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SLEEPERS! FILM NOIR, WESTERN AUTEURS ON DVD AND BLU-RAY

Even as “physical media” is ostensibly disappearing there are new DVD and Blu-ray releases being released on a regular basis, with valuable bonus material. The newest company to join the parade is Arrow Academy (Arrow Video in the United States), which is offering superb digital transfers of Joseph H. Lewis’ signature films My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the NightThe pleasure of watching beautiful copies of these films would be worth the price alone, but following the lead of the Criterion Collection, Arrow has gone the extra mile for film buffs.

 

An emblematic Joseph H. Lewis shot from So Dark the Night

 

My Name is Julia Ross (1945) has always had a strong reputation, uncommon for a B movie, but my recollection of So Dark the Night (1946) was dim until I revisited it and I count it as a major rediscovery. The story, which originated in Reader’s Digest, is short but solid: an overworked Parisian police inspector travels to the countryside for a much-needed rest. Instead, two innocent people are murdered and he feels impelled to investigate, while falling in love with an innkeeper’s beautiful daughter. (The magazine story was written by Aubrey Wisberg and the script is credited to Martin Berkeley and Dwight V. Babcock, whose background was writing for the pulps. All three men churned out Bs and TV episodes on a steady basis.)

 

 

I’d like to see a contemporary director pack so much “pure cinema” into 71 minutes. Not only is the whodunit well told; it bears Lewis’s distinctive compositions in scene after scene, with overhead shots, deep focus, Dutch angles and more…even such foreground objects as his trademark wagon wheel to give each scene a flourish. His approach to this material elevates a B picture to new heights.

 

I took this shot of Curtis Hanson and Peter Bogdanovich flanking Joseph H. Lewis when he was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1998

 

My only question is “How on earth did this get made?” Columbia was a studio that commissioned writers in the “B” unit to turn out screenplays for agreed-upon titles like Two Señoritas from Chicago and Boston Blackie Meets a Lady. Lewis had attracted attention with Julia Ross, but this was still a department charged with cranking out fodder for the lower-half of double-features. So Dark the Night wasn’t part of an ongoing series and it had no star value whatsoever. Leading actor Steven Geray was a familiar face to audiences of the 1940s but little more. Even the capable supporting cast was less than stellar, if not downright unknown. (A hunchback character is played by Theodore Gottlieb, who gained notoriety in later years as monologist Brother Theodore.)

 

 

Lewis was fortunate to have talented staff cinematographer Burnett Guffey and art director Carl Anderson at his side, but setting up those unusual compositions he loved took precious time. My late friend Edward Bernds, who worked at Columbia for years, recalled that Roy William Neill regularly fell behind schedule when he attempted to create “artistic” shots for his pictures in the 1930s.

So Dark the Night boasts a beautiful score by Hugo Friedhofer, who was primarily known as Max Steiner’s orchestrator at Warner Bros. He left his home studio around this time to step out of Steiner’s shadow. In fact, the same year he toiled on this modest B movie he wrote the Oscar-winning score for The Best Years of Our Lives!

The Arrow Academy release has a cornucopia of bonus features that create a kind of master class on Joseph H. Lewis and his work at Columbia. Imogen Sara Smith gives an excellent on-camera interview about director Lewis’s place in the Hollywood studio system. Farran Smith Nehme joins the always-savvy Glenn Kenny for a well-researched and enjoyable commentary track. Finally, there is a first-rate essay included with the package written by Scottish film noir authority David Cairns.

 

 

Flicker Alley is presenting a restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951). This little-known title has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and funded by the Film Noir Foundation. Lee J. Cobb, fresh from his Broadway triumph as Willy Loman, stars as a San Francisco detective who is teaching his kid brother (John Dall) the ropes as they cover a murder case. The movie makes admirable use of its San Francisco locations, especially during a tour-de-force showdown sequence. Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, thinks all three leading actors are miscast but I respectfully disagree. It’s admittedly novel seeing Jane Wyatt as a femme fatale, but John Dall is extremely likable as the bright new cop who isn’t yet jaded like his older sibling. A background featurette produced and directed by Steven Smith offers observations by a familiar (but always welcome) cast of characters, the film noir brigade led by Muller, Alan K. Rode, and Julie Kirgo, who always have interesting things to say. An unexpected treat is hearing from the son of veteran Hollywood director Felix E. Feist, about whom I knew almost nothing. Raymond Feist has no illusions about his dad’s career and quotes him as saying, “We’re just puttin’ out sausages…every once in a while we make a really good sausage.”

A separate piece offers irresistible then-and-now video of the movie’s varied San Francisco locations. What fun! An accompanying booklet draws heavily on the original 1951 pressbook, which is also quite entertaining. We should all be grateful to the Film Noir Foundation for ferreting out “orphan” films like this programmer, produced by Jack M. Warner, the son of Jack L., and putting it back in circulation.

 

 

Finally, the Criterion Collection has turned its attention to Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1956), which opens with an unmistakably Fuller-esque in-your-face sequence, all the more powerful in razor-sharp black & white widescreen. A lone wagon is just a speck against the vast expanse of western hills. Suddenly, with a roar of thunder, it is overpowered by Barbara Stanwyck, dressed in black and riding a white stallion, followed by forty horsemen hell bent for leather. One is tempted to say, “OK, you’ve got my attention.”

The men on that wagon (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, and Robert Dix) roll into the town of Cochise and quickly learn that Stanwyck pretty much rules the entire county. Sullivan is a U.S. Marshal with an arrest warrant for her errant, gun-crazy kid brother (John Ericson). He has his work cut out for him trying to pry that loose-cannon “kid” from her protective sister. The movie provides a typically eccentric Fuller spin on the Western genre with arresting camerawork (by Joseph Biroc) and a couple of walking-and-talking shots that span the entire length of Fox’s frontier street. Jidge Carroll plays a fellow who runs the public bath in town and offers two unexpected songs, including one called—no kidding—“High Ridin’ Woman (With a Whip).”

 

 

Criterion has delivered a lustrous transfer and packed the Blu-ray with goodies. There is a charmingly casual piece featuring Fuller’s widow Christa and daughter Samantha, who spark each other’s thoughts and memories as they sift through a box full of memorabilia related to Forty Guns while sitting in Sam’s longtime lair. Samantha’s 2013 feature-length tribute, A Fuller Life, is also here with friends, colleagues and admirers (including Joe Dante, James Franco, Mark Hamill, Constance Towers, Bill Duke, Wim Wenders, and Keith Carradine) reading segments of his autobiography. Eloquent film scholar Imogen Sara Smith is interviewed on camera about the film, with a special emphasis on Stanwyck. An audio interview with the director allows us to hear him speak—a unique experience that I was lucky enough to have in person. The accompanying booklet includes a new essay by Lisa Dombrowski and a chapter from Fuller’s evocative book A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. No Fuller enthusiast could ask for more.

These presentations give me great pleasure and I love learning about the films and filmmakers, especially from a new generation of experts who appreciate this rich era in Hollywood history.

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