It all began with the death in mid-December of Van Johnson. As is my wont, I found something in the Los Angeles Times obituary to grumble about at the breakfast table: no mention of The Bottom of the Bottle. Why, I wondered aloud to the suffering soul who puts up with my grumbles, is that movie never shown anymore on television? I’d have been content to drop it there, but my wife went Googling and wound up at a blog labelled Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide, where Bottom of the Bottle held a place of honor among such estimables as The Big Lebowski, El Dorado, Rio Bravo, The Nutty Professor, and Whisky Galore, in addition to the inevitable Harvey and Lost Weekend and many more. “A never-better Van Johnson,” the blogger wrote to my satisfaction. But no more was I content to drop it. At the end of the brief write-up was a note to the effect that the movie had never been released on video and a link to a site called Yammering Magpie Cinema, which was said to have “a collectors [sic] copy available on DVD... presented in its original Cinemascope ratio.” Yammering Magpie? I clicked.
Yammering Magpie proved to be an attractive and navigable website which listed, at reasonable prices, DVD-R’s of movies either no longer or never available on commercial video, “offered as digital transfers from one collector to another.” The claim of unavailability was patently untrue in some cases, but still. Bottom of the Bottle happens to be a 20th Century-Fox film in Cinemascope directed by Henry Hathaway in the second half of the Fifties. It occurred to me immediately to type into the site’s Quick Find box the title of another 20th Century-Fox film in Cinemascope also directed by Henry Hathaway in the second half of the Fifties, a film I periodically Google in hopes that it will have been issued on DVD, a film I have over the years mentioned a time or three in this space, a film I recklessly refer to as one of my favorites even though I haven’t seen it on the big screen since I was ten years old and haven’t seen it on the little screen literally in decades or, even then, in anything but a pan-and-scan print. I typed it into the search box. F-r-o-m H-e-l-l t-o T-e-x-a-s. Et voilà. Bingo. Eureka. Hallelujah. They not only offered it. They offered it letterboxed — “barely worth watching unless seen in its original Cinemascope” — and they graded the print quality as “A” for “pristine.” (Bottom of the Bottle was graded “B” for “good.”) I spent a short while typing in some other titles for which I’m always on the lookout (some hits, some misses), scrolling through the categories of Classics, Film Noir, Westerns, and making up a shopping list. I had to apply the brakes. I didn’t know Yammering Magpie from Yammering Adam. So I prudently limited my first order to the two Hathaways.
Weeks went by. E-mails confirmed variously that my order had been received, processed, shipped, and, after the passage of a few more days, again shipped. I didn’t worry. It was Christmastime after all, a busy time. The package arrived in the new year, two slim-line plastic cases adorned with miniatures of the original posters, plus a handwritten note to assure me that in the next week they would be sending “a better copy” of Bottom of the Bottle. Hmm. What could be wrong with the copy in hand? I popped it into the DVD player, and up came... Secret of the Incas. Now, Secret of the Incas, as I knew well from experience, is what we might call a hoot, a risibly inauthentic treasure hunt in authentic locales, featuring Charlton Heston and a “native” musical number by the five-octave Peruvian marvel, Yma Sumac. But I wasn’t hooting. Secret of the Incas is not Bottom of the Bottle. It shouldn’t take much to provide “a better copy.” I thought I’d better promptly check out the pièce de résistance. I could see in my mind’s eye the abandoned saddle in the desert, and I could hear in my mind’s ear the galloping hoofbeats and the wordless male chorus. And up came... Secret of the Incas.
Numerous phone calls and E-mails, of differing degrees of consternation, outrage, and sarcasm, went unacknowledged. Total blackout. I observed on the website that Secret of the Incas occupied the top spot on the site’s list of best-sellers, and I speculated in one E-mail that that was because it was the only disk they ever sent out. I had begun to worry. It wasn’t until I earmarked an email as my final attempt at communication, promised to dispute the charges on my credit card, and identified myself (I wince to recall it) as the film critic on the nation’s largest alternative free weekly, that I got an immediate response. The explanation was perfectly plausible to the extent that it went over my head. They had, in a nutshell, been trying out new equipment for their digital transfers and didn’t know how to work it correctly. Then they had been gone over the holidays and were swamped with complaints from customers who likewise had received unwanted copies of Secret of the Incas. They couldn’t have been nicer about it. And inasmuch as they would be pleased to throw in a couple of bonus DVDs to make up for the inconvenience, I went to my embryonic shopping list and requested Hugo Fregonese’s Black Tuesday (graded “D” for “rough”) and either John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beal (a “B”) or Andre de Toth’s Pitfall (another “B”), whichever would be easier. They sent me everything mentioned, plus the unmentioned Big House, U.S.A., plus boxes with appropriate artwork for Secret of the Incas. All was forgiven.
Black Tuesday, a taut Edward G. Robinson prison-break thriller that I hadn’t seen since childhood, was indeed rough in print quality not to mention in violence. Alias Nick Beal, with its reliance on fluid long-takes and naturalistic supernaturalism, was silky-smooth. Pitfall, owing to Raymond Burr’s psychopathic stalker, was creepy in the extreme. Big House, U.S.A. was rougher in violence and even more so in cinematic technique, though not in print quality, than Black Tuesday. And Bottom of the Bottle, a Cain-and-Abel parable from a Simenon novel, about an alcoholic escaped convict trying to sneak across the Mexican border to his wife and kids but marooned by floodwater at his upstanding brother’s, had moral ambiguity and amoral ambience in abundance. A fleeting logo on screen disclosed that the print had been broadcast on the Fox Movie Channel, whatever that may be.