Friday, October 28, 2016

Interview with Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective

Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective (Photo source)
I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Hopkins, the founder of The Film Detective. What is The Film Detective? It is a classic film distribution company based in my home state of Massachusetts that digitally restores classic film, mostly public domain titles, and releases them on Blu-Ray, DVD and for online streaming. In the last three years they've developed an impressive library of classics from all different genres and they keep expanding with much more to come.

Raquel: You are a long-time film industry veteran, could you tell me more about how you go into the industry?
 Philip: It goes back nearly 50 years to when I inherited my family’s 16mm library. At one point, I had exhausted the enthusiasm to screen the films and I started looking for commercial films to entice family members so I could sneak in home movies. These go back to the days when you could buy prints from collectors including Blackhawk Films of old vintage one or two reelers, catalogs, and such publications as The Big Reel. In 1999, I met a budding film director in Dallas, TX and we started Marengo Films releasing public domain films on DVD. I came into the industry via my enthusiasm for old film and also my experience co-owning and operating a record company.

R: What is the history of The Film Detective?
 P: The Film Detective started in December of 2013. It’s an extension of the years I’ve been working in classic film and film restoration and distribution. We’ve grown into a solid operation with a great team and we’re going to be launching our own digital network screening our films on such platforms as Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV and we’ll continue to release Blu-rays and DVDs, as well as supply broadcasters such as Turner Classic Movies. We also work with private collectors and archives to scour the earth looking for vintage film.

R: What is the restoration process like?
 P: It can be endless and we have to make judgement calls every day. Typically, we’re working from old release prints, some are in better condition than others. Recently, we’ve been fortunate to work with a couple of film negatives. The process begins with cleaning the film, transferring it mostly into high-def, and then post-digital restoration with dust-busting, scratch removal and audio restoration. We have an in-house QC manager and editor and we work on both coasts with final restoration. When we’re done, we make a new Linear Tape Open (LTO) digital master that goes into our archive. The film then goes back into our storage facility or is returned to whoever we obtained the print or negative from.

R: Why do you think public domain movies should be restored?
P: They’re typically the last ones to be restored as the studios don’t see much return with orphaned or public domain films. Fortunately, with the change in technology, we’ve been able to justify the cost of restoring more films and serve a specific niche for that market. They’re still great films and just because they fell into the public domain, they deserve to be restored just as much as non-public domain films.

R: You partner with The Cabot Theater in Beverly, MA to premiere restorations. Could you tell me more about this partnership?
P: I grew up going to see films at The Cabot when I was a kid, back in the 1970s. The Cabot was recently rescued by local business owners and has gone through a wonderful transformation. We were thrilled to be able to continue to promote film exhibition. It’s local and we’re able to attend each screening, introduce the films, talk about what we do and bring our restorations to the big screen, which is very satisfying. They’re a great group of people and classic film lovers as well.

R: Could you tell me more about your online streaming initiative?
P: We’re launching onto several platforms. Currently we’re already live on Amazon Fire TV and Roku. Later this year we’ll be on Apple TV as well as our own website, We’re hoping to build an audience and promote our restorations as well as deep library releases. We’ve also licensed a number of titles so there will be a mix of genres and content.

R: Where else can restorations from The Film Detective be seen?
P: Our films can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, Sony’s GetTV, on Blu-ray and DVD, and a number of other platforms including PlutoTV and Hoopla.

R: As a Massachusetts native I love that The Film Detective is based here. Why did you decide on Rockport, MA?
P: My wife and I have lived in Rockport since 1993. We’re both natives of MA. My wife, Susan, is from Quincy and I grew up in Danvers, which is just north of Boston. I moved to Rockport in the early 90s to work for a business that was based in Gloucester. When the business moved to New York, I stayed in Rockport and have had a hard time leaving ever since. It’s a beautiful, scenic, historic town and every summer I’m able to screen classic movies in my neighborhood for all the neighbors. Very satisfying!

R: What releases from The Film Detective can we look forward to?
P: Currently we’re working on several restorations. They range from classic noir to Blaxploitation. We’re very excited about several new releases including The Vampire Bat (1933), which we’re going to be working on in conjunction with UCLA Film & TV Archive, a lost Ed Wood TV pilot and a very rare Blaxploitation film, Joe Bullet, which was banned shortly after its release in South Africa. We were inspired to pursue The Vampire Bat because we’re friends with Melvyn Douglas’s son, Gregory Hesselberg.

R: What are some of your favorite classic films?
P: Far too many to list, but the first film my wife and I went to on our first date was Night of the Hunter (1955). That will always be my favorite as it set the tone for a wonderful partnership and friendship and affection for classic movies that we both have.

