BLU-RAY BLUES: I CONFESS and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

March 8, 2016

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Twilight Time was founded by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, two studio employees  who used their connections to license classic movies and start their own label. Redman works as a consultant for Fox restoring film music, and Jamieson was the Senior VP of Marketing for WB Home Video International for 30 years. They release their films in limited edition Blu-ray runs of 3,000 units, with some of their titles selling out within minutes of release. They only sell their Blu-rays through Screen Archives or their own site, so they never receive the discounts of a big chain like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This causes some grumbling from the buying populace, but if you can get your hands on it,  Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a gorgeous B&W transfer, filmic and detailed. Director Otto Preminger made it right after his hypnotism noir Whirlpool, and it maintains that film’s somnambulant dread, and returning star Gene Tierney. She is paired with Dana Andrews, reuniting the haunted duo from Preminger’s Laura. Here Andrews plays disgusted police detective Mark Dixon, a proto-Taxi Driver who wishes he could wash the scum off the streets. Except unlike Bickle, he has legal backing to do so, so he takes his inner violence out on the beat.

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Dixon is repeatedly accused of abuse and harassment, and these violent outbursts keep him from being promoted. While interviewing a dopey witness to a mob murder conducted by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), Dixon pops the witness in the mouth and accidentally kills him. The victim is the estranged husband of Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), a department store model who thinks she can soften Dixon’s hard edges. This is a cold and hard movie in which Dixon, the purported hero, is a rageaholic killer who is coming apart at the seams. Dixon has to cover up his murder, so he investigates as normal and tries to pin it on Scalise – a supercilious gangster who worked in the mob with Dixon’s late father. The film uses a series of repeated low-angle camera set-ups to emphasize the how fate is slowly sneaking up behind Dixon. The crime has to be walked through by the investigators, so he sees everything again, pushing in his own lies when necessary. But in this movie the camera doesn’t lie, and Preminger uses looming close-ups of Andrews’ gradually tightening face of a man imploding in on himself. Twilight Time has also released Preminger’s devastatingly decadent drama Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the paranoid child kidnapping thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

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Warner Brothers has been reluctant to license their films to third party distributors, and though they have released a ton of their library onto their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, they had not done a ton with their back catalog for Blu-ray. That is starting to change, as their releases of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Wrong Man would attest. Another of their recent Blu-ray releases is Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), which I watched for the first time this past weekend. Hitchcock considered it one of his weaker films, calling it “rather heavy-handed…lacking in humor and subtlety.” It is a resolutely Spartan production shot in Quebec City about a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of his handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse), who admits to the killing of a local lawyer. The priest must abide by his vows and remain silent, but the circumstantial evidence gathered by the police points to him as the main suspect. The priest acts as if he has absorbed and taken on Otto’s guilt for him. The style is as pared down and restrained as Clift’s performance, in which he barely emotes. One has to imagine the thoughts dancing around in his head, of how much anger and anxiety is suppurating in there. But Clift, and Hitchcock, give nothing away. The priest remains an impenetrable cipher throughout. Whether you find this enervating or transfixing depends on your opinion of Montgomery Clift’s eyes. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote that: “In this story, in which the lips of the hero are voluntarily sealed, only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul. We are not to be blamed if the tone of our commentary is somewhat inflated. The majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” iconfess04

Where the Sidewalk Ends and I Confess were released rather late in DVD’s lifespan (2004 and 2005, respectively), and it took Blu-ray equally as long to get there (I would place the UHD ETA for these in 2046). But with studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount licensing to boutique distributors like Twilight Time, and Warner Brothers continuing to mine their library through their “Archive”, we are entering a secret golden age of Blu-ray releases. In this fallen age of physical media, I will take what I can get.

ACCUSED: THE WRONG MAN (1957)

February 9, 2016

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on a 1953 LIFE magazine article by Herbert Brean, “A Case of Identity”, which laid out Balestrero’s story. A steady bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club, with a wife named Rose (Vera Miles) and two children, he had a penchant to play the horses but no debilitating vices. Needing money to help pay for his wife’s dental work, Manny went to his life insurance company to see if he could borrow money off of the policy. While there, a few employees become convinced that Manny is a dead ringer for the man who previously held up their office. They call the cops and Manny becomes the prime suspect. Then a handwriting sample sort of matches, and more witnesses give positive IDs. The case seems insurmountable until he is saved by intrepid grocery owners who capture the real thief, Charles J. Daniell, who soon confesses to be the real purveyor of  the Jackson Heights heists. But Rose cannot handle the stress of the trial, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She is moved to a psychiatric facility, and remains there at the end of the article, though the film has a more qualified happy ending.

