****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury
screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon
directed by John Frankenheimer
***½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A-
starring John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Henderson Forsythe
screenplay by Alan Ormsby
directed by Bob Clark
DVD - Image B+ Sound B Extras A-
BD - Image B Sound A Extras A-
starring Isaac Hayes, Bo Hopkins, Timothy Bottoms, Robert Forster
screenplay by Larry Cohen
directed by William Lustig
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. As the zeitgeist is one of those things we tend to discuss in the past tense, you have to wonder whether it's a vacuum or a barometer. In other words, the point at which culturemongers finally lunge at a craze is usually once it's begun shrieking its death rattle, and yet a post-mortem of said craze invariably divulges a complex tapestry of art and politics, the ascription of happenstance to which seems preposterous. Our own Walter Chaw brilliantly observes in recent omnibus reviews pairing Love Me If You Dare with Valentin and Dodgeball with Napoleon Dynamite that leitmotifs are emerging at the box office free of predetermination, and I myself got a faint chill when I became cognizant of having consecutively watched the upcoming DVDs of John Frankenheimer's 1962 The Manchurian Candidate, Bob Clark's 1972 Dead of Night (a.k.a. Deathdream), and William Lustig's 1997 Uncle Sam. The Manchurian Candidate is getting reissued because MGM wants to piggyback the P&A for this summer's star-studded remake, Dead of Night because it's a perennial cult fave, and Uncle Sam because Lustig owns the company; three separate objectives, then, for putting out three different pictures all concerning shell-shocked war veterans bringing the violence home with them. Considering the length of time it must have taken to prepare these beautifully mastered, supplement-rich discs, that they coincide with not only each other but also the cooling of patriotic fervour (coupled with the spontaneous theatrical release of Michael Moore's anti-Dubya Fahrenheit 9/11) is like getting the rare privilege to see the forest for the trees.
"I am sure you've all heard the old wives' tale that no hypnotized subject may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature," scientist Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) explains to spectators before effortlessly persuading Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, unexpectedly sympathetic) to strangle one of his own men. A Medal of Honor recipient, Raymond is the stepson of McCarthy-esque senator John Iselin (James Gregory), and his covetous mother (a ferocious Angela Lansbury), Iselin's wife, integrates her son's war-hero status into her husband's re-election campaign even though she and Raymond are basically estranged. Meanwhile, the increasingly antisocial Ben, determined by his superiors to be suffering from run-of-the-mill post-traumatic stress disorder, is assigned to the public relations corp., a fortuitous if humorously misguided act of tough love that indirectly leads him to Raymond's doorstep and closer to unravelling the mystery behind his bad dreams.
With so many disparate elements--political satire, Oedipal tragedy, Solitaire--vying for thematic precedence, The Manchurian Candidate's structure is understandably asymmetrical, but the film is too successful on a scene-by-scene basis to warrant any kind of straightening out. (Both Janet Leigh and Henry Silva (he of the all-purpose exoticism) serve a greater textural than narrative purpose as Ben's love interest and a mole, respectively, an imbalanced ratio of personality- to plot-driven scenes carbon-dating the picture as much as its multiple references to the threat of Communism.) Its chaos in fact elicits an anxiousness that enables what very nearly qualifies as an exercise in the avant-garde to function like a conventional thriller--one might say the first-time viewer's white knuckles are all the ratification the film's far-fetched notion of brainwashing needs. (No surprise that Yen Lo works for the Pavlov Institute.) Visually, The Manchurian Candidate is not as sweaty as the compelling Sinatra, though Frankenheimer and DP Lionel Lindon, who collaborated on four pictures together, favour low angles that suggest lurking, in addition to a Wellesian deep-focus that, by rendering every detail with maddening clarity, exposes the secrets between the lines. Hidden agendas are brought into such stark relief that the film is a blast of cold air on a hot summer day.
Like Raymond, Andy Brooks returns from the fighting a changed man in the similarly grief-stricken Dead of Night, an informal (and unauthorized) amalgamation of W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" and the Irwin Shaw play "Bury the Dead" that marks Bob Clark's second foray into the horror genre with screenwriter Alan Ormsby. (Their first alliance yielded Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, zombie dross that couldn't possibly have lived up to its amazing title.) After receiving a telegram that their only son was killed in the line of duty, Andy's parents Charles (the great John Marley) and Christine (Lynn Carlin, Marley's spouse in John Cassavetes's Faces, too) are obviously startled, not to mention elated, when Andy (Richard Backus) appears at their front door early the next morning. A lot of exposition is devoted to illustrating that this catatonic is clearly not the Andy they know and love, but nothing sums it up as pithily as the casting of a different actor (Gary Swanson) in the role of Andy for a Vietnam-set prologue. (If it sounds confusing, Swanson is so obscured by shadows and activity that the effect is mostly subliminal.)
