Wednesday, December 20, 2017

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

How the heck did director Barbet Schroeder score direct access to Idi Amin, the controversial military dictator of Uganda? He simply asked.

The title star of “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait” (1974) may have been mocked by the Western intelligentsia as an ignoramus and a buffoon, but he understood the importance of the media and, especially, the importance of being on camera as much as possible. The self-made general and self-styled savior spewed absurd lies while also claiming to be universally loved because he was the only man who told the truth, and to be feared throughout the world for his unparalleled savvy and might. It never mattered how ludicrous his empty posturing was, only that people were constantly watching and listening. Of course he said yes to the Frenchman who wanted to make him a movie star.

I know what you're thinking, dear 2017 reader. If you are tempted to draw a seemingly obvious comparison to a current world leader, however, please note that in his not-brief-enough tenure, Amin allegedly murdered a few hundred thousand of his fellow citizens, and jailed many more of his real and imagined political foes, so let's respect the horror suffered by a generation of Ugandans and move on.

Schroeder was aware of the perils of providing grist for Amin's publicity mill, leading to the canny decision to subtitle the film “A Self-Portrait” by Amin. In so doing, Schroeder acknowledged his potential complicity as a propagandist, but also mitigated the damage by emphasizing that this awful, asinine man called the shots (at one point he even orders the cameraman to film a helicopter), so viewer beware and do not be deceived by the term “documentary.”

Amin struts and preens his way through a series of pathetic military exercises, including one in which his crack paratroopers prepare for battle by leaping off a two-inch-high porch step, and equally pathetic cabinet meetings where he promises he wants nothing but openness and honesty, and pauses for neither. The question isn't so much whether Amin believes his preposterous rhetoric, but whether he thinks anyone else will believe it, at least anyone not living under immediate threat of his force.

Schroeder notes that Amin was such a natural on camera that he only needed about eight hours of total footage during his two-week shot to accumulate enough material for a feature-length cut. The general is undeniably magnetic and all the more terrifying for his carefully rehearsed sense of calm. He does not yell or directly threaten anyone, but his over-the-top laughter, feigned interest in conversations that are really monologues, and his icy stare speak volumes.

The documentary opened to widespread acclaim in 1974, and multiple descriptions of the film as the funniest comedy of the year provide evidence that irony-drenched hipsters are not exclusively a twenty-first century creation. Certainly, the film offers its share of absurdist humor (“Dada”), such as Amin cheating in a swimming race by barreling over an opponent who quite obviously had no intention of daring to challenge the great general, but it is also a chilling record of a genuine monster, a sociopath too irresistibly and disturbingly entertaining to be easily forgotten. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. I can't imagine too many people were clamoring for a high-def upgrade of this documentary, but the “new 2K digital transfer” certainly looks sharper than the old 2002 SD Criterion release, and features more subdued color tones.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and efficient. There's not much to say about a film consisting mostly of interviews save that there are no audio problems that would distract the viewer. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The 2002 Criterion DVD was scant on extra features, and this 2017 Blu-ray upgrade only adds a few small ones.

We get the old 2001 interview with Barbet Schroeder (26 min.) and a new 2017 interview (12 min.) with the director which covers a good deal of the same ground. But, oh, that story of how Amin “suggested” certain film cuts to Schroeder can't be told enough.

The only other extra is a 2017 interview with author Andrew Rice (16 min.) who discusses Amin's reign from seizing power to his self-imposed exile (he ran like a coward).

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by film critic J. Hoberman.

Final Thoughts:
Go ahead, laugh at the movie. It's funny. But reflect on Amin's long, dead-eyed stare that wraps up the film before you go calling it a rip-roaring comedy. In any case, it's a great and essential documentary.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 12, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

On a 1958 episode of “What's My Line?”, pioneering rock-and-roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller faced the withering condescension of the show's self-appointed cultural gatekeepers. An outright vicious Dorothy Kilgallen sniped “That's no excuse!” when the pair's commercial success was mentioned, and the not-at-all-with-it host, John Daly, offered the friendly hope that the boys would “go on and do perhaps more serious things in music.”

In 1967, director D.A. Pennebaker was only a few years younger than both Kilgallen and Daly were in 1958, butwas fortunately far more receptive to the nation's new dominant musical genre. When tasked with filming the Monterey Pop Festival on three sunny California days in June, 1967, Pennebaker not only took the event seriously, he rendered it an almost instantly myth, a cultural landmark that still exerts considerable sway a half-century later.

Pennebaker was hired in part because of his success with the Bob Dylan documentary “Don't Look Back” (1967), but he still wasn't entirely familiar with the whole scene organized by festival producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas). He claims he didn't even know who Janis Joplin was (they later became friends), and had only heard snippets of Jimi Hendrix before. Fortunately, Pennebaker and his team, including Direct Cinema stalwarts Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, were able to employ their hand-held cameras, mobile direct sound, and versatile 16-mm Ektachrome stock with free-wheeling versatility, sometimes capturing entire sets by the relentless parade of star acts, some already legendary, others whose fame would be launched in no small part by the festival and the film. 

“Monterey Pop” eases into this now-fabled launch of the Summer of Love, waiting nearly ten minutes to actually get to the music, focusing on the crowds of flower-power youth completing their solemn pilgrimage. One bright-eyed fan promises that it's going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year's all rolled together and that “the vibrations are just gonna be flowing.” Police worry about the rumored threats of the Hell's Angels and Black Panthers, but joking interactions between hippies and cops suggest that all will be well.

The rest is the stuff of legends, as vital and vibrant today as when first captured on film. Grace Slick and Joplin at their peaks. Cass Elliott charming the audience. Hendrix setting his guitar aflame. Otis Redding just months before his tragic plane crash. All amazing, but can any of them top sitar-master Ravi Shankar completely owning not just the crowd, but a whole new musical world with a performance that staggers belief? No need to pick your favorite act. Who could?

If there's any disappointment with Pennebaker's magical film, it's that it's too damn short at just 79 minutes. But if you finish feeling like you could listen to hours more, well, that's just what this Criterion Blu-ray set is for.

The films in this 3-disc set are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. After the original 2002 SD-DVD release, Criterion re-released “Monterey Pop” (see below) on Blu-ray in 2009. However, this 2017 Blu-ray re-release features new 16-bit 4K resolution transfers. I don't have the 2009 Blu-ray to compare to, but the difference between these transfers and the 2002 DVDs represents a considerable improvement, a total transformation really. Of course the audio quality is going to be of greater interest to those considering a double dip.

Linear PCM and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes are available options for the films in this set. The 5.1 mix, newly remastered from the original 8-track audio, are exceptionally robust with no drop-off or distortion audible anywhere. It sounds even better than you'd imagine possible for a concert captured with mobile synch sound equipment of the '60s. I can't imagine it can ever sound better than this. No subtitles are provided, which I suppose isn't a big deal, but I still wouldn't mind having them.

It's easy to get confused by the many Criterion releases of “Monterey Pop.” It was first released as two separate DVDs in two separate keepcases back in 2002. They then released the set again on Blu-ray in 2009. And in 2017, they are releasing both a single-disc ob Blu-ray and the three-disc set which is reviewed here.

What you really need to do is that this three-disc set includes all the original extras from the 2002/2009 releases and also adds a second disc consisting of over two-hours of outtakes/extra performances from the festival. We'll get to it all eventually.

Disc One includes the main documentary (79 min.) which is accompanied by the 2002 commentary track by Pennebaker and festival producer Lou Adler. Older features also imported include a 2001 interview with Pennebaker and Adler (29 min.) and interviews with John Phillips (16 min.), Cass Elliott (12 min.), David Crosby (9 min.), and Derek Taylor (29 min.). More older material: promotional TV and radio spots, festival ephemera (including a photo essay by Elaine Mayes), and images of the original festival program.

New features on Disc One include a 2017 interview with Pennebaker (15 min. - it's actually a mix of three interviews) and a 2017 interview with Lou Adler (12 min.) These cover some of the same material as their joint 2001 interview. In addition, the disc includes the short film “Chiefs” (1968, 20 min.), directed by Ricky Leacock, concerning a convention of American police chiefs in Waikiki. It's relevance to “Monterey Pop” is based mostly on Leacock's involvement in both projects.

Disc Two will thrill music lovers with 129 minutes of additional musical performances from the festival. I've done my best to list them in detail. They are organized by each day of the three-day festival.

Day One:

The Association – Along Comes Mary
Simon and Garfunkel – Homeward Bound, The Sounds of Silence

Day Two:

Country Joe and the Fish – Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine
Al Kooper – (I Heard Her Say) Wake Me, Shake Me
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Driftin' Blues
The Steve Miller Blues Band – Mercury Blues, Super Shuffle
Quicksilver Messenger Service – All I Ever Wanted To Do (Was Love You)
The Electric Flag – Drinkin' Wine
The Byrds – Chimes of Freedom, He Was A Friend of Mine, Hey Joe
Laura Nyro – Wedding Bell Blues, Poverty Train
Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love
Moby Grape – Hey Grandma

Day Three:

The Blues Project – Flute Thing
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Combination of the Two
Buffalo Springfield – For What It's Worth
The Who – Substitute, Summertime Blues, A Quick One While He's Away
The Grateful Dead – Viola Lee Blues
The Mamas and the Papas – Straight Shooter, Somebody Groovy, I Call Your Name, Monday Monday, San Francisco, Dancing In The Street

The disc also includes footage of Tiny Tim performing in the Hunt Club (the festival's official green room), four short songs in all.

Disc Three:

And we still haven't gotten to perhaps the most substantial extras in the set.

This disc includes two more Pennebaker films: “Jimi Plays Monterey” (49 min.) and “Shake! Otis at Monterey” and you should be able to figure out the subjects of both films, which are wonderful. “Jimi” has a 2002 commentary track by music critic Charles Shaar Murray and also a brief interview with Pete Townshend (1987, 4 min.” “Shake!” comes with two commentaries by music historian Peter Guaralnick along with a 2002 interview (19 min.) with Phil Walden, Redding's manager. These are all imported from the original 2002 SD release, but now in high-def.

The thick, square-bound 72-page insert booklet includes essays by Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, and Barney Hoskyns as well as Michael Leydon's article about the festival, originally published in “Newsweek” in 1967.

Final Thoughts:
Great high-def transfers and rich DTS 5.1 audio mixes are reason enough to recommend this upgrade, but the real treat is the more than two hours of additional concert footage included on Disc Two (listed above). This set has been available in some form for quite some time now, but comprehensive re-release genuinely deserves the title “The COMPLETE Monterey Pop Festival.” Strongly recommended.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


JABBERWOCKY (Gilliam, 1977)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 21, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Human beings are tautly-stretched sacks of blood and puss who spend most of their day consuming and excreting matter, just eating, pissing, farting, and crapping their short lives away. That appears to be Terry Gilliam's primary thesis in “Jabberwocky” (1977), and even if you're in the minority who stubbornly disputes such an obvious claim, his first solo film as director provides ample evidence to support it.

When the film's protagonist, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), a simple villager named for his family occupation (Cooper, not Dennis, I mean), sets to wooing his sweetheart Griselda (Annette Badland), she responds to his tender entreaties by gnawing on a rotten potato, scratching her ass, and unleashing the occasional bum blast. Griselda's father, Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), also conducts a blithely casual conversation with young Dennis while taking a equally casual dump out of a window and into the polluted water below.

When Dennis sets out, quite accidentally, to become a hero and slay the mysterious and menacing Jabberwocky that terrifies the countryside, he plunges knee-deep into mountains of dung and wakes up to a drive-by golden shower or two. Meanwhile, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) orders a glorious joust to determine a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, and the results of each heroic battle are depicted primarily by the various fluids spattered on the onlookers. Robert Bresson may have dealt a fatal blow to chivalry a few years earlier with “Lancelot du Lac” (1974), but Gilliam took great pleasure in dropping by to crap on its corpse.

Any adaptation of Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky” would necessarily be a loose one, but Gilliam actually works in much of the poem's text into his film and ultimately delivers a genuine monster “with eyes of flame.” Hero Dennis Cooper is not, however, a particularly “beamish boy” unless “beamish” means “a colossally dull bean-counter.”

Portrayed with as little personality as possible by Palin, Dennis embodies another horrifying aspect of humanity beyond their oozing, stinking bodies: a relentlessly unimaginative obsession with profit margins. Dennis's father (Paul Curran) takes great pride in crafting quality barrels, in loving and respecting the wood he works with, and is mortified to learn that his son can see nothing but the opportunity to cut corners in the name of competitive business. Alas, Dennis is more in tune with his times than dear old dad. The nobles and businessmen of the utterly wretched city to which Dennis ventures to make his fortune are in no great hurry to eliminate the Jabberwocky. The threat of having all their flesh flayed from their skeletons keeps the peasants at home, and thus willing to work for lower wages, and the general chill even sparks a bull market in commodities.

Gilliam surely selected a pre-sanitation medieval setting to emphasize the filth, but the film's depiction of the squalid state of humanity has a timeless quality. Give them a few centuries and these miserable wretches will be spewing their filth into the atmosphere. A few years after that, the corporate machinery of Gilliam's “Brazil” (1985) would be run by a legion of paper-pushing Dennis Coopers, and dreamers are about as welcome in the society of “Jabberwocky” as in “Brazil.” Aside from Dennis's father, nobody here seeks or even imagines a better way of life because, quite frankly, they don't deserve and aren't capable of anything better. You are what you shit.

