Duly enshrined as a founding work of neorealism, can Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine now be seen outside of its historical context as essentially a pretty good boys’ prison melodrama? While it may utilize Roman streets, slums, and outlying locations with more grit than a Warner Bros. juvenile-delinquent vehicle of the 1930s, the travails of postwar shoeshine boys and buddies Pasquale (sensitive Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (feisty Rinaldo Smordoni) jibe pretty well with the troubles of the Dead End Kids. Notwithstanding the veracity of the American-occupied urban locations he captures, De Sica doesn’t innovate or subvert expectations in the manner of the contemporaneous war trilogy of Roberto Rossellini, and his plotting with principal screenwriter Cesare Zavattini doesn’t rise above the level of a vivid potboiler with a mild bent for muckraking.
After the jauntily scored opening, a sun-dappled farm idyll with Pasquale racing the horse the boys aim to purchase, De Sica’s urchins are exploited by hoods (unwittingly abetting Giuseppe’s adult brother in the robbery of a fortune teller) and labeled “violent by nature” by overworked, brusque correction officials. They never really have a chance, and though this determinism is rooted in the chaos of 1945 Rome, more common tropes of lower-class struggle prevail save for a few scenes: slum dwellers living in hallways, the fencing of black-market blankets that lands the kids behind bars, and talk of the vanished or dead parents a half-decade of warfare have taken from their generation.
De Sica and Zavattini would refine their narrative art two years later with their celebrated Bicycle Thieves, a more jolting and original mix of street grit and pathos, but Shoeshine is undermined by the familiarity of elements like the stern warden set against the compassionate prison doctor (“Better a vagrant than dead,” he mutters to a colleague of a sickly inmate), the archetypal bad boys (bespectacled brainiac, sneering cellblock leader, etc.), or the hard cut from lice-ridden Pasquale and Giuseppe scratching in their cells to their criminal mentors dining out on sweetbreads and steak. Even in staging a jailbreak (and fire!) during a communal movie screening, before the film’s tearjerking finale, De Sica applied a little too much standard polish to this tragedy of victimized waifs and their neglected, curtailed childhoods.
The black-and-white visuals, while imperfect likely due to both deterioration of the original elements, use of inexpensive film stock, and the nascent techniques of mid-’40s non-studio shooting, have a striking immediacy and balance of light and shadows, particularly in outdoor scenes. The monaural, traditionally post-dubbed sound is nothing special, but serviceable and likely as fully restored as possible.
Aside from a re-release trailer for the restored Shoeshine, the sole supplement is a commentary track by critic and author Bert Cardullo, who sticks largely to basic analysis of framing, camera angles, and lighting (particularly the purposeful and low-budget reasons for the lack of it) rather than the production history or biography of Vittorio De Sica and his collaborators. His observations on the plot’s deployment of traditional prison-genre staples, the imposition of crassly manipulative music cues on De Sica by his producers, and the director’s admission that he cast cute juvenile leads rather than the homely ruffians whose lives he researched seemingly contradict Cardullo’s championing of the film as unvarnished truth-telling.
A keystone in a historic cinematic movement, but this release does not persuade that it equals the best of its era or its genre.
Cast: Franco Interlenghi, Rinaldo Smordoni, Annielo Mele, Bruno Ortenzi, Emilio Cigoli, Irene Smordoni Director: Vittorio De Sica Screenwriter: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare G. Viola, Cesare Zavattini Distributor: Entertainment One Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Release Date: May 17, 2011 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Stephen Frears’s The Hit on the Criterion Collection
The Hit is an enigmatic, existential fable about crime and punishment.3.5
An unconventional British gangster film from director Stephen Frears, The Hit largely avoids the usual trappings of the genre—in particular, the penchant for ultraviolence on display in roughly contemporary films like The Krays—opting instead for a thoughtful, even philosophical, character study. For one thing, mob informer Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), actually reads. For another, he attempts to live his life according to the implications and complications suggested by these books. Not only that, but his books serve as plot points both major, providing the existential and metaphysical themes that crop up later in the film, and minor, as in his extensive collection of books, which come in handy as projectiles in an early scene where a gang of youths attempt to abduct him. Talk about your Foucauldian “power-knowledge.”
Employing a series of sinuous mobile crane and tracking shots, often combined with wide-angle lenses for some fashionable distortion, the film’s prologue, set in the early 1970s, succinctly lays out the requisite backstory: From his safe house, we follow informer Parker into the courtroom, where his testimony against leading mob bosses clinches his subsequent fate. Then, out of nowhere, the accused gangsters break out into an impromptu rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” a moment that surreally blends menace and mirth.
The film then flashes forward 10 years, shifting location to a remote, desolate Spanish village. Parker is captured and handed over to two British hit men, who constitute your somewhat stereotypically mismatched pair: experienced, hardened killer Braddock (John Hurt) and overeager tyro Myron (Tim Roth). At one point, Braddock uses a photo of Stamp taken from his role in Poor Cow for the purposes of identification, leading Frears to joke in the commentary included on this disc that he’d got there years before Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.
A battle of wills and wits ensues: Parker attempts to play the hit men off one another, suggesting to Braddock that Myron’s inexperience makes him unreliable and then planting the notion with Myron that Braddock is losing his nerve. All the while, a young Spanish woman (Laura del Sol), taken hostage along the way, simply tries to stay alive. As the foursome make their way toward a rendezvous in Paris, both Braddock and Myron have occasion to inquire after Parker’s apparent lack of concern over his inevitable fate. He replies that he’s had plenty of time to ponder and claims to have eventually reached a sense of acceptance. This existential quietude comes, at least in part, from his extensive reading. An earlier scene showed him acquiring a book that, judging from its Spanish title, might well be a copy of Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese’s diary The Business of Living. Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, emphasized throughout his writings man’s inherent isolation and alienation, and frequently treated the motif of betrayal—themes that are just as germane to Frears’s film.
As the characters near the French border, Parker recounts the legend of Roland and Olivier making their suicidal stand against the Saracens during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, which they are just then traversing. The chivalrous Roland represents a code of honor and conduct that stands in pointed contrast to the actions and activities of the British gangsters. The film’s central scene, a terse confrontation between Braddock and Parker, takes place in a forest at night. (Scenes late in the film provide in juxtaposition a verdant, fecund nature against the scorched and arid desert of earlier ones.) The ineluctable topic is death. Parker opines: “It’s just a moment. We’re here. Then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else…maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”
Is it all a ruse? Does Parker, in fact, harbor some grand scheme for liberation? The film’s conclusion suggests that Parker has attained his hard-won resignation only by envisioning a timeline. When his death is still remote, set for a certain day, and expected to come in a certain manner, he remains calm. But when things change, he breaks down. Calm and philosophical restraint go out the window, so to speak. The desperate, craven urge to live overwhelms, and it’s a shock to the characters, just as much as it to the audience.
In the The Hit’s memorable final scene, Braddock attempts to cross the border into France disguised as a backpacker. But Spanish police, who we’ve seen previously dogging the gangsters’ trail, intervene and corner him in a lamp store, chasing him down amid a myriad light fixtures. The resultant contrast between abundant light and incipient darkness, as Braddock faces his own certain demise, makes for a truly compelling final flourish.
The Criterion Collection’s 2K restoration looks terrific, a serious step up from their already pretty solid 2009 DVD release, which went out of print years ago. Colors are brighter and more deeply saturated, which especially pays off in later scenes set among the verdant wilderness. Grain levels are well-managed and flesh tones lifelike. The LPCM mono track is clean and clear, nicely conveying composer Paco de Lucia’s surprisingly menacing flamenco score, not to mention the clangorous title theme from Eric Clapton.
Criterion ports over the slim-pickings bonus materials from their earlier DVD release. The commentary track is an expertly blended mosaic of input from director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince (playing off each other nicely), editor Mick Audsley, and actors Tim Roth and the late, lamented John Hurt (all of whom fly solo). It’s an eminently worthwhile track that covers a lot of ground, from the philosophy of shot selection and film editing to a near-death experience when Tim Roth (who couldn’t drive) decided to test his skills with Hurt and Terence Stamp in the backseat. There’s a 1988 episode of TV series Parkinson One to One featuring Stamp, who discusses his working-class Cockney roots, finding fame, becoming the face of 1960s Swinging London, and trying to put the moves on Rita Hayworth. Stamp comes across as a funny, introspective sort, and it’s a delightful 37 minutes. Finally, there’s a foldout booklet with an essay from Graham Fuller, who contextualizes The Hit as a British gangster film, a road movie, and a philosophical character study.
Stephen Frears’s The Hit, which receives a fine 2K upgrade but no new bonus materials from Criterion, is an enigmatic, existential fable about crime and punishment.
Cast: John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol, Terence Stamp, Bill Hunter, Fernando Rey, Jim Broadbent Director: Stephen Frears Screenwriter: Peter Prince Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 1984 Release Date: October 20, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream on Lionsgate 4K Ultra HD
Aronofsky’s influential hellride of a film gets a sturdy 4K upgrade and a few new extras that extol its technical merits.4
Most viewers feel that Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is either a gut-wrenching, formally adventurous masterpiece or an ugly, flashy piece of empty-headed propaganda. Thing is, both camps are sort of right. Aronofsky’s sophomore feature is undeniably accomplished, fully realized in its single-minded, fearless intensity, but it’s also, quite frankly, pretty melodramatic and dumb. Requiem for a Dream is an uncompromised, relentless descent into hell with just one thing on its mind: Drugs are really, really bad for you.
Requiem for a Dream is also the film that firmly established Aronofsky as a primarily visual filmmaker. His 1998 feature-length debut, Pi, was stylish but empty; later, he would elevate The Fountain’s philosophical hooey through sheer operatic force of will and The Wrestler’s solid but rote script through an expressive and soulful appropriation of the Dardenne brothers’ close-up tracking shots. If those later films are more successful than this one, it’s because their material could be elevated by style. In Requiem for a Dream, there’s nothing going on but style, and ultimately, that just isn’t enough.
For a while, though, it almost is. Requiem for a Dream’s first 30 minutes are some kind of tour de force, exploding out of the gate as the expression of a unique cinematic voice and introducing the stylistic techniques that structure the entirety of the film. Establishing Requiem for a Dream’s parallel editing schema, Aronofsky and editor Jay Rabinowitz cut between its central characters—Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her junkie son, Harry (Jared Leto), and Harry’s best buddy, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly)—and their respective drugs of choice: heroin and ecstasy for Harry and Tyrone, heroin and cocaine for Marion, and sugar, television, and, eventually, amphetamines for Sara.
Utilizing an entire stable of visual tricks, from split-screens to slow- and fast-motion to rhythmically repeated inserts, these early moments are an exciting and purely cinematic experience. One scene, in which a moment of tenderness between Harry and Marion is presented through split-screened close-ups, may be the finest sequence of Aronofsky’s career, exquisitely expressing the characters’ intimacy as well as their fundamental distance.
Taking place over the course of one year, structured into four chapters tied to the seasons, the film starts bleakly and just gets bleaker, and as it progresses these stylistic decisions start to feel more and more oppressive. This is obviously by design, but there are only so many times you can show the effect of cocaine through fast motion or mental deterioration through fish-eye lenses before the techniques start to feel less expressive than lazy and obvious—crutches for a filmmaker who used up his entire bag of tricks in the first 30 minutes.
Narratively, as Requiem for a Dream spirals toward its nightmarish finale, things start to get so melodramatically awful for the characters that the film starts to seem like a modern-day equivalent to Reefer Madness, never so much as in the ugly way it introduces the character of a black drug dealer, Big Tim (Keith David), solely to exploit audience disgust at seeing a white woman taken advantage of by a black man. And no matter how relentlessly upsetting and effective Requiem for a Dream’s climax is—and it is effective, a self-contained masterpiece of aggressive cross-cutting and sound design—by that point it’s almost impossible to shake the image of Aronofsky as a gym coach hysterically lecturing his class on the dangers of drug use. Sorry, but this reviewer got enough of that in high school.
Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s 2009 Blu-ray release boasted a strong image and even stronger audio. Its only egregious flaw was the occasionally soft edge, which isn’t evident on either the Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD disc included with this new release. The grain level is consistent and cinematic throughout, with the 4K exhibiting stronger color saturation and more accurate skin tones. The film’s relentless sound editing and Clint Mansell’s remarkable score is perfectly presented, never sacrificing the clarity of the dialogue.
The two commentary tracks, one featuring director Darren Aronofsky and the other cinematographer Matthew Libatique, have been ported over from the prior standard-definition and Blu-ray editions of Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky’s remains the most engaging of the two, as its enriched by his recollections of growing up in Brooklyn, among other things, while Libatique’s is good listening for anyone fascinated by the film’s technical attributes. Four new special features are included on the 4K and all of them make clear that Requiem for a Dream would not have been possible without Pi. In a 16-minute conversation, Ellen Burstyn remembers watching Aronofsky’s debut feature and it convincing her that “he’s an artist” and how she carried her experience of playing Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night into her role here. Clint Mansell discusses moving to New York, meeting Aronofsky, working on Pi, and the genre influences and disparate sonic elements of his score for Requiem for a Dream. Elsewhere, Dr. Bruce Isaacs, author of The Art of Pure Cinema and Toward a New Film Aesthetic, lavishes coolly hyperbolic praise on the film’s style. The extras are rounded out by five minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.
On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Darren Aronofsky’s influential hellride of a film gets a sturdy 4K upgrade and a few new extras that extol its technical merits.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, Mark Margolis, Louise Lasser, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Sean Gullette, Keith David, Dylan Baker Director: Darren Aronofsky Screenwriter: Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: October 13, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Helmut Käutner’s Black Gravel on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray
Black Gravel is a bleak yet vital interrogation of West Germany’s struggles after World War II.4
We often hear little about the German films made between Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films for the Nazi Party and the works of the New German Cinema of the late ‘60s, almost as if the German film industry were at a standstill during that time. But during and after World War II, the industry was churning out the escapist Heimatfilm—literally, homeland film—even after nearly all of its most talented directors had fled to the United States and France.
One of the few great filmmakers not affiliated with the Nazi Party to remain in Germany was Helmut Käutner, whose melodramas shot during WWI, such as Romance in a Minor Key and Under the Bridges, have an emotional sensitivity and fluid camerawork that recalls his compatriot Max Ophüls’s work. But because of Käutner’s suspect decision to continue working in his homeland throughout the ‘40s—or, perhaps, his inability to leave—his films received little fanfare outside of Germany, aside from European film festivals.
Once Käutner was out from under the censorial thumb of Adolf Hilter and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda, he sought to make amends, expressing his disdain for Nazism and directly addressing Germany’s recent transgressions through films such as Seven Journeys (the first German film released after WWII) and, later, Black Gravel, a savagely bleak portrait of a wholly corrupt Germany that’s yet to come to terms with its wartime legacy. Set in Sohnen, a small village where a U.S. military base was recently built, the latter film conveys the palpable sense of despair and disassociation felt by many Germans, who, at the time, were coping with critical shortages of food and material items. It’s an unscrupulous environment whose pervasive depravity is reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, also released in 1961 and which similarly depicts a country in a self-inflicted state of moral decay, forced to endure the ramifications of an ongoing U.S. military presence in the wake of WWII.
In Black Gravel, nothing is in more abundant supply than the countless vices indulged at one of Sohnen’s bars, which doubles as a bordello and caters to German locals and American military personnel alike. Tensions between the two nationalities are unsurprisingly high, but it’s the infighting between the Germans, who are involved in everything from pimping to embezzlement, that causes the most damage in Käutner’s intense crime drama.
