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Blu-ray Review: The Killers

Criterion’s beautiful assemblage of all things Killers-related remains a vital packaging of several flawed, intense, historically notable noirs.

4.5

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The Killers

It sounds like a joke: Two men walk into a diner and bicker with the manager running the counter about what to eat. One orders the pork, applesauce, and mashed potatoes, though the manager says that dish belongs to the dinner menu, which isn’t ready until six o’clock. The other man orders the chicken croquettes with peas, only to hear the same answer. Seems like everything’s on the dinner menu, one of the two potential customers says. Eventually, they both order eggs, until it becomes clear that the men are here to kill someone. The joke begins to curdle, particularly as the characters continue to refer to the cook in the back as “the nigger” and to the killers’ intended victim as “the Swede.” The hoods don’t find their Swede, but we understand that it’s only a matter of time before they do. The potential violence hangs thick in the air, disrupting a counter, and a society’s, illusion of tranquil bonhomie.

That’s all that happens in Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, “The Killers,” which is a marvel of implication and showing rather than telling. In a few thousand words the author says more about America than many could in a sprawling novel, offering a diamond-sharp microcosm of a society’s pecking order. The killers casually uproot the power of the comparative innocents, who insidiously wield control over people like the black cook or the Swedish ex-boxer, who’re perceived to be outliers to the divine American experience. “The Killers” is also a crackling, greatly influential suspense story, with Hemingway’s legendarily pared prose melting in your mouth like butter. You can retrospectively discern the entire future of the American crime genre within this story, from Raymond Chandler to Donald Westlake to Elmore Leonard to countless more in between and afterward.

“The Killers” doesn’t yield enough narrative to fill out three acts’ worth of a conventional feature film, however, at least not one that moves and behaves like an American crime movie of the 1940s. Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film of the same name opens with a beat-for-beat adaptation of the Hemingway story that neatly functions as a self-contained short, elegantly alluding to the oppression that’s evident in the nooks and crannies of the lunch counter’s interiors, which suggest a figurative diner of America’s collective imagination more than any singular restaurant. (It’s difficult, for instance, to watch this movie and not think of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks.) The dialogue is delivered with a perfectly blunt staccato that’s ideal for the story, particularly the lines uttered by the killers (superbly played by William Conrad and Charles McGraw), and Siodmak’s leisurely, unpretentiously modern, prismatic long takes connote a sense of evil that’s gathering in claustrophobic real time.

Unfortunately, Hemingway, despite a possessory acknowledgement in the title, can only be credited with the first quarter-hour of the movie’s running time. The remainder of the film’s 102 minutes were cooked up by screenwriters Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston (the latter two uncredited), who filled in the specifics of the Swede’s (Burt Lancaster) downfall. The Swede, or Ole Andreson, is shown to be murdered shortly after the hostage situation at the diner, the film subsequently backtracking to dramatize his blossoming involvement with gangsters in a tricky narrative that inescapably recalls Citizen Kane’s chronologically scrambled structure.

Siodmak’s The Killers earns significant points for ambition and influence, but the incessant flashbacking doesn’t command our attention as it does in the Orson Welles film, which has an obsessive, neurotic undertow that renders the rickety plot beside the point. The American crime genre is generally a forward-moving beast driven by a terse, heavily symbolic sense of present tense, but Siodmak’s film is forever filling in details that we accept as a given. The Swede fell on hard times, became infatuated with a traditionally duplicitous “dame,” Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), and was pulled into a troublesome heist. You wait for the film to put a bow on all this background detail so as to move forward, but it keeps retreating back in time to further belabor the obvious. The Killers is a svelte, vividly directed film, with a remarkable grasp of physicality, both human and locational (particularly displayed in a breathtaking heist scene that’s staged in one long master shot), but the fancy plot gymnastics keep needlessly cluttering up Hemingway’s original, evocatively streamlined setup.

Don Siegel’s 1964 remake somewhat attempts to smooth out its 1946 predecessor’s convolutions of plot. Siegel’s direction is elegantly inelegant, favoring ostentatiously quick cuts and bluntly canted angles to Siodmak’s lush, proto-noir craftsmanship. The colors are alternatingly bold and washed out, to the point of resembling certain 1960s-era comic strips or productions made directly for TV (the medium this film was originally intended for), with reds and yellows that particularly sing to the eyes. This Killers has an overheated, self-consciously nihilistic intensity, which is immediately signaled by the filmmakers’ bold decision to dump Hemingway’s story altogether for a new opening set in an institute for the blind, which culminates with the titular hit men (now played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) assaulting and nearly strangling a blind woman so as to discern the location of their prey, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The assassins find North and gun him down, but something troubles them: This was too easy.

