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.
“The Inspector Lavardin Collection” (Cohen/Blu-ray, 1985-88, not rated, two discs, two movies, two TV episodes, in French with English subtitles; 12-page booklet). Though they are not ranked up there with French filmmaker Claude Chabrol’s best work, I’ve always been fond of his two 1980s mysteries about the title police detective, and they look great in this Blu-ray edition. Also here are two of the four TV-episode spinoffs with star Jean Poiret (why not all four?). “Chicken With Vinegar” (released in America as “Cop Au Vin”) has Lavardin looking into the grisly deaths of three developers who were conniving to take an invalid’s property. “Inspector Lavardin” finds him in a small coastal town where a wealthy writer’s body is found on a beach, and then Lavardin discovers the widow is a woman from his own past.
“Seven Warriors: Stand and Fight” (Well Go/DVD/Blu-ray, 1989, in Cantonese with English subtitles). The great Sammo Hung co-directed (and has a cameo in) this homage to the Japanese classic “Seven Samurai.” Here, a small village in the Warlord Era is constantly invaded by bandits, so seven warriors are hired to protect the villagers. Some good bone-crunching action, but it won’t make you forget Akira Kurosawa’s original.
“The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (1916-17)” (Undercrank/DVD, 1916-17, silent, b/w, 10 shorts, photo gallery). Musty Suffer? Yes, he must. And the filthy hobo that carries that name certainly does (as do those around him) in these 10 silent knockabout, absurdist, sometimes surreal comedy shorts starring forgotten comic Harry Watson Jr. The former Ziegfeld star and his castmates are very broad in these slapstick farces, pulling faces, falling all over each other and occasionally using crude special effects.
“Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1979, PG, vintage featurette, trailers). This was one of the first movies I reviewed for the Deseret News back in the day, and my feelings about it haven’t changed much; it remains a disappointing sequel to the 1972 disaster-movie megahit. But the cast may pull you in: Michael Caine, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Shirley Jones, Telly Savalas, Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Slim Pickens, Shirley Knight, Mark Harmon, Veronica Hamel. (Available at warnerarchive.com.)
“Lady Jane” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1985, PG-13, photo gallery). Helena Bonham Carter had her first starring role as the title character in this slow but interesting costume drama about Lady Jane Grey, the 16-year-old girl who, through convoluted events, ascended to England’s throne in 1553, if only for nine days. Cary Elwes and Patrick Stewart co-star. (Available at warnerarchive.com.)
“The Last of Mrs. Cheyney” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1929, b/w). The 1937 Joan Crawford film that carries this title is a remake of this one, an early, and somewhat creaky, sound film about a society woman (Norma Shearer in her second “talkie”) who turns out to be a jewel thief. Very young Basil Rathbone co-stars. (Available at warnerarchive.com.)
“Her Cardboard Lover” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1942, b/w, trailer). Shearer also stars in this so-so comedy, a romantic triangle in which she hires a songwriter (Robert Taylor) to be her secretary and to help rebuff a former lover (George Sanders). Romantic entanglements ensue. This was Shearer’s last film. (Available at warnerarchive.com.)
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com