To hear Hollywood tell it, the DVD format is dead and please send flowers. Not exactly, although those shelves at Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart, at one time bursting with DVDs featuring prerecorded movies and TV series, are now on the skimpy side. Sales of DVDs were once regarded as an easy cash cow, often pulling some movies that didn’t quite deliver box-office bang back into the profit side of the balance sheet ledger. Now many of those same flicks that were offered at full price are now taking up residence in $5 Wal-Mart dump bins or as an impulse-buy way station at a Wegmans aisle.
There’s blame to go around for the DVD downward spiral, mostly the recession that has lingered through two presidencies and has forced consumers to seek cheaper alternatives to quench their movie-watching thirst, like the Netflix phenomenon and the omnipresent Redbox kiosks. Those damn tech-savvy kids with their desires for digital downloads haven’t helped, either, while sales of Blu-ray discs, with their promises of high-definition knockout visuals, have cut into the DVD biz.
To be sure, the format is far from buried just yet, and viewers can still count on today’s multiplex hits and misses becoming tomorrow’s DVD option. But the collateral damage that is tied to the DVD economic drought has taken a toll on the once-robust release patterns of older films featuring genuine movie stars; the days of picking up multi-disc box sets that detail the rich cinematic resumes of Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Liz Taylor and many more are heading for the last roundup. And home entertainment units have already released their most valuable oldies-but-goodies that have the most potential for revenue, with endless repackagings of Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and the James Bond evergreen titles.
For the classic collector, however, that pipeline for more obscure Tinseltown treasures has taken a detour. The blossoming burn-on-demand DVD industry (also called manufactured-ondemand) has gained ground among cineastes, the ones who can always be counted on to pay around $20 so they can land a favored flick they can’t find anywhere. The online service at the Warner Archive Collection started in 2009 and has already amassed nearly 800 titles of these DVD-R editions, as well as envy from other studios wishing to tap their own movie catalogs for DVD dividends. Sony Pictures’ Screen Classics by Request is now in service, and the Universal Vault Series is available on Amazon.
MGM has joined the made-to-order movie mindset somewhat late in the game, but the company is making up for lost time. Since its inception in early spring the MGM Limited Edition Collection has been issuing nearly 30 new titles per month, most of them from the libraries it has acquired over the decades such as United Artists, Orion Pictures and American International. (Nearly all of MGM’s old-school studio fare from the 1930s to the 1960s is now owned by Warner Brothers.)
The prints have been spruced up from original masters (they have to look good because some movies pull double duty as fodder on MGM’s HD cable channel), while the discs themselves carry an opening caveat (“This was manufactured using the best source material available.”) and in many cases also offer a trailer, chapter stops at 10-minute intervals and an anamorphic rendering that fills those hi-def widescreens. Although fans shouldn’t expect extras like commentary tracks and making-of vignettes, there is something literally for everyone to shell out 20 bucks for amid MGM’s eclectic roster of offerings. And that’s proven by this handful gleaned from a recent monthly output.
Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw. (American International; 88 minutes; R; 1976). One of MGM’s most exploitable titles that could have earned sell-through status on its own, thanks to some nudity from its top-heavy leading lady. Director Mark L. Lester’s neo-classic drive-in shoot-em-up stars Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter as a carhop who takes it on the lam with a mulleted macho man (Marjoe Gortner) who fancies himself a gunslinging throwback to the Old West during a Bonnie and Clyde-styled crime spree in New Mexico.
Chockablock with car chases and redhued bullet squibs, Lester—who later guided Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cheesy delight Commando—keeps things moving on an unserious, tongue-in-cheek level. There’s even a bank holdup with Gortner pulling a bank vault through the streets with a truck, a gimmick that is also found in the current Vin Diesel outing Fast Five. Lester also manages to make a virtue out of the usual stoic performance from Gortner, a former child evangelist who somehow drifted into a B-movie career. (Hey, it was the 1970s.) The unintentionally hilarious scene involving a naked Carter and Gortner getting stoned on “sacred mushrooms” with an Indian chief in a pond provides a supreme example of this potboiler’s cultish goofiness.
The movie, with its harsh daytime lighting, looks fine in its 1.85:1 ratio. It was last seen locally during a summer 1977 double bill with Joyride at the Midway Drive-In.
The Destructors. (American International; 91 minutes; PG; 1974). Movies that involve old-pro actors who are clearly marking time for better vehicles to come their way are always interesting to sit through; you know that nothing classic is on the horizon, and yet there are probably a zillion worse time-killers. Perhaps taking a cue from the many Eurotrash cop dramas filmed in the 1970s, usually with an American marquee talent surrounded by an international crew, The Destructors (filmed under the title The Marseilles Contract) offers Anthony Quinn, Michael Caine and James Mason in a Paris-based tale involving a cocaine ring.
American International thought so little of this bread-and-butter programmer that it never received local bookings and played elsewhere as a bottom-of-the-bill attraction, but it’s somewhat better than that. The action sequences are competently staged by veteran director Robert Parrish in his final big-screen assignment (Quinn seems to be doing many of his own stunts, including a foot chase through a train station), and while Caine, Quinn and Mason might be coasting in their familiar roles, they have enough professional acting moxie to ensure audience involvement. And you thought collecting a paycheck while filming on the French Riviera was easy.
The Deestructors’ compositions are adequately captured with the DVD’s 1.85:1 ratio, and the image is sharp enough so that you notice the movie’s title card has some grain compared to the rest of the credits, which is what used to happen whenever a studio would change the European title for stateside bijous.
Defiance. (American International; 103 minutes; PG; 1980). Director John Flynn couldn’t catch a break in the 1970s. He was a specialist in taut, noir-like yarns such as The Outfit and Rolling Thunder, movies that were barely released by studios, and that same fate befell Defiance, a familiar yet entertaining chronicle of urban gangs. Jan Michael Vincent plays an ex-merchant seaman trying to settle in within a graffitied ghetto in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but a vicious gang led by a strutting Puerto Rican badass (Rudy Ramos in a hissible performance) complicates matters.
Filmed with gritty realism amid pre-Giuliani locations, Defiance boasts the expected colorful supporting players, including the reliable Danny Aiello, although it’s interesting to note the participation of Art Carney as a grizzled grocer and the name of co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, decades before his Transformers franchise. The movie treads been there-done that turf, yet Flynn’s flinty guidance pushes all the right buttons for a rabble-rousing finale as the scared-into-submission local residents attempt to regain their neighborhood from the thug life.
The DVD offers Defiance in a 1.85:1 ratio, although the film was apparently shot in the open matte manner, in which the film projector’s aperture gate ensures the correct format, with the extreme top and bottom of the screen images masked from public view. That was demonstrated when Defiance played as the second feature with Mad Max at the DeWitt Drive-In in the summer of 1980. During a dramatic moment at the 66-minute mark when the Ramos character confronts Vincent when the latter is naked in a shower, a bad reel splice at the drive-in forced the movie to jump out of frame, thus allowing moviegoers to notice that actor Vincent was wearing flesh-colored skivvies during the scene.
A Thousand Clowns. (United Artists; 118 minutes; unrated; 1965). Nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Picture nod and a win for Martin Balsam for Best Supporting Actor, this near-classic comedy by Herb Gardner is by no means obscure, and yet it lacks a sufficient high profile to merit a sellthrough DVD release. But it’s certainly a ringer amid the MGM Limited Edition Collection items, and it will be a cherished keeper for the film’s many fans.
Jason Robards plays Murray, an unemployed nonconformist (his previous job was as the writer of a manic kiddie TV show) who teaches his motherless nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) the joys of Manhattan, until visitors from Social Services, a humorless prig (St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels) and a wetbehind-the-ears shrink (an adorable Barbara Harris in an early role), threaten to whisk the kid away. The movie is an adaptation of Gardner’s 1961 Broadway hit from producer Fred Coe, who directed the film version with Robards, Gordon and Daniels reprising their stage roles.
And while the movie can’t quite overcome its stagebound origins (much of the action takes place in Murray’s disheveled one-room apartment, filled with nutty bric-a-brac like a hula-girl lamp with flashing headlights, if you know what I mean), Gardner’s script is overflowing with great comic dialogue, all of it delivered with letter-perfect precision by a cast that knows where the comic beats are. Indeed, there is a touch of pathos at the very end when Murray realizes he must re-enter the rat race in order to save Nick, with a freeze frame of him running through the urban canyons. And child actor Gordon’s performance is still sensational to behold; those kids on the Disney Channel sitcoms are chump change when compared to this characterization.
This sweetheart of a movie also features terrific editing by veteran chopper Ralph Rosenbloom, especially during the opening reel as Murray and Nick savor their streetwise surroundings, with guerilla footage of the actors traveling now-lost destinations. Much like the movie musical On the Town and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, A Thousand Clowns functions as a dewy valentine to a metropolis that just doesn’t look the same anymore. Unlike Turner Classic Movies’ broadcasts of A Thousand Clowns in its original boxy 1.66:1 ratio, the way it presumably played in cavernous vaudeville-era movie houses, the DVD offers a 1.85:1 ratio that conformed with the newer film theaters being constructed at that time. In either format, the detailed compositions still remain true.