ICE in her veins—ICICLES on her heart
Think of a studio that locates lost films (say, obscure '40s film noir), restores the footage carefully, and packages the film with relevant extras to make a solid DVD offering. I'd wager that most DVD buffs first think of the Criterion Collection. And why not? Criterion has earned its stellar reputation for responsible film restoration.
I'd also wager that few of you thought, "VCI Entertainment!" I certainly did not. After one look at the DVD Blonde Ice, the snort barely had time to leave my nostrils before I'd mentally filed it under "dubious." "Special Edition," huh?
That was a mistake. VCI's release of Blonde Ice proves that any company, with a little care and conscience, can produce a DVD package that will evoke oohs and ahhs from the DVD buff. Just as gourmet chefs use presentation and thoughtful side dishes to provide culinary delight, so can a production company use thoughtful commentary, nice packaging, and selective extras to provide cinematic delight. I'm not in a rush to sell off my Criterions, but it's good to know that other sources of conscientious restoration exist.
Facts of the Case
Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) is a so-so society columnist with a San Francisco paper. She gets her well-manicured hooks into wealthy businessman Carl Hanneman (John Holland) and they soon wed. Attending the wedding are a slew of former suitors, among them sportswriter Les Burns (Robert Paige). Shortly after saying, "I do," Claire is in Les' arms professing her undying love for him. After all, why let ambitions of power and money stand in the way of a good time?
The honeymoon with Carl quickly goes awry, and soon Claire is back with Les. They sojourn to Claire's new estate and learn that Claire is now a widow. Perhaps the news isn't completely shocking to one of them. Will police pressure cause the murderer to slip up? Or will more men have to die before the truth comes out?
Blonde Ice hints of eau de Casablanca. It is a poverty row film noir featuring character actors on the decline. An honest-to-goodness "B" film, Blonde Ice was created by a secondary unit to fill the back slot in a double feature. It has a cadre of writers, including rumors of involvement by Edgar Ulmer. Despite everything working against Blonde Ice, the whole is slightly better than the sum of the parts.
Slightly better…no one is going to confuse Blonde Ice with The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Ironically, that was the original goal. Blonde Ice was originally titled Single Indemnity, but under threat of lawsuit the title was changed. That's the kind of gutsy hacks behind this amusing little noir.
There are several keys to Blonde Ice's overachievement. The first is cinematographer George Robinson. His impressively lengthy résumé contains many horror films, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Mummy's Tomb, Son of Dracula, and Dracula's Daughter. Horror cinematographers didn't get much respect at the time, so it isn't unreasonable that such an accomplished cinematographer ended up on the crew of a B noir. Furthermore, the techniques that Robinson honed in the horror genre work well for noir lighting. Like everything in Blonde Ice, the cinematography is not masterful, but it is a step above what you'd expect. For example, one sequence gradually reveals a dead man with startling nonchalance.
The second key is focused direction by Jack Bernhard. The cast of character actors is serviceable, but not stellar. Yet Bernhard is able to keep the pace sure and the tone dramatic in spite of occasionally stiff acting. Blonde Ice is a psychological noir and Bernhard allows the audience to fill in some of the blanks.
The real coup, however, is a convincing performance by Leslie Brooks. Noir is chock full of bad girls and manipulative women. The femme fatale is often cartoonish, so bad that we have to suspend disbelief a bit to buy the protagonist's fall for her. Leslie's femme fatale is truly evil, yet she maintains an aura of illicit approachability that allows us to believe in her suitors' entanglement. Bernhard helps out by having the women reveal their distaste for Claire, which makes her manipulations feel more authentic. Leslie is both radiant and cool, maddening and watchable. Like the rest of the cast, Leslie gives a performance that floats above but remains firmly anchored to average.
Blonde Ice begins with élan. The opening wedding is multilayered yet brisk. Claire's manipulative streak is established early, as is Les' hopeless attraction and disregard for social niceties where Claire is concerned. The surrounding cast of character actors makes quick inroads to character establishment. Dire events intrigue and keep the viewer engaged. The middle segment builds on early tension and makes us wonder if Les and Claire are going to turn on each other.
Near the end, the façade cracks. The killer has thus far been calculating and logical, which propels our fascination and loathing. But the final murder does not fit in at all. It is a crime of anger and frustration, which is not in keeping with the character's previous M.O. A psychologist is clumsily introduced near the end, and he sees through the killer immediately. The finale is neatly wrapped up, completely ridiculous and unsatisfying. I've seen worse endings for sure, but had the end been up to par with the rest then Blonde Ice might have been a cult classic.
