New Year! New Blu-Ray Round-Up!

Nathanael Hood is back with a Round-Up of Blu-rays you need for the New Year!

A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) (Criterion Collection, Spine #970) ★★★★½
When I first saw Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd over five years ago, I wrote in my journal that the film, while well acted and shot, was essentially a failure. Nobody could buy the meteoric ascent of a homespun psychopathic drifter to national fame and political office within a few short months, I reasoned. Oh, how hindsight makes fools of us all. Half a decade later, after the rise of Far Right populism, the Brexit referendum, the Trump election, and more, the only legitimate criticism of the film one can imagine is that it’s too optimistic with its megalomaniac being discovered, humiliated, and abandoned by the public. Perhaps Kazan wasn’t cynical enough for his story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drunk tank louse turned overnight media sensation. But what Kazan put on the screen was still one of the more prescient and bitingly uncomfortable condemnations of American groupthink ever filmed. Some of this comes from Budd Schulberg’s acerbic screenplay which is just as concerned with attacking the power of television as a propaganda machine as it is the dangers of unfettered grassroots populism. (Nowhere is this better captured than a scene in Memphis where, in a moment of stark, uncharacteristic clarity and calm, Rhodes looks upon the forest of TV antennas rising above the city and shudders in horror.) Some comes from Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling Sr.’s understated yet powerful cinematography, the latter of which used their experience working with Jacques Feyder and Alfred Hitchcock to transform nighttime interior scenes in the last hour into chiaroscuro sepulchers of the soul. Some comes from Kazan’s cynicism towards American institutions, still feeling the sting of industry resentment some five years after naming names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). But most comes from Andy Griffith’s mesmeric performance as Rhodes where he played against type. Though it would be several years before being immortalized in The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith’s early success as a stand-up comedian and actor in two filmed productions of No Time for Sergeants had him publicly pegged as a down-home, folksy good-ol’ boy. But here, he’s a beast of volcanic temper, bacchanalian appetite, and Willie Stark cunning. It’s one of the greatest cinematic face-turns this side of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Consider this release an essential one for these equally essential times.

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS [1964] (Kino Lorber) ★★★★
Here’s a controversial opinion: Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars—arguably the film that jumpstarted the Spaghetti Western movement and defined it’s look, feel, and worldview; perhaps the single most influential reimagining of the Western mythos since John Wayne battled Native Americans in Monument Valley in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939)—isn’t actually that good. A shameless unauthorized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s chanbara classic Yojimbo (1961) about a wandering samurai who destroys two gangs plaguing a town by pitting them against each other, the film sees Clint Eastwood as the “Man With No Name” who arrives in the desolate border town of San Miguel and finds himself in the middle of a blood feud between two wealthy families. The film’s notable for being the testing ground for Leone’s future trademark style: a mixture of meticulously composed widescreen landscapes with multiple depths of field intercut with painterly closeups of peoples’ faces. But though present, they’re still in their infancy here and take frequent back seat to more traditional and tedious film grammar. Unlike in Yojimbo where Kurosawa’s geometric mise en scène, angular camera movements, and expert production design told the story through the visuals, Leone tells much of his narrative through plodding dialogue, particularly in the soggy middle section dominated by distracting day-for-night. However, Eastwood’s magnetic presence and Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable soundtrack blending flamenco guitar with haunting whistling elevates the film above its pilfered story, making it more than just an artifact of a changing industry. But if the film is a solid three-out-of-five stars, the special features on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray release knock it up an extra star to four. In addition to a gobsmacking array of commentaries, outtakes, photo galleries, and short documentary snippets, the release includes the little known and even lesser seen prologue commissioned by ABC and shot by legendary director Monte Hellman for American television. Horrified by the lack of moral agency in Eastwood’s character, the network hired Hellman to make a short scene to run before the credits where an unidentified official played by Harry Dean Stanton offers the Man With No Name—here played by an extra several inches shorter than Eastwood whose face is always carefully hidden—to clean up San Miguel in exchange for a pardon. It’s a fascinating historical curio that justifies purchasing it, even for those who already own the film in other formats.

