In an age when the dominant version of the vampire is that of pop culture vessel for clichéd teenage angst, it's easy to forget a time when the cinematic vampire carried with it more serious, somber and certainly more terrifying connotations. True enough, prior to Twilight, movie history was still littered with vampires and their fair share of silliness, but what of the vampire that was genuinely affecting as a horrific being, one that haunted and disturbed? Where has this representation gone? For now, we'll leave that question unanswered; but the film with which one could answer the question, where did this incarnation begin, is F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, released in 1922, and now available in a Kino Classics two-disc deluxe remastered Blu-ray edition.

Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," is still one of the most unsettling and visually dazzling vampire films ever made. It was ahead of its time in terms of screen horror, and it was among the best of Weimar-era German cinema; one of the finest films by one of the country's preeminent filmmakers.

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on Dec. 28, 1988, “the greatest film director the Germans have ever known” (according to Lotte Eisner), Murnau changed his last name to that of the town near where he met the Blue Rider group, an assemblage of avant-garde artists. Following World War I, and with a theatrical background that included work with the legendary Max Reinhardt, Murnau set his sights on the movies.

Expressionistic visuals and fantastical stories of magic, mystery and the macabre haunted German screens during this period, and Murnau was in on this early with films like The Blue Boy (1919), The Head of Janus, or The Two-Faced Man (1920) – a classic example of the doppelganger (a common thematic device of the movement) – and The Haunted Castle (1921). But it was with Nosferatu that the director's noteworthy knack for cinematic flair was most appreciably present. Pauline Kael called the picture the "first important film of the vampire genre" and declared that it "has more spectral atmosphere, more ingenuity, and more imaginative ghoulish ghastliness than any of its successors." Indeed it does, and it's this blending of story and style that gave the film its power and is what keeps it a classic of world cinema, let alone that of the horror genre. Its action is riveting, its imagery visceral.

While the source novel was known (notoriously so since the filmmakers didn't bother to secure any rights), the origins of the film also derived from co-scriptwriter and producer Albin Grau, who had a fascination with the paranormal, based somewhat on stories of supposed real vampires. Murnau and Grau changed a few details of the story, in an effort to distinguish it from Stoker's work, but to audiences this behind-the-scenes question of material credit was irrelevant. They were captivated by the picture, thanks in part to innovative marketing and publicity campaigns, including rumors of actor Max Schreck actually being a vampire (this humorously shown in Shadow of the Vampire (2000)). Schreck, who plays the titular creature, had in fact been in four films previous, and would make 29 more after Nosferatu.

Whether or not audiences really believed this, there can be no question that it was Murnau's visual tricks and general mise-en-scene of unease that engrossed the spectator. Be it the images of the ghastly coach traveling unnaturally fast through bizarre woods – done by over-cranking the camera, using the film’s negative and painting the carriage white – or the stop-motion effects of the vampire rising from the coffin, Nosferatu was a stunning tour de force of filmic inventiveness. No doubt Schreck’s make-up, body manipulations and gestures played a part in this as well. Taking perhaps a cue from earlier films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Schreck moves slowly, deliberately, haltingly, and when dramatic action happens, it happens fast and furious (when the vampire, at first at some distance, suddenly appears much closer in the doorway). The light too was crafted to create interiors of menace and dread, with scenes shot in half-light, leaving sections of the frame completely black; sharp contrasts of chiaroscuro lighting and shadow play create a palpable sense of lurking potential horror. As per the norm of these Expressionistic films, the settings were also integral to the overall tone. The seemingly naturalistic landscapes and locations come across as bizarre and intimidating, even, at times, like they themselves are alive and are conscious of the terror mounting. The arches in the castle, the wooden slopes of the ship and the rocky peaks of the countryside form a jagged backdrop of violence.  

With so much happening on screen, and so much occurring in its country of production, Nosferatu has not surprisingly been greeted with multiple readings and interpretations. Emblematic of Germany between the wars, during a time of turmoil and uncertainty, Nosferatu was a film that kept citizens on their toes. A warning of impending danger was frequently derived from the film. Granted, much of this was in retrospect and with the benefit of post-WWII hindsight, but certainly some of it does seem reasonably indicative of years to come. Predominantly, Nosferatu was seen as a film that played on threats to the homeland, to an ordered society: Nosferatu threatening the Hutters and the town; lands to the east of Germany compared to the eastern Count Orlok. In other words, Nosferatu was a stand-in for foreign invaders. These external forces were apparently waiting at Germany's doorstep to bring pestilence and death, and this made the film’s terror easy to absorb. The plethora of rats and the general rat-like appearance of Nosferatu also suggested trouble on the horizons. According to scholar John Sandford, “Rats, and the plague that they bring with them, are, historically and in folk-memory, not native to northern Europe, but an invasive, ‘foreign’ force from the east.” (Of course, this emphasis on rats and similar physical traits would rear its ugly anti-Semitic head in subsequent years as well.)  

The threats didn't stop there with Nosfetau. The changes brought upon Hutter’s wife by the presence of Nosferatu also called into question what was happening in German culture and in German homes at the time. Weimar Germany was a society of rapid change, with values challenged by progressive modern views, amorality and decadence. Ellen, seen as the virtuous, morally upright middle-class wife, becomes vulnerable to the psychosexual prowess of Nosferatu.

Murnau followed Nosferatu with more stellar films of awe-inspiring visual ingenuity and imagination. There was Phantom in 1922 and The Last Laugh in 1924 – this one of his most remarkable achievements — and Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1927). In these we again see a full range of technical virtuosity, from special effects and astonishing camera maneuvers to elaborate sets, as well as a continuing preoccupation with the uncanny. Like so many others, Murnau was lured to America where he went to work at Fox, directing three films: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), 4 Devils (1928), and City Girl (1930). Sunrise would win one of two best picture Academy Awards at the organizations’ first ceremony in 1929 – for “Unique Artistic Contribution.” Murnau’s last film, not by design, was Tabu (1930), filmed in collaboration with Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North (1922)) and shot around the South Seas. Before the film was released, Murnau died at age 43 in a car accident.

'Stories We Tell'


Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a fascinating and engaging attempt to reveal life’s everyday secrets. As Polley seeks to uncover the true identity of her biological father, she encounters an assortment of recollections, assumptions, and opinions, some conflicting, some in sync, all contributing to a seemingly elusive truth about her heritage. It’s like Last Year at Marienbad meets Maury Povich.  

Stories We Tell is formally ingenious in its presentation of key figures in this familial drama. Contemporary interviews with siblings and acquaintances are mixed with reenactments deceptively and effectively shot to mesh seamlessly with genuine home video footage of Polley’s family. Even in this visual depiction of the past, the truth remains ambiguous and illusory.

Adding to the self-conscious unspooling of the investigation, Polley films her “father” as he narrates the documentary in the third person, even when talking about himself and his feelings and impressions. Where the films gains its most potent power though, is in its basic chronicle of events. Stories We Tell is about just that – the narratives that form our lives. In this personal tale of one family’s lineage, Polley examines the intricacies, certainties, and fallacies that ultimately shape our individual existence: how we got here, who was involved, and what really happened … if we can ever really know.




It’s no secret that Matthew McConaughey is in the midst of an extraordinary stage in his career. Since 2011, over the course of six films, he has turned in one stellar performance after another, constantly surprising and continually impressive. As much as his talent is on the screen, part of this resurgence is undeniably due to the material. This is certainly the case with Mud.

