Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray) The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray) Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray) The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.
When Film Chest began releasing their “restored” editions of public domain films a few years ago under the label HD Cinema Classics, they promised superior editions of film previously available in poor copies. After a launch fraught with mishandled restorations, they have finally delivered on the promise with three recent releases on DVD:Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD), The Bigamist (Film Chest, DVD) and their latest release The Strange Woman (Film Chest, DVD), which became available just this week.
Actor Paul Henreid (most famous for playing resistance hero Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) produced the crime thriller Hollow Triumph (1948) as a vehicle for himself and he take two roles in it: as criminal mastermind John Muller, a medical school drop-out who comes out of prison with a scheme to rob a casino owned by a vindictive mob boss, and as a chilly psychiatrist who is his exact double but for a jagged scar running down his cheek. When the heist inevitably goes bad and Muller goes into hiding, he hatches a plan to kill the doctor and put his medical training to use by taking over the doc’s identity, complete with a scar carved into his cheek.
This low-budget film noir has a couple of clever twists that a few sharp viewers will likely see coming, some marvelous nocturnal Los Angeles locations shot by the great noir stylist John Alton, and a confident Joan Bennett in a supporting role as a single woman who has no illusions about dating the seductive but shady Muller. The film has been readily available on poor quality editions. This edition, which is branded “HD restoration from 35mm film elements,” is not exactly restored—there is visible wear on the print and crackle on the soundtrack—but it is a noticeable leap in quality from previous releases. It’s an enjoyable but minor film noir but it did spawn one of the greatest lines in film noir: “It’s a bitter little world.” DVD with no supplements.
“Gregory Peck makes that Hemingway kind of love to Joan Bennett in The Macomber Affair! After the biggest game of all – a woman! On the hunt he took two things as they came – the charge of a snarling lion – the fury of a fear-crazed coward – the lips of a love-crazed woman – cruelty and yearning – of such things was their love made.” So reads the original advertising concocted by the promotions department of United Artist. But overheated hype aside, The Macomber Affair, based on the short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway, is a serious adult drama and is still considered by most Hemingway aficionados as one of the best screen adaptation of the oft-filmed author’s work.
The 1947 drama The Macomber Affair stars Gregory Peck as Robert Wilson, a down-on-his-luck American big-game hunter in Nairobi hired to lead a rich American couple on a trophy hunt. As the film opens he’s accompanying Margo Macomber (Joan Bennett) back from the savanna. Also on the plane is her husband’s corpse. The story of their fateful safari spins out in flashback as the authorities push the stoic Robert for the details: the failing marriage and spiteful behavior beneath the facade of a happy vacation for Margo and husband Francis (Robert Preston), the growing attraction between Robert and Margo, the determination of Francis to find a renewed sense of strength and confidence on the hunt. Classic Hemingway themes and macho values played out on the author’s favorite field of battle: man against nature.
Independent producer Edward Small thought big even when his budgets were small.
His 1934 production of The Count of Monte Cristo (Hen’s Tooth), starring British import Robert Donat as Edmund Dantes and produced outside of the major studios (without the great resources available to most Hollywood films as a matter of course) is a perfect example. The sweeping tale that winds through the halls of power, the homes of the aristocracy, and Napoleon’s march to reclaim France, ends up driven largely through scenes of characters in small rooms conversing, plotting, and proclaiming, with the budget saved for a few impressive set pieces. While those scenes—including a duel with swords in a drawing room, a grand display of aristocrats arriving for a ball (without ever showing the ballroom itself), and a handsome courtroom set with a moving witness stand that gets pushed around the floor like a prop in a dance-off—enliven the story, the rest of the film is slow and static and creaky, stopping dead for monologues and exposition to explain what the film can’t afford to show. Director Rowland V. Lee, a silent movie veteran who settled into second-tier sound productions, is given an impossible task of making a small, underfunded costume adventure look like a studio production, but his almost reverent treatment of every scene merely slows the film down and reveals its threadbare origins.
Donat, almost fatally passive as the stalwart and idealistic Edmund, becomes commanding when he remakes himself as the aristocratic Count, conniving his way into friendships and social connections while he plots his righteous vengeance, and whatever life the film has is owed to him. Louis Calhern stands out as the lead villain. Otherwise this is a weak version of the story that rewrites Dumas to give it a happy ending: instead of being destroyed by his obsessive revenge, he is cheered on by the widow and the son of his first victim and rewarded for his efforts with redemption and restoration of his dreams. Though the DVD boasts a “new digital transfer from a 35mm Fine Grain,” it is a weak, grainy image from a print that shows signs of degradation.
The Man in the Iron Mask (Hen’s Tooth), released just five years later in 1939, is significant step up in every way. Not only has the budget and scope been expanded, creating a much more lavish and sweeping canvas, but director James Whale (coming to the end of his Hollywood career) energizes the production. The action is more lively, to be sure, with smartly-designed crowd scenes and a big clash between the Musketeers and the king’s soldiers that suggest a bigger scope than it actually shows, but Whale turns the dialogue into a duel in its own right, with the advisors currying favor with the corrupt King Louis XIV and the Musketeers jabbing away with witty comments.
I’ve never been a fan of Louis Hayward, whose primary talent seemed to me an ability to play vanity and insincerity with complete conviction, but he’s perfectly cast as the lascivious and tyrannical King Louis XIV, a sadist who smiles at the sound off the executioner and practically glows as he plots the tortures of his enemies (he even scares his self-serving advisor Fouquet, played with sinister graced by Joseph Schildkraut), as well as the chivalrous (but still somewhat cocky) Philippe of Gascony, who in this free adaptation has been secretly raised by D’Artagnan (Warren William) and the Musketeers as heir to their dashing legacy. But I have long been a fan of Warren William, once the charming but predatory wolf of pre-code cinema (see Skyscraper Souls, Employees Entrance and Golddiggers of 1933, just to name a few) and by 1939 a just-as-charming anti-hero in the Lone Wolf mysteries. There’s a twinkle in his eye as the aging D’Artagnan, always ready for a scrap (generally with a smile), always prepared to sacrifice himself for justice, honor and friendship. And while Joan Bennett has not the strength of presence that she will later bring to Man Hunt and Scarlett Street in just a few years, she is up to the role of Princess Maria Theresa, Louis’ betrothed.
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, this is independently produced by Edward Small, but this time he lavishes studio-quality resources on the film, and Whale, a director whose creativity, wicked sense of humor, and sophisticated sensibility elevated productions as wide-ranging as Waterloo Bridge, Bride of Frankenstein, and Showboat, fills the screen with physical action and dramatic crackle. The disc looks better too, mastered from a nice 35mm fine grain print. There’s a little damage in some frames, but the image itself is stronger and sharper, with good detail and contrast.