That’s the best, funniest touch to this newer Killers: the idea of a couple of rent-a-hoods investigating a murder they themselves committed. It’s a sly, anti-authoritarian deviation from the Siodmak film, which had a square insurance man (played by Edmond O’Brien, with too much relish) looking into a murder for reasons that never made much sense. And the final scenes, with Marvin’s character killing the bad guys before suffering his own inevitable, memorably pathetic death, represent a classic fusion of Siegel, Marvin, and Hemingway’s sensibilities. (Siegel was originally considered for the version that Siodmak helmed.) Yet the director’s modernist touches ultimately scan as grace notes dotting another unconvincing, flashback-riddled dude-meets-dame story. Siegel’s film goes to sleep at the same place that Siodmak’s does, because the victim at the heart of these narratives isn’t interesting; both narratives lose something when their killers recede from the limelight. Lancaster’s physical grace gives the Swede majesty, but he barely has a character to play, and Cassavetes is palpably uncomfortable, as always, playing an uncomplicated patsy. One senses his constricted desire to bring something weirder to the party.

The Killers redux packs one lasting, significant, retrospective jolt of perversity that far eclipses any possible artistic intentions on the part of its creators though: the sight of future American President Ronald Reagan playing a baddie in his last film role before entering politics. History has turned Reagan’s excellent performance into a surrealist joke in which pop culture appears to collapse in on itself, offering a subliminal X-ray vision of one of our most divisive leaders as a banal, vindictive, business-suited agent of terror. This inadvertent punchline is as good as anything that Hemingway dare dream.

Image/Sound

Robert Siodmak’s The Killers is a thing of formal beauty—a significant title in our blossoming awareness of collected stylistics that are now called “film noir.” The blacks of this transfer are rich and luscious, which is of great importance to a film that’s essentially a painting of shadows. Whites can be a little shrill on occasion, but it’s not a big deal, and probably inherent to the source materials. Close-ups are also occasionally soft. But, generally, this image is clean with good density and a terrific sense of dimension that’s due to remarkable interplay between the foreground and background details. Don Siegel’s Killers isn’t meant to be as attractive, as his film is a cynical rebuke to the sort of studio professionalism that Siodmak’s picture notably embodies. But this transfer gracefully honors the film’s curt, hothouse poetry, particularly in terms of primary colors, which emit a fevered intensity. Grain is well-modulated, and textures are detailed, sometimes startlingly so (look at the pained, creased faces of John Cassavetes or Lee Marvin’s characters as they die). The monaural soundtracks for both films are clean, though the Siodmak sounds richer than the Siegel—a distinction that, once again, scans as inherent to the diverse source materials. These are tip-top restorations of key American crime films.

Extras

These are the same supplements that were included in the DVD that Criterion issued in 2003, with the exception of the disappointing absence of Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir.” Otherwise, this is still a wonderful package that justifies the carry-over into Blu-ray. The most significant inclusion, of course, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of the titular Ernest Hemingway story, which he co-directed while in college. The film is stiff, unsurprisingly for such an early work, and Hemingway’s pared dialogue doesn’t quite have the same punch in Russian (for an American, at least) that it does in English. But Tarkovsky and his co-directors confidently play with cinematic frames-within-frames, and the atmosphere is distinctly grubby and surreal.

Also included is the Screen Directors’ Playhouse radio adaptation from 1949 of the 1946 film, starring Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters, which is to say that this single disc features a total of four adaptations of one story, inviting a potentially informative game of compare and contrast. If that isn’t enough, actor Stacy Keach is on hand to read aloud the story itself, reminding viewers that he would’ve made a great “killer” himself. The interview with Clu Gulager and the audio excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography offer pungent slices of Hollywood self-mythologizing. Rounding out this package is an assorted collection of trailers for other Robert Siodmak films, an interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky, and essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O’Brien.

