MGM on MOD: The MGM Limited Edition Collection
Highlights from the last batch of releases from the manufacture-on-demand line of releases, including "Rolling Thunder," "Big House U.S.A." and "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover"
The MGM Limited Edition Collection, which offers DVD-R editions of catalog titles from the MGM/Fox library through the MOD (manufacture on demand) model originally launched by the Warner Archive Collection, kicked off in late 2009 with a library of 27 titles previously unavailable on DVD and available now available to order exclusively through Amazon. It was as spotty start, with mastering and pressing errors, non-anamorphic versions of widescreen films and second-rate source material on many of the offerings.
Well, that initial run seems to have worked the bugs (most if not all) out of the system and it recently expanded both its collection and its availability in partnership with Allied Vaughn. The titles are no longer limited to Amazon anymore and the company has announced that the catalog will expand to over 400 titles over the new 18 months
The first titles started rolling out late in 2010 and I received my first discs in January 2011. A few select reviews follow, but first some general comments. The editions were all fine, from preserved (not restored) editions remastered for HD presentation. The average quality is a bit below the Warner Archive (which has been drawing from a collection that has been well cared for since Turner purchased it in the 1980s for his fledgling movie channels) but the widescreen films are letterboxed and anamorphic and the pre-widescreen films are at their proper 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
"99 River Street" (1953) – The best of the batch I reviewed, both as a movie and as a well-mastered DVD, is a dynamic bare-knuckle film noir directed with scrappy energy and simple but dynamic stylization by Phil Karlson, one of the best of the low-budget noir directors. Full review is here.
Less than half of "Big House, U.S.A." actually takes place in the Big House. It begins and ends in the dramatic landscape of Royal Gorge Park, Colorado. Ralph Meeker quite handily stashes a runaway boy from the local summer camp in an abandoned ranger's station and hides the ransom money (and the boy, who doesn't survive the ordeal) before he's captured and sent up the river. Once inside, it plays like a poor man's "Brute Force," with Broderick Crawford plotting an escape with his B-movie cast of cellmates (William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr. and Charles Bronson) and Meeker, shunned by all as a childkiller, is dragged along. They want to recover the hidden loot. Scripted by John C. Higgins (who penned "Raw Deal," "T-Men" and "Border Incident" for Anthony Mann) and directed by Howard W. Koch, it's an inconsistent film, with striking imagery, creative twists (scuba gear) and ruthless turns (death by steam tunnel) next to plodding direction and tired first-person narration from Reed Hadley, who plays the colorless but dignified FBI agent on the case. There are some marvelously jagged edges to the tale but Koch fails to create any tension or drama from the material. He has the good luck of finding a terrific landscape wherever he puts his camera in the Royal Gorge scenes, but fails to hide the fact that his underwater scenes take place in the shallows of a studio tank. The visual quality is grainier and coarser than "99 River Street" but is perfectly acceptable and quite watchable.
"The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover" (1977) is the closest that Larry Cohen, an independent director if there ever was one, ever got to an all-star cast. Oscar winner Broderick Crawford is Hoover, the once-dedicated agent who cleans up the bureau out of moral indignation over abuses and then builds it into his own private duchy of power and control, using information and blackmail to maintain his position and authority through every successive administration. Rip Torn is the young agent who becomes disillusioned by Hoover's abuses and a guest cast of historical figures include Howard Da Silva as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy, Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King, Andrew Duggan as Lyndon Johnson, Jack Cassidy as Damon Runyon and Lloyd Gough as Walter Winchell (José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, John Marley, June Havoc, Lloyd Nolan and George Plimpton also costar). Dan Dailey his trusted "friend" Clyde Tolson, the man whispered to be his gay lover, but Cohen doesn't give in to rumor of Hoover's cross-dressing and closeted identity. He posits Hoover as a highly sexually repressed man (possible impotent), anxious when it comes to sexual contact with women, aroused only when listening to secret recordings made of the sexual activities of other people (including his own agents). There are plenty of contradictions in this Hoover, all of them designed to create Cohen's portrait of a man who isn't really aware of his contradictions.
"Futureworld" (1977), the sequel to "Westworld," leaves the fantasy of manufactured vacations for a conspiracy thriller behind the scenes of Delos, the resort company behind the "Westworld" disaster. Peter Fonda is the hip, ambitious investigative newspaper reporter who tags along with TV news personality Blythe Danner (a former lover less than thrilled to see her the trouble-making roustabout) to dig a conspiracy out of the high-concept theme park. The film spends more time scuttling through service tunnels and secret workshops behind the fantasy lands than enjoying the attractions and the behind-the-scenes workings have neither the humor nor the texture of the original. Even Yul Brynner, promoted in the posters and trailers, appears only in flashback clips and a completely gratuitous dream sequence. The rest is a flat conspiracy thriller that makes little sense but does offer one memorable sequence: Fonda square off with his own android double/genetic twin. Even in the realm of robot conspiracy thrillers, this is a low-watt entry.
"Rolling Thunder" (1977), co-written by Paul Schrader and produced after "Taxi Driver," is one of the most interesting revenge thrillers of the seventies. William Devane is the soldier who returns from years in a Vietcong POW camp to find his wife and family have left him. Devane is almost numb—he survived by accepting the torture and depravation and now can't relate to living free—but rouses to life when he has a mission. Tommy Lee Jones is his former prison-mate who signs up to hunt down the men who killed Devane's son. And yes, it's a bloody, brutal reckoning, but what makes the film interesting is the portrait of disconnection and alienation and Devane's incarnation of the man who wraps the storm of his rage under a calm surface until it explodes in the final act.
"Leo The Last" (1970) is an odd, not completely satisfying social portrait starring Marcello Mastroianni as a prince in exile who comes out of the seclusion of his London home and starts to connect with the people of his decaying neighborhood. John Boorman writes and directs.
There is no official website with the full list of available titles, but a few sites have pages dedicated to the collection. The Amazon page has recently been updated to include these new titles, but a more up-to-date listing is on Oldies.com and on Screen Archives, while Movies Unlimited folds in the MGM titles with the Warner Archive offerings in their "Rare Finds Not Available in Stores" section
There aren't a lot of reviews of these titles around, but there are a few forums with very passionate fans swapping experiences and reviews of their purchases, notably on Criterion Forum, Home Theater Forum and DVD Talk.
And just this week I received a big box of new MGM releases, so I'll update this next month with a whole new batch of reviews.