View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and George Sanders in All About Eve (Photo: Criterion)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) / NOW, VOYAGER (1942). Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s enduring masterpiece — and, incidentally, my all-time favorite film — All About Eve is a biting look at the theater world and the machinations of those individuals who inhabit it. Bette Davis stars as Margo Channing, the established (and aging) diva who comes to realize that her fresh-faced understudy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is actually a scheming vixen who’s attempting to infiltrate and usurp both her professional and personal lives. Landing in the #16 spot (right under Some Like It Hot and Star Wars) on the American Film Institute’s original 1998 list of the 100 greatest American movies, this sports a monumental number of attributes, including Davis’ career-best performance (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”), a knockout script packed with astounding (and often hilarious) dialogue, an early role for Marilyn Monroe (as Miss Caswell, a “graduate of the Copacabana School of the Dramatic Arts”), and George Sanders’ indelible turn as cynical critic Addison DeWitt. Nominated for a still-record 14 Academy Awards (since tied by Titanic and La La Land), this nabbed six statues, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Sanders, and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Mankiewicz. It also holds the Oscar record for the most women to be nominated from one film: Davis and Baxter for Best Actress and Celeste Holm (as Margo’s sympathetic best friend) and Thelma Ritter (as her acid-tongued personal assistant) for Best Supporting Actress.
Concurrent with the release of All About Eve, Criterion is also debuting another popular Bette Davis vehicle. Now, Voyager contains one classic image (the lighting of two cigarettes at once) and one classic line of dialogue (“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”). As for the rest? It’s soap opera par excellence, with Davis cast as a miserable spinster who’s bullied by her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) until a psychiatrist (Claude Rains) cures her and leads her right into the arms of an unhappily married man (Paul Henreid). An Academy Award nominee for Best Actress (Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Cooper), this earned the Oscar for Max Steiner’s celebrated score.
Blu-ray extras on All About Eve include audio commentary (from 2010) by Holm, Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth L. Geist, and Mankiewicz’s son Christopher; separate audio commentary (also from 2010) by author Sam Staggs (All About All About Eve); two pieces on Mankiewicz; a discussion of the real-life woman who inspired the fictional Eve Harrington; and the AMC Backstory episode on All About Eve. Blu-ray extras on Now, Voyager include a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Davis; a 1980 interview with Henreid; select-scene commentary on the score by film music scholar Jeff Smith; and a pair of radio adaptations from 1943 and 1946.
All About Eve: ★★★★
Now, Voyager: ★★★½
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952). Like Sunset Boulevard and The Player (among others), here’s an exemplary Hollywood picture that takes a cynical look at Hollywood itself. Kirk Douglas is dynamic as Jonathan Shields, who rises through the ranks to become an Oscar-winning producer and head of his own studio. But to achieve his success, Shields along the way betrays the three people who trusted him most: actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). Working from a poison-pen script by Charles Schnee, director Vincente Minnelli uncovers the darkness behind every deal and the provocation behind every production, playing into the narrative of Tinseltown as a place where souls are sold rather than saved. All of the performances are smashing, including Gloria Grahame as Bartlow’s Southern belle wife and Gilbert Roland as a charismatic matinee idol. Roland’s role might have been based on himself, but the other parts require more guesswork, with various characters rumored to have been modeled after the likes of David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Erich von Stroheim, Val Lewton, and many others. Nominated for six Academy Awards, this earned five, including Best Supporting Actress for Grahame and Best Screenplay for Schnee. Unfortunately, the only nominee not to win was Douglas — even more jarring is the fact that this failed to receive deserved nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. (The movie still holds the record for having won the most Oscars without being nominated for Best Picture.)
