Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DEATH BECOMES HER: Blu-ray (Universal 1992) Shout!/Scream Factory

I have always wondered about Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992); the ground-breaking/effects-laden Grand Guignol; ostensibly, another minor masterpiece from Zemeckis - this one about sex, betrayal, lust, jealousy, death, immortality and murder…well, sort of, though decidedly not in that order - since the movie I saw in 1992 bore no earthly resemblance to the one being peddled in the trailer used to promote it. Granted, trailers are made months in advance of any theatrical release and often contain outtakes never used in the final cut. But Death’s trailer incorporates snippets of whole subplots and glib social commentaries about fading youth and stardom, never again to materialize on the movie screen. For decades thereafter, the lore surrounding the prevue cut of Death Becomes Her grew to near mythic proportions; some attesting to the greatness of an unseen ‘classic’ screened before these revisions were made; others, hinting to be in possession of these missing pieces that even Universal Studios was unable to locate in their vaults. After a 2008 fire decimated a sizable portion of the studio’s back lot the rumor surfaced all of this excised footage had been among its casualties. In hindsight - always 20/20 - the reality seems less opaque; Death Becomes Her was ill-received during its sneak peaks.  Heavily edited by Zemeckis, it was to evolve into a more tightly paced, often witty, if jovially macabre variation on the old ‘fountain of youth’ tall tale; updated and relocated to – where else? – Hollywood, where such cravenly mad obsessions to stay eternally firm and fabulous seem more a syndrome than symptomatic of our natural fear of death, thus creating a Mecca (some would say, a mockery) from the cottage industry of plastic surgery.
Two major plot devises were ultimately lost in Zemekis’ revamp: first, the original ending, but even more egregiously, Tracy Ullman’s entire performance as the empathetic bartender who befriends and eventually marries a befuddled and frantic Dr. Ernest Menville (the character played by Bruce Willis). She believes his story – that the socially affluent are populated by a cloistered sect of perennially ageless pseudo-zombies, given eternal life by a slinky - if slightly demonic sorceress, Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini). Zemeckis’ original intent was to create a parable exposing the destructiveness of our youth-absorbed culture. According this premise, Ernest’s first wife, screen queen, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and her fair-weather friend, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) were to be inadvertently reunited with Ernest and Ullman’s second Mrs. Menville in Switzerland near the end of our story; these two bitches left to contemplate eternal happiness in stark contrast to the happily aging marrieds while they, although as luminous as ever on the outside, had allowed personal jealousy and bitterness to add a layer of moral/intellectual decay to their character from the inside.
Evidently, prevue audiences did not appreciate this highbrow subtlety; Zemeckis also believing he had somehow sidestepped the insidiously wormy venom permeating the first two-thirds of this never-to-die rivalry between girlfriends. Thus, a new vision emerged; darker, more aberrant and apocalyptic, and, with more sequences scattered throughout the movie falling prey to the cutting room floor, including an elaborate prelude to the mummification yet to follow. Here, Ernest – driven half-crazy in his Dr. Frankenstein-ish pursuit to mask Madeline’s ravages of bodily decay, and having transgressed from one-time gifted plastic surgeon into the perverse custodial care of his decomposing wife and her ongoing ‘repairs’ – keeps Madeline in the kitchen freezer to delay her inevitable rot; occasionally taking her out of this deep freeze to test new theories; desperate to keep her externally sound for decades, possibly even centuries. Hmmm….perhaps, eternal life is a death sentence after all. Arguably, Zemeckis embraced these changes, though in the final analysis they altered both the premise and tone of his film. Aside: I had sincerely forgotten how ominously grotesque this comedy is; the Oscar-winning visual effects pioneered by Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Douglas Smythe and Tom Woodruff Jr., truly at the forefront of the CGI revolution that has since taken over and all but obscured Hollywood’s present storytelling age.
Whatever the reasons for Zemeckis’ alterations, the results arguably proved worth the effort. Despite overwhelming negativity from all but a handful of critics, Death Becomes Her opened at #1 with a respectable gross of $12,110,355.00. It would go on to earn an even more impressive $149 million; along the way, rewriting the technical know-how in then state-of-the-art visual effects.  As with other films made by Zemeckis, the focus herein is not on the barrage of mind-bending/body-contorting SFX, but rather an intricately plotted story, co-written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp; high-powered by obviously relished performances from Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Interestingly, Streep would famously decry making the movie as a ‘tedious exercise’, hampered in her acting prowess by being forced to emote in front of a green screen rather than intimately relate to a real life costar in many of her key scenes. Death Becomes Her was a transitional piece for Streep – revered as a ‘serious’ actress. However, at the age of 42, she had fast become the victim of Hollywood’s insipid and unoriginal ambition to prematurely brand every actress over forty as ‘over the hill’ has-been. Film critic Gene Siskel infamously suggested, Streep’s endeavors to “lighten her (screen) image” had severely “clouded her ability” to choose good scripts. I disagree. While no one could confuse Death Becomes Her as another Out of Africa (1985), despite the fleeting appearance of that latter movie’s director (the late Sidney Pollack) in a cameo as a very nervous doctor who suffers his own fatal heart attack after examining the ill-fated (and already quite dead) Madeline, Streep’s performance in Death Becomes Her is a superb departure from the sort of forthright, if suffering, grand dames she had played, imbued with the same caliber of dedication to the part, ingeniously tweaked to accommodate the precepts of screwball comedy.
And let us never mistake that at its core, Death Becomes Her is a comedy; a ghoulish and repulsive one at that, but playing into the time-honored traditions of adult silliness found in such iconic masterpieces as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). The screenplay, while hardly perfect, is far more imaginatively structured than its initially vapid fashion-conscious parody about imploding Hollywood-types, nursing very fragile egos, would suggest; pumped full of a rare vintage of richly rewarding/darkly conceived philosophies about life, the ethereal, and, the hereafter. Yes, we get the point about these two insidiously competitive gal pals, too far gone down the proverbial rabbit hole of cosmetic frontiers in collagen shots and chemical peels. Madeline and Helen would rather be reincarnated as that ancient flower of false youth – even after death – than sincerely face the reality they were born mortal. How cruel is Mother Nature with her promise of youth stolen away by the natural law, replaced with decades of slow, steady and very sad decline?  The film asks us to reconsider both sides to its Rip Van Winkle-esque fantasy; pro and con and not only from the perspective of our feuding female protagonists, already irreversibly afflicted by the gift…or is it curse...of spending eternity in a limbo consciousness as two rapidly putrefying corpses.  Conversely, having chosen the uninterrupted path of life, Ernest Menville will learn how to maximize the potential of whatever years he has been afforded – making the most of life while it lasts, unlike his ex and her best friend, who never even first consider the true meaning of Lisle’s declaration, ‘sempre viva’ before swallowing this ‘touch of magic in a world obsessed with science’ that will ultimately make them both miserable for all time without end.  
Death Becomes Her opens on a rainy eve in 1978; Madeline Ashton, a one-time shimmering movie star, already considered something of a has-been by her dwindling fan base, is staging her big comeback on Broadway in ‘Songbird’; a musicalization of Tennessee Williams’ famed play, Sweet Bird of Youth. Most of the audience finds Madeline’s disco-tech cavorting with a male ensemble utterly distasteful and void of virtually all artistic merit.  Not so for Dr. Ernest Menville, seated in the audience next to his plain-Jane fiancée, Helen Sharp. After the performance, Helen reluctantly indulges Ernest’s desire to go backstage and congratulate Madeline. She is an incurable flirt, more so after discovering Ernest is a gifted plastic surgeon; just the sort of guy she could wrap around her little finger to get some free cosmetic work done to shore up the first signs of crow’s feet and a few wrinkles in her forehead. Ernest tries to assure Helen, who is desperately tugging at her handkerchief, that he has absolutely zero interest in Madeline. But a jump cut later and we are at Madeline and Ernest’s wedding, Helen suffering a complete nervous breakdown from this betrayal and abandonment as she clutches her scarf so tightly that her hands begin to bleed. Flash forward seven years: Helen, grown obscenely obese, and, barricaded in her apartment full of cats, is hauled off to an asylum where she drives both her psychiatrist (Alaina Reed-Hall) and the other patients into fits of wild distraction with her chronic need to blame Madeline for her unhappy life. Jolted from her cyclical contemplation by the analyst’s suggestion she needs to eradicate Madeline from her mind Helen instead takes the advice literally. Let the games begin!
Flash ahead again – another seven years. We learn married life has not been kind to Ernest and Madeline, she indulging her sexual desires in a series of meaningless affairs while henpecking her husband’s self-respect into tatters.  He begrudgingly tolerates her whoring around. The couple is united in their mutual desire to see what has become of Helen in the interim, having received an invitation to her book launch party. While Ernest is sincerely set to embrace the new Helen, Madeline is insidiously hoping she has aged more obviously. Thus, when both Madeline and Ernest catch a glimpse of a heavy-set creature in a trench coat from the back, each assumes this must be Helen; the woman stepping aside to reveal a svelte and remarkably youthful Helen instead, surrounded by a slew of sycophantic admirers. Time has stood still for Helen – or so it would seem; actually, improved upon her looks and demeanor. She is accomplished and sexy and Ernest quite simply cannot take his eyes off her for a moment.
