Category Archives: Blu-ray/DVD Reviews

My “World” Is Blu

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My first exposure to “foreign films” came as an adolescent during the VHS era. After I had already acquainted myself with many of the staples of the classic Hollywood cinema, a friend introduced me to a book that featured essays on the “top 100 movies of all time” as voted on by international critics in the 1982 Sight and Sound/British Film Institute poll. Sure, I knew Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, and Vertigo, all in the top 10, but what were all of these other titles that I had never even heard about before (The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, etc.)? I made it my goal to see every single film on the list and I was delighted to find that my local Blockbuster Video store had many of them in their previously daunting-looking “Foreign” section. Looking back on that time now, I think that my budding cinephilia must have been an extension of my curiosity about other countries and other ways of life: what better way to learn about the world — to “visit” places I couldn’t yet travel to — than to watch movies that were representative of the specific cultures that produced them? I mention this because, while poring over the contents of the Criterion Collection’s splendid and ambitious new DVD/Blu-ray box set entitled “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1,” I was reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

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In 2007 Martin Scorsese, a cinephile-filmmaker who has long been a champion of film preservation/restoration, founded the World Cinema Project whose mission statement is “to foster cooperation among filmmakers world-wide and to identify, preserve and restore endangered films representing diverse cultural heritage.” Among the 20 movies that the WCP has restored so far, six have been bundled together in the new Criterion set. As Scorsese himself notes in an interview included among the supplements, it used to be common for American movie lovers to equate entire countries with a single filmmaker (or sometimes two or three): India was Satyajit Ray, Sweden was Ingmar Bergman, Japan was Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (and later Yasujiro Ozu), etc. In the 1990s, the advent of DVDs and the internet combined to make it easier for American cinephiles, especially those not living in urban areas, to educate themselves more thoroughly on film history from an international perspective. In this age of increasing globalization, the WCP has deliberately cast its net wide by focusing on Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, often restoring movies from “third world” countries that lack the money and resources to carry out the restorations themselves. The six films in Criterion’s set are Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes (Mexico, 1936), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (S. Korea, 1960), Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964), Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1971) and Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (Morocco, 1981). The rest of this post will be devoted to capsule reviews of these titles.

redes

Redes, released in 1936, is a passionate cinematic plea for social justice that was commissioned by the most progressive government that Mexico has ever known. It is also a film with an unusual number of “auteurs” — it was shot by the well-known American photographer Paul Strand who also co-wrote the script with many other hands; it was co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (who had made just one movie previously in Germany, the terrific People on Sunday, but would go on to mainstream Hollywood glory with High Noon and From Here to Eternity); and the original score, destined to become one of the most famous in Mexican film history, was composed by Silvestre Revueltas. With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s small wonder that none of them were pleased with the final product but the end result remains both fascinating and vital: what started off as a documentary about a community of poor fishermen ended up as a fictional narrative about the importance of working-class solidarity in the face of capitalist oppression. Redes, which translates as “Nets” in English, is probably of most interest today, however, for the masterful fishing montage that serves as its centerpiece, proving this is essentially the missing link between Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. The World Cinema Project’s restoration of Redes is the least impressive in the box set in terms of image quality (it looks a little soft), though this shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s also the oldest of the films included. This is probably the best Redes will ever look, so we should all be grateful that we can see it at all.

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The absolute highlight of the entire World Cinema Project box set for me is The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s mindblowing 1960 hybrid of domestic horror and lurid melodrama. Made during a brief window of opportunity when S. Korea was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeoisie whose brief affair with his young maid threatens to tear his family apart. Shot in gorgeous high-contrast black and white, The Housemaid exploits its chief location of the family’s home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, and the distance between them highlighted by fluid tracking shots. The way the story touches on fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal but fans of contemporary S. Korean cinema will especially recognize its kinky and transgressive aspects as hugely influential on the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, et al. And this is to say nothing of how the twist ending will knock you into next week. The Housemaid looks immaculate in the World Cinema Project’s restoration, which was based on the original camera negative, except for two reels of much lower quality that had to be taken from another source.

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Turkish cinema prior to the current generation (Fatih Akin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, etc.) is virtually unknown in the West; it was therefore particularly surprising for me to learn that this erotic Turkish melodrama from writer/director Metin Erksan won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Erol Tas, a legendary actor famous for playing bad guys, is Osman, a greedy farmer who dams the spring on his property and thus prevents the irrigation of his neigbhors’ crops. Political conflict and murder ensue, and when Osman’s good-hearted brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), agrees to take the wrap because he will face a lesser prison sentence, Osman then conspires to seduce the brother’s wife. The erotic imagery, occasionally symbolic and occasionally more explicit (including the unforgettable image of Osman sucking milk directly from a cow’s udder while gazing lasciviously at his sister-in-law) would be eyebrow-raising in a Hollywood film from 1964 and is therefore shocking to see coming out of a movie from that era in the Middle East. As the critic Peter Labuza has wryly noted, the water-rights scandal plot would make this the ideal second-half of a double bill with Chinatown. Criterion’s superb-looking transfer is based on the World Cinema Project’s photochemical restoration, which involved both the original camera negative and an interpositive print provided by the the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

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In A River Called Titas, the great Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak adapted a popular novel by Advaita Malo Barman for a powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. This art film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms. Satyajit Ray once said that Ritwik Ghatak’s films could have been made even if Hollywood never existed. There is certainly nothing in American cinema that feels anything remotely like A River Called Titas. The black and white cinematography here is deliberately much grayer and lower-contrast than the crisp images seen in, say, The Housemaid but, aside from some minor damage inherent to the source material, this transfer is excellent.

touki

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant, angry and occasionally surreal picaresque-adventure movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three features in the career of Senegalese master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary director Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with complex social criticism (in which neither Senegalese nor European characters are spared his harsh eye) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike. The World Cinema Project’s new restoration and 2K transfer of Touki Bouki‘s original 35mm film elements is the most impressive of all the films included in this set: Mambety’s use of bright primary colors, the kind one tends to only see on movies shot in the Sixties and early Seventies, really pops on Blu-ray. The eclectic soundtrack, featuring everything from local music to Josephine Baker, is likewise a delight.

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Trances, a wonderful music doc that originally premiered at Cannes in 1981, was the first film chosen to receive the restoration treatment from the World Cinema Project and, given Martin Scorsese’s own proclivity for using popular music in narratives and documentaries alike, it’s easy to why. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s portrait of the supergroup Nass-El Ghiwane (sometimes referred to as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of Morocco) combines electrifying concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing, interviews with the band’s individual members, and archival documentary footage of Morocco through the decades to help illuminate the specific social issues addressed by the band’s songs. But, like all great music docs, the primary virtues here are visceral: the best scenes involve the band’s highly interactive live shows where audience members dance onstage among the musicians while in a trance-like frenzy. Trances was shot on 16mm color film stock and, as with some of the 16mm movies included in the Eric Rohmer box set released last November, its marriage with the Blu-ray format results in images that are frequently stunning. The grainier texture of 16mm in high-definition can look like a beautiful water-color painting (in contrast to the oil painting of 35mm). Like all of the releases in the World Cinema Project No. 1 box, Trances is essential cinema.

Although I didn’t pick up the World Cinema Project No. 1 until after the new year (and thus didn’t include it in my list of my favorite home video releases of 2013), this is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray sets of recent years. I plan on screening all six films as the backbone of a future “Global Cinema” class, and I eagerly await the release of the World Cinema Project. No. 2.


The Top Home Video Release of 2013: Watching Blu Paint Dry

Below is my continuation of last week’s post concerning the most essential home video releases of 2013:

1. Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’Integrale (Rohmer, France, Potemkine Blu-Ray)

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Last month, French home video distributor Potemkine — in collaboration with everyone’s favorite fashion designer/patron of cinema, Agnes B. — unleashed a gargantuan Blu-ray and DVD box set that not even the most ardent Francophile-cinephile would have ever dreamed possible: a complete career-spanning retrospective of one of the giants of French cinema, influential film critic-turned-master filmmaker Eric Rohmer. The set, entitled Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral (“The Complete Eric Rohmer Box”), includes all 24 of the writer/director’s feature-length movies, plus numerous shorts, made-for-television films and documentaries, nearly all of which have been restored and presented in high-definition, plus many extras, spread across a total of 52 discs (both Blu-ray and DVD). Among the goodies included are a 100-page book (en Francais only), a set of collectible postcards, a poster for Claire’s Knee (1970), and two teabags(?!) thrown in for good measure. The artwork adorning the box and the digipaks that house the discs is colorful, hand-drawn and delightful, making the entire enterprise feel like the precious collector’s item that it is. Although the Blu-ray discs are “Region-B locked,” meaning North American Rohmer fans will need a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy them (and, really, what better excuse do you need to buy a multi-region player than this?), all 24 of the features, plus the essential 1962 short The Bakery Girl of Monceau (the first of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”), fortunately come with optional English subtitles. This ambitious project is easily the most impressive home-video release ever devoted to a single filmmaker, eclipsing the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set from a few years back, Universal’s “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” Blu-ray set from last year and anything else that I own or can even think of.

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Raymond Carver titled one of his most famous short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which could have served as an equally fitting subtitle for this box set. I am prepared to argue that no artist in any medium, not just cinema, explored the subject of romantic love as thoroughly as Rohmer — although it takes a certain amount of life experience to appreciate the depth of his accomplishment. I initially saw most of Rohmer’s films when I was in my early twenties and, save for the Moral Tales (his most well-known work), I hadn’t bothered to revisit his filmography until now — at the age of 38. After recently watching all of his movies in the span of less than a month, I now understand and appreciate his artistry in a way that I never had before. While I always considered myself an admirer of his “official masterpieces” (the later Moral Tales and certain key films in his other two prominent cycles: “Comedies and Proverbs” and “The Tales of the Four Seasons”), some of his films struck me as dull or even annoying, mainly because I found the characters annoying — without realizing that this was fully Rohmer’s intention. See, for example, the last segment of 1995’s Rendezvous in Paris, a hilarious satire of “mansplaining” (before the term even existed). But the most important revelation I’ve had about Rohmer is the realization that his special genius lay in his illustration of how the vast majority of human desires remain unfulfilled — the drama of his scenarios arises from the tension between what his characters want and their refusal/inability to attain it. Rohmer knew that eros has a way of making one talk, act and think differently, and this is what his camera documented with the precision of a microscope. And I’m not just referring to the kind of strong desires that make us want to sleep with person X or try to make person Y our significant other; he showed how eros can make one act just the tiniest degree nicer to a person to whom one is attracted, even when — or perhaps especially when — one feels that nothing may come of it.

