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The Shelf: TOUCH OF EVIL, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, ALICE

This week, two utter classics in the Film Noir oeuvre and one of the most disturbing versions of a children’s favorite are on The Shelf of new Blu-ray/DVD releases. Also, a whole smattering of box office hits, Oscar nominees, and television shows are here. Spring has certainly sprung, shelf-wise.

Touch of Evil

Often considered the very last film in the official/unofficial Film Noir category of movies, more a style or a movement than a genre, Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece of suspense and misdirection continues to impress, even close to 60 years later. Like just about every one of his films, Touch of Evil was taken away from him and re-edited by a studio system that didn’t understand the kind of film they’d be getting from a filmmaker way ahead of his time. Welles himself famously wrote a 58-page memo after seeing Universal’s severely-truncated theatrical release. This Blu-ray release reflects the 1998 re-re-editing of the film by master editor Walter Murch based on the notes from that memo, making it much closer to the auteur’s original vision.

The film is set in a corrupt town along the U.S.-Mexico border. At the beginning of the movie, a car bomb detonates just as it goes across into the States, following a three-minute, twenty second tracking shot which is considered by many to be one of the finest ever done. The explosion draws the attention of Mexican drug enforcement officer Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new American wife Susie (Janet Leigh), who just happened to be nearby, as well as aging bigoted policeman Capt. Quinlan (Welles himself) who is known for getting results, even if they’re through coercion. Tensions rise as Vargas and Quinlan butt heads over procedure, and a Mexican crime family seems to be more involved than anyone’s willing to let on.

This movie is a revelation every time I watch it. Welles’ camera techniques and attention to detail were unmatched, and his canted angles and close-ups and zooms put the audience as on edge as the characters. His performance as Quinlan is both over the top and subtle, as the man well past his prime tries to hang on to his machismo. Heston is also very good, though he is clearly not at all Mexican. He’s not even attempting an accent, but it seems to work for the heightened nature of the film and for someone who seems unwanted on either side of the border. And, of course, the scenes where Janet Leigh is terrorized by the gang while loud Henry Mancini music blares are still upsetting.

In short, Touch of Evil is one of the finest and least knowable films of the 1950s, and perhaps my favorite Welles film, Citizen Kane or no.

Double Indemnity

Moving backward in time 14 years, we come to Billy Wilder’s first and best Film Noir. Though 1951’s Sunset Boulevard is probably his more famous, 1944’s Double Indemnity is the better example of pure hard-boiled Noir. Based on a novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was written by Wilder and another famous crime novelist of the genre, Raymond Chandler, whose own Philip Marlowe character made it to the screen that same year in Murder My Sweet. Double Indemnity is a tawdry tale of sex, murder, betrayal, and greed, all with Wilder’s biting sense of humor and ability to push the envelope.

The film stars Fred MacMurray (known for his fatherly roles later on) as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who finds excitement when he tries to sell a policy to a wealthy older man with a gorgeous younger wife (Barbara Stanwyck). After they begin an affair, the couple decides upon a plot to kill the husband in a very particular way, to make it look like an accident, so that they can collect and split the double indemnity insurance police Neff just sold him. They would get away with it, too, if not for Neff’s friend Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the toughest and smartest insurance investigator in the game.

Similar to Sunset Boulevard and other such hard-boiled stories, this film features narration by the main character after the fact, in this case recording a full confession for Keyes to find in the morning. MacMurray delivers the narration with the bitter, sardonic edge of a man who has truly reached the end of the line, a theme in a lot of Wilder’s bleaker films. Stanwyck is perfect as the savvy yet vulnerable femme fatale, despite an ill-advised blonde wig. The banter between she and MacMurray early on is some of the best Wilder ever penned. Robinson is the real heart of the movie, though, as the quick-talking ally-cum-antagonist who is always so close to the truth it makes the audience grip their chair.

Wilder has a very long and celebrated string of excellent pictures, and Double Indemnity is easily in the top 5. It’s brilliant; Watch it if you haven’t.

Alice

It’s not as though Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t messed up already; Let’s add some dead animals to that. Nightmare fuel! Czech animator Jan Svankmajer created this visually stunning, wince-inducing version of the fantasy classic in which a real little girl Alice interacts with a stuffed white rabbit (literally, a taxidermied rabbit made mobile using stop-motion animation) with creepy, bulgy eyes, and other such animal characters which are also dead… some of them are just skulls with eyeballs. It’s incredible and weird.

Some of the best bits involve Alice eating the wafer that makes her shrink and she then becomes a tiny porcelain doll, or when she goes to see the caterpillar, which is a terrifying sock puppet with dentures. Wonderland itself is just different rooms in a large old house, so everything had the woody, sawdusty feel of your grandma’s house, full of creepy knickknacks and scary things.

Alice hasn’t been available too readily in this country, and never before on Blu-ray, so now it looks as good as the grotesquery possibly can. It also features the original Czech language track, which, believe me, is a huge improvement over the annoying dubbed version. It’s a very strange movie.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Philomena – This Best Picture nominee has Judi Dench as a woman who was forced to give up her baby boy 50 years earlier and made to be essentially a slave in an Irish abbey, and Steve Coogan as the opportunistic journalist who wants to tell her story.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story of a meek man with a very big imagination.

Ride Along – Someone thought a buddy movie with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart would be a good idea.

The Nut Job – Someone thought an animated movie about squirrels would be a good idea.

Mobius – A suitably twisty French spy thriller starring Jean Dujardin, Cecile de France, and Tim Roth.

Ripper Street Season 2 – The return of the BBC’s period crime drama about police working in Whitechapel after the Jack the Ripper murders.

The Practice The Final Season – The long-running legal drama’s final hurrah, which gave birth to the spinoff series Boston Legal.

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