As it stands, Blonde Ice is bemusing but enjoyable. Claire's calculating manipulations and radiant sexuality evoke Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct. Catherine's predilection for ice pick mayhem might be a subtle homage to Blonde Ice. Is it coincidence that the two films have the same initials? Noir fans, I'm thinking a Blonde Ice/Basic Instinct double feature would be worthwhile.
VCI Entertainment has put its best foot forward with this release. You'll have to work through some annoyances first. There is an FBI warning, followed by a stylish but lengthy 3D animation, and finally an animated menu that are all non-skippable. After the sixth time sitting through these animations, I grew impatient.
You'll also notice the name Jay Fenton everywhere. "Commentary by Jay Fenton…""Liner Notes written by Jay Fenton…""Video Interview with Jay Fenton…""A Fascinating Possibility written by Jay Fenton…""Bios and Filmographies written by…"okay, you get the idea. In fact, the first credit that comes up, even before the film starts, is "Film Restoration Consultant—Jay Fenton." First time I've seen that. This hoopla suggests that Jay Fenton is a big name worthy of heavy marketing; else this DVD is a vanity project. Maybe they should have just listed one credit and left it at that: "This DVD brought to you by Jay Fenton."
Fortunately, Fenton shoots straight in the extras. His commentary has a few loose ends, but makes it obvious that he knows the film well and has a grounded admiration for it. The interview isn't really an interview; questions are read from a card off screen and Jay launches right into the answers. Though obviously staged, the information presented is nonetheless fascinating. Fenton discusses you and me, my tribe, the DVD connoisseurs. It is stirring; I want to leap up and proclaim "That's right, I am a DVD consumer and we are to thank for good picture quality and original aspect ratio!" Not strictly true, of course, but Fenton's arguments will warm the hearts of DVD fans. The liner notes and bios are solid as well. The bottom line is that Fenton restored Blonde Ice, he is the authority on Blonde Ice, and without his effort the DVD wouldn't exist.
Speaking of film restoration, I've seen worse transfers but not many. This is not anyone's fault, really, except for the dunderheads who threw out all of the original prints. Fortunately, between an Italian collector's print and an American print, there was enough footage to restore the bulk of the movie. The closest cousin I have viewed in terms of tone, cinematography, and restoration quality is The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Blonde Ice's transfer is actually better. Granted, The Devil and Daniel Webster is seven years older and was in poorer shape, but it is a yardstick for comparison.
The biggest difference is audio quality. Where The Devil and Daniel Webster is faint, scratchy, and warbled, Blonde Ice is simply scratchy and warbled. The dialogue is quite clear. There were many hisses and pops, occasionally loud ones. But the music and effects come across clearly, so we aren't losing any understanding of events.
The video is quite poor in many spots. The beginning scenes suffer from serious judder, which can make viewers seasick if they watch on a big screen. The backgrounds are hazy and the outlines between people and objects are indistinct. The entire image is bleary with massive grain. The color temperature shifts between the two print sources, thought not badly. On the other hand, black levels and contrast are solid, and the digital removal of nasty scratches is only occasionally noticeable. Once the judder settles down, the film becomes more watchable, but no one is likely to praise the clear video quality. You must have faith that the image was diligently handled; like with The Devil and Daniel Webster, your choice is to berate the quality or be pleased that the film has been rescued.
The non-Fenton extras are amusing, if odd. "Satan Wears a Satin Gown," a musical number sung by Ray Barber, makes you go "Huh?" In this gem, Ray holds a shotgun-sized package and stares down a randy cad in an alley. To the fella's startled amusement, Ray bursts into a melodramatic song about a dame named Satan. She appears on the fire escape and takes the stunned musical victim away. We are also treated to an episode of Into the Night, which I've never heard of. To judge by this episode, it is like The Twilight Zone meets Dragnet. This noir farce contains bumbling crooks, cold murder, and wise-acre cops hot on the trail. Its primary purpose may be to make Blonde Ice seem epic in comparison.
I believe that variety enhances a DVD collection. It is illuminating to have a range of eras, genres, and quality levels. DVDs like Blonde Ice reveal what time has obscured. After viewing this average but quality noir flick, you can gain better appreciation for the classics. It is also entertaining to peruse mass entertainment from past generations instead of watching the latest reality show. If you're gonna be watching fluff, why not give it a retro flavor?
DVD buffs must also factor in the enlightening discussion of DVD production and the film restoration process. This is an extra that transcends any particular DVD, reaching the very heart of our passion. Blonde Ice is reasonably priced, which makes it an attractive, if offbeat, purchase for noir fans.
First impressions have no place in the courtroom. We must carefully consider the facts. The facts in this case are clear: Blonde Ice is free to go. Court is adjourned…say, sweetheart, got time for a drink?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Commentary by Jay Fenton, Film Restoration Consultant
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