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The Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral set feels so right. It makes sense to bundle together the complete works of Eric Rohmer even more than the filmographies of most other major directors. From The Sign of Leo in 1959 to The Romance of Astrea and Celadon nearly a half of a century later, Rohmer showed a remarkable consistency in terms of his stylistic and thematic preoccupations. Sometimes he came in for criticism for it but Rohmer really did tend to make the same movie over and over again, sometimes with only minor — though crucial — variations in the characters and settings (something that can’t really be said about his compatriots in the nouvelle vague). The conventional wisdom, at least in certain mainstream cinephile circles, is that Rohmer was a kind of French Woody Allen: an intellectual who wrote and directed “talky” (i.e., dialogue-heavy and “uncinematic”) romantic comedies about upper class characters for upper class audiences. But far from being the cinematic equivalent of “watching paint dry,” to quote the famous putdown by Gene Hackman’s detective character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Rohmer’s films are both more exquisitely cinematic than his detractors give him credit for while also keeping more of a critical distance from their protagonists than many of his supporters are willing to admit. (Having said that, I can’t quite go along with the assertion of critic Gilbert Adair that Rohmer’s characters “are among the most foolish, ineffectual and pathetic milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen, [and] that, on a generous estimate, 90% of the celebrated talk is sheer, unadulterated twaddle” — even if Adair meant that as a compliment!)

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As far as Rohmer’s too-little-remarked-upon visual mastery is concerned, its virtues lie in the most discreet aspects of mise-en-scene. Yes, his films are about people talking, oftentimes in a self-deceptive fashion that is humorous for the way it rings of psychological truth, but there is often a poignant discrepancy between what his dialogue tells and what his camera shows. I would argue this is dialogue that would not add up to much on the page or even the stage. It does, however, come spectacularly alive on the cinema screen because of its very specific real-world context. In other words, the things that matter most in Rohmer’s movies are the material facts of where and when his characters do their talking — character and environment are inseparable. The main interest in watching Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), for instance, stems not from the romantic musical-chairs plot but rather from the way this plot unfolds against the backdrop of the horrific modern “architecture” of the pre-fabricated Parisian suburb known as Cergy Pontoise. And even more important than locations in Rohmer are the seasons, the time of day and the weather (“My films are slaves to weather,” he pronounced in one interview): has the particular color of summer sunlight ever registered so vividly as in Nestor Almendros’ photography of the French Riviera in La Collectionneuse (1967)? Is it possible to watch Jean-Luis Trintignant attend midnight mass at Christmastime in the black-and-white My Night at Maud’s (1969) and not feel the coldness in one’s bones? In Rohmer’s last masterpiece, 1998’s An Autumn Tale, what sticks with one the most about the beautiful character study is the sense of what it’s like to walk among the vineyards in the Rhone wine-region of France on a perfect fall day. But Rohmer knew a thing or two about interiors too. Check out Claire’s Knee, in which Aurora, a 30-something female novelist, wears matronly dresses with floral patterns that subtly link her to the wallpaper around her (and thus the concept of domesticity), in pointed contrast to the teenaged and bare-kneed Claire (who is repeatedly associated with the outdoors).

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It is precisely because Rohmer was a director who cared about such minute details that his movies — even with their lack of dramatic external “action” — deserve to be seen in high-definition. I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed watching movies at home more than I did while poring over the contents of this box set during the past month. Unfortunately, it seems the public has been taught to think of the Blu-ray format as one that is somehow most conducive to showcasing state-of-the-art CGI and bone-crunching sound effects. I am therefore particularly grateful to Potemkine for putting out such a lavish set devoted to this modest master with such loving care. The image and sound quality of all of the films included here are remarkably faithful to their source material, and also remarkably consistent from one film to the next (something that cannot be said about the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection — where the A/V quality varied wildly). Note that this set consists of 30 DVDs and 22 Blu-rays. Three of the features, which have not been restored, are available on DVD only and not Blu-ray: The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple Agent (2004) and The Romance of Astrea and Celedon (2007). This means that, ironically, the three most recent titles in the bunch are also the most underwhelming in terms of their tech specs. (Speaking as someone who prefers Rohmer’s contemporary films to his period pieces without exception, this is no big loss as the three most recent titles are also my least favorite movies in the box.) Below are my ratings of all of the individual films. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

1. The Sign of Leo: B+/A
2. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (short): A-/B+
3. Suzanne’s Career: A-/B+
4. La Collectionneuse: A/A+
5. My Night at Maud’s: A+/A
6. Claire’s Knee: A+/A+
7. Love in the Afternoon: A+/A+
8. The Marquise of O: B/A
9. Perceval: B/A+
10. The Aviator’s Wife: A+/A
11. A Good Marriage: A-/A
12. Pauline at the Beach: A/A
13. Full Moon in Paris: A/A+
14. The Green Ray: A+/A-
15. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle: A+/A
16. Boyfriends and Girlfriends: A-/A
17. A Tale of Springtime: B+/A+
18. A Tale of Winter: A+/A+
19. The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque: A/A
20. Rendezvous in Paris: A/A
21. A Summer’s Tale: B+/A+
22. An Autumn Tale: A+/A+
23. The Lady and the Duke: C+/B-
24. Triple Agent: B-/B+
25. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon: B+/B+

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Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral can be ordered from Amazon in France here: http://tinyurl.com/klppeud


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2013 (#10 – #2)

I’m breaking the list of my favorite home video releases from 2013 into two separate blog posts. Below are numbers 10 through 2 from my top 10 list (each with a capsule review), as well as a list of 20 runners-up favorites. Next week’s post will be devoted entirely to my numero uno favorite home video release of the year — for reasons that will become clear in due time.

10. Dracula (Fisher, UK, Lions Gate UK Blu-ray)

dracula

Hammer Studios’ 1958 production of Terrence Fisher’s Dracula is one of the most influential horror movies of all time — it was the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel to endow the title Count with fangs, as well as the first to slather the now-familiar story with both blood-red paint and a healthy dose of eroticism. These latter aspects come through better than ever on Lions Gate UK’s new Blu-ray, which happily restores about 20 seconds of previously unseen sensuality and gore. (The fascinating story of how this missing footage was recently unearthed in Japan is included in a documentary among the disc’s copious extras.) If you love this movie, you need to own this definitive version. If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend a blind-buy; it features, after all, the best ever screen Dracula (the darkly charismatic Christopher Lee) pitted against the best ever Van Helsing (the morally rigid Peter Cushing). What more do you need? Full review here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/05/06/blu-hammer/

9. Underground (Asquith, UK, BFI Blu-ray)

underground

In recent years, the British Film Institute seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928’s Underground, back in June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Can the Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, be far behind?

8. Black Sabbath (Bava, Italy, Arrow Blu-ray)

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Did the three best vampire movies of all time receive Blu-ray releases in 2013? In addition to Kino’s Nosferatu release (on my runner-up list below) and Lions Gate UK’s Dracula release (number 10 above), UK-based Arrow Video dropped a superb version of Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology Black Sabbath, featuring “The Wurdalak,” the only film in which the legendary Boris Karloff played a bloodsucker. The other stories included here are the proto-giallo “The Telephone,” and “A Drop of Water” (the source of the unforgettable and terrifying dummy/corpse/prop pictured above). Arrow’s extras-laden Blu-ray includes two radically different versions of the film (the European and American cuts), audio commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas, a handsome collector’s booklet, a DVD of the movie, and more. Most importantly, it is the most faithful home video transfer Black Sabbath has ever received, which is so crucial for a director with as precise a sense of color-timing as Bava (Kino’s Blu-ray, also released this year, skews unnaturally green by comparison). A must-own for Bava fans.

7. Foolish Wives (Von Stroheim, USA, Kino Blu-ray)

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Kino/Lorber and the Blu-ray format have proven to be a match made in heaven, and the company’s release of Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece Foolish Wives is one of their finest releases to date. The Stroheim legend in many ways begins with this 1922 super-production, widely credited as the first “million dollar movie.” A delightfully decadent melodrama starring Stroheim himself as a monocled fake-aristocrat out to seduce and swindle the wife of an American diplomat stationed in Monte Carlo, Foolish Wives was brutally cut down by MGM executives from multi-hour epic status to a runtime of less than two hours for its original theatrical release. According to Kino’s press materials, the Blu-ray was “mastered in HD from an archival 35mm print of the 1972 AFI Arthur Lenning restoration” and runs 143 minutes. The quality varies, sometimes from shot to shot, as this restoration was clearly cobbled together from prints of varying quality but, my God, am I glad to have this. With its “innocents abroad” characters, nefarious criminal plots involving devious impostors, and potent, barely-concealed eroticism, this is as close as the American cinema ever came to the serials of Louis Feuillade. Also included as a very welcome bonus is The Man You Love to Hate, an informative, feature-length documentary on Stroheim made by Patrick Montgomery in 1979, which has also been newly remastered in HD. Now where’s Greed?

6. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, Germany, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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I had never bothered picking up the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD of F.W. Murnau’s great final film and was therefore only previously familiar with the serviceable Milestone DVD, which is both missing footage and in the wrong aspect ratio compared to the restoration that has served as the basis for Eureka/MoC’s releases. It was therefore quite eye-opening for me to see the German maestro’s gorgeous tone-poem of a movie as close as possible to the way it was meant to be seen via this new Blu-ray. Murnau had become disillusioned with both the mainstream German and American film industries when he went to Tahiti to independently make this tale of doomed love set among native islanders. He couldn’t have known it would be his last production (he died in a car accident shortly before its premiere) but the movie in general — and its haunting final scene in particular — serve as a fitting epitaph for the career of the man known as the best director to have only worked in the silent era. The images on Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray have a silky, silvery quality that fully does justice to the lyrical intentions of Murnau and his cinematographer Floyd Crosby (who deservedly won an Oscar for his work on this film).

5. Intolerance (Griffith, USA, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

intolerance

In less than a year, Cohen Media Group has established itself as a major new player in the U.S. home video market. Among their welcome 2013 releases were invaluable editions of Luis Bunuel’s Tristana and Raoul Walsh’s Thief of Bagdad but my absolute favorite title in their catalogue is this stellar new Blu-ray of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. One of cinema’s great mad follies, this quartet of stories about “love’s struggle through the ages,” which intercuts boldly and freely between different countries and centuries in order to show the tragic universality and timelessness of the title subject, looks as mind-blowingly fresh today as it must have in 1916. What’s new is Cohen’s admirable adherence to Griffith’s final cut of the film (the great director continued to tweak it well into the 1920s), which runs about 30 minutes shorter than the previous Kino DVD version; in other words, you definitely want to pick this up but don’t get rid of your old DVD either. Among Cohen’s many welcome extras are two of the segments edited by Griffith himself into stand-alone features (both of which feature footage not included in Intolerance). Essential.

4. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA, Olive Films Blu-ray)

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There were actually quite a few John Ford movies that received their Blu-ray and/or DVD debuts in 2013. The best of them, in terms of image quality, is undoubtedly Olive Films’ unimpeachable Blu-ray of Ford’s beloved Ireland-set romantic comedy The Quiet Man. As I wrote in my appreciation of the recent flurry of Ford releases last week: “This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper, more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster.” Ford’s photography of the red-haired, blue-eyed Maureen O’Hara, herding sheep barefoot in an impossibly green, grassy field, is my idea of visual heaven, a claim I don’t think I would have made until I saw this particular transfer, which was made from the original camera negative. More here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/12/09/2013-the-year-of-the-ford/

3. The Big Parade (Vidor, USA, Warner Blu-ray)

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MGM’s prestigious production of King Vidor’s 1926 anti-war epic was the most commercially successful film of the entire silent era. For some reason (undoubtedly related to “rights issues”) it has never been released on DVD in the States but finally received its belated digital debut via Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray this past fall. And it was worth the wait: this is the single best-looking release of any silent movie I’ve ever seen on any home video format (besting even the superb Eureka/Masters of Cinema release of F.W. Murnau’s City Girl from a few years ago). I’ve never seen a silent film — and I watch them all the time — look so pristine and so blemish-free. For God’s sake, I own Blu-rays of movies originally made in the 21st century that look worse than this (ahem, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The movie, a unique blend of broad comedy, heartfelt romance and tear-jerking tragedy, follows the experiences of John Gilbert’s American soldier before, during and after World War I, and is absolutely worthy of this impeccable restoration (allegedly taken from the original camera negative). One hopes that this release will be successful enough to encourage Warner Bros. to release the other classic MGM silents they control — including Vidor’s supreme masterpiece, The Crowd.

2. Three Films By Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman (Rossellini, Italy, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Roberto Rossellini had already revolutionized the movies with his pioneering Italian Neorealist efforts in the 1940s before he single-handedly gave birth to the modern European art cinema with the second phase of his career — a cycle of five films starring his new paramour Ingrid Bergman — in the early 1950s. The Criterion Collection’s gorgeous, extras-stacked box set collects the three best Rossellini/Bergmans into one essential package. In Stromboli, Bergman is a Latvian woman who marries an Italian fisherman in order to escape a refugee camp after WWII. She soon finds life intolerable in his small village, which is located at the foot of (and threatened by) a large, metaphor-rich volcano. Europe ’51 explores the possibility of sainthood in the modern world as Bergman plays a mother who, grieving over the death of her young son, tries to live like a contemporary St. Francis of Assissi but winds up in a mental hospital instead. This shattering film features what may be Bergman’s best performance. Journey to Italy is quite simply one of the finest movies ever made: Bergman and George Sanders are an eight-years-married couple, the Joyces, who travel to Italy to settle the estate of a recently deceased “Uncle Homer.” With idle time on their hands for the first time in years, their marriage crumbles. Just as James Joyce posited Ulysses as a modern psychological epic (and perhaps the only way to fittingly redo Homer’s Odyssey in the 20th century), Rossellini finds a filmic equivalent of Joyce’s prose (made explicit by a nod to “The Dead”) in a story where nothing happens on the level of “story” but everything happens inside of his characters. The result paved the way for, among other things, L’avventura, Le Mepris, Certified Copy and Before Midnight. Regardless of who you are, you should own this.

1. To Be Continued . . .

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

11. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA, Sony Blu-ray)
12. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
13. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Lang, Germany, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
15. The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, USA, Kino Blu-ray)
16. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/03/11/how-blu-was-my-valley/
17. John Cassavetes Five Films Box Set (Cassavetes, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Laura (Preminger, USA, Fox Blu-ray)
19. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, Criterion Blu-ray)
20. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, Paramount UK Blu-ray) More here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2013/12/09/2013-the-year-of-the-ford/
21. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, Kino Blu-ray)
23. Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
25. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
26. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Tristana (Bunuel, Spain, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
28. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, Criterion Blu-ray)
29. White Heat (Walsh, USA, Warner Blu-ray)
30. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, Sony Blu-ray)


2013: The Year of the Ford

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On one level, every year is the “Year of the Ford” in the Smith household. I am, after all, watching his movies all of the time, both for my own pleasure and in classes that I’m teaching. I’ve shown more films by John Ford, and in a greater variety of film studies classes (Intro to Film, Film and Society, Perspectives on Film, World of Cinema, etc.), than any other director. In less than five years I’ve managed to screen seven Ford features: Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); and this is not to mention that I also frequently show Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary feature Directed By John Ford in full — as well as clips from various other Ford films, including 3 Bad Men (1926), The Informer (1935) and The Battle of Midway (1942). My insistence on teaching Ford is in part because his very name seems synonymous with the American cinema — in much the same way that William Faulkner might be said to be synonymous with American literature or Bob Dylan synonymous with American music. (I’ll never forget how intensely gratifying it was to hear a young Korean student say she felt she was able to “understand America better” after watching Ford’s movies in my class.) Yet, even given my Ford-o-philia, 2013 was something special.

The year began on a sour note for some Ford aficionados when Quentin Tarantino repeatedly badmouthed Ford’s movies for their supposed “racism” to anyone who would listen (including Charlie Rose and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) while traveling around the world to promote his presumably more enlightened Django Unchained. Fortunately, Ford soon received the most eloquent defense his admirers could have hoped for in the form of a Film Comment rebuttal from the great Kent Jones. Then, in the following months, the world was reminded of the maestro’s continued relevance when four of what I would argue are among his five best movies were released on Blu-ray for the first time: How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (Ford’s other best movie, The Searchers, was released on Blu-ray years ago.) Incredibly, none of these titles were released together as part of any sort of Ford-themed package or box-set deal. Instead they were dropped, coincidentally and separately, by three different labels: 20th Century Fox, Olive Films and Paramount UK. TCM and Sony also teamed up to release the “John Ford Columbia Films Collection” box set but the five titles included there were made available on DVD only (and as much as I welcome the digital debuts of such underrated gems as The Whole Town’s Talking and Gideon’s Day, I passed on this set because I no longer purchase DVD-only releases). Finally, 2013 also saw the very welcome DVD release of the recently rediscovered Ford silent Upstream (included on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Treasures New Zealand” anthology). The rest of this post, however, will be devoted to the four new Ford Blu-ray titles that rocked my world in 2013.

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How Green Was My Valley is my second favorite Ford film and my favorite of his non-westerns. I am also fond of stating that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences correctly named it the Best Picture of 1941 over Citizen Kane, with which it curiously shares a flashback structure and a “subjectivity of memory” theme. This beautiful, melancholy story of one family’s disintegration in a turn-of-the-20th century mining town in Wales (though Ford was clearly thinking of Ireland) is set against the backdrop of union struggles and was one of the director’s most personal films. In it, he presents a vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp presides with benign authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a stirring illustration of his Catholic belief that one’s physical death is not “the end.” Yet the film’s obsessive focus on the inevitability of change simultaneously marks it as one of Ford’s most pessimistic works. How Green Was My Valley has amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of the great D.P. Arthur Miller, a poignant Alfred Newman score and a star-making performance by the lovely Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). Fox’s Blu-ray, which I reviewed at length back in February, is perfect.

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The Quiet Man is the most impressive of the new batch of Ford Blu-rays, not only because it looks and sounds incredible but also because it represents the most dramatic upgrade over all of the film’s previous home video incarnations. This movie has never looked good on VHS or DVD, the old video transfers of which were soft and blurry and sported sadly faded color (a particularly offensive crime since Ford insisted on shooting in Technicolor, the premiere color process of the day, over the objections of Republic Pictures boss Herbert Yates, who had patented his own color process — the cheaper and more lurid TruColor). So Olive Films did the world a huge favor by taking Ford’s single most personal film (and the only passionate love story he ever directed) and restoring it to something approximating its original luster. This new version boasts a high-definition transfer and remaster of the original camera negative and the results are glorious: primary colors (especially greens and reds) are vibrant and saturated: when John Wayne’s Sean Thornton first spies Maureen O’Hara’s flame-haired Mary Kate Danaher walking barefoot in an impossibly green grassy field, he wonders aloud “Is that real? She couldn’t be.” I said the same thing when I first watched this Blu-ray.

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In contrast to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man, both of which are popular classics beloved by many casual movie fans, The Sun Shines Bright has always been the Ford-lover’s Ford movie. A remake of the director’s own Judge Priest (1934), a Will Rogers vehicle that remains a great film in its own right, this 1953 version similarly blends comedy and tragedy in a story of racial intolerance set in post-Civil War Kentucky. But it also daringly restores the incendiary lynching scene that censors ordered to be cut from the original, which was Ford’s acknowledged reason for revisiting the material to begin with. While the film may have looked deliberately old-fashioned by the standards of the early Fifties, this beautiful slice of Americana, and its impassioned plea for tolerance, looks positively ahead of our time today — Stepin Fetchit and all. Again, this is a terrific transfer courtesy of Olive Films: the original black-and-white cinematography comes across as satisfyingly film-like, showing admirable depth and grain, and the DTS-HD rendering of the mono soundtrack is likewise subtly awesome. Both Victor Young’s score and the crisp sound design (notably the rhythmic sound of marching feet in the back-to-back processions that serve as the movie’s double-climax) make a big impression.

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1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last great western — and the first of many great movies belonging to a subgenre concerning “aging cowboys” (followed swiftly by Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). As the West is on the brink of being “settled,” the way of the gun (John Wayne) must cede to the rule of the law (Jimmy Stewart). While Ford sees this progress as being both inevitable and right, it is obvious that his heart belongs more with Wayne’s rancher-character, Tom Doniphan, and that he mourns the passing of the era when men like Doniphan existed, which turns the whole thing into a complex and ironic tragedy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is in many ways Ford’s magnum opus (with explicit nods to earlier classics like Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln) and Paramount UK’s hi-def transfer does this masterpiece proud. It bests Paramount’s very good previous DVD in terms of image and sound — boasting a robust new 5.1 mix in the latter area. One does wonder why Paramount U.S. hasn’t yet bothered to release the same title although given that the U.K. edition is region-free (and can thus be played on any Blu-ray player worldwide), the cost of international shipping isn’t too much of a price to pay for a release this essential.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also, of course, contains some of the most important dialogue Ford ever directed: “This is the west, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” These lines, delivered by a newspaper editor to Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, have frequently been misunderstood — including by Steven Spielberg in the pages of Time magazine — as somehow being an argument in favor of the importance of inspirational “heroes and legends.” I would argue that they actually play out on screen as a sad reminder that official histories are often tragically incorrect. Fortunately, in 2013, John Ford’s own legend has been solidified more than ever due to the magnificent Blu-ray releases of four of his most timeless works. I am jealous of anyone who gets to see them in such pristine form for the first time.

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Blu Hammer

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Newly released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate UK is a newly restored version of Hammer Studios’ original 1958 production of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (also known to ugly Americans as Horror of Dracula). While I am by no means a Hammer expert, I do love a good horror movie as well as a good restoration job; this release happily combines both of those things in a high-quality package that probably deserves to be called the definitive home video presentation of Fisher’s masterpiece. One should not confuse this restoration, however, with the 2007 BFI restoration of the very same film. Hammer’s new version happily restores approximately 20 seconds of sensuality and gore, recently unearthed in Japan, that had been ordered cut by the British Board of Film Censors before its original release 55 years ago (more on that later). Longtime fans should be eager to scoop up this set — not only because of the newly restored footage but also because this release presents Dracula on home video for the very first time in its original theatrical aspect ratio and in the closest approximation of its original color timing. Horror aficionados who haven’t yet seen it should also be curious to find out why it is perhaps the most influential cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s often-filmed novel (barring perhaps only Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unofficial version from 1922). It should be noted that this release of Dracula is a Region-B locked disc, meaning anyone living outside of a designated “Region-B” country needs to have a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy it.

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The first thing one notices about Hammer’s approach to Dracula is how much director Fisher and Hammer contract-writer Jimmy Sangster have streamlined Stoker’s narrative. When Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) travels to Dracula’s castle at the beginning of the movie he is no longer a clueless real estate agent but a vampire hunter and scholar instead. We learn that Harker has accepted a job working in the Count’s library as a mere pretext for gaining access to the title bloodsucker’s home in the hopes of vanquishing him. Dracula (Christopher Lee), however, is on to Harker and ends up subjugating him first. The vampire hunter’s partner, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), soon arrives hot on Harker’s heels to investigate. In addition to this tidier exposition, the Hammer version also dispenses, after its opening scene, with the first-person narration of Stoker’s epistolary novel and even some of the book’s most important supporting characters (e.g., everyone’s favorite bug-eating maniac, Renfield). More importantly, Fisher’s movie, while retaining the novel’s 19th century setting, clearly uses Stoker’s story as a means of commenting on the still-stifling social mores of post-war Britain. The filmmakers certainly knew what they were doing when they cast the sensual and charismatic Lee as Dracula and the stuffier, more reactionary-seeming Cushing as Van Helsing. (For an in-depth account of how Hammer presents the Count as an ambiguous “counter-cultural hero,” largely because of the sexually liberating effect of his attacks on his seemingly willing female “victims,” check out Pete Hoskin’s brilliant essay at Gary Tooze’s invaluable site DVD Beaver).

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Now on to the good stuff: the 20 seconds of previously unseen footage is confined to just a few shots in two scenes. And yet what a difference 20 seconds can make! The censored scenes in question are Dracula’s seduction of Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling), the aforementioned “sensuality,” and Dracula’s daylight disintegration, the aforementioned “gore.” The earlier scene makes explicit something viewers had previously only strongly suspected — that Mina, like all of Dracula’s female victims, actually enjoys the Count’s nocturnal visits. While this sensuality is latent in both Stoker’s novel and in Murnau’s Nosferatu (check out the way Greta Schröder’s Ellen flings the window open to offer herself to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok), it really comes to the fore in the Hammer version — and now more than ever in the new restoration. The seduction scene now contains a single new shot of Dracula “kissing” Mina by lightly brushing his lips all over her face before moving in to bite her neck. The angle of this shot favors Mina’s facial expression, which is undeniably one of erotic ecstasy. Even more tantalizing for longtime fans of the movie, however, is the restoration of several shots to Dracula’s death scene. This new footage includes gruesome images of Dracula clawing at his own disintegrating face with his disintegrating left hand as sunlight streams in through a nearby window. A short documentary titled Resurrecting Dracula, one of many welcome extras on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray, shows how British restorers worked a veritable miracle in cleaning up and re-integrating these shots, fairly seamlessly, from the badly damaged Japanese source reels.

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About the transfer: in another extra in this set, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn says that the studio’s successful formula was not only combining horror and sex but also “color.” Hammer’s celebrated use of lurid Technicolor, which on American home video releases has always skewed too warm (especially where skin tones are concerned), is finally being presented here in a cooler, more blue-ish color scheme that more closely corresponds to the look of IB Technicolor prints of the late 1950s. This has the effect of making the color red, when it does periodically appear, pop out all the more. (Blood, as seen in the celebrated opening credit sequence that ends with the substance ominously dripping onto a grave, has the same stylized “red paint” quality that Godard would employ in Weekend a decade later.) Another welcome facet of Lionsgate’s release is that Dracula is presented in its correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1, allowing viewers to see more information, especially in Bernard Robinson’s handsome period sets, on either side of the frame. The thickness and depth of the images in this transfer are extremely impressive overall, boasting the kind of healthy black levels and wonderful film grain textures that one has come to expect from good Blu-ray releases. Image quality is also thankfully matched by the audio in a linear PCM mono track that shows off composer James Bernard’s powerful Wagnerian score to great effect. Another classic movie has gotten the Blu-ray presentation it deserves: Dracula has truly been resurrected.

The trailer for the BFI’s 2007 restoration of Dracula can be seen via YouTube below:


How Blu Was My Valley

Newly released on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is How Green Was My Valley, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 1941 and one of director John Ford’s finest achievements.

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In the documentary Becoming John Ford, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs makes an interesting observation about John Ford’s 1945 film They Were Expendable: it is unusual, he says, that the title is in the past tense. This was, after all, a movie about World War II, made during World War II, and Dobbs believes that most other Hollywood filmmakers of the time would have wanted to conjure a more present-tense sense of urgency by calling such a movie either They Are Expendable or just plain The Expendables. (Needless to say, Dobbs’ observation was made, amusingly, several years before Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise ended up adopting the latter title.) Dobbs believes that by calling the film They Were Expendable Ford is saying these characters have already “passed into myth,” a good insight into Ford’s approach to history. One of the most prominent themes across Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how it is perceived after the fact. This is an implicit theme in Young Mr. Lincoln, an explicit theme in Fort Apache and is perfectly encapsulated in the famous line of dialogue from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Looking at Ford’s movie titles alone, it is striking how many of them are in the past tense: How the West Was Won, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable, and, Ford’s ultimate “past tense” movie, How Green Was My Valley. Valley tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, but it is his story as seen from the vantage point of the character as he remembers that time at the age of 50. As in Miguel Gomes’ recent Tabu, this means that Ford’s images are not “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the storytelling also helps to explain why the child protagonist (portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of the finest child performances ever) doesn’t seem to age even though the film seems to span several years. This is similar to the poignant use of the superficially “too old” appearances of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the flashback sequences of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford’s last great “memory film.”

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Ford once claimed that How Green Was My Valley was his most autobiographical movie, which is ironic considering that he joined the project as a last-minute replacement for the original director William Wyler. Wyler had already worked on the script with screenwriter Philip Dunne, overseen the construction of the sets on the Fox ranch in the Malibu hills and even cast the film. Perhaps it’s surprising that the movie seems as “Fordian” as it does considering how late Ford came on board the project. Then again, perhaps it’s surprising that Ford was not offered to direct the project originally, given how similar the subject matter is to The Grapes of Wrath (which had netted Ford a Best Director Oscar one year earlier). Like Grapes, a film that had arrived with the same instant prestige – and controversy – as John Steinbeck’s source novel, How Green Was My Valley was based on a current best-seller by Richard Llewellyn. Both books had been published in 1939 (an indication of how much quicker things got done in Hollywood at the time) and they tell similar stories: they are period dramas depicting the disintegration of a family, set against the backdrop of a labor struggle. How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales and the main characters are coal miners (as opposed to the Okie tenant farmers in Grapes) but the portrait of family life in each is strikingly similar.

