Made-On-Demand Round-Up! #1

First off, let me say this: I love DVDs. For a variety of reasons, they remain my home entertainment medium of choice. For starters, I don’t have a very fast computer, so even if, when I’m in home in NZ, I had a sufficiently fast connection to overcome the lag that is inevitable when accessing sites from across the Pacific Ocean, the processor is so slow that even video files I download freeze up every few seconds. Second, I don’t have a laptop, yet, and my desktop doesn’t have a very big screen; and even if it did, I don’t have my La-Z-Boy in my office. Third, every attempt I’ve ever made to use bit torrent has been an unmitigated disaster. I’m sure it’s my fault, but that sort of thing has a steep learning curve, it seems to me. DVDs do not. For all these reasons, for now at least, DVD and blu-ray are going to remain my chief medium for watching movies at home.

Being a film scholar and living in NZ tends to entail spending a lot of money buying DVDs, especially Criterion titles, which are not, and never will be, available in that market to buy or to rent. The same goes for made-to-order titles in such series as Warner Bros. Archives, MGM Limited Edition, Universal Studios Vault, and Columbia Classics (why doesn’t Fox do this? I need things!). Except there’s a lot more justification for writing about those on a blog, it seems to me: very, very few video stores anywhere carry them, and Netflix doesn’t offer them either, so for most people, renting is out. They aren’t that cheap at Amazon, so it can be hard for most people to justify buying them (not so much me, but a) I’m an addict… um, a collector, I’m a collector!, and b) they have lots of stuff that’s important for my research, which is why ‘70s titles are disproportionately represented in my made-on-demand DVD purchases). Because they are made-on-demand, there are few if any people selling these titles on Amazon Marketplace; even if they are, the prices are no improvement. Screen Archives Entertainment, which carries the MGM titles, has the occasional sale, though. Warner Bros. Archives has sales once every few months, in fact, but won’t ship overseas, which means I buy most of my titles from them when I’m in the States once a year (and means my library can’t take up any slack). This year, I’ve been here a while already, much longer than usual, so I’ve had a chance to get in on a couple sales to date, and counting. Adding to my current enthusiasm for made-on-demand DVDs is just how much is available now, far more than a couple years back. These DVDs are a huge boon to historians, and offer a panoply of treats for the film buff; some of these things I’ve been wanting to see for years. Plus, where most manufacturers began producing made-on-demand titles with generic covers, now they tend to put a bit more effort into packaging. Following WB’s lead, MGM, Universal and Columbia still have generic packaging on the spines and back covers, but now reproduce the original theatrical posters on the front covers.

Since part of the point of this blog is to have a mental relief valve, a place to burble on, unrestrained, about my enthusiasms, I thought I would write a few short things about the made-on-demand DVDs I’ve been picking up and watching of late. Since most people can’t see them very easily, I would hope mini-reviews, or at least summary judgments, would be more useful than for most DVDs; at least, that’s what I’m going to tell myself to justify blathering on about them. Here’s the first batch:

1. Harry In Your Pocket (MGM Limited Edition; Bruce Geller, 1973)

This has so much promise: an early ‘70s film about a wire mob, a crew of professional pickpockets, centering on a novice, Ray (Michael Sarrazin; what happened to that guy?) being tutored in the art by veterans Harry (James Coburn) and Casey (Walter Pidgeon). Ray is accompanied by Sandy (Trish Van Devere), who is not only a lot smarter than he is, but because Harry is attracted to her, is actually the real reason Harry takes Ray on in the first place. Harry is The Best at what he does. For his part, Casey is now “The Hold” because he’s too old and his hands are too unsteady to pick pockets himself, but Harry is absolute in his loyalty to him, and that loyalty is key to a late-film plot twist.

Certainly, Harry is a bit of a disappointment to a crime film geek like myself. Geller is best known for his TV work, creating both Mission: Impossible (which ended in 1973, the same year the film came out) and Mannix (which ran for two more years). Most prolific as a writer (in addition to the above-named series, he wrote extensively for Western series like Have Gun, Will Travel, The Westerner, Zane Grey Theater, and The Rifleman, among other programs), Geller only had three directing credits: one for an episode of The Westerner, and one after Harry, a TV movie whose title says it all: The Savage Bees. It’s odd, then, that he never directed anything he wrote, and perhaps unfortunate in that one wishes for more attention to the actual mechanics of pickpocketing and the operations of a wire mob, more attention to process, as one might have expected from the Mission: Impossible guy, rather than the triangle between Ray, Sandy and Harry; but alas not. That’s a question of emphasis, though, and partly my reaction comes from my total disinterest in Trish Van Devere.  There are a lot of nice montages of the mob in action, and some great scenes, probably the best I’ve ever seen on the subject, where Casey teaches Ray to pick an inside jacket pocket without ringing the bells they’ve hung on the outside. Geller uses extreme close-ups to intensify the suspense and, crucially, a much closer identification with the pickpocket’s physical processes as well as thoughts and emotions. If the relationship plot begins to dominate in the third act, the rather dark denouement is thankfully tough and genre-oriented, shorn of the kind of emotional hand-wringing that threatened to dominate.

