Category Archives: DVD/Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-Ray Review: Operation Petticoat (1959).

Directed by Blake Edwards
Screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin
From a story by Paul King and Joseph Stone
Cinematography: Russell Harlan, Clifford Stine
Film Editors: Ted Kent and Frank Gross

Cast: Cary Grant (Commander Matt Sherman), Tony Curtis (Lieutenant Nick Holden), Joan O’Brien (Nurse Dolores Crandell), Dina Merrill (Nurse Barbara Duran), Arthur O’Connell (Tostin),Virginia Gregg (Major Edna Heywood), Gavin MacLeod (Hunkle), Gene Evans, Marion Ross, Dick Sargent

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There was a time in the 70s and 80s when it seemed like Operation Petticoat (1959) was on TV every three minutes. It was perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Who knows how many times I’ve seen it.

What’s interesting to me is, the script itself doesn’t seem all that funny. It depends on the appeal and natural humor of its cast — mainly the two leads, Cary Grant and Tony Curtis — to keep it going and make sure it’s actually funny. And at that, they certainly succeed.

Grant’s the commanding officer of the USS Sea Tiger, a brand new sub that has a very hard time getting into the war. Sunk by the Japanese before it’s ever really set sail, the Sea Tiger is pretty much written off till Grant convinces his superior officer to let him try to get it seaworthy. Grant ends up with an aide (Curtis) who turns out to be quite a scrounger — his cons and schemes provide what’s needed to get the sub ready to move on to Australia for more thorough repairs.

Along the way, a group of women are taken on as passengers (leading to the usual inconveniences), a shortage of primer results in the Sea Tiger being painted pink, and it’s almost sunk by the US Navy (the radio doesn’t work). And, of course, some of the sailors and nurses fall in love.

Believe it or not, much of what transpires in Operation Petticoat was based on real events — even the pink submarine.

The cast is terrific. Grant and Curtis are everything you’d expect. Joan O’Brien and Dina Merrill are quite good as some of the nurses who join the crew of the Sea Tiger. I love Virginia Gregg, who you’ll find in a ton of Dragnet episodes. Gavin MacLeod and Gene Evans are quite funny. And Marion Ross of Happy Days turns up.

There’s a funny scene with Tony Curtis trying to round up stuff for a New Year’s Eve party. He and Gavin MacLeod steal a pig from a villager, then have to pass it off as a sailor to fool MPs and get it on base. It’s every bit as silly as it sounds, but Curtis makes it work. Watch a few Tony Curtis movies from the 50s, and I promise you’ll come away impressed.

You’ll also be impressed with Olive Films’ Signature Edition of Operation Petticoat. The picture was shot in Eastman Color — it was going to be B&W, but when Cary Grant enlisted, color film stock and a few more dollars were added to the budget. Eastman Color can be an ugly thing, harsh-looking at times, but Olive keeps it in check. Grain is consistent, the blacks are strong and the 1.85 framing’s dead on — easily the best I’ve ever seen this movie look. It comes with a slew of extras — a commentary, interviews and more — everything you need to really wallow in this charming little service comedy. Recommended.

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Filed under 1959, Blake Edwards, Cary Grant, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Olive Films, Tony Curtis, Universal (-International)

Blu-Ray Review: The Rockford Files – The Complete Series (1974-80).

We should get this out of the way right up front — it’s absolutely impossible for me to be objective about The Rockford Files. My mom and I used to watch it on a little TV in the kitchen, and those remain some of my favorite times we spent together. And when you have an emotional attachment like that to something, does it really matter if it’s any good?

Well, luckily, The Rockford Files is very good indeed. It’s pretty easy to say it’s one of the greatest television shows ever. At its best, a TV series reflects the personality of its star — or what we perceive is that personality. Think of The Andy Griffith Show or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You feel you really get to know those people. I think the same goes for James Garner and The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford fits Garner like a glove.

