Well, the dog days of summer are fast approaching, and what better way to duck out of the heat than by spending a cool day inside, AC-blasting, with your Blu-ray player and an endless supply of chilled adult beverages. June sees the release of an Alfred Hitchcock classic (beautifully restored), a trio of Lina Wertmüller gems, a nearly lost Michael Curtiz effort, a movie about the sex lives of ghosts, and a plane crash survival tale sold on the, er, ample merits of its female lead.
“The 39 Steps” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
Why You Should Care: Because “The 39 Steps,” a crackling (86 minutes!) spy thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, is one of the most beloved British movies of all time, coming in at fourth place in the British Film Institute’s poll of top British films, and more recently, named the 21st greatest British film of all time by movie magazine Total Film. The film, based in part on a serialized novel by Scottish author John Buchan (originally collected and published in 1915), is an establishing entry as part of one of Hitchcock’s chief obsessions – the tale of an innocent, everyday man who is caught up in something extraordinary and forced to run (see also: “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” etc.) In the case of “The 39 Steps,” it’s Robert Donat, playing a man who accidentally witnesses an attempted assassination and is forced to flee various villainous factions (while dealing with Lucie Mannheim as a potential spy and Madeleine Carroll as a potential love interest). A half-decade before Hitchcock’s true golden period began, “The 39 Steps” is a brisk and undeniably entertaining little thriller, and one that has clearly been lodged in the public consciousness, considering it’s been remade several times (the latest, in 2008, was for British television), lampooned on “Sesame Street,” adapted into a stage show that’s still running in London (it was also on Broadway in the States for a while), and, just four years after Hitchcock’s version, was turned into an Orson Welles radio show for the Mercury Theatre. That’s a lot of steps!
What’s On It: This is a reissue from Criterion, but far from being the same old transfer and features, this is equipped with a new high-definition digital restoration (and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray). And it also has a host of features – among them an audio commentary with Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary from 2000 called “Hitchcock: The Early Years,” the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast, original footage from a 1966 British interview with Hitchcock, a new visual essay from Leonard Leff, audio excertps from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock, original production design drawings, and a booklet featuring an essay on the film by critic David Cairns. Whew.
Release Date: June 26th via Criterion
Lina Wertmüller Collection (“Love & Anarchy,” “The Seduction of Mimi,” and “All Screwed Up”)
Why You Should Care: If you’ve never seen a Lina Wertmüller movie, well, this collection is a good place to start. Wertmüller was an Italian writer/director and the first woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Directing (for 1975’s “Seven Beauties”), at a time when the line between art films and the mainstream was at its blurriest. (She was even impersonated on “Saturday Night Live.”) This set (also available on Blu-ray) collects three gems. 1972’s “The Seduction of Mimi” is a political farce co-starring frequent Wertmüller collaborator Giancarlo Giannini about a man who is cornered into rigging a local election with predictably disastrous consequences. (The film was very liberally adapted into Michael Schultz’s 1977 comedy “Which Way Is Up?,” which starred Richard Pryor and was based on a screenplay written by “Jaws” scribe Carl Gottlieb.) “Love & Anarchy,” released the following year, also stars Giannini and, like ‘Seduction of Mimi’, was entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival (it was up for the Palme d’Or and Giannini won Best Actor). It’s a much more serious affair, concerned with an anarchist (Giannini) who, while plotting to kill Mussolini in the days before the second World War, falls in love with a prostitute (Mariangela Melato) at the whore house where he’s staying. Singularly powerful, you can still feel the lingering effects of this movie today (look no further than 2008’s great Austrian film “Revanche,” which was nominated for the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature). 1974’s “All Screwed Up” (perhaps remembered for its original translation, “Everything Ready, Nothing Works,” but probably not since it was released the same year as her landmark “Swept Away”), here for the first time on home video, is about the culture clash when southern Italians move to the modern northern Italian city.
What’s On It: “Love & Anarchy” has a trailer. So that’s something. Besides that (a “stills gallery” doesn’t count), they are completely barebones. Still, having three Wertmüller movies in pristine high-def Blu-ray is pretty great.
