Forty-six years after its release, The Last House on the Left remains a ferocious work of sadistic cinema. The film is so unnerving for appearing, on the outset, to have been unintentionally achieved—a flakey, dangerous quality that many contemporary filmmakers unconvincingly attempt to emulate. In his feature-film debut, writer-director Wes Craven oscillates between broadly comic and nihilistic tones and between moments of trashy amateurishness and piercing existential poetry, criticizing the very notion of tonality.
It’s consistency of tone in media—a smooth, euphemistic notion of polish known as production values—that renders anything from a carton of milk to a war marketable, and such consistency is also valued in art, which often tells us what we’re getting and telegraphs what we’re supposed to think. Meanwhile, Craven’s film is a direct assault on notions of consistency and control, seeing them as the sort of distancing mechanisms that distract our country and sanitize atrocity. This is horror cinema as punk rock.
There are more violent films than The Last House on the Left, especially in the post-Nightmare on Elm Street era of the serial killer as ironic rock star, though the violence here isn’t palatable or delivered with the ritualized seriousness that flatters our intelligence for consuming a nasty movie. The scenes in which a gang rapes and murders two teenage women are prolonged and disgusting, as the women are never merely elements in an aesthetic, but viscerally terrified, humiliated humans begging for mercy with unmooring rawness.
It’s the little touches that are the most haunting, such as when the gang leader, Krug Stillo (David Hess), forces Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to piss her pants, or when Phyllis tries in vain to assure her friend, Mari (Sandra Peabody), that they’re the only ones in the forest as they’re stripped of their clothes, hugging her close as the gang taunts them with knives and guns. Such details assert the supreme violation of what we’re seeing, and these moments continue to proliferate throughout The Last House on the Left. When Krug finally rapes Mari, Craven lingers on his face squashed on top of her cheek, saliva dripping out of his mouth as she quivers in shock.
Interspersed with this depravity are scenes in which inept cops try to reach the woods, circling the kill zone while the score (composed by Hess) zips and slides along in a manner that recalls the music of later highway comedies like Smokey and the Bandit. These alternately despairing and flip tones don’t traditionally go together, and this isn’t the first such juxtaposition in the film, as Phyllis and Mari’s capture by the gang in the city is contrasted with a comic moment in which Mari’s parents, Dr. John and Estelle Collingwood (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr), prepare for their daughter’s birthday party.
Not long afterward, Krug and his gang—knife-wielding Weasel (Fred Lincoln), infantile junkie Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), and the lone woman, Sadie (Jeramie Rain)—are driving along in the country in a convertible as Sadie fucks Krug in the backseat. Everyone’s joking and laughing while Phyllis and Mari are imprisoned in the vehicle’s trunk. The scene is disturbing for the gang’s callousness and for Craven’s empathy with their cold jocularity. A conventional director would tonally code the scene as “menacing,” divorcing us from the violation by hewing to formal expectation, though Craven renders the gang’s entitlement and bravado without editorializing.
The film’s seemingly misplaced sense of comedy, particularly in the scenes involving the police and the Collingwoods, communicates a powerful aura of ineffectuality—of clueless complacency in the face of sloppy and spitefully pointless evil. At this stage in his career, Craven was a naïf who brilliantly understood how to use his lack of experience to his advantage. (Later, especially in the Scream series, Craven would become a slicker craftsman, serving up the sort of digestible violence that this film abhors.)
Even formally, there’s an impression here of the insane having inherited the asylum. The Last House on the Left has little “coverage” as one normally considers the term, as a hodgepodge of stolen images takes the place of an orderly sequence of master and medium shots and close-ups. Some of these compositions—like Mari’s tranced-out death march into a lake—have a tranquil intensity that’s worthy of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman. Other scenes are stitched together haphazardly, as in a weirdly beautiful and inexplicable fade from a shot of Phyllis and Mari into a close-up of Weasel’s face. Dialogue is crude, obscene, disreputably funny, and often seemingly pointless—such as continuous riffs about animals that gradually evolve into an examination of how Krug’s gang reduces women to cattle. The film often looks and sounds like the exploitation cheapie that it is, though this lowers the audience’s guard for its vivid sense of social collapse.
Artfulness resides underneath The Last House on the Left’s garishness, and the film has a more intimate relationship with its source of inspiration, The Virgin Spring, than detractors care to acknowledge. Riffing throughout on Bergman’s film, Craven proffers a symmetry that continues to influence the horror genre, contrasting the Collingwoods and the Stillo gang as clans that represent the respective mainstream and fringe of society.
The Collingwoods are a middle-class family that’s marginally aware of the “free love” movement spurred by the Vietnam War and rank government corruption. John and Estelle talk like actors in a public service video, emanating the unearned authority that’s echoed later by the policemen. And the Stillo gang is the roiling underbelly of America—reacting to the privilege of people like John and Estelle, the effects of women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam as well as out of its feral urges to revel in its own filth. When the gang’s members dress up and eat at the Collingwoods’ dinner table, not long after killing their daughter, their resemblance to conventional civilians illustrates the thin line existing between the rough halves of the communal coin. Yet Craven doesn’t baldly wear his intellectualism, tucking it underneath the rough framing and fraught atmosphere.
This symbolic self-consciousness is evident in the rape scenes as well. The Stillo gang’s manipulation of Phyllis and Mari suggests a display of film direction, as the killers revel in their authority over their subjects, bending the women’s wills to suit their own fantasies, fashioning role-playing that blends snuff with melodrama. The Stillo gang offers, perhaps, an immoral funhouse version of the sort of direction that Craven may have given himself, and so the killings suggest a homemade horror film within another homemade horror film—an impression that’s intensified by the unease that the cast still exhibits when discussing The Last House on the Left decades later.
These disenfranchised monsters inadvertently stage a parody of how media spins inhumanity into stimulation, divorcing such stimulation of civil pretenses and indicting those who produce or consume the news and action and horror films with placid disinterest. In the face of such a uniquely self-cannibalizing film, traditional criticism also feels inadequate and part of the problem of bourgeoisie evasion. All reviews, that is, except for the astonishing analysis that Robin Wood offered in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.
John and Estelle aren’t killers until the film’s final act, but they also chafe at revolution and enjoy fruits of suppression. The Stillo gang embodies the Collingwoods’ condescending fear of the “degenerate” element that’s suggested by rock-n’-roll and bra-burning, while acting out the Collingwoods’ subterranean impulses. Violence lurks everywhere in this film, right from the opening, when a nostalgic mailman regards Mari’s birthday cards wistfully only to call her the “finest piece” he’s ever seen. When Ethel rips Weasel’s cock off with her teeth, or when John butchers Krug with a chainsaw, there’s a sense of release—a reckoning with a submerged social obscenity—that doesn’t provide relief. In The Last House on the Left, Craven fashions a cleansing, demoralizing wave of anarchy that he never again matched—that he never wanted to match. By breaching a realm as impregnable as the Collingwood home, Craven renders the American nightmare of class savagery democratic, kick-starting the modern political horror film.
Per the notes about the transfer included in the package’s booklet, a search was undertaken to track down The Last House on the Left’s best materials, as the original 16mm AB negative has been lost. Ultimately, the 35mm dupe negative held by producer Sean S. Cunningham was deemed the “highest quality element,” and scanned in 2K resolution, while other elements were sought from MGM and Severin Films to complete the new transfers of the Krug & Company and R-rated versions that are also included in this set.
The result is an unusually lively and robust image, with lurid colors that revitalize the film’s nightmarish trashiness. Skin and other surface textures are densely detailed. Image clarity is variable, as one might expect, though greatly improved from prior editions. Also, The Last House on the Left shouldn’t look too good, as that would negate the point of the project, and there are many blemishes that only add to the seamy atmosphere. Arrow Video has delicately toggled a fine line between clarity and the look that’s most appropriate to the film, and this balance extends to the monaural soundtrack, which is a little flat and soft in places, though greatly improved over the mixes of prior editions, especially in terms of diegetic effects.
This supplements package is comprehensive even by the obsessive standards of Arrow Video, consisting of dozens of featurettes that have appeared on various editions of The Last House on the Left over the years as well as a few choice new additions. Inevitably for a film that’s been repackaged so often, there’s quite a bit of repetition here. Over the course of many archive featurettes and two archive commentaries, writer-director Wes Craven, producer Sean S. Cunningham (of Friday the 13th fame), and the cast and crew discuss working on the film and their subsequent relationship with it.
Fred Lincoln, who worked in adult cinema, says that he’s more ashamed of this film (which he calls a “piece of shit”) than any porn in which he appeared. Many of the actors, who used aliases for this project, are visibly uncomfortable discussing their work, and Sandra Peabody, who has The Last House on the Left’s most punishing scenes, is conspicuously absent. Even Craven evinces skittishness, alternating between rationalizing the film as a political statement and admitting that it’s a genre exercise that might have eluded his control, tapping into something primordially of the moment.
The nuts and bolts of the film’s making are fascinating. Craven shot it in New York and Connecticut, after he got a job in Cunningham’s production office, out of which Cunningham produced “white coat” skin flicks—nudie films with a thin pretense of offering medical information to get around censors. The Last House on the Left’s title was made up on the fly when an advertiser combined words—”last,” “house,” and “left”—that he said would connote unease. The concept worked and made a sensation out of a film that was playing to empty theaters under titles like Krug & Company—a cut of which is included with this disc, as well as the somewhat neutered R-rated version. Helping matters considerably was a canny tag line “it’s only a movie…” which is used in an ad that’s excerpted frequently on these featurettes.
