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DVD Review: 4 By Agnès Varda




4 By Agnès Varda

Eclipse recently announced that the early films of Yasujirô Ozu would be seeing a boxed set in the coming months, a mere year after the director’s late works were collected in a box by the specialty distributor. Meanwhile, Criterion is releasing a collection of films by unsung French New Wave godmother Agnès Varda. Is it just me, or have Criterion and its subdivision switched places? Criterion was the one that was supposed to focus on known masterpieces; Eclipse was supposedly founded to handle unknown commodities, such as their forthcoming collection of 1960s William Klein films. As much as it’s true that I could be accused of grousing because a Criterion box set automatically translates to a higher price point than an Eclipse set, it’s also true that Criterion made it worth the while, dredging up as many extra features as I’ve seen in a director-centric box set in a while, and sprucing up their transfers for two previous releases in the bargain.

First a look at the known, meaning the previously Criterionized Cléo from 5 to 7. The beret brigade of French New Wave film directors may have been socially progressive and intellectually inclusive, but when it came to gender lines, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were decidedly less interested in channeling Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, or any other esteemed female Hollywood directors than they were in paying tribute (in both their Cahiers du Cinéma criticism and film pastiches) to the hyper-masculinity of Howard Hawks and John Ford. For whatever radical advances they were responsible for (and, make no mistake, they are countless), the ditch-diggers of the Nouvelle Vague movement were still responsible for crafting prototypal movies for guys who like movies. (Wasn’t Anna Karina more Audrey than Katherine anyway?) By most accounts, photographer-turned-director Varda is considered the archetypal girl who crashed the big boys’ clubhouse, and Cléo from 5 to 7, one of our 100 essential films, was the film that paid her membership fee.

The nitty-gritty plot sees Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a Parisian pop singer with three minor hit singles to her name, spending the period of time denoted in the title (unspooled, more or less, in real time) awaiting the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her she has an inoperable tumor. For as dire as the plot sounds on the surface, Cléo from 5 to 7 moves with grace from one emotional extreme to the next. Whenever she finds herself drifting too far into melancholic self-pity, she blithely puts on a devil-may-care grin. When she reaches the cusp of true giddiness, she quickly reverts back to superstitious pessimism. Varda’s protagonist truly embodies a pop star’s theatrical flair, as she seemingly passes time by going through emotions for only as long as she senses her friends (her captive audience) are willing to pay attention.

All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early ‘60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. Take, for instance, the heightened urban suavity in an early scene inside a trendy hat shop, wherein Varda allows a group of mirrors to reflect images off each other until Cléo appears to be shopping in a giant kaleidoscope (a prelude of sorts to the geometric fantasias of Tati’s Playtime). In multiplying Cléo, the mirrors predict the wide variety of emotional masks she will wear and learning experiences she will go through during her two-hour wait, and also demonstrate the push-pull effect Cléo’s good looks have, alternately building and destroying her credibility as a feeling, free-thinking woman.

For audiences used to experiencing female martyrdom, either real or imagined, in this era of Lars von Trier, Cléo from 5 to 7 is almost distractingly refreshing at every turn. Varda’s experimental impulse is more assured than Truffaut’s, her fractures in time less abrasive than Resnais’. Just as Cléo’s apartment is replete with bounding kittens, Varda’s film itself is capricious and fully alive. All throughout, Varda deploys hints of artifice—starting with the fact that this supposed bit of real time cinema tells two hours in 90 minutes—that playfully dispel any hint of academicism that colors Godard’s work. Varda is the supreme sensualist of the New Wave.

Still, one senses the liberation that embodies Cléo from 5 to 7 was hard-fought. Varda’s first film, 1956’s Le Pointe Courte, is a bifurcated curiosity that suggests the assured unison of Cléo from 5 to 7 could just as easily have shattered like her pocketbook mirror. The film is resolutely about two different things, neither of which seems interested in relating to the other. On the one hand, Varda presents a stylized but still verité portrait of the titular fishing village and their impoverished but proud way of life. They hang their sheets to dry in the salty costal breeze, battle seafaring police seemingly bent on arresting the town’s fishers for trying to make a living the only way possible in their region, and generally watch each other’s backs, which isn’t particularly difficult to do considering none of their homes appear to have glass in the windows or doors covering the entryways. Varda’s eye for the environment is keen, but juxtaposed awkwardly against this environment are a pair of lovers contemplating the death of their love affair. Lui was raised in le Pointe courte; Elle was bred in Paris. While he speaks her language (and a lot of language that turns out to be; the two frequently appear to have been transported from a future Bergman film, and not just because one of her shots prefigures the climactic facial merging in Persona), she is the one who comes to understand his vitality. She comes to this realization while observing the townspeople engage in gondola jousting.

