An afternoon spent perusing the digital aisles of Warner Archive Instant (WAI) persuaded me to plunk down 10 bucks a month for a subscription to this distinguished video-on-demand network, launched last spring by the studio that brought us “Casablanca,” “The Searchers,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Blade Runner,” “JFK” and “The Dark Knight.”
That’s quite a list of classics, but, interestingly, not one of them is available on WAI. Presumably Warner Bros. is waiting to see how its streaming service fares without such crown jewels — which currently draw $3 a click on Amazon and elsewhere — before committing them to its free-with-subscription roster.
Just as interesting is that the lack of A-list titles doesn’t much dampen WAI’s particular appeal. Like I said, I signed up — for reasons I’ll try to explain in experiential fashion.
Armed with a two-week trial subscription (available at instant.warnerarchive.com), I steered my Roku 3 through the site and was immediately struck by the connoisseur-oriented list of categories. Never mind Netflix’s dry designations of “Thrillers” and “Dramas Based on Books,” etc. Here we have the likes of “Film Noir,” “Classic Comedy (pre-1960),” “Mondo/Cult,” “Silent” and even “Pre-Code,” the last referring to films made before the censorial Hays Code tried in the early 1930s to take all the fun out of Hollywood movies.
Sampling the forbidden fruit of “Pre-Code” (the subject of an upcoming series at the Heights and Trylon theaters, as it happens), I sneaked a peek at “Baby Face” and saw that WAI’s high-def resolution is state-of-the-art, showing off the spectacular gams of Barbara Stanwyck’s enterprising floozy in the first scene. A Stanwyck fan from way back, I marveled at the presence of her “Night Nurse” and “The Purchase Price” in “Pre-Code,” which also includes racy vehicles for James Cagney and Joan Blondell.
I nearly fumbled my remote when I came upon “Vincente Minnelli Directs,” devoted to nine of the versatile auteur’s stellar entertainments — everything from “The Clock” (1945), a love letter to Minnelli’s soon-to-be-wife Judy Garland, to “Lust for Life” (with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh) and the fascinatingly bleak “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962), which captures the imminent end of classic Hollywood better than any other movie I know.
Among the WAI films I had somehow forgotten is the irresistibly cheesy newspaper movie “-30-,” for whose miraculous reappearance on my monitor I’ll be forever grateful to the brothers Warner. In the 1959 film, “Dragnet” stud Jack Webb directs himself as Sam Gatlin, an L.A. daily’s just-the-facts managing editor, who incredibly keeps his cool juggling multiple deadlines on the night shift.
Speaking of justly romanticized institutions, WAI seems more like a repertory cinema than a multiplex; it even has a “Coming Soon” list to whet the buff’s appetite for more. Personally, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to wait for Sam Fuller’s late-’50s war movie “Verboten!”
Now you’ll excuse me while I turn delightedly to Max Julien and Richard Pryor in “The Mack,” already in progress.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.