December 24, 2013

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

A note on my arbitrary selection process: it’s impossible to view even a fraction of a given year’s releases, so it’s likely you could compose a far superior list from what I haven’t seen. Each title passes a basic level of technical competence, but are not necessarily reference quality discs. For the most part I’m grateful to have them available at all. I’ve never had much use for bonus features (I could be watching another movie instead!), so many of those listed below are bare bones releases.

Annex - Baxter, Warner (Road to Glory, The)_NRFPT_03

1. The Dawn Patrol (1930, Warner Archive DVD)/The Road to Glory (1936, Fox Cinema Archives DVD)

These two Howard Hawks WWI dramas depict the war machine as a circular assembly of death, its soldiers staying sane by focusing obsessively at the mission at hand. Never before available on DVD, these are Hawks’ most despairing titles, with Richard Barthelmess and Warner Baxter, respectively, carrying the weight of a world’s dead flyboys on their shoulders. Hawks lost many friends in WWI, and his brother died in a plane crash before filming began on The Dawn Patrol. These are his personal documents of mourning, before he detaches his art from the real world and enters into his communal Hawkisan fantasy lands,  like the fictional Barranca of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) made only a few years later. I went longer on these two films in Moving Image Source if you’d like to read more.


a Sadao Yamanaka Ninjo kami fusen Humanity and Paper Balloons DVD Review PDVD_005

2. The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD)

Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


3. Shoah (1985, Criterion Collection, DVD and Blu-Ray)

A film that exceeds language, given the Criterion treatment. This space gives me the opportunity to quote my favorite piece of writing this year, by J. Hoberman in Film Comment: “Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”


4. Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (National Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, DVD Box Set)

A miracle. In 2010 film preservationists Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate the American nitrate film holdings in the New Zealand Film Archive. They discovered an astonishing cache of titles long thought lost. That includes the nearly intact John Ford feature Upstream (1927)and the first three reels of The White Shadow (1924) – the earliest surviving feature that Alfred Hitchcock worked on (as assistant director, scenarist, jack-of-all-trades). The Ford is a delightful backstage comedy gorgeously restored by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, overseen by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. Those two titles alone make this an essential set, but it also includes a madcap Mabel Normand slapstick short and a cache of old newsreels that contain, in my most treasured treasure, footage of an ostrich drawn carriage.


5. Tristana (1970, Cohen Media Group, Blu-Ray)

One of Luis Bunuel’s most intractable, lingering mysteries. Catherine Deneuve stars as an orphan girl raised with imperious lechery by Fernando Rey. Their power struggle shifts as Deneuve begins to harness the malleability of Rey’s desire, shaping it to her own needs. But they both remain irreducible ciphers. Rey is politcally progressive (he won’t set foot in church) and resolutely classist (he clings to his bourgeois entitlements), while Deneuve is an angelic, innocent victim who is also a cunning manipulator Bunuel creates calm, lucid surfaces under which he masks the unknowability of his inflexible characters. The film is also the subject of one of my favorite Bunuel quotes: “Catherine Deneuve is not precisely my type of woman, but when she is crippled and made-up, I find her very attractive.” Cohen Media Group made a striking debut this year with this gorgeous transfer. Their release of Intolerance on Blu-Ray was also wel received, although I have not yet viewed it.


6. Experiment in Terror (1962, Twilight Time, Blu-Ray)

You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


7. Sokurov: Early Masterworks (Cinema Guild, DVD and Blu-Ray)

I’ve never been able to get a good read on the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, the splenetic spiritualist who dregs up the ghosts of Russia in front of image-distorting lenses. This is why I continue to explore his work with pleasure, in the search for transcendental understanding, or at least an inkling of what the hell is going on. He’s the one director, pace Manny Farber on Godard, that makes me feel like a stupid ass on a consistent basis. This is a frustrating and beautiful set on the way towards enlightenment. For the record, I found To Save and Protect to be gratingly impenetrable, Stone productively mysterious, and Whispering Pages to edge into greatness.


8. Olive Films Noir (DVD and Blu-Ray)

The small Olive Films label has continued to release obscure and wonderful Paramount titles in bare bones editions. This past year saw them put out a passel of phenomenally downbeat and obscure films noir, with all of the following being highly recommended:  Failed-actor-turned-director Mark Stevens’ self-lacerating Cry Vengeance; Hubert Cornfield’s ode to Los Angeles freeway gridlock Plunder Road ; John H. Auer’s seedy survey of one Chicago night in City That Never Sleeps; the prison-break character actor death march of Crashout; and the red scare laffs of Shack Out on 101.


9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Shout! Factory, Blu-Ray)

The horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, Scream Factory, has done fine work this year in upgrading many of John Carpenter’s greatest films to Blu-Ray. None come greater, though, than Assault on Precinct 13his terse condensation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. My Movie Morlocks review is over here.


