Intellectuals from Roland Barthes to Kenneth Tynan have rhapsodized idiotically and sometimes touchingly about the Greta Garbo phenomenon. Her image exists in an atmosphere of incense, ceaseless publicity, and acres of purple prose (Garbo! Greta! Swedish Sphinx of the Ages!). After she retired from acting in 1941, her solitary, threadbare life was an object of intense curiosity for 50 years. In 1995, five years after her death, Barry Paris published his definitive biography, presenting the real person as found in letters and interviews with her friends. What emerged was not displeasing. There were rumors that Garbo had been dull, even stupid. Not at all. From the evidence of Paris’s book, Garbo was a genuinely weird person with an eccentric personality to match her one-of-a-kind face.
Garbo, who was born a century ago this month, has been voted the most beautiful woman that ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records. Is she? There’s no way of judging such things, of course, but let’s say for a moment that she is, or was. What made her beautiful? Technically speaking, it has to be the large velveteen gap between her eyelids and her eyebrows. This area was emphasized with make-up as her career progressed, so that her eyes looked like the excessive, nearly gaudy invention of an inspired painter. Her nose was rather large, her mouth thin, with barely a hard line for her upper lip. Her body was gangly and she moved awkwardly, tipping over to the right and to the left like a ship on a stormy sea, her shoulders constantly hunched up around her ears. She continually displayed her swan-like neck by throwing her head back in submission, joy, despair and everything else in between. Garbo’s expressive hands had long tapering fingers, and these extremities were matched by her large and frequently hidden feet. Her breasts, usually sans brassiere, sagged stylishly in sweaters and in some of the screen’s most outlandish costumes. She preferred her hair to hang lank to her shoulders, and she walked with a fearlessly masculine stride. Just looking at her is transfixing, hypnotic.
Was Garbo a great actress? She hardly needed to be. However, this new box set of her most important films clearly displays her drastically different performance modes. Taken chronologically, the films collected here show her somewhat tardy development as a performer; as late as 1932, in one of her most famous films, Grand Hotel, she was capable of giving a shockingly bad performance. But after that, she gave several performances that place her in the small pantheon of great screen actors. In her silent and early talkie programmers, she was never less than an extraordinarily sensual screen presence.
Garbo was born into a lower-class family in Sweden in 1905. She wasn’t a beauty from the start: early photographs reveal an enormous girl with frizzy hair and bad teeth. She went to drama school and picked up some stagy technical tricks that would mark her early films in Hollywood (closing her eyes slowly to register despair and clutching her head in a crisis were the worst of them). She cavorted in a bathing suit in her first film, Peter the Tramp, a short comedy often excerpted but never shown. As is so often the case with legendary stars, she was discovered and mentored by a fine director, Mauritz Stiller. He cast her in his lengthy ensemble piece The Story of Gosta Berling and brought her over to Germany to make G.W. Pabst’s gritty, ambitious Joyless Street. In these early European films, not included in the set, Garbo is quite haunting, if unfocused, in her embryonic state.
Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, saw Gosta Berling and brought Stiller and Garbo to Hollywood. Stiller did not direct her debut, an impossible melodrama called Torrent, but he was supposed to guide her sophomore effort, The Temptress; he was fired, and all his footage was re-shot by Fred Niblo. This film, the earliest in the set, was the one American Garbo movie that never made it to TV or video (it recently premiered on TCM). Surprisingly, The Temptress is fairly enjoyable, with a number of striking set pieces. The opening is magical: Garbo appears at a party wearing a mask. She rushes through the crowd and can’t seem to lose them; already, she wants to be alone. But then the Man comes into her life.
The Man in Garbo movies is of little importance. He can be feminine and overwrought (John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro), masculine and indifferent (John Barrymore, Fredric March), pretty and lively (Lew Ayres, Robert Taylor), or even a great actor like herself (Charles Boyer). But Garbo works alone. The Man in The Temptress is Antonio Moreno, and he asks Garbo to take off her mask. Her head bobbling back, her mouth open submissively, she slowly removes the mask and the camera lingers on Moreno as he reacts. When we see her face, her drugged-up sexuality is still potent, even startling. They share a love scene, and then The Temptress goes dead until it lands in Argentina, where vampy Garbo taunts Moreno at length. In the last scene, Garbo is down and out, and she seems relieved to be free of feminine clothes and affectations. Suddenly she’s riveting: drunk, wasted, whispering lewd suggestions to Moreno. The actress displaces the sex star, but only momentarily.
