Category Archives: RKO

Blu-Ray News #360: The Ghost Ship (1943) And Bedlam (1946).

Warner Archive has announced a double feature Blu-Ray of two Val Lewton horror pictures, The Ghost Ship (1943) and Bedlam (1946), both directed by Mark Robson.

Happy Halloween, indeed!

The Ghost Ship (1943)
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Starring Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, Edmund Glover, Skelton Knaggs, Lawrence Tierney

Shot for $150,000 on ship sets left over from for Pacific Liner (1939), this spooky little picture, starring Richard Dix, was unseen for decades after a plagiarism suit filed against Lewton over the screenplay. To see this one, you had to pay too much for a horrible-looking bootleg VHS tape (I’m guilty as charged). Having it in high-definition is gonna be great.

Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Starring Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser

Bedlam was the last of Lewton’s films at RKO (and the producer’s last time working with Boris Karloff). Lewton would head off to do other things, ending with a terrific Western at Universal International, Apache Drums (1951). He died before that one made it to theaters.

There’s nothing supernatural going on in this one. The conditions are appalling at an insane asylum run by Boris Karloff, where ironically, Anna Lee is sent after she campaigns for better care for the mentally ill. Karloff is really creepy and the cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca is really effective — which is why this Blu-Ray release is gonna be a real treat.

Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray News, Mark Robson, RKO, Val Lewton, Warner Archive

“What if that aircraft came here not just to visit the earth, but to conquer it? To start growing some kind of horrible army?”

The family took a walk around Broughton High School here in Raleigh tonight and came across a little garden. These cucumbers remind me of the James Arness “seedlings” in The Thing From Another World (1951), growing a platoon of little Things.

That scene, with the little pods hooked up to the plasma, and breathing, never ceases to creep me out — even after seeing it dozens of times. What a movie!

I want to take this opportunity to thank Warner Archive once again for releasing their exquisite Blu-Ray of The Thing. It’s perfect.

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Filed under 1951, Howard Hawks, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Frees, RKO, Warner Archive

70 Years Ago.

The Thing From Another World opened in San Francisco on this day in 1951. It was paired with the Tim Holt picture Masked Raiders (1949).

I would’ve loved to have been there. Speaking of “Astounding!,” if you don’t have the Warner Archive Blu-Ray, get it!

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Filed under 1951, Howard Hawks, James Arness, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Frees, RKO

Blu-Ray Review: Isle Of The Dead (1945).

Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Director Of Photography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor: Lyle Boyer
Music by Leigh Harline

Cast: Boris Karloff (Gen. Nikolas Pherides), Ellen Drew (Thea), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Katherine Emery (Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn), Helene Thimig (Madame Kyra), Alan Napier (St. Aubyn), Jason Robards, Sr. (Albrecht), Ernst Deutsch (Dr. Drossos), Sherry Hall (Col. Kobestes), Erick Hanson (Officer), Skelton Knaggs (Andrew Robbins)

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Producer Val Lewton made a number of artful horror movies at RKO, a string of creepy, wonderful classics that includes Cat People (1942), The Ghost Ship (1943) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

One was so artful, in fact, it was actually inspired by a painting, Arnold Böcklin’s Isle Of The Dead. The painting is pretty much recreated early in the 1945 Lewton film of the same name.

It’s the story of a group of people quarantined on a small island during the Balkan Wars of 1912 — Gen. Pherides (Boris Karloff) and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) rowing to the island is where art imitates art (above). The plot, which gets a little complicated at time, touches on the plague, grave robbing, premature burial, madness and the dreaded vorvolaka. Like most of the Lewton pictures, it’s relentlessly creepy — with more overt horror/scary stuff towards the end, and the screens seems to drip atmosphere onto the floor.

Val Lewton was a novelist who wound up a producer. In the early 40s, he found himself in charge of a small unit at RKO, making horror films for $150,000 each. His psychological approach, preying upon our fear of the dark and the unknown, was both effective (the first, Cat People, grossed  millions and helped save the studio) and cost-effective (little light, minimal sets and no monster makeup). Lewton believed it was better to suggest horror than to show it. Leaving RKO in 1946, he made films for Paramount and MGM, and considered starting an independent production company with two of his directors from RKO, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. It fell through. There was talk of an association with Stanley Kramer at Columbia. And there was a producing gig at Universal-International — which resulted in Apache Drums (1951), which turned out to be his last film.

