It’s good to be getting back to a normal schedule after several weeks of disruptions great and small. This week in the New York Times, I have a review of Kino’s new three-dvd set “Fritz Lang: The Early Years,” which contains the three pre-”Destiny” titles that have been circulating on the internet for years, but here in much better quality (the restorations are from the F.W. Murnau Stiftung) and with English subtitles. The films are “Harakiri” (1919), “Das wandernde Bild” (1920, here retitled “The Wandering Shadow” for reasons unknown) and “Vier um die Frau” (1921). Seen in order, they give a dramatic picture of Lang’s development, as his distinctive geometrical compositions and symmetrical plot structures gradually emerge over the course of three years.
On the subject of Lang, Bernard Eisenschitz’s “Fritz Lang au travail” is now the new benchmark — a luxuriously oversized volume filled with scrupulously researched accounts of the films and Lang’s life (no wild accusations of murder here), illustrated with magnificent stills and production sketches. Cahiers du cinema published it last year in conjunction with a Lang retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise, which means that an English-language edition may come out some day through Phaidon. In the meantime, it can be had through Amazon Canada for a mere $62.70 Canadian.
For this year’s Halloween video round-up in the New York Times, a few more words of appreciation for Universal’s significantly upgraded “Classic Monsters” collection on Blu-ray, as well as drive-bys of Shout! Factory’s new editions of a pair of vintage splatter favorites, Roger Spottiswoode’s “Terror Train” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse,” and not very much at all about Roman Polanski’s precise and impassive “Rosemary’s Baby” — one of the last major American horror movies to rely on Val Lewton’s strategies of suggestion — which has just returned in a fine hi-def edition from the Criterion Collection.
I’ve also got an interview with the eternally underappreciated Robert Zemeckis, on the occasion of his return to live-action filmmaking with the superb “Flight” — opening Friday, November 2 at a theater near you.
It’s taken some time, but at last a couple of the major studios are getting around to applying the new generation of digital 3-D technology to the stereoscopic films of the 1950s. The results are superb in the case of Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray 3-D release of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” — with the color properly graded and the image stablized, the film’s restrained depth effects show up better than they have in decades in the available 35-millimeter prints. Universal’s 3-D presentation of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” — for the moment, available only as an extra in their Blu-ray “Classic Monsters” collection — isn’t quite as impressive, but there’s no comparison between this new version and the hideous red/green anaglyph prints that have been making the rounds for years. Hitchcock’s film points to expressive properties of the medium that few subsequent 3-D directors have explored, while Jack Arnold’s “Creature” remains a superior sideshow attraction — a distinction I try to develop in my New York Times review for this week. And for a very full account of the production and distribution of “Dial M,” hop over to Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz’s site, 3-D Film Archive.
UPDATE: The 3-D Film Archive article on “Creature” is now up here, and includes some criticism of Universal’s occasional misalignment of the left/right elements.
There are three great brand names in the British cinema — Ealing comedies,Hammer horror and Gainsborough melodrama — but the third group has never achieved much of a reputation in the US. That’s most likely because these racy costume dramas, which starred a rotating cast of Margaret Lockwood (above), James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and Patricia Roc — were heavily censored when they were released here (and in the case of “The Wicked Lady,” also above, heavily reshot to impose more decorous necklines on the leading ladies). The Criterion Collection, through the company’s no-frills Eclipse label, has now released a judicious selection of three of the most rousing Gainsborough melodramas, presented uncut: Leslie Arliss’s “The Man in Grey” (1943), Arthur Crabtree’s “Madonna of the Seven Moons” (1945) and, by common consent the greatest Gainsborough of them all, Arliss’s “Wicked Lady,” with Margaret Lockwood (best remembered here as the virginal heroine of Hitchcock’s 1938 “The Lady Vanishes”) as a 17th century adventuress who becomes bored with her aristocratic husband (after having stolen him from her best friend) and takes to the road in male garb as a highwayman. It’s overheated, highly entertaining stuff, with, particularly in the case of “Wicked Lady,” some catty dialogue that would make Joseph L. Mankiewicz jealous, and a transgressive feminist subject that clearly had great appeal to the unexpectedly independent women of World War II Britain. A review here, in the New York Times.