Following the exploits of a truck driver, Robert (Helmut Wildt), involved in a scam to steal a couple of loads of the gravel he delivers each week, the film presents Germany as being stuck in a purgatorial state of recovery. The titular substance takes on a literal, material function in regards to reconstruction, specifically the building of a road around the air force base. But it also serves as a potent metaphor for the volatile state of post-war Germany.
The notion of hiding from one’s sins is a recurring motif throughout, and is often symbolically attached to the town’s giant gravel pit, which doubles as a makeshift burial ground. Early on, Robert tosses a dog, who was accidentally killed by a coworker, into the gravel pit for an unceremonious burial. This same pit is also used as the grave for a couple who Robert accidentally kills with his truck later in the film. In both cases, although the murder was unintentional, the attempts to escape blame and consequences are very much deliberate.
Käutner’s damning film sees a nation of people unwilling or unable to confront their history of violence—a notion further complicated when the owner of the aforementioned dog, Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg), is revealed to be a past lover of Robert’s. Where Robert is keen to resume their affair as if nothing happened in the intervening years, Inge dreams of moving to Canada with her American husband and leaving Germany forever behind.
These two opposing impulses—one to return to “glory days” and the other to flee—drive many of the characters’ behaviors, yet both point to an inability to confront the reasons behind the German peoples’ current state of absolute moral bankruptcy. In dressing this conflict, and an overwhelming sense of paranoia and entrapment, up in the tropes of a thriller, Käutner exhibits his mastery of atmosphere and mood, but the complex social commentary of Black Gravel offers a raw and eye-opening look at Germany at a time when its cinema mostly ignored reality and its true national history was often deliberately kept secret.
For this Blu-ray, Kino has transferred both the uncensored “premiere” version of the film and the slightly shorter, censored “distribution” cut, sourcing a print of the premiere version that was preserved by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in 2016. As the original camera negative was used for most of this preservation, the results are quite impressive, with a high contrast ratio and sharp image that’s consistently rich in detail. Scratches are evident from time to time, but the damage is relatively minor and typically visible for only a few seconds at a time. The distribution version is a tad washed out compared to the premiere cut, which, as houses the commentary track included on the disc, is effectively presented as the definitive version. The 16-bit audio track is suitably clear, with clean dialogue throughout.
On his commentary track, German film critic Olaf Möller provides a comprehensive yet accessible analysis of post-WWII cinema in Germany. He highlights the importance of Helmut Käutner’s films in West Germany in the mid-20th century and traces the rise and fall of the Heimatfilm, which eventually led to a resurgence of crime films like Black Gravel in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Möller also details the controversy surrounding the film based on charges of anti-Semitism that led to one scene being cut for distribution. He clarifies that many Jewish groups disagreed with claims made against the film, as the scene in question clearly aims to sympathize with the former concentration camp prisoner after a racial slur is hurled in his direction. There are occasional dips in the conversation, but this is an indispensable commentary for anyone remotely interested in post-war German films.
Black Gravel is a bleak yet vital interrogation of West Germany’s struggles after World War II, and Kino’s Region 1 Blu-ray is one of the year’s essential releases.
Cast: Helmut Wildt, Ingmar Zeisberg, Hans Cossy, Wolfgang Büttner, Anita Höfer, Heinrich Trimbur, Peter Nestler, Edeltraut Elsner Director: Helmut Käutner Screenwriter: Helmut Käutner, Walter Ulbrich Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 1961 Release Date: September 1, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou on the Criterion Collection
Criterion provides Godard’s freewheeling ode to amour and its ineluctable betrayal with a spiffy new 2K upgrade.4
Though I think I outgrew Michael Gebert’s personal taste in movies when I was around 19—and full-out rejected it later on when I realized I preferred Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Brian De Palma to Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Martin Scorsese—I can’t say I don’t return to his Encyclopedia of Movie Awards every now and again to relish a few of his surprisingly trenchant one-liners. In writing about 1965’s Alphaville, Gebert wrote that Jean-Luc Godard “was exciting when either you or the whole world was 20.” I’d push the age up at least another decade, but there’s certainly some truth in that notion, and the maxim applied most notably to Godard himself.
The films he made up to and including his 10th feature film, Pierrot le Fou, and perhaps the two or three things thereafter, pit insurgency against insouciance, foreboding against frivolity. If they act a little confused and a lot self-involved, it’s because they’re artistically pubescent in the best possible sense of the misnomer, and their good looks have you giving them the benefit of the doubt even as you yourself start to approach your ugly, embittered In Praise of Love years or give up on cinema for the third or fourth time.
Appropriately, Pierrot le Fou was supposed to be the tale of a May-December affair, but by the time 32-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo had been cast in the lead role opposite 25-year-old Anna Karina, the film took on a slightly different aura. Formally connected with the later requiem of Weekend by the two films’ shared composer, Antoine Duhamel, Pierrot le Fou suggests the glamour of idealistic suicide, whereas Weekend embodies the residual rage of someone who couldn’t seal the deal. The ideas rattling around in the earlier film are as skeptical as they are profuse—guns, cars, ad copy, catchphrases, and wordplay dominate the mise-en-scène—but haven’t yet rotted into real-deal contempt.
The film begins with Ferdinand (Belmondo) apparently scraping together a nice bourgeois existence for himself and his wife, whose economic contentment is summed up by the fact that she can go to parties in her new panty-less, invisible girdle—a device that Godard, through Ferdinand, declares the apotheosis of modernism. Typical of the film’s high-wire act, the comment is clearly said in mockery of both consumerism and feminine concerns, but the image—that of a perfectly aligned Madison Avenue-engineered derrière—is just as clearly appreciative of what youth, fashion, and mass media can accomplish: great ass.
In the next scene, the discussions among a group of party guests become product placements, with women in particular prattling on about all their new sartorial acquisitions even as they mysteriously lose pieces of their clothing while Ferdinand wanders from room to room. Immediately fed up, he returns home and runs off with the family babysitter, Marianne (Karina). Godard foreshadows the futility of their attempted escape from vapid pop culture by staging their vehicular flight in a dizzying blizzard of richly hued lights—meant to represent passing streetlights—that are the same colors of the rooms at the party.
Sure enough, once the couple gets past a few murders loosely connected with Marianne’s apparent associations with organized crime, and Ferdinand settles into a Robinson Crusoe-by-way-of-Holden Caulfield lifestyle along a stretch of the French Rivera not a half-mile down from the tourist hotels, the allure of escape begins to fade. Ferdinand tries to devote himself to the lost art of reading, but sneaks into movies (sitting behind Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Marianne insists they move onto their next adventure, preferably one with a little bit more connection with the material world that previously provided her with so many enjoyable 45s.
Both Ferdinand and Marianne ultimately fail to better themselves romantically, intellectually, politically, or philosophically, and it’s one of Pierrot le Fou’s unique charms—and one reason why the film stands out as a particularly beloved entry among those who adore the French New Wave—that Godard doesn’t regard their situation with emphatic mockery or inordinate reverence. (It’s worth mentioning that his next film, Masculin Féminin, isn’t quite as magnanimous about the harmless dangers of pop music.) Though the whiz-bang, comic book-panel aesthetic of Pierrot le Fou is as potentially intoxicating as any contemporaneous head movie, it’s also one of his most finely balanced works, one that successfully straddles generational gaps far wider than the one separating Ferdinand and Marianne—even the one separating 1960s-era Godard from latter-day JLG/JLG.
Criterion presents Pierrot le Fou in a new 2K restoration that’s a few notches above their already excellent—and long out-of-print—2009 release in terms of color saturation and the clarity of fine details. Raoul Coutard’s ravishing Techniscope cinematography looks livelier than ever. There is, though, one slight discrepancy between the two releases: The earlier Criterion release applied a green filter to the scene where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Ferdinand meets Samuel Fuller at a boring bourgeois party, while the new 2K edition lacks the hue. The French LPCM mono track is a workhorse, doing well by the recondite score, whether it be snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Antoine Duhamel’s broody score.
