Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Friends of Eddie Coyle


THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Yates, 1973)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date 5/19/2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Criterion is releasing “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on Blu-ray this week. I am re-posting my review of the 2009 DVD release of the same title; the Blu-ray does not include any new extras. You might want to look elsewhere if you want to read about, like, the plot. Or other stuff.)

Consider this a tribute to George V. Higgins (1939-1999), author of the 1970 novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on which the 1973 Peter Yates film is based:


The director sat down next to the producer and smiled.

“Robert Mitchum,” the director said.
“Robert Mitchum?” the producer said.
“Robert Mitchum,” the director said. “He’s the only guy who can play Eddie Coyle.”
“That crazy bastard can’t be trusted,” the producer said. “He'll piss all over you. Literally.”
“I can handle him,” the director said. “I think.”
“But Eddie Coyle’s a two-bit nobody. Robert Mitchum’s a big-time somebody,” the producer said.
“Mitchum can do it,” the director said. “Didn’t you see him in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’?”
“OK. I can get him,” the producer said. “I’ll get him for you. I know people. I’ll get him.”

The waiter brought them two beers. The producer sipped his. The director didn’t. He had ordered a gin and tonic, but the waiter didn't like him.

“And I want Peter Boyle as Dillon,” the director said.
“You want Peter Boyle,” the producer said. “The guy that played Joe?”
“This guy’s gonna be big some day,” the director said. “I just know it. He’s just right. Think about it.”
“Yeah, I can totally see that,” the producer said. “But we need to talk about this title. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It’s not like these guys are his friends.”
“It’s ironic,” the director said. “A guy like Eddie Coyle doesn’t have any friends. Nobody cares about Eddie Coyle.”
“The audience might not either,” the producer said.
“They will if we cast Robert Mitchum,” the director said.

“I see your point,” the producer said. “By the way, I understand the ironic thing already. You think you’re a clever prick, don’t you? But I still don’t like the title. It doesn’t look good on a poster. It’s not sexy.”
“There’s no sex in this movie. Not even a romantic interest,” the director said.
“Yeah, but we don't want the audience to think that,” the producer said.
“Nobody’s going to see this movie anyway, Paul,” the director said.
“That’s not funny, Peter,” the producer said. He wiped the beer suds from his chin. “Fine, the title stays. But this thing’s a bitch to adapt. The book’s almost all dialogue.”


“And movies are all pictures,” the director said, “no matter how bad they are. That’s the beauty of it. There’s stuff that happens in between the words – you just gotta read carefully. And all of that will be in the movie. It has to be because it’s all pictures. Even when it’s dialogue, it’s still pictures. Which is why we need Robert Mitchum because nobody holds a camera like Bob Mitchum.”
“Bob?” the producer said.
“We used to play bridge together,” the director said.
“Then why are you asking me to get him?” the producer said.
“Fine, we never played bridge together,” the director said. “Can you get him?
“Yeah, yeah. I think,” the producer said.

“It really is a great book,” the director said, “You have read it, haven’t you?”
“I’m writing the damn script,” the producer said.
“That doesn’t answer the question,” the director said.
“Stop busting my balls,” the producer said.
“But I like busting your balls,” the director said.
“I bet you do,” the producer said.

The director slammed back his beer in one swift motion. He leaned forward.

“Trust me, it’s gonna be a great movie,” the director said. “It can’t miss.”
“I know. But I worry,” the producer said. “That’s my job.”
“It’s gonna be a great movie,” the director said.

The critic adjusted his chair. He sipped his Diet Mountain Dew.

“It's a great movie,” the critic said. “A really great movie. And Robert Mitchum is the only one who could do it. He really holds the camera.”


Video:
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphic, progressive transfer is crisp with only minimal signs of damage. The film’s color palette is muted and the director approved transfer doesn’t tart it up, giving it just the right look to capture the grimy Boston underworld that provides the film’s setting.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Nothing much to say here – crisp, clean, not too dynamic and not meant to be. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
This is a nearly bare-bones Criterion release. The only extra is an audio commentary by director Peter Yates.

The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones and Grover Lewis’s 1973 “Rolling Stone” profile of Robert Mitchum, compiled on the set of “Eddie Coyle.”

Final Thoughts:
Like the George V. Higgins book, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a lean, efficient crime drama, the kind of film that feels like it could only have been made during the '70s. Mitchum’s low-key performance as a total schlemiel is one of his finest. Contrast this with his phenomenal performances in movies like “Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” and you’ll get an idea how much range this great and unique actor had.

Read the book. Watch the movie. You won’t regret either decision.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas, Eclipse Series 42

Ken the Knife gets tough in Walk Cheerfully

SILENT OZU: THREE CRIME DRAMAS (Ozu x3, 1930 and 1933)
Eclipse Series, DVD, Release Date April 21, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

For reasons I don't quite grasp, the gangsters in Yasujiro Ozu's “Walk Cheerfully” (1930) like to perform choreographed dance moves, a group twirl finished with a jaunty “Oh snap, how do you like that?” gesture. They don't care that they're in a silent film; they're going to perform a nifty number for everyone to enjoy. It's a hint that even though our main character is an imposing thug nicknamed Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) this isn't going to be the most hard-boiled of crime flicks.

That's because Kenji (the Knife) barely qualifies as soft-boiled. He pulls off penny-ante thefts with his faithful henchman Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) but doesn't put up much of a fight when the new woman (Hiroko Kawasaki) he falls for demands that he go straight or else forget all about her.

If you are one of the many viewers familiar exclusively with Ozu's sound films, it is obligatory to warn you that you are about to be shocked, shocked I tell you, at what you will find in this new three film set from Criterion's Eclipse series: elaborate camera movements, shots from high angles and medium angles, and even chase scenes. “Walk Cheerfully” begins with a hectic example of the latter though it ends peacefully enough with Senko and Kenji walking away from an accusing crowd feeling triumphant and relaxed.

Ozu will dial up the tension, though, as the happy hoodlums are forced to question their complacent ways by the arrival of Kenji's new love, who is as much a problem for doting Senko as for Kenji's jealous moll Chieko (Satoko Date), coiffed in vintage Louise Brooks bob. Like all of the films in this set, “Walk Cheerfully” reflects Ozu's love of American cinema; American movie posters adorn the walls, English words feature prominently in the background design and everyone is dressed in stylish Chicago mobster suits and fedoras. Genre cinephilia was not an invention of the Nouvelle Vague.

The real strength of “Walk Cheerfully” is in the characterizations that prove to be more layered than is typical of a gangster film of this (or any) era with sidekick Senko being particular memorable in his eagerness to adapt to whatever lifestyle choices his boss makes. The story, however, proves to be a pretty formulaic redemption tale (with enough intertitles to make this silent seem a bit too talky) which made the film a mildly disappointing way (compared to my sky-high expectations for any Ozu) to kick off the set.

That Night's Wife

That changes with the second film, the efficient, moody and all around spectacular “That Night's Wife” (1930). The film kicks off in the blackness of a city night with police shooing away the homeless; they will burst into more frantic action when they catch report of a brazen robbery that leads to a manhunt that dominates the first half of this short 65-minute film. The target is Shuji (Tokihiko Okada) who, after fleeing his crime scene (punctuated by a dolly in to a bloody handprint on the door!), clings desperately to the shadows, but comes fully into relief in a spectacular scene staged in a phonebooth (oh, cinema has lost so much with the shift to mobile).

His face drenched in sweat, Shuji cowers in the booth while we see the feet of the officers shuffling through the streets a short way away; these close-ups function almost like sound-effects on the comic book page, adding sensory depth to the silent proceedings. He is calling to check on the health of his critically-ill baby girl who is being tended to by his faithful wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo). A doctor establishes a classic deadline for him: “You must return home tonight!” Shuji can practically hear his bed-ridden daughter crying for daddy (we get to see it in heartbreaking fashion) and heads home though he knows it will lead to his doom.

