Blu-ray: ‘Fritz Lang: The Silent Films’

 

Kino Classics

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)

Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of MetropolisFritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.

Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.

Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.

No supplements with these films.

The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

BigHeat_BD_EncoreThe Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

GildaBDRita Hayworth is at her most iconic as the forties sex-bomb in Gilda (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1946 film noir classic co-starring Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, an American tough guy in Buenos Aires, and George Macready as Ballin Mundson, the owner of a nightclub and illegal casino who hires Johnny as his club manager. Just as in Casablanca, another Hollywood melodrama of an American tough guy abroad during the war, the gambling room is hidden in the back room of the nightclub and is pretty much an open secret. “Gambling and woman don’t mix,” is the owner’s motto, which is just fine with Johnny, who makes himself Mundson’s right hand man. Then Mundson breaks the pact when he returns from a trip with a glamorous wife.

Rita Hayworth’s entrance is pure Hollywood starcraft: a perfectly lit close-up as she whips her head into frame, her hair lashing back and revealing her bright face and wide, mischievous grin. It turns out that Johnny and Gilda have history and Gilda makes a point of flaunting her indiscretions in front of Johnny, who does his best to keep them hidden from Mundsen. There’s a criminal plot involving a monopoly on Tungsten and German investors who may be Nazi criminals in hiding (apart from a headline reading “German Surrenders,” there’s no mention of the war) but the drama revolves around the sexual tension and vicious punishments they inflict on one another. Hayworth plays the prowling sex kitten, slinking around the dance floor, laughing with a new pretty boy on her arm, even performing a symbolic striptease on the nightclub floor while singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” and Ford is younger and leaner and meaner than we’re used to, which makes him a little unpredictable.

The sexual indiscretions are suggested rather than shown but director Charles Vidor is quite forthright in his suggestions, and they they are ultimately denied in contrived happy ending that contradicts everything leading up to it. Which is not uncommon for Hollywood films of the era, which often turned on a dime to placate the production code. This is one of the most suggestive films of the era—not just for Gilda’s seductive taunts and frequent (offscreen) trysts but for the way Johnny competes with Gilda for Johnny’s favor—and the emotional violence between Johnny and Gilda still draws symbolic blood.

Previously released on DVD by Sony, it makes its Criterion debut is a gorgeous transfer with a new interview with film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller and an archival 1964 made-for-TV documentary “Hollywood and the Stars: The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth,” plus (carried over from the earlier DVD) observant commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and a video introduction by Martin Scorsese and Baz Lurhmann. The booklet features an essay by Sheila O’Malley.

WhereSidewalkTTOtto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) reunites the stars from his breakthrough film Laura (1944), the most elegant of early film noirs, for a more streetwise cop drama with a bare-knuckle attitude. Dana Andrews is Det. Mark Dixon, an angrier version of his Laura character (also a police detective named Mark) who takes out his resentment for his criminal father on the hoodlums, thieves, and gangsters he sweeps off the streets. When he accidentally kills a suspect—a former war hero who has already been framed for murder by smarmy crime boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill)—and covers up the crime, Mark’s unstable moral high ground gives way. Gene Tierney is the wife of Mark’s victim, a clothing model who has separated from the sleazy guy and moved in with her dad (Tom Tully), and guilt starts eating Mark alive when his actions throw suspicion on Tierney’s protective father.

Andrews was one of Preminger’s favorite actors for that ability to walk the tightrope between American forthrightness and over-the-edge darkness. That chiseled face made him convincing as both a working class cop and a master of industry and paired nicely with Tierney’s sculptured features: scar tissue and smooth glamour brought together by violence. The script, written by Ben Hecht, plays with the idea that it takes the overly-passionate (and borderline psychotic?) cops like Mark to take on Scalise. His new boss, a by-the-book commander played by Karl Malden, is committed but lacks imagination and insight and Merrill’s Scalise is certainly imaginative, or at the very least opportunistic. Standing out in the supporting cast is Craig Stevens, a decade away from Peter Gunn, sweating cheap, desperate charm as Tierney’s heel of a husband and veteran character actress Ruth Donnelly as a diner matron with a sharp tongue and a warm heart. Her affection of Mark helps us see the better angels of his nature.

Preminger shoots largely on studio sets, the better to sculpt his version of night in the city, and sets the climax in a parking garage with a car elevator that he uses to superb effect. All that heavy machinery becomes something akin to weaponry under noir conditions.

It’s previously been on DVD from Fox Video. Twilight Time’s edition offers a superb Blu-ray debut, with a sharp image and rich contrasts. Film noir historian Eddie Muller’s commentary, originally recorded for the DVD, is carried over for this edition, and as with all Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and is limited to 3000 copies.

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.

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

Twilight Time’s Encore Edition of ‘The Big Heat’

The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

Reviews of Gilda and Where the Sidewalk Ends at Cinephiled.

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hangmen Also Die’ restored on Blu-ray and DVD

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

hangmen3
Anna Lee

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinemaphiled

Classic: Fritz Lang’s ‘Die Nibelungen’

Die Nibelungen (Kino) is the original fantasy epic, a magnificent silent spectacle based on the same German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the wellspring that nurtured “Excalibur,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Game of Thrones” (not mention “Metropolis”).

