In theory, it’s a fantastic idea - buying your DVDs directly from a studio, a service offering even the most discerning consumer the possibility of rifling through a huge untapped vault of unreleased titles. When Warner Brothers announced its intention to create a sell-through Archive Collection, giving fans a chance to purchase movies that have never made it to the digital domain, there was celebration - as well as calls for caution. Initial information suggested sloppily created DV-Rs with little consideration for added content or technical specifications. And early reviews were less than stellar. Still, as the number of available films increased in carefully controlled “waves”, the critical tide has started to turn. Indeed, it seems that the more movies Warners makes available, the less arguments advocates have over the transfer quality or lack of extras.
Make no mistake about it, this is a pure cash cow for the studio. They make it very clear on the website that these are not special edition and carefully remastered versions of their films. Instead, like a pirate operation in the backroom of some major Metropolitan mob hideout, Warners is “burning” discs for you, asking $19.95 in return for a bit of entertainment nostalgia. The reason that some of these movies have never made it to DVD is clear - they are unknown niche offerings from eras so bygone that only historians and arftform geeks recognize the names. But there are lost treasures to be found among the ruins, offerings like Freebie and the Bean and Solider in the Rain that, while dated, deliver the kind of unquestionable quality that will keep the Archive Collection in business - at least for now.
For those unfamiliar with either film, SE&L sampled what Warners has to offer, and the results are definitely worth a recommendation. In the case of Freebie and the Bean, we are instantly transported back to the post-peace malaise of the early ‘70s. In Soldier, the beginning of the ‘60s stands in sharp satiric contrast to the suburban Conservative stance of the previous decade. Together, both argue against conformity and for bucking the trend. In the case of the Gleason/McQueen military spoof, such unconventionality pays poor dividends. For Freebie and his Mexican partner “The Bean” however, lawlessness and bigotry are just part of parceling out justice in the big city. Our Caucasian cop steals from those he is supposed to serve and protect. For his Hispanic other half, towing the American Dream has led to worry, panic, and a sneaking suspicion that his wife is having an affair.
For all of its “in your face” derring-do, however, Freebie and the Bean has not aged well. That’s not to say that time has completely tarnished the original bad cop buddy film. Far from it. But for those who’ve heard of Richard Rush’s legendary controversial comedy, a movie made up of exciting action scenes, a complicated crime drama plot, and enough racial slurs to make the KKK proud, this film will be a revelation - and not necessarily in a good way. The plot has our amiable anti-heroes working to nail numbers racketeer Red Meyers. After they find a piece of evidence in the mobster’s garbage can, they think they have the case sewn up. Too bad the dictatorial DA thinks otherwise. When an informant tells them that Meyers may not be long for this world (the Detroit mob has put a contract out on him), it’s up to the duo to protect their prize defendant.
As an example of old school A-list acting, Freebie definitely has its moments. Sure, James Caan is in full blown scandalous superstar mode, mocking every ethnicity he can while carrying over the cache he earned from Brian’s Song, The Godfather, and Cinderella Liberty, while Alan Arkin is fleshing out the fame he found in Catch-22, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and Little Murders. These are two men at the top of their given game, and when you add in cult director/maverick Rush, who runs ramshackle over ‘70s movie convention, you should have something subversive, and wildly entertaining. Sure, the rebelliousness is obvious, but in light of a 35 year advance in cultural dialogue, Polish Jokes and casually thrown epithets just don’t seem that shocking - or funny.
In fact, Freebie and the Bean is far more enjoyable as a work of old school stunt coordination than anything else. It’s clear from the number of automotive crackups here that John Landis studied this film over and over again before he destroyed half of Chicago in The Blues Brothers. Set in San Francisco, Rush turns the entire town into a sight gag, from a three story plunge into an old couple’s dilapidated bedroom, to a disrupted art fair where a giant domino display delivers on its precarious set-up shtick. All the while, professionals both behind and in front of the wheel make us believe in the reality of what is happening, mechanical threat without the sometimes noticeable CG sheen of the current action trade. Naturally, if you look hard enough, you will see Caan and Arkin’s stand-ins doing most of the dangerous heavy horsepower lifting, but just like similarly styled films (Bullitt, The French Connection), we can equally appreciate their contributions to the experience.
