ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD (1952) / THE PRIZE (1963) / MARLOWE (1969). Three more samples from the made-to-order Warner Archive collection (warnerarchive.com) showcase matinee idols Paul Newman, James Garner and, uh, Lou Costello.
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd is one of the few A&C titles not to be included in the impressive 2008 box set Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection (for the simple reason that it was made for Warner Bros.), but as with the comedy team's equally desultory Jack and the Beanstalk, it's not a glaring omission even for A&C completists. Arriving toward the end of their highly successful partnership, this outing finds the duo working with especially threadbare material that's thinned out even more with the inclusion of too many mediocre musical numbers. Thankfully, Charles Laughton is on hand to provide the seasoned ham, nyukking it up in a comic variation on his seafaring roles in 1945's Captain Kidd and 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty.
With a successful box office run following its end-of-year debut, an Irving Wallace bestseller as its source, a screenplay by the great Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest) and a cast fronted by Paul Newman and Edward G. Robinson, how exactly did The Prize fall so far off the radar that it's barely discussed today? For those into high-polish thrillers full of international intrigue and danger around every corner, this one's not to be missed, and a tightening of its midsection would have made it even better. Newman plays a disillusioned author who shows up in Stockholm to reluctantly collect his Nobel Prize for Literature; initially only interested in wooing the embassy woman (Elke Sommer) assigned to assist him, he soon turns his attention toward a fellow winner, a patriotic physicist (Robinson) who just might be an impostor. The manner in which the film introduces us to its principal players is ingenious, and while the reliable director Mark Robson isn't quite able to provide the mounting tension that Hitchcock would have contributed to this inviting material, the film still works as slick entertainment.
Based on Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister, Marlowe casts James Garner as private eye Philip Marlowe, who agrees to help a naive girl (Sharon Farrell) from the sticks locate her brother in big, bad Los Angeles. But the missing man is hardly a squeaky-clean citizen, which invariably forces the wisecracking detective to spend time in the company of various criminals, including a mob kingpin (H.W. Wynant) and his destructive right-hand man (Bruce Lee, letting his fists of fury go to town on Marlowe's office). The likable Garner is well cast, and it's a treat to watch the Maverick/Rockford Files star square off against another TV legend, All in the Family's Carroll O'Connor (cast here as a decent police lieutenant exasperated with Marlowe's lack of cooperation).
There are no extras on the DVDs except for each film's theatrical trailer.
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd: *1/2
The Prize: ***
KISS ME DEADLY (1955). As brutal as any movie that came out of Hollywood during the 1950s, this exciting adaptation of Mickey Spillane's novel, reimagined by scripter A.I. Bezzerides and director Robert Aldrich, drapes the film noir template with a nuclear age awning. Mike Hammer, played with a sadistic sneer by Ralph Meeker, is a far cry from Humphrey Bogart's '40s gumshoes: Whereas Bogie's heroes were smart, conversational and charismatic, with a soft spot often buried under all that cynicism, this Hammer is a brutish lunkhead, letting his fists do all the talking and never fully comprehending the enormity of the situation at hand. He first gets involved when he picks up a frightened woman (Cloris Leachman in her first major film role) running barefoot along the highway; she's soon murdered, and Hammer becomes curious after the authorities take special interest in her death and order him to forget the affair. Instead, he follows his own leads and gets tangled up in a labyrinthine plot that ultimately centers around the mysterious contents of a small box. So controversial in its day that Aldrich wrote a defense of the picture in the New York Herald-Tribune (the article is reprinted in the booklet included with the DVD), this startling achievement proved to be a major influence on both French and American filmmakers (as one example, a direct line can be traced from this movie to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction).
DVD extras include audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini; 1998's Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, a 40-minute piece about the author; a 9-minute excerpt from the 2005 documentary The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides; a 4-minute tribute by director Alex Cox; and the film's unapproved, altered ending that had made the rounds for decades before finally being corrected in 1997 (missing about a minute from the official cut, it changes the fates of a couple of characters).
OF GODS AND MEN (2010). The evocative employment of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was merely one of the reasons why Black Swan emerged as the best movie of 2010, but director Darren Aronofsky and co. were hardly the only filmmakers last year who turned to the 19th-century Russian composer to service their motion picture. Strains from Tchaikovsky's classic ballet feature prominently in one of the climactic scenes in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, and its use functions as an emotional release for both the film's anxious protagonists and its equally worried viewers. Based on a true story, this thoughtful drama centers on a group of French monks who have devoted themselves to living peacefully among a Muslim community in Algeria during the 1990s. But when Islamic terrorists bring violence to the area, these Christians are forced to decide whether to flee to France — and safety — or remain with the needy Muslim villagers and possibly forfeit their own lives. Reminiscent of the 1945 Gregory Peck drama The Keys of the Kingdom, which found a devout man of the cloth struggling with his own human failings while holding tight to his religion in a foreign land, Of Gods and Men takes it a step further by examining the ease with which different cultures and different religions can peacefully coexist (importantly, the monks never try to convert the villagers) as long as politics, proselytism and power plays are kept out of the picture. Resolutely refusing to be misinterpreted as an anti-Muslim screed, the movie instead warns against rash judgments, harmful hate mongering and ugly stereotyping — a film ultimately as much about Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as it is about Osama bin Laden and his.
Blu-ray extras include a 19-minute French featurette about the real-life priests whose story inspired the film, and a 41-minute Q&A session with author John W. Kiser (The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria).