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FIR 2017 STOCKING STUFFER COLUMN

By • Dec 23rd, 2017 •

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ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (Universal/Warner Bros)

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Features: SABOTEUR, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, ROPE, REAR WINDOW, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, MARNIE, TORN CURTAIN, TOPAZ, FRENZY, FAMILY PLOT.   

From Alfred Hitchcock Presents:  ‘Revenge (directed by Hitchcock),’ Mr. Blanchard’s Secret (directed by Hitchcock),’ ‘Lamb to the Slaughter (directed by Hitchcock),’ ‘Poison (directed by Hitchcock)’ ‘Arthur (directed by Hitchcock),’ ‘Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (directed by Hitchcock),’ ‘Bang! You’re Dead (Directed by Hitchcock).’ Doc -Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Look Back.

From The Alfred Hitchcock Hour:  ‘I Saw the Whole Thing, (Directed by Hitchcock)’ ‘Three Wives Too Many,’ ‘Death Scene.’  Doc – Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Thrilling Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

Previously this was released as the ‘Masterpiece Collection.’ Same cover art, same enclosed booklet, same BluRay masters.  This new iteration, in addition, contains seven of his half-hour TV shows, and three of his hour-long TV shows. Six-and-a-half additional hours of Hitchcockian fun, eight of the TV episodes directed by the maestro himself.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT was Hitchcock’s favorite. 

In a recent poll, VERTIGO supplanted CITIZEN KANE as the best film ever made.  My favorite of his films is NORTH BY NORTHWEST. 

And his worst film is probably TOPAZ.

All four are contained within this collection.

Wherever you lean concerning Hitchcock’s work, you are bound to find many hours of delighted viewing as the owner of this 17-disc extravaganza.  The only missing element would be titles from his early British period, though one could make an argument that his British period is at least represented – by FRENZY. 

FAMILY PLOT, his last film, though not his worst, is his flabbiest, and there are some grotesque, willing-suspension-of-disbelief-skewering process shots scattered throughout.  These are not the fault of the BluRay master – they looked dreadful and antiquated at the time the film was theatrically released. I remember them well.  Other than these glaring reality spoilers, and the fact that the image at times appears to be lit for TV, and the make-up on the actors’ faces is too apparent, other than that the transfer looks clean and of a reasonable grain.  Others, like SABOTEUR, have never looked better, and very possibly have never looked as good.

MONTEREY POP (Criterion)

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Someone made the decision – I assume it was director D.A. Pennebaker – to shoot the festival predominantly in close-up.  So maybe 80% of the film – the performances, the crowd footage – is captured in tight close or medium shots.  It’s the PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC of the music festival genre.  This also makes it the quietest of the fest-docs, but the amount of supplemental material is staggering.  More music from all involved, plus The Grateful Dead, Laura Nyro…Tiny Tim!  It’s like the main feature was a piñata which busted open and there was all this other stuff inside.  Quite something. 

Festival producer Lou Adler is on the commentary track along with Pennebaker, and his memory is not only phenomenal, but it was obviously tuned to store the best stories.  Preserved in Adler’s gray matter, they come pouring out in this venue.  If I’m hearing the commentary track clearly, this was the first time the Mamas and the Poppas performed ‘California Dreamin’ publicly. The songs from other groups never get better than that early rendition, the first one out of the gate.  There are recent interviews with others in key positions at the event as well.

The third act, wisely it seems today, is all Ravi Shankar.  And he’s great.  Again, mighty close on him and one of his group members for most of the number.  But it’s mesmerizing, and an interesting ending to the three-night concert.

Criterion has packaged it lovingly, and has included two other Pennebaker docs, JIMI PLAYS MONTEREY, and SHAKE! OTIS AT MONTEREY.   Also you get a disc full of THE OUTTAKE PERFORMANCES.   

The paper they chose for the 74-page booklet smells great.

THE VIETNAM WAR (PBS)

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Ken Burns must be taking some mighty powerful ulcer medication; he continually finds himself pitted against himself with each ensuing epic documentary production.  Plus he’s already done one called THE WAR. 

I’m extremely fond of his massive 2001 analysis of JAZZ, in no small part because a friend, Keith David, narrates.  And when Burns does a (relatively) shorter one like PROHIBITION, I imagine it’s akin to taking a breather.

With creative partner Lynn Novick he has fashioned a ten-part, 990 minute mega-doc, which immerses us as never before in the terrible conflict.  And yet, on IMBD, a viewer manages to complain that Australia’s participation in Nam wasn’t mentioned.  And there are other critics weighing in as well. But the complex structure of that doomed endeavor is given a clear-headed (if extremely convoluted) presentation.  After the first disc, with its feature-length overview from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, the subsequent discs analyze a few years at a time, giving us a micro-view of the  war.

