“What the hell were you thinking?” That's always a question hordes of angry pitchfork 'n' torch-wielding movie buffs ask me when I do my annual year-end cherry picking. Happily, many do agree with some of my choices, which is fine, but, for those who don’t, please bear in mind that I have a strange way of looking at things. Also that it's only one opinion, and, admittedly, from an unstable source...so lighten up.
I do concede that 2013 (for me) was a lousy year for everything but home vid releases; these “outside” events absolutely had an effect upon my decisions; it doesn't take a Freud or Jerry Springer to realize that my Top Ten do not comprise the cheeriest pics and programs on the market. Yeah, they're sort of on the grim side, but also kinda great. Hey, misery loves company. Every time I do this, I deflect to that classic self-deprecating Jack Benny intro, when he first entered radio. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny. They'll be a slight pause while everyone says 'Who cares?'” Not that I'm comparing myself to my all-time favorite comedian, but...you get it. Or not. So, here, in alphabetical order, is my spin on the discs I loved most in '13.
THE BIG PARADE (Warner Home Video). Classic movie buffs don't need any further nudge regarding this 1925 landmark silent epic – the most successful pic of the pre-talkie era. It simultaneously put MGM, director King Vidor and leading man John Gilbert on the map, and all deservedly so. That it's a scathing indictment against war is a given; that it achieves this through visual poetry is an experience only heightened by this spectacular uncut Blu-Ray restoration. A great Carl Davis score, a 64-page illustrated book (featuring notes by Kevin Brownlow), second audio commentary (with Vidor!), the famed '25 Metro studio tour, and the rare theatrical trailer make this is a winner all the way. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/doughboys-and-money-men?no_cache=1388762402
CHINA GATE (Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment). Samuel Fuller is cinema's cynical master of the human condition, and this magnificent 1957 depiction of the French-Indochina kerfuffle (that preceded what escalated into the nightmare known as the Vietnam war) offers bravura testament to his multi-hat abilities (writer-producer-director). That the “hero” of this piece is an alcoholic prostitute named Lucky Legs just underlines my point. Virtually unavailable since its original release (and by that I mean only in atrocious pan-and-scan editions), CHINA GATE now comes to us via an excellent 35MM CinemaScope transfer. There's not a false note in this brilliant movie – from the brutal violence to the venom-dipped dialog, or the career-defining performances of Angie Dickinson, Gene Barry and Nat King Cole. This is my number one pick of the year – my favorite disc of 2013. Grab it, and try getting that title song out of your noggin! ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/girl-rilla-whorefare
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment). When most folks hear the name “Blake Edwards,” they automatically think of the Pink Panther flicks, Victor/Victoria, The Great Race or Breakfast at Tiffany's. Not me. For me, this prolific filmmaker's forte lay in the dark, foreboding noirish world of Gunn, (the fringes of) Mister Cory and this amazing 1962 San Francisco-based thriller. A psycho sexual serial killer is targeting a beauteous bank teller...and may just get away with it. Lee Remick has never been better, nor has the rest of the cast, but the thespian kudos go to star Glenn Ford (a longtime friend of the genre) as a detached but dedicated detective assigned to the case. It's really like The Big Heat's Bannion a decade later, and easily one of the actor's finest performances. This new Blu-Ray shows us this underrated nail-biter as it has never been seen before: gorgeous crystal-clear nighttime location visuals, appended by a jammin' soundtrack that bristles with Henry Mancini's oh-so-cool jazzy score. It's a limited edition, so get it...before it's too late. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/raw-shock-test
