“Wolfen, 1981”

“You don’t have the eyes of the Hunter. You have the eyes of the dead.”

Wolfen, 1981 (Albert Finney), Warner Bros.

Albert Finney loves to eat! I mean, he loves food. There is nary a shot in Wolfen (at least up through three-quarters of the movie) where Finney doesn’t have something in his mouth that he is chewing. Come to think of it, a lot of people in this movie are eating something. The problem with a filmmaker like Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) is you don’t know if he’s making a comment, or if he’s just being cheeky. Wolfen is very much a “social justice” type of movie, before such a thing became fashionable. Beautifully shot and visually spectacular in showing us a New York City that no longer exists, Wolfen isn’t really a werewolf movie; more a schizophrenic shape-shifter movie.

A series of brutal murders kicks off with a rich real estate developer and his well-dressed wife. Cop Dewey Wilson (Finney, with an obviously affected New York accent) is called in to investigate. Criminal psychologist Rebecca Heff (striking Diane Venora) and soul brother Medical Examiner Gregory Hines join Dewey as he attempts to unravel clues (some of which are quite clever) as to the identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Along the way more bodies fall, and despite the Mayor and Dewey’s superior, Warren’s (great character actor Dick O’Neill) assertion that the murders were conducted by “terrorists,” Dewey is convinced the murders are linked to a development project in the Bronx. This is where the movie loses me.

The scenes of contemporary Bronx (in 1980/1981) are horrifying; buildings torn apart, scenes of devastation, dilapidated structures and foundations. The decay doesn’t do anybody any good, and it’s looks crazy dangerous to boot. Why protest the demolition of this place in order to build up newer, safer, and more practical properties? The Bronx depicted in this movie is a war zone. It looks like it’s been hit with a hydrogen bomb. I understand the need to preserve culture and history (provided that culture and history is preservable) but when a conglomeration of progress, entropy, and indifference all collide to topple buildings, why let those buildings rot? Regardless, the local “Indigenous” population (that’s 2017 Newspeak slang for American Indians) are, dare I say it, restless, and do not approve of these developments.

Leader of the pack (so to speak) is Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos with his creepy eyes), who boasts to Finney that he and others are capable of shape-shifting (the ability of a being or creature to completely transform its physical form or shape – thanks Wikipedia!). Finney and Hines (with the help of liberal naturalist/white-guiltist Ferguson, played by Tom Noonan) deduce that the attacks were perpetrated by wolves, or wolf-like creatures. From the audience’s perspective, Olmos looks like a nut-case, but the murders are all too real, and Finney has no other suspects. There is no real resolution to this narrative other than that Finney guesses the wolves will be placated if he makes a grand gesture of destroying the impressive model demonstrating the construction. This works as the wolves all howl to each other and take off.

“If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

Wolfen is beautifully photographed by Gerry Fisher with Panavision lenses. New York City is an ominous landmark with a topography similar to animal habitats with high peaks and low valleys represented by buildings in various states of decay. The wolf “point-of-view” appears to be a form of solarization or thermal photography and traverse is shown as a series of Steadicam shots. There are plenty of symbolist visual markers in the movie; the most pronounced being the similarity between the state-of-the-art lie detector technology used by the cops and the wolf’s vision, which seems to show that wolves can see when other creatures are being deceptive. Unfortunately, there are too many inconsistencies with regard to character motivation to justify the plodding narrative.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

“Vertigo, 1958”

“She’ll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She’s somewhere else, away from me, someone I don’t know. I call her, she doesn’t even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she’s back. Looks at me brightly, doesn’t even know she’s been away, can’t tell me where or when.”

Vertigo, 1958 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

There’s a story about writer Pierre Boileau, watching a newsreel in a packed movie-house some time post-war in Paris, and swearing he sees an old friend (whom he believed long dead) in the newsreel. His “logic brain” tells him this can’t be his dead friend, but the more irrational brain conjures images of ghosts and beseeches him to do some digging and find his friend. He must be alive! This is the seed of D’entre les morts, the source material for what could, arguably, be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Vertigo. Personally, I think Hitch was drawn to the more perverse aspects of the story, but knew a top-notch mystery had to catalyze his effort at unraveling his romanticized fantasy world of San Francisco. Jimmy Stewart is his muse (and alter-ego) in this adventure.