Naturally, this drives Madeline to wild distraction. Her pursuit of a more rigorous regiment of pills, lotions and injections at her local spa to stave off the specter of Father Time is met with a rather cryptic referral to an imposing Gothic-styled Beverly Hills mansion presided over by the sultry and half-naked vamp, Lisle Von Rhuman. Who is this woman, flanked by a pair of Dobermans and as equally impressive set of muscle-bound male companions (John Enos III and Fabio)? Lisle introduces Madeline to a mysterious pink potion that harbors the secrets of eternal life. At first, Madeline does not believe her hostess. However, after a brief demonstration of its potency, Madeline agrees to pay a shocking one million dollars in return for a small flask of this elixir she drinks before considering a warning: that in achieving eternal youth and vitality Madeline has incurred an everlasting responsibility to be kind to her body; to nurture and look after it; also, to agree to disappear from public view after a period of ten short years – either, by faking her own death or simply moving somewhere remote, to stave off suspicions bound to grow about her perennial youthfulness. Madeline wholeheartedly agrees to these provisos but almost immediately becomes a victim of her own vanity, eager to test her new body on some old lovers sure to find her even more desirable now.
Meanwhile, Helen has arrived at the mansion Ernest and Madeline share, seducing Ernest with visions of murdering his philandering wife so Helen and he can take up right where they left off so many years ago. As Helen has obviously taken better care of herself in these intervening decades, and Ernest is, as a plastic surgeon, superficially drawn to firm bodies, he entertains Helen’s ambitious plot; to taint all the wine glasses with a strong narcotic, knocking Madeline out and carrying her lifeless body to the edge of a steep ravine; staging everything as a drunken incident. Alas, this plan goes awry when Madeline, returning home later that same evening, is confronted by an angry Ernest on the spiral staircase leading upstairs. Ernest tells Madeline he knows all about her various trysts and she berates him yet again about his inadequacies as a lover; a miscalculation that causes Ernest to fly into an unanticipated rage; first attempting to strangle Madeline, then push her down the flight of stairs, presumably to her death; Madeline breaking virtually every bone in her body on her epic descend to the bottom.
Ernest is at first elated by the realization Madeline is no more, telephoning Helen with the good news, only to discover Madeline risen from the dead and angrier than ever at him. She is, however, in need of his help – to reset her twisted limbs. Ernest takes Madeline to the local emergency. There, the attending doctor is both perplexed, and then utterly horrified to learn the extent of Madeline’s injuries seem to indicate she is no longer among the living. Though she is still quite able to talk, her heart has stopped beating and her body is slowly returning to room temperature.  Unable to explain this phenomenon, the good doctor suffers a fatal heart attack and dies; Ernest hurrying to rescue his wife from the morgue and stealing away with her remains for further consideration and study. Meanwhile, Helen has followed Ernest and Madeline home. She confronts Ernest with their plan having gone awry and Madeline, now realizing her husband and best friend intended for her to die, instead exacts revenge on Helen by shooting her in the gut with Ernest’s hunting rifle; the blast propelling Helen into the terrace lily pond where she momentarily lays lifeless in a watery pool of blood.
It does not take long for Helen to stir. Madeline realizes what has occurred. Helen drank Lisle’s potion too. Though murdered, she cannot die. Alas, both women begin to realize that although they are unable to expire, they have, in fact, destroyed their bodies beyond any form of natural repair. Ernest attempts to shore up the damage by applying layers of airbrushed flesh tone paint to their graying cadavers, but it is no use. The paint gradually begins to peel, revealing the ravages of their mutually destructive jealousy lurking just beneath. The girls reconcile their differences and agree to bond together. However, when Ernest informs both Madeline and Helen he has kept true to his promise to remain at their sides ‘until death did them part’, the girls plot to kidnap Ernest to Lisle’s and force him to drink the same potion; thus making him their eternal slave. Ernest resists Lisle’s invitation to partake of this secret elixir; escaping her Dobermans and security personnel into a vast ballroom where assorted celebrities, including the likes of James Dean (Eric Clark), Elvis, Andy Warhol (Bob Swain), Jim Morrison (Dave Brock) and Marilyn Monroe (Stephanie Anderson) (apparently, all having escaped their fates by similar circumstances) are indulging in something of a reunion. Unable to make it beyond the bolted front doors, Ernest scales the rooftop instead. This ends badly when he loses his footing, becomes entangled on a dislocating eaves trough, then plummets through the glass ceiling of Lisle’s atrium and into her pool. The splash breaks his fall and spares his life. Ernest escapes into the night.
Flash forward for the last time: 37 years into the future. Ernest Menville is no more. Having eluded Madeline and Helen all these years, he remarried, and lived a fruitful second life that enriched not only his own prospects but also those who knew and loved him best. The eulogy is interrupted by a pair of dissenting cackles from the cheap seats; Madeline and Helen hidden beneath their mourning attire, later revealing the grotesque ravages of their earthly bodily decay; skin creped, rotted and peeling (I can only imagine the stench); the pair still bitter/still fighting over the last can of spackle Helen has misplaced. Tripping on the discarded can on the steps of the chapel, Helen and Madeline take a severe tumble to street level. In their advanced state of decomposition their bodies break apart from the strain; dismembered arms, legs, torsos and heads lying on the pavement with Madeline’s upside down visage idiotically inquiring as to where they have parked the car.
Death Becomes Her is so wickedly appealing as a cautionary ‘be careful what you wish for’ parable that it lingers in the mind long after the houselights have come up. If it were ever to be remade, in all likelihood it would acquire the trappings of a B-budgeted horror flick instead of a perverted screwball comedy. The cache in hiring three major stars and an award-winning director to helm this piece ensured considerably more effort put forth to achieve even more unsettling results.  Deliciously, the film stands its ‘fountain of youth’ premise on end; the serum sealing the fate of these two highly unworthy custodians of eternal life. Madeline and Helen have destroyed themselves. Now, they have forever to reconsider the illegitimacy in this exercise. Unabashedly, Zemeckis and his writers present us with even more contemplation along the way; Ernest’s confrontational inquiry to Lisle – “then what?” followed by a laundry list of ‘things to consider’ before swallowing the potion. What if he gets into an accident or is physically damaged in some other irreparable way? How does one live comfortably forevermore without say an eye, or a finger or a foot? And what of the loved ones who have not partaken in this nightmare. To watch the world known best to us all grow old, wither and die while we remain perennially trapped in a time capsule of our own design.
This is not the template for eternal happiness but rather an everlasting purgatory from which no amounts in ageless beauty can offer sufficient compensation. Topically, if not philosophically, Death Becomes Her challenges the audience to briefly reconsider this crisis in living beyond the natural order. As written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, Death Becomes Her may not be existentially deep. It is however, wildly entertaining with some truly ‘gross out’ moments and cringe-worthy special effects cleverly timed along the way, though always to make a point against the argument that life eternal is preferable to our present state of aging toward the inevitable end game. Moreover, Death Becomes Her just feels like a Robert Zemeckis movie, imbued with the director’s trademarked jauntiness and energy, his verve for acid good humor counterbalanced by these queasy and ghoulish moments. We are, after all, watching two dead bodies fight to preserve at least the appearance of life. The superb audio-animatronic technological wizardry and tech-savvy dawning of computer-generated SFX still hold up remarkably well, perhaps because Zemeckis never allows them to take over and dictate the action of his narrative.
Even the gaping hole in Helen’s abdomen gets a perverse hearty chuckle when, during a subsequent confrontation, Madeline thrusts a shovel handle like a javelin through this gaping hole, missing her mark but achieving an astonished gasp from the audience as a weary Helen sits down with one end of the implement stuck between the pillows of the couch directly behind her, the other protruding like a stiff phallus from her middle.  Again, no one could confuse Death Becomes Her with high art. It is palpably pulpy and downright farcical to the point of absurdity. But its principles play its highly implausible narrative with an air of conviction that is pretty hard to top; especially Isabella Rossellini’s frequently nude, though artfully photographed demigod who adds unexpected girth to her declarations “Sempre viva” and “screw the natural order!” with wild-eyed and sadistic abandonment.  In the final analysis, Death Becomes Her is a healthily balanced SFX extravaganza with a compelling story to tell; far more than the sum of its monstrous head-twisting, gut-exposing, fantastical age-defying dark ride effects into the great unknown: a satirical comedy elevated by its Hollywood trickery instead of slavishly devoted to it, unabashedly hostile, occasionally sexy, and thoroughly hilarious with oodles of sass to spare.