Mark Robson started out as an editor, assisting Robert Wise on Citizen Kane (1941). It’s hard to believe that the Mark Robson who directed The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle Of The Dead, tight little movies brimming with atmosphere and suspense, is the same Mark Robson responsible for the big, bloated Earthquake (1974), which is almost totally devoid of atmosphere and suspense. In between this film and the wretched Earthquake, he made some good stuff: Champion (1949),  Roughshod (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), to name a few.

Boris Karloff is terrific in this. Production was interrupted by his back surgery, which might explain some of the plot confusion, but his performance is dead on. His curly hair gives him a really odd appearance, which along with the uniform, puts a new spin on the kind of tortured soul thing he does so well. The more time that goes by, and the more of his films I see again and again, just how great an actor Karloff was becomes more and more apparent. 

Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray of Isle Of The Dead is really incredible. Coming from a 4K scan of original nitrate camera negative, it’s flawless. I can’t imagine it looking any better when it opened in 1945, and it’s a real pleasure to see Jack MacKenzie’s beautiful black and white look like this. We’re also treated to some nice extras — a commentary and an original trailer (with Spanish subtitles). The Lewton horror films are essential viewing, and since so much of their power comes from atmosphere, a high-def presentation like this is a huge leap forward. Essential.

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Filed under Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Mark Robson, RKO, Val Lewton, Warner Archive

Double Deal (1950) — The Marie Windsor Blogathon.

Directed by Abby Berlin
Produced by James T. Vaughn
Screen play by Lee Berman & Charles S. Belden
Story by Don McGuire
Director Of Photography: Frank Redman
Film Editor: Robert Swink
Music by Michel Michelet

Cast: Marie Windsor (Terry Miller), Richard Denning (Buzz Doyle), Taylor Holmes (Corpus Mills), Fay Baker (Lilli Sebastian), James Griffith (Walter Karns), Carleton Young (Reno Sebastian), Tom Browne Henry (Sheriff L.G. Morelli), Paul E. Burns, Walter Burke, Frank Felton

This is an entry in The Marie Windsor Blogathon, a celebration of the actress’s life and work.

Bel-Air Productions cranked out some terrific little movies in the 1950s, such as the B crime pictures Big House U.S.A. (1955) and Hot Cars (1956). The very first Bel-Air film was Double Deal (1950), released by RKO Radio Pictures. It was the first time Marie Windsor received top billing.

Double Deal concerns oil wells, the extremely dysfunctional Sebastian family, gambling, a monkey and murder.

Richard Denning is Buzz Doyle, an engineer who steps off the bus just as the Sebastian family squabble turns deadly. (Have you noticed how many noir pictures open with a guy getting off a bus in some strange town?) Marie Windsor is Terry Miller, a nice girl who takes a shine to Buzz, inherits an oil well and ends up a murder suspect. Fay Baker is a conniving hag who doesn’t care who gets hurt as long as she gets what she wants. Taylor Holmes is an attorney and “walking gin mill.” And James Griffith is a slimeball who runs a crooked dice table.

Double Deal is a cheap little mini-noir that gets almost everything right. It was shot in nine days on the RKO lot, and the completed picture runs just 65 minutes. There’s a whole lot of story packed into that 65 minutes, from a couple murders, lots of wildcatting for oil and a truckload of double crosses. 

Throughout the picture, Fay Baker and James Griffith are perfectly despicable, while Richard Denning is completely likable (at one point, Kevin McCarthy was up for the part, which would’ve been his movie debut).

Marie Windsor is charming, cool and beautiful — whether she’s all dolled up for a night on the town or wearing jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap and a smudge of oil on her cheek. 1950 was a busy year for Windsor: Dakota Lil, The Showdown, Frenchie and Double Deal. Each was for a different studio — Fox, Republic, Universal International and RKO, respectively.

Director Abby Berlin was on Broadway and vaudeville as half of a comedy team with Ken Brown. He headed to Hollywood and worked as an assistant director, until he got the chance to direct with Leave It To Blondie (1945). He directed a number of the Blondie movies and quite a bit of TV before passing away in 1954.

The story for Double Deal came from Don McQuire. He had an interesting career, from acting in Armored Car Robbery (1950, the same year as Double Deal) to directing The Delicate Delinquent (1957) to supplying the story for Tootsie (1982). Screenwriter Charles S. Belden has a story credit on both Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) and House Of Wax (1953). He also wrote some Charlie Chan and Hopalong Cassidy pictures.

