Tag Archives: Fantomas

My Favorite Home Video Releases of 2018

Here are some thoughts on my favorite home video releases of the year. I hope some of you find this useful.

6. Fantomas
(Chabrol/Bunuel, 1980) – MHz Networks DVD.
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I’ve been a big fan of Claude Chabrol ever since I saw his Isabelle Huppert-starring adaptation of Madame Bovary at the Manor Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a budding 16-year-old cinephile in 1991. I’ve seen literally dozens of his films since then yet somehow I’d never even heard about this French television miniseries, a remake of Louis Feuillade’s legendary silent serial, that he co-directed with Juan-Luis Bunuel (son of the great Spanish filmmaker) in 1980. This version perfectly captures the spirit of mischief, wildness and fun of Feuillade’s original, which pits the title character, a masked master criminal, against a master detective named Juve and his young journalist sidekick Fandor, while also updating the series with a deliberately campy, early ’80s television aesthetic that somehow feels entirely appropriate. When I reached the end of this four-part, six-hour miniseries on DVD, I found myself wishing it would go on forever. Some Blu-ray aficionados may regret that the distributor didn’t bother to release it in hi-def but remember: Chabrol and Bunuel made this series in an era when they thought it would only be broadcast in 480p.

5. Night of the Demon (Tourneur, 1957) – Powerhouse Film Blu-ray
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I had never seen Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of the occult until my wife and I did a “31-days-of-horror challenge” for Halloween this past October but I became so obsessed that I immediately purchased this extras-laden Blu-ray from UK distributor Powerhouse/Indicator (which, cinephiles everywhere should be gratified to know, is region-free). There are four different complete cuts of the film included here but it’s the insane avalanche of special features — from a rare archival radio interview with Dana Andrews to a new video interview with Tourneur expert Chris Fujiwara to a feature-length audio commentary by historian Tony Earnshaw to making-of docs to an 80-page booklet and more — that gives this set its incredible value.

4. Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: THREE FILMS 1980-1983 (Hou, 1980-1983) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray
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The three films in this set, the first features of the man I would like to call the world’s greatest living filmmaker, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, can be seen as “Exhibit A” for the notion that every artist had to start somewhere. The earliest two movies, 1980’s Cute Girl and 1982’s The Green, Green Grass of Home, are fairly standard rom-coms (though both do feature a few splendid sight gags) that were conceived as vehicles for Hong Kong pop-star Kenny Bee. 1983’s The Boy’s from Fengkuei, about the rude awakening of three teenage bumpkins who move from a small fishing village to a large urban port city, is Hou’s first mature work. Like Alfred Hitchcock with The Lodger, it represents the decisive moment where Hou came into his own as a master (it even begins with a pool-hall sequence that prefigures the similar opening of 2005’s Three Times). All three films feature splendid widescreen transfers and are accompanied by illuminating video essays by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López.

3. Godard + Gorin: Five Films 1968-1971 – Arrow Blu-ray
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The films that Jean-Luc Godard made during his controversial but seldom-seen “Groupe Dziga Vertov” period from 1968-1972 probably offer the least traditional cinematic pleasures of any phase in the director’s now-superhuman filmmaking career. Yet the movies themselves, which have been kicking around forever in bootlegs of dubious quality but are finally presented here on Blu-ray in flawless A/V transfers, are fascinating and should be considered crucial viewing for anyone wanting to understand his thorny evolution as an artist. Godard’s films were always fragmented and experimental but he abandoned the last remnants of traditional narrative altogether with 1967’s Weekend (which famously ended with the title “fin de cinema”) in order to construct a new film syntax more in harmony with the Marxist-Leninist ideas he wanted to explore. After teaming up with the young revolutionary Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard began trying to, in his own words, “make films politically” rather than merely make “political films,” and the result was a fertile period of intellectually rigorous work shot on 16mm. My personal favorites in this set are Wind from the East, a Brechtian western that has affinities with Weekend, and which contains a remarkable moment where Godard, in voice-over, takes Sergei Eisenstein to task for being too influenced by “the imperialist D.W. Griffith”; and Vladimir and Rosa, the closest Godard ever came to making a Chicago movie — his comical treatise on the trial of the Chicago Eight begins with a scene of Juliet Berto being beaten up by some Keystone Cops-like cops, and thus picks up where Medium Cool left off (boo-yah!). Among the copious extras: a beautiful, 60-page color booklet, an extended 2010 video interview with Godard, and a hilarious, anti-capitalist Schick commercial from 1971 in which Godard shows a volatile argument about Palestine between a man and a woman being improbably resolved by the scent of the man’s after-shave.

2. Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Von Sternberg, 1930-1935) – Criterion Blu-ray
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The greatest director/actress pairing in cinema history gets the deluxe restoration/re-release treatment it deserves with this amazing six-film Blu-ray set from the Criterion Collection. Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, hot on the heels of their instant German classic
The Blue Angel, reunited in Hollywood for a series of luminous, exotic, witty and transgressive films at Paramount Pictures (from 1930’s Morocco, which introduced Americans to Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous, cabaret-act persona, to 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, a film about erotic shenanigans in a backlot/fantasy version of Spain that ended the Dietrich/Von Sternberg partnership on an appropriately lurid high note). Von Sternberg arguably knew more about lighting than any other director and that’s why it’s so fucking sweet to see these nitrate masterworks so exquisitely rendered in HD. And the extras, which explore every nook and cranny of the films (e.g., Farran Smith Nehme’s very welcome essay on Von Sternberg’s behind-the-scenes collaborators “Where Credit Is Due”), are amazing and worth the price of admission alone.

1. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (Various, 1911-1929) – Kino/Lorber Blu-ray
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Did you know that there were more women directing movies in America from the mid-1910s through the early-1920s than there have been at any time since — including the present day? I sure didn’t until I absorbed the contents of this gargantuan box set, an impressive work of historical reclamation that collects no less than 55 important female-directed movies from the silent era (including shorts, features, and fragments) totaling over 25 hours worth of material. The special features (documentaries, audio commentaries, a lengthy booklet, etc.) contextualize this work within the sad narrative of how these pioneers were eventually forced out of the industry, written out of history and forgotten — until now. The movies themselves are almost impossibly diverse — slapstick comedies, westerns, mystery serials, melodramas, ethnographic documentaries, and even, in Alla Nazimova’s astonishing Salome, the first American “art film” — you name it, it’s here. And it’s essential.

For those who might find the sheer scope of this set daunting and don’t know how to begin diving into it, here are my own top 10 favorite films from the box (the “Greatest Hits,” if you will, of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers):

10. Ethnographic Films – Zora Neale Hurston, 1929
9. Mabel’s Blunder – Mabel Normand, 1914
8. Falling Leaves – Alice Guy-Blache, 1912 (the premise of this film is so beautiful that I actually started crying while describing it to my wife in a Mexican restaurant)
7. The Hazards of Helen – Helen Holmes, 1915
6. The Purple Mask – Grace Cunard/Francis Ford, 1917
5. A Daughter of “The Law” – Grace Cunard, 1921
4. Suspense – Lois Weber, 1913
3. The Dream Lady – Elsie Jane Wilson, 1918
2. The Red Kimona – Dorothy Davenport Reid/Walter Lang, 1925
1. Salome – Alla Nazimova/Charles Bryant, 1923

For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

The invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation is currently in the process of restoring a silent one-reel comedy titled Cupid in Quarantine from 1918. In order to raise funds to cover lab costs for its preservation as well as the recording of a new score to accompany its online premiere, the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Wonders in the Dark, and This Island Rod are hosting the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon again by contributing reviews of two silent masterpieces newly released on home video in new restorations: Variete and The House of Mystery. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation, no matter how small, after reading my review. Film preservation is a very worthy cause!

