year 1967 was a milestone for actor Sidney Poitier. First, To Sir, with Love garnered sizable box-office for this British
picture, and then Hollywood produced In
the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner, two back-to-back revolutionary movies that solidified Poitier’s
position not only as Tinsel Town’s only black leading man at the time, but also
as an icon of the civil rights movement and the
representative—certainly not by choice—of his race in films to the rest of
America. Throughout his career, Poitier maintained an intelligence and dignity
that was tangible, and this is what made him such a charismatic star.
In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were Oscar
nominees for Best Picture. A winner of five awards, Heat took home the gold. Rod Steiger, Poitier’s dynamic co-star,
won the Best Actor trophy. Hal Ashby and Stirling Silliphant were honored for,
respectively, editing and the adapted screenplay (based on the novel by John
Ball). It was a year of tough competition (The
Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were
In the Heat of the Night is still a
terrific movie today, one must place it in the context of the year it was
released to fully understand its impact. The civil rights movement was at its
height. The nation’s television sets were full of images of marches, riots, and
violence. It seemed as if we were sitting on a powder keg, and Heat perfectly captured the tension of
the moment by telling a story set in the South of a racist police chief and a
black detective who unwittingly join forces to solve a murder.
Tibbs (Poitier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia who happens to be
passing through town on the night a prominent white businessman is found
murdered. Arrested at the train station, Tibbs is brought to Chief Gillespie
(Steiger) and the truth comes out that they have the wrong man. Before he can
leave town, though, Tibbs finds himself embroiled in the investigation—and ends
up leading it—while all around him is the threat of danger due to the color of
then there’s the infamous scene which many critics and film historians called
“the slap heard around the world.” Tibbs and Gillespie go to a cotton
plantation to interview the deceased’s primary competitor, Endicott (Larry
Gates), who is obviously put off by being questioned by a black man. At one
point, he slaps Tibbs—but Tibbs immediately retaliates by slapping the man in
return. In 1967, this was positively shocking. It’s the key moment in this
Oates and Lee Grant also deliver strong performances as a police deputy and the
widow of the murder victim, respectively. With the innovative blues score by
Quincy Jones (and title theme sung by Ray Charles), Haskell Wexler’s gritty
cinematography, and the perfect script by Silliphant, In the Heat of the Night is one of the classic American films.
Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray contains a 4K digital restoration with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The visual quality is much improved over the MGM
Blu-ray of a few years ago (but, unfortunately, does not include the audio
commentary by Jewison, Grant, Steiger, and Wexler from the earlier disk).
Still, there are some good supplements. Brand new interviews with Norman
Jewison and Lee Grant are informative, especially Grant’s treatise on the
blacklisting she had undergone. A new interview with Aram Goudsouzian, author
of Sidney Pointer: Man, Actor, Icon,
presents a capsule portrait of Poitier and his place in Hollywood through the
years. A vintage interview of Poitier from a 2006 AFI piece illustrates the
making of the picture. Ported over from the previous MGM disk is the 2008 documentary,
Turning Up the Heat: Movie-Making in the
60s, which features Jewison, Wexler, and producer Walter Mirisch, plus
contemporary filmmakers John Singleton and Reginal Hudlin on the making of the
film. Quincy Jones: Breaking New Sound,
also from 2008, explores the movie’s soundtrack and features Jones, lyricists
Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Herbie Hancock. The theatrical trailer is
included, and the accompanying booklet features an essay by critic K. Austin
In the Heat of the
a landmark drama that broke new ground on several fronts… but also at its heart
is a cracking good murder mystery! A must-see masterpiece.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
“BLOOD AND PRESTIGE”
By Raymond Benson
of this review are reprinted from the article “Playboy Goes to Hollywood,” by
the same author, which appeared in Cinema
Retro, Volume 2, Issue #5, 2006.)
Criterion Collection has seen fit to release on Blu-ray and DVD (separate
packaging) Roman Polanski’s striking film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, originally released in 1971.
Not very well received at first, the picture’s reputation has grown over the
years such that it is now arguably considered the definitive version of the “Scottish
play” on celluloid (although Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood is certainly a contender). Gritty, realistic, and
violent, Polanski’s vision is dark and troubling—as the story is meant to be.
It’s possible that some of the negative
press it received in 1971 was due to the fact that it was the first major
motion picture produced by Playboy Productions, with Hugh M. Hefner serving as
executive producer, while Playboy executive Victor Lownes II served as assistant
executive producer (Andrew Braunsberg, a close friend of Polanski’s, was credited
as producer). The film came about as a result of the friendship between
Polanski and Lownes.The director had
been recovering from the tremendous amount of grief he had suffered after the
murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family in 1969—he
needed something that would help purge himself of the ugly and violent images
in his head and heart. Shakespeare’s controversial and bloody play seemed to be
the right vehicle. (Some say the play is unlucky—there are still theatre people
who refuse to refer to it by name.)
Indeed, making the film was something
of a catharsis for Polanski—there were a few occasions in which he unwittingly
referred to the lead actress as “Sharon.” Adapted by renowned playwright and
critic Kenneth Tynan, Polanski’s Macbeth
became a poster child for the handful of ultra-violent pictures to be released
in 1971—the same year as A Clockwork
Orange, Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs. The blood flows freely in Macbeth—a decapitation is even presented
most realistically—but to focus solely on the film’s violence does not do it
justice. The film is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the play.
“Corporate was initially against the
idea,” Hugh Hefner said in a 2006 interview for Cinema Retro. “It was not a very commercial undertaking, and I knew
it wouldn’t make any money. Victor made a strong case to do it and I agreed
with him. It was more of a prestige thing for Playboy. Playboy and Shakespeare?
Who would have thought?”
The film was made in Scotland, of
course, and featured mostly unknown but highly talented stage actors—Jon Finch
as Macbeth, Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, Nicholas Selby as Duncan, Stephen
Chase as Malcolm, Martin Shaw as Banquo, and Terence Bayler as Macduff. At one
point during production, Polanski ran over schedule and over budget, causing
the insurance backers to drop the guarantee. Hefner had to fly to London, take
stock of the situation, and personally guarantee the completion of the film
with Playboy Productions’ money.
Back home in the States, Hefner viewed
the dailies at the Playboy Mansion. Hefner remembered, “For my birthday that
year, the cast—on film—suddenly stopped the action of a scene and began singing
‘Happy Birthday’ to me.”
The film did receive a number of very positive reviews and a few awards,
too—it won Best Picture from the National Board of Review and won a BAFTA for
Costume Design. “Of course, as I predicted, it didn’t make any money,” Hefner
said. “In fact, it lost money. But we
didn’t really care. It was a good picture and I’m proud of it. I believe since
its release the film has gone into the black.”
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration,
approved by Polanski, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is
assuredly the best possible presentation of this remarkable film. The dreary
Scottish landscapes are gorgeous in their own way, and you can feel the mud and
slop in every scene. Extras include a new documentary featuring interviews with
Polanski, Braunsberg, Lownes, and actors Annis and Shaw; a 1971 documentary
featuring rare footage of the cast and crew at work; an interview with Kenneth
Tynan from a 1971 episode of The Dick
Cavett Show; and a segment from the 1972 British TV series Aquarius featuring Polanski and theatre
director Peter Coe. Critic Terrence Rafferty’s essay in the booklet rounds out
this exceptional package from The Criterion Collection.
Grab it! Just don’t ever pronounce the
name of the play aloud!
Criterion Collection has upgraded to Blu-ray their earlier DVD release of
Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 feature, Sawdust
and Tinsel (titled The Naked Night when
the picture was first released theatrically in the U.S.). The visual quality
has improved with a new 2K digital restoration that looks razor sharp with gorgeous
contrasting black and white imagery, and it comes with an uncompressed monaural
Sawdust was a major step
forward in the evolution of Bergman’s filmography, although it was not
well-received by Swedish audiences at the time of release. It was most likely
deemed too disturbing for what appeared to be a movie about a traveling circus.
Note that this was before Bergman’s international breakthrough, which would
occur a couple of years later with Smiles
of a Summer Night. At the time of Sawdust
and Tinsel, Bergman was mostly known just in his native country and at the
various film festivals around the world where his work had been submitted.
first several pictures in Bergman’s oeuvre,
especially in the late 1940s,were
often melodramatic tales of entanglement, lost love, betrayal, and working-class
misfits struggling to enrich their lives. It wasn’t until Summer Interlude, in 1951, that a singular stylistic and thematic voice
emerged that can now be identified as Bergman-esque. Earlier in 1953, Summer with Monika was released, and
that caused something of a sensation with its frank portrayal of what the U.S.
distributor called “The Story of a Bad Girl.” That one made a star out of
Harriet Andersson, who would work on several other pictures with Bergman over
the next four decades.
Sawdust and Tinsel was a very different
picture from Monika. Taking place in
the early 1900s, the story concerns a poor, shoddy traveling circus that barely
supports itself. It is run by Albert (Åke Grönberg),
a middle-aged man who left his wife and sons in a small town in order to be a
ringmaster. His mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson), is the bareback rider,
younger and yearning for something better. Frost the Clown (Anders Ek) and his
wife Alma (Gudrun Brost), who has an act with a sickly bear, are oddballs and constant
thorns in Albert’s side. When the circus sets up near the town where Albert’s
family lives, he decides to go for a visit. First, though, the troupe must
borrow costumes from the local theater run by creepy manager Sjuberg (played by
Bergman stalwart Gunnar Björnstrand). There,
Anne meets the mysterious actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman), who seduces her away from
sound like a good time at the cinema? Hogwash. This is a fascinating and haunting
battle of the sexes—a typical Bergman theme—but the carnival milieu is so
unique to the director that Sawdust and
Tinsel is immediately visually striking with its dreamlike photography (it
was the first collaboration between Bergman and longtime cinematographer Sven
Nykvist), its colorful and eccentric characters, and its moody and often
the story’s core is a treatise on how human beings react to humiliation. The
opening scene, in which Frost must rescue his wife from the taunting of the
Swedish military performing exercises near the beach, is a nightmarish, nearly silent
mime show of anguish and terror (and the facial contortions that Ek’s Frost
makes are worth a study in skin elasticity!). The meat of the picture is how the
ultimate shattering of both Albert’s and Anne’s dreams force them to re-examine
their lots in life.
all powerful stuff.
on the disk include an audio commentary from 2007 by Bergman scholar Peter
Cowie, a video introduction from 2003 by Bergman himself, and an essay in the
booklet by critic John Simon.
For those of you looking for the sold-out boxed set retrospective of Bergman’s
career that was released in November, Ingmar
Bergman’s Cinema, new copies will be available February 26, 2019.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER "SAWDUST AND TINSEL" FROM AMAZON
a fascinating interview supplement contained on this amazing new release by The
Criterion Collection, film historian Joseph McBride calls The Magnificent Ambersons one of the great Hollywood tragedies in
that the film we got from writer/director Orson Welles was not the one he
intended. It is widely known that RKO Radio, the studio behind the production,
deleted forty-three minutes from Welles’ final cut, reshot the ending, and
released the film their way—all
against Welles’ wishes—and then promptly destroyed the cut footage so that the
movie could never be reconstructed.
is a stolen masterpiece.
said, the film is still a great
movie. In fact, it earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting
Actress (Agnes Moorehead), Best Cinematography (Black & White, by Stanley
Cortez), and Best Art/Interior Set Decoration (Black & White).
Ambersons, based on Booth
Tarkington’s 1918 novel (Welles claims that Tarkington was a “friend” of his
father’s), the picture was the director’s follow-up to Citizen Kane. Once again featuring some of the Mercury Players
(Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, and Moorehead) and new casting choices (Dolores
Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter), the production of Ambersons went well, with the picture going only a little over
budget. Welles delivered a 148-minute cut—and then Pearl Harbor happened.
Welles was appointed by Nelson Rockefeller to be a goodwill ambassador to Latin
America so that he could attempt to persuade South American countries from
entering the war on the Axis side.
dutifully went to Brazil and started shooting a film (It’s All True, another picture sabotaged by RKO) and was
essentially unavailable to receive notes and requests from RKO regarding Ambersons. RKO, unhappy with the film,
then took it upon themselves to change it to suit their needs, and there was
nothing Welles could do about it. The picture released in July 1942 was
88-minutes in length.
a Magnificent Ambersons that is an
hour longer be a better film than it already is? We can only assume. For one
thing, the ending was drastically different. Welles’ version was cynical, dark,
and ironic. Given the wartime climate, RKO wanted a more upbeat ending—never
mind that it really doesn’t make sense that the characters suddenly change
entire attitudes they have held throughout the film. Never mind that the final
half-hour of the movie feels choppy, rushed, and out-of-rhythm from the first
hour. The 88-minute version is what we have and must live with.
should be stated again—The Magnificent
Ambersons is still a great picture.
story concerns the wealthy Amberson family in the early 1900s Indianapolis. Beautiful
Isabel Amberson (Costello) marries Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) instead of
Eugene Morgan (Cotten), but she regrets it… and she and Morgan carry torches
for each other for the remainder of their days. Enter Isabel and Wilbur’s
bratty son, George (Holt), who terrorizes the town with his bad manners,
arrogance, and boorishness. Things get complicated when he begins to woo
Morgan’s daughter Lucy (Baxter) and at the same time insult and humiliate her
father. All the while, Wilbur’s sister Fanny (Moorehead) also carries
unrequited love for Morgan and inserts herself into the already-touchy
Ambersons is about the downfall of a
respected and wealthy family to that thing called Progress—namely, the
invention and proliferation of the automobile and other industrial evolutions.
Welles makes an ecological statement with the picture (back in 1942!) which is
something else RKO was unhappy with, seeing that American industries had to
ramp up to support the war effort.
new 4K digital restoration looks marvelous, and it contains two separate audio
commentaries with scholars Robert L. Carringer and James Naremore, and critic
packaging is first-rate. The numerous and excellent supplements alone make the
product a 5-star purchase. Especially interesting and informative are the new
interviews with (previously mentioned) McBride and one with film historian
Simon Callow. Both men relate different insights into the history of the
production and the editing debacle. Director Welles appears on a 1970 segment
of The Dick Cavett Show (along with second
guest Jack Lemmon) for an often-hilarious and always-entertaining half-hour
discussion. New video essays on the cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s uncredited score (that was also chopped
up with RKO’s editing), by Francois Thomas and Christopher Husted,
respectively, are a welcome addition.
included is the silent version of Ambersons,
originally called Pampered Youth (1925),
and re-edited for the U.K. as Two to One (1927).
If that wasn’t enough, we get two Mercury Theatre radio plays: the 1939
adaptation by Welles of Ambersons (with
Welles playing the role of George), and a 1938 adaptation of Seventeen, another Booth Tarkington
creation. There’s more, such as audio interviews with Welles by Peter
Bogdanovich and at an AFI symposium, and the theatrical trailer. The booklet
comes in a stapled “manuscript” that resembles a typed screenplay. It contains
essays by authors and critics (Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien,
Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem), and excerpts from a Welles memoir.
even in its sadly truncated form,further
illustrates the genius that was Orson Welles. This Criterion release is a
Criterion has released a dual format Blu-ray/DVD edition of director Michael Mann's 1981 crime thriller Thief starring James Caan. It's a highly impressive film on many levels, especially when one considers this was Mann's big screen feature debut. He had previously directed the acclaimed 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, which was set in Folsom Prison. Mann was inspired by his interaction with the world of convicts and wrote the screenplay for Thief, which is credited as being based on author Frank Hohimer's novel The Home Invaders, but he maintains virtually none of the source material ended up on screen. The story centers on Frank (James Caan), a bitter man with a troubled past. As a child he was raised in state-run homes before being sent to jail for a petty crime. Inside prison, he committed violent acts in order to defend himself but this only resulted in lengthier jail terms. By the time he has been released, he has spent half of his life behind bars. While in jail, Frank befriended Okla (Willie Nelson), a older man and master thief who is doing a life sentence. He becomes Frank's mentor and father figure and teaches him the tools of the trade. When Frank is finally released, he becomes a master at his craft, which is pulling off seemingly impossible heists of cash and diamonds. Before long, he has become a legend in his field. As a cover, Frank runs a major used car dealership and a small bar. However, he realizes that his luck will certainly run out at some point and he is determined to retire after making a few more high end scores. He works with a small team consisting of two confederates (James Belushi, Willam LaValley) who are also pros in gaining access to seemingly impenetrable vaults. The headstrong Frank wants to also settle down and raise a family. He makes an awkward introduction to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), an equally head strong, down-on-her luck character who nevertheless becomes smitten by him and ends up marrying him. The couple face frustration, however, when their attempts to adopt a baby are thwarted by Frank's criminal record. Frank is ultimately approached by Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime lord who entices him to stop working independently and pull off a high profile heist for a fortune in diamonds. Frank rejects the offer but eventually he relents, though he is reluctant to work with a new partner. Leo has managed to break through Frank's cynicism by showering him with praise the benefits of his influence, which include arranging for Frank and Jessie to illegally adopt the baby they want so desperately. The lure of being able to retire after this one huge score leads Frank to go against his better judgment and he agrees to work for Leo on this one big job. The diamonds are located in a vault so secure that it would seem to be better suited for Fort Knox. In order to break in, Frank and his team must use highly sophisticated drills and other equipment that would rival the top gear used by any branch of the military. On the verge of realizing his greatest score, however, things go terribly wrong on any number of levels. Frank, seeing his world crumble around him, goes on a violent rampage of destruction and self-destruction.
Thief is a highly stylized movie that moves at a rapid clip and features one of James Caan's strongest performances. The problem, however, is that the character of Frank is so obnoxious, he is difficult to relate to. Peckinpah, Scorsese and Coppola always had a knack for making disreputable characters seem appealing, but Frank is nasty, arrogant and self-centered. This is certainly realistic, given the bitter feelings he has toward society, but the viewer never warms to him in any meaningful way. He is only sympathetic because the people he deals with are so much worse. Nevertheless, Thief is a crackling good yarn that boasts some fine performances especially by Tuesday Weld and character actor Robert Prosky, who is brilliant in a scene-stealing role. Willie Nelson's screen time is very limited but he makes effective use of his two scenes. The film features superb cinematography by Donald E. Thorin, who made his debut here as Director of Cinematography. His night sequences on the rain-slicked streets of Chicago evoke visions of neon-lit nightmare. The film features an electronic score by Tangerine Dream, the band that provided the music for Willliam Friedkin's Sorcerer. Strangely, their score for that films holds up well but their work in Thief comes across as a bit monotonous and dated. The film's ultra-violent conclusion is exciting but rather cliched with Frank turning into yet another pissed off screen hero who decides to take down all of his enemies in an orgy of shootouts and destruction. (I know it sounds petty but I can never accept such sequences when they are set in urban neighborhoods in which no one ever seems to call the police even as houses explode and machine gun fire is sprayed all over the place.). The film excels, however, in the break-in sequences which are superbly directed and feature camerawork that make the crime scene look like an attraction from Disney World, with fireworks-like sparks filling the air.
The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is superb on every level. Extras, which are carried over to the DVD, include a commentary track by Michael Mann and James Caan that was recorded in 1995. There are also fresh video interviews with both men that are rather candid. (Caan, who has worked consistently through his career, modestly says "I was rather popular at one time" in reference to his work on the film. Mann says he is still debating in his mind whether he regrets using Tangerine Dream's score) There is also an interview with Johannes Schmoelling of the band, who discusses working with Mann to create the score. An original trailer is included as is a nicely illustrated booklet with an informative essay by film critic Nick James.
In a worthy attempt to focus attention on the work of writer/producer/director/actor Delmer Daves, Criterion has released a Blu-ray edition of his 1956 Western Jubal. It's a rather odd choice for the label, which specializes in gold-standard editions of established classics and revered cult films. On the surface, Jubal may sound like a standard horse opera, especially with the title role played by reliable-but-unexciting Glenn Ford. However, the reason why Criterion sought to have the movie re-evaluated is immediately apparent. This is an unusually mature Western with a very dramatic story line that builds in intensity under Daves' assured direction. Ford plays Jubal Troop, a troubled loner and drifter, who is saved from certain death in the mountains by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), a boisterous but kind prominent rancher who nurses Jubal back to health and rewards him with a job on his ranch. It isn't long before Jubal proves his worth and impresses Shep enough to make him the new foreman- an act that offends and alienates another, long-time ranch hand, "Pinky" Pinkus (Rod Steiger), who had sought the position himself. Jubal's seemingly idyllic situation is further hampered by the fact that Shep's sultry Canadian wife Mae (Valerie French) is disgusted by her husband's boorish behavior and his tendency to treat her as a prized steer. Clearly suffering from sexual frustration, the isolated woman exists in a world of misogynistic men. It isn't long before she's making eyes at Jubal, who must summon all of his willpower to resist her advances out of respect for his friendship with Shep. Adding to the rising tensions is the fact that Mae had once had a fling with "Pinky" and he can't accept the fact that she now favors Jubal. The intricate plot takes numerous turns leading to Mae's manipulation of Shep and Jubal by implying to her husband that she has slept with his ranch foreman. This sets in motion a series of tragic circumstances.
