Sunday, 22 November 2015

Blu-ray Review: Thieves' Highway

Hazardous long-haul trucking; the shady, double-dealing world of produce supply and distribution; rage, revenge and romance.... they're all to be found in AI Bezzerides' screenplay which was based on his own "Thieves' Market" novel.
Directed by Jules Dassin, "Thieves' Highway" terlls the story of Nick Garcos (Richard Conte); a ships mechanic who returns home bearing gifts for his parents and the girl he hopes to marry. In a highly emotional scene, Nick discovers his father is wheelchair-bound, having fallen foul of duplicitous produce dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).
Soon, Nick is on the road, leaving girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) behind, with Figlia firmly in his sights.
A new partnership with trucker Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) sees nick bound for San Francisco - a 400 mile journey without sleep - transporting a coveted early crop of golden delicious apples.
War veteran Garcos comes over as a decent man, driven to exact revenge for his father's condition and prepared to do whatever it takes in the process, which also involves falling for a wily female.
Valentina Cortesa's Rica is another well-drawn character in a film brimming with them, bringing a continental feel to proceedings.

It's certainly an absorbing journey; mean and moody with shocking violence and lifts the lid on a business not commonly associated with heavy-handed tactics to a surprising degree.
There's real pleasure to be drawn from watching the plot unfold in a shadowy world where loyalty and disloyalty are separated by a wafer-thin line and if none of the characters emerge with any real credit, maybe that's part of the appeal of "Thieves' Highway".

The Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Academy looks terrific,from a new 4K digital restoration from Twentieth Century Fox. The film looks crisp, with real depth and there's a fine level of grain beautifully preserved.
An enthralling documentary is first amongst the supplementary material.
"The Long Haul Of A.I. Bezzerides" (55m 42s) was shot in 2001, and provides an intimate portrait of 'Bezz' with contributions from the man himself, Jules Dassin, Mickey Spillane, Barry Gifford and George P. Pelecanos.
Gifford recalls Bezz was haunted by the flaws of common people, and this is certainly highlighted in "Thieves' Highway". Bezz talks about his work ethic; what made him want to become a writer; penning screenplays for Warner Bros; his opinion on the art of directing and his thoughts on Spillane's "Kiss Me Deadly" novel: Spillane returns the 'favour' elsewhere in this documentary. Clips from "Juke Girl", "On Dangerous Ground" and "Thieves' Highway" are included, but it's Bezzerides himself who gives this peice its heart and soul, talking with passion about his work and movingly, about the loves of his life. A very special guy.

"The Fruits Of Labour" (33m 39s)
This is a new video essay about production, reception and politics from Frank Krutnik, author of "In a Lonely Street".
Frank looks at the theme of the exploitation of labour; talks about the similar backgrounds of Bezzerides and Dassin; title changes; script revision, casting and labels "Thieves' Highway" a 'film gris'.
The 1949 opening in LA and audience and critical reaction are also covered in an essay that really does increase appreciation of this film.

"Commentaries By Frank Krutnik" takes 3 scenes from the film, and offers real insight with regard to mood and motivation.
"The Homecoming" (12m 19s) looks at nature and culture; the central theme of cash in a money-obsessed world and the fate of Nick's father in the novel.

"Delicious Golden" (7m 48s)
Frank highlights the labour behind the produce, the numbers behind the cash and Nick's desire to stop hard working men being cheated. Here, monetary value over nutritional value is what drives the likes of Figlia and his battle with a decent man is part of an age-old duel between right and wrong.

"Rica" (10m 46s)
Frank notes how Rica changes the films' direction; her interaction with Nick and how "Thieves' Highway" launched her career in the US.

A stills gallery comprising 43 photos can be accessed, including several fetching shots of Barbara Lawrence, and there's a theatrical trailer (2m 6s) which begins with the line "Your high road to an explosive human experience".
Arrow have included an excellent collectors booklet which features new writing on the film by Alastair Phillips (co-author of 100 Film Noirs).

