Warner Brothers Musicals Collection

The Musicals Collection Blu-ray set from Warner Home Video contains four Hollywood classics of the genre, at least two of them among the greatest of all time: Kiss Me Kate, Calamity Jane, The Band Wagon, and Singin’ in the Rain. And all except for Singin’ in the Rain are making their Blu-ray debut. While the films may not rank equal in terms of quality—those latter two titles are the all-time greats—each of the transfers are outstanding, the movies themselves are still nevertheless enjoyable, and the set is a terrific bargain.

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Kiss Me, Kate is offered in 2-D and 3-D versions. Though the 3-D is certainly not the best to grace a Blu-ray, it’s still the version to watch, even with the clichéd, though occasionally amusing gimmick of characters throwing things at the camera. However, it’s the color cinematography by the legendary Charles Rosher—this, his penultimate picture—that really pops. We get a sense of just how vibrant the color is going to be during the early “Too Darn Hot” performance by Ann Miller, who, more than the leading lady Kathryn Grayson, is the most interesting actress and female protagonist of the film. Her pink dress explodes off the screen as she shimmies seductively around the room, and for the first time it’s made lavishly clear just how astounding this film is going to look. For much of the picture’s basic plot, the colors are relatively subdued, but when the focus turns to the dance numbers that later make up the performance within the film, the results are likewise dazzling.

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The storyline of Kiss Me, Kate runs along familiar backstage lines, with its show business setting, the drama in front of and behind the curtain, blending in some cases, and the anxiety caused by comical misunderstandings. Howard Keel is Fred, an actor who convinces his ex, Lilly (Grayson), to appear in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” written by Cole Porter, who appears as himself. Jealousy (this is when Miller’s Lois Lane comes in) and some confusion about an unpaid debt result in the relatively inauspicious narrative motivation. Once the play within the film begins, there are four musical numbers by the movie’s intermission, and these performances take up about 20 minutes of screen time, while the film’s off-stage story essentially stops dead. The halves of the film are subsequently uneven, with the first part providing the necessary setting of the scene only to give way to the theatrical performance, slowing down the plot until they begin to merge in the end.

To director George Sidney’s credit, he does a good deal to open up the restricted spaces through camera placement and set design, as well as some creative uses of the 3-D. Somewhat unique to 3-D films are repeated appearances of mirrors. On occasion, this creates an interesting composition (reminiscent of Sirk’s melodramas), but Sidney doesn’t utilize the reflections to manipulate the depth perception as much as he could have, with a flattening out of space via the mirror shown in depth by the 3-D.

Of only minor genre and technical interest, Kiss Me, Kate is still one of the more visually appealing films of this set, but compared to the other three films, it doesn’t stack up in any other regard.

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Aside from the singing cowboy films of yesteryear, musical Westerns are few and far between. For the most part, that’s probably a good thing, as the two genres don’t always mix well. One exception—arguably the greatest exception—is Calamity Jane, a pleasantly surprising film.

Doris Day in the title role is delightfully infectious from start to finish. She performs everything with great exuberance and humor, with lots of comic mugging, an impressive physicality—particularly during the extended take dance numbers—a rootin’ tootin’ rowdiness, and a surly adoption of rough and tumble Western slang. Calamity is well liked and apparently quite a skilled shot (though she does seem prone to embellishment; tall tales, of course, in the best Western tradition), but due to her tucked away hair and buckskin attire, she’s commonly mistaken for a man. With various statements suggested or noted explicitly concerning masculine and feminine Western tropes, Calamity Jane is an unexpectedly provocative look at sexual identity, certainly in ways other Westerns wouldn’t dream. There’s gender lopsidedness in the film’s Deadwood town—”Gentlemen and, uh, gentlemen,” says Henry Miller (Paul Harvey) as he announces performances—and as such, the film points to the same deficiency in the Western genre as a whole.

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When Francis (not Frances) shows up to entertain the citizenry, he is forced to perform in drag, as the men of the town expected a female entertainer. Calamity aims to help Henry, the beleaguered inn/theater owner, and so travels to Chicago to employ star Adelaid Adams. A fish out of water in the big city (where she assumes a wig shop is displaying scalps), Calamity instead brings back Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), under the assumption that Katie is Adams. Thus, we have another musical with its basic premise born from misunderstanding, and another musical with entertainment itself as a key part of its narrative (see also the remaining two films of this set).

Back in town, the truth is revealed, but all is forgiven when Katie turns out to be quiet the girl herself. Unforeseen contention, however, comes when Calamity, apparently having been the only white woman in town, suddenly has some competition when it comes to male companionship. Though she had never expressed much romantic interest in a man, her gradually more ladylike transformation at the hands of Katie gets her emotions reeling and her (perhaps now outdated) feminine instincts kick in, or at least do so on occasion. But the transformation is a false one, and so is doomed to fail. Authenticity of character is crucial to Calamity Jane, just as it is in most Westerns. But in a male-dominated genre like the Western, this musical variation with such a prominent and endearing female focus is certainly something unique.

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The versatile and vastly underrated Vincente Minnelli directs the third film in the set, The Band Wagon. Shot in gorgeous Technicolor and produced by the famed Arthur Freed unit at MGM, the film follows fading—no, faded—movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) as he makes the shaky transition from screen to stage. Joining him are the husband and wife writing team of Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), who are first seen as Hunter’s two-person fan club, famed ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), and producer/director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). The alliance isn’t always a sturdy one, but once everyone gets on the same track, it exemplifies the “no business like show business” adage. Like Kiss Me, Kate and so many other musicals, The Band Wagon is set primarily behind the scenes of a theatrical production as it goes from initial inspiration to opening night, with all the creative differences along the way—so many, in this case, it’s a wonder the show comes off at all. But even in this tried and tested set-up, Minnelli and company create something special.

