DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead

The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.

11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.

There are more documentaries about Buddhism, the trials of the Dalai Lama in exile and the lives of Buddhist monks and faithful followers than any library could begin to stock. What makes Unmistaken Child (Oscilloscope) different, and of interest to people who are not already enamored with the tenets of the faith, is the focus on the people behind the robes. It chronicles the four-year search for the reincarnation of renowned Tibetan Lama Konchong by humble 21-year-old Tenzin Zopa, the disciple that Konchong essentially raised a foster son. His odyssey takes him through every pass and valley and rural village of the remote Tsum Valley, seeking out every boy child born at the appropriate time. It recalls the first act of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, but Nati Baratz focuses less on the “unmistaken child” of the title and more on the young searcher, a modest monk who undertakes his assignment with the nervous responsibility of a devoted son determined to fulfill his duty to his mentor, his spiritual leader and his father figure. Along the way, we are treated to a tour of spiritual belief, Buddhist ceremony and rural life in this remote region. But as the child is inevitably taken from his family and brought to the temple to fulfill his destiny, Tenzin Zopa’s quiet dedication to his responsibility turns to brotherly affection and paternal protectiveness. The unmistaken child is still a child after all and Tenzin completes the circle by becoming a father figure for this now fatherless child. Features eight deleted scenes plus an accompanying essay by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.

My review of the superior Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume I (Sony) is here. And there’s more noir at The Warner Archive. My favorite of recent releases from the no-frills DVD-on-demand line is Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951), a rare period piece noir. This one is set in 1860 and the tall target of the title is President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Dick Powell plays the lone police detective who believes in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln on his journey to be sworn in as President and, in a fit of pique, slams his badge on the desk and storms out of the station to board the midnight train to the capitol. That his gesture cripples his effectiveness—without his badge, few believe that he is a cop, let alone on a mission to stop a murder—is just one of the nice touches in a film full of dynamic images and marvelous grace notes. It’s a low budget production by MGM standards but no B-movie; there is great production value here, but with so much of the action on the train, it’s saved for city scenes, the train rolling through a period-perfect town bustling with life. Shots of the train, backlit and charging through the night, are magnificent, and unexpected period details—the train is pulled into the Baltimore station by horses because of an ordinance to keep it from blowing smoke through the middle of town—keeps enlivening the action with stranger-than-fiction flourishes. But it’s Mann’s control and confidence as a director that makes it so irresistible: a fight under the wheels of a train about to leave the station, the camera peering through the spokes and pistons and blasts of steam; a measured walk down the aisle of a train looking for suspicious characters transformed into a hijacking with a simple camera move; a mysterious passenger dropped off in the inky shadow of night while the train is delayed for an important parcel; verbal games between Powell (whose character is named, I kid you not, John Kennedy) and various suspects, blowhards and bystanders, especially with Adolph Menjou as a hospitable officer traveling with his men to Baltimore. What the film really lacks is a cast to sell the stakes of the drama. Powell lacks the grit and hard drive of a true a Mann hero and Marshall Thompson hasn’t the presence to give his cultured southern plantation son a sense of command, let alone make him threatening, but Will Geer (soon to be blacklisted for his political activism) is note-perfect the ubiquitous train conductor whose entire being is focused on getting the train to run smoothly and on time. It was Mann’s last noir; he had essentially made the leap from urban crime director to western director with Winchester ’73 and for the rest of the decade, he helped transform Jimmy Stewart from lovable leading man to ruthless man of the west.

Andrew Stone’s Highway 301 has little of Mann’s craft and visual control and it wobbles between brutal action and awkward exposition, but at its best it’s as gritty as any noir fan could hope for. Steve Cochran is perfectly ruthless as the leader of a brazen gang of bank robbers who pull their heists without masks and make their getaways in broad daylight. He’s not shy about shooting anyone in their way, even a troublesome girlfriend, and he’s so tough that the film has to throw everything at him (starting with one of the great urban car crash stunts of its time) in the third act just to slow him down. Stone’s action is so explosive and sudden that you have to wonder why opens the film on three stultifying speeches that stop the film dead before it even begins, or why he gives over so much to mundane detective/narrator Edmond Ryan. Other recent noirs from the Warner Archive Collection include Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) (a more romantic noir on a train), John Farrow’s The Fallen Sparrow (1943), The Bribe (1949) with Ava Gardner and Robert Taylor, Suspense (1946) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951). You can find them all on the Warner Archive site here.

Blu-ray of the week:

Alfred Hitchcock never made a more purely entertaining film than North by Northwest (Warner), a classic “wrong man” thriller with a romantic cast and a breathless series of adventures across a cross-country romp. Cary Grant, long past his days as a matinee idol, is effortlessly suave and charming and completely convincing as a glib, sheltered New York businessman who, in a purely random twist of fate, is mistaken for a master spy. Suddenly his safe routine is turned upside down by armed thugs, foreign agents and a beautiful femme fatale (Eva Marie Saint, utterly seductive in her first and only blonde sexpot role). Everything clicks and sly fox Hitch slides more sexual innuendo and erotic flirtation into the film than most R rated films accomplish, while the breezy smoothness hides an undercurrent of tension and a complete mistrust of authority. It features some of his greatest set pieces (from fleeing a malevolent crop duster in a remote cornfield to scrambling across the faces of Mount Rushmore), sparkling dialogue and magnificent scores.

The Blu-ray edition, newly remastered from original VistaVision film elements, has a stunning richness and clarity that practically glows in gorgeous overripe Technicolor hues: pure Hollywood gloss. New to this edition is the original hour-long documentary “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style,” a superb tour through famous Hitch moments via interviews with critics and directors (from Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter to Curtis Hanson and Guillermo Del Toro) and, of course, a rich collection of clips from the breadth of this career. Five directors chime in on the 25-minute “North by Northwest: One for the Ages,” which is more appreciation than making-of featurette.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehmann provides an engrossing commentary (originally recorded for the earlier DVD Special Edition release) that digs deep into his experience writing the script and collaborating with Hitch. “I wanted to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action, and lots of changes of locale.” His observations of Hitchcock’s style and periodic criticisms are illuminating more for the differences between Lehmann’s and Hitchcock’s sensibilities than for the film itself, but he does offer some great stories (like the “illegal” shot of Cary Grant at the UN) and ends of a terrific tribute to Hitch: “I didn’t write the tunnel. There’s no way I can credit for that. Damn it.” The 40 minute documentary “Destination Hitchcock” is smartly directed by Peter Fitzgerald, who covers the shoot in literal sequence (following the production across a map of the U.S. a la Grant’s journey), and narrated by co-star Eva Marie Saint, who sprinkles personal observations throughout. Also features the 2003 TCM documentary Cary Grant: A Class Apart.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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