Thank you to Philip Hopkins of The Film Detective for taking the time out to answer my questions. You can find out more about The Film Detective and Philip's work on their website. Check out my review of their latest Blu-Ray release of Suddenly (1954).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly (1954) poster

"There's cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can't make believe they aren't there." - Pop Benson

Suddenly is a strange name for what seems like a sleepy little town. It’s a throwback from the old days when things used to happen quite suddenly there. The Gold rush, road agents, gamblers and gunfighters all became part of the town’s history. But much hasn’t happened in Suddenly for a long time. That is until now.

Directed by Lewis Allen and based on a shot story by Richard Sales, who also adapted it for screen, Suddenly (1954) is a taught crime thriller with elements of Film Noir. It’s an independent film from Libra Productions and distributed by United Artists starring Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason and Nancy Grace.

Sheriff Tod Shaw is beloved by the community he takes care of. He’s in love with a beautiful widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) and befriends her son Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen is reluctant to pursue a relationship with Tod because she’s struggling with the death of her husband in the Korean War. She shelters her son from the harsh realities of life but little does she know true danger is just around the corner.

One day the local train depot receives an important message. The president of the United States is making a pit stop in town and the Secret Service is calling upon the Sheriff to escort him safely out of town and to his final destination. Willis Bouchey plays Dan Carney, the chief of the Presidential staff, who is overseeing the security for the president's arrival. Upon chatting with the Sheriff he learns that his old Secret Service boss Pop Benson (James Gleason) lives in town. He lives with his daughter-in-law Ellen and grandson Pidge. Their home is situated by the train depot and has the perfect view of the station. Perhaps a bit too perfect.

Frank Sinatra is John Baron, the head of a trio including thugs Bart (Christopher Dark) and Benny (Paul Frees) know about that. They pretend to be FBI agents to get access to the Benson home and hold them hostage in their own home as the plot to shoot the president with a clear vantage point from inside the home. They're on assignment from a mystery employer: a half million to kill the president. The trio hold Pop, Ellen and Pidge hostage and soon Sheriff Tod and local electrician Jud (James O'Hara) join the trapped family. The situation seems hopeless. Can they get the word out to the Secret Service about the assassins in time to save the president?

"[Suddenly] marked the start of Sinatra's dramatic career on film as a leading man; there was no Lancaster or Montgomery Clift in sight now. This was the Frank Sinatra show, pure and simple, a feature film that turned into a one-man showcase the second he appeared onscreen." 
- Tom Santopietro, Sinatra in Hollywood

Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)
Suddenly (1954) was Frank Sinatra's first role after From Here to Eternity (1953), the film that put Sinatra on the map again. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan notes, "[Frank Sinatra] had been interested in Richard Sale's pulpy yet propulsive script from the moment he saw it." It’s a good role for Sinatra. We’re mesmerized by the sadistic John Baron who got a taste for killing during his stint in WWII. He’s twitchy, trigger happy and enjoys making others suffer. As we reach the climax of the story the camera focuses more and more on Baron and having watched many Sinatra films, I've never seen one showcase Sinatra's scar quite as much as this one. James Kaplen says, "Suddenly's cinematographer, Charles G. Clarke, often shot Frank [Sinatra] in tight, unnerving close-ups and amazingly frequently on his bad side -- the left side of his face, the side deformed around the ear and neck by a forceps delivery at birth and a childhood mastoid operation." It adds to the many sinister qualities of Sinatra’s character.

"You're wrong about God and the gun, Sheriff. Without the gun, you would have never have spit at me. You would never have even noticed me. But because of the gun, you will remember me as you as you will live." - John Baron

Upon first viewing audiences will be caught up in the tension of the drama. On second viewing they might notice the overarching themes of patriotism and gun control. Ellen is scared of guns because of how they relate to her husband's death at war. Pidge is fascinated with toy guns because he wants to be like a Sheriff like Tod. His mother discourages him but both the Sheriff and his grandfather Pop Benson encourage him. For Suddenly's Sheriff, guns are a necessary part of keeping the town safe. For John Baron his sophisticated sniper rifle is a political tool for terrorism. The hostages see Baron as more than just a killer; he’s worse, he’s a traitor. After serving in WWII (and perhaps being dishonorably discharged), he turns his attentions to the pleasure of killing for the sake of killing and for money. The president is just another target for him. The Secret Service is tipped off to the trio of thugs when a dying stool pigeon’s deathbed confession reveals the assassination plot. His legacy is that last moment of patriotism. We also see Ellen admonished for her negative feelings about the Korean War and the sense of pride Pop Benson feels for having served his country in WWI and as President Coolidge’s bodyguard.

