Blu-ray: The silent horror of ‘Behind the Door’ restored

Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.

Flicker Alley

Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.

The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.

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Blu-ray: Clara Bow meets Gary Cooper in ‘Children of Divorce’

Flicker Alley

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…

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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: ‘Woman on the Run’ and ‘Too Late for Tears’ restored

The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.

toolateIn Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.

The budget went to the high-caliber stars, resulting in a somewhat starved production. The apartment sets are utterly bland and impersonal, almost generic, and Byron Haksin’s direction is perfunctory, as if rushed. The location shooting, however, is effective: the lonely roads in the canyons, the lake and the boat rental, the train station baggage check, and a few city street scenes. It’s a minor noir in the scheme of things but it has some major pleasure, not least of which are Scott’s utterly rapacious turn and Duryea as a sleaze who is appalled at depths of her amorality.

The film was produced independently of the Hollywood studios and fell into the public domain years ago, which meant that no one was looking after the film’s elements but plenty of labels putting out inferior versions from whatever battered TV print or video copy they could get their hands on. The Film Noir Foundation produced this restoration with UCLA Film and Television Archive, with support from the Hollywood Foreign Press, from an archival 35mm re-release print and a complete 16mm print. It shows minor wear and light scratches but is otherwise undamaged and a massive improvement over previous editions, with a solid, crisp image with strong (maybe too strong) contrasts and vivid detail. This is the definitive edition by a huge margin.

The set features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, both with commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode (who gives us the histories of the players along with production details and critical observations), the 16-minute “Chance of a Lifetime: The Making of Too Late for Tears” with film noir historians Rode and Eddie Muller and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, and the shorter “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

WomanRunWoman on the Run (1950) is a much more compelling—and far more deftly directed—film even with its somewhat misleading title. Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) isn’t really on the run. It’s her estranged husband Frank (Ross Elliott) who has gone missing after witnessing a gangland killing. The killer has already taken a shot at him and the police want him to testify. He’s dubious of promises to keep him safe and Eleanor is on Frank’s side. Their marriage has become mere formality—they lead separate lives connected only by a shared address and a pet dog—and she answers the cops’ questions with acerbic remarks, but she’s the first to tip him off that the cops are looking for him. She slips the police surveillance easy enough but dogged, fast-talking reporter Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), a newspaperman with a mercenary streak and a snappy patter that could have come from the lively newspaper pictures of the early 1930s, is more resourceful. Danny joins her search for Frank across San Francisco, helping her track him down in return for the exclusive story.

“Frank’s done nothing wrong,” Eleanor argues, to which the veteran inspector replies, “Oh yes he has. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” That’s a classic film noir situation, the wrong man targeted by bad luck, but it’s just the starting point for the real story. Sheridan dishes out sardonic cracks with deadpan snap and O’Keefe matches her with snappy repartee delivered with an all-American grin as they go searching Frank’s old haunts. But Eleanor softens along the journey as she discovers new dimensions of her estranged husband on her odyssey. He’s simply a failed artist now doing window displays in a San Francisco department store as far as she’s concerned but as she turns detective she sees that he’s simply transformed his art into displays (many of which feature her likeness) and learns that he has a deadly medical condition, which he’s kept secret from her. The tart snap and cynical edge gives way to concern as her feelings are rekindled. In a genre known for predatory relationships, one-sided love affairs, and sexual obsession, this is the rare film noir that opens in indifference and resentment and becomes a story of rediscovery and renewal. Eleanor transforms from hard-bitten cynic to revived romantic as she falls in love with her husband all over again.

Director Foster was a B-movie veteran who worked briefly with Orson Welles and it appears to have inspired him. delivers a film filled with unexpected dashes of character (the heavy accents of the dancers at a Chinese restaurant give way to all-American voices when the rubes are gone and they’re among friends) and marvelous style and atmosphere. Along with the usual picture postcard views, he takes the viewer through parts of San Francisco the aren’t part of the tourist checklist. He makes excellent use of location shooting, from the dynamic murder scene from the bottom of a plunging set of stone steps through the climax on the waterfront amusement park. The low angles and tilted framing give the shots a dramatic punch, but also suggests a world off balance, an appropriate state of affairs for characters uprooted from their familiar lives. The rollercoaster sequence is particularly effective, a marvelous metaphor for the panic, helplessness, and emotional turmoil of the rider trapped on the ride while a murder is underway.

