Wednesday, June 27, 2012

New from MGM Limited Edition Collection: THE OUTSIDE MAN (1973) and WINDOWS (1980)

Two long sought-after cult items in the MGM archives have finally been released as part of the MOD (manufactured-on-demand) "MGM Limited Edition Collection," available from Warner Archive at www.warnerarchive.com.

(France - 1973)

This French thriller, shot in some marvelously distinctive Los Angeles locales, is one of the more unique oddities in early '70s crime cinema.  Equal parts film noir, European art film, and post-FRENCH CONNECTION action thriller, THE OUTSIDE MAN also boasts one of the most amazingly eclectic casts of its era.  Strange that it's been forgotten by all but the most devout cult movie obsessives.  Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as a French hit man contracted to whack L.A. crime boss Ted de Corsia (a veteran TV and movie tough guy in his last film).  Trintignant then finds his belongings have disappeared from his hotel, a determined mystery man (Roy Scheider) is on his tail and constantly firing shots at him, and he can't get out of L.A, and it all leads up to a wild shootout at the mortuary viewing of de Corsia's body, which isn't in a casket, but rather, seated upright in a chair, stogie in hand. The supporting cast is unbelievable:  Ann-Margret as a sexy strip club bartender who helps Trintignant get a fake passport; Angie Dickinson, sadly underutilized as de Corsia's much-younger wife, who's having an affair with sleazy stepson Umberto Orsini, who ordered the hit on his dad; THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW's Georgia Engel and a very young Jackie Earle Haley as a mother and obnoxious son briefly held hostage by Trintignant; Michel Constantin as Trintignant's boss; Felice Orlandi as the detective investigating the mob-related mayhem; Alex Rocco as one of Orsini's flunkies; future Lucio Fulci regular Carlo de Mejo as the fake passport connection; Carmen Argenziano as a biker; John Hillerman as a department store manager; and Talia Shire as a mortician's assistant.  There's a few loose ends (I didn't quite get the involvement of the Jesus-freak hitchhiker), but THE OUTSIDE MAN is a highly entertaining snapshot of early 1970s L.A., complete with a funky-ass Michel Legrand score and presented with a distinctly off-kilter European flavor courtesy of director Jacques Deray (BORSALINO), who co-wrote the script with Jean-Claude Carriere and Ian McLellan Hunter.

The transfer is 1.85:1 and anamorphic, but it's a bit battered and muddy in several spots.  Admittedly not the best transfer you'll ever see, but perfectly watchable (and the DVD opens with a disclaimer that the best available elements were used), and miles ahead of, say, the YouTube clip above. The packaging displays a PG rating, but this is actually the uncensored European cut, complete with some full frontal nudity in a strip club that was cut from the film's US release.  THE OUTSIDE MAN has had occasional airings on cable over the years (I recall seeing it on TBS many years ago), but it's great to see MGM removing it from the vault to be discovered anew.  (PG, 105 mins)

(US - 1980)

Opening in January 1980, WINDOWS has the distinction of being the first major theatrical release of the 1980s.  It was also the first of two controversial, gay-themed thrillers that faced accusations of stereotyping and demeaning the community it was depicting.  The other--William Friedkin's CRUISING--was in theaters less than a month after WINDOWS and has since come to be held in somewhat higher regard even with its dated depictions of the gay S&M/leather bar subculture.  WINDOWS, however, still has a much longer wait for a critical reassessment, even though it does have its defenders.  The directorial debut of famed cinematographer Gordon Willis (who photographed, among others, all three GODFATHER films, THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and Woody Allen's films from ANNIE HALL to THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), there's no denying WINDOWS is a beautifully shot film, with picture-perfect shot compositions and tons of priceless Brooklyn-in-1979 scenery.  The Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers are onscreen as much as the main actors.  As a snapshot of an era gone by, WINDOWS is worth the price of admission.  But Willis is saddled with a terrible script by Barry Siegel (his only writing credit) and lets things languish at a paralyzingly slow pace for an alleged thriller.  Mousy Emily (Talia Shire) is raped in her apartment by a creep with a switchblade who tape-records the assault.  She moves into a new apartment and is spied on from across the river via telescope by friend and former neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley), a crazed lesbian with obsessive designs on the soon-to-be-divorced Emily, designs so strong that she actually paid the rapist to break into Emily's apartment, in the hopes that it would make Emily turn to her for support (well, that and she has a tape-recording of Emily being violated that she can listen to in her more hot & bothered moments).  When the traumatized Emily, a sometime-stutterer who's still in speech therapy, starts taking baby steps toward a relationship with Bob (Joseph Cortese), the nice, sensitive detective handling her case, Andrea goes even further off the deep end.

I can appreciate Willis (who also served as his own cinematographer) wanting to go for a low-key psychological thriller, but the pace is almost glacial and story elements are completely illogical, especially the way the rapist is apprehended (Emily gets back in the cab?!), and in the fact that the primary villain's identity is made clear much too early. The finale, which goes on forever, with Andrea holding Emily captive, is terribly-handled, never suspenseful, and anti-climactic in the extreme.  WINDOWS is plodding, dull, and inconsistently-acted by Shire and Ashley (who have an equal number of good and bad moments), and Cortese, in his first major-studio film before going on to a long TV career that's still active today, is one of the dullest, charisma-free leading men you'll ever see.  But having said all that, WINDOWS is not that bad.  It's not very good, mind you...just not the dumpster fire that its reputation would suggest.  From a technical standpoint, fanatics of 1970s-1980s NYC location shooting like me will find it of much historical value (the Brooklyn Bridge facing the NYC skyline has rarely been shot as well as it is here).  The film has a cult following that stems mainly from it not being very easy to see all these years.  There were some sporadic cable airings in the '80s and it turned up on VOD several years ago, but it was never released on VHS, and this MGM MOD release (a good-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer) is its first on any home video format in the US.  Willis immediately went back to his old job, photographing Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES and as of now, 32 years later, has yet to direct a second film of his own.  And WINDOWS, much like CRUISING, is one of those films that most of the people involved simply refuse to discuss. (R, 94 mins)


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