The DVD Report #13

While any time may be the right time, hot summer nights are especially ideal for chilling out with a good thriller. There’s nothing like breaking out in a cold sweat to bring the temperature down. DVD companies seem to know that and have just released a slew of films that do just that.

Focusing on the serial killings that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from Christmas 1969 through the mid-1970s, and for some even up to today, David Fincher’s Zodiac may be his most accomplished film. Eschewing the excessive gore that informed even his best previous work in Seven and Fight Club, Fincher doesn’t focus on the blood and guts aspect of the crimes. Instead he concentrates on the obsessive nature with which three men pursue the killer.

The three men are the ace San Francisco detective who inspired the Steve McQueen character in Bullitt, a San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter and that paper’s editorial cartoonist.

Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me, Just Like Heaven) as the detective, Robert Downey, Jr. (Wonder Boys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) as the reporter and Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow, Brokeback Mountain) as the cartoonist who is the most obsessed of all, provide thoughtful, understated performances, but the film is not about them so much as it is about the exhaustive, detailed hunt for the elusive killer.

Though the killer was never caught, the film makes a slam dunk case for one of the sleaziest suspects in the long investigation. The film’s greatest strength is in showing us without making too obvious a point of it, the lack of technology available to law enforcement that may have made a difference in solving the case. Though those of us who lived through the 1970s recall it as a highly sophisticated period, the film makes us wonder how much more we could have accomplished if we had the benefit of some of the things we’ve come to rely on today. Things like cell phones, e-mails and even fax machines, which were around but not in general use, might have made a difference.

A bit of trivia: Philip Baker Hall, who has a pivotal supporting role, was also in a Showtime film about the case called The Zodiac, albeit in a different role.

Serial killings in an earlier era are at the center of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a film that got lost in the glut of last year’s films given Oscar-qualifying runs in December.

This is the first film since the international success of Run, Lola, Run a decade ago, that German director Tom Tykwer really lives up to his potential. We’ve seen a lot of costume dramas in the last decade, most of which are interchangeable, but this one stands out with its unique story and tongue-in-cheek unfolding.

The film’s protagonist is a poor boy who lives through a Dickensian childhood in 19th Century Paris only to emerge slightly warped. An apprenticeship with a great perfumer indulges his damaged mind even further, leading him to become the reluctant murderer of the title.

This macabre thriller is a worthy successor to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Benjamin Ross’ The Young Poisoner’s Handbook with a totally unexpected, though strangely-satisfying ending.

Ben Whishaw (Enduring Love, Layer Cake) gives a career defining performance in the lead. Alan Rickman (Truly Madly Deeply, Love Actually) has his best role in years as the protagonist’s nemesis. Dustin Hoffman (Meet the Fockers, Stranger Than Fiction) as the great perfumer, however, delivers yet another of his increasingly-hammy performances.

One of the ugliest looking films of this or any year has to be The Number 23, directed by Joel Schumacher (Veronica Guerin, The Phantom of the Opera) who has helmed more recent clinkers than any other director alive. The film stars Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who is in many ways to acting what Schumacher is to directing. Put the two together and you get this dreary little film told mostly in mind-numbing flashbacks. Carrey is over-the-top as usual in most of his scenes as the dog catcher who goes nuts reading a book, though he does manage to tone it down nicely for the film’s quieter moments. Virginia Madsen (Sideways) offers some compensation as his staunchly-supportive wife.

A bit of trivia: Danny Huston (The Constant Gardener, Children of Men), who plays Madsen’s friend in the film, was married to her from 1989-1992.

Madsen also figures prominently as another staunchly-supportive wife in Michael Polish’s The Astronaut Farmer opposite Billy Bob Thornton (The Ice Harvest, School for Scoundrels), a fanciful film about a farmer who builds a rocket in his barn with plans to launch it into orbit with the aid of his 15-year-old son. Will he succeed in time to keep the bank from foreclosing on the farm? Will Disney re-release Pinocchio every seven years? Like Polish’s previous films (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork), it may be one-note but it is not simplistic. Thornton’s performance is one of his best and the Santa Fe, New Mexico locations add immensely to the film’s charm.

Warner Bros. continues to dominate the classic film release market with Film Noir Classics, Vol. 4 this week with no less than ten new-to-DVD examples of the genre culled from four studios – MGM, RKO and Monogram as well as Warner Bros. – from the mid-40s through the mid-50s.

Robert Ryan (Crossfire, On Dangerous Ground) is at his menacing best as a World War II veteran out to kill his former commanding officer, Van Heflin (Shane, Battle Cry) in 1948’s Act of Violence, directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity), in which no one is what they seem. Mary Astor, in a departure from the kindly mothers she played at that point in her career (Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Women), has a meaty role as a tired hooker.

Forensic science was solving murders long before TV’s CSI and Bones as evidenced by 1950’s Mystery Street, filmed entirely in the Boston area with Ricardo Montalban (Neptune’s Daughter, Battleground) as an intrepid detective, Bruce Bennett (Mildred Pierce, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as a Harvard forensic expert, and Elsa Lanchester (The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution) as a duplicitous landlady. John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape) directed with the same level of high-adrenaline suspense he would bring to later, better known projects. Lanchester, not surprisingly, steals the film.

