Film and Television Features

Home Cinema - June 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month two of our highlights come from distributor Network, who have established a strong name for themselves for their always varied selection of British classics and curiosities. This month, a great example of this comes in the form of Hitchcock thriller Sabotage, though we’ll be also be taking a look at their release of risky Hollywood drama The Man With The Golden Arm. These two releases are joined this month by Forty Guns, an inventive western from the always interesting Samuel Fuller.


The Man With The Golden Arm (Blu-Ray, Network)

Film has a pretty dubious history when it comes to pop stars trying their hand at acting. For every surprising success, there’s half a dozen ill-advised vanity projects. A big exception to this was Frank Sinatra, who delivered an impressive run of performances through the 1950s and 60s, including The Manchurian Candidate which we reviewed back in March. The Man With The Golden Arm arguably presents his finest performance however, and could certainly be seen as his most daring. The film sees Sinatra playing Frankie Machine, a recovering heroin addict fresh out of prison and desperate not to repeat the same mistakes that led him there. To play the role, Sinatra spent time in drug rehabilitation clinics meeting addicts and learning just how difficult recovery can be. This shows in Sinatra’s portrayal of Frankie, whose battles against addiction are infused with a sense of desperation and compassion never really seen on the screen before. Sinatra wasn’t afraid to appear vulnerable in his portrayal of the character, and the result is an utterly sympathetic representation of addiction. The Man With The Golden Arm is the kind of film that would be doomed were it in the hands of a disinterested lead star, but thankfully its clear throughout here that Sinatra gave the role everything he had.

Though Frankie may be free from prison, he’s still in many ways imprisoned. He’s imprisoned by the guilt he feels for the accident that crippled his unstable wife (Eleanor Parker), now confined to a wheelchair in their cramped apartment. Most interestingly, he’s also imprisoned by societal constraints and the actions of his past. The Man With A Golden Arm is an excellent film about the difficulties of turning away from a life of crime when society has already branded you a criminal, and everyone you care about is connected to your old existence. Though everyone gives a solid performance, the cast of characters that populate Frankie’s world fall into a fairly predictable set of street life archetypes. In another film this could be disappointing, but here it works. This is Frankie’s story, and the colourful cast of backstreet predators and desperate conmen that populate it help to define his world. Outside of Sinatra, one of the most important contributions to the film comes from composer Elmer Bernstein, whose jazz score intermingles with the film like a character in itself. This adds an enormous amount of style, especially when combined with Saul Bass’ minimal graphic title sequences. The Man With The Golden Arm may be a compassionate tale of addiction and redemption, but it’s also a film possessing a ton of 1950s street cool.

Compared to the novel on which it was based, The Man With The Golden Arm’s depiction of Chicago vice is a relatively sanitised affair. No this isn’t Requiem For A Dream, but you shouldn’t be surprised that a 1950’s Hollywood production still finds some room to be hopeful by its conclusion. It shouldn’t be overlooked just how daring a proposition the film was in its day though. Yes films had tackled addiction before (Billy Wilder’s excellent 1945 portrayal of alcoholism, The Long Weekend, for example), but this was something altogether more risky and taboo. Many agreed at the time too, and the Motion Picture Association of America refused to certify the film. The Man With The Golden Arm doesn’t portray addiction as merely a vice, or all criminality as merely mean-spirited opportunism, but as a complex and somewhat sympathetic phenomena, very much influenced by the world you find yourself living in. It’s a film that wasn’t afraid to show one of the biggest pop stars of the day falling deeper and deeper into a pit of heroin addiction, and to have us compassionately rooting for him every step of the way. Most of all though, The Man With The Golden Arm is a gripping and accomplished drama – well acted, well plotted, and a highlight in the careers of all involved.


Sabotage (Blu-Ray, Network)

When asked to expand on his views on cinematic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock gave the example of two characters in a film unwittingly having a conversation while a bomb is strapped to the table between them. You could detonate the bomb suddenly, and surprise the audience with a brief shock. Alternatively, you could let the cinema audience know that the bomb is there, and inform them exactly when it is due to detonate. Now we see suspense introduced into the picture, as the audience desperately count down the minutes and gaze helplessly at the two characters they’re unable to warn of the coming danger. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage demonstrates this principle perfectly. Within minutes of the film’s start we are already well aware who the ‘saboteur’ of the title is, which only deepens our concern for the other characters who surround him. Perhaps the best demonstration though comes in the film’s famous bus scene, where we watch a young boy deliver a bomb across the busy streets of 1930s London, unaware of its true contents. Hitchcock is in his element in scenes such as this, and he transforms the moment into a steady 10 minute build of gradually heightening tension. Though Sabotage came relatively early in Hitchcock’s lengthy career, and before the majority of the films for which he is most famous, it’s a film in which Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense already feels like a well-oiled machine.