After enduring a personal (and highly publicized) tragedy involving the death of a fellow policeman from a fall, Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson suffers vertigo, a loss of balance and coordination as a result of his fear of heights. His best friend (and former lover obviously still in love with him), “Midge” (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him in his recovery. He has retired from being a cop. He gets a call from an old school chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to keep tabs on his neurotic wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who goes off by herself on long journeys, but seems to suffer a selective amnesia about where she goes each time. Sometimes she goes to a museum and stares at a painting of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her. Stewart diligently follows her and takes notes.

Stewart becomes attracted to her, and being that he has no real job anymore, he obsesses over her, to “Midge’s” annoyance. “Midge” doesn’t want to hear about the pretty little rich girl with mental problems, and I can say I hardly blame her, but she is kind-of barking up the wrong tree here, and she can’t get a clue. Stewart follows her to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay (ostensibly a suicide attempt). He rescues her, takes her back to his swingin’ bachelor pad, undresses her, and puts her in front of a roaring fire. She wakes, claiming to have no memory of the incident, quickly dresses, and gets the Hell out of there, yet she keeps leaving him a trail of crumbs to continue their developing relationship. As wounded (emotionally and physically) a person as Stewart is, what happens next is not only devastating but cruel.

Madeleine lures him to a Mission, jumps from a bell tower, and this time (we’re led to believe) successfully kills herself. This sends “Scottie” into a spiral of deep depression, catatonia, and self-hatred. He blames himself for Madeleine’s death. With “Midge’s” help, he slowly recovers, but then he begins to notice a woman with fiery red hair who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine. Her name is Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak), who’s more of a “common-sense” girl; smart and sarcastic. He tries to pick her up, but she sees right through it, so he takes the more “gentlemanly” approach by courting her. In a scene that nearly derails the movie, “Judy” comes clean to the audience (but not to “Scottie”) by writing him a note, confessing that she truly is Madeleine, and that she was paid off by Elster to pretend to be Madeleine, as Elster concocted a plan to kill his real wife and take her money. After writing the note, she thinks about it and rips it up.

Maybe “Judy” thinks she and “Scottie” can have a life together. Maybe she thinks he’ll overlook the whole murder thing and be her man for all time, but then as convicted assassin Arthur Bremer once said, “How many things go right in this crazy world?” This is where “Scottie” goes nuts, or so we assume. He makes “Judy” over. He has her wardrobe changed. He changes her makeup. He has her hair bleached and dyed blonde, and puts her in those expensive outfits Madeleine wore. When the effect is complete, it’s hideously staggering. “Judy” just wants his love, and he abuses her with his compulsion. All that’s needed to complete the effect is the necklace “Judy” brandishes. It appears to be the same necklace worn by the woman in the painting.

This seals the deal for Stewart so he drives “Judy” to the Mission where he leads her to the bell tower. “Judy” confesses to her crimes, and just when you think these crazy kids could make it work, a nun startles her and she falls to her death. This is the textbook definition of a “downer” ending; a powerful statement in the burgeoning modern film industry, but depressing as all Hell. Defeated by the failure of The Wrong Man, he had many projects in development, but he chose Vertigo, his darkest, most romantic movie (surpassing Rebecca). He was a brave filmmaker. North by Northwest would be his next trick on audiences. Stewart is sympathetic, despite some of his character’s more grotesque choices – he’s unusual here, not the strong voice of moral authority and compassion, but a flawed human. This would be his and Hitchcock’s last collaboration as Hitch had blamed Vertigo’s poor box-office performance on Stewart’s age as a romantic leading man against the much younger Novak (though Novak and Stewart would subsequently appear in the much more successful Bell, Book & Candle). Vertigo is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

“Sudden Impact, 1983”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

Sudden Impact, 1983 (Clint Eastwood), Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood returns as “Dirty” Harry Callahan in this, the fourth installment of the popular crime/drama franchise. While negotiating punks and malcontents, he stumbles upon a series of vigilante misadventures all involving men shot once in the groin and once in the head. He very quickly figures out these murders are being perpetrated by one person or group. After causing collateral damage (this happens in every movie) during a botched diner hold-up, Harry is put on vacation by his superiors so he takes up residence in idyllic coastal town, Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, the vigilante murders are occurring with greater dispatch in this town. It seems trouble follows Harry wherever he goes.

