Liam Neeson is back in action in the gritty crime thriller Run All Night (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), his third and most satisfying collaboration with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop). Neeson once again has a very specific skill set—his nickname isn’t Jimmy the Gravedigger for nothing—but he’s been pickling it in booze for years to drown the guilt of his mob assassinations for Irish crime boss Ed Harris. Then Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), a former boxer turned limo driver, lands in serious trouble when his job takes him to the wrong place at the wrong time where he witnesses a gangland murder. Jimmy sobers up quickly and takes on his former boss and best friend—not to mention the bad cops in his pocket—to do protect his boy.
In the world of high-concept crime thrillers, this is surprisingly down to earth. There’s no superheroics or spectacular Die Hard-style stunts here. It’s all handguns and car chases and blood and broken glass on the urban mean streets at night. Collet-Serra grounds it in actual relationships—a son who has no respect for a drop-out father, a mobster who respects his alcoholic best friend more than his reckless son, who would rather play gangsta than understand the balance of power and diplomacy in the criminal underworld, and two fathers who will do anything for their sons despite the past. It’s reminiscent of seventies crime picture, with corrupt cops and criminal codes and a new generation of thug that has no respect for the old ways. If it never becomes anything more than a great paperback crime yarn built on coincidence, bad luck, and blood ties, it does the genre proud. Vincent D’Onofrio brings a weary gravitas to an old-school police detective whose sense of justice outweighs his desire to put Jimmy down and Common is enigmatic as a hired gun with his own specific skill set.
On Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Xbox, and CinemaNow.
Selma (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), directed by Ava Duvernay (who also rewrote Paul Webb’s screenplay without credit), takes on the 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King through Alabama as a benchmark moment in the fight for voting rights and, more generally, civil rights for black citizens in the American south. It’s the kind of film that can get lost in hagiography and simplification. Duvernay sidesteps both with a nuanced, complicated portrait of King (played here by British actor David Oyelowo, star of Duvernay’s previous film Middle of Nowhere) as a man aware of his power as an orator and as a leader, as well as a savvy campaigner with a keen understanding of the workings of the corporate media and local and national politics and powers. Selma was carefully chosen for this event because of, not despite, the potential for violence, one of the ironies revealed in the film: to get the news media to pay attention to injustice, King and his partners in protest had to give them conflict.
That comes at a cost and much of Selma is about the cost and the stakes of movement. Oyelowo plays King with grace and dignity, but he’s always aware of what people are putting on the line, including his wife (Carmen Ejogo), who is harassed by the FBI with evidence of King’s adultery. One of the film’s great triumphs is the maturity and seriousness with which it confronts the way this couple tries to work through it.
There are conflicts within in the movement and with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who was the greatest ally the movement ever had in the White House but was also a politician worried about how to spend his political capital for the greatest good. The film has been criticized for its portrayal of Johnson’s resistance to King’s insistence on moving ahead quickly with voting rights, a conflict partly engineered in the film for dramatic purpose, but I think the critics protest too much. Those scenes illustrate how even supporters of the cause cannot fully understand the reality of living under such repressive laws or the urgency for change. This isn’t a film about Johnson or even, at heart, about King. It is about a culture, a movement, a moment in history, a great injustice that should never be forgotten, and the lives affected by that injustice. Duvernay’s greatest accomplishment is in humanizing history and reminding us of why it matters.
The superb supporting cast of committed performers includes Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, producer Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace, and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover. Note that none of King’s speeches are included here. For reasons beyond my understanding, the King family would not allow Duvernay to use King’s speeches, but the film still manages to give us a sense of the power and passion of his words.
Selma received two Oscar nominations: for Best Picture and Best Original Song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, which it won. Many Oscar watchers thought that controversy over the LBJ portrait resulted so few nominations.
On Blu-ray, DVD, and cable and digital VOD. The Blu-ray edition features the supplements: commentary by filmmaker Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo, the featurettes “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma,” deleted and extended scenes, and the music video for the Oscar-winning song, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.
Paramount Home Media Distribution is sending DVD copies of the film to every high school in the U.S., both public and private, for their libraries, and they are making companion study guides available for teachers free of charge. Educators can request a copy of the guide at http://bazaned.com.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix), written and directed by California-based and Iranian-born filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, is a genre film with a fresh approach and a distinctive cultural texture: a vampire movie from a female director who stirs American movie references into her stylized Iranian street drama.
The Girl (as she is identified in the credits), played by Sheila Vand (Argo), walks the streets (and at one point rides a skateboard) of the ominously-named Bad City in a chador, but underneath wears a striped blouse that could have been borrowed from Jean Seberg in Breathless and her basement room is adorned in pop music posters. Arash (Arash Marandi), the son of a heroin addict father in debt to a drug-dealing pimp, seems to model himself on James Dean, right down to the white T-shirt, black leather jacket and blue jeans. (The pimp, meanwhile, who fashions himself an East LA gangbanger.) Of course they cross paths and The Girl, who exercises a measure of morality in choosing her meals, allows him to woo her. Why not? They’ve both already robbed the same gangster (she took jewelry and his CDs, he grabbed the cash and the drugs).
Shot in high-contrast black-and-white widescreen almost entirely at night, A Girl Walks Home is like an Iranian film noir by way of a crime drama with supernatural edges. Amirpour uses the widescreen format to present a stripped-away landscape, devoid of bystanders (giving it a ghost town atmosphere) and prowled by predators, criminals, hookers, and other society drop-outs. It was produced in the United States, with night-shrouded California locations transformed into the suburbs and industrial outskirts of an Iranian town by the loaded name of Bad City and a cast speaking Farsi, and financed in a decidedly American manner: production funds were raised in an IndieGoGo campaign. And there are also two rather familiar Persian-American faces in supporting roles: Marshall Manesh (Ranjit in How I Met Your Mother) and Pej Vahdat (Arastoo Vaziri in Bones). The brief glimpse of nudity will likely keep it from screening in Iran but had a good festival run and a theatrical release.
Blu-ray and DVD, in Farsi with English subtitles, with a substantial collection of featurettes, including an onstage Q&A with director Ana Lily Amirpour conducted by Roger Corman and an interview with Amirpour and actress Sheila Vand, plus deleted scenes and a booklet with a graphic novel version of the film.
It’s previously been available through Cable On Demand and VOD and it is now also available to stream on Netflix.
Mohammad Rasoulof is the very model of the filmmaker as defiant activist, an Iranian artist who confronts injustice and repression through his cinema knowing full well the consequences of such an act.
In the 1990s, when Iranian cinema first broke out of film festivals and museum programs and started appearing in arthouses, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi worked within the severe government-imposed limitations on subject matter (everything from politics to physical contact between the sexes) by focusing on films about children and rural life. Other filmmakers hid messages and social commentary in genre trappings and metaphor.
With The White Meadows (2009), Rasoulof confronted Iran’s oppressive culture through the metaphor of a surreal and savage Gulliver’s Travels journey, an allegory that was not lost on audiences. The next year he was arrested, along with fellow cinematic rebel Jafar Panahi. And like Panahi, he responded with another cinematic provocation. The even more audacious Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) strips away the metaphor to portray Iran’s government as an authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. These two films are among the most daring—and the most powerful—Iranian films of the past few decades.
John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a feature-length documentary on the making of John Ford’s beloved romantic classic, frames the production in the feeling that the Irish people have for the film, Ford’s tribute to his Irish-American legacy. Director Sé Merry Doyle provides a survey on Ford’s career and offers insight into the contradictory character of the director (Maureen O’Hara, interviewed for the documentary, describes her complicated and sometimes trying relationship with Ford, who was in love with her and showed it by tormenting her), and includes rare color home movie footage from the set and features interviews with filmmakers and film history experts Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and Irish locals who were involved in the film. It falls somewhere between stand-alone documentary and elaborate supplement to an unproduced special edition disc set.
Olive rarely if ever offers supplements on their discs. This is an exception, and fittingly so, as the extras are scenes and interviews deleted from the film.
Best Seller (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is modest but smartly-scripted thriller from 1987 that holds up remarkably well, thanks to a savvy script by Larry Cohen, who was better known at the time as a cagey creator of high-concept, low-budget exploitation films, and great casting. James Woods once again brings charm to the role of a pathologically vindictive hitman who goes to a Joseph Wambaugh-like cop/author (Brian Dennehy) to expose his former employer. This narcissist wants to be the hero of his next book and Cohen gives Woods plenty to work with, from his great lines (which he delivers with the cocky grin and a predator’s confidence) to a peacock’s pride in his work. He cannily mixes social satire and genre twists in his clever screenplay of an unlikely friendship between two men with more history than they realize; his dialogue has a bite and an unforced wit that hovers somewhere between B-movie gangster dramas and buddy pictures. It wasn’t a hit when it came out—director John Flynn was better with character than action and never really gets the blood pumping through it—but it is still a smart, lean thriller and a minor gem of the modern crime genre.