Harry In Your Pocket is rather an oddity, in the end (like a lot of these sorts of MOD titles), and very much a product of its era, particularly in its biggest flaw, the music over the pickpocketing montages, which has that false, out of place, upbeat jauntiness that is like an eczema on the skin of 1970s genre cinema. That said, while the music is both annoying in itself and capable of causing severe cognitive dissonance in this narrative context, it does have the rather appealing affect of lending an amoral romanticism to the crew and what they’re up to (the film has exactly zero sympathy for their victims). As uninteresting as Van Devere and Sarrazin are, Coburn remains charismatic even though his charm seems unusually tamped-down here. As nicely as the film handles the criminal stuff, though, it’s undeniably stolen by Walter Pidgeon’s Casey, an old hand who has seen better days, a philosophical but clear-eyed  criminal who holds fast to professional codes and a sense of honor, even as he cheerfully indulges his avowed drug addiction. In fact, seeing Walter Pidgeon casually snorting coke is reason enough to watch the film, even if it doesn’t quite justify the price of the DVD.

2. Marlowe (WB Archive; Paul Bogart, 1969)

It goes without saying that Marlowe is a long way from being the best of the Raymond Chandler adaptations (this one is based on The Little Sister– which is itself a long way from being the best of the Philip Marlowe books). It doesn’t have the iconic status of The Big Sleep; there’s no substituting for the Humphrey Bogart cool, the Hawksian badinage, or that master’s precision and economy of effect. It doesn’t boast the vivid rumpled-ness of Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, still probably the characterization that comes closest to the books. Paul Bogart certainly doesn’t give it the radical rethinking and auteurist stylization of Altman’s The Long Goodbye; nor does it have the period atmospherics or the Mitchum cool of Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely. On the other hand, of course, it also doesn’t have the Mitchum-bored-out-of-his-stoned-skull or flaccid direction of Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep, so pointlessly and detrimentally moved from L.A. to England. So this is a middle-of-the-road hardboiled movie, probably most comparable to Jack Smight’s Harper (the first of two adaptations of Ross Macdonald’s Archer series, starring Paul Newman); that film has the edge, true (thanks to Newman and a few smart adaptation choices by William Goldman, including a truly brilliant opening scene), but only just. Marlowe is slick, clearly a film with a pretty fair budget. It’s crisply directed, it doesn’t overplay the hippie stereotyping, and manages for the most part to avoid the homophobia seemingly rampant in detective films of the late ‘60s (though at the cost of taking pains to tell us that Marlowe’s office neighbor, a flamboyant hairdresser, loves to ball chicks). Garner is a solid Marlowe, a bit sullen but not inappropriately so, and tough enough while still taking a beating the way a Marlowe should. Performance highlights are provided by the great, great William Daniels as a network suit who hires Marlowe to protect their investment in the star of a primetime soap (a la Peyton Place), played frostily by Gayle Hunnicut; Rita Moreno, as the TV star’s stripper best friend, who does a shockingly sexy striptease at the climax; and of course, Bruce Lee as a dapper thug who makes a first impression by destroying Marlowe’s office with a series of kicks and chops.

Scenes featuring those three are the highlights. The cinematography and art direction are good, and overall Bogart puts together a vivid, slick, fast and engaging package. Might he be rather underrated, or at least a subject for further research? I read good things about Skin Game, though I haven’t seen it. Certainly for any P.I. fan, though, Marlowe is a film you’re going to want to check out at some point.


