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Archive for February, 2016

Kung Fu Trailers of Fury (1972-1983) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

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Actors – Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jimmy Wang Yu

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

A large collection of 35mm trailers was uncovered beneath the stage of a former movie theater in England that showed Asian films. They are in pretty nice shape. Sure there is wear and tear and they very likely never looked all that sharp to begin with. But these are the ones that were shown to hype the upcoming films back in the heyday of Kung Fu movies. The 35mm source gives them a much better look that many trailer compilations but bear in mind that these were not restored at all. They look like they did when you saw them on screen. They are all in Chinese expect for a couple with English voice overs. Severin has loaded them up back to back and let them run. These include many familiar actors to fans of the genre. Some of the films advertised are well known like Way of The Dragon, Enter The Fat Dragon and a host of Jackie Chan titles however most of them are not the big titles that you’d think would be chosen for a trailer retrospective. That only serves to reinforce the vast number of these films that were turned out in any given year then. Since Hong Kong was a British colony then studios were mandated to release their films with English subtitles. That was a huge advantage to those of us that sought these films out in various Chinatowns on VHS and later on DVD.

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There is a nice featurette on the history of Kung Fu movies by Ric Meyers. Meyers will be familiar to anyone who has followed Kung Fu movies. He was one of the first to write about them in the US. He also had a column in Inside Kung-Fu magazine that I used to read. He knows his stuff and is fun to listen to. He retains a nice enthusiasm about the actors, directors, stuntmen and the whole field. While sitting through this many trailers in one shot may seem a daunting task I’d highly recommend trying the commentary track by Meyers and three others. The fact that there is a live audience allows Meyers to be very chatty as if he is watching these with friends. The group never passes up an opportunity to talk about the glut of Bruce Lee imitators that filled the screen after his untimely death. Bruce Li, Bruce Le and a host of others get their due. They remain in awe of Jimmy Wang Yu and how he was able to get so many stars to work with him. The trailers are a non stop fury of great over the top action. I had a blast with this. It’s easy to watch at several different sittings.

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Here are some of the films included in the set -
Ways of Kung Fu, Fists of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu vs. Yoga, Death Blow, Two Champions of Shaolin, Golden Dragon Silver Snake, Daggers 8, Secret of the Shaolin Poles, The Happening, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Story of the Drunken Master ,Chinese Kung Fu Against Godfather, The Invincible Swordsman, Return of Bruce, Bruce Le’s Greatest Revenge, Shaolin Iron Claws, Fast Fingers, Enter the Fat Dragon, My Kung Fu 12 Kicks, Brutal Boxer, Blacklist, The Damned, Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, One Armed Chivalry Fights Against One Armed Chivalry, Way of the Dragon, Hong Kong Connection, Chinese Kung Fu, 18 Shaolin Disciples, The Blazing Temple, Shaolin Wooden Men, The Magnificent Boxer.

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Video – 1.85:1 and a variety for the trailers
Due to the 35mm print source these look better than many other trailer compilations but they are not restored at all. They still look like what you would have seen on the screen at time with a few scratches and dust.

Audio – 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
The sound on the trailers is that typical muddy mix of yells, screams and musical stingers. The commentary sounds fine.

Extras -
A Brief History Of Kung Fu Cinema: Featurette With Experts Ric Meyers and Frank Djeng
Commentary with experts Ric Meyers (Films of Fury), Michael Worth (The Bruceploitation Bible), Martial Arts Instructor Greg Schiller & Rick Stelow of Drunken Master Video
The Way of the Cube- Featurette on the discovery of the original 35mm trailers underneath the stage of a maverick UK cinema

The Brief History of Kung Fu Cinema is well done and definitely worth a look, even for those who know the story. The running commentary for the trailers is recommended. Ric Meyers is very lively and super well informed. He prompts the others to chime in, too. Very enjoyable and for me to best way to watch the onslaught of trailers.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent (more for the extras and commentary than the condition of the trailers)

Movie – Good

Species II (1998) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

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Actors – Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, George Dzundza,
Justin Lazard
Director – Peter Medak

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Arriving three years after the original Species film, the sequel brings back Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger for another round. This time Sil is a carefully controlled bio weapon that is kept in an enclosed heavy duty glass case that seems like something you’d use to keep Hannibal Lector on ice. In the previous film Sil went on a mate and kill spree that threatened to eradicate males like a weed from the earth. This time she is a clone so that explains how Henstridge can essentially repeat the role. Marg Helenberger is the scientist who watches over her and makes sure that there is no exposure to anyone from the male species. The first two thirds of the film are pretty dull going. Sil uses the down time to watch episodes of The Dukes of Hazard on her TV. The plot has a crew returning from a Mars expedition with one of the astronauts carrying the same mate and kill gene that created the original beast.

