Good Things in Big Packages: DVD Box Sets of 2009

I’m winding down my year in DVD coverage with this highly subjective survey of the box sets of 2009 that brought new titles to DVD (no collections of previously released titles in new packages here). To be clear, I didn’t see every set that came along, or even every film in those that I did see, but I made an effort to see as many interesting things as I could over the course of my duties as the DVD reviewer for MSN Entertainment. (Conspicuously absent is Criterion’s lavish AK 100, simply because I did not receive a review copy and couldn’t afford to plunk down the purchase price for a set with only four DVD debuts.) Here are the most interesting sets I had the pleasure to see in the course of my DVD reviewing in 2009, in brief sketches. I have written at more length about some of these releases and offer links to those reviews where possible.

10. The Secret Policeman’s Balls (Shout! Factory)

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman

When Amnesty International needed to raise money and their profile, John Cleese called up his buddies (which included the members of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to help put on fundraiser. And then another. And the rest is history. This three-disc set collects the films made of five of these benefits, beginning with the 1976 Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, part documentary (with extensive footage of rehearsals) and part performance film. Adding to the fun is role swapping: Peter Cook in a Python sketch, Terry Jones joining Beyond the Fringe, everyone belting out “The Lumberjack Song.” Pete Townsend provides acoustic musical interludes in the 1979 The Secret Policeman’s Ball, where Rowan Atkinson (among others) joins the fun. Musical guests became more prominent in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), including Sting, Bob Geldoff, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and downright dominate The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987), but the skit comedy focus returns in the final benefit film. The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989) opens with Michael Palin and John Cleese doing “Pet Shop” (with a twist punchline) and features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their first live appearance together in years), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The set also features a wealth of unseen skits and musical performances and the feature-length 2004 documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? among the supplements.

9. Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection (Sony) – Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography. The DVD debut of Mothra (1961) is the gem of the collection, a lively mix of science fiction, monster movie and adventure fantasy filled with colorful characters and an unmistakable socio-political subtext. In a reworking of King Kong, a mercenary explorer from the country of Rolisica (a not-so-subtle stand-in for the U.S.) kidnaps pixie-sized women (played by identical twins pop duo The Peanuts) from Infant Island and the natives call upon Mothra to rescue them. After bobbing along in larvae form and destroying everything in its path, it spins a cocoon and really whips up some property damage when it emerges with fuzzy, full color wings. Also features The H-Man (1957), which is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to Beauty and the Liquidman) that slurps through the Tokyo sewers and starts dissolving gangsters and showgirls, and Battle in Outer Space (1959), a space opera featuring rocketships battling in space, a great laser fight on the moon and the decimation of Earth landmarks. The films look terrific, presented in their original, uncut Japanese versions as well as the American incarnations (which are dubbed and in the case of Mothra significantly shorter) and in full Tohoscope widescreen. Japanese science fiction film historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski provide well-prepared commentary tracks for Battle in Outer Space and Mothra and they keep them humming all the way through in their tag team approach. But I do have to call out Sony on the case design: all three discs are stacked up on a single spindle, which is not just unwieldy but leaves the discs prone scuffing and scratching. There are other, budget-conscious options for putting three discs in a single standard-dimension case. I explore the films more on my blog here.

Mr. Sardonicus
Mr. Sardonicus

8. William Castle Film Collection (Sony) – William Castle is the carnival showman of horror cinema, a B-movie director who recreated himself as a drive-in Hitchcock with a P.T. Barnum sense of ballyhoo and gimmickry. The eight newly remastered films in this box set offers a cross section of his best films, his most creative gimmicks and his most lighthearted efforts. Among the latter are two tongue-in-cheek productions starring Tom Poston: Zotz! (1962), a whimsical fantasy about a magic coin, and a remake of The Old Dark House (1963) as a comic romp of eccentrics killing one another off for an inheritance. Both make their DVD debuts here, as does 13 Frightened Girls (1963), a light espionage thriller with a Nancy Drew heroine in the form of a diplomat’s daughter (Kathy Dunn) who turns sweet sixteen Mata Hari. These are the films that Castle completists have been waiting for, but are lesser titles compared to his gimmicky classics like The Tingler (1959), starring Vincent Price and a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede, and Homicidal (1961), a shameless but clever Psycho knock-off with an inspired twist and a “Fright Break.” Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is Castle’s version of a Universal horror with his own sadistic slant and trademark gimmick ending (this one is the brilliant “Punishment Poll”), Straight-Jacket (1964) stars Joan Crawford (fresh from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) in demented diva form and 13 Ghosts (1960) is a mix of playful hauntings and supernatural creepiness (the disc, sadly, does not feature the “Illusion-O” process or the “Ghost Viewer” glasses of the previous DVD release). This five-disc set also includes the trailers for each film (which are an essential part of the Castle experience), the featurettes and bonus archival goodies of the previous DVD releases and the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, an excellent study of the director and survey of his career. It’s a portrait in contradiction, a man who finds success in gimmicks but so wants to be taken seriously. It’s too affectionate a portrait to really dig into Castle’s weaknesses as a director but it does acknowledge his ambition and his frustrated desire to be taken seriously with the identity he created for himself. More on the set on my blog here.

7. Tora-San Collector’s Set: Vol. 1 (AnimEigo) – The stateside debut of a contemporary Japanese cultural treasure: the first four of what became a series of 48 feature films chronicling the misadventures of travelling peddler Torajirô Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi), a bumbling rube with a good heart and bad judgment. Atsumi meandered through these gently sentimental comedies for 27 years (setting a record for a continuing series with the same actor) and director Yoji Yamada (who recently made his name stateside with The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade) directed almost all of them. The series begins with Tora-san: Our Lovable Tramp (1969, aka Otoko wa tsuria yo, which translates to “It’s tough being a man”), and it front-loads the film with exposition of who he is and where he comes from, but the rest of the film is what defines the character. He’s an uneducated bumpkin with an outgoing personality, a saleman’s patter, and a rare gift for misreading every delicate social situation and blundering through them with grace of a drunken water buffalo. And yet, whether because of his efforts or despite them, everything turns out all right when he’s around. AnimEigo’s box set features the first four films in the series in fine editions with commentary on the first film by film historian Stuart Galbraith IV and program notes on each film. The collection is filled out by Tora-sans Cherished Mother (1969), Tora-san, His Tender Love (1970) and Tora-sans Grand Scheme (1970), each film sending him another quest between visits home to cheer his loving little sister and exasperate everyone else. He is, as the box set brands him, “Japan’s most beloved loser,” and these are charming films. More on the set on my blog here.

6. Pigs, Pimps, And Prostitutes: 3 Films By Shohei Imamura (Criterion) – Shohei Imamura is the rare director to win the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice. This collection from Criterion reaches back to his early films, when he was an inventive, daring young filmmaker shaking up the industry, starting with his 1961 Pigs and Battleships, a hysterically savage satire of corruption and crime in American-occupied Japan. Less satirical is his 1963 The Insect Woman, a social drama of survival through three generations of women, and Intentions of Murder (1964). Each film features an introduction by critic Tony Rayns and the three-disc box set features conversations between Shohei Imamura and critic Tadao Sato, 1995 French TV documentary on Imamura and separate booklets with essays on each film.

5. The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV / Rossellinis History Films Renaissance And Enlightenment (Eclipse Series 14) (Criterion) – Criterion resurrects key productions from Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of historical films directed for television in the final act of his career. Largely overlooked in light of his legendary neorealist dramas and his more intimate dramas starring his lover Ingrid Bergman, these films are could technically be considered historical dramas, but they are nothing like the spectacles that you usually find under this genre. Criterion releases four of these productions. Blaise Pascal (1972), The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974), all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot.

The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces. Rossellini directs like a pageant, a stiff show composed like a series of painting from the era (right down to the formal poses and the framing) and shot against the lavish glory of the real Versailles. The dialogue is all exposition and explanation, but the lesson is startlingly clear and direct and Rossellini’s ambivalence is striking: he’s fascinated and even impressed by the genius of Louis’ plan to distract the nobility and take back the reigns of rule, but the film is less a celebration than a clear-eyed study of power and politics. Criterion’s DVD features a multimedia essay by Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher, the documentary “The Last Utopia,” and video interviews with artistic advisor Jean Dominique de la Rochefoucauld, script supervisor Michelle Podroznik and second unit director (and Rossellini’s son) Renzo Rossellini, plus a booklet. While The Taking Of Power is technically not part of the box set, it came out the same week and I like to think of these as a piece. I wrote more in depth on the film for Parallax View here.

4. The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collector’s Choice) (Sony) – Sam Fuller is Hollywood’s great tabloid director, a former newspaperman, pulp novelist and soldier who worked his way up from screenwriting to directing films, sometimes for the studios and sometimes independently, and brought all of his experiences and attitudes to his filmmaking. Only two of the films in The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collectors Choice) (Sony), co-produced by The Film Foundation (a project guided in part by Martin Scorsese), are actually directed by Fuller. The rest are either written by him or based on his novels and are of decidedly uneven quality, notably the bland B-movie It Happened In Hollywood (1937, Fuller’s first script), Foreign Legion programmer Adventure in the Sahara (1938) and the newspaper thriller/war propaganda piece Power of the Press (1943). Much better are a pair of later crime dramas: Shockproof (1949), starring Cornel Wilde and directed by Douglas Sirk, is a slight but stylish lovers-on-the-run thriller, and the newspaper murder mystery Scandal Sheet (1952) is a low-budget spin on The Big Clock directed by Phil Karlson with a suitably sleazy atmosphere of journalistic cynicism.

Underworld U.S.A.
Underworld U.S.A.

The jewels in the crown of this collection are the two films that receive the defining credit: “Written * Produced * Directed by Samuel Fuller.” The Crimson Kimono (1959), a murder mystery and cop buddy film set in L.A.’s Chinatown and films with great moments of location atmosphere, is one of the director’s most striking commentaries on race. Underworld U.S.A. (1961), starring Cliff Robertson as a career criminal out to revenge his father’s murder, is classic Fuller and one of his strongest films. Organized crime is merely another form of big business and his hero so warped by his underworld upbringing that he can’t see beyond his own emotional world. Both films are directed with punchy, pulpy energy, tabloid atmosphere and explosive character dynamics, and all the films look superb, even the B-movies from the thirties that you might expect to have been neglected all this time. The seven-disc set is collected in a fold-out digipak and include featurettes with Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson and Martin Scorsese discussing his film and the 24-minute interview featurette Sam Fuller Storyteller, an amiable but uninformative appreciation of the director. More on the set at my blog here and my sketch of Sam Fuller is here.

3. Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (Eclipse Series 15) (Eclipse/Criterion) – Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu, he made over 150 films by most counts. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition – a bus driver on a mountain road route, seasonal masseurs who are walking to their summer position at a mountain resort in the first scene, vacationers at a mountain inn during the summer in a momentary community – but because Shimizu as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

The silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a lovely character piece about best friends who follow very different life paths, marked by evocative, startlingly modern direction. Mr. Thank You (1936) is a buoyant road movie set on a bus ride through mountain roads with a cross-section of travelers whose stories spell out the desperation of Japan’s depression. The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) is gentle characters piece about blind masseurs who migrate between the seaside spas and the mountain resorts with the seasons and a “mystery woman” from Tokyo. Ornamental Hairpin (1941), also set in a mountain resort in the lazy atmosphere of summer vacation, is another film of lovely rhythms and gentle pacing that fits the pace of life in its bubble of a world, but it’s also fragile and brief. The longest one of them clocks in at 76 minutes, although the term “tight” or “efficient” doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the generosity of his filmmaking. They are simply small stories, miniatures you might say, which unfold at their own distinctively wandering pace. The discs are in separate thinpak cases in the standard Eclipse package, which isn’t so much a box as a cardboard band that slides over the four cases. I’m not a big fan of the design, but it’s growing on me. I wrote on the set for Parallax View here.

2. TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three: William Wellman At Warner Bros. (Warner) – I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs and he made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades. But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.

William Wellman at Warner Bros.

This collection is highlighted by two of the most unsung classics of the pre-code era and vivid portraits of Depression desperation. Heroes for Sale (1933) follows the harrowing journey of World War I veteran Richard Barthelmess, whose rise and fall is a schizophrenic story of morphine addiction, red-baiting, labor unrest and the grim reality of homeless armies tramping the rails for work. Wellman followed it with Wild Boys of the Road, which chronicles the plight of Depression-era runaways who end up a homeless army riding the rails around the country, where they fend off starvation, predatory adult hobos and cops who drive them out of their tent cities with clubs and hoses. They are both vividly melodramatic dramas directed in Wellman’s two-fisted approach, not “realistic” in any sense but gritty, unsettled and utterly unforgettable. The set also features Other Men’s Women (1931, with Mary Astor), The Purchase Price (1932, with Barbara Stanwyck as a torch singer turned mail order bride), Frisco Jenny (1932, with Ruth Chatterton as a San Francisco brothel madam) and Midnight Mary (1933, with Loretta Young on trial for murder). Like a lot of early sound films, the pacing of these films – and in fact all of the films on this set – is odd and off-balance, stopping to linger over a piece of action or an indecent proposal (there are many of those here) and then leaping ahead hours, days, weeks, even months to check back in. Wellman isn’t about dramatic tension so much as dynamism and he brings a real punch to dramatic action and a momentum to his drama. The set also features the 1996 documentary Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick and a revision of Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: William Wellman, upgraded in 2007 for Turner Classic Movies. Schickel’s documentary is grounded in his terrific interview with Wellman, whose stories about his career have more than a touch of self promotion but are fabulously entertaining and give a real sense of the man behind the films. There are commentary tracks on three films (Jeffrey Vance and Tony Marietta on Midnight Mary, John Gallagher on Heroes for Sale and Frank Thompson and William Wellman Jr. on Wild Boys of the Road), original trailers for each film and archival cartoons and short subjects from the era. I wrote at length on the films for Parallax View here.

1. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume I (Sony) – Film noir was the term that the French gave to a particular strain of American crime movies in the forties and fifties, defined by its shadowy style, largely urban settings and mood of doom and corruption. But another strain of film noir also flourished in the fifties, films shot on location with an almost documentary quality, where psychopathic gangsters walked the city streets in broad daylight like a virus. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I, the fourth collaboration between Sony and Martin Scorsese’s non-profit film preservation organization, The Film Foundation, celebrates both poles of the noir sensibility. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) headlines the set but this masterpiece of film noir has been on DVD before. Not so the other four Columbia crime dramas in the collection, all making their respective DVD debuts. Like The Big Heat, 5 Against the House (1955) is a shadowy studio film but it leaves the urban corruption for the crowded energy of a Reno casino and an impulsive heist scheme led by an unstable Brian Keith.

Arthur Franz is The Sniper
Arthur Franz is "The Sniper"

The remaining three features showcase the docu-noir style of daylight thrillers with darkly psychotic characters. The Sniper (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer and directed on location in San Francisco by Edward Dmytryk, has a much edgier atmosphere and modern feel. Adolphe Menjou’s police detective has seen everything, but the spree of a woman-hating psychopath troubles him because (police psychiatrist aside) he can’t understand the motivation. The direction straddles the studio model of storytelling and the immediacy of low-budget location shooting and Dmytryk punctuates the violence with vivid explosions of brutal force without showing a drop of blood. Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), also shot on location in San Francisco, stars Eli Wallach as a killer on the trail of smuggled heroine shipments ready to kill anyone in his way. It’s low budget theatrical version of a TV series, but Siegel makes it all about the killers and gives the film a matter-of-fact violence that gives the film a life of its own. Murder by Contract (1958), by contrast, is almost laconic it its story of a self-made assassin-for-hire (Vince Edwards), an almost existential figure who is happy to share his philosophy while on a job to silence an inconvenient witness. Irving Lerner’s direction is almost hypnotic as he matches the deliberation of his killer with meticulous direction: every murder is so carefully set up that we never need to see the follow through. All three of these films take place mostly in the daylight and all have a crispness to them that the shadowy studio noirs don’t. There are introductions to four of the films (three of them by Martin Scorsese) and commentary on two of them. Film noir historian Eddie Muller is more focused on The Sniper but is more lively trying to keep James Ellroy in check on The Line-up (Ellroy’s colorful language is not censored in this track, as it was on his previous commentary track with Muller). More on The Big Heat here.

Honorable mention:

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films By Jean Painlevé (Criterion) – “Science is fiction” was the credo of film director, critic, theorist, mathematician and animator Jean Painlevé, whose films include documentaries, science and nature studies and animated shorts, all directed with a distinctive aesthetic and sensibility. Science can also be art. The short films in this collection span the years 1927 through 1982 and include his groundbreaking underwater films. Criterion’s three-disc set also features “The Sounds of Science,” a compilation of eight underwater shorts scored by Yo La Tengo and originally performed in 2001, and the eight-part French TV series “Jean Painlevé Through His Films.” This is one of those sets I did not have the opportunity to explore beyond a cursory glance, but I’m hoping to find time in 2010 to really give it the attention it deserves.

And more sets that didn’t fit into the arbitrary parameters of ten (plus one):

Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set (Kino) (reviewed on Parallax View here)

Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986 (Image) (reviewed on MSN here)

Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Sony) (reviewed on my blog here and on MSN here and here)

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal) (reviewed on Parallax View here and on MSN here)

Nikkatsu Noir (Eclipse Series 17) (Criterion) (reviewed on Parallax View here)