Blu-ray extras consist of the 2001 TCM documentary Lana Turner… A Daughter’s Memoir; scoring session music cues; and the theatrical trailer.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986). A box office bomb that also had to endure a critical mauling, this John Carpenter production subsequently enjoyed a healthy life on video and is now considered by many fanboys to be an exemplary action-fantasy-comedy. The truth actually rests between those two extremes. Kurt Russell is cast as Jack Burton, a trucker who (sort of) comes to the rescue after the fiancée (Suzee Pai) of his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) ends up in the hands of Lo Pan (James Hong), a 2,000-year-old sorcerer who rules the underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The joke is that Jack Burton is more the bumbling sidekick rather than the fearless hero, but this gag only works if Jack really is an incompetent who nevertheless succeeds despite his cloddishness (think Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau); instead, his heroism frequently is due to his skill and his savvy, thus undermining the concept and forcing Russell to fall back on his overcooked John Wayne impersonation. The visual effects are effective but also excessive, which is true of just about every facet of this hyperactive offering. Hong steals the show, while Victor Wong amuses as the noble sorcerer Egg Shen. As usual, Carpenter again composes his own score — it’s no match for his superb themes for Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, but it serves the proceedings perfectly.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell; separate audio commentary by producer Larry Franco; separate audio commentary by special effects artist Steve Johnson; a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and a mix of new and older interviews with 18 different people involved with the film, including Carpenter, Russell, writers W.D. Richter and Gary Goldman, and legendary movie poster artist Drew Struzan.
THE GOLDFINCH (2019). Despite winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch hardly proved to be a slam dunk among literary critics, with many praising it as excellent and others slamming it as execrable. Those behind this adaptation probably would have been happy with such a mixed reception, since the film was eviscerated by critics and earned less than $10 million worldwide against a $45 million budget. The protagonist is Theodore Decker, whose mother is killed by a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a survivor of the bombing, Theo is racked by guilt — not only because he feels it’s his fault his mother died but also because he lifted Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting The Goldfinch from the rubble and kept it in his possession well into his adult years. The film moves easily between following Theo as an orphaned boy (played by Oakes Fegley), living first with a wealthy family in New York and then with his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson) in Las Vegas, and tracking him as a young man (Ansel Elgort) growing up under the tutelage of an antique dealer (Jeffrey Wright). The thorough critical destruction is perplexing, since the film is for the most part intelligent, involving, and handsomely mounted. The first 90 minutes of this 150-minute movie are packed with meaty material, and Oakes is excellent as the young Theo. Elgort is likewise noteworthy as the older incarnation of the character, although his interludes aren’t quite as riveting. In fact, it’s during the final hour, when the focus shifts more toward the older Theo, that the movie finally implodes. A story that had been measured and methodical suddenly spins out of control, relying on unbelievable coincidences and farfetched scenarios to bring it home. Then again, all of this was also in the novel, so what can you do?
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a piece on the real painting.
KONGA (1961). Herman Cohen met with success by producing and (under pseudonyms) writing the 1957 hits I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, so why not go for the hat-trick by unleashing I Was a Teenage Gorilla onto an unsuspecting world? Alas, a rash of similarly titled cheapies from other filmmakers (Teenage Caveman, Teenage Zombies, Teenagers from Outer Space, etc.) led to understandable audience burnout — by the time Cohen was ready to release his monkey movie in 1961, he opted instead to go with Konga. Set in England, the titular gorilla only grows to Kong-size proportions at film’s end — before that, he begins life as a harmless chimpanzee brought back from Africa by Dr. Charles Decker (Michael Gough), a scientist who’s obsessed with perfecting his growth serum. Testing the formula on the chimp, he quickly learns that it turns the little fellow into a hulking gorilla ready to carry out his murderous bidding. A standard entry in the “mad scientist” genre, Konga is elevated by the suitably intense turn by longtime horror veteran Gough (best known among the masses for playing Alfred to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman). But once the monkey gets super-sized, the terrible visual effects take over, with the climactic sequences centered around a guy in an ape suit standing listlessly next to a Big Ben model while the Brits blast away.
Blu-ray extras consist of an image gallery; a radio spot; and the theatrical trailer.
