Major Dundee on Blu-ray

Due in mid-June from Arrow. While the movie has been released in high definition elsewhere before now, this limited edition looks like being a full bells and whistles version. The price isn’t cheap but the list of contents is impressive to say the least:

TWO-DISC LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY CONTENTS

  • The 136-minute Extended Version of the film from a 4K scan, as well as the original 122-minute Theatrical Version
  • 60-page perfect bound booklet featuring new writing by Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr plus select archive material
  • Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
  • Fold out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella

DISC ONE – EXTENDED VERSION

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 4K scan by Sony Pictures
  • DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio with new score by Christopher Caliendo
  • Lossless original mono audio with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary with Nick Redman, David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor
  • Audio commentary by historian and critics Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
  • Audio commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson
  • Moby Dick on Horseback, a brand new visual essay by David Cairns
  • Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey, a feature length documentary about the making of Major Dundee by Mike Siegel, featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Gordon Dawson
  • Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes, nine actors talk about working with legendary director Sam Peckinpah, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, Isela Vega
  • Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project, in which filmmaker Mike Siegel talks about his beginnings and his ongoing historical project about director Sam Peckinpah
  • Extensive stills galleries, featuring rare on set, behind the scenes, and marketing materials
  • 2005 re-release trailer

DISC TWO – THEATRICAL VERSION (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 2K scan

  • Lossless original mono audio

  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

  • Riding for a Fall, a vintage behind the scenes featurette

  • Extended/deleted scenes

  • Silent Outtakes

  • Select extended/deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson giving context on how they were intended to appear in Peckinpah’s vision of the film

  • Original US, UK and German theatrical trailers

  • Stills gallery

Full info available on Arrow’s site here.

Autumn Leaves

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The present is made up of little bits of the past.

Recently, I spoke a little about filmmakers venturing outside of their perceived comfort zone and the how the ability to do so successfully can be taken as an indication of their artistic skill. The classic era of Hollywood moviemaking could be seen as a factory environment which encouraged specialization among performers, writers and directors. I say could because it’s not really the case at all and once one looks beyond a handful of headline titles it’s an assertion that rarely stands up to any scrutiny. Even the unsung journeymen were afforded the opportunity to try their hand at a range of genre pictures. I think the better or more interesting directors understood the challenge presented by these opportunities, that the form and conventions of genre (that frequently maligned term) could be adopted, applied or discarded as appropriate in the pursuit of their art. It’s easy to look at the films of Robert Aldrich and decide he was simply a classy purveyor of tough cynicism, and indeed I’ve been guilty of doing so myself in the past. However, I’d like to think that the years bring us if not exactly wisdom then at least a broader critical perspective. So in that spirit, let’s look at Autumn Leaves (1956), a superficially atypical offering from one of cinema’s great talents.

The story opens with Millie Wetherby (Joan Crawford) hard at work. She spends her days in her neat bungalow typing up manuscripts for writers, putting the finishing touches to the experiences and adventures of others, a vicarious existence if ever there was one. Her life is a mundane one, and a lonely one at that. When a satisfied customer passes on a couple of concert tickets he doesn’t need she accepts them and decides to treat herself to a rare evening out. A brief flashback sequence triggered by the familiar music makes it plain that Millie’s solitary life is the result of sacrifices she made to care for an ailing parent, that time and opportunity just passed her by. And yet her walk home takes her past a small eatery, a place that catches her eye for no special reason other than a reluctance to let the evening end. Still, taking those tickets and yielding to that impulse to stop off for a bite to eat before returning to the empty home prove to be pivotal moments in this humdrum and inconsequential life. As she sits alone in her booth, prim and composed, listening to the movie’s title song on the jukebox the shadow of a wistful smile plays across her features. Another shadow enters the frame at this point, another customer hoping to share some table space in the crowded restaurant. This is Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson), a fresh-faced and talkative young man, one more soul adrift in the urban anonymity. Here we have the beginnings of a tentative and rather sweet romance, a predictable setup in many ways. Yet the tone and direction alter radically in the second half as a far from attractive past barrels its way into the fragile present, and the threat to that fragility is what forms the basis of the drama which subsequently unfolds.

