‘All That Heaven Allows’

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If ever there was a movie to reap the visual benefits of a Criterion Collection Blu-ray digital restoration, it is Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film, All That Heaven Allows. This lushly photographed work is Sirk’s most scathing and insightful commentary on subversive Hollywood cinema and the sociocultural norms it sought to challenge. With venerable cinematographer Russell Metty behind the camera, the film is radiant with rich, pulsating color, giving visual vibrancy to lives of complacency and routine. It was Sirk’s follow-up to his successful Magnificent Obsession from the year before, which has similar themes and tones and was another gorgeous melodrama. Universal kept what worked, bringing back Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, and Metty. In many ways though, it’s All That Heaven Allows that stands as the defining work of Sirk’s career, the greatest of his films made in the midst of a decade in which he turned conventional “women’s pictures” or “weepies” into profound, virtually unparalleled conflicts played out in domesticated arenas.

Here, Cary Scott (Wyman) and Ron Kirby (Hudson) personify opposite poles of suburban life (both still quite ordinary), but their societal daring — hers by choice, his natural — bring them together in defiance of cultural presumptions. She is a modest widow, not much of a “club woman,” but still with plenty of money thanks to the business work of her late husband, a pillar of the community. Ron is a class below Cary, but by no means as destitute as some of the townsfolk would suggest. He has taken over his deceased father’s nursery business and plans to get into growing trees full time. Ron has worked at the Scott house for years, even when the husband was still alive. (Was something perhaps already brewing between Cary and Ron back then? No, but still, the scandal!) One fall New England day, he and Cary stop and talk, and while neither probably had the intention of falling in love, the attraction is abrupt and powerful, and it threatens to shake up the relatively stolid lives of all those around them. And one certainly has a stolid life when such an innocuous affair is indeed a grand tragedy.

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The objections to this union are many, but for Cary the most important and prevailing come from her son, Ned (William Reynolds), and daughter, Kay (Gloria Talbott). Their mother remarrying isn’t the problem; it’s that they thought it would be to Harvey (Conrad Nagel), someone they know, someone who fits in, someone more appropriate than a mere gardener (never has this profession been uttered with such derisiveness). Ned and Kay’s objection proves the most aggravating. This martini-making Princeton man and this Freud-citing New York social worker behave like sniveling children, and yet, once Cary calls off the marriage, they quickly go about their own business, all but ignoring their mother. He leaves for Paris, she gets married, their mom gets a TV. Cary’s supposed friends also don’t condone the relationship between her and her “nature boy.” Their reasons vary from accusations of gold digging to insinuations about their age gap (in reality, Wyman was 38, Hudson, 30). But the heart wants what it wants, and for a time, the two happily flaunt societal conventions.

To Cary, Ron represents a whole other way of living. His worldview is based on a life inspired by Thoreau’s “Walden,” a text with a message he embodies: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is completely foreign to Cary, the dutiful housewife who had previously existed as pure conformity. Ron and his friends, on the other hand, are totally devoid of pretense. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They are who they are and don’t need to be anyone else for anybody.

Points of societal contrast come across in a number of other ways throughout the film, first in clothing choices. In their commentary track for the Criterion release, scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald note how, in the opening scene, Cary is in a subdued grey outfit. For his part, Ron is in earthy tan work clothes. For now, they blend right in. But eventually color comes into their lives (her red dress, his red flannel coat), and they suddenly stand out. They’ll occasionally revert back to the drabness throughout the film, but that potential is always there. There is also the difference in interior spaces. Cary’s house is a nice but confined location, comfortable though somewhat claustrophobic. Ron lives basically in a greenhouse, his glass ceiling open to the stars. Eventually, he fixes up an old mill for he and Cary to live in, and one of its grandest features is a large window. Cary and others like her are shut in; Ron never wants to be too far removed from the outdoors. (Surely there’s something to be said about throwing stones and glass houses here. But it’s Cary’s associates who throw the stones and Ron who lives in glass…)

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The imagery of glass is also prominent in the constant appearance of reflexive surfaces: windows, mirrors, a television set. It’s all about seeing something real in a mediated form; it’s never quiet wholly authentic. An ultimate distortion of the real comes in Kay’s room when a candy colored glass takes in the exterior light and casts a falsified rainbow of illumination. And even with Ron’s large windows, while one can see outside, they’re not really outdoors. There’s still a separation. Similarly, in mirrors, one can see their reflection, but it’s not really them. Sirk openly acknowledged his famous affinity for mirrors as a metaphoric device, a way to break up the space of the frame and to suggest alternate emotions and meanings. (An aside here to bring up an amusing quote from the venerable John Waters who, when asked by Vanity Fair what he would choose what to come back as when he died, answered, “A mirror in a Douglas Sirk film.”)

