Category Archives: Collecting Criterion

Collecting Criterion – M (1931)

World Cinema has created a wonderful variety of styles, all of which have left their mark both on film history and on Hollywood itself.  Pretty much any new technique developed by filmmakers around the world will influence someone here in Tinseltown, who will in turn give it a mainstream appeal.  You could see it in the development of Soviet Montage techniques from Russian filmmakers, as well as the radical free form film-making popularized by the French New Wave.  But, if there ever was an international style that had the most profound impact early on within Hollywood, it would be the style of German Expressionism.  Developed in Weimer Era Germany during the heyday of Silent cinema, Expressionism was a technique of storytelling that emphasized emotion through abstract visuals.  Instead of portraying the world as is, Expressionism distorts the world to convey a larger truth behind the veil of what we see as “reality.”  It was the primary artistic force that drove the flourishing of art to came out of Weimer era culture, and it’s cinematic contributions are no less noteworthy.  The extreme visual mind-trips like 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu left a profound imprint on cinema, even across the world in Hollywood.  You can see the influence of German Expressionism in everything from Film Noir to Disney fairy tales.  The Criterion Collection is very fond of this era itself, spotlighting a few of the classics from this movement.  Pioneering dramatist Georg Wilhelm Pabst has a couple films honored in the collection including Pandora’s Box (Spine #358) and The Threepenny Opera (#405).  Even a modern Expressionist view of Weimer culture is spotlighted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour behemoth Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, #411).  But, if there is one Expressionist filmmaker who holds  a special place in the Collection, it is the legendary Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang is not only one of Germany’s most celebrated auteur directors; he one of the most celebrated filmmakers in world history, period.  Filmmakers all over the world look to him as a big influence in their work, and it’s largely due to his fantastic command of stories told on both the grandest and most intimate of scales.  He made a steady rise in early days of German cinema, specializing in gritty crime thrillers.  He famously created the cinematic trope of criminal masterminds wrecking havoc on society with his creation of the villainous psychic gangster, Dr. Mabuse.  Though part of a longer series, only one of those Mabuse films has been given the Criterion treatment; 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (#231).  But, the film that would make Lang a household name around the world would be his colossal modernist epic, Metropolis (1927).  Metropolis is widely seen as one of the greatest movies ever made, and without a doubt the pinnacle of cinema in the silent era.  With a sense of scale unheard of until that time, Lang revolutionized cinema and created what many consider to be the first science fiction film.  You can see homages to Metropolis in everything from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).  But, Metropolis would also be a turning point for Lang as a filmmaker, as Germany itself would begin to change.  The libertine years of Weimer Germany gave way to a rise in Nationalistic Fascism, which also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  And with this, the creative freedoms allowed to filmmakers like Fritz Lang were suddenly unavailable.  Lang’s post-Metropolis films were considerably smaller, but no less provocative.  He amazingly was still able to create some profound cinematic works, even under threat of censorship from the Nazi regime, but only for a short while.  And the most famous of these films has been given a cherished place in the Criterion Collection; the harrowing and influential crime thriller, (1931, #30).

The minimalist title M refers to a mark left on suspected child murderer who is at the center of the story; marked so that he is more easily hunted down by those wishing to bring him to justice.  The story is less about the murderer, and even less about the victims themselves.  Instead, Fritz Lang examines the societal reaction to such crimes, and how justice is enacted by both the people in power and by ordinary citizens.  It begins with the disappearance of  a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), who is found murdered shortly after.  Outrage pours in from Elsie’s family, as well as from the neighborhood she called home, all chastising the local government for not doing enough to stop this string of child murders from happening.  As the investigation goes on, it seems apparent that the children in the city are all falling victim to the same assailant.  Fed up with the slow response of law enforcement in the city, the victims’ families enlist the help of the criminal underground to find the child murderer and finally bring him to justice.  Leading them is ruthless Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens) whose network of spies and hitmen scour the city for any clues as to the identity of the killer.  Finally, a blind balloon salesman points them towards a lead, as he remembers hearing the same man whistling Edvard Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the “Peer Gynt” suite as he was buying a balloon for each of the slain children.  When the same whistle is heard suddenly again, the city discovers the identity of the killer, a portly young man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre).  Beckart is hunted down, escaping for a time in an abandoned building, but is ultimately caught and brought before the community.  What follows is one of cinema’s most unforgettable portrayals of insanity and social commentary as Beckart faces a kangaroo court all intent on enacting a ruthless kind of justice that asks us the viewer how monsters are created in the end; are they born that way, or are they a manifestation of society at it’s worst?

is a captivating film, and one of the most influential ever made too.  Within it, you can see Fritz Lang writing the blueprint for the modern crime thriller, with his unflinching look at how crime and punishment and societal evils are almost always cyclical in the way they perpetuate each other.  Lang doesn’t sympathize with the child murderer exactly, but he does show the society that’s hunting him down to be nearly as monstrous as he is.  For the first time in cinema history, we received a look into the mind of a killer and examine what would drive him to commit such terrible acts; and the shocking thing is that society in general creates these kinds of monsters.  Hans Beckert doesn’t kill to make a point nor for any personal gain.  He kills, because he can.  He is driven by a compulsion, one that even he doesn’t understand completely, but still one that satisfies a deep down need inside.  And, as Lang points out in the movie, society loves to create and destroy it’s own monsters.  Beckert sees that people will fear him when they witness the results of his crimes, and he enjoys the rush of power that gives him, lustfully desiring it even more.  But, once discovered, he suddenly loses that impervious feeling, and we see the infantile little man that he really is.  All he can do then is to confess his true feelings, and what’s frightening to everyone is that this horrible monster is all too human in the end.  With M, Lang makes the case that by giving monstrous deeds so much attention, that it empowers those who enjoy committing them, and as a result we ourselves become a little monstrous ourselves for indulging in this cycle of mayhem.  No other crime thriller before or since has portrayed the cycle of violence with this much clarity, and Hans Beckert’s emotional breakdown is still one of the most harrowing moments ever captured on film; brilliantly conveyed through Peter Lorre’s iconic performance.

Lang’s masterpiece is also a remarkable time capsule of the era in which it was made.  We are familiar with the decadent flourish of Weimer Era art in Germany, as well as the rigid Fascist regime that followed it.  But, we have few documents of the years in between, where freedom gave way to totalitarianism in a short amount of time.  In the film M, we can see the beginnings of nationalistic fervor that swamped over Germany at the time.  In these days, political opportunists seized upon scapegoats for societal ills, and as we saw, the prosperous Germanic Jewish communities were singled out.  In the movie, the desperate townspeople turn to shady criminal hoodlums to enact justice where the government had let them down.  The same result was going on nationwide in Germany at the time, as “brown coat” fascists began to take more power by portraying the Jewish as a foreign entity that was destroying their society.  Eventually, this movement coalesced into the Nazi Party which gained national prominence under Hitler’s leadership.  There is an unmistakable parallel in the portrayal of Schranker to the rise of the Nazi’s, with his black leather trench coat and purely Aryan looks being an unmistakable representation of the atypical fascist thug.  Lang clearly wanted to show with his thriller a chilling examination of the social turmoil that his country was going through.  He pointedly shifts blame on the people of Germany, showing that inviting the wolves to chase the fox out of the hen house only creates a new den of wolves.   Unfortunately, Lang’s film was misconstrued by the Nazi regime, with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels spotlighting Hans Beckert as an ideal representation of a Jewish monster.  Lang was even offered the position of the chief in charge of cinema under the Third Reich by Goebbels, but the pro-democratic Lang refused and swiftly escaped his home country.  He made his way to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his marquee star Peter Lorre, where he again left a strong influence, becoming one of the architects of film noir style in that era.  But, would sadly mark the end of a legendary rise for both him, and Germanic cinema in general.

When it comes to a title this legendary and beloved, you can be assured that Criterion is going to give it a very special treatment.  First added to the collection in it’s early days on DVD, has benefited from a few updates and remasters over the years, leading to a new pristine blu-ray edition made available today.  The restoration was completed using a fine grain print, made from a duplicate negative restored in the Netherlands in 2000.  The original negative was of course destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, so this duplicate negative is the best source we have to preserving Lang’s original vision.  All things considered, the scan used for the digital presentation of the film looks outstanding, especially for a film this old.  There are plenty of scratches still present, but not too much to be distracting.  Detail is incredibly conveyed in the transfer, and the color scaling enables us to not have any of the darkest scenes be washed out in black.  What is interesting however about this Criterion edition is the inclusion of the complete English version of the movie.  Back when sound film was still new, alternate versions were sometimes shot simultaneously in multiple languages.  Few of these alternate versions have survived over the years, like the famous Spanish version of Dracula (1931), but thankfully film archivists were able to track down this English version of M somewhere deep in the archives of the British Film Institute.  While most of the film is dubs over the original actors, there are some instances where British actors are inter-spliced into the film, particularly in the moments focusing on the investigators of the crime.  More interesting though is that Peter Lorre performed his famous confessional speech in three different languages, since he was fluent in all of them; German, French and English.  His performance is different in each, which makes for a fascinating contrast.  I’d say that his German performance is the best, since that’s the one where he was working with Lang’s direction, but his brilliance shines through in all versions.  The English version is also un-restored, so it gives you a much clearer idea of the extensive work that went into making this movie look as pristine as it does.

Included in this edition are some valuable extras as well, which is to be expected of Criterion at this point.  In addition to the complete English version of the movie, we also get an interesting audio commentary from German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, who go into more depth behind the film’s historical context, it’s deeper themes, as well as it’s cinematic legacy.  Another interesting inclusion is the documentary Conversations with Fritz Lang, which is a collection of interviews conducted by Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin with Lang towards the end of his life in his Beverly Hills home.  It’s fascinating to hear the man himself discuss his own work, and much of the interviews touch upon the themes and legacy of M.  Lang also recounts his harrowing escape from Germany after refusing Geobbels offer.  While some of it may have been embellished over time, it’s nevertheless shows Lang’s command over story in hearing him tell this personal account.  There’s also a short film called M le maudit, which is a short French film that was heavily influenced by the classic, and it’s director Claude Chabrol is also interviewed separately, discussing the influence that Lang’s film had on him.  Interviews taken from audiotapes of M‘s editor, Paul Falkenberg, as well as a brand new video one of Harold Nebenzal, the son of the film’s producer Seymour Nebenzal, are also included on the set.  There is also a fascinating visual essay made about the physical history of M, which includes images of how the film was marketed, how it was exploited by the Nazi regime after release, how Weimer Era culture influenced it’s setting, as well as details on the restoration work recently completed on it.  The best part of this essay is the inclusion of the French version of Lorre’s famous confessional scene, which provides yet another interesting contrast with the final film.  Overall, it gives this classic and influential film the well rounded home video release that it deserves, and lives up to the high standard that is typically expected of Criterion.

Fritz Lang’s has held up remarkably well over it’s long history, and sadly feels more prescient than ever.  With populism and nationalistic movements on the rise throughout much of the world once again, Lang’s chilling look at society torn apart through fear of the unknown feels all too prophetic nowadays.  Without knowing it at the time, Lang documented the conditions that lead to the rise of dictatorships, and it’s a harrowing cautionary tale that everyone should take note of.  At the same time, Lang also set the high standard for intelligent crime thrillers by which all successors are still judged by.  With his interesting procedural breakdown of investigative crime-fighting, to the complex portrayal of the criminal himself, Lang’s cinematic touch can be felt in every crime thriller since M, from the big screen to the little screen.  How many TV cop procedural dramas owe their existence to legacy of M?  Lang himself continued to extend the style that he pioneered, making classic noir thriller in Hollywood like Fury (1936) and The Woman in the Window (1944).  Peter Lorre also prospered after answering the call of Hollywood, himself escaping certain death under the Nazi regime, and he would become a valuable character actor for many years, appearing in such classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943).  Still, features the best work of both men, and it will likely remain one of cinema’s greatest pairing of actor and director that we will ever see.   Criterion has been good to this film for many years and it is a pleasure seeing them continue to treat this film with the utmost care.  The digital restoration is superb for a film this old and it gives us an excellent representation of how the film might of looked back when it was first released.  The alternate English version included also provides us with an interesting window into how films were made in the early days of sound, before they began to figure these things out and just use subtitles instead.  Anyone who appreciates film and world history should absolutely watch this movie.  It’s scary in it’s prescience and profound in it’s unflinching view of humanity and the societies we create.  And in a world that is growing all the more hostile and untrustworthy, this film is now essential viewing more than it ever has been before.

 

Collecting Criterion – Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Among the many different international communities represented through a collection of films, the Criterion Collection has an especially strong fondness for the French.  French cinema is distinct from others in the rest of the world; glossy and poetic like Hollywood, but with far more edge and style to them.  And the whole breadth of French cinematic history is well represented within the Collection.  In fact, the very first Criterion title released at the launch of the brand was a classic French film; Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece Grand Illusion (1937), carrying Spine #1 in the collection.  Renoir, often looked at as the godfather of French cinema, has 11 films in total found in the Criterion library, including his international hit, The Rules of the Game (1939, #216), considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made.  Criterion also spotlights perhaps the most influential period of French cinema, the New Wave, with a whole host of notable films that best represent the movement.  New Wave icons, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in particular have many films made available through the Criterion label, including some of their most famous like The 400 Blows (1959, #5) and Breathless (1960, #408).  Even the quirky comedies of Jacques Tati (Playtime, 1967, #112) and the sumptuous musicals of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964, #716) receive the Criterion treatment.  But there is one title in the Criterion Collection that not only stands out as a remarkable piece of film art, but also signifies the very definition of a French film.  And it’s a story that’s both timeless and internationally appealing.  You might even say, it’s a tale as old as time.  Of course, I am speaking about the classic fairy tale feature from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1946, #6), more commonly know to English speaking audiences as Beauty and the Beast.

