Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of Metropolis. Fritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.
Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.
No supplements with these films.
The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.
I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.
Who knew journeyman director H. Bruce Humberstone had such an eye for expressionist images and hard shadows? The guy was a real journeyman; he came to the film from Charlie Chan movies and Fox programmers and went on to direct a bunch of bright Fox musicals. There’s really mothing else like I Wake Up Screaming in his career and more’s the shame for it’s terrific. The film is set in New York City and shot on the Fox backlot, which gives the city scenes that slightly artificial, exaggerated quality (The swimming pool scene, there to get Mature’s shirt off and Grable in a bathing suit, is the same pool used in He Ran All the Way; (note the fountain in the middle of the pool). He guides Grable through her first real dramatic role and puts Mature in a vehicle that uses his smiling arrogance and glib confidence to great effect. Laird Cregar sets the templates for the obsessive, intimidating police detective and the stocky, soft-spoken noir heavy alike as the maverick cop determined to send Mature to the chair. He has a delicious lazy-eyed manner as he raises his chin and looks down on his suspects, a suggestion of contempt without changing expression, and he and Humberstone use his bulk to dominate and intimidate without being too overt. He’s a more measured and urbane version of the type that Charles McGraw and Raymond Burr would carry on through the genre.
The score is technically by Cyril J. Mockridge (uncredited) but it leans on Alfred Newman’s Gershwin-inspired “Street Scene” theme, which became the unofficial theme for 20th Century Fox noir. It sets the right tone for a New York noir but the use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which weaves through the score as Grable’s theme, is a little more curious.
This appears to be a high quality HD transfer of a preservation print rather than a restoration or a transfer from the negative. There is minor damage on the reel ends, your basic wear and tear, with scuffs and scratches but nothing major, and some light vertical scratches periodically show. More apparent is the crackling on the soundtrack in a few spots, no more than a couple of seconds and not overwhelming. A good digital cleaning would have been nice but it’s a solid fine grain print with a sharp image, excellent contrasts, and rich gray scale. The clarity is superb—the wisps of smoke caught in the beams of light in the interrogation scene are at once sharp and ghostly, and it shows off the lighting in the key chiaroscuro scenes beautifully.
Carried over from the 2006 DVD is commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller, which is full of information but also easygoing and conversational. Muller’s boxing past is evident when he criticizes the line “I own a piece of the boy in the green pants.” Boxers wear trunks, and that’s got to rankle Muller (whose father was a newspaper boxing columnist) more than it bothers your usual noir expert. It also features three minutes of stills and advertising from the film, and from the alternate campaign prepared for the film under its original (unused) title “Hot Spot.” Two supplements listed on the back cover—the alternate Hot Spot opening title sequence and the deleted scene “Daddy” (both featured on the 2006 Fox DVD release)—are nowhere to be found on the disc.
Cry of the City (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir that should be better known. It’s directed by Robert Siodmak, who made more film noirs than any other director, and it is one of his darkest, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature (in what I believe is his best noir role) a as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook).
Mature gives one of his best performances as Candella, bringing a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role, the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Conte gets the more colorful part, flashing a grin as the wise guy hood spreading the message the crime pays and pays well, and his staccato patter has a singsong confidence that slips into arrogance. He’s the classic noir gangster, a mercenary narcissist who fools himself into thinking he has a code and then breaks it when he gets desperate. Yet they are reverse reflections of one another and their journeys are even mirrored. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as Mama Rose, a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Martin but for certain incriminating letters he has in his possession.
Cry of the City is one of Siodmak’s most visually striking films. He took his cast and cameras on location for some of the New York street scenes rather than shooting on the backlot where his control was greater. The urban atmosphere of city traffic and the scuffed and worn authenticity of real storefronts and sidewalks gives the film a charge of realism but Siodmak forgoes docurealism for his beloved expressionist style. He heightens the tension of
Martin’s escape through the city with webs of shadows and splashes of reflected light sparkling in the streets at night. Yet one of the most visually dense urban street scenes is created on a studio soundstage strewn with neon and set off with a forced perspective city skyline. And for the dramatic showdowns and standoffs, Siodmak clears the frame of urban bustle and clutter and picks the characters out of the shadows.
Imagery and style aside, what makes this such classic noir is the world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. Conte’s increasingly jittery performance, his smarmy confidence giving way to panic and predatory self-interest, meets Mature’s stoic stillness, the stocky Mature towering over the smaller, gnarled-in-pain Conte like a judgment. If there’s justice in this film, it’s pitiless and unforgiving, and no studio-mandated happy ending can sweep away the doom and desperation and tawdry compromises of the film’s characters.
It’s a strong transfer from a clean, well-preserved print (there is minor scuffing) with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image. Eddie Muller’s encyclopedic knowledge of character actors get a workout in his newly recorded commentary track, his first for a Robert Siodmak noir.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.
Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman create an almost hellish vision of New York at night as seen through the eyes of Bickle. Steam rises out of the grates and manhole covers like some primordial urban swamp (some of the street scenes were shot at slightly higher speeds, giving the steam an eerie, unreal slowness when played back) and there’s a lurid, abrupt quality to the violence, like a Weegee photo in the brutal glare of red police light, blunt and grotesque and explosive.