The restoration is terrific. It’s not pristine, mind you, as the original negative was gone and the only complete original print destroyed in a fire a few years ago, but the British internegative (a copy of the original negative that was used to strike prints in Britain) was preserved by the BFI, who loaned it to UCLA for this restoration. The day scenes have a documentary immediacy, the night scenes are plunged in shadow, and all of it is crisp and clean with excellent contrasts.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, with commentary by Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller (informative as always; Muller has long been a champion of the film and its interesting use of San Francisco locations), the 20-minute featurette “Love is a Rollercoaster: Woman on the Run Revisited” with Muller and film noir historian Alan K. Rode and film critics Kim Morgan and Julie Kirgo, the 5-minute “A Wild Ride: Restoring Woman on the Run” with Muller and film archivist Scott McQueen, the 7-minute video tour “Woman on the Run Locations Then and Now” with Brian Hollins (aka City Sleuth), and a 10-minute featurettes on the Noir City Film Festival, plus a booklet with stills, artwork, and an essay by Eddie Muller.

Blu-ray International: ‘L’Inhumaine’ from France, two Fritz Lang silent classics, three from the Taviani Brothers

LinhumaineThe 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.

Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.

L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.

The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.

SpiesLangFritz Lang’s sprightly, adrenaline-driven Spies (1928) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) harkens back to the cliffhanger thrills of early twenties adventure serials against an exotic backdrop of international espionage. A super spy and financial mastermind with the ominous name of Haghi runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank: his secret headquarters is located under the foundation of his public bank. A master of disguise (in the tradition of Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas) who controls a vast surveillance and communications network (just like Lang’s own Mabuse), which he uses to steal state secrets. In fact, Rudolph Klein-Rogge played Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis, making him the greatest supervillain of his day. There’s a beautiful cold-blooded super-spy named Sonia (Gerda Maurus), henchmen (Fritz Rasp), a femme fatale (Lien Dreyers), and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), the “good” spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi.

Murnau was a master at this kind of serial-style pulp fiction. He began by writing the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May, and writing and directing Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. Spies is a return to his roots, but he comes back with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years, including Metropolis, which earned tremendous critical acclaim but lost money for the studio.

Spies was his answer to a sure-fire hit with his own obsessions stirred through. Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies in the underworld of pre-Nazi Germany for an entire serial into one whizzing feature. This was quite high-tech for its day, with science fiction buttonhole cameras along with the classic invisible ink messages, periscopes, peepholes, assassinations, seductions, drugged victims, and a spectacular train wreck woven through the machinations of the competing spies. In many ways it’s his most exciting silent movie, and arguably his most purely entertaining.

Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage, reconstructed from surviving film materials from archives all over the world.

WomanMoonWoman in the Moon (1929) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), Lang’s final silent film, practically plays as two separate film stitched together at the middle. The first part plays like sequel to Spies, a conspiracy of industrialists and scientists where experimental rocket plans are stolen back and forth until the ringleader (Fritz Rasp) secures a seat on the inaugural moon flight. The second part is science fiction, romantic melodrama, and a lunar Greed rolled into one. It is madcap and thrilling and pure pulp fun, with a tremendous visualization of space travel and rocketry for its day. The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight and the rocket science and flight details (right down to the countdown) are startlingly prescient. The story isn’t quite sturdy enough to support the epic production, but Lang’s masterful direction and magnificent sense of design and scale makes this pulp adventure in an epic shell an often thrilling and always impressive feat.

Both discs present the Blu-ray debut of the respective 2K digital restorations by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

Spies features a piano score by Neil Brand, the very informative feature-length documentary “Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action,” and the original German trailer.