A veteran himself, Charles tries to convince his wife that Andy's behaviour goes beyond acceptable postwar misanthropy, but Christine remains irrationally maternal even after Andy chokes the family terrier. Because the dog was a vessel into which Charles channelled his affections, its murder seems to stand for an attack on Charles himself, especially with each of Andy's kills benefiting him physically save that one. Both The Manchurian Candidate and Dead of Night find a shattered serviceman rejecting his father figure and growing ambiguously closer to his mother, intellectualizing the battlefield cliché of screaming for Mom by transforming her into the Girl Back Home. One imagines that it's common for ex-GIs to snub authority at the start of civilian life, but Raymond and Andy are adrift without their paterfamilias. When Ben resurfaces in Raymond's life, Raymond promptly restores him to a leadership role, whereas Andy fills the void more metaphorically: by drinking blood.
Dead of Night innovated (or grounded) vampire lore by having Andy extract plasma from his victims clinically, through the use of hypodermic needles. If Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things came close to plagiarizing George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (poor George: always a muse, never a bride), Romero reciprocated with 1977's Martin, in which a teenage boy with a Lestat complex carries a diabetes kit for pacifying the victims of his bloodthirst. But Martin has more in common with Dead of Night than just the sight of needles, namely a melancholy that has gradually fallen out of favour in scare cinema--it's rare in our current, irony-afflicted culture for a fantastic situation to be treated with anything but derision. (With a dour, uncompromising view of humanity punctuated by raw violence, The Manchurian Candidate feels post-Kennedy, or like a harbinger of Watergate-era splatter.) For all its gore, the most shocking moment in Dead of Night is Charles's decision to commit suicide over his son's descent into wickedness, a gutsy allegory for the guilt that befell parents of children fighting in what was one of the more stigmatized wars of the twentieth century. Marley, a beautiful movie dad (he made you wonder how the hell Jenny Cavalleri grew up to be such a terror in Love Story), imbues the scene and those leading up to it with the kind of pathos that wears down the defenses of a principally comic filmmaker like Clark.
Registering higher on the fun-o-meter is Uncle Sam, a film so forthright that you get a charge out of both its good ideas--which feel like a tonic against the wishy-washiness of contemporary social commentary--and its bad ones, which, because they are proposed without cynicism, are critical to the film's respectability, strangely enough. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of screenwriter Larry Cohen: although exploitation cinema is seen as a way station for rising or laterally plateauing talent, it has its stalwarts, chief among them Cohen, an opinionated man who understands the potential for playing bait-and-switch with marketable elements. Released on the 4th of July in 1997 (contrary to the film's on-screen copyright date of 1996), Uncle Sam has fun teasing flag-wavers in the name of schlock. As in The Manchurian Candidate, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" kicks the picture into gear (and casts the remainder in a pseudo-patriotic glow), and as in The Manchurian Candidate, the most mendacious character dons an Honest Abe costume. In the meantime, the first person to inherit the titular Uncle Sam mantle is a Peeping Tom, the second a wife-beater (David 'Shark' Fralick) back from the dead--and the Gulf War--to kill un-Americans. (By sheer coincidence, he slays a deserter (Timothy Bottoms) who bears an uncanny resemblance to George W. Bush; Bottoms would of course go on to play the title role in the short-lived "That's My Bush!".) It's up to Jody (Christopher Ogden), Sam Harper's once-fawning nephew (the fact that Uncle Sam is literally an uncle named Sam is pure Cohen), to stop the violence. A closing image of Jody incinerating his G.I. Joe toys is as transparent a hope for pacifist future generations as you can get.