Another thing Andy, Mary and Rockford have in common is that the star serves as a hub, with some wonderful characters spinning around that hub from episode to episode. Sometimes those characters are regulars, sometimes they’re only in a single episode. With Rockford/Garner, a lot of the joy comes from his reactions to folks like Angel (Stuart Margolin), Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.) and Gandy Fitch (Isaac Hayes). Oftentimes, the plot or case seems to serve mainly as a way to connect Rockford to those characters.

Of course, a character-driven show like this puts a lot of pressure on the writers, casting people, directors and actors. And with The Rockford Files, in all these departments, what you get here is about as good as it gets.

It’s all pretty simple. Jim Rockford is an ex-con (wrongfully convicted and pardoned) private detective living in a trailer on the beach in Malibu. He’s close to his dad, Rocky, a retired truck driver. And he’s got a couple friends who often get involved with his cases: Becker (Joe Santos), a sergeant in the LAPD, and Angel, a con man Rockford met in prison. In the earlier seasons, there’s Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), an attorney Jim’s sweet on.

And, of course, there’s the Firebird. And Rocky’s truck. Garner was a car guy, and he made sure the vehicles were cast as well as the actors. The trailer (up top) is also perfectly propped out to reflect Rockford’s status and personality (he keeps his pistol in a cookie jar). The Firebird and trailer suffer all sorts of abuse of the course of the series.

Mill Creek has released The Rockford Files, all six seasons, in a Blu-Ray set that I’ve been returning to time and time again. It gives me an all new reason (not that I need one) to revisit these 122 episodes yet again.

The Rockford Files has the typical 70s cop show look, maybe a bit seedier than usual. LA locations seem to have been chosen for how glitzy or grungy they are, fitting the big wigs and lowlives Garner locks horns with from week to week.

Doesn’t exactly sound like the best use of the Blu-Ray format, does it? Well, not so fast. The DVD sets from Universal were terrific, but this high-def upswing really serves the series well. It’s a blast to find new details in episodes I’ve seen countless times. (Rockford’s beat up 1959 Nashua trailer is especially fun to study.) The color’s nice — and thankfully still looks like 1970s film stock. The sound’s a major improvement, with plenty of added depth in the music.

As with a lot of these TV sets, one episode might look better or worse than another, but overall Rockford in high definition is a revelation. And the package takes up a fraction of the shelf space the DVDs did (which around my place is a blessing). Highly recommended.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, James Garner, Mill Creek, Television

Blu-Ray Review: Shield For Murder (1954).

Directed by Edmond O’Brien and Howard W. Koch
Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins
Adaptation by Richard Alan Simmons
From a book by William P. McGivern
Music by Paul Dunlap
Photography by Gordon Avil
Film Editor: John F. Schreyer

Cast: Edmond O’Brien (Barney Nolan), Marla English (Patty Winters), John Agar (Mark Brewster), Emile Meyer (Capt. Gunnarson), Carolyn Jones (Girl at bar), Claude Akins (Fat Michaels), Larry Ryle (Laddie O’Neil), Hugh Sanders, William Schallert, Richard Deacon, Vito Scotti

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One the best things for any old-movie nut is to come across something new — not new as in released last week, but new in that you’ve never seen it. Well, Shield For Murder (1954) was a new one for me. And I loved every frame of it.

“If ever a picture was crammed with guts — this is it!” Even the ad copy for this movie is great.

Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien) is a good cop gone really, really bad. Before the main title even appears, he’s killed a bookie for the $25,000 he’s got on him. Barney does it because he wants to buy a Castle Heights tract home and marry his girlfriend Patty (Marla English). The cops get the idea that Barney might’ve done it, but his best friend on the force (John Agar) refuses to believe. As the evidence mounts (and bodies stack up), we watch Barney get more desperate, more bitter, more violent as things spin out of control. Eventually, of course, Barney’s on the run and there’s nothing left of his hopes for a nice, quiet life in the suburbs with his girl.