A must buy if you're following Arrow's marvellous Jules Dassin collection and if you're not, this is a great place to start.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Blu-ray Review: Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cats (Arrow Video)

Lucio Fulci's 1981 feature "The Black Cat" was sandwiched in the middle of "City Of The Living Dead" and "The Beyond": a rather dull interlude between two cult classics or an underrated gem deserving of some long overdue love?
Loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Black Cat" opens with a fiendish feline apparently inducing the driver of a car to let go of the steering wheel and crash.
The setting is a sleepy English village where the local population experiences a decline in mortality rates, with the titular creature involved in a series of grisly deaths and violent attacks.
A young couple suffocate in a remote boathouse after being locked in; a man falls to his death, impaled on a spike and a Scotland Yard hotshot (David Warbeck) - sent to investigate the disappearance of the aforementioned lovers - is viciously clawed by the four-legged demon.
While there isn't the level of gore found in Fulci's splatter classics, "The Black Cat" is still a bloody affair, and Sergio Salvati's prowling camera records some eerie, atmospheric scenes: check out Patrick Magee's deranged Professor Robert Miles,who roves through a mist-shrouded graveyard, microphone held up against tombstones, hoping to communicate with the dead. It's a great idea - unfortunately not expanded on - and remains one of this film's most stimulating moments.
A real shame, then, that Biagio Poietti's script misses the opportunity to deliver a truly arresting supernatural tale that advances on some interesting ideas. For all that, "The Black Cat" boasts several compelling set-pieces, played out by a solid cast that includes Mimsy Farmer as an American tourist charged with photographing dead bodies; Dagmar Lassander as the mother of the missing girl (played by Daniela Doria) and Al Cliver filling the role of a police sergeant. There's also a terrific Pino Donaggio score to savour.

"The Black Cat" is presented with English and also Italian on-screen titles and audio and subtitles can be independently configured via the set-up menu.
Image quality is very strong, banishing memories of previous Home Video incarnations, with strong colours and vivid detail.
You may decide to commence the impressive selection of extras by listening to Fangoria's Chris Alexander who takes the microphone for a commentary track. Chris is a huge Fulci admirer and makes a strong case for a re-evaluation of this film, while admitting it's far from being the maestro's finest work. He talks about David Warbeck's career; Magee's performance; other adaptations of Poe's story; the things that give Fulci's films their soul and proclaims Mimsy Farmer to be "a bit of a limp handshake as a female lead." An enjoyable, if at times controversial chat.

Next up is Stephen Thrower's video essay "Poe Into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness". (25m 37s)
Here, the author of a fabulous book on Fulci looks at Poe's story; explains the bouncing bed scene was not Fulci's idea; highlights a previous pan-and-scan video release and gives us the lowdown on the absence of a Fulci cameo.
Perhaps, most importantly of all, Stephen presents a compelling case that "The Black Cat's" time is now, believing that many Fulci devotees overlooked this film in the midst of what was a golden age for the director. Stephen's analysis spells out that "The Black Cat" was cut from the same cloth as his more successful films and viewing the film again, it's hard to disagree.

"In The Paw-Prints Of The Black Cat" (8m 28s)
Stephen Thrower returns to take us on a guided tour of some of the locations used. The village of Hambledon UK was used for the shoot, and it's interesting to watch Stephen literally following in the footsteps of some of the cast, and visiting the famous Hellfire Club which was used for the macabre crypt scenes.
This documentary was made on the 34th anniversary of the day shooting commenced on Fulci's film.

"Frightened Dagmar"
This is a 20m 12s video interview with the wonderful Dagamar Lassander, who talks about her debut feature; explains how Artur Brauner offered her two further roles; shares memories of Mario Bava, Ricardo Freda and Laura Betti; chats about nudity in films, then and now, and explains why she gave up acting.
This is a prime example of the value of physical media against the soulless streaming process, devoid of added value.

"At Home With David Warbeck" (1 hr 10m 20s)
A priceless video interview, shot at David's home in Highgate and conducted by Stephen Thrower in 1995. David had so many stories to relate, ranging from working with Catriona MacColl - "a golden girl" - to Anthony Quinn and, of course, Lucio Fulci who possessed " a wicked sense of humour."
We hear about David's approach to acting; his thoughts on real-life horror vs fantasy filmmaking and also censorship.
David, who passed away in 1997, is still sadly missed, not just by those he worked with in the industry but also on the fan circuit where he was always a courteous and enthusiastic participant.
The extras are rounded off with a 3m 1s theatrical trailer and you'll have heard Stephen discussing one of the clips elsewhere on this disc.