THE BAKER’S WIFE (Criterion Collection, Spine #986) ★★★½
Though he may not be as remembered anymore as his contemporaries Jean Renoir and, increasingly, Julien Duvivier, in the 1930s Marcel Pagnol was one of THE major French filmmakers. An artistic polyglot who excelled in theater and literature, Pagnol founded his own studio in the Marseille countryside in 1932, eschewing the metropolitan hustle and bustle of Paris for the sun-drenched rusticism of his childhood home of Provence. A devoted naturalist, Pagnol ignored flashy editing and camerawork in favor of a more subdued, theatrical style that regarded his performers as stage actors. He filled his films with local actors plucked from the streets to showcase the poetry and cadence of their native accents and dialects. And oh, how Pagnol’s characters talked! His films were baggy, overstuffed affairs that luxuriated in casual conversation. To watch them isn’t to experience a story, it’s to enter the world of his characters, uncork a bottle of wine, and drink with them until morning. An acquired taste, perhaps, but a delicious one. His greatest triumph is perhaps his Marseille trilogy, also available from the Criterion Collection in a lovely box-set. But those hesitant to invest the necessary six and a half hours would do well to start with his 1938 film The Baker’s Wife, a microcosm of everything that made his work at turns compelling and frustrating. The film’s a male victimization fantasy—a blameless middle-aged baker named Aimable (Raimu) gets cuckolded by his young wife who runs off with a shepherd. His neighbors in their small village mock and tease him until he gets drunk and swears off baking bread. Horrified, the villagers mobilize to find his wife, hopefully before meal-time. The film’s as much about the community as it is the baker or his prodigal spouse, as Pagnol leisurely introduces his eccentric cast and lets the local color stain the celluloid long before the story gets going. For all its humor, there’s an undercurrent of subtle viciousness beneath it—see how the villagers treat Aimable’s suffering as a joke until he cuts off their bread supply. It’s gender politics haven’t aged well either, as film professor Ginette Vincendeau explains in the Blu-ray’s liner notes: “[the wife] has no subjectivity; she functions as an object of exchange and consumption between men, like the bread.” The film’s a time capsule of pre-war French cinema, flawed yet charming, problematic yet inviting.

BLACKMAIL [1929] (Kino Lorber) ★★★★
Long the purview of scratchy repertoire screenings and even scratchier YouTube rips, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail has finally arrived on Blu-ray with a restoration worthy of one of the best films of his early British period. Though originally shot as a silent feature, it was later re-adapted by its studio into a talkie. It’s obvious that Hitchcock wasn’t fully comfortable with the new sound technology—much of the actual plot is communicated via wordless visual storytelling and most of the dialogue is incidental (at least until the third act). Consider the opening sequence where a group of Scotland Yard detectives raid an apartment to arrest a criminal: the soundtrack meticulously synchronizes sound effects like tire skids and footsteps, but there’s no talking. The first spoken lines in the entire film are irrelevant banter between two detectives post-arrest. Hitchcock would quickly resolve this tension between image and sound barely a year later with his superb Murder! (1930), but even with these flaws Blackmail still crackles with the energy of a genius reckoning with a new toy-box. Many might be turned off by the first act which moves with a measured pace uncharacteristic of Hitchcock’s forward-moving thrillers. A flirty young woman blows off her Scotland Yard detective boyfriend after an argument to spend time with an artist who invites her up to his apartment. Once there, they leisurely play some music, do some painting, and try on different outfits. But when the woman kills the artist with a knife when he suddenly tries to rape her, we realize that Hitchcock hasn’t been spinning his wheels but carefully setting the stage the whole time. The entire sequence relies on visual doubling: a plain staircase at the start of the scene transforms into a Expressionist nightmare by the end; an anodyne clown painting becomes a vicious accuser. From there the film dives into a realm of nastiness nearly unparalleled in Hitchcock’s career, not only because of the blackmail subplot which arises when a bystander the night of the murder shakes the woman down for money in exchange for silence. (Although Donald Calthrop’s performance as the blackmailer is deliciously vicious, best summarized in a scene where he smirkingly selects, smells, smokes, and savors an expensive cigar before making her boyfriend pay for it.) Ask yourself who ultimately gets punished and for what. And more importantly, who forces whose hand into silence.

THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE (Criterion Collection, Spine #989) ★★★
Even in the realm of Yasujirō Ozu deep cuts, his 1952 dramedy The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice seems a strange choice for an individual release. With its generally tepid critical response and painful lack of Ozu’s late-career muse Setsuko Hara, the film seems more suited for an Eclipse boxset. On the surface it’s an outlier among the films he made in the last decade of his career—a gentle satire among a sea of family dramas and tragedies. (It’s notably sandwiched between two of his most popular films: Early Summer [1951] and Tokyo Story [1953].) It begins as a light-hearted examination of social mores among the post-war Japanese upper-middle class, dryly observing the petty deceptions between housewives and their emotionally distant salaryman husbands. The best of these scenes sees a group of said housewives playing hooky from housework by going to a baseball game only for one of them to catch her husband at the stadium with his mistress. Her reaction is nonplussed; at least she’ll get a nice kimono as an apology gift, she shrugs. But the second half morphs into a more traditional Ozu drama about generational conflict as the thoroughly modern niece of the main couple (played by Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kogure) arrives and disrupts their lives by bucking their manicured bourgeois habits. She smokes, goes out drinking, visits gambling parlors, and most dramatically, refuses to consent to an arranged marriage. The film ends with a conventional Ozu reconciliation that ultimately reinforces Japan’s rigidly demarcated power structures: the henpecking wife of the main husband learns to love him again and the niece finds herself a pleasing, non-threatening boyfriend. But the film is also stylistically atypical among Ozu’s late-career films in that it prominently features camera movement, particularly slow zooms of room interiors as an indication of imminent confrontation or personal revelation. The remarkable David Bordwell video essay included in the release goes into great detail on Ozu’s use of this technique as well as the director’s discomfort with fully committing to satire due to his innate sympathy towards his characters. An added bonus is the inclusion of (the conspicuously unrestored) What Did the Lady Forget?, Ozu’s 1937 film that largely predicts both the story and tone of “Green Tea.” Even so, this release is for Ozu completionists only. Cinematic civilians will find both films tepid and underwhelming.

 

CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE [1947] (Twilight Time) ★★★½
So, here’s a neat trick. Henry King’s Captain from Castile rehabilitates both the Spanish Inquisition and Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. Or at least it tries its damnedest, reframing the former as a secular frenzy that victimized “true” Catholics and the latter as a swashbuckling adventure ordained, if not by God, then by progress and history. But lest modern sensibilities prevent one from overlooking this brazen revisionism, some context is necessary. The film is based on Samuel Shellabarger’s 1945 novel of the same name about a Castilian caballero named Pedro de Vargas who escapes the Inquisition and joins Cortés’ expedition while on the run. Darryl F. Zanuck bought the rights to the book while it was still being published as a serial in Cosmopolitan magazine, preventing him from seeing how the material would ultimately end. While adapting it, Zanuck was faced with two major issues: the sheer scope of the material and the Catholic Legion of Decency which objected to Shellabarger’s inclusion of an evil Dominican friar as the main villain. So he instructed King and screenwriter Lamar Trotti to only adapt the first half, ignoring the second where the heroes are driven out by Aztec insurgents and forced to return to Spain. What else could the film do but end on an optimistic note for the conquistadors? As for the Legion’s objections, Zanuck quickly folded, changing the friar to a secular nobleman. So if anything, Captain from Castile wasn’t a deliberate pro-imperialist polemic but the result of a studio doing the best it could with their popular but ungainly new intellectual property. But what of the movie? Well, it suffers from many of the same problems Hollywood epics from that era faced: an interminable length hampered by poor pacing (the first action scene takes place over thirty minutes into its near two-and-a-half hour runtime!) and a certain deadening heaviness. But it also shares many of their virtues: luscious production design, a tremendous score by Alfred Newman, and wonderful performances by Hollywood A-listers. Tyrone Power is at his smoldering best as the wrongly accused Pedro, Lee J. Cobb steals his every scene as the comedic sidekick Juan García, and Jean Peters as Pedro’s love interest Catana Pérez injects legitimate pathos into what could’ve been a very bland role. One scene of her flamenco dancing with Power is enough to melt the heart of any cynic.