10. The Quiet Man (1952, Olive Films, Blu-Ray)

What was once only available in smeary editions on DVD is now available closer to its Technicolor glory on Blu-Ray. For those who can’t stand John Ford’s penchant for knockabout comedy and sentimentality, this is your Waterloo. For everyone else (and me), its pure pleasure.

I wrote essays included in the Olive Films Blu-Ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s and the TCM/Sony DVD of John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection, so I did not include them in my top ten. So, full disclosure and all that, but I think both are essential releases. 

Discs I wish I had seen: Me and My Gal, The Big Parade, The Best Years of Our Lives, How Green Was My Valley, the rest of the Criterion Collection


February 26, 2013


Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W,  in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park.   Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.

Edwards described that period of his life as one of “constant testing”. He wanted to “try something that was…away from the things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with.” The opportunity to do something different came when Columbia Pictures optioned the novel Operation Terror for $112,500, an astronomical sum at the time. The book and resulting screenplay were written by the husband-wife team of Gordon and Mildred Gordon, who spun Gordon Gordon’s experiences in the FBI (as a counter-intelligence officer during WWII) into crime fiction novels. This particular tale involves bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick), who is forced to steal $150,000 from her job or a wheezing goon named Red (Ross Martin) will kill her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly is able to contact the FBI, and Agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) races against the clock to find the psycho before the money is lost or Toby gets snuffed.

The opening is a masterful bit of claustrophobic horror. To the strains of Henry Mancini’s wailing autoharp score, Remick pulls into the garage of her house near the Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  With shadows of plant fronds splayed across the wall behind her, she pauses as if hearing a noise. The camera pushes in, and the static shadows become a moving one, the darkened figure of Ross Martin sidles over and slides his hands around her neck. His face in darkness, what follows is an extended monologue of sexual aggression in extreme close-up, as he slides his hands down her body offscreen and ticks off her measurements. This is profoundly disturbing, made even more so by Edwards’ refusal to diffuse the tension with a long shot.


Interiors become filled with grotesques, which Edwards forces in his frequent use of extreme closeups and canted angles, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ delirious Mr. Arkadin (1955). This motif reaches its climax inside the apartment of a mannequin designer and friend of the killer whose apartment is a necropolis of plastic appendages. When Red appears among this pile, he looks like just another mound of soulless molding. A creature more of sound than sight, his labored breathing is the only thing that identifies him as human.


The usual thriller mechanics would demand Remick be piled with stress until she snaps into hysteria, waiting to be saved by a male interlocutor. Instead she is spooked but self-assured, as inflexible as the FBI and as fiercely independent as any criminal. She is completely self-sufficient, with no romantic interests and a cold-eyed intensity at getting the job done. She is so self-confident it rather drains the film of tension – there is no question she will succeed. The interest in the film lies in the how, and in what lighting scheme.


Gradually the film moves from baroque interiors to naturalistic exteriors, all shot on location throughout San Francisco, as if Edwards flipped the channel from Welles to Rossellini. Along with his DP Philip Lathrop, whom he worked with on the TV series Peter Gunn,  he captures the Twin Peaks neighborhood, the Fisherman’s Wharf and Candlestick Park with a mix of atmospheric long shots and handheld work. Outside the world is legible with nothing to fear. It is inside buildings and inside characters were there are stresses and manias and kidnappings.

Interiors and exteriors collide in the bravura final sequence at Candlestick Park, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the hometown Giants. While most films just use grainy stock footage of games, Edwards actually shot gorgeous footage on the field, and went to the expense of getting additional insert shots of the sweaty face of Don Drysdale before throwing a pitch (anticipating where network coverage was heading). While this is a boon to baseball nerds like myself, this extreme closeup is an indication that the claustrophobia of the opening sequence will reappear in this outdoor space. The climax occurs after the game ends and the crowd is filing out, the cover for Red’s takedown of Kelly and the money. The previous frames of looming faces and headless mannequins are here replaced by a mass drunken revelers. It is only when Glenn Ford can cut through this morass and empty out the film frame that the threat can be nullified. In the final shot a helicopter pulls up and away from Candlestick Park, out into nothingness.

Don Siegel pays homage to that final shot with his own in Dirty Harry, another story of a San Francisco psycho in which the camera pulls away from a blood-strewn stadium into the sky, as if revulsed by humanity. There are also a number of circumstantial echoes in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark TV series Twin Peaks. The title is taken from the San Francisco neighborhood Lee Remick lives in, and Red’s full name is Garland “Red” Lynch. Perhaps tickled with the coincidence of sharing a name with the movie’s murderer, he also named a Twin Peaks character Garland (Major Garland Briggs) as well. So while the film is a compilation of Blake Edwards’ influence, his triumph of style over substance has had its own curious effect on the films that came after.