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUMES 6 & 7 (Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video). Say, who DOESN'T love pre-Code Hollywood? An' if youse don't know what I'm talkin' about – shove in yer clutch and take a powder! Or better yet, plunk down some moolah and give yer peepers a thrill! To be sure, these two new sets comprise eight ravenously delicious entries (spanning the primo years, 1932 through early 1934) guaranteed to keep your heart pounding and your blood percolatin'. Say, with an array of (all good rock band) monikers like Spot White, Wong Lo Get and Joe Thunderhorse – how CAN you go wrong? But that's only a mere taste of the hookers, scoundrels, seducers, deviates, druggies, racists, pimps and murderers awaiting to entice, pleasure and corrupt your soul amidst their art déco environs. Natch, you know these disreputable dregs as Kay Francis, Edward G. Robinson, Richard Barthelmess – to say nothing of a stupendous additional rogues' gallery offering more scars than there are in heaven (like these perps are EVER gonna end up there), including Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez, Anita Page, Alice White, Walter Huston, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lyle Talbot, Virginia Bruce, Robert Young, Claire Dodd and even Jimmy Durante. Gotta give a special nod to scumbag supreme Warren William, who suavely penetrates Young in a department store Bed and Mattress showroom...then rapes her at an office party. Ditto to cad John Gilbert, appearing in the best talkie of his career; Bette Davis as an open-marriage-minded Cosmo artist. And then there's my beloved goddess Ann Dvorak...Be still my pump! The flicks, for yer info, are THE WET PARADE, DOWNSTAIRS, MANDALAY and MASSACRE (Volume 6) and THE HATCHET MAN, SKYSCRAPER SOULS, EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE and EX-LADY (Volume 7). Know what Say Girl is? No? Well get yourself an education! Brown paper wrapper not included. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/naughty-gaudy-and-haughty-tantalizing-forbidden-hollywood-fruit
HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Synapse Films). No doubt I'm setting myself up for some flak for choosing this 1971 relatively obscure Hammer pic over a couple of John Ford flicks and game-changing musicals. Well, bug off – I stand firmly behind this superbly-crafted Peter Sasdy-directed goth, set in late Victorian England. Lurid title aside, this is one of the most unusual horror shows ever conceived; in fact, I'd go as far as to knight it as beautiful...and even romantic. The (possibly) possessed illegitimate daughter of Jack the Ripper, a student of Freud, the debauched lifestyles of the privileged...they all figure into the narrative, wrapped in Hammer's patented modestly-produced-but-lavish-look style. Eric Porter leads the excellent cast through their paces, but it's a thoroughly lovely turn by star Angharad Rees that seals the deal. Truly inventive (how often are victim and villain concurrently the same person?), this Blu-Ray 1080p transfer is the best HANDS has ever looked. Another perk – this is the complete, unrated version – and not the compromised cut that appeared in the original '71 U.S. release. Plus there are some nifty extras. It was hard to pick this over the budget-priced triple feature DVD Hammer (and Millennium Entertainment) put out, but certain factors (the two Terence Fisher titles in the latter have since been issued as special Blu-Ray editions; and the third selection in the set was a speeded-up version of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) made this the front runner. Besides, I was knocked out by this movie in 1971, and I was right. It's a sad, atmospheric Fisher-worthy subject that only improves with each screening. I love it. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/freud-where-prohibited?cid=db_articles
JACK TAYLOR, SET 1 (Acorn Media Group/RLJ Entertainment). This gritty, noirish 2011 series does for Irish tourism what the Kennedy assassination did for Dallas, TX. In bleary-eyed perennial-two-in-the-morning stumbling style, JACK TAYLOR showcases its title character: a disgraced, drunken cop, now working as a craggy PI. He's a violent, anti-social, albeit highly literate, lunatic with a DVD collection. Hey, it's me, I shouted (except for the drunken and violent part). Terrific thesp Iain Glen owns the role – and he's just great; you wanna just hug his snarky ass, vomit-and-urine-stained clothing and all (also not me). Well, okay – maybe that’s stretching a point. That he's the most commendable human in his Galway community (where BFFs turn out to be psycho killers, where the only group more corrupt than the criminals is the law, where nuns are revealed as sadistic sociopaths) is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this engrossing, thrilling trio of mysteries. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/improper-copper?cid=db_articles
