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New burn-on-demand classics from Columbia

As it happens, the major studios have been looking at declining DVD sales and consequently have been turning more and more to the burn-on-demand method of manufacturing older films in their catalog that have never been released on DVD. Depending on who you are, this is either great news or an excuse to bitch up a storm. The titles themselves retail in the $20 to $30 range if you want to purchase them, and this has caused some grumbling in various internet arenas. If, however, you just want to watch these things, come to Scarecrow and rent them. Honestly, this burn-on-demand thing that Warner started has given us hundreds of rare gems, many that have never, and would have never, seen the light of day. As I've stated before in a post on the Warner Archive titles, it's simply too expensive for the studio's catalog divisions to make, market, and sell these without losing money. Following Warner's lead, MGM and Universal have dipped their toes in the water, releasing long lost, burned-on-demand titles like Ruggles Of Red Gap, Resurrection, The Landlord, and Dreamchild, but not really following up on those in any meaningful way. Columbia, however, has entered the water with a giant cannonball jump off of the diving board, and for that we could not be more pleased. This month, they have released 100 titles to kick off the campaign, and have plans to release more each month. We have ordered about 50 of them, 25 of which are available for rent as of this post. We plan to carry the whole 100, and then keep current with the new releases every month. Here's a small survey of the choice gems to come out in the first batch. Admitting this kind of thing is always subjective, my personal pick for the choicest gem of the first 100 has got to be Arthur Penn's Mickey One. I'll qualify that by saying I have yet to see Frank Borzage's No Greater Glory or Nicholas Ray's Hot Blood, and the auteurist in me can't wait to discover them now that we have them in beautiful, remastered versions that will replace the unrestored imports we can now retire. Mickey One, however, has only been available until now on laserdisc and the new Columbia DVD is nothing short of beautiful. If you're unfamiliar, this was the first film Arthur Penn had complete control over. He sort of went for broke, and the results are flawed yet fascinating, as those kinds of things often are. Penn hired Warren Beatty to star in the title role, Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter to score, and Ghislain Cloquet to shoot, then swirled them all together to concoct a hard-bop, jazz/noir poem. Beatty is a high-energy nightclub comic on the run from some Detroit mobsters. He lands in Chicago, only to find that the stage and the big city are terrible places to hide, particularly if you're paranoid to the point of delusion. The wild jazz score swings and explodes as Beatty stumbles through his nightmare, and Cloquet's camera creates images that are alternately dreamlike and gritty as hell. Cloquet shot three films for Bresson, as well as The Young Girls Of Rochefort and Tess (which he won an Oscar for,) but what he did with black and white and smoke and steam and faces and light in this movie made my jaw hit the floor. Even if you can't hang on to the plot, which mixes things up on a frequent basis, possibly to put us in the same frame of mind as a very paranoid Mickey, you can easily sit back and be enthralled at the images and sounds of this newly remastered version of a long lost early'60s masterpiece. For a more straightforward look at Dark City and its environs, Columbia has also released some earlier, less-experimental noir and noir-related films, all of which are well worth a look. If you're a fan of Sweaty Eddie O'Brien, look no further than 711 Ocean Drive, which features O'Brien as a telephone repairman who gets way in over his head with the syndicate. Darren McGavin plays a rookie cop looking to take down the mob in the gritty, violent Case Against Brooklyn. In the tiny little noir subgenre of trucker-noir, formerly inhabited by They Drive By Night and Thieves' Highway, we have The Long Haul, set in England and starring Victor Mature and Diana Dors. On the continental front, Andre Techine's fascinating and complex crime drama Thieves (aka Les Voleurs,) starring Daniel Auteil and Catherine Deneuve also makes its DVD debut. It would be a stretch to call The Spiritualist a film noir, but it certainly has many elements, and has long been a favorite of noir fans. The radiant, lovely Cathy O'Donnell, who also inhabited Side Street and They Live By Night, stars here as a haunted young woman, and John Alton, fresh off the Anthony Mann classics T-Men and Raw Deal, once again creates a black and white landscape rich with shadows and fog. Noir not your thing? In the mood for a spookier October? How about a quartet of chillers? 10 Rillington Place stars Richard Attenborough as one of Britain's most notorious serial killers. John Gielgud brings The Canterville Ghost to life in this updating of Oscar Wilde's often-filmed short story, also starring Alyssa Milano. A Reflection Of Fear features Sondra Locke as a very troubled young woman involved in a series of murders as well as a bizarre Oedipal situation with Robert Shaw. Oh, and there's an evil life-sized doll named Aaron thrown in for good measure. Lastly, Terence Stamp awakens from a 30-year coma sporting a newly transplanted infant brain in The Mind Of Mr. Soames. Yee-hah! Stage adaptations abound, starting with a trio of intense familial dramas. A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg gives us another spectacular Alan Bates performance, while writer Peter (Amadeus, Equus) Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise throws together a family unit consisting of Rosalind Russell, Jack Hawkins, and Richard Beymer. That alone makes my hair stand on end thinking of the simmering tensions, but when tall dark stranger Maximillian Schell jumps into the mix, look out - and enjoy the high drama. The one I'm most excited about though is I Never Sang For My Father. Young, intense Gene Hackman going mano a mano with Melvyn Douglas sounds like a perfect way to spend a cold, fall evening. In a much lighter tone, we get the screen adaptation of Ruth Gordon's hit stage comedy Over 21, featuring Alexander Knox and Irene Dunne. Take a trip through the swinging '60's with Duffy, Otley, and A Severed Head. Duffy's a caper/adventure co-scripted by Donald Cammel and starring a trio of James', namely Coburn, Mason, and Fox. Fox would figure very prominently in Cammel's Performance two years later, but this is no Performance. Just a strange melding of talents set in lovely Almeria, Spain (which was also used for the Dollars Trilogy, Lawrence Of Arabia, and King Of Kings, among others). Otley and A Severed Head were both directed by Dick Clement, set in London, and offer a darkly comic take on the spy thriller and the multi-character romance, respectively. There are many others to choose from, and many more still to arrive. Other recent acquisitions: Andre De Toth dangles Russian/American double agent Ernest Borgnine to hell and back in Man On A String. John Neville's Sherlock Holmes hunts for Jack The Ripper in A Study In Terror. Kathryn Grant and William Leslie watch the world possibly explode in the brilliantly titled The Night The World Exploded. Kirk Douglas juggles a lover and the police chasing him through 1953 Israel in The Juggler, and legendary art director William Cameron Menzies directs the intense WWII drama Address Unknown. Last but definitely not least, Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason, and Cedric Hardwicke star in the Harold Pinter adaptation of The Pumpkin Eater, directed by the recently departed Jack Clayton. As I said at the outset, the opportunity to rediscover all of these hits and misses has really never been better. The technology and financial means are there to go back and remaster things like Mickey One, Brewster McCloud, Stranger On The Third Floor, and Man On A String if the studios commit to this new burn-on-demand method. Between Warner and now Columbia, dozens of films are falling out of the studio vaults every month, with more and more and more to come. I can't wait to see what wave two of these Columbia Classic releases will to look like.