Coincidence brings the simultaneous release of superb new Blu-ray editions of two of John Ford’s finest non-westerns, his 1941 “How Green Was My Valley” from Fox Home Video, and the 1952 Technicolor fantasy “The Quiet Man” from Olive Films. The two films are as thoroughly complementary as if they had been designed as a diptych — or perhaps it simply goes without saying that every single film by Ford speaks to all the others.
It is very hard to imagine a movie as uncompromisingly tragic as “How Green” sweeping the Oscars (as it did in 1942) earning anything more than an award for costume design in the relentlessly upbeat Hollywood of 2013, which is apparently about to award Ben Affleck’s mildly glorified HBO movie “Argo” Best Picture honors for concocting an feel good story about American operations in the middle east (the bummer “Zero Dark Thirty,” with its uncomfortable suggestion that a more recent triumph, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, might have been facilitated by an immoral act of torture, has been run out of town). But Ford’s epic vision of loss — social, familial and romantic, with no compensating production of a couple to complete it — remains a powerful reminder of the artistic integrity and ambition once possessed by the American film industry. How green was Century City, then.
Arthur Miller’s magnificent black-and-white photography — which ranges from soft-focus remembrances of a mythical past to hyper-realist close-ups of working class faces that might have been taken by Lewis Hine or Dorothea Lange — is beautifully represented on the Fox disc. And the new, high-def restoration of “The Quiet Man” that Olive has licensed gives equal presence to Winton C. Hoch’s impossibly verdant representation of the Emerald Isle, a Garden of Eden, in Ford’s fond dream, bursting with brightly contrasting reds and greens. These are precisely the colors that do not survive between the yellow sand and blue sky of Monument Valley — with the stirring exception of the desert rose that Tom Doniphon presents to Hallie in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Further musings here, in my New York Times column.
We should soon be seeing the results of the British Film Institute’s major fund (and publicity) raising drive to restore the nine surviving silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. If the quality of Criterion’s new release of the 1934 “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is any indication, we should be in for some major revelations. A film that spent many years in the public domain, subjected to all kinds of mistreatment by budget DVD labels, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” now looks far less like a battered relic and more like the movie Hitchcock actually made. One of several films in which Hitchcock examined the inner workings of a marriage — with infinitely more insight and honesty than Sacha Gervasi’s deplorable Oscar bid, “Hitchcock” — it was also Hitchcock’s first venture into the international intrigue genre, a form he would perfect with “The 39 Steps” a year later. Most conspicuously, it is the only film of his that Hitchcock felt moved to remake, and the 1956 version with Doris Day and James Stewart does indeed correct some of the structural flaws of the 1934 film while considerably advancing its analysis of the couple.
I lay out of few lines of comparison in my column this week for the New York Times, which also includes a look at one of my favorite actress’s slow progress toward stardom as reflected in “Carole Lombard: In the Thirties,” a new three film set from the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection that includes Walter Lang’s “No More Orchids” (1932) and two films by the forgotten David Burton, “Brief Moment” (1933) and “Lady by Choice” (1934).
I’m treading water this week with a handful of new releases: Daniel Mann’s 1966 spy spoof “Our Man Flint,” now available as a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time; an unexpectedly good print of the Halperin brothers’ Poverty Row classic “White Zombie,” featuring Bela Lugosi with a most curious goatee I hope will soon be turning up on the streets of the East Village; and the totally unexpected release of Edgar G. Ulmer’s frightening obscure 1955 “Murder Is My Beat,” offered in 1.85 from the Warner Archive Collection.
Ulmer’s star is the unfortunate Barbara Payton, whose life might have made a memorable film noir on its own. Payton was engaged to Franchot Tone when she began an affair with Tom Neal, the star of Ulmer’s “Detour,” which ended with Neal beating Tone into unconsciousness. Payton married Tone but eventually went back to Neal, which effectively ended both her career and Neal’s. “Murder Is My Beat” would be her last film, apart from an alleged appearance as an extra in Robert Aldrich’s “4 for Texas.” Coincidence, or was Ulmer doing Neal a solid? It may have been the last positive development in the lives of both Payton and Neal, who went on to fates that seem cruel even by Ulmerian standards.
My New York Times column is here.
It’s always fun to speculate about the reasons some comedians travel and others don’t. American comics seem to be born with a passport good for every country in the world, while a major talent like Jean Dujardin can only escape the French domestic market through the elaborate ruse of hiding his accent in a pseudo-silent movie (“The Artist,” for those of us who have already forgotten what won last year’s Oscar). Would Chaplin have made it in American movies if we’d been able to hear his voice and identify his otherness? On the other hand, an English accent didn’t hurt Stan Laurel, whose voice turned out to be added value when he and Oliver Hardy made the transition to sound.
