Blu-ray: ‘The Breaking Point’ on Criterion

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.

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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.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

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).

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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.

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Blu-ray: ‘Rumble Fish’

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.

Criterion

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.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’

“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).

The Criterion Collection

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.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

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

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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).

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Blu-ray: ‘Something Wild’ (1962) on The Criterion Collection

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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.

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Blu-ray: ‘His Girl Friday’ meets ‘The Front Page’ on The Criterion Collection

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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.

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Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

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.

Out1Box1 – 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.

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘McCabe,’ ‘Pan,’ ‘Boyhood,’ and the ‘Last Chrysanthemum’ – Remastered

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

That’s the plot upon which Altman hangs his film, both a western and an anti-western, defined as much by the communal cast that mills through the picture and mutters dialogue in the swirling pools of sound as by the story of its charming but over-his-head hero McCabe and the caustic Miller who escapes nightly in a cloud of opium. This was the first major film shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled Communist Hungary in 1956 and spent a decade shooting cheap exploitation pictures and the occasional independent effort, and he helps Altman establish his signature style with the film. The camera prowls and floats through scenes with a gentle restlessness, constantly catching character bits and defining details, as if it were as much a character in Altman’s company as the actors. The colors are muted and the palette earthy and dark, giving the image the look and feel of no other western.

Altman shot as he built the town, hewn out of the mud and trees outside of Vancouver, BC, and he incorporated its creation and growth as part of the film, right down to the half-constructed buildings that are slowly finished. It’s our only real measure of time passing in a place where clocks and calendars are less important than seasons and sunsets. Time just washes along and people like McCabe and Miller either flow with it or get left behind. The soundtrack includes spare songs by Leonard Cohen that haunt the film with a lonely, melancholy quality. One of Altman’s masterpieces, and easily one of the finest American films of the 1970s.

Warren Beatty in 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' - Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Warren Beatty in ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’ – Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Mastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new 4K digital restoration and presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. A lot of newly restored films show a marked difference from previous versions but the very nature of the film’s photography, which was systematically desaturated by cinematographer Zsigmond with a method called flashing to evoke an earlier time, means that the improvements are not as obvious. The colors are muted and somber with a dipped-in-amber look (the scenes in the Irishman’s bar have the golden look of candles and lamplight creating pools of illumination in the night) and the image looks softened, as if seen through the light haze of history. That’s a palette that can cause issues in mastering—the film grain is more pronounced and the digital transfer can exaggerate that grain into an overactive storm in the shadows—and Criterion does a great job of preserving that quality. You get a richer texture (and this film has amazing textures) and a greater range of detail and color.

Produced for this edition is a terrific 55-minute documentary “Way Out on a Limb,” featuring new interviews with actors René Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, casting director Graeme Clifford, and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury, and a 37-minute conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. There are also archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond (conducted in 2005 and 2008 and used in the film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos) and an archival conversation between production designer Leon Ericksen and art director Al Locatelli with fellow production designer Jack De Govia discussing McCabe at the Art Directors Guild Film Society in Los Angeles in 1999. There are also two archival segments from The Dick Cavett Show from 1971 featuring Pauline Kael (making a case for the film) and, in a later show, Altman, and a gallery of stills shot on the set of the film by photojournalist Steve Schapiro.

Carried over from the 2002 DVD release is commentary by director Robert Altman and producer David Foster (recorded separately but edited together for good effect) and a 10-minute promotional behind-the-scenes documentary from 1971.

panslabcriterionPan’s Labyrinth (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 dark fairy tale, is an elemental Alice in Wonderland amidst the horrors of Francisco Franco’s reign of terror in 1944 Spain. While her brutal and cold-blooded stepfather (Sergi López) hunts down the remnants of the anti-fascist rebellion, our imaginative young Alice (in this case a girl named Ofelia, played with innocence and strength by Ivana Baquero), discovers a magic world of faeries and meets an enigmatic faun (Doug Jones) who sends her on a terrifying odyssey through an underworld of monsters.

