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“Hobson’s Choice” – DVD for the Week 2/17/09

Hobson's Choice
Criterion's "Hobson's Choice"

My affection for the cinema of David Lean is decidedly equivocal. He practically defines the British “Tradition of Quality” strain of filmmaking that favors taste and literary pedigree over personal sensibility and stylistic adventure. You’ll never find the fierce authorial intelligence or cinematic thrill of Alfred Hitchcock, or the fearlessly romantic imagery or wild heartiness of Michael Powell, in a David Lean film. I’m respectful of the crisp professionalism of Brief Encounter but not moved by the encounter. On the other hand, neither Hitch nor Powell could have created an epic work with the mythic dimension and human grounding and sheer visual sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia. And the wide-eyed charge and understated warmth (not to mention a genuinely Dickensian cast for a big screen incarnation of the colorful supporting characters) he brings to Great Expectations pumps the blood through the smartly adapted script.

With Hobson’s Choice (1954), Lean brings broad humor and light satire to the “Tradition of Quality.” As in his Dickens adaptations, there is a sharp sense of class distinction and the safe distance of period filmmaking with which to make it. But he also plays off those great expectations of period seriousness in the opening scenes, as the prowling camera establishes the deserted cobblestone streets and the signs on the shop windows on a rainy night before slipping inside the quaint 19th century boot shop to take inventory of the fashionable boots and smart shoes on display. The stillness is cracked by a pounding thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. Then a human shadow falls ominously upon the shop door. It’s a moment right out of Great Expectations, until that shape belches and stumbles through the door to reveal Charles Laughton in comic mode, playing the drunk and loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed.

Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work his shop as unpaid employees. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work. She decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny. Willie, the meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. John Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.

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Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy and its Screen Incarnations

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite tearjerker, I answer Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy – and its mostly faithful offspring. In all of its screen incarnations, it’s an epic tale of thwarted romance that unfolds over a period of several years.

If the original six-hour French-language trilogy—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936)—sounds unfamiliar, you might remember it in the form of Joshua Logan’s condensed American remake, Fanny, which played for many weeks in the summer of 1961 and earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Charles Boyer), cinematography and music. In this most famous version, Leslie Caron and Horst Buchholz play the frustrated lovers whose lives are irrevocably altered by one crucial decision that drives the narrative and accounts for most of the heartbreak.

The 1932 "Fanny
The 1932 "Fanny"

The films tell essentially the same story of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny, who have grown up on the Marseilles waterfront and are clearly meant for each other. But he’s driven by the desire to find adventure at sea, and after one night of passion she helps him escape on a ship that’s not likely to return soon. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy merchant, Panisse, who has never been able to have children and is happy to have a “seven-month baby.” After the child is born, Marius returns and nearly restarts their affair. But Marius’ father, Cesar, stops them, and the story’s real heartache kicks in.

Although the Pagnol films have been available for some time on DVD, the 1961 Fanny only recently made its disc debut. The extras include the first CD release of the original soundtrack album, based on the melodies of Harold Rome, who captures the unrequitable longing of the central characters.

The first American adaptation of Pagnol’s films, MGM’s underrated Port of Seven Seas (1938), was an all-star event behind and in front of the cameras. Written by Preston Sturges, it was directed by James Whale, scored by Franz Waxman and photographed by Karl Freund; the actors included Wallace Beery as Cesar, Maureen O’Sullivan as Fanny (renamed Madelon) and Frank Morgan as Panisse. Although it’s in legal limbo and won’t likely turn up soon anywhere, it was revived several years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental and unnecessarily swift (it runs only 81 minutes), it’s a more-than-reasonable adaptation, with an especially poignant turn by Morgan, just before he transformed himself into the wizard of Oz.

There’s also a mid-1950s musical stage version, called Fanny, which is the source of the Rome music. The songs, which were turned into background music in the 1961 film, include Marius’ hymn to impatience, “Restless Heart,” and Panisse’s late-bloomer anthem, “Never Too Late for Love.”

