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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Videophiled: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

pioneersafricanamPioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) – The legacy of African-American filmmaking—specifically films made by and for African-American audiences before Hollywood integrated its casts and gave leading roles to African-American actors—is largely unknown to even passionate films buffs, in part because the films were rarely seen by white audiences in their day, and in part because so few of the films had been preserved with the same dedication given to the maverick films of Hollywood. This landmark box set is the first serious effort devoted to collecting and preserving feature films and shorts produced between 1915 and 1946 for black audiences, most of them made by African-American filmmakers. The scope of the set embraces drama, music, adventure, comedy, and documentary.

Independent director/producer Oscar Micheaux, the most successful and prolific black filmmaker of his day, directly confronted race and racism in such movies as Within Our Gates (1920), which took up the cause of education while broaching such taboo subjects as miscegenation and lynching, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), his response to Birth of a Nation, and Birthright (1938). The set includes nine features and a short from Micheaux, including his most famous film Body and Soul (1925) starring Paul Robeson playing brothers (one good and the other a con man in a priest’s collar) in his film debut.

There are two features and a short by actor/director Spencer Williams, including his hugely successful directorial debut The Blood of Jesus (1941), an allegorical drama of a woman’s spiritual odyssey after death: an angel directs her to heaven but at the crossroads the devil tries to tempt her to Hell (a city of nightclubs, gambling rooms, and fast-living folks at night, of course). The Blood of Jesus was shot for pittance (something like $6,000) and it’s a scruffy production in a lot of ways, but it’s also inventive and impassioned. Williams plays the grieving husband of the dead woman whose repentance for his non-religious ways gives her a second chance. Also from Williams is Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), an unauthorized adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” relocated to the Caribbean. It was one of Williams’ final films as a director and stars Francine Everett (her last name is misspelled as Everette in the credits), a singer, dancer, and actress who turned her back on the stereotypical roles offered by Hollywood. Dirty Gertie gave her the chance to play a glamorous, sexy black woman never seen in Hollywood pictures. Williams himself takes on a small but memorable role: the “voodoo woman” Old Hager, who sees no good in Gertie’s future. In some ways he anticipates Tyler Perry, playing the voice of fate in drag, but with his visible mustache and a husky voice, Williams barely bothers with the pretense of playing a wizened old woman. The weirdness of the scene, however, adds to the tension as a black cat and a broken mirror bring out Gertie’s superstitions.

Williams also co-stars in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a black western starring longtime Duke Ellington singer Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy hero on the range. He has a charisma and confidence that should have made him a screen star outside of the race film circuit had Hollywood treated black actors, black stories, and the black experience with any respect. Williams, meanwhile, went on to play Andrew H. Brown, aka Andy, on the TV incarnation of the long running comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy. It gave him the biggest audience he ever had but his career was much richer than that single role, as these films show.

Those films are relatively well known among those with a passion for film history. They are landmarks and success stories in a film culture that was largely unknown outside the black community for years—Within Our Gates and The Blood of Jesus were both added to the National Film Registry—and have been available (though often in inferior editions) on disc and VHS before that. These editions are not pristine, mind you, because these films were not considered worthy of preservation until decades after their respective releases, but they’ve been mastered from the best available elements from archives across the country and look better than previous releases, and the silent films all feature musical scores, most of them newly composed and recorded for this release.

There are also some fascinating discoveries, all of them new to me and surely to many other interested viewers.

The earliest films are a trio of slapstick comedy shorts featuring all-black casts produced for both black and white audiences by Luther Pollard for the Chicago-based Ebony Film Corporation. In Pollard’s own words (written in a business letter to a West Coast distributor), he intended to show that “colored players can put over good comedy without any of that crap-shooting, chicken-stealing, razor-dealing, watermelon-eating stuff that the colored people generally have been a little disgusted seeing.” Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), a show business spoof featuring two buddies (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) who put on their own stage show, plays on some of the stereotypes that Pollard wanted to get away from—the intertitles are filled with mangled grammar and the hand-drawn signs and bills for their neighborhood show are rife with the misspellings and backwards letters—but if these guys are buffoons, their neighborhood audience knows it all too well and arrives prepared. Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) pokes fun at both mad scientists and the Egyptian mummy craze that followed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb early in the 20th century. Director R.G. Phillips manages the many moving parts of this busy comedy quite deftly, and offers perhaps the last glimpse audiences will see of an African-American scientist on the screen for decades.

