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DVD Reviews for 1/26: Mitchum--Need I Say Anything More?

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic explores a box set celebrating the career of one of the all-time great movie stars, looks at a couple of decidedly non-traditional cowboy films and deals with a wide array of monsters, madmen, samurais and religious zealots.

In creating “Robert Mitchum–The Signature Collection,” a DVD box set commemorating the work of arguably the coolest man to ever appear on the silver screen, the folks at Warner Home Video were faced with a couple of seemingly insurmountable problems. For starters, many of the most notable titles in his considerable filmography–including such key works as “Out of the Past,” “Crossfire” and “Ryan’s Daughter”–have already been issued in perfectly respectable special editions that require no further updating and the ones that have received either a bare-bones release (“Thunder Road” or the original “Cape Fear”) or no release at all (such as the mid-1970's masterpieces “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and “Farewell My Lovely”) belong to other studios. As a result, the six titles in this set may not be the films that one immediately remembers when they think of Mitchum and his career but all but one are perfectly serviceable works (a few are even a bit more than that) and together, they provide an interesting overview of his long and varied career.

The genre that Mitchum is most identified with, of course, is film noir–I can think of no other actor who seems at home walking along rain-slicked streets with whisky in his stomach, a gun in his raincoat and trouble closing in from all sides–and the first two titles in the box are prime examples of his work in that field. “Macao” (1952), directed by the legendary Josef von Sternberg, finds him paired off with Jane Russell in a story of mystery, intrigue and double-crosses involving a sexy nightclub singer (guess who), shifty expatriates and diamond smuggling and set around the biggest casino in the title city. In “Angel Face,” also from 1952, Mitchum teams up with another ace director (Otto Preminger) and another extremely fatale femme (Jean Simmons) for a twisty story about an ambulance-driving chump who meets and falls under the spell of the sexy stepdaughter (guess who) of a rich poisoning victim and becomes ensnared in a classic web of lust and deceit that, like most noir heroes, he doesn’t even realize until it is far too late for him to do anything but accept his fate.

Moving away from the closed-in world of film noir, the next two titles are large-scale family melodramas set in lands as vast and unyielding as the emotions of the people inhabiting them. Vincent Minnelli’s “Home From The Hill” (1960) sees Mitchum as the ruthless and womanizing patriarch of the most powerful family in a small Texas town (and why yes, there are certain intriguing parallels between this film and “Dallas,” now that you mention it) who takes it upon himself to break his grown son () away from his mother (Eleanor Parker) by teaching him to be a man–alas, this leads to his downfall when his son falls for a local girl and begins to discover any number of long-buried family skeletons. In Fred Zinnemann’s “The Sundowners” (1960), he plays an Australian sheep drover (a bit of casting not as awful as it might sound) who wants to continue his nomadic existence even as his wife (Deborah Kerr) and family yearn to settle down.

The final two titles, both filmed later in his career, show Mitchum mixing things up a little bit and trying new things with varying degrees of success. “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” (1969) is a lumbering comedy-western in which aging marshal Mitchum and longtime adversary George Kennedy team up to save the former’s old town, now policed by a thorough incompetent, from the latter’s old gang, now run by the thoroughly unpleasant David Carradine. Far more impressive is the tough and surprisingly violent (especially considering that it was directed by the usually staid Sydney Pollack) 1974 thriller “The Yakuza,” in which Mitchum travels to Japan to help track down the missing daughter of a friend and winds up going against the dreaded Japanese underworld in the film that “Black Rain” tried and failed to be. (Film buffs will recall that future filmmaker Paul Schrader made his screenwriting debut with this script, which was later rewritten by Robert Towne.)

Although not exactly bursting with special features, the films in this set do boast a modestly intriguing array of extras. “Angel Face” and “Macao” both include commentaries from noir expert Eddie Muller. Jane Russel joins Muller on the “Macao” commentary and also appears on the TCM documentary special “Private Screenings.” “Home From the Hill” offers only a trailer while “The Sundowners” and “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” offer up vintage promotional films. “The Yakuza” includes another old promo film and Sydney Pollack shows up to contribute a commentary to talk about the making of the film and his experiences working with Mitchum.

A Warner Home Video release. $59.98.


BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Universal Home Video. $26.98): Apparently Universal doesn’t know how to quit this movie and less than a year after its initial DVD release, it is back with a two-disc set that includes featurettes, interviews with the participants and “Premium packaging with 8 collectible postcards.”

COCAINE COWBOYS (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): No, not another unconventional western–this is a documentary charting the explosion of the cocaine industry in the 1980's and how it changed the face of Miami Beach forever. Despite an intriguing subject and some fascinating interviews with surviving participants of the era, the frantic pace and flashy approach, no doubt utilized to recreate the rush of the times in cinematic terms, wind up growing fairly tiresome after a while.

DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK/ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK and DON’T KNOCK THE TWIST/TWIST AROUND THE CLOCK (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95 each): Fans of the early days of rock music should thrill to these two double-feature discs consisting of low-budget exploitation films meant to make a quick buck off of what was presumed to be just another fad. As cinema, they aren’t much but they do offer some priceless footage of future legends–the former includes performances from Bill Haley and the Comets and Little Richard while the latter features contributions from Chubby Checker and Dion.

THE GUARDIAN (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.95): When this Kevin Costner/Ashton Kutcher love letter to the Coast Guard came out last fall, the general consensus was that it was an okay movie for the first 90 minutes or so that quickly became undone by a final third that included more false endings than “The Return of the King.” Apparently not getting the hint, the filmmakers have thoughtfully included yet another “alternate ending” to this DVD, along with additional deleted scenes and a commentary from director Andrew Davis.

JESUS CAMP (Magnolia Home Video. $26.98): This acclaimed film, just nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar, offers viewers the fascinating and often frightening sight of young children being groomed into the next wave of evangelical proselytizers at a specialized North Dakota camp. Fans of grim irony will be amused to observe the presence of the now-disgraced Ted Haggard (who wasthe president of the National Association of Evangelicals until he was caught in a scandal involving drugs and male prostitutes) in the final reels.

MONSTERS AND MADMEN (The Criterion Collection. $79.95): Proving that they aren’t devoted solely to ultra-arty foreign titles and auteurist favorites, the folks at Criterion offer up a collection of four cheerfully cheesy 1950's-era genre films–“The Haunted Strangler” (1958), “Corridors of Blood” (1959), “The Atomic Submarine” (1959) and “First Man Into Space” (1959)–along with commentary tracks, new interviews with some of the surviving participants and the restoration of some previously censored bits of footage.

SAW 3 (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $29.95): Look, I am perfectly willing to accept the idea that a guy on death’s door would spend his remaining days going on a self-righteous kill spree designed to make his potential victims appreciate the gift of life. I am willing to accept that he is able to do this by creating a series of elaborate traps that look like the results of a brainstorming session involving Rube Goldberg, the Marquis de Sade and MacGyver. Hell, I am even willing to go along with him managing to take a power drill to the skull without changing the expression on his face. However, if any of you actually pick up a copy of this worthless continuation to a horror franchise that ran out of steam approximately 10 minutes before the end credits of the first one, could you please explain to me how he managed to acquire all the rotting pig carcasses to deploy in one of his more ludicrous set-pieces?

SHERRYBABY (Universal Home Video. $27.98): Although this harrowing indie drama, in which a former junkie tries to reestablish a connection with her young daughter after spending three years in prison, is not quite as powerful as some have suggested, it is worth a look for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s forceful and fearless performance in the central role.

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (IFC Films. $24.95): In this funny and eye-opening documentary, filmmaker Kirby Dick takes on the MPAA ratings board and their seeming bias against independent filmmakers and on-screen depictions of sexuality (especially gay-oriented material) by offering comparisons between what was barred and what was allowed, exposing the identities of the mysteriously secret board members and uncovers the entire hush-hush ratings process by showing us what happened when he submitted this film. The result is a bit of a mess–there is far more material here than a 93-minute running time can handle–but for anyone who has wondered what the MPAA has been thinking over the years, you should definitely check it out.

YOJIMBO/SANJURO (The Criterion Collection. $39.95 each): Last year, Criterion revisited Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” one of their early DVD releases, and the overstuffed result was arguably the most valuable and impressive disc of the year. They are now doing the same thing for two more of their previously released Kurosawa titles–“Yojimbo” is the darkly comic 1961 classic in which crafty samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) plays two warring factions off of each other for his own benefit (a story later loosely remade by Sergio Leone as “A Fistful of Dollars” and Walter Hill as “Last Man Standing”) and “Sanjuro” is a 1962 follow-up in which our anti-hero molds a rag-tag group of idealistic young warriors into proper samurai–and while the results may not be as obviously spectacular as the “Samurai” package, the combination of new transfers, commentaries from Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and documentaries on the films made for Japanese television make them more than worthy of double-dipping for film scholars and action buffs alike.

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originally posted: 01/26/07 17:30:32
last updated: 01/28/07 10:54:42
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