I wouldn’t base my case for the importance of George Sherman on the series of Three Mesquiteer westerns he directed for Republic early in his career, but it’s a big surprise and a tremendous pleasure to find four of them popping up in pristine Blu-ray transfers from Olive Films. Olive is being a bit less than generous in pricing these hour-long films at $24.99 each ($19.95 on DVD), butfor those of us accustomed to seeing Republic films in smeary, edited-for-television dupes, they do look remarkably good (and they seem to be intact). All four star John Wayne during his brief tenure as Stony Brooke, the chief Mesquiteer (he replaced Robert Livingston in the part, and Livingston would replace Wayne in turn when Wayne’s career took off thanks to “Stagecoach”) and co-star Ray Corrigan as the fallible friend Tuscson Smith and Max Terhune as the comic relief coot, Lullaby Johnson. (Terhune, a former vaudeville ventriloquist, breaks out his wooden sidekick Elmer at least once in every film; Elmer, I am happy to report, is now living in serene retirement in a display case at the Autry Center of the American West in Los Angeles, in case you’d like to visit him next time you’re in the neighborhood.)
Like the great majority of 1930s B Westerns, these four films are much more reflective of Depression America than they are of the Old West, with the Mesquiteers often functioning as federally appointed agents sent in to curb the excessive free-market zeal of various corrupt bankers, businessmen and politicians. Three of the films in this collection — “Overland Stage Raiders,” “Red River Range” and “Three Texas Steers” — take place in within the magical metaphysical zone of the B western, where elements of the past and present intermingle. But the only film set firmly in the past, the 1939 “The Night Riders,” is also the one that most directly addresses current events, with the Mesquiteers taking on a con man who, with the help of some phony land grant papers, has set himself up as the “dictator” of an entire state. Unfortunately — or actually, kind of fascinatingly — the film’s anti-fascist message suffers from some odd iconographical drift toward the right, when the boys put on Klan-like hooded robes to battle the dictator and his black-shirted private army. Further impressions here, in the New York Times.
Presented in 70-millimeter in a select group of theaters, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dense and ambitious “The Master” is refocusing attention on wide-gauge filmmaking — a propitious time for the Cinerama guru David Strohmaier to come out with his meticulous restoration of the first Cinerama feature, the 1952 “This Is Cinerama,” as well as the 1958 “Windjammer,” filmed in a rival three-strip process but eventually acquired by Cinerama and released under the company’s logo. The Blu-ray editions, released this week by Flicker Alley, obviously can’t capture the impact the films had on a 70-foot wide curved screen (unless you have a very special video room), but they do summon up the experience with thrilling veracity.
“This Is Cinerama” (that’s a souvenir postcard from the original presentation above) was a technological marvel that touched off the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, though its three-projector system ultimately proved too unweildly and was replaced by a version of Super Panavasion 70. It’s a fascinating film both for its technological achievement and what it says about America in the early 1950s — a country perhaps a little bit drunk on technology and its new position of power in the postwar world. The film seems most directly to reflect the protean spirit of its executive producer, Merian C. Cooper, one of the most intriguing and hand to classify figures of classical Hollywood — a fighter pilot, ethnographic documentarian (“Grass”), technical pioneer (“Becky Sharp”), longtime production partner of John Ford (“The Searchers”) and, of course, major twentieth-century myth-maker (“King Kong”). A review here in the New York Times.
The more time I spend with the work of Raoul Walsh, the less in love I am with “Pursued,” the 1947 psychological western that helped to make a star of Robert Mitchum. The film’s fatalistic flashback structure and ingrown family romance seem primarily to reflect the Freudian preoccupations of the scenarist, Niven Busch (“Duel in the Sun,” “The Furies”), who wrote the film as a vehicle for his wife, Teresa Wright, than Walsh’s own philosophy of individual self-determination, and the only sequences in this otherwise solemn, brooding film that reveal Walsh’s sense of fun are those too brief scenes involving Allan Hale as Mitchum’s partner in a gambling hall. But even if “Pursued” isn’t personal at its core, it does allow Walsh to develop some ideas with the cinematographer, James Wong Howe, with whom he advanced the art of deep focus staging so spectacuarly in the 1931 “Yellow Ticket,” and the new Blu-ray from Olive Films brings out, among other things, the qualities of the infrared photography that Howe used to create the film’s distinctively low, menacing western skies. There are plenty of Walshians who would disagree, of course — among them Jacques Lourcelles, who wrote “‘Pursued’ is one of the handful of films that definitively demonstrate the powers of the cinema.” So please, let us discuss . . .
