Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

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artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”).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:


Devlin in a Blu Dress

For what seems like no reason in particular (no centennial birthday to celebrate, no special anniversaries of landmark films), 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock. The master’s nine surviving silent films have all been restored by the British Film Institute and will soon be re-released to the public with newly commissioned musical scores. A large quantity of Hitchcock’s sound films have also been released this year on hi-def Blu-ray for the very first time. These include Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious from MGM, Lifeboat, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache from Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, and To Catch a Thief from Paramount. (Additionally, The 39 Steps will drop from Criterion next month and it has been strongly rumored that The Birds and Strangers on a Train will also be released before the year is over.) Finally, The National Film Preservation Foundation will soon be streaming online, free of charge, the recently discovered, previously thought lost 1924 film The White Shadow, which Hitchcock wrote, assistant directed, edited and designed the sets for, an important stepping stone on his path to becoming a director himself. In order to raise funds to record a new score and to host the film on its website, the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon is being hosted by the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon for the first time. My contribution is a review of my favorite of the new Hitchcock blu-rays.

Being a film studies instructor has afforded me the invaluable opportunity of watching and re-watching classic movies with students, mostly in the 18 – 20 year old range, who are seeing these films for the very first time. This has led me to realize that a widespread misconception most of these students have about black and white film stock is that they think of it as something like a deficiency, as if “black and white” is nothing but the absence of color, rather than a style choice in its own right with its own aesthetic properties. It is particularly gratifying to teach students to appreciate black and white cinematography by showing them films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca and hearing them discuss afterwards how they can’t imagine these same films being made in color. For this reason, I plan on screening MGM’s new Blu-ray of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time in a class this summer. Not only is it one of Hitchcock’s most amazingly photographed films, I cannot imagine a better home video release to introduce the sheer glamorousness of black and white movies to students.

Blu-ray is an ideal format for Notorious, a masterpiece of suspense that is chock-full of the trademark bravura set pieces for which Hitchcock has become so renowned. In Notorious, Hitchcock, with the aid of the great cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, executed the most complex and elaborate camera choreography of his career up to that point. One example is the famous kissing scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman where their characters talk to and passionately kiss each other while walking from one room to another in a single unedited take lasting several minutes. Another is the famous crane shot that begins as an overhead long shot of dozens of guests at a party and that ends as an extreme close-up on a key in Bergman’s hand. Finally, there is Hitchcock’s unique penchant for composing memorable shots that don’t feature actor’s faces, a rarity in Hollywood’s studio system era. One of the best tributes to the master of suspense can be found in an episode of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema titled The Control of the Universe; in a montage of shots from Hitchcock films in which actors are not featured but that are nonetheless instantly identifiable, Notorious is represented by a shot where a wine bottle full of uranium falls and breaks on a cellar floor. It is an impressive testament to Hitchcock’s genius that Godard could use a shot of an object like this to succinctly conjure up, in one deft stroke, a film that also prominently features two of the most attractive stars to ever work in Hollywood.

Yet Notorious is also the first Hitchcock film to which I would point to indicate that Hitchcock is not just a technical virtuoso or a mere manipulator of audience emotion (as is often claimed), but a profound moral thinker as well. The story involves a love triangle between government agents set against a backdrop of WWII intrigue. Cary Grant, in one of his best and most subtle dramatic roles, plays Max Devlin, a U.S. government agent who is tasked with enlisting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, playing against type as a bad girl), the daughter of a Nazi spy, into becoming a double agent. Her assignment is to ingratiate herself with her father’s old pals in Rio de Janeiro in order to retrieve top secret information from them. Devlin and Huberman embark on a love affair, which is immediately complicated by the fact that she finds herself also being romanced by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy Nazi businessman. The moral complexity of this scenario, written by the peerless Ben Hecht, marks Notorious as the first true grown up spy thriller; Devlin, for political reasons, acts cold and indifferent to Alicia, the woman he is falling in love with, who, in turn, feels compelled to marry Alexander, a man she abhors, for her duty to her country. The film asks how far should one be willing to go in defiling oneself personally for the greater good of humanity, and then refuses to offer any comforting or clear-cut answers.