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The television is sold to Cary as a substitute for real life, for real relationships, real human interaction: it’s “drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips.” It’s not the real thing though, and it will keep her indoors, but at least it’s something. All That Heaven Allows is very much concerned with stodgy indoor entrapment. Kay relates an Egyptian custom whereby a widow is walled up alive in the funeral chambers of her dead husband along with his “other possessions”: “The theory being that she was a possession too. She was supposed to journey into dead with him. The community saw to it. Of course it doesn’t happen anymore,” she says. “Doesn’t it?” replies Cary.

Kay is frequently spouting off psychoanalytical drivel, attempting to scrutinize sex and relationships to the point that they are beyond any real feeling. When confronted by her mother’s decision to marry Ron, she proclaims that there’s no point in approaching the issue emotionally. They should try to remain objective. But it’s exactly personal passion that is missing here. This is where the sumptuous color scheme of the film takes on a more than decorative purpose. The hypnotic look of the picture is probably its most pleasing virtue, like it was kissed by the Crayola gods, and while it certainly looks good, it also hints at an undercurrent of vitality that lies dormant in much of this world. Sirk will oftentimes compose a single shot or frame in reasonably tame colors — tans, browns, creams, etc. — but then there is a yellow curtain, a green light, a red dress, and the image pops. The colors are like hidden emotions normally kept in check and suddenly bursting forth. The film is all about the release of passion — emotional and aesthetic passion.

Of course, all of this does give All That Heaven Allows an obvious look of artificiality. Shot on the Universal Studios backlot, the film is a study in artful cinematic arrangement. There is impossibly blue moonlight and snow as thick as marshmallow cream. It’s not necessarily meant to look real though; it’s all part of a heightened experience. Compositions in this film are so mannered in their careful inclusion and so purposefully crafted in their design that nearly every shot seems to suggest something else, some theme or symbol. There may be a few, such as those mentioned above, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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Along these lines, All That Heaven Allows is also an ideal film for one to explore the biography of Rock Hudson, as Mark Rappaport does in his 1992 film, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, included as part of the Criterion package. Knowing what we now know about Hudson’s homosexuality, it seems like hints were everywhere in his work, some more obvious than others. Whatever the validity of these apparent signs, and whatever their real use is in the first place, there are more than a few moments in this film:
Ron: “Mick discovered for himself that he had to make his own decisions, that he had to be a man.”
Cary: “And you want me to be a man.”
Ron: “Only in that one way.”

This “essay film” from Rappaport is but one insightful feature Criterion has assembled for this DVD/Blu-ray set. Also included is a 1982 interview with Sirk, a portion of a 1979 documentary on the director, and an interview with actor William Reynolds, who appeared in three Sirk films including this one. An essay by Laura Mulvey and an excerpt from a 1971 essay on Sirk by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the director’s greatest acolytes, round out the package.

As evidenced by similar variations on its basic premise, such as Fassbinder’s own Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), All That Heaven Allows powerfully retains and expresses universal and contemporary relevance when it comes to critiquing multifaceted prejudice and the harsh realities of conformity. With a script by Peg Fenwick (her sole writing credit), Sirk’s film is one of the great works from Hollywood in the 1950s, among those extraordinary films that carried with them a social commentary that could, when necessary, go unnoticed, but when brought to light, they revealed darker truths about contemporary American existence.


‘Red River’

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Howard Hawks’ Red River is supposedly the film that convinced John Ford of John Wayne’s talent (apparently opposed to his abilities to simply perform or suggest a powerful screen presence). Ford had, of course, worked with Wayne previously, and Wayne had appeared in dozens of other films prior to this point, but when Ford saw what Wayne did in the role of the aged, bitter, driven, and obsessive Thomas Dunson, it led him to comment to his friend Hawks, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” If it were only for Wayne’s performance, which is excellent, Red River would be a vital entry into the Western genre. But there is more, much more to this extraordinary picture. That’s why it’s not only one of the greatest Westerns ever made, it’s an American classic.

Thankfully, the folks at the Criterion Collection must also feel this way. Their release of the Blu-ray/DVD Red River set is an awesome tribute to this film, boasting two versions of the movie: the theatrical release version (Hawks’ preferred cut, at least up until the ending), and the longer, pre-release version. There are three separate interviews, with Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, and Lee Clark Mitchell. Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich are included, as is part of a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. A radio adaptation of the film with Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien round out the disc’s primary special features. Still there’s more, if purchasing the dual-format release. There’s a 1991 interview with Hawks’ editor Christian Nyby and a paperback edition of Chase’s original novel. That’s a lot to go with one film, but this one surely deserves it.