Although Daves is best known for his seminal Western 3:10 to Yuma, there is much in Jubal that rivals that classic. Daves makes full use of the magnificent Wyoming locations, using the widescreen process as effectively as George Stevens did with Shane. While the personal relationships of the principal characters are perpetually in crisis mode, Daves seems to use the sweeping cinematography to intentionally dwarf the key players, as though to imply that, in the end, we're all just rather inconsequential figures in nature's landscape. The performances are all first rate, and this may well be the most effective performance of Glenn Ford's career. His low-key approach to acting has often been dismissed as boring, but Ford always brought a quiet intensity and "guy next door" quality to each of his performances. As Jubal, he's just a shy man who wants to get through the demons of his past by starting a new life that is unblemished by personal stress. Instead, he finds himself in the unlikely situation of being embroiled in a cauldron of sexual tension, betrayal and violent death. Ernest Borgnine is terrific as the hapless Shep, a likable "man's man" who remains oblivious to the fact that the wife he so adores has nothing but contempt for him. Rod Steiger seems a bit out of place here, as he as always seemed far more comfortable in gritty, urban dramas. Valerie French practically steams up the screen as the femme fatale at the heart of the deception that endangers the men in her life. She clearly the villain, but you can't help but empathize with her plight, which must have mirrored that of countless women of the plains: she is trapped in a man's world of endless work with little appreciation for her femininity beyond her "duty" to provide sex.
The Criterion transfer is flawless and the colors leap off the screen. Frustratingly, the film is devoid of any bonus extras. It would have been a nice touch to hear a film scholar discuss the film and Daves' work in general. However, there is a booklet that contains a lengthy and informative essay by Kent Jones. If you like Western, this one is a "must".
Shampoo (1975) is a movie
that can leave a viewer unsure as to what they just watched.Was it merely a vanity project for
Producer/Co-Screenwriter/lead actor Warren Beatty, who plays a babe magnet L.A.
hairdresser who juggles his three main girlfriends while haplessly attempting
to go into business for himself? Beatty portrays George Roundy, a flashy
dressing, motorcycle riding lothario who deftly manipulates the hearts and
sexual appetites of the beautiful women who constantly want to throw themselves
at him and his hair dryer. Or is it a
social satire, a la The Graduate,
that exposes the flaws in American life by showing us the sexual/romantic
dysfunction in the homes of the upper crust? One of Beatty’s character’s love
interests is the wife (Lee Grant) of the business tycoon (Jack Warden) he hopes
will finance his would-be new spa. Is it
a screwball sex comedy that aims for occasional emotional profundity? The
second of the hairstylist’s two lady friends is the tycoon’s mistress (Julie
Christie), and the third is that woman’s close friend (Goldie Hawn). Or is the
movie primarily a commentary on the American political climate of the late
1960s, and its damaging impact on the citizenry? The story takes place over one
24-hour span, that happens to be the day Richard Nixon won the 1968
answer is that Shampoo is a little of
each of those things. Which leads to the question of whether it was successful
in developing any or all of its themes. The feature’s overall quality has been
a debatable point over the decades. Roger Ebert felt it came up short,
summarizing that it “wasn’t confident enough to pull off its ambitious
conception,” “wasn’t as funny as it could have been in the funny places,” and
“it’s not as poignant as it could be in its moments of truth.” In the pages of The New York Times, meanwhile, critic Nora
Sayre positively savaged the movie, charging that it ultimately sank into “a
slough of sentimentality” while also calling it pretentious and dumb. Other
reviews have been kinder. It’s been called “a sharp satire” by Time Out, and
“one of the last true moments of personal expression in American cinema” by Elaine
Lennon in Senses of Cinema, etc.
can be hard to know what we’re supposed to make of the main characters. Roundy
is shown to be a user, and his three girlfriends, while likeable-enough people,
are hardly role models feminists of the day could have seen as on-screen
heroes. So are we supposed to find all of them laughably shallow people, tragic
figures victimized by their own egos and emotional needs, or are they simply
authentic representations of a womanizing hairstylist and the kinds of people
with whom he would be likely to consort? Director Hal Ashby, who struggled
while working alongside the overbearing Beatty in Beatty’s
open-to-interpretation role as Creative Producer, seems to have felt distantly
sympathetic to the characters. Ashby said of them, “They’re not people I spend
time with, but they’re people I’ve looked at and felt sorry for. So I spent a
lot of time being very kind to those people. The other way’s easy. To make fun
of people is easy. Life isn’t that easy.”
else with which Ashby had to tangle during the making of Shampoo was the often volatile artistic relationship between Beatty
and Co-Screenwriter Robert Towne. Beatty and Towne were engaged in a creative
power battle over the film’s content starting back from when it was only an
idea being bounced around between the two of them. Once Ashby was brought in,
he found himself often acting as referee between those two. Towne was actively
involved on the set, to the point where Goldie Hawn came to feel like she was
working under three different directors. Despite this circus atmosphere,
though, and despite Ebert’s and Sayre’s critiques, and despite what some see as
its foggy intentions, Shampoo took in
a slew of nominations at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Lee Grant won
the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Even astute fans of retro cinematic classics may be unfamiliar with Billy Wilder's 1951 gem "Ace in the Hole". The film was a boxoffice flop in its American release back in the day but over the decades it has become regarded as a genuine classic and one of the best movies of its era. Kirk Douglas, in one of the truly great performances of his career, is cast as Chuck Tatum, a once-lauded reporter for a major New York newspaper, who finds his career on the skids. His cynical nature, overbearing personality and weakness for liquor has resulted in him being displaced to New Mexico, where- out of desperation- he convinces the editor of an Albuquerque paper to give him a job. Within hours, Tatum is bored by the sleepy atmosphere and passive nature of his co-workers, most of whom have no ambition beyond reporting minor stories of local interest. Things change radically when Tatum stumbles onto a crisis in the desert that could make for a compelling story. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is the owner of a cafe located on a remote road who finds himself trapped in a cave after venturing inside to look for ancient Indian artifacts. Tatum sees that rescue plans for the man are rather poorly staged by the local deputy sheriff (Gene Evans). He enters the cave at great danger to himself and makes a connection with Leo, whose legs and midsection are buried under debris. Tatum is able to communicate with him from a small opening in a dirt mound and he assures Leo that he will get food, water and cigars while he organizes a rescue team. Grateful, Leo looks upon Tatum as his guardian angel. However, it becomes clear that Tatum is using his relationship with Leo for his own selfish purposes. He sees the potential as one of those "child stuck in a well" scenarios that tends to galvanize the entire nation. By personally taking charge of the rescue effort, Tatum makes himself a national hero overnight, as hundreds of people stream to the remote location and erect a tent city in order to be on the scene when Leo is eventually saved. Tatum, fully aware of American's eagerness to embrace the bizarre elements of any story, also plays up the notion that Leo is the victim of an ancient Indian curse for prowling around sacred tribal grounds.
Tatum has some disturbing factors to contend with, however. The primary problem is dealing with Leo's bombshell, self-centered wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling in a terrific performance). She was already looking to get out of a boring marriage with a boring man and decides to leave town during Leo's moment of crisis. Tatum uses a combination of charm and threats to convince her that staying put and playing the role of loyal wife would be in everyone's benefit. His prediction comes true in the financial sense, as the Minosa's cash-starved cafe begins to burst at the seams with visitors due to its proximity to the cave. Ironically, Leo's life-threatening predicament is finally bringing him the financial success that has eluded him. While Tatum becomes obsessed with manipulating the crisis, he also finds that his dispatches from the scene and his exclusive access to Leo have put him back in demand as a writer. He bypasses his own employer to sell updates to his ex-boss in New York at extortionist rates. He also has a hot/cold relationship with Lorraine, who clearly has a submissive sexual aspect to her moody demeanor. She's excited when Tatum mistreats her, though it's never made clear if their relationship goes beyond the flirtation stage. Tatum gets some disturbing news when he learns that the rescue team can use an expedited method to rescue Leo. Not wanting to kill the goose who laid the golden egg, Tatum manipulates the corrupt local sheriff (Roy Teal) into ordering a more labored method of rescue, even though it will result in a delay of days before reaching the victim. The decision has startling consequences for all involved. To say any more would negate the surprising turn of events depicted in the film. Suffice it to say, the intensity of the story continues to build throughout, making "Ace in the Hole" a truly mesmerizing cinematic experience.
Criterion has released "Ace in the Hole" as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD. The quality, as one might expect, is up to the company's superb standards. The package is loaded with fascinating extras including a rare extended interview with Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute in 1986. In it, Wilder talks about "Ace in the Hole" and other aspects of his career. The film was an early directorial effort for him and the first movie he produced, following his career as one of the industry's most in-demand filmmakers. By his own admission, "Ace in the Hole" was a major source of frustration for him. The movie was ignored by American critics and audiences and even re-titled "The Big Carnival". In the post-WWII era, it was probably deemed far too cynical for U.S. audiences. In fact, the "hero" of the film is a cad, the leading lady is a self-obsessed phony and the local law officials are corrupt. Except for a few minor characters, there is no one in the film with a truly moral center. Wilder says he took heart from the fact that the movie was quite successful in its European release. The set also contains a 1988 interview with Kirk Douglas, who discusses the film and his respect for Wilder in a very informative segment. Most impressive is the inclusion of "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man", a 1980 documentary by French film critic Michel Clement in which Wilder gives extraordinary access to his private life. We see him at home and at the office with long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond as they laze around trying to come up with ideas for future projects. Wilder comes across as a symbol of Hollywood's bygone Golden Age. Speaking in a thick Austrian accent with his ever-present stogie at hand, Wilder regales the viewer with insights about his family's escape from the Nazi occupation and his unlikely meteoric rise up the film industry's food chain. Almost from the beginning he was a hot property and would remain a revered director, producer and writer throughout his entire career. The set also includes a vintage audio interview with another Wilder collaborator, screenwriter Walter Newman and an insightful and creatively designed "newspaper" with essays by critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin. Director Spike Lee provides a brief video "afterword" in which he extols the virtues of the film and also shows off a cool original lobby card that he treasures because it is signed by both Wilder and Douglas. Topping off the "extras" is a truly excellent audio commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard, who provides so many interesting background observations about the film that it will open any viewer's eyes to the latent meanings of certain sequences and images. Even if you consider audio commentaries to be dry and academic, I do urge you to give this one a listen. It's first rate throughout.
In summary, this is a first rate presentation of one of the most unfairly neglected American film classics; one that in recent years is finally getting the acclaim that it should have received on its initial release. Criterion has surpassed even its usual high standards.
Bergman’s celebrated six-part mini-series, Scenes
from a Marriage, premiered on Swedish television in 1973. For markets
outside of his native country, Bergman cut the 297-minute TV version down to
169-minutes (not quite three hours) for a theatrical release in 1974—which is
the version I first saw.
recently discovered Bergman in the early 1970s while attending college, I
welcomed Scenes with enthusiasm and
awe, as did most critics. The film received numerous accolades, although the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed the picture ineligible for
Oscars since it had previously been a television mini-series. The acclaim for
the film, director/writer Bergman, and the movie’s two brilliant actors, Liv
Ullmann and Erland Josephson, was through the roof.
a nutshell, it’s the intimate, often painful, sometimes joyful story of the
twenty-year relationship of a married-then-divorced couple. The tale begins in
1965. Upper-middle-class Marianne and Johan have been married for ten years.
They have two tween daughters (who are seen only very briefly in the first few
seconds of the picture) and are seemingly happy. However, when Johan has an
affair with “Paula” (who never appears), the inevitable separation ensues,
followed by a divorce. But as ten more years elapse, Marianne and Johan
continue to occasionally see each other—even when they’re dating or married to
others—in an ongoing, never-ending tryst.
fact, in 2003, Bergman made a sequel to Scenes
from a Marriage. Saraband was a
Swedish TV-movie that was also released theatrically worldwide, and it featured
the now elderly Marianne and Johan, again played by Ullmann and Josephson. (Oddly,
their daughters’ names in Scenes are
Karin and Eva, whereas in Saraband their
names are Martha and Sara! Go figure.) Saraband
was Bergman’s final film.
made Scenes so remarkable back in
1973/1974 was its frankness, realism, and the camera’s near-claustrophobic
closeness to the actors—especially their faces and what they revealed through
subtle expressions or glances. Bergman, perhaps more than any other filmmaker,
used the landscape of the face to reveal the genuine subtext of a character’s
thoughts. The intimacy achieved in the work was revelatory, and the film is
said to have gone on to influence other filmmakers (most notably Woody Allen).
had revisited Scenes from a Marriage a
few times since its first release, but now having the chance to dive into The
Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition, I approached the picture with a
fresh eye and mind, especially informed by the experience of age and a long marriage
of my own.
came away this time a bit puzzled. Who are
these people, that they can be so matter-of-fact about adultery and
mistresses and lovers? It’s as if it’s taken for granted that all married
people will have affairs at some point. Back in the early 70s, I suppose we all
thought that this was being “civilized” or “behaving like adults.” Or perhaps
it was a Swedish or European thing!
is more likely, however, that Scenes from
a Marriage was written and directed to be a somewhat autobiographical
treatise. Ingmar Bergman was married no less than five times, had numerous love
affairs (and mistresses while married), including a five-year romance with Liv
Ullmann (he was the father of her only child). Maybe in his world, or in the contemporary universe of artists and the literati in which Marianne and Johan
reside, this kind of attitude existed.
many filmmakers since the great Stanley Kubrick have had the same kind of
mystique, but one who easily fits that bill is Terrence Malick, a
writer/director who has endeavored to redefine the narrative form of cinema in
visually poetic terms.
doesn’t create movies, he makes cinema in verse. The story in a Malick film is
not a priority, although there is often a profound tale at work. A Malick picture
is all about the emotions, the visual beauty, the aural splendidness, and
taking part in a cerebral, yet primally impressionistic experience.
reclusive filmmaker disappeared from the public eye after his two acclaimed,
more “accessible” works (Badlands,
1973, and Days of Heaven, 1978). He returned
twenty years later and made The Thin Red
Line (1998). Something was immediately different about his art. Malick’s
storytelling was more oblique, nonlinear, and lyrical. This trend continued more
intensely in The New World (2005).
Never one to be labeled “prolific,” Malick brought out his fifth feature, The Tree of Life, in 2011, and it
featured a radical progression in this elegiac, non-traditional way of spinning
The Tree of Life received Oscar
nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography (by Emmanuel
Lubezki), but there were many audience members who just didn’t get it or
refused to meet the film halfway. I remember counting many walkouts from the
theater in which I first saw it. Its comparison to the initial reaction to
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is
apt. This was a new kind of film, something that challenged the viewer into sitting
back, opening the mind and the heart, and going with the flow.
flow it does… the picture is much like a symphony of sight and sound. The imagery
of the world in all its glory from
the ground, sky, and sea to the plants, animals, and people is breathtakingly sensual.
The music—mostly classical pieces and some original scoring by Alexandre
Desplat—is practically continuous as the pace of the editing moves frenetically.
How anyone could call this a boring movie is mind-boggling.
is a story. The focus is on the
O’Briens, a family in a small town in Texas in the 1950s, particularly utilizing
the point of view of the oldest boy, Jack (played by newcomer Hunter
McCracken). Brad Pitt is the stern, sometimes over-the-top disciplinarian
father, and angelic Jessica Chastain is the loving mother. Jack’s two siblings
are played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan. The entire family’s performances
are superb. Scenes in the present day feature an adult Jack (Sean Penn), who is
somberly “remembering” the events of the film. Something has triggered old Jack’s
memory of when the middle brother died at the age of nineteen (we don’t know
how… possibly Vietnam?).
then there’s the creation sequence, something else that is comparable to the
Star Gate section of 2001 (and that
film’s co-visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, is a consultant on Tree). We see in a nearly twenty-minute
segment how the earth was formed in the heavens, how life began in the waters,
the rise of dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs!), the predatory disposition of certain
species, and their eventual destruction to make way for man.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST OF THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
"THE SON-OF- A -BITCH
By Raymond Benson
well-known that when John Ford, who had worked with actor John Wayne on a
number of films prior to seeing him in Howard Hawks’ Red River, proclaimed that he didn’t know that “the son-of- a-
bitch could act!”
words were apt. Prior to the release of Red
River in 1948 (it was shot in 1946 but didn’t appear in theaters until
’48), Wayne had mostly played the likable, stalwart “John Wayne” character that
had first appeared in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).
But in Red River, Wayne plays a role
that turned critical and public opinion of the actor’s thespian abilities. He
pulls off a remarkable feat—Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson, is a first-class
S.O.B., a guy you really want someone to punch out throughout the movie; and
yet, Wayne manages to make him likable. He carries an audience through over two
hours of hardcore western, and he delivers one of his two or three best
performances. It doesn’t hurt that Wayne is ably supported by Montgomery Clift,
who plays Wayne’s adopted son. In many ways, it’s really Clift’s picture—he’s
the protagonist, and the story is seen through his eyes. But wait—maybe it’s
seen through Walter Brennan’s eyes in the original, rare theatrical cut,
released here in a glorious 2K digital restoration on Blu-ray.
fact, I had never seen the theatrical cut, the version preferred by director
Hawks. A longer cut, by about six minutes, was the one that was shown on
television and appeared on previous home video releases. The longer version was
actually intended as a preview for studio execs; it utilizes on-screen textual
transitions (as if the audience is reading from a book) and an extended final
confrontation between Wayne and Clift. The theatrical cut dispenses with the
textual transitions and instead substitutes sequences narrated by Walter
Brennan, who then, arguably, becomes the character through whose eyes we see
the story. Why this version, which originally played to audiences in 1948,
didn’t become the standard edition after that is a mystery; in actuality, Hawks
was quite right—the theatrical cut is the
better one, except for the trimmed final fight between the two leads. As Hawks tells Peter Bogdanovich in an audio
interview included as an extra in the Criterion Collection’s elaborate box set,
the best way to watch Red River is to
view the theatrical cut up until the last few minutes, and then change to the
preview cut at the point when Wayne marches through the heads of cattle to
confront Clift at the corral.
thing that is remarkable about Red River is
that it was Hawks’ first western. He would go on to make a handful more (good
ones, too!), and was known for making pictures in all genres, but the fact that
he went out of the gate with one of the greatest westerns of all time is truly
an achievement. Red River, without
question, is one of the five best
American films of the genre.
story is a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas
along the Chisholm Trail, the hardships the men overcome, and the battle of
wills between Wayne, the tyrannical leader and father, and Clift, the calmer,
perhaps smarter right-hand cowpoke and adopted son. Hawks manages to capture the
perilous trek with uncanny realism, assured composition and tempo, and drama.
Hawks once said that the key to a good film was “three good scenes and no bad
ones.” Well, Red River has far more
than three good scenes. The stampede sequence is nothing short of astounding.
went all out on this one. It’s a four-disk set—two Blu-rays and two DVDs
containing identical material. Both versions of the film are included, along
with a couple of interviews with Bogdanovich, who explains the difference
between the two cuts and presents his views on the picture. Critic Molly
Haskell talks about Hawks in a new video interview, and film scholar Lee Clark
Mitchell tells us all about the western genre in an interesting piece. There
are audio excerpts from interviews with Hawks and novelist Borden Chase, as
well as a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Red
River featuring Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Brennan. Besides the usual
essay-filled booklet, the box comes with Chase’s original novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, from
which the film was adapted.
year 1989 brought us such Oscar-winning pictures as Driving Miss Daisy, Born on
the Fourth of July, Dead Poets
Society, and, of course, the blockbuster Batman. One picture, though, always stood out for me and was my personal
favorite of the year—Steven Soderbergh’s remarkable feature film debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The Academy
nominated it only for Original Screenplay. The Cannes Film Festival, however,
awarded it the Palme d’Or and the
Best Actor honor for James Spader. The movie put Soderbergh on the map,
establishing him as an innovative, provocative filmmaker who was unafraid to
take on challenging subjects.
Criterion Collection has produced a new, restored 4K digital transfer and a new
5.1 surround mix (from the original sound elements), supervised by Soderbergh.
The results, in the director’s own words that appear in an on-screen comment on
the restoration, are such that one should “throw away” all previous home video
(DVD, Blu-Ray) versions of the film—this is the definitive edition.
for only a little over a million dollars, the story is really a chamber drama
of sorts that focuses on four characters. There is Ann (wonderfully played by
Andie MacDowell), a sexually uptight and frigid housewife married to John
(Peter Gallagher), a successful, go-getter lawyer who happens to be a lying
philanderer. He’s having an affair with Ann’s precocious and definitely not sexually uptight sister, Cynthia (Laura
San Giacomo), who works as a bartender. Enter Graham, an old college friend of
John’s, who has returned to town after nine years—and he is one strange dude.
James Spader delivers a nuanced, sensitive, but assuredly slightly perversely
skewed performance—one that pretty much defined the kinds of roles he would
play for years to come. Like Ann, he, too, is sexually inhibited due to
something that happened with his college girlfriend.
days the only way Graham “gets off” is by videotaping various female
acquaintances and interviewing them about their sex lives—and then viewing them
when he’s alone.
Ann suspects her husband is betraying her, she finds Graham oddly fascinating
and they become friends until she discovers Graham’s “habit.” This proclivity
is not a problem for Cynthia, though—she happily makes a video for Graham.
things turn out for the quartet of characters plays out like therapy. In fact,
Ann is seeing a therapist throughout the picture. Soderbergh has subtly
structured and presented the story such that, in many ways, we, the audience,
are the therapists observing the characters as they reveal their secrets.
1989, the material was shocking. Without any nudity or explicit sex scenes, Sex, Lies, and Videotape manages to be
extremely visceral, voyeuristic, and, yes, sexy. It explores how the most
intimate desires of human beings might seem kinky or perverse to some, and yet
be perfectly normal for others. The way the “therapy” of the film addresses
these hang-ups in the final moments is revelatory. Soderbergh may have never
written or directed a more perfect picture.
new transfer looks and sounds remarkable. An audio commentary from 1998,
featuring Soderbergh and filmmaker Neil LaBute, accompanies the film.
supplements are up to Criterion’s usual high standards. There’s a new
introduction to the film by Soderbergh, along with vintage interviews with the
writer/director from 1992 and 1990. A new documentary on the making of the
film, featuring actors MacDowell, Gallagher, and San Giacomo, is especially
informative and insightful. James Spader makes an appearance in a vintage 1989
appearance on the Today Show. There’s
a deleted scene with commentary by Soderbergh. A new conversation between sound
editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez explores the
challenges of the location shoot in Baton Rouge. Finally, Blake takes us on a
journey through the evolution of sound restorations. The booklet features an
essay by critic Amy Taubin and excerpts from Soderbergh’s 1990 book about the
Sex, Lies, and
still relevant and powerful. The picture reveals a young filmmaker who is
exploding with talent, and four brave actors who dig deeply within to reveal
all. It’s a masterpiece of independent filmmaking. Pick it up.
love it when The Criterion Collection produces a lavish boxed set containing
multiple features, an abundance of supplements, and a thick and illustrated
booklet. What better collection is there than one featuring the six Hollywood
films made between 1930 and 1935 by Josef von Sternberg and starring the
exquisite Marlene Dietrich? Hats off to producer Issa Clubb for overseeing what
could be one of Criterion’s better products.
adventure-romances showcased a star who immediately defined the word “exotic”—a
German-born, English-speaking, beautiful, sultry, seductress who could act,
sing, and dance. Like Greta Garbo, who had arrived in Hollywood during the
silent era, Marlene Dietrich exhibited a European mystery to American audiences
of the early Depression years. Her self-styled (with the help of her trusted
director, von Sternberg) gender-bending wardrobes and mannerisms, her sometimes
ambiguous but often overt sexuality, and her allure of “knowing something we
didn’t” made her an overnight star… for a while.
documented in the various supplements that appear over the six Blu-ray disks in
the set, Dietrich and von Sternberg enjoyed a successful and acclaimed period
during the Pre-Code days. It seemed, though, that as soon as the Production
Code went into effect in July 1934, the popularity of the star and the
director’s films waned. For the second half of the 1930s, Dietrich, like
several other leading ladies, became what was termed “box-office poison”—that
is, until she made a booming come-back in 1939’s Destry Rides Again.
and von Sternberg first worked together in the 1930 German-produced picture, The Blue Angel, which was filmed in both
the German language and in English. The director, already an established filmmaker
in Hollywood, convinced his studio, Paramount, to bring Dietrich over and sign
her to a multi-picture contract. The young star left Germany on the night The Blue Angel premiered in her native
country. Paramount held the U.S. release back until after the exhibition of her
first official Hollywood production, Morocco
(also 1930). This initial appearance in America proved to be a sensation. The
English-language version of The Blue
Angel was released a month later, and Marlene Dietrich had arrived.
historical importance of the films in Criterion’s new collection can be broken
down into three words—light, shadow, and Marlene. Josef von Sternberg was a
master of visual imagery in motion pictures at a time when black and white
cinematography was evolving as an art form. A cameraman himself, he was one of
the few directors in Hollywood who knew how to light a set and photograph it
(in fact, he is not only the director but also the cinematographer of the sixth
title in this set, The Devil is a Woman).
Von Sternberg’s use of German expressionism—heavy on the shadows, high contrast
between light and dark—did wonders for Marlene Dietrich’s cheekbones. An
actress was likely never photographed so beautifully as in those first few
films—not even Garbo. The greatest pleasure of the Dietrich & von Sternberg
boxed set is the gorgeousness of its images. While von Sternberg certainly had
much to say about how his films were photographed, many kudos must be given to
the other two cinematographers he worked with—Lee Garmes (three titles) and
Bert Glennon (two titles).
Criterion Collection has upgraded its 2006 DVD release of Ingmar Bergman’s
classic Oscar-winning drama, The Virgin Spring, to Blu-ray, and the results are,
film won Bergman his first of three Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards,
and it can certainly be ranked among the Swedish filmmaker’s best works. Known
as a “rape and revenge tale,” the picture was so influential that it was the
inspiration for Wes Craven’s first horror-exploitation movie from 1972, The
Last House on the Left. Craven took the basic plotline, updated it, and turned
it into a gory (and some would say, sickening) fright fest.
film is easier to take, but one can imagine how harrowing it might have been in
1960. As a departure for the auteur, Bergman did not write the screenplay himself.
The script was adapted by Ulla Isaksson from a Swedish medieval ballad/legend
called “Töres döttrar I Wänge” (“Töre’s daughters in Vänge”). Like The Seventh
Seal before it, the story is set during the Dark Ages. It’s the only other
instance in which Bergman accurately and convincingly depicts this historical
period on film. This time, his visual collaborator is the great cinematographer
Sven Nykvist, who presents the stark, sharp black and white imagery with
story concerns Christian Töre (Max von Sydow) and his family—his wife, Märeta
(Birgitta Välberg), his teenage daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), the
disturbed, unwed and pregnant servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), and other
household helpers. One morning, the virginal, innocent, and naïve Karin sets
off on horseback, accompanied by Ingeri, to deliver candles to a church some
miles away. After a frightening, chance encounter with a one-eyed man, Ingeri
separates from Karin, who soldiers on with the candles. She comes upon a motely
trio of creepy herdsmen—all brothers—with whom she offers to share her lunch.
The older two assault Karin, rape, and murder her. The younger brother, who
appears to be around twelve, watches in horror. Ingeri, hidden in the forest,
also witnesses the crime.
the herdsmen encounter Christian and his family, who are naturally worried
about Karin because she didn’t return home. To reveal what happens next would of
course be a spoiler—just know that Christian must make a hard decision and
summon a strength from within that he didn’t know he had.
all powerful stuff, and Bergman handles it with harsh realism and surprising
sensitivity. The assault scene is brief, breathtakingly shocking, and surely
something that jolted audiences at the time. Pettersson delivers a particularly
courageous performance, and the actress’ work is the heart of the movie. The
rest of the cast, especially von Sydow, Lindblom, and Välberg, are also
interesting is that the film can be interpreted as either a deeply religious or
an anti-religious one. Christianity is often a subject matter in Bergman’s oeuvre,
and his disdain for organized religion is usually palpable. In this case,
however, when the titular “virgin spring” appears in the picture, it just might
represent an acknowledgment of a higher power. It’s up to the viewer to decide.
again, the filmmaker recreates on what was surely a very low budget a medieval
world that is totally believable. The attention to detail is striking—P. A.
Lundgren’s production design and Marik Vos’ costume designs bring The Virgin
Spring to life (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award).
new 2K digital restoration looks gorgeous and is an improvement over the
earlier DVD release. It comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and an
audio commentary from 2005 by Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene. The 2006
supplements are ported over: 2005 interviews with actors Lindblom and
Pettersson, a terrific introduction by director Ang Lee (who claims it was the
first art film he ever saw), and an interesting audio recording of a 1975
American Film Institute seminar by Bergman—in English! There is an alternate
English-dubbed soundtrack, but for my money Bergman films should always be
viewed in the original language. The booklet sports an essay by film scholar
Peter Cowie, reflections on the film by screenwriter Isaksson, and the text of
the original ballad upon which the picture is based.
the many masterpieces that Ingmar Bergman made, The Virgin Spring is a shining
gem. Don’t miss it.
Russell’s controversial but widely-acclaimed adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s
novel, Women in Love, might have had
a better and more appropriate title—Men
in Love. While touted as being an examination of the nature of love and
sexuality between two men and two women, in the end we are left with the more
potent notion that there is a love that can exist between two males—as friends—that is more powerful and
“eternal” than the love a man will have for a woman.
in 1969 in Britain and in 1970 in the U.S. (hence, its four Oscar nominations
for the year 1970), Women in Love has
not aged well in terms of its arty and borderline pretentious direction… but as
I tell my Film History students, “judge a film within the context of when it
was released.” In that regard, Women was
a groundbreaking and daring motion picture of its time. In the U.S. it played
only in the big city art house theaters, probably due to its frank nudity (both
female and male—one of the first
mainstream pictures to feature full frontal men in the raw) and subject matter.
the early 1920s in the English countryside, where class standing is very much a
thing; but a movement is afoot for the emancipation of women, free-thinking,
avant-garde art, and the breaking of social taboos. While the story focuses on
four characters—Rupert (Alan Bates), Gerald (Oliver Reed), Gudrun (Glenda
Jackson), and Ursula (Jennie Linden)—the “protagonist,” as it were, is Rupert.
In fact, it is how he approaches his relationships with his best friend Gerald
and the woman he eventually marries, Ursula, that is the crux of the story.
Jackson, however, won the Best Actress Oscar as the free-spirited,
take-no-prisoners Gudrun in what is honestly a supporting role in the story.
This statement is not meant to take away from her engaging, charismatic
performance—she’s terrific. There is no question that she steals the movie. But
Linden has more screen time as her younger, more conservative sister.
made the film a cause célèbre at the time was the
much-talked-about nude wrestling scene between Bates and Reed—which, apparently,
they had to talk Russell in to filming because they were keen to do it. Beautifully
shot by Oscar-nominated Billy Williams, the rumble in an English manor study by
firelight rightly is a remarkable piece of cinema.
Russell received his only directing Oscar nomination for the film. Some might
watch it today and think that his work—and the acting as well—is over-the-top.
The truth is that Russell intentionally stylized
the movie with a heightened realism that matches the passion and intensity
of its subject matter. This is a picture in which style and substance are
notched up to eleven. Russell, in his later career, would often be accused of extravagance
and pretentiousness—but here, Women in
Love is relatively tame in comparison.
gorgeous period piece with heady dialogue, editing influenced by the French New
Wave, lovely costumes, and beautiful scenery, is showcased by the Criterion
Collection’s new restored 4K digital transfer with an uncompressed monaural
include two different commentaries from 2003 (one by Russell, one by
producer/screenwriter Larry Kramer); new interviews with DP Billy Williams and
editor Michael Bradswell; vintage interviews with Russell and Jackson; an
interesting on-location piece featuring Bates, Linden, and Kramer; and the
most striking supplement is Russell’s own biopic autobiography, A British Picture—Portrait of an Enfant
Terrible (1989), a bizarre but fun piece in which a little boy plays
Russell throughout the years, even when Russell is an adult. Another
interesting, but less successful, inclusion is a 1972 short film, Second Best, based on a D. H. Lawrence
short story, produced by and starring Bates. The booklet features an essay by
scholar Linda Ruth Williams.
English, and literature buffs will certainly appreciate Women in Love. For those willing to position it in its appropriate
historical place, it’s a scrumptious and sensual delight.
The works of William Shakespeare were ideally
suited to the sensibilities of Orson Welles. More than once, on stage and in
the cinema, The Bard’s scenarios supplied a prime source for Welles the auteur,
and the dramatist’s distinct personalities manifest themselves in grandiose roles
skillfully personified by Welles the actor, in his straightforward Shakespearian
adaptations and in characters created to embody correspondingly epic types (Charles
Foster Kane, as the most notable example). This artistic appreciation and cross-form
application was most outstandingly realized in Chimes at Midnight, from 1965, but the same impassioned devotion—aesthetic
and thematic—is likewise evident in the dynamic, striking Othello (1951), otherwise known as The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, an unsung Welles film now
available on an exceptional Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
love affair with Shakespeare began at a young age, when he published an
annotated series of Shakespearean texts at the age of 12 and, later, at just 16,
when he performed in assortedproductions
at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, an outing that would prove significant to Othello’s genesis. Fleeing the infamous
blacklist business in America, Welles arrived in Rome to star in Gregory
Ratoff’s Black Magic (1949), and it
was around that time that he embarked on the disorderly path toward what would
be his second consecutive cinematic rendering of a Shakespeare primer,
following 1948’s Macbeth. What ensued
was a convoluted lesson in haphazard, yet thoroughly determined independent
filmmaking, with years of on-again, off-again shooting, different
cinematographers and editors, several locations (Rome, Venice, Morocco, etc.),
miscellaneous financial interruptions, and multiple casting changes—there were two
Desdemonas before Welles settled on Suzanne Cloutier, whose voice he
nevertheless had dubbed by Gudrun Ure. Othello
was initially (finally) released in 1952, when it shared the Grand Prize with Two Cents Worth of Hope (1952) at the
Cannes Film Festival. But that was not the end of its difficulties. The details
of the whole process are recounted (and frequently repeated) on the Criterion
disc, dispersed amongst a range of interviews and documentaries and in Geoffrey
O’Brien’s accompanying essay. But what matters most, is that while a decent
film managing to survive the turmoil would be remarkable enough, that a very good film was the ultimate result
is even more impressive.
Beginning just after the death of
Othello (Welles assumes audiences know how and why this happened and so spends
little time worrying about exposition), Othello
flashes back and delves into the intricate web of deception that led to the Venetian
general’s demise. Prominent in this charade is Othello’s traitorous ensign,Iago
(Micheál MacLiammóir), whose dubious, ambiguous motives are born not from some pure,
abstract malevolence, but from an ordinary professional, personal resentfulness
(or, so Welles would also interpret it, potential impotency). Driving a wedge
between Othello and his radiant wife, Desdemona (Cloutier),
the weaselly Iago takes advantage of Roderigo’s (Robert Coote) jealousy—he,
too, has amorous eyes for Desdemona—and the two of them devise a ruse to drive
Othello mad with suspicion and to concurrently sew discord between he and his favored
lieutenant, Cassio (Michael Laurence). Cloutier is at her best in moments of
unknowing bewilderment, her chaste beauty convincingly stunned by Othello’s
rage and his distrust, while MacLiammóir, who co-founded the Gate and was
fundamental to Welles’ early theatrical career, is the embodiment of deceit; hovering
always on the periphery, scheming and biding his time, he is all vacillating slants
and slithering movements. Welles, of course, is center stage, his performance
descending from one of class, command, and charm (“I think this tale would win
my daughter, too,” says one onlooker as Othello captivates the crowd—and the
viewer), to one of deadening confusion and despair. And yet, even as the seeds
of doubt produce an ensnaring crop of gradual torment, Welles loses none of his
booming, prevailing presence, nor the magnitude of his theatrical inflection.
Welles had openly criticized Laurence
Olivier’s approach to Shakespearean cinema, regarding his interpretations as
little more than filmed theater. So, it stands to reason that Welles, already a
visual mastermind, would render his Othello
in extraordinary illustrative fashion. There may be less polish—a result of
budgetary restrictions and the movie’s slapdash assembly—but there is a tangible
increase in filmic vigor, as Welles treats the material not as something
required for “serious” actors and directors to undertake, but as something to
be passionately fulfilled. Translating this enthusiasm with requisite care and affection,
Welles advances Othello as an artful
mélange of stark, expressionistic designs and vivid, textured imagery, like
engravings animated by the complex balance of light and shadow for which he was
so renowned. Part of his innate, virtuoso style has to do with nearly shot-by-shot
ingenuity, crafting (and Othello feels
very much like an artisanal creation) a rich production design detailed in
depth and accented by astonishing camera angles, reflective surfaces, and
crossed shadows generated by tapestries, iron bars, and thatched roofs. Gloomy
interiors portent the delirious, devastating downfall to come, while outside,
the backdrop of bleak skies and raging waters induce a similarly imposing
from some of the comedy classics of the silent era, it’s arguable that the one
picture of the period you should make a point to see is Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film that
has appeared on Sight and Sound’s top
ten films poll five times and consistently cited as one of the most essential
motion pictures in history.
high praise, and it’s deserved.
those of you who won’t watch silent movies because you think they’re boring or
slow or whatever—forget it.The
Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most riveting pictures you’ll ever
see.Its brevity (only 81 minutes at 24
frames per second) is a strength, but its power lies in the faces of its
actors.Dreyer has focused the camera
(with superb cinematography by future Hollywood director Rudolph Maté)
on facial close-ups—the eyes, the mouths, the wrinkles in the skin… and it all
masterfully reveals the inner turmoil of the characters.
that of Joan.The performance by stage
actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role is
nothing short of miraculous.At the time
she was an acclaimed performer in the theatre to such an extent that her name
in the credits is simply listed as “Falconetti.”What eyes, what expressions, what pain… what passion!As she is overcome by the rapture that envelops her, Joan is transformed
to a thing of otherworldly beauty.
familiar with Joan’s story knows what the film is about.Young Joan had led French armies against the
English during the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and, because she claimed
to be able to speak with God, was put on trial for heresy by French clergy loyal to the English.The film depicts her trial and ultimate
adapted the actual handwritten court transcripts in writing the screenplay;
thus, the intertitles are real testimony delivered in the proceedings.The piece begins dramatically, with crowds
outside the court gathering to hear news of the trial.Sideshow performers and midway vendors turn
the thing into a circus.Inside, Joan is
led to confront a group of all-male judges who question her about her choice of
clothing (she dresses as a “boy”), her sexual orientation, her alleged
communication with the Lord, and if she’s really consorting with the
Devil.Joan has an intelligent,
reasonable answer for every question, but the judges have one goal in
mind.They move on to a torture interrogation
and finally the sad conclusion that would be the basis for Joan’s Sainthood.
wasn’t what audiences expected from a “Martin Scorsese Picture.” A period
“costume drama” with no violence, bloodshed, or curse words? And yet Scorsese
himself described it as one of his most violent films.
is true, perhaps, when one considers the emotional
violence that occurs between the characters in this beautifully-rendered,
but curiously lifeless adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel about New York high
society and manners in the 1870s.
many ways, The Age of Innocence is
one side of a Scorsese coin that includes Gangs
of New York on the other. They both take place in Manhattan in roughly the
same time frame (Gangs is in the
1860s) and focus on two extremes of the social ladder—the upper crust in Age, and the lower class in Gangs.
story is simple—Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a member of New York’s
high society set. He’s a quiet, introverted, but good-looking man who could
probably have any lady he wants. But he has settled on May Welland (Winona
Ryder), a straight-laced younger woman who is practically his equal in
temperance. Enter May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has come
home from Europe after a bad marriage and—shocking!—is
planning a divorce. In high society of the time, that was tantamount to marking
a woman with a scarlet “A.” Newland becomes infatuated with her and almost
calls off the marriage to May. The gossip mill begins, and lives roll into
turmoil. Does Newland end up doing the right thing by dropping Ellen and
keeping his promise to May? Do we care? In the interest of a no-spoiler review,
I won’t answer either question.
lies the main problem with The Age of
Innocence. While Day-Lewis is easily one of our greatest modern actors, his
role here does not give him much to do but to look forlornly at the two women
in his life. Yes, there is torment in his soul, and the two female leads go
through the same sentiments—but revealing
those emotions was forbidden by society. It was what people did not say to each other that contained the
weight of conflict. It was all kept inside. And, thus, it’s all kept inside the
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Raymond Benson
"Pray for Rosemary's Baby..."
tag line for Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic is an example of brilliant
marketing.Until it was created,
Paramount’s head of the studio, Robert Evans, admits not knowing how to sell
the picture.Yes, it’s a horror film,
but not like anything we’ve seen.Yes,
it’s produced by William Castle, the schlock-meister who was famous for B-movie
scare flicks utilizing gimmicks such as the selling of insurance policies in
the theater lobby for patrons who feared they’d be scared to death.But the film is also an ingenious thriller
outside of the horror genre; a crime story, in many ways, about a cult that
drugs and rapes a woman for fiendish purposes.The subject is taken seriously, despite an undercurrent of dark
humor.It was also very adult and frank
for its time, and it had the potential to offend some audiences.Indeed, how does one sell that in the late
sixties?The tag line intrigued enough
people that it worked, for Rosemary’s
Baby was a hit and the picture still resonates today.
was Polanski’s first American film, and it remains an essential entry in his oeuvre.His early trademark style was doing a Hitchcock but taking it a few
steps farther into more bizarre, creepy-crawly, and supernatural territory.That’s on full display in Rosemary’s Baby.We’d had devil movies before, but nothing as
realistically-portrayed as this one.It
certainly held the reign of Satan movies until The Exorcist came along five years later.In my book, it’s the better of the two.AFI is well justified in naming Rosemary’s Baby in their “Top Thrills”
top ten list.
brilliantly directed and written, a good deal of credit for the success of the
film goes to the excellent cast.Mia
Farrow has never been better as Rosemary.John Cassavetes is dead-on as the frustrated actor/husband who literally
makes a deal with the devil.Ruth
Gordon, the multiple award winner for the picture, is a revelation.She brings much of the necessary comic relief
to the proceedings, for the film is an exemplary model of tension-building to a
usual, the Criterion Collection does a magnificent job.Polanski approved the new, restored digital
transfer, and it looks marvelous. Extras include a new documentary featuring
interviews with Polanski, Farrow, and Robert Evans.Original novel author Ira Levin is showcased
in a 1997 radio interview and original drawings and other prose in the enclosed
booklet.Also of interest is a
feature-length documentary about the film’s talented jazz composer, Krzysztof
a film that’s been in public domain for decades and is available on dozens of
different poor-quality DVD labels and free to download from Internet, it’s
somewhat surprising that The Criterion Collection would pull out the stops to
offer an undoubtedly pricier option to own the movie with this lavish 2-disk
extravaganza of gore. (There is a precedent, however—Criterion did the same
thing with the out-of-copyright Carnival
get me wrong… this is a very welcome roll-out. What’s unique about Criterion’s
excellent package is that it features a new 4K digital restoration of the
original theatrical release (not the previously go-to “30th
Anniversary Edition” released years ago and that had been recut a little), and
it’s supervised by co-screenwriter John A. Russo, sound engineer Gary R.
Streiner, and producer Russell W. Streiner (sadly, director George Romero is no
longer with us, or there’s no doubt he would have been involved). There’s also
a new restoration of the monaural soundtrack, that was supervised by Romero, and Gary Streiner, and presented
uncompressed. There are also two separate audio commentaries from 1994
featuring Romero, Russo, actor Judith O’Dea, and others.
this means is that you’ll be viewing the most pristine, best-sounding,
razor-sharp edition of Night of the
Living Dead that you’ve ever seen.
you don’t know the film, where have you been? It’s one of the most iconic
low-budget, independently-produced horror films ever made. The shoestring
budget was $114,000, and Romero utilized unknown stage actors, as well as
extras from nearby Evans City, Pennsylvania, where the exteriors were shot. It
basically kick-started the “walking dead” genre, although that term and the
word “zombie” is never used in the movie. They’re referred to as “ghouls.”
1968, the picture was ground-breaking, daring, and controversial. Many critics
trashed it for being too gory, even though it’s in black-and-white. Some
countries banned it. Released just prior to when the MPAA ratings were unveiled
in the USA, it was exhibited unadulterated to kids at a Saturday matinee—which
most likely provided a lifelong set of nightmares for these poor individuals.
After the ratings were instituted, the film was rated “X” for some time, until
eventually this was downgraded to “R.”
envelope-pushing aspect was the casting of African-American Duane Jones as the lead. This was unheard-of in those days
unless it was a Sidney Poitier Hollywood movie. This gave the film a
not-so-subtle subtext about racism, since Jones is battling all-white ghouls as
well as his all-white fellow survivors trapped in an abandoned house. Romero
always said he didn’t intend it that way—he cast Jones simply because he “gave
the best audition.”
story is simple—due to radioactive fallout from a satellite that exploded in
space, the dead are rising and feasting on the living. It’s a national
emergency. A small group of very frightened and often irrational men and women,
and one young teenaged girl, are holed-up in a farmhouse while the ghouls spend
the run-time of the movie trying to get at them.
yes, it’s scary, suspenseful, and contains many scenes daring you not to turn
your head away.
release contains a treasure trove of supplements. The crown jewel of these is
the early 16mm work print edit of the film, originally titled Night of Anubis. There are several new
features, including interviews with directors Guillermo Del Toro, Robert
Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont about the movie, of John Russo discussing the
genesis of the picture at the industrial film company where the filmmakers were
working, and pieces with Gary Streiner and Russell Streiner. Particularly
interesting are the new interviews with some the ghoul-extras as they are
today, a piece on the film’s style, and—particularly instructional for film
students—a documentary on how Romero and team turned low-budget inadequacies
into assets. There are archival interviews with Romero and actor Judith O’Dea,
and others. An audio interview with the late Duane Jones is exceptionally
poignant and enlightening. Then there are the trailers, the radio spots, the TV
spots, and an essay in the booklet by critic Stuart Klawans.
again, The Criterion Collection has rolled out a red carpet, this time for
living dead people, and the results are outstanding. Highly recommended.
Criterion, which has released the ultimate special edition of Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", provides this interesting look at the locations of the film, then and now. It's all part of the deluxe Blu-ray edition.
From 1963 through 1966 Murray Lerner would make the
yearly trek from New York City to the tony seaside town of Newport, Rhode
Island. Once there, the documentarian seemingly
photographed every major and minor player of the 1960’s folk music craze for his
resulting award-winning film Festival
(1967). Depending on one’s personal taste
in music, the celluloid snippets offered in the film’s final edit – several
capturing folk and blues artists performing in the prime of their careers – are
either frustratingly truncated or mercifully brief in length.
As a lifelong folk music enthusiast, I would find this
film a treasure even if the film’s “star players” (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter,
Paul & Mary) were not featured. Watching snippets of such legends as Son House or Mississippi John Hurt
sing the blues, Tex Logan and the Lilly Bros. sing their brand of high,
lonesome bluegrass or Minneapolis’ Spider John Koerner wail away on a racked
harmonica and 12-string guitar would be enough to make me a fan. It would be too mammoth a task to list the
expansive list of folk and blues and gospel and roots artists caught on film -
no matter how briefly - in Lerner’s omnibus
film Festival, but it’s safe to say
that few important figures of Newport’s most consequential to pop-culture era festivals
are not represented.
Photographed on a set of shoulder-supported 16mm
“Sound-On-Film” Auricons, Lerner – augmented by a three member camera crew - seems
to have made an earnest effort to faithfully capture the essential comradely
spirit of the annual Newport event. This
black and white documentary film offers no narration or even narrative line,
and subsequently – as the New York Times
noted dourly in their review of the film in October of 1967, it is occasionally
“distressing and annoying” that “the more esoteric folk performers […] are not
clearly identified.” This stunningly
beautiful 2K digital Criterion release - featuring the original uncompressed
monorail sound - has thoughtfully remedied this by offering the option of removable
captions. These captions prominently
identify both the artists and the songs being performed as they unspool before
one of two documentaries released in 1967 that prominently (and perhaps)
accidentally captured on film the unlikely but meteoric pop-music ascension of folk-rock
icon Bob Dylan. The rightfully esteemed
- but more diverse in scope - Festival
has always been a bit more obscure than D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal and more celebrated
Don’t Look Back. Some of the thunder of Mr. Lerner’s wonderful
film was likely the result of having been released to theaters a mere month
following Don’t Look Back in the
autumn of 1967.
is a “music” film, aside from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s warbling of “Come and Go
with Me” that plays under the film’s opening credits, I don’t recall any other time
when we’re treated to full performance of a song. The cameras tend to linger democratically on both
the artists and the visitors to the
festival – the latter being almost uniformly young, white, and well-scrubbed. These are kids who have chosen to abandon
their schools and jobs for a long weekend of rebellious camping on the beaches
and fens of Newport. Other sleep-deprived
youngsters splay out uncomfortably on the backs of motorbikes and car hoods.
it to The Criterion Collection to present a jaw-dropping, eye-popping Blu-ray
release of Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece that many critics have called one
of the most beautiful films ever made. While the picture received many
accolades upon its initial release, including Oscar nominations for Picture,
Director, Adapted Screenplay—and wins for Cinematography, Production Design,
Costumes, and Adapted Score—it was again one those Kubrick films that was
controversial and misunderstood at first. It was not a financial success in the
U.S., and yet today it’s considered one of the auteur’s greatest works.
such titles as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, it may have seemed
to be an odd choice for Kubrick to make a picture such as Barry Lyndon. One must look back to the period between 2001 and Clockwork to understand it. Kubrick had wanted to make an epic
movie about Napoleon and, in fact, spent two years in pre-production on it
before MGM got cold feet and pulled the plug. The director changed studios (to
Warner Brothers) and shot Clockwork cheaply
and quickly to prove that he could make them some money—and he did. So what was
he to do with all the previous research materials he had amassed for the
Napoleon project? He satisfied his desire to study the past by adapting an 18th
Century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray (The Luck of Barry Lyndon) so that he could tell a tale about class
dichotomy, ambition, greed, and hubris.
the beginning, Kubrick wanted to take an audience back to late 1770s England
and Ireland to demonstrate exactly what
it was like to live then. The authenticity he strove to achieve consisted of commissioning
a NASA lens so fast that it was capable of filming by candlelight (as well as utilizing
only natural light throughout the production), employing real clothing from the
period, and shooting at real locations where this past still existed. The
results are breathtakingly gorgeous renditions of English and Irish
countrysides and majestic, elegant manors. All of this surrounds the precise
depiction of the manners of an aristocracy that hasn’t been seen on screen
before or since.
O’Neal, who was at the time of production still a box-office star, was cast as
Barry, at first a naïve Irish boy who allows heartbreak and jealousy to shape
his future endeavors to elevate his social standing. He learns quickly that to
get ahead in society he must be a bit of a rogue, a schemer, a liar, and a cad.
The first half of the little-over-three-hour picture documents Barry’s rise to
prominence. After the intermission, we witness his resounding fall from grace.
story is told with Kubrick’s keen sense of irony—in
fact, no other filmmaker has had such a firm ability to elicit this very
difficult blend of satire, causticness, and paradox. You find it in all of his
pictures, but Barry Lyndon literally exudes it. This is accomplished in no
small part by the detached and slightly amused voice-over narration by Michael
the movie is slowly paced—as it should be. Things moved slower in the 1700s.
There is a stateliness and pageantry to the proceedings that is entirely
appropriate to the setting, but also to the overall message of the film—that
despite the airs one puts on to impress, underneath we’re all still human and
pretty much the same.
aspect of the production is about as perfect as it can get. John Alcott’s
cinematography, Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s
costumes, and the musical score, adapted by Leonard Rosenman and consisting of
classical pieces and traditional folk material performed by the Chieftains, all
combine to transport the viewer into an age of great beauty and yet cold,
Criterion Blu-ray is a 4K digital restoration that looks magnificent, and this
is accompanied by an uncompressed monaural soundtrack as well as an alternate
5.1 surround soundtrack. The music, as well as every birdsong and musket shot,
sounds clean, clear, and vibrant.
entire second disk contains the plentiful supplements that will take a few
hours to get through. The main attraction is “Making Barry Lyndon,” a new documentary that features audio excerpts from
a 1976 interview with Kubrick about the movie, appearances by executive
producer Jan Harlan, the director’s daughter Katharina Kubrick (who also
appears as an extra in the film), and other members from the cast and crew (no
Ryan O’Neal, though). There are separate featurettes on each of the technical
aspects—cinematography; production design; costumes; editing; music; and the
fine art of the period from which Kubrick and the designers drew inspiration.
An interview with author/critic Michael Ciment focuses on the themes in the
director’s works and how they relate to Lyndon.
There are two theatrical trailers. The thick booklet enclosed in the package contains
an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and vintage, illustrated pieces from American Cinematographer.
short, Barry Lyndon is a remarkable
piece of cinema that is unfortunately underrated by the general public. It deserves
a spot alongside Stanley Kubrick’s other acknowledged “masterpieces.” The new
Criterion edition is just the way to see it and perhaps rediscover this
brilliant work of art.
Lynch is today’s foremost surrealist. In many ways, he has taken up the mantle
begun by those artists of the 1920s who attempted to present in tangible,
visual forms the juxtapositions, bizarre logic, and beauty/horror of dreams.
Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray,
Germaine Dulac, René Magritte—to name a few.
people know Lynch from his films, but as this thoughtful and insightful
documentary reveals, he is and has always been primarily a painter. Lynch began
his career in the “art life” studying and practicing fine art… and he sort of
fell into filmmaking along the way. Even today, despite his recent foray back
into television with Twin Peaks—The
Return on Showtime, Lynch spends most of his time in his home studio
drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and painting.
film is narrated by Lynch himself as he takes the audience through moments of
his early life growing up first in the state of Montana, then Idaho,
Washington, and finally Virginia. After high school, Lynch briefly attended the
School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but he dropped out because he
wasn’t inspired. His friend Jack Fisk (future production designer on several of
Lynch’s films and future wife of actress Sissy Spacek) got the artist to join
him at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and that’s where
things started to take off.
documentary might be disappointing to Lynch fans in that it covers only his
childhood and twenties…just up to the point where he makes Eraserhead (which took four years in the mid-seventies and was
finally released in 1977). Other documentaries, such as 1997’s Pretty as a Picture, might delve into
Lynch’s more well-known feature work. However, for this unique documentary, Lynch
has provided never-before-seen home movies and photographs of his childhood,
family, and artwork. As these biographical stories are related in chronological
order, we see Lynch at work in his studio… drinking coffee, smoking, and
painting. In fact, we get a very good look at a great deal of his artwork. And
if you think Lynch’s movies are strange, wait until you see his paintings!
Stylistically, they are three-dimensional multimedia pieces. A canvas might
contain found objects, gobs of thick paint, wood and metal, odd figures and
creatures, and lettering. Fascinating stuff.
explains how he got the idea for a “painting that moved,” which resulted in his
first film, Six Men Getting Sick (Six
Times) (1967), and then moved on to make other surrealistic, avant-garde
short films such as The Alphabet and The Grandmother. These efforts led to
his moving his family in 1971 (he had gotten married in ’67 and had a child in
’68) to Los Angeles so that he could study at the AFI Conservatory. It was
there that he began his first feature film, the iconic independent
takeaway from the documentary is that Lynch evolved as an artist whenever there
were obstacles to overcome. He developed a knack for taking a bad situation and
turning it into something productive. We see this occurring repeatedly in his
tales of journeying from childhood to becoming an adult.
Criterion Collection presents the film in the company’s usual top-notch
excellence. The video quality of the Blu-ray High Definition digital master is
gorgeous—you can see every wrinkle of Lynch’s weathered face, as well as the
fine lines of his silver-white hair. Sound—always important in a Lynch film and
just as vital here—is a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio. The package is short
on supplements, though. Along with the theatrical trailer, an interview with
one of the directors, Jon Nguyen, illustrates the working process the
filmmakers had with Lynch. An essay by critic Dennis Lim appears in the
only 88 minutes, David Lynch—The Art Life
is a short but worthwhile look into the mind—and dreams—of one of today’s
most important visual artists.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVE.
“GHOSTS OF MONUMENT
By Raymond Benson
great John Ford made many outstanding westerns, and My Darling Clementine (1946) is certainly one of them. I would
argue that not since Stagecoach (1939)
had there been as good a picture in the genre, and it didn’t even star John
the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clanton Gang, and the gunfight at the
O.K. Corral, the film is hogwash as far as the truth is concerned. But as pure
entertainment, it’s right up there with the best of the classic westerns that
have given us stylistic and physical imagery that is today considered cliché.
And in order to become cliché, whatever it
is has to have been great to begin with. It must be a trend setter, a
groundbreaker, an artistic decision that resulted in an iconic piece of
celluloid. Much of what John Ford did accomplished just that. My Darling Clementine has it all—the
dumpy saloon with the honky tonk piano player and free-roaming prostitutes,
“Injuns,” cattle rustlers and thieves, stagecoaches and horses, ornery
villains, and, most of all—the scenery of Monument Valley, Utah.
The landscape of Monument Valley is a
character itself in Ford’s westerns. Even though we’ve seen the same buttes and
rock formations dozens of times, we always buy that we’re somewhere in the
“west,” in that mythical land of Hollywood archetypes. And what better
archetype is there to play our hero, Wyatt Earp (the film was loosely adapted
from Earp’s autobiography), than the inimitable Henry Fonda. Walter Brennan
makes a surprisingly nasty villain as Old Man Clanton. Linda Darnell, as saloon
girl Chihuahua is a stand out. More problematic is the casting of Victor Mature
as Doc Holliday. While the actor displays the requisite angst in the character,
he plays Holliday with no humor whatsoever, and it doesn’t quite work. After a
while he just becomes annoying for being grumpy and moody all the time.
Nevertheless, this is one of the
classics, folks. And, if you study it closely, there is a singular darkness in
the hearts of the characters—even the “good” ones—that suggests these
historical figures are now nothing but ghosts of a tall-tale-past where life is
cheap and death comes unexpectedly. Monument Valley, for all its beauty, is
fairly spooky at night—and much of Clementine
is shot at night. Even the blowing
dust during the climactic gun battle creates an eerie, ghost town effect. Clementine
is one of Ford’s blackest, most cynical films, but it’s cleverly disguised
as mainstream Hollywood entertainment. The picture has great atmosphere and
action, gorgeous black and white cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, and that
infectious song, “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which I believe I first heard
sung by Huckleberry Hound. And while it
might offend nitpicky historians as to its accuracy... who cares? Legend is
myth and vice versa. Clementine doesn’t
possess the originality of Stagecoach nor
the sucker punch that is The Searchers,
but it definitely stands as one of Ford’s essential pictures.
Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration
of the theatrical release version looks terrific—I must say that I am very
impressed with Criterion’s handling of black and white films made prior to the
sixties. As with the earlier Fox release on DVD, the disk includes the early
“pre-release” version of the film, a work-in-progress as producer and studio boss
Daryl F. Zanuck re-cut Ford’s original submission. Further cutting ensued to
create the theatrical release version, and it is most interesting to explore
the differences in the two cuts. Another
port over from the Fox disc is the excellent comparison of the two versions by
film preservationist Robert Gitt.
New extras include a video essay by
Ford scholar Tag Gallagher; a new interview with western historian Andrew C.
Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp; Bandit’s
Wager—and early silent short directed by Ford’s brother Francis, and
featuring John as an actor in a supporting role (!); television documentary
excerpts about Monument Valley and Tombstone, Arizona; and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1947
featuring Fonda and Cathy Downs (who plays Clementine in the film).
Criterion has released a true oddity: a French horror film from 1960 by director Georges Franju titled Eyes Without a Face. The B&W film was notable in its day for being a rare excursion into a genre that most New Wave French filmmakers had studiously avoided. The intriguing plot centers on Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a notable plastic surgeon who is pioneering breakthrough methods of reconstructing the faces of people who have suffered grievous injuries and disfigurements. On the surface, Genessier follows the norms of traditional medical research: publishing papers and giving lectures relating to his findings. However, the painstaking process of getting formal acceptance and approval of new medical theories is not for him. He has an urgent need to pursue his theories outside of accepted medical practices. His daughter Christiana (Edit Scob) was severely injured in a car crash that he was responsible for. Wracked by guilt, Genessier has been practicing his controversial methods on his young female assistant Louise (Alida Valli), who had also required plastic surgery. The results have been successful and he has transformed her back into the beautiful woman she once was. The only fly in the ointment is that Genessier's methods require the kidnapping of other young, healthy women who he tortures brutally by literally removing their faces while they writhe in agony, awaiting certain death. Meanwhile, Christiana has been declared dead and no one- not even her fiancee who works as Genessier's protege- suspects otherwise. Genessier and Louise cater to Christina, who is kept in total isolation inside Genessier's country home that adjoins his clinic. Here, clad in a disturbing face mask that is devoid of any emotional features, she wanders the rooms and halls in loneliness and frustration, even as her doting father assures her that he will restore her natural beauty. To do so, he prepares for the operation by systematically planning more kidnappings so that he has a fresh supply of human flesh. When things go awry with one of his kidnapped victims, Genessier faces disaster at the very moment of his long-sought triumph.
While Eyes Without a Face wouldn't meet the definition of a contemporary horror film (it is leisurely paced and caters to sophisticated viewers), the film is dripping with atmosphere and director Franju engages the audience from the very first disturbing frames of Genessier and Louise en route to dispose of the body of yet another innocent female victim. As with many memorable movie villains, Genessier is a cultured man who is more misguided than evil. His crimes are committed only because of his overwhelming sense of guilt and they are a symptom of his obsession with righting a terrible wrong. Nevertheless, he gets carried away by his emotions and loses sight of the fact that, as a doctor committed to helping injured people, he is ensuring their demise.
Eyes Without a Face is a genuinely eerie cinematic experience and the fact that it was made in France gives the film an even more unique atmosphere. Still, this artfully crafted film was dumped on U.S. audiences in a dubbed version that was absurdly re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, which also suffered severe edits. Criterion had released an impressive DVD version of the original French cut about ten years ago. The Blu-ray, which is up to the company's usual top-notch standards, carries over the original bonus extras and includes some new additions. They are:
Archival interviews with Georges Franju.
A new interview with actress Edith Scob.
A 1985 French documentary about the making of the film
Franju's controversial 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts which was one of the first cinematic attempts to argue against animal cruelty. The still-powerful film depicts the horrendous conditions inside slaughterhouses and still packs an emotional wallop today.
A gallery of trailers including the American release
An informative illustrated booklet featuring essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat.
The movie is a mesmerizing experience with superb performances and direction and the Criterion Blu-ray finally does justice to this long-overlooked masterwork of the European horror genre.
British silent film period of director Alfred Hitchcock is simultaneously
interesting and frustrating. It’s the former because it allows one to view a
genius at the very beginning of his career—the kernels of motifs and themes, as
well as stylistic choices, can be spotted and analyzed. It’s the latter because
only one or two of the nine silent pictures he made are truly memorable and
most are available today solely as poor quality public domain transfers.
Criterion Collection has just released a bang-up, marvelous new edition of
Hitchcock’s most celebrated silent work, The
Lodger—A Story of the London Fog. The disk also contains one of the rarer
silent titles, Downhill (also 1927),
which might be reason enough for Hitchcock enthusiasts to purchase the package.
bit of history: Hitchcock was working for Gainsborough Pictures under the
auspices of Michael Balcon (one of the major studio heads of early British
cinema). The young filmmaker was sent to Germany in 1925 to make his first two
pictures so that he could “learn” the craft from the then-masters of
expressionistic storytelling. He made The
Pleasure Garden and The Mountain
Eagle, both of which were deemed not good enough to release in the UK
(interestingly, they were both released in the US in 1926, making America the
first English-speaking country to see a Hitchcock film!). Hitch’s third
completed title, The Lodger, almost
suffered the same fate. Balcon and others at the studio didn’t like it, and it
was only after a film critic named Ivor Montagu came in and made suggestions
for changing some title cards and reshooting some scenes, that The Lodger was finally released.
was an immediate success, both critically and financially (prompting
Gainsborough to release The Pleasure
Garden and The Mountain Eagle in
the UK, almost two years after they were made). The Lodger is also considered to be the first true “Hitchcock film”
in that it’s a crime picture that presents many visual and thematic elements to
which he would return (including but not limited to—the notion of the “wrong
man,” blondes, handcuffs, sexual fetishism, and expressionistic lighting and
camerawork). For a silent film, The
Lodger is totally engrossing and fascinating, guaranteed to entertain even the
most jaded viewers who can’t abide movies without talking.
story is loosely based on the Jack the Ripper case (adapted from a novel by
Marie Belloq Lowndes). A serial killer of blonde women known as “the Avenger”
is loose in London. A mysterious stranger (Ivor Novello) rents the upstairs
flat in the home of Daisy, a blonde fashion
model and her parents. Daisy’s boyfriend is a cop, but she’s not really that
interested in him—she’s more attracted to the stranger—the lodger who asks that
all portraits of blonde women be removed from his room. Of course, it isn’t
long before the lodger is suspected of being the Avenger.
who was a matinee idol at the time, is striking in the picture. Granted, in
1927, movies of this ilk were melodramatic, the acting exaggerated, and the
pacing meticulous. Nevertheless, Novello’s good looks and pained expressions
contribute to the building of suspense. The boarding house itself also becomes
a character in the story, as outlined by art historian Steven Jacobs in an
interesting supplement on the disk that discusses Hitchcock’s use of
architecture in his pictures.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
The 1964 sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe on Mars has always eluded me until the Blu-ray release from Criterion. The fact that a company as selective about its titles as Criterion would endorse a deluxe edition of a film that was written off as kid's matinee fodder back in its day gives testimony to the movie's many merits. Directed by Byron Haskin, an old hand at classic sci-fi (War of the Worlds, The Outer Limits), Robinson Crusoe on Mars owes more than its title to Daniel Dafoe's classic adventure novel. Despite its setting in the future, the movie adheres rather closely to the basic premise of the book. Paul Mantee and Adam West are astronauts orbiting near Mars when their attempt to avoid an astroid causes them to be drawn into the planet's gravitational pull. The two men eject separately in escape pods but West is killed in a crash landing. Mantee survival seems like an even worse fate: he has only a limited amount of water and the air is too thin to breathe. He is forced to watch his oxygen tanks deplete gradually, knowing it will lead to certain death. How he overcomes these obstacles provides an intriguing aspect to the movie. It becomes obvious that, although Mantee is accompanied by a surviving NASA chimp, the film's intelligent screenplay appeals as much to adults as it does to kiddees.
Mantee is a charismatic leading man who impressively carries off the more difficult aspects of the role such as trying to remain optimistic even when he suffers setback after setback in his attempts to use a radio to call earth for help. Then there is the chronic isolation. Although he solves the problem of food, air and water, he yearns for human companionship. He gets his wish through an unexpected development. An alien race frequently visits Mars to use slave labor as part of a mining endeavor. When one of the slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes, Mantee rescues him and names him Friday. Before long, the two men are valiantly trying to learn each other's language and customs. Soon, they're sitting around shirtless in their man cave indulging in some male bonding. Before the movie can become Brokeback Mountain on Mars, however, they find themselves under nearly constant assault by the alien spaceships who are relentlessly pursuing Friday. Forced underground, Mantee and Lundin are exposed to various climates and dangers on the red planet as they try to find isolation in the polar ice cap.
filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s late-period picture, Good Morning (Ohayō), is a curious, but amusing,
slice-of-life portrait of a suburban neighborhood in contemporary (circa 1959)
Japan. Ozu, mostly known for the gendai-geki
film genre, i.e., modern dramas about family life and social conditions, also
made a few comedies. He was a genius at depicting relationships between parents
and children (Tokyo Story, 1953, is
arguably his most admirable work), and Good
Morning presents something of a parable about how a couple of young
schoolboys influence an entire community of suspicious and gossipy housewives
and lackadaisical “salary men” husbands.
Western audience will deem the comedy subtle;
cultural differences between East and West, especially when it comes to
bathroom humor, decidedly determine how funny someone will think Good Morning really is. There are a lot
of fart jokes in the film. In fact, Ozu uses farting as a way that characters
communicate, especially the children. The schoolboys assign status to how
easily one can blow wind by pushing an imaginary button on a forehead.
Inability to produce a toot results in minor ostracization. It must be said
that the children’s farts don’t sound like the real thing—they are high-pitched
and somewhat musical in tone.
adults, on the other hand, produce lower-toned flatulence that is more
realistic. In their case, the noises are often confused with real words. In one
scene, a man is dressing for the day and pleasantly lets two or three bursts
fly. Each time, his wife enters from the other room and asks, “Did you call?”
He shakes his head no, and she leaves. It happens again and she returns. “Did
you say something?”
story, such as it is, concerns two brothers—probably about nine and six years
of age—who decide to go on a speaking strike until their parents buy a new
television set (all the rage, apparently, in those days). The boys are also
rebelling against the grown-ups’ use of meaningless greetings to fill up air
space—“Good morning,” “How are you,” “I’m fine,” “Nice day,” etc.
the same time, the adult women in the block gossip and imagine faults in their
neighbors, all based on misunderstandings and a lack of real communication—which is what Ozu’s film is really about. He
seems to be saying that in order for everyone to get along in a modern society,
we need to say what’s truthfully on our minds.
in gorgeous Technicolor, Good Morning differs
from Ozu’s more solemn works that have a restrained editorial pace and
meditational camera work. This one is lively, is accompanied by a “funny”
musical score, and features many scenes outdoors. The cast is fine, especially
the two boys (played by Shitara Koji and Masahiko Shimazu).
Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray features a 4K digital restoration (upgraded
from the label’s previous DVD release) and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
It looks terrific.
more significant, though, is that Criterion has chosen to include as a
supplement Ozu’s acclaimed silent film from 1932, I Was Born, But… Sound films came late to Japan because of the benshi—narrators who performed during
screenings of silent pictures, commenting on the film’s narrative. They had a
powerful hold on the industry. Criterion had previously released this title as
part of an Eclipse box set of early Ozu titles, but here they’ve upgraded the
movie as a Blu-ray. Also a comedy, Born deals
with similar social mores. In this case, the boys influence how their father
deals with his boss, and also how they relate to their school mate, the boss’
son. For my money, despite being a silent picture, I Was Born, But… is better than Good
supplements include a portion of a “lost” Ozu silent short from 1929, A Straightforward Boy; a new interview
with film scholar David Bordwell about the films; and a fascinating video essay
on Ozu’s use of humor by critic David Cairns. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay adorns
the inner booklet.
Good Morning is a worthwhile
release from Criterion, especially for aficionados of Japanese cinema. One
viewing, and your perception of farting will be changed forever.
You don't have to be gay to admire John Schlesinger's 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday but it probably helps in terms of appreciating just how ground-breaking the movie was in its day. As a straight guy of high school age when the film was released, I do remember it causing a sensation, although it would literally take me decades before I finally caught up with it. Gay friends always spoke reverently of the movie and expressed how the most refreshing aspect of the story was how "normally" a loving relationship between two adult men was portrayed. In viewing the film as a recent Criterion Blu-ray release, I feel I can finally appreciate that point of view. Gay men have long been portrayed in movies, of course, but for the most part they had been depicted as objects of ridicule or as sexual deviants. There were the odd attempts to present gay characters as sympathetic in films such as The Trials of Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Victim. Yet, even these fine efforts present homosexuality as a burden those "afflicted" must bear. Stanley Donen's 169 film Staircase offered fascinating and bold performances by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as two aging queens. However, the studio marketing campaign over-emphasized the oddity of two of the film industry's great lady's men playing a gay couple. In fact, the ad campaign showed Burton and "Sexy Rexy" giddily dancing, thus falsely conveying that the film was a comedic romp instead of a poignant and intelligent look at loving homosexual relationship. Schlesinger, one of the first unapologetic directors to come out of the closet (if, indeed, he was ever in one) decided that the most daring aspect of this highly personal film would be in its very ordinariness. The story covers a complicated love triangle between three disparate people. Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is a middle-aged, Jewish London doctor who is involved romantically with a much younger man, Bob Elkin (Murray Head). Hirsh doesn't flaunt his homosexuality, nor does he attempt to painstakingly deny it. He just lives his life as a respected member of his community, although it is clear his family thinks he's straight. (In one amusing, though uncomfortable sequence, Hirsh attends a Bar Mitzvah and has to endure attempts by nosy female relatives to set him up with his "dream girl"). The relationship between Hirsh and Bob is fairly intense, but is compromised by one uncomfortable fact: Bob is bi-sexual and is carrying on an equally intense love affair with an older woman, Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson). Both Hirsh and Alex know about each other and (barely) tolerate the triangle as the price of having Bob in their lives. For his part, Bob is a rather self-absorbed young man who seems to have genuine affection for both of his lovers, but is also either oblivious or uncaring about how the uncertainties of the relationship are affecting their psychological well-being.
Sunday Bloody Sunday was released a time when the gay rights movement was moving into high gear in the post-Stonewall period. It illustrates why the 1970s is regarded by many as the most liberating decade in film history, with old line directors like Hawks, Welles and Hitchcock working at the same time young turks like Schlesinger were shaking things up in a way the old masters never had the opportunity to do, thanks to the restrictive motion picture code. Sunday is primarily remembered for an eyebrow-raising scene in which Hirsh and Bob engage in a romantic kiss. There's nothing sensational about the tasteful way in which this rather routine gesture between lovers is presented on screen. In fact, it was the sheer lack of sensationalism that drove home Schlesinger's primary message: that loving gestures between gay men can be every bit as routine as they are between husband and wife. The fact that the kiss was enacted by two straight actors did add considerable gravitas to the moment and must have caused more than one straight viewer to think "Well, if they don't care about enacting such a scene, why should I feel uncomfortable watching it?" Schlesinger also dared to film tasteful but passionate bedroom scenes between Bob and Hirsh. Nevertheless, nothing much actually happens in Sunday Bloody Sunday. The story was based in part on real-life experiences and people from Schlesinger's own life. The story merely traces the ups and downs in the love triangle as Bob causes panic in both Hirsh and Alex by announcing he is thinking of moving to America. Hirsh and Alex do have an unexpected face to face meeting during this crisis and their sheer civility and inability to engage in more than light banter only adds to the dramatic tension.
The primary attribute of the film, aside from Schlesinger's spot-on direction, is the brilliance of the performances. Glenda Jackson was then emerging as a national treasure for the British film industry and the little-known Murray Head acquits himself very well indeed. However, it is Peter Finch's performance that dominates the movie as we watch his character go from loving acceptance of Bob's youthful self-absorbing actions to downright fury as his realization that Bob will never have the same passion for him. It's a superb performance on every level. Some viewers find the film's bizarre final sequence in which Hirsh addresses the viewer directly about his philosophy of life, but I found it to be a distraction and somewhat confusing. Nevertheless, this is a fine film, worthy of the praise it has generated over the years, and one that remains remarkably timely today.
The Criterion Blu-ray is right up to the company's top-notch standards. The transfer is beautiful and there are the usual informative extras including:
New interviews with Murray Head (who says that, as a young actor, he found his character to be rather despicable), cinematographer Billy Williams (who supervised the Blu-ray transfer), production designer Luciana Arrighi, Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann and the director's long-time partner, photographer Michael Childers who shot many of the great production stills for the film.
A 1975 audio interview with Schlesinger
Screenwriter Penelope Gillatt's original introduction to the published screenplay (there is plenty of coverage throughout the Blu-ray concerning the tense working relationship between Gillatt and Schlesinger, who accused the writer of taking the lion's share of credit for a screenplay he had extensively rewritten.)
The original theatrical trailer
Extensive liner notes by writer Ian Buruma, Schlesinger's nephew who appeared as an extra in the film.
In all, an outstanding tribute to an outstanding work by one of the era's great filmmakers.
Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s spelled this
way in the film credits, but on theatrical posters and advertising it was
called Blow-Up) was a landmark,
envelope-pushing film that caused quite a stir. For one thing, it was one of
the nails in the coffin of the U.S. Production Code, paving the way for the
elimination of cinematic censorship and the eventual creation of the movie
ratings. Its depiction of nudity, sexual attitudes, and recreational drugs
crossed the line for late 1966. Nevertheless, newspaper ads got away with
simply proclaiming that the picture was “Recommended for Mature Audiences,”
since this was prior to the ratings themselves.
Blowup also stands as a
cultural landmark in that it captures that moment of time called “Swinging
London.” Everything was “mod”—music, fashion, art... even groups of youths were
called “mods.” Antonioni’s film could serve as a time capsule for that period
of artistic rebellion. It’s also a curiosity in that it was an Italian-British
co-production, financed by Hollywood—but it definitely comes off as “English.” The
filmmaker received his only Best Director Oscar nomination for the picture, and
he shared a nomination for Original Screenplay with Tonino Guerra.
story concerns Thomas, a professional photographer (charismatically portrayed
by David Hemmings), who we follow as he goes about his daily routine of
shooting gorgeous fashion models and whatever else strikes his fancy as he
roams London. He’s estranged from his wife (Sarah Miles), and it’s apparent
they have an open relationship (how very mod of them!). One day, while
strolling through Maryon Park (which still looks practically the same today),
Thomas spies a lovely young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) with an older man. He
snaps pictures without the couple knowing it, but then the woman chases Thomas
down and demands to have the film. He won’t give it up—the pictures are going
into an art book he’s planning to publish. When he develops the roll, Thomas
discovers that a murder may have occurred. Later on that night, he returns to
the park and finds that, indeed, the older man’s body is lying in the grass. The
mystery of the crime becomes Thomas’ obsession.
isn’t much plot beyond that. Instead, Antonioni presents an existential
treatise on the nature of seeing and not-seeing, or perhaps imagination vs.
reality. Thomas seems to have everything a good-looking, talented man could
want—his pick of “birds” (yes, that was the slang for “girls” then), money, a
fancy car, and the freedom to chase the muse. And yet, there is something
missing in his life and it soon becomes obvious that he’s not very happy. The
uncovering of the mystery further shakes him out of party mode and forces him
to face the real world. It’s a theme Antonioni explores in several of his
film is a visual feast. The sets are filled with the modern art of the period
and “Twiggy”-style clothing. The London locations are used to a great
advantage, and many of these are revisited in the new documentary on the making
of the film that is included as a supplement on the disk. The soundtrack is
also “hip”—Herbie Hancock provides the jazz score, and the Yardbirds (which at
the time included Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) appear as themselves and perform at
an underground club. The ménage à trois scene that caused
all the fuss with the Production Code and features Hemmings, Jane Birkin (who
at the time was married to composer John Barry), and Gillian Hills, is wild and
raucous and was probably pretty shocking at the time—but today it would barely
classify for an “R” rating in the U.S.
Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of Blowup exploits all of these assets in a gorgeous restored 4K
digital transfer and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The supplements are
plentiful—the aforementioned 2016 documentary; new pieces on Antonioni’s
artistic approach with photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner
and art historian David Alan Mellor; a 2016 conversation with Vanessa Redgrave;
two archival interviews with David Hemmings; an archival interview with Jane
Birkin; footage from the 1967 Cannes Film Festival at which Blowup won the Grand Prix (also with an interview with the director); and two
trailers. The set comes with a fairly thick, lavishly illustrated booklet
featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, an updated 1966 account of
the film’s shooting by Stig Björkman, the
questionnaires distributed to photographers and painters while developing the
film, and the 1959 Julio Cortázar short story on
which the film is loosely based.
short, Criterion has released an exemplary set for a milestone film. So take a
trip back to the swinging sixties for some free love, pop music, and far-out
modern art. It will turn you on.
Mildred Pierce is one curious piece
of cinema. As film critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito point out in their
fascinating conversation that is a supplement on this beautifully-presented
Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection, Pierce is a movie that almost doesn’t know what it wants to be. In
many ways it is a woman’s picture, that is, a melodrama, but it’s disguised
inside a manufactured film noir.
reasoning is sound, for in spite of novelist James M. Cain being known for
terrific pulp crime fiction (Double
Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings
Twice), his 1941 novel Mildred Pierce
is not a crime story, unless you want to say that a young woman having an
affair with her stepfather is “criminal.” The book is indeed hardboiled and
pulpy, but there is no murder in it.
the other hand, Michael Curtiz’s film version of Mildred Pierce actually begins
with a sensational murder—that of the stepfather—and the rest of the picture is
something of a journey to reveal who the killer is. This retooling of the story
must have been ordered by the studio to capitalize on the success of Billy
Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of Double
Indemnity, and these types of crime pictures—what would later, in the 50s,
be termed film noir—were starting to
pour out of Hollywood. The noir trappings
are all there—an Eastern European director, highly contrasting black and white
photography, a look steeped in German expressionism, cynicism and angst,
unstable alliances, and even a femme
fatale—this time in the form of the daughter character.
(Joan Crawford) is a divorcee with two children. She still sees her ex-husband,
but also his best friend, Wally (Jack Carson), who hits on her every chance he
gets. Mildred struggles to make ends meet but eventually finds some success
running a small chain of bakeries (“Mildred’s”). Her bratty oldest daughter,
Veda (Ann Blyth), however, constantly complains about their social position in
the class structure, and is determined to tear her mother down. Mildred soon
marries somewhat-wealthy Monty (Zachary Scott), who is the man killed at the
beginning of the picture. The story is told as a flashback, as many films noir are.
all works, I suppose, although the more recent HBO adaptation of the novel
starring Kate Winslet is a much more faithful rendition of the story. Still,
the motion picture has top notch entertainment value, and it also contains
several powerhouse performances. Crawford deservedly won the Best Actress Oscarfor playing Mildred, and newcomer Blyth
earned a Supporting Actress nomination as the truly evil Veda. Eve Arden, as
Mildred’s spunky friend Ida, also scored a supporting nomination. Butterfly
McQueen deserves mention as the family’s maid—her presence always lights up the
screen. The men in the movie are fine but nothing special—this is definitely a
film dominated by the women. Ranald MacDougall was nominated for his
screenplay, and the picture itself was nominated for the top award. Curtiz, who
won his Oscar for directing Casablanca,
was left out this time around; but there is no question that his work is always
exemplary. He was a consummate studio helmsman who could make any kind of
with most Criterion releases, the visual and sound quality are near-perfection.
The new 4K digital restoration looks sharp, and the uncompressed monaural
soundtrack is full-front. Supplements include the aforementioned new interview
between Haskell and Polito; an excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show with guest Joan
Crawford; TCM’s 2002 feature-length documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (which also appeared on the
original DVD release); an entertaining Q&A with Ann Blyth at a 2002
screening of the film, conducted by film
noir historian Eddie Muller; a worth-the-price-of-admission interview with
author James M. Cain from a 1969 segment of The
Today Show; and the theatrical trailer. The booklet contains an essay by
critic Imogen Sara Smith.
is much to recommend in this new Criterion Blu-ray release—a must-have for fans
of Cain, Curtiz, and Crawford, although not necessarily in that order!
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Criterion has released a deluxe Blu-ray edition of director Peter Brook's 1963 screen adaptation of William Golding's landmark novel Lord of the Flies. As virtually anyone familiar with literature of the latter half of the twentieth century probably knows, the story involves a group of British schoolboys who are among the refugees deported from England out the outbreak of what is, presumably, a third world war. Their plane is shot down over the ocean but it crashes off shore from a remote island. All of the adults die but the boys miraculously survive and make their way to dry land. Realizing their survival is in their own hands, the boys (the age of whom ranges from pre-pubescent to early teens) set about the task of building shelters. They quickly master the essentials of staying alive and learn to start fires and to hunt and fish with reasonably effective hand-made tools. Inevitably, the fragments of a society begin to coalesce but there is stark contrast in philosophies. Jack (Tom Chapin) is an assertive, take-charge older boy who quickly learns he can use his aggressive personality traits to rise to a leadership position. Jack proves his worth by quickly going native and relishing the opportunity to play king. His skills are essential when it comes to providing food for the group. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ralph (James Aubrey), a sensitive and thoughtful boy who rivals Jack as leader of the group based on his intellectual superiority. When the rivalry becomes heated, Jack and his numerically superior group of followers resort to violent methods to suppress Ralph and his friend Piggy (Hugh Edwards), a pudgy and harmless boy who must indulge many degrading insults and taunts. The resulting battle of wills leads to numerous tragedies and a conclusion that finds Ralph alone and being hunted down by his former schoolmates, who intend to kill him.
It's clear that Golding intended to use this scenario as a microcosm for society in general. He initially regarded himself as an optimist regarding human nature but that changed during his service in WWII, when he witnessed behavior that he thought was so horrendous that he became convinced that evil is far more prevalent in the world than he had suspected. That cynicism is carried over into the film, which is such a literate version of the novel that no one is credited as a screenwriter. Director Brook would assemble his cast of young boys (none of whom had any acting experience) and read passages and dialogue from the novel prior to filming each scene. The technique worked remarkably well. Brook's shoestring budget of $300,000 was cut in half after his ill-fated, short-term alliance with famed producer Sam Spiegel, who began to make significant changes to the production in the hopes of making it more commercial. When he insisted on adding a group of young girls to the mix, Brook ended their partnership but had to pay Spiegel half of his meager budget to cover expenses he had never even authorized. Left with only $150,000 in the coffers, Brook (who is primarily known as an acclaimed director of avant-garde theatrical productions) managed to get everyone to the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico, where most of the footage was shot. Brook could not afford a seasoned cinematographer so gambled on hiring a local still photographer, Tom Hollyman, whose work on the film is simply remarkable (though he would never make another motion picture). Hollyman's footage was supplemented by footage taken by Gerald Feil, who was given a hand-held camera and told to shoot anything he found interesting. The result is a superb compilation of both men's accomplishments. The movie was shot in B&W for budgetary reasons but it also worked beneficially in terms of the impact of this stark, bleak tale. Raymond Leppard's brilliant score combines British schoolboy songs with ominous jungle themes. It must be pointed out that, despite the impressive performances of the young cast members, only one- James Aubrey- decided to gravitate into acting as a profession. The real hero, however, is Brook himself, whose exercise in the ultimate "guerrilla movie making" still stands the test of time as a powerful and fascinating film.
Criterion's special Blu-ray release does justice to the movie on every level beginning with a superb transfer that emphasizes the glorious cinematography. The extras in the set are:
Audio commentary track featuring Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, cinematographers Tom Hollyman and Gerald Feil
Audio of William Golding reading excerpts from the book, accompanied by scenes from the film
Deleted scene with optional commentary track
Insightful interview with Brook from 2008 (in which he pointedly says he never made a commercial movie because he refused to compromise with the studios in terms of his artistic vision)
Wonderful home movies taken by the young cast members.
1980 British TV interview with William Golding (one of the few he ever gave)
A new interview with cinematographer Gerald Feil
The original trailer
Feil's 1975 short film documenting Peter Brook rehearsing cast members in Brooklyn for one of his off-beat productions. For those of us who do not "tread the boards" for a living, the rehearsals seem bizarre and resemble an exercise class more than an acting rehearsal. Some of it is unintentionally funny: the kind of pretentious scenario that is often spoofed by Woody Allen, with actors chanting and seeming to run about without rhyme or reason. Yet, who are we to argue? Brook's reputation as a major theatrical director remains firmly intact.
A collector's booklet featuring essays by Peter Brook and film critic Geoffrey Macnab
In summary, the Criterion release of Lord of the Flies is essential viewing for classic movie lovers.
story writer and poet Raymond Carver was known for pithy, honest tales of the
human condition in modern settings, the literary equivalent of cinematic
“neo-realism.” His critically-acclaimed work was published mostly in the
seventies and eighties, and he died of lung cancer in 1988 at the age of fifty.
Since Carver was known for his brevity of prose, it might seem curious that a
three-hour film would be adapted from his material.
a director like Robert Altman could make it work.
(and co-writer Frank Barhydt) took nine of Carver’s stories and one poem,
mashed them together, re-located the settings to Los Angeles, and freely
intersected them in order to create an ensemble piece that reflected “Carver
Country” with a Southern California sensibility. While the stories in the movie
might not be entirely faithful to the original tales, they capture Carver’s
spirit. Nevertheless, make no mistake—Short
Cuts is a Robert Altman film, and one of his very best.
terms of his trademark “collage” storytelling that focuses on multiple
principal characters, it’s as if the filmmaker wanted to out-do Nashville by broadening the canvas and
extending the randomness of dramatic encounters. Short Cuts is certainly a movie about chance, if anything, although
on the surface the picture follows the messy relationships between husbands and
wives and various extramarital lovers, mothers and daughters, and fathers and
sons. The way Altman moves smoothly from one set of characters to another is
masterful—his direction received an Oscar nomination (but Steven Spielberg won
that year for Schindler’s List).
cast is simply amazing—the likes of Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell,
Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew
Modine, Robert Downey, Jr., Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Frances McDormand, Jennifer
Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Peter Gallagher, Lori Singer, Annie Ross,
Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry—and more—populate this ambitious, sprawling, and
extraordinary accomplishment. The other star is Los Angeles itself—in many
ways, Short Cuts is the ultimate L.A.
Criterion Collection had previously issued the film on DVD in 2004 but now
presents a new, restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-ray, approved by
cinematographer Walt Lloyd, with a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Alternatively, viewers can choose a 5.1 soundtrack mix presented in DTS-HD
Master Audio. If that isn’t enough, one can watch with an isolated music
track—and there’s plenty of great music by Mark Isham, and songs by Doc Pomus
and Mac Rebennack (AKA Dr. John).
second disk contains a wealth of supplements, all of which appeared on the
original 2004 release (the only extra not ported over is a segment from BBC
television’s Moving Pictures tracing
the development of the screenplay). Otherwise, you get a video conversation
from 2004 between Altman and Tim Robbins; a terrific 1993 feature-length
documentary on the making of the film which includes plenty of footage showing
Altman at work on the set; a 1992 PBS documentary on Raymond Carver; a rare
1983 one-hour audio interview with Carver (who rarely spoke about his work);
original demo recordings of the songs, performed by Dr. John himself; a few
deleted scenes; and a study of the difficulty in marketing such an unusual
motion picture using examples of numerous poster and art designs and concepts,
trailers, and teasers. The essay in the booklet is by film critic Michael
Short Cuts is one of the
masterpieces of the 1990s and belongs on the shelf of any Robert Altman fan.
Altman’s self-proclaimed “anti-western,” based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, is one
peculiar piece of cinema that fits right in with the “New Hollywood” movement
that began in the late 60s and continued through most of the next decade. At
the time, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was
considered extremely unconventional, not very audience-friendly, and quirky to
boot. Cinema-goers expecting a traditional western were bewildered, but
word-of-mouth and good reviews by younger, “hip” critics edged the picture
along to more educated and receptive viewers. Today, McCabe is generally acclaimed to be one of Altman’s best movies.
weren’t yet accustomed to the director’s methods of movie-making in 1971. M*A*S*H (1970), of course, was a huge
and popular hit. His second effort, Brewster
McCloud (also 1970), was less welcomed, although its charms are appreciated
now by the faithful (I consider it one of Altman’s better pictures). McCabe followed these, so the director’s
stylistic temperaments were still new: overlapping dialogue, improvisational acting, ensemble casting,
murky—and yet beautiful—cinematography, an unusual musical soundtrack,
anti-heroes for protagonists, and a “controlled sloppiness” of mise-en-scène. McCabe had all of these things, but it
also had two strong performances by the leads, Warren Beatty and Julie
Christie, and by the soon-to-be-familiar “Altman stock company” (Keith
Carradine, Shelley Duvall, René Auberjonois, John
Schuck, Bert Remsen, Michael Murphy, among others).
(Beatty) drifts into a ne’er-do-well mining town in the U.S. northwest
territory, circa turn of the last century—so it was still very much “western
times”—and promptly decides to show the settlers he could be an alpha dog. The
town is still in the process of being built—the only notable structures are the
church and the saloon. Not bothering to refute a rumor that he’s a gunfighter
who had killed men, McCabe sets up a brothel and begins to make serious money.
Enter Mrs. Miller (Christie), a Cockney (and opium addict) who comes to town to
start her own whorehouse. She and McCabe eventually team up and create a
class-A establishment that is actually the cleanest and most comfortable place
to hang out. Then the evil mining company arrives to buy out McCabe, and he’d
better accept—or else. McCabe turns out to be not a gunslinger at all—but he
attempts to fake it in order to save his own life, Mrs. Miller, and the town.
was nominated for Best Actress for her role, and she is quite good as the
strong woman who actually becomes the brains of the outfit. Beatty’s McCabe is
actually not a very smart guy—he’s all bravado and no substance—a character he
does well seeing that it’s out of the actor’s comfort zone. Keith Carradine
made his big screen debut in the film at the age of nineteen—he’s wonderfully
goofy and lanky as a cowboy who spends most of his time at the brothel.
Zsigmond’s photography is indeed murky; its soft focus was apparently achieved
with a pre-fogging technique on the film negative prior to exposure. On
Criterion’s new Blu-ray, the imagery looks better than I remember it did when
it was projected on a screen.
the most impressive thing about the film is production designer Leon Ericksen’s
“town” which is built before our eyes as the movie progresses. Altman employed
the builders as actors (in costumes) and they are seen in the background,
working away, as the action unfolds in front of them.
disk sports a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural
soundtrack. An audio commentary from 2002 featuring Altman and producer David
Foster accompanies the film—and it’s always a pleasure to listen to the
director talk about his films. There’s a fascinating new making-of documentary
featuring the likes of Carradine, Auberjonois, frequent Altman collaborator
Joan Tewkesbury, casting director Graeme Clifford, and others; an interesting
new video conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell;
a vintage featurette about the
production; footage from the Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999
with Ericksen; an archival interview with Zsigmond; a gallery of stills from
the set by photographer Steve Schapiro; and—perhaps the most fun—two excerpts
from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971,
one with Pauline Kael talking about the film, and the other with Altman.
There’s the obligatory trailer, and an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel
Rich in the booklet.
line—the Criterion Collection’s latest addition to its Robert Altman line-up is
impressive and belongs on the shelf of any true cinephile.
brilliance in Hollywood comes in very modest packages. Who would have thought
that a string of horror films made on shoestring budgets, with no star power,
and little attention from the studio, would become classics in style and
what happened when, in 1942, producer Val Lewton was put in charge of a
division at RKO Radio Pictures with the directive to make a series of ridiculously inexpensive movies intended to be competition for Universal’s successful
franchise of monster flicks. Lewton—a former novelist and poet—had previously worked
for MGM and, in particular, David O. Selznick, before being hired by RKO. He
brought this experience along with his literary background to the table when he
was told he could do anything he wanted as long as the budget for each film did
not exceed $150,000.
there wasn’t enough budget for special visual effects, elaborate monster
makeup, or any of the other trappings for which Universal was known. Lewton had
to tap into the imaginations of his audience members and find ways to suggest that what was on the screen was
truly frightening. To do so, he put
together an inventive creative team—director Jacques Tourneur, writer DeWitt
Bodean, cinematographer Nicholas Musucara, and editor Mark Robson—to make the
first iconic entry under the producer’s watch.
result? Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur,was so successful
that it put RKO, which had been struggling after the financial failures of
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, back on the
map. Box-office aside, the motion picture manages to be atmospheric, eerie, and
psychologically disturbing without a single monster appearance. Everything
frightening about it is all in the mind. Cat
People unnerves viewers through the use of light and shadow, sound, and the
mere suggestion of menace.
story concerns Irena, an Eastern European woman in New York (exotically played
by Simone Simon), who has a mysterious past and family tree. It seems she
descended from a cult of Serbians who practiced witchcraft—and they had the
ability (or curse?) of turning into panthers when sexually aroused. During the
course of the story, Irena—as well as the men around her— must come to grips
with who she really is. Okay, it’s a love story... sort of.
sexuality at the heart of Cat People had
to be played with a good deal of subtlety due to the Production Code, but it’s
there. Much of the film’s power comes from the primal, sensual heat within the
subtext of the visual poetry on display. Not only does the movie burn with
suggestive tension, its German expressionistic beauty is seductive. The style is what gives Cat People its claws.
new 2K digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, certainly
shows off the look of the film, and it appears better than ever. The black and
white imagery is appropriately grainy and the contrasts are sharp. There’s an
audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, including
excerpts from an audio interview with Simone Simon.
the supplements is a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who was DP
of Paul Schrader’s more explicit 1982 remake of Cat People—this is a highlight, as Bailey compares the two pictures
and talks about the work of his predecessor Musucara. Additionally, Jacques
Tourneur is interviewed in a 1977 French television program. Most impressive is
the inclusion of a feature-length documentary from TCM, narrated by Martin
Scorsese, about the life and work of Val Lewton. The movie trailer and an essay
in the booklet by critic Geoffrey O’Brien round out the extras.
stylish, and mesmerizing, Cat People was
the beginning of a remarkable four-year run of interesting, intelligent horror
movies made by dedicated craftsmen who not only wanted to entertain an audience
but also to create art. Let’s hope that The Criterion Collection presents more
of the works of Val Lewton, but for now, Cat
People is just in time for Halloween!
has been written and said about director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s
ten-hour mini-series originally broadcast on Polish television in 1988. The
late Stanley Kubrick, who rarely commented on other filmmakers’ works, wrote in
a foreword to the published screenplays of Dekalog
that Kieślowski and his co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz
had dramatized their ideas with “dazzling skill.” Many critics have called Dekalog one of the greatest television
mini-series ever made.
Dekalog has been previously released
on home video, The Criterion Collection has seen fit to present on DVD and
Blu-ray a new, restored 4K digital transfer that has also been recently playing
in select art house cinemas around the U.S. Even though all but two episodes
are in an analog television aspect ratio (4:3), there is no question that this
is cinematic material. Kieślowski’s mise-en-scene is subtle and beckons to
be seen on the big screen—or a large high definition TV. The clarity of the new
Criterion release does wonders for Dekalog,
and as a result the package is one of the hallmarks of the company’s
Dekalog is loosely based on
the Ten Commandments. No, it’s not a Biblical drama. Each episode is a modern (i.e.,
the late 1980s, when the films were made) take on how the Ten Commandments
relate—or not—to the contemporary world. The stories are set in and around a
single apartment block in Warsaw, Poland, and mostly involve various tenants.
Each episode is a separate tale, and yet characters from one part might appear
in the background of another, illustrating that the “chapters” are connected.
For example, a little girl who is at the focus of Dekalog: Seven can be seen playing outside a window in Dekalog: Nine. An old man who collects
stamps is a minor character in Dekalog:
Eight, and his two grown sons are the protagonists of Dekalog: Ten.
who died too young (of heart failure) in 1996, apparently liked story cycles.
Another of his acclaimed works is the Three
Colors Trilogy (Blue; White; Red) from 1993 and 1994—interconnected but
separate tales obliquely meditating on the meanings behind the colors of the
French flag. Dekalog does the same
thing with the Ten Commandments. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz
wrote ten little dramas that have as starting points the Biblical moral tenets,
but they are not handled literally. For example, in Dekalog: One, a man keeps his beloved computer in a prominent spot
in his living room, but his reliance on what the computer tells him with its
calculations eventually has tragic results. This is Kieślowski’s
ironic way of commenting on the
commandment “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
that’s the key to Dekalog—every
episode is flush with irony. The episode dealing with “thou shalt not kill” is
more about the capital punishment faced by the protagonist of the tale than it
is the murder he committed that landed him on death row. The episode concerning
“honor thy parents” concerns a young woman who has incestuous thoughts for the
man she always thought was her father—but who, it turns out, is not. Sometimes
a single episode relates to two—or even three—commandments, and there are cases
in which one commandment is the subject of two or more chapters.
is provocative, challenging stuff.
Dekalog stars some of the
most talented Polish actors of the day—many of whom none of us outside the Iron
Curtain knew at the time. And that’s another thing—one must keep in mind that Dekalog was made while Poland was still
a Communist country. While this has some bearing on the stories, the underlying
truths of the piece are still quite universal.
the cycle features nine different cinematographers (Three and Nine were shot
by the same DP). There is indeed a different look to each episode—and yet Kieślowski
managed to keep them all consistent in style to create a whole. The cumulative
effect of the ten pieces—in content and visual craft—is what ultimately makes Dekalog such a powerful, meaningful work
of the episodes, Five and Six, were expanded to feature length
(and were shot in widescreen) to become A
Short Film About Killing and A Short
Film About Love, and were released theatrically, also in 1988. The longer
pictures add more depth to the original TV versions. In the case of A Short Film About Love, the ending is
remarkably different. Fortunately, Criterion has included these two feature
films in the set along with the ten original one-hour episodes and trailers.
entire extra disk is devoted to hours of supplements. Most welcome are archival
interviews with Kieślowski, taken from 1987, 1990, and 1995. A
very informative and illustrative new interview with film studies professor and
author Annette Insdorf is a highlight of the set. Other archival and new
material includes interviews with thirteen cast members, Piesiewicz, three
cinematographers, editor Ewa Smal, and Kieślowski confidante
Hanna Krall. The thick booklet contains an essay and capsules on the films by
cinema scholar Paul Coates, along with excerpts from the book Kieślowski
Criterion Collection has always been known for producing boxed sets of
outstanding quality. Dekalog is one
of their crown jewels.
a film has been previously issued on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, a Criterion upgrade
is still always welcome because you’ll get stuff that further enhances the
viewing experience. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen were once notoriously
camera-shy regarding interviews or “making of” documentaries of their work—but
Criterion has managed to coax them into participating—and it’s a treat.
Blood Simple was the debut feature
from the Coen Brothers, and it’s the second release by the Criterion Collection
of the siblings’ work (Inside Llewyn
Davis appeared in early 2016). Simple
premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1984, had an acclaimed showing at the
New York Film Festival later that same year, and then was picked up for
theatrical distribution in early 1985. Although it was made on a shoestring
budget (about $1.5 million after post-production), Blood Simple exhibited trademark stylistic and thematic elements
that would appear in all of the Coen Brothers’ pictures—flashy cinematography, dark
humor, literary influences, intelligent plotting, existentialism, and engaging
stories made for smart audiences about stupid people.
recall viewing the film in New York on its initial release and becoming very
excited about it. I already couldn’t wait for the next feature from the
brothers. I saw something so fresh and original—even though it had obvious nods
to B-movie horror flicks and neo-noir crime thrillers—that I immediately
anointed in my head the Coen Brothers as “the next big thing.” And that they
extensive supplements on the Criterion disk—worth the price of admission—detail
the production from the genesis in the siblings’ heads to the ultimate,
long-awaited release. From the very beginning, they envisioned actor M. Emmet
Walsh as Visser, the sleazy private detective, even though the brothers had
never met him. The script grew out of this concept—and luckily, Walsh accepted
the meager offer to appear in the film, even though nearly everyone on the
production had never made a feature film before. The money was raised through friends and other investors, the
casting of the other roles was done in New York, and the picture was made in
and around Austin, Texas because they didn’t have to use union crews there. “In
Texas—down here, you’re on your own,” Visser says in a voice-over at the
beginning of the story. The Coens were indeed “on their own” when they made Blood Simple.
the Coens had wanted Holly Hunter in the lead role—they had seen her in a play
in New York. She was unavailable, so she recommended her friend Frances
McDormand, who got the lead part of Abby. It was her first film, too. John Getz
was cast as her chump lover, Ray, and experienced actor Dan Hedaya came in as Marty,
the cuckolded husband. While McDormand is absolutely wonderful in the film, it
is indeed Walsh who owns it. If the actor was going to place only one of his
many movie appearances in a time capsule of his career, Blood Simple should be it.
Sonnenfeld, who had a little experience shooting documentaries, was hired as
Director of Photography—so he was essentially a newbie as well. Even the
composer of the score, Carter Burwell, had never done a film before. It was something
of a miracle that Blood Simple turned
out so remarkably good. Nearly all the personages involved would work together
again on future pictures (and McDormand and Joel Coen would fall in love and
you’ve never seen it—the film is a must. The story starts off in a
has left her husband, Marty, and is shacking up with Ray. Marty hires detective
Visser at first to get evidence of the affair—and then Marty contracts the guy
to kill the couple. Visser fakes the murders so he can still take the money, and
then things go really wrong from
it to say that the nearly fifteen-minute segment of Ray attempting to murder
Marty—illustrating to audiences how truly difficult it is to kill someone—is
feature is a new restored 4K digital transfer, approved by Sonnenfeld and the
Coens, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The image is
gorgeous, clear, and vividly colorful. The masterful sound mixing by Skip
Lievsay is also showcased in this Blu-ray edition. Supplements include outstanding
and fascinating new interviews with the Coens, McDormand, Walsh, Burwell, and
Lievsay about the making of the film, all told with humor and behind-the-scenes
stories that will convince you that working on a Coen Brothers set is the ideal
way to make a movie. For example, at one point we learn that in order to make a
puny, burning dumpster look bigger, the Coens hired little people to play the
men throwing garbage into it. By shooting from a distance, the actors appeared
to be normal-size, and the dumpster looked huge.
most valuable extra on the disk is the “conversation” between the Coens and
Sonnenfeld about the film’s look as they comment on selected scenes while
simultaneously using Telestrator video illustrations. This 75-minute piece is a
master class in filmmaking. Three trailers are also on the disk, including the
initial “investor trailer” that was shot early on during the fund-raising
process. An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich adorns the booklet.
shocking, and funny, Blood Simple represents
the Coen Brothers at their best—and they were only getting started! The new Criterion release is a 5-star gem. Let’s hope the
company continues to explore the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre!
Criterion Collection has issued a Blu-ray upgrade to a previous winning DVD
release—Carol Reed’s World War II suspense adventure, Night Train to Munich. It’s a terrific example of the fine cinema
Britain was managing to produce even while at war. Released there in August of 1940, the country
was already in the conflict, although the Blitz had not yet occurred. (The picture was released in the U.S. in
December 1940, smack dab in the middle of
more striking is its resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) in tone, setting, and even characters.
Marketing pushes at the time suggested that Night
Train to Munich was a “sequel” to Vanishes,
which was an extremely popular movie on both sides of the Atlantic. Night Train is not a sequel, though—it’s
more of a remake.
at the studio must have thought they needed “another movie like Lady Vanishes” so writers Sidney Gilliat
and Frank Launder, who were responsible for the previous screenplay, were
secured to pen the new one. Both pictures have plots that involve spies, double
agents and Nazis, and a major portion of the stories takes place on a passenger
train. To sell the “sequel” concept even more to the public, popular actress Margaret
Lockwood, the star of Vanishes, was
cast as the lead, this time opposite a young Rex Harrison instead of Michael
Redgrave. Most curious, though, is the inclusion of two characters (and the actors who played them) from Vanishes—the duo of the very British,
comical, possibly gay men known as Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil
Radford and Naunton Wayne). The couple was such a hit the first time around,
the two fellows had to be passengers on board Night Train, too. There has
been much discussion about Charters and Caldicott’s sexual orientation since
their several appearances in these and a few other films of the late thirties
and early forties. Are they gay? There are certainly several humorous “clues” in these
two first titles to suggest it. Since something like that couldn’t be blatantly
talked about in those days, it was best for the audience to simply find it
funny that two men are traveling together (again, on a train?) and possibly
using the same bed (in Vanishes).
Night Train, Lockwood plays the
daughter of a Czech scientist who is the MacGuffin of the story—both the Allies
and the Nazis want him. When father and daughter are captured and held in
Berlin, Harrison, a British agent whose cover is to perform and sell sheet
music in an English seaside town, is sent to Germany to free and bring them back
to the U.K. He impersonates a Nazi major in order to get “inside,” and his
impromptu escape plan involves the boarding of a train traveling from Berlin to
Munich (with fellow passengers Charters and Caldicott willing to help!). In the
meantime, a Nazi captain played by Paul Henreid (here credited as Paul von
Henreid—before he moved to Hollywood to be in Casablanca) is dedicated to keeping the scientist and his daughter
under the thumb of the Reich. Never mind that both Harrison and Henreid are
both in love with Lockwood.
pretty far-fetched, doesn’t it? Forget it—this is a fast-paced,
intelligently-written, well-acted, and suspenseful adventure film. Mixed in
with all the excitement is light humor, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s
picture, thus providing viewers with an entertaining ride. Reed, who would go
on to make other classic British thrillers such as Odd Man Out and The Third Man,
handles the material with panache and style—just as Hitchcock did—but with a
more personal, friendlier touch.
new disk comes with a restored, high-definition digital transfer, with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The image is remarkably clear and sharp, a
testament to the outstanding job Criterion does in presenting vintage cinema.
Supplements include a fascinating 2010 conversation between film scholars Peter
Evans and Bruce Babington about the director, writers, and the socio-political
climate at the time the picture was made, and an essay in the booklet by film
critic Philip Kemp.
“All aboard!” and take another ride on the thriller-adventure train. It doesn’t
matter if you don’t know The Lady
Vanishes—Night Train to Munich stands
on its own as top notch filmmaking. Better yet, get them both and make it a
the late 1950s, a film movement emerged in Britain known as “Free Cinema.” Some
of the U.K.’s most celebrated filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s were among its
practitioners—Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Lorenza Mazzetti, and Tony
Richardson. The directors made low budget, short documentaries about the
working class with an almost deliberate “non commercial” sensibility. It was
radical and exciting, and it was a precursor to the British New Wave that
dovetailed with the French New Wave that was so influential on filmmakers
of the pictures of the British New Wave, released between 1959 and 1964,
focused on characters described as “angry young men,” and the films themselves
were referred to by critics and theorists as “kitchen sink dramas.” This was
because the movies were presented in a harsh, realistic fashion and were indeed
about the gritty, working class lives of “ordinary” (but actually,
extraordinary) people. Some of the titles you’ll recognize—Look Back in Anger, Room at
the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday
Morning, The Loneliness of the Long
Distance Runner, This Sporting Life,
A Taste of Honey, released in 1961
and directed by Tony Richardson, was a product of the early Free Cinema
Movement and the British New Wave. Based on a controversial but highly
successful stage play by first-time dramatist (at age 19) Shelagh Delaney, Taste is remarkable for several reasons.
For one, it is about an “angry young woman.”
It isalso shockingly frank for its
time. The British Board of Censors approved the picture only for persons over
the age of 16, for it deals with these then taboo subjects—female promiscuity,
alcoholism, interracial sex, pregnancy out of wedlock, and homosexuality. There’s
even a bit of nudity. (As a “kitchen sink drama,” it indeed has everything
story focuses on Jo (expertly played by newcomer Rita Tushingham), who lives
with her tramp of a mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), in a Manchester ne’er-do-well
working class environment. Helen seems to flit from man to man and doesn’t care
all that much for her daughter, now 16. Jo, frustrated and dissatisfied with
the status quo, has a relationship with a black sailor (Paul Danquah) who’s in
town for a few days. Helen runs off with a new beau, Peter (Robert Stephens), and
gets married, leaving Jo alone and pregnant. Jo then finds solace by
befriending a gay man, Geoffrey (courageously portrayed by Murray Melvin), who
moves in with her until Helen decides to leave her husband and return.
was bold stuff in 1961. In fact, it was still against the law in England to be
homosexual at the time. It is to Delaney’s credit to bring the Geoff character
to life on the stage without saying he’s
gay, but letting the audience know without a doubt that he is. The film version
accomplishes the same thing (Melvin is the only cast member who was also in the
original stage production), handling the subject matter with honesty, grace,
entirely on location, the picture captures the grime and hardships of these
people but also manages to be brilliantly entertaining. The acting is
top-notch, and Richardson’s direction is flawless. The camerawork by Walter
Lassally, often hand-held, provides a documentary feel to the proceedings that
expound on the earlier stylistic traits of the Free Cinema Movement.
Criterion Collection Blu-ray release features a new, restored 4K digital
transfer with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and it looks marvelous.
Supplements include: new interviews with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin (the
latter’s is especially enlightening); an audio interview with Tony Richardson
from 1962, accompanied by stills and clips; an excerpt from a 1960 television
interview with Shelagh Delaney; a 1998 interview with DP Walter Lassally; a new
piece with film scholar Kate Dorney about the film’s origins and the stage
production’s director, Joan Littlewood; and Momma
Don’t Allow, a 1956 Free Cinema documentary short co-directed by Richardson
and Karel Reisz and shot by Lassally. The booklet contains an essay by film
scholar Colin MacCabe.
the storyline and subject matter might sound drab and dire, A Taste of Honey does have an
under-flavor of sweetness that makes viewing the film a truly rewarding
of the hallmarks of 1960s art house cinema was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, adapted by Japanese
author/playwright Kōbō Abe from his own
1962 novel. The picture won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964 and was
nominated that same year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The following year, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director (but lost to
Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
is avant-garde cinema at its finest—or perhaps its most tedious, depending on
story is straight-forward. Niki (played by Eiji Okada, the male lead from Hiroshima mon amour),a schoolteacher and amateur
entomologist (he studies bugs), has ventured to a desert-like area of Japan
(does one exist?) near the sea to find specific species of insects. He is
stranded and needs a place to stay overnight. The “villagers” (we never see a
village) point to a dilapidated shack at the bottom of a deep sand pit where a
young woman lives. They throw a rope ladder over the side of the pit so that he
can meet the woman (Kyōko Kishida). She seems nice and welcoming
enough, and she’s attractive, too. The next morning, the rope ladder is gone.
Niki is stuck in the sand pit with the nameless woman, despite several attempts
is the woman’s “job” to shovel sand from the pit, which is raised by the
villagers to be used in concrete for sale. It also prevents the shack from
sinking into the sand and being forever buried. Niki is forced to be her
helper, whether he likes it or not. Weeks and months go by—eventually he
becomes the woman’s lover. Even when Niki does manage to escape, he is caught
and brought back to the pit. The sand becomes his lot in life (pun intended).
this takes place over 2-1/2 hours. Is it entertaining? Yes and no.
symbolism and metaphors may have been revelatory in 1964, and I always tell my film
history students to judge a film within the context of when it was
released, not by whether it “holds up” today. In that perspective, Woman in the Dunes is fascinating. It’s
obviously meant to be a modern-day take on the myth of Sisyphus, a Greek king
who was punished by the gods to continually roll a heavy stone up a hill, only
to have it roll down again. Niki and the woman toil with the sand, day after
day, and yet there’s always more sand. The couple represent, of course, man and
woman, the pit represents life, and the villagers are the “taskmasters” or
perhaps the gods. It’s not a spoiler to say that Niki, in the end, accepts his fate.
to whether or not a young audience today will find much to like about the
picture is a matter of aesthetics. The film is beautifully shot in glorious
black and white (but in the old Academy ratio, i.e. not widescreen, unusual for
1964) by Hiroshi Segawa. The shots of sand, in particular, are striking—sand
slipping, sand falling, sand on skin, microscopic sand, sand everywhere. The arty love scenes (there is some nudity, but this was Japan, not
America, in 1964) are notable because the sand coats the sweaty bodies, causing
one to wonder where all that sand is going. Ouch.
Criterion Collection released the film a few years ago on DVD as part of a set
of Teshigahara’s pictures. Now comes a stand-alone Blu-ray edition with a new
high-definition digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
The images are suitably grainy (sorry,
couldn’t resist). Supplements are ported over from the earlier release: a 2007
video essay on the film by film scholar James Quandt; four short films by the
director—Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965);
Teshigahara and Abe, a 2007 documentary
about the collaboration between the director and writer; and the trailer. The
booklet contains an essay by film scholar Audie Bock and a 1978 interview with
Woman in the Dunes is an important work
of international cinema from the 60s and will be appreciated by serious art
house cinephiles; the rest of the audience might feel like taking a shower
after a viewing.
Terrence Malick has perhaps out-mystique’d the great Stanley Kubrick in terms
of his public perception. Famously reclusive, Malick never allows photographs
of himself to be used, and he never appears in “making of” documentaries about
his films. A Rhodes Scholar and a Harvard graduate, he is obviously a brilliant
man. Once he got into the film business, he worked as a script doctor until he
made his first feature, Badlands (1973).
It was critically acclaimed and established Malick as a hot addition to the
“New Hollywood” movement. Next came Days
of Heaven in 1978, also critically lauded.
then... he disappeared. For twenty years.
1998, he appeared on the scene again, and Hollywood was more than ready to open
checkbooks and fund his third feature film, The
Thin Red Line.
takes a lot of mystique for that scenario to happen.
fourth picture, The New World,
continued the director’s journey in exploring what has become signature
stylistic and thematic traits—to make movies in which the plot is secondary to
image, sound, music, and emotion. Malick is more interested in inventing a
different kind of cinema—one that is certainly not mainstream. Terrence Malick
uses film to create visual and sonic poetry, expound philosophy and
existentialism, and touch upon a very basic and primal chord in his audience.
He wants us to feel as well as think,
and to fill us with awe and wonder. But make no mistake—in a Malick film, the
story is not essential to the journey.
director’s work of late is even more elliptical, impressionistic, and free form.
Beginning with The Tree of Life, the
Oscar-nominated treatise on the creation of the world and how that spark is
inside each and every human being, Malick threw down the gauntlet to audiences,
asking, “Are you with me or not?” The believers will follow him wherever he
goes. Most everyone else will scratch their heads and... walk out of the
theater (which happened a lot when I
first saw The Tree of Life!) For the
record, I’m a follower.
The New World has more in common
with The Thin Red Line than Malick’s
more recent works. There is a story
in The New World, it’s just told very
unconventionally, the same way he freely adapted The Thin Red Line into a lyrical piece about war and nature. The New World is also about nature, and
in fact, “Mother” is probably the central character.
year is 1607, and English adventurers have just landed in Virginia. Among them
is Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). The “Naturals,” as Captain Newport
(Christopher Plummer) calls the Native Americans, at first cautiously welcomes
them. Smith meets the free-spirited Pocahontas (astonishingly well-portrayed by
14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher) and they fall in love. Then things go sour
between the two peoples. A little later, another Englander, John Rolfe
(Christian Bale), enters Pocahontas’ life, and she accompanies him back to meet
the King and Queen of the United Kingdom. That’s the story in a nutshell.
Malick does with this is extraordinary. With the aid of cinematographer
Emmanuel Lubezki (the first of a collaboration that would continue for the
remainder of Malick’s work), the director presents a collage of spectacularly
beautiful images that emphasizes how fresh and virginal the land of this “new
world” is. In addition, the depiction of the Powhatan people is arguably the
most realistic and accurate portrayal of Native Americans in a Hollywood film, compounding
the notion that they knew how to live with
nature, whereas the newcomers fight
“Mother” the entire way. The film is a meditation, like most of Malick’s work,
on man’s relationship with the earth.
Criterion Collection has pulled out all the stops with this new, lavish box set
of three disks containing three different cuts of the film. The main attraction
is a new 4K digital restoration of the “extended cut” (172 minutes), supervised
by Lubezki and Malick. Also included are high-definition transfers of the
original “first cut” (150 minutes, released for the first time on home video),
which was the version that premiered in L.A. and New York in December 2005 and
ran for a week in order to be considered for Academy Awards, and the
“theatrical cut” (135 minutes), which was the version most audiences saw during
the film’s wide release in early 2006.
version is better? Difficult to say. The extended cut is probably Malick’s
preferred assembly, and if you’re a fan of the director’s work, then this is
definitely the one to watch. The theatrical cut is much leaner, thereby making the
storyline stronger. But the first cut, while only fifteen minutes longer than
the theatrical one, fills out the gaps of the shorter version quite well with
Malick’s elegiac, stylistic choices—it’s a nice compromise between the extended
and theatrical editions.
5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack accompanies all three cuts, and you
can hear every cricket and bird chirp as if they’re in your living room.
include new interviews with Farrell and Kilcher, producer Sarah Green,
production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West. There’s an
informative piece on the differences between the three versions as told by
co-editor Mark Yoshikawa, as well as new interviews with editors Yoshikawa,
Hank Corwin, and Saar Klein. Making “The
New World” is an approximately 90-minute documentary directed and edited by
Austin Jack Lynch (David’s son), detailing the production in Virginia and
England. The theatrical and teaser trailers are also included. The thick
booklet contains an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with
Lubezki from American Cinematographer,
and a selection of research materials that inspired the production.
The Criterion Collection always produces quality
material—their release of The New World stands
as one of the company’s most impressive packages.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Raymond Benson
original 1954 Japanese Kaiju (it means “strange beast”) film, Gojira, is not only a classic monster
movie, it’s one of those significant game-changers that is important to pop
culture and cinema history.Gojira,
known as “Godzilla” in the west, was the first of an onslaught of “strange
beasts,” spawning a Kaiju franchise that is still popular today.In fact, Hollywood is remaking Gojira as a reboot at the time of this
’54 film, directed by Ishiro Honda and produced by Toho Studios (it’s ironic
that it was being made at the same time as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from the same studio), was little seen in the West
until recent DVD releases appeared.Instead, for over fifty years we’ve had Godzilla, King of the Monsters, an abominably bastardized,
re-edited import of Gojira.Joseph E. Levine had bought the rights but
had additional footage shot in Hollywood featuring Raymond Burr as an American
reporter caught in the Tokyo chaos—and throwing out much of Honda’s film except
the Godzilla sequences—thus, creating an entirely different storyline and
movie.It was released in 1956.
was this an egregious thing to do?Honda’s artistic statement was jettisoned.Gojira was
a Japanese reaction to and a social comment about the atomic bomb.It’s quite obvious, actually, that Godzilla
is a metaphor for nuclear destruction.Part of the plot also involves a scientist who has unwittingly invented
a new weapon of mass destruction and threatens to destroy his research so that
no country can get its hands on it.Of
course, it’s the only thing that can stop Godzilla, so he has to use it
once.In the end, he sacrifices himself,
and the weapon, to do his duty for Japan; but the message is clear—get rid of the bombs.
the other hand, the American version, directed by Terry Morse (and using
Honda’s footage), is seen in the West as just another giant monster romp in a
decade when Hollywood was churning out giant monster romps by the dozens.The cliché of giant beasts destroying Tokyo
arose from this release.The real
message behind the Gojira is totally
has done a terrific job with its new high-definition digital restoration of
both versions of the picture in this wonderful two-disk set.The commentary on the two pictures is by film
historian David Kalat.You also get
interviews with Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, two of the stars, and
several of the special effects team.Film critic Tadao Sato provides an insightful interview, as does one
with composer Akira Ifukube.The clever
packaging contains a pop-up of the “strange beast” in question along with an informative collector's booklet.
you’ve never seen the original, it’s time to check it out.Sure, the monster scenes are crude—it is a guy inside a suit—but that’s part
of the appeal.
Criterion Collection released Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult film classic, Carnival of Souls, sixteen years ago as
a two-disk DVD set, but that edition has long been out of print. Now, a new
Blu-ray restoration is available from the company, and it is worth upgrading
even if you happen to own the original. Note that Carnival of Souls is a public domain film, so it is available on
DVD from many inferior manufacturers in bad-to-okay quality versions, but the
Criterion’s releases are the ones to grab.
Carnival is indeed an oddity.
Harvey worked at Centron Corporation, a maker of educational and industrial
short films based in Lawrence, Kansas. It was much like Calvin Films in Kansas
City, where Robert Altman cut his teeth making shorts in the 1950s. Needless to
say, Lawrence, Kansas is not Hollywood, and it was not a hotbed of feature
filmmaking in 1961, when Carnival was
had helmed many of Centron’s shorts and got the idea to make a horror feature
when he was driving home from Salt Lake City, Utah. He noticed the ruins of the
great Saltair, an entertainment complex that had been built by the Mormons on
the edge of Salt Lake in 1893 as a family-oriented place for recreation. It was
a sort of Coney Island for Utah residents. Designed in an incongruous Moorish
style, the place looked like a palace for sultans. It was destroyed by fire in
the 1920s and rebuilt, this time including a gigantic pavilion for dancing.
Saltair burned down and was rebuilt again,
but eventually by the 1950s it had become a derelict, spooky place due to the
recession of the lake that left behind a dirty, polluted shore abutting the
resort. After the film had been shot there, another attempt was made to restore
the place, but that failed when the lake rose and demolished the resort for
good. At any rate, in 1961, Herk Harvey thought Saltair would make a good
location for a ghost story, and he was right.
for a final budget of only $33,000, Carnival
of Souls looks and feels like it might
have been a bad Ed Wood production—very cheap, with amateurish acting (all
of the cast except the lead was pulled from local talent) and clumsy editing.
But the black and white cinematography by Maurice Prather is actually quite
striking, especially in Criterion’s new restored 4K digital transfer. The
images are sharp and pristine, as if the movie had been shot yesterday. The
all-organ score by Gene Moore adds another layer of originality to the
proceedings, and it’s unsettling and eerie. Despite the cheesiness of the production,
though, Harvey manages to evoke a genuinely creepy atmosphere throughout the
picture. His multiple appearances as “The Man” (in ghoulish makeup) do provide
story concerns Mary (played well enough by Candace Hilligoss, a newbie stage
actress hired out of New York), who is in an automobile accident at the film’s
beginning. She survives and is shell-shocked, but she manages to go on with her
life as a church organist. However, she keeps seeing visions of “The Man,” a
ghostly stalker who, of course, represents Death. At times she goes through
mysterious fugues in which all sound drops out and no one around her can see or
hear her. What’s going on? Well, it all becomes clear at the end, but most
viewers should be able to figure out the Twilight
Zone plot twist pretty quickly. In fact, the entire thing plays out like an
extra long episode of that classic horror and science fiction television
Carnival of Dreams was not a success on
its first release, but it gained a cult following in the 1980s and beyond,
supposedly influencing the likes of David Lynch and George A. Romero. It is
definitely an entertaining and somewhat scary picture, but personally I’m not
convinced that it is the masterpiece some horror aficionados claim it to be.
Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray contains only the theatrical cut at 78
minutes. It has an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as well as selected-scene
audio commentary with director Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford. The
original Criterion release featured the original director’s cut (84 minutes) as
well, but apparently the elements of the edited scenes weren’t good enough for
the new restoration, so they appear separately as supplements.
of the extras from the first release are ported over—The Movie That Wouldn’t Die, a 1989 documentary about the cast and
crew reunion; The Carnival Tour, a
2000 update on the film’s locations; a history of the Saltair Resort; the
theatrical trailer; and a selection of excerpts from shorts made by the Centron
Corporation. There is also a long selection of silent outtakes, cut to Gene
Moore’s eerie organ score. New supplements include an interview with comedian
and writer Dana Gould on the influence and merits of the film, and an
interesting new video essay by film critic David Cairns. The booklet contains
an essay by writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse.
the absence of the director’s cut is disappointing, the new Criterion Blu-ray
is a welcome release mainly for its superb video quality. Carnival of Souls is worth a late-night viewing for its historical
significance and moments of disturbing imagery, but I doubt it will give you
Dr. Strangelove or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is such an iconic
motion picture that most readers of Cinema
Retro, I would bet, already own a copy of this brilliant keepsake of the
1960s on DVD or Blu-ray. The film has been released several times before, but
now it gets the Criterion treatment. Believe me—fans of the movie and of
director Stanley Kubrick will still want to get this edition. It is definitely
an upgrade in quality and the disk also comes with a plethora of fascinating supplements and some terrific goodies in
you’ve haven’t been paying attention to the lists of Great Movies You Should
See Before You Die, you know that Dr.
Strangelove is the story of how an air force general (Sterling Hayden) goes
“a little funny in the head... you know, just a little... funny...” and orders
one of his bombers to attack Russia in order to preserve our “purity of
essence.” To save the day it’s up to an RAF exchange officer (Peter Sellers),
the President of the United States (also Sellers), a Hawk-ish general in the
Pentagon (George C. Scott), the good-ol’-boy pilot of the bomber itself (Slim
Pickens), and a bizarre German nuclear physicist in a wheelchair (Sellers again). Maybe they rescue our planet,
maybe they don’t.
Strangelove was Kubrick’s first
time out as sole producer, along with serving as director and co-writer. Prior
to making the film, he had been partners with James B. Harris, who produced The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita
(1962). Kubrick had also done a work-for-hire job for executive producer Kirk
Douglas on Spartacus (1960), which he
vowed never to do again, but that project afforded him the clout to carve out a
subsequent career of total creative freedom. Now as the producer of his own
pictures, Kubrick got what he sought. He secured his home base in England, set
up a unique and highly personal routine of making films, and proceeded to give
us some examples of extraordinary cinema. Strangelove
was the first masterpiece out of the gate, and, fortunately, was a critical
and box office hit.
was controversial, too, as are all of Kubrick’s films made since he began
producing them himself. At the time, some attacked Strangelove as being a “sick joke.” Nevertheless, it captured the
mood of early 1964 and, as Martin Scorsese has said about it, “the word on the
street was that it’s terrific.” It was the hip movie to see. It pushed the
envelope. It got people talking. It established Kubrick as the hot filmmaker of his day.
the early 1960s, the director had become obsessed with the arms race, experiencing
himself some of the Cold War paranoia that was prevalent in those years,
especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The British novel Red Alert by Peter George came to
Kubrick’s attention and he thought it would make a fine basis for a political
thriller. He brought in George to co-write, and at first the pair worked with James
Harris on the script. At some point during the process, they all started to
find funny things about the story. From then on, the screenplay morphed into a
comedy—a very black one. In fact, Dr.
Strangelove is arguably the definitive black comedy.
eventually left the partnership and went off on his own, leaving Kubrick to
produce by himself. That’s about the time Kubrick brought in satirist Terry
Southern to polish the work and add some needed dialogue tweaking. The result is
one of the most ingenious and original adaptations of a novel in movie history.
acting and the direction are as perfect as one can get. Production Designer Ken
Adam’s ultra-modern sets, especially that of the spectacular War Room, firmly situates the movie in its time
and place. Gilbert Taylor’s stark black and white cinematography in the
interior settings gives the picture its nightmarequalities, while the hand-held camerawork in the exteriors is
effective in creating a documentary/newsreel effect. The editing (by future
director Anthony Harvey, but certainly with Kubrick overseeing the work) is
razor tight. The director apparently deleted a lot of footage to achieve the
comic tension, including a now infamous pie fight in the War Room at the film’s
climax because it apparently didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the movie.
all comes across with class and panache in Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition. The
restored 4K digital transfer is the best I’ve seen. There’s an uncompressed
monaural soundtrack, but also an alternate 5.1 Surround Soundtrack presented in
DTS-HD Master Audio. The movie has never sounded better.
then there are the supplements. Criterion provides several new pieces, and some
of the best features from previous releases have been ported over as well.
new supplements include: new interviews with Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick
and Rodney Hill, archivist Richard Daniels, camera innovator Joe Dunton and
camera operator Kelvin Pike, and Peter George’s son, David George. These all
come with film footage and wonderful unseen stills. Previous extras include an
excerpt from the tried and true 1966 audio interview with Kubrick by Jeremy
Bernstein; four different documentaries about Kubrick, the making of the film,
the sociopolitical climate of the period, and actor Sellers (two of which are
co-produced by Cinema Retro Editor-in-Chief
Lee Pfeiffer). There are also 1963 interviews with Sellers and Scott, and an
excerpt from a 1980 Gene Shalit interview with Sellers.
trailers are included as supplements—the quirky theatrical trailer, which we’ve
all seen, and the “exhibitor’s trailer,” which we haven’t. The latter is a
little over fifteen minutes long; demonstration reels of this kind were
commonplace in those days in order to persuade theaters to book the picture.
It’s pretty much a short capsulation of the movie’s story using unedited
footage, but what makes it totally cool is that Kubrick himself narrates it. He
even makes excuses for a couple of monologue sequences that do not yet include
cut-aways to other characters. Fascinating stuff.
terrific bonus is the collection of “props” you get inside the packaging—everything
comes in a “Plan R” folder like the one used in the film. Inside is a “Top
Secret” Memorandum containing an essay by scholar David Bromwich, and a Playboy-style booklet called Strangelove. Tracy Reed, step-daughter
of director Sir Carol Reed and the only female in the cast, is on the cover of
the booklet and graces a centerfold. The latter is also seen in the movie in a
fictional issue of Playboy itself. The
booklet’s text is Terry Southern’s 1994 article on the film. Last but not
least, you even get a “miniature combination Bible and Russian Phrase Book.”
fella could have a good time in Vegas” with this superb release from the
how many of us took advantage of those wonderful psychedelic cinematic
discoveries of the late sixties and early seventies, the kind that beckoned
many a youth to view them in an altered state of mind? You know the ones—Yellow Submarine, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fantasia
(1969 re-release), Woodstock, El Topo, Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic,
Allegro non troppo... and of course Fantastic Planet,a surprise European import that hit U.S. theaters in early 1974.
It’s one of the stellar stoner movies that frequented the Midnight Movie houses
around college campuses.
by French animator René Laloux, with a production design by
eccentric French illustrator Roland Topor, Fantastic
Planet takes the audience to a very other-worldly place where humans are
tiny vermin compared to the gigantic blue Draags (called Traags in previous
translations), who are the superior race on the planet. In fact, Draag children
often keep humans—known as “Oms”—as pets, teaching them tricks and keeping them
imprisoned the way we might house a gerbil. Adult Draags, we learn, like to
“meditate,” which is apparently a euphemism for participating in a cerebral,
celestial orgy. While their bodies remain sedate, their consciousnesses are
released inside floating colored bubbles that travel to a nearby “wild planet.”
There, the bubbles attach to giant headless human-shaped statues, which then
come to “life” and dance together. In other words, it’s how the Draags get off.
story involves one human, Terr, who is captured in infancy by a young Draag and
kept as a plaything. Terr grows up, escapes his master, and joins a band of feral
humans to organize, rebel, and attempt to bring down the Draags.
all very creepy and strange, but it’s also a brilliantly fascinating and entertaining
film. The French-Czech co-production managed to win the Jury Prize at Cannes
that year, the first time an animated feature had taken such an award.
Certainly no other movie before or since looks
like Fantastic Planet, for its
eye candy exhibits a surrealism that echoes the work of Dalí, Ernst, or Magritte, but with a hallucinogenic science fiction
sensibility. Add a mesmerizing electronic jazz score by Alain Gorageur, and
you’ve got yourself one extremely trippy motion picture.
first released in the U.S., the dialogue was dubbed in English. The new
Criterion Collection disk features this optional soundtrack, but one must
really watch and listen to the movie in the original French (with newly
translated English subtitles) for the full alien effect.
new 2K digital restoration is absolutely gorgeous. The colors are bright and
vivid, bringing out the details of the drawn, “paper doll” animation. The audio
is an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Supplements include two short animated films made by Leloux and Topor—Les temps morts (1965) and Les escargots (1966)—and if you think
the feature film is bizarre, wait until you see these! The disk also contains a
2009 documentary on Laloux, an episode of a French television program from 1974
about Topor and his work, a short interview with Topor from 1973, and the
experiencing Fantastic Planet, you
may feel as if you’ve jumped back to the 70s and want to say things like, “Far
out, man,” or “roll another one.” Just be sure to Blu-ray responsibly. (“Whoa,
he used Blu-ray as a verb!”)
to the Criterion Collection for releasing Whit Stillman’s charming trio of young
adult angst: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998). The bookend films have both been previously released
by Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray, but now the company bows Barcelona to complete the trilogy. Available as both a stand-alone disc as well as part of a set of the
three films, Barcelona features the
luminous Mira Sorvino in an early role.
trilogy of films that Mr. Stillman made as the beginning of his career and for
which he is most well-known are interesting in that they depict groups of
people who fall out of the scope of most of the general population and probably
appeal to even less. That is actually a
welcome relief. Metropolitan was shot in January and February in 1989 and released
in August 1990 (a curious choice for a film set at Christmas time) and the upscale
characters live in a Manhattan that is far less hectic than today’s, light years
before their lives were infiltrated and forever altered by personal computers,
cell phones, electronic tablets and violent video games. The absence of these devices is noticeable in
every frame of this film wherein the characters talk to each other rather than text. Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols are two of
the actors who appear in all three of these films, playing different characters
by name but are instantly recognizable by their attitudes and method of speak. In Metropolitan,
they play Upper Eastsiders. In Barcelona, they are cousins who bicker
about sex and politics in a Europe far less violent than today’s. In The
Last Days of Disco, they are an employee of a disco and a disco dancer,
Barcelona, referred to as “…the
funniest film ever made about the violent hatred of Americans…” by Michael
Weiss, begins with a terrorist explosion at
the American Library, an unlikely start for a film purporting to be a
comedy. This imagery has become all-too
familiar and far more brutal in present-day 2016 with the insurgence of groups
like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but when this film was shot,
presumably sometime after the first World Trade Center bombing in February
1993, the world appeared to be a less frightening place. In Barcelona,
the time period that the film is set in is difficult to pin down just from
watching the film. There is talk in the
film that Spain is getting ready to join NATO, and that historical event took
place in 1982. The film does not look
like it is attempting to take place during that time, however.
are introduced to Ted Boyton (Nichols), a salesman originally from Chicago who
has just come out of a relationship and bemoans his inclination to fall for
overly attractive women in relationships that are ephemeral. He resigns himself to pursuing (in his words)
or even rather homely girls.” We can
assume that the failure of his latest LTR is a result of falling for the former
and so he tries to be philosophical about his future pursuits. He confides this to his cousin Fred (Eigeman),
a naval officer who shows up out of the blue and wants to stay with Ted for a
while, although his sudden appearance irks Ted. Fred’s attitude mirrors that of Nick Smith, the character that Mr.
Eigeman portrayed in Metropolitan, which
is to say that he is a tad angry about things. Fred occasionally dons his naval accoutrements
while out and about with Ted and the female counterparts they have met
accidentally (Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino as Montserrat and Marta,
respectively) which causes a rise in inflammatory anti-American sentiment
towards the group. While it is directed
at Fred it is never anything truly awful…until near the end of the film when
Fred is shot point blank by an assailant just outside the car he is riding
in. Ted is shocked and holds vigil by
Fred’s bedside, reading to him and wondering if he is even being heard. The women they have met also chip in and take
turns and Ted wonders if his cousin will ever be the same. Fortunately, Fred comes out of it, although
his attitude about life seems to be no different despite losing an eye.
Mr. Stillman’s dialogue most obviously
mirrors that of Woody Allen who gave himself and his co-stars wildly funny and
philosophical ruminations on male/female relationships, sex, politics, and the
world at large. There are some truly
funny moments, such as Ted’s dance to “Pennsylvania
6-5000” while he’s alone in the apartment, only to be interrupted by Fred and
Marta who return unexpectedly. The film
is a perfect slice of light entertainment in an atmosphere of films and
television shows that is almost exclusively comprised of super heroes, scheming
politicians, dysfunctional writers, and espionage.
The Blu-ray is a nice upgrade from the
2002 DVD. This edition features:
A new and restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by
director Whit Stillman and cinematographer John Thomas, with 2.0 surround
DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
The 2002 audio commentary featuring Stillman and actors
Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols
New video essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme about
the trilogy made up of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco
The Making of “Barcelona,” a short documentary from 1994
featuring behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with Stillman and
Deleted scenes and alternate ending, with commentary by
Stillman, Eigeman, and Nichols
A segment from a 1994 episode of the Today show featuring
An episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1991 with
An essay by film scholar Haden Guest
to order Barcelona on Blu-ray from
to order A Whit Stillman Trilogy on
Blu-ray from Amazon.com
was happy to finally catch up with Clouds
of Sils Maria since I missed its theatrical run; the picture received many
accolades, especially for Kristen Stewart, who apparently was the first
American to win the César award for Supporting Actress, as well as
several critics’ awards for the same category.
film is a commentary on the state of Hollywood filmmaking, an examination of
the psychological dynamics between women, and a philosophical—sometimes
playful—dramatization of parallel lives/characters. It’s as if an Ingmar
Bergman movie was crossed with one by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
Binoche stars as Maria, a popular, internationally-known actress who appears in
European and Hollywood films, and on the stage. Stewart indeed gives a
remarkable performance—the best I’ve ever seen her do—as Valentine, Maria’s
personal assistant. Twenty-something years earlier, Maria had starred in a
stage play and subsequent film adaptation about a lesbian relationship between
an older business woman and a younger subordinate. Maria had played the latter
role and this launched her career. Now, a respected Dutch director wants to
remount the play with Maria playing the older role and casting the younger one
with a hot, tabloid-fodder Hollywood actress named Jo-Ann, magnificently
portrayed by Chloë Grace Moretz. Maria has her doubts about
playing the older role but accepts the part anyway.
of the picture involves the interplay between Maria and Valentine, who run
lines from the play together, with Valentine doing Jo-Ann’s part. At times,
though, we begin to wonder if the dialogue is really from the play or if it’s
the real-life dramatic action between Maria the actress and Valentine the
assistant. This is where director Assayas starts to have fun with the
actors—and the audience. The characters fight, they make up, they joke around,
and they dissect Hollywood and its stars. Real actors are mentioned, and
current trends (aka superhero movies) are lampooned. Things get heated when
Valentine is more receptive to current Hollywood fare than Maria. Assayas’ ageism
message here is not subtle.
is understated and enigmatic is when a key character of the story inexplicably
vanishes—and the film goes on as if that person never existed. Did she? Is that an observation about the
movie business, or is it an interpretation of the friendship/conflict relationships
that women sometimes have?
title refers to a natural phenomenon that really exists near the village of
Sils Maria in Switzerland, in which a “snake” of clouds rolls through the
Maloja Pass valley when the weather conditions are just right. Most of the film
is shot there, and Yorick Le Saux’s gorgeous cinematography captures the event
at the moment when the aforementioned
Criterion Collection’s 2K digital transfer, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master
Audio soundtrack, is superb. Supplements include a new interview with director
Assayas; new interviews with both Binoche and Stewart; a short 1924 silent
documentary, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja,
parts of which also feature in the movie; and the trailer. The enclosed booklet
contains an essay by critic Molly Haskell.
Clouds of Sils Maria might require a
couple of viewings to fully appreciate, but its rewards are full, fluffy, and
must have done something right. Here
Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) has proven to be a timeless and universal movie
that keeps on giving, and the welcome new release from the Criterion Collection
attests to it.
premise of the film has been around for a while. Most of our generation know
the remake better—Heaven Can Wait (1978,
starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie)—which is a superb Oscar-nominated romantic
comedy in its own right. Another remake in 2001, Down to Earth, starred Chris Rock.
that’s not all. It wasn’t until I’d viewed the supplements
on the new disk that I appreciated the fact that Mr. Jordan was indeed the first of several Hollywood pictures dealing
with “heavenly” concepts—angels, the afterlife, and second chances. In a video
discussion, critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger
reveal how the picture’s popularity actually began a trend of similar movies
throughout the 1940s—A Guy Named Joe,
Angel on My Shoulder, A Matter of Life and Death, It’s a Wonderful Life, and even Mr. Jordan’s direct sequel, Down to Earth (1947, not to be confused
with the Chris Rock remake), which features both James Gleason and Edward
Everett Horton again playing their roles from the first movie.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
a major release and surprise hit from Columbia Pictures, a studio that always
struggled to be one of the majors despite having director Frank Capra on their
team in the ‘30s. Critically and popularly acclaimed, the picture successfully
blends fantasy, romance, comedy, and intrigue, creating a delightful, and sometimes
thought-provoking, piece of entertainment. It was nominated for Best Picture of
1941, Best Director (Alexander Hall), Best Actor (Robert Montgomery), Best
Supporting Actor (James Gleason, and he steals the movie!), and Best B&W
Cinematography. The film deservedly won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original
Story, for Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller.
story concerns Joe Pendleton (enthusiastically played by Montgomery in a
stretch from his usual sophisticated tuxedo-clad characters) as a prizefighter with
a heavy New Jersey accent who crashes in his private plane. His soul is saved
by the Messenger (Horton), an angel whose job is to escort to Heaven the departing
souls from his “territory.” In the mist-filled outskirts of Heaven, Mr. Jordan
(benevolently portrayed by Claude Rains), a sort of St. Peter in a three-piece
suit, checks in the new souls as they board another plane to take them to their
afterlife homes. But Joe’s soul was accidentally taken before his body actually
died—and therefore Mr. Jordan grants Joe a second chance. However, his
consciousness must be placed into a recently deceased person—so Joe winds up
inside a rich, corrupt banker’s body. Joe, in his new persona, sets about turning
the banker’s life around for good, and he also attempts to continue his
prizefighting. For the latter, he calls in his former manager, Corkle (Gleason)
to train him. First, though, he’s got to convince Corkle that he’s really Joe
inside the new man’s form. To complicate things, Joe falls in love with the
daughter (Evelyn Keyes) of a man the banker destroyed financially and sent to
prison. Joe also doesn’t know it yet, but he will have to jump bodies one more
time before the story plays out.
comedy and romance work like a charm, and the fantasy elements of Mr. Jordan are surprisingly effective.
The movie is intelligently written and treats its subject matter with respect;
and yet it has fun with the mechanics of death and the philosophical discourse
of what we think the afterlife really is. The audience is tricked, in a way,
into pleasantly enjoying a movie about death. What happens to Joe Pendleton at
the end isn’t the norm for a romantic comedy. Technically it’s not a happy
ending—and yet, it is. It’s a feel-good movie with a bittersweet center. This
is a testament to the quality of writing in Here
Comes Mr. Jordan.
new 2K digital restoration looks fabulous. It has an uncompressed, monaural
soundtrack. Along with the aforementioned video conversation about the film,
the supplements include a long audio interview with Elizabeth Montgomery
(daughter of Robert Montgomery, and, yes, the star of Bewitched) about her father and the movie; the Lux Radio Theatre radio adaptation starring Cary Grant (who was
originally approached to star in the film—one can only imagine what it would
have been like with Grant), Rains, Keyes, and Gleason; and a trailer. An essay
by critic Farran Smith Nehme adorns the booklet.
little gem from Hollywood released just prior to America’s entrance into World
War II, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a
genuine classic, arguably superior to its many remakes and imitations. You will
of Fritz Lang’s film noir of 1945, Scarlet Street, may do well to take a
look at this little French gem from 1931. Lang’s film was a Hollywood remake of
La Chienne, which was based on a
novel by Georges de La Fouchardière (it was also
adapted into a stage play by André Mouëzy-Éon).
More significantly, La Chienne was
the second—and first feature length—sound film by the great Jean Renoir.
had done well in the silent era, but the invention of talkies presented the
filmmaker with a larger palette of tools with which to craft some of his
greatest works. Beginning with La
Chienne, Renoir became France’s premiere director, a position he held for a
La Chienne translates as “The
Bitch,” and viewers may question which woman in the picture the title is referring
to—the lead, Lulu, a beautiful blonde “street woman” (a con artist and often a
prostitute), who serves as the femme
fatale of the story (and wonderfully played by Janie Marèze)... or the wife of our protagonist, such a shrew of a
woman that there’s no wonder why we sympathize with the poor schmuck, Maurice
(portrayed by the brilliant Michel Simon), a banker and part-time painter who
does everything he can to get away from his marriage and set up Lulu as his
mistress. Of course, Lulu is really being played by her lover and pimp, the nasty Andre (played by real-life Parisian
gangster Georges Flamant, who was also an amateur actor). Maurice is merely the
mark, the sucker who is seduced by lust and led to his ruin.
Unlike Scarlet Street, La Chienne is
more melodrama than film noir. Renoir
handles the material well without making it overwrought, and he succeeds in
developing fine character studies of the three leads. Those familiar with the
director’s later masterpieces such as Grand
Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the
Game (1939) will find this early work fascinating. Renoir’s signature mise-en-scène is easily identifiable,
even in its baby steps. Also impressive are the street scenes shot on
location—this was the real Paris of 1931, displayed in glorious black and
Michel Simon, like Renoir, was one of
France’s biggest film artists. Originally Swiss, Simon made French silent films
and later had a long run as an actor in talkies. He has a distinctive Bassett
Hound face, perfect for betraying first the joy and then the pain Lulu puts him
through. According to Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner, who talks about the
movie in one of the disk’s supplements, apparently Simon fell in love with the
actress playing Lulu off-screen. But, like in the film, Janie Marèze was seeing Flamant, and this relationship was encouraged
by Renoir. Not long after production was completed, Marèze was killed in an automobile accident with Flamant at the
wheel. At the funeral, Simon allegedly threatened Renoir with a gun, but he
must have calmed down, for Simon starred in a subsequent Renoir feature, the
excellent Boudu Saved from Drowning
(1932; incidentally, this was remade in Hollywood in 1986 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills).
The Criterion Collection’s release
features a new, restored 4K digital transfer that looks so pristine and sharp
you might think the film was made last week. There’s an uncompressed monaural
soundtrack and a new English subtitles translation. Supplements include an
introduction to the film by Renoir himself, shot in 1961; the aforementioned
interview with Faulkner on the movie; a sparkling new restoration of Renoir’s
first sound film, the short On purge bébé
(also 1931), a comic bauble based on a one-act play by Georges Feydeau and also
starring Michel Simon; and a ninety-five minute 1967 French TV program
featuring a conversation between Renoir and Simon. An essay by film scholar
Ginette Vincendeau adorns the booklet.
A fine, notable release, and a must for
lovers of European cinema.