The other important character in this chamber drama/thriller is Madame Sebastian, Alexander’s mother, the first in a series of domineering mother figures in Hitchcock’s American films (which would of course reach its apex in Psycho). Madame Sebastian disapproves of Alicia as a mate for her son from the get-go and, after her daughter-in-law’s identity as a double agent is discovered, she and Alexander conspire to make the young bride die slowly by poisoning her coffee every day. At the end of the film, when Devlin does come belatedly to Alicia’s rescue, he carries the sickly woman down a flight of stairs in the Sebastians’ palatial mansion and out of the home for good. He does this in full view of Alexander’s Nazi cohorts who, realizing Alexander’s error in judgement, will certainly kill him just at the point where Hitchcock ends the film. This final scene, although a “happy ending” because Devlin and Alicia are reunited, is also tragic, ironic and infinitely complex because Hitchcock and Claude Rains have courageously made the “villain” Alexander such a sympathetic and even pitiable figure.

MGM’s high-definition transfer of Notorious is a significant improvement in terms of image and sound over all previous releases, including the standard def Criterion DVD and MGM’s own previous DVD, the copious extras of which are carried over here intact. Among these features are two informative commentary tracks (by scholars Rick Jewell and Drew Casper) and several documentaries about Hitchcock and the making of the film. But the real reason to pick up this Blu-ray, ahead of all of the other Hitchcock Blu-rays that have recently flooded the market, is the superior image quality. Notorious is a perfect representation of the romantic magnificence of what could be achieved in a black and white film from Hollywood’s golden age and this blu-ray brings us very close to the thick, film-like textures of a real 35mm print. Notorious can be a dark film at times, literally and figuratively, and MGM’s transfer gives us a very contrasty look, with rich, velvety blacks that discerning cinephiles should find very appealing. If some shots look less sharp than one might expect, that is likely only a result of the large number of process shots Hitchcock used in the film (i.e., what we are frequently looking at are portions of shots that have been “re-photographed”) and this is probably the best they can possibly look.

For the past several years I’ve been holding my breath that Universal will bring out Blu-rays of the most wanted Hitchcock titles, Rear Window and Vertigo . . . but with so much hi-def Hitch to go around right now, perhaps they would best be saved for another year.

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The Birds is Still Coming

Last night I had the great pleasure of attending a screening of a gorgeous 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal The Birds. The screening was preceded by a Q&A between star Tippi Hedren and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Hedren, looking foxy in leather pants at age 82(!), regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes about the shoot and her working relationship with the man she still respectfully refers to as “Mister Hitchcock” (in spite of his alleged sexual harassment of her). Hedren has probably attended so many Q&As accompanying screenings of this and Marnie over the years that I’m sure all of her stories can now be timed to the second. However, as this was my first time seeing her talk in person, I found the experience thrilling. My favorite of Hedren’s anecdotes concerned the time she dared question her director about why her character, Melanie Daniels, would travel to the attic alone in The Birds‘ famous climactic scene. Hitch’s reply? “Because I tell you to.”

The screening of The Birds was held at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre and, incredibly, admission was free. The screening was hosted by TCM’s Classic Film Festival, which, like a lot of festivals nowadays, is taking its show on the road. Needless to say, all 748 seats in the theater were taken. Here’s hoping the success of the event will bring more such screenings to Chicago in the future and here’s also hoping that the long-rumored release of The Birds on Blu-ray will happen sooner rather than later.