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Chase’s Oscar-nominated story begins in 1851, with Dunson and Nadine Groot (a name perfect for a Walter Brennan character) as they separate from a westward wagon train and head south into Texas, seeking water and good land to raise cattle. In doing so, Dunson leaves behind the woman he loves, Fen (Coleen Gray). He’ll come back for her once they are established. But no sooner do Dunson and Groot call it a day when they look behind them and see a mass of smoke. Indians have attacked the wagon train, presumably leaving everyone dead. Everyone except a young boy named Matt Garth, who wanders his way to the duo with one lowly cow in tow. Dunson and Groot take in Matt to be a part of their hopeful cattle empire.

Fifteen years later, Matt (Montgomery Clift) returns  from the war and finds that his adoptive father Dunson has achieved his goal. He has been prosperous and owns thousands of cattle on a vast expanse of land. But the war has caused the market to dwindle in Texas. If Dunson’s livelihood is to survive, he must take his stock elsewhere, to where there’s money to be made. They set their sights on Missouri, a thousand miles away. So, with about 10,000 head of cattle, Dunson and his men begin their drive along the Chisholm Trail. Perilous and to a certain extent unprecedented, it’s a “fool drive,” according to Groot, and, sure enough, there are more than a few obstacles in their way: inclement weather, rough terrain, border gangs, and, of course, Indians. As they go along, however, the biggest concern soon becomes Dunson himself. His mind’s made up to get to Missouri, and he doesn’t change his mind. He’s intensely driven, dangerously so. When he assumes the role of judge, jury, and executioner and chooses to hang two men who stole some supplies and attempted to leave, even Matt stands against him.

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Kansas keeps coming up as an alternative possibility for the cattle. It’s safer, quicker, easier, and rumor has it there’s a railroad. But nobody can be certain, and Dunson refuses to bend, to take the chance. A growing frustration among the men builds. They’re sick of being short on rations and drinking bad coffee. The drive seems impossible, and to make matters worse, Dunson becomes even surlier once he’s been shot. He begins to drink and he won’t sleep (the better to keep an eye out for any deserters). Sure, there’s ineptitude among some of the men (one childishly reaches for sugar and ends up causing a stampede), but Dunson won’t keep things positive either. For example, he won’t tell the men when they do a good job because, well, that’s their job. The physical strain of the endeavor is bad enough; the sheer exertion necessary to work like this is taxing on all involved. But Dunson’s methodology is ruthless. He becomes beyond focused — he grows fanatical. Such mutual antagonism cannot last. Matt, who has otherwise been loyal, having his doubts but never questioning, finally draws a line. He wounds Dunson, takes the cattle, and heads to Abilene with the men. Dunson swears vengeance, and Matt and the others are forever looking over their shoulder for the duration of the drive.

With its focus on a job to be done, and the related intricacies of such an endeavor, Red River affords Hawks plenty of opportunities to visually and thematically detail the work itself. For the most part, these are professionals, and, as such, they are prime characters for a Hawks feature. Bogdanovich comments on the “reality” of the film, and there are times when the picture seems like a contemporary documentary on the processes of raising cattle and driving them to market. Dunson takes the notion of professionalism to an extreme degree, but he and the others are largely competent authorities who know and care about their work. And as one would expect in a Hawks film focusing mostly on a group of men assembled together, there’s plenty of sizing each other up, the abundance of testosterone keeping everyone rough and ready. Red River casts a notable spotlight on the professional and personal relationships that develop between men in such a situation. But, as the film dramatically points out, what happens when that kinship unravels can be tragically destructive. Along these lines, also symptomatic of Hawks at his finest, is a treatment of quick, simply shot, efficient action, be it involving the rampaging cattle or the occasional sudden bursts of gunplay.

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Somewhat atypical for Hawks, on the other hand, is the sheer epic scale of Red River, its visual scope and expressive beauty. The movie’s visceral sense of place is among its most pronounced traits, the dust and rain and sun and wind all intensely illustrated. With so much exterior shooting, Hawks has described the film as one of his most difficult to make, partially a result of the genuinely inhospitable region. What Hawks manages to do with this region, however, is quite remarkable. Save for something like the much maligned Land of the Pharaohs (1955) or Hatari! (1962), his compositions are seldom grandiose — perfectly arranged, but never overly pictorial — but Red River is a gorgeously photographed piece of work, even though Hawks regretted having shot the film in black and white, contending that color would have helped the film last (as if it needed help) and would have added further visual dynamism to certain sequences. For one stand-out scene, Hawks admitted to Bogdanovich that he had John Ford’s affinity for striking visuals in mind. The look of Red River was obviously of exceptional concern for Howard Hawks. Credit here should also be given to cinematographer Russell Harlan, who had or would work with such directorial luminaries as Anthony Mann, Billy Wilder, and Vincente Minnelli, as well as Hawks several more times later.