The ambitious 1996 thriller The End of Violence (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) finds director Wim Wenders overreaching to make grand statements about identity, conscience, and the surveillance state in modern L.A. from a screenplay with big ideas built on unformed characters and arch dialogue. Bill Pullman is the ostensible hero, a Roger Corman-like producer kidnapped by a pair of thugs with orders to kill him, while Gabriel Byrne watches powerlessly from on high, a meek Big Brother wired up through surveillance cameras hidden throughout the city. It’s ostensibly a thriller but Wenders twists what little onscreen violence there is into either coldly distanced observations (like watching a movie?) or abrupt but anonymous killings. The narrative is a tangle, neglecting characters and leaving the vast conspiracy more a suggestion than a fully conceived plot, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but Wenders fans. But I am a Wenders fan myself and for all the faults I enjoy Wenders’ unerring eye for image and color, which creates an often beautiful film of unsettling menace and haunting mystery, and his generosity of character. The previous DVD was poorly mastered and non-anamorphic, so this new edition is a vast improvement.
Convicts (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), which Horton Foote adapted from his own one-act play, is a coming-of-age story set on a turn-of-the-century Texas plantation owned by an aging skinflint of a landowner (played by Robert Duvall) who uses convict labor to work his spread. It’s a small, intimate story about mortality and Duvall, who won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, which Foote wrote, inhabits with a mix of authority and fragility, like a lonely King Lear slipping into dementia. Lukas Haas, who is our perspective on the story, plays the 13-year-old boy working in the plantation and brings a clear-eyed attentiveness and childlike doggedness to his character, and James Earl Jones co-stars as the manager of the plantation store, the closest that the owner has to a friend. Peter Masterson directs with an easy intimacy that serves the understated performances and Foote’s lyrical language without actually distinguishing the film.
Vice & Virtue(Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.
Vadim made his debut just before the French nouvelle vague broke through, creating a sensation with … And God Created Woman and its voluptuous sex kitten star Brigitte Bardot in 1956. Where the rest of France’s ambitious young filmmakers were experimenting and exploring, trying to find fresh and authentic ways to express themselves and examine the world around them, Vadim was a self-promoter with an eye on the box-office and a canny understanding of how sex sells. He presented himself as both sexual rebel and polished studio man, making films with a flamboyant style and an erotic flair, even if it was all in the licentious suggestion of debauchery. Vice and Virtue comes off as particularly calculated—the spectacle of innocent beauties degraded at the hands of Nazi officers anticipate the grotesque Nazi-sploitation films of the seventies—and cynical, set against elegant locations and directed with self-consciously theatrical flair. His lighting effects, where the screen goes dark but for a spotlight on a single character, is contrived at best and ultimately distracting. But finally, there is no investment in a moral, merely a pageant of depravity mostly hinted it with the hope that the audience will fill in the rest.
The widescreen black and white film is nicely mastered and looks quite nice. French with English subtitles, no supplements beyond a trailer.
Mark of the Devil (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD), a sadistic tale of a corrupt inquisitor and his reign of terror in the name of the church in 1770 Austria, is not for all tastes, and certainly not for all stomachs. The commanding Herbert Lom stars as the Inquisitor and a handsome young Udo Kier takes a rare romantic lead as a young Baron who rescues an innocent peasant girl from the clutches of a local witch-hunter (the villainous-looking Reggie Nalder), only to run afoul of Lom’s unholy warrior. An early entry in the “sex and sadism” genre, this is an exploitation film with an intelligence behind it, but an exploitation film nonetheless: director Michael Armstrong (with an uncredited Adrian Hoven, who also produced and co-scripted) revels in the most barbarous tortures as the impotent Inquisitor punishes innocent young maidens for his own unclean desires. It’s not as interesting or powerful as Michael Reeves’ similarly themed The Witchfinder General but Mark makes its own unique mark with Lom’s strong central performance as the power mad inquisitor and solid support from Nalder and Kier. The cynical ending that deliver a dramatic punch along with the grisly nastiness. Barf bags were handed out to audiences on its initial release.
This is the first American release by Arrow, a British label that earned a reputation as the “Criterion of Cult” for its high-quality restorations and supplements, and this is a superb disc. It’s been on DVD before, most notably in a fine edition from Blue Underground, but this is remastered in HD from original film elements and features with both English and German soundtracks (it was a co-production shot in Austria). It is sharp and vivid and preserves the filmic texture and it looks superb, a marked upgrade from the previous SD release and the definitive release of the film. (Note that the grit you see in the opening credits is on the negative, thanks to sloppy optical work by the company that added the credits.) It’s the first time it’s been presented in its complete, uncut form in Britain, where the censorship of horror films is notorious, and that same edition is released stateside as well.