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Primary reasons for the film’s excellence are the extraordinary dance numbers and the music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Form the early “Penny Arcade” sequence, with Astaire’s ode to a shoeshine, to the grand finale, the genre-bending noir-tinged “Girl Hunt,” the film’s most iconic number and its most brilliantly designed, all involved do flawless work. The only exception is the “Triplets” number, which is truly bizarre. Astaire and Charisse make a dynamic duo, even if at first seeming to be personally and physically mismatched (IMDB claims they were actually the exact same height and weight). Astaire in particular displays a stunning range of movement in his straightforward dancing, his casual shuffles, and his mannerisms—in everything he does really.

The second key feature of The Band Wagon is its recurring thematic discrepancy between light, box office fun and serious, classic productions. When the film begins, Cordova’s current work is the gloomy and somber “Oedipus Rex.” Hunter wonders if he is really the right man for the job when it comes to a musical. Indeed, as it turns out, Cordova does envision a modern day “Faust,” not what anyone else had in mind, and, as we see, not what audiences want. Things get turned around and all is well, but the theme pervades. The “That’s Entertainment” sequence, which Cordova actually instigates, gets to the heart of the film and its artistic conflict. The artificial barrier between high and low art, typically designated by critics and subsequently influencing product accessibility and audience perception, more often than not hinders both categorizations. As The Band Wagon shows, there may be differences in subject matter and tone, but entertainment is entertainment, be it ballet and Sophocles or tap dance and a gangster movie. Just put on a good show.

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Finally, there is Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best musical ever made (it certainly is for my money). Stanley Donen and star Gene Kelly direct this American movie essential about the transition from silent pictures to the talkie. With Kelly’s Don Lockwood are musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and chorus girl/wannabe actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), as well as Lockwood’s perpetual co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who, like so many real silent stars, struggles to make the transition into talking pictures.

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The music of Singin’ in the Rain is famously fantastic and the dance numbers are inventive and enjoyable. The performances are amusing (Selden is particularly funny) and the look of the film is dazzling (thanks largely to the cinematography of five-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Harold Rosson). But why the film holds up best has to do with the fact that it’s a great movie about movies. As is evidenced by just the three other films in this set, so many great musicals have Broadway or similarly theatrical scenarios as their backdrop. Rare is the movie musical about a movie musical. Behind the scenes musicals about what it takes to put on a stage performance can obviously be entertaining and even enlightening, but they can also do a discredit to what it takes to make such a film itself. Singin’ in the Rain not only takes that as its primary concern, but does so in a time period setting just at the dawn of the musical genre. Subsequently, it’s a fascinating movie that bears historical significance beyond its own standing as one of Hollywood’s finest achievements.


‘The Lady from Shanghai’

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The Lady from Shanghai (1947) didn’t come easily for Orson Welles. No film ever really did after his breakthrough, the great Citizen Kane (1941), the movie that put him on the map and in the crosshairs of the Hollywood establishment. They wanted little to do with this iconoclastic hotshot from New York, and for the rest of his days, Welles struggled to achieve an autonomous artistic vision. That so many astonishing films came out of this struggle, like The Lady from Shanghai, surely says something about his cinematic gift, an inherent talent that could not be restrained or denied.

It took considerable wheeling and dealing for Welles to convince Harry Cohn to back the film. Welles had three features on his directorial résumé, and though Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) were not financially successful, his third film, The Stranger (1946), was. “You’re only as good as your last movie,” as the Hollywood adage proclaims, so it was on that basis that Colombia’s notoriously ruthless studio head even entertained the director. Welles needed money to financially stabilize his stage musical of “Around the World in 80 Days,” so Cohn provided the cash, purchased the rights to Sherwood King’s “If I Die Before I Wake,” the source novel, and assigned Welles to write, direct, and star in the film. Part of the picture’s potential commercial viability came from the its leading lady (and Welles’ real-life romantic interest), Rita Hayworth, who was fresh off her extraordinary turn in Gilda (1946). Much to Cohn’s chagrin, however, Welles the perpetual rebel had the famous redhead died platinum blonde.

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In any event, The Lady from Shanghai was made. And it was a box office disaster.

Today though, it’s a classic.

With evocative chiaroscuro photography credited to Charles Lawton Jr. (he was one of three cinematographers who actually worked on the film), The Lady from Shanghai has all the trappings of a quintessential noir. There’s the first person narration told in flashback—”Some people can smell danger. Not me.” There’s the scheming femme fatale. There’s a chance encounter, a chance relationship, and chance murder. There are shadowy figures and shadowy settings (though it’s at times also one of sunniest noirs), and there’s an omnipresent mystery about everyone, their never fully professed intentions and motivations leading to lurking danger at every turn.

It’s clear right away that someone in the film is working an angle … or they all are. “Here’s to crime,” toasts George Grisby (Glenn Anders), a little too merrily. Soon he reveals the reason for his joy: he has an ingenious moneymaking scheme. He wants Michael O’Hara (Welles) to say that he killed him. Grisby will then be able to disappear and leave his supposed stolid life behind, and without there being a body, O’Hara won’t be convicted. The only thing is though, is he telling the truth? Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and her husband (and Grisby’s law partner), Arthur (Everett Sloane), have their own goals, none of which seem to jibe with one another. Who is really supposed to die, and who stands to benefit the most? Maybe it’s all a little convoluted at times, and it certainly bewilders O’Hara, but it holds up sure enough to make for a fascinating thriller.

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For his part, O’Hara says he once killed a man, so we assume he’s been around the block a time or two. He is witty, worldly, and occasionally wiser than he should be. This makes him confrontational and breeds an unintentional animosity. Presumably then, he would know when he is being had. But that still doesn’t stop him from getting in over his head, and all for a dame.

Welles’ visual inventiveness is one of—if not the primary—hallmarks of his work. The Lady from Shanghai is no exception. Staging a scene in a darkened aquarium, Welles plays beautifully with light bouncing and rippling off glass-enclosed water. And at the end of the film, in its climactic and most famous sequence, Welles dazzles with a montage of camera angles, movement, and other deliriously creative techniques as a final shoot-out is set in an amusement park crazy house, with mirrors upon mirrors reflecting and deceiving the characters. With Welles at his best, even just run-of-the-mill exchanges between two stationary individuals are shown from unusual angles with carefully orchestrated lighting designs.

