Friday, August 29, 2014

Alpha Video Reviews

With resources like Internet Archive and YouTube and those gigantic Mill Creek DVD packs, there cannot be much of a market left for single DVD public domain releases.  Nonetheless, 
Pennsylvania-based Alpha Video continues to issue a regular slate of unprotected movies and TV programs packaged in their characteristically colorful covers. They switched to DVD-Rs a while back, but their prices are still pretty hard to beat and they occasionally manage to still come up with rarities that have not yet appeared from other labels. Here are reviews of a few of their titles, which were originally published in Video Watchdog.


1941, Alpha Video, DD-2.0/+, $5.95, 73m 50s, DVD-0
By John Charles

While erudite police captain McVeigh (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’s H.B. Warner) and assistant district attorney Archer (James Horton) gather enough evidence to build a strong case against notorious thug “King” Peterson (Philip Van Zandt), wise girl reporter Nora (Astrid Allwyn) conducts her own, more straightforward investigation into the murder and/or disappearance of several young women. All were somehow associated with The Crescent School of Fine Arts, a talent agency Peterson uses as a very lucrative front, one he is willing to maintain through murderous means.

It was commonplace for producers from this time to go back and forth with the Hays Office on what could and could not be depicted in their movies. However, the makers of this low-budget Select Attractions thriller faced a particular challenge in that the story revolves around a white slavery/prostitution ring, not exactly the sort of premise that generally got one a Production Code seal without a fight and much trimming of prurient material. This not being a Dwain Esper roadshow special, that particular minefield is skirted via some amusingly vague dialogue about “booking acts” and putting girls under contract in “out-of-town nightclubs.” Elmer Clifton (SLAVES IN BONDAGE) provides his usual no-frills direction and this rather torpid programmer is knocked down an additional peg by a terrible organ score that is so infrequent, it might as well not be there at all. Thankfully, old pro Warner adds considerable charm to his fatherly authority figure and the dialogue occasionally offers the sort of snappy patter one expects from this genre.

Master tape damage is sometimes apparent and the B & W presentation looks grainy and mildly battered. Contrasts are harsh enough to occasionally obscure facial detail. The low end is mildly distorted but, overall, the audio track gets passing marks. Alpha’s regular catalog section is included.


1954, Alpha Video, DD-2.0/+, $5.95, 72m 30s, DVD-0
By John Charles

Roger Corman’s third effort as a producer, this modest but entertaining crime meller was the first offering from American Releasing Corporation, which would soon change its moniker to American International Pictures. Traveling south in order to participate in a road race that wraps-up in Mexico, pretty Jaguar driver Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone) is kidnapped by escaped fugitive Frank Webster (John Ireland). On the lam for a murder he didn’t commit, Frank is anxious to get across the border and the race provides the perfect cover. However, a last minute ban on female drivers means that he will have to get behind the wheel himself.

The screenplay (based on a story by Corman) follows the usual structure for this sort of programmer, but includes plenty of caustic repartee for Ireland and Malone, providing some amusement for the viewer before their inevitable romance. While some of the driving sequences are depicted via stock footage and rear projection, a good amount of the race was actually staged for the movie, giving the project more excitement and production value than expected. In exchange for a pay cut, Ireland was allowed to co-helm the picture with Edward Sampson (miscredited as “Edwards Sampson”); this was the first directorial credit for Sampson and the last for both men. Bruno Ve Sota makes the most of his brief screentime as an obnoxious trucker and Jonathan Haze appears briefly in the final reel. Corman cameos as a policeman at a roadblock, but a break in the source material here wipes out half of his appearance.

There is the expected degree of print wear, but the image and sound are reasonable for a public domain stand-by. Alpha’s ubiquitous catalog feature is present and accounted for. The best edition of this title we have seen remains the crisp and largely clean transfer that used to air on SpeedVision’s LOST DRIVE-IN program.


1951, Alpha Video, DD-2.0, $5.99, 61m 43s, DVD-0

By John Charles
His real-life behavior sometimes uncomfortably mirrored the vicious lowlifes he played onscreen but there was no questioning Lawrence Tierney’s qualifications as one of Hollywood’s finest character players. This engrossing Eagle Lion programmer re-teamed Tierney with German emigre Max Nosseck, who had previously directed the imposing actor in the PRC cult classic DILLINGER (1945) and KILL OR BE KILLED (1950). In THE HOODLUM, Tierney is career criminal Vincent Lubeck, whose term in stir for armed robbery is unexpectedly cut in half when his elderly mother (Lisa Golm) appeals to the parole board. Still reeling from his impoverished upbringing, Lubeck is soon making time with bank secretary Eileen (Marjorie Riordan) and formulating a scheme to knock off an armored car shipment. In between ironing out the final details of the job, he makes advances on Rosa (Allene Roberts), the innocent, impressionable fiancée of his hard-working, straight-laced brother (played by the actor's real-life sibling, Edward Tierney). Some exchanges seem more heavy-handed than hard boiled (particularly Tierney’s saturnine speeches about how an ex-con has nowhere to turn), but the screenplay also incorporates elements and dialogue that are surprisingly adult for a 1951 picture, and the expected noir trappings, courtesy of cinematographer Clark Ramsay (MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD), are spare but effective. Edward is not a patch on Lawrence (or Scott Brady) but the other performers are effective, with Golm getting the dramatic spotlight as the long-suffering immigrant mother blinded by her love for a son who could never be rehabilitated.