The cinema of the 1950s is an endlessly fascinating subject for this viewer. There are of course the technical advances which were ongoing and literally changing the shape of the movies, but it’s the thematic probing that seems to characterize this decade of filmmaking which intrigues me most. The promise and potential, the surface gloss of this brave new post-war world seemed to offer so much food for artistic contemplation. Time and again we encounter the notion of rebirth and renewal in 50s cinema, and indeed the characters played by Crawford and Sheppard Strudwick openly discuss the concept of being reborn in what is otherwise one of the more prosaic scenes in this picture. However, I’m of the opinion that reinvention is perhaps a more appropriate word to describe the central theme of Autumn Leaves. Millie certainly reinvents herself in the role of carer which she appears to have occupied all her life, although one might argue the ending does look to a future beyond that. Burt is without doubt the most obvious source of reinvention; he adopts and discards aspects of his past and present at the drop of a hat, unconsciously creating whatever reality feels expedient on any given occasion. Of course the consequent psychological meltdown and the road back from the mental abyss into which he descends is another part of that process.

So what can one say about Aldrich, and is there cynicism on view here? Well yes and no. If one takes the view that peering beyond the veils of society to get nearer the truth is cynicism, then perhaps Aldrich can be said to be a cynic. I’m not sure that is the case though; for one thing cynicism suggests a sourness, particularly on a personal level. As I see it, Aldrich wasn’t going down that route. On the contrary, I see a man casting a sidelong glance at society on an institutional level, almost like a more abrasive version of Douglas Sirk. Unlike Sirk’s more sumptuous, glossy presentation of a flawed idyll, Aldrich’s visual approach is starker and more direct with Charles Lang’s noir-shaded cinematography and the canted angles and mise-en-scène emphasizing the narrow range of options open to his trapped and tormented characters.

Joan Crawford’s career on screen could be separated into distinct eras, with Autumn Leaves coming close to the end of a very successful run starting with Mildred Pierce. Her role as Millie Wetherby is a strong one and a good fit for her at this stage in her life and career. There’s an open acknowledgement of all the little (and not so little) insecurities that come with ageing. There are, as expected, a number of “big” moments but it’s actually some of the smaller, more intimate instances that stick in my mind, that early scene in the restaurant for example, or some of the exchanges with Ruth Donnelly. Cliff Robertson landed a plum part as the deeply disturbed Burt and his handling of the character’s slow disintegration is well done, with vague hints dropped from early on and casual lies imparted before their enormity is finally revealed.

Both Vera Miles and Lorne Greene are fine too as the calculating ex-wife and the frankly sinister father respectively. I mentioned before Aldrich’s less than reverent view of institutions and his take on an appallingly dysfunctional family is deeply shocking. Miles’ glacial turn as the entitled and contemptuous ex is marvelously mean – leaving that cigarette smouldering in the ashtray in Crawford’s bungalow is a nice touch. And Greene is on top form as the bullying, creepy patriarch. If family is seen as representing the bedrock of society, the horrors implicit in Burt’s domestic background offers as withering a criticism of the post-war American Dream as one could imagine. In support, the aforementioned Ruth Donnelly is a joy every time she appears and there are small parts for Maxine Cooper (Velda from Kiss Me Deadly) and, as a gloriously jaded and world weary waitress, Marjorie Bennett.

Autumn Leaves is one of Robert Aldrich’s early films that seems to get much less attention than his other work from around that time. Frankly, it deserves better as all those involved give a good account of themselves, not to mention the fact the movie tackles a tricky subject with confidence. Rather than resort to dry cynicism, Aldrich takes an unflinching look at the process of decay in certain institutional pillars but reserves a cautious optimism for the individuals at the heart of his drama and for their simple hopes. And, last but by no means least, there’s Nat “King” Cole’s superb theme song:

No Man of Her Own

In the world of Cornell Woolrich every dream is in reality a nightmare concealed behind a mask, every instance of happiness is merely bait to lure the unsuspecting into the ultimate trap of despair. It should be no surprise therefore that his tales of dread with their outrageous turns of fate have formed the basis for a fair number of films noir. No Man of Her Own (1950) is a slick piece of dark cinema, opening with desperation, then tantalizingly suggesting that fortune may be more than just an illusion, before relentlessly gathering up those crumbs of comfort one by one.

Many a film noir has opened with a voiceover, frequently stentorian and strident, eulogizing the agencies of the law, or sometimes harsh, cynical and redolent of whisky, cigarettes and hard knocks. Here it’s a different matter, dreamy and wistful with regret and resignation. As the camera pans across an idyll of suburban charm and respectability, and then on into a picture postcard house the weary tones draw the viewer’s attention to the already obvious attractions, before trailing off to the merest whisper to acknowledge disconsolately: but not for us. On we travel, deeper into the home we now realize nurses something painful, perhaps even incurable. A man sits before his hearth, book in hand but tension writ large on his face, and across from him sits his wife, cradling an infant, rigid and apprehensive. Hers is the voice that has guided us inside, and the hers will be the memory that carries us back via flashback to the months before when a different brand of despair held her in its grip.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is in a bad way. She’s pregnant and alone in a big city, with barely a dime to her name, nowhere to go and a former lover (Lyle Bettger) who wants nothing to do with her. In lieu of salvation she’s presented with a door resolutely locked and an envelope shoved hastily across the threshold. This is the ultimate brush off, a cross country rail ticket, with a five dollar bill scornfully keeping it company. And thus she sets off, worn down by the life she’s left behind and fearful for that within her and before her. The overcrowded train seems to foreshadow her future, perched precariously on the periphery, surrounded by apathy. Well, perhaps not quite. A sunny young couple (Phyllis Thaxter & Richard Denning), recently married and on their way back from Europe take her under their wing, the wife confiding how nervous she feels about meeting the in-laws who know nothing of her beyond her name. It’s a bittersweet moment for Helen, a rare instance of compassion that both warms her for its simplicity and decency, and chills her too as it’s a glimpse of the life she will never know. The latter is emphasized almost cruelly when her new acquaintance asks her to slip her ring onto her finger for safe keeping while she freshens up. It’s here that fate, in the shape of a calamitous train crash, strides on the stage and alters the course of everybody’s lives…

Mitchell Leisen is a director whose work I’m not overly familiar with, having seen only a handful of his movies and that being a long time ago. I recall reading somewhere that Billy Wilder was none too fond of Leisen, based I believe on his experience of scripting a number of films for him. What I do know for sure is that No Man of Her Own is a very stylish piece of work, fluid and smooth, seamlessly moving from that languorous opening narration – somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca in a way –  into the long flashback that charts the peaks and troughs of  horror and hope navigated by the heroine. Much of the action takes place in the family home, with occasional forays to a country club and also to the seedier part of town where blackmailers and chiselers can rent short term as they angle for the big score. Wherever the camera might roam, from secure domesticity to boozy squalor, Leisen frames his shots with great clarity and director of photography Daniel L Fapp lights and shoots it all in an atmospheric noir style. Dread and doom might be loitering with intent in the shadows, but they’re awfully attractive shadows all the same.

Barbara Stanwyck was nothing if not versatile. There was always a toughness about her, but she could suppress that to some extent when a role required it. In No Man of Her Own she certainly displays grit, and there’s more than enough adversity thrown her way to necessitate that, but she also manages to convey the essential vulnerability of her character, especially in the earlier scenes but later on too as the threats she faces see her options shrink. Throughout her long career she was able to slip from one character to another with ease, and this role offered her the opportunity to indulge in a wide and nuanced acting workout.

John Lund is impressive as the leading man. He starts out as an ebullient and carefree man of means, never any more serious than he needs to be. Then comes the suspicion, the persistent little niggles, the doubts which can never be entirely dispelled, finally seguing into the implacable fatalism of his love. The extent to which this love has consumed him becomes apparent in his dead-eyed determination to cover up a crime, and in his frank admission that whether or not it happened as he was told means nothing to him.

“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watching Lyle Bettger make his debut, it’s hard not to have Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet spring to mind. Smug, impossibly self-satisfied and without the merest scrap of decency, Bettger was introduced to cinema audiences as a thoroughly bad lot. There’s not one redeeming feature on show and he has the rottenness of the character down pat, not only the smirking and preening but also the steel edge beneath the surface which lends substance to his threats. Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter are not around long enough to make much of an impression in support. However, veteran stage actress Jane Cowl, in one of her rare and sadly one of her final screen roles too, is very good as the patrician matriarch. It’s also worth mentioning that Dooley Wilson (the man every film fan will know as Sam from Casablanca) pops up in a virtual cameo early on. And of course Carole Mathews has a brief but decisive part to play.

No Man of Her Own was released on DVD by Olive Films some years ago, and I don’t think it’s ever been upgraded to Blu-ray – no doubt someone will put me right on that if I’m mistaken. It’s a strong transfer, to my eyes anyway, and the quality of the image is pleasing throughout. This is a fine and hugely stylish film noir, highly polished in every department and just as highly recommended.

Other adaptations of Cornell Woolrich material which have been featured on this site:

Black Angel

The Leopard Man

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

Phantom Lady