Were that we could champion Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. For almost a decade, Death Becomes Her has been available in Europe in a Region B locked disc from Universal Home Video proper. It appears Shout!’s ‘new’ Blu-ray is sourced from these identical digital files. Last year, I was trumpeting the ‘new’ Universal edict that seemed to suggest their tight-fisted old ways had had their day and the studio had since turned a corner in its preservation philosophy; wholeheartedly invested to release complete restorations in hi-def of some of their deeper catalog titles. Heck, last year’s Spartacus (1960) seemed to hint as much. Alas, my mistake. We have seen too many less than stellar efforts put forth this year from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Xanadu and other catalog titles, either released via Universal Home Video or via third party distributors like Shout! Worse, at least for Shout!, they seem to have cut out providing a host of extra features to augment their ‘collector’s edition’ series. What we get here is a truncated – if newly produced – ‘making of’ – scant on sound bites from Zemeckis, and others who worked on the film behind the scenes. No discussion about the sneak peek that necessitated cuts and changes; no mention of Tracy Ullman’s deleted scenes, no audio commentary to accompany the movie, and most regrettable of all, no deleted scenes to showcase the missing footage that fans had sincerely hoped would add to their viewing enjoyment. The only other extra included herein is a badly worn vintage ‘making of’ – even shorter on insight, depth and fruitful conversations than the aforementioned featurette.
Death Becomes Her isn’t a washout entirely on Blu-ray. Indeed, there is much to admire; certain scenes illustrating some impressive clarity and considerable amounts of fine detail. Colors are robust. But flesh tones veer to either extreme pink or orange, depending on the scene. There are also more than a handful of scenes that suffer from a residual softness. The main titles are plagued by edge effects, while certain scenes also appear as though some artificial sharpening has been applied to unnaturally enhance their visuals. Film grain is rarely natural or appealing; a few scenes looking very thick and unattractive indeed. The audio is DTS 5.1 and fairly aggressive. It supports the movie’s action without providing any standout moments. Overall, factoring in Shout! does not do its own transfers, Death Becomes Her on Blu-ray looks about as good – or as lackluster – as almost Universal releases put forth during Blu-ray’s infancy. By now, we ought to have expected a lot more from Universal. This is a middling effort – passable, but just that. Pass or stay…you decide.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, April 18, 2016

A KISS BEFORE DYING: Blu-ray (UA/Crown Productions 1956) Kino Lorber

Based on Ira Levin's 1953 novel, Gerd Oswald's A Kiss Before Dying (1956) casts one of the 1950's most congenial heartthrobs, Robert Wagner, as a psychotic murderer; his good looks sheathing more than killer charm. Levin's novel won the Edgar Allen Poe Writer's Award and it is to Oswald's credit the movie retains a goodly amount of its’ darkly sinister atmosphere - even if the book's more salacious aspects are implied rather than revealed in this lush Cinemascope production. The screenplay by Lawrence Roman jettisons the first act of Levin's novel - the back story or 'making of' a psychopath – to jump right into the present day. In hindsight, the genius of the picture lay in the decision to cast Wagner; then, considered the slick and stylish male pin-up of his era. The irony of Wagner’s career is that it is mostly predicated on his astonishing good looks and a bravura ego. While other male beauties of any vintage have fallen by the waste side with the passage of time, in proportion to the erosion of their undeniable physical assets, Wagner has continued to find gainful employment in both the movies and on TV long into his emeritus years; perhaps, something about that toothy, devil-may-care swagger perfected as the rather impudent young buck, forgiven just about anything because he fears nothing in front of a camera. Hollywood then, as now, is tenuously balanced on an illusion of smoke and mirrors. Sex appeal goes a long way – too far, perhaps - but only so far in the end. Eye-candy is simply that – and not altogether satisfying without the personality and/or chutzpah to make it stick.   
In A Kiss Before Dying, Wagner becomes the unsuspecting root of all evil. At least in hindsight, he makes evil so innocuous – if sinfully handsome – his performance seems to foreshadow Hitchcock’s decision to supplant author, Robert Bloch’s original notion of the pudgy middle-aged serial killer with all-American Tony Perkins for the big screen adaptation of his novel, Psycho (1960).  A Kiss Before Dying is subversively elegant – beginning with Wagner’s self-assured cock of the walk. The film is patently a product of the fresh-faced California lifestyle, circa mid-1950’s; Hollywood’s idealized post-war America, observed as a panacea of fin-tailed cars, plush shag carpets and weekend respites to fashionable country club retreats, populated by ivy-leagued/poodle-skirt debutantes and crew cut, cardigan sweater/varsity letter-wearing young men, deprived of their precious male initiative, and thus, never even thinking to take advantage of a young girl’s easy virtue. Emerging from the shadows, like a jungle cat ready to pounce into all this undisturbed modernity and classicism, is Bud Corliss – not of their ilk, though fitfully eager to acquire his toehold into this parallel universe of privilege and affluence. 
Alas, Bud has not played his cards right. In short order, we will come to realize he has absolutely no intension of playing by their rules either. He might have found his ‘niche’ with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward) – an exceptionally naïve good girl from a good home who has made at least two glaring blunders that will ultimately cost her everything. Overly zealous, jealous and sexed to the gills, Bud has broken the cardinal rule of admission into this cultured sect; namely, having knocked-up the virgin-esque daughter of a wealthy industrialist, certain to squash both Bud and his chances for future advancement like the proverbial bug once the truth comes out. Overnight, Bud’s options in life have been whittled down to two…okay, one. He could marry Dorie on the sly, incurring her parents’ wrath temporarily though nevertheless making ‘an honest woman’ of her before anyone realizes the deed is already done. But even Bud can see this would likely have its immediate and stifling repercussions and lingering fallout on his long-term social mobility; his Teflon-coated reputation no longer intact. So, on to option two – murder. It all sounds like a Dateline episode, doesn’t it? But for the button-down fifties, the idea any man – but particularly one as smolderingly sexy as Bud – would kill his lover and their unborn child simply to avoid the altar and ‘get ahead’ in life, was not only shocking but (choke!) progressive.   
In lieu of the whole Natalie Wood scandal that continues to swirl around Wagner to this day, his performance as Bud Corliss has taken on a far more picaresque quality than it probably possessed in 1956. For those living under a rock or unknowing of any past history that predates their origin of birth, Wagner and Wood were one of Hollywood’s fairytale couples of the mid-1950’s; incredibly talented and impossibly sexy. Alas, like all good fairytales, this one had its dark side. The couple would separate and later divorce in 1962, only to remarry a decade later, after Wood’s second marriage failed; a reunion lasting until the night of Nov. 28th, 1981 when Wood ‘disappeared’ from her husband’s moored yacht; her body fished from the surf near Santa Catalina Island the next morning. Although Wood’s death was ruled as accidental at the inquest, in 2009, the former captain of the vessel openly admitted he had lied under oath. Wood’s body was later exhumed and a second autopsy conducted; the cause of death altered from ‘accidental’ to ‘undetermined’. Interesting now to think of life imitating art or art foreshadowing life, as the case may be herein; Wagner’s performance in A Kiss Before Dying doing more to suggest he possesses a disturbingly roguish streak, capable of anything. I suspect that is why they call it ‘acting’. And in the many years that have since shrouded Wood’s demise and dogged Wagner’s reputation with tabloid-esque fervor to intimate either he, or fellow passenger aboard the yacht, Christopher Walken – were more insidiously involved in a cover-up –  Wagner’s performance in this movie, at least, continues to evolve on a more disquieting verisimilitude.
Bud Corliss is a working class guy, doted on by his mother (Mary Astor). He can hear the lonely whistle of the trains even if he cannot afford the fare to ride them. Enrolled in college, Bud has been hot and heavy with Dorothy 'Dorie' Kingship (Joanne Woodward), an impressionable young woman of wellborn pedigree. Dorie cannot see past Bud’s adoring gaze. She might have first tried to analyze his petty larceny by peering into them a little deeper. Why is Bud so secretive about their affair? He will not even hold hands with Dorie in public. It doesn’t make any sense, particularly as Dorie is one of two heirs to a copper mining fortune. Regrettably, her father, Leo (George Macready) is something of a tyrant. Actually, he just wants Dorie to straighten up and fly right. Getting knocked up is not part of George’s future plans for his little angel – nor Bud’s grand love ‘em, then leave ‘em seduction after he gets what he wants. Knowing Leo will likely disinherit Dorie if he finds out about the illegitimate baby she is carrying, Budd plots to get rid of the evidence. But Dorie wants this baby. So, Bud decides to dispose of his girlfriend instead; first, by poisoning her with pills stolen from the chemistry lab. Pitched to Dorie as vitamins to keep her and their child healthy, Bud's plot goes awry when Dorie decides not to take the drugs. Bud's next move is to devise a clever suicide. He gets Dorie to 'transcribe' her own suicide letter into English from a Spanish text, then tells Dorie they are to be married by a Justice of the Peace the next afternoon.
Deliberately arriving during lunch hour, at which time the office is closed, Bud suggests to Dorie they trot up a few flights to the roof and wait for the office to reopen (shades of George Stevens’ 1951 masterpiece, A Place in the Sun). Bud tells Dorie she will never know how much he loves her; then tosses her over the side of the building to her death. Post haste, Bud sneaks from the building unseen and mails Dorie's 'suicide note' to Leo. It all seems perfect. But murder never is, and as time passes neither Professor Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) nor Dorie's devoted sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith) believes her death was an accident. Leo urges Ellen to put the nightmare behind them. She agrees, to satisfy daddy, but does exactly the opposite. Learning from Gordon her sister was involved with someone on campus, Ellen accidentally comes to suspect Dwight Powell (Richard Quarry); a tennis pro in his senior year. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, Ellen tricks Powell into meeting her at a local watering hole, but quickly realizes she has made a terrible mistake. Unhappy chance, Powell remembers Dorie's boyfriend quite well and even believes he has a name and address he can give Ellen back at his dorm.