Del Toro’s fantastical creatures have a primal, earthy quality, like ancient beings hewn from the earth and enchanted wood and resurrected after centuries in a state of decay and neglect, and a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the sense of wonder. Yet for all the terror Ofelia confronts – and del Toro reaches deep into the mythological subconscious and the unadulterated horror of early fairy tales for his primal visions – the haunting shadow worlds of imagination and nightmares pale next to the evil of the real world. Maribel Verdú co-stars as the caring housekeeper with a double life and Ariadna Gil plays Ofelia’s ailing pregnant mother. It won three Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup.

The film has previously been available in fine DVD and Blu-ray editions. Criterion presents a new 2K digital master supervised by Guillermo del Toro. New to this edition are a 40-minute interview with del Toro by novelist Cornelia Funke about fairy tales, fantasy, and Pan’s Labyrinth and a new 26-minute interview with actor Doug Jones. Carried over from the 2007 release is a video prologue and commentary by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro who describes his inspirations and explains his colors and textures and images with more articulation than most American directors can muster in their mother tongue. The 30-minute “Pan and the Fairies” follows the fantasy creatures from design to screen and, through raw production footage, shows you exactly (and ingeniously simply) how del Toro created the Faun’s goat-leg walk without animation and there additional archival featurettes, an interactive director’s notebook, footage of young actress Ivana Baquero’s audition for the film, and a foldout insert with a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.

Criterion also boxes the film up with previous releases of del Toro’s Cronos (1994) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) in the box set Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD).

boyhoodcritBoyhood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was arguably the movie of 2014. It dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.

It’s pretty well known that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.

Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience.

That’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.

It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience.

It was previously released in a fine edition from Paramount. Criterion’s new two-disc edition, mastered from a new 2K digital transfer supervised by Linklater, features an all-new slate of supplements. There is commentary featuring Linklater and nine members of the cast and crew, the 50-minute documentary “Twelve Years” featuring behind-the-scenes footage from throughout the twelve-year production, the nearly hour-long discussion featurette “Memories of the Present” featuring Linklater and actors Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane, moderated by producer John Pierson, as half-hour “Always Now” with Linklater and Coltrane in conversation, Michael Koresky’s video essay “The Time of Your Life,” about time in Linklater’s films and narrated by Coltrane, and an animated gallery of portraits of cast and crew by photographer Matt Lankes, narrated with personal thoughts from Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland. The accompanying booklet features a heavily footnoted essay by Jonathan Lethem.

storylastchrystanthemumKenji Mizoguchi, one of the masters of Japanese cinema, had already made 50 films by the time he made The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1939 drama of art, love, and sacrifice that has been called his first genuine masterpiece and is considered by many critics his greatest film. It’s the story of spoiled, arrogant actor Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi), the adopted son of a great kabuki master, who believes the glib flattery of his father’s friends and jaded geishas until the family nursemaid, the modest, honest peasant Otoku (Kakuko Mori), confronts him with the truth of his hammy performances and his poor reputation and encourages him to improve. His family sends her away and he leaves the family troupe to make it on his own. Again she appears to offer encouragement, becoming his common-law wife but fully aware that once he proves himself and returns to Tokyo, she will have to leave him, a sacrifice she makes with eyes wide open.

Mizoguchi isn’t criticizing the social order that separates the classes, which modern audiences might assume, merely using it as the basis for a heartfelt tragedy. This is a film built on the belief that great art is worthy of such sacrifice while also recognizing that such sacrifice is as tragic as it is noble. Mizoguchi directs in lovely long takes—the first scene between Kikunosuke and Otoku is a slow, gentle tracking shot down a silent street in the hours before dawn—and subdued performances that suggests the anxiety and emotion under the public show of manners.

In Japanese with English subtitles. Criterion presents the film’s DVD and Blu-ray debut from a new restoration with a new interview with film critic Philip Lopate.