THE MAGIC SWORD (1962). Like many Golden Age stars, the great Basil Rathbone, an Oscar-nominated actor in the 1930s (for his supporting stints in Romeo and Juliet and If I Were King) and the definitive big-screen Sherlock Holmes in the 1940s, spent his final decade appearing in such low-rent productions as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Hillbillys in a Haunted House. Although The Magic Sword (aka St. George and the Dragon and The Seven Curses of Lodac) falls into that category, it’s nevertheless a passable way (especially for children not allergic to old movies) to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. A fantasy flick from writer-director-producer Bert I. Gordon (primarily known for such shoddy efforts as Village of the Giants, The Food of the Gods, and Empire of the Ants), this finds Rathbone hamming it up in style as Lodac, an evil wizard who kidnaps a lovely princess (Anne Helm). The magician claims no one hoping to rescue her can survive all the challenges he serves up (including an ogre and a dragon), but with the help of his adopted mother, a bumbling sorceress named Sybil (Estelle Winwood), the young George (Gary Lockwood, six years before nabbing a leading role in 2001: A Space Odyssey) gives it a shot. This was one of a handful of films that was lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000 even though the show’s regulars later admitted that it actually isn’t that bad. Certainly, Lockwood is dull and Winwood annoying, but there’s no lack of imagination in the storytelling, and the visual effects are better than those found in most B.I.G. productions. Incidentally, the hag who toils for Lodac is played by Maila Nurmi, better known as ‘50s TV horror host Vampira.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas and filmmaker Larry Balmire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra), and the theatrical trailer.
OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965). Although it doesn’t rank in the upper echelons of WWII-set “men on a mission” movies (see: The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare), Operation Crossbow gets the gritty job done. Not the stateside box office flop as widely reported — on the contrary, its gross was just enough to crack the list of the year’s Top 20 earners — this is based on a real-life narrative of World War II but fashioned as a taut thriller. When it’s discovered by various British politicians, military analysts, and scientists (played by such English stalwarts as Richard Johnson, John Mills and Trevor Howard) that the Germans are developing “flying bombs” that could lay waste to London in a matter of minutes, it’s determined that undercover operatives should pose as engineers in an effort to get into the plant that’s producing the rockets. Those chosen for the assignment are an American (George Peppard), a Brit (Jeremy Kemp), and a Dutchman (Tom Courtenay), but an already dangerous situation becomes even more pronounced once a double agent for the Nazis (Anthony Quayle) arrives on the scene. The early portion of the film interestingly splits its time between following the Germans as they try to perfect their weapons of mass destruction and focusing on the Brits as they try to confirm the existence of these rockets. Eventually, the story settles into more traditional spy stuff, yet the film continuously startles with its inclination to sacrifice any character at any moment. Courtenay and Lilli Palmer (as an anti-Nazi German) are especially memorable; as for top-billed Sophia Loren, she appears only briefly as a widow who inadvertently stumbles into the mission.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1965 promotional short A Look Back at Crossbow, and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
CANDY (2006). A 21st century variation on such 20th century works as Days of Wine and Roses (recently reviewed here), this harrowing Australian production replaces the alcoholism with drug addiction and watches as young lives are destroyed. Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish deliver galvanizing performances as Dan and Candy, lovers always searching for that next heroin high. Their addiction results in Dan’s stealing, Candy’s hooking, and various other unsavory activities. No one would ever mistake this for a “feel-good” romp, but its potency is unwavering. The soundtrack includes the song “Sugar Man” by Rodriguez, the subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Neil Armfield and writer Luke Davies (adapting his own novel); a making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959). This end-of-the-world drama is structured like a three-act play, with each section hitting its mark at a 30-minute interval. The first act finds coal miner Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) emerging after being trapped underground for five days and learning that humankind has been destroyed by lethal gasses dropped by warring nations. He wanders around New York City until (act two) he discovers another survivor in Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens). They become friends but, because of the racial divide, only uneasy ones, a situation that turns even more prickly due to (act three) the arrival of another man (Mel Ferrer). The first two acts are eerie and intriguing, but the picture loses its focus — and its way — with the introduction of the third character, resulting in a worthless denouement.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.