Constancy and Variation: An Autumn Afternoon as Ozu’s Final Testament

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An Autumn Afternoon was director Yasujirô Ozu’s final film. He passed away a year after its release, on his 60th birthday, Dec. 12, 1963. Knowing that the film is indeed his last, it’s easy to look at it in terms of being a sort of grand summation of his work, a concluding statement on themes and aesthetic tendencies he had steadily formulated and perfected since his first feature, Blade of Penitence, in 1927. But an overview like that doesn’t always work with Ozu. While his films may have matured in many respects, they also remained astonishingly consistent, some even to the point of being nearly the same movie, on the surface anyway (he did remake one of his own films—1934’s A Story of Floating Weeds into 1959’s Floating Weeds). Or, at the very least, they are easily confused with one another (similar seasonal titles don’t help). So why then is An Autumn Afternoon special, and where does it fit into the Ozu opus?

To begin with, one must acknowledge the dependability of Ozu’s stalwart collaborators, such as co-writer Kôgo Noda, cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta, and editor Yoshiyasu Hamamura, all of whom contribute to An Autumn Afternoon, and all of whom had worked with the director on numerous prior films, most certainly playing a part in the likeness of each movie’s style and respective narrative threads.In terms of this narrative, An Autumn Afternoon revisits familiar Ozu territory from the preceding decade or so. Starting with Late Spring (1949), Ozu would return time and again to a key thematic crux: struggles within a family and, more specifically, the marrying off of a daughter. In addition to Late Spring, The Munekata Sisters (1950), Early Summer (1951), Equinox Flower (1958), and Late Autumn (1960) are all concerned with diverse and divergent marital plans for one or more young women. As Geoff Andrew has pointed out, just before his passing Ozu had made notes for another project, Radishes and Carrots, and once again, it was to be the story of a daughter about to marry and leave her father.

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An Autumn Afternoon begins as Shuhei Hirayama unashamedly questions his secretary about her being married, stressing its importance, even its necessity. Played by Chishû Ryû (speaking of stalwart collaborator: 52 films with Ozu), Hirayama is quick to change the subject when the question comes to his own 24-year-old daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), and the possibility of her potential union. This he’s not so keen on, for as a widower, he has grown dependent on her domestic assistance. Nevertheless, this gets the narrative moving, and An Autumn Afternoon’s primary focus is on Michiko’s eventual matrimonial decision and how that, in turn, affects those around her, particularly her father. It also reveals a recurring plot point of everyone making decisions except for those most directly involved. When Hirayama eventually decides with great satisfaction that it’s probably best to let Michiko marry the man she prefers, rather than one imposed on her, his declaration is most ironic given all that had just transpired. After debate with others, matchmaking without her consent, and selfish contemplation on where it would leave him, it’s awfully big of him to decide that she knows what she’s doing.

While the emphasis on women and their somewhat demeaning domestic roles may be seen as an antiquated patriarchal organization, the same perceived responsibilities also point to the utter helplessness and immaturity of the men. Michiko has to constantly chide Hirayama for his drinking, greeting him almost every night with questions of how much he has had. Hirayama’s eldest son, Koichi (Keiji Sada), seemingly the most dependable child, judging solely by appearances and the fact that he has some sort of professional occupation, borrows money for a refrigerator but exaggerates the sum needed so he’ll have money left over to purchase second-hand golf clubs. He is seen as a “meek husband,” kowtowing to his wife, Akiko (Mariko Okada), but that’s only because it’s up to her to responsibly keep track of their expenses. And the younger son, Kazuo (Shin’ichirô Mikami), who also lives with Michiko and Hirayama, repeatedly barks orders at his older sister/maternal stand-in, demanding food as soon as he gets home. Though Kazuo hasn’t quite perhaps caught on to the precarious nature of the family dynamics affecting everyone else (he’s just a kid who can’t or doesn’t want to make his own meals), by the end of the film, he too has grown to realize the helplessness of others, even other males, assuring Hirayama that he will make him breakfast in the morning. Given that these men are so reliant on the women in their lives, it’s little wonder Hirayama grows concerned about Michiko moving out. It’s a sad and surprisingly cruel comment, though a telling one, when Hirayama returns from Michiko’s wedding and is asked if he just came from a funeral. “Something like that,” he responds. Hirayama’s paternal concern doesn’t stop with Michiko’s marriage. As soon as that much is settled, he quickly turns his attention to Koichi and starts to prod him about having children. This cycle of parent versus child needs and wants will never end, nor is it isolated to the Hirayama family (nor is it isolated to An Autumn Afternoon).

A subplot of An Autumn Afternoon concerns a reunion of Hirayama and some classmates as they gather to reminisce with an old teacher, Sakuma (Eijirô Tôno), also known as “The Gourd,” a nickname bestowed on the former middle school sensei. (Others instructors included “The Badger,” “The Emperor,” and “The Lion.”) During a drunken dinner, where Sakuma is especially inebriated, the men wonder what it’s like for his daughter to take care of him when he’s in such a state, as he too is a widower and she never married. In a mother’s absence, it’s another case where the maternal duties fall to the daughters/sisters, whereby they are assigned the responsibility of supervising their male relations. When they later walk the old man to his home, which also doubles as a run-down noodle shop, they find out exactly what it’s like for daughter Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura). She is filled with frustration, regret, and despair, for having never married, she is therefore left to routinely tend to her drunken father. Hirayama is shocked to discover the condition of the teacher, a man who once held a position of respectability. Could this be him one day? Could Tomoko be Michiko if he doesn’t let her wed and lead her own life?

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About an hour after the film’s beginning, Ozu repeats the same shot pattern that started the film as we again enter Hirayama’s office and again the subject of his daughter marrying comes up. Only this time, he has reconsidered his position, especially in light of The Gourd’s situation. “Be careful you don’t end up like that,” friend and former classmate Shuzo Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura) warned him. Now he is indeed heeding that disclaimer. As much as he has ever done before, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu explores the fluctuating roles in a family: who is in charge, who is subservient, who is the breadwinner, who is the dependent, and what is the proper, or the best, familial arrangement?

