A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.
The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).
He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.
Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.
Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.
The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.
Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.
The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).
The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.
Francis Ford Coppola described Rumble Fish (1983), his screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, as “an art film for teenagers.” He shot it right after making The Outsiders (1982), also adapted from a Hinton novel, but where that was a lush, operatic tale, Coppola made Rumble Fish in stylized black and white, like a teen noir seen through the eyes of a kid who has mythologized the idea of street gang chivalry to the point that he can’t see the reality through the idealization.
Matt Dillon is teenage tough guy Rusty James, a good looking, recklessly charming high school kid in the shadow of his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), trying to live up to a reputation that his brother wants only to live down. He’s an aspiring juvenile delinquent with a boozer dad (Dennis Hopper) and a nice girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who attends Catholic School across town. Rusty James (always the two names, like a brand) is, of course, from the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial grit of a Tulsa that time left behind and this culture of bars and boozer and packs of kids who imagine themselves as real gangs is steeped in its own mythology, or rather Rusty is steeped in the mythology that no one else seems to revere.
“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.
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).
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.