THE CIRCUS [1928] (Criterion Collection, Spine #996) ★★★★½
The Criterion Collection has always had a soft spot for Charlie Chaplin; his 1928 classic The Circus is no less than his eighth film to be inducted. (For reference, at the time of writing this Robert Bresson only has seven, Pier Paolo Pasolini five, and Lars von Trier four.) His films aren’t just cultural touchstones, they’re immaculate pieces of pop art that stretched the grammar and production techniques of silent cinema to their breaking point. But while some of his other films might be more memorable for various reasons—City Lights (1931) is his most tearjerking, The Great Dictator (1940) his most audacious, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) his most wickedly cynical—it was The Circus that perhaps more than any other film captured the headspace of Chaplin at his most frenzied, creative, and depressed. The dominant image of the film is of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, inadvertently finding himself employed as a clown in a traveling circus, struggling to maintain his balance during a tightrope act while being attacked by monkeys. The metaphor is painfully apt—much as the Little Tramp fights to keep himself from falling, Chaplin spent the making of the film trying to keep both himself and the production from collapsing. The struggle to make The Circus almost broke him, not just because of the technical difficulties of shooting a film in a circus with live animals, a small army of extras, and some of the most complicated stunts he’d ever attempted, but because the very cosmos seemed determined to stop him. During filming the set was destroyed in a fire, the first month’s worth of footage had to be thrown out and reshot after they were damaged, nearby college kids stole parts of the rebuilt set, and the entire production was ground to a halt for eight months while Chaplin was sued by the government for over a million in back taxes. And that doesn’t even include his tempestuous divorce from Lita Grey and the traumatic loss of his mother. Yet from this chaos—if not because of it—Chaplin created one of his most unforgettable and melancholy films, one filled to the brim with unforgettable gags and set pieces. (The sequence where he gets locked in the lion’s cage and can’t get out is one of his very finest.) The best special feature: the inclusion of rediscovered outtakes and whole scenes Chaplin filmed but later edited out.

CLUNY BROWN [1946] (Criterion Collection, Spine #997) ★★★½
When Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones were cast as the leads in Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown, an adaptation of Margery Sharp’ smash-hit novel that would double as Lubitsch’s final completed film before his untimely death of heart failure, neither had done comedy before. Boyer was a French smolderer from romantic dramas and Jones the alternatively waifish ingenue and erotic sexpot from Hollywood prestige pictures. Yet both threw themselves into the material with gusto, with unfortunately middling results. Boyer is absolutely magnetic as the perpetually bemused Czech intellectual Adam Belinski, a writer living as a refugee from the Nazis in 1938 England. But as the eponymous working-class gal obsessed with plumbing (literally and…*ahem*…figuratively) who’s forced by her father to become a maid in the estate of a wealthy couple, Jones feels miscast. There’s a certain falseness to her naivety and chipper can-do attitude—one wonders what Jean Arthur’s ebullient sweetness or Katherine Hepburn jittery neuroticism could’ve done with the part. But despite this misstep, Cluny Brown remains a savagely delightful indictment of the same class system that so enervated Lubitsch’s films. Only someone born in the embrace of European aristocracy and suckled by Hollywood’s faux-proletarianism could make a film this subtly nasty yet delightful. The film follows both Belinski and Brown as they fall in love while living and working in the same mansion. But embarrassed by the gap in their social statuses, Belinksi tries to convince himself he’s in love with the detached, cold-blooded society woman Betty Cream (Helen Walker) while Brown does the same with the peevish, anal-retentive storeowner Sir Henry Carmel (Reginald Owen). But neither quite fit into their respective worlds: Belinski is too easy-going and insouciant to cohere to the ingrained rules of high society while Brown is too dunderheaded to learn them. This last is best demonstrated in a masterful scene where she ruins her chances for marrying Sir Carmel when she interrupts a dinner party to—gasp!—fix a broken sink in full view of the guests. The special features on Criterion’s new Blu-ray release do a great job complementing the movie including a wonderful discussion between film critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme on Lubitsch’s female characters and an essential introduction on the cinematic technique of the comedic reaction shot by Kristin Thompson. Cluny Brown is a late, minor film, but nonetheless enjoyable.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Criterion Collection, Spine #982) ★★★★
You can always tell when the Criterion Collection puts a little extra love into their releases, whether it’s the case and interior booklet for Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987) formatted like an actual story book or the portable shrine to Jackie Chan that is their double release of the first two Police Story films. Their new release of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one such labor of love. Consider the interior booklet. Most of the time these booklets containing critic essays and technical details are chaste little folios with a few screenshots accompanying the text. Not so this time. The Collection has constructed a punk-rock scrapbook: song lyrics are scribbled over behind-the-scenes photos; apocryphal sayings of Jesus are splayed over drawings of masturbating teenagers; costume design documents neighbor excerpts from Greek philosophers. It’s a work of art unto itself. Naturally, it would take a particularly special movie to warrant such extra attention, and Mitchell’s raucous ode to gender-bending self-discovery fits the bill. A box-office bombing LGBTQ+ cult classic, it follows the life of Hedwig Robinson (Mitchell), born Hansel Schmidt in East Germany the same year the Berlin Wall was built. Enamored by American music, Hansel has a back alley sex change operation in order to marry an American GI so they can move to the States. The surgeon botches the operation, leaving Hansel, now Hedwig, with no penis or vagina, just an “angry inch” of flesh between her legs. After being dumped on their first wedding anniversary in Kansas, Hedwig starts a music career, traveling around chintzy seafood restaurants with a backing band of Eastern Europeans while in full drag. Along the way she meets Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a wannabe musician and devout Christian she falls in love with—right until he learns about her sex change, rejects her, and becomes a superstar after stealing Hedwig’s songs. The film hums with the plasticine kineticism of Terry Gilliam as the camera tilts and moves with all the abandon of one of Hedwig’s shows. But it also demonstrates emotional depths Gilliam usually found suspicious. Consider Stephen Trask’s music: it captures fiery romantic longing and ecstatic abandon in equal measure, particularly the “The Origin of Love” number which tenderly and tearfully recounts a Greek myth about the creation of the sexes. This hand-drawn animated sequence alone justifies this loving release.

 

JOAN OF ARC [1948] (Kino Lorber) ★½
Sheesh, not even Kino Lorber seemed able to work up any enthusiasm for their release of Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc. Consider the main Blu-ray title screen, a travesty of negative space so absurd I literally burst out laughing when I saw it: a cut-out of Ingrid Bergman in chain mail as the sainted Maid of Orléans on the right third of the screen, the title occupying maybe an inch of the top left hand corner, and a chasm of pitch black everywhere else. Not that one could blame KL; as the final film of Fleming, one of the grand maestros of classic Hollywood spectacle, it certainly deserves recognition as being historically significant. It was nominated for a small battalion of Academy Awards, rightly winning two for Best Costume Design (color) and Best Cinematography (color). It was a long-time passion project for Bergman who’d lobbied Hollywood for years for the part and served as the onscreen debut of José Ferrer who’d go on in the Fifties to become the first Hispanic performer to ever win an Oscar. Joan of Arc was a rare confluence of talent, passion, and top-notch production values. Yet the film’s an unequivocal bore and slog, its failure, along with public revelations of her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, effectively scuttled Bergman’s movie career for almost a decade. Additionally, at least one biographer posited that the film’s bombing was an instrumental factor in Fleming’s fatal heart attack three months after its premier. As such, the film should probably be remembered as the gaping black chasm its title screen suggests—a black hole swallowing those involved. So what exactly went wrong? For one, it’s overly stilted and self-serious even for a chaste hagiography. Bergman herself is perhaps the worst offender, giving a detached, airy performance that feels like an impression of a sententious Catholic ideal than an actual human being. (It’s also obvious the studio wasn’t comfortable with uglying their star up for her battle, interrogation, and execution scenes—whether in short hair and squire’s tunic or prison chains she looks a pristine fashion model.) There’s too much dialogue and not enough of the spectacle Fleming so loved; the harrowing Battle of Orléans and the Dauphin’s lavish coronation feel almost begrudged on the part of the screenwriters. And at 145 minutes, it’s more fit to inspire audience narcolepsy than piety.

 

KLUTE (Criterion Collection, Spine #987) ★★★½
It didn’t take director Alan J. Pakula long to realize he’d perhaps bitten off more than he could chew when he began production on his second film Klute (1971). A thriller that reveals the killer in the first hour, a detective story where the detective becomes a supporting character, and a psychological study of a prostitute (played by Jane Fonda in an Oscar-winning turn) who perpetually remains a mystery both to the audience and herself, Klute had all the makings of a self-indulgent disaster. And yet, not in spite of its contradictions but because of them, the film has survived as one of the most cherished of the early Hollywood New Wave and a watershed moment in American cinematic feminism. It’s perhaps a bit too icy for its own good and Pakula, who extensively studied Hitchcock during the film’s pre-production to learn what not to do, gambles on a climax just as dramatically contrived and melodramatic as anything Hitch filmed. But Klute feels vibrantly alive in a way that betrays its subdued chilliness. Watching it feels less like following a story than witnessing a film awaken to itself. Much of this comes from Pakula and Fonda’s constant revisions and improvisations—indeed, the film was originally centered on Donald Sutherland’s detective character Klute who meets Fonda’s character Bree while investigating the disappearance of a businessman who may or may not have been her “client” a few years earlier. But as shooting progressed, Pakula found himself putting more and more attention on Fonda’s character until she’d practically subsumed the focus of the film. This was a wise decision as Fonda’s portrait of a psychologically fragmented call girl is one of the most complex portrayals of American womanhood in 70s cinema. The performance was accentuated with some of the chilliest cinematography ever shot by “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis. In a 1972 interview with Sight & Sound included in the Criterion release’s insert booklet, Paluka revealed that they’d collaborated to create a juxtaposed visual style: widescreen Panavision that emphasized verticals, not horizontals, while underscoring a sense of darkened claustrophobia, not openness. For all the film’s faults, it’s a remarkably mature aesthetic statement, aided by the Blu-ray’s wonderful transfer than maintains the delicious original 70s film grain. Even more delightful are the special features which include vignettes about how the production team channeled the economic decay of post-president Johnson Manhattan.

