PICKS OF THE WEEK
North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition (A)
U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1959, Warner
Alfred Hitchcock's great romantic/comedy/thriller -- with Cary Grant at his witty, seductive, impeccable best. Grant is "wrong man" Roger Thornhill, an overly smug Madison Avenue adman who gets mistaken for an elusive spy named George Kaplan (a CIA plant who doesn't really exist) and embarks on a wild chase from New York to Rapid City South Dakota, along with some sinister real-life spies (James Mason and Martin Landau), an elegant, ice cool blond who may be traitor or two-timer (Eva Marie Saint), a scholarly, watchful CIA agent (Leo G. Carroll), Roger's own skeptical, sardonic mother (Jessie Royce Landis) -- and a succession of wild escapades that include a murder at the U.N., a battle on Mount Rushmore, and, most memorably, a crop dusting plane "dustin' where there ain't no crops."
This is Hitchcock at his most entertaining, in the picaresque comic mood of his classic '30s British thrillers The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. The cast is nonpareil. The screenplay, by Ernest Lehman, is racy, sophisticated and packed with ingenious twists, top characters and clever lines. The Bernard Herrmann score, fleet and nerve-shredding, is absolutely unemployable. And Hitchcock's direction, as always, brilliantly amuses and thrills us exactly as The Master planned. One hesitates to use the word "perfection." But, in describing North by Northwest, what other word will do? (Extras: Commentary by Lehman; three excellent documentaries on Cary Grant, Hitchcock and the making of North by Northwest; trailers and TV spots.
Food, Inc. (A-)
U.S.; Robert Kenner, 2009, Magnolia
Do you really know everything you should about the food you eat? Are you aware, for instance, that many of the pigs and chickens that wind up in your entrees live in inhuman conditions, crammed together in nearly airless, sunless warehouses, stuck deep in their own feces? (I know, I know: You don't want to hear or see this. But you should.) Are you aware that your food these days can be improperly monitored and supervised and that potential infestations of E. coli and other toxins can slip by another of those safety nets that Bush and Cheney helped tear to shreds?
Do you know that the postmodern world of corporate farming is often run by corporate bullies who put smaller farms and agriculture workers through hell (like a hapless seed-separator persecuted by Monsanto whom we see here)? That the old bucolic world of farms is largely gone and has often been replaced by the usual greed-crazed creeps: this time soulless mega-farmers, less interested in quality than volume, less interested in selling food than making tons of moolah?
Documentaries can be great warning signals, and that's what director Robert Kenner gives us here: a warning signal that we better listen to -- as we didn't really listen, for example, to the warning signal of I.O.U.S.A.
Food, Inc. is based largely on the research of authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) -- who appear here frequently as onscreen commentators. It's a scary movie that we should take very, very seriously. The infantile and venal anti-regulation policies of the Bush years have gotten us into an unpretty pickle on lots of fronts, and Food Inc. helps unveil one more of them, while also showing us a few organic alternatives. Right on.
It's a Wonderful Life (A)
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1946, Paramount, Blu-ray
Frank Capra's holiday masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the brink of suicide, who is shown by a whimsical guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he'd never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.
In many ways, it's like A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens' Scrooge (a regular radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays Wonderful Life's banker-villain Old Man Potter) is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. The scares, laughter and tears are just as inevitable as Dickens'. The script, by turns witty and sentimental, is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (The Diary of Anne Frank and the Thin Man movies) and a raft of uncredited others, including Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Dorothy Parker. The great, rambunctious cast includes Stewart, Barrymore, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, Sheldon Leonard, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen. You've seen it before, but it always works. And it always will. (Extras: Documentary.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1952-58, Sony
Film noir has become such an infallible movie buff brand name that we've been deluged with film noir box sets, some only dubiously noir and irredeemable second or third (or even fourth) rate. I don't think you should straitjacket the genre into too many hard-and-fast definitions, but a film noir is not just any crime movie released some time between 1940 and 1962. Nor does the genre begin with Double Indemnity and end with Touch of Evil.