Another former classmate, Shin Horie (Ryûji Kita), challenges these conventions with his own living arrangement and his relationship with a much younger woman, just three years older than his daughter. Hirayama and Kawai jokingly question whether or not he needs pills to maintain this romantic situation, but at the same time, they’re quick to call him a “lucky bastard.” The joking between these three men is just one instance of levity in An Autumn Afternoon. Despite several comedies to his credit, one doesn’t tend to associate Ozu with laughs, perhaps because his humor is so natural, so genuine, and oftentimes so subtle (aside from the defecation jokes in Good Morning [1959]). Here there are several examples of quiet, understated comedy, as when Hirayama and a wartime comrade salute and drunkenly bob up and down to a military march while a hostess demurely joins in, grinning like an idiot, albeit a charming one. In their picking on one another, Hirayama and his friends also retain aspects of their youth, continuing their jocular pranks and taunts. In an Ozu movie, where death is an ever present concern or cause of dramatic pressure, there’s even no hesitation to joke about dying: “Don’t go dying on me,” Kazuo tells Hirayama near the end, seeing how intoxicated his father is. Everyone maintains a good humor about the inevitable, even when it might not be that far off.

At the same time, An Autumn Afternoon contains moments of somber reflection relating to World War II, the subject arising here more than in most of Ozu’s work. “How come we lost the war?” Hirayama is asked. “Good question,” is all he can answer. Further allusions to the fighting and its effects include everything from the devastating (bombed out houses and evacuations), to the social (a coldness between people that developed in the immediate post-war years), to the more trivial repercussions of Western pop culture seeping into Japanese life (kids shaking their rumps to American records). Just as these and other narrative and thematic features from An Autumn Afternoon are similar to, or distinguished from, prior Ozu work, the film is also representative of the director’s visual approach, much of which had been in place for years.

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There is, as per the norm, little to no camera movement, as well as a commonly adopted vantage point from a lower angle, stressing visual stability and compositional balance. An Autumn Afternoon also makes the most of Ozu’s penchant for frontal exchanges between characters, where those speaking are shot straight on, as if addressing the viewer, a paradoxically disorienting and absorbing position. Ozu also establishes scenes unlike any other filmmaker, with close-ups of inanimate objects gradually shown from a further distance and another angle, and only on the third or fourth cut extending to a wider shot of the area (and even then often followed by closer shots moving back in on the specific location within the general setting). It’s a fascinating spatial arrangement that pinpoints details within any one given sequence, broadening the scope, subsequently giving us a full sense of space, then again putting the focus on smaller features to set the scene to come.

Ozu also frequently denies us moments of action and drama, favoring instead passages of triviality. He will keep the camera outside a baseball stadium, only showing the game on television, or skip over the courtship (such as it probably was) between Michiko and her new husband, but he will stay on after scenes have essentially ended, holding on characters as they quietly sit alone or inconsequently shuffle through some papers. One also sees in An Autumn Afternoon that people have a presence in an Ozu film even when they’re not in the frame. Doors open and close without the active person immediately appearing, or we will hear their entrance, either through dialogue or through other noise, long before we actually see them enter. Similarly, Ozu emphasizes items like slippers placed outside a room, discarded beer bottles lined up, empty stools awaiting customers: he is as much interested in people as he is where they are, where they’ve been, where they may go, and what they leave behind.

Having first worked in color on Equinox Flower, Ozu’s palette here is generally populated with primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. The color is not decorative, though it certainly gives these films an aesthetic appeal that his black and white films obviously do not possess, but in most cases, the color is used to locate a certain setting or to tie scenes together. When Hirayama and Kawai are shown walking the drunken Sakuma down an alleyway, we know where they’re heading (his home/noodle shop) because we had previously seen the surrounding yellow barrels that, against the otherwise blacked backdrop, stand out and signal our sense of location. The same holds for Hirayama’s office, in the beginning and, as mentioned, at about the halfway point. The red of the exterior smokestacks transition to the red of a hallway fire hose door, then to a red object near Hirayama’s desk. Even before we enter an interior proper, the setting is cued to be familiar due to its identical, repeated, and associative color arrangements.

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According to Andrew, An Autumn Afternoon, like so many other Ozu films, “is both typical and unique.” It is, for example, another “gentle domestic drama about middle-class family life, a shomin-geki characteristic of his home studio, Shochiku.” Yet, at the same time, it is also “a very distinct variation, following beautifully from its predecessors.” Ultimately, An Autumn Afternoon is exemplary and exceptional as a film that overflows with perhaps Ozu’s most predominant and affecting concentration: the quiet resignation of life, the good and the bad. “That’s fate for you,” says Horie. He’s bragging about his newfound love life, but the observation applies to all. Ozu’s characters play the cards they’re dealt, making the most of what they have and have to face with an admirable acceptance. In this, Ozu’s films are the ultimate in slice of life banality, everyday dramas both big and small, none of which are ever boring because they are so true. In the end, Hirayama faces the consequences of his actions. He was quick to marry Michiko off, but now the dread of the loneliness sets in. There is no winning with Ozu. This is just how life is, and this is how it will continue. It’s a worldview best summarized in an exchange from his most famous film, Tokyo Story (1953)—Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Noriko (smiling): “Yes, it is.”

The final shot of An Autumn Afternoon—the final Ozu image—has Hirayama with his back to the camera, seen from a distance. He is drunk, feels he’s alone, and is stricken with equal parts melancholy and nostalgia. It is a melancholy and nostalgia that mirrors the way one who loves Ozu’s cinema feels when realizing that this is the last the Japanese master had to offer. It is sad, yes, but one accepts it and appreciates all he left behind.


