Rialto Pictures was founded in 1997 by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director for the Film Forum, a renowned old-style art house in New York. In 2005 he told the blog Gothamist that, “As an exhibitor at Film Forum, I always tried to get new prints of films, especially films that had not been around for a long time, that were classics but had fallen out of view. And you know films that are not in distribution lose their reputation.”
Goldstein created Rialto to supply these much needed restorations of 35mm film prints of classics by directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini and other movies that are ripe for rediscovery, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.
Rialto, in accordance with Criterion, has recently released a wonderful 10 Year Anniversary ten-disc DVD retrospective of their work containing Army of Shadows, Band of Outsiders, Billy Liar, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Au hasard Balthazar, Mafioso, Murderous Maids Rififi, The Third Man, and Touchez pas au grisbi.
This set is in some ways a more manageable version of the mammoth 50 Years of Janus Film retrospective released by Criterion last year. Both collect essential films on DVDs with crisp transfers but no frills or extras. Each movie in the Rialto set includes a brief set of liner notes that summarizes the plot with some useful historical and contextual analysis.
Most of the films cover a post-war to late ‘60s period when art houses became popular in American cities and the term codified a certain type of urbane international sensibility, derided by Pauline Kael as where “the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses Hollywood ‘product’- finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.”
The art house tradition that Rialto represents is European, primarily French, of the ‘50s and ‘60s, before the New Waves got too freaky or revolutionary. Though almost exclusively western, Rialto represents the high standards of this art house scene in storytelling, formal and technological adventurism, and intellectual stridency. Goldstein’s curatorial eye looks back with an eye that can easily edit out the fads for kitschy existentialism or political naïveté that marred lesser works. (Or at least, as with Godard, presents the films in a removed context where their strengths can be weighed against their dated-ness.) He also seems fond of enjoyable entertainments, particularly crime thrillers and comedies that show art house fare need not be boring or pretentious.
Rialto has primarily specialized in re-releases of Godard and French crime films of the ‘50s and the set shows the interesting role that noir played in the French film industry in the post-war period. Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) is now more notable for establishing a template for the cool French gangster movie than as an individual work. Jean Gabin (in a comeback role) is a stoic criminal with a strict moral code as regards loyalty to his friends, whom he tries to protect when a feud erupts over a cache of cash. The story and its Parisian underworld setting unfold with a relaxed, almost documentary style. Coupled with the detached manner with which the action scenes are shot, Touchez has a hard edge that made it attractive to artists looking for gritty edge.
Touchez‘s inclusion in the set highlights Rialto’s fondness for restoring pulpy French crime films preceding the New Wave. Many of these films gave roles to future young New Wave-affiliated actors like Jean Paul Belmondo (in Claude Chabrol’s À double tour) and Jeanne Moreau (in Touchez pas… and Elevator to the Gallows). The genre also helped to launch New Wave directors, the low budgets and dependable box office success of noir made it easier for them to get backing for their early features as with Godard’s À bout de souffle and Francois Truffaut’s Don’t Shoot the Piano Player. (A similar role is played by horror movies for young directors today.)
These directors were big fans of crime and noir, their decisions weren’t only based on cold calculation and they weren’t shy about revealing their peculiar love of the genre. Godard in particular was more interested as using cops and robbers templates to take off into more philosophical realms. Band Of Outsiders (1964) uses the book Fool’s Gold by mystery writer Dolores Hitchens as the barest of foundations for a movie about a botched robbery that is really one of the most charming, energetic, chicest, and funniest of his early films. The three leads (Anna Karina, Claude Bresser, and Sami Frey) dancing in a café has been copied from films starting at Pulp Fiction on back, but the whole extended sequence in the café is cinematic heaven, incorporating experiments with sound, gender analysis, and the odd political statement.
During this time there remained a separate tradition in French cinema that aimed for a stricter, more fastidiously constructed genre excellence. This is seen in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), a heist movie that has become the boilerplate for nearly every heist movie since, from Bottle Rocket to The Bank Job. Jean-Pierre Melville picked up this tradition in the ‘50s and then gave it an operatic scope in the ‘60 and ‘70s. A direct line can be traced between the near-silence of the jewel store robbery in Rififi (so that the thieves don’t set off the vibration sensitive burglar alarms) and the similar extended heist in Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (1970).
The Rialto set includes Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), which is probably Rialto’s most acclaimed restoration, making many critic’s best-of lists for 2006. In it Melville blends an epic analysis of the French resistance with the immediacy and paranoia of a heist film, except here the band of outsiders is unambiguously just in its attack and subversion of the establishment.
Jean-Pierre Denis’ Murderous Maids (2000) is the rare instance of Rialto releasing a modern movie. It re-examines the murder of an upper middle class mother and daughter by their two maids (also sisters) in 1933. There had been films made about the murders before, there is a recurring obsession with it in France over what they mean as regards class relations, and Denis challenges all arguments by shooting it with the cold reserve of Touchez pas au grisbi, revealing a hauntingly pathological impassiveness.
Rialto has also helped revive awareness of European comedies of the ‘60s. John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) is a more light-hearted entry from the era of British kitchen sink realism, a kind of Walter Mitty for the angry young men. Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962) helped to spark renewed interest and critical reappraisal of Italian comedy when it was released by Rialto in 2007.
The set is rounded out by a trio of classic films—The Third Man (1949), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and Au hasard Balthazar (1966)—that needed restoring but are in no real danger of being forgotten. The Battle of Algiers is the only notable Rialto release not included in the street. Difficult to find and long forgotten, it was released when the insurgency in Iraq flared and was analyzed by both hawks and doves for its realistic depiction of insurgent warfare between a western country occupying a Muslim country.
10 Years of Rialto Pictures is a best-of compilation seemingly guided by Goldstein’s taste as a film programmer. The Film Forum may be one of a dwindling number of art houses in the United States, but the availability of films has increased so greatly with DVDs that it might not seem too great a loss. Criterion is the great premiere digital art house of today and they have done another fine job representing Rialto’s work with this affordable, high quality collection.
Army of Shadows