Overall

There are no new supplements on hand, but Criterion’s beautiful assemblage of all things Killers-related remains a vital packaging of several flawed, intense, historically notable noirs.

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Virginia Christine | Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald ReaganRobert Siodmak | Don Siegel Screenwriter: Anthony Veiller | Gene L. Coon Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 | 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 | 1964 Release Date: July 7, 2015 Buy: Video

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Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Twilight Time Blu-ray

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source.

3.5

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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin never could harmonize his celebratory/critical impulses toward American pop culture, so it comes as no surprise that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is both his funniest and most despairing picture. It’s also fitting that, after surveying a culture’s many popular obsessions (comic books, movies, rock ‘n roll), the director saves the sharpest knives for the institution whose job it is to package them for mass consumption: advertising.

Following a trademark bit of Tashlinesque wall-breaking (star Tony Randall plays the Fox fanfare on a small orchestra of instruments, then forgets the title during his introduction), the opening credits roll as a series of tableaux-like sketches, each skewering the inanities of ludicrous products pitched frontally to audiences (“Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton’s Beer”; “Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient”). The sequence hints at a trenchant critique under the rollicking humor; the phony ads, ridiculous but hardly too far removed from authentic commercials, posit the notion of consumers serving their products instead of the other way around, culminating with a spokesperson pulled into the hungry maw of a washing machine.

The characters are being similarly devoured by the system they breathlessly scramble to support, chief among them Rock Hunter (Randall), a Madison Avenue ad executive sinking in the quicksand of slogans, jingles, and campaigns. His spot in the company’s totem is low, and he may lose his position if he can’t come up with an idea to sell his newest product, Stay-Put Lipstick. Fortunately for him, flying into town is Hollywood glamour superstar Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), whose “oh-so-kissable lips” make her the perfect lipstick spokesperson, and Rock’s movie-mad niece (Lili Gentle) just happens to know where she’s staying.

In an attempt to make her latest beau jealous, and reap publicity for her studio, Rita snatches the first man to walk into her room as her new squeeze—a case of “being in the right place at the right time” for Rock, and the popcorn in his pocket erupts into fireworks as he smooches a towel-wrapped Rita. This comic serendipity isn’t a plot contrivance, but an illustration of Tashlin’s slashing view of how, in a capitalist society, everything and everyone can be packaged and sold, regardless of their abilities: Just as Edmond O’Brien’s gravel-voiced gangster was turned into a teen sensation at the end of The Girl Can’t Help It, so here is Rock, who has trouble keeping his long-stemmed smoking pipe lit, knighted “Lover Doll” and promptly mobbed by scores of screaming young fans.

Though several characters are aware of the ad world’s machinations, none of them are above its sway, and, in one of the film’s most merciless gags, the hero comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée (Betsy Drake) paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises. Because Tashlin, like Billy Wilder, often equated success in “the nonsense of what we call our civilization” with prostitution (or, at least, hucksterism), the title’s query becomes not so much a matter of whether than of when: Rock’s ascension in his firm’s importance ladder may seem divine, but to Tashlin it’s all just a Faustian deal sealed with the coveted key to the executive bathroom, a corrupt Holy Grail complete with a heavenly chorus.

People in Tashlin’s films often become extensions of their material possessions, and the irony of the merchandising cuts both ways: Just as Rita is a hilarious pop construct—a Marilyn Monroe spoof that’s also transparently Mansfield’s own dig at her image—she also molds Rock into a replica of her long-lost true love. Throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, characters contort themselves to fit the fetishization of image rampant through society, always causing pain to their own souls; Drake hopes to lure Rock back to her by turning herself into a buxom fembot, but as she pliantly puts it, “Those tight sweaters are too heavy.”

Savage as it is, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? remains, paradoxically, among Tashlin’s most joyous works. Continuously vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of jubilant brassiness, compounded by superb performances. The director may loathe that the characters sell their souls, yet he can’t help but admire the brio and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate (Henry Jones) employs in navigating Madison Avenue’s polluted waters. Tashlin knew that he was inescapably a part of the culture he was satirizing, and the picture’s head-on immersion in proto-New Wave homage (everything from Tarzan and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to Louella Parsons and Groucho Marx) amounts to the auteur’s confession of his complicity. After all, when a young fan announces that she’s going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again, “courageous youth” is all caustic sidekick Joan Blondell can snap.