LITTLE OLD NEW YORK [1923] (Undercrank Productions) ★★
In recent years Undercrank Productions has quietly established itself as one of the more fascinating purveyors of cinematic ephemera, manufacturing releases of second and third string silent comedians like Alice Howell and Marcel Perez and collections of shorts from obscure hardware trends like Edison’s Kinetophone which synchronized a kinetoscope and a phonograph to create early sound films. These releases are clearly meant for historians and collectors, but every now and then they release something that might pique the interest of broader silent cinema fans. The most recent of these is their Blu-ray release of Sidney Olcott’s Little Old New York, an adaptation of Rida Johnson Young’s play produced by William Randolph Hearst as a star vehicle for his mistress Marion Davies. Undercrank has already released three of Hearst’s vanity projects for Davies, most notably the ultra-lavish period romance When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) which featured one of the biggest indoor sets ever built. Little Old New York clearly didn’t have the same budget or resources, but it’s still a meticulously detailed period romance that necessitated lavish costume balls, a dockside set with nineteenth century ships, and a small army of extras. The film is set in early 1800s New York City where Davies plays Patricia O’Day, an Irishwoman masquerading as her dead brother Patrick to claim a fortune bequeathed to him in a distant relative’s will. She spends much of the movie dressed as a man, her wimpy Dutch boy haircut the only thing taking away from her strikingly androgynous appearance. Indeed, Davies—who was sadly pigeonholed all too often into melodramatic roles despite being born for comedy—seems to relish the chance to strut her stuff as one of the boys. Many of the best scenes are when she gets to pantomime macho behavior: an impromptu street fight with three street toughs that leaves her readjusting her jaw like a Looney Tunes character; her stuffing her face with sandwiches at a party while being berated by the maître d’; her performing an impromptu Irish jig before a crowd at a boxing match. But the film overall is treacly and overlong; only the aforementioned third act boxing match saves it from being a total snore. On its own, the film feels a sorry candidate for a solo release. Maybe in future it could be paired with Henry King’s 1940 sound remake starring Alice Faye and Fred MacMurray.

 

NOW, VOYAGER [1942] (Criterion Collection, Spine #1004) ★★★★½
Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager might be the crown jewel of the Woman’s Film, a genre of women-centric melodramas that reached their apex during the Great Depression and World War Two. Of the stars associated with the genre, few were as famous and beloved as Bette Davis, an artistic chameleon known for risky, atypical roles for Hollywood starlets like her breakthrough turn as a venomous waitress who graphically dies of tuberculosis in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934). Now, Voyager equally shocked audiences by stripping away her glitz and glamour for her performance as Charlotte Vale, an overweight (by 1940s standards) and ugly Boston spinster who grew up under the thumb of her domineering and cruel mother. Her beautiful legs stuffed into orthopedic loafers, her eyebrows matted into thick twin caterpillars, and her eyes hidden behind coke bottle glasses, Davis was the perfect picture of unkempt, frumpy misery. Yet it was her mousy, neurotic performance that elevated Charlotte Vale from an archetype to a human being, one who over the course of the film would find love and independence only for it to be torn away time and again by fate. The Woman’s Film—derisively written off by many critics and cultural commentators as “weepies”—bartered in big, bombastic emotions and unexpected reversals of fate and circumstance, and Now, Voyager contains enough of both to fuel several seasons of a soap opera. Over the course of the film she’s sent to sanitariums twice for nervous breakdowns, finds love on a steamship holiday to Brazil, shocks her tyrannical mother into a heart attack, and becomes the surrogate parent of the child of her unattainable true love. But Davis’ performance anchors it, preventing it from flying off into the realm of camp, turning an outlandish story into one painfully human and universal. The Criterion release of the film is absolutely superb, both in the quality of its transfer and its special features. The best is an excellent half hour interview with film historian Farran Smith Nehme where she contextualizes the film within the scope of both the Woman’s Film genre and Davis’s career. But special mention must also be made of the commentary by music scholar Jeff Smith that explores Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning soundtrack. I’ve never encountered such a thing before, but having experienced it now I wish soundtrack commentaries were as mandatory a special feature as the perfunctory essay booklet.