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as  I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Dekalog’ from Criterion

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film

Dekalog: One explores the awakening of a young prodigy’s spiritual curiosity as he explores a new computer and starts asking the hard questions of life from his rationalist father and religious aunt. Kieslowski paints a loving, nurturing family portrait in the episode, only to shatter the peace with tragedy. In Dekalog: Two a married woman pregnant by her lover is tortured by a life-shattering decision. As her husband lays dying in the hospital, she vows to abort the child to protect her marriage if he lives, and his doctor realizes his prognosis will decide the life or death of an unborn child. These are among the most moving of Kieslowski’s tales and they form a beautiful complementary pair as they address issues of faith and spirituality more directly than any of the following episodes. Haunting images (wax drips onto a portrait of the Madonna like tears running down her cheek in Dekalog: One) express the emotions locked under the hard faces of scarred characters, until the feelings well up in profound conclusions that resonate with the passion and loss inherent in the magic of everyday life.

The next two make an even more elusive, ethereal pair. Dekalog: Three is a kind of road trip to the heart as a woman tracks down her former lover, now a married family man with a child, and pleads with him to help her find her missing husband on Christmas Eve. In Dekalog: Four the tender emotional balance between a widowed father and his grown daughter is upended when she opens a letter from her deceased mother and learns a secret that she always suspected. Curiously both hinge on lies which unbalance and upset established relationships and confessions which bring things back to a new course, stable but forever changed. These intimate stories are tender, conversation laden cameos, lovely little miniatures nestled among the more ambitious episodes of the series. Though modest in scope, Kieslowski invests each of these stories with rich emotional life as he explores the loneliness of a single woman during the holidays, a loving father’s fear of abandonment, and the confused feelings of a young adult. His sympathy buoys each resolution with a warm understanding.

The faith of a young lawyer is shaken in Dekalog: Five when he defends a man for the violent murder of a taxi-driver. It’s a provocative attempt to reconcile the gap between murder and state sanctioned execution and Kieslowski pulls no punches on either side: the murder scene is excruciating in its relentless intensity. But as he looks through the eyes of the troubled attorney who suffers a crisis in faith, the film turns inward and becomes contemplative and personal. This is no anti-Capital Punishment screed but an examination of the meaning of justice itself. Dekalog: Six is a touching and troubling story of a young, emotionally unstable postal worker who becomes obsessed with a promiscuous older woman. He steals her mail and peeps through her apartment window with a telescope, but when she returns the gaze the one way relationship becomes much more complicated. Kieslowski gets under the skin of both characters as she confronts the boy and shames him with loveless sex, and they come out the other end of the tale as humbled humans who take a harder look at themselves and a sympathetic second look each other. Both were expanded into feature-length films and released to theaters (also included in this set) but these hour-long versions stand on their own as the most potent episodes of the series.

In Dekalog: Seven Kieslowski turns “Thou shalt not steal” into the devastating story of the theft of a mother’s love and the emotional wounds left in its wake. Majka, a willowy young woman devastated by sadness, kidnaps her young sister Ania to set things straight in her charade of a life. The girl is in fact her daughter, raised by Majka’s mother Ewa to avoid scandal, but Ewa has jealously hoarded the affection of the little one, walling the real mother off from her daughter’s love. Kieslowski has never shied from painting the brutish colors of human nature, but echoing beneath the hurt and anger and selfishness of the blindly selfish Ewa and vindictive Majka is a desperate cry for love and affection. Another contentious relationship is explored in Dekalog: Eight, the story of a holocaust survivor who confronts the woman (now a renowned professor of ethics) who refused her shelter when she was young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in 1943 Poland. The potentially explosive issue is dealt with in direct terms, but it’s the undercurrent of faith questioned and regained that gives the episode it’s resonant beauty.