Disc 2 of this special edition moves from a film in search of reappraisal to one that has never had any trouble finding an appreciative audience: Sergio Martino's "Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key"

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are two names that invariably crop up when Giallo's are discussed: the former blazing a trail with "The Girl Who Knew Too Much", while Argento weighed in with "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage", lighting the fuse for a host of directors to follow.
Sergio Martino is another important director when it comes to those mutli-layered, utterly compelling thrillers and "Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key" is right up there with his very best work.
The film's title is taken from a letter seen in Martino's "The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh", and once again, a black cat is in residence, this time bearing the name of 'Satan.'
The Villa Rouvigny, in a peaceful Veneto town, is the setting for this sexually subversive tale of lust, deception and murder with married couple Oliverio and Irene (Luigi Pistilli, Anita Strindberg) right in the centre of a bloody, tangled web.
Oliverio, a washed-up, drunken ex-writer who hasn't been able to write a sentence in years, is given to entertaining a local hippie group with decadent parties, while mourning the loss of his mother. The deceased Countess casts a long shadow over proceedings in what could be termed a battle between the living and the dead, while Irene is forced to act as an accomplice to murder.
The two leads are particularly impressive: Pistilli immersing himself in the lurid atmosphere, while Strindberg's cold-eyed beauty drags her complex character from one shock to another in a film with no likeable characters.
Edwige Feneche - taking the role of Oliverio's niece - enters this circle of sex and deceit, bedding both husband and wife, portraying a truly wicked woman for the first time in her career.
She plays her hosts off against each other beautifully, even finding time to speculate it's entirely likely that Oliverio may well have slept with his mother.
It's plausible that, in this disquieting place where anything can happen, the Countess' beloved Satan is possessed by his former owner: just another pattern on an already rich tapestry of stylish murders and plot twists.
A true classic of the genre, and fully deserving of the reverential treatment it receives here.

As with "The Black Cat", "Your Vice" benefits from a 2K scan and looks very crisp, with strong colours and an abundance of fine detail.
The extras begin with 'Through The Keyhole: An Interview With Sergio Matino.' (34m 42s)
Here, the director explains Edgar Allan Poe was a big influence on his film; that the 1950s 'Feneroli crime' also inspired this film; speaks very well of Pistilli, expressing sadness that he didn't live a happier life and chats about Strindberg, Feneche, critical reaction to his films and declares he's a stern critic of his own work.

'Unveiling The Vice' (23m 7s)
Shot in 2005, this is a making-off retrospective feature, containing interviews with Martino, Feneche and Ernesto Gastaldi.
The director states "Torso" is his best film, while feeling "Your Vice" has greater depth. Gastaldi talks about the challenges faced by writers and directors; remembers Pistilli "He didn't need to act. Filming him was enough", and Feneche also talks about her leading man and of the film that marked a career progression for her.

'Dolls Of Flesh And Blood' (29m 4s)
A video essay from the splendid Michael Mackenzie, which uses split-screen and his own brilliant analysis to explore Martino's five gialli from a golden period.
Michael returns to the M gialli and F gialli he promoted in an essay on Arrow's "Blood And Black Lace" Blu-ray; recalls how "Torso" turned the genre on its head, and talks about Fenech, George Hilton, the theme of multiple killers and observes that Fenech unlocked her true potential in "Vice".
An essay to savour more than once, and the same can be said for Justin Harries' contribution.
'The Strange Vice Of Ms Fenech' (29m 42s)
Justin follows Edwige's career in this absorbing essay, looking at the influence of the Martino brothers on her life and career.
Justin looks at the different phases and roles, including sex comedies; the characters her Italian audience strongly identified with, and her television career.
It's a hugely informative piece, and is followed by 'Eli Roth On Your Vice' (9m 17s)
Eli crams a lot into his slot, talking about the giallo genre; explaining why Martino's films work so well and acknowledges Sergio's influence on "Hostel 2", which features a cameo from Fenech.
It's a nice way to end this two-disc set, which offers real value for money.

There's also an 80-page booklet in this limited edition (3000 copies) release, which includes new articles on the film, Fulci's final interview and a reprint of Poe's original story.