March 8, 2016


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.


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.

Screen shot 2011-01-12 at 12.38.25 AM

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).


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.


January 21, 2014

Annex - Loy, Myrna (Best Years of Our Lives, The)_NRFPT_01

The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

Director William Wyler was a serviceman for three years, as part of the Eighth Air Force Technical Training Unit, whose orders were to produce films for “public morale and education” and capture “events of historical value.” He accompanied bombing raids from England into Western Europe, filming as much as he could. His technical crew was exposed to the same dangers as the pilots, and Wyler’s sound man Harold Tannenbaum was killed after his B-24 Bomber was gunned down over Brest, France. Wyler grew fond of his crew mates, writing at the time, “they’re the most alert, most alive and most stimulating group of young men I’ve ever met.”  This footage was edited into his War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle bomber, which occasioned the first front page film review in the NY Times’ history (“thorough and vivid”, Bosley Crowther wrote).


After the war Wyler formed Liberty Films with fellow veterans and filmmakers Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. But before starting out on this new venture, Samuel Goldwyn convinced him to sign on to make The Best Years of Our Lives for his production company. Goldwyn became interested in the project  in 1944, after his wife Frances recommended a Time Magazine story entitled, “The Way Home”, about soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life. He hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment, now titled “Home Again”, and he produced 100 pages of blank verse that eventually turned into the novel Glory For Me (1945). His treatment was thoroughly re-worked by Robert Sherwood, who wrote the shooting script with input from Goldwyn and Wyler. A major change from treatment to script was the transformation of the disabled character, Homer, from a spastic into an amputee. Wyler saw Harold Russell in an educational short, “Diary of a Sergeant”,  who displayed impressive dexterity with his prosthetic hands, after losing both in a 1944 training accident. The non-professional Russell was cast in the film, and would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work, which he would later sell in 1992 for over $60,000.

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946

The script follows Homer (Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) as they return to their old lives in Boone City, a fictional Midwestern city modeled on Cincinnati. Homer is a sweet, innocent kid who wants to be treated as a normal joe, but is tormented by how his disability unsettles those around him. People subtly shift the direction of their glances and adjust their bodies, Homer’s hooks displacing the normal flow of social intercourse. Bazin writes that “Almost all Wyler’s shots are built like an equation, or perhaps better, like a like a dramatic mechanism whose parallelogram of forces can almost be drawn in geometrical lines.” In these early scenes Homer is expelling force, not gathering it. Sensitive to these disruptions, he avoids his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) for fear she will marry him for pity rather than love. Fred, a much-decorated Air Force Captain, is busted down to an under-employed working man once he’s back in civilian clothes, a glum perfume jockey at a department store – one that swallowed up the soda joint from his youth. He got married a week before shipping out, and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) acts like they were never hitched. She’s an underwritten nightclub gal, a thrill-seeking golddigger that’s more of a plot point than a character. She is contrasted against Peggy (Teresa Wright), the no-fuss nurse who falls in love with Fred. Al is Peggy’s father, an Army Sergeant who has the cushiest re-entry, with a stable bank job and a loving (if strained) marriage.

Wyler felt he “knew these people”, and spent the production searching for a lucid realism. Today “realism” invokes images of a handheld camera bobbing around the streets of Italy, but Wyler was not after neorealism’s immediacy, but the power of Hollywood technology to create maximum legibility. In Citizen Kane Gregg Toland’s deep focus is maximal, the chiaroscuro and canted angles touches reflecting Kane’s deteriorating psyche. In The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler wanted “a realism that would be as simple as possible.” One that “could follow an action to its end without cutting. The resulting continuity makes the shots more alive, more interesting for the viewer, who can choose of his own will to study a particular character and who can make his own cuts.”


In many ways Wyler was after the one-shot tableaus of early cinema and the Lumieres, only with more depth of field. This strategy emphasizes groupings and separations, weighing each side of the screen. Imbalances in composition undergird those of the characters, whether it’s the panopticon perch of the department store manager overlooking Fred in the extreme distance, or the famous unbalanced shot of Fred in the far left background (phoning Peggy that he can’t see her anymore) and of Al watching Homer play chopsticks on the piano with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). This sequence is emblematic of Wyler’s process of reduction – hiding an important plot point in the back of the frame while the soundtrack and visual cues direct the eye to the piano, creating tension without need for cross-cutting. That scene marks a temporary fissure in the servicemen’s friendship, initially composed in a tight clump of three aboard the plane to Boone City. They are reunited in another unbalanced composition, a mass of wedding revelers embrace to the right, while a glance from Fred to Peggy connect fore and background in Wyler’s geometric and deeply moving film.