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New York City media stalwart Bill Boggs does a TV interview that looks real enough but when we see New York comedian Richard Belzer (Homicide, Law & Order) as the President that sense of reality goes out the window. That may have been purposeful. Hard to tell. Much of the acting is fairly poor across the board. Michael Madsen cocks his head to one side and looks down as delivers most of his lines as if bothering to enunciate was too much effort. The one role that stands out is Peter Boyle’s cameo as the crazed scientist who tried to warn everyone about the perils of going to Mars. He’s put in a straight jacket in a padded cell For his efforts. While the role is a pretty common device in many science fiction films Boyle brings solid acting to the part.

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We have to wait until the last portion of the movie to see the special effects extravaganza. Along the way director Peter Medak manages to get in a lot of gratuitous nudity to please fans of the first film. H.R. Giger did the creature designs. Although they bare too much resemblance to his work in Alien they are still magnificent. In the special features one of the effects crew says how dedicated everyone was to realizing his designs with integrity. We have two creatures here. The much larger male and Henstridge’s Sil. In one of the last sequences when the predator begins to mate with Sil there are some cutaways to the two creatures floating in an embryonic ocean. Their tendrils are running out of their heads looking like dreadlocks underwater. There is a dreamy blue cast to everything that looks very cool. This is only teased at but it is a marvelous combination of photography and effects.

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Much of the effects in the film were done on a practical level. After the astronaut predator has sex his partner gets pregnant with a baby exploding from her belly moments later. These bits are done with plenty of enthusiasm from the effects crew.  Seemingly a few hours later there is a kid looking about six years old hanging around. The predator collects a boatload of these kids in a barn. They are all dressed in matching one piece loin clothes. The sequel does not give much of value in the way story or acting. The special effects are the strong point and the reason to take in the film. The cocoons that hang in the rafters of the barn, though still a bit reminiscent of Alien are very well done.  There is a scene with Sil crashing through her glass cage in slow motion that is a real kick to see. The slow motion glass shatter works nicely. Fans of the effects will enjoy them all the more in this solid blu-ray presentation.

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Video – 1.85:1
Colors all look strong. Black levels are good. Detail looks very nice throughout.

Audio – DTS-HD 5.1 with subtitles offered in English
Dialogue comes across fine and understandable. Music and effects are treated well in the mix. While mostly front heavy things are nice and clear.

Extras -
NEW From Sil To Eve – An interview With Actress Natasha Henstridge
NEW Creature Creations – Interviews With Creature & Special Make-up Effects Creator Steve Johnson, Supervising Cosmetic Designer Leonard MacDonald, Transformation Supervisor Joel Harlow, And Chrysalis Effects Supervisor William Bryan
NEW Alien Evolutions – An Interview With Screenwriter Chris Brancato
NEW Special Effects Outtakes & Behind-The-Scenes Footage
Commentary With Director Peter Medak, Scenes From The Film Featuring Uncut Footage Not Shown In Theatres, Species II: Eve Of Destruction Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, Still Galleries – Posters, Lobby Cards, Behind-The-Scenes Photos, Special Effects Behind-The-Scenes Photos And H.R. Giger Sketches

The features particularly when they concentrate on H.R.Giger and the effects are quite compelling. The crew members interviewed offer up a good deal of stories from the production.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Fair

The Vikings (1958) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

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Stars – Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine
Director – Richard Fleischer

Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

As the Viking ships return back to the village people run down the hills. They are excited to welcome them back. It is a wide shot and the ships look terrific sailing into shore with the sails billowing in the bright sky. A man high atop a cliff blows out a series of notes in celebration. The ships slow as the sails come down. Then the oars go out alongside the ship in a perfectly straight line above the water. Some of the Vikings leap off the ship onto the oars and run along them in celebration. This must take some made skills and not a little bit of courage. The townspeople on the shore go nuts for this. Then Kirk Douglas leaps off the side of the ship onto the oars. He is running. The camera is close enough in to see it’s really him.  He’s got a big grin on his face as he leaps and skips from one oar to the other. Then the guy does it again.  And again. He falls the third time but gets hoisted up on board by his comrades. This is the level of enthusiasm that director Richard Fleischer maintains throughout this film. The main actors also have this larger than life exuberance that leaps off the screen. There is lots of big bold action and plenty of raucous laughter. It is amazing how much of the detail in this film is accurate.  The Vikings is a big swaggering film full of adventure.

