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DVD Review: How I Won the War and More MGM Limited Edition Collection Titles

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MGM’s Limited Edition Collection features burn-on-demand DVD-Rs created using the best possible materials. March releases from the label include the following:

How I Won the War (1967) directed by Richard Lester

Existing somewhere on the scale between noble failure and mere curiosity, Richard Lester’s How I Won the War is a relentlessly absurdist attack on the institution of war. It’s most known for starring John Lennon in his first solo, non-Beatles film role, and for that reason alone, many unsuspecting viewers have likely been bewildered by what they’ve seen.

There’s no question that How I Won the War is a bit of a slog to get through. Lester’s earlier films, including A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack, have an irrepressible energy, but How I Won the War often seems too concentrated on being as surreal as possible.

Michael Crawford stars as Lt. Goodbody, a hopelessly incompetent WWII commander, recounting what he believes are his great exploits campaigning in North Africa and Europe. His enlisted men, including those played by Lennon and Roy Kinnear, are constantly considering ways to get rid of him.

The film plays out in a series of loosely connected vignettes that are occasionally withering in their satire, but the film itself is so nonsensically structured, it can be difficult to stay engaged. Lester has remarked that he wanted the film to be a commentary on the illogical nature of war, and the film resoundingly reflects that, but it’s the kind of thing that’s appreciated more in concept than in execution. A film like The Monkees’ Head is a much more successful example of the kind of surrealist non-narrative playfulness that How I Won the War strives for.

The MGM Limited Edition burn-on-demand disc replaces a long out-of-print pressed MGM DVD, and includes the theatrical trailer and optional English subtitles. The print used has a fair amount of speckles and light damage and colors look a little washed-out, but it’s a decent transfer. A commemorative photo album is also included with the release, but was not sent with the review copy I received.

Not as a Stranger (1955) directed by Stanley Kramer

Stanley Kramer would go on to make a number of films that managed to be both heavy-handed and oversimplified, but his debut feature, little-seen since its release, is quite the subtle character study.

Robert Mitchum stars as Lucas Marsh, a medical student who can’t afford to pay tuition, partially thanks to his drunk deadbeat dad (Lon Chaney Jr.). He’s going to be thrown out of school unless he can come up with the money, so he marries a frugal and sensible nurse, Kristina Hedvigson (Olivia de Havilland). She loves him and has the money to pay his tuition; he has no such feelings. His wisecracking friend Alfred Boone (Frank Sinatra) doesn’t think it’s such a good idea.

After graduation and interning, Marsh ends up at a small-town medical practice under the tutelage of old pro Dave Runkleman (Charles Bickford), and his eye wanders toward the beautiful Harriet Lang (Gloria Grahame).

Mitchum, although perhaps not too credible as a student early on, is nonetheless superb as the casually amoral Marsh, a man willing to step on the backs of anyone needed to advance his personal standing. De Havilland also makes good as the longsuffering wife.

Kramer allows the film to proceed at a leisurely pace, giving us plenty of chances to see Marsh’s behavior play out, and he resists underlining the heavy emotions or betrayals that occur throughout the film. His scenes in the operating room have a particular fluid grace that makes for a distinctly different kind of medical drama than populates pop culture today.

The DVD case promises a widescreen transfer, but that’s not the case, as what we get is a full frame image like in the previous VHS and Region 2 DVD releases. It’s almost certainly a crop job rather than an open matte print, and it’s extremely disappointing the extra work wasn’t done this time around to give us the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The DVD is featureless.

The Captive City (1952) directed by Robert Wise

The film that Robert Wise directed right after his sci-fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Captive City bears a similar paranoia to later sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Its frame narrative to that film is quite similar, with a story of things being not as they seem told in flashback by newspaperman Jim Austin (John Forsythe).

Austin moved to a small town with his wife (Joan Camden) to become the editor of the newspaper, and he begins the film with a naïve optimism that causes him to believe the best about everyone. He sides with the skeptical police chief when a fearful private investigator believes he’s being followed, but when that man ends up dead, Austin begins to dig deeper.

He uncovers a web of organized crime in the town, but is shocked to find out just how far it spreads, and he attempts to flee the town to get the real story out.

The Captive City features moody, atmospheric direction from Wise, but is ultimately kind of a pro-paranoia thriller, where bad guys lurk around the corner in every small town. The silliness is compounded by an afterword by Sen. Estes Kefauver, whose inquiries into organized crime helped inspire the film, and his urging to look out for the signs of crime in your own town almost tips the whole thing into self-parody territory.

The DVD features fantastic image quality, and it seems likely that the print used never saw much exhibition. Contrast levels are excellent and damage is minimal. The disc is featureless.

A Cold Wind in August (1961) directed by Alexander Singer

A pulpy, sexually frank drama, A Cold Wind in August transcends its exploitation tendencies to become a fascinating study of a May-December romance and gender roles in a rapidly changing United States.

Iris Hartford (Lola Albright) is a 30-some stripper who’s kind-of, sort-of trying to go straight. When the air conditioner goes on the fritz in her apartment, the 17-year-old son of the landlord, Vito (Scott Marlowe), comes to her aid.

Previously, we’ve seen Vito flirting with every girl his age that crosses his path, pushing the envelope physically as far as each one will let him. And then he meets Iris, who takes a liking to him instantly, and casually begins to seduce him. It’s terrifying for him, as if his previously unrestrained and adolescent sexuality has run into a brick wall of sexual maturity.

The two fall in love with one another, but the underlying secret about Iris’s livelihood threatens to bubble to the surface and devastate Vito, whose double standard in regards to sex becomes quite apparent.

Albright is magnificent in the role, commanding attention with a performance that is at turns both sultry and vulnerable.

The transfer here is near pristine, with a sharp and detail-heavy widescreen black-and-white image. Only the opening credit sequence has its share of issues, with jagged edges and an image that’s pillarboxed off-center. The disc is featureless.

Cohen & Tate (1988) directed by Eric Red

The directorial feature debut of Eric Red, who wrote The Hitcher and Near Dark, Cohen & Tate is an entertaining little thriller that shows great economy in its storytelling. A family is being sequestered by the FBI’s witness protection program in a house in the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. The protection is pretty terrible, as two contract killers easily break in, shoot everyone and kidnap 9-year-old Travis Knight (Harley Cross) — presumably a key witness — to return him to their mob boss in Houston.

The killers are the levelheaded Cohen (Roy Scheider) and the manic, unstable Tate (Adam Baldwin), and when Travis realizes how much they hate each other, he decides to play each one against his partner in hopes of escape.

Almost the entirety of the film takes place in a moving car on the highway at night, and Red does an admirable job keeping the film kinetic and engaging in the single location. He’s aided greatly by Scheider, whose steely-eyed, getting-too-old-for-this-shit kidnapper is one of his last great roles. Baldwin is suitably insane and even Cross, who tests the patience somewhat with his outbursts, is a fairly credible child actor.

The film doesn’t go to great lengths to make sure we’re filled in on all the details, but opts instead for a lean, tense thriller that hits critical mass in the final moments and ends abruptly with a truly great final scene.

This release marks the film’s first time on DVD and the anamorphic widescreen image is solid, with stable colors, decent black levels and only occasional damage. The disc includes the film’s theatrical trailer.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.