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Rightly dubbed a “supreme auteur” by David Robinson, who provides a video essay on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Limelight, Charlie Chaplin wore many hats in making this 1952 film. Aside from writing, directing, and starring in the picture, he was the producer, he arranged the score, and he choreographed the dance sequences, in addition to other supervisory duties behind the scenes. Part of the preparation for the film even included Chaplin penning a novel on which the movie was based, called Footlights, which was then adapted with great ease by the author. Set in 1914 London (about the time Chaplin had left England for America), Limelight is a basically familiar showbiz story, with one performer’s career on the wane as another’s is ripe for revival, but there is far more to this late Chaplin classic. For the great comedian, the film was deeply resonant on a personal level, and this significance comes through for audiences as well.

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As opening titles state, Limelight is the story “of a ballerina and a clown.” Chaplin stars as Calvero, an aging music hall entertainer once advertised as the famous “Tramp Comedian” (posters promoting as much hang proudly on his wall). Older now, washed up and unemployed, he drunkenly happens upon Thereza (Claire Bloom), who has just tried to kill herself. He and others assume the girl has a disreputable past, but he remains staunchly nonjudgmental about such insinuations. “I’m an old sinner,” he says. “Nothing shocks me.” Once carried to Calvero’s bed, she remains unable to move and begins to recuperate in his room. Upon hearing that she was (and despite her health, still can be) a dancer, Calvero transfers his own desire to entertain and his own passion for his art to inspire confidence in her. With his resilience and his armchair psychoanalysis, he strives to motivate her back into shape.

Though she is suicidal when we first meet her, and he is an embarrassing drunkard, Thereza and Calvero connect and bond immediately. She assumes it’s a good business to be funny. Yes, he says, but not if the audience doesn’t laugh—and lately, no one has been laughing. Despite the bleak realities of his professional condition, Calvero remains jovial and optimistically philosophical. He is haunted and yet somewhat heartened by nostalgic dreams and memories of his former glory. Not surprisingly, given that he is a lonely old man and she a charming, young beauty, Thereza soon seeps into his dreams as well. But it is Thereza who, against all odds, falls in love with Calvero, the man who quite literally gets her back on her feet and dancing again.

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Calvero temporarily sobers up, but after an unsuccessful return to the stage, the pain of silence, of utter disregard, of audiences coolly walking out on him, becomes more than he can bear. He plays it off well enough at first, but inside he is overcome with despair. Seemingly his last chance at professional renewal has ended with bitter failure. Chaplin brilliantly conveys the stinging disappointment of rejection, as well as the unspoken envy as one star rises while another fades. The limelight of fame is precarious, prone to an erratic focus. It’s vibrant one minute, vanishing the next; it can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice, simply on the whims of specific individuals or ceaselessly capricious crowds; and it can easily be moved from one figure to another, as these subjective whims dictate.

Just as Thereza is professing her love for Calvero, Neville, the object of her timid affection from years past, suddenly reemerges. Though she’s clearly taken aback by his appearance, she truly loves Calvero, never wavering in her devotion, even after Neville pleads with her to drop the pitiful infatuation. As time passes, Calvero and Thereza work together on a dance performance, where she is the star and he is downgraded to an unsatisfactory minor role, but he leaves her not long thereafter, realizing that his faltering career isn’t helping hers, and her affections toward him can only hinder what he perceives to be more conventional and lasting love between she and Neville.

When Calvero is later working as a sidewalk musician (“There’s something about working the streets I like,” he states, in a knowing nod to Chaplin’s iconic character. “It’s the tramp in me I suppose.”), chance brings he and Thereza together once more. Circumstances work in his favor, and one final show is planned, a grand send-off salute to the distinguished performer.


Here in the final moments of the film are the famed sequences with Buster Keaton. If nothing else, Limelight is at least known as the lone feature to unite these two legends of silent screen comedy. Though the joint shtick is just a few minutes long, and not especially funny until the very end, it nevertheless leads to the film’s powerful dénouement and is a genuinely magical movie moment. One can only imagine what a similar collaboration could have been like when these two luminaries were in their prime.

Chaplin was 63 at the time of Limelight’s production, yet age never hinders his masterful physicality. From his drunken buoyancy to his animated gestures and his facial expressions both comically quirky and vividly eloquent, he is ever the silent pantomime. Chaplin’s reluctance to turn to talking pictures has been well documented, but as is clear in this film, as much as in any of his other post-1940 work, he had a knack for amusing dialogue. Here this includes the comments about the landlady’s leaky gas pipe, Calvero’s discussion about a star that sits around on its axis, and, when told that worms can’t smile, his countering, “Have you ever appealed to their sense of humor?”

Given the relevant and self-reflective subject matter of Limelight, it’s easy to see just how personal a project it was for Chaplin. Developed over the course of several decades, elements of the film, if not its complete premise, were indeed present in several of his earlier shorts, such as The Professor, the unfinished 1919 film included on the Criterion disc along with the completed two-reeler, A Night in the Show (1915). Adding to the personal nature of the picture, Limelight was something of a family affair for Chaplin, with appearances from his wife, Oona, and children, Josephine, Charles Jr., Michael, and Geraldine. His son, Sydney, makes his debut as Neville, Thereza’s former fancy. Even longtime Chaplin leading lady on screen, Edna Purviance, returns for her final role.

Cinematography on Limelight was by the great Karl Struss, and Robert Aldrich served as assistant director, just two years before directing his own first feature. Atypical camera movement at the start of the film eventually gives way to more traditional compositions from Chaplin, never one for visual flamboyance when the attention should be on the performers.

Counting Robinson’s program mentioned above, along with interviews with Bloom and Norman Lloyd and Chaplin Today: “Limelight,” a 2002 documentary, the sociopolitical backdrop of Limelight is thoroughly covered in the supplemental features of this Criterion release. But while this may have been crucial to Chaplin’s biography, as far as the film itself is concerned, such issues take a backseat to its artistic inspirations. Whatever the controversial baggage that absurdly afflicted Chaplin at the time, Limelight leaves these issues behind and instead focuses on being a loving, though melancholy, ode to music hall entertainment (A King in New York [1957], Chaplin’s next film, takes on the provocative issues far more explicitly).

