“A singular work in film history,” begins the description on back of the case of Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s astounding Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (France, 1975).
That is no hyperbole. Jeanne Dielman is a painstaking, excruciatingly exacting portrait of the life of a perfectly organized homemaker, an epic portrait of a quotidian life where every gesture through the 200-minute study becomes important and the slips in routine reverberate like aftershocks of an earthquake. It’s astounding to realize that Akerman was only 25 when she put this uncompromising vision on the screen. It’s almost as astounding that this landmark work took so long for finally arrive on home video in U.S. Almost impossible to see for decades (it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1983 and was rarely revived in the years since), this singular work made its DVD debut in 2009, presented by Criterion in a magnificent two-disc special edition. Criterion has now remastered the film for its Blu-ray debut.
Middle-aged widow and single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) lives a carefully structured life with a clockwork routine. She wakes up before dawn, sees her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) off to school, cleans every last dish in her tiny and spotless kitchen, then continues on with the errands and duties of her day. One of those duties just happens to be servicing an afternoon client as a part-time prostitute. Jeanne is all business when the bell rings and she puts the pot on low simmer to welcome her client for the day. It’s creepily expressive the way Akerman frames her head out of the shot when she answers the door, matching Seyrig’s inexpressive formality with each man.
Inspired by the true story of Japanese sailors stranded on a deserted island during World War II, Anatahan (1953) was the final film completed by Josef von Sternberg. In a career where he was increasingly forced to compromise his style and sensibility, it marked his final hurrah: a film over which he had complete control.
After a prologue on a Japanese ship bombed by an American plane, the film takes place almost entirely on Anatahan, a former plantation island in the South Pacific that is now completely overrun by the tropical jungle. The twelve survivors, a mix of sailors and soldiers, find the old plantation and a couple who stayed behind when the rest of the island population either enlisted or was evacuated. “We were to be here for seven long years,” reports the narrator (Sternberg himself), speaking in a tone of recollection and reflection long after the fact. (There is no effort to assign the narration to an individual character; it could very well stand in as the guilty conscience of the survivors.) As they await their rescue, their discipline breaks down and their desire for Keiko (Akemi Negishi), the lone woman in the society of men, stirs them to aggression and murder, which becomes easier when they find and scavenge the remains of a downed fighter plane, including a pair of handguns. “There was no law on our island, no police,” observes the narrator. “Only two pistols.”
Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.
Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.
The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.
Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.
Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.
Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.
The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.
Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act
It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.
You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).
Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.
Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.
Ruth Negga earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Jeff Nichols’ intimate drama.
Loving (2016), Jeff Nichols’s portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving, does more than put a face to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Their 1958 marriage was a crime in the state of Virginia because Richard (played by Joel Edgerton with a terse determination) was a white man and Mildred (Ruth Negga, vulnerable yet hopeful) was a black woman. But this is not the portrait of a defiant couple protesting all the way to the Supreme Court. The title is more than just a form of shorthand or a clever double-meaning. It is the core of the film. This is about a marriage, a couple deeply in love and devoted to their family, who just want to live together in their home state.
Their courtship is presented in snapshots yet from the beginning it’s like they’ve been together forever, laying in one another’s arms with a natural intimacy. They live in an integrated pocket of blue collar families that could be a planet away from the segregation of the cities. When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant he beams with a rare smile, like it’s the sign he’s been waiting for, even if they have to sneak across the border to Washington D.C. for the ceremony and set up a household in secret. Negga earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as Mildred and Australian actor Edgerton received a Golden Globe nomination for the stolid Richard, a man who looks like a redneck stereotype under his buzz cut and tight mouth yet is like a member of her family even before they marry.
Not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, the 1962 Something Wild (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from rape.
The film opens on the assault, a non-explicit scene that communicates both the violence of the rape and the terrible sense of violation and helplessness felt by Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a New York middle-class girl who is attacked on the way home from school. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. The tactile presentation of the physical details (a skirt shoved up over her thigh, a sharp rock poking into her leg, bending to pick up the modest crucifix ripped from her neck and tossed to the ground) doesn’t just channel the sensory experience, it suggests the fragments of the ordeal that Mary Ann’s mind latches on amidst the horror of violation. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.
His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.
The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.
Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.
Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.
First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.
Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.