Potential shouting matches and melodramatic confrontations are quietly transformed into aching moments of emotional nakedness and painful honesty in Dekalog: Nine, a study in obsession. An impotent surgeon encourages his wife to take a lover but almost immediately becomes consumed with jealousy and suspicion, secretly monitoring her calls and shadowing her movements until he becomes paralyzed with inaction while spying on her with her callow young lover. The story of mature love seemingly doomed by noble sacrifices and protective lies and complicated by crossed signals and missed connections is capped with beautifully hushed conclusion. Dekalog: Ten is the closest Kieslowski comes to lighthearted comedy: The episode opens with a punk singer belting out a song poking fun at the Ten Commandments. The vocalist (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who Kieslowski later cast as the hapless street musician hero of White) reunites with his conservative brother over the death of their father when they discover that he’s left them a priceless stamp collection. The plot turns on a con game but Kieslowski centers the film on the brothers’ emotional journey through sacrifice, suspicion, and loss until, when all looks bleakest, they find within themselves a sense of hope and family connection. Kieslowski leaves us with humor and ends the series on a quiet, modest, lovely grace note endowed with hope.

Dekalog: Eight becomes a kind of crossroads that directly touches on other episodes of the series—an ethical problem posed in the professor’s university class is taken from Dekalog: Two and a neighboring stamp collector is the absent father buried at the opening of Dekalog: Ten—but it’s only the most obvious of the connection. Characters pass through other stories, sometimes only briefly, and themes reverberate through the series. Kieslowski explores ordinary people flailing through inner torments, hard decisions, and shattering revelations in close-up, grounding his stories in the faces of his deeply human characters. It’s ultimately a personal spiritual investigation into the soul of man and that hasn’t any answers, except perhaps a plea for compassion and understanding.

The set presents the new 4K digital restoration, mastered from the original 35mm camera negatives, presented in a theatrical revival earlier this year. It also includes A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988), the feature-length version of episodes Five and Six. More than simply expanded editions, they reconsider the stories with not just additional footage, but in some cases alternate footage.

Also includes a 30-minute featurette on the visual rhyming through the series by film studies professor Annette Insdorf, a gallery of archival interviews with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, and new and archival interviews with Dekalog cast and crew, including co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, thirteen actors, three cinematographers, editor Ewa Smal, and Kieślowski’s confidante Hanna Krall, plus a booklet featuring an essay and film analyses by film scholar Paul Coates and excerpted reprints from Kieślowski on Kieślowski.

Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ and ‘The Immortal Story’ debut on Criterion

chimesmidChimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015 and the rerelease was revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”

Drawing freely from five Shakespeare plays (notably “Henry IV, Part One” and “Henry IV, Part Two”) as well as excerpts from “Holinshead’s Chronicles” (spoken in the film by Ralph Richardson), the story focuses on young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud) and heir to crown, and his wastrel years spent carousing in taverns with Sir John Falstaff (played by Welles), a corrupt, drunk, cowardly old rascal whose boisterous personality and zest for life captivates Hal. When Henry Hotspur, who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne, goes to war against King Henry, Hal finally turns his back on his extended childhood and accepts his responsibility as Prince and future King of England. Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford co-star in small roles that enliven the scenes of Falstaff’s tavern existence.

Welles had first attempted an epic portrait of the entire history cycle on stage in 1939 and then pared the scope down to the story of Falstaff and Hal in a 1961 stage production in Ireland, which he saw as a dry run for the film. Keith Baxter, then a young Welsh actor just making his name on the stage, played Hal on stage opposite Welles’s Falstaff and Welles promised the actor that he would never make the film without him. He was true to his word and you wonder if the marvelous affection between the characters is in part a reflection of the love shared between the two men off screen. Welles’s screen portrayal—with a wild head of snow white hair, a gut padded until he resembles a peasant Santa Claus, and a bulbous nose red with drink—is possibly his greatest cinematic performance. He creates a magnificent vision of 15th century England on a relatively small budget in 1964 Spain, using standing castles and open fields and careful framing and editing, and he contrasts the cold majesty of court, shot in vast chambers and against stone castle walls and spires, with the warmth of Falstaff’s life in a tavern of massive wooden beams and tables and in the nearby forests.