Director Of Photography Frank Redman spent the 40s and early 50s at RKO. He shot a lot of Falcon, Saint and Dick Tracy pictures. Leaving RKO, he went to TV, where he stayed plenty busy. He shot over a hundred episodes of Perry Mason, among other things. His work on Double Deal is nothing flashy, looking like so many other RKO pictures from the period.

Double Deal is not classic film noir. It’s no Narrow Margin (1952). And it was certainly done on the cheap — the crew on the oil well is limited to Denning, Windsor and Paul Burns. But I wish there were a hundred movies around just like it — cheap, short and cool.

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Filed under 1950, Bel-Air, James H. Griffith, Kevin McCarthy, Marie Windsor, Richard Denning, RKO

Blu-Ray Review: Flying Leathernecks (1951).

Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Screenplay by James Edward Grant
From a story by Kenneth Gamet
Director Of Photography: William E. Snyder
Film Editor: Sherman Todd
Music by Roy Webb

Cast: John Wayne (Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby), Robert Ryan (Capt. Carl ‘Griff’ Griffin), Don Taylor (Lt. Vern ‘Cowboy’ Blithe), Janis Carter (Joan Kirby), Jay C. Flippen (MSgt. Clancy), William Harrigan (Dr. Lt.Cdr. Joe Curran), James Bell (Colonel), John Mitchum, Hugh Sanders, Gail Davis

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Howard Hughes wanted an airplane picture in Technicolor, and he cast John Wayne in it. Nicholas Ray thought a patriotic picture might keep the HUAC off his back, even though he hated war movies (and the politics of this one), and he cast the likeminded Robert Ryan.

When you take all that into consideration, it’s amazing that Flying Leathernecks (1951) works as well as it does. (In the divided, contentious  political environment of today, it’s doubtful something like this would get past the contract phase, much less result in a completed movie.) Flying Leathernecks has a lot of the things we count on (an ensemble cast, incredible battle sequences) and dread (back-home flashbacks of soldiers) about Hollywood war pictures of this period.

But it was put together by some of the absolute best Hollywood had around at the time — Wayne, Ryan, Ray — who somehow managed to keep the meddling Howard Hughes from screwing the whole thing up. And the end result is a well-acted, technically stunning story of Marine Corps pilots in the Pacific during World War II.

Robert Ryan is the Captain who wants to bond with his men. Wayne’s the Major whose strict methods are intended to bring as many planes back to base, and to get as many solders back home, as possible. The two officers battle each other as much as the Japanese.

Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby (John Wayne): “You just can’t bring yourself to point your finger at the guy and say ‘go get killed!'”

These kinds of conflicts have fueled war pictures since the silent days. And they provide a bit of interest in watching them — how will this one approach the conventions, and how well will it all work? What will carry this one — the writing, direction, acting, stunts, effects or something else? With Flying Leathernecks, the answer might be all of the above.

Nick Ray was a great actors’ director — many performers were never as good as they were in his films. This was Wayne’s only Ray picture; Ryan and Ray would follow this with On Dangerous Ground (1952). At the same time, Ray had an eye for composition that remains unmatched. (He’d really hit his stride when ‘Scope came along.) Flying Leathernecks was the director’s first color movie, and it looks terrific. Director Of Photography William E. Snyder does a particularly good job of matching his footage to color combat footage. The aerial sequences are really something, especially with the added allure of Technicolor. I’m sure those scenes, and that gorgeous color, made Mr. Hughes very happy indeed.

Snyder’s color camerawork is the main reason for making the leap from Flying Leathernecks on the old Warners DVD to the new, stunning Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. The film’s been given a through cleaning, from dialing in the sharpness and color to dazzling effect to tidying up the 16mm Kodachrome battle footage. You don’t expect a war movie, dominated by greens and browns, to be so vibrant. This is the kind of restoration I’d like to see every Technicolor movie receive. It’s amazing.

Flying Leathernecks is not going to make the list of Nicholas Ray’s best films. It’s job was to please Howard Hughes and make sure Ray could still work in Hollywood, and it seems to have succeeded. It also succeeds as a war movie, a good one — with John Wayne and Robert Ryan doing the good work we expect from them. All that, given a stunning Blu-Ray release, is really easy to recommend. 

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Filed under 1951, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Nicholas Ray, RKO, Robert Ryan, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #306: Flying Leathernecks (1951).

Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Don Taylor, Janis Carter, Jay C. Flippen

Another Howard Hughes airplane movie, and it’s a good one. Shot in Technicolor by William E. Snyder and making good use of actual color war footage, Flying Leathernecks (1951) is impressive stuff. It’s great to see John Wayne and Robert Ryan go at it, and you can never really go wrong with Nicholas Ray. (Ryan and Ray would follow this with the terrific On Dangerous Ground.)

Flying Leathernecks has been restored, and Warner Archive is bringing it to Blu-Ray on September 15th. Highly, highly recommended — and with Wayne, Ryan and Ray, why wouldn’t it be?

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Filed under 1951, DVD/Blu-ray News, Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Nicholas Ray, RKO, Robert Ryan, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: Underwater! (1955).

Directed by John Sturges
Written by Walter Newman
From a story by Robert B. Bailey & Hugh King
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Music by Roy Webb

Cast: Jane Russell (Theresa Gray), Richard Egan (Johnny Gray), Gilbert Roland (Dominic Quesada), Lori Nelson (Gloria), Robert Keith (Father Cannon), Joseph Calleia (Rico Herrera), Eugene Iglesias (Miguel Vega), Ric Roman (Jesus), Jayne Mansfield

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Howard Hughes was notorious for screwing around with the movies at his RKO. This time, Howard gets his mitts on John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955), a film put together as a star vehicle for Jane Russell (and titled The Big Rainbow). The trouble is, going in, Sturges had been lead to believe it was going to be a B action movie. After months and months of pre-production, shooting, the usual Hughes tampering and a boatload of reshoots, the finished picture had its world premiere underwater at Silver Springs, Florida — with the cast, various studio people, the press and assorted celebrities and dignitaries watching the picture 20 feet down wearing aqualungs. Really.

The plot’s a pretty flimsy one (though there were more than 20 drafts of the screenplay). Richard Egan and Gilbert Roland discover a 17th-century treasure ship, perched precariously on the edge of an underwater cliff. As they try to remove the booty before the ship drops into the abyss, they tackle sharks, Joseph Calleia and the bends. Jane Russell is Egan’s wife and Roland’s sister,  and she seems to possess an inordinate amount of swimwear.

Before it was all over, some location work was done in Hawaii and Mexico (most of it with doubles and little of it actually used), a giant tank was built on the RKO lot, and a couple million was spent before the thing was finished. Lori Nelson was borrowed from Universal-International and wasted in a nothing part — some say she had the lead and was replaced with Russell, so a role was added to fit her in (after all, they were paying U-I for her services).

It’s a real mystery why Hughes didn’t get involved in the engineering of Jane’s bathing suits, as he did with her brasserie for The Outlaw (1941). It was supposed to be shot in 3-D, but it was abandoned in favor of Technicolor and RKO’s SuperScope widescreen process. John Sturges never met Hughes; they just spoke on the phone in story conferences. The trouble-plagued location stuff was done before the cast had been nailed down, so everything had to be shot from a distance. The water in the RKO tank would get murky every so often and have to be drained. By the time Hughes and his micromanaging got to the reshoots, Sturges had reported to MGM for Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), no doubt sparing him a great deal of heartache. Ah, the joys of Hughes-era RKO.

The critics hated it, but it was a hit anyway. It turned out to be Russell’s last picture for Hughes.

While it’s easy to dismiss Underwater! as a pleasant enough film, it has plenty going for it. The Mexican and Hawaiian scenery is beautiful — and beautifully shot by Harry J. Wild. The boats we see in the harbor, and the yacht our heroes take on their adventure, are incredible. The film’s greatest assets turn out to be Jane Russell (no pun intended) and Gilbert Roland. Jane’s accent is terrible, but she looks terrific and has the likable quality that seems to carry her through some pretty shaky movies. By this point in his career, Roland was in his 50s and proving to be a real force of nature. Other films from this period, such as Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953) and George Sherman’s The Treasure Of Pancho Villa (1955), also benefit from his presence. In Underwater!, he steals about every scene he’s in, even when he’s up against Russell in a bathing suit.

Jane Russell and her double Pat Deane Smith.

Like a lot of movies with diving sequences, things slow down below the surface. Even the great Thunderball (1965) suffers from this. But with Underwater!, it isn’t much of a deficit, and the 99 minutes cruise along just fine.

