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Blu-ray Review: The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s latest triumph of honest but warmly sentimental, observational cinema looks just as beautiful on home video as it does on a big screen.

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The Florida Project

Every morning after the sun has risen above the Magic Castle, a purple-colored budget motel that’s near the Magic Kingdom and above which clouds resemble dollops of cotton candy, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) gets to work. It’s summer and school’s out, prime time for a six-year-old who’s in the business of playtime, from her and her friends sharing jokes under stairwells to chasing after a pot of gold that they pretend exists at a rainbow’s end. Like all kids, Moonee lacks the foresight to follow her more mischievous actions to their logical conclusions, and in the world of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, such oversights have unpredictable effects on the currency of friendship.

The film opens with Moonee and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) spitting on a car from a nearby motel’s second floor, and after being forced to clean up the vehicle, this band of misfits gains a new member, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). But later, after the trio accidentally sets fire to an abandoned condo, Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder), no longer allows her son to play with Moonee. This is a small tragedy that Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is actually responsible for—a fact that neither Moonee nor Halley will ever know, or pretend to know, because underlying so much of the anecdotal events of this film is a sense of people, for sanity’s sake, needing to often trade in denial.

Baker spends much of The Florida Project charging in vigorously nimble fashion up and down the stairs of the Magic Castle, in and out of its rooms, investing the minutia of the down-and-out lives within this little ecosystem with a bittersweet energy and significance. For much of the film, calamity is never harsher than a father packing up to move to New Orleans and forcing his son to leave his toys, relics of memories, behind with the friends he’ll never see again. And almost always the camera is yoked to Moonee’s present-tense point of view, which explains why the forces battering these lives from all sides remain largely outside the film’s purview: They’re not only too big for this little girl to both completely imagine and understand, but it’s outside her field of vision where the film’s adults are content to keep these forces.

One take on the project of the film’s title is the unspoken social contract that binds these lives: the understanding that they’re in this life together, united in their love for their kids. The Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), spends much of The Florida Project fulfilling his contractually obligated duties while also empathetically taking on the extracurricular role of Father Goose. He breaks up skirmishes and repeatedly asks Halley for her rent, fake-begrudgingly granting her extensions. In one of film’s loveliest scenes, he moves his office chair back so Scooty and Jancey can hide from Moonee under his desk. And in one of its nerviest, he scares off an old man (Carl Bradfield) for hanging pervily around Moonee, her friends, and all the other children passing through the Magic Castle on their way to destinations unknown.

At one point, a man (Macon Blair) walks in on Moonee taking a bath, and just as he notices and acknowledges her existence, Halley pulls the man out of the bathroom. It’s telling how he’s unseen to us, and if Moonee knows why her mother is with him then you wouldn’t know it from her face—though when we do finally see the man, after he comes back to the motel demanding what Halley stole from him, you’ll know the nature of her work from the way Baker blocks the crisis between them that Bobby attempts to negotiate. Bobby looks away from Halley to the john and Halley instantly broadcasts her contempt for the man with her face and middle finger, and the scene’s slapstick-like construction attests to the filmmakers’ uncondescending look at Halley’s life.

Earlier, Moonee will ask her mother about why the security guard at a nearby resort tries to stop them from reselling wholesale perfumes to the tourists heading to and from the building. As she runs from the guard, Halley drops some of the boxes of perfume, which Moonee understands to be as precious a bounty as the free grub that the little girl picks up almost daily from the diner where Scooty’s mom works. But Halley doesn’t tell Moonee why she really left the boxes on the ground, because to do so would be to have to tell her little girl, and a little too soon, that she has to strive for more in life than recess—idle days of bugging strangers for ice cream money and spinning fantasies, as in Moonee and Jancey patiently waiting under a huge tree for the rain to pass and Moonee telling her friend that the cows in the distance are a gift to her.

It’s no accident that this scene recalls the opening of Post Tenebras Lux, as Carlos Reygadas’s film and The Florida Project are shot by Alexis Zabe and these scenes both evoke a child’s ritual of play as an innocent, almost holy form of tunnel vision. And throughout this film there’s always a subtle sense that Moonee will finally be forced to learn to see a little differently, probably when danger strikes in a way that can’t be held at bay by any adult. And until then, the film is so remarkable at synching its picturesque style to Moonee’s seemingly limitless freedom that the one time they do fall out of sync feels jarring, almost offensive: In long shot, Moonee and her friends charge past a series of stores and toward the promise of ice cream, and even after the children have exited the frame, the camera lingers on the sight of an obese person on a scooter riding in the other direction, the sound of the scooter going over a speed bump nothing more than a punchline, an easy potshot, at the expense of a person who isn’t even a bystander to Moonee’s life.