The presentation of this B&W feature is standard public domain fare, with a soft image, weak contrasts, and plenty of wear on the source print and optical soundtrack; it ain’t pretty but it’s workable. Alpha’s cover art is usually exemplary but the collage of gaudily colorized pictures here look awfully tacky.


1945, Alpha Video, DD-2.0, $7.98, 62m 25s, DVD-0

By John Charles

While the storyline and cast suggest Monogram or PRC, this enjoyable whodunit actually hails from the Pine-Thomas B-movie unit at Paramount. When the body of notorious trigger man Joe Wells turns up in the alley outside The Last Gangster Wax Museum and then disappears shortly thereafter, rival newshounds/ex-sweethearts Sue Gallagher (DETOUR's Ann Savage) and Pete Willis (STRANGE IMPERSONATION's William Gargan) smell an exclusive. Sue is so determined to score points with her editor, she moves the corpse so that her photographer can get some snaps of it before any of the competitors. Unfortunately for her, Jelke (George Zucco), the man responsible for plugging the victim in the first place, follows the bloodstains to Sue's apartment above the museum. Confronted with a pistol in her face, she agrees to take Jelke to the body's new location but it is no longer there. In fact, ensuing events reveal Joe Wells to be remarkably mobile for a dead man. Savage and Gargan do well in their time-honored roles, matching wits with impatient editors and flatfoots, while also trying to outsmart cool-headed assassin Zucco. Leo Gorcey ("I figured this whole thing out through the process of mental reduction") co-stars as the museum's handyman, whose hair-brained schemes prevent his highly stressed boss (Charles Halton) from getting some desperately needed sleep. William C. Thomas (I COVER BIG TOWN) directed.

The transfer of this public domain feature is soft, dupey, and grainy, with ample wear and several perturbing breaks in the 16mm TV source materials. Most distractingly of all, a hair waves around the left side of the screen for a couple of minutes during the final reel. The audio is merely adequate and there are no extras.

1939, Alpha Video, DD-2.0/+, $5.95, 69m 47s, DVD-0
By John Charles

This UK quickie blends together elements from British and American crime movies, but the result is not as intriguing as one would expect such a combo to be. Formerly based in Chicago, suave kingpin Steve Marco (Jack LaRue) now enjoys a posh lifestyle as proprietor of a ritzy nightspot in Soho. After mingling with the affluent patrons one evening (“Never let a sucker think he isn’t appreciated”), Marco deals with a blackmailing subordinate in the usual fashion. Scotland Yard drops by shortly thereafter in the form of Inspector Hammond (Martin Walker), who has been keeping a close watch on Marco’s activities, and knows something is obviously up after witnessing the suspicious antics of the mobster’s flunkies. Working from inside tips provided by the dead man’s ex (Sandra Storme), Hammond plots to trip up the image-conscious thug.
Directed in workmanlike fashion by Norman Lee (THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS), this is a lethargic effort more concerned with colorful character bits than crafting an exciting or even especially interesting yarn. The humor is not barbed enough to carry the film, but the supporting cast is game. The best work comes from Arthur O’Connell and Edmon Ryan (who went on to play the transplanted American cop in DARK EYES OF LONDON that same year), who do the best work as Marco’s right-hand dimwits, while future “Q” Bernard Lee also acquits himself well as an enterprising reporter/would-be comedy writer.

The source print (which bears the alternate title, MURDER IN SOHO) has plenty of wear and a few disruptive breaks. The end credit sequence also appears to have been disassembled and then put back together in the wrong order. Contrasts are overly hot in spots and pixellation is also evident in some backgrounds. The audio is adequate and Alpha’s catalog feature is included.


1953, Alpha Video, DD-2.0, $5.99, 105m 1s, DVD-0

By John Charles

Alpha has collected four episodes from this modest adventure series, which stars Jon Hall as Tom Reynolds, the titular “Great White Doctor.” The program has all of the deficiencies one would expect (stereotypical natives, grossly mismatching stock footage, elementary scenarios, and stilted acting) but remains mildly enjoyable nostalgia. In “Dark Venture” (26m), an insane Eastern European scientist (Veronica Pataky) plots to unleash atomic gas on the area’s tribes, thus providing instant radiation victims to test her new serum on. Reynolds sets out alone to foil the plot but is captured; his colleague, Professor Ogden (Ray Montgomery), and some natives must act quickly to stop her. “Voice from the Past” (26m 23s) finds Reynolds and Ogden trying to aid a white man haunted by the spirit of his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. Woody Strode cuts an impressive figure as a chieftain determined to see jungle law prevail. Strode also appears in “King of the Watus” (26m 13s) as a displaced leader anxious to eliminate a white man who has fooled the tribe into thinking he is immortal. The most entertaining episode, “Lady of the Leopards” (26m 23s) is a campy delight about a deranged woman (Suzanne Dalbert) who turns homicidal under the full moon. Clad in a leopard skin, she shreds unsuspecting victims with a trusty claw glove, but her husband (ROBOT MONSTER’s John Mylong) inexplicably refuses to take her back home for treatment. Each installment was directed by poverty row specialist Sam Newfield (NABONGA, WHITE PONGO).

The 16mm source prints display light wear but the image (apparently derived from a VHS source) is reasonably good and the audio adequate. Only a single chapter has been provided for each episode and the case lists an incorrect running time of 95m. As of this writing, three more volumes are also now available.