Movies Till Dawn: Back in Black (and White)

The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950, Flicker Alley) Rookie detective John Dall (“Gun Crazy“) investigates the killing of Harlan Warde, husband to socialite Jane Wyatt, who committed the murder with the help of her lover: Dall’s older brother and fellow cop Lee J. Cobb. Superior B-noir, penned by Oscar winner Seton I. Miller and mystery author/screenwriter Philip MacDonald, and anchored by Cobb’s brooding performance as a big lug brought down by pure lust; Flicker Alley’s beautifully restored Blu-ray/DVD combo offers a making-of doc featuring noir expert Eddie Muller (who also penned the detailed liner notes), and a visit to the film’s San Francisco locations, several of which were also showcased in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji” (1955, Arrow Video) Not an explosion of samurai violence, as the title suggests, but rather a rumination on Japanese social order and tradition, told as a road picture and with melancholic humor until a startling tonal shift in its conclusion. For many viewers, “Spear” will serve as introduction to the versatile genre director Tomu Uchida, who remains largely unknown outside of his native country, despite critical comparisons to great dramatists like Masaki Kobayashi and Yasujiro Ozu (who served as Uchida’s production adviser for “Spear”); Arrow’s Blu-ray includes archival interviews with Uchida’s son, Toei publicist Kazunori Kishida and critic Fabrice Arduini, as well as informative commentary by Midnight Eye’s Jasper Sharp.

Invention for Destruction” (1958, Second Run) Pirates under the command of the megalomaniac Count Artigas (Miroslav Holub) kidnap an inventor (Arnost Navratil)) in the hopes of turning his research into a new form of energy into a world-wrecking weapon. It can be sometimes difficult for modern audiences to see the wonder in vintage fantasy and science fiction, but no effort is required for Czech animator Karel Zeman‘s loose adaptation of a Jules Verne novel; Zeman employs a remarkable array of practical effects, including miniatures and stop-motion animation, and a delirious visual style that invokes intricate engravings from Verne’s books. Essential viewing for animation/fantasy fans (even CGI-minded kids); Second Run’s Blu-ray includes a new 4K restoration of the film, as well as its English-language presentation, “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne,” two of Zeman’s short films, an appreciation by director John Stevenson (“Kung Fu Panda”) and a wealth of making-of featurettes.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956, Warner Archives Collection) To underscore his opposition to capital punishment, newspaper publisher Sidney Blackmer enlists struggling author Dana Andrews to participate in a scheme in which he’s charged for the unsolved murder of a nightclub dancer, which would then be dismissed by Blackmer’s testimony. This being a film by Fritz Lang, the plan goes spectacularly awry on multiple levels, leaving the self-appointed arbiters of law and order with blood on their hands. Lang’s final film in America isn’t perfect –the streamlining of logic in Douglas Morrow‘s script requires a Herculean suspension of disbelief – but its coal-black perspective on the rotten core of the legal system place and the cruel vagaries of fate mark it as a kissing cousin, at least, to Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler,” “The Woman in the Window” and “The Big Heat.” Remade, to little effect, in 2009; Warner’s remastered Blu-ray includes the theatrical trailer.

Hell on Frisco Bay” (1955, Warner Archives Collection) More Bay Area noir, this time with Alan Ladd as an ex-cop gunning for the mobster (Edward G. Robinson, natch) who put him behind bars on a trumped-up murder charge. The CinemaScope photography – restored handsomely for this Blu-ray release – and San Francisco exteriors provide director Frank Tuttle (whose career collapsed under the HUAC blacklist) and cinematographer John Seitz with a color-saturated, sundrenched counterpoint to the grim goings-on, and while Ladd and his co-stars – which include William Demarest, Joanne Dru, Stanley Adams and briefly, Rod Taylor and Jayne Mansfield – are all pros, none can hold a candle to Robinson, who finds the right mix of ego, charm and mercilessness in his waterfront mob boss. Warner’s Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

Her Kind of Man” (1946, Warner Archives Collection) Roaring Twenties singer Janis Paige affection for gambler Zachary Scott puts him in the crosshairs of reporter Dane Clark, who also carries a torch for Paige, and hopes to change her mind by pinning Scott with a murder rap. Not so much noir as romantic crime drama, and an old-fashioned one at that, but not without its appeal: Scott delivers as another oleaginous heel, and Sheldon Leonard (“Out you two pixies go!”) is briefly on hand as an ill-fated cardsharp. Director Frederick De Cordova toiled in B-movies – including “Bedtime for Bonzo” – before serving as the producer of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” while co-writer Gordon Kahn was blacklisted a year after this film’s release. Warner’s DVD-R is fullscreen.

Television’s Lost Classics Volume 2: Rare Pilots” (1950-1959, VCI Entertainment) Rare and unseen Golden Age pilots, including an early version of the sitcom “The Life of Riley” with Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role; “Lam and Cool,” based on the detective novels by Erle Stanley Gardner (who introduces the pilot) and directed by Jacques Tourneur; and “Ellery Queen,” with Kurt Kasznar and William Shatner as sleuth and sidekick, respectively. “Riley” is worth a look for the pure curiosity factor of seeing the horror star play suburban dad, but the “Lam” and “Queen” pilots are polished and suggest that good programs might have resulted, had they gone to series. VCI’s Blu-ray includes a vintage reel of bloopers from “Twilight Zone” and “Rawhide,” among other shows.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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