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Welles was a fine actor, too, and though his Irish accent here isn’t entirely convincing, his performance is respectable. More than anything, he simply has a singular presence, in voice and body, one that in many cases compensated for what might have been lacking in any given role. Hayworth, undoubtedly a beauty, is comparably underutilized. She serves her character’s potentially devious purpose well, but does little else to stand out in terms of narrative impact. The rest of the primary players—Anders and Sloane in particular—are fiendishly quirky and sleazy. Anders is an unceasingly irritating antagonist, and Sloane, hobbling along as the crippled Bannister, gets his finest moment during a court proceeding full of theatrics, jokes, and shocks, leading to a revelatory conclusion.

Yes, The Lady from Shanghai is now a classic. But like so many Welles films, that current evaluation doesn’t save it from the studio tampering of its time: Columbia executives cut the picture from 155 minutes to its current 87 and ignored nearly all of Welles’ editorial suggestions. Still amazing though, like The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello (1952), or Touch of Evil (1958), is how much brilliance manages to shine through, despite artistic interference, budgetary constraints, or the comparably immaterial box office failure. There is, and was, no question about the genius of Orson Welles.


‘The Soft Skin’

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Riding high on the critical reputation of the French New Wave (if not its consistent box office success), and with The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962) behind him, François Truffaut’s fourth feature is something rather different. There is still the same cinematic playfulness, a combination of genuine skill, pervasive influence, and a rampant passion for the medium itself, but with The Soft Skin (1964), Truffaut slows things down somewhat, takes a breath, matures. That’s not to say there weren’t adult themes in his earlier films (most certainly there were in Jules and Jim), but here, the entire tone of the film feels more aged, more serious, as if Truffaut was for the first time making a film explicitly for grown-ups, not just featuring them.

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, The Soft Skin is nevertheless seen as one of François Truffaut’s least recognized works. And truth be told, it doesn’t hold up as well as some of his more famous features. But there’s still a lot working in its favor, from Truffaut’s own energized direction, which rarely falters, to the contributions of his key collaborators. This is one of Georges Delerue’s most diverse scores, perfectly expressing the anxiety and the doomed romanticism of the characters. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard is top notch, as usual. And frequent Truffaut editor Claudine Bouché keeps a solid pace.

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The picture begins with the same sort of frenetic pacing that kicked off Jules and Jim, as Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) rushes to catch a plane. It’s a chaotic opening, with only bits of character exposition obtained sporadically here and there. We gather that Lachenay—married, with a daughter—is an academic of some renown, and he’s traveling to Lisbon to lecture on Balzac. He holds a position of popularity and prominence, with all the perks and confidence boosters that such a standing entails: autograph seekers, planes waiting for him, lecture halls filled to capacity, dinners in his honor, and so on. Aside from his initially running late, everything about his life and occupation seems otherwise conventional and complacent. Desailly was seen as an unlikely choice for the lead role, presumably because of his ordinariness. But that same sort of unassuming everyman quality is part of what makes The Soft Skin work so well. Despite his plaudits and his status in the academic community, Lachenay is a basically average fellow.

Into this bourgeois contentment enters Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), a flight attendant Lachenay first encounters on his flight to Portugal. He is enamored by her, and she, though perhaps not as abruptly, by him. His advances are at first rejected, but she apologizes and they later meet. She appears interested in his work, or at least she fakes it well, and they—that is, he—end up talking through the night. Lachenay and Nicole jump head first into the affair, with no consideration of the consequences, the difficulties, or the sort of tragedies that almost instantly develop. There’s still the possibility that nothing further will become of their tryst, but when Lachenay arrives back in Paris and sees her number on the pack of matches she had given him, there is little hesitation.

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Tension inevitably mounts. In time, the illicit affair proves to be increasingly difficult to maintain. They take great pains to avoid suspicion, for there is a good deal of effort in keeping their movements secretive. For Lachenay in particular, his double life leads to constraints that build on an increasing strain, especially as he deals with the stress of juggling personal and professional commitments. The best example of this is during an extended sequence when he has to introduce a film in Reims and brings Nicole along. As their romantic getaway is thwarted by a series of interruptions, jealously develops on both sides. Eventually, both struggle with physical and psychological agony. What sensuality there is, or was, is gradually offset by this unease. As Lachenay and Nicole stop for gas at one point, Truffaut masterfully composes a brief sequence of spinning numbers on the gas pump, close-ups of the nozzle and the tank, swift glances of vehicles passing by, all quickly cut together, all coalescing into a perfectly accelerated representation of paranoid tension, even if that which is shown is completely harmless.

Though she was largely absent for the mid-section of the film, once Lachenay’s wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), becomes aware of her husband’s deceit, she too is quick to act, insists on a separation, and is set to hire a divorce lawyer. But she hesitates: for fear, for the sake of their daughter, for, finally, a love that remains. Meanwhile, Nicole starts to cool off. Though she was, of course, entirely complicit, she even admits Lachenay made a mess of things, rushing as he (or they) did with such heedless abandon. When she and Lachenay quibble about their future, about marriage, about moving in together, Truffaut reminds us of Mrs. Lachenay’s anguish. Their issues seem trivial by comparison. It’s clear this isn’t going to end well.

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In one of the bonus features included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Soft Skin, Kent Jones speaks to Truffaut’s Hitchcock influence, and influence in general, drawing connections between each director’s depiction of the “suspense of ordinary situations” (catching the plane) and the “tautness” of certain scenes (like at the gas station). There’s also the desire expressed through a fetishistic gaze, as in The Soft Skin’s opening close ups of intertwined hands, or Nicole’s feet seen under the flight attendant curtain as she slips on a new pair of shoes, or Lachenay’s slow, full body caress of Nicole as she sleeps. There is certainly more than a little of the master’s impact in this film.

Also on the disc, Truffaut briefly discusses the origins of The Soft Skin and talks through a few specific scenes, but his most revealing comments are his own evaluation of the picture. He dubs it an “autopsy of adultery” and quite rightly points to its clinical, dry nature, and just how unromantic it all is. He posits these traits almost as faults or shortcomings, but in many ways, they are what distinguish the film as something markedly different from most illicit romance films, and certainly as something different from many New Wave features of the time.

