Whatever next?

elvis4kStreaming, rather than disc releases, would seem to be where its ‘at’ this month, with a little, low-key fantasy thing from Amazon starting tomorrow and taking us through the Autumn (will I be able resist sharing my thoughts each week?). But there’s a few disc releases coming too. Next week the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture hopefully arrives, something I’ve been looking forward to greatly, although bizarrely I’m perhaps more intrigued by the (surprisingly) bountiful extras than the new cut itself. Its so rare these days for an ‘older’ film released by a non-boutique label to have so many extras (just look at the 4K edition of Poltergeist coming this same month). For what’s its worth, I’m NOT buying the tat box edition (on that front, I’m still waiting for standard edition of the 4K Event Horizon to be announced).  So anyway, next week I expect to be writing a review of Robert Wise’s flawed (but possibly now improved?) Star Trek movie. Beyond that, September also holds the promise of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a film my mom will be over to watch for a film night- I recall showing the trailer on my phone to my parents back when my Dad was ‘trapped’ upstairs due to his illness, thinking I’d be lending them the film someday in better circumstances (I’d often buy some films partly because I knew my folks would enjoy watching the Blu-ray copy). I never imagined that Dad wouldn’t be here to watch it, so everything about that film feels rather bittersweet now, just like that new Downton Abbey movie that came out on disc recently: I have little interest in it but my folks loved that show, particularly my Dad, funnily enough. Sometimes you just can’t figure what it is that people will connect to.

uninoirI still haven’t pre-ordered the (delayed, but now imminent) Indicator release of The Swimmer or their Madigan which is being released the same day. I own the Grindhouse edition of The Swimmer from Stateside so the film is one of those double-dips I try to avoid. As I’d have to keep that earlier disc anyway (because it has a lengthy doc that the Indicator doesn’t), I haven’t yet ordered it even though its a cult favourite of mine; its a situation where ideally I wait for one of Indicator’s sales and get to buy it at a reduced price.  I’ll be buying Indicators edition  for the inevitably better master/image quality, which is a good reason but hey, we’re heading for an Autumn/Winter of Discontent so yeah, more reason for my caution. I might just tag those two onto a pre-order for October’s Universal Noir set from Indicator that I likewise haven’t gotten around to yet, we’ll see. Beyond those, there’s the inevitable pre-order for Top Gun: Maverick because of just how damn good everyone tells me it is, even though I still haven’t managed to watch the first Top Gun (I actually tried several weeks back but gave up twenty minutes in, all it did was remind me of how much I hated Tom Cruise movies back when it originally came out – the idea of ever watching that Cocktail movie, for instance, ugh). Anyway, Tom seems to think we’re living back in the VHS era of waiting forever for home video releases, because he’s managed to hold back Maverick from physical home video for months longer than we’re used to, recently being confirmed for the end of October: crikey- that Tolkien thing on Amazon will be all done by then.

Meanwhile there is so much I already have on the shelf that I need to watch. More films in the Columbia Noir #5 box, and likewise the Alfred Hitchcock Classic Collection Volume 2 4K box which I succumbed to in a sale, of which Shadow of a Doubt was my first watch (there’s a few films in that set that I’ve never seen). Regards sales, I did (so far, anyway) manage to avoid buying the similarly-reduced 4K set of The Godfather; I know I will buy it someday, its as inevitable as MCU movies getting worse but… double/triple dipping? I think I had those films on VHS for goodness sake. Its a case of the price reducing enough to make it feel less of a guilty purchase (bit like that 4K of Heat that I’ve also avoided). Some of those 4K Kino titles, most notably Touch of Evil, are waiting to be watched.  Likewise the BFI’s Blu-ray of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been waiting for too long. And that The Third Man Blu-ray….  The only thing worse than having discs not yet watched is seeing them being reduced for less than I paid for them, it just adds insult to injury. Well, either that or seeing an unwatched Blu-ray now being re-released on a 4K UHD. That hurts.

Heeeerrre’s Uncle Charlie!

doubt1Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, 108 mins, 4K UHD

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt takes place in 1940s Santa Rosa, a leafy town that seems the very definition of Americana – its the America of Twilight Zone‘s Walking Distance, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its decent, law-abiding folk who all know each other’s names, its lush lawns, rocking chairs on sun-sheltered porches, gleaming cars, a town library that stays open until nine p.m., police that don’t need guns. Maybe this community of decency and calm never really existed- David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks both suggested dark secrets hidden behind that entertainment-industry façade of American suburbia, but surprise, surprise, it would seem Alfred Hitchcock got there decades before, albeit Hitch was much more reserved than the subversive Lynch would later be.

Into the perfect American Dream of Santa Rosa arrives Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), visiting his elder sister’s family, the Newtons, for the first time in many years. His niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Theresa Wright) is bored with her perfect quiet life with her parents and younger brother and sister, and finds her well-travelled, charming and world-savvy uncle as exciting as she hoped him to be. She sees a kindred spirit sharing her wayward desire for adventure, but slowly as events unfold she begins to wonder if they are really alike at all, and what might lie behind some of his occasionally odd behaviour. Wright is really excellent here; she rather reminded me of Donna Reed, a pretty, wholesome American gal: she’s charming and quite captivating but also handles her descent into terror very well; if Charlotte had allowed herself to become seduced by her uncles’ darkness I can imagine she’d be quite compelling as a corrupted dark angel. Curiously Wright is a brunette, Hitchcock perhaps not yet succumbing to his later fascination with blondes.

