Olive Films has released the now obscure 1941 British film noir "Pimpernel Smith" starring Leslie Howard, who also directed. The movie (known as "Mister V" in the United States) was released in 1941 at a time when England was hanging on by a thin thread as Hitler dominated most of Europe. As with all of the countries involved in WWII, the British film industry relied heavily on top stars appearing in inspiring movies that would boost public morale. This was especially true in England which saw its major ally, France, capitulate to Hitler in a matter of weeks, leaving the island nation standing alone against the Nazi menace. . At the time "Pimpernel Smith" was released in July 1941 (American would not enter the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of that year), the Brits were enjoying a spate of good news. After the disastrous experience of the British expedition force in Dunkirk, the nation had been subjected to the Blitz, the daily bombing by the Luftwaffe. London was especially hard hit in what Hitler had hoped to be a strategy that would have destroyed the RAF and led to his massive invasion of England. Instead, after a year of bitter fighting, the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe and Hitler put his invasion plans on hold as he dealt with the consequences of his misguided incursion into the Soviet Union. With the Battle of Britain now over, the Brits could catch their breath and resume normal activities such as attending the cinema without worrying about being bombed into oblivion. Apparently "Pimpernel Smith" was an especially popular boxoffice hit in 1941, though the film's reputation as faded into oblivion in the decades since.
Howard's film production is a modern, loosely-based version of the classic "The Scarlet Pimpernel"- one of the first famous tales in which the dynamic hero hides behind a meek and mild alter ego to keep his identity secret. The story is set in the months before England went to war with the Axis powers following Germany's invasion of Poland. Howard plays Prof. Horatio Smith, a tweedy, eccentric academic who teaches at Cambridge. He arranges to take a group of his male students on a field trip to Germany ostensibly to undertake an archaeological expedition to prove that an ancient Aryan culture had once existed there- a notion that appeals to the xenophobic Nazi establishment. In reality, Smith is the unlikely anonymous hero whose exploits are filling the newspapers with tales of adventure, much to the delight of the British and the consternation of the Germans. Through daring schemes that border on the outrageous, Smith has been able to rescue important political prisoners from jails and concentration camps. His latest foray into Germany is designed to rescue Sidmir Koslowski (Peter Gawthorne), a Polish intellectual who is of value to the Allies. He has been arrested by the Germans on suspicion of being a spy. As the field trip gets under way, Smith plays up his role as an absent-minded professor, much to the amusement of his students. However, when he receives a flesh wound during one of his nocturnal secret missions, the boys catch on and insist that they be enlisted into helping Smith free Koslowski. Smith reluctantly concedes to accept their help. On the surface, Smith is treated as an honored guest by the Germans but the local military commander, General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan) strongly suspects he is actually the "Pimpernel" and is determined to prove it and arrest him before any more prisoners can be freed. Von Graum forcibly enlists the services of Koslowski's beautiful daughter Ludmilla (Mary Morris) and makes her serve as a spy, holding her father's well-being over her head as collateral. Her mission is to seduce Smith if necessary in order to get proof of his extracurricular activities. Predictably, the two fall in love and Smith now not only has to rescue Koslowski, but his daughter as well.
Despite the fact that Leslie Howard was at the height of his career coming off of his role as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind", "Pimpernel Smith" is a low-budget film that resembles a Poverty Row production. Perhaps resources and funding for films in wartime Britain were scarce even for a movie with strong propaganda value such as this. Virtually the entire film was shot on soundstages- and rather claustrophobic ones at that. City views glimpsed through windows are represented by low-grade matte paintings and there are only a few fleeting shots of actual exteriors. It's to Howard's credit as star and director as well as the screenwriters that the movie overcomes these distractions with a highly engrossing story line that builds in interest and suspense during the two-hour running time. Howard is in top form and he is more than matched by Francis L. Sullivan who makes for a larger-than-life villain in both the figurative and literal sense of the term. Sullivan uses his considerable girth and wry delivery to channel the best characteristics of Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet. The witty script allows some wonderful byplay as Smith and von Graum maintain a superficial politeness even though they both regard each other as mortal enemies engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of strategy. Mary Morris makes for a lovely leading lady though the male actors who play Smith's students are so wholesome as to come across as absurd. It doesn't help matters that the styles of the era make them appear to look older than Smith.
It's a pity that there were no further adventures of Pimpernel Smith. However, real-life tragedy intervened when Leslie Howard was flying back to England from neutral Portugal in 1943 aboard a civilian aircraft. The plane was shot down by German fighters and all aboard were killed. Germany claimed the tragedy was an error but theories persist that his may have been targeted because of rumors that Churchill was aboard. Another theory was that the Germans wanted Howard dead in retribution for an Allied propaganda campaign he had been carrying out in Spain and Portugal. (For full analysis of the conspiracy theories behind Howard's death, read this entry on Wikipedia.) Thus, one of the film industry's most popular leading men had his life cut short due to the war even though he wasn't serving in combat."Pimpernel Smith" is a modest film but one that resonates very well today and gives us a full appreciation of Howard's talents as both actor and director. The Olive Blu-ray is sans any extras, which is a pity because of the aforementioned dramatic elements of Howard's life that would make for a good commentary track. However, the picture transfer is very impressive and does justice to the fine cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum.
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.
Titling a film is no
trivial matter, especially from a marketing perspective. As history has proven,
there have been numerous films made which have little more to offer than a cracking
title. A really sharp one can help sell the poorest product, conversely a
stellar piece of movie-making can be undermined by something uninspired. When
you're trying to make your movie stand out in a marketplace awash with
alternatives, an attention-grabbing title is a crucial consideration and you'll
probably be aiming for something that harbours intrigue, allure, and is capable
of fostering curiosity and anticipation. When it was first unleashed
theatrically in 1985, Howling II: Stirba –
Werewolf Bitch was certainly an attention-grabber. Whether the film itself
turned out to be good, bad or indifferent, as enticing titles go the suffix Stirba – Werewolf Bitch sure did the
job, sending out a premium come and see me
you know you want to invitation with the promise of a no-nonsense serving
of lycanthropic flesh-munching and raunchy bodice-ripping, elements on which it
most certainly delivered. So, given that said title was suitably
efficacious, one has to wonder why someone later thought it was a good idea to
alter it to Your Sister is a Werewolf,
a moniker conveying more than a whiff of lightweight teen comedy – perhaps
something akin to the same year's Michael J Fox headliner Teen Wolf – as opposed to that of spicy horror movie. C'est la vie.
Following the funeral of
his sister Karen, Ben White (Reb Brown) is approached by occult scholar Steffan
Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), who informs him that his sibling was a werewolf and
submitted herself willingly to death. Dismissing these claims as balderdash,
White's scepticism is quashed when he witnesses a werewolf attack first hand.
Crosscoe subsequently tells White that the 10th Millennium of lycanthrope queen
Stirba (Sybil Danning) is imminent and on that night, beneath the glow of a
full moon, all werewolves will reveal themselves. To avert this catastrophe
Stirba must die. White and journalist Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe) set off
with Crosscoe to Transylvania to seek out the location of Stirba's coven and
destroy her. However, Crosscoe is withholding a personal reason for wanting the
werewolf queen dead.
Any sequel to Joe Dante's
1981 epic The Howling was going to be
facing an uphill struggle in terms of emulating its verve and director Philippe
Mora's Howling II: Your Sister is a
Werewolf certainly lives up to expectation on that account. Which isn't to
imply for one moment that it isn't entertaining; there's a lot of fun to be
had here, even if much of it is of the so-bad-it's-good variety. The draw
here for many viewers will be the significant participation of Christopher Lee.
For such an erudite man, Lee made some curious film choices throughout his long
and varied career; one supposes that in such a competitive profession – and one
burdened by rife unemployment – regardless of how demeaning it might be work
was work. Howling II wasn't among Lee’s
more questionable judgment calls but neither is it up there among the myriad of
cherries populating his CV. Regardless, consummate professional that he was, he
never gave less than 100% and with Howling
II he brings a degree of gravitas and worth to a film whose biggest crime
is not so much being bad as being rather unremarkable. Given what Lee brings to
the show, it's a shame that co-stars Reb Brown and Annie McEnroe prove so
unengaging. It would be easy to blame the slightly hackneyed dialogue – the
script was a collaborative effort between Gary Brandner (who also authored a
number of “Howling” novels) and Robert Sarno – but when you consider that
Lee managed to work his lines into something halfway decent that's not really a
valid excuse. The odd thing is that both Brown and McEnroe are competent enough
performers, as can be witnessed in some of their other films, so quite why
they’re so ineffectual here is frankly baffling. Regardless, any shortcomings are
compensated for by fine turns from the striking Sybil Danning in the titular
Stirba/sister role, Judd Omen as her swarthy aide Vlad and a sizzling Marsha A
Hunt (who's hotter than a jalapeño both in and out of her clothing). Brief but
noteworthy input too from Jimmy Nail and Ferdy Mayne, although the latter's
transformation into beast of the night is memorable for the wrong reason, his freaky
but unthreatening make-up and the fact he's wearing a flat cap combining to provoke
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.
Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), an up-and-coming young Hollywood studio exec
suggests in a meeting that writers could be eliminated and “any old news story”
could be adapted to provide a movie idea—“it would write itself”—Griffin Mill
(Tim Robbins), the guy at the studio who usually takes story pitches from
screenwriters, replies, “...what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the
writer from the artistic process. If we
could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something
is the satirical tone of The Player,
which is easily my favorite film of 1992. It’s a mystery why it wasn’t
nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but the Academy did honor the film with a
Best Director nod for Robert Altman, Best Adapted Screenplay for Michael Tolkin
(also co-producer), and Best Film Editing (Geraldine Peroni). Like 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, The Player takes potshots at the movie industry and skewers—fairly
Altman obviously had a good time with this one. He had spent the 1980s on the
outs with Hollywood after the 1970s, the years in which Altman enjoyed some of
his greatest acclaim (M*A*S*H, Nashville, among others). He had reason
to exhibit a somewhat cynical attitude toward Tinsel Town, and probably could
have gone further with the acerbic jabs The
Player gives to its subject matter. Instead, Altman plays it cool and
delivers a mildly critical treatise on the way movies are made, and provides a
darned good noir-ish murder mystery as
story involves Mill, superbly played by Robbins, who is receiving death threats
from an unknown screenwriter. Mill thinks he knows who it is, and he goes to
confront the guy (Vincent D’Onofrio). There’s a fight—and Mill accidentally
kills the writer. Mill spends the rest of the movie covering up the crime,
avoiding the police investigating the case (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett),
and romancing the dead writer’s girlfriend, June (Greta Scacchi). In the
meantime, Mill’s job is threatened by the previously-mentioned Levy, who has
begun to attend meetings to which Mill isn’t invited. The Player is part satire-comedy, part 40’s-style noir (but in color), and all bravura
directed a handful of masterpieces, and this is one of them. Although it’s not
one of his signature “ensemble” films—there are really only six main
characters—the picture arguably could be called his ultimate ensemble film because around sixty celebrities appear as
themselves in cameos (Malcolm McDowell, Cher, Burt Reynolds, Buck Henry, Bruce
Willis, Julia Roberts, Lily Tomlin, Scott Glen, Jack Lemmon, Nick Nolte,
Elliott Gould, Harry Belafonte, and many more). As a testament to the respect
with which they held Altman, these people donated their time as a favor.
movie is also known for its spectacular opening eight minutes, a crane shot
that moves around the studio lot with no cuts, similar to what Orson Welles did
at the beginning of Touch of Evil (1958).
All through The Player, there are
nods and winks to movie insider trivia. The posters on the walls of the studio
offices where Mill works are only classics from the 1930s and 40s, mostly film noir titles, slyly suggesting to
the audience what we’re watching. Altman is really saying, “You’re watching a movie, folks, and we’re going to play it
up.” This is never more evident in the fact that the first thing we see is a
clapboard, and we hear the voice of the director calling, “Action!”
Criterion Blu-ray comes with a new 4K digital restoration that looks fantastic.
It has a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and an audio commentary
from 1992 featuring Altman, Tolkin, and cinematographer Jean Lépine.
is a wealth of fascinating supplements. A new documentary on the making of the
film features interviews with Robbins, Tolkin, associate producer David Levy,
and production designer Stephen Altman (the director’s son). The original hour
long press conference from the 1992 Cannes Film Festival is included. There’s a
vintage interview with Altman, as well as a short documentary about the
shooting of the film’s fund-raiser scene that contains many of the cameos. A
helpful gallery of stills from the picture also helps to identify the many
cameo appearances. There are a few deleted scenes and outtakes, and a
deconstruction of the opening shot with alternate commentaries—one by Altman,
and another by Tolkin and Lépine. Trailers and TV
spots round up the extras, along with an essay in the booklet by author Sam
The Player is one for the
history books. As the original Blu-ray is out of print, the new Criterion
edition is a must-have. The film represents Robert Altman’s masterful
“comeback” to Hollywood, and it set him on an even course for the rest of his
probably difficult for those residing in more liberated territories – where pornography
was something of a matter of fact affair back in the 1970s – to appreciate just
how uptight and repressed Great Britain was in its attitude to sex. There were,
however, voices in the crowd that had the courage to speak out against the establishment's
Draconian stance (though largely without changing very much at the time, it's
sad to say). One of the most famous and outspoken of those voices was that of model-
cum -actress Mary Millington. Hers is a name that may not mean much to anyone
outside the United Kingdom, but few of those old enough to remember her rise to
superstar status during the 70s would dispute that in the latter half of that
decade she was nothing short of a sensation. Yet how could that possibly be so in
a country where the authorities vehemently reviled and sought to crush the
adult entertainment industry out of existence? Respectable: The Mary Millington Story, an enthralling new feature length
documentary, provides the answer to that and many more questions.
brainchild of writer/producer/director Simon Sheridan (whose lavish book
"Come Play with Me: The Life and Films of Mary Millington" is absolutely
essential reading), over the course of some 110-minutes this definitive work
documents Mary's meteoric rise from underground hard-core loops through
celebrated softcore Brit sex comedies and on to a level of national celebrity
which found her rubbing shoulders with some of the most prolific figures of the
career in the adult entertainment industry had kicked off at the start of the
decade with a clutch of hard-core loops shot in Europe, among them the famous
German short Miss Bohrloch (for which
she was paid the equivalent of almost £4000 by today's money). Few of them were
easily obtainable in the UK at the time though, for distribution of such
material was illegal. But if one knew where to go such things were available
“under the counter”, or if one were prepared to chance it they could be
acquired via the slew of mail order advertisements that appeared in adult
liked to say that she was born respectable…but didn't let that spoil her life! Truer words were seldom spoken. However, that
life certainly wasn't an easy one. Though no striking beauty, she exuded a
provocative “attainable” girl next door appeal and even at the very height of
her fame never shied away from making herself accessible to her admirers. However,
said accessibility plus her unabashed, enthusiastic attitude to sex – moreover
a willingness to pose for and perform explicit sexual acts in front of a camera
– might have built her a huge fan base across the nation, but it also brought
her to the attention of the country's moral guardians. At the time Mary's
magazine spreads for publisher David Sullivan were helping him shift around a
million copies a month, and made her an obvious target for the crusaders’ puritanical
wrath. One of them was the infamous Mary Whitehouse whose ardent campaign to
sanitise British television diversified when she set her beady sights on the
porn industry. Sullivan delighted in tweaking the tiger’s tail, and among his
raft of adults-only titles was the cheekily-monikered "Whitehouse".
the mid-70s onwards Mary Millington shook the dust of hard-core films from her
shoes, and while continuing to model for magazine photoshoots – many of the
images in Sullivan’s titles pushing the limits of what UK laws would permit –
she also edged towards the less controversial environs of the silver screen,
popping up in softcore comedies such as Eskimo
Nell (1975) and Keep It Up Downstairs
(1976). It was Sullivan, when he moved into filmmaking, who really put Mary
on the map, featuring her in what was (and still is) the highest grossing
British sex film of all time, Come Play
With Me (1977). Although she didn't have a huge amount to do – she shared the
screen with a bevy of other models, who appear both in and out of their sexy
nurses uniforms – the film was always intended as a vehicle for Mary and she
was the focal point of its advertising campaign, which promised some the
strongest viewing material ever seen on British screens. This was gilding the
lily somewhat, to put it mildly. Although some fruitier footage had been shot
for overseas versions (but never saw the light of day), the British cut of Come Play With Me was in fact little
more than an amiable Carry On style
farce decorated with copious (but inoffensive) nudity and populated by a collective
of familiar British character actors, among them Irene Handl, Alfie Bass and
Ronald Fraser. Nevertheless, the film was a huge success, and went on to run
continuously at one of London's Soho cinemas for five years. Extensive
promotion took Mary to major cities across the UK, her adventures paraded in
the pages of Sullivan's magazines and increasing her popularity at a phenomenal
was the box office success of Come Play With
Me that for his next feature, The
Playbirds (1978), Sullivan planted Mary firmly centre stage, cheekily having
her play a police officer who goes undercover in the sex industry to expose a
killer. The film again starred a bunch of Brit film and TV stalwarts, including
Windsor Davies, Derren Nesbitt, Glynn Edwards and Kenny Lynch.
Lean’s Brief Encounter, based on Noël
Coward’s one-act play Still Life and
adapted for the screen by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame,
represents one of the most admired and poignant love stories ever put on
celluloid. The picture frequently lands on various “best” lists and is often
called one of the great movie romances. It is also a decidedly British picture,
one that deftly captures the zeitgeist of
immediate post-war England with a focus on middle-class values and morality of
the time. It appeared in British cinemas in late 1945 and was released in the
U.S. in 1946; thus, it was nominated for the ‘46 Academy Awards for Best
Director, Best Actress (Celia Johnson), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Criterion Collection released the film on DVD years ago, both alone and as part
of the box set collection, David Lean
Directs Noël Coward (the collection was
also released on Blu-ray); however, until now the title was not available as a
separate Blu-ray disk. All of the supplements from the box set edition have
been ported over to this single disk version.
Brief Encounter is the story of Laura
(wonderfully played by Johnson), a respectable, happily-married woman who
happens to meet a respectable, happily-married doctor named Alec (Trevor
Howard) one day in the train station. There is a mutual attraction, and they
begin to see each other on day outings over the next few weeks. They fall in
love, of course, and the next big question is... will they or won’t they?
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
underscoring the affair, this is lush, romantic stuff.
was Lean’s fourth collaboration with Coward (their first picture, In Which We Serve,was co-directed by both) and it’s the piece that exhibited Lean’s
growing artistry as a filmmaker. For a man who went on to make big budget epics
like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Brief Encounter is strikingly small and intimate, and that’s the
reason it has such charm and resonance. The two leads are superb. Johnson (whom
James Bond fans may know was, in real life, the sister-in-law of Ian Fleming)
displays such controlled emotion (in a manner that is distinctly British), that
it becomes heartbreaking to watch. Howard’s conflict between desire and
responsibility is palpable. Their rapport is very real and totally believable,
even seventy-one years later.
Blu-ray disk contains a high-definition digital transfer of the BFI National
Archive’s 2008 restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There is
an audio commentary from 2000 by film historian Bruce Eder.
supplements include an insightful interview from 2012 with Noël
Coward scholar Barry Day; a terrific short documentary on the making of the
film; a nearly-hour-long 1971 television documentary on Lean’s career up to
that point; and the theatrical trailer. An essay by historian Kevin Brownlow
appears in the booklet.
Brief Encounter is the perfect date
movie. Watch it tonight with someone you love.
Hawks’ 1939 adventure/drama/comedy/musical (yes, it’s all of those) is firmly
among the director’s best pictures, made at a time when aviation was glamorous,
thrilling, and dangerous. As Hawks himself says in an interview supplement, when
people heard a plane flying in the sky in those days, they’d rush outside to
take a look at it. The job of an air mail carrier, at the time, was something
for only the bravest—or the craziest—of men.
(Cary Grant, in one of his most memorable performances) runs an air mail
operation in a remote corner of South America, and part of the flight routes
traverse the Andes mountains. It’s an extremely hazardous occupation for pilots
of single prop planes, for there are often rainstorms, fog, and other obstacles
to prevent smooth flying. It’s no wonder that his team is a motley crew of
ne’er-do-wells, alcoholics, and daredevils. When Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a
touring entertainer, shows up en route to her next gig, she provides Geoff with
another peril—love. That’s something Geoff doesn’t want any part of. This set
up is classic Hawks, for, along with Frank Capra, he was a primary referee for
the war between the sexes on screen. Only
Angels demonstrates this in spades.
get even more complicated when Bat (Richard Barthelmess), a pilot with a dark
reputation, shows up with his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth, in one of her very
first screen appearances). Judy happens to be Geoff’s old flame, and Bat was
apparently responsible for once bailing out of a plane and leaving his mechanic
to die in the crash. That mechanic was the brother of Geoff’s best friend and
employee, Kid (Thomas Mitchell).
that weren’t enough plot, Hawks throws in the exotic foreign setting of a small
South American village and its occupants, late night saloon parties complete
with pianist (a la Casablanca, three
years prior to that film’s release), hair-raising flight sequences, and
screwball comedy antics between the leads. It’s pure Hollywood, made in a year
that is often called one of the best in the industry’s history.
Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital restoration looks marvelous, and it has
an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that brings the plane engines into your
living room. Supplements include excerpts from an audio interview between Hawks
and Peter Bogdanovich, in which the director talks about his aviation pictures,
his mixed feelings about Jean Arthur, and other topics; a new interview with
film critic David Thomson, who makes a strong case for subtle homosexual
interpretations of the male camaraderie in the picture; a new documentary about
Hawks’ aviation movies featuring film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt; the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1939,
starring Grant, Arthur, Hayworth, Barthelmess, and Mitchell, hosted by Cecil B.
DeMille; and the trailer. An essay by critic Michael Stragow appears in the
Only Angels Have
an exhilarating look at an era long time gone, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Don’t be late for the flight!
Drew was a pioneer who changed the way we think about the documentary film. As
first a writer/editor at Life Magazine
in the 1950s, and then the head of a unit that produced short documentaries for
Time Inc., Drew knew how to tell a story visually. When he formed his own
company, Robert Drew & Associates, he was the guiding force for other
talented (and later, more well-known) filmmakers such as D. A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop), Albert
and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter),
and Richard Leacock, among others. Together they invented a novel way to
present a documentary film, something historians coined “direct cinema.”
had previously been scripted, usually shot to order, and more often than not,
were textbook dull. Drew and his colleagues developed the you-are-there style
of following subjects around as they did their business, capturing significant moments
as they occurred. Like today’s reality television.
team’s work featuring President John F. Kennedy in the early 60s was especially
influential and lauded with international film and journalism awards, and much
critical acclaim. The Criterion Collection’s new release features four of these
short films and an abundance of supplements.
up, the most well-known title, Primary
(1960). This was made during the Wisconsin primary race between Kennedy and
rival Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination. Cameras follow both
candidates around the state as they campaign in various halls and meeting
places. Both Kennedy and Humphrey agreed to the project, of course, for they
and their staff are exemplary at ignoring the cameras and pretending the
filmmakers aren’t there. Surprisingly, there is no self-consciousness on the
part of the subjects. Besides the historical significance of seeing a young
presidential hopeful—whom we know will be dead within four years—it is striking
to see how differently a primary race was handled in 1960 as opposed to today.
Adventures on the New
(1961) captures a day in the life of the president, filmed around a month after
Kennedy took office. We see how his day begins, who his close assistants in the
White House are, how meetings are handled, and how he makes some tough
decisions. The cameras also then follow the various men to whom the president
has given orders, and we see how those missions are carried out. Most of the
day’s concerns regard an airline strike and conflicts in Africa. At one point,
JFK has to take a break in his busy schedule to sign a bunch of photographs—for
his sister’s family.
Crisis (1963) is the most engaging
film because it’s the most dramatic. There are cameras not only in the White
House, but in Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s home and office, and the
residence and office of Alabama Governor George Wallace... during a tense time
in the history of the civil rights movement. Wallace is attempting to block two
black students’ entry into the University of Alabama (even though the students,
Vivian Malone and James Hood, had already been accepted by the school). A
Federal court order has been issued to allow the students to attend, and
Wallace is ready to stand fast. Will the National Guard be called out? Will the
Feds have to arrest a standing governor? We now know, of course, who was on the
right side, but watching the drama unfold in real time is fascinating. It’s
also a kick to see that everyone is
smoking—cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos... The clothing, furnishings, and
automobiles truly capture those same years featured in Mad Men.
Faces of November (1963) is a very
short montage of images from Kennedy’s state funeral, more of a poetic silent
movie than a documentary. Again, recognizing the young faces of Jacqui, Bobby
Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Peter Lawford, and even JFK’s children, is a remarkable
first three films are fifty-three minutes each, the fourth only twelve. There
is also an alternate twenty-six minute cut of Primary, edited by Richard Leacock. No director is credited on any
of the pictures—only cameramen, editors, and other technicians. The Blu-ray
features new 2K digital restorations of all five documentaries.
include an audio commentary on Primary
with excerpts from a 1961 conversation between Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker, and
film critic Gideon Bachmann. Robert Drew
in His Own Words is a new documentary with archival footage of the man at
work; there’s a new conversation between Pennebaker and Jill Drew, Drew’s
daughter-in-law and general manager of Drew & Associates today; Outtakes from Crisis is just that,
discussed by historian Andrew Cohen, author of Two Days in June; particularly interesting is an
interview/discussion with former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and Sharon
Malone (Holder’s wife and sister of Vivian Malone, one of the students featured
in Crisis); an interview with Richard
Reeves, author of President Kennedy:
Profile of Power, in which he points out the disparities between the worlds
of Washington D.C. then and today; and footage from a 1998 event at the Museum
of Tolerance in Los Angeles, featuring Drew, Pennebaker, Leacock, and Albert
Maysles. An essay by documentary film curator and writer Thom Powers appears in
The Kennedy Films of
Robert Drew & Associates is a spellbinding look into the past with a
microscope on one of our country’s most charismatic and eloquent presidents. The
films provoke a sobering speculation of what the world’s history might have been
like had the events of November 22, 1963 not occurred.
Criterion Collection released the wonderful Bicycle
Thieves on DVD in 2007 and now finally presents a marvelous new 4K digital
restoration of the Academy Award-winning picture (1950, Honorary Award for
Foreign Language Film) on Blu-ray. The movie was known in America for decades
as The Bicycle Thief—but the literal
translation of the Italian title is plural, and this also makes more sense in
the context of the film’s story. There is
more than one bicycle thief, and the revelation of the second one’s
identity is what gives De Sica’s picture its emotional power.
neorealism was a movement that lasted from 1945 to about 1952, and it was
highly influential for filmmakers around the world. There would not have been a
French New Wave in the early 60s had Italian neorealism not served as a
stylistic and thematic launching pad. Film scholars generally acknowledge
Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945)
as the first true Italian neorealist picture, for it presented a striking
naturalistic depiction of life among the lower class and the poor in post-World
War Two Italy. Strict realism had been attempted previously by other European
filmmakers (e.g., Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante),
but nothing had prepared the world for the harsh, yet affective, truthfulness
of Italian neorealism.
traits of the movement include working with extremely low budgets; shooting on-location
in the streets of war-torn cities often with hand-held cameras, creating a
documentary-like visual style; avoiding artifice in editing, camerawork, and
lighting in favor of a simple “style-less” presentation; using non-professional
actors in many cases; and adapting conversational, non-literary dialogue.
