Tag Archives: Underground

A Silent British Cinema Primer

This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.

Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)

electric

This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”

The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)

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One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.

Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)

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My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)

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One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was 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 was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. 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 Blu-ray 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, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.

Underground (Asquith, 1928)

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In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.

Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)

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Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)

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This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.

Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)

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Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.


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

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

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

dracula

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

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

underground

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

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

black

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

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

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

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

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

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

intolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. To Be Continued . . .

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

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


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