The story is one of the most renowned and famous fairy tales told all around the world, but it is also one that is undeniably French in both origin and in it’s character.  First written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, the story has been adapted and re-adapted constantly in many different forms.  Though brought to life in many different ways over time, the story does lend itself best to the medium of cinema, and the first truly outstanding version of this story came about through the imagination of Jean Cocteau.  Cocteau was a true Renaissance man during his heyday; excelling in a variety of arts, including painting, poetry, as well as novel writing and playwriting.  He only made a handful of films, but the few that he did make have withstood as iconic works of art praised by the entire film community.  In particular, he was an innovator when it came to special effects in movies.  To him, playing around with camera and editing tricks were a form of real life magic, and he styled himself as a cinematic magician of sorts.  I guess that’s what made a fairy tale story like Beauty and the Beast so appealing to him.  It was the perfect opportunity for him to put on the cinematic equivalent of a magic show, using every trick of the trade to make the fantastical feel real.  And like many other French films, Beauty and the Beast is self aware of what it wants to be.  The opening credits even pulls back the curtains to let the audience know that they are being treated to the illusion of reality; with Cocteau and his two lead actors Jean Marais (The Beast) and Josette Day (Belle) writing their names on a chalkboard in the studio, followed by a stagehand holding a clapboard before the story even begins.  It’s a highly influential film for both French and world cinema, and it’s no doubt that it’s beloved status gave the story more prosperity, inevitably leading to the other most notable version; the animated musical by Disney.  With a legacy like that, it’s no wonder that the movie has been given Criterion’s honored recognition.

Cocteau’s version of the fairy tale is far more faithful to the original 18th century story than more contemporary ones; especially more than Disney’s.  The story focuses on a young woman from a small village in the French countryside named Belle (Day).  She is the youngest child of a wealthy trader, whose riches are more often than not squandered on the lavish tastes of Belle’s two older sisters Felicity (Mila Parely) and Adelaide (Nane Germon).  Not only is Belle responsible for picking up the slack of her slovenly sisters in the household chores, but she is often subjugated to the sometimes unwanted advances of a handsome admirer, Avenant (Marais).  Belle’s father (Marcel Andre) leaves on business and Belle asks simply for a single rose as a gift on his return.  After getting lost on the way, her father stumbles into a lavish castle, with fixtures that magically come to life to serve and wait on him.  As he attempts to leave, he plucks a rose from the garden only to be confronted by the master of the castle, a fearsome Beast (Jean Marais again).  The Beast shows him mercy, just as long as someone takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner.  When the father returns home, Belle selflessly volunteers, but her father refuses.  After her father takes ill, Belle leaves on her own to spare him and become the Beast’s prisoner.  At the castle, Belle learns of the agonizing toll of the curse that made the Beast who he is, and how it tortures him everyday.  She begins to take pity on him, and he in turn shows a softer, more caring side beneath all of his gruffness.  However, after leaving the Beast for a visit to see her ailing father, she sadly comes to the realization that she has left him vulnerable, and that there are others who seek to do him harm; especially the envious Avenant.

Unfortunately for Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, despite it’s legendary status, it’s always going to have to face scrutiny when compared to Disney’s blockbuster.  But it’s just the reality; Beauty and the Beast has been adapted into two genuine cinematic masterpieces.  Disney’s version is different in many ways (not least of which it being a musical), but it owes a great amount of debt to Cocteau’s version for some of it’s more imaginative elements.  For one thing, Jean Cocteau was the first to imagine all of the architecture and furnishings of the Beast castle as living things.  Some of the examples in his version are quite striking, including the wall candle fixtures fashioned to look like human arms, and were in fact provided by actors standing behind the facade wall.  It’s simply executed, but hauntingly beautiful when seen in the film.  The same with the statuary in the fireplace mantle, who eerily stare back at us from the background.  Disney took this element and went a step further by giving the household objects names and distinct personalities, creating the beloved characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts in the process.  Cocteau also invented one other element that Disney’s version also owes a great debt to.  The character of Avenant, Belle’s persistent human suitor, is not from the original story, and was created by Cocteau as a way of counterpointing the growing sensitive relationship that Belle has with the Beast.  So, you can thank Jean Cocteau for creating what would eventually be the villainous Gaston.  Of course, there are still many difference that still give the Disney version some distinction.  They excised Belle’s older sisters (probably because they were too close in resemblance to Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters), and of course the animation medium gives them a lot more freedom to fully portray the magical elements of the story.

What is most interesting about Cocteau’s version is the portrayals of it’s two lead characters.  In particular, Jean Marais as the Beast.  I find it interesting that Marais filled dual roles in the film; as the Beast and as Avenant.  It shows great range in his ability to portray such antithesis characters, even down to the difference in their body language.  Of course, Marais is able to pull this off when his face is covered in a giant fur mask, but it’s still a feat that his performance shines through even with the extra encumbrance.  Admittedly, the cat like face mask provided by make-up artist Hagop Arakelian looks pretty ridiculous when compared to work done today, but it is iconic in it’s own way.  With the air of aristocratic sophistication mixed in with the mangy feral characteristics of a wild animal, the Beast in Cocteau’s film is an unforgettable creation, and one strongly reliant on the talents of a gifted actor.  It wouldn’t be until the Disney version that would would see a fully realized Beast brought to the screen, with nothing left on the surface of the human inside, but given the limitations that Cocteau had to work with, his Beast still is a work of creative art.  The portrayal of Belle is an interesting one as well.  In a way, the selfless girl who uses her perceptive mind to understand the Beast from the get go comes off as a bit more subtle than Disney’s defiant, book-obsessed princess.  Not that Disney’s Belle is any less welcome; she is in fact an icon in her own right, and thankfully a female role model that stresses intelligence over beauty.  But I appreciate Josette Day’s Belle as well.  She captures the character’s heart and shows that she is far more than a thing of beauty in the story, but rather one defined by her compassion more than anything else.  Considering when this movie was made, Belle could have easily been portrayed as just a pretty trophy to be sought after (which would have been the case if this was a Hollywood picture in the 1940’s).  Thankfully, with the more French sensibilities towards male and female identities, we have a more balanced portrayal of our heroine Belle, and one that I’m sure left a big impact on all future fairy tales princesses as a result.

The Criterion Collection again has devoted a great amount of time and effort to restoring this classic to it’s full glory.  Because of the film’s beloved status in France, it has been thankfully preserved in their national film archives.  The original nitrate negative still exists, but time has taken it’s toll and care was still needed to bring the film back to it’s original glory.  In 1995, the original negative was given over to the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in Luxembourg to do a full restoration of picture and sound to create a new restored master negative for digital preservation.  The results are astounding, and help to greatly enhance the meticulous work that Jean Cocteau put into the visual effects of the film.  The movie utilized a lot of in camera  and editing effects to give the movie a more magical feel, including a spectacular slow motion sequence of Belle running through the halls of the Beast’s castle in this almost ethereal way.  With the film properly restored to the correct 24 frames a second that it needs run consistently at, this sequence is able to play out in the best possible way for the effect to work.  The cleaned-up image also looks excellent, with gray levels in the black and white photography feeling natural and true to life.  Scratches are minimized and the movie looks as polished today as some of it’s other beloved contemporaries from Hollywood.  In addition, the monaural soundtrack is free of distracting hisses and pops, and sounds natural and clean.  It is from this 1995 restoration that Criterion derived their high definition transfer from, and it looks amazing on blu-ray.  Sometimes the detail does expose the seams that Cocteau probably didn’t want exposed in the image, but a lot of the effects still hold up to the scrutiny of high definition, including the Beast’s make-up.  It’s another stellar restoration by Criterion, meeting their already high standard.

In addition to the transfer, the blu-ray also includes some worthwhile supplements that round out the package.  First of all, the most substantial feature is a bonus soundtrack that can be played with the movie.  Composer Phillip Glass crafted several operas based on the movies of Jean Cocteau, and the one for Beauty and the Beast is included in full here, presented in 5.1 surround sound.  It’s a great option for anyone interested in hearing the opera synced up with the movie that it’s meant to play with.  Criterion has also provided two audio commentary tracks recorded just for this edition.  The first is by film historian Arthur Knight, who shares insight into the cinematic contributions that the movie has made, and the other is by cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling, who discusses the film’s cultural significance, as well as it’s influences.  In addition, there is a lengthy documentary that coincided with the film’s restoration in 1995 called Screening at the Majestic.  It features interesting interviews from many of the cast and crew, telling us about the making of the film and it’s legacy.  There is also an interview clip conducted on Luxembourg television from 1995 with the movie’s cinematographer Henri Alekan, who gives an interesting insight into what it was like working with Jean Cocteau and how they were able to create some of those amazing visual effects.  There is also an excerpt from a French television expose on famed make-up artist Hagop Arakelian, where he talks about and demonstrates his craft.  Sadly, this feature doesn’t go into enough detail about his work on the Beast in the film.  Lastly, there is an interesting featurette on the film’s restoration, as well as galleries devoted to behind-the-scenes pictures and publicity stills, and an original theatrical trailer, directed and narrated by Cocteau himself.  It’s another full package that lives up to Criterion’s high standards.

Upon watching Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, you see why it is widely proclaimed as one of cinema’s crowning achievements.  Just through the imagination of it’s visual effects alone does this movie achieve masterpiece status.  There are some effects in here that are so remarkably done that even after 70 years, it will still leave you wondering how they were able to pull them off.  There’s one bit where an ugly string of garlic turns into a string of pearls within the same shot that still tricks my eye every time, because it’s done in the illusion of one continuous unbroken shot.  I’ve watched the movie a few times now, and I still can’t spot the edit.   It’s cinematic magic like that that defines the movie, but it also stands as the defining example of a French film.  I’m positive that it’s overwhelming French identity is the reason why Disney chose to preserve the French setting in their own version, as opposed to making up some Euro-centric, unnamed kingdom for the setting like they had done to their fairy tale films in the past.  There is a strong connection between the elegance of Jean Cocteau’s version and the extravagance of Disney’s, and I’m sure that it’s one built upon admiration.  The people who worked on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast I’m sure aspired to follow Cocteau’s lead, and try their best to achieve something close to what he accomplished.  It’s a high standard set by both versions that I hope the upcoming live action musical remake by Disney also aspires to.  My worry is that it’s going to be too derivative of one and not enough of the other.  Jean Cocteau showed with his imagination what the medium of cinema can do, and he demonstrated that with a few simple tricks, he could create true magic on the big screen.  Criterion has done an outstanding job of preserving the magic on display here and my hope is that those of us introduced to the story through Disney’s version will be able to discover this version in our adulthood and see just how magical cinematic art can be.

https://www.criterion.com/films/177-beauty-and-the-beast

 

Collecting Criterion – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

manchurian candidate

Political films are never an easy sell in Hollywood.  Depending on the movie’s point of view, the very message of the movie is going to alienate some portion of the audience, making it difficult to for that same film to become a success.  Some filmmakers make the mistake of turning their films too one-sided in their arguments and in return it diminishes the power of their movie.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a film that has something to say, political or otherwise, it still is crucial to have a strong enough story to go along with that message.  That is what makes up the best of political movies in the history of cinema; engaging narratives that just so happen to also have an important statement to make.  This enables the movies to reach a more broader audience, even if the film’s message differs from the audience member’s own point of view.  That’s how you get right wingers who end up enjoying the movies of Oliver Stone like JFK (1991), or leftists who enjoy John Milius’ flag-waving extravaganza Red Dawn (1984).  A good story can transcend politics, and that’s what is at the heart of great political films.  It could be argued that every movie in the Criterion Collection is a political film in some way, given that they always drawn to movies that have deeper meanings and messages to them.  But, there are some films in the Collection that are more overtly political than others.  They include the social dramas of Greek director Costa-Gravas like Z (1969, Spine #491) and Missing (1982, #449), provocative documentaries like Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 (1988, #258) and D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993, #602), and even silly satirical comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940, #565).  But, if there are easily definable political movies within the collection, it would be political thrillers, and they’ve selected one of the best to join their catalog; John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1963, #803).

The Manchurian Candidate is a spectacularly well crafted political thriller.  It’s also definitely a product of it’s time.  In the post war years, between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, American politics was caught up in a frenzy of suspected Communist infiltration.  With the Soviet Union quickly becoming a competitive world power with hostility towards the United States, many Americans feared that a Soviet invasion was possible, and the fear was only compounded by the rise in nuclear armament during this period.  Thus, began what we know now as the Cold War.  To capitalize on this fear, some in the government like Senator Joseph McCarthay began proclaiming that Communist spies were all around us, both in government and in the world of entertainment.  This then led to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was set up to expose any Communists working in America.  The committee was unfortunately a witch-hunt built on Cold War paranoia, and those who refused to testify before the committee or refuse to name names were sadly blacklisted in the film industry; destroying the careers of hundreds of entertainers.  By the time President Kennedy took office, the HUAC hearings had been exposed as the farcical waste of time that it was and McCarthay was disgracefully censured by Congress as a result.  But, even still, the damage was done and Hollywood would never be the same afterwards.  Movies turned more cynical towards the image of America during this time; presenting a nation that was more fractured than united.  That’s the world that The Manchurian Candidate presents.  It’s a rare film in it’s genre, as it takes a critical view of the Cold War paranoia brought on by the McCarthay hearings, while at the same time indulging that paranoia and letting it play out for an intriguing political plot.  It may be multifaceted, but all of this is what makes The Manchurian Candidate an enduring masterpiece today.