The first half of the film is dictated by the rhythms of the chase; the second half is all stasis, and manages to be even tenser. A detective ( Togo Yamamoto) shows up at the family apartment to take Shuji into custody, but the protective mama bear winds up holding two guns on the copper while insisting that her husband be allowed to stay with his sick child through the night. In typical Ozu fashion we soon learn that the detective is a man of great compassion rather than a cardboard cutout. The camera explores every nook of this tiny apartment; one series of shots pans right to left over several still-life compositions of bric-a-brac, then reverses direction to show both the passage of time and a surprising shift in power that has occurred in the interim. This entire film is so very much alive and so very real (I think Ozu and Satyajit Ray created the most authentic characters of all-time) and the ending surely qualifies as “transcendental” by Paul Schrader's definition.

Dragnet Girl

If Ozu doesn't top himself in the next film in this set, he at least comes close. “Dragnet Girl” (1933) is expansive where “That Night's Wife” was more carefully circumscribed. A few years (and many films) later, Ozu's camera work and editing are quite advanced, but the credit for this film's success belongs in no small part to a finely-nuanced script by Tadao Ikeda (from a story by James Maki). Though she is the title character and the first important character we see, young Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) quickly recedes into the background as yet another jealous, small-minded gangster's moll. She's destined to be cut out of the picture when her tough-guy boyfriend Joji (Joji Oka), an ex-boxer turned career crook, falls for the sweet, innocent sister of a new young hoodlum in his gang.

But it's all a clever trick. This will indeed be another story of redemption, but it will play out in a wildly divergent fashion from “Walk Cheerfully.” Tokiko initially seems content to be a stereotype as she confronts the new girl at gunpoint, but an abrupt transformation occurs. Tokiko will be the one to change and she, not little Miss Trueheart, will be the primary agent of Joji's presumptive rehabilitation. In a sincere and deeply moving scene, Tokiko makes herself completely vulnerable to Joji: “Love me more!” It's pitiful in the literal sense of the term and Joji both takes pity on her and on himself. What an amazing way of shifting both the emphasis and the sympathy in the story; this needs to be in a screenwriting textbook somewhere. Admittedly, you might groan when the hackneyed line “We'll do one last job” casts its doomed shadow over the proceedings, but darned if, after a brief period of delusion, the couple doesn't realize just what a rotten idea they've come up with. I guess they had seen as many movies as Ozu.

Auteurists can't help but study these films for the signs of the Ozu that was to come, but perhaps it's better to focus on the Ozu who was, not yet 30 and intoxicated with both American films and the craft of filmmaking. He was certainly refining the techniques that would make him one of cinema's greatest masters, but he was clearly also just having himself one hell of a good time. And just a few years into his career, he wasn't a half-bad little director either.


Video:
All three films are presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Eclipse is Criterion's no-frills sub-label so these SD transfers have had little, if any, restoration. “Walk Cheerfully” shows considerable deterioration in many scenes, with staining and other debris visible throughout. “That Night's Wife” is slightly-less damaged but still shows advanced degrading in image quality which is most problematic in night-time scenes that look even darker than they were meant to; surely we were meant to see more in scenes where we can just barely pick out the shadow of a tree. Still, the images are intact and show enough detail to provide some striking close-ups and to make out the sometimes elaborate background décor. “Dragnet Girl” is by far the best of the lot. It has its share of dirt and debris but little of the overall deterioration of the other two transfers. In general, these films look their age but they're strong enough to be fully appreciated.

Audio:
These three silent films are all accompanied by new piano scores by Neil Brand which sound quite robust and clean. I'm no music expert, but I enjoyed all three scores quite a bit.

Extras:
Eclipse rarely includes extras but we do get the usual (and always excellent) one-page liner notes by Michael Koresky who has been a marvelous guide through these Eclipse releases for some time now, so three cheers to you, sir!

Each disc is stored in its own slim keepcase with all three cases fitting into the cardboard sleeve with graphics for the Eclipse Series.

Set Value:
Next time your movie-loving friend tells you Ozu always filmed at “tatami level” and hardly ever moved the camera, you can just say “Oh, really?” and point him or her to these three films (or, really, most other Ozu silent films). “Walk Cheerfully” is good but not Ozu at his finest while “That Night's Wife” and “Dragnet Girl” are pretty marvelous. Just sit there and smile while thinking about a young, eager Ozu digging and living out the dream as an up-and-coming talent in an industry he would soon come to define. And a young pre-stardom Chishu Ryu appears as an extra “Policeman” in the last two films, though this partially face-blind reviewer must admit he didn't quite catch him the first time through.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Many Trials of Dreyer's Joan of Arc


“Oh Jeanne, to reach us at last, what a strange path you had to take.”

Written/Compiled by Christopher S. Long

The construction of an elaborate set, perhaps then the most elaborate in French film history, and six months of grueling shooting in painstakingly-managed chronological order were only the beginning of the struggle for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Below is a timeline of the film's release and the many twists and turns in its perilous journey through nearly ninety years. Precisely none of this is compiled from original research by me and I have listed my primary sources below; they deserve all of the credit, especially the detailed studies by T.A. Kinsey and Tony Pipolo.

I therefore do not post this as scholarly or definitive work, but simply as a brief summary of the research I have done in preparing my current class on the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, which I am currently teaching at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. I welcome all of my students who are checking in as well as any other readers who have kindly taken the time to read my humble little blog.

JOAN THROUGH THE AGES:

April 21, 1928: The film premiers in Copenhagen. This initial release is believed to have been screened silently (as this was Dreyer's stated wish) and had no credits at all as Dreyer wanted viewers to feel as if they were peeping “through a keyhole” at reality.

April 26, 1928: A free matinee screening is opened to 1,800 unemployed workers who filled out response cards, reportedly providing wildly enthusiastic feedback.

June 26, 1928: A press screening in Paris which would normally be quickly followed by a public opening, but French censors held up the film's permit, largely due to concerns from Church officials in France as well as long-standing protests from nationalist forces who objected to the film the moment a foreign director was announced for a project about “our Joan.”

Oct 25, 1928: The film begins a month-long run in Paris to substantially less enthusiasm than it experienced at the initial Copenhagen release. It would play with a score and with unauthorized cuts. A different version would be released nine months later that was allegedly better received, but the film would be a commercial flop in any version.

Dec 6, 1928: The negative had been shipped to the UFA studio in Berlin for the film's German release, but is destroyed in a fire. Dreyer immediately begins assembling a second negative from alternate takes (fortunately he had many, many takes, shooting at approximately a 40:1 ratio). Supposedly this second version is a shot-for-shot match and only Dreyer and the film's editor Marguerite Beauge could notice the difference. In 1929, this second negative would be reported destroyed by fire in a French studio. Dreyer's spirit was broken and he did not work on another version of the film. Prints made from both negatives survived and would assure that the film would continue to be seen, but these would gradually deteriorate with each projection.

Mar-May 1929: The film plays in the United States in a slightly shorter version. Like most versions, this one was usually played with musical accompaniment and likely had credits attached.

1929: The film's UK opening is delayed for about a year as British censors object to the portrayal of the British military in the film.

1933: One of the strangest of the many different versions of “Joan” is released, one put together by B-movie producer Sherman S. Krellberg (responsible for such films as “Fighting Cowboy” and “City of Lost Men”). It would run barely an hour, had no intertitles, and featured narration by radio personality David Ross. It was advertised with the horrifying tagline: “Sherman S. Krellberg Presents A New Thrill In Talking Films.” According to author Tony Pipolo (1988), an advertisement featured Krellberg's name more prominently than Dreyer's. Rights to the film were already under dubious protection (if any) in certain countries just a few years after its initial release.