Daryl Zanuck, the head of Production at 20th Century Fox, was a conservative Republican and, as had happened with The Grapes of Wrath, was made uneasy by some of the political themes of How Green Was My Valley, such as the workers’ struggle for the right to unionize. Zanuck commissioned screenplays for the film from two different writers and rejected both of them because he thought they focused too much on the unionization subplot. In a memo referring to an early story conference, Zanuck wrote: “I was very disappointed in the (Ernest) Pascal script mainly because it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story instead of a great human warm story about real living people. I got the impression that we are trying to do an English Grapes of Wrath and prove that the mine owners were very mean and that the laborers finally won out over them. All this might be fine if it were happening today like The Grapes of Wrath but this is years ago and who gives a damn? The smart thing to do is to try and keep all of the rest in the background and focus mainly on the human story as seen through Huw’s eyes.” The third draft, written by Dunne, did downplay some of the more radical political elements of the novel but it is still remarkable that the movie got made at all.

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Part of the reason why Zanuck first approached Wyler and not Ford to direct is because his original concept for the film was different from what it ended up becoming. The initial idea was to make How Green Was My Valley Fox’s Gone with the Wind. Zanuck was jealous of MGM’s success with their 1939 Oscar-winner and his plan was for How Green Was My Valley to “outdo” Gone with the Wind by being a four-hour Technicolor epic, shot on location and featuring an all-star cast that would’ve include Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power and Greer Garson. None of those things ended up happening; war broke out in Europe, which made location shooting impossible, and the top brass at Fox balked at the proposed budget as well as the choice of director (Wyler had a reputation for being an extravagant perfectionist who required many takes). When Fox cancelled the project, Zanuck fired off an angry letter to the front office saying that Dunne’s script was the best he had ever read and if he couldn’t make the movie now, he was going to make it later and would take it to another studio if necessary. The powers that be at Fox relented on the condition that Zanuck make the film in black-and-white and bring it in at a running time of under two hours. That’s when Zanuck brought in Ford because Ford’s reputation was the opposite of Wyler’s – he was able to get most of his shots in only one or two takes and was known for bringing his movies in on time and under budget.

The finished film was, as I’ve indicated, highly personal for Ford, who based a lot of its images on his own childhood memories. Coincidentally, Ford had been the same age as Huw Morgan at roughly the same time in history: Ford was born in 1894 and reached adolescence in the early part of the 21st century just like Huw. Further, Huw is the youngest son in a large Welsh family and Ford was the youngest son in a large Irish-American family (his parents had migrated, separately, from Ireland to America, where they first met and got married). Ford said he could identify with being the “fresh young kid at the table” and this identification is evident in the many poignant reaction shots of Huw sitting with his family at the dining room table. More importantly, Huw becomes sick in the movie and has a lengthy convalescence during which he discovers his love of books. The exact same thing happened to the director; Ford contracted diptheria when he was 12 and was quarantined at home for a year. During this time he missed a year of school but discovered his own love of literature and read classics like Ivanhoe, Treasure Island and the novels of Mark Twain. Oftentimes, one of his sisters would read to him, an event that is recreated in the film with Huw and his sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee who, like cast-mate Maureen O’Hara, was working with Ford for the first of many times).

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Ultimately, what makes How Green Was My Valley a masterpiece, and arguably Ford’s finest pre-War film, is the deeply felt, deeply Fordian depiction of family and the lament for its inevitable dissolution. Ford sees the family itself as a microcosm of the broader Welsh society and, as the family goes, so too goes the mining town. The movie is ultimately a tragedy because the intellectually gifted Huw Morgan refuses to leave his hometown and pursue an education, preferring instead to stay behind and do the same backbreaking work in the mines as his father and brothers – even as the “green”-ness is leaving the valley for good. But if there is a silver lining to be found, it is in Ford’s sense of spirituality and the notion that, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, “death is not the end.” This spiritual sense is depicted nowhere more strongly nor movingly in Ford’s entire canon than in Valley‘s climactic moments: after Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) has died in a mining accident, his mother (Sara Allgood) speaks of seeing him in a vision: “He came to me just now . . . He spoke to me and told me of the glory he had seen.” We then see all of the film’s characters, dead and alive, together on a grassy hillside, happy and smiling, as if reunited in paradise. “Men like my father cannot die,” Huw intones in voice-over as an adult. “They are with me still, real in memory as they were in the flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

After The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley was another big critical and commercial success for 20th Century Fox. It won Ford his third Academy Award for Best Director and it won Zanuck his first Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that its main competition that year was Citizen Kane (which had to settle for the Best Original Screenplay trophy only) has sadly caused some critics and cinephiles to downgrade Valley in hindsight, many of whom see it as the ultimate “proof” of the Oscars’ irrelevance–the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. I mean, the film that beat the Greatest Movie of All Time™? How good could it possibly be? Personally, while I yield to no one in my love of Welles, I have no qualms about saying that the Academy Awards actually got things right that year. The ultimate tribute to Valley came from Welles himself, who clearly modeled the gossiping housewives in his 1942 production of The Magnificent Ambersons on a scene involving similar characters from Ford’s film (not to mention identifying Ford as his favorite director in later interviews).

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About the transfer: How Green Was My Valley is presented by Fox on Blu-ray in a new HD transfer based on restored film elements. I do not believe this involved the same sort of extensive digital overhaul as last year’s brilliant Grapes of Wrath Blu-ray, which means the upgrade over Fox’s previous DVD version is not comparably dramatic. It is, however, still an upgrade — especially in the areas of detail, clarity and contrast. The amount of detail in close-ups in particular, such as the fine hairs on an old woman’s face, is extremely impressive. Arthur Miller’s gorgeous high-contrast/deep-focus black-and-white cinematography is comparable to Gregg Toland’s work on Grapes and likewise utilizes a lot of low-angled long shots; the film’s cinematic qualities come through better than ever on this new edition. Fortunately, all of the DVD’s welcome extras (especially the insightful commentary track with Anna Lee and Ford biographer Joseph McBride) have also been ported over here intact. How Green Was My Valley is one of my top three favorite Ford films, along with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I consider it an essential addition to the library of any Fordophile — or cinephile.

    Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012

In spite of the ever-increasing popularity of downloading and streaming (with their attendant inferior image and sound quality, suckas!), 2012 proved to be yet another year of movie-watching paradise for crazy people like me who want to feel a physical connection to the movies we love (not to mention the bitchin’ artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”). All of the great home video labels (Criterion, Masters of Cinema, et al) continued doing great work, and a few smaller domestic and foreign labels (Flicker Alley, Kam and Ronson, etc.) even stepped up their rate of Blu-ray production. Olive Films deserves a special thanks for combing through the Republic Pictures catalogue, judiciously selecting all of the titles that cinephiles most want to see and presenting them in high definition (e.g., Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rio Grande, Johnny Guitar, and, most exciting of all, a newly restored version of The Quiet Man set to drop in 2013).

Below are my top ten favorite Blu-ray discs of 2012 as well as 30 additional runners-up. (I purchased no DVDs in the past year at all.) Being fortunate enough to watch all of the below discs, some of which I was even able to screen in classes, single-handedly made 2012 a very good year for me.

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Olive Films Blu-ray)

Olive Films has quickly established a reputation as a home video distributor known for putting out straightforward transfers (unrestored but also never overly manipulated) of classic Hollywood and foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray. They are also known for offering little-to-no extras (think of them as Criterion’s poorer little brother). While the new Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman fits this description exactly, I’m including it here because the movie is so friggin’ awesome and because it was only previously available in North America on VHS tape. Max Ophuls’ elegant, Viennese waltz of a movie is a devastating melodrama about a schoolgirl crush that turns into an unrequited lifelong obsession. A reviewer on a popular Blu-ray review site, who is apparently unaware of the conventions of the melodrama genre and should’ve known better, foolishly complained about the film’s plot contrivances and gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. I say this is one of the great American movies and if it doesn’t rip your heart out then I don’t want to know you.

9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, Fox Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, who have a good track record when it comes to their catalogue titles, released a superb Blu-ray of Howard Hawks’ immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to curiously little fanfare last July. Over time this musical/comedy has become my favorite Hawks movie, in part because I’ve come to realize that comedy is what Hawks, the proverbial “master of all genres,” did best but also because of how he used the Marilyn Monroe persona: together, Hawks and Monroe slyly suggest that her dumb blonde act is just that – an act – which makes her Lorelei Lee character seem awfully smart, after all. What impresses most about this specific release is how much the colors pop (has red ever looked so red?) and how remarkably blemish-free it is; Fox’s restoration of the film involved creating a new negative from the original three-strip Technicolor elements. I cannot recall seeing another movie from Hollywood’s studio system era that looked this pleasingly pristine on my television.

8. Lonesome (Fejos, Criterion Blu-ray)

My vote for the best Criterion release of the year is their incredible Blu-ray disc of the George Eastman House restoration of Paul Fejos’ essential Lonesome. I had previously only seen this lyrical masterpiece, a portrait of urban loneliness and love comparable to Sunrise and The Crowd, on a fuzzy VHS tape as an all-silent film in black-and-white. This new version restores it to its original theatrical glory as a part-talkie (there are three brief dialogue scenes) with a color-stenciled-by-hand Coney Island climax. Even more impressive is how Criterion bundles the main attraction together with two other Fejos features: a reconstructed version of the 1929 musical Broadway (whose generic story of a chorus girl mixed up with gangsters is merely an excuse for Fejos to show off some astonishingly fluid and dramatic crane shots) and the recently rediscovered The Last Performance, a Conrad Veidt vehicle that belongs to one of my favorite subgenres – films about the sinister goings-on within a circus. Oh yeah! Taken together, these three films offer a compelling argument that Fejos may have been the most unjustly neglected major filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood.