Shadow of a Doubt has all sorts of subtext. In some ways its as simple as the snake in the garden of Eden, innocence tempted by the corruption of evil, or an example of American goodness being betrayed by the enemy within, a common theme of many film noir during the war and the Red Menace scares of the 1950s. Hitchcock, of course, loved the idea of hidden evil and danger -and its easy to discern in Uncle Charlie a prototype for mild-looking Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. Indeed, Joseph Cotten is so good in this film he rather overshadows Perkins in that later film; ultimately, Bates was explained away as being crazy, but Uncle Charlie is calm, self-assured evil, and feels more real, more genuine.

doubt2There is always something clearly ‘off’ regards Uncle Charlie, right from when we first see him resignedly relaxing in an lodging house whilst being watched/hunted by two mysterious men. He smartly evades their pursuit and flees to Santa Rosa, but what has he done, who are these pursuers? One might suspect that he is innocent, threatened by criminals, but there is that shade of darkness about him that suggests otherwise. Once in his sisters home he charms the family and indeed the Santa Rosa community at large, but there is an undercurrent of mockery in his manner, which his niece quickly picks up on but initially assumes is the wisdom of his experience living in that big, exciting world outside that which she knows. Hitchcock seems to revel in wising the young girl to the reality of the world beyond the American Dream : “You’re a sleepwalker, blind,” Cotten tells her. “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something!” It could be a speech from one of Lynch’s films, or a manifesto for America to wake up to the Nazi menace in Europe.

Cotten is excellent- his natural persona is that of a good guy, similar to that of someone from our own era like Tom Hanks, so it is doubly unnerving to sense the darkness behind the disarming smile and twinkling eyes. I’m rather surprised he didn’t become an Hitchcock regular; I think Hitchcock loved bad guys who could be your neighbour, and Cotten serves that to a tee.

And of course typical of Hitchcock, there are nice, self-aware touches in Shadow of a Doubt, such  Charlotte’s father Joseph’s conversations with his best friend and neighbour Herbie, who shares his love of lurid detective and crime pulps/novels and their conversations about the best ways to murder someone, both ignorant of a murderer living under Joseph’s own roof.

I really enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt– while it isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s very best films (its far removed from work like Vertigo), I’m not entirely surprised to have later discovered that it was said to be Hitchcock’s personal favourite. There is certainly a great cast playing well-defined and entertaining characters, a sharp script, some wonderful cinematography (literally there are shadows everywhere); in its own way, its a perfect little movie, and if it feels dated, that’s maybe because of the world we are living in.

Of course one of its biggest draws must be its magical visualisation of  the American Dream and that idyllic America that may or may not have actually existed outside of Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois. If it did actually exist, then this film is a potent picture of a paradise lost, and leaves me wondering what Lynch’s Twin Peaks might have been like had he considered giving it a period setting. But in any case, I can easily see what so appealed to Hitchcock about it, and can imagine that back when the film originally played in 1943, it could have seemed rather scandalous to many.

Point Blank’s unreliable narrator

pointbcPoint Blank, 1967, 92 mins, Blu-ray

There is something very, very odd regards John Boorman’s crime drama Point Blank, mostly because it doesn’t make much sense at all. A (deliberately) disjointed prologue shows anti-hero Walker (Lee Marvin) being double-crossed by Mal Reece (John Vernon), shot at point blank range and  and left for dead in a cell in abandoned Alcatraz. We thereafter see Walker recover, wander as if in a daze around Alcatraz and then step into the waters of the bay to swim over to San Francisco. Its something frankly preposterous, especially for a man critically injured by gunshots.

Later, we see Walker half-undressed and he bears no scars of bullet-wounds at all. I commented to my wife regards this, questioning was it a continuity error, or a lack of attention to detail,  but I suppose all this leads to the question that has concerned viewers of the film for decades: did Walker actually die in that prison cell when he was shot, or perhaps did he drown in the bay? Is everything we witness post-shooting actually the fantasy of a dying man (I’m reminded of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, another film with an unreliable narrator, with many reading most of that film’s narrative as the opium- fuelled dream of Noodles (Robert de Niro)). Or instead is Walker, every time we see him after being shot, literally a vengeful ghost, the film a horror story dressed up as neo-noir? Indeed, a few times we see him advised/courted by Yost (Keenan Wyn) a mysterious character who weirdly drifts in and out of the proceedings; appearing and disappearing – we are led to believe he is a federal agent (at least, that was my first impression, Yost seeking Walker’s help in taking down ‘The Organisation’ protecting Reece) but Yost could perhaps be seen as a guardian Angel (or Demon?) guiding Walker on his path of supernatural revenge, feeding him information.

Its really a very peculiar film, quite disorientating even today- goodness knows what the response was back in 1967 (the film eventually proved a cult hit over the years and highly regarded but its odd structure and narrative concerned the studio and initial audiences). I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it more on subsequent viewings but this first time around, I was quite taken aback by its curious, almost Lynchian sense of time out of joint (some scenes are literally edited out of sequence, it seems) and being subject to an unreliable narrator who may be dead, or may be dreaming. I’m still not certain what to think. Its notable also just how, well, European-arthouse it looks, with all sorts of curious angles and camera set-ups that only intensify the sense of unreality that pervades the film.

There is definitely an impression that this is a film distinctly of its time- back when Old Hollywood, under the continuing threat of television, was changing into what would become the American Cinema of the 1970s, the rather auteur, sometimes quite radical movies such as Taxi Driver, Klute, The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now and so many others, before that itself began to transform into the corporate Hollywood we are living with today. Watching Point Blank‘s rather surreal narrative I found myself thinking of The Swimmer, released just a year later. Both are so strange one cannot imagine them being made the decade before or the decade after.

Point Blank was based on a book “Hunter” by Richard Stark that also served as inspiration for the Mel Gibson-starring Payback from 1999, a film I really enjoyed (especially in its directors Cut version)- Payback has a more routine, dare I say reliable, narrative and I really must get that Blu-ray out for a rewatch sometime soon. It will be fascinating to compare the two very different approaches to the same revenge story. I also find obvious similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter from 1971 that I watched a short time ago, another more routine revenge tale when compared to John Boorman’s film.

Bumper Round-up

Quick reviews for recent stuff (Dead Reckoning! Get Carter! The Sandman!) and to misquote a Spielberg movie, I’m gonna need a bigger shelf unless I stop buying 4K discs…

In lieu of writing ‘proper’ posts, here’s a summary of where things are at lately. Hopefully genuine review posts will follow, but time being what it is lately (Einstein reckoned time is relative, and here its pretty short of late), I thought I’d get something out there.

