As a frail, asthmatic boy who spent much of his childhood convalescing, Martin Scorsese famously discovered his love of cinema by watching “Million Dollar Movie” on New York television. In interviews, he has spoken of being introduced to Citizen Kane with the opening newsreel cut, or Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman in fuzzy black-and-white, or classics of the Italian neorealist movement chopped to fit 90-minute time slots, but being moved all the same.
I sometimes think about Scorsese’s childhood when I’ve caught myself bellyaching that 1.33:1 movie has been squished into a 1.85:1 frame on someone’s TV. Now that I’m an old fogey who requires perfect Blu-Ray clarity every time I sit down to watch a Bela Lugosi cheapie or a John Holmes porno, I sometimes think about the pre-video days, when the best options for owning your favourite movies included buying abbreviated 8mm versions or perusing any volume from Richard Anobile’s “Film Classics Library” (which reproduced hundreds of stills from famous films like The General, Psycho, and Frankenstein in book form).
Actually, I don’t have to think that far back. When I was 10 years old, I spent a long, painful summer saving my allowance so that I could afford (or at least pay halfsies with my dad on) my first DVD player. My life was permanently changed when I visited a friend’s house and discovered that his DVD copy of Armageddon contained not only the movie, but also such exciting bonus features as a theatrical trailer and the Aerosmith “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” music video, and I realized that VHS was for suckers. Once I finally had the player, I discovered that in those early days of the DVD format, there was a relative dearth of software that I could afford (Austin Powers retailed for $30 in those days — but lord knows I saved up for it) or even particularly desired (my very first DVD purchase: Arthur, starring Dudley Moore).
However, there was an area where my burgeoning cinephilia and my modest income intersected: the cheap DVD releases of public-domain classics released by companies like Front Row Entertainment, Madacy Video, Delta LaserLight, and Alpha Video. Before everything was available on the internet, stores bought these DVDs in bulk to fill their shelves. For a few years, they were important resources for those of us whose moviegoing horizons were limited to the local Blockbuster.
What follows is a rundown of some of the auteurs whose work I learned to love through garbage public-domain DVD releases: