Network, Arrow, Eureka: New Blu-rays & DVDS

HELL DRIVERS, Cy Endfield, director/Network Blu-Ray  The maverick is very often a criminal – or an ex-criminal. Looking at Hell Drivers (1957) today (particularly in this splendid Blu-Ray transfer) is a reminder that the House Unamerican Activities committee did British cinema a favour by consigning left-leaning directors such as Joseph Losey to professional exile in the UK in the 1950s. As I noted in British Crime Film, another casualty of the communist witch-hunt was Cy Endfield, who similarly produced excellent work when exiled to Britain – as with Hell Drivers, one of the most incisive Britcrime movies ever made – Endfield’s lean, taut movie about corruption among truck drivers, as aficionados will know, is clearly indebted to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, with its truck-drivers-in-peril scenario (here matched to criminality and cruelty) but so what? Endfield (whose symbiotic professional relationship with blue-collar actor Stanley Baker was to result in the memorable Zulu) rings the changes very satisfyingly – and there’s the matchless cast (one that would not have been affordable a decade or so later): Baker as the ex-con protagonist, Patrick McGoohan as a sadistic, cigarette-chewing heavy, a pre-007 Sean Connery, Peggy Cummins, Sidney James, Herbert Lom et al…While the in-your-face ethos of Hell Drivers may present most of its characters in bright primary colours, there is no gainsaying its ambition (or, for that matter, its achievement). Not least the palm-sweating action sequences with recklessly speeding lorries. One expects the central character – the quiet ex-con struggling to keep his head down – to be fashioned with Stanley Baker’s characteristic assurance, but there are also several sharply delineated subsidiary characters, such as the sensitive, pious Italian lorry driver played by Herbert Lom (like fellow character actor Warren Mitchell, Lom was able to provide whatever ethnicity was required by any project he was hired for – a skill that assured him of a long and varied acting career). To some degree, Lom is the kind of ‘sacrificial lamb’ character to be found in so many James Bond films, whose function, essentially, is to die and provide a visceral impetus for the hero (here, Baker’s truck driver) in the latter’s final inevitable confrontation with the heavies. Interestingly, in an era when religion was rarely questioned, Cy Endfield treats the Roman Catholic Lom character’s belief (as evinced by the shrine he prays to) as a naive response to the hard realities of the world he lives in – a response, what’s more, which doesn’t save his life.

STORY OF SIN, Walerian Borowczyk, director/Arrow Blu-ray  The films of Walerian Borowczyk are something of an acquired taste, but there is no disputing that his frequently bizarre, frequently erotic work is that of an artist with a singularly individual vision — even if his admirers have been forced to concede that a coarsening of his vision was evident over the years. Not in this film, however, which is rich with the kind of off-kilter surrealistic vision that informs all of his best work, along with its customary hypercharged sexual content. The life of a beautiful, young and pious woman is thrown into chaos when her parents takes in a dashingly handsome lodger. Having embarked on a torrid affair, the lodger goes off to Rome to seek a divorce from his estranged wife. Unable to live apart from her beloved, the girl leaves home only to fall prey to the infatuations and lusts of a band of noble admirers, unsavoury criminals and utopian do-gooders… The only feature Walerian Borowczyk made in his native Poland, Story of Sin transforms Stefan Zeromski’s classic melodrama into a deliriously surrealistic meditation on l’amour fou

JACK THE RIPPER David Wickes, director/Network Blu-Ray  David Wickes’ take on the most famous of British serial killers had British television viewers glued to their TVs on its first broadcast, but here is a chance to catch it again in a strikingly detailed Blu-ray transfer. Wickes’ theory as to the identity of Saucy Jack is contentious (despite its adduced sources), but one can ignore the program maker’s protestations that this is the definitive solution to the mystery of the Whitechapel murderer — after all, there are many contrasting theories, not least the Patricia Cornwell theory — in which she controversially names the painter Walter Sickert as The Ripper. Wickes’ multi-parter is stuffed to the gills with some of Britain’s best character actors, not least Michael Caine as the beleaguered detective Abbeline (although Lewis Collins is out of his depth with the talent he is surrounded with as Caine’s colleague) As was remarked at the time of the first showing, the gruesomeness of the killings is distinctly played down for a television audience, although there is a very brief shot of the bloody results of Jack’s only indoor killing; I suspect a few hands may be hovering over the pause button.

Network are also releasing the Margi Clarke/Frank Clarke comedy-drama BLONDE FIST, set largely in the actress’s native Liverpool.

THE TEAM, Various directors, Arrow  Is this another entry in the Scandinavian crime stakes? With its multinational accoutrements, it’s more a piece of Euro Noir rather than Nordic Noir, but is delivered with considerable efficiency, if a certain lack of individuality. When three prostitutes are murdered by being shot through the left eye in Antwerp, Berlin and Copenhagen, Europol sets up a Joint Investigations Team under the lead of Harald Bjørn (Lars Mikkelsen) from Denmark, Jackie Mueller (Jasmin Gerat) from Germany und Alicia Verbeek (Veerle Baetens) from Belgium. During their investigation ‘The Team’ unravels an unscrupulous criminal organization operating across Europe. ‘The Team’ an is international production for the Danish DR, the German ZDF, the Belgian vtm, the Austrian ORF and the Swiss SRF.

TWO RODE TOGETHER, John Ford, director/Eureka Blu-Ray  As I’ve mentioned before, John Ford’s reputation as the pre-eminent director of Westerns in Hollywood has been challenged of late by such talented filmmakers as Anthony Mann, but there is no denying Ford’s mastery. That mastery is particularly evident in this somewhat neglected piece, looking splendid in this new transfer. Two Rode Together stars James Stewart, Shirley Jones and Richard Widmark, and is part of Eureka’s part of the Masters of Cinema Series in a special Dual Format edition. The first collaboration between James Stewart and director John Ford produced this thrilling and darkly complex Western that easily ranks among Ford’s best work, yet remains one of his most overlooked. Stewart plays gloriously against type as Marshal Guthrie McCabe, a cynical and amoral U.S. Marshal assigned to trade guns with the fearsome Comanche in exchange for hostages, with the promise of a large reward if he is successful.

THE HALCYON, Various directors, Sony  Canny casting is the reason for the success of this show, with two of the UK’s most acclaimed actors, Steven Mackintosh (Luther, The Sweeney, Inside Men) and Olivia Williams (Anna Karenina, Hyde Park On Hudson, The Sixth Sense) delivering performances that are understated but perfectly calculated in their effect. And these performances are enshrined in a production where visual qualities are always striking. A lavish 1940s drama, The Halcyon, is produced by the award-winning independent production company Left Bank Pictures. The eight-part series, which aired on ITV, tells of a bustling five-star hotel at the centre of London society and a world at war. The series shows London life through the prism of war and the impact it has on families, politics, relationships and work across every social strata with a soundtrack of music from the era.
LUDWIG, Luchino Visconti, director/Arrow Blu-Ray  In the Indian summer of his career, Visconti was able to make precisely the kind of films that he wanted, and the results were always visually striking. That is very much the case with this take on Richard Wagner’s favourite nobleman, the Bavarian prince who allowed him to fulfil his grandiose operatic dreams. Presented here in its full-length version (in accordance with the director’s wishes) as well as an episodic format, this release of Ludwig is a chance for film fans to see the sumptuous epic as intended, and in all its glory.