Ahoy, squirts! Quint here once again with a new Vault Dweller article. With each Vault Dweller column I will highlight a batch of titles from various studio’s Burn-On-Demand releases of their more obscure archive titles. I will discuss the films and their transfers or die trying!
My initial toe-dipping trial run on this column was a massive success, so you’re stuck with this for a bit. I began with a rundown of every single MGM Limited Edition Collection release from March 2011 and this column will focus on their April releases.
There’s a lot of promising looking stuff in this stack, involving actors like Lawrence Harvey, Jan Michael Vincent, James Mason, Michael Caine, Ben Johnson, Adam West, Frank Langella, David Niven, Rita Hayworth, Charlton Heston, Jason Robards and directors like Don Siegel, Paul Schrader, George Marshall, Ken Annakin and Mark L. Lester.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Frank Langella stars in this wonderful film about the behind the scenes of a summer stock in 1950s Cleveland. And yes, this film is wonderful, a fantastic drama with enough comedy and romance to keep everything exciting. I’m shocked Langella wasn’t nominated for portrayal as the pranking, life-of-the-party star of the show. On the surface he’s all confidence, but the reality is he feels his opportunity for true fame is slipping by and he’s desperate to get out of summer stock and onto Broadway. It’s not an uncommon angle for a putting on the show type film like this, but that’s why Langella deserved some awards for his portrayal. His Harry Crystal feels fresh, alive. You love this guy.
Our in to the backstage world of entertainment is young Tom Hulce, who would later make film history as Mozart in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, a struggling pre-med student who catches the entertainment bug and tries to juggle school and a new job as a prop man… and a first-time romance with a dancer played by Glynnis O’Connor. Everybody in the film is outstanding. I see why Hulce got the Amadeus gig. Also worth noting is Jerry Stiller as Hulce’s father, a rather dramatic role that could easily have been the typical “keep your feet on the ground” part if Stiller wasn’t so good in it. The great Kevin McCarthy also pops up! Very, very highly recommend this one.
Transfer: Watched this one on my laptop on my way to LA and it looked fine, but I can’t really say how it’ll look on a bigger screen.
I’d seen this trailer for years at the Alamo Drafthouse and have always been curious about it. I love me some David Niven and this was AIP’s answer to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, so it had to be great, right? While I wouldn’t call this film great it’s got a jaw-dropper of a plot. Essentially Count Dracula’s wife Vampira is dead. Not undead, dead dead. The only way to bring her back is for Drac to find an ultra rare blood type and infuse his wife’s body with that blood.
The Count is in luck when a group of Playboy bunnies show up at his Transylvanian castle (now a tourist attraction and a steady supply of food for Drac) for a photoshoot. He finds the blood type he needs, doesn’t know which of the bunnies provided said blood and does the transfusion anyway. Suddenly his bride fades from crusty old white woman to Teresa Graves. Niven isn’t too hot on having a black wife and must find a way to turn her back before the blackness totally takes over… we know this is happening because when she gets angry she starts calling Dracula a “jive turkey.” I’m not making this up!
It’s actually explained that it’s much like having blue pants in the white wash… I’m serious! I swear this is said in the movie!
This movie reminded me a bit of Dracula A.D. 1972 with Christopher Lee, but that’s a better film. This one has a higher kitsch factor (believe it or not), is oddly rated PG, even though there is blatant ‘70s boobage at one point, and has so much more hilarious racism. The ending alone sends this one over the edge. It’s ridiculous and makes me feel a little sorry for David Niven, but super happy this totally wrong crazy nut-job movie actually exists.
Transfer: Not mind blowing, but the color is clean and the widescreen aspect ratio preserved. Some digital artifacting, but nothing too horribly distracting.
At first I didn’t think I was going to like this movie. I mean, I love Paul Schrader and the Patty Hearst story is an interesting one, but the initial kidnapping didn’t do much for me. Neither did much in the first 20 minutes of the movie, to be honest, but I feel the film finds a rhythm as Patty slowly integrates into the Symbionese Liberation Army. The film focuses on the gray area of her capture and her relationship with her kidnappers. You get the impression she had to choose between being murdered or joining, but you also see them break her down and can understand how mentally at some point she just needed to belong to something.
This gray area is what makes this telling of the real life event worth a watch. Natasha Richardson, who is usually very dependable, isn’t very good as Patty Hearst… I felt more for her as a character than as a person thanks to Richardson’s rather dull performance, but Schrader puts a great cast around her, most notably Ving Rhames as Cinque, the head of the SLA, and William Forsythe in the typically psycho role of Teko. We see him in black face at one point because he’s so pissed off that he isn’t black enough to lead the SLA. There’s also a welcome appearance by young Olivia Barash, the cute love interest in Repo Man. Cinematography-wise the flick isn’t all that pretty. The strengths of it are in the point-of-view of Patty Hearst script, Schrader’s direction and the casting of the supporting players. It’s one of those movies that you can see why it never caught on for film geeks or the general public, but there’s strong enough stuff in it that you’re a little sorry that it is so roundly overlooked.
Transfer: Not the strongest. It’s obviously from a 35mm source, but the compression is a bit heavy on this one with lots of digital artifacting.
Basically you have Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth as a married pair of art thieves that are sucked into a dangerous game of blackmail when a rich man with aspirations of owning a Goya painting catches them in the act. His deal is that if they steal the Goya he wants from a heavily guarded museum he’ll burn the photos of their previous job and return the painting, worth $400,000 to them.
For a crazy comedy there’s a whole of folks who end up dead. The job itself is fairly simple, but the film works as a decent caper comedy. It’s not nearly as good as Gambit or How to Steal a Million, but I love Rex Harrison and he brings a great dry sense of humor and a whole lotta charm to the movie.
Transfer: A little hazy on the hard lines, but the black and white picture was unmuddled and clean.
This is a really strong telling of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild starring Charlton Heston and Buck the Dog. Actually, it really stars Buck who is in almost every frame and whose eyes we see the story through. It’s about a family pet who is dognapped and dragged up to the Alaskan tundra to become a sled dog during the big gold rush. In his travels he meets good people and bad. Heston plays one of the good ones, a rugged outdoorsman with a heart.
There’s a whole lot of dog violence in this movie, which might turn off a good amount of animal lovers. I have a short fuse when it comes to simulated animal violence, but this movie didn’t bug me if that means anything. The violence is, of course, simulated and not romanticized at all. I mean, Buck is the hero of the movie. Any human that is mean to dogs ends up a villain and gets theirs in the end.
The vistas are stunning, the story engaging and Heston’s charm is on full blast. And what a weird, downbeat ending… Totally took me by surprise. I quite liked this film, the first time I’ve revisited this tale since I read the book in high school (hence the reason for the surprise).
Transfer: Really sharp, although I think this was another one that was cropped to make it widescreen.
This tale of evil, murderous unions will be the pick of the week for my Tea Party readers as long as they ignore the weak script. Seriously, this ‘50s crime story plays like a good episode of Dragnet, complete with a narrator describing that pesky story stuff that happens between the exciting bits of drama or suspense. It’s so TV it has a predominantly TV star cast (Brian Keith and Beverly Garland star), but the biggest problem with the movie is the script. Every single piece of dialogue is awful exposition. “I don’t believe Harrison, the Vice-President of your company, would blackmail you… and we’re going to get married when this is all over!” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s damn close to the typical bit of tell-all exposition that you’ll find in this movie, particularly in the first act.
Things get better once the evil unions start killing people (so they can put hookers in bars apparently), the great Elisha Cook Jr. turns up as a drunk bum that stumbles into a frame-job in the works and Keith really starts unraveling the corruption, but it’s not one of the better noirs of this time period. Those of us that have been playing LA Noire will feel like this is a long Vice mission.
Transfer: IMDB lists the aspect ratio as 1.37:1, which means this was again cropped and fitted for widescreen TVs. Not liking this trend. In terms of sharpness the transfer is okay, but not spectacular. Black and white contrast was solid.