In watching the film, this “autopsy of adultery,” one has to wonder why Lachenay would instigate such a devastating exploit. It could be as simple as the physical attraction between he and Nicole. But it could also be ego—he thinks he deserves whatever he wants, that the conventional rules of marital commitment don’t apply. He appears to have a decent home life; the film gets to the affair rather quickly, so we don’t see much of it, but it’s a safe assumption that his domestic situation is better than average.

The key thing here is that Truffaut isn’t so much interested in causes though, nor with the psychology of the affair itself (he certainly is, however, tuned in to the psychology of its effects). The greyness of the film, something of a standard for many New Wave features, is weather related to be sure, with autumnal or wintry settings, but it also captures the hazy morality of the characters and the nonjudgmental presentation by Truffaut. While Hitchcock is the recurring reference point when it comes to The Soft Skin, mostly because its production was around the time Truffaut set about his book-length interview with the legendary figure, with regards to this lack of explanation—with the lack of a need for it—Truffaut is also channeling another cinematic great: Jean Renoir. In this, one can apply to The Soft Skin the most famous line from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”


‘Kiss Me, Stupid’

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How good was Billy Wilder? So good that this film, Kiss Me, Stupid—largely entertaining, frequently witty, beautifully shot, and with at least two noteworthy performances—probably wouldn’t figure in most lists of his top 10 movies. Yet it is a good Billy Wilder film, if not a great one.

Starting in Las Vegas, we are introduced to Dino, a womanizer, a drunk, an accomplished singer, and a clever jokester. Dean Martin, in a bit of curiously inspired and rather daring casting, plays the rapscallion; not surprisingly, he does so very well. On his way to Los Angeles, he stops in Climax, Nevada (with all the sexual innuendo built into this film, the town’s name almost seems the least obvious). There he encounters Orville (Ray Walston), a nebbish piano teacher and amateur songwriter who is irrationally jealous of his wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), whom he assumes everyone, from the milkman to the dentist, is trying to flirt with. Orville’s musical collaborator is Barney (Cliff Osmond), a gas station attendant. With the arrival of Dino seen as their big break, Orville and Barney arrange to have him stuck in their one-horse town just long enough to convince him of their own musical talents. But when Dino’s philandering ways put him at odds with Orville’s marital paranoia, especially when it’s revealed that Zelda harbors a crush on the singer and was even the president of his fan club, Orville schemes to get her out of the house while keeping Dino in. As part of this process, he and Barney enlist the help of waitress-cum-prostitute Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pretend to be Orville’s wife, thus providing the requisite female companionship for Dino without actually subjecting Zelda to Dino’s amorous advances. None of this, of course, goes quite as planned, and as this summary probably indicates, the events that transpire are somewhat ridiculous and erratic. By and large though, it’s great fun to watch.

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Martin is the main attraction here, as is obvious by his self-conscious characterization alone, but while his trademark cool and his casual quips may be some of the best parts of Kiss Me, Stupid, the continual scenes of his relentlessly aggressive one-track-mind are some of the worst. I love Dean Martin—his songs and his movies—but I surely hope this degree of sleazily obsessive sexual avariciousness is at least mostly a creative liberty. Nevertheless, he and Novak are the acting highlights. Novak plays Polly as a tragically heartbreaking character, with a low self-esteem but an endearingly charming resilience. She assumes the life she lives is as good as it gets, only because she doesn’t know any better, and though she has to deal with Dino incessantly pawing at her throughout the evening, she takes a liking to the feigned domesticity she embodies in Zelda’s absence. Farr is generally appealing—pretty, playful, and the object of considerable sympathy as Orville cruelly abuses her in order to drive her out of the house—and Osmond, a Wilder regular, essentially just serves his co-conspirator/sidekick role only to the degree absolutely necessary.

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Written with his brilliant collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder’s script for Kiss Me, Stupid functions on three levels, two of them successfully. What works is primarily the dialogue. As evidenced in their past four consecutive films together—Irma la Douce (1963), One, Two, Three (1961), The Apartment (1960), and Some Like It Hot (1959)—Diamond and Wilder had a way with words. One-liners, snappy banter, and double entendres were par for the course, and here they’re top notch. This then leads to the second positive element of the film’s script: the audaciousness. By 1964 standards, this is a rather suggestive liberal-minded film (little surprise it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency). Novak the clear sex symbol of the picture dresses at times in very little, and even Farr, playing the dutifully modest housewife, albeit the most beautiful one in Climax, appears in her bra. The sexuality of the film—repressed or on full display—never really ceases, and by the end, morals are tried and tested and some surprisingly waver. There may be lessons learned by the conclusion, but there’s no real remorse or censure. Just as One, Two, Three took on the contemporary politics of the time, Kiss Me, Stupid is a bold exploration of the changing sexual mores of the 1960s.

Where the film’s screenplay falters, however, is in its basic premise. At slightly over two hours, the novelty of Martin knowingly having some fun with his recklessly informal persona grows a little tired. The on-again, off-again theme career advancement for Orville and Barney is a shaky one; for a fair amount of time, that motivating factor goes by the wayside altogether, with the focus instead on the sexual comedy of manners. When Polly questions how Orville could let Dino go after his (fake) wife like he does, right in front of him, we’re kind of wondering the same thing. And doesn’t Dino, even as much of a horndog as he is, find it unusual that this woman’s husband would just sit idly by through all of his advances? Finally, while it seems odd that the role of Zelda rather than Polly was apparently written for Marilyn Monroe, in many of Novak’s scenes with Walston, the two seem to be clearly playing on the Monroe-Tom Ewell relationship from Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). It’s occasionally funny, but it’s a little too familiar.

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Music and the movies play a large part in Kiss Me, Stupid’s appeal. André Previn, who had by this point amassed five Academy Award nominations and three wins for his musical work (including on Irma la Douce), provided the film’s score. The original songs were by none other than the Ira and the late George Gershwin. Movie references come from several prior films, most notably a nod to the famous grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy (1931). Then there are the constant references to Martin’s Rat Pack cronies. Kiss Me, Stupid ultimately exists in a strange sort of metafilmic world where real life is merging with on-screen personas and preceding cinematic models.

Kiss Me, Stupid is an enjoyable movie, a crude farce with several laughs and worthwhile performances. If it doesn’t live up to some of Billy Wilder’s finer films, it’s his own fault. Few directors have set their own bar so incredibly high.


'Il Sorpasso'

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Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) zips along deserted Roman streets in his Lancia Aurelia B24. In search of a telephone, he is a high-speed automotive speck dwarfed by towering housing complexes and businesses. Bruno maintains this frenetic pace whether he’s on foot, in his car, or speaking. He talks fast and barks orders, assuming everyone else is on his own wavelength. He’s a tornado personified, seeming to barge in wherever he goes, making noise, making a scene, making an entrance. According to his estranged wife, for Bruno, the “first impression says it all.” He is also self-obsessed and self-assured, with an apparent disregard for others and with no social filter: “Who’s this fatty?” he asks Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whom he just met, picking up a photograph from the stranger’s desk. It’s Roberto’s mother. Bruno’s behavior is marked by reckless irresponsibility, a freewheeling egotism and arrogance that borders on outright charm. “He is, to be blunt, a jerk,” writes Phillip Lopate, “but a strangely sympathetic one.” He likes fast cars and flirting with girls, and his rambling pontifications cover any and every topic that pops into his head. Frankly, he’s a little exhausting.

But the character of Bruno also embodies the dynamism that runs through the entirety of Dino Risi 1962 comedy, Il sorpasso. This was Risi’s 15th feature, after nearly a decade’s worth of documentaries and short films, and it probably remains his most famous and widely acclaimed. Like Alberto Lattuada and Pietro Germi, Risi had his roots in Neorealism, and like these other directors, he was doing what he could to break away from that tradition. Ravaged by war and burdened by 20 years of prior Fascist reign, Italians in the early 1960s were ready to laugh. Neorealism had its place and its undeniable influence, but this “Neorealismo Rosa” expressed its own social commentary with some of the devastation scaled back. A burgeoning modernity was nailing tight the coffin of Neorealist austerity, in the form of pop music, recreational activities, wealth, casual even caustic language, and in the broad sense of a loosened morality. This to say nothing of a physical Italy shown a million miles from the remnants of World War II.

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Il sorpasso’s co-writer Ettore Scola refers to Risi’s “light touch,” his ability to coolly turn the critical camera on Italy itself, without any condemnation or contempt; in the finest Commedia all’italiana tradition, Risi points to the foibles and follies of his fellow countrymen, but does so with a pleasant, good humor. Looking at the film years later, Trintignant identifies Il sorpasso as something of an historical film, in that it captures the economic and social state of the nation during a booming era potentially spoiled by a newfound fascination for all things modern and materialistic. As Scola cautions, alluding to the film’s finale, “There’s no boom without a crash.”

Here’s where a more literal translation of the film’s title comes in—”overtaking.” That is, passing, full speed ahead, heedless. And this comes back to Bruno and his bombast. Of course, his bravado is most striking in contrast to others, particularly in contrast to the meek, awkward, and arguably studious to a fault Roberto. In the time spent with this extrovert among extroverts, Roberto’s façade of strained seriousness begins to crack, and his reluctant impatience begins to waver as he comes out of his shell. Roberto isn’t the only one to succumb to Bruno’s ways though; his brash exuberance brings out the same in anyone willing to be complicit in his zest for life. He apparently has a respectable job of some sort, and he can certainly turn on the charm when necessary, yet he comments on others, most notably country folk, with a mocking derision—they dance the “clodhopper twist,” he says. But even then, when he’s at his most acerbic, one does not sense any genuine malice. A surprising moment comes when it’s incidentally revealed, almost as an unexceptional after thought, that Bruno has a wife and teenage daughter. With the introduction of these two also come sudden moral standard—he chides his daughter for dating a much older man and for her smoking.

Make no mistake though, Bruno is hazardous, particularly behind the wheel. It’s mainly played for laughs, as he overtakes other drivers at breakneck speed and drives the wrong way down a one-way street, all while blaring his irritating horn. But the full extent to his vehicular negligence results in the film’s controversial conclusion. Without revealing any spoilers, Il sorpasso’s dénouement is indeed a startling one, which producer Mario Cecchi Gori, for one, was completely against. “It’s a bit cruel,” acknowledged Risi, “but that’s how life is.”

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In many ways, it also leaves the audience to rethink the film and everything that came before it, not in the sense of a mystery with its last-minute reveal, but in the way it causes one to flash back to what had transpired over the course of the previous 100 minutes or so. Where had Bruno and Roberto arrived psychologically by this point? Were their respective moments of enlightenment and enjoyment worthwhile? Are they, in these final moments, satisfied with life? The ending is undeniably the film’s most unsettling sequence, due to its abrupt change in tone and the shockingly tragic halt in the picture’s general merriment. Its significance remains up for debate. Lopate, in his essay, “Il sorpasso: The Joys of Disillusionment,” says in light of the conclusion, “it would be wrong to interpret the film as a morality tale,” yet in his article, “Il sorpasso: Italy, Dark and Light,” Antonio Monda argues that by the end of the film, “Il sorpasso reveals itself to be a harsh, uncomfortable moral fable.” Similarly, Rémi Fournier Lanzoni speaks of Il sorpasso’s dual indictment: On the one hand, ridiculing to a degree the pre-planning, stagnant, conformist tradition of Roberto; on the other, clearly deriding the frivolous and avaricious life of the more modern individuals.

