Shelf Life

New to video and rare in any other form, the films in Kino Video's fresh spate of "From the Studio Vault" releases are each the unheralded work of a major stylist. Douglas Sirk's pre-Universal shot of Gothic serial-killer absurdism, 1947's Lured, is simultaneously a reworking of Robert Siodmak's Pièges and a prophecy of Sea of Love. Spirited, inventive, and often outlandish, Lured sets its Ripper scenario in a London both Edwardian and postwar, with a crowded cast of character stars (George Sanders, Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn, George Zucco, etc.) revolving around smart-assed American taxi dancer Lucille Ball. Virtually an essay on male predation, Lured sometimes leaps into the Lynchian, as with the spectacular scene in which deranged fashion designer Karloff dresses Ball as a Gainsborough maiden, introduces her to a roomful of empty chairs and a bulldog, talks with a mannequin, and goes ballistic with a sword. It needs to be seen.

René Clair's 1944 It Happened Tomorrow might be his best stateside film, a sweet what-if tale set at fin-de-siècle that must've branded itself on the young Rod Serling's brain. Collapsed into synopsis, it sounds impossibly quaint: flip reporter Dick Powell wishes for, and gets, tomorrow's daily editions today, giving him a substantial leg up on news stories, horse races, and, eventually, his own murder. But Clair imbued the film with his customary warmth and relaxed spookiness, and the actors cook: Powell remains one of the best unsung line readers in the business, Linda Darnell is a flush-faced hoot (particularly in drag), and Edgar Kennedy is Edgar Kennedy.

But it's Roland West's Alibi that's the real miraculous fossil here, a vivid, lurid, expressionistic pre-noir (1929) that at times rivals Mamoulian, Clair, and West's own The Bat Whispers (itself recently restored and released, by Milestone) for vertiginous early-talkie mise-en-scène and extreme compositions. West was as technologically helpless during straight dialogue scenes as other directors of the era, but when the sound went wild, he'd go wild with it, with a Caligarian vengeance. It doesn't hurt that Alibi was designed by William Cameron Menzies and indeed, many images directly evoke the paranoiac frisson of Menzies's Invaders From Mars. A standard cops-vs.-crooks melodrama enlivened more by an odd subtext of same-sex ardor between policemen than heartthrob Chester Morris's board-stiff delivery, Alibi stands as something of a missing link between Dr. Mabuse der Spieler and Touch of Evil.

 
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