Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (Photo: Kino)

(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.)

Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (Photo: Criterion)

THE GUNFIGHTER (1950). This grim Western from director Henry King and scripters William Bowers and André De Toth has long been recognized as one of the seminal films (along with the string of Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations) that signaled the maturation of the Western genre, taking it into more psychologically complex waters. Gregory Peck delivers one of his finest performances as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious gunslinger whose reputation as a quick draw hangs around his neck like an albatross. Riding into a dusty town with the hopes of reuniting with the woman (Helen Westcott) and son he left behind, the weary and wary cowboy waits for her arrival in a saloon as various young bucks, eager to make a name for themselves, dream about being the one who can outgun the legendary outlaw. The sheriff (an excellent Millard Mitchell), a former friend of Ringo’s, is sympathetic to his plight and does his best to head off trouble. No less than John Wayne coveted the role of Jimmy Ringo and was furious when Peck won accolades for his work. For his part, Peck subsequently turned down the lead role in 1952’s High Noon because he was afraid he would be typecast in Westerns (Peck realized his mistake after Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar, although, being gracious rather than infantile like Wayne, he admitted that neither he nor anyone else would have been better than Cooper). Bowers and De Toth earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture Story.

Blu-ray extras consist of a new interview about King with archivist Gina Telaroli; a video essay on editor Barbara McLean; and audio excerpts of interviews with King and McLean from 1970 and 1971.

Movie: ★★★½

Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (Photo: Kino)

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). Apparently having taken plenty of notes while making movies for directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood made his own directorial debut with 1971’s Play Misty for Me (reviewed in an upcoming column) and followed that by helming his first Western behind the camera. Yet while highly praised in some circles, High Plains Drifter is a shaky sophomore effort, with Eastwood’s strong compositions weakened by a screenplay (by Ernest Tidyman) that comes up short on a couple of fronts. Eastwood plays The Stranger, who wanders into the dusty town of Lago and immediately is forced into a shootout with three thugs. Intimidated by this mysterious man but impressed with the way he gunned down his aggressors, the locals decide to hire him to protect them against three desperadoes who were arrested in Lago and have sworn to come back for revenge. The Stranger has nightmares in which these same three are whipping the former Lago sheriff to death while the townspeople idly stand by and watch — is there a connection between the marshal and this man with no name? Tidyman’s script all too often plays like an extended — and inferior — episode of The Twilight Zone, and the frequent attempts at dark humor are only sometimes successful. There are some nice narrative thrusts — the bit involving literally painting the town red — but Eastwood, with editor Ferris Webster and director of photography Bruce Surtees still in tow, would direct a far superior Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, three years later.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (Straight to Hell); interviews with co-stars Marianna Hill, Mitchell Ryan and William O’Connell; a vintage promo piece; and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ★★½

Terence Stamp and John Hurt in The Hit (Photo: Criterion)

THE HIT (1984). This indie gem from England was a critical darling when it hit U.S. shores back in the spring of 1985, yet spotty distribution and audience unawareness helped prevent it from even cracking the $1 million mark at the box office. Yet it’s the perfect picture for home viewing: A “crime and punishment” saga that’s more interested in ideas than actions, it’s a choice choice for discerning viewers up for vigorous bouts of wordplay between its characters, to say nothing of plot developments that are as original as they are unexpected. After hiding out in a small Spanish village for a decade, mob-flunky-turned-informer Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) has been located by the two hit men sent to collect him and take him to Paris for execution. The tight-lipped Braddock (John Hurt) is the senior member of the pair, while this marks the first major assignment for the excitable Myron (Tim Roth in his film debut). But the road trip becomes a test of mental endurance, as the killers have to contend not only with a prisoner who doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about his imminent death but also with a local (Laura del Sol) they’re forced to pick up as a hostage. Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs with an eye for telling character details, while scripter Peter Prince contributes dialogue that’s best described as flavorful. The opening theme music comes courtesy of Eric Clapton.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2009) by Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and editor Mick Audsley; a 1988 interview with Stamp for the British TV show Parkinson One-to-One; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★½

Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (Photo: Kino)

JOE KIDD (1972). Of the 15 starring vehicles for Clint Eastwood during the 1970s, Joe Kidd and 1975’s The Eiger Sanction (to be reviewed in this column in a couple of weeks) are generally considered the runts of the litter, frequently criticized before being dismissed out of hand. Yet I’ve always found both to be highly enjoyable watches distinguished by exemplary casts. (For my money, the only truly awful Eastwood effort from the decade is 1977’s The Gauntlet, an idiotic cop flick that also features poor Sondra Locke’s worst-ever performance.) Directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) from a script by Elmore Leonard (one of only seven he wrote for the big screen), Joe Kidd casts Eastwood as the title character, a former bounty hunter who now prefers getting drunk before invariably getting into barroom fights and getting tossed into jail. But when a Mexican revolutionary named Luis Chama (John Saxon) refuses to relinquish the land that was stolen from his people by American settlers, Kidd is hired by wealthy land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to hunt him down. Kidd only accepts the assignment because of a personal beef with Chama, but Harlan’s sadistic methods have him rethinking his loyalty. The muddying of the moral waters offers one late-breaking surprise in the narrative, while the climax features a rousing encounter between a train and a bar. Harlan’s henchmen are a distinctive lot: Colorfully played by character actors Don Stroud, James Wainwright, and Paul Koslo, they spark the proceedings and provide Eastwood’s hero with interesting antagonists.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox; an interview with Stroud; an image gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers in Mr. Topaze (Photo: Film Movement)