“Jabberwocky” manifests the expected unevenness of a first film. It's phenomenal at depicting the grotesque (special shutout to Annette Badland for gamely embracing her caricatured role) but it's not particularly funny, especially not when Gilliam seems to reaching most emphatically for laughs, a shortcoming that leads to some tedious stretches. However, the idiosyncratic vision that would soon produce gems like “Time Bandits” (1981) and “Brazil” (1985) arrives almost fully formed in Gilliam's solo debut. And the monster, held back until the very end, is pretty darn cool too.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I only recall seeing “Jabberwocky” on the old 2001 Columbia DVD which was pretty flat and muddy looking. This recent restoration by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation works from the original 35 mm camera negative to produce an impressive 1080p image, sharp and richly textured throughout. It looks sharp in motion too. The color palette is fairly drab, but we're talking about Gilliam's version of the Middle Ages here – many piles of poop, few rainbows. All in all, this is a very strong high-def presentation.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is quite robust, effective with the sometimes elaborate sound effects (OK, by elaborate I sometimes mean sounds of suspicious 'plops' in the water) and the eclectic classical music mix. Optional English (SDH) subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by an old 2001 audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

“Jabberwocky's Good Nonsense” (41 min.) mixes interviews with Gilliam, Palin, Annette Badland, and producer Sandy Lieberson. In sharing their reminiscences about the film's production, they cover mostly familiar ground with an emphasis on Gilliam's desire to break away from his Python roots in his first solo directorial effort.

In another interview (15 min.), special-effects artist and designer Valerie Charlton (co-credited for “Monster Creation” in the film) discusses the development of the film's title monster.

Cinematographer Terry Bedford (22 min.) also discusses his work with Gilliam on both “Holy Grail” and “Jabbewrocky” in these audio-only excerpts.

Criterion has also included the film's Original Opening. Gilliam changed the opening/title sequence for the film's U.S. release and settled on a hybrid version for home video release. This original U.K. Cut skips the paintings of the U.S. title sequence.

We also get a 2001 program which compares Gilliam's original sketches to the final screen version of several scenes.

Finally, in addition to a Trailer (1 min.), we also get a reading of the poem “Jabberwocky” by Palin and Badland.

The slim fold-out booklet features an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Final Thoughts:
“Jabberwocky” is one of Gilliam's lesser efforts, but even if it's disappointingly short on laughs, it's a fascinating preview of the glorious visions to come from this one-of-a-kind director. Criterion's high-def transfer is stronger and the selection of extras is satisfying, if not overwhelming.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Philadelphia Story

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long

Wealthy socialite and bride-to-be Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) finds herself pursued by two prospective suitors, neither of whom happens to be the man she plans to marry tomorrow. Ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) disrupts Tracy's plans not only by barging in unannounced, but also by dragging cranky reporter Mike Connor along in his wake to cover the wedding for his magazine and to wreak further chaos. Tracy's fiance George (John Howard) barely merits a footnote even as his own day of bliss approaches.

Director George Cukor and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart adapted “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) from Philip Barry's 1939 smash-hit play, also starring Hepburn. The project was designed from the outset as an effort to re-establish Hepburn as a star after a series of box-office failure in the late 1930's, which included the now-beloved “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). Hepburn exerted considerable control over the production from the earliest stages, from choosing Cukor to direct to selecting her co-stars (though she initially wanted Spencer Tracy as one of the leads), and the result was a career re-defining triumph, scoring big at the box office and also at the Academy Awards.

Like most romantic comedies of the era, the film relies almost exclusively on the blunt force power of star charisma on which the world-conquering Hollywood system was built. Every seemingly implausible or rushed development in the script has a simple justification. When the cynical Mike abruptly stops grumbling about the corruption of the upper-class and confesses his undying admiration for Tracy, there is only one explanation for his change of heart: she is Katharine Hepburn, and everyone loves Katharine Hepburn. Why does the poised, urbane Tracy still fall for the boorish, narcissistic, alcoholic who once hit her? Because he's Cary Grant, and everyone loves Cary Grant. All of which goes triple for Jimmy Stewart.

I confess that I am largely insensitive to the charms of studio mega-stars, a natural defect which generally leaves me less receptive to the romantic comedies of the golden age than most other viewers are. But I can still acknowledge the impeccable sense of timing Cukor and his cast enjoyed, as well the myriad of little flourishes provided by a deft script engineered to augment the strengths of the performers. Stewart repeatedly spits out the full name “C.K. Dexter Haven” as an accusation targeted at an entire privileged class. Hepburn endures a baseless series of accusations blaming her for the shortcomings of every man in her life without losing either her patience of her dignity. And Ruth Hussey outshines the top-line stars in an underappreciated role as a photographer and Mike's ill-treated love interest.

The ending is utterly ludicrous, but it's Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart. No need to ask further questions.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film's original camera negative was destroyed in a 1978 fire, so you would expect any restoration would have to make compromises based on the limitations of their source prints, but it's hard to see any compromise here. Criterion's 1080p transfer offers sharp image detail, strong black-and-white contrast, and a fine grain structure that really makes the film pop. The look is so consistent throughout, I honestly can't spot a noticeable dropoff or flaw of any kind. It's difficult to envision a superior version of this film.

The linear PCM mono audio track is sharp and relatively flat, as the original audio mix was. The sound design qualifies as strictly functional with dialogue and a Franz Waxman score the only relevant elements. It's all clearly mixed and consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Criterion has stacked this new high-definition release with an impressive selection of extras, though only a few are new for this Blu-ray.

The film is accompanied by a 2004 commentary track by film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

“In Search of Tracy Lord” (2017, 22 min.) details some of the real-life inspirations for Hepburn's signature character, inspirations which include Hepburn herself along with a few people in playwright Philip Barry's life. This feature combines interviews with Miranda Barry (Philip Barry's daughter), Janny Scott (granddaughter of Edgar and Hope Scott, the latter considered to be an inspiration for Tracy Lord), and Donald Anderson, author of a book on Philip Barry's plays.

“A Katharine Hepburn Production” (19 min.) is a new piece about Hepburn's role in shaping the film from the very start, and mixes interviews with filmmakers David Hedley and Joan Kramer.

The disc includes two full episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” (69 min. each) which aired in October 1973. Hepburn was known for her reluctance to do interviews, so these lengthy discussions, conducted on a closed backstage, were quite a coup for Cavett and a treat for Hepburn fans. We also get an excerpt (15 min.) from George Cukor's appearance on a May 18, 1978 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

Criterion has also unearthed a “Lux Radio Theatre” performance of “The Philadelphia Story” which was broadcast on June 14, 1943, and stars Loretta Young, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young in the three leads. Cecil B. DeMille serves as your host for the evening.

My favorite feature on the disc is a “Restoration Demo” (6 min.) with Criterion's expert technicians explaining the challenges in restoring the film, most of which stem from the fact that the original camera negative was lost in a 1978 fire at the George Eastman House.

The collection rounds out with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Final Thoughts:
A fantastic transfer and a stacked offering of extras. Fans of the film could hardly ask for more.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Judex, with a bird for a head, just because he can
JUDEX (Franju, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 17, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Georges Franju's “Judex” (1963) isn't really about plot or characters or even action or making sense. Mostly it's about Musidora, or at least the effect the silent film actress had on a generation of French cinephiles. Musidora, née Jeanne Roques, starred in two very popular serial films by Louis Feuillade, as the sultry Irma Vep in “Les vampires” (1915) and as the equally sultry Diana Monti in “Judex” (1916). Her piercing dark eyes and willingness to slip into form-fitting leotards rendered her the supreme fetish figure for Surrealists like André Breton and for the other film junkies who first saw the serials at La Cinémathèque Française where the great programmer and archivist Henri Langlois championed Feuillade's work.The fact that Feuillade's films, despite their seemingly straightforward pulp adventure plots, played like fever dreams only heightened the erotically-charged Musidora effect, one obviously remembered vividly by director Georges Franju.