Indeed, the film’s mid-narrative break could be seen as a reversal of the famous opening of The Girl Can’t Help It: Where Tom Ewell stretched the image into the widescreen rectangle, here Randall shrinks it down to the television square, made grainy and monochromatic “for all you TV fans.” Tashlin’s most radical rupture, however, lies in Blondell’s monologue about her days helping silent-film actresses and vainly attempting to forget a long-lost love, a moment of unexpectedly naked emotion where the character’s wisecracking façade is cracked and the pain underneath is captured in a harsh single-take.

Lured and trapped by the gilded cages of consumerism, the characters yearn for a Rousseau-like return to nature; Rock dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The film’s subversive tragedy is that the cartoon surfaces of Tashlin are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than it is first apparent. The happy ending is nominally enforced, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas.” Our laughter explodes only to dissipate grimly.

Image/Sound

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the most chromatically inventive, deliberately cartoonish live-action films ever made, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes it obvious that it’s aged considerably and has yet to receive any kind of significant restoration. Colors are fuller here than they were on older DVD releases but still look rather faded. In terms of disc artifacts, there are few issues, most notably the instances of black crush that occur when the softer colors of a composition are also marked by thick grain. The sound presentation is significantly more stable: Both the surround and original 2.0 track are pristine, with the dialogue and the boisterous swells of Cyril Mockridge’s score balanced evenly throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with film historian Dana Polan delves into the film’s satirical richness and how its mixture of broad comedy and subtler character acting elucidates its themes. Polan particularly highlights how all the product placement on display gleefully implicates the film in its own critique of increasing commercialization. Also included is an essay in which Julie Kirgo provides a thoughtful overview of the film and its themes.

Overall

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source, highlighting the need for future restoration.

Cast: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Lili Gentle, Mickey Hargitay Director: Frank Tashlin Screenwriter: Frank Tashlin Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

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Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray

Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

4.5

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacks the tensile strength to support it.

Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse’s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.

Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood. Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.

Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but perishes while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time using an enormous dimension portal. Before he dies, however, Peter gets to save the day one last time, though some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.

Into the Spider-Verse takes immense pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter illustrates just how easily Spider-Man’s wit and juvenile spirit and curdle into sardonic bitterness.

These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions than her compatriots. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.

And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.

With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.

By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, the film reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.

Image/Sound

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray wondrously represents Into the Spider-Verse’s vibrant and expansive color palette, really showing off the animation’s glowing neon streaks of purple and yellow-green amid all those old-school, 3D-aping blues and reds. Color contrast is strong throughout, while black levels are rich and deep. The sound is no less impressive, with Daniel Pemberton’s score nimbly and excitingly recalibrating in the side speakers in perfect sync with the aesthetic wrinkles of a given scene. Both the electronic-heavy soundtrack and boisterous action make great use of the subwoofer, with the wide range of bass noise throughout never muffling the crystal-clear dialogue.

Extras

The chummy and funny commentary track featuring directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is rich in details about the film’s plot and animation. It will also be a treat for those who think they’ve found all of the film’s Easter eggs. “Alternate Universe Mode” offers a sort of recut version of film, now with alternate scenes—some finished and some still in storyboard phase—that flesh out the secondary characters and, in some cases, offer up some significant plot diversions, such as Miles’s roommate learning his secret almost right away. The recut is significantly longer and paced more like a lugubrious, plot-heavy live-action blockbuster than the kinetic kaleidoscope of the release cut. “Caught in a Ham,” a short film centered on Spider-Ham, is a fun, Looney Tunes-inspired barrage of antic shtick, puns, and self-reflexive visual humor. Rounding out the extras is a series of short but informative themed featurettes on subjects ranging from the film’s innovative animation to tributes to the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Overall

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a watershed of contemporary animation and superhero cinema. Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG Year: 2018 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

4

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Phantom Lady

Gaslighting was the subject of numerous American films in 1944. Of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight immediately takes center stage in any conventional appraisal of this narrative device, as a woman is deliberately driven to madness by her conniving husband, but Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, with its ingeniously structured screenplay and whiz-bang direction, is the more devilish concoction, designed to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of unrest.