Some might argue that The Florida Project’s ending constitutes another such misstep, but that would be to misunderstand another of Baker’s fundamental projects. Joan Didion has written, and better than no one else, about Miami as a transient metropolis, one that’s been built in the image of so many Cuban cities, and one that seems like it will, if not exactly crumble, reveal its essential ephemerality when so many of its Cuban-born citizens feel like they finally have the license to return to their homeland. The same could be said of Orlando, a city which feels like it only exists in relationship to Disney World, a capitalist dependency that’s very much felt throughout this film. As lived-in and detail-rich as the lives in The Florida Project are, the environment where they’re rooted is fleeting, a place where one passes through but never stays.

It’s also telling how often the people who live at the Magic Castle spin stories around or simply give the finger to a symbol of all they can’t attain: a helicopter that repeatedly takes off nearby, probably from the resort outside which Halley sells her perfume and, unknown to Moonee, her body. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch understand the pull of Disney on young lives and they posit the Magic Castle as a temporary place, whose upkeep feels like a hard, desperate means to keep a dream alive for the young: a pit stop on the way to hanging out with Mickey Mouse. A bitter irony here is that, when the shit hits the fan and Moonee’s eyes open in ways they never have before, she makes a heartbreaking, last-ditch effort to run toward that dream, fulfilling something that her mother could never give her. But I’d like to think, given this girl’s precociousness, that she’s also hellbent on destroying this dream, if only to dream bigger: of a world not so small, after all, and as such not predicated on the self-containment that enables capitalism and turns us into its suckers.

Image/Sound

Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray flawlessly transfers Alexis Zabe’s bright, humid cinematography to home video. The garish purple hues of the Magic Castle pulse with the absorbed heat of the humid Florida summer, as do the rich, hyperreal colors of Kissimmee’s other buildings, highlighting their tourist-trap intentions—how they use flash to lure customers like birds casting about for a mate. The transfer also preserves such details as the faded hues and permanent stains of the characters’ well-worn clothing, as well as the pale blue-green haze of the cheap fluorescent lighting inside the Magic Castle’s many rooms. A handful of shots recorded on film show brief instances of print scratches, but otherwise the image is pristine, no matter the shooting format of any given frame. Audio is equally impressive, as the 5.1 mix deftly weaves together the overlapping noises of the motel’s semi-communal life. The faint sounds of TV broadcasts coming from open doors, children playing around nearby picnic tables, and other ambience do as much to establish the specificity of the setting as the images, and these effects are as clear in the mix as the foregrounded dialogue.

Extras

A short making-of documentary eschews talking heads in favor of stitched-together footage of the production’s evolution from location scouting and rehearsals to the actual shoot. This fly-on-the-wall approach emphasizes minute elements of Sean Baker’s method, from feeding lines to Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, to the frustrations of dealing with ambient noise and unpredictable weather. There are also interviews with cast and crew discussing the film, with particular highlights being Prince and Valeria Cotto describing their roles with surprising intelligence and Baker talking about honing the script so realistically that actual people he met in the area would tell him stories about their lives that eerily synchronized with his own fictional inventions. The disc also comes with a brief blooper reel.

Overall

Sean Baker’s latest triumph of honest but warmly sentimental, observational cinema remains one of the highlights of 2017, and it looks just as beautiful on home video as it does on a big screen.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Sandy Kane, Karren Karagulian, Carl Bradfield, Terry Allen Jones, Aiden Malik Director: Sean Baker Screenwriter: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2017 Release Date: February 20, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral

This edition boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.

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Four Weddings and a Funeral

The moving romance contained in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t the central love story between likable layabout Charles (Hugh Grant) and carefree American Carrie (Andie MacDowell), who gradually fall in love over the course of the film’s four weddings and one funeral. Theirs is a pretty dull romance, a pairing of two attractive but innocuous socialites whose only impediment to getting hitched is bad timing. Grant brings his signature stuttering, fidgety charm to the role of Charles, but he has a hard time generating much chemistry with the affectless MacDowell, whose Carrie seems almost bored at the prospect of falling in love.

Charles and Carrie’s halting, labyrinthine path to the altar may form the film’s narrative spine, but its heart lies in the casual yet adoring relationship between quietly reserved Gareth (John Hannah) and ostentatiously chummy Matthew (Simon Callow), an older gay couple in Charles’s eclectic gang of friends. For the most part, Newell doesn’t call much attention to Gareth and Matthew’s love for one another; it’s simply a fact of Charles’s social circle, as stable and unchanging a reality as the miserable singleness of the rest of the group. But when Matthew suddenly drops dead—thus occasioning the funeral promised by the film’s title—Newell drops the otherwise unflagging tone of light-hearted farce for a nakedly emotional eulogy in which Gareth recites W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in his melodic Scottish brogue.

Four Weddings and a Funeral tells us that this is what true love looks like, and to a contemporary viewer, that acknowledgment looks remarkably ahead of its time. Two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, when such an idea was widely dismissed even by Democrats, here was a film presenting a gay couple as the very model of marital bliss. Without overt advocacy or even any apparent recognition that it was doing anything unusual—save perhaps for when an Anglican priest presiding over Matthew’s funeral pointedly introduces Gareth as the deceased’s “friend,” thus acknowledging social repression of homosexuality—Richard Curtis’s screenplay smuggles an incontrovertible argument for the equal rights of gay people into an otherwise completely mainstream romantic comedy: If Gareth and Matthew don’t deserve to get married, then who the hell does?

Well, whether or not they deserve to, plenty of bland, interchangeable white people certainly do get hitched in the posh social milieu in which Four Weddings and a Funeral takes place. The film’s greatest strength, and the source of its enduring appeal, is its ability to capture the buzzy conviviality of a friend’s nuptials. Curtis’s script, which was nominated for an Academy Award, has an intuitive sense of the expansive yet finite social atmosphere of the British upper crust, a milieu in which everyone seems to know each other solely on the basis of their shared social status. In one of the film’s more memorable lines, a character demurs that his family isn’t the richest in England—that would be the queen’s—but only about the seventh.

Newell navigates the film’s sprawling wedding scenes with a deftly observant eye, providing the audience with a rich sense of these grand social events while maintaining the focus on the film’s core group of characters. Unfortunately, we never really learn much about these people; they’re like pleasant acquaintances we keep bumping into, folks we might like to know more about but never get the opportunity to ask. For one, the anti-nuclear posters hanging in the apartment Charles shares with his punkish companion, Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), hint at deeper layers to these characters the film never comes close to exploring.

Nevertheless, Four Weddings and a Funeral suggests in its stronger moments a P.G. Wodehouse farce as directed by Robert Altman. As it surveys the goofy foibles and incestuous interconnections of the British elite with a quietly amused sense of detachment, the film is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, mostly courtesy of the ever-reliable Rowan Atkinson as a painfully awkward vicar. But the film manages to maintain an appealing air of light-hearted sophistication throughout. That’s thanks in large part to the ingenious structure of the screenplay, which fulfills the audience’s expectations while simultaneously playing with them. (Whose wedding will we see next? And whose funeral?) Curtis even manages to make it seem halfway plausible that Charles might go ahead and marry the wrong person.

He doesn’t, of course. And everything ends up just as you expect, with Charles and Carrie sharing a tearful denouement and rapturous kiss in the middle of a torrential downpour. “Is it raining?” Charlotte coyly asks in the film’s corniest line, “I hadn’t noticed.” Four Weddings and a Funeral might demonstrate a bit of subversiveness in its depiction of gay love, but when it comes to giving us the happy ending we crave, the film is as conventional as can be.

Image/Sound

Four Weddings and a Funeral is no one’s idea of a gorgeous film, but Shout! Factory’s new 4K scan of the original camera negative at least manages to do justice to the film’s images, correcting the telecine wobble of MGM’s previous Blu-ray and the poor color timing of older DVD releases. This release also helpfully provides both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD audio tracks. The new scan preserves the original 35mm film grain, lending a pleasing texture and depth to movie’s soft, bright surfaces. However, Shout! makes no attempt to cover up some of the errors in the original negative, and there’s a notable amount of digital noise in the transfer. The scan ends up magnifying some significant A/V issues, including large flecks of dust and poor sound quality in some of the film’s outdoor sequences. Ultimately, this 4K scan, while visually and aurally superior to previous releases, feels like a fairly slapdash effort on Shout!’s part.