October 26, 2010

night of the demon

“I detest the expression ‘horror film.’ I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe it.”  – Jacques Tourneur, Positif

The lead character in Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, psychiatrist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), declares that he is “not a superstitious sucker.” He is a sardonic skeptic of mystical powers and things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately for him, Tourneur is a master of visualizing dread, at uncanny images that disturb the orderly corridors of consciousness. So Night of the Demon, my selection for this week of supernatural selections at Movie Morlocks (it airs on TCM on October 29th at 6PM), finds Holden’s self-righteousness crumble in the face of Tourneur’s terrifying control of the medium. As Raymond Bellour wrote, Holden’s “problem is trying not to believe in the devil, while ours is trying to accept belief in the cinema.”

All inquiries into Tourneur run through Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The Cinema of Nightfall, and the following is deeply indebted to his essay on the film. If you have the time, ditch this essay and read the book.

Holden flies to London to study the activities of a Satanic cult led by the urbane Julian Karswell (a coldly charismatic Nigel MacGinnis). He was to join Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) in the venture, but the latter died under mysterious circumstances, torn apart as if by wild animals. Soon Karswell is warning Holden against investigating any further, and predicts his death in three days’ time. Beginning to suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations, Holden accepts the help of Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), and attempts to uncover the truth behind Karswell’s morbid declaration (the ending was strikingly re-purposed in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell).

The film was based on the short story “Casting the Runes”, by M.R. James (available to read here). Charles Bennett, the scriptwriter on many of Hitchcock’s British films (Blackmail, The 39 Steps) bought the rights and worked with executive producer Hal E. Chester to bring it to the screen.  Chester was reputed to have re-written parts of Bennett’s script, and cut around 13 minutes out of the 95 minute British feature for the American release, re-titled Curse of the Demon (both versions are available now on DVD). Chester also had producer Frank Bevis re-shoot scenes to feature the title monster more prominently, alienating Bennett and Tourneur in the process. Tourneur:

The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon.

He went on to tell Joel E. Siegel that he only wanted “four frames” of the monster to be shown in the film, during the ending on the train tracks. “People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw.” Tourneur wanted very fleeting glimpses of the monster, to let the horrors unfold off-screen, in the viewer’s mind, as in his superb work with producer Val Lewton (Cat People, The Leopard Man). This strategy would also keep doubt alive about the ultimate reality of the creature. For while Tourneur believed in the supernatural, he wanted his viewers to come to their own conclusions.

The monster, modeled on demonology books from “3,400-year-old prints copied exactly”, was created by art director Ken Adam. Adam: “I designed the monster, but under protest. I agreed completely with Tourneur.” (from Christopher Frayling’s Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design). The demon looks grotesque enough in stills, but its immobility on film gives it the unfortunate rubber-suited ridiculousness of a Godzilla knock-off. It does not tonally fit into Tourneur’s elegant frames.

From Harrington’s first appearance it’s clear the characters in the film will be at the mercy of their environment, and that the world is disturbingly outside of their control. His car appears as a halo of light in between a thatch of dark forest, he mops his nervous brow in a medium-shot profile, and then a cut to a POV shot looking up, as branches emerge into his headlights and descend back into blackness (Bellour compares this opening flicker effect to film running through a projector). Once he arrives at the Karswell’s, to tell him he’s giving up the investigation, fearful for his life, Tourneur cuts to an extreme high angle, with Harrington dwarfed by a gaudy chandelier in the foreground. He is already swallowed up by the world, the darkness ready to take him next. After he leaves the demon makes its first, and very controversial, appearance.

It is from this sequence that Fujiwara, contra Tourneur,  makes an intriguing case for the demon’s presence, that it “fits into the film’s structural play with ambiguity of point of view.” That is, Harrington first spies the creature in a POV shot, but then there is a cut to a long shot, with Harrington in the frame watching the monster. The latter backs away from subjective identification with Harrington, taking an exterior perspective, and, “his [Harrington’s] presence in the frame splits the viewer’s gaze into two – one that identifies with Harrington’s look and one that frames Harrington himself and the image constructed by this other gaze.” Fujiwara notes a similar play with POV in the rest of the feature, including Holden’s optically wavering hallucinations, and the uncanny appearance of an aging hand that is seen by no-one in the film’s universe. The viewer is constantly weighing the verity of each shot, as well as the idea that it might be impossible to determine the difference between what the characters see or imagine.

Holden ends as dazed and confused as the viewer, no longer safe in his assumptions about a rational world, or in man’s ability to discover absolute truths. His last line is, “it’s better not to know”, and then he disappears behind a passing train.