The advantage that Uncle Sam and the other three films Cohen scripted for William Lustig (i.e., the Maniac Cop trilogy) have over Cohen's utilitarian work as a director is Lustig's uncelebrated visual sense. There's a sequence in Uncle Sam that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with practically anything in Dario Argento's oeuvre: As the aforementioned voyeur spies on a young woman getting dressed, Lustig deploys a Louma crane for the punchline shot of the peeper's stilts. What proceeds is unique to this film, a guy fleeing on stilts, his inevitable collapse filling the 'scope frame in a manner that is at once intoxicatingly absurd and inventively panoramic. Uncle Sam is also a refreshingly base throwback to the stalk-'n'-slash movies of the late-Seventies and Eighties--Cohen's polemics aside, the picture doesn't engage on a soulful level, but it does have the cojones to end with Jody delivering an incongruous uh-oh-is-he-possessed? smile to the camera, which used to be a matter of course. I can't think of a better palate cleanser for a double-bill of The Manchurian Candidate and Dead of Night than Uncle Sam: it has their integrity without their disturbing half-lives.
|The Manchurian Candidate (above); Uncle Sam (below); Dead of Night (inset)|
MGM upgrades its non-anamorphic DVD release of The Manchurian Candidate with a Special Edition indicated by an impeccable 1.74:1, 16x9-enhanced widescreen transfer--the crispness and authority of the black-and-white image rivals standard-bearers Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. (An unfortunate drawback to the precision is that focusing inconsistencies are now glaringly apparent.) All in all, the film looks more stylish than it ever has on home video, and for once we have a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that takes artistic chances: with the original mono also on board, the sound engineers try things of which the late Frankenheimer, a fan of multi-channel audio, would probably approve--Mrs. Whittaker's voice, for instance, does a full circle around the viewer during the infamous hydrangea monologue. Dialogue, furthermore, sounds fuller in 5.1.
Recycled from the previous disc is Frankenheimer's feature-length commentary. Despite the director's well-known tussles with Sinatra, nothing particularly scandalous is said, and while the anecdotes are intriguing and/or amusing (Frankenheimer's recollection of a screening that took place at an outdoor amphitheatre in Greece is hilarious), pockets of dead air are tragically commonplace. Additional extras include an "Exclusive Interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer" (8 mins.): taped in 1988 by David Fein and Eytan Keller, the piece is basically Frankenheimer--the suavest of the three (Cubby Broccoli's interest in him for the part of James Bond suddenly becomes clear)--prodding Sinatra and screenwriter Axelrod to open up about The Manchurian Candidate. Sinatra remembers breaking his pinky finger in the karate fight with Silva and Axelrod owns up to cobbling eighty pages of the script together in a weekend, but this was clearly pitched at an E!-type audience, so it's ultimately not very illuminating.
Michael A. Arick's newer "Queen of Diamonds" (15 mins.) is a cheerful reminiscence from Angela Lansbury in which she fondly remembers her co-stars and Frankenheimer, whose instructions for the taboo-busting kiss are still fresh in her mind. While one would've hoped for participation in the DVD from other surviving cast members Leigh and/or Silva (every key crew member is deceased, alas), The Exorcist director William Friedkin has been chosen to follow in Lansbury's footsteps. In "A Little Solitaire" (13 mins.), Friedkin calls Frankenheimer "the best film director, the most important, the most innovative" without broaching a substantial six-degrees connection (Frankenheimer helmed the sequel to Friedkin's own The French Connection). He does, however, provide a serviceable analysis of The Manchurian Candidate that concludes on an appropriately bleak note: "It's unfortunately politically valid." A 5-part photo gallery, The Manchurian Candidate's '88 re-release trailer, and reels advertising MGM fare popular and Oscar-winning finish off the disc.
Blue Underground ushers Dead of Night (referred to as Deathdream everywhere except within the head credits of the film itself) to DVD at last with typical aplomb. The chosen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 might actually be a little severe, since the Super16 negative would measure at 1.66:1 or thereabouts (the framing does look a little heavy-lidded), but the anamorphic transfer is stupendous in and of itself. At last, the picture's colour scheme is pastel as opposed to sickly, while grain, though prevalent as ever, lacks the opacity to which fans are accustomed. The DD 2.0 mono sound is cleaner than usual as well--indeed, I found the film more audible than the video-based supplemental "Deathdreaming: An Interview with Richard Backus" (12 mins.). Purported to have vanished off the face of the earth, sometime-soap star Backus is evidently alive and well, but though he gives off the impression of pleasant company, I found his digitally-pinched words difficult to make out. If I have a dud copy, at least the other featurette--"Tom Savini: The Early Years" (10 mins.)--was unaffected by the problem; therein, make-up maestro Savini, always a charismatic interviewee, delves into his FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND past (facilitating a remarkably fluid segue into his experiences as a war photographer in 'Nam) and shares stories from the sets of Dead of Night and his subsequent collaboration with Ormsby, the Ed Gein-inspired Deranged.