O’Brien co-directed Shield For Murder with producer Howard W. Koch. The division of labor worked like this — O’Brien rehearsed the actors, and once the cameras rolled, Koch was at the helm. They gave the picture a sparse, bare-bones, almost documentary feel — with perfectly gritty camerawork from Gordon Avil (who shot the 1930 Billy The Kid in 70mm).

The performances are good across the board. Carolyn Jones really knocked me out here as a girl O’Brien meets in a bar. Claude Akins is great as a thug trying the retrieve the missing $25,000. Here and there, folks like Hugh Sanders, William Schallert, Richard Deacon and Vito Scotti turn up. You can’t go wrong with those guys.

But Shield For Murder is Edmond O’Brien’s picture all the way. He’s terrific. Watching Barney slide into the gutter is downright uncomfortable, as his American Dream turns to crap. You cringe with every wrong turn he takes, knowing Fate’s gonna kick in at any minute.

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This movie’s perfect, down to Edmond O’Brien’s loafers.

Researching the commentary for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of A Strange Adventure (1956) a couple months ago, I got to focus on Marla English and her brief, very interesting career. (Wish I’d been able to do a commentary for this one!) Marla was a teenage beauty queen and swimsuit model from San Diego who signed to Paramount in 1952. They put her in a few little parts — she’s one of the partygoers in Rear Window (1954). But when she turned down a role in The Mountain with Spencer Tracy, Paramount dumped her. She was soon doing independent pictures for Bel-Air, Republic, AIP and the like. And as we all know, that’s when things usually get interesting. Marla’s in stuff like Runaway Daughters, The She Creature — she’s the She Creature, Flesh And The Spur with John Agar (all 1956) and Voodoo Woman (1957) with Mike Connors. She gave up on acting after Voodoo Woman. Though she was in a few pictures before Shield For Murder (she was only 19 when it was released), she gets an “introducing” credit in it.

Shield For Murder was a first for both of our co-directors. O’Brien would only direct a few more things, but Koch kept at it. His next picture, Big House, USA (1955), is a B Movie masterpiece. And he gave us jewels like Untamed Youth (1957), Violent Road (1958) and Frankenstein 1970 (1958). Koch also produced a string of very successful A pictures — things like The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Odd Couple (1968) and Airplane! (1980).

From a Castle Heights subdivision to West Hollywood alleys to a great public pool, Shield For Murder makes excellent use of LA locations. It’s perfectly rough around the edges and captured by Gordon Avil in all its gritty, appropriately grainy glory. And all of that’s perfectly preserved on the Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under 1954, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Edmond O'Brien, Howard W. Koch, John Agar, Kino Lorber, Marla English, United Artists, William Schallert

Blu-Ray Review: The Stone Killer (1973).

Directed by Michael Winner
Screenplay by Gerald Wilson
Based on a book by John Gardner
Cinematography: Robert Moore
Music by Roy Budd

Cast: Charles Bronson (Lou Torrey), Martin Balsam (Al Vescari), David Sheiner (Guido Lorenz), Norman Fell (Daniels), Ralph Waite (Mathews), Paul Koslo (Langley), Stuart Margolin (Lawrence), Jack Colvin (Jumper), John Ritter (Hart)

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Mill Creek’s recent Blu-Ray release, Charles Bronson: 4 Movie Collection, offers up The Valachi Papers (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), Hard Times (1974) and Breakout (1975). There’s some good stuff there, especially Walter Hill’s Hard Times, and they all look terrific on Blu-Ray. It’s a nice set at a great price.

Michael Winner, Charles Bronson and Dino De Laurentis

Charles Bronson made quite a few movies with Italian producer Dino De Laurentis in the 70s. It seems to have been a successful relationship for all concerned. Michael Winner first directed Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972), and they’d go on to do Death Wish (1974), which would send both of their careers in a certain direction. At this point in his career, Bronson was really on a roll.

The Stone Killer has Bronson as Lou Torrey, an undercover cop who comes upon a Mafia revenge plot — with a squad of Vietnam vets assembled by the Mob to pull off a number of hits. That provides a framework upon which shootings, torture, car crashes and other stuff can be hung. Bronson’s cool in this one, and he’s been surrounded by a top-notch cast — Martin Balsam, Norman Fell, Ralph Waite, and a couple of my 70s favorites: Paul Koslo and Stuart Margolin (Angel on The Rockford Files). The action’s very well done, they make great use of New York and LA locations, and there’s that 70s-film-stock look that’s so perfect for things like this.

Speaking of locations, there’s a scene near the middle of the picture, with Bronson visiting a hippie commune, that was shot at Moonfire Ranch outside LA. Built for Harper (1966) — it was the temple where the whacked-out holy man Strother Martin hung out. It’s still there today (the photo above is recent). The Doors and Jimi Hendrix played concerts there in the late 60s.

The Stone Killer looks great on Blu-Ray from Mill Creek. All four pictures in the set do. Columbia’s transfers are typically outstanding, and these are no exception. And these movies are Charles Bronson in his prime. And if the increased definition isn’t enough for ya, this will even save you some shelf space. Charles Bronson: 4 Movie Collection is a winner however you wanna look at it. Recommended.

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Filed under 1973, Charles Bronson, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Michael Winner, Mill Creek

Blu-Ray Review: A Study In Terror (1965).

Directed by James Hill
Screenplay by Donald and Derek Ford
Based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Music by John Scott
Film Editor: Henry Richardson

Cast: John Neville (Sherlock Holmes), Donald Houston (Doctor John Watson), John Fraser (Lord Carfax), Anthony Quayle (Doctor Murray), Barbara Windsor (Annie Chapman), Adrienne Corri (Angela Osborne), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Judi Dench (Sally Young), Charles Regnier (Joseph Beck), Cecil Parker (Prime Minister), Robert Morley (Mycroft Holmes)

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Who knows who thought of it first, but pitting the brilliant Sherlock Holmes against the insidious Jack The Ripper was an inspired idea. Just scratching the surface, the two have squared off in several books, a video game — and two movies I like quite a bit: A Study In Terror (1965) and Murder By Decree (1979). A Study In Terror has recently been released on Blu-Ray by Mill Creek Entertainment. Seemed like a good time to revisit it.

The premise is really simple. Jack The Ripper is doing his thing in Whitechapel, and someone decides Sherlock Holmes is the one man who bring the murderous fiend to justice. And indeed he does. Along the way, we get dense fog and plenty of Hammer-inspired bloodletting. (The influence of Hammer and James Bond really made for some cool movies in the mid-60s.)

The victims bear the actual names, but they look more like runway models than streetwalkers. (That kind of historical inaccuracy I can live with.) John Neville makes a fine Holmes — intense, aloof and entirely logical. David Houston, who appears in Hammer’s The Maniac (1962) and my all-time favorite film, Where Eagles Dare (1969), makes a good, typically-bewildered Watson. Frank Finlay makes a great Inspector Lestrade (though I wish he had more screen time), and Robert Morely is fun as Holmes’ brother Mycroft. And Dame Judi Dench has an early role in this thing.

The picture’s executive producer was Herman Cohen, who’d made a lot of great movies at AIP, before heading over to England to produce the wonderful Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959). Cohen hated the ad campaign put together by Columbia for A Study In Terror, which leaned on the camp approach of the Batman TV show — “The Original Caped Crusader!” — completely missing the bloody, lurid Hammer-ish-ness of the whole thing. I’m sure it had a big impact on the film’s disappointing box-office.

Mill Creek has done us a huge favor with this Blu-Ray, featuring a superb-looking 1.85 transfer at a rock-bottom price. Desmond Dickinson’s color photography is well-presented, and the sound nicely preserves every scream and police whistle. It even comes in a slipcover bearing the original UK post art. Very nice.

