After a slow start, MGM’s manufactured-on-demand (MOD) disc program—which is administered, like their regular Blu-ray and DVD releases, by Twentieth Century Fox—suddenly became very active this year, with, most recently, 29 new releases in June. I sampled four black-and-white crime dramas released by United Artists in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when movie attendance was much higher, and theaters always needed new product. (In other words, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore because there’s no market for ‘em.)
Budd Boetticher’s The Killer Is Loose was released five months before his western Seven Men From Now in 1956, and is, in many ways, its doppelgänger. In Seven, Randolph Scott is an ex-lawman hunting down the seven men responsible for his bank-clerk wife’s robbery-related murder. In Killer, Wendell Corey is a bank robber sworn to revenge himself on the cop (Joseph Cotten) who, in attempting to apprehend him, mistakenly shot and killed the robber’s wife.
Boetticher takes the audiences’ empathy with the robber’s sense of loss and turns it upside down: After first showing him sympathetically, we come to realize he’s a psychopath as he commits one cold-blooded murder after another in his quest for vengeance. Corey, probably best remembered as James Stewart’s cop friend in Rear Window, plays it cool, and his quiet understatement is chilling. (He’d have made a fine Hannibal Lecter.)
Boetticher continually ratchets up the tension through the 75-or-so-minute running time of The Killer is Loose, making excellent use of locations around Los Angeles. If it isn’t the masterpiece Seven Men From Now is, it’s a taut, entertaining thriller presented in a very nice transfer.
Also from 1956, The Boss stars ex-romantic comedy star John Payne in the rise-and-fall saga of a ruthless political boss of a Midwestern city. Payne, his leading-man looks deemphasized with ill-fitting suits and an awful haircut, plays a character who’s one mean bastard—but not completely without humor. In private, “the boss” is an emotionally stunted brute. More interesting are the public aspects of his life, as he’s a lot like 1920s and ’30s Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast; there’s even a character (played by mousy Joe Flynn) based on Pendergast’s one more-or-less honest politician, Harry S. Truman.
Director Byron Haskin started out as a cinematographer and special-effects man, and he’s best remembered for a few well-loved sci-fi films (Robinson Crusoe on Mars and the 1953 version of War of the Worlds). He shows another side with The Boss, which has the lean-and-mean feel of a great Warner Bros. gangster drama. Unfortunately, the source material looks rough, and it’s mastered from an old TV transfer (with the Turner logo!).
The Man in the Net (1959) was one of the legendary Michael Curtiz’ final films. It starts promisingly as a portrait of a disastrous marriage set against a closed suburban society, but ends, tediously, as a whodunit with a not-very-surprising series of plot twists. Curtiz gets a lot of tension out of the film’s principle set, a large Connecticut farmhouse where an ad man turned artist (Alan Ladd) and his abusive alcoholic wife (Carolyn Jones) have retreated after her alluded-to, but not shown, Manhattan breakdown. The pair circle each other warily, and the sense of claustrophobia is palpable. Too soon, however, Jones, who was so wonderful in Curtiz’ Elvis Presley pic King Creole, is gone from the picture and we’re left with a soggy mystery (and forced to decipher emotion on Ladd’s sadly inexpressive—plastic-surgery frozen?—mug). The transfer is clean and bright.
Johnny Cool (1963) answers a question I’m not sure anyone ever asked: “What would a Rat Pack movie without Frank and Dean be like?” The fact that Johnny Cool doesn’t provide a good answer isn’t the fault of the hipster cast, which includes Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and, in the title role of a Sicilian gangster come to shake up the mob in America, the genuinely cool Henry Silva. Director William Asher is best remembered for producing wife Elizabeth Montgomery’s hit sitcom Bewitched; his work here is pedestrian, wasting cameos from the likes of Marc Lawrence and Telly Savalas (as mobsters) and John McGiver (as a brutal casino boss).
Warner Archive doesn’t give much advanced notice on its new releases, so it was an out-of-the-blue shocker last month when Warner started selling the 1929 drama The Letter.
The Letter was intended, a few years back, to be an extra on the DVD release of the well-known William Wyler remake starring Bette Davis, but was pulled at the last minute for reasons I’ll go into shortly. This version stars Jeanne Eagels, a Broadway superstar of the 1920s who didn’t make many movies and died young, of a drug overdose; her performance in The Letter earned her the first posthumous Academy Award nomination. (She lost.)
Eagles didn’t make many movies, and her two best surviving films—The Letter and the silent drama Man, Woman and Sin—have been stuck in legal limbo for decades. Sin is still stuck, a victim of a rights problem that’s probably too expensive to fix: One studio owns the print, while another owns the rights. It’s too bad, because it’s terrific love triangle, directed by the underrated Monta Bell and with a decadently languorous performance by Eagels as a “kept” newspaper society columnist toying with a slum kid played by John Gilbert.
Happily, Warner Bros. has “unstuck” The Letter. (The problem was with rights issues involving a brief scene with a mongoose and snake. Yes, you read correctly.) Produced by Monta Bell for Paramount—it was the first talkie shot at their Astoria, Queens, studio—it’s an early sound oddity. It’s only an hour long; the camera is mostly stuck in stationary set-ups; and three of the four big scenes are one-woman shows for Eagels. I was engrossed, however, because Eagels is a real showstopper.
In her first big scene, she pleads with her lover (a sly Herbert Marshall) not to leave—and shoots him when he does; in the second, she lies through her teeth at the trial about the circumstances of the shooting; in the third, she tells her dullard of a husband (a dependably obtuse Reginald Owen) what she really feels about her dead lover. She’s thoroughly convincing as, in turn, a spurned lover, a killer trying to save her own neck, and an unrepentant adulteress and murderer.
The transfer is the usual fine Warner Archive job, but the print is compromised: The intro and exit music are missing, and there are plenty of scratches and dirt in the surviving material. But it’s a fascinating artifact of a forgotten career.