P1110377 (2)First of all, I’ve had a bit of a mad splurge over the last few weeks on some Kino 4K titles on import (joining The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For A Few Dollars More which I bought months ago). This bunch are mostly noir titles; the three-disc Touch of Evil, Kubrick’s dabbles in noir The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, with the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot. These are all upgrades, double-dips (dear God, the Wilder is a triple dip, I had it on DVD too) of various Blu-rays bought over the past several years, something I’m increasingly wary of these days. But aren’t those slips gorgeous? Currently box-art seems something of a lost art so its especially lovely to see original artwork being used (The Killing actually has a reversible cover in the disc case, as I showed on my recent review). As well as The Killing, I’ve watched Some Like It Hot, and yes it too looks damn fine in 4K- its surprising how good these b&w titles look in the 4K format (as if we needed further proof how gorgeous Marilyn Monroe was). The contrast, grain management, improved gray scale, all impress, and Kino seem to have gone nuts on the bitrates, way over the top (compare that to Disney releasing the near-three hour Heat on 4K using a BD66).

I only saw Killer’s Kiss on Blu-ray a few months back. The film was made prior to The Killing and being less than seventy minutes long, it was included as a special feature on Arrow’s The Killing Blu-ray which I bought back in 2016, but I never actually watched it. I think I was misinformed by Internet opinion that it was lesser-tier Kubrick not worth bothering with, that The Killing was widely considered Kubrick’s first ‘proper’ film and first worthy of note: I suppose Killer’s Kiss being relegated to the special features menu only reinforced this view. Anyway, I finally got around to it; I knew there was a boxing element and was pointed back in the film’s direction after enjoying Robert Wise’s The Set-Up a few months back.  Well, diminished expectations and all that, but I absolutely loved it, probably for all the reasons so many disparaged it. Raw, low-budget, with a brisk (for Kubrick, positively frantic) pace, a bare-bones story shot like a docudrama with amazing footage of a lost New York, foreshadowing stuff like Taxi Driver. The only thing holding me back from a gushing review post here back when I watched that Blu-ray was suddenly learning only days later that Kino was releasing the film on 4K, so I decided to wait and will continue to wait until I’ve seen it again on this 4K disc. I’m really looking forward to it, but just waiting for the perfect time.

Which is a bit of a sour point: the best time to watch these noir (especially in 4K) is late at night when its dark and these long hot summer days are not conducive to that. What’s that line in a film about mood – ah yes, Gurney Halleck in Dune; “Mood? What’s mood to do with it?”, but its true about movie watching (if not fighting); one has to be in the correct mood for a particular kind of film and bright summer days/evenings- well, unless you’re watching something like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat,  which was made for hot summer nights. Besides, by the time its late/dark enough, I’m usually too tired to watch a demanding film, and noir ARE demanding, usually quite complex and nuanced and narratively pretty dense for their usually short running-time. Case in point, I recently tried watching John Reinhardt’s The Guilty a few weeks back and damn near fell asleep near the end – my wife actually did fall asleep, missing its last fifteen minutes and I’ve ribbed her endlessly ever since regards her missing its major twist. “You’ll never guess!” I’ve teased her. There’s a film that deserves a proper rewatch soon as possible.

P1110379 (2)Hmm, yeah, some more purchases. Here’s me claiming to reign it all in regards buying discs, and sure, I’ve (mostly) stopped the blind-buys but of late that’s only transferred my wallet’s woes to the upgrades/double dips: here another Billy Wilder classic upgraded to 4K (this time courtesy of Criterion) and Flicker Alley’s The Guilty/High Tide double-bill (in the latter’s case, I’ve elected to use the original art on the reversible cover). Criterion’s Double Indemnity rather annoyed me- not the disc or the film, but because over here in the UK, presumably due to licensing issues (or the duplication costs?) Criterion only released it on Blu-ray (I have the old Eureka edition).  So in order to get the 4K edition released in the States  that everyone was raving about I had to grudgingly import it, complete with two Blu-ray discs locked to Region One that I can’t watch (so I’m keeping that Eureka set for some of the extras, but that true of Arrow’s The Killing disc and my Blu-ray of Some Like It Hot). Goodness, no wonder my shelves are filling up, I’m buying new upgrades and keeping the old discs too- madness.

Anyway, enough of my foolish financial woes, I’m just partying before the recession and Autumn of Discontent (see what I did there?) puts paid to my collecting. On with some quick reviews.

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) – first film from Indicator’s Columbia Noir #5 set, and allegedly one of the few genuine noir films in the set. Bit alarming, that. I never warmed to Humphrey Bogart, so haven’t seen many of his films. In fact, I can only name a few films of his I actually liked; In A Lonely Place for one, and another that I first saw on television decades ago, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is a Blu-ray gathering dust on the shelf that I keep meaning to watch, but… Anyway, something about Bogie just rattles me. Maybe this box set’s contents will feature a film that will warm me to his charms more, but Dead Reckoning isn’t it – unless of course this is another example regards mood. Maybe it was just the wrong film on a warm summer night. Shame, its a great title for a noir. I was especially disappointed in Lizabeth Scott, who I’ve seen and been impressed by before. Here she was ill-served by an underwritten character (likely deliberately underwritten to enable/underscore the surprise twist) leaving her with little to work with- I suppose someone like Rita Hayworth (originally conceived of for the role) would have gotten by better from sheer screen charisma and presence, but Scott just doesn’t have that. Also, I just couldn’t see any chemistry between Bogie and Scott, and a film whose success largely depends upon the romantic tryst between two characters is in trouble from the start when the chemistry seems lacking. Is it wrong of me to note that I thought I would have enjoyed it more had it featured Glenn Ford (no stranger to this kind of noir) in the lead role?

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) – No casting issues with this film. Don’t ask me how/why I never saw this film before, but we all have these oversights/black holes in our moviegoing street-cred. Release by BFI in a simply gorgeous 4K edition that is so tactile you feel you can reach into the screen and touch it, and smell the beer and aftershave, sweat and cigarette smoke- it’s excellent; its another case of a film likely looking better than it did even when it first came out. This is such a film of its time, its like some kind of time machine physically taking us back, and who’d really want to go back to Newcastle circa 1971? What a cast (Ian Hendry brilliant yet again, and what a shocker seeing Michael Caine chucking that bloke from Coronation Street off the carpark roof), and what a  gorgeous jazzy score (that main title sequence is sublime). Here’s a film that I was ready to rewatch as soon as it finished.