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“Chocolate” – DVD for the Week 2/10/09

Chocolate
Chocolate

It may seem peevish to choose Prachya Pinkaew’s Thai action film over a pair of Luis Bunuel masterpieces or a Clint Eastwood box set or even Eric Rohmer’s latest delight. So be it. I concede that The Exterminating Angel is arguably the essential release of the week and that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is a small release of a major film from a living treasure. But it’s just more fun to write about Chocolate.

Prachya Pinkaew put Thailand action cinema on the international map with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong), the martial arts movies that introduced stuntman Tony Jaa as an action hero. Like the martial classics of the seventies, these films threw stories together merely as an excuse to showcase the prowess of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Chocolate has a clever premise – the autistic (or “special”) daughter of a retired Thai gang woman turns out to be a martial arts savant, absorbing the lessons of the martial arts studio next door and the action movies she devours on TV – but it’s little more than an excuse to showcase Pinkaew’s latest discovery: JeeJa (also spelled JiJa) Yanin, a slip of a twenty-something woman playing the teenage dynamo named Zen.

Zen is the offspring of Zin (Ammara Siripong), a wild child on the Thai streets, and her Yakuza lover Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), who incurs the wrath of local crime boss, No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) and is exiled back to Japan before his child is born. Zen is preternaturally attuned to the slightest sounds and movements around her and she obsessively watches martial arts movies (in particular, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior), rewinding the fight scenes to catch all the moves. Her childhood buddy/honorary big brother Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a way to turn her moves and hyper-senses into street-fair theater, playing barker while Zen catches objects out of the air without even turning her head. It’s all to pay for Zin’s hospital bills (did I mention she has cancer?) and Moom finds a potential payday when he finds a secret accounts book noting all these businessmen crooks who owe Zin money. Of course, they refuse to pay. Of course, Zen busts out her moves when every one of their manual laborers turns out to double as a henchman and unending streams of fighters converge on this diminutive girl. In one fight in an open-air butcher market, they brandish cleavers. Could you make her any more of an underdog?

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“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09

What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naiveté and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.

Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.

“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.

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“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” – DVD for the Week 1/27/09

Is Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in fact the “DVD of the Week” this week? I mean, is it the standout film this week, or an overlooked masterpiece, or a superior use of the DVD medium? Or am I just reaching to fill the slot of a weekly feature?

Some of the latter, possibly. Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week and it is probably the best new film of the week, while Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd make their respective DVD debuts as well. All of them in simple movie-only editions (as if the Woodman would ever offer a commentary track). And my favorite release of the week is Shout! Factory’s three-disc set of The Secret Policeman’s Balls, which collects the performance films of five Amnesty International Benefit shows, from Pleasure at Her Majesty’s in 1976 (featuring members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball in 1989, featuring a rare reunion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore among the comedy treats. The art is all onstage, however, as the films are basically no more than straight record of an event.

But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a fascinating film and a terrific DVD. The film delves into the story of Roman Polanski’s notorious statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, his indictment on six felony charges and his subsequent flight from the U.S. in 1977. Polanski’s story reaches much farther back, of course, and is framed by his history: he survived the Holocaust that killed most of his family and endured the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the insatiable, irresponsible media circus that hounded Polanski and recklessly smeared his reputation before the investigation discovered and arrested Charles Manson and his followers (giving the press an even more sensationalistic story). That might screw up anyone, but it hardly explains or justifies Polanski’s “relationship” (his word) with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, plying her with drugs and alcohol before having sex with her. The film doesn’t flinch from Polanski abhorrent crimes (to which he confessed and plead guilty) and the excerpts of police interview transcripts with Polanski and Gailey are discomforting and disturbing.