This is one set though, like the Warner and Kino noir boxes, that you should definitely check out, and, if you're a true noir buff, definitely own. Five vintage black-and-white Columbia noirs are packed tight together here, all good or great, all in pristine-looking prints, with good extras. (The noir experts contributing include Martin Scorsese, Eddie Muller, and James Ellroy -- who gets demerits for some forced jokes and for dubbing himself "The white knight of the far right.") The quintet of movies includes one inarguable top-rank classic (Fritz Lang's The Big Heat), one inarguable minor classic (Don Siegel's The Lineup with its fantastic San Francisco chase sequence) and three genuine sleepers, including The Sniper, Five Against the House and Irving Lerner's ultra-low-budget existential hit man saga, Murder by Contract. (Extras: Commentaries by Eddie Muller -- The Sniper -- and Muller and James Ellroy -- The Lineup; talks by Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann.
The Sniper (B)
U.S.; Edward Dmytryk, 1952
A boyish serial killer (Arthur Franz in a Richard Basehart sort of role) begins shooting, from rooftops, the sexy women he lusts after (including Marie Windsor as a bar pianist). Adolphe Menjou, Gerald Mohr and Richard Kiley are the cops and headshrinker hunting him all over Frisco. This is Dmytryk in his Crossfire-Murder, My Sweet-Mirage top form.
The Big Heat (A)
U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1953
Fritz Lang's great scorching revenge sage about the grim, bereaved ex-cop (Glenn Ford) on a one-man vendetta against the suave crime boss (Alexander Scourby) whose bomb killed the cop's wife (Jocelyn Brando) -- and his opposite number, Gloria Grahame as the moll who falls for Ford after her hood boyfriend, mob torpedo Vince (Lee Marvin at his absolute snarling meanest) scars her face with flung hot coffee. Based on a novel by William McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow). Like Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street and While the City Sleeps, this is one of Lang's American triumphs.
Five Against the House (B)
U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1955
Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore and Kerwin Mathews are four college buddies and a knockout lounge singer who get tied up in robbing a Reno casino for kicks. A smooth, fast Karlson job and a good, if minor, heist thriller. Keith, as a psycho Korean War vet, does the only top-notch acting here, but he's good enough for the whole movie.
The Lineup (A-)
U.S.; Don Siegel, 1958
A movie version of the hit TV cop show, starring Warner Anderson and Tom Tully as tough Dragnet-style Frisco cops; in the film, Emile Meyer replaces Tully. But Siegel and writer Stirling Silliphant ditch the fuzz early to concentrate instead on lots of Frisco scenery and three terrific crooks on a heroine-collecting kill spree: Richard Jaeckel as the baby-faced dipso wheelman, Robert Keith (Brian's dad) as the aesthete/manager who collects victim's last words, and Eli Wallach, a wow as Dancer, the psychopath killer. Beautifully directed; the final car chase is on a Bullitt-French Connection level.
Murder by Contract (B)
U.S.; Irving Lerner, 1958
Made for peanuts, this low budget L. A. crime odyssey is almost as good an example as Ulmer's Detour of noir economy of means. Vince Edwards is the finicky assassin who keeps blowing his shots to kill a mob witness; Herschel Bernardi (the cop on Blake Edwards' TV Peter Gunn) is his adoring guide. As Scorsese says in his intro, this is a low-budget thriller with Antonioni touches.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Taking of Pelham 123 (C+)
U.S.; Tony Scott, 2009, Sony
The Taking of Pelham 123 rewires one of the most flavorful and zingy New York City thrillers of the '70s -- the street-smart, pedal-down action movie, based on a John Godey novel, about a hijacked subway train on the Lexington line and the rumpled streetwise transit cop (played by Walter Matthau), battling the ice-cold commando crook (Robert Shaw) who's holding the passengers for a million-dollar ransom -- and turns that not-so-guilty old pleasure into something faster and sleeker but far less delicious. It's less cool, less streetwise, more mechanical, and at the end, more off-the-tracks absurd.
Entertaining though. To their credit, the people who made this new Pelham -- including Denzel Washington and John Travolta, cast in the hero and villain roles -- seem to like the old movie. This new gang also seems to recognize that it was character and NYC atmosphere, more than out-of-control subway chases and high-tech razzmatazz, that made that show so memorable.