The Sandman: Season One (Ten Episodes, 2022) – I don’t know what’s more shocking- that someone actually managed to make a decent live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comicbook classic or that somehow its on Netflix, but then again, it is the home of Stranger Things…  Its been well over a decade since I last read Gaiman’s opus (I bought the graphic novel paperbacks so long ago it was from a genuine bookstore) and a lot of my memory of it is burry, which was rather curious seeing it onscreen thinking “oh yeah, they actually did that…” or “I don’t remember that at all” so I can’t comment regards how authentic it was.  It wasn’t perfect though, I have to confess I was bit bothered by some of the casting choices- it was a great cast and I’ve no complaints, but John Constantine is now Johanna Constantine, played by Jenna Coleman? And I had a bit of a hard time keeping a straight face watching Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, of all things. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong in subsequent seasons or the inevitable Johanna Constantine spin-off (call me a cynic, but the writing/casting for that episode had “pilot for a spin-off” written all over it). Those caveats aside,  I did enjoy the series; even the music was good (shades of BR2049 in places and ‘nowt wrong with that). Inevitably the highlight of the show (and if you only watch one episode of it, make it this one, its pretty standalone) was The Sound of Her Wings, the sixth episode and an adaption of likely most readers favourite issue of the comic. Should have been retitled The Sound of An Emmy, because it surely deserves a nomination at least.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (Rudolph Carter, 1954) – this BBC adaptation has always been on my radar if only because it starred Peter Cushing, one of my very favourite actors (my unofficial quest to watch everything he ever did continues slowly apace). I bought this new Blu-ray edition (from the BFI folks) a few months back but watched it just a week or so ago… I intended to write a proper post about it, even tried, but… goodness this was so depressing. Its through no fault of the adaptation (by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame) its limited production values (mostly a live performance thankfully recorded for posterity), or its cast, but more the horrible inescapable fact that George Orwell’s cautionary tale is as timely now than ever- perhaps more so. Real-life events of the past several years, just how the world has slowly changed largely for the worse, makes something like this all the more prescient and important. Its horrible, like a warning from a future that just feels just more plausible than ever.

And while on the subject of warnings of the future, it looks like Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall is coming to Amazon Prime on Friday. I can hardly wait. Its got such a crazy, ridiculous premise, I’ve so wanted to subject myself to its cheesy silly horrors while avoiding spoilerific trailers. There’s a thought: am I the only person alive actually avoiding spoilers for Moonfall? Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favourite bad movies, it was all I could do to refrain from buying it on Blu-ray disc when it was released a few months back (maybe if had been on 4K over here in the UK, I would have given in to its despicable allure, but it was limited to DVD/Blu-ray). Anyway, that’s my Friday (or Saturday) night sorted then, and possibly will be my next posting here; yes, be afraid, its Moonfall next, unless I get some time to sit at this laptop again beforehand.

The Killing 4K UHD

Kill4kI’ve come back to The Killing by way of its recent 4K upgrade from the folks at Kino over the pond. I last watched the film back in 2016. I have to confess, watching it again my memory of it was pretty fuzzy- I remembered the overall plot and some of the cast, but specifics, and indeed the ending, escaped me completely. To some extent it was rather like watching the film for the first time.

Which was nice, but worrying- I used to have such an excellent memory for films; I’d usually remember most everything. Maybe its just me getting older – hope this isn’t how dementia starts- but I rather suspect its a case of just watching too many films over the past few years. In some ways we’re living in a film buff’s paradise, the access we have to films these days, whether it be films we have collected on disc, or stream on the various platforms. Back in the 1970s we were at the whim of terrestrial schedulers on three networks so only watched films when we could, which increased the rarity and sense of occasion (I still recall the Jaws network premiere, and that of Star Wars and Alien, quite vividly, and movie seasons over Christmas holidays just made the festive seasons more special). Those were the bad old days, certainly, but nonetheless films seemed to have much more of a value back then. I suppose watching fewer films, they stuck in your memory more too.

But now, they almost seem to blur into each other- certainly some film noir, of which I have watched an awful lot of over the past few years. I suppose it inevitable when they share so many narrative and visual tropes and character archetypes. Alarming though, that I’d forgotten so much of this film. Maybe this blog should revert to its original purpose back from its Film Journal days, serving as a diary of viewing- not that this blog really ever diverted away from too much (though I have stopped compiling monthly/annual lists of the films). But whatever next? Index cards next to each disc on the shelf?

Because to be sure, someone who professes to be a film buff shouldn’t be forgetting details of films as exquisite as The Killing, one of the definitive heist movies and one of the best examples of a perfect film noir. Its a taut, gripping story about flawed characters, depicted by brilliant actors in memorable performances. Did I say memorable? Hmmm. Well, to be fair, while I’d forgotten so much of the film, I’d not forgotten the likes of Sterling Hayden here- what a gritty, convincing turn.

Kubrick’s third directorial effort and widely considered his first ‘proper’ film, The Killing is absolutely amazing and, dare I suggest, one of his best. Its certainly a film for people who don’t profess to like Kubrick’s filmography- it lacks his full ‘auteur’ stamp, as he didn’t have the complete control he would soon have following Paths of Glory and SpartacusThe Killing is more routine, more accessible compared to how inscrutable some of his films can seem.

That being said, its tricky to describe The Killing as routine- it certainly makes demands upon its audience, with a chronology-shifting narrative in which it moves forwards and backwards in time depending upon each characters involvement in the heist. It’s helped somewhat by a voice-over which is pretty wonderful but was, I suspect, possibly a studio-mandated element to help steer viewers along.

