A few years back Legend Films licensed a bunch of catalogue titles from Paramount. Those titles were released on DVD and now with Blu-ray they're being re-released as double features at a fair price point, each film on its own disc. Here's a look at one of their latest offerings, the coupling of Houdini and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies - a Tony Curtis double feature!
Directed by George Marshall in 1953, Houdini stars a young Tony Curtis as the world's most famous magician, Harry Houdini. When the picture starts, Harry is working his way up the magician's ladder, paying his dues doing quick tricks at a sideshow. Here he meets a beautiful blonde woman in the audience named Bess (Janet Leigh) and before you know it, the two are husband and wife and are living in Harry's mother's place. From there we jump around to various points in Houdini's life, as we learn that he worked in a safe factory before getting into trouble for performing in Germany where he was brought up charges of toying with witchcraft - he clears his name by opening a safe for the judge.
As time passes, we're told that Houdini did develop an interest in the supernatural, an interest that would only grow as the years went on after his mother passed away and he started dabbling in Spiritualism. From there, we learn how he would become a world renowned escape artist and then, eventually we learn how he died - only the way he dies in this film is completely fictitious, as are many other elements of the story.
Not a film particularly concerned with accuracy, Houdini perpetuates a lot of the urban myths about its subject in place of trying to tell audiences what really happened. The best example is the ending, which we don't necessarily want to spoil for those with an interest in seeing the film, but there are other details which are glossed over or changed for dramatic effect, his court case in Germany being just one and the implication that on his wedding night he was more interested in sawing his bride in half than consummating anything being another.
The emphasis here is on Houdin's escapes, and so we rush quite quickly to get to that part of his life and when we arrive, spend a good bit of time there. The movie does get exciting whenever Curtis, who plays his character reasonably well, seems to be in danger of passing out or dying from lack of oxygen - these thrills are cheap, but they are thrills regardless. The romantic side of the story is there only because it seems to be a prerequisite in bio-pics. Janet Leigh is as beautiful as ever here and she's fine in the part but the script gives her very little to do. The same criticism applies to Curtis' role as well - he looks the part, he's good in the role in so much as he handles the material well - but the script doesn't really give him much personality at all and seems more than content to rush past the less sensationalist although arguably more interesting aspects of his life (such as his dabbling with Spiritualism and his obsession with his mother) and get straight to the straightjackets and safe cracking. The end result is that the movie, while marginally entertaining, lacks much substance.
Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies:
Ken Annakin's 1969 sequel to the classic comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes) isn't nearly as well known as the earlier film but should still please those who appreciated the humor of the original even though it's not nearly as funny nor is it as interesting and this is in spite of the fact that it shares the same writing team, the same director, and many of the same cast members.
The plot, such as it is, finds a group of drivers competing in a race to Monte Carlo, leaving from different European destinations: Scotland, Portugal, Sweden, Greece, and Sicily. The drivers are the nasty Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (Terry Thomas playing the son of his character in the first movie) who is out to win regardless of who he has to step on to get there and his right hand man, Perkins (Eric Sykes); a pair of English buffoons named Major Dawlish (Peter Cook) and Lt. Barrington (Dudley Moore); a loudmouthed German named Horst Muller (Gert Frobe) who is smuggling stolen gems for his boss, Count Levinovitch (Jack Hawkins); and a good natured American named Chester Shofield (Tony Curits) among others. So yeah, these guys all race towards Monte Carlo and... that's about it. There's really no storyline here, just a series of set pieces strung together through various European locations, most of which aren't very funny at all.
Where the first film was genuinely amusing and something at least resembling original, this time around Annakin and company are simply going through the motions. We're supposed to think these characters are funny because they look like they could be, not because they are. It's like the writers thought, 'hey, we'll just put a bunch of clichés and stereotypes in the movie and have them drive around Europe - that's all we need, the audience will eat it up!' But you won't. You won't laugh much at all, instead, you'll maybe snicker once or twice and then want that ninety minutes of your life back.
It's a shame, really, as there are some good people involved here. Cook and Moore have been consistently funny throughout their careers and have frequently been absolutely hilarious, and Curtis, as hit or miss as he can be, is usually better than he is here where he doesn't seem to put much effort into doing anything other than trying to look cool. The movie is well shot, makes good use of some great European scenery, and shows solid production values but this is one of those instances where nothing really ever gels the way that it should and the whole thing feels phoned in and half assed.
Both Houdini and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers that offer considerably more detail and better texture than the original DVD releases from a couple of years ago could provide, the first film in 1.37.1 and the second in 2.35.1. While there obviously weren't full blown restorations done for either film, as is made obvious by the heavy grain and minor print damage noticeable throughout each film, for the most part the sources used for the transfers are reasonably clean. There are no issues with noise reduction, and since each film is on its own disc there aren't really any compression issues either. Color reproduction is good for both films and while there is some softness here and there, which probably stems back to the source material used, both movies show good detail and texture. The only authoring anomaly worth noting is some noticeable halo effects that can be seen throughout both pictures - they're not constant, but they're there and those susceptible to such quirks will pick up on it.
Both films are presented with English language Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks that don't appear to be any different than their DVD counterparts at all. Sadly, there are no lossless audio mixes here nor are there any surround mixes. As far as the quality of the audio goes, both films are pretty much in the same ball park in that they sound fine, just rather unremarkable. The levels are well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to complain about, but don't expect anything exciting here as things to tend to lean a little towards the flat side now and then. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.
Aside from a static menu and some exciting chapter selection, this disc is completely barebones, there aren't even any trailers.
If you're fan of either film, then yes, this is worthwhile for the upgrade in video quality even if it does recycle the same sound mixes as the DVD releases had and it doesn't contain any extras. If you're not sure or haven't seen either feature before, you'll definitely want to rent this release first. The first film is marginally entertaining and the second a surprisingly odd disaster, but neither film is essential viewing. Fun time killers, but far from classics. That said, it's nice to see some more obscure catalogue titles hitting Blu-ray thanks to companies like Legend Films and here's hoping they continue the trend.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.