This early Don Siegel directorial effort is an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not except instead of the French Revolution we have a Miami captain conned into being a gun runner to Cuban revolutionaries. Audie Murphy plays the good guy, boat captain Sam Martin. He’s got the perfect wife (Patricia Owens) and is pure at heart… he’s also a huge gambler and always barely an inch in front of his debtors. In comes Eddie Albert playing a very charming rich man wanting to charter Murphy’s boat for nefarious reasons. Can Murphy survive the temptation of owning his future free and clear or will his conscience get in the way?
The Gun Runners is a damn good adventure/drama with great performances, especially Eddie Albert who oddly looks exactly the same young as he did old. The flick also features some great recognizable character actors like Richard Jaeckel and Jack Elam.
Transfer: Equal to what you’d expect to find in a good studio box set of older titles. And the aspect ratio is preserved! Not remastered sharp, but sharp nonetheless.
Laurence Harvey stars and directs this prison break drama, his first turn behind the camera. He should have let someone else direct it. This isn’t a bad film, but it sure is heavily melodramatic and with Harvey directing himself some of the scenes come off way too much as masturbatory. The thriller aspect, his brother (Robert Walker Jr.) and girlfried (Sarah Miles) are trying to bust him out of a Tangiers prison after a bank robbery, works well. Harvey is set to go before the firing squad as an example for all other would be criminals in the International zone of Tangiers and in these final hours before death his gang plans a grand escape.
John Ireland is solid as the Warden of the jail… a place filled with people who like Harvey and don’t think he should die. The only one who does is Le Caq, played by Ross Martin (who looks creepily like Dominic Cooper, by the way). The real trouble begins when the end of Act 2 should be the end of the movie and Act 3 stumbles along with convenient plot twists, unrealistic character motivations and an ending so full of itself that you can’t help but roll your eyes. As Harvey’s first directorial effort this film is an interesting sidenote in film history, but not one I’d highly recommend going out of your way to see.
Transfer: The print was made from an original 35mm source, it looks like… not cleaned up, dirt spots and light base scratches come and go. Contrast is sharp and the black and white photography comes through fine.
Man, if Jan Michael Vincent was a better actor this would be a killer movie. The time period is right, that great gritty New York of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are the streets where Tony Manero strutted and The Warriors ran like hell. You have a creepily silent gang leader that looks like Peter Sellers playing Asian mixed with Blade Runner-era Edward James Olmos (in reality, Rudy Ramos) terrorizing a neighborhood butting heads with a tough merchant seaman who doesn’t want to get involved but will beat your face with a chair leg if you push him. If that sailor was played by, say, James Caan, this movie would be a modern classic. However, Vincent just doesn’t cut it for the romantic scenes, emotional scenes or any scenes that involve him not just beating up on street gang people or saying words with his mouth.
Good things you do get in this movie are a creepy/sweet relationship between a middle-aged man-child ex-boxer and a 10 year old Mexican kid, Danny Aiello as mid-life used-to-be greaser who wants to take back his neighborhood and Art Carney as an old white dude store owner that gets beat the fuck up. Oh, and Jerry Bruckheimer produced this. Wait, maybe this movie is awesome…
Transfer: Won’t change your life, but it’s DVD quality.
I was surprised by how tense this movie was. Oh, it’s still incredibly cheap, but the opening robbery was surprisingly well-shot. Basically you have a Usual Suspects kind of scenario where the police gather up a gang of four young men who robbed the box at a Championship fight. They were caught, but one of them killed a cop. The drama comes from the DA trying to get one to admit to the murder, committing himself to the chair, but saving his friends from the death penalty.
The flashbacks to their lives pre-robbery are kind of weak… the time would have been better spent watching them argue about who was going to take the fall. That drama is the best stuff in the movie, especially the climactic decision to let fate decide with the low man on a dice roll taking the fall. These mostly unknown actors are very strong, but the material isn’t consistent, especially the totally rushed “What?!?” ending, but it’s definitely worth a watch for the strength of the opening and the tense dice roll scene.