Woman in the Moon features a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and the featurette “Woman in the Moon: The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.”

TavianiBrosCollectionThe Taviani Brothers Collection: Padre Padrone / The Night of the Shooting Stars / Kaos (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) – Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Tavianni have been collaborating on films for over 50 years, drawing from the cinematic traditions of neorealism, literary magic realism and fantasy, and their own journalistic interests in politics and society. This collection presents three of their most acclaimed films.

Padre Padrone (1977) adapted from autobiographical novel by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, recounts the life of a young boy in Sardinia who is pulled out of school by his tyrannical father and forced to live the almost solitary life of a shepherd while he struggles to educated himself. I won the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), their delicate and delirious story of war and survival as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, is an epic filled with a sense of wonder and absurdity amidst the acceptance of brutality and death. The Italian villagers are caught between the vindictive actions of the Nazis and Italian fascist soldiers and the advancing Americans in 1944 and the climactic battle in the wheat field between the partisans and the blackshirts is a chaotic and messy farce without a punchline. It won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. They followed up with a Kaos (1984), an anthology film of four tales of life in old Sicily based on the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, with an epilogue starring Tavianni favorite Omero Antonutti as Pirandello himself. Filled with scenes of rural beauty and magic realism, it runs over three hours and won two David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent to the Oscars.

All three are Italian classics. All three films have been newly restored from the original elements for DVD and Blu-ray. In Italian with English subtitles, with a two-hour interview with the filmmakers.

PaulineBeachPauline at the Beach (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After completing his “Six Moral Tales” (plus a pair of terrific literary period pieces), French filmmaker Eric Rohmer embarked on “Comedies and Proverbs,” a series of female-driven romantic comedies with headstrong characters, mis-matched couples, and the criss-crossing plots of a Shakespearean farce.

Where many of Rohmer’s films could be described as intellectual sex comedies without the sex, Pauline at the Beach (1983) embraces the earthy passion of sexual play as seen from the perspective of 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet). She gets an eye-opening lesson in the games grown-ups play on a two week summer vacation with her recently divorced older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle, every inch the vivacious blonde goddess). Smitten Pascal Greggory turns aggressive with jealousy when the smooth, seductive, happily shallow writer Feodor Atkine wins the fancy of the “perfect” Marion while continuing to fool around on the side. The tangled affairs, mistaken identities, and white lies are the stuff of sex farce, but Rohmer, true to form, doesn’t judge. He is more interested in the folly of love and the impulsive, illogical workings of human nature and his generosity of character rounds out everyone caught up in the tangled affairs and mistaken identities. Rohmer deftly crafts a gentle and sexy little human comedy that ends with Pauline learning perhaps the right lessons after all.

In French with English subtitles. The Blu-ray and DVD release is a significant upgrade from the earlier (long out of print) DVD and includes an archival interview with Rohmer from 1996.

‘Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies’ and the Quay Brothers on Blu-ray

Chaplinessenay
Flicker Alley

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.

Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.

A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.

Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.

Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.

The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.

The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.

QuayBrosThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.

Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.

Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

The complete line-up is featured below:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
plus
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)

The Quay Brothers’ ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

Gift Sets: ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Die Hard,’ W.C. Fields, and the American Avant-Garde

BackFuture30Back to the Future: 30th Anniversary Trilogy (Universal, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) – “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”

October 21, 2015, is a date foretold… in Back to the Future II! That’s right, it’s not just the 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future, it’s the day that Marty travels to in the second installment of the time-traveling trilogy.

Of course there’s a new 30th Anniversary special edition trilogy edition on Blu-ray and DVD to mark the occasion, and for the entire month of October, Amazon Prime members can stream all three films as part of their subscription.

Michael J. Fox goes backwards, forwards, and sideways through time as Marty McFly in a souped-up DeLorean for the first time in Back to the Future (1985), where he jaunts back to 1955, meets his parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), and finds a younger (but just as crazy) Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the genius inventor who builds the time travel device and has to concoct a way to get Marty back to 1985. The film’s hopped-up energy, action movie slapstick and tongue-in-cheek cheek social commentary spoofing helped turn it into a blockbuster hit and a pop-culture sensation so director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer / producer Bob Gale came back with two sequels.