It features brand new commentary recorded for this release by director Michael Armstrong with moderator Calum Waddell and the new feature-length documentary “Mark of the Times,” about the “new wave” of British horror in the 1960s and 1970s (with interviews with director Michael Armstrong among others), plus the featurettes “Hallmark of the Devil” (about the American distributor of the film) and “Mark of the Devil: Now and Then” (a look at the shooting locations) and interviews with actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom (carried over from the earlier Blue Underground DVD) and composer Michael Holm. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a collection of outtakes, the trailer, and an accompanying booklet.
Hammer wasn’t the only studio in Britain mining the vein of horror films that made them such attractive imports for American theaters. Before Amicus and Trigon arose in the 1960s, American producer Herman Cohen made a deal with British studio Anglo-Amalgamated to produce a pair of lurid horrors with British accents. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), starring Michael Gough as a crime reporter who takes too much delight in the most grotesque murders, is the first of them, arriving in theaters after Hammer had brought new life to old horror icons with full, blood-dripping color, lurid Gothic style, bodice-ripping sexuality, and villains who revel in their power.
Back in America, Herman Cohen took a different approach to reviving the old monsters for a new generation, aiming his film at the teenage audience by writing them directly into such low budget, high concept exploitation films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), both of which became big hits for American International Pictures. Fresh off those successes, he headed for England and took a cue from Hammer, mixing continental class with grisly material and delivering production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP. Anglo-Amalgamated was not previously a horror studio—the biggest success for the British B-movie studio came from Carry On Sergent (1958), which spawned the lucrative Carry On series—but as the British distributor of AIP pictures it had successfully released its share of American horror films. Horrors of the Black Museum was their first homegrown horror.
Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.
For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.
Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.
Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.
Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.
Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.
The term “video nasty” isn’t exactly a common phrase in the U.S. but in Britain it defines an era of nanny state censorship. The British Board of Film Censorship, or BBFC, determined what could be shown in British theaters and often forced cuts to content or outright banned films, but home video did not exist when the law was written. When the video rental business took off in the 1980s, films that were either banned or censored in theaters were available uncut on tape. The fears of kids being emotionally scarred or corrupted by these tapes were fanned from an ember to a conflagration of controversy thanks to a campaign led by social conservative reactionary activist and self-appointed moral watchdog Mary Whitehead. Members of Parliament, riding the wave of public hysteria, passed the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which forced all videotape releases to be passed by the BBFC before they could be rented or sold in the UK. It imposed an even stricter content code on commercial videotapes than on theatrical releases and, though standards have eased in the decades since implementation, the act is still in effect.
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is a three disc set anchored by the Jake West’s 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, a comprehensive history of the social hysteria and media coverage surrounding the call for censorship, the Parliamentary response, and the reverberations of the act.
Phantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – Brian De Palma’s wild rock and roll remake of Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and The Count of Monte Cristo plays like a decadent glam inversion of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul Williams (who also wrote the dynamic, Oscar-nominated score and songs) stars as Swan, the evil record tycoon (in the opening scene he parodies Marlon Brando from The Godfather) who steals a rock and roll cantata from a sad sack singer / songwriter (William Finley), who transforms into vengeance-filled, hideously scarred monster in love with ingénue Jessica Harper. This outrageous, over-the-top fantasy, done up in real De Palma style (his love of split screen technique finds a new outlet in the video monitors of Swan’s voyeuristic headquarters), is a spirited satire with wild rock and roll numbers and his most sensitive love story.
Shout Factory’s transfer is from a new HD master and released under their Scream Factory imprint, and they do something novel with the Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition. There are so many supplements in this edition, most of them created for this edition by Shout and all of them new to American home video, that they are split between the two discs.
So you get the two exclusive commentary tracks – one with stars Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka the Juicy Fruits), the other with production designer Jack Fisk – on the Blu-ray along with generous new interviews with director Brian DePalma and star / composer Paul Williams and a short piece with make-up artist Tom Burman (focusing on the distinctive mask), plus 26 minutes of alternate takes (presented in split screen to compare to the footage used in the film) and seven minutes of outtakes (showing changes made to cover a post-production change in the name of the record company).
The DVD features the balance of the supplements. The 50-minute documentary “Paradise Regained,” which features interviews with De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, and stars Williams, Harper, Graham, and the last William Finley, and the 72-minute interview with Paul Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro were both featured on the British Blu-ray released by Arrow earlier this year and licensed for this disc, along with an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton and a little 30-second clip with William Finley and the Phantom action figure. Also new to this release are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman and drummer Gary Mallaber, a guide through the poster design by the artist’s widow, and Gerrit Graham reading a bio he wrote for the film’s press kit.