The film has a strange history. According to James Kaplan, Sinatra "won critical raves for Suddenly, by no means a big film, but the picture had died at the box office." It’s rumored that Lee Harvey Oswald watched the film at one time with the suggestion that it might have influenced his actions.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Suddenly (1954) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another Sinatra film dealing with an assassination plot, were pulled from circulation.  Or so they say. It's unclear what really happened but both films were unavailable for a long time. Some sources say Sinatra, who at one point was close friends with JFK, bought the rights for the films and pulled them. Other sources say it was an agreement among several parties at United Artists. Another theory is that both films were still available but were screened on rare occasions because few people wanted to be reminded of JFK's death. Out of the two films, Suddenly (1954) fell into the public domain when the copyright was not renewed.

Lou Lumenick, formerly of The New York Post writes, "A lawyer for United Artists told me they pulled the film from circulation in 1966 because they were unable to locate the heirs of producer Robert Bassler to renew the TV rights. Suddenly appeared on the public domain market very soon after its copyright failed to be renewed in 1982."

Public domain films are often neglected with bad copies in circulation online and on DVD. Lucky for us Suddenly (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective (distributed by Allied Vaughn), restored from the original 35mm film elements, presented in the original aspect ratio and including a restored soundtrack. There are no extras but it does include closed captioning.

The Film Detective's restoration of Suddenly (1954) is beautiful and this Blu-Ray is a must for your film library. I had seen this movie on TCM when Sinatra was Star of the Month back in December and was happy for an opportunity to see it again all polished up. There are some fine performances by Hayden and Gleason and Sinatra is simply terrifying in the role of John Baron. You can pair this  with either Cry Terror! (1958) or The Manchurian Candidate (1962) for an excellent double bill.

The film was shot in Saugus, a neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California. Robby of Dear Old Hollywood has a fun post about filming locations for Suddenly

Sources and links:
Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan
The Washington Post
TCMDB article on Suddenly

Thank you to The Film Detective for sending me a copy to review.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Argentinian Film Noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Los Tallos Amargos
At the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, attendees were treated to a special screening of Los Tallos Amargos (translated in English as The Bitter Stems), a 1956 Film Noir from Argentina. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation introduced the film and regaled us with the fascinating story of how this little known Noir, never before screened in English, made it from Argentina to the US.

Eddie Muller and his wife traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, shortly after a more complete version of  Metropolis (1927) was discovered in a museum vault in 2008. Muller met with Fernando Martin Peña, whom he described as “one of the greatest cinephiles in the world.” Peña is the director of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival and a film curator for the MALBA in Buenos Aires. Muller recalled that Peña is “a very distrustful sort” so it was a special treat when Peña invited him to a private screening of his personal collection of 16mm films. Among those was what Muller referred to as “extraordinary” and a “hardcore Noir”: Los Tallos Amargos (1956). At the TCMFF screening he warned the audience “If you entered the theater in a good mood, sorry! Because you’re going to experience Film Noir the way Film Noir is really supposed to be.”

Los Tallos Amargos was an adaption by Sergio Leonardo of the Adolfo Jasca’s 1955 novel of the same name. It was directed by Fernando Ayala and starring Carlos Cores, Pablo Moret, Aida Luz, Julia Sandoval and Vassili Lambrinos.  

Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores and Julia Sandoval in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

Carlos Cores plays Alfredo Gaspar, a journalist at a Buenos Aires newspaper. Down on his luck and completely broke, he learns of a get-rich-quick scheme devised by Hungarian expat Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos). He's come up with a fake correspondence course in order to extort journalists. Alfredo has his doubts but Liudas convinces him in the end. After a brief period of success, the situation begins to sour as Alfredo's paranoia intensifies. He grows suspicious of Liudas which drives him to commit an act of desperation. The second half of the film deals with Alfredo's cover-up, guilt and the gruesome realization of what he's done.

The first half of the film is told in a flashback just as Alfredo plans to commit the act that drives the second half of the story. There is a dream-like sequence where we learn more about Alfredo's troubled upbringing and we hear Alfredo's thoughts in a voice-over. Deception, revenge, guilt, desperation, paranoia are all themes of this gripping Noir.

Los Tallos Amargos won the Silver Condor Award (Premio Cóndor de Plata) the following year. According to Muller it’s Argentina’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. Muller also noted the fantastic score by Astor Piazzolla, a musician known for his Nuevo Tango which blends Jazz, Classical Music and Tango. Piazolla’s work resulted in “a remarkably innovative score for this film where he at any time is able to utilize any type of musical form to convey what he wants to convey emotionally” said Muller. For example, there is a scene when Cores is spying on Lambrinos at a night club and the music intensifies as the situation grows more desperate.

