Blu-ray: Josef von Sternberg ‘s ‘Anatahan’ restored

Inspired by the true story of Japanese sailors stranded on a deserted island during World War II, Anatahan (1953) was the final film completed by Josef von Sternberg. In a career where he was increasingly forced to compromise his style and sensibility, it marked his final hurrah: a film over which he had complete control.

Kino Classics

After a prologue on a Japanese ship bombed by an American plane, the film takes place almost entirely on Anatahan, a former plantation island in the South Pacific that is now completely overrun by the tropical jungle. The twelve survivors, a mix of sailors and soldiers, find the old plantation and a couple who stayed behind when the rest of the island population either enlisted or was evacuated. “We were to be here for seven long years,” reports the narrator (Sternberg himself), speaking in a tone of recollection and reflection long after the fact. (There is no effort to assign the narration to an individual character; it could very well stand in as the guilty conscience of the survivors.) As they await their rescue, their discipline breaks down and their desire for Keiko (Akemi Negishi), the lone woman in the society of men, stirs them to aggression and murder, which becomes easier when they find and scavenge the remains of a downed fighter plane, including a pair of handguns. “There was no law on our island, no police,” observes the narrator. “Only two pistols.”

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Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

fixedbayonetsSamuel Fuller writes and directs Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a Korean War platoon drama set in snowy winter mountains. The small-scale production focuses on a small squad of American soldiers ordered to hold a mountain pass while their division retreats and stars Richard Basehart as Corporal Denno, a soldier who can’t bring himself to fire his rifle at the enemy and bristles at the thought of taking command, and Gene Evans as Sgt. Rock, a grizzled veteran who passes on his wisdom to Denno as senior officers are killed and he becomes the highest-ranking officer. Their only hope is to create the illusion of a much larger force hidden in the mountains and Rock has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s the story of ordinary men rising to the occasion when the situation demands. Fuller draws on his service as a soldier in Africa and Europe in World War II to create the platoon dynamics (the squad is filled with all sorts of types) and the tactics and battle action. The entire film is shot on soundstages, with sets recreating the snow-covered mountains and forests and the caves in which the soldiers take refuge. It makes for a film small in scope and scale and more suggestive than realistic, and the artificial setting gives the film a kind of abstracted, theatrical quality that eschews sentimentality and melodrama for a blunt portrait men facing death that come suddenly and arbitrarily. James Dean is an uncredited extra but he’s hard to pick out.

Debuts on Blu-ray with commentary featuring film historian Michael Schlesinger with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the widow and the daughter of Sam Fuller.

enemybelowThe Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a World War II submarine drama based on the novel of the same name by Commander D. A. Rayner, stars Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, the newly-appointed commander of an American Destroyer in the South Atlantic, and German star Curd Jürgens making his American film debut as Commander Von Stolberg, a German submarine commander whose mission is imperiled when the American warship gives chase. Murell is not a career Navy man—he was a merchant seaman before the war—and his unconventional tactics have the crew questioning his experience, but they rally under his command and they rise to the challenge of their first major enemy action. Directed by Dick Powell in a deliberate (at times plodding) manner, the film offers its share war movie action but the focus is on the battle of wits, a kind of chess game played with torpedoes and depth charges, with the two captains attempting to outwit the other by anticipating one another’s movies. David Hedison and Theodore Bikel co-star as the respective second officers. The 1957 feature has enough distance from the war to sidestep patriotic themes to present two officers dedicated to duty with dignity and respect for their respective crews. It won an Academy Award for its special effects and inspired the 1966 Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” with the Starship Enterprise recreating the role of the American Destroyer and a Romulan warship playing the submarine.

