John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln feels like a forgotten parable that’s been rediscovered by historians, though it pulses with modern reverberations. The 1939 film chronicles 10 years in the life of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda), long before he became president of the United States and led the country out of cataclysmic civil war. This Lincoln is just a “jackleg lawyer,” to use his own words, who’s attempting to establish himself as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois in the 1830s. And Ford takes enormous pleasure in the notion of an authentic American legend finding his groove and collecting a variety of folkloric signifiers: If this film were to be remade for our contemporary age of prequels, it might be called Lincoln Begins.
Like many of Ford’s best films, Young Mr. Lincoln analyzes the intersection of politics and various types of narrative (factual, fictional, and mythical), anticipating the director’s 1962 masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Throughout the film, Lincoln gradually learns how to influence others via the arts of his posture and oration, particularly his deadly effective way of using a winding and seemingly pointless story to land a rhetorical punchline when his audience least expects it. (It’s a brilliantly manipulative device that’s also a source of fascination throughout Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.)
But there’s much to be learned first, and Fonda offers a precise portrait of a person’s physical and cultural evolution. Before the fates decide that he’s to be a lawyer, Lincoln awkwardly runs for elected office. While giving a speech on a cabin porch, he’s unsure of where to put his long arms as he speaks and how to drape his large and angular body. By the end of the film, though, Lincoln casts himself in casually iconic reposes that advertise his intellectual generosity while subtly intimidating others, his calculated sense of relaxation serving to parody the pomp and pretense of his stuffy opponents. He’s Rodin’s The Thinker as a dandy cornpone comedian. Lincoln’s career as a lawyer prepares him for politics, instructing him in the art of sending multiple and sometimes contradictory messages to a conflicted populace.
Ford grasped the hypocrisies of America, as he was himself torn between progressive and reactionary platitudes. The filmmaker understood, on an almost chemical level, a central irony of an American democracy that preached of all “men” being equal: Even if one ignores the sexism, classism, and slavery of the country’s backbone, a theoretically fair government still depends on the ruling of the majority by the few, i.e. exceptionalism, various forms of which we openly fetishize in this country anyway. In Ford’s film, Lincoln continually recalibrates his performative gestures depending on his audience and whether they wish to hear of the greatness of their individualism or of themselves as smaller particles within a mass social unit.
At one point, Lincoln flatters a broad audience in the courtroom with his pretense of humility as a country bumpkin, implicitly telling his listeners that they could be in his position should they have desired, allowing them ownership of his potential success—a gift that’s required of all great politicians and, nowadays, celebrities. Elsewhere, Lincoln uses a subtler form of this humility while flattering the gilded class at rarefied events, though he also publicly antagonizes those who will privately enable his success.
We’re talking politics and justice as show business. The courtroom where Lincoln makes his name resembles a stage where the “play” of a trial commences, with the jury sitting in what appears to be a balcony box, waiting to reward the lawyer who presents the best story. (The assemblage of the jury is defined by raucous, boozy interludes that, characteristic of Ford’s films, celebrate the glorious cacophony of American life at its most primal and unassuming.) Meanwhile, the wealthy parties suggest a backstage where the producers do their most important business. Politicians must speak a dizzying number of languages, then, alternating between the powerless and the powerful as well as the shifting moods of each of these factions.
While defending her sons on a murder charge, Lincoln claims that Abigail Clay (Alice Brady) is a simple working woman whom he’s gotten to know after only a few visits, as she represents the humble, basically unthinking American populace. It’s a stirring moment, but Lincoln is dehumanizing and condescending to Abigail, essentially likening her to all the “little people.” Lincoln is learning to fine tune his rhetoric here, understanding when the populace wants to feel singular and when it yearns for the misleadingly safe comfort of a mob-like state. This notion of mobs is complemented by an amazing earlier scene, when men try to batter down the Springfield jail and hang Abigail’s boys. Using his wit and flair for self-mockery, Lincoln turns the situation into a joke, satirizing the clan’s brutality without them really knowing it. After Lincoln quotes the bible (“blessed are the merciful”) Ford cuts to a shot of the men lowering the battering ram, which has the literal and figurative weight of a cross that’s been denied a crucifixion.
When Ford’s detractors complain of his films’ imperialism, they’re presumably missing these sorts of textures and ironies, which acknowledge the savagery, cronyism, and social complexity of America as surely as its propensity for philosophical transcendence. Above all, Ford profoundly understood the power of myth, which, yes, occasionally scans as a diplomatic word for bullshit. A myth of America as a beacon of tolerance is something that can drive us through darkness though, and it’s something that contemporary progressives, with their endless scolding, could learn to strategically embrace.
Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is full of witty, resonant bits of Americana, which Ford lends an earthy and corporeal tactility as well as an unpretentious sense of exaltation. One never feels Ford striving for iconography, as his deep and coherent compositions appear to be carved in wood. Poetry is clarity, and few filmmakers have ever known that as fully as Ford did. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford considered a legend and saw in him everything America is and could be.
The blacks of this transfer are rich and bold, notably in a master shot of a murder and in the frequent close-ups of Lincoln’s face, which pivotally sell Henry Fonda’s resemblance to the future president of the United States. Shadows are full and dimensional, and vividly contrast against the stark whites. The transfer also sports an intense sensitivity to subtle textures, such as the smoke wafting out of a judge’s pipe while lawyers make their case. Ford is a master of such detail, which gives his fantasias and myths the weight of the ordinary, and every nook and cranny of this image is exhilaratingly dense and alive. The soundtrack is cleaner than ever before, emphasizing not only the film’s use of established songs, but the nearly musical punctuations of silence that occur between the symphonic range of noises, from talking to fighting to listening to the tranquil bustling of a river.
Joseph McBride’s new commentary nimbly balances discussions of history, particularly pertaining to Lincoln and Ford, with deep dives into the film’s symbolism. There are many allusions to Lincoln’s future in Young Mr. Lincoln, some obvious, some quite subtle and ambiguous, such as Lincoln’s playing of “Dixie” on a Jew’s harp. McBride also offers a sharp and convincing defense of Ford’s oft-criticized sentimentality, which is bolstered by part one of a two-part episode from the TV series Omnibus that’s included on the disc. Written and narrated by the British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, the episode follows Ford’s career up until WWII, with juicy footage of interviewers attempting to puncture the filmmaker’s self-conscious and finely honed “man’s man” façade. A talk show appearance from 1975 finds Henry Fonda reaffirming his own persona as a humble and liberal man of arts and letters (bitterly refuted by his son, Peter, in a quotation included in the Omnibus episode), which is complemented by a pair of radio interviews by Ford and Fonda. Excluding the McBride commentary, little of this material is revelatory, though it will be catnip for fans of Ford, Fonda, and Young Mr. Lincoln at large. Rounding out this package is a radio dramatization of the film, featuring Fonda, a characteristically beautiful essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, and a reprint of a poetic series of ruminations on the film by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein.
John Ford’s masterful political drama receives a lush transfer from the Criterion Collection, with a passionate and erudite audio commentary that sensitively examines the director’s thorny brilliance.
Cast: Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan, Eddie Collins, Pauline Moore, Richard Cromwell, Donald Meek, Ward Bond, Milburn Stone Director: John Ford Screenwriter: Lamar Trotti Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 1939 Release Date: January 10, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Richard Franklin’s Road Games Joins the Shout! Factory
An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.4
Richard Franklin’s Road Games is a hard-charging highway thriller that tears its way through the resplendent emptiness of the Australian Outback. Franklin, an ardent Hitchcock-ophile, craftily inverts some of the master’s most famous thrills, beginning with the film’s first major jolt: a reversal of the famous Psycho shower scene in which a shadowy figure exits a steamy motel bathroom and kills the naked woman waiting for him on his bed. From there, Road Games develops into what is essentially a riff on Rear Window, transplanting that film’s narrative about a voyeuristic amateur detective from a Greenwich Village apartment building to an isolated freeway in southern Australia’s arid Nullarbor Plain.
Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), an eccentric American long-haul trucker with a penchant for quoting Chaucer, keeps himself entertained on long, sleepless drives by picking up hitchhikers and rambling at his pet dingo, Boswell. After observing some suspicious activity involving the driver of a green camper van, Quid begins to suspect the man may be behind a recent spate of murders of young women. While hauling a trailer full of meat cross-country, Quid picks up a saucy young “walkaway,” dubbing her Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis)—a rather unsubtle nod to Franklin’s filmmaking idol—who starts playing Watson to Quid’s Sherlock Holmes. The duo tracks the green van to a truck stop where Quid corners a man he thinks is the murderer in a bathroom stall. But after finding he’s confronted the wrong guy, Quid walks out of the restroom to find the van has made off with Hitch inside.
