Screens Armchair Cinephile

A fox in the video store

CAPTION. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

With Catholicism finally out of the hot seat and actually the topic of fawning attention from the news media, 20th Century Fox looks prophetic in the release of some catalog titles that, just a couple of months ago, would be badly out of vogue. None of the trio (trinity?) are trumpeted today as classics by many people, but they boast strong talent in front of the lens and directors whose filmographies contain truly great films:

Satan Never Sleeps, the swan song for director Leo McCarey (best known for comedies such as Duck Soup and The Awful Truth), adapts Pearl S. Buck's novel about a priest caught up in China's Communist revolution. The Red Army's not William Holden's only worry, as a beautiful local girl tests the strength of his vows.

It's a long way from Casablanca (thematically, anyway), but director Michael Curtiz went to Italy to tell the story of Francis of Assisi. Bradford Dillman takes the role of a man who lived quite a life before giving up worldly things to follow God and eventually become one of the few saints lay folk have heard of.

The best known film of the three, The Agony and the Ecstasy, finds The Third Man director Carol Reed telling the story of Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. Rex Harrison plays the Pope, who practically chains the painter (played by Charlton Heston) to his scaffolding in order to get the job done.

Fox is all about organizing their catalog into series these days, and many of the series have more staying power than this little religious trilogy. Their "Studio Classics" line has now passed the two-dozen mark, having first flirted with its own obsession over the number three: A Letter to Three Wives, Three Coins in the Fountain, and The Three Faces of Eve are all among recent SC releases, and most authorities agree that the first of the batch is the most classic. Joseph Mankiewicz made this tale of marital stress a year before his All About Eve (no relation to the lady with three faces): Three friends are about to set out on a river trip when they get a letter from a woman who claims to have stolen one of their husbands. Whose marriage is on the rocks? If they aren't sure at the trip's start, chances are they'll all be shaky by the end. The Studio Classics line is heavy on troubled marriages lately, with Leave Her to Heaven starring Gene Tierney as a woman who loses it when her husband stops paying her enough attention; Return to Peyton Place continues the crisscrossing infidelities and intrigues of the eponymous first film.

Fox still releases movies by themselves, of course; its more-than-welcome release of Wim Wenders' hauntingly beautiful Paris, Texas snuck out recently with no banner or theme, just a quietly well equipped disc with a widescreen transfer, a commentary from Wenders, a featurette, and some deleted scenes.

But the big news in Fox-land is the arrival of the "Fox Film Noir" series, which just launched with three titles. Laura is a romantic suspense film in which a detective hired to solve a murder finds himself developing a crush on the victim's painted portrait. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger after initial helmsman Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight) had to drop out. Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets finds noir icon Richard Widmark playing a doctor who stumbles across a new strain of bubonic plague. The plot device may sound far-fetched, but the location - the docks of New Orleans - makes it plausible.

Finally, Call Northside 777 does a great job with a thoroughly unlikely cast: Famed grouch Lee J. Cobb is a newspaper editor with a heart; Jimmy Stewart is a reporter whose default mode is cynicism instead of Capraesque idealism; and Richard Conte, veteran of many Italian tough-guy roles, plays an Eastern European immigrant who's convicted of murder but may be innocent. Unfolding with plenty of suspense thanks to a faux-newsreel narrator and Stewart's strong performance as a man forced to pursue a story he finds hard to believe, it's a little gem that should get a lot more attention thanks to its inclusion in this series.

By John DeFore

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