Aside from Wayne and Brennan, Red River also boasts a who’s who of other classic Western stars (certainly adding to its stature in the genre). There’s Harry Carey and Harry Carey Jr., as well as John Ireland, Noah Beery Jr., and Hank Worden. If you’re going to make a Western with a traditional focus like working a cattle drive, these are the men you’re going to want with you. Then there’s Montgomery Clift, according to Bogdanovich the “most beautiful actor in the American screen,” here in just his second feature film role. But Red River is really all about John Wayne. In his superb recent biography on Wayne, Scott Eyman cites Jeanine Basinger who describes the ultimate non-movie lover as “The person who walks out of Red River talking about Montgomery Clift.” And Bogdanovich describes Wayne here as “tough, acerbic, rough.” Indeed, he argues that his Dunson character may be the roughest he’s ever played. When push comes to shove, he’s absolutely merciless, but by the conclusion of the film (and the conclusion is admittedly somewhat unsatisfactory), we still end up behind Wayne. Still though, Basinger’s comment aside (surely she’s exaggerating?), the generational toe-to-toe between Wayne and Clift is one of Red River‘s strongest features: Wayne the classic, indomitable man’s man vs. Clift the tender, mannered Method actor. It’s a dueling of tenacious personalities and intrinsic masculinity that appears so often with Hawks, and while a female love interest arises near the end of the film, the capricious bond between Dunson and Matt is the true embattled relationship of the picture.


'Double Indemnity'

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This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the greatest film noir ever made, perhaps the quintessential title of that perpetually popular and occasionally fluid cinematic category. To celebrate the occasion, a new restoration of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity premiered at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, and the film had its American Blu-ray debut in April. To treat this movie with reverence is understandable. From story and stars to direction and dialogue, everything about this 1944 classic sizzles. It’s little wonder the picture garnered seven Academy Award nominations upon its release and in 2007 ranked among the top 30 American films ever made, according to the AFI. To paraphrase main character Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), it’s a honey of a movie.

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First published as a serial by James M. Cain in 1936, the property took nearly eight years to finally get the go-ahead from a Hollywood studio. With all the adultery and murder, this was a tough sell, especially on the heels of the Hays Code crackdown. Eventually, everything fell together and the official script writing was underway, a process not without some drama itself. Raymond Chandler was brought in to jazz it up with some of his noted colloquial flair, but he and co-writer/director Wilder didn’t exactly see eye to eye. Whatever the behind-the-scenes antagonism may have been though, the final product speaks for itself. And speak does it ever. There’s much to admire about Double Indemnity, but its dialogue may be its most enjoyable feature. Take one often-cited example:
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Nobody talks like this…and it’s fantastic! This kind of witty banter never lets up; it’s almost comically persistent, audaciously and self-consciously clever.

In the film, Walter Neff is a top-notch insurance salesman who plans to sell an inconsequential auto policy to Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). Upon visiting the Dietrichson household, however, Neff is quickly, severely, and tragically sidetracked by the missus. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is seductive, sharp, and conniving—the embodiment of the femme fatale—and Walter falls hard for her wiles, her looks, and her anklet. The rapidly escalating affair between Walter and Phyllis leads to a mutual scheme (initiated by Phyllis, eagerly endorsed by Walter) to do away with her husband, only after he unknowingly signs off on a hefty accident insurance policy. Once the deed is done, paranoia sets in (this is noir, after all). Driving the anxiety is claims adjuster, and long-time colleague and friend of Walter’s, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who gradually begins to smell a rat.

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The insurance business is an ideal vocation for film noir, and it works perfectly here. These are people who make death, accidents, and suspicion part of their profession. Keyes has a clear passion for his work and is a wolf at spotting phony claims. There’s an almost Hitchcockian revelry in the way Keyes rattles off types of suicide and murder possibilities, conveying his vast expertise in this macabre field. He’s also got a “little man,” somehow connected to indigestion, and this alerts him to claims that aren’t on the up and up. As for Neff, he’s the top salesman at the company, skilled at selling whatever he needs to, however he needs to do it. This means we have competency on both sides. And as in a Howard Hawks film, a stress on the occupation itself runs throughout the film. It sometimes seems that Neff gets into the whole ordeal as much out of a professional challenge as he does through his infatuation with Phyllis. He knows the insurance game inside and out. Can he buck his own system, cheat at his own game, fool Keyes’ “little man”?