Tippi last night, looking foxy at 82:

My wife, Jill, looking foxy as Tippi last Halloween:


A Classic British Cinema Primer

British cinema has arguably never gotten the critical respect it deserves – in part because the influential French critics of the 1950s (who would later become filmmakers themselves and form the backbone of the Nouvelle Vague) always had an irrational prejudice against it. As a critic, Francois Truffaut famously and snobbishly declared that there was an incompatibility between the very words “British” and “cinema,” and, decades later, Jean-Luc Godard used his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema to unfairly attack the postwar British cinema for “doing what it has always done — nothing.” But as the list of titles below should make clear, the British cinema of the postwar years was a true golden age, a period in which a bunch of hard-working filmmakers were able to do good, unpretentious work. These films, a baker’s dozen, span the prewar years of the early sound era (mostly so that I could include Alfred Hitchcock) through the late 1950s, when British movies were made according to a studio system directly analogous to that of Hollywood. The 1960s saw the industry undergo a sea change with the relaxing of censorship laws and the introduction of Angry Young Men and Kitchen Sink Realism, but that will be the subject of another post . . . 

Again I’m limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. It should almost go without saying that anyone interested in classic British cinema should make it a point to see all of the major films of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger.

Night Mail (Watt/Wright, 1936)

Inspired by similar Soviet movies, this superb 25 minute documentary illustrates how mail is sorted, collected and delivered on a single “mail only” midnight train from London to Edinburgh. No mere educational film, this priceless time capsule captures the spirit of a vanished age even if its portrayal of dedicated, efficient government employees taking immense pride in their work is romanticized. The scene that demonstrates the innovative method of how mail bags are collected (without needing to slow down or stop the train) is shot and edited like a Hitchcock suspense sequence. Among the prodigiously talented people who worked on it were poet W.H. Auden, who wrote the excellent, rhyming verse narration, and composer Benjamin Britten, whose score, like Auden’s verse, works to emulate the sounds of a chugging locomotive. There are other British documentaries more famous than this, especially from the war years, but none strike me as being as quintessentially British as this.

The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1939)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid/conspiracy theory plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 blu-ray.

Henry V (Olivier, 1944)

It’s only right to include at least one of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation on a list of classic British films. While some might opt for 1948’s Oscar-winning Hamlet or 1955’s Richard III, I’ll take Sir Larry’s directorial debut, which is also a dramatization of my favorite Shakespeare play. Olivier’s innovative version of Henry V is gorgeously photographed in three-strip Technicolor and ingeniously begins as a documentary-style film of an authentic Globe Theatre production, complete with visible and audible audience reactions, before “opening up” into an intensely cinematic adaptation with epic battle scenes involving real locations and hundreds of extras on horseback. That this was also an attempt to boost British wartime morale, most obvious in Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” monologues, makes the film even more poignant in hindsight.

Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue, Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer, 1945)

“Omnibus” movies, feature-length anthologies of short films created by multiple writers/directors, invariably feel inconsistent and uneven. The Ealing Studios horror anthology Dead of Night is one of the best exceptions to the rule. A linking narrative shows an architect arriving at a party at a country home where he is overcome with a sense of deja vu. Once there, he is regaled with stories told by various guests that serve as the basis for the film’s four tales: Christmas Party and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy by Alberto Cavalcanti, Golfing Story by Charles Crichton, Hearse Driver by Basil Dearden and The Haunted Mirror by Robert Hamer. The stories balance each other out beautifully, from the darkly humorous to the genuinely scary, and are wonderfully tied together in the end. Michael Redgrave’s performance as the ventriloquist is a creepy high point. Fans of horror and/or British cinema can’t afford to miss this.

Brighton Rock (Boulting, 1947)

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel centers on Pinkie, a young, low level gangster who commits a hit at the beginning of the film and then romances Rose, the working class waitress who is the only witness to the crime. He agrees to marry her in order to keep her quiet, while she thinks she can change him for the better. Future director Richard Attenborough is electrifying as Pinkie, especially as the character’s behavior becomes increasingly pathological while trying to keep the police at bay. There are also great noir-ish visuals, authentically seedy locations and one of the most cruelly ironic endings in cinema. This is quite simply the best of the British gangster movies.

