(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945). This early adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic play, itself based on the author's celebrated novel Ten Little Indians, is the best of the numerous screen versions that have made their way to movie theaters over the years (most recently in a 1989 production so threadbare, the makers had to cast Frank Stallone — Frank Stallone, for God's sake — as the hero). The plot is familiar to practically everyone who has ever held a book in their hands: Ten people are invited by a mysterious host to gather on a secluded island, where they're then murdered one by one. Before long, it's suspected that one of the guests is also the killer, but which one? There's the dashing adventurer Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward), the soft-spoken beauty Vera Claythorne (June Duprez), the suspicious detective Blore (Roland Young), the sagacious Judge Quinncannon (Barry Fitzgerald), the hard-drinking Dr. Armstrong (Walter Huston), the religious spinster Emily Brent (Judith Anderson), the elderly General Mandrake (Sir C. Aubrey Smith), the reckless playboy Prince Starloff (Mischa Auer) and, as befits any good old-fashioned mystery, the butler (Richard Haydn) and his wife (Queenie Leonard). Thanks to director René Clair and scripter Dudley Nichols, this version contains more humor than any other adaptation, but that never detracts from the story's inherent suspense or the superb twists initially concocted by Christie. All of the performers do fine work, although it's top-billed stars Fitzgerald and Huston who expectedly dominate the proceedings. Putting aside my own fuzzy feelings for this property (I appeared in two separate high school productions during the 1980s, portraying the playboy in 10th grade and the detective in 12th grade), this isn't the best screen Christie — that honor belongs to 1957's Witness for the Prosecution — but it easily snags second place.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (1953). Max Ophuls' adaptation of the book by Louise de Vilmorin has long been championed as one of the screen's great "women's pictures," though such a limiting tag seems a disservice to a film as thematically far-reaching as this one. Danielle Darrieux stars as Countess Louise de... (her last name is never revealed throughout the film, always cut off in one manner or another), a frivolous society woman who, in order to pay off some debts, pawns off the earrings her husband, General Andre de... (Charles Boyer), gave her years earlier as a wedding present. The general learns of her deceit and, amused, offers them to his departing mistress. Eventually, the baubles find their way into the hands of Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who, as fate would have it, ends up as the Countess' lover. And guess what he gives her as a present? The cyclical nature of chance and coincidence takes on epic proportions here, as Ophuls masterfully transforms what initially seems like a borderline bedroom farce into a full-blown tragedy, with the earrings shedding various coats of symbolism as they journey through this hard-hitting melodrama. The picture is notable for a number of staggering sequences, including the opening tracking shot, a ballroom dance between the Countess and the Baron that expertly denotes the passage of time, and the lovely moment when pieces of a torn-up love letter are smoothly replaced by falling snowflakes. All three leads are superb, though I was especially taken by Boyer's portrayal of General de..., whose amusement at his wife's antics fades as he comes to grasp not only the level of his love for her but also the bracing fact that she doesn't love him — his description that their marriage is "only superficially superficial" is achingly poignant.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar; an introduction by There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson; a visual analysis of the movie by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and a vintage interview with de Vilmorin. The set also contains a booklet that includes de Vilmorin's source novel, Madame de.
LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED (2013). Danish writer-director Susanne Bier serves up a dose of scenic sensuality in Love Is All You Need, a movie that makes exquisite use of Sorrento, Italy. Sharing writing credit with frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier can't quite avoid all the tropes that pop up in romances such as this, but she has nevertheless made a smart, winning movie that's tougher than many others in its field. That's most apparent in the introduction of its principal player: Ida (Trine Dyrholm), a hairdresser who has just finished her brutal treatment for cancer. As she prepares to travel to Italy to attend the wedding of her daughter (Molly Blixt Egelind), she's rocked by the news that her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) is having an affair with a younger woman (Christiane Schaumburg-Muller). Understandably, Ida's an emotional mess, which is the opposite of the buttoned-up Philip (Pierce Brosnan). A British widower who lives in Denmark, he's the father of the groom (Sebastian Jessen), and he treats everyone with contempt and condescension. Naturally, he and Ida instantly dislike each other, and just as naturally, they eventually move past their differences and make a connection. But what makes this love story memorable are the occasionally unexpected ways Bier lets it play out. When Philip first experiences any sort of feeling for Ida, it isn't in some comic, meet-cute way or a lushly romantic setting. It's when he comes across her at her most vulnerable: naked, bald and clumsily trying to cover up her cancer-ravaged breast. Leif has the audacity to bring his mistress to the wedding, and this is played as much for dramatic tension as for awkward laughs. Brosnan delivers a nicely textured performance — the monologue in which he describes the circumstances of his wife's death is especially powerful, a testament to both his acting ability and Bier's understanding of the way real people think and act. As for Dyrholm, she's wonderful in a challenging role. Ida constantly teeters between survivor and victim — not just in the face of her cancer but in the face of her relationships with others — and Dyrholm allows us to feel every pang of betrayal, every flash of frustration, every surge of joy. Trine Syrholm is a major star in Denmark, and it's easy to see why.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Bier and Brosnan; a Q&A session with Bier, Brosnan, Dyrholm and Jensen; and cast interviews from the Venice Film Festival.
