I was watching a documentary about the comedian Gilbert Gottfried the other day and one of the interviewees, fellow comic David Attell, was marveling at Gilbert’s eccentricities, one of which was the fact that he still owned a DVD player. “Nobody owns a DVD player,” Attell exclaimed, adding some profanities as is his wont and applying an inflection that made it sound as if Gottfried was an almighty superfreak.
It’s tough times for people who still consider physical media your most reliable entertainment value. Even though I cover a lot of movies via streaming links and even write a column about movies on streaming video, I prefer Blu-ray and am planning a 4K upgrade for 2018. And Attell notwithstanding, the market still exists, although it’s one that economists might term a “long tail” one.
All this is by way of introduction to a new Blu-ray label I like: Classic Flix. The name may not be poetic, but it’s accurate. Recent releases include “You Only Live Once,” the searing Fritz Lang-directed 1937 crime-drama/romance starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda, and “T-Men” (pictured above), the 1947 Anthony Mann noir/docudrama, shot by the great John Alton. Both films are cinematic deep cuts that have been hard to see in optimum versions. Probably because by this point in time no optimum versions exist. Digital restoration has breathed new life into the versions on the Classic Flix Blu-rays. “You Only Live Once” in particular is a revelation, rich in pictorial detail I’ve never seen before in any version; it’s also just plain watchable in a whole new way. A version of “T-Men” from over a decade ago, released by Sony Special Products, was a consistently strong rendering of a film that practically defines a particularly stark iteration of black-and-white cinematography. The Classic Flix Blu-ray provides not just a high-resolution boost but also an even cleaner picture. Another title, “Another Man’s Poison,” a 1951 rarity starring Bette Davis and Gary Merrill, is a thriller of deceit adapted from a stage play; it, too, is a study in darkness (it takes place mostly in the interior of a dimly lit British house), and its mood comes across vividly.
I had initially assumed, for some reason, that like Film Detective, a DVD and Blu-ray label I looked into for this site about a year and a half ago, Classic Flix dealt with titles now in the public domain. That’s not the case, I learned when chattng with Classic Flix founder David Kawas, the company’s President and CEO. Kawas has a longtime background in retail, going back to the 1990s, and like the entrepreneurs behind Film Detective and Twilight Time, he saw opportunities in what the studios and labels weren’t putting out. Like Twilight Time in the U.S. and Indicator in the U.K., Classic Flix is a sub licensor of material.
“We go though Shout Factory or MGM, looking at titles in their catalogs that they don’t want to market at this time. Once we’ve determined the titles we want, it’s then a matter of getting the best source elements. More often than not they’re not available from the studios themselves,” Kawas explained. “We have had to go to British Film Institute because there were no good elements stateside.”
Once the best elements have been secured, the label works with different restoration artists. Kawas personally delivers notes to the restoration team throughout. “Digital technology has changed everything for a concern like this one. It’s much cheaper than physical film restoration and the results just keep getting better. With ‘T-Men’ was got something that was as close to an original negative as possible. For ‘He Walked By Night’ we got something close as well. Sometimes the best elements, the original negatives, just aren’t around any more. But once you have something good, what digital restoration can do is great. Over the years of seeing its pitfalls, we’ve learned something too.”
While “You Only Live Once” and “T-Men”—as well as the upcoming “Walked By Night” and “Raw Deal,” another tough Anthony Mann crime drama—all appear to be part of the same seam of cinema, I thought “Another Man’s Poison,” as interesting as it is, seemed an odd film out. Kawas said, “I’ve been a retailer for a long time, so I know what sells. Noir is a fantastic genre, and Bette Davis is a name above almost any actress out there, still. So that title makes a lot of sense, and as you said, it’s a good picture.” One title on Classic Flix’s slate is “Tomorrow Is Forever,” a downright odd melodrama from 1946 in which Claudette Colbert believes she is a war widow … while her still alive husband, played by Orson Welles and supposedly unrecognizable after war-wound reconstructive surgery, ponders whether to tell her the truth. “Some of the titles we’ve planned are more gut calls than others. One we’ve got in the works is ‘The Killer is Loose,’ a crime drama directed by Budd Boetticher. I want to continue to up the ante for marquee releases, but I also love classic movies and I want to see them on Blu-ray in high quality editions as a movie fan. There’s still so much out there that should be.”