 

THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE [1933] (Criterion Collection, Spine #1006) ★★★½
“Old grandfather can’t see past his own specks,” the black maid gossips while washing and folding her mistress’ lingerie, “if he done the laundry, he’d know more about that child.” A crass, salacious line for a crass, salacious movie, perhaps, but one of the most memorable in Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake (1931) a lurid, sensationalist adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary. Faulkner’s stab at unadulterated pulp, it told the story of the abduction and rape of a Mississippi society girl who gets forced into prostitution before killing her pimp and escaping. A smash bestseller upon release, Paramount quickly bought the movie rights and set about cleaning the story up enough for general audiences. But even after extensive revisions which altered or removed the more ghastly details—most notoriously how Temple Drake was originally raped with a corncob—the movie was still obscene enough to warrant the Hays Office’s wrath which retaliated by beginning to officially enforce the Motion Picture Production Code. (Temple Drake was only one of several movies that ultimately broke that camel’s back, but its specific influence is undeniable.) Available for decades only on bootleg 16mm prints, this new Criterion Collection release features a restoration by the Museum of Modern Art. The most obvious merit of this restoration is that one can now properly appreciate Karl Struss’ stunning cinematography. Struss, who worked alongside such luminaries as F.W. Murnau and Charlie Chaplin, brought the full weight of the talents he developed working alongside Hollywood’s European émigrés to channel the psychological fragmentation of German Expressionism and the velvety glow of American melodrama. Consider an early extended sequence where Temple is brought to an old mansion inhabited by bootleggers after a drunk driving accident. It’s a masterclass of cinematography shot, paced, and toned like a haunted house movie complete with shambling servants, disjointed shadows, and a palpable atmosphere of terror. Equally astonishing is Miriam Hopkins as Temple who transcends the story’s crassness with a performance that captures Faulkner’s distinctive sense of psychological complexity and turmoil. Hopkins would long cite Temple as one of her favorite roles and it’s easy to see why—it gave her the chance to explore emotional depths scarcely afforded to early Hollywood starlets. But even at only seventy-two minutes, it creaks with the weight of trying to be both titillating pulp and convincing drama. Essential Pre-code cinema? Yes. But flawed nevertheless.

 

TRIGGER, JR. [1950] (Kino Lorber) ★★★½
Watching William Witney’s Trigger, Jr. was like being transported back in time to when I was eight years old and huddled under the covers of my grandmother’s bed in Clayton, Georgia, watching VHS tapes of old Lassie movies and Donald Duck shorts. The film is patented nostalgia, cinematic comfort food meant for sick days home from school or visits to relative’s houses that smelled vaguely of mothballs. It’s the kind of Western that’s long been outdated—one that embraces the taming of the West as something good and noble. Native Americans are entirely absent, as are black people and Hispanics. The heroes wear white hats and the bad guys black ones. The horses all seem anthropomorphized, reacting to the humans with incredulous double-takes and head nods at their foolishness and bravery. And yet the film is so enthusiastically itself and so impressively made despite its shoestring Republic Pictures budget that it’s impossible to not enjoy. Clocking in at only sixty-eight minutes, it features a surprisingly robust plot. Roy Rogers, as usual playing himself, stars as the leader of a wandering cowboy circus that’s set up shop at the Harkrider horse ranch ruled by the crotchety yet soft-hearted Colonel Harkrider (George Cleveland), an old friend of Rogers’ family. Rogers—and his trusty Palomino stallion Trigger, billed as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies”—inadvertently find themselves pulled into a power struggle between the local ranchers and the dubiously named “Ranch Patrol,” a cowboy mafia oppressing them with a ruthless protection racket. Elsewhere the Colonel’s grandson Larry (Peter Miles) fights to overcome his fear of horses, particularly when a white horse known for killing riders gets loose on their ranch, and bonds with Trigger’s son, the eponymous Trigger, Jr. It’s all a bunch of predictable, formulaic bunk that gives the King of the Cowboys room to show off his considerable horsemanship, charisma, and singing voice. And yet it works. The film is above all about spectacle, not just with the expected shoot-outs and posse charges, but with the circus itself. There are many scenes consisting solely of watching the circus performers do their acts: trapeze artists swinging in the big top, tumblers launching themselves skywards, fire-eaters tormenting Rogers’ frequent sidekick Pat Brady. Yet the film never feels padded or overlong. Everything is arranged just-so, like the right arrangement of covers and pillows on your grandmother’s bed.

 

TUNES OF GLORY [1960] (Criterion Collection, Spine #225) ★★★½
Remember when the Criterion Collection released Ronald Neame movies? Granted, he was a relatively minor figure in early British cinema, dwarfed by the likes of Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Powell and Pressburger. In fact, he’s perhaps better known for producing David Lean’s films than for making his own. But for a time when the Collection played faster and looser with which films they deemed essential enough for inclusion (Michael Bay’s Armageddon [1998], anyone?) we got a handful of his craftsmanlike dramas and comedies. Yet for whatever reason their well of Neame films dried up in 2004, leaving most of his more well-known movies to get gobbled up by other distributors. (If you can find it, try to hunt down Twilight Time’s release of I Could Go On Singing [1963], an occasionally dour yet nevertheless powerful film that sees an addiction-rattled Judy Garland play a thinly fictionalized version of herself in her last onscreen appearance.) Of Neame’s films to make it into the Collection, his best is probably the recently re-released on Blu-ray military drama Tunes of Glory (1960), a marvelous indictment of institutional machismo and performative masculinity that saw two of England’s best actors—Alec Guinness and John Mills—play against type and deliver two of their finest performances. Guinness plays Major Jock Sinclair, the stern yet warmly avuncular commanding officer of a Highland Regiment in the years after World War Two. The film begins with his being replaced by the straight-laced Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow (Mills) who sets about earning the resentment and enmity of his fellow officers by dismantling their long-held traditions: he prohibits Scottish dancing during parties, “corrects” previously lax attitudes towards military dress and punctuality during drills and bagpipe practice, and repeatedly subjugates Sinclair in public. Before long a Cold War breaks out between Sinclair and Barrow for control of the Regiment, one destined to end in catastrophe for one and madness for the other. Tunes of Glory is marvelously psychologically complex, particularly in how it characterizes both central officers as dutiful and committed to the Regiment in their own idiosyncratic ways—they both care, they just have wildly different management styles and the unflappable egos to match. Yes, it’s a fine film, but this re-release loses points for its paucity of special features. If you don’t care about picture quality, save some money and get the original DVD.

 

THE WILBY CONSPIRACY [1975] (Kino Lorber) ★★½
You can certainly see the logic behind The Wilby Conspiracy—loosely remake Sidney Poitier’s seminal 1958 classic The Defiant Ones where a white prisoner and a black prisoner are forced to work together while on the run from the law and set it in apartheid-era South Africa, one of the only places in the world to give the American South a run for its money for anti-black racism. On paper, everything looks a sure thing: a returning Poitier teaming up with Michael Caine who, while nearing the end of his 60s-to-early-70s run of iconic roles, was still a box office draw; direction from Ralph Nelson who’d already directed Poitier to an Academy Award for Best Actor a decade earlier with Lilies of the Field (1963); luscious DeLuxe Color cinematography helmed by Sam Peckinpah regular John Coquillon. Yet the film is a confused mishmash of genres and inexplicable character moments that fail to coalesce into something greater. Consider Poitier’s character Shack Twala, a black revolutionary freed from prison after a decade only to immediately get arrested by racist cops and freed in a scuffle by Caine’s Jim Keogh, an English mining engineer having a fling with Twala’s attorney. Endowed with Poitier’s trademark dignified stoicism in the face of oppression, Twala nevertheless takes time off from his escape to Botswana to have a fling with the wife of his Indian contact in Johannesburg—notable for being Poitier’s only onscreen sex scene, but baffling from a story and character standpoint. Caine never feels entirely convincing in his role, either; he’s never bad, but he never quite settles into it. He seems perpetually confused as to why he’s there, and not because his character is a fish-out-of-water. The height of Poitier and Caine’s chemistry comes fairly early on when Keogh drives an injured Twala away from a confrontation only for the latter to dryly quip “Home, James.” There are a number of crackerjack moments, however: a suspenseful sequence where Caine gets lowered into a sinkhole to retrieve a stash of hidden diamonds; a scene where a sympathetic Bantu village lifts a hut over Poitier and Caine’s car to hide them from a South African helicopter; a biplane chase over the Botswanan border. Yet the heart of this story should be its characters and their relationship. With both so lacking, the film was doomed from the start.

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About Nathanael Hood 130 Articles
Nathanael Hood is a 25 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He has a Master's Degree in Film Studies from New York University - Tisch and is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and TheYoungFolks.com.

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