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Still, one can’t ignore the factors that were indeed upsetting Chaplin’s personal and professional life. Fervent Cold War anti-communism coupled with the general dislike of Monsieur Verdoux, his maligned 1947 feature (an unpopular “non-Tramp” production), created circumstances that ultimately left the celebrated star abruptly unwelcome in America—Limelight would be his final film in Hollywood. Ironically though, other than his honorary Oscar in 1972, Limelight would result in Chaplin’s lone Academy Award win, for best score … in 1973. The film was not released in Los Angeles until 1972 and was thus still eligible for consideration, despite being 20 years old.

I’m not sure I would call Limelight the most emotional of Chaplin’s films (as Peter von Bagh does in his essay, “Limelight: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man”), but there is certainly more than enough emotion to go around. Two scenes in particular are absolutely devastating, the first being Calvero’s face in close-up after the cruel disappointment of his theatrical bomb, the second the concluding scene with Keaton sadly looking on as his friend and fellow comedian succumbs to a heart attack. This finale transcends the simple story of the film. It touchingly reflects the mutual state of these two cinematic geniuses as they act out this heartbreaking analogy for their own once-prosperous careers. Limelight itself—its fictional narrative and its actual history—consequently criticizes the short, fickle memory of moviegoing audiences, where accomplished artists are worshiped and adored one year, ostracized and forgotten the next. Only time, it seems, places them and their work appropriately back in the spotlight.

‘Jamaica Inn’

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With 23 feature films to his credit, by 1939, Alfred Hitchcock was the most famous director in England. And with his celebrity and his reputation for quality motion pictures, he had attained a degree of creative control unmatched in the British film industry at the time. When it comes to Jamaica Inn, for more than three decades the last film he would fully shoot in his native land, this reputation and this independence would be thoroughly tested. Available now on a stunning new Blu-ray from Cohen Film Collection, which greatly improves the murky visuals and distorted sound marring all previous home video versions, Jamaica Inn had the renowned Charles Laughton as supervising star and producer. Predictably, he and Hitchcock did not always see eye to eye as they jockeyed for authority on set. The result is a contentious project that the director was never completely happy with, and the movie remains one of his lesser works.

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While the credits are “Introducing” Maureen O’Hara, this was her third film, though her first in a major role and the first not under her real name, Maureen FitzSimons, which Charles Laughton had convinced her to change. To a large extent, O’Hara was Laughton’s discovery, and he was so impressed with the 19-year-old beauty that he immediately put her under contract with his Mayflower Films, the company he had formed with the legendary German producer Erich Pommer. Essentially, that Jamaica Inn exists at all is due to Laughton, who also purchased the rights to the source text and suggested Hitchcock to direct.

In a “lawless corner of England”—Cornwall—a group of “wreckers” make their living by deliberately crashing ships in order to steal their cargo. They block out the beacon light, the vessels crash into shore, those who survive are killed, and the criminals make off with whatever they can plunder. This is done under the auspices of the brutal Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who also runs the titular lodging. When Mary (O’Hara) enters the picture, she is in search of this inn, the mere mention of which causes distress and unease amongst her carriage companions. They leave her stranded on the side of the road and she makes her way to the grand residence of Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). Sir Humphrey is a wealthy, flamboyant eccentric, an odd fellow who seeks inspiration for his toast to beauty from a small figurine brought to his side and who, when introducing “Nancy” to his dinner guests (who are expecting a lady to appear), has a horse brought to the door of the dining area. Regardless, he is kind enough to welcome Mary for the night and he escorts her to the inn the next day. There she meets her aunt, Patience (Marie Ney), whom the young woman has come to stay with following the death of her parents. Patience, it turns out, is married to Joss.

This dwelling of ill repute acts as the main retreat for the crew of scavengers, and when the lovely Mary shows up, her presence gets the boys and, perversely, Joss, all riled up. One rowdy night, the men confront fellow gang member Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) with accusations of personally pilfering from the groups’ haul. They promptly string him up to hang, which Mary witnesses as she looks down from her room. As in many Hitchcock films, it’s one thing to watch—that’s partly what his cinema is all about—but to participate is something else. And that’s what gets Mary in trouble. Chances are, had she not gotten involved, she would have been fine with her aunt and uncle, though undoubtedly uncomfortable. But by cutting down Trehearne and fleeing with the supposed traitor, she has willingly, if innocently, become part of the drama. She doesn’t become so much a Hitchcockian “wrong man” (or woman), but she certainly doesn’t count on everything that transpires.

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As this is happening, we learn more about Sir Humphrey. Secretly, he is actually the one in charge of the criminal enterprise, which explains how he maintains his lavish lifestyle. He rules over the crimes behind the shield of wealth and social standing, such as it is in this remote part of the country. A big fish in a small pond, he nevertheless has enough power to hold sway over Joss, and is feared, respected, and even admired by those unaware of his dastardly double life. When it’s made clear that Sir Humphrey is truly calling the shots, it’s a sudden, subtle, and reasonably persuasive shift on the part of Uncle Joss and our judgment of his character. Though undeniably abusive and callous, he is most likely overcompensating for his own sad subservience. For all of his bluster, he himself is just following orders.

The suspense then comes as we are made privy to Sir Humphrey’s behind-the-scenes role and the other characters are not. So when Mary suggests she and Trehearne seek refuge at Sir Humphrey’s manor (Humphrey being angrily aware of the botched hanging), we know the proposal is destined to be a bad one. What’s more, Trehearne’s own hidden function makes matters even worse, for there is more to him than he let on as well, and it’s the last thing Sir Humphrey needs.