Thematically, the films focused on the plight of the poor and lower class as
they struggled to climb out of the horror that the world war had brought; a new
democratic spirit with emphasis on the value of “ordinary” people; a
compassionate point of view; humanism; and a focus on emotions rather than
Bicycle Thieves is an exemplary entry
of the movement; it is indeed the crown jewel. The story is simple—Antonio, a
poor man, finally gets a job that will pull his family, which consists of his
wife, his son Bruno (around eight or nine years old), and newborn baby, out of
poverty. But the job requires a bicycle that would enable Antonio to move
around Rome. All goes well for a day or so, until a thief steals the bike. For
the rest of the film, a desperate Antonio and Bruno scour the streets of the
city looking for the thief and the stolen bicycle, encountering a variety of
characters who try to help (or hinder) him. Yes, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was an homage of sorts to Bicycle Thieves.
Sica cast a shoe factory worker, Lamberto Maggiorani, as Antonio. For a
non-actor, his performance is exceptional. However, the real find was Enzo
Staiola as Bruno, who delivers arguably one of the greatest performances by a
child actor in the history of cinema. In many ways, the story is seen through
his eyes, and it is Bruno’s outlook of the world around him that defines the
direction is masterful, as is the script, which was written primarily by De
Sica and frequent collaborator Cesare Zavattini, who was responsible for the
screenplays of several important Italian neorealism pictures. De Sica presents
the characters’ poverty with a matter-of-factness that ultimately hits home
when Antonio’s impulsive actions nearly result in tragedy. It may be a
depressing film, and one that will cause the viewer to shed a tear or two, but
in the end there is a statement of humanity that each of us will recognize.
new Blu-ray looks terrific, as is the gold standard for Criterion. The film
contains an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The disk supplements from the
original DVD are ported over with nothing new added. They include: Working with De Sica, a fascinating
collection of interviews, including one with Enzo Staiola, who is now an old
man—and yet he still looks exactly like little Bruno!; Life As It Is, a piece on Italian neorealism with scholar Mark
Shiel; and a documentary from 2003 on screenwriter Zavattini. There is an
optional English-dubbed soundtrack. The booklet contains an essay by critic
Godfrey Cheshire, plus reminiscences by De Sica and his collaborators.
Bicycle Thieves is truly one of the great motion pictures. I screen itevery semester for my Film History
class at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. The picture is required
viewing for anyone interested in world cinema and the movements that shaped
In light of his artsy, unaffected, at times entirely
improvised trilogy of “road movies”—Alice
in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move
(1975), and Kings of the Road
(1976)—Wim Wenders considered The
American Friend (1977) to be his riskiest film to date. Fortunately, the
gamble paid off and this picture, more than any of his prior efforts, placed
him prominently on the world stage, garnering him international attention and critical
acclaim. While Patricia Highsmith’s source novel, Ripley’s Game, was not his first choice of her work to bring to the
big screen (it was, in fact, not yet published), the end result is a satisfying
thriller enveloped in a morally ambiguous milieu of existential drama.
Stricken with a blood disease, workaday picture framer
Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) encounters disreputable forged art dealer Tom
Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction, where the former is wise to the fakery
being peddled by the latter. When Ripley extends a hand to Zimmermann, who
ignores the gesture and rebukes the criminal with a dismissive, “I've heard of
you,” the snub rubs Ripley the wrong way. Based on this seemingly innocuous
slight, he and shady collaborator Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) scheme to get
Zimmermann involved in a murderous plot. Playing off the threat that his
ailment has grown increasingly terminal (thanks to some fraudulent documents),
Ripley and Minot arrange for Zimmermann to take out a fellow gangster target. He
would be an unassuming figure for a murder anyway, with no connection to
Ripley, Minot, or the victim, and for his efforts, he would financially secure
his wife and young son in the wake of his death.
The initial catalyst of the forged painting, as well as the
ensuing personal deceitfulness, are indicative of the film’s primary theme, that
of the complex nature of mistaken and/or assumed identity. Early in The American Friend, when Ripley
ruminates, “I know less and less about who I am or who anybody else is,” it is
an explicit expression of this thematic thread. As the film plays out, he and
Zimmermann both embark on a profound journey building upon fluctuating ideals
and actions, sometime out of necessity—to adapt and stay alive—and sometimes just
for the pretense.
In any case, having done the deed, the oblivious yet
earnestly considerate Zimmermann (considerate for his family, that is, if not
the man he murders) evolves from an innocent amateur to an ethically problematic
criminal in his own right. The full weight of the abrupt shift to unscrupulous
behavior is made all the more disconcerting after he realizes no immediate consequences
for the assassination. First he is surprised and obviously pleased by the lack
of judicial punishment, then his joy borders on disturbing exultation. The man
who is at one point described as “quiet and peaceful” has now become a cold
blooded killer for hire. Just as with Highsmith’s most famous Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, appearances here
can be deceiving and easily deceived. As the proliferation of illicit activity
runs far and wide in The American Friend,
the film frequently questions character authenticity and the uncertain true
intentions of those involved. To therefore say the ensuing bond between
Zimmermann and Ripley is an unlikely and unsteady one would be quite the
understatement, and however much the two grow comfortable with one another,
even trusting of each other, nothing about the collaboration ever settles
enough to be solidified as a mutual partnership. Even if the characters let
their guard down momentarily, the viewer is continually primed to expect a
Zimmermann’s potentially fatal flaw, then, is that he
fails to realize that in this world of treachery and viciousness, where others
are playing the same ruthless game he is, one has to assume they too are
capable of violence. In a 2002 commentary track with Hopper, as well as in a
more recent interview, both of which are included on the new Criterion
Collection release of The American Friend,
Wenders states his reluctance toward taking on an amoral character like Ripley.
But what becomes clear is that Zimmermann is the one with whom the audience is
more disappointed. Ripley and his cohorts are what they are and we expect
nothing less; Zimmermann, on the other hand, should have been above such
misdeeds. His desire to provide for his family is laudable enough, and the
prospect of quick cash would be tantalizing, but his decision to ultimately go
through with the murder makes him a most problematic protagonist.
Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller, based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel,
is more relevant today than it has been in the intervening years since its
original, timely release. Back then, we were in the midst of the Cold War and
treading treacherous waters with the Soviet Union. The picture originally hit
the theaters during the thirteen-day
Cuban Missile Crisis of October, so it served as a cautionary tale, a
propaganda piece, and a scary, suspenseful nail-biter. After the Cold War
ended, The Manchurian Candidate maintained
its reputation as an excellent piece of cinema, but its political ramifications
diminished. Now that seems to have changed with the cantankerous, mistrustful
climate of this year’s U.S. presidential election shenanigans. Candidate currently speaks volumes.
Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Shaw (Laurence Harvey) head up an army
platoon during the Korean War. They are captured by the Soviets, drugged, and
taken to Manchuria, China, where they are brainwashed. Shaw, in particular,
becomes a deadly sleeper-assassin for the Communists. A crack shot with a
sniper rifle, Shaw is programmed to obey any command after he views a queen of
diamonds playing card, usually presented to him during a game of solitaire. The
platoon is released with the false memories that Shaw saved their lives. Back
home, the other members from the platoon suffer from recurring, debilitating
nightmares they don’t understand until Marco—now a major—decides to do
something about it. Meanwhile, Shaw is under the control of his domineering
mother (Angela Lansbury), who is determined to get Shaw’s step-father, a
seriously right-wing, conservative McCarthy-like senator (James Gregory), the
nomination for president.
makes the movie so caustic today is that the hateful rhetoric spouted by the
fictional Republicans in the film is frighteningly similar to what we’re
hearing in the current election cycle. It’s a familiar tune: pick a
scapegoat—any scapegoat (in the picture’s case, Communists)—and exaggerate the
threat to scare an ignorant public for a political advantage. The campaign
climate of hate and finger-pointing depicted in the film hits uncomfortably
close to the contemporary atmosphere.
co-produced the movie with screenwriter George Axelrod, and it stands tall in
the director’s body of work. The story is told with a tense, underlying sense
of dread that perfectly captures the paranoia of the era—and today. Frankenheimer’s depiction of the brainwashing
demonstration to the Soviet and Chinese delegates is surreal. The soldiers
believe they’re sitting at a floral garden party in which proper old ladies are
discussing horticulture, when in fact the women are uniformed, male Communist
agents. The bizarre incongruity and parallel editing of the scene is masterful
(the picture received an Oscar nomination for Film Editing as well).
The exciting fight sequence between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva is said to be the first depiction of a karate battle in a mainstream Hollywood film. Sinatra broke his hand during the filming of this intense scene.
is very effective as the “straight man” of the tale, and Harvey is suitably
creepy as the brainwashed killer, although the actor’s Britishness is sometimes
difficult to ignore. The movie-stealer, though, is Lansbury, who was nominated
for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. “Mrs. Iselin” is a mother
worthy of Hitchcock, a true villain of Cruella de Vil proportions, and Lansbury
makes her very chilling indeed. Interestingly, the actress was only three years
older than Harvey, but we have no problem believing she’s his mother.
other glamorous blondes appear in the film. Janet Leigh looks fabulous as Marco’s
love interest, but in the overall arc of the story, hers is a somewhat
unnecessary character. The scene in which Sinatra and Leigh meet on a train is
the only eye-roll-producing bit in the picture, for she’s gives out her address
and phone number within minutes of meeting this obviously disturbed guy who
can’t even light a cigarette himself. The other beauty is Leslie Parrish, who
plays Harvey’s girlfriend. She is sparkling,
and certainly warrants more screen time. While Parrish made many movies, she is
mostly known for a trove of 1960s television work in such shows as Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mannix.
new special edition features a restored 4K digital transfer of the film with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There’s an audio commentary by Frankenheimer from
1997. Supplements include a new interview with Lansbury, who is amusing and
candid with her memories of making the film; a new interview with filmmaker
Errol Morris, a fan of the movie, talking about its strengths and influences; a
new interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the brainwashing scene; a
vintage filmed conversation between Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and Axelrod from
1987; and the trailer. The booklet contains an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
one of the best thrillers from the 1960s. Considering what’s going on in
America now, you might want to pop the disk into the Blu-ray player instead of
watching the latest presidential candidate debate. You’ll assuredly find it
much more entertaining.
What do you do when you despise the person most likely to bring your goals to fruition? We're not talking about the Republican establishment's dilemma with Donald Trump but, rather, the central plot premise faced by the U.S. Olympic ski team coach (portrayed by Gene Hackman) in director Michael Ritchie's acclaimed 1969 film "Downhill Racer". The protagonist of the movie is one Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford), an almost impossibly handsome young man from the rural town of Idaho Springs, Colorado, who has a single-minded obsession of being America's first gold medal winner for downhill skiing in an era when the sport was dominated by Europeans. With his good looks and superficial charm, Chappellet is used to being a big fish in a small pond. He is virtually penniless and, when not practicing on the slopes of European mountains, is forced to eek out an existence by living with his cold, unemotional father (non-professional actor Walter Stroud in a striking performance.) He has no career plans beyond his single-minded obsession with getting on the Olympic team. His lack of intellectual curiosity or abilities to socialize with others don't seem to phase him. Like any narcissist he savors any small victory as a sign of his superiority over the peasants he must occasionally interact with.Chappellet lacks any self-awareness or introspection. He takes a cocky delight in being able to drive down the main street of his one-horse town, pick up a local old flame and get her to have sex in the back seat of a car. He seems oblivious to the fact that the battered vehicle belongs to his father and that he doesn't even have a place of his own to carry out his carnal activities. Chappellet gets the big break he is looking for when a top skier on the Olympic team suffers a grievous injury. The team coach, Claire, calls in Chappellet to replace him. From the start, their relationship is a rocky one. It becomes clear that Chappellet is not a team player. He skis superbly and Claire recognizes him as the team's potential best hope for victory. However, he is also alarmed by his independent streak and his inability to follow protocols. Chappellet is in this for personal glory and his teammates are viewed as unnecessary distractions. True, he can go through the rituals of socializing. He's polite to his roommate and occasionally joins the other guys for beers, butChappellet is clearly a vacuous, self-absorbed figure. The film traces his achievements on the slope and Claire's unsuccessful attempts to turn him into a team player. Chaplette also meets a vivacious business woman in the sports industry, Carole (Camilla Sparv). He's instantly smitten by her exotic good looks and libertarian outlook toward sex. The two begin an affair but it turns sour when Chaplette can't accept the fact that Carole is an emancipated young woman who marches to her own beat. Her unwillingness to dote over him or to treat their relationship as anything but superficial bruises his ego. In Chaplette's world, it is he who treats sex partners like disposable objects, not the other way around. The film concludes with Chaplette and his teammates engaging in the make-or-break competition against top-line European skiers to see who can bring home the gold.
The Best of Frenemies: Redford and Hackman
"Downhill Racer" was a dream project of Robert Redford, who had championed the film, which is based on a screenplay by James Salter. Redford's star had risen appreciably with Paramount following the success of "Barefoot in the Park". The studio wanted to do another film with him and suggested that he play the male lead in the forthcoming screen adaption of "Rosemary's Baby". Redford pushed for "Downhill Racer", a film that the Paramount brass had dismissed as being too non-commercial. (This was before Redford would reach super stardom with the release of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".) Thus began a game of brinksmanship between Redford and the studio. He managed to get Paramount to supply a small budget ($2 million) and creative control over the project to him and Roman Polanski, who was enthused about directing the film. However, the studio made a counter-move and lured Polanski to direct "Rosemary's Baby". Annoyed, Redford had to find a new director and settled on Michael Ritchie, and up-and-coming talent who was eager to make the transition from television into feature films. He and Redford, along with their tiny crew, used their limited budget to travel to international ski competitions in order to film real life action on the slopes that could later be combined into the final cut of their movie. For all their efforts, "Downhill Racer" was a boxoffice disappointment and would be overshadowed by the release of "Butch Cassidy" later in 1969. Yet its a film that Redford is justifiably proud of. There are many admirable aspects of the production, not the least of which is Redford's compelling performance as a protagonist who is not very likable or sympathetic. He's also not very intelligent, either, a character flaw that doesn't seem to bother him much, as he feels he can get by on his looks. The down side of "Downhill Racer" is that when the central character is a total cad the viewer finds it hard to be concerned with his fate, unless there is a major dramatic payoff as in the case of Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" or Paul Newman in "Hud", two of the most notorious characters in screen history. Where "Downhill Racer" blows it is in the final sequence during the championship ski run. There was an excellent opportunity to end the movie on a poignant note but the movie punts and leads to an emotionally unsatisfying ending. Nevertheless the exotic scenery and fine performances (especially by Hackman, who is under-seen and under-used) compensate for a story that is as chilling as the locations in which it was filmed.
Criterion has upgraded their previously released DVD special edition to Blu-ray and it looks spectacular. There is a wealth of interesting extras, all ported over from the previous release. These include separate interviews conducted in 2009 with Robert Redford and James Salter. I found them to be most enlightening because I was blaming Salter, as the screenwriter, for being responsible for the film's unsatisfying ending. Lo and behold, Salter expresses the same exasperation. Apparently his original script called for the more dramatic finale that I was envisioning. However, he says that Redford made the change without his permission. It's still apparently a sore spot with him. For his part, Redford is defensive about the decision, saying that he felt the the ending he insisted upon was the correct choice (Note: it wasn't.) It would be interesting to see Redford and Salter lock horns over this in the same interview at some point. In any event, Redford's enthusiasm for the film is evident even if it seems to exceed that of audiences. To reiterate, it's a fine movie with many qualities but Redford has had superior, under-appreciated gems in his career. Other bonus extras on the Blu-ray include interviews with editor Richard Harris (whose work on the film is most impressive), production executive Walter Coblenz and champion skier Joe Jay Jalbert who was hired as a technical consultant and became indispensable on the production, serving as double and cameraman. The footage he captured skiing at high speed with a hand-held camera is all the more amazing because he was a novice at shooting film. There is also a vintage production featurette from 1969 and a very interesting one-hour audio interview of director Michael Ritchie at an American Film Institute Q&A session in 1977. The affable Ritchie was there to promote his latest film "Semi-Tough" but goes into great detail about how he became disillusioned with the constraints of working in the television industry where directors at that time were just hired guns whose creative ideas and instincts were constantly being suppressed. Ritchie tells an extended anecdote about shooting an episode of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." during which he came up with a suggestion to improve a key scene in the script. He was told to mind his own business by the producer (who he doesn't name). When series' star Robert Vaughn agreed with him, Ritchie shot an alternate version of the scene that was met with enthusiasm by the network. Instead of being congratulated, he was blackballed from the series henceforth. Ritchie would go on to make some very fine films including "The Candidate" (again with Redford), the wacko-but-mesmerizing crime thriller "Prime Cut", "The Bad News Bears" and others. However he never lived up to his full potential and ended up directing many middling films before his untimely death at age 63 in 2001. The AFI audio included here is a rare opportunity to listen to his views on filmmaking while he was at the height of his career. The Blu-ray set also contains the original trailer and a collectible booklet with essay by Todd McCarthy.
it has been released before on Blu-ray, the “Criterion treatment” is always welcome
for a classic, well-known film such as The
Graduate. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beloved pictures of the 60s,
one that hit a nerve in the public consciousness. It helped define those wildly
changing years at the end of the decade, illustrating how the country’s youth
rebelled against an established society that they were expected to join. The Graduate is a landmark of the New
Hollywood movement that took over the studios in those years and held reign
through the 70s.
Mike Nichols, fresh from his success as a debut helmsman for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), gave us a romantic comedy unlike
anything we’d seen previously—mainly because of the radically daring casting of
an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman. Highly influenced by French New Wave, Nichols
brilliantly directed the entire picture, but his most important contribution to
the film’s triumph was the re-imagining the story not to be about a tall,
blonde, suntanned, southern California leading man type (i.e. “not Jewish”)
that was the norm for Hollywood. No, Nichols saw that The Graduate would be so much better if it was about a schlemiel. An Everyman that the audience
could perhaps recognize as one of them. Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is
okay-looking, he’s not un-attractive,
he’s smart, and not a loser. Yet here he is, just out of college, not knowing
what the hell he’s supposed to do now, and he allows himself to be pulled into
an affair with an older, married woman who is one half of a couple that is close
to his parents. The youth of America apparently could relate. The Graduate changed the casting
philosophy in Hollywood overnight, opening the door for “unusual” actors to
come to the forefront and play leads.
striking directorial choice Nichols made was the use of songs by Simon and
Garfunkel as a soundtrack. Movies had previously contained pop music—but a
specific artist’s work hadn’t been used in such a personal, meaningful way.
It’s as if Paul and Art’s voices are our guides along Ben’s journey to find his
elusive purpose in life. It’s a perfect fit. It’s interesting to note that the
only original song in the picture, “Mrs. Robinson,” was an on-the-spot
creation, only the bare bones of which is used in the film. It was later, after
the movie’s release, that Simon fleshed out the song and the duo recorded the
hit single that appeared on the LP Bookends
in 1968. The hugely popular song was also a bit controversial, being that it
was about an adulterous affair and the Lord’s name was mentioned as “loving
Mrs. Robinson more than she will know.”
three leads are marvelous. Anne Bancroft, who received top billing, plays
against type as well. Robert Surtees’ carefully considered lighting and
photography makes her appear much older than 35, which is what she was at the
time. Ironically, Hoffman was 29—they were only six years apart in age. Bancroft
performs the unhappy Mrs. Robinson with cold and cynical aggressiveness, but
also with a vulnerability that is palpable. Katharine Ross became the
heartthrob of many young men in 1967, including me. She’s wonderful in the role,
but it is indeed her beauty that serves as yet another layer to the film’s
theme that yes, even a schlemiel can
end up with Katharine Ross. As for Hoffman, he plays Ben with just the right
amount of realistic, nervous anxiety—he is so true to the dramatic action that
some of the public accused him of not acting at all—he was “being himself.” He,
of course, would prove them wrong with his next choice of roles—the radically
different Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy—confirming
just how good Hoffman had been in The
it was nominated for many of the major categories at the year’s Academy
Awards—Picture, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Bancroft), Supporting Actress (Ross),
Adapted Screenplay (Calder Willingham/Buck Henry)—only Nichols walked away with
the Director Oscar. For my money, The
Graduate was robbed (In the Heat of
the Night—granted, a wonderful picture—won).
new 4K digital restoration looks tremendous, the colors are rich and solid,
emphasizing the “modern” 1967 look and feel that distinctly identifies the
period. The film comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack (and optional
5.1 surround remix, approved by Nichols, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio).
You’ll be humming “Scarborough Fair” for days. There are two audio
commentaries—one from 2007 with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, and one from
1987 featuring film scholar Howard Suber.
bountiful supplements include a new, long, fascinating interview with Dustin
Hoffman (his interviews are always good, he comes off as such a personable
guy); a new conversation between Buck Henry and producer Lawrence Turman that
reveals some surprising tidbits about the making of the film (e.g.,
Willingham’s script was thrown out and only Henry’s re-write was used for
shooting); and a new interview with film writer and historian Bobbie O’Steen
about editor Sam O’Steen’s work with Nichols. Several pieces of vintage
material appear on the disk—a documentary from 2007 on the film’s influence; a
1992 vignette on the making of the picture; a terrific interview with Nichols by Barbara Walters on NBC’s Today show in 1966; and an excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show featuring Paul
Simon as a guest. Along with the trailer are some interesting casting screen
tests—one with Hoffman and Ross, of course, but also other candidates for the
roles such as Tony Bill and Jennifer Leak, and Robert Lipton and Cathy
Carpenter. The booklet contains an essay by journalist and critic Frank Rich.
The Graduate was the most
intelligent, witty, and surprising comedy-drama
of its era. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to dive into
Criterion’s superb new release.
off to The Criterion Collection for releasing Blu-ray editions of these two
remarkable motion pictures. They have not been available in the U.S. since the
days of VHS.
double feature is really one big movie divided into two, both of them epics,
approximately six-and-a-half hours in total length, with built-in intermissions
in each picture. It’s the monumental story of a group of Swedish emigrants who
make their way to America in the 1840s and settle in the Minnesota wilderness.
The tale covers roughly thirty years, but the story officially ends in 1890.
The Emigrants and The New Land were landmark Swedish imports that gained much
acclaim and popularity at the time of their release. The Emigrants was the third foreign language film to be nominated
for the Best Picture Oscar (in 1972; the previous year it had been nominated
for Best Foreign Language Picture). Jan Troell also received Directing and
Screenwriting nominations (co-written with Bengt Forslund), and Liv Ullmann was
given the nod for Best Actress (she lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret). The New Land was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film the same
year The Emigrants was up for Best
co-stars with her frequent Bergman collaborator, Max von Sydow, as Kristina and
Karl-Oscar, a poor married couple with children who decide that their farm in
Sweden is a loser and the government is corrupt and unhelpful. The dream of
many Europeans was to go to America, the promised “new land” of opportunity.
But in 1840, that wasn’t so easy. It took some money, certainly, but it also
required near-superhuman fortitude, health, and bravery. People could die crossing the ocean. Oh, and they
also had to know how to build their own house, toil the earth, grow and hunt
their own food, and fully support and protect their families in a time when
Native Americans (i.e., “savages”) were living amongst them. Karl-Oscar is up
for the challenge; after the death of their young daughter from starvation in
Sweden, Kristina finally agrees to emigrate. They join a straggly group of
friends and extended family and make the journey together.
on classic Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg, The Emigrants begins in Sweden, covers the harrowing trip over the
ocean and then the trek cross country from the east coast to the Midwest. The New Land follows their struggles to
make lives for themselves in a hostile, but beautiful, environment. The story
is presented with brutal realism and authenticity. After viewing the pictures,
there will be no doubt in one’s mind what it was really like to be an early
settler. The boat voyage alone is so powerfully realized that you won’t easily
forget it. The journey takes ten weeks, during which the twenty or so
emigrants, living in the cramped steerage of a relatively small packet ship,
undergo serious seasickness, scurvy, starvation, conflict, and some deaths.
protagonist couple meets each new obstacle with tremendous strength, although
the years and frequent childbirths begin to take a toll on Kristina. Both von
Sydow and Ullmann are exceptionally good, especially in the scenes of intimacy
between two people who obviously love each other very much and are willing to
sacrifice everything for each other.
Eddie Axberg, as Karl-Oscar’s younger brother, is also a standout with his own
set of adventures that develop into a subplot as he leaves Minnesota with a
friend and heads toward California and its siren call of gold everywhere.
photographed, the new high-definition digital restorations, with new English
subtitle translations, look fantastic. Troell’s pace might be considered slow
by today’s standards, but like Kubrick’s Barry
Lyndon, which also strived to recreate a time and place that no longer
exists and succeeded, both The Emigrants and
The New Land capture not only the
harshness of the era, but also its grace, simplicity, and beauty.
supplements in the two-disc set include a new introduction to the films by
theatre and film critic John Simon; a new conversation between film scholar
Peter Cowie and director Troell; a new interview with Liv Ullmann; an hour long
documentary from 2005 on the making of the pictures with archival footage and
interviews with key personnel; and trailers. An essay by critic Terrence
Rafferty appears in the booklet.
is impressive, exemplary filmmaking, something any devotee of quality European
motion pictures needs to see. You may not want to get on a boat ever again.
Criterion Collection continues its excellent re-issuing of Charles Chaplin’s
major works with The Kid, the first full-length
feature from the filmmaker. Released in 1921, Chaplin expanded on the two and
three reelers he had been making (a “reel” at that time was approximately 10-15
minutes long) to the six-reels of The Kid
(the original cut was just over an hour; Chaplin re-edited it in the early 70s
to create the now standard 53-minute version). It’s still a short film, but
longer than what were considered “shorts.”
The Kid received high
acclaim on its release and was one of the writer/actor/director’s most popular pictures.