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s greatest achievement received the home video treatment it has long deserved with this definitive edition from the UK label Masters of Cinema. The tone of this much-beloved biopic of Jesus, based upon the book of Matthew, alternates between the reverent (the Neorealist but respectful treatment of the Christ story in general) and the irreverent (a deliberately anachronistic score, one of the best ever compiled, that mixes Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with cuts by Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, a Congolese mass and even snatches of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score). That score comes through loud and clear via the uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack, and the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography has the thickness and pleasing graininess of an authentic, well-kept 35mm print. Also, the English subtitles are thankfully optional, not “burned in” as on the old Image DVD release. Finally, there are many welcome extras, the most important of which is Sopralluoghi in Palestina, a feature-length documentary about scouting the film’s locations directed by Pasolini himself. Essential.

6. The Mizoguchi Collection (Mizoguchi, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

This terrific box-set from UK distributor Artificial Eye collects the four best-known Kenji Mizoguchi films that pre-date the great director’s most famous period (the late masterworks he created in the 1950s). Unfortunately, it has been damned with faint praise by some critics who complained about the overall “softness” of the images, and the fact that two of the titles (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) have already been released by Criterion’s Eclipse DVD label in transfers that were clearly made from the same source material. But this is Blu-ray, folks, and there is an improvement, and no improvement is too small when it comes to the legacy of a giant like Mizoguchi. Granted, these films, like all Japanese films of their era, are not in the best physical shape but they are among the cinema’s finest achievements (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in particular) and cinephiles therefore owe Artificial Eye a huge debt of gratitude for putting them out. Unsurprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is also the most recent: 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, the only postwar title in the bunch, is a delightful, autobiographical and uncharacteristically light movie (at least for Mizo) about an artist’s relationships to his female models.

5. The River (Renoir, Carlotta Blu-ray)

2012 was a great year for admirers of Jean Renoir. Out of all of the Blu-ray releases of classic films that came out this year that were based on new restorations, two of the very best-looking were for his masterpieces Grand Illusion (released by Studio Canal stateside and in Europe) and The River (released by the French label Carlotta). My favorite between them is The River, not only because I think it’s the better movie but also because it boasts the more impressive restoration work. Funded in part by Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation, the film’s original vibrant Technicolor palette (marking the first time Renoir ever worked in color), which irresistibly shows off the The River‘s colorful Indian locations, has marvelously been brought back to life. The movie itself, a coming-of-age story about three adolescent girls who fall in love with the same American soldier, is one of Renoir’s best and most humane. There are no English subtitles on this French disc, which shouldn’t really matter to English-speakers because the film was shot entirely in English.

4. Les Vampires (Feuillade, Kino Blu-ray)

Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking and deathless mystery serial was originally released in 10 parts over a span of several months in 1915 and 1916. Blu-ray, however, is arguably the ideal way to experience this 7-hour silent film extravaganza (spread across two discs in Kino’s set): one can dip into it at any given point at any time to experience its proto-Surrealist delights. And for those who have heard of Feuillade, a kind of French D.W. Griffith, but are not yet familiar with his work, this is also the best place to start: Les Vampires, a supreme entertainment about an intrepid journalist matching wits against a gang of master criminals, exerted a big influence on Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the entire espionage genre, and even the nouvelle vague in its pioneering use of self-reflexivity (most obvious in the fourth-wall-busting comic performance of Marcel Levesque). Full review here.

3. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here.

2. The Lodger (Hitchcock, Network Blu-ray)

The UK label Network released this sensational disc in September, which turned out to be in many ways the year’s most delightful home video surprise. The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first thriller, was originally released in 1927 and this version is based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it is until viewing this Blu-ray. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Herrmann-esque score. I normally include only one title per director in my “Best of” lists but it was impossible to leave off either The Lodger or the “Masterpiece Collection” for 2012. More here.

1. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Hitchcock, Universal Blu-ray)

Universal Studios did the world a huge favor by releasing this “mother” of all movie box sets in late October. The 15-disc set, lovingly packaged with a 58-page booklet and beautiful artwork, contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known and best loved Hollywood films, all of which are loaded with copious extras. The audio-visual quality varies from disc to disc but, fortunately, the very best films included here (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho) also tend to be the ones that have the most impressive image and sound quality. The colors of Rear Window and Vertigo in particular are more saturated and feature warmer skin tones that feel truer to their original Technicolor roots. The most pleasant surprise though is The Trouble with Harry, whose blazing autumnal color palette truly dazzles in 1080p. Below are my grades for all 15 films in the set. The first grade is for the movie, the second is for a/v quality:

Saboteur: B+/A
Shadow of a Doubt: A+/A-
Rope: B+/B+
Rear Window: A+/A+
The Trouble With Harry: A-/A+
The Man Who Knew Too Much: B-/B-
Vertigo: A+/A+
North By Northwest: A+/A+
Psycho: A+/A
The Birds: A/A-
Marnie: A-/B
Torn Curtain: B-/B+
Topaz: B/B+
Frenzy: B+/A-
Family Plot: A/B-

Runners-Up:

11. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)

12. Bande à part (Godard, Gaumont Blu-ray)

13. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Kino Blu-ray)

14. Center Stage (AKA Actress) (Kwan, Kam and Ronson Blu-ray)

15. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Criterion Blu-ray)

16. Chinatown (Polanski, Paramount Blu-ray)

17. David Lynch Box Set (Lynch, Universal UK Blu-ray) This ambitious set was unfortunately marred by technical problems on its original release (a couple of discs contained audio and/or video glitches, while others were released in 1080i instead of 1080p and with 2.0 stereo soundtracks instead of the promised 5.1 mixes) and was subsequently withdrawn by Universal UK. When replacement discs were eventually reissued, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway were still unfortunately in 1080i though Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet all look and sound terrific. Had it not been for the technical errors, this extras-laden set would have easily made my top ten list.

18. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

19. Film Socialisme (Godard, Kino Blu-ray)

20. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

21. Fort Apache (Ford, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

22. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)

23. Grand Illusion (Renoir, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here.

25. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Criterion Blu-ray)

26. Johnny Guitar (Ray, Olive Films Blu-ray)

27. La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Marker, Criterion Blu-ray) More here.

28. Life Without Principle (To, Mega Star Blu-ray) Full review here.

29. Die Nibelungen (Lang, Kino Blu-ray)

30. Notorious (Hitchcock, MGM Blu-ray) Full review here.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) Full review here.

32. Rio Grande (Ford, Olive Films Blu-ray)

33. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Criterion Blu-ray)

34. Sansho the Bailiff / Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

35. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, Warner Bros. Blu-ray) More here.

36. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

37. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

38. That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

39. Ugetsu / Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

40. Weekend (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)


2012: The Year of the Hitch

When it came time to decide my annual White City Cinema Filmmaker of the Year honor, there was no real contest: 2012, for many reasons, belonged to Alfred Hitchcock. For the past calendar year, it seems like Hitch was everywhere. Vertigo, to much fanfare, supplanted Citizen Kane atop the BFI/Sight & Sound Critics’ Poll of the greatest movies of all time (a usurping that I’m totally fine with). The BFI also restored Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films, all of which have been exhibited theatrically and should eventually make their way to home video. Beginning last month, the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation began streaming free of charge the recently re-discovered 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for. This British melodrama, directed by Graham Cutts, turned out to be a major revelation for being an important stepping stone for Hitch on his path to becoming a director himself. Hitchcock also turned up in dubious-looking biopics on the big screen (the Anthony Hopkins-in-a-fat-suit-starring Hitchcock) as well as the small (HBO’s The Girl, which told the disturbing and long suppressed story of Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren on the set of Marnie). Most importantly, though, a ridiculous number of the master’s films dropped on Blu-ray for the first time, 24 to be exact, most of them in terrific editions that illustrate how it is ultimately the great movies that make him matter now more than ever.

The complete list of Hitchcock titles newly released on Blu in the last 12 months:

The Lodger (1927) – Network
The 39 Steps (1935) – Criterion
Rebecca (1940) – MGM
Saboteur (1942) – Universal
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Universal
Aventure Malgache (1944) – Eureka/Masters of Cinema
Bon Voyage (1944) – Eureka/Mastres of Cinema
Lifeboat (1944) – Eureka/Masters of Cinema
Spellbound (1945) – MGM
Notorious (1946) – MGM
Rope (1948) – Universal
Strangers on a Train (1953) – Warner Bros.
Dial M for Murder (1954) – Warner Bros.
Rear Window (1954) – Universal
To Catch a Thief (1955) – Paramount
The Trouble with Harry (1955) – Universal
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Universal
Vertigo (1958) – Universal
The Birds (1963) – Universal
Marnie (1965) – Universal
Torn Curtain (1966) – Universal
Topaz (1969) – Universal
Frenzy (1972) – Universal
Family Plot (1976) – Universal

The 13 Universal titles cited above are part of the “Masterpiece Collection,” a mammoth limited edition 15 disc box set that also includes North By Northwest and Psycho (both of which had previously been issued as stand-alone discs prior to 2012). This mother-of-all movie box sets is arguably the most important ever created. Originally scheduled for release in September, it was delayed for a month by technical problems, most of which were satisfactorily resolved by last minute fixes. Needless to say, I eagerly snapped this one up along with The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Notorious (the latter of which I reviewed earlier this year) and Strangers on a Train. Questions arise though. Is this Hitch motherlode too much of a good thing? Can anyone other than Martin Scorsese afford to buy all 24 of these titles? Even if you think the answers to these questions are yes and no, respectively, the difficulty in acquiring such an embarrassment of riches should probably be considered a nice problem for any cinephile to have. Out of the titles that I did purchase, from The Lodger through Family Plot, I was reminded yet again why Hitchcock is so beloved and so important. Not only was he a master director who made entertaining thrillers that showed a profound understanding of the dark side of human nature, his body of work was also remarkably consistent for half a century, a longer span of time than almost anyone else (only John Ford and Luis Bunuel can really compare).