Still though, it is film noir, so the girl is the more evident part of the equation, as is pure and simple monetary gain. Upon her first appearance (where she, like her husband, is not “fully covered”), Phyllis exudes a potent and knowing sexuality. As her murderous ultimate goal comes to light, Neff at first plays the morally wounded soul, outraged at a suggestion as scandalous as killing her husband, but as he admits, the hooks are too strong. Aiding in their decision is Mr. Dietrichson’s personality. He is grouchy and bossy and he’s apparently abusive—at least that’s what Phyllis says. As much as this seals the deal for them, it also helps keep the audience’s allegiance uncomfortably on the side of Walter and Phyllis. Of course, Mr. Dietrichson’s behavior is no excuse for murder, but certainly it does contribute to the ultimate viewer alignment in Double Indemnity, and so many suspenseful noirs like it: that we, the decent and ethically superior viewer, are totally committed to the bad people. We fret when there’s a kink in their plans, such as a potentially postponed trip or a stranger on the observation deck, and we breathe a sigh of relief along with them as Keyes initially backs up the supposed accident hypothesis.

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This leads to a strong sense of cynicism, a term commonly applied to Billy Wilder and for good reason. It’s no surprise that film noir, that most jaded and pessimistic form of motion picture, was such a natural fit for the director. In this mode, he’s able to challenge not only issues of principled association, like those just mentioned, but also social institutions and human nature itself. The famous scenes in the grocery market are good examples. Amidst the shoppers busily and obliviously filling their carts, Walter and Phyllis contemplate murder. In this setting of banal consumerist custom, Wilder has death and deceit right next to the instant coffee and canned beans. It’s a darkly ironic and comic juxtaposition, like murder smelling of honeysuckle. And it seems almost inevitable that by the end, Walter and Phyllis will turn on each other. She’s so calm and collected about planning the murder (almost as if she’s been here before). In fact, Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows Phyllis is wicked, and tries to convince Walter that she was behind the death of Dietrichson’s first wife. Walter begins to wonder, but his doubts lack conviction. The duo’s association is, of course, destined to fail, and not just because the production code would have had it that way, or because the film begins with the end where we’re basically told how things turn out (Neff says he killed for a woman and money, and he doesn’t get either). Moreover, as Keyes says, when two people are involved in a plot like this, it’s “ten times twice as dangerous.”

All the aesthetic hallmarks of noir are in Double Indemnity as well. Venetian blinds, a set decorating godsend to film noir, produces distinct shafts of light permeating dust-littered interiors, creating a stunning balance of light and dark, one that, as several critics have pointed out, creates bars already entrapping the characters. And while it’s always (ironically) sunny outside in the daytime, the nights are as dark as can be. Throughout the film, Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz design scenes in the deepest and darkest of shadows. And through this visual design, viewers can begin to appreciate the symbolic implications; in this film, with these people, there’s a lot to hide. This type of mise-en-scène construction certainly stands out, as it’s supposed to with film noir, but otherwise, Wilder maintains a reluctance to get overly stylish. Never a fan of “fancy schmancy” camera moves or angles, Wilder focuses more on having the camera just where it needs to be to adequately, yet creatively, capture the drama. In some cases, as in the shot down Neff’s apartment building hallway, where Phyllis hides from Keyes behind Walter’s open door, that ideal placement also works out to be visually ingenious as well.

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Variations of eventually adopted noir traits appeared in many features prior to 1944, foreign and domestic, but it’s with reasonable justification that Double Indemnity is considered the first true film noir, where there is a notably cohesive accumulation of these formal attributes into one film. If this is the case, the bar was now set quite high. The same could be said for Wilder as a filmmaker. With this film, just his third directorial effort in Hollywood, he proved himself a major figure behind the camera and the typewriter. He would clear this early bar at least five times over the next two decades.



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Angel is a 1937 feature directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Marlene Dietrich. It’s not the greatest film of either one of their careers, however, it is a film deserving of attention, at the very least because it’s a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Marlene Dietrich. And now, it’s also available for the first time on an American-issued DVD, by way of Universal’s Vault Series collection.

Dietrich is Maria Barker, but we first see her as “Mrs. Brown,” the false name she registers under when arriving in France. She’s “in Paris but not in Paris,” there to meet an old acquaintance, the Russian émigré, Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews). At the same time, Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) drops by the duchess’ “salon,” at the suggestion of a friend who sent him there for an “amusing time.” It’s clear by the subtle exchanges that this venue serves multiple purposes of, shall we say, obtaining entertainment. When Halton asks to see the Duchess, who is an older, rather overweight woman, Maria coincidentally comes through the door. Halton is quite surprised by how attractive the duchess is, not at all as the captain described her. Maria plays along for a time, offering to help Halton find a way to get amused (the days take care of themselves, he notes, it’s the evenings that are more difficult). Miscommunication — intentional or accidental — is an immediate theme with these two, but eventually she fesses up to the charade and, now fully enamored by each other, they agree to meet for dinner.