Also included here is an audio commentary with film historians Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes that serves as a terrific one-stop shop for a mammoth package. Ackerman and Reyes dive into the film’s murky politics and observe the convincing and exact character work that’s often ignored. Reyes doesn’t position The Last House on the Left as a feminist work, though she underscores Craven’s often overlooked sensitivity to the female characters.
“Blood and Guts,” an interview with make-up artist Anne Paul, is another notably evocative new supplement, in which Paul tells of auditioning for the roles of Mari and Phyllis only to talk her way into the make-up job. This led to a lifelong career working on legendary people such as Jane Fonda and Bill Clinton. Rounding out this package are a seemingly endless stream of odds and ends, including an unfinished short by Craven, a new book with writing by Stephen Thrower, trailers, radio spots, and a deleted scene, as well as a CD with David Hess’s haunting and controversially whimsical soundtrack.
Arrow Video offers a precise and loving restoration of a daring and legendarily unlovable milestone in horror cinema. This set offers an exacting and ambiguous portrait of a pivotal moment in American horror cinema.
Cast: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Richard Towers, Cynthia Carr, Martin Kove, Marshall Anker, Ada Washington Director: Wes Craven Screenwriter: Wes Craven Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: July 3, 2018 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: America as Seen by a Frenchman Joins the Arrow Academy
This sterling Blu-ray will hopefully cement the underseen film’s reputation as one of the essential documentaries of the French New Wave.3.5
If François Reichenbach’s America as Seen by a Frenchman evinces little of the formalist daring of Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s cinema verité classic Chronicle of a Summer, it nevertheless creates a vivid and essential portrait of American life in the late 1950s by keying into the darkness, and sometimes the death, that lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. To say that the film is anti-American would both overstate its cumulative effect and reduce the nuance of its editing and tone to mere polemic. But it’s certainly true that Reichenbach and his collaborators, which include Chris Marker and Jean Cocteau, aimed to channel the burgeoning, modern energies of the Nouvelle Vague into a documentary that speaks to how the political implications of American behavior and action resonate across the globe.
The film begins on the Golden Gate Bridge, which has “the exquisite audacity of a spider’s web,” according to the voiceover narration, and it charts various aspects of American culture before concluding, in seemingly ironic fashion, that “everyone makes their own conclusions” about the United States. After witnessing the showboats that meander the Mississippi River recreated at Disneyland in California, a carnival in Texas that turns prison inmates into comic fodder, and a terrifying gathering for similarly dressed twins of all ages, you may walk away from America as Seen by a Frenchman with the undeniable impression that the country is an incoherent clusterfuck of excessive behavior, sexual repression, and barely contained violence.
Throughout the film, no matter what’s happening on screen, a cheery score can almost always be heard (shades of Yasujirō Ozu). Michel Legrand’s music serves as ironic complement to one sequence depicting a carnival in which children scarf down ice cream and try to fit entire hot dogs in their mouths, as if to suggest we’re in the midst of pretty innocent fare. The narration, though, troubles a simple alignment of image and music by wryly noting that “mealtime can be a party or a competition.” What it isn’t, this insight implies, is either nutritious or enriching, and while one could be accused of pedantry by reading too much into this sequence, America as Seen by a Frenchman is very much concerned with how a nation’s mindless engagement with food, advertising, and other forms of amusement leads to apathy and ignorance, such as failure to address and resolve inequalities along racial and class lines.
In one particularly graceful sequence, several Black children are seen standing on tires and playing on oil barrels and with hula hoops. Again, the music strikes an upbeat tone, suggesting that these children are getting on just fine. But Reichenbach is demonstrating how sound and image can work to suggest happiness, perhaps even capture it in the moment, while also hinting at how poverty is linked to racism and segregation. It’s hard not to think that the very existence of such empathetic images being seen by French audiences at the time as a gesture of solidarity with Algeria during the height of the Algerian Revolution. That is, while the film purports to be a case study on the U.S., it’s also implying that France isn’t, nor has ever been, entirely exempt from any of these social, political, and racial problems.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray transfer looks remarkable, as is generally the case with HD scans that have been taken from restorations conducted by the CNC in France. The film’s painterly use of Eastman color nearly leaps from the screen in just about every frame, especially in wide shots where the richness of the colors and the extensive depth of field result in a dynamic vibrancy. Grain is quite apparent throughout and generally consistent, though there are some sequences where its very visible presence is borderline distracting. The original uncompressed monaural audio is also solid, with the film’s voiceover, live elements, and Michel Legrand’s score given an impressively full-sounding experience.
The disc’s sole supplement is a new video appreciation of America as Seen by a Frenchman by author and critic Philip Kemp, who contextualizes both the film and François Reichenbach in relation to the broader trends in French filmmaking at the time. Kemp argues that Reichenbach has been unjustly forgotten as a significant figure in the Nouvelle Vague, with America as Seen by a Frenchman being perhaps his most noteworthy contribution. Kemp details Reichenbach’s younger years in both France and New York, where he developed an interest in making films as “cinematic poems in which image and word respond to one another.” Overall, Kemp provides an insightful primer on Reichenbach and briefly discusses several of the director’s other films, including 1976’s Sex ‘O Clock U.S.A..
This sterling new Blu-ray will hopefully cement the underseen America as Seen by a Frenchman’s reputation as one of the essential documentaries of the French New Wave.
Director: François Reichenbach Screenwriter: Chris Marker, François Reichenbach Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: June 2, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran on Film Detective Blu-ray
This Blu-ray should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.3.5
As the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s very much the case with Phil Goldstone’s wildly idiosyncratic The Sin of Nora Moran from 1933. A pre-Code B picture made on the cheap at the short-lived Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures, it tells a tale common to many a film from the ‘30s: A young girl fallen into disrepute shacks up with a powerful man and finds herself wrapped up in potential scandal and, ultimately, murder. It’s the stuff of tawdry dime-store novels that routinely drew the eyes of Hollywood producers, but Goldstone’s approach to the material, while it bears the signs of budgetary limitations, is startlingly inventive, spinning otherwise mundane, melodramatic material into something far stranger and more deeply unsettling than any plot synopsis would lead you to expect.
Employing a nested narrative, with flashbacks within flashbacks, abrupt changes in point of view, and an array of surrealistic flourishes, such as lengthy, multi-layered superimpositions, this narratively and visually complex film proved too modern, and ultimately too vexing, for audiences of the time. Using a framing device in which the district attorney, John Grant (Alan Dinehart), who prosecuted Nora (Zita Johann) tells his sister, Edith (Claire du Brey), of the tragic circumstances that led to the young girl’s execution, The Sin of Nora Moran foretells the knottier narrative structures that would become the norm in ‘40s Hollywood, but which were not yet remotely close to being codified into the film grammar of the pre-Code era.
The Sin of Nora Moran’s flashback structure is further complicated by the frequent shifts in perspective from John inside his home to Nora as she awaits her death sentence in prison. These transitions are all the more disorienting, and in fascinating and enlightening ways, as the film weaves Nora’s subjective feelings of grief, guilt, and regret into the otherwise objective, past-tense retelling of her tragic past. The effects of Nora’s psychological turmoil intruding on the manner in which her story unfurls is downright proto-Lynchian.
In one flashback, Nora is suddenly disturbed when her beau, prospective Governor Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), strokes her hair, only for a cut to Nora in prison revealing that her reaction stems from her hair being cut prior to her execution. In another scene, Nora mentions that she’s afraid and doesn’t want to open a door, knowing that it will lead to the murder that will seal her fate. Throughout, the way that her fractured psychological state is reflected in the structure of the film is eerily reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, whose protagonist’s agitations and regrets inform the way that specific events in the film’s flashbacks are portrayed.
The Sin of Nora Moran’s often-playful blurring of the line between subjective and objective truths is made possible by some rather unusual and unforgettable stylistic touches. In perhaps the film’s best sequence, where Dick, now the governor, pines for the woman he can save just prior to her death, Goldstone leaves a mostly still, superimposed close-up of the man’s face on screen as a series of flashbacks to scenes of him falling in love with Nora play underneath his awkwardly frozen expression. Its effect is ominous and disconcerting, much like in Twin Peaks: The Return when a superimposition of Agent Dale Cooper’s face fills the screen for several minutes in the penultimate episode of David Lynch’s series.
Soon after this point, an apparition of Nora appears to Dick in a dark room, angelically assuring him that it’s okay for him to let her die for love. This entire sequence is of the same brand of soapy romanticism that Lynch often toys with, and like his work, Goldstone’s film infuses overt melodrama with a brimming and vibrant sense of dread, transforming what would otherwise be hokey into something oddly, yet overwhelmingly, transcendent. It’s a chilling, strange experience, quite unlike anything else to come out of pre-Code Hollywood.
Sourced from the recent 4K restoration of the film by UCLA, the Film Detective’s transfer is simply gorgeous. With the possible exception of the Criterion Collection’s 2019 release of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, this may be as good as any film made by a Poverty Row studio has looked on home video. There’s the occasional flickering of the image and a slight softness that renders the minutest of facial details invisible, but by and large, the picture is sharp and luminous, with a healthy, even grain distribution and a fairly high contrast ratio. The DTS audio, restored from the dual mono original, is free of the hisses, pops, and tinniness one typically expects to hear watching a B picture from this time period.