The film begins with a battalion of soldiers getting captured by the enemy force in the midst of the Korean War.  Among them is Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra).  The film moves ahead to after the war, when each of the captured soldiers return home seemingly unharmed.  According to the army’s reports, the soldiers owe their lives to the heroism of Raymond, although none of the existing soldiers have any clear memory of how he saved them.  Raymond’s return home brings him back into the midst of his blow-hard, McCarthay-esque stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his manipulative, power-hungry mother Elanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  They quickly try to capitalize on Raymond’s war hero status for their own gain, but Raymond shows little interest in their political ambitions.  Instead, Raymond grows increasingly distant socially, retreating into a confused sense of his own identity.  This is noticed by Raymond’s superior, Major Bennett, who himself is suffering from psychological episodes, something that’s affecting his relationship with his girlfriend Eugenie (Janet Leigh).  After doing some detective work, Bennett uncovers a conspiratorial plot where it’s revealed that he, Raymond, and the rest of their battalion were brainwashed during their captivity by Chinese Communist psychologists.  It turns out that they were conditioned to undertake an assassination plot without ever realizing it, triggered into action through Pavlovian symbols.  Bennett soon realizes that Raymond is the key to the whole conspiracy and that he’s only one trigger away from committing an act that will reshape the American political landscape.  It becomes even more insidious when it’s learned that the mastermind behind the entire conspiracy is none other than Raymond’s own mother, Elanor.

The Manchurian Candidate is one twisted ride of a thriller, and yet it amazingly feels grounded at the same time.  I believe that it’s largely in part due to the direction of John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer got his start in television, which I’m sure help him develop a good sense of economical story-telling.  The Manchurian Candidate is such a taught, finely-tuned thriller that it enables the more outlandish bits of the plot feel natural and engaging.  It also perfectly captures the delirious sense of paranoia that defined that era of politics.  Throughout the film, you are drawn into a world where nothing can be taken for granted, and that even those among you might be out to do you harm.  This is Cold War thriller stuff to the maximum degree, but it gives us a critical eye towards our own political system.  The movie brilliantly deconstructs the manipulation that takes place when opportunistic people exploit fear and paranoia to suit their own needs, just as it had during the McCarthay trials.  Senator Iselin is a very thinly veiled representation of the disgraced politician, and I love the way the film shows how there is little substance behind the bluster and that his presence is merely as a sideshow to a larger problem.  The film gets in it’s most pointed mockery of the McCarthay witch hunts when it’s revealed that Senator Iselin got his number of suspected Communists in the government from the label of a Heinz ketchup bottle.  But the most brilliant element of the film is the way it portrays the effects of brainwashing.  The most famous scene in the movie is the Garden Party, where the soldiers are presented in their conditioned state to a panel of Communist leaders.  It’s a brilliantly edited scene that cuts back and forth between what the brainwashed soldiers see (a Victorian style Tea Party in a garden with friendly old women) and what is actually around them (a modern looking auditorium in Chinese Manchuria).  This scene is a masterpiece of editing, cutting back and forth between the different settings, and even mixing the two at times, without ever losing the rhythm of the scene.  Brainwashing may not be a clearly defined science, but this scene gives us the most vivid sense of what it might actually be like that’s ever been put on film.

The Manchurian Candidate has it’s political points to make, but it ultimately transcends it’s point of view and place within it’s era due to the strength of it’s story.  And no better element makes this a memorable experience more than the performances of the actors.  The performances in this film are among the best ever, and the great thing about them is that they come from some of the unlikeliest of players.  Frank Sinatra, for example, shows that he’s more than just a beloved crooner in show-business; he could be a great actor as well.  His performance as Major Bennett Marco probably stands as his greatest ever; even more so than his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953) .  His portrayal brings a lot of moral fortitude to this every-man soldier caught in a web of political conceit.  I especially love the awkwardness he sometimes brings to the character, which is characteristically unusual for a guy with the suave reputation that “Chairman of the Board” had.   Laurence Harvey is also effective as the emotionally distant Raymond Shaw.  The English born actor probably struggled to find the right mode to play an all-American war hero, but he manages to make it work.  The psychological see-saw that he is put through is also perfectly conveyed through his performance, going between manic and emotionless in a vivid way.  But the greatest performance in the movie belongs to Angela Lansbury as Elanor Iselin.  I listed Elanor on my list of Top Ten Favorite Villains here, and it’s a placement that I still feel confident in.  It’s one of the greatest casting against types in film history, with the normally warm and sympathetic Lansbury perfectly embodying a character of pure evil ambition.  Elanor Iselin is one of the most vividly portrayed and written political monsters ever brought to the screen, and Lansbury is frightening to watch in the role.  Who knew the future Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts could be this chilling a political manipulator.  If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for her performance alone.

The Manchurian Candidate makes a great addition to the Criterion Collection, as it fits in with the label’s already high standards of quality cinematic works, but also helps to elevate it even more as one of Criterion’s more mainstream classics.  Made by United Artists, Manchurian Candidate is a studio film, and one that has been long celebrated by both Hollywood and the general audience for decades.  Given it’s reputation, the film has long been given special treatment, including top notch preservation.  Criterion, who usually has it’s hands full working on detailed restorations of sometimes neglected film stock, thankfully were able to source their image from this film’s original negative, still found in the Deluxe Color Archives.  From this, Criterion created a 4K scan of the negative to create a new digital master for their blu-ray release.  The resulting image gives us probably the best clarity that the film has had since it’s initial release.  The movie was shot in black and white, and was purposely made to look a little gritty, with documentary like graininess, so it’s not going to pop out at you like some of Criterion’s other, more flashy restorations.  Even still, as far as films of it’s era go, The Manchurian Candidate looks amazing.  Detail is excellent, as is the gray-scale shading, making the film feel consistent from beginning to end.  Likewise, the restoration of the film’s soundtrack does a great job of preserving the film’s brilliant sound design.  The echoing effect during the film’s climatic race against time is masterfully enriched by the restoration.  The David Amram score is also nice and clear as well.  It’s another top quality restoration by the people at Criterion and an excellent handling of such a prestigious title.

The extras on the disc are not too substantial, but each one is well worth checking out.  First off is a commentary track recorded by director John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer died back in 2002, so we sadly can’t get any new insight on the film today, but thankfully he did a lot during his last few years to speak extensively about his films, and this commentary was one such example.  Recorded for the film’s DVD release in the late 90’s, Frankenheimer delivers some great insight into the film’s making, including the political climate in which this movie was made as well as touching upon the unconventional casting of actors that really had an effect on this film’s success.  While Frankenheimer is no longer around to discuss the movie, Criterion still lucked out in getting to sit down with Angela Lansbury about her role.  In a newly recorded interview, the now 90 year old actress gives us a very fascinating look into how she portrayed such a memorable villainess.  She is proud of her performance and celebrates the legacy that this film has had in both the world of entertainment and politics.  I especially found her description of what it’s like to portray someone getting shot very illuminating.  Documentarian Errol Morris is also interviewed, discussing the effect this movie had on him as both a filmmaker and as an activist, and how it’s legacy has endured.  There’s also a neat archival conversation between Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and Frank Sinatra.  This is a neat discussion that also let’s us gain some insight from the film’s headlining star.  Also included is an interview from historian Susan Carruthers, who gives some fascinating context to the Cold War paranoia of the era, as well as an examination into the history of post-war brainwashing.  In particular, she acts as a nice reasonable voice debunking some of the more outlandish theories of brainwashing, which this film and those like it perpetuated during the height of the Cold War.  The blu-ray edition also is beautifully packaged in a recreation of some of the Saul Bass poster art made for the film’s release.  Overall, it marks another excellent set by Criterion, worthy of the collection as a whole.

I for one was really anticipating this Criterion release, since The Manchurian Candidate is among my favorite movies of all time; top 10 easily.  It’s a perfectly executed thriller; never once refusing to give easy answers to it’s audience and always pulling us to the edge of our seats.  I also like that it has the audacity to take no prisoners in it’s political targets; condemning political opportunists who manipulate the public with paranoia and Nationalistic furor, while at the same time showing Communist sedition as an all too real threat. And it’s the cast that really sends it over the top, with Sinatra never better and Angela Lansbury showing just how much range she really has. The movie clearly represented it’s time period (and was also sadly prophetic as the Kennedy assassination proceeded it within less than a year), but it’s messages nevertheless still resonate today.  No one probably realized that American politics would turn into such a chaotic world, but as we stand here now in 2016, politics have become even crazier than what Manchurian Candidate could dream up.  You have one candidate for president that’s prone to leaks of information and is regarded as a ruthless, political manipulator with little concern for who gets in her way, while the other is a bigoted, blow-hard, showboating opportunist who is revealing himself more and more to be under the influence of political outsiders from Russia.  Sound familiar?  Even beyond this election cycle, The Manchurian Candidate will still stand alone as a masterpiece for all time.  Hollywood did try to do an update of the movie in 2004 starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, but it ultimately failed because it was unnecessary.  The original is still as fresh as it ever was and will continue to be so.  Regardless of your political leanings, or your interest in politics in general, The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller that will never leave you disappointed.  It’s a very strong addition to Criterion’s collection, and a benchmark title among it’s broad political spectrum of movies.

manchurian candidate criterion

 

Collecting Criterion – Hoop Dreams (1994)

hoop dreams victory

When it comes to film-making, there is no more remarkable place to find a compelling story committed to celluloid than in the documentary form.  Fictional movies can tell great stories, but with a definite sense of control over what we see.  A documentary on the other hand finds the drama in real life and if done well can be more captivating than any other kind of movie out there.  Documentaries can tell all kinds of stories; funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even devastating.  And the reason why so many stay with us is because through following real people and showing real places, documentaries reveal to us an element of truth that other cinema can’t.  Sure, documentaries also have the power to manipulate, and not all for the better (just look at the political propaganda pieces from firebrand filmmakers like Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza).  But, what I’ve always found fascinating about the documentary form when it’s at it’s best is the way that film-making finds great drama in the unexpected and hidden parts of life.  There’s something about the presence of a camera that brings out things you never expected and with a precise editing job, you can find a narrative that you never realized was there before.  I’m sure no one thought a competition between two rival Donkey Kong enthusiasts would turn into a David vs. Goliath battle of wits like the one we saw in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) or that an in-depth interview with a Government Intelligence officer would turn into an international incident and a pivotal turning point in America’s surveillance policy as it happened in CitizenFour (2014).  That’s the magical power of documentary film-making, and it’s important place in cinematic history is well reflected by some of the inclusions in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion includes many influential and important documentaries within it’s library.  Some of the more notable inclusions are the works of the Mayles Brothers, Albert and David, whose Gimmie Shelter (1970, Spine #99) documented the legendary Altamont concert set up by the Rolling Stones where an attendee was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels biker gang that were used as security, a moment caught on the Mayles’ own camera.  D.A. Pennebaker’s documentation of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1968, #167) also captured the introductions of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the world.  In an all-together different documentary style, Criterion also includes the controversial anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1974, #156) and the equally unflinching Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, #334) which documented the often-times violent tension seen in a coal mining community during a year long strike.  Many other acclaimed documentarians have also been highlighted by the Collection, including notable filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Louis Malle, and even Orson Welles (in his later independent years).  But, if there’s something that the Criterion brand is especially great at, it is putting the spotlight on films that are especially deserving of more recognition, and that’s exactly what they did to one of the late 20th century’s most monumental documentary features.  It’s an epic story about hardship, family, and the dissection of the American dream, and it centers amazingly enough around the sport of Basketball.  So, with March Madness going on right now, I felt it was appropriate to highlight the documentary wonder that is Hoop Dreams (1994, #289).

Hoop Dreams is epic in both size and story, and the fact that it came to be that way was unexpected to everyone, including the filmmakers.  When director Steven James and producer Peter Gilbert began their project of documenting the lives of inner-city kids trying to pursue a career as professional basketball players, they only expected it to end up as a 30 minute special that would air on PBS.  Five years and 250 hours of footage later, they ended up with an amazingly complex story that ended up filling 3 hours of run time.  The film documents the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two boys from poor housing projects in Chicago.  It starts with them as high school freshmen, both with aspirations of becoming star athletes in the NBA.  They get recruited into the same prestigious high school that their idol Isiah Thomas attended, St. Joseph’s, but academic difficulty causes Arthur Agee to fall behind and he ultimately is dropped out of school and from the team.  Afterwards, Agee returns to the projects to attend his local, state run school while Gates remains at St. Joe’s, barely clinging on academically and always under pressure to perform as the only black kid in a predominately white institution.  As the boys grow older, we see them deal with the harsh reality of what it’s like to pursue a dream and ultimately fall short.  Agee deals with behavioral problems in school, a drug-abusing father who causes economic woes for his family, and a lack of humility that ultimately isolates him from teammates and friends.  Gates on the other hand falls victim to high standards that ultimately put a strain on his health, due to long commutes to school and grueling hours of practice, that ultimately leads to injuries and a loss of respect among teammates.  By their senior years, the two boys mature into more seasoned and intuitive athletes and as they ultimately reach some of their goals and make the transition into college, they take a look back and examine if the dream of NBA fame is ultimately what they want in the end.

The brilliance of Hoop Dreams is the way that it captures so many different themes within the central narrative.  Yes, it’s ultimately about pursuing dreams and reaching for goals, but it touches upon so much more than that.  The film was made during the late-80’s and up through the early 90’s, a period of social and cultural upheaval for many people, especially those in poorer, racially segregated communities.  In Hoop Dreams, you see Agee and Gates deal with racial, class and economic division, the ongoing threat of gang violence and drug abuse in their homes, huge disparity in educational standards based on where they live, and just all around bad luck thrown in their way.  For both of the boys, basketball is more than just a game; it’s a way out.  What also occurred during this era of gang and drug proliferation in the inner cities was the rise of Sports culture as a whole.  Both ESPN and NIKE came into their own during the 1980’s and with them the rise of the marketing of Super Sports All-Stars.  It was the era of “Bo Knows Best” and “Wanna Be Like Mike” and larger than life figures who dominated their sports like no one before.  At the time for many African-American youths in America, sports figures were the only role models around for them to look up to, and that in turn made many inner-city black kids believe that their only ticket out of their poor communities was through athletics.  Unfortunately, the world of athletics is a far more competitive one than the media at the time would have led us to believe, and many young men fell short of their dreams with nothing to fall back on.  This reality is ultimately what’s at the center of Hoop Dreams and it’s that realization of dreams versus reality that both Agee and Gates come to as they evolve from boys to men that ultimately resonates when you watch the film.