The tension ramps up as Quid sets out to find Hitch, bring the mystery murderer to justice, and prove to incompetent local authorities that he isn’t the killer. Franklin handles the suspense with a canny meticulousness, relying on a gradual escalation of narrative stakes rather than cheap shocks or gratuitous violence (though the opening murder scene, composed of jagged, giallo-esque close-ups of gloved hands strangling a woman with a guitar string, certainly leaves a savage impact). For much of its runtime, this is a one-man—and one-dog—show, with Quid cracking wise purely for his own amusement. Quid’s monologues are slightly over-written, with a reliance on overly cutesy patter about his fellow travelers; for example, he dubs a sniffling motorcyclist Sneezy Rider (Robert Thompson). But Keach delivers even the corniest jokes with a hearty swagger that makes Quid hard not to like, and his congenial charm is leavened with just a touch of vulnerability, evident in the defensive tone his voice adopts when he protests, “Just because I drive a truck doesn’t make me a truck driver.”
Franklin’s action set pieces are carefully crafted and deceptively elaborate, executing complicated choreography involving multiple high-powered vehicles with a clear eye and steady hand (shades of Steven Spielberg’s Duel). The film’s pièce de résistance is a climactic confrontation in which Quid’s massive tractor trailer becomes lodged in a narrow alleyway, stuck between the green van in front and a cop car behind. The sequence cleverly confounds our expectations of a blowout car chase, instead restricting the vehicular action to as confined a space as possible. The result is a hugely satisfying and uniquely claustrophobic finish to a film that largely trades on the vast open expanses of its Outback setting.
There is, however, a certain mechanical, calculated quality to the film. Road Games offers occasional hints at political and psychological subtexts: a militant butchers’ strike; a misogynistic slasher; and a roadside bar featuring murals of colonial violence on the walls (surveyed in an almost Godardian 360-degree panning shot). But Franklin never does anything with any of these tantalizing threads. He’s content to simply tell a ripping good yarn. The “wrong man” angle of the film is little more than a plot mechanism, totally lacking the palpable terror of false imprisonment that Hitchcock imbues into even his lighter entertainments like North by Northwest. And the romance between Quid and Hitch, while enlivened by Curtis’s brassy playfulness, feels sexless, is almost perfunctory.
While its taut suspense certainly earns it the comparisons to Hitchcock that it so clearly craves, ultimately, Road Games ends up highlighting what makes his work so much more powerful. Franklin evinces none of Hitchcock’s genius for infusing his work with his singular neuroses, compulsions, and fears. Franklin has clearly studied the master of suspense’s impeccable technique, but his film contains little of Hitch’s soul.
The film’s vibrant colors and sweeping vistas of the flat, treeless Nullarbor Plains really pop on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. The scan used preserves a pleasantly grainy film texture, which is true to Road Games’s relatively low-budget origins. However, little effort has been made to clean up the print, as specks of dust and debris are visible throughout the film, as is a slight discoloration around the edges of the frame in several scenes. The lossless monaural soundtrack is crisp and full, though this doesn’t always serve the film well, as its sound design can at times be crowded and shrill. The sonic elements are mostly well-balanced, though Brian May’s odd score, which combines martial drumming and harmonica melodies, seems slightly too loud at times. Overall, though, this is a more-than-serviceable presentation of a film that has been woefully unavailable on home video in the U.S. for over 15 years.
Shout! has packed this release to the gills with extras, including two commentary tracks, one with director Richard Franklin and another with cinematographer Vincent Morgan, production coordinator Helen Watts, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, and moderated by director Mark Hartley. Both offer juicy reminiscences about the film’s arduous and financially troubled production. The disc also features interviews with Franklin, Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, and several others, including a number of extended interviews filmed for Hartley’s Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Shout! has also included a making-of doc, “Kangaroo Hitchcock,” audio of a full script read from 1980, a lecture on the making of the film from the same year featuring Franklin, May, co-producer Barbi Taylor, and critic Tom Ryan, and a stills and poster gallery accompanied by demos of May’s score. All in all, it’s hard to conceive of a more thorough selection of extras to accompany this film than the one Shout! has assembled.
An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.
Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Grant Page, Thaddeus Smith, Steve Millichamp, Alan Hopgood, John Murphy, Bill Stacey, Robert Thompson Director: Richard Franklin Screenwriter: Everett De Roche Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: The Story of Temple Drake on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem.3.5
The first glimpse we get of the protagonist of Stephen Roberts’s The Story of Temple Drake is of her left arm grasping the inside of her home’s front door. She’s standing outside, mostly out of sight to the camera, exhibiting equal measures of coquettishness and caution as she playfully fends off a companion who’s getting too frisky with her. It’s a striking image that positions Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) as a woman divided, perpetually torn between desire and shame. Temple later tells the most serious of her suitors, Steve (William Gargan), a local lawyer who sees only the good in her, that it’s like she has “two me’s”: one that would marry him on the spot and the other too indecent to put into words.
Temple’s wealthy, powerful family has granted her the privilege of walking the thin line between flirt and floozy without consequence, aside from nearly everyone in town, including Steve’s gossipy Aunt Jennie (Elizabeth Patterson), talking about her perceived bad streak. When a drunken joy ride with the reckless Toddy (William Collier Jr.) ends in an accident that leaves Temple stranded at an eerie, ramshackle plantation house turned speakeasy, the film appears to be setting up a simplistic cautionary tale wherein the rich, carefree teenager gets her comeuppance from the lecherous, drunken men she suddenly finds herself surrounded by.
But unlike William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, from which Roberts’s film was adapted, The Story of Temple Drake takes a sympathetic view of its heroine, remaining morally ambiguous about her behavior and fixating more on her attempts to avoid and later cope with traumatic events than on the depraved horde of men who victimize her. Roberts retains Faulkner’s uniquely Southern Gothic sensibility, but gone are the misogynistic overtones, suggesting that she was both “asking” for her eventual rape and came around to liking her rapist’s company.
Roberts, with the help of cinematographer Karl Struss, infuses the derelict mansion with an alarming sense of terror, employing angular compositions and expressionistic lighting that would later define the look of film noir and suspenseful music that would have felt equally at home in a Universal monster movie. Where the people in both her civilized town and in this sleazy booze den see Temple as either an object of desire or scorn, Roberts more compassionately presents her as a victim of her own carelessness and, even more so, of the ruthless objectification of men. If Temple becomes something akin to a “final girl” from a horror film, the slick yet terrifying gangster, Trigger (Jack La Rue), who tracks her like prey from one room to the next, is its lurching, irrepressible monster.
Even after Trigger rapes Temple, she remains his prisoner, left in a near-catatonic state as he drives her to a Memphis brothel where he attempts to persuade her into cherishing him. In a stunning and deeply unsettling series of shot-reverse-shot zooms, Temple pleads with him to leave her alone, and as his face fills the screen, he replies, smirking, “I ain’t hurt you none.” It’s this type of cyclical abuse, with violence followed by gaslighting that often leads victims of rape to remain silent, fearing both the judgment of society and facing their own shame.
When the film shifts tones again in the final act, from horror-tinged noir to courtroom drama, Temple is again divided, this time between her senses of justice and shame, finding herself as the only person who can exonerate an innocent man charged of a murder she saw Trigger commit. And it’s through her final act, when she speaks publicly of her rape and abuse, that she transforms from victim into hero—not merely because of the selflessness of her act, but through her willingness to openly discuss her abuse. It’s a courageous decision that suggests a conquering of the fear and shame that’s long haunted her, reinforced by Steve’s comment to her father to be proud of her. The scene exudes an extraordinary empathy, yet as Steve carries the seemingly lifeless Temple out of the courtroom after she faints, one is left with the lingering doubts of whether anyone else in attendance will grant her the same courtesy.
If the Criterion Channel’s recent pre-code Barbara Stanwyck collection is any indication, the Criterion Collection is finally paying closer attention to an oft-neglected period of Hollywood filmmaking. With The Story of Temple Drake, the distributor has finally dipped their toes into the physical release of a pre-code drama and the results are spectacular. Both the tinniness of dialogue and the crackles and pops heard throughout silent stretches of many an early sound film are all but completely absent here. In comparison to the clean, precise audio track, Karl Hajos and Bernhard Kaun’s score sounds a tad meek, though frequent appearances of wind and thunder in the film’s middle section are effectively forceful in filling out the soundtrack. While Criterion’s source is only an HD, rather than 2K or 4K, restoration, the image boasts an impressive sharpness and the ample, even distribution of grain lends The Story of Temple Drake a pleasing softness that complements its woozy, off-kilter tone. The contrast is also quite strong throughout, with whites arising from the frequent backlighting of actors and objects exhibiting an eerie glow and inky blacks impressive throughout, particularly in the noir-esque nighttime sequences at the speakeasy.