All of the extras on this Blu-ray release of Pierrot le Fou have been ported over from past Criterion releases of the film. In an interview from 2007, Anna Karina discusses how her working relationship with Jean-Luc Godard gave her the opportunity to play very different characters from film to film, how they worked from a daily script installment, and how important her relationship with him was for her personal development. Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 2007 video essay, A “Pierrot Primer, is a brilliant, incisive reading of about the first 15 minutes of Godard’s film—so bursting with ideas and insights that you may wish he’d done a piece on the whole film. Godard, l’amour, la poésie, an intimate documentary from 2007 by writer and director Luc Lagier, delves into the complex working and personal history between Godard and Karina, with talking-head commentary from collaborators who knew them relatively well. There’s also a puff profile piece on Belmondo with contributions from Godard and Karina, and an extract of interviews with the three principals for the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Finally, the set includes a thick illustrated booklet that contains a 1969 review of the film by Andrew Sarris, a 1965 interview with Godard, and a 2007 essay by film critic Richard Brody that explores the improvisatory nature of Godard’s process, and never more so than in Pierrot le Fou.
Criterion provides Jean-Luc Godard’s freewheeling ode to amour and its ineluctable betrayal with a spiffy new 2K upgrade, but all the extras have been ported over from past releases.
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Graziella Galvani, Dirk Sanders, Raymond Devos, Roger Dutoit, Hans Meyer Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: October 6, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Shakedown on KL Studio Classics
Wyler’s flawed yet fascinating film offers a look at a future Hollywood master in the nascent stage of his career.3.5
William Wyler’s 1929 silent film The Shakedown is a boxing drama that staves off the saccharine sentimentality of a tried-and-true redemption story with its ribald sense of humor and hard look at its working-class milieu. The action opens in a smoky pool hall, where pretty boy Dave Roberts (James Murray) convinces patrons that he can’t be punched before storming out the door to save a damsel in distress from a brawny meathead boxer, Battling Roff (George Kotsonaros). We soon learn, though, that Dave isn’t much of a hero and all that commotion was part of a scam cooked up by Roff and his manager (Wheeler Oakman) to sucker locals into betting their drinking money on Dave, who’s been paid off to take a dive in the second round of an upcoming match with Roff.
It’s a classic con that these men have been executing in small towns across America’s heartland, and Dave’s all-American looks and swagger make him the perfect hustler to keep their operation going. His willingness, however, to continue playing the fall guy is tested as he grows increasingly attached to the latchkey kid, Clem (Jack Hanlon), who he saves from a passing train. It’s a baldly manipulative ploy straight out of a cheap melodrama that the filmmakers punch up by giving Clem a resilience and abrasiveness that keeps the audience’s pity and sorrow at bay. He’s sympathetic, sure, but he’s also a petty thief with quite the hot temper, as Dave’s “trainer,” Dugan (Harry Gribbon), who often finds himself the victim of the boy’s slingshot or angry parade of silly faces, can attest to.
Clem is something of a more youthful, slightly less corrupted version of Dave, as underlined in a scene where Clem reveals that he used loaded dice to swindle locals out of a few bucks. In a cut to a close-up of Dave, Wyler highlights the conflicted nature of his protagonist’s reaction, finding him simultaneously horrified and proud that the boy is already so streetwise at such a young age. This pairing of a surrogate father and son has all the makings of a hokey subplot, but Wyler diminishes the mawkish nature of their bonding by clarifying that Dave is using the boy, as well as a local woman, Marjorie (Barbara Kent), who’s taken a liking to him, as a way to garner more support, and as such more bets, for his next match with Roff.
The narrative’s trajectory is every bit as predictable as the results of Roff and Dave’s fights, but Wyler makes Dave’s redemptive journey as tough as it is thrilling, with an extended and invigoratingly brutal boxing match that sees Dave atone for his sins by staying in the ring and surviving the pugilistic fury of the enraged Roff. Employing an impressive range of visual tactics, such as whip pans, rapid cutting, and superimpositions, Wyler gives Dave’s transformation from fraud to champ a striking dynamism. At just 65 minutes, The Shakedown moves as swiftly as a well-trained boxer, and while the director would certainly go on to make better films, this early silent effort displays a keen understanding of the medium and the ability to wring genuine emotion and excitement out of wholly mediocre material.
For this Blu-ray release of The Shakedown, Kino Lorber has sourced Universal’s recent 4K restoration of the film from a 35mm duplicate negative. There are stretches, particularly during much of the first reel, where scratches and debris are evident, and one can only assume that, given that the film was lost for nearly 70 years, the damage to the negative was too severe to be completely removed digitally. Still, even these rougher patches look gorgeous, boasting an impressive contrast ratio, with strong black levels and an abundance of grain that retains the soft, textured look of celluloid. Image clarity is also very good, as there are no signs of motion-blurring during the constant, rapid movements during the film’s boxing matches. The disc contains only the silent version of the film (the sound version is still lost), so the only audio is Michael Gatt’s electronic score, which sounds great.
On his commentary track, film critic Nick Pinkerton covers a lot of ground in 65 minutes, touching on the careers of all of the film’s major players, Universal’s challenging transition to sound, and William Wyler’s transition from short westerns to feature filmmaking. Most interesting is his discussion of the many tropes and traditions that inform the film, from, most obviously, the boxing picture, to the American grifter and the pairing of a latchkey kid with a rough-edged father figure. Kino has also included a booklet with an essay by writer Nora “The Nitrate Diva” Fiore in which she details the ways in which Wyler injects life into a fairly familiar story, through both his actors’ performances and his camerawork.
William Wyler’s flawed yet fascinating The Shakedown offers a look at a future Hollywood master in the nascent stage of his career.
Cast: James Murray, Barbara Kent, George Kotsonaros, Jack Hanlon, Harry Gribbon, Wheeler Oakman Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Charles Logue, Albert DeMond Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 65 min Rating: NR Year: 1929 Release Date: July 27, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man on the Criterion Collection
The film may be a comparatively “straight” entry in Lynch’s filmography, but it’s nevertheless a rapturously beautiful and moving art object.4.5
David Lynch’s The Elephant Man belongs to one of the mustiest of genres: the inspirational biopic. The film details the late life of Joseph Merrick (called John here), an English man born in 1862 with severe deformities, including a twisted spine and face, huge and painful knots of flesh and bone, and a phallic head so large and heavy that he couldn’t sleep laying down for fear of breaking his neck. Merrick was discovered performing in a freak show by surgeon Frederick Treves, who eventually set him up in a suite at the London Hospital, where Merrick became an unlikely socialite and celebrity, earning praise and adoration beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Such a story, of an outcast reconciling with society, sounds opposed to the radical interests that Lynch displayed in Eraserhead and would go on to refine in future projects.
The Elephant Man isn’t without sops to formula, as Lynch and co-screenwriters Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren simplified Merrick’s story to more efficiently exploit our tears. Most notably, they elided the details of the man’s role in his own exploitation at freak shows—he apparently wanted to get out of workhouses and recognized an opportunity—so that we may infer that he’s at the mercy of others. The film’s freak show ringleader, Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), is a drunken tyrant out of a fairy tale, while Merrick (John Hurt) is a holy innocent who coaxes the best out of mostly the upper class. (This pattern is an early sign of Lynch’s strange classist streak; the people unable to transcend their biases about Merrick are, with rare exception, blue collar.) Between these men on the film’s moral spectrum is Treves (Anthony Hopkins), whose own exploitation of Merrick, in terms of displaying the man to medical professionals, is mentioned but largely unexamined. Such recognizable tropes have helped foster the reputation that The Elephant Man is one of surrealist Lynch’s few “straight” films.
Yet Lynch brings to this story an ecstatic, hallucinatory tactility that belies the understanding of audiences (including some critics) who seem to experience films only in terms of their narrative beats. With considerable aide by cinematographer Freddie Francis, production designer Stuart Craig, art director Robert Cartwright, among others, Lynch conjures a menacingly beautiful, overpopulated Victorian London that’s rife in smoke and shadows, and the primordial industrial sounds that haunted the drab warehouse world of Eraserhead. In fact, this black-and-white London suggests something like the progenitor of that realm, as Lynch shows the rising industrial age to be a fount of quick and easy miracles—gas lanterns and machines that enable mass factory work and around-the-clock amusements—that lend themselves to pollution, workplace drudgery, violence, and casual alienation. Formally, this film is a more mature examination of exploitation than a mere plot summary can convey.
Most pivotally, Lynch is committed to rendering the sensorial experience of living as a physically damaged, greatly abused man who encounters nothing but revulsion until Treves offered him the miracle of empathy. Lynch, who himself has an exploitive streak, exhibits remarkable tact and delicacy in The Elephant Man. For the film’s first act, we see Merrick in a heavy coat and a hood with a singular slit for an eyehole that suggests, per Pauline Kael, a movie theater screen. Due to the attentive sound mixing, we feel Merrick’s considerable pain, especially his labored breathing, even as he is invisible to us. Merrick is so present, even disguised, that we’re never led to anticipate his “reveal” cheaply, as we might a monster in a horror film. And when Merrick is finally shown in full, through the point of view of a horrified nurse who walks into his London hospital chambers, we feel his shock, not hers, as he’s seen to be disturbed while enjoying a rare interlude of repose and comfort. In another moment, in which we see Merrick’s silhouette while Treves shows him to colleagues, we’re allowed to feel even through the medical sheet the will it takes for this man simply to stand.
Lynch shows similar restraint in staging the narrative’s emotional crescendos, of which there are many. He understands that Merrick’s story is inherently heartbreaking, and frequently ends scenes the second they reach a catharsis, without wallowing in aggrandizing joy or misery. This strategy allows us to savor the fleetingness, the value, of each of Merrick’s lovely encounters—especially the extraordinarily moving passages with Treves’s wife, Ann (Hannah Gordon), and the theater actress Madge Kendall (Anne Bancroft)—at the same time as Merrick is allowed to be taken at face value as human. Lynch imbues the film with a wrenching matter-of-fact quality that honors Merrick and his efforts to be an upper-crust English gentleman, who wears nice suits and takes tea with friends. Clumsy melodrama would condescend to Merrick, paying him the insult of pity while compromising the profound lightness of being, and an awareness of seemingly unimaginable pain, that Hurt brings to the role. In other words, Lynch adopts the lucid point of view of Treves, tenderly regarding a cursed man who nevertheless savored beauty. For Lynch, Merrick is the ultimate tortured artist.
This 4K restoration was undertaken with close supervision by David Lynch, and it suits his exacting standards. The black-and-white cinematography boasts phenomenal clarity as well as a healthy grain structure—a combination that evokes a modern-era daguerreotype. The transfer is a bona fide feast of visual details, from the slums of old East London to the fine clothes and accessories of the wealthy. Landscapes, especially the woods of a surreal escape scene, shimmer with a healthy, heavenly translucent light, and the blacks are weighty and well-differentiated. (And a modern transfer does nothing to dispel the power of the film’s make-up effects.) The 2.0 English LPCM track, which was redone for this edition to recapture lost nuances, is flawless to these ears, especially tending to Lynch’s longtime obsession with the heavy, enslaving, weirdly reassuring sounds of industrial machines chugging away.
The extras are composed mostly of archive material ranging from the 1980s to the early 2000s, including various interviews over the years with actor John Hurt, producer Jonathan Sanger, make-up artist Christopher Tucker, producer Mel Brooks, cinematographer Freddie Francis, and stills photographer Frank Connor. Taken together, these extras tend to repeat themselves, though the central story of The Elephant Man’s realization from a spec script to Lynch’s second film is rendered here with great detail. The best one-stop shop is “The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed,” a 21-minute program that collects most of the aforementioned players all together, with particularly evocative observations from Brooks and Tucker, who’d fashion make-up so striking that it would inspire the Oscars to create a new category.
There are also several archive interviews with Lynch: one from 1981 at the AFI, in which it’s evident that he’d already honed his elliptical, allusive way of answering questions; one from 2006 with filmmaker Mike Figgis, where he speaks quite poetically of the nature of inspiration; and one from 2009, where he offers a surprisingly straightforward account of his involvement with The Elephant Man. Details of the film’s production are affirmed once again on this disc’s most recent feature, in which Lynch and Kristine McKenna read passages from their 2018 book, Room to Dream. This segment also contains tantalizing descriptions of one of Lynch’s most famous unrealized screenplays, Ronnie Rocket. Radio spots, a piece on Merrick’s real life, and a booklet—featuring passages from Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch and an 1886 letter to the London Times concerning Merrick—round out a sturdy package.
David Lynch’s The Elephant Man may be a comparatively “straight” entry in the surrealist’s filmography, but it’s nevertheless a rapturously beautiful and moving art object.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher, Lesley Dunlop Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: Christopher De Vore, Eric bergen, David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: David Cronenberg’s Shivers on Vestron Video
Cronenberg’s first feature is a decidedly bloody valentine to libidinal liberation.4
Artistic antennae of a certain sensitivity must have been picking up some peculiar vibrations in 1975, when, within months of sci-fi impresario J.G. Ballard publishing High-Rise, a dystopian rumination on modern living, then-fledgling director David Cronenberg introduced his brand of body-based horror with Shivers. Both works explore civilization and its discontents via the microcosm of an apartment complex. Both emphasize the breakdown of social structures, as well as the potential for their perversely polymorphous restoration. And both adopt an affectless, almost clinical style. Not surprisingly, these sensibilities would collide decades later when Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s Crash.
Shivers opens with an advertisement that introduces the film’s central location, the science fiction-sounding Starliner Towers, in all its petit-bourgeois perfection. But dark and dangerous impulses are roiling just below the flawless surfaces of the complex. Witness the scene where a bearded professor type, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), murders and then vivisects a young woman, Annabelle (Cathy Graham), dressed like a schoolgirl. She proves to be patient zero in the outbreak of slug-like parasites that invade the Starliner Towers, creatures described by Hobbes’s fellow medical researcher, Dr. Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), as “part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease.” They are, of course, the result of a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Or has it? In a certain sense, Hobbes’s radical research project has been all too successful. A sign glimpsed in Dr. Linsky’s office reads: “Sex was invented by a clever venereal disease.” This statement of principle uncannily reverses the flow of conventional causality, viewing human behavior as the result of unconscious biological urges, rather than intellect or volition. Cronenberg’s root metaphor of the parasites as libidinal motivators flips the script on traditional notions of good and evil, the individual and the collective, and sex and death. The depths of sexual perversity to which Starliner residents will sink can just as easily be seen as signs of revolutionary sexual liberation. Cronenberg has repeatedly said in interviews that Shivers actually has a happy ending, if seen from the point of view of the parasites.
Cronenberg sharply contrasts the duplicity and untrammeled hubris of Dr. Hobbes and his “pure research” with dogged frontline responder Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hamptom), Starliner’s resident medico. At first glance, St. Luc seems eminently capable, yet oddly diffident to the tender mercies proffered by Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry). In a fine turn of irony, St. Luc’s medical training becomes less germane as the chaos created by the parasitic invasion spreads. He slowly evolves from dapper diagnostician to beleaguered action hero, slugging and shooting his way out of increasingly sticky situations. Of course, this being Cronenberg, the outcome for him is sure to be less than triumphant.
Shivers is a domestic tragicomedy at heart, charting the dissolution of the marriage between Nicholas (Alan Migicovsky) and Janine (Susan Petrie). The downward spiral begins as a result of Nicholas’s having had secret dalliance with Annabelle. Needless to say, he’s infected and feeling strangely paternalistic about the writhing critters breeding in his GI tract. (The film’s skewed attitude toward fathers in general is compounded by the “Have you met my daughter, Erica?” gag later on.) Alienated from Nicholas’s affections, Janine seeks solace from her next-door BFF, Betts (Barbara Steele), in an encounter that soon turns very intimate indeed.