Extras

Given the film’s rather plain images, it might seem odd that the only new feature on this Blu-ray is a lengthy interview with director of photography Michael Coulter. But while it’s over-long and seemingly practically unedited, this chat turns out to be remarkably enlightening, deepening one’s appreciation for the complicated, almost documentary-style camerawork that lends such a verisimilitude to the film’s many party sequences. The rest of the extras are held over from previous releases and provide a robust, if somewhat redundant, selection of documentary featurettes. The audio commentary by Mike Newell, Richard Curtis, and producer Duncan Kenworthy, recorded for the 10th anniversary DVD release of the film, provides a chummy collection of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Overall

This new home-video edition of the film boasts a strong collection of extras, but that can’t make up for the 4K scan’s imperfections.

Cast: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Bower, Charlotte Coleman, Timothy Walker, Sara Crowe, Rowan Atkinson, David Haig, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Anna Chancellor, Rupert Vansittart Director: Mike Newell Screenwriter: Richard Curtis Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 1994 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Shame

Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer.

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Shame

Though stark and despairing, Ingmar Bergman’s films are essentially, perhaps inadvertently, celebrations of art in which erudite characters wrestle with their demons via their creative endeavors. Bergman conjures intricate worlds of sex and violence and creation, which ricochet off each other with a free association of tone that suggests the dream of a gifted and highly self-conscious god. Bergman’s films are catnip to cinephiles, critics, and theatergoers partially because they inevitably flatter such audiences, offering tortured artists of physical majesty whose struggles, to balance the varying privileged scrims of their lives, often suggest nothing less than the great existential plight of humankind.

In this light, it’s doesn’t feel coincidental that Bergman’s less acclaimed films tend to interrogate the foundation on which he’s built this reflexively flattering art, particularly a run of films he made in the 1960s, in which he chafed against his emerging status as a genius and tried to tear his art down and rebuild it from the ground up. In The Virgin Spring, religion (art) is pitifully ill-suited to prevent a series of atrocities, though it perhaps allows the remaining human characters to live with themselves. In Persona and Hour of the Wolf, Bergman attempts nothing less than to foster a cinema that eats itself alive, leaving the respective characters untethered and adrift. And in Shame, Bergman pushes his exploration of the potential futility of art, and artists, even further to the breaking point, following a bourgeoisie couple as they coarsen in the face of an unnamed and highly symbolic civil war.

Shame is a bitter brew that’s leeched of much of the pleasure that even a confrontational Bergman film like Persona can give. The filmmaker begins the narrative, however, in a characteristically evocative manner, mixing eroticism, ennui, and dread. Eva (Liv Ullman) arises from bed, her shirt open and revealing her breasts. She goes to a sink and washes herself, her bare back glistening in the shards of sunlight that are piercing through the shadows. Eva’s husband, Jan (Max von Sydow), gradually awakens, and they begin their morning routine. For many filmmakers, such a series of events would be a matter of setup, but for Bergman this sequence is a kind of ambiguous and ecstatic romantic scene. Eva is a beautiful woman, and her beauty will come to influence the couple’s ability to live in their war-torn country, but Jan has been married to her for years and isn’t struck by her as directly as others might be. (Though the film offers us a moment where Jan regards Eva by a creek, clearly swept up in his intoxication with her.) Yet their casualness together isn’t merely born of routine habitation, as it’s also sensual and nourishing, reflecting the fruits and the challenges of living with someone for some degree of time.

This sequence haunts Shame as the film moves into more violent and austere territory. In this powerfully acidic production, Bergman dramatizes the invasion of a countryside that presumably has never experienced hostile foreign occupation. And though Bergman is riffing on the Vietnam War, and on the remote safety of his own island home of Fårö, Shame’s images of a prosperous white couple reduced to a status of traveling refugees offer a timeless empathetic dare. Eva and Jan have tuned out atrocity until it came tumbling onto their doorstep, taking their music careers from them, recasting them as farmers and then as fugitives. Apart from their skin color, Eva and Jan come to resemble the sort of people that the United States and much of Europe would presently prefer to lock up or fence away.

