Thanks to DVD fans' seeming insatiable desire for fresh releases, unjustly neglected vintage films and performers are getting a new lease on life. The latest batch of oldies recently released on the digital format gives these consumers plenty of worthy choices.
A real find is Milestone's "The Chess Player" ($30), a haunting, clever silent French drama from 1927 from director Raymond Bernard. Film historian Kevin Brownlow had praised the imagination and power of the director's historic dramas and lamented their neglect over the years in his landmark book on silent films, "The Parade's Gone By." Now, Brownlow has restored "The Chess Player," and the result is as beautiful as it is fascinating.
Set in Russian-occupied Poland in 1776, the film revolves around nobleman Boleslas Vorowowski, a remarkable chess player who also is leading a secret liberation movement against the Russians. His mentor is an eccentric Baron who creates automatons in his basement. After Boleslas is wounded in battle and is wanted by the Russians, the Baron hides him in an elaborate chess-playing automaton in hopes of smuggling him to Germany. But when Catherine the Great summons the Baron and his mechanical chess player for a game at her palace in St. Petersburg, Boleslas' fate hangs in the balance.
The DVD also features stills and historical information.
The boutique company Allday Entertainment prides itself on releasing films on DVD that have fallen through the cracks. Allday's latest offering, 1949's "Christ in Concrete" ($25), barely saw a release in the United States because the director, screenwriter and star were all blacklisted. Produced in England, "Christ in Concrete" is based on Pietro di Donato's progressive 1939 novel of the same name about Italian American immigrants working in construction in New York City during the Great Depression.
Directed by blacklisted Edward Dmytryk, adapted by blacklisted Ben Barzman and starring blacklisted Sam Wanamaker, "Christ in Concrete" may fall into didacticism on occasion, but it's still a powerful story, with strong, memorable performances. The film won major awards in Europe and was Dmytryk's favorite.
The DVD features commentary from Richard di Donato, son of the author, Barzman's wife, Norma, film scholar Fred Gardaphe and DVD producer David Kalat, a video interview with Peter di Donato, another son of the author, a new digital transfer from original nitrate elements, an isolated musical score with commentary, archives of stills and artwork, and film scholar Bill Wasserzieher, home movies with the author and a 1965 recording of Harold Selesky's experimental musical monodrama based on the book, featuring Eli Wallach.
Originally, a young Martin Scorsese was hired to direct the evocative, disturbing 1969 drama "The Honeymoon Killers' (Criterion, $30), based on the sordid, grisly 1949 Lonely Hearts Killers case. According to the film's writer-director, Leonard Kastle, Scorsese was soon removed from the film because he was too slow. Then Kastle, who never directed before or since, took over the reins. A couple of Scorsese's scenes remain in the film, which stars Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler as Ray and Martha, who fleece and then murder widows after Ray "marries" them. Doris Roberts from "Everybody Loves Raymond" is featured in the strong supporting cast. The film's not for everyone's tastes but is extremely well done.
The DVD features a new high-definition transfer, an interview with Kastle, a fascinating illustrated essay on the real killers and a new essay by Gary Giddens.
Back in the "olden days," filmgoers would flock to movie theaters not just to catch the latest feature but also the newest installment in a serial adventure. Image has just released two of Republic's best-loved serials, 1952's "Radar Men From the Moon" ($30) and 1939's "Zorro's Fighting Legion" ($30). The latter is a rip-roaring adventure starring a perfectly cast Reed Hadley as the famous Mr. Z. This time around, Zorro must stop the reincarnated Yaqui god Don Del Oro from stealing gold needed to fund Juarez's new government.
And in the delightfully cheesy "Radar Men," Commander Cody (George Wallace) must stop an evil moon leader named Retik from invading Earth. Look for Clayton Moore, better known as "The Lone Ranger," in a rare bad-guy role.
VCI Entertainment has dusted off vintage two-reel comedies from the 1930s and '40s starring Leon Errol ($20) and the master of the slow-burn, Edgar Kennedy ($20).
Errol, who hailed from Australia, appeared in numerous features in America, including the famous "Mexican Spitfire" comedies with Lupe Velez. And the two-reelers featured on the disc, though threadbare in their production values, definitely show off his comedic skill, generally as the henpecked husband.