Welles loved contradictory characters and ironies and Chimes at Midnight is one of the great contradictions. Falstaff is a jolly rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a gusto for living that is alien at court, but he is also a thief, a liar, a braggart, and an opportunist who brazenly takes credit for Hal’s heroic triumph in the field of battle. Welles views Hal’s eventual rejection of Falstaff as tragedy and as necessity and most Welles critics and scholars tend to agree. I take a minority position: there is no tragedy in the act. Hal grew up and rejected selfishness and immediate gratification for responsibility and maturity. Falstaff remained as corrupt and corrupting as ever. The tragedy is that Hal must lose this element of joy and fun and irresponsibility to become the leader his country deserves. Part of beauty of Welles’s powerful portrait is that even Falstaff recognizes the necessity. Watch the famous rejection scene (“I know thee not, old man”) and you can see a glimmer of pride in Falstaff’s face even as he’s humiliated in front of the court.

Chimes at Midnight is one of Orson Welles’ unqualified masterpieces, his greatest film according to many critics, and a personal project that took decades to finally bring to the screen. If you’ve never tried to see the film before this restoration and new rerelease, it may be readily apparent just how magnificent this presentation is. Very difficult to see under any circumstances, the few 35mm screenings were limited to battle-scarred prints with murky soundtracks. Janus films (a partner with Criterion) applied digital technology to the new restoration to master their digital prints for the U.S. and that is the source of Criterion’s special edition. The Blu-ray and DVD debut also features commentary by film scholar James Naremore, which is filled with production history and acute observations, new interviews with actor Keith Baxter (about half an hour), Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, who has a small role in the film as a page (14 minutes), and Welles historians Simon Callow (31 minutes) and Joseph McBride (26 minutes), and an excerpt from the September 21, 1965 broadcast of The Merv Griffin Show featuring Welles as he was editing the film. The essay by Michael Anderegg, author of Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture, is on a fold-out insert rather than a booklet.

immortalThe Immortal Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), based on a short story by Isak Dinesen and adapted to the screen faithfully by Welles with only minor changes, was produced for French TV in 1968. It runs just under an hour and stars Welles as Mr. Clay, a rich, misanthropic merchant in Macao who becomes obsessed with turning an old seaman’s legend, the story of a rich man who hires a sailor to impregnate his young wife, into a reality. He directs his clerk (French actor Roger Coggio) find a woman (Jeanne Moreau) to play his wife and himself hires a sailor (Norman Eshley) off the streets to play the young man, and he takes the role of the rich old man himself.

Like many of Welles’ films, it’s about a powerful man who uses his money and influence to attempt to control those around him, and it is equally about stories and storytelling, with Clay himself taking the role of director. Also like Welles’ previous European films, much of the film is post-dubbed, with Welles himself providing the voices of some of the minor characters (such as Fernando Rey, who is in a brief scene plays a part of the town’s chorus of merchants who give us Mr. Clay’s history).

In other ways it is very different. Welles was famous for his elaborate camerawork and bold images staged in both foreground and background and visual contrasts of light and dark. This film, his first shot in color, is more unadorned, with the camera mostly still, the sets austere and stripped down, and the compositions more flattened on a shallow plane. It also features the first genuinely erotic moments in Welles films when the sailor and the woman make love, a scene that features close-ups and a cinematic intimacy that contrasts with the distance that Welles takes with the other scenes. This is a rumination on art and reality and stories and it is dreamlike and ephemeral and introspective.

While it can be considered a minor work by Welles, at least in comparison to his celebrated masterpieces, it is his final completed dramatic feature (his subsequent features are both essay films) and a small jewel of a film that shows a different aspect of the filmmaker. It used to play in arthouse repertory calendars paired with Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert (which also ran just under an hour) and essentially disappeared with the demise of repertory cinema.

Never before on home video in the US, the film debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in a special edition from Criterion mastered from a new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative. The disc features the alternate French language version, which is about minutes shorter and dubbed; Jeanne Moreau’s voice is in both versions but Welles’ voice is dubbed over by another, anonymous actor. Also features commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, the 1968 documentary Portrait: Orson Welles by François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif, and interviews with actor Norman Eshley, cinematographer Willy Kurant, and film scholar François Thomas, plus a fold-out insert with an essay by the perceptive Welles critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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