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

billtedcollectionBill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray) gives the special edition treatment to a pair of cult slacker comedies. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are the high school underachievers and would-be rocker stars who are destined to save the world with their music, or so claims their most excellent fan from the future, a time-travelling sage named Rufus (George Carlin). But first they have to pass high school history and learn to play their instruments. Directed by Stephen Herek, this is spirited doofus comedy sustained by the sweet, slack-jawed performances of Reeves and Winter as dumbfounded idiots who stumble through time to cram for their history final with the help of a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to round up Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, and Socrates (among others) and bring them back to suburban California. Their finest moment: a meeting of minds with Socrates (whom they call “Soh-craits”) over a soap-opera proverb. “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

Peter Hewitt takes the reigns for the inspired sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which is even sillier and funnier. Reeves and Winter are killed by evil robot doubles and sent to hell, where they play Twister with the Grim Reaper (a hilariously deadpan William Sadler with an indeterminate accent) and draft him into their band Wyld Stallyns (where the Grim Reaper goes show-biz with a vengeance). Wacky and weird and nonsensical, it’s hardly satire but the sheer invention of their ludicrous journey will have most dudes rolling on the floor. Both are rated PG and each film features two new commentary tracks: one featuring actor Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, the other with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

A third disc includes the new documentaries “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun! – A Look Back at a MostExcellent Adventure” (61 minutes) and “Bill and Ted Go to Hell – Revisiting a Bogus Journey” (52 minutes), both featuring new interviews with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and co-writer Chris Matheson, among others. Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are the 30-minute “The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary” (with Winter, writers Matheson and Ed Solomon, directors Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt, and producer Scott Kroopf), the 20-minute interview featurette “The Original Bill and Ted: In Conversation with Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon,” plus “Score! An Interview with Guitarist Steve Vai,” “Hysterical Personages: A History Lesson” (on the historical characters on Excellent Adventure), “The Linguistic Stylings of Bill & Ted” (on their particular slang), and an air guitar tutorial by Bjorn Turoq and the Rockness.

captive1915The Captive (1915) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cecil B. DeMille helped established Hollywood as the center of American filmmaking in the 1910s and long before he made his reputation with a series of salacious comedies and a selection of grandly-mounted Biblical epics, he was cranking out a dozen films a year. This is one of those films, a short feature (running under an hour) that he produced and directed in 1915 from a play he wrote with his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson.

Set in Montenegro during the Baltic Wars, it features early silent movie superstar Blanche Sweet as a Balkan farm girl left to tend the family farm and raise her kid brother when her elder brother is killed in battle against the Turks. House Peters is a Turkish POW who is assigned to work her farm and defends her from invading Turkish soldiers. The simplistic drama recreates the Balkin setting in California and DeMille directs in a straightforward manner that essentially illustrates the intertitles. Blanche Sweet is charming as the plucky farm girl who teaches her captive to do laundry and plow a field and House is handsome, chivalrous, and gentlemanly, the all-American boy as Turkish aristocrat in a fez that looks as authentic as a Shriner’s cap. File it under historical curiosity, an example of the unsophisticated storytelling that was old-fashioned within a year thanks to the impact of D.W. Griffith and by DeMille’s own rapid evolution as a filmmaker.

Though the packaging claims it was thought lost, it was actually discovered in the Paramount Vault in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress. Still, it’s never been on home video in any form so this is the first chance most audiences have to see the film. No supplements.

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: ‘Fantomas’ – Cinema’s original supervillain, remastered

Kino Classics

Fantômas (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) – There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive, and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

Gaumont bought the rights to the bestselling series and the first film, Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, hit screens in May 1913. Rene Navarre (star of dozens of earlier Feuillade films) opens the film by appearing in the series of disguises he’ll be taking on through the film, one incarnation dissolving into another, and then proceeds to brazenly steal the jewels of a Princess, personally handing his card to his victim: blank until his name fades in and then back out, like a taunt. Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) is assigned the case, a reporter named Fandor (Georges Melchior) joins Juve in the pursuit, and the battle of wits and wiles between the elaborate charades and schemes begins. There’s a manhunt, a capture, and an escape that has to be seen to be believed. It’s insane and improbable and irresistible and it was an instant smash with audiences, and the final shot of the short (the first chapter run just under an hour) feature essentially guarantees not just a sequel but a series: the Inspector is back in his office, dejected and beaten by the criminal who escaped the guillotine, and the final intertitle reads: “From now on, Inspector Juve will have but one obsession: capturing Fantômas.”

Their game continues through Juve vs. Fantômas (1913), which begins on another brazen theft and features a dramatic train wreck (a fabulous miniature of toy trains on an elaborately detailed set), The Murderous Corpse (1913), which opens with Juve missing and presumed dead, Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914), with Juve is suspected of being the master criminal, and The False Magistrate (1914), where Fantômas murders a judge and takes his place on the high court (the judge himself is dispatched in a particularly insidious manner).

Each film is filled with wild plots and demented side schemes and features exotic gimmicks, from snakes unleashed into what should be the safety of one’s own parlor to a dead man hung from the inside of a bell like a clapper. There are poisons, guns, murders galore, and corpses that disappear and reappear with alarming frequency. But most insidious of all is the lack of motivation for most of his crimes. Greed seems beside the point: Fantômas likes to cause chaos and mayhem and seems to enjoy murder as a way of proving his superiority and taunting his nemesis.

Juve vs. Fantômas

In an era when the language of cinema was evolving at an amazing speed, Feuillade looks old-fashioned on the surface of things, shooting in series of still tableaux shots with the actors choreographed within the frame like it’s the proscenium arch of an intimate theater. In The Murderous Corpse, when the camera slowly pans over to reveal a corpse in the room, the anomalous movement itself is almost as startling as the dramatic reveal. But within the frame the staging is dynamic and dramatic, composed in depth and filled with motion, and the breakneck plotting and editing drives the film at a furious pace. Feuillade methodically explicates complicated schemes with a minimum of shots, and then detonates the screen as a scene explodes from stillness to furious action. In Juve vs. Fantômas, for instance, on what appears to be a deserted waterfront piles up with empty barrels, gunmen suddenly pop out of barrels and start shooting at Juve. The sudden transformation from still life is like an explosion. It’s both archaic in style and strangely modern; Feuillade shoots a lot of the film on location and makes effective use of landscapes and backdrops, and then drops in weird and unexpected imagery. Even with contemporary eyes you can see why audiences embraced its dime novel deliriousness and surrealists appreciated its mix of elaborate schemes and incoherent complications. This is the most fun as you’ll find in silent cinema before Chaplin went to Biograph. Or at least before Feuillade made his next serials, notably Les Vampires (1915-1916) and Judex (1916), the latter with a more coherent story (if only barely).

The five short features (they run from 54 minutes to 90 minutes) are mastered from a new 4K restoration from Gaumont and the Centre National du Cinéma (created for the film’s 100th anniversary), which was scanned from the original nitrate negative. The increase in texture and detail from Kino’s earlier DVD release is immediately evident, and it features an orchestral score (replacing the compilation score edited from classical music recordings from the DVD release). This is a significant upgrade from the DVD and it’s gorgeous.

It carries over the supplements of the earlier DVD. There is commentary by film historian and silent film expert David Kalat on the first two parts of the series. Well researched and passionately presented, it’s more of a lecture on the origins of Fantômas in print and the aesthetics of Feuillade’s direction and adaptation (“The Fantômas films are marked by narrative chaos”) than a running commentary on the films themselves, but it is fascinating and very informative. The set also includes two bonus Louis Feuillade shorts, The Nativity (1910) and The Dwarf (1912), neither of which have been remastered for HD, and “Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms,” a ten-minute featurette on Feuillade’s career originally presented on Kino’s Gaumont Treasures box set.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

The film was of course silent but Robert and Frances Flaherty (his wife was very much a partner on the project despite her lack of credit) wanted to accompany the film with the music and songs (especially “the singing,” as Frances remarked back in 1926) of the people. So in 1975, their daughter Monica traveled back to Savai’i with documentary legend Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack, not just music but sound effects and dialogue in the regional dialect, for a rerelease of the film. (Lip readers helped determine what was being said and a script created from that.) The sound was added to a copy of the film and Moana With Soundreleased in 1980, but the version of the film available to Monica Flaherty at the time was not accurate to the release version and featured worn imagery generations away from the original negative. This new restoration, produced by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, restores the film from the best existing elements and marries the soundtrack (also cleaned up with new digital tools) to the superb imagery of the restoration. Some damage and wear can be seen in brief sequences but for the most part the film looks amazing.

Blu-ray and DVD with the new 40-minute featurette “Moana With Sound: A Short History” with Bruce Posner (who produced this restoration) and the shorter “About the Restoration” (also with Posner), two very informative productions debuting with this release, and filmed commentaries by historians Enrico Camporesi and Bruce Posner. Archival extras include Flaherty’s 1925 short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Islands, the 1960 interview with Frances Flaherty “Flaherty and Film: Moana,” and Flaherty home movies.