Back to the Future Part II (1989) sends Marty ahead in time and then back to play in the margins of the first film. Glover bowed out of the sequel and Elizabeth Shue took over the role created in the first film by Claudia Wells. Back to the Future Part III (1990) takes on another era: it’s the old west of 1885 and Mary Steenburgen is a schoolmarm who is sweet on Sheriff Brown.

None of the films have been remastered for this new edition and the individual discs include the commentary tracks, featurettes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and other supplements from the previous releases, including the six-part retrospective documentary “Tales of the Future,” an exhaustive and entertaining look back at the origins, production and reception of all three films (it’s divvied up over the three discs) and “Looking Back to the Future,” a 45-minute look into the production and reception of the original film, which is on the bonus disc.

Exclusive to this release is a new introduction from Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, who also appears in the 9-minute original short “Doc Brown Save the World” (which explains who all those inventions seen in Part II don’t exist in our reality), and the featurette “OUTATIME: Restoring the DeLorean,” plus two episodes of the Back to the Future animated series and two commercials from the movie’s version of 2015: a trailer for Jaws 19 and a hoverboard commercial.

Nakatoni Plaza Die Hard Collection (Fox, Blu-ray) is a gift set with a gimmick and this gimmick is pretty darn cool: a 16-inch tall scale model of the skyscraper featured in the original Die Hard. And in the base of this altar to the franchise is a collection of all five films.

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The original Die Hard (1988) is still a touchstone for action movie fans, the film that turned wisecracking lug Bruce Willis an action hero and set the tone and attitude of adrenaline-driven crime thrillers for decades to come. The film drops New York cop John McClane in a Los Angeles skyscraper to match wits with terrorist Alan Rickman and his ruthless crew when they lock down the building on Christmas Eve. It’s another Christmas and another crisis for McClane when he battles terrorists (led by William Sadler) at a snow-bound airport in Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), the film that launched Renny Harlin’s short reign as a Hollywood action king. McTiernan is back for Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Samuel Jackson becomes Willis’ reluctant ally when criminal mastermind Jeremy Iron puts them through a lethal game of Simon Says. It was more than ten years before the fourth film and Willis is older, balder, and a lot more banged in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), helped by smart-ass hacker Justin Long to take on 21st century supergenius Timothy Olyphant and the biggest cyber-crime theft in history. Len Wiseman directs this one, using ever bigger set pieces to distract from the script’s shortcomings. The franchise is running out of ideas and fuel by A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), which sends Willis to Moscow to bail his estranged son out of jail. Of course he ends up in yet another mad genius criminal conspiracy. What makes them all work (well, the earlier ones anyway) is Willis as the banged up veteran held together by his scar tissue, roused to action because he’s the guy in the place to do it, and kept sane by his sardonic sense of humor. Yippee Ki Kay!

The films have not been remastered since their last Blu-ray release and the discs features all the supplements from previews disc releases—filmmaker commentary on each film (Willis joins the party on the fourth film only), featurettes, interviews, and other goodies—and a bonus disc with the terrific seven-part Decoding Die Hard, which explores the series through all five features (it was originally included in the 25th Anniversary collection). The Live Free and Good Day discs both feature original theatrical and extended unrated versions of the films. There’s also a booklet with stills and trivia and postcards featuring the villains of all five films.

But it’s really notable for its distinctive packaging. The discs themselves are held in an easy to access booklet-style case with sleeves for each disc, but the case is in the base of a startlingly large plastic model of Nakatoni Plaza, the skyscraper setting of the original Die Hard. You can pull the disc case out and put on the shelf with the rest of your collection and put that shrine to Willis and the Die Hard legacy in a place befitting a holy relic. It’s something only a fan could love, but boy, what love it will bring them.