James Mason and Christopher Plummer in Murder By Decree (1979).

While we’re on the subject, the Holmes/Ripper thing spawned another film. the terrific Murder By Decree. This time, Christopher Plummer plays the great detective and James Mason is wonderful as his trusted friend Watson. Interestingly, Frank Finlay is back as Inspector Lestrade. This one needs a US Blu-Ray release.

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Filed under 1965, Columbia, Desmond Dickinson, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Herman Cohen

Blu-Ray Review: The Black Scorpion (1957).

Directed by Edward Ludwig
Produced by Jack Dietz and Frank Melford
Screenplay by Robert Blees and David Duncan
Story by Paul Yawitz
Director Of Photography: Lionel Lindon
Special Effects by Willis H. O’Brien and Pete Peterson
Film Editor: Richard L. Van Enger
Music by Paul Sawtell

Cast: Richard Denning (Hank Scott), Mara Corday (Teresa), Carlos Rivas (Arturo Ramos), Mario Navarro (Juanito), Carlos Muzquiz (Dr. Velazco), Pascual Garcia Pena (Jose de la Cruz)

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When you look at the big-bug movies of the 50s, the good-to-bad ratio is surprisingly good. Them! (1954), about giant ants, is terrific. Tarantula (1955) is excellent, too, thanks in large part to Jack Arnold’s snappy direction. The Deadly Mantis (1957) sticks the mantis in the Manhattan Tunnel for a cool last reel. Then there’s The Black Scorpion (1957), with Warner Bros. hoping to scare up another batch of Them!-like profits, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Black Scorpion Mex LC

A once-dormant volcano erupts, wreaking all sorts of havoc in Mexico. Geologists Henry Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) come to investigate, meeting the lovely Teresa (Mara Corday) — and discovering a nest of giant scorpions living in the caverns beneath the volcano.

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These aren’t just any giant scorpions. They’re the work of the great Willis O’Brian and his assistant Pete Peterson. A master of stop-motion animation and one of the true pioneers of movie effects, O’Brien gave us The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949) and others. His career was winding down by the time he took on The Black Scorpion, and even though working with a small budget (setting up shop in tiny studio space and his own garage, the story goes), he made sure the movie delivered the goods. (As a kid, I measured the quality of movies like this according to how much screen time the monsters had. I had yet to appreciate Mara Corday.)

A terrible picture of one of Willis O’Brien’s original scorpion models.

In the shots where you see two or three scorpions, imagine animating all those legs! A sequence with a train attacked by one of the scorpions is just incredible. And I love how the scorpions are constantly drooling!

Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is top-notch, using deep shadows and limited lighting to create a creepy mood, especially in the caverns, and avoid making the special effects appear not-too-special. (Be sure to see his stunning work on 1957’s The Lonely Man.) Lindon won an Oscar for Around The World In 80 Days (1956). The editing comes from Richard L. Van Enger, who spent years at Republic cutting everything from Heart Of The Golden West (1942) with Roy Rogers to John Wayne in Sands Of Iwo Jima (1949) to Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The sound design on this one is great, too. The scorpion noises (borrowed from Them!) are a very effective way of building suspense.

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Richard Denning and Mara Corday were old hands at this kinda stuff. He’d already dealt with The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and she’d come up against Tarantula. They do exactly what a movie like this asks of them: look scared, be brave and deliver some whacky pseudo-science to fool audiences into almost believing it for 80 minutes or so.

I’ve had this movie on laserdisc, on DVD twice (one being from Warner Archive), and this Blu-Ray is really something special. The Black Scorpion has always fluctuated in sharpness from shot to shot — maybe because of the special effects. It’s no different in high definition, but when it’s sharp, it’s as sharp as I’ve ever seen. Stunning at times.

The extras are terrific, gathering up some of O’Brien’s tests, clips, trailers and other goodies. Warner Archive was wise to keep those for this release, but for me, the true extra is still the restoration of its 1.85 framing — now even better in high definition. Every setup looks so much better, from the dialogue scenes to the monster footage. Widescreen films like this, regardless of their age, can look pretty clunky when seen full-frame.

The movie’s easy to recommend. So is the upgrade to Blu-Ray. Go for it!

Time for a bit of transparency: This is a partial re-tread of my review of the Warner Archive DVD of The Black Scorpion from a few years back.

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Filed under 1957, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Edward Ludwig, Mara Corday, Richard Denning, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Harper (1966).

Directed by Jack Smight
Director: Jack Smight
Producer: Jerry Gershwin, Elliott Kastner
Screenplay by William Goldman,
based on the novel The Moving Target by Ross McDonald
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Film Editor: Stefan Arnsten
Music by Johnny Mandel

Cast: Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Elaine Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner

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For my money, Harper (1966) is the ultimate Paul Newman movie. He’s cool, funny and tough — and like all of his best films, his character’s got a little loser in him. He’s also got a cool car — a Porsche Speedster with the driver’s door sprayed in brown primer and the hubcaps missing. (Bet Newman had a lot of fun with that thing between takes.)

Harper is also a near-perfect 60s movie, touching on the mounting weirdness of the latter half of the decade, especially in Los Angeles, without going overboard in trying to be hip. Harper (Newman) is hired by a Lauren Bacall to locate her wealthy husband, who disappeared the night before. Harper’s investigation drags him through all sorts of stuff — kidnapping, smuggling illegal immigrants, heroin addiction, torture and crackpot religion. Along the way, he gets beaten up time and time again.

Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall): Los Angeles is the big leagues for religious nuts.
Lew Harper (Paul Newman): That’s because there’s nothing to do at night.

And it does all this while carrying on the tradition set by earlier private detective pictures like The Big Sleep (1946). You could say that this vibe was taken to the next level, a logical progression, by Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1971).

Strother Martin is terrific as the weirded out holy man. Shelley Winters is a hoot as the washed up actress involved in the whole mess. Arthur Hill is perfect as Harper’s nerdy lawyer friend. And as I’ve already stated, cool just oozes out of Newman in every frame.

I am deeply indebted to this movie for two things. First, it introduced me to Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books. I’ve read them all, they’re great. Next, the shot underneath director Jack Smight’s credit — looking over Harper’s shoulder as he approaches Lauren Bacall’s house in his Porsche, it (and The Love Bug) helped kick off my fascination with Ferdinand Porsche and his vehicles.

Director Jack Smight and Paul Newman between takes.

Harper was shot in Technicolor and Panavision by the great Conrad Hall. The Blu-Ray from Warner Archive is near perfect, as good a presentation of original Technicolor as I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s not the eye candy of something like Singing In The Rain (1950), but it shows us all exactly what the color process looked like in the 60s. Watch those reds — the cars, the waiters’ uniforms, etc. That’s dye transfer Tech — and it’s beautiful. Harper looks better than I’ve ever seen it look (and I’ve seen a 16mm IB Tech Scope print, the letterboxed laserdisc and the DVD). Essential.

At the same time, Warner Archive has brought the second Newman/Harper film, The Drowning Pool (1975), to Blu-Ray. It’s not as good — for one thing, the plot is really complex, but any movie featuring Murray Hamilton, Paul Koslo, Andy Robinson, Linda Haynes and Richard Jaeckel is worth seeing. This time, Harper winds up in Louisiana (the book kept Archer in California) to help out an old flame (Joanne Woodward) and people start winding up dead.

The scene with Newman and Gail Strickland trapped in a flooded hydrotherapy room, where the title comes from, is really cool.

The great Gordon Willis (The Godfather) shot this one, and it’s beautiful — and presently flawlessly on Blu-Ray by Warner Archive. Newman and all those character actors make The Drowning Pool worthwhile. Recommended.

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Filed under 1966, 1975, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall, Murray Hamilton, Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, Strother Martin, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.