Remakes seldom improve upon the original, but 1955’s Illegal, a nifty remake of 1932’s The Mouthpiece, with Edward G. Robinson (Woman in the Window, The Stranger) in fine form, is a notable exception. Robinson plays a career D.A. who turns criminal lawyer after sending the wrong man to the electric chair. Nina Foch (An American in Paris, Executive Suite) who usually played hard, caustic characters gets a chance to show her softer side as his adopted daughter, and Ellen Corby (I Remember Mama, TV’s The Waltons), for once, gets to play a strong character on screen instead of one of her trademark wimps. Jayne Mansfield (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) makes her screen debut in a seemingly unimportant role. Lewis Allen (The Uninvited, Suddenly) directed with panache.

The stars of the classic noir Out of the Past were reunited for 1950’s The Big Steal under the direction of Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry). This time around, Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter, Home from the Hill) and Jane Greer (The Prisoner of Zenda, The Man of a Thousand Faces) lighten it up considerably with sparkling dialogue that almost threatens to turn the film into a screwball comedy. Joining them in their cat-and-mouse games are William Bendix (The Blue Dahlia, Detective Story), Patric Knowles (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Auntie Mame) and Ramon Novarro (Mata Hari, Heller in Pink Tights).

The best known of the films in the collection is undoubtedly 1949’s They Live by Night, Nicholas Ray’s (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause) poignant love story set against a tale of bank robbers on the lam. Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train, Senso) has his best role as the naïve robbers’ accomplice opposite Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur). Filmed in 1947, this was Ray’s first film as a director, but it didn’t reach U.S. theatres until eight months after his second film, Knock on Any Door, due to a whim of RKO’s new owner, Howard Hughes. Robert Altman made an equally effective version of the novel under its original title, Thieves Like Us,a quarter century later.

Granger and O’Donnell, the actors who play star-crossed lovers of They Live by Night,are reunited in 1950’s Side Street, directed by Anthony Mann (Border Incident, The Man from Laramie) at breakneck speed. Granger plays a part-time mailman who becomes a petty thief so that his wife can have their baby at a hospital. He is driven further and further into the labyrinth until the finale that spins out of control in the canyons of lower Manhattan. Jean Hagen (Adam’s Rib, Singin’ in the Rain) is dazzling in an 11th hour showcase as a chanteuse.

The mean streets of L.A. are the backdrop for 1954’s Crime Wave, directed by Andre de Toth (Man in the Saddle, Monkey on My Back). Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar) gets top billing as a tough cop, but the real lead is Gene Nelson (Tea for Two, Lullaby of Broadway), excellent in a then-rare dramatic role as an ex-con duped into aiding a gang of vicious thugs. Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax, TV’s The Thin Man) gets to play against type as Nelson’s hard-boiled wife. Charles Bronson (Death Wish, 10 to Midnight) has a major supporting role as a cold-blooded killer.

The strangest film of the lot is 1946’s Decoy about a femme fatale (Jean Gillie) who juggles three lovers, a doctor (Herbert Rudley) and two gangsters (Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong), one of whom is a revived corpse. To say more would spoil the fun.

This is a one-of-a-kind movie made by first-time director, Jack Bernhard, a one-time poverty row producer, as a showcase for his wife, leading lady Gillie. Unfortunately the marriage ended when the filming stopped and Gillie died a mere three years later after making just one more film, 1947’s The Macomber Affair.

The best known cast members are Armstrong (King Kong) and Sheldon Leonard (Guys and Dolls, Pocketful of Miracles), who plays the gumshoe hot on their heels. Leonard later became one of TV’s most prolific producers.

Robert Mitchum returns in 1950’s Where Danger Lives, directed by John Farrow (His Kind of Woman, Hondo). Mitchum plays a young doctor who falls under the spell of conniving Faith Domergue (This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea ). Claude Rains (Casablanca, Notorious) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan and His Mate, Hannah and Her Sisters) have a couple of scenes but despite its title, this is primarily a road film featuring the two leads. Like most noirs, you can figure out where it’s going, but not how it gets there. Mitchum delivers another first-rate performance.

No femme was ever more fatale than Audrey Totter (The Set-Up, A Bullet for Joey) at her meanest and she’s at her meanest in 1950’s Tension, driving milquetoast husband Richard Basehart (Fourteen Hours, Moby Dick) over the edge. Both stars are terrific under the direction of John Berry (Claudine, Boesman and Lena). Cyd Charisse (Silk Stockings, Party Girl) has one of her best early roles as Basehart’s true love, but Barry Sullivan (Another Time, Another Place, Light in the Piazza) and William Conrad (Body and Soul, The Naked Jungle) are hard to take as smarmy cops.

Next week: more classic films in the Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection, featuring films they made together aside from The Thin Man and The Great Ziegfeldd.

Peter J. Patrick (July 31, 2007)

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(July 22)

  1. Premonition
              $7.29 M ($7.29 M)
  2. The Hills Have Eyes II
              $4.67 M ($4.67 M)
  3. Shooter
              $4.31 M ($24.0 M)
  4. Black Snake Moan
              $3.24 M ($18.4 M)
  5. The Last Mimzy
              $2.95 M ($6.68 M)
  6. Bridge to Terabithia
              $2.41 M ($19.0 M)
  7. The Astronaut Farmer
              $2.15 M ($4.63 M)
  8. Ghost Rider
              $2.11 M ($28.1 M)
  9. Breach
              $2.04 M ($22.5 M)
  10. Dead Silence
              $2.01 M ($11.0 M)

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(July 15)

  1. The Last Mimzy
  2. Shooter
  3. The Astronaut Farmer
  4. Bridge to Terabithia
  5. Ghost Rider
  6. Hannah Montana: Pop Star Profile
  7. Night at the Museum
  8. Black Snake Moan
  9. Norbit
  10. Apocalypto

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(July 24)

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