The DVDs and Blu-Rays have been piling up. So, it’s time to go through a bunch of them, with a bit of extra attention paid to movies that might appeal to dads, though I suppose moms might like some of these as well.
* Playwright George Kaufmann famously defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night” and these days you might as well define political thrillers as “what doesn’t get greenlit unless a bunch of big stars really want to do it, and then bombs.” “The Manchurian Candidate” is both political thriller and a satire and it didn’t fail at the box office, though it was kept out of circulation for nearly twenty years after its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to this day.
I’m hardly alone in feeling this is probably the best political thriller ever made and possibly the second best political satire after “Dr. Strangelove.” Long after the end of the Cold War which spawned it, it’s continues to resonate with our political culture and it’s title still gives peoples the willies. Just ask John McCain.
Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by the mordantly comic suspense novelist Richard Condon of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Winter Kills,”, you might know that it’s the story of what happens when a Soviet/Red Chinese brainwashing unit gets its hands on a group of captured soldiers, including Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, who makes aloof bitterness very cool), the highly estranged step-son of a Joe McCarthy-like senator. Frank Sinatra does maybe his best acting work as a traumatized fellow soldier who realizes something might be up because of some very strange and very bad dreams he’s having — and the fact that he keeps calling the unpleasant Shaw “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
It’s a brave blend of politics, off-the-wall black comedy (what was called “sick humor” back then), suspense, and borderline Jacobean classical tragedy. Frankenheimer had a knack for making political material work dramatically, and also for drawing out strong performances. Janet Leigh (“Psycho“) was perfect as the female love interest, who was written so oddly by Richard Condon and screenwriter/playwright George Axelrod that many have theorized she’s actually an operative of some sort — an idea capitalized on in Jonathan Demmes’ disappointingly morose 2004 remake. The greatest casting coup here, however, is Angela Lansbury’s absolutely chilling turn as Raymond Shaw’s hated extremist Washington-hostess mother. She wasn’t the only less-than-pleasant character Lansbury ever played, but there’s something about what happens when actors who make a career largely playing nice people play extremely not-nice people that can be electrifying.
I also can’t resist mentioning the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva as a North Korean spy, which Frankenheimer was often proud to mention was the first use of martial arts fighting styles in an American film. Seeing it again, it’s not only more brutally effective than I remembered as Sinatra and Silva all but destroy Laurence Harvey’s Washington apartment, but — especially in the initial moments when Sinatra instinctively begins fighting the Silva character without even knowing who he is — it’s pretty obvious to me now that it had to be one of the main inspirations for the terrific first fight scene in “Kill Bill, Volume I,” in which Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox lay waste to a Pasadena living room.
The Blu-Ray is, by the way, not a deluxe restoration, but it includes all of the excellent features that earlier DVDs have included and the print has been kept in excellent enough shape that a new restoration isn’t really necessary. It looks great. Super highly recommended, though pricey.
* 1961’s “The Comancheros” is getting a deluxe-packaging with plenty of extras and a Blu-Ray presentation that is really nifty. This high-end Western starring John Wayne is another film that’s been kept in decent enough shape to look great in high-definition without a major restoration to-do.
In terms of film history, though, “The Comancheros” is probably best noted as the final directing credit for that somewhat under-valued if uneven craftsman, Michael Curtiz, whose credits included two absolutely classic examples of polished Hollywood entertainment at its greatest, “Casablanca” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Sadly, he fell ill and faltered during the production and John Wayne, by then a highly experienced hand around movie sets, completed the production.
Pairing Wayne with the then-rising young star Stuart Whitman in a part that might have once been filled by Clark Gable, this is essentially a buddy western in which grizzled Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (Wayne, of course) must escort courtly gambler and accused murderer Paul Regret (Whitman) to his not-so-just reward. As the two battle Comanche Indians and non-native gun-runners (the “Comancheros” of the title), they naturally forge one of those unlikely movie friendships we all love and Cutter starts to wonder whether or not Regret should really hang.
Some almost unconscious racism towards Indians aside, this is an effective enough big budget Western. On the downside, Stuart Whitman, who spent most of his career making television (8 appearances on “Fantasy Island”!), is really nowhere near the same acting ball park as Wayne. On the other hand leading lady, Ina Balin, who apparently angered Wayne with her Method acting ticks, does a rather fantastic job as an alluring and oddly flexible criminal heiress. Lee Marvin also pops up as a disfigured bad man, which is always good for a laugh.
* Coincidentally, “The Horse Soldiers” gets a less deluxe and slightly less gorgeous Blu-Ray treatment. Made two years earlier, this production also pairs John Wayne with a younger co-star in another story of adversaries who eventually become friends. Though directed by perhaps the greatest director in American cinema and co-starring one of my favorite classic era leading men, this John Ford directed Civil War drama starring Wayne as the leader of a Union cavalry division, who clashes with an heroic army doctor played by William Holden, never really takes off. Viewers should definitely check out Ford’s earlier grand entertainments around the cavalry, “Fort Apache” and “Rio Grande,” first — though neither film is yet available in high definition.
* Finally, I have an assortment of DVD-on-demand titles from MGM. The most interesting of these is another western, “Man from Del Rio” from 1956. It’s a not entirely successful but intriguing attempt at a noir-influenced, politically progressive low-budget “High Noon” of sorts. It stars the always entertaining Anthony Quinn as a galoot of a reluctant Mexican-American gunfighter trying to hang up his guns for the love of the vastly underused Katy Jurado.
Less succcessful is 1952’s “The Captive City,” a Robert Wise-directed semi-noir starring John Forsythe as a crusading reporter taking on small town organized crime. It’s not terrible but a bit clunky. It is interesting as it is a sort of anti-mobster propaganda film from the days when Senator Estes Kefauver, who appears in the film, was alerting the nation to the existence of organized crime even as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was denying it.
Wise did a lot better in other noirs, but “Captive City” film is a masterpiece of disciplined cinema compared to the bizarre “Cop Hater,” a 1958 misfire which is maybe worth a look for nuts like me as it stars a very young Robert Loggia (“Big”) with much smaller parts for an even more wet-behind-the-ears Jerry Orbach (“Law & Order“) and Vincent Gardenia (“Moonstruck“). It’s also the first adaptation of one of Ed McBain/Evan Hunter’s 87th Precinct novels. A few great cast members notwithstanding, “High and Low” it ain’t.