WCFieldsW.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection (Universal, DVD) – W.C. Fields movies more often resemble vaudeville acts than narrative films, strings of gags held together by the loosest of plots and Fields’ own bellicose nature. He’s tyrannized victim as often as insolent bully, often in the same film, and Universal pays tribute to the merry misanthrope in this generous collection. Packed efficiently in a compact disc case, doesn’t bother with extras. It’s all about packing in the movies and there are 18 features in this five-disc set. Most (though not all) have been on disc before. I can’t begin to review them all, so here are a few highlights from the collection.

The anthology comedy If I Had a Million (1932) makes its official (aka legitimate) DVD debut in this set, practically buried in the bunch. This was a high-concept comedy from Paramount in that its made up of eight separate stories, each helmed by a different director, all connected by a single act: a dying millionaire splits his fortune between eight strangers. Fields stars in one of the tales, using his windfall to take his revenge on the frustrations of modern life in the era of the automobile. Other recipients of the windfall include Charles Ruggles, Gary Cooper, May Robson, Gene Raymond, and in the shortest, most perfectly-pitched episode (directed by Ernst Lubitsch), Charles Laughton as a clerk emboldened by his newfound freedom.

It’s A Gift (1934) is a W.C. Fields masterpiece. He’s a bumbling, long-suffering small town storekeeper, henpecked at home, tormented by nightmarish customers on the job (the disaster-prone blind man in glass ware is a classic bit), and suckered into selling it all to buy a California orange grove, sight unseen. The road trip only offers more indignities from his ever-complaining wife, narcissistic daughter, and possessed toddler son. His plodding perseverance is a victory in itself.

He’s the owner of a fleabag circus in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), where he finds a worthy sparring partner in Charlie McCarthy and eludes creditors with bravado and bluster. In every instance Fields mutters and sputters while he doggedly endures one situation after another as a hard-bitten but ultimately soft-hearted underdog. He finds another worthy screen partner in Mae West with My Little Chickadee (1940), a crazed western written by the two iconic stars in their first and only film together. Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran, Ruth Donnelly and Margaret Hamilton star. The Bank Dick (1940) was his last great film (which he scripted under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves), the slim story of a small town drunkard and put-upon family man enlivened by delicious situations (an inebriated Fields directs a movie and turns a car chase into a slapstick tangle) and drawled bon mots. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) stars Fields as both a caricature of himself pitching a madcap script to a long-suffering movie producer (Franklin Pangborn) and the hapless hero of his absurd globetrotting odyssey. The nonsensical farce was Fields’ final starring role and Gloria Jean, Leon Errol, and the indefatigable foil Margaret Dumont co-star.

Million Dollar Legs (1932), an unsung classic, features Fields as the genial president of a dotty European duchy that would give the Marx Bros.’ Freedonia a run for its lunacy. You’re Telling Me! (1934) gives the dog his day and Fields rises to the occasion as an eccentric inventor who doesn’t let universal rejection stop him from wreaking havoc on the lives of his family and friend with his madcap creations. The Old Fashioned Way (1934) features Fields as scheming theatrical manager The Great McGonigle and Baby LeRoy is back as his devilish infant nemesis. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) stars with Fields in tyrannized victim mode as the henpecked husband whose one harmless rebellion brings down the vengeance of his incensed boss and his overbearing in-laws. The musical comedy Poppy (1936) is a remake of the silent film Sally of the Sawdust with Fields again playing small-time con man Professor Eustace P. McGargle, the role that originally made him a star on stage and screen.

Fields isn’t the star of Alice in Wonderland (1933), Paramount’s all-star take on Lewis Carroll’s books, but he certainly makes an impression griping and quipping as Humpty Dumpty, which is a giant costume that the actor may or may not actually be inside. He’s joined by Cary Grant (voicing the Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (bumbling through as the White Knight) Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks and a roll call of character actors whose faces and voices are more familiar than their names. And he teams up with George Burns and Gracie Allen in International House (1933), an early “television” comedy which is less a Fields film than a comedy revue, and they share the screen with Peggy Hopkins, Bela Lugosi, Rudy Vallee, and Cab Calloway.