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“Magnificent Obsession” – DVD of the Week 1/20/09

Deep in the second act of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, as Jane Wyman’s blind heroine Helen Hudson mourns for her lost sight after a disappointing prognosis from the world’s greatest ocular specialists in a Swiss Clinic, she steps out of her bedroom and into the drawing room of her accommodations (no tourist class for this class act). The conversation of the previous scene took place in full light, but as Helen glides into the room like a whisper the room is suddenly in shadow, as if dusk has crept up on Helen and her devoted step-daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush). “The night is the worst time,” she confesses to Joyce, her face picked out of the darkness by a sliver of rim lighting on her cheek, like a crescent moon. “It does get darker, you know. And then when I finally do get to sleep, I know that when I get up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” We’re not quite blind, merely drifting at the edge of her perpetual darkness, and it casts a somber atmosphere over the scene. There is no “realistic” reason for our plunge into darkness and Sirk makes no explanation as he, for a few brief moments, takes us into her twilight world. But it feels right. His use of light and color is not unlike the way the underscore builds through the scene. As Helen gropes through the apartment to reach the balcony, where her fumbling knocks a pot off the ledge and smashing into the street below, the score crescendos on the shattered pot, the physical echo of her shattered hopes as she sobs over her affliction. Like the music, Sirk conducts the light to reflect the inner world rather, not the material world. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) swoops in to cheer her up, the rooms lights up with him. “I’d forgotten how happy I could be,” she chokes in the brief glow of his presence. It’s doomed to be short lived in this world of grand emotions and self-sacrifice, at least until the final triumph where love does indeed conquer all.

Magnificent Obsession is the first of Douglas Sirk’s great Hollywood melodramas, a romantic tale of hubris and loss and sacrifice and rebirth in a rarified Technicolor world of storybook-pretty homes and sun-dappled preserves of nature. The setting is the lakeside village of Brightwood, part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright, but apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his portrait’s landscape. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and constantly playing with his light as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater, while never breaking the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil.

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“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” – DVD of the Week 1/13/09

“I don’t interpret. I don’t transmit any message. I avoid expressing theories and forcing meanings. I reconstruct documents, I offer information which leaves to the spectator the entire responsibility for his own judgments.”

– Roberto Rossellini

 

This week, 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, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, 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. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) 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

 

The film opens on the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who has amassed a fortune in his position. The ambitious and corrupt Fouquet is jockeying to take his place (and enrich himself in the process) and the entire court is full of intrigue and plotting at the Cardinal’s illness, all figuring how to make their power play. Or so we’re told, as this information is all exposition, a dialogue serving largely to explain and explicate everything to the audience. (Rossellini also takes time to explore in detail the state of medical science: doctors passing judgment on the odor and color of the Cardinal’s urine, and prescribing more bleeding. Isn’t it lucky that they’ve measured just how much blood a man can lose and still remain alive?)

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“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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The Essential DVD Debuts of 2008

I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.

Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.

This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.

#1 – The Films Of Budd Boetticher

The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?

The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.

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Budd Boetticher: A DVD Wish List

The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.

That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.

Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:

Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"
Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"

The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)

These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.

The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.

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Skolimowski: “Barrier” ( “Bariera”)

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]

Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darkness at Noon–style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame — out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.

Jan Nowicki and Joanna Szczerbic in "Barrier"

Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass. First guy to succeed wins the piggy.

It’s that simple. In fact, quite often in Barrier things prove to be that simple, although we need a little time and a little looking-around before we can appreciate the fact. What seems weird, freaky, outré frequently turns out to be just the way things are in this neighborhood. That screaming of a soul in torment as the hero roves about a strange, shrouded white corridor? Well, you see, next door there’s a dentist’s office; and the shrouds, that’s no big deal — some students are supposed to come over later and clean the place up, and I mean, we wouldn’t want the antlers (huh?!) getting dusty….

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The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of “Touch of Evil”

“(Universal) told me that although they didn’t know who was going to direct (Touch of Evil), Orson Welles was going to play the heavy. ‘You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director,’ I said. ‘Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?’ At the time Orson had not directed a picture in America since Macbeth. They were a bit nonplused, but they got back to me in a couple of days and said ‘Yeah, well that’s a very good idea, a startling idea.’” – Charlton Heston, 1971 interview.