Release date: June 19th via Kino
“The Hangman” (Michael Curtiz, 1959)
Why You Should Care: A clever and occasionally hard-edged western by “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz about a lawman nicknamed The Hangman (Robert Taylor) who tracks a criminal (Jack Lord) who has murdered a fellow marshal, the film has an undeniably catchy premise and sharp, smart direction to go along with it. The townspeople, fond of the suspected killer, band together to obscure the Hangman’s investigation, while the Hangman takes a different approach – trying to sway the killer’s ex (Tina Louise) into giving him up. The script for “The Hangman” was written by Dudley Nichols, a legendary Hollywood screenwriter known for authoring the scripts for “Stagecoach,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and for co-writing (with Hagar Wilde) the irrepressible “Bringing Up Baby,” and was at least partially based on the life of “Lucky” Luke Short, a carousing American frontiersman, gunfighter, saloon owner, and (depending on your historical and moral point of view) serial killer, who ran with Wyatt Earp in Tombstone before decamping to Dodge City, Kansas. “The Hangman” isn’t exactly a classic but it also didn’t deserve to be languishing in the Paramount vaults somewhere collecting dust – the fact that it’s back out on home video (and with an accompanying Blu-ray release) is awesome in and of itself…
What’s On It: …which is good because it doesn’t have a single special feature.
Release Date: June 26th via Olive Films
“Back From Eternity” (John Farrow, 1956)
Why You Should Care: Apparently the story for “Back From Eternity,” about a plane full of strangers stranded in the South American jungle following a harrowing plane crash (they are then hunted by the locals), was so compelling to Australian producer-director John Farrow that he made it twice – first in 1939 as “Five Came Back” (starring Chester Morris and Lucille Ball) and then again, in 1956, as “Back From Eternity.” The latter version starred Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, Rod Steiger, Phyllis Kirk, and Jesse White, and follows the disaster movie formula of disparate characters forced to understand and accept one another for the survival of the group (Steiger plays a killer being brought to justice, White plays a mobster chauffeuring his bosses son, etc). While the movie is more of an adventure/thriller, with a downbeat ending partially borrowed for Frank Darabont’s similarly dire “The Mist,” the advertising for “Back From Eternity” focused on one thing: the smoldering Anita Ekberg. Original posters for the movie placed her in the center of the image, with lush foliage surrounding her, and the words “Ooh that Ekberg!” craning overhead, even though there are much cooler things to focus on like the mysterious danger of the jungle or the headhunters or Robert Ryan. I guess that’s one way to sell it. Either that or, “Hey, remember ‘Five Came Back?’ ”
What’s On It: Nada. This is a burnt-to-order deal; the very definition of no-frills.
Release date: Out now via Warner Archive
“The Spirit Is Willing” (William Castle, 1967)
Why You Should Care: A marginal William Castle movie even by those admittedly low standards, “The Spirit Is Willing” is a frightfully bizarre, madcap comedy about a family (led by Vera Miles and Sid Caesar), who accidentally rent a Cape Cod vacation home populated by unruly ghosts. The trailer for this movie promised that it would be, in the awkward phrasing of the time, “the first picture to face the two biggest issues of our time – the sex lives of ghosts and how to have a good vacation while ghosts are breaking up the joint all around you.” What’s really amazing is how Castle produced and directed this movie, which is equal parts Haunted Mansion and “American Horror Story,” a year before producing the seminal (and very serious) horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby” (for the same studio, Paramount). The movie is not without its pleasures (John McGiver and John Astin show up and the film marked the debut of future “Poldark” actress Jill Townsend, playing three roles, all of them adorably) but its overwrought zaniness murders any chance of actual spooks and scares. Still, it’s more frightening than “Insidious.”
What’s On It: Nothing. It’s a haunted house of a DVD.
Release date: June 26th via Olive
Also out in June: “Tales That Witness Madness,” a long-forgotten 1973 British horror anthology film starring Kim Novak, Joan Collins, Jack Hawkins and Donald Pleasance that was distributed in America by Paramount (June 26th); the European romance “For the First Time,” which is notable for being Mario Lanza‘s final film performance (June 19th); King Vidor’s 1930 western “Billy the Kid” starring Johnny Mack Brown as Billy the Kid and Wallace Beery as his eventual assassin Pat Garrett (out now); “The Wayward Bus,” based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name and populated by a (at the time, at least) mostly unknown cast, finally rolls onto DVD and Blu-ray (June 12th); and The Beatles’ trippy animated musical (at one time poised for a high-tech remake courtesy of Disney and Robert Zemeckis), “Yellow Submarine,” has been painstakingly remastered and is now available on Blu-ray, an audio/visual feast for the senses (out now).