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Brean described the evening of the arrest as having “the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream” that, “became a nightmare.” The film hews closely to Brean’s text, from the tone to the performance style. Henry Fonda plays Balestrero as something of an ashen sleepwalker, paralyzed by fear into zombiedom. Brean writes that “Balestrero is a timid man, by his own admission afraid of his own shadow. He has never been in a fight in his life, never carried a weapon, never been arrested, never even received a traffic ticket. As the net of evidence tightened, his mind spun and he did not know what to do or say. ‘When things happen like that and you’re innocent’,  he has said since, ‘you want to shout and scream but you can’t. I don’t know how many ways I tried to say to them I was innocent. They acted as if I was guilty and wanted me to say so.”

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After the police officers walk him from the front door into the police car, the film’s POV becomes severely restricted, Fonda getting suffocated by the law. While in the car, Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks have Balestrero looking right and left, confronted with extreme close-ups of the arresting officers, their impassive mugs impossible to read. While their faces obscure most of the frame, in one shot the blurry silhouette of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is visible, indicative of his past world that will now be left behind. Hitchcock said “I enjoyed making this film because, after all, that is my greatest fear — fear of the police.” The famous story goes that as a six-year-old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. He had apparently committed some sin, because the cop locked him in jail for five minutes, with little Hitchcock unaware of the reason why, or if he would ever get out. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, it compactly conveys the sense of free-floating terror that motivates many of Hitchcock’s heroes, their mistaken identities or fractured psyches.  Through incompetence or animus the police are able to take your life away. You can see the personality draining out of Balestrero the further he is pushed through the penal system. And already a quiet man, he seems to become stiller, in a permanent state of stunned silence.

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Hitchcock told American Cinematographer that “I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary.” He shot on a number of real locations from Balestrero’s story, including his home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club where he worked, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Manny’s trial at Queens Felony Court. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY, where Rose Balestrero was sent following her breakdown, is used as a setting for the final third of the film, with Rose’s real nurses hired as extras. Now, as scrupulous as Hitchcock is as at researching the events of the story, at no point does it feel like it is presented in documentary style. There are too many composed shots, including the POV material which crops out most of the world outside Manny’s eyes. Hitchcock is too interested in getting inside Balestrero’s head to stick to an objective reporting of the facts, instead conveying the existential crisis of the Balestrero family. For Manny the world outside the prison has been cropped out, but for Rose her whole life has been blotted out. Her psychiatrist says, “She’s living in another world from hours…a frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon.”

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Henry Fonda had a personal connection to this material. His second wife was Frances Ford Seymour, who he married in 1936, and with whom he had two children: Peter and Jane. Frances suffered from severe depression, and took her own life at the age of 42, in 1950. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney reads the film as a “transfer of anxiety from himself [Manny’s] to his wife. The film’s ‘personal’ element passes from Hitchcock to Fonda, our focus from the director’s passive observation to the character’s encounter with his wife’s depression.” Hitchcock wasn’t happy with this transition, telling Francois Truffaut that “The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.” But this transition is one of the film’s great artistic strengths, the terror not isolated or controllable in Manny but spreading outward. Rose starts laughing when all of Manny’s alibis turn up dead, their lives turned into a cosmic joke. She soon shuts down emotionally, convinced the world is conspiring against her family. The terrifying part is that there is no conspiracy, it is simply an average everyday mistake that has evacuated meaning from her life. There is nothing left to believe in, so she disappears inside herself. The pain on Fonda’s face flickers with recognition.

LOST SOUL: THE WHITE SHADOW (1924) AND ALFRED HITCHCOCK

November 20, 2012

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The 2012 holiday season is also Alfred Hitchcock season, as studios have been looking for various ways to earn your master of suspense dollar. Universal released a brick of new Blu-rays, HBO aired The Girl, a drama about the Hitch-Tippi Hedren relationship, and Hitchcock, the dubious-looking fiction about the production of Psycho, opens in a limited theatrical release this Friday. The most exciting Hitch development won’t cost you a thing, however, as the three extant reels of The White Shadow (1924) are now free to stream on the National Film Preservation Foundation website. Part of the cache of rarities discovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 2010, along with John Ford’s UpstreamThe White Shadow is the earliest surviving film that Hitchcock worked on. He was assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director, the second of five films on which he was the jack of all trades for director Graham Cutts. The White Shadow was a critical and box office failure, even leading to the dissolution of its production company, but what remains is an essential document of Hitchcock’s artistic maturation, containing themes of doubling and mistaken identity that would re-emerge and deepen throughout his career. Along with The National Film Preservation Foundation, great thanks are also due to David Sterritt for his informative film notes and Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath, whose For The Love Of Film Blogathon funded the recording of the fine score by Michael Mortilla.