Taxi Driver won the Palm d’or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and has since been lauded as one of the great American films. Yet it received a mere four Academy Award nominations (for Best Picture, for the performances by Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster and for Bernard Herrmann’s score) and didn’t win any. Neither Martin Scorsese nor Paul Schrader were even nominated for direction and screenplay, which surely illustrates the discomfort the film caused Academy voters. Yet it remains one of the quintessential film of 1970s American cinema, a brooding blast of modern gothic cinema that boils over in madness and self-destruction. The primal portrait, uncompromising vision, vivid direction and fierce, fearless performance by De Niro has inspired countless young filmmakers and actors in the decades since.
There have been numerous home video editions of the film. Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition appears to feature the same 4K restoration of the previous Blu-ray release. The restoration doesn’t “clean up” the image so much as sharpen the texture of the portrait. It’s so visceral it you can feel the heat and grime waft off the screen.
New to the two-disc set is a reunion Q&A, a 40-minute discussion with director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips, and stars Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd, recorded live at the 40th anniversary screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (which was cofounded by De Niro) and moderated by Kent Jones. It’s surely the first time since the film’s release that this many of the original team came together to discuss the film.
The rest of the supplements are carried over from previous editions. There are three commentary tracks: one from film professor and writer Robert Kolker and another from screenwriter Paul Schrader recorded for the 2007 Collector’s Edition DVD, and the original 1986 commentary by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (recorded separately) for the (long out of print) Criterion laserdisc release. This was one of the very first commentary tracks ever recorded and was unavailable to most viewers (there aren’t a lot of laserdisc players still spinning discs out there) until it was revived for the 2011 Blu-ray. The unfamiliarity with the concept is apparent in the long silences of the track, even with the two separate tracks edited together and a narrator offering periodic introductions and background notes, and much of their talk has been reiterated in later interviews, commentary tracks and documentaries, but it is still illuminating and historically important: a track recorded ten years out from the film, before Scorsese had become a significant commercial success or a spokesman for film history and preservation.
Also features the Blu-ray exclusive interactive “Script to Screen” function, which scrolls actual script pages (with Scorsese’s notations) along with the film, the 16-minute “Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver” (talking about his influences and his reflections on the work decades later), the 21-minute “God’s Lonely Man” (reflections by screenwriter Schrader and critic Kolker), the 9-minute “Producing Taxi Driver” (with Michael Phillips), plus “Taxi Driver Stories” (featuring former cab drivers), “Travis’ New York” (with cinematographer Michael Chapman and former New York Mayor Ed Koch), and “Travis’ New York Locations.”
A bonus DVD features the rest of the supplements: the superb 70-minute documentary “Making Taxi Driver” produced for the 1999 DVD release by Laurent Bouzereau, storyboard-to-film comparisons (with an introduction by Scorsese), and animated photo galleries.
Also includes a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Boxcar Bertha (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Martin Scorsese was just another college film school grad with a student feature under his belt (Who’s That Knocking at My Door) when producer Roger Corman tapped him to direct AIP’s entry in the Bonnie and Clyde craze of depression era gangster films. It was a straight work-for-hire job and it will never be mistaken for a forgotten Scorsese masterpiece but it’s a key film in his oeuvre nonetheless: his first commercial feature.
Barbara Hershey stars as the real-life depression era orphan of the title, a charming, cheeky young woman who tramped the Deep South with a Union organizer (David Carradine), a dandified New York con man (Barry Primus), and a blues-playing mechanic (Bernie Casey), turning her motley band into train robbing outlaws. Scorsese was anxious to show his chops on a real Hollywood feature and does so admirably (if impersonally) with rough-and-ready style on a mix of true story and exploitation drama. If the rebellious spirit and social message behind the sex and violence is more Corman than Scorsese, the film references (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” she tells a customer while working at a cathouse) and often inventive direction is pure Scorsese. You could say he passed the audition, creating an energetic, fast-paced exploitation picture with evocative music, scruffy stylish photography, and solid performances. His follow-up picture was the jittery, passionate streetwise study Mean Streets. John Carradine and Victor Argo co-star.
As with all Twilight Time releases, it includes an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo and is limited to 3000 copies.
The “making of” documentary has become a lively subgenre of nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to the explosion of home video and the proliferation of cable channels in the past few decades. Once a purely promotional creation to run in theaters or on entertainment TV shows, the mix of behind-the-scene peeks, production footage, and cast and crew interviews have become standard items on DVDs and Blu-rays purchased by fans eager to devour every last detail behind their beloved films. From the five-minute puff piece to the epic three-and-a-half-hour Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, it’s become part of the immersive cinema experience.
Far less common but often more interesting is a relatively recent phenomenon of documentaries on films that were never made, an “unmaking of,” if you will. Whether shut down in the heat of production due to outside forces or abandoned before even coming before cameras, these documentaries look at the creative energy that goes into the planning of a film and hint at what might have been. They also remind us just how complex making a motion picture can be, especially when passionate creators are engaged in a labor of love in the face of studio resistance, production setbacks, or financial troubles.
Here are the stories of a few films that might have been.
The Epic That Never Was (1965)
Made for British television, The Epic That Never Was looks at the ill-fated attempt by producer and aspiring British film mogul Alexander Korda to turn Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius into a lavish historical drama.
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.