The unorthodox representations of feminism in both Le Pointe Courte and Cléo from 5 to 7 could have scarcely prepared audiences (and female audiences in particular) for 1965’s Le Bonheur, either the most frustratingly oblivious examination of marital fidelity or the most vicious. In either case, it’s wholly radical. Imagine Angelina Jolie headlining a romantic comedy about infidelity in which Brad Pitt, playing her husband, asks her to celebrate his love for Jennifer Aniston and proposes cordial bigamy. While perhaps not quite as high-profile, Varda’s film cast real-life husband and wife Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot as a married couple, and threw in their real-life children for good measure. With a relentlessly sunny color scheme and characters that never seem to get up on the wrong side of the bed even when they’re not in their own, Le Bonheur’s husband character goes off on a job and discovers himself falling in love with a telephone operator.

Instead of dumping his blond, sexy wife in favor of the blond, sexy other woman, or attempting to hide his extramarital affair and live a double life, he flatly informs his wife of the situation on one of their picnics in the Provencal countryside. As he explains it, he’s not splitting his capacity for love but, rather, overjoyed to discover he has more love than he had before. She accepts his claim, makes love to him, falls into a river and dies. Oh, but it doesn’t end there, ladies. Quicker than you can replace Madeline with Judy, the other woman is accepting, embracing, and embodying the domesticated role of her predecessor. The family is shown at the end of the film in much the same manner they were at the beginning; it’s merely that one of the characters is now dead and another has been incorporated as her “replacement.”

While Le Bonheur’s mixed signals encourage a wide array of interpretations, I’m fairly certain I’ve missed the point of 1985’s Vagabond, Varda’s comeback, of a sort. You might say Mona (played with no shred of cheap sympathy by Sandrine Bonnaire) is an untethered woman. You might say she plays by her own rules. You might say she symbolizes a rejection of patriarchal domination, of bourgeois standards of living. I say she’s a pathetic, lazy, stupid waste of space. While that’s obviously not fair to her character, equally unforgiving is Varda’s flashback structure. (The entire movie is structurally similar to Citizen Kane; both begin with the deaths of their main characters, and the remainder of the film serves to fill out their backstory.) My dismissal is entirely rhetorical, because Varda’s portrait eschews what would be the easy approach to its material, which would be to simply chart out a psychological trajectory of the main character’s downfall. Instead, Varda’s film reveals the many ways people choose to relate or, more often, to refuse to relate to other people. Many of the characters remember the girl only in passing, and it’s left open to interpretation whether many of their memories are presented as poisonous because they actually encountered a sullen, selfish young woman or because they used her ignoble death to retroactively fill in the blanks (i.e. “See? I knew she was no good.”). Varda, ever the photographer, doesn’t pretend to be able to speak for her deceased protagonist, but can instead only offer whatever clues can be gleaned from her visual portraits.


Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond are presented in much-improved anamorphic transfers, though I have to admit that I was hoping for a more scrubbed, polished look on the older film. Vagabond’s colors are appropriately muddy. Of all the prints, the one that I imagine does the least justice to its source material is Le Bonheur. While the oversaturated colors are no doubt as bold as intended, the entire picture seems to have a glazed sheen. I can’t quite put my finger on it: It doesn’t seem like your typical PAL-to-NTSC ghosting (I’m sure it wasn’t), but it feels as though a 16mm print may have been used. Surprisingly, the best looking film is probably the oldest: Le Pointe Courte (though the windowboxing is still an unfortunate choice). I’m a little bit disappointed that the soundtrack to Cléo from 5 to 7 is as shrill and compressed as it was the first time around. My iPod craved a remastered rip of “Sans Toi.”


The box ought to have been called 7 By Agnés Varda, since there are among the bonus features three of her short films. My favorite is L’opéra Mouffe, something of a precursor to Cléo from 5 to 7, featuring the story of a woman set against the bustling background of Paris. Swap Cléo from 5 to 7’s cancer scare for pregnancy and Michel Legrand’s score for one by Georges Delerue and there you are. Also included are Du Côté de la Côte, sort of an artier travelogue, and Les Fiancés du Pont Macdonald, which will be manna for New Wave fanboys. Those are the crown jewels of the set, but there are enough makings-of, retrospective interviews, archival clips of Varda behind the scenes, conversations with filmmakers and academics, and radio and TV interviews to keep you busy for days. The only way this set could’ve been more comprehensive is if it included scene-specific commentary tracks.


Once again, Criterion earns the reputation of releasing “film schools in a box.”

Cast: Philippe Noiret, Sylvia Monfort, Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothée Blank, Michel Legrand, José-Luis de Vilallonga, Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot, Marie-Françoise Boyer, Sandrine Bonnaire Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 354 min Rating: NR Year: 1956 - 1985 Release Date: January 22, 2008 Buy: Video



Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Twilight Time Blu-ray

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source.




Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin never could harmonize his celebratory/critical impulses toward American pop culture, so it comes as no surprise that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is both his funniest and most despairing picture. It’s also fitting that, after surveying a culture’s many popular obsessions (comic books, movies, rock ‘n roll), the director saves the sharpest knives for the institution whose job it is to package them for mass consumption: advertising.

Following a trademark bit of Tashlinesque wall-breaking (star Tony Randall plays the Fox fanfare on a small orchestra of instruments, then forgets the title during his introduction), the opening credits roll as a series of tableaux-like sketches, each skewering the inanities of ludicrous products pitched frontally to audiences (“Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton’s Beer”; “Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient”). The sequence hints at a trenchant critique under the rollicking humor; the phony ads, ridiculous but hardly too far removed from authentic commercials, posit the notion of consumers serving their products instead of the other way around, culminating with a spokesperson pulled into the hungry maw of a washing machine.

The characters are being similarly devoured by the system they breathlessly scramble to support, chief among them Rock Hunter (Randall), a Madison Avenue ad executive sinking in the quicksand of slogans, jingles, and campaigns. His spot in the company’s totem is low, and he may lose his position if he can’t come up with an idea to sell his newest product, Stay-Put Lipstick. Fortunately for him, flying into town is Hollywood glamour superstar Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), whose “oh-so-kissable lips” make her the perfect lipstick spokesperson, and Rock’s movie-mad niece (Lili Gentle) just happens to know where she’s staying.

In an attempt to make her latest beau jealous, and reap publicity for her studio, Rita snatches the first man to walk into her room as her new squeeze—a case of “being in the right place at the right time” for Rock, and the popcorn in his pocket erupts into fireworks as he smooches a towel-wrapped Rita. This comic serendipity isn’t a plot contrivance, but an illustration of Tashlin’s slashing view of how, in a capitalist society, everything and everyone can be packaged and sold, regardless of their abilities: Just as Edmond O’Brien’s gravel-voiced gangster was turned into a teen sensation at the end of The Girl Can’t Help It, so here is Rock, who has trouble keeping his long-stemmed smoking pipe lit, knighted “Lover Doll” and promptly mobbed by scores of screaming young fans.

Though several characters are aware of the ad world’s machinations, none of them are above its sway, and, in one of the film’s most merciless gags, the hero comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée (Betsy Drake) paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises. Because Tashlin, like Billy Wilder, often equated success in “the nonsense of what we call our civilization” with prostitution (or, at least, hucksterism), the title’s query becomes not so much a matter of whether than of when: Rock’s ascension in his firm’s importance ladder may seem divine, but to Tashlin it’s all just a Faustian deal sealed with the coveted key to the executive bathroom, a corrupt Holy Grail complete with a heavenly chorus.

People in Tashlin’s films often become extensions of their material possessions, and the irony of the merchandising cuts both ways: Just as Rita is a hilarious pop construct—a Marilyn Monroe spoof that’s also transparently Mansfield’s own dig at her image—she also molds Rock into a replica of her long-lost true love. Throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, characters contort themselves to fit the fetishization of image rampant through society, always causing pain to their own souls; Drake hopes to lure Rock back to her by turning herself into a buxom fembot, but as she pliantly puts it, “Those tight sweaters are too heavy.”