Filling out the set are Tillie and Gus (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), Mississippi (1935), and The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). Also includes the vintage 1965 program Wayne & Schuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields, originally made for Canadian TV.

Be assured that the age of the flipper disc is over. Each of the five discs is single-sided, with three to four movies squeezed onto each disc. Since so many of Fields’ comedies are around an hour long, that’s not as tight a fit as it might appear on the surface.

MasterworksAvant-gardeMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) presents 37 classics of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking from the 1920s through the 1970s, curated by Bruce Posner and produced by David Shepard.

They are not all American films despite the title—Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1923) and Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926), which both play with the graphic elements of film, are both from France—but otherwise the selection offers some of the most influential experimental films of the fifty-year period and a journey through the changing modes of expression over the decades. The early Manhatta (1920), a lovely portrait of New York City (newly restored in 2K and absolutely gorgeous on the screen), and A Bronx Morning (1931) emphasize the poetry and beauty of it images. These are like tone poems and offer an American answer to the “Symphony of a City” movies of Europe.

Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1924) also gets a 2K restoration. It’s a film of rhythms, a succession of images edited into a kind of visual music, and features a delightful cut-out animation recreation of Charlie Chaplin. It’s accompanied by the score composed for its premiere by George Antheil for 16 player pianos and percussion.

I have a fondness for The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928), a playful little black comedy from Robert Florey and editing legend Slavko Vorkapich that uses animation, inexpensive special effects, and a mix of German Expressionist and Russian Formalist techniques for thoroughly American experiment in storytelling.

Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), a landmark among landmarks, is still one of them most provocative works of avant-garde filmmaking, using symbolism and dream imagery to express anxieties and desires not seen on the screen.

Animation is used for its abstract possibilities in An Optical Poem (1937) and Tarantella (1940), while the abstractions of modern art inform Evolution (1954) and Hurry, Hurry! (1957). Also includes films from prolific avant-garde filmmakers Bruce Baillie, Jonas Mekas, Lawrence Jordan, and Stan Brakhage. Nine of the featured films are on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

There have been many fine anthologies of experimental and avant-garde films released in the last ten years or so. The major difference that this collection offers, apart from variations in the particular titles chosen, is HD transfers of all 37 films (including two newly restored editions mastered in 2K) on both Blu-ray and DVD. Film texture is an essential element of many of these film, especially those from the later years as filmmakers played with film stocks, optical effects, mixed media techniques, and other manipulations to the photographic image and, in some cases, directly to the celluloid materials. These HD transfers get us closer to the texture of the films as seen on the screen.

This fine collection also features newly-composed and/or recorded scores to many of the silent films, plus a booklet with credits and notes on the films and filmmakers. The set features the complete collection on both two DVDs and two Blu-rays.

Videophiled Classics: Dziga Vertov – ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’

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Flicker Alley

Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) presents four features (and one newsreel short) by the great Soviet filmmaker, all making their American Blu-ray debut. They have been newly scanned from the best sources available and digitally remastered by Lobster Films in France. The collection is a collaboration between Lobster, Film Preservations Associates (and the Blackhawk Films Collection), EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie and is presented in the U.S. by Flicker Alley.

The Soviet Union’s revolutionary documentarian and film theorist, Dziga Vertov was the head of production and editing of the Kino-Pravda newsreel unit between 1922 and 1925. He put his years of experimentation in weekly newsreels to work in the 1924 feature film with Kino Eye / The Life Unexpected (1924), a continuation of his work on the Kino-Pravda series. The mixture of slice of life observations (often captured with a hidden camera) with documentary studies and playful cinematic tricks was his first attempt to create a new kind of filmmaking celebrating life in the Soviet Union under communism. The episodic film is structured something like a variety show, with the recurring thread of “Young Pioneers,” a youth brigade of Soviet boys and girls dedicated to helping the poor and needy, running through the film as a kind of narrative glue. Nestled between these uplifting sequences are glimpses into taverns and bars, a state home for the mentally ill, and the black market, fanciful documentary investigations into the origins of bread and meat (from the slaughterhouse to the farm), and a scene of kids at play in the water that turns into a gorgeous diving montage that presages Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia by over ten years.

