Edward Karam
May 09, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

What gives a hot-button film shelf life? In Warner’s wide-ranging collection Controversial Classics, the earliest, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, still strikes like a sledgehammer, thanks to Paul Muni’s harrowing performance and frank pre-Code sexuality. Meanwhile, the set’s most recent title, The Americanization of Emily, awkwardly transplants Vietnam-era antiwar sentiments to D-Day and clunks along with James Garner as the cowardly antihero. In Bad Day at Black Rock, WWII xenophobia is incidental to the primal Western showdown between Spencer Tracy’s one-armed veteran and a dusty town with a secret. By the same token, the gay content that caused a furor over Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent wouldn’t flutter a pulse now; what remains is a riveting melodrama of petty and principled senators (Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon) battling over cabinet nominee Henry Fonda. Fritz Lang vividly captures mob frenzy misdirected at Tracy’s hapless stranger in Fury, but it’s tarnished by courtroom histrionics and studio meddling. And did Blackboard Jungle really cause riots when ”Rock Around the Clock” played over the titles? You wouldn’t guess that this respectable, if quaint, look at juvenile delinquency — expertly acted by Glenn Ford and youngsters like Sidney Poitier — brought MGM the shekels to make Ben-Hur. But for a scorcher undimmed by time, check out Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, with a superb Patricia Neal as a radio host who turns a folksy rascal (Andy Griffith, drawing on all his sinister impulses) into a media-savvy monster. EXTRAS Commentaries on all except Face, which revisits Griffith and Neal in a doc; a Warner musical spoof of Fugitive; and a Blackboard cartoon takeoff. Fugitive: A-
Emily: B-
Bad Day, Advise, Face: A
Fury: B
Blackboard: B+

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