There isn’t a conventional sound or image to be found in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which exhilaratingly upends the audience’s senses, engaging one in a free-floating fashion that’s more in sync with the emotional effect of art with less intermediary filters than cinema, such as theater and live music. When McCabe (Warren Beatty) enters a bar in the early 1900s-era town of Presbyterian Church, stirring up the locals with his man-of-mystery routine, the filmmaker doesn’t drop accommodating and insidiously distancing breadcrumbs for the viewer, framing images so that they telegraph precise and unsurprisingly expository information.
Instead, this and other potentially standard-issue western scenes are charged with a jazz-like pulse of controlled spontaneity that would become an Altman trademark. We know as much as the baffled bar denizens, and we’re encouraged to sort the setting and the protagonist out for ourselves. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera prowls the bar for 10 minutes, surveying the locals in scruffily prismatic tableaus that are accompanied by absorbingly muffled and ambiguous noises, before we even hear McCabe’s name, and then it’s in passing and possibly a case of mistaken identity.
Named after the church that’s erected in the center of town throughout the film, establishing a resonant demarcation between sin and conventional commerce (the whorehouse is on one side of the church, the store and bar on the other), Presbyterian Church is visually defined as a place cut out of the wooded state of Washington, existing in a bowl of land and wood and rock. Compared to the obliging alternation of wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups that comprise most films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s compositions seem to be too close in on the characters, reveling in the nits and grits of their hair and beat-up clothes, which often obscure the particulars of their identities. Or the camera might seem to be too far away from the action, offering topsy-turvy landscape shots that accentuate the labyrinthine geometry of the dirty, slushy woods and buildings. But the town is ultimately a coherent creation, as we feel as if we could map it out and discern much of its political infrastructure.
The film’s power springs from its destabilizing mix of precise portraiture and epic scale, ugliness and beauty, cynicism and wide-eyed optimism. Moments of transcendence arise with disconcerting casualness, as the narrative is a vase that holds multitudes of smaller stories of nearly equal stature: An intimate bath is shared between newly arrived whores, and Altman regards them tenderly as they splash and play in water that moves in subtle slow motion, finding a moment of grace and camaraderie among the stifling lack of privacy that’s inherent in their trade. There’s an astonishing shot of Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) when she first propositions a partnership with McCabe for his bar and whorehouse, looking out at the town through the window of his skeletal establishment, her head poking out while her body remains in the hollow structure. She seizes a moment for herself, her head seemingly floating in the sky, perhaps sensing and discarding the doom she’s conjuring.
Transitionary passages serve as wellsprings of operatic exaltation, such as when McCabe rides back to Presbyterian Church with his first group of whores as Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” reaches its chorus on the soundtrack, while the sun peaks at its magic hour, dotting the stark terrain with heavenly watercolor light. This moment is rooted in character as well: We intuitively grasp McCabe’s weird naïveté, as he exploits people with an almost childlike sense of glee, simultaneously earning our contempt and admiration. When Mrs. Miller flees her room in the middle of the night, as her and McCabe’s business is imperiled by our country’s rigged über-capitalist machinations, she descends a rear external stairway that Altman and Zsigmond render a noir-ish blue and red tunnel of fear and desperation.
Yet it’s evasive to discuss McCabe & Mrs. Miller merely as a series of haunting flourishes, as it always is when considering Altman’s work. The brilliance of his filmography resides in its mysterious majesty—in how his inspired individual decisions, intuitive yet relatively straightforward in isolation, cumulatively yield something beyond the sum of their considerable parts. One returns to painting and music to establish proper contextualizing corollaries, as they tap emotion within us that can’t be entirely tethered to experience and perspective. Altman called himself a painter, and the word applies not only to the craftsmanship of his images, but to their bottomless figurative nuance.
The image of McCabe as he’s buried by a snowstorm—by, essentially, the gods—is primordial and timeless. And Altman nearly tosses it off, having confidence in his almost peerless command of his medium, following it with another image for the ages: of Mrs. Miller drifting away hopeless in an opium-induced stupor, perhaps discovering that her adventure with McCabe was a glorious daydream. Mrs. Miller doesn’t awaken so much as resign herself to a less disruptive nightmare, one which isn’t at war with the fates of big business. In one of the greatest of all films, Altman taps into a pipeline beyond himself, beyond us, beyond juxtaposition of theme and formality, achieving something that’s chased by all artists of all kinds: rapturous poetry.
The image boasts a great sense of depth, contrast, and clarity, particularly in certain scenes set inside McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s brothel, which abound in surprising blues and reds that have been less pronounced in prior presentations of the film (including prints shown at the Library of Congress). Browns are varied and multifaceted, blacks are rich, and the whites are spectacularly luminescent. Image detail is superb, allowing one to parse the specificities of the wardrobes and settings that subtly define the characters. Facial hair, which functions as a kind of mask in this film, also comes through with newfound vividness. The boldest touch of this image may be the brightening of certain scenes, especially daylight landscape compositions and interiors, which expands an awareness of the backgrounds of compositions while expanding color spectrum. The mono soundtrack offers a tactilely immersive mix that’s similarly revelatory, as it’s now easier to parse and discern the painstakingly achieved tapestry of minute aural detail, whether it pertains to muttered dialogue or the mechanic sounds of a train chugging up the mountain top. And Leonard Cohen’s legendary voice resonates with deep bass-y grandeur. This is a beautiful restoration.
The 2002 audio commentary with Robert Altman and producer David Foster offers an essential portrait of film direction as an art born of countless minute choices, which is affirmed by the new making-of documentary—shot specifically for this edition—that interviews many of the actors and craftsman involved with the production. In both features, Altman is familiarly painted as an adventurous man given to trusting his intuition, whether advising Keith Carradine to cut his hair, or sticking with a handful of Leonard Cohen songs for the soundtrack, despite the anachronism of their presence in a narrative set in 1900. (Altman is shown to have an extraordinary bullshit detector for which flourishes will and won’t “play.”) The new conversation between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell includes an astute discussion of the film’s often reductive classification as an “anti-western,” and a variety of older odds and ends round out a diverting package. Most notable are archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael, who remains one of the most influential admirers of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Altman in general. One could carp and ask for more new material exploring aspects of the film that are less treaded upon, but that’s essentially nitpicking.
Criterion offers a correspondingly bold and beautiful transfer of one of the most astonishingly fragile and intuitive of all American movies.
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois, William Devane, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, John Schuck, Corey Fischer Director: Robert Altman Screenwriter: Robert Altman, Brian McKay Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 1971 Release Date: October 11, 2016 Buy: Video
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
Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.4.0
Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.
When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.
Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.
Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.
This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.
The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.
The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.
Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.
Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.
The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.
Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video