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When Mary and Trehearne escape, their querulous early relationship initially develops in a Hitchcock fashion similar to The 39 Steps (1935), or, later, Foreign Correspondent (1940), Marnie (1964), and Family Plot (1976); in other words, a male and female reluctantly joined together, growing mutually dependent while still being persistently at odds with one another. Also in a familiar Hitchcock tradition, many in the film have dual personalities: the potentially decent and redemptive scoundrel, the superficially upstanding villain, the crook with admirable motives. Yet for all of its common themes and its focus on criminal behavior, also routine terrain for the filmmaker, Jamaica Inn is lacking much of the visual inventiveness that had already come to mark Hitchcock’s cinema. There are no elaborately staged action sequences, save for the marginally notable shipwrecks, no extended camera movements, and no exceptionally striking camera angles or sound effects. The sets, which Hitchcock helped design, may look well crafted, but one gets the sense they were somewhat restrictive for the director, or they were at least uninspiring. (Look, by contrast, at what he would accomplish with the studio-bound singular locales of Lifeboat [1944] and Rope [1948].) Perhaps, instead, it is simply that this was a film he had to do rather than one he wanted to do.
The 1936 Daphne Du Maurier novel on which Jamaica Inn was based didn’t much interest Hitchcock, but her 1938 novel, Rebecca, did, and Hitch apparently hoped that by bringing one of her works successfully to the screen it would put him in favor to do another. Unfortunately, the author didn’t care for the adaptation of Jamaica Inn and wasn’t keen to see “Rebecca” go the same way. Fortunately, David O. Selznick, producer of Rebecca, offered her an irresistible sum of money and she sold the rights anyway. That film would, of course, win the Best Picture Academy Award, the only Hitchcock film to do so, and the director would again seek out a Du Maurier work 24 years later, with The Birds.

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Jamaica Inn is far more a vehicle for its stars than for its director, and the favor is evident in what one takes away most from the picture. In the lead, Laughton theatrically carries his scenes with peculiar mannerisms and droll humor, but O’Hara also shines as a more active than usual damsel in distress. Both have a compelling screen presence, his one of quirks and intimidating pomposity and hers a ravishing attraction coupled with high-spirited cheek (a combination John Ford in particular would later put to great use). She is, as described maliciously but no less truthfully by her uncle, a “sweet pretty girl with a lot of character”—Maureen O’Hara in a nutshell.

In any case, Jamaica Inn was a hit in England. Not that Hitchcock was around to be a part of it—he was by the time of its release already off and running in Hollywood. The same was true for O’Hara, whose follow-up feature was the RKO production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), also with Laughton.

Though a rare misstep for Alfred Hitchcock, it’s probably best to think of Jamaica Inn as more of a stepping stone, a small hurdle that took the great director from his generally superb British work, like The Lady Vanishes the year prior, to his phenomenal Hollywood career, initiated with Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, both in the year to follow. Besides, even a Hitchcock misstep is worth some attention.

‘Le silence de la mer’

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Nearly every mention of Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema inevitably alludes to his crime films, and for good reason. Of his 13 features, nine fall under this general heading, and for the most part, they are his best and most admired. Amongst the rest of his filmography, slightly varying and further distinguishing his career, are his occasional forays into the war film—or, more precisely, the wartime film, for typical battleground scenarios are negligible. This is the case with Léon Morin, Priest (1961), with The Army of Shadows (1969), his extraordinary ode to the French resistance, of which he was a member, and this is the case with his debut, Le silence de la mer. (His 1950 feature, Les Enfants Terribles, defies generic categorization.)

“The war years were the best years of my life.” Such comments from Melville often got a rise out of those around him, especially when he wasn’t allowed time for explanation. It was during this period, as he would clarify, that he found remarkable admiration in the virtue of those who fought, on the front lines and behind the scenes with the underground. These men and women had a job to do, and they were determined to do it and do it well. Like a monk, Melville would contend that the life of a soldier is similarly identified by a brotherhood, by an admirable camaraderie that is central to an order as it strives toward a common goal. Such characterization, of course, aptly applies to the gangster as well, and thus one can see why Melville so effortlessly fluctuated between the two genres (The Army of Shadows is probably the best example of the merger of the two, particularly with these descriptions in mind). Le silence de la mer, however, doesn’t quite meet these broad qualifications, at least not explicitly. Though very much a testament to the perseverance of the oppressed French people during World War II, their pride and resilience, it’s a more insulated and individualized work, with a very narrow spatial focus and just three primary players. It’s a unique wartime film that doesn’t necessarily depict any common generic trait aside from its background war milieu.

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The 1941 novel of the same name, which was clandestinely written and published during the Nazi occupation of Paris by Vercors (real name Jean-Marcel de Brullers) was in its very existence a powerful force of French resistance. In turn, Le silence de la mer, the movie, is a daring experiment in restrained plotting and minimal characterization. Melville was partially drawn to the text in the first place because of the “anti-cinematic aspect of the narrative,” which he then hoped to adapt into an “anti-cinematic film.” In some ways, Le silence de la mer, as a motion picture, works best as an expression of a philosophical idea or as the origin of a larger work. Standing alone, certain aspects occasionally fall short of total development, as if the film could have benefited from another half-hour or so (it’s just 88 minutes as is), but the provocative implications that it nonetheless poses make for fascinating and thoughtful viewing.

There isn’t much to Le silence de la mer’s story in terms of active external conflict, but the basic scenario is one that leads to great tension. The home of an unnamed uncle and his niece (Jean-Marie Robain and Nicole Stéphane) is designated the temporary residence of German Lieutenant Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon). As the whole arrangement was decided without their consent, the two are obviously displeased. They undergo a silent protest, neither uttering a word in the presence of the German. But this proves to be no hostile takeover, and the uncle even admits via voiceover that von Ebrennac seems to be a reasonable officer (no doubt the bar was set comparatively low). On this point, one critique with the film is that there is far too much explanatory voiceover, frequently describing that which we can easily see. Presumably, this was retained in deference to the heralded source, but for a movie, where we don’t need a constant narrative to relay what is apparent, it occasionally becomes redundant.

