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DOWNFALL (2004). With apologies to Spain, there's no way that country's quadriplegic weepie The Sea Inside deserved to best this German production for the Foreign-Language Film Oscar. A powerful telescoping of a few crucial days in world history, Downfall centers on the final moments in the life of Adolf Hitler as he huddled in his bunker with sycophants of varying degrees of loyalty and watched his empire collapse around him. Upon the film's original release, a handful of critics (both fans and detractors) stated that the movie took the controversial stance of humanizing Hitler, which forces me to conclude that they must have seen a different film with the same title. Downfall depicts Adolf Hitler as a human only in the sense that he's shown to have two eyes, a nose and a mouth and has the ability to walk, talk and blink. Otherwise, the figure shown here remains a contemptible man, dogged by paranoid tendencies and exhibiting contempt even toward his fellow Germans. The excellent Bruno Ganz, a mainstay of international cinema since the 1970s (Knife In the Head, Wings of Desire), delivers a mesmerizing performance as Hitler, capturing the essence of an evil man perpetually marinating in his own arrogance and atrociousness. If nothing else, the film serves as a warning against the danger of a complacent populace granting its leaders absolute power: Parallels between the Nazi regime and the power-grubbing, secretive Bush administration have been well-documented, and Americans would do well to heed this movie's applicable moral. DVD extras include audio commentary by director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a making-of featurette, and cast and crew interviews.

Movie: HHH 1/2

Extras: HH 1/2

IN OLD CHICAGO (1937) / THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT (1956) / HUSH... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). Fox Home Entertainment continues its "Studio Classics" line with releases 32 through 34. Unlike Warner, which clears out the studio vaults looking for tantalizing DVD extras, Fox offers only a smattering of bonus features on their discs. But because the movie's the main attraction (past gems in the line include All About Eve and Laura), the lack of extras is a pardonable sin.

Until the spectacular climax, In Old Chicago has as much in common with reality as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Alice Brady plays Mrs. O'Leary, a hard-working widow raising her three sons to the best of her ability (never mind that the real Mrs. O'Leary wasn't a widow and only had one son and a daughter). One sibling (Tyrone Power) emerges as a politically connected heel, another (Don Ameche) becomes Chicago's mayor who's hell-bent on wiping out corruption, and the third son (Tom Brown) has so little backstory or screen time that he barely registers. The Power-Ameche dynamic plays like a rip-off of the Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy pairing in the previous year's disaster epic San Francisco, but all is forgiven once Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicks over the lantern and causes the historic fire. The torching of Chicago is screen spectacle at its finest, as well as a reminder of the untainted magic of grand-scale moviemaking before computers took over the industry. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, this earned the Best Supporting Actress prize for Brady and the long-defunct Best Assistant Director award for Robert Webb (who reportedly oversaw the fiery finale). The DVD includes two versions of the film: the more familiar 94-minute cut and the 115-minute edit that was snipped soon after its premiere. Other extras include a Biography documentary on Ameche and news footage of the movie's premiere.

Like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit offers a study of what happens when WWII vets returned from the war and attempted to assimilate back into American society. Unlike Best Years, which was universal enough in its approach that its post-war content remains as forceful as ever, Flannel Suit (based on Sloan Wilson's bestseller) retains its topicality more in its exploration of a man who must choose between advancing his career or spending quality time with his family. Gregory Peck, as dependable as ever, stars as Tom Rath, a Madison Avenue type with a needy (if sympathetic) wife (Jennifer Jones) and three small children. When he's not distracted by memories of his wartime experiences in Europe -- including a dalliance with an Italian beauty (Marisa Pavan) -- he's busy fretting over how to make ends meet. He accepts a higher-paying job at a company run by Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March), a fair-minded employer who, having long ago abandoned his wife and daughter for the sake of a career, finds himself envying Tom's integrity and idealism. DVD extras include audio commentary by author and film scholar James Monaco, a look at the film's restoration, and a photo gallery.

Thanks to the success of 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which found real-life nemeses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford sparring under the gleeful direction of Robert Aldrich, the rest of the decade yielded several more films in which aging actresses camped it up in low-budget thrillers. The best of these knock-offs was arguably Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, an atmospheric creepshow that reunited Aldrich and Davis. The actress essays the role of Charlotte Hollis, who's spent the last few decades holed up in her Louisiana mansion, going crazy over the possibility that she may have been the one to chop up her lover (Bruce Dern in one of his earliest roles) with a meat cleaver. But could the actual killer have been her housekeeper (Agnes Moorehead, snagging one of the film's seven Oscar nominations)? Her father (Victor Buono, seen in the flashback sequences)? Her soft-spoken cousin (Olivia de Havilland)? The family doctor (Joseph Cotten)? Or someone else entirely? Davis and Moorehead are both at their unhinged best here, leaving de Havilland and Cotton to provide the more discreet villainy. DVD extras include audio commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson and theatrical trailers.

All Three Movies: HHH

Chicago Extras: HH 1/2

Suit Extras: HH 1/2

Charlotte Extras: HH

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