The source for this master was an original 35mm print from the Blackhawk Films Collection

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is Vertov’s most famous film, a landmark of Soviet silent cinema and international avant-garde and non-fiction filmmaking—a pretty impressive double play to be celebrated for both capturing and deconstructing reality. Part documentary, part film essay, part cinematic gymnastics, Dziga Vertov’s dazzling masterpiece is a spellbinding piece of cinematic poetry and one of the great non-narrative works of all time. It’s ostensibly a kind of symphony of a city, a day in the life of a big city for the Ukraine, but Vertov shot in multiple cities for his idealized portrait. Using all the ideas and experiments he had explored for years in his newsreel pieces, he created a film essay that celebrated the great Soviet experiment while challenging the very foundations of representation, editing, and narrative with images that dance on the screen. The man with the movie camera and the woman at the editing table are integral parts of a film that is in part about its own making and the possibilities inherent in the cinema. The Alloy Orchestra, guided by suggestions left by director Dziga Vertov, created a score built on their trademark mix of dramatic melody and expressive percussion—which is exactly what Vertov wanted. It’s an exciting, driving score that I now consider the definitive accompaniment. This edition features that score.

It’s also the best looking film on this disc. Previous editions were mastered from compromised prints, missing footage from damage or outright recutting and often duped down many generations for the source. This editions is mastered from a preserved, near-complete 35mm nitrate print struck from the camera negative and preserved in the archives of EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It preserves the full silent film image area (rather than a sound-era copy with reduced image area) and, though it has wear and some damage due to screenings over the decades, the image is quite strong. Missing footage was replaced from alternate sources and the high-definition digital copy was further cleaned by Lobster films. A detailed history of the film print and the restoration process is included in an accompanying booklet. In short, this edition features a fuller image and footage missing from previous editions.

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‘The Man with the Movie Camera’

Vertov made his sound film debut with Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass (1931), his celebration of the Five Year Plan, which is an unqualified success under his direction. It opens on a woman listening to the news of the Soviet experiment over a radio set the scenes play out as if illustrating what she’s learning over the air. No surprise that Vertov treats sound much the same way he treats images: as pieces to be manipulated, cut and mixes to set a scene or make a point. There’s very little synchronized sound and no dialogue (though there’s a speech or two). Rather, he turns to the sounds of machinery and the cheers of crowds, with punctuations of sound effects providing a heightened percussion. Early on we see a conductor leading an orchestra and you would be forgiven for assuming that the symphony is a musical composition. For Vertov, the symphony is the image and sound, the dramatization of workers increasing production in the mines and foundries and on the farms, the building of ideas and themes to socialism triumphant. “The five year plan has been executed in four years!” and the masses rejoice.

There is damage and wear to the source, and a 35mm original print from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, but there is a great image beneath it and there is great detail in this HD Blu-ray presentation. There is also a warble to the soundtrack, which was restored in 204, in scenes toward the end.

'Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass'
‘Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass’

Three Songs About Lenin (1934), Vertov’s tribute to the leader who died in 1924, completes the set. It’s a symphony in three movements celebrating the triumph of socialism and the unity of industry and art. Which is not exactly what Stalin had in mind to teach the masses. Like Eisenstein, Vertov faced pressure to make more naturalistic narratives and clearer propaganda. The original cut of no longer survives—the film was reedited in 1938 under order Stalin’s regime, and again in the 1970s, this time to remove images of Stalin—and the film on this disc was mastered from a 35mm edited print preserved at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All of the films run under 80 minutes, three of them at around an hour apiece. The disc, however, includes one additional film: Kino-Pravda (1925), aka Kino-Pravda Newsreel 21: Leninist Film Truth, one of the many newsreels created by Vertov that mixed documentary, cinema-verité, and agitprop. Also from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All five films are collected on a single Blu-ray disc and the release features an informative booklet with notes on the films and the print sources.