"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya
"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya

Others have taken credit for bringing Orson Welles to the project that would be his last tango with Hollywood and his final American production. Albert Zugsmith, who produced Man in the Shadow with Welles as the heavy, once claimed that Welles offered to direct the worst script in his possession and Zugsmith handed him Badge of Evil ( the original title of novel and Paul Monash’s adaptation). But history has accepted (as has Welles himself) the Heston version. It was a mid-budget, modest crime thriller and Welles took on directing and rewriting duties with no increase in salary, as if Universal was doing Welles the favor. Perhaps they thought they were, as Welles the director had a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult, profligate and uncommercial. Welles himself saw it less a job than an opportunity, a chance to prove himself to the industry with a commercial film at a bargain price.

As on The Lady From Shanghai, Welles was in the position of making a studio picture out of a pulp thriller, a project not of his choosing but one that he remade in his own image. The resulting picture is a mad, gloriously sleazy and grandiosely bravura B movie opera, a study in corruption and racism in the bordertown netherworld straddling the boundary between Mexico and the good old US of A. Welles’ cherubic face becomes the bloated bulldog mask of bullying police detective Hank Quinlan, perhaps his most grotesque figure in a career of power mad manipulators. [See Robert C. Cumbow’s essay for a marvelous reading of the film]. And once again the film was yanked from his hands, re-edited in his absence and released (as part of a double bill) in a truncated version that made a hash of the story and reinforced the old cliché about Welles: his films didn’t make sense and didn’t make money.

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Heart-Shaped World: “The Earrings of Madame de…

The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.

an affair in plain sight
Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica: an affair in plain sight

Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.

Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.

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The Last Round-up: Budd Boetticher’s Great Westerns Coming to DVD

Last year, in a piece I wrote for GreenCine, I dreamed up my fantasy list of box sets and special editions I wanted to see (heck, I wanted to OWN) in the coming years. Less than year later, two of those dream DVD sets have been announced. (I doubt my piece had much to do with them, but hey, it was a dream list and I can fantasize about its impact.)

Universal is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil with a two-disc special edition featuring all three versions of the film (the 1958 release version, the longer preview cut discovered in the mid-seventies, and the 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction), plus commentary on each disc by different folks, the complete Welles memo, a couple of featurette, interviews and such. This will be the first time either of the those earlier two versions have actually been home video in their original state (the old VHS and laserdisc releases of the film were of a studio job that combined footage from both of those old versions into one hybrid version). The anniversary branding explains the delay in the release, something fans have been expecting ever since the Murch-helmed reconstruction. The release date October 7. See the press release for the complete details on the release.

Paramount's DVD release of "Seven Men From Now"
Paramount's DVD release of "Seven Men From Now"

A release sure to receive less publicity but one that is equally exciting to me, however, is Sony’s Budd Boetticher Box Set, a collection of the Columbia “Ranown” films directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The release has been long in the coming as only a couple of the films had been released to VHS (and those on substandard Goodtimes videos). Paramount’s 2005 DVD release of Seven Men From Now, the first collaboration between Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, only whetted my appetite for the rest of the films.

Seven Men From Now (1956) set the tone and lean style for series, as if it was carved it in the stone-like visage of Randolph Scott’s weatherbeaten face. Boetticher had just come off a two-year stint with Universal, where he cranked out journeyman assignments (including his first westerns) with a muscular sense of action and place, and the austere little crime thriller The Killer Is Loose when producer John handed him the terse script by Burt Kennedy. More than perfect fit with Boetticher, it brought the best in the director. Boetticher pares himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenches up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. He makes Kennedy’s dialogue sing like lyrics and turns Scott “limitations” as an actor into an expressive element of character: inexpressive and inflexible, hard, his voice that masks his feelings and his lanky body is perfectly at ease setting a horse or handling a gun but less sure in moments of emotional intimacy.

Producer/star Scott realized that he had a winning combination and immediately signed Boetticher up to direct for his own company at Columbia Pictures, where he cranked out low budget westernsthat made enormous profits. The made five films together at Columbia – The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) – three of them scripted by Kennedy. From The Tall T to Comanche Station, you can see Boetticher and Kennedy honing the style and structure established in 7 Men to a laconic austerity. That cycle stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford: tight, taut, often savage little pictures that are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character.

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‘Redbelt’ on DVD – A second round with Mamet’s magnificent martial arts drama

David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.

Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry: Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world

Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture – heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.

In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.

Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.

It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.

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