1950-52: A negative of the film turns up at Gaumont studios in France, possibly the one reported lost in the second fire. This was handed over to the Cinematheque francaise where film historian Joseph-Marie Lo Duca took charge of a controversial re-release with a classical music score (the addition of which required cropping a portion of the film along the left side of the frame), some intertitles replaced by subtitles and some remaining subtitles reprinted on backgrounds with stained-glass windows and other Church imagery. It debuted at the 1952 Venice Film Festival. Dreyer hated his version (“there are no words which can express how Lo Duca has made my film on Joan of Arc banal”), but it wound up being the one most often exhibited over the next 30 years in many countries.

Joan with subtitles

1960s: The Danish Film Museum works on a 'best guess” print put together from the many different and largely unauthorized prints in circulation at the time. The term “best guess” has fallen under great scrutiny by film scholars. These numerous prints include copies stored at MOMA, the National Film Archive in London, one from an Italian private collector and several others.

???: At some point, “Joan” lapsed into public domain in the United States (I could not find the exact dates this was the case). This meant the copyright had not been renewed/defended and anyone could release the film, possibly with many unauthorized alterations. This changed in 1994 with the Uruguayan Round Agreements Act, and the film rights were protected in the U.S. once again. This actually happened to quite a few films, even major titles such as Fritz Lang's “Metropolis,” Carold Reed's “The Third Man,” and Alfred Hitchcock's “The 39 Steps.”

1981: One final bizarre twist in one of the strangest release stories of all. A custodian at an Oslo mental asylum discovers a pile of film canisters in a cupboard. They are sent to the Norwegian Film Institute where they sit for three years until they can be processed by the staff. It turns out to be a negative of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” still wrapped and with the Danish censor's seal intact; it has no credits and has Danish intertitles supervised by Dreyer. It is likely this print was ordered by the hospital's director Dr. Harold Arnesen though it was obviously never played.

There was considerable debate over just how different this “Oslo print” was from prints already in circulation (roughly summing it up: there are a few more shots, some of which are of different lengths, but no major additions or omissions; however even small differences cannot be ignored; most importantly, the quality of this negative was quite good.) The Oslo print, extensively restored by the Cinematheque francaise (who replaced the Danish intertitles with French ones and added credits), has now become the most commonly played one. It was the basis for the Criterion Collection's 1999 release of “Joan” on DVD.

A Few More Fun “Joan” Facts:

Michel Simon is listed in the opening credits of the film as playing Jean Lemaitre; you will find a similar listing currently on IMDB. This is incorrect. Simon only appears in one very brief close-up and is glimpsed in the background of another shot. Simon would become a very famous French actor and it is possible that any “mistakes” in later credits added to the film were not corrected in hopes of attracting his fans to the movie.

While the version of “Joan” on the Criterion DVD played the film at 24 frames per second, the film has frequently been screened (at venues like The Anthology Film Archive in New York City) at 18 fps, adding a considerable amount to its run time (from 82 min to 110) and also providing challenges for any music played to accompany it (if music is used). Film historians and archivists plan to battle to the death over this exciting topic.

This Oslo print has 1517 total shots (including 174 intertitles), about double the amount of the typical Hollywood film of the era. Of these shots, fewer than 30 show the same character from shot to shot (i.e. a character walking from one part of the room to another), an unusual feature that contributes to the jarring, disorienting sense many viewers get from this film. Thanks to Casper Tybjerg and David Bordwell for doing the counting on that.

Jane Wiedlin as the definitive Joan of Arc

There have been many film versions of “Joan of Arc” over the years, of course. The most interesting comparison to Dreyer's film is Robert Bresson's “The Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962). Bresson's version is as sober as Dreyer's is occasionally ecstatic; check out a clip (sorry, no subtitles) here. If I could sum up two differences between the films: first, Dreyer's Joan looks up while Bresson's Joan looks down (I think this observation comes from another critic though I recently mistakenly remembered it as my own) and second, Dreyer presents the trial as an outrage while Bresson seems to view it as yet another example of people just being people, i.e. horrible to each other. The perfect Bresson quote, “What you see as pessimism, I see as clarity.”

References:

David Bordwell, The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (University of California Press, 1981).

T.A. Kinsey, “The Mysterious History and Restoration of Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc',” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 94-107.

Tony Pipolo, “The Spectre of Joan of Arc: Textual Variations in the Key Prints of Carl Dreyer's Film,” Film History, Vol. 2, No 4, pp. 301-324.

Tony Pipolo, “Response to T.A. Kinsey's article on Dreyer's 'Passion of Joan of Arc',” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 184-188.

Casper Tybjerg, commentary track on Criterion's DVD release of “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Monday, April 13, 2015

Master Of The House


MASTER OF THE HOUSE (Dreyer, 1925)
Criterion Collection, Bu-ray, Release Date April 22, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer) is the kind of guy you hate on first sight. He wears a permanent sneer just begging to be smacked off his face and holds his posture so rigidly he's either expressing his total contempt for everyone else in the room or he's severely constipated.

Familiarity doesn't render Viktor any more likeable. In the first scene, he sleeps in late while his harried wife Ida (Astrid Holm) works herself into an early state of exhaustion preparing breakfast and tending to the children. Within a few minutes after finally deigning to wake up, he bellows (this is a silent film, but the intertitles read loud) to Ida for his slippers, upbraids her for not having his morning coffee already on the table, and demands that she brush off his jacket because that's just not the sort of thing that constipated guys do for themselves. Once he finally leaves for work we watch Ida bustle about all day long, just barely keeping this pre-appliance household together with equal parts ingenuity and perspiration. And what's her reward? Sneery McScrewyouall stomps back in the door after work and dismisses all of her efforts with a fine “Really! What do you do all day?”

Oh yes, you're going to hate Viktor Frandsen. Boo, hiss, and boo again, sir! But just when you think Viktor can't possibly have a single redeeming feature, writer-director Carl Theodor Dreyer steers “Master of the House” (1925) in a surprising direction.

The English titles (created by Criterion for this release) that open this version of the film proclaim housewives as the true heroes of modern life, but the movie is really a testament to the strength and solidarity of all women steadfastly resisting the patriarchy. Ida's suffering does not go unnoticed, and pretty soon the family's elderly nanny Mads (more on her in a moment) and Ida's mother conduct an intervention in which they inform Ida that she must kick her no good husband to the curb tout suite.

These wise women have learned a thing or two about men and the film has provided us no reason to doubt their judgment, but Ida offers an unexpectedly stirring defense of her brute of a husband. Viktor lost his business and has since become anxious and bitter; she was with him during the good years and it would be selfish to leave during the bad. These are the words of the classic true-hearted silent screen heroine whose unshakeable faith wins the day, but they are also convincing.

Still, something must be done about Viktor and at this point it's relevant to point that “Master of the House” is billed as a comedy. This tale of a tyrannical, abusive husband hasn't exactly been a barrel of laughs to this point, but things change once Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) takes charge of the household. Convincing Ida to leave home for a while, the feisty nanny (who also tended to Viktor as a child) begins a lengthy rehabilitation project with the goal of breaking Viktor down and building him back up again.