None of the three new extras that Criterion includes on this disc clock in at over 20 minutes, but each provides a unique perspective on Stephen Roberts’s offbeat film and Hollywood’s brief but remarkable pre-code era. Film critic Imogen Sara Smith nimbly traverses The Story of Temple Drake’s murky morality, as well as the enigmatic qualities that make Temple at once vexing and profoundly human. In discussing the pre-code era’s general ambivalence toward modern females and their increasing sexual freedoms, Smith also touches on the slyly subversive content that rose to the fore in Hollywood films of the early 1930s. Critic Mick LaSalle also approaches the revolutionary content of pre-code films, situating them as a reflection of a generation disillusioned with institutions of power. The final feature, a conversation between Matt Severson and cinematographer John Bailey, finds the two men perusing Jean Negulesco’s highly stylized, almost surreal, storyboards (mostly of the film’s horrific rape scene), which convey a distinct sense of the film’s tone as well as merely laying out shot compositions. The package is rounded out with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who teases out the similarities and differences between the film and Faulkner’s controversial novel.
Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem too often reduced to a titillating oddity that provoked the stricter enforcement of the Hays Code.
Cast: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Guy Standing, Irving Pichel, Jobyna Howland, William Collier Jr., Elizabeth Patterson, Louise Beavers, James Eagles Director: Stephen Roberts Screenwriter: Oliver H.P. Garrett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 71 min Rating: NR Year: 1933 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop Gets an Arrow Video Blu-ray Steelbook
This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras.5
It’s never quite clear who the joke is on in Paul Verhoeven’s films, as the filmmaker thrives on mixed messages, fashioning an aesthetic that blends trashiness with designer style. Verhoeven has the chutzpah and the talent to do whatever he pleases, reveling in a freedom of kinetics. Take 1987’s RoboCop, which drops left-wing talking points in the middle of a vigilante thriller so sadistic it’d make Death Wish blush. This tension—between social protest and reactionary ultraviolence—yields a visceral kind of meaninglessness. Anyone of any ideology can bring to the film whatever sentiments they wish, and this malleability is Verhoeven’s most caustic punchline. RoboCop embodies the nihilism of self-interested, self-canceling political cacophony.
The most irritating facet of the prototypical American vigilante thriller, especially of the ‘70s and ‘80s, is its aura of macho self-pity. When middle-class white men kill in these films, it’s because they have no other choice in the face of crime that’s unpunished by liberal politicians. (Such a theme can’t be laughed off as a trope, as it continues to be a selling point for carny politicians even as the nation’s crime rate drops.) In RoboCop, Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner turn this cliché on its head, as the crime-ridden hellscape of future Detroit is controlled by capitalist fascists who run amok under the implicit protection of Reaganomics. Detroit’s government has been subsumed by OCP (which stands, hilariously generically, for Omni Consumer Products), a company with ties to the military that has recently taken control of the police department and is systematically crushing police unions while rendering human cops beside the point with new weaponry.
OCP is also in bed with street criminals, particularly the vicious Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), whom they play against the cops in a bid to wipe everyone out so as to realize a new gentrification project. This notion, of the government funding killers to suit its own means, suggests too many Reagan-era controversies to count. (The president’s proposed space defense program, Star Wars, is also referenced, and is revealed to have a habit of accidentally killing people.) Much of this world-building is introduced via TV soundbites that relate atrocity with a glibness that represents virtually no satirical exaggeration of news programs. The soundbites are punctuated with advertisements that also barely exaggerate the sorts of promotions of the time. Only one coherent message arises out of all this stimulation: Buy things, and, when you can’t, commit aggression. Buy a woman for a dollar, as a TV personality says, or pretend to nuke your brother from the comfort of your bedroom. (Lest we miss the point, Clarence, a budding entrepreneur, even directly says that there’s no theft like free enterprise.)
Yet there’s a key difference between RoboCop and most left-leaning message movies: Verhoeven gets off on the heartlessness of his villains, pruning his political platitudes of the earnestness that can often make message movies feel so naïve and insipid. This film, with its cold, hard, silver sheen, studied callousness, and whip-snap editing, understands the pull of capitalism, of the giddiness of exercised force, which is the hunger—for movement, for every desire to be gratified regardless of larger implications—that the action genre satiates to begin with. The film’s satire of America as a corporate wasteland is wallpaper laid upon bitter walls. Corporate overreach might be destroying us in RoboCop, but it’s also our savior.
A more earnest sci-fi auteur might’ve wrestled with the existential crisis of a man who’s turned into a machine, a development that suggests the ultimate commodified invasion of an invasive age. Verhoeven pays occasionally poignant lip service to this idea, and Peter Weller’s gravity in the central role serves as resonant emotional shorthand, but the filmmaker can’t wait to get his metal warrior—billed by the film’s poster as “part man, part machine, all cop”—out into Detroit’s ravaged streets to do battle with Clarence and his goons, who blew RoboCop’s human basis to pieces in a scene of ejaculatory violence that’s still shocking. (Verhoeven has as much fun in this scene as Clarence, and this killing mirrors an earlier murder committed by the ED-209, a law-enforcement robot with Gatling-gun arms that’s unable to arrest without excessive force. Such an echo further rhymes Clarence with the OCP.)
Once RoboCop hits the streets, the film becomes one of the most disturbingly exhilarating of all action thrillers. Like future Verhoeven mixtures of kitsch and art object, RoboCop is broken up into hard, tactile shards of action, from the stabbing of a thug’s throat to the splatter of another melting thug against a windshield. The very weighty metallic sound of RoboCop’s stride is intoxicating—a promise of violence to be unleashed that’s pronouncedly fulfilled. When he fires his gun, which suggests a steroidal .45, it resounds with the aural dimensions of a canon. RoboCop’s very invincibility serves to shed the vigilante film of its fake pathos, providing us with a wave of force, in which objects of left- and right-wing scorn are destroyed with equal prejudice. The film’s appeal resides in a willingness to allow everyone to have their cake and eat it too, as the right of the corporation’s power to inherit the world is ultimately vindicated in a finale of stunning violence that’s arguably sarcastic, though by this point such a distinction hardly matters. RoboCop is a celebration of the politics of unbridled formalism.
RoboCop has always looked a little vague and blurry to these eyes over the years, and Arrow Video’s new 4K transfer addresses many of these issues. The glare of several transfers (particularly in rendering RoboCop’s suit) has been reduced; the silvers and whites are quite attractive here. Facial and clothing details are nuanced, and other colors are livelier than they’ve been before. If there’s still a certain pervading softness to the image, this seems to be inherent to the film’s memorably grimy aesthetic, especially in the deliberately cheap-looking videos that embody the film’s cynical view of the media. Which is to say that RoboCop has been subtly buffed up without compromising its aura of underground sleaziness. The multiple audio tracks are conventionally superb, and this is a film that allows for a real show-pony presentation, abounding in bass-y, cacophonic aural fireworks, which are tied together by Basil Poledouris’s quasi-ironically patriotic score. The 5.1 track offers an especially immersive soundstage, potentially inspiring you to dodge bullets, if that’s your thing.
This collection of extras is gargantuan even by Arrow’s obsessive standards. Three versions of the film are included: the director’s cut, the theatrical cut, and an edited TV cut. As a variety of featurettes contrasting the various versions remind us, Verhoeven’s cut was rated X by the MPAA and so trims were made, most famously to the scene where the ED-209 mows down an executive during a conference. (For what it’s worth, Verhoeven is right: The longer, gorier version is funnier, reveling in the sheer pointlessness of this machine’s depravity.)
There are also interviews and tributes, new and archival, centered on many a significant person involved in RoboCop’s production, including Verhoeven, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the film’s stars (and even supporting bad guys), and the FX specialists who created the RoboCop suit and the ED-209. One of the most revealing of these programs is the interview with second-unit director and frequent Verhoeven collaborator Mark Goldblatt, who offers a succinct and informative description of the precise function of second-unit work, while discussing his specific role in Verhoeven’s productions. There’s also an archival commentary with Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and Neumeier, as well as two new commentaries by film historian Paul M. Sammon and fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart, and Eastwood Allen, respectively. These commentaries, taken together with photo galleries, storyboards and alternate scenes, offer a comprehensive history of RoboCop.
And, yes, the filmmakers are very aware of the film’s mixed political messaging, and discuss it frankly, particularly in “RoboTalk,” a new conversation between Neumeier and filmmakers David Burke and Nicholas McCarthy, and in a 2012 panel discussion with most of the pivotal players who worked on the film. The best description of RoboCop is attributed to Davison, who’s said to have called it “fascism for liberals.”
This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras. I’d buy that for a dollar.
Cast: Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Nancy Allen, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane, Calvin Jung, Felton Perry, Robert DoQui Director: Paul Verhoeven Screenwriter: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: November 26, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Dario Argento’s Suspiria on Synapse Films 4K Ultra HD
Synapse takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.5
In the giallo, as practiced by masters such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, there’s an amoral yet almost joyful grasp of death as simply being a matter of aesthetic. The blood in these films is intentionally fake—gorgeous, garish paint that exists as another hue to complement the explosion of colors that define the giallo’s often extraordinary set designs. When a character splashes red wine all over a porcelain sink in Suspiria, Argento highlights the similarities between the drugged drink and the blood that splatters robustly throughout the film. It’s a joke on the nature of the giallo, linking violence to consumption, a sensual intertwinement that also leads inevitably to sex.