The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)

When Louis Mazzini discovers he is a distant, bastard heir of the “Duke of D’Ascoyne” he decides to murder the eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Alec Guinness is delightful playing eight(!) different roles in the extended D’Ascoyne family, including one female part, but it is Dennis Price as Mazzini who steals the show. His droll voice over narration, containing some of the wittiest English language dialogue ever written, provides the dark heart of this blackest of Ealing comedies.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has recently died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)

Another Ealing Studios comedy gem starring Alec Guinness, this time as a mild-mannered bank clerk who masterminds a scheme to steal gold bullion from his employers, melt it down and smuggle it out of the country as souvenir toy models of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Crichton, best known for directing A Fish Called Wanda thirty seven years later, keeps the tone light and clever and the pacing swift during the lean 81 minute running time. The film does however achieve a certain gravitas due to the genuinely poignant friendship that develops between Guinness’ bank clerk and the small-time artist played by Stanley Holloway who agrees to help him.

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

If you only see one Ealing comedy, this should be it. Alec Guinness (again!) gives arguably his finest comic performance as the leader of a gang of inept robbers who pose as classical musicians and rent a room from an elderly widow in order to plot their latest heist. Unfortunately for the crooks, but fortunately for film lovers, nothing goes according to plan in Alexander Mackendrick’s masterful blend of verbal wit and hilarious sight gags. Bolstered by a terrific cast (including early performances by Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers) and beautiful Technicolor cinematography, this is a near-perfect comedy.

Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Another prerequisite for any list of essential British movies is the inclusion of something from the cycle of classic Hammer horror films from the mid to late 1950s. Many of these titles were reworkings of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s but updated to include gorier effects and color cinematography. My personal favorite is Terence Fisher’s Dracula, which features the unbeatable team of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the title bloodsucker. Like Murnau with Nosferatu, Fisher knew that less was more when it came to horror; Lee’s screen time is extremely brief, which gives his Count Dracula that much more impact.

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

This is one of those films in which one can arguably feel the end of one era and the beginning of another. Laurence Harvey is Joe, an angry young man from a working class background who opportunistically conspires to marry the daughter of his wealthy factory owner boss. His plan is complicated when he falls in love with Alice (Simone Signoret), an older Frenchwoman who is unhappily married. Joe’s attempts to carry on both affairs simultaneously inevitably ends in tragedy. The dialogue and performances here are more naturalistic than what came before in British movies, including a much more frank attitude toward sexuality. Harvey is terrific as the social climber but it is the magnificent, Oscar-winning performance by Signoret as the sad-eyed older woman that broke my bloody heart.


The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


“Basic” Film Language

Most artistically ambitious film directors in the sound era have dreamed of returning to the aesthetics of silent cinema. Stanley Kubrick expressly stated his intention of creating a “visual, nonverbal experience” when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie’s lengthy dialogue-free passages (and, for that matter, passages where dialogue is present but ultimately unimportant) are what many critics had in mind when they recently invoked it in discussions of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – not coincidentally another unusually ambitious cinematic attempt to show man’s relationship to the universe. Other films in recent decades have impressed with audacious scenes of little or no dialogue: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge with its epic, climactic heist sequence, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West with its comically drawn-out train station showdown, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger with its virtuosic long take/crane shot accompanying Jack Nicholson’s offscreen suicide, Ken Ogata carrying his mother up the mountain in Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, and entire contemporary art films like Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia and most of the oeuvre of South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk. Then there is the matter of the curiously similar openings of Pixar’s WALL-E and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, both of which depict the solitary work of a lone protagonist in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. In both instances, more than fifteen minutes goes by before a single word of dialogue is spoken. And this is to say nothing of that earlier generation of directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, et al.) who actually started directing in the silent era and then applied its lessons to sound era filmmaking.