This blood and thunder myth of warriors and dragons and brotherhood and betrayal, is awesome in its scope, both visual and dramatic. Warrior prince Siegfried is both innocent child-man of the wild and the blonde Aryan ideal of German myth, a mortal god in his own right destroyed by the pettiness of human vanity and weakness of his own sworn blood brother. The betrayal of the first part of this mighty diptych is answered in the title of part two: “Kriemhild’s Revenge.” His widow vows vengeance (“Blood cries for blood!”) and it is as enormous and devastating as anything Shakespeare created, practically destroying two kingdoms in a literal conflagration.

On the one hand, Lang presents is as a tragedy, of vengeance burning down everything and everyone it touches, but Kriemhild can also be seen as the hand of the gods burning out the corruption of a compromised kingdom that defends a killer with the same sense of honor that justified the betrayal of a blood brother. “You do not understand the German soul,” explains one knight to the King Attila of the Huns, but as embodied by the weak-willed King Gunther, their is little to understand beyond perhaps regret for past sins and a futile gesture to regain lost honor.

Beyond that, “Die Nibelungen” is simply magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. There’s a half-hearted inclusion of Christianity with a massive cathedral and a few carefully-placed crucifixes, but if there is any religion to this film, it is of the Earth and nature and the old gods, and every set and manufactured landscape serves the grandeur of this primeval, pre-religion world.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Black and White and Blu-ray: ‘The Big Heat’

The Big Heat (Twilight Time) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Glenn Ford is the bland family man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the placid poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil.

Director Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

I confess I never expected to see this on Blu-ray, and I couldn’t be happier.

Continue reading at Videodrone

MOD Movies: Fritz Lang’s Farewell to Hollywood

Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.

Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.

Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry  on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.

Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.

After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.

Continue reading about While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers at Videodrone

Weekend Viewing: Fritz Lang in Hollywood

Eight films by the German auteur that you can view at home.

The Film Forum in New York begins the two-week retrospective “Fritz Lang  in Hollywood” which, as the title explains, surveys the German legend’s work during his American exile: all 22 films he made in the United States between 1934 to 1956, in 35mm. It’s the film event of the moment in New York (see Manohla Dargis in The New York Times,  J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, Cullen Gallagher at Moving Image Source, Dan Callahan in The L, and so on).

Henry Fonda in "You Only Live Once"

Those of us outside of the Big Apple may not be able to join the crowds for the glory of such classics (both major and minor) projected on the big screen, but Fritz Lang is a filmmaker well represented on DVD so here’s my suggestion for your own festival: the best of Fritz Lang’s American films, designed for maximum small screen pleasure.

Fury (1936)

Fritz Lang’s American debut is an indictment of lynch mob justice starring Spencer Tracy as an honest man wrongly arrested and left to burn to death in a prison blaze started by a vicious mob of normal American citizens whipped into a frenzy of vengeance while his bride-to-be (Sylvia Sidney) watches, terrified and helpless. He escapes, though he’s believed to have perished in the fire, and from hiding he plots his revenge on the mob by indicting them for murder. It was the first of his loose trilogy of social justice starring Sidney (she returns in the equally searing “You Only Live Once” and the lighter “You and Me”) and it grabbed audiences by the lapels with its frank dramatic confrontations. The Warner features commentary by film historian Peter Bogdanovich, with excerpts of his archival audio interview with Fritz Lang. (Warner)

Continue reading at Videodrone.

The Complete Metropolis

The Complete Metropolis (Kino)

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.

Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!

With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.

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Spies (Spione) on TCM

Fritz Lang’s 1928 espionage fantasy Spies (Spione), the film he made after Metropolis, plays this weekend on Turner Classic Movies. I wrote an essay on the film for the website.

The visual web of Lang's (under)world

In the late 1920s, Fritz Lang was the star director of Germany’s Ufa Studios, the biggest film studio outside of Hollywood, and one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world for such ambitious epic visions as Destiny (1921), the Die Nibelungen (1924) films and especially Metropolis (1927), his allegorical science fiction classic that is still considered one of the great films of the silent era.

His 1928 thriller Spies (Spione) belongs to a different tradition, one that came out of the rapid-paced adventure and crime serials of the twenties that were inspired primarily by the hugely successful (and at times surreal) pulp crime serials of Louis Feuillade in France, such as Fantomas and Les Vampires. Early in his career, Lang (with Thea von Harbou) developed the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May; Lang also wrote and directed Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both of which focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. After the grandiose sweep and imagery of Metropolis, Spies was a return to such pulp entertainment, but with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years. It was also his first production as an independent producer through his short-lived company Fritz-Lang-Film GmbH. Metropolis was a critical success but a financial failure and it precipitated Lang’ split with Ufa, though he didn’t go far. Ufa continued to distribute and promote his independent productions.

Read the complete feature here. Plays Sunday, November 7 on TCM. Also available on DVD from Kino.

SFSFF 2010: Metropolis Restored and the Restoration (Re)Considered

I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.

Robot and Rotwang
Robot and Rotwang

Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.

And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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