Also this week in the New York Times, a look at Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 “Death Watch,” starring a haunted Romy Schneider, and a quick appraisal of John Boorman’s thoroughly personal debut feature, the oddly depressive 1965 Dave Clark Five vehicle “Having a Wild Weekend.”
It seems like Eastman House has been working on their restoration of Paul Fejos’s magnificent “Lonesome” forever, but now the effort has paid off in a stunningly beautiful disc from the Criterion Collection. Based on a print from the Cinematheque Francaise, the new edition presents excellent grain and contrast (certainly in the Blu-ray version), much cleaner sound for the talking sequences, and a vivid rendition of the hand-colored Coney Island night scenes. The disc includes the best reconstruction of the blighted 1929 “Broadway” to date, marrying a complete English soundtrack to a Hungarian print of the silent version (complete with the last reel in two-strip Technicolor), as well as the relatively minor “The Last Peformance,” with Conrad Veidt as a standard-issue mad magician.
If you already know Fejos, this disc is a must-have. If you don’t, it’s even more so. A review here, in the New York Times.
For a decade, George Sidney was the enthusiastic vulgarian who enlivened MGM’s immaculately tasteful musicals with such lurid displays as “Bathing Beauty” (1944) and “Kiss Me Kate” (1953 — and reportedly set for a 3-D Blu-ray release by Warner Home Video). But when he crossed over to Columbia, he immediately became one of the most dignified directors on Harry Cohn’s lot, with the elegant, distinctly Borzagian “The Eddie Duchin Story” and the ambitious but oddly compromised “Pal Joey” (1957). But he got his mojo back with the 1963 “Bye Bye Birdie,” a loose adaptation of a Broadway hit to which Sidney added both the mercilessly catchy title song and the astounding young redhead, Ann-Margret, who performs it in a single, super-charged take before the opening credits. There are times when the film’s bright, bouncy satire on/celebration of early 60s pop culture evokes the genius of Frank Tashlin — such as a vision of a Russian ballet on crystal meth — though Sidney isn’t able to sustain Tashlin’s energy level through the romantic subplot centered on Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh. Twilight Time has released a gorgeous Blu-ray transfer from Sony in its limited edition series, along with Blake Edwards’s rarely seen 1960 ‘scope musical “High Time,” in which Bing Crosby tries to make his peace with Fabian.
Also out: a highly improved edition of Delmar Daves’s sensitive Western drama “The Hanging Tree,” with Gary Cooper as a frontier doctor who collects lost souls. The film’s delicacy of emotion and unusual use of vertical space to evoke the precarious inner lives of its characters has always reminded me of Jacques Tourneur’s 1946 masterpiece “Canyon Passage,” and now that Daves’s images have been returned to their original, 1.85 dimensions and their color restored, its distinctive qualities are very much enhanced. From the Warner Archive Collection, again in a limited edition.
Reviews of the above here, in the New York Times.
Here’s a nice little box set from TCM’s Vault Collection, somewhat paradoxically titled “Universal Rarities” since it consists entirely of Paramount films: Edward Cline’s “Million Dollar Legs” (1932), Leo McCarey’s “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), Raoul Walsh’s “Artists and Models” (1937) and Henry Hathaway’s “Souls at Sea” (1937). Nothing all that important, but it’s a happy day for cinephiles when anything surfaces from Universal’s Paramount holdings. A review here, in the New York Times.
The lobby card above, apart from its vampirish overtones, contains a hidden story. Judging from the censorship stamp (“FOR GENERAL EXHIBITION”), it’s an American lobby card that was modified for the Australian release by pasting a sticker reading “specialties by” over Martha Raye’s name — suggesting that her big number, “Public Melody No. 1,” had been cut out of the Australian version, just as it was for some markets in the American south. The reason: she performs in blackface alongside Louis Armstrong and a chorus of African-American dancers, in what some people (including the Variety reviewer) found at the time to be an unacceptable “mixing of the races.” As it happens, the sequence was staged by Vincente Minnelli — his first Hollywood assignment — and it points directly to his first feature, “Cabin in the Sky,” released six years later.
Farewell to Tony Scott, Phyllis Diller and Phyllis Thaxter. It’s been a grim summer.