While McConaughey gives what may be his strongest overall showing to date, why Mud stands out, and why it’s one of the best films of the year, is that it excels beyond just his accomplishments. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who is now three-exceptional-films-for-three, Mud is a brilliant convergence of filmic conventions. It’s a devoted love story, with McConaughey’s eponymous character obsessively and blindly seeking to reunite with his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). It’s a coming-of-age tale for Neckbone and Ellis (Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan), the latter experiencing the pain and confusion of unrequited young love while simultaneously caught in familial strife, further skewing his view of relationships. And it’s a thriller, with Mud on the lam, sought by police and a ragtag posse bent on revenge.

Further tension surfaces from ambiguous character development, with many of these people having no immediately comprehensive back-story or obvious motivation. Leveling the drama are moments of amusement: Michael Shannon in a somehow sexually useful scuba suit, the integral but bizarre boat in a tree, Neckbone’s no-nonsense crassness. The bonds formed by the characters, Nichols’ deft handing of the varying tones and divergent narratives, and the authenticity of performances and setting all ring true, and all make Mud a captivating fusion of filmmaking perfection.


Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Part 1

The Criterion Collection set assembling films rediscovered through the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is one of the company’s premier achievements. Bringing together six diverse titles from six different regions of the globe, the collection is a treasure trove for those seeking obscure, rare, and fascinating works that extend well beyond film history’s conventional canon. As stated by Criterion itself, “Each is a cinematic revelation, depicting a culture not often seen by outsiders on-screen.” The set also emphasizes, through its calling attention to the efforts of the WCP initiative, just how necessary and beneficial film preservation and restoration can be. The films included here are only a fraction of what else is out there waiting to be revealed and repaired, so with any luck, this set will be just the beginning.

Redes, from 1936, is the earliest and shortest inclusion, clocking at about an hour. But it is an hour packed with extraordinary imagery and a powerful message. Translated for American release as The Wave, but more accurately Nets, this Mexican film (with eventual Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann co-directing) is a sociopolitical examination of a small fishing village in the midst of revolutionary and economic change. In opposition to the vibrancy of the perpetually shining sun and ever-present sea, the film begins with stagnation, as boats are seen stationary on land and nets are hung up to dry. Fishing is slow, money is scarce, clothing is in tatters, and times are tough. These individuals have done a good deal of work, but the results have been minimal. Workers fight to survive while the wealthy throw their weight around and wheel and deal to their own benefit.

Once this basic premise is established, the film begins to take on a more didactic function. The socially progressive focus shifts to a call to arms in the spirit of collectivism, of fighting oppression and exploitation through employee organization. Wage disputes and struggles against corruption form the heart of the film. Somewhat heavy-handed, as many such propagandist features can be, the sense of insurgent defiance is nonetheless impressive. The other prominent focus of the film, related to this advocacy of the workers and their plight, is on the profession itself. With the natural locations, amateur performers, and attention to banal, laborious detail, Redes calls gorgeously shot attention to the mechanics of the work and to the physical exertion involved. In this combination of message and realistic representation, and through keen detail and almost abstract compositions of bodies and tools of the trade, Redes hearkens back to Soviet films from the decade prior and points toward the Neorealist films in the decade to come. (Visconti’s La Terra Trema, 12 years later, bears more than a few similarities to this work of “docu-fiction,” as cinematographer Paul Strand calls it.)

Scorsese provides brief introductions for each film in this collection (an additional interview or visual essay accompanies each disc, and a booklet for the set contains an essay about each title as well). With Redes, interestingly, Scorsese acknowledges that this was not a film he had seen before. Now, however, among its other qualities, he accurately points to the “majesty” and “grandeur” of the score, the music by composer Silvestre Revueltas being one of the highlights. The visual essay by Kent Jones details the film’s troubled back-story: contentious relationships between collaborators, extras, and the nonprofessional actors, and the crude means of production (editing by flashlight with a Moviola connected to a sewing machine foot pedal).

A River Called Titas, directed by Ritwik Ghatak, resembles Redes with a similarly realistic look at a remote and wholly distinct people. In this Bengali release from 1973, there is again a strong emphasis on the basic portrayal of a way of life, and it largely revolves around a body of water, symbolically and literally the source of cultural livelihood. Also set near a fishing village, and also boasting stunning cinematography, A River Called Titas takes its theme of progress and stretches it temporally and broadens it within a larger narrative. As opposed to the earlier film, where the sociopolitical change happens quickly and dynamically, Ghatak’s film is a more gradual examination of a world drifting out of its current existence. Children are growing up, getting married by choice or force, sometimes moving away, all while the traditional world of their past remains stagnant if resolute. Whatever the generation, one commonality seems to be constant in this world: tragedy. Ostensibly the key protagonist, Basanti (Rosy Samad) is just one young woman shown who suffers near-continual misfortune. Death, separation, poverty, hunger: these hardships are passed on like the traditions that historically, though more intermittently, govern their culture.

Filmmaker Kumar Shahani discusses the film and Ghatak’s inclination toward politically and socially rebellious views and working methods. Using his films to address critical issues (A River Called Titas is no exception), Ghatak stressed ideas over characterization, says Shahani, and by way of “lyrical” presentations, like in this film, he was able to examine the “wave of history,” in this case the partitioning of India. An aggressive cultural critique was why, according to Scorsese, the film was held back for release, and no doubt this cinematic instigation was why Ghatak had such a relatively limited output. With A River Called Titas, though, any sort of “point” the film may have, while still recognizable and supplemental to a full appreciation of the work, does nothing to hinder the pure emotional resonance, the personal drama at the forefront of this story.

If these previous two films dealt with cultures internally shifting, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki, from 1973, is similar in its concern for traditional civilizations, but approaches this idea with far more emphasis on the outside world. Probably the most famous film included in the set, Touki bouki follows Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), jaded young lovers who struggle to assimilate in their conventional Senegalese community. Formally, the film reflects this conflict. It eschews customary narrative, making the most of “art film” devices such as plot ellipses and incongruous audio/visual juxtapositions, but its graphic depiction of animals being led to the slaughter and the decrepit conditions of their city show a far less glamorous and trendy reality. In addition to Touki bouki’s unique structure, its visuals are extraordinary; Scorsese calls the film a “cinematic poem,” one that “explodes one image at a time.” Indeed, its vivid depiction of local color bursts from the screen. The natural environment, the vibrant clothing, even the blood from the butchered cows: it all underscores an inherent dynamism in this world.

ToukiTantalized and at times bemused by the increasing modernity confronting them (glimpses of skyscrapers beyond their impoverished surroundings, political activism at college, sophisticated fashion), Mory and Anta daydream, making plans to escape and live the good life in Paris. Like many a youthful ambition to flee their fixed constraints, however, the scheme is half-baked at best. In a film that is so concerned with the rush of modernity, where movement is paramount (cars, motorcycles, ships, even the mobile camera), it is ultimately a sense of stasis that prevails. Mory talks big, and he and Anta long for the day they can leave, but their fantasies always end with them returning to rub their successes in the nose of their community. As much as they want to move on, they ultimately hope to do so just so they can come back. And when the time does arrive, when it seems that everything is set to depart, Mory falters and cannot commit to such a drastic life decision. Even so, in the end, the film is a positive one. Filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako calls Touki bouki a “film of freedom.” While the two don’t reach the heights they aimed for, they came close and at least tried. They showed that they could if they really wanted to. More so than in A River Called Titas or Redes, the main characters in Touki bouki are capable of changing their lives if ambition and will allows.

