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by Michael Barrett

26 Apr 2016


William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957), was one of the great influential production designers in cinema; indeed, the term “production design” was coined for his work on Gone with the Wind (1939). Yet, he was less prepossessing as a director because of failings common to art directors turned directors: he tended to use actors as design elements rather than encourage performances from them, and he tended to pay more attention to “the look” than the story and pace. Even so, he directed two remarkable if imperfect examples of ‘50s Cold War paranoia: Invaders from Mars (1953) and the earlier The Whip Hand (1951), which is now on demand from Warner Archive.

A blandly pretty, young Elliott Reid plays Matt Corbin, a reporter who goes fishing near a small town and smacks his head against a boulder. Late in the movie, he’ll smack the other side of his head against a branch and start bleeding all over again from a fresh wound. What a clumsy fellow! When he goes for help, he finds himself a prisoner of taciturn, falsely friendly, or just openly hostile locals who have taken over the town since all the lake fish died from a mysterious virus. What’s going on? It has something to do with the lodge across the lake, and Matt smilingly blusters his way into trouble while romancing a nervous local sweetheart (Carla Balenda).

by Michael Barrett

13 Apr 2016


You know you’re in for something odd when the opening credits of Samuel Fuller’s detective story, produced for German TV in 1974, depict the actors and most of the crew posing in gaudy carnival costumes and mugging for the camera—and there’s the white-haired Fuller himself, dressed as a clown while iconically smoking a cigar.

For years, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street has only been available, and rarely, in the 102-minute version given a brief theatrical run in the US. Now on Blu-ray is the UCLA Film & TV Archive’s digital restoration of a complete 123-minute director’s cut, with added whimsical self-consciousness and digressions to emphasize Fuller’s idea that the film is a genre parody and a game.

by Michael Barrett

28 Mar 2016


Ikiru (1952)

Every month brings a flood of carefully packaged movies from Criterion. Old, new, color, black and white, Hollywood, Asian, European, documentary, cult, and sometimes just bizarre, Criterion offers a phenomenal release rate of quality films, so what can I do, except give you some of my impressions as the cinematic deluge engulfs me. Here’s a sampling of ten recent Blu-rays from their ever expanding catalog.

 

1. Ikiru (1952)

What: Takashi Shimura plays an insignificant bureaucrat who, when told he’s dying of cancer, realizes he’s wasted his life. He pours his energy into one final act to leave a mark: clearing permits for a city park.

Why: Possibly Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film, and that’s saying something. Ironically, it was hailed as a masterpiece by US critics even though for years it was seen without the last act, where the man’s co-workers get drunk and lugubrious at his funeral. Some have felt that this radical change in form and tone lessens the film, but the ending turns a sentimental masterpiece into a bracing one.

The two parts comment on each other: one haunting and open, one messy and closed, both about our will vs. what’s beyond our control. This restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-ray preserves a previous DVD commentary and making-of, and there’s a 90-minute documentary on Kurosawa.

by Michael Barrett

22 Mar 2016


Now available on demand from Warner Archive is Cry of the Hunted, an intriguing B picture from MGM directed by Joseph H. Lewis, most famous for such tough and vigorous noirs as Gun Crazy  and The Big Combo. Not quite a noir, this film is a hybrid of several genres, and its unpredictability is one of its attractions as it moves from hard-edged urban settings to a more dreamlike, symbolic realm of personal psychological struggle in the swamps.

It starts as a prison story establishing Tunner (Barry Sullivan) as a progressive official in charge of the joint’s maximum security section. Goaded by his laidback boss (Robert Burton), Tunner tries to make a surly Cajun convict named Jory (Italian import Vittorio Gassman, all tight T-shirt and puppy eyes) fink on his companions in robbery. The tension between Tunner and Jory can only be expelled in hard-smacking fisticuffs in the cell, after which they collapse side by side, out of breath and smoking cigarettes because it was evidently good for both of them. So you don’t think we’re just reading that in, a smirking deputy (William Conrad) later asks if they’re “going together”.

by Michael Barrett

16 Mar 2016


As more silent films are restored to dazzling clarity through the wonders of digital technology, more people are watching them today than at any time since the talkies came in. They’re realizing two things: 1. Silent movies are a great art form unto themselves that envelop you in their spell, and 2. they give us a valuable window into their historical moment.

In other words, they may be “dated”, but not in a bad way. They are poignant time capsules of attitudes, hopes, fears and dreams from an era of not so long ago. These five films, now on Blu-ray, reveal details about life in America, Germany and France between one colossal war and another. Oh yeah, they’re also funny, exciting and entertaining.

The Kid (1921)

What: The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) discovers an abandoned baby boy and raises him for five years without legal authority. They engage in dubious shenanigans, include window-breaking and streetfighting, until the tyke (Jackie Coogan) is wrested away by authorities for an orphanage amid much crying and struggling. Will the long-lost mother (Edna Purviance) rediscover her child? Along the way, the Tramp has a fanciful dream of an angel-winged heaven going sour. Running less than an hour, this masterpiece still works seamlessly and fires on all emotional cylinders.

Wherefore: Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in this film and later wrote music for what wasn’t only his first feature but the longest feature starring a clown from slapstick shorts. As the saying goes, they thought it couldn’t be done. Its tremendous success cemented his reputation as the most beloved star in the world and proved a formula of mixing laughs with shameless tear-stained sentiment.

This 4K digital restoration, completed in 2015, looks eye-poppingly sharp. It’s Chaplin’s 1972 re-release, which drops three scenes (included as a bonus) and adds his score. This Criterion edition adds commentary, interviews, a home-made short with Chaplin and Coogan, and an insightful demonstration of the art of undercranking.

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