Powell takes Ellen to his residence. As it is not co-ed, Ellen agrees to wait in the lobby while Powell goes upstairs to search for the information. Unfortunately, Bud is already waiting there to ambush Powell and shoot him dead. Making off with Powell's phone book, Bud lays low for several months, gradually ingratiating his way into Ellen's life. The two become involved and later engaged. Meanwhile, Gordon connects the dots between Dorie and Bud and confronts Ellen and Leo with the news Bud was Dorie's lover. Leo believes Gordon, but Ellen defies them both and decides to take Bud on a tour of her father's copper mines to clear the air. Despite her belief in Bud's innocence, Ellen's conscience will not rest until she knows the truth for sure. She goads Bud into revealing certain intimate aspects about her sister's life that only a lover would know. On a narrow stretch of road overlooking the Kingship Mines, Bud confesses to Ellen he is Dorie's cold-blooded killer. Now, he tries to murder Ellen too by throwing her in front of an oncoming truck. In a twist of fate, this attempt backfires. Ellen is hurled to the ground, the driver of the truck, swerving to avoid her, runs over Bud instead. Leo rushes to his daughter’s side; the sadder but wiser girl left to reconsider her naïveté as Bud’s battered remains are taken away.
A Kiss Before Dying is more melodramatic than suspenseful; though I suspect this to be part of its enduring charm. Levin's book is far more gruesome than the film. In fact, in the novel, Bud murders Ellen too, pursuing a third relationship with Marion, the youngest daughter of the Kingship clan (a character entirely omitted from the film). In the novel's climactic confrontation, Marion actually tosses Bud into a molten hot vat of copper where he is boiled alive. Despite the sanitizing of this rather lurid and pulpy material, director Gerd Oswald gets a lot of economy out of Lucien Ballard's evocative noir-ish cinematography in DeLuxe Color, and, Lawrence Roman's masterful condensing of the finer plot points that move the story along at a breakneck pace in just a little over an hour and a half. Robert Wagner is particularly engaged as the corrosive lover with murder in his heart. Again, it is hard –and mildly painful - to watch Wagner’s performance and not be reminded of the late Natalie Wood or the possibility the more artful ‘kismet’ ending of the film has avenged a sin no amount of time, revised autopsies or more probing investigations into ‘the truth’ can.
Wagner gives a bone-chilling performance as Bud Corliss; a man with no scruples or personal integrity. Joanne Woodward is convincing as the young innocent. We can skip Virginia Leith’s rubber-bra padded version of Nancy Drew meets Bettie Page; stock sexpot, possessing zero on-screen chemistry; and almost forgive Jeffrey Hunter - relegated to the backdrop, with only a handful of lines to involve his character in this story – for being more wooden than a stick of kindling. In 1991, someone at Universal Studios thought it prudent to remake A Kiss Before Dying; director, James Dearden’s epic misfire yielding predictably disastrous results, co-starring charm-free Matt Dillon and stiff-as-a-board, Sean Young – playing the sisters as twins.  Like so many movies, it is the original that counts. A Kiss Before Dying still holds up; I suspect because of the ongoing and insidious infatuation we have with the final hours of Natalie Wood’s life. Did Wagner kill his wife, using the template as concocted for the almost perfect crime gleaned from this movie? Hmmmm.
Kino Lorber, the custodians of far too many substandard MGM/UA releases in hi-def, deliver yet another underwhelming 1080p experience.  A Kiss Before Dying was independently produced by Crown, but distributed through UA. Regrettably, in remastering this film for home video, MGM has lopped off the UA logo and replaced it with their own. MGM’s old DVD was fairly impressive, so A Kiss Before Dying ought to have looked stellar on Blu-ray. But it’s MGM, remember…and cribbing from the same elements used to master the DVD. And so, what we have here is a master predating today’s technologies and achieved for one format, up-rezed merely to accommodate another. Yes, things do tighten up, but never to reveal outstanding levels of sharpness or clarity. Want more proof it’s an old master? The brief examples of age-related damage evident on the old DVD appear in exactly the same spots on this Blu-ray. Colors are vibrant, but again – not of the eye-popping brilliance we are used to on Blu-ray. Contrast is okay, but blacks look a tad anemic. Whites are generally pristine; flesh tones, natural. The middle reel exhibits slight 'breathing' and the occasional soft flicker and strobe; again, not terribly distracting but obvious and easily corrected using today’s technologies. Don’t expect refined grain, though occasionally the image can look passably accurate and satisfying. We get a tad more information revealed on all four sides of the anamorphic frame. Ho-hum – expected. The audio is DTS but misses out on giving us the original 4-track Westrex stereo. Why am I not surprised? The only extra is a well-worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you already own this one on DVD, keep it and save your cash for a studio willing to put up some of theirs – along with more than a modicum of effort – into doing better work and right by their back catalog of golden oldies. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


SUSAN SLEPT HERE: Blu-ray (RKO 1954) Warner Archive Collection

A middle-age Dick Powell, perhaps still on the fence about ridding himself of the career-altering pall from playing Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944) and even more cynical screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, returns to more familiar territory in Frank Tashlin’s fluffy but disposable, Susan Slept Here (1954); a cordial, if slightly creaky and quaint romantic comedy about a tart-mouthed and womanizing screenwriter, Mark Christopher (Powell), who unexpectedly becomes paternal towards – then amorously interested in – an underage delinquent left in his care by the police over the Christmas holidays. Susan Slept Here hails from a period when good writing had more to do with the implication of thought and deed rather than the graphic illustration of either. For some, the comedy may seem rigidly structured around a singular plot point; one that nevertheless effectively building on a hilarious case of misdirection, destined to keep the curmudgeonly Christopher from making a cataclysmic misfire in his adult relationship with thrice divorced, peroxide plaything, Isabella Alexander (Ann Francis) by becoming even more naively entangled with the perky minor, Susan Beaurgard Landis (Debbie Reynolds).  The shtick is thick; its pseudo-intellectual/sexual double entendre, rich, clever and, at intervals, charming.
Observing the dapper Dick Powell in all his refinements as an actor, never mind looking fairly youthful at the age of 46 (pretending to be 35), it is difficult, if not entirely heart-breaking, to reconsider he had barely less than a decade of life left to live; dead at the age of 58 in 1963 from lung cancer. Powell’s perennial prowess both in front of and behind the camera, knowing his way around such slickly packaged dramedy, has been somewhat overlooked in the decades since his passing. If he is remembered at all today, it is generally for his contributions alongside Ruby Keeler as the winsome male ingénue and crooner in a series of Busby Berkeley musicals over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s. He really ought to be celebrated as a more versatile and consummate professional; driven by an uncanny knack for recognizing when one trend was dying and another on the cusp of re-launching his sagging prospects; seemingly with effortless aplomb, eschewing the trappings of a light musical/comedy star to take on the heavy-hitting arcs of suspense, action and drama, before becoming a prominent director/producer in the then new-fangled medium of television.
The other talent to be extolled herein is undeniably a natural: Debbie Reynolds. There seems to be an exquisite disconnect between the devout Nazarene who, despite numerable setbacks in her private life (including a very messy public scandal involving first husband, Eddie Fisher’s extramarital affair with her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor), not to mention subsequent romantic misfires that have left her destitute but with the elasticity of a rubber band, capable of incalculable ‘comebacks’; Reynolds not only has endured, but thrived for 83 glorious years, apparently without a kernel of bitterness left behind from these aforementioned hardships; one of golden-age Hollywood’s truly iconic personages and an ardent proponent of old-time Hollywood glamor, who single-handedly amassed an enviable collection of its memorabilia (buying up everything she could afford), only to be forced to auction it all off after the failure of her Vegas casino/museum. Reynold is the gregarious, multi-talented extrovert of stage and screen who, by her own admission, has suffered for her art from the chronic condition of ‘stage love’.  Above all else, she remains a superb raconteur, a sublime comedian, a vivid storyteller and a great lady to be admired. So it is perhaps not all that surprising to find her an absolute gem as the blue-jeans bon vivant of this piece, more hamburgers than hot cars in Susan Slept Here; completely oblivious as to how, at least at a glance, her overnight layover in a bachelor’s pad might be misconstrued by his more worldly – if not more intellectually sophisticated – paramour, as something tawdry.
Susan Slept Here is really a no-nothing toss away entertainment. But the cache brought to it by Powell and Reynolds is enough to make it click as it should. Ah me, star power. How I do miss it. There is not a talent working in movies today to pull off such a nonsensical May/December romance and make it seem anything more or better than cheaply silly. But Reynolds is the linchpin here; vivacious to a fault and as hilarious as she foists her wide-eyed innocence on the more worldly Christopher, outwardly at home ogling shapely starlets poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Okay, it is a little difficult, if not damn near impossible to think of Reynolds as a motherless juvie in need of fatherly firm-handed guidance, and even more of a stretch to imagine Dick Powell as any teenage girl’s dreamboat in a decade populated by the likes of Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Tab Hunter and Bobby Rydell. But Reynolds is a superb actress – something she is rarely given credit for – and one of golden-age Hollywood’s greatest alumni to weather the storm of changing times and tastes. Her joyousness and determination invested in the hunt to win herself a man is what keeps Susan Slept Here from devolving into abject treacle, despite director, Frank Tashlin’s best efforts to submarine this glossy confection with an extended pantomime; a decidedly bad ‘dream sequence’ in the penultimate moments of the picture’s third act. Powell, looking uncomfortably effete in a pink and blue sailor’s suit is pursued by Anne Francis’ spider woman – literally, spinning her web to ensnare him, with Reynold’s naïve young Miss, unschooled and left swinging from a perch in an over-sized birdcage.
Susan Slept Here is very much a byproduct of the fifties sexual stereotyping of women. According these precepts, the ‘good girl’ is chaste; the bad girl…well…less so. Intriguing to see Anne Francis as the viper, considering how effective she would be just a few short years later donning the decidedly skimpy apparel of doe-eyed and pure-as-the-driven-snow, Altaira Morbeus in 1954’s Forbidden Planet. But herein, Francis is delectable as the sinfully impatient and smoldering Isabella.  She really is more Christopher’s speed than Susan and he knows it. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Mark needs reforming – desperately – having thrown his heart into the ring on one too many times and had it trampled upon until Susan unexpectedly waltzed – or rather, stampeded - into his ersatz pad of 50’s chichi high-life, typified by the plush shag in his living room, a breathtaking view of the glittery Los Angeles skyline, an art deco Christmas tree (pilfered from the set of 1942’s Holiday Inn – or so it would appear) and a Best Screenplay Oscar staring back at him from his stonewall mantle fireplace. Difficult to say what AMPAS was thinking, affording their coveted gold guy the honorary post of serving as narrator to this rather sordid and sorry little comedy. In more recent years the Academy has become extremely territorial about loaning Oscar out for any guest appearances other than his annual night of a thousand stars. But here he is, regal and immaculate, and, as voiced by Ken Carpenter, pointedly glib and condescending about the way Mark lives his life. Poor Mark – pity the rich, but thoroughly miserable – Hollywood screenwriter, having lost his muse and superficially, his talents to ever win a mate – or at least, bookend – for Oscar, who solitarily adorns as the centerpiece of Mark’s moneyed accoutrements.     
Our story opens with Oscar’s contemplations; woeful and comedic, telling of how fame, fortune and the pursuit of glory have gone to the head of his owner, Mark Christopher. Mark’s not a bad egg, nor even much of an egotist. But he has made more than his share of blunders in life; wild and wooly times with any number of gold-digging starlets. His personal secretary, Maude Snodgrass (Glenda Farrell) is getting rather tired of typing out the drivel Mark’s been churning out since winning Oscar for writing ‘reel’ art. Maude is a tough ole bird; a sort of clear-eyed madcap lurking beneath the façade of a gin-soaked and slightly embittered cougar who despises “all gorgeous women with gorgeous figures…especially when they’re gorgeous!”  Maude doesn’t think much of Mark’s buddy, Virgil (Alvy Moore) either, referring to the crewcut and scrawny one-time war hero and Mark’s superior/now his gofer as ‘Junior’. Virgil and Mark were in the navy together – best pals. Virgil actually saved Mark’s life so Mark naturally feels he owes him something. Alas, the road paved with good intensions…well….along the way, Virgil has lost his self-respect. After all, there is not much Mark wants that he cannot procure all by himself, leaving Virg’ to skulk around the posh apartment, soaking up, but turning green from the afterglow of limelight. What should we call him…kept man? More like ‘house boy’ with a wicked slant on life of the rich and superficial in Hollywood; those dumb enough to think they have caught the proverbial tiger by its tail.
In this case, Mark had better watch out for the claws of his latest paramour; the slinky, Isabella Alexander – a senator’s daughter. She’s a knockout and perhaps not above knocking Mark on his celebrated assets in the process. It wouldn’t be hard. Mark quit his high-priced and steady studio gig to become a ‘serious writer’. One problem; he hasn’t suffered; ergo, he isn’t cut out for write the great American masterpiece. Neither is Isabella: just a girl who wants to settle down, or rather, calculatedly wrap herself in a money-lined mink or two as the very rich wife of a one-time highly successful screenwriter. Too bad for Mark, only his maid, Georgette (Maidie Norman) is in his corner.  Worse, Mark’s big plans to spend a romantic Christmas getaway with Isabella are repeatedly foiled, after Sergeants Monty Maizel (Horace McMahon) and Sam Hanlon (Herb Vigran) saddlebag him with custodianship of an annoying teenager. It really is Mark’s own fault, having once told Sam he was planning a hard-edged exposé on juvenile delinquency. One problem – Mark knows nothing about delinquents…well, nothing he can commit to paper without incriminating himself – and nothing to hint of a whiff of truth since he has pretty much forgotten what it is like to be young. Mark just wants to be left alone. Too bad, Sam preys on his pity. Susan Beauregard Landis is about to be carted off to a detention home for wayward youth. Alas, it’s Christmas and the bedding arrangements are all full up. Sue could spend a few days in county lockup or she could live large in Mark’s penthouse.
Why any self-respecting bachelor – even a proverbial nice guy like Mark – would entertain such an idiotic and preposterous arrangement is, frankly, beyond me. And Susan’s initial mistrust of all men in general, and our Mark in particular, does little to ingratiate her to him. In fact, from the get-go Mark realizes what a colossal mistake he has made in wanting to be the Good Samaritan. Susan is determined not to like Mark. But she is as determined to make it big as an actress. Mark has no time to debate these finer points. Unable to reach Maude, Mark instead elects to dump Susan off at a motel and find Maude later. Maybe she can look after Susan for the holidays. Alas, the hotel manager misconstrues Mark’s intentions in wanting to rent a seventeen year old kid a room ‘for the night’. And so, it’s back to Mark’s place; Susan inadvertently incurring Isabella’s ire when she answers Mark’s phone and gives every innocent indication of being ‘the other women’ in Mark’s life. Meanwhile, Mark has begun to warm to Susan in unexpected ways. He’s paternal, at first, calling upon his personal attorney, Harvey Butterworth (Les Tremayne) to find a loophole in the law that will set Susan free. But where and why?
For all intent and purposes, Susan is an orphan. Oh, she has a mother still alive – that much is true; but living her own life in Peru, having married rich and given her written consent for Susan to marry whoever and whenever she so desires. It doesn’t take Sue long to set her cap for Mark; a very bad case of puppy love at first sight. Anyone can see that? Or can they? Although professing no affection for the girl, Mark nevertheless allows himself to be swayed, arguably by compassion. After all, the cops cannot arrest a ‘married woman’ for vagrancy. So, Mark agrees to marry Susan in Vegas against the strenuous objections of his high-powered mouthpiece.  She takes the vows seriously. He doesn’t, electing to dance Susan’s feet off until the wee hours of dawn, then drive her all the way back to Los Angeles, deposit her on his bed, before telling Virgil and Georgette to take good care of Susan while he is away. Where is Mark going? To his private cabin in Tahoe – a real writer’s retreat, where he hopes to finish his ‘serious’ story. But before too long Mark begins to realize he is also in love with Susan. Too bad for Mark, Isabella is not yet willing to let him go. And so, the tug-o-war begins for Mark’s affections.
Susan is not easily dissuaded, not after Maude gives her a good piece of her mind; laying down the rules of engagement for a knockdown drag-out battle of the sexes. Fast learner, our Sue. After a fitful dream, in which Susan envisions Mark, dressed rather effetely, being seduced by a spider woman while she remains trapped inside a gilded bird cage, separated from the man she seemingly cannot live without, Susan awakens with a newfound resolve. She confronts Virgil and hits hard below the belt: “You? Who needs you? Mark? You know what you are, with your crewcut and fancy sailor talk? You’re nothing! Well, maybe you’re okay with the phony position he’s created for you but I won’t be a phony wife!”  Virgil does his best to have Sue see to reason, calling her into Harvey’s office to quietly begin the annulment proceedings. But Susan is a lot slicker than the men give her credit; ever the sophisticate about matters of the heart vs. a tabloid headline.
No, if Mark wants to marry Isabella he will have to divorce her and that is final. Seeing Susan in the commissary, eating cream, pickles and strawberries, Harvey forgets she is a teenager and begins to suspect that maybe Mark’s version of their platonic honeymoon was not the whole truth. The miscommunication continues as Harvey relays this news to Mark and he begins to suspect Virgil has been taking advantage of Susan behind his back. The two men come to blows and Virgil takes it upon himself to walk out on Mark and his cushy setup. It’s the navy for Virgil.  Meanwhile, Isabella has had quite enough of the enterprising young Mrs. Christopher. Interestingly, Mark too has had his fill – not of Susan – but Isabella. The senator’s daughter is out and Susan is decidedly in. As his last bit of duty to his former employer, Virgil explains the obvious to both Mark and his new bride; they are the perfect pair, leaving Mark and Susan to discover the depth of their affections in private. They do and in his penultimate moment of farewell, Virgil, now looking rather dashing in his naval officer’s gear, gets a wolfish whistle from Marilyn (Mara Lane); one of Mark’s sexy neighbors who previously would not even give him the time of day much less a come hither glance. It’s all for not, since Virg’ has to return to his ship or be court-martialed. Predictably, all ends happily for Mark and Susan, swinging together in the gilded cage of her fantasy, now a reality for the burgeoning love birds.