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Dietrich during these earliest sequences is as one would expect, and as fans would appreciate. She is aggressively coy, at once reserved and provocative. She knows what men want, or at least what this man wants, but she’s playful with her obviously powerful allure. These scenes with Halton don’t immediately appear as high points for Dietrich; they’re typical, but not anything special. By the end of the film though, if one is watching Angel to see some of that famous Dietrich seduction, this is as good as it gets. By comparison, as the film progresses she is relatively tame.

Throughout the evening, Maria and Halton maintain personal secrecy. She has yet to reveal her true identity, insisting on no names and no discussion of their past. This works fine for him; he’s in love and doesn’t care who or what she is. She’s an angel, he says, so that’s what he’ll call her (we’re not so sure the name applies). That night, when his attention is diverted, she suddenly flees.

Cut to London days later, where we see that, no, the name does not apply. Maria is in reality Mrs. Barker, wife to English diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), who has been away at a gathering of the League of Nations. Barker is prosperous but not much of a charmer, and later it’s revealed that his apparent neglect is what partially lay behind Maria’s dalliance. He doesn’t even know she’s been in Paris, and as far as he’s concerned, they are a “hopelessly happy married couple,” and even when she does tell him the truth, about falling in love with another man and planning to run off with him, he thinks it’s merely a rhetorical scenario and brushes it off. He really has no reason to think otherwise, and she doesn’t bother to correct him.

The farce reaches a point of fracture when Halton and Barker meet at a luncheon. As it turns out, they served in World War I together, even falling for the same girl while they were on leave in Paris. Neither, of course, have any idea of what now connects them, remaining obliviously cordial as they reminisce. Barker invites his old associate to his house, and after hearing of Halton’s mystery love, he advises him against pursuing this “Angel,” arguing that only a disreputable woman would be in a place like the duchess’ residence.

At the Barker house, the expected confrontational awkwardness is obvious, though the hidden drama remains unspoken. In a clever sequence, the servants note that neither Maria nor Halton ate their dinner, their plates returned still full; the unknowing Barker wiped his plate clean. Left alone with Halton, Maria plays down the encounter, but it’s only a matter of time before Barker discovers the affair.

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In the scenes when Barker and Halton first reunite, and later when all three main characters are together, Angel begins to reveal some of that famous “Lubitsch touch.” As we know what we know, and they don’t, there are a few sly glances and witty insinuations that keep us smiling. But on the whole, Angel lacks the delicate and risqué innuendo for which the director was so celebrated. Some of the dialogue by Samson Raphaelson, who had worked on the more befittingly Lubitsch features One Hour with You and Trouble in Paradise, is humorous: When Barker inquires about the London weather (it’s gloomy and pouring down rain), his valet tells him it’s “not bad.” But these kind of quips are few and far between.

Moments of technical flourish are also sparse. Lubitsch does incorporate a rather inventive crane shot early on, when, almost as in a Brian De Palma film decades later, the camera sweeps alongside the exterior of the Grand Duchess’ house, peering through the passing windows as it proceeds. And, again primarily early in the picture, when Dietrich is most clearly being Dietrich, Lubitsch and the great cinematographer Charles Lang seem to allude to Josef von Sternberg’s distinguished visual treatment of the actress. Her cheekbones are lit so that the deep shadows of her face play against the glowing ring that outlines her hair. There’s no doubt about it, Dietrich looks great on screen.

Angel may not be the finest film from any of its key contributors. There are undoubtedly many other more characteristic features from Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich. But this one has its moments, and in the interest of Hollywood legend totality and of preserving and distributing lesser known works, this Universal release from their archives is not at all a bad way to spend 90 minutes.


‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’

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Before he filmed his eccentric version of what makes a bad lieutenant, and before he fictionalized his documentary about Dieter needing to fly, Werner Herzog in 1979 wrote and directed a full-fledged remake of a silent film classic. His Nosferatu the Vampyre, an exceptionally faithful take on F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu from 1922, recalls the original in story, tenor, and potency. No matter the subject, Herzog frequently manages to endow the mundane and banal with qualities of inherent peculiarity; here, working specifically within the horror genre, his capacity for the uncanny is as intoxicating as ever.

In a contemporary documentary about the making of the film, included as part of the newly released Blu-ray, Herzog declares Murnau’s picture to be “the most important film ever made in Germany.” That’s quite a statement, certainly a debatable one, but it is nevertheless evident that Herzog has the utmost reverence for Nosferatu. Such respect is clear in this documentary and on Herzog’s commentary track (it’s always great to hear him speak, no matter what he’s talking about). It’s also obvious in the film itself.

Herzog’s Nosferatu has the same basic story as the Murnau release. Wismar resident Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is hired by Renfield (Roland Topor) to sell a house to the mysterious Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the count, who, it is quite obviously revealed, is a vampire. Dracula is inspired by a photo of Jonathan’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), or more specifically, her throat, and travels to Wismar to track her down, whereupon pestilence and death follow. The story is admittedly secondary, if for no other reason than its familiarity. Where Herzog’s Nosferatu excels is in its deliberately contemplative form and its relentless sense of dread.