The three films discussed here reveal with earnest authenticity and exceptional artistry people in the midst of drastic change, by their own doing or by the necessities of time. As such, they are not only engaging and entertaining stories of survival and social evolution; they are historical documents of a particular place during periods of profound transformation. The remaining three films of this World Cinema Project set — Dry Summer (1964), Trances (1981), and The Housemaid (1960) — featured in this column next week, similarly depict unique and seldom seen cultures. Only with these movies, the worlds are shown by way of popular music and documentary, and fictional tales of melodramatic sexuality, obsession, and violence.


‘The Blue Angel’

Angel 1It’s strange that the work of Josef von Sternberg has not been better represented in the realm of Blu-ray production. Aside from 1930’s The Blue Angel, available now on a new Kino Classics 2-Disc Ultimate Edition, not a single Sternberg film exists on the format. For such a stylish director, one who was expressly concerned with the ornate visual texture of his films, the enhanced images that go along with the standard digital restorations of Blu-ray titles would seemingly be ideal. That said, with at least The Blue Angel, it does become clear that this format and this filmmaker are indeed made for each other.

While not as deliberately composed to accentuate frames bursting to their edges with fore- and background elements (see The Scarlet Empress, for example), The Blue Angel nevertheless brings more to the surface than Sternberg’s work previously. Some of his great silent features, like Docks of New York, were moody, atmospheric dramas in the vein of French films to come by Rene Clair, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carne, and Jean Renoir. With The Blue Angel, Sternberg shows his possible inspiration deriving more closely from Germany’s expressionistic output during the 1920s. While Sternberg denied any major filmic influence, and though he had been working in Hollywood and away from his homeland of Austria for some time, the echoes of these European classics are prominent. The obscuring lights and angles of darkened alleyways and the jagged rooftops all recall the synthetic sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; shadow play on walls strongly evoke Nosferatu.

The principal point of potential allusion to these Weimar-era films, however, is in the casting of Emil Jannings as Prof. Immanuel Rath. Sternberg had already worked with Jannings in The Last Command 2 years prior, and the star from such films as Faust, Tartuffe, and The Last Laugh brought with him a range of acting talent as well as strong associations with these German films. Here, as an old-fashioned absent-minded professor, Jannings is excellent in conveying a sense of bewilderment and anxiety. The upstanding teacher Rath is respected (except by his students) and is a man of regimented routine. When he catches wind of a certain Lola Lola and a place called The Blue Angel, he becomes intrigued. His students are distractingly enamored with this young lady and he hopes to catch them frequenting this tawdry hot spot.

Angel 3
Upon visiting the nightclub, Rath too is struck by Lola Lola, played charmingly by the 28-year-old, baby-faced Marlene Dietrich (her youthfulness fully apparent in screen tests included as a bonus feature on this disc). In years to come, a certain indescribable allure would be synonymous with Dietrich – in her films and persona – and here Lola, “naughty” Lola, is a perfect early embodiment of her casually provocative appeal. Additional features on the disc include singing performances by Dietrich from 1963 and 1972 and a brief excerpt from a 1971 interview — that appeal was still there.

Rath is dumbstruck by this freewheeling girl and develops a blind crush that starts his downfall. He is at once shocked and captivated by her sexually suggestive behavior and shameless good humor. Though not quite a femme fatale, Lola is a less than positive influence who clearly enjoys the sway she holds over this stuffy professor. Around Lola, Rath is a bumbling fool; one awkward move after another leads to one uncomfortable situation after another. Like the schoolboys he sought to implicate, Rath is now wholly enamored by Lola, so much so that he neglects his work, attaches himself to the wild assortment of entertainers making up Lola’s entourage, proposes marriage to the young woman, and joins their troupe in what is ultimately a tragically demeaning shift in occupation.

Angel 4While Jannings was the prominent name at the time of production, The Blue Angel is most notable for being the start of Sternberg’s professional and personal connection with Dietrich. Bringing the actress back to America with him, Sternberg and studio heads hoped to have a new starlet to develop and advance, one who could potentially rival fellow European transplant Greta Garbo. Their second collaboration, Morocco, would be released first in the United States; both Sternberg and Dietrich would receive Oscar nominations for that picture. Five more films together would follow, as would a love affair and a strikingly unique cinematic pairing rarely matched in film history. Sternberg dubbed Dietrich his assistant, acknowledging their mutual creative process, but many thought of their association as one of directorial, Svengali-like control and manipulation. (Not so, says Dietrich’s daughter; what her mother had, and what she would become most famous for in terms of her screen presence, was there before Sternberg. He just helped give it a celebrated cinematic context.) In any event, Dietrich was seldom better than when she was directed by Sternberg, and his films minus the star were nearly always subpar.

As noted, The Blue Angel would represent the start of Sternberg’s trademark penchant for intricate and richly decorative set design, illumination, and costume. Much to the chagrin of certain cinematographers, Sternberg was obsessed with the visual composition of every element of his movies, often doing his lighting and camera work. While The Blue Angel balances a level of complexity and subtlety more than later features (no doubt due to a lower budget than his Hollywood movies), certain interiors signal what was to come. Set design serves a more realistic purpose in The Blue Angel. The books and academic bric-a-brac that litter Rath’s apartment are as would be expected in a professor’s home, yet the on-screen placement does have these items in what is an intentionally illustrative arrangement. Similarly, Lola’s backstage life consists of a barrage of assorted theatrical details and furnishings, the chaotic mess accentuated by the confined spaces and the comings and goings of her fellow performers. Again, Sternberg packs the frame, but for now, it’s mostly in the service of authenticity and not as in the later, more famous and striking forms of calculated organization. Costumes in The Blue Angel also befit the characters in a more practical manner than in future Sternberg films, where Dietrich would don everything from a suit and top hat to garish feather boas to an ape costume. Here, her outfits are somewhat outlandish, but only insofar as would be typical for a showgirl of this time and place.

Certain images and sequences from their other collaborations are probably more famous, but The Blue Angel as a whole might be the most prominent film Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together. This could be because it’s the one that started it all, or it might have something to do with the unique state of the film’s production, Sternberg on hiatus from Hollywood and working in Europe, filming English and German language versions simultaneously (both versions are available on this Kino release as well as a short, side-by-side comparison). It also stands out as being an early, and still somewhat imperfect, sound feature from two of film history’s major figures. Finally, The Blue Angel is a tragic love story, charming, funny, and wonderfully acted and directed, and it now looks and sounds great in this pleasing high-definition transfer.


Late Hitchcock – ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Family Plot’

HitchThere are some who opt for Alfred Hitchcock’s British years as his finest, taking into account his earliest silent features through Jamaica Inn in 1939. On the other hand, many regard the peak years in America as the Master of Suspense’s finest era, with films from Rebecca in 1940 to Marnie in 1964. Both have valid points to make and there are unquestionably several great works during each phase of the filmmaker’s career. Few, however, would rank Hitchcock’s final four films among his best. In a way, this is unfair, their lowly stature no doubt due to the masterworks that preceded them; with the films Hitchcock made before, the bar was set unassailably high. Taken apart from the imposing excellence of these earlier classics, these concluding films are solid movies. Of course, in auteurist fashion, one can also heap excessive praise on these concluding lesser features that is perhaps only based on Hitchcock as Hitchcock, director of Vertigo, The Lodger, Rear Window, Psycho, and more. In other words, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot are worthwhile because Hitchcock made them, and that’s enough.