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The sides are drawn clearly right from the beginning. During a Viking raid on the English Northumbria Viking chiefton Einer (Ernest Borgnine) leaves behind an offspring who grows up years later to become the slave Tony Curtis plays. Douglas is the good looking son of Einer. Douglas always greets his father with shouts that fill the whole countryside. Early on there is a confrontation between the two sons. We know they are brothers but they do not. In a brutal encounter with Curtis’ hunting falcon Douglas looses an eye. Curtis is tied to a stake in the waters of an inlet to slowly drown as punishment. It is nighttime and the tide is coming in. His friend and a witchy woman sit by him. She summons Odin the Viking god to turn back the tidewaters and save him. It is a very spooky sequence. Curtis lives. Meanwhile Douglas sets out to kidnap the bride to be of the King of Northumbria. There is no doubt that we are on the side of the Vikings here.  Janet Leigh plays the kidnapped queen to be. She looks stunning in every shot.

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Curtis is clearly smitten with Janet Leigh, as are most people watching this film. He rescues her and sets out to return her and then to ask for her hand in marriage. We know this won’t quite work out the way he planned it. Just as he sets off for Northumbria several Viking ships try to intercept him. They are all lost in the fog. The reason the Vikings attacked Northumbria in the first place is that they could navigate to it by following the coast lines, keeping land in sight. Curtis has this medallion around his neck that is magnetic. The witchy woman uses it to guide them through the treacherous seas in the fog. She is always there when a little sorcery or science is needed to save Tony. During the scuffle Einer falls overboard and is rescued by Curtis. His intention is to offer up the leader of the Vikings figuring the king will give him Leigh’s hand in return. Once there the request to marry Leigh is denied and Curtis is given a sword and the privilege of ushering Einer into a pit of howling and starved wolves. Curtis does the right thing by giving the sword to Einer so he can die with a sword in his hand and enter Valhalla, the Viking’s paradise after death. Borgnine laughs in the face of death and leaps into the pit.  Then Curtis gets his hand chopped off for his insolence and is set out to sea.

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Now we have the two brothers united in a quest. Each one has been physically damaged, losing an eye and a hand. Each one wants  Janet Leigh for himself and they both want to smack down Northumbria with a vengeance to get her back. What follows is a rousing attack. The Viking lay siege to the English castle. They have a huge battering ram made out of a mighty tree. Arrows fill the sky. At one point Douglas and others hurl axes into the castle door that he scales up in order to open it for the Viking onslaught. The fighting is savage and full of brutality. These guys are big and they fight like hellions. People are tossed over castle walls. Sword play is decidedly fierce with none of those graceful Robin Hood or Three Musketeers moves. The ending pits brother again brother in a fight for Janet Leigh.

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From the opening narration by Orson Welles we know this is a class picture. The film looks bold and robust. It is full of breathtaking photography by Jack Cardiff. So many of the characters just exude a bravado. The scenes with Borgnine and Douglas drinking and playing in the large Viking banquet hall are full of genuine laughter. We get a real sense of the Viking village. Fleischer absolutely puts us on their side right from the beginning. This is colorful Hollywood adventure at the top of its game. Heartily and highly recommended!

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Video – 2.35:1
Colors are bold and robust. Black levels are fine. There are no instances of crush or undue distortion in any of the darker scenes. Grain is present and film like. Skin tones look as they should. There is good detail on display. Jack Cardiff’s lensing looks terrific in many of the shots with the ships on the water with the spectacular scenery behind them. This was a location shoot in Norway and he takes full advantage to show off the surroundings. Interiors always looks full of detail and colorful. This is a nicely shot film that shows off the Viking world in ways that often look like portraits. Some of the studio shots looks a little soft but that is intentional. The widescreen aspect ratio is used to great effect anytime those ships get out on the water.

Audio – DTS-HD 2.0 Mono with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow and understand including Tony Curtis‘ New York accent. . You can hear that booming Viking theme with clarity throughout the film.

Extras – A Tale of Norway: Featurette with director Richard Fleischer, Trailers

The half hour short that was also featured on the previous DVD edition of this film gives generous background to the production. We learn how schematics of actual Viking ships were used to build the ones seen in the film. University professors were hired to authenticate the set and costume design. They even rented smaller horses for the cast to use like the ones that the real Vikings rode. That running of the oars was an actual Viking celebration that had not been done in many long years yet there it was recreated for this film. Fleischer has a great memory for the details and has fun sharing the background on what has to have been one of his best films (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Soylent Green,10 Rillington Place)

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

The Big Heat Encore Edition (1953) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

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Stars – Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando Alexander Scourby
Director – Fritz Lang

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Twilight Time’s Encore presentation of The Big Heat is the same solid transfer as the first time out. The differences are in the cover and the extras. The artwork on the case features that cool graphic of the pot of simmering coffee which is such an iconic image for anyone who has seen the film. There is a commentary track with the Twilight crew – Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman. Also included are two roughly ten minute shorts with Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese.