From the start, as Scott (Alan Curtis) talks an unnamed woman (Fay Helm) into a night on the town, her demanding of anonymity strikes to the heart of post-WWII American life, where bars were no longer the raucous blowouts of the Jazz Age, but often sparsely populated spots for loners looking to drink away their sorrows. That’s what both Scott and the eponymous mystery guest have in mind, at least until Scott moseys home and finds that his wife has been murdered.

Whereas Otto Preminger’s Laura uses the apparent death of a woman to prompt a flashback into her life, Phantom Lady remains confined to the present, with only the murdered wife’s portrait hanging on the couple’s living room wall as evidence of her existence. When Scott is prompted by police to name his company for the previous evening—and cannot—he’s afforded no sympathy or benefit of the doubt, except from the office secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), whose crush on Scott, and her certainty of his innocence, prompts her to become an amateur sleuth along with Scott’s pal, Jack (Franchot Tone). They’re on the trail of someone who’s paid off witnesses for their denial of ever having seen the unnamed woman.

Siodmak’s playful direction deflates our uncertainty about the phantom lady’s existence, as the camera lingers for a beat longer than necessary on witnesses who express relief once interrogators have gone, as if they have something to hide. These shots tip off the viewer that something is amiss; one may wonder why Siodmak didn’t eliminate these winks entirely and make it seem, whether because of Scott’s imagination or disinterested observers, that the woman might really have never existed at all. The answer to their presence lies in Siodmak’s ultimate disinterest in playing up the whodunit, as the murderer—and orchestrator of Scott’s gaslighting—is revealed around the halfway mark as the only logical person it could be.

Finished playing guessing games with the audience, Siodmak frees himself up to throw down the gauntlet of expressionistic lighting and canted camera angles. This frenzy reaches its nearly orgasmic apex as Carol gyrates to a wild drum riff by Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), one of the key witnesses to the mystery woman’s identity, as he marvels at her with pure lust. The film inhabits the moment so fervently and with such precise editing by Arthur Hilton, that the viewer would be excused for forgetting there’s even a mystery to be unfurled. (Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale is probably the closest any film has come since to representing the sheer power a woman’s body in motion can have over the heterosexual male psyche.)

Lest the rest of the film limp toward its resolution, Siodmak shifts gears toward depicting the killer’s inner turmoil. When the murderer appears to off Cliff for having a loose lip, he delivers a remarkable monologue about how a single pair of hands can either do “inconceivable good or unbearable evil.” A clear influence on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Phantom Lady morphs its perspective in the film’s back half toward the killer’s own, whose sudden “dizzy spells” are clearly coded bouts of schizophrenia, as he wrestles with the psychological demons demanding his allegiance. When the killer finally admits a motive of emasculation by Scott’s wife as his impetus for murder, Phantom Lady reveals just how influential it would become, on everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the giallo and beyond.

Image/Sound

The HD Blu-ray presentation brings cinematographer Elwood Bredell’s striking images to life, especially in scenes where depth of field is essential to appreciating the complexity of Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith’s set decoration. The film’s high-contrast lighting remains sharp, with no evidence of digital enhancement to the original film elements. However, there are numerous, if minor, signs of scratches and debris throughout, indicating that greater care could have been taken to restore this presentation to an ever richer approximation of the film’s original negative. The monaural soundtrack is full and free of distortion, allowing both the music and dialogue to unfold without distraction.

Extras

A pair of intriguing extras includes a nearly hour-long documentary made in 1994 called Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, which features numerous familiar talking heads, including Dennis Hooper, Ruby B. Rich, Robert Wise, and Edward Dmytryk, providing a deep dive into what constitutes the term “film noir.” The range of perspectives proves exciting, from Rich’s more academic gloss of the sociological aspects of noir, to Hopper’s bare-bones description of a woman hiring a dupe to kill her husband, to cinematographer John Alton’s eccentric descriptions of lighting. Bryan Singer also appears to offer his bit on how noir influenced his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. The other supplement of note is an hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, with Alan Curtis and Ella Raines reprising their roles. The audio is excellent and the adaptation itself from screen to radio works remarkably well. The disc also includes an image gallery of about 30 stills and distribution materials from the initial theatrical release, and a booklet containing an essay by Alan K. Rode that explains the film’s conception and production.

Overall

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a pioneering studio noir in Phantom Lady, which is also a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Aurora, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Andrew Tombes Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bernard C. Schoenfeld Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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