Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Columbia Classics is Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's counterpart to the Warner Archive and similar enterprises that provide DVD-R editions of relatively-obscure movies to hardcore fans and collectors. The films, from what I've seen, are remastered to Sony's usual high standard, and like the Warner Archive titles, they have no extras apart from trailers when available. Tempting as many titles are, the typical price seems a little high for a sight-unseen purpose. Fortunately, the Albany Public Library has started acquiring Columbia Classics titles, only adding to the temptations that revered institution puts in my way. I reported on my first encounter with Columbia Classics in my review of Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair, but for this occasion I want to give readers some capsule reviews (by my standards) of a number of titles now available at the library.

We start way back in 1939 with Charles Vidor's early attempt at a psychological thriller, Blind Alley. Adapted from a stage play, it stars Chester Morris as an escaped con who needs a house on the lake to hide out in while waiting for a boat to ferry him the rest of the way to freedom. The house is the home of a psychology professor (Ralph Bellamy) who's hosting a small party. After Morris kills a late-arriving student, Bellamy decides that he has to "break" Morris mentally in order to save the lives of his family and his remaining guests. Noting Morris's strange focus on a book on insanity among criminals, Bellamy probes the criminal's anxieties and learns that he suffers from a recurring nightmare about getting caught in a rainstorm with a leaky umbrella. His dream analysis uncovers a childhood trauma involving an Oedipus complex, but whether resolving it will reform or even restrain Morris, his moll (Ann Dvorak) and his gang, not to mention some scared and belligerent guests and staff, is another set of matters. The script takes Vidor into tentatively surreal territory as he illustrates Morris's dream, while he gets some unpredictable performances from his ensemble that help keep things interesting. As a cool, calculating headshrinker, Bellamy is really more menacing than the blustering Morris; we can imagine a gunman breaking into a Hannibal Lecter dinner party getting similar treatment. But the end result of the therapy is a little hard to believe, raising the question whether the journey was worth the trouble.

From the Thirties we leap to the Fifties, landing first at 711 Ocean Drive, Joseph H. Newman's star vehicle for noir icon Edmond O'Brien. It feels less like a noir than like a techno thriller or even a science fiction film at first as O'Brien's phone-company technician with a gambling habit is introduced to the world of small-time bookmaking. Seeing an opportunity, he uses his technical expertise in communications to modernize and revolutionize the racket with an exhilarating rush of innovation, making it big enough to attract the attention of the national crime syndicate. The film inflicts a superfluous love story on us when O'Brien falls for the troubled wife (Joanne Dru) of the syndicate's emissary. The romance, added to O'Brien's resentment of syndicate ripoffs, leads him to call a hit on the husband and strike back at the syndicate with an elaborate con involving intercepted communications from race tracks to Las Vegas casinos. He finds it impossible to make a clean getaway, however, and ends up cornered in epic style at Boulder Dam. The story is also burdened with a sporadic police narration that seems intended to keep us from identifying too strongly with O'Brien's character, wrapping up with a bitter exhortation against the two-dollar betting that finances racketeering and murder. Overall, this one has a terrific opening and close, but bogs down a bit in between, as if it were perhaps a reel too long. Despite that, it's definitely a must for O'Brien fans.

Robert Parrish's Assignment: Paris from 1952 probably should have been called Assignment: Budapest, but which title would you rather try selling to audiences? Adapted from a Paul Gallico magazine serial, this one is an interesting variation on the Cold War thriller, since it doesn't involve an international Communist conspiracy, but a conspiracy of communists against communists. Dana Andrews plays a reporter newly assigned to the Paris office of the International Herald Tribune after penning some high-profile exposes on communism at home. He wants to report on the imprisonment of an American in Hungary for spying, while a female colleague (Marta Toren) wants their editor (George Sanders) to follow up on some dynamite leads on a plot within the Hungarian government to break with the Warsaw Pact and ally with Tito's renegade commie regime in Yugoslavia. The film is unorthodox in other ways, presenting us with a quadrangle rather than a triangle: Andrews is falling for Toren, who's being pursued by Sanders, the former boyfriend of Audrey Totter's fashion editor. More unusually, Toren rather than Andrews ends up the hero of the film after Andrews is arrested in Budapest, tricked into recording a cut-and-paste confession of espionage, and gradually reduced to a virtual zombie through drugged food and sleep deprivation. It's up to Toren to get the evidence that will force the conspirators within the Hungarian regime to free a possibly permanently damaged Andrews in a surprisingly downbeat finish. This one's no classic but I give it credit for skipping many of the usual patriotic anti-communist bromides in favor of a more ambivalent approach to the Cold War -- one that was ahead of its time in Hollywood.

