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Blu-ray Review: Rebecca

A superlative restoration of a key film in Alfred Hitchcock’s evolution as a master explorer of sexual neuroses.

5.0

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Rebecca

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is cloaked in a respectability for which it’s yet to be entirely forgiven. Astonishingly, it’s the only Hitchcock film to win the Academy Award for best picture, and it’s the first of the filmmaker’s collaborations with producer David O. Selznick, who insisted that Hitchcock follow Daphne du Maurier’s novel rather than more characteristically rebuilding the narrative for cinema. As underrated Hitchcock films go, it’s more glamorous for acolytes to defend Marnie and Frenzy—nasty and brilliant works that appeal mostly to true believers. After all, anyone can enjoy a classic studio-style gothic with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Yet Rebecca is riddled with dizzying layers of neurosis that are intensified by its very polish. The film taught Hitchcock a key lesson in dissonance and contrast, as the Selznick-ian glamour of the sets and actors heightens our awareness of what’s not being directly mentioned: the erotic suppression that drives the narrative. In his early British thrillers, Hitchcock used German expressionist tricks to conjure notions of evil and dread. After Rebecca, Hitchcock would infuse such dread in bourgeoisie comedies of manners, occasionally springing formalist tricks to highlight key emotional shifts; in this fashion, his later films are similar to those of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.

Rebecca concerns a dead woman who steals the spotlight from those left in her wake. Rebecca’s said to have drowned at sea, leaving her wealthy husband, Maxim de Winter (Olivier), adrift, aloof, and salving his presumed heartbreak at Monte Carlo. He’s a scion of a celebrity family and the head of Manderley, a Cornwall estate that’s mentioned in the novel’s classic opening line, which is awkwardly reprised here in voiceover. When Maxim meets the woman who’s to be the second Mrs. de Winter (Fontaine), she’s working as a paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a classic Hitchcockian matriarch who’s blinded by her snobbishness. It’s unimaginable to Van Hopper that Maxim would be interested in her beautiful companion.

Thus begins one of Rebecca’s most startling dissonances. When one considers words such as “plain” and “uncouth,” an image of Joan Fontaine doesn’t spring to mind. Gorgeous and elegant even when playing inelegance, Fontaine is an icon playing a character who’s held in contempt by the people of Manderley for violating rules that they can’t be bothered to explain. Only in such a rarefied and diseased realm could someone like a Fontaine character be deemed inadequate. This young woman’s most cardinal sin is that she isn’t the unseen Rebecca, who still haunts the estate with comic obviousness, a huge “R” adorning pillowcases and stationary, with sexual totems popping up everywhere the second Mrs. de Winter turns.

The new Mrs. de Winter faces a problem that’s familiar to women in Hitchcock’s cinema, as she’s driven to a frenzy trying to please a merciless patriarchy that’s enabled by women as well as men. There are anticipations of Vertigo and Marnie in Maxim’s relationship with his young bride, as he’s a controlling male who alternates between playing the role of abusive father and bored lover. At least the men of the later Hitchcock films knew what they wanted—a woman of their dreams, about which they were quite specific—while Maxim lashes out at his new wife for seemingly minor indiscretions, insisting that she must never grow up to become a calculating society woman, such as his sister, Beatrice (Gladys Cooper). Though Maxim also wants his wife to assume power over the domestic realms of Manderley, which are wielded by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who moves with the hushed and surreal purpose of a phantom and retrospectively suggests a corporeal embodiment of Psycho’s Mrs. Bates, particularly in silhouette.

Much of Rebecca is devoted to the psychological torture of the second Mrs. de Winter, anticipating Gaslight and other films that would follow. Here, Hitchcock began to refine his subjective camerawork, evoking the act of thinking through space. The second Mrs. de Winter, a nameless void denied any identity apart from the people who own her, strolls through Manderley and attempts to parse the secrets of the revered Rebecca and her passive-aggressive husband.

As in Psycho, the rooms in Rebecca symbolize psychological states. When the current Mrs. de Winter enters Rebecca’s west wing chamber, Hitchcock follows her in lush tracking shots that suggest a rewinding of time, with objects—a picture of Maxim, a brush, a robe—connoting a past life as well as the ongoing presence of a specter. This sense of unnatural, ever-present past-ness is rank and overwhelming, suggesting the fruit cellar of Psycho, which represented, per Robin Wood, the true heart and mind of Norman Bates.

Rebecca’s perversity reaches its zenith when Mrs. Danvers guides Mrs. de Winter toward Rebecca’s bed and fondles the dead socialite’s lingerie. The actors’ movements and the compression of the compositions cause us to feel as if we’re witnessing an obscene sexual act, an example of figurative necrophilia that once again anticipates Psycho and Vertigo. This bedroom is the “face” of Rebecca the public figure, and it’s contrasted with a shack by the ocean, where her heart’s private hungers were sated.