The lone extra is a 17-minute featurette, “Mysterious Life of Zita Johann,” narrated by film historian and producer Samuel M. Sherman. Some of The Sin of Nora Moran’s stylistic idiosyncrasies and highlights of Johann’s career are briefly touched upon, but the bulk of the time is spent covering Sherman’s own friendship with the actress, including how the two met after he saw a rare 16mm print of the film, then cast her in an independent film of his in the 1980s, and eventually became the heir to her estate. The limited-edition Blu-ray release, unlike the DVD, comes with a booklet with promotional pictures and an essay by Sherman, who discusses The Sin of Nora Moran’s surprisingly lengthy production process and Johann’s preference for the unreleased, and far more traditional, linear cut of the film.
The Film Detective’s Blu-ray release should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.
Cast: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart, Paul Cavanagh, Claire du Brey, Sarah Padden, Henry B. Walthall, Cora Sue Collins, Joe Girard Director: Phil Goldstone Screenwriter: W. Maxwell Goodhue, Frances Hyland Distributor: The Film Detective Running Time: 65 min Rating: NR Year: 1933 Release Date: July 29, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Lucky McKee’s The Woman on Arrow Video Blu-ray
McKee’s disturbing satire about family values gone horribly awry gets a superlative new Blu-ray package.4.5
Lucky McKee’s The Woman is a welcome antidote to one of the most pernicious diseases of our times, an epidemic of glossy remakes that have gelded the relentlessly grungy energy of many a ‘70s horror classic. Scripted by McKee and novelist Jack Ketchum, the film is a slow-burning but incendiary device, a brutal satire on the sanctity of the nuclear family and its conservative “values” that, like the majority of Ketchum’s work, seems to delight in burrowing down to the dark discontents that gnaw away at what nowadays passes for civilization.
A sequel of sorts to Andrew van den Houten’s The Offspring, The Woman picks up with its titular character (Pollyanna McIntosh), the sole survivor of the earlier film’s cannibal clan, eking out an existence in the Maine woods like some unspoiled noble savage. The hallucinatory opening sequence plays like an unholy marriage between Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, down to the hand-scrawled title and synth-heavy score squalling and droning away on the soundtrack. Shot in dreamy slow motion, the Woman’s actions, loping with knife in hand through densely knotted underbrush, crawling into a cavernous lair to tussle with its lupine occupant, are played and replayed in multiple superimpositions, contributing to a fractured, febrile feel that’s only heightened by a surreal dream involving a swaddling infant and a she-wolf.
It’s at this point The Woman abruptly shifts in tone and location. An idyllic summer barbecue and pool party introduces the members of the Cleek family, each wrapped up in their separate pursuits, indicative from the start that this clan’s solidarity is entirely fictive. Soon enough, the postcard-pretty surfaces give way, revealing deep chasms of tension and resentment.
Chipmunk-cheeked patriarch Chris (Sean Bridgers) enjoys hectoring his tightly wound wife, Belle (McKee regular Angela Bettis), with a mix of derisive sarcasm with ice-cold contempt (shades of The Shining’s Jack Torrance), while she maintains an outward appearance of normalcy, zombie-shuffling along grocery store aisles and fussily baking cookies. (If you detect a sly nod to the Woman’s digit-devouring predilections in the scene where the Cleek kids delight in chopping up and chomping their gingerbread men, you just might be onto something.) Daughter Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter), a Wednesday Addams for the Twilight generation first seen poolside reading John D. McDonald’s The Price of Murder, harbors a scandalous secret under her baggy clothes: a budding baby bump. Compulsive hoop-dreamer Brian (Zach Rand), a sociopath on training wheels, soon reveals his cruel streak when he sticks gum in the brush of a girl who’s beaten him in a free-throw contest, all the better to helpfully yank her hair out by the roots. And then there’s little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), the youngest, her untrammeled innocence up for grabs in the film’s blood-spattered endgame.
When huntsman Chris rides his ATV into the woods one morning, he spies the Woman washing herself in the river. He disguises his lust at first sight, given vent in a hilarious montage of prurient glimpses of the Woman’s nakedness set to a power-pop love song, by hatching a scheme to capture and rehabilitate the feral woman. Not one to fly solo, he enlists the whole family, tasking them with cleaning out the fruit cellar and making it comfy for their new guest—that is, if by comfortable you mean dangling her by the arms from a block and tackle. The Woman becomes a reclamation project of sorts for Chris, the recipient of an extreme makeover, Cleek Edition, as he imposes his own warped notion of civilized values on his captive, including rudimentary etiquette lessons like learning to croak a plaintive “please” in exchange for her gruel. As Chris opines, “We can’t have people wandering around the woods, thinking they’re animals. It isn’t right.”
McKee directs with assured simplicity, scoring points with his lucid shot compositions, like a startling two-shot that links mother and daughter, calling to mind the split-screen hijinks of peak-period Brian De Palma, just as an extended 360-degree pan near film’s end, with the camera swirling deliriously around Chris and Peg, plays as a perverse nod to similar emotional crescendos in Carrie and Body Double. Sean Spillane’s superb, protean soundtrack, straddling styles with chameleon-like adroitness, often stands in ironic counterpoint to events on screen. Ketchum and McKee dispense revelations and plot twists in canny dosages, allowing the viewer to connect most of the dots, a suggestive approach that works to maintain active involvement, rather than jolting the audience into passive capitulation.
That is, until an explosive finale, triggered by young Peg’s home situation draws the attention of her overly solicitous geometry teacher (Carlee Baker), whose good intentions prompt an ill-conceived visit to chez Cleek. Seems Chris has more to hide than his daughter’s pregnancy. There’s the little matter of a hitherto unseen family member who’s landed in the doghouse for an extended stay. Regardless of how you happen to feel about its outrageously graphic gore, the finale suffers by comparison for its too-pat “return of the repressed” resolution, meting out morally tidy eye-for-an-eye punishments. In the end, a radically realigned family unit emerges from the carnage, one that puts the blood back into blood relations.
Arrow Video’s 4K restoration of The Woman from a digital intermediate looks spectacular, with a substantial increase in clarity and depth compared to the 2012 Bloody-Disgusting Selects Blu-ray. Black levels are deep and uncrushed, grain well managed, and flesh tones healthy. Colors are vivid and deeply saturated. There are two audio options: a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix and the original stereo track. The former finds some excellent use for the side and back channels for ambient sound effects like rattling chains, as well as sturdily conveys Sean Spillane’s pop singles-heavy soundtrack.
Arrow assembles a truly comprehensive selection of bonus materials for this Blu-ray release of The Woman. There are four commentary tracks, three by various combinations of cast and crew, which exhaustively cover every aspect of the film’s production history, from inception to reception. The fourth track is from writer Scott Weinberg, who offers a refreshingly chatty, informal, and sometimes humorous appraisal of McKee’s film, though you may wish that he hadn’t so heavily pulled “material” from his Twitter feed.
“Dad on the Wall” is 75 minutes’ worth of raw behind-the-scenes footage shot by director Lucky McKee’s father without any sort of talking-head commentary. A more compact version of the same, which does include observations from cast and crew, can be found in “Malam Domesticam,” which contains some pretty great footage that illustrates the grisly practical effects that dominate the film’s third act. It’s bookended by footage of the outraged Sundance premiere attendee who thought the film should be “banned and burned.”
“Meet Peggy Cleek” is a charming interview with Lauren Ashley Carter, who touches on the process of finding the emotional intensity her role required, that fateful Sundance premiere, and the odd accommodations during filming (a rundown boarding school complete with a tank of piranhas and frog living in one of the shower stalls). There’s a fascinating panel discussion from the 2011 Frightmare Festival, in which a rogue’s gallery of contemporary indie horror filmmakers—including McKee, Adam Green, Ti West, and Larry Fessenden—discuss the state of horror cinema at the time (which is still largely the case, alas), sharing plenty of hilarious anecdotes involving pitch meetings and studio notes. The roster of supplements is rounded out by some deleted scenes, a short piece of bizarro animation from The Woman’s editor Zach Passero, a music video, and assorted promotional materials.
Lucky McKee’s disturbing satire about family values gone horribly awry gets a superlative Blu-ray package loaded with fascinating extras from Arrow Video.
Cast: Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Lauren Ashley Carter, Carlee Baker, Zach Rand, Alexa Marcigliano, Shyla Molhusen Director: Lucky McKee Screenwriter: Lucky McKee Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2011 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Tomu Uchida’s The Mad Fox Joins the Arrow Academy
Making its Blu-ray debut, Uchida’s film is a highly stylized ode to love and disorder.3.5
Though he’s nowhere near as well-known in the West, Tomu Uchida is considered in his native Japan to be a filmmaker on par with such contemporaries as Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. One of the reasons for this seems to be a fundamental changeability both in his choice of thematic material and cinematic style. Consequently, his output ranges from the monochrome naturalism of 1955’s Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji to the searing Fujicolor panoramas and overtly theatrical tableaux of 1962’s The Mad Fox.