Shivers comes closet in its final scenes to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of Cronenberg’s avowed sources of inspiration, with fugitive St. Luc being chased back into the Starliner complex by hordes of the shambling infected. In a sort of backhanded allusion to its working title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, the film does in fact conclude with something resembling an orgy in the complex’s swimming pool. The scene also doubles as a perverse sort of baptism into a new state of being, administered, ironically enough, by the very woman who would have been his one true love in a more conventional scenario. True to the iconoclastic genre cinema of the 1970s, Shivers ends not with the restoration of moral order, but with the newly converted setting out to inaugurate an entirely new order, one that unabashedly embraces the “other” in all its manifestations.
Lionsgate’s 1080p presentation of Shivers looks excellent overall, especially given the film’s ultra-low budget, with grain levels in particular looking suitably cinematic. Colors are bright, flesh tones lifelike, and there’s plenty of fine detail evident in the HD image. There’s little in the way of damage, aside from some slight speckling here and there. The audio track is Master Audio 2.0 mono, which across the dialogue cleanly and clearly, aside from a few moments of reduced volume, doubtless attributable to the original sound conditions.
The commentary track featuring David Cronenberg, moderated by critic and magazine editor Chris Alexander, is engaging and full of wry observations. Cronenberg opens by remarking how appropriate it is that he has a cold while recording the commentary and that his first commercial film opens quite literally with a commercial. He goes on to discuss leveraging the popularity of the script into a directing gig, using library music because they couldn’t afford a full score, why he likes shooting in bathrooms, and the development of his directorial style over the course of his career from minimalist by necessity to minimalistic by preference.
The commentary track with co-producer Don Carmody, also moderated by Alexander, is a bit more matter-of-fact, yet still covers a lot of interesting ground. Carmody talks about getting the job as producer, casting a lot of local “wannabes” in secondary roles, his hands-on approach, and his later involvement with a number of cult Canadian genre films.
In a recent interview with Cronenberg that contains some overlap with the commentary, he discusses the dearth of genre films in the Canadian film industry at the time, almost moving to L.A. to work with Roger Corman, the film’s less than enthusiastic reception, and its influence on Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. Actress Lynn Lowry goes into her familiarity with horror having worked on I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies, how she enjoyed playing a “villain” for a change, performing her striptease scene for Cronenberg instead of her on-screen partner, and accidentally stabbing the director in the shoulder with a meat fork. Make-up artist and creature designer Joe Blasco talks about the wisdom of turning down Easy Rider and Night of the Living Dead, taking the gig on Shivers when he heard he’d be working with horror icon Barbara Steele. He also demonstrates how one of the slug props (which he says looks more like a penis than a turd) was operated with a length of wire and two wooden paddles.
Greg Dunning, son of Cinépix co-founder John Dunning, reminisces about the company’s working relationship with Cronenberg on both Shivers and Rabid, and his father’s preference for putting women in lead roles. An archival interview with Cronenberg from 1998 contains some interesting information, particularly when it comes to the casting of the film, effects work, and locations. There’s also a still gallery accompanied by an archival audio interview with executive producer John Dunning where he talks about his early days working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, breaking the Jesuit stranglehold on censorship (with a particularly amusing bit about their sweaty tonsured heads giving off steam while viewing a film), and how importing European sex films makes good financial sense.
Making its domestic Blu-ray debut with a sparkling transfer and lots of informative extras, David Cronenberg’s first feature is a decidedly bloody valentine to libidinal liberation.
Cast: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Migicovsky, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Camille Ducharme, Hanka Poznanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrána, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley Director: David Cronenberg Screenwriter: David Cronenberg Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1975 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 on Criterion Blu-ray
This set is best approached as a celebration of the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP.4
As the founder of the World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese has become an ambassador for global film preservation, elevating overlooked films from around the world and resurrecting them with the technology typically afforded to home-video releases of Hollywood mega-productions. Like the first two volumes of WCP restorations released by the Criterion Collection, the first in December 2013 and the second in May 2017, the third is both indispensable and flawed, as the six films collected here have no immediate relationship to one another aside from having been restored by the WCP.
Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes, from 1934, is an early example of Mexican gothic horror that ponders whether honest testimony in response to a traumatic event is possible when torrid emotions are involved. Two monks (Víctor Urruchúa and Carlos Villatoro) offer their recollections of murder and betrayal to an objective listener, and as their shared past is recounted twice, once from the point of view of each man, the comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashoman are inevitable; the dialogue exchanges between the monks help to articulate how pride and personal vendettas make constructing truthful histories next to impossible. The film, released early in the sound era, also employs an expressionist approach that recalls Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, especially in its use of close-ups.
The crown jewel of this collection, Humberto Solas’s 1968 epic Lucía follows three different women named Lucía at transitional moments in Cuban history: 1895, 1932, and an unidentified year in the 1960s. While each chapter functions independently of each other, they accumulate a sense of how a generation’s actions inevitably and irrevocably lay the groundwork for the next. Whether the film is in the midst of depicting murder, tragedy, or revolution—and Lucía abounds in depictions of all three—Solas directs with a focused fury seldom seen in the annals of cinema; he constructs indelible images of beauty and rage with an intensity that’s wild-eyed but simultaneously grounded in the specificity of each era.
Less virtuoso, though no less driven by a full-throated lament for injustice, is Usmar Ismail’s After the Curfew, a classic of Indonesian cinema. This 1954 melodrama tracks Iskander (A.N. Alcaff), a freedom fighter who finds coming home difficult, both psychologically and practically, in the wake of the Indonesian National Revolution. Ismail convincingly probes how colonial rule worms its way into the minds of the colonized by allowing the characters to emerge (they seem to linger in the foreground often) as embodiments of emotions that otherwise seem to remain suppressed within the country’s postcolonial milieu.
An important and successful work of the first wave of Iranian cinema, Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour, set in pre-revolutionary Iran, achieves a comparable effect through its satirical focus on the foibles of Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fanizadeh), a newly relocated schoolteacher who struggles both to reign in his rambunctious students and connect with his neighbors. Beyzaie tacks moments of slapstick humor onto a neorealist through line that also features instances of dazzling camerawork, making it difficult to pin down the film’s style or tone.
Scorsese calls Héctor Babenco’s Pixote another branch on the tree of neorealism, but the likes of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini never directed a film with such calculated brutality. This 1980 Brazilian drama mercilessly puts its eponymous 10-year-old protagonist (Fernando Ramos da Silva) through the wringer of poverty, crime, abuse, and trauma. It’s all meant to be an indictment, it seems, of Brazil’s military dictatorship, but Babenco only gestures at depicting institutional corruption beyond the most obvious melodramatic swipes at police making murders appear like suicides. At times, a teacher or a counselor appear empathetic toward Pixote and his ilk, but what’s Babenco really offering here aside from an overwrought glimpse behind the curtain of absolutely inhuman pain and suffering? The end result is less an aching cry for humanity than a torture contraption for willing, masochistic audiences.
Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô opts for a logic-oriented critique of seemingly immovable systemic corruption. The 1970 Mauritanian film proves remarkably complex despite its straightforward story concerning an unnamed African immigrant (Robert Liensol) trying to find employment, kinship, and stability in France. He’s turned away from jobs that are seemingly available, he engages in prolonged conversations with a white intellectual who uses logic to disguise his racism, and he endures hysterical local propaganda claiming there’s a “black invasion,” all while the local travel agency advertises a “Vacation in black Africa.” Hondo burrows into the madness wrought by systemic racism through various techniques, ranging from animation to interior monologue to montage sequences. Like Dijbril Diop Mambéty’s subsequent Touki Bouki, Soleil Ô is a tour de force of intellectual and cinematic daring.
