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Blu-ray Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Few restorations prove as revitalizing and essential as Kino’s new 4K Blu-ray for Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

4.5

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Subjective trauma becomes subaltern desire in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent-era über-classic that’s most commonly been examined for its pioneering use of German Expressionist lighting, set design, and role as a proto-horror film. By focusing almost exclusively on formal and generic characteristics, these more historical and socially neutral readings have lost the film’s thoroughly embedded, queer narrative, aside from the work of scholars Alexander Doty and Harry Benshoff, who attempt to locate these qualities as actually within the film itself. Little effort, however, has been made to align form and content as a means to reveal how Hermann Warm’s vertiginous sets, as emblems of non-normative time and space, synthesize with the film’s more rudimentary narrative of doubling to achieve radically luminous social ends.

The primary figure to understand, then, isn’t Francis (Friedrich Feher) or Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), but Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the murderous somnambulist under Caligari’s control. Cesare is first glimpsed as a life-sized drawing outside Caligari’s tent at the local carnival, which makes a caricature of Veidt’s slender face, to the extent that his cheeks are exaggeratedly shrunken in, perpetuating an effeminate stereotype indicative of photographic, physiognomic depiction. Cesare’s face is feminized because he’s merely a vessel for Caligari’s hegemonic control. Cesare’s actual face is first shown in a vignette close up, eyes closed as he furrows his brow and slightly moves his lips. Once his eyes open, he’s in immediate contact with the viewer, staring directly into the camera. Such an introduction, in relation to the previous drawing, reveals Wiene’s explicit framing of Veidt’s features as speaking to the sociological constraints affiliated with androgyny, especially given Cesare’s literal, but heavily allegorical role, as a figure of precarious submission.

There are historical reasons to understand Veidt’s casting as intended to accentuate this line of thought—namely his role as a gay musician in 1919’s Different from the Others, which was heavily cut and altered by German censors. Veidt’s physicality became affiliated with non-normative sexuality from these very controversies, which take significant root in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s most visually dynamic sequence, where Veidt’s body is made just as askew as the sets themselves. Note how Cesare creeps along the outer walls of Jane’s (Lil Dagover) bedroom, his right arm as distended as the jagged shadows and light behind him. His body isn’t simply an extension of the expressionist image, but a corollary to it, his akimbo extremities not as metaphor, but metonymic for the extremes of Wiene’s modernist visions. No other character in the film moves in such a manner; Cesare’s body is the only object of sustained contemplation.

Veidt’s casting is a necessary companion to Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s screenplay, which understands Caligari as a fascistic type given to ensnaring those around him with a circuitous flair for carnivalesque deceit. He’s a man of legend, whose tale is inscribed within a book found by Francis late into the film, at the moment in which he discovers Caligari the carnival ringleader is also Caligari, director of the local insane asylum: a ringleader of a much more insidious, juridical sort. Wiene plays these developments through crosscutting, with Francis unveiling the mystery as Caligari grows increasingly driven to madness, certain that he must “become Caligari,” in one of cinema’s most virtuoso, precursor sequences for melding on-screen text and narrative, since the phrase “du musst Caligari warden” literally encircles the unhinged doctor. Caligari isn’t simply a character or figure, then, but an idea, one that takes throat-clenching hold both within the confines of Wiene’s film, but also emanates from the screen with a force that queers the very notion of stability and identity. Cesare remains without agency, but that’s because the film’s top-down superstructure never crumbles. The film’s creative forces combine to offer both narrative and visible, visual evidence of an attempted sledgehammering of hegemonic order, even if matching, revolutionary upheaval never manifests in the film proper, with Caligari’s institutionalization but a minor, perhaps even ironic, victory for overthrowing authoritarian reign.

There’s also the matter of the film’s frame narrative, which Siegfried Kracauer has explained as both the production company and Wiene’s alteration from Mayer and Janowitz’s screenplay, despite their protests. In essence, it offers Francis as the crazed one, with a final revelation that the entire film has been, essentially, the ravings of a mad man, who has recast his cellmates as characters in a twisted rationalization for his own innocence. Perhaps the turn undermines Mayer and Janowitz’s more stringently political interests, but it illuminates the manner in which cinema speaks, in an avid, polymorphous manner, to a libidinal correspondence between meaning, movement, drive, and politics. A film-by-committee, but, even so, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains cinema’s preeminent embodiment of dream-screen anguish.

Image/Sound

The 4K transfer on this Blu-ray, scanned from the camera negative at the German Federal Film Archive, presents the film with a sharpness, precision, and clarity that previous DVD editions have only hinted at. Cesare’s close-up at the carnival, shocking and searing in even inferior prints, now reveals every inch of Conrad Veidt’s visage, caked with makeup and awash in terror. The expressionist sets and color tints are visible as never before, with the contours and elongated forms adorning the mise-en-scène stunningly saturated in brights and blacks. There are certainly visible scratches and pops throughout many of the scenes, but Kino looks to have done as honorable a job as possible in eliminating imperfections without turning to digital artifacts. Indeed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still looks like a film here, but with the polish and sheen of digital restoration tools, making it one of the most remarkable examples yet of silent cinema’s great benefit from HD restoration. The soundtracks are equally exciting, with a more traditional, orchestral score from the University of Music, Freiburg and an electronic-based score by Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky. Kino is wise to include the latter, unconventional score, not only because of it being finely attuned to the film’s images and themes, but also since the film has become a visual emblem for underground music, in general, with an artist like Maceo Plex even licensing a still of Cesare absconding with Jane as a banner image for his Ellum label.

Extras

The only extra of note is a 52-minute documentary entitled “Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema,” which explains the socio-historical contexts for the film’s emergence, particularly in how expressionist art and politics coalesced following WWI. In essence, the documentary is largely encapsulating Siegfried Kracauer’s points from his book From Caligari to Hitler, though absent of Kracauer’s more strenuously philosophical approach. Talking heads consist of academic types, mostly commenting on subsequent horror films from F.W. Murnau, like Nosferatu and Faust. It’s a fine, if basic, informational doc and a good starting point for anyone who knows little about these histories. There’s also a restoration demonstration that compares stills from the 1984 and 2014 transfers, to very convincing effect in favor of the latest work. Furthermore, an image gallery curiously (and needlessly) offers a collection of stills from the film. Finally, a brief essay by Kristin Thompson outlines the film’s visual innovations and enduring influences.

Overall

Few restorations prove as revitalizing and essential as Kino’s new 4K Blu-ray for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which offers the film’s sublime shocks in an audio-visual tour de force that radically shames all of its previous home-video presentations.

Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger Director: Robert Wiene Screenwriter: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 77 min Rating: - Year: 1920 Release Date: November 18, 2014 Buy: Video

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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

4

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

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Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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