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For his part, von Ebrennac is cordial as he exchanges initial pleasantries, complimenting the house and asking his reluctant hosts each morning if they slept well the night before. Still the uncle and niece never speak; they barely acknowledge the officer’s existence. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of their will and the strength of their convictions. This goes on for months, and despite the presumed latent hostility, von Ebrennac nevertheless becomes an unspoken part of their lives. Though they are quiet, he speaks unrestrained. His revealing ramblings divulge his beliefs and interests. He is, much to their surprise, a devoted Francophile, professing his deep love and respect for French literature in particular (Germany, he says, still claims the great musicians). Yet despite his personable nature, doubts remain. He is, after all, a Nazi.

Von Ebrennac is not at all disheartened by the silence. His one-sided interaction with the uncle and niece becomes an oddly contented routine. In time, and not at all sardonically, the uncle actually refers to von Ebrennac as their “guest.” And at one point, he feels his conviction waver as he wonders if it’s inhumane to not speak to the officer. But no sooner does he contemplate this shifting moral stance than he admits the private thought made him feel like blushing. Still, he has no problem admiring the dogged persistence of von Ebrennac. “He never gave up and never tried to tear us from our silence with violent language,” says the uncle. “On the contrary, when sometimes he let silence invade the room, filling it from corner to corner like a heavy, suffocating gas, he seemed the most comfortable of the three of us.” Of course, however decent this man may seem, and no matter the apparent lack of ill will toward the French family, his mere presence keeps the obstacles of the war constantly in the forefront, even if the more dramatic results of the fighting are relegated beyond the walls of the house. What complicates this even further is that von Ebrennac naively and confidently states a desire for the prosperous marriage between France and Germany. He believes in French freedom and in the maintenance of—or at least restoration of—its national integrity.

Away for a while in Paris, von Ebrennac views the icons of French military history, appreciating their storied greatness and the monuments erected in their honor. Nothing is quite the same after this trip. Upon his return, the uncle and niece hear the German and sense his presence, but they don’t see him for several days. He has been coming and going via a back entrance. The uncle grows apprehensive. Having previously entered the rooms of the house without any invitation, von Ebrennac suddenly knocks one evening. They wait. He doesn’t automatically enter. He waits for the welcome, the first words spoken by the uncle to the lieutenant: “Come in, sir.”

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One of the film’s most poignant moments is as the uncle first sees von Ebrennac away from the house, in his official capacity. It’s an uneasy encounter. To a certain extent, the uncle retained something of the upper hand at the house; it was his terrain and his comfort zone. Von Ebrennac may have been forced upon him, but he was there absent of Nazi regalia save for his uniform, eventually even donning civilian clothes. Now, the uncle sees him with other Germans and is jarred by the unequivocal reminder of oppressiveness. Von Ebrennac makes a slight gesture toward the uncle, and seems as if he’s going to speak, but he hesitates. What could he say? Is friendship even possible? Who would get in worse trouble should he acknowledge the uncle in an amiable manner? Now the uncle sees Von Ebrennac more than ever as who he really is. The positions of power are altered—now they each know their true place.

In the claustrophobic confines of this French house, Melville creates a brooding tension between the begrudging threesome; after being in these narrow interiors, it’s a genuine relief when scenes shift outdoors. So much time is spent with the camera fixing its gaze upon the uncle and the niece as they hesitantly watch over Von Ebrennac, it would seem about two-thirds of the picture is the depiction of the aforementioned routine with the uncle commenting on the same. This drags the film somewhat, the point made clear quite soon. Subsequently, time could have been allotted for the expansion of other sequences. For example, at the end of the film, as von Ebrennac comes to realize the futility of his naive belief for peace; or as the niece, who has harbored the most intense resentment toward the German, allows a minor acceptance and even a hint of attraction: these are interesting character developments that, though effective in their suggestion, are nevertheless cut short of potential complexity.

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It’s not constant (at least not as constant as it perhaps could have been), but under the influence of Welles and Wyler, Melville does give the film visual variation within this restricted, largely one room setting, punctuating certain sequences with light and shadow embellishment, oftentimes employing a backlighting effect to create vivid character profiles, especially of the niece. Close-ups reveal subtle shifts in reactive expression, as evolving nonverbal communication is made physically perceptible. Crucial here is Henri Decaë, making his debut as cinematographer. Aside from continual work with Melville as their careers progressed, Decaë also manned the camera on such New Wave classics as Elevator to the Gallows, Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins (all 1958) and The 400 Blows (1959).

Though Le silence de la mer is a lesser-known Melville title, Criterion has gone all out with supplementary materials to compliment the film. The production of Le silence de la mer, which is filled with stealthy, low-budget filmmaking and its fair share of real life drama, is thoroughly covered. A printed interview with Melville provides his own chronicle of the film’s making, and the documentary, Melville Steps Out of the Shadows, likewise goes into detail about how the movie came to be. Code Name Melville, an in-depth 76-minute documentary about the director and his relationship with the cinema and World War II (and how the two inevitably coalesced), is the most informative feature on the disc, packing in so much—newspaper clippings, speakers, and other documentation—that the subtitles can’t always keep up. There is also an interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, a very short 1959 interview with Melville, and an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

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Rounding out the disc is a peculiar 18-minute short Melville directed in 1946, his first film. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown is exactly what its title says: a brief look at roughly a day’s worth of average activity for Beby the clown. The most prolonged moment of focus is as Beby gets ready for bed. Apparently as he does every night, he shuffles through boxes of photos, pictures of his past, his idols and friends. His is, it seems, a solitary existence. Though married (his wife sleeps in another room, he gets their dog), he is a loner. But that’s part of the life. And in this, it becomes clear what possibly drew Melville to the topic, for most of his films—war and crime—are about similarly lonely figures living remote lives of habit.

Despite the seeming incongruity of its subject matter, this odd, sad, and slightly haunting short does a good deal to point toward Melville’s features to follow. Visually this is only partly so, with little time or space for what one would think of as classically Melvillian imagery. The exception to this is the striking shot of an unidentified man checking his watch, mysteriously enveloped in shadow—as if an enigmatic resistance fighter or a malicious gangster. A cinematic sign of things to come either way.

‘The River’

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As the camera looks down upon an ornamental design created from rice powder and water, the narrator (voiced by June Hillman), who speaks throughout the film, welcomes us to the world of The River. This is Bengal, “where the story really happened,” and this is Harriet speaking, reflecting back on her life at a very confusing and significant time. For all intents and purposes, The River is primarily her story. And in this, the film is an intimately personal cinematic memoir. But The River is also something else. In its depiction of the “river people” who inhabit this region of India, the film also takes on an ethnographic appeal, capturing the “flavor” of the setting and its inhabitants.

Guiding this journey is the great French director Jean Renoir, fresh off a tumultuous sojourn in Hollywood, and writer Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and thus lends The River a further degree of autobiography. Renoir became fascinated with Godden’s novel when he first read it in 1946, and for her part, Godden was no stranger to the movies, having seen two of her works previously adapted for the screen, including the brilliant Black Narcissus (1947), the film version of which she was evidently not a fan.

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As the film is primarily concerned with Harriet as a young girl (played by Patricia Walters), it charts her precarious tween encounter with first love as a chief narrative thread. Not a child, not yet a woman, Harriet is at an impetuous age, bristling with curiosity, infatuation, and awkwardness. She is a self-described “ugly ducking,” and while that seems an extreme evaluation as far as Walters’ physical appearance, her unexceptional looks do give her a charming presentation of normalcy; in fact, many in the film are not conventional-looking performers, which further underscores a broad and easily relatable identification with their various personalities and concerns.

Joining Harriet are her mother and father (Nora Swinburne and Esmond Knight), four siblings—three other girls and a boy, Bogey (Richard R. Foster)—their maid, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee), and her two neighbors, the English-Indian Melanie (Radha), recently returned from studying abroad, and the wealthy Valerie (Adrienne Corri), a beautiful if temperamental young woman. All is relatively calm and idyllic until Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) arrives and sends the girls—and some of the women—into a tizzy. Their flirtatiousness manifests itself in a variety of ways, from timidity and naive sweetness to moments of childish posturing and even cruelty.

The final character in the film is the Ganges River, which mirrors and influences the lives of those that surround it. The narration and, subsequently, Renoir’s visual focus, spends considerable time expounding upon the river in a documentary-style survey: its natural genesis, its purpose, the animals that populate it, and those individuals who share with the body of water a mutually dependent connection.

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While there are many individual dramas in The River, there remains no grand narrative. The film progresses episodically as the lives of these characters realistically play out over the course of several weeks. Though the stories are simple, these particular variations on common incidents could not be told anywhere else quite as they are here. This local flavor is what makes the film so unique. Many events in The River, particularly the special occasions like the Hindu Diwali festival of lights, come alive with great joy and buoyancy, celebrating the passion of the indigenous people. At the same time, the narration covers a good deal of Hindu history, providing background and explanation concerning the religious imagery and rituals observed. In the life of The River, it’s all about small moments and details—small moments such as when Harriet breaks down crying in jealously and Bogey first kisses her arm then hugs his sister while patting her on the back, and details such as the inner workings of the jute press, which appears to be extraordinarily hard work.

It’s not a point Renoir seems especially concerned with hammering home—though it is powerfully shown in at least one scene—but by way of contrast to the giddiness of young love and all of its fleeting silliness, Captain John’s story arc touches on the “bitter reality” and torment of his war ravaged body. John (and Breen in reality) only has one leg, and is a post-war reminder of the brutal truths that otherwise appear to have no place in this serene Indian village. Still, there is a truly sorrowful death near the end of the film. And yet while certainly sad, it is an example of the inevitable natural process of life, which is paramount to The River—and the river. Everything goes full circle, continuously flowing. As the older Harriet recites: “The river runs. The round world spins. Dawn and lamplight, Midnight, noon. Sun follows day – Night, stars, and moon. The day ends; The end begins.” Even with this tragic death, after all, it is a birth that ultimately concludes the film.

Godden wrote the script with Renoir and they each deserve the utmost credit for their respective contributions. That Godden was able to put these complex emotions into words is as remarkable as it is that Renoir was able to further translate them into images and atmosphere. See, for example, the sequences of romantic drama, wafting in and out of the plot as if by a serene wind, emerging as the main plot point one minute, receding to the background the next. An overall ethereal tone is enhanced by surrounding music continuously emanating from unseen sources and a leisurely pace given its best representation during a montage of peaceful afternoon naps.

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In a 2004 interview included as part of the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Martin Scorsese counts The River with The Red Shoes (1948) as the two most beautiful color films ever made. The Technicolor photography by Renoir’s nephew, Claude, is indeed astonishing. The River was the first color film shot in India (a country that demands to be seen in color) and the first color film from Renoir, who was right at home with the format and would become a master of stunning color with pictures to follow, like The Golden Coach (1952), French Cancan (1954), and Elena and Her Men (1956). Taking place mostly during the fall and winter seasons, there is not so much an abundance of natural color in the landscape; rather, the color is from that which is created by the people through their innate artistic expression, via decorations, clothing, and celebrations. Only at the end of the film, with the arrival of spring, does nature itself begin to bloom in full expressive vibrancy.

In addition to this Scorsese segment, just about everything you could want to know about The River and its unorthodox production is covered in the assortment of bonus features compiled by Criterion. This includes Renoir’s own 1962 introduction to the film as well as an interview with producer Ken McEldowney, Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India, a new video essay by film writer Paul Ryan, an essay by Ian Christie, and, most informative of all, Around the River, a thorough documentary by Arnaud Mandagaran.

Cast largely with amateurs (though apparently Mel Ferrer was originally signed on to play Capt. John), The River favors style and characterization over any major storyline. But its multifaceted slice-of-life chronicle is a beautiful one, a distinct and universal one, and one that is all so gloriously realized.

