The Criterion Collection remains the Gold Standard for the treatment of films old and new on Blu-ray…but lately, several other distributors are making efforts to emulate Criterion. That’s a win-win for film buffs. Cohen Media, for instance, has just issued a visually stunning edition of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). For decades, this tantalizing title has only existed in substandard prints. The new Blu-ray is simply breathtaking, and it includes bonus features that were prepared more than twenty years ago for its laserdisc debut: a charming commentary by costar Gloria Stuart, an informative one by Whale biographer James Curtis, and a recollection by director Curtis Harrington of how he prodded Universal Pictures to save its 35mm material even though they no longer owned rights to the movie. The Old Dark House is a witty, highly entertaining adaptation of a J.B. Priestley novel with a powerhouse cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, the one-and-only Ernest Thesiger, Lillian Bond, and Eva Moore (who, I learned from Curtis’ commentary, was then Laurence Olivier’s mother-in-law!). This superior-looking disc is a must for every collection. Learn more at cohenmedia.net.
ClassicFlix has served film buffs by offering one-stop shopping for vintage movies. Now it is producing its own Blu-rays and if Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) are any indication, this is great news indeed. The Lang film has never looked so good, as proved by a restoration comparison; the disc also features an excellent commentary track by Jeremy Arnold. T-Men is billed as a “special edition” and this is not hyperbole. In addition to superb visual quality that does justice to John Alton’s striking black & white cinematography, there is a first-rate commentary by Film Noir Foundation’s Alan K. Rode, a mini-documentary about the film with such experts as Todd McCarthy and Julie Kirgo, and a poignant interview with Anthony Mann’s daughter Nina. Watching all of this material, and listening to Rode, makes revisiting this dark-hued police procedural a rewarding experience. There is also an essay about the film by Mann scholar Max Alvarez.
The first batch of Blu-rays from ClassicFlix also includes such varied titles as Abbott and Costello’s The Noose Hangs High and Budd Boetticher’s The Killer Is Loose. But the best news is that other special editions are due in the wake of T-Men including He Walked by Night, which again spotlights John Alton’s camerawork and some uncredited direction by Anthony Mann, and another great Alton-Mann collaboration, Raw Deal. Among the special features I look forward to on that December release is a tribute to the unsung Dennis O’Keefe, including an interview with his son Jim. For more information about current and forthcoming titles go to www.classicflix.com.
Finally, Arrow Video and MVD have taken up the challenge of competing with Criterion with its first all-out efforts in this arena. I sampled Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), a dated and stage-bound adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play (by screenwriter James Poe) but still worth a look, especially in this new 2K transfer. It’s great to watch this cast at work: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, a go-for-broke Rod Steiger (as a Louis B. Mayer-like studio chief with bleached hair and a hearing aid), Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters, Jean Hagen, Paul Langton, and Nick Dennis. But it’s even more interesting to watch a second time while listening to Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, whose conversation adds context and honest criticism to the proceedings. The presence of Saul Bass’ opening graphics is a perfect reason to include a 1977 short called Bass on Titles, which features the great designer (one of my heroes) talking about and showing some of his most celebrated work. The packaging for The Big Knife (on the first pressing only) features arresting images of Palance and Steiger by Sean Phillips, and a booklet featuring a new essay by Nathalie Morris and a reprint of a vintage piece by Gerald Peary about Clifford Odets’ Hollywood career. Nice work all around.
I got more out of the bonus features and essay accompanying Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town (1955) than I did from the movie. I enjoyed an erudite introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail as well as a first-rate essay by Glenn Kenny. This baroque, low-budget Western is spare in the extreme and stiffly acted by Sterling Hayden and company, but the script (by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo) and direction by B-movie master Lewis make it a genuine curio. How many Westerns can you name where the shootout involves a whale harpoon?
Other titles in the Arrow Academy lineup include Jean Grémillon’s The Love of a Woman, with a feature-length documentary about the French filmmaker, A Fish Called Wanda, Bride of Re-Animator, and Erik the Conqueror. Boasting new high-definition transfers, commentaries, original artwork, and other bonus features, Arrow and MVD Entertainment Group are doing their part to make collectible DVDs and Blu-rays for fans of all genres. And look for the MVD Rewind Collection for more cult favorites, coming in December. For more info, click HERE.
In my next column I’ll talk about the latest releases from Olive Films, Operation Petticoat and Father Goose.