TabuTabu (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) was begun by Robert Flaherty in collaboration with German émigré F.W. Murnau, who wanted to revisit the culture of Moana as a backdrop for his own dramatic ideas. Sensibilities clashed and Flaherty left the film, leaving Murnau to create his own vision of Paradise Lost in the story of young lovers (Mathai and Reri) threatened by tribal law. Murnau uses the clash of cultures to contrast an Eden-like innocence with the corruption of modern society (one seemingly sensitive white soul is more opportunist than romantic). The mythic undertones are more European than Pacific Rim and Murnau’s portrayal of the young lovers as Peter Pan-like children of nature is paternalistic at best and downright condescending in parts. But Tabu is also astoundingly beautiful, like a B&W rendering of Paul Gauguin’s visions of Tahiti through an expressionist sensibility. This is classic Murnau, a powerful, poetic story of the doomed struggle against fate, and his final film. He was killed in a car accident just a week before the film premiered.

Shot as a silent film, it was released with a synchronized soundtrack with a score (called a “musical setting” in the credits) by Hugo Riesenfeld, preserved for this restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

Blu-ray and DVD with the short documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a German language featurette on the making of the film and this new restoration that the institute produced, and the featurettes “Tabu: Takes and Outtakes” and “Tabu: A Work in Progress,” which present some of the unused footage shot by Murnau for the film with narration in German with English subtitles. Also includes Hunt in the South Seas (1940), an ethnographic short film created from unused footage from Tabu.

Blu-ray: Dick Powell noir ‘Murder My Sweet’ and ‘Pitfall’

MurderMySweet
Warner Archive

Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).

The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.

It is one of the first great film noirs and an often overlooked detective movie classic, and it has been beautifully mastered for its Blu-ray debut. Also features commentary by film noir expert Alain Silver (carried over from the original DVD release) and the original trailer.

Pitfall
Kino Classics

Dick Powell found the genre, which at the time were simply crime thrillers or crime dramas, a good fit for his dry delivery and understated style so after starring in Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), and To the Ends of the Earth (1948), he turned producer (though without screen credit) and developed his own project. The first of his independent efforts, the 1948 Pitfall (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of the greatest—and most adult—film noirs that even many film buffs have never heard of.

Powell is middle-class insurance man John Forbes, a white collar husband and father living in suburbia and on the verge of burn-out, or at least disillusionment with the rat race. His deadpan patter is ignored by his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and bounces over the head of his oblivious son (Jimmy Hunt), and his sardonic attitude is carried into the job, where he deals with a seedy private detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who tracks down stolen property insured by his firm. That’s how he meets Mona (Lizabeth Scott), a smoky-voiced model who was showered with gifts from an embezzling banker. She’s not the gold-digger that John expects, however, and he ends up in an affair that isn’t exactly an affair, at least not how it’s presented to steer clear of production code dos and don’ts. There are afternoon meetings in smoky bars and scraps with the PI who goes all stalker on Mona, and the shadows of his city sins follow him home to suburbia.

Those narrative gymnastics are part of what make the film so interesting. It’s not sex that jams up John, it’s the fantasy of a secret life outside of his routine, and it’s just as much a betrayal. Sue may appear obliviously sunny and content but she’s perceptive and self-aware, thanks both to mature screenwriting and a strong performance by Wyatt, who is far more central to the drama than her screen time might suggest. And while the violence erupts in the dark of night, with slashes of light picking the players out of the shadows like any great noir, the rest of the film plays out in the light of day in familiar settings: home, office, the busy streets of Los Angeles (not a studio backlot but real location shots that give the film a presence in the real lives of real people). Director Andre de Toth, whose legacy of hard-edged dramas in all genres is still too-often overlooked, keeps the film in a recognizable world and focuses on consequences and responsibility more than the spectacle of violence. This isn’t the story of outlaws but a straight arrow guy who drifts into a little secret excitement and finds his shadowy actions exposed for all to see with the dawn, and the film ends with the family facing the fallout with a decision to make: how do you move forward from something like this?