This was in part due to the presence of young Jackie Coogan in the titular
role. Coogan, who grew up to play Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television series of the 1960s, steals the movie
from right under Chaplin’s little mustache. At age five, Coogan displays a
mastery of acting, mime, and acrobatics that is still remarkable today. He is a
natural in front of the camera, and he has loads of charisma to boot.
for Chaplin, he, too, is marvelous in this story about how his famous Tramp
character finds an abandoned baby on the street and takes it upon himself to
raise the child. Only a few years later, after he and his illegally-adopted son
have bonded and are “partners” in petty crime, does the kid’s mother re-enter
aspect that set The Kid apart from
previous Chaplin entries was his reliance more on drama than comedy. There is
no question that he infused his comedies with pathos from the very beginning,
but his last several shorts for the First National Company (his distributor at
the time) were “dramadies.” As the opening title of The Kid reads: “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” My
father, who had seen the film in the 1920s, recalled how there wasn’t a dry eye
in the house when the authorities take Coogan away from Chaplin and the boy is
crying and reaching out to his “dad.”
delivers another superb-looking 4K digital restoration of the 1972 re-release
version, also featuring an original score by Chaplin on an uncompressed
monaural soundtrack (the score is lush, melodic, and gorgeous, as are all of
the artist’s compositions). There’s a new audio commentary featuring Chaplin
historian Charles Maland that is informative and serves as a nice complement to
the piece, since the movie is silent.
include Jackie Coogan: The First Child
Star, a new video essay by another Chaplin historian, Lisa Haven; A Study in Undercranking, a new
documentary featuring silent film specialist Ben Model on the tricks with speed
used by filmmakers of the period; vintage interviews with Coogan, and Chaplin’s
second wife Lita Grey Chaplin (who appears in the film as an angel); vintage
audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and film distributor Mo
Rothman; deleted scenes and titles from the original 1921 release; a 1921
newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe; footage of Chaplin
conducting his score in Hollywood in 1971; a 1922 silent short, Nice and Friendly, featuring Chaplin and
Coogan, made with and for Lord and Lady Mountbatten for their wedding; and
trailers. The booklet essay is by film scholar Tom Gunning.
terrific addition to the Criterion-Chaplin library. Here’s hoping that The Circus is next!
Life Magazine called Rita
Hayworth “The Love Goddess.” Make no mistake—she was primarily known as one of the sex symbols of the 1940s. Nevertheless,
she was also a talented actress and a terrific dancer (she held her own with
Fred Astaire in a couple of movies). Strikingly beautiful, Hayworth was the
type of star who lit up the screen and oozed charisma. And her big breakthrough
to that position in Hollywood was Gilda,
the 1946 part-noir, part melodrama
that contained many of the iconic images for which Hayworth is famous.
Film noir historian Eddie
Muller, in a new interview included as one of the supplements, says Gilda is not film noir, although it’s got all the trappings. This is true. It’s
certainly made in the style of a film noir—the contrasting black and
white cinematography by Rudolph Maté (who later became a
director in his own right) is clearly derived from German expressionism, the
characters are untrustworthy and suspicious, and there’s a femme fatale.
wait—is Gilda really a femme fatale?
Not really. Sure, she’s manipulative and uses her sexuality to get the men in
her life to do what she wants; but Gilda is not a bad person—she’s just caught
in an uncomfortable situation and is acting out because she’s unhappy. A minor
subplot dealing with Mundson’s business dealings—with former Nazis—doesn’t
totally qualify Gilda as being a film noir, either. No, this is a movie
soap opera, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining piece of Hollywood
glamour that captures a cynical post-war mood prevalent in a lot of Hollywood
fare of the late 40s.
story takes place in Buenos Aires just as World War II is ending. Johnny
Farrell (Glenn Ford, in one of his significant roles as well) is a gambler,
drifter, and “tough guy” bumming around Argentina. There he meets a rich man,
Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who offers Johnny a job being his right hand
man at the casino. The two men work together well and become very chummy—until Mundson
returns from a weekend away with a gorgeous wife. She is, of course, Gilda
(Hayworth)—and it is immediately obvious she has a history with Johnny.
rest of the film is a melodramatic clash of wills within this triangle, and it’s
not a smooth ride. Much is made of the word “hate,” but in most cases in this
picture, that word really means “love.”
is quite good in the movie. She performs two song-and-dance numbers (for the
casino audience), but her singing voice is dubbed by Anita Ellis. These are signature
tunes—“Put the Blame on Mame” (done as a sultry striptease—almost), and “Amado
Mio.” (One wonders how Gilda managed to rehearse with the band and lighting
crew to do tight, theatrical show-stopping acts, seemingly on the fly.) At any
rate, Hayworth smolders as Gilda, and
she takes over every frame she’s in. Ford is fine, although he sure has a funny
way of hitting people. Macready provides the requisite sinister authority over
the other two characters, just as he would a decade later in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
aspects are top notch—the photography, music, editing, sets, and especially the
costume design. Hayworth’s gowns are right out of the catalog of Hollywood dreams. Perhaps the only weak
element is the writing. The story feels jumbled a bit, but the dialogue is rich
with memorable one-liners. “If I was a ranch, I’d been named the Bar Nothing,” Gilda famously says. The
screenwriters had challenges on their hands. The Production Code prevented the
filmmakers from fully exploring the relationship that is really going on between Johnny and Mundson. It’s pretty muted, but
it’s there, folks. Ford’s character is much more enamored of his boss than a
regular employee would be. How that wrinkle plays into the stew once Hayworth
arrives is the heart and soul of the picture. Read between the lines and you’ll
fathom what the writers intended, but
couldn’t quite get past the censors.
Criterion Collection’s new high-definition digital restoration, with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack, looks and sounds exemplary. A wonderful audio
commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, made in 2010, accompanies the film.
include the previously mentioned interview with Muller; an interesting 2010
discussion with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann about the film;
“Hollywood and the Stars,” a 1964 television show about Hayworth’s career up to
that point; and the trailer. The fold-out insert contains a poster of Gilda on
one side and an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.
tag line on the movie poster read: “There never was a woman like... Gilda!” That’s probably true. Put the Blame
on Mame, indeed!
first Coen Brothers feature to be given the “Criterion treatment” is, oddly,
their most recent release—Inside Llewyn
Davis, which received (mostly) critical praise upon its release in late
2013. Kudos were especially heaped upon the film’s relatively new star, Oscar
Isaac. Sadly, while the picture recouped its investment and made a little
money, it wasn’t as widely embraced by audiences as it should have been. This
is probably because the Coen Brothers typically don’t make movies for the
masses. The auteur siblings create
art that appeals mostly to intelligent, hip audiences willing to enter a
strange, sometimes disturbing, always surprising, universe that is distinctly
Inside Llewyn Davis is presented as a
comedy, but in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre,
“comedy” can mean many things. It can be wild and wacky (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) or it can be dark and foreboding
(Barton Fink, A Serious Man). Llewyn Davis leans
more toward the latter. In fact, it is a downright melancholy picture that will
leave in a funk any viewers who happen to be musicians. But that doesn’t mean the
film’s not funny, too.
Davis (Isaac, in a brilliant performance worthy of an Oscar nomination he
didn’t get) is a down on his luck but talented folk singer in 1961 Greenwich
Village. The setting is pretty much a character, too, for this was the hotbed
of the folk scene prior to the
arrival of Bob Dylan, who changed everything. The Coens and Isaac based the
Davis character on the very real folk musician Dave Van Ronk—but really only his
musical material (adapted by musical producer T Bone Burnett). While Davis is
on stage, he is magic. The songs are heartbreakingly beautiful. Off stage, though,
unlike Van Ronk, Davis is a mess. He’s cranky, cynical, and not a very nice
guy. He’s losing what friends he has and he’s his own worst enemy. The movie becomes
his journey through a bleak New York winter as he tries to eke out a living,
take care of a neighbor’s cat, and bring some sort of sense to the madness that
is his life. Even though he’s a trainwreck happening before our eyes, poor Davis
doesn’t realize he’s doomed until, at the end of the movie, he hits a
career-ending brick wall in the form of a certain person.
like most everything the Coen Brothers create, this revelation is exhibited
the Coens’ other musical feature, O
Brother, Where Art Thou?, this one explores a very specific music steeped
in Americana, and the movie is full of it. Justin Timberlake plays a supporting
role as another folkie, along with lovely Carey Mulligan. Much of the material
consists of wistful folk ballads, but the trio of Isaac, Timberlake, and Adam
Driver perform a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that is a laugh riot—the
funniest bit in the film—and why it wasn’t nominated for Best Song for that
year’s Oscars is a mystery.
Criterion Collection’s new special edition release of the film is very unique
in how much the Coen Brothers participated in the supplements, of which there are
an abundance. The brothers are usually unwilling to do interviews or support
“making of” documentaries. This time, however, they did a lot, the least of
which was approving the 4K digital transfer, which looks gorgeous. Director of
photography Bruno Delbonnel chose to shoot the picture with a soft focus and
muted colors that somehow evokes the black and white feel of the era. It works
beautifully to amplify the melancholy. The feature has a 5.1 surround DTS-HD
Master Audio soundtrack, plus an audio commentary by authors Robert Christgau,
David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz.
running time of the supplements are more than three times as long as the
feature film. “Inside Inside Llewyn Davis”
is a forty-three minute documentary on the making of the film, revealing the
Coen Brothers at work, especially in the casting and working with Burnett on
the music adaptation. Additionally, the disk includes a long, fascinating interview
with the brothers conducted by Guillermo del Toro; a conversation between
Burnett and the Coens about folk music; a new piece about the Greenwich Village
folk scene of the era featuring Van Ronk’s co-biographer, Elijah Wald; a short
documentary by Dan Drasin about the 1961 clash between folk musicians and
police in Washington Square Park; trailers; and, finally, the awesome
full-length feature (originally aired on Showtime), Another Day, Another Time—a documentary by Christopher Wilcha that
covered the special concert of folk music held at New York’s Town Hall in
September 2013. Oscar Isaac performs along with the likes of the Punch
Brothers, Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Lake Street
Dive, and many others. It’s worth the price of the disk. The booklet contains
an essay by film critic Kent Jones and a poster illustration of Isaac as Llewyn
you missed Inside Llewyn Davis during
its theatrical run, here’s your chance to explore the film in depth. As with
any Coen Brothers effort, it is a rewarding experience. Time will prove it to
be one of their better ones.
not sure how, when, and where Quentin Tarantino actually saw these two Japanese
films back in the day (they weren’t released in the U.S.), but the character of
a vengeful female samurai assassin was a major inspiration for the director’s Kill Bill pictures; in fact, Lucy Liu’s
character of O-Ren Ishii is so close to Lady Snowblood that it’s unclear if she’s
an homage or a rip-off. At any rate, if you’re a fan of Kill Bill, then you will most likely appreciate these low budget
cult action films.
on a Japanese manga by Kazuo Koike
and Kazuo Kamimura (Shurayuki-hime)
published in 1972 and 1973, both features star the beautiful Meiko Kaji as Lady
Snowblood, a kimono-dressed assassin who is active in the late 19th Century and
wields a mean blade hidden in an umbrella. Kaji is a popular actress in her
native country—she appeared in many B-movie action and martial arts pictures (i.e.,
the Japanese equivalent of exploitation movies) in the 70s, and then went into
television in the 80s. She is also an accomplished musical artist and singer,
having released many singles and a dozen LPs. She sings the main title song of Lady Snowblood (“Shuro No Hana”), and Tarantino used the same theme during a
sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Meiko
Kaji is perhaps the best reason to view this double feature.
first film is an origin story in which we learn that Yuki, aka Lady Snowblood, is
born to a mother who is in prison for killing one of a criminal foursome—three
men and one woman—who murdered her husband and son, and raped her. She passes
on the remainder of her vendetta to her daughter, who grows up to study martial
arts and become a vigilante. As an adult, Yuki tracks down the other three to
exact her revenge.
second picture finds Yuki as something of a hired hand of the secret police.
She must infiltrate the home of an anarchist in order to retrieve an item the
government wants—but, of course, her prey turns out not to be the true bad guy.
Lady Snowblood must switch allegiances and set things right with a lot of
swordplay, blood-letting, and Eastern-style poise.
movies are colorful and exotic in terms of photography, production design, and
costumes—the imagery of white snow splashed with red blood, mixed with the
period Japanese wardrobe and sets, exhibit a unique beauty that Tarantino
recreated in Kill Bill. Otherwise, the
two Snowblood movies are cheaply
done. The blood effects are, for the most part, ridiculous. One slash of a
throat and the blood laughably sprays like
a fire hose. The storylines are predictable, but like the manga from which they are adapted, are pure comic book pulp.
Criterion Collection presents both features on one disk. The new 2K digital
restorations look very good in that glorious and vividly garish color that is indicative
of the 70s. Each film has uncompressed monaural soundtracks, and there are new
English subtitle translations. The disk is short on supplements, containing
only new interviews with Kazuo Koike (the writer of the manga), and screenwriter Norio Osada. Trailers for both pictures
are included. The booklet features an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
for aficionados of Japanese exploitation and martial arts fare, which, in the
1970s, was the equivalent of fast food.
is the third excellent release of a Harold Lloyd film by The Criterion
Collection and it’s a welcome addition to sit on the shelf along with the
previous two (Safety Last! and The Freshman). I mentioned in a review
of one of the previous releases how wonderful it was that Criterion was
re-issuing Lloyd’s catalog. Most of his work had been unavailable for many
years; I grew up with Chaplin and Keaton, of course, but with Lloyd, not so
much. It’s a pleasure to discover him in this way.
Speedy was Lloyd’s final
silent film, released in 1928. Although he usually made his pictures in
Hollywood, this time he wanted to shoot in New York City. Bruce Goldstein,
director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, explains in an
interesting supplement, “In the Footsteps of Speedy,” that Lloyd took his leading lady Ann Christy and canine
co-star King Tut on the railroad across country to make the movie. Quite a bit
was shot there, but in the end, though, nearly half the picture was also made
on the streets of Los Angeles, doubling for New York—and the matching up is
sometimes not very convincing. Still, it’s revelatory to see New York as it was
in 1928—Times Square, Washington Square, Sheridan Square, Brooklyn and Coney
Island—it’s all here, exactly the way it was. The establishing shot for Manhattan
was that of the Woolworth Building, because at the time that was the tallest and
most famous structure! Fascinating stuff.
story concerns Pop Dillon’s horse-drawn streetcar, the last one of its kind in
the big city, the tracks of which the railroad baron wants to demolish to make
way for progress. Pop’s daughter Jane (Christy) is engaged to Harold “Speedy”
Swift (Lloyd), who takes it upon himself to make sure Pop’s livelihood isn’t
taken away or at least insure that he’s fairly compensated. Why Harold is
nicknamed “Speedy” is not really clear... he’s the usual “Glasses”
character—naive, enthusiastic, positive—who works at one job and then another,
happily trying to make ends meet so he can marry Jane.
of the movie is a sightseeing tour of New York—the Coney Island scenes are
especially enjoyable, since Speedy and Jane ride many of the classic attractions
that don’t exist anymore. King Tut, the stray dog who picks Speedy to be his
master, is adept at many tricks and serves as a terrific little sidekick.
biggest draw, though, at the time of the film’s release, was the appearance of
Babe Ruth in a minor role as himself. Speedy is a baseball enthusiast—a plot
point that never really amounts to much—and he has a chance to give the Babe a
ride in his taxi (Speedy’s current job). The Babe invites Speedy to see the
game at Yankee Stadium, where our hero is able to avoid the cops who are after
him for traffic tickets. Babe Ruth had already appeared in a couple of films,
in one as himself and in another, a work of fiction called Babe Comes Home, as a baseball player very much like himself. Speedy came at the right time—1928 was the second year in a row the
Yankees won the World Series.
Speedy is certainly good
fun, although for my money I think both Safety
Last! and The Freshman are better
pictures. There are plenty of chases and slapstick bits, but the “thrill”
stunts Lloyd is known for are not in this one. Here’s hoping Criterion
continues its releases of Harold Lloyd classics, especially Grandma’s Boy, Girl Shy, and The Kid Brother.
movie looks terrific in a new 4K digital restoration from elements preserved by
the UCLA Film & Television Archive; there’s a musical score by Carl Davis
from 1992, synchronized and restored and presented in uncompressed stereo (and
it sounds great!). A new audio commentary is by Goldstein (see above) and
Turner Classic Movies director of program production Scott McGee. In addition
to the Goldstein documentary mentioned earlier, there is a selection of rare
archival footage of Babe Ruth, presented by David Filipi, director of film and
video at the Wexner Center for the Arts. A new video essay featuring stills
from deleted scenes is narrated by Goldstein. There’s also a cute collection of
Harold Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, as
well as a newly restored Lloyd short from 1919—Bumping Into Broadway, with a 2004 score by Robert Israel. The
booklet contains an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.
must-buy for fans of silent comedy and for those who want to enrich their lives
with the genius of Harold Lloyd.
works of famed director Akira Kurosawa are mostly associated with the samurai
film—pictures set in the time of feudal Japan, and usually starring the
brilliant actor Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon,
Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden
Fortress, Yojimbo, among others).
However, Kurosawa made other kinds of movies that are probably not as well
known in the West except to film historians and true cinephiles—and fans of the
excellent DVD and Blu-ray label, The Criterion Collection. Some of Kurosawa’s
early work was made up of film noir gangster
and crime pictures (e.g., Drunken Angel,
Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well), but also, surprisingly, heartfelt social
dramas set in contemporary Japan—about ordinary people. Ikiru is one of the latter, and it’s a movie that Roger Ebert once
called Kurosawa’s “greatest film.”
Ikiru is set in Tokyo in
the early fifties. Kanji Watanabe (played by the wonderful Takashi Shimura) is
a middle-aged bureaucrat in City Hall, the chief of “Public Works.” He has
spent the last thirty years behind a desk, stamping endless pieces of paper
with his little seal, never causing trouble, and pawning off problems to other
departments, which, in turn, direct them to yet more departments. Bureaucracy
at its dullest and most inefficient. At the beginning of the story, several
women bring in a complaint about a mosquito-infested cesspool in the middle of
their district that should be covered or turned into a park or whatever. But no
one at City Hall wants to accept the responsibility of doing anything about it,
including Watanabe, and even the egotistical mayor.
to Watanabe’s stagnation are the attitudes of his grown son and his wife, who
live with him in the same house. All they’re waiting for is the inheritance
that will one day come their way (Watanabe’s wife is long dead). Then the
ultimate insult occurs—Watanabe discovers he has stomach cancer and has six
months to live. After the initial shock and depression, the news inspires him
to undergo a drastic change.
suddenly wants to make something of his life while there’s still time. He
befriends a young female subordinate and attempts to experience Tokyo’s
nightlife, but that doesn’t satisfy him. Finally, he embarks on taking it upon
himself to do something about that cesspool and turn it into a children’s
playground before he dies.
there is more going on in Kurosawa’s film—the director has something to say that
is universal regarding a) government bureaucracy; b) working for years in a job
that provides no pleasure; c) gossip among co-workers and family about things
for which they don’t bother to learn the truth; d) the medical profession’s
reluctance to tell a patient the hard facts; e) and, finally, how important it
is to find something in one’s life that is fulfilling. Ikiru means “to live” in Japanese.
brings me to the lead actor, Takashi Shimura. While Toshiro Mifune usually gets
all the accolades of being “Japan’s greatest actor” etc. etc., and while I
don’t begrudge Mifune-san this praise, I believe Shimura-san had a longer,
deeper, and more varied career as an actor. If you’ve seen Rashomon or Seven Samurai,
then you know who he is—Shimura played the leader of the seven samurai, and he
was the woodcutter in Rashomon. In
fact, Shimura, was in twenty-one of Kurosawa’s thirty films (Mifune was in
sixteen). Shimura also appeared in Gojira
(Godzilla, 1954, and its American
cut, Godzilla—King of the Monsters,
1956) in a major role of a paleontologist. The actor appeared in several other
Toho Studios monster movies released worldwide. In fact, Shimura was in over
200 films between 1934 and 1981 (he died in 1982 at the age of 76). Than man
was a genius. One only has to compare the actor’s performances in both Ikiru and Seven Samurai to appreciate the diversity this talented actor
possessed. Takashi Shimura is Japan’s greatest unsung cinema thespian.
has re-issued Ikiru with a new, very
good-looking restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural
soundtrack. There is an audio commentary from 2003 by Stephen Prince, author of
The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira
Kurosawa. Supplements include a 90-minute documentary from 2000 about
Kurosawa that features interviews with the director; a lengthy documentary from
2003 on Ikiru featuring interviews
with Kurosawa, one of the script writers, other members of the crew, and
Takashi Shimura. There’s a new English subtitle translation, and the obligatory
trailer. An essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer and a reprint from
critic Donald Richie’s book The Films of
Akira Kurosawa are included in the booklet.
Ikiru is a movie about
humanity, life, and death, and it’s perhaps Kurosawa’s most personal film. That
means it’s a must for connoisseurs of foreign cinema.
bet many of you cinephiles out there have heard
of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed trilogy of films from the
1950s (Pather Panchali,aka
Song of the Little Road, 1955; Aparajito,aka The
Unvanquished, 1956; and Apur Sansar,aka The
World of Apu,1959), but have
never actually seen them. Here is your chance to rectify that egregious error.
Quite simply put, anyone interested in film history needs to have this trio of
motion pictures under the belt.
Ray, who received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992, began his
career as an illustrator of books. One of these was Pather Panchali, a classic of Bengali literature (1928) written by
Bibhutibushan Bandyopadhyay, and its sequel, Aparajito (1932). They comprise the story of the growth of a boy
from infancy to adulthood over the course of twenty-five years or so (from the
1910s to the 1930s), and how he rises from the extreme rural poverty of his
humble beginnings to becoming a writer and husband-then-father in the big city
of Calcutta (now called Kolkata).
two novels eventually became the basis for the trilogy of films Ray would make
between 1952 and 1959, when he kick-started his work in cinema. A lover of movies—especially
the Italian neo-realist works such as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (aka The
Bicycle Thief)—Ray founded a film society in Calcutta in 1947 and became an
assistant to Jean Renoir in 1949 when the French filmmaker was in India making
his seminal The River (1951). With
Renoir’s encouragement and inspiration, Ray set out to begin making his own
films. He chose Pather Panchali to be
of continual problems with funding, the picture took nearly four years to make,
and with an inexperienced crew to boot. Released to overwhelming critical praise
and numerous prizes, including the “Best Human Document” award at the Cannes Film
Festival, Song of the Little Road stands
as one of the greatest debuts of any filmmaker.
the most striking of the three pictures, Song
presents in neo-realist style what it was really like to live in the rural jungle
of Bengal in the 1910s. Apu Roy is born the second child to very poor parents
who live in a crumbling ancestral home. Harihar, the father (Kanu Banerjee), is
something of a priest and writer, but he is always traveling, gone for months
at a time, and never brings home enough money. While he seems to be a nice man,
he is ineffectual as a husband and father. On the other hand, Apu’s mother,
Sarbajaya (brilliantly played by Karuna Banerjee, no relation to Kanu), is the
long-suffering, anxious, and stoic parent who provides for the children and
fends off criticism from neighbors. It could be said that Apu’s older sister, Durga
(played first as a younger child by Shampa “Runki” Banerjee, the real-life
daughter of Karuna Banerjee, and portrayed later as a young teen by the
wonderful Uma Das Gupta), is really the protagonist of the first film, and Ms.
Gupta is especially good in the role. And then there is “Auntie” (amazingly characterized
by 85-year-old Chunibala Devi, a veteran of Indian stage and silent films). The
woman is half-disabled, wrinkled, toothless, and cross-eyed—and despite being
addicted to opium during the shoot, her performance is quite remarkable. Apu
(Subir Banerjee, no relation to the others) is around 5 or 6 years old in this
picture and is mostly an observer of the hardships and tragedies that fall upon
picture is poetic, tender, and honest. Filmed by first-time cinematographer
Subrata Mitra, who went on to become Ray’s go-to DP, and scored by a young Ravi
Shankar (the sitar and bamboo flute music is fabulous!), Song of the
Little Road is a one-of-a-kind film that will move you in
the picture became a hit, Ray was encouraged to continue the story from the
novels and made The Unvanquished, in
which a slightly older Apu and his parents move out of the jungle to the holy
city of Benares (also known as Varanasi) on the Ganges. There, Harihar works as
a priest and Sarbajaya is still the strong one in the family—until tragedy
strikes again. Apu and his mother move back to the country, and there Apu
decides he wants to go to school and not be a priest like his father. It takes
money to attend school, so his mother does what she can to make it happen. An
older, teenage Apu then goes to Calcutta to attend college. Karuna Banerjee is
the focal point of this middle entry in the trilogy, and her performance is powerful
and heartbreaking. Apu is played by two different actors throughout the course
of the picture.
Finally, The World of Apu was made
after Ray took a break from the trilogy and made a couple of other films
in-between (e.g., the acclaimed The Music
Room,1958). In the third
chapter, Apu (played by longtime Indian star Soumitra Chatterjee) is now in his
twenties and living alone in Calcutta. He is a loner, a dreamer, and an artist.
He is writing a novel in which he has little faith, he isn’t interested in
working, and he has no money. And yet he is somewhat happy with his “freedom.”
Then, by happenstance, he is talked into an arranged marriage to a young girl,
Aparna (played by the beautiful Sharmila Tagore in her first film role—she went
on to become a star in Indian cinema), and Apu’s life is changed once again. The World of Apu is primarily a love
story, but it’s also about the assuming of responsibility for one’s actions.
too bad that there was never a fourth chapter in the story. It would have been
interesting to see what happened to Apu when he was in his forties or fifties.
Like Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine
Doinel, which covers the life of a young man over the course of five films, The Apu Trilogy is a monumental epic—but an extremely personal and intimate one—that covers universal truths, emotions, and values recognizable
in any culture and language. It stands as one of the most heartfelt statements
on humanity ever put on celluloid.
Criterion Collection’s new boxed-set contains all three films, gorgeously and
meticulously restored in 4K digital, undertaken in collaboration with the
Academy Film Archive at the AMPAS and L’Immagine Ritrovata from existing prints
(the negatives were long ago destroyed in a fire). There are many supplements
on each of the three discs that include new interviews with Soumitra Chatterjee,
Sharmila Tagore, and Shampa Banerjee (now Shampa Srivastava), as well as with film
historian Gideon Bachmann, camera assistant Soumendu Roy, film writer Ujjal
Chakraborty, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, and film historian Mamoun Hassan.
Vintage interviews include several with Ray, Ravi Shankar, members of the crew
and cast, and more. A handful of vintage documentaries are included, along with
footage from the 1992 Oscar ceremony, in which Ray received his honorary award
in a bed in a Calcutta hospital. The booklet features a selection of Ray’s
storyboards for Song of the Little Road,
as well as essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
The Apu Trilogy on Blu-ray is a
landmark release from the Criterion Collection of milestones not only of
Bengali cinema, but of motion picture history. Check it out—you will find it a
profoundly rewarding experience.
In a relatively infamous review, a film critic from the
Atlanta Journal dismissively sniffed
that Dont Look Back (that’s not a typo, there is, mysteriously, no apostrophe
in the title) was little more than “the neighborhood’s biggest brat blowing his
nose for ninety minutes.” This harsh
sentiment was echoed by a critic from the Cleveland
Plains Dealer who added the film was “certainly not for moviegoers who
bathe and/or shave.” Time, of course,
has proven such histrionic appraisals of this very significant film to be entirely
wide of the mark. Most film scholars now
regard Donn Allen (D.A.) Pennebaker’s gritty and grainy opus as the first true masterwork
of rock music documentary filmmaking.
Though some of the earliest reviews were clearly nonplussed
with Pennebaker’s maverick “direct cinema” style of filmmaking, most of the critical
scorn was reserved for the movie’s principal figure, Bob Dylan. Even such early believers as Israel G. “Izzy”
Young, a folk-music enthusiast who took a chance in November of 1961 and chose
to produce Dylan’s first New York City concert, thought Dont Look Back, “A sad
event. Dylan surrounded by machinations,
appearing wherever he is told to, and resenting it. He is abusive to interviewers. Why? He didn’t have to agree to it.”
In defense of his detractors, both friendly and
antagonistic, it is true that few of Dylan’s Dont Look Back challengers are
spared the artist’s stony silence or mocking ridicule. In the course of the film the strikingly
young but already revered folksinger appears, at any given time, to be aloof,
condescending, or downright rude to those who might dare touch the hem. The devoted pilgrims, uncomprehending
journalists, and dullards who crowd and distract the musician in dressing rooms,
hotel suites, press conferences or out on the street are ceremoniously – and
sometimes painfully – put-on or put-off by this enfant terrible. Pennebaker’s
shoulder-held 16mm newsreel camera is seemingly always at the ready to capture every
glorious – and cringe-worthy - moment for posterity, all in a dispassionate and
non-judgmental manner. Since his two-camera
team rolled nearly continuously, Dylan himself opines on a supplement from this
magnificent new Blu-ray issue from Criterion, “After awhile you didn’t notice [the
What Dylan’s harshest critics totally miss is that the
singer’s perceived boorishness is reflexively defensive; it’s his dilettantish
but not too un-understandable coping mechanism to navigate the maelstrom encircling
him. Throughout Dont Look Back, the camera
establishes - in stark black and white imagery- that by 1965 Dylan was already caught
uncomfortably in the cross-hairs of the emerging culture-war. Dylan’s gift at word-play and his brilliant,
thoughtful songs brought him deserved attention; but they also managed, perhaps
accidentally, to tap into the zeitgeist of the brimming ‘60’s revolution. The singer’s mysterious persona, his wounded
singing-style, his elemental guitar-playing, and his haunting word-images were not
simply embraced. They were soon imbedded into the psyches of those most
deeply moved: academics, politicos, folk-music aficionados, devoted followers
and gossipy news gatherers. Viewing this
phenomenon through the prism of today’s prevalent cynicism is difficult; it’s not
easily explainable why Dylan’s most ardent admirers expected that this skinny, twenty-four
year old youngster – one with less than optimal social skills no less– had the
ability to impart wisdom befitting that of an ancient, wizened sage. Throughout the film the singer is pressed to share
the secrets of the universe that everyone presumes he’s holding close to his
chest. Though Dylan makes several
sincere attempts to explain, “I’m just a guitar player. That’s all…,” his protestations go unheeded.
There is one archival flashback near the film’s
beginning that provides a window of context for such deification. Upon a BBC journalist’s query “How did it all
begin for you, Bob?,” Pennebaker flashes to a civil rights rally where – in a
strikingly invasive full screen and spit-flicking close-up – Dylan brays out
the verses to one of his best “finger-pointing” songs, “Only a Pawn in their
Game.” The song, which would see issue
a half-year later on his seminal The
Times They Are A-Changin’ album, brashly charges not only the genuine
assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, but a morally corrupt police
force, government officials, and court justices as malleable co-conspirators to
the murder. To the best of my knowledge,
this is the only footage in Dont Look Back that is not the product of
Pennebaker’s own set of voyeuristic cameras.
The rally footage came courtesy of Edmund Emshwiller, a
celebrated visual artist and illustrator who would dabble in experimental
filmmaking in the early 1960s. Carrying
along a single 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, Emshwiller followed a troupe of
Greenwich Village folk-singing activists (Dylan, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel,
and the Freedom Singers) in July of 1963 to a Voter Registration Rally on the
farm of Silas Magee in Greenwood, Mississippi. Emshwiller’s resulting short film, Streets of Greenwood, a reference to
the small town that was, at the time, a hotbed of racial discrimination and
KKK-vigilante violence, would, sadly, not see wide release. Pete Seeger would later suggest it was likely
Dylan’s inclusion in the finished experimental-film that doomed Streets of
Greenwood to near-oblivion. He was
An extremely limited release of this obscure agit-prop short
film had, reportedly, been blocked by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Grossman was a major figure in the early
1960s folk-music revival, a tough and calculating business manager by
reputation; his table stable of clients would eventually include Peter, Paul,
and Mary, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs, and Richie Havens
amongst others. In 1962, Dylan signed a
ten-year exclusive contract with Grossman, an opportunistic move that in three
years time would swiftly transform the scruffy singer from little-known folksinger
to pop-music icon. It was also a
temporary alliance of strong personalities predestined to end acrimoniously.
of the more controversial motion pictures to emerge out of what film historians
call “New Hollywood” was In Cold Blood,
which was released to theaters “for mature audiences only.” The New Hollywood
movement began around 1966, when the Production Code finally started to
collapse (and before the movie ratings were instituted) and studios commenced
allowing auteur filmmakers to do
whatever the hell they wanted. The year 1967 was especially a groundbreaking
one with the release of such “adult” fare as Bonnie and Clyde, The
Graduate, In the Heat of the Night,
and In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood is based on the
“non-fiction novel” by Truman Capote about the true crime of 1959 in which an
innocent family of four in Kansas were murdered by two ex-cons who believed
there was $10,000 hidden in a safe in the house (there wasn’t). Capote spent
several years writing the book, interviewing law enforcement men involved in
the case, as well as the two killers themselves—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
The accused were eventually executed in 1965. In Cold Blood turned out to be, along with Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, one of the two most
successful true crime books ever published.
Brooks was a Hollywood veteran who had been working in the industry since
before World War II. In the 1950s, he made a name for himself as a
writer/director, especially as an adapter of previously existing material. He
had won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Elmer
Gantry (1960) and had brought to the screen other acclaimed pictures such
as Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and The Professionals (1966). Brooks
received Oscar nominations for both Director and Adapted Screenplay for In Cold Blood.
filmed in black and white at a time when most movies were in color, the picture
is a stark, dark, and ultra-realistic depiction of two psychologically-damaged
men, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Blake as Smith and Scott Wilson as
Hickock. Brooks’ reasoning to film in black and white was that “documentaries
were usually in black and white” and he wanted that true-to-life feel. Conrad
Hall, the director of photography, used a palette of extreme blacks and harsh
whites to achieve a higher than usual contrast (Hall was also nominated for an
Oscar). This served to emphasize the darkness that resided in these two men’s
In Cold Blood is a tough picture
to watch. It’s very disturbing, even today. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have
its rewards. As a study of darkness, and a display of virtuoso filmmaking, it’s
easily one of the better motion pictures of that decade. Brooks considered it
to be the best film he ever made, and he’s probably right.
movie is very faithful to the book with a few minor exceptions, such as the
addition of a reporter character who provides some voice-over narration, and
the complete elimination of the trial. The only scene from the trial in the film
is the prosecutor’s closing argument for the death penalty. Oddly, one figure
is totally absent from the movie, and that is Truman Capote himself. As shown
in the recent pictures, Capote (2005)
and Infamous (2006), the author
inserted himself into the convicted men’s incarcerated lives on an intimate
level. (It is highly recommended that after viewing In Cold Blood, one might want to take a look at Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, an often overlooked and
underrated biopic on Capote that deals closely with the author’s relationship
with Perry Smith, who in this case is played by none other than Daniel Craig!).
have said that In Cold Blood is a
statement against the death penalty, but in many ways, it’s also the opposite.
While Brooks does a great job in evoking some sympathy for the killers by
portraying the hard life Perry had as a child and other circumstances that
brought the two killers to commit murder, it’s also difficult not to side with
the jury. The Clutter family—the victims—are presented in such a compassionate
light that, in the end—at least for this viewer—the verdict makes complete
Criterion Collection disc presents a new 4K digital restoration with 5.1
surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (and the jazz score is by Quincy
Jones—also nominated for an Oscar!). Visually, the Blu-ray could not be more
striking. The abundance of supplements is also impressive. There are new
interviews with: a) Author Daniel K. Daniel on director Brooks, and this is
very enlightening; b) Cinematographer John Bailey about DP Conrad Hall and his
work; c) Film historian Bobbie O’Steen on the film’s editing; and d) Film
historian and jazz critic Gary Giddins about Jones’ score. Vintage interviews
include one with Brooks from 1988; one with Capote from 1966 during a visit to
the crime scene; and one with Capote from 1967 conducted by Barbara Walters.
There is also a short 1966 documentary on Capote directed by Albert and David
Maysles. The film’s trailer and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara in the
enclosed booklet rounds out this excellent package.
In Cold Blood is not for the
faint-hearted, but it is also hard-hitting, arresting, and brilliantly made.
It’s a must for fans of crime drama and those who appreciate a little art with
all the talented filmmakers who have made a mark in the history of cinema,
there is that handful who belong in a
special category. Granted, many directors are auteurs, in that they have a recognizable style and thematic
consistency to their work—a “signature” that identifies them as the “authors”
of their pictures. But there is a rare sub-set of auteurs who are so strikingly original and iconoclastic that their
work is singularly their own and unlike that of any other filmmaker. David
Lynch is one of these. No one makes the kind of movies he does.
Mulholland Drive is easily one of
Lynch’s best pictures (and he’s not very prolific, either—only ten feature
films to date, not counting television productions). It was released in 2001 to
massive critical acclaim (Lynch shared Best Director at Cannes with Joel Coen,
and he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar), as well as a great deal of
bafflement and mutterings from exiting audiences such as, “Well, that was weird.”
it’s a strange film—after all, it’s a David Lynch picture, and he is, perhaps,
the foremost proponent of surrealism in cinema since the advent of Luis Buñuel.
But Lynch is also a romanticist, and his blending of these two somewhat
conflicting artistic movements result in a distinctly different kind of animal,
something that has been coined “Lynchian.” There is a beauty to Mulholland Drive that is mesmerizing.
The mystery and ambiguity of its narrative is almost secondary to the emotional
punch the director delivers to the audience.
has been written about the movie in an attempt to analyze it and make sense of
the non-linear plot, and it is, like all great art, open to interpretation. It
takes more than one viewing to “get” it, although I don’t think anyone can fully get it. If this is your first
encounter with Mulholland Drive—and
the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition is an excellent medium with which to approach the film—it is highly
suggested you watch the film in its entirety, and then view it again the
following day after thinking about it.
the film is the sad, tragic story of a severely depressed and failed Hollywood
actress named Diane (played by Naomi Watts, in a brilliant, breakout
performance that shot her to “A” list status) who has been jilted by her
lesbian lover, Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) for a film director (Justin Theroux).
Diane hires a hit man to murder Camilla, and then kills herself out of remorse
and guilt. Doesn’t sound too savory, does it? Never mind—Lynch tells this story
in the form of a compelling quasi-neo-noir mystery, and in the process he creates
a puzzle for the audience to solve in order to connect the dots. Out of the
146-minutes of running time, nearly the first two hours of it consist of a
dream Diane is having which casts her as a wholesome, talented, optimistic and
aspiring actress named Betty. She meets an amnesiac victim who adopts the name
Rita (also Harring), and they set about attempting to find out how Rita came to
be in her situation. At around the 1:57:00 mark in the picture, Diane wakes
from her dream to her reality. What follows then are several non-linear flashbacks
to events that happened prior to Diane having her dream.
logic is usually nonsensical when analyzed upon waking, but during the actual
dream, everything makes sense, right? When watching the first two hours, you’ll
see several characters and objects that appear in relation to the “plot” of the
dream... but later, in the wakeful reality, the actors who played the earlier characters
and the same objects appear in different contexts—with a little thought you can
decipher how the dream connects these elements with the real circumstances. The
clues are all there on screen.
interesting aspect of Mulholland Drive is
that it was originally a pilot for a possible television series a la Twin Peaks. Lynch had filmed the “dream”
section of the picture, but the network rejected it. The director got financing
elsewhere, re-tooled the existing footage, wrote the rest of the story, and
brought the principles back for more shooting. This is why the detectives,
played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe, simply disappear from the movie
after the first half hour—they were originally intended to be regular
characters in the TV series. One can’t help but wonder what if.
fascinating film comes with a gorgeous new, restored 4K digital transfer,
supervised by Lynch and director of photography Peter Deming, with a 5.1
surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Like most DVDs and
Blu-rays that Lynch approves, there are no chapter stops. Supplements include
some terrific new interviews with Lynch and Naomi Watts together (very funny
and revealing); Theroux, Harring, and Deming; composer Angelo Badalamenti (wait
until you hear how he got started writing film scores!); production designer
Jack Fisk; and casting director Johanna Ray. There’s a deleted scene, the
trailer, and a wonderful treat—on-set footage of Lynch directing several scenes
from the film. The booklet contains a 2005 interview with Lynch from Chris
Rodley’s book, Lynch on Lynch.
Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece in
David Lynch’s canon and the new Criterion release certainly does it justice. This
is a film that is haunting, beautiful, and full of secrets and surprises. It
really is the stuff that dreams are made of.
new release from The Criterion Collection in time for Halloween is the classic
Japanese ghost story anthology, Kwaidan,
which, upon its appearance in the mid-sixties, generated a good deal of
critical acclaim. After it premiered in Japan in late December 1964, the
picture was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 (in a much shorter
version) and won the Special Jury Prize. The film was also nominated for the
Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (1965). It was also, at the time, Japan’s most
a long movie. Criterion has released a new 2K digital restoration of the original
183 minute director’s cut (complete with an intermission intercard) that was
shown at the picture’s premiere. Kobayashi was forced to edit it to just over
two hours for Cannes, and, for its general and worldwide release, to 164
minutes. “Kwaidan” means “ghost
stories,” and the movie consists of four non-related spooky tales from the
country’s folklore. The Japanese have always been great tellers of ghost
stories, especially ones that take place in feudal Japan—which these do. The
individual stories are based on Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of folk tales
written in the late 1800s (Hearn is Caucasian but was an expert in all things
Kobayashi’s film is strikingly gorgeous. The high definition improves the
quality of Criterion’s original release of several years ago—the colors are
vivid and bold, the picture is clear and sharp, and the costumes and set
designs are absolutely breathtaking. Kobayashi certainly draws from traditional
Kabuki, for the mise-en-scene is more
theatrical than cinematic. The settings look like they belong more on the stage
than on film. And yet, the director and his designer manage to recreate an epic
sea battle with samurai soldiers and wooden ships—in a studio. Impressive
the visual excellence on display, the four stories are of varying quality. The
first, “The Black Hair,” concerns a husband who leaves his wife to search for a
better life. He marries the daughter of a nobleman, but is unhappy. When he
finally goes back to the original wife, he doesn’t count on reckoning with her
long, black hair, which, ahem, has a mind of its own. In “The Woman of the
Snow,” a young man’s life is spared by a Yuki-onna
(a wicked female spirit) as long as he never reveals that he encountered
her. Well, ahem, guess what he does? The longest and slowest, and yet most
complex and opulent tale, is “Hoichi the Earless,” in which a blind biwa player (it’s a sort of Japanese
lute) is compelled to perform for an entire clan of samurai ghosts; they had long
ago perished in that legendary sea battle mentioned above. “Hoichi” features
actors Tetsuro Tamba (known to Western audiences for playing Tiger Tanaka in
the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live
Twice) and Takashi Shimura, one of Japan’s greatest actors, seen in many of
Akira Kurosawa’s pictures (he was the leader of the Seven Samurai). The final story is a short one, “In a Cup of Tea,”
in which a warlord’s bodyguard sees the face of a ghost in the tea he is
drinking—and that spirit pays him an unwelcome visit.
probably safe to say that many of the popular J-Horror flicks of the late 1990s
(e.g., Ringu, Ju-on) owe a debt to Kwaidan.
The earlier film isn’t gory, although for 1964 it was probably a little
shocking with a brief shot of nudity and a few instances of bright red bloodletting.
The film isn’t particularly scary, either, but it does have some creepy
moments. The sound design is especially notable for its subtlety and occasional
surprises that will make you jump. Modern audiences, however, will most likely
find Kwaidan too meticulously
measured to be a real fright fest. Perhaps it might be best enjoyed by viewing the
film in two parts.
include a new audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince; a new subtitle
translation; an interview with Kobayashi from 1993, conducted by filmmaker
Masahiro Shinoda; a new interview with assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara,
which is interesting for the many revelations about Kobayashi’s working methods
and the reasons there were several cuts of the film; a new piece about author
Lafcadio Hearn; and vintage trailers. The booklet contains an essay by critic
film enthusiasts and devotees of Japanese folklore will certainly enjoy Kwaidan. I would especially recommend it
for viewers interested in production and costume design. For those two elements
alone, Kwaidan is a sumptuous
Cronenberg’s horror films always seem to tackle subjects that involve an
unpredictable human body and the terror of your consciousness residing inside
of it. He explored parasites in his first mainstream picture, Shivers (aka They Came From Within, 1975), and viral “stingers” than grow in a
woman’s armpit in his second, Rabid,
1977. The rest of his movies, leading up to the ultimate statement of being
trapped in a horrible body, The Fly
(1986), all dealt with some aspect of physical or mental transformation. The Brood, released in 1979, fits right
in with Cronenberg’s thematic fascination with flesh and blood. And it’s a
Reed plays Dr. Raglan, an unorthodox psychotherapist who uses controversial
techniques that cause his patients to manifest their inner turmoil and anger
into visible, bizarre growths on their bodies. One guy sprouts spots. Another
man grows a weird gland on the outside of his neck. The most extreme result of
Dr. Raglan’s methods occurs with a disturbed woman named Nola (Samantha Eggar),
who was abused as a child and is in the throes of a divorce and custody battle
with her husband Frank (Art Hindle). Nola is growing “wombs” on her body that eventually
give birth to horrific dwarf “copies” of her and Frank’s five-year-old daughter
Candice (Cindy Hinds)—except these siblings are murderous creatures unwittingly
and psychically controlled by their mother. They have the faces of trolls, no
navels, and are anatomically asexual, but otherwise they are somewhat identical
to Candice. (Where they get the clothes that Candice wears is unexplained.)
a horror film, The Brood brilliantly
succeeds. The shocks are genuine, the gross-out factor is palpable, and the
story—which is absurd on the surface—is intelligently well-written (by
Cronenberg himself). Apparently the impetus for the film was the director’s
harrowing experience in going through a divorce and rescuing his child from a
delivers one of his best campy performances, and Eggar is suitably deranged in
her part. Of particular note is young Hinds, who manages to be simultaneously
innocent and creepy—this was her first acting role. Perhaps the weakest link in
the picture is Hindle, who somehow never reaches the emotional heights that his
a fairly low-budget affair, made for a little less than two million dollars,
but the visual effects and production values are top-notch. As noted in the new
supplemental documentary on the film’s making, all the strange bodily terrors
were accomplished with clever makeup applications—in particular, the use of
various-sized condoms filled with movie blood and... other stuff. Eggar relates
how hilarious this actually was on the set; she could hardly keep from laughing
as the crew glued the ends of prophylactics onto her torso.
has released a new, restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Cronenberg,
with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. As is usually the case with Criterion
Blu-rays, the video is gorgeous and vividly colorful—and this is one of those
movies in which the color is practically a character in the film! Supplements
include: the new documentary featuring interviews with Eggar, executive
producer Pierre David, cinematographer Mark Irwin, assistant director John
Board, and special makeup effects artists Rick Baker and Joe Blasco (neither of
whom worked on The Brood, but served
on other Cronenberg pictures); a 2011 interview with Cronenberg covers his
early career in the 70s; a 2013 interview with Hindle and a grown-up Hinds is
conducted by the editor of Fangoria magazine;
and—most fun of all—a segment from The
Merv Griffin Show from 1980, featuring Reed verbally sparring with Orson
Welles. There’s also a radio spot and an essay by critic Carrie Rickey in the
notable supplement is Cronenberg’s rare second feature film, Crimes of the Future (1970), made in
color on a shoestring budget. This is a truly bizarre picture about a world in
which all the women capable of reproducing are gone (killed by toxic cosmetics)
and men are attempting to compensate without a feminine influence in their
lives. A little too stilted for its own good, Crimes serves as a curiosity in the Cronenberg pantheon that is
worth seeing... once.
the main attraction is an excellent fright fest. The Brood has arrived in glorious high definition just in time for
Halloween. Grab the popcorn, turn out the lights, and prepare yourself for some
truly nightmarish material. The Brood is
Anderson’s marvelous 2012 comedy, Moonrise
Kingdom, was previously released on Blu-ray and DVD, but The Criterion
Collection has seen fit to issue an edition that blows the old one away. With
an abundance of fun, entertaining supplements and packaged ephemera—Criterion’s
disc is in keeping with the other fine releases the company has done for the
Moonrise Kingdom is the first Wes
Anderson movie I truly fell in love with. While I liked and appreciated his
earlier pictures, Moonrise is a
flawless masterpiece of style and wit—as is Anderson’s following film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. For my money,
these are two slam-bang pieces of comic brilliance.
setting is a small fictional New England island, during one summer in the Sixties.
A Boy Scout troop camps out there. Some families live on the island, others
visit for the season. Twelve-year-old Suzy (wonderfully played with a mature
sense of irony by Kara Hayward) falls for one of the scouts, Sam (Jared Gilman,
in another highly accomplished performance). They’re both intelligent, curious,
and have wicked senses of humor. They make plans to run away together, and when
they do, the adults (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy’s parents,
Edward Norton is the scoutmaster, and Bruce Willis is the chief of police on
the island) go nuts. The whole island gets involved in searching for the
precocious lovebirds, including the entire scout troop. Add in an approaching
hurricane and you’ve got a wacky romantic farce with suspense.
you’re familiar with Anderson’s work, you’ll know to expect a good degree of
quirkiness—every frame of this delightful picture oozes with eccentricity.
Oddballs abound. The overall tone is light and whimsical, and yet the handling
of the subject of young love is powerfully poignant and painfully real. How
many of you remember what it was like?—that first, young love, the infatuation
with another person at such a tender, yet blossoming, age. Anderson captures it
all with a good deal of laughs and a lot of heart.
director and his team also managed to build an entire universe around this
little island—the detail is remarkable, all the way from hand-knitted
decorations to the invented library books Suzy has stolen to read over the
summer. The sense of community the picture conveys is palpable—and it’s no
wonder, since the entire cast and crew (and, of course, others from Anderson’s
stock company pop up—Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey
Keitel) lived together for a couple of months while making the movie. As
emphasized repeatedly in the supplemental documentaries, the cast and crew
became a family.
the restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Anderson, is the kind of
picture one would use to demonstrate the joys of Blu-ray to a novice. It is a
colorful, vibrant picture with an imaginative look and feel, thanks to the
Production Design, Art Direction, and Set Decoration by, respectively, Adam
Stockhausen, Gerald Sullivan, and Kris Moran. The new audio commentary features
Anderson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton (who literally phones it in), Jason
Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and others—and it’s all entertaining stuff.
supplements include special shorts that were used to promote the film, some of
which were previously released, such as the Bob Balaban-narrated overview of
the six library books Suzy is reading throughout the film, and Bill Murray’s
guided tour of the set. There’s a new behind-the-scenes documentary,
selected-scene storyboard “animatics,” audition footage of the child actors,
and interviews with many of the cast and crew. Edward Norton presents a
selection of short videos he shot with an iPhone, and there is a bit on
miniatures and props used in the film.
the packaging includes a few souvenir goodies—a “postcard” of the cast and a
map of fictional New Penzance Island. The enclosed booklet contains pictures of
merit badges, the library book covers and some illustrations, and an essay by
critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
back at 2012, it’s a shame that the picture’s only Oscar nomination was for its
Original Screenplay (by Anderson and Roman Coppola). It was my favorite picture
of the year, and Criterion did it proud.
De Palma’s crime thriller/horror flick, Dressed
to Kill, was a controversial release in 1980 for its depiction of violence
against women and its sexual content— nevertheless, it was a successful entry in
the director’s oeuvre during the most
fruitful period of his long career. The film was released in America with an
“R” rating—but only after De Palma, under protest, compromised with the ratings
board and agreed to cut some footage, re-edit a couple of sequences, and change
some lines of dialogue.
Palma’s preferred unrated version of the film was released on home video not
too long ago, but The Criterion Collection has seen fit to issue a new, 4K
digital restoration, supervised by the director, of what might have been an
“X”-rated picture back in the day. The results are gorgeous. De Palma’s
thrillers from the mid-seventies and early eighties tended to be shot with a soft
focus that emulated some of Hitchcock’s late work of the sixties and seventies.
This was intentional. De Palma himself admits in a new interview in the disc
supplements that he was in a “Hitchcock period.” The director on numerous
occasions paid homage to the master of suspense in more ways than just the
photographic style alone. For example, Dressed
to Kill contains cool blondes, kinky sex, shower scenes, cross-dressing
killers, the bumping off a protagonist early in the story, and a lush
orchestral score reminiscent of the way Hitch used Bernard Herrmann’s musical lyricism
to heighten tension.
story begins with Kate, a sexually frustrated Manhattan housewife (played by
Angie Dickinson), who is seeing therapist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) about her
marriage. Early in the picture there is a brilliantly-choreographed extended
sequence, set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which Kate plays
cat-and-mouse with and allows herself to be picked up by a strange man. Then
she gets into serious trouble inside an elevator. A blonde woman in a hat and sunglasses
(resembling Karen Black in Hitchcock’s Family
Plot) slashes her to death with a straight razor. We then learn that one of
Elliott’s patients—a disturbed transsexual—stole the razor from the doctor’s
amateur sleuths Peter, Dickinson’s science-nerd son (played by Keith Gordon)
and Liz, a high class hooker who witnessed the murder (portrayed by Nancy Allen).
They team up to find the killer since the police (represented by a young Dennis
Franz) are having little success with the investigation. The movie then becomes
Allen’s picture. As related by the actress herself in a new interview in the
supplements, De Palma wrote the role for her—after all, she was married to the
director at the time. Allen delivers a performance that got nominated for a
Golden Globe for “Best New Star,” but also for a Razzie (Raspberry Awards) for
outcome of the story is no surprise, but that probably doesn’t matter. Dressed to Kill is all about an exercise
in style. De Palma is the real star
of the movie, and his presence is felt throughout. His signature close-ups,
tracking shots, soft focus, and carefully orchestrated techniques for
generating suspense, scream to the viewer that an auteur is at work. Maybe a little too loudly. But that doesn’t mean
Dressed to Kill isn’t entertaining.
It is. It’s just that it feels like we’ve seen it all before. Perhaps in a
supplements on the disc are extensive. New 2015 interviews include the
previously mentioned ones with De Palma (who is in discussion with
writer/director Noah Baumbach) and Allen, but also producer George Litto,
composer Pino Donaggio, shower-scene body double (and Penthouse Pet of the Year at the time) Victoria Lynn Johnson, and
poster photographic art director Stephen Sayadian. Also new to the release is a
profile of cinematographer Ralf Bode, featuring director Michael Apted.
Previously released extras include a 2001 documentary, The Making of Dressed to Kill, a 2001 interview with actor Keith
Gordon, and more than one feature about the different versions of the film and the
battle with the ratings board. There’s also a gallery of some of De Palma’s
storyboards. The booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Koresky.
Dressed to Kill is not De Palma’s
best work by a long shot, but it is representative of the director’s superb craftsmanship
at a time when he was at the height of his powers. If you’re looking for
something sexy, provocative, and gloriously violent to serve with your popcorn,
Kill will fit the bill.