Genre Film Books from McFarland: Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers 1950 – 1972; It Came from 1957; Janet Leigh: a Biography

For some considerable time, the American publisher McFarland has been a source of the most astutely written books on various aspects of genre cinema; squarely aimed at the serious film buff rather than the casual browser looking for a selection of stills and some anodyne text (the latter is most emphatically not what McFarland trades in). The proof of that assertion can be found in three new titles beginning with David Huckvale’s Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers 1950 – 1972, in which Huckvale examines sympathetically and with insight the black-and-white Hammer series created in emulation of Hitchcock’s Psycho and (their most oft-plundered model) Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. One might have thought that it would be difficult to find something new and interesting to say about this series (which began with Seth Holt’s excellent Taste of Fear, shortly to be remade by the newly revived Hammer films), as the films have been thoroughly covered (most recently by this writer; I talked about them in British Gothic Cinema for Palgrave Macmillan), but Huckvale proposes some new approaches as well as examining the films which were used as templates for the Hammer series.

Similarly, Rob Craig’s It Came from 1957 combines scholarship with enthusiasm in a study of a significant year in America genre cinema (the subtitle is A Critical Guide to the Year’s Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films), and while one might cheerfully have sacrificed the unnecessary plot synopses — along with some of the large amount of space allotted to cast and crew — the critical commentary in the book is stimulating.

As it is in Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua, which is a salutary reminder of just how many excellent films the actress was in (most significantly, of course, Psycho and Touch of Evil). Capua reminds us that the actress was more than an attractive face and figure, and his study of a lengthy career is pleasingly informed. If there is a caveat, it is the same mentioned above with the Rob Craig book; we simply do not need lengthy plot synopses, particularly for some of Leigh’s more indifferent films; and surely a more striking cover design and cover shot could have been chosen? Nevertheless, as with the other books under discussion, this is a highly useful contribution to the film buff’s bookshelf.

Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers 1950 – 1972, It Came from 1957 and Janet Leigh: a Biography are published by McFarland

 

Tony Palmer’s Dvorak Film

The Cello Concerto by Dvořák is one of the most popular concertos ever written and one of Dvořák’s last ever works, but a strange and rather tragic, story lies behind its composition. Renowned director Tony Palmer investigates the story behind the music in the wonderful Dvořák – In Love? which makes its DVD debut courtesy of Firefly on 7 July. In the early 1980s Tony Palmer visited Prague looking for books about Dvořák, at the time Czechoslovakia’s most famous composer, surprisingly there were none. In September 1988 he filmed a new recording of the Cello Concerto in Prague performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which was conducted by the great Czech maestro Václav Neumann with the soloist Julian Lloyd-Webber, already making a reputation as one of the leading British cellists of his generation. Tony went on to explore how this stunning piece of music came to existence. Dvořák – In Love? was originally a co-production with Czechoslovak Television in 1988, but when they saw the finished film and its implied political message, they explained that it could not be shown in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.  Two years later the Russians finally withdrew, and this film was the very first documentary to be shown on the newly-uncensored Czech television. The relevance of what Dvořák has to say through his Cello Concerto about political developments in Eastern Europe today could hardly be more relevant.

Violent Saturdays and Killings in Copenhagen

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INSPECTOR DE LUCA (Arrow) Arrow Films’ commitment to quality international crime thriller shows from various European territories and beyond continues under their newly launched sub-label ‘Noir’. Having already seen massive success with their Bafta winning series The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen, the company has released Inspector De Luca, an unusual crime series set between 1938 and 1948, from the height of Italy’s Fascist regime to the end of the tumultuous post-war period, Chief Detective De Luca investigates and solves crimes in the City of Bologna and along the Adriatic coast. With little or no regard for those in power, whoever they happen to be, his solitary, uncompromising character often lands him in trouble, but his respect is reserved for truth and justice alone. In the four TV movies of the series “Unauthorised Investigation”, “Carte Blanche”, “Murky Summer” and “Goose Way” – each taken from a novel by best-selling mystery writer Carlo Lucarelli – Chief Detective De Luca always ultimately gets to the bottom of his cases, though what he finds often leaves a bitter aftertaste.

VIOLENT SATURDAY (Eureka) is a stripped-down, machine-tooled crime saga from director Richard Fleischer, looking terrific in dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD). This important but neglected 1950s heist tale drama was an influence on Kubrick’s The Killing and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Reliable Hollywood professionalFleischer (The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place) delivers his tough noir outing against sun-drenched Arizona landscapes. Three criminals arrive in the small mining town of Bradenville, planning on robbing its only bank. But as they start scouting the area and gathering the information they need, the lives of others in the town threaten to get mixed up in their scheme, in a tangle that could lead to disastrous consequences. Utilising the different acting styles of Victor Mature and Lee Marvin (with the matchless Ernest Borgnine in strong support), Violent Saturday is a real find, from its powerful performances to its impressive Cinemascope imagery. This release includes new special features, including an interview with fan William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA).

MIDSOMER MURDERS: THE KILLINGS IN COPENHAGEN (Acorn). The audience-grabbing Midosmer Murders is regarded with wry affection (and an equal amount of wry disdain) in the UK, but has a massive (and surprising) following in Demark (home of the infinitely more gritty The Killing), so perhaps a multi-national cross-fusion was always on the cards; here it is, mild fare enlivened with several stars of the key Scandicrime shows. A genuine curiosity.

SEVEN SAMURAI (BFI) Akira Kurosawa’s imperishable 1954 epic Seven Samurai has reached its 60th anniversary and the BFI has released the film on Blu-ray and also on DVD, newly re-mastered in High Definition. Starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, this is one of the greatest films ever made; Kurosawa’s epic adventure Seven Samurai (originally issued in 1954) has influenced the work of directors from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg, and spawned remakes including John Sturges’ western The Magnificent Seven. First released on DVD in 1999, it is the BFI’s No.1 all-time best-selling title. With their village raided every year by vicious bandits, a group of peasants in 16th century Japan hire seven warriors to protect them. Initially met with suspicion, the samurai eventually gain the trust of the peasants and they join forces to face the bandits.

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (Second Sight). If you’re curious about the director Michael Cimino’s first film (before the debacle – and rediscovery — of Heaven’s Gate), here is an excellent chance, with this highly watchable Clint Eastwood heist yarn spruced up and looking impeccable on Blu-Ray. Clint doesn’t try too hard, but there’s a star-making turn by Jeff Bridges as Clint’s irritating (and none-too-bright) fellow thief .SPARKS (Image) As crime-fighting superheroes reign supreme at the box-office, a slew of spoof was perhaps inevitable; this frequently inventive efforts doesn’t rival Mystery Men in these stakes, but has its moments.

ACE IN THE HOLE (Eureka) is one of the essential films made by Billy Wilder, the writer-director of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot. What’s more,the film is generally acclaimed as Kirk Douglas’ finest screen performance besides that in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. The Blu-ray is part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series. Since re-emerging in the 2000s, Wilder’s cynical classic now seems even more ahead of its time in the 1950s with its acidic and unflinching examination of journalistic ethics and human morality, and has taken its place alongside Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot as among the director’s key works. Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who stumbles upon a potentially career-making story in Albuquerque, New Mexico (nearly sixty years later, the setting for Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad). When Tatum begins to influence the story’s outcome, things take a dark turn.

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS/THE LAVENDER HILL MOB/THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (Studio Canal)  Ealing’s greatest comedies captured the essence of post-war Britain, both in their evocation of a land once blighted by war but now rising doggedly and optimistically again from the ashes, and in their mordant yet graceful humour. They portray a country with an antiquated class system whose crumbling conventions are being undermined by a new spirit of individual opportunism. In the delightfully wicked Kind Hearts and Coronets, a serial killer politely murders his way into the peerage; in The Lavender Hill Mob a put-upon bank clerk schemes to rob his employers and The Man in the White Suit is a harshly satirical depiction of idealism crushed by the status quo. A cherishable box set of some of Sir Alec Guinness’s best work, and together for the first time on Blu-Ray, these are three of the finest Ealing comedies. A perfect introduction for newcomers to the Ealing Classics collection, this trilogy is also a tempting purchase for all British comedy, Ealing film and Alec Guinness fans.

SISTERS (Arrow) The UK Blu-ray debut of Sisters reminds viewers that this is the first true Brain De Palma suspense thriller. Following the recent release of The Fury and the more problematic Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters has been treated to an all-new restoration. Complementing this dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition are a host of brand new extras. Before 1973, Brian De Palma was impossible to pigeonhole: he made comedies, political satires and openly experimental pieces. But with Sisters (originally released as Blood Sisters in the UK) he turned to the suspense thriller and discovered his natural home – and a style that would lead directly to later masterpieces like Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. When Danielle (Margot Kidder) meets potential boyfriend Philip (Lisle Wilson) after appearing on the TV show Peeping Toms (a nod to the Michael Powell shocker), she invites him home, only to attract the ire of her twin sister Dominique. From across the courtyard, Rear Window-style, reporter Grace (Jennifer Salt) witnesses Philip being murdered by one of the twins – but the police find no body or any physical evidence. Naturally, Grace takes things into her own hands, and discovers more about the sisters’ relationship than she bargained for… Strongly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, and with a score by the great Bernard Herrmann, Sisters was the first true “Brian De Palma” film.

MAN OF MARBLE (Second Run) A welcome a 2-Disc Special Edition of Andrzej Wajda’s epic, iconic 1976 film often described as ‘the Polish CITIZEN KANE’, Wajda’s dazzling 1976 film Man of Marble functions as both an electrifying political saga and a compelling dissection of the nature of cinema itself. It tells the story of a determined young filmmaker Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) who sets out to make a documentary about ‘Worker’s Hero’ Mateusz Birkut, who in the early days of the Communist revolution became as famous as any film star, only to disappear from the record books in 1952. Delving into that recent past, Agnieszka determinedly pursues Birkut’s story. Birkut’s rise and subsequent fall from favour and disappearance into obscurity provides Wajda with a framework for a brave reassessment of the times. The film is not only regarded as one of the most important films in the history of Polish cinema, it is also one of the key films of the 1970s.

THE NEW (IN)COMPLETE COMPLETE AND UTTER HISTORY OF BRITAIN (Network) Before Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, there was The Complete and Utter History of Britain. Written by and starring comedy legends Michael Palin and Terry Jones, The New (In)Complete Complete and Utter History of Britain (12) includes the two surviving episodes, along with unseen footage. For the first time, the two existing episodes can be seen as recorded and as transmitted, plus a new 50-minute feature with brand new linking material by Palin and Jones, and unseen series footage from Terry Jones’ personal archives. Shown in 1969, the same year that Python became part of the national consciousness, this series takes a typically skewed look at British history – and reports it as if television had been around to cover it at the time. A notable influence on television comedy, this series fed directly into the work they did for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (Arrow). Roger Corman’s film of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum is the 1961 follow-up to The Fall of the House of Usher, once again directed by Corman and starring a neurasthenic Vincent Price alongside the dark British Queen of Italian horror Barbara Steele. On release, the film became an instant hit with both critics and audiences alike. Certainly Corman succeeded in crafting one of the most arresting openings in any Gothic horror film, balancing it at the end with a wildly extravagant finale and bolstering the body of the picture with eerily tinted flashbacks and a creepily effective tomb-rising for Steele. Introducing the action, rivulets of luridly coloured paints bleed into each other to the accompaniment of composer Les Baxter’s sombre atonalities, suggesting nothing so much as the interbreeding blood vessels of the mind. In the words of screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, The Pit and the Pendulum had a big influence on Italian horror films. Everybody borrowed from it.” To take just three examples, two of them scripted by Gastaldi – the conspicuously diseased family dynamic of Riccardo Freda’s L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock [The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock] (1962), Christopher Lee thundering on horseback through sunset-dappled surf at the beginning of Mario Bava’s La frusta e il corpo [The Whip and the Body] (1963) and the protracted, candlelit corridor wanderings featured in Antonio Margheriti’s Danza macabre [Castle of Blood] (1964).