Suspiria is set in a dance academy in Germany, but Argento makes little effort to eroticize the dancers while they’re living, and they’re pointedly denied sex lives. The hallmarks of films concerned with perfecting dance—the scenes in which we see dancers dancing—are almost entirely elided. We see the American protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), dancing once, and she becomes ill and is rushed out of class. Argento is more concerned with the architectural specifics of the academy, which is rich in labyrinthine hallways awash in explosions of red, blue, green, and black, dotted with malevolent mirrors and windows that suggest eyes as well as portals into other dimensions.
Suspiria is the ultimate horror film as baroque-rock concert. Retrospectively, it doesn’t feel negligible that it was released a few years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show and in the same year as Low, the first album in David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. All three works bridge cinema and music while mining the hangover setting in from the debauchery of reactionary 1970s-era politics and counter-reactionary urban night life. There’s a sense in all three works of sex as having gone bad or having at least twisted itself beyond even the understanding of the inherently twisted—of revolutionaries being unable to grasp the power of primordial fascism. The German settings of Low and Suspiria aren’t incidental. As exuberant as Dr. Frank N. Furter can be in his transgressions, his actions nevertheless exude a whiff of desperate over-compensation. True to its title, Low is about the weirdly qualified beauty of bottoming out, while Suspiria similarly mines an eroticism of annihilation.
Regarding the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy’s luridly colored hallways, the audience may feel as if it’s looking at a building that’s set inside of a giant human heart that happens to house a gallery of classic and modern art. With all of Suspiria’s hallucinatory excess—including dizzying levels of prismatic imagery—one never quite knows where to look, which produces an anxiety in the audience that parallels Suzy’s mounting terror. These sets blend German expressionism with the neurotic Technicolor passion of films like The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes. Suspiria’s influence on other filmmakers is also difficult to overstate: A shot of curtains moving supernaturally behind Suzy has the velvety tactility of the curtain imagery in David Lynch’s productions, and the highly controlled mixture of found buildings and fastidious set design bring to mind the architectural formalism of Wes Anderson.
In death, however, the dancers are allowed to bloom. In one of the most beautiful and disturbing murder scenes committed to film, Pat (Eva Axén) is pulled through a bathroom window and stabbed repeatedly with a knife while atop the stained glass sunroof of an apartment complex. Characteristically of Argento, the building suggests an Art Deco theater of ultraviolence, and Pat’s murder virtually offers a pun on the phrase “danse macabre.” Before she’s lynched and thrown through the sunroof, her face is shown to be smeared in red lipstick that complements her blood-splattered body, and curled into an expression of terrifying, orgasmic ecstasy. In destruction, she finds freedom from the limitations of corporeality—becoming the sort of art object which dancers attempt to render themselves. The witches running this academy are true to their promises of allowing the dancers to perfect their craft.
Suspiria’s murder sequences also revel in the traditions of dance and rock music. Each killing is accompanied by Goblin’s equally elaborate synth score. The killings serve as choruses within the film, while the preceding stalking in hallways and deserted courtyards suggest musical bridges. Imagery and sound are intricately linked, as the murder sequences are chopped into hard fragments of incident, while the stalking is rendered in sensual tracking shots that gradually build to the catharsis. And the music is always with us, particularly the sounds of cooing and sighing that suggest that the very film itself is alive and breathing. (“Suspiria” is Latin for “sighs,” as this film was partially suggested by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis.”)
Suspiria is overwhelming in the breadth and intensity of its aesthetic, offering a radical departure from the sporadic surreality of Argento’s prior gialli. The aesthetic weds with the irrational and sketch-like narrative to fashion an abstract horror film that’s more closely aligned with A Page of Madness than with the American slasher genre that arose in the 1970s, partially in response to Argento’s early films. Argento plunges the audience into Suzy’s fragile consciousness, painting a rich and bottomless tapestry of fear.
Not even 18 months ago, Synapse released their Blu-ray edition of Suspiria, boasting a brand-new 4K restoration of the Italian 35mm camera negative, personally supervised and approved by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. And while the results were as much as any fan of the film could have hoped for, rightfully topping many year-end home-video lists, the urge to resist purchase until Synapse saw fit to unfurl the fruits of their labors in full 2160p was very real. Thankfully, the wait has proven brief, and favors those among us who chose to wait it out.
Every superlative one could lay on last year’s edition deserves to be amplified in exponential proportion. The sensuality of the film’s primary color palette now emerges as enchantingly tactile; the reds, for instance, have gone from loud to luxuriant. The rich depths of its visuals now flourish, as though your eyes have been given a chance to adjust to the darkness and can see with more nuance beneath the surface than you initially thought possible. The clarity and cleanliness of the print doesn’t just feel like the results of a top-notch Telecine bath, but as if the viewers have been sent back in time to 1977 and are donning a pair of white, cotton gloves to inspect the actual reels up close. The famous interlude in which one of the dance school’s ogre-like cooks flashes light into Suzy’s eyes with a knife, revealing a hallway filled with undulating clouds of dust, is as good as any single shot from a vintage film I’ve ever seen on home video, excepting any of the film’s other four or five dozen showstopper shots.
Synapse didn’t give just the images more breathing room. New to this edition is a Dolby Atmos soundtrack option, which whips an already scarily active sound mix into overwhelming overdrive. To my ears, it sounds like it takes some big liberties with balance and reverb, but it will be awfully hard for purists to carp over because Synapse also retained the prior Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the original English-language track as purportedly used for Suspiria’s original 1977 release. (Also included is the original Italian track, for those who can’t handle the sometimes loose dubbing.) We’re still in the nascent stages of 4K releases for the classics, but Suspiria holds its own even when stacked against many new releases.
Synapse ports over the extras from their Blu-ray edition without adding anything new, which is to say that this is an essential package from top to bottom. One could still lament that they weren’t able to find a way to recycle a few of the better extras from other home-video editions. Specifically, the absence of the documentary “Suspiria: 25th Anniversary” from the 2001 Anchor Bay release wipes out firsthand testimonials from most of the film’s actual cast and crew, including Jessica Harper, Daria Nicolodi, Stefania Casini, and Dario Argento himself. (Only the 20-minute interview with an admittedly jovial and engaging Barbara Magnolfi, who plays the squawking, snakelike Mata Hari Olga, makes up the difference.) That aside, the set offers up scholarship and historical context in every flavor a cinephile could hope for.
The first disc features two separate commentary tracks. Each is informative in its own way, even if they occasionally repeat some of the same information between the two, as all participants are authors and historians on giallo and genre films, and Argento specifically. A flashier and more bite-sized distillation of what the commentary tracks have to offer comes in the half-hour featurette “A Sigh from the Depths,” which widens the pool of participants—again, almost entirely all authors. The featurette explores the film’s themes of witchcraft, central Europe’s “Magic Triangle” of evil, Daria Nicolodi’s role in altering the course of Argento’s career, the fact that he wanted to cast his horrific fairy tale with actual preteens, and the cinematographic innovations unlocked by Luciano Tovoli.
“Do You Know Anything About Witches?” finds filmmaker Michael Mackenzie walking viewers through an abridged cut of the film, while his narration dances in and out of subjectivity and criticism. It is, in effect, a third mini-commentary track. And finally there’s an exploration of the film’s German locations, including the public square where the blind pianist is gored by his guide dog and where, in the 1930s, Hitler staged book-burning Nazi rallies.
With their 4K release of Suspiria, with gorgeously sumptuous images and multiple enveloping sound mixes, Synapse Films takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Joan Bennett, Aida Vallli Director: Dario Argento Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi Distributor: Synapse Films Running Time: November 19, 2019 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Joins the Shout! Factory
Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.4.5
The release of George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973 unleashed a groundswell of films and television shows that wistfully gazed back at the “good old days” of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, before the “loss of innocence” signaled by the JFK assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Fueled by a double LP’s worth of period needle drops, Lucas’s film presents an anodyne, nostalgia-hazy view of the era intended as a kind of comfort food for the turbulent early ‘70s. Conversely, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School taps into the primal energy and anarchic brio of early rock music as the ideal analogue for the emergence of the punk movement in the face of late-‘70s social anomie and economic stagnation.
This parallelism between time periods carries through to the film’s visual technique, which evokes the sight gag-packed pages of Mad magazine and the cartoon-inflected films of Frank Tashlin, particularly his rock n’ roll music satire The Girl Can’t Help It, from which director Allan Arkush unabashedly purloins a scene. The punk-rock anthems of the Ramones also effectively bridge both eras, since their albums would typically include a cover song that highlighted their disparate musical influences—including the surfer-dude-friendly “California Sun” and the sock-hoppy “Do You Wanna Dance?”—both of which turn up on the soundtrack here. Not to mention the fact that, like most airplay-dependent early rock n’ roll music, their propulsive singles almost always clock in at a radio-friendly three minutes or less.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School affectionately tweaks many of the conventions of high-school movies from the 1950s. Newly installed principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) displays all the sartorial severity and gleeful sadism of a women’s prison warden. The student body’s everyday needs are better served by the entrepreneurial Eagelbauer (Clint Howard), whose swanky office hides behind the homely façade of the men’s room stalls. (The character’s name, incidentally, is lifted from Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living.) If Miss Togar represents the “mindless authority” of the political system, as radio DJ-turned-Greek chorus Screamin’ Steve Stevens (Don Steele) helpfully glosses the situation at one point, then Eaglebauer stands in for the ostensibly helping hand of the free-market economy.
