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by Michael Barrett

24 May 2016


Before Michael Curtiz came to Warner Brothers in the ‘20s and became one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors of prestigious productions like Casablanca (1942), he cut his teeth on dozens of Hungarian and Austrian silent features as Mihály Kertész. Miraculously, an English print of his long-lost A Tolonc (1915), listed on Wikipedia as The Exile and on this Blu-ray as The Undesirable (the title on the print), was discovered in the basement of New York’s Hungarian House cultural center. Digital restoration reveals an astoundingly sharp image, perfect in textures and background details like dishware patterns and signs, now beautifully tinted and with a lush new score by Attila Pacsay.

The heroine of this “woman’s film” is a formerly abused wife (Mari Jászai, identified in the titles as a “famous tragical actress of the Hungarian National Theatre”) who has spent 15 years in prison for killing her husband: a premise that still feels relevant. The story of her release is cross-cut with the narrative of her grown daughter (Lily Berky, giving the film’s most natural performance), who gets a job as a servant, puts up with the checker-suited husband’s advances, and falls in love with the strapping Magyar-garbed son (Várkonyi Mihály, who came to Hollywood as Victor Varconi).

by Michael Barrett

23 May 2016


With nods to Daughters of Darkness (1971) and The Hunger (1983), plus a dash of Near Dark (1987), this German production is a sleek, frustrated addition to the lesbian vampire mythos.

A literally over-the-top sequence set aboard an airplane establishes the casual cruelty of a trio of vampiresses. Louise (Nina Hoss), the elegant, blonde queen bee, hails from the 18th Century. The sullen, bookish Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) was a ‘20s actress with a role in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), which she watches while playing Klaus Nomi’s “Cold Song”. The garish Nora (Anna Fischer), who looks like an extra from Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), would be in her 30s, but she’s a perpetually immature teenager with no impulse control.

by Michael Barrett

19 May 2016


A Black Veil for Lisa (1968) opens by looking up from within a grave, using the distorting wide-angle lens that will be featured throughout. Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi) wears her black veil, so the film opens by foreshadowing its end, as though the film in between is a flashback experienced by tearful Lisa. It’s not, because she’s not in most of it, even though the film’s truest subject is how fabulous Paluzzi looks in various get-ups. As for why the film begins with its ending, read on.

The first hour of the story plods through a dull police procedural in which Inspector Bulon (John Mills) tries to bust a German drug ring, which might have seemed a hot topic at the time. Some of its members are being executed by hitman Max (Robert Hoffmann) around the fringes of the plot, and the film will eventually treat these two men as doppelgangers for each other, with them on opposite sides of the law.

by Michael Barrett

12 May 2016


From the opening credits of Arabian Nights, the 2015 trilogy of films from Portugal’s Miguel Gomes, it’s made clear that this work isn’t directly based on the classic Persian stories of the same name, but inspired by events that happened in Portugal during its economic crisis of the last few years. Actually, it’s a gonzo mixture of the two, for the beautiful Scheherazade (played by Crista Alfaiate, who also plays several other roles) is still preserving her life by stringing along the Caliph with cliffhanging stories every night. It’s just that those stories are somehow aware of what’s happening in Portugal centuries later, and the stories mix documentary realism with whimsical fantasy elements like wizards and genies.

At the beginning of the first film, Arabian Nights: Volume 1—The Restless One, Gomes appears as himself, a filmmaker who runs away at the thought of somehow combining his impulse to document real people and their stories, such as unemployed dockworkers, apartment dwellers, people caught up in bizarre court cases (one involving a noisy rooster), and people who raise finches, with the fantastical elements of escapism and magic.

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).

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From Hungary to Hollywood: "The Undesirable"

// Short Ends and Leader

"At just over an hour, a lot happens in this broadly gestured, melodramatic story set in Transylvania.

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