Transfer: Nothing distracting. Decent black and white transfer, crisp enough to make out the boom shadow on the wall in a few scenes.
You know what, guys? I’m beginning to think we didn’t treat Native Americans very well. Something gives me that impression… So, you've got whiter than white Chuck Connors playing Geronimo, rebelling against the treatment of his people after he sees that the white man can’t be trusted to keep his word. You got what essentially is a stand-off movie as Geronimo and a small handful of Apaches fight for a scrap dignity, willing to die to show the world at large that this proud race won’t be domesticated.
Connors is pretty good, actually, but the movie itself is a little on the stale side. Either a little more dramatic weight as Geronimo feels the pressure of his task and the desire to continue his bloodline or a little more action would have done much for this film, which as it stands now, ends up being just okay. Young Adam West does pop up here as an Indian sympathizer second in command that is the voice of reason on the US side of things.
Transfer: It looked okay on my laptop screen (watched this one on the way back from LA), but when I popped it into the home player (and my 61” screen) it looked a bit muddy… more of a laserdisc quality transfer than DVD.
What starts out as a fairly typical low budget romance story turns a dark corner about a quarter of the way in. We get to know Robert Preston and Elizabeth Sellars as John and Carol Graham, both WWII vets, as they plan their life post-war. Preston is a code breaker and continues to work for the British government. The first act felt a little stiff, but then, out of nowhere, Preston watches his wife get rundown by a man and woman on the lamb. The rest of the movie is a revenge tale as Preston methodically hunts down this man and woman, not content to rest until he serves them exactly what they gave his wife.
As Preston exacts his revenge a detective played by Colin Tapley is hot on his tail, not realizing the man he’s hunting is the exact same man he’s consulting with on this case. It’s a fantastic game of cat and mouse in a chilling revenge thriller. Very, very well done.
Transfer: Nice, DVD quality transfer with a few minor scratches.
Stolen Hours is a tear-jerker drama about a wealthy woman (Susan Hayward) who has cancer in the brain. She doesn’t realize this, of course, but concerned friends bring in a handsome doctor (Michael Craig) to trick her into an exam during a party. She undergoes surgery, tests, the whole nine yards and is believed well, but the doctor knows it’s only temporary. The decision then becomes does he tell her or let her live out her remaining year in happiness. To confuse matters all the more, the doctor falls in love with her.
The beginning starts off a bit stuffy, but once the romantic drama portion starts I was hooked in. Hayward is fantastic, playing the highs and lows of this poor woman with grace and subtlety. The whole cast is great and the ending isn’t hard to predict, but packs an emotional punch nonetheless.
Transfer: Better than VHS, not quite DVD quality, but the Technicolor pops and the 35mm transfer is solid if a tad cropped if the cigarette burns were anything to go by.
From Mark L. Lester, the director of such films as Truck Stop Women, Roller Boogie, Firestarter, Commando, Class of 1984, Showdown in Little Tokyo and Armed and Dangerous and Vernon Zimmerman, the writer of Fade to Black and Teen Witch, comes this little piece of drive-in exploitation trash from the mid-70s. AIP put this out, so you should have an idea of the kind of the flick it is. Lynda Carter stars with Marjoe Gortner as the two title characters, a kind of hicksploitation version of Bonnie & Clyde. The character relationships don’t make much sense, the pacing is all kinds of erratic, but this is a hard movie not to like. Pure exploitation, car chases (which always seem to come across ramps built right into country backroads for some reason), copious copulation (Carter wasn’t… shy... with her body), tons of bloody ultra-violence, gory squibs that’d make Paul Verhoeven stand up and salute and even a little appearance by Gerrit Graham, Roger Corman regular and one of my favorite faces to pop up in low budget flicks of this time period. The movie’s trash, but fun trash. I’d love to see more titles like this one given life through these burn-on-demand releases! So much fun gold in that era!