So director Tony Scott (Spy Game), writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) and the cast supply us with characters here: led by Washington as low-key good-guy, yet under-a-cloud train dispatcher Walter Garber (named, obviously, for Walt Matthau's Zach Garber) and Travolta, giggling and screaming away as Ryder, a Wall street thief/ex-con, with a Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos, a greed-is-good psycho who's calling the hijack shots between tantrums.
Backing them up are John Turturro as a smart cop, Michael Rispoli as a stupid transit supervisor, Luis Guzman as a disgraced motorman helping Ryder, and James Gandolfini as a horny NYC mayor with a Rudy Giuliani complex. All of them, plus Helgeland's occasionally tangy lines, are what lift this Pelham above the techno-ruck of most big-action wannabe blockbusters.
Wonder Bar (B)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley, 1934, Warner Archive
Al Jolson is Al Wonder, who runs a popular, risqué Paris cabaret and acts as paterfamilias to a troupe of singing, dancing and romancing show people that includes tenor/bandleader Dick Powell and dancers Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez (they're no Ginger and Fred) and an audience that includes faithless socialite wife Kay Francis and good-time tourists Guy Kibbee and Hugh ("Woo Woo!") Herbert. One of the craziest of the Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley-choreographed musicals, this one boasts Jolson in the most outrageous blackface number ("Goin' to Heaven on a Mule") I've ever seen. Jolson's star was fading, but he's a sockeroo singer again. And both of the big Busby numbers are unforgettable, one for its schmaltzy elegance ("Don't Say Good Night"), the other for its flabbergasting racism ("Mule").
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The William Castle Film Collection (B)
U.S.; William Castle, 1959-63, Columbia
William Castle's movies were never too hot or cool, Strait-Jacket, House on Haunted Hill and When Strangers Marry (an RKO "B" admired by Orson Welles, Manny Farber and James Agee) to the contrary. But he knew how to show audiences a good time, with a parade of in-theater show-bizzy gimmicks for his mostly cheesy horror movies that included insurance policies against death by fright, electro-tingling seats, flying monsters assaulting patrons through Castle's exclusive process Emergo, suddenly visible ghosts in Illusiono, Punishment Polls, and even some free candy.
What a showman! That's why though, in good conscience, I can't give any of the movies in this Castle box more than B-. If you have no patience for bad movies, or flying skeletons and electric seat-shockers, look elsewhere. And remember, the cigar chomping Castle produced one masterpiece, Rosemary's Baby. And he peddled a lot of insurance, though none of his patrons ever died of fright. (Extras: Castle's gimmicks, come-ons and campy intros are included, whenever possible; documentary "Spine Tingler: the William Castle Story"; featurettes; trailers.)
13 Frightened Girls (D), 1963). Schoolgirls and spies, with Murray Hamilton and Judy Pace.
13 Ghosts (C), 1960. The 13 appear, one by one, through the magic of Illusiono. With Martin Milner, Donald Woods and Rosemary DeCamp.
Homicidal (C), 1961. A blatant "Psycho" rip-off, with Jean Arless and Glenn Corbett.
Strait-jacket (B-), 1963. Joan Crawford, back from the asylum. Both "Psycho" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" are ripped and hacked off, not to mention the heads of George Kennedy and others. With Diane Baker and Leif Erickson; script by Robert Bloch.
The Old Dark House (B-), 1962. Remake of the James Whale-J.P. Priestley classic, against which it pales. With Tom Poston, Robert Morley and Joyce Grenfell.
Mr. Sardonicus (C), 1961). Foggy old London and Castle's "Punishment Poll." With Oscar Homolka and Guy Rolfe; script by Playboy magazine's Ray Russell.
The Tingler (B-), 1959). When you're terrified, the Tingler appears on your spine! A squiggly wormy thingum! Only screams will stop it! Eeek! On first release, some theater seats tingled -- thanks to Castle gimmick Percepto. With Vincent Price (the perfect Castle actor), Judith Evelyn and Darryl Hickman.
Zotz! (C), 1962. Horror comedy with Tom Poston, a magical coin, Jim Backus and Margaret Dumont.