Wherever one falls in this assessment of Hitchcock’s career, Universal has made the home viewing and subsequent evaluation of his final films better than ever, with each now in remastered Blu-ray editions. Previously only available on the format as part of the impressive Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, Topaz and Torn Curtain saw their individual Blu-ray releases in November and October, respectively, and now Frenzy and Family Plot join the increasing list of Hitchcock titles presented as best they can for non-theatrical consumption. In addition to the enhanced audio and visual quality, each disc comes with a fairly standard yet nonetheless informative making-of documentary, each about 50 minutes in length. The Family Plot disc also highlights the storyboards for the hilltop chase, a sequence it tries to sell as comparable to the famously structured and brilliantly executed crop-duster scene from North by Northwest, which it isn’t.

Frenzy, which screenwriter Anthony Shaffer calls a “very London film,” was Hitchcock’s first time shooting in his native England since 1956, when he had directed portions of his The Man Who Know Too Much remake. It was also a return to the sort of murder-infused thriller he reveled in, getting away from the political intrigue sustaining the two films immediately prior. Made in 1972, for the first time Hitch was able to accentuate both the sex and violence that had indirectly — though significantly — marked many of his greatest films. Explicit nudity was prominent, as were more abhorrent scenes of brutality; it would be the only Hitchcock film to be rated R. With Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, and Anna Massey among its stars, Frenzy is classic Hitchcock: serial killers and intricate murders, police investigations, a wrongly accused man, and pitch-black humor. Its location shooting is exceptional, particularly its depiction of the world revolving around the Covent Garden Market, a setting of personal relevance for Hitchcock, his father having been a greengrocer.

Famil Plot
Back in America, Hitchcock’s final film, his 53rd, was a lighter affair. Family Plot kept the thrills, but added more self-conscious humor (capped by its delightful final shot), not necessarily the droll, dark comedy of Frenzy. Despite the presence of 1970s icons Karen Black and Barbara Harris, as well as Bruce Dern and William Devane, the film looks and feels old-fashioned. When you think that Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Network, and Carrie were also released in 1976, Family Plot comes across as anachronistic. It works as an archetypal Hitchcock film, though, reminiscent of Hollywood classics in the past (Devane notes that Hitch gave him William Powell as a model for his character and there’s some enjoyable screwball comedy banter between Dern and Harris), but it seems out of its time, especially when compared to the modern audacity of Frenzy.
A notable contrast between the two is the use of setting. Perhaps because of Hitchcock’s keenness for being back in England, Frenzy is clearly a film shot in, and in many ways is about, a very specific location. While Pinewood Studios served as base for certain interiors, the exteriors express a palpable sense of a specific place. Hitchcock, and the film, thrives on this prominent use of background and local character. Conversely, Family Plot was intentionally presented as occurring in a nondescript location. Clearly northern California, the exteriors never call attention to their region as Frenzy does. Given Hitchcock’s reputation for interesting and elaborate international set pieces, this might be another reason Family Plot feels flat by comparison.

The documentary on Family Plot gives notable insight to its casting, fitting since its performers are a major highlight of the film. Dern relates that Al Pacino was the first choice for his character, but after a string of major successes, Pacino’s asking price was too high (given the poor green-screen projections, the budget on the film was clearly on the lower end of the Hitchcock scale). Devane also reveals the rather crass process whereby he was cast: he was the first choice but was unavailable; Roy Thinnes was given the role; Devane’s schedule opened up; 5 weeks into shooting, Thinnes was let go. Both documentaries also benefit from footage of Hitchcock directing. This type of behind-the-scenes on-set look is common with today’s films and filmmakers, but it’s relatively rare to see one of film history’s true masters in their creative process (even if, in the case of the aged Hitchcock here, he’s not doing a whole lot).

Frenzy and Family Plot, admittedly slight works in Hitchcock’s career, are nevertheless valuable entries in the filmmaker’s canon, with scenes, shots, and moments of unmistakably Hitchcockian bravura. For all of their faults, and make no mistake, there aren’t many, these are two quality films. Those acquainted with Hitchcock through only his certified masterpieces may be somewhat let down, but those who have seen beyond the essentials will certainly find something worthwhile. These latter movies are not on the level of his standards, so they’re not quite as good as one might expect, but they’re better than one might think.


Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’

Nashville 1At the Cannes preview screening of Apocalypse Now in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola infamously declared, “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.” Watching Robert Altman’s 1975 opus Nashville, perhaps the best film in a career full of exceptional work, one gets the feeling that it isn’t really about America; it is America. With its eclectic cast of individuals from all walks of life (typical for Altman), its sprawling narrative of disjointed personal and professional connections (ditto), and its setting of a distinctly American city around the time of our nation’s bicentennial, Nashville comes across as more than a fictional depiction of characters embodying certain nationalistic traits; it truly feels like the film is America in a nutshell. In the words of Keith Carradine, it’s an “extraordinary accomplishment.”

Now, with The Criterion Collection release of the film on a 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo, there is the chance to delve deeper into this film built on layer upon layer of finely tuned moments, moods, and music. Interviews with, and an audio commentary by, the late, great Altman are accompanied by a new documentary on the making of the film featuring stars Ronee Blakley, Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin, as well as screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, assistant director Alan Rudolph, and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. Behind-the-scenes footage and a demo of Carradine performing songs from the movie round out this outstanding release.

Nashville contains everything that made Robert Altman the unique visionary that he was: the long takes with the ever-mobile camera, slow zooms with an unobtrusive detachment, overlapping dialogue recorded from an innovative multi-track system, and scenes of realistic and improvisatory behavior as if spontaneously caught unawares. It’s arguably the most complete compendium of his technique and talent. It’s also a showcase for a diverse assortment of performers. Altman regulars like Murphy and Shelley Duvall mix and mingle with newcomers like Blakley and Jeff Goldblum in this mosaic that boasts 24 primary characters. (Altman would more than double this amount a few years later with A Wedding and its featured players.) It’s to the credit of Altman and screenwriter Tewkesbury that these various threads manage to be woven together without major narrative knots or disagreeable loose ends. While most characters drift in and out of the picture, many without backstory or motivation, only discovered as the film progresses, by the end of the film a sense of satisfactory completion is nonetheless established, if not quite fully reconciled.

Nashville 3Among the performances, Tomlin is outstanding here in her first film role, and moments such as Blakley’s excruciating breakdown as Barbara Jean allow particular individuals to stand out from the crowd. (Both women would be nominated for Oscars.) However, from the amusingly self-conscious opening, where the cast is recited as if on a late-night record commercial, to the most memorable traffic jam this side of Jean-Luc Godard, Nashville is unmistakably an ensemble piece. Featuring ambitious and naive wannabes and pompously hallowed stars, the film is remarkable in the way it follows these contrasting characters, relying on their personal appeal more than their overt narrative function. Nashville was, as venerated critic Molly Haskell writes in her excellent essay accompanying the disc, a “crowning glory of a journey toward greater and greater freedom from conventional narrative cinema…”

As expected with a film set in Nashville, at the heart of the movie is music, specifically country-Western (with traces of folk, bluegrass, gospel, and rock). According to Altman, this “musical” contains nearly a full hour of songs, with some actors and actresses writing their own compositions; Carradine’s “I’m Easy” would receive the film’s sole Academy Award. Second to the music, and in many ways influenced by it, it’s the locale that emerges as a particular and peculiar place; rhinestones, cowboy boots, and fringed jackets adorn the film. While Altman and others interviewed acknowledge the animosity real Nashville residents felt when the film came out, they tend to downplay any sort of intentionally satirical tone the film may have had. This isn’t very convincing, though. A considerable amount of the film’s humor is undeniably at the expense of specific regional traits: their ideology, dialogue, costumes, the music. Nashville is as much a comedy as anything else, but it must be admitted who we’re laughing at. There are times, however, when local affection shines through and characters such as Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton using this native pride as an act of defiance in the face of the film’s concluding violence: “This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville! Let’s show them what we’re made of. Come on, everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!”

