Videophiled Classic: Kurosawa’s ‘Fortress’ and DeMille’s ‘Samson’ Debut on Blu

In The Hidden Fortress (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD), Akira Kurosawa melds western fairy tale adventure with Japanese history for a pre-Samurai era classic of a young princess and a determined General (the gruff ruthless, and often comically exasperated Toshiro Mifune) trying to escape from behind enemy lines with a fortune in royal gold. Long recognized as one of George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars (among other things, the bickering peasants who wander into the odyssey inspired R2D2 and C-3PO), it’s Kurosawa’s his first go at the widescreen format and he proves to be a master at it, dynamically spreading his compositions out to an epic scope and boldly setting his cascade of sharp action scenes against a magnificent landscape. It’s a grand adventure of flashing swords, thundering horses, giant battles and intimate duels, Kurosawa’s most purely entertaining film and one of his biggest hits.

Mastered from a 2K digital restoration with mono soundtrack and an alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack preserving the original 1958 “Perspecta Stereophonic” soundtrack and presented in DTS-HD on Blu-ray. New to this release is commentary by film historian and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and the documentary about the making of the film created for the 2003 series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Carried over from the earlier DVD release is a brief interview with George Lucas, who talks of his love of the film and the work of Kurosawa. The accompanying booklet features an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.

Samson and Delilah (Paramount, Blu-ray) was something of a warm-up by Cecil B. DeMille, classic Hollywood’s defining big screen showman, for his ultimate Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. This bible story was on a decidedly smaller scale but it had all the elements that DeMille had perfected back in thirties: treat the patrons to a spectacle of sin and flesh, then punish the bad behavior with a smiting of (dare I say it?) Biblical proportions. The script is dopey and the stars unconvincing, but DeMille puts on quite a pageant.

Victor Mature plays the brawny strongman Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands in the first act. Half of the shots reveal that he’s tussling with a moth-eaten ruin but it’s still manly enough to rouse the passion of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. Samson heaves enormous building stones at enemy soldiers, all but takes apart a royal house in a wild brawl and for finale pulls down a temple around him with nothing but the strength of his massive arms. Never mind that DeMille’s special effects often lack the weight of conviction, it’s all in the showmanship and De Mille is as gaudy as they come. This has all lavish sets, slinky outfits, wicked Philistines, sexy maidens, and holy retribution in glorious Technicolor. Mature walks a plodding balance between grinning arrogance and righteous vengeance as God’s strong arm on Earth while Lamarr purrs through her turn as the Bible’s bad girl, a temptress with a wicked sense of vengeance. George Sanders contributes his brand of silky villainy as the Saran of Gaza and DeMille brings out the ham in him.

It’s been remastered in HD but the Blu-ray features no supplements except for the trailer.

More classics and cult films on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’

Rashomon” (Criterion) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It took the Golden Lion at Venice. It put Japanese master Akira Kurosawa on the international cinema map. And it remains one of his greatest, most sophisticated, and most powerful films. Shot under a dapple of light filtered through the leaves of a thick forest, this story of a crime told from the contradictory perspectives of the three participants and one onlooker, is one of his most visually splendid films, but under all that beauty is a subtle and captivating look at the changing perspectives of truth as seen through the eyes its storytellers, filtered through one man’s commentary, and finally viewed through the lens of a camera. With the shadowy look and elegant style of a silent masterpiece (wonderfully preserved in this new high-definition transfer, with restored image and sound) shot through a modernist perspective, it shook the film world with its audacity and its ingeniousness.

In his accompanying commentary track, Japanese film historian Donald Ritchie remarks that “the source of the movie is about relative truth but (Kurosawa) wanted to make a film about relative reality, which is an entirely different thing.” Through the course of his smartly observant commentary, Ritchie provides (in his own words) “an explication” of the film, examining the changing styles Kurasawa employs for the different stories and providing insight to the Japanese conventions both embraced and parodied by Kurosawa.