Not that it’s all that makes this movie great.  Steven James remarkably is able to create this whole tapestry of the society that these kids exist within, and makes everything around them an integral part of their growth as people.  One great subplot in the story is Arthur Agee’s mother Sheila making her way through nursing school before ultimately receiving her certification by the film’s end.  Her struggle to break out of her situation and make something of herself is a nice parallel to the struggle of her son and it’s a bright point that gives hope to everyone involved about what their futures might be.  The movie also works perfectly as a sports film, with the games that the two boys compete in playing crucial significance to the growth of their character.  When they ultimately play in the state championship tourney by their senior years, you really feel the weight of what has led up to this moment.  By the end, you see that both boys had talent that could have taken them far, but life and society put up different paths for them to take, and whether or not they took them it would determine what kind of person they would be.  It’s a grandiose story of universal truths found in a small corner of American society that rarely gets seen and that’s what makes Hoop Dreams so memorable.  When it premiered at Sundance in 1994, it was immediately praised by the critical community.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in particular championed this film relentlessly on their nationally syndicated program, hoping to give the movie the due attention that it deserved.  Amazingly, the film was overlooked by the Oscars, and it exposed some of the unfair nomination processes that the Academy had; in particular, the Documentary category at the time was not voted on by other Documentary filmmakers.  The Hoop Dreams snub forced the Academy to change it’s voting practices, and that in itself was a positive change for the better thanks to this movie.

Criterion once again delivers a worthy presentation of a film deserving of a special edition.  Documentaries are an interesting class of film compared to their Hollywood counterparts, in that there is a more relaxed standard of picture quality that they are judged by.  For most documentarians, their only option of film stock is lower quality, grainy 16mm, or in some cases the even more low-grade 8mm.  But, the strength of a documentary is not how polished it looks but rather what it captures on screen, and therefore documentaries can get away with having a shabbier appearance.  Hoop Dreams has even more of a handicap in the visual department because it was shot on video tape as opposed to film.  This gives the movie a mostly home video look which may put off some viewers more used to a more film like experience.  But, despite the limitations of the source, Criterion has done it’s best to make the high definition picture of this movie look as good as it possibly can be on blu-ray.  The results come out looking great and live up to the high Criterion standards.  The high-definition transfer was made in collaboration with the Sundance Film Institute, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Academy Film Archive, so you know that this movie went through a lot of restorations in order to get it to it’s highest quality possible.  With approval from director Steve James , this is about the best possible picture we’ll ever get for this film.  The sound quality is also perfectly balanced given, the limitations of the source.  Overall, it’s a prime example of how to give a documentary the proper preservation it needs.

Criterion has also supplied a wealthy set of bonus features that also enrich the experience.  The most substantial feature in the set is a documentary called Life after Hoop Dreams, which gives us a much needed update of where Arthur Agee and William Gates are today.  Both men, now in their forties, never did make it into the NBA, but as the documentary shows, their lives haven’t fallen apart as their dreams of fame faded away.  Both of them, as we learn, finished college and earned a degree, and they’ve in turn used their skills to give back to their communities, as coaches, entrepreneurs, and even as a pastor in William Gates’ case.  Watching these once troubled youths turn into well adjusted adults in the wake of this movie is a very pleasing turnout and makes it’s inclusion here very worthwhile.  There’s also an engaging commentary track from the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to listen to them discuss the process of documentary film-making based on their experience with this project, especially in how their small, simple special evolved into this giant undertaking.  Another interesting feature is a collection of excerpts from the Siskel & Ebert show, tracking the critical reception of the movie.  The advocacy for the film by the two famed critics is recognized by many as one of the elements that helped to popularize the movie across the nation, and these excerpts are a way of acknowledging their help.  Ebert in fact named Hoop Dreams as the Top Film of the 1990’s, and director Steve James would pay back the kindness many years later by spotlighting the life and career of Roger Ebert in the also acclaimed documentary Life Itself (2014).  Rounding out the features is a music video tie-in as well as a theatrical trailer.  Overall, it’s a solid presentation with some very worthwhile features that compliment the movie perfectly.

Hoop Dreams may seem like a hard sell at first glance.  A 3 hour documentary about inner-city kids who want to play professional basketball?  But, when you do finally give it a look, you will find an engrossing, multi-layered drama that will keep you interested the whole way through.  What ultimately makes this movie so fascinating are the kids themselves.  We see Arthur Agee and William Gates grow and mature and learn what the American dream is really like.  The movie also teaches us a lesson about the all too common barriers we set up in society with regards to what a person can achieve based on their race, their class, or their level of education.  The movie also allows us to see that fame and glory are not without cost and hardship.  In a world that values super stars, we don’t see enough of the sometimes ugly ladder that people end up climbing in order to get there, and Hoop Dreams is just one reflection of how so many who seek a way to the top often never make it.  More over than that, the movie just overall represents a high point of documentary film-making, and the often amazing way it can capture the unexpected drama of human life.  The late great Albert Mayles once said, “The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality,” and Hoop Dreams is a perfect illustration of that notion.  The filmmakers never set out to capture this amazing, grandiose story, but as the years went by and more and more interesting things happened in front of them as they continued to roll film, they ended up with a story that was better than anything they could’ve imagined.  That’s the power of documentary film-making; the ability to capture life’s crucial moments unexpectedly.  You can’t do that with purposely staged events and rarely with talking head interviews.  Hoop Dreams is life unfolding in front of our eyes and that is the most epic kind of story that can ever be shown on the screen; and plus, it’s got some great basketball in it too.

hoop dreams criterion

www.criterion.com

Collecting Criterion – House (1977)

hausu

Though the vast majority of Criterion’s titles fall into the range of prestige art films, there is a small selection in the Collection that’s devoted to highlighting the strange and bizarre from cinema around the world.  That’s where you’ll find some of the more unique examples of horror and suspense ever put to celluloid, and it’s a special treat that Criterion devotes as much care and respect to these titles as they would to some of the more honored films in their catalog.  Some of Criterion’s horror titles include Roman Polanski’s breakthrough classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Spine #630), as well as early movies from David Cronenberg like Scanners (1981, #712) and The Brood (1979, #777) and from Guillermo del Toro like Cronos (1993, #551) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001, #666).  The more interesting horror titles in the Collection are the international ones however, which range from the truly disturbing to the really bizarre.  Some of these include the lyrical and gory French thriller Eyes Without a Face (1960, #260) and the silent Danish film about witchcraft Haxan (1922, #134).  But, if there’s an international body that has consistently put out the most disturbing and visually arresting horror movies over the years, it would be the nation of Japan.  Criterion has thankfully assembled some of the most groundbreaking titles from Japanese horror, all influential not just within their own domestic cinematic traditions, but also to horror filmmaking worldwide.  These include the Masaki Kobayashi epic scale ghost story Kwaidan (1965, #90) and the moodily atmospheric Kuroneko (1968, #584).  But perhaps the most interesting horror title to come from Japan found in the Collection is the very one-of-a-kind oddball, House (1977, #539)

Oh, where to begin with this movie.  House is unlike any horror film you will ever see; or any movie for that matter.  It’s probably better described as a psychedelic trip than as a movie.  The film was directed by a former Japanese commercial director named Nobuhiko Obayashi, and his commercial background definitely shows in this film.  With a near manic tone and surreal uses of mattes, collage effects and animation, House feels very much like a Japanese TV commercial on steroids.  And that was probably the desired effect on Obayashi’s part.  This was meant to be a showcase for his own bizarre style and there seems to have been no better genre to make that work than in horror.  It should be understood that not all horror is the same and not every horror film is meant to leave you scared.  House is a perfect example of creepy horror, where the chills come not from the sudden scares but instead from the constant uneasiness brought on by the grotesque imagery on screen.  Honestly, nobody who watches House will ever be scarred out of their minds by it, but it will no less be a disturbing experience.  Amazingly enough, Obayashi was able to get studio funding for his artsy project, by no less than Japanese powerhouse Toho International (the studio that brought Godzilla to the world).  Toho probably didn’t realize what kind of movie they had just underwritten, but their gamble did allow for Obayashi’s imagination to be fully realized on film and as a result, it has become one of their most influential movies.

The story of House is just as basic as the title itself.  It’s essentially a haunted house movie, where a group of characters (in this case, Japanese schoolgirls on a field trip) must survive through a spooky night in a decrepit old home while it’s deceased inhabitants pick them off one by one.  Even the characters themselves are purposely archetypal, down to their names being representations of their personality.  The characters include Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) who pridefully obsesses over her good looks, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) who likes playing music, Mac (Mieko Sato) the chubby one who likes eating, and Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) who, well you can already guess what her thing is.  Together they take a trip to the mountains where they will stay at the home of Gorgeous’ ailing Aunt (Yoko Minamida), who is wheelchair bound and lives with her fluffy white cat.  As they stay longer at the house, the more they notice that not everything is as it seems, and soon more and more bizarre things start to happen.  Not only that, but some of the girls begin to disappear and/or are found brutally murdered around the house.  Thus begins a string of some truly strange and at times very creepy moments as the girls are suddenly consumed by the house as it becomes clear that it has a mind of it’s own.  Shattered mirrors cause the skin to peel off a girl who is looking into it; another girl’s disembodied head tries to eat her nearby friend; another girl is consumed by a carnivorous piano; and there’s even a demonic painting of the fluffy white cat that spews blood and fills the entire room with it.  Overall, the flow of the story is less about delving deeply into these girls’ stories and is more about finding weird circumstances to put them all into, and the crazier the better.  And that’s essentially the overall appeal of House; no holds are barred in this crazy ride of a movie and it’s more than anything about the experience than the narrative.

Now, as imaginative as House may be, it can also polarizing.  Those looking for a scary cinematic experience may be disappointed in this movie, because more often than not, this movie is more inclined to tickle your funny bone than to give you goosebumps.  I think that the description on the back of the Criterion box for this movie says it best when it states that it’s like “an episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava.”  This movie revels in it’s absurdity while at the same time not shying away from showing some really disturbing imagery at times.  That sometimes jarring contrast between tones can often times give you whiplash, but Nobuhiko Obayashi still manages to make it resonate despite the inconsistencies.  I especially admire the fact that he just goes for the most ridiculous ideas possible, throwing away all reason in the process.  The overall effect helps to give this movie the feeling of a feverish nightmare, which helps place it comfortably in the horror genre.  It may not make you jump out of your seat, but it will disturb you by it’s unrelenting assault on the perceptions of reality.  In addition, there’s also a beauty to be found in the movie’s surrealism.  Obayashi has said that the ideas in the film came to him from a short story written by his daughter, and there is indeed a childlike wonder in all the mayhem on screen.  Obayashi’s style certainly has a playfulness to it, even when what you’re seeing is freakishly disturbing, like when a piano chomps off the fingers of the girl playing it, and then those disembodied fingers begin to play the piano on their own afterwards.  It may be an aquired taste for some, but those who go for this kind of absurdist horror have made this movie a cult favorite for many years.

What I admire most about this film however is just how stunningly beautiful it is.  Nobuhiko Obayashi clearly wanted this movie to be as removed from reality as he possibly could make it, and it succeeds at doing just that.  Almost nothing was shot on location, except for a couple exemptions.  The majority of the scenes were filmed on soundstages with some incredible matte paintings used to fill out the background scenery, each of them exaggerated in their own way to give this movie a very storybook look.  Couple this together with some interesting uses of animation and some groundbreaking green screen effects, and what we get is an art show collage come to striking life.  The green screen effects in particular are the standouts, because Obayashi almost revels in the limitless possibilities he can have with the technique.  He uses it to create some rather striking visuals, like the crumbling of Gorgeous’ face in the mirror, revealing an inferno underneath her skin.  He also puts multiple layers of these effects on top of one another, making impossible to film angles and images come to life.  It’s really amazing watching this movie and realizing that nothing  was aided with CGI; that all the effects were done in camera.  That’s the benefit of having someone directing this with a commercial background, because a director of Obayashi’s type would understand the power of visual stimuli a bit more.  In addition, the color cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is both vibrant and daring, perfectly supporting the zaniness of Obayashi’s imagery.  For me, it almost feels like what a live action anime would look like, and by that I mean in terms of it’s visual energy and unbounded sense of reality.  It wouldn’t surprise me if more than one anime film in the last few decades took a few inspirations from this movie, especially some of the more horror based ones.

Criterion’s treatment of the film is as expected.  Given the cult status of the movie, it’s not at all surprising that Criterion would jump at the opportunity to include this film in it’s Collection, especially if it means giving it a spotlight to help it find a larger audience.  The movie has thankfully been well cared for in the Toho Studio vaults through the years, but even still for a movie it’s age, there needed to be an extensive restoration to make the film sparkle more in high definition.  For their edition of House, Criterion gave the movie a new high-def transfer for it’s blu-ray release, and if there was ever a movie in the Collection that deserved a blu-ray, it’s this one.  The HD scan of the movie really makes the colors pop, which is a blessing for a color driven movie such as this.  The background mattes also are more stunning to look at in this transfer, allowing the viewer to see all the fine detail of the craftsmanship behind them.  Of course some of the visual effects will look dated in this transfer, as the seams behind the effects are more clearly defined in HD causing the illusion to become a little less effective, but it’s no more glaring than any other effects film of that era.  In fact, I think Obayashi’s intent was for his audience to be more aware of the artificiality of his movie, because that’s a part of the overall experience.  As long as the visuals still retain their impact, it doesn’t matter how obviously fake they look, and thankfully the HD transfer makes those visuals as stunning as ever.  The uncompressed soundtrack likewise runs that fine balance between the natural and the unnatural, and Criterion has also given it a respectable restoration.