Based on a 17th-century play, in turn based on the folk tales and legends of medieval Japan, The Mad Fox draws on the idiosyncratic aesthetics of scroll paintings and Kabuki theater to convey its strange saga of imperial court intrigue. The film opens with a protracted lateral pan along an unraveling scroll, whose illustrations handily lay out the requisite backstory. At the end of this nearly five-minute shot, the image subtly shifts from the painted image of an erupting Mount Fuji to a live studio set flooded with unnatural crimson light. It’s the first in the film’s frequent shifts in register—from constructed sets to real locations, period-exact costumes to flagrantly histrionic masks, standard dialogue to bizarre internal monologues sung by an off-screen narrator. These sudden changes serve as Brechtian distancing effects, forcing us to remain keenly aware of the artifice involved in art.
Mount Fuji’s eruption signals chaos in the land. Only court astrologer Kamo no Yasunori (Junya Usami) can be counted on to properly advise the emperor by consulting the fabulous Chinese scroll known as the Golden Crow. Unfortunately, the prevailing disorder extends to Yasunori’s own household, where the rivalry for favor between virtuous Yasuna (Hashizô Ôkawa) and devious Doman (Shinji Amano) leads to a series of betrayals, torture, murder, and Yasuna’s ultimate madness and exile. Uchida’s deliberate pacing and penchant for exquisitely balanced (and decidedly painterly) compositions tend to drain these events of their inherent drama, another technique the director uses to seemingly hold the viewer at a remove.
The expressionistic manner in which Uchida illustrates Yasuna’s fit of madness is visually remarkable. After visiting the graves of those he’s lost, Yasuna wanders into a field of vivid yellow flowers. The scene then subtly shifts to a set: Behind Yasuna there’s a bright yellow curtain, and the stage, complete with artificial flowers, slowly revolves in circles, as the off-screen narrator croons, “Inside is emptiness. Never fall in love.” The tableau changes back to the field as the curtain drops to reveal an expanse of meadow with trees in the distance. It’s as surreal and disorienting a moment as any in Japanese cinema.
Yasuna now enters a landscape of swirling mists and mythological creatures. Where the first half of The Mad Fox could almost pass for your typical jidaigeki period piece, albeit absent all the sword- and spearplay, the latter half resembles films like Onibaba and Kwaidan that revel in the uncanny and the supernatural. Yasuna gets caught up with a clan of fox spirits who can take human shape. The young female, Okon (Michiko Saga), assumes the form of Yasuna’s lost love, Sakaki (Saga again), who had been tortured and killed by Doman. Kon uses her superhuman powers to construct a sort of isolated bubble in the middle of the forest, where she and Yasuna can live and love unimpeded by the outside world.
To emphasize the unnaturalness of this situation, Uchida again shifts to the theatrical register: We first see Yasuna and Okon’s shared hovel as a curtain draws back to reveal the façade of the structure. The surrounding landscape consists of painted flats, and the backdrop is patently two-dimensional. But the real world insists on intruding on their idyll, not out of political expediency, as it happens, but owing to untrammeled desire. Sakaki’s younger twin sister, Kuzunoha (Saga once again)—whom Yasura had earlier, in his delusion, mistaken for her sister—arrives to inform him she’s been pining away in his absence. (Even this doubling and trebling of identities smacks of dramaturgy.) As The Mad Fox winds down to its final shot of a deserted stage, the off-screen narrator again warns us of what can happen to those who, to quote another playwright, have “loved not wisely, but too well.”
Touted as a “brand new restoration by Toei,” The Mad Fox looks excellent overall, despite some technical flaws inherent in the “Toeiscope” widescreen anamorphic format, as writer and curator Jasper Sharp points out in his commentary track. These mostly manifest as edge enhancement and distortion evident at frame’s edge as well as in some of the more prominent close-ups. Colors are bold and richly saturated, especially those overpowering yellows. Clarity of detail really stands out in the brightly hued textures of the medieval costumes. Black levels are deep and uncrushed, while grain is well modulated throughout. The LPCM mono track cleanly conveys the dialogue, as well as gives some decent presence to Chûji Kinoshita’s minimalist score for the shamisen and other traditional instruments.
The main extra supplied by Arrow is another richly detailed commentary track from Japanese film authority Jasper Sharp, who delves deep into the multifaceted historical and cultural contexts of The Mad Fox, identifies the film as a turning point between classical and “modernist” Japanese cinema in its formal experimentation and rejection of a naturalistic mise-en-scène, conveys lots of career information about the cast and crew, and points out numerous connections (both direct and more convoluted) between this film and the works of Kenji Mizoguchi. Also included on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer and image gallery.
Making its Blu-ray debut, Tomu Uchida’s film is a highly stylized ode to love and disorder.
Cast: Hashizô Ôkawa, Michiko Saga, Jun Usami, Shinji Amano, Sumiko Hidaka, Rin’ichi Yamamoto, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata Director: Tomu Uchida Screenwriter: Yoshikata Yoda Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Release Date: June 23, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides on Criterion Blu-ray
Criterion’s Blu-ray provides a comprehensive window into Streisand’s creative process.4.5
Unabashedly melodramatic yet psychologically complex, Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides is a throwback to—and a twist on—the so-called women’s films of the 1930s and ‘40s. Adapted from Pat Conroy’s sprawling semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film concerns the stormy romance between a troubled middle-aged Southerner, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), and a stoic yet sensitive Manhattan psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (Streisand). It’s very much the stuff of a Bette Davis-Irving Rapper weepie, but if the classic woman’s film centered on the inability of a strongly independent, yet often emotionally fragile, woman to find her place in the world—sometimes with the assistance of a paternalistic therapist, as in Rapper’s Now, Voyager—The Prince of Tides centers on a man struggling to do the same.
Opening with picture-perfect helicopter shots of the sunset over a South Carolina marsh set to the soupy strains of James Newton Howard’s score as Tom delivers a sentimental voiceover about his childhood, The Prince of Tides instantly conjures a saccharine and nostalgic mood that it proceeds to dismantle over the course of its running time. Tom, a driftless former football coach living along the South Carolina coast, at first seems to be longing for a return to innocence, but we soon find that his childhood is in fact the source of all his troubles. Tasked by his overbearing mother, Lila Wingo (Kate Nelligan), to travel to New York to take care of his sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), who’s been hospitalized following a recent suicide attempt, Tom soon forms a close bond with Savannah’s therapist, Dr. Lowenstein, who’s keenly interested in investigating Savannah and Tom’s difficult upbringing.
The script, by Conroy and Becky Johnston, radically alters the course of the novel, which is primarily told through Tom’s flashbacks to his childhood. The film, instead, is centered on the relationship between Tom and Susan, which grows from professional to friendly to downright steamy. Nolte is unusually histrionic, frequently shouting and gesticulating in an overbearing manner, while Streisand is overly subdued, her attempts to portray Susan as professional and emotionally reserved coming off as chilly and distracted. But while their performances may lack for nuance, they conjure up a certain sweet-and-sour chemistry that allows their characters’ romance to feel vivid and watchable even during some of the film’s hammier sequences, such as a verbal tiff that escalates with Susan throwing a dictionary at Tom’s head.
Unfortunately, when The Prince of Tides strays from this central relationship, it indulges corniness. A subplot involving Tom teaching Susan’s gangly son, Bernard (Jason Gould), how to play football is leaden and unconvincing, full of training sequences that have no feel for the sport. And the film is peppered with flashback sequences that are bathed in a wistful glow that belies the depths of Tom’s trauma. Streisand is clearly enamored of her film’s coastal shooting locations, what with all the sweeping crane shots and photogenic glimpses of shrimp boats cutting through sun-dappled waters, evoking the past with a superficial lusciousness that’s ill-suited to the wrenching pain that Tom ostensible feels inside.
In contrast to the noir-ish expressionism of many women’s films from the golden age of Hollywood, such as Now, Voyager, Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, or Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed, which sought to provide a visual complement to its characters’ unsettled psyches, Streisand consistently opts for a gauzy prettiness in the mold of Garry Marshall’s Beaches that reassures the audience that no matter how dark the subject matter may get, ultimately everything’s going to be okay. Meanwhile, Howard’s schmaltzy, overwrought score is like a warm blanket draped over the entire film, smothering whatever raw feeling might have been left over from the source novel, and the overall effect is tranquilizing in all the wrong ways.
Boasting a new 4K restoration of the 35mm original camera negatives supervised by Barbra Streisand, The Prince of Tides looks positively sumptuous on Criterion’s Blu-ray release. The color grading of the restoration is particularly notable; all those scenic shots of South Carolina are vivid and vibrant, with deep oranges, purples, and blues clearly visible in the film’s picturesque opening sunset shots. The stereo soundtrack has also been remastered from the original 35mm master and provided in a lossless Dolby 2.0 surround track, and it’s beautifully balanced. Even in scenes where dialogue, voiceover, score, and sound effects are all playing at the same time, each element is always crystal-clear and easily distinguishable.
Criterion reached deep into its archive for this release, recycling a number of special features produced for its laserdisc edition of the film more than 25 years ago while also providing a bevy of new extras. The audio commentary straddles the line between old and new: While primarily consisting of Streisand’s original 1991 commentary, it also features updates from the actress-director recorded in 2019. This commentary, as well as the disc’s other extensive features, makes a strong case for Streisand as—in Jerry Lewis’s phrase—a “total filmmaker.” Not only did she produce, direct, and star in the film, she also pioneered her own process that involved shooting multiple versions of the same scene and keeping the option to use any of them alive throughout the editing process. Streisand made tweaks to the final cut even after the film’s test screening, removing her own song from the end credits because it didn’t feel right, despite the audience’s favorable opinion of it. While these supplements may not convert the film’s skeptics, they make a strong case for Streisand as a uniquely holistic filmmaker.