When I last watched The Killing in 2016, I hadn’t been aware even of the existence of Vince Edwards’ later noir, Murder by Contract, which I watched last year as part of Indicator’s Columbia Noir line of boxsets and which proved to be one of the best films I watched last year (so good was it, indeed, that I watched it twice). So anyway, back in 2016, Edwards was just another face- this time around, I immediately recognised him and enjoyed, again, another of his performances. Naturally Edwards will always be more remembered for his massively popular Ben Casey tv show of the 1960s but I think he’s brilliant in The Killing, Murder by Contract and City of Fear in which he has this weird charisma with the camera (and inevitably the on-screen ladies) that only certain actors destined to be stars have. So if my memory really does go south there will be index cards for Vince Edwards dotted around my shelves of Blu-rays.

killb4kRegards this 4K release of The Killing, it looks absolutely amazing. Lots of grain, detail and contrast- 4K with its HDR really suits these black and white films. Can’t believe I haven’t bought Citizen Kane on 4K yet (must be all those copies on DVD and Blu-ray making me already feel like a double/triple-dipping idiot). There is a lovely tactile quality to this film, in its detail evident in sets and clothing, and the HDR really improves the lighting which can be so intrinsic to the noir experience. The scene in which the guys sit around a small table lit by a lone bulb above them, their faces both brightly lit and masked in shadow, the cigarette smoke drifting about them- its like each frame is a painting and is one of the best film noir shots I’ve seen: in 4K its really something. While Kino doesn’t include booklets or anything at all like that, it does use original poster artwork which make its releases great collector pieces, in a similar way to the art direction on Indicator’s releases (this disc also has a reversible sleeve). Devoid of extras other than some trailers, the disc features a commentary track by Alan K. Rode which, from the twenty-thirty minutes I’ve heard, is absolutely terrific and which I look forward to listening to in its entirety. More on that in another post maybe.

Pre-Orders/Incoming

In lieu of being actually able to watch anything, I thought I might take this opportunity to look at what I’ve got pre-ordered or coming my way over the next few months-

POGuiltyThe Guilty & High Tide (Flicker Alley)

First (maybe) is a pair of noir just recently released on region-free Blu-ray/DVD in the States by Flicker Alley, who seem on a par with Indicator regards supplemental material and rescuing obscure titles. Unfortunately as they are based in the States, these releases don’t come cheap, even via Amazon, and there are a few other noir films from them that are on my radar. I’m dipping my toes with this one as its a double-bill but if its as good as early reviews suggest and I do go for some other Flicker alley releases it might become an expensive series of additions to my noir collection. Probably a few weeks before my copy reaches here, certainly no sign of it being dispatched yet.

PONorthThe Northman 4K UHD

Released July 18th comes Robert Egger’s The Northman, one of those films I’ve been sufficiently curious about to pre-order the 4K disc. Although it must be said, Eggers is the guy behind The Witch (a disturbing period horror which I really quite enjoyed) and The Lighthouse (a film I detested, not ‘getting it’ at all) so even now my thumb tends to hover over the ‘cancel pre-order’ button. Eggers involvement would seem to indicate this film has Marmite slapped all over it, so I’m wary about it: in theory with its setting etc it could be right up my street but you just never know- these days I have increasingly little patience with ‘pretentious’ when it interferes with storytelling. Then again, that’s a charge aimed at The Green Knight by many, a film I enjoyed and one stylistically similar to John Boorman’s Excalibur, a film which I’ve seen mentioned in the same sentence as The Northman in some circles. So who knows? Sometimes staying spoiler-free to enable watching a film ‘blind’ can be a dangerous thing though; I can understand some renting first.

POGetCarterGet Carter 4K UHD (BFI)

The week following The Northman sees the BFI release their next 4K disc following The Proposition, which was a good film in a very good package, and they seem to have followed a similar format regards releasing this British crime classic. Well, I say ‘classic’ but I’ve never seen it. It figures that if its as good as they say it is, I might as well watch it in the best presentation that I can, so this 4K remaster it is. I tend to avoid these ‘tat’ editions which seem to have sneaked into the physical market as some kind of ‘last hurrah’ but if it allows these disc releases to stay financially viable I guess I can stomach one or two where I have to (thankfully the pre-order prices have dropped recently to something less eye-watering). While mentioning these ‘tat’ editions, a 4K release of Event Horizon due in August tempts me endlessly. That film is a guilty favourite of mine and I would dearly love to fix some of the current Blu-ray disc issues (stretched ratio for one) but goodness me, can’t they drop the tat for once? Can’t see a bare-bones just-the-bloody-film-no posters or badges or scarfs edition available for pre-order yet. Added complication is I’ve got my Blu-ray sitting in my glorious elaborate Event Horizon DVD case (some of the fanciest packaging I own) which will do me fine to house the 4K if only I could buy the 4K at a reasonable non-tat price, drokk it.

I suppose most everyone reading this though is busy tutting at the revelation that I have somehow never seen Get Carter, but as I’ve mentioned before, its weird how some films, even the established ‘classics’  just pass us by. Part of me hopes it leaves me nonplussed, because it could get just even more expensive if it turns out its soundtrack is as cool as I’ve heard say.

POFlatlinersFlatliners 4K UHD (Arrow)

Here’s where my credibility really takes a fall. I think the week after Get Carter comes out, Arrow releases Joel Schumacher’s original Flatliners in a 4K edition. My only defence is that I haven’t seen this film in decades, not since the VHS rental days, and back then I really enjoyed this film immensely; as I recall, rather a cheeky poor-man’s rehash of Brainstorm (not that Doug Trumbull’s film is a particular classic). Part of my enjoyment of the film was that I was really taken by the film’s soundtrack at the time; by James Newton Howard, a composer unknown to me back then but who has since become a household name in film score circles. Indeed, just as I had done with Vangelis’ Blade Runner, I remember I would search for the soundtrack album for months in vain- it was never released, as far as I know. As for the film, I don’t know what I’ll think of it now, and I appreciate this pre-order has mindless self-indulgence all over it, but as I never owned it on DVD or Blu-ray its hardly like wasting money on a double-dip- which is a curious justification, but there you go. We’ll see if I hold my nerve/come to my senses.

