Black & white mayhem, murder, and monsters!
Warner Archive continues to be a fantastic source of older films given new life on Blu-ray, and that continues with three new releases from the 1950s. Keep reading for a look at The Black Scorpion, While the City Sleeps, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
The Black Scorpion (1957)
Volcanic eruptions in desolate areas don’t typically disturb humanity all that much, but when one shatters the earth’s crust near Mexico City it unleashes something monstrous. A gigantic scorpion climbs out of the dirt and begins causing all kinds of trouble. People rally to investigate and stop the beast only to discover more below the surface including something even larger.
I have respect for all kinds of animators from hand-drawn to CG, but my heart belongs to practitioners of stop motion. Ray Harryhausen is obviously the biggest name in the field, but others did equally great work throughout the 20th century. An animator (Willis O’Brien) from the original King Kong gets to show off here, and the result is great fun.
It’s a typical story in most ways as scientists and soldiers struggle to defeat the creatures, but there’s no arguing the thrills and mayhem that come with the scorpions and their deadly pincers. Creatures battle each other, and the big one reaches some populated areas, but the standout sequence involves a scorpion attack on a passenger train. The big one stops it, and as it crashes smaller monsters come running in to snag terrified people from the wreckage. It’s wonderful and harrowing.
Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray brings the monster mayhem to beautiful life and includes the following extras.
- Stop Motion Masters [3:16] – Ray Harryhausen recalls what got him started on a life in stop motion animation.
- The Animal World [11:33] – Footage animated by Harryhausen from Irwin Allen’s 1956 documentary The Animal World is excerpted here alogside an interview with the animation master.
- Las Vegas Monster and Beetleman Test Footage [4:34] – Pete Peterson worked on various films alongside Harryhausen and others, and these scenes were lost test footage of his discovered in a trunk years later.
Buy The Black Scorpion on Blu-ray from Amazon.
While the City Sleeps (1956)
A serial killer is stalking and murdering the women of New York City, and while the police are already on the hunt the killer soon finds a new adversary in the city’s biggest newspaper. An employee shake-up atop the masthead has the paper’s various departments vying for the best coverage, and commentator Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) takes the very particular angle of antagonizing the killer. He succeeds, but it puts the woman he loves in harm’s way.
This is a slick little thriller that tells a story well beyond the familiar threat of a serial killer. To be sure, the suspense beats work well with sequences seeing the killer maneuver his way closer to his victims before striking with violent rage.
Beyond those genre thrills, though, the film delivers a smart commentary on the media and their obsession with being “first” with a particular story. It’s one fed by readers and viewers, of course, but the cut-throat nature of the business comes into the open as friends and co-workers put their own careers ahead of those relationships. Here it’s newspaper editions and the newswire, but today it’s evident in the 24-hour news cycle as outlets get information wrong in a race for first place.
Andrews does great work with a character who’s just flawed enough to feel human, and his efforts and actions have consequences. The supporting cast is equally strong with compelling turns by Vincent Price, George Sanders, Rhonda Fleming, Thomas Mitchell, and more.
The Blu-ray looks great, but there are no special features.
Buy While the City Sleeps on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is riding high on a successful first novel, but coming up with a second hasn’t been as easy. A possible break comes when his newspaperman father-in-law suggests they conspire to argue against the death penalty by proving just how easy it is for an innocent man to be convicted. The two men place evidence at the scene of a recent murder, Tom begins hanging around likely victims, and then he gets himself picked up as a suspect. The plan works beautifully, but the problem with having only one person who can prove your innocence soon becomes a reality.
If the story sounds familiar it may be because Kevin Spacey’s The Life of David Gale (2003) borrowed its core plot while slathering it with melodrama and a thick layer of liberal talking points. There was also a remake in 2009 starring Michael Douglas and Jesse Metcalfe. Fritz Lang‘s film, his last in the U.S., is by far the superior rendition as it builds a suspenseful tale from its slick conceit and does so without wasting any time.
Andrews (Laura, State Fair) is terrific as a character who thinks he’s a step ahead of the law only to realize he’s two behind, and he makes for an engaging and compelling protagonist whose behavior keeps viewers on their toes. The eternally fantastic Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion) does good work in the thankless role of Tom’s soon-to-be bride, and while it’s mostly a passive character she gives it life where required.
As with the Lang/Andrews film above, this release is lacking in extras but looks terrific on Blu-ray.
Buy Beyond a Reasonable Doubt on Blu-ray from Amazon.