New to this edition is the sixty-eight-minute documentary “A Testimony as an Image” featuring interviews with cast and crew. Carried over from the previous DVD release is a six-minute video introduction by Robert Altman (“It changed my perception about what is possible in film and what is desirable”), a twelve-minute excerpt from the documentary “The World of Kazuo Miyagawa” featuring interviews with Miyagawa and Kurasawa discussing their collaboration on “Rashomon,” and an archival audio interview with actor Takashi Shimura. The accompanying booklets features an essay by film historian Stephen Prince, reprints of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” and “Rashomon” (the source stories for the script) and an excerpt from Kurosawa’s book “Something Like an Autobiography.”

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog on TCM

Akira Kurosawa’s early police drama Stray Dog (1949), a kind of urban noir starring Toshiro Mifune as a young police detective who loses his gun in the volatile years of post-war Tokyo and Takashi Shimura as the veteran detective who tries to mentor the rookie as he tracks the stolen handgun, plays in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long tribute to Kurosawa.

The urban noir sensibility of post-war Tokyo in Stray Dog

The young Mifune projects a marvelous dichotomy as Murakami, his restless energy checked by a veneer of surface calm: the composed social face masking fierce turmoil underneath. Shimura is a complete contrast as his older, wiser mentor: warm and patient, he calms down the anxious, emotionally impulsive rookie cop and channels his efforts to methodically follow the leads.

Kurosawa sets it in the sweltering heat wave of a Tokyo summer and the atmosphere pervades the entire film. The faces on screen are constantly beaded with sweat, the cops mopping their brows and the streets crowded with listless pedestrians brought to a shuffling crawl by the oppressive temperatures. Kurosawa matches the atmosphere to the rising tension and the heat wave breaks in dramatic fashion with the climactic action. The atmosphere only exacerbates Murakami’s anxiety and impulsiveness. He’s driven by a mixture of shame and duty, afraid he’ll be fired and feeling responsible for every crime committed with the gun. (“Was it my gun?” is his first response to every shooting report.) But the gun is also part of his identity as a detective and Murakami, conversely, starts to identify with the criminal he’s tracking, who like himself, is a former soldier, driven to desperate measures. Both are, in effect, stray dogs, and as Sato warns Murakami, a stray dog can become a mad dog out of desperation. “There is even a saying about them,” Sato muses. “Mad dogs can only see what they are after.” Murakami’s single-minded pursuit of his gun is in danger of overwhelming his judgment.

Read the complete feature on the TCM website here. The film plays on March 23 and is also available on Criterion DVD.

Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot on TCM

Turner Classic Movies celebrates the 100th birthday of Akira Kurosawa with a month-long retrospective of the director’s work. Every Tuesday in March features an evening of Kurosawa films. I wrote on a couple for the website,  beginning with The Idiot (aka Hakuchi) (1951), his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel.

Setsuko Hara and Masayuki Mori speak no evil in The Idiot

“This story tells the destruction of a pure soul by a faithless world.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of Akira Kurosawa’s favorite novelists and a great influence on the director; he had long wanted to make his novel The Idiot into a film. After completing Rashomon (1950), he finally embarked on his passion project, which he transposed from 19th century Russia to a contemporary Japanese setting. Where Kurosawa took great liberties in adapting subsequent western works into Japanese contexts, from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, 1957, and Ran, 1985) to Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1957) to Ed McBain (High and Low, 1963), here he remained almost totally faithful to the original novel.

Read the complete piece on the TCM website here. The film plays Tuesday, March 9, on TCM, and is available on DVD in a box set from Criterion’s Eclipse line.

Blu-rays for the Week: Lionsgate’s StudioCanal Collection and GoodFellas repackaged

Lionsgate releases the inaugural Blu-ray releases of international classics in its “StudioCanal Collection” and it goes for the gold standard with definitive editions of Ran, Contempt and the original The Ladykillers.