Viktor stands in the corner like a bad little boy

As marvelous as Astrid Holm's restrained, naturalistic performance is, it's Nielsen who steals the show. Her Mads doesn't take guff for a second., and she literally slaps Viktor around to assure that he complies with the new program. Men are the masters? Oh please, let's see how long Viktor lasts trying to do a housewife's work: fold that sheet, change that diaper, get your own damn slippers. Sleeping alone is no fun either. Dreyer doesn't settle for the melodramatic (or even Bressonian) convenience of an instant transformation. Repentance is only the first step for Viktor; he's got to put in the daily labor required to achieve genuine empathy.

Dreyer pays even more meticulous attention to the domestic space than he does to Viktor's redemption. Unlike most sets of the era, the apartment was not constructed as a stage but rather a space fully enclosed with four (moveable for the camera) walls. We get to know every inch of the apartment from the stove to the table to the bedposts and, through that, the people who inhabit it. I don't know of any cinematic living space that would be explored so completely until fifty years later when we spied on Jeanne Dielman at 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The subject matter may seem more mundane than the great Danish director's better known films like “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) or “Day of Wrath” (1943), but Dreyer takes his heroines and his “hero” (the intertitles even place that word in quotes) every bit as seriously. The acting is both varied (Meyer and Nielsen more grandiose, Holm so quiet and confident) and superb, and the setting tangible. Dreyer had a heck of a knack for emotionally potent endings, and he delivers in profoundly satisfying fashion here as well.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

From the Criterion booklet: “For this new restoration, undertaken by Palladium, a digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 2 DataCine from a duplicate negative and other source materials at Digital Film Lab in Copenhagen. The film was also restored at Digital Film Lab, where 3,200 hours were spent removing dust, blotches, and scratches using the DaVinci Revival and Phoenix restoraton systems. Fifty hours were spent dedicated to image stabilization, where a Flame workstation was used to remove jumps caused by splices. The film's original flicker, the result of barying image exposure from the hand-cranked film camera, has been preserved.”

I don't usually quote that much, but that should give you a sense of how much labor went into the restoration of this nearly ninety-year-old film. You will still see some small scratches and other instances of damage, and a few scenes are less sharp than others. But the overall transfer is quite beautiful with rich B&W contrast and a thick grainy look that pleases the eye. Image detail is strong enough that we can appreciate not just the actors' faces, but the set decoration in the apartment that hosts almost every scene. This is a 1080i(nterlaced) transfer rather than Criterion's usual 1080p, but it doesn't pose any problems.

Short version: This movie looks far better than I ever imagined I would see it.

This is a dual-format release which means a DVD and a Blu-ray have been included. I only looked briefly at the DVD transfer and it is noticeably weaker as far as image sharpness goes, but is otherwise solid and is, of course, sourced from the same restoration.

Audio:
The LPCM 2.0 track does a fine job presenting the score composed by Gillian B. Anderson in 2000 from the cue sheets published by the Palads Teatret in Copenhagen that debuted the movie on Oct 5, 1925. The Anderson score was performed on piano by Sara Davis Buechner in 2004, and has been remastered for this release. The lossless audio crisply captures this modest but effective score.

Title cards in this silent film are all in English. To the Criterion booklet once more: “When 'Master of the House' was originally released, Palladium distributed two versions: one with Danish intertitles and the other with English ones. For this edition, Criterion returned to the original Danish version to create a new set of English intertitles.”

Extras:
Criterion has only included two extras, but both are interesting.

First is a new interview with Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg (15 min.) He discusses the play (Svend Rindom's “Tyrannes fald”) on which the film was based and some of the elements Dreyer changed for the film, including some scenes that were shot but cut out.

Second is a visual essay (23 min.) written and narrated by scholar David Bordwell. Bordwell is just about the best in the business at analyzing how a film or a scene is composed, and he makes a very convincing case that this deceptively simple movie is more aesthetically sophisticated than it appears on first blush. He also adds some interesting information about the production. Dreyer insisted that the apartment set have functioning gas and water, no doubt a precursor to his construction of the massive set for “Passion of Joan of Arc.”

The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Film Value:
“The Master of the House” isn't exactly a forgotten film, but it hasn't received as much press as Dreyer's most ballyhooed masterpieces. As far as I know this is its first North American DVD or Blu-ray release, and I expect this will be a great opportunity for many viewers to evaluate this as yet another great accomplishment by a great filmmaker.

Sullivan's Travels


SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (Sturges, 1941)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date April 14, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

John L Sullivan is a born fighter. The Hollywood Strong Boy has already won the heavyweight box office belt as the director of such lightweight comedies as “Ants in Your Plants of 1939” and “Hey, Hey in The Hayloft” and now he's battling risk-averse studio honchos for his dream project. “O Brother Where Art Thou” will be a serious picture with symbolism and real-world meaning, the kind of movie Depression-era audiences really want. A (mostly) friendly executive suggests “Ants In Your Plants of 1941” instead, but John L. Sullivan has picked his fight and intends to go the distance.

Sullivan is portrayed by the steady, inherently likeable Joel McCrea as an idealistic but naïve dreamer (both a “bonehead” and a “genius” according to his peers) who is stubborn and vain but is at least willing to accept a little constructive criticism. Reminded that his privileged life has left him short of the “real-world” knowledge he would need for his magnum opus, he plans to acquire said knowledge by posing as a drifter and hitting the road with just ten cents in his pocket. That's about a penny for each of the members of his entourage who trail him and help to provide one of the many parachutes he can deploy whenever the going gets rough.

“Sullivan's Travels” (1941) was writer-director Preston Sturges's most autobiographical feature. Raised in privilege circumstances himself, Sturges was eager to promote himself as more of an everyday Joe though his easy command of sophisticated dialogue and his familiarity with the upper-crust always made that a bit of a tough sell. Sullivan isn't precisely a stand-in for Sturges, but he's not far removed from the real deal.

If Sullivan's sporadic explorations teach him anything about poverty, it's that it is very cold. Fortunately he can always press the rich man's panic button and get warmed up whenever needed so any learning will be limited. If the narrative has something else to teach Sullivan, it's that the impoverished souls crowding America's trains and revival halls want and need nothing more than a good laugh. No “deep-dish” movies for an audience that hasn't even had lunch. A responsible “artiste” will work to fill that need instead of selfishly following his own ambitions.

If that was the entire premise of the film, it would be pretty galling, populism at its most condescending outside of a politician's campaign speech. It would also seem to be an entirely inessential argument. Has there ever been a time when Hollywood studios needed a slap on the hand to keep them from being so ambitious and artsy and refusing to peddle formulaic escapist fare?

But Sturges has a lot more on his mind and certainly doesn't intend to suggest that the director become a quiescent hack. “Sullivan's Travels” is indeed plenty artsy in its own right and so serious at times it becomes downright grim. The film shifts from screwball caper to a more serious register when Sullivan hops his first train; the scene takes on an almost documentary-like quality as the famous director playing at being a bum muscles his way through a crowd, make that a huddled mass, of itinerants gearing up for a desperate rush for a berth aboard a moving train. The worn faces, the tattered clothes, the frantic surge all speak to a deprivation so vast the silver screen can only catch an oblique glimpse of it.


Accompanying Sullivan on this train ride is a young woman dressed as a boy, but since the young woman is played by Veronica Lake she isn't fooling anybody (although Sturges and company fooled viewers by strategically hiding Lake's advancing pregnancy). The unnamed girl showed Sullivan a little kindness when he was hard up for a meal, the first of several times he encounters spontaneous acts of generosity on a journey that brings him in contact with considerable suffering and occasional peril, and now she's tagging along with him ostensibly to keep him out of trouble. Lake's peak was all-too-brief but here she is at her glorious peak and she is, to dust off a film theory term, a real pill. And yes, of course they'll wind up together; ain't you never seen a Hollywood picture before?


While the film's superficial paean to populism falls flat (at least for me), its tribute to the suffering and the resiliency of disenfranchised workers in a land short on jobs and overstuffed with exploiters rings true. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the movie is a pan across the faces of worshipers at a black church as a group of mostly-white prisoners (Sullivan among them – it's a long story I won't spoil for you) files in to the back so everyone can watch a Disney cartoon. The group's laugh is the sound of solidarity which, at the very least, has the advantage of being eminently affordable, and a little more plentiful when facilitated by the right movie.

The ending is a bit too pat and unconvincing (according to critic David Cairns on an extra on this disc, Sturges was unsatisfied with it) but “Sullivan's Travels” is a film so quintessentially of its time that it remains timeless. When the bell finally rings, Sturges has won by a knockout.


Video:
Criterion originally released “Sullivan's Travels” on SD in 2001 and I don't have it as a point of comparison. This Blu-ray re-release maintains the old Spine Number 118 but comes with spiffy new cover art.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There are occasional signs of some minor dirt and debris from the print source but we're talking specks rather than chunks, nothing significant but not entirely pristine. I think that's perfectly acceptable for a 70+ year-old film. Black-and-white contrast is rich with a thick grain structure throughout and only the occasional bit of softness suggesting some clean-up boosting. This high-def transfer looks very good overall.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is crisp and efficient as we've come to expect from Criterion's single-channel presentations. No damage or distortion is audible. The score by Leo Shuken and Charles Bradshaw is treated pretty well by this lossless audio. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has imported the extras from the 2001 SD release and added one more.

The new one is a great visual essay (2014, 17 min.) written and directed by critic David Cairns and titled “Ants In Your Plants of 1941,” a playful suggestion that it's a kissing cousin to the next film the rehabilitated Sullivan is going to make. This essay features narration by director Bill Forsyth (of “Local Hero” fame) who is a big fan of the film. Forsyth and Cairns (in voice-over) trade off observations about the film; one new tidbit I picked up was that Sturges loosely based Sullivan's travels on real excursions by directors John Huston and William Wyler. Cairns admires the film while also noting that, like every other movie, it's not perfect.

The other features are repeats from the 2001 release, including the commentary by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser and Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. They like the movie a little bit.

“Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of An American Dreamer” (75 min.) is an Emmy-award winning documentary directed by Kenneth Bowser and written by Todd McCarthy which aired in 1990 on PBS's “American Masters” series. It takes a pretty conventional approach to the writer-director's career but provides quite a bit of information in an entertaining, accessible manner.

The disc also includes a 2001 interview (13 min.) with Sandy Sturges, wife of the writer-director.

And we also get three Archival Audio clips: Sturges talking to Hedda Hopper (4 min., from a Jan 28, 1951 broadcast of “Hedda Hopper on Hollywood”), Sturges reciting the poem “If I Were A King” (1 min.) and Sturges singing “My Love” (1938, 1 min, 37 sec.), one of many songs he composed.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Stuart Klawans.

Final Thoughts:
I used to hold the extreme populist premise of “Sullivan's Travels” against it, but I have since come to embrace its many obvious strengths instead. This high-def upgrade from Criterion only adds one new extra but it's a good one and the sharp new transfer is a strong one. Recommended, of course.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Odd Man Out



ODD MAN OUT (Reed, 1947)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date April 14, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

In an interview included on this Criterion release, film scholar John Hill states that Carol Reed's 1947 film “Odd Man Out” is substantially more sympathetic to its characters than the F.L. Green book of the same title from which it was adapted. I can scarcely imagine how withering the novel must be because Reed's film is not exactly a humanitarian showcase.

It's difficult to evaluate which set of characters comes off seeming more self-absorbed: the members of “The Organization” (clearly meant to be the IRA) or the citizens of Belfast (a city which goes unnamed in the movie) who don't want to get involved in any kind of troubles. Or Troubles.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a local Organization leader, has been hiding out in a cramped row house since his escape from prison several months ago. In the opening scene, he puts the finishing touches on a plan to stage a daring robbery; he feels a little bad about it, but it's necessary to fund the operation so he'll live with the guilt. His confidant Dennis (Robert Beatty) and his would-be paramour Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) warn Johnny that extended confinement has made him too weak to work in the field, but Johnny ignores them. This is what the screenwriting gurus like to call a “plant.”

We don't have to wait long for the payoff. The heist goes off smoothly enough, but the exertion makes Johnny dizzy, causing a delay in the getaway that leads to an exchange of gunfire that leaves our hero wounded and a guard dead. Johnny winds up stranded on the streets of that unnamed city that strongly resembles Belfast (mostly recreated on London sets though with enough location shooting to add a dose of verisimilitude), his life bleeding away drop-by-drop as he seeks assistance from the locals he and his Organization are, in theory or at least in their blinkered world view, fighting for.

He will have to look long and hard for that help. As Johnny barely clings to consciousness, one citizen after another passes on the opportunity to intercede on his behalf: a couple seeking to steal a kiss skulks away when they stumble on Johnny's hideout, a cab driver dumps Johnny's limp body in the mud-soaked street and a bartender bribes a man just to take Johnny out of his establishment. One of the few men who takes a keen interest in Johnny's plight is Shell (F.J. McCormick) who rushes off to Father Tom (W.G. Fay) in order to sell information about Johnny's whereabouts; he's crushed to learn that the priest has nothing more tangible to swap than mere salvation. 


It's a grim array of salt-of-the-Earthers looking either to pass the buck or to make a buck off Johnny, though their lack of charity is strongly correlated to (and perhaps justified by) their contempt for the Organization. That excuse doesn't hold for faithful Kathleen, who loves Johnny so completely she shuts out all other worldly concerns. When she first reads the headline about the guard killed in the botched robbery, her only thought is “Poor Johnny.” Screw the guard. She shows little more empathy after she takes to the streets to track down her man; in a conversation with Father Tom, she declares quite plainly that she would rather kill Johnny than turn him over to the police, and she just might mean what she says. I suspect she's intended to be a true-heart heroine, but her monomania renders her the most problematic character in a film packed to the gills with them.

Fortunately Johnny encounters a few (though just a few) kinder souls in his faltering journey. In the movie's most textured sequence, Johnny is taken in by two women who believe he has been run over by a car. As they nurse him back to health, they discover both his gunshot wound and his gun. Realizing this is the Johnny McQueen every one is looking for, they are torn. Rosie (Fay Compton) wants to get him the care he needs but also doesn't want to be an accessory to his crime; her feelings about the Organization go largely unstated but no doubt play a role in her equivocation. She is genuinely relieved when Johnny takes advantage of a heated argument in the next room (between Rosie and her husband who wants to turn him in) to limp to the door and be on his way; the burden has passed from her hands and she lets it go, but with a strong twinge of remorse and a sincerely wished, “Good luck, lad.”

“Odd Man Out” was a pivotal film for director Carol Reed. It was the first of three post-war works (“The Fallen Idol” and “The Third Man Out” following in 1948 and 1949, respectively) that helped make him an international force, and he enjoyed considerable creative control from the producers. Reed was free to indulge his fondness both for expressionism and poetic realism, leading to fascinating if not always fully satisfying results. The film begins in a naturalistic register and moves step-by-step into more surrealistic territory as Johnny's grip on this world slowly weakens. The nighttime streets are moodily lit in rich black-and-white, sometimes bustling and sometimes deserted, the perfect shadowy labyrinth for our protagonist to lose himself in. Highly stylized effects depicting Johnny's delusions (he sees faces in his beer bubbles; ghostly figures gesture to him) are inventive but also a bit ponderous; the hallucinatory flights of fancy that Powell and Pressburger staged with such flair during the same era don't work as well here, at least not to my taste.