There’s also a healthy sampling of bonus features that both celebrate the film as well as gives us the audience a look into it’s making.  Perhaps the most substantial feature on the blu-ray is the Constructing a “House” featurette.  This newly filmed piece made by Criterion features interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, as well as his daughter Chigumi, who like I stated before was the one who came up with the story originally.  The two talk about how the movie came to be and how Obayashi was able to get it made, despite his lack of experience in features.  Some of the movie’s most notable visual moments are touched upon as well as how they were able to make those groundbreaking effects work.  Screenwriter Chiro Katsura is also interviewed in the featurette, explaining the challenges of creating a cohesive story-line around all these imaginative set pieces.  Next is an experimental short made by Obayashi in 1966 called Emotion.  It’s a neat, if strange little half-hour film that helps to show us how the director was trying to find his voice in his early years as a filmmaker, and how that would soon be reflected in the more ambitious House years later.  Some of the director’s manic editing style and trick photography are clearly noticeable in this short film, and it’s good that Criterion has included it here as a comparison point for showing the evolution of Obayashi as a filmmaker.  Also included is an appreciation video from American horror filmmaker Ti West, who helps to put the legacy of the movie into perspective, including it’s influence on his own style.  Lastly, there is an original theatrical trailer, which rounds out a small but still very welcome collection of supplements for this Criterion edition.

House is a difficult movie to recommend, because it’s really hard to tell how someone might respond to it.  If anything, I would say just watch it once for the experience and see if it’s you’re type of horror movie or not.  I for one admire the movie for it’s originality.  It’s safe to say that there is no other film like it, ever.  The manic uses of absurd imagery are riotously funny to watch, but it’s also balanced with a macabre sense of foreboding that helps to make it effectively creepy at the same time.  That’s a blend that you see lacking in many horror films today, many of which seem more concerned with throwing scares at you than trying to establish a sense of terror.   But, you can see some of the influence that House has had in the horror genre over the years too in many different ways, whether it be the absurdly graphic murders committed by Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, or the blending of humor and horror found in the films of Edgar Wright.  Or even the graphic design similarities that this movie shares with the medium of anime.  It’s a cult movie for a reason and it’s great to see something this completely original find it’s place in cinema history.  Criterion of course have done their part to give this movie a respectable presentation, and many Criterion collectors would be well served by having this on their shelf.  I would say that it’s even worth getting just for the striking box cover art along, which uses the iconic painting of the demonic cat from the movie to great effect.  That eerie image will really stand out on your blu-ray shelf.  Overall, for a good Halloween movie experience, you can’t go wrong with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.  It’ll make you laugh out loud even while you’re chilled to the bone by it’s visually vivid house of horrors, and that’s a cinematic treat that’s perfect for this spooky time of the year.

https://www.criterion.com/films/27523-house?q=autocomplete

hausu criterion

Collecting Criterion – The Wages of Fear (1953)

wages of fear

The Criterion Collection continues to be a great resource for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge of worldwide cinema.  Gathering classic films from around the world, from every genre and every era, Criterion has helped to show modern audiences that there has always been a vibrant film-making culture outside of Hollywood and that it is just as influential on the movie-makers of today, if not more so.  A particularly huge chunk of Criterion’s catalog is devoted to the many film-making movements that arose in Europe during the post-war years.  Many of these films are fascinating because each of them perfectly represent the changing cultural landscapes of their selective countries as they began to rebuild and define themselves in the later half of the twentieth century.  We see the rise of Neo-realism emerge out of post-war Italy thanks to films like Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) by Vittorio de Sica, the emergence of the French New Wave with Breathless (1960, #408) and The 400 Blows (1959, #5) by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut respectively, as well as the rise of New Swedish CInema with Ingmar Bergman and his classic The Seventh Seal (1957, #11).  But, not all of the movements of this period represented a complete break from Hollywood for most European filmmakers.  Some of them found inspiration in the films being made across the pond and tried to use many of the same techniques and apply them to stories that hit closer to home.  And this was especially the case with filmmakers who intended to use the medium of film to make more of a political statement.

Political films of this time period sought to break down many of the traditional conventions of old-fashioned cinema by seeking to achieve a grittier sense of realism in their movies.  And many European filmmakers saw some of this style that they wanted to replicate arise out of Hollywood in the form of film noir.  Noir was a huge departure from the lavish, colorful Hollywood productions that many European intellectuals dismissed as too decadent and bourgeois for their tastes.  As a result, many New Wave and Neo-realist filmmakers idolized the noir anti-hero, because he represented a symbol of defiance in a world gone mad.  One particular politically minded filmmaker of this period was French director Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Clouzot was heavily influenced by Hollywood thrillers of the pre-war and post-war periods, and his career as a filmmaker also left a impact on the genre as well.  He was often called the French Alfred Hitchcock because of his mastery of suspense and in fact, Hitchcock actually viewed Clouzot as a rival at the time.  The two directors at one point fought over the rights to the murder thriller Diabolique (1955, #35) which Clouzot eventually won out, and it prompted Hitchcock to make his own dark murder thriller, Psycho (1960), in response.  But, as much as Clouzot left a mark on the thriller genre in worldwide cinema, he was also a filmmaker unafraid of tackling politically charged issues in his stories.  That was particularly the case with what many regard to be his masterpiece, and a film that Criterion has lovingly preserved for modern audiences, 1953’s The Wages of Fear (#36)

The Wages of Fear is a suspense thriller unlike any other, putting desperate men into a life-threatening situation against the elements and against themselves.  The film follows the lives of a group of down and out social rejects who take petty jobs in a run down South American village just to get by.  Mario (Yves Montand), a con artist, learns of a job opportunity being given out by an American owned oil company and quickly seeks out the help of another con man, Jo (Charles Vanel) who has contact with the American contractor (William Tubbs) who’s hiring the men.  Both Mario and Jo are chosen to drive a truckload full of heavily unstable nitroglycerin to a drilling site high up in the mountains to help stop an out of control oil rig fire there.  To make matters worse, the drivers are given none of the safeguards necessary to make the cargo safer to transport, given the urgency of it’s need.  With their deadly cargo, the truck drivers must take extra precaution as they trek their way over the mountains, which includes obstacles like numerous rock slides, precipitous cliff-side roads, and the occasional oil slick from a ruptured pipeline.  Even a minor speed-bumb could prove deadly to these men if it causes the nitro to explode unexpectedly.  Not only that, but they must work under a deadline in order to be paid the full amount they were promised and contend with another truckload driven by another crew; the German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and the Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli).  The remainder of the story follows the different trials that these drivers face while on the road, each becoming more perilous and heart-pounding than the next.

Wages of Fear is a masterclass in suspense film-making and should be watched by anyone who loves heart-pounding action.  What makes it particularly spectacular is the fact that Henri-Georges Clouzot utilized almost no trick photography during the making of this film.  All of the most perilous moments in this movie, whether it be a huge explosion to clear a rock slide off a road, or a truck hanging perilously off of a cliff-side on a rickety, old platform, was done entirely on location.  You have to wonder if Clouzot might have been a little crazy to put his actors in such perilous situations for the sake of each shot, but in the end, it does heighten the sense of realism that the movie has.  They’re just lucky that Clouzot didn’t put real nitroglycerin in those trucks.  Even still, the realism really heightens the cinematic experience that you’ll get from this movie.  There are many moments that’ll make you wonder how they filmed that, to which the answer will probably be very, very dangerously.  The realism also helps to underline the human condition that these men are put through, which underlines the political subtext as well.  Some have claimed that the movie was anti-American, which I don’t really believe is the case, because nothing in the movie casts a negative light on American culture or government.  Instead the movie is more of an accusation against the dehumanizing and sometimes unlawful practices of oil companies in developing nations.  But to some, attacking oil interests was equivalent to an attack on the U.S., so the film was cut heavily on it’s American release.  Looking at the film today, the cuts seem unnecessary and unfair, and Criterion has thankfully restored the movie to it’s appropriate length.

A large reason why the film still resonates beyond it’s technical achievements is also because of the strength of the cast.  Yves Montand and Charles Vanel carry the film significantly, and much of the films suspense is portrayed perfectly on their faces.  You really get a sense of the toll that this perilous mission is taking on the men, as they begin to break down both mentally and physically.  There’s an especially gruesome moment late in the movie when Yves’s Mario must decide whether or not to stop the forward progress of his truck through a waist deep pool of spilled oil in order to pull an impaired Jo out of harms way, or keep plowing through in order to avoid getting the truck stuck.  The anguish on Yves face during this moment of decision is heartbreaking, especially when juxtaposed with the squeals of pain from Jo as the multi-ton truck crushes his leg.  This scene is one of the most notorious in the movie and the chemistry between the two actors really sells the horrifying impact of the moment.  There’s also a lot to say about Clouzot’s ability to sustain the tension in this movie.  In all the film’s 2 1/2 hour running time, not once do you feel the movie drag.  Every moment helps to ramp up the tension as the men head further away from the calm of civilization and deeper into an environment where even one bump in the road could mean immediate destruction.  Many filmmakers have since been influenced by Clouzot’s unbelievable work in Wages of Fear, including Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, who himself tried to duplicate Clouzot’s masterwork with his very ambitious but flawed remake, Sorcerer (1977), starring Roy Scheider.  Despite Friedkin’s best, and loving intentions, there is no comparison to the original.  It was a product of a time when filmmakers pushed themselves to the edge only because it was the best way to capture reality, and not just because it would show off their talents as a filmmaker.

The Criterion edition of The Wages of Fear once again represents their strong commitment to preserving the classics of yesteryear and bringing them back to their former glory.  While Wages of Fear is limited visually by the standards of the time that it was made, it has nevertheless been preserved well enough over the years in French film vaults, given it’s highly regarded status.  Criterion helped to give the movie a fresh new transfer in high definition for this blu-ray release and the hard work shows.  The black and white cinematography is beautifully realized in high definition, bringing out the stark contrasts between light and dark, which defines many of the film’s most tension filled moments.  The high-def transfer also brings out the texture detail beautifully, showing every jagged rock and piece of rubble on that mountain pass as well every bead of sweat that runs down the faces of the actors.  Clouzot wanted his film to reflect reality as best as it could and the on-location photography really shines through in this new transfer.  And like I said before, this is the longer uncut version, and all the deleted material has likewise been seamlessly reincorporated back into the movie.  The soundtrack, which was also limited by the technology of the time, has also been given a cleaned up transfer in this new edition.  The Criterion blu-ray features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack free of pops and hisses and sounds very natural for a film of it’s age.   For a foreign language black and white film made over 60 years ago, this is as good as you would expect from the people at Criterion.

The extra features on this set aren’t quite as extensive as some of Criterion’s other marquee titles, but what is here is still appreciated.  There’s no commentary track, but we are given a few interesting documentaries regarding the film and the people who made it.  Probably the most substantial feature is a 2004 documentary called Henri Georges Clouzot: An Enlightened Tyrant, which details the life and career of the director.  The feature is a fascinating look at a complex man who was a great artistic mind, but also someone who was known to be very hard to work with.  There is also a really fascinating video essay called Censored, which details the different cuts made to the movie upon it’s American release.  It shows the cuts themselves as well as details as to the specific reasons for why they were cut, like the already mentioned perception of anti-Americanism as well as some suggestions of homosexuality between the different characters.   There are also interesting interviews with cast and crew included on this set, including a new one with Clouzot’s assistant director on Wages of Fear, Michel Romanoff, where he details the tumultuous filming on location in southern France.  There’s also an interview with Clouzot biographer Marc Godin as well as an archive interview from 1988 with Yves Montand (who died in 1991), and how he viewed his experience making the film.  Overall, a very nice collection of extras that add substance to this set and compliment the movie perfectly.

The Wages of Fear was a groundbreaking movie in many ways and it has only gained more notoriety ever since it’s original release.  Even when it first premiered back in 1953 it was seen as something special.  It holds a special distinction of having won both the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first movie to ever do that.  Even many years later, it’s influence is still being felt in gritty suspense thrillers from all over the world.  Clouzot has rightly earned a reputation as one of France’s greatest filmmakers, although his gritty realist style fell out of fashion once his native country adopted the New Wave.  But, even still, his work is right at home in any cinephile’s collection, and no more so than with The Wages of Fear.  It’s cinematic suspense at the highest degree and much of it’s film-making wonder is still impressive to behold.  Clouzot’s career was unfortunately brief, due to health complications that plagued him for his entire life, but with this and Diabolique, he thankfully won enough high praise to be considered a peer among the cinematic titans of his day.  He didn’t earn the title of the French Alfred Hitchcock for nothing.  The Wages of Fear is a movie that I recommend that every one should check out, especially if you’re looking for a good title to add to your Criterion collection at home.  It once again shows how good Criterion is at keeping the works of the great cinematic masters of the past alive and relevant for modern audiences.

wages of fear bluray

Collecting Criterion – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fear loathing

The films and career of filmmaker Terry Gilliam are unlike anything else seen in Hollywood.  Starting off as the animator and sixth member of the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, Gilliam soon made the transition to acclaimed filmmaker, bringing along his strange and whimsical sensibilities with him in the process.  Though his films are practically produced, it’s the content and stories that often set his work apart. Gilliam has a fondess for fantasy and science fiction; really, anything that delves away from the ordinary.  Couple that with an absurdist and anti-authoritarian point of view, and you can easily see the common current of Gilliam’s filmography.  That stong artistic style that has shaped Terry Gilliam’s film career has also made him a favorite from the Criterion company, earning some of his movies a coveted place in their collection.  Although Gilliam’s filmography isn’t as extensively included in the collection as some other filmmakers, the ones that are present are certainly worthy of their placement.  They also give you a sense of the director’s versatility, showcasing his ability to create modern social commentaries (Brazil, Spine #51) as well as pure fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, #37).  For this article, I will be taking a look at one of Terry Gilliam’s later pieces of work; one that actually marks a departure for the director in some ways, while at the same time being an ideal presentation of his unique style.  It’s his 1998 cult hit, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Spine #175).  And if there were one title that has benefitted greatly from the Criterion treatment, this oddball masterpiece would certainly be it.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted from the book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, one of the counter-culture movement’s most notorious and influential writers. The creator of what would in time be called “Gonzo Journalism,” Hunter Thompson’s style of writing has achieved legendary status.  He was known for injecting his own bizarre experiences into his press pieces and for documenting the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s with a sharp critical perspective.  And one of his favorite subjects to write about was the rising drug culture in America, one in which he had very personal knowledge of.  While not what you would call the most natural journalist, Thompson’s writings are fascinating nonetheless, and offer a very unique voice to an era in our history that represented significant change. That, and the fact that Thomspon was such a bizarre character have also contributed to his status as one of the great writers of the last half century.  Certainly, his writings have garnered many fans over the years, including Terry Gilliam.  The pairing of these two only seems natural, because Gilliam is really the only kind of filmmaker who could capture the hallucinatory nature of Thompson’s writing effectively.  But, even with the way out there style of Thompson’s writing, Fear and Loathing is also strangely accessible and grounded, which is probably a result of Gilliam’s assured direction, which retains a very knowing sense of humor throughout.  Strange how two oddball minds can come together and make a piece of art that is strangely coherent, but that’s what we end up with here.