3. The Satan Bug (MGM; John Sturges, 1965)

I just watched The Satan Bug the other night, and if there’s one reason I’m writing this blog it’s to try to get more people to see this. The Time Out Film Guide has nothing much to say for it. Maltin gives it 3 ½ stars, but calls it overlooked, which it surely is. I’ve always been a big fan of certain films directed by John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven is no Seven Samurai, but very fine for a bloated Western; Bad Day at Black Rock is a film I’ve always been very fond of, an underdog/fish out of water thriller which appeals to the same part of me that likes Roadhouse, only instead of Swayze we get one of Spencer Tracy’s best performance; and The Great Escape is simply one of my all-time favorites. I might enjoy the occasional bloated Western, but I LOVE a bloated, epic war film; plus there’s Steve McQueen and the rest of that cast; plus there’s that music! What’s not to love? But I’ve never particularly taken Sturges seriously as a director, even though I know Bordwell is fond of his widescreen staging. After watching The Satan Bug, though, now I do. It’s not that The Satan Bug is better than the Sturges films listed above; it’s that if a relatively obscure film of his is this good, he was a far more formidable craftsman than I’d reckoned. For starters, Bordwell isn’t wrong about those compositions. Working here with Robert Surtees, Sturges does some remarkably supple, nuanced staging in depth in these Panavision frames. In interiors, the depth staging is impressive enough, and allows for some gracefully composed and dramatically rich long takes; in exteriors, especially in action scenes (check out the search of the stadium in particular), the depth staging is dynamic and layered even when the editing is fast and tight. The film is most lacking on the level of performance: Richard Basehart is capable, Dana Andrews (sober!) is actually a rather nice surprise, Anne Francis is always dreamy, but all of them are fairly low-key (as is Ed Asner as a villain); not many sparks from them, then. The problem is really with George Maharis, who is reasonably persuasive in action and detection scenes, but simultaneously loud and bland, scene-chewing and totally wooden and lacking in charisma.

He’s not enough to offset the writing and direction, though. From the 1960s through the ‘70s there were dozens of films based on Alistair MacLean books: The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra (also by Sturges, and which I regret I haven’t seen yet), Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, and many more. A lot of them are quite good, but this one, despite its lack of reputation, is one of the very best. The scripters are James Clavell and the talented and prolific Edward Anhalt, so that helps, but without the control, assurance, and energy of Sturges’ direction, it wouldn’t count for much.

The Satan Bug is a shockingly modern film: extraordinarily fast-paced (for mid-‘60s Hollywood), utterly unsentimental, and quite unpredictable. It’s far more gripping than I ever expected it to be. It’s also a film that’s dated well because of its subject, a theft of a chemical weapon that can destroy all life on Earth within days. Sure, the premise is a little OTT, and it’s plugging into Cold War paranoia, but that hysteria, with a little modulation, could still be sold in a contemporary action film; how far is it from Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Contagion, really? I wouldn’t want to say too much more about the plot; I knew very little going into it, which is part of why I found it so engaging, and even the theatrical trailer was unusually careful not to give much away. And yeah, there are a few things that aren’t wholly credible, but the film doesn’t give you any time to reflect on them. It is a consistently entertaining film, and I am putting more Sturges films on the to-watch list right away. Bonus points, too, for the credit sequence: I can’t seem to find out who did it, but they are the best Saul Bass credits Bass never did.

And now… Classical Cinema Corner!


4. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (WB; Stephen Roberts, 1936)

5. The Mad Miss Manton (WB; Leigh Jason, 1938)

I’ve always had an inordinate fondness for 1930s comedy-mysteries. I grew up reading detective fiction (at the time, mostly of the “classic” variety), which is still a mainstay of my literary diet today, and a well-done mystery or crime story in any medium will always please me. I love screwball comedies, the pinnacle of the romantic comedy, the genre that to my mind has fallen the farthest from its classical Hollywood pinnacle (it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when I actually liked Katherine Heigl…). So how could I not love a synthesis of the two?