Beyond this is where Nashville comes to signify and depict a wider sense of patriotic fervor. At once reflecting events from the decade previous while foreshadowing our current culture, it is this act of violence that serves as a dramatic and tragic catalyst for Nashville’s final moments. No stranger to political and social commentary, Altman nods to tumultuous times in the past and hints at those still to come; on this disc, he twice recalls when a Washington Post reporter asked if he felt responsible for John Lennon’s assassination. In the 71-minute documentary, Rudolph also ruminates on the political nature of the film and what he sees as the “pious patriotism” of some of its characters, particularly Haven, one of the established superstars of the film’s fictional music scene. It’s he who sings the nationalistic tune, “200 Years”; Rudolph criticizes this as a “skewed look at America” (he suggests it could be the anthem for today’s Tea Party movement). In the 2000 interview, Altman declares his intentions with this panoramic film as being to “reflect American sensibilities and politics.” Mission accomplished.

The documentaries and interviews do a good deal to illuminate the making of Nashville and Altman speaks insightfully on his ideas about this picture in particular and his wider views on filmmaking in general. Not a believer in the auteur theory, he gives considerable credit to his collaborators, something he’s always been known for and something that obviously kept the same people coming back to work with him time and time again. Occasionally, he’s overly generous in his recognition, suggesting in the 1975 interview that his films are 98 percent the writer and 2 percent him (though he adds, “my 2 percent is really big.”). He also tantalizingly mentions some extra footage that was apparently at the time planned for a television showing of Nashville. Altman’s comments, especially in this interview, are astute and provocative: “I consider myself an artist,” he says. “And by that I’m not a politician”; at one point, he also declares, in what must be seen by many as cinematic blasphemy, “I never liked John Ford.”

Others involved in the film provide fresh information as part of the 2013 documentary. Tewkesbury especially relates valuable material about her writing, starting with her visit to Nashville where she recorded her adventures, essentially living out the role of Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal in the film. She points out that Nashville is built in a circle, and that this contributed to the larger choreography of the film’s structure, where you have characters moving in and out of certain locations and back again. The film is an “event that moves through space,” she says.

Nashville 2 The 1970s were a good decade for Robert Altman, with M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, and The Long Goodbye made before Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, 3 Women, and A Wedding. That Nashville emerges as arguably the key film during this period is a testament to its greatness. (Some may contend that M*A*S*H remains Altman’s most popular movie. Perhaps. But in many cases, this fondness is at least partially based on the television show, which Altman had nothing to do with and did not care for.) Quirky, unique, and technically and artistically fascinating, Nashville is also endlessly watchable. Despite all the personal drama and its traumatic conclusion, it’s ultimately an affirming film. Barbara Harris, whose character, Albuquerque, finally gets her much struggled for moment in the spotlight at the end, offers this piece of closing advice: “If we don’t live peaceful, there’s gonna be nothin’ left in our graves except Clorox bottles and plastic fly swatters with red dots on ‘em.” An inspiring message if ever there was one.


"Tokyo Story"

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December 12 marks 110 years since the birth of the great Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (and 50 years to the date since his death). So what better way to commemorate the occasion than to revisit what is widely seen as his masterpiece among masterpieces, Tokyo Story, out now on a 3-disc dual format Blu-ray/DVD from The Criterion Collection? There have been few filmmakers treated as well by Criterion as Ozu, with more than a dozen titles available either as standalone discs or as part of a set. This latest edition of Tokyo Story, an update on their DVD release from 2003, is no exception.

The film looks spectacular in its new digital restoration, the sharpness making even more clear the attention to detail Ozu devoted to his compositions; sides, foregrounds, and backgrounds are all layered with authentic texture and icons of Japanese culture and Ozu’s distinct cinema. The disc includes a 1988 documentary about long-time Ozu actor and general staple of Japanese film, Chishu Ryu, as well as a revised essay by esteemed professor and author David Bordwell (“Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”). Ryu, whose first of 213 roles was in Ozu’s early Pumpkin from 1928, is crucial to Japanese cinema generally and to Ozu specifically (he is featured in 52 of the director’s 54 films). The attention given to him in the documentary is well deserved and does much to highlight this performer who saw Japanese filmmaking go through every conceivable transition, from silent to sound, from black and white to color, pre- and post-war. As per the norm with his writing, Bordwell’s essay is insightful, concise, enthusiastic, and free of the pretentious jargon utilized by many academics when dealing with Ozu’s aesthetics. Updated for this Blu-ray release, the essay also allows Bordwell to point out the 2012 Sight & Sound poll that placed Tokyo Story as the third greatest film ever made.

Carried over from the previous edition are a commentary track by David Desser, editor of “Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story;’” and Talking with Ozu, a tribute to the director, featuring seven filmmakers ranging from Wim Wenders, who made his own documentary about Ozu, Tokyo-ga, included on Criterion’s Late Spring disc, to Paul Schrader, whose “Transcendental Style In Film” is an essential film text looking at Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer. Made to coincide with the anniversary of Ozu’s birth and death in 1993, Talking with Ozu is comprised of highly personal accounts about the director’s impact on the careers of those featured. Some become quite emotional (Stanley Kwan) and some approach Ozu’s influence with humor (Aki Kaurismäki), but all reveal the breadth of Ozu’s international reach. Wenders points out that, “Family throughout the world has become imaginable and understandable only through Ozu’s films,” and Hou Hsiao-hsien compares Ozu to a “mathematician” insofar as the way he analyzed Japanese people in a detached way. The documentary also contains some fascinating and rarely seen footage of Ozu on set directing.

The real treasure on the disc is I Lived, But . . . , a 2-hour documentary from 1983 about Ozu’s life and career. It alone is worth the price of purchase. This inclusion is abundant with biographical details, professional recollections, and critical reevaluations, many of which shed new and revealing light on where Ozu came from (it’s noted that he first became interested in filmmaking after seeing the 1916 Thomas Ince feature Civilization), and why and how he did what he did with his films. It covers nearly all of his major works and includes clips from most, including many now since lost or at least not readily available. In it, the narrator sets the scene by noting that some directors focus on “raging torrents,” while others, like Ozu, instead turn their cameras on “calmer waters.” Ozu gets to the crux of his filmmaking: “Rather than tell a superficial story, I wanted to go deeper, to show the hidden undercurrents, the ever-changing uncertainties of life.” With that, there is then the film at hand.

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Tokyo Story was one of Ozu’s later films, his output steadily slowing by this point — there would only be eight films after. With frequent co-writer and drinking buddy Kogo Noda (they would judge their writing progress by the empty bottles of sake around them), and as was his tendency, Ozu would focus on an average, contemporary middle class family, emblematic of the Gendai-geki genre of Japanese film that he would almost exclusively favor. Within that, he would examine, most prominently, the eternal struggles between young and old, parents and children, single living and the institution of marriage, individual wants and familial responsibility. This focus could be seen as ironic; Desser notes in his commentary that Ozu never married nor had children. But in the banal realities of ordinary existence, Ozu continually found drama, sadness, and humor, all in the “nuances of everyday life,” as Desser puts it. While some of his earlier films were slightly more varied in their subject matter, this was to be the typical point of consideration in most of Ozu’s work.