Comedy, like politics, is perhaps most effective when it is practiced locally. A culture’s particular comic tradition is one thing that Hollywood can’t simply co-opt, and local comedy is the one genre keeping many national cinemas alive in the face of overwhelming American competition. (One reliable way of identifying the leading comedians are in any given territory is to see who’s dubbing the Pixar and DreamWorks animated films.)
VCI Entertainment, the Oklahoma-based budget label that has lately been importing a great deal of British commercial cinema, has just brought out double-feature discs devoted to two of the most beloved British comedians of the last century, Will Hay and Norman Wisdom. The dyspeptic Hay roughly corresponds to W.C. Fields as a beleaguered social striver; Wisdom is something of an English Jerry Lewis, combining aggressive, anarchic slapstick with a frighteningly transparent need to be loved. Both men seem to me highly gifted, for reasons I try to outline in this week’s New York Times column, but neither gained any traction in the US, even as their films were breaking box office records at home. Is it because we already had domestic versions of their comic personalities, or because (more likely, I think) neither Hay nor Wisdom offered the snob appeal Americans seem to require from British entertainment? It’s Oxbridge we want — not the music halls.
Two semi-lost films from the 70s surfaced this week in fine Blu-ray editions, which becomes my occasion in the New York Times to construct a semi-specious argument about influence, conscious and unconscious, of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on the action cinema of that divided decade. Ted Kotcheff’s relentless “Wake in Fright” (released in the US as “Outback”) has been restored to its original sunburned splendor by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive — though perhaps the national tourist board would have paid more to suppress it — and released in the states by Drafthouse Films. And Richard Fleischer’s 1979 “Ashanti” — an international co-production that dropped out of sight after an initial release through Warner Bros. — is also back in a handsome edition derived from the original camera negative through Severin Films. It’s mid-range Fleischer — a crisply professional rendition of an undistinguished screenplay — but it is an excuse to bring up Fleischer’s great “Mandingo,” a movie that’s not getting nearly the credit it should for “inspiring” Quentin Tarantino’s rather tired “Django Unchained.” (Tarantino’s other major, unacknowledged source is the 1971 “Skin Game,” a movie that variously involved the talents of Peter Stone, Burt Kennedy and Gordon Douglas before it was finally signed by Paul Bogart).
The new year begins with a couple of fine box sets that came out a little too late for the holidays. Kino International has completed its Blu-ray upgrade of (most of) the major Keaton features and shorts with the 14-disc “Buster Keaton Collection,” which includes the 1927 “College” in its high-definition debut. A stand-alone release is promised for later this year, for those who have been acquiring the Kino Keatons as they’ve come out over the last few years. It’s painfully clear why “College” has come out last: the print source is very far from the camera negative that produced Kino’s glorious version of “The General,” and it shows a lot of serious damage. The film itself is not one of Buster’s best — it was a low-budget quickie made to recoup some of the losses of “The General,” which cost a fortune and didn’t do well at the box-office, and the plot is plainly derivative of Harold Lloyd’s 1925 “The Freshman,” the William Haines vehicle “Brown of Harvard,” and no doubt dozens of other films constructed around the college sports craze of the 1920s. Keaton himself is so obviously a gifted athlete (he looks a lot better in a track suit than most of the real-life USC students drafted as extras) that it becomes difficult to accept the clumsiness that the screenplay forces on him. But those more properly Keatonesque moments of angelic grace are there as well, most memorably in a gag in which Buster, working as a waiter, takes a spectacular pratfall without spilling a drop of the cup of coffee he’s carrying. More details here, in the New York Times.
As the old year fades out, here’s a look at Bill Morrison’s beautiful and provocative “Decasia,” a film entirely assembled out of carefully chosen strips of decaying celluloid. Morrison reminds us, among many other things, that movies are at once glorious illusions situated outside the normal boundaries of time and space and highly fragile physical objects, subjected to a life cycle of their own. The fine new Blu-ray edition of Morrison’s 2002 film from Icarus brings his work into the digital realm, which is of course subject to its own kind of decay, possibly even more devastating in its effects than that which afflicts celluloid. No future Morrisons will be making movies of misaligned 1s and 0s. When a digital file goes, or when the technology to read it slips into obsolescence, it is gone completely and forever. It may well prove that the films of 2012 are more ephemeral than the films of 1912.
As has become custom in these parts at the end of the year, I’d like to invite everyone to submit their ten best lists, be they of new films, newly published DVDs, or older movies you’ve seen for the first time in these last twelve months. My next New York Times column won’t appear until Jan. 7.
Continuing to liberate titles from the Universal library, TCM’s Vault Series this week offers “Dark Crimes,” a three disc set of noir (or at least noir-like) films that, amazingly enough, have never been released on American home video: the two middle entries in the Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd cycle, Stuart Heisler’s “The Glass Key” (1942) and George Marshall’s “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), plus Robert Siodmak’s first American noir, the 1944 “Phantom Lady.”
A review here in the New York Times.