Garbo in her Hollywood silents is selling S-E-X. It is sex that made her a star; artistry came later. But she has power as early as The Temptress because of one essential paradox: her need to be alone, her resistance to society at large, and her helpless, incredible response to love in the abstract for one person. When she first kisses Moreno, her hand trembles a bit as she clutches at his head. Her love scenes are still erotic because her sexuality is rough and passionate, filled with horny nervous energy: she always subjugates her leading men, grabbing them bodily and getting on top, taking the masculine position for kissing. This was just natural to Garbo, and it was a large part of her subversive quality. Garbo’s sublime lesbian authoritativeness worked best, of course, with slightly nelly men.
Garbo’s next film, Flesh and the Devil, paired her with nelly, randy John Gilbert, a big star at the time. Most of the movie is boring buddy stuff with Gilbert and Lars Hanson; they’re flanked by a young ingénue with Mary Pickford curls. Garbo wipes such Griffith antiques aside when she gets Gilbert in a clinch. She’s a bit calculating here, but she has charm, danger, irony; she puts bug-eyed Gilbert in his place on bearskin rugs and he loves it (he loved it in real life, too). The film made her a huge star, but Garbo is less an actress in Flesh and more of a sex goddess; indeed, she plays her famous love bouts with Gilbert as if she’s in some kind of sex coma. In a hilarious scene set in church, Garbo takes a communion chalice and moves it so that she can press her lips to where Gilbert’s lips just touched, a cartoonish, high camp blasphemy. Later on, when Garbo tries to emote, she betrays her inexperience, throwing an extremely atypical hissy fit as the ingénue prays. Garbo is so hot here that the story has to end with her falling into a crack in an iced-over lake.
In the next film in the set, The Mysterious Lady, she has become the Garbo of legend, her hair longer and straighter, her eyes made up, her mask-like visage able to suggest old age and extreme youth in flashes. Her face has become more austere, more masculine; it is this masculinity that completed her beauty (in life, she habitually referred to herself with masculine pronouns). The film itself is enervated trash, but it has a nice entrance for Garbo: she sits in a box at the opera, transported by the music. When it is over, she cries out and seems to laugh at herself a little; her instinct for self-parody is at times as acute as that of her future Grand Hotel co-star John Barrymore. Here she’s a naughty spy with flashes of conscience, a fantasy woman, almost Mae West-ian in her swagger.
The dream goddess of her silents had to make way for sound, and she finally spoke in a movie of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. The American version, helmed by Garbo’s most frequent director, Clarence Brown, is a hopeless early talkie with all the defects of its tentative time period. Shots are held for no reason when people have exited the frame, as if no one was behind the camera, and the sound is very muffled. Garbo’s deep voice wowed audiences at the time, and her short staccato laugh is distinctive, but she’s trying too hard here, especially when she talks tough. Her Anna, an embittered prostitute, is filled with unappealing self-pity. As an imperious drunk, Marie Dressler steals the film: watch the way she puts her hand to her face when she realizes she’s blown Garbo’s cover with her new lover. That’s great acting, something Garbo herself was incapable of at this point.
A second version of Anna Christie was shot in German immediately after the Hollywood film, and it’s a better movie. Garbo is much more at ease in this language, and the dialogue is more to the point. The German Anna has been to jail, and she’s a lot tougher than her Hollywood counterpart, less sorry for herself. Garbo’s Hollywood Anna seemed like a movie star impersonating a hooker: you can’t imagine her turning a trick. Garbo’s German Anna seems like a pro, and though she loathes men, she’s obviously fond of sex. In the American version, her lover, Charles Bickford, is a harsh-voiced Irishman who talks to her paternally, and he stokes her strenuous anger. Her German lover, Theo Shall, is smaller and prettier, a sensual child, and she reacts to him as if she’s both touched and turned on (the obscure Shall is one of her best leading men). The two Anna Christies are fairly untenable for a modern audience, but the German version is far superior.