The World Cinema Project makes unwavering strides to restore films to the best of their abilities. In the case of a film like Downpour, where extant materials were either incomplete or irrevocably damaged, the restoration efforts don’t overcompensate with digital manipulation; the film is simply presented in accordance with the technology that produced it. That means, in this case, leaving in the original and, unfortunately, difficult-to-read English subtitles that were burned into the only existing print. But the WCP’s diligent work—1,500 hours according to their own estimates—ensures those moments are few and far between. When negatives are in immaculate condition, as is the case of Lucía and Soleil Ô, the result is a revelation: These 4K transfers are flawlessly assembled and color graded, with Lucía’s image detail especially of note for its depth of field, clarity in close-ups, and sharpness. The 4K transfer of Pixote and After the Curfew are largely pristine, with the colors of the former popping from the frame like the quick bursts of violence that litter the film. Sound is nearly flawless across the transfers; the uncompressed monaural soundtracks are free of pops, cracks, or hisses, and dialogue and music are mixed in accordance with their original filmic properties.
Given the importance of these restorations, it’s difficult not to be at least a little disappointed with the slim supplements. Each film gets an introduction from Martin Scorsese and an accompanying interview with either a historian, actor, or filmmaker. Scorsese’s intros each clock in at less than three minutes and provide key details about a film’s production and restoration efforts. The interviews that accompany each film are much weightier. Film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg explains how the coming of sound saved Mexican cinema, with Dos Monjes playing a key role in that momentous event. Journalist J.B. Kristano discusses the difficulties of studying Indonesian cinema when there’s hardly a single book on its history. A 2018 interview with Med Hondo delves into the “nonexistent” state of African cinema when he made Soleil Ô. Bahram Beyzaie explains how Downpour was a response to Iranian cinema during the early 1970s, and Héctor Babenco discusses his aversion to academia and how watching films by Yasujirō Ozu and Ingmar Bergman formed his cinematic identity. Finally, instead of an accompanying interview for Lucía, Criterion has included Humberto & Lucía, a 2020 documentary short by Carlos Barba Salva about the film’s production and reception. The box set also comes with a 76-page booklet featuring essays from critics Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo, and Hamid Naficy.
Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 3 is best approached as a celebration of the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, as the grouping of films here, as with the first two sets, is little more than incidental.
Cast: Víctor Urruchúa, Carlos Villatoro, A.N. Alcaff, Raquel Revuelta, Eslinda Núñez, Adela Legrá, Robert Liensol, Parviz Fanizadeh, Parvaneh Massoumi, Fernando Ramos da Silva, Marília Pêra Director: Juan Bustillo Oro, Usmar Ismail, Humberto Solás, Med Hondo, Bahram Beyzaie, Héctor Babenco Screenwriter: Juan Bustillo Oro, José Manuel Cordero, Asrul Sani, Humberto Solás, Julio García Espinosa, Nelson Rodríguez, Med Hondo, Bahram Beyzaie, Héctor Babenco, Jorge Durán Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 698 min Rating: NR Year: 1934 - 1980 Release Date: September 29, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Berry’s Claudine on the Criterion Collection
This release brings much-needed attention to Berry’s tender portrait of black love and the failures of the welfare system.4
Frederick Wiseman’s 1975 documentary Welfare judiciously details the inner workings of a deeply flawed, woefully underfunded public institution, depicting the overwhelming influx of people who are constantly being forced to jump through hoops by the welfare system. Made just one year prior on the other side of Manhattan, John Berry’s Claudine tells the fictional story of a single mother struggling to meet the basic needs of her family and navigating the demands of that system. Where Welfare highlights the widespread failings of a bureaucracy seemingly designed to stymie most individuals’ attempts to benefit from its services, Claudine examines the rippling effects that those failings have on one family trying to survive in Harlem.
Responding to her new lover, Rupert (James Earl Jones), who’s annoyed that she won’t spend the night with him, Claudine (Diahann Carroll) sarcastically jokes that she might as well be married to “the welfare man,” since that’s who dictates nearly every decision she makes in her life. Going on to articulate her frustrations with the extreme restrictions she’s forced to deal with, she says, “If I can’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. Go out and get myself a little job on the side…then I’m cheating. If I stay at home, then I’m lazy. You can’t win.” The film sees Claudine caught up in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze in which every door leads to a dead end. Indeed, even the most modest of home improvements are callously tallied against her by the social worker, Miss Kabak (Elisa Loti), who claims that she’s only there “to help.”
Claudine is far from helpless, though, as the film sees her not through the lens of her victimhood, but through her resilience. Her often arduous endeavors are backed by Gladys Knight & the Pips’s rousing soul soundtrack, which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield and features songs full of biting humor (“Mr. Welfare Man”) and pathos (“Make Yours a Happy Home”) that are straight shots of positivity and compassion. They’re a mirror of this mother’s single-minded determination to carve out a life for her family.
Claudine’s six children crowd their tiny apartment with their own emotional baggage, be it her eldest son Charles’s (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) burgeoning social conscience, her younger son Francis’s (Eric Jones) desire for invisibility, or her teenage daughter Charlene’s (Tamu Blackwell) troubles with booze and boys. This family is perpetually arguing, and while Claudine occasionally spanks her children, her love for them is unwavering.
It’s the thoughtful manner in which Claudine juxtaposes the harshness of existing in a state of poverty with the simple, often fleeting pleasures of life that makes it such a fascinating and unique film. Particularly in the era of its release, when blaxploitation films driven by violence and exaggerated black masculinity were at the height of their popularity, Claudine was a true outlier: a tender and sobering rendition of the African-American experience from a female perspective, grounding the intense love and passion between Claudine and Rupert in a gentleness and vulnerability that wasn’t yet typically afforded to black characters on screen.
The authenticity of the film’s representation of black sexuality stems largely from Carroll and Jones’s dynamic performances and magnetic chemistry. But it’s the film’s refusal to pull any punches and highlight the flaws of its main characters that prevents its somewhat optimistic portrait of black love from tipping into the maudlin. Claudine is a strong, loving mother, but the film doesn’t paint her as an angel. And while Rupert, a garbageman, is patient and sweet with Claudine and her much less-enthused kids, he’s left a trail of ex-wives and estranged children in his wake that speaks to his own troubled past.
The two lovers, in part, embody the most prevalent stereotypes about black men and women in ‘70s America: the welfare queen and the absent father. But Claudine does this knowingly, and in shining such an empathetic light on its main characters, it complicates those stereotypes. The film is ultimately not about individual or systematic morality, but rather pure survival. As with its sunny, upbeat soundtrack, Claudine mines the humor and joy out of life on the fringes of society, making beautiful music out of difficult situations. And it does so without ever minimizing the direness of the social ills that torment its characters on a daily basis.
Sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, the Criterion Collection’s transfer of Claudine is spectacular, boasting a consistently sharp image while still honoring the film’s gritty, rough-edged aesthetic. The color balancing is particularly impressive, with strong black levels and the wide array of skin tones all staying true to their natural hues. The yellows, browns, and reds that dominate the film’s color palette also really pop off the screen. The smallest of details are vividly rendered, lending the interiors of Claudine’s cramped apartment and her family’s Harlem neighborhood a strikingly tactile quality. Meanwhile, all signs of damage have been removed, and the healthy, even grain distribution ensures that the original filmlike textures are kept intact. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is crisp, with clean audio even in the more cacophonous scenes full of overlapping dialogue, and the Gladys Knight & the Pips score is captured in all its warmth and sonic depth.
The audio commentary, recorded in 2003, features filmmaker George Tillman Jr. and a number of the film’s actors, along with Dan Pine, son of the film’s screenwriters, serving as something of a de facto MC. As each individual was recorded separately, there’s a fair amount of dead air throughout the track, but the numerous participants do manage to bring a diverse range of topics and opinions to the table. James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll’s reminisces are the most insightful and amusing, but Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who plays Claudine’s eldest son in the film, also offers some interesting thoughts on the social consciousness of his character and how he saw many of those same concerns reflected in many black teens from his own life.