Franju had actually wanted to adapt “Fantômas” (1913), an earlier (Musidora-free) Feuillade serial, but the rights had been optioned, so he turned his attention to updating “Judex.” Except that updating isn't the right word. Where Feuillade's film felt futuristic, Franju's seems archaic; it's as if they meet somewhere in between 1915 and 1963 at a time that never existed.

While condensing the 12-part, 6-hour serial, Franju sticks close to the basics of the original. Judex is a masked crimefighter who threatens the corrupt banker Favraux with death if he does not atone for his crimes. Favraux's governess Marie-who-turns-out-to-be-Diana takes advantage of the feud by attempting to abscond with the ill-gotten funds. Whacky hijinks ensue.

Acrobat vs. Cat Burglar, the old familiar story
In shaving off 210 minutes or so, Franju eliminates all the backstory along with any concern for motivation or logic. But he keeps all of the weird and usually tight costumes, adding a few of his own. Diana (Francine Bergé, then a relative neophyte) stalks around in an Emma Peel-style catsuit, switches to a men's tailored outfit, and later shows up disguised as a nun with a bird-shaped habit and a hypodermic needle. Diana winds up in a rooftop battle with a very curvy leotard-clad acrobat (Sylvia Koscina) who just happens to wander along with a few minutes left in the film and abruptly becomes a major player in the denouement, one of a vast array of dramatic rules for which Franju displays total disregard.

Franju has even greater disregard for Judex, the barely-existent protagonist played by American magician Channing Pollock. Pollock wasn't really an actor and barely spoke French, leaving him baffled through most of the shooting, but it doesn't really matter. Judex's only notable scenes exploit Pollock's sleight-of-hand talents as he produces a series of live pigeons from handkerchiefs and other sources. When the costumed avenger finally leaps into action at the end, he is almost instantly knocked out and tied up; once freed he still does little but stand around while the acrobat (who, I remind you, doesn't even appear until the final reel) takes care of business. Seen today, it might play like a dismissive parody of the super-hero, but I have no idea whether Franju had even the slightest interest in comic books.

Edith Scob
So much for Judex. Franju mostly just wants to stuff women into tight outfits, and bless his soul for that, but he's also eager show off the otherwordly Edith Scob, his young muse who was so memorable as the disfigured daughter in Franju's “Eyes Without a Face” (1960). As Jacqueline, Favraux's innocent daughter, Scob isn't shoehorned into any skimpy uniforms, but with her thin swan neck and wide eyes she is a striking, unique presence who adds a charged mystique even to a thankless role which mostly involves her wandering hallways and being knocked unconscious.

“Judex” is a film built out of fetishes, but also flourishes. Like Feuillade, Franju has the ability to create truly bizarre images in a completely mundane fashion. In one scene, Judex's dogs scare off Jacqueline's would-be kidnappers, and a German shepherd casually places a protective paw atop the unconscious young woman as she lies sprawled on the ground. When Judex's prisoner throws his jacket at a surveillance camera, the jacket instantly goes up in a furious blaze. And in an inexplicably touching development, an undistinguished henchman suddenly discovers his long-lost father and, for just an instant, turns into the closest thing the movie has to a full-fledged character.

If you're the sort of viewer who needs moments like this to “add up,” you'll probably wind up feeling frustrated. Franju didn't give a damn about the math, just the moment. 

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Vertical scratches on the edge of the frame are visible from time to time; it almost feels like an intentional nod to the film's silent film source material but perhaps it's just damage to the source print. In any case, it's not too bad and the 1080p transfer is otherwise quite strong with rich black-and-white contrast and a pleasant grainy look.

This is a dual-release format from Criterion with two DVDs (one with the film, the other with most of the extras) and a single Blu-ray. The SD transfer from the DVD has not been reviewed here.

The linear PCM Mono track is simple and efficient. Though the film features an effective score by Maurice Jarre, the soundtrack is mostly silent for long stretches, lending greater importance to specific sound effects like bird chirps and creaking doors, each of which is separated out sharply on this mix. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Criterion has included an impressive array of extras.

An interview with actress Francine Berge (2012, 11 min.) was recorded in Paris and doesn't include anything particularly revelatory, but her appreciation of Edith Scob's unique qualities is well-spoken. She also claims she was just about the only person who paid any attention to poor Channing Pollock.

An interview with Jacques Champeux(2007, 12 min.), co-screenwriter of the film and grandson of Louis Feuillade, provides some background regarding the development of the film. Apparently they were hoping to get Brigitte Bardot for the role of Diana and her curve-hugging outfits, but they didn't have the money.

"Franju, le visionnaire" (51 min.) is directed by Andre S. Labarthe and is a program which originally aired on Sep 2, 1998 as part of the French television program "Cinema, de notre temps." It cobbles together interviews with Franju recorded over a stretch of 23 years and includes clips from many films that North Americans may not have had a chance to see.

 The disc also includes two short films directed by Georges Franju.
"Le grand Melies" (1952, 31 min.) gives Franju a chance to indulges his appreciation for pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies. In this rather melancholy pseudo-biopic, Melies's widow Jeanne D'Alcy plays herself while his son Andre Melies (who had a small role in "Judex") portrays his father.
"Hotel des invalides" (1951, 22 min.) is an antiwar documentary shot by Franju at a former Parisian military complex now turned into a museum and burial site. Narrator Michel Simon takes on a tour designed to show the futility of war.
The 26-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a selection of writing by Franju about "Judex."
Final Thoughts:
Between the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, there came Judex, costumed crime-fighter and all-around weirdo. He was kind of a dork in the 1916 Feuillade serial but still did some pretty neat things and the series still fascinated today because it feels like it could not have possibly been made when it was. In Franju's remake/fan appreciation, Judex is still a weirdo but he also doesn't really do anything except make a few pigeons appear. Fortunately Franju is definitely a weirdo himself and the film's strongest moments stem from his indulgence of various eccentricities. I'll take the serial any day, but this condensed re-dreaming is definitely worth watching.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


TESS (Polanski, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray/DVD, Release Date Feb 25, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

I've never understood the current obsession with genealogical research. Everyone's probably got royal blood dripping from one of the upper branches of the family tree, but it's so diluted by now that any claim to kinship is about as meaningful as noting that we are all composed of atoms.

What's new is usually old, of course, and a fixation on even a distant lineage made more sense at a time when it was closely tied to property rights. Thus John Durbeyfield, a relatively happy and absolutely hard-drinking peasant from Wessex circa late 19th century, is thrilled to learn that he and his expansive family, all currently sharing a tiny shack, are descendants of the aristocratic D'Urberville line. Just like modern genealogists, he discovers that the knowledge does not bring even a whiff of either fame or fortune, but he's already gotten pretty wasted by then so no biggie.