Susan Slept Here is a rather obtuse comedy with a few anomalies that bear mentioning. The froth is thick, though only occasionally dreamy. Director, Frank Tashlin makes several miscalculations in translating Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb's stage hit to the big screen. The worst of the lot is the dream sequence; pointless and visually absurd, with Dick Powell looking as though he has only just escaped a gay fashionista’s pride parade float, wearing costume designer, Michael Woulfe’s glittery pink and royal blue sailor’s suit and sequined cap. Remember, this is supposed to be a young girl’s fantasy about her perfectly idealized, attractive and strapping middle-age guy toward whom she has developed a healthy sexual attraction. But it is difficult if not impossible to see beyond Woulfe’s homoerotic camouflage; the sultry Anne Francis intermittently bedecked in smoldering hot outfits contrasted with the checkered-print calico top and satiny stretch pants worn by Debbie Reynolds – who very much looks the part of a tomboyish little girl by contrast. Dick Powell doesn’t really do himself any favors in this plot-less pantomime either; half sashaying about as though he were back on the set of one of those glorious Busby Berkeley musicals, unable to decide whether to work against the clothes he has been given to wear or merely dive headstrong into his pretty boy’s lampoon of masculinity.
Early in the film, Tashlin offers us an even more uncanny homoerotic exchange between Mark and Virgil; a conversation between the boys while one is taking a shower! Here, we get an overall disquieting sense of too much familiarity. Oh sure, the boys were in the navy together so I suppose it stands to reason they showered together without any concern as to what might occur if either one of them dropped the soap. But I don’t know too many heterosexual guy pals who would be nearly as comfortable in peace time discussing their plans for the evening while one – Virgil – has been thoroughly emasculated, and the other – Mark - casually struts back and forth wearing nothing but a towel; exiting his steamy glass shower (presumably, in the raw), donning an oversized bathrobe, and chatting away while Virgil follows him like a puppy around his bedroom suite, living vicariously through Mark’s extracurricular pursuits. We have transgressed beyond the usual bromantic chemistry; Mark socking Virgil in the eye later on, not so much to defend Susan’s honor, but rather jealously, for presumably betraying him with Susan in his absence. Draw your own conclusions, but Virgil has been missing out on this one-sided ‘friendship’; Mark content to keep his ole navy pal on a very short leash while flaunting his sexual prowess with the ladies right under Virg’s nose. Mark could have any woman he wants. That he settles on Susan Landis seems more like a beard worn for the convenience of the neighbors than a budding love affair.
I had hoped the Warner Archive (WAC) to be busy on some of Debbie Reynolds’ more memorable movies in hi-def: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Two Weeks With Love, I Love Melvin or The Tender Trap. But no; WAC has shown an affinity for the oddities as well as the irrefutable gems in their deep catalog. Susan Slept Here is neither, though it arguably strains toward the former than the latter. While I could sincerely complain (but won’t) about the executive logic that has placed this movie ahead of some far more worthy contenders, I certainly have no gripes with the way WAC has been handling any of their hi-def releases on home video. This is another peerless example of what deep catalog mastering is all about – or rather, should be; WAC raising the bar ever higher with a flawless 1080p rendering in superb Eastman Color that looks almost as delicious as a vintage 3-strip Technicolor release.
Color reproduction is, in a word, superb. The palette favors a lot of candy-floss hues, faithfully reproduced. Flesh tones are startlingly genuine. Few ‘color’ releases from this particular vintage have looked this good so far on Blu-ray. Contrast is bang on and consistent. Prepare to be pleasantly startled by the amount of fine detail on display. This is a reference quality visual presentation of a just so-so movie. The mono DTS is almost as delicious; sonically rich in unexpected ways, particularly the bookended main and end titles; the chorus warbling the song, ‘Susan Slept Here’; all bounce and no substance, just like the movie – a flavorful panache that like candy floss, sticks to your heart, if not your ribs. No extras, alas – or perhaps, fittingly. I cannot imagine wanting to know anything more about Susan Slept Here after having seen it once. It’s fun but that’s about it. If you like fluff, you will positively adore this disc.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, April 17, 2016

IN A LONELY PLACE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1950) Criterion Collection

Humphrey Bogart officially entered the emeritus phase of his career with Nicholas Ray’s blistering pseudo-noir pressure cooker, In a Lonely Place (1950); a gritty, often sadistic exposé, superficially speaking, about fickle Hollywood’s callous treatment and disposable nature of fame and its stars. Ah me, ‘show business…like no business I know.’ And Bogart, who with this movie, perhaps more than any other, disavowed his hard won status as a romantic leading man (typified by his iconic world-weary Richard Blaine in Casablanca, 1942 and superbly fermented thereafter in his frequent teaming with wife, Lauren Bacall – To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage), delivers a calculating and vicious performance as Dixon Steele; a hot-headed Hollywood has been – a writer, the lowest form of celebrity, already circling the bowl of his own oblivion; high-handedly mistreating the women who come and go from his life, and, giving virtually every indication he is capable of practically anything – even the murder of bubble-headed hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart).  
In A Lonely Place is perhaps the most disturbing ‘love story’ ever put on the screen; Bogie’s belligerence turning on a dime with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), the platinum fantasy plaything; glacially cool on the outside/a red-hot pistol whipper lurking just beneath the surface. But Laurel has a heart – a commodity Dix neither possesses nor harbors a yen to foster in any of his relationships. Dix is a loner. Arguably, he prefers this God-spot, smug superiority frowning down on everybody else. His ego is titanic even as his soul is bankrupted. Whether or not he is willing to acknowledge as much, Dix desperately needs a woman like Laurel to provide a solid center to his amoral compass. But can she steer him through every labyrinth his crude tetchiness invites? Arguably, no. And why should she? Dix has a brilliant mind - alright. But it is preceded by a champion pair of hard-clenched fists, far too eager to blacken the eye. Anger management issues do not begin to describe this ‘loose cannon’. 
Set against a jaded post-war America movie-land, paralyzed into submission by cracks in its seemingly indestructible – if superficially glamorous façade, director, Nicholas Ray’s carefully triangulated crossfire of repeatedly missed romantic opportunities builds into an almost Shakespearean-like tragedy of self-destruction. There is a thread of moral ambiguity that hacks like a cleaver into virtually every moment Laurel tries to reach her lover; perhaps, even more indicative of Bogart’s own soured good nature; by 1950, in the producer’s chair with Santana Productions after having challenged the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington; a humiliating experience. As with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (release the same year), In A Lonely Place exploits Hollywood’s imploding den of iniquity as mere springboard for another hellacious crime – murder. Both movies begin in mysteriously shrouded death, though only Wilder’s finishes with an extended confessional flashback. Ray’s sad-eyed summation never quite gets around to this. Neither does it matter because somewhere along the way the Black Dahlia-esque killing of Mildred Atkinson bleeds a more telling trail back to Laurel’s grave concerns for Dix; his sinister zeal to keep ole pal, Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) dangling on a string with speculations, just a game Dix plays as he skirts the particulars of his own innocence…or guilt.  
At least in the movie, Dixon Steele is innocent. Not so in Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel where he does in fact kill Mildred Atkinson and several others who cross his path in varying fitful psychotic episodes. Interesting, Andrew Solt’s revision turns Dix’s unbridled rage inward; the anger seeping through as manic, angst-driven depression; the more explosive episodes written off as part in parcel of Dix’s volcanic temperament. And Bogart is absolutely brilliant in managing his own star persona with this counterintuitively repugnant man of privilege. Bogart can inflict more devastation and transmit more kilowatts of menace with a single penetrating stare than any amount of gratuitous violence could spell out. Consider the moment when Dix first begins to suggest to Brub how Mildred’s murder might have been committed; Dix getting Brub to test his theory on his own wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) and Brub, so enraptured by Dix’s hypnotic piecing together of the clues he damn near garrotes Sylvia during the investigative process.   
In a Lonely Place is, as its title unabashedly implies, an intriguingly bleak affair; arguably, the darkest exorcism of human foibles yet achieved on the screen. That it manages to narrowly avoid virtually every pitfall that otherwise could have brought down the heavy sledgehammer of screen censorship, while remaining vague about Dix’s ethics (he likely has none or very few scruples to draw upon), creates a tantalizing tightrope, offset by Burnett Guffey’s noir-ish cinematography. Even the early dawn looks oppressive in this movie. Setting the plot against the patina of a Hollywood suffering the slings and arrows of its own disquieting collapse adds yet another subtext of perversion to this already desperate tale. Exactly who killed Mildred Atkinson? It probably wasn’t Dix. But even the audience is never entirely certain. The Edmund H. North/Andrew Solt screenplay takes appalling pleasure and great pains to reveal nothing except how brutal and nasty Dix can be in a pinch, given only an ounce of provocation. After all, if a kid on a joyride can provoke such a confrontation (in an ensuing roadside fistfight, Dix nearly pummels a teen to death with his bare fists; Bogart, caught with a sadist’s wild-eyed glint of pure evil; a middle-age madman unexpectedly exposed from under an otherwise very transparent veneer of rank, cynical respectability) might a naïve girl like Mildred Atkinson, rejecting his advances, create an even more volatile mixture of self-loathing and castrating rage; the perfect Molotov cocktail for murder?