Not unlike the basic narrative of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is primarily concerned with an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), as they find themselves alienated and emotionally distanced from their grown children. Leaving youngest daughter Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa) at home in Onomichi, the two visit Tokyo where they plan to spend some time with son Koichi (So Yamamura) and his wife and children, and daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) and her husband. Neither family, however, is particularly welcoming to the parents and they quickly view the visitors as burdensome and annoying. The children neglect and dismiss Shukichi and Tomi, while the elders reflect on the high hopes they had for their children and whether or not they’ve been met. The exception is widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara – as always, breathtaking), who is genuinely and warmly receptive to the parents of her dead husband. On the return trip to Onomichi, Tomi falls ill. After a brief stop in Osaka, where they reunite with the even more negligent son Keizo (Shiro Osaka), the couple makes it back home, where Tomi’s health takes a further turn for the worse. In this basic narrative are moments of tremendous depth and poignant resonance, Ozu hitting on universal ideas and feelings that no doubt contribute to Tokyo Story’s wide appeal and acclaim. “Isn’t life disappointing?” asks Kyoko. “Yes,” responds Noriko with a smile, “it is.” This sort of quiet resignation of life’s ups and downs is crucial to Ozu’s work, here and elsewhere. It’s not as melodramatic as McCarey’s film, but its emotional cues and moments of overt sentiment are more pronounced than in some of Ozu’s other features. It’s perhaps this careful balance that distinguishes Tokyo Story as the filmmaker’s most enduringly popular.

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Two things are instantly apparent in terms of Ozu’s distinct style, and they’re both prominently on display here. The first is the filmmaker’s choice in camera placement, frequently at an uncommonly low angle, about even with the vantage point of someone sitting on the floor. Some argue that this position is indeed based on this sitting position, reflecting the sight of an individual on a tatami mat, for instance. In I Lived, But . . ., director Kaneto Shindo argues that Ozu “didn’t use low-angle shots just for style.” He says, “Ozu got to the heart of Japan” with this approach: ordinary people in typically Japanese settings. The constant presence of shoji screens, futon pallets, and tatami mats all form straight lines and right angles. “He confined living beings within these rigid forms,” states Shindo. For the interiors of his films, this is reasonable enough; when inside, his characters are usually sitting down and the architecture and set design lends itself to this sense of rigorous character placement and unspectacular though revealing action. There is also the fact that such a low angle, especially kept in a wider shot, presents more of a given room, and much of Ozu’s visual design is concerned with geometric patterns, of lines and depictions of interior space. But why does he maintain this angle when scenes are outside, such as in an alleyway or along a street? A theory that possibly carries the most weight is that this position best illustrates a sense of balance, of order. It’s a stationary arrangement that puts the spectator at a stable position reflecting objectivity and poise, all contributing to an equilibrium stressing Ozu’s preoccupations with contemplation and calm solemnity.

The second feature instantly noticeable are his transitions between scenes. Rather than dissolves or fades to black, we’re brought via straight cuts to the next sequence of events. Ozu incorporates something unique. When one of his scenes ends, before the next properly begins, we are commonly held back from the narrative through seemingly innocuous shots of buildings glistening in the sunlight, of factory smokestacks, of vacant rooms, of clothes hanging on the line. These “pillow shots,” as they’re sometimes known (Desser refers to them as “intermediate spaces”), don’t simply bring us to the next scene, they bring us further into the time and place of each story, giving Ozu’s films a marked sense of captured documentary realism. They are pauses in the drama that orient us not so much in the narrative progress, but in the world of the film. They are brief moments of reflection, extraneous to the apparent “action” of the film. These are sequences in opposition to our normal sense of simply “getting on with it.” When American audiences were devouring the action-packed samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa in the 1950s (films equally great in their own right), Ozu was at the time seen as being too reserved, too traditional, “too Japanese.” Now, these moments of meditative restraint can come as a relief from the current sensory bombardment in film.

Do these stylistic characteristics alone make Ozu great? Certainly not. But they do attribute to him a distinct formal technique and a distinguishing tone. He is a singular artist in the cinema, and each of his films are notably his and his alone. Their visual and thematic consistency can cause some to decry him for having made the same film over and over again (some similar titles can also add to this verdict), but within such standard formal patterns, Ozu conveys remarkable differences from film to film. Desser points out that Ozu considered himself a craftsman, or something akin to a tofu maker; he made one kind of film, but he did it exceedingly well with great care. If that is indeed the case, Tokyo Story may be his finest product.


"Rebel Without A Cause"

Rebel Without A Cause
That Rebel Without a Cause was such a success upon its initial 1955 release, and that it still stands as a hugely influential classic of American cinema, is not just a result of James Dean’s most iconic performance, nor is it simply the outcome of director Nicholas Ray’s talents. Why this film is truly a triumph has more to do with how superbly it encapsulates the artistic inclinations of these two particular artists. This is the film Dean and Ray were destined to make. And this was the time to make it.

Ray had been focusing on the outcasts, the rebels, and the loners since his first feature, They Live By Night. This emphasis would continue through In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar, before Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life, The True Story of Jesse James and even King of Kings after. But nowhere is this sense of solitary angst and alienation more potent than in this exemplary tale of tortured youth. Sterling Hayden’s titular character in Johnny Guitar utters the phrase, “I’m a stranger here myself” (supposedly a tentative title for nearly every Ray picture), but Dean embodies it.

Similarly, Dean, the most famous immediate post-Brando performer of torment and frustration, brought all he had to this role. His abilities were already on display in East of Eden, released just a few months prior, where he was also a young man trying to make his way in a complicated and confusing world, but where Rebel works so well, and why it lasts, is how palpable the emotion is. Dean, as Jim Stark, combines the weariness and anger of Brando with the sensitivity and vulnerability of Montgomery Clift. He’s the new kid in town, he doesn’t feel he belongs, and he’s not welcomed with open arms; he’s desperately searching, for something, for somebody.

From Dean’s improvisatory introduction, where, in the early morning hours, he drunkenly rolls around in the street with a toy monkey, to goofing at the planetarium by mooing like a cow, he is a case study in misbehavior. Jim and his associates are just high schoolers, after all. Their immaturity is evident, if not anywhere else, in just the fact that they would risk lives for being called a “chicken.” But kids will be kids, and to its credit, Rebel does much to understand this mindset. The film expertly stays in the vantage point of the youth, visually in many cases and in terms of its narrative concentration. This is no doubt why the film struck a chord in 1955 and why it retains its power, even after some elements have dated. Ray, with his original treatment, and screenwriters Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman, created a group of people and a story that tapped into a generational concern of post-war adolescent malaise. And yet many of these feelings haven’t gone away. When Dean’s rebel yell of “You’re tearing me apart” echoes through the police station, that declaration still resonates. Boredom and a misconstrued sense of obligatory activity also permeate the film. The deadly “chickie run,” which Jim takes part in for “honor,” is something he and adversary-turned-potential-friend Buzz (Corey Allen) do only because, well, “you gotta do something.”