The United States’ involvement in Nam was my time period.  I have a friend who fought in the TET Offensive (1968), the worst year of the war, and somehow (a complete mystery to him) lived to tell about it.   I’ve heard tales of Nam from him that have never been told, and I can see that there must be volumes still lying in wait to see the light of day. But knowing at least a tad about Nam from his perspective, I viewed Chapter 6 with careful scrutiny.  This hour-and-a-half chapter covers the TET period, from January to July ’68, with the North, and their allies the Viet Cong, going for the gold, and though they failed to derail the South’s resolve, they nonetheless turned the tide of the war because America realized that things weren’t going according to plan. I was impressed by the choices Burns & Novick made – the placement and narrative drive of the talking heads, the incorporation of found footage (both B&W and color), the rising temperature back home, the no-nonsense overview of Peter Coyote’s narration.  Its rhythms are beautifully structured.  Remarkable filmmaking.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON: JOHNNY AND FRIENDS (TIME LIFE)

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I have a friend who is going through hard emotional times.  She comes by once in a while and sits quietly, not responding vocally to any questions, nor initiating conversation.  I feel rather helpless in the face of it. 

One time I tried something different in an effort to communicate.  I put on one of the JOHNNY CARSON discs, wherein there is a lengthy encounter with an alligator that Johnny, as was his want, gets physically involved with to the audience’s delight.  Glancing at my friend, I saw that she had broken out into a wide smile and began laughing heartily, and I doubt she’d ever seen the Johnny Carson show before.

After this and a few other of his encounters with the animal world, I took the disc off, and she lapsed back into silence.  But there’d been a breakthrough, no matter how brief.  And while most of you out there aren’t comatose or even severely depressed, these discs offer an array of wonderful skits, encounters, and nostalgic visitations over a three decade period with the greatest talk show host we’ve ever had.

Johnny’s friends include Rodney Dangerfield (who I had the pleasure of producing two films with – a serious, lovely guy), David Letterman, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Burt Reynolds, and Jim Fowler, who provides the animals  Johnny romps with.

PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION (SCREAM)

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Everyone I know cares about Paul Naschy, the Spanish horror icon that has tackled nearly every monster and every horror sub-genre that previously appeared on the globe.  His work is usually on a well-produced, enjoyable ‘B’ level – better by far than crap like Jess Franco’s output (I’ve seen over thirty of Franco’s films, and not one I could sit through without mercifully activating the fast forward button), but not quite up to many of the films he is emulating – though at least one of the SCREAM collection titles – NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF – is an A-.

What endears him to his fans, I think, is that he, too, is a fan-boy.  He cares about Horror and Giallo, he understands them, and he acquits them with gusto.  His first encounter with the horror genre, at age eleven, which oddly enough was the first film I ever bought a 16mm film of, back in the days before VHS or laserdisc, was FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, a wonderful, fast-moving film from Universal’s ‘40s ‘B’ assembly line.  The best of the five titles in this collection – NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF – is very much an homage to that Universal title.  Naschy essayed his werewolf role about a dozen times over the years.   

Naschy isn’t a matinee idol.  He’s more of an everyman, an Earl Owensby, or a Lon Chaney Jr. (who he replaced in the production of his debut screenplay FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR, after Chaney, Universal’s recurring Wolfman, Lawrence Talbot, declined the role of werewolf Waldemar Daninsky).  He’s the ‘people’s horror star’.  An ordinary guy (despite winning a weight-lifting award earlier in his career, which meant that he had no problem picking up unconscious damsels in distress and carrying them to safety) with whom everyone can sympathize.

This collection offers an excellent spectrum of his various endeavors. Here we can find, of course, werewolves, but also Elizabeth Bathory, zombies, vampires, a hired assassin (in a neat, downbeat crime meller with a nod to Eastwood’s THE BEGUILED).

The enclosed pamphlet devotes a few pages to each of the five films represented within.  It is written by Mirek Lipiski, author of the forthcoming ‘Paul Naschy: A Life on the Screen,’ from NoHo Press.  He makes a point that generates additional interest in the modus operandi of the busy auteur: apparently Naschy was not an upbeat, fun-loving guy. He was soured on life, had little faith in regenerative relationships, either romantic or platonic, and much of his dark world view taints (in a decidedly positive way) his narratives.  In particular he saw the role of Daninsky, the anguished werewolf in several of his screen portrayals, as a reflection of his own disappointed existence.  This explains a lot, and provides access into his thinking while he wrote these obsessive tales.   Commentary tracks with two jovial authority figures gives us even more to digest.

I’m glad to have this collection.  More installments will undoubtedly follow.

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One Response »

  1. Both volumes I & II are worth getting for true lovers of this filmmaker. Hopefully a 3D version of his “Mark Of The Wolfman” will see its way to us. Also, my personal favorite, “The Beast And The Magic Sword”-shot in Japan-will get a much deserved release (my understanding is that Kurosawa himself was very impressed with Molina’s vision and told him so!)

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