This release also includes extensive behind-the-scenes material and other extras organized into four main sections that chronicle Streisand’s filmmaking process: Pat Conroy, Preproduction, Production, and Postproduction. The Pat Conroy section, which documents Streisand and Conroy’s close working relationship, includes a promotional interview with the author, handwritten letters from Conroy to Streisand, and grainy footage of the pair dancing the shag. The Preproduction materials include 8mm video excerpts of the audition process, rehearsal footage, and costume and makeup tests. Supplements under the Production header include storyboards, footage of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, a photo album, and 8mm video excerpts of alternate versions of scenes from the film. Under Postproduction, we get deleted scenes, original end credits featuring Streisand’s song “Places That Belong to You,” and 8mm video excerpts of the film’s test screening. There are also two interviews with Streisand, trailers for the film, and a puffy promotional featurette. The package also includes a fairly slight booklet essay by critic Bruce Eder originally written for Criterion in 1994.
Featuring a luscious new restoration and a bundle of extras, Criterion’s Blu-ray provides a comprehensive window into Streisand’s creative process.
Cast: Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Kate Nelligan, Jeroen Krabbé, Melinda Dillon, George Carlin, Jason Gould, Brad Sullivan Director: Barbra Streisand Screenwriter: Pat Conroy, Becky Johnston Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 132 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: March 31, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Abbas Kiarostam’s Taste of Cherry on the Criterion Collection
Criterion gives new life to Kiarostami’s lovely, understated rumination on existential quandaries.4
“There is but one truly serious philosophical question,” writes Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, “and that is suicide.” Faced with what Camus terms “the unreasonable silence of the world,” and believing that life is inherently meaningless, why should an individual choose to go on? This is the conundrum that confronts Mr. Badii (Homayoun Erhadi), the protagonist of Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami’s understated and evocative account of a man’s existential despair. Because Mr. Badii never reveals his reasons for contemplating suicide, the audience is left guessing. Backstory in this case would only reduce Mr. Badii to the status of a specific character who finds himself immersed in a particular set of circumstances. Absent that, he can serve more easily as an archetype, a kind of Iranian everyman.
For the first 20 minutes or so, we have no idea what Mr. Badii might be after. From the passenger seat of his Range Rover, we watch him drive from Tehran into the desolate outskirts of the city, which appear to consist of one enormous construction project. The occasional long shot situates the vehicle amid the arid landscape. Along the way, Mr. Badii pauses from time to time to converse with some laborers. His terse inquiries elicit mostly friendly yet noncommittal responses, except for one man who threatens to smash his face in. This aggressive reaction seems to suggest that he thinks Mr. Badii might be cruising for a male lover. But, as it turns out, all he wants is for someone to make sure that he’s gone through with the act of suicide and, if so, to toss “20 spadefuls of earth” over him.
Much of the film is taken up with conversations between Mr. Badii and three potential participants in his suicide pact. Each of their positions—soldier, seminarian, museum employee—represents a pillar of society, yet each of them is an ethnic outsider: a Kurd, an Afghan, and a Turk, respectively. It’s canny how Kiarostami indicates the ways in which a person can be bound up in the social fabric and still stand apart from it, but the disparity between Mr. Badii and his interlocutors is also economic: Though he speaks of friendship and receiving the gift of assistance, his primary persuader remains a large sum of money.
Where the soldier merely flees in fright, and the seminarian flatly refuses owing to religious prohibitions, the elderly taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), hesitantly agrees. And yet he hopes to use the very act of storytelling as a way to persuade Mr. Badii against his rash intention. The tale concerns his own futile attempt to hang himself from a tree branch. The unexpected appearance of mulberries on the tree—a sumptuous goad to the all-too-human senses—distracts him from his stated purpose. Though mute (at least according to Camus), the world has presence; it appeals to the observant eye. So it comes as no surprise that, near the end of the film, there are several long shots of Mr. Badii sitting on a bench or a hilltop, gazing out at the city and all of creation in the distance.
Significantly, Mr. Bagheri soon takes over the navigation of the Range Rover, which, until then, has been seen endlessly meandering in circles around the open grave that awaits Mr. Badii. The older man promises to take him along “a longer road, but better and more beautiful.” It’s hard not to see this as a touching metaphor for life itself. The vehicle soon passes from harsh earthen wasteland to lovely rolling hills spotted with trees in bloom. Curiously, some of the trees are green, some speckled with autumnal hues—a subtle reminder of the ways that life and death interpenetrate each other in cyclical fashion.
The last minutes of the film are its most remarkable. And they’re all about transitions. We see Mr. Badii in his grave. The screen goes black. Then, in clearly degraded camcorder footage, we’re presented with the making of an earlier scene. The actor Erhadi passes Kiarostami a cigarette. We’re behind the scenes, in another realm, with The Taste of Cherry having passed over from film to video, from fiction to the fact of its making, from death to life—or is it afterlife? We’ve also passed from silence to song. A film that hitherto had absolutely no score erupts into Louis Armstrong’s instrumental rendition of “Saint James Infirmary,” a blues number about looking coolly at death while celebrating life. That’s Taste of Cherry for you. To quote the lyrics of Cab Calloway’s rendition of the song: “We raise Hallelujah as we go along.”
Criterion’s 4K restoration of Taste of Cherry is a vast improvement over 1999’s DVD edition, which was non-anamorphic and as such not enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image here is sharper, with far greater density and clarity on the textures of clothing and close-ups on faces, which are, after all, so integral to the film. Colors, from dun earth tones to the intense greens and yellows of the foliage, are vibrant and densely saturated. Grain levels are suitably cinematic. The LPCM mono track clearly delivers the dialogue and lends some depth to ambient industrial sounds and half-overheard conversations.
Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of Taste of Cherry includes a handful of welcome supplements, including the 1997 on-camera interview with Abbas Kiarostami that was the sole extra of note on the DVD. In it, the filmmaker discusses accepting the dictates of censorship as a series of challenges, preferring films that lull you to sleep over ones that nail you to your seat, extols the importance of the imagination in both cinema and life, briefly comments (breaking into English for the moment) on Quentin Tarantino as cinephile and filmmaker, and admits extracting his life philosophy from his frequent work with children.
Project is a 40-minute “sketch film” for Taste of Cherry, in which Kiarostami and his son, Bahman, rehearse a number of its scenes, intercut with footage from the finished film. In a new interview, Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy talks about the influence of Kiarostami’s early work in advertising and documentary filmmaking on his later narrative films. In a brief but cogent episode of “Observations on Film Art” from the Criterion Channel, critic and historian Kristin Thompson highlights the importance of landscape in Kiarostami’s cinema and explicates his quite distinctive technique for generating narrative suspense. The illustrated foldout booklet includes a perceptive reading of the film from critic A.S. Hamrah, which, among other things, intriguingly compares Taste of Cherry to Barbara Loden’s Wanda.
A superlative Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection gives new life to Abbas Kiarostami’s lovely, understated rumination on existential quandaries.
Cast: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi, Mir Hossein Noori Director: Abbas Kiarostami Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: July 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s Airplane! on Paramount Blu-ray
Paramount’s newly remastered 4K transfer ensures that the film looks better than it ever has on home video.3
The stridently horny frat-house slapstick that defined legendary comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater’s aesthetic resulted in what could be considered the comedic equivalent of repeated premature ejaculations. The punchlines come quick and thick, with little foreplay or consideration for anything other than getting a physical reaction from the audience.
Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s initial foray into film was the disjointed, sporadically hysterical Kentucky Fried Movie, a raunchy, shapeless collection of movie- and TV-spoofing skits. Though the centerpiece Bruce Lee riff “A Fistful of Yen” demonstrated a reasonable level of “to-to concentwaysun” (as the kung fu master would lisp), the rest was content to show little girls frying cats in Wesson oil or bigger girls introducing each others’ bare bosoms by name (“Nancy, this is Susan. Susan, this is Nancy”). So it must’ve been something of a shock when their hit 1980 follow-up, Airplane!, sustained a single premise—spoofing the Airport disaster films—for its entire running time, and did so without going limp.
The reason for this is because the ZAZ team framed their zaniest conceits with an uncredited, scene-for-scene fabrication of 1957’s forgotten Zero Hour. Highlights include Barbara Billingsley trading jive with two unreceptive African-Americans, a furniture-smashing barroom brawl between two Girl Scouts, and the mass plane panic that’s undercut by a big-breasted woman running in front of the action for a single jiggly second. And the filmmakers restaged Zero Hour, which was based on a novel by Airport author Arthur Hailey, with straight faces, hiring a phalanx of B-listers like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, and Peter Graves to deliver the corny action lingo as though they didn’t notice the watermelons dropping or arrows zinging around behind them. The tossed salad of sight gags, incidental vulgarity, fourth-wall obliteration, strident stupidity, intentional chintziness, Stephen “There’s a sale at Penneys” Stucker’s late-emerging queerness, and freeze-dried camp felt, at the time, like a new genre.
It wasn’t. The films of Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby all worked the same territory, and Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were just taking it as far as it could go without snapping, as in the scene where the older woman, right after disapprovingly refusing a swig from a man’s whiskey flask, snorts a few lines of coke. But the ZAZ team’s major contribution to the blackout piss-take genre, and the main reason that none of their follow-up films seemed even remotely as “novel” as Airplane!, is that they assessed the humorlessness of antiquated thrillers and deemed it, across the board, as a camp sensibility.
Because their key ingredient is that all of the film’s characters are unflappably ignorant of being part of a comedy, the ZAZ formula has unfortunately provided the template for a lot of unnecessary revisionism. So even though this blockbuster is one of the most relentlessly inventive of American comedies, it’s impugned the ability for a lot of taut, professional, but now outmoded dramatic filmmaking to take any serious response from some modern audiences, a trend for which the equally ingenious MST3K would pound the final nail in the coffin. For the benefit of a truly limitless comedy where no reference point would ever be too beyond the pale and the only faux pas is taking any film at face value, the ZAZ team and Joel and his bots have unwittingly sculpted an army of cultural demolition monkeys, ready to pounce on and mock practically any half-assed but harmless film that has the bad fortune to have been produced before Marlon Brando’s second Academy Award.
Paramount’s newly remastered 4K transfer of Airplane! ensures that the film looks better than it ever has on home video. The image is consistently sharp and details are visible deep into the frame, guaranteeing that you won’t miss the smallest of visual gags. The color balancing is strong and naturalistic, while skin tones are consistently even. Nonetheless, you may rue the lack of film grain, as the image exudes a slightly over-digitized look throughout. On the audio side, the mix is sturdy and nicely balanced, meaning that you won’t miss a second of the film’s rapid-fire, sometimes overlapping dialogue.
For this “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray edition, the studio trots out the same old commentary track with filmmakers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker that’s been on every home-video edition of the film for the past two decades. It’s a relatively breezy, entertaining listen, with the trio offering plenty of jokes in between stories about, for example, battling studio heads over wanting to cast only dramatic actors in the major roles and the varying degrees to which those actors truly got the humor that the filmmakers were going for. The track does, though, run out of steam about an hour in, at which point all three men struggle to fill the dead air. The two remaining extras are brand new, but the first—an eight-minute featurette titled “Filmmaker Focus”—amounts to little more than a studio-produced puff piece. The second new feature is a 35-minute Q&A with ZAZ following a 40th anniversary screening of the film at L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre, and though the directors don’t tread much ground that isn’t already covered in the commentary, they offer a few new, amusing anecdotes and have a very playful rapport with their audience.
The extra features aren’t much of a step up from prior DVD and Blu-ray editions, but the transfer at least marks a discernible upgrade.
Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Screenwriter: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 1980 Release Date: July 21, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve on the Criterion Collection
Sturges’s farce remains a canny deconstruction of romantic-comedy tropes.4.5
With The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges casts a cool eye on that evergreen wellspring of endless comedies: the battle of the sexes. Only he flips the usual script, giving the advantage to his female lead, allowing her to be in the know and in control, whereas her tightly wound love interest remains hapless and often hopeless through practically the entire film. That Sturges never condescends to his characters, imbuing even the smallest role with nuance and a delightful lived-in quality, speaks to the writer-director’s urbane and egalitarian philosophy of life.
The film’s first half concerns the burgeoning shipboard romance between stuffed-shirt Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), amateur ophiologist and heir to the Pike Ale fortune (“The ale that won for Yale”), and pert Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). As it happens, Jean is part of a group of con artists that includes her card-shark father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), and their wily partner, Gerald (Melville Cooper). Sturges cleverly, and often hilariously, parallels the process of Jean inveigling Charles and the trio attempting to swindle him. After Charles barely manages some sleight of hand, witness the sarcastic delight with which Jean informs her father: “Oh, he does card tricks, too!”
One of the most brilliant scenes in The Lady Eve unfolds when Jean first glimpses Charles across the ship’s crowded dining room. Viewing events in a compact mirror that comes to stand in for the film frame, Jean starts offering a running commentary on a series of risibly futile bids for Charles’s attention, before actively “directing” the action herself. The sequence plays as though Sturges ceded control over his film to one of its characters—at once a perfectly natural bit of business that illustrates Jean’s insight into human behavior and a wonderfully postmodern-ish commentary on the mechanics of feminine seduction. (In a nifty bit of cinematic intertextuality, Brian De Palma would appropriate the title of the book that holds Charles’s rapt attention, Are Snakes Necessary?, for his recent Hard Case Crime novel.)
Charles’s credulity is more than matched by the cynicism of his bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest), who soon ferrets out Jean and company’s true agenda. In an unexpected moment of cruelty, Charles tells a devastated Jean that he’s been on to her the whole time—a reversal of fortune that sets in motion the film’s second half, in which Jean will assume the identity of Lady Eve Sidwich in order to exact her revenge on Charles and his family in the form of a marriage proposal. Stanwyck’s makeover from Jean to Eve is remarkable: The clothes, of course, are different, in keeping with Eve’s more exalted status, but so, too, is her deportment, every gesture and tilt of the head, not to mention one terribly unsteady British accent.
In a hilariously circular bit of “psychology,” Charles explains to Muggsy how Eve can’t possibly be Jean, despite the uncanny resemblance, because they’re so physically similar that they just have to be completely different women. Just as earlier Charles couldn’t quite put his finger on the difference between beer and ale, even though “they’re nothing alike,” this scene likewise taps into the opposition between similarity and difference that runs throughout the film. Stacked atop that antagonism is the similar (but different) one between reality and appearance, how characters are taken at face value to be what they seem. This lies at the heart of the con artist’s modus operandi. If you can’t tell the difference, then you’re a “mug,” which makes it doubly ironic that Muggsy is the only one who does notice.
A lot of the dialogue in The Lady Eve skirts the censure of the Hays Office, but it’s still a wonder that they allowed the scene where Eve delays the inevitable honeymoon consummation by regaling Charles with fabricated accounts of her dalliances with other men. And Sturges externalizes Charles’s mounting distress in the increasingly foul weather besetting the train the couple is on. “Keep your head in,” advises a passing sign, which seems like excellent advice. Charles absconds as soon as the train’s in the station, but Eve feels no elation at her revenge, only sadness. The moment she slowly lowers the curtain on the end of their relationship is a perfect encapsulation of Sturges’s psychological acuity.
But The Lady Eve is a comedy. And so Charles and Jean meet cute (again) during a pratfall that literalizes the “fall of man” betokened in the film’s animated opening titles, where a top-hatted serpent contentedly slithers around the fateful apple. As Charles so often proves, you have to fall before you can find your feet. With Jean to guide his steps, they pick up right where they left off. Except for the niggling detail that they’re both married, and Charles remains oblivious to the fact that both of these women are, as Muggsy observes in the film’s final line, “positively the same dame.” We’re left to wonder: Will Charles ever learn the difference?
Criterion’s 4K restoration of The Lady Eve was made from a master positive print, rather than an original camera negative, so you can expect some variations in image density, with slight fading here and there, and the occasional artifact evident. Notwithstanding these comparatively minor defects, the transfer looks mighty impressive overall. Compared to Criterion’s 2001 DVD edition, there’s a significant uptick in clarity and depth, especially noticeable in the fine details of background décor, not to mention Barbara Stanwyck’s frequently changed costumes. The 1080p image is also brighter and reveals more information along the edges than the DVD. The LPCM mono track can get a little shaky at times in the upper registers, but Preston Sturges’s rapid-fire dialogue comes across crisp and clear, and Charles Bradshaw’s score sounds better than ever in the uncompressed mix.
Criterion’s Blu-ray carries over the bonus materials from their earlier DVD, as well as offers several choice new supplements. There’s an on-camera introduction from 2001 by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who praises The Lady Eve as one of the great screwball comedies, discusses the origins and highlights of the genre, and mentions that Sturges preferred to act out his scripts while dictating them to his secretary, rather than writing them down in a more conventional fashion. In her audio commentary, also from 2001, film professor Marian Keane delivers an incisive reading of the film as a prime example of what philosopher Stanley Cavell calls a “comedy of remarriage.” Keane proves she has a keen ear for teasing out the implications of The Lady Eve’s double entendre-laden dialogue.
A new video essay from David Cairns titled “The Lady Deceives” delves into Sturges’s working methods, the changes he made to Irish playwright Monckton Hoffe’s original story, and the inestimable contributions of Sturges’s stock company of memorable character actors. Cairns also mentions a fascinating connection between Sturges and notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, which he then deploys metaphorically to explain the “magic and alchemy” of Sturges’s films. Also new to the Blu-ray, “Tom Sturges and Friends” is a round-robin Zoom chat hosted by Sturges’s son and biographer, along with film historian Susan King, critics Kenneth Turan and Leonard Maltin, and filmmakers Ron Shelton, James L. Brooks, and Bogdanovich. Their discussion is replete with all the conversational pleasures and technological frustrations you’d expect from this sort of an endeavor in the time of Covid-19.