Savage as it is, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? remains, paradoxically, among Tashlin’s most joyous works. Continuously vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of jubilant brassiness, compounded by superb performances. The director may loathe that the characters sell their souls, yet he can’t help but admire the brio and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate (Henry Jones) employs in navigating Madison Avenue’s polluted waters. Tashlin knew that he was inescapably a part of the culture he was satirizing, and the picture’s head-on immersion in proto-New Wave homage (everything from Tarzan and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to Louella Parsons and Groucho Marx) amounts to the auteur’s confession of his complicity. After all, when a young fan announces that she’s going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again, “courageous youth” is all caustic sidekick Joan Blondell can snap.

Indeed, the film’s mid-narrative break could be seen as a reversal of the famous opening of The Girl Can’t Help It: Where Tom Ewell stretched the image into the widescreen rectangle, here Randall shrinks it down to the television square, made grainy and monochromatic “for all you TV fans.” Tashlin’s most radical rupture, however, lies in Blondell’s monologue about her days helping silent-film actresses and vainly attempting to forget a long-lost love, a moment of unexpectedly naked emotion where the character’s wisecracking façade is cracked and the pain underneath is captured in a harsh single-take.

Lured and trapped by the gilded cages of consumerism, the characters yearn for a Rousseau-like return to nature; Rock dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The film’s subversive tragedy is that the cartoon surfaces of Tashlin are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than it is first apparent. The happy ending is nominally enforced, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas.” Our laughter explodes only to dissipate grimly.


Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the most chromatically inventive, deliberately cartoonish live-action films ever made, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes it obvious that it’s aged considerably and has yet to receive any kind of significant restoration. Colors are fuller here than they were on older DVD releases but still look rather faded. In terms of disc artifacts, there are few issues, most notably the instances of black crush that occur when the softer colors of a composition are also marked by thick grain. The sound presentation is significantly more stable: Both the surround and original 2.0 track are pristine, with the dialogue and the boisterous swells of Cyril Mockridge’s score balanced evenly throughout.


An audio commentary with film historian Dana Polan delves into the film’s satirical richness and how its mixture of broad comedy and subtler character acting elucidates its themes. Polan particularly highlights how all the product placement on display gleefully implicates the film in its own critique of increasing commercialization. Also included is an essay in which Julie Kirgo provides a thoughtful overview of the film and its themes.


One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source, highlighting the need for future restoration.

Cast: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Lili Gentle, Mickey Hargitay Director: Frank Tashlin Screenwriter: Frank Tashlin Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray

Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.




Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacks the tensile strength to support it.

Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse’s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.

Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood. Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.

Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but perishes while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time using an enormous dimension portal. Before he dies, however, Peter gets to save the day one last time, though some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.

Into the Spider-Verse takes immense pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter illustrates just how easily Spider-Man’s wit and juvenile spirit and curdle into sardonic bitterness.

These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions than her compatriots. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.

And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.

With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.

By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, the film reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray wondrously represents Into the Spider-Verse’s vibrant and expansive color palette, really showing off the animation’s glowing neon streaks of purple and yellow-green amid all those old-school, 3D-aping blues and reds. Color contrast is strong throughout, while black levels are rich and deep. The sound is no less impressive, with Daniel Pemberton’s score nimbly and excitingly recalibrating in the side speakers in perfect sync with the aesthetic wrinkles of a given scene. Both the electronic-heavy soundtrack and boisterous action make great use of the subwoofer, with the wide range of bass noise throughout never muffling the crystal-clear dialogue.


The chummy and funny commentary track featuring directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is rich in details about the film’s plot and animation. It will also be a treat for those who think they’ve found all of the film’s Easter eggs. “Alternate Universe Mode” offers a sort of recut version of film, now with alternate scenes—some finished and some still in storyboard phase—that flesh out the secondary characters and, in some cases, offer up some significant plot diversions, such as Miles’s roommate learning his secret almost right away. The recut is significantly longer and paced more like a lugubrious, plot-heavy live-action blockbuster than the kinetic kaleidoscope of the release cut. “Caught in a Ham,” a short film centered on Spider-Ham, is a fun, Looney Tunes-inspired barrage of antic shtick, puns, and self-reflexive visual humor. Rounding out the extras is a series of short but informative themed featurettes on subjects ranging from the film’s innovative animation to tributes to the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a watershed of contemporary animation and superhero cinema. Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG Year: 2018 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.




Phantom Lady

Gaslighting was the subject of numerous American films in 1944. Of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight immediately takes center stage in any conventional appraisal of this narrative device, as a woman is deliberately driven to madness by her conniving husband, but Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, with its ingeniously structured screenplay and whiz-bang direction, is the more devilish concoction, designed to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of unrest.