As a road trip film, an exemplary modern cinematic model in itself, Il sorpasso is a breezy, scenic tour of the Italian countryside on the Assumption holiday, shot in gorgeous detail by Alfio Contini. In this by now familiar form, the trope of self-discovery is expected, as is its episodic structure (episodic here, yes, but exceptionally aimless—a largely improvisational adventure). In a brilliantly subtle tonal shift, Bruno even starts to question himself to a certain extent. He, like Roberto, is at something of an existential crossroads. Both men maintain a still lingering youth that hasn’t quite caught up with adulthood, and their respective solitude has them each reflecting on an acute identity crisis. As night falls, Risi takes an understated and precarious breath from the overkill as Roberto and Bruno discuss these issues, each acknowledging their own shortcomings (Bruno considers himself a “stray dog”). But this sober introspection is short lived, and though Gassman in particular does an extraordinary job of changing the tenor of the film, which is remarkable given just how high-pitched he is otherwise, we know such a deviation is fleeting.

Aside from these scenes of explicit contemplation, Risi remains generally unobtrusive. His camera placement is optimal for the action—well composed but rarely self-conscious—and the imagery is frequently quite picturesque as he chronicles this impromptu Italian travelogue. When set on the performers, especially Gassman, he films frontally, with an almost deadpan camera placement: Here’s what’s happening. Look at it. Can you believe this guy? Let’s just let it play out. Still though, Risi imbues in the film a strong Italian personality, with an authentic cinematic taste of the region. Moreover, he likewise packs the picture with strong Italian personalities, single shots occupied by all sorts of people, some highlighted for occasionally imprecise reasons, some simply on the periphery of the primary drama—all, in any case, integral to the atmospheric totality of the film.

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Not an outright metafilm in the sense of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Il sorpasso does, nevertheless, have its finger on the pulse of Italian filmmaking circa 1962, particularly as it was representative of Italian culture at the time. The English title of the film, “The Easy Life,” at once suggests the fancy-free nature of the picture and no doubt attempted to capitalize on Fellini’s “Sweet Life.” Risi and similar filmmakers were broaching a type of Italian cinema that also deviated from the films of Fellini, as well as Visconti, Antonioni, and Pasolini, among others. Monda alludes to the work of these directors as points of comparison (and as points of more prominent standing). Certainly, Il sorpasso is of a different mold than these “highbrow,” intellectual examples of overt cinematic artiness. Risi’s most obvious filmic commentary comes when Bruno voices his ambivalence toward Michelangelo Antonioni, whom he still considers a great director. He talks with Roberto about “loneliness, inability to communicate, and that stuff that’s all the rage now—alienation, like in Antonioni’s films.” On L’eclisse: “I fell asleep. Had a nice snooze.” Ironically, of course, all these traits are to a degree present throughout Il sorpasso. But Bruno would probably like this film. With its tempo, its humor, and its comical slice of leisurely life, there is no room for such perceived cinematic fatigue.


‘Fellini Satyricon’

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It’s somewhat surprising that in 1971, Federico Fellini was nominated for a best director Academy Award for Fellini Satyricon. To say the least, it’s a very un-Oscar type of film, especially by today’s standards. But it is a film, an exceptional one, that truly from start to finish conveys the creative imagination of its directorial guiding force. So perhaps in that regard, the nomination makes sense. This very rationale is also the reason why Fellini remains one of the greatest of all film directors, and why Fellini Satyricon, though not at all his best work, nevertheless remains so fascinating and precious. As its title suggests, the movie explicitly expresses the personal vision of its director—more than his name above the title, Fellini’s name was the title. (It also had to do with some legal wrangling concerning the rights to the title). See also the movie’s tagline: “Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini.” How many recent films have had this type of promotion or identification solely on the basis of its director? There is a lot that happens in Fellini Satyricon, and multiple collaborators made it possible, but in the end, Fellini is the star of the show here. And what a show it is.

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“Freely adapted” from portions of Petronius’s Roman novel of the first century AD, Fellini Satyricon is an episodic chronicle that has as its primary narrative thrust the ill-fated romance between Encolpius (Martin Potter) and the young Gitone (Max Born). Into this drama enters Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), who also has affection for the boy. Over the course of more than two hours, Fellini essentially follows the three on their various paths, while making more than a few digressions along the way, none of which attain this basic plot’s albeit minor emotional resonance. The other individuals who appear are essentially “types” more than fully-formed characters, their generic, basically illustrative purpose evident in their broad uncredited roles: Transvestite, Black Slave, Fat Woman, Brothel Girl, Participant in Orgy Sequence, Nymphomaniac.

I can’t pretend to suggest that everything that occurs throughout Fellini Satyricon actually makes sense. In an interview on the new Criterion Blu-ray, classicist Joanna Paul remarks on the intentionally complex fragmentation of the film and its source. But more often than not, and even if it doesn’t all add up, it still looks wonderful.

Arguably the most remarkable aspects of the film are the costumes and especially the sets, both by renowned designer Danilo Donati. These glorious constructions are astonishing in their intricate, picturesque design. Monuments and statues pop with expressive adornment of every conceivable color. The claustrophobic darkness that shrouds labyrinthine underground corridors gives way to stunning exteriors, both natural and fabricated. The geographic layout of these sets may belie any logical sense of space, but it’s an arrangement that emerges all the more pronounced and impressive when you see just how people actually do inhabit the locales, with heads and bodies peeking in and out of portal-like frames.


In classic Fellini style, there is recurrent singular imagery, that is, carefully and clearly arranged images of prominent aesthetic value; a shot that may not have narrative necessity or significance, but is nevertheless still striking. One sees this in any number of forms, from some of the aforementioned structures that look amazing simply because they are so extravagant (giant stone heads, towering facades, ornate  murals), to quick, random inserts of particular people and their flamboyant makeup and attire. In Fellini Satyricon, we see as clearly as in any other Fellini film the director’s cartoonist background still informing his visual sensibilities. The landscapes and sets, some genuine, some clearly created via matte processes, and, even more than that, the cast of characters, are all colorful (in every sense of the word) and they radiate with exaggerated animation. Many of the people—disfigured, grotesque, strange, captivating, beautiful—have a physical presence that can only be described as “Felliniesque.”