One of my favorite non-verbal sequences in any movie of modern times can be found in Paul Verhoeven’s darkly comic thriller Basic Instinct, which also has the added benefit of being far less ostentatious about calling attention to its virtuosity than any of the examples cited above. In fact, even though I had seen the film several times (including a 35mm print during its original theatrical release as well as the notorious “unrated version” when it bowed on DVD) it wasn’t until I recently watched it on blu-ray for the first time that I even became aware that Verhoeven had plunked down two back-to-back dialogue-free sequences totaling eight and a half minutes of screen time in the middle of his movie. As far as I know this aspect of Basic Instinct hasn’t even been commented upon in any critical writing about the film. This passage of pure visual storytelling is both the high point of the movie as well as a great example of why Verhoeven remains one of contemporary cinema’s unheralded masters.

It has been much commented upon that Basic Instinct is essentially a reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both films detail the relationships between a psychologically disturbed cop and two contrasting women – the beautiful, mysterious and dangerous blonde woman of his dreams vs. his pragmatic, maternal and glasses-wearing ex-girlfriend. Verhoeven’s movie however is no mere retread. He displays an extreme (and extremely clever) self-consciousness in regard to gender roles that mark Basic Instinct as a defining film of the early 1990s in much the same way that the portrayal of repression in Vertigo marks it as a defining film of the late 1950s. But what is obvious watching Basic Instinct now that was less clear in 1992 is the extent to which it functions, like most of Verhoeven’s work, as a satire. Decades removed from its status as an epoch-making “zeitgeist movie” (with its controversial depictions of bisexual killers and full frontal nudity), it positively delights today as a witty send-up of erotic thriller conventions. Verhoeven takes a prominent subtext of the genre – male sexual insecurity in the face of a powerful, domineering female character – and makes it the explicit subject of Basic Instinct. (Not for nothing does Camille Paglia refer to it as one of her “favorite works of art.”) Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in the aforementioned non-verbal scenes, in which Verhoeven effectively utilizes the “basics” of film language to drive his point home.

The first such scene occurs after Michael Douglas’ character, police detective Nick Curran, has become hopelessly infatuated with Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in her best performance), a famous mystery writer who also happens to be the chief suspect in a murder investigation Curran is heading. Off-duty, Curran follows Tramell to a decadent nightclub that apparently has been converted from an old church. A breathtaking crane shot introduces viewers to this beautifully designed location, which humorously mixes the sacred and the profane: pink and blue neon lights line the many archways of the club’s interiors as religious icons silently look down from stained glass windows on the swirling mass of frenzied dancing patrons below. The camera eventually picks out Curran, looking remarkably unhip in blue jeans and a green V-neck sweater with no undershirt, stalking through the club. Curran spies Roxy, Tramell’s lesbian lover, and follows her into the men’s bathroom, the site of a wild bisexual orgy of sex and drugs. Roxy enters a stall where Tramell and an unidentified man are doing cocaine. Then, in a series of highly effective eyeline matching shots, we see Curran (himself a former cocaine addict) gaze lasciviously at the forbidden fruit in the stall in front of him. Tramell returns Curran’s gaze but maintains the upper hand by slamming the stall door shut in his face.

Verhoeven then elliptically cuts to moments later on the club’s dance floor where Curran is watching Tramell and Roxy dance with and fondle one another. As Tramell turns her attentions to Curran, Roxy walks off in an angry huff. It should be noted here that Michael Douglas, admittedly a handsome man at any age, was forty-seven years old at the time (and thirteen years older than Sharon Stone), which makes Nick Curran look distinctly uncomfortable in this milieu. Curran’s attempts at dancing consist of nothing but light swaying and repeated attempts to kiss Tramell on the mouth, advances that she initially, playfully rebuffs. As Roxy looks jealously on from a distance, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the power dynamic between this trio. In hindsight, the protests that met the film’s original release look particularly misguided; the purpose of the Tramell/Roxy relationship isn’t to paint bisexual women as psycho-killers. It’s to highlight Curran’s insecurity about the fact that Tramell is the one who calls all of the sexual shots. Because Roxy is a woman, she can provide Tramell with something that Curran can’t, which heightens the viewer’s sense of the hero’s emasculation.