Although the “Masterpiece Collection” will be topping my soon-to-be published list of the Best Home Video Releases of 2012, I would like to dedicate the rest of this post to the sublime but much less heralded release of The Lodger, the first – and so far the only – BFI restoration of the Hitchcock silents to receive a home video release. The Lodger was released in September from the UK label Network as a superb but, unfortunately for those not in possession of a multi-region Blu-ray player, region-B (i.e., European) “locked” disc. The Lodger is not only the oldest of the 24 Hitchcock films to make a Blu-ray debut in 2012 but, perhaps surprisingly, arguably the best in terms of the audio/visual quality. Originally released in 1925, The Lodger was Hitchcock’s third feature film as a director and the first to be shot in his native England (the first two were made in Germany). Loosely based on the story of Jack the Ripper and subtitled “A Story of the London Fog,” it was also Hitchcock’s first foray into the thriller genre, which has caused many critics – not to mention the director himself – to refer to it as the first “true” Hitchcock movie. I had seen the film once before, on VHS tape in the 1990s, and thought of it as an interesting formative work because of how it showed Hitchcock’s famous obsessions in embryonic form. But watching the Blu-ray caused an epiphany: The Lodger is a truly great film in its own right, regardless of what its creator went on to do afterwards.

The Lodger intertwines two of what would soon become Hitchcock’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer, and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). The Lodger is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy, the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (played by the great Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings. The Lodger clearly influenced Fritz Lang’s M, not only in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a collective, lynch mob-like mentality but also in terms of its visual style; most obviously, Hitchcock employs the triangle as a visual motif throughout the film in much the same way Lang would employ the spiral in M. More significantly, I never realized the extent of how gorgeously and expressionistically lit The Lodger was until I viewed Network’s Blu-ray, which contains a high-definition transfer of film elements restored by the BFI National Archive. It is almost hard to believe that the film was shot in 1925 on the evidence of this uncommonly strong transfer; detail in some of the close-ups, as in the first memorable kiss between Daisy and the lodger, is stunning. The images, which have been restored to their original blue and sepia color-tinting, not only contain great clarity but are also remarkably stable and free of scratches and blemishes. This restoration makes the prospect of seeing the other restored Hitchcock silents, especially the much-celebrated Blackmail, a positively mouth-watering one.

Like most silent films, The Lodger had no official score. The soundtrack for the Blu-ray was newly written by British composer Nitin Sawhney. It is a full-blown orchestral score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra that sounds very robust in 2-channel stereo. In fact, it is one of the best scores I’ve ever heard for a silent movie – right up there alongside Richard Einhorn’s score for The Passion of Joan of Arc. At times, Sawhney’s score seems to fittingly tip its hat to the classic Bernard Herrmann scores for North By Northwest and Psycho. Unfortunately, the score has also generated some controversy among so-called “purists” who have complained in online forums about the inclusion of a couple of pop songs with vocals. The first song, which begins at around the film’s 23 minute mark, is a beautiful, Indian-inflected pop number, a reflection of the composer’s cultural heritage, with lyrics that cleverly interact with the images onscreen (e.g., “Blue eyes cold as ice / cut through me like a knife”). I would argue, however, that this song is completely appropriate because it accompanies a major tonal shift in the movie – away from suspense and towards romance as Daisy and the mysterious lodger first develop feelings for each other. The second song accompanies the ballroom dance scene, which practically cries out for such a song. The first song, titled “Daisy’s Song,” is actually my favorite part of the entire score and I’m very happy that Network included the double CD soundtrack in their Blu-ray package.

While I personally think Network’s Blu-ray of The Lodger single-handedly justifies the purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, I’m also aware that only a very small fraction of American cinephiles are likely to take that plunge. Therefore, one can only hope that an enterprising U.S. distributor, perhaps Criterion, will pick up the stateside rights to The Lodger, perhaps alongside of the other BFI restorations, and release them as a Blu-ray box set. Maybe that is what 2013 will bring since the the flood of high-def Hitch shows no signs of abating (Criterion has already announced a January Blu-ray release of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). Or you could just come over to my apartment if you really want to see it now. Just make sure to bring a six-pack.

Check out the trailer for the BFI restoration of The Lodger here:

Listen to Nitin Sawhney’s “Daisy’s Song” here:


Blu “Passion” Flowers

Newly released on Blu-ray from the good folks at Eureka!/Masters of Cinema is a superb edition of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a masterpiece of world cinema that recently made the much-hyped 2012 Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll of the ten best films of all time. It was also the movie I chose to inaugurate a new Global Cinema class I taught at Oakton Community College earlier in the year. Below are thoughts on both the enduring film itself as well as Masters of Cinema’s terrific new hi-def transfer.

If the motion picture, with its primarily visual vocabulary and ability for ubiquitous worldwide exhibition, is the most international of art forms, then the most international decade it has ever known may well have been the 1920s. This was when the movies had reached a state of full artistic maturity but had not yet been segregated by nationality according to the dictates of spoken language. (In the memorable phrase of Roger Ebert, “Talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations.”) The late silent era was a time when film stars crossed national borders with regularity. “Foreign” accents and even the inability to speak the language of a given country were not yet a hindrance: Swedish actress Greta Garbo came to Hollywood around the same time that American actress Louis Brooks decided to try her luck in Germany. Directors too traveled far and wide: Alfred Hitchcock made his first two movies in Germany, Sergei Eisenstein directed an experimental short in France, while Ernst Lubitsch brought his famous “touch” to Hollywood and stayed for good. As a result of this cross-pollination of talent, the late silent era saw the release of a number of films that functioned as grand summations of what had come before, movies that integrated the innovations of filmmakers working in different countries over the decades. Chief among these is the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, a production of the French studio Gaumont that was written and directed by the Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most unusual, modern-looking and best movies of the entire silent era. Unlike most Joan of Arc biopics, including Luc Besson’s The Messenger and virtually all of the ones produced in Hollywood, it eschews battle scenes and externally dramatic heroic deeds in favor of the more interior, spiritual journey undertaken by the revered saint in her final days on earth. Dreyer focuses only on Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution, which is unusual in itself but his recreation of the period is so authentic, his style of filmmaking so pure and refined and the lead performance of Renee Falconetti so naturalistic that the first time I screened it in class, several students told me they felt like they were watching a “documentary” that had somehow been made in the 15th century. Abetting this sense of realism is the fact that virtually all of the film’s dialogue (represented, of course, by intertitles) is taken verbatim from the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, as a handy prologue makes clear. Interestingly, Robert Bresson virtually remade Dreyer’s movie as The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962 by also focusing on Joan’s final days (though Bresson misguidedly attempted to “correct” the earlier film by removing all traces of acting). In the 1990s, Jacques Rivette split the difference by making two companion piece features: one about Joan in battle and another focusing only on her trial.

The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently features techniques associated with the Soviet Montage, French Impressionist and German Expressionist movements but Dreyer has combined them with other techniques and in such unorthodox ways that the end result feels entirely fresh and new. The most prominent visual trope in Joan is its famous and relentless use of extreme close-ups, a technique that looks as radical today as it must have in 1928. In the early stages of the film especially, Dreyer uses extremely tight framing of both Joan and her trial judges to capture every emotional nuance of Falconetti’s performance and every wrinkle on the faces of her interrogators, as well as to convey an overall atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression. Dreyer notoriously had large and expensive sets built for the movie and then for the most part refused to show them. The almost perverse lack of wide shots leads to a feeling of unbearable intensity; Dreyer repeatedly denies viewers the relief, the sheer breathing room, that a more distanced view of the action would have provided.

The influence of German Expressionism can be felt in the glimpses of the sets that we are occasionally able to see behind the actors. The windows that appear on the wall behind and above the judges are crooked and mismatched, featuring bizarre, diamond-shaped window panes. They look almost like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is unsurprising considering that the legendary German art director Herman Warmm designed the sets for both films. This aspect of the set, though rarely glimpsed, combines with the ugly, leering faces of the old judges to convey the impression of a twisted, abusive authority. (Significantly, the only character to show Joan sympathy is a handsome young priest played by the Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud.) The pacing of Joan is relatively slow in these early trial scenes, reflecting Dreyer’s belief that “Rhythm and milieu go together.” Later, the action dramatically breaks into rapidly edited sequences when Joan is faced with the torture-chamber and when French peasants begin rioting outside of the prison compound. The former scene reflects the influence of French Impressionism, where editing is used to show how a character experiences time subjectively (i.e., time seems to accelerate for the terrified Joan); the latter scene uses fast editing in a Soviet-style montage to compress time, space and action. Both scenes have a shocking force precisely because they follow the slow, steady rhythm that Dreyer has carefully built up beforehand.

A year ago, I reviewed the new blu-ray of Citizen Kane and analyzed that film as a kind of self-conscious “synthesis” of all the major historical movements in cinema that had preceded it. I believe The Passion of Joan of Arc fulfills this same function for the silent era; as with Kane, Dreyer’s synthesis is not a dry, academic exercise but rather a means for the director to use all of the cinematic tools available to him to execute his story in the most effective way possible. The end result is, after all, emotionally involving to the point of being occasionally gut-wrenching. Dreyer blends his disparate aesthetic approaches together and ultimately subsumes them into what might be termed the great Dane’s singular “ascetic style” – one that draws us into Joan’s inner world and conveys a sense of her soul. This is a style that Dreyer would continually refine and improve over the course of his next four features (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud). Yet there is no better place to first acquaint oneself with the filmography of one of the best directors of all time than with this passionate, enrapturing portrait of the beloved Maid of Orleans.