The film came out on VHS and laserdisc decades ago but, as it was independently made and thus not protected by a studio, it fell through the cracks of preservation. The Film Noir Foundation financed a restoration from the best available elements, which was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive. It’s not pristine, mind you, and there are scenes with major wear, but the focus was on getting the best image and this has good contrasts and clarity behind the wear, and in the best scenes it is clear and clean.

The Blu-ray and DVD release also features commentary by film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, who provides both a detailed history of the production and observations on the style and sensibility of the film.

Powell teamed up with (uncredited) screenwriter William Bowers for a second film, Cry Danger (1951), a couple of years later, another smart, sharp little picture that was also restored by The Film Noir Foundation and UCLA and released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive last year. If you like Pitfall, track down Cry Danger and get the full Powell experience. (Reviewed on Cinephiled here.)

Blu-ray: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.

Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.

Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.

Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.

The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.

Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.

The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores—a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement—and the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.

Also features a bonus DVD with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.

Camilla Horn as Gretchen

Blu-ray/DVD: Lon Chaney is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

PhantomBDLon Chaney became a star for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but it was the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) that confirmed his stardom and his talent.

The first version of many versions of the Gaston Leroux novel is still considered the definitive, thanks to Chaney’s committed performance (right down to enduring painful make-up that he himself designed to give him a death’s head look and a horrifying rictus grin) and magnificent sets for the grand Paris Opera and the underground labyrinth of tunnels and canals and secret rooms. This lavishly executed production threatens to slip into hoary melodrama with a magnificent backdrop but for Chaney’s performance.

Chaney, however, creates both a monstrous and a tortured villain, part shunned mastermind, part proto-Frankenstein monster smitten with a young beauty His backstory is left blank, which allows the viewers to fill in their own from his aristocratic bearing, his maniacal pounding on a pipe organ in his underground dungeon lair and his obsessive pursuit of the comely young understudy Christine (Mary Philbin), whose stardom he engineers via secret coaching and threats to the opera company owners. Chaney is both tender and terrible, wooing Christine from behind a mask, a mystery lover who dedicates his heart and soul to her success, then turns vindictive when she spurns him.

This was a troubled production, full reshoots and drastic re-edits that dragged on for two years and a few directors, finally released in 1925 with original director Rupert Julian’s name listed as director (reshoots were by Edward Sedgewick and others), and edited down again for a 1929 reissue with a synchronized soundtrack. And yet moments of beauty and terror survive the creative struggles and production upheavals: The grand chandelier crashing down to the floor of the opera house, The Phantom taking Christine through the underground canals like a fairy tale gondola poled by a demonic boatman through a literal underworld; the furious Phantom perched like a gargoyle on the roof of the opera house in a terrible storm listening to the object of his obsession betray her promise to him. Most dazzling and haunting is the costume ball sequence. A number of scenes were shot in the primitive and unstable two-color Technicolor process but this is the only color scene to survive and it is astounding: the revelry and merriment stops dead when The Phantom, costumed up as the Red Death complete with a grinning skull mask, marches down the staircase and through the frozen crowd.

Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence
Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence

Kino’s two-disc Blu-ray features the same editions previously released on a single Blu-ray by Image: three versions of the film with four different scores. I can’t see a visual difference between the editions but the Kino edition looks superb and, spread across two discs, allows for less compression and a higher bit-rate. The best surviving materials are from the 1929 reissue, which is mastered from archival 35mm elements with color tints and presented in two versions: at standard sound speed of 24 frames per second, or fps, with a new score by the Alloy Orchestra and an archival 1974 theater organ score by Gaylord Carter, and at 20 fps with a superb orchestral score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau and performed by I Musici de Montreal. The 24 fps master is visually stronger but the 20 fps version is looks more accurate and appropriate in terms of movement on the screen. Both feature the color sequence and appropriate tints through the B&W scenes. The original (and longer) 1925 cut is taken from a surviving 8mm reduction print (without the color sequence) and presented with a piano score by Dr. Frederick Hodges. The drop in image quality is significant, due to the source (a worn and fuzzy print, probably a few generations removed from the negative), which is unrestored and presented in 1080i.

