(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
INHERIT THE WIND (1960). Stanley Kramer, known primarily as the producer-director of sterling, socially conscious films, is behind this still-relevant drama which has its roots in an actual historical event: the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, when a school teacher was arrested for teaching Darwin's theories of evolution in his Tennessee classroom. Spencer Tracy plays the liberal Clarence Darrow stand-in who defends the young instructor (Dick York), while Fredric March provides the fire and brimstone as the evangelical William Jennings Bryan-inspired prosecutor. Then there's Gene Kelly, cast against type as the H.L. Mencken proxy, the cynical newspaperman whose zingers include this beauty hurled at March's prosecutor: "He's the only man I know who can strut while sitting down." Inherit the Wind nabbed four Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Tracy. Of his seventh nomination (with two more yet to come), the no-nonsense star quipped in his typically dismissive style, "I need another award like I need 10 pounds."
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Jim Hemphill and trailers for various Kramer productions, including two also newly released by Kino: Judgment at Nuremberg (see review below) and Not as a Stranger, with the powerhouse trio of Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra.
IT (2017). Billed in the closing credits as Chapter One, the big-screen version of Stephen King’s mammoth novel spends the entirety of its 135-minute running time on the kids who comprise the book’s gang of Losers, with the adult variations of these characters placed in deep-freeze until the sequel hits theaters in 2019. It’s a logical way to split the property, and what’s offered in this first part is mostly good stuff. Front and center, of course, is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the evil entity that’s kidnapping and killing the children of a small Maine town in 1989. Bill Skarsgård needs some help from the CGI gods to make his Pennywise as memorable as Tim Curry’s superb interpretation from the 1990 miniseries, but he nevertheless does a fine job of bringing this monster to life. The seven kids playing the members of the self-anointed Losers Club, reluctantly ready to do battle against Pennywise, are perfectly cast, with Sophia Lillis as Bev, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, and Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben particularly memorable (rounding out the septet are St. Vincent’s Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as Richie, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley). The sequences in which the kids merely relate to one another are among the film’s strongest, stirring memories of the exquisite Stand By Me (another adaptation of a King property). These scenes never wear out their stay, which can’t be said for a couple of the extended horror set-pieces that verge on overkill.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; separate interviews with King and Skarsgård; and a piece on the film’s young stars.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). Based on the actual Nuremberg trials that took place in the late 1940s, this Stanley Kramer production centers on four German judges (including one forcefully played by Burt Lancaster) accused of committing heinous war crimes with their rulings from the bench. Prosecuting the quartet is an American army officer (Richard Widmark), defending them is a brash German lawyer (Maximilian Schell), and presiding over the proceedings is an astute American judge (Spencer Tracy). Far from a simplistic condemnation of fascism, this intelligent film boldly indicts the whole world for enabling Hitler to come to power, yet it rightly reserves most of its righteous fury for those who abuse their power by preying on the weak. This is especially brought to light in the powerhouse sequences focusing on two victims of the war, hauntingly played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland. Marlene Dietrich co-stars as the widow of a German officer, and look for William Shatner as a military aide. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (both Tracy and Schell), Supporting Actor (Clift), Supporting Actress (Garland) and Adapted Screenplay (Abby Mann), this won statues for Schell and Mann. No offense to Schell, who's quite good, but the 1961 Best Actor Oscar clearly belonged to Paul Newman in The Hustler — not least because the performance by fifth-billed Schell is definitely a supporting turn rather than a leading one.
Blu-ray extras include a discussion between Schell and Mann; a tribute to Kramer; and the theatrical trailer.
THE L-SHAPED ROOM (1962). Released stateside in 1963, this British production became one of two dramas that year featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by an actress portraying a pregnant, unwed woman. Love with the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood, was a Hollywood picture, meaning it was required to ultimately pull its punches in time for an unconvincing denouement. Since it came from across the pond, that wasn’t the case with The L-Shaped Room. Leslie Caron, best known for her turns in ‘50s musicals like An American in Paris and Gigi, ascends to another level with her smashing performance as Jane, a Frenchwoman who temporarily moves into a ramshackle Notting Hill boarding house. The 27-year-old Jane has no intention of marrying the man (Mark Eden) who both deflowered and impregnated her, and she also ignores the advice of everyone who’s pushing her to have an abortion. Instead, she’s fairly certain she wants to have her baby, and she then spends time getting to know her flatmates: a moody writer (Tom Bell) who tirelessly woos her, a jazz musician (Brock Peters, just breaking out thanks to playing Tom Robinson in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird) who wrongly judges her, an elderly lesbian (Cicely Courtneidge) reminiscing about her theater days, and other outsiders. Produced by Richard Attenborough, this adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’ novel is a fine example of the hard-hitting “kitchen sink dramas” so prevalent and popular at the time.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of John Barry’s score.
MATINEE (1993). One of director Joe Dante’s finest achievements, Matinee expertly juxtaposes the real-life horror of October 1962 – namely, the Cuban Missile Crisis – with a reel-life one – in this case, Mant, a B-flick about a half-man, half-ant creature. John Goodman is wonderful as Lawrence Woolsey, a garrulous filmmaker who promotes his movies with outrageous gimmicks (the character was based on the legendary William Castle). With his leading lady (Cathy Moriarty) in tow, he arrives in Key West to promote Mant, hoping that the locals’ fears of nuclear annihilation will get channeled into enthusiasm for his decidedly less threatening movie. Meanwhile, the new kid in town (Simon Fenton), a hardcore monster-movie fan (cue shots of the influential Famous Monsters of Filmland being read), divides his time between hanging out with his new friends and receiving valuable life lessons from Woolsey. Dante and scripters Jerico and Charlie Haas clearly know their way around this period, and they pack their film with savory nuggets on both the pop-culture and political fronts. Character actor Dick Miller and noted writer-director John Sayles — like Dante, former Roger Corman employees — are amusing as a pair of rabble rousers, and there’s a hilarious swipe at the inane live-action Disney movies of the era (and, yes, that’s Naomi Watts in the film-within-the-film The Shook Up Shopping Cart).