In its exploration of these young men and women, the film attempts to find possible causes for their behavior. What, more than anything, seems to be at the root of their unrest is an unstable family. Be it Jim’s domineering mother and embarrassingly submissive dad, or the dismissive father of Natalie Wood’s Judy, or the broken home of Sal Mineo’s John “Plato” Crawford, the three protagonists are urgently in need of parental attention they are not otherwise getting. Jim comes close with the understanding police officer Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), but ultimately, he isn’t around when he’s needed most. For all its sympathy toward these kids, their feelings and their desires, and for the casual cool of Jim’s rebelliousness, Rebel Without a Cause is really a film stressing an importance of typical familial structure. That’s why, when they are alone, away from adults and left to their own devices, Jim, Plato, and Judy form a mock family with each adapting domestic roles and behaviors. Rebel as they might, they seek ordered stability.

In terms of Rebel Without a Cause’s appearance, this is Nicholas Ray at his finest. He had already proven himself to be exceptionally adept in his use of color — Johnny Guitar and its baroque tone was evidence enough of this — and here, the bold strokes are equally vibrant. The red of Judy’s lipstick and coat early in the picture is later matched by Dean’s trademark red jacket, and in a film where the Warnercolor palette is otherwise relatively subdued in its depiction of stolid suburban life, these flashes of dynamic color are distinguished. It’s hard to imagine the film in its originally intended black and white.


Where Ray truly brings a visual dynamism to the picture is in his use of CinemaScope. This was his first time using the format and it was a natural fit. Ray seems to instinctively grasp how the wide screen can both isolate figures when placed in the direct center or far to one side, and how it can fit a cluster of individuals and setting components, packing the frame. The former works especially well when Dean is the focal point, when his slinking, contorting body is given free reign; the latter is most effective in shots of the intimidating gang or of the confining family surroundings. Ray’s framing also works well when shooting down halls or composing in multiple planes of depth. Even more striking is when the camera suddenly tilts during a particularly dramatic moment; that wide screen suddenly canted is quite extraordinary.

While Nicholas Ray aficionados will identify Rebel Without a Cause with the director, most people, then and now, will see James Dean. This is certainly understandable. As other actors (the gang members, especially Allen) do their best Brandoesque posturing, Dean is the only one who brings anything new to the screen. Today, his persona may be more notable than his performance, but in either case, it is he who carries the picture. Mineo, as the meek and quite disturbed Plato (he’s arrested for shooting puppies!), and Wood as Judy, the genuinely good girl who only unwittingly goes bad sometimes, do show their early talents in the film though. Indeed, they would both be nominated for Oscars; Dean would too, but for East of Eden.

On the heels of the Nov. 1 world restoration premiere of Rebel Without a Cause at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic, the aforementioned colors and compositions better than ever. The disc’s bonus features are also excellent, ranging from screen tests and deleted scenes to a commentary by author Douglas L. Rathgeb and “making-of” documentaries. The most salient feature, though, is a brief PSA-style promo where Gig Young interviews Dean about safe driving and not speeding. In it, Dean concludes, “The life you might save might be mine.” Knowing what would befall this rising talent shortly after he uttered these words makes this brief inclusion hauntingly tragic.

REVIEW FROM: Sound on Sight

"City Lights"

As they have with The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Monsieur Verdoux, The Criterion Collection has released another stunning Blu-ray/DVD transfer of a Charlie Chaplin classic, rife with a surplus of features. City Lights (1931), which Criterion itself calls, “the most cherished film by Charlie Chaplin … his ultimate Little Tramp chronicle,” is certainly a film easy to love and admire; it’s The Tramp at his most endearingly hapless, his best of intentions always hilariously undermined, and it’s perhaps the most emotionally affecting Chaplin film.

The Kid has the unforgettable Jackie Coogan desperately reaching out for his newfound father figure, and throughout, the young boy and Chaplin tug at the heartstrings. But City Lights, especially with its transcendent final scene, trumps the more manipulatively straightforward sentiment in the earlier feature. Much has been made of this supremely effective conclusion, its careful balance of natural performance with unadulterated presentation. Famed critic James Agee said it was “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.” Chaplin acknowledges the moment’s potency, attributing its power to the acting, or the lack thereof: he had “a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside myself. The key was exactly right.” Albert Einstein, Chaplin’s guest at the Los Angeles premiere of the film, even teared up while watching the final moments, and as critic Gary Giddins notes in his essay accompanying the disc, those waiting in line to see the film were probably perplexed as the “[a]udience emerges from a previous screening evidently choked up, flushed, hankies dabbing eyes. What kind of comedy is this?”

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Before this justly famous ending, there is 80 minutes of characteristic Chaplin comedy and pathos, slapstick and romance, sight gags and distress. The love that develops between Chaplin’s Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower girl is a beautiful one, but it’s one founded on a lie, or at least an unrectified misunderstanding. Based on a deceptive car door slamming, she believes he is a wealthy aristocrat. She’s attractive, sweet, and innocent, so he’s not about to correct her. He woos her and cares for her; truth be told, he’s a little intrigued by her blindness. She, in turn, continues to fall for him. While others mock the Tramp for what he is, she begins to love him for what he pretends to be. But what will happen if and when the jig is up? City Lights, then, is at once an exceptional love story (its subtitle is “A Comedy Romance in Pantomime”), but there is also tension based on the maintenance of the illusion Chaplin is attempting to enact.

The same holds true for the film’s parallel relationship between The Tramp and the Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) who, when drunk, sees the vagabond as a kindred spirit, bombarding him with drink, women, and money. When sober, he’s dismissive of the apparent bum. The continuing drama and comedy that arises from these moments of false or impaired perceptions and decisions is meticulously crafted and hilariously executed. The Tramp frequently finds himself where he shouldn’t be, by his own doing or by a cruel twist of comedic fate. In a sequence favored by Chaplin himself, The Tramp gives boxing a go in the hopes of making some money for the flower girl’s eye operation. Derivative of his short The Champion, an excerpt of which is included on the disc, this sequence is a sustained exercise in cinematic staging and choreography, as the embattled Tramp is amusingly and sadly futile in the ring. 

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So much of the humor in City Lights, as with most silent comedy, is based around the physicality of the performers, and the pantomime of the aforementioned subtitle is crucial to this film. By the time City Lights was released, the sound film was here and here to stay. Years had passed since Don Juan, The Jazz Singer, and The Lights of New York, three key films in the gradual development and permanence of the “talking picture,” but Chaplin, the most famous of silent filmmakers, was still holding out. In his commentary track for the disc, author Jeffrey Vance (“Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema”) notes that the film was in fact an “act of defiance.” And in an interview with Chaplin, included in the disc booklet, he gives his own artistic reasoning for the hesitance: “Movement is near to nature … and it is the spoken word which is embarrassing. … Pantomime to me is an expression of poetry, comic poetry.” With City Lights, he would concede to some sound effects (most amusingly, a honking noise in place of dialogue, a sly mock of the “talkies” and of the pompous speech-making of the characters) and a recorded score that Chaplin wrote, but for now, the Tramp still wasn’t talking (he only would, sort of, in his final appearance in Modern Times).  

Despite off-screen troubles, most notably with the inexperienced and apparently lackadaisical Cherrill, and even with the film being 2-plus years in production, including 180 days of shooting, and even with takes numbering into the hundreds (342 for Chaplin’s and Cherrill’s meeting – shot, thankfully, over the course of several months), City Lights comes across as an effortless film. This, however, was not the case. As the documentaries included on this disc demonstrate – “Chaplin Today: “City Lights” and especially “Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design” – Chaplin the filmmaker was a scrupulous craftsman and deliberate artist. In the latter featurette, we see fascinating footage of Chaplin’s set and studio, revealing an impressive behind-the-genius methodology. Having his own sets and working on his own time was a vital part of his creativity and his creative freedom; by this point, he had earned it. Archival footage from the production, also included on the disc, further showcases Chaplin’s process, where we see his direction of himself and others. Knowing what was at stake with this film (if it failed, Chaplin’s likelihood of staying out of the sound film business would be substantially diminished), the sense of urgency and the need for perfection is evident in his mannerisms, his obvious frustrations, and his expressions of joy when things were going well.