Bergman prunes Shame of the overt theatricality of even his other ‘60s films so as to suggest a loss of art born of warfare, leaving the viewer to survey craggy, frazzled landscapes and the occasionally sensual, penetrating, unmistakably Bergman-esque close-up of Ullman and Sydow’s faces. And there’s little on-screen violence in Shame to give us a cathartic thrill, which might’ve turned this merciless parable into an action film. Bergman renders horror in terrifyingly fleeting and intimate slivers of imagery: of bodies lying in fields or water, of cars run off the road, of smoke billowing up in the background while military vehicles trundle across the landscape. There are also flashes of light and explosive sounds that aren’t entirely identifiable yet are clearly the product of carnage. Eva and Jan’s home, a synecdoche for this society and their imperiled relationship, is bombed and raided many times, leaving them to start over amid rubble while they castigate one another. Through it all, they compromise themselves over and over, and Jan, initially a coward, becomes a wolf. Which is to say that Bergman has staged a brutal lament of the impotency of war as it’s felt among the populace at its mercy—a bleak poem that’s nevertheless informed with the beauty of his craftsmanship.

Yet death and compromise aren’t the primary terrors animating Shame. Instead, Bergman confronts a realization of the possibility that rarefied society might be stripped of its baubles, including its art, and might have to face the superficiality of the things it loves. (In Bergman’s most obsessive and lacerating films, art is but another kind of mask.) Such terrors are real, of course, and have been faced, most infamously during the Holocaust, but Bergman’s lack of specificity here comes to suggest that war is inevitable and circular and will eventually engulf most of us, who might be currently enjoying the sojourns of Shame’s opening passage. Bergman fillets his interests in this film, forging a vision of annihilation that is, understood, itself, to be yet another bourgeoisie toy. In one scene, Eva wonders if she’s in a dream, and if such a dreamer is capable of feeling shame. The film’s existence is her unattainable answer.

Image/Sound

The image, courtesy of a new 2K transfer, boasts a greater degree of detail than prior home-video editions of Shame. Minute textures—particularly of the damage wrought against people and land by war—seem to pop out of the frame, and the ocean of the film’s climactic sequence visually resounds with a newfound sense of clarity. Blacks and whites are well-balanced, which is particularly notable in a brilliant and seemingly found image near the beginning of the film where the central couple is separated by a diagonal shadow looming over their farm, casually foreshadowing their rocky future. Plenty of grit has been scrubbed from the image but not at the expense of character. The monaural soundtrack offers a clean and immersive soundstage, allowing small notes of life to resound alongside the vast clinging and clanging of war.

Extras

In a new interview recorded for Criterion, Liv Ullmann speaks candidly, if briefly, about her personal and working relationship with Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann discusses the unity that exists between films such as Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna, and vividly recalls the personal anxiety that drove Bergman to tackle these projects. Two short archive interviews with Bergman are also included on this disc, which find him addressing issues of artistic relevance with a candor that shames the puffy sound bites of today’s media. The best supplement of this package, though, is “An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman,” a feature-length documentary that includes extensive footage of rare films and longer interviews with Bergman, as well as intimate footage of him on various sets. A terrific essay by film critic Michael Sragow serves as the disc’s liner notes, rounding out a somewhat slim package.

Overall

Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer, though the supplements could use a bit more meat on the bones.

Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Sigge Fürst, Birgitta Valberg, Hans Alfredson, Ingvar Kjellson, Frank Sundström, Ulf Johansson, Vilgot Sjöman, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Huston’s Beat the Devil

Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.

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Beat the Devil

It’s impossible to discuss Beat the Devil, John Huston’s 1953 send-up of the caper film, without addressing its tumultuous production, as that chaos very much worked its way into the fiber of the film. During the making of The African Queen, Huston spent as much of his energy hunting down an elusive elephant as he did behind the director’s chair, and two years after wrapping production on that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart vehicle, the filmmaker jetted off to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for another strange adventure. Once there, Huston, unhappy with Beat the Devil’s screenplay, tore it up and subsequently hired a young Truman Capote to help him churn out fresh pages, which were often delivered to the actors just hours before the cameras started rolling.