ONLY THE VALIANT (1951). Out of the 53 theatrical features Gregory Peck made over a 47-year span, the late actor always considered the worst to be Only the Valiant. Many critics might debate that assertion — 1959's Beloved Infidel, in which he was cast as F. Scott Fitzgerald, is reportedly a bona fide turkey (alas, it's one of only six titles starring my favorite actor that I've never seen) — and they might have a point: This middling Western isn't awful so much as it's awfully indifferent. Part of the trouble is that it comes across as a routine B-level oater rather than the sort of prestige project in which this A-list actor always headlined, with the most interesting aspect of this cavalry-vs.-Indians yarn being its diverse roster of supporting actors. Peck stars as Captain Lance, a martinet who's competing with his best friend, the dashing Lieutenant Holloway (Gig Young), for the hand of another officer's daughter (Barbara Payton, a Hollywood cautionary tale who would die 16 years later at the age of 39, after descending into alcoholism and prostitution). Lance volunteers to deliver a Native American prisoner (Michael Ansara) to another fort, but Holloway is sent instead, only to be subsequently tortured and killed. Erroneously believing Lance to be behind the decision to send his romantic rival to his doom, the men hate their commanding officer even more than before, a treacherous position for Lance once he handpicks the worst of the worst to escort him on what's sure to be a suicide mission to protect the fort from outside. Nothing really makes sense plotwise, but Western veteran Ward Bond (an integral part of John Ford's acting troupe) and horror mainstay Lon Chaney Jr. both have fun whooping it up as, respectively, a drunken Irish Corporal and a brutish Arabian trooper.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER (1990) / SCANNERS III: THE TAKEOVER (1991). The 1981 cult item Scanners hardly ranks among director David Cronenberg's finest achievements, but a terrific premise and that legendary "exploding head" sequence will keep it in both rental and sales circulation for a long time. Only the diehards, however, will find much sustained use for its belated sequels, neither of which, it goes without saying, involved Cronenberg in any way. Instead, director Christian Duguay and writer B.J. Nelson were guilty of this terrible twofer, which took Cronenberg's basic concept and failed to build on it in any meaningful or entertaining way. Scanners II: The New Order concerns the efforts of a corrupt law officer (Yvan Ponton) to rule the city by employing the services of scanners (i.e. humans born with telepathic powers — and they explode heads, too!); of course, it takes only one decent scanner (David Hewlett) to mess up his nefarious scheme. Scanners III: The Takeover, meanwhile, finds the scanner daughter (awful Liliana Komorowska) of a kindly scientist (Colin Fox) rashly taking Daddy's experimental cure-all drug before it's been tested for side effects. The drug turns her into a murderous maniac, and it's up to her brother (Steve Parrish), who's been hanging out in a Thai monastery (no, really) after accidentally killing his best friend, to stop her. Scanners II features a weak script, poor acting and middling effects; Scanners III contains an even worse script, even worse acting and even worse effects.
Both movies are sold together as a double feature in a Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack from Shout! Factory. There are no extras accompanying the movies.
Scanners II: The New Order: *1/2
Scanners III: The Takeover: *
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965). This pitch-perfect adaptation of John le Carré's best-seller captures the Cold War in all its chilly complexity. Richard Burton stars as Alec Leamas, a burnt-out agent who's assigned by British Intelligence to pose as a defector in order to gain access to a specific Communist clique headed by Mundt (Peter Van Eyck), a former Nazi and a thorn in Leamas' side, and Fiedler (Oskar Werner), a Jewish intellectual who despises Mundt. Leamas commences the charade by posing as a drunk who, when he manages to stay sober, works at a library; there, he meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a Brit whose idealism has led her to join the Communist Party. Director Martin Ritt, scripters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, and cinematographer Oswald Morris all do an exemplary job of punching across the seediness, soullessness and futility of the East-West struggle (no side is innocent in these spy games), and Bloom and especially Werner are excellent as two of the few participants who exhibit any signs of discernible emotion amidst all these power plays. Yet this is Burton's picture from first frame to last: As Alec Leamas, a weary man no longer able to keep his humanity in check, he delivers a towering performance that's second only to his turn in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the finest of his career. He deservedly earned an Oscar nomination, as did the art direction-set decoration.
Blu-ray extras include select-scene audio commentary by Morris; a 2008 interview with le Carré; an hour-long BBC documentary from 2000 about the author's life and career; a 1985 audio interview with Ritt; and a 1967 interview with Burton from the BBC series Acting in the 60's.