Established in talkies, Garbo then made a series of truly terrible films, among them Romance, Inspiration, and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Included in the set is one of her worst movies, Mata Hari, which seems to have been made solely so MGM’s costume designer Adrian could put her in some of the most ridiculous outfits he could think of. She’s forced to do a humiliating “dance” in her first scene and can barely manage to wiggle her ass. Her tongue firmly in her cheek, she then proceeds to romance Ramon Novarro, wear a succession of jeweled skullcaps, kill Lionel Barrymore, and march off to the firing squad. “This is absurd,” she says, early on, as if she wanted to walk off the set.
At the peak of her popularity in spite of these cheap little movies (which did huge business for MGM), she was then placed as the figurehead of the first all-star production, the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel. Again, one of Garbo’s big early films is stolen by someone else: Joan Crawford, who was born to play the role of Flaemmchen, a stenographer on the make. Crawford is huge-eyed and slender here, a cheerful opportunist, canny, not very bright, but warm and sympathetic. As a weary ballerina, Garbo is nightmarishly miscalculated, making “big” choices that never work. Her first “tired” close-up is the purest camp. She lingers on the bad dialogue so cluelessly that it finally becomes obvious how lost she is with the English language, and her body language is equally off pitch: she’s ludicrous trying to be a dancer, throwing herself around her hotel room. Garbo postures, declaims, and overacts, even when she says her most famous line, “I want to be alone.” She’s easier to take when the character is awakened by love, but she descends into camp again when she talks melodramatically to a telephone. It’s an embarrassing performance, but her best work was around the corner.
Garbo took some time off, and when she returned under a new contract, she had more control over her films. Gradually, the biggest movie star in the world (and the most beautiful woman) began to gain the confidence necessary to become a great actress. This process began with Queen Christina, an uneven spectacle about the Swedish queen, rather carelessly directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and saddled with John Gilbert in his penultimate movie (Garbo insisted that her ruined former lover have the part). It’s clear that English is still an obstacle course for her, especially during long verbose speeches, which she plows through in a determined, forceful manner. However, the Sapphic flavor of the film is quite fetching; Garbo obviously loves striding around in velvet trousers and soul kissing her favorite lady in waiting. The film comes to life in a long scene at an inn, where Garbo spends the night with Gilbert, then memorizes the contents of the room where they have shared their tryst (it was choreographed like a dance by Mamoulian). Age was smoothing out her features; her Helen of Troy aspect was becoming more mask-like. The famous last close-up of her impassive face in Queen Christina is one of those movie things that you never get over, an endless subject for contemplation.
The real surprise of the set is Anna Karenina. I’d remembered a stolid, workmanlike film with a tired turn by Garbo. On the contrary! The film is much worse than I’d recalled, dully directed by Clarence Brown, indifferently acted by the rest of the cast, truncated, unenthusiastic, a dead thing. But Garbo gives an amazing performance. Gone is the arrant posturing of Grand Hotel. Gone is the need to try too hard, as in Anna Christie. Here, all at once, she is in complete command. Her face emerges from a gust of smoke, haughty, remote, tired of being looked at. Behind her slumberous, captivating eyes is a Niagara Falls of quicksilver thought. She is able to fill any line of dialogue with the deepest emotion, and she accomplishes this without strain, as if she’s in a trance (and she has to be, in order to create in this MGM vacuum). When her cuckolded husband, prissy-mouthed Basil Rathbone, shouts her out of the house, her walk down the stairs is thrilling: she just keeps moving, a weary, sometimes bewildered look on her face. Her brother (Reginald Denny) reminds her that mores must be upheld for the benefit of the public. “Yes, they’re very important,” she says, in a piercingly rich, insincere, distracted voice. Garbo’s late performances are filled with these large jolts of meaning, as if she is capable of joining together any opposing ideas in an instant. She makes Anna’s suicide look like the product of grave, intelligent reflection.