In another move toward the new normal in Blu-ray supplements, Criterion has again included a Zoom conversation on this disc (the first was on the studio’s recent release of Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve), here between filmmaker Robert Townsend and critic and programmer Ashley Clark. It’s a seamless conversation in which Townsend and Clark express their deep admiration for the film. Townshend in particular loves the film’s sensuality and authenticity, contrasting it with the many blaxploitation films released at the time, in which black male sexuality is much more heightened and sensitivity hidden beneath a veneer of virility.
In another new interview, critic Imogen Sara Smith unpacks director John Berry’s diverse career in film and theater, focusing on his years in France after he was blacklisted, his return to Hollywood in the ‘70s, and his surprising connections to Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Anna Karina, and Jean Seberg. In audio excerpts from a 1974 seminar featuring Carroll, the actress discusses her training with Lee Strasberg, her television work, and the challenges of being a black female actress. The disc also comes with a foldout booklet with a deeply personal, and quite moving, essay by critic Danielle A. Jackson.
Criterion’s release of Claudine brings much-needed attention to John Berry’s tender portrait of black love and the failures of the welfare system.
Cast: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Elisa Loti Director: John Berry Screenwriter: Tina Pine, Lester Pine Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 92 min Rating: PG Year: 1974 Release Date: October 13, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Jules Dassin’s The Naked City on the Criterion Collection
Criterion has outfitted this seminal but somewhat outdated crime film with a beautiful transfer.
Jules Dassin’s The Naked City was shot in dozens of locations in New York City, offering a vividly docudramatic sense of routine and place that’s affirmed by Mark Hellinger’s initially intriguing but eventually grating narration. The famed columnist turned producer most memorably identifies different neighborhoods and their interlocking relationships, his voiceover complementing anecdotes that suggest the typical lifecycle of the city before a more traditional plot kicks in. Such specificity is thrilling and unusual even today, as cities like New York and Los Angeles are still too often utilized vaguely as shorthand for cinematic myth-peddling. Spare offices, alternately bustling and desolate streets, harbors, and cramped low-income housing inform this film with a quiet and consistent urgency, illustrating in direct physical terms the class tensions that drive the plot. One can draw a direct line from The Naked City to Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and On the Waterfront, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, among others.
The film’s central plot is both revolutionary and sentimental, animated by Hellinger’s desire to translate his folksy columns to the cinema as a celebration of the intertwining infrastructures that comprise New York City as a synecdoche for America. Hellinger’s devotion to this idea allows for details that are now common of police shows and films, as many passages here concern fingerprinting, fabric analysis, and the successes and dead ends that result from interviewing witnesses. However, this sense of specificity doesn’t extend to many of the characters themselves, especially the police, who generally suggest white knights.
The Naked City arrives on Blu-ray alongside Brute Force, Hellinger’s prior collaboration with Dassin, and the films assume fascinatingly different attitudes about social systems, especially law enforcement. Brute Force is set in a corrupt and vicious ecosystem that’s best redeemed, if at all, by revolution, while the police of The Naked City are shown to be a reliable means to a justified end. The hothouse expressionism of Brute Force perfectly suited its attitude and subject, while The Naked City is torn between a radical aesthetic and a tidy theme.
In its emphasis on procedure over character, and on grit as a way to lend verisimilitude to dime-store twists, The Naked City established the template for the seemingly deathless television warhorse Law & Order and its offspring. And The Naked City has the very same limitation as Law & Order, as its fanatical devotion to “the system” squanders the sense of personal obsession and neuroses that drives classic noir and crime films. The film’s inciting incident, the murder of a model named Jean Dexter, is motivated by the usual mixtures of greed and sexual longing that one often expects of the murder mystery genre, but the revelations have no troubling or erotic charge. With one brief exception, Dexter’s absence doesn’t haunt The Naked City as, say, the eponymous victim haunted Otto Preminger’s Laura.
This exception is startling, however, and stands as one of The Naked City’s finest moments. When the investigators leading the case—self-consciously hambone veteran Lt. Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and young buck detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor)—find Dexter’s estranged parents, Mr. and Mrs. Batory (Grover Burgess and Adelaide Klein), the film takes an abrupt and devastating turn into melodrama. The Batorys are small-town folks who resented Dexter’s attraction to the “fast” city, and Mrs. Batory seems particularly steadfast in her assertion that Dexter deserved her fate. When the mother sees the daughter dead at the morgue though, she collapses into tears—an action that Klein invests with agonizing gravity. Here, the film’s structural and technical ambitions are usurped by a scene that frankly acknowledges the tolls of death. Another moment late in the film has a similar intensity, when Halloran finds one of the perpetrators, a stout ex-wrestler, Willy Garzah (Ted de Corsia), hiding out in an apartment so small it casually suggests a cage. De Corsia’s primordial, ravenously embittered energy is unsettling, imbuing the film with authentic suspense while resonantly suggesting how poverty can harden someone in the manner of the prison in Brute Force.
Seen through a contemporary prism, The Naked City is potentially more uncomfortable than it was ever intended to be, as Hellinger’s faith in law and order is charged in an era wracked by existential arguments over the necessity as well as the specific nature of police reform. Halloran and especially Muldoon are fantasies who live to serve and who are decisively troubled by no personal matters or human concerns—charismatic, reassuring ciphers with cute ticks who would influence many future police characters on film and TV alike. Depending on your own political convictions, this fantasy is either poignant, insidiously misleading, or both.
Halloran, Muldoon, and the evil warden of Brute Force are opposing simplifications, then, while the truth of the matter is thornier, unveiled by minute considerations of platform, education, and economic and racial reevaluations that are seemingly impossible to communicate to the mass public, by filmmakers and politicians alike. Yet, The Naked City’s glorious compositions tell their own truth, offering a portrait of a city that’s teeming with honor and evil and decay and beauty, as well as irreconcilable mixtures of all of the above.
Like the Criterion Collection’s recent transfer of Brute Force, The Naked City boasts a new 4K restoration, culled together from many sources, that looks and sounds superb. As with the Brute Force disc, The Naked City’s image has been rendered with revelatory attention to detail. This transfer is a feast of pristine and revealing cityscapes and architecture. Gradations of light and shadow are nuanced and wide-ranging, from the rising sunlight that illuminates a harbor at the cusp of dawn, to the shrill overhead lighting of various office buildings, to the darkness that shrouds the streets at night. Fabric and facial details are also exacting, and the grain here is generally quite healthy, allowing of course for the fluctuations that come with shooting on the fly in an unpredictable environment. The monaural soundtrack is similarly sturdy, and the score by Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner has never sounded lusher.
The archive commentary from 1996 featuring screenwriter Malvin Wald, who wrote the story that inspired The Naked City, focuses on the film’s legacy, particularly how it influenced various TV shows and initiated the “buddy cop” template. Wald also shares compelling inside anecdotes on the film’s production, such as actor Barry Fitzgerald’s suspicion that he couldn’t play a police detective because he wasn’t a Humphrey Bogart type.
In the first of two archive interviews from 2006, film professor Dana Polan offers the best criticism to be found in these extras, suggesting that The Naked City’s “blandness” is a direct response to the existential crises facing many men who returned from World War II only to feel like anonymous cogs in machines. The film, per Polan, celebrates working-class life as part of an ongoing, beneficial social project, which would become a trait of police procedurals and distinguish them from the fear and social chaos the typically govern the film noir. In the second interview, author James Sanders analyzes the use of New York in The Naked City, which includes over 100 locations, most audaciously a morgue and the Williamsburg bridge.
In another archive supplement shot at the Los Angeles County Museum in 2004, filmmaker Jules Dassin discusses his illustrious career, including his work with journalist Mark Hellinger. In the disc’s liner notes are a terrific article by Luc Sante, discussing the differing voices of Hellinger and Dassin, as well as correspondence by Hellinger himself on The Naked City’s climactic chase sequence. A stills gallery rounds out a package that practically screams for updated material, especially in an age fraught with talk of police reform.
Criterion has outfitted this seminal but somewhat outdated crime film with a beautiful transfer, as well as supplements that could use an uplift.
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson, Anne Sargent Director: Jules Dassin Screenwriter: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: September 8, 2020 Buy: Video