Alfred Hitchcock started his career in movies when Famous Players-BeLasky opened up an office in Islington, London in October 1919. He applied to become an illustrator for silent film intertitles, telling Francois Truffaut, “For instance, if the line read: ‘George was leading a very fast life by this time,’ I would draw a candle, with a flame at each end, just below the sentence. Very naive.” He was hired in 1921 and quickly rose up the ranks, from head of the title department into the editorial department, where he would re-write scripts. After Famous Players shuddered the studio, an enterprising production company, Balcon-Saville-Freedman, moved in. They hired Hitchcock as an assistant director, and it was on his first film with director Graham Cutts, Woman to Woman (1923), that he met his future wife and collaborator, Alma Reville. The melodramatic WW1 romance was adapted from a hit play by Michael Morton, and with the casting of popular Hollywood star Betty Compson, the movie version was a success as well. The Daily Express called it the “best American picture made in England”, which was a high compliment considering the popularity of Hollywood films at the time.

Rushing to capitalize on the film’s success, The White Shadow was fast-tracked into production, with the same team in place. Betty Compson would again star, and another Michael Morton work was used, but instead of a hit play, they adapted an unpublished novel titled Children of Chance. It was distributed in the United States by Lewis J. Selznick, whose son David would later bring Hitchcock to Hollywood. The “white shadow” refers to the human soul, which Nancy Brent (Compson) is definitively missing. She is a hard partier, taking after her alcoholic father Maurice (A.B. Imeson) instead of her delicate mother Elizabeth (Daisy Cambell) or kind twin sister Georgina (also Compson). Nancy catches the eye of the dashing American traveler Robin (Clive Brook), but she slips both his and her family’s grasp and disappears into the smoky underworld of London. Maurice searches for her – and never returns. Desperate to hide the truth, Georgina pretends to be Nancy in the presence of Robin, and they both fall deeply in love. When Nancy and her father are found in a dissolute nightclub, lies are unraveled and souls are bestowed.

It is the first half of the film that survives, which contains some fine sun dappled outdoors scenes outside of the Brent estate, as well as the high-vaulted ceiling interiors, which makes the estate seem more like a mausoleum than a home. It is nothing more than a well-photographed Victorian melodrama though, until the riveting nightclub scene, which roils with anxiety as identities are on the cusp of being revealed. Nancy is a habitue at The Cat Who Laughs Cabaret, a two-tiered dive presided over by a statue of grinning feline with satanic horns, a playfully devilish image likely designed (or procured) by art director Hitchcock. It’s a self-aware logo, mocking the do-gooders’ stereotype of their lifestyle, and  thus does so for the rest of the film’s Manichean view of good (Georgina) and evil (Nancy). The club is filled with hot-stepping revelers, who stop and yell “Get out!” to any newcomer. If they ignore the request, then they are welcomed with open arms filled with booze. It’s a strange and hilarious bit of business, again displaying The Cat Who Laughs denizens to be an ironic, intellectual lot who are far more fun than the banal world of proper society that the story is navigating Nancy back towards.

Compson is shown at the club in a seductive close-up at a poker table full of men, wearing a rakishly tilted flowered hat and smoking her cigarette in a long, stylish holder. Her sly smile shows a sense of comfort and control with her environs not seen in proper society. Graham Cutts’ camera is frustratingly static, but it’s a sequence where Hitchcock’s art design and screenplay displays his subversive humor, revealing the freedom with which emotions are expressed in the demonized zone outside of polite society.  When Georgina finally locates the cabaret, she demurely sits alone in her long skirts, trembling with anxiety. She doesn’t recognize her father, now a filthy beggar, while Robin (whom she is to marry while still pretending to be Nancy), is sitting across the room. Everyone in the room has either hidden their identity, forgotten it, or been deceived by it. Then the real Nancy makes her entrance, strutting down the main staircase with the brazen erotic energy of Mae West. It is at this point where the film cuts off. And this is probably for the best, for, instead of leading the room in a orgiastic party rejecting her former life, the plot description says she returns to a life of traditional morality, in which Nancy must be punished and Georgina martyred for their sins of being women. But in the room of The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the sexual violence that animates Marnie and the misshapen identities and obsessions of Vertigo. Inside The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the future of the medium.