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My two favorite home video releases of the year so far are Flicker Alley’s DVD of Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 “cliffhanger” serial The House of Mystery and Edel Germany GmbH’s Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s drama Variete from 1925. Both films deserve to be called masterpieces of the silent European melodrama and both feature plots that revolve around bizarre love triangles. Yet their virtues are ultimately as different from one another as are the virtues of the new discs that house them. Both films have been the recipients of painstaking new photochemical restorations although each new edition is not without controversy: Variete has been saddled with an anachronistic new score that has silent purists crying foul and The House of Mystery has been released on DVD only and not the superior Blu-ray format. I nonetheless will argue that both releases are absolutely essential for anyone who cares about silent cinema.

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Variete (also known in the U.S. as Variety and Jealousy) was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925 and it’s not hard to see why. It came out during the height of the movement known as German Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, E.A. DuPont’s movie actually feels closer to the school of social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a long-time prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling his warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole thing is great but the undeniable highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which seemingly puts viewers smack-dab into the leotards of the performers, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Previously available on home video only in poor-quality and truncated editions, this definitive restoration of Variete by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation adds more than 20 minutes of footage unseen since its original release. While the image quality on the Blu-ray is predictably superb, the only option for an audio track is a controversial new score by the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies. This retro-cabaret act’s score features sung lyrics (a no-no for silent films, according to many cinephiles) that comment directly on the onscreen action. Personally, I love it; most silent movies did not have official musical scores so I have to wonder what the point is of commissioning contemporary musicians to compose new scores for silent films if one is only going to handcuff them into imitating something one would’ve heard in a theater 100 years ago (e.g., a generic pastiche of 19th century folk tunes)? Contemporary viewers are, after all, watching digital versions of these films in their own living rooms, no? The musical score for a silent film need only be effective, I say, not attempt to function as some sort of time machine.

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Until recently, The House of Mystery was for me an unknown quantity — a film I had never heard of by a director I had never even heard of — but I purchased it sight unseen anyway simply because it is drumming up excitement in certain cinephile circles. Directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian filmmaker living in France, and co-written by Volkoff and his star and fellow Russian emigre Ivan Musjokine, this 10-chapter “cliffhanger” serial feels like the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang. Like Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913), it begins with a montage of close-ups of Musjokine’s character, Julien, a master of disguise, posing in each of the many drastically different makeup jobs he will sport over the next six-and-a-half hours. Unlike Fantomas, Julien is not a master-criminal but rather a good-hearted factory owner who is framed for a murder he did not commit by the factory’s villainous director (Charles Vanel, later a favorite of Henri-George Clouzot) because he covets Julien’s beautiful wife (Helene Darly).

Also different from the serials of Feuillade is how The House of Mystery‘s narrative follows a single clean story arc. Feuillade’s capers were beloved by the Surrealists in part because of their “we’re making it up as we go along” quality (often a cyclical capture-and-escape narrative-loop structure that perhaps best finds a modern equivalent in the endless death-and-rebirth narrative-loop cycles of the Resident Evil series). The House of Mystery, by contrast, is closer to classic “hero’s journey” epics like The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo in its portrait of a man who escapes from prison and spends years attempting to clear his name and reunite with his family. There are many astonishing set pieces along the way — including a wedding sequence depicted entirely in silhouette and an exciting prison-break/chase scene involving a hijacked train being pursued by mounted police. Flicker Alley’s release represents the first time The House of Mystery has ever been released on home video in any format and also serves as a reminder of how much our knowledge of film history depends upon the vicissitudes of fate. While a Blu-ray would have been preferable to this DVD-only release, you should definitely buy this anyway; it’s so good you won’t regret upgrading when and if a Blu-ray ever does hit the market.

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You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

You can purchase a region-free Blu-ray of Variete from Amazon Germany here. (Chicagoans should note I will be introducing a screening of my own projected Blu-ray of Variete this Saturday, May 16, at Transistor.)

You can purchase The House of Mystery on DVD directly from Flicker Alley here.


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