Notes on the Blu-ray: The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc deviates from previous home video releases in several key ways. First, the bad news: Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Visions of Light,” included on Criterion’s 1999 DVD release, is not included among the soundtrack options. This is cause for regret because “Visions of Light” is a masterpiece in its own right and is as close to “definitive” as a non-original score for a silent film can be (like most silents, Joan had no official original score). Instead, MoC has provided two newly commissioned musical soundtrack options, a traditional piano score by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita and a more modern one by avant-garde composer Loren Connors. Both scores are serviceable but, in the absence of “Voices of Light,” one might consider watching the movie with the sound turned off completely. Dreyer’s film has a very unique rhythm, the integrity of which might come across most powerfully if experienced in total silence. Now the good news: the image quality is astonishing and Eureka/MoC, as with nearly all of their releases, have taken painstaking care to get it right. The film is presented at two different speeds – 20fps and 24fps – in much the same way that the same company’s release of Touch of Evil was presented in two different aspect ratios. (The Criterion DVD runs at 24fps and appears to my eyes to run slightly too fast. Kudos to MoC for giving the viewer multiple options.) Also of great interest is the fact that Joan is presented here for the first time on home video with its original Danish intertitles, written by Dreyer himself, with optional English subtitles. This is an improvement over the Criterion DVD, which only offered Gaumont’s original French intertitles. Finally, the Blu-ray image quality itself trumps that of the Criterion DVD in every possible area, including contrast, clarity, and fine object detail. This is, in short, the version of this movie one needs to own. Hopefully, Criterion, who presumably still hold the rights to the Einhorn score, will release their own Blu-ray at some point in the future and offer the option of multiple musical scores – including not only the Einhorn but also this intriguing-sounding one written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).


Blu Vamp

Newly released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-1916), one of the greatest and most influential works of the early narrative cinema. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is made from a new HD transfer of a photochemical restoration that was overseen by Jacques Champreux, the director’s grandson, in 1996. This release is massively significant because, unlike most Kino releases of silent French movies, which usually port over the intact (or in some cases truncated) contents of pre-existing region-locked French discs, this is the true world premiere of Les Vampires, or any Feuillade for that matter, in 1080p. It is, as one might expect, a marvel to behold and should be considered a must-own for cinephiles. For those unfamiliar with it, Les Vampires was the result of Feuillade provocatively combining contemporary French pulp fiction with the Balzac-ian notion of secret societies, and then refracting it through his own unique and highly moral sensibility. The finished product is an insanely entertaining mystery serial that went on to exert an explicit influence on everyone from Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel to George Franju and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas in the present day (and this is to say nothing of the hundreds of directors who were influenced by it indirectly). In short, Les Vampires is the very essence of cinema. To paraphrase something Martin Scorsese said about Sam Fuller, if you don’t love it, then you just don’t love movies.

The most significant directors in the development of cinema prior to 1920 were D.W. Griffith in the United States and Louis Feuillade in France. Like Griffith, the brilliant Feuillade was incredibly prolific; he directed over 600 films, many of them multi-part serials, before his premature death at 52. Unlike Griffith, Feuillade may not have been a pioneer in terms of the specific techniques he employed in lighting, shooting or cutting his movies. (One can find instances of tracking, panning and tilt shots, as well as close-ups of actors’ faces, in Les Vampires but they are used far more sparingly than in Griffith. More often than not, Feuillade preferred to let his scenes unfold in long shots and long takes, a style that used to invite accusations of “theatricality” in some quarters; but, in light of certain European art film trends beginning in the 1960s, his use of depth staging now arguably looks stunning in its modernity.) Feuillade was unquestionably, however, an innovator in terms of his approach to narrative structure. His 1913 release Fantomas, for instance, is credited with being the first “cliffhanger” serial. While the serial format already existed before Feuillade came along, he is believed to be the first filmmaker to wed that particular form with the high concept of suspenseful, “open” endings in an attempt to lure viewers back to the theater week after week to see future serial installments.

Les Vampires, which originally ran in France from November of 1915 through June of 1916 in ten episodes of varying length, has always been Feuillade’s most popular work. It was first famously revived by Henri Langlois at the French Cinematheque in the mid-1940s. Jacques Rivette paid homage to it in his two best films, Out 1 (1971) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). And it again piqued international interest in the mid-1990s after Olivier Assayas used it as a major reference point in Irma Vep (where he drew intriguing parallels between Feuillade’s serial and contemporary Hong Kong action films). The perennial popularity of Les Vampires probably stems from its subject: not literal vampires as the title has led many to believe but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires.” The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace investigative newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). The bad guys, unsurprisingly, have long been the biggest appeal factor; the serial was much beloved by the Surrealists in the 1920s for its evocation of what seemed like an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society, as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood cinema. These are qualities that come through amazingly loud and clear on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, which proves that Les Vampires has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

The plot of Les Vampires is virtually impossible to summarize because the story of each episode is crammed with plentiful twists and turns and the sprawling, overarching master narrative was not worked out in advance but improvised by the filmmakers as they went along instead. Andre Bazin, in a typically lovely and incisive piece of writing, noted that “(Feuillade) had no idea what would happen next and filmed step by step as the morning’s inspiration came. Both the author and the spectator were in the same situation, namely, that of the King and Scheherazade; the repeated intervals of darkness in the cinema paralleled the separating off of the Thousand and One Nights.” Suffice to say, the narrative ingredients of Les Vampires are quintessential Feuillade: murders, hypnotism, cryptograms, disguises, kidnaps, rescues and escapes. A character known as the “Grand Vampire” murders a wealthy doctor and then assumes his place, entertaining a guest by day but infiltrating his room by night through a secret passageway hidden behind a painting. Similarly, Irma Vep dons many disguises including that of a maid and an office clerk, and even dresses up in drag as a “Viscount” (Musidora was fittingly rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970s) in order to gain access to different levels of society so that the Vampires can execute their various dastardly schemes. The Vampires ultimately find themselves pitted against not only Guérande and Mazamette but also a rival gang headed by a Spaniard named Juan-José Moréno (who is himself a master of disguise). As the serial progresses, more and more characters are piled on, including wealthy American victims (two of whom, I’m happy to point out, hail from Chicago), as well as love interests for our journalist-heroes.

What is probably the most outrageous narrative contrivance, however, involves a character who (while in disguise, of course) regales a roomful of people by reading aloud from the memoirs of his grandfather, an adventurer who had spent time in Spain a hundred years ago. This allows Feuillade to insert a flashback scene, one that notoriously consisted of bullfight footage from an abandoned movie project that the director had shot in Spain not long before. Adding to all of this nuttiness is the fact that Les Vampires has probably the highest sex and violence quotient of any Feuillade serial; a typical episode contains at least two murders. The first episode is titled “The Severed Head” and includes the grisly discovery of the title body part inside of a hatbox. Another episode contains a scene where a man is killed by being stabbed in the neck with a hairpin before his body is tossed off of a moving train. As for the sex, Irma Vep’s frequent nighttime prowls see her donning a skin-tight black body stocking that, in addition to being fetish-worthy in itself, leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination concerning what’s underneath in certain lighting conditions. Unsurprisingly, Feuillade was severely criticized for romanticizing his criminal characters by both the wartime French government and the press. Consequently, many commentators feel that he intentionally toned down the explicit content and ratcheted up the moralism for Judex (1916) and other subsequent serials.

I think my personal favorite aspect of Les Vampires may be the performance of Marcel Levesque as Mazamette, which is saying a lot given my boundless enthusiasm for Musidora. Alone among the performers of the film’s ensemble cast, Levesque repeatedly and hilariously breaks the fourth wall by playing directly to the camera (and, by extension, the viewer). Levesque continually winks, nods and smiles in the direction of the camera, as if to say “get a load of this!,” all more than forty years before the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague were credited with introducing similar self-reflexive techniques with their direction of actors. What I find particularly endearing about Levesque’s mugging though is the way that it increases in frequency as the series unfolds. It’s probably the best example of how Feuillade tailored later episodes of his serial to what audiences had responded to positively in the earliest episodes. It’s also a good example of how the joyous nature of cinematic storytelling itself can be seen as Feuillade’s true subject. (Other examples would include scenes where the film’s characters go to the movies: once to a “Gaumont Palace,” a theater owned by the studio that produced Les Vampires, and once to see a documentary that the film’s heroes are stunned to find features their nemeses, the Vampires.) In the end, it is hard not to find infectious one character’s exclamation of “I am a movie fanatic!,” surely one of the most charming intertitles of the entire silent cinema.

What I’ve come to expect from, and love about, Kino Lorber is their resistance to manipulating the image quality of their silent movie releases. While many of their DVDs were problematic in the pre-HD era, the label has really come into its own on Blu-ray. Nothing they do is “over-restored,” a charge that can definitely be leveled against rival labels. Instead, Kino Lorber presents high-quality hi-def transfers of the best surviving silent film elements with flaws intact, just the way they would look if seen projected in 35mm. Fortunately, Les Vampires is in exceptionally good shape for a movie from 1915-1916. This is the third time I’ve seen it in full (following its releases on VHS and DVD from Image Entertainment) and I’ve been increasingly impressed by each upgrade in presentation. Two areas in which the Kino Blu-ray trumps the Image DVD in particular are in its more restrained use of color tinting (the entire film is seen in true black and white with only a sparing use of blue for night sequences) and in a vastly improved English subtitle translation. To be fully candid, the score on the Image DVD by the esteemed Robert Israel is probably superior to the serviceable job by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra included on the Kino, but this is not a big deal. All of the composers, musicians and engineers responsible for writing, compiling, performing and recording these scores have been tasked with the unenviable job of producing 7 hours worth of music for what is probably little to no pay, and so I feel grateful for even serviceable work. My fondest hope is that this Kino Lorber Blu-ray will sell like gangbusters and encourage the label to acquire and release my favorite Feuillade serial: 1919’s Tih-Minh, which I’ve only seen on a bootleg DVD-R taken from fuzzy French VHS tapes with fan-created English subtitles. Even under those less than optimum conditions though, Tih-Minh just might be the only film I’ve seen that I can say is more entertaining than Les Vapmires. Are you listening Kino?

The Blu-ray set of Les Vampires, 6 hours and fifty seven minutes (or the equivalent of at least three feature-length films) spread over two platters, can be purchased for a very reasonable price on amazon here.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “In Defense of Mixed Cinema.” What Is Cinema?. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. pg. 32.


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