The next scene is the most infamous in the film – the first sex scene between Tramell and Curran, one that is so explosive that it will cause him to refer to her repeatedly as “the fuck of the century.” This is also the scene that was censored upon its original theatrical release in order to ensure an R rating, causing Paglia to memorably formulate that American audiences couldn’t fully appreciate the “choreography of the combat.” Far from being gratuitous, the point of this precisely storyboarded, Hitchcockian sex scene is to show, without dialogue, the struggle for power between these characters while simultaneously building suspense as to whether or not Tramell is the killer. At one point during their lovemaking, Curran becomes the dominant partner by initiating the missionary position but Tramell turns the tables on him by clawing his back with her nails and drawing blood. She then climbs on top of him and ties his hands to her bedposts with a white silk scarf. (This, of course, mirrors the murder scene that opens the film and thus causes our suspicions to grow that Tramell is indeed the killer.) After rocking spasmodically back and forth on top of him, we see Trammel reach beneath the sheets for what we assume will be an ice pick, the killer’s weapon of choice. Instead, Trammel merely falls forward, empty-handed, as the tension deflates and the two characters engage in a post-coital embrace. The non-verbal spell is finally broken in the following scene when Curran repairs to the bathroom and realizes that Roxy has been voyeuristically spying on them, with Tramell’s knowledge, all along.

Basic Instinct briefly made Paul Verhoeven the unlikely king of Hollywood but the Dutch master’s intensely cinematic, envelope-pushing style wouldn’t remain in synch with American tastes for long. His next film, Showgirls, would prove to be his most bitter satire, a remake of All About Eve that used the world of Las Vegas strip clubs as a jaundiced metaphor for the Hollywood star system. As with Basic Instinct, it too is full of wonderful cinematic conceits but audiences and critics expecting genuine titillation howled the movie right off of cinema screens. The critical and commercial failure of Showgirls unfortunately sounded the death knell for the mainstream viability of the NC-17 rating as well as Verhoeven’s Hollywood career, although he did stick around long enough to complete one more masterpiece (Starship Troopers) as well as a mediocre and impersonal genre exercise (Hollow Man). Since then he has returned to his native Holland where he triumphantly reunited with his old screenwriter Gerard Soeteman for Black Book, a highly subversive take on the Dutch resistance to the German occupation during WWII and arguably his greatest achievement. The two are currently working on another Dutch production, Hidden Force, that is scheduled for release in 2013.

The club scene from Basic Instinct can be seen on YouTube below. For the sex scene that follows it, you’ll have to rent the DVD or Blu-ray (or surf websites that exceed YouTube’s PG guidelines).


Now Playing: J. Edgar

J. Edgar
dir. Clint Eastwood, 2011, USA

Rating: 9.0

The bottom line: The year’s best love story.

Now playing in theaters everywhere is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s 33rd film as a director and, judging by the reviews so far, his most critically divisive. It currently has a shockingly low rating of 41% on the popular critical aggregate site rottentomatoes.com, in spite of the fact that it has received raves from a lot of America’s most prestigious critics, including Roger Ebert, The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, MSN‘s Glenn Kenny, The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Artforum‘s Amy Taubin. This split decision means that J. Edgar is virtually guaranteed to be shut out during this year’s awards season, which is regrettable because it arguably represents a career high point for everyone involved – screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (whose smart, ambitiously non-chronological script shows a dazzling complexity that advances on his Oscar-winning Milk from two years ago), Leonardo DiCaprio (who gives what Taubin has rightly referred to as his best performance “as an adult”) and Eastwood (who can count this alongside of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima as one of his three best movies). Where then does the critical antipathy come from? I believe that examining the criticisms that have been hurled at the film so far should also provide some insight into why some other observers, including me, regard it as a masterpiece.