Also included is a Lux Radio Theatre version of the film from 1942 with Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland filling in for Henry Fonda. As usual with these adumbrated adaptations, it has more historical value than anything else. For completists, there’s an audio-only recording of “Up the Amazon,” the opening song from an unproduced stage musical based on The Lady Eve. The illustrated booklet contains an incisive essay from critic Geoffrey O’Brien on Sturges’s film career and a 1946 profile of the filmmaker from Life magazine.
Preston Sturges’s farce, delightfully marked by its verbal pyrotechnics and pure slapstick, remains a canny deconstruction of romantic-comedy tropes.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O’Driscoll, Janet Beecher Director: Preston Sturges Screenwriter: Preston Sturges Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1941 Release Date: July 14, 2020 Buy: Video
Review: Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds on Criterion Blu-ray
The film is one of the most influential and beautiful of all American sci-fi horror epics.5
The best American sci-fi films from the 1950s about alien invasions possess a poeticism that shames most modern-day FX extravaganzas. These ‘50s films often strove for a dream logic that was enhanced by the methods of creating their special effects, from mattes to paintings to miniatures and puppets. This handmade quality is naturally, resonantly unreal, while CGI often encourages filmmakers to achieve a kind of anonymous, forgettable realism that isn’t usually realistic anyway, fashioning a worst-of-both-worlds aesthetic. Producer George Pal’s 1953 sci-fi landmark The War of the Worlds is particularly gorgeous and intense, centered around various fears that still haunt us today.
The film’s opening is by itself more beautiful than many contemporary genre movies in their entirety. As opening portions of H.G. Wells’s 1897 source novel are read by Cedric Hardwicke, describing the cold Martian intelligence that’s enviously surveyed Earth for ages, director Byron Haskin spotlights the solar system’s planets, which are visualized as paintings by Chesley Bonestell. The paintings’ rapturous colors offer less a factual representation of the various landscapes than a rendering of the space of our imaginations, suggesting something closer to the sensibility of Edgar Rice Burroughs than Stephen Hawking. This eerie, nearly supernatural prologue primes us for the heightened atmosphere that will govern the film.
Shot in three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer George Barnes, The War of the Worlds abounds in lush reds, greens, and blues that link the Southern California small-town setting with Bonestell’s paintings as elements of a mythical, soon-to-be-bygone world. It’s as if the annihilation we’re about to see by the Martians is being remembered rather than witnessed, and that already extraordinary events have grown into folklore. The sets, featuring small-town touchstones such as the library, the diner, and the stoop where newspapers are sold, embody a dream of ‘50s-era Americana that’s cast, via the Technicolor colors, in a sinister light.
The effects everyone remembers of course pertain to the Martian war machines, which art director Albert Nozaki reimagined from towering tripods, per the Wells novel, into long, floating boomerang-shaped ships that suggest flying manta rays, out of which protrude a long and sleek periscope device that resembles the head of a cobra. The reveal of this thing is one of the great set pieces in sci-fi cinema, as the first war machine arises out of a smoldering meteor, gradually orienting itself while its first soon-to-be victims watch in naïve awe.
The sound effects intensify the ship’s semblance to a snake, suggesting the noise that might be yielded if a theremin was called upon to approximate hissing. This scene, relatively prolonged, invests the ship with a vast malevolent agency, dramatizing the violation of alien occupation. The ship may be just a vehicle, but it feels as if it’s the monster. The true Martians, weak, squishy little creatures with long arms and a central, three-lensed eye that’s divided into the three Technicolor hues, are almost poignantly beside the point.
The contrast between the powerful war machines and the dweeby aliens subtly honors one of the chief themes of the Wells novel, about humanity being humbled after a Martian invasion annihilates our illusion of supremacy. In the novel and film, the Martians regard humans as we might either cattle or the inhabitants of an enemy country: as organisms to be slaughtered for plunder. In each work, human society achieves equality via undiscriminating genocide by another species, which Wells explicitly sees as ironic just desserts for colonialist egotism and incuriosity. Yet the Martians are overcompensating, egocentric colonialists themselves, a shadowy reflection of us whose power also resides in military might, and their death is sealed by their ignorance of the land they seek to seize. This narrative simultaneously detonates the delusions of two different species, one imagined and one quite real.
Such a bleak theme is adaptable to whatever fear of doom plagues society, and in Pal’s version of The War of the Worlds, Wells’s portrait of a near-apocalypse is connected to the Atomic Age and the communist scare, as the Martian invasion then paralleled America’s worst fears of infiltration—fears that have stayed with us to this day, even as the perceived agent of death changes from era to era. Now, The War of the Worlds can even serve for modern audiences as a cathartic metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic, as there are scenes—of people bunkered down, of life stalled—that bear an unmooring similarity to our present-day reality.
Pal, Haskin, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon affirm Wells’s relentless aura of futility, which was in vogue in McCarthy-era sci-fi films, permeating William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders from Mars and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among others. These productions lack the jingoism that often seeps into modern films about alien invasions, suggesting that the world, or, really, America, has a tenuous hold on its stature among other societies. This terror may be acutely felt by American audiences for a distinction uniquely specific to our country: Since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, it has never before been invaded on a mass scale by an outside force, at least not until Covid-19. This premise really is endlessly malleable, as evinced by Steven Spielberg’s terrifying 2005 remake, which is rooted in the iconography of 9/11, until recently our closest brush with domestic invasion. In one fashion, however, The War of the Worlds is more idealistic than modern reality deserves, as it features scientists who are respected, a government that’s earnest, if ineffectual, and a populace that’s capable of acknowledging the aliens in front of its face.
This disc is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original three-strip Technicolor negative, and the image is revelatory. The spectrum of colors is gorgeous, restoring to the film a nightmarish subjectivity. Reds, greens, and blues have a renewed sense of agency that’s complemented by rich and beautiful darkness, intensifying the mystery of the special effects. Close-ups boast impressive levels of detail, and the paintings of the solar system that open the film are once again properly, well, painterly. There are two soundtracks, one a traditional LPCM monaural, the other a 5.1 Master Audio that opens up the film considerably, fulfilling a once-discussed attempt to exhibit The War of the Worlds upon release in an aural presentation that suggested stereo before that technology existed (the creation of this second track is documented in a supplement included with this disc, “From the Archive: 2018 Restoration”). Both mixes offer vividly immersive soundscapes, with the Martian rays exhibiting a particularly visceral sense of menace. It’s difficult to imagine this film looking or sounding much better.
Two supplements produced for Criterion in 2020, “Movie Archaeologists” and “From the Archive: Restoration,” offer bracingly specific details about the creation and restoration of The War of the Worlds. The MVP of these featurettes is sound designer Ben Burtt, who deeply researched the methods that were used to create the film’s unique sound effects, which would be reused by genre productions endlessly afterward and become iconic and pivotal to how we imagine alien invasion. (For instance, certain shrieking alien weapon sounds were created with violins and the reverb of a guitar played backwards.) In terms of preserving The War of the Worlds for future generations, a challenge was posed when the three-strip Technicolor was subsequently rendered on lesser and overly bright film, compromising the richness of the cinematography and the illusions of the effects, revealing the wires used to move the models of the alien warships. As the 4K restoration included on this disc illustrates, Burtt and visual effect supervisor Craig Wasson’s efforts are astonishingly successful.
“The Sky Is Falling” is a supplement produced by Paramount in 2005 that includes interviews with most of the principal actors, elucidating, along with “Movie Archaeologists,” the history of The War of the Worlds and how Cecil B. DeMille obtained the novel as a property that he eventually allowed his pal George Pal to tackle. A commentary track from 2005, featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and writer Bill Warren, fleshes out this information, and Dante proves to have in particular an encyclopedic knowledge of the character actors who appeared in this film and the careers they had before and after its release.
Also included in this package is Orson Welles’s notorious 1938 radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, as well as an interview he gave in 1940 with Wells in which they frankly discuss the respective effects of World War II on art in Britain and America, with a significant difference in sensibility being that America hadn’t yet entered the conflict. Meanwhile, a booklet with an essay by film critic J. Hoberman compares this version of The War of the Worlds to Spielberg’s 2005 remake, contextualizes it in relation to other Pal productions, including his Puppetoons animated series, and discusses its beauty as a classic 1950s-era spectacle. The theatrical trailer rounds out a wonderful collection.
Criterion’s astonishing restoration allows modern audiences to savor The War of the Worlds as one of the most influential and beautiful of all American sci-fi horror epics.
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin, Houseley Stevenson Jr., Paul Frees, William Phipps, Vernon Rich, Cedric Hardwicke Director: Byron Haskin Screenwriter: Barré Lyndon Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: July 7, 2020 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: James Whale’s Show Boat on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.5
Though its plot is ultimately concerned with the decades-spanning tragicomic travails of a white show-business family, James Whale’s film adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 musical Show Boat is bookended by the voices of black men. Its first line is spoken—or rather shouted—by an unnamed black townsperson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) excitedly greeting the arrival of the variety-show steamship Cotton Blossom as it docks in Natchez, Mississippi. And in the very last shot of the 1936 film we hear the stirring bass baritone of Paul Robeson as he sings a brief reprise of Show Boat’s signature tune, “Ol’ Man River,” over a picturesque shot of the Mississippi’s waters with the sunlight dancing in its currents. In between, we see a surprisingly nuanced, if at times woefully dated, attempt to depict the complexities of what W.E.B. Du Bois famously identified as the problem of the 20th century: the color line.
