Widescreen Epics and a young Helen Mirren

KHARTOUM, Basil Dearden, director/Eureka Entertainment  While notions of political correctness may mean that we’ll never see an actor such as Laurence Olivier playing an Arabian character again (or, for that matter, a white actor playing Othello — as Olivier memorably did), here is a perfect chance to enjoy once again this neglected epic in which not only is Olivier utterly splendid as the ruthless leader The Mahdi, but Charlton Heston (as his opponent General Gordon) more than manages to hold his own against his own acting hero. What’s more, Basil Dearden, a director with films of distinctly varying levels of achievement to his name, shows that he is more than a measure for this kind of historical storytelling and keeps the relationships between the antagonists in perfect balance. This impressive historical epic is part of the Eureka Classics range in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition. The film’s forceful examination of British colonialism, religious fanaticism and the nature of heroism has not dated. The narrative describes the slaughter of British-led Egyptian troops by the forces of Arabic leader Muhammad Ahmad (Olivier), who considers himself to be the Mahdi, Mohammed’s elected fighter against Anglo-Egyptian rule. Khartoum was the final film to be shot using Ultra Panavision 70 (and screened theatrically in Cinerama) until Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015.

YANKS, John Schlesinger, director/Eureka Entertainment   While there were admirers at the time of its initial release for John Schlesinger’s Yanks, the general response to the film was underwhelming – even though the director made it known that it was a particular favourite of his among his own work. This impressive new Blu-ray allows us to reassess the film and it’s clear that Schlesinger’s positive take on it was justified. What strikes one now about the film is its perfectly judged understatement, allowing the film (and the expertly directed cast) to make their points without undue emphasis. A saga of love during WWII, Yanks stars Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave, and is a wartime-set drama that eschews scenes of battle to deal with the affairs between the stationed U.S. soldiers and the locals in a small town in Northern England in the 1944 period before the Normandy landings. Time for fresh look at a powerful (and underrated) piece of work.

Forthcoming Italian Suspense from Arrow FilmsThe enterprising types at Arrow Films continue to cherrypick some of the most intriguing of genre cinema, frequently straying away from the well-worn paths is to bring to our attention material which is not only neglected, but which may even be unknown to all but the most committed cinéastes. What’s more, the razor-sharp quality of the transfers (not to mention the copious and well-curated extras) make for some particularly tempting packages. So tempting, in fact, that the extras may push punters into buying mode, even if they are undecided as to whether or not to stump up for one of the films from the Arrow catalogue. A striking example may be found in the company’s forthcoming titles with Italian thriller The Fifth Cord, one of the many gialli that followed in the wake of the acclaim for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The film will be new to many admirers of the giallo genre, but director Luigi Bazzano is noted for his quirky sensibility and astute direction of actors. What’s more, the presence of the cult actor Franco Nero as an alcoholic journalist on the trail of brutal killer will guarantee interest. Admirers of Arrow’s catalogue, will have to be a little patient for this one – it’s due early 2019.

NEW FROM POWERHOUSE INDICATOR: CHARLIE BUBBLES, AGE OF CONSENT, GEORGY GIRL, THE WRONG BOX, Various directors/Powerhouse Indicator  An admirable sprucing up for some choice films that are now slightly neglected from a company which specialises in presenting vintage fare in spectacular new Blu-ray editions. This impressive December batch includes three really interesting items: Albert Finney’s exceptional debut as a director, the comedy drama Charlie Bubbles (with Finney himself in the title role as a Northern novelist in search of his roots, plus a scene-stealing performance as his secretary by Liza Minelli); one of the last films directed by the great Michael Powell, Age of Consent, with James Mason as exemplary as ever as a painter besotted by a beguiling young Helen Mirren (playing her part mostly nude — the film is a salutary reminder of an era before the new prudery), and the delightful Georgy Girl with Lynn Redgrave giving a career-best performance (not to mention, once again, the always reliable James Mason). If one of the films in this Powerhouse Indicator batch is something of a misfire, it still has great interest for its remarkable cast. Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box (based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s original tale) is a period-set piece with Michael Caine and (inevitably) Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman as the juve leads, with a stellar supporting cast including Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Peter Sellers and an underused Tony Hancock. Interestingly, the film is stolen by the always wonderful alcoholic actor Wilfrid Lawson, whose natural befuddled state is perfect for the eternally confused butler that he plays. Once again, with this varied quartet, Powerhouse Indicator has put lovers of British film in their debt.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK, Fred Walton, director/Second Sight The tense When A Stranger was a particular favourite at the time of its original VHS release, even though the film did not share the gruesomeness of many of its competitors in the thriller stakes of the time. But in fact, the film’s reputation as belonging to the slasher genre is misplaced – this is, if anything, a steady slow-burning police procedural about the tracking of a psychopathic killer by a dogged, unglamorous detective (played by the corpulent but memorable Charles Durning). The film gets its first UK Blu-ray release alongside (on the same disc) its sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. A babysitter is terrorised by a psychopathic killer in Fred Walton’s suspenseful piece (The film opens with the babysitter receiving a chilling phone call from a killer – a scene that has often been copied, and provided the inspiration for the first scene in Wes Craven’s Scream). The disc also features the original, rarely seen, short film that was the genesis of the feature film, The Sitter newly restored, along with brand new interviews demonstrating how time has wrought changes on the actors.

BLOOD, various directors/Acorn Media International  With Adrian Dunbar as impressive as usual in a dark crime drama, Blood is a series that acquired something of following on its Channel 5 showing, but certainly deserves more exposure. A young woman, estranged from her family in rural Ireland, returns home after the sudden apparently accidental death of her mother. This new DVD from Acorn retains the format of the original six-part drama, and is a solidly acted and compelling piece of work.