There is, especially at the start of the film, but resurfacing throughout, crude and occasionally gallows humor, complete with fart jokes and all sorts of randy behavior. The decadence depicted includes unbridled sexuality and gluttonous ingestion, with unabashed exuberance in both cases. Everything is flesh and fornication and voracious desire. In speaking about the film, Fellini proposes that he sees true morality in vitality. If this is the case, Fellini Satyricon is a notably moral film, as rarely does any character do anything without great gusto. Along these lines, and not at all uncommon with Fellini’s carnivalesque sense spectacle, there is an emphasis on showmanship, on theatricality and storytelling; stories within stories and performances that lead to extraneous plot lines while simultaneously illuminating the narrative proper.

The dialogue, while often admittedly opaque in terms of substance and meaning, does on occasion allude to more profound issues regarding the power and class struggles of the period, as well as a general recognition of the times these individual live in, for better or worse. Art and economy are at odds, slavery (sexual and otherwise) is rampant, and looming destruction (an earthquake) causes concern. It’s also a world of superstition, cruelty, and violence, a world that seems so foreign and otherworldly—thanks in large part to Fellini’s envisioning of it—that the film is frequently spoken of in terms of a science fiction picture.

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Federico Fellini was never one to hide the artificiality of his films; indeed, at times he seemed to revel in it. And this is certainly the case here. Just how synthetic Fellini Satyricon is can be seen in Ciao, Federico!, probably the highlight bonus feature of the Blu-ray. This hour-long documentary shows with candid insight what went on behind the scenes, how the settings were actually assembled, and how Fellini himself directed: barking instructions, physically dynamic, humorous, and very hands-on. (You even see Roman Polanski drop in on set for a visit.) Where other elements of the movie may falter, the scope of the film’s pure creation never does. According to director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, Fellini Satyricon was one of two films Fellini regarded as “fully realized” (the other being Casanova, 1976). Even Rotunno admits he’s not quite sure what the director was saying with this comment, but in rewatching Fellini Satyricon, and with the benefit of the new 4K digital restoration, one can reasonably surmise that Fellini was alluding to how intricately and elaborately crafted each and every element of the film was, and how fully it came to express his own distinctive vision, a vision unlike any other.


Silent Discoveries – ‘After Six Days’ & ‘Yesterday and Today’

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From VCI Entertainment comes the odd and only moderately interesting Silent Discoveries double feature, containing After Six Days, a 62-minute 1920 Biblical epic, and Yesterday and Today, a nearly hour-long 1953 documentary. As noted by VCI, the former was “Touted at the time as a ‘$3,000,000 Entertainment for the Hundred Millions,'” and this edition was made from the only complete copy known to exist, a mint 16mm print of the 1929 7-reel sound reissue. The second title here features actor, comedian, and famous vaudevillian George Jessel as he hosts a random assortment of clips from early silent film releases, most of which were, and are, rarely otherwise seen. Neither portion is particularly good, or even consistently entertaining, but both—and this is the reason the DVD is worthwhile—are unique and scarce, and are therefore significant entries into the growing library of archived films made available for mass consumption.

To start with After Six Days, this film is a precursor to the DeMille epics soon to follow and harkens back to the classics of silent Italian cinema like Quo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914). Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite have the visual scope to match its narrative ambitions. The Old Testament chronicle covers everything from “Adam and Eve to the days of Solomon,” and it does so briskly, arriving at Sodom and Gomorrah by the 10-minute mark. Directed and produced by Pier Antonio Gariazzo (11 directorial credits, this one his second to last) and Armando Vey (this his sole credit), After Six Days is a generally slipshod Italian feature.

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Whatever its budget may have been, much of it appears cheaply made. There are a few decent special effect shots—a giant sword-wielding God in the Adam and Eve sequence—and the depiction of the tower of Babel construction is a decently staged grandiose piece of filmmaking. But at other times, we see action carelessly repeated, still frames haphazardly inserted (which may or may not be the result of the film’s poor state of preservation), and certain sequences are downright paltry: the poorly executed parting of the Red Sea, for example. With English narration by Donald Douglas, After Six Days is an episodic Biblical greatest hits, showcasing many of the visual conventions we now associate with such films: the ornate sets, the clichéd costumes, the death and destruction of classic Old Testament yarns, and the now comic suggestion of what an orgy consists of.

Yesterday and Today, produced and directed by Abner J. Greshler and written by Jessel, is, as film historian Richard M. Roberts describes in his commentary track, a “compilation of compilations,” as much of the material was obtained from two separate British collections. Those British collections, as Roberts also humorously notes, managed to misidentify nearly every film shown: incorrect titles, actors, years of production, countries of origin, etc. Brought together for this 1953 assemblage, it seems no effort was made to rectify the errors even then, so they still stand. And that’s where Roberts comes in.

Clips are from such obscure shorts as Sneezing Powder, The Living Head, The Professor’s Mistake, Little Jimmy’s Nightmare, and Asleep at the Switch. No, scratch that. Thanks to the research of Roberts and his fellow historians, we find out those films are actually That Fatal Sneeze, The Mysterious Black Board/Knight, Liquid Electricity, Le Petit Jules Verne, and The President’s Special, respectively. If nothing else, these inaccuracies, the corrections, and even the times when Roberts himself is stumped, are testament to the fluid uncertainty of early film history, and the nearly limitless potential for the (re)discovery of cinematic treasures.

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In hosting the program, Jessel, who we find out apparently turned down the lead in the screen version of The Jazz Singer, which he played on Broadway, tries his best to be amusing, but much of that humor was lost, at least on me. For some strange reason, he frequently looks away from the camera when reading his cue cards (in sequences shot, surprisingly, by the great Stanley Cortez), and though he seems to genuinely believe that what he is recounting is “the story of the world’s greatest entertainment,” his narration falls flat. His quips range from jabs at Russia (this was 1953 after all), to off-color comments about the women shown in these turn of the century movies, to remarks about contemporaries Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope. Clips cover chapters of film history such as Edison and Méliès and Linder and Chaplin, and include newsreels highlighting fashion of the period and international dignitaries; there are also slapstick comedies, chase films, trick films, and a few early fantasy works.