City Lights was Chaplin’s personal favorite, and Vance continually mentions it as the preferred Chaplin movie of everyone from Martin Scorsese to Stanley Kubrick to Jean Renoir. The American Film Institute chose the picture as the 11th greatest American movie of all time and the same organization named it the top romantic comedy. Internationally, the 2012 Sight & Sound poll placed it at No. 50 from anywhere, ever. As Vance concludes, it “[c]ontains all the best elements of Chaplin’s work.”

REVIEW FROM: Sound on Sight

John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13′

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With his filmmaking career beginning in the midst of the new Hollywood and its touchstones in American film history, it’s perhaps easy to see why the work of John Carpenter has been somewhat overshadowed by more celebrated filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, or Francis Ford Coppola. He found a niche in the horror genre with the landmark Halloween, and he proceeded to make one idiosyncratic, wholly original, and generally skillful film after another. Some were rather uneven, particularly in recent years, but for every Memoirs of an Invisible Man, there has been The FogEscape from New YorkThe Thing, or They Live. Carpenter’s list of credits boasts some exceptional work — inventive, daring, visually, and technically creative — but amongst these titles, one film stands out as a favorite of many cinephiles in general and Carpenter fans in particular. Assault on Precinct 13, just his second feature film, has been released on a collector’s edition Blu-ray/DVD combo, looking and sounding better than ever with several new bonus features. The sharp transfer highlights every bit of ‘70s grain and Douglas Knapp’s exceptional cinematography belies any budgetary restraints the film may have had. Carpenter’s score is as effective, if not as memorable, as his arrangement for Halloween, and here, it sounds superb.

Taking its cue from Howard Hawks’ Western classic Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13 pits a group of disparate and desperate individuals holed up in a police station (actually precinct 9) against a band of gang members bent on revenge. In his commentary track on the disc, Carpenter describes the picture as an “exploitation action picture modeled after Rio Bravo,” exploitation also apparently what the distributors had in mind when they advertised the film with the sensational tagline, “A White Hot Night of Hate!” The Hawks allusions are also revealed in the name of Laurie Zimmer’s character, Leigh, as in Leigh Brackett, writer of Rio Bravo and other Hawks films (see also: Charles Cyphers’ Sheriff Leigh Brackett from Halloween). Carpenter also edited Assault on Precinct 13 under the pseudonym John T. Chance, John Wayne’s character from Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks fun facts aside (and there are many scattered throughout Carpenter’s career), Assault on Precinct 13 deviates from wherever its inspirations may lay to form a tense and tightly constructed thriller, just 91 minutes long, equal parts action, drama, and horror, with a dash of black comedy thrown in for good measure.

It’s worth noting, as mentioned in a shabbily shot interview conducted after a screening of the film in 2002, included as a bonus feature on the disc, that Carpenter is also quick to acknowledge the influence of George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, an inspiration, he says, to “everybody who has made a low-budget film.” In this Q&A session, where star Austin Stoker was also present, Carpenter essentially gives the same information as in the commentary, but he does reveal some fresh pre-production detail. And while he could easily be seen as the ultimate auteur – writing, directing, scoring, editing, and occasionally shooting portions Assault on Precinct 13 – he never shies away from spreading around credit. Neither does this disc: art director and sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace gets his own commentary track and solo interviews feature Stoker and Nancy Loomis reminiscing about their careers. More interesting, however, would have been a conversation catching up with co-star Laurie Zimmer, who, though striking in this film, quit acting just 3 years later.

In South Central Los Angeles, a sort of brutal and treacherous urban milieu that would serve as the backdrop for many Carpenter films to come, members of a gang (an “unusual interracial” one, according to TV news reports) seek revenge on police officers who, the night prior, killed a handful of their comrades. Heavily armed and clearly depraved, they set in motion the events that crash into the unwitting hero, Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Stoker). He’s a good-natured officer on his first night out, and he’s given the less-than-glamorous assignment of watching over a decrepit police station set to close its doors. Joining him in this disparaging and temporarily mundane endeavor is Captain Chaney (Henry Brandon, Scar from the John Ford masterpiece The Searchers, reason enough for his casting), Leigh and Julie (Loomis), two secretaries about as enthusiastic to be there as Bishop is. After a brutal murder that still is the cause of considerable surprise, the victim’s father pursues the gang. He manages to kill one hood, which only further infuriates and deranges the rest. They chase him to the police station, where he enters in a state of shock, thus bringing together the two groups in a contest neither had planned. Concurrently, a bus carrying three inmates is in transit when one of the convicts grows increasingly ill, causing the bus to stop at the station. With the sick man are two other criminals; one, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a violent offender with a heart of gold, is sentenced to death. Now that this combustible group is firmly in place, and with the tension mounting as the gang assembles outside, lights go down, telephone lines are severed and the siege begins.

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The film is truly haunting in its depiction of the ruthless hoods who, as we see dramatically and controversially early on, are capable of extreme and brazen violence. As the film sets this tone from the start, the threat is instantly heightened and never diminishes. Visually, Carpenter also emphasizes the horrific potential of their intentions by silhouetting them outside the police station as generally anonymous, dehumanized creatures. It’s a technique similar to countless zombie films, where the menace is a mass of beings rather than distinguishable individuals. The way the thugs prowl in the darkness, creeping in and out of the light, gives the lingering impression of their mobility and their constant presence. The dynamics of their advancement on the station, of their ability to approach and enter any number of ways, stands in marked contrast to those contained in the building. By comparison, our heroes are limited in their maneuverability and their options. This setting restriction was as much a result of the film’s roughly $100,000 budget as it was an effective narrative device.

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In his commentary, Carpenter reveals much about the shooting of movie, from his casting of college friends to his creative geography, whereby shooting was conducted all over LA and later weaved seamlessly into a cohesive sense of definite place. Carpenter also professes his love for the widescreen, a format – his favorite – he was quick to become a master of. This was his first time shooting in Panavision and he describes repeatedly his attempts to balance the frame, his striving for simple, precise visuals, and how this new ratio contributed to what he feels is the film’s slow pacing.

More than anything, throughout his commentary Carpenter brings up the Western and the genre’s impact on his career. Of course it’s obvious here, but the evidence is also present in everything from Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken character in the Escape films to the blistering and grimy setting for Vampires, which features shades of Peckinpah and Leone. In the interview with Loomis, she notes how an original title for Assault on Precinct 13 was “The Anderson Alamo,” and during the 2002 interview, someone asks Carpenter why he has never made a real Western, a good question and one that sparks all sorts of cinematic fantasy.

Still, despite its indebtedness to previous films and filmmakers, Assault on Precinct 13 ends up entirely unique. Even with a 2005 remake, which deviates considerably from the original, Carpenter’s film manages a lasting potency. Like so many great films from the 1970s, it is dated in superficial appearances only. There’s something stimulating about its low-key production and B-movie status. Toward the end of his commentary, Carpenter laments somewhat dismissively of the film that, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” However he meant the comment, there’s no doubt about it: he’s right.

REVIEW  FROM: Sound on Sight