Just as Assignment Paris benefits from authentic location shooting in Europe, so does 1957's Pickup Alley, a John Gilling film that puts Victor Mature through his paces from New York to Rome, Athens, etc. Mature is an American drug enforcement agent out to avenge the murder of his sister and fellow-agent by a brutal international drug kingpin. To put the problem as delicately as possible, the brutal international drug kingpin is played by Trevor Howard in a reckless bit of miscasting. He can do the brutality when required -- including socking Anita Ekberg in the face -- but he's otherwise just too laid-back to keep us galvanized against him. He completely lacks the ferocious urgency the part would seem to require, though Howard might have been able to pull off something more along the lines of Fernando Rey's druglord from The French Connection. Worse, for an avenger Mature brings very little energy to his work here. Too much of the film is simply a matter of Mature following Howard or Ekberg around Europe in meandering fashion. Worse still, Mature picks up a fast-talking comedy-relief informant sidekick in Rome and is stuck with him (or his supposed brother) for the rest of the picture. Gilling occasionally works up some atmosphere, especially in a New York jazz club, and the location work is wonderful -- there's a heartbreaking tracking shot through Times Square at night during the opening credits that shows all the vanished movie palaces in their glory -- but the film as a whole is too slow and not sleazy enough to live up to its advertising.

Finally, and also from 1957, comes Fred Sears's The Night the World Exploded, a Sam Katzman sci-fi production with a slightly exaggerated title. The world might explode if someone can't figure out what's causing so many massive earthquakes, but William Leslie and Kathryn Grant are on the case. These earthquakes are bad, causing uncontrollable flows of stock footage and allegedly throwing the planet as much as three degrees off its axis. Our intrepid scientists overcome an initial lack of intimacy -- Grant was about to quit and get married to some nobody because Leslie hadn't noticed her as a woman -- to discover the dreaded Element 113, a newly volatile substance that just plain grows (until it explodes) in open air after generations of mining had "reduced the gravity" holding it back in selected spots around the world. Our heroes figure out that Element 113 can be suppressed by flooding the exposed mines and caverns with water. The governments of the world cooperate by carpet bombing the landscape in order to divert rivers to where they need to go, but it wouldn't be a matinee movie if it didn't prove to be a very near thing. It's all self-evident hogwash, but the actors redeem it to the point of watchability with enthusiastic performances. Just before watching this I'd seen a truly bad sci-fi film, the British Cosmic Monsters, which was no more preposterous than Sears's movie but was weighed down by utterly unenthusiastic acting by Forrest Tucker and company. It seemed like no one wanted to be in that movie, so why should we want to watch it? The cast of Sears's film aren't exactly master thespians, and their dialogue isn't exactly scintillating, but they do seem interested in keeping us interested, and that often makes the difference between the bad movies people love and the ones that truly are the worst ever made.

The Albany library's main branch has at least a dozen Columbia Classics titles so far, and more seem to be coming in regularly now. If enough of them entice me you'll probably see another Cavalcade article sometime this summer. If this has helped anyone make a purchasing decision, I'll feel that I've done my job.


Sam Juliano said...

Great coverage of this batch Samuel. While I have managed to collect well over 120 Warner Archives titles (original purchases) I have only managed a few in the Columbia series (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, THE PUMPKIN EATER)and similar ventures by MGM and Universal (just got THE WHISPERERS in the former, and have owned THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, THE SIRITUALIST and RESURRECTION for a while) but it's clear there a a number still worth owning. I agree that these are way too high-priced, and am happy to hear you can get them through the Albany Public Library. I haven't yet seen two of your batch here, but fondly remember BLIND ALLEY best.

Samuel Wilson said...

As it happens, Sam, Pumpkin Eater is one of the titles the Library acquired -- so would it be worthy my trouble? And 120 Warner Archive discs? You could start your own library with those resources!