MR. TOPAZE (1961). Renamed I Like Money for its initial American run, this British adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s oft-filmed play Topaze not only stars Peter Sellers but also marked his first and last directing credit (although he briefly worked in an unofficial capacity as director on his final picture, 1980’s unwatchable The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu). The story goes that Sellers was so distraught after Mr. Topaze was gutted by critics and ignored by audiences that he personally ordered all prints of the film destroyed. I can’t find conclusive proof that this was the case; at any rate, it is true that the only existing print was kept preserved by the British Film Institute, which released it last year on Blu-ray and DVD in England and now does likewise in the U.S. though the Film Movement label. Sellers stars as Albert Topaze, a meek schoolteacher who’s disrespected by practically everyone, from the deceitful headmaster (a hilarious Leo McKern) to his own students. When Mr. Topaze refuses to change the failing grade of a loutish pupil hailing from a rich family, he’s promptly fired. Recognizing that he’s an idiot but mindful of his honesty, a crooked city council member (Herbert Lom) and his mistress (Nadia Gray) hire him to serve as the front for their shady business. Mr. Topaze is one of those movies that gets better as it goes along, so stick with it — its blatant cynicism goes hand in hand with its subdued sadness, and it features an opportunity to catch Sellers and Lom acting together after The Ladykillers but before the Inspector Clouseau / Pink Panther films.

Blu-ray extras consist of the 1951 short film Let’s Go Crazy, starring Sellers and Spike Milligan (his co-star on The Goon Show); a video essay on Pagnol; and an interview with McKern’s daughter, Abigail McKern.

Movie: ★★★

Choi Woo Shik in Parasite (Photo: Criterion)

PARASITE (2019). Foreign-language films are too often marginalized by American audiences, industry insiders and even reviewers, so it says something that writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the first Korean film ever to snag this honor), emerged as an unlikely and across-the-board hit on U.S. soil. Its $53 million gross places it at #4 among the top 10 moneymaking foreign-language flicks (a list still headed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its $128 million haul). It appeared on over 500 critics’ 10 Best lists (including mine), far more than any other film from 2019. Lastly, it became the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (its three other wins were for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film). As with such previous efforts as Snowpiercer and The Host, Bong (scripting with Han Jin Won) has created an intense drama laced throughout with scathing commentary. Here, it’s the class system that’s dissected, with the focus on the members of the Kim and Park families. Struggling to stay afloat, the Kims — father (Bong regular Song Kang Ho), mother (Chang Hyae Jim), son (Choi Woo Shik) and daughter (Park So Dam) — catch a break when one of them starts working for the wealthy Park family (Mom and Dad played by Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong). Before long, the Kims are engineering a scheme in which they all become employees of the Parks. To reveal more would be an indefensible crime, but suffice it to say that this absorbing picture grows ever more twisty as it makes its way toward its powerhouse final act.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Bong; a new conversation with Bong; a piece on the New Korean Cinema movement; and storyboard comparisons.

Movie: ★★★½

Shirley MacLaine and Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara (Photo: Kino)

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970). Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine make an unlikely but surprisingly effective team in this enjoyable Western directed by Don Siegel. The name of Eastwood’s character is Hogan, but it might as well be The Man with No Name, given the obvious similarities to the iconic figure from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. The action kicks off when Hogan rescues a woman named Sara from a gang of hoodlums and quickly discovers that she’s actually a nun. Despite being drawn to her, Hogan is respectful of her calling and protects her against various threats, learning along the way that Sister Sara can hold her own in many circumstances. They agree to team up in order to help Mexican revolutionaries in their fight against the occupying French forces — he for the money, she for supposedly more noble reasons. You can count on one hand the number of times Eastwood shared marquee billing with a female star (The Bridges of Madison County with Meryl Streep and Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank are among the few others), but the light comic touch provided by MacLaine (who’s actually billed first in the on-screen credits if not on the posters or in the trailers) successfully works in tandem with the sardonic approach preferred by her co-star.

Kino’s Blu-ray edition contains both the 105-minute U.S. cut and the 114-minute international version. Extras include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox; a vintage interview with Eastwood; an image gallery; and the theatrical trailer, which oddly doesn’t include any footage of MacLaine in her nun outfit (was the studio afraid audiences would somehow confuse it with The Sound of Music?).

Movie: ★★★

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