Perhaps the most innovative shift in narrative emphasis, however, has the love story between lonely quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) and aspiring physicist Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) taking a decided backseat to the rebellious self-assertion of rock-and-roller Riff Randell (P. J. Soles). Riff isn’t looking for love, despite her avowed affection for Joey Ramone’s pizza-eating habits. Riff wants to become a songwriter—a career woman, in other words—and her one true goal is to deliver her tunes to the Ramones’s doorstep. The opposition that Riff faces from the puritanical Togar, whose disciplinarian mindset she describes as being “stuck in the 1950s,” ultimately prompts her to stage an insurrection at Vince Lombardi High School, where, after all, “winning is better than losing.” In a way that clearly presages Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, the standoff will end with the complete destruction of the school.
The specific details of Miss Togar’s objection to rock music (“lethal to mice”) are reductions to absurdity actually based, amusingly enough, on authentic “scientific” studies and newspaper accounts of the music’s deleterious effect on susceptible listeners. But somewhere just beyond the film’s keen-edged parody, there are intimations of truly, horribly repressive institutions. The lengths to which Miss Togar will go in order to destroy the source of this teenage rebellion recall nothing so much as the Nazi’s book-burning bonfires. Nor is this the only invocation of the Nazi era in the film. When the cafeteria staff are up against the wall, being pummeled by the Tuesday surprise, their pleas echo the defense frequently proffered by German soldiers at the Nuremberg trials: “We were only following orders.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School actively embraces teenage anarchy and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion in a real way. This is perfectly in keeping with the films produced by Roger Corman, which almost always offered some sly social criticism tucked away in the Trojan horse of exploitation filmmaking. It’s not entirely a joke, therefore, when, at the end of film, Screamin’ Steve offers to bring the explosive hijinks of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School to your school. And just in case you don’t happen to go in for the detonator, you can always embrace the radical inclusivity of punk rock. Like the Ramones, invoking Tod Browing’s oddity-embracing Freaks, used to sing: “Gabba gabba hey, we accept you, one of us.”
Shout! Factory’s new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative constitutes a significant improvement over their 2010 Blu-ray, which was released under the now sadly defunct “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” imprint. Details of the costumes and set design stand out in palpable depth—and, when it comes to a film this laden with sight gags planted as background details, that’s a good thing. Flesh tones are lifelike, primary hues really pop (witness those molten blues and reds in the concert scene), and grain levels are satisfyingly filmic. On the sonic front, a Master Audio mono mix replaces the older Dolby Digital. The lossless track lends some solid ambience to the crowded hallway and audience scenes, while the central concert performance still sounds a little on the rough-and-ragged side. This is an unavoidable consequence of the low-budget filmmaking: The Last Waltz, this isn’t. Suffice it to say, though, that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School likely will never sound any better than it does here.
Shout! Factory presents their “40th Anniversary Edition” of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School packaged in a shiny steelbook edition with the iconic William Stout poster art emblazoned on the front and a cheeky “Togar Sucks” graffiti tag scrawled across the back. The big new extra here is “Class of ’79: 40 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” a 70-minute deep dive into the film’s conception, production and legacy, tracing its evolution from the Animal House derivative Girl’s Gym to the Saturday Night Fever-inflected Disco High and on to its final incarnation. This one piece effectively synthesizes nearly all of the information presented in the various commentary tracks and other, earlier bonus materials. Talking-head contributors include writer-director Allan Arkush, co-writers Joe Dante, Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and critic Nathaniel Thompson. The other new supplement here is a brief introduction by Arkush, apparently filmed in his home office, to a Slasher Film Festival screening of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, complete with a goofily engaging reenactment of one of the Ramones’s songs using bobblehead dolls.
Shout! ports over all the other bonus materials from their 2010 Blu-ray. The archival featurette “Back to School” adds more personal reflections from actors P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Clint Howard, Dey Young, and Loren Lester, as well as Marky Ramone and producer Roger Corman. It’s an often amusing piece, and there’s very little overlap with the newer making-of material. “Staying After Class” reunites actors Vincent Van Patten, P.J. Soles, and Dey Young around a high-school lunch table to reminisce about their experiences on set. Soles brings along some cool mementos: a Ramones lunch box and a signed copy of the now-rare soundtrack album. There are a grand total of four commentary tracks that team up various configurations of the cast and crew, and they run the gamut from downright raucous to a bit more stately in their presentation. There are separate short interviews with Corman and Arkush, as well as a selection of radio and TV spots and trailers.
Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.
Cast: P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Dey Young, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, Lynn Farrell, Alix Elias, Loren Lester, Daniel Davies, Grady Sutton, The Ramones Director: Allan Arkush Screenwriter: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 1979 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Siegel’s ultracool heist film comes to Blu-ray with an exquisite transfer and several top-shelf extras.4
Flush from the success of Dirty Harry, Don Siegel at last found himself possessed with sufficient clout to imprint his next work, Charley Varrick, with the auteurist stamp “A Siegel Film,” a rubric that appears on screen before any other title cards. Siegel’s identification with the film’s doggedly professional protagonist extended even to its working title, Last of the Independents, a slogan we see emblazoned across the side of the eponymous character’s crop-dusting company van.
The film opens with a deceptively bucolic credits sequence, in which day dawns over the sleepy town of Tres Cruces, New Mexico. We witness the morning routines of various residents, sun-dappled sketches in domesticity that easily could have been rendered by Norman Rockwell. Then Lalo Schifrin’s heretofore laidback score turns ominous as, beneath a benevolently waving American flag, a bright yellow Lincoln Continental slides into the local bank’s parking lot, like the entrance of the serpent into the Garden of Eden.
Siegel stages the subsequent bank robbery with all the no-nonsense, clockwork precision that had become his stock in trade. There’s barely a word of dialogue, actions are brusque, brutal even, the violence sudden and uncompromising. Siegel carries the tension through the fraught aftermath, as complications with the local constabulary continue to mount, as well as the body count. Charley Varrick’s first act is one extended set piece of staggering efficiency and impact that culminates in the first portentous glimpse of disharmony between mastermind Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) and his young sidekick, Harman (Andy Robinson).
The second act switches scenes to introduce bank president and mafia front Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) and the hitman he hires to recoup the mob’s money, Molly (Joe Don Baker). This section extends and deepens the theme of duality and duplicity that was introduced by having a rural bank double for a mafia money drop. The most amusing example is the Chinese restaurant run by Honest John (Benson Fong) that covers for a gambling den. (Keep an eye out in this scene for a cameo from Siegel himself as a ping-pong loser.)
Everything and everyone in the world of Charley Varrick has a second or hidden nature, except for Molly, the sadist, racist, and misogynist with the strangely feminine name. He also, notably, has only the one name. He is, to quote William S. Burroughs, the only complete man in the industry, and he’s a force of nature. His closest analogue, in terms of sheer ruthless efficiency, is Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) from Siegel’s 1964 remake of The Killers.
Charley Varrick, for his part, is as fastidious as a watchmaker, a skill set he acquired as a onetime barnstormer and circus performer. Once he realizes that he’s going to fall out with Harman, not to mention that there’s a mob enforcer on his trail, Charley figures out a way to account for all further contingencies. Siegel punctuates the remainder of the film with snippets of Charley putting his plan into effect. But there’s so much else going on that, at least on first viewing, it can be difficult to put it all together until the film’s final moments.
There’s a remarkable scene between Maynard Boyle and bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) that begins with a swooping crane shot from a car pulling off the road to a field full of cows, then unfolds in one long four-minute take, until Siegel abruptly cuts to enhance the dramatic intensity of a reaction shot. The timing here is paramount, catching the failing light as afternoon turns to dusk. What’s more, John Vernon’s delivery of the line “They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” is bound to burrow its way beneath your skin. It’s a line, incidentally, that Quentin Tarantino appropriated for Ving Rhames’s Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.
What with all the cars, planes, and mobile homes scattered throughout Charley Varrick, it’s hardly surprising that the film’s finale takes place in a wrecking yard. There’s something archetypal about such a location, standing in for the almost post-apocalyptic ruins of the post-industrial American landscape, all its wreckage and spoliation. But here the wasteland also sets the stage for Charley Varrick’s miraculous rebirth, like the proverbial phoenix painted on his company van, his old existence and identity gone up in flames. In this way, the film ultimately presents itself as a sort of secular parable on ceaseless self-renewal.
Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of Charley Varrick is a revelation. Image depth and the fine details of dress and décor register strongly. The earthy browns and verdant greens of the New Mexico landscapes appear warm and deeply saturated. Grain looks well-resolved and suitably cinematic, without any distracting artifacts visible, while black levels are deep and uncrushed. The Master Audio mono mix puts the dialogue and few ambient effects front and center, as well as Lalo Schifrin’s relentlessly propulsive score.
Kino assembles a few excellent bonus features, with little in the way of overlap or redundancy. The commentary track from film historian Toby Roan delves informatively into all the usual suspects, like shooting locations and cast and crew filmographies. Roan provides some intriguingly specific details about the various types of vehicles on display throughout the film, from cars and planes to the brand of mobile home the that Varrick and his wife, Nadine, live in. He also does a succinct job of situating the film within the context of different genres (car films, neo-noir, gangster films) that had been freshly refurbished in the New Hollywood era.
Film historian Howard S. Berger’s visual essay “Refracted Personae: Iconography and Abstraction in Don Siegel’s American Purgatory” may possess an imposing title, but it` astutely and articulately analyzes Siegel’s formal techniques and thematic concerns in Charley Varrick, with a particular emphasis on those of a spiritual or religious bent. “Last of the Independents: The Making of Charley Varrick” is a feature-length documentary with contributions from Kristoffer Tabori (Don Siegel’s son), actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver and actor Craig R. Baxley, composer Lalo Schifrin, and Howard A. Rodman (son of screenwriter Howard Rodman). There are plenty of fascinating firsthand recollections: especially intriguing are revelations concerning Walter Matthau’s gambling addiction and how it ultimately affected his choice of acting roles. There’s an episode of “Trailers from Hell” for Charley Varrick with comments from screenwriters John Olson and Howard A. Rodman, and Kino also includes a booklet with a characteristically incisive essay from film critic Nick Pinkerton.
Don Siegel’s ultracool heist film comes to Blu-ray with an exquisite transfer and several top-shelf extras.
Cast: Walter Matthau, Andy Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, Sheree North, Felicia Farr, Norman Fell, William Schallert, Jacqueline Scott, Woodrow Parfrey, Benson Fong, Tom Tully Director: Don Siegel Screenwriter: Dean Riesner, Howard A. Rodman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 111 min Rating: PG Year: 1973 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager on the Criterion Collection
Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have Criterion’s dazzling new restoration of Now, Voyager.4
Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager remains a highly narcotic, swoon-inducing romance in the Bette Davis canon. It’s an unabashed soap opera about how true love gets hindered by social conventions, and manages to squeeze in a moralistic tale of female self-empowerment to boot. Toss in a third-act bit of passive-aggressive wish fulfillment, where our high society heroine projects the love of a man she cannot have onto his unsuspecting, needy daughter, and there’s enough here to make one’s head spin. But that cloudy feeling isn’t a drawback; it’s more like floating with a film whose indulgences are reminiscent of foolishly falling in love. You ignore the flaws.
Boston heiress Charlotte Vale (Davis) is a walking disaster of sheltered neurosis, a slave to the domineering whims of her elderly mother (Gladys Cooper). Enter kindly psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith (a soft-spoken Claude Rains), who adores the messy art of pipe smoking and draws Charlotte in with his bedside manner and winning curiosity. As if following the lead of Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins, the doctor completely transforms Charlotte’s life: It seems that all that the poor, sweet young woman ever needed was a new hairdo, to dress in the latest fashions, and to take off those dowdy spectacles. And to test this new, improved Charlotte, Dr. Jasquith encourages her to take a pleasure cruise to Rio and take advantage of her rediscovered womanhood.
Now, Voyager’s extended prologue belongs to Rains as the ne plus ultra of the ideal therapist for any woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But rest assured, this is a Davis film, and she rightly takes her place as the repressed female coming into her own through a charming dalliance with suave, debonair Jerry (Paul Henreid). And the pleasure cruise grows all the more pleasurable as Charlotte takes courageous risks in meeting Jerry, struggling through conversations and gradually realizing she’s an interesting person, and that an interesting guy is into her. Henreid, best known for his stiff idealist in Casablanca, handles this role with easy, continental grace, and, of course, more than just girls will wish they were Bette when he casually lights two cigarettes at once and offers one to her. And by moonlight, I might add.
This is all ladled on with velvety, manipulative broad strokes, yet Now, Voyager somehow manages to transcend its particularly corny allegiance to the template of the woman’s picture. Much of that has to do with Davis, who always threw herself headlong into these parts, to women gripped by hysteria or the allure of a glamorous life. She gets to do both here, and because Charlotte is fighting against being a spinster and has picked the right Mr. Right, we actually give a damn beyond the camp antics that Davis is sometimes notorious for.
Naturally, these lovers are blocked because Jerry the brilliant architect is trapped in an unhappy marriage and struggling with a daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson), who’s as crazed and unhappy as the old Charlotte. They enjoy their ephemeral moments of happiness before parting, with Charlotte surviving the experience and becoming popular with a social set of celebrities and big shots. Though she continues to struggle to deal with her sinister mother, a few elaborate plot contrivances at least find her saving herself by saving the tormented Tina. Yes, a lot of ground gets covered across Now, Voyager’s two hours, and while it all feels like three or four different features have been crammed together, it’s never dull.
In true Old Hollywood fashion, the final scene ties it all together rather neatly and elegantly. Jerry and Charlotte draw together and move apart as if they were floating in orbit, so, of course, their final sequence together has them on her balcony—once again under the night sky. You will never forget Charlotte’s rapturous moment of awareness: “Don’t ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Now, Voyager is the stuff of young lovers and hare-brained idealists, and if it can feel pretty foolish at times, it’s unforgettable for how sincere and affectionate it is toward one particularly time-honored cliché: that only fools falls in love.
Criterion’s 4K restorations of classic, black-and-white Hollywood movies are, without a doubt, among the foremost pleasures of collecting physical media as the entire enterprise continues its long sunset. But in the case of Now, Voyager, the quantum leap forward in image quality from its last home-video release is appropriately as stunning as Charlotte’s transition from anxious frump to alluring sophisticate to earth mother. The luminous cinematography of Sol Polito (most famous, perhaps, for the still mind-bending Gold Diggers of 1933) comes off somehow both assertive and delicate, showcasing just how much the camera loved Bette Davis no matter how many times she claimed to be anything less than stunning. Flaws are almost nonexistent, limited solely to those inherent in the source material. The dynamic range of grays is rich, lending extra subtlety to the never-fully-melodramatic scenario. Speaking of dynamics, the Oscar-winning string section of Max Steiner’s score is given an uncompressed mono track that prevents it from crushing too harshly, or resembling too closely the hurricane of repressed rage residing in what used to be Mrs. Windle Vale’s chest cavity.
Now, Voyager comes to Criterion on the same day as they’re also releasing Davis’s uncontested masterpiece, All About Eve. But while their release of All About Eve ends up recycling nearly all of its bonus features from the many various editions that have come before it, Now, Voyager slate of extra content is almost entirely new. Well, not technically new in the sense that it includes a number of archival clips, but the assemblage is indeed fresh.
First and foremost is the entirety of Davis’s appearance on a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett’s knack for spending as little time as possible teeing up his interview subjects up to go off at length reaches some kind of record here, with Davis grabbing the reins of her time on set and darting from topic to topic with whiplash-inducing alacrity. Among her observations are that Yankees are better at imitating Southern accents than vice versa, that Hollywood in its golden era yielded the best female stars and Britain supplied most of the male ones, that oil companies buying up all the film studios was primarily responsible for the evaporation of “fun” on movie sets. And hundreds of other delicious asides.
Far less meaty but certainly welcome is a vintage 1980 news clip detailing the life and times of Paul Henreid, who at the time had just been awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art. There isn’t a feature-length commentary track, and the selected-scene, 30-minute one that the disc does feature focuses exclusively on the musical leitmotifs Steiner develops throughout the film. That said, critic Ferran Smith Nehme proffers a half-hour overview of Davis’s career and Now, Voyager’s place therein that, when paired with film professor Patricia White’s booklet essay, more than make up the difference. Rounding things out are a look at Orry-Kelly’s costumes, which were tailor-made for an insistently braless Davis, along with two creaky Lux Radio Theater adaptations. Finally, the accompanying booklet includes a 1937 essay in which Davis spends about 8,000 words or so describing a day in the life of an actress.
Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have Criterion’s dazzling new restoration of Now, Voyager.
Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville, Ilka Chase, Janis Wilson Director: Irving Rapper Screenwriter: Casey Robinson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 1942 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s superb presentation lends this modest little film some well-deserved prestige.4
When the Criterion Collection announced that their much-anticipated 1,000th release would be a mammoth box set devoted to the schlocky rock ‘em-sock ‘em pleasures of the Godzilla franchise, it turned a few heads in the cinephile community. Did these effects-driven giant-fighting-monster films really deserve to rub shoulders with the likes of Yasujirō Ozu and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in home video’s premier compendium of international art cinema? If this unexpected choice was, in part, an acknowledgement of the exhilarating breadth and depth of cinematic history, Criterion really drives the point home with its follow-up release—spine number 1001—a film that could scarcely be more different from the legendary kaiju series if it tried: Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers, an under-seen, micro-budgeted American indie whose action takes place, in significant part, inside a dumpy wood-paneled station wagon.