The family's oldest daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is dispatched to the nearest D'Urberville to see if they can claim at least a tiny part of their rightful inheritance, but her first interaction with so-called high society sets her on the inevitable path to destruction instead. A supposed cousin named Alec (Leigh Lawson) turns out only to have purchased the now-defunct blueblood name, but the sight of the lovely teenage Tess fills him with the desire to acquire a real D'Urberville as well. Tess fends off his advances nobly, but has no recourse when the suave seducer resorts to brute force.

In Victorian England, Tess will, of course, suffer all of the consequences of the rape. She bears a child out of wedlock, and finds little sympathy from church or community after the baby dies. To spare her family the shame she flees to work on a dairy farm where she finds true love in the form of the idealistic, handsome Angel Clare (Peter Firth). He loves her too but his idealism does not, unfortunately, extend to forgiving his new wife after she confesses to her past “transgression” even though she has just forgiven him his own affair. Whacky hijinks do not ensue.

I admit that I found Thomas Hardy's “Tess of the d'Urbervilles” an excruciating experience when I read (most of) it in high school. Perhaps I would be more receptive today, but the lingering trauma keeps me from a second try. Director Roman Polanski, however, was fascinated by the book from the moment his wife Sharon Tate insisted that he read it. They both thought it would be a magnificent role for her, but Tate was murdered soon after.

Polanski shelved the project for nearly a decade and a “Chinatown” or two, but decided to return to the project with seventeen-year-old Kinski, then best known as the daughter of Werner Herzog's best fiend Klaus Kinski, in the title role. Though she had appeared in a few previous movies, “Tess” (1979) was Kinski's introduction to the international film circuit and it came with a modicum of controversy. Rumors of a romantic relationship with the director have been denied, though she was certainly his protege, studying acting with Lee Strasberg at his behest. More controversial was the notion of a German actress playing the very British Tess by the very British Thomas Hardy. 

The concerns of Britain's cultural gatekeepers proved unfounded as Kinski adopted not only a convincing accent (the slight German inflection underscoring Tess's outsider status) but compellingly embodied the willful “pure woman” of Hardy's novel. For Polanski, the story of an innocent among predators was a natural choice, and if the film holds any surprises it's that the tasteful and lavish production comes off as rather tame, a contrast to the scandal that forced Hardy to self-censor his book. Though Polanski was able to show what Hardy could only hint at, the director doesn't linger on any salacious sequences (the rape is frightening, but not graphic) and the focus remains constantly on true-heart Tess and her fierce yet doomed resistance.

Cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet capture the sun-soaked French countryside (a splendid stand-in for Hardy's Wessex and environs) in all of its painterly glory, but no perfectly-sculpted landscape shot matches the beauty of Kinski's flawless face. It's extraordinary that a relative neophyte could project both fragility and strength with such naturalistic ease, though perhaps this is a case where genealogy comes in handy. Lawson and Firth are convincing enough, but their pitiful displays of manhood, one an outright cad and the other equally reprehensible in his cowardly hypocrisy, render them unfit to share the screen and the story with Tess. This is Kinski's show and she flat out steals it.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image looks just a bit soft at times and the image detail doesn't jump off the screen the way it does in some Criterion 1080p transfers, but that slightly softer look may have been part of the film's visual design. Grain is present but not too noticeable. Colors are universally vibrant as the film clearly delineates the different seasons. The net result is quite beautiful, if not quite immaculate.

This is a dual-format release which includes two DVDs (with film and extras) as well as a single Blu-ray (with everything). The SD transfer has not been reviewed here.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is fairly robust though not particularly dynamic. Perhaps the lossless audio stands out most in its treatment of the score by Philippe Sarde. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

“Tess” may not occupy the same exalted status in Polanski's oeuvre as “Chinatown” or “Rosemary's Baby,” but Criterion has still given it the deluxe treatment.

The collection starts with a 1979 episode of the French television program “Ciné regards” (49 min.) which includes behind-the-scenes footage from the film intermixed with an interview with Polanski. I found this feature both meandering and ponderous and gave up around the twenty minute mark.

Unfortunately I felt the same way about the plodding “Once Upon a Time... 'Tess'” which is a 2006 documentary that looks back on the making of “Tess” through interviews with Polanski, Kinski, producer Claude Berri, actor Leigh Lawson and others. At one point the documentary narrator states quite matter-of-factly that “Tess” was shot “in 1978 and 1979, the most pivotal years of the twentieth century.” I assume this claim has something to do with the Bee Gees.

I'm sorry to be a downer yet again, but I didn't make it too long into an episode of the BBC's “The South Bank Show” (1979, 50 min.) I had to pull the plug early when host Melvyn Bragg described the rape allegations against Polanski as “just another chapter” in his life story.

The disc also includes three short 2004 documentaries by director Laurent Bouzereau about the making of “Tess.” “From Novel to Screen” (28 min.) is by far the most interesting of the lot featuring Polanski discussing the genesis of the project as well as other experts addressing the censorship problems Thomas Hardy encountered when his book was first serialized in 1891; it eventually netted him a tidy sum. “Filming Tess” (26 min.) is a broad but engaging look at the production. “'Tess' The Experience” (26 min.) functions mostly as an unnecessary catch-all for whatever interview snippets didn't fit into the first two features, consisting of whatever gossip and minutiae is mentioned by the subjects involved with an emphasis on what a happy family everyone was during shooting.

The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The somewhat surprisingly slim insert booklet includes an essay by critic Colin MacCabe.

Final Thoughts:
The tasteful and relatively staid period picture was perfectly suited to the Academy's tastes, earning six total nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) with victories for Best Cinematography, Best Art Design, and Best Costume Design. This was the year wizened Academy voters mistook the absurd “Ordinary People” for a masterwork, but that's not Polanski's fault. Though nobody knew it at the time, the release of “Tess” marked the beginning of a fallow period for the director; his next feature wouldn't be released until 1986 and “Pirates” was not exactly viewed as a return to form from the master. “Tess” is not one of his greatest films and might strain patience at just under three hours, but Nastassja Kinski's performance is impressive and the knockout cinematography shines through in this high-def release.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Max Ophuls x 3: La Ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame De

The Earrings of Madame De...

LA RONDE, LE PLAISIR, THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (Ophuls, 1950, 1952, 1953)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Sep 16, 2008 
Review by Christopher S. Long

The following is a combined review of the three Max Ophuls films released by Criterion on September 16, 2008: “La ronde” (1950), “Le plaisir” (1952), and “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953). Beneath the main body of the review you will find Video, Audio, Extras, and Final Thoughts for each of the three films. Please note that Criterion re-released “The Earrings of Madame De...” on Blu-ray in 2013 with identical extras; the high-grade transfer was so-so by Criterion standards but not as poor as some review sites claimed at the time.

Both a canonized auteur and a successful commercial filmmaker on both sides of the Atlantic from the '30s through the '50s, German-born Max Ophuls may not be as widely recognized today as some of his peers, but boy did those peers recognize him. A fellow by the name of Stanley Kubrick certainly did.

Kubrick seldom discussed other filmmakers but eagerly expressed his admiration for Ophuls’ mastery of the tracking shot, an obvious influence on Kubrick’s career from at least as early as “Paths of Glory” which was shot in 1957, the same year that Max Ophuls suffered a fatal heart attack. According to actor Richard Anderson, Kubrick wrapped shooting on “Paths” one day and proclaimed “This shot is in memory of Max Ophuls, who died today.” Anderson said, “(Ophuls) was Stanley’s god.”

Ophuls’ insistently roving camera was not unprecedented in the '40s and '50s, but no commercial filmmaker of the time so elegantly integrated the mobile camera into his work. Time and again, characters are introduced with long, graceful tracking shots that guide them from the edge of the frame into the heart of the scene. Ophuls was fond of elaborately choreographed shots such as the much-celebrated dance sequences in “The Earrings of Madame de…”, and “La Ronde.” The camera just barely keeps up with the whirling characters as they cover some serious ground and then circle back to do it all again. He didn't make it look effortless; he simply made it look flawless. Ophuls achieved the kind of perfection that produces a sense of awe and the (accurate) impression that nobody else could possibly have shot it.

But the roving camera was hardly the only trick in Max Ophuls’ movie bag. In one scene from “Le plaisir,” a traveling salesman shares a train car with several of the ladies of the Maison Tellier. Burdened with the tools of his trade, he places a large bag on the shelf above the women. It falls and he catches it just before it hits one of them. He tucks it back in rather carelessly, then places a much heavier suitcase on the shelf to his left. Once again, he deftly snags it as it falls and returns it to the luggage rack where it leans precariously over the edge. In what becomes a 2 minute, 27 second static shot (with one slight zoom in to reframe the characters) in a cramped space, Ophuls creates multiple focal points in the frame. The teetering bags are very much “alive” in this scene: we wait for them to fall at any point as the train car shakes and rattles. Add a coupe of quacking ducks in a basket held by one of the women and a long shot with almost no camera movement becomes very dynamic. It’s a remarkable feat of craftsmanship, made even more remarkable by the fact that it can so easily drift by unnoticed.

In another Kubrick connection, “La ronde” is adapted from a work by Arthur Schnitzler author of “Traumnovelle” which Kubrick and Frederic Raphael adapted for “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Here, Ophuls and screenwriting partner Jacques Natanson adapt the saucy, scandalous, and oft-censored Schnitzler play described as “a story of love” which is to say “a story of sex.” A merry-go-round features prominently in the film and serves as the guiding conceit for the entire movie. The film begins with a prostitute seducing a soldier: in the next scene, the soldier seduces a chambermaid who next proceeds to seduce (and be seduced by) her employer and so on. Every character in the film except for one has two romantic assignations in the film. 

Walbrook in La ronde

The exception is the “meneur de jeu,” a master of ceremonies (played by veteran actor Anton Walbrook) who serves multiple and mysterious functions in the film. Dressed in coat and top hat, he narrates the film and operates the merry-go-round, but he also appears in most of the scenes nominally as a character integrated into the narrative but also with an omniscient perspective, offering cleverly worded advice to people not quite clever enough to figure out what the hell he’s talking about.

The film shows no graphic sex, of course (this was 1950 after all) but it is shockingly frank about its intentions. These characters are not spending romantic days in the countryside together. They are, quite simply, trying to hook up and succeeding quite admirably in their efforts. As the merry-go-round spins on, so does the wheel of life and love and lust with room for everyone but waiting for nobody. The film is studded with an all-star cast including Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Gerard Philipe, Isa Miranda, Simone Simon, and frequent Ophuls’ actress Danielle Darrieux who appears in all three of the Ophuls films released by Criterion this month.

Le plaisir

“Le plaisir” (1952) is a more restrained affair, but still quite bold by the standards of the time. It would have been much bolder if Ophuls had his way. The story is designed as a triptych, adapting three stories by Guy de Maupassant: “The Mask,” “The Tellier House,” and “The Model.” Ophuls originally planned to adapt “Paul’s Mistress” a story in which the title character has a lesbian affair. Alas, after the sequence was initially approved, a new production company that took over after the first went bankrupt nixed the idea.

“The Tellier House” is the second story and takes up the bulk of the film. The title house is a brothel that forms the nexus of all night-life in a small Normandy town. One day the male clients discover the lights in the house are mysteriously turned off and the doors shuttered. This is the equivalent of showing up at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and finding it closed. A riot breaks out at the brothel while the “gentleman” of town gradually congregate (oddly, they all happen to be heading to the same place at the same time...) to figure out how to deal with this existential crisis. Their polite debates devolve into heated arguments and occasional fisticuffs, once again proving one of the immutable laws of nature: horny men don’t think clearly and shouldn’t gather in large groups.

It turns out the ladies have gone to the countryside to attend the first communion of Madame Tellier’s niece. When they arrive in this presumably more god-fearing pastoral town, they are still treated as royalty by all the men… well, see above for a discussion of the immutable laws of nature.

Darrieux as Madame de...

Both “La ronde” and “Le plaisir” are superb examples of Ophuls at the top of his game, but “The Earrings of Madame de…,” based on a story by Louise de Vilmorin, is the masterpiece of the collection and perhaps the greatest achievement of his career (1948’s brilliant “Letter from an Unknown Woman” being the most likely challenger to the title.) Danielle Darrieux delivers the performance of a lifetime as the serial fainter and pathological liar Louise who is never given a last time.

Married to the wealthy General André (played by superstar Charles Boyer), Louise has a tendency to outspend the ample allowance given to her by her husband. She pawns the title earrings then concocts a story about losing them at the opera, the first of many lies that Louise tells and the one that sets the narrative into motion. Just as “La Ronde” followed a series of connected sexual liaisons, this movie follows the earrings en route to Constantinople by way of André’s mistress and back into Louise’s possession via the Italian Baron Donati who becomes Louise’s most earnest suitor (there are many). Donati is played with panache by Vittorio de Sica and his compelling performance here provides a reminder to modern audiences that the man identified as one of the great Italian neo-realist directors was much better known to audiences of the time as a dashing screen icon.

André is used to Louise’s admirers and he plays the gentleman’s game of love with verve, but the shifting ownership of the earrings (and the lies and scandal associated with them) humiliates him. He cannot let Louise Who-Has-No-Last-Name-But-If-She-Did-It-Would-Be-His labor under the false assumption that she is not his to control. Love isn't an emotion, it's a set of rules.

The film’s incredible dancing sequences have been oft-discussed but virtually every shot in this film possesses a luminous quality that is unique to Max Ophuls. I simply don’t have room to discuss them, but you can get some sense of the mastery on display in the “Visual Analysis” provided by Tag Gallagher on the DVD.

These three films marked the final stage of Ophuls’ illustrious career. With “La ronde” he returned home, or more accurately the German-born Jew who fled Nazi Germany returned from Hollywood to France where he directed these three films plus his final work “Lola Montès” in 1957 before dying of a heart attack at the age of 55.


"La ronde" is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The digitally restored transfer isn’t quite up to the usual Criterion standards, nor is it as good as the other two Ophuls DVDs released this month. There are more imperfections visible than usual with Criterion transfer, perhaps this was a more partial restoration than most. Still, the image quality is very good, and probably the best available right now.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The mix is clear if not dynamic. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

The feature-length commentary track by scholar Susan White, author of “The Cinema of Max Ophuls” is jam-packed with strong analysis and information. White often sounds like she is reading from her book or from pre-scripted passages, but this minor bit of awkwardness doesn’t detract from the quality of her contribution to Ophuls’ scholarship.

“Circles of Desire: Alan Williams on ‘La ronde.’” Williams is the author of “Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire: A Critical Study of Six Films, 1948-1955.” I haven’t had a chance to listen to this 35 minute critical analysis yet.

Marcel Ophuls, the director’s son, discusses his father’s work in an interview from Cannes in 2008 (7 min.) Marcel is also an accomplished director best known for “The Sorrow and the Pity” (1969) and “Hotel Terminus” (1988).

An interview with actor Daniel Gélin (12 min.), conducted by Martina Müller in 1989, provides some insight into what it was like to work for Ophuls, but I can’t say I found this particularly riveting.

“Schnitzler Correspondence.” An odd feature which shows letters written between Sir Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler, Arthur’s son. The correspondence concerns an adaptation of the play being directed by Olivier.

The slim insert booklet features an essay by Terrence Rafferty.

Final Thoughts:
I am not quite as enthusiastic about “La ronde” as many critics. I find Walbrook’s winking “meneur de jeu” overbearingly clever, and the story of serial sexual encounters gets a little tiresome by the end. However, “La ronde” is still a film which showcases Ophuls at the peak of his creative powers, and also features an extraordinary cast.


The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The digitally restored transfer is remarkably clean, though the image looks a bit dark overall. However, the contrast is still sharp overall. A very strong transfer.

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

Ophuls recorded English and German versions of “La Ronde” in addition to the French. In the English version, only the narration is in English with the dialogue still in French. The German version also includes dubbed German dialogue. The disc presents the opening of the film in each of the two alternate language tracks. You cannot, however, choose to listen to the entire film in either version.

“Le plaisir” is the only one of these three Criterion releases that does not offer a commentary track.

A video introduction by Todd Haynes (18 min.) was recorded in Hollywood in April 2005. This feature comes with a warning that the intro gives away significant plot elements.

“From Script to Screen” (20 min.) is one of the best extra on all three discs. Film Scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé works from the original shooting scripts of the film to discuss the numerous changes the project underwent from the page to the final product.

The disc also includes another excerpt from the interview with actor Daniel Gélin, conducted by Martina Müller in 1989 (12 min.)

Two other 1989 interviews by Müller are offered as well: with assistant director Tony Aboyantz (13 min.) and with set decorator Robert Christidès (15 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by the great Robin Wood.

Film Value:
“Le plaisir” is usually considered the least of these three films, but I liked it more than “La ronde.” I didn’t get a chance to mention the two shorter de Maupassant stories that flank “Tellier House” but both are quite entertaining, especially the final section “The Model” although it does include a point-of-view shot that may have seemed innovative at the time but comes across as clunky today. Each of the stories occupies its own distinct space, but all are woven together thematically into an engaging and often moving whole.


"Madame de..."  is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The restored transfer is up to the very best Criterion standards. This is clean, bright, sharp and simply beautiful. Not a single complaint.

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

Susan White returns (from the “La ronde” DVD) for this feature-length commentary, this time sharing the bill with Gaylyn Studlar. The commentary is as strong here as it was for “La ronde.”

Paul Thomas Anderson puts down his milkshake long enough to provide an articulate and engaging introduction (14 min) to the film. Be warned, the introduction gives away plot elements.

A “Visual Essay” (17 min.) by Tag Gallagher shows off the advantages of criticism in the digital format. Gallagher plays and replays specific shots from the film in order to analyze Ophuls’ unique mise-en-scene in great detail. I just wish this feature was much longer. An hour’s worth of this critical approach would be thoroughly compelling.

The disc includes three interview with Ophuls collaborators: assistant director Alan Jessua (25 min.), co-writer Annette Wademant (7 min.) and assistant decorator Marc Frédérix (8 min.)

The final feature is a brief excerpt (5 min.) from an interview with novelist Louise de Vilmorin whose story was adapted for the film. The excerpt is from the French TV series “Démons et merveilles du cinéma” and originally aired on Nov 20, 1965.

A thick insert booklet is nestled next to the DVD n the cardboard case. It includes an essay by critic Molly Haskell, an excerpt from a 1962 book “Max Ophuls” by costume designer Georges Annenkov, and the original story by Louise de Vilmorin that served as the source material for the movie.

Final Thoughts:
“The Earrings of Madame de…” is a masterpiece by any standard with every element working in unison: dynamic camerawork, an economical script (by Ophuls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant), and brilliant performances, particularly by Darrieux. As Molly Haskell writes in the insert booklet, it’s quite shocking that the film doesn’t appear more often on lists of the greatest films. It certainly deserves a place high in the canon.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Red River

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River
RED RIVER (Hawks, 1948)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 27, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

In the opening sequence of “Red River” (1948), a long wagon train scrapes across the Texas plain, a collective effort of man, animal, and machine all striving towards a common goal. Almost instantly one man announces his plans to break away from the group. Tom Dunson (John Wayne) wants to start his own cattle empire, and therefore has no intention of working for the communal good or even to look out for his best gal Fen (Coleen Gray) who he leaves behind despite desperate entreaties that turn into sutry promises: “The sun only shines half the time, Tom.”

Walter Brennan reminds Wayne, "I am Groot!"
No sale, lady. Tom's got his own destiny to manifest and, besides, Fen just can't provide for his needs like old Groot (Walter Brennan) can. Both a non-threatening sidekick and a surrogate father figure, Groot makes his unquestioning loyalty to Tom clear when he explains to the wagon train leader why he's also leaving: “Colonel, me and Dunson. Well, it's me and Dunson.” Try your best to read that in the reedy, pebbles-in-the-mouth Walter Brennan voice that helped define the great American Western.

The unquestioning nature of that loyalty is precisely what comes into question as the main story of “Red River” unfolds. Shortly after abandoning his fellow settlers, Dunson sees from a distance that they've been ambushed by Indians. Losing Fen like that really breaks him up for a few minutes, but he finds a quick replacement for her in the form of young Matthew Garth (who, once he grows up, will be played by Montgomery Clift), the sole survivor of the attack. Garth functions as an adopted son to the aspiring cattle baron and develops a loyalty to him almost as fierce as Groot's.

Dunson's business plan is straightforward enough. Find good land, proclaim it to be his, shoot anyone who says otherwise. Fast forward fifteen years and the herd is thriving, but the Dunson empire is not. The rugged individualist was incapable of imagining that his life could be affected by matters beyond his control, but the Civil War has ruined the Texas economy, prompting Dunson to drive his cattle to “Missourah” where prices are better. When others suggest that Kansas might be a safer and more profitable option, the inflexible Dunson reminds them who's in charge.

“Red River” initially portrays a world where men eagerly fall in step behind a charismatic strongman. Even when they question his decisions, Groot and Matthew back Tom at every step because that's just what men need to do in a hostile environment where even immaculate, unspoiled landscapes promise a threat beyond every hill and across every river. 

