to steal a dagger in the Topkapi museum, although Ustinov’s bumbling Arthur Simon Simpson sort of “falls” into the plan.

Like Rififi, Dassin is obsessed with the process and gives us this perfectly orchestrated heist sequence that stands up to the one in the earlier film. What makes Topkapi‘s a bit more effective – story-wise – is that it happens in the very last act of the movie, so there is much more emphasis on it. There’s a lot in Rififi after its heist, but Topkapi‘s entire plot builds up to the robbery. And while Rififi is dead serious, Topkapi is filled with humor, mostly thanks to Ustinov, who won his second Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. (He really should have been up for Best Actor, but I doubt he would have beat My Fair Lady‘s Rex Harrison.)

Topkapi is officially on my guilty pleasures list. It’s a movie that’s a complete blast, with a director clearly making fun of his own most famous film, with tongue firmly in cheek.

That’s why I’m seriously disappointed by Kino’s Blu-ray release. I know they only work with the masters they are given, but this movie looks atrocious. Thankfully, it’s not as awful as the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Blu-ray, but it’s clear MGM/Fox never spent a dime on cleaning this movie up. It’s certainly watchable, but if I had this on DVD, I might not have rushed to get this Blu-ray. As for bonus materials, we just have a trailer.

The Bing Crosby Collection: ‘Welcome Stranger’

The last film in Universal’s The Bing Crosby Collection, Paramount’s Welcome Stranger, was released nine years after the previous film, Sing You Sinners.

welcome stranger

In that time, Bing had become an even more popular entertainer in every medium available for a singer at the time. In 1945, he won an Oscar for Going My Way and earned another Oscar nomination the following year for the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s.

So, it’s easy to see why Welcome Stranger feels much different from any other film in the set. The film is essentially a remake of Going My Way, where Bing and Barry Fitzgerald are doctors from two different generations who learn to work together instead of priests from two different generations who learn to work together. In fact, the story by Frank Butler practically follows Leo McCarey’s far superior film nearly note-for-note. The only major difference is that Bing is allowed a love interest in the form of schoolteacher Trudy Mason, played by a delightful Joan Caulfield.

Welcome Stranger was directed by Elliot Nugent. It’s a nice movie, with a few neat jokes (“He’s as good as Frank Sinatra!” “And I can take your blood pressure, too.”), but not really something I would actively seek out. It still doesn’t come close to the best movie in the set, Mississippi, but it’s fun for Bing fans and anyone who likes hearing Barry Fitzgerald complain for 100 minutes.

Overall, The Bing Crosby Collection is a neat set of rare Bing roles. Considering I picked it up for $10, I think it was worth it. If you need to see everything Bing did, go for it. If not, don’t feel bad about skipping it.

Warner Archive Collection: ‘Marie Antoinette’ starring Norma Shearer & Tyrone Power

Only MGM could make you feel like the overthrow of an absolute monarchy is a bad thing. That’s the way the filmmakers behind Marie Antoinette wants the audience to feel when watching this movie. Likely bound by the production code, the 1938 film doesn’t highlight Marie’s excesses as much as you would expect. There’s a rather short sequence during the first half of the film that centers on her plight to win over Paris, but the focus is squarely on making Marie out to be a tragic figure, downed by the times she lived in, not by her own mistakes.

That’s not to say it’s a dated movie, just, again, different from what you may have been hoping for. Historical epics like these from the Golden Age often are more enjoyable than I expect, likely because the focus is on making a movie, not being historically accurate. You can easily get wrapped up in the romance of Marie Antoinette because of the immaculate set designs and wonderful performances. The clock may say that it runs 157 minutes, but it really doesn’t seem like it.

Marie Antoinette was also directed by one of MGM’s best, W.S. Van Dyke, who also helmed The Thin Man and San Francisco. He’d probably be better remembered today if he hadn’t died so young. He was only 53 when he died of cancer in 1943.

Norma Shearer was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, although she lost to Bette Davis’ performance in Jezebel. It’s hard to think of two entirely different styles of acting nominated in one single year. Although I love Shearer, you have to admit, she always remained with one foot cemented in the silent way of acting. Her scenes with a very young Tyrone Power spell that out.

The other actor here who secured an Oscar nomination was Robert Morley in his Hollywood debut. Morely went on to have an incredible career and his performance as the hapless King Louis XVI explains why. There’s also another great Joseph Schildkraut performance in here and John Barrymore makes an appearance as King Louis XV.

