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.
Children of Divorce (1927) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of those silent films that isn’t exactly a classic but possesses an irresistible allure. The star power and cinematic charisma of Clara Bow, the definitive flapper of the silent era, and young Gary Cooper lights up this somewhat silly melodrama of the young, beautiful and idle rich who treat marriage as a game.
It opens on a “divorce colony” in Paris, where the recently single society players goes to pair off once again in hopes of upgrading. To grease the wheels of romantic negotiations, the kids are dropped off in an orphanage filled with the inconvenient children of the newly (and temporarily) single. That’s where little Kitty Flanders is abandoned to the nuns, and where she meets her new best friends: Jean Waddington and Teddy Lambie, also abandoned by divorced parents. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
Jump ahead to “America – Years Later” and Clara Bow is the party girl spitfire Kitty Flanders, raised by an oft-divorced mother to marry into money, and Cooper is her best friend Teddy…
Laird Cregar is The Lodger(1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.
While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.
This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.
Moby Dick (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – “Call me Ishmael.” John Huston’s 1956 film of Herman Melville’s whaling drama turned epic odyssey, a classic of American literature and a staple of high school and college literature courses, remains the most famous screen version of the novel. Gregory Peck plays the obsessed Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to “the great white whale” and is determined to hunt it down, and Richard Basehart is Ishmael, the young deck hand who narrates the tale. Huston gravitated toward literary adaptations throughout his career and Moby Dick was a personal project for Huston. He collaborated with Ray Bradbury on the screenplay—it was the celebrated author’s first feature screenplay—and remained faithful to language (Bradbury helps adapt the poetry of Melville’s prose to the spoken word of a script) and to the story with minor changes.
Peck plays Ahab with a stiff, emotionally unreadable determination, Orson Welles (who had directed his own stage adaptation of the novel) has a superb supporting role as Father Mapple, giving a sermon filled with whaling references in a pulpit designed like the prow of a ship, and Leo Genn is first mate Starbuck, who tries to resist Ahab’s obsessive drive. The film was not well received in 1956, much of the criticism leveled at Peck, but his stylized performance is more interesting 60 years later. Huston’s treatment is equally compelling. He shot much of the film on the sea with a full-sized ship and a massive model for the whale and devoted himself to recreating the physical labor of whaling in the 19th century with almost documentary-like detail. He also worked with cinematographer Oswald Morris to give the film a desaturated color palette, a sepia quality that helps evoke the era. It adds to the film’s mythic quality.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) may sound like a one-joke contrivance—a rich, generous, arts-loving heiress in 1940s New York City gives private recitals to a select group of high society insiders who never let on to the oblivious woman that she is quite possibly the worst singer to ever trod a stage—but it is both a true story and an unexpectedly tender, touching movie. And it’s quite funny to boot.
Meryl Streep, who is in fact a trained and talented vocalist, pulls off that most difficult of comic performances as Mrs. Jenkins. She glows with joy while her shrill tones are wretchedly off-key and at times off-the-charts while her husband St Clair (a warm and protective Hugh Grant) smiles in appreciation through her rehearsals. Her new practice pianist Cosmé (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory) is dumbstruck during his inaugural session with Florence and Helberg’s performance is superb. He’s like a silent movie comic, looking on gobsmacked then contorting himself to keep from betraying his reaction when he sees that no one else is the least bit fazed. You can imagine everything running through his head as he plays away: are they putting him on? Are they putting her on? Can they even tell she’s wildly untalented? Just what has he gotten himself into, and is having a steady job worth it?
We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1(Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.
Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.
It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.
On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?
This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”
Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.
Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.
Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.
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.