Non-fiction is represented by Zora Neale Hurston’s landmark ethnographic films chronicling life in rural African-American communities. In addition to being a celebrated author (Their Eyes Were Watching God), playwright, and poet, Hurston was a pioneering anthropologist who documented life in black communities in the American South and Caribbean diaspora and this set includes two excerpts of her work: Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage from 1928 (about 3 minutes) and Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940), a 15-minute excerpt of field recording footage that observes religious services (including communal singing and revival-style sermons) in the Gullah community of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Norman Chalfin made field audio recordings of the Beaufort footage which accompanies the footage. It’s not synchronized but these authentic recordings of the distinctive musical and vocal culture of the Gullah people adds to the texture and atmosphere of the events photographed.

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The Flying Ace (1926) is an aviation melodrama with a black pilot hero that was shot so cheaply it couldn’t afford any actual flying scenes; apart from a few shots of a prop plane taxing on a grass runway, the flight scenes are suggested with characters in prop planes against an unmoving white wall (the white patch is a dead giveaway) while wind machines blow. It demands a certain suspension of disbelief but it pays off nicely. Not in the plot, a mystery with a convoluted plot and a tiresome resolution, or even necessarily the stalwart leading man, but in his sidekick Peg (Steve Reynolds), a one-legged mechanic who uses his crutch as a comic prop as much as a tool. He uses it to pump a bicycle in a chase sequence, and then mounts it on the handlebars to reveal a hidden rifle! The film was produced by the Florida-based Norman Studios and, though director/producer Richard E. Norman was white, the cast is entirely African-American its portrayal of a black aviator was an inspiration to audiences who wouldn’t see another black flier on the screen for decades.

The films of James and Eloyce Gist are a different kind of revelation. They were not professional filmmakers but traveling evangelists who made films to accompany their sermons. These allegorical dramas were made without professional equipment or studio facilities, using non-professional actors and shooting 16mm film without sound. Historical information on their work is scarce but the filmmakers appears to have been a genuine creative partnership with Eloyce, a successful entrepreneur who married the Christian evangelist James in the late 1920s, intimately involved in writing, directing, and producing beginning with Hell-Bound Train (circa 1930), a short feature that tackled the issue of temperance in an allegorical narrative. Their follow-up, the short film Verdict: Not Guilty (circa 1933), presents the heavenly trial of a woman who has died giving childbirth out of wedlock as a religious allegory by was of a church pageant. It is full of religious imagery and evocative folkloric elements with flashbacks to the woman’s life that provide a realism in sharp contrast to the allegorical pageantry. The texture, the pageantry, and the allegorical and ritualistic elements of both films look forward to the American Underground cinema of Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, and others in the 1950s and 1960s.

Both of these films were reconstructed from fragments; the films of James and Eloyce Gist were one-of-a-kind, personally carried by the filmmakers to churches and community centers and screened on portable 16mm projectors, and had fallen apart when they were donated to the Library of Congress after the death of Eloyce in 1974. And a third, uncompleted film, Heaven-Bound Travelers (circa 1935), was discovered among the rolls of film in the Gist collection at the Library of Congress. It is an even more ambitious production. Eloyce Gist takes a central role onscreen as a wife and mother who is wrongfully accused of adultery by her husband and is left to fend for herself and their daughter in the world. As she struggles to sustain them, the husband becomes riddled with guilt and struggles with his decision, and the social realism of the drama shifts to an allegorical struggle between the devil, appearing to tempt humanity to sin, and the angels.

Hell-Bound Train
Hell-Bound Train

All films mastered from the best available elements preserved at The Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art, UCLA Film and Television Archive, and other archives. Preservation came late to these films, which were independently produced (and in some cases self-financed) and essentially orphaned after their theatrical runs. Some of the feature films have been available on cheap home video editions, almost all of them indifferently transferred from whatever source materials they could access. Some of those discs are so blurry and hissy it’s hard to make out the film underneath the noise.

While these films have undergone no extensive restoration, they have been professionally mastered from the best existing materials, which mean that damage and wear is visible but there is clarity to the image (many of the films look quite crisp) and the soundtrack. Do not expect pristine presentations. The films in this collection (at least the features and theatrical shorts) show the evidence of their respective tours of duty through the (mostly southern) “race films” circuit.

DVD and Blu-ray editions (the Blu-ray set includes four exclusive shorts) with an accompanying booklet with essays, credits, and notes on the films.

Read J. Hoberman’s review in the New York Times

Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.