‘Sullivan’s Travels’

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At the start of Sullivan’s Travels, movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) has been screening his latest effort. The picture within the picture concludes with an intense rooftop fight aboard a train. It’s almost absurd in its inflated action and Sullivan is not at all pleased with his creation. This type of escapist entertainment may be all right for some, but it’s social commentary he now seeks. These are troubling times, he argues, with war in Europe and strikes on the home front, and the ambitious, idealistic filmmaker wants something beyond mere cinematic frivolity. Apparently, so did the director of Sullivan’s Travels, the great Preston Sturges. At least that’s what he ended up with anyway. 

Sullivan’s Travels, “By” Preston Sturges, as the opening credit proclaims, lending the filmic fable something of a storybook quality that matches the design of its titles, is dedicated, “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons…” In other words, to comedians. In its witty way, Sullivan’s Travels is an ode to the simplicity and purity of laughter, and laughter it has in spades. Writer/director Sturges (one of the first in America to tout the dual designation) has never been funnier, and the film, especially at the start, bustles with a breakneck pace of one-liners.

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With Sullivan’s privileged upbringing, it’s decided that he can’t really know about hard luck. What authority does he have to make a film about socioeconomic troubles and human suffering? Concluding that the only way to know and understand is to jump head first into the life of the American destitute, he dons the appropriate hobo garb and is all set to get into character. At first, he tries to escape his managerial PR crew, who follow closely behind his wanderings, safely documenting his earnest if ridiculous plight, but it doesn’t take long for him to finally accept a dependency on their security.

Along the way, Sullivan encounters “The Girl,” played by the absolutely stunning Veronica Lake. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress about to throw in the towel and give up her Hollywood dreams. Not yet revealing his true identity, Sullivan finds that she knows his films but doesn’t know much about him. When he brings up a few titles, ones he casually dismisses, he discovers she likes just the type of movie he’s trying to get away from. A romance blossoms between the two, and he eventually lets her into his real life. The chemistry is obvious, and as much as anything, in this perceptive, world-weary girl, Sullivan has met his match. She is quick-witted and calls his bluff; she knows trouble and can see beyond his good-natured affectation. Also seeing the potential adventure in it all, she agrees to accompany him on his educational/philosophical journey.

Sullivan embarks on this escapade with the best of intentions—attempting to walk in the shoes of the tramps (literally at one point), thus gaining the expertise and qualification needed to make an accurate film—but through it all, there is the underlying realization that he can always go home. Though he may not see the correlation, his trouble escaping his own life parallels the vagrants and their struggles with social mobility. In some ways, he gets an idea about their hardships, but really, he has no idea. That is, until he is attacked, presumed dead by those back in Hollywood, and subsequently arrested. With no way to prove his identity, he is sentenced to toil away in a hard labor camp where he is told there is “no privilege” amongst the convicts. Suddenly, this is the real deal; he is trapped with apparently no reprieve.

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It’s during Sullivan’s incarceration that the film hammers its point home. Taken to see a “picture show” (some Walt Disney cartoons), the downtrodden prisoners laugh uproariously at the silly, animated hijinks. Much to his surprise, so does Sullivan. Maybe there’s nothing quite so wrong with amusing fluff after all, particularly for those whose real lives are marred by the adversity he so heedlessly tried to recreate on screen. Despite his high-minded ideals, Sullivan discovers, and we come to appreciate, that comedies and light entertainment indeed have their place, often serving a more profound purpose than they get credit for.

Ultimately then, Sullivan’s Travels brilliantly has it both ways. Like John Sullivan, Sturges at first seems to similarly seek a film with an ethical standing, something expressing the rigors of everyman Americana. Sullivan—and by association Sturges—is ostensibly looking for something “like Capra,” as Sullivan’s producing partner quips. (Perhaps so, but this is a slyer, more sarcastic, sharper Capra.) Yet by the end of the film, Sullivan—and, again, by association Sturges—derides to a degree those films with a moral pretense, a stance made all the more comical, complex, and effective when it becomes apparent that Sullivan’s Travels had a message of its own all along.

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It’s little wonder Sullivan’s Travels came in at number 61 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the top 100 motion pictures. This is a great, great film. Sturges, who had started writing for the movies in 1930, would end up directing only 13 features from 1940-1955. But in 1941, he was in the midst of a meteoric rise to renown, having just the year prior released The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, and The Lady Eve (the first title earning him an Oscar for his screenplay). John F. Seitz, who shot Sullivan’s Travels, was one of Hollywood’s best cinematographers and had already received one Oscar nomination (with six more to follow). While Sturges’ visuals aren’t typically the aspects of his films most commonly lauded, in some cases, as in here when Sullivan and The Girl walk down by a lake in the moonlight, his imagery can sure look spectacular when he wants it to. Seitz undoubtedly had an integral role in this, and he would work again with Sturges on The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944).

Then there’s the cast. Joel McCrea already has an extensive body of work behind him, including Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock the year before. In the title role of this picture, he is endearingly affable in his naïve yet undeniably genuine endeavor. But though he gets the top billing, it’s Veronica Lake who steals the show. This was just her fourth credited role in a feature film (and her second not under her real name, Constance Keane), but her presence is instantly—and spectacularly—dazzling. She was surely a remarkable beauty (there’s a reason why she is highlighted in so many posters for the film), but as she would show here and in movies to follow, she was quite the actress as well.

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Out now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Sullivan’s Travels is an essential American film, which, in case there is any doubt after watching the movie itself, the supplements accompanying the release certainly attest to. First of all, the new restoration looks fantastic, and among the extra features are a somewhat crowded audio commentary featuring Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, as well as interviews with Sandy Sturges, the director’s widow, and the director himself, from 1951. Critic David Cairns puts together a video essay featuring Bill Forsyth, who counts Sturges as a major influence, and Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), a feature-length documentary for which its writer, Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, won an Emmy, is an additional highlight.

In this latter supplement, it’s Paul Schrader who perhaps best puts Preston Sturges’ exceptional career into perspective, declaring he was, “to comedy what John Ford was to the Western.” Or, to summarize another way, as Sullivan notes at the end of the film, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”