The plot itself is more or less a series of vignettes showing Hunter Thompson stand-in, Raoul Duke (an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp) taking a trip to Las Vegas to cover a cross-country motorcycle race in the deserts outside of Sin City.  With his companion and agent, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) by his side, Duke takes in the Vegas experience while doing pretty much every drug known to man.  And the different experiences are altogether trippy and hilarious in their absurdity, such as Duke envisioning the people in a casino bar as literal  “lounge lizards” or both Duke and Gonzo getting high off of ether and having difficulty making their way through a Circus themed casino.  Though not every moment is played for laughs, as the movie does address the downside of drug use as well.  One scene involves Duke trying to talk Gonzo down from a bad trip as the dangerous addict lies in stupor in a full bathtub. Another heavily dramatic and tense scene also involves Gonzo threatening a diner waitress (played by Ellen Barkin) during a heavy late night romp.  The purpose of all these stories was mainly for Hunter Thompson to document the slow burn that followed the idealism of the hippy generation, as America was slowly slipping into a post Vietnam and Watergate malaise that involved many more people turning to drug use to forget the pain of their lives. As Hunter Thompson put it, this was America’s “season of hell,” and he saw that brought out most clearly in the decadent and flashy city of Las Vegas.  Though not an easy kind of story to put into a narrative, Gilliam still managed to make it work, and Fear and Loathing ends up being both an engaging set of scenes as well as an eye-opening social commentary.

The film itself had been in the works for many years, even long before Terry Gilliam was involved.  The rights to Thompson’s book floated around Hollywood for two decades, with british director Alex Cox (of Sid and Nancy fame) attached to write and direct at one point. Parts of Cox’s script treatment still exist in the final version, but it is clear that the project was entirely crafted towards Gilliam’s own tastes.  Though a long time in coming, the end result is a perfect display of Gilliam’s talents. Filmed in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio(a rarity for a Gilliam film), the movie is a beautiful trip into the bizarre mind of Hunter Thompson, capturing all the hallucinatory sights with perfect and often hilarious excess.  It’s a great showcase for all of the tricks of the trade that Gilliam has at his disposal, like the consistent use of wide angle lenses to highlight his characters heightened states, or having the hallucinations come to life through puppetry and visual effects.  Not only that, but the amazing cinematography by the DP, Nicola Pecorini, and the production design by Alex McDowell does a great job of capturing the sleaziness of Las Vegas in the 1970’s. You can just smell the booze and cigarette smoke that permeates every frame, and the movie makes a point to highlight the garishness of the casino and hotel rooms that these characters inhabit.  Overall, Terry Gilliam proved to be the ideal person to bring Hunter Thompson’s writings to life, because only he could have the vision to make the bizarre feel so real.

In addition to Gilliam’s amazing visuals, we also are treated to great performances by the two leads. Johnny Depp showcases his abilities to disappear into a role perfectly here as Raoul Duke.  Depp considers himself to this day an avid fan of Thompson’s work and the two men became well acquainted during the making of this film.  Even though the character is named differently, there’s absolutely no doubt that Depp crafted his performance into an imitation of Thompson. His character work here is so spot on and is hilarious without ever being too cartoonish.  I especially like the way that Depp never removes the cigarette holder in his mouth while he speaks, which becomes an indelible part of the character’s voice overall.  This performance left such a mark on Johnny Depp that it wouldn’t surprise me if there are shades of Hunter Thompson in some of his later performances; I can even see just a tiny bit of it in Captain Jack Sparrow.   Benicio del Toro also holds his own as Dr. Gonzo, a character that becomes a roller coaster of emotion throughout the entire film.  Del Toro’s work here is especially engrossing because he shifts between being hilariously inept (like his inability to jump off a moving carousel in one scene) to being frighteningly menacing in other moments (the already mentioned diner scene).  The movie works wonders when both actors share the spotlight because their chemistry is so strong. While Gilliam’s visuals take frequent flights of fancy, it’s these two that really help to ground the movie as a whole.  Both of course would go on to bigger roles in the future, but even here they’re both at the top of their game.  The movie also fills the cast with some great cameo appearances from many well known actors, like Tobey Maquire playing a hitchhiker or Gary Busey playing an intimidating state trooper, rounding out a strong cast of odd characters.

Criterion usually has to put a lot of work into their restorations, but in this case, the film already was given to them in a mostly printine state. Such is the case with movies made in the last several decades that make it into the Criterion Collection.  That’s not to say that Criterion transferred the edition with a lazy effort.  The movie was given the best possible visual treatment on blu-ray as always, capturing all the visual flourishes of Gilliam’s film the way they were intended to be seen.  Gilliam’s movies in particular are defined by their distinctive color schemes, and Criterion thankfully makes those colors pop in high definition.  In particular, the brownish hues of the nearly washed out desert scenes really retain a consistent quality to them, and they contrast perfectly with the darkly lit and almost sickly hued hotel scenes.  The audio presentation is also strong, capturing the sometimes hallucinatory nature of the soundscape in this movie.  Though not a sensory overload experience in the audio department, there is nevertheless a lot of creativity in the sound mix, which the blu-ray presentation perfectly presents.  It helps when the filmmaker is readily available to approve the quality of these presentation, and of course the edition is marked with Terry Gilliam’s seal of approval.  Again, not a revelatory audio and visual presentation by Criterion, given that the edition had to work with some already well preserved elements, but it does represent the solid efforts that they put into every title, whether old or new.

The supplements are pretty healthy as well for this edition. First of all, the artwork used on both the outer cover as well as in the insert booklet help to give this edition a lot of character on its own. Provided by artist Ralph Steadman, the artwork perfectly stylized the movie with often bizarre illustrations that perfectly compliment the film you are about to watch. The  features themselves include no less than three commentary tracks; one from Terry Gilliam, another with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, and even one from Hunter Thompson himself.  Deleted scenes are also included with commentary from Gilliam.  Most are fascinating to watch, especially since they show different elements of the actor’s performances, but it’s clear why many of them were cut, which is explained well enough by Gilliam.  Another fascinating feature is a collection of correspondence written by Thompson over the course of the film’s making, all read aloud by Johnny Depp. It’s a treat to listen to Depp add more to his performance as the character, but it also offers an interesting insight into Thompson’s own experience during the the making of the film.  A couple of short documentaries are also included, called Hunter Goes to Hollywood and Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, which delve deeper into the long development of this movie. Another documentary also comments on the controversy surrounding the final script, when it changed hands between Alex Cox and Gilliam.  Other materials include an excerpt from Fear and Loathing’s audio CD, trailers, production stills, and rare materials about Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real life inspiration for Dr. Gonzo.  Overall, a very packed edition for a movie deserving of such a treatment.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great oddball film experience and I’m glad Criterion saw it worthy of their film library.   It didn’t take long for the film to make it into the Collection (just five short years after its premiere) which goes to show just how strong an impact the movie has left on audiences. Though not a box office success when first released, the movie has amassed a strong cult following, one in which this Criterion edition is clearly aimed at pleasing.  I for one enjoy this film immensely, mostly as a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s style and for the stand out performances of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro.  As far as Hunter Thompson goes, I don’t prescribe to his sense of nostalgia over the drug culture of 60’s and 70’s, but I do admire his unique style as a writer.  He was a one of a kind character and a unique voice in American pop culture.  After his unfortunate suicide in 2005, his legend has continued to grow and this film marked a great entry point for anyone looking to see what made him stand out so much.  But, even apart from it’s connection to the legendary author, the movie still stands as a unique cinematic experience.  Terry Gilliam is a welcome visionary in the Criterion Collection and it’s surprising that his work is not more widely represented; something that is going to be partially remedied when Criterion adds The Fisher King (1991, #764) later this year.  But if you’re looking for a unique film that showcases the director’s talents well, then give this Criterion edition a look. But don’t stay too long.  This is bat country.

 

Collecting Criterion – Fanny and Alexander (1982)

fanny and alexander

Christmas movies and prestige cinema have never really mixed well together.  Considering that Christmas has become such a commercial holiday over time, it’s not surprising that Christmas themes have become abundant in commercial films as well.  Though not always a negative thing for both the movies and the holiday they reflect, it’s pretty safe to say that most Christmas movies tend to be safe and formulaic family fare.  Rarely do you see a Christmas movie that deals with button-pushing issues or harsh, negative themes.  The point of the holiday is to rejoice and be festive after all.  But there are some Christmas movies out there that have taken risks and still delivered a powerful presentation of the holiday spirit.  In some cases, these movies end up being some of the most beloved classics of the holiday season; Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is probably the best example, given that it touches upon themes of depression and suicide in it’s story-line.  Sometimes it helps to add a little spice to the sugar and address the darker side of the holiday season in order to make us better appreciate the good things.  The Criterion Collection, always a home to movies that represent the many dual layers of the human experience, has also become the home to many holiday themed films as well that share this complexity.  Some are very strongly centered around the holiday, like French director Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 film A Christmas Tale (Spine #492), while others use the season as a backdrop for a larger narrative, like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955, #95) or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997, #426).  But, if there was a title in the Criterion catalog that makes the most of it’s Christmas setting and has won the acclaim of critics and cinephiles alike, it would be Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (#261).

Ingmar Bergman is a favorite among the Criterion publishers, and is competitive with the likes of Akira Kurosawa for having the most titles to his name under the Criterion label.  Bergman’s filmography is lengthy and varied, but they are all well defined by the director’s very distinct and recognizable style.  Both a renowned director on the silver screen and on the stage, Bergman’s style is very earthbound and confined to small, intimate portraits of ordinary life.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t take flights of fancy every once and a while, but even those moments have a cold, stoic nature to them.  Bergman can be an acquired taste for some people.  His movies often are sometimes so devoid of kinetic energy that it may leave some audiences bored.  But no one can deny the visual power that his movies often have.  In many ways, Bergman is the Grandfather of modern Scandinavian cinema, and many filmmakers who have come up in the years since from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have in one way or another drawn inspiration from his films.  Even some American filmmakers have been inspired by Bergman’s work; probably the most surprising would be Woody Allen, who credits Bergman as a direct influence.  Of course, Criterion has honored Bergman with many fine editions of his most noteworthy movies, including his first international hit and probably his most famous overall film, The Seventh Seal (1957, #11).  Other noteworthy hits like Persona (1966, #701), Wild Strawberries (1957, #139), and Autumn Sonata (1978, #60) have also made it into the collection.  But Fanny and Alexander holds a very special place in the collection, not just for it’s reputation as a movie, but because it also marks the end of an era.  Fanny was to be Bergman’s final theatrical film as he decided to work solely on stage and television in the years after.  He would come out of his semi-retirement in 2003 and direct one final film called Saraband, but that pales when compared to the effort he put into this project.  It’s a spectacular feat of cinema, which Criterion has matched with an equally grand special edition.

Fanny and Alexander is an interesting film in the Bergman filmography mainly because of it’s epic scale, and also the fact that it centers on such a young protagonist, something that Bergman had never done in any of his previous films.  While most of Bergman’s movies run at a brisk but methodically paced 90 minute average length, Fanny and Alexander runs a lengthy 187 minutes theatrically, which even itself was cut down from a staggering 5 hour long television version.  Though the movie is nearly twice as long as most of Bergman’s other films, it’s understandable as to why.  The story follows the tale of the wealthy Ekdahl family at the turn of the 20th century, led by their matriarch Helena (Gun Wallgren), and her three sons Carl (Borje Ahlstedt), Gustav (Jarl Kulle) and Oscar (Allan Edwall).  Oscar, the elder son, has managed to successfully run his family’s theatrical business with wife Emile (Ewa Froling) and children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) in tow.  The close knit family spends a festive Christmas season together, showing how closely knit the whole of them are, but that joy is soon shattered when Oscar is stricken by a sudden stroke while rehearsing a play.  After his death, Emile is in need of security for both the theater and for her children, so she turns to local Lutheran bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), who takes Emile and her children into his home after she agrees to their marriage.  Soon after, things start to go sour as Bishop Edvard proves to be a cold, unloving husband and father.  Emile resolves to end the marriage after she finds Alexander alone and bloodied in his room after a beating given to him by the bishop.  However, a problem occurs when Emile ends up with child, and Bishop Edvard refuses to let his new family go.  This resolves the extended Ekdahl family to take action and find a possible way to free Emile, Fanny and Alexander from the cruel bishop.

Naturally the primary theme of Fanny and Alexander is the bonds of family, and how festivities like Christmas keep those bonds growing stronger over time.  The whole beginning of the story presents that idea perfectly with the extravagant party put on by the Ekdahls in both their theater and in their lavish home.  The party is played out in extravagant detail, giving us an interesting and personal look at Swedish Christmas traditions as well as the intimate relationships between all of the characters, young and old.  In the theatrical version, this Christmas celebration takes up nearly 40 minutes of run-time, and in the television version, it makes up the entire first 90 minute episode.  It also marks the high point of Ingmar Bergman’s vision.  In this scene alone, we see the director at his most lavish as well at his most introspective.  The movie has been called semi-autobiographical, and that wouldn’t be surprising.  Christmas celebrations like this were probably a major part of Bergman’s early life growing up in pre-WWII Sweden.  It also marks a strong contrast with Bergman’s earlier, bleaker films in the post war years.  Those films would often focus on shattered dreams and harsh realities with little in the way of solace.  Not to mention, most of them were devoid of color.  In this film, however, color is abundant.  Fanny and Alexander is far and away the most extravagant of Bergman’s films, helped largely by the Oscar-winning set design, as well as the Oscar-winning cinematography by long-time Bergman associate, Sven Nykvist.  But, the most interesting aspect of this opening Christmas celebration is how it contrasts with the latter, bleaker part of the movie.  Once Bishop Edvard enters the picture, the whole movie pivots into a darker, more typically Bergman-esque narrative.  This gives the pleasing Christmas scenes a interesting context within the movie, and also in Bergman’s own mindset.  Is joy from festivities like Christmas the ideal that we want in life, or is it merely a dream that momentarily dulls the pain of reality?