We’re introduced to the hauntingly beautiful Sondra Locke, a successful artist who has also moved into the town under the pretense of restoring a carousel for the local amusement park, but what she really wants is revenge for her sister and herself. All of the murdered men were involved in a brutal gangrape of Locke and her sibling, which left her sister catatonic and unresponsive. Locke isn’t finished marking names off her list, so she visits the remainder of the men (and their lesbian cohort, played with appropriate sleaze by Audrie Neenan) one by one. Her flashback to the rape is one of the most terrifying and seemingly accurate depictions I’ve ever seen.

The avenging angel.

Though officially “on vacation,” Harry conducts his own investigation into the killings, runs afoul of Police Chief Pat Hingle (who has a personal stake-by-proxy of his traumatized son), and makes time with a surprisingly soliticous Locke.  The “foreplay” of their conversation telegraphs a mutual understanding of the failings of law enforcement and the hypocrisy of the justice system.  As Locke airs her grievances, Harry becomes more interested in her.  It’s a fascinating scene.  Eventually Harry puts the pieces together.  When the other rapists catch on to Locke’s activities (rather than turning tail and running off into the night), they abduct her.  Harry rescues her (in a famous “resurrection” bit evocative of his old westerns), and then covers for her.

Sudden Impact is a fun and atypical Dirty Harry movie that places our sympathies with the “bad guy” (Locke) and transforms her into a reluctant hero because we relate to her and her sister’s  victimization.  Clint Eastwood directs this installment with remarkable assurance.  He had already established himself as an excellent filmmaker, and had a hand in directing sequences from Magnum Force after a falling out with original director, Ted Post.  He’s fascinated and invested in Locke’s character, and uses effective close-ups of her wounded eyes.  According to Locke’s memoir, the film originated as a separate script with no connection to Dirty Harry.  Eastwood would return to the role in 1988 with the inferior follow-up, The Dead Pool.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

Sourced from both the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release and the Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray box set. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats. As with most (if not all) WEA VIDEO CANADA clamshell releases of Warner properties, the paper is flimsier than U.S.A. releases. The paper also has wax stains, and the label on the tape appears to have been printed for Beta tape (as with my previous review of Swing Shift). “Two killers are at large. One of them is Dirty Harry.” The essay on the back of the box reminds us of the previous three movies: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), and The Enforcer (1976). Clint himself gives us a blurb: “People are a little edgy about the rights of criminals taking precedence over the rights of victims,” Eastwood says, “I think the public is interested in justice, and that’s what Harry stands for. He’s unique because he stood for the same principles from the beginning, when it wasn’t terribly fashionable.”

Be sure to catch the latest Extreme Cinema: Action and Exploitation Movies with Andrew La Ganke and David Lawler podcast, in which we discuss the Dirty Harry franchise in honor of Clint Eastwood’s birthday! You can also find the original, unaltered episode at BlissVille.

Special thanks to Bethany Robertson Heinlen for the Blu-Ray box set.

As to the inevitable comparisons between the original VHS tape and the Blu-Ray, the differences are staggering.  This is a discreetly clean-up transfer from original negatives that preserves the clarity of cinematographer Bruce Surtees’ compositions without the need to “improve” the visual quality by artificially brightening the image.  The Panavision process is staggering in four of the five Dirty Harry movies on the set.  As for the VHS videotape – other than myself and curious cinephiles, I don’t see any reason to watch the movie in standard (read: low) resolution, panned-and-scanned to 4:3 for televisions.  Here’s a good overview of the Blu-Ray box set.  

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.