Mason was in the earliest years of his stardom, then best known as the romantic villain in the popular Gainsborough melodramas, and fresh off a box office smash with “The Seventh Veil” (1945). Here he takes on a decidedly non-glamorous role as a pseudo-hero who spends most of the film slumped in a chair or leaning against a wall, a passive figure who serves mostly as a prop for the various people whose paths he crosses. He bleeds, he gasps, he gawks helplessly as his fate is put in the hands of a series of mostly uncaring souls, including a hard-drinker artist (an enjoyably histrionic Robert Newton) who wants to paint Johnny's portrait right at the moment of his death! Reed and his team (including the great cinematographer Robert Krasker) pull off the neat trick of letting us see the world through Johnny's eyes while also holding him at a distance like a sideshow attraction on display. Mason gets as much mileage as possible from a series of severely restricted situations, keeping the audience fully in his orbit even as he lapses into a near comatose state.

John Hill and others who speak on this Criterion release claim that the casting of Mason naturally makes Johnny a more sympathetic figure. Mason was irresistibly charismatic, but was he ever an immediate point of empathy for viewers? Mason sneered with the best of them, and was the master of seeming irritated by everyone and everything around him, perhaps the most chronically colicky superstar of his day. Johnny McQueen eats a big dose of humble pie as he is forced to accept his inexorable obsolescence, but he's also still a thug willing to steal and kill to promote his agenda and then to hide and escape instead of face justice. If he doesn't look quite so bad compared to some of the other characters adrift in the gloomy Belfast night, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The black-and-white contrast is very strong with thick blocky shadows that set the proper mood. Image detail is strong but not razor-sharp throughout with a few scenes looking slightly boosted from a likely digital cleanup. No complaints, however.

Audio:
The linear PCM Mono track is crisp and evocative even with a relatively flat feel. The score by William Alwyn benefit from the lossless treatment, never sounding reedy or distant but not being too overwhelming either. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Extras:
Criterion has assembled an impressive array of extras for this Blu-ray release.

“Template for the Troubles” (24 min.) is an interview with film scholar John Hill. The interview is conducted in the Crown Club, a Belfast location that served as an inspirations for one of the major sets in the film. Hill provides some historical context for both the novel and the film, noting that IRA activities were relatively subdued at this time.

“Post-War Poetry” (16 min.) is a 2014 documentary shot for this Criterion release by White Dolphin films. It combines interviews with several people, including the great director John Boorman and the great critic Tony Rayns. This piece discusses the production in more detail with emphasis on the important role it played in Reed's career.

“Home, James” (1972, 54 min.) is an eccentric inclusion, a documentary which follows a 63 year-old Mason back to his childhood home in Huddersfield, with Mason's crisp narration being a major selling point. It doesn't have anything in particular to do with “Odd Man Out” but is a treat for Mason fans.

“Collaborative Composition” (21 min.) provides an interview with film music scholar Jeff Smith, author of “The Sounds of Commerce,” as he discusses the score by William Alwyn.

“Suspense, Episode 460” (29 min.) is a condensed radio broadcast (aired on Feb 11, 1952) featuring Mason, his wife Pamela Kellino and actor Dan O'Herlihy.

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.”

Final Thoughts:
“Odd Man Out” has its share of enthusiastic boosters with a few of the filmmakers and critics interviewed on this disc calling it Carol Reed's best film. I'm not quite so keen on it (it's nowhere close to “The Third Man” for me) but it's a fine movie with a fascinating performance by Mason, a star playing an increasingly irrelevant character. Criterion has added a hefty helping of relevant extras, making this a fine companion to “The Fallen Idol” and “The Third Man,” also in the Criterion Collection.

The Fallen Idol


THE FALLEN IDOL (Reed, 1947)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date November 7, 2006
Review by Christopher S. Long

Before their slightly more famous collaboration “The Third Man” (1949), director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene teamed up to make “The Fallen Idol” (1948). Based on Greene’s 1935 short story “The Basement Room,” the film tells a classic tale of innocence lost. Phile (Bobby Henrey) is the precocious 8-year-old son of a London-based ambassador. Since his parents are usually too busy to spend time with him, he befriends the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) who, in turn, seems quite fond of the boy.

Phile enjoys a privileged existence in which everyone and everything conspires to provide him more opportunities to play and to have fun; everyone, that is, except for Mrs. Baines who serves as the boy’s strict governess. Mrs. Baines is played with a stony face and withering stare by Sonia Dresdel who does her best to out-witch Margaret Hamilton and out-shrew Mrs. Fawlty. Phile chafes under Mrs. Baines’s iron hand and lets her know it quite plainly: “I hate you.” Kids say the darndest things. Mr. Baines, enduring a loveless marriage in the stoic British manner, is doubtless thinking the very same thing about the missus.


Despite Mrs. Baines’s interference, it’s all fun and games for Phile until he follows Baines to a clandestine meeting with the lovely young Julie (Michèle Morgan). Baines convinces Phile that Julie is his niece, but still suggests that the boy not mention anything about her to Mrs. Baines: “It will be our little secret.” Take note of the clever design in this scene: despite the fact that Baines and Phile are walking hand-in-hand, Reed (after an initial establishing shot from behind) never shows a single shot of the two of them together, only reverse shots of the towering Baines, and of tiny Phile looking up at his (soon to be “fallen”) idol. This is not a secret shared between friends, but one imposed by a powerful adult on a helpless child and the first of many lies Phile will be asked to tell in fairly short order; this “little secret” catapults Phile prematurely out of his childhood Eden and into the world of scheming adults. It is a world full of rules and codes of behavior and speech that Phile isn’t yet capable of understanding.

The performance of young Bobby Henrey is either the film’s greatest strength or its most glaring weakness, depending on how you interpret it. Henrey is profoundly non-professional even by child actor standards. He is awkward and stilted, alternately sweet and annoying, has terrible timing and constantly gets in the way. In other words, he’s a lot like a real 8-year-old boy, and Reed works some real magic with his naturalistic but limited star. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Phile surprises his idol by imitating Mrs. Baines’s voice. Henrey’s entire body convulses in a peristaltic spasm, like a python trying to swallow a giant rat, as he squeezes out the high-pitched call of “Baines!” It’s a curious piece of acting (OK, let’s just call it “bad acting”), but Reed’s cut to Baines’s startled face sutures the scene together quite effectively. Like it or not, Henrey’s performance is, at the very least, a memorable one.


The first half of the film is by far the most successful, showing the genuine affection between the boy and the butler, but also foreshadowing the tragedy to come. In one scene Phile overhears Baines on the phone with Julie: “Oh, it makes no difference about the boy… Of course he doesn’t understand.” Baines cannot reciprocate Phile’s unconditional love because the life of an adult is just too complicated for that.

[Major spoiler alert ahead, if you still care about such things for a nearly 70-year-old movie.]

The second half of the film shifts into a less compelling detective story. Mrs. Baines falls to her death, and Phile, still not understanding what he sees of the adult world, fears that Baines did it. The police have the same suspicions, and much of the action of the final act involves their investigation of the crime scene. Phile tries in vain to be helpful, first by lying, later by telling the truth, failing completely with both tactics. Doesn’t anything make sense with these crazy adults?

“The Fallen Idol” is a beautifully photographed film.Cinematographer Georges Périnal (who previously worked for Michael Powell) indulges Reed’s penchant for tilted angles (not as extreme as in “The Third Man” but still quite striking) and camera flourishes with aplomb. The sprawling space of the embassy which Phile calls home appears either vast or claustrophobic in different scenes. Phile’s feverish run through the shadowy, rain-soaked nighttime streets, shot at long distance and from high angles, is a clear precursor to Harry Lime’s race through the sewers, and should put to rest any claim that “The Third Man” was really more of an Orson Welles film. Reed had a baroque style all his own.