POHeatHeat 4K UHD

The releases keep on coming, week after week- seven days after Flatliners possibly sullies my letterbox, comes one of those films we’ve been waiting for AGES to come to 4K UHD; Michael Mann’s Heat (after this, surely The Abyss can’t be far behind?). Shame about the lazy-looking cover though- they clearly seem to be almost reluctantly dumping this out on physical media. Remember when studios were interested and made some effort? I have a mind to dig my fancy VHS copy of Heat from out of the loft- the VHS case came in a fancy cardboard box (with the ‘proper’ film poster art)  to signify the importance of its release in Widescreen (anybody remember when those VHS Widescreen releases were such a Big Deal?). Its clearly a film which deserves the Indicator treatment, its almost a shame Warner (or whoever owns this now) couldn’t hire those good folks at Indicator to produce the proper special edition which this film deserves. I suppose we’ll be lucky if it just looks as good as it should; Mann is infamous for tinkering with home releases of his films, so maybe my pre-order needs a watchful eye for early reviews.

PODogDog Soldiers 4K UHD (Second Sight)

I haven’t seen this film in so many years. My mate Andy absolutely loved this film when it came out and always seemed to be watching it on DVD, repeatedly listening to its cast & crew commentary (which inexplicably isn’t included on this release). I’m sure Second Sight will be adding new special features but that commentary track was legendary according to Andy. Also, I’m not sure about that cover art; for some unfathomable reason they’re going for Ugliest Cover Award 2022, right? But anyway, another one of those films that I’ve not seen in ages, not since the DVD era in this case, so I’m as much curious regards what I think of it as how good it looks in 4K. After this film, Neil Marshall, who back then seemed to be a British John Carpenter, went on to direct The Descent, another horror film I loved- I’d be keen to see that one in 4K someday too.

The Police Story Trilogy 4K UHD (Eureka)

POPoliceFinally in September comes this mighty box, not certain why this seemed to somehow catch my eye- I’ve not seen anything of these films, other than a mouth-watering stunt sequence on YouTube that blew my mind and had me pressing that pre-order button. I’m a sucker for good action movies, especially as they seem to just get rarer as the years roll on. We’ll see if my courage holds up regards a boxset blind-buy like this one though. I’ve seen a few Jackie Chan films and enjoyed them so it may be a safe bet- this seems to be loaded with extras too, multiple commentaries on each film, different versions, a 100-page book, so plenty to get my teeth into assuming I enjoy the films themselves (indeed its so stacked it could be a contender for release of the year if Eureka can pull it off). Am I right in thinking that when Eureka gets into the 4K game with this release we can suggest the format is finally niche no longer? Imagine Indicator getting into 4K disc sets- what? They are? Oh my wallet.

Anyway, while on the subject of my poor wallet, that’s about it regards what I’ve actually pre-ordered right now. I’ve my eye on a few other releases but avoided succumbing just yet, particularly some of those 4K releases out in America like Kino’s Touch of Evil. There are other releases coming, for instance from Indicator (that Universal Noir box in September, and in October both a rumoured Dracula (1979) and another Hammer set). There’s also talk of Arrow releasing Videodrome in 4K – that’s one of my old favourites but I’ll likely resist that one, the Blu-ray seems fine enough to me. But who knows? The Abyss might come before year-end yet.

Recent Additions

P1110328 (2)My first package of 2022 from Indicator Films arrived late last week- the latest in their excellent Columbia Noir collections, this time devoted to Humphrey Bogart, and The Pemini Organisation, a set that was released in May which caught my interest but had to wait until I could bundle it with something else to qualify for the free postage (and use the reward points I’d accumulated last year). These releases are, as usual, limited editions, and if the numbers I received are anything to go by, the noir is as successful as ever (1150 of 6000, and only officially out today) but the Pemini set (719 of 6000) seems to be a sign Indicator could be finding it a struggle shifting them- expect it to be around for the Autumn sale.

I suppose the latter is predictable- who remembered Pemini these days, or had even heard of the three films it produced, let alone seen them? Pemini was a  film production company set up by three freinds (Peter Crane, Michael Sloan and Nigel Hodgson, the company name constructed from their first names) who wanted to work in film, so decided to be devilishly proactive: Pemini only operated between 1972 and 1974, producing just three films that pretty much disappeared when the company disbanded. All those points, of course, are why I found it so intriguing, and as ever for Indicator, its a remarkable set, the films restored and lavishly presented with an in-depth book and a bounty of on-disc extras- there’s plenty more prestigious and famous films that would be envious of such treatment. Its like a little film school in box.

I’m not familiar with the contents of the Bogart set, as I haven’t seen any of them before (I was never much of a fan of Bogart), and I understand some of them are a bit of a stretch regards defining them as noir. As usual though its a beauty of a package and a welcome companion to sets 1 to 4. The next noir box is the first of a new series, leaving Columbia behind in favour of noir from Universal Pictures, which looks fantastic but isn’t out until mid-September.

Alas, I could be awhile getting around to watching these new arrivals. After a weekend with the television hijacked for Glastonbury, its now restricted to two weeks of Wimbledon tennis: regular readers will know that during this fortnight I become a Wimbledon Widower every year, and getting to watch anything that isn’t tennis is pretty tricky. We’ll see how that goes, but its important to keep the wife happy, obviously.

God’s Angry Man: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

P1110321 (2)Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959, 94 mins, Blu-ray

Well we’re back in Noir city and this Robert Wise film, one of the last films of the ‘classic period’ noir. It’s fairly easy to tell its from the end of the ‘classic period’ (1940s/1950s) because even though I wasn’t alive back then, and not American either, its nonetheless easy to feel the 1960s bearing down upon films like Odds Against Tomorrow (see also Murder By Contract). You can feel the world changing; the post-War period is fading away and the Space Age is coming, and with it the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, hippies, all that stuff… you can almost smell it in the wind, even in films like this; the world changing. Watching earlier noir, it can feel like something from another world, remote somehow, no matter how familiar and universal the themes and tones of the films, the fashions and social sensibilities are distant. The films can still be terribly relevant; that’s the magic of noir, they often seem the most relevant of all cinema, but there is a distance, too, sometimes comforting, sometimes frustrating, but its there. But less so in films from the close of the 1950s into the 1960s; what we see and hear is more what we know.  

So here we are and yet again we are graced with the chiselled-stone countenance of the great Robert Ryan, here playing Earle Slater, an ex-con and racist, tough as nails and angry- indeed, he’s like Gods Angry Man, raging at everything. He can’t stick anything out; job, career, relationships, he always turns any success into failure and knows it but can’t change it, its who he is, what he is. Slater’s self-destructive drive is demonstrated when he cheats on his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) with a frustrated housewife from the floor above, played by Gloria Grahame, veteran of earlier noir like In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Lorry doesn’t deserve it and Slater knows it, but he’s angry at himself, at Lorry, at the world, and he can’t help himself, his fury just makes him wreck everything.

P1110318 (2)Could anyone play Slater as well as Ryan does here? Doubt it. The irony that Ryan would later bitterly resent the fact that he never seemed to play the leading man, the hero, in any of his seventy-plus films isn’t lost on me when watching him in films like this. He was just too good, too convincing, as horrible charming monsters. Women could see themselves falling for him, men would love to drink with him, but neither could imagine turning their back on him and still feel safe.

Slater is approached by David Burke (Ed Begley), a former policeman hounded out of the force after thirty years when he refused to cooperate with crime investigators: seems he was a bent cop who turned the other way when it suited, justifying it as living in the real world of shades of grey and mocking those with sensibilities more black and white. Bitter at being cast out Burke has a plan for a Bank robbery that is so easy and simple it cannot fail; it just needs three guys to see it through. The third man he has in mind for the job is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) a black nightclub singer whose gambling addiction has gotten him heavily into debt and ruined his marriage.

P1110314 (2)Slater and Ingram are instantly at odds when they meet with Burke and both refuse the job, but grudgingly change their minds when they realise they have no choice: Slater, unable to get or hold a job because of his criminal past and temper, is furious at being emasculated by his working girlfriend Lorry  who supports him, and sees the robbery and its promised $50,000 as a way to be a ‘proper man’ and breadwinner again. Ingram meanwhile has debts to a criminal boss who threatens (at Burkes behest, curiously) the safety of Ingram’s separated wife and young daughter if he cannot make good on his debts, so the robbery is his only way of saving his estranged family. 

Burke thinks that hiring two men as desperate as he is will ensure their compliance with his scheme, and prove to be excellent allies, but doesn’t realise how the trio will prove horribly self-destructive: its all a recipe for disaster. All three are trapped with no way out but the inevitable one.  

Was Robert Wise one of America’s greatest directors? His earlier noir, The Set-Up, also starring Ryan, was pretty great, and while Wise seemed to have a talent for noir he was just as good turning his directorial hand at anything- after all, his next film would be West Side Story, and besides starting his career as editor with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (notable enough, surely) his other films would include such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain… its a hell of a list. And yet I never seem to see him mentioned alongside the likes of Hitchcock, or Spielberg .

P1110311 (2)Odds Against Tomorrow features a great deal of location shooting, its a remarkable-looking film- like so many noir shot ‘on the streets’, it succeeds even if only as a visual document of the times, but I think Wise demonstrates here his particular flair with actors; characters are defined really well, horrible as some of them are, and the three leads are excellent. There’s that odd dichotomy typical of noir, when we know the guys are bad and we don’t like them at all, but we still want to see them succeed.  The mechanics of the heist, the drama as it unfolds and how it falls apart, is also well realised. Its clear early in its staging that things are going wrong, but the three crooks are too desperate to realise it, or unable to see any alternative than just see it out.

The film is as much social commentary as it is a heist thriller, maybe more so- certainly today it seems more famous for its racial issues than the heist it centres upon, and is surprisingly complex- at one point Ingram rages at his wife for mixing with white people, for betraying her own race-  Ingram betraying racist tendencies of his own, albeit possibly reactive against the racism he suffers: “It’s THEIR world and we’re just living in it,” Ingram berates her.

Its inevitable, really, that Ingram and Slater’s rage at the world and their respective plights turns in against each other in a literally explosive finale. Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, some of the jazz music seems overly melodramatic at times, feeling an ill-fit in places, but on the whole its pretty powerful stuff and its sense of place and time, thanks to its location shoot, is as captivating as any noir. 

P1110315 (2)

Gotham Noir

The Batman, 2022, 176 mins, 4K UHD

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Who knew I needed another Batman? Certainly not me- I was still rueing the ill-luck of Ben Affleck who seemed to me the definitive Batman, wasted in the artistic/commercial carnage of Warner/DC’s ill-fated attempts to duplicate the success of Marvel Studios output. Affleck wasn’t alone, mind; one could well argue that Henry Cavill’s Superman deserved better than he got. Whether we have truly seen the last of them, time will tell, but I believe Affleck has (yet another) cameo playing Batman due in someone else’s movie -next year’s Flash – and there are all sorts of rumours regards Cavill. But hey, I suppose the only certainty in life other than death, taxes and Star Trek’s endless plunge into ruin is that we’ll always have another Batman, Superman, Spider Man in some new movie…

So here we are with Robert Pattinson as a very, very dark, very, very noir, young Batman. I’ll make that distinction re: his age because Affleck is still my favourite, if only because I’m more inclined towards enjoying his older, world-weary Batman. Pattinson’s Batman isn’t yet the proper, genuine article; this is a Batman still in gestation, finding his place and gaining the experience to really be the Batman, an arc that is a central element of the film’s narrative.

Which reminds me, as someone who scoffed at the very idea of Affleck donning the cowl when I first heard news of his casting, that one should never jump to conclusions at initially bizarre casting news, because the truth is… You. Just. Don’t. Know. Because yes, Pattinson is actually very good here in a film that concentrates on the Batman rather than Bruce Wayne, a narrative decision which is a great plus in my book- yes, here’s a film that lives up to its title, this is THE BATMAN.

