This month, Kino Classics releases three titles they’ve rescued from public domain hell in Blu-ray editions that range from attractive to stunning. Saddled with poor transfers no more are Orson Welles’s The Stranger, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker and Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide.
The Stranger would probably be a more monumental release if it weren’t kind of an underwhelming film. Still, this is Orson Welles we’re talking about, and while his third film doesn’t live up to the previous two, there are still flashes of brilliance from one of cinema’s finest filmmakers. The opening act is particularly memorable, as Welles’s swooping, imposing camera introduces the bold plot of Edward G. Robinson’s investigator Mr. Wilson, who frees a Nazi war criminal in hopes that he’ll lead him to an even bigger prize. Welles is Professor Charles Rankin aka Franz Kindler, a Nazi mastermind hiding in a small town and about to marry the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court Justice.
There’s a formal electricity in the first 20 minutes that unfortunately gets lost in the plot machinations of the midsection; The Stranger has some interesting propagandistic flourishes, but it’s a fairly rote thriller for the most part. Still, there are far worse cinematic pursuits than watching a cat-and-mouse game between Welles and Robinson.
Kino’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is very nice and a vast improvement over the waxy, over-processed mess that was the HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray from a few years ago. Kino is clearly working with better source materials here — 35mm elements from the Library of Congress — and their much more respectful approach yields a film-like transfer with excellent clarity and contrast levels. The quality can take a dip into softness at points, and the uncompressed mono soundtrack has a lot of crackle and hiss, but this is a solid achievement.
The extras are also formidable: an audio commentary from Kino’s own Bret Wood, the 1945 documentary short Death Mills, which shows footage of Nazi concentration camps and is featured in the film, four complete wartime radio programs from Welles, the original theatrical trailer and an image gallery.
The Hitch-Hiker is notable for being the only classic film noir (and one of the only classic films period) to be directed by a woman, but it’s definitely more than just a curiosity. Lupino’s direction is lean and sparing in its depiction of a road movie nightmare, inspired by a real-life crime spree in the early ’50s. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are two buddies on a camping trip; William Talman is their tormentor who forces them at gunpoint to flee for the Mexican border.
Stylish and bleak, with the cramped confines of the car contrasting with the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest, The Hitch-Hiker is almost all mood, no plot. Talman’s gleefully psychotic performance propels the action forward, while Lupino slyly subverts a few noir archetypes. There’s no femme fatale here; indeed, O’Brien and Lovejoy’s trouble is exacerbated by the fact they were playing hooky from their wives, and there’s a hint or two of homoeroticism in their relationship. There’s a fair amount going on in this 71-minute film.
The 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, sourced from 35mm elements from the Library of Congress, is often stunning in its clarity. Blacks remain pure and avoid crushing even in the many dark scenes. There are a couple audio drop-offs where it appears inferior elements had to be used, but there’s not much to complain about here. Some speckling and a few marks appear throughout the film, but this transfer represents a big upgrade. Unfortunately, the disc is featureless aside from an image gallery.
Low-budget horror film Night Tide is pretty good at overcoming the limitations of its special effects and pretty silly script. Dennis Hopper stars in his first lead role as Johnny Drake, a sailor on shore leave at the Santa Monica pier who falls quickly for sideshow mermaid impersonator Mora (Linda Lawson). He’s warned by several people, including her boss and surrogate father Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), to not get involved, but he can’t help himself, even as he witnesses a strange old woman often in proximity to Mora and her behavior becomes more erratic.
Harrington’s script, full of references to sirens and questions of Mora’s humanity, is often risible, but the atmosphere he cultivates as director generally makes up for it. Night Tide is never scary, but it’s spooky enough to establish a place as a minor cult classic. Hopper would go on to play some of the most intense characters in American film, and you can see the seeds of that trademark forcefulness here, even as he plays a generally genial character.
The 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is mastered from 35mm elements restored by the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation and Harrington himself. The restoration is nice, preserving the gritty, grainy look of the film while allowing for an attractive, fairly sharp image. The 2.0 mono track is also pretty clean throughout.
Extras include a two-part interview with Harrington from 1987 and an audio commentary featuring Harrington and Hopper. The theatrical trailer is also included.