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I personally welcome the arrival of the Fox Cinema Archives, as film critics better connected than have for years been praising Fox titles that haven't been shown anywhere in decades. (Fox's vault reportedly contains a treasure trove of hot Pre-Code attractions.) Fox's licensing arrangement with the boutique disc company Twilight Time has resulted in more desirable movies hitting DVD and even Blu-ray, but most of those are later, higher profile titles. Fox is the latest studio to follow the lead of the Warner Archive Collection, which of course initiated the Made On Demand business model for movies considered unprofitable to market as normal DVD releases.
Over the last two years the WAC has refined its practices to please its customer base of film collectors. Its offerings are now linked to a busy remastering program. The MOD discs over at Sony are almost always beautiful new transfers. The MGM Limited Edition Collection only works in most cases from what's already transferred and available. Their on screen disclaimer reads, "this disc has been manufactured from the best materials available", but really means, "we're taking no responsibility for quality." Most MGM discs look reasonably good, but they've also put out some real disappointments, like the desirable John Sturges movie The Satan Bug.
How does the new Fox Cinema Archives measure up? I've begun by reviewing three separate discs, the first three I saw. They prompted very different reactions. I normally review content, trying to alert collectors and casual movie lovers to exciting new titles. I become hypercritical only when quality issues become a detriment to the viewing experience.
This extended review can begin on a note of enthusiasm, for They Came To Blow Up America is a happy surprise, an intriguing wartime morale-builder with a good story and plenty of interesting situations. Based loosely on the real arrest of eight German saboteurs the year before, Michael Jacoby's fanciful story doesn't care that the particulars of the case were sealed as top secret; the movie assumes that the capture was an FBI job (it wasn't). Suave George Sanders, a German-American mining engineer, tells his cute old-country Ma and Pa that he's in with the Bund and is going abroad to serve his true country, Germany. Of course, Sanders is really a double agent for the Feds. He infiltrates the Nazi dirty tricks 'n' dynamite school and wins the honor to lead the first sabotage mission on U.S. soil. He uses his sabotage know-how to free a beautiful German dissident (Poldi Dur) as well. Unmasked by the wife of the man he is impersonating (gorgeous Anna Sten), Sanders' character sees to it that she's arrested by what must be the dumbest Gestapo officer in the history of the Reich.
This wishful-thinking espionage story works because Sanders' performance is so much fun. The star pupil in the sabotage school, he uses sneaky bombs to knock out nasty Gestapo pursuers and even the sub that brings his team of dynamiters to American shores -- a team that includes a young Charles McGraw and Ralph Byrd, the movies' Dick Tracy. What Sanders' character doesn't know is that his FBI boss (Ward Bond) has told his father about his true identity as an intrepid double agent. The silly old idiot immediately tells his best friend... who is of course a deep cover operative in the employ of Hitler's Reich.
Original posters for They Came to Blow Up America depicted a skyscraper exploding, making the movie look like a science fiction prediction of terror wars to come. The only sabotage action we see are shots of bridges, trains, etc., being blown up. The films are obviously stock footage of civil demolition work, but this happy propaganda movie says that they were filmed by the saboteurs themselves. Pretty clever saboteurs, wiping out major targets in broad daylight, and even taking the time to obtain such professional, carefully framed filmic proof!
This must be screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg and director Edward Ludwig's finest hour. Wisberg's scripts for 1950s sci-fi films weren't the best, and Ludwig's forte seems to have been action movies that showcased the work of crack 2nd unit directors. The movie has pace, humor, clever situations and curious patriotic messages: Nazis are scheming careerist creeps; one of them uses a picture of Winston Churchill for a dartboard. German-Americans are really nice people, except they're either rotten Bund members or fools that can't keep secrets. The all-knowing FBI has a lid on everything, don't you worry. The pitifully disorganized Gestapo doesn't even keep a photo file of its own agents.
They Came To Blow Up America is a sharp and stable B&W transfer clearly done within the last few years. The element used has some minor dings and white flecks, but is otherwise quite clean, the equal of MOD discs from other companies. I also had no idea that this rarity would be so entertaining. It is highly recommended.
My last contact with Diplomatic Courier was at age ten in 1962, when I fell asleep watching it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies show. Having heard that it's an unusually credible pre-007 spy picture, I've been looking out for it ever since.
An American Intelligence employee (Tyrone Power) is given the job of receiving an important bundle of data being escorted from behind the Iron Curtain by agent James Millican. Because the train they are on swarms with Commie thugs (including a Russian agent, uncredited Charles Bronson) the hand-off doesn't happen. The agent is murdered and Power ends up in Trieste, trying to get a beautiful European woman (Hildegard Kneff) to help him. She claims to be a double agent working for the West but circumstances lead Power to doubt her word. Nasty enemies Michael Ansara, Lawrence Dobkin and Stefan Schnabel pursue Power, hoping they'll find the data on him, while the American Army Intelligence chief (Stephen McNally) and a friendly sergeant (Karl Malden) help Power as much as they can. Lee Marvin and Dabbs Greer are military clerks seen in passing. Power is in such a state of flux that he can't spend more than a few minutes with the luscious, seductive and available American Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), who he runs into several times. She has no idea what a life and death situation he's in.