From a formal standpoint, J. Edgar is easily the most complex film Clint Eastwood has ever made. Black’s screenplay spans J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a time frame that saw him serve under eight U.S. Presidents, positing him, in the words of the film’s tagline, as the “most powerful man in the world.” Black and Eastwood’s ingenious narrative structure recounts Hoover’s life as a series of flashbacks as he dictates his memoirs as an elderly man in the late 1960s to a series of junior FBI agents – including one who pointedly looks like Barack Obama, one of the film’s many references to American life in the 21st century. These early expositional scenes contain reams of names, dates and places, thrown at the viewer with lightning speed, sometimes through the dialogue and other times through Hoover’s voice over narration. This is not the relaxed pacing we’ve come to expect from Eastwood but something that feels closer to the “sea of information” approach of David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network instead. For many critics, the sheer arduousness of this exposition, which I argue will handsomely pay off for the patient moviegoer, is strike one against J. Edgar.

What is not immediately apparent is the extent to which the flashbacks are meant to represent Hoover’s own highly revisionist and self-aggrandizing version of the events of his life. This is slyly hinted at (but only hinted at) early on in a scene where Hoover is being questioned at a Congressional briefing about his supposed cooperation with the production of comic books and Hollywood movies to promote a more romantic image of the FBI. The full extent of the film’s tricky subjectivity doesn’t register until the final act when Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s “number two man” and longtime companion (brilliantly played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer), explicitly denounces what viewers have been led to believe is the “truth” of Hoover’s memoirs. If, as Tolson claims, there was no white horse at the scene of an early FBI raid, if Hoover himself wasn’t responsible for arresting Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, then how much of the rest of these flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the narrative, are we supposed to take at face value? (I guess by the time of Tolson’s denunciation, most critics have checked out of the film anyway.) Imagine a version of Citizen Kane where Kane himself narrates his life story and you’ll have some idea of what Eastwood and Black are up to. Incredibly, some critics have claimed that the film is “overprotective” of its title character or that it somehow “soft pedals” the Hoover story. Even while Eastwood extends sympathy to his protagonist on a personal level, I can’t imagine a more damning indictment of the man’s deeds; his abuses of power and violations of civil liberties are meant to be disturbing even during his glory years, long before his insane harassment of Martin Luther King.

Many critics have drawn parallels between J. Edgar and Kane not only because of the flashback structure and the story arc of an idealistic young man tragically corrupted by power, but also because of the extensive use of makeup and prosthetics. Whether intentionally or not, DiCaprio as old Hoover looks strikingly like Orson Welles as old Kane and most of the barbs aimed at J. Edgar have come from critics unfavorably comparing the former to the latter. The best rejoinder to this criticism comes from Taubin who compares the J. Edgar makeup to what one would find in an “amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears.” I too find the performances of DiCaprio, Hammer and even Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s fiercely loyal secretary) moving precisely because I am aware of the actors being “too young” in much the same way that I am moved by the flashbacks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another great memory film, precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old.” I would go so far as to say that Hoover’s old age makeup is meant to look like make-up in a film whose main character always wore a figurative mask and whose motto was “we must never lower our guard.” Think that’s a stretch? Consider that the first shot we see of Hoover in the movie immediately follows a close-up of John Dillinger’s death mask on the FBI director’s office desk.