At this point, Garbo was in the zone artistically speaking. Serendipitously, she got herself into a film that did her mature talent full justice, George Cukor’s Camille, a Balzac-ian study of suffocating, vulgar 19th century Parisian life. “I’m afraid of nothing except being bored,” says Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier, a consumptive courtesan impelled by her heartless milieu (and impending death) into near-constant bitchery and frivolity. Garbo’s light touch here is as breathtaking as her beauty, and her newfound sense of life’s vastness informs every bold, contrary choice she makes. When producer Irving Thalberg saw the early rushes of Camille, he was very excited; Cukor asked him why. “Don’t you understand?” he asked. “She is completely unguarded.” She is in such control that she has no visible control whatever, a tremendous change from her self-consciousness in Grand Hotel. Her sexual brazenness is even wilder: in her first love scene with Robert Taylor, she plants a half dozen hungry kisses all over his face without using her hands, then bites into his mouth as if she’s devouring a particularly luscious éclair.
Garbo’s greatest scene, indeed, one of the greatest scenes in film history, is a brief bit of dialogue she shares with Henry Daniell, who plays her rich lover, the Baron de Varville. As Daniell plays a driving piano melody, he smiles ominously at the thought of her new lover (Taylor) ringing her bell outside. When Daniell asks who is ringing, Garbo says, “I might say it was someone at the wrong door…or the great romance of my life!” She makes a huge leap in between these phrases, and her playing has a goose-pimply sense of danger, as if she’s hurling herself off a cliff. Daniell stays right with her, “The great romance of your life!” he howls. “Charming!” She leaps right back in: “It might have been,” she says quickly, and he starts to play the melody louder and faster. Garbo throws her head back to laugh, but no sound comes out. All we hear is the pounding piano as the camera draws close to her agony.
The scene is like a merry-go-round gone berserk, a perfect synthesis of actors, material, music, and direction. We must give Cukor credit here, for surely he is responsible for some of the daring give and take between Garbo and Daniell, the boasting rapidity, the melody from the piano. The scene catches you up in a vice and smacks you around, and when it’s done, you’re changed somehow, no matter how many times you’ve see it. It leaves an exquisite wound. So does her epic death scene, so delicate, so perverse. The film as a whole is filled with the impulse to joke about tragedy. That’s the subversive charm of Camille, and that’s the essence of what Garbo was capable of at the height of her inventiveness.
Jokes about tragedy are also the essence of the final film in the set, a stinging, very bold satire on Soviet Russia, Ninotchka, Garbo’s first comedy. Director Ernst Lubitsch developed a strategy for combating the evil of Hitler (in To Be or Not to Be) and Stalin (in Ninotchka): merciless ridicule. Ninotchka has jokes about the Secret Police and even the show trials. “There will be fewer but better Russians,” insists Garbo’s Ninotchka, a dour commissar who is soon bewitched by capitalistic Paris. Her performance is almost entirely deadpan, and she performs the foolproof script with graceful economy. “I’m so happy!” she says, during her enchanting drunk scene. But Garbo has seen enough of her own movies to know better: “No one can be so happy without being punished!” she continues.
When we hear Garbo’s voice in our head, she is always saying lines like that. “I knew I was too happy,” she gasps in Camille. Garbo was always dying or being killed. So obviously doomed by fate, she clutched at people and even at things around her for reassurance. She made love to so many inanimate objects: John Gilbert’s flowers in A Woman of Affairs, her ballet slipper in Grand Hotel. Everything she touched was eroticized and heightened. Audiences of the time took huge pleasure in watching this exotic woman die, seeing her beauty fade into nothingness slowly but surely. Modern audiences coming across Garbo cold are usually suspicious of her and unimpressed by her grandstanding and her severe beauty. She has lost her status as a cultural event and a lot of her work is dated; Garbo is pre-modern while Marlene Dietrich is post-modern. Dietrich’s cool plays better today than Garbo’s mannered heat, but both women are essential film experiences.
