Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months (or more).
42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.
Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’tLookNow, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.
To many fans, Performance(1970) is legendary as the dramatic feature film debut of Mick Jagger. Though released in 1970, the film–about a short-fused punk of a London gangster named Chas (James Fox) who hides out from the cops and the crooks alike in the basement flat of a reclusive rock stars’ (Jagger) dilapidated mansion–was shot in 1968, at the height of Jagger’s bad-boy infamy. The Rolling Stones had released “Between the Buttons,” “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request,” and “Beggar’s Banquet,” and Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested and convicted on drug charges in 1967. By the time the film was released he was the poster man-boy of rock decadence and the devil’s music, dangerous and seductive, and he became a sexual icon in a way the Beatles could never be. But Jagger has less screen time and a far less central role in this drama than you might guess, given the way his presence transforms the film.
Performanceopens as a crime thriller steeped in London gangster machismo. Chas, an angry, vicious young thug always on the edge of spinning out of control, is the young enforcer for mobster Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), an old school gang leader making his play to consolidate his control over his section of London. The problem is that Chas likes his work far too much and has a tendency to overreach his orders, especially when they call for restraint. Chas is an artist of destruction. Which of course comes back to bite him. His zeal threatens Harry’s new alliance and puts him in the crosshairs of the underworld and the cops alike.
Performanceis the directorial debut of both cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and artist / writer Donald Cammell, who teamed up to co-direct. It’s a heady brew from the opening scene, which stitches two seemingly disconnected storylines with aggressive editing that seems to rewrite the script as it weaves scenes together.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary film is, amongst other things, a scathing satire and a science-fiction tragedy. Even the title is multi-layered. The hero is an extraterrestrial visitant who literally falls out of the sky; “falling to earth” implies a painful coming to senses; and “the man who fell” recalls “the Fall of Man,” which the plot allegorically depicts. There is also a lot of literal falling: the hero, his wife and his spacecraft tumble through various areas of space, vast and small; a central character is murdered by defenestration; crucial scenes involve descent by elevator, high-diving into a swimming pool, collapsing onto beds. The hero’s name on Earth is Thomas Jerome Newton—Thomas after the doubter, Jerome after the saint who compared men to insects, and Newton after the scientist who evolved the law of gravity after being conked by a falling apple (a symbolic enough item—the event took place in a garden, too!).
Newton was celebrated in Alexander Pope’s couplet, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / Till God said, Let Newton Be, and all was light.” Thomas Jerome Newton seems to hold similar promise, but things don’t work out. Newton emerges from his fall to Earth carrying a British passport—a tall, spare, quiet ascetic, youthful as Dorian Gray and with a similar faintly androgynous handsomeness. He has a gift for making money. This is the purpose of his arrival on Earth, for his own unnamed planet is dying—much as the eco-warriors say ours is—and to save it, Newton has to ferry reserves of energy back to it from Earth. His technological wizardry has done nothing to save this planet, but it causes amazement here on Earth. In no time at all Newton, aided by a New York patents lawyer, has revolutionized every single one of the various communications industries, becoming a billionaire. But the effect is not to make all things light. Newton’s plan to finance a private space program fails and he is stranded on another dying planet, our own, having become one with the Earthlings. By film’s end he has become a human being and, by a terrible irony, he has lost his humanity.
Perception and loss: the twin themes of Nicolas Roeg. The hoodlum Chas in Performancegains understanding and tendresse immediately before being taken off to death. John Baxter in Don’t Look Nowsolves the mystery that has bedeviled him in the instant of his own murder. Both these films are directly recalled in the saga of Thomas Jerome Newton (Newton’s red hair is patently as false as Chas’s in his hideout period; like Baxter, he has brief ESP-style hallucinations), but the end is more like that of Walkabout,whose unnamed heroine, like Newton, does not die, but is crushed into a passive zombie-like state tinged by regret only in moments of furtive memory. Like her, Newton is at his most free and his most naked in the desert: it’s amidst the sands of New Mexico that he confesses the truth about himself to Dr. Nathan Bryce, the inquisitive scientist. Ironically, he has fled his own planet because it is turning into a desert. But it proves less desolate than the neon wasteland of New York, which literally becomes a prison for him. Captured by a mysterious organization—which might be the Mafia, might be the CIA, might be Big Business, what’s the difference?—Newton is endlessly subjected to a sort of benign torture in a succession of rooms arranged like the interlocking pieces of different jigsaw puzzles. Size varies bafflingly, as does style of decoration. In one room, empty save for a Ping-Pong table, nature itself has been subverted, turned into mere decor, the wallpaper being photographs of a California redwood forest. Truth is overwhelmed by lies: Newton’s smiling, patient torturers conduct their enormities behind a mask of kind concern, claiming to be medical men out to help him.