Most of the praise that the film has received, even from its detractors, has been aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura lead performance, and rightfully so; in much the same way that we are aware of the old age makeup, we are also acutely aware at all times of DiCaprio behind Hoover. This is as it should be. As a director, Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of mileage out of manipulating his own iconic persona as an actor. Gran Torino, for instance, is enriched by our understanding that we are watching not only the character of “Walt Kowalski” as the film’s inevitable climax approaches, but also Dirty Harry and even Unforgiven‘s Will Munny. Here, Eastwood does something similar with DiCaprio’s persona; the post-Titanic penchant DiCaprio has shown for playing intensely neurotic, obsessive-compulsive characters reaches its apex in a scene where J. Edgar Hoover, following his mother’s instructions, stares into a mirror and repeats the mantra “I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats. I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats . . .” At this moment we are looking not only at Hoover but DiCaprio and Howard Hughes, a multiplicity that makes the film more resonant.

It is in the more intimate scenes, alternating between Hoover and his mother (a terrific Judi Dench) and between Hoover and Tolson, that Eastwood reveals the film’s surprisingly poignant emotional core – especially since these scenes can be seen to inform each other in a subtle dialectical play: Mrs. Hoover telling her beloved Edgar that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is a disturbing but bracingly believable explanation for why Hoover and Tolson, even as grown men in the privacy of their own homes, are incapable of consummating their platonic love affair. (Some critics have bizarrely claimed that the film is “ambiguous” in its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. It strikes me as inarguable that the film presents Hoover unambiguously as a repressed homosexual who is incapable of acting on his desires.) Even after Mrs. Hoover’s death, the specter of her domineering presence can be felt in the furnishing of her Victorian bedroom, which we see her son has immaculately preserved for decades, in one of the film’s several nods to Psycho, right up until the moment of his own death. But the film’s true emotional climax comes a little ealier, in the staid final scene between Hoover and Tolson as old men; the frontal compositions, marvelous underplaying of the actors and patently restrained Eastwood score put me in the mind of nothing so much as the transcendental final scene of Dreyer’s Gertrud, another masterpiece unjustly criticized for “theatricality” in its day.

Technically, J. Edgar is a tour de force. The low-key lighting and desaturated color palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography perfectly reflect the shadowy morality of Hoover’s universe. The period details of James Murakami’s sets and Deborah Hopper’s costumes, from the 1920s to the 1960s, all feel impeccably right. And the tight, highly compressed quality of the zig-zagging narrative (the two hour and seventeen minute running time was pared down by Eastwood and his longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach from an initial three hour cut) always feels supremely confident. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, J. Edgar offers an audacious mix of darkness, intelligence and complexity aimed at adult viewers that may seem out of step with contemporary critical tastes, but it also seems destined to age exceedingly well with time.


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential titles from Hollywood’s studio system era that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1948 – 1959.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Universal, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.

All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox, 1950)

The career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, universally acknowledged as a brilliant screenwriter but still underrated as a director, hit a dizzying career peak with this backstage drama, a witty and highly literate bitch-fest. A ruthlessly ambitious young actress (Anne Baxter) insinuates herself into the life of her idol, a legendary theatrical actress experiencing a mid-life crisis (Bette Davis, magnificent in a role that undoubtedly hit close to home). The whole ensemble cast is perfect including both of the leads, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, George Sanders as an acid-tongued theater critic.

Park Row (Fuller, United Artists, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, MGM, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

The Band Wagon (Minnelli, MGM, 1953)

Speaking of which . . . my own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

The Naked Spur (Mann, MGM, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, United Artists, 1955)

A bizarre confluence of talented people came together in 1955 to bring to the screen this one of a kind masterpiece – a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and a gothic horror film. This includes Davis Grubb, who provided the pure Americana source novel, film critic-turned-screenwriter James Agee, veteran British actor Charles Laughton (directing for the first only time), and Robert Mitchum, playing way outside of himself as the psychotic preacher of the title. The luminescent cinematography is courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons).

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, Universal, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

Bigger Than Life (Ray, 20th Century Fox, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

The Searchers (Ford, Warner Brothers, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, Columbia, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

Some Like It Hot (Wilder, United Artists, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)


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