Dix takes Mildred home on a whim to reprise him of a synopsis to a soapy novel – what Mildred calls ‘an epic’, after his agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith) suggests this could be the winner they have both been waiting for to put Dix’s career back on top. Alas, after enjoying a ginger ale and some lightly sarcastic badinage, somewhere between Dix’s gated bungalow and the cabstand, dear ole Millie is whacked by an unknown assailant. The discovery of her strangulated remains in the wee hours of the next morning raise more than a few eyebrows and questions, placing the last 24 hours of Dix’s whereabouts under a microscope as the police’s number one suspect, despite his utter lack of motivation. In Dix’s corner are old wartime buddy, Brub Nicolai, presently a detective sergeant on the L.A. police force, and, Laurel Gray; a scissor-legged, silken smooth cross between his gal Friday and the traditional sultry femme fatale. In time, Laurel is revealed as the true innocent of this piece – figuratively bloodied, but unbound; Dix’s credibility – both public and private – left in tattered ruin as he laments, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
In A Lonely Place teeters on the verge of becoming just another psychologically dense puff piece a la the likes of a Spellbound (1945) or Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) in which all of the woes plaguing our protagonist can be – and generally are – resolved, simply by connecting the psycho-babble dots in a past regression. Instead, Nicholas Ray eschews any sort of concrete deconstruction to get to the truth, neither analyzing nor probing Dixon Steele’s thought processes; ditching the elegant psychoanalysis in the former example, but never veering quite so completely into the grotesqueness of Grand Guignol that is truly horrifying in the latter. The parallels between Dixon Steele and Bogart cannot be dismissed – Bogart, scarred by the lacerating critical backlash incurred from his defense of the ‘Hollywood 10’; forced to publish an ‘admission’ he being ‘duped’ by their Communist influences. Bogart – the man – if not his career, was wounded by this enforced compliance, causing him to temporarily recoil in shame. The episode would continue to haunt Bogart privately for the rest of his life. The irony was perhaps not lost on Nicholas Ray; a one-time card-carrying member of the Communist Party, never investigated, much less indicted by HUAC for his former alliances; quietly left to observe the malaise swirling around Bogart’s naïve altruism. “He was more than an actor,” Ray would later concur, “…the very image of our condition whose face was a living reproach.”   
In A Lonely Place owes a lot to Bogart’s remorseless portrait of Dixon Steele. But the ballast of its success goes to Nicholas Ray’s casting his soon to be ex-wife, Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray, a part originally intended for Lauren Bacall. Bacall had made a start of her career rivaling her husband’s on-screen insolence, barb for barb. But from the moment, Grahame’s ladylike, if diffident, tart sashays into the police precinct to confirm Dix’s alibi on the night of the murder, she emanates an aloof sensitivity that is in complete symbiosis with Dix’s isolation from the rest of the world; her cocoon, the glacial façade of a blonde bombshell, dipped like a soft-centered candy bonbon with an uncharacteristically hard-covered shell. What is Laurel’s story? Hmmm. We get flashes of a more sordid past in Laurel’s infrequent, though tempestuous exchanges with her masseuse, Martha (Ruth Gillette); a beefy pseudo-lesbian type who may know enough to blackmail Gray out of any lasting happiness. For certain, Laurel has been ravaged in ways Dix cannot even begin to fathom. Not that he would care to try. But like the Ado-Annie-ish floozy she would later play in The Big Heat (1953); Grahame herein offers up a weirdly empathetic intelligence, exposing this sadder but wiser girl; imperiously composed at a glance, but far more fragile and careworn on the inside.
After a brief main title sequence, set to the world-weary strains of George Antheil’s score, In A Lonely Place opens with a prelude to the opera that is to follow; Dix, in his convertible, recognized by a starlet (June Vincent) for whom he wrote the screenplay to her feature debut. The gal’s husband (Charles Cane) is unimpressed and provokes a confrontation Dix is only too eager to partake in; the car pulling away and Dix, already perturbed, now proceeding to his favorite haunt – Paul’s; a carbon copy of the famed Hollywood hotspot, Romanoffs.  Almost immediately, he is assailed by his agent, Mel Lippman and director, Lloyd Barnes (Morris Ankrum); fair-weathers, eager to bleed the last drops of his creative genius onto a project as unworthy, but otherwise possibly salvageable with his talents. In short order, Nicholas Ray introduces us to the green hatcheck girl Mildred Atkinson who has been reading the novel Mel hopes to entice Dix to turn into a movie. She refers to the book as ‘an epic’. Dix is mildly amused by how little Mildred knows about great literature or even good writing. In these early moments, we also get a sense of Dix’s compassion for lost causes, perhaps recognizing how easily today’s much-in-demand commodity can become yesterday’s ostracized outcast overnight. Case in point: Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), a one-time leading man reduced to bleary-eyed alcoholic reminiscences at the bar. Barnes and Lippman would prefer a booth, but Dix sits next to this fallen idol adding, “What’s wrong with right here? He’s not contagious.”
It does not take long for Dix’s temper to get the better of him; Barnes’ mild condemnation of Dix’s refusal to work on anything he doesn’t like met with some violent finger pointing. “You know what you are?” Dix suggests, “A popcorn salesman. You haven’t had a flop because you’ve made the same picture over and over again for the last twenty years.”  In short order, an unnamed executive, Junior (Lewis Howard) turns up, gregarious and raving about the prevue he has just attended, in tandem criticizing Charlie as a drunkard that his father once had the misfortune to turn into a star. His comments incur Dix’s wrath. He flies off the handle and gives ‘Junior’ a good sock in the jaw. A full-out brawl is narrowly averted, leaving Dix to illustrate that his disgust for humanity at large is not exclusively focused on the chest-thumping male of the species, cruelly dashing aside the flirtatious invites of a former flame, Fran Randolph (Alix Talton). Not long thereafter, Mildred returns with the book. Dix finds her eagerness amusedly infectious and suggests she accompany him back to his bungalow. Getting the wrong impression, Dix informs Mildred his interests in her are purely professional.  Now relieved, she willingly cancels a previous date to go home with him instead. In the forecourt of Dix’s gated bungalow at the Beverly Patio Apartments we meet Laurel Gray – a neighbor, slinking past them with watchful eyes.
While Dix retires to his bedroom to change into more comfortable clothes, Mildred begins to relay the novel’s plot to him from the next room. It becomes painfully clear to Dix that what Mildred calls ‘an epic’ is actually second-rate romantic pulp of the worst vintage; real trash and B-grade filler that in no way motivates him to write the screenplay. He thanks Mildred for her time, pays her off and sends her on her way. Disgusted by the prospect of committing himself to another flop, Dix retires for the night instead. Too bad for Dix, that in the wee hours of the morning he is awakened by Brub Nicholai. It is not a social call. Since leaving the army, Brub has become a detective sergeant on the Beverly Hills police force. It seems the body of Mildred Atkinson was discovered in Benedict Canyon, dumped from a moving car; the trail leading back to Dix’s bungalow. At the police station, Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) rides Dix hard, suggesting twenty dollars paid for more than Mildred’s cab fare and that any gentleman would have called for a cab, rather than leave a young girl to go in search of one on her own. “Oh, I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” Dix glibly replies, “I said that I was tired.”
Lochner is unimpressed. Believing he has already found his man, he orders Brub to stick like glue to Dix; certain, Dix will eventually provide the slip-up to effectively announce his guilt. Lochner also calls Laurel Gray in for questioning. Alas, she confirms Dix’s story instead. While Mildred was at Dix’s earlier in the evening, it is also true she left his bungalow alone, exactly as he stated. Mel is horrified to learn his client is under investigation for murder. But Dix delights in tormenting his agent with his noncommittal explanation of his whereabouts. A short while later, Brub invites Dix to dinner at his home; Brub’s wife, Sylvia, unconvinced of Dix’s innocence, particularly after Dix’s reenactment of the crime causes Brub to narrowly avoid strangling his own wife. Sylvia prefers her men conventionally handsome and average. Brub, however, admits he has gleaned more pertinent knowledge of how the crime might have been committed in five minutes from listening to Dix than from all his many hours of investigative legwork thus far. Meanwhile, Dix makes a play for Laurel. She is willing and receptive and soon becomes the muse to inspire Dix to write his best screenplay to date. Laurel could not be happier. But her masseuse, Martha, keeps needling her to pursue a more profitable relationship with a former flame, Mr. Baker.