It is still popularly accepted that Garbo retired after her last movie, the egregious comedy Two-Faced Woman, because its failure hurt her pride. This is true, but she was willing to return several times in the late ’40s, most tantalizingly for a version of Balzac’s Duchesse de Langeais to be directed by Max Ophüls, with James Mason as her co-star. She submitted to a screen test for the film; in it, she is even more beautiful with a bit of age on her. But this dream project ran out of money, which humiliated her. She never seriously considered returning again, and lived out her life as a “hermit about town,” doing absolutely nothing for decades on end. Her legend was created by this withdrawal and its resultant publicity. Now that this is behind us and we can look at her films for themselves, Garbo’s early shortcomings as an actress and her later achievements stand in relief. Her beauty is without question and impossible to forget.
The disc devoted to three Garbo silents (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, and The Mysterious Lady) is uneven but rewarding. Temptress looks fantastic, with all sorts of nice tinting effects and a terrific score by Michael Picton. Flesh is the same ancient video print from the ’80s, with an overexposed image and a thunderous Carl Davis score. Mysterious Lady has a seriously damaged image, but an appropriately hubba-hubba score by Vivek Maddala. The Hollywood Anna Christie looks good but sounds awful and the German Anna is barely visible in its barge scenes, but it’s so rare that this can’t be helped. The rest of the films look and sound good, with the exception of Camille. This print of Camille has lots of lines and scratches, many more than the print used on television long ago.
There are three excellent commentaries for the films on the silent disc (by Mark Viera, Tony Maietta, and Jeffrey Vance and her best biographer, Barry Paris, respectively) and a real gem: the nine extant minutes of the only lost Garbo movie, Victor Sjöström’s The Divine Woman. In this surviving reel, Garbo is simple and girlish, fighting, smiling, laughing, a vibrant young woman, not the sexed-up zombie of her other silents. “Life is short…so short!” she exclaims, via inter-title, and there are lots of shots of clocks ticking, as if to underline how little is left of this movie, her one Sjöström film. It’s a real shame that this is the lost one, and not one of her emptier films, like Wild Orchids or The Single Standard. The other discs have no commentaries and precious few extras, aside from a fascinatingly weird art deco Camille from 1921 starring Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. A new documentary feature treads familiar ground.
You’ll want to be alone with this box set.
Cast: Greta Garbo Director: Clarence Brown, Jacques Feyder, George Fitzmaurice, Edmund Goulding, Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Fred Niblo, Ray C. Smallwood Distributor: Warner Home Video Running Time: 1249 min Rating: NR Year: 1926 - 1939 Release Date: September 6, 2005 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Arrow Video’s Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance receives a significant packaging upgrade from Arrow Video.4.5
Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.
Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.
Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.
So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.
Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.
Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.
Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.
In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.
Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.
This Blu-ray edition’s hardback book indicates that the transfer was “made available by NBC Universal.” Indeed, there are no appreciable differences between this transfer and the one on Universal’s 2016 home-video edition of the film. Only a few instances of noise exist in the darkest shots, but otherwise this remains a crisp transfer. The 7.1 and X lossless audio tracks are likewise pristine, perfectly balancing the film’s exacting sound design—so rich in creaks and ghostly whispers—relative to Fernando Vélasquez’s tense but mournful score.
Arrow Video has ported over all of the features from Universal’s original release, which contained mostly brief EPK documentaries and one of Guillermo del Toro’s indispensable audio commentaries. Arrow supplements these extras with some new—and meatier—goodies, chief among them “The House Is Alive,” a 50-minute documentary that dives deep into the film’s intricate production design and literary inspirations. Del Toro also contributes a new interview, while two new critical pieces are included. One is an interview with critic Kim Newman, who places the film in the broader context of gothic romance, the other a video essay by Kat Ellinger on del Toro’s entire filmography and Crimson Peak’s place within it. Arrow’s lavish packaging also includes production stills and a booklet with an interview with del Toro and critical essays by David Jenkins, Simon Abrams, and Mar Diestro-Dópido.
