DVD Round-up, 18 January 2009

Recently re-released in UK cinemas and re-evaluated by audiences and critics alike, 1949’s, The Queen of Spades (Optimum) is a morally challenging tale from director Thorold Dickinson based on the novel by Russian author Alexander Pushkin.

Set in the St Petersburg of the 1830s, Pushkin’s story tells of a Russian army officer, Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), addicted to playing card games with colleagues. When he hears a story about an old Countess (Edith Evans) who received the secret of how to win at cards through nefarious, and supernatural, means, he commits himself to retrieving it from her.

Determined to get close to the Countess, Suvorin becomes friendly with her niece, Lizaveta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell), manipulating her and others to find out the facts behind the stories.

Although brought onto the project at the last minute, Dickinson imbues the film with a dark atmosphere which could only be achieved in glorious black and white. Walbrook may not be a likeable main characters but he’s magnetic in his charm and bloody mindedness, the viewer egging him on to uncover the mystery which can only have an unhappy ending.

This new DVD contains an introduction from one The Queen of Spades greatest admirers, director Martin Scorsese, along with excerpts from talks with Dickinson following the release of the film.

Also from Thorold Dickinson is 1952’s The Secret People, a tale of love, betrayal, subterfuge and revenge stretching across the decades and through Europe.

As the film starts, sisters Maria (Valentina Cortese) and Nora (a young Audrey Hepburn) have arrived in London to stay with family friends following the death of their politically active father at the hands of fascists in Spain. Integrating with their new family, the girls are taken to Paris on holiday seven years later, only for Maria to meet her former boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani), a member of the Spanish resistance.

From here the plot doesn’t merely thickens but congeals, as Maria is roped into helping Louis attempt an assassination on the General who killed her father, something she is willing to do thanks to her love for him but morally uncertain about due to her upbringing.

Using the same visual flair which worked so well in Queen of Spades, Dickinson brings an already taught script to life. Helped by a fine cast, especially Cortese as the permanently confused Maria, Dickinson weaves a tangled web of intrigue which is never a settling watch, while the chance to see a young Hepburn ballet dancing is one you won’t see repeated often.

A British revenge Western starring Raquel Welch as heroine Hannie Caulder (Odeon Entertainment) might not sound like one of the great lost examples of the genre, but slip this new DVD release on and you might just be converted to its charm.

When three cowboys – Western legends Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin – pass by her ranch, killing her husband and raping her, Caulder determines to take revenge on the men. Bumping into Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp), a man as good with a one-liner as he is with a gun, the pair set out to find their targets in the harsh landscape of the West.

Putting a new spin on the hoary old revenge clichés, Hannie Caulder has real charm and grit, Welch and Culp making a fascinating team as his world-weary style, honed to perfection over many years, clashes with her slightly less rounded ability.

While the tone does sometimes veer uneasily between comedy and drama, this is still a welcome addition to any Western fans library, an example of what can be done with a strong cast and a script that doesn’t talk down to its audience.

Looking like its script might have escaped from the confines of an old Hammer House of Horror or Tales of the Unexpected production meeting, Fright! (Optimum) is the sort of film one expects to see late night on ITV, though that’s no bad thing in this case.

Susan George is schoolgirl Amanda, called to the house of Jim (George Cole) and Helen (Honor Blackman) to babysit for their young son. Copious close-ups of the locks on the front door and Blackman’s wide-eyes tells us that Something Is Wrong but it’s not until Jim and Helen have left Amanda on her own that the problem becomes clear.

Years ago Helen happened to be married to homicidal maniac Brian (Ian Bannen), a man who has just been released from prison and who now wants nothing more than to get back to his house to see his wife and child. And perhaps kill them if the mood takes him.

Full of odd camera angles, creaking doors and strangers at the window – Cole’s future partner-in-crime Dennis Waterman turns up at one point as Amanda’s boyfriend – Fright! Certainly has its moments of suspense, but not enough to make it a classic. Any chance to see the late Bannen is usually a welcome one, and if you’re looking to watch a very British chiller, this could be for you.

Staying with psychopathic killers, 1970’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Odeon Entertainment) hails from Italian director Mario Bava, a man famed for his genre work in such “classics” as Danger: Diabolik and The Whip and the Body.

With the intention of raising the low budget horror’s sales potential in America, Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth was shipped to Europe to star as wedding boutique owner John Harrington. Running the business with his wife Mildred (Laura Bett), Harrington tries to live a life of normality, only marred by tendencies to murder pretty young brides on their wedding nights as he tries to recall a traumatic episode from his childhood.

Held back from having a playboy lifestyle by his nagging wife, Harrington proceeds to murder her just as a local police inspector decides to take a close interest in the boutique owners life.

Packed with visually arresting images and plot developments that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, Hatchet for the Honeymoon is nonetheless a lot of fun. It won’t win any awards for the acting but the gaudy colours and ridiculously OTT plot and direction keeps it powering along till the bitter, and rather clever, end.

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