Dix and Laurel join Brub and Sylvia for a moonlit bonfire on the beach. But the mood turns from palpably romantic to contemptuous when Sylvia inadvertently reveals Laurel has been in Lochner’s office more recently to answer another round of questions. Suspecting Laurel has been getting closer simply to help Brub and Lochner pin Mildred’s murder on him, Dix flies off the handle. He drives like a madman with Laurel in tow, racing down the narrowly winding coastal highway; confronted by a teenage driver, John Mason (Don Hamin) whom he almost sideswipes. Dix and John get into it, Dix pummeling the college football star to the ground until he is unconscious. Laurel can plainly see Dix is out of control. Possibly, she fears for her own safety too. Without a doubt, it is a turning point in their relationship. Laurel confides her fears to Sylvia who suggests she should go away to clear her head and decide either to continue or break off her relationship with Dix. Meanwhile, Dix attempts to make a mends by wiring John money to repair his car. For the next little while, Laurel tries to reach Dix. However, increasingly she begins to fall out of love with him. Thus, by the time Mel arrives to check up on Dix’s progress with the script, Laurel has already made up her mind not to marry him. She offers Mel the screenplay and prepares to pack up and leave. But Dix returns home early, as yet unaware of her intentions, and invited by Mel and Fran to dinner at Paul’s. Regrettably, once again, Dix’s ire is raised when Fran confides she cannot wait to begin work on the new film Dix has written; Mel endeavoring to cover up the fact Laurel gave him the screenplay.
Having once been dishonest and nearly ruined her own chances for happiness, Laurel comes clean and reveals to Dix she gave the script to Mel. When a private call comes in for Laurel, Dix intervenes, suspecting it to be her former lover/sugar daddy, Mr. Baker. Mel tries to reason with Dix but it’s no use. Dix slugs Mel in the face; a humiliating moment, capped off by Dix’s realization Mel was right about his screenplay. It is a hit with the producers and with Barnes, who cannot wait to begin shooting. By all accounts, Dix is back on top; except, the phone call he intercepted is actually Martha - not Baker. Mel is willing to let bygones be bygones. Though demoralized, he will remain Dix’s agent. However, Laurel has suddenly realized Dix will never change. He may not be a murderer, but he is decidedly a loose cannon and a bully. It is time to cut her losses, move out and move on. Meanwhile, Capt. Lochner is chagrined when an unknown man, Tesla, confesses to Mildred’s murder. So, Dix really is ‘clean’ after all. Brub tries to telephone the good news. But Dix is not home, having stormed Laurel’s bungalow under the misguided notion she is cheating on him. Despite her protestations, Dix remains suspicious; unaware she has plans to escape his tyranny with an impromptu trip to New York. When Dix repeatedly badgers Laurel, then threatens her with the possibility of physical harm, she pleads for his understanding. Thwarted in the nick of time by Brub’s phone call; Lochner’s apology comes much too late to make any difference in their future as a couple. The affair that burned searing white hot is at an end. As Dix leaves Laurel’s apartment for the last time, utterly defeated and for parts unknown – certain to come to no good, a tearful Laurel murmurs the memorable line from Dix’s movie script, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me”, adding, “Goodbye, Dix.”  
In A Lonely Place is the purgatory of all truly heartbreaking love stories; the antithesis of romance, for sure. Director, Nicholas Ray builds on an intensity of misdirection; that Dixon Steele has somehow murdered Mildred Atkinson in a fit of rage. Initially, it all plays out as a hunch, blossoming into more than a distinct likelihood until the very end. Even if Dix has not killed Mildred, he certainly possesses both the temperament and predilection towards uncontrollable violence that, left unchallenged, almost resulted in at least one murder – the aforementioned bludgeoning to the brink of death of U.C.L.A. athlete, John Mason. And in these penultimate moments of farewell, Ray does more than hint that without Laurel as his buffer Dixon Steele will come to no good, despite having dodged Lochner’s impassioned police frame-up for this crime. In hindsight, the Red Scare’ is written all over this movie; the tabloid-esque quality of its police procedural and nightmarish fantasy element of its flagrante delicto – I hesitate referring to Laurel and Dix’s brief relationship as either a ‘whirlwind romance’ or ‘love affair’ (more like the Texas-sized tornado of torrid liaisons) – is permeated by political subtext. Without a doubt, Bogart was feeling the sting of HUAC’s heedless spank, in hindsight, most fortunate McCarthy’s slap down did not escalate to career-derailing proportions that had befallen a great many iconoclastic talents along the way. Co-star, Art Smith’s career would not survive this deluge; Smith utterly ruined a few short years after the release of In A Lonely Place when he was fingered as a Communist by his erstwhile ‘friend’, director, Elia Kazan.   
Having narrowly dodged his own run in with McCarthyism, Nicholas Ray would prove an influential figure to the burgeoning French New Wave; his reputation in Hollywood dogged by speculations of rumored – though never proven – bisexualism. By 1960, Ray’s liberal usage of various drugs and alcohol had overrun his clear-eyed professionalism. While shooting 55 Days at Peking (1963) he suffered a complete physical collapse, withdrawing from film-making for almost a decade, by which time it had become rather obvious to his closest friends he was suffering from more than his addictions, his health in very steep decline. Becoming a professor of film studies during these emeritus years, Ray continued to produce and direct modest movies in conjunction with his students. He died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979; ironically the same week as John Wayne, whom he had directed in Flying Leathernecks in 1951; today, regarded as Ray’s least distinguished movie. Ironically, In A Lonely Place was the antithesis of Ray’s own prospects in Hollywood circa 1950, the pendulum of his career decidedly on the upswing. For the briefest of wrinkles in time, Nicholas Ray occupied an enviable position as an irrefutable trendsetter/trailblazer with such daring classics as Johnny Guitar (1953), Rebel Without A Cause (1954), Bigger Than Life (1956) and Party Girl (1958) pushing the envelope on every hell-raising/hair-raising wickedness, from teen delinquency/gang violence, to drug abuse and prostitution, rocking the Eisenhower era’s insular view of America; the beautiful. In A Lonely Place is distinctly a prologue piece to this memorable period in Ray’s career. It survives today as a blistering piece of post-war American cinema with a shockingly bleak performance from Humphrey Bogart.
I will simply go on record and state that it would have been prudent of Sony to remaster In A Lonely Place in 4K, considering this is fast becoming the technical standard bearer in an industry insidiously pushing for the upgrade, but without actually possessing any truly inspired content to view in this ultra-hi-def format. But no, Criterion's ‘new’ Blu-ray is sourced from a 2K digital restoration done a few years back, overseen and curated in their vaults until now by Grover Crisp’s exceptional team of archivists and restoration experts. I really cannot fault the results. In A Lonely Place in 1080p easily bests the tired old DVD transfer from 2002, offering superior resolution, exceptional tonality and film grain that, at long last, appears naturally thick instead of rather hazily soft and artificially clumpy. Fine details are brought to the forefront while age-related artifacts have been diminished and/or eradicated for a very impressive and consistent rendering. Honestly, there is virtually nothing to complain about here; the limitations of Columbia’s source materials resulting in some less than perfect, though forgivable moments scattered throughout. The scene taking place in the dewy wee hours after Dix’s initial police interrogation, as he offers a young man cleaning the sidewalks a few bucks to send flowers to Mildred Atkinson’s funeral, still looks rough and underexposed, as example. We won’t poo-poo the results, however, because the effort put forth is satisfying on the whole. Criterion’s PCM mono is more than adequate; George Antheil’s score sounding marvelous and dialogue front and center, with a very crisp resonance.
Criterion pads out the extras. We have perhaps come to expect such plush accoutrements from Criterion when in reality we really ought to give sincere thanks to Jon Mulvaney and his team at Criterion, as they remain the only company to consistently apply such a mantra and dedication to virtually every home video release long before the birth of hi-def. Herein, we get a thorough audio commentary from NYU prof, Dana Polan. Aside: I really wish Polan would contribute more tracks like this one to Criterion’s upcoming slate of releases. Honestly, I cannot find enough plaudits to recommend his work both elsewhere and herein. We also get a newly produced 16 minute reflection on Gloria Grahame by biographer, Vincent Curcio; too brief, but nevertheless fascinating in the tidbits of information he provides. Ported over from the DVD is director, Curtis Hanson’s 20 min. ‘In A Lonely Place Revisited’; Hanson returning to the famed apartments where Nicholas Ray shot the bulk of his movie, to retrace the director’s steps and reminisce about the movie and its legacy.
Criterion has also unearthed I’m a Stranger Here Myself; a 1975 documentary on Nicholas Ray curiously condensed from its original runtime of an hour to 40 min. Given allowances for excised TV commercial breaks, I am uncertain exactly what else in the way of actual content was omitted to account for this 20 min. gap. As with a lot of vintage ‘bio’ puff pieces made in the 70s, this one stacks the deck with noteworthy names apart from Ray to provide context and snippets of commentary; Francois Truffaut, John Houseman and Natalie Wood among its cavalcade.  Finally, there is the hour-long radio adaptation from 1948; arguably, more faithful to Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, with Robert Montgomery and Laurene Tuttle as its stars. As expected, we also get liner notes, these featuring a critical essay by Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)