A slew of excellent new features ensures that this is, for now at least, the definitive home-video edition of Guillermo del Toro’s elegant haunted-house film.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique
This dynamic and balanced restoration makes a significant case for the film as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.4.5
Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.
The outcast is Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, in casting that recalls Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. In both films, Simon plays a frumpy, lonely, and artistic man stuck in his own head, who falls for a beautiful woman who exploits his affections with the encouragement of her true lover. Renoir allows us to understand from the outset that Simon’s character is trapped, by his self-loathing as much as by his manipulators, while Duvivier offers a panorama that gradually closes in on Hire. In fact, one of the driving pleasures of Panique’s first act is in attempting to discern where it’s going, as Duvivier studies the respective habits of a baker, a prostitute, a shifty young man, a hypocritical accountant, and so forth. The film’s foreboding emphasis on daily life sometimes suggests The Marseille Trilogy by way of Shirley Jackson.
Hire initially appears confident, accepting his status in this picturesque country as the resident weirdo. After resisting the butcher’s attempts to talk with him, Hire orders a bloody pork loin and proceeds to the cheese shop to search for its “ripest” Camembert. Such details, which are plentiful in Panique, are amusing for their own sake while revealing that Hire fashions himself a ghoulish aesthete who’s somewhat difficult for the sake of being difficult. (The emphases on blood and ripeness also suggest a rechanneling of thwarted sexual hungers.) Unlike the immediately pitiable hero of La Chienne, Hire allows the audience to enjoy his loneliness. Perhaps this is a man who’s figured out how to live apart from society with dignity intact. In other words, Hire, who possesses the gifts of Simon’s own inherently introverted magnetism, flatters similarly-minded people in the audience.
This narrative misdirection mirrors Hire’s fooling of himself, underscoring how he’s attempted to transcend his human need for companionship—a nuance that renders his fall from grace all the more moving. As Hire becomes intoxicated with Alice (Viviane Romance), Simon’s physicality becomes subtly heavier and more awkward, as the actor understands Hire to be reverting to a vulnerable state that’s been long suppressed. Duvivier’s compositions complement this notion, particularly when Hire is framed in his cluttered apartment, regarding Alice’s residence from below as carnival lights luridly illuminate him. The carnival isn’t only a metaphor for the “show business”—the manipulations, the play-acting—that govern everyday life, but for how society always requires freaks for projection and ostracizing.
A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII, which is helpfully illuminated in the essays in the booklet included with this disc. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that Panique now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Hire ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic.
The image has a few minor blemishes but is generally quite sharp and rich in tactile detail. Throughout the film, this superb clarity particularly emphasizes the relationship between the various foregrounds and backgrounds of the frames, underscoring the vitality of tracking shots that elaborate on the various connections between the characters, emphasizing how small this troubled community really is. Blacks are rich, and whites are delicately soft, the latter of which is important in rendering characters’ flesh, particularly in the surprisingly erotic images of a woman teasing her male voyeur with glimpses of her body. The monaural soundtrack expertly preserves the film’s intricate soundstage, which often pivots on a contrast between the sounds of everyday work (carpentry and butchery) and those of the carnival, which physicalize the lurid thoughts driving the narrative’s action.
“The Art of Subtitling,” a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day challenges of translating foreign dialogue into English text. Like a lot of things many of us take for granted, subtitling requires an exactitude and discipline that’s invisible at first glance. For instance, a subtitle must disappear before one image segues into another, so as to not jar the audience. And, for the sake of flow, subtitles must also summarize dialogue rather than literally transcribe it, so that an audience doesn’t spend a film’s entire running time reading. Goldstein also examines the process of updating and improving subtitle tracks over the years as films are restored, including the production of the new track of Panique that was commissioned for this release, as modern audiences have grown to crave a precise rendering of the slang and humor that give characters and narratives texture.
