With Virgin Megastore closing in the upcoming weeks, Netflix fast running local video stores out of business, the rise of streaming media online, the continued hubbub about piracy, and the still-uncertain introduction of Blu Ray discs, the fate of the DVD is certainly questionable. Nor is VHS as “obsolete” as many would think: many films are still unavailable on a digital format, and with the industry in such a state of flux, the once assured market for obscure films on home video is no longer a guarantee. That doesn’t stop stores from practically giving away VHS tapes of otherwise impossible-to-find movies like King Vidor’s (1920), which I found for $3 at I-won’t-say-where and have never seen on eBay or Amazon (or in any other stores). In the midst of all this, two of Hollywood’s oldest surviving studios, MGM and Warner Bros., are continuing to roll out old movies from their vaults in restored editions on DVD, but both are using drastically different means that belie the uncertainty of the home video market.
This week, MGM is releasing a trio of 1950s films, none very well-known and one that was never even on VHS. In North West Frontier (1959), a little known film by J. Lee Thompson (the director of Cape Fear), Lauren Bacall and Kenneth More help transport a prince across India. The King and Four Queens (1956), helmed by the legendary one-eyed director Raoul Walsh, finds cowboy Clark Gable seducing various representatives of the fairer sex in search of hidden gold. Considering the director’s penchant for on-screen kinetics in films like They Drive By Night, it comes as a surprise that film historians George Fenin and William Everson commented, “The film has literally no action… In the golden pre-Code era, considerable fun would have been extracted from such a situation. Today, the watchful Production Code prevents the ultimate in humor from emerging.”
The one never on VHS is Time Limit (1957), the sole directorial effort of famed actor Karl Malden, and first independent production by Richard Widmark, who also stars in the film. Widmark plays a colonel assigned to investigate the treason of Major Cargill (Richard Basehart) who, while in a prison camp during the Korean War, collaborated on enemy propaganda. But when Basehart refuses to defend himself or his actions, Widmark is convinced there is more to the story than witnesses and evidence suggest. Adapting a stage play by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, Malden’s direction certainly privileges the actors, but comes off as overly theatrical and hardly makes use of the camera’s potential. And while Widmark and Basehart could easily be charged with over-acting, the film is not without its significance, particularly as an example of a Hollywood-in-transition that points the way towards films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962). As Jonathan Rosenbaum concisely pointed out, “Part of what for me makes Time Limit more provocative is the extent to which it challenges the audience’s view of what heroism is, with a well-calibrated surprise ending that overturns many of our initial assumptions.”
Warner Bros., meanwhile, is bypassing traditional DVD distribution methods with its new series, The Warner Archive Collection. One hundred ninety-two films ranging from curious oddities such as Crescendo (1970) — a Hammer film about a deceased composer and the unfinished concerto and “brutally savaged mannequin” he left behind — to forgotten treasures such as The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a screwball mystery in the vein of Craig Rice that pits amateur sleuth heiress Barbara Stanwyck against uptight journalist Henry Fonda. Other precious finds include Broadway Rhythm (1944) by unjustly ignored craftsman Roy Del Ruth; noir master Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955), a Western starring Joel McCrea, Lloyd Bridges and Vera Miles; and Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), with Cyd Charisse as the title character.
There is sure to be plenty of gems and duds in the series, but what is most significant is that Warner Bros. is offering the films direct to viewers either through streaming video (not all films are available with this option at the moment), or on made-to-order DVDs sold directly through the Warner Bros.’ website. Both of these options bypass the video store and cut out the middleman by selling straight to the customer. As of now, the films aren’t even available from other online retailers such as Amazon or through Netflix.
On the one hand, as a viewer I am excited by this large trove of movies being readily available to watch, particularly as their obscurity might have prevented Warners from taking a gamble and doing a traditional large-scale DVD release. However, on the other hand, this method would seem to only quicken the extinction of video retailers and rental stores by not allowing them access to the product itself. So — I’m caught. Many of these films I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, and many more that I’ve never heard of are now piquing my interest, yet being a die-hard believer in physical video stores, I find myself between a rock and a hard place. I applaud Warner Bros. for using new technology to make available more films than ever before, but also fear this means that the future of video stores is no longer “uncertain” but well-known.
Also on DVD this week:
Backlash (1956) (Optimum Home Entertainment, Region 2) – IMDB lists some awesome taglines for this John Sturges-directed Western, “HE KNEW HER LIPS…BUT NOT HER NAME…nor the reason she followed the trail of empty graves!” The fact that it also stars Richard Widmark only makes it better.
Of Time and The City (2008) (Strand, Region 1) – British director Terrance Davies’ combination self-portrait and cinematic cityscape examines his own upbringing in Liverpool beginning in the 1950s.
Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection (Paramount, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Upgrade your collection once again and get even better looking/sounding versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Wise Blood (1979) (Criterion, Region 1) – Perhaps its time we start to think of director John Huston as one of the great literary adaptors – Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle, Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Joyce’s The Dead, Melville’s Moby Dick. His cinematic treatment of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is fittingly perverse, and shows Huston has a real understanding and compassion for her zany characters.