Manderley is a hall of mirrors of sexual resentment and taboo carnality, though if Rebecca lacks the hothouse intensity of Hitchcock’s later masterworks it’s because there are so many demons for Mrs. de Winter to uncover, binding the film up in gothic claptrap. Mrs. Danvers and her thwarted desire are clearly the central life forces of Manderley. Yet the film must also sort out a murder mystery (neutered by the production code) and a variety of other characters with secrets, most memorably Rebecca’s cousin, Jack (George Sanders), who speaks and moves with a smug and velvety insinuation that only Sanders can muster. Films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie refract their obsessions through a central triangle or rectangle, though Rebecca never achieves that focus. However, the film remains a key illustration of Hitchcock’s gift for fashioning emotional architecture. Every room in Manderley thrums with menace and longing that’s baked into bric-a-brac that tells many tales. It’s a pivotal work in the evolution of an artist’s poetry of sickness.

Image/Sound

This image boasts blacks that are a model of rich clarity, especially the shadows that suggest Rebecca’s ongoing presence despite her death. Textural detail is immaculate, bringing to newfound life the objects that populate the sets while heightening the impeccable soft lighting of the actors’ faces. This pristine image also underlines certain gaffes, such as the occasional shrillness of the whites and the obviousness of certain process shots, though these “flaws” are likely intentional and contribute to a highly subjective sense of suspended reality. The monaural soundtrack is impeccable, particularly its luscious rendering of Franz Waxman’s otherworldly score, which features an aluminum hum that recalls the soundtracks of 1950s sci-fi and horror films like Carnival of Souls. This transfer revitalizes Rebecca, further underlining just how well its fantastical sense of gothic cruelty has aged.

Extras

A new conversation between film critic and author Molly Haskell and scholar Patricia White focuses on Rebecca from a feminist perspective. They discuss Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick’s complicated relationships with women, resisting binary notions of misogyny and progressiveness. And a new interview with film historian Craig Barron concentrates on the subtlety of the film’s visual effects, such as a use of a process screen to black out a background setting, enveloping Joan Fontaine’s character in a foreground spotlight to visualize her discerning of key information.

The meat of this supplements package, though, is archival: A vast collection of vintage material covers Rebecca‘s production, documenting Selznick and Hitchcock’s famously prickly collaboration, their approach to adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel, casting, and use of camera and sets. An audio commentary from 1990 with film scholar Leonard J. Leff exhaustively discusses the film’s symbolism, including its prodigious use of doubles to express sexual tension. Most fascinating to this Hitchcock devotee are the screen tests for Fontaine as well as for Vivian Leigh, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter, and Loretta Young. Many of these actresses, while extraordinary, simply don’t project the self-effacement that Hitchcock sought. Fontaine’s screen test is also revealing for suggesting what she brought to the role before Hitchcock coached her; as the director has claimed, Fontaine initially overplayed the shyness of the role, though that overplaying reveals a vulnerability that’s perfect for the film.

Odds and ends, including a 2007 making-of featurette and interviews with Fontaine and Judith Anderson, offer overlapping stories of the film’s various collaborators. An interview with Hitchcock, shot for NBC’s Tomorrow in 1975, reminds one of the filmmaker’s own performative gifts as he fans the flames of his own legend while perhaps truthfully appearing to reveal hints of vulnerability. “Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of Rebecca” is a 2016 French television documentary that captures the supernatural obsessiveness of the author’s writing. Three radio versions of Rebecca, from 1958, 1941, and 1950, including Orson Welles’s adaptation of the novel for the Mercury Theatre, are also included, highlighting the clear influence that Rebecca would have over Citizen Kane. A re-release theatrical trailer and a booklet, which includes an essay by critic and Selznick biographer David Thomson and selected Selznick correspondence, round out a superlative package that, if one must carp, would benefit from more new material.

Overall

A superlative restoration of a key film in Alfred Hitchcock’s evolution as a master explorer of sexual neuroses.

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Gladys Cooper, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Florence Bates, Leo G. Carroll, Leonard Carey Director: Alfred Hitchcock Screenwriter: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 1940 Release Date: September 5, 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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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

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Forty Guns

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan

The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

3.5

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Let the Corpses Tan

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.

In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.

The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.

The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.

Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.

Image/Sound

On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.

Extras

Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.

Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

4.0

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A Dry White Season

The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.

Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.

The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.

In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.

Extras

A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.

Overall

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video

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