I love The Thin Man, of course, and at least the first few of its sequels (and William Powell and Myrna Loy in general), but I also love nothing more than a good Thin Man knockoff, and there were loads of them, and generally of quite a high quality, in the ‘30s. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, with Powell and Jean Arthur, is a good example, and if it isn’t quite up to the level of Star of Midnight, with Powell and Ginger Rogers, it’s pretty close. Apart from a bizarre scene where Arthur (the title character) seems to believe there’s a chance she and Dr. Bradford could experience a case of poisoning from ingesting too much gelatin (either this is the height of ditziness, or there were still a lot of people who weren’t familiar with gelatin at the time- I would love to ask a food historian about this), Mrs. B. is smart and canny in the investigation of the mysterious deaths of a jockey and a trainer at a horse race track, often anticipating Dr. B.’s moves and making a number of clever ones of her own. This, in fact, is a chief criterion of mine for the ‘30s comedy-mystery: how active is the heroine, how much is she allowed to participate in the main plot, patriarchy notwithstanding? One of the major disappointments of the Thin Man films is that one wants more Loy, not just as The Wife, but as A Partner, and especially as the series goes on, one seems to get less and less of it to the point where Nora becomes at time an annoyance and a hindrance. Mrs. Bradford is right there with her ex-husband, though. The performances are well-directed (not that Powell ever turned in sub-par work), the direction and editing are pacy, and the mystery is well-wrought, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford boasting a script by novelist Anthony Veiller (author of the novel The List of Adrian Messenger and many more), among others.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford generally gets decent notices in film guides, but not so The Mad Miss Manton. And that’s just wrong. Even without Powell, this may actually me my all-time favorite Thin Man knockoff. In it, a gaggle (there’s just no better word for them) of young female socialites, led by Barbara Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton, discover a body in the midst of a treasure hunt for charity. When the police are summoned, the body has vanished, and, fed up with her various stunts and misadventures over the years, the police refuse to take her seriously. A liberal young newspaper editor, Henry Fonda’s Peter Ames, rails against her in print (decadence, the uselessness of the upper class layabout, etc.). It’s precisely because the menfolk refuse to take the young women seriously that Manton refuses to let it go, mobilizing the rest of the women in pursuit of the murderer. It would be asking too much to expect that with a whole group of young women playing amateur sleuths we wouldn’t have to put up with a bit of silly, sexist stereotyping, but actually there’s relatively little of it. Most of the women are quite level-headed, if none of the others have Manton’s shrewdness. But the women are ahead of Ames and the police at every turn; every single attempt they make to dismiss Manton or sideline her (For Her Own Good) fails.

Naturally, Melsa and Peter fall in love, but even the denouement is refreshing. Consider the situation: a classical film in which a newspaper editor and an heiress get married. What next? Orthodoxy then (and maybe even now) is that the woman must learn to live on her man’s income, for Man Is The Provider. It’s precisely the necessity of the bride giving up economic autonomy that hobbles the ending of so many films of the period, even films like Female (Curtiz, 1933) that are otherwise quite radical in their gender politics. And so, at the end of The Mad Miss Manton, Melsa says they will be living on Peter’s income from now on. Peter’s response: “That’s foolish, who’s going to live on yours?” Perfect, and in it’s happy-to-be-a-kept-man way, maybe the single most progressive feminist sentiment uttered by a male character in the whole of the 1930s comedy-mystery. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be Barbara Stanwyck’s kept man?


6. Madam Satan (WB; Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)

I took this DVD with me when I visited my friend Rodney Hill recently. Most of what follows comes out of our conversations after watching it.

A woman (Kay Johnson) is home alone, wondering where he husband is. When he (Reginald Denny) finally returns, he is tuxedo-ed and drunk, and accompanied by his best friend (Roland Young, pretty much doing Roland Young). They stumble up the stairs, trying and miserably failing not to make any noise. Once there, they change, and get into double beds where they spend the night together. The wife, of course, fumes with jealousy and suspicion.

But why? One assumption that comes to mind, whether dominant or oppositional, is that she resents the men excluding her. The film never really specifies the nature of the husband’s relationship with his friend. This is remarkable; in the pre-Code period, intentional ambiguity on certain plot points, a kind of narrative “plausible deniability,” is precisely what allowed filmmakers to get away with material that is shockingly risqué even now to audiences that aren’t expecting it. The fact that the movie doesn’t ever go to any effort whatsoever to deny the sexual subcurrents between the husband and the friend is jaw-dropping in that context.

When the wife confronts the two of them, another possible, variant interpretation arises: that the wife accepts the husband’s “friendship” but wants to be included in a ménage-a-trois. In fact, the film never denies that possibility: when it is revealed that the husband is fooling around with a woman on the side, it’s perfectly plausible, given what we are and are not told, to surmise that the wife resents that the mistress, and not her, is the third point on the triangle. She talks in lightly veiled language about wanting to enjoy a healthily carnal relationship with her husband, not to be put on a pedestal, and there’s no evidence you can point to that the friend would not be a part of that. Of course, we can, if we so choose, assume that the friend is just a friend (one who seems to be around all the time!), but we can just as easily see the film as an only-slightly-covert celebration of a bisexual three-way relationship in the manner of Design for Living.