The rest of Freebie and the Bean will be a little tougher going. Caan and Arkin are given free reign by Rush to mimic Robert Altman and his overlapping dialogue routine. Jokes - or what passes as humor - frequently get lost in the actor’s desire to improve and adlib. Similarly, the whole ‘supercop’ approach is so middling Me Decade. Caan earns his nickname by basically flimflamming and scamming the constituency into giving him stuff (clothes, cars, cash) for nothing. Today, we would call that obvious corruption and graft. Then, it was part and parcel of cleaning up the mean streets of our decaying urban landscape. And let’s not forget the outright brutality - Freebie and the Bean beat up more potential witnesses than they ever interview, and when a possible criminal comes into their felonious frame of reference, it’s all Tarantino-ready gun battles and firepower.
Soldier in the Rain stands in stark contrast to the cops and robbers routine of Freebie, and yet there are many similarities in both perspective and attitude. In this 1963 lark, Steve McQueen is Sgt. Eustis Clay. In less than a week, he will be getting out of the Army, and he wants his best buddy - and get rich quick co-conspirator M/Sgt Maxwell Slaughter - to join him. Unfortunately, the middle-aged mixer (played by Jackie Gleason) has no desire to step back into civilian life. Hoping for one last chance to lure his pal back into the real world, Clay sets Slaughter up with local “good girl” Bobbie Jo Pepperdine. Still in high school, the blond bimbette thinks the Master Sergeant is a “jellybelly fatty”. But as Clay’s time grows short, Slaughter shows that he is willing to do anything to protect his friend’s dignity, including putting his own safety on the line.
As an example of farce, Soldier in the Rain is an oddity, especially for its formidable cast. No one cites this film when referencing the work of talented stars like McQueen, Gleason, or Tuesday Weld, yet all excel in this example of armed forces irreverence. Oddly enough, it’s the rugged he-man that goes for the laughs, while The Great One is reduced to a patented pathos magnet. The entire film is based around their Frick and Frack relationship, Clay getting into all kinds of trouble and the slick Slaughter rescuing him time and again. With a script co-written by Blake Edwards (himself in the midst of a career epiphany, having directed The Days of Wine and Roses before and prepping The Pink Panther next), there is a tendency to take the whole country mouse/city mouse thing a bit too far. But thanks to the cast, any problems are conveniently overcome.
This doesn’t mean Soldier in the Rain is a masterpiece. Indeed, director Ralph Nelson seems stifled by the material and the setting. All he seems to do is show GI’s sweating, and stumbling around, and fighting. He never uses the locations as anything other than stages, places for the actors to move about it. Similarly, Slaughter’s domain is a wealth of interesting ideas (a rare air conditioner, a soda machine) and yet the novelty is never once exploited. In fact, Soldier in the Rain has more missed opportunities than taken chances, and yet the performances carry us across these pitfalls and - more often than not - into something equally successful. Truth be told, this is a fine forgotten film that misses greatness by the slimmest of margins.
And this is the beauty of the Warners Archive Collection. While something like Freebie had a long and profitable shelf-life for the studio (it was a big hit the year of its release), Solider has been relegated to also-ran in the history of several famous names. Neither disc will be winning awards for video or audio quality, but then again they are significantly better than bootlegs that never take such concepts into consideration. As they roll out more and more titles, as the merchandising element of the approach gets more popular and polished, other companies may follow suit. In fact, it’s hard to see this set-up not becoming the norm for other nominal films. Warners may be innovators when it comes to such a sell-through ideal, but it’s the movies that matter. And in the case of Freebie and the Bean/Soldier in the Rain, it’s well worth it.