Transfer: Better than anyone could expect from an obscure regional exploitation flick like this. The print was a bit dirty, but the color is solid and the dirt only helps make it feel like a real drive-in print that has been run for a summer.
Dull, formulaic cowboys and indians movies starring Ben Johnson (who was much cooler kicking ass as an old man in The Wild Bunch than as the mumbling Indian-loving Cavalryman in this picture). There’s a vindictive woman who tells her commanding officer husband that Johnson slept with her in order to get him sent on a suicide mission to make peace with the Apaches after a blood-thirsty Indian-hating Cavalryman slaughters some of their tribe. Sounds much more interesting than it is. Pass on this one.
Transfer: Matches the quality of the movie. Lots of ghosting, very dupe-y.
I knew this film under the title The Marseille Contract, but hadn’t seen it until now (in my mind I kept mixing up this title with another ‘70s Michael Caine flick THE BLACK WINDMILL). And just how great is Michael Caine? Seriously. He plays a suave assassin hired by Anthony Quinn, a US intelligence agent in Paris, to assassinate James Mason who is the untouchable big drug boss. The movie begins as Anthony Quinn’s movie and that movie is just okay, but then when Michael Caine comes in Quinn totally disappears for the majority of the movie and it becomes Caine’s film. It’s odd narratively, but I much appreciated it because Caine is at his best here. His movie is far more interesting than Quinn’s.
Shot by Douglas Slocombe, who would later photograph the first three Indiana Jones movies, The Destructors has much of what I love about ‘70s crime films… sympathetic villains, dirty heroes, a real world feel and an ending that doesn’t linger. Very much enjoyed this one, despite its rocky opening with Quinn.
Transfer: One of the better transfers I’ve seen in this batch.
Best of the Bunch:
This is a fantastic father/son story that’s not about a father and a son. A Thousand Clowns is about a Walter Mitty-like man, the uncle and guardian of a 12 year old boy. Jason Robards plays the free-wheeling uncle and young Adrian Brody plays the boy… Wait, sorry… No, that’s Barry Gordon, not Adrian Brody. Easy mistake… Actually, Barry Gordon grew up to be a popular voice actor and voiced Donatello (and Bebop)! How cool is that? He’s fantastic in this movie, which is essentially about compromise as child protection services takes a close look at this odd family.
Based on a play, A Thousand Clowns tries to find a middle ground between the mindless 9-5 automatons and the damn-the-man out of work adult children and doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. It’s pretty spectacular. If this film was made today they’d go for someone like Steve Carell for the role of Murray. Carell’s a talented actor, but they wouldn’t let him play it with the nuance Robards does. He’s a man of contradictions… he’s at once a very sad character and the happiest guy you’ve ever seen on screen. You’re not sure you can sympathize with his predicament when he keeps sabotaging himself, but you know for damn sure that young Barry Gordon is better with this kooky uncle than any random foster home.
The supporting cast is great, with Martin Balsam as Robards’ brother, Gene Saks as a kind of creepy, kind of horrible kid’s TV show host and the lovely Barbara Harris as a woman who shows up with the intention of taking the kid out of the family and instead falls in love with that very same family. Balsam won an Oscar for his performance and the movie itself was nominated for Best Picture. Kind of a shame this film has gone fairly unnoticed in recent years.
Transfer: I could be wrong, but I think the 1.66 aspect ratio is cropped a bit to fit 16X9 TVs. The picture quality is fine, though.
Next Vault Dweller sees a newcomer to the Vault Dweller ranks… the king of them all, y’all! Warner Archive! I have a ton of Warner Archive titles, including releases featuring Mr. T, Paul Newman, Priscilla Lane, Walter Huston, John Gielgud, LeVar Burton, Jodie Foster, William Holden, Steve McQueen, Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, Jimmy Durante, Cliff Robertson and many more ready to be watched and listed. Seriously, this stack of titles is enough to bury a small man.
Thanks for the support. This column is a lot of fun, but really time consuming, so it’s nice to know there are people out there who dig it.
See ya’ on the next one for some really awesome-looking Warner Archive titles!