The pageant of Ran
The pageantry of Ran

I’m no expert in the technical details of converting European digital masters to American standards, but it appears than many of the problems that crop up in adapting PAL masters to NTSC DVDs are not an issue for Blu-ray. The frame rate is different but the lines of resolution are standard for high-definition across borders and, thanks to the technological advances in high-def TVs and Blu-ray players, region-free discs from Europe will play on American machines, which have the ability to adjust for frame rate. That’s prologue to acknowledging that these Lionsgate discs are in fact struck from StudioCanal’s digital masters (the folks at DVD Beaver, who are relentless about these things, have compared the Lionsgate Blu-ray editions to the European pressings and found them to be, with one exception, exactly the same) and StudioCanal has made an effort to create definitive editions for these films. Which means, not only are they freshly, beautifully remastered for Blu-ray with great care, but they are filled with substantial supplements worthy of the films. StudioCanal seem to be emulating Criterion’s commitment to fidelity and respectful tribute to their cinema classics and even the engineering of simple, uncluttered, quickly-loading menus. They don’t bother with flashy graphics on the screen. It’s all about the movies, and they are great.

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Kurosawa’s Red Beard on TCM

I profile Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard for Turner Classic Movies.

Lessons in compassion from Mifune's Red Beard
Lessons in compassion from Mifune's Red Beard

The final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune is one of Kurosawa’s most ambitious, personal, and heartfelt films. Set in 17th century Edo, Red Beard (1965) features Mifune as Dr. Kyojo Niide, known as Red Beard to the interns and nurses at the public clinic and hospital he runs in the slums of the city. The three hour film follows the education of the spoiled, insolent young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, Mifune’s co-star in 1962’s Sanjuro and Toho’s hottest young star at the time). He has been educated in the state-of-the-art Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki and has every expectation of an appointment to the court medical staff, thanks to his family’s position and connections to the court. Sent by his father to visit the clinic, he’s appalled at the primitive conditions and the pathetic state of the patients and dumbfounded when he’s assigned to intern under the charge of Niide. Gentle beneath his gruff exterior and bearded face, but fierce in the face of greed and selfishness and cruelty and, worst of all, indifference, Mifune’s Niide is the fighting angel of the slums who has dedicated his life to tending the poor; he fights not just disease and abuse, but poverty and ignorance. “He has the body of a man in his forties, but his wisdom is like that of someone in their sixties or seventies,” explained Mifune of the character. “Nobody really knows how old he is. He’s ageless.” But Niide is also a practical man well aware of the real world in which he lives and works. When beset by a dozen young thugs who arrive to retrieve a patient, Niide fights them off with a mixture of martial arts and medical insight, wrenching limbs and breaking bones until they all are left writhing in pain on the floor. Being a doctor, he’s careful not to cause any permanent damage.

Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on June 11. Also available on DVD from Criterion.

DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’

Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is not the first survivalist drama of man hunting man, but it is arguably the definitive, most visceral and primal example of the genre. Part Run of the Arrow (the story is inspired by a real event in American history but shifted to turn of the century colonial South Africa) and part The Most Dangerous Game, director/star Wilde strips the set-up to the essentials. There are no names in the safari crew and all we know of the Man is that he wants out of the safari biz and return to his farm, and that he has a wedding ring. You can’t miss the influence of the film on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which trades the searing austerity and matter-of-fact savagery of the African veldt and jungle for the lush South American rain forests and adds complications, but otherwise charts the escape of a captured man from warriors hunting him down, first as sport, and then as vengeance.

I reviewed the new Criterion disc in my MSN DVD column and you can find the review here:

The film is notorious for the tortures unleashed upon the captured hunters for tribal sport and spectacle, but the blunt slaughter of elephants is as grotesque as any of the cruelties faced by the humans. Wilde so effectively matches his beautifully shot film with the wildlife footage of the animal food chain in action that the most telling difference is the contrast in film grain. The restored digital transfer looks great and the color balance helps match the otherwise disparate film sources.

[Note: click on titles for the complete review; click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]

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