MINISTRY OF FEAR, Fritz Lang, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray With Ray Milland, released after a mercy killing into a dark wartime London, the stage is set for an atmospheric and menacing thriller of the kind that became Fritz Lang’s métier when he escaped from Nazi Germany. And unpleasant Nazis are in the mix here, with Lang’s customary attention to detail making for a quixotic, highly diverting mix. It’s not vintage Lang, but anything by the director requires close attention, and aficionados will find plenty worthy of their time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the source novel is by Graham Greene. Writers high up the ladder of literary acceptability proved ingredients for the criminal mix that fuelled the British crime film – such as Graham Greene (1904-1991). Had Greene not been the author of the ‘serious’ novels (such as A Burnt Case and The Heart of the Matter) which marked him out as one of the greatest of all English writers, his ‘entertainments’ (as the author rather dismissively described them) would constitute a body of crime and thriller fiction almost without equal in the field. Early in his career, Greene introduced an element of the spy story into The Confidential Agent (1939), in which D, the agent of a Latin government (Republican Spain in all but name), figures in a narrative that was clearly influential on such later writers as John le Carré. The latter has long acknowledged Greene’s considerable influence on his work. Brighton Rock, with its brilliantly realised picture of a violent seaside underworld, is as strong a starting point for those new to Greene as anything he wrote, but such superbly honed thrillers as the basis of this Powerhouse issue, Ministry of Fear (1943), demonstrate an authority and mastery of the narrative form that makes most practitioners look mere journeymen. Despite the writer’s long association with the cinema, the number of first-rate films associated with his work is relatively few (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, of course, and Lang’s creditable stab at Ministry of Fear). A razor-sharp transfer.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder, director/Eureka Blu-ray The recent Sally Phelps adaptation for television of this Agatha Christie classic was far darker than Billy Wilder’s film (very much in the manner of the earlier Phelps updates such as And Then There Were None), but Wilder’s adaptation is unalloyed joy from beginning to end — not least for the bantering relationship between husband-and-wife actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester as the acerbic, ailing judge and his fussy nurse. Their scenes are actually the best thing in the film, which is not to say that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich do not acquit themselves well in the main plot, and courtroom dramas don’t come any better than this. Of course, most of us know the plot twists now (and if you don’t, they will not be revealed in this review), but they are still delicious. And those familiar with the film only from its television showings will be astonished at how much care Eureka have taken over this very crisp Blu-ray transfer. However much you may have enjoyed Sally Phelps’ television adaptation, this remains the definitive take on Christie’s ingenious piece.
HEATHERS, Michael Lehmann, director /Arrow The first question to be asked, of course, is how does Heathers look in the early years of the 21st-century? The fact that it’s a time capsule from the 80s is part of its charm (look at the big hair on the women), but it’s not hard to see why the film has such a devoted following. As the obsidian-dark high school comedy Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary, Arrow Video marks the occasion with this impressive restoration of the outrageous satire starring Christian Slater (True Romance) and Winona Ryder (Stranger Things). Modern audiences may wonder (as they possibly did when the film first appeared): can the Winona Ryder character be quite as naive as she seems in not seeing just what bad news Christian Slater’s rebel is, however appealing she finds his unorthodox (and increasingly murderous) behaviour? But her slow awakening to the fact that she is having a sexual relationship with a psychopath is still one of the pleasures of the film.
THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, Flavio Mogherini, director/Arrow Blu-ray The giallo field is full of curiosities, but this little-known film is a real curio. Arrow, who have done sterling service in issuing a host of these glossy Italian murder thrillers, have arranged the UK Blu-ray debut of a giallo set not in London (a favourite giallo destination) but down under, The Pyjama Girl Case is a complex murder mystery inspired by a real-life case. A tetchy retired cop played by Ray Milland (sans toupee and somewhat older than in the film that opened this column) persuades his reluctant associates that he can help in solving a case involving the mutilated corpse of a girl. In fact, in a genre noted for its gruesomeness, the only macabre element here is the hideously burned face of the murder victim seen at some length throughout the film (even, bizarrely when her naked corpse is displayed for gawping onlookers). Perhaps this is one for aficionados only, but there is no denying the beautiful quality of the transfer — a sine qua non for the company. Copious extras including a fascinating piece on internationalism in the giallo from Michael McKenzie.
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, Mark Robson, director/ Twentieth Century Fox Blu-ray Frank Sinatra was well-known for his impatience on the film set and his insistence on using the first take on almost every occasion led to some notably lazy work in his career. Not so here – this, like The Manchurian Candidate, is one of his very best films, and looks particularly striking in this new transfer. Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard star in this classic war drama directed by Mark Robson. When US pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan (Sinatra) is shot down and placed in a German prisoner of war camp, he is more concerned with his own survival than escape. The top-ranking officer in the camp, he is initially reviled by his fellow British and American prisoners, who nickname him Von Ryan. However, Ryan eventually comes to lead them in a daring escape attempt, taking over from the commanding British officer (Howard), and the escapees face many hazards as they commandeer a train to make their way across Italy, closely followed by the Nazis.
THE ODESSA FILE, Ronald Neame, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray When an author creates a groundbreaking first novel, it is a considerable challenge to follow it up. But Frederick Forsyth’s long and successful career since The Day of the Jackal has shown that it is a challenge he could pull off at intervals. Jackal sported one of the most unusual innovations in all fiction – the ultimate ‘high concept’ thriller, with an English hitman hired to assassinate President de Gaulle. The methodical detail of the book has been copied many times since, and Forsyth achieved later success with The Odessa File in 1974. The year is 1963, sometime after the Kennedy assassination. German crime reporter Peter Miller has access to the diary of a holocaust survivor who has committed suicide. Miller learns that the dead man, Tauber, had been incarcerated in Riga Ghetto, under the brutal command of Eduard Roschmann, ‘The Butcher of Riga’, and Miller’s search for Roschmann (who Tauber had seen just before his death) is to lead the reporter into mortal danger.
BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, John Frankenheimer, director/Eureka Blu-ray Any praise for this classic of the cinema is relatively superfluous, given the ironclad reputation it has acquired over the years. Difficult to know what to praise first: Burt Lanchester’s superb performance as the longtime prisoner and ornithologist Robert Stroud, John Frankenheimer’s typically assured direction or Elmer Bernstein supple and evocative score. If the film omits the real-life Stroud’s homosexuality, that is a forgivable omission, given that it is not Frankenheimer’s focus. Birdman is the kind of sophisticated and intelligent filmmaking that is becoming more rare in the cinema, and looks particularly good in this transfer.
211, York Alec Shackleton, director/Lionsgate ‘211’ is the police code for robbery in progress, and the robbery in this crisply handled thriller is particularly memorable. The film was inspired by real-life events, and stars the always reliable Nicolas Cage as a veteran cop anticipating his retirement. But with his partner and son-in-law Steve in tow, a routine patrol is to end in an explosive situation. The film did not make a great impression in the cinema, but looks particularly good on the home screen and will certainly lead to a few fingernails being chewed.