Like most of the titles released by VCI, Silent Discoveries is a valuable asset in terms of film history, if not necessarily in quality film entertainment. But movies like these are important, and one hopes VCI and similar companies continue to make a name for themselves in this realm of uncommon motion pictures made readily accessible. Good or bad, these films at least need to be saved and, when possible, seen.


‘A Day in the Country’

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Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country comes at a curious point in the director’s career. In 1936, he had several exceptional silent films to his credit, as well as such classics of early French sound cinema as La Chienne (1931), Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), among others. But he had still not yet achieved his singular place on world cinema’s pre-war stage. That he would do just a year later, with La Grande Illusion (1937). As noted on the new Criterion Blu-ray, A Day in the Country was “conceived as a short feature…[and] nearly finished production in 1936 when Renoir was called away for The Lower Depths. Shooting was abandoned then, but the film was completed with the existing footage by Renoir’s team and released in its current form in 1946, after the director had already moved on to Hollywood.” Still, despite its unorthodox production and release, this little gem—little only because of its 41-minute runtime—is something special.

Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the plot of A Day in the Country is admittedly slight. All aboard a borrowed milk cart, a Parisian hardware store owner and his family travel to the country, seeking rest and relaxation, seeking, as an opening title card states, to “commune with nature.” While there, little dramas unfold as they lazily lounge, play, and mingle with the residents and workers of a quaint provincial inn. The most prominent aspect of the narrative is the fleeting love that blooms between daughter Henriette Dufour (the beautiful Sylvia Bataille), and one of the young men employed at the inn, Henri (Georges D’Arnoux).

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Henriette’s presence sends Henri reeling, and he and his associate in work and romantic conquest, Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius), lustily leer at the girl as she elegantly and captivatingly swings. The audience too is enamored—this image of Bataille swinging is one of the most glorious in cinema history. For his part, Rodolphe sets his sights on the voluptuous and giddy mother, played by Jane Marken. Henriette is initially averse to Henri’s amorous advances, but Madame Dufour seems excitedly complicit, or perhaps just naive. It’s innocent enough in any case, and besides, the boisterous Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello) is busy with his assistant, Anatole (Paul Temps), spouting off his words of wisdom, mostly about fishing. The analogy between these two and their sport and Rodolphe and Henri and theirs is a pointed one, with echoes of bait, tactic, and the ultimate attainment of their objects of desire.

A storm interrupts the pleasant summer weather, and it metaphorically signals an end to the romantic idyll. It was also noted in the opening title card that Anatole would soon be Monsieur Dufour’s son-in-law, and so it is. In the epilogue, we see that indeed Henriette has married the assistant and the two have returned to the country setting. There she again meets Henri and it becomes tragically clear that there was genuinely something meaningful in their one and only afternoon together. This heartrending witness to a romance that could have been were it not for the almost predestined marriage between Anatole and Henriette, is powerful, and as Renoir noted, “The theme is so important that it could very well have been a full-length film. A tale of disappointed love, followed by a ruined life could furnish matter for a long novel.”

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Throughout the film, contributing to a sense that whatever transpires during this excursion is not meant to be, or at least not meant to last, is the constant discussion of the country and its foreignness, in general and compared to the urban Paris. That alone seems to be a sort of barrier for the transpiring romance, as if distance from the city, or a difference in surroundings, automatically hinders a relationship. There is also talk of nature and her secrets, of the insects and their own potential love lives; Henriette speaks of feeling funny in nature, having a “tenderness,” a “vague sort of yearning.” This setting may as well be another planet for the city-dwellers.

On the one hand, there are the obvious physical contrasts between the city and the country, with the trees, rivers, and open air, and the city, where, according to the characters, there isn’t enough oxygen. On the other hand, the contrast illustrates the romantic view with which the country is observed, by the characters and by Renoir. To the Dufour family, there is something ethereal about the dirt, the cherries, and the foliage. Similarly, Renoir lovingly shoots the water, the plants, the earth. Like the earliest Lumière films, there is an intrinsic cinematic fascination with the mere depiction of nature’s movements and details. This imagery is all the more pronounced thanks to the quality of this Blu-ray transfer.

There can be little doubt that Renoir’s treatment of nature is also under the influence of his father. In an interview on the Criterion disc, Christopher Faulkner goes into great detail about the aesthetic similarities between the art of Renoir the father and Renoir the son, and some rather revealing examples of Pierre-Auguste’s work are shown in convincing comparison. Even the Forest of Fontainebleau setting for A Day in the Country was likewise a favored backdrop for Impressionist painters. And as Gilberto Perez notes in his essay, “The film version of Maupassant’s story made by Renoir … conducts something of a dialogue between the painter and the writer.”

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The connection to his father notwithstanding, Renoir made A Day in the Country something of a family affair in other respects as well. He himself appears alongside his lover and partner, Marguerite Renoir, who also edited the film in Renoir’s absence, and credited elsewhere are nephew, Claude Renoir, as cinematographer, and son, Alain, as the young boy fishing at the start of the movie. Not related by blood but by cinema, assistants on the film included Jacques Becker (who directed potions of the film while Renoir was away), Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Luchino Visconti. Nearly everyone above is seen in Un tournage à la campagne, a nearly 90-minute compilation of outtakes from the film. This is a fascinating historical document, revealing rare glimpses of Renoir’s working methods and the candid behavior of those involved (one also sees young Alain holding the clapperboard).

In his introduction to the film, Renoir says he wanted to make “a short film that was as well-made as a feature film.” While that in itself isn’t overly exceptional, especially given that, among other examples, Renoir’s fellow countryman Jean Vigo had directed the wonderful Zero for Conduct (41 minutes) just three years prior, he does also allude to having had in mind potential omnibus programs made up of several such high quality shorts. That farsighted notion did reach a point of popularity and uneven success in the 1950s and ’60s.

Renoir also speaks about the benefits of using preexisting material, like the Guy de Maupassant story, as a place from which to launch a film. In favor of plagiarism, Renoir views source material as a “framework to embellishments.” By using a story from another, Renoir contends that the filmmaker is free from unimportant details—details, he says, like the story. To follow his line of thinking then, if A Day in the Country is what such cinematic freedom looks like, long live plagiarism.