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Rank, 1958, B&W, 123 minutes- Criterion DVD

Ship Engineer: "If any of you feel like praying, you'd better go ahead. The rest can join me in a cup of tea."

Ah, the famed British "Stiff upper lip"- although keeping your cool is admittedly easier when the temperature is low enough for icebergs to be floating around your ship. You can probably guess the ship's name-Titanic. The latest and greatest of ocean liners, packed with a cross-section of Edwardian-era humanity, all of them smugly convinced of their technological mastery of the world- and all of them due for a very rude shock.

Neither the first nor the last film devoted to the Titanic's ill-fated voyage, this is arguably the best. Yes, it's technically dated, and there aren't any stars in it, but its account of the sinking packs a wallop both despite and because of its lack of added melodrama. Based on Walter Lord's book, which was responsible for the resurgence of interest in the ship after it had been largely forgotten, this account is as accurate as it could be for the time. And in a way, it's timeless, for whenever a technological misjudgment results in disaster, we are reminded of that poster-child for mechanical hubris, the Titanic. Extras on this typically-nice Criterion release include audio commentary by a pair of experts and a documentary featuring director William MacQuitty's "Home movies" of the shoot.

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Pathe/Filmgroup, 1961, B&W, 83 mins.- New Concorde DVD

William Shatner: "-What you don't know is that this so-called advancement of colored people is now and always has been nothing but a Communist front, headed by a Jew who hates America..."



That's right, folks- it's William Shatner, making the kind of poisonous, racist speech that would earn him a big punch in the mouth from his alter-ego Captain Kirk. Shatner shows up in a small Southern town, oozing oily charm in a lily-white linen suit, and proceeds to stir up some trouble in relation to "The integration problem." Charged confrontations, beatings, church-dynamiting, and even a cross-burning are spurred-on by Shatner- who also makes time to pursue some of the local ladies (okay, maybe he has something in common with the good Captain there). But like a lot of people who think they're smarter than they really are, he bites off more then he can chew....

This obscure little item was produced and directed by B-movie great Roger Corman, who isn't exactly known for the advancement of social causes in his films. But he felt strongly enough about the civil rights issue to put his rear on the line for this picture. The end result seems over-earnest and campy at times- until you realize that the events in the story are pretty tame compared to the sort of things that actually happened back in the bad old days. It's hardly light entertainment, and the print used for the DVD transfer isn't great, but check it out if you want to see some gutsy (for the time) filmmaking, or just to marvel at the spectacle of Shatner in full-on baddie mode. Disc extras include a recent reunion of Shatner and Corman, who talk about the making of the picture.

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Paramount, 1954, Color, 115 mins.- Universal DVD

 James Stewart: "That'd be a terrible job to tackle. Just how would you start to cut up a human body?"

You see, that's what happens when a globe-trotting photographer is immobilized by a broken leg and fights his cabin fever by spying on the neighbors- he starts to get all sorts of wacky ideas. For instance, that the menacing guy across the courtyard murdered his nagging wife. Stewart has trouble putting this notion across to earthy nurse Thelma Ritter, by-the-book cop Wendell Cory, and fashion-plate girlfriend Grace Kelly- at first, anyway. But eventually the women prove to have a yen for excitement that matches Stewart's- and they all find out the truth of the old saying about being careful what you wish for.

This is another bit of macabre fun from Alfred Hitchcock, who deftly pours out a mixed shot of suspense and laughs, with a little social commentary for a chaser. The whole film takes place on one elaborate set, has stretches without any dialogue, and is minus a conventional musical score- but it's never dull, partly because the viewer identifies with Stewart. A key element of this connection is the voyeurism angle- as Stewart watches his neighbors, so does the viewer watch all of the film's characters. It's not subtle, but it works, and it pays off in some scenes that are among the greatest "Uh-oh" moments of the movies. Brilliant stuff- highly recommended. Extras on the disc include a documentary and photo gallery.

Sensational Stereos

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© Melt Magazine 2003