Attention James Bond fans. Keep an eye out for a middle-aged Bernard Lee as a police detective. Stalwart Bond director Guy Hamilton (“Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “Live and Let Die”) also served as assistant director on “The Fallen Idol” as well as “The Third Man.”



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As with several of Criterion’s recent full screen releases, the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will ses thin bars on the left and right-hand sides of the screen. However, most DVD players compensate by zooming in to display the full picture. The transfer is clean and bright, and the black and white contrast very sharp.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
“A Sense of Carol Reed” (24 min.) is a 2006 documentary shot for the Criterion release. Directors John Boorman and Guy Hamilton, among others, reminisce about Carol Reed’s life and career, and make an argument for a reevaluation of Reed as one of the great directors. Not that he's exactly unappreciated as is.

The DVD also includes an Illustrated Carol Reed filmography: posters and press book covers from all his film. The Original Press Book for “The Fallen Idol” is also available.

The chunky insert booklet features essays by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, writer David Lodge and Reed biographer Nicholas Wapshott.

Film Value:
“The Fallen Idol” was the second of Carol Reed's post-war troika (starting with “Odd Man Out” and ending with “The Third Man”) that shifted his career into a new gear. It netted him his first Oscar nomination and marked the beginning of his most productive period. Reed was later showered with glory by the Academy for his musical “Oliver!” (1968), a pleasant and entertaining film that the Academy apparently preferred to Franco Zeffirelli’s brilliant “Romeo and Juliet” and an obscure little film that didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Saturday, April 4, 2015

La Vie De Boheme


LA VIE DE BOHÈME (Kaurismaki, 1992)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray. Release Date January 21, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

When the as-yet-undiscovered genius composer Schaunard (Kari Väänänen) sees a stack of money on a cafe table, he confidently assesses it as “At least sixty thousand francs.” Turns out it's fifteen, but to him fifteen might as well be sixty. Money is strictly an abstraction, or perhaps an urban legend, to a starving artist who remains pure in the pursuit of his craft. Except for the times when “artist” loses out to “starving.”

There's the rub, as the Danes say, and wouldn't a Danish taste good about now? But there's reason for optimism. Schaunard's got a pretty good deal going in cooperation with his fellow creative types, the impoverished Albanian painter Rodolfo (Matti Pellonpää) and the criminally unappreciated writer Marcel Marx (André Wilms). Granted, even a pooling of their resources still amounts to a mere trickle, but at least they're in Paris, the only city that can support their Bohemian lifestyle, i.e. permanent unemployment. Crucially, it's a Paris shot in grubby black-and-white because a color-saturated Paris just wouldn't have room for dreamers so willfully out of touch with their time.

You can also pick up a lot of women with the line “Hey, baby, wanna come back to my loft and see my art?” Alas, love stories that start with there tend to end with “I'm hungry.” But perhaps the awareness of an inevitable tragic fate only makes the creative life that much more vital, and every artist can use a good muse, or even a Musette (the name of Marcel's secretary/girlfriend played by Christine Murillo).

Finnish writer-director-producer Aki Kaurismäki read Henri Murger's oft-adapted mid-19th-century collection “Scènes de la vie de Bohème” as a teenager and instantly vowed to film it one day; he only had to wait a few decades to make good with this 1992 release. Undeterred that more than a dozen directors had already beaten him to the punch, Kaurismaki was eager to make his mark on the material, importing much of his familiar team. Who better to play an Albanian painter in France than the great walrus-mustached Finn Matti Pellonpää? Need an Irish composer of unendurable atonal post-modern music? Kari Väänänen, Kaurismäki's former village idiot and Polonius, is the obvious choice.

Kaurismäki's love for Murger's short stories dovetailed with his cinematic Francophilia, and he probably figured it would help to have a few actors in this French-language film who actually spoke the language, unlike Pellonpää and Väänänen who learned their lines phonetically. André Wilms was cast as Marcel and Evelyne Didi as Rodolfo's girlfriend Mimi; Kaurismäki liked them both so much he cast them both together a few decades later (as similar characters) in the lovely “Le Havre” (2011).


The film, like its characters, drifts around the same low-key Parisian neighborhood (actually a Parisian suburb that looked more like old Paris than modern Paris now does). The action picks up with the writer Marcel being evicted from his apartment; we realize he's unlikely to pay his back rent anytime soon when we find out his new script is titled “The Avenger – A Play in 21 Acts.” While homeless, he wanders into a cafe (much of the action takes place in a series of sidewalk cafes – it's Paris, after all) and splits a two-headed trout with the stranger Rodolfo. They become fast friends and return to Marcel's apartment which is no longer Marcel's, but fortunately the new occupant is Schaunard ,who has only Marcel's unclaimed furniture to fill his four walls. The men reach a mutually beneficial understanding.

The narrative plucks several different threads, but gradually focuses in on the budding relationship between the immigrant Rodolfo and Mimi, who has traveled to the big city to stay with a friend who, it turns out, will be staying in prison for a few years. The tragic lovers are clearly destined for each other, yet also destined to be kept apart by various factors: Rodolfo's lack of a visa, Mimi's health, and, always, money. But they will always find their way back together.

The film depicts its lazy dreamers with a combination affection and skepticism, but never condescension. We know they are not particularly talented (a brutal piano performance by Schaunard prompts an end to one relationship as the scales, so to speak, drop from one woman's eyes) but what matters is that they believe in themselves and can at least muster the courtesy to pretend to believe in each other. And, hey, every artist can, in theory, have his fans, as we discover when Rodolfo gains an unlikely patron in the form of a sugar baron and budding art collector played by Nouvelle Vague legend Jean-Pierre Léaud. Cameos by directors Sam Fuller and Louis Malle provide extra servings of cinephilic pleasure. I would also be remiss if I neglected to mention the moving performance of Laika as Rodolfo's faithful dog Baudelaire.

It's amazing to find out that Pellonpää and Väänänen spoke their lines phonetically. They are thoroughly convincing and certainly have no trouble sharing scenes with the Francophones; the whole cast develops an easy-going, naturalistic chemistry. It helps to have a face like Pellonpää's, such a natural deadpan template. Each of the characters has considerable flaws, but they all exhibit an endearing, if vain, nobility in their penniless suffering. They look foolish at times, but we all do to certain observers. The delicate stasis they craft together has an irresistible appeal; it's the kind of pocket universe you'd love to slip into for a summer or two, as long as you could stage a strategic exit before the food runs out.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Timo Salminen's black-and-white photography looks particularly lustrous with this 1080p transfer, with sharp contrast and a satisfying fine-grain structure. On just a few occasions, I noticed slight signs of artifacting, a bit of distortion around foreground objects, but it's minor and nothing that detracts from the viewing experience.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and distortion free as far as I can tell. The film is mostly dialogue-driven but a few prominent musical cues sound very strong here, the best being a performance of “Bird Dance Beat” by a bar band identified in the credits as The Fake Trashmen. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
“Where is Musette?” is a 52-minute behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Veikko Nieminen. The on-set documentary features several interviews with Kaurismäki, but also emphasizes the collaborative nature of this intense, independent production. And at the half-hour mark, you'll get a brief performance by Sam Fuller.

The only other extra is a 2012 interview with actor André Wilms (11 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by critic Luc Sante.

Film Value:
This might be my favorite Kaurismäki movie. The deadpan humor is pitch-perfect here, and the cast works in perfect harmony. This doesn't get as much attention as many other Kaurismäki movies, but don't miss out on it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Belle Toujours - Manoel De Oliveira Toujours!