When Film Noir entered the fifties it changed. Gone was trenchcoat, the snappy dialogue and the slick look. The good guys had more than a shade of gray. Some of them did things that were unforgivable. The bad guys and gals could have more than that single streak of goodness running through them. Not only did this new characterization get cloudy but there was also a new realm of brutality. Characters didn’t hold their stomach grimace and fall to the floor to utter some famous last words anymore. The level of violence and sadism had escalated. When the new psychological trappings that were so popular then made their way into the neighborhood where Film Noir lived they fit in with the tortured leading men who could no longer be considered simple heroes. Fritz Lang had been making films in America for quite some time by 1953 when he did The Big Heat. Lang had fled Nazi Germany packing so much psychological baggage, talent and attitude that he fit right in. His film M with Peter Lorre as the child murderer set up much of the look of Film Noir. The contrasted shadowy style had become very popular. But now, now he could revel in the complex and twisted characters that populated some of the more lurid fifties films. Many consider his film Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson to be his best. That was one of the most desolate tales of a man swirling helplessly in a whirpool of lust and cruel fate. The Big Heat is one that others claim to be his best. Collectors are very fortunate that such quality Blu-Ray editions have come out recently on both titles.

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Glenn Ford plays tough cop, Sergeant Dave Bannion. He works homicide cases and everything is clear. He catches a case of an obvious suicide by a high-ranking police officer. He consoles the widow and goes home to his loving wife. She drinks out of his glass of scotch, takes drags from his cigarette and even will split a beer with him. They’ve got an adorable little girl. The case starts to get complicated. It’s not a suicide. Dave gets chewed out by his superiors for looking too far into it. He keeps pushing it; he’s that kind of cop. We see Lee Marvin very briefly as the right hand of the big boss Lagana played by Alexander Scourby. Lang wisely keeps Marvin on ice till later on in the picture. This was Marvin’s first big role after a few westerns. The build up is worth it.

The investigation moves on and as Bannion keeps pushing it his wife gets a threatening call at home. Bannion comes home, tries to help his kid build a tower of building block but instead topples the whole thing to the ground. Shortly thereafter the film takes a drastic turn. Bannion’s wife is killed, blown up in his car in an explosion that was meant for him. Bannion is thrown off the case and even thrown off the police force in a pre-Dirty Harry moment where he throws his badge on the police commissioner’s desk yet keeps his gun. “It’s mine, bought it with my own money.” He leaves his kid with relatives and literally empties his house out. Now the shackles are off. He has loosened the reins of a civilized family man and is no longer governed by the rules that a cop must play by. Bannion is now a primal force out for revenge.

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No one Bannion talks to tells the truth. Everyone lies. The bartender at The Retreat played wonderfully by Sid Clute even picks up the phone to brag to his boss about it. The only ones who help Ford along the way are broken women. An older crippled woman who works in a dirty garage hobbles out to talk with him through a chain link fence after he leaves. She can barely stand. She can barely talk and yet she feels compelled to do the right thing. The first time Ford meets Marvin he is grinding his cigarette out on the hand of an unfortunate lady. They are up in each others’ faces but each cools off and leaves. Gloria Grahame runs after Ford on the street. She goes back to his hotel room but he think she is just using him to piss off Marvin. He’s right but she senses something. It’s interesting that both Ford and Graham mouth off to their respective bosses and know the real score beneath the surface. She risks everything to help him. She’s an emotional wreck who admits she’ll put up with an awful lot of abuse to get the good times a gangster like Lee Marvin can show her. “ I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.”

Everyone we see is always grabbing things, fidgeting with their hands. People grab handfuls of peanuts at the bar. They constantly light and stub out cigarettes. The guy in the garage that Bannion interviews is busy slurping soda out of a pop bottle with a straw. As Bannion leaves he grabs another one and we notice he’s got several empties on his desk. So many ashtrays are crammed with piles of buts. When we first meet Gloria Graham she’s making a cocktail. Not one, but a whole pitcher. This just adds to the level of nervousness that builds. The investigation throttles to its crescendo and hinges on an invitation to murder. In a wicked but of true Film Noir style, it becomes clear that in order to bring justice to the criminals like Lagana and Lee Marvin someone must die. The scales of justice will only swing right again if someone will commit the absolute sin.

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Glenn Ford seems to get tagged with the straight arrow all the time and yet he plays this part very well. Lee Marvin arrives here as a force of nature to be reckoned with. He seems to play his scenes as if he could care less. He has a natural swagger. Marvin can also seem so sloppy and lazy that you’re not sure if it is an act or not. The man can build to an explosion like few others and always feels like a threat on screen. He is such a menace you can’t take your eyes off him. The real turn here though is done by Gloria Grahame’s character Debby. She’s much smarter than the typical B girls she masquerades as. She knows the score and at any given moment is the smartest person in the room. Grahame pulls all this off and covers it with a shawl of smoldering sexuality. She is gorgeous and has a neat trick of always turning to give you her best side, her best look. She gives a line to a crooked cop’s even more crooked wife, “We’re sisters under the mink” that sticks like a poison dart with it’s truthfulness. Her performance here is totally captivating. She owns every scene she is in. She also brings Glenn Ford to a boil that looks very real indeed.

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Lastly the violence in this film was something that Lang had flirted with but nothing before had come this far. The sadistic transgressions were shocking at the time and will still get you if you don’t know they’re coming. Maybe they still do. The man-to-man fighting was brutal as expected but the way that Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone abuses women is something that goes beyond boundaries. The fact that one realizes Vince Stone does this all the time to all the women he knows makes you really root for his downfall. Fritz Lang very consciously stacked the deck and asked us, is it ok to go too far as long as the people you are doing it to deserve it. The last line in the film says there will always be jerks like Vince Stone. “Keep the coffee hot”

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This is a stunning treatment of a great movie that comes with the highest of recommendations. Film Noir may be known for its stylish photography and cool snappy dialogue. Yet there are characters to be found that are so compelling particularly the ones that blur the line between good and bad. Robert Ryan played a cop in On Dangerous Ground (1951) that was so bad, so out of control that he was sent to a snow covered town far away to work on a case. Another cop that may have gone too far, at least until Ida Lupino showed him the way. That one was directed by Gloria Grahame’s husband at the time, Nicholas Ray. When you mix the good and the bad in with actors like these you get a very strong cocktail. Have a glass or just take a swig out of the bottle. Fifties Film Noir has its own kick to it and The Big Heat is an adult portion.

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Video – 1.33:1 in 1080p HD, B & W.
This is a very satisfying transfer, even stunning. The grain and natural look of the print is retained however there’s a clarity and depth of detail through the 90 minute running time.  Charles Lang delivers a pretty straightforward lensing that while it sports good use of shadow and contrast is not your typical Film Noir look. Instead he lingers on faces. We see how gorgeous Gloria Grahame is as she frequently gazes at her image in a mirror. We see Lee Marvin begin his slow boil and get more and more unkempt, out of control. He lets us read the angst and indecision written all over Glenn Ford’s face. He shows us people lying in close up, not batting an eyelash as they trample the truth. The faces are what stand out from this film. The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-

Audio – English mono track presented in DTS-HD mono. SDH subtitles in English.
This is a beautiful track. All dialogue is clear and resonant. Orchestrations are rich  and full. In one of the first scenes when Mr. Lagana is woken up in his plush bed you can hear the rustle of the sheets and the adjusting of the bed frame as he moves. Even better is that classic scene where Marvin suspects Grahame of spilling info to Ford, he calls her a pig and is so out of control he can barely contain himself. He stares at her and then you can distinctly hear the coffee boiling in the pot. He hears it too and looks to the pot. There are some other subtle touches in the track that can be heard here. When Ford confronts Marvin in The Retreat bar, after he burns Carolyn Jones (Morticia Adams), right before they get face to face all the sound drops out making for a very powerful moment. One can also hear that the band in that bar is playing the catchy tune, “Put the Blame on Mame” from Ford’s well-known film, Gilda (1946).

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score and effects track, Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, Michael Mann on The Big Heat ,Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat,/Original theatrical trailer, Booklet essay from Julie Kirgo.

The Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese featurettes were originally done for the title when it was released on the first Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics DVD set in 2009. Both directors offer keen insights into the film and are clearly big fans, too. Mann talks about what a shocking surprise it was to see what happened to Ford’s wife the first time he saw the film. Scorsese points out how Lang presents these two tough women right at the start who are not afraid to say what they want and do what they need to get it. It’s nice to have them included.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic