Chris Hicks: Blu-ray upgrades lead newly released vintage movies this week

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 3:40 p.m. MDT

Fred MacMurray innocently sells Barbara Stanwyck life insurance on her husband, unaware that he's about to be played for a sap, in the 1944 film noir classic "Double Indemnity." A new Blu-ray edition has just come out.

Universal Home Video

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Older movies are being upgraded to Blu-ray at a remarkable rate these days, including several that have been released this week. Also new are some vintage titles on DVD for the first time.

“Double Indemnity” (Universal/Blu-ray/Digital, 1944, b/w, introduction, audio commentaries, featurette; poster/photo reproductions; 1973 TV movie remake). Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe) co-wrote the screenplay for this Billy Wilder picture that is pretty much the gold standard for film noir thrillers, then and now.

Fred MacMurray, who had made his name as a leading man in light comedies, is perfect here as the straight-arrow insurance salesman who gets in over his head with femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck. He’s played for a sap when she seduces him and leads him down the primrose path. But insurance investigator Edward G. Robinson is suspicious after Stanwyck’s husband dies mysteriously and Stanwyck stands to inherit from the policy sold to her by MacMurray.

All three stars are at the peak of their powers, and along with the crackling dialogue and clever plotting, Wilder makes wonderful use of shadow, light and camera angles in this gorgeously photographed black-and-white yarn. It’s never looked better than on this new Blu-ray. (But it won’t hurt you to skip the 1972 TV remake with Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb, which is also here.)

“Touch of Evil” (Universal/Blu-ray/Digital, 1958, b/w, three versions, audio commentaries, featurettes; 58-page memo). This Blu-ray upgrade includes all three versions of the film that were previously in a 50th anniversary DVD set and which attest to director/star Orson Welles’ frustrations with studio interference. The film is a classic film noir about Mexican narcotics officer Charlton Heston and his new wife Janet Leigh caught up in a murder investigation in a sleazy border town dominated by corrupt police captain Welles. Co-stars include Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich.

“Sorcerer” (Warner Archive/Blu-ray/Digital, 1977, PG, introduction, featurette, audio commentaries; 40-page book packaging). For some films, a Blu-ray upgrade is nice but not essential. For others, it’s such a vast improvement that it’s like watching a different movie. DVD releases of “Sorcerer” have been disappointing, but here it’s a gorgeously restored, gripping thriller that ranks with the best work by William Friedkin (“The French Connection”). This remake of the French classic “The Wages of Fear” stars Roy Scheider as the head of a four-man team of truck drivers traversing 200 treacherous miles of South American terrain with a payload of nitroglycerin. Hold onto your hats; it’s a bumpy ride.

“Sophie’s Choice” (Shout!/Blu-ray, 1982; R for profanity, violence, sex; audio commentary, featurette, trailer). Meryl Streep won a well-deserved Oscar for her role here as a tragic Holocaust survivor living in a New York rooming house, circa 1947. She suffers from guilt in the extreme, has an unstable boyfriend (Kevin Kline) and gradually relates her story (shown in flashbacks) to a young writer (Peter MacNicol) living in the apartment below. The main story is engrossing and haunting, but the film suffers from a confused narrative and subplots that seem wildly out of place. Still, there’s Streep, and she’s never been better — which, of course, is saying something.

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