Culture

Sex, Suspense, and Murder, 'Manufactured On Demand'

"Return from the Ashes"

Remember how MGM pledged to implement a new "Manufacture On Demand" DVD release system for a bunch of its older, neglected titles? Consider it a win for lit-lovers as well – many of the resurrected films are adaptations (ranging from faithful to "at least they got the title right") from books that were big back in the day. The discs themselves are lean on bonus materials (an original trailer, in most cases) but full of fun surprises. For example, each movie is prefaced by this somewhat-defensive disclaimer, which effectively communicates how much work has gone into the restoration process behind the scenes:

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Fans of crime novelist Ed McBain will be thrilled to get a crack at "Cop Hater" (1958), a supremely enjoyable police-procedural starring a surprisingly dreamy young Robert Loggia (who has mostly played bad guys ever since, notably as the crazed Mr. Eddy in "Lost Highway"). As evidenced by shots like the one of Gerald S. O'Loughlin below, this is ultimately a movie for cop lovers.

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The fellows who adapted "Buried Alive" (1990) from the work of Edgar Allan Poe must have been hitting the bong pretty hard back in their high school English days. Listen closely and you can spot allusions to several different Poe stories; if he'd been alive in the late 1980s, I'd like to imagine that the Grand-Master of Fear could have penned a scene in which a young woman is scalped by a haunted electric mixer (she was using it to curl her fair locks, of course. A reform-school floozy's gotta be resourceful).

Larry McMurtry fared much better in "The Murder of Mary Phagan" (1988), a four-hour miniseries adapted from one of his stories. While it's a serviceable-enough murder mystery, the real treat is its pantheon of guest stars, many of whom (Cynthia Nixon, Kevin Spacey, William H. Macy, Dylan Baker) had yet to come of age in Hollywood.

The biggest surprise among this batch of releases is 1965's "Return From the Ashes," a gripping suspense film (adapted from the French novel by Hubert Monteilhet) in which a woman survives a Nazi death camp, only to find that her reappearance has tripped up a scheme between her husband and step-daughter to claim the fortune she'd left behind. The brilliant cast includes Samantha Eggar, who was nominated for an Oscar that same year for "The Collector" – and who happens to be the mother of the actress Jenna Stern, who starred in last year's "The Best and the Brightest."

When I asked Eggar if she'd like to comment on the new release, I discovered that the film is nearly as fresh to her eyes as it is to ours. "I'd never seen the film," she says. "I rarely ever went to see any of my films. Just three months ago TCM had Samantha Eggar Day, and they showed my films all day and night – and suddenly there was 'Return to the Ashes.'" Because of her underexposure to her own work, Eggar is growing accustomed to these kinds of surprises. "I did a television series called 'Anna and the King' (1972) with Yul Brynner, and I've never seen that either," she adds. "Decades later, the boy who played Yul's son, the crown prince, said he was going to make me some DVDs of the shows – he'd gotten the original tapes from Fox studios. Now it's amazing, I was able to show my grandchildren this wonderful series. So there are lots of wonderful funny surprises."

So, what did she think of "Return From the Ashes"? "I was amazed – I actually thought as a suspense/murder film, it was quite clean, very beautifully directed." Naturally, the scene that she recalls most vibrantly is the infamous bathtub scene (see the trailer below for a glimpse). "What's interesting is I don't swim, so it was totally terrifying for me to film. I had do go slowly under the water – Max (Schell) is sucking on my toes and I'm supposed to be stoned on pills and drunk on champagne, and he drags me under the water very slowly. And you know how many times you have to do something to film a movie! It was very frightening." The filmmakers had assured Eggar that a stunt-person would be bearing the brunt of the assault. "Of course, that day there's a knock on the dressing room door, and they say that they're going to have to shoot it from the front after all," she laughs. "I got myself into a terrible state. Only someone who doesn't swim can understand. The water covering your face and going into your ears, and having to hold it there until someone says 'Cut.' In fact, if you watch the movie very carefully, you can see that I am sobbing so hard I'm almost out of control, sobbing with fear."

Take a look for yourself – you'll find "Return From the Ashes," "Cop-Hater," and many other MGM film adaptations at the usual online retailers.

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