I theorized that Ian Fleming's 1957 novel From Russia with Love was largely influenced by the great noir The Narrow Margin and now I'm tossing in this movie too, as well as the even earlier Jacques Tourneur noir Berlin Express. All are suspense-action thrillers with key scenes on moving trains. Parts of Diplomatic Courier resemble spy movies made more than ten years later, with wordless sequences of Tyrone Power stalking and being stalked in train cars and in narrow streets. The complex story has more to do with telling friend from foe than it does violence, even with the beatings and killings that occur. Power's exhausted operative is just one more foreigner on post-war Europe city trying to stay alive long enough to get his job done. Casey Robinson and Liam O'Brien's script is mostly top-notch, its only stumbling block being the Joan Ross playgirl character. She's funny, sexy and has absolutely nothing to do with the story ... so it's only obvious that she'll reveal herself to have a hidden identity. It seems highly likely that Patricia Neal's participation was imposed on the movie after the script was written.
Much of the movie appears to have been filmed on location, although it's possible that 2nd unit material was carefully blended with footage filmed right back in Los Angeles. If Power was doubled on the location exteriors, I forgot to look. Director Henry Hathaway was on a roll of mostly successful shows at Fox at this time, and this particular title is a keeper.
Diplomatic Courier on disc is another thing altogether. The picture is unsteady, overly grainy and with serious contrast issues. Some shots almost look posterized. The granularity often resembles digital noise on my 65" Samsung. I'm almost afraid to guess at what the problem is -- is this a dark print pushed to the limit during transfer, or a poor 16mm print given the works with digital enhancement tools?
My first instinct is jump all over this product, but the highly vocal collectors on various web boards will be offering plenty of invectives soon enough. The disc comes with a quality disclaimer, but only on the product, not the box or in the advertising. The disclaimer is the same as MGMs and just as disingenuous. "This disc has been manufactured from the best materials available." Why would a new MOD startup ignore the lessons learned by its competitors? Buyers of MOD discs will not accept a level of quality lower than what they would get if they digitized a broadcast from cable TV. Any collector who buys a copy of Diplomatic Courier will feel very cheated indeed. And I want Fox to succeed -- I want to be able to buy The Raid and Dante's Inferno and maybe even Sons and Lovers (which ought to go to Twilight Time and BD, however).
With that, I went to the third disc, a movie I really wasn't aware of. Actress Dana Wynter deserved a bigger break in Hollywood, and Fraulein is an opportunity to see what she could do with the leading role in a color and CinemaScope "A" picture. The subject is interesting, too. During WW2, German Erika Angermann (Dana Wynter) aids an escaped American POW, Foster MacLain (Mel Ferrer). After he leaves, Erika's part of Cologne falls into the Soviet zone. She escapes being raped by a drunk Russian (Jack Kruschen) but the Russian General who protects her (Theodore Bikel) expects sexual favors as well. Erika makes her way to the West and reconnects with Foster, who is now a Major. But she unknowingly allows herself to be exploited by friends trying to set up a prostitution racket. Erika splits from that scene as well, but her name is now on an Allied undesirable list. She also runs into her old fiancé (Helmut Dantine).
Wearing lighter hair than usual, Dana Wynter is quite effective in a movie that seems to expose her to a sexual threat at least once in every reel. Actress Dolores Michaels stands out a bit too much as a lone American in an authentic European supporting cast. James Edwards has some nice bits as well. A reasonable rendition of Fraulein might be an entertaining show.
The bad news is that Fox's MOD disc of Fraulein is completely unacceptable. I wanted very much to see this title but found it unwatchable. Remember back in the 1980s, when all 'scope movies on TV were pan-scanned? The studios might letterbox the title sequences, but more often they simply squeezed the titles. The 20th Fox logo for Fraulein comes on screen radically squeezed, and the image adjusts to pan-scan when the first scene comes up. The colors are bright but inaccurate, with old analog issues like contrast fringing. Clarity and detail are low. This videotape of Fraulein, I would guess, cannot be any newer than 1989. I'd have to dig out my oldest VHS tapes to see a transfer as ancient as this one.
I'm going to move on to the other Fox titles I was given to review. I'll be happy to find out that these particular bad apple discs are not typical. Wake up, Fox Cinema Classics -- take a look online to see who your customers are, and check out the competition's product to establish a similar quality threshold. We don't want video buyers to give up on discs and make do with what they can download or stream from the web. A disc like Fraulein is a market-killer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.