Blu-ray extras include a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; two interviews with Dante; a new interview with Moriarty; a piece on creating the Mant costume; and the theatrical trailer.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1970). Over the years, there have been approximately 30 adaptations of Emily Brontë’s classic novel, with Merle Oberon, Claire Bloom, Juliette Binoche and Erika Christensen (in an MTV-produced version) among those tackling the role of Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, Richard Burton, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy among those essaying the part of Heathcliff. This 1970 take on the tale is the one starring Anna Calder-Marshall as the doomed Cathy and Bond, James Bond, as her smoldering lover. No, not Sean Connery (hmm...) or Roger Moore (as if!), but rather Timothy Dalton long before he became the most underrated of all 007 actors. A mere 24 when he made Wuthering Heights, he’s a particularly earthy and immature Heathcliff, the perfect mate for the haughty and selfish Catherine. Indeed, what’s noteworthy about this version is that, unlike most other adaptations (including the 1939 classic with Olivier and Oberon), it does little to tone down the often savage creatures found in Brontë’s original text, although there are certainly multiple deviations from the source (like the ’39 edition, this one also ends well before the book, lopping off chapters 18 through 34). This was a rare literary excursion for American International Pictures, which, despite a few classy productions to its name, was better known for the likes of High School Hellcats, Attack of the Giant Leeches, and The Thing with Two Heads.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Michel Legrand’s score.
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939). John Ford, as responsible as any filmmaker in shaping our view of US history, here elects to offer a peek at an icon before national events dictated his destiny and sealed his lofty reputation. Working from an Oscar-nominated script by Lamar Trotti that mixes some factual tidbits within the expected Hollywood framework, Ford has crafted a loving tribute not only to a great American but to the great American ideals that we no longer expect from our elected leaders (watch this in tandem with the same year's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for a truly inspirational evening). Henry Fonda, his features greatly altered by a simple putty nose (though there's no mistaking that gently reassuring voice), delivers a knockout performance as the young Abe, whose easy humor, self-deprecating manner and fierce intelligence all work to his advantage when, as a budding lawyer, he defends two brothers falsely accused of murder.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film scholar and author Joseph McBride (Searching for John Ford: A Life); a 1992 episode of the BBC series Omnibus that centers on Ford's early life and career; a 1975 talk-show appearance by Fonda; audio interviews from the 1970s with Ford and Fonda; and a 1946 half-hour radio dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln, with Fonda reprising his role.
Movie: ***1/2Short And Sweet:
BLAME IT ON RIO (1984). Best friends Matthew (Michael Caine) and Victor (Joseph Bologna), both dealing with marital woes, head to Rio de Janeiro with their respective teenage daughters Nikki (Demi Moore) and Jennifer (Michelle Johnson) in tow. Soon, the 17-year-old Jennifer and the 43-year-old Matthew are constantly having sex; Jennifer insists they’re in love while Matthew tries to break off the tryst while also praying that Victor never learns that he’s bonking his baby girl. The magnificent director Stanley Donen, whose classics include Singin’ in the Rain and Charade, curiously opted to wind down his career with 1980’s dismal sci-fi yarn Saturn 3 and this empty-headed screwball comedy whose only saving grace is a deft comic turn from Caine.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and the trailer.
FOREVER AMBER (1947). Sex sells, as the ole saying goes. That, of course, helps explain why Kathleen Winsor’s novel Forever Amber became the best-selling book of 1944 and its film adaptation became the top-grossing movie of 1947. The attendant controversy certainly didn’t hurt, as the novel was banned in numerous states and outright condemned by the Catholic church. For its part, Hollywood had to considerably tone down the cinematic adaptation, although it also met with its fair share of puritanical naysaying. A lavish and engrossing period piece, it stars Linda Darnell as a beauty of limited means who manages to improve her lot in life by wooing a succession of powerful men – not least among them King Charles II (George Sanders).
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1999 A&E Biography episode “Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel” and an isolated track of David Raksin’s Oscar-nominated score.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN (1981). Like Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman was one of those literary classics that was deemed unfilmable, and even such cinematic heavyweights as Milos Forman, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols couldn't get a handle on how to tackle it. It finally fell to director Karel Reisz (Fowles' own choice to helm the project) and writer Harold Pinter to bring it to the screen, and the result is a lush period drama that also manages to criticize outmoded patriarchal standards. The main body of the film relates the Victorian-era romance between Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), an earnest scientist of good standing, and Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), a societal outcast scandalized by her involvement with a long-departed French officer. To this sturdy framework, Pinter ingenuously adds a second narrative not found in the novel, a modern-day saga in which Mike and Anna (also Irons and Streep), actors cast in a screen-version of The French Lieutenant's Woman, carry out their own illicit affair. The contemporary thread offers an interesting parallel to the period material, particularly in delineating the ways in which women might have it better now but must also remain mindful of many of the same issues. Streep and Irons are both excellent, as are Leo McKern as a well-meaning doctor and Lynsey Baxter as Charles' spoiled fiancée Ernestina, as trapped by the dictates of her time as Sarah. This earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. (Amazon Prime)