This dread is immediate, despite the initial setting of tranquility. The serene town of Wismar is first shown as if in a dream; it’s calm and leisurely. There’s a whimsical quality to the imagery, enhanced by a melodic Popol Vuh score. But when the bizarre Renfield divulges the ominous real estate proposal to Jonathan, a shift in mood is clear. Jonathan is cautiously optimistic, stressing that he and Lucy need the money, but she is instantly troubled by a disconcerting premonition, something to do with a threatening and fearsome force. Once Jonathan departs, the score takes on a more menacing tone, as does the look of the film. Now, darkness prevails. The landscape is still gorgeously shot (no surprise from Herzog and Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, his frequent cinematographer at the time), but Jonathan is clearly traveling to a place where terror pervades. Near Dracula’s castle, the locals refuse to assist Jonathan, and they warn him about what awaits. The rumors of evil and impending doom keep everyone on edge. (Transylvania is “a wonderful place,” Renfield contended, “a little gloomy, but very exciting.”) Jonathan is determined though, and marches on by himself. Finally, at the castle, and after a brief and most unorthodox dinner with the count, Jonathan discovers that there is indeed cause for concern.

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Notorious Herzog collaborator and “best fiend” Klaus Kinski is extraordinary as Dracula. Caked in hours of makeup, his flesh is a pasty pale that is almost luminescent. He walks with a stilting gait, his rigid body barely containing a potentially explosive violence. And when Dracula makes a nocturnal visit to Jonathan’s bedroom, approaching slowly, hands out, grappling pointed fingers spread, the effect, as Herzog films it in one continuous shot, is truly terrifying. The terror is also manifest via the excellent production design by Henning von Gierke (another Herzog regular). The castle interiors are intimidating in their expansiveness, like some sort of elaborate and sparsely domesticated echo chamber, divided into rooms and halls that appear as barren cells of disquiet, trepidation lurking around every corner, no sign of life now or ever before. As Jonathan explores the grounds, it become apparent that things here are not as they should be, a portent of what’s to come.

Once Dracula arrives in Wismar, a new sort of darkness emerges. His massive shadow enveloping the Harker house conveys his veiled omnipresence, and as much as anything, the theme of terror in the unknown and unseen runs throughout Nosferatu, adding to an inexplicable yet distinct haunting quality. Dracula’s appearance in the town also brings the plague, transmitted by hoards of rats that run rampant in the town, scurrying along the streets, down alleyways, on stoops, on tables, etc. This turns the whole community into a surreal arena of death, fascinatingly juxtaposed with a still present, though transient, life. Herzog strikingly contrasts the steady infection and ultimate death with images of dancing and dining, revelry conducted by the townsfolk under the impression that they may as well make the most of what time they have left. It’s a further instance of the slow but sure torment that is a focus of this particular vampiric tale. With Jonathan debilitated, slowly descending into his own transitional being, Lucy steps in to pique Dracula’s interest, distracting him, eventually leading to his demise.

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Everything about Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu is methodically enacted. Kinski’s performance and von Gierke’s sets are but two elements utilized by Herzog to keep Nosferatu frightening, but there’s a crucial difference with this film between something scary (which it isn’t) and something haunting (as it is). Rarely is Nosferatu scary in the sense of eliciting jumps or screams. Instead, its horrific power lies in a slow, meandering exploration of death. Jonathan’s transformation once bitten is painfully plodding, and Dracula’s own torment is his eternally daunting immortality. Somewhat a result of this, and despite great performances from Kinski, Ganz, and Adjani, the film doesn’t affect on a normal emotional level. It’s something deeper than that. In the documentary, Herzog (rather tragically) acknowledges that he develops his films from pain, not pleasure, and while Nosferatu is a wonderful film, with much to admire, it isn’t exactly pleasurable, except perhaps visually. As noted above, it doesn’t offer up any cathartic release typically associated with a horror film. This is something more gradual, something that works its way in and isn’t necessarily let out. Like so many of Herzog’s finest films, this picture operates on a level of tone and image, more so than any strong emotionally stirring resonance. And make no mistake, it’s all the better for it.

‘The Big Red One’

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When a director like Samuel Fuller finally gets the chance to make his passion project, rest assured, there’s going to be more than a little of the man himself in the movie. With Fuller, this would have undoubtedly been the case no matter what type of film it was, but when the film is an autobiographical World War II yarn about the first infantry division — the “fighting first” — the filmmaker’s stamp is evident from start to finish. The Big Red One is an episodic chronicle of this military assembly, here focused on The Sergeant (Lee Marvin, adding classic film respectability), and the “four horsemen,” Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill, adding contemporary film marketability), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward). The men who make up the four horsemen, a label that emphasized the bonding of the four leads on and off screen, are all varying incantations of Fuller himself, most notably the cigar-chomping narrator and crime novelist, Zab. The Sergeant, or more specifically Marvin, also had a strong connection to Fuller, as the actor likewise served in WWII.