This theme plays out in a very interesting way in the movie, because it is told entirely through the eyes of a child.  Though the movie is named after the two siblings, young Fanny is actually more of a secondary character, as Alexander is the main protagonist.  Bergman clearly drew upon his own experiences in childhood, but interestingly plays things in reverse in Alexander’s story.  In reality, Ingmar Bergman was born into a stern, religious household and was constantly reprimanded by his authoritarian preacher father.  He would later find escape in the world of theater and film, and while never really abandoning his faith, Bergman would always cast religious authorities in a negative light in most of his latter work.  Alexander on the other hand was born into the theater, and grew up in a loving and imaginative household.  It’s only when religious authority enters Alexander’s life that things start to fall apart.  In many ways, the two fathers in Alexander’s life represent Bergman’s ideas between dreams and reality.  Oscar is the father Bergman wishes he had, while Bishop Edvard is the father that he actually had.  This is probably why the latter part of the movie feels so bleak, because of that loss of innocence.  Bergman feels fortunate to have found joy in his ability to create, but he expresses great pity to anyone who has that taken away, like with Alexander.  The movie does a brilliant job of expressing that duality, with the lavish and colorful Ekdahl residence contrasted against the stale, white walls of Bishop Edvard’s home.  And although Fanny and Alexander portrays religious figures negatively, Bergman still presents a very spiritual side in the movie, as ghosts and ghouls roam free among the characters, especially in the imagination of Alexander, who often sees his lost father Oscar still roaming the hallways at a distance.  It’s a deeply moving portrayal of childhood and growing adolescence, which is perfectly portrayed by young Bertil Guve as Alexander.  Overall, he becomes one of Bergman’s most intimately interesting protagonists.

Upon it’s initial release, Fanny and Alexander was hailed as a masterpiece, and has steadily grown in reputation as one of cinema’s great classics.  It’s often been called Bergman’s greatest achievement and the greatest Scandinavian film ever made, which is a high honor.  So, given it’s monumental reputation, Criterion had to do something special with this edition, and they certainly delivered.  First of all, it should be noted that the Fanny and Alexander edition not only contains one movie, but two by the famed director.  In addition to directing the film itself, Bergman also had a second camera on his set to capture the whole process of him working behind the camera, which he later edited into a documentary called appropriately, The Making of Fanny and Alexander (1982).  This feature length documentary is an interesting look at Bergman’s process, and how it often led to many struggles on the set, both internally and with the cast and crew.  It’s an intimate portrait of the man himself and helps to really show the mind and method of an artist in a fascinating way.  Overall, the presentation of the movie and the documentary comes in a lavish three disc blu-ray set.  The theatrical edition is included, given a beautiful high definition remaster, as well as the lengthy television version, made available for the first time here in North America.  The documentary makes up the third disc, along with all of the extras.  Each of the different films on this set are given brilliant digital presentations that do justice to this over 30 year old film.  The picture quality really brings out the lush colors of Sven Nykvist’s photography, and the sound presentation, although low-key generally, still feels true to life and sounds perfect.  It’s a worthy visual and aural presentation that shows exactly why Criterion is the best home possible for Ingmar Bergman’s collection of films.

The extra features also help to fill out the set nicely.  In addition to the colossal Making of Fanny and Alexander feature, you also get two other noteworthy documentaries on this edition.  The first one is called A Bergman Tapestry, which gives you a comprehensive look at the making of the movie from the perspectives of the cast and crew, all looking back on their experiences with the director.  The second documentary is a made-for-TV retrospective interview with the director called Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film.  Conducted in 1984 by Swedish film critic Nils Petter Sundgren, the two men sit down and discuss Bergman’s career and why he decided (at the time) to stop making feature films.  Fanny and Alexander is discussed extensively, as well as many of his other noteworthy works, and it’s an overall very enlightening interview that feels right at place in this set.  The remaining supplements are extensive galleries of the many award-winning sets and costumes, showing just how much care went into the crafting of this film, and showing just how much Bergman wanted this film to glow visually.  Rounding it all out, there is an audio commentary track by film scholar and Bergman biographer Peter Cowie, on the theatrical version only.  In it, Cowie discusses the themes of the movie in more detail, as well as discussing the film’s place in Bergman’s whole filmography and it’s legacy.  It may not seem like a lot on the surface, but each of these extra features are enormous in of themselves, especially the monumental Making of.  It’s another sign of Criterion’s high standard, and of course they wouldn’t do anything other than the best for a film that is widely considered one of the greatest that’s ever been made.

Fanny and Alexander is a movie that needs to be seen by any film fan out there, especially those who want to expand their understanding of international cinema.  Along with The Seventh Seal, this would be considered essential Bergman, and would probably be the best way to introduce the director’s work to someone who is unfamiliar with it.  Do not be daunted by it’s epic length; Bergman fills every moment of this film with awe-inspiring artistry and doesn’t waste any of it on needless indulgence.  In fact, for such a personal film, the movie is surprisingly accessible, and that’s probably because of the universal themes of family and coming of age that Bergman chooses to address here.  Not only that but it has one of the most lavish and beautifully crafted visions of a Christmas celebration that has even been put on film.  Upon seeing it, you can see why this movie is often considered a holiday classic, because few other Christmas movies feel this joyous about the holiday.  It’s not cynical or shallow, and it shows what the holiday spirit should be all about, and that’s the bonds of family.  I only wish that more Christmas adaptations would follow that example and stop sending bad messages in the guise of Christmas cheer (I’m looking at you Kirk Cameron).  Ingmar Bergman has had the reputation of being a bleak and cold-tempered story-teller, which is sometimes reflected truthfully in his earlier films.  But Fanny and Alexander presents something altogether different in the vision of hope, presented beautifully in the image of a family Christmas celebration.  Hope and joy may be an unusual theme to find in a story made by the same guy behind the post-apocalyptic Seventh Seal, but Fanny and Alexander shows the legendary filmmaker at his most introspective and surprisingly, at his most optimistic.  This treasure of a film gets a much deserved edition from Criterion and would make a very wonderful gift under the tree for any cinephile this year.

fanny bluray

 

Collecting Criterion – Ace in the Hole (1951)

ace in the hole

The Criterion Collection has given us solid editions of movies that are either universally renowned or completely obscure, and has used it’s label as a mark of quality for the films in it’s library.  But, while many of the films that make it into the Collection have garnered attention because of their lack of exposure, either being from a foreign market or were little seen outside of some artistic circles, there are some instances where Criterion shifts it’s focus back to Hollywood and brings our attention to a movie that demands our attention.  Sometimes it’s an important but overlooked benchmark film in a genre that deserves the Criterion label, like Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948, Spine #709) or a curious Hollywood oddity like the Charles Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter (1955, #541).  But other times it’s films that were overlooked in their day that have stood up remarkably well over time and became more relevant that get the Criterion treatment.  That has been the case with a lot of surprisingly prescient films like Fritz Lang’s (1931, #30), which looked at the dangers of vigilante justice in a pre-Nazi Germany, or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960, #58), which explored the nature of voyeurism and how human privacy was more fleeting than we would’ve like to have believed.  And then there are some films that would have certainly been deemed a classic in their day if they had not been overshadowed by other films at the time.  This was certainly the case with a movie called Ace in the Hole (1951, #396), directed by the legendary Billy Wilder.  Ace in the Hole is a movie that has thankfully been given new life as part of the Criterion Collection, and having rediscovered it as a part of the catalog, it’s a mystery as to why this movie has gone unnoticed for all these years.

Part of the reason why Ace in the Hole has largely been overlooked is because it was sandwiched in-between two of Wilder’s more successful and renowned films; 1950’s Sunset Boulevard  and 1953’s Stalag 17.  These movies are now considered among the director’s all time greats, while Ace is seen more or less as a quieter exercise between the two.  That, however, is how the original audience reaction painted the reputation of this movie, and it should not reflect on the quality of the film itself.  In fact, I believe that Ace is just as good as these more famous titles; if not better.  It’s just as unforgiving in it’s satire and themes as Sunset Boulevard, and it probably works better as a film today than it did in it’s first run.  Billy Wilder was no prophet, but he certainly could pick out a troubling trend in American culture and exploit the hell out of it.  In this case, the subject of ridicule was tabloid journalism, and the way it can be carried out of control.  Now, back in the early 50’s, sensationalizing the news was not something that anyone saw as scandalous, and Wilder’s take on the issue definitely exaggerates things to the very extreme.  But the sad fact is that over the years, tabloid journalism has become so extreme and out of control, that it has actually caught up to Wilder’s absurd predictions, making his Ace in the Hole all the more prophetic.  This is probably why Criterion chose to spotlight this particular film, and I’m glad that they did.  It gives us all a chance to take another look at this strangely prescient film and help it to become one of the great Hollywood classics as we now reexamine it through the knowledge that we have today.

The movie follows the story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a big-city journalist who has fallen on hard times.  He reluctantly takes a job as reporter in a small New Mexico town.  He finds the new surroundings pretty dull compared to his old life, but that changes when he gets word of a cave-in at a local mine.  Not one to lose an opportunity Tatum quickly investigates and he soon learns that a miner has been trapped within the cave-in, unable to free himself out of the rubble.  Tatum quickly relays the story not just to his own newspaper, but to all media sources across the country.  Soon, national attention is brought to this small town story, with Tatum leading the charge.  Tatum soon learns that the rescue mission can be accomplished in less than a day, but through a little bit of coercion and some bribing of the local officials in charge, he manages to slow and extend the rescue mission over the following week.  He even uses his wit and charm to convince the miner’s estranged wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) that this is the right thing to do.  As the story gets bigger with every passing day, so does the crowd reaction outside of the mine.  The whole scene soon becomes a circus, both figuratively and literally, complete with a ferris-wheel at the mine’s entrance.  But, reality starts to set it when the trapped miner’s condition starts to deteriorate, and it dawns on Tatum that he made the problem worse by trying to satisfy his own ends.  Once the miner dies in the cave, Tatum is faced with the fact that he now has blood on his hands and must now deal with the chaos that he created.

The remarkable thing about a movie like Ace in the Hole is that it is both absurd and yet wholly realistic at the same time.  Billy Wilder was always a master at highlighting the follies of mankind, whether it was for a laugh or for a moment of sharp insight.  He managed to make that work in dark films like Sunset Boulevard and also in lighter ones like The Apartment (1960), and always with unparalleled wit.  Ace in the Hole came out right after Sunset Boulevard and it’s very much in the same vein.  Both films deal with unchecked human vanity, and how it consumes the lives of not just their selected main characters, but also the lives of everyone around them.  Chuck Tatum is a perfect example of this kind of archetype; a man so consumed by his own ambition, that he loses all sense of the consequences of his actions.  Not only that, but he does so with a righteous fervor, believing that what he’s doing is the right thing.  The scariest aspect of the movie is just how quickly people succumb to the same kind of media frenzy that surrounds Tatum’s crusade; with absolutely no one raising an alarm as to the unethical practices going on behind the scenes.  One doesn’t have to look far to see the same echoes of this today in our own media culture whenever there is a celebrity on trial or a political scandal being exposed.  Eventually, the stories becomes less about informing people, and more about covering every minuet detail, trying to drag a story out long after it’s relevance is spent in order to hold onto the audience longer.  Wilder saw this as a potential issue back in the 50’s and it’s a sad reflection on our culture today that his absurd analysis has actually proven out over time.

But, apart from what it has to say, this isn’t the only thing that has made Ace in the Hole a honored addition to the Criterion Collection.  It’s an excellently made film as well; just like most other Billy Wilder films.  The writing in particular is very strong, which comes courtesy of Wilder himself, and his co-authors Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman.   Every character is given sharp-witted dialogue, but none of it feels inauthentic or too cinematic.  Kirk Douglas in particular does exceptionally great work here, but then again when has he ever disappointed.  He makes Chuck Tatum a very fascinating scoundrel and a character that’s both hard to like and dislike.  Though inspired by many of the overzealous journalists of the early 50’s, you can definitely see the pomposity and full-of-themselves vanity of Chuck Tatum in modern day “journalists” like Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, which just shows how well Douglas’ work here has held up.  The remaining cast works well too, like Jan Sterling’s conflicted Lorraine, and Robert Arthur as Tatum’s idealistic assistant Herbie, who captures the effect of Tatum’s manipulations on the impressionistic young journalist frighteningly well.  Wilder’s direction is also top-notch here.  He manages to get the message of the story across without ever banging it into the audiences head.  Small visual cues, like the “Tell the Truth” sign in newspaper’s office, helps to slowly build the story’s morals over time, allowing them to sink in before the climatic blow reaches us.  Overall, it’s easy to see why this movie has made it into the Collection.

