What's New In Old Movies: June 2023 Edition
Fans of Anna May Wong will be excited about a new Blu-ray box set from Kino Lorber. The Anna May Wong Collection features three titles from the late 1930s, King of Chinatown, Island of Lost Men, and Dangerous to Know. Whether this trio of films are among Wong's best is open to debate, but they are solid dramas and full of period atmosphere. Dangerous to Know is probably the best of the three, with direction by Robert Florey (The Beast with Five Fingers, Murders in the Rue Morgue) and a screenplay with contributions from those masters of suspense, Horace McCoy and Edgar Wallace. Kudos to Kino Lorber for honoring Hollywood's first Asian star.
The Wong set was released on May 2, marking the recent spring season as a hot time for classic films released on Blu-ray and DVD. Here's a sampling of other recent releases, and a few coming in the very near future....
Victor Buono, who died far too soon at age 44, portrayed a homicidal mama's boy in The Strangler (1964) a thriller from director Burt Topper. The screenplay is by Bill S. Ballinger, who wrote for some of the top television shows of the era, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits. In fact, The Strangler feels a bit like an episode of the old Hitchcock show, with Buono choking his way through a bunch of pretty nurses. When he falls for a spunky gal at a carnival, he thinks his murderous habit has been cured. But carnival gals aren't always reliable. Look for Ellen Corby as the strangler's highly unpleasant mother. Who knew Grandma Walton could be such a witch? (89 Mins. B&W. Available June 6 on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.)
Harold Pinter was reaching his prime as one of Britain's top writers for the stage when he was recruited to co-write the screenplay for The Servant (1963). From director Joseph Losey, this psychological thriller is all about a butler (Dirk Bogarde) who appears to covet the townhouse he has been hired to manage. It's fascinating to watch him play mind games with his foppish employer, played by James Fox. ( 1 hr 56 Mins. B&W. Available June 20 on 2K Blu-ray from Criterion).
For some of us, Steven Spielberg never topped one of his initial efforts, Duel (1971). A suspenseful tale of a man tormented by a mysterious trucker as he travels across the California desert, the film stars Dennis Weaver (hysterically cackling throughout) and was written by one of America's most revered fantasy writers, Richard Matheson. Originally an ABC-TV movie, this one holds up better than many big screen features. (89 mins. Available September 19 on 4K Blu-ray, from Universal.)
The Warner Archive Collection has been a boon for collectors of physical media. One of their recent reissues is the impeccable Clash by Night (1952), a rugged drama from director Fritz Lang that stars Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe, and J. Carrol Naish. This tale of infidelity and jealousy is based on a play by Clifford Odets, and features all of the passion and power associated with Odets' work. (105 mins. B&W. Available May 2, on Blu-ray.) If you're looking for a companion to go along with Clash by Night, try Flamingo Road (1949), also from the Warner Archive, available since March. It stars the inimitable Joan Crawford as a dancer stuck in a small southern town who becomes entangled with a corrupt politician. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it also stars Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet. (94 mins. B&W. Blu-ray.)
The 1950s are an underappreciated period in movie making, but you can relive a few of the era's best titles thanks to some other recent reissues. Charles Laughton's classic The Night of the Hunter (1955) featured Robert Mitchum as a creepy preacher with murderous intent. Unfolding like a slow-motion nightmare, this feature was not a success at the time, but is now remembered as one of the great films of the decade. (92 mins. B&W. 4K Blu-ray from the original camera negative, plus several special features. Available May 30, from Kino Lorber.)
Made the same year as The Night of the Hunter is Nicholas Ray's teen epic, Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean as history's most angst-ridden teenager. Never mind that he was 24 at the time - watch it anyway. Watch it for Dean's performance. Watch it for Natalie Wood. Watch it for the not so subtle, homoerotic tension between Dean and Sal Mineo. Watch it for Jim Backus, who is brilliant as Dean's henpecked father. Watch it for the cool old cars, and for Ray using the same techniques that made his crime films so memorable. Dean died in a car crash just prior to this film's release. With this excellent movie as his sendoff, it is no wonder he became a legend. (111 minutes; this is a two-disc set, featuring a 4K Ultra HD and a Blu-ray Disc. Available since April 18, from Warner Bros. Digital copy included.)
For The Reading Room: Since reading about movies is nearly as fun as watching them, we'll also recommend Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams’ Greatest Creation. This exploration of the infamous Blanch DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire is from Nancy Schoenberger, a veteran author who has written about subjects ranging from John Wayne to Lady Caroline Blackwood. Schoenberger was also the co-author of one of my favorite books, Furious Love, about the torrid relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
In Blanche, Schoenberger traces the cultural significance of Williams' most famous character, and explores the various interpretations of Blanche over the decades, starting with Jessica Tandy in 1947, all the way through various Broadway and television incarnations of the 1980s, '90s and beyond. The New York Times called Blanche. "a lean but graceful character study..." It's available in hardcover, audio, and Kindle. Go get it.
- Don Stradley