Warner Archive has done everyone concerned proud with their Blu-Ray of Underwater!, presenting it in its original SuperScope 2.0 and making sure the Technicolor pops like it’s supposed to. It’s stunning how sharp it is at times, highlighting just how much craftsmanship went into a picture Russell called a turkey — and RKO pronounced one of its biggest hits. Recommended, not so much for the film, but for Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland and Warner Archive’s terrific presentation.

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Filed under 1955, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Howard Hughes, Jane Russell, John Sturges, RKO, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #271: Underwater! (1955).

Directed by John Sturges
Starring Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland, Richard Egan, Lori Nelson, Robert Keith, Joseph Calleia, Jayne Mansfield

This is gonna be terrific. Warner Archive is bringing John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955) to Blu-Ray, preserving its Superscope framing.

Of course, the appeal of this one back in ’55 was Jane Russell in a bathing suit (though I don’t think Howard Hughes engineered her outfit this time). It was promoted with a premiere showing that was actually held underwater. If you thought 3-D glasses were uncomfortable, how about an aqualung?

Not sure when this thing is coming, but boy am I glad it is. Highly recommended.

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Filed under 1955, DVD/Blu-ray News, Jane Russell, John Sturges, RKO, Warner Archive

2018 In Review – Part 2.

When I started doing DVD and Blu-Ray commentaries, it no longer felt appropriate to survey the best DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the year. So, as a substitute (maybe a poor one), here’s a reminder of a few things we were treated to this year. We’ll let all the praise, complaints or ranking come from you in the comments. Part 1 can be found over at 50 Westerns From The 50s.

This was a banner year for old sci-fi and horror movies making their way to Blu-Ray. From what we’re hearing so far, next year might be the same for noir and crime pictures. Anyway, here’s some of 2018’s bounty — a few of which I’m still working on proper reviews of.

The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
This is one of the all-time favorite movies. I find something new in it every time I see it — a line, a look, a particular setup, the music, a new appreciation for the guy who did the fire stunt. It’s always something — and that, to me, is one of the requirements for a Great Movie. Warner Archive worked long and hard on this one, and I’m in their debt for sure.

The Hammer Draculas
It’s like there was some sorta Monster Movie Summit, and it was decreed that the Hammer Dracula series would be given its due on Blu-Ray. Warner Archive did a lot of the heavy lifting with Horror Of Dracula (1958), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1974). In the meantime, Scream Factory came through with Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). Taste The Blood Of Dracula (1970) hit Blu-Ray a few years ago. That leaves Scars Of Dracula (197) as the only Hammer Dracula picture not available on Blu-Ray. Who’s gonna step up to the plate for that one?

The Hammer goodness wasn’t limited to the Dracula pictures. Mill Creek included some Hammer pictures in their twin-bill sets, some of the best values in all of home video. Hammer Films, William Castle, Ray Harryhausen — there’s some good stuff in those sets.

The Creature From The Black Lagoon Complete Legacy Collection
That’s quite a name for a set that only includes three movies. But what movies they are — the first two, anyway. And they’re in both widescreen 2-D and 3-D.

Gun Crazy (1949)
Joseph H. Lewis hit it out of the park with Gun Crazy (1949). So did his cast — and this year, with a stunning Blu-Ray, so did Warner Archive.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel making it to Blu-Ray is always a reason to celebrate, and this is one of his many milestones. Over the years, we’ve all put up with some pretty shoddy-looking stuff when it comes to this incredible movie. Olive Films’ Blu-Ray is a huge improvement.

The Tingler (1959)
It’s hard to pick between this one and House On Haunted Hill (1958) for my favorite William Castle movie. Scream Factory did a wonderful job with this one, and they’ve given us other Castle pictures as well.

Dark Of The Sun (1968)
Warner Archive has been hinting around about this one on Blu-Ray for a while. It’s beautiful — and still one of the damnedest movies I’ve ever seen.

There’s a few that stood out for me. What DVD and Blu-Ray releases knocked you out this year?

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Filed under 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1970, 1972, 1973, 3-D, Barbara Shelley, Caroline Munro, Christopher Lee, Don Siegel, DVD/Blu-ray News, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Howard Hawks, Jack Arnold, James Arness, John Agar, Joseph H. Lewis, Julie Adams, Kenneth Tobey, Kevin McCarthy, Mill Creek, Nestor Paiva, Olive Films, Peggy Cummins, Peter Cushing, Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Richarld Carlson, RKO, Rod Taylor, Shout/Scream Factory, Terence Fisher, Vincent Price, Warner Archive, William Castle