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The DARK Art of Restoration

Revived cinematic trio comprises under-appreciated classics

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Public domain is a vast morass into which, over decades, films without copyright or ownership fall. Before home video was available to the masses, many movies played over and over on TV; original prints butchered in lieu of ads.

The good news? Three movies—Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (’52) and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (’32)—have been restored in hi-def; two excellent features by cinematic masters; the third’s a film noir gem.

The Stranger may be familiar to most folks, despite its footnote status in Welles’ filmography, when compared to masterpieces like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Seven and Touch of Evil. One reason for its early disregard was critical snobbishness.

A guileless noir thriller about ruthless ex-Nazi Charles Rankin (Welles) posing as a professor in a New England town, married to local beauty Mary (Loretta Young), The Stranger may be the director’s most conventional film. It’s also the only one to make a profit when first released. It’s said Welles didn’t like it, but audiences did.

Now, 70 years on, the critics do, too.

Rescued from the abyss by filmmaker Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, Queen of Blood), The Old Dark House is spectacular in its new look from Cohen Film Collection. Directed by James Whale a year after his Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, the gothic comedy/thriller was adapted from J.B. Priestley’s novel about, well, an old dark house, its weird inhabitants, and five luckless travelers seeking shelter one dark and stormy night.

Running a snappy 72 minutes, House is a delightful bounty for early horror fans, especially Whale film fans. Impressive set designs and smart use of miniatures show real craftsmanship. In a short 11-year career, Whale directed three other genuine classics—The Invisible Man (’33), Bride of Frankenstein (’35) and Showboat (’36).

The engaging House cast—headlined by Karloff as a menacing mute with no lines—included Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger and Melvyn Douglas. Thesiger was immortalized as Doctor Pretorius in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.

Future Oscar-winners Laughton and Douglas were starting long careers. Massey, who got an Oscar nod for Abe Lincoln in Illinois (’41), was a distinguished face in American and British films for 40 more years. Among the House ladies, Gloria Stuart may be the most known; her only Oscar nod was 55 years later, when she was 87. We know her as lovely centenarian Rose, wearing The Heart of the Ocean diamond. The film? Titanic.

The gorgeous black-and-white restoration set includes commentaries and fascinating additional material, like an interview with Karloff’s daughter Sara, who says when he had the breakthrough role in Frankenstein, he’d already been in 80 films. Harrington tells of his fondness of the film and Whale and hilariously dismisses the preposterous attempt by contemporary “queer criticism” to read a homosexual subtext in Bride of Frankenstein, among other Whale classics.

Director Phil Karlson racked up more than 60 credits from 1944-’73. His most successful was ’73’s Walking Tall, but his best ones were made in the ’50s; to wit: Kansas City Confidential.

A cleverly plotted, convoluted tale of a bank robbery, a frame-up and a vengeful ex-con, the movie stars John Payne as noir hero Joe, trailing three bad guys; each became famed character actors (usually villains)—Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. Van Cleef is especially fun to watch playing a ladies’ man—years later, he snarled in spaghetti Westerns.

With several scenes enhanced in usual noir style by tight, careful framing, Kansas City Confidential deserves a better rep. This restored print will help further that cause.

These films might be oldies, but they’re most definitely goodies.

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