I’ve always found the Siodmak film a little disappointing — despite the striking cinematography by the great Woody Bredell, it turns into a standard whodunit, with the marginal novelty of a female detective (the stunning Ella Raines) and not much of the real noir spirit (it’s a perky, cheerful kind of noir). It seems even more disappointing once you’ve seen “Pieges,” Siodmak’s last French film before his departure for Hollywood, which follows the same basic formula with the added interest of a startling, “Psycho”-style twist that involves one of the stars. “Phantom Lady”‘s most famous sequence — that steamy basement jam session, in which Elisha Cook, Jr. drums himself into an erotic frenzy as Raines, disguised as a hooker, stares him down with those cold, blue eyes — is shot in a stylized, self-conscious fashion that I used to assume was directly inspired by Gjon Mili’s amazing 1944 short “Jammin’ the Blues,” shot by Robert Burks, edited by Norman Granz and featuring Lester Young, Harry Edison, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones and others. But as it turns out, “Jammin’ the Blues” was released on May 5, 1944, while “Phantom Lady” came out on January 28 of that year. Did Siodmak somehow get an early look at it, or did the influence run in the other direction? Or is it all just one of those spooky, film noir coincidences?
This week in the New York Times, I do a little rooting around in the mixed bag that is the Fox Cinema Archive Collection, the manufactured-on-demand program that Twentieth Century Fox started several months ago in response to the Warner Archive Collection. The selection includes over a hundred titles by now (perhaps the easiest way to search through them is this link to ClassixFlix, though the other major online movie retailers also carry them), and there are some marvelous things in there, including William K. Howard’s great 1933 “The Power and the Glory,” presented in the excellent restoration that UCLA did some years ago.
But much of the selection seems arbitrary — is there really more demand for minor Clifton Webb vehicles than major Raoul Walsh films? — and the quality of the releases varies quite a bit. It’s paradoxical, to say the least, that the studio that pioneered CinemaScope should also be the last to be releasing pan-and-scan transfers to DVD, as they’ve done with Walsh’s “A Private’s Affair,” George Sherman’s “Son of Robin Hood,” William Witney’s “Secret of the Purple Reef,” and several others. Gregory Ratoff’s 1937 “Lancer Spy” (not a great movie, but interesting as the American debut of Fox stalwart George Sanders) is offered in a chopped-up reissue version missing around ten minutes; Delmer Daves’s Technicolor “Treasure of the Golden Condor” looks like it came from a DeLuxe Color print left out in the sun too long — and so on and so forth. That’s a lot of compromise to accept for a list price of $19.95.
One fine discovery I’ve made among the Fox titles is William A. Seiter’s “The Daring Young Man,” a 1935 romantic comedy starring James Dunn and Mae Clarke as rival newspaper reporters, filmed with Seiter’s usual verve and affection for his actors. For the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding with Jessica Niblo, the youngest daughter of the gifted Mr. Seiter and his wife, the radiant Marian Nixon, and now she’s published “Movietown Baby Grows Up,” a wonderfully warm account of growing up in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, copiously illustrated with stills and family photos. Jessica is making copies available through her Facebook page, here, and this little volume is a pure delight (at least up to the last chapter, which is a reprint of my Film Comment column on Seiter). It’s another step toward getting Seiter (“Willie” to his friends) the recognition he deserves.
The only time I ever laid eyes on the great Robert Aldrich was at a test screening of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” at the Esquire Theater in Chicago, in what must have been the fall of 1976. He stepped out of a limousine, with those famous eyebrows curling upward, and maneuvered his imposing bulk straight past the gaggle of slack-jawed cinephiles who were waiting in line to see what would turn out to be his last masterpiece. At that point, the film still contained the scenes with Vera Miles as the wife of the President (Charles Durning), in what I recall as a couple of split-screen telephone conversations (one of the movie’s major motifs is electronic, as opposed to interpersonal, contact) that were probably meant to make during’s character more human and sympathetic, though as it turned out, Durning’s performance had plenty of warmth (both real and manufactured-on-demand) and Aldrich rightly decided that the Miles scenes broke up the male-dominated storyline without adding a great deal to the picture.
The Olive disc comes from a first rate restoration by Bavaria Studios that at last does justice in home video to Aldrich’s elaborate and careful use of the split-screen technique — at the time, something of a cliche on its way out, but deployed here in a manner that makes sense both emotionally (bringing together the principal players– Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, and Durning — who are operating from widely separated locations) and thematically (the movie insists on screens within screens, images within images, in a game of infinite reflection). As a supplement, Olive includes Robert Fischer’s excellent 68-minute documentary on the film’s making, “Aldrich over Munich,” which contains much intriguing information on the unusual (for then) circumstances of the shoot, which required America to be recreated on soundstages and open fields in southern Germany.
The film is still a killer — ferociously political at the same time it possess a stateliness and dignity straight out of Corneille. My New York Times review is here, along with a few words about another Cold War fiction recently rescued from distribution limbo, Ralph Thomas’s 1956 comedy “The Iron Petticoat” with Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn.