Battle for the Bs and Glenn Ford: A Life

THE BATTLE FOR THE BS  Blair Davis/Rutgers University Press  Subtitled ‘1950s Hollywood and the Rebirth of Low-budget Cinema’, The Battle for the Bs is a lively and accessible study of an oft-despised branch of US cinema — despised, that is, by those with a more rarefied view of film as an art form. But Davis, like so many of us, loves the exploitation, horror and science fiction films of this vanished era and gives an account full of arcane (and fun) interest. His speciality is the kind of forensic attention that is customarily granted to more prestige product, and Davis is having no truck with the notion that such films are marginal in any overall picture of American cinema. He rescues many a neglected gem from the shadows with a beguiling combination of scholarship and enthusiasm.

GLENN FORD: A LIFE  Peter Ford/University of Wisconsin Film Studies  Given that this is virtually an authorised biography by the late actor’s son (who, in fact, appeared with his father in eight films), one might not expect a piece of warts-and-all biography — but Ford fils proves to be too good a writer to simply present us with a varnished and uncritical biography of his father. This is both an intelligent analysis of an underrated actor’s highly impressive career (and Glenn Ford, remember, was able to work with some of the best directors in the business, notably Fritz Lang in his film noir classic The Big Heat), while not drawing a discreet veil over the actor’s lengthy series of infidelities and sad career fadeout. Ford was never a showy actor and customarily presented in his films a picture of quiet, resilient intensity – and was, accordingly, often underrated, even though the work he did was some of the most subtle and truthful in the American cinema. With a career that encompasses such films as the Fritz Lang classic named above, Gilda, The Blackboard Jungle, 3:10 to Yuma and even Superman: The Movie (where his performance as Jonathan Kent contributed to one of the most moving sections of the film), Ford had nothing to be ashamed of, even though he was not the recipient of the kind of praise that came the way of more virtuosic actors, such as his contemporary Marlon Brando (with whom he held his own in The Teahouse of the August Moon). The filling in of personal detail by Peter Ford is handled in an effective fashion, and it’s good to see an unshowy but very solid film career commemorated in this fashion.




Acorn Media to release Quincy, M.E. Complete Series Three on DVD

When Jack Klugman passed away over Christmas, the TV news ran clips of him repeatedly in one of his most famous starring roles as Quincy, M.E. Now celebrating his fine work Acorn Media have announced the release of Quincy, M.E. Complete Series Three on DVD.  Originally broadcast from 1976 to 1983 Quincy, M.E. stars Jack Klugman in the title role as the strong-willed,  principled medical examiner for the Los Angeles Country Coronor’s Office. The seventies series comes to DVD on 4 March 2013 as a bumper six disc set containing all 20 episodes from the third series.

From Borgen To Black Sunday

BORGEN SEASON TWO Various Directors/Arrow  

By the time the second season of Borgen reached English shores, audiences were already in thrall to the personal and professional travails of beleaguered PM Birgitte Nyborg not to mention the equally ambitious reporter Katrine Fonsmark, and the ambiguous spin doctor Kasper (Pilou Asbaek). In the first season, we watched the initially too-perfect marriage of the Prime Minister buckle under the strain until she finally seems to be at war on every front. The tension is screwed tighter in the second season, thoroughly involving us through the life of the central character, which could not be more different from that which most of us live. As ever, the backstabbing politics here (not to mention unethical journalism which could give the British tabloids a run for their money) is as riveting as ever. If Birgitte is able — with surprising regularity — to pull her political irons out of the fire, we are allowed to vicariously enjoy those little triumphs, particularly as she always pays a price in her private life (notably a neglected teenage daughter undergoing a breakdown). An unmissable series, which will have viewers hungry for the third and final season.


HYSTERIA Tanya Wexler, director/Sony  When one thinks of the ludicrously restrictive censorship regimes that reigned for so long in Britain and America, it is amazing that any adult material was made at all. Certainly, a film such as Hysteria – about the invention of the vibrator — could hardly have existed in such an era. For this well-cast comedy drama makes the most of its unlikely material (with a few missteps), and is directed with energy by Tanya Wexler. Maggie Gyllenhall is a proto-feminist in a Victorian era of restriction for women, and finds herself clashing with a young doctor played by Hugh Dancy. His speciality – one that is giving him cramps and pains in his hand — is giving manual/genital relief to Victorian women suffering from what is described as ‘hysteria’– and, needless to say, his services are much in demand among the frustrated women of the time. The young doctor has a friend, a blue-blooded eccentric (delightfully played by Rupert Everett) who has come up with an invention that – with a little modification – is about to make the young doctor’s life much easier. As well as making some serious points along the way, this is great fun, acted with panache by a talented cast.


LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN Emlyn Williams, director/StudioCanal  Once a celebrated name as writer and actor, the reputation of Emlyn William has (regrettably) faded, but his very varied work still has much to offer, and StudioCanal has released one of his key films, Last Days of Dolwyn, showcasing an early performance by Richard Burton. The film – a fascinating curio — also stars the matchless Edith Evans in a tale of a doomed Welsh town. It’s intriguing viewing even in the 21st century.


BLACK SUNDAY Mario Bava, director/Arrow Blu-ray  In this impeccably restored Blu-ray edition, Mario Bava’s hypnotic black and white cult classic easily transcends its occasional crudities to come across, even today, as one of the most poetic and lyrical of vampire movies. The performance of Barbara Steele as the vengeful witch who possesses the body of the young daughter of a 19th century nobleman is a triumph of charisma and presence over really rather dated acting. (Her fainting spells are one of several elements in the film one has to bear with to appreciate the virtues abounding). Bava’s fluid camera and brilliant use of atmospheric sets creates a haunting sense of unease in the viewer, and his years of experience as a lighting cameraman result in what has justly been called the finest monochrome photography in the horror genre. Of course, Bava’s film is equally famous for its censorship troubles – details such as the spiked demon mask driven into Steele’s face resulted in an outright ban by the British censor which lasted seven years. The heavily cut version held sway for many years, until the film was made available in uncensored prints. Allowing viewers to fully enjoy off the rich visual sensations with which Bava crams his film. Certainly, the cuts reduced Black Sunday’s visceral impact – already modified by what films have shown in the intervening years – to a level that would hardly disturb a Friday the 13th enthusiast. But provided you can make the requisite mental adjustments (there are other things one has to take a deep breath about – such as the fist fight that slows down an otherwise invincible henchman of the witch). Black Sunday — in its now-definitive form (with optional Italian soundtrack and impressive extras) will prove its reputation is justified.


CAMILLE 2000, THE LICKERISH QUARTET, SCORE Radley Metzger, director/Arrow  Radley Metzger’s famous soft-core erotic films Camille 2000, The Lickerish Quartet and Score are now available (appropriately, in this EL James/50 Shades of Grey era) as deluxe Blu-ray & DVD dual format editions. Metzger, still a lively presence is one of the t pioneers of adult cinema who made his name in 1960s New York City, as a film editor and distributor of European erotica. When he began directing films in 1965, his influence quickly spread. The films are discreet by today’s standards, but are noted for striking compositions and upscale locations.


PIRANHA Joe Dante, director/Second Sight Films Killer fish are feasting on bikini-clad victims in Joe Dante’s original cult classic Piranha, appearing on Blu-ray for the first time from Second Sight Films. The director of The Howling and Gremlins had another early calling cards with Piranha, which makes its Blu-ray debut sporting some outstanding bonus features.

DOUBLE CONFESSION Ken Annakin, director/Renown Quirky casting marks out his the first-ever release of a little-seen British crime film on DVD (digitally re-mastered and restored.) Director Ken Annakin is less interested in the juvenile leads Derek Farr and Joan Hopkins than in value-for-money heavies William Hartnell and the great German import Peter Lorre, who earn their fees with relish.


21 DAYS: THE HEINEKEN KIDNAPPING Martin Trauerniet, director/Arrow Films  are a crucial part of the Scandi crime wave – particularly as so many impressive new entries keep joining the fray — such films, in fact, as 21 Days: The Heineken Kidnapping. The wealthy brewer Alfred Heineken, one of the most famous men in the Netherlands, offered considerable attraction for kidnappers. When a group of barely-organised, youthful criminals take him prisoner, he is held for the 21 days of the title in a grim cell. Now a powerless victim, Heineken is taunted by the youngest member of the gang who relishes humiliating the businessman. A ransom is paid, and a newly-freed Heineken has revenge in mind. Rutger Hauer reminds viewers what a persuasive actor he is in this tense and edgy piece, very capably directed by Martin Trauerniet.