Portuguese director/national treasure Manoel de Oliveira died today at the age of 106. By most accounts he was the oldest active filmmaker, and by any account the shape and span of his career was virtually unparallelled. His first film, “Douro, Faina Fluvial”(“Labor on The Douro River") was a silent movie released in 1931; a bit later, “The Strange Case of Angelica” (2010) employed digital animation to relate its exquisite tale of haunted love. Perhaps the only parallel to Oliveira's film career is that of film itself.

Oliveira was largely silenced in the middle of the 20th century by oppressive censorship from the right-wing regime in Portugal. After 1942's “Aniki-Bóbó” he shot only one feature and several documentary shorts over the next quarter century. He was merely resting up for the greatest stretch run cinema has ever witnessed.

From the '70s on, Oliveira seemed to become more prolific with each passing decade. Oliveira released more than twenty films, a mix of features and shorts, in the 21st century, a century he greeted a few weeks after his 92nd birthday.

Oliveira's output as a nonagenarian and centenarian certainly contributed to his beloved status among cinephiles around the world, but he was no aged trick pony. His films, often about doomed love (indeed he made a mini-series called “Doomed Love”), were sensitive, literary, meticulously staged works of deceptive simplicity that speak to an eye that saw clearly well past the century mark. They would be great and celebrated films from a mere lad of eighty, or thirty for that matter.

Below I have re-posted my 2008 review of Oliveira's “Belle Toujours” which I'm not even sure ranks as one of his top five movies made since turning 90, but which is still a modest gem. For other great Oliveira films on DVD and Blu-ray, I recommend the Cinema Guild releases of “Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl” (2010) and the aforementioned “The Strange Case of Angelica” which also includes that first short “Douro, Faina Fluvia.” And if you can find a copy of the Image Entertainment's release of “I'm Going Home” (2001), one of Oliveira's finest, pounce on it.



BELLE TOUJOURS (the great Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)
New Yorker Films, DVD, Release Date June 24, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

It’s rare that I get to write about a hundred year old director but, to be fair, Manoel de Oliveira was merely a lad of 97 when he made “Belle Toujours” (2006). Also to be fair, de Oliveira has to wait another 5 months before he officially makes it to 100, but considering that he has released two features and two shorts in the last two years and has one of each in production in the current year, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He made his first short film in 1931, and his first feature in 1942 after which his career was derailed for nearly 15 years, and he would not release his next feature film until 1963 when, at the age of 55, he finally got things cranking.

As if flipping off Father Time, Oliveira has been more productive in the past decade than at any other time in his career, releasing 18 films (features and shorts) since 1998, nearly half his lifetime output. Please note that it is old hat (pun intended) to discuss Manoel de Oliveira’s age these days, but since this is the first opportunity I have had to write about this remarkable director, I’m entitled. I promise not to say a word about it over his next hundred years.

With “Belle Toujours,” Oliveira has made perhaps his oddest film, intended as a sequel of sorts to Luis Buñuel’s landmark “Belle de Jour” (1967). Except that “sequel” isn’t the right term; rather it’s an afterword written long, long after the main text. “Belle de Jour” is one of Buñuel’s most perverse and perverted films (and I mean that in a good way), the story of a bored housewife named Severine (Catherine Deneuve) who loves her devoted husband but still chooses to spend her days working in a high-end brothel. She harnesses her inner masochist with the help of her husband’s best friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) and an array of twisted clients.

“Belle Toujours” kicks off at a concert in which the much older but not necessarily any wiser Henri (played again by Michel Piccoli) spots the much older and possibly wiser Severine (played this time by Bulle Ogier) in the audience. He stare at her as if trying to mesmerize his former object of desire, but she proves elusive and disappears in a limo before he can speak to her. Henri is nothing if not dogged, however, and he soon tracks her down at her hotel. She has no interest whatsoever in catching up with her “old friend,” but he persuades her to have dinner with him. While killing time, he also stops in a bar to recount his story (the story of “Belle de Jour”) to an easily impressed bartender (Ricardo Trêpa, the director's grandson and star of some of Oliveira's later films) which isn’t really intended as exposition for the viewers, but further confirmation of Henri’s vanity.

You might be thinking this is a reunion story of sorts. That is, if you know nothing about Buñuel or Oliveira which, apparently, is true of whoever wrote the summary at Rotten Tomatoes which ludicrously describes the film as “a short and sweet elegy on aging, sexuality, and the power of cinema.”

“Belle Toujours” picks up right where “Belle de Jour” left off, digging perhaps into even more perverse territory. Henri’s patrician façade has no doubt fooled many a socialite into thinking him quite the gentleman, but his intentions to Severine are anything but honorable. Severine, we discover, has “redeemed” herself in the ensuing four decades, devoting herself to her husband and to God. Henri cannot let this affront to nature stand, and plays sadistic mind-games with her, and the real mystery for us to confront is whether Severine, despite her protestations, is every bit as much into humiliation as she ever was. Indeed, what else could she possibly expect when she (not so?) grudgingly accepts his invitation to dinner? Oliveira’s subversion of the need for the closure one might expect from a reunion narrative is his slyest, and cruelest, touch. Buñuel would be proud.

Indeed, the film is permeated by the spirit of Buñuel, not just in its direct references to “Belle de Jour” (a picture here, a gift there) but in its relationship to his entire work. Viewers unfamiliar with Buñuel might be puzzled when the film appear to continue one scene “too long” after the main characters have exited and the servants are talking to each other, but it’s the sort of moment that cropped up again in again in Buñuel’s work, most notably in his masterpiece “Exterminating Angel” (1962).

Piccoli, as usual, is brilliant. Though a mere whippersnapper next to de Oliveira, Piccoli has been a screen star for sixty years now, and has done some of his best work in recent years, especially with Oliveira (Piccoli was also phenomenal in 2001's “I’m Going Home”), and he relishes his opportunity to re-visit one of his best-known roles. Here, Henri Husson makes the leap from supporting character to protagonist with Severine as more of a fringe character who flits about the edges of the screen until the climactic dinner sequence. Bulle Ogier cannot match the screen presence of Catherine Deneuve, but she isn’t called on to do much here except to simply be Severine.

Will you be unable to enjoy “Belle Toujours” if you aren’t a Buñuel aficionado? No, though it’s fair to say you won’t necessarily be fully in tune with de Oliveira’s project. Even on its own, the film is an ambling, amusing psychosexual cat and mouse game which proves that the march of time doesn’t mean you have to be any less of a sick bastard. That’s a theme we can all identify with.



Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Though the transfer is interlaced, it’s unusually strong by New Yorker’s standards. The color saturation is just right (sometimes a problem with this studio) and the image quality is fairly sharp. Still, it would be nice if they could offer progressive transfers in the near future.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
With such a short film, it would have been nice to get a few more extras. What we get isn’t bad though. There are four interviews, the best of which, of course, are the ones with de Oliveira (23 min.) and Piccoli (9 min.) Interviews with Bulle Ogier (5 min.) and
Ricardo Trêpa (2 min.) provide a few brief perspectives on working with the veteran director.

Also included are a Trailer, a Photo Gallery and a Press Kit which can be accessed as a PDF file on your PC.

Film Value:
At 65 minutes (not counting the end credits), this strange coda to “Belle de Jour” is over almost as soon as it starts or, more accurately, speeds away after its lightning-strike hit and run job. I suppose you could consider this film to be a meditation on aging (as many critics have written), but it’s a pretty pervy one and surely not a “sweet elegy” of any kind. In all honesty, I like this film more than “Belle de Jour” which, I admit, is not one of my favorite Buñuels. Long live Michel Piccoli! Long live Manoel de Oliveira! Well, I guess they’ve already done that. But you know what I mean.