Batman is likely the most fascinating of all American comicbook characters- created in 1939, he has been reimagined and developed over the decades by generations of comicbook writers and artists, sometimes a dark and haunted soul, sometimes a jolly camp crusader in a colourful world of villainous misfits. Sometimes he is used as a lens to investigate our fractured society, sometimes he’s an escape into a simpler world in which good always triumphs over evil. Curiously these different approaches in comicbooks and graphic novels have been reflected in television and film incarnations, from the Adam West television series to the gothic-noir of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, through the colour-saturated kinetics of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League.

I appreciate that this film has more than its fair share of detractors. Some balk at its lengthy running-time (nigh on three hours, something I thought was a typo when I first read it), some just don’t like the casting, some don’t like the (slow, almost glacial at times) pacing, some don’t like the relentless darkness. I can’t say I’m surprised; its so indebted to films like Seven and Taxi Driver that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a superhero film at all, which is a big plus in my book after so many of them but I appreciate alienates some comicbook fans possibly more used to Marvel’s output. Its a Marmite movie, maybe?

Well, I fell in love with this film right from the start- you know how some films just click with you, and immediately you can tell its right on your wavelength, visually and narratively, and you can just relax and go with it? Well, that’s how The Batman was for me. The darkness, the rain, its absolutely gorgeous cinematography and brilliant score. It was somewhat like my experience watching Blade Runner back in 1982. I was just sold right from the start and it hardly put a foot wrong. I even loved the film’s third act, when you can just tell the film-makers are toeing to superhero film convention by throwing in a big spectacle finish. Probably something dictated by the Studio, while it feels a little incongruous from what has featured before, I think at that point the film had earned it.  Absolutely brilliant film, for me; when it ended I had this buzz I haven’t felt in quite awhile.

As someone who adores Villeneuve’s output, and the slow pace of his films, particularly Blade Runner 2049, I had no problem at all with how The Batman is paced, slowly unfolding its story over those near-three hours. I love films that can take their time and not rush things. I suppose this is actually ironic, considering how much the films noir stylings harken back to those film noir of old which pared down their narratives to sometimes just eighty or ninety minutes despite having more plot-turns and character twists than would fit in a two-hour plus picture today. I have watched so many film noir these past few years and grown to love them so much that it possibly doubt left me more inclined to relish the stylings of this film, but yes, it is a little odd that a film that is such a film noir distillation of the Batman character and Gotham City manages to run twice the length of the films it is so inspired by/indebted to.

Oh, but Gotham City- what a place it is, in this film. Previously, my favourite Batman film was possibly Tim Burton’s 1989 film, mostly because it seemed, with its own gothic-noir art direction, to take place in a particular kind of twisted, nightmare metropolis that seemed to be a better fit for the crazy characters that inhabit it .As nutty as Bruce Wayne dressing up as a bat might seem, it makes more sense when its a reflection of the crazy place he’s living in. I know Christopher Nolan’s films will likely always be more popular, but Nolan’s attitude to his film’s setting, picturing Gotham City very much as an ordinary modern metropolis, leaning particularly towards modern Chicago, for me leaves his own trilogy lacking a major character- that of Gotham itself. Not so here; Matt Reeves’ film takes place in a fascinating, breathing, twisted location that’s one of the most memorable settings since, well, LA2019. Indeed, its a big part of the film’s success for me: in just the same way as I spent decades revisiting LA2019 in Blade Runner over the years, soaking up into bewitching ambience as its dystopian view became, rather sneakily, utopian compared to the changing real world I was actually living in, I rather suspect part of The Batman‘s appeal will be just its sense of place, its own sense of reality.

The impression of Pattinson’s Batman not being the fully-formed article helps, too. We don’t really see his Bruce Wayne, certainly not the playboy alter-ego he will (likely) later become. Instead this is the Batman in development, finding out what works, and often painfully, what doesn’t. Maybe some viewers are alienated by this almost unrecognisable Batman but I find it quite exhilarating. Likewise the Bat Gadgets are more basic, the Batmobile not the sleek machine we are used to. This is not a world familiar with superheroes or superpowers, its a gritty film with a more tactile reality.

Indeed, is The Batman really a superhero film? One has to wonder, if one compares it to Marvel’s output, or Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie (a film I consider the definitive superhero film) while neither is it a deconstruction of the comicbook tropes that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film was. The Batman is something rather less, at the same time rather more. Its a film noir, definitely; its a murder mystery, a narrative set in the seedy underbelly of a fragmenting, disintegrating city full of political and judicial corruption. The Batman itself suggests its about the failure of vengeance, and the meaning of hope – a message that feels a little trite, by the end, but narratively it makes perfect sense and earns it. Batman begins as an agent of vengeance, believing that only violent justice might clean the streets and offer redemption for the murder of his parents, but finally learns he has to become some other Batman; this one an agent of hope (which we’ll hopefully (sic) see in the next film). Its so much more sophisticated than Snyder’s “Martha!” was, and possibly suggests that maybe Burton’s film was missing the point with its own origin arc, in which defeating Jack Nicholson’s Joker was literally avenging his parents: life isn’t that neat (thankfully we also aren’t subjected to yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma witnessing the death of his parents).

penguinDisc extras are surprisingly substantial, although it misses the commentary track/s that the film really deserves. I miss the days of the Matrix films on DVD with multiple commentary tracks: those things are the likes of which we will never see again except from boutique labels but on the whole the extras here are indeed more than we usually get these days. Of particular interest to many will be the deleted scene featuring the Joker in more detail than the dim cameo sneaked into the film’s coda. It was wisely deleted- I’ve seen quite enough of the Joker in previous Batman films and I hope any sequel has similar restraint. On the subject of villains, isn’t Colin Farrell’s Penguin quite brilliant? Some have questioned the wisdom of burying him under all that prosthetic wizardry, but he’s burning prime Robert de Niro under all that stuff: part charming, part terrifying, something de Niro was brilliant at, and I think Farrell channels him well here (maybe he was aiming for Al Pacino, who knows). I thought those prosthetics were great; the design telling us things that the film then no longer has to literally- the scars on his face that suggesting a life of crime that we can only imagine, and that last shot of the Penguin about to seize control of the criminal underworld brilliantly evokes he’s paid his dues and his time has come. That’s storytelling.

The Original Nightmare

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Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.