Warner Bros. Home Video did release Marie Antoinette as a pressed disc back in 2006 and it did appear in a box set. However, the set and the original DVD is out of print. Last year, Warner Archive issued a DVD-R edition, which does include the two spectacular MGM shorts included on the ’06 disc. One short, Hollywood Goes To Town, shows off the extravagant premiere MGM set up for the film in Los Angeles. The other is another Another Romance of Celluloid short, which goes over the process of developing film and shows off some “coming” attractions (for 1938).

I really do love Norma Shearer. I think she’s one of the most underrated stars of the 1930s and it’s too bad her star waned in the years following the death of her husband, Irving G. Thalberg. At least she got one last great role in The Women. In Marie Antoinette, she does give one of her great late performances and the final scenes in the film are enough to make you tear up.

Quick Thoughts: Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Pawnbroker’

Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker is a classic, featuring a remarkable performance from Rod Steiger. If you only think of Steiger who overacted too often, his performance here will completely change your mind.

While Steiger was the only actor here to get and awards consideration, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Jamie Sanchez give incredible supporting performances. Boris Kaufman once again proves that he was the best black & white cinematographer in the 1950s and early 1960s. There’s also a very unique score from Quincy Jones, making his film debut here.

The Pawnbroker is a real mix of feelings, as Sal Nazerman (Steiger) gives up on all humanity. The world of Harlem turns into a Nazi concentration camp, but he only realizes that he is the one who made it that way when it is too late. He’s the one who has become so consumed with the past that he can’t keep his present and future from looking like it.

If any film screamed for scholarly analysis or a commentary, this is one. Sadly, Olive Films doesn’t create new features, but at least the film looks remarkable on Blu-ray. There’s not even a trailer, but it’s still worth it to have on home video. I think this is a film that stands up for multiple viewings and is a must-have for any collection.

As Turner Layoffs Loom, One Fan Says #DontTouchTCM

danhofstra:

TCM is incredibly important for a younger classic film fan like myself. While I grew up with a library of VHS tapes and DVDs representing movies from every decade, the movie collection available just by having TCM is incomparable. I just hope the #DontTouchTCM effort reaches the top of Turner and nothing changes at TCM.

Originally posted on cinematically insane:

postWhen Turner Broadcasting announced job cuts yesterday that would eliminate nearly 1,500 employees, many TCM fans began to worry about the fate of their favorite channel – and the loyal men and women “behind the curtain” who work to keep classic film relevant and accessible.

But one viewer decided to do something about it.

Elise Crane Derby, a Los Angeles based writer and media blogger, took to her blog to pen an open letter to Turner’s New York-based CEO John Martin, the man who will dictate the headcount reductions that are expected to take effect within the next few weeks. Reports have indicated that 975 Atlanta-based employees will be laid-off, more than 15 percent of Turner’s workforce in the city of their founding.

“TCM is a family to us and we can’t imagine a single person is expendable,” Derby wrote on The LA Rambler. “It is every one one of…

View original 274 more words

MGM Blu-ray Review: Sergio Leone’s ‘Duck, You Sucker’

While Fox and MGM have licensed most catalog MGM/UA/Orion titles to third parties like Criterion, Kino and Twilight Time, strangely, they decided to release Sergio Leone’s forgotten classic Duck, You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite) on Blu-ray themselves. The main advantage of this is that it’s dirt cheap – only $14.99 on Amazon during release week.

The film itself is one of the great Westerns. Leone is beloved for his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood, his Western epic-to-end-all-epics Once Upon A Time In The West and his passion project, Once Upon A Time In America. However, during that long gap between OUATITW and OUATIA, there was Duck You Sucker. It is set during the Mexican Revolution, and pairs Mexican outlaw Juan (Rod Steiger) with Irish revolutionary John (James Coburn). Both stars give incredible performances over the 2.5-hour runtime and it never gets boring.

While there’s a lot more I could say about the film itself, I want to focus on the Blu-ray release. While it looks much better than Kino’s horrendous release of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, it is clear that there is significant damage to the film. It would take a lot of money to bring Duck to the level of Paramount’s gorgeous OUATITW Blu-ray and MGM doesn’t have it or doesn’t want to spend it.

While Fox gave the Dollars films a menu, this disc has none. For some inexplicable reason, Fox continues to release most MGM titles without menus and it’s disgusting at this point. (Even In The Heat of the Night didn’t get a menu!) At least all the extras from the DVD release are here, including Sir Christopher Frayling’s 20-minute overview of the film and his commentary. There’s also a neat Criterion-esque featurette on the different versions of the film.

Duck is an essential part of Leone’s career and I don’t think you can fully comprehend the link between OUATITW and OUATIA without it. While a glorious restoration and a menu would have been nice for this Blu-ray release, I can’t not recommend it enough.