A long, long drive

But just when loyalty seems to be an entirely perverse and oppressive force in this world of might makes right, the film indicates that there are limits decent men won't cross. When Dunson wants to whip a man in his entourage for a grave mistake and, later, when he orders that deserters from the drive be hanged, his men refuse to help. Matthew reluctantly takes over the drive (thus becoming his own man) and even ol' Groot, dagnabbit, abandons poor, deluded Tom to his own fate. The mutiny may not be entirely altruistic (the cowboys might have been more compliant if they didn't fear their wages lost on a fool's errand) but it is heartening to see a group of men who do not merely fall back on the excuse that they were just following orders.

Director Howard Hawks became one of the earliest darlings of the French New Wave critics (sometimes referred to as Hitchcocko-Hawksians) which virtually necessitates that any discussion of his films take an auteurist slant. My knowledge of Hawks's career is woefully inadequate for such an analysis. I can only state that I am a great fan of his Westerns, of which “Red River” was the first, “Rio Bravo” (1959) the best, and “El Dorado” (1966) the most underappreciated.

Hawks is celebrated as a practitioner of the invisible style favored in classical Hollywood, short on ostentatious technique and motivated by the pragmatic needs of the narrative. There are still shots in “Red River” that call attention to themselves, like a near-360 degree pan of Dunson surveying his herd and the amazing long shot where Dunson reads the Bible over a man he's just killed while a passing cloud casts an angry-God shadow over the mountainside in the background, a wonderfully opportunistic on-the-fly capture by cinematographer Russell Harlan. But the relative lack of stylistic gymnastics is perhaps what makes it so easy for Hawks and super-editor Christian Nyby to seamlessly integrate studio-set campfire sequences with the luscious location footage.

“Red River” was adapted from a short novel (serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post”) by Borden Chase who co-wrote the script with Charles Schnee. The story isn't groundbreaking and isn't meant to be, but it provides Hawks and his team a useful template for conveying the epic story of a cattle drive (the first, as it turns out, to take place on what would become known as the Chisholm Trail) in the very personal terms of generational duty and conflict.

While the movie wouldn't work without the vividly drawn relationships and strong performances by Wayne, newcomer Clift, and the stalwart Brennan, its success as a rip-roaring adventure shouldn't be overlooked. The actors look a bit too neat and pretty for all their time spend amidst the beans and the cow dung, but the film still conveys the weight of such a grand and perilous undertaking; thousands of cattle and dozens of men limping across hundreds of miles of untamed land. It stirs the blood sufficiently to forgive an abrupt and unjustified ending clearly designed to sustain the Duke brand.

This is not only a dual-format release from Criterion, but also includes two versions of the film. There are two DVDs and two Blu-rays. On each format, the first disc includes the Theatrical Release of “Red River” (plus a few extras) and the second disc includes the longer Pre-Release version (plus some extras).

The Pre-Release version runs 133 minutes and was screened for preview audiences before Hawks made some last-minute edits for what would become his preferred Theatrical Release (127 min.) The primary difference is that the Pre-Release version presents book pages on screen as a narrative device, allowing viewers to read the descriptive passages before fading to the related action; in the Theatrical version all but one of the book pages is discarded and is replaced with voice-over by Walter Brennan. The Pre-Release version also has a longer ending though it is structurally very similar. Though Hawks always preferred the Theatrical, apparently at some point much later someone decided the longer edit must be the “director's cut” and this has been the version more commonly seen on television and on home video.

The film (in either version) is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The Criterion booklet relates the challenges of restoring the Theatrical cut which relied heavily on the pre-release print, but also required additional footage from a French 35 mm composite print. Perhaps if I went back and looked closer (especially at the scenes with Brennan's voice-over) I would notice a difference in quality from the varying source prints, but on my first viewing I can't say that anything stuck out. Image quality is strong throughout and whatever boosting was necessary to enhance the contrast does not appear to have interfered with the original image. A fine grain look enhances the rich black-and-white photography to create a pleasing if not quite razor sharp final product.

I didn't notice any difference in transfer quality between the two versions of the film, and did not have an opportunity to check the quality of the DVD transfers.

The linear PCM mono track is rather flat, es expected, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin sounds a little tinny at times, but not problematically so. Dialogue is all clearly mixed as are the other sound effects. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Disc One includes the Theatrical Release (127 min.) of “Red River” along with a brief text feature explaining the difference between the Theatrical and Pre-Release versions (see above).

By the way, "I am Groot!"
The disc also includes a 2014 interview (17 min.) with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in which he discusses the two versions of the film as well as the difficulties Hawks had with director Howard Hughes who threatened a lawsuit claiming that the ending too closely resembled “The Outlaw” (1943 – and yeah, that's the one with Jane Russell) on which Hawks had serves as uncredited co-director. The ending had to be re-edited extensively until it met with Hughes' approval.

We also get an audio excerpt of an interview Bogdanovich conducted with Hawks in Palm Spring in April 1972 (15 min.) The disc also includes a Trailer (2 min.)

Disc Two includes the Pre-Release Version (133 min.) of “Red River.”

The first extra on the disc is an interview with critic Molly Haskell (2014, 16 min.) in which she discusses issues of masculinity and gender as played out in the film. While I think Haskell is great I have to admit I skimmed through this one.

We also get a 2014 interview with scholar Lee Clark Mitchell (13 min.) who provides some general discussion about the Western genre and the adaptation of Borden Chase's novels. Perhaps I was in a sour mood but, once again, I skimmed through this feature as it seemed somewhat superficial although I'm sure it's difficult to provide in-depth analysis on such a broad subject in just thirteen minutes.

The disc also includes an audio excerpt of an interview of writer Borden Chase by Western scholar Jim Kitses. This 1969 interview (10 min.) provides a brief sense of what seems like a fascinating personality. Born Frank Fowler, Chase served as a driver for gangsters before realizing it wasn't really a profession with great long-term benefits and decided to become a writer. He didn't like some of the changes made to his novel for the film, and it's hard to blame him.

The last feature is an audio presentation of a “Lux Radio Theatre” performance of “Red River” which aired on Mar 7, 1949 (59 min.) and starred John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Joanne Dru.

Perhaps the best extra of all, however, is the thick novella of Borden Chase's “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” the source material for the movie. This 187-page book tucks into the thick slipcase next to the discs' keepcase, making for a substantial presence on the shelf.

The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1991 interview of the film's editor Christian Nyby conducted by Ric Gentry

Film Value:
I guess it's obligatory to mention John Ford's quote upon seeing his protege's star turn for Hawks: “I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!” Ford's tongue may have been planted in cheek, but while Wayne's films with Ford at the helm certainly form the core of his body of work, two of his finest performances were on Hawks's watch with “Red River” and “Rio Bravo.” For me, a sketchy ending and some unconvincing supporting performances (specifically from Joanne Dru and John Ireland, both of whom I neglected even to mention above) keep me from fully embracing “Red River” as a masterpiece, but it's a damned fine Western which gives Wayne his first chance to push his tough guy persona to its sociopathic limits. This Criterion release could probably use a good commentary track, but with two versions of the film, a solid collection of extras, and a strong 1080p transfer, this easily qualifies as the definitive North American release of a classic film.