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment). Film noir in Technicolor. Say what? Yeah, well, sure it's contradictory – but that's the point. So is its evil femme fatale, the wonderful ridiculously beautiful (that's a compliment) Gene Tierney. How can someone so gorgeous be such a greedy scum-sucking maniac? As the title suggests, it’s the most heavenly hellish movie ever made. HEAVEN's ravishing lead and her Leon Shamroy lavishly lensed world make the electrifying scenario all that more frightening. With a supporting cast including Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Ray Collins, Darryl Hickman and, last but in no way least, Vincent Price, this John Stahl-directed triumph is perhaps the most perfect candidate for Blu-Ray rendering. And Twilight Time has done an outstanding job. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN in 1080p is the only way to ascend, but, hurry up – it's a limited edition. Tierney's 1945 Oscar-nominated performance still rips me up; as testament to this, I can emphatically state that, even knowing what I know, I'd still let her do with me whatever she desires. Ellen always wins. ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/row-v-wading?cid=db_articles
A LIFE OF HER OWN (Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video). Perhaps the most post-Code pre-Code movie ever turned out by MGM, this little-seen 1950 romance-noir remains an underappreciated George Cukor gem; in fact, it's one of my favorite Cukors. Chronicling the career of an icy model and her climb up the posh meat-rack ladder of the New York fashion industry, A LIFE OF HER OWN leaves no stone unturned, which is good, as that's where the majority of the cast resides. Lana Turner is the savvy Lily James, whose take-no-prisoners attitude crashes and burns when she collides with ruthless adulterer Ray Milland. Louis Calhern and Barry Sullivan represent the Big Apple's Mad Men slimeball contingent (with Sullivan especially repugnant); but ultimately the acting chops go to (again, be still my rhythmic contracting cardiac muscle) Ann Dvorak, in a supporting role as a delusional aging runway clothes mare. That she wasn't even nominated for Best Supporting Actress is an abomination and reason enough for dissing the Academy (which we do in our home on a yearly basis, paying anti-Christ homage by traditionally viewing the 1966 corker The Oscar on the night in question). ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/article/shifty-shades-of-ray?cid=db_articles
THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video). Another film noir (incorporating enemy agent espionage, a no-no during WWII) addition to the Top Ten for '13! And WHAT an addition. This exciting 1944 Warners mystery-adventure (adapted from Eric Ambler’s suspenseful novel) exotically transports viewers across Europe, unfolding a diabolical tale of treachery and murder along the way. Like LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS also concentrates on a singular source of evil personified, this time a more reasonable black-and-white friendly blackmailer/procurer/saboteur/spy/killer, aka Dimitrios Makropoulos. It's a Hall of Shame tribute to the great Zachary Scott that he out-sleazes such purveyors of screen villainy as Peter Lorre (the closest thing to this pic's idea of a hero) and Sydney Greenstreet. With terrific photography (Arthur Edeson) and direction (Jean Negulesco) plus a supporting roster of sinister mugs including Victor Francen, John Abbott, Kurt Katch, Eduardo Ciannelli and a trampy Faye Emerson, DIMITRIOS is as relentless a thickly plotted crowd-pleaser that ever tread down its genre's rain-swept mean streets (even though in this case they're of the continental cobblestone variety). ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/as-slime-goes-by
RAMROD (Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment). Alongside 2013’s vintage bouquet of romantic noir and spy noir can now be added western noir. This rare 1947 Andre de Toth sagebrush-set celebration of sexual perversion and dementia revolves around the aberrant daughter of a ruthless rancher, who will stop at nothing to control the territory and its male populace. Veronica Lake excels as the babe du jour – chipped off the old block of a cast-against-type heartless Charlie Ruggles. Joel McCrea is an alcoholic cowhand attempting (but finding it difficult) to do the right thing. Throw in Donald Crisp, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan and Lloyd Bridges for laughs, then add a catalog of torture and mutilation from the DeToth/DeSade Spanish Inquisition playbook and you've got the ingredients for one freakish oater. Oh, yeah – as unsettling as Ruggles is as a bad guy, wait till you see the wings-off-flies puller extraordinaire: home, home on deranged psycho Bill Schell, played by none other than – are you ready – Don DeFore! It's all based on a Luke Short story, and was (almost inconceivably) coproduced by MGM. RAMROD is dark, hard-boiled and nasty. I cherish it like nobody's business! ORIGINAL REVIEW: http://www.examiner.com/review/sullivan-s-saddles
So there you have it. Looking ahead to 2014 I can already see some contenders for next year's Top Ten. In conclusion, don't get upset if you disagree or even hate my choices. Close your eyes, count to ten, and ethereally conjure up a Benny for your thoughts, “They'll be a pause while you say 'Who cares?'” Repeat action with a quiet vengeance until whipped.