Like most other Criterion titles, Ace in the Hole has received a world-class restoration, helping to bring out the best quality in the movie’s picture and sound.  Though the film’s original elements were easy to find in the Paramount Pictures’ archives, there still had to be a lot of work done on restoring it to it’s full original glory.  Given that the movie wasn’t as universally renowned as it’s predecessor Sunset BoulevardAce unfortunately deteriorated over time and Criterion’s restoration team did a great amount of work to get the picture up to today’s standards.  Seeing the film now on blu-ray, it’s clear that their hard work payed off, because it looks just as good as any other classic film from it’s era.  While there are still imperfections in the picture, they are more likely the result of the original limitations of the film stock, and not at all a reflection of the quality of Criterion’s restoration.  It should be clear that Billy Wilder was never a stickler for visual purity; he was just a good enough visual director who focused his films more on the dialogue and the performances, so the fact that Ace in the Hole looks as good as it does here should tell you how well Criterion’s team did.  The black and white contrast is well balanced and the detail really shines through on the textures.  Just take a look at the scenes in the desert around the mine to really appreciate the high-definition picture on this blu-ray.  The restoration to the mono soundtrack also feels genuine and helps to support the film as well.  The carnival atmosphere during the latter part of the film in particular pops out in the soundtrack as you watch the movie.  Overall, another quality effort from the Criterion team on a film well deserving of a polished restoration.

The bonus features also help to highlight the significant reputation that this movie has built over time.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Neil Sinyard, who helps to break down the film’s social themes as well as it’s place in media history and within Billy Wilder’s own filmography.  It’s a bit of a dry lecture for cinephiles, and may not be for those who want to hear a more detailed analysis of the making of the movie, but Sinyard’s comments are still informative and worth giving a listen.  The biggest feature on the set though is a full length documentary called Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man“: Billy Wilder (1980).  In it, director Wilder is interviewed about his career and his methods of film-making, complete with relevant clips from some of his most notable films, including Ace.  The documentary shows just how funny the man was in person as well as his passion for film-making and it works as a fantastic overview of the works of one of Hollywood’s most legendary and original voices.  An excerpt from Billy Wilder’s 1986 appearance at the American Film Institute is also included, which while not really relevant to the film itself, is nevertheless an appreciated addition.  Rounding out the extras are some very welcome archival interview clips from star Kirk Douglas and co-writer Walter Newman, both discussing their work on the film, as well as an appreciation clip from director Spike Lee, who has long been a fan and champion of this film.  Also included is a behind-the-scenes photo gallery and an original trailer, and it all makes this a very complete and worthwhile collection of extras to help compliment the presentation of this feature.

Ace in the Hole was a hard-sell in it’s time, and it’s probably the reason why it has been lost for so many years.  In fact, for the longest time, the movie went by a different title, called The Big Carnival, which was a choice made by Paramount Pictures and not by Wilder.  Billy Wilder thought that the new title was too on-the-nose for the film he made and took all the subtlety out of what he was trying to convey; but it was something that he didn’t fight the studio over, so the title stuck.  Thankfully, when Criterion first released the title on DVD, they thankfully restored the original title just as Wilder had wished.  Hopefully Criterion’s edition of the movie brings new attention to it.  It really is amazing to watch this movie and see how many things that it predicted correctly about media culture and human greed.  It makes a great companion film with Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), another movie that was well ahead of it’s time dealing with the same subjects.  Any student of journalism today should be required to watch both movies as a lesson in the ethical boundaries that they will inevitably face in their profession.  But, apart from that, Ace in the Hole should be seen by all as just a great example of film-making.  It certainly stands as one of Billy Wilder’s best and most hard-hitting films and hopefully it will now earn it’s place as one of the director’s all-time greatest.  I certainly would equate it with some of his better works and I am grateful that Criterion took the time to highlight this film too.  It’s a movie well worth rediscovering and it’ll be curious to see how well it’s hard-hitting themes will hold up over time as the media circus that it predicted sadly becomes all the more common.

ace blu-ray

 

Collecting Criterion – The 39 Steps (1935)

39 Steps

While the Criterion Collection is renowned for bringing to light obscure and forgotten cinematic works from across the world, they are also responsible for preserving some of the lesser known works of the great masters.  Legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and John  Ford have become a part of the Criterion library, with deluxe editions of some of their earlier films like Spine # 516  Stagecoach (1939) and #538 Paths of Glory (1957).  While some of these may not be as obscure as other titles in the Collection, Criterion nevertheless honors these directors by giving worthy notice to a few of these films, showing just how important they are to the growth of cinema in general.  In recent years, Criterion has also been looking for even more prestigious films to include in it’s library, including some of the most beloved movies of all time.  Among their titles today are some Oscar-winners like Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Best Picture winner Hamlet (Spine #82) and Elia Kazan’s 1954 winner On the Waterfront (#647).   Not only does the inclusion of these beloved masterpieces give a special acknowledgement to the filmmakers within the Collection, but it also shows that Criterion celebrates the Golden Era of Hollywood just as much as they do the art house scene.  And one particular Hollywood master has been long celebrated as part of the Criterion Collection, all the way back to even the early years of the label.  That director of course is the “Master of Suspense;” Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, if not the greatest.  No other director was more consistent in Hollywood, while at the same time breaking new ground with every production.  Most of his films are legendary; Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), Rear Window (1954), and The Birds (1963) just to name a few.   In fact, the British Film Institute, for the first time ever, named a Hitchcock film as the “greatest movie ever made,” that being 1958’s Vertigo; it took the honor away from Citizen Kane (1941), which held that spot for over 40 years.   While these popular movies are kept in the public eye by the studios that made them, Criterion has also contributed greatly to showcasing the works of Alfred Hitchcock.  At one point, the Criterion Collection had seven Hitchcock films in their library.  These included the movies made during Hitchcock’s first few years in Hollywood; 1940’s Oscar-winner Rebecca (#135), 1945’s Spellbound (#136) and 1946’s Notorious (#137).  These Criterion editions have unfortunately gone out of print, and have returned back to their original studios for new editions, but Criterion still maintains the licence to a few other Hitchcock titles.  These are mainly the ones that were released during the earliest part of his career, back when he was still cutting his teeth in the British film industry.  It’s interesting looking back at this period in Hitchcock’s career, as we see the beginning of some of the things that would become synonymous with Hitchcock’s later work.   And if there is one Criterion film that best illustrates the beginning of the Hitchcockian style, it would be 1935’s The 39 Steps (Spine #56).

The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock’s British films, though it doesn’t quite receive the same recognition that his later flicks do.  But, even so, many of the director’s trademark elements are there, and in many ways 39 Steps helped to set the standard for all of those that followed.  In particular, it began the “wrong man” scenario that would become a popular theme in most of Hitchcock’s later films.  The story follows a young Canadian traveler Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) who finds himself wrongly accused of murder when an undercover spy (Luccie Mannheim) is found dead in his flat.  In her possession is a map to Scotland, which he uses to track down the people responsible for the murder, while at the same time avoiding getting caught himself.   Upon investigating the clues along the way, he learns that the head of the spy ring responsible for killing the girl is missing the top joint of one of his fingers, and he also discovers something known only as “the 39 steps”.  He escapes capture on the Scottish Moors, after being recognized by a fellow traveler named Pamela (Madeline Carroll) who believes he’s the murderer.  He soon finds refuge in the home of a respectable Scottish scholar, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who is willing to hear Richard’s side of the story.  Richard makes his plea and feels safe in the Professor’s estate; that is until he discovers that the Professor has a missing joint on one of his fingers.  Richard, having learned the identity of the true murderer, soon finds himself on the run again, only this time determined to learn the secret of the “39 Steps” before Professor Jordan can stop him, and learn what it has to do with a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory.”

The 39 Steps (1935) is small in scale compared to some of Hitchcock’s other great works, but all of the pieces are still there.  In fact, this film helped to introduce many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks.  Apart from the obvious “wrong man” scenario, which would become a favorite theme in Hitchcock’s later works like North by Northwest, this film also introduced the idea of the MacGuffin to the cinematic language.  A MacGuffin is a cinematic term, coined by Hitchcock himself, that refers to the thing that the main characters are searching for, but in the end turns out to be something inconsequential to the audience.  In other words, it’s the thing that drives the motivations of the plot; making the directive more important than the actual reward.   Hitchcock’s uses of a MacGuffin in a movie are pretty noteworthy and here it’s pretty much the focus of the entire film.  In the end, we learn what the 39 Steps is during the final scene, but that piece of information really amounts to very little.  What we remember is the heart-pounding search to find it, and that’s what Hitchcock is known best for.  He was the “Master of Suspense” for a reason, and this film clearly shows how he refined his cinematic voice around this trademark.  You can also see in this movie how the director was finding his style as well.  The film features stunning camera work, which helps to elevate the suspenseful nature of the movie very well.  The scenes in Scotland in particular have a nice gloomy feel to them.  But, it’s the use of close-ups and quick-editing where we see the Hitchcock of later years start to develop, and it’s clear to see how this same filmmaker would redefine Hollywood movie-making in the years to come.

Does the film hold up against it’s more famous descendants?  It’s hard to put this film in the same category as some of Hitchcock’s later classics.  After all, Hitchcock’s prime was really in the 1950’s, when he pretty much could do no wrong.  The Hitchcock of the 1930’s was still trying to figure things out and probably didn’t have the same kind of control over his vision that he soon would have.  At the same time, The 39 Steps is still a very effective movie, and still holds up as a great example of early suspenseful story-telling.  Robert Donat makes a fine leading man in the film, playing the determined and resourceful Hannay with a lot of charm.  He embodies that “every man” sensibility that Hitchcock always loved to put into his main characters, and he gives the character a believable intelligence throughout.  The writing also retains much of that classic British wit that Hitchcock’s films are known for, especially the earlier ones.  It’s clever, without being too complicated, and it treats it’s audience intelligently, never resorting to spelling things out for us.  Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humor is also present in the movie, albeit more subdued here than in many of his later films.  Also, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, showing Hitchcock’s keen eye for composition.  If the film has a major flaw, it’s the fact that it feels small.  The film is relatively short at 86 minutes, compared to Hitchcock’s later films which ran on average around 2 hours.  While it does fill it’s run-time with plenty of story, it feels like more could have been built upon the mystery.  Instead, the majority of the movie gives us the typical man on the run scenario, which gets worn out by the 1 hour mark.  Thankfully, the film finishes strong with a very memorable climax.  It’s clear that Hitchcock was still trying to figure out the “wrong man” narrative here, and this film feels like a good test run for his later movies like North by Northwest.

Criterion, of course, treats all of it’s new titles with special care, and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is no different.  Given that the movie is very old, it needed to be given a special restoration in order to bring out the best possible image quality.   The 39 Steps was selected as a Criterion title very early on, and was released on DVD way back in the late 90’s.  The image quality of the DVD release was passable, but nowhere near what the film should actually look like.  So, when Criterion prepared the film for a Blu-ray re-release in 2012, they gave the movie a proper high-definition restoration.  The results of Criterion’s efforts are astounding.  The film, naturally, hasn’t looked this good in years.  While still maintaining the grainy look of a film it’s age, the restoration has helped to boost the levels of sharpness and detail to the image.  Color contrast is always something to take into consideration when restoring a black-and-white film, and here the  gray levels contrasted with the blacks and whites feels a lot more natural and authentic.  The sound quality has also been cleaned up, and is now free of the pops and buzzes that usually plague an older soundtrack.   Is it the best possible picture and sound that we’ve seen from Criterion.  Unfortunately, the original film elements were unavailable to Criterion, due to the original negative being lost to time.  But, Criterion did the absolute best that they could here, and the film has thankfully been cleaned up and preserved digitally for all of us to enjoy.  Given that it’s Hitchcock, the standards are pretty high, and Criterion does the legacy proud here.

The Criterion edition also features a good sampling of bonus features, many of which were carried over from the original DVD.  First off, there is an Audio Commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane.  Ms. Keane’s commentary is more of a lecture style analysis of the movie’s larger themes and the film’s lasting legacy.   This isn’t the kind of commentary track that you listen to for a breakdown of how and why the film got made, like so many director’s commentaries do.  This is more like the kind of analysis that you would hear in a college level film course, which is not bad if that’s something that interests you.  Marian Keane’s analysis is informative and well-researched.  Just be warned that it’s also very scholarly as well, and in no way substitutes for a behind-the-scenes look.   A documentary included on the disc does however go into the making of the film a little bit more.  Also carried over from the DVD is Hitchcock: The Early Years, which details the director’s early films made in his native England, including this one.  A complete radio dramatization is also present on this edition, created in 1937 for the Lux Radio Theatre show and starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery in the roles of the main characters.   New features added exclusively for the blu-ray edition include footage from a 1966 interview with Hitchcock done for British television, where he talks a little about the making of this film.  Also, another Hitchcock scholar, Leonard Leff, recorded a visual essay, which goes into further detail of the film’s production.  Rounding out the special features is a gallery of original production design art, as well as an excerpt from another interview of Hitchcock, conducted by another filmmaker, Francois Truffaut.   All in all, a very nice set of features that makes this set feel very well-rounded.

If you consider yourself a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, chances are you already are familiar with The 39 Steps and it’s place within the master’s entire filmography.  While it may not be as exciting as North by Northwest, or as chilling as Psycho, or as emotional as Vertigo, it nevertheless represents a nice stepping stone towards some of those later masterpieces.  I certainly look at it as a prime example of Hitchcock’s earliest work, because you can see all the elements there that would come to define his entire career.  It’s movies like The 39 Steps  that really illustrate perfectly the maturing of a filmmaker, and even though it doesn’t reach the heights that we know now that Hitchcock was capable of, it still stands on it’s own as a fine piece of entertainment.  I certainly recommend it for anyone who just wants to see a good old fashioned spy movie.  There were many others like it at the time, but few feel as effortless in it’s suspense as The 39 Steps does.  There are other Criterion editions of films made during Hitchcock’s early years, and they are worth checking out too, like 1938’s The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3) and 1940’s Foreign Correspondant (#696), which was the last film Hitchcock made before his move over to American cinema.  The 39 Steps unfortunately has been overlooked over the years as a defining film in Hitchcock’s career, so this Criterion edition is a welcomed spotlight for a movie that is deserving of it.  It’s always great to see where the beginnings of a great filmmakers style came from, and The 39 Steps is the kind of movie that shows that off perfectly.  Hitchcock holds an honored place in the Criterion Collection, and hopefully that spotlight will continue to extend to many more of the director’s great early films.

39 bluray