A new interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of legendary Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, offers an inside look at how Julien Duvivier altered one of his father’s novels to arrive at the screenplay for Panique, while providing a short overview of Georges’s life, particularly during WWI and WWII. (Georges wasn’t especially fond of the many films made from his work, though Pierre has high praise for Panique.) Meanwhile, a conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot succinctly covers a variety of topics, especially the rocky reception that Duvivier received when he returned to France after working in the United States so as to dodge the Nazi occupation. French audiences, somewhat understandably, were resistant to a critique of mob justice from someone who managed to avoid the danger and turmoil of the mob altogether. The essays by film scholar James Quandt and Duvivier expert Lenny Borger also discuss the political context of Panique, while reveling in the film’s brilliant melding of realist and expressionist textures. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but informative supplements package.
With this dynamic and balanced restoration, Criterion makes a significant case for Panique as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.
Cast: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Louis Florencie, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Brian De Palma’s Obsession
Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade from Shout! Factory.4
Geneviève Bujold was a little bit like the Björk of late-‘60s, early-‘70s cinema. She worked between predominately pop-minded American films and hermetic, aggressively Euro productions, coasted a long way on adorably pliable looks, and kept you perpetually off-balance with her off-kilter line readings and interpretations. She was a sterile cuckoo with a voice whose grit confirmed the darkness in her eyes. Paul Schrader may have ended up having to capitulate Obsession’s original (ridiculous) scripted ending to the will of Brian De Palma, but the casting of Bujold in what is essentially Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo results in a literary emphasis not seen in De Palma’s work again until the strong-arm showboating of Oliver Stone and David Mamet.
Obsession is, as far as De Palma’s tributes to Hitchcock go, half-baked and far-fetched without even the benefit of being audacious-unto-tasteless. It’s the film in which the only dearth of a metaphoric “double” is the comedy mask that ought to complement the dour visage of tragedy. (Is that the reason that it’s Obsession, and not any other De Palma film up until Femme Fatale, that’s included in the top 1,000 film list of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who sneered at the director for delighting in audience reactions to Dressed to Kill?)
While Bernard Herrmann’s rapturously funereal score (with at least four separate dirge leitmotifs swirling around the opulent, central “Valse Lente”) ratchets up Obsession’s metastasized, polluted doom-gloom, Bujold takes her role in the opposite direction, at least initially. (The character is a screenwriter’s “pitch” if there ever was one—e.g., “What if we took the idea that Kim Novak was practically young enough to be James Stewart’s daughter and just ran with that?”) Within minutes of meeting Cliff Robertson’s sad sack Michael, Bujold’s Elizabeth bites heartily into Schrader’s symbolic dialogue about the ethical implications of discovering an original draft of art and restoring the revision.
That’s clearly an expression of self-deprecating guilt from a writer who felt a little dirty turning Vertigo into a teary-eyed sick joke. But Bujold’s enthusiasm as a performer redeems the entire picture, especially when she’s asked to perform flashback scenes that shouldn’t work, but, thanks to her, represent another of De Palma’s fearlessly experimental whims.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography has looked too washed-out on previous home-video editions of the film, but it finally looks right on Shout’s Blu-ray. Colors are natural and the exaggerated lighting dazzles when refracted off of mirror surfaces. Even more impressive is the surround-sound remix, which amplifies Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic, swelling score to deafening levels while leaving all dialogue clear in the center channel. The original mono track is also included and sounds every bit as crisp despite the lack of separation.
On his commentary track, Douglas Keesey offers a drily academic breakdown of the film. The author of Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film sounds too much like he’s reading from a script, but he still provides intriguing observations on the director’s stylistic flourishes. Interviews with producer George Litto and editor Paul Hirsch see both men reminiscing about their careers and work with De Palma, with the former more gregarious about his own life and the latter more specific about the details of his work on Obsession. An archival documentary on the film features interviews with De Palma, Cliff Robertson, and Geneviève Bujold, who all reflect on the film’s production and how well they worked together. The disc also includes a trailer, radio spots, and an image gallery.
Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade, highlighting the dreamy haze of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s score better than any home-video release of the film to date.
Cast: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara, Stanley J. Reyes, Nick Kreiger, Stocker Fontelieu Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Paul Schrader Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 1976 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
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