The second (and best) of three film versions of Kern and Hammerstein’s landmark stage musical—itself adapted from the sprawling 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber—Show Boat paints racial segregation not as an impassable wall of separation, but as a constant negotiation between the dominant white society and communities of color. This is perhaps most evident in the figure of the Cotton Blossom’s star attraction, Julie LaVerne (Helen Morgan), who’s forced out of the show when it’s revealed that, though she’s been passing for white, she’s in fact biracial and thus her marriage to the show’s white male lead, Steve Baker (Donald Cook), runs afoul of Mississippi’s strict miscegenation laws. Though the couple is able to avoid charges when Steve lies to the local sheriff, Vallon (Charles B. Middleton), assuring him that he, too, has a drop of black blood in his ancestry, the two must quickly flee lest the racist locals catch wind that black and white actors are sharing the stage.
This plotline illustrates the consequences of overstepping the color line: By attempting to do so, Julie precipitates her downward spiral into divorce, poverty, and addiction. Her departure from the show makes room for the fresh-faced—and undeniably white—daughter of the riverboat’s proprietors, jolly Cap’n Andy Hawks (Charles Winninger) and shrewish Parthenia (Helen Westley), to take her place. Magnolia (Irene Dunne) will share the riverboat stage with her paramour, Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), a charming gambler masquerading as an aristocrat. But she gets her first real break years later, when she auditions for a powerful Chicago producer with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a traditional African-American tune she’d been taught as a teenager by Julie, who also gives up her own role in the production to make room for Magnolia. The show will help vault her into international superstardom.
Julie’s relinquishment of her career to benefit Magnolia’s is played as a noble act of sacrifice, but it’s troubling in its implications: An impoverished and undeniably talented actress of color—we’ve just seen her deliver a show-stopping performance of the bluesy torch song “Bill”—gives up on herself so that a young white up-and-comer can have a chance at a lucrative career singing black songs. The scene is even more queasy when one considers that Julie is played by a white actress, and while Morgan, a member of the original Broadway cast, delivers a beautifully melancholic, world-weary performance that’s informed by her own struggles with addiction, her casting is indicative of the ways that Broadway and Hollywood have historically appropriated black music while depriving black people of the chance to perform it.
Another earlier sequence, added specifically for the film, drives this point home: Magnolia, dolled up in blackface and strumming a banjo, sings “Gallivantin’ Around,” a minstrel number written in a demeaning caricature of a black dialect. The sequence, like all of the showboat stage performances we see in the film, is intentionally crude, filled with hokey handmade effects, such as a stuffed duck sliding on a wire to simulate flight. The joke in this sequence is at least partially on the cornpone audiences who flock to the Cotton Blossom’s shows, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a contemporary viewer to swallow. This absurd, mortifying spectacle of a white woman pretending to be black for the amusement of a mostly white audience shows what an acceptable crossing of the color line looks like in this period. While it may be essentially illegal for Julie to present herself as white, when Magnolia garishly playacts as black, that’s entertainment! This vulgar blackface routine leaves a particularly bitter taste in one’s mouth when juxtaposed against the genuinely resonant numbers performed by the film’s black actors, including the most famous and still stirring song in the film: Joe’s (Robeson) plangent performance of “Ol’ Man River.”
Joe doesn’t sing his tune for anyone other than himself. Lazing on a haybale and whittling a stick, the song is an expression of his sorrow at the lot of black people living along the river who are forced to work “while de white folks play.” Like most of the film’s musical sequences, the moment is simply staged, with neither the extravagance of a Busby Berkeley number nor the virtuosity of an Astaire/Rogers routine. Rather, Whale employs the pure language of cinema to highlight the drama of the song, starting with the camera spinning nearly 360 degrees around Joe before moving in for a close-up on his face. To illustrate the lyrics, Whale intercuts expressionistic shots of toil and suffering that evoke the gloomy mood of the legendary horror films he made for Universal, such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. By the end of the sequence, Joe has been joined by a chorus of black townsfolk, expanding this solitary sigh of lament into a powerful elegiac anthem for the entire black South.
As a filmmaker, Whale was unusually fond of the moving camera, often finding ways to integrate cinematographic motion into scenes that other directors of the era might have covered in simple static long shots. In one of the most eloquent moments in Show Boat, Whale uses his trademark fluid camera to distill the entire racial dialectic undergirding the film into a quick series of shots. Early in the film, as the Cotton Blossom troupe parades through town upon their arrival in Natchez, we see a dolly shot surveying a group of white townspeople followed by a nearly identical shot of a crowd of black locals. These parallel shots highlight the rigid segregation of the town while also hinting that these two seemingly distinct groups may not be so different after all. Whale achieves a synthesis in the next shot, in which we see Julie and Steve in a medium shot riding through town. With extraordinary elegance, Whale suggests that some people don’t fall so easily into either side of this supposedly binary racial divide.
As in every iteration of Show Boat, the film suffers from a muddled second act, when the plot moves away from the boat itself and gets bogged down in the frankly dull romantic tribulations of Magnolia and Ravenal. But unlike the lavish 1951 MGM adaptation of the musical directed by George Sidney, which pushes aside its black characters as much as possible to focus on the insipid white romance between the two, Whale does everything he can to streamline this plotline while enhancing the roles of Joe and his wife, Queenie (Hattie McDaniel). The two share a comic number, “Ah Still Suits Me,” written just for the film that plays on the comedic dynamic between the ostensibly shiftless Joe and the nagging Queenie, but throughout the number, Whale frames the actors in portrait-like close-ups that hint at depths to the characters, as if picking of the lyrics’ slack. The result is a far more memorable sequence than any of Magnolia and Ravenal’s blandly sentimental duets.
If the plot concludes with one such tune—the duo reconciling and reprising their signature song “You Are Love” after decades apart—Whale refuses to give these white characters the last word. Their faces fade out as a shot of the Mississippi River fades in with “Ol’ Man River” bellowing one last time on the soundtrack. Magnolia may find a success that would never be granted to a black man like Joe, but it’s his voice that sticks with us long after the credits roll.
Previously released by Criterion on laserdisc back in 1989, Show Boat receives a belated but more than welcome update to Blu-ray with a brand-new 4K restoration made from the film’s original 35mm camera negatives. The film looks sharper and more stunning than it has since its premiere over eight decades ago. Crowd scenes—such as a bustling New Year’s Eve party scene—reveal a remarkable level of detail and depth of focus captured by cinematographer John J. Mescall’s lens. The picture is noticeably grainy at times, though this is rarely distracting. There’s no hint of judder in the film’s many moving-camera sequences, and there is a pleasing level of contrast, particularly striking in some of Whale’s more expressionistic shots. The remastered monaural soundtrack is presented in uncompressed form, and while the audio is occasionally slightly tinny and evinces a slight background noise, this is expected given the source material. Overall, however, there’s a robust bass presence, most evident during Robeson’s singing, which is booming and satisfyingly full-bodied.
Criterion’s release places James Whale’s film in the context of the musical’s many different permutations: from novel to stage to screen to radio. The extras offer a chance to understand how the story has evolved and changed over many different productions. Musical historian Miles Krueger’s wide-ranging audio commentary has been carried over from Criterion’s original laserdisc release, and it remains a truly edifying presentation some 30 years on, particularly for its detailed comparisons of various versions of the musical.
Speaking of which, three additional adaptations are represented here: Harry A. Pollard and Arch Heath’s 1929 part-talkie and two radio plays. For the 1929 version, Criterion has provided a 20-minute segment of silent scenes from the film with additional audio commentary from Krueger, as well as four musical performances filmed with the Broadway cast, including white actress Tess Gardella in blackface playing the role of Queenie. (A fifth performance originally included in this prologue no longer exists.) These segments were tacked onto the completed silent film as a prologue to take advantage of the wide popularity of the stage show’s songs and provide a useful look at how the original production was staged. Two hour-long radio plays are also included. The first, from 1936, is produced by Orson Welles for The Campbell Playhouse and features Welles as Cap’n Andy, Morgan as Julie, and Show Boat author Edna Ferber as Parthenia. The second, from 1944, was recorded for The Radio Hall of Fame and includes Allan Jones and Charles Winninger reprising their roles from the 1936 film.
Additional special features highlight particular aspects of the film. A 20-minute interview with Whale biographer James Curtis situates the film within the director’s all-too-brief body of work, while an interview program entitled “Recognizing Race in Show Boat” features academic Shana L. Redmond grappling with the film’s complicated depictions of the segregated South. Redmond’s analysis resists conclusive statements about the work and tends to raise more questions than it answers. The disc also includes Saul J. Turell’s 1979 Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, which was previously included in Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set. The film has been newly restored for this release, and while it offers a compelling introduction to its subject, it downplays the true radicalism of Robeson’s political commitments. A sweeping essay by critic Gary Giddins rounds out the set, incisively combining historical information and formal analysis with a playful prose style that suits the film’s balance of light entertainment and heavy themes.
Criterion not only lovingly restores a neglected classic, it offers an invaluable reference guide for lovers of the groundbreaking stage musical.
Cast: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O’Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles Middleton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clarence Muse, Charles C. Wilson, Harry Barris, Stanley Fields, Stanley J. Sandford, May Beatty, J. Gunnis Davis Director: James Whale Screenwriter: Oscar Hammerstein II Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: March 31, 2020 Buy: Video
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