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Columbo, World War II Classics

COLUMBO: MYSTERY MOVIE COLLECTION 1989 (1989). The original run of the classic Columbo episodes (one of the rotating series on the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie) ended in the late 1970s, but roughly a decade later, Peter Falk again donned the trenchcoat and cigar stubs, this time for another network and under the moniker The ABC Mystery Movie. The five episodes gathered here indicate that the hiatus created a slight dip in the level of quality that went into each show: There's too much inconsequential filler (what's with the tuba-playing interlude in "Sex and the Married Detective"?), and the scripters rely on far too many whopping coincidences to help Columbo crack the cases. But what allows this new run to succeed is what propelled the original series: the marvelous work by Falk as the rumpled detective whose disheveled appearance concealed his agile mind and often lulled the killers into a false sense of security. DVD extras in the three-disc set include America's Top Sleuths, a countdown of the best detectives in film and television, and promos for other shows on DVD.

Season: ***

Extras: *1/2

TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949) / VON RYAN'S EXPRESS (1965) / THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). Curiously, they missed the Memorial Day weekend window, as 20th Century Fox waited until last week (after the holiday) to rerelease three of the studio's World War II hits in stellar two-disc editions.

Gregory Peck has been so identified with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird that it's easy to forget that several other performances merit consideration as the high point in his lengthy career. Of his turn in Twelve O'Clock High, Leonard Maltin (in his annual Movie Guide) writes, "Peck has never been better," while the New York Film Critics Circle was so impressed that the group handed him their Best Actor prize. Peck's performance is indeed one of his finest, and it's at the center of a hard-hitting motion picture that's been routinely used as a training tool in military institutions. Similar to the earlier WWI drama The Dawn Patrol, this one centers on an American bomber squadron stationed in England, and how its commander (Gary Merrill) finally cracks under the strain of having to continually send young men off on dangerous assignments, often resulting in their deaths. His replacement, General Frank Savage (Peck), initially seems better equipped emotionally to deal with the post, but over time, he too feels the burden of the job. Winner of two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Dean Jagger as Peck's contemplative right-hand man) and Best Sound Recording, this also earned nods for Best Picture and Best Actor.

While hardly the cream of the 1960s crop of rip-roaring World War II adventures yarns (in other words, it can't touch The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare), Von Ryan's Express nevertheless qualifies as choice escapist fare, the sort best watched on a lazy Saturday afternoon when it's just too hot to venture far from the A/C. Frank Sinatra, typically solid (he remains an underrated dramatic actor, Oscar for From Here to Eternity notwithstanding), stars as Colonel Joseph Ryan, a POW whose initial efforts to cooperate with his German captors earns him the nickname "Von Ryan" from the other prisoners, specifically the senior British officer (Trevor Howard) in the camp. But once the POWs are herded onto a train headed for another internment camp, it's Ryan who leads the revolt against the Nazis, taking over the train and steering it toward Switzerland and freedom. Many fine vignettes make up this popcorn picture, culminating in a ferocious battle between the train's occupants and strafing German airplanes atop an Italian mountain.

An epic in every sense of the cinematic term -- lavish production values, widescreen presentation, hefty running time, even an intermission at the halfway mark -- The Sand Pebbles is also noteworthy in that it was one of the first films to touch upon the Vietnam War. It does so in a roundabout way -- after all, this film is set in 1926 China -- yet with its explorations of the imperialist mindset and the unwanted American presence on foreign soil, it's not hard to connect the dots. The story centers on the members of the gunboat the San Pablo, specifically its maverick engineer (Steve McQueen), his sensitive best friend (Richard Attenborough), and the captain (Richard Crenna) who must take care to remain neutral in the political skirmishes among the Chinese while also protecting his crew from the threats posed by those who clearly resent the U.S. presence. This earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Mako as McQueen's tenderhearted assistant); it also marked the only time that McQueen was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor.

Each film is supplemented with an impressive array of extras, including audio commentaries by filmmakers and film historians, numerous making-of featurettes, and lobby card reproductions.

Twelve O'Clock High: ***1/2

Von Ryan's Express: ***

The Sand Pebbles: ***

Extras: ***1/2

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