Fritz, That’s It

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In keeping with my monomaniacal commitment to review every single Fritz Lang film that appears on home video, here’s an account of Criterion’s very nice new release of Lang’s 1944 quasi-propaganda film, “Ministry of Fear.” It may fade out into conventionality toward the end (though doubtless there are those of you who disgaree), but the first couple of reels are gangbusters — possibly Lang’s most spectacular return to Weimar stylistics, apart from “Secret Beyond the Door.”

Also, a few words about Clive Brook’s “On Approval,” another 1944 release that acknowledges the war only enough to indicate that it is deliberately avoiding the subject. An adaptation of a stage farce by Frederick Lonsdale, it’s Brook’s only job of direction, and a surprisingly free-form one, full of baring-the-device moments that Frank Tashlin might have dreamed up (though Tashlin’s would probably have been funnier). The great attraction of the film is the presence of Beatrice Lillie, the brilliant Canadian farceur whose one appearance as a silent clown, in Sam Taylor’s 1926 “Exit Smiling,” suggest that the movies lost out on a very big talent.

West of Burbank

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Here’s another nice collection of hard-to-find Universal titles from the TCM Vault Collection: “Western Horizons,” a five disc set that features Raoul Walsh’s “Saskatchewan” (1954), Budd Boetticher’s “Horizons West” (1952), John Sturges’s “Backlash” (1956), George Marshall’s “Pillars of the Sky” (1956) and George Sherman’s “Dawn at Socorro” (1954). The Marshall is the only dog here, though one might prefer a stronger director than Sturges for “Backlash,” which features Richard Widmark and Donna Reed in a Borden Chase screenplay that feels like it might have been written for Anthony Mann and James Stewart. The Boetticher is one of his best westerns before he really found his voice with “Seven Men from Now,” and “Saskatchewan” is one of Walsh’s terrific “map movies,” where the goal is to get from Point A to Point B — in this case, by accompanying Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters across western Canada and some mighty fine location work.

The revelation for a lot of people is going to be George Sherman’s risk-taking “Dawn at Socorro,” an audacious re-framing of the OK Corral story that imagines the Doc Holliday character (Rory Calhoun) surviving the shoot-out with the Clantons and trying to get out of the game, only to find himself in a town that exactly resembles the one he just left. There’s some highly imaginative staging here: a lot of the action takes place in a crowded saloon, where the main characters warily keep an eye on each other while nothing much happens, and there’s a stylized showdown at the end that makes use of some striking high-angle compositions that suggest Hitchcock more than Ford.

Also out this week is “The Philo Vance Murder Mystery Collection,” a six-film set from Warner Archives that is mainly notable for featuring a good transfer of Michael Curtiz’s 1933 “The Kennel Murder Case” — a public domain title that has been circulating in hideous dupes for as long as I can remember. It’s crisply directed by Curtiz and shows off some early zoom work as well as a couple of ingeniously constructed sets. The film was a personal favorite of the venerable William K. Everson, who called it “one of the very best films of its genre,” and it’s good to have it back in such fine form.

My New York Times reviews are here.

A Refurbished “Thief”

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A very handsome 2K restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 “The Thief of Bagdad” is the first library release from the Cohen Media Group, a new distributor that has acquired the rights to what was once known as the Raymond Rohauer Collection. Among the 600 or so other titles in the collection are quite a few treasures that have remained buried because the source material needs some major restoration; here’s hoping that Charles Cohen, the CEO of the new company, will be continue the fine work in evidence here with, for example, Frank Borzage’s 1925 “The Lady,” William K. Howard’s 1926 “Gigolo” and Roland West’s 1928 “The Dove,” just to pick a few of the more tantalizing titles in the catalog.

Fairbanks’s “Thief” has certainly not looked this good since its first release; the dust has been effectively busted without losing the texture of the images, and the color tints have been rendered with taste and restraint. The score, by Carl Davis, comes to us from the old Photoplay edition. Though the director of record is Raoul Walsh, this is one time when I’d assign the authorship to its star, producer and writer, in the person of Mr. Fairbanks, as well as to the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who began construction the amazing art nouveau sets before Walsh was hired to direct. My New York Times review is here, along with an account of Criterion’s release of the seminal cinema-verite documentary “Chronicle of a Summer,” by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

Other Angels, Other Wings

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Howard Hawks’s 1930 “The Dawn Patrol” has been missing in action for several years, but now it’s back in an excellent new edition from Warner Archive. Hawks’s earliest surviving sound film has been remasterd using an original release print (in place of the familiar TV version, retitled “Flight Commander” to avoid confusion with the Edmund Goulding-Errol Flynn remake of 1938) and the soundtrack has been rerecorded from the original Vitaphone discs, returning much of the crispness and clarity that’s been lost through several generations of duped optical tracks.

It’s easy to imagine the ever-competitive Hawks beings prompted by the stagey Goulding remake to tackle his own reinterpretation of the material, “. . . Only Angels Have Wings,” in 1939 — a film that also gave him the opportunity to offer some work to his original star, Richard Barthelmess, whose career had been sidelined by bungled plastic surgery). It’s possible to prefer “Only Angels” for the sexual and romantic tension added by the presence of two female cast members (Jean Arthur and a young Rita Hayworth, in the role that lifted her out of B movies at Columbia), but the 1930 “Dawn Patrol” has an unrelenting, pre-code grimness that puts it in a class by itself.

My New York Times review is here, along with an account of Flicker Alley’s superb Blu-ray presentation of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1926 rendition of Luigi Pirandello’s often-filmed “The Late Mathias Pascal.” L’Herbier’s direction is not as stylish as it would be in more self-consciously avant-garde efforts like “L’Inhumaine” (1924) and “L’Argent” (1928), but the film does offer a rare look at one of the legendary stars of European silent film, the Russian emigre Ivan Mozzhukhin, as well as the spectacle of a foppish, baby-faced Michel Simon in one of his earliest film appearances.

Possessed of the Plenty of the Earth

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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.

Too Much, Too Soon

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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).

Flint, Facial Hair and the Finger of Fate

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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.

The Getting of Wisdom

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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.

Christmas in Bundanyabba

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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).

Post-Graduate Keaton

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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.