The DVD Report #16

I began going to the movies in earnest fifty years ago, the summer I was 13. Many of the films I saw in theatres in 1957, as well as many of that year’s films I’ve since caught up with, are currently available on DVD.

The year’s big awards winner, and still deserving of all its honors, was David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. With its brilliant score accented by the invigorating Colonel Bogey March, its mammoth art direction and set design, and its breathtaking cinematography, the film is still a pleasure to look at and listen to. Aside from a forgettable romantic subplot, the story of a clash of wills in a Japanese prisoner of war camp remains top notch entertainment. William Holden (Stalag 17, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) receives top billing as a soldier leading a small unit ordered to destroy the titled bridge, but it is Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob) as the vain British colonel duped into building the bridge, and Sessue Hayakawa (Three Came Home, Hell to Eternity) as the Japanese commandant who knows exactly how to play him, who command our attention in their unforgettable duel of wits.

Charles Laughton was offered the Guinness part, but turned it down because he didn’t understand the character. Instead, he gave us one of his greatest performances in a role he understood well, the scowling barrister (court room defense attorney) in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. A rare film directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), that he didn’t write himself, the film has more twists and turns than any other mystery ever written. Matching Laughton’s (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty) brilliance are Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Destry Rides Again)in her best film role in years as the title character; Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein, Rembrandt), Laughton’s real-life wife, in a role written for the screen version expressly for her as a nurse keeping her eye on the ailing Laughton; and Una O’Connor (The Invisible Man, The Informer) repeating her stage triumph as the murder victim’s hearing-impaired housekeeper. The one off-note is Tyrone Power (The Long Gray Line, The Eddy Duchin Story) playing against type as Dietrich’s milquetoast husband accused of murdering a rich old lady for her money.

Henry Fonda produced TV director Sidney Lumet’s (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) first film and gave himself one of his best roles as a juror in 12 Angry Men. The film, which has since been used as the prototype jury room scene for just about every TV series out there, has Fonda as the sole holdout for a quick conviction in what appears on the surface to be a slam dunk case of murder. Layers of the prosecution’s case are peeled away as are layers of various jurors’ prejudices. The strong supporting cast includes Lee J. Cobb (On the Waterfront, Exodus), Jack Warden (Shampoo, The Verdict), E.G. Marshall (Interiors, Nixon) and Ed Begley (Sweet Bird of Youth, The Unsinkable Molly Brown).

The darkest days of World War I are explored in Stanley Kubrick’s (Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange) Kirk Douglas starrer, Paths of Glory. Douglas (The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life) is outstanding as a French defense officer trying to get at the truth in the court-martial of three men who refuse to take part in a suicide mission ordered by malevolent generals George Macready (Gilda, Tora! Tora! Tora!) and Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page, Pollyanna). Based on a true story, the film was banned in France for decades.

Playing against type, Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Elmer Gantry) and Tony Curtis (Houdini, Operation Petticoat) are two of the nastiest characters ever put on celluloid in the NYC noir, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. Lancaster is the egomaniacal Broadway columnist patterned after Walter Winchell and Curtis is the sleazy press agent who will do anything to curry his favor. Susan Harrison, who makes her screen debut as Lancaster’s sister, came briefly out of obscurity in 2000 when her daughter, Darva Conger, courted notoriety as an instant bride on TV’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.

Don’t believe everything you see on TV is the basic message of A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden), featuring Andy Griffith (TV’s The Andy Griffith Show, Matlock) in a tour de force performance as an overnight TV star who becomes drunk with his newfound fame and power. Patricia Neal is equally superb as the woman who discovers him and directs his career to its logical conclusion. Walter Matthau (The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple) and Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, Days of Wine and Roses) provide finely-etched supporting performances.

Among the many fine foreign language films making their way into U.S. theatres in 1957 were Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet and Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Of these, Fellini’s Cabiria proved to have the most immediate impact. Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, who had scored in the director’s La Strada, was the chief reason for its success. Her portrayal of a prostitute looking for love, but finding only heartbreak and misery was one of the finest performances of the year in any language. Fellini’s sit-up-and-take-notice images of modern Rome pre-dated those in his masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, by only a few years.

Tops among romantic comedies was Leo McCarey’s remake of his own Love Affair, re-titled An Affair to Remember, with Deborah Kerr, Cary Grant and Cathleen Nesbitt in the roles once played by Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer and Maria Ouspenskaya. All are fine, especially Kerr (The King and I, The Sundowners) as the cabaret singer who leaves shipboard paramour Grant (The Awful Truth, North by Northwest) waiting atop the Empire State building for reasons beyond her control. Warning: don’t watch 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle without having seen this first.

The way most people saw films in 1957 was as part of a double bill at their local neighborhood theatre. An example of a second feature on such a bill that was even better than the main one was Fear Strikes Out, the story of Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Piersall’s nervous breakdown, directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird, Summer of ’42) with a standout performance from Anthony Perkins fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn in Friendly Persuasion and several years before his signature role in Psycho. Karl Malden (On the Waterfront, Patton) is equally effective as his stern father.

Rounding out my top ten list for the year is the film that Fear Strikes Out took second billing to. It was Funny Face, directed by Stanley Donen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Two for the Road) with Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Sabrina) as a beatnik model in love with much-older photographer Fred Astaire (The Band Wagon, Daddy Long Legs) to the beat of glorious Gershwin music. “Eloise” author Kay Thompson all but steals the film as a fashion editor singing “Think Pink”.
Chief among the films available on DVD worthy of honorable mention are the afore-mentioned A Man Escaped, Ordet and Smiles of a Summer Night as well as John Huston’s World War II drama of nun Deborah Kerr and marine Robert Mitchum hiding out on a Japanese-held island in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; that brilliant 50s science fiction ode to paranoia, The Incredible Shrinking Man; the Jimmy Stewart-Billy Wilder tribute to Charles Lindbergh and the early days of aviation, The Spirit of St. Louis; the exquisitely-photographed (by Jack Cardiff) The Brave One; and three memorable musicals, Les Girls, Silk Stockings and The Pajama Game.

Though beautifully-photographed and scored, both Peyton Place and Sayonara,two films I once liked a lot more, lose points for their sappy main stories which become more ho-hum with the passage of time. The mother/daughter relationship between Lana Turner and Diane Varsi in Peyton Place isn’t nearly as interesting as the secondary one involving doctor Lloyd Nolan, rape victim Hope Lange and her despicable stepfather Arthur Kennedy. Nor is the main romance between Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka in Sayonara half as compelling as the secondary one between Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki (who each won Oscars for their performances).

Other films of the year that can be found if you look hard enough include the overrated Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor chewing up the scenery, and the underrated Tammy and the Bachelor with Debbie Reynolds charming her way into our collective hearts.

Many films of 1957 remain unavailable on commercial DVDs. Your best bet for owning a copy of one of those films is to wait for it to appear on TCM or some other commercial-free television station and record it for yourself.

Most conspicuous by its absence, in my opinion, is Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City with John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier in fine form as longshoreman buddies battling racial prejudice as personified by bully Jack Warden. The film’s only major awards recognition at the time came from the British Film Academy which nominated it for Best Foreign Film and for Poitier’s marvelous performance.

Poitier also gave a strong performance in Richard Brooks’ Something of Value dealing with racial prejudice in Kenya. This film co-starring Rock Hudson and Wendy Hiller had a brief VHS release in the early 80s but has been unavailable on home video ever since.

Joanne Woodward won her Oscar for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve, which is available, but her more interesting film that year was the still-unavailable No Down Payment in which she played one of four desperate housewives of an earlier generation. Martin Ritt also directed this one, with a cast that also included Sheree North, Patricia Owens, Barbara Rush, Jeffrey Hunter, Tony Randall, Pat Hingle and Cameron Mitchell.

Speaking of Oscars, where is The Joker Is Wild in which Frank Sinatra as disfigured singer/comedian Joe E. Lewis introduces the award-winning “All the Way”? Even Charles Vidor’s lackluster direction can’t hold down Frankie in what is probably his best screen performance. The film also features Jeanne Crain, Mitzi Gaynor, Beverly Garland and Eddie Albert in key roles.

And where, oh where, is Wild Is the Wind? Not only has this film never been released in any home video format, it never even shows up on TV any more. Very strange for a film directed by George Cukor, most of whose films are available, featuring an Oscar-nominated title song and Oscar-nominated performances by Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani at their peak as a widowed rancher and his sister-in-law.

Anthony Franciosa, who had major roles in both Wild Is the Wind and A Face in the Crowd, won an Oscar nomination for his third film that year, the also long-missing A Hatful of Rain,in which he repeats his stage role as the alcoholic older brother of a drug addict putting his family through emotional hell. Fred Zinnemann directed a strong cast that also includes Eva Marie Saint, Don Murray and Lloyd Nolan.

Exploitation of the handicapped was the theme of The Story of Esther Costello, one of Joan Crawford’s better melodramatic entries. Heather Sears was nominated for a Golden Globe as the young deaf and blind girl she exploits.

Joel McCrea’s westerns always seemed more homespun and folksy than those of most other actors. Next to 1950’s Stars in My Own, which is also conspicuously missing on DVD, the best representation of his easygoing style is The Oklahoman co-starring Barbara Hale, Gloria Talbot, Brad Dexter and Verna Felton.

One of the best Christmas films ever is the beautifully-acted slice-of-life drama, All Mine to Give,with a heart-wrenching performance by the underrated Glynis Johns, ably supported by Cameron Mitchell, Rex Thompson, Patty McCormack, Ernest Truex and Hope Emerson.

The crime drama, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was about the investigation into the murder of a longshoreman by “Cockeye Cook and his two meatballs” in the words of the dying man. Richard Egan was a bit stiff in the lead, but old stalwarts Jan Sterling and Dan Duryea were terrific. She as the dead man’s frightened wife. He as a slick criminal lawyer. Richard Rodgers’ music, first heard in On Your Toes,is a definite asset. I originally saw this as the second feature to the remake of My Man Godfrey. It’s another example of the second feature being better than the main one, though the Godfrey remake with David Niven, June Allyson, Martha Hyer, Jay Robinson and Jessie Joyce Landis is better than its reputation would lead you to think.

And so it goes. Each year in film history prior has had a number of its best films released in the home video format of choice, while others languish sadly unavailable to most audiences.

Peter J. Patrick (August 21, 2007)

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(August 12)

  1. Disturbia
              $9.7 M ($9.7 M)
  2. 300
              $9.47 M ($21.4 M)
  3. Are We Done Yet?
              $6.83 M ($6.83 M)
  4. Hot Fuzz
              $5.3 M ($11.7 M)
  5. The Number 23
              $4.93 M ($17.9 M)
  6. Zodiac
              $4.73 M ($17.3 M)
  7. Premonition
              $4.13 M ($22.9 M)
  8. Pathfinder
              $3.88 M ($8.33 M)
  9. I Think I Love My Wife
              $3.86 M ($3.86 M)
  10. Unaccompanied Minors
              $2.99 M ($2.99 M)

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(August 5)

  1. 300
  2. Hot Fuzz
  3. Pathfinder
  4. The Number 23
  5. Firehouse Dog
  6. Zodiac
  7. Premonition
  8. The Bourne Files
  9. Shooter
  10. Shooter

New Releases

(August 21)

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(August 28)

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(September 18)

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