From the start, as Scott (Alan Curtis) talks an unnamed woman (Fay Helm) into a night on the town, her demanding of anonymity strikes to the heart of post-WWII American life, where bars were no longer the raucous blowouts of the Jazz Age, but often sparsely populated spots for loners looking to drink away their sorrows. That’s what both Scott and the eponymous mystery guest have in mind, at least until Scott moseys home and finds that his wife has been murdered.

Whereas Otto Preminger’s Laura uses the apparent death of a woman to prompt a flashback into her life, Phantom Lady remains confined to the present, with only the murdered wife’s portrait hanging on the couple’s living room wall as evidence of her existence. When Scott is prompted by police to name his company for the previous evening—and cannot—he’s afforded no sympathy or benefit of the doubt, except from the office secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), whose crush on Scott, and her certainty of his innocence, prompts her to become an amateur sleuth along with Scott’s pal, Jack (Franchot Tone). They’re on the trail of someone who’s paid off witnesses for their denial of ever having seen the unnamed woman.

Siodmak’s playful direction deflates our uncertainty about the phantom lady’s existence, as the camera lingers for a beat longer than necessary on witnesses who express relief once interrogators have gone, as if they have something to hide. These shots tip off the viewer that something is amiss; one may wonder why Siodmak didn’t eliminate these winks entirely and make it seem, whether because of Scott’s imagination or disinterested observers, that the woman might really have never existed at all. The answer to their presence lies in Siodmak’s ultimate disinterest in playing up the whodunit, as the murderer—and orchestrator of Scott’s gaslighting—is revealed around the halfway mark as the only logical person it could be.

Finished playing guessing games with the audience, Siodmak frees himself up to throw down the gauntlet of expressionistic lighting and canted camera angles. This frenzy reaches its nearly orgasmic apex as Carol gyrates to a wild drum riff by Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), one of the key witnesses to the mystery woman’s identity, as he marvels at her with pure lust. The film inhabits the moment so fervently and with such precise editing by Arthur Hilton, that the viewer would be excused for forgetting there’s even a mystery to be unfurled. (Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale is probably the closest any film has come since to representing the sheer power a woman’s body in motion can have over the heterosexual male psyche.)

Lest the rest of the film limp toward its resolution, Siodmak shifts gears toward depicting the killer’s inner turmoil. When the murderer appears to off Cliff for having a loose lip, he delivers a remarkable monologue about how a single pair of hands can either do “inconceivable good or unbearable evil.” A clear influence on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Phantom Lady morphs its perspective in the film’s back half toward the killer’s own, whose sudden “dizzy spells” are clearly coded bouts of schizophrenia, as he wrestles with the psychological demons demanding his allegiance. When the killer finally admits a motive of emasculation by Scott’s wife as his impetus for murder, Phantom Lady reveals just how influential it would become, on everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the giallo and beyond.


The HD Blu-ray presentation brings cinematographer Elwood Bredell’s striking images to life, especially in scenes where depth of field is essential to appreciating the complexity of Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith’s set decoration. The film’s high-contrast lighting remains sharp, with no evidence of digital enhancement to the original film elements. However, there are numerous, if minor, signs of scratches and debris throughout, indicating that greater care could have been taken to restore this presentation to an ever richer approximation of the film’s original negative. The monaural soundtrack is full and free of distortion, allowing both the music and dialogue to unfold without distraction.


A pair of intriguing extras includes a nearly hour-long documentary made in 1994 called Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, which features numerous familiar talking heads, including Dennis Hooper, Ruby B. Rich, Robert Wise, and Edward Dmytryk, providing a deep dive into what constitutes the term “film noir.” The range of perspectives proves exciting, from Rich’s more academic gloss of the sociological aspects of noir, to Hopper’s bare-bones description of a woman hiring a dupe to kill her husband, to cinematographer John Alton’s eccentric descriptions of lighting. Bryan Singer also appears to offer his bit on how noir influenced his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. The other supplement of note is an hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, with Alan Curtis and Ella Raines reprising their roles. The audio is excellent and the adaptation itself from screen to radio works remarkably well. The disc also includes an image gallery of about 30 stills and distribution materials from the initial theatrical release, and a booklet containing an essay by Alan K. Rode that explains the film’s conception and production.


Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a pioneering studio noir in Phantom Lady, which is also a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Aurora, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Andrew Tombes Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bernard C. Schoenfeld Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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