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New on DVD: The Best This Week is Old

Warner Brothers Gangsters, Hammer Horror, and Steve McQueen

Edward G. Robinson stars in

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: Edward G. Robinson stars in "Little Caesar"

This week the best of what’s new on DVD is actually old so topping my list are collections of Warner Brothers gangster films, Hammer Horror, and Steve McQueen.

Okay doing this New on DVD weekly feature is proving more challenging than I thought because of how studios are releasing films. It’s hard to define what exactly is “new” since every week brings re-releases, special editions, collections, and new on BluRay. Amazon lists over a hundred new releases for the week so I will try to wade through the choices and highlight the best.

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Photo credit: MGM

Advertising art for "Forbidden Planet"

First of all, let me just quickly run through some classics that are now available on BluRay – if you happen to be switching your collection over. Now you can get “Forbidden Planet,” the 50s sci-fi take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest;” “THX1138,” George Lucas’ feature film debut; “Tommy,” the trippy rock opera from The Who and Ken Russell; and “In Cold Blood,” the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s chilling portrait of a pair of killers played to perfection by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. Any of those films are worth picking up in any format but these new BluRay editions should look especially sharp.

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Photo credit: Warner Brothers

James Cagney plants the infamous grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face in "Public Enemy"

So my top pick for this week’s DVDs goes back into the old Hollywood vaults for TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters - Prohibition Era, which includes “The Public Enemy,” with a wisecracking James Cagney shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face; “The Roaring Twenties,” with the unbeatable combo of Cagney and Bogart; “Little Caesar,” with Edward G. Robinson chewing on cigars and scenery with equal tough guy flair; and “Smart Money,” in which Edward G. plays a Greek barber with poker playing skills. These Warner Brothers gangster films are pure gold. The dialogue crackles, the performances pulse with energy, and the films move at a breathless pace. All four films have their merits but “Public Enemy,” with its brutally harsh ending, is one of my all-time favorites. And just to add further temptation, TCM is also releasing today its Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters - James Cagney that includes the classic “White Heat,” “City for Conquest,” “Each Dawn I Die,” and “G Men.”

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Photo credit: Hammer Films

This image from "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" hints at the blood and boobs that made Hammer Horror famous.

With Halloween just around the corner, I can’t think of anything better to pick up right now than another TCM collection, TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Hammer Horror, which includes “Horror of Dracula,” “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,” “The Curse of Frankenstein,” and “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.” I adore the Hammer Dracula films and would have preferred a box set of just the bloodsucking count but these “collections” are always designed to pair popular films with those deemed less marketable. The Hammer “Frankenstein” films have never been as popular or in demand as the Christopher Lee vampire flicks, hence this combo. But I shouldn’t complain. Having these films repackaged and re-release is a cause for celebration.

“Horror of Dracula” (also known as simply “Dracula”) followed on the heels of the unexpected success of “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) Hammer brought a ripe Technicolor lushness to its horror so that the buckets of blood could spill off the screen with a kind of tabloid sensationalism. Hammer also brought a more overt sexuality to the genre with ample bosoms competing with the blood for screen time. The films were irresistibly lurid and gave a shot in the arm to horror at that time. The list of Hammer horror films, however, is long and this single collection only scratches the surface.

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Photo credit: Hammer Films

The British poster art for "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" in all its lovely luridness.

“Horror of Dracula” (1958) paired Christopher Lee as the Count with Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing. Lee was kept silent in this first outing, not uttering a word as the famous bloodsucking count. But he would come back many more times and speak. He got a few lines in the 1968 sequel (the fourth film in the franchise) “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” in which the blood of a priest brings the Count back from the dead. How deliciously ironic. Both films offer Hammer at its best.

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Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Steve McQueen in the Mustang used for the chase in "Bullitt"

Another fine collection highlights rebel hero Steve McQueen. Warners has been packaging multiple films, again in an effort to make some money on their vast library. They have been putting out these four film combo packs at unbelievably low prices so that it’s almost impossible to resist. For about $10 (depending where you shop), you can get the Steve McQueen Collection with “Papillon,” about the French convict with a knack for escaping; “Bullitt,” in which he plays a tough cop who gets to dazzle us with one of the best on screen car chases ever; “The Getaway,” in which he plays a tough Sam Peckinpah anti-hero; and “The Cincinnati Kid,” in which he pairs with Ann-Magret for some poker playing. “Bullitt” and “The Getaway” are two of McQueen’s best, and it reminds us that we don’t have stars quite like him any more. I miss him. The dilemma these cheap DVD collections pose though, is do you really want to keep investing in DVDs when you know it’s a dead format? When they are this cheap and the films this good it is sometimes hard not to give in to the desire to pick them up.

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Photo credit: PBS

Helen Mirren stars as Jane Tennison in PRIME SUSPECT.

Also of note but from British television is "Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection.” If you are a fan of Helen Mirren then you have to see her in this superb police thriller series. Mirren will be starring as a semi-retired assassin in the upcoming “R.E.D.” so watching this intense British series as a warm up isn’t a bad way to prep.

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Photo credit: Anchor Bay

Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in "Solitary Man"

The one new film coming out on DVD and BluRay that I’ll mention is “Solitary Man,” starring Michael Douglas. Douglas plays an aging car-dealership owner who gets some bad medical news and then indulges in some bad behavior. He pursues younger women, takes his still loving ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Jenna Fischer) for granted, and generally just screws up his life. This role puts Douglas yet again in danger of being a one-trick pony as he continues playing the Gordon Gekko fast-talking, slimy, and slick operator types. Douglas has a field day and the film feels like a showcase designed for him. That also hurts the film since all creative attention is on him and all the other characters and performers suffer. This is a dick flick in both the sense of what drives the character’s behavior and how we view him. Problem is we don’t really care anything about him. If you are a Douglas fan you might still want to check this out, otherwise it’s not worth picking up.

My oddball pick for the week is one I haven’t seen but the description is intriguing. The film is “Being Michael Madsen” (2007) and it’s a mock-documentary in which actor Michael Madsen responds to assorted tabloid rumors by turning the tables on the press and hiring some documentary filmmakers to torment the reporter and paparazzi who have been hounding Madsen. I have no clue if this is any good but what a wacky premise.

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