In addition to producing these featurettes, David Gregory moderated the disc's two yak-tracks, the first featuring Clark, the second Ormsby. Although I deeply admire much of Clark's filmography (if only he hadn't lost his casting instincts) and could take or leave much of Ormsby's, the situation is reversed in the commentary realm: even with Gregory acting as a glorified teleprompter, Clark is too naturally given to brevity to sustain listener interest. Ormsby, on the other hand, is talkative, engaging, and capable of simultaneously eulogizing the production as a highlight of his professional life and unabashedly criticizing his script, Jack McGowan's cinematography (though he generously characterizes one three-shot as Dreyer-esque), and some of Clark's admittedly stilted staging. Auteurism is predictably sneered at, something screenwriters are wont to do (perhaps more predictably, he sneers at it in the context of credit-glomming Paul Schrader, for whom he wrote Cat People), and records are set straight on matters of the film's genesis and its revolving door of a title. A comprehensive photo gallery, an alternate version of the opening sequence replacing the "Dead of Night" credit with "Deathdream," an extended ending sourced from elements too poor to reintegrate into the picture, and a 4-minute theatrical trailer (which is full of inexplicable music-box imagery) complete the platter. In an Easter egg I discovered accidentally, Ormsby show-and-tells Backus's make-up appliances.
Last but not least, Uncle Sam arrives on DVD from the same studio in a mildly overenhanced but certainly vibrant and well-compressed 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, whose Dolby Digital 5.1 mix boasts of creative left-right separation and impressive subwoofer belches in the midst of pyrotechnic set-pieces. Lustig, Cohen, and producer George Braunstein team up for a new, screen-specific yakker, and the medium proves once again Cohen's forte; Lustig, also good at these things, dominates, with poor Braunstein stuck pitching a sequel edgewise in a vain effort to surmount his third-wheel status. The one significant drawback is that Lustig hasn't seen Uncle Sam in seven years as of this session's start--his behind-the-scenes account is notably less sketchy in a complementary yakker he originally recorded with star Isaac Hayes (very good in the film) for the Elite pressing in 1998.
The saga of causing extensive property damage in the town of La Verne, CA (without missing a beat, Cohen snatches the Vaudevillian opportunity to crack that they're going to film part two in "Shirley") climaxes either track and is their mutual high point, although Lustig's reflections on his decision to shoot the picture in 'scope should appeal to nerds. Stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos narrates the rudimentary if inapplicable lesson in setting stuntmen on fire "Fire Stunts", a 10-minute B-roll compilation that, as does a 5-part poster/stills gallery, reproduces newspaper articles from the morning after Lustig's team accidentally blew out windows across La Verne. (That said, the photo gallery is mainly of interest for containing nudity omitted from the film.) A trailer that dutifully rips off Jaws ("Just when you thought it was safe to stand up and salute the flag...") plus two Easter eggs--go cursor-crazy within the sub-menus to locate them--that avail a pair of in-jokes (one of which is in bravely poor taste) round out the disc. Originally published: June 28, 2004.
BLU-RAY DISC - UNCLE
Blue Underground brings Uncle Sam to Blu-ray in what is obviously the exact same transfer that was used for DVD. Unfortunately, under the HD microscope, it looks all the more electronically processed, bearing a purpley, metallic sheen that screams late-'90s/early-'00s telecine techniques. Fine detail "rings" throughout; apart from its tighter blacks and zestier colours, this 2.35:1, 1080p presentation is on a par with an upconvert. It suggests misplaced humility that Uncle Sam helmer William Lustig, who started Blue Underground, didn't shell out for a remaster. The 7.1 DTS-HD audio sounds a little crisper and plumper than the DD 5.1 alternative, though the mix is dated in its own way by gimmicky localizations of dialogue and sound effects. Still, I love it when Uncle Sam's from-beyond voice takes over every corner of the room--like the movie itself, it's a good kind of ridiculous. The DVD's supplements--including the photo gallery, although the Easter eggs appear to be absent--return, in standard definition except for the trailer. Originally published: July 8, 2010.