The commentary by film historian Jon C. Mirsalis, also carried over from the Image release, is on the 1929 reissue at 24fps, and accessed through the audio options available on that version. There’s also an interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, the original screenplay, and the trailer.

New to this edition is nearly an hour of excerpts from the 1930 sound reissue with a synchronized soundtrack and some new dialogue scenes added. Only nine minutes of the sound version exists on film but the entire audio survives and the disc presents a mix of audio only, silent footage synchronized to the discs, and the surviving sound film footage.

Also new are two archival shorts showing Paris in 1925: Paris From a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

Lon Chaney as The Phantom

Videophiled: ‘Vice and Virtue’ and ‘Mark of the Devil’ – Sex and sadism on Blu-ray

ViceVirtue
Kino Lorber

Vice & Virtue (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.

Vadim made his debut just before the French nouvelle vague broke through, creating a sensation with … And God Created Woman and its voluptuous sex kitten star Brigitte Bardot in 1956. Where the rest of France’s ambitious young filmmakers were experimenting and exploring, trying to find fresh and authentic ways to express themselves and examine the world around them, Vadim was a self-promoter with an eye on the box-office and a canny understanding of how sex sells. He presented himself as both sexual rebel and polished studio man, making films with a flamboyant style and an erotic flair, even if it was all in the licentious suggestion of debauchery. Vice and Virtue comes off as particularly calculated—the spectacle of innocent beauties degraded at the hands of Nazi officers anticipate the grotesque Nazi-sploitation films of the seventies—and cynical, set against elegant locations and directed with self-consciously theatrical flair. His lighting effects, where the screen goes dark but for a spotlight on a single character, is contrived at best and ultimately distracting. But finally, there is no investment in a moral, merely a pageant of depravity mostly hinted it with the hope that the audience will fill in the rest.

The widescreen black and white film is nicely mastered and looks quite nice. French with English subtitles, no supplements beyond a trailer.

MarkDevil
Arrow / MVD

Mark of the Devil (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD), a sadistic tale of a corrupt inquisitor and his reign of terror in the name of the church in 1770 Austria, is not for all tastes, and certainly not for all stomachs. The commanding Herbert Lom stars as the Inquisitor and a handsome young Udo Kier takes a rare romantic lead as a young Baron who rescues an innocent peasant girl from the clutches of a local witch-hunter (the villainous-looking Reggie Nalder), only to run afoul of Lom’s unholy warrior. An early entry in the “sex and sadism” genre, this is an exploitation film with an intelligence behind it, but an exploitation film nonetheless: director Michael Armstrong (with an uncredited Adrian Hoven, who also produced and co-scripted) revels in the most barbarous tortures as the impotent Inquisitor punishes innocent young maidens for his own unclean desires. It’s not as interesting or powerful as Michael Reeves’ similarly themed The Witchfinder General but Mark makes its own unique mark with Lom’s strong central performance as the power mad inquisitor and solid support from Nalder and Kier. The cynical ending that deliver a dramatic punch along with the grisly nastiness. Barf bags were handed out to audiences on its initial release.

This is the first American release by Arrow, a British label that earned a reputation as the “Criterion of Cult” for its high-quality restorations and supplements, and this is a superb disc. It’s been on DVD before, most notably in a fine edition from Blue Underground, but this is remastered in HD from original film elements and features with both English and German soundtracks (it was a co-production shot in Austria). It is sharp and vivid and preserves the filmic texture and it looks superb, a marked upgrade from the previous SD release and the definitive release of the film. (Note that the grit you see in the opening credits is on the negative, thanks to sloppy optical work by the company that added the credits.) It’s the first time it’s been presented in its complete, uncut form in Britain, where the censorship of horror films is notorious, and that same edition is released stateside as well.

It features brand new commentary recorded for this release by director Michael Armstrong with moderator Calum Waddell and the new feature-length documentary “Mark of the Times,” about the “new wave” of British horror in the 1960s and 1970s (with interviews with director Michael Armstrong among others), plus the featurettes “Hallmark of the Devil” (about the American distributor of the film) and “Mark of the Devil: Now and Then” (a look at the shooting locations) and interviews with actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom (carried over from the earlier Blue Underground DVD) and composer Michael Holm. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a collection of outtakes, the trailer, and an accompanying booklet.