Monday, January 30, 2017

Corman's TOWER OF LONDON Coming to Region B



TOWER OF LONDON
1962, Arrow Video (UK only), 79m 49s, BD-A/DVD-2 (2 discs)

At one of the busiest junctures of his career - right after making TALES OF TERROR (1962) for AIP, and just before embarking on the European shoot that led to his directing THE YOUNG RACERS (1963), producing DEMENTIA 13, setting up OPERATION TITIAN in Yugoslavia (which led to the making of three or four other pictures), and making his first-ever trip to the Soviet Union - Roger Corman found time to direct this historical thriller about a murderous, ghost-haunted Richard III. It's a remake of sorts of the Universal film of the same title, starring Basil Rathbone (as Richard), Boris Karloff, and a young Vincent Price, made in 1939. This time, Vincent Price has ascended to the misshapen lead.
Vincent Price as Richard III.
As you can tell by his schedule of this period, Corman was entering an experimental phase and open to trying different things, owing to a lingering dissatisfaction over American International Pictures' reported profits on his enormously successful PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961). TOWER OF LONDON (no definitive article) was made for executive producer Edward Small (JACK THE GIANT KILLER), who had a distribution deal with United Artists, and was set up by Roger's own brother, Gene Corman, who had solicited the script from actor-screenwriter Leo Gordon (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, THE WASP WOMAN) and would act as line producer. Roger approached the job as a work-for-hire but intended to bring to it the high level of independent quality he had established with his Edgar Allan Poe series for AIP. He assembled his usual crew, headed by cameraman Floyd Crosby and art director Daniel Haller, and was able to obtain Price because the film was ostensibly an historial costume melodrama - not a horror picture, which AIP's contract with the actor forbade him to make with other companies.

Here actor Charles McCauley plays opposite Price in the role Price played in 1939.
Things were looking promising until a few short days before filming was to commence. It was then that Edward Small summoned the brothers Corman to his office to let them know he'd had second thoughts about their original plan; to save money, the film was now going to be shot in black-and-white. It is impossible to watch TOWER OF LONDON now without regretting this decision, which may have seemed logical at a time when so many movies at this time played for two weeks then went to their eternal reward on black-and-white television, but it shows Small's ignorance of how important color was to Roger Corman. When a film is going to be shot in black-and-white, it requires a different kind of planning; it needs something extra built into its visuals, a more stylized interplay between light and shadow - and this one simply doesn't have it. It tends to look like a black-and-white print of a color film. It has some elegant touches - even places where we can see some anticipatory sparks of THE RAVEN and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH coming into play - but despite a prevalence of deep focus photography and Daniel Haller's beautifully detailed sets, there is the unfortunate feel of a feature-length pulled punch. Price presides over a familiar cast of B-movie talents (Morris Ankrum as... the Archbishop???) in a film that never gets scarier than a few transparent, double-exposed ghosts, and which never quite overcomes the feel of a college play rather lavishly produced for classic television.

A raven-toting sorcerer (Richard Hale) and various ghosts lead the murderous monach to court the Supernatural.
Streeting on February 13, Arrow's Blu-ray presentation was "transferred from original film elements by MGM" and has noticeably more lustre, depth and detail than previous standard definition DVD releases. While most of the film looks comparable to camera negative quality, there are brief individual shots that appear to have been culled from a modestly lesser source. The audio is the original 1.0 mono (uncompressed on the BD) and there are optional English subtitles. A new interview with Roger Corman gives the film valuable context and it's paired with an interview with Gene Corman from a previous release that complements it very nicely.

Michael Pate (CURSE OF THE UNDEAD) and Sandra Knight (THE TERROR) co-star.
The audio commentary is by Price authority David Del Valle and Tara Gordon, the daughter of screenwriter Leo Gordon. Del Valle focuses on Price and his performance's banquet of ham and relish to the exclusion of much else, but his commentary scores on some worthwhile points. First of all, he mentions having had access to Price's own hand-annotated copy of the script and mentions scenes in which he had hoped to do more than he was finally able to do; secondly, he helpfully points out lines of dialogue and soliloquy where Leo Gordon was basing these on lines from Shakespeare's plays (not only RICHARD III but also HAMLET and MACBETH); and thirdly, he makes the marvelously meta observation that having TOWER OF LONDON is like having a vintage performance by Edward Lionheart (Price's character in THEATRE OF BLOOD) preserved on film - which just might be the "way into" the film that it has always lacked. I was hoping to hear more from Tara Gordon, who after all has actual childhood memories of the principal players in this story, as well as a lifetime of stories about her father, but Del Valle does most of the talking. (Tara has told me since I first posted this review that she was nervous about doing the recording and encouraged David to take charge, which has caused me to reconsider my original response to the track.) Ms. Gordon's warm-voiced input encompasses Leo's working relationship with Gene Corman, his sense of humor, the terrible and mysterious fate of credited co-writer Amos Powell, and also includes the charming story of how her parents met - and why her father sometimes reflected on the possibility that, had things gone a different way, he might have ended up as the Prince of Monaco.

The discs are packaged in a reversible sleeve with original, newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford, which cleverly makes Richard III look like a distant, demented relative of the Usher family. Exclusive to the first pressing (but not provided to this reviewer) is a fully illustrated collector's booklet containing new writing on the film by Julian Upton.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.  


 

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