Hitchcock deploys his talents here to tell a story of sabotage on the streets of 1930s London, though from today’s eyes we’d be more likely to label it a story about terrorism. Karl Verloc (played with a strangely warm grandfatherly quality by Oskar Homolka) is the unassuming owner of a London cinema, who is also secretly carrying out a campaign of terror against his adopted city. Living with Verloc, but completely unaware of the danger, is his much younger wife (Sylvia Sidney), and her little brother (Desmond Tester). Finally, we’re also introduced to Ted (John Loder), a ‘green grocer’ working next to the cinema who is much more than he initially appears to be. It’s never entirely clear who Verloc and his sinister network of bomb makers and criminals are working for, but given the time period it’s safe to assume they’re standing in for the rising threat in Europe. As Verloc is encouraged by his masters to think bigger and begin attaching a body count to his acts of sabotage, the cracks in his gentle persona become increasingly apparent and those around him come into serious danger.

Though Sabotage is built around this core cast of four, one of the film’s great strengths is its playful portrait of London. As London itself is the target of Verloc’s campaign of terror rather than any specific individual, the film is careful to give the city its own character, and depict it as a place brimming with life. Scenes linger before and after our main characters enter the frame, allowing incidental occupants of the city to briefly take centre stage. This results in a lively, quirky film, filled with eccentrics, and Hitchcock finds plenty of opportunities to insert his mischievous sense of humour. One of Sabotage’s other great strengths is how streamlined its storytelling is. There isn’t an ounce of waste in the film’s 76 running time, and the result is a taut and tightly packed thriller that looks as effortless as the best of Hithcock’s work. In my review of The Lady Vanishes back in February I spoke about the sheer quantity of hugely enjoyable Hitchcock films that can be found when venturing outside his run of recognised Hollywood greats, especially once you begin delving into his somewhat underappreciated British work . In Sabotage we find yet another fantastic example of this.

Forty Guns (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

When it comes to adventurous art house Blu-Rays and silent films, it’s very hard to compete with Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. Over the last few years though they’ve also released the occasional carefully chosen Hollywood western, such as Howard Hawk’s excellent Red River, and Man of the West which we featured back in March. There’s of course no shortage of generic westerns out there, so you know when Masters of Cinema pick one to include in their highly selective catalogue there’s going to be something special about the film. In the case of Forty Guns, it’s clear almost immediately what this is. The film opens with the thundering sound of forty horses charging through an open plain, cut together with a masterful blend of sudden cuts, gracefully floating camerawork, and surprising close ups. It’s the kind of breathless opening that demands your attention, and signals that we’re in the hands of a real talent. Director Samuel Fuller always possessed the ability to grab his audience by the throat like this, a skill aided by his background as a newspaper crime reporter, as well as his flair for visual storytelling. Forty Guns boasts numerous moments like this, but thankfully it’s also a film with plenty of smarts as well as style.

The ‘forty guns’ of the title are forty men under the employ of Jessica Drummond (portrayed by the always excellent Barbara Stanwyck), a tough landowner who’ll likely remind many of Joan Crawford’s character in Johnny Guitar. Her life complicates when reformed gunslinger Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) rides into town, and quickly comes into conflict with Jessica’s wild brother Brockie. Despite his fearsome reputation, our protagonist Griff hasn’t killed a man in ten years, and unusually for the westerns of the era, Forty Gun’s values are firmly anti-violent. Griff realises the civilising of the west means the end of the line for him and his kind, and a world where murderous men like himself will be looked upon only as ‘freaks’. When violence occurs in the film it’s seen not as a cause for heroism or noble retribution, but as a source of sadness. In this light, Forty Guns could be seen as a precursor to the anti-violent revisionist westerns, such as 1992’s Unforgiven, as well as a companion piece to the powerfully cynical 1950s westerns of Anthony Mann. Like these films, Forty Guns questions not only the heroic myths of the wandering gunslinger, but the entire premise that we should celebrate violence in our culture.

Despite the considerable talents of Barbara Stanwyck, the biggest star of the show is arguably Samuel Fuller himself, who wrote, produced and directed the film. Astonishingly he also completed it in a little over a week. For such a lightning fast production, it’s absolutely remarkable how much invention there is to be found here. Unusual angles, unexpected POV shots, and creative camera movements pepper the film, reflecting a filmmaker constantly in search of new and more original ways to tell his stories. Also of interest is Fuller’s surprisingly bold commentary on the linking of sex and violence in American culture, seen time and time again in the suggestive way in which guns are discussed and shown in the film. When Jessica flirtatiously asks Griff if she can inspect his pistol, he slyly smiles back at her and warns it may go off in her face. Such dialogue is bawdy yes, but Fuller is also casting a cynical eye over the way in which guns are fetishized in American culture. As the man himself once said: “hell if I know why people think guns are sexy”. Forty Guns is an audacious, imaginative and occasionally bizarre b-movie western that makes perfectly clear why Samuel Fuller was regarded as one of America’s finest pulp auteurs.