Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, Wim Wenders

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The American Friend,’ ‘Bitter Rice,’ and the ‘Lady Snowblood’ chronicles

AmericanFriendThe American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.

The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.

Given these origins, the relationship that develops between Zimmerman and Ripley, who returns as a strange dark angel savior, is genuine and fraternal, even as it arises from deceit and a desire to punish, and rife with contractions. While Zimmerman is unexpectedly intoxicated by the danger and violence of his assignments, his victims are not merely the murdered criminals, but his family. This is as introspective and psychologically tangled as thrillers come, and all the more compelling for it. Wenders regular Lisa Kreuzer is excellent as Zimmerman’s wife, whose suspicions of Ripley prove completely founded, Nicholas Ray is superb as the aging New York artist turned forger who, in opening scene, contemplates his failing eyesight (he was dying of cancer at the time of shooting and the acknowledgment of his mortality haunts his scenes), and Sam Fuller barks orders as an American gangster.

Criterion’s disc is mastered from a new 4k restoration produced by Wenders’ own production company and supervised by Wenders. Robbie Muller’s cinematography is preserved in all its clarity, from the cool, uncluttered quality of the airports and train stations and Ripley’s own fortress of a home to the cluttered warmth of Zimmerman’s home and frame shop.

It features commentary recorded by Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper for the original 2003 DVD release, “exactly 25 years after we shot it.” Wenders is quite and calmly paced (“Somehow I became obsessed with having directors play all the crooks and bad guys”) and Hopper calmer than you might expect. Their talk isn’t quite a conversation (Wenders sounds more like a combination lecturer and storyteller and Hopper ends up his audience much of the time), but they find their rhythm about a half hour into it. The deleted scenes in the 36 minute featurette are interspersed with behind-the-scenes shots, slates, outtakes, and colorful production footage. Without the benefit of introductions or titles, the commentary is essential to place the shots and understand the context, and true to form the soft-spoken Wenders acts more like a host than a commentator as he sets the scenes. There isn’t much explanation, but there are stories, insights, and reflections in all the commentaries.

Exclusive to the release are the interview featurettes “Too Much on my Mind: Wim Wenders on The American Friend” (in English), with the director reflecting back on his career and the origins and production of the film (37 minutes), and “From Jonathan: Bruno Ganz on The American Friend” (in German), which runs about 27 minutes. The accompanying fold-out insert features a new essay by novelist Francine Prose.

LaduySnowThe Complete Lady Snowblood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Lady Snowblood (1973), directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko, is best known to American audiences as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, which appropriates images and scenes from the film (the showdown in the falling snow of a Lucy Liu’s courtyard) as well as the theme song, “The Flower of Carnage.” But the samurai revenge thriller, adapted from the manga by Koike Kazuo (who also created Lone Wolf and Cub) and Kamimura Kazama, was a cult favorite long before Tarantino came along.

Born of a wronged woman who dies giving birth in prison, the beautiful and deadly Shirayuki (Meiko) is raised by a thief and trained in the martial arts by a priest to exact her revenge on the quartet of criminals who murdered her father and tortured her mother. Clad in a demure kimono and armed with a sword hidden in her parasol, she turns from proper lady to the fiery Lady Snowblood in the flick of an eye. The film’s comic book origins can be seen in the intermittent use of penciled panels to tell the story, in the vivid chapter titles (like “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds” and “Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers”) that mark her progress, and in the slash cutting the takes the film rapidly back and forth in time. Yet it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, full of color and movement strewn across the widescreen frame and highlighted by efficiently choreographed battles.

Both director and star reunite for Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), the one and only sequel to the hit film. Sentenced to death for her reign of murder, she is given a reprieve by a mysterious government agent in return for a mission to kill an enemy of the throne and winds up in the middle of a conspiracy where the heroes and villains are not so clear cut.

Both films are remastered from new 2k scans of 35mm prints struck directly from the camera negatives and the double feature (two discs on DVD, one on Blu-ray) includes new interviews with manga author Koike Kazuo and screenwriter Norio Osada. The insert folds out to a poster on one side and an essay by Howard Hampton on the other (along with notes on the film and the disc production.

BitterRiceSocial drama meets sexed-up melodrama and crime caper in Giuseppe De Santis’ 1949 Bitter Rice (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Vittorio Gassman as a small-time criminal who hides out from the police in the harvest of Northern Italy’s rice fields with his increasingly disillusioned accomplice (Doris Dowling) while romancing a sexy peasant worker (Silvana Mangano, all of 18 when made the film) who falls for his promises of wealth. It’s earthy stuff, with the all-woman rice harvest crew showing plenty of leg while toiling in the fields and lounging in lingerie between shifts while debating fair treatment and dreaming of a better life. It makes for a very entertaining mix of politics and hot-blooded melodrama and the culture of the seasonal workers—all women, with a few men around the fringes acting as little more than labor pimps—and their barracks society is fascinating. As director John L. Sullivan might put it, it’s social commentary… with a little sex in it.

The Criterion edition is mastered from a new high-definition scan of the original camera negative. The source material is not pristine but Criterion has used digital tools to clean up where possible, and the black and white images has good clarity and contrasts. On Blu-ray and DVD with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani’s 2008 documentary Giuseppe De Santis, his portrait of the director, and an interview with Lizzani from 2002, with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film critic Pasquale Iannone.