Modern Times, Night of the Hunter and The Elia Kazan Collection – DVDs of the Week

23 November, 2010 (05:11) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

An embarrassment of riches and due to combination of late arrivals, a weekend without movies, a pesky head cold and a time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and and my coverage is late. Thus, a major box from a seminal American director (released November 9) and two previously available essentials getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray (released on November 16). Submitted for your approval.

The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)

To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.

Elia Kazan

Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”

The portrait does survey Kazan’s life, his education as an actor in the Group Theater and his work on stage as a director and a member of the Actor’s Studio in addition to his Hollywood work, and Scorsese does delve into the most controversial moment of Kazan’s career: naming names to avoid the blacklist, and the various reasons he offered for his actions. Scorsese neither defends nor condemns his actions or his reasons, but he does look at how the ordeal affected his art and the films he made directly after the hearings, beginning with On the Waterfront. Kazan (in an archival interview) proclaims that they are his personal films, “they came out of me,” and Scorsese agrees: “If you’re talking about the work, the art, this is a moment when a director became a filmmaker. Ultimately, a great filmmaker.” Scorsese ultimately met Kazan and became his friend, and he talks of the honorary Oscar for Kazan and his determination to be there on stage to support him in the face of the animosity still around from the blacklist. But in many ways this film is Scorsese’s way to tell Kazan what he couldn’t when he was alive: what his films and his art and his explication of the adult world to the young Scorsese meant to him as a director and as a person.

The disc also features the 20-minutes featurette “Reflecting on Kazan, directed by Kent Jones and featuring interviews with actors Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Lois Smith, Robert DeNiro, Eli Wallach and Alec Baldwin, director Ulu Grosbad (a former assistant director to Kazan), author Patricia Bosworth, and Kazan’s daughter Frances Kazan.

As for the films, Martin Scorsese personally selects the 15 Elia Kazan features (from Warner Bros. and Sony as well as 20th Century Fox) in this lavish collection, from his 1945 directorial debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to his autobiographical America, America (1963). Both of these films make their respective DVD debuts in this set, as do three other films: Viva Zapata! (1952) with Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary, the cold-war drama Man on a Tightrope (1953) with Fredric March, and the superb Wild River (1960) with Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet. The 18-disc set is filled out with the previously-released Boomerang!, Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Panic in the Streets, On The Waterfront, Baby Doll, A Face In The Crowd, Splendor in the Grass and two-disc editions of A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. There are a lot of Oscar winners and nominations in this collection, and plenty of heavyweight performances that did not get Oscar gold. Steeped in The Method, he was sensitive to actors and performance in a way different than other Hollywood directors and Broadway transplants. I can’t begin to do justice the Kazan’s career here—I direct you to Dave Kehr’s superb piece in The New York Times—but I can confirm that this is a magnificent set and it features all the supplements of their earlier DVD releases: commentary on numerous films, the feature-length documentary Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey, original featurettes and archival material.

An 11 x 7 ½ inch book holds the discs in sturdy pockets and it shares a slipsleeve with a hardcover gift book with notes and stills from the films. This is the vying to be the DVD gift set of the season for classic film lovers.

The Night Of The Hunter (Criterion)

The pastoral nightmare

It was a flop upon its release in 1955, but Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is today justly celebrated one of the most beautiful pastoral nightmares the cinema has seen. Robert Mitchum gives a fire and brimstone performance as a demonic con man in preacher man’s robes who stalks two children in search of treasure, and Lillian Gish is a tough but tender shepherd of lost sheep orphans. Part rural film noir and part expressionist parable, this is an American original boasting some of the most striking images to escape from Hollywood.

Previously available in a movie-only edition from MGM, Criterion delivers a stunning DVD and Blu-ray two-disc edition with a magnificent transfer and the correct aspect ratio (1.66:1, not the open-matte 1.33 as previously released, which reveals the top of the set in at least one scene). Assistant director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt and author Preston Neal Jones are gathered to provide commentary and the disc offers the original 40-minute documentary “The Making of Night of the Hunter,” a video interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a 15-minute episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film and a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show with Shelly Winters and Peter Graves performing a scene that was cut from the film among the wealth of supplements.

But the great treasure of this release is the 159-minute documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter. This unique production, created by film archivist and restoration guru Robert Gitt (who eschews a director credit in favor of: “Rushes selected and presented by Robert Gitt in collaboration with Nancy Mysel”), is composed almost entirely of outtakes and production footage from the film. Opening with Laughton delivering a dramatic reading to the camera (it appears to have been intended as an introduction to the film, or perhaps a promotional featurette), it shows Laughton stopping and restarting, quietly but authoritatively giving instructions to the cameraman and crew as he keeps the camera rolling through it all. For the rest of the production Laughton is an off-screen voice providing prompts and coaxing the actors through multiple takes of their performances, but his presence is defining. Gitt structures the sequences in narrative order rather than shooting chronology and puts the takes in context of the surrounding scenes, the better for us to place the scenes and see the shaping of the performances. In one sequence, we see inability to get the performance he wanted from one actor and follow it up with the role recast and the new actor (James Gleason) delivering the character he wanted. I’ve seen nothing like it before, and certainly nothing this exhaustive and complete, and it alone would make this disc indispensible. Leonard Maltin discusses the discovery of the footage and creation of the documentary with Gitt in a bonus interview and there is, of course, a booklet with essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow. Technical details at DVD Beaver.

Modern Times (Criterion)

Charlie Chaplin bid farewell to the Little Tramp and the silent cinema that birthed him with this last silent comedy for the sound era. Created at the height of the depression, the Tramp and his “Gamin” (a winning and very grown up Paulette Goddard) fight poverty, industrialization (in a hilarious assembly line burlesque), and even an omnipresent Big Brother in classic pantomime routines set to an inventive mix of sound effects, music, and even a few words from the voices of authority—but never from the Tramp. Chaplin accomplishes it all with comic grace and endearing sentimentality.

All of the Chaplin features (which are still owned by the Chaplin estate) were released in excellent restored (chemically and digitally) two-disc special editions in 2003 by Warner in collaboration with mk2, but Janus recently licensed the entire catalogue. Modern Times marks the first Chaplin release on Criterion and it’s a beaut, from a freshly mastered digital transfer created in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. The Warner release featured the 26-minute documentary Chaplin Today: Modern Times, directed by Philippe Truffaut for French TV and featuring interviews with directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two deleted scenes and a 1967 Cuban documentary short For the First Time, about rural peasants seeing their first movie: Modern Times. Those are included in Criterion’s edition, along with original commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, new visual essays by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance, a 20-minute documentary on the visual and sound effects with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, a 1992 interview with the film’s music arranger David Raksin and the 1933 home movie All At Sea with Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Alistaire Cooke, featuring a new score by Donald Sosin and a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge. Plus, of course, a booklet with essays. Technical details at DVD Beaver.

Cross-published with seanax.com.

Available at Amazon:

The Elia Kazan Collection
The Night of the Hunter [Blu-ray]
The Night of the Hunter [DVD]
Modern Times [Blu-ray]
Modern Times [DVD]

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