That vehicular signifier of suburban complacency looks like an alien spaceship as it lumbers its way through the crowded streets of Manhattan. Its passengers are a colorful but authentically kooky family of Long Island neurotics who’ve made the trek into the city to investigate a mysterious love letter discovered by Eliza (Hope Davis) in her bedroom the morning after a bout of tender lovemaking with her husband, Louis (Stanley Tucci). Eliza’s overbearing mother, Rita (Anne Meara), is sure that there’s a reasonable explanation for the note, while her sister, Jo (Parker Posey), and her pretentious boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber), are just excited at the opportunity to play amateur detective. The long-suffering family patriarch, Jim (Pat McNamara), on the other hand, is the reluctant chauffeur for the day.
While The Daytrippers hooks its narrative momentum to the investigation into Louis’s suspected infidelity generates, it’s the complex and often hilarious relationship between Eliza’s family members that forms the film’s emotional core. With deft subtlety, Mottola gradually reveals the family’s troublesome dynamics and submerged resentments, much of which stems from Rita’s tendency to favor the men in her daughters’ lives over her offspring. Nowhere is this more evident than in her fawning affection for Carl. Rita beams with quasi-maternal pride as he delivers a long-winded synopsis of his novel—a pretentious parable about a man with a dog’s head—over the course of the entire day. Meanwhile, Jo grows increasingly disgusted both with Carl’s self-important political pronouncements in favor of a benevolent aristocracy and with her mother’s obsequiousness in his presence.
The cast is uniformly delightful, embodying their characters’ flaws and apprehensions while embracing the film’s breezily discursive tone. Schreiber steals the show, imbuing Carl’s high-flown sermonizing with a genuine sense of kindliness: Carl may be full of himself, but in Schreiber’s hands, we can’t help but like him. Davis and Posey embody very different women who nevertheless share a deep, unbreakable bond: their mutual bemusement at their parents. But Meara’s performance forms the real prickly, complicated heart of The Daytrippers, a seemingly loving, if slightly dotty, matriarch whose outward kindliness masks a prickliness that, at times, even turns to unwitting cruelty toward Eliza and Jo.
There are no truly “big” moments in the film until the final 10 minutes or so. Until then, Mottola favors the accumulation of small, acutely observed details: Jim’s vexed eyerolls, which suggest a lifetime of quiet torment; Jo stripping off her many layers of outerwear in a hallway before strutting into a fancy literary soiree, clearly looking to find someone to talk to other than Carl; and Carl’s constant eating and frequent need to urinate, which belie the goofy, anxious naivete underlying his grandiose posturing. These moments, without big speeches or contrived revelations, tell us so much about the characters’ neuroses and conflicting desires.
Except, that is, for the film’s big reveal about Louis’s affair. It turns out Louis isn’t only cheating on Eliza, he’s doing so with a man. The film’s treatment of this ostensible twist isn’t exactly homophobic; when Eliza catches Louis making out with the man who wrote him the intense love note, it’s a moment of pure bliss for Louis. But the film evinces the same dated anxiety about queerness as other ‘90s comedies, like Chasing Amy. The film is really only interested in gayness as it affects straight relationships. And yet, the obvious shame in Louis’s eyes when Eliza interrogates him about his feelings suggests a gut-wrenching well of self-doubt that lingers with us even as the film shifts focus back to Eliza and her family.
Ultimately, the film isn’t fundamentally about Louis’s infidelities at all. Nor is it about Jo’s dawning realization that her boyfriend is a bit of a putz. Rather, at its heart, The Daytrippers is about both sisters’ collective recognition that they deserve better than what their overbearing mother chooses for them. For Rita, a woman without a man is essentially worthless—an incomplete person. But Eliza and Jo come to understand that the men in their lives aren’t serving their needs, that they would be better off uniting with one another to face life on their own terms rather than their mothers’. Appropriately, this film of crowded ensemble scenes ends with a long shot of Eliza and Jo walking away from their family arm in arm, finally understanding that, in the end, all they really need is each other.
The Daytrippers’s charm owes in no small part to its scrappy 16mm cinematography, which has been restored here in 4K resolution from the original negatives. The result cleans up imperfections such as dirt and scratches while preserving the pleasantly grainy texture of the film elements. The uncompressed stereo soundtrack is crystal clear, balancing the talky dialogue with the groovy bossa nova music interspersed throughout the film. Even in relatively noisy party scenes, the characters’ lines are always easily heard.
Producer Steven Soderbergh, who put up much of the film’s budget, serves as a kind of MC for the disc’s audio commentary, interviewing director Greg Mottola and editor Anne McCabe about the film’s ramshackle production. Criterion has also produced some amiable interview segments between Mottola and most of the principal cast (Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber, and Campbell Scott in one segment and Hope Davis in another). The disc also includes Mottola’s 1985 short The Hatbox, though unfortunately not his 1988 short Swingin’ in the Painter’s Room, which is mentioned in some of the supplementary materials and even excerpted during one of the interviews. Critic Emily Nussbaum provides an appreciative essay, though the highlight of the booklet is undoubtedly R. Kikuo Johnson’s Daniel Clowes-style comic illustrations, which perfectly capture the dryly comic spirit of the film.
Criterion’s superb presentation lends this modest little film some well-deserved prestige.
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Pat McNamara, Anne Meara, Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber, Campbell Scott, Marcia Gay Harden, Douglas McGrath, Peter Askin Director: Greg Mottola Screenwriter: Greg Mottola Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 1996 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release captures the icy-hot intensity and meticulous beauty of Pawlikowski’s shamelessly grandiose romance.4
Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War—an impassioned, minimalist memorial to the director’s late parents—tracks a torrid romance between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a mercurial composer, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer and dancer. The two meet in a small Polish village in 1949, when Wiktor is auditioning local girls for a folk troupe. Zula stands out not because her audition demonstrates a reverence for the folk traditions that the ensemble is meant to promote, but because she transcends them, performing a spirited song from a Russian musical she saw when she was a girl. Wiktor falls in love with her almost instantly, ignoring his assistant’s warning that Zula “apparently killed her father,” and barreling into a relationship that spans 15 years and finds the couple moving apart and reconnecting again in Warsaw, Paris, and Yugoslavia.
As time moves onward, and the sociopolitical identity of Cold War-era Europe changes, so, too, does the music played by Wiktor and his ensemble, from folk to jazz to early rock n’ roll. And Pawlikowski creates a crucial dynamic between Cold War’s two lovers and the burgeoning modernism that surrounds them: Wiktor eagerly changes with the times, while Zula is always a little ahead of them. This leads to Zula repeatedly acting out against him, as she periodically gives up whatever life she’s been leading in various pockets of time spent estranged from Wiktor and comes crashing back into his life, only to find that he can’t quite keep up with her. His jazz isn’t hot enough, and his sexual attitudes are too conservative. But at the same time, no one else comes as close as Wiktor does to pleasing her.
Cold War is shot in the same impeccable black-and-white, full-frame Academy ratio as Pawlikowski’s Ida, but this time the filmmaker engages his symmetrically balanced images as a canvas primed to be disrupted. The various carefully choreographed sequences of the Polish folk ensemble’s song-and-dance performances register almost imperceptibly as anachronistic: Zula’s dancing is just a little more loose-limbed than that of her stagemates, her facial expression a bit more solemn and melancholy as she sings a traditional folk song about a forbidden love. One early shot perfectly encapsulates the film’s vision of nascent, emerging modernity: Zula’s body bobs gently in a river, barely disturbing the water’s surface calm.
Nominally, the film’s lovers are forced apart by authoritarianism. Stalinist ideology exerts its power over great swaths of Europe, causing Wiktor to flee to Paris and become an artist in exile; later, he’s deported from Yugoslavia when his old superiors spot him at one of Zula’s performances. But implicit in Pawlikowski’s streamlined narrative is the feeling that near-cosmic forces are at work in determining the trajectory of Zula and Wiktor’s lives. Another recurring image in the film—a remnant of an old artwork painted in a ruin, of a pair of massive, watchful eyes—seems to seal the fate of these lovers before their affair even begins, and Zula and Wiktor return to the site when their story reaches its conclusion.
Cold War is striking for its precise calibration of narrative minimalism and aesthetic elementalism, and for breaking from the classicist formalism that Ida feels bound to honor. But neither work conveys a great deal of emotional depth: While Cold War’s narrative economy is impressive, it occasionally seems to rein in the expressive potential of Kulig’s phenomenal performance, hurrying through the various episodes of Zula developing a social and cultural awareness and spending a little too much time wallowing with the less interesting Wiktor.
That leaves Cold War most exhilarating as a breathless vessel for mood, one that just so happens to conduct itself within reconstructed period settings that are as obsessively detailed as the reverently curated soundtrack. Just as much care is paid to the spectral spiritualism of old-world Polish folks songs as is to the sensual nightclub scenes where Wiktor plays jazz piano, or the carnal sequence where Zula becomes a whirling dervish when she hears “Rock Around the Clock.” If it’s an otherworldly fatalism that plots Zula and Wiktor’s course through life, their love for each other, so predicated on their obsession with the art that the sociopolitical climate of the time generally represses, distracts them from their oblivion. And while Pawlikowski’s meticulous presentation of their experience with this art doesn’t always translate to an understanding of their inner lives, it still carries an emotive power.
This Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Cold War features a 1080p image track derived from an original 4K master. An impressive level of detail is present in each frame of the film’s frequently long takes, so that Paweł Pawlikowski’s precise framing and Łukasz Żal’s masterful, dynamic cinematography can be fully appreciated. The emotional intensity communicated by the filmmakers’ high-contrast black-and-white imagery is preserved by the disc’s exceptional layering. Likewise impressive is the sound mix, presented in DTS-HD 5.1. The mix facilitates an incredible, enveloping depth in the film’s musical sequences.
A making-of documentary from Polish television gives a sense of how Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida was anticipated in his native country, and an accompanying behind-the-scenes featurette focuses largely on the extensive training that Joanna Kulig and the actors playing the members of the folk troupe went through. Cold War’s complete press conference from the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, also included here, covers some of the same ground as the making-of featurettes—discussion of Pawel’s inspiration, the work that the actors had to do in preparing for their roles, the complexity of Polish feelings about the communist era—but from the perspective of the Western journalists asking the questions.
A conversation between Pawlikowski and Alejandro González Iñárritu was produced by Criterion for this home-video release. While here, too, certain notes are struck that one will hear again in the other features, the discussion of working methods in this interview goes into quite a bit more depth than in the other videos, given that the two discussants are each accomplished filmmakers. Finally, the disc’s fold-out booklet includes a brief essay by Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek that’s vivid and descriptive, interweaving an appreciation of the film’s visual power with details from Pawlikowski’s biography.
Criterion’s release captures the icy-hot intensity and meticulous beauty of Paweł Pawlikowski’s assuredly stylish and shamelessly grandiose 20th-century romance.
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar Director: Paweł Pawlikowski Screenwriter: Paweł Pawlikowski Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Sayles’s Matewan on the Criterion Collection
This is one of the rare American films to give dramatic heft to the strategic challenges and mortal stakes of labor organizing.4
Nine years after Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, on which Haskell Wexler accomplished some of his most celebrated work in tandem with Néstor Almendros, the cinematographer brought a similar feel for landscape shooting and natural light to the West Virginia valleys of John Sayles’s Matewan. Shooting in a 1920s-era recreation of the titular coal mining town, Wexler employed little more than oil lamps, bounce boards, and high-speed film to bring a shimmering clarity to a contentious period of labor history, locating in Matewan’s dense forests and steep, sun-beaten hills some of the grandeur of Days of Heaven’s big-sky heartland. But even more impressive is Wexler’s use of light and shadow to convey the landscape’s latent menace, an imprisoning quality nowhere more evident than in a moon-dappled gunfight that was shot “day for night” in shades of deep turquoise and amber.
This startling scene, including others like the final standoff, offer punctuation in a film otherwise more rousing in its talk than its action, as Sayles charts the gradual awakening of a community’s conscience in the face of corporate oppressors. Matewan opens as an influx of black and immigrant workers are shipped from Alabama to West Virginia by the Stone Mountain Mining Company in an attempt to weaponize racial resentments and, in turn, weaken the strike that’s happening up north. One headstrong miner who goes by the name Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) stands in for the attitudes of the many who reluctantly embark on this transfer; initially dismissed as scabs by their new Appalachian coworkers, it’s clear that they’re victims of a system that rules over them, and that their decision to submit to the company’s whims has more to do with survival than willing cooperation.
Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, unflappable in his first film role) is the one man who recognizes this stark reality from the onset. In the first of several stirring monologues delivered to his comrades with a mix of presidential poise and fiery passion, Kenehan advances the argument that a union beset by selective inclusion along racial biases is no union at all, and that differences in background are merely a smokescreen used by the powerful to distract the powerless from the fundamental similarities of their situation.
Staged late at night in a dimly lit cabin, the speech takes on the quality of a vigil, with the initially exacerbated men growing increasingly silent and attentive, and indeed, Kenehan’s various political lectures eventually become interwoven in the film’s editing with the religious sermons of the town’s precocious preacher, Danny Radnor (a young and emotionally vulnerable Will Oldham). Where the few Hollywood movies that have dared to openly mix religion and politics typically exploit the teachings of the Bible to prop up individual will and liberty, Sayles’s evocative script, culled from period-specific diary entries and IWW literature, instead emphasizes the collective solidarity to be gleaned from the same primary source.
Backing up that belief in the many over the few, Sayles partitions the film’s narrative across a substantial ensemble. Among those sketched with intimate detail by both Sayles and the actors playing them are Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell), a put-upon boarding house keeper and Danny’s gracious mother; Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), the taciturn sheriff who embodies the best of what a police officer can be to his community; Fausto (Joe Grifasi) and Rosaria (Maggie Renzi), an Italian couple who struggle to adapt to the West Virginia way of life; and, of course, Jones’s pained Few Clothes, whose suspicions of Joe as some kind of bad-faith communist infiltrator are upturned in a fireside chat in which the organizer resoundingly proves his altruistic bona fides. The only characters reduced to caricatures are Hickey (Kevin Tighe) and Griggs (Gordon Clapp), the big-city thugs employed by Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to terrorize the striking miners, and it’s hard to make the argument that such vicious company men should have been humanized given the bloody outcome of Matewan’s history.
That Matewan’s moral landscape eventually settles into a binary good-versus-evil scenario is symptomatic of the film’s use of the classical western as a structural blueprint. Scenes of hushed union strategizing stand in for cowboys-by-the-campfire nocturnes, and the flashes of deadly action, precipitated by the careful coordination of attack positions, recall the methodical build-ups to desert ambushes in any number of studio precursors. Sayles’s pacing, though, is closer to that of a “psychological western” specialist like Anthony Mann than to a populist like Allan Dwan—digressive and simmering rather than taut and breakneck. And in Matewan’s most moving tribute to this genre, Sayles offers a funeral scene worthy of John Ford. As the various side characters converge for the mourning of a death in the community, the emotional toll of real boots-on-the-ground resistance reaches a cathartic apex against the siren-like a cappella of bluegrass legend and longtime leftist Hazel Dickens, making an impactful cameo to underline the idea that workers’ solidarity is a never-ending project.
John Sayles isn’t often touted for his visual style, but with the help of Haskell Wexler, his Matewan is one of the more picturesque American movies of the 1980s. Criterion does the film full justice with a rich 4K scan that saturates the earthen tones of West Virginia, emphasizing the verdant landscape that the miners call home. The disc also handles the film’s many night scenes beautifully, separating the highlights and shadows enough to give remarkable clarity to the pivotal pieces of action occurring under moon light or lit only by lamp light. Sound is handled with similar delicacy. The film’s layered mix incorporates wonderful background ambiance throughout (music being played among the workers, chatter from nearby camps, sounds of the deep forest), and Criterion’s presentation ensures that none of these atmospheric ingredients are sacrificed in favor of dialogue.
From the testimonies offered on Criterion’s release, it would seem that the set of Matewan was a particularly warm and familial one, and the wealth of voices heard in the extras here reflects that quality. Not only featuring Sayles himself, his longtime producing partner Maggie Renzi, and the main actors, Criterion’s four interview-heavy supplements also provide insights from production designer Nora Chavooshian, Wexler and members of his crew, and composer Mason Daring. The latter is generously given 18 minutes to reflect on the unique process of resurrecting the era’s bluegrass sound in the mobile eight-track studio he brought to set. Another highlight is the half-hour archival documentary focusing on the influence of Matewan’s production on the region of West Virginia in which it was shot, a segment that finds area residents recalling their assistance on the film both in front of and behind the camera. These stories are further contextualized in the excellent commentary track, wherein Sayles and Wexler bounce off each other like old buddies, revisiting logistical challenges and illuminating artistic intentions. The disc is rounded out by an original trailer and a sturdy essay by A.S. Hamrah, at once thoroughly researched and sharply analytical.
John Sayles’s Matewan is one of the rare American films to give dramatic heft to the strategic challenges and mortal stakes of labor organizing, and Criterion amplifies its timeless message with a generous package.
Cast: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, David Strathairn, Ken Jenkins, Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp, Bob Gunton, Jace Alexander, Joe Grifasi, Nancy Mette Director: John Sayles Screenwriter: John Sayles Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 135 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1987 Release Date: October 29, 2019 Buy: Video