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The film follows the rifle squad on their campaigns to North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, Belgium, and France. Along the way, scenarios play out against several terrific set pieces, with intermittent obstacles testing the men and their morale, ethics, and humanity. Being a Sam Fuller movie, there’s also considerable humor, usually on the dark side and occasionally crude; there’s shrewd banter; and there’s frequent economically inventive camera work. And as this is a story Fuller lived, we feel we’re in authoritative good hands as we ardently observe the mechanics of this unit working together.

Now, while the film has many merits, the new Blu-ray of the film should be met with some ire. As with the DVD version of the reconstructed release, the bonus features, carried over here, are great: a commentary with reconstruction producer Richard Schickel; his documentary, The Men Who Made the Movies: Sam Fuller; another documentary, The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One; The Fighting First: A War Department Film, which lends credence to Fuller’s historical accuracy; deleted and alternate scenes; and more. Plenty of valuable information and footage for the Fuller enthusiast. However, and it’s a big however, Warner Brothers’ high-definition transfer of the film is inexplicably for the truncated theatrical version only. The 162-minute reconstruction — the only version to see — is in standard definition. Essentially, notwithstanding those who would for some reason want to watch the theatrical cut of The Big Red One, there is nothing here that wasn’t already on the DVD.

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That said, one way or another, The Big Red One is a film that should be watched. “This is a fictional life based on factual death,” says a title before the film starts, and due in no small part to Fuller’s first-hand knowledge and experience, one of the key assets of this film is its sense of authenticity, even despite budgetary constraints. More than anything (rather than, say, an allegiance to graphic, realistic violence), this accuracy comes across in the inclusion of small yet significant details and intensely reflective themes. Details like putting condoms on rifle barrels to keep them dry, swapping cigarettes for ears, and flashing close-ups of a wristwatch on the arm of a dead man, showing the slow, relentless passing of time. And themes like struggling with the morality of killing someone in wartime, of war-weary disillusionment (even on the German side), and of what to do when coming face to face with a defenseless enemy who you know would kill you if he could.

There’s also the repeated notion of war’s arbitrary designations. The Sergeant is haunted by his actions in World War I, when he unknowingly killed a German hours after the armistice had been signed. In just a matter of minutes, a sworn enemy becomes simply another man. It’s as problematic as the differentiation between “murdering” someone and “killing” someone, a discrepancy that plagues the soldiers now in this war. And how does one handle the replacements who continually show up? It’s almost inevitable that they’re going to die (at least as far as this film is concerned). With so many coming and going, are they really worth getting to know? Then there are the children. Some are innocent enough, yes, but what of the ones trying to shoot you? How should they be treated? While The Big Red One avoids standard narrative conventions, insofar as a customary three-act beginning, middle, and end, its focus on these thematic concerns is exceptional.

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Each of the four young soldiers have traits that flesh out their personalities, fears, anxieties, and so on, but it’s the Sergeant who emerges as the most complex and thoughtfully written character. Marvin is excellent as a man, in Fuller’s words, “who represents death.” One minute, he can innocently don a helmet festooned with flowers, courtesy of a little girl; the next minute he can reach up and choke a German doctor, even as he’s lying wounded in bed. He’s also an expert military strategist. It’s he who makes the desperate decision that results in one of the film’s standout sequences. Stuck in the Kasserine Pass with German tanks approaching, the Sergeant instructs the men to dig in. And they literally do, actually digging narrow holes in the ground to hide in as tanks roll over their heads (Fuller’s company really did this).

Of course, The Big Red One also wouldn’t be a Sam Fuller movie without tough guy one-liners and words of snappy philosophical musing (as well as a character named Griff). Standing in front of a World War I memorial, Johnson marvels at how fast they put the dead men’s names up. It’s from the previous war, corrects the Sergeant. “But the names are the same,” states Johnson. “They always are,” says the Sergeant. During another scene, Zab sardonically remarks, “You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point.”

After this picture, just a few more films lay ahead for Sam Fuller (the extremely controversial White Dog in 1982 among them), but he mostly spent the rest of his life writing and receiving belated and much deserved recognition from international festivals and famous fans like Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese and others. His reputation and notoriety grew, and his films received a serious reevaluation and newfound appreciation. Now, Fuller stands as one of the most unique, daring, and accomplished of American filmmakers, and The Big Red One might just be his magnum opus.