Reviews of DVD releases of ‘The Last Metro,' William Wellman films

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

24 March 2009


THE LAST METRO 4 stars Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Heinz Bennent, Jean Poiret, Jean-Louis Richard Director: Francois Truffaut Distributor: Criterion Collection Not rated Spoken in French with English subtitles

Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” and William Wellman’s “Heroes For Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road,” each out on DVD this week, offer powerful dramatizations of how people have dealt with political, social and economic crises.

Truffaut, the French director (“The 400 Blows,” “Jules and Jim”) who emerged in the late 1950s/early ‘60s New Wave, was an adolescent during World War II whose life was largely unaffected by the German occupation of France. Years later, influenced by his friend Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a powerful documentary that emphasized French collaboration with the Nazis rather than the exploits of the French Resistance, Truffaut made one of his most acclaimed films, “The Last Metro.”

Winner of 10 Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and a box office smash, 1980’s “The Last Metro” has been released in an excellent new DVD edition from the Criterion Collection (two discs, $39.95, not rated). Written by Truffaut and his long-time assistant, Suzanne Schiffman, the film is set in the world of theater in 1942 Paris.

The prominent theater manager/director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), who is Jewish, has presumably fled France to escape Nazi persecution, leaving his Theatre Montmarte in the hands of his actress-wife Marion (Catherine Deneuve). But Lucas is actually being hidden by his wife in the basement of his theater, and is maintaining his sanity by listening (through air ducts) to rehearsals and providing directorial advice to Marion as she and an associate produce a new play starring her and a new leading man, Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu), a would-be Resistance fighter.

Although the German presence is always nearby and threatening, the greatest danger to the theater and Lucas’ safety comes from a collaborationist, anti-Semitic French writer named Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), who wields outsized power as the theater critic for the pro-German newspaper Je Suis Partout (I Am Everywhere). (The character of Daxiat was based on an actual theater critic from the period, Alain Laubreaux.) Marion’s efforts to keep the theater open while at the same time protecting her husband forms the heart of Truffaut’s film.

At a press conference in New York marking “The Last Metro’s” U.S. film festival debut in 1980, Truffaut described his film as “an invented story nourished by real details.” The German occupation forces and their French collaborationists produced a climate of fear and dread, and the temper of the times is brilliantly re-created by the design of the movie and the universally strong performances by Truffaut’s cast.

The DVD’s bonus features include two audio commentaries: one with Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf and another featuring Depardieu, film historian Jean-Pierre Azema and another Truffaut biographer, Serge Toubiana. There is also an interview from French TV with Truffaut (who died in 1984), Deneuve and actor Jean Poiret, and another with an assortment of cast and crew members.


FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION VOLUME THREE: WILLIAM WELLMAN AT WARNER BROS. 3 stars Director: William Wellman Distributor: Warner Home Video/Turner Classic Movies Not rated

In a Hollywood career spanning nearly 40 years, William Wellman directed one of the most spectacular films of the silent era (“Wings”), a seminal gangster movie (“The Public Enemy,” starring James Cagney), a hilarious screwball comedy (“Nothing Sacred”), a powerful anti-lynching drama (“The Ox-Bow Incident”) and many other notable films. Wellman was known for his fluid camera style and a willingness to take on controversial subjects.

This week’s release of “Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: William Wellman at Warner Bros.” (four discs, Warner Home Video/Turner Classic Movies, $49.92, not rated) brings together six films from the early 1930s, two documentaries about Wellman and a sumptuous collection of bonus features.

All of the films included here were made in what is known as “Pre-Code Hollywood,” a period from 1929 to 1934 when the Hollywood Production Code, a set of censorious rules governing what movies were allowed to depict in terms of sexuality, morality and politics, were not closely enforced. Four of these films - 1931’s “Other Men’s Women,” 1932’s “The Purchase Price” and “Frisco Jenny” and 1933’s “Midnight Mary” - are melodramatic explorations of matters ranging from prostitution, love triangles, mail-order brides and murder.

But the films in the collection of the most lasting interest are Wellman’s topical movies, which captured aspects of American society that were falling apart during the grimmest days of the Great Depression. They focus on human suffering, but also see a chance for salvation coming from the new Roosevelt administration.

Wellman’s “Heroes For Sale,” from 1933, tells the harrowing story of an unrecognized World War I hero named Tom Holmes (played by Richard Barthelmess) who suffers from morphine addiction (brought on by treatment he received for war injuries), unemployment, police brutality, imprisonment and more. Although the film’s political perspective bounces all over the place - it’s at various times anti-Communist and anti-“Red Squads,” anti-capitalist and pro-business - it occupies an important place among movies offering fairly realistic portrayals of the dislocation suffered by ordinary Americans in the early ‘30s.

As film historian Andrew Bergman shows in his book “We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films,” “Heroes For Sale” was also one of the first Hollywood films to openly endorse Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Despite all that has happened to him in the film, Holmes says, “Did you read President Roosevelt’s inaugural address? It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lay out 120 million people.”

Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” also from 1933, addresses another contemporary social problem - youth unemployment and homelessness. Eddie and Tommy (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips), two high school buddies from a small American town, leave home after their parents lose their jobs and hit the rails. On their journey across America, they bond with a teenage girl (Dorothy Coonan) posing as a boy, ally with other teenaged rail riders against railroad company goons, look for work, panhandle, steal and form shantytown communities of hundreds of homeless youth. The hostility these teens experience wherever they go, from city to city, is palpable.

Eventually, Eddie gets busted, but he and his pals are saved by a kindly judge. With the Blue Eagle symbol of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration hanging on the courthouse wall above him, the judge lets Eddie off the hook, finds jobs for him and his pals and says, “Things are going to get better all over the country.”

“William Wellman at Warner Bros.” comes with audio commentaries on three of the films, plus shorts and cartoons from the period.

Topics: dvd releases
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