Then there is the work on the film by Chilean cinematographer Ricardo Younis, a protégé of Gregg Toland  who worked on Citizen Kane (1941) and won the Oscar for his work on Wuthering Heights (1939). According to Muller, at one point the American Cinematographer’s Magazine named Los Tallos Amargos one of the best photographed movies of all time.

After having seen Peña’s 16mm print, Muller took on Los Tallos Amargos as a project. He proclaimed to Peña “I will do whatever it takes to raise money to restore this film and to have it finally seen in English-speaking countries.” It had never been released with English subtitles nor had it been distributed in the English-speaking world. One day Peña called Muller up to tell him that he met the family of one of the producers of Los Tallos Amargos and that a camera negatives of that film and several other films were currently sitting in the basement of the family estate. Peña sent Muller photos of the discovery and he was horrified. Muller remembers:
“It’s a film curator’s nightmare. To see these films in the condition they were stored, weeds growing up from the floor, no air-conditioning whatsoever, the cans completely rusted shut. Amazingly, we were able to salvage the original camera negative of this film. There were other films in that room that were like bricks. When you take them out of the can it’s just solid. There’s no way you can save these movies. I consider it somewhat like Providence that this film was not in that condition.”
With the help of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust they salvaged Los Tallos Amargos, added the subtitles and digitally restored the soundtrack (which came from Peña’s 16mm print because the original camera negative was missing the sound). The end result was a beautiful product ready to be screened to eager Film Noir-loving audiences.

Muller later shared with us what ended up being my favorite anecdote from the entire presentation (and the entire festival too. I still think about it today). Actor Vassili Lambrinos, who plays Liudas, made a surprise appearance made a surprise appearance at the MoMA screening of the film earlier this year. He's 90 years old, lives three blocks from the MoMA and had never watched the film on the big screen. Can you imagine? That must have been a thrilling moment for everyone involved. MALBA shares the following story from Peña who was also at the event:

[Spanish] “Lambrinos contó que se animó al protagónico de Los tallos amargos porque Ayala, que era un gran director de actores, le dio la confianza suficiente para hacerlo y lo cuidó mucho durante el rodaje. Nunca se tomó en serio su carrera como actor y ni siquiera recibió el premio al mejor actor de reparto que se ganó por el film, porque simplemente se olvidó de asistir a la ceremonia. Lo recibió Ayala en su lugar. Hasta hoy, nunca había visto la película con público. La vio en privado con el equipo en el laboratorio, apenas terminada, y luego muchos años después, en un VHS que le grabó un amigo”. 

[English] “Lambrinos remembers that he was encouraged to act in Los Tallos Amargos because Ayala, who was a great actor’s director, gave him confidence enough to do it and took great care during the filming. He never took his acting career seriously and didn’t receive the best actor award for his part because he forgot to show up for the ceremony. Director Ayala received the award on his behalf. Until today [the MoMA screening], Lambrinos had never seen the film with an audience. He saw it privately in the film lab, having just been edited and then years later when a friend recorded the film on VHS.”

Muller wasn’t kidding when he called this film a “hardcore noir”. Los Tallos Amargos digs deep into the darkest facets of the human condition. South American stories have a long tradition of dark tales which continues today and is apparent when you look to the novels and films from this part of the world. I have a particular interest in South American fiction but have never been able to full immerse myself because of how dark and disturbing these stories can get. It’s the reason why I could only manage to read one chapter of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best and why I hid behind a blanket during some scenes of the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) (Relatos Salvajes). This is heavy stuff and not for the faint of heart. But there is such a rich culture of literature and film from this region and I will always gravitate towards it. And it’s why figures like Jorge Luis Borges continue to fascinate me.

Carlos Cores, Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Carlos Cores in Los Tallos Amargos (1956)

As someone who is fluent in Spanish I was excited to see a classic film in a language other than English. While it’s special that this film now has English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers, I tried my best to ignore them and concentrate on listening to the beautiful Argentinian accents of the actors on screen.

This film might polarize Noir fans. It might be too strange a Noir for traditionalists but exciting and different enough for Noir fans who seek discover something new. I really enjoyed the film, especially on second viewing when my mind was a bit fresher.

For home viewers, Los Tallos Amargos only exists in the original Spanish with no subtitles on YouTube. It's a terrible print in comparison to the restoration we saw at TCMFF. I hope it'll be released in the near future on DVD/Blu-Ray so we can all enjoy a clearer image and better sound.

Eddie Muller’s presentation at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
MALBA's article on the MoMA screening

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