King of the Hill (1993) is the third feature from Steven Soderbergh, who jumped to the head of the American independent scene when sex, lies and videotape took the Audience Award at Sundance 1989 and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes before getting a wide release in suburban multiplexes. His second film, Kafka (1991), wasn’t a success but it revealed a serious filmmaker who wanted to explore different subjects and genres. King of the Hillcontinued that tradition in that is was yet again a complete change of style and subject matter for the director: an adaptation of the memoir by A.E. Hotchner about life as an adolescent during the Depression. It was also his first studio production, made for the fledgling Gramercy Pictures, and it gave him the biggest budget of his career. He was able to craft a rich recreation of early thirties St. Louis as seen through the eyes of a hopeful boy in an increasingly desperate situation.
Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a smart, creative, generous high school kid who spins stories to hide the fact that his family is broke and living out of a hotel, where they are behind in the rent. To stay in his high school, a well-maintained school filled with affluent kids (Aaron is “a charity case,” as one of his affluent classmates describes him), he and his kid brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) have to keep up the fiction that they reside in a nearby apartment house. His dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a salesman hawking “wickless candles” that no one is buying while he waits for one of his many applications to pay off with a better job. Aaron picks up odd jobs as he can with the help of Lester (Adrian Brody in his first major role), an older kid who looks over Aaron like a big brother. Lester knows the angles and hustles his way to survival and his mentorship gives Aaron the skills and strength to survive when he’s force to take care of himself.
It may not have been obvious at the time but Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) was a perfect match of film and filmmaker. Don Siegel later made a name for himself with his gritty Clint Eastwood collaborations (not to mention is brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but was just a promising journeyman director when he embarked on this low-budget 1954 film, a project initiated by producer Walter Wanger after he served a short sentence for assault with a deadly weapon (he shot a man that he thought was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett). Riot gave Siegel a situation where violence was a defining element of the world and the people in it, a power always threatening to blow up and burn out control, and he used it to create a powder-keg of thriller with a message underneath the drama.
It begins with a newsreel-like prologue to establish its ripped-from-the-headlines bonafides—”Where will the next riot occur?” teases the narrator after showing us a succession of protests in prisons across the country—and then jumps into the fictional story of a carefully-planned riot in the punishment block of an overcrowded prison. (Phil Karlson used the same structure a year later for an even more explosive The Phenix City Story.) Neville Brand, a real-life war hero who made a career playing Hollywood villains thanks to his tough manner and scuffed-up face, is the ringleader of this protest, a convicted killer who has no agenda but to call attention to prison conditions. His fellow inmates are not so committed to his restraint, however, and the prison guard hostages are in constant danger of retribution from vindictive prisoners, especially Leo Gordon as a sociopath who has no interest in curbing his impulses. The warden (Emile Meyer) is not only sympathetic to their demands, he’s already complained to the state about the prison overcrowding and understaffing, lack of education and training programs for the inmates, and insufficient training for the guards, but the state politics demand a policy of no negotiations with rioters, which just raises the stakes and the temperature of the stand-off.
Siegel helms this film with both a hard-edged portrait of the violence and desperation of the situation and an intelligent engagement with the issues. Most of these guys have nothing to lose. Others are so angry that they riot in sympathy, whether it helps or not (in this film, it’s both). Brand holds the center as a both, a guy ready to follow through on his threats if necessary but restrained and far-sighted enough to hope it doesn’t come to that. He’s fighting the power on both sides: holding back what is close to a paramilitary response from the outside while trying to keep the volatile chemistry inside from combusting. He’s sympathetic to the prisoners without whitewashing their crimes or their violent nature. Much of the film was shot on location at Folsom Prison with guards and prisoners serving as extras and advisers, which gives the film added authenticity, but it’s Siegel’s direction that really lights the fuse. And Siegel is aware of the tension between social message and violent spectacle; he, like Brand’s character, realizes that it takes a big story to get people to pay attention to the issues. Siegel, however, is more interested in the personalities and the conflicts and the lengths to which both sides will go in this war.
It’s mastered from a new 2K digital restoration in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which has raised some debate; in some shots the headroom is distracting and the film looks like it should be masked to 1.66:1 widescreen, in others it looks well balanced and composed. Clearly the film was protected for both aspect ratios, but it’s not clear which the director’s preferred or intended format was. Features commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Berstein, audio excerpts from the director’s autobiography “A Siegel Film” and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director,” both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara.