Like believers in Reaganomics, video distributors have instituted trickle-down policies when releasing classic Hollywood films to DVD. Every now and then another studio picture from the '40s or '50s will make its way to the format, often with negligible fanfare and supplements, creating at best a slow drizzle of output, with the occasional brief downpour of the box set.
But at this rate, most of the great lost American movies still won't be available on the circular medium by the time the next apparatus has become the ultimate playback device.
Warner Home Video has done the best job transferring and remastering old American films, but even they're prone to releasing safe, marketable trifles rather than genuinely daring material. Thus, you'll find stores overstocked with star-studded mediocrities like Indiscreet and How to Steal a Million, while The Lusty Men and The Steel Helmet remain buried.
The classic Hollywood system yielded many distinct works of art like these, despite the anonymous factory-line environs in which they were produced. Here are nine great ones, none of which have seen a proper Region 1 DVD release in the United States. Some are even lost to VHS, which makes an eventual DVD release that much more important.
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
To say that Make Way for Tomorrow was ahead of its time is a vast understatement — 70 years later, this drama still feels bold and trail-blazing in its message if not its aesthetics. When elderly couple Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) announce to their five offspring that the bank is foreclosing on their house, it's up to the younger generation to take their folks under their wings. None of the kids want the responsibility, and for the two who do undertake their parents' patronage, the comforts of their daily lives are disrupted. These selfish and impatient children are more than happy to pass the burden onto their grandkids or maid when the situations grow too embarrassing, always taking their parents' love, respect and presence for granted. Barkley and Lucy aren't saints — the ageism McCarey presents goes both ways — but it's the young people whose behavior is most loathsome. Of course; wouldn't we act the same way in that situation? Make Way for Tomorrow deals with a problem that affects us all but is rarely confronted in cinema, and for the target of McCarey's poignant arrows of truth, look no further than your mirror.
That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch, 1941)
Though the German-born Lubitsch made his name in Hollywood, That Uncertain Feeling is, remarkably, the only film he ever set in the contemporary United States. A sophisticated remake of the director's own 1925 silent Kiss Me Again, a classic divorce farce is updated to factor in Freudian psychoanalysis and Machiavellian business tactics. Jill Baker (Merle Oberon) is married to inattentive insurance salesman Larry (Melvyn Douglas) but falls for misanthropic pianist Sebastian (a hilarious Burgess Meredith). It's the kind of film where characters deconstruct their roles in the love triangle before going through the motions, where one key early character is named Kafka, and where many jokes come at the expense of lengthy classical music compositions and a Dali-esque piece of modern art. This still leaves Lubitsch plenty of room for censor-subverting sex jokes and an elevation of infantile gibberish like "keeks" and "phooey" to erudite comedy. Avoid the crappy, all-region public-domain DVDs of this film.
Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1949)
Even more romantically genuine — and heartbreaking — than Brief Encounter, Letter From an Unknown Woman is a self-destructive story of obsession with the performance of a lifetime from Joan Fontaine. That she didn't receive an Oscar win — or even a nomination — is one of the Academy's great snubs. The film is narrated by Fontaine's Lisa Berndl through the extraordinary conceit of a woman's potential suicide note, written to chauvinistic pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan). As he reads the shocking letter, we see the story unfold in flashbacks, starting with Lisa's schoolgirl crush on her then-neighbor Stefan on through their lone night together and her bitter reconciliation with him a decade later. It's mostly Ophuls' generous predilection for staggering long takes and hypnotic tracking shots, however, which has granted Letter top billing for ardent cinephiles.
They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949)
"Maybe we could live like a couple of real people," says Farley Granger's sympathetic bank robber Archie Bowers in They Live by Night. Trying to escape an ingrained criminal lifestyle, Bowers hooks up with gangster's daughter Keechie Mobley (Cathy O'Donnell), weds her for $20 in the equivalent of today's crass drive-through marriages, and travels the deep shadows of the seedy American South as a fringe outcast. A peculiarity even when considered under the broad umbrella of fatalistic lovers-on-the-run movies, They Live by Night merges terse noir conventions — like criminal underworlds and piercing, hard-boiled dialogue — with bleak, documentary-like realism. Its mordant comedy and bracing violence aside, this almost unbearably devastating drama should bring anyone to tears.
Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
An alternate title for Stars in My Crown might be Diary of an American Country Priest. A Western in period setting only, this episodic film is about nothing smaller than God, his absence and his influence over a small post—Civil War town grappling with racial integration and the arrival of a new pastor. Thanks to horror maestro Tourneur's atmospheric direction, the town itself is creepily alive and populated with lawless bigots. The only authority figures are a young doctor (James Mitchell) demanding the town's respect and the flawed and obstinate priest, Josiah Grey (Joel McCrea, appealing as always), whose apparent spreading of typhoid fever reduces him to near-poverty and despair. The disease, though, has nothing on the town's worst scourge: a growing band of cross-burning Klansman preparing to kill the town's kindly black resident for refusing to sell them his land. Ultimately, the film's affirmation of Christian kindness and forgiveness defeating racism through an inspirational speech may be more than a little naive, but it's still a fabulous catharsis.
The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)
Trains have always been the most cinematic mode of transportation, but not all the great locomotive thrillers were shot by Hitchcock. The Tall Target, which has the distinction of being a rare period noir, is a historically grounded yarn culled from an attempted assassination of president-elect Lincoln. Hearing a tip about the assassination, which the rest of the force dismisses as a conspiracy, New York police detective John Kennedy (B-movie joe Dick Powell) risks his life to board the train accommodating the killer and prevent the murder himself. Like the imposing monuments and valleys of his classic Westerns, Mann shoots the cold and foreboding train as a character in itself, its smoke, whistle and ratting progression on the tracks evoking an atmosphere as tense as any shadowy noir street corner. Even this film's opening credits crawl is a knockout.
Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
The pejorative "media circus" may have been first used in print in 1978, but its origins should date back as far as 1951 and Wilder's little-seen masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas plays despicable yellow journalist Charles Tatum, who, after a year covering small-town minutiae in Albuquerque, stumbles upon Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a man caved in by a mine collapse who believes he's suffering from an Indian curse. Pretending to ingratiate himself with the victim, Tatum immediately goes to work exploiting the poor man's tragedy for personal gain: convincing the mine contractor to utilize a slower recovery route so as to stretch out the story of survival over several days, bribing the corrupt local sheriff, whoring his writing to larger papers and stealing Minosa's rotten wife. Wilder's prophetic vision of an ethically devoid press spinning news to a ravenous populace is probably the most disturbing vision of America in classical Hollywood cinema. In hindsight Ace in the Hole, like Network, feels less like a satire and more like a documentary.
Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)
This essential, emblematic soaper is as resonant a repudiation of false '50s optimism as anything Douglas Sirk made in that decade. Jaded, burnt-out writer Dave Hirsch (Frank Sinatra) navigates an urban cityscape of drunkards, gamblers, pimps, sexpots, perverts and hypocrites, befriending an alcoholic barfly (Dean Martin at his best) and pursuing an intellectual literature teacher (Martha Hyer) while being pursued by a sweet but airheaded floozy (Shirley MacLaine). Minnelli's America is a festering cyst; in his lurid Cinemascope tableaus, the color red and all its sin-sual connotations predominates nearly every frame, with Elmer Bernstein's sleazy score adding its own complementary critique. But it's not all expressive window-dressing: The story is emotionally gut-wrenching, barreling inevitably toward Shakespearean tragedy in the milieu of manic melodrama. The flawless scene where MacLaine confronts Hyer in the latter's classroom is still one of the hardest I've ever sat through.
Decision at Sundown (Budd Boetticher, 1957)
John Wayne has received all the justifiable kudos for being cast against type as an asshole in The Searchers, but grizzled bruiser Randolph Scott was playing numerous morally ambiguous antiheroes for auteur Boetticher around the same time. In the B-Western Decision at Sundown, Scott plays a laconic, vengeful killer who, in pursuing the man who stole his wife, drifts into a corrupt town of spineless citizens and rubber-stamp lawmakers. Eventually, Boetticher wisely shifts the focus of the story away from Scott's taciturn avenger — the stilted actor isn't a geyser of panache, after all — and toward the colorful and dynamic townsfolk, whose moral and ethical clarity is tested after Scott shakes things up. The narrative trajectory proves so unusual that the climactic duel feels almost arbitrary, a mere function of genre appeasement.
If you can't wait for legitimate U.S.-market DVDs of these films, the Internet has many resources for buying bootleg DVDs. It wouldn't hurt to invest in a laserdisc player, and it's always a good idea to have a Turner Classic Movies schedule firstname.lastname@example.org