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Chris Hicks: ‘The Letter’ hits DVD, with ‘Random Harvest’ and 3 action-packed flicks

SHARE Chris Hicks: ‘The Letter’ hits DVD, with ‘Random Harvest’ and 3 action-packed flicks

An old black-and-white Bette Davis flick was the top vote-getter when fans cast ballots about which films they'd like to see on DVD.

"The Letter," one of Davis' starring vehicles from 1940, which casts her as an accused murderess, topped the choices by 140,000 movie fans who logged onto a Web site sponsored by Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies.

And that film — along with another black-and-white classic from the '40s and three color action pictures from the '50s and '60s — were released on DVD this week.

In order, the voting was for "The Letter," "King Solomon's Mines," "Ice Station Zebra," "Ivanhoe" and "Random Harvest."

With the success of this "DVD Decision" promotion, another voting opportunity will likely follow in the fall.

"The Letter" (Warner, 1940, not rated, b/w, $19.97). Davis is at the top of her form in this Somerset Maugham yarn, which opens with Davis pumping six bullets into a man as he stumbles down the front steps of her Malaya villa.

Davis is married to a rubber plantation operator (Herbert Marshall), and the victim is their friend — whom she claims was trying to rape her when she shot him. But his Eurasian widow (Gale Sondergaard) has a letter that suggests Davis and the victim had been having an affair.

A grand potboiler with wonderful atmosphere (get a load of that moonlight), directed with style to spare by William Wyler (he would later direct "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben-Hur" and "Friendly Persuasion"). As for the performances, Davis is great, of course, but Sondergaard, with very little dialogue, is quite chilling, and as the conscience-torn defense attorney, James Stephenson is also quite good.

There is also an alternate ending among the bonus features; it's close to the one used in the film but lacks a speech by Marshall, as well as a confession by Davis with a fairly famous line of dialogue.

Extras: Full frame, alternate ending, two audio-only radio versions, trailer, subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

"Random Harvest" (Warner, 1942, not rated, b/w, $19.97). Greer Garson and Ronald Colman star in this first-rate James Hilton soap opera, a complex story of amnesia in which Colman is a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock when he marries a dance-hall girl (Garson) and starts a new life. Later, however, an accident brings back the memory of his wealthy pre-war life and blocks out his memory of his wife.

Some of the twists here stretch credulity, but the film is so entertaining and well-played that it doesn't matter. This is movie magic at its best, an example of great filmmaking from an era when storytelling was king and stars were truly stars.

Extras: Full frame, two vintage shorts, audio-only radio version, trailers, language options (English, French), subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

"King Solomon's Mines" (Warner, 1950, not rated, $19.97). H. Rider Haggard's novel and this film provide the prototype for the later Indiana Jones adventures, although this is not really an action-packed film, despite some effective nail-biting moments. Rather, it concentrates on character development and fabulous African location scenery (Kenya, Uganda, etc.).

Set in the late 19th century, the plot has hunter/guide Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) reluctantly leading a woman (Deborah Kerr) and her brother (Richard Carlson) through uncharted territory to track down her husband, who disappeared while searching for the title diamond mine.

Fine performances, polished direction and glossy production values help this one hold up as highly entertaining. You can even forgive Kerr's perfect makeup and hair, along with a few other movie cliches of the period.

Extras: Full frame, trailer, language options (English, French), subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

"Ivanhoe" (Warner, 1952, not rated, $19.97). Plenty of action (in particular a terrific jousting sequence) makes this adaptation of Walter Scott's oft-filmed tale worthwhile, as the heroic knight Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) tries to save England from evil Prince John after King Richard is kidnapped on his way back from the Crusades. (Essentially "Robin Hood" plot.)

And the star-studded cast helps, especially Joan Fontaine, who really stands out, and in a comic-relief role as Ivanhoe's squire, Emlyn Williams. Elizabeth Taylor is also on hand, looking gorgeous as a young Jewess who falls for Ivanhoe, and George Sanders is the smarmy villain. The usual MGM stock company of great character players is also on hand, most notably Finlay Currie as Ivanhoe's father and Felix Aylmer as Taylor's father.

Extras: Full frame, Tom & Jerry cartoon: "Two Musketeers," trailers, language options (English, French), subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

"Ice Station Zebra" (Warner, 1968, G, $19.97). This Cinerama picture (complete with overture and intermission), based on an Alistair MacLean novel, has its moments, but it runs out of steam toward the end and is just too long (2 1/2 hours) to sustain all the blathering conversation.

Still, Rock Hudson makes a fine submarine captain, taking a mysterious trio (Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown) to the North Pole during the Cold War. Several gripping action scenes help. (This film gained some infamy when Howard Hughes reportedly watched it over and over during his isolation in Las Vegas.)

Extras: Widescreen, making-of featurette, trailers, language options (English, French), subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

E-mail: hicks@desnews.com