Normally I don’t report on new announcements but if the above release interests you, you’ll likely be interested to know that the newly rediscovered 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who made a career playing Sherlock Holmes onstage and was the definitive stage Holmes as far as the public was concerned) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in October by Flicker Alley. There will be a wealth of bonus material, including three bonus films featuring earlier screen appearances by Sherlock Homes. More information at Flicker Alley.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Silents Please!: ‘The House of Mystery’ from Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley

The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) (Flicker Alley, DVD) – Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences. Louis Feuillaude was a master at making surreal pulp thrillers like Fantomas and Les Vampires but Judex moved him toward epic storytelling with more mature themes (his later serials, which are even more adult if less exciting, are sadly unavailable in the U.S.).

Albatross, a French studio founded by Russian immigrants who fled the communist revolution, produced some of the most sophisticated films on the twenties, including the serial The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice. The opening credits tease the audience by presenting our hero in multiple disguises before revealing the face of Ivan Mosjoukine, suggesting he is something of a Judex or Fantomas. In fact he’s Julien Villandrit, the scion of a manufacturing family who marries his sweetheart Régine (Hélène Darly) and takes over the family textile mill. All seems well as we jump to “Seven Years Later” and find his longtime associate Henri (Charles Vanel) going all Iago, planting the seeds of doubt in Julien’s mind over the attentions of an elderly banker (Sylvia Gray) toward his wife. What seems unseemly has a rather touching explanation but it takes a dramatic turn when Julien is framed for murder and sent to prison while Henri remains free to pursue Régine. Nicolas Koline plays the woodsman Rudeberg, a photographer whose hobby gives him the leverage to blackmail his way into a steady job. It’s not quite as mercenary as it seems—it’s all to give his troubled son a shot at an education and a better life than him—but it means hiding the evidence proving Julien’s innocence and incriminating the true killer.

Over the course of a story that spans decades there is a daring jailbreak and desperate escape over rugged mountains and deadly ravines (it takes up almost an entire chapter and is a magnificent piece of silent action spectacle), and a series of disguises donned by our hero to return home and clear his name, but this is more romantic melodrama than thriller. A wedding scene is played in a series of silhouettes that resembles the delicacy of the cut-out animation of Lotte Reiniger and the trial sequence takes a break from courtroom drama for a lovely moment of silent movie connection as Régine nudges Julien to sit up, refresh himself, and reclaim his dignity, all communicated in gestures and glances across the room.

Ivan Mosjoukine
Ivan Mosjoukine

 

Mosjoukine is magnificent in the leading role, a part in which he invested himself completely. He transforms from nervous, unworldly, odd young man to confident husband and father to tragic hero who spends years attempting to reunite with his family, and that doesn’t include the characters he creates while hiding out from the authorities. Mosjoukine wrote the adaptation (it was based on a bestselling novel) and even created his own make-up, and his transformation is as complete (if not quite as extreme) as Lon Chaney in the states.

It plays like a modern TV mini-series, more concerned with dramatic complications and character conflict than with action-film cliffhangers. The serial format gives the drama room to breathe and the actors space to develop characters and relationships over 10 chapters and 6 ½ hours and Alexandre Volkoff directs with a high degree of sophistication and elegance. It’s what silent cinema does at its best: delve into the depth of the moment, drawing out action to explore the dramatic textures and letting the actors reveal the emotions of the characters, to show the audience rather than explain in intertitles. That sounds like a hard sell to viewers not already enchanted by the charms of silent cinema but this is a lovely film and a superb presentation of a rarity. It could make a convert of anyone with a love of classic movies and cinema history.

The complete serial was restored in 1992 and was digitally remastered for its home video debut by Eric Lange and Lobster Films in 2014, and it features a piano score by Neil Brand. Also includes a gallery of production stills and a booklet with an essay and notes on the film and the filmmakers by silent film historian Lenny Borger.

More silent cinema on DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: Chaplin at Mutual and 25 Years of Mack Sennett

Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.

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The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.

It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.

This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

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