Dracula Restored: Censorship Cuts Reinstated by Lions Gate

DRACULA Terence Fisher, director/Lionsgate Blu-ray  Seventh heaven for Hammer aficionados: here’s one of the key films from the studio’s heyday, censorship cuts restored, copious extras with authoritative commentaries – and the movie itself looking better than it ever has in a sparkling Blu-ray restoration. What with reissues such as this, new films and a new publishing initiative, Hammer is back with a bang. In many ways, Terence Fisher’s film of Dracula (from an economical screenplay by Jimmy Sangster) is not only one of the most perfectly constructed films made by the studio, it is also an encapsulation of just how the filmmakers conflated the various elements that made the product function so well (and for those aware of such things, the way in which budgetary constraints had occasioned a level of inspiration in Fisher and his colleagues — not to merely conceal the paucity of their resources but to make a positive virtue of such realties). One might wonder just how well the filmmakers understood the real implications of the Hammer version of Dracula, in which the vampiric count is not presented as the straightforwardly monstrous creature of the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi version, but (in Christopher Lee’s mesmeric interpretation) as an elegant, dangerously attractive and cultivated figure with immense erotic appeal. However little his character is inclined to (or, for that matter, able to) indulge in straightforward sexual activity, but rather in a displaced metaphor for the same – and displacement, what’s more, which has a concomitant libidinous charge more insidious than any more conventional sexual presentation would be. Certainly the actor who played the part claims to have been unaware in advance of the erotic effect is playing of the character would have, and has repeatedly said that he was greatly surprised at the matinee idol-type following his bloodsucking monster quickly acquired. Ironically, the censorship problems that British horror films were plagued with during their heyday (in the late 1950s and 1960s) were customarily directed at the more sanguinary aspects of the films, although various censors were customarily disturbed by what they perceived as the linking of sexual and violent aspects. John Trevelyan of the British Board of Film Censors (with whom Hammer was to have many battles, both amicable and acrimonious) was exercised by this particular conjunction, but not as much as one of Trevelyan’s successors, James Ferman, who decided that ‘blood on breasts’ (needless to say, a standard image in Hammer films) was a trigger for rapists, and Ferman routinely attempted to excise such images. But the more deep-seated eroticism of the earlier Hammer films (such as Dracula) appeared to go over the heads of – or at least be (tacitly?) ignored by – the censors. The erotic submission to the vampire count by his female victims in their various states of déshabillé was self-evident (such as Mellissa Stribling’s clearly sexual surrender in Fisher’s film, an image foregrounded in the posters, à la Bernini’s Saint Theresa of Avila’s orgasmic response to Christ). Such notions were actually more subversive in an era when female sexuality (at least in terms of its representation in films) was a subject far less open to discussion than it is in the far freer 21st century. Such territory has assumed a particularly pertinent relevance towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century with the phenomenal success of the female writer EL James’ crudely-written but self-evidently reader-friendly erotic trilogy beginning with 50 Shades of Grey. At the time of Terence Fisher’s film, the Dracula character might have been said to represent a variety of archetypes: the untrammelled libido wreaking havoc within the repression of the Victorian era; the dangerous masculine image forged by such female writers as Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen: the devilishly attractive but unyielding and controlling male figure with a barely concealed contempt for the female sex; and, finally, even as a challenge to clear-cut notions of good and evil (Dracula, as played by Christopher Lee, is hardly — in Nietzschean terms — beyond good and evil, but his challenge to the established order (and the verities of Christian belief) is given an energy and power singularly lacking in his opponents, whatever spiritual grace was conferred upon them (with the conspicuous exception of The Count’s nemesis, the savant Abraham Van Helsing – who, as played by the forceful Peter Cushing, is a very different figure from the more sedate and philosophical incarnation of the role as played by Edward Van Sloan in Tod Browning’s film of the Stoker novel). Of course, those who chose to dismiss such films as immoral and depraved were closing their eyes to a recurrent theme: the ultimate triumph of religious belief over seemingly insurmountable supernatural power. The accoutrements of religion (notably the crucifix and holy water) are routinely utilised to re-establish order out of the chaos brought by Dracula, even if the films are carefully drained (for the contemporary era) of the religiosity of standard Hollywood product.



Selina Walker, Publisher of Century and Arrow, has commissioned crime-writer Martyn Waites to write a new Woman in Black novel for Hammer Books. Based on an original idea by Susan Hill and a story by Jon Croker, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is set during the Blitz when a group of schoolchildren and their young teacher are evacuated from London to Eel Marsh House – where of course the Woman in Black is waiting for them. “As a publisher this is, of course, hugely exciting for me and for Hammer Books. Susan and Jon have come up with a wonderful way of updating the story and moving it on, and Martyn Waites is perfectly placed to do it justice”, says Walker. Martyn Waites says, “I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Hammer films and it’s still ongoing. That they are scaring audiences once again is exciting enough as a fan of British horror, but to ask me to be involved in the next Woman in Black novel is a dream come true. You thought the first one was scary? Just you wait . . .” Hammer have acquired world rights to the novel from Jane Gregory, and will publish the first edition in hardcover in November.