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James Stewart

Blu-ray: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection’

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.

Universal Home Video

They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.

Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”

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Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

There is a group of films which are meant to be entertaining, are seldom noteworthy, and are usually G-rated. They can be termed entertainment films and customarily offer nothing for something. It is their habit to stay clear of anything that anyone might consider controversial. So extreme is this fear of controversy that they often end up virtually without content. Technical expertise is not generally one of their assets…. With all this on the debit side, it’s surprising that they ever succeed. But successful entertainment films of a special variety were turned out by one studio with remarkable consistency. The studio was MGM. The special films were musicals. To succeed where others failed, MGM had a formula involving two basic elements: use the best talent available, both in front of and behind the camera.

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Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Man From Laramie’

James Stewart roughed up his all-American nice guy image in five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the best of the seven films they made together in the 1950s, most of them for Universal Studios. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, was made for Columbia and it was the first film that Mann shot in the still novel CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format, which debuted just a couple of years earlier. It was a natural for Mann’s kind of western filmmaking, where the landscape and environment is a defining part of the drama and an integral element of the film’s tone and sensibility. For The Man From Laramie, Mann shot in the high plains and the ribbons of ridges of New Mexico, stretched far across the widescreen canvas. It’s lovely but forbidding, a mix of inviting green and forbidding desert and rock, and it is far from any other settlement, right in the heart of Indian country.

Into this beautiful but isolated land rides Will Lockhart (Stewart) and the wagon train of his freight company. He also has personal business in the territory and it has something to do with the charred remains of a wagon train they pass along the way. Stewart eases up on the neurotic edge he brought to earlier Mann films Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur and is even quite charming when he first arrives in town and meets Barbara (Cathy Downs) with his wagonloads of freight. When she offers him tea, he smiles at the thought of so civilized a break from the trail and watches her bustle about with an appreciation for the feminine presence in his life, no matter how fleeting. But he’s a hard, driven man as the dark expression that passes over his face at the massacre graveyard communicates.

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Videophiled Classic: James Stewart is ‘The Man From Laramie’ and Burt Lancaster drives ‘The Train’

ManLaramieThe Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Anthony Mann’s seventh and final collaboration with James Stewart and his first widescreen film, is a frontier “King Lear” by way of Mann’s favorite themes of splintered families and filial betrayal. Stewart plays his usual brooding loner, a former army scout searching for the man responsible for his brother’s death. He rides into a town run by a cattle baron (Donald Crisp) with an irresponsible son (Alex Nicol) who despises him and a dutiful foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who desperately craves his father-figure’s affection and respect.

The complicated web of love, hate, and betrayal sprawls over the entire town and Stewart, less psychologically haunted than in previous Mann collaborations, becomes a catalyst that pitches the conflict into violence, usually directed at him. While the Apaches are the ostensible threat, Mann’s brutal violence reaches a new level of cruel glee in Nicol’s sadistic psychopath of a delinquent with a six shooter. At his direction, Stewart is dragged through a burning campfire, shot point-blank in the hand, beaten, ambushed, and generally made unwelcome. Kennedy provides the psychotic edge as the spurned son with a black secret. As usual Mann’s landscapes are magnificent in a country where beauty and danger lie in the same handsome wilderness. Also stars Cathy Downs as a Kennedy’s long-suffering fiancée, googly-eyed Jack Elam as shady informant, and Wallace Ford as a tracker who becomes Stewart’s ally.

Twilight Time offers a lovely widescreen transfer and offers the usual trademark extras: an isolated musical score and effects track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

TrainThe Train (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) makes a timely arrival for anyone who was disappointed with Monuments Men. This too is a true story of the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures during their retreat and the efforts to stop them, but this is a tough, muscular war thriller that pits the stakes against one another: just what price are you willing to pay to protect your artistic legacy? Burt Lancaster is the proletariat resistance leader who bristles under orders to stop the art from being taken out of France – he’s more focused on killing Germans and saving civilians – and Paul Scofield is his nemesis, the aristocratic Nazi officer who oversees the mass looting of France’s greatest paintings.

John Frankenheimer (who replaced the film’s original helmer, Arthur Penn, at Lancaster’s request) directs with a muscular style that puts the themes into action and the crisp black and white photography captures the busy industrial detail of the train yard and the gritty war-torn atmosphere of France in the final days of the German occupation. The great Michel Simon is the burly engineer who sabotages the initial run and Suzanne Flon and Jeanne Moreau co-star.

This Twilight Time release features the original commentary recorded by Frankenheimer for the laserdisc release almost 20 years ago plus a new commentary track with Twilight Time founder and historian Nick Redman and film historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, as well as the usual isolated score track and eight-page booklet. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classics and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

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Death and the Detective: Vertigo Revisited

Once upon a time an 11-year-old boy went to see the new Hitchcock movie.
He came home crying, and didn’t understand why.
Fifty-two years later, he thinks he knows.

Scotty Ferguson, recovering from the suicide of Madeline Elster, and from his guilt at having failed to prevent it, quite casually encounters on a San Francisco street Judy Barton, a young woman who, despite profound differences, reminds him eerily of Madeline.

Kim Novak as Judy

Scotty can have Judy. She as much as tells him so: “To tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.” (Of course, we soon learn—though Scotty doesn’t—that she isn’t simply “easy”; she is actually Madeline, or the woman Scotty thinks of as Madeline, and she is still in love with Scotty, even as he is with her.)

So why does Scotty so desperately need to turn her (back) into Madeline before he can love her?

It is precisely because he can have Judy that he doesn’t want her. Among the many things Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is about is the fantasies of men (underwear fetishism; necrophilia and its more common image, the defenseless sleeping woman; the confusion of dream women with real women; the seduction of a younger woman; the seduction of a stranger; dressing-up games, and undressing ones; voyeurism; playing doctor-and-patient, which Hitchcock had earlier assayed in Spellbound). And what men want is what they cannot have.

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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