Beat the Devil evinces the free-wheeling spontaneity of a film constructed on the fly. Jacques Rivette once wrote that “every film is a documentary of its own making,” which certainly applies, and then some, to Huston’s ramshackle, whimsical farce—often considered the first cult film and the birth of cinematic camp. Huston’s original intention was to make a half-serious thriller with an anti-colonialist bent, but the gentle Mediterranean breeze seems to have dissipated any hint of import in the story and self-consciousness in the actors’ uniformly relaxed performances. Like the ship that’s been docked for “one day to a fortnight” in the small Italian town of Ravello so the captain can recover from a severe hangover, no one—not the cast, not Huston, not even the plot—appears in a hurry to go anywhere.

The narrative of Beat the Devil, such as it is, involves a motley crew of liars, criminals, and scoundrels, all of whom have either grandiose visions of their futures or fantastical delusions about their present-day realities. Only Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is somewhat connected with reality, accepting his fate as the unwitting lacky of the film’s ostensible baddie, the jovial and ever-sweaty Peterson (Robert Morley), who offers Billy the only convenient way to continue paying his hotel bill. They and the rest of the film’s motley crew of international characters are heading to Africa, supposedly to either mine for gold, diamonds, or uranium, or to grow coffee. But Huston is scarcely concerned with any of this. Beat the Devil is all about the follies that happen while its characters are busy making other plans.

Nearly all of these eccentric types lie about their intentions, while others speak of global conspiracies and massive shadow organizations. Lorre plays a supposedly Irish lackey named O’Hara, who quips at one point that many Germans in Chile have taken such a name and happily loses himself in the international crowd, which is equally fueled by post-war paranoia as it is by aperitifs. As O’Hara dodges his national identity, likely because he was a Nazi, the British Major Ross espouses a strange fondness for strong men like Hitler and Mussolini. At the same time, a married couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), play at being part of upper-crust British society while not-so-secretly swapping partners with Billy and his beautiful Italian belle, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida).

Beat the Devil is a gleeful mess of narrative false starts and fake-outs, simmering in its own narrative ambiguity as everyone deceives everyone else as well as the audience. But a clear end game is always obscured by the pervasive aura of mistrust in the air. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Beat the Devil isn’t trying to be a sensible film. For a spell, it even seems like there are invisible forces, like those at play in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, preventing anyone from leaving town. For one, when Billy tries to head out for the day with Peterson, their car breaks down and they end up accidentally pushing it off a cliff. And once everyone finally sets sail, their ship, in a fitting metaphor for the film itself, soon breaks down. This dastardly bunch of ne’er-do-wells may have some pretty evil plans in place, but in thwarting their moves at every turn, Huston defuses their treacherous ambitions, inviting us to laugh at their increasingly disastrous blunders.

Image/Sound

After decades of being stranded in the public domain, almost any half-decent transfer of the film would be welcome. But, fortunately, Twilight Time’s transfer of the 2016 4k restoration of Beat the Devil is better than one could have hoped. The film’s gorgeous Italian vistas are rich in detail, and the actors’ often exaggerated expressions now exude a clarity certainly unseen since the film’s theatrical release. The image also has a nice balance of blacks, grays, and whites, only occasionally losing a bit of detail in the more darkly lit sequences. If anything, the transfer is too clear, occasionally making such flaws as the edge of Bogart’s wig appear unmissable. The DTS-HD audio track is consistently balanced, though dialogue is a little muddled throughout a few outdoor scenes.

Extras

The audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is, in the spirit of Beat the Devil, a bit scattershot. The trio covers an array of topics, from the film’s divisive reputation to the various differences between this newly restored cut and the public domain version that most people have seen before now. They are only too happy to tell us that Peter Sellers dubbed many of the Italian actors’ voices, and that a young Stephen Sondheim worked as the clapboard boy. But as light-hearted and conversational as much of the commentary is, Dobbs, Kirgo, and Redman approach Beat the Devil not merely as a great cult film, but as a great John Huston film. A short featurette, “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil,” finds the son of Claud Cockburn, author of the novel upon which the film was based, throwing much shade at Truman Capote for taking credit for dialogue taken straight from the source material. An essay by Julie Kirgo, which offers additional context to the film’s bizarre production history, rounds out the package.

Overall

Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Truman Capote, John Huston Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video

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