THE CONTROVERSIAL CLASSICS COLLECTION (includes BAD DAY AT BAD ROCK, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, FURY, ADVICE AND CONSENT, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, A FACE IN THE CROWD.) WARNER HOME VIDEO
It must have been a daunting task for the Warner folk to decide which seven of the thousands of films that that they have control of would be spotlighted in their initial CONTROVERSIAL CLASSICS COLLECTION, but they couldn't possibly have chosen a more compelling or diverse choice of films that dared to address what, at the time, were previously taboo topics. Every single film in this collection still packs a powerful punch.
There are so many reasons why BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), a seemingly simple tale of a one-armed WW2 veteran (a phenomenal Spencer Tracy) who mysteriously arrives at a sparsely occupied town and is confronted with life-threatening violence is on my ten best list of the greatest films of all time. First and foremost is the fact that this taut and powerful film allows some of the finest actors ever assembled in one film (Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, John Ericson, Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger, etc.) to strut their stuff in an uncommonly striking manner. Indeed one of the greatest movie-going pleasures I've ever experienced is the sublime thrill of watching the terrific Ryan become one of the very few male stars who could confidently hold his own with Tracy, arguably the finest of all film actors. The scenes that these two giants share with each other are so superbly acted and so full of subtle revelation that one is sorely tempted to press the "repeat" button again and again.
Obviously the fact that Millard Kaufman's screenplay minces no words in its graphic depiction of deep and insidious prejudice is a major contribution to its success, but the fact that John Sturges directs it with such economy and visual superiority is probably the most important part of the equation. One can only guess what powers of persuasion it took for Sturges to convince MGM to film this extremely intimate tale in CinemaScope, a widescreen process hitherto utilized primarily for massive costume epics and splashy musicals, but his sense of framing is such that every shot accentuates the dusty isolation of the town and the characters that populate it. His command of the widescreen image is nothing less than revolutionary, so much so that with this film he singlehandedly validated the CinemaScope process as a viable device for small-scale drama.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention that (with the possible exception of Bernard Herrmann's music for Ryan's previous ON DANGEROUS GROUND) no film score before had so dynamically backed up a suspense film of this type with such bristling authority. It is without question composer Andre Previn's finest hour and becomes the heart, soul and conscience of this cinematic masterpiece.
Every review of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) I've ever read has correctly attributed its legendary success to the following factors: (1) It's the first Hollywood film to dare to approach the hitherto forbidden subject of gang violence, racial and sexual tensions and apathy in our inner-city high schools as well as (2) the cinematic debut (for better or worse) of Rock and Roll and (3) represented a major step forward in the careers of Sidney Poitier and, to a lesser extent, Vic Morrow. But what continues to stun me, especially after viewing this excellent new dvd incarnation, is the continuing fact that the single most prominent and passionate contribution to this scathing film is repeatedly ignored through the perpetual exclusion or minimization of the splendid work of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE's true star Glenn Ford.
Ford's career, which at the time was in a slight downswing (THE AMERICANO, APPOINTMENT IN HONDURAS, TERROR ON A TRAIN etc.) was restored by JUNGLE to such an extent that he went on to become MGM's biggest male star of the mid-to-late fifties, toplining one boxoffice success after another, and BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, wherein Ford's acting style radically changed from that of a handsome and gifted movie star to a sensitive and soft-spoken everyman was the initial reason for his spectacular resurgence. In fact, Ford's performance as oppressed but determined English teacher Richard Dadier is so incomparably fine that I personally regret the fact that after similarly powerful dramatic work in two subsequent socially conscious films (TRIAL and RANSOM) the massive success of his comedies, such as DON'T GO NEAR THE WATER, would deprive him of the opportunity to continue in the same vein. (To compare Ford's varied and intense delivery of his RANSOM speech to that of Mel Gibson's undisciplined and overwrought ramblings in Ron Howard's ludicrous remake is to fully appreciate how far film acting standards have since descended.)
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) is the film in this collection that had the most pronounced effect on society, in that it ignited protests that led to vital penal reforms. Its unglamorous and graphically uncompromising depiction of various aspects of society at its ugliest are so strongly conveyed here that, to my mind, this may be the only film of the early 30's that has not dated one iota. Paul Muni delivers such a stunningly restrained performance here that it's virtually impossible to conceive that this is the same actor whose performance in the same year's SCARFACE would go so comically over-the-top. After the passage of seventy-three years, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG remains as pulse-poundingly potent as ever.
While Fritz Lang's first U.S. film FURY (1936) hasn't aged quite as well due to a smattering of coincidental contrivances that occasionally crop up, it still manages to remain a searing indictment of lynch law which would be bested only by William Wellman's THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) and TRY AND GET ME (1951). Sylvia Sidney is fine in one of her typical 30's good girl roles but its the masterly no-nonsense performance of Spencer Tracy as the falsely accused victim that continues to hit home with such force.
The inner workings of a U.S. Senate subcommittee struggling to confirm the President's controversial nominee for Secretary of State are handled with unusual restraint in ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962) by director Otto Preminger, who also manages to depict the previously verboten theme of homosexuality with a frankness that at the time broke new ground. Henry Fonda, Don Murray, Gene Tierney, Lew Ayres and Burgess Meredith are all fine, but Walter Pidgeon and Franchot Tone are the two stars who really walk away with the show. Sadly, Charles Laughton, in his final film, fails to convince as a devious senior Senator, George Grizzard is Johnny-One-Note as the abrasive "villain" in the piece, and the perpetually insubstantial Peter Lawford yet again manages to avoid any hint of characterization as a Senatorial ladies man. (Lawford, who at the time was President Kennedy's brother-in-law, only managed to secure his role in this film because of his ability to "pull strings" in arranging for the film's many and varied D.C. locations.)
With THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky once and forever abandoned the stories about the true-to-life trials and travails of the "little people" (MARTY, THE CATERED AFFAIR, THE BACHELOR PARTY) that had made him a household name and began tackling The Bigger Issues such as the Lunacy of Warfare (EMILY), Medical Incompetency (THE HOSPITAL), and Television Corruption (NETWORK). Even though EMILY may be the most tentative and least effective of these three, there are scattered scenes of great wit and brilliance to be found here which make the experience more than worthwhile and some sharp character work by Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn which significantly compensates for the run-of-the-mill direction of Arthur Hiller and the miscasting of Julie Andrews and James Garner in the romantic leads. The always attractive Garner is just too even-tempered, affable and uncomplicated a fellow to comfortably deliver some of Chayefsky's more intricate and barbed satirical speeches with the dark and cynical edge that original choice William Holden (so effective in Chayefsky's NETWORK) would have so effortlessly provided. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY may be a mixed bag but is one well worth exploring.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) is director Elia Kazan's harsh and biting treatment of screenwriter Budd Schulberg's twisted tale of a much-jailed n'er-do-well drifter (Andy Griffith in his film debut), who, through the "magic" of television, manages to become a distressingly prominent and influential political figure only to rather predictably descend into a self-created hell of booze and political corruption. Griffith certainly gives his all here but manages to be overshadowed by a shatteringly truthful yet low-key but internally high voltage turn by Patricia Neal that so achingly and wrenchingly demonstrates the misery and havoc that Griffith's low-life scumbag can wreak on those around him that she all but wipes the entire talented cast off the screen.
The black-and-white anamorphic transfers and monaural sound of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ADVISE AND CONSENT, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and A FACE IN THE CROWD are all extremely good, while the full-screen black-and-white picture and monaural sound on both I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and FURY are, considering their age, entirely serviceable. In comparing the anamorphic Eastman Color transfer of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK with its recent anamorphic airing on the HDNet I found the color on the dvd to be far richer, but the HDNet's aspect ratio of 2.55:1 is correct while the dvd seems to feature a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with some information missing on one side of the image, and though Previn's powerhouse score sounds terrific I would have loved to hear it even more in a similar Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo reconstruction that was recently lavished on Warner's exemplary release of LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME.
And now, dear Warner folk, allow me to reveal my selections for THE SECOND CONTROVERSIAL CLASSICS COLLECTION: (1) INTRUDER IN THE DUST (2) THE SEARCH (3) CAGED and/or 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (4) CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and/or WATCH ON THE RHINE (5) TRIAL (6) I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE F.B.I. and/or (7) MISSION TO MOSCOW .