No questions are ever raised about the husband and his friend, who continue to seem awfully close- constant companions, one might even say. But the wife does have questions about this other woman who is usurping her place in their frolics. After a long dialogue scene full of deeply ideologically suspect preaching where the husband blames the wife for his infidelities (exactly the kind of sexist crap that increasingly strikes me as objectionable in The Philadelphia Story), he leaves her. The wife wants to know whom she seems to be losing out to, and follows the friend to the mistress’ flat, whereupon we are again subjected to a lot of speechifying where the mistress (Lillian Roth) justifies herself and puts the blame on the wife for being abandoned. The film drags interminably from one such scene to another, the theatre-melodrama dialogue relieved only by a thuddingly dull “comedy” scene when the husband arrives and seems jealous that the friend is spending time with the mistress without him (while the wife hides). By this point, one begins to wonder how very much better this film would have been if directed by a Roy Del Ruth or W.S. Van Dyke (one also starts to wonder if DeMille ever did anything interesting after The Cheat), and had starred Jean Harlow as the mistress or, I don’t know, either of the women really, both are so annoying by this point. The mistress is too pouty and grating for the husband’s attraction to be relatable. Yet the wife is just so bland, so stiff, so charmless and plain that at this point one struggles to blame the husband (his pathetic, hypocritical justification of his infidelity actually seems more contemptible than the fooling around itself). That the wife and the mistress are so unappealing dissipates any dramatic tension around the husband’s choices. But after the men leave the mistress’ flat, and the wife and the mistress have a proper confrontation, the wife says she isn’t going to let her husband go so easily. She says she will beat the mistress at the latter’s own game.

And here’s the thing: she totally does. I have seen a lot of ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan transformations in popular films, and they never really wash; the actresses are so obviously beautiful in the first instance that one sees the transformation as little more than a more exacting adaptation to the demands of hegemonic femininity. Here, though, the wife’s transition from neglected Angela Brooks to vivacious, seductive, slinky-sexy Madam Satan at a costume ball hosted by the friend provokes audible gasps and collar-loosening (boy, is it hot in here all of a sudden?).

The plot in the film is ultimately incidental to its pleasures, which is why I have no compunction about saying that the ball turns into a disaster, and surviving it brings the husband and the wife- and, yes, the friend- back together. A disaster, though? What kind of a disaster is going to happen at a costume ball? Well, here’s the other thing: the costume ball is held ON A DIRIGIBLE! ANCHORED TO A SKYSCRAPER! The guests, all lavishly costumed in best Hollywood style- and really, there’s a lot to be said for Hollywood studio-system production value in these kinds of things- climb up a metal staircase up a tower to get onto the airship. The ballroom is as gorgeous as the costumes; this is very much a film from MGM, the so-called Rolls Royce of the studios. When the party commences, out of nowhere, A MUSICAL PERFORMANCE starts up! A dance number CELEBRATING THE SPIRIT OF ELECTRICITY! This frenzied ode to technological modernity appears to have been staged by a fan equally of Busby Berkeley, Fritz Lang, and Fernand Leger (and in its hymn to progress almost seems like it would be more at home in a Soviet musical). Both the performance and the party itself are loosely justified by the friend’s stake in an oil company, but what that has to do with a blimp, let alone The Spirit of Electricity? Your guess is as good as mine. Who cares, really, when at the center of the dancers, the Spirit of Electricity himself MATERIALIZES OUT OF THIN AIR IN A SHOWER OF LIGHTNING BOLTS! (Wouldn’t that be dangerous in a Zeppelin?) By this point, this viewer was too busy trying to maintain his own sanity to maintain any objections. Even when the plot starts back up again, the film as a whole has undergone a remarkable transformation along with the wife: it’s zippy, sexy, suspenseful, witty, even a little bit moving. I still can’t say it’s a good film, exactly. But it’s stunning, an absolute must-watch, and if the Warner Bros. Archives Made-On-Demand program only offered this one DVD, it would be reason enough.

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  • Rodney Hill  On November 24, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    PBR: It is an honor to be mentioned in such a fine rumination on _Madam Satan_, which ranks among the strangest big-budget studio films I’ve ever seen. This entry brought back all the astonishment and delight of the viewing experience.

  • Rodney Hill  On November 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    P.S.: Are you sure that Saul Bass didn’t do the credits for _The Satan Bug_? I ask only because the poster design also looks an awful lot like Bass.

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