DVD purchases have been declining since 2008, endangering one of the major sources of profit for studios. One of the fringe benefits of this sales freefall has been their efforts to monetize their moldering film libraries. In 2009, Warner Brothers introduced their Warner Archive line, a DVD movie-on-demand (MOD) service in which older titles, which could never justify the investment in normal pressed-disc production, would be burned immediately to disc and sold directly to consumers through the WB site. In cutting down warehousing costs and setting a higher price point (most are at $20), companies found a profitable way forward that others swiftly imitated. Sony (issuing their Columbia titles), MGM, and Universal started their own lines, with varying degrees of quality control, although all use the media-on-demand technology of Allied Vaughn. This past June, 20th Century Fox entered the fray with their Fox Cinema Archives series, bearing gifts from Jacques Tourneur (Way of the Gaucho) and Allan Dwan (Frontier Marshal, Suez).
These movies-on-demand services are a mixed blessing, as the video transfers are of a variable quality and sell at premium prices, while there is also some concern that burned discs have a shorter shelf-life than pressed discs. The Warner Archive, Universal and Sony have been reliable in presenting films in their original aspect ratios, but both MGM and Fox have issued full-frame (1.33:1) editions, likely originally mastered for television, of widescreen films. It’s best to consult finicky message boards like the Home Theater Forum before purchasing. But with independent repertory theaters closing because of the costs of the transition to digital projection, these DVDs are sometimes the only way to legally view these hard-to-find movies.
So in the spirit of the late Andrew Sarris, whose American Cinema I always peruse to see which MOD title I should take a chance on, here are a few screening programs made possible by these releases, from classics to curiosities—a personal repertory cinema that you can host in the relative comfort of home.
Ernest Borgnine: No Mr. Nice Guy
Many of the memorials for Ernest Borgnine cited Marty as his defining performance, but his presence on MOD shows him to be an adaptable actor, equally game for playing a leering studio exec in The Legend of Lylah Clare, a calculating double agent in Man on a String, or a hot-headed thug in The Split (where he is drop-kicked by Jim Brown).
Man on a String (André de Toth, 60; Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Aldrich, 68; Warner Archive)
The Split (Gordon Flemyng, 68; Warner Archive)
Hong Kong Confidential
Edward L. Cahn: He Ran Fast
Dave Kehr devoted his Sarris-inspired “Further Research” column to the dark and devilishly prolific director Edward L. Cahn (Nov/Dec 2011), and I’ve been scrambling to see his B-movie nightmares since. There are an imposing 17 hard-bitten titles of his available on MOD DVD (many of which are also streaming on Netflix). I’ve mostly seen his crime films of the Fifties and Sixties, terse and process-oriented affairs in which the cops, the criminals, and their victims all have their reasons, although they would have a hard time articulating them.
You Have to Run Fast (58; MGM Limited Edition)
Hong Kong Confidential (58; MGM Limited Edition)
12 Hours to Kill (60; Fox Cinema Archives)*
Netflix Streaming Bonus: Pier 12, Havana (59, one of the only pro-Castro noirs you’re likely to see)
*12 Hours to Kill has been cropped from 2.35:1 to pan-and-scan 1.33:1, a hatchet job probably performed in making a TV master years ago. Be forewarned. Still a great movie, though.
The Night the World Exploded
Creeping Death: 1950s Science Fiction
If you’re eager as I am to dig into the upcoming Library of America set of 1950s science fiction, you may want to supplement your reading with some moving-image paranoia as well. Here’s a trio from 1957, which Columbia cranked out following the success of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (56), as well as a Fifties-style monster throwback from 1969. There’s sexual hysteria (The Man Who Turned to Stone, whose brusque Warner Bros. website description runs: “Group of 18th century scientists discover how to prolong their lives by absorbing bio-electrical energy of girls”), fears of apocalypse both alien-borne (The 27th Day) and geologic (The Night the World Exploded), and The Green Slime, Kinji Fukasaku’s takeoff on The Blob (58), produced by MGM and shot in Japan.
The Man Who Turned to Stone (Leslie Kardos, 57; Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The 27th Day (William Asher, 57; Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The Night the World Exploded (Fred F. Sears, 57; Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 69; Warner Archive)
Burt Reynolds: The Not-So Golden 80s
While I patiently await an oft-fantasized but never realized complete Burt Reynolds retrospective, this will have to do. An actor of roguish charm who was attracted to characters of low character, Reynolds established a charismatic douchebag persona that is refreshing to revisit in today's age of enforced likeability. This series will show films from the start of his box-office decline, from the Elmore Leonard adaptation Stick, which Reynolds directed, to his role in the remake of The Front Page and His Girl Friday, Switching Channels, which co-starred Christopher Reeve, Kathleen Turner and Ned Beatty, and was directed by Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas Forty). Not quite Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Howard Hawks, but then nothing is.
Stick (Burt Reynolds, 1985; Universal Vault)
Malone (Harley Cokeliss, 1987; MGM Limited Edition)
Switching Channels (Ted Kotcheff, 1988; Sony Pictures Choice Collection)
The Strawberry Blonde
Classical Hollywood directors made some of their most affecting work when confronted with archetypal American corn for material. One such title is Stars in My Crown, Tourneur’s crowning achievement. He took a pay cut in order to direct this moving memory of childhood, an original American folk tale in which death and disease pick away at the edges of an idyllic Southern town. Then there is The Strawberry Blonde, a gut-bustingly funny turn-of-the-century romance in which a pugnacious James Cagney lusts for Rita Hayworth but instead falls punch-drunk in love with Olivia De Havilland. There’s plenty of punchiness in Robert Aldrich’s criminally under-seen swan song, ...All the Marbles, a women’s pro-wrestling road movie that acts as a gray-blue portrait of declining industrial towns. Peter Falk is all spit and grit as tag-team manager Harry Sears, who was raised on “Will Rogers and Clifford Odets.” It doesn’t get more contradictorily American than that.
The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941; Warner Archive)
Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950 Warner Archive)
...All the Marbles (Robert Aldrich, 1981; Warner Archive)
The Warner Archive, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection, and the MGM Limited Edition series all are available for purchase through the Warner Archive site and on Amazon. The Universal Vault is only available from Amazon, and the Fox Cinema Archives can be found on Amazon, Oldies.com, and other online outlets.